The Common Vision

Hello all,

I’d like to welcome you to my new website, The Common Vision.  It is a Christian journal of religion and culture.  On it you’ll find just the sort of stuff I post here but from a variety of different contributors.  It’s already a lively community, so please feel free to click around, make comments and join in on the discussion on cultural, political, and theological issues.  All are welcome!

I’ll still be updating my blog with quotes and other interesting things so keep me in your RSS.  

Follow us on Twitter  @thecommonvision

 

Peace,

-Alex

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The Multiverse: Fantasy Fiction’s New Deity

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Every moving fantasy adventure tale elevates its audience to some sort of transcendence.  Luke discovers the ways of The Force, Frodo discovers the Ring, Neo discovers the Matrix, Harry discovers the world of wizardry, Jack discovers the secret power below the Island.  In each story, the adventurers onscreen, and the audience vicariously, is invited to peek behind the curtain of reality to glimpse what it’s really all about.  The transcendental power usually also functions as the story’s moral universe, showing our hero his true purpose for living.  The adventurer, in order to overcome, must learn to act in concert with the transcendental power or use it as it was meant to be used.  Luke has to discover not only the force but how to use it without succumbing to the Dark Side.  Frodo can’t indulge in the power the Ring without being corrupted.  This double purpose of enlightenment and morality shows the essentially religious character of the modern adventure fantasy.  It could even be said that these stories feed off of the natural human desire for God–the discovery of a source of benevolent strength in the midst of violence and strife and a peaceful home to reach at journey’s end.

But in 21st Century we’re seeing a new deity rise in fantasy adventure fiction:  the multiverse.  The multiverse is the idea that there are infinite variations of our own world that exist beyond our reality.  It may not be merely fictional, it’s actually a scientific hypothesis that some very smart people believe is true.  Without getting into whether or not it satisfies scientific or philosophical standards for explaining reality, we can certainly judge its effect on fiction and whether or not it satisfies our need for adventurous drama.

It is fitting that the most complete treatment of the multiverse occurred in a video game.  Bioshock: Infinite was one of the most anticipated video games of last year, the sequel to 2007′s Bioshock.  Bioshock was a taut psychological horror trip through a dystopian underwater city.  Its philosophical depth and clever plot twists were surprisingly affecting, and after finishing it, it leaves the player with the sense that they have just watched a good film.  For its follow up, director Ken Levine and Irrational Studios prepared the ultimate American nightmare.  A war between extreme nationalism and violent class rebellion set on a literal city in the clouds.  The game does not disappoint.  It is a mind-blowing trip through impressively rendered environments that seem as real as they do fantastical.  The political savagery is well realized.  The game’s two factions, The Founders and the Vox Populi, are affecting amalgams of real-life American extremisms.  In the middle of it all, you, a disgraced hero must rescue an imprisoned princess from a tower.

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Much of the game is a familiar action fantasy pastiche.  You, the hero, must escort your charge from one battleground to the next, running and gunning, trying to escape, like some bloody steampunk vision of The Empire Strikes Back.  But things quickly start to go wonky, and this is where the game really gets interesting.  Though the year is 1912, you start hearing people humming Beach Boys and CCR, player-piano versions of Tears for Fears.  Clearly, history has not traveled along the same rails as our world.  Elizabeth, the imprisoned princess, turns out to have the ability to open gates to other times and places where history has followed a different trajectory.  The two of you skip carelessly between worlds until you’re not even sure whether you are in the same reality as the one you started in.

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By the end all is revealed and the source of transcendence discovered.  There are an infinite number of worlds out there and therefore, an infinite number of “yous.”  As it turns out, you are all over the place.  The religious fanatic Zachary Comstock is actually another “you” from a timeline in which you’ve been baptized to wash away your past sins and became a zealot, founded the floating city and reached through time to steal the daughter of the “you” that did not accept baptism and instead went on to have a child, become a drunkard and sell his daughter for a chance at a clean slate.  The princess in the tower is your daughter and the multiple histories your choices have birthed all come around to the same evil ends.  Comstock steals your child, you go after her to save her, but you always fail.  It is finally revealed that the only way to save the world is to return to the moment of decision and reject both baptism and life.  As you drown in the baptismal waters, all the evil your choices begot dissipates around you.

