Let My People Think

Culture, Religion | Posted by Shannon
Mar 15 2017

In the lately-renewed controversy surrounding The Shack, two defenses of the book, and now movie, stand out to me. Both are meant to silence theological critiques. “It’s just a story,” runs the first. The second is more varied and a bit harder to sum up, but it turns on how the book makes people feel, especially about God’s love.

These defenses don’t answer criticisms of The Shack; they dismiss them out of hand. They make me critical thinkingthink of what Ravi Zacharias called his radio program: “Let My People Think.”

To dismiss criticism of a novel’s theology by pointing out that it’s just a story implies one of two things. The first is that stories can’t present a theology. As a statement regarding stories generally, this is wrong; as a statement regarding The Shack in particular, it’s absurd. The whole purpose of The Shack is to expound on theology, and it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. No one who has read the book will doubt that it makes a theological statement with clarity and at great length.

I think, then, that It’s just a story carries the second implication, namely that the theology of a story is irrelevant. But once admitting that a story has a theology, how can that theology be irrelevant? A story’s elements differ in importance, but no element is simply irrelevant, and a story’s ideas about God are far from the least relevant. Further, stories have power in that they work through the imagination and the emotions, sometimes bypassing the head. A story’s ideas, especially about God, matter.

There might be a third, more sophisticated understanding of this argument; it may mean that stories shouldn’t be judged too strictly because their form creates limitation and an inherent ambiguity. Generally, this is true; specifically regarding The Shack, it isn’t.

C.S. Lewis, when he wrote a novel about a mortal demanding answers from God, set it in an ancient, mythical world that required something more imaginative and more allegorical than a straight-up discussion of Christianity. But The Shack takes place in our world, and it’s chock-a-block with straight-up discussions of Christianity. Unlike other novels, it doesn’t present its ideas through fallible characters, who might be wrong, or events, which are open to interpretation; it has the Almighty state its ideas in endless exposition. There are few novels more obvious in their theology, and any notion that that theology is beyond the bounds of critique is simply wrong.

Other Christians justify The Shack by how it makes them feel. I don’t dismiss the importance of feeling God’s love, or the value of a bridge between the head and the heart. And yet: Feelings are no justification in the end.

Human feelings, no matter how spiritual they may seem, are not incontrovertible proof of God’s work; God’s work is not necessarily a seal of approval on His instruments. Maybe God has used The Shack, as people say, but you know, He used Pharaoh, too.

That The Shack makes you feel (correctly) that God is love doesn’t mean that it isn’t wrong in other respects; neither does it make significant errors all right. And it’s not enough to feel rightly about God; we need to think rightly about Him, too. Even the feeling that God is love, without any feeling that He is also majestic and terrifyingly holy, leaves us stranded a long way from home.

We live in an anti-intellectual age, where feelings are taken to be the basis of everything from moral truth to government policy. But Christians should swim against that current, too. We shouldn’t dismiss what a novel or movie says about God because it’s just a story; we shouldn’t be so carried away by how something makes us feel that we don’t want to think about what it means. Ideas matter, and they can be bad even when the feelings are good.

Let my people think.

When Fandoms Attack

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Mar 01 2017

We all have our fandoms, and other people have theirs. With the never-ending expansion of shows and movies and franchises, no one has the time to join every fandom. Even if we did have the time, no one would have the inclination; human tastes and interests vary too widely. But isn’t it nice to witness the endless enthusiasm other people can show for things that hold, for us, so little interest?

No, not really. Because to be subjected, at length, to enthusiasms you don’t share is so much aggravated boredom. You can’t tell other people you don’t think their fandoms are interesting, any more than you can tell them you don’t think their pets are cute, but you can certainly think it. Dwell on it, even, until your indifference is gradually transformed, by dint of another person’s passion, into implacable hostility.

Why should this be? For one thing, we are all self-centered. If I were a kinder and more generous person, I would have more patience, and even interest, for other people’s enthusiasms. But sometimes fangirlfans go too far in insisting on their opinions – over contrary opinions, and contrary evidence, and obvious disinterest. Sometimes, fandoms really do attack.

We all have our fandoms. In the interest, then, of not going on the offensive, here are three principles that we should all, as fans, try to live by.

