Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I finally saw the new Star Trek films - and they were worse than I could have ever imagined

I like Star Trek.  A lot.  I'm one of those nerds who can tell you which episode number certain lines or plots are from - or at least which episode title.  I regularly make profoundly awful Star Trek jokes to anyone who might happen to understand them.  I once spent $700 on a Star Trek costume which I am now condemned to wear every year for Halloween without the possibility of reprieve or parole for the rest of my natural life in order to justify.  I even constructed that last sentence as a quote from one of the movies.

Yet I refused to pay for or even watch the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot films for five years.  They were changing my Star Trek.  How dare they.  My objections ranged from the superficial and ad hominem (TOO MANY LENS FLARES) to the deep and almost philosophical.  In any case, after my own personal 5 year mission to stay as far away from these films as possible, I finally broke down and finally watched both the new Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.  My conclusion?

These films are worse than I ever expected.

Yes, I was predisposed to hate these things, but hear me out.  After 5 years of refusing to have anything to do with Abrams' Trek, advancing in my life in general, and getting engaged to the most wonderful woman alive, I was able to gain enough perspective on just how important this stuff really is to look at the films objectively.  I resigned myself to the fact that they were going to destroy the second most important planet in all of Trek Lore.  I decided it was OK that they gave everything a different aesthetic (iBridge!).  I accepted that they were going to make a lot of piddly changes to established canon.  Taking all of this as a given, I decided to watch the films expecting nothing more than Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew flying around space and saving the galaxy. In the end, I'm convinced that these films are terrible both as a Star Trek reboot and even simply as films.

First, the characters are simply wrong (this will be the longest point, since its the most important).  Now in one sense, this complaint is one of hanging on to my old beloved Star Trek.  Yes, I am comparing these "new" characters to the old.  Yet at the same time, the identity of the characters is what makes it a Star Trek at all.  Even the filmmakers made this point in explaining why they decided to make this new incarnation of Trek.  The characters were what made Star Trek, they said, but there was too much established canon to be able to tell new and creative stories with them. They wanted to keep the characters - which were the heart of Star Trek - and ditch the reams of established story limiting what they could do with them.  While I disagree that this was a problem, fair enough.

The characters, we were told, had reached such iconic cultural status that they could be rebooted and retold and re-presented.  They were compared to Batman, Superman, and other such characters of such immense and permanent cultural significance that their stories were retold and retold and retold.  Again, fair enough.  Yet this means that the characters are that anchor which keeps Star Trek as, well, Star Trek.  There are many differences between the gritty Batman films of the early 90s, the new Christopher Nolan reboot, and the campy 1960s Adam West version, but the characters are the anchor.  In each, Bruce Wayne is a charming wealthy playboy who lost his parents to a killer at a young age.  He is entrepreneurial, ingenious, and a loner to all but his faithful servant Alfred.  As Batman, he his charm turns to grit.  Even in the goofy 1960s rendition, there is a still a tough, square-jawed attitude that West takes on as Batman - which is what makes the ridiculous lines that he delivers so deliciously campy.  Can anyone imagine a version of Batman in which the Caped Crusader were cowardly, a Wolverine who was patient, or a Captain America who was unjust?  Of course not.  It is the personality of these characters which ties them together through each incarnation and identifies them as who they are.

Yet Abrams' Star Trek and it's follow up Into Darkness get the characters almost universally wrong.  The James T. Kirk of 79 television episodes and 7 films was controlled, pragmatic, and confident.  Christopher Pine's version is wild, impulsive, and portrays a facade of arrogance while harboring nothing short of helplessness under the surface.  The original Kirk was a man of order and command structure, obedient to the chain of command and respecting of the rules and regulations.  He took liberties from time to time, to be sure, but for the new Kirk it is not the liberties but the obedience which happens only from time to time.
Nimoy's Spock was a half-Vulcan you'd never know had any humanity in him until well over 80 hours into his total screen time, logical to a fault, adamant to follow the regulations.  Quinto's Spock is - even before his planet is destroyed - bubbling over with emotions just under the surface and so given to them that he, as an instructor at Starfleet academy, has apparently been having a clandestine relationship with a cadet in Uhura.  The portrayal of Scotty in the new films is nothing short of an insult to the memory of James Doohan.  I don't blame Simon Pegg, who does a brilliant job with the character he was asked to create, but with whoever decided that Scotty should be an utter buffoon, asking for sandwiches in the midst of a blistering assault and bouncing around engineering as he makes repairs more like Batman's Joker than the dignified, proud engineer of the old Trek.

