February 2007

I visited the Mérida zoo, with a small waterfall, camel, a lion, monkeys, birds, etc. An evil ferret bit me, so I got vaccinated for rabies just in case. Then I visited the botanical gardens, with pretty flowers, strange plants, a cute bridge, dense tree clumps, and even tree forts!

That weekend, I visited a quaint set of cabins near some hot springs and a cute graveyard with some friends. The hike to the hot springs was amazing. We made shish kabobs and pasta and fruit smoothies. We had an awesome time hanging out, playing cards, and drinking.

I spent Carnaval week in Colombia. First, to Santa Marta, with some nice beaches, islands, huts, spiky trees, cow statues, cool trees, suds spray wars in the streets, and of course lots of garbage.

But the crown jewel was Cartagena, especially the walled colonial city, with its great colonial architecture, cute little doors, crumbling amphitheater, homeless people, and cheap shaves. Then there’s the castle, cannons aimed downtown, with its many (and sometimes water-filled) labyrinths. The hilltop convent provides an excellent outlook of the city. Did I mention the massive boots? A one hour boat ride took me to La Playa Blanca, a postcard-perfect beach paradise.

Rumor has it I got a bit drunk in Maracaibo (video), on the way back to Mérida.


Ehrman’s lecture series, After the New Testament: The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, is an excellent overview of early proto-orthodox Christian writings (writings that represent was later became victorious Christian doctrines). It is surprising to recognize that Christian doctrine and practice stems as much from Paul as from Jesus (which is why historians consider Jesus and Paul the co-founders of the Christian religion), and also surprising to note central Christian doctrines not explicity found in the New Testament, but instead in the writings of the ten “Apostolic Fathers.”

Though current theologians appeal to the New Testament to support doctrines like Christology (Christ as God), the Trinity, and church heirarchy (for example that of Roman Catholicism), they are first found in these later writings, dated roughly A.D. 95-150. Note that these doctrines, like many Pauline doctrines, are of central relevance to those seeking church empowerment, church unity, and personal comfort with orthodoxy, but not to those merely seeking to imitate Jesus.

The first letter attributed to Clement makes a long-winded argument for orderly church structure from the orderliness of God, manifest in, for example, the Phoenix: a bird of golden plumage which builds a nest of cinammon, burns its nest and self to ashes from which a new bird arises that embalms the ashes in myrhh and deposits them in Heliopolis exactly every 500 years. (This is not an argument highly ordered church governments cite today.)

Antioch’s bishop, Ignatius, wrote seven surviving letters on route to his martyrdom in Rome. He urges the Roman Christians to let him die violently like Christ, to unify and obey their bishops, and to ignore Jewish law. (He writes: “It is outlandish to proclaim Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism, for Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism believed in Christianity, in which every tongue that believes in God has been gathered together.”)

Other works of the Apostolic Fathers include the Didache, the epistle of Polycarp, and others.

Have you seen this hilarious dumb thief?

Confused about Web 2.0?

11 Most Important Philosophical Quotations.

I will NOT be doing this at Angel Falls.

Here is an example of how math can be beautiful.

Are you ready for the violence of the lambs?

Watch a glass blower make a glass cat in less than 2 minutes.

Watch Jake Shimabukuro play a stunning arrangement of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for ukulele.

Persona can be a difficult film. Like Buñuel and Deren before him, Bergman tossed out the conventions of filmmaking and reinvented cinema on his own terms. This leaves viewers (especially those with no avant-garde experience) with little familiar turf from which to appreciate the movie. Also, its narrative and characters are secondary to its technique: a self-conscious deconstruction of film art.

And so, Persona begins with the lighting of a carbon arcs and rolling film reels. Then we see images that represent many uses of the moving picture: documentation (a spider, moving hands), entertainment (a Chaplin-esque silent comedy, a children’s cartoon), propaganda (hands being nailed into wood, evocative of Christ’s crucifixion), arousal (an erect phallus), provocation (carving open a sheep, and a shot that reminds of the famous eyeball-slicing scene from Un Chien Andalou), and art (a still, painterly shot in a Swedish forest). Shots of sharp fence bars and a mound of dirty snow also foreshadow the stark, desperately cynical nature of the movie, and of the stage in Bergman’s career that began with the hopeless end of his previous film, 1963’s The Silence.