Number one, in order to have an actual conversation on your fandom, you need another fan. Trying to talk fandom with people who are not fans is like trying to talk shop with people who are not in your business. They likely won’t know what you’re talking about, they probably won’t care, and they certainly will have nothing to add to the conversation. Indeed, this is one of the surest signs of a fandom attack: a conversation – in the loosest sense of the term – that goes on and on even though one party’s main contribution is “Uh-huh.”

Number two, retain your objectivity. I cannot stress enough the importance of this. The worst sort of fan is the one who has lost all critical judgment; who in regards to their fandom will hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil; who insist that the newest movie in the franchise is awesome before actually seeing it, and perfect after seeing it; who feel greater affinity for those who share their fandom than for those who share their nationality, religion, or blood; who can scarcely credit the intelligence or motives of critics; who still cannot admit that Tom Brady probably did not destroy his cell phone because he was innocent.

Don’t be this fan.

Number three, keep your perspective. The better part of no one’s life consists of his fandoms. It really is all right if other people reject, even strongly, your fandoms. And don’t be offended by jokes or parodies or insulting memes. It’s not worth the energy or a fight. Everyone has the right to object to, for example, parodies of his religion or jokes about his mother; no one’s fandom is that important.

These principles will help all of us to, in our fandoms, keep from going on the attack. And if we’re on the defensive when fandoms attack, there are three principles for that, too. Smile. Nod.

Back away.

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 15 2017

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin was a man who cared for only one thing: a joke. As a private citizen, he made a fool of himself for his own amusement. As a king, he still made a fool of himself, but he quickly branched out to making fools of other people, too. He instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city and imposing on them an absurd glory. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

For ten years, the businessmen and bureaucrats endured the robes and trumpets and heralds. Then the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who mistook the whole thing for a drama and wanted to turn it into an epic.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. After a satiric prologue about the game Cheat the Prophet, the narrator sets the story “eighty years after the present date.” This adds up to 1984, and the colorless, moribund England of Notting Hill, languishing in a world made ever more uniform by imperialism, would have been dystopia to Chesterton. So this is another English novel presenting a dystopian 1984, but of quite another flavor.

Like all Chesterton novels, Notting Hill is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. A brief sample: “In the beginning of the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men. They were so common that a stupid man was quite exceptional, and when they found him, they followed him in crowds down the street and treasured him up and gave him some high post in the State.”

In humor, social criticism, spiritual opinions, and the well-used paradox, whole passages of Chesterton’s fiction are indistinguishable from his nonfiction. There’s a rambling quality to Notting Hill sometimes, and the long paragraphs of dialogue often serve Chesterton’s ideas more than his plot. Still, this book stands out as one of the most disciplined of Chesterton’s novels.

As obvious as Chesterton was in expressing his opinions through the pages of his novels, he also managed one of the most subtle interweaving of theme and plot that I have ever seen. The main theme of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is patriotism, but it takes until the very end of the book to see how the plot cross-examines the idea of loving your country. Notting Hill becomes a nation in microcosm, passing through in twenty years what takes real nations centuries, and new turns in the story present new arguments against patriotism. The slaughter at the end of the novel, uncharacteristic and startling, offers the most final argument.

Although a dystopian of a sort, and set far in the future of its writing, Notting Hill is an unusual specimen of speculative fiction. Neither technology nor magic has any real place in its world, which is the London of 1904 draped with medieval glory. The English government is altered in a few, somewhat metaphysical paragraphs in order to make the creation of Notting Hill possible. But there’s no menace to it, just plenty of room for absurdity. Big Brother is not listening.

notting hill 2Still, Notting Hill shares one great commonality with many better-known works of speculative fiction: It explores the present through the future. The glory of speculative fiction is that it is, more than other popular genres, about ideas, and Notting Hill is about nothing if not an idea.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”

Black, White, & Gray

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Feb 01 2017

Since its release, Rogue One has been proclaimed – and not only by Disney – to be a new kind of Star Wars movie. In various elaborations on this theme, all the usual suspects line up: gritty, realistic, Ambiguitycomplex, ambiguous. Rogue One mostly lives up to its billing, though in less than exemplary fashion. I would like to examine this, not for the sake of the movie itself so much as for the larger points of complexity and ambiguity in stories.

