Monday, December 1, 2014

What are the Best Religious Movies?

What are the best religious movies?

It's December, which means it's time for the biannual invasion of lackluster live action sermons masquerading as entertainment. Christians are celebrating the birth of Christ. Setting aside the fact that he could NOT have been born in the Winter, that the holiday was scheduled to absorb assorted pagan and Yule festivals and the "celebration" is more "orgy of stuff" than religious remembrance, I choose to focus on mainstream entertainment that's actually religious.

The Charlie Brown Christmas Special is of course high on the list. While not a movie, it does an excellent job of touching on both the religious and commercial aspects of the holiday.

"A Man for All Seasons," is, in my opinion, one of, if not the best, treatment of faith by Hollywood. It deftly and intelligently examines the intersection of Man's Law and God's Law in a manner that's far more insightful and useful than just about anything said by anyone ranting about "Activist judges."

While I enjoy the original Robocop, and it's a very obvious Christ allegory, it really doesn't qualify as a "religious" movie unless you consider criticism of corporate dominance to be a religious topic.

What are your thoughts? What do you consider the best, or the most entertaining religious movies? Please, don't limit yourself to Christianity.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Honey Badger vs the Darkness

My six year old son had been having problems sleeping at night due largely to the typical childhood fears of monsters, shadows and vague noises. Remembering the fact that Honey Badgers are formidable animals, I hatched a plan where we watched a National Geographic documentary about Honey Badgers. When it was finished my son concluded that honey badgers were about as badass as animals could get. I ordered him a stuffed honey badger and he waited with baited breath for it to arrive.

When the box was opened we played with his stuffed animals a bit, including a sequence where he had to convince his stuffed cheetahs, lions and other fierce creatures to stop being scared of the Honey badger, because he was their friend.

That night when my son went to bed, he brought up his usual fears about scary things in the darkness.

"What time are Honey Badgers most active?" I asked him.

He thought a moment and replied, "At nigh. They're nocturnal."

"Exactly. Your Honey Badger is hunting when you're sleeping. He's on guard while you sleep. That's how he evolved."

My son smiled.

"An you know what else?"


"Do you think there's ANYTHING you're scared of that the Honey Badger can't take out?"

He laughed. "No Daddy." He then got very serious. "But what if there's too many for my honey badger to fight?"

"Remember the documentary?"


"Do you think your other stuffies could sleep through the racket of a honey badger fighting?"

He laughed again. "No Daddy."

"Well then, if anything scary comes by, your honey badger will take it out. If it has any trouble, it'll make so much noise in the fight all your other fierce animals will hear the racket and come to your honey badger's aid. By that point there'll be so much noise Mommy and I will wake up too."

"OK Daddy!" he announced, and flopped into bed, fiercely snuggling his new friend.

He still wakes up at night now and then, but generally because he wants to cuddle with Mommy or Daddy. His fear of dark things in the night has pretty much evaporated. He's even taken to venturing downstairs at night, so long as he has the honey badger and one or two other particularly fierce creatures in tow.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

@ksorbs Kevin Sorbo vs the Ten Commandments

I know, I know, examining the theological implications of a Kevin Sorbo quote isn't really fair, but it's fun.

I have always said, the ten commandments are basically pretty good rules to live by even if you are an atheist. - Kevin Sorbo

At first blush, that sounds like a perfectly reasonable statement, assuming your knowledge of the Ten Commandments is limited to "Well, they're rules we're supposed to follow, right?" Let's take a quick look at the Ten Commandments from the viewpoint of someone who doesn't believe in God and see if Mr. Sorbo is right.

To the Bible! Wait, There's More Than 10...

The first problem we encounter is that the Bible doesn't really contain the Ten Commandments as they're  traditionally presented in Sunday School. The "Ten Commandments" that keep cropping up on courthouse walls and monuments on public land are an edited fusion of selections from Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the ordering and wording chosen varies from one religious sect to another. The Wikpedia article on the Ten Commandments has an excellent table showing the most common variations, reproduced here:

