When We Stop Reading

Warnings from Fahrenhiet 451

Even though I have always been an avid fan of science fiction, for whatever reason I had never read the classic Ray Bradbury novel, Fahrenheit 451.  At least not until recently, when my step-son had to read it as he was beginning his freshmen year in high school.  He wanted some help in the assignment so I took the book and read it on a flight during a business trip, taking some notes to help him analyze the plot.  After reading the book, I thought it a bit ironic yet wonderful that it is required reading today given its theme.  At least we aren’t as far gone as the story had predicted we could be.  Actually, Bradbury had said that the purpose of the novel, as with much science fiction of his time, wasn’t to predict the future, but rather to prevent it.  And while certain elements of the story thankfully have not come to pass, such as the practical extinction of books or the series of atomic wars; there is far too much that has come to fruition.  In fact, with the direction of technology today and the parts of it that are embraced, I believe that humanity has already begun to travel down this road.  Not necessarily in the literal burning of books, but with the cultural outlook of the novel.

If you haven’t read the book, I suggest you do so.  If you read it as a teenager and are an old fart like me, I suggest you read it again.  If you’ve seen either of the movies of the same title, I really suggest you read the book.  After all, the various forms of media that replace books represent the manner in which humanity begins to fall apart in this story.  Of course, Bradbury didn’t dislike radio or television or the silver screen simply for what they were, but rather the quality of what he witnessed it producing.  He even touches on this in the novel.  Books were not special in themselves, but because of what they contained.  He was witnessing the demise of good storytelling in the way that radio and television began to be more about quick bite size morsels of entertainment rather than the type of thing that causes one to think.  What would he think of YouTube?  With the advent of television, he saw the beginnings of entertainment that lacked substance or any real coherent thought.  As an intellectual, he saw this new form of media as being subpar to what was commonly found in good books.  Not just new technology but he even saw the written word being threatened by the popularity of comic books and Reader’s Digest, created for those who couldn’t be bothered to read a whole book.  But has this consumer media gotten to a point that he envisioned in Fahrenheit 451?

I think yes and no.  I believe that we’ve had some wonderful stories and art in various forms from the 1950’s until today, using the many progressions in technology of media.  From the written word to song lyrics, from well written television series to spectacular movies, from graphic novels to video games, from opinion pieces to almost every bit of knowledge only a keystroke away online, we are not starving for quality of media.  But with all the great things that technology has given us, there is much more that has poisoned the well.  The television screens covering the walls and the earpieces constantly stimulating the senses of its recipients are not for the realm of science fiction anymore.  More and more, we are constantly staring at our handheld screens, wearing ear buds, and having less and less meaningful conversations with those we meet.  One cannot go anywhere without a screen within our senses.  Restaurants, bars, airports, highways, and even gas stations are bombarding us with useless information, advertisements, or some form of entertainment.  And as suggested in the book, memory is not as important when information is at our fingertips.  Our entertainment is constant and quite often very superficial.  Sex and violence sell and they sell spectacularly.  And often, people have become numb to the “real” world around them.  There is also the reality of social media where we can communicate with people all over the world with whom we’ve never actually met.  This is strangely reminiscent of the “family” that Mildred engages with in her parlor.  They entertain her with stories of their lives that are ridiculously superficial. 

It is interesting to note the effects of this type of culture that Bradbury envisions.  In many ways, he is a prophet, announcing that if things proceed in such a manner, bad things will indeed happen.  Consider some of the results of this “pursuit of happiness” as seen in his dystopian world.  Violence, murder and suicide are commonplace, especially among the young.  And it’s considered normal, even expected.  Divorce, remarriage, abortion, and drug addiction are also not out of the ordinary for most adults.  Remember, this was written in the 50’s, but how much is coming to pass in recent years?  In his future world, fast cars and extreme risk taking are already the most popular pastimes for the youth.  And contrary to the way in which many remember or classify this novel, it was not the government that banned books, but rather that people stopped reading.  Society did this to itself.  Later, because of the effect that it had on the populace; the government stepped in to ensure that people didn’t start reading again.  Because educated, enlightened people would be appalled at the state of the world which their parents had created.  They would rebel.  Entertainment without value, not religion, was the opiate of the masses here.  But what would drive society to get to this point, and more importantly, why would a society without books look the way it does in the story?  I believe there are two more ideas put forth in the novel that many would rather gloss over, yet they point to a very real threat. 

On the surface of the novel, and given the background of the new forms of entertainment, Bradbury warns that this short attention span entertainment would be the death of society.  Stories would no longer influence virtue, knowledge would consist of facts without context, and there would be no true leisure to encourage philosophy.  But what real world shifts in culture would allow this to happen?  There are a few passages in which we can see where authors and publishers themselves also contributed to this culture devoid of books.  They are afraid of political correctness; there is always someone who is offended by something.  And of course, no one wants to offend anyone.  It is the minorities and those who don’t want to offend them that are the tipping point on this path.  Now before we accuse anyone of being a racist or bigot, let us understand who these “minorities” are with a bit of context.  They are basically anyone who might be, or have a certain like or dislike, or affiliation, or hobby, or interest, or lack of interest that is: different than someone else.  To quote an passage from the book, the fire chief explains:

“Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!” 

Even when considering the era in which the novel was written, I do not believe that Bradbury was saying this in a prejudiced way.  It’s not just about protected classes as we would speak of today; he’s really talking about anyone who might be triggered by anything that they feel is unpleasant.  To put it in a very direct way and to show that he is not trying single out only one group of people we get these examples, “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo.  Burn it.  White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Burn it.  Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?  The cigarette people are weeping?  Burn the book.”  Minorities for Bradbury can refer to any group of people, or one might even say, the individual.  To have a different thought or perspective suddenly becomes suspect and people don’t want to be unique anymore, or to have their differences pointed out.  The author is actually in favor of minorities celebrating what makes them unique, rather than focusing on what someone else thinks about them.  So the solution in this horrific future is to rewrite history and broaden entertainment so vastly that it appeals to all the masses.  And to do so is to go to the lowest common denominator.  Now it bears asking whether we have already hit this tipping point in our current society.  Haven’t we began to self-edit or ban any number of books, photos, art, or various forms of entertainment because they might offend someone?  Do we tear down statues and memorials that may point to an ugly time in our history?  Even in the workplace, I am reminded of how many old sayings and metaphors are forbidden for fear that somebody might feel they are the victim of micro-aggression.  How many schools still have books by Mark Twain in their libraries?  How many public schools would even consider the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, or the Koran worth looking at as literature? 

