“The God Who is There” Review

The God Who Is There. By Francis A. Schaeffer. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998. 226. Available on Amazon

Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer dedicated his life and ministry to reaching a post-modern world with the gospel of Christ. In his writings, lectures, and fellowship with unbelievers, Schaeffer demonstrated the supremacy of God as the only Being who can satisfy man’s search for truth over and against the overwhelming despair modern man under which man  languishes.

Schaeffer weaves The God Who Is There around three components concerning post-modernism and Christianity. Schaeffer begins with the post-modern conception of “truth” that in reality is no truth at all (28-31; 141), but rather moral and cosmological relativism (31). Then, Schaeffer outlines the “line of despair” below which modern man lives in a world devoid of truth, and then identifies this “line” in the culture (31; sections I and II). Once Schaeffer has demonstrated that modern man, in his despair, cannot live within his own presuppositions (97-99), Schaeffer presents the Christian worldview as the hope for modern man (III—VI).

In these sections, Schaeffer argues that, because the Bible provides genuine truth about God who, in creating the universe and man, we have a real basis for truth (167; 178-180). Without a basis for truth, modern man suffers beneath the line of despair until someone “takes off the roof,” shows him the shortcomings of his own worldview (141-51), and then leads him to the cross (185-87; 191-95). Subsequently Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There produces two noteworthy benefits for its reader by way of both description and proscription. Schaeffer’s method is worthy of our imitation, as he surveys the cultural landscape of the modern world and, in sympathizing for the lost, tries to understand the artists and writers in their own worldview, as they struggle to make meaning in a universe they believe to be devoid of any meaning at all. Should we find ourselves in such a conversation with unbeliever, we are to imitate Schaeffer and provide the gospel as the means of saving them from their own despair (160-67; 173).

Furthermore, Schaeffer offers several proscriptions for engaging in apologetics when we “take the roof” off of unbelievers (158). As Christians, we engage with our culture and find common ground, but we are to never treat unbelievers as anything less than human beings made in God’s image and deserving of our kindness. When we show unbelievers the logical ends of their presuppositions, we are to provide the gospel so as to give them the only source of hope, the person of Jesus, for modern man rather than leave them worse off and still in their sin (158-160). As a result, Schaeffer provides an excellent treatise on apologetics by describing a method by which we engage with culture and grounding that method in a biblical definition of evangelism.

“Hole in Our Holiness” Book Review

The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. By Kevin DeYoung. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 159. Available on Amazon.

Introduction & Summary

Kevin DeYoung composed The Hole in Our Holiness to exhort our contemporary church culture to pursue the oft-neglected quality of holiness (10). While God exhorts His people to be holy, as “I the Lord am holy” (Lev 20:26), many professing Christians view holiness as a beneficial, but non-essential, facet of the Christian life, the mere avoidance of certain sins, or as an exercise too difficult for the average believer to undertake (16, 22). This mindset produces the “gap” between God’s gospel and our holiness that DeYoung seeks to address (16—22). After identifying holiness as the goal of the Christian life (24—6), DeYoung focuses on the need for, and joys of, holiness (23—29; 63—77), impediments to holiness (108, 107—21), and the essence of holiness as abiding in and obeying Christ (93—105; 123—35). DeYoung concludes by exhorting the reader to treasure holiness because, in pursuing it, God prepares us as a “blameless bride” for Himself so that we may enjoy His presence forever (145—46).

Doctrinal Analysis

In The Hole in Our Holiness, DeYoung exhorts his readers to strive for holiness and examines the doctrines of God, justification, and sanctification in relation to the godliness.

The doctrine of God: DeYoung examines the roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in calling, convicting, atoning, and progressively making “righteous” redeemed sinners in God’s sight (23; 32; 47; 81—82). DeYoung, moreover, focuses on the Fatherhood of God and its relationship to personal holiness. While many Christians belittle their own attempts at holiness or find selfish motivations their actions, DeYoung counters that God, as a loving Father, genuinely loves all of our attempts to obey Him (68—70). While good works cannot earn God’s favor, once we are in Christ, God does identify us as His beloved children, and in our attempts at obedience God is well-pleased (69; Matt 3:17; Eph 1:6).

DeYoung did not explicitly treat the doctrine of the Trinity and how Christians, as image bearers, reflect the image of the Triune God in our pursuit of holiness. As redeemed sinners who reflect the image of God, within the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Christians grow in holiness not in isolation from each other, but corporately amongst the body of Christ. DeYoung focuses on the individual’s pursuit of holiness, whether in obedience to God’s commands or in the believer’s identification with Christ, with only one page describing fellowship with believers (132). While DeYoung writes to motivate individuals, not churches, to pursue holiness, believers cannot be restored to the image of the Triune God in any kind of isolation from other believers and need the local church to grow in godliness (20).

The doctrine of justification: DeYoung affirms the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and identifies the goal of justification as enabling redeemed sinners to pursue holiness (23—26). DeYoung cites several passages in the Old and New Testament to highlight holiness as the reason for which God has redeemed sinners (ex., Ex. 19:4—6; Eph 2:10; 24). As if anticipating opposing arguments, DeYoung carefully emphasizes that justification comes through faith and cites holiness as the natural outworking of one’s redeemed status in Christ.

DeYoung spends little time examining the nature of sin, divine wrath, and the atonement through the work. DeYoung may have not unpacked the nature of these doctrines and their relationship to holiness because he assumed his readership would already be familiar with them. DeYoung wrote to address specific issues hindering the church’s pursuit of holiness, such as the sexual sins he addresses in chapter 8, rather than addressing all matters of doctrine related to holiness. While DeYoung did not to examine every relevant doctrine, it may have been beneficial in proving his points and extolling the importance of holiness in the wake of God’s wrath and man’s depravity.

The doctrine of sanctification: DeYoung focuses on sanctification, the “ongoing process of becoming righteous,” by which God “transforms us from one degree of glory to another” and restores us to the image of Christ (32; II Cor 3:18). DeYoung holds that believers very much cooperate in the process of sanctification, contra views that the believer passively allows God to work upon him, or that God’s precepts are no longer valid for Christian living (19, 55). DeYoung lists literally dozens of reasons why believers need to pursue holiness (57—60) and the means, such as prayer and Bible meditation, by which believers grow in godliness (130—33). Ultimately, holiness “looks like obedience to God’s commands” and like the model Jesus set down for us in His earthly ministry (45—47; 68—70).

