History Channel Brings The Bible To Life. Well, Sort Of.

Recently I wrote about Hollywood’s revived infatuation with the Bible.  Last Sunday evening, The History Channel joined the trend with the first installment of its 10-hour series, simply titled The Bible.

From a ratings standpoint, the show was a huge success.  Approximately 13 million people tuned in (14 million if you count the replay), making it the highest rated cable program so far this year.  Most network shows (CBS, ABC, etc) don’t boast anything close to that.

It’s easy to explain the popularity.  As The Passion taught everyone, Christians will support, in big numbers, any on-screen endeavor that remains faithful to its biblical source material and doesn’t attempt to insult or critique its inevitably religious audience (as opposed to the alternative).  Almost as important, in our special effects saturated era, are the production values.  And this is certainly an area where The Bible shines.  The visuals on display in the first two hours included Noah’s flood, the destruction of Sodom, and the parting of the Red Sea.  Each of these could stand alone in films of their own, and yet the team behind The Bible managed pretty solid renderings of all three, for one television episode.  That’s quite a feat.  It was certainly nothing to compare to spectacle-ridden blockbusters like Transformers or The Avengers, but considering the expectations that follow the description “A TV movie about the Bible”, it’s safe to say that those expectations were exceeded.

Beyond the production values, the series falters in some important ways.  The obvious and unavoidable problem of turning the entire Bible into a movie is that the Bible is far too long.  Naturally, the show’s writers had to skip.  A lot.  This first episode actually begins with the flood, where Noah briefly retells the stories of creation and Adam and Eve.  From Noah the story jumps to Abraham and remains there for the remainder of the first hour.  The next jump is straight to Moses, skipping completely over Jacob and Joseph.

Of course the gaps can be forgiven.  We all understand the constraints of time.  A bigger problem, to my mind, is the addition of extra-biblical and wholly unnecessary material.  Actress Roma Downey, one of the show’s producers, said in an interview on The O’Reilly Factor that they wanted to make the Bible “cool” and interesting, especially for teenagers with short attention spans who rarely read.  This attitude is on full display, the most egregious example being the two angels who go to Sodom to rescue Lot’s family.  After emerging from Lot’s house in full armor and blinding the crowd, they whip out swords and proceed to slaughter half of Sodom on their path to escape.  One of the angels happens to be of Asian decent and wields two swords at the same time, officially bringing the “Ninja Angel” into the mainstream.

It also seems that the temptation to depict Moses as thoroughly Egyptian, only discovering his true heritage by accident (which then leads to an existential crisis) is too strong for screenwriters to resist.  And apparently the bitter personal rivalry between Moses and Pharaoh needed some extra intensity.  When we first meet Moses he is engaged in a kind of fencing duel with his “brother” wherein he leaves a large gash on the soon-to-be Pharaoh’s face.  When the two meet again years later, the cut has become a scar.  Admittedly it’s not a bad image, though entirely overdone.

In the end, then, History’s The Bible is pretty good entertainment.  I have my doubts about the pretty white boy playing Jesus (who looks like he just stepped off the set of One Tree Hill and put on a wig), but so far my reaction is generally positive.  I would not, however, use this series as any kind of serious teaching tool, either at home or in churches.  In my opinion, it doesn’t even work as a way of introducing non-Christians to the Bible, since they aren’t likely to enjoy the transition from action-packed television to the much slower and longer book.  Still, while it is sub-par as education, it at least has the distinct virtue of not being heretical.  For an American Cable TV drama, that’s something.

Part two of The Bible airs this Sunday, March 10, at 8:00pm.

The Story of Civilization: A One Stop Shop for Western History

In 2012, I started working my way through The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It’s an eleven-tome series on the history of Western civilization, going from Eastern influences on the West in volume one and Greek civilization to Napoleon in volumes two through eleven. I got through the first six volumes of this series last year, and this year I will try for the remaining five. This series is one that I have wanted to read for a long time, and I am very pleased to have read what I could. Continue reading The Story of Civilization: A One Stop Shop for Western History

Pagan “Northernness”

