Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Top 40 Films of 2000-2009

Every year I do a top-10 film list, but the end of a decade cries out for something more. So here's looking back at the 40 very best. Some years had more to offer than others. I chose 1 from 2000, 7 from 2001, 2 from 2002, 4 from 2003, 3 from 2004, 5 from 2005, 7 from 2006, 6 from 2007, 4 from 2008, and 4 from 2009. Technically that adds up to 43, because I count all three Lord of the Rings films are as one (#1), and ditto for Batman Begins & The Dark Knight (#8). We'll take them in groups of ten, rated, of course, in descending order.

1. The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson (2001, 2002, 2003). 5 stars.
2. Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro (2006). 5 stars.
3. Let the Right One In, Tomas Alfredson (2008). 5 stars.
4. Martyrs, Pascal Laugier (2009). 5 stars.
5. Juno, Jason Reitman (2007). 5 stars.
6. Palindromes, Todd Solondz (2005). 5 stars.
7. United 93, Paul Greengrass (2006). 5 stars.
8. Batman Begins & The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan (2005, 2008). 5 stars.
9. Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino (2009). 5 stars.
10. Mulholland Drive, David Lynch (2001). 5 stars.

The Lord of the Rings towered over the decade like Mount Olympus, a miracle brought to life out of an impossibly difficult text, not just in terms of cinematography and score, but soul; despite the blockbuster pacing, it's a work of art, emotionally heavy, about the passing of an age. Pan's Labyrinth was a another fantasy landmark, even darker, with an ending that rivals the Grey Havens. Let the Right One In touched deeper than any romance; it was the vampire film we'd been waiting for, and everything Twilight wasn't. Martyrs, on the other hand, was a brutal terror, one of the nastiest films I've ever seen, yet surprisingly transcendent. On a lighter note, Juno and Palindromes were brilliant comedies about teen pregnancy: one a post-feminist piece with memorably endearing characters, the other a vicious satire on pro-choice and pro-life advocates (equally deserved, I might add). United 93 used gut-punching artistry to make us relive 9/11 for the right reasons, surely the most harrowing film of the decade. Christopher Nolan redeemed a genre with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, teaching us the destruction of hope, and proving that superheroes don't have to be about hollow thrills for adolescent males. Quentin Tarantino delivered his absurdist World War II masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds, which, yes, supersedes even Pulp Fiction. And let's not forget Mulholland Drive from the genius of David Lynch: a dream-fable of Hollywood upturned by cruel reality. These ten films, for my money, are the crown jewels of the past ten years. I've seen them many times and they don't get old.

11. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley (2008). 5 stars.
12. Bug, William Friedkin (2007). 5 stars.
13. City of God, Fernando Meirelles (2003). 4 ½ stars.
14. The Road, John Hillcoat (2009). 4 ½ stars.
15. Hard Candy, David Slade (2006). 4 ½ stars.
16. The Departed, Martin Scorsese (2006). 4 ½ stars.
17. Little Children, Todd Field (2006). 4 ½ stars.
18. Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky (2000). 4 ½ stars.
19. Eden Lake, James Watkins (2008). 4 ½ stars.
20. There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson (2007). 4 ½ stars.

Still going strong on this next tier. I was blown away by Doubt, an ambiguous morality puzzle, and also by Bug, which proved that William Friedkin hasn't lost his touch; both films are based on (off-)Broadway plays driven by well-crafted dialogue and searing psychological tension. City of God was cinephilic storytelling at its purest, about the drug wars in Rio de Janeiro, and a kid who survives the chaos by becoming a newspaper photographer. The Road was the best post-apocalyptic film I've seen, and Hard Candy the best revenge film (I usually hate revenge flicks) for its indie artistry and having the balls (pun) to unleash the castrating fury of a 14-year old on a pedophile. Martin Scorsese scored a slam dunk with The Departed, easily his best film since Goodfellas, and that same year Todd Field delivered Little Children, a satire on upper-middle class suburbia in which every adult is seen to be juvenile in the extreme. Requiem for a Dream took us down the rabbit hole of drug addiction, and to the most agonizing performance of Ellen Burstyn's career. Eden Lake left me floored by its brutal honesty, portraying a group of kids who harass and torture a man and woman to a miserably unhappy ending. There Will Be Blood loomed as an epic indictment on religio-capitalism; the moral scope of this film is astounding.

21. The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow (2009). 4 ½ stars.
22. Running Scared, Wayne Kramer (2006). 4 ½ stars.
23. Memento, Christopher Nolan (2000). 4 ½ stars.
24. Inside, Alexandre Bustillo (2007). 4 ½ stars.
25. Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2006). 4 stars.
26. Crash, Paul Haggis (2005). 4 stars.
27. Storytelling, Todd Solondz (2001). 4 stars.
28. The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky (2008). 4 stars.
29. The Descent, Neil Marshall (2006). 4 stars.
30. Moonlight, Paula van der Oest (2007). 4 stars.

Hard to believe we've hit the bottom half; these are still really good. The Hurt Locker was Kathryn Bigelow's best work yet, the best film about the Iraqi war, with some of the best suspense scenes ever shot. Running Scared didn't let us up for air -- an insanely violent film involving dirty cops, murderous pimps, and monstrous pedophiles; the story is peppered with Grimm's fairy tale references like Pinnochio (the abused boy Oleg), the Mad Hatter (the pimp), and the Blue Fairy (the whore who rescues the boy). Memento got Christopher Nolan on the radar, portraying a man with short-term memory loss, the scenes played backwards so that viewers are just as clueless as to what went before. Inside was the goriest film I've seen (after Gibson's passion film), and like Martyrs (#4) showed the French to be way ahead of the curve in making intelligent horror films. Babel was a brilliant allegory of failed communication across cultures, and Crash an equally effective parable of inner city racism. Storytelling was two films in one, each story told as only Solondz knows how, with equal-opportunity offense. The Wrestler was Aronofsky's most mature film to date, and The Descent was terrifying for its suffocating claustrophobia as much as the nightmarish creatures. Moonlight was an unexpected treat out of nowhere (the Netherlands actually), a fairy tale for adults, about a Dutch girl and Afghan boy on the run from killers and must rely on non-verbal communication.

