Thursday, May 24, 2018

review: Violet Evergarden


A couple of years ago, we anime geeks started seeing a trailer for an upcoming series called Violet Evergarden, and though this trailer was only a half-minute long, there was more than enough in it to catch our interest, as it hinted at a very moving story with art and animation quality usually reserved for anime movies. More news and a few more trailers slowly came our way, until, earlier this year, that series was released.

Summary
After years of war, the people of Leidenshaftlich are ready for peace. In this post-war time, many educated young women want to begin work as Auto Memory Dolls, people who can type and take dictation, even writing personal letters, for their clients.

Having known little except war and life in the military, Violet Evergarden finds her new peaceful life to be difficult and confusing. But instead of retreating from society, she chooses instead to train to work as a Doll, and as time passes and she meets more and more people, she learns to understand them and the things they really want to communicate.

The series has a very episodic feel to it, especially in the middle of the season, as most of the episodes are like vignettes of Violet traveling to a certain location so she can type for her company's clients. Her job often involves writing letters, but there are other writing assignments, too, such as when she is hired to help a playwright finish his most recent work. But there is also an overall story, much of it involving her desire to understand the last thing her former commanding officer, Major Gilbert Bougainvillea, said to her during the war's last battler, before he went missing and she was hospitalized and had to be given artificial arms and hands.

Emotional Devastation
My summary of the series may have seemed a bit dry, so let's get this one great truth about it stated now: if you're the type of person who likes stories that shred your heart into a million sobbing pieces, Violet Evergarden is very much the show you have been waiting for and training for. It's the series you deserve, and the one you need right now.

No, I'm not exaggerating one bit.

Storytellers like to think that our stories can accomplish many things, including being emotionally moving when it comes time for it. This really isn't an easy thing to do, though.

Getting a reader to care for a character is tricky business. Some stories I've come on seem to act on an assumption that, if a character is crying, then that's suppose to mean that the reader or viewer will find that scene very moving. Maybe I'm rather hard-hearted as a reader or viewer, but I usually don't find that kind of thing very moving. It feels less like the storyteller is inviting me to care for these characters, as that they are kinda trying to wring my neck while shouting at me “You will care about this character!”

One thing that makes it even trickier in Violet Evergarden is that in many episodes it is the people Violet is sent to write for, people who usually appear for just one episode, who are the main emotional focus of the story at that time. Yet the story is able to pull this off very well, while also giving the viewer glimpses of how being around these people is affecting Violet herself, as her personality becomes less distant and mechanical and more able to feel along with the people around her.

Even outside of enjoying and appreciating the series, one could learn a thing or two about emotions and storytelling from this series. After, of course, you've recovered from the emotional devastation this series will cause you.

Whatever Happened To...
I can't help but consider it a very bad sign that many of the anime that I watch take the concept of sin even more seriously than far too many places that are called churches. Violet Evergarden is one of those series.

When she was in the military, Violet was essentially a killing machine, feared by the enemy, but also by those on her own side, too. In the second half of the series, Violet begins to deal with the things she'd done as a soldier, the many lives she'd taken, and how those actions have affected her, even in ways she had not previously been aware of.

But it is here that the story's main weakness also shows up. All the hope that she can be given is that her work as a Doll, the things she's written for other people that have been helpful to them and to the people they've written to, is also important,that it will be remembered, too.

The weakness of this view should be made plain: who has decided how many good works we must do to make up for any one bad deed we have done? If Violet writes 100 letters, will that make up for 1 person she killed as a soldier? Will she need to write fewer letters than that, or, most likely, many, many more to pay for that 1 life? And what about all the others she either killed herself, or had a part in killing?

(I don't want to get sidetracked, but maybe a bit of something should be said here. I do not think that a soldier killing another soldier in combat is a violation of the command to not murder. Even after God gave Israel that command, they will fought wars, and their warriors still killed the warriors of their enemies, and even did so a God's command.)

But even if we could somehow do enough good deeds to make up for one sin, what about all the sins we commit, even the innumerable ones we committed while we were doing all those good deeds? The truth is, as the Bible rightly says, even the works we consider righteous deeds are no better than soiled rags.

Though to some degree Violet Evergarden takes sin seriously, it still does not take it seriously enough. Perhaps the thing it misses most is the question, if we have sinned, who have we sinned against, whose laws have we violated?

