Letter from a Birmingham Jail

A couple of years ago, I decided to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on the MLK Day, as I have the day off from work. The federal holiday was intended to be a day or service, but perhaps we can at least start with learning about the man and his beliefs through his most famous letter. I can’t imagine that anyone could read this letter and not come away changed. It is truly one of the finest writings I’ve ever read.

It is a rather long letter (as he even admits to near in its closing). So, if you prefer to spare the hour with a reading, then this video has you covered. The first four minutes are a reading of the letter by a group of clergymen that prompted King’s response. This embedded video starts after that.

I felt compelled to share this as during our parent’s Sunday school class yesterday, one person raised the question “Why does this person even have a holiday? He wasn’t the only civil rights leader.” I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was raising the question in good faith (the talk immediately changed to a slightly different subject, as these group conversations often do). He stated that his children and others had asked it, and I believe he was saying this so he could justify that the MLK Day holiday was because Martin Luther King Jr was a great American and civil rights leader.

That is true, and even in his brief lifetime (I’m now two years older than he was when he was killed), he became a symbol for a movement much greater than himself1. He was a brilliant and courageous leader who believed in the best of the Christian church and of America. This letter is strong evidence of these things. So the holiday isn’t just a memorial to his service, but I believe to all of what he represented. Its to remind us of the ability of people in this nation to be able to move mountains. Its to remind us that complacency and the desire to maintain order is not an American virtue, but the antithesis of what America was founded on. America can always be a better place for all and no one else is going to come do that hard work for us. Some of us will have to give up some privilege. Some of us will lose time and money to the work. Some people have given so much more, as King risked and ultimate lost his life in doing his work.

So that’s why we have a holiday. Not because of what Kind did, or at least not entirely because of it. Also, to remind us of what we have left to do. We have to do it not because we owe it to King’s memory, but because we owe it to every last American. It’s precisely what it means to be American.

  1. I’m basing a great deal of this statement on Rep. John Lewis’ March graphic novels, which are an amazing read, too. []

2006: Year of the Post-Apocolypse

Apparently, the Apocolypse came sometime before 2006 [Ed: Yes, of course. It was the day John Kerry lost to George Bush. Zing.]. I know this because in the first few months of 2007, I watched three of the most amazing post-apocalypse films I’ve ever seen and they were all from the past year1.

V for Vendetta

The Wachowski brother’s V for Vendetta

The Wachowski brothers haven’t really done much since the first Matrix film, and I’m including the latter 2/3rds of the trilogy in ‘not much’ (and, yes, they were above average sci-fi films but not of the same caliber as the first). However, last year’s V For Vendetta was a stunning political thriller. Science fiction in name only, just as most all great sci-fi is, this film warns about how the difference between a state gripped with fear for its security and a fascist state is really only one of time. The film’s boldness goes well beyond just harsh critiques of modern-day political rhetoric (though the storyline was written in the 80’s). The treatment of the two lead characters: a hero who’s face we are never shown and a lovely heroine who has her head shaved are not common Hollywood treatments (think: shirtless muscle-men and flawless beauties, despite rather harsh circumstances that wouldn’t warrant either).

Science fiction is the home of the dystopia storyline and like the best of them2, this world is terrifying mainly because of it’s similarities to our own rather than its differences. Also, V is a beautiful film and doesn’t beat the audience over the head with either special effects or political statement. However, both are a strong presence in the film. It left me with the both feelings of despair and hope. Despair that people in my country just might be afraid enough to let this sort of thing happen but hope that most of us are smart enough to see through such theater. Also, hope because the story takes place in Britain and Americans aren’t so polite about being bullied from the get-go.


Mike Judge’s Idiocracy

Mike Judge’s love-it-or-hate-it story doesn’t have atomic bomb wielding terrorists destroying the world we know. Rather, people destroy it by taking a path toward stupidity. We de-evolve into a race of idiots. It’s an apocalypse 500 years in the making.

I personally loved this film, despite the fact that I had an overwhelming sense of depression after watching it. While I laughed at much of the straight-faced humor presented, it was more like the laugh of a person caught in a hopeless situation, giving up on any hope of changing the future and reduced to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Modern tragic comedy, although I thought that was supposed to have a happy ending (the film does, unless you live in modern times…).