This long synopsis is all very confusing, but trust me, it makes for a pretty riveting and even emotional head trip.  But then, it ends with no small tinge of letdown.  While the multiverse has some potential for psychological reflection it ultimately spells the end of true transcendence in fantasy fiction.  Instead of introducing the hero to ethical imperatives driven by hidden elemental realities, the multiverse just opens up more space and more possibile ways for you to screw things up (or do things well, but as Bioshock: Infinite explains, it doesn’t matter how many times you get it right, as it cannot ameliorate the amount of times you get it wrong).  Instead of a secret Truth that shows you the right albeit difficult path to overcoming evil, it’s revealed that evil and good are really just the extreme ends of infinite possible choice.

Mike Stokhlasa of Redlettermedia.com, a website that produces reviews of movies that are irreverent as they are insightful said of 2009′s Star Trek (which uses the multiverse conceit to reboot the franchise)  the idea that there are multiple universes is a more problematic reveal than it initially appears.  “Wouldn’t you just feel really insignificant?”  Dramatically speaking, he has a point.  Dramatic tension is necessarily dependent upon limits, death being the most important one.  The finality and permanence of death creates the will to live.  Also, the promise of setting things right once and for all gives the audience hope that things might turn out well.  Choices have consequences that cannot be reversed, only forgiven or avenged.  But factoring into your story other worlds where things go differently means that whatever happens to the main characters, there are always alternatives happening in parallel, so it matters little what happens to our immediate heroes.

Instead of an infinite God you are introduced to your infinite self.  Could this be a perfected mythological realization of narcissism, like looking into a double mirror and seeing an infinite extension of reflections staring back?  If so this makes Bioshock: Infinite’s suicidal ending not only appropriate but archetypal for a multiverse story.  Faced with an infinite inescapable self, the only way to avoid the consequences of your (inevitable) mistakes is to cease living.  It all tends toward the abolition of man.  Without transcendence, you’re stuck with yourself, an infinite menagerie of of good and bad (mostly bad, if you’re as pessimistic as Ken Levine), and the only way to prevent your harm of others is to remove yourself from the equation.  Bioshock: Infinite is not the first multiverse story to end in suicide.  Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (one of my favorite psychodramas) ends the same way.  Ultimately, it’s why I appreciate Levine and Kelly.  They are ready to take their setup to its only logical conclusion and even make it an emotional experience.  But the abolition of man is, after all, the end of consciousness and thus, the end of drama, and stories altogether.

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Perhaps this amounts to the maturing of fantasy fiction, but if it does, then I’m not sure I want anything to do with it.  I suppose that it results from the desire to get away from the theological element of fantasy fiction.  We’ve swallowed whole the notion that religion amounts to immaturity as it creates a big cuddly deus ex machina in the sky (an image not so subtly inserted in to Bioshock: Infinite, in the character of a monstrous mechanical bird that keeps Elizabeth locked up in her tower) projecting the comoforting feeling of our parents onto the unknown.  But if religious believers project a cosmic person, then I charge the proponents of the multiverse with projecting a cosmic dice-roll: mathematics and probability imagined as positive, metaphysical reality.  Dramatically speaking, I’d much prefer a Deus ex Machina.  At least it makes for a good story.  It’s not that the multiverse breaks logic, it breaks drama and leads to an uncomfortably de-humanizing self-effecement.  Maybe some sorts of stories were never meant to “mature.”  Actually, I just have trouble with the idea that genres of fiction “mature.”  How does that work?  I thought people just wrote stories that are either poorly conceived or well-conceived, and executed them in their various media either artfully or badly.  (Better let that one lie for now.  Subject of a different post maybe.)

Despite all this, I believe that the multiverse is not a passing plot point, but will continue to become a more frequent fantasy staple in film and popular novels for one reason, and it’s not a surprising one given the state of modern fantasy fiction.  “There are infinite worlds” means there are infinite ways to retell, repackage, reboot, and resell the same story.  In a way, the multiverse is the perfect excuse to not write anything new.  It is already a well-worn conceit in comic book fiction, the accepted canonical metaphysic of both the Marvel and DC Universes.  The multiverse will endure in fantasy fiction because things that are profitable, modern, and hold the pretension of sophistication tend to become the order of the day.

