Film

Blade Runner 2049 review – Is it okay not to love Blade Runner?

Well, Blade Runner 2049 is certainly something. At nearly three hours long, the film finds its own pace, happy to slowly gaze across a grim futuristic vista whilst a fantastically unconventional Hans Zimmer score roars in the background. Its capacity to generate mood is beyond question. More comfortable pontificating about the human condition than in portraying action set pieces, this isn’t your average blockbuster. It’s a bold, risky piece of art that provides a truly unique cinema experience. They really don’t make them like this anymore.

So, I ask myself, why twenty-four hours later do I feel so indifferent towards it?

I’ve got to preface this review with a guilty admission. I don’t love the original Blade Runner. Sure, I get why people do – just look at it, it’s gorgeous! – but it always left me a bit cold. In many ways this is probably a product of watching something thirty plus years after it was originally released. There’s no denying that Blade Runner had a huge influence on a lot of the science fiction that came after it, both aesthetically and intellectually, but perhaps that’s the problem. When you’ve consumed so much of the inspired media, the inspiration can feel slightly underwhelming. Everything that once felt so original and exciting had been picked clean.

Yet I was fairly optimistic that Blade Runner 2049 would deliver something fresh and new…and it kind of does, in a skin deep way. This isn’t a hokey sequel shat out for a few bucks, it’s very much the work of a visionary, keen to evoke your memories of the original movie while also offering up a new experience with fresh characters.

But let’s get to the crux of my disenchantment. Blade Runner 2049 thinks it’s ever so clever, positively dripping in pretension, to the point that Jarod Leto’s pseudo-intellectual ramblings about angels entering Eden never feel out of place (gee, do you think he, a creator, has some kind of…God complex? Deep, right!)

Okay, I’m admittedly being facetious and slightly overstating the point. Blade Runner 2049 certainly does have a lot more on its mind than your average blockbuster, but it seems, to me anyway, lacking in its ability to say anything all that interesting. The key questions, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘To what extent do our memories define us?’ are great age old thought provokers, but I never felt the movie had much in the way of an answer or even a unique perspective.

For all intents and purposes, replicants are so human that any differences between the two species is negligible. Whether a character is replicant or not virtually doesn’t matter – I guess that’s kind of the whole point. The only real difference is how they came into being; one is born, the other created (the film’s whole plot hinges on this). These concepts might have been challenging to a religious generation who believed in a soul, but in an increasingly secular world ‘the soul’ has come to mean something entirely metaphorical to most people. Post-Darwin, mankind has had to re-evaluate itself. We’re no-longer the divine worker’s greatest creation, but another animal, just a biological machine. Fretting about our ‘uniqueness’ feels rather antiquated.

Similarly, the concept of memory is explored but again to not much effect. As a child I used to wonder how I could be sure I wasn’t created that day, with all my memories just implanted. Once you’ve experienced that existential worry, I don’t think there’s much more Blade Runner 2049 has left to say.

It’s not that these questions have lost their probing power, it’s more the film just tosses around all these big thoughts without either answer or thematic culmination. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was more left to offer than its beautiful visuals but there isn’t, at least not beyond further narrative questions that are only as interesting as the world that is portrayed. Because all the characters are so fundamentally unengaging and thinly written, the big questions blow around in the breeze and we, the audience, simply observe, detached from any real meaning, wondering what it’s all about.

There are two films I’ve seen this year that have done a much better job of asking big questions by anchoring them in character and theme. The first is Mother!, a fantastic horror by Aronofsky, and one of my favourite films of the year. The biblical symbolism of Mother! may be pretentious, but it’s so on the nose that it almost eventually ceases to be symbolism, dissolving to give way to Aronofsky’s true focus; the relationship between God, man and nature (there are other readings, of course, but there is surely no doubt this is the primary intent.)

On paper, exploring how God and man act indifferently towards nature is the exact kind of empty posturing I accuse Blade Runner 2049 of, an interesting question that has been thoroughly exhausted. And yet where Mother! succeeds is it’s not dispassionate at all. Far from it. As the horror grows, Aronofsky posits that humanity (you and me!) are the evil and any redemption we may have isn’t just difficult but unjustified. This isn’t some glib ‘humans are the real monsters’ though, Aronofsky means it. Far from sitting back and posturing on some abstract ideas, this is full blown rage, and it’s magnificent and unsettling all at once.

The second film that handles the relationship of creator and creation really well is Alien Covenant, from none other than the original Blade Runner director, Ridley Scott. Yes, I know, we’re all meant to say it sucked because it fucked up the Xenomorph’s origin story (I agree with that point, by the way) but Alien Covenant really isn’t about the Alien at all, at least not directly. The film constantly gravitates to and eventually orbits the character of David, an android who finds himself utterly disappointed with his creator. From his anger comes his own act of creations, arising themselves from destruction. He sees humanity as a failed species and indifferently orchestrates their removal as if they were nothing more than bacteria.

Covenant doesn’t really answer the questions it poses any more than Blade Runner 2049, but it locates them in character. Even if most of the other characters are two-dimensional at best, David really stands out as a fascinating fictional creation. The questions aren’t merely posed as hypotheticals but contextualised in David’s motivations, and you can feel the existential questioning of Scott, the film’s creator, pulling the strings. Covenant works because it is an artist grappling with their own thoughts about creation.

As Film Crit Hulk puts it (the best film critic out there, for my money):

‘I first harped on Prometheus because it seemed equally obsessed with answering an unanswerable question, failing to realize the simplest truth that knows that God, whether you believe or not, is unknowable. And in Alien: Covenant we finally get the believer’s reaction to that answer. It’s an angry screed of vengeance.’

The difference between Bladerunner 2049 on the one hand, and Mother! and Alien Covenant on the other, is the difference between an armchair philosopher asking abstract metaphysical questions, and an artist truly wrestling with their existence. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t want a filmmaker to ask me to engage with their dry questions, but instead I want to be right in the middle of the director’s existential nightmare. That, to me, makes better art.

