Monday, March 28, 2005

There They Go Again

The news story that follows is another example of how courts are misinterpreting the notion of "separation of church and state"; in this case, to mean that jurors should not be able to consult religious principles, and specifically, the Bible, to render a decision.

Death Penalty Tossed Over Jury's Bible Study

Monday, March 28, 2005

DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday threw out the death penalty in a rape-and-murder case because jurors had studied Bible verses such as "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" during deliberations.

On a 3-2 vote, justices ordered Robert Harlan to serve life in prison without parole for kidnapping 25-year-old cocktail waitress Rhonda Maloney in 1994 and raping her at gunpoint for two hours.

The jurors in Harlan's 1995 trial sentenced him to die, but defense lawyers discovered five of them had looked up Bible verses, copied them down and talked about them while deliberating a sentence behind closed doors.

The Supreme Court said that "at least one juror in this case could have been influenced by these authoritative passages to vote for the death penalty when he or she may otherwise have voted for a life sentence."

Assistant District Attorney Michael Goodbee said prosecutors were reviewing the ruling and could ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider or could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

During oral arguments before the Supreme Court last month, defense attorney Kathleen Lord said the jurors had gone outside the law. "They went to the Bible to find out God's position on capital punishment," she said.

Prosecutors had argued that jurors should be allowed to refer to the Bible or other religious texts during deliberations.

Why should a juror not have liberty to consult the Bible, or whatever other religious book he/she feels might help them, for aid in making a proper judgment about a case? The jurors were apparently trying to make the right decision, and for them this meant a decision that could be backed up by the moral authority of a book traditionally regarded as God's law. Now whether or not they were interpreting the Bible correctly is immaterial; ultimately they were responsible to make as wise and fair a decision as possible, based upon the facts of the case and using their best judgement. And in order to fulfill this responsibility they sensibly sought wisdom according to the highest authority they likely thought was available: the Bible.

And in this they were right. The law, after all, is ultimately founded upon the ethical system whose roots can be traced back to Judeo-Christian influence.

The court's decision reflects the mistaken idea that morality and ethical systems must function independently of religious (especially Christian) influences, or else there will be conflict of interest. Do they believe that the law is a kind of self-generated system, that came into being without any influence of religion?

For many today, even those who would not consider themselves highly religious in practice, the Bible or church teachings contribute greatly to their understanding of right and wrong. Moreover, I argued in a previous post (Becoming Moral) that without appeal to absolutes (such as are found in the Bible) one cannot develop an ethical system that is not arbitrary. The system of law we have today is only possible because of those thinkers who believed in the Judeo-Christian God and in His divine revelation of right and wrong-- their view was that His laws could be universally apprehended.

It is ironic but not surprising then, that judges and courts today presume to remove God out of the decision-making process. It is ironic because without Him law cannot be defined; but not surprising, since the attempt to remove God/religion from the spheres of education, law, arts and the marketplace of ideas has been systematically pursued for years, and has proven quite successful.

To counter this influence, biblical thinking must be restored to the marketplace of ideas, for as Francis Schaeffer so ably showed us, ideas have powerful consequences. And if there is such a thing as truth, then true ideas ought to prevail over false ones.

Click here for Charles Colson's comment on Breakpoint regarding NY Times ironic coverage of this case

Saturday, March 26, 2005

When in Doubt: Choose Life--Janet Parshall

I'm posting Janet Parshall's statement here on my blog because I wish I'd written it --she states very eloquently and succintly the heart of the matter in the Schiavo case. Bravo!

When in Doubt: Choose Life
—Janet Parshall

The case of Terri Schiavo is yet another indication that America may have lost its soul. The facts of Terri's case were clear--and clearly avoided by several judges: Terri was not terminally ill, she was not on a respirator and her condition was questioned by a myriad of neurologists as to whether or not she was in a persistent vegetative state.

Her husband had broken his marriage vows by moving in with another woman and fathering children with her--so much for the "'til death do us part" segment of the marriage vows. Her family clearly loved her and proved their willingness to stand by her no matter what--something her husband couldn't or wouldn't do.

But in the final analysis, it all came down to one issue. When in doubt do we come down on the side of life or the side of death? The president, the governor of Florida and the leadership in the House and the Senate challenged us to choose life. Unfortunately, the courts chose death and Terri has to pay the price.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Becoming Moral

A recent press release presents a short statement from Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, about the foundation of morality. Mr. Brook argues that morality does not need to be rooted in faith in God, as some claim, and moreover, that faith in God, being "blind" and not rationally chosen, is incompatible with morality. The press release appears below, followed by my response.

