‘Incredibles 2’ at the Federalist

Latest essay is up at ‘The Federalist,’ this one on ‘Incedibles 2.’

Aside: there seems to be a lot of, shall we say, competing opinions on this film. I’ll say for my part I really liked it; it’s not in the same league as the original, and it has some very notable problems (I’ve heard they were on a hard deadline, which certainly is reflected in the film, but is kind of weird considering people have been asking for this movie for a decade-and-a-half), but it’s still very cool, very funny, and filled with, I think, very positive ideas. So, I recommend it.

Definitely see it before reading my essay if you don’t want spoilers.

The movie picks up right where the original left off: with the Parr family fighting the Underminer. The battle goes sideways, which destroys the public goodwill the family earned defeating Syndrome in the first film. As a result, the Parrs find themselves out of work, living in a motel, and without legal protection for any future superheroics.

 

As Bob and Helen try to decide what to do next for their family, they receive a tempting offer: a pair of billionaire siblings, Winston and Evelyn Deavor, want to hire Elastigirl to become the new public face of superheroes to gin up public support for re-legalization. This requires Helen to leave Bob in charge of the household for a few days while she does covert heroics, reversing the dynamic of the first film. Meanwhile, a mysterious new villain called “the Screenslaver” challenges the heroes.

The first “Incredibles” movie’s themes and story were as perfectly fitted as the heroes’ skintight costumes. It’s different in the sequel. Many character developments and plot threads lack satisfactory conclusions, and Mr. Incredible is particularly ill served by the story.

Yet this new film still has Brad Bird behind it, meaning it’s not just smartly written and entertaining, but also tackles some interesting ideas, especially for today. From what superficially appears to be a standard SJW storyline of female empowerment and male incompetence, the film diverges into a much more interesting, universal, and realistic set of conclusions.

Describing these will require spoilers, so I recommend you see the film before reading further. Quite apart from the characters and ideas, it’s worth the price of admission for the intensely creative superhero action scenes alone (my favorites being a backyard brawl between baby Jack-Jack and a thieving raccoon and a one-on-one fight between Violet and a new Super named Voyd).

Read the rest here.

Our Particular Challenge

There are some doctrine that are ill-suited for some times. St. Paul wrote the Corinthians that he “gave them milk to drink, not meat, for you were not yet able.” (1 Cor. 3:2). That is, he didn’t try to convey the fullness or complexity of Christian doctrine to them, since he knew they weren’t yet ready to understand or profit by it.

The trouble is that if you don’t understand basic ideas, you won’t understand the more complex ones. If the foundation is ill laid, the building will not stand solid. This is one of the chief problems of the modern world; that most of us never learn our basics, yet we attempt to understand the advanced lessons.

To take an example, we often hear, in Christian circles, of the vanity of worldly good and that the good of Christ is other and greater than the greatness of mankind. This is, of course, very true, but it is not, in our day and age, very proper, for we have lost most of our idea of the greatness of man.

People in St. Paul’s day, and for most of the centuries following had a clear notion of what constituted earthly greatness and goodness. They had at least a basic understanding of virtue and nobility; able to look to illustrious figures like King David, Hector, Alexander, Scipio Africanus, Aeneas, and so on for their examples of Earthly greatness. To know that the glory of Christ surpassed these, therefore, conveyed a real idea to their minds.

But that is no longer true in our day. Our conceptions of morality and greatness of spirit are so skewed that we don’t even comprehend the basics of what it consists. We hold up superficialities like sex or skin color, political views or whether a man owned slaves and judge accordingly. Of honor, nobility, magnanimity, chastity, charity, beauty, wisdom, courage, and justice we think (to borrow a phrase from Prof. Lewis) “as a baboon thinks of classical music.”

For contemporary Christians, the first step is not comprehending the glory of Christ; it is comprehending the greatness of man. Not because man is greater than Christ, but because he is less. Because it is easier to understand mortal virtues than divine ones, and yet we have not even progressed that far.

Christ Himself assumed that His disciples understood basic morality and so could understand His taking it to a higher level: “You have heard it said…” “Even of yourselves judge what is right.” “If you who are wicked know how to give good things.” My argument is that, in the modern world, that is no longer the case and we Christians ought to act accordingly. When we preach, our first preaching should be the fundamentals of right and wrong, good and evil, greatness and meanness.

This is one reason I find it annoying when certain Christians try to say things like “our true country is not here, therefore it doesn’t matter what happens to America.” The first part of the statement is true, but what does it matter where our true country is if we can’t even muster the basic virtue of caring for the one we happen to find ourselves in? What is the sense of saying “it doesn’t matter if you’re unable to ride the pony; you’ll be getting a stallion one day”? To paraphrase St. John, if we don’t love the earthly country we see, how do we expect to love the heavenly one we don’t see?

