Friday, February 24, 2017

Is Slapstick Sinful?

Derived from a 2014 article in the E-Block.


Is slapstick comedy unbiblical or immoral? Is it a sin to laugh when Bugs Bunny blasts Elmer Fudd with his own shotgun? And more broadly, is it wrong to enjoy it when other people suffer, even if (we might say) they "deserve" it?

These seem like odd questions, but they were raised of late in the context of some of my YouTube videos, in which I freely make use of outrageous physical humor which resembles that found in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. And closer to home, my local ministry partner Carey and I have discussed the enjoyment of reality television programs like Survivor, in which contestants are frequently subjected to public humiliation. According to some, the sin here concerns what some term schadenfreude -- a German word that refers to pleasure felt at someone else's troubles. According to my YouTube critic, we enjoy seeing Elmer Fudd get shot because he is suffering.

To answer this point, I relied on my own (admittedly layman's) knowledge of the animation industry, and then discussed the matter with a longtime reader of Tekton who is a Hollywood insider with professional credentials in animation. The results of this are that the basis for our enjoyment of this form of humor, which I too have employed, is not the suffering of others but rather that it is comic precisely because it lacks suffering. But TV shows like American Idol do raise some serious questions for the Christian.

As we know from news stories, a real shotgun blast causes serious damage to flesh and bone. Elmer Fudd comes away from such a blast with nothing worse than torn clothes and gray skin. He does not cry out in pain, and nor does any blood spurt. The intrinsic immortality of cartoon performers, and their ability to walk away from such scenes and return in the next one fresh and unharmed (or at worst, encased in bandages that they can immediately shake off and come out of whole, like some sort of revivified Pharaoh!) are the true source of this type of humor.

Of course, there is a certain matter of degree involved here. "Slapstick," a related genre, can refer to Moe poking Curly in the eyes; but it also can refer to humor such as depicted in America's Funniest Home Videos, where the pain can be real. And, it is fair to say, that the lower the pain the greater the laughs. Under such circumstances, we are not laughing at misfortune, as schadenfreude would have it; rather, we are laughing at misfortune not ending up worse than it could have been, which really renders the laughter a sign of relief and not joy at pain.

What, then, is true schadenfreude? For an answer to this I picked up the highly recommended Joy of Pain by Richard Smith (Oxford University Press), which is regarded as a respectable and leading treatment of the topic. It comes as no surprise that Smith does not use either Stooge-like slapstick or cartoons as examples of schadenfreude -- except to the extent that certain cartoon characters (like members of the Simpson clan) engage it in their treatment of each other, but not in terms of what the audience experiences and not in terms of what would be regarded as unique to the cartoon genre. The classic examples of schadenfreude from television are rather to be found in programs like American Idol, as when a contestant falls flat on his face. And how would this tie in, if at all, to the sort of cartoonish antics used by Bugs Bunny or Popeye, and what does it say to the Christian about enjoying such things as that, or slapstick comedy, or even American Idol?

Misfortune or humiliation happening to others can make us feel superior, and lead to schadenfreude. This sort of experience may indeed be ripe for sin; however, it would rather strain credulity to suppose that anyone gains any sense of "superiority" from watching cartoon characters bash each other with mallets, or even the Three Stooges poking one another in the eyes. I would regard any such claim as a strained effort at psychology; and we would be told, by those who prefer to argue about it, that we are harboring "secret" schadenfreude and not realizing our doing so. At such points the matter becomes akin to history as written by Dan Brown: The conspiracy covered up the evidence, then covered itself up to make sure we wouldn't know what it did, so, it is little more than a begged question.

The bottom line is that it is difficult to argue that a person can feel "inferior" or "superior" to a fictional character. The most that could be said, perhaps, is that one imagines one's despised neighbor to be much like said character, and what we really want to feel superior to is the real-life person who has (whether in reality or not) the same traits. In other words, the fictional character becomes a proxy for schadenfreude, not it's true or actual object.

In contrast, it is quite possible for this experience to legitimately emerge on a showing of a program like American Idol, and encourage sinful thoughts. It is readily conceivable that one might envy, and feel inferior to, someone who performs well on the program, and then delight in their failure to perform at a critical moment. What this suggests, then, is that (as is often the case) it is not the object that is the problem, but the person who makes use of the object. It is akin to Paul's attempt to sort out the question of who should eat idol meat. If you watch American Idol to see people humiliated - you probably shouldn't watch it. (If you watch Popeye cartoons to see Bluto humiliated...there is probably something much deeper wrong with you than schadenfreude!)

