Category Archives: Reviews

Scorsese’s Catholic Dilemma

Detail from Fifteen Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, Ibaraki City Museum of Cultural Properties, Ibaraki, Osaka, Japan.

Detail from Fifteen Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, Ibaraki City Museum of Cultural Properties, Ibaraki, Osaka, Japan. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to watch Silence, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited religious epic. It’s hard, first, because of all the torture: torture by crucifixion amidst crashing waves, by being hung upside down with your head in a pit, by boiling water poured, over and over, upon your flesh. But also hard is grappling with a moral dilemma that no longer seems like much of a dilemma: Which would you choose? To deny your faith or to allow innocents to suffer?

Silence, based on the 1966 Shusako Endo novel of the same name, is about two fifteenth- century Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues and Garrpe, who travel to Japan to find their mentor, Ferreria, a priest who is rumored to have apostatized. (Ferreria is an actual historical figure, by the way, and Endo was a Japanese Catholic, whose novel is considered one of the finest of the twentieth century, especially well-loved by Catholic intellectuals.) The movie focuses on Rodrigues, and while Scorsese’s film is about many things, it’s primarily about whether Rodrigues should deny Christ for the good of the world.

For a secular audience, and even the modern world’s secularized Christians, the question is hard to fathom. Our modern era has just as many questions about suffering, but they take on different ethical shapes. Should we put limits on immigration, allowing more distant suffering to maintain a particular lifestyle here in the states? Should we donate all the money we can to those who most need it, or should we give to our own communities, or simply our families, or just enjoy it ourselves? And what does need even mean? These are complicated questions, but what’s striking about them is how they’re all ultimately questions about bodies, about a material world and how humans can best exist within it. Continue reading

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More Spooky Stories for Halloween

Ben Weger via Flickr.

Ben Weger via Flickr.

Season of mists and yellow fruitfulness…and, of course, of ghosts and stories for long cold evenings. We asked some Hedgehog Review editors, contributors, and friends to send in their recommendations for their favorite Halloween stories for this weekend. Enjoy!

Ghosts, Edith Wharton

According to Edith Wharton, we don’t so much believe in ghosts as feel them, “in the warm darkness of the pre-natal fluid far below our conscious reason” where “the faculty dwells with which we apprehend the ghosts we may not be endowed with the gift of seeing.” Not long before her death in 1937, she worried that this “ghost-instinct” might be gradually atrophying. Ghosts, she wrote, don’t need “echoing passages and hidden doors behind tapestry” to “make themselves manifest,” but two conditions diminishing in a noisy and fast-paced world. Silence, of course, for a ghost “obviously prefers the silent hours,” and also continuity: “For where a ghost has once appeared it seems to hanker to appear again.”

Happily, Wharton’s Ghosts, an omnibus of her own ghost stories, ably stimulates that faculty required for their enjoyment. Her tales are exquisitely sensitive, with subtle premonitions and invariably tragic endings. They induce chills that run down the spine. From “The Triumph of Night,” one of her lesser known:

Faxon’s first impulse was to look away, to look anywhere else, to resort again to the champagne glass the watchful butler had already brimmed; but some fatal attraction, at war in him with an overwhelmingly physical resistance, held his eyes upon the spot they feared.

The figure was still standing, more distinctly, and therefore more resemblingly, at Mr. Lavington’s back; and while the latter continued to gaze affectionately at his nephew, his counterpart, as before, fixed young Rainer with eyes of deadly menace.

—Joseph E. Davis is publisher of The Hedgehog Review.

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A Christian Movie that Embarrasses Christianity

Ben-Hur_2016_posterThe new Ben-Hur is bad. As scathing reviews have noted, this implausible remake is treacly, pietistic and rushed. Replete with gooey flashbacks and clunky transitions, it begins with the famous chariot race, just in case we didn’t think the central Ben-Hur-Messala relationship would climax there.

The clunky dialogue is dependably risible: Upon hearing Jesus preach, Judah remarks, “Love your enemies? That’s very progressive.” The male leads appear to be unaware that, despite the film’s location, they are not acting in in a nativity play. Deservedly, the film is on track to be a financial failure of epic proportions, costing a whopping $100 million but grossing a meager $11.4 million on its opening weekend.