31. The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson (2004). 4 stars.
32. The Believer, Henry Bean (2001). 4 stars.
33. Mouth to Mouth, Alison Murray (2005). 4 stars.
34. The Devil's Backbone, Guillermo Del Toro (2001). 3 ½ stars.
35. The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci (2003). 3 ½ stars.
36. Whip It!, Drew Barrymore (2009). 3 ½ stars.
37. Frailty, Bill Paxton (2002). 3 ½ stars.
38. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry (2004). 3 ½ stars.
39. In the Bedroom, Todd Field (2001). 3 ½ stars.
40. Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg (2007). 3 ½ stars.

This last bunch are effectively my "honorable mentions". The Passion of the Christ thrived in a storm of controversy: critics were evenly split, and it's too bad so many of them got caught up in the person of Mel Gibson more than his film. The Believer gave us the paradox of a Jewish neo-Nazi consumed by self-loathing, and Mouth to Mouth showed us the allure and charisma of gang leaders, with parents susceptible to brainwashing as much as their kids. The Devil's Backbone showcased Guillermo Del Toro's talents years before Pan's Labyrinth (#2), and like his fantasy masterpiece, this ghost story is set in fascist Spain. Moving one country over and three decades ahead, The Dreamers tackled the milieu of 1968 France (the student rebellions), as three young cinephiles withdraw from the world and express social revolt in the form of sexual pursuits. Whip It! proved that coming-of-age sports dramas can actually work for a change. Frailty was an astounding achievement for Bill Paxton, about a man convinced that God has commanded him to kill "demons", and enlists the help of his two young boys to kidnap people and axe them to death; the ending was a brilliant twist and completely caught me off guard. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind argued that some things can never be forgotten, while In the Bedroom insisted some things can never be forgiven. David Cronenberg finally hit a home run with Eastern Promises, a thoughtful crime drama about the Russian mafia in London.

It was a smashing good decade for film, if you knew where to look. I don't think I could come up with a top-40 list for every decade -- certainly not for the 80s, though probably for the 70s and perhaps for the 90s. Here's hoping the next ten years will see cinema taken to higher (and deeper) levels. Happy New Year and Decade!

UPDATE: Rick Sumner retaliates with his own list.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Christopher Nolan is keeping a tight lid on his Inception film slated for theatrical release this July. Ellen Page has already advised, "Don't try to find out about the movie," and the teaser trailer released last summer is pretty cryptic. The new trailer has a lot more but doesn't lift many veils... the only thing clear is that it looks good.

Special Guest: Jeremy Hultin

I am pleased to announce that Jeremy F. Hultin of Yale Divinity will be discussing his recent book, The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and its Environment, in a video that will be uploaded as a link to this blog. Dr. Hultin is now welcoming questions for this video. If you have read his book, or even my review of it (the book is temporarily out of stock at amazon), please feel free to ask questions or raise concerns in the comments section of this post. Questions should focus on the use of, and perception of, obscene language in the ancient Mediterranean, whether in a pagan or Judeo-Christian context. I will keep this post towards the top of the blog for the next couple of weeks until sending the questions to Jeremy for his video. This should be fun.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Michael Bird & Myers-Briggs

Look out everyone, Michael Bird has come out of the closet with his true personality. Jason Staples defends himself too. It's funny, I've never had to be ashamed of my introversion. (Or perhaps occasionally, but didn't care enough about what others thought to work up the shame.) While the INTJs are rallying under Michael's banner, INTPs like me are bound to take this business more lightly.

For instance: I much enjoy alternate interpretations of the 16 personality types. According to this one, INTPs like me and Stephen Carlson are Eggheads, while the zillions of INTJs flocking under Michael's post are Outside Contractors. See the complete listing below. Do we have any Crackpots (ISFPs) in the biblioblogosphere? Surely some Conspiracy Theorists (INFJs)? Jim West would be our National Enquirer Headline (ESFP) in terms of blog persona (though certainly not real life, if his envious diatribes against all sorts of natural sex are an indication). Cult Leaders (ENFJs)? Watch for these folks the next time you scroll through your feed reader.

ENTJ: The Evil Overlord
ENTP: The Mad Scientist
ENFJ: The Cult Leader
ESFJ: The Control Freak
ESTJ: The Bureaucrat
INFJ: The Conspiracy Theorist
INFP: The Idealist
ENFP: The Scientologist
ISTJ: The Thought Police
ESFP: The National Enquirer Headline
INTP: The Egghead
INTJ: The Outside Contractor
ISTP: The Psycho Vigilante
ISFP: The Crackpot
ISFJ: The Martyr
ESTP: The Conman

Friday, December 18, 2009

The American Negro and King Kong

Yes that sounds offensive, but it's supposed to, coming from Quentin Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds has been released on DVD, and readers will recall from my review that it's a masterpiece of absurdist revisionism in which Jewish American soldiers and a Jewish French woman bring down Hitler in a cinematic hell of lead and fire.