Morality vs. God

The idea that morality is impossible without faith in God is an endlessly-repeated theme of several Fox News Channel talk show hosts. “This idea must be challenged,” said Dr. Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

“It implies that man has no reason or purpose to be moral; it implies that no rational standard of morality is possible; it implies that in questions of morality man must suspend reason and blindly submit to faith or blindly obey some authority’s ‘revelations’ or ‘mystical insights.’ To imply that we have no earthly reason to be moral is profoundly immoral.

“The purpose of morality,” said Dr. Brook, “is to discover and teach the principles that lead to life, achievement, happiness, success, joy. There is only one means to discover and understand these principles: reason. A proper morality, one for living on earth, requires rationality and independence of soul, not faith and obedience to self-appointed interpreters of an alleged omnipotent being. A proper morality looks not to the supernatural but at man’s nature and the reason why he needs values--and then defines the values he must reach and the virtues he must practice to reach them.

Dr. Brook concluded: “Properly understood, not only does morality not require faith in God--morality is incompatible with faith in God. The moral is the rationally accepted and chosen, not the mindlessly believed and followed.”

My Response
Certainly the use of reason or rationality is involved in one developing morality; however, it is an overstatement that one becomes moral only through a process of reasoning, as Mr. Yaron maintains. For example, even young children seem to know when they are doing something wrong, prior to having been fully taught the reasons behind their ethical choices. What of those who are mentally impaired, whose reasoning powers are thus severely limited— are such people incapable of acting morally? On the contrary, it seems that many such people can exhibit a true sense of right and wrong, and are able to discern and act according to moral sense.

The Judeao-Christian argument that God is the ultimate source of morality is founded upon the idea that morality is only possible when derived from absolute truth, from a standard outside of humanity itself. How can a moral code based upon the idea of self-interest not be rife with conflict, since what I perceive to be in accord with my self-interest someone else will say conflicts with their self-interest? And if one of us appeals to the other to change their behavior, on the basis that the proposed adjustment would actually be to our mutual self-interest, would I not be appealing to some kind of outside standard that governs us both?

Without absolute truth as a foundation, any system of morality is arbitrary. How, or why, shall I agree with you that certain things are right or wrong, unless somehow the rightness or wrongness of certain actions is self-evident? And how can they be self-evident, unless based upon absolute truths we may readily perceive and agree upon?

A moral code based upon the reasoning powers of its practitioners is limited by the ability of one person to propose better, more “rational” arguments than another. But how do you define the rationality upon which such a moral code is built? Is it most rational to live in such a way that my self-interest is served, or is it more rational if our self-interest guides my ethical choices? On what basis do I make these determinations? Perhaps a “rational” world should function according to a moral code that when followed brings the most good to the largest number of people. Yet without absolutes to compare against, even this definition of what is rational and good is arbitrary. How is the “good” defined? Whose good is it?

The Bible says we are made in God's image. For this reason, I propose, we are ethical beings by nature; God built into us the ability to be moral, as He is. However, as we are flawed beings, so also our moral sense is flawed. Only God, in His moral perfection, is absolutely unerring in distinguishing right from wrong. Only One whose motives and actions are pure (undefiled by sin) can understand true righteousness and act accordingly. We, other the other hand, need divine revelation in order to see right and wrong fully and clearly.

I believe this revelation comes in part through the conscience, the God-given instinct that enables us to know right and wrong, even prior to being taught. The development of moral maturity involves education, but not only the education of the mind. The deep-rooted and fatal flaws of human nature (known as sin) must also be removed.

How is this accomplished? Again Christians look to the Bible as a gracious revelation of God's laws, helping us see more precisely which actions are right and wrong, as compared against the absolute standard of the holiness of God’s character. Because God Himself has absolute quailities, such as moral perfection, such as thing as absolute truth exists. it is only by comparing our ideas of morality against the absolute and pure standard of God and His revealed truth that we can determine their validity. But as we do so the ethical standards of the Bible, and especially Jesus, seem impossible to attain. Can I really "turn the other check" and "love my enemies" as Jesus commands?

Philosophies based upon the idea that an enlightened self-interest will lead people to live ethically and find peace and harmony with each other don't fully take into account the reality of the evil in the world and within ourselves. The Bible calls this evil sin and has a solution for it, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death killed sin and sin's effects--removing the guilt of sin from our shoulders, removing the destructive power of sin out of our lives. For those who have put their trust in the gospel, the evil inside them was dealt a fatal blow by the power of Jesus Christ. In its place, the Spirit of God comes to give the Christian a new life, filled with the power of the Spirit. A new desire is born, to live a life that does not serve self-interest alone, but instead delights in and serves God. It is this power that makes the "impossible" standards of Jesus possible to live out.

