Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Trinity Prayer

My life has been recently impacted by the use of the Jesus Prayer. And being inspired by the usefulness of this simple powerful prayer I wrote another simple prayer that I would like to share.

The Jesus Prayer is simply this:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The language is simple and yet very powerful and intentional. You submit to Jesus the Messiah as your Lord. Then you proclaim His deity. Then admit your need for His help. And finally you admit your own sinfulness.

I call my prayer, possibly pretentiously, The Trinity Prayer:
Holy Trinity I pray to you, and you alone
For though it grieves me, I am a sinner
Yahweh, God the Father, crucify my sins today
For though it grieves me, I am a sinner
Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, resurrect my life today
For though it grieves me, I am a sinner
Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, make me one with God and Your Church today
For though it grieves me, I am a sinner

Fracture

Recently my good friend Peter Phillips asked me to review Fracture, a film by Gregory Hoblit starring Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins. 

This film is essentially about one thing: a fracture. A fracture as defined by this film is the ultimately devastating weak spot in anything. And I think in response to this idea the film also presents the strength of the American law system. 

These two ideas are an important part of our society. Societies can build and build around an idea that we deem to be perfect and yet somehow come crashing done because not enough thought was put into structuring the society so that there are ways of correcting injustice or malpractice. What is so interesting about this film is that while warning us of this folly it actually winds up praising our legal system. I believe because our legal system was created by men who were concerned about this very problem. We cannot be arrogant enough to believe our ideas are perfect. There is always a flaw somewhere that can send the whole system crashing done. But the founding fathers created a system where justice can prevail but it is because of its complicated and sometimes difficult nature that it can work so well. If it were overaly speedy and did not desire to protect those being accused of crimes it would collapse. If it were devoid of human judgement it would collapse. But it combines many things in order to make itself strong, hopefully in order to fight off fractures.

This film was beautiful and profound in its use of pure cinema. The characterization of the villain was told entirely through visual clues. Hopkins portrays a highly intelligent man who works for an airplane manufacturer. I believe his job is actually to figure out what goes wrong when a plane crashes. A job which he is very competent at. This is displayed very quickly at the beginning of the film. But then immediately after that we see him go into another world. He has discovered that his wife is having an affair and he goes to the hotel where the "lovers" do their dirty deeds. Then he goes home. He waits for his wife. When she comes home he shoots her in the head. This is the essential plot piece upon which everything else rides upon and it is specifically this plot device that was the main criticism of the film. What happens after Hopkins shoots his wife is a little hard to believe. The bullet (a .45 caliber) lodges in her skull. If they remove the bullet she will in fact die, but by leaving it there she may forever remain in a coma. But despite the obvious difficulty of believing that a bullet as large as a .45 would not blow her head off but instead create a wonderfully delicate plot there really is nothing wrong with this film.

But even this is not really a flaw. Great movies often force us to suspend disbelief. Casablanca is a great example of this. The entire plot of that great film is based upon something that never even existed, one of the most notorious macguffins in film history: the letters of transit. These did not exist in French Morocco as Ebert firmly states in his DVD audio commentary. The very idea of papers that could get you out of the country, no questions asked, no matter who you were is a little hard to buy. But nobody cares! We're so distracted by how much we care about the people involved and the outcome of the story. Another problem with Casablanca is that the Nazis don't simply grab Victor, he is a criminal by their standards. The Vichy goverment in france was an obvious Puppet dictatorship. The Nazis did whatever they wanted in French Morocco. These aren't even really historical inaccuracies, they just seem absurd when you actually think about them. But it is in fact these phony rules that give Casablanca its great story. The same is true of Fracture.

Everything about this film was quality, but my favorite thing was the way in which we are told who the villain is. Hopkins' character is not really discussed in the film. When it is he is dismissed as crazy. But we know exactly who he is by the end of the film. He is a designer. Or a Schemer if you will. Like The Dark Knight's Joker (despite his statements to the contrary). He enjoys building things. He builds these complex machines for which I don't even know the name. They are complicated contraptions which transport glass marbles around steel frames. He builds them in all sorts of ways and shapes and sizes. Keep this in mind for just a moment.

When Hopkins' case finally goes to court he decides to represent himself. An explanation for why is never given but when the case finally implodes leaving Gosling with a terrible mess we think we understand. The entire murder was a sort of set up. Hopkins orchestrated everything beautifully so that he could escape conviction. And that is the point of the machines he builds. He even tells Gosling later that his plan was beautiful. Terribly beautiful. Actually more like clever. Beauty is a concept we attribute to things that are not horrible in their basic nature. But to Hopkins it is beautiful. During the actual hearing in court his character is sketching more plans for more of his beloved contraptions. This is how his mind works. He designs and plans and schemes. And he enjoys it as a good unto itself. The shear pleasure of designing a complex mechanism and watching it go. 

Gosling's character is the main character. But he is fairly simple. A man who wants money but in the end is driven more by his conscience then anything else. Both of the actors' portrayals are delicate and precise. Giving the exact balance needed to make what could have easily been cliches into real people. 

I think that this is a great film. It was paced perfectly. Steady and thoughtful. Never letting us miss the important points. And the entire film culminates in one great moment, pulled off skillfully by both Gosling and Hopkins. I can't recommend this film more highly.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones but Atheological Defeaters For My Properly Basic Theistic Beliefs Will Never Hurt Me

In light of the recent blog "war" that has erupted, I have decided to publish my Senior Thesis here; on my blog. This is the entirety of my paper and represents the culmination of not only a semester's work but in all actuality a year. Because the last third represents conclusions that I worked out during our epistemology class and seminar on the Incarnation prior to Senior Thesis Seminar. I hope that this helps produce more light for the ongoing discussion. And yes the title of this blog post is actually the title of my paper. The sections in bold were a requirement for writing the paper. Also I have deep thankfulness and indebtedness toward Dr. Thomas Crisp, and to a lesser extent Dr. Douglas Geivett. They helped me a great deal on this paper. But all the mistakes within this paper I attribute solely to Dr. Greg Ten Elshof, due to the fact that he was on sabbatical that semester and was not available to help me. I also publicly dedicated this paper to my wife Sarah, who had only in fact been my bride for about a month when I presented this paper. Enjoy.

Alvin Plantinga and Philip Quinn had a productive dialogue that was published over several years during the eighties and early nineties concerning Plantinga’s reformed epistemology. This paper will be concerned with certain parts of that dialogue, more specifically the sections dealing with the rationality of defeaters for an intellectually sophisticated adult theist. In response to atheistic defeaters of properly basic theistic belief Plantinga proposes that basic beliefs could have more warrant than any of the alleged defeaters brought against them. If this is true then properly basic theistic belief is an intrinsic defeater for atheological defeaters rendering argumentation against said defeaters superfluous in regards to the rationality of theistic belief. My project is to determine whether or not this aspect of Plantinga’s epistemology can withstand the objections brought against it by Quinn. I think that Quinn’s objections are adequately answered in light of Plantinga’s example of memorial beliefs.

The first article in this discussion was published by Plantinga and dealt with the question of whether or not theistic belief was properly basic. [i] He was writing in response to the commonly held belief that theistic beliefs cannot be rightly or properly basic and tries to show that they in fact can be. The commonly held view is that to believe God exists in a basic way would be groundless. In order to rationally believe God exists a good reason or grounding needs to be given, like an inductive or deductive argument, but Plantinga, along with many reformed thinkers, rejects this claim. In order to set up his argument Plantinga gives us a few examples of what are generally considered to be properly basic:

(1) I see a tree

(2) I had breakfast this morning

(3) That person is angry

These three examples are demonstrations of three different sorts of properly basic beliefs: perceptual, memorial, and the state of affairs of another mind. In regards to the validity of properly basic beliefs Moorean common sense philosophy will be for the most part assumed in this paper. The reason being that it is an instance of agreement between Quinn and Plantinga.

