Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - A Review

It’s been an excruciatingly long wait, but it’s finally here. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is showing in theaters, and I’ve seen it, and this is what I think of it, just a few hours later.

[This will be REPLETE with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film, take heed and go no further.]

If you’re just reading to find out if it was any good, if you should go see it, I can answer those questions up-front: It was good, and you should go see it.

The Big Picture

It’s hard to know exactly where to start and how to talk about everything going on in this film, from the appearances by the old characters we know and love, to the new characters we need to like for the film to work, to the story, to the comparisons with the prequels – there’s a lot going on here that needs to be unpacked and examined. I’ll start with plot and themes.

Thematically, The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie. It’s a very safe script, in that almost everything that happens in the film is an echo or a reimagining of something that happened in the original trilogy. Broadly speaking, TFA is the story of a poor girl from a desert planet who unwittingly gets involved in the conflict between The New Order (the artists formerly known as the Galactic Empire) and the Resistance, who are the current iteration of the Rebel forces, now protecting the newly-reestablished Galactic Senate. She realizes along the way that she’s particularly in-tune with the Force, and she has a confrontation with a powerful dark Jedi at the end. There are plenty of sub-plots and other details, but the main plot points feel very familiar.

I hesitate to decide whether the similarities are just what they need to be, or if perhaps JJ Abrams and company should have taken a few more liberties or creative twists with the story. I mean, at the end of the film, the Resistance forces literally attack and blow up The New Order’s latest Death Star. In speculating about the plot of this film before it was released, most of us dismissed the idea that the bad guys would be dumb enough to build a giant moon laser for the third time, but there it is. What’s that famous quote about the definition of insanity?

At the heart of it though, this latest film is about the conflict between good and evil, the light side of the force and the dark side, and that’s really what Star Wars is about. So the story is easy to follow and as inviting and familiar as a warm blanket, but what about the characters?

The Old Faces

Most of the hubbub about this new film has centered around the fact that Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill have returned to reprise their roles as Leia, Han, and Luke. This was the most potentially disastrous aspect of this new film for me, because a bad Star Wars movie with these beloved characters would be an unforgivable cinematic transgression. (We can largely write off the prequels because we basically didn’t care about any of the characters, so nobody important was totally ruined.) The original cast is used sparingly in TFA, and by necessity. It’s been so long (30 years in movie time) since Return of the Jedi that it wouldn’t make any sense to have Leia, Han, and Luke running around like they did decades ago, so their roles are much more subdued.

Han features most prominently (and Chewbacca, of course) of the returning cast, but even he’s really only there to help fill in the story gaps and explain to the new characters (and to the audience) what’s been going on for the last 30 years. We do get to see him and Chewie flying around in the Millennium Falcon again, and they both do a fair amount of blasting storm troopers. Harrison does a convincing job of recreating Han’s snarky scoundrel character, but it’s not nearly as intense as it was in the original trilogy. This is completely understandable (and consistent with a character now about 70 years old) if slightly (and unfairly, I admit) disappointing. 

Leia is barely in the film at all. The only thing the plot really needs her for is to explain that the new villain, Kylo Ren, is Han and Leia’s son. Most of those two characters’ screen time together involves them discussing their son, so they’re basically just there to deliver exposition so the audience knows what’s going on. Leia is only in a few scenes and even then really just standing around talking to other characters.

Luke is in the film even less, although most of us expected that given the nature of what we knew of the story and the fact that he was almost entirely absent from any of the teaser trailers. It turns out that Luke was entrusted with training Han and Leia’s son in the Jedi arts, but Ren (Ben to Han and Leia) turned to the dark side and apparently murdered all the other Jedis-in-training. Luke feels personally responsible for this and goes into exile; much of the driving force of the plot involves trying to piece together information about his location.

The only scene in which Luke actually appears is, incidentally, the most powerful scene in the entire film, the final scene. Rey treks up a stony mountain island in the middle of the sea to find Luke, who turns around and unhoods himself as Rey offers him his old lightsaber. I think I nearly exploded at this point from the sheer gravitas of everything that was happening in that scene. In fact I think I may have actually died and am not even actually writing this right now.

Apart from those big three, there is a brief cameo by Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and R2-D2 gets some screen time (and vitally involved with the plot) at the very end. On the whole I would say the original cast members are used tastefully and believably. The film obviously can’t lean too heavily on them, because this isn’t a stand-alone sequel to Jedi, it’s the first in a new era of Star Wars films. The focus of TFA is really on the new characters, and the movie lives or dies based on how we respond to them.

