The problem with days off is I become so conscious of the value and scarcity of this precious time that nothing seems optimal enough. And then, even if I invest myself in the most meaningful work I can think of, a voice in my head will tell me that I shouldn’t be working at all but should be enjoying myself (whatever that means). The workaholic parries with, “But I enjoy myself the most when I’m invested in my passions.” To which the leisure lover responds, “But … family. Isn’t it about time?” The end result: I get so invested in the debate that, before I know it, it’s 10:00pm, precious little has been done, and the next work days is only hours away. “No,” I cry. How did this happen? All I wanted was to seize the day, and in the very pursuit, the day slipped through my fingers. Then, with a heavy heart, I find myself envying the two-toed sloth. Hanging in carefree bliss, the sloth has no concept of time. The sloth has nothing to prove. The sloth just is.
In the early days of our marriage, Teresa and I had a certain tradition. I being a workaholic, I would often stay up into the late hours working on a project, while Teresa, who wanted to be near me but also wanted to sleep, would lie at my feet. Sometimes I would take advantage of her late-night delirium by compelling her to write short stories with me, because the random gibberish her half-conscious mind spewed out was brilliant. Following is one such story that I just stumbled upon from 2007. Enjoy.
“Where’s my crackers?” said Mr. Booshna.
“They’re in your trousers,” said the dog.
“I knew you were going to say something nasty like that, you dumb dog.”
“I love you.”
“You have my crackers.”
“My name is Cleopald,” said the dog.
“I don’t care what your name is. Give me back my crackers.”
Just then, the chittering chimpanzee from outer space came through the laundry shoot amid a dazzling display of sparks. He shouted with glee, “Table manners!”
“Oh, excuse me,” said Mr. Booshna. Then in a very polite voice, “Mr. Dog, may I speak with you outside, please?”
The dog said, “I’m not a hot dog, I’m a dog.”
“I didn’t say you were a hot dog,” said Mr. Booshna. “I just asked if you would speak with me outside.”
“Oh, my apologies for the misunderstanding.”
Then the evil lamps of doom came down and zapped the dog’s tail off.
“Don’t!” said the dog.
The chittering chimpanzee squealed with excitement.
Then the lamps zap the rest of the red horribleness out of Mr. Booshna’s eyes. So then the ants come and jump on Mr. Booshna’s back and pulls out his really big bazooka from nowhere, and they have a barbecue with it, and they have a big neighborhood barbecue. And then the oreos came and covered Mr. Booshna’s glasses so he couldn’t see anymore. There was an Oreo on each of his glass things.
And then the man tripped because he couldn’t see. He tripped over some spicy pork rinds.
The chittering chimpanzee went to sleep.
The dog became a horrible dog with a beard, and he laughed at his reflection in the water, and pounced on the ants. He grew wings and darted through the sky in a streak of fire. All the people were afraid, except the little boy.
There were these potatoes who winked, and then the little boy came named Rufio and asked for some pity. Instead, all he received was rocks. But they were beautiful rocks, made of toilet.
“I’m really cold,” said the boy.
“Here, have some…” The shrubs started to move. They didn’t like all the noise. They got up, picked up their roots and said, “I’m leaving.”
And the dog said, “Poor boy, please don’t be cold, we will warm you. This ant here has a bazooka, it will warm you. He didn’t do a very good job last time. We have room in the garden in the backyard for the boy.””
“But wait,” said the boy. “I wasn’t really fired up, I’m okay.”
\”You were a singed boy,” said Mr. Booshna.
“That’s okay,” said the boy.
And then the shrubs felt bad, so they came back, and the ant was so happy that he let the bazooka go again, and there were no more shrubs.
Thanks to everyone who’s supported us in our new business venture: Surprise Vacation. We started off with a great launch earlier this month, with almost 400 hits on our first day and several contacts from interested leads. It always takes a leap of faith to discover whether or not one’s crazy idea is going to fly, of which it’s far too early to say for this budding project. Especially while it’s in its infancy, your word-of-mouth can go miles.
Anyway, Teresa and I thought about the different ways we could approach this. (1) We could meticulously plan out every detail of travel, lodging, dining, activities, and entertainment for every customer, or (2) we could try to automate the service with tried and true packages. We decided on somewhere in-between: designing sixteen vacations based on the sixteen personality types, then customizing these packages to meet the needs of our customers. The idea of correlating locations with personalities is, of course, arbitrary, though after a fair amount of research, we think we’ve found some pretty good fits. Sight-seeing and fine dining for the cultured, carefree amusement for the fun-loving, high adventure for the courageous, and relaxation for the comfort lovers.
It’s been fun to design the quiz and the methodology for assigning vacation spots to people’s personalities. It’s pretty basic right now, and our algorithm is far from perfect, but the more who try it out, the more data we can collect, and the better the service gets. So, if you’re like us and prefer adventure over predictability, check out the link above to find out your “ideal vacation.” As always, we’ll be happy to give friends (and even acquaintances) killer deals. Just contact me.
