Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Um... Part 2

I think the ending needed to be a little longer and more dramatic, maybe...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What Is Magic?

To add a little fuel to the fire, I present as food for thought the following quotation from Karen Louise Jolly's article "Magic" in Medieval Folklore, a fine two-volume set, now out of print, that I like to bring up from time to time in order to send you all to the confessional for covetousness.

Magic: An alternate mode of rationality, frequently portrayed as deviant because of its divergence from the religious and scientific rationalities; a cluster of practices (ranging from astrology and alchemy, to the use of charms and amulets, to sorcery and necromancy) that all operate on the principle that the natural world contains hidden powers that human beings can possess or tap for practical purposes, both good and evil.

Medieval notions of magic must be seen in the context of the systems of thought and organization that produced the concept and in the context of the intellectual, religious, and social changes from late antiquity to the Renaissance. Because magic is an evolving concept, a wide variety of things believed and practiced between 500 and 1500 could have fallen into the category at one time or another form someone's perspective. In particular, the so-called Twelfth-Century Renaissance altered the intellectual paradigms for understanding knowledge and nature such that magic was defined in new ways, and this created a widening gap between intellectual modes of rationality and popular, or folk, understandings of the natural world.


The view of the most influential late-antique theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), became dominant in the medieval West: he condemned magic utterly, but he also believed that the created world contained virtues, or powers, that could be legitimately tapped for good purposes (see his City of God, Books 8-10).


The Latin term magic was employed by Christian authors to describe a whole range of practices for which there was no single equivalent in the vernacular languages. Witchcraft, sorcery, charms, necromancy, and divination were lumped together with things pagan and demonic as excluded from a Christian worldview. But the belief in hidden virtues, or powers, in the natural world survived--a belief held in common in the classical world, the Christian Church, and the Celtic and Germanic peoples, allowing for certain kinds of assimilation of older within newer beliefs and practices.


At the crossroads of magic and religion there is the belief in the power of words to effect change in natural objects. This power can be seen in the Christianized Germanic practice of charms, incantations that bring out the effective virtues of an herb, as well as in the Christian liturgy (the Eucharist and exorcisms, for example).


In the medieval worldview, the ambivalent relationship between magic and science is linked to the radical intellectual changes that began in the twelfth century in the universities of Europe.... Some forms of magic were condemned as demonic, while others were defended as intellectually viable science (natural magic), consistent with the created order.


This increasingly complex understanding of the natural world through human sense observation and reason in the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries also led to a widening gap between the view of nature held by those who regarded themselves as an intellectual elite and the far more popular view that was still immersed in an animistic view of nature. ...Hence, magic became part of a growing "underworld" of unorthodox practices, such as necromancy, witchcraft, and heresy--all forms of deviance from a norm now asserting itself in greater clarity than ever before.


Scholars of various eras, from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, have thus defined magic as unacceptable, but for different reasons. In many ways these definitions illuminate the worldview of their makers more than they do the field of magic. [vol. 2, pp. 611-615]

Monday, April 28, 2008

Tor Offers Free Books, Other Goodies

A reader kindly gave notice that Tor Books is launching a new website and promoting it by offering free books to download, one a week, to anyone who signs up. The website is here. Also offered is a sweepstakes and free fantasy artwork for your computer desktop.

This week's free novel is Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder. This week's free desktop art is by Julie Bell and Boris Vallejo. Both artworks, I notice, feature females of unusual physical proportions wearing little or no clothing. Normally, that's not the kind of image that graces my computer desktop, but Julie Bell's art appears to be a painting of Lilith and Taniniver, which I simply can't resist.

Speaking of which, I notice Lilith in this painting is blonde. Though I realize Lilith is blonde in, for example, the poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I still tend to picture her with dark hair and pale skin, perhaps because of her association with vampirism. And speaking of Rossetti, this fine painting by Julie Bell inspires me to proclaim,

'O bright Snake, the Death-worm of Adam!
(Eden bower's in flower.)
Wreathe thy neck with my hair's bright tether,
And wear my gold and thy gold together!

Or something like that.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Why Christians Should Go Ahead and Be Pagan

The relationship and dependence of the early chapters of Genesis on ancient Near Eastern myth raise the question of whether these chapters can themselves be designated as myths. The problem is compounded by the controversial issue of the definition of myth.
--John S. Kselman, HarperCollins Bible Commentary, p. 84

But if that which tends to make us happier and better can be called useful, then we claim that epithet for [mythology]. For Mythology is the handmaid of literature; and literature is one of the best allies of virtue and promoters of of happiness.
--Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch's Mythology, preface

A concerned reader writes,

I note that one of your interests seems to be the use of myth and mythology in fiction and popular culture. Here's a question I'd like to see you address and invite your other regular readers to weigh in on. The question is: Can a Christian author appropriate elements of a pagan mythology for narrative and dramatic purposes without appearing to endorse that mythology? If so how? Admittedly these questions are broad, and there is no definite answer, but I would be interested to see what you and your readers think.

The answer to the first question is yes, and I say this because Christians and Jews have been doing it for a very long time. The most important scriptural passage related to the subject is Genesis 6.1-2,4:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.... The Nephilim were on the earth in those days--and also afterward--when the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, men of renown. [NRSV, with emendations]

I know of three interpretations for this passage. Early Church Fathers such as St. Justin Martyr and Tertullian, following a text then popular, the Book of Enoch, understand these sons of God to be fallen angels whose congress with human women produced a race of giants. Enoch depicts these giants later transforming into injurious spirits, which St. Justin takes to be Satan and his demons.

Later, when this interpretation and the Book of Enoch both fell out of favor, Church Fathers generally explained the passage by claiming that the "sons of God" were actually the Sethites, that the "daughters of men" were Cainites, and that the mixing of the two lines led to an increase of immorality, though why these immoral offspring should be "men of renown," I do not know.

The first interpretation stands at the end of a long and colorful line of mythological development that has probably masked the Genesis author's real intention, but the passage in question does not really allow the second interpretation, which I consider a means of explaining the text away rather than of explaining it. A third interpretation, which I arrived at independently, but which you can find in the footnotes of the NAB and probably in some other places, is hinted at by the tantalizing fragments in The Dead Sea Scrolls of a text sometimes dubbed the Book of the Giants. In this book, which is similar to the Book of Enoch, one of the Nephilim is named Gilgamesh.

The passage itself actually tells us what it means. If we ask, "Who are the Nephilim?", Genesis 6.4 answers, they are "the heroes of old, the men of renown." In other words, you already know them. You are familiar with their stories. They are the half-man, half-god heroes who walked the world in days of yore. They have names like Heracles, Achilles, Gilgamesh, and the like. Within the mythological primordial history of Genesis, in these few short sentences of chapter 6, the author gives place to the great stories with which his readers would have been familiar. He makes room for the pagan myths.