After all, most of the best dystopian stories are those that capture the real fears of the author. By the time you’re in Room 101, I think it’s clear that Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t just a hypothetical musing on human society, but a reflection of some of Orwell’s greatest fears about the future. Much the same, The Handmaid’s Tale seems born out of genuine concerns with the inherent patriarchy and self-destructive purity systems within American Christianity and the very real threat they pose to a civilised society.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I didn’t for one moment believe that Denis Villeneuve, 2049’s director, is truly struggling with the questions he’s raising. Maybe that’s why there’s so little thematic coherence. When push comes to shove, there’s not much in the way of closure, emotionally or intellectually.

Yet Villeneuve has shown how capable he is of making a good, thoughtful sci-fi movie in the practically perfect Arrival. Perhaps thanks to fantastic (and unspoilt) source material, he not only is able to highlight an interesting question (to what extent does our language determine the way we think?), but brings it forward into the plot (spoilers!) enabling Amy Adams to see into the future using an alien language. This then has thematic and emotional pay-off by letting her character freely choose to pursue a family, fully knowing it will end in grief and heartache. That says more about what it means to be human than anything Blade Runner 2049 musters in its near three hour running time.

This is not to say I don’t admire the film, because I really do. The cinematography is staggeringly beautiful, the lingering sense of despair tangible. The fact it’s performing pretty poorly at the box office is a terrible shame, because cinema needs more risk-taking pieces of art that don’t follow the Hollywood cookie cutter approach to blockbusters.

But when it comes to the questions raised, I find the film unsatisfying. And yes, it’s probably personal preference. I’m sure many enjoy dreamy sci-fi, awash with big detached questions, the way one may observe a magnificent painting. But when wrestling with the big issues, Villeneuve is merely asking questions and, frankly, we can ask the questions ourselves. I want a filmmaker’s unique perspective, I want to feel their despair and get lost in their own existential turmoil. That, to me, is what gives a piece of art a soul. That’s when a movie is more than a movie.

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Philosophy, religion

Did Jesus ever really exist?

One of the things I have noticed is that many people who aren’t religious tend to be slightly dismissive about the idea of Jesus ever existing. It’s a trend you can see in a lot of atheist literature as well, where the conclusion to the question is usually ‘maybe, but certainly not as presented by Christians. Could be a myth.’

And often it’s hard to find a good response to the question for the layman that isn’t very loaded. Type in the question on Google and you’ll likely be met with an abundance of extreme responses.

A seemingly sophisticated article may end up revealing itself as Christian apologetics, concluding with ‘…so, are you ready to welcome the risen Jesus into your heart?’

Or, equally bad, it could be ranting from the kind of atheists who can’t just see religions as wrong, but as REALLY, REALLY stupid (because their ego can only be validated by everyone who disagrees with them being presented as utterly moronic.) Even worse is the conspiracy theorist approach, where Jesus is said to be representative of a Sun God and the twelve disciples are the symbols of the zodiac etc. etc. (Zeitgiest, you absolute piece of shit, I’m looking at you!)

So I thought I’d do a very simple layman response as a really basic introduction to scholarly thought.

Why should you listen to me?

To be honest, you probably shouldn’t. Instead you should pick up a book by Bart Ehrman, but that’s going to be a lot more effort than skimming this blog post. So, as someone who did his dissertation on the historical Jesus, I feel fairly equipped to give a simple layman perspective.

Let’s get to it.

Did Jesus exist?

Most probably.

Shall we leave it there?

You want more? Well…okay.

The overwhelming majority of biblical scholars do think Jesus was a historical person. What exactly we can affirm about his life is up for debate, but the existence of a Jew called Jesus who went on to become the main focus of a new religious movement is largely accepted.

So why exactly do most of them accept a historical Jesus? Put simply, it’s because it’s the easiest explanation of the evidence we have available to us.

When accounting for the origins of Christianity, it is MUCH easier to work from the position there was a historical Jesus than to not.

What is the evidence?

Let’s briefly look over the available evidence for the existence of Jesus:

  • Mentions in the Epistles of Paul (written before the gospels.) The more important references are the incidental ones. For example, in 1 Galatians 1:19 he refers to ‘James, the lord’s brother’ as someone he knows. Given that this is an incidental reference in a letter to a church, it’s reasonably safe to take it at face value.
  • Gospel accounts of his life. Admittedly the gospels certainly aren’t historical texts, but they are attestations to the existence of a Jesus figure written about forty or so years after Jesus’ death.
  • Non-biblical sources:
    – Josephus, a Jewish historian, references Jesus twice. In a shorter passage he mentions James, the brother of Jesus. ‘and brought into it the brother of Jesus-who-is-called-Messiah … James by name, and some others.’ There is also a longer passage. Many believe the longer passage might have been tampered with by Christian scribes but, nevertheless, it’s largely accepted at least part of it can be ascribed to Josephus.
    – Tacitus, a Roman politician, from whom we learn a little about Jesus’ execution.
    – Other sources include Pliny the Younger. You can read a good breakdown on non-biblical sources here.
  • There seems to be no historical accounts which ever call the existence of Jesus into question. Pagan and Jewish sources would be very disparaging of Jesus but none ever come close to actually questioning whether he existed.

So based on all the evidence above, and the fact we know that a religious movement had sprung up professing belief in a messianic figure they called ‘Jesus’, the simplest explanation is to accept Jesus did in fact exist.

Is there any doubt?

Although most scholars believe in Jesus, there are still a few who question his existence. They represent the ‘Jesus myth’ approach, which suggests, as you might expect, that Jesus is a mythological invention.

This approach is, in my opinion, flawed but understandable. Given that most of what we know about Jesus comes from highly mythologised accounts (namely the gospels), it’s not hard to see why people might ask if so much of what we learn about the man is mythological, why shouldn’t we assume that the man himself was mythological?

And there are some quite adamant defenders of this approach, such as the American Historian Richard Carrier.

