Friday, December 25, 2009

The True Meaning of Christmas

You know, with all the commercialism of the holidays, sometimes I fear that the true meaning of Christmas gets forgotten. So it's good to take time out from our busy holiday season, and remember why we celebrate on Christmas day.

So gather around children, and I'll tell you the story of the very first Christmas.
You see kids, even after Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, people still wanted to celebrate the pagan holidays around the Winter Solstice. And can you blame them? It was just too much fun. The gift-giving, the tree decorating, the festivals of lights, and the coming together of families for the holiday season.

Since the Church wasn't successful at entirely banning these activities, they decided to co-opt them by creating a Christian holiday at the same time. And so, on December 25th each year, the Church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Even though nobody really knew the exact date that Christ was born. And even though birthday celebrations were not a part of Christian or Jewish cultures at the time.

And so, Christmas was created. And it took all the best parts of all the other winter festivals. For example, gift giving was taken from the Roman holiday Saturnalia. The green colors and lights come from the Roman New Year. The Christmas tree and Yule log both come from Druid celebrations in the Winter Solstice, and pre-date Christmas by centuries.

Centuries later, the Christians then decided to become really thin skinned about this holiday. They would complain whenever shops didn't say, "Merry Christmas" loudly enough, and they decided that this time of year it was their right to shove their religion down everyone's throats, because they thought they had created the whole idea of a winter festival.

So please, as we all become busy in the holiday hustle and bustle, take some time out of your day to remember the true meaning of Christmas, and the reason for the season. And don't worry. Although it appears that the days may be getting shorter and shorter, with enough lights and greenery I'm sure we can propitiate the sun god.


If I was ever going to write a children's book explaining the meaning of Christmas, I imagine it would go something like that.

If this sounds a bit cranky, then maybe I've been paying too much attention to the religious right commentators this month (I've been able to track them through the magic of the internet). And I saw one too many comments on Facebook asking everyone not to forget the real reason we celebrate Christmas.

Although I often blog about how much I hate Christmas, I guess I don't really hate it all that much per se. The time spent with family is something I enjoy, and something I really miss over here in Japan.

In fact, as the history indicates, perhaps every culture does need some sort of Winter festival to get us through the dark cold days. In Japan, for example, the main winter celebration is New Year's, which takes on all the significance here that Christmas does in the West.

But man, what really burns my buttons is the cultural war aspect of the holiday season (as I've blogged about before). This is the time of year when certain people feel that not quite enough attention has been paid to their particular brand of religion, and they get really whiny and touchy about it.

You know, even growing up in the church, I always thought that Christmas was kind of a cruel bait and switch. They bait you by getting you really excited about the decorations, the food, the presents, the school holidays, and cookies, et cetera. And then you get dragged into Church, where you're told you should feel guilty because you've been focusing too much on these things, and you haven't been thinking about "the true meaning of Christmas."
So, wanting to be a good little kid, you try and direct your thoughts in the appropriate direction, and meditate on the Christmas story and the little baby in the manger. But then the following Sunday, you are reminded that you haven't been focusing enough on "the true meaning of Christmas". So you try even harder to focus on the story of the baby in the manger. But then the following advent Sunday...
Well, you get the idea. How much is it possible to focus on this one story throughout the whole month? I mean, what do they expect from these little kids. We get it already, we're focusing on Jesus's birth, lay off a little bit.

Well, what would religion be without some guilt over not being quite pious enough.
But this is all within the Church. When the Church goes on the attack against secularists, that's when it really gets ugly.
And that's when it becomes part of the culture wars to even try and acknowledge in public that not everyone who celebrates Christmas is a Christian, or that other faiths have different holidays during this season.

Since I waited until Christmas day to post this, I guess I missed the entire Christmas season. But keep it in the back of your mind for next year. When someone tells you to remember the true meaning of Christmas, feel free to give them a little history lesson.

Link of the Day
Class War Driving People From Defiance to Compliance

Friday, December 18, 2009


(Movie Review)

This is one of those movies I knew I had to see eventually. It was recommended to me by a number of people, and it seems to always pop up in any bar-room discussion about religion. (Bork also wrote a few words about it on his blog--link here).