I want to talk about my favorite scene: the identity-guessing card game in the basement tavern, La Louisiane. The menacing Major Hellstrom explains the rules. He has joined a table of "German officers" (in reality a group of Ally spies, the "Basterds") because one of them speaks with a suspiciously sounding accent. Hellstrom feigns camaraderie and suggests they play a game so he can smoke out what's really going on. It's the most suspenseful scene of the film (even more, I think, than the opening scene praised by countless critics), but there's a lot of Tarantino-stuff going on under the surface. When Hellstrom emphasizes that the names people write on their cards can be "real or fictitious, it doesn't matter", it's a sly commentary on the director's approach to filmmaking. Inglourious Basterds, like all Tarantino films, is preposterous fiction, but it doesn't matter. Its talons rake into you, affecting as any historical reality.

Back to the game: Each person at the table writes the name of someone famous on his or her card -- again, real or fictitious, like Confucius or Fu Manchu. The cards are then placed face down on the table and moved to the person on the right. Each person picks up the new card without looking at it, licks the back, and sticks it on his or her forehead so that everyone at the table can see the name on it. Everyone then takes turns trying to guess the name stuck on their foreheads by asking up to 10 yes/no questions.

Major Hellstrom goes first, and his name is King Kong. He asks the following questions:
1. Am I German? (No)
2. Am I American? (No... you weren't born in America)
3. Ah... but I visited America? (Yes)
4. Was the visit fortuitous? (No, not for you)
5. My native land, is it what one would call exotic? (Yes)
6. Hmm, that could mean the jungle or the Orient... Am I from the jungle? (Yes)
7. When I went to America, did I go by boat? (Yes)
8. Did I go against my will? (Yes)
9. On this boat ride, was I in chains? (Yes)
10. When I arrived in America, was I displayed in chains? (Yes)

So: Am I the story of the American Negro? (No!)
Well, then I must be King Kong. (Yes!)
The fact that both answers are equally correct based on the questions posed suggests more inside commentary: fiction being on equal footing with fact. Hellstrom's first guess is something real, but the "right" answer isn't, a clever apologia for Tarantino's directing style. The parallel between Afro-Americans and a mythical beast feared, hunted, and slain -- coming from the mouth of a Nazi officer -- is also ingenious. And the fact that Hellstrom seems to cheat by guessing twice after using up his ten questions, while no one protests or seems bothered by it, is probably another signature: this is a film director who cheerfully breaks rules in telling his stories, but does it so well that we don't notice until we stop to think about it.

Enjoy, if you wish, the following youtube clips: the card game discussed above, followed by the intense outcome where everyone goes to hell.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Obscene Speech in Early Christianity

If there's one thing I learned from reading Jeremy Hultin's book, it's that I would have been a poor recipient of the letter to the Ephesians. I may not be as vulgar as N.T. Wrong in an academic context, but I do enjoy healthy doses of profanity and obscenity in the right company, and the author of Ephesians is austere enough to shun humor in its lightest shade on top of foul language. Clement of Alexandria was pretty cheerless too. But that's enough by way of editorial preface.

Hultin's book, The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and its Environment, is an in-depth study of a fascinating subject which I'm surprised hasn't received more treatment up to this point. There are five chapters, the first surveying foul language in the ancient world: laws against slander in the Greco-Roman world, the use of foul language in religious rites (to engender fertility and ward off malevolent forces), in poetry and comic drama (to entertain and provoke thought), and literary obscenities. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, however, believed that foul speech was lowly and slavish. The second chapter focuses on the Cynics and Stoics, the former of course priding themselves on vulgarity, shitting in public, and other forms of active assault on convention. Stoics took a more abstract approach, initially indifferent to foul language on grounds that getting upset over words was philosophically hollow, but later breaking away from Zeno on this point and teaching that nature demanded a certain modesty in one's choice of words.

The other chapters take us through the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we'll look at these more closely. Chapter three covers the Torah, the prophets, wisdom literature, the historical Jesus, the epistle of James, the Didache, and Paul. Chapter four -- the book's argumentative high point -- takes on Colossians and Ephesians, the only New Testament authors who directly address foul language. Chapter five concludes with Clement of Alexandria.

Starting with the Torah, Hultin notes that biblical law nowhere addresses the decency of language per se. There are prohibitions against false witnesses (Exod 20:13), false oaths (Lev 6:3), blasphemy (Exod 22:27; Lev 24:10-16), using the Lord's name in vain (Exod 20:7), and cursing parents (Lev 20:19; cf. Prov 19:20), leaders (Exod 22:27), or the deaf (Lev 19:14) -- and that's pretty much it (p 113). The prophets occasionally criticized how people spoke but focused on sins rather than speaking obscenely. Thus Isaiah declared that God was mad at Israel when every mouth spoke folly (Isa 9:16). While rabbis later explained Isaiah's "speaking folly" as indecent language, the term originally referred not to obscene speech, but leading people astray with senseless and irreligious language (i.e. "religious errors") (p 113).

Indeed, the prophets sometimes enjoyed using foul language to lambaste Israelites for idolatry. Isaiah said that the Lord would leave the daughters of Zion with scabs on their heads and their vaginas laid bare (Isa 3:17; 7:20). Ezekiel depicted unfaithful Israel as a loose woman, not merely stating that she was interested in men (as the RSV puts it, "you offered yourself to every passer-by"), but more explicitly, "you spread your legs" (Ezek 23:20). There is the curious question of how to translate a passage like Ezek 8:17. Is Ezekiel saying that Israelites are "putting the branch to their nose" -- or, more deliciously, a "phallus" or "fart" to their nose?

