“Imagining the Unimaginable”
A talk I did several years ago on Eternal Life with God….
I tried to fire the imagination to imagine what cannot be presently imagined: the incomparable pleasures of continual ecstasy in the presence of the beautiful creator of all things.
Vegan diet for dogs: A question of thriving vs. surviving
By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
Atlanta (CNN) — It began when Shelley Boyle’s veterinarian recommended she stop feeding meat and dairy to her beloved mutt, Cleo, to determine whether a food allergy was to blame for the dog’s chronic ear infection.
Boyle’s interest was immediately piqued. She had been a vegan for nearly two years, after deciding to cut meat, eggs and dairy from her diet for health and ethical reasons. But she never considered the possibility that she could align her dog’s diet with hers.
“I’ve had animals all my life and when I did look into a vegan diet for my cat, I read that cats can’t be vegan … so I went to the conclusion that we can’t do this for Cleo,” says Boyle, an environmental consultant and part-time vegan baker from Studio City, California.
With her doctor’s guidance, she began whipping up batches of pinto beans, brown rice and sweet potatoes each week. She fed them to 4-year-old Cleo, a German shepherd/pit bull mix, twice daily with a dose of probiotics at lunch to help her digest.
Five months later, Cleo’s ear infection is gone, Boyle says. Her coat has taken on a healthy shine and she no longer has bad breath, dandruff or excessive shedding, she says. Her vet at the Animal Dermatology Clinic in Pasadena, California, suggested incorporating calcium and iron supplements through a diet of leafy greens or a vegan nutritional capsule.
“Her health and well-being is the main thing for us, but that fact we have a vegan option is a double-benefit because it means our dog can live with the same ideology,” she says.
With the vegan diet enjoying a period of (mostly) positive widespread exposure, it should come as little surprise that vegetarian or vegan pet owners might want to project those ideals onto their canine companions.
Celebrities such as Woody Harrelson, Ellen Degeneres, Russell Simmons and Alicia Silverstone (who discusses her dogs’ vegan diet in her book, “The Kind Diet”) have long been touting the health benefits of a vegan diet, along with Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn, two doctors who are the subjects of an upcoming documentary extolling the benefits of the plant-based diet. A steady stream in recent years of publications, from Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book “Eating Animals” to this year’s New York Times bestseller, “Veganist,” also have lent the movement some credibility.
(The whole story can be read here):
WHAT DOES PROFETCETERA SAY?
I am not opposed to vegans or vegetarians. They are nice people, generally. Scripture in fact specifically delineates this issue as one towards which Christians should be sensitive … regarding other believers, that is.
But — an owner and a doggie ‘sharing’ an ideology? A very queer conjunction, and hard to swallow. Sort of like the idea of an “environmental consultant and part-time vegan baker” not being a person actually just on welfare and surfing the web all day, working on padding their resume.
I have yet to meet a dog that has any ideology other than “throw that ball again!” or “would you be upset if I treated the cat like she treats the mouse?” or ”I’d really prefer some fresh raw beef to this dry dog chow!”
Or brussel sprouts with arugala.
I think it a fair assumption to assume that Shelley Boyle probably ascribes her dog’s existence to the processes of material evolution. Certainly many of CNN’s readers likely would do so. Evolution is a certain way of viewing history — the integers of time, linear, regulated, necessarily related in a chain of entailment — and it is more than a slight irony here, and one no doubt lost on both pet and owner, that the name the owner gave to her animal is the name of the Classical Greek Muse of History.
Why, then, if that be the case, would she desire to drop her poochie back down the evolutionary staircase to the mere veggie-chewers, like the friendly Brontosaurus (or friendly neighborhood Buddhist)? If I recall my 8th grade science book correctly, the meat eaters ate the salad eaters, rather than the other way around.
A human, foisting their ideology on an innocent, helpless animal. Sounds repressive to me.
”God, Time, and the Believer”
This talk is a philosophical / theological discussion on the nature of Time. I gave this talk in 2008. Click the link above to listen.
