If he isn’t the word of God, God never spoke.

After reading Hunger Games this week, I was accosted by my own mother and accused of only being a few steps away from liking Stephanie Meyer.

A grave accusation indeed.

Hunger Games won a ringing endorsement from Meyer herself, in a manner in which only she could have possibly elocuted. “I just lay in bed wide awake thinking about it…The Hunger Games is amazing…”

I must concede that I agree with Meyer. I did enjoy the Hunger Games; Stephanie Meyer, however, is a far throw away from Collins.

Here is my problem with Meyer and with Twilight. The central theme is the question of whether or not to carry on illegitimate relationships with half-human creatures. My friend always likes to refer to William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Peace Prize speech as an illustration of a lot of bad writing today. Faulkner says, “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed–love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

Hunger Games, while some of the central questions are about when you will get blown up—about survival— much of the book takes an apocalyptic peer into human nature. It is about justice, about starvation, and about love. Meyer, on the other hand, writes not of the heart, but of the glands (and poorly so).

That being said, Hunger Games is good only in its own arena, as juvenile fiction. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Collins is an especially good author. I am no connoisseur of post-apocalyptic literature, but after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I cannot but make comparisons between the two. But why listen to me? See for yourself.  

I. The Road

“The clocks stopped at one seventeen one morning. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. I think it’s October but I can’t be sure. I haven’t kept a calendar for five years. Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker – beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as it slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have fallen. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts and road gangs looking for fuel and food. There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food. Always food. Food and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice – difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”

II. Hunger Games.

“To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12, not one person claps. Not even the ones holding betting slips, the ones who are usually beyond caring. Possibly because they know me from the Hob, or knew my father, or have encountered Prim, who no one can help loving. So instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong. Then something unexpected happens. At least, I don’t expect it because I don’t think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim’s place, and now it seems I have become someone precious.”

Now to be fair, Collins is writing for children. That is why I am giving it credit… But it is a far cry from Meyer because of its plot and a far cry from McCarthy because of its writing.

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Dickens’ system of utilitarianism in Hard Times as a foreshadow of Chinese education

 I.

Dickens’ Hard Times is set in a dank and dirty English town during the Industrial Revolution. It was written in part as a response to the utilitarianism made popular by John Stuart Mill. One of the main characters, Thomas Gradgrind, is the perfect model of a utilitarian, and sets up an education system in which his sons and daughters are cups, waiting to be filled to the brim with Facts. They were allowed no access to fairy tales, could not associate, and imaginations were not allowed to roam as those of other children did. They sat in school from sun up until sundown, learning things such as the definition of a horse: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

Mr. Gradgrind:

“Now, what I want is, facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

II.

Fast forward. Another continent, over a hundred years later, my interview with a twelve year-old student:

“Do you enjoy school?” “Not really.” “Why not?”

“Well, I am so busy all the time. My parents want me to be at the top of my class. I wake up at six thirty, go to school, and get back at 7:00. I have plenty of homework to keep me occupied until it is time for bed. I have no time to play or enjoy life. I like drawing and swimming but never really get the opportunity because of school.”

Great–so in Europe, God is dead. In America, we killed hope, and in China, they killed art. Any takers for science?

dostoevsky, love, and comic books

This is great!

It reminded me of a scene in The Brothers Karamazov in which Father Zosima counsels a young woman:

“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed [Father Zosima]. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’

Kierkegaard on the Knight of Faith

“He drains the deep sadness of life in infinite resignation, he knows the blessedness of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, the most precious thing in the world, and yet the finite tastes just as good to him as one who never knew anything higher.”

BK

Listen:

Billy Pilgrim was right.

“Everything there [is] to know about life [is] in The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.”

Being that Brothers Karamazov is 777 pages long, this quote from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.in Slaughterhouse V actually isn’t all that surprising.

Tender, cruel, and questioning, the long novel examines central philosophical questions while maintaining a deep reverence for life and God, all while being a  fascinating novel.

Hands down the best novel, and even book, I have ever read.

The Innocence of Children

There is a famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov that grabs at my emotions every time I read it. One character is speaking to his brother, and asks him this question:

“Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me:  imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?”

I don’t know why this passage holds such intrigue for me. Perhaps it is because children themselves are intriguing to me. They play such a unique role in the Bible, and seemed to hold such a unique place in the heart of Christ.