I, too, disliked the new Ben-Hur, but not simply because it is bad. Nor can I put my objection down entirely to my man crush on the late, great Charlton Heston or my nostalgia for the 1959 masterpiece. The bigger problem is that it’s another movie made by Christians that fails to do justice to their faith. Continue reading

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Brain Talk in the Age of Enlightenment

An MRI machine. liz west via Flickr.

A MRI machine. liz west via Flickr.

A new brain book has arrived on my doorstep, this one titled How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation, by Andrew Newberg, MD, and Mark Robert Waldman. The authors promise to “describe what happens in the brain as people work and move toward enlightenment” and to reveal “how the critical elements of enlightenment are reflected in different brain processes.” For this task, they explore the brain scans of psychic mediums, Sufi mystics, monks, nuns, and Pentecostals who speak in tongues. Newberg, who says he has been “mapping the neural correlates of spiritual experiences for nearly three decades,” also shares details about his own life-transforming experience and even provides functional neuroimages (fMRI) scans of his brain taken while he was contemplating “Infinite Doubt,” which is a lot of doubt. “The imaging results,” he reports, “were quite amazing.”

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain is another installment in the burgeoning genre of “brain-training” self-help books that explore the “political,” “creative,” “loving,” “ravenous,” or just fill-in-the-blank brain. We are told that neuroscientists can explain why breaking up is hard to do, why some people are more empathetic than others, and why multitasking is actually counterproductive. Whole social categories have different brains, including teenagers, criminals, and the addicted. And now we know that they can even tell us how to gain enlightenment. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog Recommends: Spooky Stories for Halloween

“The Old Hall, Fairies by Moonlight; Spectres & Shades, Brownies and Banshees,” by John Anster Fitzgerald (c. 1875). Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The Old Hall, Fairies by Moonlight; Spectres & Shades, Brownies and Banshees,” by John Anster Fitzgerald (c. 1875). Via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s that time of year again: a weekend for spooky (or not-so-spooky) stories to be enjoyed with friends or, for the very brave, alone. We asked some Hedgehog Review editors, contributors, and friends to send in their recommendations for the book or movie to curl up with this weekend. Enjoy!

Let the Right One In
Forget all the overheated vampire movie stereotypes of sexy men in frilled shirts and virginal damsels in enticing décolletage. Rather, Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 film (based on the best-selling novel Låt den rätte komma in by John Ajvide Lindqvist) is more about the relationship between two loners in a suburban Swedish apartment building. Oskar is an alienated and bullied twelve-year-old boy. His friend Eli, the vampire, dresses oddly, smells funny, and is poignantly trapped by her predicament. Their assignation point is a jungle gym where they share a Rubik’s cube and discover their ability to communicate in Morse code. As their mutual trust grows, Oskar and Eli discover several, not always pleasant, truths about themselves. One of the most touching moments comes as Eli stands outside the door of Oskar’s apartment, unwilling to enter without his express consent—hence, the film’s title—an invitation that permits intimacy and respect and establishes that Eli will never victimize Oskar as his peers have. Intelligent, austere, mesmerizing, and, yes, horrific, this movie confirmed, for once, the critical hype it received and proved that it was indeed unlike any vampire movie ever made.—Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of the Hedgehog Review.

Lolly Willowes: Or, the Loving Huntsman, Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lolly Willowes seems like it’s going to be the story of Laura, a nice girl who grows up and slips into an obscure and helpful spinsterhood, living with her brother’s family and helping to run his home. And it is that story, though if Laura is a spinster, it’s at least half because she has a habit of saying things like this to her beaus:

“If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.”

But Laura gets tired of being such a helpful member of her brother’s household, so she moves to the country. When her family follows her there, Laura … strikes a deal with the Devil to keep them away, sells her immortal soul, and becomes a witch. The book is worth it if only for the depiction of a Witches’ Sabbath, which newly witched Laura attends in the hopes of finding, at last, her sort of milieu; but finds instead she feels as out-of-place and awkward as ever. Witchery only solves so many problems.—B. D. McClay is associate editor of the Hedgehog Review.
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Is Religious Freedom Imperiled?

The “standard story” of American religious freedom goes something like this: The Founders, in their wisdom, introduced novel conceptions of religious liberty that ensured a secular government and equal treatment of all faiths. Ensuing generations of Americans failed to honor those principles. In the middle of the twentieth century, a courageous Supreme Court recovered the Founders’ approach. Since then, conservative religious believers have tried to undo the Court’s restorative efforts.