It is here that a church that takes sin seriously can also offer a real hope, a serious hope. It can point at each of us and say, “Yes, you have sinned, you have broken God's laws”, and it can also point to the cross and say, “Here is God's response to your sins, the sacrificial death of his son Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, forgiveness He gives to those who repent and believe the good news of Christ's death for them.”

Conclusion
If you've read all that, what are you waiting for! Go get whatever you need for those times when a story hurts your heart, get double for when you reach episode 10 (no, I'm not exaggerating, you'll need double for this episode), then go watch this series!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

movie review: Meant To Be


As things have happened, I think I may have been one of the first people to see Meant To Be. A few years ago, while attending a certain writer's conference, there was a screening for the film one evening, and if I remember it right, it was before it was released to discs.

Summary
Nathan Burr is a young man who's an aspiring writer, and who's lost his job and his girlfriend. He's a foster child, and so with some time on his hands, he travels to where he thinks he as born, in order to get information about his birth mother, and maybe even meet her. With a bit of help, he thinks he's found her, but what happens then badly unsettles him, and he realizes that the truth about his mother, himself, and even his own existence is far different, and far more disturbing, than he'd ever had a clue about.

The story is actually fairly intricate, as it involves not just Nathan and his mother, but also a high school girl named Tori, who's found herself in a bad situation, one that relates to Nathan's mother, a social worker who is trying to help Tori, and to Nathan himself.

The Mostly Good Part
I have to give this movie a good amount of credit for both having a good story idea, and for executing it fairly well. If nothing else, if someone ever asks you for a “Christian ghost story”, you can point them to this movie, and the fact that can use a “Christian ghost story” in the cause of a pro-life message is all the better. I suppose it could be considered “heavy-handed” or “preachy”, but I'm fine with that.

But there are some things in the story that the nitpicky part of me has some trouble with.

How, for example, did Nathan “live” for something like 20 years, and not realize the strange things happening around him, such as the people not noticing him? How did he get his prominently featured laptop? How are he and the girl he's met are able to travel around a city in her car, and not realize that the other drivers are not just not seeing them, but apparently also driving right through them, since of course they aren't really there, they don't really exist, they've been dead since before they were even born? How did he even have a job and a girlfriend to lose? Who were these foster parents who raised him, and how did he even end up a foster care system? The in-story notion that he only interacts with people who suffered the same fate he did may answer a few of these concerns, but also falls apart really quick, too.

But there are other, more serious issues, too.

Nathan wants to be a writer, and a few times, Nathan acts like a kind of narrator for parts of the story, as if he were himself telling the story. In a couple of those times, he claims that he's heard “a still small voice inside of me” that tells him to “write what he doesn't know”. To try to be nice about my opinion of this phrase, I can only consider it an inspiration fail, a bit of nonsense trying to pose as profound.

When Mave explains to Nathan the significance of the room with all the photos, the room of perfect plans (it wasn't capitalized in the subtitles), we are left with the idea that all the people in the photos, people whose lives had been ended by abortion, would have had nice, ideal lives. I find that hard to accept. I find it hard, even impossible, to believe that among those people would not be liars, murderers, thieves, people who would break marriage vows, cult members, drug addicts and drug pushers. In other words, humans—fallen, sinful, enemies of God who need to repent and believe in Christ and his sacrificial death for their sins.

Abortion is murder, it is evil. We do not need to create idyllic futures for victims of abortion in order to say that it is wrong, and when we do those types of things, it comes off more like a case based on fantasy rather than one based on morality.

Christian Stories
What is it that makes a movie or a book a Christian story? Is it having a message based around biblical morality? Is it having an angelic character? Is it quoting the Bible, or referring to things said in the Bible? Is it talking about God a lot?

On the one hand, I'm reluctant to say that a Christian story needs certain elements in it to be considered a Christian story. If I were to say “A Christian story needs X in it, or else!”, I've little doubt there could be several examples given of Christian stories that don't have X.

On the other hand, I've read and seen some stories that have been labeled as Christian that have had some questionable stuff in them, or seem to get wishy-washy when it comes to certain biblical matters.