Other passages throughout scripture evidence the heavy influence of the Near East's shared mythology on the biblical writers. Perhaps one of the best examples is in Isaiah 14.12ff. In this passage, Isaiah calls the king of Babylon "Day Star, son of the Dawn" (NRSV), and describes him trying to ascend to the very throne of God on Mount Zaphon (not, interestingly, Mount Zion), but failing in his endeavor and being cast down into Sheol. Isaiah is here drawing from Canaanite mythology: when Baal the Thunderer, whose throne was on Mount Zaphon, was swallowed up by the god of death, Mot, then the god of the morning star, Athtar the Awesome, attempted to ascend to his throne and take his place. However, Athtar discovered that his feet did not reach the footstool and his head did not reach the headrest, and he realized he could not take the place of Baal the Thunderer, so he instead became a god of the underworld (cf. Coogan's Stories from Ancient Canaan, p. 116). Clearly, Isaiah here is unafraid to use pagan myths to get his point across.

In doing this, Isaiah is only doing what many Christian writers, and others, would do after him. Thomas Bulfinch, who produced the classic Bulfinch's Mythology, writes in his preface,

Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood and appreciated. When Byron calls Rome "the Niobe of the nations" or says of Venice, "She looks a Sea-Cybele fresh from ocean," he calls up to the mind of one familiar with our subject, illustrations more vivid and striking than the pencil could furnish, but which are lost on the reader ignorant of mythology. Milton abounds in similar allusions. The short poem "Comus" contains more than thirty such, and the ode "on the Morning of the Nativity" half as many. Through "Paradise Lost" they are scattered profusely. This is one reason why we often hear persons by no means illiterate say they cannot enjoy Milton.

Then of course there is Beowulf, which is, more or less, a Christian telling of a pagan myth, or the Heliand, which is, so I understand, a Christian mythologizing of the Gospels. Nor can we forget the Arthurian legends, a complex stew of Christian and pagan-derived elements. And what shall we say of Dante's Divine Comedy, in which he pictures Hell peopled with historical and mythological figures side by side, all in a world drawn from the Aenid? Dante takes all the myths at hand and, like the aforementioned author of Genesis, places them under the umbrella of monotheism.

There are more recent Christian authors as well who make heavy use of myths:

The Atlantis story also comes to us from antiquity, through the Greek philosopher and mythopoet Plato, who grew up under the spell of Homer's epics as well. Thus Tolkien also comes under the spell, connecting his Middle-earth Legenderium to the Greek myth of Atlantis; when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, he identified it as the story of the inhabitants of Middle-earth after the fall of the kingdom of Númenor, a rough parallel to Atlantis. Though Lewis is perhaps most famous for his Narnia stories [which also use pagan mythology], his favorite of his own works was Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. His source for that was Apuleius's Latin classic The Golden Ass. [Dickerson and O'Hara, From Homer to Harry Potter, pp. 94-95]

Instead of asking if Christians ought to use myths, we should ask instead why there would be any reason they ought to stop. I can think of none.

As for the second question, regarding how to use mythology, the answer is another question: how do you want to use it? You can use it through metaphor or through the appropriation--or subversion--of mythological characters, settings, and artifacts, or even by making up your own mythology, drawing on existing ones. If you're concerned with creating an explicitly Christian sub-universe, you can always do what Dante and Tolkien did and settle everything under a monotheistic umbrella, which you will find is a broad umbrella indeed. You may even have reason, if it better suits your story, not to mention monotheism, as Tolkien usually didn't. I am currently designing three works, one of which takes place in a universe ruled by 32 gods, 12 of which incarnate from time to time, another in which the closest thing to a god is a collective of superintelligent bacteria that produces avatars by infecting people and rearranging their DNA, and another in which all the myths and legends I can get my hands on are jammed together and syncretized within a decidedly Christian universe. The people who would be offended by this sort of thing aren't in your target audience anyway: because you only live inside your own head and not inside other people's, you can only write for your own tastes, so your target audience is people who share your tastes. The sort of legalists who get offended by the content of fantasy novels (but read them anyway) and then write books about how offended they are cannot possibly be the target audience for a fantasist.

I do not make this last remark facetiously. I realize that allowances must be made for differences in taste and life experience, but we seem to have reached a time in which a great many Christians are suspicious of mythology and its less dignified (due to lack of age) younger brother, fantasy. This attitude of suspicion and tendency to interpret stories in the worst possible light is a reaction--an unhealthy reaction--to a perceived increasing hostility toward (or at least lessening patience with) Christianity in the culture at large. To cure this disposition of suspicion regarding fantasy, we should first relax and remember that we are talking about fiction, and second, we should remember that literary works are generally open to more than one interpretation. After remembering those two things, we will be better able to approach fantasy works fairly. As for mythology, we must only remember that we really have nothing to fear from it, because the pagans became Christians and now their myths are ours. It isn't only Padmasambhava who can contend with deities and transform them into guardians of the dharma; our missionaries, too, are god-wrestlers--we turn deities into saints.

And that dismal cry rose slowly
And sank slowly through the air,
Full of spirit's melancholy
And eternity's despair;
And they heard the words it said,—
“Pan is dead! great Pan is dead!
Pan, Pan is dead!”

Gods who die sometimes refuse to stay dead, but when they rise, they may rise as Christians. Pan still plays his pipes, and his train still follows, but the tune he plays is Ave Maria.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

InsideCatholic: Where My Fiction At?

This post leads in nicely to tomorrow's planned essay:

Tod M. Aglialoro at InsideCatholic has asked the question, where has all the explicitly Catholic fiction gone? Being inclined to dislike explicitly Christian fiction written for an explicitly Christian audience, I am tempted to reply that I hope it has died a peaceful and permanent death, but that's not really right; once upon a time, it was not unusual for explicitly Catholic works to appeal to larger audiences, and besides that, some of the greatest works ever written are explicitly Christian.

It is an interesting article, and I suggest reading it. My only quibble is with his description of Christian readers "straining every sinew to force a Christian hermeneutic" on Harry Potter. I'll reply by noting that anyone who's read the entire series will see it allows a Christian hermeneutic without any straining at all, and even if it didn't, that wouldn't make it a bad series.

I must also note that the article advertises The Tripods Attack!, a steampunk novel with an unfortunately generic title, starring a young G. K. Chesterton battling with space aliens.

See the article's combox for more good remarks. In particular, Deal Hudson writes:'s very rare that a good novel is the result of someone, not matter how well-intentioned, sets out to write a "Catholic novel." I have had many sent to me over the years -- they usually have a great message but fail as good fiction.... I am finding that the best Catholic novels are those not intended for that niche, that is, the authors set out to write a good novel, and for whatever reason--personal beliefs, the characters, the narrative--the resulting novel is "Catholic" in some compelling way.

And here's another from Aglialoro himself:

But I'd offer that this is a fact about all writing, not just Catholic writing. You can't put your thematic or ideological goals -- whether you'r a Catholic or a Marxist -- ahead of the basic artistic demands of plot, characterization, style, and so on. If you do, you end up with what Mark Brumley has called "pious propaganda".

Here, here. More on this tomorrow.

News from the FIsh Bowl: Daily Utah Chronicle Prints Satire

Recently delivered: Someone calling himself Orion Archibald, writing for the University of Utah student paper, Daily Utah Chronicle, has produced a rather flat satirical description of Pope Benedict's visit to the U.S.:

Move over Gandalf: There's a new wizard in town!

