Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism

Existentialism is an attempt to find meaning in life when there is cause to despair.

Why would anyone believe that there is cause to despair?  The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism refers to reasons, as it interacts with the thoughts of such existentialists as Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  Reasons for despair can include arriving at the conclusion that God is dead, the inevitability of death, life not going as one believes it should, the absurdity or apparent meaninglessness of life, the feeling that one’s limitations hinder one from improving his or her situation, or fear of being judged by others.  Existentialist solutions to this despair include having goals, creativity, and making a conscious decision to accept life as it is.  Christian existentialists, such as Kierkegaard, regard faith in God as a solution: a person takes a risk by committing his or her only life to God.

My stereotype of existentialists was that they were moody and depressed, felt alienated from the world around them, and were more interested in the individual search for meaning than the well-being of society.  I wanted to read about existentialism because I was hoping that I would find in it a kindred spirit: yes, I am concerned about the well-being of society, but I am also moody and brooding, and I have often felt alienated.

While my stereotype of existentialism is not totally off the mark, there is more to the story.  Some existentialists are more hopeful than others.  Sartre, for example, was rather pessimistic about human beings, thinking that they used others for their own ends.  And yet, Sartre was very concerned about the well-being of society: Sartre leaned towards Communism, yet he became disillusioned with it on account of Soviet oppression.  Sartre also was critical of racism and colonialism.  I remember an episode of Family Ties in which Stephen Keaton was debating with his daughter Jennifer about whether or not Kierkegaard addressed the social problems of his day: Jennifer’s stance (which the show implied was correct) was that Kierkegaard believed that concern for politics detracted from one’s spirituality.  Stephen told Jennifer to go to her room!  Jennifer may have been correct about Kierkegaard, but it does not surprise me that there were existentialists who believed that politics were important, for existentialists believe in human freedom, and political systems do have an impact on that, for good or for ill.

In addition, it seemed to me as I read The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism that many existentialists valued community.  Yes, Nietzsche placed a value on non-conformity.  Yes, Sartre said that hell is other people!  Yet, there seemed to be an acknowledgement among many existentialists that who we are is based, at least in part, on our community—-where we are.  There also appears to be some hope that community can be a solution to one’s existential crises, on some level.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Let It Go"----For Ten Hours

I’ve not seen the Disney movie Frozen yet.  I plan to eventually, since the Snow Queen Elsa from Frozen will be a character in the upcoming season of Once Upon a Time (one of my favorite shows).

Even though I’ve not yet seen the movie, I have been listening to the song “Let It Go.”  It won an Academy Award.  I love the song, for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the biggest reason is that it is about Elsa’s journey from sadness and isolation to self-acceptance, freedom, and triumph, even defiance.  Something I read on the Internet said that Elsa was a misunderstood character.  I think of that as I listen to “Let It Go.”

On YouTube, you can listen to the song for ten hours straight.  Click here if you don’t believe me, or if you do believe me and want to listen to it.  That is a bit much for me.  I don’t want to get to the point where I am so sick of the song, that it fails to inspire me when I actually watch the movie!  I can still identify, however, with one commentator who said that she likes the YouTube video because now she can just listen to the song as long as she wants, without having to manually go back and restart the song.

I’m listening to the video now.  I think I’m on the fourth playing of “Let It Go.”  I’ll shut it off soon because I need to be brought back to earth, and that’s hard when I’m listening to such a highly emotional and intense song.  It can drain one’s emotions!

I’m wanting to review a book on my blog for an academic publishing house.  It’s deciding whether or not to accept me as a reviewer for that book.  Someone from there may be visiting my blog to see what kind of blog it is.  To that person, I ask that he or she look around on my blog.  I do review academic books!  Today, though, I decided to write a light post about a song.  A heavy song.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Book Write-Up: Sacred Fragments, by Neil Gillman

Neil Gillman.  Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew.  Jewish Publication Society, 1990.