C.S. Lewis once spoke on the allure of pagan “northernness” and how it ultimately lead to his conversion to Christianity.  He was “engulfed” by “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northnern summer; remoteness, severity.”  I have come to experience a similar love of this northernness.  Like most Americans, I was introduced to Greek mythology at an early age (it saddens me now to admit that I enjoyed all the “Greek-inspired” pop culture of the 90’s, from Disney’s Hercules to shmaltzy television shows like Xena: Warrior Princess), but I had never read, and barely knew of, the Norse myths until late into my college years.  I was instantly drawn to them, and by comparison Greek mythology seemed less interesting.  Now I am always eager for anything and everything that wades in northernness.  My fondness for The Lord of the Rings approaches the fanatical (and now is a good time to be a Tolkien fan!).  I even enjoyed Marvel’s Thor (despite the narrative problems and the significant departures from actual Norse myth). Continue reading Pagan “Northernness”

“Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History”: A Rant

I have a condition. Whenever I see one particular bumper-sticker, my skin starts to crawl. My lips and fingers itch and ache to burst with rational objection. I may need a doctor’s note to excuse me from ever again reading those six words. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll bare my biases – I’m on the feminist side of things. I don’t consider motherhood and marriage to be necessary goals in my life and my walk with God. I tend toward what Biola-folk call egalitarianism; I qualify terms like “obey” when used to describe relationships between humans. All the same, I think suggesting that motherhood and marriage and marital obedience are for second-tier women – in short, the statement “Well-behaved women rarely make history” – isn’t a healthy view.

Let’s take this in two parts:

“Well-Behaved Women”

In proper accordance with the genre bumper sticker, the slogan doesn’t define the terms. I tentatively submit – based on the implication of the whole phrase – that “well-behaved women” could be operationalized as “women who act as society recommends”.

I’m aware of a hazard here; since I’m about to challenge this statement, it’s problematic that I’m developing the definition for it. This could easily become a straw-man argument, where I’m playing both sides – “You’re saying this, and it’s wrong!” However, considering the slogan’s overall implication, I can think of few likely interpretations that would be unrelated to “women who act as society recommends”. I could be wrong. Take it or leave it.

“Rarely Make History”

From a feminist standpoint, one could argue that history as taught in schools is a man-made patchwork of selected true events (and don’t read that as “human-made”). In this definition, making your way into the history books is an arbitrary fact having less to do with whether you did something significant than with whether you fit into the story that men in power want to tell. By contracting the “go-make-history” infection, the bumper sticker slogan – despite its attempt to cast off patriarchal control – is really striving to fit into a masculine system. So why don’t we come up with a more grounded definition of significance?

Even if you don’t buy the idea that history books are arbitrary patriarchal constructions, it’s still hard to defend the slogan’s assumption that getting in the history books is intrinsically good. Atrocities make history. The slogan operates on the understanding that there is some intrinsic value to “making history”. I doubt that value. I wonder if women (with our comparative absence from history books) might be able to provide medicine to this potentially unhealthy way of viewing significance if we weren’t busying ourselves playing the boy’s games by their rules. The fact is, well-behaved men also rarely get into history books. As a rule, people rarely “make history”. Maybe women who don’t bother with the silliness of getting into the books could have some wisdom to offer on what makes the majority of  human lives significant.

If one challenges the idea of history as “stuff-in-a-book” – if history is, instead, the actual story of humanity told through the continuing growth and flourishing of the race – well-behaved women have made a lot of history. The real history of the world has mothers and wives and “well-behaved women” as intricately involved as rebellious women, well-behaved men, and rebellious men. These people raised people, loved people, helped, created, aided, wrote, lived, loved, healed. Did women who obeyed their husbands have less of a role in the grand dance of human history than did women who went their own way? Was Alexandra Romanov less important than Joan of Arc? Did either of them really, truly live more than the other? I’m not saying all women must behave as society recommends; I’m just saying that those who do shouldn’t be treated as less significant. Perhaps society’s recommendations coincided with their own desires.

Lastly, just to put the nail in the coffin, a good number of the best-known woman in history books were rather “well-behaved.” Mary the mother of Christ, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Victoria, Mother Theresa.

So, do well-behaved women rarely make it into the history books? No.

Is it a failure if they don’t? No.

Do they lack significant contributions to human flourishing? No.

Is this slogan tacitly buying into the worldview it’s fighting? Yep.

Is there any aspect of this bumper sticker that stands up to healthy critique?

Image via Flickr.