HOW LONG will it take you to see what is going on here, I wonder?
FOLLOWING is a fascinating guest piece (on Stanley Fish’s regular column) on the possibilites and limitations of AI — Artificial Intelligence.
My commentary will be up shortly, but this is a great read to get you thinking!
Many who responded to last week’s column about the relationship (if any) of Watson the computer’s performance on “Jeopardy!” to actual human thinking cited recent developments in artificial intelligence research, and wondered what Hubert Dreyfus, professor of philosophy in the graduate school at U.C. Berkeley and author of “What Computers Can’t Do,” would say about this new work. The editors and I have invited him and Sean Dorrance Kelly, professor and chair of the department of philosophy at Harvard University and co-author, with Professor Dreyfus, of “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age,” to reply. — Stanley Fish
By Sean Dorrance Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus
In last week’s column, Stanley Fish argued that Watson ain’t so smart. Watson, of course, is the IBM-built computer that recently won a game of “Jeopardy!” Despite this impressive achievement, Fish argued that Watson “does not come within a million miles of replicating the achievements of everyday human action and thought.” In defending this claim, Fish invoked arguments that one of us (Dreyfus) articulated almost 40 years ago in “What Computers Can’t Do,” a criticism of 1960s and 1970s style artificial intelligence.
Some of the most interesting comments on Fish’s column pointed out that AI research today is based on a dramatically different paradigm, and that therefore the old arguments against it no longer have any bite. We agree. And we agree also, as a number of other comments suggested, that Watson’s ability to process natural language, to resolve linguistic ambiguities and to evaluate the puns, slang, nuance and oblique allusions characteristic of a typical “Jeopardy!” question or category is impressive indeed. Nevertheless, the arrival of our new computer overlords is not exactly around the corner.
To begin with, consider the way things used to be. At the dawn of the AI era the dominant approach to creating intelligent systems was based on finding the right rules for the computer to follow. If you wanted a computer to play checkers, for instance, then you just needed to code up a system that had rules for how the pieces could move, had a rule about how to rank possible board positions and could generate a tree of possible board positions based on a given initial move. The philosopher John Haugeland, a former student of Dreyfus’s, called this rule-based approach GOFAI, for Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence.
For constrained domains the GOFAI approach is a winning strategy. Already in the early 1960s researchers had developed a system that could play master-level checkers. And a few years ago it was announced that checkers has been solved. Dozens of computers, running almost continuously since 1989, mapped completely the 500 billion billion possible positions in the game of checkers, rendering it no more interesting than tic-tac-toe.
Even Deep Blue, the IBM system that beat the then-reigning world champion chess master Garry Kasparov in 1997, followed something like this brute force strategy. Chess is a much more complicated game than checkers, with an estimated 10∧120 possible positions, so it cannot be solved in the way that checkers has. But Deep Blue could follow out all the consequences of a given move to a depth of 20 or more possible responses, and this proved sufficient. Still, as commenter Bruce Macevoy and others point out, this is nothing like what humans do. And most AI researchers agree that there is nothing intelligent or even interesting about the brute force approach.
In many ways the AI community has taken this criticism to heart. As Lisa from Orlando points out, the dominant paradigm in AI research has largely “moved on from GOFAI to embodied, distributed intelligence.” And Faustus from Cincinnati insists that as a result “machines with bodies that experience the world and act on it” will be “able to achieve intelligence.”
The new, embodied paradigm in AI, deriving primarily from the work of roboticist Rodney Brooks, insists that the body is required for intelligence. Indeed, Brooks’s classic 1990 paper, “Elephants Don’t Play Chess,” rejected the very symbolic computation paradigm against which Dreyfus had railed, favoring instead a range of biologically inspired robots that could solve apparently simple, but actually quite complicated, problems like locomotion, grasping, navigation through physical environments and so on. To solve these problems, Brooks discovered that it was actually a disadvantage for the system to represent the status of the environment and respond to it on the basis of pre-programmed rules about what to do, as the traditional GOFAI systems had. Instead, Brooks insisted, “It is better to use the world as its own model.”
