Twelve-Word Tuesday: Voltron: Legendary Defender

Well crafted. Light-hearted. Hints of gender nonconformity. But still embraces redemptive violence.

I was an 80’s kid who always (skeptically) looks forward to modern updates and remakes of old childhood favorites … especially since the old cartoons often don’t hold up well (try watching old episodes of Transformers, GI Joe, or Thundercats without cringing).

A lot of the updates are quite good. But virtually all of them play into the myth of redemptive violence, with the exception of updates of “girl toy cartoons” (I hate myself for typing that sentence, but that’s how it was seen in the 1980’s) like the adorable My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which I love to watch with my daughter.

Voltron: Legendary Defender is especially well done. The animation, music, voice work, characterization, and even dialogue are top-notch, and appropriate for children (though not for a 3-year old). The plot is serialized, and each episode leaves the viewer in suspense for the next. I have been thoroughly enjoying watching it myself.

The heroes’ success turns on teamwork and on realizing the importance of putting aside their own personal needs in order to protect society at large, which are good things.

Of course, protecting society at large mostly involves blowing up massive numbers of enemy ships, robots, and mecha. It’s the myth of redemptive violence all the way down.

I know it takes a little more thought to come up with non-violent plots, especially in a show with a violent predecessor, but the excellent Transformers Rescue Bots (and the aforementioned My Little Pony) proves it is possible to design action-packed kids cartoons, and even to draw off Gen-X nostalgia, without glorifying violence.

I just wish more people would do it.

(Voltron: Legendary Defender Season 1 is available on Netflix now).

 

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Transformations (New Year, New Me?)

There are a few transformations coming up in my future (in two to five weeks, I’ll no longer be a father-to-be, but the father of a newborn). There are also a transformations I’d like to intentionally undergo. I know New Year’s Day was a month ago, but anything that’s going to stick is going to have to be ongoing, not a one-time thing.

I want to transform from the kind of person who lets a lot of time slip through his fingers without knowing where it went into the kind of person who moves efficiently from one thing to another. I want to be the kind of person who chooses what he’s doing intentionally, rather than just bouncing aimlessly from one thing to another, like I’m following links on TV Tropes or Wikipedia.

Second, I want to transform my physical conditioning. Over the course of 2012, I let myself get pretty out of shape. I slowly started building back up in November and December, and I plan to push myself further. I really don’t like exercise that much, but I have a kid coming, and I’ll need to be up to speed for playing with her, carrying her, carrying all her stuff (car seat, diaper bags, toys, etc).

Third, of course, I want to transform myself into someone who has done the data collection and analysis necessary for a PhD. I hope to get my degree by the end of the year, but even if I don’t, God willing, I will finish my data collection this year.

Fourth, I want to transform my imagination. Too long I have been content with an imagination that is tied to conventional cultural messages about redemptive violence.  Too long, the stories I think in terms of have been violent ones, where good overcomes evil through force.

I do believe in self-defense, and I do believe in military action in extreme circumstances (such as World War II). But I don’t believe that battle is ever glorious. Not consciously, at least. But it appears that idea lurks in the back of my mind, and it needs to go.

I’m not talking about an exorcism or amputation. I don’t want to cut that idea out with a knife – that’s a pretty violent image in itself. I want to replace it. I want to heal it and redeem it. And that will mean finding new stories, creating new stories, and thinking in new stories.

Ultimately, this one is as important as my physical health. I have a daughter coming: what will I teach her about heroism? What will she aspire to? I will play a big role in shaping that, and I need to be sure I’m steering her right.

Means and Ends (Neither Kant nor Machiavelli)

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Niccolo Machiavelli famously said, “In judging policies we should consider the results that have been achieved through them rather than the means by which they have been executed.” The ends justify the means.

Immanuel Kant argued in favor of the old Latin maxim, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.” The means justify the ends.

But I don’t believe we can, in good conscience, stand by either maxim. As moral beings, especially as people of faith, we have a responsibility for both our means and our ends. We must balance the rightness of our methods with the most likely outcomes.

It’s easy to brush off Machiavelli. “The ends justifies the means” sounds like something a movie villain would say.

Until national security is on the line.

Until George W. Bush is talking about “enhanced interrogation” and “indefinite detention” (without a trial, of course)

Until Barrack Obama is talking about (or rather, trying very hard not to talk about) using Predator drones to blow up civilians in nations we aren’t even at war with.