  • S: Septuagint, generally followed by Orthodox Christians.
  • P: Philo, same as the Septuagint, but with the prohibitions on killing and adultery reversed.
  • T: Jewish Talmud, makes the "prologue" the first "saying" or "matter" and combines the prohibition on worshiping deities other than Yahweh with the prohibition on idolatry.
  • A: Augustine follows the Talmud in combining verses 3–6, but omits the prologue as a commandment and divides the prohibition on coveting in two and following the word order of Deuteronomy 5:21 rather than Exodus 20:17.
  • C: Catechism of the Catholic Church, largely follows Augustine.
  • L: Lutherans follow Luther's Large Catechism, which follows Augustine but omits the prohibition of images[17] and uses the word order of Exodus 20:17 rather than Deuteronomy 5:21 for the ninth and tenth commandments.
  • R: Reformed Christians follow John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, which mostly follows Philo.
The Ten Commandments
S P T A C L R Main article Exodus 20:1-17 Deuteronomy 5:4-21
1 1 (1) I am the Lord thy God 2 [18] 6 [19]
1 1 2 1 1 1 1 Thou shalt have no other gods before me 3[20] 7[21]
2 2 2 1 1 2 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image 4–6[22] 8–10[23]
3 3 3 2 2 2 3 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain 7[24] 11[25]
4 4 4 3 3 3 4 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy 8–11[26] 12–15[27]
5 5 5 4 4 4 5 Honour thy father and thy mother 12[28] 16[29]
6 7 6 5 5 5 6 Thou shalt not kill 13[30] 17[31]
7 6 7 6 6 6 7 Thou shalt not commit adultery 14[32] 18[33]
8 8 8 7 7 7 8 Thou shalt not steal 15[34] 19[35]
9 9 9 8 8 8 9 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour 16[36] 20[37]
10 10 10 10 10 9 10 Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's house) 17a[38] 21b[39]
10 10 10 9 9 10 10 Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's wife) 17b[40] 21a[41]
10 10 10 10 10 10 10 Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's servants, animals, or anything else) 17c[42] 21c[43]

That's 13 commandments!

The actual passages contain more than 13 between them, even when you account for similar commandments, but the sad reality is the Ten Commandments are an editorial study aid created by church and synagogue leaders, not a literal list of rules laid out that way in the Bible. Since Kevin Sorbo never specified WHICH religious tradition he meant when claiming the Ten Commandments were a good set of rules for Atheists to live by, we're left with the following options:
  1. Pick a tradition and run with it.
  2. Evaluate Exodus 20 AND Deuteronomy 5.
  3. Evaluate Exodus 20 OR Deuteronomy 5.
  4. Go through the pool of 13 proto-commandments traditionally used to fabricate a list of 10.
From a Biblical scholarship standpoint Option #2 would be the better choice, but this article is about Kevin Sorbo's theological claims, which are already somewhat divorced from Biblical literacy by the mere use of the Ten Commandments as a baseline. To cover the bases properly, this article will go with Option 4, covering the pool of 13 commandments traditionally pared down to a Decalogue.

 I am the Lord thy God

Already we have a problem. An atheist can no more acknowledge Yahweh as their God than a Christian could acknowledge Jupiter or pray to Hercules to act as an intercessor with Zeus. Fortunately for Sorbo, this Commandment is really more God stating how he views his place in relation to humanity. It doesn't give an actual command. This is probably why many Christian sects drop it from the list.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me

This is what most Protestants and Lutherans think of as the First Commandment. While its predecessor above allows for a pantheon compatible with, for example, Hinduism and many forms of modern paganism, this one encroaches on this territory, demanding Yahweh get preferential treatment over other deities a person worships. This is particularly problematic for someone whose pantheon doesn't even INCLUDE Yahweh.

Needless to say, this commandment is right out for an atheist, as they don't believe in God to begin with.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

Often combined with the rule that precedes it, this Commandment also fails as a guideline by which a non-Christian could live. Atheists are going to follow this rule in an incidental manner. Not believing in any god, an atheist is not going to be making an idol. If they made an idol, an object intended to be worshiped, they would no longer be atheists.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain

This is one is bit more complicated than it appears at first glance. Most modern Christians see this as little more than a prohibition against using God's name while cursing. The older interpretation, and the one probably closer to what the original authors would have intended, is a prohibition against making oaths under false pretenses or that you didn't intend to keep. It takes the form of taking God's name in vain because it was common practice to swear in the name of your deity when you made a vow. Americans still do this by having people swear oaths on Bibles.

This commandment is the first one examined so far that is actually good advice. If you take it by the modern definition of "don't swear" it's a miss manners piece of advice. If you take it by the older, more accurate interpretation, it becomes a very foundational statement about maintaining your integrity and trustworthiness.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy

We'd have fewer arguments in this country about labor rights if this one was taken seriously by the allegedly Christian business leaders.The utility of this commandment to a atheist is going to depend upon what you mean by "keep it holy." If you mean "Go to Church or Synagogue" then the commandment is useless to an atheist. If you mean "rest and recuperate" then taking one day out of seven to relax is very good advice that will benefit most people.

Honor thy father and thy mother
After a long dry spell of ambiguous or useless commandments we finally get to one that has some undeniable value. This commandment is usually paired with a promise of long life if you obey it. Since Leviticus 20:9 and Deuteronomy 21:18-21 call for unruly children to be put to death, this was not an empty promise. In a Biblical context, the promise of a long life if you honor your father and mother is an unambiguous "Obey, or we'll kill you." In a more modern context, the promise is still applicable. A child who heeds their parents  when they tell them to look both ways when crossing the street or advises them on good gun safety practices is generally going to live longer than a kid who discards that advice.