The Death And Life Of Great Britain

Only one televised event in history was worse than the London Olympics opening ceremony:  The London Olympics closing ceremony.  While the opening ceremony had some genuinely fun and entertaining moments, the closing ceremony reminded anyone familiar with British history and culture that the end has come.  The ceremony was billed as “a celebration of British music.”  Apparently the British did not produce music prior to 1960.  The high point of the evening was Russell Brand singing a song from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  That says something.

There was one other fun moment, however, especially for a Monty Python fan like myself.  Eric Idle appeared on stage, as a kind of elder statesman of the proceedings, to sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from the Pythons’ 1979 film Life of Brian (as millions sang along).  For those not nerdy cool enough to be in the know, Life of Brian is about a young Jewish man named Brian who is born on the same day, and right nextdoor to, Jesus, and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah.  As you can imagine, the film is entirely blasphemous and those of us who still harbor a secret admiration of the Monty Python films probably have loads of unconfessed sin.  At the climax of the film, as Brian hangs upon a cross, those being crucified around him break into the song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

In 1979 this film was incredibly controversial.  The film was boycotted by religious groups and banned in certain locations in the UK, as well as countries like Ireland and Norway.  It was the ultimate expression of anti-Christian, underground counter-culture.  In 2012, it is celebrated on an international stage as one of the best representations of authentically British culture.

Those of us who love Britain weep bitter tears.

What is more interesting, and especially relevant to evangelicals seeking to spread the gospel today, is that as the counter-culture has become the mainstream, it seems to have stagnated.  The critique of Christianity (and religion in general) presented by the Pythons is the same basic critique that one sees in most of Hollywood today.  Religion is silly and should be mocked until the religious people quit being so public about it all and become like the rest of us (it would also be ideal of they went ahead and replaced the bread and wine with marijuana and…actually, the wine can stay).  In 2012, we have not moved passed this stage of counter-Christendom into anything more extreme, at least not in any noticeable sense.

While Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens might have mused in their writings that religious parents engage in a subtle kind of child abuse, and that it would be best for society if we just removed all children to secular government schools, they never went so far as to seriously and publicly call for this to happen.  Comedians like Bill Maher might up the rhetoric and say that Christians who oppose gay marriage are evil, but he has not yet called for preaching against homosexuality inside of a church to be a criminal offense, and in any case he remains confined to the small, liberal bubble that is HBO subscription.  Can you imagine a film that depicts this kind of extreme anti-religious bigotry (comically or otherwise) becoming one of the top grossing films of the year?

It is unlikely that this cultural stagnation will continue indefinately, and I believe the current situation can only go one of two ways.  Either the culture of counter-Christendom will finally be given some impetus to move forward, and outright religious persecution will begin in the West, or else there will be a renaissance of religious (specifically Christian) thought in Western academia and the media.  There is evidence for both.  On the one hand, the increasingly heated rhetoric of the gay marriage debate (along with a growing number of incidents like the recent Chick-Fil-A debacle) suggests that the impetus for genuine persecution is right around the corner.  Pastors in Canada and Europe have already been fined or jailed under “hate speech” laws, and similar laws are being proposed in the US.  However, there has been a resurgence in the last decade of “high brow” Christian thought  in the universities (both public and private).  Christian apologetics is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and more programs spring up all the time.  Even more important for cultural renewal, there are serious pushes for Christians to become more involved in the arts, especially film, and to place the Church back into the historic position of “patron of the arts” and creator, rather than consumer, of culture.  We are also, as far as I can tell, winning the abortion debate.

If Christianity could be effectively wiped out as a significant cultural force in Britain within one decade (which it was), then it is possible for a reverse shift to happen in the same space of time.  True, things could simply get worse, and this is what most evangelicals tend to assume will happen.  Between our fascination with eschatology and the latest social issue that has the country “more divided than ever”, we see doom on every new horizon.  With a little hard work and a lot of prayer, though, things could also get better.  When the atheist can no longer thump the Bible-thumper in a debate because he knows more philosophy and history, or when “love” is defined not by the libertine romantic comedies of today but by the sort of Christian ethics that produced Jane Austen, the church wins.

I hold out hope that I will find my tears for beloved Britain have been premature, that rumors of her death have been greatly exaggerated.

Grade School Mythbusters: Christopher Columbus Edition

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” but not because he wanted to defy any maniacally tyrannical flat earthers. That this falsehood still endures in countless textbooks is both remarkable and (if you’re like me) completely maddening.

