Why We Should Jettison the “Strong Female Character”

The trailer for the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was released last week. Following the success of the revival of the franchise in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, anticipation is unsurprisingly at a fever pitch. As in the case of The Force Awakens, much of the pre-release speculation and comment has been preoccupied with the question of the representation of women and minorities within it. Despite concerns about a male-heavy cast early in the film’s development, the character of Rey in The Force Awakens met with a rapturous reception when it hit the cinemas. Along with the characters of Finn and Poe Dameron, many believe that her character marks a decisive movement towards a more egalitarian and inclusive vision of Star Wars, one no longer so dominated by white male protagonists. Continue reading

The Foolishness of Stephen Colbert

I’m pleased to publish Dustin Messer for the first time today at Mere Orthodoxy. A Boyce College graduate, Dustin served as Editor-in-Chief of The Bantam Journal at Covenant Theological Seminary before graduating from Covenant in 2014. He and his wife Whitney live in the Dallas area and worship at Christ Church (PCA) in Carrollton, TX. Dustin enjoys working at both Christ Church and Legacy Christian Academy.

“We’re very opposite.” That’s what Bill Maher said to Stephen Colbert in a recent interview. In the conversation—which ranged from mildly awkward, to tense, to nearing hostile—Maher and Colbert take turns sharing jabs about the other’s opinion on the proper response to global terrorism, the presidential election, and religion:

However, despite Maher’s claim to the contrary, the tension in the conversation was not, in fact, due to a difference of opinion—it was not because they are “opposites.” Rather, the tension was a result of a belief Maher and Colbert share, something upon which they profoundly agree. Both Maher and Colbert recognize the all-encompassing scope of Christ’s claims. Both understand that Christ’s lordship extends past the four walls of a church and reaches into the public square, the body politic. Continue reading

When Grace “Fails”—The Music of Call the Midwife

The third episode of the first season of the BBC show Call the Midwife is about what we do when our attempts to love and show mercy to a person seem to fail. The first story in the episode concerns Nurse Lee’s relationship with an old soldier who she visits in-home to help care for his ulcerous feet. The second concerns a pregnant woman in her early 40s who has remarried after becoming a widow but who has married more for her children’s sake than out of love. Continue reading

A Faithless House–Religion in Fox’s “House”

Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy and a writer based in Miami, Florida. Follow him @bernybelvedere on Twitter. Check out more of his writings at www.belvyland.com.

It’s a strange thing that over 177 episodes scattered across eight seasons Fox’s “House,” a show fascinated by philosophical and ethical problems, never once introduces us to a sophisticated believer. To be sure, Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House encounters plenty of proponents of traditional views, yet not one of them is able to offer a credible account of their faith able to withstand House’s relentless rationality.

It is certainly possible that in years of engaging with others on matters of religion and ethics, a man as brilliant as Dr. House never comes across a formidable opponent. After all, intellectual reflection is not exactly a hallmark of religious experience in America. Our culture teems with forms of spirituality, with professions of belief in a higher power, yet this commitment is a mile wide and an inch deep. Still, why wouldn’t more thoughtful approaches to these views ever make an appearance given that Dr. House sometimes spars with those whom you’d expect to have better answers? Continue reading

The Narrow Vision of House of Cards

Spoilers below spoilers below do not blame me for spoiling it if you read this there are spoilers below. Ahem.

Since the debut of House of Cards‘ third season last week the reviews have been a mostly consistent blend of “meh” and “zzzz.” Those reviews are basically right, but a further point needs to be made about the show’s failings in order to understand why the show has gone from an exciting (if also horrifying) first season to a mostly dull and tedious third season.

It’s become a cliche to contrast the 2010s Washington-based hit TV show about politics, Cards, with the 1990s version of the same, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. In most ways the contrasts are obvious–Obama-era disillusionment with Clinton-era hopefulness, Obama-era crises with Clinton-era solutions, etc. But in one way the two shows look more alike than different: for both to be seen and to be in Washington doing political work are one and the same.

Near the end of West Wing‘s run President Bartlett’s former chief of staff Leo McGarry gives a memorable speech to the rest of the Bartlett staffers, telling them that they only have a short time left in the White House and that they can accomplish more good in that limited time than most people can hope to accomplish in a lifetime. Though quite different in how it sees the work done in Washington, Cards has a similar tendency.

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3 Thoughts on Kindle Unlimited

Kindle_Paperwhite_3GI have a roundup on Amazon’s latest innovation over at Mere O Notes so if you’re wanting to learn more about Kindle Unlimited, start there.