Ending a week-long tour of the eastern United States, the Grand Magical Wizard King -- known to mystics by his native wizard title "Pope Benedict" -- held what many in attendance could describe as "a magical event" inside Yankee Stadium.

The ceremony, hailed by the Wizard King's followers as a "mass," sought to bestow the powers of the Magical Wizard King and his apprentices onto the lay followers gathered within the stadium, bringing to a close several days' worth of magical powers and spells cast by the Wizard King in both Washington, D.C., and New York City. [more...]

The really juicy part is near the end of the article:

In a statement delivered by the Wizard King's press corps, he thanked the people of the Americas and promised to "continue to train others in the magical powers bestowed by our Omnipotent Grand Master Wizard King of the Universe." The worldwide wizard training is to include lessons given at various Wizard Training Castles, or "cathedrals," throughout the known world, in topics ranging from magical chants to staff fighting to wizard gamesmanship to converting alms and donated moneys into magic powers, culminating in the ability to transfer massive amounts of guilt and mental suffering onto the various people of the land. [more...]

I asked Deej for comments and he said the following:

"Looks like the sort of thing I'd post late at night and then take down the next day after getting complaints. My first problem with it is that it isn't funny. I guess it's supposed to be offensive, but I personally rather like the idea of re-imagining the Catholic Church as an order of powerful wizards. If we're going to do that, though, we have to come up with some cooler names. I mean, Wizard King? Please! And what is this about transferring guilt and mental suffering onto people, anyway? I've experienced significantly less guilt and mental suffering since becoming Catholic, so this doesn't compute. And where can I sign up for that staff fighting? How come nobody told me we have staff fighting?"

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fan Fiction Update

For those of you following my Bone-based fan fiction novel, chapter 3 is now posted.

If you've been waiting for the sexy parts, they're in here. This is the gooey chapter, but after this come six chapters that are gooey in a different sort of way. Originally, chapter 3 came with a warning at the beginning. I've removed it from this edition, but I'll reprint it here:

In the afterword to his famous play, Der Besuch Der Alten Dame, Friedrich Dürrenmatt explains the slapstick humor in an awkward seduction scene by saying he wanted to spare the audience the embarrassment felt by the characters. I, however, wish to spare neither audience nor characters, so I must apologize for this chapter ahead of time. Bear with me, dear readers, and we can get through this and on to the blood-and-guts parts.

Admittedly, I still think that's funny. Anyway, here's your tantalizing excerpt:

As Thorn’s duties--and Fone Bone’s own--grew numerous and wearisome, the pair saw less of each other in private. As Bone’s private life languished, his public life became more difficult. Bone had the task of upbraiding the Veni-yan general for the embarrassing affair with the assassin Erasmus. Since that time, Thorn traveled everywhere with a hand-selected Veni-yan guard, and an inquiry was underway to root out sedition in the military--and Fone Bone headed the inquiry. He discovered that, while loyalty to Tarsil himself was forgotten, bigotry against dragons and other non-humans ran deep. As Bone monitored the gossip among the soldiers and aristocrats, he heard more and more disturbing rumors and whispered accusations about himself... [more...]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

April Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour: The Begotten

When you spend the day swinging a pickax, digging a pit, throwing large chunks of concrete, and hauling 240-pound* segments of rail--by yourself--the last thing you want to do is post to your blog. Fortunately, that's why God created blog tours.

This month's Christian sf tour goes out to The Begotten, book 1 of The Gifted, by Lisa T. Bergren, whose official website is here. Once again, I regret not having read the book for the tour, and I feel it especially deeply this time: the book is set in Medieval Italy and involves the surfacing of some previously unknown writings by a biblical author as well as the appearance of people with superpowers. Appears to be getting excellent reviews. I especially regret having not read it as some reviews indicate it takes a decidedly anti-Catholic stance (and for the record, that's an impression, not a certainty).

Let's take a look-see around the tour:

From Fiction Fanatics Only!:

I have not studied in depth this period of history as it relates to Christianity and Catholicism, but the author obviously builds upon mindsets and power struggles existing during this time period. She sets the stage plainly for a good-and-evil battle of immense proportions. The most poignant point she makes is that “the Church” may not be on God’s side after all, but on the side of darkness. Scary stuff, but so goes the way of religion in history--it’s not all piety and charity.

I found this novel engrossing and very well-conceptualized. The danger was palpable and the reader is put through a wide range of emotions. The author delivered her story through expert character formation, plot, dialogue and conflict to create a thoroughly enjoyable tale. I highly recommend it and have already ordered the next book in the series, The Betrayed. [more...]

From Old Testament Space Opera:

Where that fits on the CSFF blog tour may not be apparent from that, but throw in the lost letters of St Paul, which contain prophecies of the Gifted - people with spiritual gifts on steroids - and you get the link.

Yes, this is part historical fiction, part religious thriller, part alternate history, and part medieval superhero story. All things to all people, you might say.

One thing strikes me as odd here, particularly about the Christian publishing universe. In a Christian novel, it seems, you're not allowed to swear, but rewriting the Bible as we know it is OK. The CBA must be a very odd place. I'd quite like to visit someday, but I don't think I could live there. [more...]

Wait, you're not allowed to swear? Dammit, there goes that publishing possibility.

From The Least Read Blog on the Web:

Once I had finished reading it, I felt a bit dissatisfied, not for any artistic reasons but for theological reasons. If you haven't read the book, might want to leave now. Spoilers and whatnot.


And finally, we have the way the Gifted behave doesn't strike me as real. It almost feels like a group of non-denominational Americans somehow got transported back into 14th century Italy. Bergen did an admirable job of bringing the era alive (although I did have to look up what "handfasting" was); it just seemed odd that a group of 14th century Roman Catholics would abandon almost all the trappings of their worship. [more...]

Ah ha. Now again, I haven't read the book, but this makes me suspect that what we're dealing with is a Protestant fantasy land in which pre-Protestant Catholics by supernatural whatever become enlightened and abandon Catholicism for something that looks suspiciously like the kind of religion a modern American Evangelical would be comfortable with. You know who that reminds me of? Marcus Borg, that's who. Marcus Borg is a warm and fuzzy hippie who re-imagines Jesus as a warm and fuzzy American hippie so Marcus Borg can be comfortable with him. Evangelicals, if you pull this same kind of stunt, you're just as guilty as hell as he is. You don't really want to be like Marcus Borg, do you? If you don't, then don't anachronistically depict American Evangelicals in Medieval Italy. (Man, I wish I'd read this book.)

Your blog tour:

Brandon Barr
Jim Black
Justin Boyer
Jackie Castle
Karri Compton
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Todd Michael Greene
Michael Heald
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Mike Lynch
Terri Main
Melissa Meeks
Pamela Morrisson
John W. Otte
Steve Rice
Ashley Rutherford
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Rachelle Sperling
Stuart Stockton
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Robert Treskillard
Laura Williams
Timothy Wise
Karina Fabian

(I'm gonna be sore in the morning.)