In order to correctly understand what a properly basic belief is the two parts of the phrase must be defined. In order for a belief to be basic it must be a belief that is held only upon the warrant of the belief itself. If it is based upon any other beliefs then it is no longer basic. In order for a belief to be properly basic the belief needs to be basic in the aforementioned way but it must also be a belief that really has enough warrant of its own to be believed rationally without being based on other beliefs or arguments. Even though E=mc2 is a warranted belief that many people have from a young age none of those people would be proper in holding it as a basic belief. E=mc2 is not basic for anyone. The majority of people do not believe it because they can see its truth but because they trust the scientific authority from which it is derived. Einstein formulated this theorem through years of mathematical and scientific rigor. It did not simply come to him. It is based upon many other beliefs. But Einstein’s belief that 1+1=2 is rightly basic. He does not base that belief on anything except for its obvious truthfulness along with the rest of humanity.

In stark contrast a man who suffers from severe paranoia holds it as basic that the government steals all his left socks. But even though this belief is very clearly basic, he literally has no evidence at all to lend it warrant. In point of fact none of his left socks are even missing. This would be an improper belief for him even if it were not basic. But in fact the only thing that causes this belief is cognitive malfunction.

It is also important to note that properly basic beliefs are not just appropriate to be held in a basic way but I believe that they probably could not be successfully argued for or based upon other beliefs. Just like the three sorts of properly basic beliefs mentioned above, how exactly would a successful argument for the reliability of memory or perception play out? To put it another way basing your properly basic beliefs upon arguments or other forms of justification would be improper. It would not lend them warrant. If this is true then properly basic beliefs are also necessarily basic beliefs. This may or may not cause problems for Plantinga. It depends on the validity of Natural theology and also whether or not a belief could be properly basic and yet still have warrant due to other evidences and argument, but this could take up an entire paper in itself and Quinn does not pursue this line of argument.

Now Plantinga wants to show that basic theistic belief is not really any different from the aforementioned sorts of properly basic beliefs. After presenting those examples he discusses why it is that we consider them rational beliefs and yet we either cannot or do not need to argue for them. They are not groundless; warrant is conferred on them through the very experience. In the case of (1) experiencing a tree visually is what rightly causes or warrants that particular belief.

The concept of warrant as defined by Plantinga is very much in reaction to one of the perennial Philosophic issues of the twentieth century: Gettier examples. Warrant is that which when added to true belief constitutes knowledge. [ii] In other words Plantinga has replaced the Justification in JTB with a capital W. Warranted True Belief is how Plantinga has redefined one conception of knowledge. The intricacies of this theory have filled up entire books and only a brief explication of some of the more important aspects of Plantinga’s epistemology will be necessary.

What is most important to note about warrant is in the way that it differs from justification. Warrant is basically that which truly and rightly justifies your true belief. It is not just a reason for your true belief; it is in fact the true and right cause of your true belief. Plantinga’s favorite phrase to describe warrant is positive epistemic status. [iii] This is a very important distinction because justification qua justification can be provided by individuals seeking the JTB brand of knowledge in all sorts of ways, but as Gettier demonstrated JTB is not always knowledge. If the reason for or the cause of your true belief is in someway defective then it seems clear that knowledge has not been obtained because there is nothing substantial for your true belief to be grounded in or based on. Unfortunately though the concepts of warrant and justification are still so closely related, they can still fall prey to Gettier examples. [iv] So Plantinga is still on the Gettier inspired project of coming up with the right amendment of JTB and it is clear that his conception of Warrant is playing a significant role in this amending process.

Warrant or lack thereof is a direct consequence of the way in which a belief is formed. Warranted belief formations can only occur in a knower who is functioning properly under the right circumstances. In order to demonstrate this concept here is a simple example of WTB, which would undoubtedly gain Plantinga’s approval. A young man, let’s call him Thomas, sees a tree. There is nothing wrong with the way Thomas’ belief forming faculties are working at this moment and he comes to the belief that he sees a tree. He was in the appropriate circumstances for his belief to be true. Thomas was appeared to treely. And his belief was formed by properly functioning faculties. Thomas’ brain did not tell him that he had in fact been witness to a panda mating ritual but had in fact seen a tree.

It is important to note that in the example of Thomas there are actually two beliefs at work. A properly basic belief and a properly based belief, based of course in the properly basic one. The properly basic belief at play is the same as proposition 1. The properly based belief is

(4) Such things as trees exist.

This proposition cannot be said to be basic because it is immediately inferred from the truth of proposition (1). So it receives its warrant from being properly based in proposition (1).

So then the question remains how the proposition

(5) God exists
is properly basic. Plantinga argues that belief (5) may not itself be properly basic even to theists but such beliefs as
(6) God is speaking to me

(7) God disapproves of my actions

clearly are basic for many theists. And it is from these properly basic beliefs that it may be said belief in proposition (5) is directly and immediately derived. So a theist has an experience of proposition (6) and without even thinking about it infers the truth of proposition (5). In other words Plantinga has admitted that theistic belief in the form of (5) is not properly basic but is in fact properly based. But propositions (6) and (7) are at the very least basic even if they are not warranted enough to be considered rightly basic. So theistic beliefs or beliefs entailing theism are basic. And in fact they are basic in the same way that propositions (1)-(3) are basic. And if propositions (1)-(3) can be considered properly basic then it seems as if theists are at the very least rational to believe that propositions (6) and (7) have positive epistemic status. Because if (6) and (7) are truly warranted then they are warranted on the same grounds as (1)-(3), unless it could be shown that theism is produced by faulty faculties and not the belief formations of properly functioning individuals.

Quinn took it upon himself to respond to this aspect of Plantinga’s epistemology in the second article of this discussion with a very interesting counterexample: the intellectually sophisticated adult theist. [v] In an article during the late 90s William Hasker assessed this entire dialogue and determined that this was the most important disagreement between Quinn and Plantinga. [vi] I heartily agree otherwise I would have picked another point of disagreement between them.

Quinn allows, for argument sake, that Plantinga’s examples of properly basic theistic beliefs of the sort expressed by (6) and (7) are most certainly basic for some theists. But they could not have this epistemic status for an intellectually sophisticated adult theist. The reason is that theists who are not aware of defeaters for theism could take propositions such as 6 and 7 as basic. Quinn says:
As I see it, an intellectually sophisticated adult in our culture would have to be epistemically negligent not to have very substantial reasons for thinking that what [God does not exist] expresses is true. After all, non-trivial atheological reasons, ranging from various problems of evil to naturalistic theories according to which theistic belief is illusory or merely projective, are a pervasive, if not obtrusive, component of the rational portion of our cultural heritage. [vii]

Theists like children or anyone else who has never encountered any of the various critical arguments to either explain away theistic belief projectively or show incoherence within classical theism like any of the alleged arguments from evil.

But an intellectually sophisticated adult theist (who shall be referred to as James Porter, or J.P. for short, from here on out) would very likely be aware of all these defeaters. Quinn claims that the potential defeaters that are posed by these atheological arguments should have more by way of warrant for J.P. than the proposition (5). Propositions such as

(8) There are 1013 turps of evil is incompatible with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omni benevolent God

(9) Theistic belief is explained by wish fulfillment

So according to Quinn the difference between J.P. and my grandmother is that my grandmother is able to believe propositions (6) and (7) in a basic way, not because she is not intelligent but because she has not been exposed to the kinds of defeaters that J.P. is exposed to on a regular basis. Since he has evidence that, from his point of view, highly disconfirms the truth of proposition (5) then he cannot take beliefs (6) and (7) as properly basic. But there is no evidence that disconfirms Grandma’s belief in (5). She is not a part of an intellectually rigorous community that works with deductive and inductive arguments in an attempt to analyze and defend grand philosophical systems. The only thing that even remotely resembles this sort of community is her Sunday school class and they are all obviously theists of the exact same variety.