Party on. Or better yet, vacation. You deserve it.
Here’s an average day’s cuisine in Gashlaria:
Smoothie made of strawberries, bananas, mangoes, oranges, dates, and chia seeds
Home-made granola (fresh out of the oven) with freshly-made cashew milk
Spinach, tomato, and cucumber sandwich with grape seed oil and balsamic vinegar
Home-made, whole wheat fettuccine with alfredo sauce made from cashews, coconut, and garlic
Spinach Caesar salad with home-made whole wheat croûtons and a dressing made from vegan mayonnaise, lime juice, balsamic vinegar, and garlic
Tacos made with yellow corn tortillas, home-made refried red beans, and home-made salsa
Home-made ice cream made from cashews, bananas, dates, and cocoa, sprinkled with coconut
“Moral Relativism (or Ethical Relativism) is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances” (http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_moral_relativism.html).
Judging by moral relativism, it is folly to believe in a moral rule such as that men should marry women and have children. If there is such a rule in a society, it’s founded on the prejudices of that society and not on any natural law. To state that men should marry anyone is to presuppose that there’s some superior value to entering into an exclusive and committed partnership over a life of solitary, self-motivated promiscuity. To state that men should specifically marry women is to presuppose that there’s some physical balance between the sexes and that diversity is superior to homogeneity. To state that couples should have children is to presuppose that it is good for humans to reproduce, which would lead to the absurd conclusion that it is better to be alive than dead.
Moral relativism is the ultimate reductio ad absdurdum (anyone else finding frequent occasion to use that phrase lately?), because it boils down all truth into binary equations of consistent or inconsistent, fair or not fair, whether or not these equations adequately represent reality. If immediate and absolute proof cannot be provided (which it never can be), the moral relativist considers it his moral prerogative to draw no conclusion and define no rules, to replace the acquisition of truth with a belief that truth cannot be found. Thus moral relativism isn’t so much a philosophy as the manifesto of the cynic, the permission for anything, the condemnation of nothing, and the justification for inaction. Even if lines are drawn, to state that something is right in one society and wrong in another society is to equate right and wrong with cultural whims, putting a fine line between moral relativism and nihilism.
If there are no absolutes, then the very concept of morality is lost in recursion. What, then, can it possibly mean for something to be immoral? Inconvenient? Problematic? Offensive? Without absolutes, what one does in the dark becomes irrelevant so long as he can destroy the evidence. The philosophy echoes the sentiment from Disney’s Alladin: “Trouble? Now way. You’re only in trouble if you get caught.” This so-called moral framework becomes the foundation and justification for ideas such as “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” and “if it feels good, do it.”
More and more, it seems that moral relativism, in all of its paradox, is the rule book by which world society is reinventing itself. The virtues of forbearance, fidelity, integrity, purity, industry, and charity (to name a few) are replaced with the single virtue of tolerance. But ironically, without standards to judge against, there’s no difference between tolerance and apathy. It seems that the only way to achieve the unconditional tolerance the world demands is through widespread moral anarchy. And of course, within this “tolerant” framework, if one society goes against the grain in deeming a certain behavior immoral, the more-enlightened majority will surely pressure this wayward minority into accepting the common doctrine, as evidenced by the way that society, as a whole, has rapidly changed its moral views over the last few decades. Thus the practical implementation of moral relativism becomes very hard, indeed, to distinguish from nihilism. If it weren’t for a universal zeal for the illusive virtue of equality, the two might be indistinguishable.
And now to my justification for this being a Sunday post: where faith comes in. It seems to me that where moral relativism demands instant proof, faith trusts in intuition and discernment until proof can be attained. Where the moral relativist states, “Until I can see it with my eyes and handle it with my hands, I will not believe,” the believer states, “I have no fail-proof arguments, however, when looking at the big picture, this course of action makes the most sense to me.” By maintaining an open mind, faith, ironically, becomes the tool of the scientist, whereas the demanding of immediate proof becomes the tool of the ignorant.
When viewing the immediate and long-term effects on individuals, families, societies, and nations, there are many, many good reasons why, as a rule, men should marry women and have children, but none of these can be adequately represented by the question of fair or not fair, and so the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. By the rules of this new game, I cannot defend myself, and I cannot win. Of course, the game is rigged, though illustrating this epistemalogical quandary in the heat of debate is so difficult that it seldom happens. Occam’s Razor becomes the de facto means for settling truth in all accounts, reinforcing a consensus reality of a one-dimensional and polarized universe filled with lovers and haters.