It has not, as of yet, hit the video stores in Japan. Possibly it never will. But I was feeling in a movie watching mood the other day, so I did what you always do when you can't find a movie in the video store--I watched a copy on-line. Full movie is available here on youtube--at least at the time of this linking.

As always, when reviewing a movie like this that everyone else has already seen and written about, I'm not going to find much new to say here. But for what it's worth, here is my own personal reaction.
I like Bill Maher. I don't always agree with him 100% of the time (he has some libertarian leanings which tweak my leftist sensibilities), but I agree with him most of the time. And I think he possesses that rare combination of being funny, witty, and intelligent. Although I've been removed from American TV for most of the past 10 years, Maher is somebody I've followed through the internet and youtube.

Therefore, one has high expectations for a movie which matches Maher's humor and wit to a juicy philosophical topic like religion. Sit back, pour out the lattes, and let the pondering begin.

However, instead of a well structured discussion, the movie's structure seems to throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks.

A quick five minutes over here to laugh at some rednecks in a rural church, another 2 minutes over here to laugh at the guy who believes Jonah actually survived inside the whale, 2 minutes to laugh at Scientology, a quick few jabs at the Mormons, over to the orthodox Jew, the Cannabis Ministry in Amsterdam, et cetera.

The movie's focus might have been improved if Maher had limited himself to one of these topics. The obvious choice would be the dominant form of of religion in America: mainstream Protestantism. Of course then the Christians would have whined about how he was picking on them, but those people are never happy. (Having grown up in protestant circles, I'm well aware of the fact that these people have a big persecution complex, despite the fact that they represent the dominant philosophy in American culture.)

The problem with criticizing religion in broad strokes (as I mentioned in my review of Dawkin's book) is that religion in all it's various forms is too much of a moving target. You can go over and have a few laughs about the die hard creationists, but that ignores all the more moderate Christians who believe in evolution.
Christopher Hitchens (if you watch his various videos on line, as I do) will occasionally mention this in the talks he gives. "After debating several Christians about my book, I realize I should really have written a different book for every single religious person out there, because no two of them seem to believe exactly the same thing." (Paraphrasing-but something close to that).

However perhaps here is where the title of this movie comes into play. Dawkins and Hitchens are both hard core atheists who scoff at any faith of any kind. Maher is more of an agnostic, who goes after organized religion.

Human beings are essentially rational creatures, and if left to themselves they will look for ways to make their own religion as rational as possible. Thus the various moderate intellectuals within each particular faith can occasionally make some degree of sense.
But if you look at any organized structural institution of religion, you can find plenty that is ridiculous. Organized religion is filled with people who claim to speak for God, and tell you that they know with certainty what God wants and doesn't want. Any organized system of religion which seeks to recruit other people into a belief in something inherently irrational is ridiculous.
Faith in a God may not be so crazy, but when institutions extrapolate this to believe that they alone have insight into the mind of God, and have the power to create rules on every aspect of human behavior and sexuality, and then try and press these rules on everyone else, then you have a subject ripe for satire.

So if it seems that Maher is just going after the low hanging fruit by laughing at the fundamentalists, that's what I would say in his defense.

Most of the movie is not so much a well built argument as just Maher laughing at religious people. But with a subject like religious fundamentalism, perhaps the only thing left to do is just to hold it up to ridicule and laugh at it. It's not like you're going to have a logical discussion with these people based on rational thought and the scientific evidence.

Still, one can't help wishing the film had more to offer. As entertaining as it was to see Bill Maher travel the world to laugh at what people believed, it wasn't enough material to justify a full length film. That, and I'm not sure Maher brought in anything new or noteworthy to the discussion. He's hardly the first comedian to attack religious dogma, and he doesn't have a lot of groundbreaking material. Lots of times he will simply listen to what someone believes and then respond with, "Oh come on, you don't really believe that do you?" And then he'll chuckle a bit, and we cut to the next scene. Admittedly, this simple laughing at religion does a lot to deflate it, or highlight the ridiculousness of it, but the audience has a right to expect more.

This film will no doubt tweak the noses of a lot of religious people, and give them something new to complain about, but it doesn't make you think about anything you haven't thought about before.