Smith also refers to a "superiority theory" of humor, in which it is maintained that "humor has social comparison at its core." A related theory is that some things are funny because they make us feel superior.

Here again, it is impossible to dovetail our subject into the issue in any realistic way. Elmer Fudd, and Moe Howard, are not "safe" targets; they are phantom targets. They are not members of any group "disliked" by anyone. (Again, if someone thinks so, their problems are much more deep-rooted than anything we can discuss here.)

So then: Is there indeed anything in the Bible relevant to this emotion? No, not directly, but we do know that the Bible speaks of justice being a "joy to the righteous," (Prov. 21:15) and also says that those who rebuke the wicked will have delight (Prov. 24:24-25). This is probably as close as we will come to what we call schadenfreude in a good sense. (In contrast, the "bad" sort of schedenfreude might be covered by 1 Corinthians 13:6, which warns us to not rejoice in iniquity.)

How then does, or can, this relate to our subject at hand - fiction? Again, I would say only in a vicarious sense, at best. A bad guy like Yosemite Sam, we may say, gets what he deserves when his own rifle goes off in his face, but these are not only phantom targets, they are phantom injustices. At most, these gags may remind us that we would like to see justice done in real life.

This is especially the case because, as Smith points out, this sort of schadenfreude emerges most often when our target is convicted of hypocrisy, as was the case with Jimmy Swaggart. Yosemite Sam is a roughneck, but he is not a hypocrite: He doesn't condemn others who shoot varmints! It is also at its height when the subject is someone evil, as is the case with the reality TV program To Catch a Predator. Yosemite Sam is a "bad guy," sure, but it would be excessive in the extreme to apply the term "evil" to him.

We will close this examination with a comment from my friend in the animation industry. As a response to the criticisms I encountered from the objector I referred to above, he told me about one of the older (black and white!) Popeye cartoons which seemed to be a response to those who thought that the point of cartoon violence was to enjoy schadenfreude. The title of the episode was It's the Natural Thing to Do, and it begins with viewers of the cartoon requesting by telegram that the characters stop fighting and act more refined. The bulk of the story thereafter shows the threesome of Popeye, Olive, and Bluto clumsily trying to act more "refined" by wearing tuxedos, engaging in small talk, and consuming sophisticated appetizers. The threesome end up bored and unable to cope with refined behavior, and Popeye and Bluto quickly return to fighting each other...and enjoying such behavior. It can hardly be said that we could take pleasure in this sort of "pain"!

The pleasure in this genre, then, cannot come from schadenfreude, least of all from what Smith describes as its "dark" side; rather, it comes from absurdity, and from reversal of expectations, and surprise. As noted, it is certainly possible that someone uses the sufferings of a character like Daffy Duck as a proxy for their desire for someone they know, who is like Daffy, to suffer ("He sure reminds me of my boss"), but this is clearly a case of an innocent surrogate taking the blame for the guilty party. There is nothing sinful about laughing at gross physical comedy.