Yet here lies perhaps a clue to just what went so abysmally wrong with these new characters.  The original Scotty certainly had his moments of humor, and he did provide some dignified comic relief from time to time, but, as I said, dignified, and refined - nothing like what Pegg's character offers.  The original Kirk also had his moments of being out of control with emotions, or impulsive, or ignoring a regulation - but these were rare.  Spock's humanity came to the fore on some rare occasion when he was moved by some powerful force.  These behaviors and personality traits were always within the crew of the Enterprise, but they came out only when provoked or pushed.  This is what made them whole and complete characters  - because they had depth and complexities to their personalities, just like real people.  We all have a personality and a manner which is with us most of the time, and deep within flaws, eccentricities, and extremes which come out in specific circumstances.  We all have a family member or friend who is a kind and generous person most of the time, but can become impatient or aggressive when pushed just right.  We have all known a gruff, distant person who on some rare instance shows a tenderness and sense of humanity we did not expect.  This is how real people are, and these complexities are what make great characters.

Upon being hired to direct the new Trek, J.J. Abrams said that he didn't much like Star Trek or know about it.  The truth is, it very much feels like someone watched through the original series and films to learn about the characters but came away understanding only the extremes of their characters without taking the time to grasp the core of their personalities.  The result is that the characters in the reboot seem like caricatures of the original, which ruins it from the perspective of a reboot.  It's like watching some surreal version of Batman where the Joker is almost entirely sane, as if someone took those rare moments of sanity that he could be moved to and built the entire character as though it were all he was.  It also means that, leaving aside the identity of these films as a reboot of established characters, they just aren't very good films to stand on their own: the characters have no core, no depth.

Beyond the individual characters, the crew as a whole also seems to have one major problem: they are entirely inept.  I realize that the plot of the first film involves a bunch of cadets being asked to step up and respond to a threat, but even by the second film the entire crew seems like they have no idea what they're doing.  From the standpoint of a film standing on its own, this gets so bad that the suspension of disbelief necessary for any kind of science fiction film is lost simply because I can't imagine any professional ship's crew seeming like they have so little sense of how to do their jobs.  From the standpoint of a film that is supposed to be a version of Star Trek, it also fails because of how little professional decorum the Abrams crew has.  In every series and film, the crew operates within a clear command structure: the captain and first officer give orders, the rest of the crew follows them and speak when asked for input.  Far too often, the new Trek comes across more like a group of friends with no clear leader all trying to figure a situation out together.  The new Trek feels too much like The Goonies in this regard.

Moving onto some issues which have purely to do with these films in and of themselves (and unrelated to any of the "old" Star Trek), I first have to criticize the acting.  I thought that it was awful.  There were some strong performances - I've already mentioned Simon Pegg playing a terrible version of Scotty, but playing it very well.  Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as always in the sequel. Unfortunately, there were also some awful ones.  Christopher Pine's Kirk reminds me a bit too much of Danielle Radcliffe doing his very best to channel angst and grossly overdoing it.  Quinto's portrayal of Spock didn't so much feel emotionless as mechanical and bland.  Very disappointing was Urban's McCoy, especially because of how much praise reviews gave to his performance.  I may be the only one, but I did not think Urban was channeling Deforest Kelley - by any means.  His attempts at the southern doctor struck me as very overplayed.  Frankly, it seemed to me what a mediocre impression artist would do for McCoy.

Shockingly, Leonard Nimoy's acting was also bad - atrocious, even - but for this I blame the writing.  I do this not out of some kind of fanboyism for Nimoy, but only because I have seen him act more than enough to know his ability, and in watching those scenes of his in the new films, the dialogue he is asked to offer is so painfully bad that I sincerely do not believe there was much to be done with it.  As I see it, Nimoy's acting is not so much a mark against the film's acting in general, but against it's writing.  In particular, his monologue in the first film is so poorly written that it rings more of a child playacting with action figures than a script reading in a major motion picture.

From this note, I will segue into my final issue with the films: the plots and writing simply simply do not have the internal consistency or coherence to be rated as anything beyond mediocre.  In what world does a cadet undergoing a hearing for possible expulsion get promoted to first officer - even temporarily?  What's worse, in what circumstances does he then get designated permanent captain, not only of any old ship, but the fleet's new flag ship?  Sorry, Sulu.  Sorry, Chekov, Spock, and every other officer in the fleet: you have to work your way up the chain of command, but not Kirk.  This plot point alone is sufficient to render the film more middle-school fan-fiction than anything to be taken seriously.