In general, honoring your Father and mother is a good idea. Sadly, there are plenty of abusive and negligent parents. Because of them, a disclaimer would be advisable to allow children to, for example, not honor a parent who sexually molests them. Aside from the absence of this disclaimer this commandment is good advice for atheists.

Thou shalt not kill

This is by and large, good advice for anyone to follow, unless of course they're a soldier at war.

Thou shalt not commit adultery

The rise of Polyamory, open marriages and the fact that many Millennials aren't feeling the need to get married before combining finances or starting families makes the essence of this commandment good advice, but the wording outdated. The real essence of this commandment is to not violate the relationship parameters you've set with your partners. In Biblical times this consisted of a man agreeing not to have sex with a woman who wasn't one of his wives or concubines, and the wives and concubines in turn agreeing not to have sex with anyone but him. That rather simple man / property arrangement isn't really applicable in modern times. Despite the fact that some rewording is needed, this is still good advice for atheists. Since monogamous marriage is still the most common adult relationship structure, "Thou shat not commit adultery" still covers the vast majority of cases.

Thou shalt not steal

Again, good advice for everyone. That's why the idea was in the Code of Hammurabi.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor

Kevin Sorbo curb stomped this commandment with his shameful and dishonest portrayal of an atheist in "God's not Dead." With that performance, he bore false witness against about 20% of Americans, according to recent research.

The key problem with this commandment seems to be how many people are perfectly happy to lie about someone who is a member of a group they're prejudiced against. Jesus tried to clarify who our "neighbor" is with the parable of the good Samaritan, but that hasn't stopped even allegedly religious men like Kevin Sorbo from a performance as insulting and hateful as if he'd smeared himself in black-face and sung "Mammy" between bites of watermelon.

The commandment is a good one, but it needs some clarification.

Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's house)
Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's wife)
Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's servants, animals, or anything else)

I vividly remember a high school religion class where the teacher had us discuss why there were two "thou shalt not covet" commandments and why they were broken up the way they were. It's a shame he never had us go back to the actual bible. If he had, we'd have seen the division we were puzzling over was an arbitrary one. Instead of two commandments with a theologically critical division, the actual bible verses are just a few lists with formatting and presentation no different than elsewhere in the Old Testament. The Old testament authors LOVED going into detail. A reformed rabbi I spoke to explained that she suspected the "Stiff Necked people" Moses was contending with were real sticklers for detail, constantly looking for loopholes and exclusions. This lead to a LOT of elaboration. The example she used was in the convoluted and extensive listing of who you couldn't sex with without committing incest.

Because of this, I'm going to treat the three of these as a single unit and say that not coveting is generally good advice. I'm particularity fond of how Louis C.K. phrased the idea.

"The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them." - Louis C.K.

Kinda sounds like something Christ would have said, doesn't it?

The Commandments for Atheists

After all of that, we can cull the pool of 13 proto-commandments into a list that atheists can actually put to use in their daily life.
  1. Do not swear any oaths or make any promises you do not intend to keep. Do not break any oaths or promises you have already made.
  2. Take one day out of seven as a day of rest.
  3. Honor thy father and thy mother within reason
  4. Thou shalt not kill
  5. Thou shalt not violate the relationship parameters you've set with your partner(s)
  6. Thou shalt not steal
  7. Thou shalt not bear false witness against ANYONE
  8. Thou shalt not covet. The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them.
I'm tempted to add a ninth commandment of "The bowl is a metaphor, don't take it literally" just to tease Creationists a bit, but that's drifting a bit from the article's topic.

Getting back to Sorbo's original claim, "the ten commandments are basically pretty good rules to live by even if you are an atheist," we see 8 out of 13 proto-commandments are good advice for atheists, If you make a few edits to disambiguate and modernize a few of them.  That makes Kevin Sorbo's comment 62% accurate, assuming you grant him the commandments that needed editing as whole commandments and not partial ones.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why Kevin Sorbo is so Angry

It's hard to miss just how angry Kevin Sorbo is in his recent interviews. Despite riding high on the success of his low budget flick God's Not Dead, he's showing a lot of anger and animosity towards people he clearly does not understand.

How Kirk Cameron fits In

Sorbo blames his fall from fame on his Christian faith, accusing Hollywood of being "afraid" of God. Is faith is not what did him in professionally. To understand what happened to Sorbo, you first must look at Kirk Cameron. Parallels between the two men are natural. Both were successful television stars who are currently working in poorly written, saccharine sweet, low budget yet profitable movies targeting the less discerning members of the Christian market. The key to understanding Sorbo's bitterness and anger is to examine Cameron's deliberate transition.

