Friday, March 27, 2015

The True Message of God's Not Dead

Netflix recently added God's Not Dead to its streaming service, and I was excited to see it without having to pay for it in any kind of direct way.  I'd heard it was awful and took its pro-Christianity stance way too far, so I thought it would be fun to know, kind of like a religious-themed version of The Room.

What I discovered was that the film contains a touching and universal message.  If you ignore the masturbatory fantasies of Christianity conquering all its critics, the one-dimensional characters, the not-so-subtle implication that anyone who isn't Christian or in the process of becoming Christian is a terrible person, the flimsy debates, the overstated persecution complex, the obvious intellectual shortcomings of a professor who's supposed to be "brilliant," the weird karmic schadenfreude exhibited through the torture of the non-Christian characters, the way several of the leads foist their religious views on others in inappropriate settings, the muddled excess of subplots, the baffling understanding of the word "prove," and of course the unrealistic conclusion, it's actually a wonderful story producing several caricatures of human nature that combine to illustrate an important and poignant warning to us all:  poor communication can be a terribly destructive force.

(That might be the longest sentence I've ever written in my life.)

Case Study 1:  Our Noble Hero and his Bitchy Girlfriend
When Josh Wheaton (Our Noble Hero) refuses to sign a paper saying "God is dead" for his introductory philosophy college course, Professor Atheist Vendetta gives him the alternative of proving to the class that God actually exists.  Our Noble Hero will have the last twenty minutes of the next three lectures to accomplish this...but should he fail, he'll lose thirty percent of his grade for the semester.  His Bitchy Girlfriend of six years is all about the two of them building a successful future, and she tells Our Noble Hero not to take Professor Atheist Vendetta up on his challenge because a bad grade in the class will hurt his chances of getting into law school.  Our Noble Hero, believing that God wants him to rise to his defense, does it anyway.  And in one brief conversation, Bitchy Girlfriend dumps him.
My mother knew that a handsome, respectful, college-bound,
God-fearing guy like you would be nothing but trouble.
In expressing his shock to her, Our Noble Hero makes an important observation about their relationship:  "You didn't ask me," he insists.  "You told me.  It wasn't a decision that we made, it was a decision that you made for the both of us."  Bitchy Girlfriend hadn't brought her concerns to him or welcomed any discussion on the matter.  She'd told him what to do and left no room for compromise.  Unsurprisingly, this closed-off form of communication ultimately unravels their relationship.

Case Study 2:  The Upwardly Mobile Asshat and the Uppity Liberal Blogger
The Upwardly Mobile Asshat meets his girlfriend, Uppity Liberal Blogger, for dinner to tell her that he's just been named a partner at his firm.  Unfortunately, she has just learned that she has cancer, and Upwardly Mobile Asshat is annoyed that her somber news overshadows his promotion.  This violates some kind of deal they have for their relationship, but she doesn't seem to understand the deal to which he clung so closely.
Dean Cain has no time for your bothersome life-threatening illnesses!
"Grow up, Amy," Upwardly Mobile Asshat admonishes her.  "Love is the most overused word in the English language.  It's what we say when we want something, when we need something, and you're as guilty of it as anybody."

He terminates their romance and Uppity Liberal Blogger feels blindsided by his callous lack of empathy.  He clearly feels that his speech about love was something she should have known all along.  But it would have been helpful if he'd just said all this on their first date and saved her some trouble.  Uppity Liberal Blogger would have realized what a heartless bastard he was and not invested so much time in their relationship.  Instead, she's left heartbroken and alone in a time of great emotional distress.  Healthier communication could have avoided this.  She could have been dating a much more sympathetic and supportive man by now if she'd known enough to dump Upwardly Mobile Asshat at the get-go like the scumbag he is.