In the moral compromises of its heroes and a gut-wrenching shot of a little girl terrified in the crossfire of battle, Rogue One finds an ugly side of war that the earlier Star Wars movies do not (though this is somewhat undermined by the relentless battles, which leave the impression that war is endlessly diverting and explosions are more desirable in a story than, say, dialogue). It even gets its hands on a genuine moral dilemma that is latent in technologically advanced warfare. In the course of the movie, the Rebel Alliance plots to assassinate the Death Star’s chief scientist.

By the way: Spoilers.

The idea of assassinating a scientist has a moral queasiness about it, but a case can be made for it. A scientist can have just as much blood on his hands as a soldier, and no one who is dedicated to creating a weapon of crushing, unheard-of power can be considered a noncombatant. Such scientists, as paid employees of a government’s war machine, are civilians only on a technicality; some of them are not even that, being formal members of the military. Why should scientists be entitled to safety while they facilitate the slaughter of millions?

And yet assassination is always a dirty business, cold, cold killing.

Rogue One raises a thorny moral question but never reflects on it. It offers the briefest, blandest justification for the assassination (basically he’s a weapons scientist who builds weapons and those kill people) and then just sort of assumes that it’s wrong. I’m not sure the filmmakers even knew they had a complex moral question. This is why Rogue One, despite reports, is no more thoughtful than the supposedly “unreflective” classic Star Wars trilogy. It is not enough that stories raise a difficult question, nor is it necessary that they answer one; to be reflective you have to, well, reflect.

Just as Rogue One is not a particularly thoughtful movie, neither is it really a complex one. Oh, there’s plenty of ambiguity, which is interesting and, yes, realistic. But ambiguity is not the same as complexity. complexityIt may even be the opposite of it, to the extent that it is simply a muddying of the waters. True complexity requires greater clarity and more distinction, and it doesn’t discard simplicity.

The plot of Rogue One carries the potential for certain moral complexities – that being on the right side does not ensure righteousness, that victims are not necessarily innocent, that war is so terrible it can degrade even heroes. That potential is never developed, partially because the movie is devoted to rushing action and not fine moral points, but also because heroes and the right side are lost in the gray. There’s too much moral ambiguity for moral complexity. Good and evil mix in strange and tragic ways, but to see that requires a distinction between white and black where they do not simply swamp together into gray.

Rogue One is a new kind of Star Wars movie, less of a space opera and more of a war film, and above all a (very competent) action movie. But it’s a mistake to assume that any story will be more reflective because it is gritter, or more complex because it is ambiguous.

Review: Power Elements of Character Development

Writing | Posted by Shannon
Jan 11 2017

What is it that makes a sympathetic hero, a compelling villain, a persuasive and realistic character? I can sum it up for you in one golden word. But you really should read the book for yourself.

Power Elements of Character Development is the second book in the Power Elements of Fiction series, written by Rebecca LuElla Miller. Some time ago I read and reviewed the first book, Power Elements of Story Structure, and I knew then that I wanted to read this one, too. Characters are my favorite part of stories, and I am a writer. I knew I’d enjoy this book about writing characters.

Power Elements of Character Development is only 138 pages long, but it is divided into 45 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. These chapters organize the book effectively, moving easily over many different facets of characters, their creation, and their overall place in fiction. Minor characters, dialogue, inner conflict, antagonists, character arcs, character death, and what qualities make characters memorable or compelling are all considered.

Most importantly of all, this book emphasizes that characters should drive the story rather than be driven by it, and their actions must, in turn, be driven by – and this is the golden word – motivation. It may be a beginner’s lesson that characters shouldn’t be passive, but even experienced writers can get lost in the blurred distinction between an active character and a reactive one. A character can be very active in his reactions, especially if what he’s reacting to involves live ammunition, but heroes should do more than just respond, and I appreciate how clearly this is established.

I found the emphasis on motivation invaluable, and how it must be present not only as the story’s end goal (what the character ultimately wants) but also as every scene’s purpose (what he is trying to do right now). The insight regarding motivation helps to focus plots and scenes and characters, a prevention and cure of writer’s block.

I enjoyed Power Elements of Character Development as a lucid, concise, broad-ranging review of the creation, use, and role of characters. Its points, especially about motivation, help me to focus and evaluate my own writing. Recommended to writers of all stripes.

