Category: Business and Society

Blog author: jspalink
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

What’s behind the stunning defeat of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in a popular referendum this week? Undoubtedly, he overestimated the appeal of his “21st century socialism” among Latin Americans. A new poll also shows that the most trusted institution in Latin America is not the government — but the Catholic Church.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When I first heard that the epic tale of Beowulf was being made into a feature-length film, I was excited. Ever since I had first seen the live-action version of The Fellowship of the Ring from Peter Jackson, I had thought that a similar project could do a wonderful job with the Beowulf epic.

And then when I learned that the Beowulf film was going to be done entirely with computer-generated images (CGI), I was disappointed. Frankly I lost interest in seeing the movie entirely. But as time wore on, enthusiasm for the film from some of my friends, as well as some of the trailers, reinvigorated my hopes for the film version of the Beowulf epic.

And now that I’ve seen the film, I’m crestfallen. To be sure, the movie delivers in the special effects department. I saw the IMAX 3D version, which is projected in 3D throughout the entirety of the film. One of the advantages of using CGI which I had not considered at first, was the quality of the 3D images. In contrast to the climactic scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for instance, the 3D effects were crisp, clean, and stunning.

That’s where the strengths of the film end, however. Far too often the plot deviates from the storyline that made the Beowulf epic a classic for the last millennium. Set in the fifth and sixth centuries of the common era, the Beowulf story includes all the great elements of heroic mythical narrative. The modern retelling departs from the tale’s classic history in at least two major ways, and these departures are most decidedly not improvements.

The first has to do with the treatment of religion, specifically Christianity, in the modern version. While the poem was first composed in the high Middle Ages, it was set in a pagan culture prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia. There is a great deal of scholarly debate on whether the tale is solely about pagan virtues or whether Beowulf is “a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues.”

In the new film version, Beowulf is neither simply a pre-Christian pagan nor a proto-Christian eminent pagan. Christianity plays an explicit and confused role in the film, seemingly brought in to act as a counter-point to Beowulf’s embodiment of the pagan heroic virtues. At one point, Beowulf seems to be reading directly from a text like Nietzche’s The Anti-Christ. In contrast to Beowulf’s heroic humanism, the hero would agree with Nietzsche, “Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and the oppressed come to the fore: it is only those who are at the bottom who seek their salvation in it.”

If the attempt to bring Christianity explicitly into the Beowulf tale was an attempt by Hollywood to cater to the newly invigorated evangelical demographic, it fails at the same level of ineptitude as Howard Dean’s attempt to woo Christian voters in his 2004 election run (when asked what his favorite New Testament book was, Dean responded, “Job”).

Besides injecting this curiously modern anti-Christian element into the story, the people responsible for translating the epic poem into a screenplay modify the plot of the story greatly. Without giving away any spoilers to those who insist on seeing the film in spite of my warnings, I’ll only say that the Beowulf epic is conflated with a dynamic from another great hero saga, that of King Arthur and his demise at the hands of his bastard son Mordred.

If you are looking for a modern work recasting the Beowulf epic in a new way that is actually interesting and compelling, check out John Gardner’s novel Grendel, which tells the tale from the monster’s perspective in a quirky twist of existentialist angst. Unless you go to the film solely for the special effects or have absolutely no appreciation for the narrative legacy of the epic, avoid this Beowulf film.

Oh, and there are no fire snakes. Boo!

See also: “Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st-Century Guilt Trip?”

And: “Anti-Christian Crusade: Beowulf is the latest installment in Hollywood’s attempt to reconfigure history.”

Cross-posted at

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 19, 2007

Last night the American Music Awards were televised on ABC. Among the big winners were alumni of the hit TV show, “American Idol,” whose stars won 3 AMAs.

Kid Rock, the Rock N Roll “Jesus.”

But there was another kind of “idol” on display at the AMAs, as Detroit’s own Kid Rock was a presenter and did a spoof of his fight with rocker Tommy Lee in a comedy bit with host Jimmy Kimmel. Kid Rock released a new album last month, “Rock N Roll Jesus,” which received 4 out of 5 stars from Rolling Stone.