The trouble is they still have to account for all the evidence presented above. How would they deal, for example, with Paul’s mention of James, the brother of Jesus? Well, they may say, perhaps there was a sect of ‘brothers’, of which this James was one. Or maybe we’re wrong about the authorship of the letter.

And what about the non-biblical sources like Josephus? Perhaps it was forged, or maybe he was simply referring to the beliefs of others, and not stating something he thought fact.

These answers aren’t particularly satisfying, but they represent the great problem the Jesus myth proponents face. You have to come up with so many different complex responses to the various strands of evidence available that eventually you might as well just concede that accepting a historical Jesus is SO much simpler and, therefore, a better explanation (Occam’s razor, and all that.)

It’s also sometimes banded around that perhaps we shouldn’t take biblical scholarship as seriously as other academic disciplines because it may well have a disproportionate number of Christians emotionally invested in finding a historical Jesus. I always feel uncomfortable when we start getting a bit conspiratorial in our approach, but I think this concern may have some slight legitimacy. Whilst I don’t have stats to back it up, I do wonder if atheists, on the whole, might find it harder to get relevant university positions than someone with a faith. No empirical evidence for that, by the way, just a thought.

But even so, there are still two good responses to this:

  • The case for the historical Jesus is not an argument from authority alone. Whilst I have argued that the majority of scholars believe in the historical Jesus, even if they all turned out to be biased in their approach, you’d still have to explain the evidence presented.
  • Some of the most vocal and respected critics of the Jesus myth approach are atheists (such as Bart Ehrman and the late Maurice Casey.) Equally, even a lot of Christian interpretations are hardly your typical devotional accounts of Jesus’ life. John Dominic Crossan, for example, who identifies as a Christian, doesn’t believe Jesus performed miracles, nor that he rose again or even intended to die for mankind’s sin. In fact, at one point he suggested that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs. So if Christian interpretations of Jesus’ life can end up being this ‘blasphemous’, I think it gives us reasonable hope that biblical scholarship is not one big exercise in confirmation bias (even if we do need to be aware it may be a factor.)

Conclusion

The above may have been a skin deep layman analysis of the case for Jesus’ existence, but hopefully it interested you enough to read further into these issues.

If we can confirm with some confidence that Jesus existed, you may wonder what we can confirm about his actual life. Unfortunately this is where things get tricky, but a lot of scholars feel comfortable in saying he was a Galilean Jew, baptised by John the Baptist, called disciples, had an incident at the temple and was crucified. We can also be reasonably confident that the disciples continued on with his message, most likely with the belief that, in some way, Jesus had risen again. Many of the disciples were then persecuted for these beliefs.

There are a whole bunch of weird and wonderful interpretations of Jesus’ life and message though, so I encourage you to go and read some.

Now, are you ready to accept the risen Jesus into your heart?…only joking!

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Philosophy, religion

Why Young Earth Creationists aren’t QUITE as stupid as you think

Imagine believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old and that God created us as described in the Genesis account.

Crazy as it may seem, and despite science showing us that the Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, as recently as 2014 it was a view held by nearly half of Americans.

A 2017 poll has the figure at a new low, but it’s still believed by 38% of Americans.

This got me thinking. After Trump there have been a whole bunch of think pieces desperately trying to explain why people voted for such a ludicrous candidate, and explanations have varied from economic anxiety to the idea that white people have faced discrimination as a result of political correctness (which is, of course, nonsense.)

But given that, up until recently at least, nearly half of Americans believed in Young Earth Creationism, where were all the think pieces defending them against the ‘intellectual elite’?

So, as someone who has escaped the clutches of the intellectual black hole that is creationism, I thought now was a good time to look at why exactly such a mad view is held by so many.

 

It all begins with Genesis

To those who don’t come from a Christian upbringing (and to many who do), it seems fairly obvious that the Genesis account is mythological in nature. By the time you come to the talking snake it’s a given we’re not dealing with something any of the writers ever considered history.

But, what if you believe the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God? How do you make sense of the opening chapters of Genesis?

The answer for more progressive, less-fundamentalist Christians has been to largely view Genesis as metaphorical or allegorical. Perhaps, some may say, the ‘days’ of creation are actually millions of years. Or, perhaps, this is not history at all, but instead a poetic account which captures some spiritual truths about creation, but not any scientific ones.

To the Young Earth Creationist though, these answers are unsatisfactory. Not necessarily because a literal interpretation is always preferable, but for a more sophisticated reason – to relegate the Genesis creation account to divine myth is to rob it of everything it has to say.

Let’s back up for a second. What exactly are the first few chapters of Genesis trying to convey? If it was just that God created, that’s done within the first verse –  ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ – no-more needs to be said. But that’s clearly not all the early chapters are saying.

Whilst Genesis 1-3 might be addressing many questions, the most explicit one is not ‘How did God create us?’ but ‘If God created us, why is there suffering?’ The answer provided by Genesis is it’s because of man’s disobedience. This is vital to understanding the creationist worldview.

The Genesis account paints the picture of a perfect creation free from death, where both animals and humans are entirely vegetarian (Genesis 1:29-30). It is not until Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, against God’s explicit command, that death and suffering enter the world.

Evolution is obviously hugely problematic to this reading of Genesis because it entails millions of years of death and suffering occurring long before humanity ever existed. In fact, by the time humanity came about nearly all of the species that had ever existed were extinct.

No-matter how allegorical or metaphorical you make Genesis, by accepting evolution you are disagreeing with its primary thesis, namely that God made the world good and sin is responsible for all the bad. In this way it’s weirdly the creationists, not the progressives, who have the ‘deeper understanding’ of what Genesis is saying. Prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says a similar thing, that there’s almost something to be respected in creationists recognising the fundamental tension between their worldview and the image of the world evolution presents, in contrast to the moderates who are largely blind to it.

And so there are really three options. The first is, as discussed, to say there is divine truth in Genesis but it’s allegorical/metaphorical and doesn’t contradict science. Yet as we’ve seen, it’s not entirely clear what ‘truth’ Genesis has left when robbed of its main point.