The adaptive, responsive, biologically inspired robots that Brooks and others have built may not inhabit the same world that we humans do. And to the extent that they have purposes, projects and expectations they are probably not much like ours. For one thing, although they respond to the physical world rather well, they tend to be oblivious to the global, social moods in which we find ourselves embedded essentially from birth, and in virtue of which things matter to us in the first place. Despite these perhaps insurmountable deficiencies, we find this approach to be a possible step in the right direction. But whether or not it is ultimately successful, the embodied AI paradigm is irrelevant to Watson. After all, Watson has no useful bodily interaction with the world at all.
That does not mean that Watson is completely uninteresting. The statistical machine learning strategies that it uses are indeed a big advance over traditional GOFAI techniques. But they still fall far short of what human beings do. To see this, take Watson’s most famous blunder. On day 2 of the “Jeopardy!” challenge, the competitors were given a clue in the category “U.S. Cities.” The clue was, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle.” Both Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter correctly answered Chicago. Watson didn’t just get the wrong city; its answer, Toronto, is not a United States city at all. This is the kind of blunder that practically no human being would make. It may be what motivated Jennings to say, “The illusion is that this computer is doing the same thing that a very good ‘Jeopardy!’ player would do. It’s not. It’s doing something sort of different that looks the same on the surface. And every so often you see the cracks.”
So what went wrong? David Ferrucci, the principal investigator on the IBM team, says that there were a variety of factors that led Watson astray. But one of them relates specifically to the machine learning strategies. During its training phase, Watson had learned that categories are only a weak indicator of the answer type. A clue in the category “U.S. Cities,” for example, might read “Rochester, New York, grew because of its location on this.” The answer, the Erie Canal, is obviously not a U.S. city. So from examples like this Watson learned, all else being equal, that it shouldn’t pay too much attention to mismatches between category and answer type.
The problem is that lack of attention to such a mismatch will sometimes produce a howler. Knowing when it’s relevant to pay attention to the mismatch and when it’s not is trivial for a human being. But Watson doesn’t understand relevance at all. It only measures statistical frequencies. Because it is relatively common to find mismatches of this sort, Watson learns to weigh them as only mild evidence against the answer. But the human just doesn’t do it that way. The human being sees immediately that the mismatch is irrelevant for the Erie Canal but essential for Toronto. Past frequency is simply no guide to relevance.
The fact is, things are relevant for human beings because at root we are beings for whom things matter. Relevance and mattering are two sides of the same coin. As Haugeland said, “The problem with computers is that they just don’t give a damn.” It is easy to pretend that computers can care about something if we focus on relatively narrow domains — like trivia games or chess — where by definition winning the game is the only thing that could matter, and the computer is programmed to win. But precisely because the criteria for success are so narrowly defined in these cases, they have nothing to do with what human beings are when they are at their best.
Far from being the paradigm of intelligence, therefore, mere matching with no sense of mattering or relevance is barely any kind of intelligence at all. As beings for whom the world already matters, our central human ability is to be able to see what matters when. But, as we show in our recent book, this is an existential achievement orders of magnitude more amazing and wonderful than any statistical treatment of bare facts could ever be. The greatest danger of Watson’s victory is not that it proves machines could be better versions of us, but that it tempts us to misunderstand ourselves as poorer versions of them.
The Argument for Girl-Boy Wrestling
Joel Northrup cited his Christian faith for refusing to wrestle Cassy Herkelman in last week’s Iowa state championship. I say his Christian faith should have taken him to the mat.
Joel Northrup cited his Christian faith for refusing to wrestle Cassy Herkelman in last week’s Iowa state championship. I say his Christian faith should have taken him to the mat.