Plantinga responds to this article with another article where he brings up the idea of an intrinsic defeater-defeater through the example of memorial beliefs. [viii] Plantinga explains that Quinn has set up the problem as follows:

…suppose I take some proposition as basic, but have substantial evidence from other things I believe for some defeater of this proposition—a proposition incompatible with it, let’s say. Then (according to [Quinn]) I am irrational if I continue to accept the proposition in question, unless I also have good evidence for the falsehood of that defeater. So if I accept a proposition p, but believe or know other things that constitute strong evidence for some defeater q of p, then, says [Quinn], if I am not to be irrational in continuing to accept p as basic, I must have a reason for thinking q false—a reason that is stronger than the reasons I have for thinking q true. [ix]

There are generally considered to be two kinds of defeaters: undercutting defeaters and rebutting defeaters. But here Plantinga introduces a new dichotomy of defeaters: extrinsic defeaters and intrinsic defeaters. An extrinsic defeater would be the more typical kind of rebutting defeater one would expect. Such as providing evidence against propositions (8) and (9) in order to show that they are in fact not true or an undercutting defeater where you show that an argument is incoherent because of logical contradictions.

In other words what we would expect to see happen is exactly like the situation that Plantinga has explicated above, the same situation that Quinn set up in his previous article where then Plantinga would respond with an extrinsic defeater for Quinn’s counterexample. And what we would expect is for Plantinga to supply some evidence for his view or incoherence in Quinn’s argument. But instead Plantinga poses a question, a question, which now leads us to the definition of an intrinsic defeater.

The question is, instead of providing a defeater that is unrelated to the proposition p in order to defend it against the defeater q, what if p itself acts as a defeater for q? This would be an intrinsic defeater because it uses the strength of the warrant of the belief as a defeater-defeater. In order to argue for this new kind of defeater Plantinga gives an example:

I am applying to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a fellowship; I write a letter to a colleague, trying to bribe him to write the Endowment a glowing letter on my behalf; he indignantly refuses and sends the letter to my chairman. The letter disappears from the chairman’s office under mysterious circumstances. I have a motive for stealing it; I have the opportunity to do so; and I have been known to do such things in the past. Furthermore an extremely reliable member of the department claims to have seen me furtively entering the chairman’s office at about the time when the letter must have been stolen. The evidence against me is very strong; my colleagues reproach me for such underhanded behavior and treat me with evident distaste. The facts of the matter, however, are that I didn’t steal the letter and in fact spent the entire afternoon in question on a solitary walk in the woods; furthermore I clearly remember spending that afternoon walking in the woods. [x]

Now Degenerate Plantinga (D.P. from here on) holds to the following proposition basically:

(10) I was alone in the woods all that afternoon, and I did not steal the letter.

D.P. has considerable evidence to the contrary of proposition (10) yet without any way of arguing against the faculty in an extrinsic way he knows that their conclusion is in fact false. And even though the faculty’s conclusion is justified it is not a warranted conclusion for D.P. His belief in (10) has a far greater degree of warrant for him then the evidence he has been presented with that would seemingly prove the contrary.

Now if the evidence included some kind of cognitive condition that D.P. was not aware of then his belief in (10) would no longer be warranted and it would be irrational for him to maintain his disagreement with the faculty. But if it is true that D.P. has nothing wrong with his belief forming faculties, if he is in fact properly functioning, then he is perfectly rational to persist in his belief in (10) despite the good evidence to the contrary.

In the fourth and final article in the dialogue Quinn admits readily that Plantinga’s example has given him good cause to believe in the existence of intrinsic defeaters even though the thought had never occurred to him before. [xi] But he still thinks that the counterexample of J.P. (the intellectually sophisticated adult theist) still works against properly basic theistic belief. His reason for thinking this is that in the case of D.P. he has much more warrant for his properly basic belief then the evidence that was leveled against him. But in the case of J.P. the defeaters actually have more warrant than any basic belief in God he could possibly have.

The problem with this reply is that Quinn does not go on to show how the case of J.P. is really fundamentally different from the case of D.P. The two cases are in fact identical, unless you are going to assume that there is something inherently different with a basic belief in God. But this is really begging the question. Besides the fact that the beliefs are directed at different objects they are ultimately grounded in the same thing: warrant producing experiences. Remember that Quinn and Plantinga agree on the rationality of Moorean commonsense epistemology.

Unless Quinn can somehow demonstrate that the experience which grounds beliefs (6) and (7) is significantly different from the belief (10) then by agreeing that D.P. is justified in maintaining his belief by way of an intrinsic defeater he has essentially agreed with Plantinga. Because Plantinga thinks that (10) has the same grounding as (6), (7), and ultimately (5). Quinn does not even try to differentiate the two. He just seems to think that propositions (8) and (9) have more warrant than (5) simply because intellectually sophisticated adults believe that those kinds of propositions have more warrant than properly basic theistic beliefs. He never says this and perhaps it is uncharitable for me to attribute this thought to him, but I see no reason within his writings to believe anything besides the fact that he has been conditioned along with countless others to believe that the “hypothesis” of God is something that must be properly based, within a foundationalist epistemology, upon such things as natural theology. But clearly not all individuals who find themselves being characterized as intellectually sophisticated adult theists do think that way. Otherwise this dialogue would not be going on at all.

Now if J.P. has never had a properly basic experience of God then the propositions (6) and (7) will have no warrant at all for him and he must find another way to justify his theistic beliefs. But Quinn has not specified that. All Quinn has said is that any intellectually sophisticated adult theist has good evidence to disconfirm his belief in God. But D.P. has very good evidence to suppose his belief in (10) to be false. The evidence against him is, to be quite honest, more conclusive than the evidence provided by the problem of evil or any projection theory. Court cases are decided every day in America using only the amount and kind of evidence that is available to everyone involved in the D.P. testimony example. And if D.P. is still warranted to believe his basic proposition (10) then why would a J.P. like person not be able to hold his basic propositions (6) and (7) with the same degree of conviction in spite of much weaker evidence. Of course, Quinn might reply to this that D.P.’s properly basic beliefs in God may have the same weakened status due to their none physical existential nature which would put them all on equal footing again.

I believe that what makes the potential atheological defeaters mentioned in this paper subordinate to the evidence provided against D.P. in terms of warrant is not because their objects are existential or immaterial but because they are simply logical or psychological possibilities that cannot be demonstrated. At least not in the same sense that the propositions which cause the kind of properly basic beliefs that have been discussed so far.

But if J.P. really never has had the kind of experience that would create beliefs of the sort described by (6) and (7) then it would be like a blind man who has never seen colors. No matter how many times you tell a blind man that his pants are yellow and look ridiculous what reason does he even have to care? He has no concept of yellow because he has never experienced any color at all. But does the blind man assume that everyone else is lying or malfunctioning about the existence of such things as colors? He has been designed to see but unfortunately cannot. He is predisposed to believe in seeing even though he lacks the ability. He can feel this inadequacy in himself. And Plantinga uses this sense of blindness towards God as one of the central aspects of his epistemology in the epic Warranted Christian Belief. That is not to say that J.P. is not a true theist but Christians who are living in right relation to God generally claim to be able to experience him in a basic way. And it is these beliefs that Plantinga is speaking of with propositions (6) and (7).