Moving to the wisdom literature, Hultin outlines an increased concern for inappropriate speech. Proverbs commends silence, good words, discretion, and then warns against scoffing, babble, deceit, gossip, rashness, and slander. Bad consequences are seen to be in store for those who offend the powerful by speaking in these ways. But as Hultin points out, "given the concern to guard against every slip of the tongue, it is striking that Proverbs nowhere addresses 'foul language', which, as we have seen from Greek and Latin sources, clearly had the potential to offend." (p 121)

Only in the book of Sirach do we finally get a warning against foul language, the first comment on this type of speech from a Jewish author (p 122). After warning against habitual swearing (oath-taking) (Sir 23:7-11), the author condemns "lewd stupidity" and "words of reproach" (Sir 23:12-15), which Hultin sees as referring to vulgar or indecent speech at a banquet (p 126). Sirach says elsewhere that the way fools talk, laugh, and abuse is offensive, sinful, and grievous to the ear (Sir 27:13-15; cf. 20:19), and at a banquet one must be careful of what one says when "the great" are present (Sir 32:9). It is in this area of concern -- modesty, propriety, decorum in feasting -- that Sirach warns against "lewd abuse".

Hultin turns then to Jesus, based primarily on texts in Matthew, and it's not always clear to me that he distinguishes the historical figure from the Matthean one. This Jesus condemns abusive speech in the form of insults: to call someone ῥακά ("empty-headed fool") is as serious as murder (Mt 5:22) and will send one to Hell (Gehenna). "But although such a teaching would effectively exclude the angry use of the obscene vocabulary, it is obviously not a comment about the offensiveness of foul language per se." (p 133) Curiously, Hultin has nothing to say about the way Jesus broke his own rule with a vengeance. If the fourfold gospel testimony is remotely reliable, Jesus thrived on foul language in the form of invective. γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν ("brood of vipers", literally, "snake bastards") was one of his favorites learned from John the Baptist -- to call someone the illegitimate heir of a snake was about as low as you could sink in antiquity, and it further implied that one was a parent-killer (since vipers killed their mother during birth). That doesn't necessarily make the Matthean dictum of Mt 5:22 unhistorical, I think, because the text speaks of insulting one's brothers (insiders). In good honor-shame fashion, Jesus heaped vile insults on his rivals and foes, but not his friends and followers.

Jesus' general lack of concern for defiling speech can be seen in his sweeping prohibition of oaths (Mt 5:33-37), assuming again that the Matthean Jesus can be trusted. (A case for authenticity has been made by John Meier.) Sirach and Philo -- who are also appalled at habitual swearing though don't go so far as to prohibit oath-taking entirely -- speak about the impurity of filling one's speech with swearing (p 131), but Jesus (or at least the Matthean Jesus) isn't concerned with the potential impurity of swearing.

Hultin points out that nothing in the gospels directly addresses the decency of language (p 128). The infamous passage of Mk 7:15,20/Mt 15:11,18 claims that "what comes out of the mouth defiles", but the catalogs of "out-of-the-mouth" vices (Mk 7:21-22/Mt 15:19) include sins which have little or nothing to do with what is spoken. As Hultin says, it would have made sense if the gospel writers said something like, "It is not what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person -- lies, gossip, cursing, slander, perjury, lewd humor" (p 129). The lists of sins speak more to the heart (which Mark and Matthew, of course, try connecting to the mouth, but not too convincingly) and in effect have more to do with what one does than what one says as being defiling.

Turning to the epistle of James, we find an author who had plenty to say about sins of the tongue. Like the Matthean Jesus, he prohibits oaths entirely. But he goes leagues further, claiming that "the tongue is itself a fire, set on fire by Hell itself, a restless evil and deadly poison" (Jas 3:6-8). It's the one thing on earth remaining untamed by man, unlike the wild animals of God's creation (?!). "Unlike the rest of creation, the tongue is immune to domestication... Hell uses peoples' tongues to set creation on fire, and their bodies are defiled as the flame passes through their mouths." (p 135) While James never mentions obscene language or foul speech, he undoubtedly would have found it offensive in view of the fact that he was appalled by any sort of cursing (Jas 3:9) and laughter (Jas 4:9). As Hultin emphasizes, he is rather unique for making speech a cosmic issue (involving Hell and creation), "placing the tongue at the center of the struggle for religious purity" (p 136) -- different from Proverbs, Sirach, or the Didache which emphasize the ethical consequences of inappropriate speech.

Speaking of the Didache... The document addresses perjury, false witnesses, evil speaking, dishonesty, how to speak to slaves, cursing, and foul language. In Hultin's view, the warning about foul language in Did 3:3 first functioned in the context of Jewish instruction, was later incorporated into the Two Ways, and was then brought into the Didache and other Christian documents (pp 138-139). In Did 3:1-6 we see that anger leads to murder, lust to fornication, obscene language to adultery, omens and astrology to idolatry, lying to theft, and grumbling to slander. So adultery is the inevitable outcome of being foul-mouthed and a "lifter of the eyes" -- meaning those who leer or give ogling or seductive winks -- which ties speaking lewdly with sending non-verbally lewd cues. The Didache thus represents the first Jewish or Christian warning that foul language actually leads to sexual sins.

What about Paul? The apostle from the seven or eight authentic letters never addresses foul language, and in fact some scholars think he enjoyed using foul speech like the Cynics. (1) Most infamously, he claims that his Jewish heritage is σκύβαλα when compared to the revelation found in Christ (Philip 3:8). Most English bibles translate σκύβαλα as "rubbish", but it properly means "excrement" (the King James gets it pretty good with "dung"), and some experts believe it had the register of "shit" more than "feces". Hultin argues this isn't the case. The word σκύβαλα was frequently used in medical texts and wasn't perceived as indecent. For Paul to compare his Jewish heritage to excrement was obviously offensive in the extreme, but the word σκύβαλα itself wasn't offensive. It wasn't the ancient equivalent of our modern "shit" or "crap" (see pp 150-154). (2) He also hopes fervently that advocates of circumcision would castrate themselves (Gal 5:12) -- in the context of North Galatia an allusion to the cult of Cybele, whose priests were castrated. This isn't foul language per se, though it's certainly crude and coarse (see pp 148-150). Hultin's conclusion is that there is little evidence to suppose that Paul had a "foul mouth", and thus Colossians and Ephesians are doubtfully reacting to Paul in the way later Stoics reacted to their founders Zeno and Chrysippus. "However unpleasant he could be, by the standards of his time, Paul was not lexically indecent" (p 154).