You see, there were no serious flat earthers in Columbus’ time. None. Everyone with much education knew that the world was, is, and ever shall be, round. In fact, everyone had known this about the earth for ages.

It’s as simple as that.

So why is it that my daughter’s homework today read “On Columbus Day, we remember a sailor named Christopher Columbus. During his time, people thought the world was flat.”? Half the books I found in the library echoed the same refrain, despite the fact that this bit of historical fluff has been disproved over, and over, and over…

Why has such a silly idea found such remarkable staying power? The various answers to that question are nearly as infuriating as the myth itself. There are several theories.

Some believe Washington Irving’s 1828 mostly fictional biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus is at fault—with a little help from Charles Darwin. Jeffrey Burton Russell writes of this,

The silliness [of Irving’s book] would probably have faded away but for the appearance of something else no one expected: the theory of evolution. In the early 19th century, the notion of slow geological change gained strength, and by mid-century Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace introduced the idea of biological evolution. Scientific doubts raised at the time are perfectly understandable in the context of the age. But other objections came from Christians who insisted on taking the entire Bible literally, which medieval Christians had not done. These anti-Darwinists assumed that the creation story in Genesis was supposed to be a literal, scientific, and physical account of the beginning of the world, and because they believed the Bible to be without error, they had to reject evolution. Evolution’s supporters, who apparently believed Irving’s tale, claimed that evolution’s opponents were just as stupid as medieval Europeans who allegedly thought Earth was flat. From there, the Flat Error found its way into textbooks, stories, and even a few encyclopedias, where it fit so nicely into what else we know most of it false about the Middle Ages.

Other explanations share the same theme, but vary in assigning blame. Here’s Phyllis Schlafley’s take:

The myth that people of the 15th century believed that the earth was flat was popularized by 19th century atheists in order to use science in their war against religion. What better way to discredit religion than to attribute an obviously false idea to religious people! This myth can be traced directly to two very influential 19th century books: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science by John William Draper (a physician) published in 1874 and History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White (the first president of Cornell University) published in 1896. Both men used the flat-earth myth to help spread their arguments against religion. These books started the false and dangerous ideology that there is a war between science and religion, and that science is the only source of truth. The flat-earth myth did not appear in schoolbooks before 1870, but nearly all textbooks included it after 1880.

The attempt to make Columbus into a hero of the battle between science and religion is particularly ridiculous. Columbus was a deeply committed Christian whose own writings prove that his desire to carry the message of Jesus Christ to faraway lands was the primary motivation of his historic voyage to the New World.

Was Columbus, as Schlafley says, really “a deeply committed Christian?” The answer to that depends on who you ask—just as the answer to nearly every question about the man seems to vary depending on the answerer. Certainly he wrote in his diaries of his faith and of his desire to share the Gospel with the native peoples he encountered. He is also thought to have been something of a greedy, genocidal kidnapper who paved the way for a lucrative and destructive slave trade—even his contemporaries found fault with him there.

I’ll part ways with Schlafley and give Columbus’ Christian sincerity a resounding “maybe”.

By the way, my library search did turn up a few non-flat-earther-myth-endorsing gems, suitable for very young children. You might take a look at the homework your child brings home this week, and then inoculate her with a few of these:

  • Christopher Columbus: Sailing the Sea of Darkness by Eric Arnold (This volume is highly rated by my Kindergartner for its depiction of sea monsters, the possibility of which was apparently the most exciting part of Columbus’ voyage.)
  • Scholastic First Biographies: Let’s Read About… Christopher Columbus by Kimberly Weinberger (Light on detail, but good for the very young. Best line in the book: Columbus never did find all of the gold he wanted. But we remember him today as a brave sailor. And we honor him for his mistake!” Well, yes, come to think of it, we do.)
  • Christopher Columbus by Rae Bains. (We didn’t get through all of this one. I guess there weren’t enough pictures of sea monsters—but it looked like a decent resource for the 8-10 year-old crowd).
  • A Book about Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross, illustrated by Syd Hoff. (This book deserves to be read simply because it was illustrated by Syd Hoff. Enough said.)
  • A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus by David A. Adler. (Not much detail, but the pictures are nice and there is a map inside. Maps are cool.)

Irish Impressions: An Old Book Dealing with Racism, Politics, and Ireland

In 1919, G. K. Chesterton published the book Irish Impressions, a book examining the conflict between England and Ireland. That same year marked the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, which ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and Ireland’s rise to dominion status within the British Empire. Chesterton’s book gives keen insight into what caused bitter contention between England and Ireland.