One of the reasons why the testimony example works so well is that what is basic to D.P.’s current belief set is the belief that yesterday he was in the woods instead of stealing a letter. As long as he is functioning properly there is no reason for him to doubt that he did not steal that letter. His properly basic beliefs have automatically defeated any argument that could be leveled against him from the faculty, unless their argument involves expert medical opinion proving that D.P. is in some way creating these beliefs from some kind of noetic malfunction. If they cannot, then no matter how many people are convinced that D.P. did in fact steal the letter he is perfectly warranted to believe that they are wrong. Anyone in his situation would be, as long as they are properly functioning.

It is for this very same reason that individuals like Plantinga and myself are so heartily convinced that properly basic theistic beliefs are a rational basis for the warrant of belief in God. Sometimes theistic beliefs just seem for the all the world as if they were imposed upon our faculties in the same way those beliefs about the external world are imposed upon us.

It is important to note that no where does Quinn say that theism is irrational. He believes that even though propositions (8) and (9) may highly disconfirm proposition (5) the total evidence actually shows that (5) is indeed true. He claims that things like Natural theology could lend enough warrant to theistic belief. But it is clear that theistic belief for Quinn is different enough from memorial and other experiential beliefs that he is not convinced they could provide an intrinsic defeater. Which is why he thinks that the rational theist must resort to extrinsic defeaters. But yet again he gives no reason for this difference.

Thomas Morris’ book The Logic of God Incarnate is a great example of the more traditional approach to defeaters of Christian theism. But he is at least moderately friendly to Plantinga’s epistemology. At the end of his chapter on Nicodemus’ Modus Tollens Morris begins to speak more specifically about the complexities of rational belief in regards to a broadly construed reformed epistemology. But there is one section I find particularly interesting within this short discussion of reformed epistemology, which I think is very relevant to our discussion between Quinn and Plantinga. [xii]

Morris does not think that there is anything wrong with the formulation of beliefs in the divine that come naturally to one on the basis of experience, or in the case of little children, simply being told that Jesus really was God. These beliefs do not usually stay in such an underdeveloped state but are strengthened over time through more experience and increased knowledge of the church and the scriptures. But Morris contends that this rationality can only be maintained in the face of a serious objection against a belief if an adequate response can be formulated to combat the objection.

Here he and Quinn would be in strong agreement. Quinn would of course allow that some defeaters can be ultimately defeated by accumulating enough evidence such that your total positive evidence outweighs your negative evidence. Whether Morris believes this is unclear. But what is important to note is how both of them think very strongly that at some point theism stops being merely basic, even properly so, and at the very least becomes tested or tried in some way. If it cannot pass the trials then you are in some way irrational in maintaining your belief at the same level it was previously held as a youth or before becoming like J.P.

Would the Apostles’ belief in the incarnation have remained rational if a logical objection to the incarnation had been brought against them, which they understood but could not answer? I think that the answer to this question must be yes. The strength of conviction that was produced by being with the Christ before and after his crucifixion, experiencing his teachings, and witnessing his death and resurrection seems to be the sort of belief that cannot and should not be reduced because someone may be able to demonstrate logical incoherence.

Of course if an actual incoherence could be demonstrated then what the Apostles experienced must have been inaccurate or misleading in some way. But why would one of the Apostles ever believe that an actual incoherence had been produced? The kind of experiences they had which produced their belief in Christ’s divinity seem like they would be sufficient for continuing in that belief rationally no matter what was presented to them.

I bring up this case to show how more complicated questions of religious epistemology could be solved in similar and equally warranted ways. The Apostles are an interesting group because they represent something different than contemporary simple theists and theists of the J.P. variety. Obviously, I do not know what the Apostles would have actually said or done in this situation. But I do think that whether or not they would have consciously followed the argument form I am about to explicate, it could most certainly have been open to them because of its simple and forceful nature.

This kind of rationality is similar to the G.E. Moore Shift. No matter what kind of argument has been brought against the Apostles they could always have shifted the argument just like Moore does with skepticism. Here is a classic example of the shift from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“1. If I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming, then I cannot be sure that I have a body.

2. I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming.

3. Therefore, I cannot be sure that I have a body

Employing the G. E. Moore shift, we rearrange the propositions of the skeptic’s argument, thus:

1. If I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming, then I cannot be sure that I have a body.

2. I am sure that I have a body.

3. Therefore, I can tell the difference between waking and dreaming.”

It is not immediately obvious that this style of argument could be used to preserve rational belief in the incarnation because the claims being leveled against Jesus’ incarnation are of incoherence. They are arguments from logic and not from a lack of certainty. But despite this immediate observation look at the following argument:

1. If it is impossible for a fully human nature to be joined with a fully divine nature then Jesus was not God.

2. I know that it is impossible for a fully human nature to be joined with a fully divine nature.

3. Therefore, Jesus was not God.

Now look at how successful this same argument becomes to support the rationality of the Apostles after it has gone through the G.E. Moore Shift:

1. If it is impossible for a fully human nature to be joined with a fully divine nature then Jesus was not God.

2. I know that Jesus was God.

3. Therefore it is possible for a fully human nature to be joined with a fully divine nature.

It might seem to be a more subtle form of begging the question at first. But in fact if you look at the new argument after the Moore Shift no logical fallacy has been committed. It is a valid argument form. The disciples really knew that Jesus was God based upon their experiences with him so then why would they need to come up with a defeater for an argument of incoherence against the incarnation? Why not think that there must be something wrong with the argument or its premises? This is exactly what the Moore shift accomplishes and I contend that this upholds the rationality of the Apostles in the face of an undefeated charge of incoherence, which clearly disagrees with Morris and Quinn on this area of religious epistemology. But if we allow for the grounding of properly basic beliefs in experiences then why would the Apostles, including Paul, not be justified in this form of argumentation? Again if Quinn or Morris cannot show that there really is something fundamentally unsound about grounding belief in God in properly basic experiences then the apostles are just as warranted as D.P. in their beliefs.

In conclusion I think this discussion has clearly shown that Quinn’s objection to Plantinga’s reformed epistemology was easily overcome because of Moorean common sense and the proper basicality of memorial beliefs. Because of that it seems as if the way philosophers of religion have typically viewed theistic belief needs some serious work. I did not justify Plantinga’s epistemology by any stretch but I did show that Quinn’s counterexample ultimately showed no difference between basic theistic beliefs and other basic beliefs. This does not prove that theistic belief is properly basic but it certainly shows that Quinn’s counter example had a few serious flaws. As long as Quinn allows for the warrant of common sense properly basic beliefs then he needs to allow at least for the possibility that properly basic theistic beliefs could exist for anybody.
________________________________________

[i] Plantinga, Alvin. (1981). Is Belief in God Properly Basic? Nous, 15, pp. 41-51.

[ii] ---. Warrant: The Current Debate. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. p. 3-4

[iii] ---. p. 5

[iv] ---. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. p. 156-159

[v] Quinn, Phillip. (October 1985). In Search of the Foundations of Theism. Faith and Philosophy, 2,(4), pp. 468-486.

[vi] Hasker, William. (January 1998). The Foundations of Theism: Scoring the Quinn-Plantinga Debate. Faith and Philosophy, 15, (1), pp. 52-67.

[vii] Quinn, Phillip. (October 1985). In Search of the Foundations of Theism. Faith and Philosophy, 2, (4), pp. 481.

[viii] Plantinga, Alvin. (July 1986). The Foundations of Theism: A Reply. Faith and Philosophy, 3, (3), pp. 298-313.

[ix] ---. pp. 310.

[x] ---. pp. 310.

[xi] Zagzebski, Linda, ed. Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993. pp. 14-47.

