No, John, That’s Not Rationality

Let me start by saying that I like John Shore. On the scale of liberal Christians, he’s second only to Fred Clark in my book. He’s smart, funny, snarky, and exhibits a quality that is noticeably lacking in the vast majority of liberal Christianity: he calls out the church regularly in uncompromising fashion when he thinks they’re wrong. None of this “trying to find a middle ground” or “showing eternal grace” bullshit. When people are wrong and believe terrible things, Shore is there is call them out and mock the fuck out of them because they’re wrong and believe terrible things.

With all of that said, though, I can’t help but take exception to many of his apologetics, largely because they’re really bizarre. They don’t have the smirking dishonesty of William Lane Craig or Lee Strobel, who know the holes in their logic and continue to make the same arguments over and over again anyway as if they’ve never heard why it’s bullshit. No, Shore’s apologetics are instead really sincere, and it’s clear that these are the ideas that he’s chosen to hang his spiritual hat on, but you’re left wondering why he doesn’t notice that that particular hatrack is termite stricken and falling apart. And not even really there. And actually a table. An invisible table.

In this case, I’m referring specifically to his fairly recent post on why he gets upset when people accuse him of holding irrational beliefs. His premise seems to be that “core Christianity” is entirely rational so long as you accept the premise of God a priori because it has a recognizable story arc.

Business I do accept as mine, though, is defending the sheer, clear, tight-as-a-frog’s-butt rationality of what I believe. As a logical construct, core Christianity has always been as solid as a Roman arch. It is simply not vulnerable to the accusations of being intellectually untenable. And I must admit that I find exasperating the constantly proffered assumption that it is.

If it’s true that God exists (and the chances are exactly even on that either way; so choosing to vote that there is a God hardly represents a failure of reasoning), then the traditional, old-school, Gospel-based story of Jesus Christ is perfect. It works. It makes sense.

And this is where I start having problems with Shore’s assertions. This doesn’t even really make sense, but let’s start with the most problematic and easiest bit to answer.

If it’s true that God exists (and the chances are exactly even on that either way; so choosing to vote that there is a God hardly represents a failure of reasoning)…

Hold on a minute. Stop right there. “The chances are exactly even on that either way”? By what measure?

I’m reminded of one of my favorite sketches from The Daily Show. I don’t know how to embed non-Youtube clips into WordPress, but you can find a copy here. It’s from the John Oliver bit about the Large Hadron Collider and fears that when it was turned on for the first time, it would destroy the world. Oliver speaks to a scientist who gives the odds of that happening, then he speaks to Walter Wagner, just in case, who says that the odds are “a one in two chance” because “if you have something that can happen, and you have something that won’t necessarily happen, it’s either going to happen or it’s not going to happen.”

Suffice it to say, it ends with Oliver and Walter sitting in a bunker together and this exchange:

Oliver: “Walter, if we’re the only two humans left on Earth, we might as well try breeding, right? It’s worth a shot is all I’m saying.”

Wagner: “No, I don’t think it’s worth a shot.”

Oliver: “Well, like you said, there’s a fifty percent chance it’ll work.”

Now, I know it’s bad form to explain the joke, but I think it’s necessary because what Oliver says as a joke is what Shore is claiming here. What’s funny about the punchline is we know that there is a zero percent chance of a man getting another one pregnant. I don’t need to “disprove” the possibility of this because there is no evidence of a human male getting another human male pregnant, let alone being able to populate the planet, in the history of humanity. The lack of evidence for it ever happening changes the odds significantly.

Similarly, we’re not discussing “if there’s a chance god does exist, and a chance god doesn’t exist, that means that it’s a dead even chance that either is possible.” We can instead look to the fact that no observable evidence for the supernatural has ever been found. Never has there been a replicable violation of natural law. Not once in the history of humanity has something that had a naturalistic explanation been found to be the cause of the supernatural, yet mysticism is replaced by naturalistic explanations all the time. These are important factors that Shore discounts, relying instead on a formula that makes his position sound plausible.

He then goes on to explain the basic story construction of Christianity. I’ll skip the long quote and quote him boiling it down to the basics.