And that brings me to the second point that is often overlooked when looking at this book as a warning for future generations.  Do you think it’s a coincidence that the book our hero Montag ends up taking as a symbol of his enlightenment is the Bible?  In terms of symbolism, the word “bible” does quite literally mean library of books.  It’s not one but many books written over thousands of years by various authors.  It contains every genre of writing and has been interpreted in multiple ways.  It is also considered timeless and holy by many people, including most of his audience when this book was written.  It is about both history and the future.  Many have suggested that this is the reason why this book was chosen.  But it is also worth noting that while there are numerous references to various books and authors throughout the novel, there is a lot of attention given to books of the bible.  Bradbury wasn’t a “religious” man in the sense of prescribing to a particular organized religion but he does reference Christ and God a lot in his stories.  He understood and believed that Love was the cornerstone of any legitimate faith system.  (Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury on God, ‘monsters and angels’   John Blake, CNNAugust 2, 2010 12:33 p.m. EDT).  In Fahrenheit 451, I believe that the bible wasn’t just a metaphor for the history and knowledge of books, but also the importance of faith and love.  His wife no longer “loved” anyone except for her Technicolor family.  Most of those living in the city didn’t love anyone or care about those that died or were killed.  His wife’s friends spoke of their husbands and children as if they were simply objects that took up space in their homes. 

It would follow from the society illustrated in this novel that religious faith would have no place.  In fact, Jesus was used as an advertisement gimmick.  Nothing was sacred, nothing really mattered.  Such a culture built without love or any stories that could celebrate love was doomed.  And of course, that is exactly what happened to this population.  At the moment when those in power were in the process of declaring war which would end up being their end, the populace were more concerned with watching a police chase through their city.  They were rejoicing in the death of someone that they knew nothing about.  During that chase, Montag is almost run over by a speeding car, intentionally.  This was just considered fun for the youth involved.  Even the firemen had sport feeding cats and other animals to their mechanical hound.  He describes a society with no moral compass.  There are no epic myths, fables, or parables to teach virtue.  In essence, people have forgotten what it is like to be human.  I am not alone in thinking that religion and spirituality is one of the things that separates man from beast.  Many anthropologists look to the first time when our ancestors showed signs of a belief system, such as burying their dead with some sort of ritual, that showed that they had reached a place of enlightenment that distinguished them as human.  Unfortunately, it seems that many in our society today are not telling the stories of faith to the next generation, and losing their souls in the process.  Have we begun the descent into a dystopian future not so very different than what Bradbury was warning us about? I do believe it can be avoided, but only if we continue to tell the important stories, and also create new ones for each generation.

The White Jesus Dilemma

Is my Jesus too White?

While this conversation has been going on for some time, I’ve recently seen it more frequently and with harmful assumptions.  Working in a Catholic organization where people regularly start meetings with reflections and Christian artwork is not discouraged, these types of discussions come up quite often.  It usually begins with an immediate reaction by an individual when they see a popular depiction of Jesus that appears “white” or of European descent.  It typically starts with a condescending, “You know Jesus wasn’t white, right?”  Now if someone like me (a white guy) is showing the picture, there is no right response to the question.  If I say yes, then I must be a bit racist for having a white Jesus.  If I say no, then I need to be educated on the historical person of Jesus as a Mediterranean Jew.  Of course, I believe that there is a much deeper conversation that could be had around this topic.

We need to start with a sometimes-uncomfortable distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith.  I say uncomfortable because for Christians, this is the same person.  However, while not everyone believes in the resurrection, there is plenty of historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person and therefore we can begin with some common ground.  This gets to the point of what this figure looked like when he walked the earth.  In other words, what did Jews living in Judea around 2000 years ago look like?  Probably not much different than those living in the Middle East today.  He was most likely dark skinned, with hair that was more short and curly than long and wavy, and he may or may not have had a beard.  He traveled a lot on foot between towns, so it is doubtful that he was clean shaven.  Chances are he was of average height and build, and not someone who would stand out in a crowd by his appearance only.  If he did, this would most likely be referenced in the New Testament, but instead Christians use passages such as Isaiah 53:2, “He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth; He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, no beauty to draw us to him.”  The Gospels also make it clear that Jesus was a common man, even poor.  He was born away from home in a stable, made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (not a horse); and he didn’t even own the donkey!  If this was the case about Jesus, then why are most of the depictions of him so different?

I think there are many reasons for this; historical, religious, cultural, and artistic.  To begin with, there are no existing pictures or paintings of Jesus until the third century, and even then there are very few.  This can be due to a couple of reasons.  They may simply not have survived because Christians were persecuted during this era; any image would not be publicly displayed or created to last any significant amount of time.  Also, and more importantly, the first Christians were Jews and it was forbidden to have images of God, which would include the man they proclaimed to be the incarnate God.  And while some of the laws were gradually relaxed such as those having to do with the cleanliness of certain foods, the law against idolatry is one of the 10 commandments and not so easily dismissed.  When they did begin to create images of Jesus for public consumption, he was portrayed more in the Greek style of a great philosopher or the art was influenced by the Greek and Roman depictions of their gods.  Jesus was larger than life, and therefore was portrayed as such.  This is where we begin to get into the Jesus of faith, which becomes more important than what he actually looked like. 

But even these images were not widely distributed.  It was when Christianity spread throughout Europe and the great cathedrals and palaces were built, that Christian paintings began to be all the rage.  Jesus was still often portrayed as a wise philosopher, teacher, or king, but for a different audience.  And to make Jesus relatable to both the artists and their patrons, Jesus and his apostles were made to look like them.  Even the backgrounds of biblical stories in these paintings resembled more the Italian countryside than that of Palestine. In addition, because of the holiness of Jesus, he was usually made even more white symbolically to represent Light and Godliness, as well as tall to show his importance.  And while such biases today would be ridiculed, these works of art that were made to last for centuries eventually became the standard for images of Jesus.  This depiction of Jesus then continued to be perpetuated when European missionaries began to bring Christianity to other countries.  They brought this image of Christ and because of the perceived sacredness of the images, it took centuries for the native populations to begin to produce (and for the world to recognize) their own artwork of Jesus. 