In Irish Impressions, Chesterton lays out the cultural misunderstandings, historical abuses, and other errors that caused so much bad blood between England and Ireland. Sympathetic to Ireland’s plight, he gives a very human treatment to the problems between the two countries and systematically condemns England’s treatment of Ireland. The foremost quality of the book is the human examination of the problems at hand.

Chesterton dispenses with isms and sociological models. He examines the Irish people in the context of European peasantry and explains their anger as a response to slights against their dignity and honor, not a response to political programs and agendas. He gives the example of and English tourist bargaining with a peasant in Europe to illustrate:

When a peasant asks tenpence for something that is worth fourpence, the tourist misunderstands the whole problem. He commonly solves it by calling the man a thief and paying the tenpence. There are ten thousand errors in this, beginning with the primary error of an oligarchy, of treating a man as a servant when he feels more like a small squire. The peasant does not choose to receive insults; but he never expected to receive tenpence. A man who understood him would simply suggest twopence, in a calm and courteous manner; and the two would eventually meet in the middle at a perfectly just price. There would not be what we call a fixed price at the beginning, but there would be a firmly fixed price at the end: that is, the bargain once made would be a sacredly sealed contract. The peasant, so far from cheating, has his own horror of cheating; and certainly his own horror at being cheated.

He goes on to say that the English had cheated the Irish out of a political compromise they had negotiated, so the Irish were smarting from that reversal. In another place, he gives an example of the difference between the industrial and the peasant mindsets. He was driving down an Irish road, and to the left the harvest was not gathered because the workers were on strike; on the right, peasant farmers had brought in the harvest and their grain was not rotting in the fields. Whatever the cause of the strike, “the big machine had stopped, because it was a big machine. The men were still working, because they were not machines.”

While Chesterton exposes the plain injustices wrought against Ireland, he also tackles the delicate matter of how the Irish went wrong in their thinking. Normally someone condemning his own country’s sins would hardly dare to address the victim’s sin, but Chesterton goes for it. For one thing, he upholds nationalism as the antidote to imperialism: “Nationalism is a nobler thing even than patriotism; for nationalism appeals to a law of nations; it implies that a nation is a normal thing, and therefore one of a number of normal things.” The Irish went wrong when they tried to turn their Irish-ness into something special beyond the honorable national identity that it is. He also criticizes the notion that he would speak for Ireland because he is somehow Irish: if he had to be Irish to speak in favor of the Irish, he could offer nothing objective against England.

Chesterton is clearly an Englishman in writing this book, and he describes when he went on tour in Ireland to recruit the Irish to fight in the First World War. He appealed to the Irish to see the war as something that indeed concerned them, that fighting with England against Germany was in Ireland’s best interests as a nation among nations. Although Chesterton criticizes the folly of the 1916 Easter Rising against conscription in Ireland, he also affirms the nobility of those who revolted. He concedes that it would have been difficult for any people to join their oppressors to fight against evil, and England’s attempts to raise volunteers were damnably clumsy.

As far as Irish Impressions may serve as a lesson for modern racial reconciliation, it primarily teaches two things: we have to treat people as people, and we have to legitimately give them good things to work with. Chesterton notes that the Irish did not trust English promises, and says that whatever the English decide to give, they really have to give it. He even speculates that the Irish would be satisfied with the autonomy granted by dominion status rather than full independence, if only the English would grant that. The Irish political leaders fighting for independence ultimately accepted dominion status under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and only left the British Commonwealth in 1949, although they ceased to act like a Commonwealth member some years before. What resolved the long conflict between England and Ireland was a negotiated agreement that both sides ultimately kept. Although the full history is much more complicated and includes the Irish Civil War, a modicum of reconciliation occurred with the signing of the treaty.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

A Complicated Remembrance

The tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks snuck up on me. For one thing, we’re still calling them the September 11th attacks, as if it happened within the calendar year and all we need is the day and month for reference. Like many far more eloquent writers have said this week, the attacks radically changed my life in ways I never imagined. Here at Evangelical Outpost, to acknowledge the anniversary, we planned to reflect on one of the more difficult commands Christ issued to His followers: love your enemies. I signed up for the slot on September 8th. And I’m still waiting for something profound to say.