To boil it down to its absolute essence:

God → us → free will → guilt/shame → suffering  → Jesus → Jesus on the cross → forgiveness  →  reconciliation → peace. (And, for an extra-special bonus, the Holy Spirit!)

Again, his premise seems to be that if you accept that god is real, the structure of this story makes it seem plausible. But that doesn’t actually make any sense.

Let’s take one of my favorite examples. I make no secret of the fact that I consider Willow to be one of the most perfectly written stories in all of moviedom. It’s tight, it tells us exactly what we need to know and nothing else, it shows instead of tells, and every step of the journey follows logically from the last one, allowing the characters to develop along the way.

However, by Shore’s logic here, I could easily say, “If you accept the existence of magic (50/50 chance it exists), then there’s no reason to not believe that Willow isn’t a fantasy film, it’s historical fiction.” Think about it, we have Little People in our world, which is what Nelwins are. We have humans (Daikini), obviously. We have babies. We have swords. We have Val Kilmer in a dress. We even have kingdoms that have been lost but we find out later existed, so nothing says that Nockmaar, Galladoorn, and Tir Asleen couldn’t have once been real places. Everything else? Evil sorceresses, good sorceresses, fairies, brownies, trolls? All of these things can have their existence explained by the addition of “magic” to the world.

However, there’s no reason to arbitrarily add the assumption of magic to the world. It’s like when hack writer Jennifer Rubin was trying to say how good a president George W. Bush was and pointed out

Unlike Obama’s tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11.

Wh-wh-what? Why are we drawing the line there? That’s not even really true, but even if it was, why would we exclude 9/11 from the list of national security issues?

Similarly, I don’t see why we would arbitrarily decide, even given the weird 50/50 chance assumption, that we’re going to go with believing in an invisible, inaudible being that is both perfect and not particularly good at communication. It makes his argument somewhat circular.

In the end, Shore doesn’t much care what people believe and don’t believe, and I can kind of get behind him on that when it comes to the existence or non-existence of something that seems to have no meaningful effect on my life that doesn’t exactly resemble it not being there, but I really am having trouble buying into this logic. While it lacks the malice that comes from Craig and Strobel, it is no more consistent or logical, and I think Shore can do better than that.

Feel free to claim that you’ve had a personal revelation. Say you like some of the ideas and that means you believe. Even say, like Clark, that you realize that the stories are probably made up but they tell an overarching story about a world that bends ever more toward justice. But please don’t try to tell me that a book that is known primarily for the parts where the rules of reality are shattered to pieces is the rational position because it happens to have a beginning, middle, and end buried somewhere in the scores of meaningless subplots. That simply doesn’t hold up.

“Intellectually Challenging” Doesn’t Mean “Not Fun”