Next we see several corpses lying in what could be a morgue, and a boy lying in one of the beds wakes up. He stares at the camera (another Brechtian alienation technique to upset the fantasy of the film and remind us that it is a construct), then moves his hand over a large image of a woman’s face, which morphs into another face and back again. This may reference Bergman’s inspiration for the film. In a hospital, he was struck by the similar faces of the women who became his leads for Persona, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.

Finally, the credits sequence. Titles are in extremely high-contrast black and white, with more split-second images displayed between each title. The music, expectedly, is jarring, contemporary avant-garde composition.

And then the story begins. Part of the fun of Persona is its openness to interpretation. I’ll begin with a literal reading.

Actress Elizabeth stops speaking during a performance of Elektra and months later is sent with Nurse Alma to an island house for therapy. Alma cannot get Elizabeth to speak, but finds in her a good listener, and in this way they become friends. While bringing mail to the post office, Alma reads Elizabeth’s outgoing letter. Elizabeth sees their roles reversed; she is studying talkative Alma. Alma is angered by this, and later leaves broken glass for Elizabeth to step on. Finally, frustrated that Elizabeth refuses to speak, the two fight, reconcile, embrace, and leave the island.

Though the literal reading works if you grant poetic license to this poem in images, Persona gives us many opportunities for creative interpretations that may work even better. No movie has more replay value than Persona.

My favorite is a popular theory, that Elisabeth and Alma are the same person – two personas that split when the actress stops acting. She stops acting for a living, but also stops acting for the outside world. Alma represents the outer, interactive persona. Elisabeth represents the inner, quiet, stronger persona. The film is a metaphor for the interaction between these two personas within a single human being. The outer character is comforted by the quiet inner strength, but frustrated that it does not give answers. Each scene shows a dialogue between the inner and outer. And when the actress’ husband arrives, she recognizes Alma, and doesn’t notice Elisabeth, who is merely a metaphor for the inner character of the actress. This unity is represented by the cinematography, which often positions the two lead faces overlapping each other, until finally they are superimposed over each other in a startling shot.

According to this interpretation, the child at the beginning of the movie may represent the actress’ aborted child, looking upon the dual personas of his mother from beyond the grave.

We are never allowed to forget that this is deconstructionist cinema. At one point, the film breaks down and burns up entirely, shows brief clips from the opening sequence, then returns to the story. At one point, a scene plays twice in a row from different camera angles, indicating the subjective possibilities of art. And at the end, the reels stop and the carbon arc goes out.

I have barely begun to explain how specific scenes may be interpreted, including the dreamlike bedroom scene, the vampirism scene, and the beachside chase scene. I leave that to curious minds.

In its relentlessly deconstructionist presentation, its brilliant portrayal of psychology, its inventiveness, its openness to interpretation, its cinematography, its powerful lead performances, and its frightening originality, I believe Persona is the greatest film ever made. I might have to write a scene-by-scene commentary to seriously make such an argument, and perhaps I will.

But if you’re not ready for Persona, try Mulholland Drive, a modern masterpiece that shares a multitude of strong similarities with Persona.

Can any of my readers point to a sort of TED Talks for Christianity? Sorta like Veritas or Open Forum?

Shaun Groves wrote a good post on giving and tithing.

Have you seen this? Blogging the Bible: What happens when an ignoramus reads the good book?

In case you missed it: Five Streams of the Emerging Church at Christianity Today.

Married guys, have you tried this argument?

King KongHoly Harryhausen, the SPECTACLE! Jackson’s King Kong goes so far beyond what has come before in CGI character and action, I’m surprised it didn’t cost $350 million. It will be as daunting to direct a spectacle movie after King Kong as it was to write a symphony after Beethoven. The eye-popping T-Rex sequence alone should make the producers of next year’s blockbusters weep, then beg their studios for another $50 million so their pictures can hold up to the new standard. Alas, the visuals are where praise must end for Kong.

Apparently, I’m one of the very few who thought the 1933 original was trash, and Jackson loved it enough to make his rehash similarly horrid. The dialogue is just as insipid, the editing is just as cliché for its time, the plotting is ridiculous on moment-by-moment and sequence-by-sequence scales, etc. The score was the only interesting part of the original and here it is simply mimicked. Plus, Jackson added more than an hour of superfluous waste developing dispensible characters and rendering pointless action sequences – paramount among them an outrageous creepy-crawly battle wisely excised from the 1933 film. Like its title character, King Kong is big and stupid.

