Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Emperor’s New Movie

When drafting my WWII Political Leaders Opinion Survey, I thought a lot about Hirohito, Emperor Shōwa of Japan. Unlike the rest of the list, he stayed in power well into my childhood. However, his personality cult never really got developed here in the States, so many of us American kids don’t even think about him personally when it comes to remembering World War II history. Maybe the Japanese were viewed as a collective enemy with a faceless leader. Or maybe the ACLU’s presence made the press fearful about turning him into a caricature. At any rate, more and more voices are now speaking about Hirohito’s legacy, his crimes against humanity.

If I had to choose the best documentary ever made, I’m sure that Nanking (site, imdb, netflix) would make it to the final round. Many reviewers use “disturbing” for art as a positive accolade, which I generally find disturbing. However, it’s probably the best word available in this case. Based on Iris Chang’s whistle-blowing book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, this film made me wonder how these events could’ve remained silenced for so long.

Recently, there’s appeared another film about Japanese involvement in World War II. Independent filmmaker Akiko Izumitani decided to research the war on Chinese civilians and other little-known incidences for her documentary Silent Shame (site, imdb). She even managed to get some veterans to share their stories, something that probably took an immense amount of courage on their part since they risked shaming their families and comrades. When one mentioned that his mother had told him that the emperor was God, I decided my history textbook wasn’t completely lacking in information. The dictator's assumed divinity was about all its authors thought was worth mentioning.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reality Hits Hard…Like a Rock

There’s a serious risk of contracting AIDS via blood transfusions. That’s the message of the independent film Silent Shame (site, imdb), a bilingual drama about pointing fingers. The husband, a closet homosexual who hits the bars at night instead of going home, puts his wife at risk of disease. The wife, emotionally married to a high school sweetheart, attracts suspicion about the real parentage of her son and, perhaps also, the disease. Although the movie is about innocent suffering, there’s seems to be a stronger underlying message: Cultural and religious pressures to conform – at least within the Roman Catholic Hispanic community – make for disaster as young people struggle to meet their parents’ expectations.

I didn’t like the movie (an understatement), but there was a strong element with which I could identify. Virginia, the movie’s protagonist, starts out as an “everything but” kind of virgin, intent on doing everything in the “correct” order. Her parents directly tie her marriage prospects to her virginity. Her refusal to sleep with a boyfriend who does want her results in him cheating on her to satisfy his sexual cravings. She then ends up with a new boyfriend who doesn’t pressure her for sex, not because he’s virtuous or respects her, but because she’s just a cover for his big secret. When her world begins to fall apart after she’s diagnosed with AIDS, she asks a pointed question (my paraphrase): What was the point of saving herself for marriage if life doesn’t go as her parents promised?

Well, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that things rarely go as planned. To what extent that’s the planner’s or planners’ fault varies. However, it should be no surprise when resentment surfaces from those whose lives have been prearranged and rearranged to fit the expectations of others. As James 4:13-15 teaches, we can’t predict the future, so we should be aware that expected benefits might very well never materialize. There’s no simple equation that says that a certain set of inputs (e.g., owning a small business, staying out of debt, not dating, not having sex before marriage) will guarantee a desired result (e.g., having financial success, having a godly marriage).

Unfortunately, there are many people who like to pretend, even in the face of obviously conflicting evidence. Those who dare voice opinion that the real world has a lot of variables unaccounted for are dismissed as pessimists, cop-outs, or worse. Early on, those who try preparing for Plan B are told they’re wasting their time. Later on, those who want to bail are told that they’re sabotaging themselves and that everything hoped for will happen “in God’s time.” It’s like the Great Depression. It is a great depression because that’s often how many of the faithful end up – depressed.

I’m generally an optimistic person. (That’s why I don’t think that Muslims will take over the world or that nuclear warfare is eminent.) However, part of my optimism rests on my belief that people are good at inventing practical solutions to problems at hand. Blind optimism is the sort that leads people to continuously insist to young women that their dreams will come true. Good optimism, in contrast, acknowledges real-life disappointments and encourages an ever-evolving process of updating new dreams in light of the latest information. When things don’t go as planned, it’s time to admit that there were flaws in the plan and move on. The quicker it’s done, the more time there is to put Plan B into action.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Marketing Jesus

Recently, someone in an old, beaten-up sedan committed an appalling number of traffic sins in about one minute: he cut me off, crawled along at a snail’s pace, weaved back and forth between lanes, and then (once I’d thought I was rid of him) suddenly swerved back in front of me once he realized he was in a turn-only lane. As I’d predicted as my eyes traveled down to his license plate, he was a foreigner; hence, I’m obligated to conclude that he was lost or can’t drive. But what caught my attention were the big words “In God We Trust” that he must have paid the State of Indiana a pretty sum for.