One wishes he would have narrowed his focus, or squared off against someone capable of going toe to toe with him and forcing him to expand his arguments--because if you watch his show, he's a smart guy. But he almost needs someone to challenge him to bring out all his wit to the fullest potential.
I also suspect that some of these conversations might have existed at one point, but have been left on the cutting room floor. Maher at times appears to be talking with intelligent people, but only small sound bites from these conversations appear in the film. If so, it is a pity the editing couldn't have been better.

...Well, as you can tell, I've got mixed feelings about this movie. I appreciate what it tried to do, I wish it had done a better job of doing it.
The best thing I can say for this film is the speech at the end, when Bill Maher tried to tied all the themes of the movie together. To get the full effect it should probably be watched with the visuals intercut to illustrate the various points. But I thought it was still good enough to justify reprinting here in it's entirety.

"Plain fact is religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people. By irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken. George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he didn't learn a lot about it.
Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.
Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says, "I'm willing, Lord! I'll do whatever you want me to do!" Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.
And anyone who tells you they know, they just know, what happens when you die, I promise you, you don't. How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not.
The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong. This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you comes at a horrible price.
If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife, for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let's remember what the real problem was. We learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That's it. Grow up or die."

I'd agree with a lot of that. But let me just add this note.

Part of the arrogance of religion is the idea that everyone who doesn't believe the same thing as you is going directly to hell. It doesn't matter if they're intentions or actions are good, if their doctrines of faith are misguided then they're eternally damned.

There's perhaps a parallel to this among the new atheists. Anyone who doesn't share exactly the same intellectual outlook they do is not only misguided, but evil.
(And here I'm addressing only to Maher, but also Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Penn Jillette, all of whom accuse religious moderates as being just as bad as religious extremists.)

Joining a religion isn't the same as joining a political party. Most of us don't join a religion, we are born into it. People struggle with it their whole lives. Some people grow out of it, but some people are never able to completely break from it. But all of us humans are stumbling around in the dark, confused about the meaning of life, and most of us are trying our best to do good.

Every religion has violent elements and peaceful elements. If someone takes the religion that they have inherited, and seeks to remove the violent elements and instead make it into a peaceful philosophy, I have no problem with them. If they are using their religion to try and make the world a better place, and as long as they don't force it onto other people, I'm on their side.

I believe the good a person does in this world outweighs their intellectual beliefs about the nature of the universe. Ultimately, I would feel much more comfortable around a liberation theologian than I would around a fascist agnostic, even if I believe the liberation theologian is misguided in their view of cosmos.

So I wish Maher and his friends would lay off the moderates. But I do believe they are right on the bigger point. When people try to force their religion on us, or when they use their religion to justify violence (whether it be the Islamic Jihadists or the Christian Just War Theory) then we need to push back hard.

Link of the Day
When Elites Fail

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

(Movie Review)

Before I get started, quick recap of my Harry Potter related blogging to date.
Book Reviews:
* Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,
* Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ,
* Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and
* Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
(The first 3 books in the series I read (or listened to rather) before I had started up my book review project.

Previous Movie Reviews:
* A review of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" here,
* Some thoughts on the Goblet of Fire here,
* A brief mention of "The Prisoner of Azkaban" here,
and everything else was before I started regularly reviewing movies on this blog.

Although now that I've gone to the trouble of linking to all my past reviews, I have to admit upon re-reading them that none of them are really all that great. Well, they were first impressions, straight off the cuff, and you can take them for what they are worth. As with this review.

At the risk of repeating myself too much from my previous reviews, the whole "Harry Potter" franchise is a bit of an interesting cultural phenomenon.
The movies make enormously huge money for the Hollywood studios, (this one broke records (W)). Which is quite a feat when you consider that none of the movies are really all that good--at least standing alone.

Don't misunderstand me, they're very faithful adaptations of the books, and act as a nice tribute to them. But if you compare them to block-buster movies of the past, "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" or what have you, then it's obvious by comparison that in the Harry Potter movies the pacing is all wrong, the plot isn't streamlined enough, and the climaxes are in all the wrong places.

The experience of watching these movies is a lot different than, say, "Star Wars", which was deliberately designed as a tour-de-force of cinematic story telling.