The design of the film wasn’t one of beauty. However, that was essentially the point. Beauty is gone and is replaced not with the gray despair of most dystopias. No, this is much more like the dystopia of Brave New World, where only a few people realize that they have much to unhappy about. Here, in Idiocracy, we have something far worse: advertising. The materialistic tendencies of much of today’s popular culture have collided with mass advertising such that if you can see it, it’s fair game for branding. Further degradation of society comes in virtually ever aspect of life: entertainment, health care, politics, education, the legal system, food, and even speech. We’ve all been in an atmosphere things like initiative, intelligence, and caring were shunned. It was called High School. Imagine a world in which everyone behaves just like the back row of your high school algebra class.

Terrifying. Also, genius political and social satire.

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men

Here’s a film that would have made perfect sense and been almost as enjoyable without any sound, in my opinion. While the story was gripping (based loosely on the novel written by P.D. James), it is Cuaron’s visual style that tells so much story. Long, incredibly long, impossibly long shots span minutes of the story creating a sense of drama that is unreal. The sense of being in the story is almost overwhelming at times3. I can’t even quite describe it as documentary style. It’s more like being right in the scenes and not being able to close your eyes to blink for even a moment. It is intense and amazing to watch.

The film is steeped with allegory, particularly Christian stories and themes. The film opened on Christmas Day last year and can easily be described as a modern day tale of Joseph and Mary. However, most people don’t celebrate Christmas with dystopian tales of the possible end of humanity; resulting in the film bombing at the box office. However, the film has gained a great deal of critical acclaim and the DVD release might as well have been its debut, so don’t feel bad if you missed it. It’s also just as well, as you might want to watch it a couple of times just to catch all those amazing long-shot scenes and much of the imagery, both present and implied.

Science fiction is the home of the dystopian story. Through a fabled look at the future, we can make political and social commentary on the present and the past. The disarming nature of science fiction allows us to do so in a way that is non-threatening but also allows us to explore the “what if” scenario without abandon. This is why I love science fiction so much and why the dystopian storyline is my favorite in the that genre. When done right, the ‘magic black box device’ or ‘singular event that changed man’ becomes just a prop to allow the writers, directors, and actors to explore the human condition in a way we can’t do in the here and now. It may seem ironic that the genre that is the home of distant worlds in other galaxies and alien life forms is the one that allows us to most closely examine our home and what it means to be human; that looking off into the future gives us the perfect mirror for today. However, in the great stories in science fiction, that is exactly the point.

Laser blasters, light sabers, slimy bug eyed monsters, and giant robots are just really cool icing on the cake.

  1. We don’t get out to the cinema much these days, so we just wait until everything comes out on DVD and rent it via Netflix. I could write endlessly on why this is better than going to the movies, but that will have to be another post. []
  2. 1984 is probably the most famous of this genre and incidentally, the hero of that tale was portrayed by John Hurt in a film adaptation. Hurt is re-cast as the totalitarian in V, moving from little man to giant head via video screen. []
  3. Unless you are Angela, who has slept through some pretty great films and this was no different. []

Following Scientists

Sometimes I feel genuinely guilty that the part of a sermon that sticks with me the most is one that I simply find incompatible with what I feel to be right (and often, not even the gist of the sermon, as you’ll see here). Now, I am probably towards the opposite end of the Presbyterian (PCUSA) spectrum from Dr. Goodloe and that’s fine; he being quite a bit more conservative where as I am fairly liberal. I don’t expect everyone in our large denomination, nor even our congregation, to agree with me let alone it’s leaders. To the contrary, the diverseness of both Presbyterians and GCPC are one of things I find most appealing about them.

As Jim teaches through various books of the Bible (New Testament, in particular), yesterday brought us to John again. The particular sermon centered around the versus where-in some of John’s followers worry about how many are going to follow Jesus instead (and why John is happy about that). However, one thing about Jim’s sermon yesterday, titled "All Are Going to Him!" [.pdf] stood out to me and I’ve not been able to get it out of my head since (emphasis & footnote mine):

[H]ow shall we respond to Jesus Christ? We shall be the disciples of Jesus Christ or we shall follow another. There is no other choice. Will it be Jesus, or will it be Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Hitler, Sagan1, or Dawkins? Whom shall we follow? We shall receive the baptism of Jesus Christ or we shall refuse it. There is no half-way. We shall go to Jesus Christ or we shall run away and go to another. No one remains unaffiliated.