When my friend posted a link to the story of Joel Northrup — the 16-year-old Iowa wrestler who defaulted rather than wrestle a girl, Cassy Herkelman, in a state tournament last week — I was floored when my athletic, competitive friend said she had “mixed emotions” about his decision. I imagine this friend, had she pursued wrestling and not track and field in high school, would’ve wanted the opportunity to wrestle. Even if it meant competing against the boys.
My reaction to this story was decidedly unmixed. I think Joel should have wrestled Cassy.
Not that I don’t get some of the issues at play here. I understand that teenage boys, as a rule, are stronger than teenage girls. I understand that boys wrestling girls could introduce some sexual awkwardness. I agree that the best-case scenario would be for Cassy to be able to wrestle in an all-girls wrestling conference.
But in this world, best-case scenarios almost never exist. So our job as Christians is to figure out how best to live and behave in these broken scenarios, how to be “salt and light” in every arena.
Which brings me back to Joel, since he cited his Christian faith as reason to default.
In his statement, Joel said, “Wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner.”
I applaud Joel’s decision to back away from any seeming violence toward girls. But I wonder why he thinks the Christian faith smiles on violence-for-fun against fellow boys. I’m confident that it doesn’t. My guess is that his decision to default has more to do with his view of who is against him on the mat than it does with actual violence. And I think his refusal has more to do with his cultural view of girls than his Christian faith.
To those who are sympathetic to Joel’s decision, no matter how strong and tough Cassy may be — after all, she made it to the state competition with a 20-13 record — she is still a girl. Therefore, she is too weak. Her girl-hood prevents her from being seen as someone who is gifted by God to use her body and her muscles and her spirit to wrestle. She is a would-be victim on the wrestling mat. Or, she’s a sexual object. But a contender? Nah.
Every time I’ve thought about this story over the past couple of days, I think of my husband, Rafael, on his first day of class at the University of Illinois. To most students, having a girl sit down next to you wouldn’t have been any big deal — a thrill maybe even. But Rafi was coming from an all-boys prep school. He hadn’t sat next to a girl in school since eighth grade. He was thrown for a loop.
Rafi told me that he couldn’t think during that whole class period. He was so preoccupied with how to behave next to someone of the opposite sex. It was weeks before he focus if he sat next to a girl in class.
But Rafi overcame his issue by reminding himself of a startling truth: “She’s just a person.”
This story cracks me up. (Had I gone to college with him, I’d have been sure to sit extra close in class just to make him nuts.) But it’s very revealing, I think, to how we are as sexual, gendered beings.
We screw things up when we focus too much on gender, when we forget that while we are each male or female, and that’s a wonderful thing, we are also just people.
Jesus seemed to remember this well. He never saw women the way his culture did. He never treated them as they were “supposed” to be treated. Women who were not to be touched, Jesus touched. Women who should have been shunned, Jesus included. Women whose opinions didn’t matter, Jesus sought. Women who were not to learn, Jesus taught.
That was the way Jesus behaved in a terrible-case scenario for women. He provided opportunities. He didn’t shirk away because things could be awkward. He didn’t ease up because women were weak. Jesus treated women like humans. Like breathing, feeling, thinking, capable people.
When Joel refused to wrestle Cassy, he took an opportunity away from her. An opportunity for her to shine using her own God-given strength and ability. An opportunity to win or lose, fair and square.
I don’t mean to harp on Joel. I’m sure he’s a good kid who clearly meant well. These thoughts aren’t so much for him as they are for the rest of us as we wrestle with these sorts of issues all the time.
As Christians, when faced with less-than-best-case scenarios, we need to be in the business of affording others equal opportunities. Usually this means expanding our view of other people beyond how our culture would have us see them or how we think they are and getting it more in line with how Jesus sees them. Doing this usually means things get awkward. Doing this means we’re stretched way beyond our comfort zone.
Doing this means we might need to step onto a mat and wrestle, not despite our faith but because of it.
What does profetcetera say?
Any guy trying to wrestle with my 17-year-old daughter will have to wrestle me first.