The second option (and the most rational) is to simply see the Genesis account as one creation myth among many. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can learn from it. After all, I don’t believe in the Greek myths but they are fundamentally fascinating and insightful. It simply means that there is no ‘divine truth’, just human contemplation.

However, Young Earth Creationists choose the third option. They insist the Bible is the word of God, recognise it’s incompatible with the scientific consensus, and so reject the scientific consensus. After all, scientists can be wrong but God can’t be, right? I want to argue this reasoning, more so than scientific illiteracy, is the place where creationists take a wrong turn down a road that’s very hard to backtrack on. But first, let’s look at how creationists make sense of the facts.

 

What do they do with all those fossils?

The reason most people assume creationists are, well, idiots, is because it seems obvious the facts don’t support their theory. Of course the world isn’t 10,000 years old, just look at the fossil record, explain the dating methods etc.

The cliché understanding of a creationist is someone who simply doesn’t know much about these fossils or who says something stupid like ‘the devil put them there to mislead us.’ But actually, this rather underestimates the logical misdirection creationists use (and are trapped in!) to support their views.

So, imagine you meet a creationist and you’re feeling pretty confident you can put this fool in his place:

You: If the Earth is only 6,000 years old, how do you explain all the fossils?

Creationist: Easy, there was a global flood (Geneis 6 – 9) which would provide perfect conditions to preserve the fossils.

You: OK…but how do you explain the pattern of fossils? We don’t see humans buried below trilobites.

Creationist: Isn’t it obvious? In a flood, of course the most intelligent creatures are going to last the longest. The sea creatures will be buried first, as we see in the fossil record, but intelligent creatures like apes and humans can last longer. Humans were probably clinging on to floating trees and things like that.

You: But…well, we know the Earth isn’t really young. Just look at the Grand Canyon, that took millions of years to form.

Creationist: Wrong again! You believe it took millions of years to form because you subscribe to uniformitarianism, but a sudden catastrophic flood could create such a feature in no time at all.

I could go on, but you should begin to see how the creationist in this discussion isn’t being overwhelmed by ‘facts’. If you’re not particularly scientific literate, and therefore don’t have a detailed understanding of the geological formation of the Grand Canyon, it can be hard to argue with. It’s obvious there is a flaw in the logic, but far harder to articulate precisely what it is.

The best breakdown I’ve come across is in a book I reference quite often, ‘Believing Bullshit’ by Stephen Law. He explains that what creationists engage in is ‘making the facts fit.’ A creationist simply looks at the evidence in front of him and absorbs it into his worldview. He makes the facts fit whatever he already believes. The argument that the devil put the fossils there to deceive us is an example of such reasoning in an obvious form. Scientists, however, simply speaking, let the evidence speak for itself, allowing them to form a hypothesis which they can then test.

Unfortunately the two approaches can look pretty similar, and to the non-critical mind ‘making the facts fit’ is indistinguishable from the scientific method. One of the big differences is the ability of the approach to be falsified. In the ‘making the facts fit’ approach, nothing can prove it wrong. Anything that comes along will simply be explained away. On the other hand, the Theory of Evolution is pretty easy to falsify. All it would take would be, say, a human fossil in one of the earliest geological stratas. The fact that it could easily be disproved and yet hasn’t been makes it a far stronger explanation.

So, here’s my point, scientific illiteracy probably isn’t the main problem here. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure creationists are, on average, any more scientifically illiterate than the rest of the population. Of course if we all became scientists then creationism would probably die a quick death (for example, when I learned about dessication cracks in multiple layers of rock in A Level Geology, it was pretty clear to me that the flood model couldn’t possibly account for that.) But actually, it would be best to target the logic that gets creationists to the point of trying to argue for such a position in the first place. Unfortunately, our society is often on board with such logic…

 

What leads someone to become a creationist?

The most fundamental flaw in creationist logic is assuming that the Bible is the word of God in the first place. It’s a belief held by many Christians of all different persuasions, but when you think about it, it’s a ludicrous starting place. How on Earth do you come to the conclusion that a selection of texts, most the authors unknown, is the word of God? How do you even begin to justify that position? I could write a whole blog on that alone, but I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer.

Yet our society totally permits that logic, creating an artificial barrier between faith and reason. In matters of religion and spirituality, blind faith is positively encouraged (a phenomenon I have argued is extremely stupid here.) If we don’t hold religion to a standard of proof, then of course big claims like ‘this book is the word of God’ will go unchallenged.

We could equally understand creationism by seeing it as a conspiracy theory. I’ve argued at some length how I hate conspiracy theories here, and creationism bears many of the familiar hallmarks. Not just the logical sleight of hand discussed earlier, but also in the way they understand the scientific community. After all, how can a creationist make sense of nearly every scientist accepting evolution and an old Earth? Their reply is that there must be a ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’ agenda to keep biblical explanations out of scientific journals. This is, of course, nonsense. The reason they are rejected is because either the science is poor, or it is fairly assumed that starting with the assumption a collection of texts is divinely inspired is not good practice. Unfortunately a defining trait of fundamentalists is the belief that their religion is under attack, so that line of thinking lends itself to the conspiracy approach.

Yet our society fosters an environment where this line of paranoid logic can grow. We’re increasingly rejecting experts and encouraged to have our own opinions. Somewhere along the line we replaced ‘everyone is entitled to an opinion’ to ‘everyone’s opinion is equally valid.’ They are two very different things. Scientific consensus matters, particularly when most of us haven’t got the time, let alone the capacity, to make informed conclusions for ourselves. We need to start listening to experts again and recognise most of our opinions for what they are – uninformed, ignorant nonsense.

Putting all this together – the belief in the divine word of God, the ‘it fits’ line of reasoning and the conspiratorial mindset – Young Earth Creationism becomes an intellectual prison from which it’s incredibly difficult to escape. It’s a much more sophisticated and problematic trap than the ‘God done it’ simpletons we often imagine.

