Thursday, May 27, 2010

The End of LOST

Are we surprised that the end to LOST answers questions we didn't have and doesn't answer all the questions we did have?

To anyone who wonders, LOST has one Big Question per season, and it's answered with a twist in the last episode of each season. For season 6, the question wasn't "what is the island?" but "what is this Sideways universe?" Despite the fact that I think other questions were bigger, the answer that it was the Sideways universe that was the afterlife was a nifty and unexpected piece of irony. After years of having to fend off the suggestion that the Island was purgatory, the writers actually wrote a Purgatory that looks like normal life and stuck it in, in CONTRAST to the Island! Honestly, did anyone see that coming? I'm happy with that in the end.

Looking back, with the help of the community of fans I was able to decipher many of the smaller plot twists before they happened. It was the deciphering that was fun, not the reveal itself. I'm convinced there's enough material already there to say what COULD have happened. Not being able to nail down whether it DID happen or not is secondary. When you have a personality like Jacob with powers, I think you can explain a lot of the mysteries as reflections of his personality. I'm kind of glad it's not all spelled out because now none of my beautiful theories are contradicted!

I knew going into the finale that it would have two elements I don't entirely agree with: syncretism and existentialism (that is, we make our own reality). So when those popped up I wasn't surprised in the least. But I was surprised, and positively so, at the literary parallel that the final episode drew out most prominently for me. I believe to understand the last episode you need to read, not Vadis by Phillip K. Dick, but The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. (Of course, I need to READ Vadis to be sure, but I can tell you the latter parallels are there, whether intentional or not.) Can ANY other TV series draw a parallel to something that meaningful?

Sure, it was sentimental and mushy, but one danger of love is that it comes across as sentimental and mushy. Since I believe, in a phrase, that Love runs the universe, I don't mind a little mush.

Another influence has to be Stephen King. For all his reputation as a horror writer, Stephen King has spiritual beliefs (which I discussed in my review of his recent short story collection on this blog, I believe) and holds that our lives are not, cannot be, meaningless collisions of atoms. I'll celebrate that assertion whenever I find it: in C.S. Lewis, in Stephen King, or in LOST. And so I celebrate LOST.

Because it's left open-ended, I can still explore the possible faith-science connections in the show, too!

That may be my favorite thing about this all: the fact that, here it is a few days after the show, and I feel like we have as much to talk about as ever. It will fade away eventually, but I think when my boys are old enough I look forward to reliving the show again with them. How old is old enough? Well, I know for certain they're not there yet! When they can read and "get" The Great Divorce, then they'll be "ready," as Eloise Hawking puts it.

It's been said before and I'll repeat it here: LOST is dead. Long live LOST.

Book Review: Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life

Not sure what to do with this one. It starts off as a predictably solipsistic memoir about how the author, Steve Almond, is a "Drooling Fanatic" when it comes to music. It's often funny and somehow absorbing, even though the closest our music tastes come to overlapping is the fact that he has a chapter about Joe Henry and two They Might Be Giants references. Maybe what bothers me most is that I have this requirement that music has to be About Something to work for me, and Almond's version of "something" is fundamentally different from mine. I've had enough embarrassing Drooling Fanatics moments on my own to relate to the ones he describes, and the book describes more substantial experiences of his as it goes on (marriage, kids, cultural crossovers) but at the end of the day there's a hanging superficiality to it all. However, I can't put my finger on exactly what it is. Despite my reservations, it's a four-minute pop-song of a read, and I needed something like that at this point in the academic year, so ultimately I have to say thanks for the book.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back Meets the Periodic Table of Elements

I got this from a student, so I don't have a piclink but it is apparently from SyFy. Lots of fun and my kids love it. They even know what some boxes are that I don't remember (What's a Mynock again??). I just want to know why, if E-3PO is Ep, C-3PO isn't Cp?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Undergraduate Research at PUIs

Sometimes the Internet works like it should. Evidence at the following link, a blog post on The Scientist's blog. It appears to be about cutting science funding but what it really seems to say is that PUIs (Primarily Undergraduate Institutions like mine) shouldn't bother with undergraduate research, implying that it's just a fad that doesn't really help students and just exhausts faculty.

Yes, it's tiring, but good undergraduate research is not exclusive to teaching at all, and I think, done correctly, it vastly enhances teaching. No, we aren't going to publish like R01-funded institutions. That's why they have R15's! No, every student won't participate -- but each year 30-40 students participate through the biochem teaching lab under my charge.

I could spend more time refuting the bad arguments here, but the good news is the Internet community has already done it. Almost every comment below the blog post is substantial and contradicts the message of the interview above. For once I can say this is what it should look like, both in terms of Internet discussion and in terms of reiteration of the vital importance of the work of undergraduate research. Now, back to work!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Square:Cube::Ex nihilo:ex vetere

(Yes, another theology post, sometimes it just works out this way!)