[xii] Morris, Thomas V. The Logic of God Incarnate. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001. p. 201

Thursday, February 19, 2009

William Lane Craig's Classical Apologetic Part 1

This is primarily a blog about film. But my desire with this blog is to present an integration of Philosophy and Theology with film. A good friend of mine, Danny Pelichowski, has been posting a paper on his blog concerning the validity of Natural Theology. I think that while my friend's intentions are sincere and his motivations pure I think he is ultimately wrong in his presentation and critique of Natural Theology, particularly of the Biola variety. So I have taken it upon myself to present William Lane Craig's actual approach to apologetics, with an analysis and critique of some parts of it. While I myself do not find Natural Theology to always be the most persuasive form of apologetics I do think that Danny's critique fails, as it is beset by two problems: a misunderstanding of evangelical protestant Natural Theology, and the genetic fallacy. But keep in mind that Danny is still in the process of publishing his paper on his blog, so it may appear that there is far less disagreement between the two of us later. Regardless I feel it is important enough to begin responding to him now. This is meant to be complimentary, as interaction with some else's ideas shows that their thoughts, true or false, are valuable and important enough to be interacted with. This is the spirit of this response, especially as Danny is a good friend of mine and I hope to help his intellectual journey through this interchange. Danny's original posts can be found here: http://theologicalsharpening.blogspot.com/2009/02/is-natural-theology-compatible-with.html

and here: http://theologicalsharpening.blogspot.com/2009/02/is-natural-theology-compatible-with_18.html

I will mainly be expositing Bill Craig's contribution to the Five Views on Apologetics book published by Zondervan.

In this book Dr. Craig is defending the view called Classical Apologetics, to find out exactly how this differs from the other approaches it would be best to simply buy the book. But suffice it to say that one of the main tenents of Classical Apologetics is that it uses the system called Natural Theology, which generally defined is the project of philosophically defending Theism. But not necessarily Christian Theism, which is one of the reasons why it is not my favorite form of the defense of the faith, although I believe it to be very helpful, especially when dealing with atheism and skepticism.

The most important aspect of the way Dr. Craig couches his Christian Apologetic is in his definitions and distinctions between four things. The first two are the difference between Knowing and Showing the truth of something. The second two are the difference between Magisterial and Ministerial reason. 

There is a plurality of opinions on these subjects among the Biola Philosophy professors. But Dr. Craig seems to be the most prolific of the Biola Professors in his use of apologetics, so I think that his views can be used as a sort of foil for Danny's criticism. So while not everything Dr. Craig says can also be said of all Christian Natural Theologians, he is a well known and popular advocate of what Danny is taking issue with.

When it comes to knowing the truth of something Dr. Craig defers to what has come to be known as Reformed Epistemology. This alone should dissipate some of the heat that has been generated between people like my friend, because this epistemology finds its roots in the theology of John Calvin, hence the name Reformed. This view of religious epistemology has been developed and championed by Alvin Plantinga, who considers himself broadly to be within the reformed theological tradition. In other words so far we are looking at "intramural" disagreements. Danny is a Calvinist, I am a Calvinist, Plantinga is a Calvinist, and Craig is a protestant and at least as Calvinistic as his epistemology. 

Reformed Epistemology is essentially this: Under the proper circumstances while functioning properly our minds come to belief in God. In other words Theistic belief at the very least can be properly basic. This term essentially means that the belief is not based upon any other belief. Historically these kinds of beliefs have been called incorrigible or self-evident. A similar belief would be that of believing you are seeing a tree while being appeared to treely (in other words whenever you look at a tree you believe you are seeing a tree). But what about defeaters? That is to say what happens when Hume comes along and presents his skeptical arguments agaisnt your rationality in believing you are in fact seeing a tree? Well you could argue with Hume, or you could simply look back at the tree. Generally speaking your level of warrant concerning your belief in that tree will be higher than your warrant in believing that Hume's arguments prove anything. The strength of your warrant for believing in the tree automatically defeats Humean Skepticism. Of course this isn't the case for everybody. There are many people who are persuaded by Hume. I can't tell you what that feels like because Hume's arguments have only seemed troubling to me, but not in the slightest persuasive. In any case Plantinga thinks that this is how not only theistic belief can and does function for many people, but that Christian theism functions in this way. Craig's formulation is different. He believes that the basic belief you have in Christianity is caused not by simply functioning properly in the proper circumstances but that the Holy Spirit actively makes these beliefs evident to you.  I don't think that this is a very important distinction because I believe both are in fact true. But suffice it to say that we believe the Christian need not engage in natural theology, rational discourse, or apologetics of any kind in order for him to personally and rationally believe in Christian theism. 

Plantinga gives the following example to demonstrate how our intuitions concerning rationality essentially prove his epistemology's rationality (I can't remember all the details, but it is something similar to the following). A professor at a university goes on a walk one after noon. When returns to the university he finds that a letter with some unpleasant information was given to the Dean. It is addressed as being from the professor. They know exactly when the letter was delivered because it was slipped under the deans door while he was in his office. But the professor in question knows he was taking a walk at the exact time of the letter's delivery. Moreover he knows that he in fact did not write the letter, because he has no recollection of writing the letter. So he has good reason to believe that he in fact did not deliver the letter, and that he did not write the letter. But the another member of the faculty actually saw him deliver the letter to the Dean's office! The letter is even in his hand righting. But the professor in question has no history of mental illness, and there is no evidence that he blacked out. In other words his mind is functioning exactly the way it should, it is functioning properly. But all the evidence goes agaisnt his basic belief that he did not write or deliver the letter in question. Is he irrational in maintaing this belief? I think it seems obvious that he is in fact rational in maintaing this belief. Theistic belief therefore can be given the same kind of credence unless it can be proved that it is caused due to some malfunction in our minds. 

But needless to say this is what myself, Plantinga, and Craig believe the foundation of theistic belief to be. We do not believe that Natural Theology, or science, or history, or even the Bible are the actual foundation of theistic belief. But that the way in which God created us to function, the way He created the world, and the testimony of the Holy Spirit are the ultimate grounding of the Christian's belief and faith in the truth of Christian theism. I am not sure but I think that Danny disagrees with this. I do not think that he should, because he is a Calvinist and holds to Sola Scriptura. This epistemology seems to be not only compatible with his theology but actually required and taught by the scriptures to some degree. There are lots of places in the scriptures that speak of the Holy Spirit's relation to our belief in the Christian God, as well as how God can be known from the world in at least a basic way. 

But if Danny legitimately has a problem with this then of course we are no longer talking about an in house disagreement. Because his epistemology will no longer be reformed in this sense. But this of course does not settle the issue of showing the truth of something, or the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason. Which essentially means that I have not really touched on Natural Theology yet. But I will, God willing, continue this discussion soon.

The Tao of Film: Pure Cinema and The Christian Aesthetic Part 2



"When we accede to being moved by logic or by love, the feeling with which we do so is not ordinarily one of dispirited impotence. On the contrary, we characteristically experience in both cases - whether we are following reason or following our hearts - a sense of liberation and of enhancement. What accounts for this experience? It appears to have its source in the fact that when a person is responding to a perception of something as rational or as beloved, his relationship to it tends towards selflessness. His attention is not merely concentrated upon the object; it is somehow fixed or seized by the object. The object captivates him. He is guided by its characteristics rather than primarily by his own. Quite commonly, he feels that he is overcome - that his own direction of his thoughts and volitions has been superseded. How are we to understand the paradox that a person may be enhanced and liberated through being seized, made captive, and overcome? Why is it that we find ourselves to be most fully realized, and consider that we are at our best, when - through reason or through love - we have lost or escaped from ourselves?"-Harry G. Frankfurt

This comes from Frankfurt's thoughtful work The Importance of What We Care About. In trying to explore the value of an art form like film we must always been aware that this is what we are: creatures who care about things. We care about things because they move us beyond ourselves. As persons we desire relation. We desire to connect, to feel, to understand, to touch and to be touched. When we watch a film this is what we are experiencing. We are experiencing this desire to relate. 