 

It’s OUR fault

So, in a way, I have some sympathy for Young Earth Creationists. When you look at their beliefs, they differ in degree but not in type to a whole bunch of nonsense a lot of our society believes. And so, creationism is mocked by the same culture that cultivates its existence. I wonder how many astrologers, spiritualists and wholistic healers have laughed at creationist beliefs? How many conspiracy theorists and religious inerrantists have sniggered at their stupidity?

I’m not making the case for creationists here, far from it. I simply want to highlight that their beliefs are probably not as stupidly founded as you might believe, and rely on logic that you are, statistically speaking, likely to be using to support some of your own views.

Hopefully by reflecting on how these logical fallacies are employed to support a position most consider untenable, it will both encourage us to have a degree of sympathy for the creationists and prompt us to challenge the way we use these fallacies ourselves in the future.

 

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Film, religion, TV

Shocking similarities between geek culture and religious fundamentalism

What do Superman and God have in common?

Well, I’m sure many have written a dissertation on such a question, but one obvious answer is they both have obsessive fans – geeks and fundamentalists.

As someone who grew up in a pretty fundamentalist Christian background and then went on to become a massive geek, I’ve noticed some pretty startling similarities between the two groups.

Here are a just a few…

 

Bizarre obsession with continuity

Christian fundamentalists often speak of ‘The Bible’ as if it’s one homogeneous text – something can be ‘biblical’ or ‘un-biblical’ depending on ‘what The Bible says.’

Of course, one is likely to think such a thing when you believe all scripture was inspired by God himself, but as we learn more about the context of the many texts of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we understand an obvious truth – each one was written in a specific time and place, with specific intentions.

It’s believed a lot of the Old Testament was written during the Jewish Exile to Babylon, and so the narrative focus on the Israelites being God’s chosen people is understood to be a wonderful story providing a strong image for the Jewish people struggling with a national identity.

Equally, each of the gospels were written at different times for different audiences which explains the varying portrayals of Jesus in each. It is really quite startling to contrast the differences between the human Jesus of Mark who dies on the cross asking ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’, to the God-man striding across the Earth in the Gospel of John.

Indeed, a better way to understand the Bible is not as one book written by one author with one intention, but instead put together (over a much greater period) a bit like Doctor Who. The classic sci-fi TV show began in 1963 in black and white, with a grumpy old Doctor who tried to cave the head of a caveman in during the second episode. But it changed radically across the course of its history, The Doctor becoming a recorder-playing clown, then a suave aikido-practicing gentleman who was trapped on Earth. And all this was before he became the iconic Tom Baker!

Importantly, the mythology kept on evolving. Initially The Doctor was just a wandering alien, perhaps the last of his kind, but then it was revealed he had a species. His first regeneration was explicitly linked to the powers of the TARDIS, but the second regeneration was down to the Time Lords. The Daleks were initially creepy lone survivors on a near-dead planet, before they became all powerful conquerors.

Trying to suggest there’s one consistent mythology to Doctor Who is a fool’s errand – it was written by different writers, for a changing audience over more than 50 years. But this doesn’t stop fans trying, pointing out ‘X contradicts an episode from over 30 years ago.’ In much the same way, it would do the fundamentalist good to acknowledge that contradictions within their Holy Scripture (which can be found not just across books, but also a mere few passages apart, such as how many animals God instructed to be taken on the ark) shouldn’t be explained away, but accepted as the inevitable outcome of an ever-evolving mythology across a library of fascinating texts.

 

Missing the spirit of the text

It is quite amazing how many racist and/or sexist Twitter users have the face of a superhero as their bio pic.  Aren’t superheroes about human decency? It’s extraordinary that any Star Trek fan could complain about a black lead. Isn’t the whole point of Star Trek an absolute egalitarian society? And recently, isn’t it crazy how Doctor Who fans have complained that from Christmas the next Doctor will be played by a woman? Doctor Who, as well as being about compassion and doing the right thing, so often preaches the necessity of change and the dangers of not letting go of the past.

It often seems fans completely miss the point of the characters and shows they idolise.

In much the same way, it is absolutely bizarre than any Christian could support Trump, who aims to make it harder for the poorest in the United States to have access to basic rights like healthcare and education. Wasn’t Jesus’ whole point that we should be reaching out to the poor and outcast in our society, and that the Kingdom of God will be the inversion of today’s reality? Yet Trump had a huge amount of support from Evangelical Christians.

It appears both fundamentalists and geeks could do well to look at the spirit of the texts, shows and characters they dedicate so much time to.

 

Problematic views on women

It’s sad but true that geek culture has some real issues with women. Of course this was shown clearly with the man-babies crying about the casting of a female Doctor (which I have talked about at some length here), but it’s equally manifested in the way fans reacted to the last two Star Wars movies having a female lead.

I remember reading lots of commentators responding to the Rogue One trailer saying ‘ANOTHER female lead.’ I know right, two out of eight movies – CRAZY!

Gaming culture is also particularly bad, with ‘bros’ talking about ‘girl gamers’ not being ‘real gamers’.

Again, this parallels fundamentalists across all the Abrahamic religions, who are often uncomfortable with female leadership. It is absolutely ridiculous that the Church of England is still arguing over female bishops. Why on Earth would a God (who, if he/she exists at all, would almost certainly be genderless) care about what genitals you have? That seems a far more human concern.

The lesson from this one is simple, geeks and fundamentalists both need to grow the fuck up and stop being so sexist.

 

The Golden Age

One of the defining traits of fundamentalism is ‘The Golden Age’ of the religion. This tends to extend both backwards and forwards in time. Once there was a golden age where the religion was practiced perfectly and, soon, there will be a future where the religion is once again practiced perfectly. Only now, at this specific moment, are the hard times.

This thinking is rife across all kinds of geek fandom. Star Wars might seem a slightly unfair example because the originals really were ground-breaking and hugely influential cinema, but the response to the prequels (and, in some circles, the newer movies) was always a bit blinkered, as if the originals were flawless with Shakespearean dialogue and unrivaled acting (they weren’t!)