*Weight exaggerated.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Women and Men

So, it appears the parodic big hair metal rock band Limozeen has had its first (?) live concert. I just had to share this because I thought this song was extremely funny.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kung Fu Night! The Forbidden Kingdom

Hey, where can I find one of those Gates That Are No Gates?

The Forbidden Kingdom, directed by Rob Minkoff. Screenplay by John Fusco. Starring Jet Li, Michael Angarano, and Jackie Chan. Casey Silver Productions: 2008. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

Read other reviews here.

Yes, the plot is simple yet somehow over-complicated in execution. Yes, the directing is generally poor. Yes, the movie has unnecessary bookends ripped off from The Never Ending Story or something similar. But then again, who cares? It has a wire-fu fight between Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and that's all you need to know.

The movie opens with Jason Triptikas (Michael Angarano), He of the Perpetually Cracking Voice, a good-natured loser of a high school Kung Fu junkie who just wants to watch his Bruce Lee bootlegs and maybe actually go on a date for a change, but he instead gets mixed up with some generic gangster types and witnesses a murder. Fortunately for him, he is at that point sucked into a fantasy version of ancient China where he learns he is the prophesied Seeker (yeah, "Seeker") destined to return a magic staff to the Monkey King (Jet Li), an immortal warrior turned to stone in a battle with the evil Jade War Lord (Collin Chou), whose fancy-pants armor and heavy eyeshadow mark him as a Most Nefarious Villain.

The fish-out-of-water fantasy hero needs a goofy but capable sidekick--enter Lu Yan, played by Jackie Chan, reprising his sloshed comedic warrior role from Drunken Master. The fish-out-of-water fantasy hero also needs a G-rated romantic interest, preferably one who speaks only in third person and is single-mindedly bent on revenging her parents' death--enter Golden Sparrow, played by Yifei Liu. The fish-out-of-water fantasy hero also needs to run into Jet Li, because if he doesn't, the studio can't advertise this as the first Jet Li/Jackie Chan collaboration. Enter the Silent Monk, who has the necessary misunderstanding with Lu Yan, resulting in a lengthy fight sequence.

Now get world-famous martial arts choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen (or Yuen Woo-Ping; I wish Hollywood would make up its mind), add plenty of lavish set designs and special effects, and let the whole thing go.

The movie has major flaws, but I can think of few action movies that don't. The unnecessary plot complications and uneven exposition are the biggest problems, but easy to overlook, especially since the film is consistently gorgeous eyecandy, albeit in a fakey sort of way: most of the sets look computer-generated, and the Kung Fu involves a lot of wire-work. The target audience is martial arts movie enthusiasts, and they should be pleased just to watch Jackie Chan and Jet Li kick the snot out of each other. Although the cinematography could be better, and in several sequences there's too much happening at once for the audience to comfortably follow it, the fighting is great--it definitely got me pumped, though the action doesn't quite give that crush-a-beer-can-against-your-head-and-wail-on-your-air-guitar level of adrenaline rush that you can get from the action sequences in, say, Fearless or Iron Monkey.

Now, as for the central character, Angarano's Jason, there's a lot of negative buzz on the Internet about Hollywood putting in a Caucasian actor in order to attract a Western audience yada yada, but I believe this buzz misses the point. The basic premise of this movie is standard fantasy stuff: somebody geeky from our world gets sucked through a portal into another world where he stops being geeky, fulfills some prophecy, and defeats a supervillain, after which he returns to our world and applies the valuable life lessons he has learned, especially the How to Beat Up Juvenile Delinquents lesson and the How to Win Babes and Influence People lesson. It's escapism designed for people who share attributes with the central character, and on that level, the movie definitely works. The movie is aimed at young American men who love Kung Fu, so naturally the geeky central character is a young American man who loves Kung Fu. This makes perfect sense to me, though I suppose, since Jackie Chan is in the film, the movie could have plausibly starred a suicidal Japanese schoolgirl instead,* but those girls get sucked through these portals at a rate of about one a week. Why should they hog all the fun?

Content Advisory: Contains some crude humor and lots of stylish action violence.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Forbidden Kingdom:

Myth Level: High (hero on quest, magic and immortals, pretty typical stuff)

Quality: Medium-High (very beautiful movie with good production values, uneven presentation)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (good themes, some crudity, little problematic material)

*According to Eastern Standard Time, two Japanese girls attempted suicide when they learned of Jackie Chan's marriage. One succeeded.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Upcoming Review: The Forbidden Kingdom

The critics are divided between those who dig the righteous moves and those who hate the bad storytelling, but I don't care. I don't go to a ballet to see good storytelling, but good dancing. Likewise, I don't go to a chop-sockey flick to see good storytelling, but good dancing--the butt-kicking kind of dancing. The cast, choreographer, and trailer of this film all indicate that the movie will feature some really, really good dancing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

College Student Gets Low Grades for Religious Beliefs

Some time back, I quite my casual relationship with the American Center for Law and Justice, mainly because Chief Council Jay Sekulow has made some bad statements about Just War Theory and has come out in support of waterboarding, following the scary habit American Evangelicals have of saying the ends justify the means as long as it's a Republican doing it. Nonetheless, when I got a notice that the ACLJ is defending a college student who's getting low grades because she's Christian, I read the demand letter outlining the case, and it got my dander up.

Student in question is Gina DeLuca, who attends Suffolk County Community College. Her professor, whose poor critical thinking skills should exclude him from teaching Philosophy (and whose writing should exclude him from teaching Composition), has belittled and berated her in the class's online discussion forums. For example, check out this doozy:

You are a level one thinker and appear to be content but you will not be the one to
solve the problems the 7 billion people in the world are facing. You[r] level one
thinking allows you to be comfortable thinking that you have the answers when in
fact you do not even know the questions.

Yeah, and "you" typos and lack of commas allow you to be comfortable thinking you're making sense to your students when in fact they probably can't follow your train of thought. Here's another damning quote that gets to the heart of the matter:

[I]t is clear that knowledge is linked to belief and that KNOWLEDGE is a
justified true belief. If you do not believe that X is true then you can not claim to
know that X is true. What you do is to deceive yourself and others by claiming
that “I can KNOW the material, without having to BELIEVE it.”
What you do is MEMORIZE and REPEAT without understanding. You have no
understanding of what it means to know something.

So you can't know information without believing it to be factual? To what philosophy, exactly, does this Philosophy professor adhere? Seems to me he has attacked her statement by changing the definition of know from "be aware of, understand, and be able to process and describe" to "know experientially" or "believe." In other words, he views his role as that of indoctrinator rather than teacher.

You can read the entire demand letter here, and I suggest you do, as it contains more outrageous quotes suggesting not only that DeLuca should win her case, but that this professor should be fired. (Apparently, Christians are opposed to finding cures for cancer. Who knew?) You can sign the ACLJ's petition of protest here.