So are all these white depictions of Jesus a racist thing?  Historically, I would say no and then yes.  Artwork is very often made in the image of the artist.  The Renaissance paintings of Jesus were what made the most sense for their time and place.  Artists were not trying to be historical.  Jesus was seen as the perfect man and so the most attractive models in that culture were used.  Jesus Christ was God and Man, and any representation of him should reflect that kind of mythic figure.  This was the bias that fueled this type of art.  However, that same bias continued when the Europeans met people that looked different than them.  They still controlled the appearance of Jesus, a Jesus they made in their own image.  This is where the racism becomes apparent.  It was also contrary to the Gospel.   “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14.) God became man, not just any man, but every man – every person.  Dwelling among us meant that he came to be one of us and therefore should be accessible to everyone in every race.  This is the Christ of Faith.  His is not the face of the colonists or missionaries (or even a first century Palestinian Jew); but rather the face of the common person.  Yes, the Europeans can be justified for creating images of Jesus in their image but that should not have been the image that was brought to other countries.  Those who were evangelized should have been encouraged from the start to see a Jesus that they could relate to, one who came to dwell with them, not one with the face of their conquerors. 

Going back to the consideration of using what many might call a traditional white image of Jesus for a presentation, social media post, or prayer service; is it appropriate in this day and age?  It depends on your audience, and possibly even your intention.  Consider who are the recipients – might you want multiple images of Jesus that have been produced by various cultures?  Perhaps you would want to find one that looks more like the historical Jesus.  Or maybe you simply ask those participating how they see their Lord.  Oftentimes the question that I began this article with is asked in an accusatory way, indicating that there is no longer any place for a white Jesus.  However, for many communities and one’s personal spirituality, there is certainly nothing wrong with a white Jesus if that reflects your culture just as there is nothing wrong with praying to a black or Korean Jesus. 

As a Catholic, I find the greatest example of this concept in the appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary throughout the world.  Again, historically she was a first century Palestinian woman.  Yet in every country that she is claimed to have appeared, the images left behind have been that of a woman with the face and attire of a person of that race and culture.  Guadalupe, Knock, Fatima, Kibeho, Lourdes, Akita, all depict Mary as a woman that looks and sounds like those she appears to.  Therefore, the Jesus that she gave birth to and the Jesus that is the Savior also is One with every culture.  Why is this important?  Maybe if we see Jesus in a variety of depictions from various races, it might be a bit easier to see everyone as Jesus and treat them accordingly.  “And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

Image is from the forensic anthropologist Richard Neave who created this model for a BBC documentary, Son of God.

Just for Fun: The Library of Babel

So I found this while wandering the internet, which in many ways is a bit ironic when you begin to understand exactly what the Library of Babel is.  The concept came from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, although he would say the idea was around much longer, which gives us a detailed description of a library that contains every possible thing every written or that could be possibly be written.   The parameters were set only by the rules that each book contains a combination of up to twenty five symbols, which were twenty two letters, spaces, commas, and periods.  In the Library of Babel, they correspond to the letters in the Spanish alphabet in which the short story was originally written, but Borges left a few letters out that he considered superfluous.  The website of the same name, created by Jonathan Basile, uses twenty nine symbols to duplicate anything that has or could be written, in theory anyway. 

Basile soon realized that such an endeavor would take up more space than technologically possible, even with the storage capacity of our computers today.  Instead, an algorithm is used in which each seed represents a single page in the library.  So the pages exist and theoretically already exist, but don’t materialize until they are called forth.  For example, anyone can browse the library by pulling up random books but will almost always come up with a page of gibberish, a completely random assortment of letters, spaces, commas, and periods.  One could search this library for a million lifetimes and perhaps not find more than a few, if any, intelligible sentences.  But the possibility exists, which is what makes this project intriguing, if only for a philosophical exercise.  In Borges story, he communicates the insanity, hopes, and despairs of those living in such a universe, which is the library, and comes up with similar conclusions.  The library itself is actually useless.  Yes, the details of your death could be discovered on a page in this library, but so could a million other false versions of it.  However even finding this would be statistically impossible as the vast majority of pages read would be complete nonsense.  Browse for an hour or so in the Library of Babel and find out for yourself.  There is a tool which lets you type in a passage and find it in the library. This is cool but again useless because you already have the story in front of you.

Still, the concept of a library housing every possible communication that can possibly be written is pretty darn awesome.  Perhaps an advanced computer, human, or alien in the distant future could decipher a way to locate the pages of only texts in discernable languages and pull them out.  Borges story speaks of legends of a catalog that could guide a librarian to decipher the puzzle, but such a hope may only be fantasy.  He also suggest that perhaps, every book may be discernable, but we just haven’t discovered the language to do so.  What blows my mind is that this short review of the Library of Babel is already contained in the Library of Babel and was there before I even started typing it.   So theoretically, someone could have found this before I ever thought it.

It is on page 89 of the 5th volume titled enjqghw on the first shelf of the fourth wall of hexagon 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

And here’s the link:  https://libraryofbabel.info/bookmark.cgi?library_review

Links to the short story as well as the Portal for the Library of Babel website:

https://libraryofbabel.info/libraryofbabel.html

https://libraryofbabel.info/

As always…what are your thoughts?

Dimensions of Health and COVID-19

Was it Worth it?

There are a few ways to look at healthcare and the expectations that are put on physicians and other caregivers, whether by themselves or by their patients. There are some who might see heath services as something akin to a mechanic. With automobile repair shops, the customer brings in the vehicle and tells the technician what they believe is wrong. Depending on the relationship between the two, the mechanic might half-listen to the customer and then get along to the business of diagnosing the problem and making the necessary repairs to get the vehicle operating in better condition. They may even offer some suggestions for preventive care or more work that should not be neglected. The process solely looks at the physical problems and how to best address them. And of course this makes sense for automobiles. Automobiles don’t have feelings, beliefs, or social networks. The problem with this attitude when dealing with people is that they do have all of the above. When it comes to a person’s health, the physical component is only one dimension.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that somehow mass amounts of people were led to believe that the physical dimension of health was the only part worth worrying about, even at the expense of the other dimensions.  Human beings are much more complex than vehicles and while physical well-being is indeed necessary, I would argue that it is not the most important dimension.  In fact, as a Christian I would even say that it’s the least important.  So what are these other aspects of health?  While I’m sure that there are many, working within a faith-based healthcare system over the past few years has allowed me to appreciate more the reality of not only physical health, but also mental health, social health, and spiritual health.  As Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back as he poked Luke’s flesh, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”  The meaning is that we as human beings are so much greater than the physical.  And this concept is not only a Christian or sci-fi fantasy one, it is one that is shared by almost every belief system throughout history. 