In other words, these are movies that are based on books, and they feel like movies that are based on books. But even though they're not great movies, the books have become such a cultural phenomenon that even non Harry Potter fans feel obliged to see the movie just to find out what all the fuss is about.
As I did with the first 4 movies, until I finally got curious enough to check out the books.

So the buzz from the books brings people to the movies, the movies convert new people to the books, the buzz behind the books gets greater, and the cycle continues.

[Speaking of the books, I've been re-listening to a couple of Harry Potter audio books this past week. It strikes me that the brilliance of this series is that takes many elements usually reserved for adult literature and makes them accessible for younger readers, such as careful plotting, character development, and an eye for detail. And perhaps most importantly, conversations that flow naturally, and the major plot points of the story are always revealed in dialogue rather told through the narrators voice. This is a big difference than a lot of the children's books I remember from my youth, where the narrator's omnipresent voice always directed everything.
Of course the movie doesn't have the luxury of spending time on all these things.]

All that being said, I liked this movie. It did a good job of condensing the story, and bringing it to the screen.

At 2 and a half hours, it felt a little long to sit through, and yet when it ended I couldn't help but feel sorry for all the things they cut out. (Well, such is always the case with movies based on books.)

For example:
These Harry Potter movies have assembled a very impressive cast of actors, it's a shame that as the story progresses each of them get so little screen time. The child actors who portray the Hogwarts students (now almost all grown into adults, but still passable as teenagers) do such a good job, but many of them have just been reduced to brief cameos as the story progresses.

The adult actors are even more brilliant, and even more criminally underused. Alan Rickman is perfect as Snape (and in fact, I believe he manages to bring more life to the character than is in the book) but it seems that in the past few movies we only get to see brief glimpses of him, even as he becomes more and more important to the plot.
Robbie Coltran, Ralph Fiennes, Helen Bonham Carter, and so on, all do such a great job it's a pity we get to see so little of them.

As for the plot and pacing:
The beginning of this movie did a good job of setting the tone, reintroducing us to all the characters, and establishing the story. Even though they had a lot of material to cover, they did this in a way that didn't feel rushed.

Unfortunately, it's the end of the movie that suffers as a result of this, where key plot points that should have had a more dramatic reveal are just rushed through. (I know movies are written in advance and then typically shot out of order, but one almost gets the impression watching this thing of the production staff saying "Oh no, we only have 30 minutes left to conclude this thing. Quick, rush through everything else!")

There were also a few missed notes.
The destruction of the bridge at the beginning of the movie was an event whose significance was explained in the book, but not in the movie. In the movie we just see the bridge being destroyed, and then it's on to the next scene. I know this provided a bit of excitement for the opening, but it's probably something they should have cut out since it had no relation to the rest of the movie.

Other events are underplayed.
The identity of the "Half Blood Prince" was a reveal that was a dramatic point in the book, but ended up being just mentioned in an off hand way at the end of the movie.

The action sequences in these Harry Potter movies always seem to suffer a bit, and in the last couple movies at least have just consisted of people firing wands back and forth at each other. I know it's a movie about wizards, but with a little bit of creativity in the choreographing I think they could have made these a lot more exciting.
The battle between Harry and Malfoy in the bathroom, for example, was rather lackluster. Along the same lines, the ending of this scene, in which Harry, experimenting with a new spell, horribly injured Malfoy, was a dramatic point in the book, but seemed underplayed in the movie.

The climax of this movie is a rather bizarre scene in which Dumbledore has to drink an entire potion. It is straight out of the book, but the first time I read the book I remember thinking, "That's a bit of an odd scene. It may work in a book, but it's going to seem strange in a movie. They should probably try and down play this when they film it."

On the other hand, the book describes a huge battle at the end which the movie completely cuts out.
I know these movies have a lot of ground to cover, but you would think a movie that is aiming for a summer block-buster crowd would want to include more of these spectacular action sequences, not cut them out.

I suppose it's to the credit of the story telling power that these Harry Potter movies have turned into such a huge franchise without even needing a big action finish at the end. But personally, I felt the ending was a bit boring, and I would have gladly put up with another 10 minutes or so to get a better climax.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Central America