Kirk Cameron had a reputation as a holy roller while still on Growing Pains. He went so far as to have the actress playing his girlfriend written off the show because she'd once posed for Playboy. His religious demands did not, however, end the show. Quite the opposite. His insistence that his character grow up provided a level of character development and an overall story arch that was almost never seen in family Sitcoms. Cameron's demands, while religion based, were largely beneficial to Growing Pains as a television program.

It's in their careers outside of their most notable television shows that we see the real divergence between the two men. In 1989, during the peak of his fame, Kirk Cameron starred in the film Listen to Me. In it he essentially played a more mature version of Mike Seaver in a plot that ultimately provided window dressing for a pro-life message. While not a spectacular movie by most standards, it managed to insert a deliberately conservative Christian message into mainstream film in a manner that did not turn off secular audiences. It also marked the point at which Kirk Cameron began to head deliberately towards explicitly acting for the Christian market. He began the journey to where he is now very deliberately.

The Andromeda Tragedy

This brings us back to Sorbo. After Hercules wrapped up, Sorbo got the job playing the captain on Andromeda. Any Star Trek fan who saw the show knew exactly what it really was, the story of the last Federation Starship thrown forward in time to a period where the federation has collapsed. The Federation was renamed the Confederacy, but most the Andromeda species had clear Star Trek parallels. The show was essentially a reboot of the Star Trek franchise, with the ability to tap into the existing Trekkers while giving them the kind of "everything has gone to Hell" storyline the owners of the Star Trek franchise would  never allow to happen. It even had writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe of Star Trek and Deep Space Nine fame, who had crafted an elaborate, multi-season story arch about rebuilding the collapsed confederacy. On paper, the show was poised to be the next big name in sci-fi entertainment, combining all the best elements of various Star Trek shows, Babylon 5 and disutopian sci-fi all wrapped up with a charismatic, well-loved beefcake actor playing the captain.

Too bad they cast Kevin Sorbo as the starship captain.

Sorbo's big problem was that he didn't understand the scripts he was given. It didn't take long for him to leverage his substantial star power to get Robert Hewitt Wolfe fired and replaced with people who would write simpler story lines he could understand. Sadly, this reworking trashed the show's primary premise, reducing it to just another episodic space show. After Sorbo's takeover, the show featured action flick level plots, without the "action" to make up for the lack of plot.

Andromeda was killed. the show was toasted, and, justifiably or not, Sorbo took the brunt of the blame. Perhaps the show was doomed anyway, perhaps it was the wrong time or the wrong market, but because he radically altered the program's direction and complexity for the worse, the fans and apparently the industry, ultimately blamed him. Even fan dreams of a reboot leave Sorbo out of the picture.

The State of his Career

Professionally this put Sorbo in a pickle. He had the ego of a genius director, but the talent of a guy who woodenly recited dialog while wearing revealing outfits. He did not have the talent to back up his ego. Even that was not enough to do him in. His fatal mistake was failing to recognize his own role in Andromeda's demise. Sorbo's recent ranting about being professionally sidelined by his Christian faith shows how he's never accepted responsibility for his own actions. He hasn't learned anything. His ignorant, even slanderous, depiction of an atheist in "God's not Dead" reflects the kind of simpleminded, stereotype driven storyline he can comprehend. Every role he's had since he killed Andromeda has reinforced the notion that he's simply not smart enough for anything more complicated than Hercules.

In light of his career, the way he humiliates himself trying to explain his irrational hatred of atheists is hardly surprising. The popular stereotype of an atheist is an intellectual, an egghead who has thought himself into not believing in the culturally dominant mythology. Truly stupid people often lash out at more intelligent or educated people. Some of them feel threatened, some of them are just scared. Whatever Sorbo's motivation, it's clear he'd rather lash out irrationally than try to learn about the people he finds so intimidating. It's the final piece of the puzzle. It shows us the ultimate reason Kevin Sorbo will never again experience mainstream success. It's not his Christian faith, it's not how he slaughtered Andromeda, it's his overt hostility to anyone with ideas different than his. His movies are so bad, because he's incapable of taking direction from someone he disagrees with. The most promising project he has in the works is a Moonlighting clone for the Hallmark channel.

The Source of his Anger

That gets us down to the reason Kevin Sorbo is so angry and bitter while Kirk Cameron is so cheerful and jubilant. Both men are acing in low-budget movies targeted at the Christian market. Kirk Cameron chose this path out of religious conviction. Kevin Sorbo was stuck with it, as a result of forces he lacks the temperament and intellect to comprehend.