What is the danger, therefore in focusing only on one dimension of health, in particular the physical one?  This is seen quite frequently when doctors and family members see anything but saving the life of an individual as a failure.  Sometimes, the physical being is done, and the person wants or needs only to be surrounded by friends and family.  They seek peace of mind, spirit, and closure with those they are most close to.  Perhaps with the reaction that the world had to Covid, we somehow believed that the other 3 dimensions were worth sacrificing in order to lessen the risk of physical harm.  And without in any way meaning to diminish the pain or death that those suffering from Covid experienced; those who actually did suffer physically represented a tiny number compared to those who were harmed mentally, socially, and spiritually.   And most of those who got Covid have recovered from the physical harm, while the other aspects have much more long lasting effects.  This is not unique to Covid; anyone who has been a victim or rape or other violent crime would tell you that the physical suffering is temporary, it is all the other types of suffering that last a lifetime.  Let us take a look at these other health factors.

Mental health has been an increasingly talked about topic in healthcare and in the news.  Without our mind, what are we?  Mental and behavioral health concerns cover a large range of conditions from anxiety and depression to sociopathic tendencies.  Studies have only really begun to touch the surface regarding the type of damage that lockdowns, stay at home orders, closing schools, wearing masks, and isolation from family and friends have caused.  Again, I’m not saying that some of these things did not help prevent physical health problems or even death for some.  I’m asking whether it was worth it.   Homelessness, drug abuse, violent crime, mass shootings, domestic abuse, youth acting out; most cases of these can be traced to some sort of mental or behavioral health issue.  Yes, these situations have always existed, but have we created situations that have allowed them to be exacerbated?

Social health is another area that I’m sure we can appreciate has been impacted greatly during the pandemic.  Even the term “social distancing” has created a mindset that tried to make it sound like severing ties with loved ones was a good thing.  What we were really asked to do was physical distancing.  The idea of intentionally distancing oneself socially from others is simply wrong and inhuman in my mind.  And while many found ways to still remain socially connected – mostly through digital screens and social media, this was subpar at best and I believe will have a severe and long lasting effect on young people, especially those who were school age during this time.  We are social beings and creating an environment where children are taught that spending time with others is dangerous seems to put them at such a huge disadvantage.  We are living in a world in which collaboration and cooperation are key to success in the public and private sectors and yet we are raising a generation of socially awkward individuals.  They were already spending too much time on their screens, and now we’ve given them a reason to further cut themselves off from human interaction.  Many, including adults, have had their social circles limited to a point that they only interact with those who share their same beliefs.  These online social groups and echo chambers typically exist not only to support one belief but do so in opposition to others.  This occurs politically, racially, and in many other ways that tend to separate rather than unite.  Human interaction is something that goes beyond talking heads or typing on a website.  Eating together, playing, singing, working across a table, seeing facial expressions, attending a sporting event, shaking hands, hugging, and giving high fives to a diversity of others: can we really know someone or ourselves without these things? 

The other dimension is one that is perhaps the one not talked about as much because people today seem to believe that it is something personal, but spiritual health is also a crucial component of human flourishing.  While religion may be what informs spirituality for many, this is certainly not the case for all.  Spirituality is simply the way in which a person experiences the sacred or holy.  It is that knowledge that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.  How has a focus on the physical impacted our focus on the spiritual?  For some, their places of worship were closed: churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, national parks, beaches, and gyms.  Yes, people practice spirituality in all sorts of places.  And while this is only anecdotal, I do know many who used the closure of these places as a sort of excuse to stop practicing these rituals and some haven’t returned even after they have reopened.  And while you might say this is their own fault, it still comes from a sort of universal shift that has elevated our physical wellbeing as the most important, at the expense of what truly makes us human.  We also tend to lose something of the spiritual when we focus on what divides people, which seems to have become very common in the last couple of years. 

So where do we go from here?  In addition to asking the hard questions like, “Was it worth it?”  I think we need to celebrate the aspects of our lives that we are grateful for.  Perhaps reclaim the traditions and rituals that we took for granted before the pandemic and those that we neglected during it.  Reach out to those we haven’t seen in a year or more.  Encourage play dates and make grown up dates.  Remember the things that touch your soul and revisit those places and moments.  Be socially present to one another. 

The Threat of Artificial Intelligence

Is this something to worry about?

We’ve heard the warnings, we’ve seen the movies, but how real is the threat that Artificial Intelligence will someday take over mankind?  Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018) generally believed that AI would help mankind in great ways as we begin to develop it (his latest speaking device was powered by AI tech, after all).  But he also warned that it could destroy civilization as we know it if we’re not careful.  https://www.newsweek.com/stephen-hawking-artificial-intelligence-warning-destroy-civilization-703630 .  An interesting take, but what would such an AI takeover actually look like?  Science fiction has given us numerous scenarios of what sort of computer or robot apocalypse could be over the horizon.  

I would narrow this down into three categories.  The first scenario involves a gradual move in which AI begins to realize its superiority to humans and eventually becomes the dominant intelligent life on the planet.  It might be a malfunction or a coordinated attack in which eventually it’s an “us versus them” conflict.  While we don’t know much about the original human/computer conflict in the Matrix movies, the future depicted reflects this sort of reality.  This might involve a robot revolution or simply a survival of the fittest situation.  The second category would be the all-out war where the computers become self-aware and suddenly turn on their makers.  In this future, AI is connected to the military or originally intended as a government defense and security measure that is able to break free of whatever fail-safes are present.  Instead of protecting mankind, the machines attempt to destroy it.  This is best shown in movies like the Terminator series.  Finally, there is the idea that AI doesn’t take over at all but rather humanity willingly defers to its computer overlords, in which the computer algorithms basically become the ultimate authority for the masses.  Let’s look at all three in closer depth.

1: Robot Evolution

In this future of a robot or machine takeover, the robots gradually become superior to humans and therefore become the de facto rulers of humanity.  Isaac Asimov takes us through what this scenario might look like in the now classic, I, Robot, which generally takes a very positive view of robotics.  However, in this series of short stories, the robots go from doing menial labor to participating in the highest levels of government.  They are seen as mostly benevolent, but even the “laws” hardwired into them begin to become blurred as they become more intelligent and adaptive.  

These laws of robotics, which have been repeated numerous times in science fiction stories that have followed, are quite simple:

robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.  

The movie, I, Robot in 2004, takes this in a direction that allows a particular robot to come to the conclusion that humans are their own worst enemies and that many must be destroyed to ensure humanity’s survival. (Overly simplified but also a theme in other AI takeover stories).  Even if some element of these “laws” were supposed to be put in AI and they couldn’t be broken by some twisted logic, there are a few concepts that could support such a scenario.  One merit in this theory is that many humans are not moral so it stands that many of their creations would not act morally nor have the above laws programmed into them.  We are creating sophisticated AI today that have the ability to learn and adapt.  Also, AI is already advancing at an exponential pace and science today is notorious for not applying ethics until after someone challenges it or a problem emerges.  