As a teacher, my first thought on an issue like this is always for my students. How are they really affected? How do they view this event, and is that view confined by their insulated experiences, or are they able to step outside adolescence and use it to further develop their fledgling worldviews? How can I help them keep asking questions? I teach juniors and seniors, AP US History and AP Government. How can I help them understand something that happened when they were eight years old?

One thing that has always fascinated me about history, and that my students are quick to identify early in the year, is the American tendency to name events in the way we wish those events to be remembered. The death of five rioters in Boston becomes the Boston Massacre; the murder of unarmed men, women and children is the Battle of Wounded Knee. Sometimes history rights itself. To describe the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry, we’ve jettisoned the inaccurate “Custer Massacre” and now refer to it as the Battle of Little Bighorn. But September 11th remains sterilely, elusively, named simply for its date. We haven’t sullied it in its naming, but neither have we identified it, as though we’re still reeling in shock from its existence. Perhaps we are.

We’re used to history. Names, dates, facts to memorize, causes and effects to trace… these are things that we know, things that comfort us as we look into the messy, tragic, violent stories of our past. They simplify things, give us categories to file away the confusion. But we’re too close to this event for a study guide. No wonder we can’t agree on how we should respond to it, even ten years later.

There is nothing sacred about September 11, 2001, no matter how much we wish there was. It was a day of tragedy, a day of injustice, a day of evil. But it was not a day of infallibility. We must examine the events of that day in their historical context. That context is ugly. The terrorists did not hate us for our virtues. If only it were so! The events were the result of a complex history of American interests, Middle Eastern politics, Islamic politicization, and the complicated interaction between the two regions. But that doesn’t fit a neat national narrative, especially in an election year, and it doesn’t make us feel better.

Which brings me back to my students. One thing I’ve noticed about the generation that grew up in the shadow of 9/11 is that we’ve done them a great disservice. We haven’t taught them how to respond to an event like this with anything other than a gut reaction. We feed them soundbytes, condemn those who question our reaction to the attacks or our part in setting the stage for them, and when it’s time to serve a grieving country, we encourage them to buy things to stimulate the economy. We carve out corners of mutual agreement on cable news networks and demonize anyone who disagrees with us as idiotic or unpatriotic, and thus cripple the rising generation to love its own country, much less its enemies.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying history, it’s that we are perpetuating a destructive cycle. It’s only when nations look to the global good for the sake of their citizens, rather than jealously guarding a sad national pride, that history moves in the direction of grace rather than the law of the jungle.

And so, all I have to say in remembrance on this somber anniversary, is that I pray we can break that cycle. I see the potential in my classroom, where students raised in a country that builds cathedrals to commerce, not religion, engage in conversation with fellow beings created in the image of God as if that sort of thing is still possible. This country could learn a lot from these teenagers. If it wants to survive and secure the blessings of liberty to itself and its posterity, it must.

An Affair to Remember in Words Soon Forgotten

An entire year of planning goes into the brief, televised announcement. A network of hundreds of experts vet every point. Presentation is everything.  The words, carefully chosen, have the power to define the successes of the last year and set expectations for the next. But after countless hours of wrangling decisions, the audience gathered, the cameras turned on, and the show began. At 5:30am Pacific time, Mo’Nique and Tom Sherak announced the nominees for the 83rd annual Academy Awards.

Oh, and another big event happened Tuesday, too: President Obama’s State of the Union Address. At first, I thought Tuesday was merely a serendipitous convergence of the outlying regions of my geekdom. A film snob policy wonk who dreams of running away to the White House anytime she watches the West Wing can’t ask for a better news day. But more than just the sheer fun of it, Tuesday taught me something about the two events. They are more similar than you’d think.

Both events began as relatively small affairs. Article II Section 3 of the Constitution mandates that the president

shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

George Washington delivered the first on January 8, 1790, though then it was called the President’s Annual Message to Congress. It was 1, 089 words long, delivered to 81 members of Congress in New York City. It probably took seven to ten minutes for him to read it. Until 1923 when Calvin Coolidge’s became the first address broadcast over the radio, the address was a low-key speech between the president and Congress that laid out the president’s legislative agenda for the coming year. As in so many things, the advent of telecommunications changed its nature entirely.