My dad, who is a arts and entertainment editor at a daily newspaper, played the title track for me a few weeks ago and asked what I thought. I said, “It’s pretty offensive.” Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

It’s a Rock revival
Don’t need a suit
Ya don’t need a bible
Get up and dance
I’m gonna set you free yeah
It’s all sex, drugs, rock n roll
A soul sensation that you can’t control
And you can see I practice what I preach
I’m your rock n roll Jesus
Yes I am

In his RS review, Anthony Decurtis says that Kid Rock latches “onto the verities of sex, drugs and rock & roll as a path to redemption — both his and the country’s.” The holy trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are replaced by Kid Rock’s worldly triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. It’s ironic that Kid Rock points to the licentiousness of American culture as the means for its “redemption.” If there’s anything that threatens America’s stature internationally, right at the top has to be the perception of rampant immorality communicated by American popular culture.

There’s a great deal of religious language and imagery used in the song (if you absolutely must hear it, there’s a live performance video here).

In a sermon on Revelation 17 this Sunday, my preacher described blasphemy as the appropriation of language fit only for God by a creature. The revelator saw “a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names.” That’s exactly what Kid Rock’s “Rock N Roll Jesus” is: blasphemous.

After my dad agreed that the song was such, I expressed wonderment at how far culture has come. In 2007 Kid Rock can claim to be the “Rock N Roll Jesus” offering the worldly allurements of “sex, drugs, and rock & roll,” can debut at #1. Contrast this with the public outcry in 1966 when the infamous comment from John Lennon about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” was made.

But perhaps a better analogue in Revelation 17 to Kid Rock’s album as representative of popular culture isn’t the beast, it’s the drunk prostitute Babylon: “the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth,” who is faced with destruction by the beast and its minions. They will turn on the prostitute with derision, and “will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire.”

No doubt many undiscerning and eager-to-be-relevant emergent Christians will grasp at Kid Rock’s record as a cultural “impact point.” Too often Christians are satisfied with any religious reference, even one that is blatantly blasphemous, to justify our consumption of popular culture. Certainly the linkage of Kid Rock to Scott Stapp could be improperly construed as further evidence of Rock’s righteousness (Stapp is the former frontman for the band Creed, who says, “I am a Christian.” The link above is to a story about the release of a sex tape involving both Kid Rock and Scott Stapp in 2006).

Kid Rock is right about one thing at least: “The time has come to settle and the devil’s gonna make u choose.”

Or as Jesus Christ (the real one) said: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”

More: “Christian Parents Are Not Comfortable With Media But Buy Them for Their Kids Anyway,” The Barna Update.

I stumbled across this article at David Thompson’s blog, where he notes that the article’s author, Jay Rayner, is pondering “…the whereabouts of dramatic radicalism in an age of state subsidy”:

The actor Julian Fellowes, who wrote the script for the Oscar-winning country house whodunit Gosford Park and the book for the stage musical of Mary Poppins, is a good place to start. He’s professionally posh. He has a son called Peregrine. His wife is a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent and a descendant of Lord Kitchener. He is, unsurprisingly, a Conservative Party supporter, and like all good Conservatives he takes the long view. ‘Very simply put,’ he says, ‘after the Second World War the avant garde became the establishment. That meant that no one was poking fun at the establishment any more because they approved of it.’

So is it a conspiracy? ‘Absolutely not. I don’t want to give the impression that there’s some plot going on. It’s just become impossible not to be a socialist within the artistic community these days.‘ He recalls emerging from drama school in the Seventies and realising he didn’t fit in. ‘Suddenly being young meant being left-wing, because if you were to the right you were a boring old fart.’ And that, he says, has not changed despite changes in government. The problem, he says, isn’t too much theatre from the left: it’s a simple lack of it from the right. ‘There’s something profoundly non-intellectual about it. Any reasonably free society must allow for a range of views, and we don’t have that.’

Interesting stuff. And reminiscent of an article penned earlier this year by David Michael Phelps for Religion and Liberty:

But here we reach a very crucial point, the point where we see that handing ideas to the Artist is not the same as handing them to the Propagandist. For the Propagandist, the message is the focus, the party line is towed without falter, and as a result, the Propagandist seldom produces Art of lasting persuasive power. For the Artist, the vehicle of the message – that is, the Art itself – is the focus, and this is precisely why Artists are so much more convincing in their work than Propagandists: Propagandists so concentrate on the water that they attend less to the holes in the bucket. Artists concentrate on making great buckets, often concerning themselves less with the contents.

