“Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time”

A fairly famous scene from a fairly famous movie that I have long loved:

What I particularly love about this scene comes at the point where Luke asks about “Obi-Wan Kenobi” (at 3:15 on the video above). There’s a beautiful synergy between Alec Guinness’ facial reaction (before he says any lines), the way the soundtrack kicks in, and even the way the camera moves ever so slightly out and up, suggesting the impact on Obi-Wan of hearing that name. The soundtrack at this point is wonderful, suggesting (to my ears at least) an air of something both exciting and mysterious. Even as a child, I knew this moment was special.

This scene does a great job of helping to evoke the existence of a wider universe (something the original Star Wars in general is great at, hinting at a much wider universe than it’s telling us about). But more importantly, it gives the right feel and weight to this moment, because this is the point at which something mythic kicks in. Sure, exciting stuff has happened (the opening, the Droids escape and so on), but this is the point at which the story isn’t just about a Galactic Empire and political rebels, but the force, the Jedi and everything else enters the story. And this is the point that Luke himself receives his “call to adventure”.

It’s no secret that Star Wars has heavy overlap and was likely directly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s ideas of the monomyth or “Hero’s Journey”. In this schema, the “call to adventure” is precisely the point at which the hero learns (often via a wise mentor) of something beyond their mundane world and is summoned to act in this new realm. The call is often refused at first (as indeed Luke tries to too), but once that call is accepted, there is no going back to that former world. And – while there is more to come right after this scene, including Obi-Wan telling Luke the truth (“from a certain point of view”) about his father and presenting him with his lightsaber, this little scene manages to capture the atmosphere of such a moment, the point at which Luke learns of a new, mysterious world and begins his hero’s journey. It’s a fantastic moment that continues to stand out.

And then I remember with some amusement that this was made by the same man who gave us the prequels and Howard the Duck

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“The ox knoweth his owner”

I’m really having trouble comprehending it’s December already. This year has gone by so fast, and with such unexpected (and in some cases undesirable) twists, that I can’t quite compute that the year is nearly drawing to a close while I am in such an unanticipated place. So I guess on with the Christmas videos!

I love the film Ben Hur so much: while fictional, and obviously including other things, I particularly like it’s depiction of Christ (who is shown more in the effects he has on others). The first scene is a fairly standard depiction of the nativity, but one I enjoy for all that. One interesting detail can be seen from 2:25 onwards, as the wise men enter the stable they pass between a donkey and an ox, which briefly grabs our attention though it’s lowing. Many traditional depictions of the nativity include a donkey and ox, but this is not a detail drawn from the Gospels, but actually from Isaiah 1:3:

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.

Early Christians saw this verse as applying to Christ, and so the donkey and ox found their way into Christian iconography, a place which they have continued to claim until the present day.


Incidentally, while writing this I came across what looks like an interesting website on Christian iconography in art at http://christianiconography.info. The page on the nativity discusses a range of details (including the above) that you’ll find often find not only in Medieval artwork, but in modern depictions as well.

New Hardback Edition available!

Working via Lulu.com, I’ve managed to produce a hardback version of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, for anyone wanting a studier edition. My proof arrived today:

I can definitely say I’m happy with how it came out. It’s sadly not sewn bound, although that’s probably a bit much to expect from POD and at this price point. The hardback itself is suitably sturdy, and the text has come out well. And it has a dust-jacket and gold-lettering and everything!:

Here it is in comparison with the paperback (which I guess could henceforth be called the economy edition):

Overall, I’m very happy with it. It is more expensive than the paperback (not to mention the kindle edition, or the free PDF), but once again it is available for as close to cost as I can get it. My primary concern, obviously, is that my work is available to be read and judged for itself, and so I’m happy for people to read it via the PDF or whatever format suits them best. Should anyone find its contents informative and of value, however, and want to read it in what I feel is its best and certainly most durable setting, the hardback is now available for sale via lulu.com and will be available via other distributors.

The hardback edition is available here: Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

The paperback and kindle editions are available via Amazon (including the US, Canadian and UK sites).

And of course the PDF is available via this blog.