Neil Gillman teaches theology at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.  I audited a class of his when I was a student there.  His book, Sacred Fragments, overlaps a lot with what he discussed in that class: Gillman said that believers and unbelievers can look at the same reality and arrive at different (even legitimate) conclusions, and he talked about such thinkers as Mordechai Kaplan (who saw God as an impersonal force moving the world to a state of wholeness), Franz Rosenzweig (who emphasized personal experience of the divine), and Kabbalah (which posited that God’s Shekinah was exiled from God and that God could be repaired through observance of the commandments).  The book still has territory that was not covered in class, however.  For example, in the class, Professor Gillman told us that we should consult his book, Sacred Fragments, for his discussion about the classic arguments for the existence of God (i.e., the ontological argument, the cosmological argument that everything has a cause and thus the universe had a cause, and the argument that the cosmos manifests design).  He did not want to explore them in class because that was not a topic that particularly interested him.  The book also provided me with background information about philosophical topics, such as existentialism, and it covered the thoughts of Jewish thinkers whom Gillman did not talk about in the class, as far as I can remember (i.e., Buber, etc.).

Judaism has wrestled with many of the same issues that Christians have in the field of religion.  Is the Bible God’s revelation, when it arguably contains signs of being the product of human authors with their own ideologies and agendas?  Is the Bible authoritative, containing God’s commands?  Is there even a God, and, if so, how can we know?  If there is a good God, why is there suffering?  Is ritual consistent with a living, vibrant experience of God, or does it hinder that?  Judaism would relate some of these questions to other areas than Christians would: for example, Judaism would look at the Torah and its laws specifically.  Still, the questions are similar, and so Gillman’s class and book resonated with me, even though my religion is not Judaism.

Where exactly does Gillman land on these questions?  My impression is that he is usually presenting options rather than telling people what to think and to do.  Here are some things that Jewish thinkers have thought, and it is up to you to make up your own mind (along with your community).  You may feel that ritual hinders a lively experience of God, but perhaps it can create opportunities for such an experience to occur—-it’s something to think about.  You have to decide for yourself if you want to see life as a believer in God or as a non-believer.  You are the one who can determine whether or not you feel commanded by God to do something.  The classic rational arguments for God’s existence may not prove God’s existence, but perhaps you can still find in them a justification for belief, plus rationality is good because it can sift out the absurd.  Gillman’s approach looks like subjectivism and experientialism, but Gillman appears to be open to the possibility that there is a God in the world, that Israel experienced something on Mount Sinai, and that people now can experience the divine.

I’m the sort of person who looks for something authoritative, for solid ground to stand on.  The thing is, being an adult usually entails the sort of process that Gillman displays: looking at options, deciding what makes sense to me, and making a choice.

There is more that I can say: what I thought about Gillman’s approach to the arguments for the existence of God, the existentialist who posited a scenario in which Elijah asked God to send fire from heaven to undercut the prophets of Baal and God did not send the fire, etc.  But I’ll stop here.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Vacation Bible School Update

At church this morning, the pastor shared about what happened at Vacation Bible School this past week.  It was actually quite inspiring: people from my church coming together to contribute their talents to make this week-long event a success.  The pastor talked about what the kids did.  They learned about God and God’s care for them.  They would get a star if they referred to a “God event”—-an event that reminded them somehow of God.  And they donated some of their food to the Hope House, which provides meals for the poor.

The pastor told us that one of the kids wanted a picture of all of the VBS staff, and that was cool.  After church, the pastor was telling me that the kids may meet more than once in the year.

I can’t say that my experiences in VBS in the past were spectacular—-they were more mixed than anything.  I’m not even sure if I qualify as an evangelical, in terms of where I am now in my beliefs.  But my heart does get excited when it sees revival: when people are becoming close to God, when the church is reaching out to its community, when people are being taught to love God and their neighbors.  My pastor and people in the church prayed for VBS.  So did I, as I asked for God’s anointing to be upon it.  I am glad that it was.