 

I invite you to check out Power Elements of Character Development on Goodreads and Amazon, and I highly recommend you visit Becky Miller’s writing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

Review: Rogue One

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Jan 04 2017

Rogue One needs no introduction, so I won’t make one. This review, however, requires an emphatic spoiler warning. So:

spoilers

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILER ZONE. ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Now to the review.

Rogue rogue oneOne is Disney’s first half-step beyond the traditional Star Wars trilogies. It’s a Star Wars story rather than an episode and officially outside the main arc, but it’s so closely bound to A New Hope it’s practically the prologue. If the praise is not too faint, Rogue One is the most epic prologue ever made.

There is an inherent dramatic difficulty in making a movie whose end everyone knows (they get the plans), but the makers acquit themselves well. To some extent, Rogue One is Disney retconning George Lucas. But it’s a creative and convincing retcon, and it brings a level of freshness to the story. The decision to star a new cast of protagonists and a new villain created a wealth of potential because A New Hope doesn’t dictate what happens to them – and the filmmakers mine that potential to its limits.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without a Jedi in sight, and that creates another dramatic challenge. The makers attempt to meet the challenge with the warrior-mystic Chirrut Imwe, who succeeds in sustaining the presence of the Force in the absence of the Jedi. Although evidently not a Jedi, Chirrut exhibits Jedi-like traits – an intriguing idea that goes exactly nowhere, because the movie leaves him unexplored and unexplained. Possibly he belongs to a different Force-order. Possibly he’s a freelancer. Maybe he’s not even Force-sensitive. It’s not in the movie.

If Rogue One fails to take the idea of the Force anywhere new, it does present a whole new view of the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance’s plan to assassinate the Death Star’s intellectual architect raises an intriguing moral dilemma, and if the idea is unsavory, it’s still impossible to regard the intended victim as innocent.

Oddly enough, the Alliance’s assassination plot is more forgivable than its ruthless manipulation of Jyn into aiding the killing of her own father. Indeed, the portrayal of the Alliance is surprisingly dark, with little sense of higher ideals or aspirations to relieve it. Cassian, the principal Rebel character, brutally murders his own informant. The Rebels who ally with Jyn are declared to have done terrible things in their fight against the Empire. The Alliance’s leadership rejects a chance to destroy the Death Star through cowardice and sheer stupidity. The sad truth is that Rogue One goes rogue against the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One’s primary failing is that it takes too little interest in its own characters. All of them suffer some degree of neglect. Cassian is the most developed of the lot, by virtue of having a cause and experiencing inner conflict, but he’s also a joyless character, consumed by a crusade against the Empire for reasons that are only hinted at. Why the ex-Imperial pilot defected from the Empire is a mystery, as is why he volunteered for the desperate last mission. Similarly, Chirrut and his friend, what’s-his-name – you know who I mean, the one with the fancy gun – intervene once and then just sort of tag along for the rest of the movie.

But no one is more neglected than Jyn, the main protoganist of the film. Rogue One can’t be bothered to invest in her the sort of quiet moments with which other Star Wars movies introduce their heroes – think of Luke playing with his toy ship or looking at the setting suns, or the brief shots of Rey’s handmade pilot doll and wall of marked-off days. It’s not even interested when Jyn makes decisions crucial to the plot. In the first half of the movie, Jyn disavows any interest in fighting the Empire, blames the Rebel cause for her suffering, and likens Cassian to a stormtrooper – indeed, this is the surest sign that she disapproves of the Empire: she compares Rebels to stormtroopers. And then suddenly she’s talking more Rebel than the Rebels and giving rallying speeches against the Empire.

Did she believe those speeches, despite blaming the Rebels for her father’s death so shortly before? Did she believe that the Imperial flag doesn’t bother you if you don’t look up, despite being orphaned by the Imperials? Who knows?

Rogue One is above all an action movie, and as it rushes from one action sequence to another, it seems hardly to care why its characters fight so long as they do. The characters are lost in the parade of explosions and firefights, and I think the meaning is, too.

And then, in the climax, it’s found. It’s ironic that the film waits until the penultimate action sequence to slow down and give the characters their moments, but every second is welcome. The end of Rogue One is fantastic, leading brilliantly into A New Hope and imbuing the fight and the sacrifice with meaning. Tarkin’s final use of the Death Star offends logic, but it also gives the villain’s end a kind of horrifying justice I’ve never seen any other story achieve.