Turning finally to Colossians and Ephesians (written by different Deutero-Paulinists), Hultin addresses the only texts in the New Testament which deal directly with foul language. Here's the first:
"But now you must get rid of all such things -- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and αἰσχρολογίαν from your mouth... Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone." (Col 3:8, 4:6)
Hultin points out that αἰσχρολογίαν is often translated misleadingly -- "filthy language" (NIV), "filthy communication" (KJV), or "obscene talk" (ESV). While it's true the term could refer to lewd speech, it could also mean "abusive speech" (NAS) or "abusive language" (NRSV), and the context of Colossians favors this. There is no sexual reference in the above passage. The salt reference, moreover, was a synonym for humor or wit. The author of Colossians is thus advocating the use of humor to win people to the gospel, and only condemning abusive speech -- aligned perfectly with anger, wrath, malice, and slander, the other vices condemned -- not sexually obscene speech.

Hultin's contrast between Colossians and James helps illuminate the point of view here. In Colossians speech is a thing of the earth (Col 3:2,5), not Hell, with nothing to suggest that the tongue is an unconquerable adversary. Colossians allows for a broad range of positive uses for the tongue, including humor, where James demands silence (Jas 1:19). "Blessing God was the tongue's proper function, but even reference to that activity just reminds James of the horrible fact that the same tongue also curses (Jas 3:9-12). Where James expresses reservations about teaching (Jas 3:1-2), Colossians commends it without qualification (Col 3:16)." (p 167) So while the deutero-Paulinist condemns foul language, it's only a particular kind -- angry outbursts of slander -- and he has far more faith in the tongue than James does, even encouraging wit and humor.

Here's the passage of Ephesians:
"But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among holy people. Entirely out of place is αἰσχρότης, μωρολογία, and εὐτραπελία; but instead, let there be thanksgiving." (Eph 5:3-4)
Hultin argues that the best translation of αἰσχρότης is "ugliness". In and of itself, the term doesn't necessarily refer to speech, though in a context followed by μωρολογία and εὐτραπελία it probably does refer to "ugly speech". For μωρολογία is "stupid talk" and εὐτραπελία is "wit". The author of Ephesians is thus condemning ugly/obscene talk, stupid/drunken talk, and (shockingly) clever wit. On this last, a thorough survey of contemporary writings (Philo, Jospehus, Aristotle, Chrysippus, Plutarch, Plato, Isocrates, Polybius, Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, others) shows that εὐτραπελία was universally understood as an admirable and endearing talent (pp 190-194). Why is Ephesians so hostile to it? To appreciate the way this blanket condemnation would have sounded to the ancients, Hultin draws on the antonyms of εὐτραπελία: "austere", "inhumane", "humorless". Are these really what characterize good Christian living for the deutero-Paulinist?

Hultin tries to play fair ball with Ephesians in translating εὐτραπελία as "facetiousness". Taken together, αἰσχρότης, μωρολογία, and εὐτραπελία might then be a judgment on "obscene, stupid, and facetious wit" (p 195). But as he himself acknowledges, it would have been just as easy (and far more clear) to condemn "obscene and stupid buffonery", or even to contrast "ugly wit" with "charming wit". Hultin's other suggestion is more plausible: Ephesians is "trying to encourage the creation of serious personae, to outdo the Catos and the Pythagorases of the world", indeed, "aspiring for a community so serious that it will not tolerate any form of drollery at all" (pp 195-196). The deutero-Paulinist doesn't offer an avenue of positive humor which should take the place of ugly jokes. He presents thanksgiving as an alternative to all joking.

In this sense -- and now Hultin is on the right track -- Ephesians shares a lot in common with the Essenes. The Rule of the Community also contrasts foul language with thanksgiving (I QS X, 21-23), and also prohibits silly or light talk. Both I QS and Ephesians (2:19-22) imagine God to be present in the community on analogy with the way the Hebrew Bible presents God as present in the temple (see pp 198-206):
"For the author of Ephesians there is no need to explain what foul language might lead to. It is simply out of place. It is not fitting for holy ones. He and his readers might have agreed with Didache 3:3 that lewd talk could result in illicit sex. He and his readers probably knew, along with Sirach 23:12-15 and a host of pagan and Greek moralists, that such talk might lower them in the eyes of others. But Ephesians does not give these reasons any more than Leviticus explains why a priest with a physical defect cannot enter the sanctuary... Foul language [αἰσχρότης, μωρολογία] and even light language [εὐτραπελία] were inconsistent with the believers' holiness, and were inappropriate in God's holy presence." (p 205)
So completely unlike Colossians, we have in Ephesians the vision for a rigidly austere community, devoid of humor.

Hultin's book ends not with Colossians & Ephesians, however, but Clement of Alexandria, who of course wrote more about foul language than any Christian before him. I could almost blame this guy for our Puritanical heritage in the western world; he makes the bible look pretty moderate (which I suppose most of it in fact is), and this despite his enthusiastic citations of texts which barely support his extreme views. With Hultin I'm astonished that Clement never quotes Didache 3:3, since it is this text which makes the precise point he's so hell-bent on proving -- that foul language leads to sexual immorality. (He cites plenty of other texts from the Didache.) It's also amusing to see Clement's fervent opposition to foul language matched by his insistence that there is nothing inherently wrong with it. "Be it from educated pagans or from a free-speaking group of Christians," opines Hultin, "it is likely that Clement had heard the charge that concern over mere words was irrational. With his philosophical aspirations, Clement was sensitive to this charge and wanted to respond, but had to do so without abandoning his own moral intuition." (p 229) So Clement was able to have his cake and eat it by aligning himself with the Stoics as much as the biblical authors. Though unlike the author of Ephesians who eschewed foul language (and even light humor) for purposes of sanctity, Clement shunned it for purposes of philosophical dignity, chastity, and self-mastery (p 234).