James Garner

Actor James Garner has passed on.  Back when I was a child, I would watch Maverick and The Rockford Files with my family.  I’ve also seen some of his movies.  My personal favorite was when he played Dr. Bob in My Name Is Bill W., a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I know two people who have met James Garner.  They say he was a very nice person—-he put on no airs.

R.I.P., James Garner.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

I Chronicles 19

In I Chronicles 19, Nahash the king of Ammon has died, and Nahash’s son Hanun takes his father’s place as king.  David sends messengers to comfort Hanun because Nahash had been kind to David, probably when David was on the run from King Saul.  Hanun’s advisers, however, are suspicious, and they think that David is sending those messengers to spy out the land for war.  Consequently, Hanun humiliates David’s servants by shaving half their bodies, from the head to the buttocks.  Realizing that he has probably offended David by doing this, Hanun prepares for war, and he pays people in other countries to come and assist him.  In II Samuel, it was during this war that David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah (II Samuel 11).

The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary refers to Jewish commentators who struggled with a question.  In Deuteronomy 23:6, God prohibits the Israelites from seeking the peace and prosperity of the Ammonites and Moabites.  The rationale is stated in Deuteronomy 23:4: “Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee” (KJV).  But here David was, seeking the peace and prosperity of the king of Ammon.  Was David violating God’s law in doing so?

The Artscroll lists solutions that commentators have proposed.  The first one is that David was not offering kindness to the king of Ammon but was simply repaying the favor that the king’s father Nahash had done for David.  David was not offering kindness gratis, which is what is prohibited, but rather is repaying a kindness.  The problem that the Artscroll has with this solution is that David was not repaying Nahash for Nahash’s kindness, for Nahash was dead; rather, David was extending kindness to Nashash’s son, and that did not count as a repayment, for Nahash’s son was not the one who had been kind to David.  Nahash was.

The second solution is that the prohibition on seeking the peace and prosperity of the Ammonites applies to specific situations.  The Israelites when making war on a city are not to offer the Ammonites peace, and the Israelites are not to allow any Ammonite to dwell in Israel as a ger toshav—-a Gentile resident alien in Israel who observes some of God’s commands but not the entire Torah.  These are forbidden, according to this solution, but extending a personal kindness to an Ammonite (as David did) is allowed.

The third solution is that David was aware of the prohibition in Deuteronomy 23:6, and he did not want to repay Nahash’s kindness while Nahash was still alive because that would look like he was trying to establish a treaty with Nahash and the Ammonites, which would presumably go against Deuteronomy 23:6.  Consequently, David waited for Nahash to die and then sought to repay Nahash’s kindness by sending his messengers to comfort Hanun, Nahash’s son.  That would not look like David trying to establish a treaty with the Ammonites, but rather it would look like David seeking to comfort a son who is mourning for his father.

The Artscroll itself goes another route.  It says that David in I Chronicles 19 felt secure, since he had defeated several nations, and he felt like extending goodwill to a nation that had historically been an enemy to Israel.  David was either trying to be overrighteous—-more righteous than the standard that God set forth in the Torah—-or David was technically compliant with the Torah yet was violating its spirit.  According to the Artscroll, David should have realized that reaching out to Ammon was undesirable and would backfire, that God knew what God was talking about when God forbade Israel to deal with Ammon.  It did backfire, for the Ammonites humiliated David’s servants and geared up for battle.  Moreover, according to the Artscroll, the command in Deuteronomy 23:6 may have played a role in the Ammonite advisers’ suspicion of David.  They knew that the Torah of Israel forbade the Israelites to seek the peace and prosperity of the Ammonites, and so they were suspicion when David was extending kindness to their king.  They thought David was really trying to undermine their country.

On the one hand, this discussion seems to me to stereotype an entire people-group as no-good, and I have issues with that, for I would prefer to judge people according to the content of their character rather than saying they’re no-good because they belong to a certain people-group.  On the other hand, I see here wisdom that I can apply to my own life, in that I should not be quick to trust everyone.  I know that the New Testament talks about loving everybody, even enemies, and there is a place for that.  But Jesus did tell his disciples to be wise as serpents, and helpless as doves (Matthew 10:16).