Steven Smith, a professor of law at the University of San Diego, isn’t buying that story, and in his latest book, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom, he explains why. For most of our history, Smith argues, our country largely abided by an “American settlement” for religious pluralism that included separation of church from state (but not of religion from government) and freedom of conscience. But the mid-twentieth-century Supreme Court altered the “American settlement” and thereby placed “religious freedom in jeopardy.”

Smith is well-known for his work in legal and political theory, and his previous books have offered measured though sober accounts of important legal questions, as evidenced by less-than-cheery titles like Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom, Law’s Quandary, and The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Smith’s newest book expresses greater pessimism about the current trajectory of religious freedom in America. But he may not be pessimistic enough. Continue reading

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Mirror, Mirror

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert. Wikimedia Commons.

“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Wikimedia Commons.

In the second episode of UK horror anthology series Black Mirror, we’re given the story of Bingham Madsen, who lives in the future of the Internet of Things. Every surface is an interactive screen, even the walls of his apartment, and every screen is playing advertising, pornography, or talent show-style entertainment. Eventually, Madsen snaps, plotting to get onto the talent show that almost everybody watches and kill himself on television.

He succeeds at getting on television, but after he delivers himself of an angry rant, one of the judges offers him a show of his own. By the end of the episode, Madsen has been wholly incorporated into the system he despises, which packages his angry rants alongside the rest of its entertainments. The system can be “won,” he learns, but it can’t be beaten. It certainly can’t be changed. If anything, Madsen’s ranting has done nothing but make the rest of the populace more complacent.

It’s a story that functions not only as a wry comment on Black Mirror itself—which is steeped in contempt for technology and for modern media culture—but also on the career of its creator, Charlie Brooker, longstanding British television critic and crank. Brooker’s own rants about modern media ran on the BBC, first on his show Screenwipe and later on How TV Ruined Your Life.

While Black Mirror is, in one sense, old news—this episode ran in 2011—its recent addition to Netflix has caused the show to gain a new wave of attention. If you feel dubious about technology—and who doesn’t?—Black Mirror is a cathartic show to watch, at first. But it’s full of a sense of its own irrelevance: Even if you understand the various mechanisms that push you this way and that in your life, and even if you can explain these mechanisms to others, it won’t do you any good. You’re still stuck. There’s also no possibility here that we can use our new technological platforms in a counter-cultural way.

Whatever will happen to us, the show claims, as we grow more attached to our devices—whatever it is, it’s already happened. All that’s left is to experience, if not enjoy, the ride. How, then, ought one understand a television show that informs you repeatedly that it’s a waste of your time? Continue reading

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After Strange Gods: Peter Thiel and the Cult of Startupism

Peter Thiel at TechCrunch50 (2008). Image from Wikimedia Commons

Peter Thiel at TechCrunch50 (2008). Image from Wikimedia Commons

In the humanities departments of the university where I live and work, the word “corporate” is an epithet of disdain, and “entrepreneurship” is code for “corporate.” My fellow humanists tolerate the business school because it provides fuel for the English composition classes that keep us tenured radicals employed.

A confession: I used to share that outlook myself. But the experience of working alongside actual entrepreneurs and CEOs of various stripes shattered my comfortable assumptions. Not only did I find that entrepreneurs are willing to take risks that I would never hazard; I also learned that many are keenly interested in the world of ideas, theory, and “big picture” thinking. Indeed, such philosophically inclined entrepreneurs excel at practical wisdom—what Aristotle called phronesis—precisely because their imaginations have been nourished by contemplation. They are philosophers of a kind I will never be.

Prominent among these philosopher-entrepreneurs is Peter Thiel.  A co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, he has become a Silicon Valley guru, the contrarians’ contrarian. His new book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future, began as notes taken by an admiring student, Ben Masters, who took Thiel’s course at Stanford. It is an ambitious book—it could even be described as Machiavelli’s The Prince as re-imagined for our startup age—and it puts Thiel’s command of the philosophical canon on prominent display. How many other business books at the airport bookstore draw on Hegel, Nietzsche, Aristotle, John Rawls, and René Girard?