No review of Rogue One would be complete without praising K-2SO and how masterfully he is used for humor, or without noting that every moment of Darth Vader’s presence is pure win. Rogue One’s frenetic pace crowds out too many quiet moments and too much thoughtfulness, and the absence of the Jedi and tarnishing of the Rebellion feel like losses. It doesn’t capture the Star Wars magic, but Rogue One is a skillful sci-fi action movie that possesses its own gleams of greatness.

Christmas Is Too …

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Dec 21 2016

Christmas FireplaceIf you listen long enough, you will discover that Christmas is too much of many things. It is too commercial, too materialistic, too Christian, too pagan, too saccharine and nothing but an excuse for shameless capitalistic mongering. These opinions will be with us until the end of Christmas, and I have no ambitions of dislodging them. But there is one I would like to dispute.

Christmas is a pagan holiday. I’ve heard this a lot, from people who approved and people who did not, and I’ve grown ever more skeptical. The historicity is vague at best, the thinking is demonstrably sloppy at times, and I see a fundamental confusion of the past and present tenses.

The historical details of the claim are often hazy. For example: Which pagan holiday? Saturnalia? The winter solstice – and if so, whose? Because strictly speaking, the winter solstice is an astronomical event and a good number of cultures have made it a holiday. More importantly, when and where did Christmas first begin to be celebrated? What descriptions of it, or commentary on it, exist in ancient sources? Is the “Christmas is a pagan holiday” claim really just an inference from general facts?

And this leads into the thinking that is, shall we say, less than rigorous. Very little is proved by the fact that Christmas takes place at roughly the same time as Saturnalia and several European solstice holidays (not to mention Hanukkah and Sanghamitta Day!). A midwinter feast is not a terribly original idea and it is quite possible that Christmas and Saturnalia both began in the Roman Empire and were still entirely distinct. That Christmas existed in the same time periods and cultures as pagan holidays may suggest associations, but it does not prove them.

Another idea in need of debunking is the notion that anything used as a symbol by pagans is forever a “pagan symbol.” Among my favorite instances of this are the Advent wreath, supposedly pagan because it is a circle and circles are a pagan symbol for eternity, and the Christmas Tree, which reputedly has its antecedent in pagan use of evergreens as symbols of life and fertility.

Part of the fallacy in this is the evident assumption that anything pagan is by definition anti-Christian. And this assumption is false; the divide between Christian and pagan may be large but it is not total. It is further obvious, as soon as you think it through, that the circle as a symbol for eternity and the evergreen as a symbol for life aren’t derived from some intrinsically pagan belief. They are derived from the nature of the things and from the universal cast of the human mind. A circle is endless, like eternity; an evergreen tree is living green when everything else is dead brown and gray. Pagans turned them into symbols before Christians did; there were, after all, pagans before there were Christians. But that does not make the symbols false or bad.

Another part of the fallacy, and perhaps the most significant part for this discussion, is that symbols change with culture. It’s likely that pagans had, in evergreen and holly, associations that Christians do not. It’s possible that certain Christmas rituals were adapted, long ago, from customs with pagan religious meaning. And so what? Who has those associations or cares for those meanings now?

And here we reach the confused tenses. Though I’ve never seen a compelling historical case for it, perhaps Christmas was pagan. It still wouldn’t mean that Christmas is pagan. No one can imagine that, if an ancient Roman were sucked through a time portal to our modern Christmas, he would say, “Why, it’s the Saturnalia!!!” Things change, sometimes beyond recognition. Their meanings change. Consider the symbols of Christmas – whether snowflakes and reindeer and Santa, or angels and the manger and the star – and it is plain that neither Saturn nor the sun-gods have anything to do with it.

What matters is not what Christmas was centuries and millenia ago, but what it is today.

So Merry Christmas.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments (Christmas Edition)

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Dec 14 2016

Today, in timely festivity, the Office of Cooking Experiments presents its very first Christmas edition. Christmas is, of course, a beautiful, spiritual season that is easily ruined by stress, and it is our hope to reduce the stress that you, the amateur holiday cook, so naturally feel. At Christmas, you are expected to cook for numbers and at a culinary level beyond your comfort zone and possibly beyond your capability. With the cookies you bake, the eggnog you whip up, and the many side-dishes you concoct, you contribute to the joy of the season and the cherished holiday memories of your loved ones, many of whom are no help at all. So you are naturally, as we say, stressed.