True enlightenment does not come from judging a book by its cover. It doesn’t fit well into political slogans. It seldom comes furnished with immediate proof. Determining what’s right and wrong requires faith in a grander scheme, a deference of judgment until all evidence is obtained. It requires acute discernment from delicate criteria that cannot be easily put into words. It requires the integrity to accept the inconvenient reality that everything we do has effects, that our actions, big or small, can matter a great deal, whether or not anyone is watching. It requires the courage to reject blind permissiveness and stand for what may be unpopular or against the “rules.” It requires patience and looking at the big picture until it all comes into view.
Thus, it would seem, that true enlightenment requires faith, an idea that doesn’t fit well with moral relativism. But then, truth has never been popular.
There’s something ironic about walking into a Cinemark megaplex decked with posters for superhero movies, which are playing in half of the theaters, then entering one of the few showings of a movie about an actual hero only to see four other people in the entire theater. Stilted plots, gratuitous violence, amoral antiheroes, unbelievably evil villains, and just enough sex for a PG-13 rating, America’s latest obsession with comic books on the silver screen simply isn’t for me. In fact, the last superhero movie I think I actually sat through was Spider Man 2, back in 2004 … and I wish I hadn’t. But immerse me in a story with real good guys and real bad guys, such as The Abolitionists, and I’m hooked.
The Abolitionists is a documentary that tells the story of ex CIA Agent Tim Ballard and the organization he formed, Operation Underground Railroad. Their mission is to rescue children from sex trafficking. The movie shows real operations, through which some fifty-six children were rescued during its making. It made me cry. Teresa will confirm that I don’t cry. This is a movement that needs our support.
It’s hard to imagine, but slavery is still a big problem in the world. Chances are, you’ve eaten chocolate that was, in part, brought to you by enslaved children in Ghana and the Ivory Coast (especially if you buy Nestle products). According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 20 million slaves in the world today, with the vast majority of them involving sexual exploitation. According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 80% are female and half are children. Unlike the inane frivolities we, the pampered decadents of a dying empire, fret over, human trafficking is a real problem. I mean, how can we exhaust or passion over who should be allowed in which public restrooms while millions of innocent children are being raped on a nightly basis? It’s so easy to waste our energy on what appear to be good causes but which will, in the end, return a net result of zero. Which pretty much sums up the majority of modern political activism.
Tim Ballard is inspiring because he’s found his calling in life and has dedicated himself to it. He doesn’t have time to argue about how the world needs to change; he’s too busy changing it. He’s making a real difference, not by writing blog posts but by actually fighting bad guys. And I intend to follow suit. I signed up to volunteer on their website, indicating that I’d like to join their jump team. And I fully intend to get shot. Teresa has given me the green light to do so. One couldn’t ask for a better wife.
In the alternate country of Slabobia, suppose I have this great idea for helping the poor: free beer. It’s delicious, high in calories, and gone should be the days when self-respecting Slabobians had to beg for their beer. So I contact my senator, who likes the idea, and, lo and behold, a bill gets passed providing free beer for everyone beneath a certain annual income. The streets are alive with drunken celebrations, and living in Slabobia has never been better (provided you’re making less than the certain income). Meanwhile people above the certain income start to feel jealous, especially those who are teetering on the line. They realize that, when comes December, if they were to just turn down that seasonal job, they’d more than make up for the difference with free beer. Plus they’d get a whole extra month of vacation!
So annual incomes drop, demand for seasonal jobs increases, alcoholism reaches an all-time high, drunken fistfights are everywhere, and the tax-payers’ completely fruitless expenditure on beer is tanking the economy. Free beer, it turns out, was a bad idea. So I call up my senator and ask him to try to repeal the act, but he responds, “No can do. The Free Beer Act guarantees millions of votes for me and my party.”
While it was an honest mistake, everyone knows that bureaucracy never dies, so rather than griping about the past, I’m just going to pick my battles and move on. Beer, I realize, was not a need. What the poor need is good, nutritious food. So I call my senator, who likes the idea, and once again, lo and behold, a bill gets passed providing free, healthy food for all Slabobians beneath a certain income level. By taking their vouchers to grocery stores, the poor are entitled to all the spinach, celery, and rutabagas they could ever want.
The only problem is that no one actually wants spinach, celery, and rutabagas, and when the grocery stores realize this, they also realize that they’re missing out on some serious revenue from government reimbursements, so they collaborate with local manufacturers to invent three new products that will technically meet the governmental standards: spinach ice cream, deep-fried celery chips, and rutabaga beer.
The products are a huge success, so much so that obesity among the poor reaches an all-time high. On the up side, this means there’s a major spike in the health industry, but on the downside, because these are the poor we’re helping, none of them actually pay for their services, so once again the economy is tanking.