I. Our Technocratic Libertarianism

While Mark Lilla is basically correct in saying that we live in a libertarian era, that term is not without its problems. (Ross Douthat made this point quite well in a recent blog post.) Despite our libertarian tendencies, we are still creatures bearing the image of God and living in a world as creatures made by that God. So both the essence of our humanity and the nature of our creaturely existence constrains our ability to function as completely autonomous beings. But when you have a society dedicated to such stark libertarianism to the cost of all non-coercive forms of community, this necessarily leaves only the coercive forces of big business and big government as the coherent social bodies able to shape communal life.

Thus we have services like Netflix and now Kindle Unlimited, both of which are premised on giving the user a seemingly infinite amount of choice, yet all of the choices available are defined by the business providing the service. So our experience of the service might seem libertarian because there are so many choices and there’s nothing stopping us from choosing anything on offer.

Yet the choices available to our libertarian will are themselves defined and handed down by the only viable social bodies left to us. We just don’t notice them as much these days because Amazon and Netflix have so completely blended into the fabric of our lives that we seldom look beyond them when looking for a movie or book. This is particularly troubling with Amazon given their current spat with Hachette and their history of questionable behavior regarding Kindle books.  Continue reading

The Abolition of Walter White

In most ways, the debate regarding TV’s big four–The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men–will rage on as each team makes their case for why their show is superior. In many cases, this really will come down to individual taste. But there’s one way in which Breaking Bad, which returns this Sunday night for its final eight episodes, is clearly unique amongst the four. Breaking Bad is a show based on the wholesale rejection of a definitive element of most TV dramas. In conventional TV dramas, characters basically stay the same and the drama comes from watching their true colors emerge over time and seeing what happens as a result, or perhaps seeing what happens as they try to change but prove unable to do so.

The conflict between Lee Adama and his father William Adama in Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of this. Neither Adama changes in some dramatic and undeniable way during the series, it’s simply that eventually certain events conspire to make their differences more apparent and throw them into conflict. You could say the same thing about the fights between Tim Riggins and Smash Williams in Friday Night Lights or the conflict between Toby Ziegler and the other senior staffers in The West Wing. The characters don’t change, but their surroundings do. (A similar thing happens with Don Draper in Mad Men, although it is made more complex by the fact that Don keeps trying to change but so far has struggled to do so, although the end of season 6 suggests that perhaps he’s finally made a breakthrough.) Typically though, when the surroundings change, differences that have always existed bubble up into conflict. The story isn’t about change, therefore, but simply about how events can come together to make what’s been there all along suddenly seem more apparent. But Breaking Bad is different. In Breaking Bad, the entire drama is based around seeing how characters change–something foreshadowed masterfully in the series pilot when Walt gives the following speech to his high-school chemistry students:

“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.”

You could say, therefore, that the entire series is about chemistry. Viewed this way, Walt’s occupation as a chemistry teacher isn’t simply a convenient plot device to explain how he learned to make such a superior version of meth. It’s actually a clue that explains the entire series. Breaking Bad is the story of how a person who has given their life to understanding change is himself changed and how those changes in turn change the people closest to him.

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Pedro at 40: How a Television Show Changed the Way a Generation Viewed LGBTQ Persons

Credit: wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RWSFCast.jpg

Vote for Pedro

My generation might best be defined as those who remember watching Pedro Zamora die of AIDS in our living rooms.

If you’re not familiar with Pedro, he was an openly gay, HIV-positive castmember in the third season of MTV’s the Real World which aired in 1994. Those who watched Pedro’s life play out on the tiny 4:3 screens of the time were presented with a high definition portrait of kind young man who didn’t fit any of the caricatures of homosexuality that one might see in the movies or hear about from the pulpit.

He was warm, funny, and extremely thoughtful, always facing his illness and his antagonistic, homophobic roommate “Puck” with a kind of conflicted dignity that captivated viewers.

But just as the Real World: San Francisco started airing that summer, Pedro’s health began deteriorating rapidly, and he was soon diagnosed with progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. Although MTV offered to pay for his medical expenses, Pedro’s health continued to worsen and, hours after the season finale aired, Pedro died, surrounded by his friends and the family members Bill Clinton had flown in from Cuba.