Let me start with this: have you ever wrestled? Do you know what this involves? We’re not talking about throwing a ball here.
It is a great sport: super-demanding, and incredibly involving. Extreme amounts of close body contact, muscular exertion to the point of exhaustion, a powerful endorphin high, continual physical inter-limb entanglement and powerful mutual movement moving inexorably to a clearly defined goal of gaining spatial-temporal domination over the other person — they end up below you. Not to mention heavy breathing.
Sound familiar? Most 16-year-old boys would give more than their lunch money to wrestle with a girl for several minutes. It is just about the only thing they have on their minds.
C’mon! Don’t tell me this would not at some level quickly become sexualized for one if not both parties. Quick, guys, answer up: if you had to wrestle one of two women, which would you choose if you could? The one you found attractive, or the one you found unattractive? And why?
The young man made a wise choice. I hope my own two young men, 25 and 23, would do the same. I just asked my daughter what she would do. Without thinking about it, she said she had mixed feelings about mixed wrestling. But, faced with a 17 year-old boy in a lycra body suit willing to half-nelson her to submission, she would probably not have time to reconsider. Because I would relocate his left scapula somewhere in the region of his right femur. Even though he won’t honor 1 Timothy 5:2, I will do so with Proverbs 26:3.
Bono Interview: Grace Over Karma
(Excerpt from the book Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas )
Bono: My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don’t let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond [sighs] in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that’s my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now that’s not so easy.
Assayas: What about the God of the Old Testament? He wasn’t so “peace and love”?
Bono: There’s nothing hippie about my picture of Christ. The Gospels paint a picture of a very demanding, sometimes divisive love, but love it is. I accept the Old Testament as more of an action movie: blood, car chases, evacuations, a lot of special effects, seas dividing, mass murder, adultery. The children of God are running amok, wayward. Maybe that’s why they’re so relatable. But the way we would see it, those of us who are trying to figure out our Christian conundrum, is that the God of the Old Testament is like the journey from stern father to friend. When you’re a child, you need clear directions and some strict rules. But with Christ, we have access in a one-to-one relationship, for, as in the Old Testament, it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at a Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross.
Assayas: Speaking of bloody action movies, we were talking about South and Central America last time. The Jesuit priests arrived there with the gospel in one hand and a rifle in the other.
Bono: I know, I know. Religion can be the enemy of God. It’s often what happens when God, like Elvis, has left the building. [laughs] A list of instructions where there was once conviction; dogma where once people just did it; a congregation led by a man where once they were led by the Holy Spirit. Discipline replacing discipleship. Why are you chuckling?
Assayas: I was wondering if you said all of that to the Pope the day you met him.
Bono: Let’s not get too hard on the Holy Roman Church here. The Church has its problems, but the older I get, the more comfort I find there. The physical experience of being in a crowd of largely humble people, heads bowed, murmuring prayers, stories told in stained-glass windows
Assayas: So you won’t be critical.
Bono: No, I can be critical, especially on the topic of contraception. But when I meet someone like Sister Benedicta and see her work with AIDS orphans in Addis Ababa, or Sister Ann doing the same in Malawi, or Father Jack Fenukan and his group Concern all over Africa, when I meet priests and nuns tending to the sick and the poor and giving up much easier lives to do so, I surrender a little easier.
Assayas: But you met the man himself. Was it a great experience?
Bono: [W]e all knew why we were there. The Pontiff was about to make an important statement about the inhumanity and injustice of poor countries spending so much of their national income paying back old loans to rich countries. Serious business. He was fighting hard against his Parkinson’s. It was clearly an act of will for him to be there. I was oddly moved by his humility, and then by the incredible speech he made, even if it was in whispers. During the preamble, he seemed to be staring at me. I wondered. Was it the fact that I was wearing my blue fly-shades? So I took them off in case I was causing some offense. When I was introduced to him, he was still staring at them. He kept looking at them in my hand, so I offered them to him as a gift in return for the rosary he had just given me.
