The “Not So Trivial” Star Wars Quiz

With the next episode just weeks away, Star Wars is on the brain. So we thought it as time for our “Not-So-Trivial” Star Wars Quiz. See how you do…

Mockingjay Part 2: Discerning “Real” from the “Not Real” in the Last Days

By Dan Stout
In the final installment of the Hunger Games films, Mockingjay Part 2, Katniss and Peeta intermittently ask each other, “Real or not real?” In the gloomy shadows of ruinous and rank devastation, the world’s survival depends on their bravery. But, in this futuristic labyrinth of crumbling buildings and smoky skies, is it an actual civilization or a hologram? Do global news videos present actual events or simulations? Stripping away sufficient action and romantic scenes, we’re left with a dominant question: Is discernment between good and evil more difficult in a time when power-brokers craftily attempt to duplicate each through technology?

The story invokes messages of Moroni in Mormon Chapter Eight; burying the plates, he describes “great pollutions upon the face of the earth” as well as “lying, and deceivings” in the day they’re unearthed. Some LDS will glean a clearer glimpse of such deceptions in Mockingjay Part 2.

Based on the bestselling Hunger Games trilogy of teen novels (e.g., Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay), Mockingjay Part 2 is the last of the film versions. No novel in the genre has sold more copies on Amazon, not even Harry Potter. Author Suzanne Collins’ global government, Panem, is divided into 12 poverty-stricken districts ruled by black-hearted, yet somehow likable Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Distracting citizens from their agony, the hunger games pit two adolescents from each district in a fight to the death broadcast live throughout the world.

TucciThe first two movies combine impending doom of the gladiator arena with the incongruent jollity of a game show wingding hosted by ultra-flamboyant Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci); his purple doo shines in the camera lights and midnight blue suit flashes with tiny lights. Protagonist Katniss Aberdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) not only wins, but prevails as a universal icon and heroine. Ultimately, she escapes the system, joining a rebel army led by the competent leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). At this point, Mockingjay Part 2 begins, obligated to reveal the world’s fate and wrap up the four-part movie potboiler.

Strikingly different from the earlier “games” films, this one’s less dependent on action and spectacle. Will Katniss defeat Snow, and restore order to a crippled civilization? We want to know, but the question doesn’t deliver the same dramatic tension of the early works. The purpose of MJay 2 is to explain things, or at least offer philosophical lines leading to deeper understanding of how advanced society can revert to barbarianism and fascist ideals. Teens can only take so much running and shooting; inevitably they want something to take away.

Spoiler Alert for this Paragraph: That “something” rests in the “real or not real” motif resurfacing in the climactic scene: Katniss aims her arrow at President Snow, the world having been reclaimed by the rebels; peace is restored. In a jubilant “symbolic Hunger Games,” newly installed President Coyle stands deified above the arena. Katniss draws her bow, recalling subtle warnings about Coyle’s ulterior motives. She knows more about this malevolence than we audience members, so in a culminating second Katniss shoots Coyle to our amazement and disappointment, leaving Snow to be dismembered by the masses.

During this scene, I unexpectedly returned to Moroni’s phrase, “great pollutions upon the land,” but with the newfound idea that it’s about moral pollution as much as air and water contamination. Beyond Katniss’ affinity for competition and survival, is her discernment of the heart or moral intelligence; the capacity to uncover frauds in disguise. In a day when dubious politicians attain positions of power, what ability is more important than spotting a cretin posing as a noble chief?

MJay 2 is an idea movie–not a luminous work despite strenuous efforts to be profound–as when Peeta tells Katniss: “Anyone can kill anyone. You just have to be willing to sacrifice yourself.” Didactic and stilted dialogue nearly curtails its thought-provoking quality, and the pace of the first half is lethargic; it won’t be numbered among this year’s best, although many fans will resonate with the ending’s clarity and closure, especially (Spoiler Alert to the End of the Sentence) Katniss and Peetah’s marriage and subsequent family.

A movie is more than the sum of its parts, however, and MJay 2 is a trove of ideas for wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing discussions that are presently pertinent. Likewise, there are illustrations for media ethicists warning about the “real” or “not real” dimensions of information technology. Is it moral to alter news video? How effective are digitally modified images in swaying public opinion? In MJay 2 the political mood in Panem is easily swayed by a creative synthesis of authentic and simulated battle victories. Are ethical codes in place to thwart such possibilities in our age? Or, at the very least, are we seriously talking about these issues? If MJay 2 moves us in that direction, it will be well worth the price of admission.