Anthony over at Rev Rants has a new video up in which he discusses how every time somebody points out that video games should move away from the “guns and chainsaws” mentality that so many games seem to have and focus instead on creating games that address serious philopsophical issues, there are generally two camps: the ones who smugly agree, and the ones who get righteously furious at the idea that games should no longer be “fun.”
And that’s where I lose the argument. Anthony brings up some very good points about how if games are to to treated seriously as an art form, they have to be about more than just the physical challenge of pressing the right buttons at the right time to kill your endless stream of enemies in the most creative ways possible, but I take issue with the fact that he doesn’t really go into what I consider to be the major problem with this argument.
Media that challenges us intellectually can and often is really fun.
Now, I’m not saying that he doesn’t believe this or that I have a problem with the video, which I think is largely spot on, but rather that in arguing for games to be more thought provoking, he neglected to explicitly point out that that doesn’t mean the game isn’t suddenly fun, as if every medium has to have its share of “interesting” things and “challenging” things, and checks them off a list to fill certain quotas in order to qualify as “art.”
Some of the games he mentions, for example, are not only thought provoking and interesting, they are also a real blast to play. Braid is one of my favorite games that he mentions. It was clever, artfully designed, did really fantastic things with mechanics, and told a story that produced a wonderful twist ending without significant cut scenes, dialogue, or anything that explicitly spelled out what was going on. It was a beautiful game that told a great story with a lot to discuss, and was still hours of fun.
Similarly, Journey was fantastic. It was gorgeous, emotional, and thought provoking, but also a whole lot of fun.
Far too often, the idea comes up that something, anything, can be fun or it can be intellectually challenging, but it can’t possibly be both. I hear this most often when I talk about texts and do close readings of them. The common refrain is “Can’t you just enjoy the movie/game/song/book/whatever?” or, even worse, “When I watch a movie/play a game/etc., I don’t want to have to think about it.”
When did thinking become this gigantic burden? Seriously, I’ve been thinking for the 30+ years I’ve been alive and, quite frankly, it’s the most fun thing I do.
The Rev also brings up movies in this as a medium that struggled to attain a reputation for artistry, and even mentions in passing the idea of a “Citizen Kane of video games.” He does this to point out that despite how many absolutely awful movies come out every year, there is a “bedrock” of artistic films that prove that movies can be an artistic medium, giving big studios an incentive to create films that are contemplative, so we can have the American Beautys and Fight Clubs and even Willows (which I just watched again a couple of days ago because it has some of the most perfect storytelling I’ve seen in film) without those who for some reason I couldn’t begin to articulate don’t enjoy thinking too much missing out on another American Pie or [Fill in the Blank] Movie sequel. The existence of Casablanca does not preclude the existence of No Strings Attached. Because The Godfather was made does not mean that Corky Romano was not. And the filming of Arsenic and Old Lace did not prevent the filming of The Hangover, much to my continued chagrin.
To an extent, I think this goes with Anthony’s point about how a medium doesn’t have to be one thing, in that video games can be serious and they can be fun, but I feel like he’s separating those two ideas. A video game, like any medium can be serious and fun in a single game. In fact, I would hope that is the objective in most cases: to make a point and make that point enjoyable. I can appreciate the technical aspects both in terms of film and writing of Casablanca and still be deeply invested and entertained by the plight of Rick and Ilsa.
There are two more supplementary points to this video I would like to make. The first is that the Rev makes a point I rather disagree with around the 5:27 mark when he starts to talk about comics. The point he makes is that while there are some amazing indie comics doing interesting things, the mainstream publishers are basically super hero comics, with the implication that super hero comics can’t tackle meaningful subjects in a serious way. While I love and respect a lot of indie titles, I think this seriously underestimates the ability of super hero comics to deal with important , human issues. It doesn’t take a whole lot to see the metaphor for the civil rights struggle in X-men going back to its conception, nor Stan Lee’s refusal to change a story line in The Amazing Spider-man that dealt with drug addiction in order to get a Comics Code Authority seal for those three issues. There were the Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossovers that were designed specifically to deal with social issues, and to do so by pairing a highly liberal with a highly conservative superhero so they would be able to really delve into the ideological divides present. Shortly after taking over Green Arrow in 2004, in fact, Judd Winick started a storyline dealing with Speedy (Mia Dearden) testing HIV positive that was sometimes ham-handed, but a real attempt at dealing with a serious issue that didn’t drain a drop of entertainment from the comic.
Beyond those, look at the Marvel series-wide events, most specifically the Civil War, but also Fear Itself. I make no secret of the fact the Marvel Civil War is one of my favorite comic series of all time. In the midst of the War on Terror, Marvel decided to take a hard look at how we balance our need for security with our civil liberties and used its major characters to do so. And it doesn’t just focus on the heroes themselves: it takes the time to explore how it affects everybody and the historical connotations of what we’re doing. At the end of one of the Frontline issues, for example, there is a small vignette about a couple of Japanese Americans reporting to an internment camp, and the panel sticks in my mind is where the father is telling his child that the reason why they left their home and have to live there now is that they’re “good Americans” and this is what their country requires of them.
Superhero comics are absolutely able to be serious and give insightful treatments to real problems while still remaining fun.
The other thing that this makes me think of is the current problems within the atheist movement vis-a-vis whether atheists can speak out against social injustice in light of their atheism and skepticism or rather, as some people have argued, atheism is just a non-belief in the supernatural and anything beyond that is out of bounds. Much like video games can be more than one thing, so can the atheist movement. If we’re feminists because there is no rational reason to oppose equal pay for equal work or the perpetuation of rape culture, that doesn’t mean that suddenly people will start believing in Bigfoot. Anthony says that those who agree that video games should be about more will “look down their nose” at others who don’t, but the counterblast is often just as guilty of that behavior. Applying that to atheism/skepticism, there is a fair amount of “Well, I’m a real atheist because I don’t spend my time discussing LGBT rights, which have nothing to do with psychic scams,” and that’s not only not helpful, it’s a callous attempt to avoid bringing skepticism to its logical conclusion. That being said, it’s also not prohibited to focus your energy on combating pseudoscience just because my energy is on how blind faith in bad ideas makes otherwise good people do terribly cruel things to myself and other queer folks.
Things don’t have to be just one thing. Games don’t have to be either fun or contemplative. Superhero comics don’t have to be exciting or socially meaningful. The atheist movement doesn’t have to be just about stopping quack doctors from scamming people or stopping quack preachers from advocating for the death of homosexuals. We are capable, as humans, of doing many things for many reasons, and it’s important to realize that it’s not a zero-sum game.