Likewise, conservatives may be more apt to produce propaganda when they attempt to create Art because their ideas are often more sound than the liberal (in the modern sense) alternative and they have less need for – and therefore less incentive to learn – Story. Liberals can indulge themselves in shoddy Syllogism, because they make up for the lack with good Storytelling. But this doesn’t excuse conservatives from falling off the other side of the horse.

There a popular saying that suggests “If you are a liberal when you are young, you have no heart. If you aren’t a conservative when you are old, you have no head.” But I see no reason why must we lack one to have the other. We should have, and must communicate with, both. We must add Story to our Syllogism, adding emotional punch to our reason. After all, Socrates taught with syllogisms, and Jesus with parables.

The New York Times reports of a well-intentioned protest by a pastor to protest the ridiculous and dehumanizing lyrics of the type of hip hop shown on networks like BET and MTV.

Wearing white T-shirts with red stop signs and chanting “BET does not reflect me, MTV does not reflect me,” protesters have been gathering every Saturday outside the homes of Viacom executives in Washington and New York City. The orderly, mostly black crowds are protesting music videos that they say degrade women, and black and Latino men.

Among other things the protesters want media companies like Viacom to develop “universal creative standards” for video and music, including prohibitions on some language and images. Video vixens and foul-mouthed pimps and thugs are now so widespread, the protesters maintain, that they infect perceptions of ordinary nonwhite people.

“A lot of rap isn’t rap anymore, it’s just people selling their souls,” Marc Newman, a 28-year-old car salesman from New Rochelle, N.Y., said on Saturday. He was among about 20 men, women and children from area Baptist churches marching outside the Upper East Side residence of Philippe Dauman, the president and chief executive of Viacom Inc.

This is well intended but I doubt it will help much. Perhaps the Pastor should focus more on preaching about Jesus to fans of hip hop music as opposed to attacking the media corporations. Here’s why:

(1) As long as consumers want music that degrade women and celebrate stupidity someone is going to produce it and distribute it. No one forced to buy stupid music.

(2) The best way to protest is with your wallet. If people didn’t buy this music, or attend the concerts of the artists who produce the music, this type of hip hop would die.

(3) Viacom does not force artists to rap lyrics that degrade themselves and women. They freely choose to rap about those things on their own volition.

(4) If the public wants Viacom to act virtuously consumers are going to have change their preferences, artists are going to have to refuse to rap about ignorance, and, then, Viacom executives are left to make the risky decision to opt out of distributing filth. If Viacom could make money off of virtue it would.

Viacom does NOT need to create universal standards for content. Maybe morally debased consumers need to embrace virtuous preferences. If the culture is not morally formed citizens will not make moral decisions. Why isn’t this group protesting the malformed desires of hip hop’s consumers and artists as well?

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson discusses a new book on economic history that looks at the poverty problem from the perspective of “nature vs. nurture.”

Comes now Gregory Clark, an economist who interestingly takes the side of culture. In an important new book, ” A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World,” Clark suggests that much of the world’s remaining poverty is semi-permanent. Modern technology and management are widely available, but many societies can’t take advantage because their values and social organization are antagonistic. Prescribing economically sensible policies (open markets, secure property rights, sound money) can’t overcome this bedrock resistance.

“There is no simple economic medicine that will guarantee growth, and even complicated economic surgery offers no clear prospect of relief for societies afflicted with poverty,” he writes. Various forms of foreign assistance “may disappear into the pockets of Western consultants and the corrupt rulers of these societies.” Because some societies encourage growth and some don’t, the gap between the richest nations and the poorest is actually greater today (50 to 1) than in 1800 (4 to 1), Clark estimates.

Samuelson notes that “Clark’s theory is controversial and, at best, needs to be qualified.” In his column, The Global Poverty Trap, Samuelson summarizes Clark’s view: “Capitalism in its many variants has been shown, he notes, to be a prodigious generator of wealth. But it will not spring forth magically from a few big industrial projects or cookie-cutter policies imposed by outside experts. It’s culture that nourishes productive policies and behavior.”

Blog author: jspalink
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Anthony Bradley offers a rave review of the new book published by Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School, Come On People: On The Path From Victims to Victors. “Cosby and Poussaint remind us that black America’s hope for escape from abysmal self-destruction is moral formation — not government programs or blaming white people,” Bradley writes.

Read the full commentary here.