Case Study 3:  The Hot Chick and her Muslim Dad
The vaguely Middle-Eastern Hot Chick has been secretly listening to some kind of Christian podcasts despite her father's strong allegiance to the Islamic faith.  Her younger brother betrays her by informing their father, who angrily storms into her bedroom to confront her.  When he sees the track that's playing on Hot Chick's iPod, he stares at her for a moment...and then without a word, he backhands her across the mouth.  Then he demands that she repeat a tenet of Islam, but she refuses, instead professing her belief in Jesus.  So father of the year smacks her around some more, drags her down the stairs and leaves her on the street.
I realize this is a really troubling time for her and all, but is she rocking those jeans or what?
Had he acted less impulsively and instead talked with his daughter like an adult who knew better than to immediately resort to extremely punitive, violent measures, perhaps their relationship could have been preserved.  Instead, Hot Chick was practically forced into the arms of the people her father couldn't stand.  Once she'd lost her family, Pastor Dave and the Christians were her only refuge.  The dad may have been losing his daughter in a religious sense already, but because he had no patience for talking things over, he lost her in a very physical sense as well.

Case Study 4:  The Atheist Professor and his Trophy Girlfriend
Professor Atheist Vendetta's Trophy Girlfriend is growing tired of her lover's publicly condescending attitude toward her and his increasingly dismissive comments about her Christian faith.  Unknowingly taking a page out of Bitchy Girlfriend's book, she approaches the professor on campus while he's at work and simply announces, "Jeffrey, I'm leaving you."  Just like Bitchy Girlfriend, she offers no discussion and not even an ultimatum.  She just decides to end a relationship in an instant (also like Bitchy Girlfriend and also like Upwardly Mobile Asshat).

An earlier scene depicted the two of them talking at home and alluded to the professor's policy that the two of them not discuss religion (ostensibly to avoid conflict within the relationship).  "Except the not talking is starting to get louder and louder," Professor Atheist Vendetta complains, "and soon it will be deafening, and I don't know if I can put up with that."  He realizes that avoiding a dialogue on potentially divisive issues that are important to both of them is starting to cause tension in their relationship.  Trophy Girlfriend agrees.

But later, instead of trying to silence the "not talking," she plainly tells him that she's leaving him.  She doesn't even bother giving him a reason.  At every stage of the deterioration of their union, an open and respectful exchange of opinions could have done wonders.
I think, in this case, a breakup by text message instead of
in a public place might have been more humane.

Case Study 5:  God and Various Characters
Our Noble Hero "feels like" God wants him to stand up for his beliefs, but he doesn't always seem sure of it when he tells people about it.  Professor Atheist Vendetta, as a child, prays that his mother be saved from her cancer but she dies and he is given no answer from God.  Reverends Chill Dude and Wise Foreigner struggle with repeated automotive trouble, which keeps them from taking their road trip and allows them to be in the right spot when Professor Atheist Vendetta is hit by a car so that Chill Dude can convince the professor to accept Jesus before he dies.

God doesn't do a very good job of communicating in this movie.

There's no moment when Our Noble Hero is struck with a clear understanding of what God wants him to do and how God needs him to do it.  Young Professor Atheist Vendetta never receives an explanation for his mother's death or even some comfort in its wake despite his many prayers.  And God sets up a ridiculous series of busted rental cars to keep Reverend Chill Dude in town just so that he can talk to the wounded professor and save his soul at the end.  God really couldn't have found another way to convert Professor Atheist Vendetta other than having him killed?  And he couldn't have figured out another method to get a reverend there to get him to profess faith in Jesus?  Some straightforward correspondence could have made all this easier and spared a life in the process.
God's Not Dead:  glorifying loyalty to Jesus out of mortal fear instead of sincere belief since 2014.
Through the thick growths of religious vines throttling the narrative of God's Not Dead, a simple and somehow beautiful message lies at the center of this clumsily-conceived story:  So much painful stuff happens to these characters, and almost all of it is due to poor communication.  We can learn from these fictional examples that when people don't take the time to discuss their decisions, their expectations, their beliefs and their problems, they can expect things to get worse.  Open dialogue, free communication and the mature exchange of opinions can facilitate the happy endings that so few of these situations achieved.

Just look at arguably the healthiest relationship depicted in the film:  Reverend Chill Dude and Reverend Wise Foreigner are good buddies and they disagree from time to time, but they always talk about why they feel the way they feel.  At the end of the movie, their friendship is intact and they've learned some stuff.  Plus, both of them are still alive.  No hit-and-runs or cancer scares.

