Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Movie/DVD Review: Idiocracy.

Marshall McLuhan famously observed, "The medium is the message."

For Idiocracy, however, the message is the movie. The message even eclipses the star-power of its lead, Luke Wilson. Director and screenwriter Mike Judge is the man behind this message, as he was the genius behind the hilarious and underrated probe of American cubicle culture, Office Space (not to be confused with tv's "The Office").

In short, Idiocracy projects what society would look like in 500 years when its devolves into rank unintelligence. According to Judge, characteristics of an idiot culture include:

1. Coarsening of entertainment (scatology is the order of the day);

2. Corporatization of society;

3. Consumerization of people;

4. Commercialization of the professions (especially medicine);

5. Fast-foodification of nutrition;

6. Simplification of language (monosyllabic grunts or profanity abound); and most interestingly,

7. Corruption of the legal system. Judge observes that the protagonist's attorney got his degree from a Costco, and when it came time to argue for his client, he actually argued against his own client. The judge's rulings seemed authoritative because the judge knew how to string together lofty sounding words, but actually taken together they made no sense.

While the execution leaves something to be desired and some excesses should have been excised, Idiocracy's powerful message is inescapable. Although it's set 500 years in the future, this movie does what the best futuristic films should do: cogently comment on the present.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Book Review: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

Incremental adjustments can yield cataclysmic changes.

That's the message of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

It's a hopeful message.

"Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push--in just the right place--it can be tipped." (p. 259.)

Determining how and where to make the "slightest push" is not self-evident, however.

Gladwell advances the polemic by exploring three components of tipping points, which he concludes are mostly driven by people, not ideas. "Ideas...spread just like viruses do." (p. 7.)

First, Gladwell therefore focuses on the viral transmitters. He categorizes them as: Salesmen, Connectors and Mavens. These are the few, key people who can unleash an epidemic. You obviously want to get these folks involved in making change.

Second, Gladwell explores what he calls, "The Stickiness Factor." This pertains to the message or idea itself. "We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present. But in none of the cases did anyone substantially alter the content of what they were saying. Instead, they tipped the message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of their ideas..." (p. 131.) Gladwell continues: "There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it." (p. 132.)

Third, the author addresses "The Power of Context." This pertains to altering "specific and relatively small elements in the environment" to serve as tipping points. (p. 167.) In one intriguing example, Gladwell discusses how the New York City subway system's severe crime problem was tipped by an aggressive campaign to eradicate graffiti, an ostensibly minor manifestation. (pp. 142-43.)

The book provides some generic tools about how major change is implemented. However, it's up to the reader to apply them to a particular scenario. Since Gladwell essentially concedes (in fact, argues) the power of context, his general suggestions cannot be applied without a maven-like knowledge of the particular context(s) in which change is sought as well as connections to key individuals.

That's the domain of the most crucial change-agent, who curiously gets short-shrift in Gladwell's text: the leader.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Book Review: Save Me From Myself by Brian Welch.

Brian Welch's Save Me From Myself is not a typical celebrity conversion story.

Unfortunately, many celebrity conversion tales seem like marketing gimmicks. They either seem designed to wring a few dollars out of a fading celebrity or to "go Christian" to enhance marketability without any downside.

By contrast, Welch lost everything to "get saved." And he gained everything. This raw, emotional book records this dual-directional transformation.

Lead guitarist for one of the world's biggest hard-rock bands, Korn, Welch converted to Christianity and quit the group in 2005--probably at the peak of its powers. He literally left millions of dollars on the table. He even told his lawyers to drop an "audit" into his partnership share. And he walked away. I can't identify a single modern person who rejected so much fame and fortune to follow Christ. If you can, please enlighten me in the comments.

What did Welch gain? As the title implies, everything--it saved his life. Welch could not pull himself out of the death spiral his life had become. Powerless on his own to stop the drug addiction, depression, avarice and anger wrecking his life, he turned (back) to God. An emotional man, Welch said he felt God's "liquid love" enveloping him and overpowering his life's pathologies.

Second, as a single dad, it restored his relationship with his young daughter, who was five at the time. Welch stopped the touring and actively engaged in her life.

Mercifully eschewing triumphalism, Welch also records the struggles of his nascent faith. He doesn't gloss over his troubles and even describes some doctrinal confusion, such as how to deal with speaking in tongues. In that regard, Welch seems to embrace a "signs and wonders" brand of Christianity, where he records what God has literally spoken to him, spiritual dreams and their interpretations, demonic conflicts and prophetic words.

Nevertheless, Welch's earnestness comes off the pages. Welch yearns for an authentic, active faith, and he has seemingly dedicated himself to its practice. Shortly after his conversion, he went to Israel and was baptized in the Jordan River. He has studied the Bible voraciously even though he admits he couldn't understand much of it--at least at first. He was mentored by pastors and other mature believers. He made amends to those he wronged and those who wronged him. He went to India and established an orphanage. He has donated sizable amounts to churches and charities. In so doing, he said he freed himself from dependence on money and established dependence on God.

Interestingly, a secular publisher published this conversion book. Its intended audience accordingly is probably not Christians. There are contextual uses of profanity that might surprise. Some of the touring stories, while not sensationalized, might offend some. If anything, these anecdotes deglamorized the rocker lifestyle, and he didn't dwell on them. I suspect he judiciously edited many out.