Every day, I see cars with Christianese bumper-stickers and license plate frames that the drivers found witty. When those drivers are rude or not alert, it’s disheartening if not offensive. But in this case, I was puzzled. Here was Indiana’s DMV making money by marketing Jesus to Christian customers. Yes, it’s our country’s official motto. However, who would buy that vanity plate but an enthusiastic believer? I really doubt that Indianan atheists drive around with them.

Christians are a huge consumer market, and many businesses cater to them. But seeing a government agency do the same rubbed me the wrong way. They took advantage of a loophole in their “separation of church and state” doctrine to target Christians with a product that worked on at least one. The Christian driver probably thought he was witnessing for Christ. Instead, he looked like a victim of a mass marketing scheme.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Homeschooler as Academic

Rarely do I hear about homeschool graduates tackling Ph.D. programs. In thirty years, I believe I’ve only had personal contact with eight candidates (or at least eight who were out of the closet), and I’m sure I’ve only heard of about a dozen at most. So when the online magazine Generation Impact reviewed Bright Against the Storm I was rather surprised to read that its author Ari Heinze was an astronomy professor. His dissertation research involved using adaptive optics imaging to test the accuracy of statistical predictions of the masses and orbits of planets lying beyond our solar system.* What distinguishes Heinze from most is that he’s successfully completed his graduate studies and continuing to work in academia. I know of only one other, a recent Ph.D. also with a visiting faculty position, who’s managed to get that far.** A flood might occur only after the larger homeschooling generations finish college.

For some reason, academia is often perceived as being anti-homeschooler, but my experiences with professors were actually positive. You see: If there’s anything university faculty despise it’s the public school system. They complain about state standards. They complain about unqualified teachers feeding students inaccurate information. And they complain about students spending too much time in Advanced Placement courses, learning college-level material, when they should be mastering basic reading, writing, and mathematics.

In some ways, college is a great equalizer. Professors generally don’t care whether or not you attended private, public, or charter school. They don’t want to hear about your high school GPA, your AP exams, or your SAT scores. It’s irrelevant whether or not you attended a community college or were homeschooled. What essentially matters is whether or not you do the work. Everything else only matters when they’re looking for an excuse as to why you’re not performing well in class.

The stereotyped homeschooler is the creative independent thinker. What better fit for Ph.D. candidacy is there? Sure homeschoolers have a lot of traits that repel them from graduate programs – procrastination, ideological conflicts with core curricula, the desire to live a normal life – but so does the rest of the world. It would be nice to see more homeschoolers climbing the academic ladder and making significant contributions to their disciplines. I suspect that the social impact would be much greater than what the modern homeschooling movement has achieved so far.

*This is my rough interpretation based on the abstract and introduction. The author was not available for comment.
**He’s one who’d immediately burst out of the closet, but for social reasons has been banging on the door begging to be let back in for years now. That’s why I’m not commenting on his research here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Jonah Syndrome

If someone asked me to name the worst Christian doomsday prophets and naysayers, Gary North would be at the top of my list. He riled up people during the 1980s, preaching about how Reaganomics would destroy America, and then he went into retirement (only to come out again like so many others) because his crazy economic models predicted that 2000 would be the end of the world (the postmillennialism’s definition, of course). I was reminded of all this because someone brought the recent rants of David Bahnsen son-of-Greg to my attention. Following in the footsteps of North, Bahnsen seems to want to see California go to hell in a hand basket.

I've dubbed this the “Jonah Syndrome.” Primary symptoms include praying for immediate divine judgment on one’s enemies and not planning to do anything productive in society until God puts the right people in charge. I believe there’s an important lesson to be learned from Jeremiah 29:4-9 (ESV):

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.”

Notice a few things: The people of Jerusalem were told to be productive in the Babylonian society and pray for its prosperity. Their place and time put them in an unsatisfying situation, but they were told to make the best of it. What great advice to Christians today! We should be living productive lives, not sitting around complaining. We should be trying to improve our communities as a whole and the lives of those around us, not wish for their economic downfall, let alone their eternal damnation. Whatever happened to “Love your neighbor?”

Is California hopeless? No, but Christians should realize that their old plans of action aren’t working and need to be replaced. It only seems hopeless because pessimistic Christians love self-fulfilling prophecies and are actively trying to destroy this state.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The First Big Question

Thanks to everyone who has participated in my Men and Makeovers Survey – Part 1 so far. Here’s the first of a few questions received from men:

“What do girls think of a guy who wears a pink shirt on occasion?”