What many of us seem to forget is that Earthly virtues are not simply contrary to heavenly ones, but are as immature forms of the same ideas. They are precursors, by which we train on lighter things to be able to bear the heavier. That is why men who most manifest the heavenly virtues are not for that reason bare of the cardinal ones. This is also why Christians traditionally honor worldly and even pagan glory: why the Medievals were fascinated by the Romans and Greeks, and why men like Washington and Columbus have been celebrated by Christian writers.

This is the doctrine of objective value, which is less a Christian doctrine than a human one. That is to say, it is a more basic and fundamental doctrine than any of the tenets of Christianity. It isn’t that one cannot successfully be a saint without holding it; it’s that one cannot be a human being.

In summary, in our day and age the first step of evangelization is often simply to convince people of the reality of value, not as a subjective and self-willed part of one’s personality, but as an objective and external reality that demands a certain response. We must first convert people to the human race before we attempt to convert them to Christianity.

 

Why Relativism is Intolerant

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help noticing that people who argue that truth or morality are relative tend to be much more intolerant than those who adhere to the idea of objective values. The tolerance they boast of is purely specific: that they don’t object to certain given acts (e.g. homosexuality) that traditionalists do. Like Father Brown pointed out, they only forgive sins that they don’t really think sinful. Against real differences in philosophy, principle, or even politics, relativists tend to be the most narrow-minded and intolerant people you will ever meet.

Thinking about this the other day, I realized that it makes perfect sense that this should be so. Because when you remove a topic from the realm of objectivity, you introduce a factor that wasn’t there before: choice. If something is merely a matter of taste or individual preference, then the question of why you have this particular taste or preference enters in.

If ethics are a thing like mathematics: a matter of reason, then two people may disagree on ethical questions, but if they both believe in objective value then they will not (unless they are arguing in bad faith) assume that the other’s ideas are a matter of arbitrary choice which he could have chosen otherwise if he wished. They will think that each is working off of the best he knows, and in any case that the truth is something impersonal and exterior to both. Moreover, if value is objective then understanding and applying it is a matter of skill and aptitude: differences in which are only to be expected.

However, once you make morals subjective, so that each person chooses his own and no one’s is better than anyone else’s, then if someone has a moral objection to your conduct the question arises “why do you choose this moral value if you know it’ll hurt me? In fact, what does it say about you that you have such taste? There must be a reason, and the reason must be in you.”

In other words, subjective value puts all the onus on the person who holds a given value system rather than on the system itself, because it contains the idea that each person chooses his values and could choose otherwise if he wished. Thus if someone objects to, say, homosexuality, it is not because he sees by reason that it is morally wrong and believes it in the impersonal way he understands mathematical formulas, it is because he personally hates people who act that way and wants to hurt them for some pathological reason. It is not a matter for debate or reason (you can’t reason people out of tastes), but merely for condemnation. There is no space for mutual respect for someone trying to follow the best he knows even if you think him mistaken (as Grant honored the Confederates even if he thought their cause “one of the worst for which men ever fought”): the fact that he chooses to hold this shows him to be a fundamentally evil person. If he weren’t, he would think like me, because I know that I am good.

I notice most modernist ideas produce the exact opposite effect that they claim to intend.

 

The Dangers of Attacking Hypocrisy

There’s nothing more popular these days, either in the Church or the surrounding culture, than attacking hypocrisy or moral pride: Pope Francis talks about it all the time, and slinging accusations of it back and forth has become something of a pastime among Catholics of differing traditions. Of course, the Other Side uses it as a “shut up criticism free” card whenever anyone dares to criticize their behavior or suggest that perhaps their way of life isn’t the most conducive to health and happiness.

I think this is a very dangerous state of affairs for the Church, and that we seriously need to downplay this kind of talk, especially with regards to one another.

fred_barnard07

“Seeing as I am so very ‘umble…”

In David Copperfield we have one of Dickens’s more interesting villains; Uriah Heep. Heep is a man of lower class and oily manners, constantly talking about how “’umble” he is and affecting submissive manners towards his social superiors. Before long, however, it becomes clear that Heep is an ambitious, selfish, amoral man whose humility is a blind that he uses to manipulate and control those around him. In fact, he loathes the rich, well-mannered, ‘respectable’ people, like Copperfield himself. He is eaten up with envy and considers all their good manners, morals, and ‘respectability’ to be nothing but pride and hypocrisy.

