The Future of Football

At the New York Review of Books, David Maraniss surveys the ongoing debate over football’s merits (or lack thereof). He evaluates the dialogue between two books, one by Steve Almond titled Against Football, and a response by Gregg Easterbrook called The Game’s Not Over. Continue reading The Future of Football

The Fallacy Kings of New Atheism

Edward Feser, a philosophy professor in California, calls Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, an “omnibus of fallacies.”

[Coyne] has no consistent account at all of what religion is. On one page, he will tell you that Jainism is not really the sort of thing he means by “religion.” Forty pages later, he’ll offer Jainism as an example of the sort of thing he means by “religion.” If the views of some theologian are clearly compatible with science, Coyne will assure us that what theologians have to say is irrelevant to determining what is typical of religion. But if a theologian says something that Coyne thinks is stupid, then what theologians have to say suddenly becomes highly relevant to determining what is typical of religion. When churchmen refuse to abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is dogmatic and unwilling to adjust itself to modern knowledge. When churchmen do abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is unfalsifiable and desperate to adjust itself to modern knowledge. It seems Coyne also missed that lecture in logic class about the fallacy of special pleading.

This is vintage New Atheism. One of the recurring themes in NA bibliography is the utter inability to talk about religious language in a way that is actually meaningful. Over and over and over again, Dawkins, Harris, and Coyne use the word “religion” to describe base irrationality, while at the same time stacking the deck so that any trace of reasonableness becomes evidence of how elastic and meaningless religion really is.

Feser says Coyne’s book “might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre.” That’s a highly sought-after award, as Feser notes, but Coyne seems up to the challenge:

Coyne’s own method, then, is to characterize religion however he needs to in order to convict it of irrationality. Nor is “religion” the only term Coyne uses in a tendentious way. The question-begging definition is perhaps his favorite debating trick. He characterizes “faith” as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence” and repeatedly uses the term as if this is what it generally means in religious contexts. Naturally, he has no trouble showing that faith so understood is irrational. But this simply is not how faith is understood historically in Christian theology. For example, for scholastic theologians, faith is assent to something that has been revealed by God. And how do we know that God exists and really has revealed it? Those are claims for which, the theologian agrees, evidence needs to be given.

This kind of mistake would be avoided if Coyne were at least marginally conversant with theology. But theology is rubbish, a hoax, so why waste time with it? It is remarkably convenient for these writers that because theology is nonsense and we mustn’t talk about it, we should need to rely on biologists and neuroscientists to explain it, and take their word that it really is turtles all the way down.

Of course, this doesn’t matter if your main objective is to vent your spleen about how stupid religious people are, or how much better the world would be in total secularity. And that is, after all, what the entire New Atheism was about from the beginning. NA’s most glaring fault has always been a severe internal ignorance about religion. There’s no rule that says biologists can’t talk about philosophy, of course, but there is a rule that says people who don’t understand–or even totally reject–categories of thought beyond the empirical shouldn’t embarrass themselves and waste time for others.

If philosopher kings are a bad idea, biologist anti-philosopher kings are an even worse one. At least Plato gave us The Republic, instead of a grumpy Twitter account.

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The Legacy of “Schindler’s List”

Today, January 27, is known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For the vast majority of us, the Holocaust is only accessible via the historical record. Books, pictures, articles, and testimony are all that remain of the Third Reich’s “final solution” for millions of European Jews, gypsies, Poles, and other minorities. 

One of the most important moments of cultural remembrance of the Shoah is Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List. The film, which won 7 Oscars including Best Picture, is not without its flaws or critics. But there is no question that, perhaps more so than any other popular work of art, Schindler’s List has illuminated one of the darkest corners of human history for multiple generations. 

Below is an essay I wrote about the film last year for Patheos. My hope is that this film, a cinematic masterpiece as well as an indispensable record, endures for as long as people watch movies. Christians especially should take an interest in the story of a man who sacrificed everything he had to rescue those who were despised in society.

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Oskar Schindler was the greatest con artist in history. Most conmen fail. The successful ones manage to swindle a few people and make a few dollars. The greatest cons swindle more people and make more dollars. Oskar Schindler didn’t con 10, 50, or even 100 people; he conned the entire Nazi Party. He made a fortune, and then spent it all–becoming destitute by the war’s end– to keep his con working. And at the end, there were 1,100 Polish Jews who escaped Auschwitz because of him.

All of the great films tell great stories, but a few of them have stories of their own. One day in 1980 the novelist Thomas Keneally entered, by pure chance, a Beverly Hills store owned by an old Jew named Leopold. Learning that his customer was a writer, Leopold told Keneally that his real name was Poldek Pffeferberg and that he survived World War II in Poland because a German named Schindler had hired Jews to work in his factories. After much pleading, Keneally agreed to write Pffeferberg’s story, and published Schindler’s Ark (it was retitled Schindler’s List in the States) in 1982.