I agree with Mr. Yaron that morality is required in order to live life right here on Earth. Yet to become a truly moral person must mean to find what true morality consists in, and I have argued above that one cannot make such a determination without an appeal to absolute, self-evident principles. Followers of Ayn Rand would perhaps argue for self-interest being one of those. But the realistic view of human nature that the Bible presents shows that even enlightened self-interest cannot overcome the limitations imposed upon it by the evil present in ourselves and others.

In contrast to self-interest, Jesus Christ lived His life to serve others. Paradoxically, such a life does end up serving the "self-interest" of both the individual and others.

Mat 16:25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Top Ten Greatest Actors for a New Generation

GQ picked the top ten greatest actors of our generation in its March 2005 issue. The list included the following actors: Johnny Depp, Clive Owen, Don Cheadle, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Nicolas Cage, Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Jim Carrey.

Their top 10 list is a forward-looking one. While some of these actors already have a substantial and well-known body of work, many of them do not. So it seems that GQ was listing the actors it feels have potential to become the new Hanks, DeNiro, Pacino, Nicholson, Hoffman, Hackman, etc. They will have big shoes to fill.

I am not familiar with the work of some of these actors-- Del Toro, Owen, Bernal, Cheadle-- so I won't comment on them.

I think there are two kinds of great actors: first, those with great charisma and a powerful on-screen persona; these actors do best playing characters that display their special, innate star quality. Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, John Travolta, Richard Gere, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are contemporary actors in this category. Many of yesterday's stars were in this category as well-- Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Clark Gable. This is not to say that this type of actor can't, or never plays against type--but mostly, we are drawn to them by their "star" quality--a certain strength of personality that comes through in every role they play.

Then there are those great actors who have the ability to transform themselves from one role to the next: DeNiro, Hoffman, Penn, Hanks, Spacey, Macy, Day Lewis, Norton, Malkovich and Crowe are among these. Occasionally, a great actor comes along who has both of these qualities--along with great personal charisma, an ability to transform himself--Marlon Brando-- for example. But most actors seem to excel in one or the other of these categories.

From GQ's top 10 list, I agree that Cage, DiCaprio, Depp, Crowe, Carrey and Reilly are extremely talented actors whose best work lies ahead. And although all of these actors convey strong on-screen personalities, the body of work of this group seems, as a whole, more character-based.

Besides talent, is physical beauty also required in becoming a great actor? With enough talent, many actors in Hollywood history became matinee idols without necessarily being extraordinarily physically attractive-- actors such as Cagney, Bogart, Stewart. But yesterday's leading men also included many who were amazingly handsome-- Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, to name a few. But none of these actors was dependent upon looks alone in their success. In today's Hollywood, there is a broader range of looks considered handsome. Thus actors with great ability can become stars without "matinee idol" looks. It does seem however that the box-office "superstars" tend to be those with great physical attractiveless--Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise.

In my opinion, there are other actors that might be added to the list of great actors in the new generation:

I think Edward Norton has yet to receive his due. Jamie Foxx gave an incredible performance in Ray but will need the right roles to continue displaying that same level of ability. Tobey McGuire is a very good, sensitive actor but it remains to be seen whether he can portray darker, more passionate types. Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to have both great sensitivity and range. Samuel L. Jackson is always very interesting to watch. Matt Damon has great intelligence but seems very self-effacing for an actor--needs a breakout performance. Hugh Jackman is someone to watch--with his looks and talent he could become a very big star. Ben Affleck needs to a bit more choosy with his roles. In "The Passion", Jim Caviezel gave a beautiful performance playing Jesus Christ-- a role that many actors before him could not pull off. Though the movie was flawed, Mr. Caviezel's performance conveyed both the tenderness and the strength of Christ.

So I look forward to the next generation of actors, though I wouldn't write off people like Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn-- who are still at the top of their game. And I think Tom Cruise is underrated--the quality of his body of work demonstrates growth as an actor and thoughtfulness in role selection. We may see him pick up an Oscar some time soon.