There are other problems.  In the first film, Spock maroons the first officer on an entirely frozen planet as an act of discipline - and nobody in the entire crew seem to have a problem with this (remember the point about the entire crew seeming to have no idea what they were supposed to be doing?) Of course they mustn't have very strong feelings about it anyways, seeing that as soon as Kirk returns to the ship and this time it's Spock who is cast off, they all readily accept this once cadet-then suspended-then stowaway-then first officer-then marooned-now captain's full authority.  A "now captain" who had insisted on staying away from the enemy, knowing how overmatched the Enterprise was (think God versus Daddy long legs) whose plan has now changed to attacking headon - for no discernable reason whatsoever.   I won't spend any more time here because I know I am not the first to make many of these points, or many of the others that could be made.  Suffice it to say, the plots of these films are bad - very, very, very bad.

It really is too bad.  I was truly, honestly ready to like these films.  As I said, Star Trek is one of my favorite fictions to get lost in for a little bit, and even if it really is a little different from the way it used to be, a good Star Trek movie might just be a lot of fun.  The problem is that these aren't good Star Trek movies, or even good movies, by any stretch.

I hope the new Star Wars don't follow this example.

No, Matt Walsh was Not Wrong about Suicide

Incomplete, maybe, but not wrong.

Matt Walsh is a prominent Christian blogger whose posts have become fairly ubiquitous as of late.  Virtually everything he writes garners countless shares and likes and otherwise approving internet gestures - that is, until he made a post in the wake of Robin Williams' apparent suicide.  This time, his thoughts were met with a great deal of backlash criticizing him for insensitivity, being dismissive of the reality of mental illness, failing to show compassion, and countless other things.

What did Walsh say?  You can read the link for yourself if you like, but I will give a quick summary here.  Walsh makes 3 main points:

  1. We should be careful about downplaying the negative and speaking so positively about prominent suicides, using words like "freedom" and "peace" because it could encourage others contemplating suicide to see it as a positive choice.
  2. When we talk about depression and mental illness, we should not make it strictly medicinal and clinical but should also address its spiritual components
  3. We need to remember that ultimately, suicide is an action that occurs by choice; someone has to make a decision to take an action to end his or her life.  We need to remember that there is a choice involved.
His first point is, I think, a fairly profound one which had not even occurred to me.  I don't think most people really have a problem with it, but I also don't think they are giving it as much attention as it deserves, because it may be his most important practical bit of thinking on the entire subject.

His second point is also fairly innocuous.  A few people objected to a caricature of this point, as though Walsh was suggesting that a trip to church or 5 minutes with a Bible would cure clinical depression, but most folks are reasonable enough to see that that is not what he meant.

It's really that third point that has stirred up so much dust.  Depression and mental illness are incredibly tragic afflictions which can cause tremendous suffering in a person's life.  Over the centuries, they were very misunderstood - especially depression - and only in the past several decades have we as a society really begun to understand them.  It is a very sensitive subject, because even today it is not uncommon for a person's depression to be dismissed or for a person with depression to live an isolated life, suffering alone in a world that seems not to understand or even care.  

Most importantly, depression is not something which comes via choice.  Nobody decides that they want to be depressed, and overcoming depression is not as simple as deciding that "life is what you make of it."  Clinical depression is an affliction like a virus or cancer - it comes upon a person uninvited and begins to destroy them from the inside.  It has therefore struck many people as ignorant, uncompassionate, and coldly dismissive for Walsh to say that suicide is a choice.  He even goes so far as to call it a selfish choice - which sounds to many people like a judgment on these people who are struggling with such profound and inescapable pain.

The thing is, Walsh doesn't call depression a choice.  He doesn't call depression selfish.  He says that suicide is ultimately a choice.  If you happen to be a person who took umbrage at Walsh's comments, this may not sound much better.  After all, suicide is something which is an end result of depression.  They're tied so closely that declaring the former a choice might seem to dismiss the impact and debilitating nature of the latter.  Indeed, there is a certain truth to this.  It's one of the reasons that, as mental illness has come to be better understood, the Catholic Church - which still considers suicide to be a grave sin - has taken a significantly softer approach to suicides, declaring that, "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide."

At the same time, Walsh's point is an important one.  The truth is that suicide ultimately does involve a choice.  The degree to which someone making that choice is actually himself, actually has full control over his faculties, or actually has full control over his own will is certainly in question in the case of any suicide.  With only a few exceptions, a person has to be very "far gone" to take the incredible step of taking his own life.  Those criticizing Walsh are pointing out that in a sense depression really is like cancer - its a disease which comes in and afflicts a person in a way in which they have no control.  On the other hand, Walsh points out that in another sense, it is unlike cancer: a person with depression ultimately needs to move his arms and hands and legs to take make a noose or take the pills or pull the trigger to end his life.  Cancer kills passively, while ultimately suicide requires some personal action.