I personally agree with DeYoung’s position on sanctification, in that we cooperate with God in this progressive work by striving to obey God’s commandments through Christ so that our obedience to God’s word is not mere rule-keeping (124—28). However, DeYoung provides only one page to the role of the local church in sanctification, in providing fellowship and constructive criticism (132; 138—39). Much more time could have been allotted to the importance of the local church, as the Bible does not treat sanctification as an individualistic enterprise, but one undertaken in and amongst the local church (Heb 3:12—13). While each individual Christian bears responsibility to follow God’s commands, the Bible does not treat this process as anything Christians can or should do entirely on their own.

Main Insights

The main insight I gained from the text of The Hole in Our Holiness came from DeYoung’s passage on the Fatherhood of God and the satisfaction God exhibits when we seek to obey Him, however imperfectly we may succeed in doing so (68—77). These passages tied together the whole of DeYoung’s teaching on the importance of holiness without leaving the reader feeling burdened about the need to keep all the tenets of the law. While indwelling sin prevents us from perfectly following God’s commands, God’s judgment and displeasure do not fall on His adopted children who earnestly try to please Him through obedience. DeYoung’s emphasis on the Fatherhood of God provides a great source of comfort and encouragement, as our attempts to obey God are genuinely appreciated by Him.  We will enjoy pursuing holiness more if we correlate our obedience with God’s pleasure and believe that our shortcomings and setbacks are covered with the loving mercy of our Heavenly Father.

Million Dollar Baby Film Review

Clint Eastwood’s 2004 Million Dollar Baby depicts the tragic boxing career of Maggie Fitzgerald and her attempts to find meaning and purpose amidst the misery of her backwoods, poverty-stricken Missouri upbringing and her desire to compete as a boxer. The film explores the philosophical claims of existentialism, which advocates that man should attempt to find meaning and purpose in life by struggling against and in spite of the absurdity of human existence. In the same manner that Sisyphus, of French existentialist Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” finds meaning in his eternal struggle heaving a colossal boulder up a hill in Tartarus despite the futility of his own actions, so Maggie Fitzgerald must find meaning in a sport for which she is mocked, scorned, and refused by all around her because she is a girl—and girls shouldn’t box. The film’s central characters, Maggie and Frank Dunn, demonstrate the central tenets of existentialism by trying to create meaning in life in spite of its absurdity and, in the film’s context, the absence of a personal and powerful Creator to impart meaning to our actions.

Maggie’s determination to compete and win in the world of female boxing reflects this central tenet of existentialism. Contrasted with the young, athletic boxers at Frank Dunn’s gym, the possibility of this 37 year-old waitress surviving a fight—much less winning any of them, is exceedingly unlikely. Yet, when Frank confronts her about the onerous task ahead of her, Maggie refuses to yield and do anything different because boxing is “the only thing I ever felt good doing.” Maggie clings to boxing, despite its danger and absurdity, because she finds purpose in it analogous to the need all individuals have to create meaning in life.

  While existentialism may be traced back to the writings of the Christian philosopher Søren Kirerkegaard (1813-55), most of its proponents, such as the atheists Albert Camus or Frederick Neitzsche, recognized that meaning and values in life they sought to create filled the void of a personal God who imparts meaning to man by the knowledge of Himself. Eastwood, as the film’s director, intersperses many scenes of Frank Dunn berating his local priest and criticizing Christianity among the many scenes showcasing Frank’s compassion for his fighters. As many skeptic existentialist philosophers advocate, Frank attempts to find meaning and purpose in life despite life’s absurdity and in the absence of a personal God. Frank develops a fatherly bond with Maggie closer than his relationship with his own daughter in his attempt to make peace with the God Frank does not seem to think much of. Subsequently, Frank attempts to justify many of his past failures, such as those with his daughter and Eddie Dupris’ tragic eye injury, by sheltering his fighters rather than accept the terms of forgiveness God offers forth in Jesus Christ.

The film’s tragic conclusion comes in the film’s final moments as Frank Dunn resolves to assist in the suicide of Maggie Fitzgerald after suffering a serious brain injury in a prizefight. Maggie, having stated the sense of purpose and fulfillment she derives from boxing, resolves to meet death on her own terms rather than waste away in her hospital bed. When Frank’s priest warns him of his final, absolute estrangement from God should he assist Maggie in her suicide, Frank provides the lethal injection needed to stop her heart. In the absence of a personal God who is, in Himself, the source of meaning in life, Frank Dunn must create meaning and value from his relationship with Maggie and aid her in anyway he can, even assisting in her suicide.

As the film ends, the camera centers on the Ozarks diner Maggie and Frank had talked of owning together and so indicates that Frank has found peace with himself although he has detached from everything else in life. In Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood employs boxing as a means to investigate how man attempts to find meaning and purpose in life when life becomes absurd, violent, and tragic, especially in the absence of a personal God who imparts purpose to even the most horrendous of life’s events.

The photo on this blog post is from Wallpaper Folder, accessible at this link. 

According to Plan Book Review

Goldsworthy, Graeme. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991. 251. $19.17.

Author Graeme Goldsworthy serves in the Anglican Church of Australia, lectures in Old Testament and biblical theology at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, and, in According to Plan, has written an excellent introduction to the study of biblical theology. According to Plan is organized into four main parts discussing why we study God’s Word (chap. 1), how we know God through the written Word and the revealed Word of Christ (chaps. 2-7), what biblical theology looks like when we examine how specific passages of Scripture testify to Christ (chaps. 8-25), and where we go with biblical theology as a means of promoting godly living and personal holiness (chap. 26-27). Accordingly, According to Plan serves as an excellent resource for ordinary churchgoers, complete with helpful references, charts, and recommended readings, and is an edifying book for anyone else seeking to comprehend the majesty of God’s Word.

First, Goldsworthy defines biblical theology as examining the unity of the Bible and examining “the relationship of all parts of the Old Testament to the person and work of Jesus Christ” (23). Crucial to this process is the matter of progressive revelation, as the means by which God reveals His saving purposes in distinct stages. These stages create themes and patterns that extend across the whole Bible, including God’s commitment to His creation and even to rebellious humanity (56-7). Examining events such as the Fall and the call of Abraham in light of the gospel event, Goldsworthy identifies a pattern by which God localizes His presence in a particular place in order to dwell with His people (ex., Eden, Canaan). The prophets, meanwhile, indicate that the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel lies in an indefinite future that, at last, arrives in the person of Jesus. Jesus Himself is the Kingdom promised by the prophets, the “first fruits” of the new creation after His resurrection, the focus of our worship, and the manifestation of God’s presence according to the kingdom pattern God established in His covenant with Israel and David. Then, after tracing the redemptive arc of Scripture to its climax in Jesus, Goldsworthy applies biblical theology to other areas of Christian living in hopes of elucidating difficult areas with counsel from the whole Bible.

