Sunday, December 30, 2007

Notes on Galileo

I came across this information in a book my father lent to me, From Five Fingers to Infinity by Frank J. Swetz, and I thought I'd pass it on. I hope it's as interesting to you as it was to me.

The Roman Catholic Church’s historic condemnation of Galileo and his theory of a heliocentric, Copernican cosmology are often used as a symbol – and as a rallying cry for the “free-thinking” literati and scientist – of Christian anti-intellectualism and of Christianity’s reluctance to accept, and its antagonism towards, scientific inquiry. Christians, they say, are mired in a state of blind and refusing faith, a faith that is unwilling to see reason and that is unable to accept fact. Christians are small-minded, irrational, superstitious and seditious of free mental activity; they want to suppress any idea that may contradict of confuse their dogma; anyone who disagrees with this evaluation needs only to look at the case of Galileo to see that it is true.

As a Christian apologist, and as someone very much invested in the idea of free intellectual pursuit, the case of Galileo has always been a point of embarrassment for me as, I’d imagine, it has been for many other thinking Christians. Of course, it’s quite possible to avoid the whole issue, or at least to try to avoid it, by shifting the blame from Christianity at large to Catholicism in particular or to any organized and centralized religion in general; but rather than solving the problem this merely moves it, creates other problems, and ultimately creates greater points of schism in the universal church itself. Shifting blame amounts only to finger pointing and that gets us nowhere. Besides, it’s insincere. Evangelical America is hardly more open-minded than the Roman Catholic Church and if we were to condemn one brand of Christianity as anti-intellectual we would need to condemn them all.

However, as it is with all matters deeply entrenched in either dogma or ideology, the controversy surrounding Galileo’s confrontation with the Church has been related in history by the authority of biased pens, by authors guided by love for their own agendas, many of which are all too pleased to subvert religious belief of any kind by any means. Recently I read a portion of a very interesting book called From Five Fingers to Infinity, in which can be read a very interesting discussion of Galileo and the Church. The Church, it seems, did not take issue with Galileo’s science or even with the fact that his science seemed to contradict certain aspects of interpreted Scripture; rather they took issue with the fact that, despite the vehemence of his conviction, Galileo failed provide sufficient enough proof of his conclusions. Now, in our day, Galileo has the benefit of having since been proven right (about some things; certainly not about all that he proposed); then, however, when new cosmologies battled old ones for cultural ascendancy, he himself failed to convince. He simply did not have the scientific proof to convince anyone but those already convinced.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? Perhaps rather than having a point this is more a note to myself; perhaps I’m simply using my blog as a commonplace book and I’m jotting down a piece of information that interests me. As an apologist, and as someone committed to free thought, however, I’m very much concerned about the manipulation of information, with the ways in which what actually happened differs from how we relate what happened; I’m especially concerned when that manipulation is designed to dirty and smear my faith. I am not an unthinking man and yet I am a man of faith. To many this is a contradiction; but it seems to me that the deliberate misrepresentation of an historical fact to further an agenda is also a contradiction, one entirely less justifiable. If Galileo indeed could not prove his theories to a great enough degree of satisfaction, than it is far less troublesome that the Church attempted to suppress him; the fact that Galileo happened to be right, right in spite of his proof and not because of it, cannot be taken as evidence of the Church’s “fear” of science. The controversy surrounding Galileo is not that the Church, faced with the indisputable evidence of a scientific fact, attempted to silence the voice of reason; this did not happen; the controversy is that the whole episode has been taken as evidence against something that does not exist. The Church did not and does not fear science; ironically, in demanding that the evidence by incontrovertible, the Church was holding Galileo to a higher degree of empirical rationalism than he could deliver.

For a more detailed discussion on Galileo’s confrontation with the Church, read From Five Fingers to Infinity, by Frank J. Swetz (pages 444-47).

Friday, December 21, 2007

Review :: Sweeney Todd

I haven't seen the musical. I have no intentions of ever seeing the musical. I watched Sweeney Todd as a movie and that's how I am going to approach it in this review.

I can never really get a handle on how I feel about Tim Burton. I actually like many of his films, especially Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas (which, yes I know, he technically did not direct) and Sleepy Hollow. At the same time, however, while I really like what he has done, I'm often struck by the suspicion that, rather than being a visionary or an auteur, Burton is actually an artist mired in a state of creative limbo; I fear that he cannot escape the over-produced gothic pretensions for which he is known. Big Fish, easily his best film to date, succeeded so well because it managed to force those pretensions into the service of a story that truly used them instead of simply relying wholly upon them. With Big Fish, Burton seemed to transcend himself and really grow as an artist. But he last two films, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the miserable Corpse Bride, both felt disingenuous and like awkward attempts to create a trademark "Burton" film. I had hoped that Big Fish signaled a maturation in Burton's work; but then I feared that it were merely an interesting digression in an otherwise stalling career. So I entered Sweeney Todd with mixed feelings, hoping for an enjoyable Burton film and fearing that I might get exactly that.