Clearer still is Doctor Who fans who constantly hate on current showrunner Steven Moffat. They’ll complain endlessly that the Russell T. Davies era was the golden age of the show and it’s never been as good since, often forgetting the times when the Davies era wasn’t all that great (I mean no-one really liked that Daleks in Manhattan two-parter did they?) And, in perfect parallel to the fundamentalists, they project all their hopes on the upcoming showrunner, Chris Chibnall, for a new golden age of Doctor Who. It is inevitable that, within the first two or three weeks of the next series, they’ll be pining for the golden days of Moffat.

 

Silly differences

It’s amazing how religious followers can have so many beliefs in common but still see each other as ‘opposed’. You see it in Catholics and Protestants most obviously, but I’ve been in Evangelical churches who are quick to question whether some other set of Christians are ‘real Christians’ and ask if they are ‘really saved’.

This again is reflected in geek culture.

‘If you like the Star Wars prequels, you’re not a REAL Star Wars fan.’

‘They only liked Doctor Who because they fancied David Tennant.’

Guys, can’t we see what unites us rather than pick up on the smallest of differences?

 

Both geeks and fundamentalists spend too much time thinking about imaginary characters

As both a geek and someone slightly theistic leaning, this one is just me being facetious.

 

Most are nice people

For all the negative similarities, I think it’s worth pointing out the most obvious similarity – both are given a bad reputation by the vocal minority of dumb followers/fans.

Most religious people, even fundamentalists, want to practice their religion in peace without imposing it on the lives of others.

Similarly, most geeks watch these shows and films because they enjoy them, and don’t log-in to internet forums to complain that it’s the ‘worst one ever’ or to vent their anger at the latest bit of casting.

Both groups could benefit from some of their most vocal members just….shutting up…

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TV

5 reasons why a female Doctor is exactly what Doctor Who needs right now

By the end of Christmas Day, The Doctor will officially be a woman (none other than the fabulous Jodie Whittaker.) I was ecstatic when I heard the news, another genius bit of casting for the show, but not everyone agreed. Unsurprisingly the casting of the first female Doctor proved to be somewhat controversial, with a few fans saying they’ll never watch the show again (they almost certainly will, but that’s beside the point!)

I personally don’t really understand it. How can you watch a show about a two thousand year old, shape shifting, time travelling alien with two hearts but find switching the gender of the character the thing that kills your suspension of disbelief?

Quite frankly, I think the casting of Jodie Whittaker isn’t just acceptable, it’s exactly what the show needs right now. Here are five reasons why:

 

1. Doctor Who needs change

I love Doctor Who, more than I should really (in fact I even argued that it’s as good as any religion, and I was only half-joking), but even I would say the show has felt a little…’stale’ the last few years. Don’t get wrong, Capaldi has been great and there have been some really amazing episodes with incredible thematic depth way beyond what should be expected of a Saturday teatime TV show, but the ratings have been in decline. It’s not doing bad by any means, but it’s some way away from the highs of the Russell T Davies era.  And again, I don’t think that’s because of the quality of writing, so much as the ‘new’ incarnation of Doctor Who is now twelve years old, and has had the same creative team behind it for the last seven years. No matter how good the writing has been, it feels like the show has had the pedal fully to the floor but is still only going at 50mph for the last few years.

Doctor Who’s biggest strength is it’s basically an anthology show. Unlike Game of Thrones, Doctor Who is largely designed so anyone can watch an episode at any time and still get something from it. But also unlike Game of Thrones, it can’t rely on the momentum of an on-going story to bring people back each week. So, if people start to think of Doctor Who as ‘same old, same old’ (a term that featured in the trailer for Series 9 for some reason known only to the BBC marketing department), they’re not going to tune in.

The new creative team next year, headed by Chris Chibnall, will almost certainly give the show an organic ‘freshness’ that it hasn’t been able to artificially generate, try as it might have with Series 10. Again, I don’t think the show will necessarily be better, but it will feel new once more.

But what better way to tell the audience that this is not business as usual than by casting a female Doctor? With the news making the front pages today, the show feels more in the public consciousness now than it has since the 50th Special in 2013.

 

2. It only makes sense

Steven Moffat might not have cast a female Doctor, but he’s certainly done his fair share in making the mythology of the show ready for a woman lead.

One of his first lines for the show as head writer was having the newly regenerated Matt Smith question whether he was ‘a girl’. He then added the line about The Corsair (another Timelord) being a female in one of his regenerations to a Gaiman script, and in Series 9 he showed a balding, middle-aged male Timelord regenerate into a black woman…gee, do you think he was trying to tell us something?

Of course his ultimate move was casting a female Master. If everything else was just lip service to the idea of a female Doctor, casting Michelle Gomez as Missy was a test-run…and what a success it was! Gomez owned the role and being a woman didn’t detract in the slightest. It was almost audacious to have her and John Simm (the previous incarnation of The Master) appear in the same episode for the recent finale but there was no need to fear, they totally felt like the same person (at least in the same way all The Doctors have when they’ve met.)

With hindsight the speech The Doctor gave to Bill in the penultimate episode about Timelords rising above humanity’s petty obsessions with gender works as a beautiful build up to the reveal we had yesterday.

In fact, Moffat didn’t just make the idea of a female Doctor compatible with the show’s mythology, he essentially made it a plot hole to not mix things up. If The Doctor can take any form, any colour, any gender, then why does he keep appearing as a white man?

Moffat claims he didn’t know who the Thirteenth Doctor was, but The Doctor’s reply to The Master questioning if the future ‘is all girl’ with ‘I do hope so’ certainly suggests Moffat had a sense of the show’s future….

 

3. Representation is important

Finally it looks like mainstream entertainment is beginning to realise they don’t need white male leads to be successful. Just look at the most recent two Star Wars films – both had a female lead and Rogue One, in particular, had a really diverse supporting cast as well. The recently released Wonder Woman has also shown just how much of an appetite there is for female-lead superhero movies.