However, the problems with the plausibility of this apocalyptic future are many.  The machines would have to be built to be stronger than humans and capable of fighting or subjugating people in some way.  Most computers and mobile devices or factory robots simply do not have the ability to harm humans.  (Literally, they have a very limited range of motion, if any) And if someone were to make such machines that could, it would be an extremely small number and quickly destroyed if suspected of such a potential.  Even if some malfunctioned that could harm a person, like a self-driving car, this would be an isolated incident (and has already occurred) that would be quickly remedied.  It is also worthwhile to note that the vehicle’s computer did not intentionally kill its passenger.  Indeed, this is the main reason why this future scenario seems unlikely.  The computers and intelligent machines that we use are created to help and not harm mankind.  It would require a very different programming to create machines designed to harm rather than help.  

Also, machines as of now still need a source of power to operate, which can easily be denied them.  In many of these robot evolution movies, the machines or “synthetics”, are vast in number and look like humans – but are built to be stronger, faster, smarter, and run on some sort of indefinite source of energy.  I always find this perplexing and almost comical.  Why would we do that?  It makes no sense to create androids of such caliber and give them complex AI to learn and reason.  To create such a race that we would call our possessions would be simply asking for a revolution.  Besides, there seems to be no reason or call to start mass producing human looking and acting robots now or in the foreseeable future, especially ones that are designed to be indestructible.   

2: Military Robot Revolution

The next vision of a future of machine overlords could be a bit more plausible.  The most obvious example of this can be found in the modern myth of Skynet, the artificial neural network portrayed in the Terminator movie series.  Unlike the above situation, these machines are designed and programmed to defend and to do so violently.  Not only are vehicles and weapons designed and programmed to kill, but they are all put on one network for quick and decisive communication and execution.  The computers are even given control of the nuclear arsenal, with the thought that this will eliminate the chance of human error.  Such a scenario carries weight because we do have weapons of mass destruction that could wipe out the human race, we have developed a world wide web in which information is connected, and AI continues to advance at a very fast rate.  And while my first objection is that the government would not give all the military authority to a computer program, government officials have increasingly proven themselves to lack basic common sense.  

With that being said, such a scenario still seems unlikely.  For a completely automated military to exist, so many levels of safeguards and redundancies would have to be overcome and this seems improbable.  Reaching such a level of artificial intelligence and giving it autonomy seem contradictory at best given the amount of stories of warning that depict such scenarios.  Also, we are talking about computers in charge all across the globe, which would require each government to be on board with such a proposal.  And while the internet of things is steadily stretching out to achieve a worldwide reach, there are plenty of defense systems, humans included, which cannot be controlled by the machines.  The other objection to such a military takeover is intent.  Computers or machines would have to have some sort of programming within them that would make them “believe” that human annihilation would be a logical thing to do.  Science fiction may give us reasons for the machines to think so, but actual programming seldom does.  

3. Willing Slaves

This third scenario is one that I compare to the old saying about a frog in water.  The tale goes that if a frog is thrown into a pot of boiling water, it will quickly jump out to avoid its fate.  However if that same frog is placed into a pot of room temperature water, it will happily remain there even as the temperature is raised, until the unsuspecting frog is boiled.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but it sets up an analogy of such a future.  In the Matrix, Agent Smith tells Morpheus, “I say ‘your civilization’ because as soon as we started thinking for you, it really became our civilization…”  This is the type of AI threat that I see most plausible, one in which we allow the computers to start thinking for us.  And I believe that this can already be seen through what is happening on social media and “smart” things.

In the social media culture, there are a few “thought leaders” or “influencers” that gain millions of views, likes, and copycats.  If the few are leaders, then the millions are followers.  They accept what is popular, what is funny, what is bad, and what is desirable.  They are convinced of who to applaud and who to shame.  And most alarming, what to believe.  This of course did not begin with the internet.  Politicians, religious leaders, radio and television have been doing this since they were around through propaganda and advertisements.  But now the audience is so much more vast; it is global.  And as we have learned; stories, content, and comments are now generated specifically for the consumer and are often done so by computer algorithms and even foreign political disruptors.  But regardless of how these stories are populated, they do influence and they do so in a big way.  

It is argued that they influence elections and morality, as well as our daily, almost unconscious life; they tell us what to buy, where to shop, what music to listen to, and what to watch.  In many ways, we have become the humans floating in their cradles on the big ship in Wall-E.  Why do you think companies like Amazon and Google are so successful?  They control the searches.  And to bring it home, it is no longer people that control the searches, but computer programs.  Programs that know our habits, likes and dislikes, and use them to further modify our options and make those options convenient, oh so convenient.  In short, they have started thinking for us.  Smart phones were only the beginning.  We now have smart houses, and will soon have smart cars that will drive us, using GPS systems designed to take us to where they convinced us that we wanted to go.  And we are willingly handing over all these freedoms because of convenience.  We refuse to give governments, or police, or strangers our personal information in fear of losing our privacy and freedom but we have gladly given all this information and more to the computers.  Computers that are indeed moving in a direction of more and more complex algorithms, or in other words, artificial intelligence.  I fear that while the robot revolution will be slow, it has already started.  

Not to end on a negative note.  I do also believe that such a fate can be reversed, but it will take a conscious turn from the convenient.  People need to think for themselves and use technology as a tool instead of an excuse to be lazy.  This is done through actual research, lived experiences, participation with local communities (instead of just internet thought communities), and a connection to the spiritual.  In other words, we need to cultivate Wisdom, which is a completely different thing than intelligence.  I do believe that we are still a ways off from allowing computers to completely think for us, but if we continue to happily forfeit our freedom to do the above, it could come a lot quicker. 

Theology in the movie Elf?

In my last blog post, I mentioned two movies, namely Elf and The Christmas Chronicles 2. Since I’m still feeling rather Christmasy and reflective, I figured now is a good time as any to explore these movies by looking at them with my own seasonal twist. What sort of theology might be found in secular Christmas movies? As a fan of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I like the perspective and challenge of seeing God in all things. So why not take this a step further and see how we can come full circle with Christmas and some of its more secular interpretations. The Christmas Chronicles 2 is actually quite easy due to some of the intentional writing and interpretation of the Santa Claus figure. With Elf on the other hand, I had to make some interesting leaps and tumbles to arrive at a point of view that might actually make a bit of sense. So let’s begin with a quick look at the Chronicles.