Link: Star Wars Needs a Crisis of Faith

In a post at Patheos.com, LDS writer and pop culture critic Cody Ray Shafer argues and explains how the original Star Wars trilogy included a lot of literal and metaphorical lessons about faith — which were mostly lost in the almost pathetic, shoot-em-up sequels. He hopes J.J. Abrams and the new movies will pick up where the original trilogy left off.

The Force is always rewarded; with telekinesis, visions, laser swords, and sometimes actual lightning. Real life spiritual battles are far less spectacular, but that’s why it works as a metaphor. We often claim that faith can move mountains, and in Star Wars it actually does.

A fun read.

Founded in 2008, Patheos.com is an online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs.

 

The Real Beauty and the Beast: Documentary Uncovers Disney’s Uneven Legacy

By Dan Stout

No childhood memories are as magical as classic Disney films. At the Saturday matinee with my friends, the barn scene in 101 Dalmatians offered pleasant escape and brief security during troubled times at home. Similarly, the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp was a first hint at the excitation of romance on the horizon. As for Mary Poppins, I recall preteens crying as they filed out of the theater; they didn’t want it to end. Despite Disney’s international reputation for quality child entertainment, it has drawn sharp criticism. The Smithsonian’s recent documentary, The Real Beauty and the Beast” uncovers the dark side of Disney in its meticulously researched origins of the child classic. Unfortunately, the animated movie and subsequent Broadway musical cheats us, muting the moral impacts of the fable. With nearly automatic praise of Disney products by Mormons, it may be time to revisit the Disney legacy that is being called into question by literary and film critics.

beauty-and-the-beast-disneyThe ending of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has always baffled me. If inner beauty trumps outer appearance, why is the beast turned back into a handsome prince at the end? Earlier versions contain no such transformation; we love the complete person, and grasp the virtue of character over charisma. In a time when bullying is prevalent in schools, the story remains relevant. The tale chides the superficialities of fashion, glamour, and possessions, challenging us to stress character over cosmetics. However, Beauty falls victim to the sanitation tendency of many fairy tale versions. Sanitized Disney films are abundant.

Cinderella supports this argument as well. In the Grimm fairy tale, she is neither delicate nor beautiful, but in Disney films, most heroines are glamorous, implying that beauty defines success. In the Grimm tale, the stepsisters are punished for their behavior: not in the Disney versions, however. In search of large audiences, nuance is stripped from the narrative, either diluting or eliminating some moral messages all together. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is another victim of Disney’s sanitation, primarily unwillingness to depict consequences of abandoning moral principle. In both Disney and ancient versions of Mermaid, she makes a deal with the witch by forfeiting her female voice. But, Disney returns her voice while the latter keeps the punishment in tact, leaving us to ponder the price of yielding one’s right to free expression.

The moral-message flattening of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is hard to top, however. The Smithsonian documentary fills in rich details, resulting in a thought-provoking work that, while speaking to all ages, provides a fuller narrative that parents can pass on to children during story time.

The beauty-and-the-beast fable exists in some form on all continents. Smithsonian historians trace the popularized Disney version to a painting of a wolfman-like hairy man, Petra Gonzalez, found in a castle in the Austrian alps in 1547. Born with hypertrychosis, a disease of excessive hair growth throughout the body, Petra is shunned initially, and thrown into French dungeons. To the surprise of medical experts, he’s intelligent, a good learner–and kind. Subsequently, a place in the King’s court is eventually earned, and Petra’s marriage lasts 40 years. Little information about his death exists nor has his grave been located.

In an era when the physically-challenged endured inhumane treatment if not extermination, Petra is afforded dignity despite his deformity. The painting itself, an artifact reserved for royalty and officials of prestige, supports this claim. And, unlike Disney’s version, there’s no transformation into a handsome prince, an eradication of the moral; Petra is loved for character, inspiring us at a level that the diluted Disney narrative never fully attains.

The Smithsonian film doesn’t stop there; it relates the beauty-and-the-beast story of Larry Gomez, an actor living in Los Angeles with comparable adversities. One of 50 victims of hyoertrychosis in the world, he abandons a life in freak shows and circuses. Determined, he cultivates a life theme of celebrating uniqueness maintaining a positive outlook, despite derision, divorce, and an unwanted estrangement from his son. Again, no “handsome prince” conversion; only the weathered joy of a life fought optimistically, and a circle of friends drawn to his heart of gold.