Yet we don’t really seem to understand children. We have sent men to outer space, to answer questions that we never believed it was possible to answer. We have poured billions upon billions of dollars and resources into understanding things like bacteria, cancer, and parasites, and have come far in our understanding. We have used the elements to create ingenious and stunning new technologies. But regarding questions that hit a little closer to the heart, questions that affect every human being, most of us don’t know the story of our own children. We cannot answer where they came from, why they are here, or why they appear so innocent and precious to us. It is still a mystery. And I don’t believe that we have been able to answer the most troubling of all questions posed above:

Why do children suffer?

Earlier, Ivan, the character who posed the question, says, “The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’ I’m not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!”

And Ivan is right. A common answer to the problem of suffering is that God has given us our agency…it is done. He placed the power to choose within our grasp and sat back and let the consequences play out. But what of children? They have not “eaten the apple,” so to speak, do not yet have a fuller understanding of good and evil.

Well, in any case, I don’t know. But I trust that someday I will.

Beatrice and Virgil

At its core, Beatrice and Virgil is a book about the Holocaust. Yet, in some ways, similar to most of Life of Pi, it is imaginative and child-like enough to be read as a bedtime story. “Dark but divine,” is what I believe the USA Today called it. The sheer imaginative quality of the story is stunning. Martel has again proved his mastery of story-telling, intertwining philosophical concepts, animals, and emotions in a beautiful way.

But to say that this book is entirely about the Holocaust would be wrong. It is about where we turn when we have nowhere else to turn in the midst of crisis. It is about the aftermath of crisis, how we speak of it and how it arises in our thoughts. It is about conjuring up painful images of the past and coming to grips with it. And it is a book about healing and change.

All of this being said, I don’t believe that this novel will ever become widely popular. It is far too eccentric to be warmly received by a large crowd. Yet its eccentrics speak of deep, careful, and philosophical thought. If it were a musical album, it would fit nicely into the indie shelf. Or maybe even right next to Radiohead’s OK Computer, one of those albums that has a weird track stuck right in the middle of it, each word and sound meticulously calculated to invoke a certain feeling from the listener. The same mass audience that craves three minute fit-for-radio songs will not be interested in the details of a mad taxidermist nor of parallels drawn between the Holocaust and the slaughter of animals.

So why did Martel tackle a tough subject like this? Because it is what he does best–taking a difficult subject and presenting it to the reader with all of its ugliness, in essence saying to the reader, “Here it is. This is death. This is loss, pain, crisis, humility, shame. All of those things that humans have been despicably capable of. But this story illustrates why you should be happy. I won’t ignore death nor evil, but neither will it bring me down.”

For me, this line is why Martel wrote this novel: “Life and death live and die in exactly the same spot, the body. It is from there that both babies and cancer are born. To ignore death, then, is to ignore life.”

Review of “The Anthem”

If the devil could produce human offspring, Ayn Rand would be one of them.

The Anthem is set in the future in which a global government rules the people, and where the use of the word “I” has nearly completely fallen out of existence. For the most part, the characters remain loyal to the world order. But the protagonists in the story like to do things their own way, and eventually rediscover the use of the word “I”. They flee from the city and find their own house.

“This is our home and the end of our journey. This is your house, and ours, and it belongs to no other men whatever as far as the earth may stretch. We shall not share it with others, as we share not our joy with them, nor our love, nor our hunger. So be it to the end of our days.” Lest any believe that Mrs. Rand doesn’t have a bone to pick against religion, she throws this line in after the above dialogue: “Your will be done.”

Essentially, they rejected love for mankind for love of themselves. Dare I say that this is un-Christian? The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus saying, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Certainly humans will always have the freedom to choose what they want and act in their own self interest. But isn’t there something more noble in this world than self interest? Do we not have some greater ideal to look to than man’s own history, marred by self interested despots? There may be an invisible hand in economics, but that same metaphor should not apply to life. In a few thousand years of existence, wars have been incredibly prevalent and bloody. Millions upon billions have felt the wrath of ‘self interested’ individuals acquiring as much as land, wealth, and women as their circumstances and position in life allows them to.  And it is essentially self interest that is fast destroying the precious resources that we have.

Self interest cannot be held above morality. There are certain things which we must submit to—laws being one of them. There is a greater good than that of egoism, and there is no greater way to lead a spiritual life than search for this greater good.

That being said, there may be an element of truth in what Rand says about man: “Through all the darkness, through all the shame of which men are capable, the spirit of man will remain alive on this earth. It may sleep, but it will awaken. It may wear chains, but it will break through. And man will go on. Man, not men.” But she is deliberately and intentionally missing the biggest piece of the puzzle: Christ.  There is good literature in the world that does not make mention of Christ. But with Anthem, Rand is out to get religion. And as a Christian who firmly believes in the concept of Zion and allowing our wills to be swallowed up in God’s, Rand is just dead wrong.