My benevolent idea, it turns out, resulted in some unintended consequences. Perhaps it was due to loopholes in the text, and the senators should have hired better lawyers. Regardless, because passing a new bill is so much easier than repealing an old one, I decide it’s time to look at the bigger picture in determining what the root causes of poverty are. I decide that everyone, not just the poor, should have free health care and free college educations. So I call up my senator, and once again he likes the idea, and lo and behold, a bill is passed providing exactly what I wanted.
Though the lines get long … really long … everyone gets the primary care they need. Because of the government’s increased bargaining power (they’re flipping the bill for everyone, after all), they can get the lowest bids from medical professionals, so our taxes only rise by a bout 400%. The down side is that half of the doctors in Slabobia are no longer able to pay their bills, so they move off shore, and many of the high-tech medical developments and pharmaceutical research firms are dissolved due to limited funding, but that’s okay, because there’s all those other countries (like the U.S.) that haven’t turned socialist yet. At least they’re still producing good stuff.
And hey, free college! Now that everyone’s got a fraternity or a sorority to join, and the minimum university class size is in the hundreds, campus life has never been more packed with parties and free from education. Of course, we’ve effectively inflated the education system, making the high school diploma beyond worthless and the bachelors degree a prerequisite for flipping burgers, but at least everyone now has the chance to flip burgers. But then there’s the other down side: now that it takes seventeen years of education to qualify for burger flipping, young adults aren’t expected to move out of their parents’ basements until well into their thirties, an unpleasant reality that leads to an even faster halting of the Slabobian population growth. With fewer and fewer people to pay into a welfare state that doesn’t pay back, the economy is once again tanking, and the general quality of life is looking dismal.
For a moment I wonder if government intervention could have had something to do with Slabobia’s problems. I decide that it has. So I call up my senator with a great new idea for a social program to help people who has suffered from the effects of government intervention. And until that bill gets passed, at least there’s still free beer.
Here’s my Sunday thought. According to Wikipedia, “In psychotherapy, paradoxical intention is the deliberate practice of a neurotic habit or thought, undertaken to identify and remove it.” Founded by the German psychologist Viktor Frankl, the idea is that if you’re suffering from insomnia, rather than trying to sleep, which will most likely backfire, you should try to stay awake as long as possible. In trying not to sleep, you’ll naturally tire yourself out, and the body’s the sleep mechanism will automatically kick in with no further effort. Trying to sleep is like trying to forget: it’s indistinguishable from remembering.
If we believe that there’s no afterlife, it’s reasonable for a philosophy of nihilism to follow. Believing that it doesn’t matter what we do, it’s then reasonable for a life of hedonism to follow. As we inevitably fear the impending termination of our being, it’s reasonable to try to distract our senses with entertainment, sensations, and stimulants. But if all this is in response to a meaningless life, does it succeed in adding meaning, or, like trying to sleep in response to insomnia, does it exacerbate the problem?
Dr. Frankl demonstrates that when it comes to solving psychological challenges, our intuitions are often wrong. What if, in response to concluding that there is no God, instead of rebelling against the idea of God, we tried to become as godlike as possible?
For the vast majority of human history and cultures, the idea of deity played a central role in every day life, because while people lied, it was believe that God could not be deceived. Beneath pragmatic social contracts was an underlying contract between individuals and a transcendent ideology. For every action, word, and possibly even thought, individuals would be held accountable. And how could such accountability not improve individuals and societies? Anyone who’s tried to transform their body through exercise or healthy eating knows self-destructive temptations are a real thing, and accountability is crucial. One needs a friend, a deadline, or a beach party by which to gauge his salvation or damnation.
But if one honestly doesn’t believe in God, how can one feel accountable for his actions? Perhaps the French philosopher Voltaire had the answer: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” I interpret this to mean that, when we see God as an ideal to strive for, the question of whether or not God actually exists is, at least in some ways, irrelevant. To allude back to the fitness metaphor, while it would be nice to see pictures of ripped muscle men for inspiration, whether they actually exist or are Photoshopped illusions should have no bearing on the progress of one’s bodybuilding.
If we believe that there’s no God to overlook the affairs of humanity, then we must become the gods, because the world desperately needs goodness, love, knowledge, power, and principle. Ironically, atheism really shouldn’t lead to hedonism but a more astute sense of purpose, accountability, and even spirituality, because with atheism should come a realization that everything depends on us.
Far from deluding one’s mind with dogma, it is my belief that everyone should choose to believe in the principles of God because of the inherent value in so doing. And who knows, one might actually discover God in the process.
Many times I’ve wondered why faith is so integral to this life. Wouldn’t it be better if we were equipped with a divine text book? Why would the same being who said that “The Glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36) purposely hide himself and leave us with nothing more credible than the words of self-proclaimed prophets by which to make sense of the universe?