Oftentimes, the Old Testament can seem very murky in its witness to Christ, except in a few passages where the predictions of God’s coming Messiah are so clear we can expect—and often find—a literal fulfillment of these covenant promises (ex., Isaiah 53; Micah 5:2; ). But, it is clear that the disciples understood, albeit poorly, that Jesus was the hope, longing, and fulfillment of God’s covenant promises and expectations for Israel (cf. Matt. 16:13-18). Goldsworthy’s approach to biblical theology tries to explain humbly how Jesus may have interpreted to His disciples on the road to Emmaus “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” that the Christ would have to suffer and be rejected by His people before coming again in power and glory to bring God’s kingdom. (cf. Lk. 24:13-35)

Goldsworthy’s chapter on the Wisdom Literature is an unexpected bonus in a book on biblical theology. Goldsworthy, who has written considerably on the relationship of the wisdom literature to biblical theology, posits that the wisdom writings appear where they do in the canon with Solomon, the wise king over Israel, because at this stage the main elements of God’s kingdom pattern have been established. Because God’s covenant people live under God’s anointed king, they understand the reverent fear of the Lord, God’s power and authority, and God’s steadfast love and mercy as revealed in His covenant with Abraham, Israel, and David (cf. Prov. 1:7; Eccl. 12:13). Utilizing this principle as man’s foundation, man may carefully work through the principle “issues of human existence” and others relating to faith, living, and humble obedience (175). Moreover, the failures of Solomon only reinforce the idea that man must study God’s Word and know God intimately, and portray Christ as the ideal wise king over Israel and the perfect manifestation of God’s wisdom. By tracing patterns of God’s redemptive work from Genesis through Revelation, Goldsworthy that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectations for the coming of God’s coming kingdom and the ideal Davidic king to rule over God’s covenant people.

According to Plan exalts Christ on its every page and explains how every word of Scripture testifies to Jesus as perfect man, perfect God, and the perfect plan of salvation for God’s people. Personally, the book has helped me relate different Scriptural passages in my own devotionals to my need for a Savior and my confidence in God’s redemptive plan. As such, I highly recommend making it a part of your plan to read According to Plan.

providing “the framework within which the regenerated mind works to understand reality” (174). Because God’s covenant people live under God’s anointed king, they have the understanding of the “fear of the Lord” and can make sense of the principle “issues of human existence” (175). Goldsworthy, who has written extensively on the wisdom literature and its relation to biblical theology, provides insights to promote obedience to God’s Word and better reflect our redeemed status before God.

Goldsworthy includes material on relating the wisdom literature to the unified gospel message

Goldsworthy, Graeme. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the

Bible. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991. 251. $19.17.

Author Graeme Goldsworthy serves in the Anglican Church of Australia and lectures in Old Testament and biblical theology at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. Goldsworthy wrote According to Plan to introduce biblical theology for ordinary churchgoers and provide a framework for understanding the one unified message of the Bible. While the Bible is an immense book, biblical theology enables readers of God’s Word to comprehend the Bible’s testimony that Jesus is the Christ (cf. Luke 24:44-49) and how each event in Scripture contributes to this understanding. According to Plan examines each of the Bible’s principle events and how they contribute to the central event of the Bible, the incarnation of the Lord’s Messiah and His finished work on behalf of God’s covenant people (21).

First, Goldsworthy defines the process of progressive revelation as the means by which God reveals His saving purposes in distinct stages, each of which creates themes and patterns that extend across the whole Bible (56-7). These themes include God’s commitment to His and, by examining significant events in their redemptive-historical context, Goldsworthy identifies a pattern by which God localizes His presence in a particular place in order to dwell with His people (ex., Eden, the heavenly Jerusalem).

The covenants God makes with representative members of humanity (ex., Noah, Abraham, and David) reflect God’s steadfast love and commitment to all of His creation, including rebellious mankind. God elects Abraham and His descendants and thereby creates a bond that human sin cannot break; gives Israel, by way of Moses, His law to govern their conduct in Canaan; and promises an everlasting dynasty to David to model the faithful conduct God wants of His people. The prophets, meanwhile, indicate that the ultimate fulfillment of these promises is still yet in an indefinite future that, at last, arrives in the person of Jesus. Jesus Himself is the Kingdom promised by the prophets, the “first fruits” of the new creation after His resurrection, the focus of our worship, and the manifestation of God’s presence according to the kingdom pattern God established in the Old Testament. After tracing the redemptive arc of Scripture to its climax in Jesus, Goldsworthy applies biblical theology to other areas of Christian living in hopes of elucidating difficult areas with counsel from the whole Bible.

Critical Review

Goldsworthy excels in the areas biblical theology is designed to handle, such as interpreting Scripture in light of its immediate context and that of the whole Bible. Moreover, he devotes adequate time to examining each of the Bible’s principles events and figures and building to the gospel event, allowing the gospel event to testify how Jesus is the Christ. The end of each chapter contains helpful references, charts, and study questions that builds off of the material of previous chapters. Goldsworthy successfully introduces biblical theology to help its readers understand the grand message of the Bible and is both comforting and uplifting, because According to Plan exalts Christ on its every page and explains how every word of Scripture testifies to Jesus as perfect man, perfect God, and the perfect plan of God’s salvation for His people.     

The strongest insight Goldsworthy provides is his chapter on the wisdom literature of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. The wisdom writings appear where they do in the canon alongside Solomon, the wise king over Israel, because at this stage the main elements of God’s kingdom pattern have been established, providing “the framework within which the regenerated mind works to understand reality” (174). Because God’s covenant people live under God’s anointed king, they have the understanding of the “fear of the Lord” and can make sense of the principle “issues of human existence” (175). Goldsworthy, who has written extensively on the wisdom literature and its relation to biblical theology, provides insights to promote obedience to God’s Word and better reflect our redeemed status before God.

The weaknesses arise when Goldsworthy applies biblical theology to areas, such as the role of the Spirit and the human will in conversion, better suited to disciplines such as systematic theology. As such, Goldsworthy cannot devote much time to explaining them, and his presuppositions as a Reformed Anglican seem to settle the issue before biblical theology does.

Thoughts on the Sacrifice of Isaac

As per my background, I teach high school English at a Classical school. Much of our class discussions focus on the pagan deities of the ancient world, figures such as Jupiter and Apollo and Bacchus who inflicted great cruelties upon innocent maidens, for no other reason than that their wanton lust fell upon them. 