Things certainly aren’t moving fast enough (I’m looking at you MCU – God knows how many films and they’ve still all been lead by white guys!), but it does feel like the cultural zeitgeist is changing.

I love Doctor Who and everything it represents (I’ve been proud of the show’s portrayal of Bill’s sexuality this series), and casting a woman Doctor feels like tapping into the mood of the time. That’s not ‘political correctness’ by the way, just the simple acknowledgement that ‘white male lead’ doesn’t have to be the default.

If I had one concern about casting a female Doctor, it’s that I love the role-model Doctor Who offers to young boys – he’s a hero who isn’t remotely defined by his physical strength, but by his intellect and his heart(s). But hey, we’ve had twelve male Doctors, let’s share our hero. And besides, perhaps the message that gender doesn’t really matter at all and is largely irrelevant is better anyway!

 

4. Think of all the interesting questions it raises

Will we have our first proper male companion? (I love Rory and Jack, but they were never the main billing, let’s be honest.) That would mix things up! Or will we have our first all-female TARDIS team? That would be exciting too.

And how will they handle The Doctor’s sexuality (so much as he/she has a sexuality)? Although The Doctor is often shown as being at arm’s length from sexual desire, there’s no doubt that his relationships with Rose, Madame Du Pompadour and River Song all had a romantic element to them. Will a female Doctor feel the same? Will she be a lesbian? Is the Doctor bisexual? Does his/her sexuality change when they regenerate? Do these labels even matter anymore?

The casting has opened up the floodgates to a whole load of interesting questions for the show to explore.

 

5. We get Jodie Whittaker!

Frustratingly, all this talk of whether there should be a female Doctor has almost overshadowed the fact that Jodie Whittaker is a damn good actor. In Broadchurch she gave an anchored performance whilst having to portray such extremes of emotion – I always thought she was overlooked in many ways, with all the praise going to the equally brilliant David Tennant and Olivia Coleman.

But sometimes a casting just feels ‘right’, and this certainly does to me. As a fan, I can’t think of a male actor I’d rather have play the role, and that’s really all that matters in the end – the best actor got the part.

And hopefully, in a few decades time, when some geeks of the future look back at previous Doctors, the fact Jodie Whittaker was the ‘first female Doctor’ will be a mere footnote, a piece of interesting trivia, and ultimately she’ll be judged on her performance.

 

The last episode of Doctor Who ended with the Twelfth and the First Doctor both certain they don’t want change. This is something I’m sure a lot of fans will be able to empathise with at the moment, even more so than usual. But, I’ve got a feeling The Doctors are going to work through their issues…and the future of Doctor Who is going to be just fine. I can’t wait!

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Philosophy, Politics

A few brief thoughts on the recent terrorist atrocities

It’s been an awful few months for our country. Men, women and children have lost their lives. The number of victims might be counted, but the pain of the families who lost someone will never be quantifiable.

I was in two minds whether to write anything on this at all – in the face of such tragedy, words can seem so glib and, really, what is there left to say? What can be said at all? But I’ve decided, for my own catharsis and for the very few readers who find their way to this tiny pocket of the internet, I’m going to share some brief thoughts.

We hear a lot that ‘the terrorists won’t win’. And, if you believe that these terrorists have any sort of long-term political goals, that’s probably right. Western Democracy is never going to curtail to the whims of an oppressive death cult.

Some may say, however, that the terrorists’ goals aren’t even that sophisticated – their intentions are merely to cause harm, destroy lives and stir up fear. And in that way, I guess, they kind of can win…but only because their goals are so pathetic.

The truth is, if you are determined to go through with it, devastating lives is easy. Most of us have access to a car or a kitchen knife. If we so choose, any one of us could go out there and cause unthinkable pain. Such a cowardly act only works, however, by exploiting the trust of our civilisation. We are a free country, we have entered into a social contract to trust each other – our streets aren’t designed to stop us causing harm because basic human respect for life is assumed. That’s how a free society works. Only a coward would abuse that trust and take innocent lives. Destruction is easy, pathetic and weak.

What is difficult, and what these terrorists have absolutely no capacity to do, is to build…and just look at what we’ve built. We have a welfare state to protect the poor and vulnerable in our society. We have a National Health Service to look after the sick, regardless of wealth. We are a country made up of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions. What’s more, we don’t merely tolerate these differences, we celebrate them as one of the things that make us great. And it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s hard to show love. Sometimes we disagree about how best to do it.

But, as a country, we have public servants who go beyond the call of duty to protect and heal us. We’ve produced policeman, paramedics and civilians who, in the face of unspeakable danger, risk (and, in some cases, lose) their own lives trying to save others. Not, it must be said, for any gain or reward, but simply because they couldn’t bear to stand by and watch another human suffer. It is through the actions of these people that we catch a glimpse of the divine.

On Sunday night, Manchester held a concert to celebrate unity and love, in memory of those who had lost their lives. This concert was set-up by a 23 year old pop star, herself deeply affected by these events, who did what little she could to help a city and a nation heal. This concert raised over two million pounds, as ordinary people volunteered their money to help others in need. And what was so cathartic about the concert, beyond just the outpouring of love, was to see people having fun, caught up in the music. There’s a reason these terrorists have no regard for art and music – it’s because they’re acts of creation, and all a terrorist can do is destroy. Creativity itself becomes glorious defiance. Whereas terrorism is an act of deep jealously and emptiness, and in that small way I almost pity them.

It’s important to be critical of ourselves. To create a just society is so much harder than causing destruction. It’s vital to recognise our flaws, our hypocrisies and our deep, dark moral failings. But it’s equally important to, once in a while, take a look at just how far we’ve come. Just look at what we’ve built. We’re protectors of each other. We are creators. We are artists. We are free. That’s how we win.