It's delightful to read a highly esoteric work on a subject so lowly like vulgarity, and I can't recommend this book enough. I do wish Hultin had more to say about nasty biblical epithets like "snake bastards" and "dogs who eat their vomit", but otherwise he's pretty thorough. I should finish with the funny anecdote in the preface, where the author mentions starting research on foul language after being asked by a friend why he insisted on "so regularly dropping the F-bomb". Hultin then asked his pastor what he made of Col 3:8 and Eph 5:4, to which Pastor X replied something about the biblical authors' cultural situation being different than ours -- but not before wryly quipping, "Come on, man, don't be a fucking fundamentalist" (p xvii). Obscene language may be hard for even the religious to get worked up over... but then again, maybe not. At least we know David Ker is on the same page with the author of Ephesians.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Killer Carlson"?

I actually do fancy Stephen as a serial killer, a scholarly Dexter, of literary forgeries. Roger Pearse notes the slaying of Archaic Mark, which takes us back three years ago.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Watch Your Mouth

I've started reading Jeremy Hultin's The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment, really enjoying it, and plan to review it before Christmas. But speaking of offensive speech...

Check out Deane Galbraith's scatalogical posts, Shitting Christ and Shitlessness in Paradise. The first concerns John Milton's caricature of the Catholic eucharist: "When Christ's body has been driven through all the stomach's filthy channels it shoots it out –- one shudders even to mention it –- into the latrine." (On Christian Doctrine, 6.560; tr. in Maggie Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism). The second is about Artaxerxes II brandishing his enemy's feces as evidence of the demonic: "Mithridates' vermin-laden excrement bore graphic witness to the corruption (moral and physical) of his body and the demons resident therein." (Bruce Lincoln, Religion, Empire & Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, with a Postscript on Abu Ghraib. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2007: 93.)

Galbraith uses the word "shit" in his blogpost titles, no doubt to ensure readership, which resonated perfectly with something I read just hours before in the first chapter of Hultin's book. Why are certain words so culturally offensive? Why is "shit" a swear but "feces" not? Linguists like Rom Harre have suggested that offensive language involves displacements so that "the social force of the expressive word is greater the further apart the contexts are from which it was taken and into which it has been inserted", and thus "the power of bad language comes from the distance of its displacement from the original contexts of use, and in that respect, obscenity and blasphemy are typical metaphors" (Hultin, p 8).

But Hultin points out that (1) only some displaced words have this power. "Poop and shit are both 'displaced' when used as expletives; but poop has almost no function as an expletive, and this despite the fact that it begins and ends with a plosive, which might have made it ideal for this purpose" (ibid). Also that (2) the offensiveness of some words is actually diluted when displaced. Words like "cunt" and "fuck" are not only just as offensive when used in the doctor's office, they can be "even more offensive when used of sex ('he fucked her') than when displaced ('he fucked up')." (ibid) And why is "Christ!" more blasphemous than "God!" when angrily shouted out in frustration?

Despite the attempts of our best linguists, there's probably no tidy way of accounting for the evolution of obscene/vulgar/blasphemous speech. Some words are offensive because, well, they just are. It's fascinating that some languages are completely devoid of obscene vocabulary (like Native American Hopi) and that people like the Amerindians, Polynesians, and Japanese don't swear much at all, while Ukrainians, on the other hand, have a mighty offensive repertoire at their disposal. We'll see what the early Christians thought about bad language when I finish Hultin's book.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Top 10 Religiously Themed Films of the Decade

Taking a cue from Eric Repphun's pick list of religiously themed movies for 2000-2009, I offer my own. Though I like many of Eric's choices, only three of them make my cut, and I'm afraid his baddy (Gibson's passion film) also finds a home on it. Unlike Eric, I rate them in order, descending, with the best at the top.

1. The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson (2001, 2002, 2003). The best story ever told was stunningly realized on screen at the dawn of a new century, its pre-Christian landscape delivered intact. As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien viewed the history of Middle-Earth as a "long defeat", containing glimpses of final victory but never more, which is why a pagan hero like Frodo Baggins has to be a foreordained failure. He's ultimately unable to resist and destroy the Ring (claiming it for his own), and his quest to Mount Doom was hopeless from the start. The cause, not the hero, is triumphant only because of what Tolkien called the "euchatastrophe", or the unexpected intervention of fate made possible by the mercy shown Gollum. Jackson and his co-writers did a fairly good job (though not entirely) of representing themes of hopeless courage and pagan doom from Tolkien's classic. It's lost on many people that hopeless heroes suggest a nobility of character unparalleled in the Judeo-Christian tradition, precisely because they believe evil can be resisted but not overcome, and that it should be resisted for no other reason than because it's the right thing to do.

2. Palindromes, Todd Solondz (2005). Loved or despised among critics, this satire on abortion sets out to offend everyone. A thirteen-year old girl is forced to have an abortion by her mother, then runs away to join a fundamentalist family whose patriarch kills abortion doctors. It's open season on the pro-life and pro-choice crowds equally, suggesting both sides wind up at square one, mired in hypocrisy and contradictions. (A palindrome is a word reading the same backward as forward; hence the title, and hence the name of the girl, Aviva.) The film ingeniously draws on the book of Ecclesiastes (my favorite book of the bible along with Romans), as I discussed in my review. I'm as pro-choice as Solondz, and appreciate his willingness to portray the liberal mother in a slightly more negative light than Jesus-freak Mama Sunshine, so as not to let us off the hook easily.