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You know who ne…

You know who needs to find their voice and use it right now? Conservative Christian pastors and leaders. Christians need to seriously reconsider uncritical support for a political party that prioritizes lavishing subsidies on the agribusiness rich while telling the poor to sit quietly and wait for scraps.

- From The Monty Burns Republicans by Rod Dreher on The American Conservative

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“We are all born two drinks shy of happiness.”

gordon-hs09Gordon Keith, lead funnyman for Dallas’s great cult radio station, Sportsradio 1310: The Ticket has written a column for the Dallas Morning News about the suspiciously widespread habit of mind that supports frequent and often heavy alcohol consumption.  It also sparked an accompanying discussion on his radio show, the Dunham & Miller show–being in on the inside joke that is The Ticket is one of the built-in compensations for growing up in the drab Dallas area.  It’s really one of the most profound breaches of taboo that I’ve had the pleasure to read.  It goes beyond simply reminding people to retain some indefinable level of moderation that staves off both alcoholism and legalism alike.  Keith asks tough questions about the human need for alcohol and our cultural inability to question it.

“I got a promotion.  Let’s have a drink.  

I didn’t get the promotion.  Let’s have a drink.  

Alcohol is the prescription and the accepted response for all life’s experiences, even opposing ones. Part of this is cultural. But most of it’s human.”

I think Keith is wise to treat alcohol consumption as something other than a deeply ingrained social illness and instead ask why we live in a society that can’t seem to bring itself talk about it.  The only time the subject comes up is when someone asks you if he can get you one or alternatively why on earth you just said you don’t want one.  Turning down a drink is not the same thing as saying “no, I don’t want fries with that.”

“Not all alcohol consumption is bad, but most of it remains unexamined. How many bad decisions have been made under the fuzzy blanket of alcohol? How many mornings have been salted with the detective work of piecing together the previous night? How many afternoons have been christened with new drinks to swallow old shame? It’s a carousel that some stay on because they think carousels are fun. Maybe they are, but they don’t go anywhere.”

It fascinates me that Keith, a self-proclaimed liberal, has come to train his critical eye on a cultural sacred cow that is only assailed by rural fundamentalists.  Here, his locality probably has something to do with it.   Keith, like pretty much all Dallas folk over 40, grew up in church, though he is not a conservative.   The religion-tinged cosmopolitan environment of the DFW area is the fecund field that allowed this liberal reformist cross-examination of alcohol to sprout, and I think it’s a unique and unusual specimen.  It’s just funny it comes from a shock jock radio personality who is best remembered for his crass impersonations of Jerry Jones.  This isn’t his first thoughtful column proving he has a mind beyond the potty humor, but I think it is his most important.

It reminds me of an article I wrote for my college newspaper called “The Sacrament of Alcohol” that I decided not to publish because the subject matter was too sensitive for my immediate social group.  Keith too, in the radio discussion expresses similar feelings, saying that he told his editor to pull the article if he thought they should.  Talking about alcohol immediately sends people back to prudery and prohibition.  I think I’m going to rewrite it now that Keith has opened the way again.  It should probably involve some examination of the recent craft brewing craze, (which I’m currently inclined to think is a positive thing for the American attitude toward alcohol) but the overriding reality is that alcohol is probably our culture’s most ritually observed social sacrament and it is very difficult to persuasively propose that we loosen our grip on it.

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Douthat and the Moral Case for Immigration Reform

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Ross Douthat, a writer I have come to read voraciously and respect greatly, has finally run crossways with me on the immigration bill. He is a full-blown skeptic of the current bill, and has convinced me that it’s probably nothing better than an alliance between Democrats and business Republicans. But he has not convinced me that its main aims: amnesty and increasing low-skilled immigration are not worth pursuing. Of course, as usual, he has good reasons to think what he thinks. Increasing low-skilled immigration will be hard on the working classes by increasing competition at a time when joblessness is still a problem, assimilation is stagnant, or at least it appears to be, the increase in low-skilled immigration is a little too good for Republican businessmen who want low-wage labor, and amnesty, the part of the bill that has drawn most of the liberal moralistic fervor, is an incentive for continued illegal immigration.