To take another literary villain, consider George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who blames Darcy for the ‘pride’ that led Darcy to refuse to continue supporting him after he had already given him several thousand pounds, which Wickham had squandered on immoral, lascivious, and idle living. Wickham likewise accuses Darcy’s sister of being proud because she had come to her senses in time to avoid being seduced by him. Basically, ‘proud’ to Wickham means ‘anyone who presumes to be more moral than is convenient to me.’

Now, neither Dickens nor Austen lacks for examples of real pride, snobbishness, and hypocrisy. In David Copperfield we have the merciless Murdstones, the snobbish Steerforths, and the cruel Mr. Creakle. In Pride and Prejudice we have the haughty Lady Catherine, the unctuous and ridiculous Mr. Collins (who is offended by Elizabeth’s refusal of his marriage proposal), and the snobbish and hypocritical Bingley sisters, who look down on everyone they consider below their circle, despite the fact that their money all comes from trade. But both authors had the moral subtlety to know that those who lack morals, or who are deficient in that line, very often compensate themselves and sooth their own self-loathing by accusing their superiors of being proud, hypocritical, and self-righteous.

So there is a great danger in warning against moral pride and self-righteousness; the danger is that it is extremely easy to accuse anyone with any morals of having that particular sin. Practically any act of virtue, prudence, or good-judgment is sufficient to render an accusation of self-righteousness plausible.

I’m not, of course, saying that there is no such thing as self-righteousness or that we shouldn’t be on guard against it. What I am saying is that we should be extremely hesitant to either make that accusation or believe one that is made by others. We should be very careful when and how we bring it up. To speak against clear, easily-defined sins is far safer (for our own spiritual wellbeing) and, without a doubt, far more needed in our current world.

Moreover, to speak against moral pride is easy; as I say, everyone does it, and everyone feels confident that they know someone who has it. Very few people feel ‘attacked’ by it (unless specifically directed at them), and those who do tend to be sufficiently morally aware not to resent it. Most of us, when we hear a lecture on moral pride, can take refuge in the assumption that we are decent people who bear no one any ill will (meaning that we feel fairly calm and amiable at the moment) and easily redirect the admonition to our neighbor who dared to lecture us on our parenting techniques the other day.

To speak against one of the favorite sins of the moment, such as fornication, pornography, laziness, self-indulgence, abortion, homosexuality, and so on, however, is another story. These are things that either you do or you don’t; if you do, you can’t hide from that fact by a pleasing self-assessment or fob it off as being directed at someone else. They are concrete facts, and your only two options are to reject the admonition outright (which is uncomfortable in itself) or to regret that you did such things. In either case, I believe it to be far more useful in awakening the conscience than attacks on hypocrisy and spiritual pride, though these may be the deadlier sins.

Now, I know some of you are thinking “But Jesus attacked hypocrites all the time! In fact, He was much harsher with them than with anyone else.” Yes, but we must remember two things: first, Jesus could look into men’s hearts and know that they were hypocrites: we can’t. Second, Jesus never hesitated to call out the more prosaic sins either, but these were more or less common knowledge at the time: everyone knew them. No one had to be told that stealing, fornication, adultery, and self-indulgence were wrong, but they did need to be told that a rotten interior life necessitated repentance as well. That is not the case of the modern world. Today, everyone knows the importance of the interior life, but comparatively few people know or understand the basic principles of practical wisdom. We don’t need to be told not to be hypocrites as much as we need to be told not to be selfish, greedy, lustful, and lazy. These days the story of the publican and the Pharisee would almost be reversed: the publican would pray “I thank you Lord that at least I am not a hypocrite like that Pharisee over there! I may steal, extort, sleep around, and laugh at my neighbors’ pain, but at least I’m not a hypocrite!”

This doesn’t mean we need to be ‘flinging accusations’ around or anything; only that when we talk about morality, we should focus on warning against the specific, unmistakable sins more than the vague, non-concrete ones. Not that we should ignore these (they are, as noted, among the most dangerous), but that we should be careful about how we approach them. Besides, a man only becomes aware of his spiritual pride by being aware of his real sins: if he’s able to ignore them, he likely won’t be aware of his own hypocrisy. To be aware that we commit real and disgusting sins regularly, and that we want to do so is to recognize that we are not a very fine person after all. To awaken a man to the obvious sins is also to awaken him to his pride. Not always, but I think far more often than a direct attack on spiritual pride does.

In short, to warn against hypocrisy is at least as dangerous as a simple condemnation of obvious sins. We should warn against both, but the latter should be much more the focus of our efforts, while the former should be approached with great caution lest we encourage the very thing we seek to cure.