3. The Road, John Hillcoat (2009). In theaters right now, this is the best post-apocalyptic film ever -- bleak in the way that only Cormac McCarthy novel adaptations are -- in which marauding cannibals overshadow lone protagonists and nothing promises to get better. Viggo Mortenson plays a father who will do anything to save his son, even shoot him as a last resort to spare the kid rape at the hands of the baddies. Ironically, it is this child who has been construed by some critics as an implied messianic figure who, unlike his father willing to sink to any depths necessary, "carries the fire" of goodness to the end. Even if the ending panders too much to those preferring tidy resolutions, it plays authentic, after the death of the father and so much despair.

4. Martyrs, Pascal Laugier (2008). A thoroughly demented horror film about a woman who takes vengeance on people who tortured her when she was a child, while her best friend gets abducted by the same atheist cult. This woman is then also tortured in preparation for her "transfiguration", a visit to the great beyond by becoming one with pain. Inevitably, some critics have panned this movie as torture porn, but unwisely. Torture porn (like Eli Roth's Hostel) encourages viewers to want more and to act as voyeurs without feeling much empathy for the victims. The torture in Martyrs isn't remotely titillating, and Laugier's purpose is to put us through a horrendously emotional ordeal and share in the victims' hopes (however futile) for mental and physical liberty. The premise behind what drives the cult is terribly fascinating, as is the idea that only women are receptive to transfiguration.

5. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley (2008). Based on the Broadway play by the same name, about a liberal priest in the '60s who is accused of having an erotic interest in one of his altar boys. The film tells its parable of doubt with flawless craft and intelligence, as two nuns suspect the priest, one becoming convinced of his innocence, the other remaining obsessively certain otherwise. Viewers aren't sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest is a sympathetic character. The theme of doubt works on multiple levels, not least because the drama takes place during Vatican II, when doubt was one of the few common denominators between new- and old-school Catholics. Reviewed here.

6. The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan (2008). I really can't put it better than Repphun for this one: "When the butler Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, Batman's playboy alter-ego, that some men –- the Joker in this case –- just want to watch the world burn, he nails the character of religiously-motivated violence in the contemporary world, which is more performative and symbolic than strategic or tactical. In the final analysis, this is a startling depiction of the deep irrationalities and the dark magics that underlie the surface of the rationalised modern world. It is also a striking visualisation of the things that modern societies must do to combat these forces." As when Lucius Fox reluctantly agrees to invade every citizen's privacy to locate the Joker (shades of the Patriot Act), and then resign from serving Batman out of disgust. Reviewed here.

7. Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2006). This underrated film uses the Tower of Babel narrative in Gen 11:1-9 as an allegory of failed communication. In three stories obliquely interconnected, people become isolated on account of misunderstandings and prejudice. No one is a hero or villain, because everyone behaves understandably, yet no one understands. We see cultures collide in the contexts of America, Mexico, Morocco, and Japan, and the plots become admittedly a bit contrived to make the big picture work. But it's inevitable in a film like this, and it doesn't feel manipulative. The film gets better with subsequent viewings and represents the most creative working of the Tower of Babel account into a piece of literature or film, aside perhaps from the well-known scene in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength.

8. There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson (2007). About a ruthless oil man at the turn of the 20th century, who gets tangled up in the town-politics of a fundamentalist church. The narrative and moral scope of this film is amazing, dealing with the power of charisma, hypocrisy, exploitation (of land and children), and inevitable alienation from society. Repphun describes it as an "intertwining of the religious and the economic that can be read as a condemnation of the Prosperity Gospel movement or as a critique of violence perpetrated in the name of profit that is given a slickly religious gloss." That's about right. So is this Scarface religionized?

9. The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson (2004). Unlike Repphun, I say Gibson's film is an important achievement which doesn't depend on endorsing a medieval mindset or even a Christian one. It takes us into the eye of a paradox where retributive justice and mercy become one, which isn't so different from Homer's Iliad when you get down to it. It's no more anti-Semitic than most passion dramas (and in some ways less so than the gospels of Matthew and John) and it can't be classified as torture-porn any more than Martyrs (#4) for the same reason (though for a hilarious argument to the contrary, don't miss this review). It's more mythological than historical, naturally, because it's Catherine Emmerich's vision. (The fact that Gibson can't distinguish myth from history is his problem, not the film's.) For better or worse, this myth is a heavy part of our Western heritage, and it's powerfully realized here. I'm probably even less religious than a critic like Roger Ebert, but like him, I can respond positively to orthodox beliefs.

10. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron (2006). Another post-apocalyptic film like The Road, portraying a bleak future in which humanity has lost the ability to reproduce, immigration is criminal, terrorism runs rampant, and law officials treat people like beasts. A pregnant woman suddenly offers hope for humanity, but it's not terribly clear why, anymore than how women lost their fertility to begin with. Cuaron's dislike for back-story and clear exposition seems to have led him to use the concept of infertility as a vague metaphor for the fading of human hope; yet the film ends on a note that plays into one's predispositions, so that optimists will sense at least some hope for humanity, others not so much. Whether this means the film is unsure of its vision or profoundly polysemous, I'm not sure, but there's no denying its mythic power.

Friday, December 04, 2009

From Dunedin: The Top 11 Religiously Themed Films of the Decade

Eric Repphun of the Dunedin School offers his pick list of The Top 11 Religiously Themed Films of the Decade, in no particular order, as follows:
1. Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)
2. Children of Men (Afonso Cuaron, 2006)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
4. Heaven (Tom Tykwer, 2002)
5. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
6. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
7. Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006)
8. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Kim Ki-Duk, 2003)
9. The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005)
10. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
11. The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien, 2006)
I've seen seven of these (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10) and appreciate the reason for The Dark Knight's inclusion: "When the butler Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, Batman’s playboy alter-ego, that some men – the Joker in this case – just want to watch the world burn, he nails the character of religiously-motivated violence in the contemporary world, which is more performative and symbolic than strategic or tactical." I'm also very pleased to see There Will Be Blood making the cut. The narrative and moral scope of this film is amazing, involving the power of charisma, hypocrisy, exploitation (of land and children), and alienation from society. I didn't much care for Spirited Away, but then animation seldom impresses me.