This movie isn't Shakespeare (although it quotes Shakespeare at one point and does it a surprising amount of justice), but somehow, despite all the blundering around in a mess of oversimplified, hypercontrasted tales of Christians and non-Christians, it actually manages to drive home a meaningful least, for whatever viewer isn't interested in an absurd, overindulgent tale of implausible Christian triumph.

It's interesting to me, however, that this accidental moral is somewhat at odds with the central theme of the film.  God's Not Dead is basically a war story, with the good Christians being assailed for their faith.  Hot Chick is disowned.  Trophy Girlfriend is patronized by her boyfriend.  Chinese Exchange Student pisses off his dad.  And of course Our Noble Hero is compelled to defend his faith in front of a live audience in the crosshairs of a derisive authority figure and he loses his Bitchy Girlfriend in the process.  Reverends Chill Dude and Wise Foreigner even discuss "being in the trenches" when it comes to doing God's work.  Atheists and non-Christians are pitted against our pious protagonists and they go for each other's metaphorical jugulars with dogmatic gusto.

But if the filmmakers would learn from their own unwitting lessons, they would understand that the world could be improved immeasurably if religious differences were discussed openly and honestly instead of being glorified as battlegrounds.  Instead of freaking out when someone undergoes a faith shift, we could embrace the good things about different beliefs because we've communicated and we know them well enough to understand them instead of fear them.  We could stop thinking of things in terms of atheists and Christians and start seeing each other as people instead of warriors on opposing sides of an endless conflict.  And we could stop producing media that depicts various groups as being in a constant clash with each other because we don't want to perpetuate the myth that different religions cannot coexist peacefully and happily and productively.

That is what I learned from God's Not Dead.  And that is what makes the movie so beautiful in its completely unintentional depiction of such an important concept and so blunderingly glorious in its oblivious irony.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Alma 56: Armies of Helaman

Helaman makes an appearance again, writing a letter to Moroni to inform him of all the cool stuff he's been doing with the Stripling Warriors.

Talk About Snail Mail
Moroni receives Helaman's epistle at the beginning of the thirtieth year of the reign of the judges. The story Helaman tells him begins in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of the judges and continues for another year or two.  This means that, at best, Moroni is learning of events two years after they took place.  

No wonder the Nephites are struggling in their war with the Lamanites.  Captain Moroni is supposed to be in charge of all the Nephite armies and his information is two years out of date.  Perhaps the Nephites' Tapir Express still hadn't ironed out all the kinks.

Pesky Punctuation
As Helaman's two thousand Stripling Warriors brace for their very first taste of combat, he marvels at their bravery.  He learns that their mothers taught them that God would deliver them so long as they put their unwavering faith in him.  This story is often cited in Sacrament Meeting talks on Mother's Day because there aren't a lot of female role models in the Book of Mormon.  Here's what Helaman relates in verse 48:
And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.
It's interesting to me that, based on the way this sentence is punctuated, the Stripling Warriors don't actually profess to have a testimony of this principle themselves.  It could have been written as "We do not doubt; our mothers knew it" or "We do not doubt because our mothers knew it."  That would point to a parent's testimony bolstering a child's.  But instead it's simply presented as "We do not doubt our mothers knew it."  Which basically means that they knew their mothers had faith.  It doesn't mean they shared the faith themselves.

I mean, I don't doubt that my mother knows that there are blessings that come from paying tithing.  I don't doubt that for a second.  But I do doubt the principle that she believes in.  Just because mom "knows" something doesn't mean that her "knowledge" is accurate.

Slippery Perspective
Helaman's letter is told almost entirely in first person perspective.  He refers to himself as "I" and his army as "we" all the way up to an abrupt change in verse 52:
And it came to pass that the Lamanites took courage, and began to pursue them; and thus were the Lamanites pursuing them with great vigor when Helaman came upon their rear with his two thousand, and began to slay them exceedingly, insomuch that the whole army of the Lamanites halted and turned upon Helaman.
"Helaman."  "He."  "Helaman."
I bet Brennan would have a thing or two to say about the anthropological evidence for these stories.
Why does Helaman suddenly forget that the tale he's telling was experienced directly by him?  It switches back to first person by verse 54, but you have to wonder why Moroni didn't think it was weird that Helaman referred to himself in the third person a few times in the middle of the letter.