Steven Spielberg read Keneally’s book and knew it had to be filmed, but didn’t want to do it himself. Only after Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski both told Spielberg they couldn’t make it did he decide it had to be him (Polanski would make The Pianist ten years after Schindler’s List released). It proved to be one of the landmark decisions of his legendary career. No one could have made Schindler’s List the way Spielberg made it.

There are so many great scenes in Schindler’s List, so many moments of purity and transcendence and horror that it is tempting to merely dub it “great art” and esteem it the way we might a Renaissance painting or a Handel composition. But it is Spielberg’s great gift of storytelling that prevents us from doing so. We must confront the history, the events, the people, and the places. Schindler’s List is art, yes, but it is also fact, and must be received as such. It’s not easy.

Perhaps that explains then why Schindler’s List seems to be fading from cultural consciousness. It appears only very rarely on television, owing to Spielberg’s inflexible rule that it broadcast unedited. It comes up frequently on lists like the IMDB Top 10 films of all time, but I’m consistently surprised at how many people admit to not having seen it. It’s true that films like The Godfather and Gone With the Wind are such fixtures of culture that many feel like they have seen them even if they haven’t. Is that the case with Schindler’s List? I doubt it. More likely it is being slowly forgotten. It deserves better.

These days Liam Neeson has successfully styled himself as an action hero. His fans owe it to themselves to watch him carefully in this film. He plays Oskar Schindler like a man totally in control. The film’s second scene shows Schindler throwing money at waiters at an upscale SS dinner party like a soldier hands out cigarettes. We get the iconic moving close-up of Schindler as he identifies who among the Nazi guests should be schmoozed. Later on, in one Neeson’s best scenes, he rescues his accountant Izthak Stern (Ben Kingsley) from deportation by intimidating the officers in charge. We watch and might be tempted to dismiss Schindler’s persona as implausible, until we remember that Nazism won Germany in large part because of one man’s charisma. Those who believe they’re in charge often are.

Later, Schindler bribes the commander of Auschwitz after his workers are mistakenly taken there. Spielberg and his editor Michael Kahn, who won the Oscar, place this conversation immediately after the well-known “shower scene.” Our emotions reeling, we watch as Schindler seems to grow and the Nazi seems to shrink. “I’m not judging you, but in the coming months we all are going to need portable wealth,” Schindler says, unveiling a bag of diamonds. The commander threatens to have him arrested. “I’m protected by powerful friends,” Schindler replies, showing not the slightest bit of concern. A few minutes later, Spielberg gives us one of Schindler’s List’s most powerful shots: A shorn and terrified group of women leave the camp and enter safety with Schindler himself in their midst, towering over them like a protective shelter.

Schindler’s enemy is not Nazism but one of its manifestations, the work camp commandant Amon Goethe. It is said that some Jewish survivors on Spielberg’s set cried out in terror when they saw Ralph Fiennes in full costume. Just as Neeson gives Schindler a cocksure CEO persona, so Fiennes plays Goethe as a man with insatiable bloodlust and possible insanity. He falls in his love with his Jewish housemaid but beats her savagely to atone for it. From his villa overlooking the work camp he uses Jews for target practice. Spielberg makes no attempt to shield his audience from the psychotic randomness of the Holocaust’s evil.

In his essay on the film Roger Ebert asked whether it would have been better if Goethe had not been portrayed as a psychopath but as a man living out his ideals consistently and obediently. That’s a good question. My instinct says that it was precisely Goethe’s instability that gave Schindler an opportunity to master him. A sharper and more principled man might have called Schindler’s bluff or at least resisted all those bribes. In a way, Goethe’s madness draws comparisons to the Reich’s downfall; there is only so much pure evil you can imbibe without stumbling.

Spielberg contrasts these two men explicitly. Three important shots send the message: A scene early that cuts back and forth between the two men shaving; a confrontation over the ghetto massacre that puts both men on either side of the frame  and shadow between; and Schindler’s offer to purchase his workers from Goethe in exchange for their lives. Screenwriter Steve Zallian is flawless in that last scene:  “You want these people?” Goethe asks. “They’re MY people, I want my people. “Who are you, Moses?” It’s not the first or the last time Goethe speaks beyond his comprehension.

How did Goethe never catch on? As if to insult his intelligence, Schindler orders a hose to spray water into train cars filled with Jews right in front of him. Goethe cackles, “You’re giving them hope! That’s cruel, you shouldn’t do that!” I love the way Neeson smiles in response. He knows Goethe cannot stop him because he cannot fathom him.