Update: See comments for the discussion of one of my royally blatant misunderstandings here; I guess that's what I get for posting on controversial issues while in a tizzy. Also, I should add that I heard Sekulow support waterboarding--somewhat obliquely--on his radio program and have been singularly unable to get a definite confirmation of it. I feel compelled to add this note to avoid being outright libelous. At any rate, my major blunders here will teach me to double-check things better in the future.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

...But Richard Dawkins Can Rap

This is about the funniest thing I've ever seen, and it's quite well made, but in response to its underlying sentiment, I quote Michael Horton from his book Beyond Culture Wars:

One of the most obvious tactical blunders on the conservative side of the culture wars was to identify the enemy as the "cultural elite." What does that make conservatives? The "culturally impaired"? The "backwards fundamentalists"? [p. 31]

Earlier, he says this:

...The only time we [conservative Christians] seem to get involved in public education disputes is to attack teachers, school boards, and the "system" in general. Just as we have few of our own artists with work hanging in the Getty or musicians performing at the Metropolitan or Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, but have instead created our own subculture of artists (with overtly religious themes) and award ceremonies, so those who are often the most vocal in Washington about public schools have their own kids in Christian schools and recommend the same for every concerned parent. [p. 30]

And again:

The problem is, evangelicals [and other conservative Christians] today are more likely to be influenced by popular culture than high culture. This means that they are out of touch with the very world and institutions they want to influence. Hence, wars are fought in the media, in debates about movies, novels, and pop music, not at the source of the cultural fountain. Protests and boycotts may be successful if you are an auto worker trying to get a raise, but they are utterly useless in winning cultural ground. In fact, the resentment they create among even those who are generally sympathetic further alienates the masses they are trying to influence. [p. 46]

Hat tip: Crummy Church Signs

Monday, April 14, 2008


Apparently, I can't beat up too many five-year-olds, probably because I was morally uncomfortable with the whole beating-up-five-year-olds thing in the first place. However, check out the score for Snuffles the Dragon:

When I asked Snuffles how he achieved this high score, he replied, "Well, y'know, I'm okay with the whole thing. I read a lot of comics in which little kids can kick some serious awesome."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Comics Review: Bone 7: Ghost Circles

After the apocalypse, attractive young women take off most of their clothes (but I thought they were supposed to ride Harleys, too).

Ghost Circles, written and illustrated by Jeff Smith. Color by Steve Hamaker. Bone, volume 7. Scholastic (New York): 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-439-70634-6. ISBN-10: 0-439-70634-3. $9.99. 150 pages. Full color.

Ghost Circles is the seventh of nine volumes of Bone, the comic book epic about a little cartoon character who falls in love with a woman and helps her save the universe. This volume begins the third trilogy, Harvest, in which the atmosphere changes drastically and the humor gives way to drama as the story rushes to its climax.

The book opens where Old Man's Cave left off: the rat creatures and their human allies begin the assault on the Northern Valley's only stronghold while Fone Bone and his companions rescue Thorn from the Hooded One's sacrifice. The interruption of the sacrifice causes a volcano in the Eastern Mountains to explode, laying waste the Valley and unleashing invisible pockets of the Dreaming known as Ghost Circles, which turn anyone who unwittingly enters them into an undead nightmare being. With the magical powers of her birthright at last manifesting themselves, Thorn must lead Fone Bone and the others through this wrecked landscape to find the holy city of Atheia, where they can mount a final defense against the armies of the Lord of the Locusts.

I expect that was gibberish to anyone who hasn't been reading these comics, and someone's probably TO'd that I described so much that happens so late in the story, but that's what you get for reading the plot synopsis for the seventh volume in a series, so there.

Probably not the most practical outfit to wear while trudging through a volcanic ash field in late Fall.

The tone of Bone changes markedly in this volume; previously, the transformation of the series from episodic humorous antics to full-scale epic was a gradual and imperceptible one, but when the mountain blows up, there's a clear break: the idyllic forest environments are gone, replaced with endless wreckage, a precursor to the urban environment that will occupy the final two volumes. And although the sense of humor isn't entirely dead, there isn't a lot to laugh at in Ghost Circles, either. The story is driven instead by well-placed action sequences and a lot of character development. Bone's relationship with Thorn, which is the heart of the series, also grows deeper and more ambiguous.

I think Bone just wants to hold hands.

Of all the volumes of Bone, which was originally published in black-and-white, Ghost Circles is probably the one that most demands color. A large number of the panels feature empty black backgrounds, in front of which the characters march through an ash-covered, rocky landscape. Steve Hamaker's coloring adds a great deal to the mood and helps to make the barren land more interesting. Over the course of this series, the quality of Hamaker's color has gone from that of a beginner to that of a master: whereas formerly the color sometimes called distracting attention to itself, in Ghost Circles Hamaker employs lighting effects and shading with great subtlety. See how effectively he uses light in this panel:

Don't just stand there. Do something awesome!

In this volume, the Bone cosmology gets more development, for while trekking through the valley and punching their way through carnivorous rat creatures, Bone and the gang have time to discuss religious matters. The mythology of Bone is (very loosely) based on the Australian Dreamtime by way of Jungian psychology with a little added flourish from India: it involves a mystical otherworld called the Dreaming, in which dwells the Lord of the Locusts, who is trying to break into the physical world by possessing a mortal. The three Bone cousins, who come from a modern society, react to the talk about the Dreaming in different ways: Smiley Bone, apparently credulous, accepts it whole-heartedly while Phoney Bone, a materialist, rejects all of it even when he is hard-pressed to explain what's going on. Fone Bone, the moderate, tries to please everybody and ends up pleasing nobody.

When confronted with magical occurrences he is unable to explain, Fone Bone is a ready believer in the Dreaming and all that goes with it, but when things calm down, he is usually found trying to give naturalistic explanations. Smiley Bone points this out:

FONE BONE: I'm afraid Phoney's right, all this Dreaming stuff is hooey.

SMILEY: You didn't think it was hooey when we were up on the ridge and we thought Thorn had been KILLED.

FONE BONE: What are you talking about?

SMILEY: We didn't know where Thorn was... You closed your eyes and you could tell--without even SEEING HER--that she was ALIVE!

FONE BONE: What? I don't remember that! [p. 56]

Fone Bone's attempts to compromise between the Valley-dwellers' belief and his own disbelief evoked outrage on a previous occasion: in volume 5, Rock Jaw, Bone gets in an argument with an irate beaver who calls the Dreaming "hum-hum":

FONE BONE: Well, actually, where WE come from there IS no HUM-HUM so--

BEAVER: That's not TRUE! It's everywhere! It's STRONGER in some places, but it's EVERYWHERE! [p. 87]

In these sequences, Smith captures in a humorous way the frustrations of trying to find a compromise between incompatible belief systems without coming out and saying that one belief system or another must be wrong. Today, probably the most pernicious form of such compromising philosophy is called pluralism. Pluralism holds all religions, or at least all world religions, to be fundamentally true even though they are in blatant disagreement with each other. The pluralist achieves this religious compromise by misunderstanding and misinterpreting religions, usually by ignoring their doctrinal precepts and focusing on a watered-down version of their moral teachings.