Repphun then singles out what he considers the worst religious movie of the decade:
The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004)
Readers know I admire this film, even if I'm light-years away from Gibson's world-view, and in fact it's one of my favorite three Jesus-films of all time -- the others being Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew (praised in passing by Repphun) and Arcand's Jesus of Montreal.

On whole it's a nice list, and I'll have to add the four I haven't seen to my Netflix queue.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre also has things to say about Repphun's aversion to The Passion of the Christ.

UPDATE (II): Repphun inspired me to do my own pick list, on which three of his choices appear.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Biblical Studies Carnivals

Doug Chaplin asks us to reconsider our approach to the Biblical Studies Carnivals. He suggests two alternatives to what we've been doing for the last four years: have the host rely entirely on (mainly self-)nominations that are sent in, or have the host do a general theme post with others commenting (Doug seems fond of the latter idea).

I agree with Tyler Williams that anything close to the latter option means we're not talking carnivals anymore, so in my view it should be discarded. But I don't necessarily agree with Tyler that relying on submissions alone "is the only real option", though one could follow this procedure (and I'd be surprised if some carnival hosts haven't already). For myself, I enjoy combing through blogs and feeds as much as (if not more than) relying on what's simply handed to me as a host. Relying on submissions means that quality posts could easily be missed simply because no one takes the trouble to nominate them. Yes, it's more work for the host, but if that's a concern, you shouldn't be signing up to do a carnival more than once a year (maybe even every two years). I suppose that's easy for me to say, since I've only done one carnival so far...

Nor do I like the idea of increasing the frequency of the carnivals. If anything, I would have suggested going in the opposite direction (bi-monthly or quarterly), though I think monthly carnivals are just fine.

In other words, I like the carnivals as they now stand, as both a (monthly) reader and (one-time) host.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Biblioblog Top-50: Semi-annual ratings

This has been an interesting day on the Biblioblog Top-50. Now apparently the top 50 blogs will be rated on a semi-annual basis. For the period of the last six months, The Busybody comes in at #45.

Wrong Gone Again

As Jim West feigns boredom with the Biblioblog Top-50, others know the real story. I too have giant expectations that our Kiwi will soon resurface with new surprises.

The Historical and Resurrected Wrong

In a recent post, The Biblioblog Top-50 vs. N.T. Wrong, Mark Goodacre notes the resurrected Wrong's (The Bibliloblog Top-50's) "failure to maintain the kind of subversive, counter-cultural, liberal persona" of his first incarnation. He's "less fun" too. Is there something similar here to the historical vs. the resurrected Jesus? Perhaps even intended on the Kiwi's part?

I'm glad to know Crossley's SBL paper was well received. The nine-month phenomenon of N.T. Wrong merits the attention given by James. I find myself missing Wrong more and more each month, and oddly enough, having increased difficulty making the connection between the Biblloblog Top-50 and the first incarnation. But I suppose that's as it should be.

"Obscene" Speech in the Deutero-Pauline Letters

I'm looking forward to reading The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment, by Jeremy Hultin, which I just reserved through interlibrary loan. In the meantime I see that Peter Orr has done a trio of blogposts, Obscene Speech in Paul (I), (II), (III), on the prohibitions against foul language in Colossians and Ephesians. According to Orr's presentation of Hultin, our English translations fuel misleading perceptions of what the deutero-Paulinists condemn. Here's how the ESV and NRSV, for instance, translate Col 3:8, 4:6:
"But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk [aischrologia] from your mouth... Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." (ESV)

"But now you must get rid of all such things -- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language [aischrologia] from your mouth...Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone." (NRSV)
Here's how they translate Eph 5:3-4:
"But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking [eutrapelia], which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving." (ESV)

"But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk [eutrapelia]; but instead, let there be thanksgiving." (NRSV)
In the case of Colossians, the NRSV gets it better, because, according to Hultin, aischrologia does not have any sexual reference as in our English cussing. It means abusive and unkind speech. The salt reference, moreover, is lost on many of us, because it was often a synonym for humor or wit in antiquity. The author of Colossians is thus advocating the use of humor to win people to the gospel, and only condemning abusive speech (which is on par with anger, wrath, malice, and slander, the other vices condemned) -- not necessarily sexually obscene speech -- in such a context.

In the case of Ephesians, neither translation is impressive, because each renders eutrapelia negatively ("crude joking", or "vulgar talk"). According to Hultin, eutrapelia was understood positively in antiquity. It was a witty form of speech that doctors often used to put patients at ease, as did lawyers with clients, and commanders with their soldiers. The question then becomes why the author of Ephesians condemns something so valuable.

Orr puts the question this way: Why is humor and wit commanded in Colossians but condemned in Ephesians? An obvious answer (for me) is that we're dealing with two different authors and there's no reason to expect consistency between the deutero-Paulinists. But we still have to wonder why the author of Ephesians comes down hard on something esteemed so highly. Orr thinks the way to make sense of it is by connecting verses 3 and 4, meaning that "evil things" shouldn't appear in speech, "even through the otherwise good speech-form of wit". If that's true, our English translations of eutrapelia may not be too far off the mark.

I'll ponder this more when I get to read Hultin's book.

UPDATE: I have read and reviewed the book. Orr is on the wrong track in trying to reconcile the texts the way he does. The author of Ephesians condemns not only obscene language, but even innocent humor in view of a sanctified community.