Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
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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 Blogcritics.org

Blog author: jmorse
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
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Joel Kotkin explains that the fastest growing cities are not the ones that cater to singles, but those that cater to families. Read it all here.

Cross-posted at my blog.

This article at the WSJ reviews a book that purports to be about progressive environmentalism. Doomsday is out. Nobody cares. People need material well-being before they are interested in environmentalism at all.

Messrs. Nordhaus and Shellenberger want "an explicitly pro-growth agenda," on the theory that investment, innovation and imagination may ultimately do more to improve the environment than punitive regulation and finger-wagging rhetoric. To stabilize atmospheric carbon levels will take more–much more–than regulation; it will require "unleashing human power, creating a new economy."

Not perfect, but alot better than what passes for environmentalism most of the time.

Blog author: jspalink
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
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Von Wernich at his 2007 trial in La Plata.

Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, has an article in today’s Detroit News on the recent conviction of Rev. Christian von Wernich, a Catholic priest sentenced to life in prison for his role in supporting the totalitarian regime during Argentina’s National Reorganization Process. Rev. von Wernich, a police chaplain, was accused of sharing the conversations he received with prisoners in the confessional with the police who then used them as evidence against those prisoners and in making further arrests of accomplices.

Sirico explains that the priest was clearly in the wrong to be sharing the secrets of the confessional with the state not only because the Church forbids it, but because there are some aspects of life that the state does not and should not ever control, namely our conscience. Sirico writes:

No matter what the sin is, the priest is under a moral obligation not to reveal it, and never to act upon the information he received. It is more than a secret in a regular sense. The priest in the confessional is acting in the person of Christ, hearing and offering forgiveness not on his behalf but on behalf of Christ. Priests are urged not even to think about what they have heard in the confessional afterwards.

The state has no right to access the confessional. Christ, not the state, has the first claim on the conscience of the individual. The sad story of von Wernich is again a reminder of the lesson of the Gospel that some things, but not all things, belong to Caesar; some aspects of life belong to God alone.

Does a good education demand an appreciation for history? It would seem so. What arguments are there to support such a contention?

Neil Postman writes,

There is no escaping ourselves. The human dilemma is as it always has been, and it is a delusion to believe that the future will render irrelevant what we know and have long known about ourselves but find it convenient to forget.

In quoting this passage from Postman’s Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Ronald Arnett says that history is “the metasubject needed in a good education.”

This contention is a correlate of C.S. Lewis’ opinion that old books are critically necessary to learning. In his introduction to an old book (Athanasius’ De Incarnatione), Lewis writes, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Where Postman praises the study of history for what is constant in human nature, Lewis praises historical study for providing us a perspective from which to judge what is transient and contextual about our own times. Lord Acton, himself a greatly learned and distinguished historian once wrote, “History is a great innovator and breaker of idols.”

Lewis also makes an important methodological point about the preeminence of primary sources, as compared to secondary sources. That is, when we have a question about Plato or Platonism, the reader should first consult a book by Plato or a Platonist rather than “some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”

Christians know too that “the human dilemma” is to be understood within the narrative of redemption history (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation).

Those paying close attention to the developments in Christian higher education will take note of the increasing popularity of “great books” programs (see St. John’s College and The College at Southwestern). These are in some sense an extension of the impulse toward a classical academy model of elementary and secondary education.

For more on “what makes a great book,” visit this Scriptorium Daily podcast, which includes the insights of faculty of the Torrey Honors Institute, a great books program at Biola University.

An assortment of radical socialist chums gathered in Caracas, Venezuela for a lively discussion on the issue, “United States: A possible revolution.” The event was part of the third annual Venezuela International Book Fair on November 9-18, and featured the usual campus radicals, anti-American crusaders, and Marxist activists. As usual among committed Marxists, the main target of evil and oppression in the world is the United States.

Writing a summary of events for the Militant, Olympia Newton’s article is titled, “Venezuela forum debates prospects for revolutionary change in U.S.” The Militant describes itself as “A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people.” Rebuffing the claim that America has a revolutionary past at the event was Richard Gott, a British author and defender of Hugo Chavez and his government. Newton quoted Gott in her article:

“There has never been a revolution in the United States, and anyone who thinks there has been is ignorant of their own history,” responded panelist Richard Gott, a British author and journalist. Gott said the American Revolution, which defeated British colonial rule, could not be considered a revolution. Rather, it was a war to take land from Native American tribes, whose territory, he said, was being protected by the British royal army.