And yet, what if we had started out with a complete instruction manual on life, the universe, and everything? From a scientific point of view, there would have been no need for a Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. Like pampered nobility born into privilege, our imagination, innovation, and realization would have been severely stunted. And then comes this wonderful quote from Thomas S. Monson:
“God left us the world unfinished for man to work his skill upon. He left the electricity in the cloud, the oil in the earth. He left the rivers unbridged and the forests unfelled and the cities unbuilt. God gives to man the challenge of raw materials, not the ease of unfinished things. He leaves the pictures unpainted and the music unsung and the problems unsolved, that man might know the joys and glories of creation.”
So while the full nature of faith as the means by which one can obtain the full blessings of God still remains something of a mystery to me, I see enough wisdom in the principle that, for now, I’m more than willing to … take it on faith.
And in pondering this still mysterious principle of faith in the divine, namely Jesus Christ, I’ve felt a need for a better definition of what, exactly, this concept means. Fist I’ll tell you what I think it’s not: I don’t think it’s a state of mind, nor do I think it’s pretending to believe in something one truly doesn’t. I think it’s more like the following analogy:
Say you have a brilliant epiphany on the subject of astrophysics. You realize that you’ve pieced together the complete theory of everything, and you’re dying to tell others about. But the problem is, hardly anyone will have any clue what you’re talking about, because not only have they not qualified themselves to understand, they’re probably not even interested. Tragedy. In the same way, I feel that Jesus Christ has obtained the true doctrine of everything, and he’s dying to tell us about it. But once again, most of us are either unqualified or uninterested. We simply wouldn’t know what to do with such pearls of great price.
I think his “elect” are those who exert themselves enough to both wrap their minds around the knowledge he’s given and follow the path he’s set. That is, faith is “getting it.” Because when we get it, we do it. Faith is not getting everything, because perfect knowledge would no longer be faith. It’s just getting enough. The crucial knowledge is there, and boy is it ever. The limiting factor is not the information itself but our willingness to internalize it and act upon it. Again, I think faith is an applied combination of knowledge and action.
And here’s where the miracles factor in: for those few who put themselves on the path of faith, God is going to help them, because he’s dying to have someone else experience what he has and know what he does. He has a vested interest their success. And yet, as much as this may torment him, he can’t just give us this knowledge in a text book, because it would inevitably go to waste. It appears that this world of mystery, where each of us must figure out for ourselves who we are and why we’re here, is the only way that a proper inquisitiveness — a kind that leads to godliness — could be instilled within us. But as mysteries are unfolded, we begin to perceive the true universe. Higher laws act upon lower laws, and “miracles” occur.
In the Book of Mormon, it’s Laman and Lemuel who most needed faith, though they never understood why. They didn’t get it, because they didn’t want to get it. Such would require too much effort. Their youngest brother, Nephi, however, did get it. He saw that faith wasn’t just for malignant sinners or the down and out. Far from a silly belief system for blubbering ladies in fast-and-testimony meetings, faith is power for the righteous, those who don’t fall back on religion as a crutch but hold onto it as a ladder to perfection. It is the light, knowledge, and hope of the redeeming gospel that empowered Nephi to complete dangerous missions, obtain profound visions, prophesy of the future, engineer brilliant things, cross uncrossable seas, sculpt beautiful edifices, lead nations, and leave legacies for his posterity. Could a foundation of doubt have led to such amzing accomplishments? What interests me about faith is not just the power that helps the lost get found but the power that helps those who have already found themselves become gods.
Last night I attended the priesthood session of the General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For an hour and a half I sat on a hard chair, surrounded by men and boys in white shirts and ties while we listened to old men call us to repentance. Such an image may stir less than exciting feelings into my readers. In fact, it may be the antithesis of what’s deemed as a “cool” activity for a Saturday night. And yet, over the course of this conference, I found the messages so stimulating that I took over 5,000 words of notes. While there are many things I don’t understand, I believe I can say with confidence that I “get” this gospel. The doctrine is wonderful. The advice is good. The examples are phenomenal. And most importantly, the fruit is sweeter than anything else I’ve ever tasted. I don’t have a perfect knowledge and nor will I ever in this life. It seems that that is the point of this life. And yet, when it comes to the fundamentals, I get it. I understand the basic tenets of Jesus Christ’s doctrine of everything, and I want to learn more. I want to experience the course he’s laid out for me, because I know, from experience, that it leads to joy and intelligence.
What struck me last night was how much we’re missing when, like Laman and Lemuel, we choose not to “get it.” In a world where agnosticism is viewed as a trait of the enlightened, we often say, “Unless I can know for certain, I will not act.” But this logical construct we build up in our minds can never be satisfied, for, as it appears, the full truth will not be made known to us in mortality (at least not at this time), which, once again, appears to be the point. We’re forced to choose between moving forward in faith and spinning in circles of doubt. Afraid of falling into the traps of wishful thinking or delusion, we choose not to “get it.” We opt out of experimenting with Jesus Christ’s doctrine of everything by studying scriptures, praying, meditating, fellowshipping, and trying out the works of Jesus Christ for ourselves, because we’re certain that we already know what the results will be. And yet this is not scientific. If we really wanted to know, we would have to try to prove ourselves wrong.