What Isn’t Said

So, while I usually write about Very Serious Topics, I’ve been busy prepping for a major SCA event and working my ass off, meaning I’ve been a little behind. I have a ton to say on a lot of Very Serious Topics, but today I want to take a break from that and write about something I’m just as passionate about for different reasons and is a little more fun.

Today I’m talking about storytelling and why Willow is a great example of how it can be done brilliantly. Despite a couple of shortcuts, the film is almost universally good at telling a consistent tale and showing us through dialogue what we need to know rather than telling us.

But enough of generalities, let’s get into specifics.

First, for those who haven’t seen this film, go do that immediately. If you can’t, here’s a brief synopsis and I’ll try to link to scenes when I can: Willow Ufgood is a farmer and family man in a village of Nelwins, a race of what we would call “dwarves” or “little people” in our non-fantasy setting, that wants nothing more than to be a sorcerer. His children discover a Daikini (human) baby floating in the river near their home who is part of a prophesy that she will destroy an evil queen. Willow agrees to engage in a dangerous quest to keep the baby safe, meets people to assist him along the way including two Brownies (fairy-folk, not Girl Scouts in Training), a transformed sorceress, and the self-proclaimed Greatest Swordsman Who Every Lived, and eventually has to confront the evil queen.

I want to get the only major storytelling shortcut that was taken out of the way before I go into praising the rest of the narrative. The beginning of the film starts with narration cards to give us the backstory regarding Bavmorda and the prophesy. It’s a rather simple way to make sure that the audience has all of the information necessary to understand the setting and the stakes, so I’m willing to forgive it in this case since a drawn out scene in which we learn what was told us would have slowed down the film and not knowing this would have given us no sense of why any of this is important.

The thing that I noticed while watching the film the other day (the first time since I learned how to analyze narrative) is how tight the writing is. We are given a whole lot of information in very little time. As a result, the beginning of the film is rushed, but doesn’t feel that way. Let’s look at an example at the beginning of the film. I’ll be providing links since embedding is disabled here.

After the introduction of Queen Bavmorda, Elora Danan, and the midwife that helped the baby princess escape, we are brought to the idyllic country of the Nelwins where Willow’s children find the child floating in the river. Biblical allusion aside, the next part is crucial because it gives us a great indication of Willow’s character.

Ranon goes to find his father who drops his work to go with his son. He spends time investigating this strange find until he has to deal with Burglekutt, and then we’re brought directly into the emotional conflict.

This opening gives us information as much by what isn’t said as what is. Willow’s discussion with Burglekutt is a great example. Let’s look at some of the dialogue:

Burglekutt: “…Where did you get these seeds?”

Willow: “Well, maybe I used magic.”

Burglekutt: “You’re no sorcerer, Ufgood. You’re a clown…”

Willow: “My family’s been gathering them in the forest since last fall. There’s no law against that, Mr. Burglekutt.”