Assayas: Didn’t he put them on?
Bono: Not only did he put them on, he smiled the wickedest grin you could ever imagine. He was a comedian. His sense of humor was completely intact. Flashbulbs popped, and I thought: “Wow! The Drop the Debt campaign will have the Pope in my glasses on the front page of every newspaper.”
Assayas: I don’t remember seeing that photograph anywhere, though.
Bono: Nor did we. It seems his courtiers did not have the same sense of humor. Fair enough. I guess they could see the T-shirts.
Later in the conversation:
Assayas: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?
Bono: Yes, I think that’s normal. It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.
Assayas: I haven’t heard you talk about that.
Bono: I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.
Assayas: Well, that doesn’t make it clearer for me.
Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.
Assayas: I’d be interested to hear that.
Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s—-. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.
Assayas: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.
Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled . It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.
Assayas: That’s a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it’s close to lunacy, in my view. Christ has his rank among the world’s great thinkers. But Son of God, isn’t that farfetched?
Bono: No, it’s not farfetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: “I’m the Messiah.” I’m saying: “I am God incarnate.” And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You’re a bit eccentric. We’ve had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don’t mention the “M” word! Because, you know, we’re gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you’re expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he’s gonna keep saying this. So what you’re left with is: either Christ was who He said He was the Messiah or a complete nutcase. I mean, we’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. This man was like some of the people we’ve been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had “King of the Jews” on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I’m not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that’s farfetched
Bono later says it all comes down to how we regard Jesus:
Bono: If only we could be a bit more like Him, the world would be transformed. When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my s—- and everybody else’s. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man? And was He who He said He was, or was He just a religious nut? And there it is, and that’s the question. And no one can talk you into it or out of it.
What does profetcetera say?
Whatever else we may say about this interview, the gospel is here in a very simple form — as it always should be. Bono is no theologian, but we aren’t called to be theologians. I don’t know him personally (shocking, I admit) but I am very pleased to see that he does not appear to be ashamed of Jesus of Nazareth as He is presented in the gospels. I have not always liked what Bono has said about Jesus before — he has an occasional tendency to politicize Christ in some Leftist terms — but this is on the whole very heartening. (I also happen to despise Right-Wing politicizing of Jesus — He said His Kingdom was not of this world).
Wherever Bono is at spiritually, he does here seem to acknowledge his personal sinfulness, God’s terrifying justice as well as His gentle love and grace, and Jesus’s merciful sacrifice to pay our debt to God the Father. And he makes a good distinction between what we deserve (karmic justice) and what we get if we but ask (grace … unmerited favor for the humbled). Sure, I would like it if he talked about repentance more here. I don’t doubt his repentance is as weak as mine. We’re both human. And I’m not so hot when it comes to repenting. And maybe by talking about himself as a sinner in need of grace, he is exemplifying repentance better than I often do. I don’t know; but how many of the top-level culture-makers ever use such language? Jesus is a just a cheap joke for most famous figures. Fame magnifies natural human vanity; so when we see fame brazenly exhibiting (public) self-examination of a strongly negative sort, the effect is so extraordinarily dizzying that we hardly know how to respond.
Just for the record … I’d love to sing with Bono in heaven. Anyone who knows me, of course, knows I can’t sing my way out of a paper bag. But the glorified state will be far better than any imaginable album sound design…
Maybe we could do a duet!
I’m thinking “Grace” …
(See video posted below)
The End of the Matter:
Movies and Meaning, Memory and Man
Memory is a mirror.
It reflects the past forward to us. Memory is inextricably tied up with consciousness and with both knowledge and belief. You only know what you remember. The same can be said of belief. You can’t believe anything you’ve forgotten.