“And now I, Nephi, cannot say more; the Spirit stoppeth mine utterance, and I am left to mourn because of the unbelief, and the wickedness, and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be” (2 Nephi 32:7).
It’s been argued that doubt is a better instrument for the pursuit of truth than faith. While this may be true in a laboratory, and while a healthy skepticism can always help cut through deception, doubt alone can easily turn into an roadblock to action where action is required. It may lead to the distorted view that what we don’t know should take precedence over what we do know. It may close the mind, heart, and will from seeking to understand Jesus Christ’s good news, simply because, from a distance, such good news may seem fantastic. But before we doubt our faith, perhaps we should also try doubting our doubts.
Last night the wise speakers pleaded with our generation of men to start looking past our own noses, to truly be there for their wives, children, and neighbors. It was if they said, “You don’t have time to doubt your place in this great work of salvation, because if you can’t even get past helping yourself, how on earth are you going to fulfill your callings to help others? You already know it’s true, so stop falling on your doubts as an excuse to withhold action. In so doing you are damning your potential and destroying your family, your society, and your posterity.”
And that’s what I think it really comes down to: the question of “to act or not to act.” Perhaps forcing us to make this decision is the true purpose behind this great simulation called earth. The great deception is to equate faith with mere belief, a state of mind, wishful thinking, or even delusion, while the great truth is that faith is one and the same with action. I do not believe there is an alternative to this choice between faith and action and doubt and inaction. This is not to imply that no one can live a good and meaningful life while simultaneously rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but is my belief that there is nothing better out there than Jesus Christ’s doctrine of everything, nothing so empowering, nothing so good for the individual soul and the entire human family.
My personal resolve is, as I’ve suggested, to place my knowledge over my doubts, and to exercise more faith through more action. I can honestly say that the more I’ve exerted my faith, studied my course material, and followed the footsteps of my Savior, the more real, profound, and literally true his doctrine of everything has seemed, and the more enlightened and happy I’ve felt. Inversely, the more lax I’ve become, and the more I’ve distanced myself, the more it all seems like wishful thinking, and the more confused and dark I feel. While it could be argued that such confusion is inevitable while deconstructing a false foundation, I don’t buy it. Real truth warms, enlivens, and inspires like the rising sun. And once you’ve experienced it, you know it. When you’ve comprehended even the smallest portion of Jesus Christ’s doctrine of everything, you see that no other explanation comes close.
Few things excite me like John William’s Star Wars theme. Hearing those blasting trumpets and seeing that amazing yellow logo glimmering with all the scifi wonder of 1977 against the panoramic backdrop of a vast starscape, this is the stuff of magic. This familiar moment at the opening of The Force Awakens had me literally bouncing on my seat, as my embarrassed wife will attest. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this movie, especially as so many have raved over it.
My first observation was that I was glad to read a familiar, thoroughly cheesy intro with phrases like “the Sinister First Order” and “searching the galaxy for Luke Skywalker …” I could tell right off that this movie was going to be another great Space Western with clear-cut good guys and bad guys, almost like an extended Sunday school lesson but far more entertaining. Though it also begged the question, “Do I really want another melodrama?” I mean, we’ve already been through six movies cataloguing the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire and the eventual triumph of the righteous underdogs. Wouldn’t it be a little counterproductive to throw away all that progress and start over? Surely that’s not what the film is going to be, is it? Of course not. The Imperial days are over. It’s time for a new period, a new conflict, new themes, and new wonders. I mean, there’s a whole galaxy to explore.
Of course, my fears turned out to be spot on. I won’t dare call the movie a remake, as apparently there’s been a touchy debate on the subject, but it was at least a “soft reboot,” strongly reminiscent of A New Hope. I’m almost certain the making of the film started with a conversation like this:
“So those prequels didn’t turn out too well, and we’ve got way too much money on the line to risk another box office bomb. So let’s just follow the proven formula of Episode IV. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in a lot of Episode V, because that one also did well.”
This wasn’t necessarily a bad idea as The Force Awakens succeeded at fitting right into the Star Wars universe. The filmmakers clearly went to great pains to be true to those 1977 designs and motifs, even with retro screen visuals and flashy lights on the walls that serve no purpose. Awesome. They knew exactly who their target audience was: people like me who had grown up with a religious zeal for Star Wars, who had been hurt by the prequels, and wanted to return to the comfort of their beloved galaxy from long ago and far away with pseudo-religious overtones, inspiring the inner-heroes within.