The truth is, both sides of the issue are radically incomplete without the other.  Walsh's blog post certainly does not emphasize that aspect of suicide by which it stems from a clinical disease that causes great and incredible suffering.  On the other hand, his critics certainly don't emphasize that ultimate moment of suicide in which a person physically uses some instrument to end his or her life.  They are both inextricably connected, and any view of the issue which does not see both sides of it does a great disservice to those suffering from depression.  

As I come to the end of my own thoughts on this issue, I would ask you to consider the countless suffering souls who have not taken their lives but have considered it.  To them, staying alive is still a choice.  They are choosing every day to fight through their depression and to remain here.  They know that at any moment they could pick up a bottle of pills or find a bridge and end their lives, but - as much as they may at times want to - they have not. For some, this is a choice made out of faith.  They believe that suicide is wrong.  Perhaps they believe in redemptive suffering, and that by persevering their pain has value, like Christ's suffering had value.  They know that they still have a choice to remain alive, and that belief may be the only reason they are still here.

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.  

For others, they may not be people of faith.  They may simply believe that suicide would leave their families and friends suffering, or guilty, or both.  It may be for only that reason that each day they decide to stay alive.

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.

Yes, depression is an incredibly terrible thing.  The pain and suffering that someone who ends their life is going through must be overwhelming and unimaginable.  We should be doing everything we can to reach out to and to help people going through this kind of thing.  Yet without any prejudice to those whose depression has led to their death, we also need to remember that point at which there is ultimately a choice, and in that support those who are making that choice day in and day out.  

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.

It seems to me that in their effort to stand up for those suffering from the horror of depression, that choice is being downplayed.  Don't.  It's the only thing that countless people still have left.

Monday, August 11, 2014

She waited until her wedding night and wished she hadn't

During the past week, this article  by a Samantha Pugsley has appeared twice in my Facebook news feed - once via someone who agrees with the author, and once via someone who does not.  Given my relatively small circle of contacts, this is almost surely a sign that the article has achieved some level of virality.  Reading the piece, I was left saddened - both by the sufferings of the author herself, and by the conclusions she drew from her experience.

I think its important to begin by saying that I do not doubt that Ms. Pugsley's particular religious upbringing was responsible for her negative psycho-sexual experiences later in life.  Certainly it is true that a religious upbringing is better for a person's emotional and psychological well-being; there is sufficient research to make this fairly indisputable.  However, that does not mean that every particular church, religious educator, teaching, or other aspect of every individual's religious formation will always be good or follow this general rule.  Research also demonstrates the benefits of having both one's mother and father during childhood over single parent homes, but this does not mean that there are not some specific cases of fathers or mothers who are abusive, uninvolved, or otherwise detrimental to a child's emotional health.  In the same way, while religious upbringings are in general beneficial, there may be some which are harmful.

Indeed, there is sufficient evidence in Ms. Pugsley's article to suggest that her experience was one such negative case.  We don't know whether this was the standard practice at her particular church or if her involvement was an exception, but we do know that she took a pledge of sexual abstinence at the age of ten.  This is the first troublesome point.  While many churches and religious programs at some point offer teenage boys and girls the opportunity to make a chastity commitment of one kind or another, it usually happens after the kids have entered high school.  Some may even have something of the sort as early as 13 years old, but of course the difference between the average psycho-sexual development of a 10 and 13 year old is so great as to make the thought of such a pledge at the two ages incomparable - and even so those programs offering it at 16 or 17 would constitute the vast majority.  In any case, the point is that for a 10 year old to find herself making such a pledge is troubling, by no means a norm of any sort, and so early in her development that I would be surprised if it did not cause problems.

While this is the most egregious concern, there are others. The article also suggests that this pledge was for girls only, and that boys were to be held to a different standard.  Ms. Pugsley says that she was taught that it was a wife's obligation to fulfill her husband's sexual desires.  Sexual abstinence before marriage was linked almost causally to happiness after marriage.  Very tellingly, she also describes the state of her sexuality as something which seemed an ever-present concern throughout her years at this church, almost as though it were some profoundly important end all to itself which consumed the thoughts and conversation of those around her - almost as though her sexuality encompassed all that was important about her.