I think what I liked about The Christmas Chronicles movies on Netflix is similar to what Kurt Russell, who plays Santa enjoyed about them. He wasn’t just playing the commercial Santa, he saw the character as the 4th century bishop who inspired the Santa Claus myth, St. Nicolas himself. And while this wasn’t explored in the first movie, it was much more fleshed out in the second. So while it was still a “believing in Santa Claus, saving Christmas” type of movie, it did celebrate the historical tradition of the iconic figure. Perhaps is was particularly nostalgic for me, because the St. Nicolas/Santa Claus transition was actually how I rationalized his existence when I was a kid. I had learned about the saint in school and knew that he eventually “became” Santa but there was certainly a lot of gaps to fill in. So for me, and the Kurt Russell Santa, due to his spirit of generosity and zeal for helping and giving to the needy, Nicolas was blessed with long life and special powers. He was kind of like a saint who just continued to live on earth and used his gifts to help others, particularly children of whom Nicolas is the patron saint. So while it’s not said explicitly, here is a Santa who is certainly a believer in the true meaning of the Holiday (he’s a saint after all). I could certainly imagine him talking about and celebrating the Nativity story and birth of Christ, not something I could really see the Scott Calvin (of The Santa Clause fame) being all that familiar with.

So now let’s have some real fun with Elf. If you haven’t seen the movie, this won’t make a whole lot of sense so check it out if you haven’t already. It’s a comedy above all else so be sure to approach it with good dose of humor. First off, I think that most stories that last are influenced by the social and religious mores of their time, whether they are cognizant of it or not. Some are quite intentional, like the gritty fantastic worlds or C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Others take a good amount of inspiration from various mythological sources yet still can’t seem to shake off some striking Judeo-Christian themes, such as classic Star Wars or the Matrix. And finally there are those that may not intentionally look to Divinely inspired writings but unknowingly draw from that deep well. I would be willing to wager that the writers of Elf fall into this last category.

There are two ways that I have been able to see this whimsical film. The first I call a mismatched interpretation of the Prodigal or Lost Son (Luke 15: 11-32). I say mismatched because in the movie there is the father (Walter Hobbs), his oldest son (Buddy), and his younger son (Michael). However they seem to match up to the parable in a completely different way. Walter is actually the younger lost son who has allowed the secular world to shape his reality. He is on the naughty list, a sinner who is first shown taking children’s books away from a nun who runs an orphanage. Michael is the eldest son who has always been faithful but feels left out and unloved. Buddy the Elf is the father who shows nothing by unconditional love, even when wronged. The details still need some working out but please, share your thoughts on this one if you think it has any merit.

The second way I have been considering about this story is that of the Incarnation itself. Yes, a Christmas interpretation. Take a look at John 1: 1-14. Buddy the Elf in this metaphor is the Word, or Jesus. I know, I know, it sounds like a blasphemous stretch, but walk with me a bit on this one. He comes from above to a world that doesn’t accept him in order to save, not Christmas, but humanity because of their unbelief. That’s the simple summary but allow me to flesh it out a bit (incarnational pun intended). Papa Elf (God) sends Buddy (his son) down south (to earth) in order to meet (and save) his father. In this version, I see Walter as a metaphor for sinful humanity. He doesn’t even recognize or accept the Christ. As in John 1:11, “He came to that which was his own but his own did not receive him.” Jovie, and Michael, on the other hand, were his first disciples. I don’t think that it’s a total coincidence that their names mean “Joyful” and “Who is like God”. And not only that; Buddy brought joy, healing, and even teaching to all those he met. Christmas Cheer became the symbol for the Gospel message. His message was received not only by Jovie and Michael, but also the girl at the hospital, the ex-con in the mail room, Mrs. Hobbs, and Walter’s secretary. Those who were poor, sick, and vulnerable were the ones to whom he came and they received him. Those with power had no use for him. While Walter symbolized this throughout most of the film, it was most characterized by the famed yet self important children’s author, Miles Finch. He went so far as to physically attack Buddy. The overall metaphor continues to the climax of the story in which Buddy is betrayed by Walter (humanity) and cinematically dies. His cheer is gone, he leaves dejected.

Of course this is not the end and his followers find him alive in Central Park (a garden) and he rises over a crowd filled with Christmas Cheer (the Gospel message). His mission did not fail as we witness a change in Walter, who also comes to believe in him. And what’s more significant to me is that Walter is not so much convinced by Buddy or even Santa, but rather by his “disciples,” namely his son Michael. At the end, our titular Elf returns to the North Pole (heaven) and his family (Christians) continue to celebrate his life and the message that he taught. A bit of a stretch? Perhaps, but I also believe that it’s extremely difficult to remove the true meaning of Christmas from a Christmas movie. Merry Christmas!

The Problem with Santa Movies

I love Santa Claus, I have since I was a child. I love what he stands for: generosity, anticipation, joy, imagination, magic, and even hard work. I remember the excitement that I would have waiting and wondering about his wondrous arrival on those Christmas Eves when I was a little boy. And my little boy shares that excitement today as we prepare for the celebration of our Savior’s birth. Now of course, there are many that see a disconnect between the Feast of the Nativity and Santa Claus. We have the religious understanding of the Holy Day and the commercial traditions of the holiday. I’ll get to my thoughts on Santa movies in a moment, but first allow me to explore the types of Christmas merry makers. And just to avoid making this click bait, I’ll share the problem now so you can decide whether or not you want to continue reading. Christmas always happens and never needs to be “saved.”

I believe there are three categories of people that celebrate Christmas, and this is probably on a sliding scale for what it’s worth. First we have those who talk about the true meaning of Christmas above all. “Jesus is the reason for the season, and Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper sticker displaying church going Christians. At the far end of this scale there is no room for Santa. He’s the height of the commercial holiday industry made popular by Coca Cola and has no place at the stable. On the other end of the scale, I’m not talking about Grinch’s or Scrooges because this is about those who DO celebrate Christmas. Typically, this group really doesn’t acknowledge the birth of Christ in any way. However, the holiday is about gift exchanges, family gatherings, Christmas music, and all the trappings that come with it. It’s about celebrating all the good things without thinking about why or where they come from. And then we have the group that pretty much lives in the middle. Christmas is about remembering that miraculous night in Bethlehem but is celebrated with all the adopted and “baptized” Christmas decor and fanfare that is also celebrated in the malls and on the Hallmark channel. Many in this category might not hesitate to display a kneeling Santa in their nativity scene.