It's also interesting to note that actors once considered hot prospects: Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, John Cusack, Rob Lowe, among others, have done fine work but have not necessarily reached the top echelon. This just demonstrates the role that good fortune (divine intervention, from my perspective) as well as talent, plays in all of this.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Million Dollar Baby- Rumination on an Unseen Movie

I've always been a big fan of movies and being a critic comes quite naturally. I can remember even at an early age typing out some "mini-reviews". Back then I really didn't know how to evaluate a movie. I hadn't yet developed a philosophy of life, nor had I lived enough to be able to relate to many things I was seeing portrayed on screen. So how could I know what to make of them? Part of growing up means learning how to evaluate the meaning and value of things, not only in movies, but also in life.

For example, it seems there are a number of criteria one might use in critiquing, let's say, a film-- aesthetic values, morality, entertainment value--it really depends on what one is looking for. Now what one looks for says much about the person-- what they consider important.

It seems safe to say that today's movie going public (which generally ignores critics) mostly goes to movies seeking "entertainment". What this means to them is hard to determine, since what's popular among moviegoers is constantly changing and seems so subjective. Judging from the films that usually fare biggest at the box-office, most of the time people seem to be looking for thrills, chills and laughs. Why is that? What does that say about popular taste?

The big wins for Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" at the recent (77th) Academy Awards (director, actress, supporting actor, picture) caused me to ponder the following: What exactly makes a movie worth seeing? It's been reported that Million Dollar Baby was not a big box office draw. Why then did it win so many awards? Is it worthy of them?

I have read evangelical Christian commentaries about Million Dollar Baby-- many stating that since the film apparently endorses the idea of assisted suicide, it is not the kind of movie Christians ought to see, let alone one meriting a Best Picture award. Some also complain that this picture is being so lauded, while Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was pretty much snubbed by the Oscars.

As a Christian, I certainly understand this complaint. So many films today lack a traditional morality. And the storytelling gift of talented filmmakers enables them to portray characters who make evil, or at least morally questionable decisions, in a sympathetic light; thus their choices don't seem so wrong after all. This is a very insidious and dangerous thing. So I'm all for seeing more films made about characters who are morally upright and who make good ethical choices. Nevertheless, a film with a "good" character may be a bad film. Why? Because one may have ethically decent characters, but to make a great film requires many other elements : fine acting, a well-written screenplay, strong dialogue, skillful cinematography, and so on. The art involved in doing these things well can be learned; surely some of this ability derives from that mysterious thing known as talent.

I haven't yet seen Million Dollar Baby-- when I heard what is was about, I was a bit put off. But it's not because I reflexively decided that a film containing a certain message about assisted suicide would be morally wrong to see--- it's mostly because I hate getting attached to a character and then seeing them get killed off. Now as a Christian I don't agree with assisted suicide [though giving someone the right to choose whether or not they want to be kept alive by machines-- when otherwise they would die-- might be a different story]. Yet having seen other Eastwood films, and having seen these actors in other productions, I wouldn't be at all surprised if all the accolades and awards regarding the film's direction, acting, and storytelling are indeed well deserved. So my feeling is that the desire to see, or even actually seeing the movie, doesn't equate with endorsing it's pro-assisted suicide message (if indeed that is the film's message). Perhaps viewing the film might give me an opportunity to discuss the film's meaning with someone who's not a Christian, and enter into a constructive dialogue. But I think that what I'm really trying to say is that I want to see quality films--sure, I'd prefer if the movies were more Christian-- more decent, less selfish, embodying biblical values--but Christians ought not to expect the world to produce such movies; we've got to make them ourselves.

But as we move in this direction, let's not lose sight of the fact that certain skills are required. A noble story and characters does not a great movie make. The influence of decency that comes when Christians fulfill their God-given calling as “salt” in the culture will help elevate the moral and aesthetic standard of what constitutes entertainment nowadays. We see today a world of entertainment propelled by what the Bible calls the “lusts of the flesh”; Christian artists must operate on the higher plane of the Spirit, yet without becoming overly mired in didactics and without neglecting the development of true artistry. Bible narratives suggest a possible model for the Christian artist wanting to convey truth. The Scriptures show us people who love God, yet are human, flawed and make mistakes. Often they become heroes--not because they achieve moral perfection, but because in their determination to follow and realize God's higher purpose for their lives, God's grace works out that purpose. Evildoers and their negative ends are presented as warnings, not romanticized or glorified. Of course, the stories of the Bible are ultimately meant to instruct. Though at times literary, entertaining or poetic, the Bible is not Art, at least not as we traditionally understand art. Yet the Bible might be viewed as a collaborative work of art, one fashioned by God and man. However, its unique authority as divine revelation gives it meaning that transcends merely human creations. But perhaps the best art can aspire to reflect truth with the same degree of honesty and decency as the Bible. As artists who are Christian, this is a worthy goal.