Strangely enough, the earliest memory I can recall and place in the timeline of my life involves a motion picture. I distinctly recall a series of images – in crisp black and white – on our family television in an apartment in northern Virginia. I was perhaps four. On the screen (all the world’s a screen) is a room, in some kind of old house or castle. There is a large table in the middle of the room and a wild-eyed man is chasing a terrified woman around and around the table in a classic pursuit scene. It was not an amorous chase but a scary one. I have no further recollection of this scene – I don’t even know what it is from — yet it is burned into my memory for some reason. It may be because it is the earliest example of a moving picture I ever saw as a self-conscious human being. I sometimes find myself wondering if I would recognize this scene if I was to see it again. Would I remember? Would I believe my own memory?
Photography, and motion-picture photography especially, also functions like memories. Both capture and reflect. Memory is a kind of organic technology that allows us to travel elsewhere, specifically to the past. Or perhaps we should say the past travels to us. Either way we are not limited to the present. I want to think in this final chapter about how memory, film, and human consciousness can be seen through a theological worldview grounded in the ancient revelation of scripture, for scripture says much about memory.
The Bible teaches constantly that man falls into grief when he forgets God. The Jews are admonished over and over to remember always the great works of God. The whole Old Testament is essentially a history of forgetting, if you’ll allow the phrase. Christians of course do the exact same thing. Jews were to teach their children this lesson about remembering above all else, and when they asked questions about why certain things were done and said and believed, they were taught to recall God’s great work in history. In Exodus 12:24-27 Moses teaches the Israelites how to handle the natural curiosity of children who wonder about certain beliefs and practices, in this case Passover: “You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.” People are naturally curious; they want to know what things mean, and why things are believed and practiced. There is nothing wrong with this. The past must be brought to mind, brought to the present. This is the essential function of both history and doctrine in the Bible – to remind us of things that were done, and things that were said – in the past. Memory of the past is as much a key to faith as is looking forward to the future.
Memory is crucial to theology (you have to remember a doctrine to believe it). It is central to faith (you can’t trust someone you have forgotten about.) This is why there is such emphasis in the Old Testament on the importance of Jewish remembrance of the Lord. Similarly the New Testament constantly enjoins Christians to learn (and by extension remember) the teachings and examples of Christ. You can’t revere what you don’t recall. Don’t forget.
Suppression: Memories and Memory
I have built the argument of this book on a reading of Romans 1 that emphasizes the human suppression of the truth of God. It would be foolish to contend that every element of culture down to the finest degree is a result of this suppression and I have endeavored to avoid that extreme. Nonetheless, I think a strong case can be made that many of the most prevalent, powerful, and regularly repeated currents in human cultural production have their roots at least to some extent in this suppression of truth. But now I wish to provide a clarification, a turn or nuance to the argument. In the largest sense, it isn’t just content knowledge about God that is suppressed. Suppression involves much more than just content. The knowledge we have of God according to Romans 1 is not simply a set of abstract concepts that can be differentiated from our being. These truths about God and His world are built into us at the deepest possible level. They are bound intimately to us through a central part of our consciousness, through who and what we are. I am speaking here about memory.
Functionally, what is actually suppressed is memory itself – not just specific memories. We could say: “Memory” is “memories.”Our in-built memory about God has informational content, of course, but what seems to have happened is that the very function of memory itself is suppressed. We didn’t just forget stuff as a result of the Fall: we forgot remembering, period. This is why mankind does not just forget the information about God that is built into us – our very nature as rememberers has changed radically. We are made for remembering – for memory of God — but our memory is broken. We become, in Paul’s words from Romans 1, “fools.” This does not mean we are not intelligent – it means we cannot connect the dots of the universe because we have forgotten the purpose of the universe. It is precisely memory about God, and implanted by God, that fallen humans cannot bear. Hearing about Him in the present life produces either rage, ridicule, or conversion (see Acts 2:37 and 8:54). What may be known of God – some of it by observation of Nature, some of it revealed internally, some of it perhaps even by faulty human reasoning – is cached in the human memory. If it is retained there, we must deal with it. But if it is suppressed, “quarantined,” we can ignore it, at least temporarily. In a sense then, memory is the organic and spiritual “technology” by which we should know God. Because Fallen Man has made God his enemy, this knowledge, this memory of God must be suppressed. Furthermore I think a case can be made that is it is not just knowledge of God, but the entire human function of memory that is suppressed, crippled. If we are to function as conscious beings, we must have memory. But the core of memory – its original and ultimate purpose — is the knowledge of God. When we hold this knowledge back, we also severely restrict the very purpose of memory. Think of memory as muscles in the throat: they are designed specifically to swallow food, prevent choking, and keep the airway open. If we decide to suppress their use for either food or air supply – the muscles themselves will slowly atrophy. They will weaken and eventually die. Similarly, we tend not to use our memory to remember God, which is its main design purpose. As a consequence, we function far below our intellectual and spiritual capacity, because both capacities depend on memory. But as we begin to function as maturing, increasingly self-aware humans – forming our self-consciousness by building up our memory cache as we leave infancy and become children, then adults – we inevitably dredge up our suppressed memory of God.