Likewise, the Oscars began as a modest brunch in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood in 1929. Douglas Fairbanks and William C. deMille hosted the event. It was a private affair (tickets were $5 per person), and fifteen people were honored for their work from 1927 – 1928. Everyone knew who’d won because the winners had been announced three months earlier. For the next few years they withheld the names until the late edition newspaper the night before, and in 1941 they introduced the sealed envelope to increase suspense (and attendance).

Both events scarcely resemble their modest origins. I had the chance to attend the Oscars last year, and it’s a machine worthy of the most robust entertainment industry in the world. An Oscar nomination means millions in DVD sales, an Oscar win even more. The entire gathering is a showcase for studios, a runway for designers, fodder for the gossip mills, and the best networking opportunity of the year for filmmakers. Try as other awards might, they don’t compare to Hollywood’s big night.

Not that the Oscars mean much when it comes to the quality of the winning films. Though there’s plenty of pomp and circumstance about the value of the craft and prestige of the selection process, any organization that would nominate James Cameron’s Avatar for Best Picture has left artistry and cinematic excellence off its priority list. They may be bigger than ever, but the Oscars are just advertising with a black tie dress code.

The same could be said of the State of the Union Address. Every year since Woodrow Wilson set the precedent of delivering the address in person, presidents have had the annual chance to lend their voices and charisma to their legislative agenda, and for most of the 20th century it has been more for the benefit of the national audience than Congress. The event has become a campaign stop in our bloated campaign seasons that force politicians to start running for reelection before they’ve had a chance to move in to their offices. As such, it’s nearly impossible for the State of the Union to transcend mere branding of the party in power.

President Obama’s State of the Union was more of the same. I seriously considered running my review from last year’s address because so much of the speech was, point for point, repetition. That’s hardly the president’s fault: at best, a great State of the Union Address is a laundry list of policy achievements and goals sprinkled with sparkling rhetoric. It’s a pep rally for the presidency, and like the Oscars, has lost most of its true significance over the years. For the next few news cycles, pundits and politicians on the right will try to follow Representative Ryan’s example and paint the president as a leftist radical bent on the financial ruin of America, while in reality this speech was even more fiscally conservative than last year’s address (which didn’t seem possible). Left-leaning commentators will tout the bold proposals of a successful president and try to remind voters of Representative Bachmann’s nonsensical, bizarre response to downplay Ryan’s points. And so it goes.

But like the Oscars, the real story is much quieter. This was a good year for President Obama. He’s accomplished an extraordinary amount of items on his agenda, the Recovery Act and Affordable Care Act both seem to be helping Americans while both are still in need of some tweaking to increase their effectiveness. Despite some fairly paranoid focus on competing with China, the speech reminded its audience that America remains strong and is likely to continue to be despite doomsayers on both sides. But the best moment of the speech is from its beginning.

What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

If we can manage that in the midst of vigorous debate, we’ll be fine.

Well, that and if True Grit wins Best Picture.

We Need a Darker Christmas

Tis the season to be trite: twinkling lights, evergreen branches, sentimental images of multigenerational gatherings, and the ever-present stars.  Everywhere you look it is happy, gleeful, giggly, cinnamon-sugary.  All is bathed in warmth and light, with no room for darkness.  And few of us think to question it.  Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ Child.  Everyone knows births are happy, and if He was the most important child to be born, how much happier the celebration!  Christmas escapes the darkness that surrounds the other great Christian holy festival looming in the spring. On Good Friday we must stand at the foot of the Cross before we can revel in the joy of the empty tomb on Easter morning.  Christmas, on the other hand, is the all-happy holiday.  Sure that trip on the donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem must have been dusty and the whole “no room at the inn” part of the story seems like it was a bit inconvenient.  But it makes cute slogans for a Hallmark card and we need a little Christmas, so haul out the holly, right?

There are two dangerous errors in the way most of modern American culture—especially the modern American church—chooses to celebrate Christmas.  First, particularly destructive for the church, is that it completely negates the original intent of the ancient celebration of Christmas.  As cozy as the wintry image of Christmas is, Christ wasn’t born in the bleak midwinter.  According to historical records of Roman census, they seem to have taken place in the spring or summer, a time more conducive to the widespread travel that such an order would have demanded.  But there’s a good reason why the early church moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December 25th.