Did Joseph Smith make a mistake in the dictation of the Book of Mormon?  Did he get so caught up in the depiction of battle that he forgot to keep his perspective consistent?  It does seem in keeping with his first-novel-rookie-mistake thing.

A Little Over-the-Top
Helaman winds up throwing his two thousand green, untested troops into battle to save the tired forces of Antipus from the Lamanites and miraculously, he emerges victorious.  Even more miraculously, none of his warriors are killed.  

It's not the worst example in the Book of Mormon of an event miraculous to the point of absurdity (Lamoni and his strangely contagious fainting disease is another contender), but it's up there.  Two thousand kids who've never been to war before go up against a hardened Lamanite army and win...without losing a single life?  I get that this is supposed to be the power of God at work, but it's just a little too much to stomach for me.  It's miraculous enough without the casualty report, but Joseph had to take it one step further so that it crosses from astounding to ridiculous.

The poor guy just couldn't resist a story embellishment, whether it was a good idea or not.  Just wait until we get to Shiz.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

My Very Own Mormon Spy

Every few months or so, I get a voicemail from the missionaries.  It's usually a sister who calls, sweetly asking for us to meet up sometime so that they can get to know me or whatever.    But two months ago, I guess the sister missionaries decided they needed some backup.  I received this voicemail two days after their quarterly phone call:
"Hi, this message is for Alexander [surname].  My name is Sean [surname], I am part of the Elders quorum presidency for the [location] branch of the LDS church.  Please call me back at [phone number]."
I don't know you.  You clearly don't know me.  You didn't even make up a good reason for me to call you back.  What the hell kind of message is this?
So I saved the number in my phone under "Elders Quorum Toolbag" because of his douchey tone of voice and waited to see if he ever bothered calling back.  So far, he hasn't,

At work yesterday, I happened to glance at the name on a customer's credit card receipt.  It was Sean [surname].  It's not a common surname, either.  I've never known anyone with this name before.  Curious to meet this Elders Quorum Toolbag, I made sure I was the one to finish the order personally.  To my astonishment, this guy turned out to be one of my regulars.
*cue shocking revelation sound effect...fade to black...eerie titlecard...roll credits*
Listening to the message again, the voice is a match too.  It's gotta be the same dude.  This guy's been secretly spying on me all along!  Waltzing his wife and children in to my restaurant a few times a week so he can keep an eye on the apostate!  Hiding his identity from me so that I'd never suspect I was under surveillance!  How despicable!

I'm honestly not sure if he knows.  It's not like I've ever caught the guy eyeing me up suspiciously or anything.  But I'm sure there's a little bit of basic information about me bouncing around in certain circles, so it's very possible that some members of the branch know where I work.  

Now I'll just have to pay closer attention next time I see him.  Because if I know who he is and he doesn't know who I am, this could be fun.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Alma 55: The Rescue-Heist-Attack

Moroni receives Ammoron's response to his letter and reacts like an incensed third grader who's just been told he's a stupidpants.

Let's Make This More Complicated
Upon receipt of Ammoron's correspondence, Moroni blows a gasket because "he knew that Ammoron knew that it was not a just cause that had caused him to wage a war against the people of Nephi."  Apparently the flimsy political argument Ammoron made had enraged Moroni so much that he completely failed to notice that Ammoron was agreeing to Moroni's absurd proposal for exchanging prisoners.  Instead of going ahead with the swap, Moroni decides to take a more dangerous tack by stealing his countrymen back from the Lamanites.

Why can't Moroni just swallow his pride and go through with a peaceful exchange?  So what if Ammoron's reasons for waging war are stupid?  Surely a man as righteous as Moroni has the integrity to stick to agreements he's proposed and the wisdom to avoid risking more lives over a fit of indignant wrath.