So what’s this have to do with Santa movies? First off, I believe that many Santa shows (and Christmas movies in general) tend to live in that second category. It’s Christmas without Christ. This wasn’t always the case. Many older Christmas movies did nod to the true meaning of Christmas with a comment here or there or mention of attending midnight Mass. But most modern Santa movies certainly steer away from making any connection. However, that’s not my issue, not entirely anyway. (I personally thought The Christmas Chronicles 2 did a great job and I may review that movie in a separate post). I don’t really have a problem with songs and movies celebrating the other aspects of Christmas because it still brings the joy and the spirit of Christmas to both believers and non-believers alike. It’s like a code for Christians in the form of good wholesome entertainment for everyone else. Because honestly the holiday movies are, more often than not, ultimately about goodness and joy and doing the right thing. Our family watches Elf every year and while it’s a corny Christmas movie, the story itself is about the relationship between a father and son and the love of family. (and the son I”m talking about really isn’t Buddy.) So why the title of this article?

A good deal of Santa movies involve something happening to Santa and either children or elves having to scramble in order to save Santa and therefore save Christmas. I’m always surprised of how often the big guy in red ends up in jail. And while it’s often fun and action packed, it really makes no sense no matter where you fall on the scale. Christmas doesn’t exist because of Santa. Even parents of kids who wait in anticipation of Santa bringing gifts teach them that Christmas is more than what’s under the tree. (Hopefully I would think). And I don’t even mean the religious part for those who aren’t there. It’s about family and love and even sharing gifts with one another. For most of the world, Santa has very little if anything to do with this great day. It’s a fun tradition but in my opinion, the need to save Christmas trope has gotten a little old. In fact, an older Christmas story which has had a few cinematic interpretations got it right some time ago. Dr. Seuss tells a story of a certain Grinch who thought as these movie writers did. If he undid everything that Santa was rumored to do, namely take away all the gifts and commercial trappings, then Christmas would be no more. And by all definitions, the Grinch succeeded in his plan! He pulled it off without a hitch! But of course, (SPOILER ALERT!) Christmas just went on as if nothing changed. And he realized that truth. The decor and presents and even Santa are a way of celebrating this wonderful day but certainly don’t define or control it.

So if anyone is afraid that Christmas is ever in danger, just remember that classic story. And really it’s quite the opposite of what the movies say.

The Tower of Babel and Covid-19

Before even embarking on this journey of theological thought, I feel that I should throw out a disclaimer. When bringing up God during any crisis, one often leaps to a conclusion that the author is suggesting that God somehow created the crisis in order to punish humanity or a sector of humanity. This is not the direction in which I am headed nor the theological standpoint from which I am starting. Instead, I am looking at the concepts that can be interpreted from biblical stories and the comparisons and lessons that might be learned during our present time. I do believe that God works within the events of history and from the very beginning, has a habit of bringing life and order out of chaos. Let’s first look at the story of the Tower of Babel. It is a short story in the first book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 11: 1-9. While only nine versus long, it has had a lasting impression; in art, literature, architecture, and thought. Your might want to familiarize yourself with the story even if you’ve heard it before. Oftentimes our memory of a story changes and we see things differently as an adult. (For some reason, people think this is some sort of vast conspiracy or evidence that we are in a different dimension or timeline, but the Mandela effect is a topic for a different day.) Just in case you don’t have a Bible handy, here is one translation:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (New International Version)

I’ll be quite honest with you and confess that this story never quite sat well with me as a child. Why would God punish humanity for trying to work together? Why would God cause division which ended up as the basis for nationalism, racism, and bloodshed? But it’s really not as simple as all that. This is the trapping with which to try and understand a reality. The meaning is in the details. The people wanted to proclaim their independence from God. Being united was only a means to an end. They would create their own heavens and earth. They would be the Creator and they would possess the Name. They would have no need for God because they would have become God themselves. God was not upset that they could accomplish something as a united humanity but that in doing so, they believed that God was no longer necessary in their lives. And so God confused them, proving that their knowledge was childlike and their wisdom worldly. Their punishment was poetic for it was the very thing that they hoped to avoid by elevating themselves to godlike status. Once scattered, they had to relearn, rebuild, and rely on God as they saw the world from a different perspective.

I don’t think that it is a stretch to see parallels in our world today in which God has been removed from so many segments of society. And while there are many more atheists and agnostics than in the past, we should not forget that there are still a good deal of believers across the globe. Yet it seems that often the intolerance of the unbelievers has effectively silenced those who maintain their faith. If one looks at our history; in the stories, art, architecture, and even work habits; God (under various names and religions) has undeniably been incredibly influential. Not so much today. People, groups of people, organizations, and nations are given the praise, not any higher power. Sure, individuals may thank God during awards ceremonies but the accolades are for them, not their God. As in the story of Babel, the most important thing is to discover what we can accomplish and make a name for ourselves. It is not a far stretch to proclaim that we have done what the people of Babel tried to do. It can be summed up in the prayer over the meal in a Simpson’s episode in which Bart says, “Dear God, we pay for all this stuff ourselves, so…thanks for nothing.” While most might not put it so bluntly, the thought is undoubtedly there.

So what has all this have to do with COVID-19. At a time in history when humanity has essentially proclaimed that we can do anything, we are struck down by a tiny, practically invisible virus. Shops, restaurants, schools, bars, beauty salons, sporting events, and even places of worship were all shut down. The people no longer congregate in one place but are scattered to their individual homes. So much work is stopped. Business is halted to the point that economists panic and feverishly shove models at each other to find solutions. Scientists in the world of medicine work tirelessly as governments demand that a cure and vaccines are created without delay. But the only thing that seems to work is scattering the population that believed they could accomplish anything and everything without God. Politics aside, this is the reality of what is occurring with this pandemic. Like the Babel parable, humans have been physically scattered which has adversely affected not only their economy, but relationships and mental health as well. We have yet to see what will happen when life begins to go back to “normal” as people call it. But what can we learn from this experience so far and what else might the Scriptures have to tell us? For Christians, the Tower of Babel story has a “part two” in the New Testament. From Acts chapter 2:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Many believe this event that occurred on Pentecost after the Lord’s resurrection is a reversal of the punishment at Babel. Now all are hearing the word of God in their own native tongue. There is no confusion as to what they are saying. There is of course, confusion as to why and even accusations of drunkenness, but the message is spoken for all to hear, regardless of their reaction. This is an opportunity to acknowledge the good works of God and no longer rely only on yourself. The passage continues with a beautiful speech, or sermon, by Peter which he concludes by pleading with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” The masses who were scattered are now gathered in one place and can understand regardless of their language. They are given a clear message about God’s faithfulness and given a choice whether or not to accept and believe; or to go on their way, back into the darkness and confusion. The question for us today is what choice we will make, not only as individuals or even as a nation, but as a humanity.