Now, I don’t think that the mentioning of a number of scientists (in addition to an economist and brutal dictator) along side a handful of prophets was meant to bother me or anyone, but it unfortunately did. It bothered me for a couple of different, although possibly related reasons.

First, it is unfair to characterize science, philosophy and politics as something to be followed as a disciple, particularly in this context. To be sure, many of the thinkers listed have been seen as controversial to Christians and, to varying degrees, counter to its understood teachings (at least to some at the time). Freud, Nietzsche, and for this point, Marx while not studying nature were attempting to study and understand humanity. The held revolutionary positions, many of which are still debated today. However, they were never worshiped (to my knowledge) and no one ever relied on them for redemption. Further, they were thinkers with many ideas and accepting one of those notions does not require one to accept them all. One could agree that Freud was entirely correct in approach to psychotherapy and still reject his philosophy or vice versa.

As for Hitler, surely following his beliefs ran counter to the teachings of Christ and further the Nazi world certainly bordered on being a cult if any political ideology ever did2. However, Hitler was not the head of any religion but of a political party. Having many followers, no matter how despicable and evil it and it’s ethos was, didn’t make it a religion anymore than following Churchill, Kennedy, or Reagen were religions. A cult of personality is simply not a religion, certainly not when we are genuinely discussing theology.

Some scientists do certainly have their own cult of personality and certainly Darwin, Sagan and Dawkins made this list for that. But they are not a religion to be followed, either, any more than a human philosophy or a political ideology is and perhaps even less so. Science does not hope to govern or to dictate the acts of men. In general, it only seeks to uncover that which humanity does not govern. Just because I agree that F = m·a does not make me a disciple of Newton, but rather a person who prescribes to a theory of physical mechanics. Further, just because some other scientist has a theory that seems contrary to one’s faith does not make anyone who agrees with that controversial theory a disciple of that individual.

That being said, I come to my second issue. I suppose Dawkins more likely in this list for his pro-atheist, anti-organized religion rhetoric as much as his evolutionary biology teachings. To that end, this is why I find Dr. Goodloe’s statement just as opposable as I do Dawkins’. Science and religion are not in some sort of eternal conflict struggling for our minds and will. We do not decide between them. Science is, at it’s core the study of the natural world. If one believes in Christ and a God, then one believes that God made that world. The study of God’s creation is, in essence, analogous to the study of God’s word, but not in opposition to it. Of course, scientists may be wrong. So might theologians, correct? However, unlike theologians, empirical evidence will support or deny the scientist. Further evidence for or against any theologian, possibly by definition, cannot be attained in this world.

Science does not deny Christ and I find it odd that anyone would argue that being a disciple of Christ requires one to disavow science (or any single scientist). I don’t know that this was Jim’s intent, but certainly his unfortunate choice of people struck a chord with me (a dissonant one, anyway). I do see the theological value in arguing that one must choose one, and only one, savior. However, it is important to not confuse things that cannot and are not saviors with those that to some would be. To a Christian, by definition, there is no alternative but Christ. For others who do not know, still seek, or believe in another, they too can still understand the theological basis of the ultimatum. For the atheist, is a trivial choice as they believe in no savior. However, I cannot help but find it dishonest of us to characterize those who would study God’s natural wonders as being against Christ.

I don’t mean to be argumentative with Dr. Goodloe as first of all, this was not the main point of his sermon and secondly, I think the point he was getting at is valid from a theological standpoint. I just simply take issue with the chosen examples as it furthers what is, to me anyway, a false choice. I do not wish to make some sort of example of my minister and personally, I find Dr. Dawkins’ statements to be much more egregious in this area and the corollary of this post holds true for the so-called New Atheists as well. It’s just that hearing this from someone closer yesterday made me motivated enough to write on it.

  1. When I heard this, I actually thought Jim said "Satan" which really shocked me. Mainly, because Satan isn’t really something Presbyterians ministers preach a great deal on and further it really seemed odd on this list. Carl Sagan, no matter how I feel that he doesn’t deserve to be on this list, either, makes more sense given the context of Jim’s sermon. []
  2. This holds true for any current fascism as well. However, as Hitler was the example I’ll stick to the Nazi party of the 30’s and 40’s. []