Only One Lamanite Among Them
Moroni's plan to steal back his imprisoned Nephites involves some intrigue and he needs a Lamanite to pull it off.  So he organizes a search to find a descendant of Laman among the Nephites and his men  Apparently every single other person of Lamanite descent is kicking it with the wicked, savage warmongering tribe down south.

It turns out that the reason this guy is around is because he was a former servant of the Lamanite king and Amalickiah had used him as a patsy for his murderous coup.  Because the only logical reason for a Lamanite to be chilling with the good guys is for him to have fled his own country out of fear for his life.
It gets better because this guy's only real usefulness is that he looks like the Lamanites and can blend in with the enemy.  He's only valued because his skin color makes him look like another one of those wicked, savage warmongers.  And to top it off, he even has a stereotypical Lamanite name:  Laman.

The Math Doesn't Add Up
The Nephite prisoners are being held in the city of Gid.  So this Laman guy walks up to the guards around the city one fine evening.  He poses as an escaped prisoner who liberated some wine from Bountiful on his way out of the city.  He proceeds to give them the wine (doesn't this sound familiar?) and they guzzle it down until they all pass out.  I guess those wicked, savage warmongers don't have any sense of self-control.

My question is how much wine did Laman have?  In order to get every last Lamanite guard drunk enough, there would have to have been a lot.  Laman did have an unspecified number of men with him (how, exactly, did the Lamanites not notice they were white?), but there's no mention of whether any kind of vehicle or beast of burden was present to transport the alcohol.  I find it hard to believe that these "escaped prisoners" would have walked all the way from Bountiful each carrying a barrel of wine.  But it's just as unlikely that the plan would have worked if Laman had said, "...and on our way out of the city, we stole these three hundred gallons of wine and loaded them up onto these carts!"

Unless, of course, those wicked, savage warmongers were stupid enough to only keep a handful of guards at night.  Then Laman wouldn't need nearly as much to get them suitably soused.

Pacifism, Thy Name is Moroni
Verse 18 mentions that, in their extremely inebriated state, the Lamanite guards would have been very easy for the Nephites to kill.  The next verse continues:
But behold, this was not the desire of Moroni; he did not delight in murder or bloodshed...he would not fall upon the Lamanites and destroy them in their drunkenness.
Okay, so Moroni doesn't delight in bloodshed, he just does it a lot, even when he really doesn't need to?  Passing on one opportunity for violence doesn't undo a history of aggression, vindictiveness and overkill.

Arm the Prisoners?  Are you an Idiot?
Laman and his team have sneaked into the city of Gid with their oh-so-clever wine trick, but they don't free the captives.  Why not?  Because Moroni's plan is to give the prisoners weapons.  Then Moroni's army will march on the city.  This way, when the Lamanites wake up, they'll be surrounded on the outside and surrounded on the inside.
We'll call it the Krispy Kreme Offensive
If the Nephite army is already going to surround Gid overnight, why would they leave the prisoners inside?  Sure, they're armed, but they're just as much surrounded as the Lamanites are and they're completely cut off from the support of their rescuers. Also, if they're unable to hold their own against the hungover Lamanite forces, the city of Gid gets some free hostages.   But apparently, in Moroni's mind, attacking from behind enemy lines is a great idea in every possible situation. You're surrounding the city, you moron!  Why complicate things for no good reason?

I Wonder Why that Didn't Work
After the bizarre success at Gid, the Nephites ride a wave of military momentum.  The Lamanites, however, keep trying to turn the tide of the war back in their favor (verses 30-31):
And many times did [the Lamanites] attempt to administer of their wine to the Nephites, that they might destroy them with poison or with drunkenness.
But behold, the Nephites were not slow to remember the Lord their God in this their time of affliction.  They could not be taken in their snares; yea, they would not partake of their wine, save they had first given to some of the Lamanite prisoners.
So...the Nephites weren't stupid enough to fall for the exact same trick they'd just used to take the city of Gid?  That's astonishing.  But it's important to remember that the reason for this isn't that they're not complete idiots—it's because they remembered their God and he made sure they didn't fall for any obviously transparent ploys of the Lamanites.