Or, perhaps we talk of the gods of the ancient Near East like Baal, whose worshippers burnt alive their own children so as to appease this evil deity. This they did so late into Antiquity that Livy records the Carthaginians doing this in a vain attempt to win the Punic Wars. In talking of Greek mythology this way, I am hoping to show the uniqueness of the Christian God and of the claims made about God’s steadfast love and mercy in the Bible. Things are going well for me, until invariably a student brings up the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.

The story itself in so many ways seems to uniquely stand out in the Bible. The stories of God powerful saving His people, the Jews, from slavery in Egypt or of mercifully feeding thousands of hungry people in the Judean wilderness, these stories point to the amazing goodness and steadfast love of the God of the Bible. 

But, in Genesis 22, God commands Abraham sacrifice his son, the chosen son, the son promised by God to inherit the riches of God’s covenantal blessings, the baby born to Sarah in her 90s, the son whom Abraham had waited for, albeit impatiently, for 25 years. Really, this son? How does God seem any different than those pagan gods, whose straw my students have just blown all over my face and the case I had made for the uniqueness of Christianity?

When students reference the sacrifice of Isaac, there are a few traditional ways of dealing with the biblical issues at hand. One could go deeper into the crevasse and point out that, yes, Abraham was all-too-willing to sacrifice his own son. Perhaps Abraham thought that God had asked him to sacrifice his son in the same manner the evil deities of the ancient Near East would regularly command parents to sacrifice their children. Then, in sending an angel to stop Abraham before he carries out the final act, even as the knife is poised at Isaac’s throat, God signals to Abraham and to all the world He will not be appeased by child sacrifice. God is not like the gods of the other nations, as He requires faith and obedience, not sacrifice.

Hebrews 11 cites Abraham’s faith, who believed that “God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back ” (11:17-19). This speaks to the power of God over life and death, and intimates that as early as Abraham the belief in the regenerative and redemptive power of God to restore the dead to life and turn back the curse of Genesis 3 was prevalent. Thus the confidence we have in the Resurrection is no idle faith, but a living and dynamic belief that stretches all the way back to Abraham.

As I recently read over this passage, I was struck with the heart-wrenching overtones of this scene and with the thought of God’s right as Creator to have taken Isaac’s life. This is hard to accept, but as the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, and the Creator of Mankind who gives each of us life and breath, so God has the right to take that life away. Our lives and our deaths are not under our own control, but we stand and live under the guiding Providence of God’s care.

This is different from saying (falsely) that God would ask or tempt someone into sin (James 1:13). God would never ask anyone to commit a sin like murder, and so go against the clear teachings of Scripture (i.e., the commandment not to commit murder, Exodus 20:13) or sacrifice a child (Leviticus 18:21). It should make us pause, however, that as the author of life and the Creator of the universe, we have no rights over our own lives.

But, we can trust God in whatever He asks because we know that God is good and that what He asks of us is for our benefit. In asking Abraham to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, God intends to provide a living, breathing picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who willingly endured the shame of the cross in order that we might be saved through faith in His Name.

So, in speaking of this seminal passage in the Bible, my only real solution is to draw the obvious parallels between the sacrifice of Isaac and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Few events in the OT provide such a powerful typological connection between the Messiah and His work on the Cross. Isaac is the promised Son, even as Jesus is the promised Son and the “beloved Son [of God], in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt 3:17). Abraham was unwilling to withhold his “son, [his] only son,” in the same manner God, who“so loved the world . . . gave His only that whoever should believe in Him would not perish, but have eternal life,” (John 3:16).

The sacrifice God provides to take the place of Isaac is a ram, prefiguring the Lamb that God provides, Jesus Christ, “who takes away the sins of the sins of the world” through the sacrifice of Himself (John 1:29). In the same way Isaac is spared from death by a substitutionary offering, so we, as members of a redeemed humanity, are spared from eternal suffering in Hell by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the Cross. We should be so eternally grateful for the goodness of God in not even sparing His own Son, so that we could forgiveness of sins and life through His Name.

The painting is Abraham and Isaac, by Rembrandt (1634).

A Severe Mercy Review

Sheldon Vanauken benefited directly from what so many contemporary churchgoers have benefitted indirectly—that is, hearing and reading insights from C.S. Lewis on issues of great importance to us and our faith. Most Christians at some point in their walk with the Lord have read Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters, or have read The Chronicles of Narnia as children and reread them later as adults for fun. Vanauken, a World War II vet, became friends with C.S. Lewis while he was at Oxford and exchanged a series of letters, preserved in the book, where Lewis speaks directly to challenges Sheldon faces in his life.

The book centers on the romance between Sheldon and his sweetheart Davy, with whom they make a pact that no earthly force could ever mar or come between them and their love for each other: the “Shining Barrier,” through which no earthly force could penetrate. All seemingly goes well as they share everything they can in life as self-described amorous pagans, including a delightful sailing schooner called the Grey Goose, so-named because a “grey goose, if its mate is killed flies on alone and never takes another.” Everything goes according to plan until Davy first and Sheldon become Christians under the influence of a number of Christian friends at Oxford, including C.S. Lewis.

From there, Sheldon and Davy’s love initially deepens as they become less selfish and their lives are filled with rich conversations over spiritual things, but Sheldon becomes jealous of Davy’s love for God. Sheldon realizes that Davy’s love for God was once solely reserved for him. While they pledged no earthly force would penetrate the Shining Barrier, God controls all the forces upon earth and is far more worthy of Davy’s love and devotion than Sheldon could ever be. Sheldon begrudgingly realizes this, but Davy becomes sick with kidney failure and over an agonizing year of sickness, dies, leaving Sheldon alone to make sense of the grief and of his own envy.

The insights Sheldon has over the nature of love, of the loss of a loved one, and of the nature of eternity make this book exceedingly worthwhile to read. Sheldon and Davy do not necessarily have a storybook romance, but their devotion to each other and to share all the rich experiences of life are worthwhile for young couples to read.

Meanwhile, Sheldon’s self-confession of his jealousy that Davy grows far more in love with God than him reminds us that, at its heart, all earthly loves are a pale imitation of the love God has for us and of the relationship God wants to have with us. If we make our marriage to our spouse take the place of our relationship with God, we can turn it into something twisted and unnatural. Sheldon’s jealousy of God, because Davy loved God more than she loved Sheldon, could have ruined their marriage, had God not taken Davy to Himself through her kidney failure. This is the very nature of idolatry, and Sheldon realizes God showed His kindness to both Sheldon and Davy by removing Davy from the world, as painful as that loss may be.

In the end, Sheldon realizes that their love for each other was merely a preparation for Heaven. Sheldon describes their best moments together, whether at Oxford or on the Grey Goose, as “timeless” moments, wherein neither of them noticed the clock or remembered even what day it was because they were so in love with each other. Sheldon muses that perhaps eternity is something like this, when we are free to enjoy without interruption all of the goodness and blessings of God in Heaven.