Not surprising, the gay community mourned the untimely loss of this bright, energetic educator and activist. But what was surprising was that many people who wouldn’t think of themselves as “pro gay” at the time were also deeply affected. Continue reading

The Frame for Watching Mad Men: When Joan sells Johnny

Brian R. Gumm is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren, worshiping and periodically ministering in a United Methodist parish in rural Iowa. His telecommuting day job is Distance Learning Technology Analyst for Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which is where he received an Mdiv and MA in Conflict Transformation in 2012. Brian blogs regularly at Restorative Theology and can be found on Twitter.

The exchange between Nick Olson and Jake Meador on Christian engagement with the hit AMC drama, Mad Men, was helpful reading for watching the premier. I especially resonate with Olson’s sentiment of no longer feeling a desire to have a drink while watching the show. In the early seasons, the show’s aesthetics exuded a certain aura of coolness around drinking hard liquor and smoking cigarettes. But last season, that aura started to fade, laying bare the nihilism and selfishness of the show’s primary characters. Don Draper’s cool, composed gaze morphed into a cold, dead gaze.

*Spoiler alerts*

With respect to Don, this seems to be bearing itself out in the narrative that season six started. Before the premier, Olson’s assertion held up, that “(w)hen Don Draper gets in a boardroom to sell a product, he sells you on his ability to sell.” But that didn’t happen in the first episode.mad-men-promo-poster

The show opens with Don’s and Megan’s trip to Hawaii, which was “field work” for a potential client of the firm, a Hawaiian resort company. Upon returning to a wintry Manhattan, Don designs the creative strategy for the ad campaign, during which he’s characteristically tight-lipped, to the chagrin of Peter Campbell. When the potential clients see the proofs, Don slides into his born-salesman character and pitches them his vision for the ad campaign. The viewer expects yet another home run, but the clients don’t buy it. The copy he and his team produced strikes them as dark and morbid, even suicidal. When the potential clients leave the boardroom, Pete is exasperated while Don stares in disbelief at the copy, seemingly unable to comprehend how on earth they could have mistaken his creative vision. By the end of the episode it’s clear that Don, who through season five seemed one of the more sane characters, has started sliding back into the moral black hole from which he had crawled out of after the first few seasons.

But something else struck me about this latest episode that wasn’t mentioned in Olson’s and Meador’s conversation, namely “the frame” within which Mad Men is experienced. Their conversation focused on the show itself, which is all right and good. What I noticed happened around the edges of the show, just beyond its green curtain. In one of the commercials that played during the show,the voluptuous Joan Harris walks toward you/the camera. She picks up a glass of whiskey while describing its virtues of being “classic” and “bold,” then says as she looks you/the camera straight in the eye, “It’s Johnny Walker, and you ordered it.” You then get the company logo and the signature of Christina Hendricks, the actress who portrays Joan in Mad Men.

Here is a show that has done a fairly good job of showing the lack of any moral center that lies beneath the gloss of the world of advertising and consumerism, and now one of its actors is pitching real products during the commercial break. Not that celebrity ad pitches are new by any stretch. Far from it; the irony in this case is that it somewhat deflates the power of the show’s critical edge, however subtle it may be. When Joan sells Johnny, the bad medicine described by the show’s narrative is being prescribed to us just outside the narrative’s frame. If it doesn’t go down smooth there, why should it here?

Now, one can rightly argue, “Yes, but that’s the name of the game/necessary evil” and so forth. In a range of senses the show about advertising couldn’t exist without advertising. But treating that as inevitable and given should give Christians pause. I strongly affirm Olson’s point that “(a)esthetics and ethics are inevitably bound together,” but would add narrative to that set. And the nihilistic narrative ethics of Mad Men does a sort of deconstruction on the very frame which makes it possible in the first place, and that frame is just as “storied” as the story it brings us in the show.

It’s like philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s joke about chocolate ex-lax: Mad Men is the tasty thing which undoes itself. It’s this sort of nested auto-deconstruction which I think is brilliant about the show, and why it’s disappointing to see Joan selling Johnny. But the question has begun to dawn on me: When is enough enough?

If our (American Christians’) social imagination is coterminous with capitalism and consumer culture, then we need to learn to break open the frame of that imaginary, however briefly. And perhaps Mad Men is a site where such interventions can take place. But the renewing of our minds and disciplining of our bodies which produces the critical vision to perform such critique doesn’t come from within the world which makes Mad Men possible; it comes from the gifts of the Holy Spirit conferred upon the body of Christ through its own liturgies. Perhaps six seasons of Mad Men is giving too much, even when its fangs have supposedly been pulled.