The Office of Cooking Experiments understands! The Office of Cooking Experiments has been there! Once it almost cut its own cable line because it observed that the world is divided between those who cook on holidays and those who watch football, and no cable, no football! But it did not, because it remembered it would then have to call the cableperson and perhaps answer awkward questions. The Office of Cooking Experiments further reflected that Christmas is, after all, a time of warmth and charity, and of all the faces that charity wears, cooking is not always the least.

The Office of Cooking Experiments also resolved to reduce its stress and not-totally-necessary work. Now it shares its well-learned tips with you, the amateur holiday cook, in cautious optimism that they will help you to enjoy a merrier Christmas.

Nine types of Christmas cookies are not necessary. Reflect for a moment: What cookies are people digging up from the bottom of your festive Christmas-themed tins a week after New Year’s? Don’t make those anymore.

Use crockpots. At the Office of Cooking Experiments, “Use crockpots” is our mantra; it would even be our motto, if our current one were not so absolutely superlative (“We make mistakes so you don’t have to”). It is ideal that, at Christmas dinner, there be dishes of unusual number and complexity and that they all be done at more or less the same time. Amateur cook, crockpots are your end run around this; things cooked in crockpots can be done hours apart and served, hot, at the same time with minimal burning.

Count the number of burners on your stove and add the oven. This is the upper limit of dishes to make for Christmas dinner, even if you use crockpots.

Measure the spices carefully. We mean this literally – many dishes are sadly sensitive to generous amounts of, say, cumin or red pepper – but also figuratively. In Yuletide recipes, you are liable to come across spices that you do not use the rest of the year and have never even seen in your local grocery store, though granted you were not looking. Measure the likely contribution of these spices to your Christmas joy and decide whether they are worth an excursion to the store. We recommend cloves but not fennel. We cannot even define cardamon.

NOTE: When the recipe calls for “grated lemon zest”, it is merely joking. Have a hearty laugh and break out the lemon juice.

There are many, many different ways to decorate a Christmas cookie. Some people regard sprinkles as a necessity, others as a superfluity. Some people prefer the dunk-and-done method, others view frosted Christmas cookies as works of art as elaborate as the Sistine Chapel, only not as permanent.

Which method is best? Whatever method is not yours. Trust us, and let everyone, including four-year-olds, frost as many cookies as they want in whatever way they want.

Yes, amateur holiday cook, there are many ways to reduce your stress during the Christmas season, and one of them is to get other people to do cookery for you. It makes them feel useful. It is a gift. ‘Tis the season.

Movie Review: Small One

Culture | Posted by Shannon
Dec 05 2016

You’ve all heard of a boy and his dog. This is the story of a boy and his donkey. It’s an old, mangy donkey, tattered ears and scruffy fur, but in his eyes it’s good enough for a king’s stable. He loves it, you see.

But his father tells him they must sell it, because it’s too old to earn its keep and they can’t afford an animal that doesn’t. So the boy takes his donkey to town, trying to find a good man who will buy it.

A good man is hard to find. “Small One, Small One, Small One for sale,” the boy sings. “One piece of silver – Small One for sale.”

Comes the answer: “No, no, little boy, I will not buy!” And those are the nice people.

Small One, one of the movies of my childhood, is a simple and sweet film. The run-time is 26 minutes, and I think the only character whose name we know is the donkey’s. This does not feel like a lack (though it can make review-writing a bit awkward). The story does not need names. It’s too directly human, engaging the heart in broad plainness.

The animation is old-fashioned and charming. There are lovely touches – moonlight falling into the stable, golden clouds in a pale blue sky, the illustrations that formed the background of the credits. There are clever touches – the forbidding atmosphere of the tanner’s shop, silhouettes seen through colored tent curtains, the soldier who seems, as the boy looks up at him, seven feet tall.

So with the music. From the tender song in the credits, to the plaintive chorus, “Small One for sale,” there is a great deal of loveliness here. There is also a good dose of cleverness in the bankers’ song. “Clink clink, clank clank, give your money to the bank, telling little stories you can trust” – as they shift their eyes so slyly.

