Wednesday, June 27, 2018

review--The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

A few weeks ago, I listened to a lecture series called How Great Science Fiction Works, from The Great Courses. I was actually more of a sci-fi fan when I was a child, which was the time of the first Star Wars movies and the first Battlestar Galactica series, and I could go to the library and find books about Tom Swift, and even older stories about Lucky Starr and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Even though I'm not very much into sci-fi now, I still found those lectures fascinating and informative.

One of the lectures was about utopian and dystopian stories, and the lecturer, Gary K. Wolfe, begins and ends this lecture by referring to a particular story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin. This was enough to pique my interest in this story, and to read it for myself.

This is a very short story, though it may be called a story in only the loosest of senses. It is more a description of this city called Omelas on the day of its Festival of Summer, and what they people are like, what activities they will engage in on that day, and their overall happy and joyful state.

In fact, the author treats Omelas like a tabula rasa, as if she were creating the city as she wrote about it, and even invites the reader to assist in creating this paradise; “Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.”  (Kindle Locations 73-75) There is, then, a fluidity to this fictional city, as Omelas becomes, not one person's utopia, every one person's utopia. And while I would guess the author would not agree with every element anyone else might put in or leave out, that is of secondary importance to the overall point.

For while Omelas is a paradise on earth, it is a paradise that comes with a price.

There is one person in the entire city who is not happy, a mere child, shut up in a small room under one of the buildings, a room with no comforts, without even a toilet where it can relieve itself. This child is alone, no one speaks to it, the only care it receives is that someone gives it a little food each day. The child is mentally deficient, so it doesn't understand why it is treated this way. Yet, somehow, the happy state of all of the other people in Omelas depends upon the misery of this one child.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” (Kindle Locations 126-130)

The conditions are firm. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” (Kindle Locations 138-139)

But not all the people of Omelas can accept this arrangement, and so this story essentially gives us two kinds of people: those who know about the child, may pity it, may wish they could do something about its condition, but who in the end do nothing to directly help that child; and those who, for reasons left unstated, walk alone through the streets of Omelas, through the beautiful gates, through the farmland outside the city gates, towards the mountains, never to return.

The story is told in such a way as to make the reader feel some sympathy for the people of this city; they are not unfeeling, uncaring monsters who rejoice in this child's sufferings. But the truth is still that they accept the terms of this mysterious agreement, they enjoy their good lives while accepting that they do so only because of the one who is being left alone to suffer in misery. And so, it seems that it is those who walk away from Omelas who are the better, more noble people.

A few years ago, I did a small bit of research into North Korea, reading some books and online materials about those who have escaped that place, the stories they told of starvation and oppression, the dangers they faced in trying to find a better life in another place. It was very eye-opening. Though I had some small knowledge, mostly only that North Korea was a bad place, the things I read gave me much more of an idea of what those people have went through and what the people still there are going through.

When it comes to a place like North Korea, I feel no need to blame someone for wanting to leave. The problems there are not ones that can be solved by one common person. I want to make that point, because when I look from that real-life place to the imagined utopia of Omelas, I find myself less sympathetic to those who walk away, because they merely walk away., and I think that way because of two reason given in the story itself.

The first is simply that there are not just two kinds of people in Omelas, there is a third, the child itself. Those who walk away from Omelas may consider themselves noble for leaving behind that place, and setting off on their own, though they may not know to where they are going. But the truth is, they are not really any better than those who stay, because while those who stay in Omelas enjoy the good things of the city, and those who walk away decide they cannot enjoy them any more, the truth is that nothing has really changed. Omelas is still Omelas, still a corruption, still a lie, still a place based on lies. Which brings me to the second reason.

There are some things the author says about this city that I think are very important. In one particular part, where the author describes the religious practices of the people of Omelas, practices that while avoiding graphic details are clearly shown to be sensual and sexual, she writes this, “One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.” (Kindle Locations 88-89) A bit later, when telling us about why this one child is isolated and made to suffer and why no one can do anything about it, she writes this...

“If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.” (Kindle Locations 134-138)

These are the lies: that there is no guilt in Omelas, and that helping this child would let guilt into the city.

Because the truth is much the opposite; even if one wants to disregard the obvious and gross immorality the author describes when talking about the religious practices of this city, the people of this city are still guilty of the wretched condition of this one child. They are guilty of being selfish, of valuing their own pleasures over the good of this child. They are guilty of loving themselves over loving the neighbor who is this child. They are guilty of blinding themselves to their own guilt, for while they may think themselves without guilt, they are simply believing a lie.

And those who walk away from Omelas have not escaped their own guilt, for while they may walk away from Omelas, they also walk away from the child, leaving it in the same miserable condition. Their leaving has no affect at all on that child, and would be cold comfort indeed if it could somehow know about their actions. Their cold nobility is as selfish as the others' acceptance of the conditions.

Omelas isn't a utopia, it is a place filled with guilt.

So, the question to end this review would be, where is the fourth kind of person, the one who will offer the child the forbidden kind word, who will take that child from its filthy prison, take it to the sunlight, clean and feed and comfort it, and do so while all the lies of Omelas burn down all around them?

Or, to ask the question another way, where is the true church of Christ that is doing what it should be doing, preaching the law to destroy our illusions of our own goodness, then preaching the gospel to show us where our sins may truly be washed away?

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.