It’s easy for those of us living in the age of indoor heating, grocery stores, and electricity to forget, but December is the bleakest time of year in the western hemisphere.  With the arrival of the winter solstice, it is literally the darkest time of year.  It’s cold, too, and in the years before globalization and the local cornerstore, the hungriest.  The timing of the celebration of the Christ Mass was by design.  The early church made sure we’d remember in the year’s cruelest moment that Christ came to us.

But we’ve Thomas Kinkaided the beauty of that stark contrast to death.  Now it’s all glowing cottage windows and twinkling trees, presents under the tree and luxury cars with bows atop in the driveway.  We’ve wiped any trace of discomfort from the holiday, eradicated any hint of darkness, so that now even the light seems dim.  The sorrow Simeon said would pierce Mary’s heart has become nothing more than a Precious Moments frowny face.

It’s no wonder we’ve done this.  How else can we expect to survive a world that is unremittingly vicious?  We numb ourselves with trinkets.  We distance ourselves with promises of nice and happy.  But God doesn’t want us to have nice and happy, because He knows it will never satisfy.  He offers Good, True, and Beautiful and knows our souls, made in His image, can settle for nothing less.  Nevertheless, we hunker down with flocked trees and smiling wise men, watching our kids unwrap the toy that will be the best thing they’ve ever seen for a grand total of one week if we’re lucky, and we tell ourselves that if we just make enough gingerbread men together, maybe we can stave off the darkness a little longer.

And that’s the second reason why modern Christmas is killing us.  Linus knew it all along.  All the toys we want to buy won’t give us Christmas—because it’s not Christmas.  And the longer we pretend our tinsel and candy canes can make us happy, the more people we’ll lose along the way.

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the coal industry around the world boomed.  With “progress” the god of its day, demand for the black mineral soared, sending hundreds of thousands of lower class workers into treacherous mine shafts fraught with cave-ins, suffocating gases, and threatened explosions.  To defend themselves against disaster, miners would take a delicate creature with them into the mine – a canary – whose sensitivity to changes in heat and atmosphere turned the tiny yellow bird into a portable early warning system.  If the canary keeled over, the miners knew it was time to get out.  But that was little consolation to the canary.

Our culture, like all those that came before it, is a coalmine of a different sort.  Surrounded by materialism, apathy, and exploitation in the name of self-interest, our souls are in danger of being crushed under the debris of our own distraction.  We don’t even preach against gluttony any longer.  Churches run diet groups that rely on getting participants to focus on God’s love for them just as they are to motivate themselves to put down the brownies and pick up the carrots.  No one ever mentions that the chocolate from the brownies probably came from child slave labor plantations where children are beaten with bike chains if they don’t pick cacao beans quickly enough.  Where Christ would rush in, we’d rather that He assures us that He loves us even if we have no self-control.  We don’t want Him to tell us we don’t need our Christmas presents.  We want Him to assure us we deserve them because He loves us.  That will let us stay distracted from the painful beauty of the world around us just a little bit longer.

The trouble with this attitude is that we are surrounded with what Dr. John Reynolds calls canaries.  There are people all around us who haven’t learned to pretend as well as we have.  They are the artists and poets.  They can’t look away from what we refuse to look at, the overwhelming awfulness of this existence.  Their words are hard to hear, and they threaten our carefully constructed worlds of nice and happy.  We want to sing “I’ll be home for Christmas” with Bing Crosby and ignore the millions who will mourn when loved ones don’t come home this year.  We want to watch Disney’s latest nature adventure with anthropomorphized penguins, but don’t want to think about the fact that the polar bear cubs will starve to death if they don’t eat the cute seal pups.  We love to quote John the Baptist when he proclaims the coming of Christ, but we end the story long before his grisly, senseless death.  We wrap ourselves in the happy part of the story and try to ignore the rest.

We need to stop.  We’re losing the people who can’t pretend right along with us, and not just figuratively.  Every year, people take their own lives because they think they must be crazy to see what the rest of us pretend we can’t.  The carnage wrought upon our own souls isn’t inconsequential, either.  The more we train our souls to hide from the reality of our cursed world, the more we dull it to the radiance of the Light of Light who descended from the realm of endless day.  We needn’t dwell on the darkness, but we need to recognize that we live in the midst of darkness, for it’s only the people who walked in darkness who have seen a great light.  Only then can we distinguish the true light of Christ from the cheap thrill of a string of lightbulbs, and only then can we begin to bring the wonder of that Light to a dark world.