Link: “Wilfrid Laurier and the Creep of Critical Theory”

Here’s an excellent article on some increasing – and disturbing – trends in academia, especially in the humanities. In a recent case at Wilfrid Laurier University (in Canada), a Graduate teaching assistant was reprimanded for presenting a televised debate about transgendered nouns, principally because she did not condemn one side of the debate first, and thus help the students reach the correct conclusion (more on that case here). In that particular case, the University has only apologised because the Graduate student involved happened to covertly record the meeting and released it publicly, leading to the unfortunate lesson (in the words of the Graduate student herself): “make sure to secretly record all meetings or they won’t take you seriously.”

As the first article discusses, however, this is not an isolated incident. Under the banner of ‘critical theory’, academics are increasingly acting  as ideologues in service to an ideology that explicitly rejects freedom of speech and thought. Some senior academics increasingly see it as their role to ensure students reach the right, “critical” conclusions, and are prepared to punish those who risk otherwise. And similar trends can be seen in the Entertainment and News industries. In each case, the demands of pursuing a new orthodoxy are overriding what were previously regarded as the most vital functions of these institutions.

The article may be read (and is well worth reading) at Wilfrid Laurier and the Creep of Critical Theory

New reduced US price on Amazon for “The Book of Mormon and its …”

My principal aims in releasing my book, The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, have been twofold: Firstly, to share what I believe are a number of original contributions to our understanding of the Book of Mormon, and how it uses and approaches the Bible, that are hopefully of interest to anyone who is interested in these books of scripture. Secondly, to seek vindication for the unfair and inadequate assessment my thesis received at the viva voce. I’ve not sought any financial gain from it (I’d think I’d be pretty silly if I’d had), and for this reason I’ve made the contents freely available as a PDF on this blog, and have sought to keep the price of the books as close to cost as possible.

Up until now, however, the US price has been kept higher due to the requirements of the expanded distribution channels I was using. Recently, however, I’ve been able to re-evaluate this, and have determined that these channels are not necessary at this time. This has allowed me to reduce the US list price of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible to one in line with the UK/EU prices, and so the book is now available from Amazon.com at a new reduced price of $11.99.

I also hope to announce shortly the availability of a hardback edition, again as close to cost as possible, for those wanting an extra-sturdy and durable edition.

Link: Critique of “The Christ Who Heals”

Robert Boylan has written a very interesting post critiquing the new book by Terryl and Fiona Givens ,”The Christ Who Heals”. It’s a very lengthy article, but is well worth reading every word, particularly for its points on the Reformers (where the Givens, like a lot of LDS literature, take a very rosy view of people like Luther), misreadings of early Christian writers, the Fall (where the Givens, again like others, seem to over-correct and not take sufficient notice that LDS scripture describes it as a very real fall) and the Atonement, amongst a number of topics. I highly recommend giving it a close read:

Robert Boylan ‘Critique of “The Christ Who Heals”‘

The Complexity of the Book of Mormon

During the most recent General Conference, Elder Ted R. Callister (General Sunday School President) spoke about the Book of Mormon, and particularly about its complexity as evidence for its inspiration. All too often, however, I see assertions of the opposite, that almost anyone with some basic familiarity with the Bible or an open copy of the King James version could write it. I came across many such claims during the writing of my thesis, and just the other week found a similar statement in a “Concise Oxford Dictionary of Religions” I came across in a charity shop (namely that the book’s authenticity was doubted because of its “reminisces of the King James version”; I didn’t check at the time, but would be intrigued to know if the contributors had felt the need to make similar statements in regards to other faiths).

These statements typically take the form of sweeping generalizations, with little evidence because few of those making such comments seem to have taken the trouble to examine the book itself closely. In contrast, one very clear finding throughout my thesis was just how exceptionally complex the Book of Mormon’s use of biblical material actually was, far more complex than I’d suggest most actual readers pick up. Furthermore, again and again I found evidence that the authors of the Book of Mormon would have needed to be far more familiar with biblical material than the critics claimed. One example from Chapter 3:

Nephi then proceeds to place a condition upon the fulfilment of this covenant:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

At first glance this appears to be a simple assertion, a claim that this ‘marvelous work’ is to be accomplished by a display of divine power. However, what this misses is that the two halves of this verse are not connected simply by assertion, but by a chain of associated passages:

And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.

(1 Nephi 22:10)

Yea, and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord, saith the prophet; every nation, kindred, tongue and people shall be blessed.

(1 Nephi 19:17)

The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

(Isaiah 52:10; bold, italicised, and underlined text marks linked passages.)