What I cannot get past is Douthat’s (like Romney’s) insistence on increasing only high-skilled immigration. It makes sense I suppose. An information-oriented skillset will help immigrants attain the sort of work that is more available in our digital age. But these practical considerations fail to include any of the moral spirit of uplift and charity that has always hovered around the dream of coming to America. It seems to me that when the populist phrase is invoked that “this country was built by immigrants” it should be remembered that it was built by poor immigrants who displayed some remarkable ingenuity in overcoming the many obstacles that stood in the way of their achieving a place among the middle class. Furthermore, the insistence on “high-skilled immigration” opens Republicans up to the same charges of elitism that they so effectively deploy against New York liberals and the media. It might be better to try for a more consistent approach to class considerations. The moral aims of immigration policy have always been with us and they are as persuasive as ever, certainly more moving than fear of a stagnant economy. The “rags to respectability” story is still a relevant mythology amongst Americans and would-be Americans, and it may do more harm than good to any party who favors shutting out the ragged in favor of “high skilled” immigrants.

Personally speaking for a moment, it is not clear from my own present experience that assimilation has stalled. Ross argues from data, which he graciously does not use to whap ordinary folk over the head with superior knowledge, but it does not always line up with my own experience, which is admittedly limited, but it’s all I have beyond the graphs. The immigrants and children of immigrants that I know are quite well assimilated, in that they are thoughtful, articulate, socially involved, and I and they are on a common pathway to gainful employment. The only difference is that their fortunes are not quite as vouchsafed to financial security as my own since I have a well-connected and established family network of wealth, but this of course is just what they are building.

As for amnesty, I do not think the idea is unassailable by reason or prudence, but I do think it is important to remember that our immigration caps have been seriously disproportionate since the elimination of country-specific quotas (which were admittedly racist). What are backlogged hopefuls to do when they have decades to wait and there is a tempting, lightly defended border just over the river? A sweeping one-time-only amnesty proclamation doesn’t have to be some gesture for humanism but an attempt to redress some bad math. Going forward, offering Mexicans a larger share of the pie and a cleaner path to citizenship might actually do more to lock down the border than building a wall.

The broader point is that immigration has always carried a moral purpose, to help as far as can be done, the suffering peoples of other nations and the strengthening of the American dream by bonding ethnicities and cultures together under the ideal of self-rule. I hope that Ross and the other skeptics can offer some moral reflection to their case rather than just practical considerations. The case they have is sympathy for the existing working class, but the reality is that much of that class remembers its friends and fellows, to say nothing of family, across the river and are probably looking for another alternative than just saying “no.”

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Contemporary “Heroes”

alexwilgus:

This is a very eloquent rebuttal to our current obsession with antihero. It’s all too common to call jaded heroes more “real” but this writer brings up the important possibility that we are all just in a foul mood and our fictional characters are channeling it to the detriment of hopefulness and imaginative possibility.

Originally posted on arussthebus:

The new Superman is a “hero” for our times: dark, moody, and full of angst. The Internet is still awash with blog posts and movie reviews that detail the controversy behind the ending of this year’s new Superman movie, Man of Steel. Apparently, Superman defeats his enemy, the renegade Kryptonian General Zod (played by Michael Shannon this time around, and by Terence Stamp in 1980’s Superman II), by snapping his neck. Many longtime fans of the characters and franchise have stressed that Superman would not resort to murder in order to defeat his enemies, and that this treatment of him as a character, along with the movie’s overwhelming amount of visually-driven action sequences, have detracted from what makes him great in the comic books, television adaptations, various animated cartoons, and the film series starring Christopher Reeve.

This has caused me to look more closely at the most recent…

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MORE SUMMER READING ON FAITH AND THE FOUNDING

alexwilgus:

Hello all. I thought I would direct you to a delightful blog from the History Chair at my alma mater, Wheaton College. If anyone has interest in history, religion and/or both, I would strongly recommend his blog.

Originally posted on Faith and History:

The Fourth of July has come and gone, but the long Fourth of July holiday  weekend is still in mid-swing, so I thought I would add one more title to my list of suggested summer reading on faith and the founding.  (If you missed it, see here.)

The book I have in mind is Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution, by Vanderbilt University’s James P. Byrd.  I just reviewed the book for Christianity Today online (see here), and I thought I would call it to your attention as well here, without going into the same details that I shared for CT.

Boiled down to fundamental categories, historians undertake three basic tasks.  They describe, they explain, and they evaluate.  In other words, they ask the questions “what happened?”  “why did it happen?” and “was it good that it happened?”  Because description is so essential…

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