Indeed, the love that they shared was a reflection of the desire that all people have to be known and loved by God. Sheldon’s life seems to provide the backstory for C.S. Lewis’ amazing insight that if we have a desire for something that no earthly good or joy can satisfy, then it seems we were made for another world entirely. This is acted in the context of an insanely loving marriage that would have been predictably all-too-tragic, had it not for the redemptive undertones Sheldon found in the death of his beloved wife. Sheldon and Davy yearned for, and imperfectly found, the kind of love in each other that God wants to have with us, and which we would have perfectly in Heaven once God calls us home. Hence, the title for the book, provided in a letter by C.S. Lewis, as the loss of a loved one which makes the living spouse grieve for Heaven in a way no other means could have induced him to do so, such a loss is indeed, “a severe mercy.”

Given the importance Sheldon attaches to Lewis’ insight, and the fact that Lewis incorporates this idea into so many of his books, I have reproduced the letter in its entirety:

“Your letter is a wonderfully clear and beautiful expression of an experience often desired but not often achieved to the degree you and Jean achieved it. My reason for sending it back is my belief that if you err-read [a letter in which you detailed how you wanted to relive much of the romance you had with Davy by looking through old letters and photographs] often, till you can look at it as if it were someone else’s story, you will in the end think as I do (but of course far more deeply and fruitfully than I can, because it will cost you so much more) about a life so wholly (at first) devoted to US [i.e., Sheldon & Davy]. . . . One way or another the thing had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. There are various possible ways in which it could have died tho’ both the parties went on living. You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see (how true & how very frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God. So from US you have been back to US AND GOD; it remains to go on to GOD AND US. She was further on than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth. You must go on” (209-210).

Vanauken, Sheldon, A Severe Mercy. New York: HarperCollins, 1980. Available at Amazon 

The Fault in Our Stars, Movie Review

The very premise of The Fault in Our Stars, of two good-looking star-crossed lovers battling cancer, destined this film for greatness. Romantic tragedies, such as Romeo and Juliet andTitanic, draw in their viewers by dangling the prospect of true love winning out against a cruel world, and, within this genre, The Fault in Our Stars does not disappoint.

The film’s central characters, Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, meet at a support group for teenagers battling cancer and fall in love despite the ever-present fact that while everyone on the planet will die, these two lovers may die much sooner than anyone else. You hurt for them, and hope for a happy ending, even as Hazel and Augustus’ sense of morbid humor keeps you from feeling too sorry for them. These are real kids struggling with immense problems, from which the audience wants to see them saved, but the narrator (Hazel Grace herself) regularly reminds us that the world is not fair.

The film, subsequently, probes the question everyone must, at one time or another ask themselves: How do you find meaning in life in the midst of such horrible suffering? Augustus, citing “oblivion” as his only fear, suggests that a life so extraordinary that he will be remembered long after he dies is the way to go. Hazel retorts that since everyone else will die anyway that even Augustus’ grand solution will ultimately fail, and offers no solutions of her own. The support group, meeting, in “the literal heart of Jesus” of a church basement, gives the two lovers material for jokes about organized Christianity. God is not offered as one of the options for finding meaning in life.

So, how does one find purpose, when the world regularly reminds you of its indifference? (**Spoiler**) The movie ends as Hazel reads the eulogy Augustus wrote for Hazel’s funeral, should hers come first, and professes his undying love for her. Meaning in life comes from relationships with people you care about, particularly those you fall in love with and allow yourself to be vulnerable, intimate, and ultimately hurt by. “The Fault in Our Stars,” a line itself lifted from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” suggests that while life is unfair, the main problem lies with us and our eagerness to wall ourselves up from the problems created by real love.

This is, seemingly, the best solution in a cruel world devoid of God, or at the least the God depicted in the film and discarded by Hazel Grace and Augustus. A pretty lame support group counselor offers the only perspective of the hope that lies outside of us and seems easy enough to discount. Perhaps, it’s what the movie doesn’t say that leaves the most lasting impression: without God, life is meaningless, aside from the meaning you make up for yourself.

Why India Should Reject Facebook’s “Free Basics”

Dear People of India,

I greet you on behalf of everyone who loves individual rights and freedoms in the United States of America. I have read that many citizens in the Republic of India are skeptical of Free Basics, an essentially free Internet offered by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Free Basics promises to open up the wide world of the Internet to you and billions of people who could not otherwise afford it, by providing “a set of basic internet services for education, healthcare, jobs and communication that people can use without paying for data.” Developers sign up to be a part of Facebook’s Free Basics platform and then Facebook provides their content for free to individuals who have signed up for the service, so that from there they can “move onto explore the entire internet.”

However, many of your leading academics and pundits have criticized Free Basics and its constituent services, claiming Free Basics violates net neutrality by favoring certain websites and services over others. Professors from the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science have found three problems with Free Basics:

  1. Facebook will decide what is a “basic” service and whether or not to offer it on Free Basics.
  2. While other technology companies like Google and Apple have encrypted information on their devices so well no one, not even law enforcement agencies, can ever find other information on it, Facebook “would be able to decrypt the contents of the ‘basic’ services,” thus suggesting any data stored on it could be compromised
  3. While “Free Basics” may offer free services, its developers will have to increase the price of goods somewhere along the line if they are to stay in business—and why should Facebook decide the price of any service or good in India? 

To counter these claims, Mark Zuckerberg personally wrote an editorial in the Times of India and compared Free Basics to other free services one should expect from a civilized country, including libraries and hospitals. Because of the benefits communication and technology can bring to society, the Internet should be added to that list and available for free. For every 10 people connected to the Internet, Zuckerberg claims, 1 is lifted out of poverty and Free Basics promises to connect 1 billion people to the Internet, for free. What’s not to like?

And so I present to you 3 reasons why you should not support Free Basics and, if it does come to India after all, why you should not sign up.