But as Christians, we can at least try to avoid that one. We can set our feet down and join Kant in defending the old saying, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.”

But what does that mean? Does that mean being so focused on “biblical” roles in marriage that you treat spousal abuse like it’s a matter of the wife’s submission, as John Piper does below (from his entire demeanor, he either has no concept of what an abusive relationship is really like, or he has no empathy. I think both may be true, given his view of God).

When we focus on what is “right” according to scripture, and then use that to justify hurting “sinners” (such as denying them their [secular] civil rights, advocating discredited and medically dangerous therapies, or advocating for harsh criminal penalties against them in African countries),  we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we let our idea of “biblical” gender roles blind us to abuse in marriages, in families, and in churches, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

Even if we are not blinded, if we ignore or minimize suffering (as John Piper is doing above), we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we use our interpretation of scripture (without the humility to question whether we might be wrong, reading the Bible in translation, 2000+ years later, in a totally different cultural context) as a weapon, or an anesthetic that prevents us from feeling the pain of others, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

But we’re not doing what’s right. Not really. And our means, no matter how righteous we may thing they are, are utterly and totally tainted by the pain we cause.

Our righteousness is like filthy rags to God. That’s not just a redundant restating of Romans 3:23. It isn’t a declaration of Calvin’s “total depravity.” It means that our rightness, our self-justifications, our focus on “doing the right thing” no matter what the cost to others … is just filthy.

And the world sees this. It’s not the gospel that’s offending them. It’s our warped Kantian-Calvinistic logic, our weaponized righteousness. And it should offend them.

A Time to Mourn (a response to John Piper and those who quote him)

A time to weep a time to laugh a time to mourn a time to dance ecclesiasties 3:4

 

 

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”  I’m writing this on the Monday after the most terrible primary school massacre in American history, after a mentally ill young man went to his mother’s school, killed her, several adults, and at least twenty young children.

This is a time to mourn.

Not a time to score Calvinism points by hammering away about God’s sovereignty.

Not a time to remind us that this massacre is nothing compared to the greatest crime, the crucifixion of Jesus (which was also God’s plan from before the foundation of the world).

Not the time to explain that every murder is primarily an assault against God, and God’s sovereignty. Not a time to learn “A Lesson for All from Newton” – the lesson being that we should think of this as a warning about our own depravity.

Not even a time to theorize on the question of evil.

But considering what Piper has said in the past about God’s unquestionable right to kill women and children, even commit genocide, maybe this would have been a time for him to take off his theologian hat and simply offer compassion and sympathy as a fellow Christian and human being.

The same could be said for every pastor who cribbed yesterday’s sermon from Piper’s blog posts. We don’t need a lesson. We don’t need deflection away from this event onto an oversimplified, self-contradictory view of the crucifixion. We don’t need the decaf version of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

What do we need? Compassion. Space. The humility to admit that there isn’t an easy answer to this, no matter what the  Reformed bloggers say.

We need what the author of Ecclesiastes offered:

A time to mourn.

 

Cultural Analysis: Horror as Ethical Violence

Dragon and Woman, painted by William Blake, circa 1805

Dragon and Woman by William Blake, circa 1805

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the violent imagination and ethical ways to approach violence in fiction.  Too much of American culture glorifies violence.  The way that good overcomes evil in TV, movies, many books, and even toy lines, is by kicking its butt.  Good beats evil because good shoots straighter, hits harder, has better toys, and keeps on fighting.  And in small doses, violence can teach the virtue of courage.  But we don’t get small doses.  We are, to quote the Palmolive commercial, “soaking in it.”

So that leads me to wonder, is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  I’ll look at some other possibilities later, but here I’ll consider horror.  On the one hand, horror seems ethical because it explicitly presents the violence as horrific.  We are supposed to be repulsed by the violence we see.  There is no celebration of violence as glorious or righteous.  And even though much of the time the survivors use violence to overcome the killer or monster that is stalking them, they always pay a great cost.

This cost comes both in blood (horror stories typically have a high body count) and in the characters’ peace of mind. They will never again be as innocent, as naive, as carefree as they were.  They have met a great evil, passed through the darkness, and are no longer the same.  Often, they have killed for the first time, and it does not leave them untouched.