And yet, for me, this movie was too familiar: another lost droid holding important information, another sandy planet with a trapped, young Jedi in the making, a new galactic empire (with virtually no explanation as to its roots or financial backing), a new Darth Vader, a new cantina full of monsters, a new Yoda-figure, a new Death Star, new Yavin’s to blow up, and so on.
I get that they wanted cohesion with the earlier episodes, but with so much budget and technology, why not get at least a little more creative and show some non-earth-like terrain? I mean, every single habitat in the Star Wars universe so far has a direct counterpart on earth. Why not show us a planet with a pink sky where it rains sulphur and the trees look like giant frog eggs, and there’s half the gravity of earth? What’s with Hollywood’s obsession with boring desert planets? Don’t get me wrong: Tatooine was beyond cool in 1977, when Star Wars pioneered the possibilities of scifi cinema. But in 2016, have we now reached the outer limits with nothing left to do but pander to nostalgia? Why not take that pioneering spirit further?
And now I’m going to completely contradict myself in adding that it was too bad that the filmmakers didn’t learn from all of the mistakes from the prequels, namely the use of CGI characters. I know I speak for many when I say we just don’t want them. We just don’t love them. They’re just … no good. The use of puppets is one bit of Star Wars nostolgia that should never be compromised.
I was able to overlook all of these disappointments but one that hit too hard: the reintroduction of Han Solo. We discover that, as a seventy-something year-old-man, he’s long-since left Leia and backslid to his smuggling days. I can also imagine the conversation that led up to this choice: “What do we do with him? He can’t just be happily married. Where’s the conflict in that? And he certainly can’t have attained some level of maturity and sagacity in his old age. That would just depress our audience. The Han Solo they knew and loved was a rough, sarcastic smuggler, so that’s what we’re going to give them.”
Which reminds me of a rumor I’d heard about Cookie Monster. Perhaps it’s just an urban legend, but as the story goes, there was a time when Cookie Monster overcame his urge for cookies and grew a liking for fruits and vegetables, encouraging children to eat more healthy. Audiences were enraged, insisting that Cooke Monster was betraying his true nature, and, accordingly, the familiar Cookie Addict soon returned. In large, our world rejects the concept of progression and insists on unaltered, platonic ideals.
Han and Leia’s relationship and characters had developed over three wonderful movies, in which they’d both passed through the refiner’s fire. Contrast their flippant attitudes in Episode IV to their softer, more altruistic, and genuinely loving attitudes by the end of Episode VI. It’s sad to just throw that all away for the sake of a new conflict, and it came at a cost.
Sure Han and Leia had some token lines exhibiting their wisdom of age, but these, for me, fell flat, as they had so little to show from the last thirty years. For example, consider Han’s lines about the reality of the force and the Jedi. His testimony might have meant something if I could see that the Force had influenced his life for good, making him who he was. But it’s as if all he really said was, “I used to think Luke had a stunt double, that it was all a bunch of simple tricks and nonsense. But I was wrong. He totally does he own stunts. True story.”
Furthermore, what good is a testimony of the Force in a galaxy where the effects of the Force can be so obviously observed? Which brings me to my next observation: the supplanting of the principle of faith. In Episode IV, when Luke is introduced to the Force by Ben Kenobi, the Force is presented as a belief system. It requires faith in an unseen power. Luke has to develop this faith through acts of courage as he chooses to let go of his imperfect judgment and trust in a higher power. The process requires a loving mentor, gruelling tests, and deep spirituality.
However, in The Force Awakens, the new Jedi in the making, Ray, develops her “gift” in the same way that young Anakin did in Episode 1: dumb luck. Without any real mentor, any real knowledge, no apparent belief in a higher power, and no leap of faith, she simply maneuvers her way through adventure after adventure with inexplicable ability, until, at last, she realizes (don’t ask me how) that she has Force powers. She then proceeds to develop this gift as one would develop a knack for martial arts. No need for the dispelling of doubt or the learning of a transcendent principle such as “Luke, trust me” or “do or do not” or “judge me by my size, do you?” She just gets the force.
What does this say about our audiences? Is a belief in God now no more than an extension of our abilities? Do we now worship ourselves?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there used to be something special about Star Wars, something different form your usual swords and sorcery. I don’t really see the filmmakers at fault as, once again, they did a great job in giving audiences what they want. What disturbs me is that this is, apparently, what audiences want. Philosophy, religion … those are so 1977. Just give us lots and lots … and lots … of action.
Action: what you do when you don’t have a story. Because without action, characters would start talking, and when characters start talking, they start exploring ideas, and when characters start exploring ideas, they start making decisions based on their own volition and not as compelled by extreme circumstances, and when this happens, you’ve got a character-driven story instead of a plot-driven story, and this would undermine the very foundations of melodrama, which the audience paid good money to see. Thus the characters were seldom permitted to complete two sentences in a row before being interrupted by an explosion.