  1. Mark Zuckerberg is not to be trusted. Americans know all too well the infamous backstory of Facebook, wherein Mark Zuckerberg was contracted to build a social network as a Harvard undergrad by the Winklevoss twins. As allegations go, Zuckerberg used both the money and the idea of the Winklevoss twins to build his own social network, now known as Facebook. While Zuckerberg has always denied their accusations and asserts that Facebook’s code is entirely different from what he built for the twins, Zuckerberg still may have settled with them in court (the details are a bit murky) for 1.2 million shares to get them to stop bugging him. So, as Zuckerberg promises he has nothing but the best intentions for India, remember the promises Zuckerberg made that their social network, “ConnectU,” was almost done and making great progress.
  1. Facebook in America is already used to trick people to give up personal data.  Normally, advertisers pay hefty fees to find out the movies, books, foods, TV shows and everything else that consumers like. Facebook users give away this information for free by listing all of their favorite movies and books on their Facebook profile, providing Facebook with billions of consumer preferences that they then sell to advertisers. Facebook is not like Google or Amazon who provide actual services like search engines, cheap products, or cloud computing. Facebook’s business model is based on users voluntarily divulging personal information, so why wouldn’t Zuckerberg try to enlist a billion new users by offering them free Internet?
  1. If you think Zuckerberg was condescending in his Times of India editorial, wait until he controls everything else you read on Free Basics. Zuckerberg accused critics of Free Basics of selfishly denying the poor and unconnected the blessings of the Internet, while there is “nothing” in it for Zuckerberg, who won’t even sell ads on the free service. Zuckerberg posed a number of rhetorical questions that implied opponents of Free Basics secretly hate the poor and don’t mind if they continue to suffer without the Internet, invoking the kind of liberal slander on conservatives for not supporting free health in the 2008 election. For reasons not to trust Zuckerberg or his altruistic pleas, see Reason #1. If Zuckerberg speaks like that in an op-ed piece, wait until he controls everything else you read!

For those brave professors who have voiced their concerns of Free Basics, I would urge you to read The Road to Serfdom by Frederick Hayek, a 20th c. Austrian economist who wrote of the many dangers inherent to socialism. Hayek’s frequent refrain is that whenever the government gives away something for free, whether it is roads or health care, individuals inevitably loses their freedom of choice; one cannot request a different pair of shoes than those freely provided by the government. It is a free gift, and as such it is practically forced upon the citizenry who should be grateful that they get anything at all. So, of course Free Basics will have at least some, if not all, and probably even more of the dangers identified by India’s leading academic and public figures. If one does not trust the overtures of Mark Zuckerberg, then Free Basics appears nothing more than a ploy to sign millions of more users onto Facebook and begin using their personal preferences and consumer data, which Facebook can decrypt, however it wants to. 

At its heart, any government that has either lost sight of, or never had at their core to begin with, the concept of individual rights and freedoms will try to spy on its citizens. China has their immense firewall, Iran has their own intranet to shut off their citizens from the rest of the World Wide Web, and, as the leaks of Edward Snowden reveal, America’s own NSA possesses immense power to spy on anyone and anywhere it wants. Accusations have already surfaced that Facebook’s offers to connect India’s massive population to the Internet is just a ruse for mass surveillance, so one should take seriously the potential implications of a billion new Facebook users whose engineers will “have access to the personal content created and used by millions of Indians.”

For all of these reasons, I beg you, people of the ancient state of India, to not support or sign up for Free Basics. We Americans had no idea what we were getting into when we first signed up for Facebook—it seemed like a great way to stay in touch with friends or share photos, but it has quickly taken over our lives and even we do not understand all of the consequences as a result of our folly, whenever we signed up for Facebook. You, though, still have a chance to be truly free, if you reject the services of Free Basics.

Signed,

Freedom-Loving and Unfortunate Facebook Users of America

The Ancient Near East & A Classical Education

I remember vividly looking at the syllabus for 9th grade history and wondering, “How will I ever teach an entire semester of Mesopotamian history?” Once the panic attack subsided, I slowly divided the semester into manageable units arranged around the peoples and empires on the syllabus with names like, “Sumer & Akkad,” “The Assyrians,” “The Neo-Assyrians,” “the Mitanni,” and on and on. While I had a good starting place, I still wasn’t entirely sure how to make the material fit within the scope and sequence of a Classical education centered on the ancient Greeks and Romans. Indeed, is it even fair to include the empires of the ancient Near East in a Classical curriculum and, if so, what does this period have to offer students?

The ancient Near East (hereafter, ANE) refers to the peoples, states, and empires living roughly in modern-day Israel, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, covering from the period of the Early Bronze Age circa 4,000 BC to the conquests of Alexander the Great in 333-323 BC. The period includes nearly all of the great “firsts” of world history, including such seminal inventions as the wheel, writing, and all the arts of civilization like intensive agriculture, animal domestication, metallurgy, and textile production. Taking these discoveries alongside the monuments these states left behind, including the pyramids of Egypt and the temple complexes known as ziggurats in Sumer (ancient Iraq, known to the Greeks as Mesopotamia, or ‘the land between the rivers’), the Sumerians and Egyptians are found in most social studies curriculum in both public and private schools at the elementary level.

Students learn about the importance of farming and the way in which mighty rivers like the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates facilitated farming and the growth of the world’s first cities, but beyond that, the world of these ancient peoples is still lost in the proverbial sands of time. But, after teaching ANE history for a number of years, I would like to offer my reasons why it is a valuable unit of study and a worthy addendum to the Classical education.

1. The Greco-Roman world did not see themselves cut off from the empires of the ancient Near East.

The Greeks and Romans possessed a strong appreciation for the cultures of the great empires that once occupied the lands of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Achilles, in The Iliad, rejects Agamemon’s apology and refuses to fight for him ever again, even if Agamemnon should give Achilles all the wealth of Egyptian Thebes, “which is the richest city in the world” adorned with 100 gates. Herodotus, in his Histories, claims to have visited such rich cities as Babylon and describes them in incredible detail for his readers eager to hear accounts of the magnificent cities to the East. The Romans, meanwhile, took vacations to Egypt and marveled at its great pyramids like modern-day tourists. While the Romans sought to dominate Egypt and Syria, they still admired their monuments and sought to imitate them, or just carried them back to Rome and beautified their city with them. So, if there is a cultural break between the world of the ANE and that of the Greeks and Romans, the Greeks and Romans themselves did not see it.

2. The world of the ANE is the world of the Bible.

The strongest reason for a Classical curriculum to study the ANE is that these units provide the background for the major events of the Old Testament. Abraham is called out from the Sumerian city of Ur, one of the largest cities of the Bronze Age, and lives among the Hittites, a people from whom the Israelites adopted a covenant treaty ceremony that supports a date in the Late Bronze Age for the composition of the Torah. The Davidic monarchy takes root in the shadow of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, while the prophets predict the names of great Near Eastern kings like Cyrus the Great, who would deliver God’s people from exile in Babylon. Given the intense skepticism with which people view Old Testament events like Noah’s Flood or the Exodus, studying the ANE helps students see the Bible in its larger historical context that strengthens our confidence in biblical truth.