None of this is healthy, and none of this is consistent with how most Christian communities view sexuality.  Most notably, human persons are almost universally viewed more holistically.  One's sexuality is important - indeed some Christian theologies see it as touching the deepest core of a person - but it is nevertheless viewed as one part of many which make up a person's identity and value.  It is also a means - a means to communion between spouses - and not an end to itself. Taken together, these reasons are why Christians reject the argument that sex before marriage is important to gauge sexual compatibility between two prospective spouses.  According to most Christian theologies, a person should love his or her spouse wholly and entirely - mind, body, soul, spirit, etc. etc..  Sex is a wonderful means by which that love can and should be expressed between spouses, but it is an expression of a love that goes deeper and touches far more of a person than two bodies ever could.  A person's libido and sexual interests will always change over time, and the love that two spouses have must be rooted so selflessly in the whole of the other than should some perfect sexual chemistry that they at some point possess change, the love will not.  In other words, sex is an expression of a love that encompasses the whole of a person and should be at the service of that love - not the other way around; if a man (or woman) needs to make sure the sex is going to meet some certain standard before making a commitment, then there is a serious question as to whether he (or she) truly loves the whole of the other person.

There are other inconsistencies.  Whereas Ms. Pugsley seems to have been taught that standards are different for men and women, Christianity all but universally calls both men and women to chastity.  Speaking as someone who works in youth ministry and sees many materials intended for young people, I can assure you that a program which does not challenge men to an equal - or even higher - concern for chastity is a rare and strange thing indeed.  The notion that a woman has some particular obligation to fulfill her husband's sexual needs in marriage is perhaps more common than this, but still rare in Christian thinking.  Indeed, even the Bible itself contains a passage encouraging Christian spouses to be sexually generous with one another - male and female (1 Corinthians 7:5).

The most significant line of Ms. Pugsley's piece reads, "My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn't know who I was without it."  However this came to be, it is the wrong idea and an incredibly damaging one.  To this poor girl, her virginity had become so ingrained in her mind as that which gave her value that she did not know how to handle it when she finally consummated her marriage.  In most Christian communities, children are taught that they are valuable because God made them.  They are taught that God loves them.  They are taught that everybody sins, and that when we do God still loves us.  They are taught that our sexuality is a gift from God that we should cherish and guard and give lovingly to one person in marriage - but that this truth comes second to those mentioned above.  Wait until marriage, and guard your sexuality, not because it is bad, but because it is good.  If you should falter - in sexuality or in anything else - God's forgiveness is there for you.

Of course, there are those Christian communities which make sex into something shameful, and chastity into something defining.  Our author ended up getting this message so strongly all along the line that it was ingrained into her and eventually "blossomed" into an incredibly painful experience of marital sexuality.  The message that I want you to take away here is that it is not the notion of pre-marital abstinence that is bad or harmful - even for religious reasons.  Rather, it is the twisted and perverse approach to pre-marital abstinence that some may teach which can be harmful.

Consider the difference between two messages to pass along to teenagers (and not 10 year olds).  We could teach that remaining sexually abstinent before marriage is a central aspect of our faith, that those who do so are of incredible worth, and that God wants us to guard our virginity.  On the other hand, we could teach that God wants us to guard our sexuality and abstain until marriage because we each have a profound value and deserve all the best that our sexuality can offer in uniting us more closely to our spouses.  Clearly, the two approaches, while advocating the same ultimate decision, do so for radically different reasons which make all the difference in the world.

I am very sorry that Ms. Pugsley got the messages that she did over the course of her childhood and teenage year.  I am very sorry for all of those young women (and men) who do learn such perverse views of sex from their churches.  I'm sorry for what they have been through in the name of Christ, and it's very unfortunate that their experiences are leading to a rejection of the idea of pre-marital abstinence itself.  More importantly, though, I am sorry for the formation that they did not receive.  I'm sorry that they were not taught the Christian view of sexuality as a profound gift from God which is given to us to embrace.  I'm sorry that they were not taught how valuable they are in themselves.  The truth is that for every person who had the awful experience of Ms. Pugsley, there are many more who had a good experience with pre-marital abstinence.  Research shows this fairly clearly.

I would call upon those who are predisposed to reject pre-marital abstinence to look beyond the occasional article like the one under consideration here and investigate more fully the research into pre-marital sex and the greater breadth of more common religious teaching on the subject.  I would encourage those who are predisposed to supposed pre-marital abstinence to look more deeply into articles and cases like Ms. Pugsley's to make certain that you are not encouraging the sort of harmful and even un-Christian approaches which lead to cases like hers.