If you think you have an answer, please submit it to Men and Makeovers Survey – Part 2. Contributions from both sexes are welcome.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Thousand and One Nights of Economics

After a few months of preparation, I’ve finally moved forward with The Economics of Arabian Nights blog. The plan is to post one commentary every week. Hopefully, there will be some good response from my students and others who read it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Politics: Entertainment for the Rich

I feel like writing about politics now that the election is past.

Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and Damon Dunn had one important thing in common: They didn’t care about our political system. People who care register to vote and vote…not register in time to run for office. People who care look for positions that fit their experience level and qualifications and plan to work their way up later…not sign up to run for the highest positions in the land now. These candidates for governor, US senator, and secretary of the state didn’t care about our political system. They were just bored millionaires who didn’t mind wasting millions of dollars and the present value of whatever expected benefits California Republicans had on their latest form of entertainment.

The sad truth is that primaries have become popularity contests. That’s why Arnold “Do Nothing” Schwarzenegger won the recall election. He was popular. Although non-Californians might not understand this, George Murphy and his son Ronald Reagan won their campaigns because they actually had experience that, in the public’s eye, transferred well to the offices they sought. Note that Murphy’s adopted daughter, Shirley Temple Black, didn’t win her primary. Many people didn’t think she qualified. Politics was taken seriously even when movie stars were involved.

This time around, we didn’t have celebrities, so corporate leaders filled in. After a presidential election centered around the inexperience of Barak Obama and Sarah Palin, Whitman, Fiorina, and Dunn made their own laughable bids...probably just for the thrill. And more than the election was lost.

This shouldn’t happen to any political party, much less to a major party with millions of members. Too bad no one thought to restrict it. I wouldn’t recommend anything of this sort for a small party like the American Independent Party or the Libertarian Party, and it might be pointless since we have new primary legislation. However, it makes sense for a major party like the Republican Party to prevent this from happening again.

How? By instituting a rule about who gets to run under the party name and steal support away from other party candidates. The Citizens Redistricting Commission had an interesting requirement for selection: political participation. An applicant had to have the same political party affiliation for the previous five consecutive years. He or she also had to have voted in the previous three major elections (meaning presidential and gubernatorial). This requirement makes a lot of sense. Why hand over so much power to someone as your party representative when that person is completely irrelevant to the political process?

I hope something is done to prevent the unqualified and politically-detached from throwing another election. If the rich need their thrills, they should take a clue from Paris Hilton and start their own reality television shows. They’re more likely to make a positive impression on society.

Religion in Art

Sometimes religion and morality in art can be inspiring. It’s like another testimony, and one that’s accessible to even the illiterate. However, other times the images can be stomach-churning and ruin morale. The Norton Simon Museum, like other art museums, has collections filled with artwork depicting biblical, mythological, and historical scenes, conveying various the spiritual and moral lessons. Below I discuss two that left me with quite a different impression that the ones I suspect the artists wanted viewers to have.

Resurrection (c. 1455) by Dieric Bouts

Every time I look at this painting or its photograph, I see something new: The use of color to relate Jesus to the heavenly being and to the mortals. The placement of Christ’s head with a halo resembling sunlight peaking over the horizon. One thing I’d like to know more about is whether or not the guards are supposed to be representing different cultures. Their uniforms are very different although united by color, and their beard and hairstyles also seem to indicate different fashions. It’s a very creatively constructed piece.

However, what does it convey from a religious perspective? I’ve heard comments about this painting being “powerful” and about Jesus’ commanding presence, but I don’t see any of that. The only thing that comes to mind is Craig Hazen’s lecture for the Defending the Faith series sponsored by BIOLA University’s Christian Apologetics Program. While discussing alternative theories for Jesus sightings after His death, he describes a hypothetical situation in which Jesus straggles to meet His disciples after waking from a swoon. As Hazen points out, Jesus would’ve been in such terrible shape from the torture and crucifixion that no one would’ve interpreted Him still being alive as a glorious resurrection.

Well, unfortunately, Bouts’ painting to me looks really depressing. Although Hollywood is often accused of “sexing up” history, I still think that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has the most accurate resurrection scene: Jesus looks healthy and determined to tackle His next task. Bouts’ Christ looks like He ought to lie back down again until His normal color returns.

The Triumph of Virtue and Nobility Over Ignorance (c. 1740-1750) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

This ceiling canvas made me laugh. The haughty look on the face of Virtue brought to mind how easy it is for many Christians to become proud of their virginity, celibacy, refusal to date, or whatever and to never let the sinners of the world forget it. (I know because I was a repeat offender.) Rather than the sweet piety of the Virgin Marys or the carefree innocence of the Dianas found in hundreds of other artworks, this is a depiction of Virtue at her worst. Although Ignorance herself is cast down from heaven, she has made a lasting impression on another who continues to reside there.