Thus the reference to the blessing of ‘all the kindreds of the earth’ not only refers to the just quoted covenant with Abraham, but also alludes to the second half of 1 Nephi 19:17, attributed as a quotation of the non-biblical prophet Zenos. In turn, the first clause of 1 Nephi 19:17, ‘and all the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord’, corresponds to the second part of Isaiah 52:10 (not quoted here, but quoted four times – twice explicitly – elsewhere in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 12:24, Mosiah 15:31, 3 Nephi 16:20 and 20:35). Finally, returning to 1 Nephi 22:10, we find the first half of Isaiah 52:10 supplying the final phrase of the verse.[1] This is extremely unlikely to be coincidental; instead it appears that the various stages by which the author linked these phrases together in 1 Nephi 22:10 have been left out, leaving only the conclusion.

[1]     Grant Hardy appears to have noticed the same connection, see Hardy, Reader’s Edition, p. 58, footnotes f and g.

As I then point out a little further down:

As noted in chapter two, one particular suggestion has been offered to explain this connection: that Joseph Smith had access to a King James Bible in front of him to assist him. While such suggestions face difficulties from eyewitness statements to the dictation process, this idea has been advanced by both critics and believers in different forms.[1] Thus Wesley Walters, holding that Joseph Smith was the actual author, argues that Joseph Smith must have had ‘his KJV Bible open in front of him’, the only alternative being memorization.[2] Sidney Sperry, on the other hand, while regarding Joseph Smith as a translator, has also argued for the possibility that a Bible was used for help in translating when Joseph Smith came across passages that were recognisably from the Bible and when the KJV was considered adequate.[3]

Yet the above example, and others like it, of the Book of Mormon’s use of the Bible present such suggestions with substantial logical problems. While the idea of working directly from an ‘open’ Bible might suffice for explicit quotations, it is a less adequate explanation for the situation above in which phrases are interwoven into the text and associated by an unwritten chain in which the intervening steps are omitted.[4] Any author would need substantially more familiarity than Wesley Walters’ scenario appears to grant (that is ‘enough to scatter biblical phrases freely’).[5] Likewise any translator attempting to use the KJV as a mundane aid to fill the gaps of any translation would need extensive biblical awareness simply to find the chain of relevant texts. There are historical reasons such scriptural fluency on the part of Joseph Smith has not been assumed.[6] A range of historical and theological possibilities could be suggested that do not require Joseph Smith to have this biblical familiarity; the book itself claims to be interpreted ‘by the gift of God’ (title page). What is clear, however, is that an open Bible alone is insufficient to explain the evident familiarity with the biblical text and the close connection the Book of Mormon has with the KJV.

[1]     All eyewitness statements to the dictation process deny the presence of other texts. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 132; Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 70; Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, pp. 30–32.

[2]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 36.

[3]     Welch, The Sermon at the Temple, p. 135; Sperry, ‘The text of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon’, pp. 80–81.

[4]     Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon, pp. 67–68.

[5]     Walters, The Use of the Old Testament, p. 13.

[6]     For instance, Emma Smith’s report that at one point during the dictation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith expressed concern as to whether Jerusalem had walls. John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, ‘Book of Mormon Translation by Joseph Smith’, Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Scripture, Doctrine, and Procedure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. by Daniel Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), p. 210; See also Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, p. 13.

Obviously, like Elder Callister, I’d attribute this complexity and familiarity with the biblical text not to Joseph Smith, or any other 19th century figure, but to far older figures and ultimately divine inspiration. However, what is clear are that repeated claims that the Book of Mormon simply copies the Bible, and that anyone with an open Bible could have written it, are simply not true.


More examples of this complexity, and much else, can be found in my book, The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, which is available as a free PDF from this site, or may be obtained in paperback or in kindle format (including from Amazon.com here and Amazon.co.uk here).

​Obituary: HAL the laptop

This afternoon, at 17:13 BST, saw the long anticipated but much deferred final passing of HAL the laptop. HAL was a humble Lenovo R500, with at least several owners, and had had a much troubled existence. External cracks covered its case, while at one time it experienced severe RAM problems, leading me to witness more blue screens of death on this device than on all other post-XP devices I have experience of put together. This serious illness was only cured by deliberately mismatching RAM sticks, a most alternative therapy that should have left it more ill, but which somehow gave it a new lease of life. It was a open question several years ago as to whether it would survive to the end of my thesis. Somehow, however, it clung onto life. It somehow endured being lugged about everywhere, and bore the approximately million (literally – I worked it out about six months ago) key strokes that went into writing my thesis, which in the end was almost entirely written on this device.