Burglekutt: “Magic? You’ll need magic if you expect to get your planting done before the rains start. I will have this land, Ufgood, and you’re going to end up working in the mines.”

Within two minutes of introducing the title character we’re given a whole not of information. Let’s list:

1. His willingness to drop his work to follow his son rather than ignoring the kid shows he prioritizes his family above all else.

2. Burglekutt’s threats show that this is not the best plan. We don’t need to know the details of agriculture nor whether working in the “mines” is a terrible thing or not. The method by which it is used as a threat shows us the stakes and the conflict that Willow faces.

3. We learn that Willow fancies himself a sorcerer. Normally “maybe I used magic” would be a sarcastic answer to an inappropriate question, but Burglekutt’s reaction (“you’re no sorcerer, you’re a clown”) indicates that Willow is very serious about his aspirations toward magic and not highly regarded for them.

All of this we learn very quickly and without a single line of dialogue that specifically tells us. Anything more than this and our narrative would have been slowed down, so instead we are given exactly what we need to connect to the character, find points of similarity, and understand the conflict.

Around the 9:05 mark we see another example of where what isn’t said is more important than what is. Willow, after being gently scolded by his wife for getting upset over nothing, reveals that his reaction is due to nerves from something that will happen tomorrow.

Willow: “Kiaya, tomorrow’s my big day.”

Kiaya: “Love, the High Aldwin hasn’t picked a new apprentice in years.”

Willow: “Tomorrow’s going to be different. I just know he’s going to pick me.”

What is Willow trying to become apprentice for? What is a High Aldwin? Why is tomorrow going to be different? You can ask all of these questions, but in regards to the story we don’t really need to. It doesn’t matter who or what the High Aldwin is or why he hasn’t chosen an apprentice in years. All we need to know here is that Willow’s behavior toward the baby is not out of callousness nor paranoia. This small bit of dialogue does more to humanize Willow than a scene with him brooding to slow music or a monologue on his dreams and ambitions. What’s not being said here demonstrates Willow’s passion, his relationship with his wife, and serves to build in our minds a clearer picture of who he is.

I really could go through the entire film scene-by-scene like this, but that would quickly get boring. Instead I’m going to focus on one more scene and briefly mention how choked up I get when Willow is leaving and Kiaya gives him her braid for luck.

The other scene I want to discuss is the one at the Daikini crossroads where Madmartigan and Eric are talking to one another.

Eric advises Willow to “find a woman” to take care of the baby and Madmartigan from his cage responds, “I thought you were a woman, Eric.”

From this one line we learn a whole lot. The first is that obviously these two know one another. The use of a name is a dead giveaway, but also the nature of the comment which is in the spirit of friendly ribbing. Eric’s laughter and recognition re-enforce the idea that not only are these two acquainted, they are or at least were close once.

Eric’s next question, “What did you do this time?” gives us a sense of who Madmartigan is as a character and also establishes a baseline by which we can judge his growth throughout the film. Willow had a family and a set of conflicts to resolve that gave us a sense of who he was, but all we know about Madmartigan at this point in the film is that he’s manipulative and imprisoned. Eric’s lack of surprise indicates that these are not new traits for Kilmer’s character but essential parts of his makeup. We know that Madmartigan is a scoundrel of some sort.

My favorite line of the exchange, though, starts at 4:28. “Madmartigan. I still serve Galladorn. You serve no one. Remember?” This tells us everything we need to know about both characters and their relationship. We know at this point that Eric is as perfect a knight as we can expect. He prioritizes honor, loyalty, and service above all other concerns, and his refusal to release Madmartigan from the cage demonstrates how lowly he sees those who don’t hold those same standards. The addition of the word “Remember” tells us that these are not Eric’s words: he’s repeating back to Madmartigan something that the scoundrel himself said. It’s mocking and it’s biting and it’s meant to rub his face in what Eric perceives to be a character flaw. It doesn’t matter what Madmartigan did to be put in that cage: Eric will leave him there to punish him for not being a true and noble warrior.

Now, reimagine that last line, but let’s pretend it went more along the lines of “Madmartigan. I still serve Galladorn. You serve no one. Remember? That’s what you said to me before deserting the Galladorn army just before Noctmar began this war.” Not nearly as effective, is it? By giving us too much information, this line makes the entire setup seem forced.