Admittedly not a writer, Welch concedes his only prior experience with writing was school papers to get his teachers and parents off his case. (Yes, Welch hailed from an intact family.) Nevertheless, the text's basic style lends to its credibility, authenticity and readability.

Welch has penned a remarkably intriguing book. Save Me From Myself's lack of convention and contrivance makes it a potent combination for believers and unbelievers alike.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Book Review: I Am America (And So Can You!).

There's a reason The Colbert Report is a half-hour.

More than 30 minutes induces fatigue.

Reading Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!) takes a page from the television show's satirical set-up and plays its single note over many chapters.

After a chapter or two, I was wishing for the end-credits. For those not familar with the television show, Colbert assumes the posture of a smug conservative blowhard for the purpose of lampooning him. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to deduce Colbert's character is based (almost entirely) on Bill O'Reilly. The purported autobiographical references sprinkled in I Am America essentially point in a singular direction: Irish-Catholic, Ivy-League-educated political pontificator on cable television. Wonder who that is.

There are some kernels of comedy to digest. Example: "Now, you might ask yourself, if by yourself you mean me, 'Stephen, if you don't like books, why did you write one?' You just asked yourself a trick question. I didn't write it. I dictated it. I shouted it into a tape recorder over the Columbus Day weekend, then handed it to my agent and said, 'Sell this.' He's the one who turned it into a book. It's his funeral."

Another: "And talk about hypocrisy! In 1952, the Supreme Court made another 'ruling.' This time, it was that movies were protected by the First Amendment! That's right, just four years after they criminalized Hollywood's free market, they upheld Hollywood's free speech! Which is it, Supreme Court? Are 'free things' good or bad? I thought rulings were for kings!" (Emphasis in original.)

Another: "There are some who claim that DNA is an instruction manual for all living cells. But if IKEA has taught me anything, it's that I don't need instructions. My coffee table works just fine, provided I remember to attach the counterweights."

Finally, and perhaps my favorite because it perfectly encapsulates Colbert's character's smugness and also his affected approach to revealed truth: "You're lucky to have this book as your one and only scripture. Every word of it is the revealed Truth, so interpret it literally. Including the typos. I put those in here for a reason--a mysterious reason that I know, but you don't. It should give you great comfort that I will tell you the reason after you die. I promise." (Emphasis in original.)

Colbert's book covers myriad subjects, including religion, sports, education, movies, media, race, class, science, and immigration. Despite the variety, the monotonous tone overpowers the topics and leaves a singular impression. We get it; you're making fun of the bloviator by bloviating.

One can only tolerate so much. The small, digestible bites of The Colbert Report go a long way.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Movie Review: No Country for Old Men.

"'No Country' is a stark but richly poetic allegory about a Western garden of original sin in which a world-weary authority figure, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), and a satanic predator (Bardem) fight over a native young Adam who falls into temptation and drags his Eve down with him."

--Reed Johnson, LA Times, March 2, 2008, p. E6

While I'm not prepared to subscribe fully to Johnson's proffered allegory, I co-sign the view that No Country for Old Men is a powerful allegory. Much like cinematographers who film surfers on waves, there's much, if not more, churning below the surface.

On its surface, it's an action caper where a "lucky" guy finds a bag full of money. His luck turns south when others chase him for the same bounty. His luck turns apocalyptic when one of his chasers happens to be evil personified. In this crucible, No Country unpacks many lessons, which lurk just under the action.

Jeffrey Overstreet's review in Christianity Today posits three possible overarching conclusions:

1. "God might be so disgusted with humankind that he's decided to keep his distance and let us destroy each other;"

2. "God might be trying to reach into the world through fleeting gestures of human benevolence [ ]; or,

3. "God just might not exist at all."

At the group blog MereOrthodoxy, my friend Matthew Anderson also correctly focuses in on the spiritual aspects of No Country: "I wonder, however, about the depths to which their agnosticism about the cosmic forces governing the universe drives their comedic style, which has always seemed to be laced with a touch of cynicism. Though it is not a comedy, Death’s triumph in No Country for Old Men is final. The absence of a providential hand to bring goodness from evil lends itself to the sort of dark, cynical comedy that the Coen[s] seem to enjoy."

Johnson, Overstreet and Anderson (and I) are not guilty of rampant eisegesis--i.e. reading too much into the movie. The Coens introduce God squarely into the story. After witnessing a parade of evil that he could not stop or slow, Sheriff Bell finally declares: "I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn't." Hearing this, the Sheriff's friend indignantly (but also supportively) replies: "You don't know what God thinks."

Hence, God's inscrutability draws the bottom line.

No Country for Old Men receives an "A."


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Old Faithful.

One might not expect the sports page to be a fount of profundity.

However, Bill Plaschke's article today about Lakers' owner Dr. Jerry Buss provided a geyser.

"He has done much for this city, yet he is a guy who doesn't want to be remembered with a statue or a name on a court."

"'My name is on my children, that's enough for me,' [Dr. Buss] says." (Emphasis supplied.),1,1020968.column