Oh, how much more can be said! A little girl with a red coat, a typewriter creating salvation with every keystroke, and a candle burning quietly and fiercely against the night–so many timeless images that Spielberg created. There’s a tender hand in every relentless shot of terror. If it is true at all that art can reach into our souls, thenSchindler’s List does exactly that.

The Holocaust is unfilmable. No movie can capture what genocide of six million people actually means. Some have objected to Spielberg’s film because it has a happy ending. I’m not sure that survival is always the same as happy, and even if it is, so what? The memory of the six million lives in the testimony of the 1,100. It is their story that Spielberg tells, and tells with grace and truth. That is the test of a great filmmaker and a great film. Wherever Oskar Schindler’s name is remembered, Steven Spielberg’s movie will be remembered too.

The Ethics of a Planned Parenthood Sting

Count me in full agreement with the editorial board at National Review, who have just written in support of Center for Medical Progress chief David Daleiden and his video expose of Planned Parenthood. Calling the Daleiden’s indictment by a Houston grand jury “dubious,” National Review’s editors contend–rightfully I believe–that this entire case reeks of gross political bias.

And while there is no investigative-reporting exception to criminal statutes (though a reporter’s purpose can be relevant in establishing whether there is the necessary criminal intent), one can’t help but notice the double standard. NBC’s David Gregory once waved an illegal high-capacity magazine at the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre during a contentious interview on Meet the Press. Gregory wasn’t prosecuted, even though District of Columbia police explicitly warned his news editor prior to the program that possessing the magazine was illegal under D.C. law; the police recommended showing a photograph instead. The prosecutor simply exercised his “prosecutorial discretion” to let Gregory off, scot-free, although Gregory had intentionally and knowingly defied the law. But there Gregory was taking on the NRA, the Left’s favorite bogeyman. Here, Daleiden had the misfortune of confronting the corporate heroes of the sexual revolution.

Supporters of Planned Parenthood have been quick to celebrate the indictment, insisting that Daleiden and the CMP’s alleged law-breaking is the real issue. As I wrote before, I don’t know what evidence was brought to the grand jury, so I cannot say with certainity or authority what verdict should have been reached. But the point is simple: It’s simply not conscionable that a whistleblowing organization that produces credible, on the record evidence (you don’t have to think its proof, but it is evidence, hence the congressional inquiries) of illegal activity and medical malpractice inside a major healthcare facility would be considered more liable to legal repercussion than the healthcare provider depicted. Yes, journalists are accountable to the law, but that is simply a smokescreen and misdirection; it is not at all rare for journalists to practice some forms of deception to gain information on a major story.

For some perspective, consider this checklist for journalists, written by Bob Steele and cited in this article from The Columbia Journalism Review. Steele asks when is it appropriate for journalists to use deception, including hidden cameras, in investigation.

  • When the information obtained is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing great “system failure” at the top levels,or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.

 

When all other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been exhausted.

 

When the journalists involved are willing to disclose the nature of the deception and the reason for it.

 

When the individuals involved and their news organization apply excellence, through outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of time and funding needed to pursue the story fully.

 

When the harm prevented by the information revealed through deception outweighs any harm caused by the act of deception.

 

When the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberative decision making process on the ethical and legal issues.

I cite Steele’s list not because I am convinced beyond all doubt that the CMP fulfilled each of these requirements, but because it is absolute fantasy to insist that the approach taken by CMP was somehow exceptional or unheard of. Both the journalism industry and the courts know from precedent how to think about a reporter who goes undercover for a major, socially relevant story. My concern here is whether, in this instance, Daleiden and the CMP are being handled like journalists in pursuit of a major human interest story, or are being presumed to be pro-life agitators without a cause.

Again, I cannot say whether CMP broke the law. I don’t know. But it should be obvious to all that this watchdog group was motivated by (what they felt at least) truth-telling, and a desire take seriously the testimony of people like Holly O’Donnell. Their methods are not above suspicion, and neither are Planned Parenthood’s. The fog of politics looms heavy over this indictment.

Life As an Etch-A-Sketch

I commend to you this excellent piece from the always-excellent Alan Jacobs on why American culture is so quick to scrap pieces of life–jobs, marriages, etc–and start over blank again. Jacobs calls it the “trade-in society,” and sees it in everything from sports to church membership.

Jacobs:

This is one of the chief reasons why so many marriages end quickly; this is why so many Christians church-hop, to the point that pastors will tell you that church discipline is simply impossible: if you challenge or rebuke a church member for bad behavior, he or she will simply be at another church the next week, or at no church at all.