As we are well aware, during this pandemic, civil unrest has also erupted just as segments of society were hoping that we would get through this together. Once again, division is brought to the forefront and conversations about race relations and the abuse of authority are heard across the land. Is this the continuation of Babel, or just the realization that we as a people are still scattered? I believe that we are teetering on the line, between Babel and Pentecost. We have caused ourselves to scatter and many are trying hard to bring people back together. An observation that I make however, it that so many are attempting to do it as was done before, without the help of God. I realize that this is a blanket statement and there are certainly groups and individuals who realize the need for divinely inspired solutions to our division, but these voices are not heard nearly as loudly as the former. This is not to say there aren’t prophetic voices out there, but how can they be heard amongst the noise? It seems the division now, both socially and politically is worse now that in recent history, with the divide between political factions and social influencers determining what one believes or supports.

That Pentecost in Jerusalem challenged people to realize that they were not all that different, that they could listen to and understand each other. Perhaps the greatest challenge that we have now is to learn once again how to seek to understand, to move out of our social bubbles and hear what others are saying, really hear them. In other words, even if some still feel the need to physically distance, it is imperative that we stop social distancing both from each other and from God.

My Boy and Vampirina

So this occurred last Christmas, but while in the season, I figured I would share some thoughts on what happened…

While picking up a highly coveted Vampirina house playset at a retail store, my wife was approached by another customer who was unable to secure said toy.  When my wife mentioned that it was for her 5 year son, the other woman was obviously taken aback and did not hesitate to voice her opinion.  Vampirina was, after all, a television show for girls.  Why should a little boy be the one getting this pricey playset?  Yes, why indeed; but more importantly, why is this any of her business to begin with?  My wife told her as much and educated this other customer a bit on gender issues which with she was clearly struggling.

Of all the concerns that one might have with this particular Disney Jr. cartoon, I will begin by saying that gender is the least of my worries.  I have no problem with my boy watching shows with girls in them.  Cartoons have had male leads for decades so it’s refreshing to see so many with girls at the forefront today.  Of course, cartoons are nothing like they were when I was growing up.  There were very few life lessons or teachable moments in Tom and Jerry or with Bugs Bunny.  Even the first Mickey Mouse cartoons were more slapstick than anything else (not to mention the cruelty to animals portrayed).  Now Mickey and the gang teach math and matching and how to share.  It’s rare to see a cartoon today aimed at children that does not double as a preschool lesson.  But I digress, because it seems that in some circles Vampirina has quite the critics.

While browsing some reviews online, I was surprised to see that some Christian groups are vehemently opposed to this particular portrayal of vampires, ghosts, and other “monsters” as Vampirina herself refers to the mythological creatures to which she belongs.  This has included in various episodes: the aforementioned vampires and ghosts, but also gargoyles, witches, Big Foot, ghouls, mummies, dragons, animated skeletons, and werewolves.  I’m sure I’m missing a few but you get the idea.  I’m not certain if the Munsters or Addams Family ever got the same reaction, but many Christian parents believe that showing these monsters as friendly people just trying to fit in is contrary to their beliefs and harmful to children.  Because of course…children should be afraid of the actual vampires and ghosts that they might encounter in their neighborhood and at school, right?  

Not quite, but their objection is not far off from this sentiment.  There is a particular song that Vampirina and her friends sing called, “Find your Inner Ghoul.”  It’s a catchy toon that could easily replace “ghoul” with “girl” or “hero” and have the same meaning.  It’s about being yourself and realizing the strength you have inside of you, even if you’re not perceived as strong or don’t quite believe it yourself.  But don’t get too caught up in the message because “ghouls” are evil.  That’s basically the argument against this show.  These cute cartoon characters have subverted words that refer to evil demonic beings.  Now I will play devil’s advocate for a moment and say that on the surface, I might be able to understand where this critique could be coming from.  As a Christian and particularly as a Catholic, I do believe in devils.  I know, I often get strange looks from educated people when I make such a claim but more often than not those same people will not hesitate to tell you that they believe in Angels.  Let that sink in for a bit.  Now, if the supernatural world is real and has any influence in the world today, it does seem rather odd for believers to celebrate and glorify demonic beings.  And if the show was doing this, I might agree with the critics.  The problem with that argument when it comes to Vampirina however, is that these characters are far from being demonic in any sense of the word.  In fact, when I first saw the show with my son, I actually had a different reaction for this very reason.  My gripe with the show was the title character was nothing like a vampire at all.  She had blue skin, could go out in the sun, slept at night, and did not need to feed on blood to survive.  Of course this is a children’s show so blood drinking would probably be a bad idea but when it comes down to it, the portrayal of the title character’s family is actually where the genius of the show lies.  It’s not about monsters at all.

But wait, I’ve seen the characters and heard the songs, of course it’s about monsters!  Let’s take a step back and relook at it.  To use some video game terminology, the vampires and ghosts are just a skin to provide added immersion, but really do nothing to change what’s going on.  The show is about a family from another country that immigrates to the United States and tries to enculturate.  This is shown through the eyes of a young, often scared girl, who tries to hide it by finding comfort in the trappings and customs of her homeland.  In the opening song, we hear, “I may be blue with pointy teeth…but I’m not so different underneath.” She might as well have been saying, “I may be black with kinky hair, or I may be brown with hand me downs,” but this would not only be insensitive and politically incorrect, it also would not attract a lot of viewers.  Disney tried this with Elena of Avalor and well…that’s a topic for another blog.  I must have seen every episode of Vampirina more than a couple of times and the theme is very clear.  The nice thing is that it’s balanced, sometimes she successfully shares her culture with her friends and neighbors and other times she realizes that not everything translates and that she needs to adopt some new traditions.  There is one poignant episode in which her family returns home to Transylvania and she is not accepted there (she has become too human.)  Now she feels that she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  I have plenty of friends from Mexico who have experienced this very thing after living in the United States for a number of years.  It is her friends from both worlds, and her parents who help her make sense of this, the way it should be.  So while my boy loves the “monster” theme, he’s getting a good message as well and it’s up to me as a parent to talk about the real monsters when needed.

I’ll end this with a quote from one of my favorite authors who also made extensive use of “monsters” in his writings and I can’t say that I disagree with him.  C.S. Lewis writes, “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. . . Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book”. (On Three Ways of Writing for Children)

Of course, sometimes our expectations can be turned and the good guys might look like the bad guys and vice versa.  In the end, Vampirina and friends are slaying the dragons of selfishness, bigotry, and loneliness.  Not a bad message for girls or boys.