Still, things could be worse. Ann Darrow could be played by one of the multitude of currently popular bimbettes rather than a real actress. The action could be less creative. The dialogue could be of Lucasian abhorability. And of course, the special effects could be merely “impressive”.

There are precisely three good scenes in King Kong. First is the opening sequence, which juxtaposes caged zoo animals with destitute tramps in their shacks, and wanders a stunning Depression-era New York while Al Jolson sings “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Second comes after Kong has run off with Ann. He pounds his alpha-male chest, and she wins his heart with a vaudeville act. The emotional progression of Kong here, who out-acts anyone in the movie, is heart-rending. It also gives the romance between beauty and beast the verve lacking in previous installments, which is unfortunately squandered in the scenes to follow. Third is a true landmark in animation and action, where Kong wrestles with three T-Rexes. Return of the King looks simple and puny now.

Is King Kong racist? Jackson accurately represented good vs. evil as white vs. black in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and again chose whites for heroes and blacks (or whites in blackface!) for ugly, mindless, murdering savages in King Kong. Frankly, one would expect those involved in the movie and shipping industries in 1933 New York to be white, just as one would expect indigenous people on an undiscovered South Pacific island to be dark-skinned and uneducated. So, one can hardly fault Jackson for these decisions, especially as they conform to the original film.

Nevertheless, the precedence of special effects to story and filmmaking in Peter Jackson’s monstrous King Kong lends new meaning to its closing line: “Twas beauty killed the beast!”

Letters from a Skeptic chronicles Greg Boyd’s correspondence with his father’s questions about Christianity. Boyd’s answers to some of life’s toughest questions are brief and encouraging but of course incomplete. Here I will summarize his answers to the questions I found most challenging:

Why is the world so full of suffering?

Love without freedom is not love, and freedom without freedom to help or hurt others is not freedom. In free world, there are Warren Buffets and Hitlers. But is it worth it? It is the nature of love to hurt. “People reject us, they die, kids rebel, etc… If a person never loved, he’d never suffer. But then again, he’d never really live.” God is in the same position, on a cosmic scale. Love is the only reason worth creating, and it is very risky – for God and for us.

What about earthquakes and famines?

Famines are mostly caused by human evil discussed above: there’s plenty of food in the world. Earthquakes & company are the natural consequence of God creating anything less than himself. Things must possess certain characteristics that rule out possessing other characteristics. “The rock which holds you up must also be hard enough for you to stub your toe on it.” The natural world is limited because it is real, not because it is evil. Evil spiritual forces may also be at work, but we don’t know much about them.

What’s the point of prayer?

The main purpose of prayer is to build a relationship. Petitionary prayer may represent our bit of “say-so” in the spiritual realm (just as we have say-so in the physical realm). But prayer doesn’t always work; God is not a cosmic vending machine. Many forces interact: free wills, prayer, evil forces, and natural forces. God doesn’t usually override all these because that wouldn’t be a free world.

Why do you think Jesus actually rose from the dead?

1. The Resurrection is attested by three independent sources (the Synoptic gospels, John, and Paul) within 70 years of Jesus’ death (compare to, say, Buddha, whose first biography was written a millenia after his death).
2. Everyone knew where Jesus was buried. One could have easily proved the disciples wrong about Christ’s resurrection by simply digging up Christ’s body.
3. The resurrection accounts lack characteristics of myth. For example, there is much irrelevant and easily falsifiable detail (the name of the Sanhedrin member who donated Jesus’ tomb, etc.) There is also counter-productive material (which myths usually lack), for example the role of women (who were considered incurable liars) in the story.
4. Paul converted because of his conversion with the risen Christ. Why else would a persecutor of Christians join them, and why would he lie about the nature of his conversion?

[My note: The resurrection of Jesus is far from proven, but it does have far more historical support than any other resurrection in history.]

Why does God make believing in Him so difficult?

Even stupendous events can be explained away or forgotten. Even after the plagues, Egypt did not worship God. And Jesus’ miracles could be dismissed as tricks. Moreover, the world is incredibly complex because of the interactions mentioned above, and so there is as much evidence for evil and chaos as there is for a benevolent God.

[Unforunately, Boyd’s answers about the inspired-ness of Scripture and how a loving God could let whole civilizations go to hell because nobody told them about God are unsatisfactory to me, and I won’t reproduce them.]

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