theological musings

April 26, 2010

i suppose before i start, i should qualify the following remarks with a bit of autobiographical framing:

i am religious, yes.  jewish to be exact.  however, my type of jewish is an odd duck to hunt and then mount.  it’s rigorous, but it’s leftist.  it prefers the ecstatic fervor of the hasidim, but (and!) it is radically egalitarian.  it is clearly un-orthodox.  you might even call it heterodox.

so, this brings me to my musings.

the one thing that bugs me the most about the theological debate as it stands is the pathological obsession with biblical inerrancy.  first of all, the idea of the bible as lynchpin of faith is a distinctly protestant notion.   it is clear to anyone with the barest understandings of interpretive history that there is not really any such thing as “biblical literalism.”

even the debate surrounding this principle has ceded ground from the outset to this ridiculous position.  to be forced to represent yourself as “not believing in a literal interpretation of the bible” already positions you as a weak-tea version of the true religionist who has enough strength in his convictions to override modern lily-livered qualms and put the whole world in G?d’s hands.


the jewish (and catholic and muslim and even protestant) traditions have a long and rich history of biblical interpretation.  but not only that.  there are whole scores of religious literatures which make reference to the bible and are grounded in it, but serve their own function as well.  in fact, the study of the bible in the world of the yeshiva (advanced jewish study academy) has relegated the bible to a distant fourth behind the talmud, jewish law, and ethical texts.  the bible is present, of course, but it functions more as the ground whence texts bloom than the dominant focus.

now, all that being said, i want to acknowledge the feeling of needing perfection.  the books of psalms tells us, “the Torah of the Lord is perfect.” (Ps 19:7).   i want to propose a radically difference understanding of perfection.  from plato on down, we have felt compelled to understand perfection as implying stasis, wholeness.  i want to suggest a more fluid understanding of perfection.  it is an organic perfection, one emerging from the amazing adaptations happening around us all the time.  michael jordan was perfect in that game, because he was able to provide what was needed at the time.  the clash was perfect because they were able to create the most wonderful friction.

the Torah is perfect because it is able to provide us with what we need in every time.  the bible is perfect because it will never stop being an incredible textual resource and framework.

we must loose ourselves of this silly notion of “biblical faith.”  all faith is “biblical” in some way.  we are always conditioned by the externalities that help form us into the people we become.  our bible hums around us at all times.


A fair tax?

January 11, 2008

Politics and economics are not my usual purview,  I generally leave them to experts such as our own political commentator, L.P. Mandrake.  However, since logic and the preservation of the liberal society generally fall under my blogging aegis, I had to comment on the recent brouhaha over Mike Huckabee’s “fair-tax” plan, which has been agitating the economics-blogging community.  While there had been piecemeal criticism and praise of this sales-tax plan thus far, when noted econo-contrarian Steven Landsburg wrote a fawning piece about it for Slate yesterday, things began to get a bit ugly. Without giving a full catalog of the back and forth blogging over the article, I refer you to this excellent summary of arguments against the Huckabee plan by Jonathan Chait.

You might ask why I bring this up in the first place. If you bother to read Yesterday’s Salad, you’re probably no stranger to blogging, and since L.P. Mandrake has been on hiatus, you’re even less likely to turn to us for analysis of emergent political issues.  However, there seems to be a logical issue with the plan that no one has mentioned yet, so here’s my brief attempt to suss it out (in non-syllogism form):

In brief, the Huckabee plan replaces the income tax with a nation-wide sales tax. To please the supply-siders, this encourages savings and particularly investment, because by not *spending* your money, it isn’t taxed (equivalent to an unlimited IRA).  To please the personal-responsibility proselytizers out there (that is to say, the folks who believe that economic misfortune comes only at the hands of irresponsibility and consuming beyond one’s means), the system actually penalizes consumption with taxes.  The TNR article linked above does a great job of dismantling the plan, giving solid reasons for why it is likely to cause more economic inequality, rather than less. However, from the two aforementioned perspectives (and countless others in the Conservative ideological rainbow) an increase in economic inequality isn’t the sort of thing that keeps you up at night, so the arguments will remain unconvincing, no matter how sound they may be.

So, here’s an argument that should appeal both to those seeking both a stronger economy and a more equal one: If we dramatically increase the sales tax, we would essentially be siphoning funds out of the economy.  One of the few upsides to the suffering dollar is that Europeans are visiting the U.S. in record numbers, and they are buying tremendous amounts of consumer goods. Apart from dramatically increasing the amount of German heard on Michigan Avenue, this provides a boost to our economy, essentially increasing the pie (or pot, depending on your preferred metaphor) from which we draw our unequal shares.  If their purchases were slapped with a dramatic sales tax (and to replace the income tax, it would have to be downright epic), visiting America and buying American would lose its appeal, even if the dollar remained weak.

Furthermore, a significant sales tax would also encourage wealthier Americans to spend outside of the country.  Save for some sort of extremely invasive customs process, this would both hurt our overall economy (by removing money from the system) and increase the amount of inequality in it (as traveling would allow the rich to sidestep the tax altogether).