For example, pluralist philosopher John Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, defines pluralism as "the name that has been given to the idea that the great world religions are different human responses to the same ultimate transcendent reality" (p. 77). After praising all religions in this fashion, he turns around and attacks Christianity:

However, when the Christian myth [of the Incarnation] is taken literally its central theme develops some dangerous implications. For if Jesus was literally God, in the sense of being the second Person of the Godhead living a human life, it follows that Christianity alone among the world religions was founded by God in person, and is thus God's own religion, uniquely superior to all others. [p. 237]

He's right, of course, but as a pluralist he cannot tolerate such exclusivism. He goes on to speculate gleefully that the doctrine of the Incarnation will be dead in about fifty years' time. So in Hick's pluralistic view, Christianity is great--as long as it isn't Christianity. To accord with Hick's pluralism, Christianity and all other religions must lose their central tenets and die, yet Hick presents pluralism as generous and all-encompassing because it supposedly respects all religions.

Hick, like most pluralists, utterly distorts the religions he discusses. As he openly admits, his only real interest in religions is in their "basic ethical teachings" (p. 227, emphasis in original). Hick sweeps away all the ideas of the religions he examines and leaves only the morals that he considers basic, and you damn well better believe that a pluralist will never consider any uncomfortable or inconvenient ethical teachings to be part of the basics. Hick is not really as interested in, or as respectful of, religions as he claims to be. To him, they are merely props or excuses for his own religious system.

Religious pluralism, in tune with the faddish religion of Tolerance for All, is an invitation to intellectual laxness. The great error of pluralism is an utter lack of self-awareness. Pluralists set up their own beliefs as the ultimate truth and as the real meaning behind all religions. In other words, pluralists teach pluralism as dogma--but they do not recognize it as dogma. Indeed, they go so far as to attack and criticize other religions for presenting their teachings dogmatically. The Christian, on the other hand, is self-aware: he knows that he considers all other belief systems, to a greater or lesser degree, to be false. The pluralist considers all other belief systems to be false, but claims at the same time that he holds all belief systems to be true. I daresay there is no system of religious thought more dogmatic, more exclusivistic, or more triumphalist than pluralism, yet the pluralist wastes his time attacking dogmatism, exclusivism, and triumphalsm. That is why a Christian trying to communicate with a pluralist can experience as much frustration as a beaver trying to communicate with Fone Bone: the pluralist wants to have his cake and eat it too, to champion religion in the same breath he is attacking it, and to compromise with everyone while at the same time trumpeting his own beliefs as the ultimate truth at last discovered by his overwhelming intellectual prowess.

Besides its logical inconsistency, pluralism's other tragic error is in failing to recognize that "basic ethical principles" do not exist in a vacuum, but stem from the underlying theological precepts of the religions that teach them. Christianity does not teach Christians to do as they would be done by because it's nice and sentimental to do so, but because humans have inherent dignity and because God is loving and Christians must imitate him in preparation to live with him for eternity. Buddhism does not teach that Buddhists should do as they would be done by because it's nice and sentimental to do so, but because they want to be enlightened and enter Nirvana. People's behaviors are built on a bedrock of beliefs and ideas: the man who believes humans are created in God's image will struggle to treat them as though they are created in God's image, but the man who believes humans are mere animals will treat them as though they are mere animals, or if he doesn't, his intellectual descendants will. As G. K. Chesterton argues in Heretics, it is impossible to build a system of ethics on mere sentiment. Pluralism empties religions of their theology in an attempt to leave their ethics naked, but in the end, the ethics too will be lost.

Any attempt to compromise two irreconcilable worldviews will result in such unforeseen loss. Because pluralism is not a coherent philosophy and never can be, the ethics it champions are based on nothing but sentiment; as a result, they must necessarily shift when sentiments shift; they can never transcend immediate circumstances or the whims of the age. They cannot stand throughout time and challenge us to do more or believe more than most of us were willing to do or believe already. They cannot inspire us to be better people. Something like this is evident in Ghost Circles, in which the central dogmatic believer in the Dreaming, Gran'ma Ben, has a defined goal toward which she works: she wishes to defeat the Lord of the Locusts and save the Valley. But Fone Bone, who wants to have it both ways, finally exclaims in a difficult moment, "Who cares about the stupid WAR? We're just trying to SURVIVE!" (p. 110). Without definite beliefs, a man can have no definite ethics.

Content Advisory: Contains mild action violence.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Bone 7: Ghost Circles:

Myth Level: High (heroes on a quest)

Quality: High (Jeff Smith's art and storytelling remain unimpeachable, and Hamaker's color has reached new levels of awesomeness)

Ethics/Religion: High (some interesting themes in preparation for the final volumes)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Strong Bad Explains Rating Systems

Here we are struggling with the issue of the age-appropriateness of certain subject matter in books and films, but it turns out Strong Bad has it all figured out.


Okay, I actually meant tomorrow I'll get the next review out.

News from the Fish Bowl: Top Five Sexiest Video Game Characters

MSNBC, in its habit of getting us the news we really need to know right now, has put together a list of the five sexiest video game characters. Naturally, Lara Croft is number one (and that's the newer, less ridiculously built Lara). Strangely missing are Q-bert, Pac-Man, and that cute little ball from Pong.

I don't really like video games, but I admit Gordon Freeman is kinda cute.

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Thoughts Exactly...

...But I never had the guts to express them this way:*

The best art, in my opinion, is the kind that asks no questions and creates no uncertainty. True art is about creating graphical representations of objects calculated to provoke a specific, predetermined response.

Wait, did I say ‘art’? I meant ‘pornography.’

Thomas Kinkade isn’t an artist. He’s a purveyor of pornography. And the worst kind of pornography, at that: the kind without any naked people... [more...]

Hat tip: Crummy Church Signs

*Thomas Kinkade, in my view, is the visual representation of what fantasy-writing would become if the Harry Potter-hating anti-fictional-magic Christian thought police had their way.


New review coming tomorrow.

Incidentally, don't ever go to bed right after watching Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Man, I had some messed up dystopian dreams.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

News from the Fish Bowl: Sodom and Gomorrah Destroyed by Asteroid!

Sorry if this headline is a little out of date.

Hi, it's Lucky again. I found a headline today that made me laugh so hard I would have snorted my water out my nose if I had a nose and didn't have gills. It comes from the Times Online and is completely garbled:


That is one killer clay tablet. I think they meant to say that the tablet describes the asteroid that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, but if you read the article, you'll see that's mere sensationalism.

The tablet, found by Henry Layard in the remains of the library in the royal place at Nineveh in the mid-19th century, is thought to be a 700BC copy of notes made by a Sumerian astronomer watching the night sky.

He referred to the asteroid as “white stone bowl approaching” and recorded it as it “vigorously swept along”.

Using computers to recreate the night sky thousands of years ago, scientists have pinpointed his sighting to shortly before dawn on June 29 in the year 3123BC [more...]

The ancient tablet reports that, after the Bronze Age astronomer spotted the asteroid, Bronze Age drillers were sent up in a Bronze Age spaceship to destroy it, accompanied by the music of a Bronze Age Aerosmith. Alas, it was to no avail: the asteroid probably struck in the Austrian Alps.