Unfortunately, Disney’s glossed-over history, and historical inaccuracy extends to other movies. The Middle Ages depicted in Aladdin is an adventure-oriented distortion. Islam is presented unclearly if at all; specific beliefs are not evident, leaving an uncivilized picture of Middle Easterners. Britain’s evolution is more civilized and advanced in Disney works, despite precious gifts of art, science, and medicine by historical Egypt and other Middle Eastern regions.

In all fairness to Walt Disney, good feelings and enchantment elicited by artful animation and good writing are unequaled contributions. Children, he believed, deserve magic moments; they shouldn’t be frightened out of their wits, nor should cartoons be expected to substitute for history classes. The art of animation was his gift. To his credit, moral messages are conveyed, if not didactically.

3899_4Dumbo and Bambi are two examples. Regrettably, the protectionist approach yields sanitized fables bereft of key elements of the world’s cherished tales. Unlike the Grimm’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, where the red-cloaked girl learns of the dangers of entering the forest, (perhaps the point of the story), she and her grandmother are rescued with no problems, narrowing the range of interpretation much like a Rockwell painting where life is good and happiness easily restored to any situation.

No doubt Disney will continue to find safe haven in the Mormon milieu of child entertainment, and deservedly so. From a media literacy perspective, how do we teach children critical skills to view such movies? Such skills are helpful in comparisons of Disney, Dr. Seuss, and Veggie Tales, among others.

Disney also makes movies for adults. How prepared are we to elucidate their moral messages? It depends on our knowledge structure regarding fairy tales and fables. Perhaps in the Disney Age, we’ve forgotten the power of these stories to help us think through moral dilemmas.

“Just Let Go” Movie Review Roundup

By Quint Randle

For FHE tonight we went and saw the movie “Just Let Go.” Because it starred Henry Ian Cusick (Lost, Scandal), I had wanted to see it in a first-run theater. But having been dissapointed on occasions by plenty of other faith-based films produced locally, I put off seeing the movie until it hit the second-run movie houses. Now having seen it, I would say maybe it isn’t quite worth $9 but it’s definitely better than the $4 second-run ticket price. Here is the official trailer along with a collection of reviews.

Sean Means of the Salt Lake Tribune says it makes a “better sermon than it does an engaging drama.” While I agree to some extent, I believe the film is also powerful in its plainness. Any faith-based story is going to be a balance between “message” and “movie,” so I tend to be a bit forgiving here. And this is where Cusick’s acting helps carry the film.

We unknowingly — until we got there — attended a screening that featured a Q&A after the film with the real life subject of the film Chris Williams, whose family was destroyed in 2007 by a 17-year-old drunk driver. This interview by Jana Reiss (scroll down after clicking through) reveals some of the same things we learned in our Q&A session. And maybe that’s why I’m bit more impressed by the film because I got to hear some of the real details from Williams.

Meanwhile, this positive review by Josh Terry of DeseretNews.com says the film”offers a powerful lesson on the nature of forgiveness.”

Like some other recent “LDS Films” that aren’t necessarily LDS films — they are “faith based” films that happened to be produced by Utahns — “Just Let Go” waters down the “LDS-ness” of the story/character in order to make it play universally to audiences everywhere. So it’s not such a niche film. And this is a key question for me. The generic Christianization of the story is a double-edge sword: On one hand it makes it more universal, but on the other hand, I feel it in some ways dulls the spiritual senses of the main character. He’s a Bishop — but as a generic preacher in the movie — he’s not quite as attune spiritually than I believe he might have been in real life.

That being said, my recommendation is to see the film or watch it when it comes out on DVD or via stream. It makes for a great family discussion about forgiveness. What did you think about the film? Leave your comment below.

The Plan of Salvation in a Pop Song?

By Quint Randle

Every once in a while religion and pop music collide in interesting and overt ways. For example, The Byrd’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” adaptation of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1966, making it the No. 1 hit with the oldest lyrics — King Solomon being born around 1011 B.C.

There have been other instances before and since then.

More than a decade ago I was pulling my car into the driveway, when as I often do, I parked in the garage and then ended up sitting solo in the car listening to the radio, finishing a song that wasn’t quite over yet.