When God created Mankind he made us in his image. He took Himself and made an image of Himself. An image bears likeness, it has many similarities but of course it is not the original. It is an image. Pick up a photograph. Turn it around. Is it three dimensional? Does it capture the smells of the moment depicted? It does maintain the colors (unless it is black and white, in which case it only bears the tones or shades). And it also bears the likeness of the things being depicted. But it is quite literally 1 dimensional. Now look at the room around you. You can touch, smell, taste, and experience so much more about this room than you can experience by looking at the photograph. The comparison of these two experiences is a poor analogy for what the differences between man and God must be like. 

We are the photograph and God is the entire universe! But in all of scripture nothing else is said to have been made in God's image. Just ourselves. We are a special representation of what He is like. So what we are like He is like. What we care about He cares about. Of course there is the problem of sin. It has disorganized, killed, and maimed our nature to a point where in some people God does seem to be visible at all. But where the image shines through I believe we can and do see it, and see it clearly. And one of those places is in the arts. Humans have always had a desire to create. And we should not find this strange or perplexing, because if we were created by God in His image then why wouldn't we want to create as well. God created. God created all sorts of things. Colors, stars, dinosaurs, volcanoes, rainbows, snow, the cosmological constants, language, Richard Dawkins, DNA, jellyfish, hair, and humans. Since God created all these things we would assume that man, having been made to bear his image, would reflect whatever qualities we can.

One of those qualities is obviously to create. To create all kinds of things. But part of the creation process should be to reflect ourselves. God reflected Himself by creating us. Wouldn't we also do the same? Deeply looking at the things that we care about, the things that we create, the things that entertain us, and even the things that make us laugh is like looking at another smaller reflection of God. It's like taking a piece of that original photograph and trying to understand just one object, and hopefully by understanding that one object we can better understand the whole. Studying film is like studying little pieces of God, or at the very least what God cares about. Of course not all art and not all films do in fact reflect anything about God. If we really believe that sin has been devastatingly pervasive all through human nature, then some of these little reflections are in fact reflections of sin and not God. But in order to understand the problem we are dealing with, in order to understand the human condition and how far from God we really have traveled even these pieces need to be examined. Not by everyone. And not all the time. God wants different people to do and care about different things. But God has made some of us with such a deep love and passion for things like film that we simply cannot ignore the way it pulls at our heart strings. I am one of those people. I don't know when it happened, or why, but cinema has gripped my heart. Because in the arts I see the reflection of God's image again and again. I see the depth of the human soul and the deep tragedy of the human condition. I see myself and what I care about. 

Great art has always been and always will be just like this. When we as humans endeavor to describe the world with colors, poetry, words, and images we are reflecting our hearts, whether they be full of darkness or full of light. The Christian Aesthetic seeks to value this honesty. The Christian system of value has always been one that looks for the good, the true, and the beautiful. The Good and the Beautiful are usually the easiest for us to find. But sometimes the true, is more illusive, or in fact harder to enjoy. How many people can say that they truly enjoyed Schindler's List? Probably not many. There are things about it that we can enjoy but the truth it portrays is so shocking and so disturbing that for much of the film the proper response can only be sorrow. Deep regretful sorrow.

But how different is this from the Old Testament? Or even the great persecutions of the early church? Or even the crucifixion of our Lord? I have stated that the Christian Aesthetic is Philippians 4:8. We are given numerous things here that the Lord wants us to meditate on. But how many of these adjectives can be used to describe the Old Testament? But doesn't God also want us to meditate on all the scriptures? Meditating on the life of King David or his son King Solomon much of what you find is not honorable or praiseworthy? In some ways it is very reminiscent of Coppola's Godfather films. Two men who have so much going for them and yet somehow they manage to screw up their lives in many ways. But this is something God wants us to meditate on. God wants us to see our frailty, and our need for Him.

This brings me back to the Fundies and Libbies. I love my Grandma Gleason very much. I have grown in my love and respect for her over the years as I've come to see her devotion to my family, my Grandfather even after his passing, the church, and most importantly to God. But she buys these films from a company called Feature Films for Families. That was what we watched whenever we went to her home. Which is fine. It is her home after all. And some of the films weren't bad. But something that they did far too often was poorly integrate positive values in the story lines. The values weren't drawn out of the narrative but were placed there to make a point. This is a great example of how Fundies view art and film in particular. It must be positive. It must be optimistic. Even the villains in many of these stories barely qualified as "bad" guys. My father lent her Remember the Titans, one of the cleanest most positive films to come out of Hollywood in decades, but my Grandmother shut if off after the first few minutes. Why? Because she thought that the violence at the beginning of the film was "terrible." I am not mocking my Grandmother. Somehow that piece of storytelling violated her conscious. And if it really disturbed her that badly then I'm glad she is principled enough to do what she thought was right and turn off the movie. I'm not preaching to my Grandmother. She is who she is, and it doesn't bother me that she wasn't able to watch Remember the Titans. But I am afraid for the next generation of filmmakers who are going to end up making more Fireproofs, Left Behinds, Omega Codes, Facing the Giants, etc. We can be Christians and appreciate and make truly great films. If you're going to make films you need to immerse yourself in this world and see what it truly has to offer. And the same thing goes for Christians who really love movies. I am not saying don't be discerning, but I'm also saying don't be overly cautious. You'd be surprised where you'll find the good, the true, and the beautiful.

But at the same time we can't simply give way to the Libbies. Film is like anything else. If we are going to bring it into our lives we need to evaluate it and treat it as if it matters. We can't simply compartmentalize it, saying our theology and our cinema never mix. They can and should. Remember the scriptures are full of darkness, but we have to accurately understand both the darkness and the light. Film can help us do this. It can show us the power of redemption and damnation. But if we treat movies as if they don't matter the darkness in them will distort and eat away at us instead of helping us to understand ourselves and God. And the light may give us false hope about our own abilities if not properly understood. 

I will continue to work out the Tao of Film soon.

Further Reading:
Francis Schaeffer's Trilogy: The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, He is There and He is Not Silent     

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gone Baby Gone

My friend Danny Pelichowski asked me to review this film. If there are any films you would like me to review because you either have not seen it and are worried about the content, or weather or not it would be worth seeing or you just want to hear my thoughts about a film that you enjoy and would like to see some interaction with it e-mail me or leave a comment. I am happy to oblige as best I can.

At its heart this film is about taking responsibility. Responsibility for your life. Responsibility for all the things in the world that you did or did not choose. The opening monologue played over scenes of Boston, many with children, tells us that we are proud of where we live. Proud of how it defines us. Even though we aren't responsible for where we're born, we take a kind of pride in it. 

This film borrows heavily from the Film-Noir tradition of the 40s and 50s. The main character is a P.I. and his girlfriend is also a P.I.. Which is a strange twist on the classic role of the female in film noir. Usually women represent a tragic kind of temptation in the classic Noirs but in this they are a team, two investigators, trying to find a child. But the classic themes of crime and corruption are all present. Also anytime you have a story involving crimes against children it is easy to think of Fritz Lang's M, one of Film Noir's godfathers, where we have Peter Lorre as a child murderer.

The farther our main character goes in the darker things become. And then in the end he is forced to take responsibility for his actions and choices, and in the last lingering shot we are cleverly told through the use of a living room and a TV set that we are the ones who need to take responsibility next. The plot centers around police corruption. But in this case the corruption doesn't involve narcotics or moles like The Departed, it involves protection of Children. I won't give away too much for people who haven't seen this film, but the twists and turns go on for a while as the main character finds himself discovering new strangeness in the Boston Police department every few minutes. 