Take the Exodus, one of the most awe-inspiring episodes from the Old Testament and one for which secular archaeologists contend there is no physical evidence to support. While the arguments of the secular establishment often appear strong, studying ancient Egypt provides a plausible explanation to counter their claims. If one investigates the background of the two possible pharaohs for the Exodus, whom Moses does not name, one discovers one plausible reasonable why secular archaeologists have not found Egyptian evidence corroborating the biblical account. Depending on whether or not one accepts an early date of 1446 BC or a later date of 1246 BC for the Exodus, the two best candidates for the Pharaoh of the Exodus are Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BC) and Ramses II (1279-1213 BC).

The Egyptian pharaoh was worshiped as a god in Egypt and, to maintain the ruse, pharaohs often embellished their accomplishments or outright lied about them. Thutmosis III tried to erase every mention of his stepmother, Hatshepsut, from palace archives or temple walls, while Ramses II, who fought the Hittites to a draw at the Battle of Qadesh in 1274, wrote in his official accounts that he utterly destroyed them. Both pharaohs altered the textual record to remove people who embarrassed them (Thutmosis) or to make themselves appear a more fearsome and cunning general (Ramses), and, with the help of Egypt’s religious and intellectual establishment, they pulled the wool over the eyes of the Egyptians and thousands of years of recorded history.

So perhaps this is why no one has found a scroll containing the words, “And in the year of Pharaoh so-and-so, the God of Hebrews completely embarrassed our religious system and our king.” Pharaohs and their priests had a powerful incentive to destroy any physical or textual evidence of the Exodus because the God of the Hebrew people exposed Egypt’s pharaoh as a helpless human being, and it is entirely reasonable to suppose that no physical or textual evidence, outside the Bible, exists because pharaohs altered the textual record as they did in other instances. If our students attend a secular university, they will hear all the arguments why certain events in the OT never happened, why the historical claims of the Bible can’t be believed, or that Moses could not have authored the Torah, but studying the ANE equips our students with valid arguments against the claims of the secular academic establishment.

3. The worldviews of the ancient Near East highlights the uniqueness of the biblical worldview.

Texts like the Atrahasis Epic, a Sumerian creation myth, detail the creation of mankind in great detail. The Sumerians believed man was created with the sole purpose of performing slave labor in the temples of low-ranking gods, while in other Sumerian poems and myths, man is created to maintain the canals and dredges upon which Sumerian society depends. In such stories, mankind possesses no dignity whatsoever except that of a slave, whose purpose in life is to do the boring, menial tasks low-ranking Sumerian deities refuse to do. If you lived in Sumer and didn’t feel like working on the canals, what recourse did you have? None, not when the priestly bureaucrats in charge would remind you, “you were created for this, so get back to work!”

So when one reads Genesis 1-2 and the creation of mankind, in whom God breathes His Spirit and creates in His image, one understands the uniqueness of the biblical worldview and the inherent dignity of man. In Genesis, God creates both men and women in His image and invests them with His attributes, gifts that mirror the creativity, rationality, and mercy of our Creator. While God assigns Adam and Eve to work the garden, this is not the work of a slave, but of a steward and a king improving the earth under God’s steadfast love and guidance.

Post-modern theorists often reject Christianity as an intellectual tool of wealthy elites and as an irrational means of subduing the masses beneath them. However, this is truly the narrative of the Sumerian myths, composed to keep the great masses of people subservient to priestly bureaucrats, while the biblical narrative invests man with a dignity and honor as given to him by our Creator and Father. Reading these two accounts side-by-side shows the uniqueness of Bible over and against the pagan cultures that wanted man to stay in line, maintain the canals, and keep the sacrifices going in the temples. The biblical narrative invests both man and woman with an inherent dignity that can never be take away, because man’s grandeur comes from being created in God’s image and living under God’s loving care and guidance. 

A Classical education at its best should provide students with the intellectual toolbox needed to resolve the most profound issues in life. Extending the boundaries of a Classical education to include the Sumerians, Babylonians, and other peoples of the ANE enlarges the toolbox students would have to work out such issues. If it accomplishes nothing else, studying the ANE shows the majesty of the biblical worldview when it is compared to the pagan cultures, like Sumer and Egypt, the Bible so often sets itself against. While those cultures, and indeed, the secular worldview of our own day, contend that man has no inherent dignity save what he can make of himself, the Bible proclaims that man has an inherent self-worth because God made him, breathed His spirit into him, and loves him. Regardless of the time period that lesson comes from, that is a lesson worth teaching. 

Star Wars & the Value of a Western Education

This blog originally appeared on the CiRCE Institute, available here: https://www.circeinstitute.org/blog/star-wars-and-mimicry

It is a widely known fact that, before conceiving of the multibillion-dollar franchise known as Stars Wars, George Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology whose work focuses on the symbolic interrelationships between mythological traditions, focused on the hero myth and the various struggles that the hero went through as part of his or her journey. Regardless of the culture producing these myths, the stages were always the same: the hero is born in obscurity, encounters a wise mentor, is called out on a great quest, and then goes off on a quest far greater than themselves. The hero could be a Greek warrior like Perseus, adolescent wizards like Harry Potter, or the heroines of a dystopian future like Kadniss Everdeen, but the quests are always the same. All that changes is the hero’s name, background, and identity.

Lucas, in reading this book, then transposed the myths of ancient Greece and Rome into outer space. Luke Skywalker was born in obscurity in Tatooine, encountered a wise old Jedi named Obi-Wan who trained him in the Force, and then left on a great quest to rescue a princess and destroy a tyrannical super-state known as the Galactic Empire. Even more so, Star Wars featured other archetypal characters and recurring plot elements that made this galaxy far, far away far easier to buy into than any other movie of its kind. As in Greek mythology, Luke had a wild and unruly best friend, Han Solo, and a struggle against his own father, Darth Vader, that every teenage boy in America could easily identify with. However, despite the overwhelming success of the original trilogy, I wonder how much this formula was ever really used again when Lucas devised the other Star Wars films. If one motif from the Classical tradition could be transplanted successfully in space, surely there must be others that could have survived the jump to lightspeed?   

While the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is by no means a disappointment, it does seem to copy off of the formulas established by the original trilogy rather than reinvent the motifs of the Classical tradition against the backdrop of epic space battles. Hence, the trailer’s most iconic images are those of a crashed star destroyer and the decayed helmet of Darth Vader, both of which derive their cinematic power from the original films. Moreover, the film’s two interweaving plot lines are basically the plots of the original trilogy, focusing on the beginning of the quest of a young Jedi, Rey, from her obscure upbringing on the junk planet Jakku, and the father-son rivalry between the film’s most prominent characters—which I won’t spoil, in case you haven’t seen it. As if the writers of The Force Awakens could think of no other source from which to copy, they mined the treasure trove of the original trilogy in hopes of delivering a film that could reinvigorate the entire franchise. But, these elements merely copy from the wildly successful formula of the original trilogy, rather than incorporating symbols, storylines, and archetypes from across the Western canon—and it is these elements that made the original Star Wars movies so unique.