Somehow it got to the end, although increasing signs of its dotage were seen, and its successor, Mini-HAL, waited in the wings for its eventual demise. Post-thesis retirement offered at least some relaxation of pressure on its keyboard, but in recent weeks it has progressively sickened. Random and instant power-offs, and bizarre happenings with its trackpoint and touchpad suggested the end was approaching, and finally a succession of rebooting on its own volition culminated in one final power off. Now the lights come on, but no one is home, not even any sign of the Bios on the screen. It had written its last document, and would see no more LAN parties.

Thus HAL had borne the burden of a troubled life, but in the end had gotten the job done. Its owner had been long reconciled to its passing, while Mini-HAL has been champing at the bit to see more use. Due to user paranoia and wise use of cloud technology, there has been no data loss.

Shiz versus Coriantumr

A major, but often ignored, theme of the Book of Mormon is the collapse of societies and civilizations. The book concludes by recounting the destruction of both the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations. As I’ve written before, I believe there’s a lot in those accounts that is relevant for the situation we find ourselves in today. There are important differences between the two accounts, however. With the Nephites, they were destroyed by an external adversary, due to their pride, wickedness, and failure to repent despite the mercy the Lord had previously extended to them. While one could see the Nephite-Lamanite divide as a case of polarization, the Lamanites were ultimately spared. In the Jaredite case, however, the conflict was internal, and both sides destroyed themselves in an act of civilizational suicide.

It is perhaps particularly applicable to the social and political climate in which we find ourselves today, that the Jaredites never stopped in their conflict to wonder whether they had any other options. After another period of prolonged conflict, their choices devolve into two: Shiz or Coriantumr. Doubtless there were Jaredites who were exclaiming that everyone must choose, and that it was a binary choice. It was certainly the case that many Jaredites chose their side because of their terror of the other:

And there went a fear of Shiz throughout all the land; yea, a cry went forth throughout the land—Who can stand before the army of Shiz? Behold, he sweepeth the earth before him!

And it came to pass that the people began to flock together in armies, throughout all the face of the land.

And they were divided; and a part of them fled to the army of Shiz, and a part of them fled to the army of Coriantumr.

(Ether 14:18-20)

After all, do you want Shiz/Coriantumr to win? If you don’t choose Coriantumr/Shiz, then all you’re doing is helping Shiz/Coriantumr! At least, many say such things today, and it’s entirely possible that at least some Jaredites said something similar.

Now sometimes there are only a few available choices, and one must try to choose the better one in difficult circumstances. But sometimes, neither choice is correct. Witness Nazism vs Communism on the Eastern front, where two genocidal and evil ideologies faced off, and some choices could be based on but little than “who doesn’t want to kill us right now?” In some cases, there are no good choices. But what would certainly be incorrect in such circumstances is to conclude that, because the other is evil, the other must be good and be embraced. This is a perennial temptation through the ages, a pattern in which we are tempted to accept the evil in one thing merely because it is opposed to another evil thing. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

[The Devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.

The Jaredites became so consumed with their hatred for the other side, they never considered that they didn’t have to choose a side, and that by choosing a side, they would end up destroying both sides. But that was the result of their decisions, even over the heads of their leaders. In perhaps the most interesting part of the account (and one I’ve discussed before), we learn that Coriantumr, though he had rejected repentance earlier, had begun to regret that when faced with the destruction that was happening, and went as far as offering to “give up the kingdom for the sake of the lives of the people” (Ether 15:3-4). Shiz demands Coriantumr’s life as well. It’s possible that Coriantumr rejected that, but any response of his is not recorded. Instead we read (Ether 15:6):

And it came to pass that the people repented not of their iniquity; and the people of Coriantumr were stirred up to anger against the people of Shiz; and the people of Shiz were stirred up to anger against the people of Coriantumr; wherefore, the people of Shiz did give battle unto the people of Coriantumr.

The resumption of hostilities – the final resumption that will conclude in the death of every combatant save Coriantumr – is thus ascribed not to Coriantumr’s reply, or even Shiz’s bloodthirstiness, but to the anger of “the people” of both sides. The people of Coriantumr himself were prepared to keep killing and dying in his cause, even if he himself was prepared to concede at least his position to spare the people.