Friday, February 17, 2017

The Washington Monument Conspiracy

It's been three years since I put out m ebook Jesus Was a Mushroom and Other Lies You Won't Believe. To celebrate the anniversary, and the fact that we have a President now who thinks Alex Jones is a great guy, here's a bit of the ebook on the Washington Monument.
This one would have to be a second favorite of the conspiracy theorists. It stands right at the axes of the nation’s capital (Michael Bednar, L’Enfan’t’s Legacy), so it serves the very purpose we’ve said an obelisk is supposed to serve. If that’s the case, why read more into it?
The first thing that makes the conspiracy theorists suspicious is that the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid by Benjamin French, who was a Freemason. Well, it’s true that he was, as confirmed even by the National Park Service.  But so what? That’s only a problem if you assume the Masons are up to no good. But as we’ll see later in this book, there’s no reason to think they are.
Second, it might be pointed out that a lot of Masonic lodges contributed to the building of the Washington Monument, and left memorial stones in it. Well, it’s true that some lodges did this, about 24 of them, but that’s out of a total of 193 memorial stones, which means Masons have contributed only about 12% of the stones. That’s not very impressive for a vast conspiracy, especially when you also had a lot of stones contributed by groups like, "The International Order of Odd Fellows."
The third thing that gets these guys upset are the measurements of the Washington Monument. For them, these numbers add up to bad news:
“At the ground level, each side of the Washington Monument measures 55.5 feet, which is 666 inches.”
The math is right, but the measurement isn’t. It’s actually 55 feet, one and a half inches, which makes it 661 ½ inches. Maybe instead of the Mark of the Beast, it can be the neighbor of the beast!
“The height of the Washington Monument is 555.5 feet which is 6,666 inches.”
Again, the math is right, but the measurement is wrong. Or maybe it isn’t. The thing is that there has been more than one report of the height. According to the National Park Service, the Monument's height has been variably reported between 555.43 feet and 555.75 feet. Maybe the Washington Monument is only the Mark of the Beast on the weekends!
Now, someone might say, “OK, but that’s so close on both counts, someone was obviously up to something.” Really? Like what? Here are a few things to consider.
First, there’s a good deal of the Monument that’s below ground, which makes the actual height of the structure more like 592 feet. Second, we have to ask: What do conspiracy theorists think anyone was trying to accomplish by matching up the height to the number of the beast? Do they think people will want to worship the beast because of it? Is this supposed to be some kind of subliminal advertising for Satan? Do you know anyone who’s converted to Satanism because of these measurements? I sure don’t!
Some of these guys tell us that the numbers convey a message to the initiated about the importance of America in the plan of some New World Order. Well, can I ask a really dumb question? Why would the “initiated” need the Washington Monument to get this information? Can’t they just tell each other verbally, or with secret signs? Or, how about just talking in a corner somewhere? They obviously have to do something like that to tell each other what these numbers mean in the first place. So why bother spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction costs towards engineering a giant obelisk to relate the same message? Or, is this some kind of weird, childish, "ha ha we know something you don’t know" game the “initiated” are playing with the rest of us?
If that’s what it is, I’d say let the conspiracy run its course. The "initiated" are so dumb that they’ll likely all soon die in some sort of freak accident involving a calculator.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Deconversion Biography Genre

I posted a vid on my TektonTV channel today that illustrates one of my favorite themes, which is  that some things never change.

I've probably read a couple of couple of dozen "deconversion biographies" by people like John Loftus, Gary Lenaire, Valerie Tarico, and so on. I even wrote about the genre for the Christian Research Journal. It doesn't matter who writes them, they're always the same story in different words. As Nick says in the vid, "They're SOOOOO formulaic!"

Sure, some of that has to do with the natural chronology of a person's life. But when you have so many of these pretending to have claimed the high ground, it's just an annoyance, not a truism. E.g., Gary Lenaire calling his book a "eye opener" when it's filled with garbage like, "The Council of Nicaea voted  on the New Testament in 324 AD."

Despite his hot air, John Loftus, the dean of the genre, isn't any better. He's still using arguments that earned him a laugh track on TheologyWeb back in 2006 or so before I caught him with that "fake blog trick." (Don't know that story? Maybe I'll write a blog entry about it.)

Frankly, you could switch the covers on these in the bookstore and I doubt anyone would know the difference. Which is funny, because I'm sure they say that about "conversion" stories.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Size 42

The story of Elisha and the two bears, as I call it, tells us that the prophet Elisha is set upon by 42 youths. I've written plenty about the moral and historical issues in this story, but while reading Joel Burnett's new book The Absence of God, I came across a more developed form of an argument I've dealt with before and that concerns the use of the number 42.

Some time ago an atheist had argued that the number "42" was somehow symbolic, and that this made the account historically suspect. I noted that the atheist provided insufficient data to show that the number 42 was used in symbolic ways. Burnett does a much better job than the atheist in providing data, but his applications are rather questionable.