Several times during the film we find police waxing on about utilitarian ethics. They may not know that's what they're talking about, but their way of thinking is clearly within this tradition. And what ultimately makes the story interesting and confusing is that we feel the force of their arguments. We see how the police corruption in this film actually centers around a desire to do good, and not just to make money i.e. Training Day. 

But even when our main character stands up for his conscience and the rule of democracy and law we find ourselves wondering...did he really do the right thing? When a film takes one of our highest values and makes us ask ourselves if it really is worth it and then by the end of the film tells us essentially that we, the people, make it worth it or not and it does this purely through visual communication we have a great film on our hands. This film does not pretend that America is great only because of its values. Our values are nothing if we choose not to value them. The pro life movement would mean nothing it didn't value children, if the only thing we cared about as pro lifers was the criminalization of Abortion what are we really fighting for? Justice without love is meaningless. And our hero in this film recognizes that and in the end fights for both. 

The two brothers who brought this film to life, behind and in front of the camera, should be lauded for their excellent work. I think Casey is a better actor than his brother Ben, and so I am glad that Ben stayed behind the camera on this his directorial debut. Everyone else in the cast was very convincing. The script was solid, and while the overall pacing of the film was slow it was not boring. It had a steady pace punctuated with acts of violence and intrigue. I give this film a high level of endorsement and I think it really is a great movie. Thanks for recommending it Danny.

Fireproof

Fireproof was the surprise Cinderella story of the year. It managed to not totally tank with every reviewer and was actually quite successful financially. These are not minor feats for an independent Christian film.

So I finally decided to watch it. I had heard from more than one person that it was good. But it wasn't. Well not really. I went into the experience with high hopes. I really wanted to like it. But my opinions of Kirk Cameron's career (Growing Pains notwithstanding) have been extremely jaded ever since Left Behind. But I wanted to give it a chance. As a newlywed who has been watching The Sopranos (a gangster drama with a good deal of infidelity) for the last few months I thought this might be a breath of fresh air. It was and it wasn't.

Let's break it down simply. The biggest problem with this film is its script. The script is weak. It is simplistic and the dialogue "does not ring true." It just sounds phony. Which is not helped by the second problem. The acting was weak. There were moments of intense sincerity that actually brought my wife and myself briefly to tears. But for the most part Cameron is extremely unconvincing, and the supporting cast is all about the same. I mean it isn't the worst acting I've ever seen but it is weak. I was involved in High School plays that were deserving of Academy Award nominations when compared to this film.

But the film has a very strong theme. The theme is basically that a husband needs to be like Christ in order for his marriage to work. It also makes a bold statement concerning pornography which hit home with me and hopefully with many men who experience temptations and failure in this area. 

There were two very good scenes. One was a great exercise in pure cinema. As the father is trying to help his son come to grips with what he needs to do in order to win back his wife he circles around him to a cross. The whole film has been building to this moment and it is pulled off gracefully. The cross is the symbol of self sacrifice and the changing power of faith which is the point of the whole film: dying for your spouse. 

I won't go into the second scene as not to ruin it for those who have not yet seen the film, but I'm sure you'll know it when it comes. 

It is a sincere film. The filmmakers really care about the story they are trying to tell and it is only through this sincerity that the film works at all. And tt does work if only briefly.

I have to say in conclusion that I think the film was only okay. I'm very disappointed that I could not give this film higher praise. As a Christian who has aspirations in the realm of film criticism and description I wish the job of finding the pro social and truly beautiful content of films could always be as easy as this film was but unfortunately this film really fails on too many levels to receive much of a positive endorsement.  

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Greatest American Films Part 6: #6 A Coppola you can't resist

For the fifth entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen a tie between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.

The Godfather was a true landmark in Film history, particularly American Film history. This film was essentially a renaissance. Few films in American Film history can truly be called landmark in this sense. It brought quality cinema back to American shores and changed how we make movies. The studios were virtually taken over by a group of young vibrant filmmakers, inspired by tragic stark films like The Searchers, in search of a grand new way of making films. Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, et al. would define a generation and film forever. The Godfather really was the rallying point. An unproved director of Roger Corman films came out of no where to make the most successful film to date as well as garnering numerous oscars and critical acclaim. He also reinvigorated Crime cinema forever changing the face of heroes and anti-heroes alike. But aside from its historical importance the two part gangster saga is easily one of the greatest films ever made.

Aside from Nolan's two Batman films this duology is the greatest examination of the life of a person (or in this case persons) in cinema that I have yet seen. The films are extremely complex with dozens of important characters and yet there is no voice over narration and only small pieces of text to key us into the setting of the second film. 

Much has been made of the three key performances of Pacino, De Niro, and of course Brandon. So I won't say much here about them except to say that I think Pacino's is ultimately the greatest performance of the three. His character is easily the most complex and is also the most subtle. I think his work in these two films is comparable to that of Brandon's work with Elia Kazan in the early fifties, which basically changed screen acting forever. They are both exercises in subtle yet complex acting. This is not to detract from De Niro and Brando's incomparable work on these films, I just think that Pacino's is the most significant for his generation of screen actors. Which is ironic because he redefines screen acting again with De Palma in the remake of the Howard Hawks' classic Scarface but that time it was in terms of audaciousness, not control and depth. 

I think these two films are a deep examination of many things. The most prominent and obvious is what it means to be a man. But just as important is what it means to be American. The first line is of course "I believe in America."

When talking about the opening shot of this film it is important to understand a few things. Coppola had written a script for what has become one of my all time favorite films, the critically acclaimed Patton. But the script was odd to say the least and the studio wanted to go in another direction. But if you remember anything about that film you remember the beginning. A gigantic American flag with a speech pieced together from numerous pieces of Patton's public addresses. Patton is essentially a film about being a rebel. Which in many ways is what it means to be an American. To be individual, right or wrong. To stand out. This is a big part of America's identity, and it is a large part of Coppola's best films. Even The Conversation is about an odd character who doesn't really fit into his respective world: surveillance. But despite the studios protests agaisnt some of the scripts oddness (funny enough the memorable opening was one of their biggest problems) they eventually made the film and low and behold Coppola won a best screenplay oscar. In fact Coppola believes that it was because he won that oscar that he was not fired off of The Godfather. Its so funny looking back on all that now. Given how well received Coppola was as a director in the 70s after all this mess. Most people don't realize how tumultuous Coppola's start at the big time really was. But if you want to learn about all the difficulties involved in shooting The Godfather then I suggest you buy the DVD collection and watch the extras as well as listen to the commentaries. 

But while filming The Godfather someone suggested that Coppola write a new beginning for the film that was similar to the beginning of Patton. A memorable opening monologue. And it just so happens that each opening begins with America. And it would just so happen that Italian Americans would define seventies cinema thereafter. Scorsese, Pacino, De Niro, Coppola, and of course who could forget Rocky! Because another part of being American is that we are all immigrants except for Native Americans of course.

This idea is dealt with even deeper in Part II which depicts Vito Corleone's journey into crime as being primarily motivated by his underprivileged immigrant status.

At the end of the day though these films are essentially about two monstrous men. Two men whose lives have become defined by two things: "Leave the gun, take the Cannolis." An entire book has actually been written about this line. It shows the dualism of the Italian Mafia life. Half of it is crime and violence and the other half is family. Balancing these two things was something Vito was an expert at. But Michael cannot. He loses his family because he becomes lost in his crimes. 