Catching up with some friends home from abroad, we decided to give “No Country For Old Men” a try. As it has been discussed elsewhere in Yesterday’s Salad, my synopsis will remain brief. The movie was beautifully shot, and accordingly, the portrayal of violence in the film is both sudden and gruesome. That the carnage feels horrible rather than stylized is a distinction that few films can make.

The epicenter of this bloody spectacle is hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who is unerringly unnerving throughout; apart from his vacant stare and mysterious hair, he punctuates conversations with sudden bursts from his bolt gun or silenced rifle, straight into his interlocutor. However, the grim consistency with which Chigurh dispatches everyone in his path eventually becomes so grating, that you begin half-listening to otherwise innocuous conversations, worrying that any pause might end in gunfire. To the directors’ credit, a scene about a third of the way through this movie plays with our uneasiness to considerable comic effect.

Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell, the local sheriff, couldn’t be farther from Chirgurh, both in terms of characterization and his location throughout the film. While the amoral Chirgurh resembles the Terminator in his vicious hunt, Bell is a fine match in his unrelenting willingness to sit back and see how things turn out, which Bell assures us, will be a bloody, awful mess. Most of this is chalked up to how unbelievably grizzled he is, as in one exchange with his deputy:

That's very linear Sheriff.

Bell stares at the fire. 

Well. Old age flattens a man.

In fact, Bell turns down almost every chance he gets to investigate, saying that he has every expectation that things will be awful, and that they’ll still be awful after some more coffee and pie. Although the movie ends with him reflecting on being a law-man and the interplay of dreams with his past, these elements are never developed to a point at which they provide a satisfying way to interpret the film.

Needing to feel clean once more, we slipped into a theater showing “Juno,” another movie that you’ve probably heard plenty about. As has been noted elsewhere and in this publication, the movie can be too quick with its cleverness, particularly in the opening scene, wherein a drug store clerk abuses newly pregnant teen Juno (Ellen Page) with rhyming mockery:

JUNO  I remain unconvinced.
Rollo pulls the bathroom key out of reach.
ROLLO   This is your third test today, Mama  Bear.
Your eggo is preggo, no doubt about it!
So what's the prognosis, Fertile
Myrtle? Minus or plus?
(examining stick) I don't know.
It's not...seasoned yet. Wait. Huh.
Yeah, there's that pink plus sign
again. God, it's unholy.    She shakes the stick desperately in an attempt to skew the
results. Shake. Shake. Nothing.    ROLLO
That ain't no Etch-a-Sketch. This
is one doodle that can't be undid,

Thankfully, the rest of the film remained clever without the rhyming couplets. While it was precious at points, the characters were well-developed and believable, and Juno’s considerable quirkiness seemed appropriate to her character, seeing as she is just a teenager, rather than an adult in a Wes Anderson film. Without cataloging the rest of the film, in many ways it was the perfect anecdote to “No Country For Old Men” – it was cute, refreshingly linear, and the only unstoppable thing chasing people was Michael Cera in track shorts.

I haven’t enjoyed action movies for some time. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, and my taste in movies has matured, so that I no longer feel satisfied by the whizzing cinematography and glib violence found in a typical action movie. But at the same time, the grand cliché of the aged – they don’t make ’em like they used to – might hold some truth. If one defines an action movie as a film in which the on-screen spectacle is of equal or greater value than the plot, and charitably excluding the sub-genres of superhero (Batman Begins), sci-fi (The Matrix), and historical (war movies not starring Mel Gibson, with the exception of Gallipoli), the last decent action movies I saw were Casino Royale and Ronin. Ronin is even pushing our plot requirement.

This is not to say that there has been a paucity of action movies. On the contrary, big-budget action movies are as readily available as Arby’s sandwiches. It’s just that as action movies seem to be incorporating more and more advanced computer graphics, their plots are steadily devolving. Not only do there seem to be more and more movies made from games, but action movies are beginning to rip out parts of games wholesale – supposedly, in the Doom movie (no, I didn’t see it, and I won’t see it) the camera transitions to a first person perspective for a hearty chunk of the last part of the film. So that it looks just like a video game. Which you paid 10 dollars to watch someone else play.

On the other end of the spectrum, video games seem to be on the evolutionary rise. Games have long taken inspiration from movies, and as games rapidly approach film in terms of visual verisimilitude, they are taking plot and other cinematic elements as well. For instance, Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4 is basically your own personal action movie, as demonstrated by this lengthy clip below. The game’s graphics are amazing (though the quality of YouTube doesn’t do it justice), and while its plot won’t win it any Academy Awards (Russian Ultranationalists and Middle Eastern terrorists working together? Mon dieu!) the ability to actually participate in all of those action movie scenes is remarkable fun.

While serious movies don’t have much to worry about from video games (a real-life My Dinner With Andre video game is years away), action movies either need to start evolving plots, or go the way of the dodo.