So what does this have to do with Sodom and Gomorrah? Absolutely nothing, but it does demonstrate the truth of the proverb, "Translate an ancient tablet and you'll get into the journals, but make a tenuous, insupportable biblical connection and you'll get into the newspapers."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Weekly Rant

Our books just came in the mail, so Snuffles and I are now on a reading binge, meaning we don't have time for little things like posting essays in a vain attempt to gain approval from total strangers on the Internet. Lucky isn't posting either because she's pouting; apparently, she's upset both because Rocky the Space Mouse hasn't written in a while and because I said something insensitive, though I have no idea what it is because she isn't speaking to me. That's four becausees in one sentence, which should earn me a medal or something.

Because I discovered during Lent that I can start lively arguments in the combox by ranting incoherently (ah, the Internet!), I'm going to throw in a rant now: it starts conversations and it's easy, which means I can more quickly get back to my reading.

The other day, when I had had too much caffeine, it occurred to me that one of my least favorite things, besides they used as a singular pronoun (curse you, HarperCollins!), is the phrase "felt needs," which has become an ugly fad among Christians these days...or a few years ago, maybe; I'm not good about keeping up with fads. Anyway, a church is going downhill when it starts worrying about "felt needs," a term suggesting warm fuzziness and arbitrariness, and hinting, just slightly, of sexual molestation. Get your hands off those needs!

When I was in the process of becoming Catholic, my new parish (to remain unidentified) did its best to irritate me by sending a nice, friendly couple over to welcome me. Upon discovering that I was a catechumen, they asked me why I was converting,* so I began by saying, "A few years ago, I went looking for the Church."

Thinking I hadn't completed my sentence, the female half of this couple said, "That meets your needs!"

I replied, "No, I went looking for the Church." Were I as weighty in person as I am in my writing, I would have added, "And to hell with my needs."

The problem with felt needs is that word felt, which indicates that felt needs are perceived, which indicates that they are in all likelihood different for each individual, which indicates that a church could not possibly cater to all of them, which is probably why we have in recent years made the rate of schism worse with a plethora of niche churches. Besides that, felt needs are probably for the most part not needs at all, but wants. Why in blazes should a church cater to those? If all I cared about were my felt needs, I wouldn't be Catholic; I'd be at some Charismatic church where I can get an emotional high every week, where the donuts are fresher, and where there are lots of attractive young women.** I am by nature a romantic idealist: if I thought it were either healthy or permissible, I would dress like Oscar Wilde, fill my house with decorative flower arrangements, and wheedle my life away reading sappy romantic girls' fiction, but even I know better than to put any stock in my felt needs!

Where was I? Ah, yes: C. S. Lewis once said, "If you want to be happy, don't try Christianity. Try port wine."*** Every time I have quoted that, the people to whom I have quoted it have misunderstood it, so let me explain: Christianity is not about making you happy. It's not about meeting those needs you keep feeling up. Rather, Christianity has much to do with making you better. Felt needs involve making you comfortable, but the process of becoming better will make you uncomfortable. If we work to meet felt needs, there's a good chance we'll miss real needs.

*Yes, my fellow former Protestants, I said converting. Deal with that.

**Is it just me, or are all the hot women either Charismatics or baristas?

***Lewis here appears to indicate that Christianity does not blend well with port, but I have generally found otherwise; perhaps he selected a poor brand. I have also found that Christianity goes well with white zinfandel. There is some indication that certain sectarian biases go well with certain adult beverages; for example, I understand that Calvinism is good with scotch and that Russian Orthodoxy is excellent when mixed with vodka. From my own experience, I can say that, sadly, Baptist denominations are unpalatable with anything but unfermented grape juice.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Mark Shea Discusses Catholicism in Sci-Fi

Mark Shea, obsessive Catholic blogger and writer, has a fine op-ed piece, "Science Fiction and the Areopagus," up at InsideCatholic.

Not that I don't enjoy science fiction and fantasy novels and films, not least because they constitute perhaps the principal place in our culture where it is routine, expected, normal, and welcome to discuss matters of both theology and philosophy. [more...]

He mentions a number of Catholic writers and works dealing with Catholicism in the piece. His comments are thoughtful, and he suggests that sf and fantasy are just about the only forum left in our culture where someone can present an intelligent discussion of philosophy and religion.

He forgets to mention one important Catholic sf work, however: Space Vulture by Gary K. Wolf and the archbishop of Newark. My copy's in the mail right now, and there's a chance I'll drop everything else and read it as soon as it gets here. Gene Wolfe, a Catholic and one of the greatest sf writers of the age, has complimented it, so it should be good.

Hat tip: Claw of the Conciliator

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Media Fair

Today was the media fair at my local parish, when people bring books and tapes (who can play tapes these days?) to sell for cheap. It's a fundraiser thing. As usually happens when books go for cheap, I endured mockery from people who think the sight of a man with a large stack of books is amusing. What the heck are cheap books for if not for the purpose of acquiring a large number of them?

This was, incidentally, the media fair of the parish of Fr. Erik Richtsteig of Orthometer fame. Snuffles and I both had books to contribute to the fair, but in a moment of typical absent-mindedness, we both forgot to contribute them. I suppose there's always next year. If only Snuffles had participated, it's likely his contributions would have been the only manga at the fair.

I managed to escape the media fair with several religious and science fiction titles, so I consider it a successful day. I am especially pleased that I got a copy of Ray Bradbury's Let's All Kill Constance. Bradbury was my all-time favorite author when I was in middle school, and I first began writing because I wanted to be able to write just like him, though I'm of the opinion that he's lost his mojo in the last couple of decades, as indicated by lackluster works such as One More for the Road and (*shudder*) From the Dust Returned, which contains exactly one good chapter. Of course, I never liked the Elliots anyway.

Though I had heard of the title previously, I was surprised upon reading the dust flap of Let's All Kill Constance to learn it is a sequel to Death Is a Lonely Business, the novel that depressed me for about three straight months in eighth grade and lowered my GPA. Now I'm uncertain if I want to read this sequel or not. If and when I do, I will certainly approach it with fear and trembling.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Kung Fu Night! Kill Zone

Will wait 83 minutes for Kung Fu.

Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang), directed by Yp Wai Shun. Screenplay by Szeto Kam Yuen and Ng Wai Lun. Starring Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, and Simon Yam. Produced by Carl Chang. Abba Movie Company Limited, 2005. 93 minutes. Unrated.

See other reviews here.

And yet another American distributor feels the peculiar need to tack a generic title onto a Kung Fu movie. What the heck is a "kill zone" and what do kill zones have to do with this film? Thanks to these American distributors, we have a plethora of Fists, Red Dragons, and Legends on the shelves. I'm having trouble telling these movies apart, and believe me, that was difficult enough already.

Kill Zone is probably the most unique martial arts film I've seen in my short time of watching martial arts films, mainly because it made me wait until the last ten minutes to see any martial arts. Normally, that would be damning, but Kill Zone is intriguing enough, it gets away with it. The final fight sequences are just a bonus appended to an already solid movie.