At its best, horror echoes the ancient legends: Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife; a red-cloaked girl facing a great wolf who’d devoured her grandmother; Dante’s passage through inferno, purgatory, and paradise.  Horror, at its best, is the primal fairy tale: the innocent encountering the unnatural, and emerging changed.  Hidden amidst its armies and castles, The Lord of the Rings includes a fairy tale (or perhaps a horror novel), the story of four young friends who brave the lair of hell itself to destroy a profound and threatening evil.

But at its worst, horror mutilates young, usually sexually attractive, bodies for our thrills and titillation.  At its worst, slasher horror slut-shames women quite literally to death.  First, the young woman has sex (showing the gratuitous T&A shot), and then, she is slaughtered in gory Technicolor.  Meanwhile, the virgin survives to the end, to escape or kill the slasher.

When I speak of horror’s ethical approach to violence, I speak of Stephen King’s Desperation, not Friday the Thirteenth Part 27.   I speak of normal people caught up in a desperate situation, one that involves a terrible encounter with evil, one that tests their wills, their faith, their wits, their endurance.  The evil is overcome, often at great sacrifice, in a cathartic climax.  The universal story of good overcoming evil is retold, with the important reminder that such victories are never won without cost.  Without blood, there is no remission of sins.

So what do you think?  Is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  If so, is horror one of those ways?

The Violent Imagination 1: Self-Justification and Police Dramas

I really like Major Crimes, TNT’s The Closer spin-off featuring Mary McConnell as Captain Sharon Raydor, who’s replacing Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgewick) as the leader of a Los Angeles police unit tasked with investigating murders, kidnappings, and other (drum roll please) major crimes.  I’m actually watching the show now, like I never watched The Closer.

And I think I know why.

Under Deputy Chief Johnson’s watch, there was a lot of “we’ll bend and break the rules, but it’s okay, because we’re the good guys.”  This escalated to the point of setting a gangbanger up to get killed because they thought he got too sweet a deal for turning state’s evidence.  The entire unit, Chief Johnson included, were effectively murderers.  How do we sympathize with that?  How does the use of police authority and resources for extra-judicial killings not disgust us?

The same kind of self-justifying evil leads to hatred from the pulpit, protests at gay soldiers’ funerals, pepper spraying peaceful protesters, beating suspects even after they’re handcuffed, indefinite detention, and waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay.

It leads a nation to declare its “manifest destiny” to spread “Christian civilization” from the Atlantic to the Pacific, no matter how many “savages” they have to murder along the way.  It leads a bunch of good religious folk to yell “we have no king but Caesar” and “crucify him,” until Pontius Pilate washes his hands of it all.

It’s a vile and insidious mindset, one that steals our empathy and threatens our very humanity.  Whenever somebody truly believes their side is “the good guys,” everyone outside that group had better beware. Self-righteousness, self-justification, self-idolization … they lead to cruelty, arrogance, and suffering.

This is utterly incompatible with Jesus’ teaching, yet it rings from pulpits and across the Internet.  “Slap the gay out of your children,” one preacher says from the pulpit.  “Build a fence and lock the gays away,”  another preaches.  Sure, when it gets that outrageous, people push back, but every day I see anti-gay rhetoric across Facebook and the web.  Quieter, sure, less extreme, but possibly uglier in its pervasiveness.

It doesn’t matter if being gay is a sin.  As Christians, we are called to be better than the world, to love our neighbors and our enemies [Matthew 5:44]   Instead we wallow in the spirit of the worst of the Pharisees, so certain that we’re right that we don’t even try to love our neighbors.

And I can’t stand to see it glorified on cop shows.  They stack the premises by making sure we, the audience, know the suspects are guilty.  They manipulate our emotions, creating the false dichotomy between “we break the rules to protect you and enforce justice” and “if we followed the rules, the bad guys would go free.”

The problem is in the real world, you don’t know who’s guilty and who’s innocent, not 100%, not ever.  Those rules are there to protect the innocent from false accusation, coerced confession, and brutality AND to protect the powerful from becoming corrupt, lazy, self-justifying tools of oppression.  And that’s exactly what the Major Crimes unit was under Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson.

But Captain Raydor is the very opposite.  Originally introduced in The Closer as a painfully by-the-book foil for the loose cannon unit, she’s not their boss.  And she’s made it her mission to make them obey the rules, come hell or high water.  She’s just as tough and strong-willed as Brenda was, but she serves the law, rather than acting like a law unto herself.  And that’s something I can admire.