This was a new song I hadn’t heard before and I liked it. Big, majestic guitars, big drums and more. “Who is this band and what song is this?” I thought to myself. Since this was a pop/rock station and not Christian radio, I was almost shocked when the lyrics of the bridge hit me. “Did that really say what I thought it said?”

Maybe redemption has stories to tell
Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell
Where do you run to escape from yourself
Where you gonna go?
Salvation is here

After the song ended I ran into the house and did a quick Google search with a few of the lyrics. The tune turned out to be “Dare You To Move” by a band named Switchfoot, a San Diego-based, Christian alt rock band in the midst of “crossing-over” and experiencing huge mainstream success with their album The Beautiful Letdown. (Which according to Wikipedia has gone on to sell about 3 million copies.)

In essence, the song is a commentary on The Plan of Salvation, where mankind comes to earth, then struggles and learns in a fallen state. Verse 1 and 2 lyrics compressed here:

Welcome to the planet
Welcome to existence …
Welcome to resistance
The tension is here
Between who you are and who you could be
Between how it is and how it should be

The chorus then challenges the listener:

I dare you to move…
I dare you to pick yourself up off the floor …
Like today never happened …

And as shown earlier, the song’s bridge then completes the overall message of the song.

Many times since that first listen, “Dare You To Move” has given me unexpected moments of greater appreciation for the renewal we are given each and every Sunday. Salvation really is right there — wherever we’ve fallen. We don’t have to look far at all. So go ahead, “I dare you to move,” I dare you to grow — cause that’s exactly why we are here. And Jesus Christ provides the safety net. That’s the message this “pop sermon” has given to me.

The song has also made me wonder how lyrics with such an overtly positive Christian message attracted the attention and support of the radio programmers who are so good at feeding us all the banal and sexual trash so much of pop music is made of.

But that’s another topic for another post.

What unexpected pop sermons have you encountered listening to the radio?

Has Ellen DeGeneres Replaced Oprah Winfrey as the New Pop Culture Prophet?

ellen-og-1200x630.v2013_09_24_120108By Dan Stout

Mormons know much about prophets; they are the sine qua non of Mormon theology and culture. It’s no wonder that members recoil at the idea of modern-day “media prophets” such as John Lennon when he pronounced, “We’re more popular than Jesus” during 1960’s Beatlemania. As a procession of 10,000 walked by Elvis’ grave holding candles last year, the word, “prophet” was used to describe the singer. Oprah Winfrey, by far the most influential talk-show show host in television history, drew this title in the book, The Gospel According to Oprah by Marcia Nelson. Oprah’s advice for families and thoughtful self-help programs earned her respect among LDS women. She had broad influence: when Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was recommended by her book club, most stores sold out the next day. Since her show ended, Oprah, while still influential, slipped considerably from public view begging the question of who will be the next pop culture prophet. Perhaps more important is the issue of whether such figures can be reconciled with Mormon belief and assist members in reaching religious goals. An unlikely possibility to many is Ellen DeGeneres, given she’s a stand-up comedian and gay activist. Yet it’s difficult to ignore her entrance into the public discourse on animal rights to education reform to fighting hunger. With a loyal audience in the millions, the time may be right to touch on the moral themes of the DeGeneres phenomenon, which has broken the boundaries of the TV talk show genre and made her an opinion leader across the nation.

Given the sensitivity of the subject in LDS circles, let’s address the same-sex marriage issue head on. As a gay woman, she was among the first to promote gay rights in the press, drawing reactions like the article in the Christian Post, by Evangelical Larry Tomczak who identifies Ellen as champion of the gay agenda “celebrating” lesbianism. Though many conservative Christians affirm this observation, DeGeneres’s audience includes members of many faith communities; Forty three percent of Evangelical Millenials aged 18-33 support marriage equality, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. A recent tweet by Michael Sweet of the Christian glam band, Stryper, reflects this sentiment: “No matter what you agree with or disagree with, stand for or stand against – love conquers all. Love prevails, hate fails…” Theoretically, DeGeneres’ fans, whatever their stand on gay marriage, seem to embrace her rhetoric at the more general level of compassion and kindness. She asserts: “We focus so much on our differences, and that is creating, I think, a lot of chaos and negativity and bullying in the world. And I think if everybody focused on what we all have in common – which is – we all want to be happy.”