When it comes to trying to evaluate the Christian message of Meant To Be, I'd like to start with this statement:

In the 1950s, Yale’s H. Richard Niebuhr described the so-called “gospel” of Protestant liberalism poignantly: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Each clause is telling. First, more like Mr. Rogers than the judge of all the earth, the sentimental deity of many Americans is incapable of wrath. Since he exists for us and our happiness, this heavenly friend may be disappointed and sad when we hurt ourselves, but he never sees sin as an offence primarily against himself and his perfect justice. Second, we may make mistakes—pretty bad ones, from time to time—but it would be wrong to call ourselves sinners, much less to imagine that we were captive to sin, helpless to do anything to will or work our way out of the mess. So, third, God brings us basically good people into a kingdom without judgment, since there is no law that could condemn and no gospel that could justify. And finally, for this sort of religious therapy you don’t need a vicarious, atoning sacrifice if you are basically a nice person; what you really need is a good example.
Horton, Michael. The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World (p. 38). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It should be noted that God's forgiveness is mentioned a couple of times in this movie, but the main thing the characters think they are looking for, what Linda's husband tells her she needs to do and what Linda tells Tori she will not easily or quickly be able to do if she gets the abortion, is to forgive themselves.

When Mave tells Nathan about why his mother aborted him, she says that his mother “made a mistake”. She tells him that God has a purpose for our lives, “but sometimes we deviate from that because each of us has choice”. What do we gain by calling sin simply a mistake? Rather, what have we lost by downplaying the serious of our actions? If we make mistakes instead of commit sins, then how seriously bad are we?

Because notably absent from this movie is any mention of Jesus and the gospel. God's forgiveness is mentioned, yes, but it is shunted aside very quickly, as if it's something that has no bearing on the Linda's continued guilty feelings or Tori's desire to kill her unborn child because to continue carrying the child would ruin her plans. But this cheapens the most important issue of all—that we have sinned against God, and God would be right to judge us for that, but God has made a way for us to be made clean from that sin, His only Son Jesus died so that real-life people can be forgiven for real-life sins. If we cannot, if even Christians cannot, acknowledge our universal disease, if we cannot face the truth about ourselves as individuals and as humanity as a whole, then how can we hope to offer the real cure to this disease? Instead of the good news that the disease has a cure, all we would have, all this movie has, is good advice that offers, and fails, to keep the symptoms at bay.

This is the most frustrating part about this movie. What is a good story about the value of life could have been so much better if it had been as strong with the message of the gospel as it was with its pro-life message.

Conclusion
It saddens me that I cannot give this movie more than a rather half-hearted recommendation, but that really is all I can give it, because that is all it deserves. It's not a complete waste, but it simply drops the ball on the most important issues.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

series review: Re:Zero

Just More Chances To Make Things Go Really Bad

This is a series I've heard about for a while, and it seemed like it could be good, so I finally got around to watching it. Overall, I was not disappointed.

Summary
Natsuke Subaru is a modern-day teen guy, but things go very strangely for him when he's returning from a trip to the local food mart and, in the blink of an eye, ends up in a completely different world. Not only that, but in this new world he gains a very strange power—whenever he's killed, he returns to a time in his past, which allows him to try to correct the mistakes he made that got him killed. But as his story goes along, this power takes a heavy toll on him, as he see people he's come to care about injured and slain in brutal ways, and he can't seem to find the answers to how to keep it from happening again and again and again.

Caveats
First, a content warning.

In the first part of the story, the fight at the loot house, there is a female character who dresses rather revealingly. After that the fan-servicey stuff is not so much of an issue.

Outside of that, probably the main content warning should be for the blood and violence. And those things could be serious issues for some people. Without going into details, I wasn't exaggerating when I wrote that some characters are harmed and killed in brutal ways. I know some people didn't like that kind of stuff in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and this series is even worse in that regard than FMA:B, so I hope some of you can find that helpful in determining if you want to risk this series or not.

Pushing Characters to the Limit
It seems like I've read some advice for writers and storytellers about how they need to push their characters to their limits, make them suffer, put them through the wringer, or pretty much just make their situations as difficult as possible. I could hold up Re:Zero as a stunning, even extreme and drastic, example of pushing a character to the breaking point, and even going past that.

Starting about halfway through the current 25 episodes and continuing for several episodes, Subaru is pushed, and pushed, and pushed a whole lot more. Behaviors that worked for him early in the series suddenly work against him in this new situation, he makes bad decisions that cause people to not trust him, and even his attempts to act bravely only lead to him getting soundly thrashed. And that's before he gets caught in a seemingly endless cycle of restarts, where every decision he makes only cause things to become worse, and where his weakness and helplessness are made starkly clear to him as his friends are killed time and again.