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Philosophy, Politics

“Say ‘Strong and Stable’ again. I dare you, I double dare you motherf**ker”

One of the things that has struck me most about politics of late is the continued reliance on repeated phrases (perhaps a rather ironic statement for a blog using Pulp Fiction as the inspiration for its title).

Project fear

Strong and stable

He’s unelectable

For the many, not the few

Britain must live within its means

The system is rigged for the rich

Brexit means Brexit

Chances are everything I’ve quoted above will be familiar to you. Some may find them irritating but I think they’re significantly more problematic than mere irritation. Not only do they remove all nuance from a discussion but, at worst, I think they highlight a contempt for the electorate and, even more shockingly, they actually work (in all the wrong ways)!

The destruction of nuance

One of the most interesting parts of the George Orwell classic ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ is the refining of the existing language by The Party into a new language – ‘newspeak’. Doing this was to, among other things, make nuance and opposition to The Party’s ideology linguistically impossible. Strange as it may seem, I do think there are lessons to be learned from this, applicable today.

Of course it would be a paranoid overstatement to suggest that our politicians are intentionally trying to enforce a new, ideologically motivated language on us but our reliance on repeated shorthand really can be damaging to intelligent discussion. These phrases may well begin as a catchy hook or an expedient way of getting the point across, but when overused they descend into vapid responses.

For example, we all remember ‘Project Fear’ as a much trotted out rebuttal to pretty much any claim that leaving the EU could be damaging. It essentially was meant to imply that the claim was scaremongering and intended to frighten us into voting remain. Even when expressed in full, it hardly seems the most direct response to any particular argument made against leaving the EU, but by dumbing down the response to a mere two words, ‘Project Fear’, it became an unwarranted defeater – shutting down the real debate straight away.

Equally overused and repeated phrases can cause us to think of complicated ideas simplistically. One that jumps out at me is the often repeated phrase ‘we need to balance the books’ or ‘Britain must live within its means.’ It’s obvious what this phrase is trying to convey – at a time of economic hardship we can’t be spending money frivolously. It’s also the logic used to support austerity and the cutting of public funding.

I’m no economist, I frankly have no idea how one goes about getting a country out of debt, but it seems clear to me that talking about the country’s deficit as if it’s a household budget is grotesque oversimplification. In a great article on austerity from 2015, Paul Krugman makes this point:

‘When John Boehner, the Republican leader, opposed US stimulus plans on the grounds that “American families are tightening their belt, but they don’t see government tightening its belt,” economists cringed at the stupidity. But within a few months the very same line was showing up in Barack Obama’s speeches, because his speechwriters found that it resonated with audiences.’

Whilst speaking of national debt as if it’s a household budget might be relatable and understandable, it actually conveys very little of the complexity of global economics and risks doing more harm than good. I don’t pretend to know whether austerity actually works, but it feels wrong to justify it by using a false analogy for the sake of simplicity.

We have to remember language really does matter, in fact one could argue that a lot of philosophy and critical thinking is really just trying to understand and agree on definitions. When you remove pretty much everything from a sentence so it’s just a trite soundbite, it becomes almost impossible to really dissect the point that’s being made – it’s simply a sentiment expressed in an inappropriately shortened away.

And it’s in this way I think there’s a genuine comparison with ‘Newspeak’ which was created to convey large sentiments in completely inflexible language – the speaker loses the capacity to speak with nuance and therefore the ability to reflect critically. In our case, politicians willfully choose to use such wording and voluntarily become linguistically bankrupt.

Utter contempt

This brings us to our next question; why do politicians and the media use such language? Well, it’s because they believe it’ll work.

Frankly, Theresa May’s constant reliance on repeating the words ‘strong and stable’ feels to me like contempt for the electorate – she really must think we’re stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I know political parties need a hook and have an image they want to portray, but they really have gone beyond that this election, repeating the phrase ad nauseam with the subtlety of a Michael Bay movie.

And let’s be honest, that mantra really isn’t an accurate reflection of May’s leadership so far. At best it’s a projection of what the Conservatives want to achieve, at worst it’s an overcompensation because far from being ‘strong and stable’, the complete opposite is true. Only today she made her ninth u-turn, this time on a manifesto policy that is only four days old, prompting Michael Crick to ask if Mrs May was in fact ‘weak and wobbly’. Mix that with the fact that her recent dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly left him ’10 times more sceptical’ about Brexit, and it’s quite clear that strong and stable is good PR, but far from reality.

But it actually works!

Unfortunately politicians and the media rely on these nonsense shorthands because they do actually seem to work, at least for some of the electorate. Anecdotal as it may be, I’ve seen (and spoken with) many people who say they’ll be voting Theresa May, and who can’t help but use either the words ‘strong’ or ‘stable’ when explaining why. These brain-worm of words get into our heads and, when heard enough times, are hard to shake  – I’m sure a psychologist could write an interesting piece as to why.

Another example of repeated phraseology that works was the constant reporting of the media that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Now look, I don’t like conspiracy theories and I think reports of ‘media bias’ can be a little simplistic – often the media is simply giving the readership/viewers what they want. Neither am I a full blooded Corbynite – I’m generally favourable to him but I’ve yet to be convinced he’s the saviour of the country some of the left think he is.

But it seems undeniable to me that even if it were the case that Corbyn was unelectable from the moment he took leadership of the Labour party (a claim it would be hard to empirically show), the constant repetition of ‘Corbyn is unelectable’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Best not vote Corbyn because he’s unelectable…I think we can all see the flaw in that logic!

What to do

No party is immune to using annoying soundbites or repeated phraseology in a way that hinders real political and intellectual discourse.

We as voters should always, however, be on the lookout for such things.

My own approach – the minute I hear a phrase repeated profusely, a soundbite that won’t go away or an idea that everyone simply seems to accept, I refuse it all together on those terms. Instead, build up what is trying to be conveyed using proper language, then critically examine that claim against the available evidence.

Let’s not let slogans, soundbites and phraseology dumb down the level of debate in this country. We deserve better.

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