Saying much else about this highly praised film saga seems redundant. One thing that is perplexing is exactly why we care so much about these characters. I am sure part of it has to do with the high quality of storytelling involved. But these people are criminals. They are essentially bad guys, villains. Yet we cheer when Michael wins at the end of Part I and we cry when he is alone and separate from everything he values at the end of Part II. I think it is because they are in fact humans. Not every character needs to be a Hero in order for us to care about their life. Just look at King David and his son King Solomon. These guys are in many ways heroic. They are strong intelligent men. Full of bravery and wisdom. But they are in so many ways flawed. Their choices lead to pain and destruction for themselves and for Israel. 

It is in such men that we clearly see the central problem of human existence. If somebody as smart and capable as Michael or Solomon can't live a good life then what chance have we? After Vito Corleone kills Fanucci, essentially making his life as a gangster official he returns to his family and holds his son Michael telling him: Your father loves you very much. Michael's father loved him enough that he was willing to sacrifice good standing with the law to secure his future. In other words he was willing to kill for him. Our heavenly father was willing to kill his own son for us. It is a faulty allegory of course, but not one that is easily dismissed. Our savior gave up his good standing for us, taking on human flesh and sinfulness in order to redeem mankind and make our salvation effectual and possible. But where Vito was willing to kill for Michael and eventually Michael is willing to kill for his father Vito; the Christ was willing to live and die. In a sense the crime and murders are similar in that they are terrible things that these two characters are willing to do for those they love, things they don't want to do, things that are unpleasant, things that they have to do for physical protection as well as honor. Their imperfection as "saviors" of their families just seems to highlight and make more dear the perfection of our savior. I will eventually deal with some of the similarities between these characters and Nolan's Batman and how that all ultimately ties into Christology, but for now I leave you with my favorite quote from the series; Michael's ruthlessness is truly chilling:
Tom: I mean you've won...you want to wipe everybody out?
Michael: I don't feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies, that's all. 

   

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Greatest American Films Part 5: #7 A Lucas Far, Far Away

For the fourth entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen a tie between Star Wars and Star Wars: Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back.

Many people fixate on the physical descent that Clarice goes through in The Silence of the Lambs because of the deep mythological impressions it leaves us with. Call it psychology, Jungian archetypes, the hero with a thousand faces, what have you. But there are simply things in stories that give us certain impressions which we don't realize or fully comprehend. I think that the general interpretation of Clarice's descent to Lecter is better understood as a turning inward to the depths of the human soul. But regardless her descent means something. Lecter is in a deep dark place. A place that is undesirable. That is where Clarice must go in order to complete her quest. 

When Joseph Campbell began publishing his writings about the power of myth I don't know if he was really saying anything new. When Virgil was commissioned to write the Aeneid it was specifically because Augustus knew that myth had power, a power that he thought could help Rome. I think we've known for a long time that myth has a certain power. We know instinctively what it means for some one to "descend". When John Rambo descends into the cave at the end of First Blood, we know its a kind of trial. Something he must go through in order to become more powerful and eventually confront the true nature of the conflict: his own volatile telos. Maybe it comes from Jesus' burial. Maybe it is something more primordial. But there are certain things which set off reactions in our hearts. 

And one of the great strengths of Star Wars is this mythological power. Star Wars is primordial in the sense that everything in it reeks of simplicity. The characters are all archetypes. We know who they are instinctively. 

But the true power of Star Wars comes from Lucas' (seemingly lost) ability to tell a story in images. The opening shot of Star Wars is one of the most perfect in all of Cinema history. The effects are dated, but that's almost what keeps it stunning, because they look vintage or classic compared with the overuse of computer generated imagery we see all over today. But when that little white ship appears, hounded by the humongous utilitarian dreadnaught, we know which side we are on instantly. It is epic, simple, and perfect. Right from the get go we know what's going on. 

The opening crawl is pretty cool but almost unnecessary. It allows Lucas to make us feel as if the story we are about to watch was scripted in the stars. It gives an even deeper mythic quality. But none of this information is essential to understanding what is about to happen. We know. We know what we are seeing because Lucas shows it to us. He shows you how big the galactic empire is and how pathetic the rebel force. The scale of the conflict. Everything right from the few opening moments. 

The little ship is white. The big ship is gray. Instinctively we see purity pitted agaisnt industry. It's not just the size difference. But then inside the ship we see that same color take on another meaning. Outside in space white means purity and gray hostility. But inside the ship we see the white of the stormtroopers and instead of goodness we see death. Their helmets look like skulls. The suits so blindingly white almost as if acid has eaten away their soul. But the rebels have faces. We can see the fear in their eyes as they await the menace about to enter their tiny ship. And then Darth Vader enters. Even the smallest child knows who and what he is right from the very beginning. He is death incarnate. He breaths like a sick man. He towers and lumbers about. He is dressed from head to toe in dark black. And his mask looks even more like a skull then the stormtrooper helmet. But his flesh and humanity were not eaten away by acid. He doesn't lack humanity like the stormtrooper; he positively reflects evil.

Then there are the moments on Tatooine. Luke walks out as the suns are setting. He forlornly looks out at the desert landscape and we know what is in his heart: adventure. Nobody needs to tell us this. We know. Because we have all felt that way at some point in our lives. He reminds us of childhood wonder and that desire to somehow escape the prison of mediocrity that we all feel so trapped by. This is brilliant filmmaking. No one has ever captured the center of the cosmic drama so perfectly as Lucas in the first two star wars films. 

Return of the Jedi has lots of problems besides just the ewoks. There are structural problems, as well as a general lack of sincerity. It just doesn't seem like the people working on that film cared anymore. And we all know that the prequels were terrible on the most basic levels of filmmaking. But when put together the six films compose a highly intricate story of family, good and evil, prophecy, tragedy, and epic warfare. Greatly flawed in some of the parts but also brilliant in the sum. But for all the problems that the other four films may have, with structure, integrity, whatever, these two films are untouchable. In Star Wars we see a brief glimpse of a greater cosmic struggle. The deepest struggle of them all: good vs evil. Everything is so clearly defined. It is brilliant. And if it were all Lucas had to say about the human experience it would be incomplete. Star Wars and Episode V form a sort of Yin and Yang. Star Wars is easily the most optimistic film of the series. And The Empire Strikes Back is the most cynical. The Empire Strikes Back is where we explore the depths of the evil which has invaded the universe. It runs so deep that it ultimately effects our main character. Our hero has been tainted by the evil that has stricken the galaxy. He refuses to learn from his teachers and so he must make mistakes and cause more problems for all parties concerned. And then the final astonishing truth about Luke's origins. This is the most evil outcome of all.

But what makes these two films even more remarkable is that while they deal with such deep subjects they are fun. They are not just enjoyable but a deep pleasure for many many people over the last few decades. They speak to who we are and at the same time make us laugh. Because that is part of who we are. We are beings of laughter. Great filmmaking is not always simply serious or somber. It is fun. 

Star Wars brings us up and Empire drags us back down. But of course that isn't all there is to the story. But after such a perfect beginning how could anything else have truly satisfied? In the end even if good does not triumph after the events of Empire at least we know that it can. Because we remember Star Wars. We remember that things were once this dark before and yet somehow good won out in the end. But the tragedy of Empire reminds us that things can always get worse as well. The good guys cannot stop fighting as long as the bad guys have not given up yet. Because the conflict can always go either way. And in the end the thing that truly makes the difference is goodness and wisdom. That is what the force truly represents. The wisdom to see what is right and the power to do it. Because in the end what can the few people who care about good truly do agaisnt such reckless hate? Unless they have something, something the other side does not have, something that makes them better, harder to defeat. Vader and the Emperor only receive power from the force, not wisdom, not truth, just strength. And we all know strength of arms does not always win the day. That's why the little people are what change the world in Star Wars. The smallest character in the first film carries the most important piece of information. The smallest character in the second film has the deepest wisdom:

"Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter."