Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Movie Review: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an almost spiritual experience as we enter into the life and times of ancient humans through cave paintings that are 32,000 or more years old. Using 3D technology we are taken into the Chauvet Caves of Southern France - a rare opportunity as no one else has been allowed to film in the caves.
The caves were discovered in 1994 by a group of scientists. They contain the oldest known human drawings and represent a remarkable cultural and historical find. The French government immediately realized the value of the find and sealed the caves, only allowing a small group of paleontologists and archeologists annual access to its treasures. Access is extremely constrained and small non-professional cameras with limited lighting only were allowed on the first visit. On the second, state of the art 3D cameras were used allowing the rich texture of these paintings to be shared. It is awe-inspiring to think that over 30,000 years ago someone was painting these drawings illustrating the animals and birds that were part of their world and telling stories that we now are "hearing". But we can know very little even though what has been preserved is in pristine condition. Just to enter the caves in 3D is enough though. In places it is like a cathedral and the experience, along with the haunting music of the soundtrack, provides a humbling meditative experience.
At times, the commentary is a little over interpretive and the post-script is excessively hyperbolic to the point of almost spoiling the mood of the film. The film could be shortened by cutting some of the extraneous material. But overall it provides a rare opportunity.
For some Christians, certain difficult questions will immediately arise (and most likely quickly avoided or rationalized away). Specifically, those Christians who believe in a very young earth need to deal with the fact that these paintings are over 32,000 years old and some of them even older than that. More and more evidence mounts for a very old earth and for a chronology of human history that just doesn't fit with a literalistic reading of the Old Testament. None of these issues are mentioned in the documentary but a thinking Christian will inevitably need to deal with the implications of the facts.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a simple film on one level. But the 3D immerses us into what soon feels like a real visit to these caves. I recommend the visit - particularly in view of the fact that very few people will ever get to actually step inside this monumental discovery.
Positive Review
'Director Werner Herzog's latest cinematic mind trip blows you away with its beauty' - Joe Neumaier/New York Daily News
Negative Review
'Cave of Forgotten Dreams feels stuck in a middling zone of too much conjecture and not enough scholarship.' - Joshua Rothkopf/Time Out New York

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book Review: The Book That Made Your World

Vishal Mangalwadi's The Book That Made Your World is an ambitious undertaking that is also deeply flawed. Mangalwadi’s thesis is concisely summarised in the Foreword to the book written by J Stanley Mattson:

‘[Mangalwadi’s] arduous research establishes the fact that the Bible and its worldview, contrary to current prevailing opinion, combined to serve as the single most powerful force in the emergence of Western civilization.’

In over 400 pages, Mangalwadi provides a sweeping series of historical narratives, entwined with his own personal experiences in India and the United States, which argue that features of Western civilization would not have occurred if it hadn’t been for the Bible. His outline of history includes the development of the valuing of humans as being higher than animals; the commitment to rationality; creative technology and its benefits; the formation of the concept of heroism based in humility and service; and the dramatic impact of the translation of the Bible into various languages. He also argues that literature, universities, and science would not have formed in the way they did without the Bible. For the author, the West is the best because of its higher ideals regarding morality, the family, compassion, true wealth, and liberty that transcend all other cultures because of the Bible’s influence. Ultimately, Mangalwadi wants to call the West back to a commitment to the Bible and its worldview to reverse what he sees as a rapid decline in relativistic morality and its consequential nihilism that results in despair. At the beginning of the book, the author holds up Kurt Cobain as an icon of modern culture arguing that his suicide was one of the rare occurrences when a nihilist genuinely followed through on their beliefs. Mangalwadi believes that this is the ultimate end of the West if it does not return to the Bible and its worldview.

There is no doubt that Mangalwadi is a good writer and very widely read. The fact that he is Indian and can make a comparison, from experience, between East and West provides for an interesting perspective. And his stories from his experience give a personal dimension that mostly enhances the history and philosophy that he surveys.

But there are some serious flaws in Mangalwadi’s argument. Firstly, reducing the entire development of the West to the influence of the Bible and its worldview is simplistic. While I am no historian, I am always suspicious when a single cause is offered for something. The world and history is surely more complex than that. For example, when he talks about the development of the wheeled plough, he argues that it only happened because of the biblical belief that toil was sinful (whereas work was part of God’s original creation). But as another reviewer has pointed out, farmers who are making a living from their work are surely going to look for more efficient ways of doing their work even if they did not subscribe to a “biblical” worldview! Mangalwadi also completely ignores a range of other influencing factors on the development of Western civilisation – the occurrence of plagues, growth in population, and a host of other historical events. For Mangalwadi everything is the result of the Bible and the adoption of its world view.

Secondly, Mangalwadi speaks of the worldview of the Bible. There is no acknowledgement in the book that the Bible has been the basis of multiple interpretations and “world views”. Mangalwadi presents what might be called the best of the Bible and the best examples of socio-cultural examples based on the Bible. But he fails to mention that the Bible has, for many people, been the basis of some very bad practices and used in support of genocide, slavery, and the “raping” of the environment.

Thirdly, Mangalwadi doesn’t mention any countries that have been successful without a basis in biblical theology or world view such as Japan and Singapore. How did they develop so well without a commitment to the Bible? And what about countries based firmly on a secular philosophy such as Sweden?

Fourthly, Mangalwadi completely dismisses any other religion or worldview has having much of value. But there is no sustained engagement with any of these alternatives. According to one Buddhist scholar who reviewed this book, Mangalwadi actually misrepresents Buddhism.

Overall, The Book That Changed Your World is an uncritical exposition of history. There are sweeping generalisations without any evidence being provided, selective use of the biblical text (on some occasions, no biblical evidence at all), and the equating of a romanticised view of the Bible (which is not as even in its presentation of God as Mangalwadi implies) that completely ignores the fact that Christians are just as prone to many of the social evils of our time as non-Christians (eg, teen pregnancy, divorce, domestic violence, child abuse).

In the end, The Book That Changed Your World is a work of apologetics rather than a scholarly and critical look at the relationship between the Bible and the development of Western culture. There is no doubt that the Bible has been influential – for good and for ill. While Mangalwadi’s book makes for an interesting read, it takes a too uncritical approach to history and the Bible to make it reliable. If one already believes that the Bible is solely responsible for the best in civilisation then this book will bolster that belief. But for a well-informed, educated believer, the evidence won’t be adequate to support the thesis as it is presented.

Acknowledgement: I found Jeff Swanson’s review very helpful, in particular, in parts of this review. I recommend it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Movie Review: The Ledge

the ledge

The Ledge is a flawed but legitimate attempt to tell a story exploring the relationship between faith and reason – from an atheist perspective.

The story opens with Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) standing on a ledge on a tall building clearly planning to jump. Hollis (Terrence Howard) is the police officer in charge of talking Gavin down. In a series of flashbacks, we find out that Gavin has been having an affair with Shauna (Liv Tyler) who is married to Joe (Chris Wilson). Shauna and Joe are fundamentalist Christians. The mystery is what has brought Gavin to the ledge willing to jump – and it is not what you might think it is.

The writer and director, Matthew Chapman, to his credit, wrote the script and planned the movie determined to do it the way he wanted to – fully expecting not to have the movie made because of that. But it got made and it provides for thought provoking viewing even if it is somewhat amateurish in its execution.

The major problem with the movie is that it has a “preachy” flavour like so many Christian movies that offer black and white answers for complex questions. The dialogue is forced and some of the acting is artificial, although Wilson and Howard just about rescue the film with their interpretations of their characters.

Another flaw is that both the fundamentalist Christians and the atheist characters are too simplistic. The film overall is too dogmatic in its view of both and does not reflect the nuanced best of these antagonistic views. The premise of the story is brilliant and it had the potential to be a very profound piece of cinema. But, as Chapman has indicated in an interview I heard on Point of Inquiry, he wanted this to be an explicit argument from an atheist perspective. And that is what it is – an overt argument about faith and reason with cardboard stereotypes and simplistic reasoning. The “philosophical” agenda of the writer has overshadowed the story and made creative writing and professional production a secondary concern.

As a vehicle to stimulate some discussion around a number of issues, the movie has some value and there is a certain level of entertainment. But given the movie had such well known stars and was clearly backed by commercial support it is surprisingly amateurish. And the “winning” side of the argument is rigged from the beginning by comparing the best of atheism with the worst of Christianity – a poor thinking move itself.

For me, the most significant theme in the movie is whether people need God (or a belief in some external authoritative revelation of morality) in order to live good lives. I get very frustrated when I hear some Christians saying how atheists cannot have a system of moral values because they don’t believe in God. Clearly, many atheists do. They have reasons for living well and, sometimes, those reasons are based more in a care for humanity itself than some Christians who seem to merely be obeying the laws of God (as they define them) to avoid God’s displeasure. The gospel of grace subscribed to by most Christians should free them from serving for any other reason than love for fellow humans. And there is absolutely no reason to think that an atheist cannot do that.


Positive Review
'Chapman coaxes good performances from his cast, especially Wilson, who makes Joe's immense conflicts a matter of empathy as much as abhorrence.' – Peter Rainer/Christian Science Monitor

Negative Review
'There's nothing wrong with establishing a field of unlikable characters, but The Ledge not only relies on paper-thin stereotypes, it keeps its allegiances clear from the beginning.' – Jesse Cataldo/Slant Magazine

Content Advice
sexuality, language and some violent content