“No, a revolution is not possible in the United States,” said Gott. “It is conservative and reactionary. The only hope is Latin America.”

Newton also quoted Black activist Amiri Baraka who is known for his 9/11 poem, “Somebody Blew Up America.” Amiri Baraka suggested some reforms to help spark the revolution:

“That revolution has never been completed,” Baraka said. “There is still no democracy for Blacks.” He proposed that Blacks and Latinos, including the “progressive” Black bourgeoisie, unite around a program to abolish the electoral college; establish a unicameral parliamentary system; ban “private money” from election campaigns; make voting compulsory; and restore voting rights to felons. Such constitutional reforms, he said, would shift power towards “people’s democracy” in the United States. Revolutionary goals could then be put on the agenda.

If you recognize these ideas, some of the thoughts such as repealing the electoral college, felons voting, and banning private money in elections has found its way into the mainstream of American political debate.

So while the prospects for a Marxist revolutionary change in America are not bright, radical ideas are found in many mainline denominational churches. I remember attending a Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church for The Institute on Religion and Democracy and seeing many copies of Fidel Castro’s book, War, Racism and Economic Justice: The Global Ravages of Capitalism prominently displayed by the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Church.

Hugo Chavez, a voice of authority and leader for many of the politically oppressed in Hollywood, has also found passionate supporters among some entrenched in leadership of mainline churches. It’s a reminder of their past love affair with Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas and the old cliche, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Thanks to Rob Chaney at the Missoulian, the touching story of young Caden Stufflebeam is told. Chaney wrote a piece titled, “Rocks to riches: Missoula boy sells stones he finds to buy food for needy.”

Appropriately noted as the top story for the paper in Missoula, Mont., Caden has been collecting and selling rocks and donating the proceeds to the less fortunate. The young boy is filled with an abundance of generosity and spiritual knowledge. Christ declared in Matthew, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Caden noted:

I think I might keep on selling rocks, Then I can buy more bags for the hungry to eat other dinners. I think God has a purpose for me to sell rocks.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
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There’s no better time to re-examine the legacy of the Puritans than on the Thanksgiving holiday, which is so closely associated with the Pilgrim’s exodus to America in 1621. With that in mind, here are a few resources for understanding the worldview that Max Weber called a “worldly asceticism.”

The nomination process has begun for the international 2008 Novak Award. Named after theologian Michael Novak, this $10,000 award rewards new outstanding research into the relationship between religion and economic liberty. Over the past seven years, this award has been given to young, promising scholars throughout the world.

To nominate an emerging scholar, please complete the online form. We encourage professors, university faculty, and other scholars to nominate those who are completing exceptional research into themes relevant to the mission and vision of the Acton Institute.

Suitable nominees will have received their doctorate in the past 5 years or be a doctoral candidate working closely with themes relevant to the Acton Institute.

Selection Timetable:

Nomination Deadline: November 30, 2007
Nominee’s Submission Deadline: December 31, 2007
Award Announcement: January 31, 2008
Recipient’s Calihan Lecture: TBA

To see the full description of the award and its requirements, visit: www.acton.org/programs/students/novak.php.

Please direct questions to Anthony Pienta at apienta@acton.org.

Blog author: jspalink
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
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Taking a cue from No Straw Men, I’m updating the look and feel of the Acton PowerBlog. Jonathan Rick suggests that completely separating your blog from your organization’s main Web site is a bad idea because you cut off access to useful information and create two distinct audiences rather than integrating traffic between two distinct sections of one Web site.

Website Updates
Acton’s blog has always been on the same domain as the main Acton site (www.acton.org) but we’ve recently given the blog its own sub-domain (blog.acton.org). You can still reach us from www.acton.org/blog/ but will be redirected to the new page rather than the old.

We are adding a new navigation menu bar at the top of our blog page to help tie in the blog to Acton’s main site. We hope to encourage people to explore events, programs, and publications from the Acton Institute. Acton has a lot of great content and resources for people who are interested in the intersection between religion and economics.

Finally, we are updating some of our colors in an attempt to make the blog look a bit more like Acton’s main site and also to make it “look a bit more webbish.” But not too webbish, of course.

(By the way, if the blog looks really odd or the same as it did last week, you may need to reload the page so that you get all the new css stylesheets and images.)