Zero to One is aphoristic, biting, forthright, and at times, in the spirit of Machiavelli, ruthless. Thiel unapologetically commends the pursuit of monopoly (“the more we compete, the less we gain”), and then counsels noble lies to hide its achievement. He casts aspersions on the bureaucracies of existing organizations: “Accountable to nobody,” he writes, “the DMV is misaligned with everybody.” And he calls out bad ideas, particularly those coupled with shoddy execution. His take-down of failed federal investment in clean technology is well worth the cost of the book.

Thiel’s intellectual reach is anything but modest. He offers a sociology of creativity, a grand theory of human civilization, and even a sort of theology of culture–though it is not quite clear whom he casts as God. Indeed, it’s over the grandiosity and hubris of Thiel’s claims that I find myself parting ways with the more fawning reviews of his book. I realize that creative risk-tasking requires a healthy dose of self-confidence that can often come across as arrogance. What worries me, though, is not his confident dispensing of practical wisdom but the hubristic evangelizing for what might be called startupism.

A cult of creative innovation, startupism has four notable  features, beginning with the outsized role it accords to human creativity. As early as page two of the book, Thiel tells us “humans are distinguished from other species by our abilities to work miracles. We call these miracles technology.” His emphasis on the creative power of human making is laudable and timely, though not particularly new. (Thiel should add Giambattista Vico to his reading list.) What’s unique to startupism is the “miraculous,” god-like powers Thiel attributes to us mortals: “Humans don’t decide what to build by making choices from some cosmic catalogue of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.” We command fate. “A startup is the largest endeavor over which you can have definite mastery. You can have agency not just over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world. It begins by rejecting the unjust tyranny of Chance. You are not a lottery ticket.”

Second, the creativity celebrated by startupism blurs the old distinction between Creator and creature. What Thiel calls “vertical” or “intensive” progress isn’t 1+1 development; truly creative, intensive progress is a qualitative advance from 0 to 1. I believe the Latin for that is creation ex nihilo. (And “[t]he single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress” is…you guessed it…“technology.”)

Third, as you might expect, startupism has its own ecclesia: the new organization founded by a noble remnant who have distanced themselves from the behemoths of existing institutions. “New technology,” Thiel observes, “tends to come from new ventures” that we call startups. These are launched by tiny tribes that Thiel compares to the Founding Fathers and the British Royal Society. “[S]mall groups of people bound together by a sense of mission have changed the world for the better,” he explains, because “it’s hard to develop new things in big organizations, and it’s even harder to do it by yourself.” We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that “the best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults.” The successful startup will have to be a total, all-encompassing institution: our family, our home, our cultus.

Finally, in startupism, the founder is savior. Granted, Thiel—following Girard—is going to talk about this in terms of scapegoating in a long, meandering chapter that aims to associate successful Silicon Valley geeks with pop stars and other people we like to look at. But it’s not just that founders are heroes in their companies. The scope of their impact is much wider: “Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.” But to get there, Thiel says, “we need founders.” No founders; no progress. Steve Jobs, hear our prayer.

Thiel offers genuine, authoritative insight into entrepreneurship and the dynamics of a startup organization. When he tacitly suggests that society derives its crucial and even salvific dynamism from the startup, I become both skeptical and nervous. Can startups contribute to the common good? Without question. Are startups going to save us? Not a chance.

Thiel’s hubris stems from a certain parochialism. Startupism is a Bay-area mythology whose plausibility diminishes by the time you hit, say, Sacramento. The confident narrative of progress, the narrow identification of progress with technology, and the tales of 0 to 1 creationism are the products of an echo chamber. This chamber fosters hubris among the faithful precisely because it shuts out competing voices that might remind them of the deeper and wider institutional, intellectual, and even spiritual resources on which they depend and draw. We are makers, without question, but we are also heirs. We can imagine a different future, but we have to deal with a past that was created by others before us.

Thiel, and the New Creators like him (and get ready for a slew of parroting Little Creators coming in their wake), have drunk their own Kool-Aid and believed their own PR. It’s why all the sentences that begin “At PayPal…” grow tiresome and make you wonder why someone who developed a new mode of currency exchange thinks he brought about the new heaven and the new earth ex nihilo. One can applaud Thiel’s elucidation of creativity and innovation while deploring the (idolatrous) theology in which he embeds it. We need startups. We can do without startupism.

James K. A. Smith is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? and How (Not) to be Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, among other books. Smith is also the editor of Comment magazine.

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