This is a quote from a Q&A Panel at a recent Wheaton conference about N.T. Wright, which included much critical commentary on his scholarship, including the fact that he wrote a book Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) in 1996 about the historical Jesus, followed by a book about the resurrection in 2003. One question is, why did you do that? How can you write about Jesus without talking about the resurrection (even if you eventually devote more pages to the latter than the former)? How can you know anything about Jesus from just history without the resurrection? Here's his answer and a follow-up about JVG.

NT Wright: What we see going on in John 20 and 21 in the encounters with the risen Jesus with Thomas and Peter and even before that with Mary as well in the garden, is, among many many other things, the introduction of a new sort of knowing, a new way of knowing. And this is not to collapse back into an Enlightenment category and say “This is not objective knowing but it’s purely subjective or spiritual knowing,” because I really don’t want to say that. It is a knowing which goes beyond merely what you can put into a test tube or whatever, but it includes that because this is about new creation, and new creation is a creation ex vetere not ex nihilo. That is to say it is a transformation of the old creation so that the old epistemological rules still apply but they are like the 2 dimensional version and we now have a 3 dimensional thing . If you have a cube, a cube is still a square if you look at it from one point of view and how you know a cube is to know it in 3 dimensions but that doesn’t take away the first 2. So I want to say that the historical knowledge you know, the knowledge of Cicero, or Seneca or Julius Caesar -- to take figures from Roman history of the same period, we can know quite a lot about who they were about what their motivations were, about why they thought what they thought, about why they did some of the strange things that they did -- we can explore that as historians and that is fine, that’s part of the 2 dimensions. What we get in the resurrection is a 3rd dimension – a new creation which doesn’t deny but rather enhances, I would say, the 2 dimensions we’ve already got. In order to have a discussion about real knowledge and how we know things and what is true you need to have an entire conference on epistemology and set up those questions but I think this is a place to start anyway. I would be interested to know what Marianne says.

Marianne Meye Thompson: I don’t have a lot to add to that, but it was Richard’s phrase that the resurrection is an epistemological key or clue to knowing Jesus, but I think the 2/3 dimensional thing may be helpful there, but the question that Richard put to you, Tom, is now that you have written the resurrection of the son of God would you do the Jesus project differently or would you say that the Jesus who is known through the resurrection is the 3 dimensional Jesus which renders any other Jesus, including the Jesus of JVG, a 2-dimentional Jesus or at least a limited – or not the whole story… and maybe that’s the question we are after.

NT Wright: Yes, that’s very interesting. In fact I’ll respond to that because I think it is germane to the question asked. I think granted that much of the quest for Jesus was basically 2 dimensional in that sense. I think what I was doing in JVG was saying okay let’s accept those terms of the argument and let’s describe those 2 dimensions as thoroughly as we can and point after point we find those 2 dimensions saying actually there is more – actually we think there is probably a cube here and not just a square.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Creation and Forgiveness

A video clip in church yesterday included a woman from Rwanda who survived an attack in which her sister and her family were killed. She's seen the killer face to face, who asked for forgiveness, and she gave it. Her reasoning (wish I had the precise quote): The man sinned against God, not her. The murderer took a life that had been created, so he did the Creator wrong. And that Creator told the woman to forgive. It's His problem now.

Of course, my thoughts immediately turn to science (surprised?). That woman probably doesn't know what evidence there is for the physical mechanism of creation, and she doesn't need to. She gets everything she really needs from reading and trusting Genesis. She believes that God is love, God is creator, and by physically raising Jesus from the dead God tells us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Everything else is secondary and really, if the arguments pull us away from a faith that conforms to the forgiveness of Christ, the arguments have gone wrong, whatever the mechanism, whether intelligent design or BioLogos or theistic evolution or 7-day creationism. What is truly universally needed is not the scientific story, but the theological one. Creation, not creationism.

(The argument is important for our context, and to avoid pietism or docetism or other bad-isms, to make the theology real with what we know, yes, but that is all specific to our Western world, and I don't think she needs that!)

That woman has her theology right, and it causes her to live right.

May we do so too.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What LOST Tells Me About the Universe

Another LOST post attempting to be general and specific spoiler-free. In 10 days the series will be over, no doubt with a few typical topsy-turvy moments in store. Fan reaction to the latest post has been divided. Some people feel like they've been taken on a long trip that points toward scientific explanations only to be detured suddenly to a myth at the heart of it, and they hate that. I think the same thing ... and I love it.

The point of this mythological season 6 of LOST is that the real drivers on the island are not mechanisms, or nanobots, or technology, or atoms of any sort. The real drivers are the personalities living out a story, again and again. I think it works, because I think at heart the universe is about personalities, not about mechanisms. It's about relationship and story, not about cool gadgets or clever plot twists. And when you tell a big story you had better focus on the people, not the mechanism, if you are to tell a true story.