This is why motion picture narratives that deal with memory are so fascinating to viewers, and why they are so important in a theological analysis of film art. Narrative film itself functions like a kind of memory – it is a record (albeit manufactured, manipulated, and constructed) of something other than the present. And, like a memory, it pushes itself into present consciousness and takes us somewhere else. The more effective the film, the more effective the “transport” to whatever place it is the movie is designed to take us. Pictures take us places, including the past and the world of imagination.
Photography is a kind of “memory technology.” I have seen photos of relatives and ancestors whom I have never met; I have a visual link to my own origins. “Motion photography” is even stranger. It copies reality with incredible precision and is uncanny in its effects on us. I have copies of old Super8 family movies from my childhood, now stored on video. It is an otherworldly experience to watch myself interact with my parents in their early thirties, or my grandfather teaching me to fish for trout in 1975, or see what I got for my birthday when I was nine. It is a form of time travel. I also have very recent video of my own family; I can relive last Christmas, my daughter opening presents, my two sons laughing next to her, my wife glowing from giving. I watch these not on a projection screen but an LCD computer screen that would have been quite unimaginable back when I caught that poor wriggling fish with my granddad. Human memory has always been heavily augmented by technology; in fact we might say that in some ways our technological memory – these days stored in digital bits – is now supplemented by our feeble organic memories, stored in biological neurons by a process that is intensely mysterious. We have to ask — how can the immaterial “past” be stored in a piece of the “material present?”
This chapter will focus not on a genre or style but on a thematic core shared by several films. This thematic core is, I believe, richly theological, though it does not generally receive attention as such. I believe this theme shows very powerfully that suppressed truth works its way back to the surface layers of our conscious minds and finds outward expression in our cultural production. I find these movies extraordinarily powerful in almost identical ways, despite the great differences in genre, style, texture and story. One is a black and white classic from the early 1940s; another is an early-eighties cutting edge sci-fi noir dense with philosophy as well as violence; the last is a very artsy, edgy psychological drama that deliberately and constantly disorients the audience – it is essentially a revenge tale about memory. How can you seek revenge if you forget the original crime or the desire for justice? Just as forgiveness demands forgetting, revenge requires remembering. And it is memory — that strange neurological link to the past that makes us human — which links these films together.
Citizen Kane (1941) takes us into the life of an early twentieth century capitalist and media /political power mogul. Bladerunner (1982) carries us into the dystopian future world of Los Angeles where the distinction between humans and advanced androids is erased. The nature of memory is a focus of the tale – and ironically the movie is in some ways an echo, a memory of an earlier sci-fi film also obsessed with memory and the nature of man and technology. And Memento (2000) drops us down unceremoniously into the world of a man who is unable to form new memories, so every minute of his life is a disoriented present with no genealogy of moments leading up to it providing context, certainty and meaning. These three films – all of which I can recall with great clarity, for they act powerfully on my own memory – are the last ones we shall consider.
 Romans 1:18-22 —For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.