Friday, July 18, 2014

Movie Write-Up: Saving Mr. Banks

I watched Saving Mr. Banks last night.  Saving Mr. Banks is a 2013 movie about Walt Disney’s attempt to get the rights of Mary Poppins from the book’s author, Pamela Travers, so he could make the movie Mary Poppins.  In the process, we learn about the demons with which both Travers and Disney are wrestling—-their difficult pasts and their attempts to move on.

The title Saving Mr. Banks refers to the father in the movie Mary Poppins, and also the book.  Mr. Banks in the movie is distant from his children and wants a nanny who will train his kids to be disciplined, like soldiers; he does not appreciate the new nanny, Mary Poppins, coming along and taking his kids on fun adventures.  At the end of the movie, however, Mr. Banks is flying a kite with his kids.

I do not know exactly how this played out in the book.  I was reading on wikipedia, and what I got is that Mr. Banks in the book is not that big of a character, and that he was actually rather kind to to his children.  The stern picture of Mr. Banks in the movie may have been based more on Walt Disney’s harsh father; Disney insisted that Mr. Banks have a mustache, against Mrs. Travers’ objections, and the reason was probably that his own father had a mustache.  Mrs. Travers’ father still had issues, however, for he was a drunk, and he dismissed a poem that his daughter wrote when she was a child.  He was still a fun, loving dad, though.  When Mrs. Travers was a child, her father was sick and dying in bed, and her mother unsuccessfully attempted suicide.  In swept her aunt, who was like the eccentric Mary Poppins of the books and was bringing order to the collapsing home.  Unfortunately, the aunt could not fix everything, and the father died, disappointing the little girl.  She would grow up to write Mary Poppins, about a nanny who really could save the day.

There are fact-checks all over the internet about this movie.  I would not be surprised, though, if there actually was some deep-felt need on the part of Mrs. Travers to save her father and to move on, even if Mr. Banks was not as prominent in her book as he was in Walt Disney’s movie.  The movie is based, at least in part, on audio recordings of actual meetings that Mrs. Travers had with Walt Disney’s employees, and we get to hear one of them at the end of the movie.

One aspect that I enjoyed about Saving Mr. Banks was the relationship between Mrs. Banks and her Disney-commissioned driver, Ralph (played by Paul Giamatti).  The curmudgeonly Mrs. Banks at first does not like Ralph’s chipper attitude, thinking that it reflects the typical Disney sap that is all around her.  But she gets to know Ralph better and learns that his daughter has polio and is consigned to a wheelchair, and Ralph tells her that he is so concerned about the weather because he wants for his daughter to enjoy the outdoors rather than being cooped up in her room.

Another part of the movie that I appreciated was when Walt Disney was talking with one of his songwriters, and Disney was telling the story of when he was a simple artist with a notepad, and a big shot was trying to buy Mickey Mouse.  Disney said no, for Mickey was family.  Although Disney struggled throughout the movie to understand Mrs. Travers, he could identify, on some level, with her feelings for her character.

The song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” has been in my head since I watched Saving Mr. Banks.  It has more of a sentimental association in my mind now than it did when I watched Mary Poppins itself, and the reason is that, now, it relates to the healing that Mrs. Travers found, at least in the movie.  It represents the attempts of Disney’s employees to understand where she was coming from—-to include a scene of redemption for the father because that was what she wanted.  And it brings to mind the moving scene of catharsis later on, as she watches Mary Poppins and cries as “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is being sung.

Some have criticized Saving Mr. Banks because they feel that it depicts Mrs. Travers ultimately giving in to superficial Disney sap, as if that can solve all the world’s problems.  In actuality, Mrs. Travers was disappointed with the movie Mary Poppins.  People are entitled to their opinion.  Speaking for myself, I like sap.  I enjoy stories about healing, love, reconciliation, and being compassionate to people where they are.  That includes Saving Mr. Banks, even if it diverged from what really happened, in significant areas.

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