So I think the story of brothers fighting is more important than the story of what exactly the glowing light IS or its chemical composition. This should have been clear ever since the writers pointed out that they really hate "Star Wars Episode I" because it tries to explain too much.

They are right. The universe is ultimately a mystery. (And an infinite regress: "This happens because two atoms collide." "But why do two atoms collide like that?") If it is a mechanism and personalities emerged from that alone, then it is meaningless. But rather, if it is at heart about personality, what gives it that personality?

This is where I don't expect LOST to get it right. I'm sure there will be some element of self-salvation in the end, which can be partially but never fully right, although I expect that to be through a group, which has something true in it.

When the series ends, I'm curious as to how it will fall short and how it will succeed. I'm sure there will be a little of both, and as a Christian, I'll agree and disagree. More than anything else, that's what I'm looking forward to.

PS: This kind of twist is a LITTLE bit like the end of "Otherland" by Tad Williams; but also it's better than Williams' conclusion in some ways. I'd have more to say if I thought anyone cared about Tad Williams' writing ...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: Holy Warriors


This is the book on the crusades I've been looking for, for years. I thought Karen Armstrong's history was OK, although unbalanced. Jonathan Phillips wrote this one and it is truly balanced and vivid. It's a bit long and dense but it is targeted toward the general reader. Phillips can't help it if the history of the crusades is convoluted. Rather, he adds just enough detail to make it very, very interesting.

Of course, Phillips is writing as a historian and so offers little judgment on the surface. But I think reading history is about the reader making judgments, and as a modern Christian caught between Stanley Hauerwas and G.K. Chesterton, I'm trying to figure out what to make of them. Spoiler: I have no firm conclusions. But the crusades as alternately horrifying and hopeful are an amazing arena through which to think about how God interacts with His world.

Here's my Cliff's Notes of the crusades:

1.) A unified force of Catholics is turned from causing trouble in Europe to causing trouble in the Levant. Despite overwhelming odds against them, a fraction of them make it through because the Muslims were busy fighting each other and/or didn't really care about Jerusalem so much. Still, seems a "skin of their teeth" endeavor and it's amazing they made it at all. As a result, Christians control Jerusalem for a hundred years and have a kingdom in the Levant for two hundred years. The kingdom for a time has a strong and resourceful Queen. Yes, a Queen.

2.) The Kingdom of Jerusalem calls for help, and Chistendom answers. But they never really get there and are defeated soundly. (The even-numbered crusades don't seem to work as well ... ) Eventually Saladin takes Jerusalem, and Orlando Bloom does something that I can't remember even though I saw the movie.

3.) Richard Lionheart and Phillip of France take cities on the coast, march to Jerusalem, then turn around (twice). Despite this failure, Richard rightly earns a reputation for extreme bravery and it seems like even his bad decisions were more those of people around him than his. Saladin is successful at fending him off but not really as successful as, say, Armstrong implied.

4.) This crusade uses a bunch of Venetian boats but because it's so expensive they need money and therefore attack a Christian city in Hungary first and then Constantinople. Truly disgusting. Some of the details of the battle are absolutely amazing. This would make a fascinating movie if people could handle the "good guys" not winning in the end.

5.) A secular, excommunicated king of Germany who speaks Arabic actually tries TALKING to the Muslims and gains control of Jerusalem for 10 years. Who knew? But he doesn't really care that much about holding on to Jerusalem and the truce expires ... and the Christians are driven out again.

6.) I don't remember offhand but something tells me I probably don't want to. I'm sure it wasn't pretty.

After about #3 the idea of crusading spreads and dilutes. Crusades take on a life of their own and are used for secular ends. The tragic Children's crusade fails poignantly. At the same time the Church exploits the concepts for its own ends, calling crusades against the Cathars (heretics) and Hussians (not sure, but they sure sounded like OK proto-protestants ...) and the pagans in the east (funny, their forced conversions don't stick over time ... ). The question is, WHY? Why do people keep wanting to crusade? Why does it "work"? Obviously part of that is evil ... but is any of it good? Stan? Gilbert?

Whew. It's a lot to digest, and that's not even including the little tidbits like how Columbus was a Crusader at heart and then how crusading imagery was used in the 19th/20th centuries. I'm still thinking about it. If you're going to read a book on the crusades, this should be it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Would You Prefer Your London in Squares or Hexagons?

Strange Maps is a wonderful site, and whenever they have a London map I start to go all dreamy, remembering walking around The City and farther back, remembering playing Scotland Yard with my friends as a kid ... Here are two systemizations of the London Map, one as a square grid and the other as hexagons. I find the flattening of London's nooks and crannies into a system oddly exhilirating and yet somehow wrong, but wrong in a very interesting way.

More on the maps here.