Kill Zone, a cop drama (or, rather, melodrama), opens with Detective Chan Kwok Chun (Simon Yam), who's trying to protect an important witness in a case against ruthless mob boss Wong Po (Sammo Hung). Detective Chan has a personal interest in the case, in that the witness's young daughter is his own goddaughter, but in spite of his efforts, Wong has the witness assassinated along with the witness's entire family (except the aforementioned daughter, of course), an event that sends Detective Chan over the edge and starts him down the road of corruption. When Chan discovers he has an inoperable brain tumor, he and his team of cops decide to put Wong in jail at any cost, even if they have to commit murder and forge evidence to do it.

Since Chan is dying, Inspector Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen) arrives to replace him. At first, Ma appears to be the good cop, but we soon learn he has a questionable past, and it isn't long before he's sucked into the shady dealings.

As the image of the policemen grows worse, the story brings out the nicer side of Wong's character: he is one of those family-man mob bosses, a doting husband and proud new father whose cell phone plays a lullaby whenever it rings. Nonetheless, he remains consistently vicious when it comes to his enemies, especially those in the police department.

Everything in the film is over the top: characters' faces distort into masks of agony as music swells, lingering shots and still frames depict pining looks, and then, of course, the movie climaxes with two brutal, brilliantly choreographed fight sequences. The first is between martial arts superstar Donnie Yen as Ma Kwan and the less famous but highly skilled Kenji Tanigaki, who plays a nasty, monosyllabic bodyguard who speaks softly and carries a big knife. By the time they're finished, they've managed to spray an entire alleyway with red corn syrup. That's the warm-up for the fight between Donnie Yen and the movie's other famous martial arts giant, Sammo Hung, the aforementioned Wong Po. The combined result of these sequences is a lot of broken glass, a lot of blood, and me in a fetal position.

(Spoilers follow.)

According to David Cornelius with Hollywood Bitchslap, the movie moves in "the grey zones," but to my own mind, this is incorrect; rather, the film deals in stark blacks and whites, but mostly blacks. The family-man mob boss is still a mob boss, and the cops, though they have their redeeming moments, are still relentless and underhanded. By the time the movie is over, none of them has gotten away: most of the corrupt police officers have been gutted (literally), and even though Ma defeats Wong in the movie's final fight sequence, Wong rises up afterwards and tosses Ma out a window--onto a car holding his wife and son. After realizing he has inadvertently killed his family in the process of killing his nemesis, Wong sits over his shattered crime empire and weeps.

Viewed from one angle, this is sick and a little amateurish, but viewed from another, it is an interesting spin on the tropes of the Kung Fu film genre: normally, the most virtuous warrior with the most just cause will also have the best Kung Fu and will defeat the bad guy in a one-on-one battle at the end, just to further prove that, yes, he really is the most virtuous and has the most just cause and therefore has a right to soundly kick the butt of nearly everyone else in the universe in order to avenge the death of his master/sister/girlfriend/third cousin. But what do you do in a Kung Fu movie in which nobody is virtuous or just? Obviously, you punish everybody--and note, too, that the death of Wong's family is ironically symmetrical with the murder of the witness and his family at the film's beginning.

The movie isn't quite over yet; in the final scene, Detective Chan (somehow still alive) is standing on the beach with his goddaughter, where he finally succumbs to the brain tumor that's been killing him. The girl continues playing in the waves, unaware that her godfather is dying behind her. So, when the movie is over, all the sinners are dead or punished, and only the innocents live on. The movie's prime theme could be summed up with any number of platitudinous but important maxims: crime doesn't pay, the ends do not justify the means, what goes around comes around.

Kill Zone also has a strong sense of the corrupting influence of evil, as portrayed through its policemen who have dealt with criminals for so long that they have become indistinguishable from them. The movie carries a sense that only the oblivious can remain innocent. The young girl on the beach is one example: though she is the daughter of the witness killed at the beginning of the movie, she was so traumatized by the murder that she has no memory of it (I know what you're thinking, but I said this was a melodrama, didn't I?). Another example is a character from Ma's past: Ma had once punched a suspect so hard that the suspect suffered brain damage and, as a result, became good natured but mentally disabled, innocent and unaware.

(Spoilers stop.)

The movie's connection between innocence and ignorance is an interesting one. In the sf community, several authors and others discussed whether or not such a connection exists in a series of essays on Young Adult fiction at SF Signal. (And just so we're clear, "Young Adult" here actually means "early teens.") John C. Wright thinks, and I agree, that the best essay on the subject comes from sf legend Orson Scott Card:

It seems to me that if YA writers want to write about adult stuff, they should change category. Nothing stops young readers from following them into the adult shelves. When the YA label is placed on a book, it's a promise to parents, teachers, and librarians that certain standards are being adhered to. This is not a trivial matter. There is genuine damage to some young readers from being exposed too early to sexual or overly violent material. Other young readers seem to be unharmed. But the writer is in no position to judge the maturity of each reader. [more...]

In other words, protecting the innocence of children (we'll talk about adults in a moment) involves protecting them from some knowledge that they are unprepared to handle. This thinking is in tune with the teaching of the Church as well: in 1995, the Pontifical Council for the Family issued a document entitled "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality," which includes a section on "Learning Stages" that reads, in part:

It can be said that a child is in the stage described in John Paul II's words as "the years of innocence" from about five years of age until puberty - the beginning of which can be set at the first signs of changes in the boy or girl's body (the visible effect of an increased production of sexual hormones). This period of tranquility and serenity must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex. During those years, before any physical sexual development is evident, it is normal for the child's interests to turn to other aspects of life. The rudimentary instinctive sexuality of very small children has disappeared. Boys and girls of this age are not particularly interested in sexual problems, and they prefer to associate with children of their own sex. So as not to disturb this important natural phase of growth, parents will recognize that prudent formation in chaste love during this period should be indirect, in preparation for puberty, when direct information will be necessary. [more...]

A similar principle could be applied to violence or other potentially disturbing subject matter from which it is prudent to protect young children (I wouldn't recommend taking them to see Kill Zone, for example).

Now as for adults, I refer to the Catechism:

Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin--an inclination to evil that is called 'concupiscence'. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle. [par. 405]

The presence of this concupiscence means that the battle against sin is to a large extent an interior one, and that is why Christians are to avoid what are called "near occasions of sin," that is, avoidable situations in which a person would be tempted to sin. Such near occasions could include the acquisition of unnecessary and potentially perverting information.

However, note also the words of Christ in Matthew 10.16: "Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (NAB). Here, we see that Jesus expects his followers to be innocent, but does not expect them to be a bunch of naïfs. This is especially true of those who perform certain necessary functions such as police work; because of the nature of this work, police officers are necessarily knowledgeable of, and frequently exposed to, certain kinds of evil. Such exposure is necessary, but, if not mitigated against with the cultivation of virtue, self-control, and an active spiritual life, can potentially result in lasting damage, even if the damage is not as graphic as that in Kill Zone.

Content Advisory: Contains graphic violence, copious blood, brief nudity, and potentially disturbing themes.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang):

Quality: Medium-High (good writing, good production values, good directing; it works if you don't mind the corniness)

Myth Level: Medium (some universal themes and some twists on the conventions)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (difficult to interpret, but appears to contain a good message about the devastating consequences of immorality)