Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

On the shelf in the bookstore, Rebecca Goldstein's work of fiction, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, looked like it promised to be a meaty and entertaining philosophical novel on a topic that has had high public profile in recent years. But it was a disappointment.

Cass Seltzer (get the joke – Alka-Selstzer – there are lots of these), the main protagonist of the novel, is a psychologist who has leapt to fame following the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion. He has been called ‘the atheist with a soul’ by the media and his approach to religion has resonated with a wide readership. As the novel progresses, we meet various people Cass knows including a philosopher who has very strong delusions of grandeur. As the story tediously meanders through 344 pages Cass develops a relationship with a six-year-0ld mathematical wizard who is part of a fundamentalist sect and who is destined to become its leader. There’s also a past lover that turns up who is pursuing immortality. These are just a few of the many characters populating the story, none of whom we really come to feel much care for. Cass, his philosophical mentor, and his love interest, and the math genius are really the only characters that are developed with any degree of depth.

According to the author’s comments on, because ‘Arguments alone can’t capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith’, she wished to

… place in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how different the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.

Unfortunately, 36 Arguments suffers from the author’s uninhibited exploration into all sorts of esoteric subjects which distract from the narrative arc of the book and mostly prove how clever and knowledgeable she is.  There is a tenuous relationship between these forays of obtrusiveness and the theme of religious experience. If you read the book, keep a dictionary handy! It’s almost unreadable at times and I have to admit to skipping a few chapters during the last third of the book.

I did appreciate Chapter 34 which describes a debate between Cass and a Christian apologist which articulates the nature and basis of a secular morality wrapped within an argument on the existence of God. I was relieved to arrive at this chapter as the essential perspective of the author coalesced in a moment of clarity.

In case my readers jump to the conclusion that I am biased against this book because I am a theist and it essentially argues against the existence of God, I hasten to tell you that the Appendix following the story is worth the price of the book! In this appendix, Goldstein outlines 36 arguments often used in support of the existence of God. For each one, she identifies the significant flaws that undermine their power. This is done concisely, articulately, and, at times, with wit. Anyone wishing a brief summary of the best arguments and counterarguments on the existence of God will find this very valuable and deeply thought provoking. It is a shame the novel itself did not have these same characteristics.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Recent DVD Release Recommendations

animal kingdom

Animal Kingdom


A very compelling Australian drama of a family caught in the web of crime. Very moving.

Positive Review
‘It's a remarkable film: A gritty, gut-churning, crime thriller based on a true story. Its greatness lies in its unwavering fidelity to human nature and the unstoppable laws of the wild.’ – Amy Biancolli/San Francisco Chronicle

Negative Review
‘Michôd wants a Greek epic but doesn't have the material. Animal Kingdom is a work of obvious ambition, and seeing a debut filmmaker swing for the fences like this is its own kind of moviehead satisfaction.’ – Michael Atkinson/Village Voice

Get Him To The Greek Movie

Get Him to the Greek

Some funny moments but not really impressed.


Positive Review
‘So comically fertile and yet so grounded in the reality of its characters that it's really a kind of marvel.’ – Mick La Salle/San Francisco Chronicle

Negative Review
‘This final act goes on far too long and devolves into such a miasma of pap that it's clear Stoller had no idea how to wrap things up.’ – Marc Mohan/Portland Oregonian

Friday, November 12, 2010

Movie Review: The Loved Ones


What a lovely title for a movie – The Loved Ones. But don’t be misled! This Australian movie is one of the most shocking revenge horror movies to come along for a long time.

Six months have passed since Brent (Xavier Samuel) has lost his Dad in a car accident he caused. He is riddled with guilt and has immersed himself in metal music, drug use, risk-taking behaviour and is a complete mess. But he is still the most eligible young guy in high school.

Holly (Victoria Thaine) has agreed to go with Brent to the upcoming school prom. Holly recognises the despair that Brent is experiencing but is prepared to take on this relationship because she can see beneath the surface. But Holly is not the only one interested in Brent. Lola (Robin McLeavy), an angelic, sweet, vulnerable young girl also asks him out and, of course, Brent says no. Big mistake!