••• For those who couldn’t imagine anything more profoundly boring than watching other people play video games (or, the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter films), watch from the beginning to around minute two, then from minute six to the end.

The unkindest cut.

November 4, 2007

I don’t really watch television these days. While I saw my fair share of “the Simpsons” back in the day, and occasionally consented to a post-exam DVD marathon back at university (thank you, “Arrested Development”), I’ve lived the past two years without a television, and I can’t really say I miss it. My abstention isn’t a means of condescending to the CheezIt-consuming public; I’m just busy, and when I do end up watching television, I find that I have little patience for the ever-increasing hyper-fast cuts between scenes and the tortured, reality-show-inspired melodrama of most dramas (and I would not mind if everyone even remotely related to the washed-up-celebrity-repackaging-apparatus of MTV and VH1 were to be imprisoned in a gulag, or better yet, shot into the sun for unleashing “I Love New York 2” upon an unsuspecting humanity).

As you might imagine, this cuts my arsenal of small talk down a bit. When confronted by references to “Lost,” “30 Rock,” or “the Office” (USA version, as the British one dodged the statute of limitations), I generally have to steer the conversation toward something a little more familiar (not the local sports team). It’s not that I have anything against these shows, I’m sure that they’re quite entertaining, as they happen to have engrossed plenty of smart people I know (though there are exceptions, although to avoid offending anyone I will have to refer to the show via an “alias”), but I simply find it easier to toss the whole medium aside.

However, entering medicine has cut off a major line of retreat for me. Whenever I begin shepherding matters away from television, someone always manages to ask, “what do you think of _____ medical show?” The directness of the question defies easy deflection, and after a while, I simply got sick of not having a good answer. So, with Sun-Tzu watching over my shoulder, I decided to defy the tactic by giving into it. I sat down and watched some medical-y shows on my laptop. And by the end, I wanted to toss my laptop out with the television.

Grey’s Anatomy

Plot: Dr. Meredith Grey is a new surgical resident at a high-powered hospital. There are also other surgical residents and attendings, and they are all terribly attractive. The lot of them have steamy encounters outside of the OR, and drama ensues.

Big risk: Can a drama succeed when the main character is basically a prickly twat?

Read the rest of this entry »

Mister Notwithabang… woke up late this morning. Forgoing his traditional tea and digestives (McVities), he ran to catch the bus. Though he made it to the bus stop in record time, with his book-bag swinging wildly behind him, the incoming bus did not stop, driving past without even a hint of slowing down. Whether this was because the bus could not slow down for fear of triggering an explosive, or because the bus driver figured that shortening the ride of the current passengers outweighed the happiness granted by stopping down for one rider, was unclear. The outcome was the same; despite his best efforts, Notwithabang… was late and getting later.

After a string of such disappointments, a bus driver finally honored his sense of duty (although he dearly hated doing so) and stopped at the glass alcove. Notwithabang… hastened aboard, but realized that there was nowhere to sit. Although he held on admirably, he was tossed to and fro, and as the bus lurched, he was thrown into one lady after the next. While they maintained their composure, pearls in place and hems pleated, their purse-dogs were less forgiving, yapping and snapping in chorus as our hero developed a series of bruises from the metal poles dotting the bus.

After much further jostling, he made it to his cross-street. Walking briskly to the train, he stepped into Starbucks, in the hope that some caffeine could buoy his lagging spirits. Returning to his predetermined route with newfound pluck, he made it to the train station in record time. Unerringly, he reached for his student transit pass, and deftly ran it through the reader at the turnstile. The light flashed and the mechanism beeped cheerily as it did every morning, so Notwithabang… went walking through… until the turnstile stopped him in his tracks with a dull “thunk.”

He tried his pass repeatedly, but he got little other than a red light and a hectoring “buzz” for his efforts. Walking over to the attendant’s booth, he explained his problem as best he could. As pleading and patient as he had made his case, he was unprepared for the gale-force sass he was met with in return.

“Don’t be telling me that! You used that card already. You is gonna have to wait eighteen minutes before you use it again. Don’t be trying to cheat me, now.”

He contemplated sitting around at the station for eighteen minutes. But he realized that he was already late, and furthermore, didn’t deserve to get ordered around. So he waited for another train to come in, and as a woman exited through the handicapped door, simply walked on through. As he left the escalator for the platform, he relaxed. He was finally going to make it to class, and he had managed to avoid getting mad at the lady in the booth. While she certainly wasn’t being charitable, he knew that if he made more of an argument, it would just drag both of them down.

“Attention! *Bleep!* Upper platform! White male, black shirt, black hair, book-bag! Upper platform! White male, black shirt, black hair, book-bag!” Imagine his surprise when he heard this pipe in over the loudspeaker. His hand started to tremble so violently that it sent a fine spray of coffee in either direction. But suddenly he realized that the same grand CTA, which hired the mean bus driver and the nasty booth lady, probably hired lazy security guards, too, and all was well. For the moment.