It seems that we — and I’m using “we” advisedly here, as you’ll see in a moment — are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can. Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over?

A while back I had the opportunity to speak to a room full of mostly high school students. I brought up this exact point, telling the guys and girls that our generation seemed to be particularly rootless and wandering, migrating constantly from one friendship, one job, one relationship, one place to the next. I’m not sure what they thought of that, becuase I’m not sure how people who are brought up in such a mobile, transient technological age are supposed to see the inherent virtues of permanence and stability (much less to see these virtues through conflict and hardship).

Everything in our western life is in motion, and it seems there is no distinction made between stillness and stagnation. If, for one season, life isn’t as romantic or exciting (or profitable) as we might hope, our tendency is to find where we need to pull the plug. This is part of what I mean when I talk about the perils of a “hyper-examined life.” An obsessive watch over our levels of emotional fulfillment can easily create the illusion that we are in drastic need of change when what we really need is to stop thinking about our own minds for a moment.

Jacobs goes on to reflect on how this mentality might have affected his own life:

[I]n the three decades that I lived in Wheaton, Illinois, I was a member of three different churches, and I often wonder what I might have learned — what wisdom I might have gained, what benefits of character I might have reaped, what good I might have done for others, what I might have been taught by fellow parishioners — if I had never left the first one. I can’t manage to wish I had stayed, but that may be because all I know is what went wrong there, what made me frustrated and unhappy. Any benefits I (or others) might have received through persistent faithfulness are unknown to me, a matter of speculation.

Looking back on my decision to leave that first church, I realize that I did so because I was confident that, whatever good things might have come to me at that church, those good things, or very similar ones, would be available to me elsewhere. It seems to me that if there’s one thing that our current version of advertising-based capitalism teaches us all it’s that everything is replaceable: everything can be reproduced, or traded in for a new and improved model. And that applies to coaches, to churches, to spouses.

A couple years ago, my wife (fiance at the time) and I made the single hardest transition that we’ve made to date: We left our home church. She, a deacon’s daughter, had been a member her entire life. I had been a member from 14 to 25. Outside of family, there is nothing that Emily and I have been a part of longer than we were part of that little church in Louisville.

The transition was necessary and amiable. We didn’t end any friendships over it. But it was still incredibly difficult, not because anyone made it difficult but because moving on from anything in which your roots have gone down deeply for long is supposed to be difficult. We had an emotional stake in that church, simply by virtue of being a part of it for the years that we were.

That kind of relational investment can make conflict much more painful and transitions much sadder. But the richness it adds to life is unmistakable. The slow, month-by-month, year-by-year buildup of spiritual, emotional, and physical presence all adds up to a warmth of memory and personal meaning that a life of low-stakes membership and come-and-go-as-you-like mentality cannot imitate.

What we lose in the trade-in society is more than memories, however. We lose our sense of covenant. At-will employment is a rule of the free market, but it was never meant to define our most personal communities or deepest relationships. Because we image the Creator who is at the same time making all things new and yet not ever changing, our hearts are not designed to endure the endless reinvention of floating from place to place, job to job, church to church, friend to friend, lover to lover, and hobby to hobby. When we realize that everything can be exchanged, we do not value our freedom more, we value our choices, and consequently our own lives, less.

Not every freedom is truly freeing. An Etch-A-Sketch can be cleaned very quickly, but it can’t make art that lasts. Sometimes staying where you are is the greatest adventure, and the highest joy, possible.

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The Abortion Lobby Strikes Back

In what feels like a surreal turn of events, a grand jury in Houston, initially called up to investigate a Planned Parenthood chapter in light of the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose, has instead exonerated Planned Parenthood and returned felony indictments for CMP head David Daleiden and another CMP employee. Continue reading The Abortion Lobby Strikes Back

Beware the Politics of Anger

We have this election season a few candidates, on both sides of the ideological aisle, who are said to be “tapping into American anger.” What this means is that these candidates, demonstrably more so than their rivals, address explicitly the frustration, resentment, and fear that many in the country are feeling at the moment. Continue reading Beware the Politics of Anger

Be Better Than the Bengals

In sports, character and self-control matter every bit as much as talent. You won’t see many demonstrations of that truth more glaring than Saturday night’s NFL playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. Continue reading Be Better Than the Bengals

Stop Calling It “Adult”

When you hear the phrase “adult entertainment,” you probably know it means: pornography. In our cultural lexicon, the use of “adult” as an adjective almost always signifies sexual explicitness or erotica: “Adult” books, “adult” films, “adult” events, etc, ad nauseum. Continue reading Stop Calling It “Adult”