Instead, we never learn the circumstances under which Madmartigan said that to Eric. We never learn why he was in a cage. We don’t know how long Galladorn and Noctmar have been fighting. All we know is that Madmartigan committed the only crime worthy of slow death in a cage according to Eric and that was not pledging himself to the service of a noble cause.

I want to compare this scene to another scene. Yes, I know, I’m going to be picking on Episode II and that’s like clubbing a fish in a barrel with a baby seal, but I want to use this scene because the story for both Willow and Attack of the Clones was written by George Lucas, but in the former case a man named Bob Dolman, an SCTV writing alum, wrote the actual screenplay whereas Lucas himself did the screenplay for Attack of the Clones.

The scene in question is the infamous “elevator scene” in which we are reintroduced to Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. There has been a large jump between the films where, presumably, stuff has happened. The friendship between Obi-wan and Anakin has grown as well, and this is Lucas’s chance to show us that.

The first thing you’ll notice is a whole lot of lazy storytelling. It begins with Kenobi’s first line, “You seem a little tense.” We aren’t given an opportunity to find out how tense Anakin is on our own, we’re told that he’s tense. Repeatedly. Compare that to Willow and Kiaya at the beginning of Willow and we get an idea of why not saying that can be more effective than saying it.

We’re then treated to a short story about a nest of gundarks that they fell into. This little exchange is meant to serve two purposes: to establish that Anakin is a badass prodigy (“You fell into that nightmare, Master, and I rescued you. Remember?”) and to try and establish that they’re friends and have had adventures together. Being a prequel, it’s important that we believe that these two are friends since Alex Guinness has already told us that they were in A New Hope.

The problem here is that this scene fails to do that by giving us too much information. We don’t need to know that they fell into a gundark nest (we’re only told it because they were creatures that appeared briefly in Empire Strikes Back and George Lucas is nothing if not a people-pleaser), we don’t need to know that the snippy apprentice kid showed up his Master, we don’t need to see Obi-wan backing down meekly from a kid when he’s reminded of his own inadequacies.  None of this tells us anything about the characters, or at least doesn’t re-enforce what we’re supposed to believe. It attempts to do the same “good-natured” ribbing that Madmartigan uses on Eric, but it falls flat since the ribbing is about an actual event rather than an obviously untrue character flaw (i.e. that Eric is somehow “womanly” in his actions).

Both scenes also use the “Remember?” construct, but again, there’s a fundamental difference in how it’s used. In the Willow scene, the addition of that one word tells us that it was Madmartigan himself that said what Eric just told him but allows us to construct the details of that exchange. It is a verbal gutpunch, a way for Eric to show his disdain for his friend and remind Madmartigan that he’s there as a result of his own actions.

When Anakin adds “Remember?” to the end of his statement, it’s to tell us as the audience that he’s just given us a story about his and Obi-wan’s adventures. Rather than let us construct the scenario in our heads, preferably one where Anakin and Obi-wan fight together out of the gundark nest rather than one where the cocky kid had to save the life of the person we’re supposed to believe in a great Jedi and then spends years rubbing the great Jedi’s nose in his failure. Too much information here has taken the same rhetorical construction and turned it from a great bit of dialogue to something that makes one of the underlying premises of the film entirely unbelievable.

Time and time again, Willow manages to put tons of information into a tiny amount of time, and the construction of the plot is such that we are moved from one place inevitably to another without feeling like we’re just following along on rails. The characters are forced to make choice after choice and continue to grow as they do, but at no point in the film is a scene or a line of dialogue wasted that could be used to push forward the plot or development of Willow as he goes from farmer with self-confidence issues to brave sorcerer willing to risk even his own life to save a baby he hardly knows.

There are many wonderful things about Willow, from the acting to the soundtrack, but what struck me this viewing was how incredible the storytelling was and how effective a film can be by carefully constructing what it doesn’t tell us.

There are probably deeper implications for this, but really today I just want to talk about this wonderful little film from my childhood and my realization of how artistically it was put together.