This isn't the most enjoyable stretch of episodes I've ever watched, but story-wise it's among the best. Subaru's desperate and stupid decisions, and the ways the people around him respond to him, are very difficult to watch, and Subaru often acts like anything but a hero in this part of the story.

Getting Pushed to the Limit
In fact, probably about the only thing less enjoyable than watching a character get pushed to the limit like that is having it happen in real life.

Little is gained by sentimentalizing or romanticizing such painful times. They don't always bring out the best in us; in fact, they often bring out the worst, or show us the worst that is already in us. In Re:Zero, the difficulties bring out Subaru's pride, selfishness, ignorance, and rashness, along with other faults and sins he has. For us, weariness may make us impatient, pain may make us angry, hopelessness may make us want to harm other people or ourselves, and that's hardly an exhaustive list of causes and effects.

While the idea of getting multiple chances to do things right does work as an idea for some fascinating stories, real life isn't like that. Our rash decisions and rash words cannot be undone.

Our hope, then, is that we have a Redeemer who was Himself pushed to the limits, and suffered many things, including the cruel death of crucifixion, and did so without sinning. Our hope, even for those of us who are already believers in Christ, is the same gospel of Christ crucified for our sins that we first believed. It's something we don't outgrow, even and especially when we think we've made some progress in our sanctification.

Conclusion

Keep in mind the caveats from above, but if you think those things won't bother you too much, then I have no qualms about recommending this series.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

new book--WITITB? The Courts of Heaven.


I can't remember when I first came on the idea of the Courts of Heaven. I guess it wasn't long ago, a few months or maybe a year or so. At any rate, it's not something that immediately caught my attention and made me pay attention to it, until very recently.

Once I started looking into it, though, it soon enough got my interest and attention, and for all kinds of reasons.

This doesn't yet seem to have become a major, popular teaching in the church, though I have my suspicions that it will catch on more and more in the next few years, and become something major. My plan is to go into why I think that way at the end of this book, so let me just tease it a little by saying that I think this teaching about the Courts of Heaven will become more and more popular because it gives the faith healers and Word of Faith bellowers the things they want most.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

review: Hogfather

In the End, a Story about Nothing

I was introduced to Pratchett's Discworld stories several years ago, and have usually enjoyed the ones I've read. In my own reading, Pratchett is unique in that he can very skillfully blend satirical elements with serious themes, giving the reader both reasons to chuckle and reasons to think.

There are some stand-alone Discworld books, but most of them follow one of a few different sets of characters. Hogfather is a story where the main characters are Death and characters connected with him, though it also brings in the wizards of Unseen University.

Summary
There are beings who want to destroy the Discworld, and they have the $3 million to make it happen (apparently, this was well before inflation, when $3 million could still be considered real money), and the Assassin's Guild has a member whose mind is so askew that he can find a way to assassinate a being whose existence is problematic: the Hogfather, the Discworld version of Santa Claus. So, Death has to keep belief in the Hogfather alive, while telling his granddaughter Susan to not get involved (and grandkids being grandkids, of course she goes right out and gets herself right involved).

Humor
This being a Pratchett story, of course there have to be all kinds of satirical shots fired. And it's not as if the current commercialized state of Christmas doesn't lend itself very well to such shots.

For example, there is the Hogfather (actually Death dressed up as the Hogfather) visiting the Maul, which is disruptive on all kinds of levels, not least of which is because this Hogfather thinks his job is to give kids the things they ask him for, including swords and ponies. This is a concern for parents (who want their children to have, well, toys) and to shop owners at the Maul (who want people to buy things, not have them given to them). And there are the Hogfather's hogs (he doesn't have reindeer pull his sled), who insist on acting like hogs, even in a maul, to the endless curiosity and delight of all the children.

Susan Sto Helit is one of the Discworld's more fascinating characters. She is Death's granddaugher, connected to him in ways genetics have no control over, and she lives in both the real world and in his world. In this book she's a nanny, taking care of a couple of precocious children. One way she helps take care of them is to get rid of the monsters under their beds, in their closets, and in the basement, because she knows as well as the children that there really are monsters in those places. She takes no guff from those monsters, and she has a poker to make sure they give her no guff.

Humor?
With all the humor hits in this book, maybe it should be expected that there are some misses, too.