While Sweeney Todd did little to assuage my fears about Burton's inability to transcend his own style, it did demonstrate once again that, when used correctly, the Burton style can still create enjoyable, if somewhat vacuous, films. Based on the Broadway musical, and very much a musical itself, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the story of, as you'd expect, Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), a barber-turned-serial-killer out for blood and vengeance against the London judge (Alan Rickman) who violently separated Todd from his wife and who sent him away to prison under false charges. Upon returning to London years later, Todd meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who tells him of his wife's death and of his daughter's adoption by the same judge who sent Todd away. Mrs. Lovett becomes his partner in crime and together they ghoulishly slaughter unsuspecting victims, whose only crime was wanting a good shave, and they then... well, they then cook them and serve them in Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop.

The biggest problem with Sweeney Todd is that it doesn't really work as a movie. Perhaps it works better as a musical, I'm not sure. But while the performances are generally solid, especially Depp's, the characters are really very, well, obvious. They are exactly what they seem to be, each and everyone one of them. There is never any question that Todd will begin slitting throats; Rickman's Judge Turpin is simply as cruel and depraved as you think he is; the young sailer Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) is the virtuous lovestruck young man; etc, etc. And while each character is essentially a cartoon of itself, we are never really given a reason to believe in any of them. Todd is a murderous monster and yet he is never justified or explained. He just is. Why he begins killing people at random, people who have neither done anything to him nor who facilitate his revenge, is a mystery, especially since, as we see in a long song/montage in which he cuts many, many throats, he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself but rather simply going through the motions of murder. Why Mrs. Lovett, who is at least as monstrous as Todd, wants to help him is an even bigger mystery. I'm not familiar with the language of the stage but in the language of film this type of omission is just sloppy and rather obnoxious. If you want your main characters to kill and cook people you should at least go out of your way to earn it. What the film actually feels like is a the retelling of a legend that the audience is already familiar with and simply accepts without argument or hesitation. Unfortunately, the story of Sweeney Todd is neither well-known nor interesting enough to warrant this kind of treatment.

That being said, there is enough in Sweeney Todd to enjoy that I'd still recommend it. Those Burton pretensions really pay off in the production department. While I still wish he'd outgrow them, his gothic sensibilities really work well here, much like they did in Sleepy Hollow. London has never before looked this dirty and this disgusting which, of course, means that it looks beautiful on film; Mrs. Lovett's over-sized oven and meat grinder are hilarious and appropriately terrifying; and the blood, which flows liberally in this solidly 18A-rated film, is garishly red and thick. The movie actually meanders a bit and gets distracted by a b-plot about two young lovers that isn't really all that interesting. But once the blood starts flowing, and flow it does, the movie regains its focus and becomes rather macabrely enjoyable as we all get to see what we wanted to see coming into the film: Johnny Depp slitting throats. Speaking of Depp, he is once again quite entertaining. Depp has lately managed to make a career out of playing quirky/cartoonish characters, something I'm not sure I like. Just look at the three-movie fiasco that is Pirates of the Caribbean. While I'm still not convinced that Depp is a great actor, I am convinced that under the right conditions he can really perform and those conditions seem to be right when Burton is around.

Of course, the big question going into the film not whether Depp can act but whether he can sing. For the most part, Depp (and everyone else in the film for that matter, except for maybe Carter) is able to pull off the songs. He's not Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge! and he seems to be able to only sing one style but he gets the job done. However, the big problem turns out to be not the actors but to be the songs themselves. Most of the movie is sung and about halfway through you start to suspect that the lines are simply being sung for the sake of singing them. There is nothing truly remarkable or memorable about any of the songs and I walked out of the theater unable to remember the melody of any of them, a major failing when it comes to a musical.

Ultimately, Sweeney Todd is a mixed bag. The combination of the light-hearted musical atmosphere and the slasher-style blood splatters, not to mention the cannibalism that our antiheroes foist on the unsuspecting London populace, creates a strange and almost schizophrenic feel, a juxtaposition which I suppose is intended to be part of the story's charm but which really didn't work for me. It ultimately feels like something was missing, some bit of social or political commentary, some shred of poetry that could tie the whole thing together and explain why Todd and Lovett resorted to such extreme measures. And yet, even with all these criticisms of it, I'd still recommend Sweeney Todd. It's ghoulish and fun... if you don't think about it too much. And hey, any movie in which you get to see Sacha Baron Cohen's throat slit can't be all bad, right?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Atlas Shrugged (excerpt)

(I've lately been reading Atlas Shrugged in my spare time. It's an enormous novel and much of it is philosophical discourse. It's wildly didactic and I'm constantly wary of it's claims. And yet, their is a power and a majesty to it that comes from absolute sincerity. I may not agree with her, but I can't not hear Ayn Rand's voice, shouting through these pages with prophetic intensity. Regardless of it's particular ideology, it is a keen and acerbic look into human nature and it is fascinating. There are certain novels which, when you read them, you find that they perfectly articulate many of your own unarticulated and only hinted at thoughts. This is one of the novels for me. This except is a crucial scene between Henry Rearden, one of America's leading and most persecuted industrialist, and Francisco d'Anconia, a supposed playboy and a philosopher of the highest order and a man trying to save Rearden's soul. Enjoy.)