Burnett provides the following instances of 42 as "a number representing divine blessing or curse":

  • Psalms 42-83 is a collection of 42 Psalms, the "Elohistic Psalter."
  • In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the dead stand for judgment before 42 deities who dispense either blessing or punishment. They judge based on 42 deeds.
  • In Numbers 22-23, Balaam performs a total of 42 sacrifices to invoke a divine verdict.
  • Within the Bible, apart from 2 Kings, Burnett cites examples of 42 as significant of "divinely ordained disaster" in Judges 12:6, 2 Kings 10:14, 2 Chr. 22:2, Dan. 7:25 and 12:7, Luke 4:25, James 5:17, and Rev. 11:2-3, 12:6, 13:1-6.
  • Finally, several Mesopotamian hymn collections have 42 (or sometimes 21) hymns.
  • Initially, we may note that even if all of this is granted, and even if the number 42 was chosen to represent those youths who attacked Elisha, this would not prove that the entire story was ahistorical. Ancient historians were quite adept at inserting symbolic forms into otherwise historical narratives. If the number of youths harmed was anywhere close to 42 (less or more), then it is certainly of no moment for the author of Kings to have used 42 to transmit a symbolic message.

    With that said, does the evidence indeed suggest that 42 functioned here in a symbolic fashion? The answer is, not really. Burnett's examples are certainly correct, to the extent that they used the number 42 in some way. But he has also biased the conclusion in a way that is similar to that of imitation theorists like Dennis MacDonald and Acharya S. i.e., by choosing his own words and his own description ("representing divine blessing or curse") he has biased the results. Let's start with the Scripture citations.

    For example, Judges 12:6 tells of how 42,000 Ephraimites were killed in war when they failed to say a password correctly. A form of 42 is used, to be sure, but where is the "divine blessing or curse?" There is no sign in the text that the deaths are part of some divine curse. Here also, Burnett has biased the outcome by using the word "curse" as a descriptor for any undesirable fate. Finally, if the number 42 is meant to be symbolic here, we have to ask why we also have examples of numbers of people killed in battle that are not a variant of 42.

    2 Kings 10:14 is in fact such an example, of 42 people killed by Jehu. This is a little closer to being able to be a divine curse in action, to the extent that Jehu was commissioned by God's prophet to do his work. But these are nevertheless only seen as deaths in battle. There is no sign of a "divine curse."

    2 Chr. 22:2 probably does not even belong. It lists the age of Azariah, and some manuscripts say 22. This is paralleled in Kings as the age of Ahaziah, along with some Septuagint manuscripts of Chronicles. It is also open to question how one's age is a curse, or how this passage represents a divine curse (or blessing).

    The two verses from Daniel seem puzzling as an inclusion, since they do not seem, at first glance, to reference the number 42 at all, but instead, to "time, times, and half a time." Actually, the 42 is hidden; this refers to 42 months of time. The passages in Revelation echo Daniel, so they should not be counted separately in statistical terms. It is also a question of how these represent "blessing" or "curse." The 42 months here is an interruption of sorts, which seems to be followed by divine judgment. Perhaps that could be argued to be either a blessing or curse.

    Luke 4:25 is also obscured. It does not use 42 directly but refers to three years and six months, which equals 42 months, as the time during which Elijah stopped rain from falling. This is arguably the best example so far of what Burnett claims to provide. It is echoed by James, which therefore should not be counted statistically.

    Erasing duplicates and the likely erroneous case of Azariah, we are left with four total Biblical references to 42. Of these, only two seem to strictly qualify as referring to a "divine blessing or curse." And the case of Elisha, indeed, may only marginally be argued to join those two references to make a third: Elisha does issue a curse, which has some sort of effect towards 42 victims. But now break down each use, including those outside the Bible:

  • Three uses of 42 refer to numbers of people killed. Only one references a curse.
  • Two uses of 42 refer to a period of 42 months, after which judgment (a curse?) takes place.
  • Two or more uses of 42 number collections of books - which record judgments (which may be blessings or curses?).
  • One use of 42 refers to a number of sacrifices.
  • So, as it happens, only one incident - that of Elisha - precisely fits Burnett's description. Four more might be massaged to fit. Three simply do not fit. This means that statistically, Burnet's conclusion is insufficiently justified.

    Being fair, it may be argued less precisely that 42 is used in contexts of judgment; however, this creates another problem. We would need, in order to validate a statistical conclusion, to show that e.g., 42 appears an unusual number of times in reports of sacrifices. In other words, are there also reports of 37 sacrifices, or 15, or 13? Is there an established pattern, sufficient to show that the incidences of 42 are not merely coincidence?

    In conclusion, I would have to say that Burnett's conclusions about the use of 42 require further statistical validation in order to be jusitified.