The only other individual, save Coriantumr, who survived was Ether, who did not pick either side. Yet it was Ether’s legacy – his writings – that continued, which survived the destruction of his whole civilisation and which were preserved for future civilisations to come. It was Ether who ultimately made the most difference, and did the most good, by not choosing either side, but by choosing something higher.

We live in an age in which political and cultural rivals and opponents are increasingly regarded as evil and are called enemies, in an age in which we are increasingly told we must pick a side, and in which increasing numbers are embracing extremism out of fear and hatred of others. This is a familiar account, and one that may well have a similar result. The leap towards violence seems so much smaller once one is dealing with enemies rather than mere opponents you might disagree with. Yet whatever the wider society does, we do not need to embrace evil to fight evil. We can reject such a binary choice. We can choose differently. We can choose higher.

Unbreakable

This post is a break from my usual topics, something that’s likely to happen a bit more often now that my mind has more freedom to wander. In truth I’d wanted to write a few posts about some film scenes anyway, and I’ve discussed at least one before. While I have no love for self-consciously artistic films, or for Oscar bait, I enjoy films, and love it when a film, though good writing and cinematography, manages to mean something more than just entertainment, and speak to timeless and profound things. And sometimes that’s found in unexpected places. It doesn’t seem to be found in the aforementioned artistic films, perhaps because modern art is too attached to the present, and too intent on subversion, to speak about transcendental things that build up.

I’d in fact originally thought of this topic as a series named “great scenes in bad movies”, but then I realised some of the movies I was thinking of weren’t that bad, and the film I’m discussing in this post is actually very very good: it’s just the product of a director who has also produced a lot of bad bad films. Unbreakable is by no means a perfect film, but it is a great one, and one I personally believe is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film, one which with time can be seen to outshine Sixth Sense, let alone the many duds Shyamalan has produced since. This scene here is one of its highlights. As a fair warning, this post will contain spoilers (although I’ll avoid the film’s biggest), but in any case the film was released 17 years ago, so if you haven’t watched it your really should, especially with a sequel now on the horizon!

So to recap (or if you don’t mind spoilers), Unbreakable tells the story of a man named David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has a dead-end job, a failing marriage and every sign of some form of depression, who somehow survives a train crash that kills everyone else aboard without any injury. He falls in with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic-book dealer with severe brittle-bone disease, who is a bit of a kook who believes comic books express some ancient truth, and that individuals like David may be invulnerable to injury and disease. Under Elijah’s rather stalkerish prodding, David discovers that he has indeed never suffered any injury or illness, possesses extraordinary strength, and can mentally pick up on the criminal acts of people he comes into personal contact with. His only apparent weakness appears to be water, which is suggested to be his Achilles heel by Elijah. Increasingly aware of his abilities, he follows Elijah’s suggestion to seek an opportunity to act upon his abilities, and discovers an evil janitor (the orange-suited man), who has invaded a home, murdered the father, and is holding the rest of the family captive. The scene comes in when David has entered the home, intent on intervening:

The bit that particularly gets my attention is the 35 seconds from 02:35 onwards. After falling onto a canvas covered swimming pool and being rescued by the very kids he is trying to save, you see him slowly clamber out of the pool. As he does so he is hunched over, the same height as the children (slightly out of focus in the background), small and vulnerable. Then, in perfect coordination with the majestic soundtrack, he rises. The children suddenly come into focus, but now appear to be looking up in awe at this figure that now appears to dwarf them. If it hadn’t dawned on the viewer earlier, then they realise at this point: this is not a psychological drama, it’s about a superhero.

Quentin Tarantino aptly suggested that the marketing of the film should have had the tag-line “what if Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?”. This is the point at which he, and the audience, fully realise he is superman. And it is so perfectly portrayed in just 35 seconds of film without dialogue.

Yet, while the protagonist is indeed physically superhuman (as the orange suited man finds to his cost), I think this little sequence also shows another aspect of his heroism. While he is indeed immune to injury (save any water-based attacks), I believe it is not this alone that lies behind the title of the movie. We see him here faced with his kryptonite, one which save for the intervention of those he is about to save would have killed him. We see him here bent over, weak, reduced in stature. And yet he rises once again, and becomes the hero that is needed, because it is not only his body that is invulnerable. Despite setback, weakness and near-death, he rises once again because it is his spirit that is unbreakable.