My wife argues that this is exactly how the original movies were. I believe she’s half-right. Yes, my bias will always be with the Star Wars of my youth. And yet, before the MTV generation, stories, in general, were slower, more thoughtful, more character-driven. Before the dark times … before CGI.
I don’t mind some thematic action here and there, especially when the world has been well built, the stakes have been set, the characters have been established, the journey has been made, and the goal is within reach. But when the story is action — scene after scene of over-the-top fantasy violence against impossible odds with unbelievable, unqualified success — this is not to be confused with a story. It’s gratuitous. It’s tedious. It’s boring. I don’t want to watch superheroes, who, in virtue of their birth, can do what I’ll never be able to. I want to learn how I can become a Jedi. Otherwise, what’s the point? The Star Wars I still love had so much more to offer than mere entertainment value.
There was so much action that there was little room for character. Ray, for example, didn’t actually have character. She was a concept of uncompromising good. In that she was likable, but she wasn’t a character. Aside from a vague memory from childhood, she had little to no background, no friends, no culture, little to no personality, and once again, no time to think, talk, or make a decision that wasn’t absolutely forced. Notwithstanding, she was an amazing acrobat, martial artist, mechanical genius, and … somehow … pilot?
Hooray for girl power.
Fin was another interesting concept — a conscience-pricked, deserting storm trooper — but again, with almost no background and no time to make a less than extreme decision, he was two-dimensional at best.
As plot was so important to this movie, it was too bad that the main plot — to find Luke Skywalker — really had no weight whatsoever. Characteristic of sequels, this device was a shameless fallback to previous setups, dogmatic instead of self-evident. I mean, what do we care if there’s no more Jedi? I might have cared in a previous movie, but in The Force Awakens, what even is a Jedi? Just another action hero? We’ve got plenty already.
And what’s with the silly “map” that leads to Luke’s hiding place? If he wanted to be alone, why did he make himself into a geocaching game for treasure hunters, putting part of the map on one droid, part on another? The concept of a map in space travel is silly to begin with. All you would need are coordinates. I hear that a lot of missing information can be found in the novelization, but if the film is an independent art form, I would think it should be able to stand as such.
While there were some intriguing scenes, my brain had had enough by the time we reached the completely unnecessary action sequences at Han Solo’s smuggling station. Or were we in someone else’s smuggling station? I lost track of who was smuggling whom. I really wanted to walk out of the theater and likely would have done so if I weren’t so curious about how this film was going to redeem itself and why so many people liked it. In large, I felt that the story didn’t really even start until Han Solo was killed by his Generation Y, schizophrenic son, Kylo Ren. Finally something new and interesting!
I thought the story would begin a moment earlier, when Han tries to persuade Kylo to step down from his pedestal of evil, and Kylo appears to soften. I thought, “Wow, this is unprecedented. A new Darth Vader has been painstakingly set up to reign with blood and horror, and now he’s just going to renounce it all? Talk about character! This is wonderful. I’ve never seen anything like it. This must be why everyone likes this movie.”
Then I thought better. “Wait, no, this is obviously a false climax. He’s going to harden again, the good guys and the bad guys will polarize, and there will yet be many long sequences of storyless action.”
Of course, the visuals were amazing, the sets breathtaking, the acting superb. I even loved the impossible physics. I’m all for a fantastic universe so long as there’s a fantastic story to go with it. And the music … ah, the music. It was there, and yet it wasn’t there. John Williams’ masterpieces are a quintessential part of any Star Wars film, and I don’t think he failed to deliver this time. Yet I didn’t hear anything that really stood out as new or particularly moving. I think he did as bast as he could for this movie. The problem was that the movie (1) had no new ideas, and (2) was so fast-paced and scatter-brained that the only suitable music was long sequences of your average twentieth-century high-tension riffs, mixed in with some occasional classic Star Wars themes.
And … that’s pretty much it. Thanks to this film, I think I’m done with Star Wars for good. I have no desires to see any more sequels nor any other PG-13 melodrama so long as I live. Though I had hoped for something new and inspirational, as Star Wars used to be, as Soloman put it, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Apparently this is true in other galaxies as well.
My conclusion: at least for my generation, Star Wars has fulfilled its purpose, and it’s time for us to move on. It succeeded at inspiring us to think of the big and beyond, to develop and master ourselves as Jedi Knights amid an epic war of good and evil. But for an old man trapped in a young man’s body like yours truly, I’ve found nothing more to be gleaned from this galaxy that never was. I see little value in recreating and dragging on a story that was already finished … unless of course the artists doing so truly have something better to add, but I doubt this will ever happen with this franchise, as there’s way too much money to be made from gratuitous fantasy violence.
Again, I blame the audiences. It’s only too plain: we don’t want inspiration anymore. We don’t want to become Jedi anymore. We just want mind-numbing escapism.