If she were a preacher, her dominant themes would be kindness, anti-bullying, and friendship. But, perhaps most salient, and what seems to resonate most, is the admonition to be yourself, which she expresses in religion-like prose: “Find out who you are and be that person. That’s what your soul was put on this Earth to be. Find that truth, live that truth and everything else will come.”

More comfortable with the term, “barrier-breaker,” she shuns the tag of politician: “I’m not an activist; I don’t look for controversy. I’m not a political person, but I’m a person with compassion. I care passionately about equal rights. I care about human rights. I care about animal rights.” Her emphasis of moral reasoning rather over political rhetoric is easily translatable to religious tenets, and this includes Mormonism. Equating success with compassion, parallels Latter-day Saint values of service and charity. Having seen the show dozens of times, my impression is that moral principles are ubiquitous, with less time devoted to hot button issues such as same-sex marriage, although they emerge sporadically.

All this is delivered with comedic wit and a well-crafted upbeat show. Her tradition of dancing with the audience to start, reminds me of the communal joy expressed in primitive religion, but suppressed in many faith communities today. She dances, tells jokes, and gives away college scholarships. The show raised over fifty million dollars for charity, by the way. She’s funny and nice, speaking the language of entertainment like a true postmodern media icon. Whether she’s the next pop culture prophet is yet to be determined. I’m reasonably confident, however, her influence is expanding at a time when rising numbers of church “un-affiliateds” are finding religion in media. There’s more to the show than trivial talk. Ellen has bigger things in mind, chief among them a celebration of the self and the need for daily inspiration. While we wait to see precisely what kind of impact DeGeneres will have, we can heed her call to “Be kind to one another” in the meantime.

Seven Classic Rock Songs with Moral or Religious Themes

By Dan Stout

Mormon classic-rockers: Here’s our list of notable rock classics with religious and or spiritual themes. Whether you agree with our selections, one cannot deny the power of these songs to evoke deep feelings; their inspirational power compliments LDS teachings from love to overcoming adversity to dealing with the passing of loved ones. Recognizing they are numerous, let us know about favorites we overlooked.

51iUJ2aSDTL1 “Never Die Young” by James Taylor.

At the top is J.T.’s tender and inspiring admonishment to “hold up” the courageous “golden ones” whose legacies endure beyond the grave. Exquisite melody and soft lead guitar elegantly speak of people of purpose; we must “never let them fall.” Eventually, they “sail on to another land beneath another sky.” It’s music of hope for eternal life.

 2 “The Weight” by The Band

When I asked a devout fan of The Band, what this song meant, he replied simply, “Helping someone.” Aided by one of rock’s most soulful voices Levon Helm, “The Weight” is #41 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Went down to Nazareth, I was feeling about half past dead…” Fulfilling a promise to check on several people, the weary traveler presses on in the name of compassion. The narrative’s characters reflect several Biblical themes.

 3 “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton

A victim of a tragic accident, Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor is the subject of this moving elegy. Co-written with Will Jennings, it asks, “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?” Clapton plays acoustic guitar on this song which “is what kept me alive through the darkest period of my life.”  

hqdefault4 “Hotel California” by the Eagles

According to Eagles drummer Don Henley, the song has taken on a life of its own spawning wide-ranging interpretations. The line, “You can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave” is part of our vernacular. It is a warning against materialism, excess, and the recognition that art and commerce have blended to our detriment.

5 “American Pie” by Don McLean.

Perhaps the poem of America’s soul, it’s a Whitmanesque piece about “the day the music died,” a reference not only to Buddy Holly’s premature death in a plane crash, but the end of the American dream. McLean calls it “a morality song” chronicling a shift in the wrong direction toward a less idyllic period.

 I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

 The chorus, “Bye, bye miss American pie remains a ubiquitous call to gird up our loins to face a new and more challenging world.

6 “Bright Eyes” by Art Garfunkel

Written by Mike Batt and performed by Art Garfunkel for the film version of the book, “Watership Down” it deals with both the sting and natural phase of death. Garfunkel’s thin tender voice is so soothing that the song is commonly sung at funerals.

henry-diltzcrosby-stills-nash-csn-couch7 “Find the Cost of Freedom” by Crosby Stills and Nash

Commitment to a cause is the simple message. Stephen Stills uses Civil War imagery as he challenges us to: “Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground. Mother Earth will swallow you. Lay your body down.” How ready are we to make the ultimate sacrifice for what we believe in?

What pop or rock songs have touched you deeply?