Lola and her Daddy (John Brumpton) have their own prom celebrations planned for Brent. They kidnap him and drag him off to their quaint little house on a farm where the party consists of torturing poor Brent with knives, injections of Drano, electric drills, psychological abuse, and actions that just cannot be described here. While all this is happening, we are shown a series of flashbacks and parallel subplots that eventually come together in a loose sort of way.

As a genre movie, The Loved Ones is far superior to the torture movies coming out of the US like the Saw franchise and Hostel (which I have never seen but the trailers tell it all!). The Loved Ones adds a layer of serious teen issues like grief, loneliness, desperation for meaningful friendships, and guilt which propels this genre into new territory.

Within that wrapping, however, is some very twisted, perverse, shocking torture which some have suggested verges on “torture porn”.  As an example of the revenge horror genre, it is better than most. But I definitely do not recommend it!


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Friday, November 05, 2010

Jesus Only?

There's a lot of nonsense spoken in the name of God/Jesus. I'm sitting in a bookshop next to a table where there are two guys having a conversation. One of them is telling the other about a talk he's giving to some young people on the upcoming weekend. Here's the essence of his talk:
Friends are unreliable. We may expect them to satisfy our needs but they never live up to our expectations. The only friend that can bring complete satisfaction is Jesus. If I found myself on a desert island with no other people (friends) I could experience complete satisfaction because I would have the perfect friend in Jesus. Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden needed no one else but God to speak with. So that is all anyone needs. So if I find that my friends are letting me down, remember: they are fallible. Jesus is completely reliable and is the only friend I really need to be completely satisfied.
This is, of course, complete nonsense for the following reasons: It completely ignores what we know about relationship needs from psychology. Humans have a fundamental need for relationship with other humans. This includes a profound need for physical touch, without which humans cannot thrive. If one is going to use the Eden story to support the complete fulfillment of a person with God alone, one could just as easily argue that God making a couple after not finding a partner suitable for Adam from the animal kingdom, demonstrates that true fulfillment comes as a result of human relationship. Adam's initial aloneness is conveyed as something that needed to be rectified. That is why the story has God making Eve with the narrative culminating in them meeting and Adam celebrating their union. The whole Bible sees community as core to faith. It is only in the modern West that individualism has become so dominant as the norm. The New Testament is shot through with the communal basis of faith with metaphors of relationship. While Jesus is most certainly described as the matrix within which these relationships exist, there is constant advice to love, support, and encourage one's family, "family", and neighbors. What makes the plans of the speaker to give young people such thoughtless advice is the obvious irony of the situation. Firstly, the guy was married! Clearly, Jesus wasn't enough for him! After his talk to the youth he could go home and cuddle up to his wife. What right does he have to stand before kids who may be aching with loneliness and say Jesus is the only friend you really need and then go and satisfy his own human needs for relationship by being married? And he wasn't alone at the table (obviously). He and his conversation partner were obviously close friends. So here he was putting together a message that Jesus is completely satisfying in an intimate friend relationship! And all this happened to take place in a Christian bookstore coffee shop. Do you think that, as I looked around, I saw people all sitting at tables by themselves with looks of complete satisfaction as they communes with an invisible Jesus? Not at all. Every table (other than one) had at least two people leaning forward sharing conversation together. What response would this speaker likely get standing up to pontificate to lonely kids that then only friend they need is Jesus who will bring them complete satisfaction? Christians throughout history have been isolated from their communities for all sorts of reasons - persecution, accident, circumstances. Imagine a Christian shipwrecked on an island and completely alone. Have any in such circumstances refused rescue because they have found complete satisfaction in Jesus? Certainly many in these situations would describe God as sustaining them through ordeal. But it is an ordeal because it is a not how humans are made to exist. We need to get real with our spiritually vacuous advice to people. Apart from the mystics who deliberately went against their human nature and isolated themselves to commune with God alone, I know of no one would choose a life cut off from others. Surely a message to these young people would be that we are made for relationship. And if you are feeling lonely and neglected and isolated, we are here for you; we will genuinely listen to you; and we will support and encourage you while you learn to relate to others, develop friendships, and navigate the rou sea of living with other flawless people. A satisfying relationship with Jesus will only occur if it is enfleshed in real people who love and accept the lonely and marginalized in the same way Jesus did. Let's hope those young people the presenter was planning to speak to don't leave depressed, disillusioned -- and lonely.