To illustrate this phenomenon further, let’s focus on the villains of Star Wars universe. Darth Vader works so well as a villain because Lucas, again, transplanted archetypal conflicts, like that of a rivalry between a son and his father, and set them against the backdrop of a galaxy far, far away. The callousness with which Vader can chop off his own son’s hand and let him fall to his death echoes Greek myths like that of Chronos eating his own children, while Vader’s willingness to execute his subordinates, should they fail him, carries with it the overtones of Sicilian tyrants torturing their employees for the sheer fun of it. These are new, imaginative ways of taking an old story and putting a new spin on it, and works so well in Star Wars for the same reason Greek myths have remained one key pillar of a Classical education: these stories provide powerful symbols for the conflict of the human condition, and allows that conflict to work itself out in the context of a narrative framework. 

This is a far cry from the villains of the prequels, each of which introduced a new villain who was supposed to overwhelm the audience with their appearance, attributes, or abilities. Despite their gruesome makeup and double-edged lightsaber (Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace), British accent and intimidating stage presence (Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones), or the sheer fact they could handle half a dozen lightsabers at one time (General Grievous in Revenge of the Sith), all of these villains were all killed off almost as soon as they were introduced. These villains were not given enough screen time to allow the audience to revile or fear them like Darth Vader, but looked cool enough that no one would complain. They were shallow caricatures of stereotypes from the Star Wars universe and were designed with the intention of selling toys rather than stirring hearts. So, does The Force Awakens repeat these mistakes, or does the film reinvigorate motifs from the Western tradition in the same manner the original Star Wars trilogy did?   

The central figure of The Force Awakens and the Star Wars universe’s newest villain is Kylo Ren, who wields a red lightsaber and promises in the film to “finish” what Darth Vader started. Sadly, Kylo Ren illustrates just how much the movie copies off of itself, right down to Kylo’s Vader-like mask, rather than rework the motifs and symbols of the Western canon. While I will not spoil the film’s most powerful scene, the father-son rivalry in The Force Awakens mimics the same rivalry between Luke and Vader, without adding much else. Surely, there must be a villain with a thousand faces that the writers could have used, in order to drive the conflict of the new Star Wars films? Why not imbue a Star Wars villain with the eloquence or martial prowess of a Macbeth? Where is the altar of eternal hostility upon which Kylo Ren could swear his allegiance to Darth Vader’s legacy, like Hannibal promised to destroy Rome? Why not fashion scenes of megalomaniacal terror, taken straight from the lives of a Herod or a Nero, rather than scenes where Kylo Ren legitimately tears up once he removes his helmet? Couldn’t they have taken a plot from any other myth, story, or play rather than allowing a surly teenager to drive the conflict of this highly-anticipated new Star Wars film?

In considering what made the original Star Wars films so memorable, I would ask that we, as Classical thinkers and educators, think of new ways of reinventing the shared cultural experience of the Western tradition for a new generation. George Lucas stumbled upon a goldmine that still contains countless treasures for the Classical mind to present to our students, all of whom are desperate for engaging storylines, life-and-death struggles, and the all-consuming battle between good and evil. So, while the plays, poems, and dialogues we teach may not be set in a galaxy far, far away, the stories of the Western tradition certainly made the Star Wars galaxy and, indeed, our own galaxy, far more interesting.

“La La Land” Review

SPOILER ALERT!

Why are white men so stupid? La La Land offers a very simple and solemn answer to this perennial question: We value success over love. We can have our dreams or our sweethearts but not both, and while we make sacrifices that get us to the top, we are alone once we get there.

La La Land follows two struggling artists trying to make it in Hollywood. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a passionate jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own club; and Emma Stone plays Mia, who has dreamed of being an actress ever since she was a little girl. As the opening song informs the audience, when life pushes us down, we have to get up “off the ground.” Sebastian is forced to play Christmas carols and 80s hits and Mia is humiliated at one audition after another. Their love is born out of their mutual hardships and the passion they share towards achieving their dreams.

La La Land offers a rich, retelling of the old fashioned Hollywood musical, with catchy songs and luscious cinematography, with each scene alive with rich red tones and somber dark hues to set the mood for Mia and Sebastian, respectively. La La Land offers a rich escape into the world of Hollywood, alight with struggling artists trying to make it in a town full of aspiring starlets and musicians.

Sebastian and Mia are developed just enough that we see ourselves as the bruiting artist, unwilling to compromise with even himself for the sake of his music, and Mia as the hopeful starlet astride the horrible brink between despair and fame. The characters’ struggles are all very much our own, as we have dreams that seem crazy and for which we are willingly to sacrifice everything. But do we really have to sacrifice the love of the one person who encourages us to keep pushing on towards the goal?

If you remember Titanic, it was obvious from the beginning that this film would not end well. That boat is going to sink, and it will drown the star-crossed lovers in its wake. But La La Land keeps you hoping throughout the film that true love will ultimately conquer all, and that Sebastian and Mia will end the movie staring off into the sunset. The reality is, Sebastian and Mia could never be together.  Once their “boat” reaches the shore, once they get their breaks, once they find fame, no longer can they be together. The climb unites them, and the summit divides them. This is emphasized all the more by the lack of music as the film reaches its sad climax. Music reflects the hope and possibility of having it all, one’s love and one’s dreams. As this grows less and less possible, the songs grow less frequent until they all but disappear from the movie.

In the film’s final musical act, we are taken back through all the things Sebastian should have done for Mia. Here, the music reflects the hope of what could have been but cannot be. These are the moments Sebastian acted particularly stupid, when he picked his career over her and how different his life would have been if he had chosen otherwise. Rather than brushing off the girl who took interest in a sad piano player, he kisses her. He abandons a self-indulgent photoshoot to attend and applaud Mia’s one-act play. He goes with Mia to Paris for her big break, sacrificing his own dream for the promise of a life with her instead. But, as the backdrops give way to the bold, brush strokes of an Impressionist painting, we know that this isn’t really happening. This is all a dream, and the characters we’ve rooted for will not live happily ever after with each other. They are happy and successful, but that success came at a price. Sebastian’s poignant head nod in the film’s final frame signals that he has accepted the sad truth before the audience does. We can have success or true love but not both, and we have to live with the consequences.