For some reason, Good King Wenceslas takes some jabs in one scene. The song is about the king giving some food and drink to a peasant he sees gathering wood. Pratchett makes this act into the king only wanting to be praised for his generosity, while not really being concerned at all for the peasant.

And even things Christian speculative fans may consider either sacred or near-sacred come in for some knocks. Among the sacred...

Death flicked the tiny scythe just as the bloom faded…
The omnipotent eyesight of various supernatural entities is often remarked upon. It is said they can see the fall of every sparrow.

And this may be true. But there is only one who is always there when it hits the ground. (p. 42)

Sadly, Pratchett shanks this one, badly. It isn't Death who is there when the sparrow falls to the ground.

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

And another one.

Goodwill to all men was a phrase coined by someone who hadn’t met Foul Ole Ron. (p. 273)

Granted, Foul Ole Ron is a fictional character, but the ones who first sang the phrase “goodwill to all men” knew very well people whose hearts were far darker than any ficitonal character's, and they still sang of peace on earth and goodwill to all men. And they had reason to sing of those things, not because of men's darkened hearts, but because of the one who was born that day in the City of David, Christ the Lord.

Among the near-sacred, there is a wardrobe that scares a man near to death, before seeming to consume the man to death, except his boots

There are magic wardrobes,” said Violet nervously. “If you go into them, you come out in a magic land.”

Bilious looked at the boots again.

Um…yes,” he said. (p. 326)

I will simply say, those who create fantasy universes where flat worlds roam through the universe on the backs of elephants and turtles look silly when they try to mock the idea of magic wardrobes.

Serious Matters
But the biggest problem with this book is its main message.

All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need…fantasies to make life bearable.” 
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
(pp. 380-381)

Btw Death speaks in all-caps. So does Susan a few times, when she needs to. She's Death's granddauther, after all.

THERE IS A PLACE WHERE TWO GALAXIES HAVE BEEN COLLIDING FOR A MILLION YEARS, said Death, apropos of nothing. DON’T TRY TO TELL ME THAT’S RIGHT.

Yes, but people don’t think about that,” said Susan. “Somewhere there was a bed…”

CORRECT. STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A…A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT.
Talent?”

OH, YES. A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.

You make us sound mad,” said Susan. A nice warm bed…

NO. YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME? said Death, helping her up onto Binky. (pp. 381-382)

Btw2, Binky is Death's horse.

So many things could be said in response to these statements.

For example, the entire first chapter of Lewis' Mere Christianity could be called to answer this charge about the non-reality of things like justice and mercy...

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word.Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (pp. 3-4). HarperCollins

Death wishes to claim that somehow two galaxies colliding over millions of years is not right. But if he wants to say that justice and mercy are not realities, then he essentially undercuts his own statement. Without justice, what is right and wrong, just and unjust? Without justice, how can the collision of two galaxies be called “not right”?

And does believing lies really make them true? Do we really have to believe in the lies of justice and mercy, in order to make them become, to make them realities? Do we really need to believe in small lies, like tooth fairies and Santa Claus, so that we can then believe in big lies, like justice and mercy?

This is relativism writ large and ridiculous. If mankind is the creator of justice and mercy, if we create such lies by our beliefs in them, then these lies simply take on the forms we create them in, and since mankind would hardly be in unison about what those things would look like, they could and will look like anything. The lie of justice could look like trial by jury, and it could look like imprisonment without trial. The lie of mercy could look like giving medicine to the sick to help them live, and it could look like giving poison to the sick to help them die.

Pratchett, through the character of Death, gains nothing by calling these great virtues big lies; he merely loses everything. He loses the right to say that colliding galaxies are “not right”; he loses to right to have a truly just city guard; he loses the right to use his books to make social commentary; he loses the right even to write books, for he has no right to write about heroes and villains, for he has no standard by which he can tell us who is a hero and who is a villain.

But the great virtues are not big lies. Pratchett can appeal to justice, not because he or someone else created the big lie of justice, but because there is a God who is just. He can say that something is right or wrong because, whether he believed in it or not, there is an absolute standard, which man did not create, by which he could judge whether something was right or wrong.

Conclusion

There was plenty of humor in this story, and I had a good chuckle every now and again. And some of his satire was smart enough to smart. But, overall, the ideas this book puts forth are not all that good. I can't give it a rousing recommendation.