Small One is a children’s story artfully told. That’s why its maturity surprised me. The father tells his boy that Small One must be sold. There’s no rebellion, no escape. The happy ending that the film seeks is that the boy will be able to sell his donkey to a kind man. We never doubt how much he loves Small One; that love drives him to the end of the story – in trying to find a good home for Small One, not in trying to keep him.

The end is beautiful. Softly, lightly, it steps into the radiance of Christmas. We see the stranger who buys Small One … a glimpse of travelers on the road … the stable and the Star of Bethlehem, its long rays a shining Cross between heaven and earth.

And you begin to feel that everything is more than all right in the end; it is right. As they sing in the credits, and again as the Cross stands in the sky: “There’s a place for each small one – God planned it that way.”

Honors Villainy 312

Culture, Literature | Posted by Shannon
Nov 14 2016

(Because, coming off the election, we could all use a laugh.)

 

Good morning. Or bad morning – whichever is most applicable to your day, and as you all know, I don’t care.

First order of business, your tests. Observe, class, the newly empty seats. These belong to your former classmates, who have been dropped from the class. I will never tire of saying it: In the Higher University classroomof Super-Villainy, there are no second chances. Anyone not bright enough to pass the test, not competent enough to cheat and not be caught, not cunning enough to discern the one bribe I am willing to take – anyone who fails, fails. Because they were not superior enough to give orders, your ex-classmates have gone to the Lower College of Henchmen, where they will learn to take them.

Don’t smile. Next week, it could be you.

Second order of business, the recent pleasantness. You observed the riots surrounding the Superior Court of Inquisition, although as underclassmen it was not, of course, your privilege to participate. I am happy to tell you that justice was done. Total Expulsion was carried out, complete with a Demoralizing Monologue and several Witty Taunts. The honorable inquisitors did not even consider sending the criminal to the Spurious School of Mindless Minions.

The offense that brought about such a punishment is, of course, shocking, but I am going to explain it, because this is not a safe space, and I do not care about your triggers. The criminal, while preparing a treatise to earn the rating of a Malefic Magician –

(And don’t you see, class, that that is a clear sign that something was wrong? Who studies to become a Malefic Magician? It is really a matter of kidnapping or blackmailing or killing or ensorceling, all the good works of villainy) –

The criminal forgot the Infallible Law of Power, that teaches that Might Is Right and Will Prevails – forgot, I might add, the revered Doctrine of Self-Preservation and the sacred Imperative of Self-Interest – and presented to the Higher University the following statistics:

  • In 97.8% of all stories, the villain loses; in 70.5% of stories, the villain dies; in 83% of stories where the villain survives, it is only to die at a later date; in 99% of stories, the villain has an unhappy ending; to this we add, parenthetically but with great annoyance, that in 44% of stories, the villain is reputed to cry, and not the crocodile tears or boiling tears of pure rage that are the only acceptable kinds of crying.

 

All this is bad enough. But what disqualified the criminal from being even a Mindless Minion was the conclusion of the treatise. This put forward the thought – and let this be a lesson that you should always think twice before you think – that the universe works against us and beats us, and that is how Clotilde Skuld came to be banished to the Outer Regions of Perpetual Back-breaking, Soul-Destroying Work, Where Your Face Will Never Be Clean Again.

Skuld’s treatise is specious on its face. How can the villain lose in 97.8% of stories and be unhappy in 99%? Clearly, if the villain won, then the villain would be happy. These numbers are self-contradictory and worthless. Furthermore, how can anyone fail to consider the issue of authorial bias? The authors of these stories are nervous creatures, afflicted with too little exercise, too little sunlight, and too much caffeine, and write out of their timid heart’s desire to escape our coming dominion.

Take heart, students! The universe is blacker than they paint it. Time is a tyrant, Death conquers all. Entropy is on our side. Nature knows no law but Power – and neither do we. We fight without the self-imposed limits of the heroes. Our will to win is absolute, our cunning knows no qualms, our ambitions are unfettered. Our fashion sense is manifestly superior. We will prevail.

That is our time. Tomorrow night is the game against the Knights, and I encourage you to cheat whenever you can get away with it and commit wanton fouls against the enemy’s star players. Remember, it’s not how you play the game; it’s whether you win or lose.

And as I have taught you, you will win. Or else.