"You take pride in setting no limit to your endurance, Mr. Rearden, because you think that you are doing right. What if you aren't? What if you're placing your virtue in the service of evil and letting it become a tool for the destruction of everything you love, respect and admire? Why don't you uphold your own code of values among men as you do among iron smelters? You who won't allow once per cent of impurity into an alloy of metal - what have you allowed into your moral code?"

Rearden sat very still; the words in his mind were like the beat of steps down the trail he had been seeking: the words were the sanction of the victim.

"You, who would not submit to the hardships of nature, but set out to conquer it and placed it in the service of your joy and your comfort - to what have you submitted at the hands of men? You, who know from your work that one bears punishment only for being wrong - what have you been willing to bear and for what reason? All your life, you have heard yourself denounced, not for your faults, but for your greatest virtues. You have been hated, not for your mistakes, but for your achievements. You have been scorned for all those qualities of character which are your highest pride. You have been called selfish for the courage of acting on your own judgment and bearing sole responsibility for your own life. You have been called arrogant for your independent mind. You have been called cruel for your unyielding integrity. You have been called antisocial for the vision that made you venture upon undiscovered roads. You have been called ruthless for the strength and self-discipline of your drive to your purpose. You have been called greedy for the magnificence of your power to create wealth. You, who've expanded an inconceivable flow of energy, have been called a parasite. You, who've created abundance where there had been nothing but wastelands and helpless, starving men before you, have been called a robber. You, who've kept them all alive, have been called an exploiter. You, the purest and more moral man among them, have been sneered at as a 'vulgar materialist.' Have you stopped to ask them: by what right? - by what code? - by what standard? No, you have borne it all and kept silent. You bowed to their code and you never upheld your own. You knew what exacting morality was needed to produce a single metal nail, but you let them brand you as immoral. You knew that man needs the strictest code of values to deal with nature, but you left the deadliest weapon in the hands of your enemies, a weapon you never suspected or understood. Their moral code is their weapon. Ask yourself what it is that a code of moral values does to a man's life, and why he can't exist without it, and what happens to him if he accepts the wrong standard, by which the evil is the good. Shall I tell you why you're drawn to me, even though you think you ought to damn me? It's because I'm the first man who has given you what the whole world owes you and what you should have demanded of all men before you dealt with them: a moral sanction."

Rearden whirled to him, then remained still, with a stillness like a gasp. Francisco leaned forward, as if he were reaching the landing of a dangerous flight; and his eyes were steady, but their glance seemed to tremble with intensity.

"You're guilty of a great sin, Mr. Rearden, much guiltier than they tell you, but not in the way they preach. The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt - and that is what you have been doing all your life. You have been paying blackmail, not for your vices, but for your virtues. You have been willing to carry the load of an unearned punishment - and to let it grow heavier the greater the virtues you practiced. But your virtues were those which keep men alive. Your own moral code - the one you lived by, but never stated, acknowledged or defended - was the code that preserves man's existence. If you were punished for it, what was the nature of those who punished you? Yours was the code of life. What, then, is theirs? What standard of values lies at its root? What is its ultimate purpose? Do you think that what you're facing is merely a conspiracy to seize your wealth? You, who know the source of wealth, should know it's much more and much worse than that. Did you ask me to name man's motive power? Man's motive power is his moral code. Ask yourself where their code is leading you and what it offers you as your final goal. A viler evil than to murder a man, is to sell him suicide as an act of virtue. A viler evil than to throw a man into a sacrificial furnace, is to demand that he leap in, of his own will, and that be build the furnace, besides. By their own statement, it is they who need you and have nothing to offer you in return. By their own statement, you must support them because they cannot survive without you. Consider the obscenity of offering their impotence and their need - their need of you - as a justification for your torture. Are you willing to accept it? Do you care to purchase - at the price of your great endurance, at the price of your agony - the satisfaction of the needs of your own destroyers?"


"Mr. Rearden," said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, "if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders - what would you tell him to do?"

"I... don't know. What... could he do? What would you tell him?"

"To shrug."

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York, NY: Signet, 2007. 420-22.