The New Faces

This is another area where so much could have gone wrong: who will be the new heroes and villains going forward, and who will play them? The plot is driven along almost exclusively by two new characters: Finn, a disillusioned New Order storm trooper who deserts the only life he’s ever known, and Rey, a lowly scavenger on a planet called Jakku, which is indistinguishable from Tatooine. Their paths serendipitously cross on Jakku after Finn and an escaped Resistance pilot (Poe Dameron) crash on the planet on their way to recover valuable information on the location of Luke Skywalker. The New Order is also after this information, and everyone flees the planet when the bad guys come in with guns blazing.

Finn’s character is believable enough, although the only back-story he really has is what he tells to his new friends: he realized while fighting with the other storm troopers that it simply wasn’t right, so he fled. He’s not a Jedi, although the trailers (and movie posters) offer a bit of a red herring in showing him wielding a blue lightsaber. Actor John Boyega, whom I’d never seen nor heard before seeing this film, does a good job. (He’s a Brit but does a very convincing American accent in the film. I was surprised to hear his UK accent in interviews.) Finn is a likeable character, and it seems that he’ll figure heavily in the plots of future films.

Rey is easily my favorite new character. I mentioned before that she has obvious parallels with Luke, in that she’s basically a poor nobody on a desert planet but becomes the eventual hero. Just as we see Luke grow stronger with the force in the original trilogy, we witness Rey discovering this ability in herself. There are important differences, though: whereas Luke was a bit of a helpless farm boy who was destined to become a Jedi because of who his father was, Rey is a total badass from the beginning. The SJWs will love her (actually no they won’t; they’ll find something to criticize about her character) – she’s a very strong female character who doesn’t need anybody’s help. In fact, the script almost beats us over the head with this, as she’s unimpressed with Finn’s constant checking up on her. [To comic excess: in one scene, Finn has just been knocked to the ground by an explosion and asks Rey if she’s ok once he collects himself.] For me, most of the oh hell yes moments in the film were when Rey was discovering how powerful she can be. Case in point: the scene in the Kylo Ren fight where she retrieves Luke’s lightsaber from the snow with her mind as Ren is trying to do the same thing – she already fights with a confidence that Luke never really shows until the very end of Jedi. Daisy Ridley, another unknown actor to me, does a great job with this role too (and gets to keep her accent, unlike Boyega), and I’m absolutely on board with Rey as the new hero of the franchise.

So the good guys are great, but what about the bad guys? For TFA to work, it needs a strong villain character for all of us to hate. In the original trilogy we had Darth Vader, who was basically evil incarnate, and later the emperor, who was also an impressively unlikeable asshole. Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, who has apparently been in some other things that I haven’t seen) is the new menace, decked out in decidedly Vaderesque garb. He has a scary mask that distorts his voice when he speaks through it, a menacing, hilted red lightsaber, and an exclusively black wardrobe clashing against the brilliant white of The New Order troops. This isn’t a coincidence, of course; Ren is Han and Leia’s son, and Darth Vader is Leia’s father, so Ren is Vader’s grandson, though Vader died before Ren was born. Ren keeps Vader’s charred and melted mask on-hand for inspiration, and he clearly wants to be just like his evil grand-pop when he grows up. However, whereas Vader’s character only became nuanced and complex in Empire and Jedi, Ren has obvious conflicts from the beginning, revealed to us through his interactions with Rey in particular. He’s not the intimidating, sinister juggernaut that Vader was when he first stepped terrifyingly onto the Tantive IV at the beginning of the original film. (How’s that for an obscure bit of original film trivia?) He’s emotional and shows weakness, and his character arc will be interesting to watch in future films.

I should also say something about BB-8, the adorable little rolling droid that’s already become something of an icon even before the film’s theatrical release. BB-8 is used almost identically to how R2-D2 was used in the original films. They have similar playful personalities, feature prominently in the plot by carrying important information, and are used frequently as comic relief. Just as the droids were endearing characters in the original trilogy, BB-8 is likeable without being overly pandering or insultingly cartoonish (cough Jar-Jar cough cough).

Fan Service

I don’t think I’ve adequately explained just how many scenes and bits of dialogue echo the original trilogy. While I appreciate that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan were doing this intentionally to give the fans things to cheer about (and we did, over and over), the number of references to the old films is rather striking. Here are the things I can explicitly remember after just seeing it once; I’m sure I’ve left several out:
  • Desert planet (Jakku and Tatooine are basically the same)
  • Referring to the Millennium Falcon as junk (“garbage”)
  • Cantina scene with weird aliens (although in TFA it’s not on Jakku)
  • “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
  • Finn accidentally activates the holochess board on the Falcon
  • Making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs
  • An evil Jedi wearing black, a mask, and with a red lightsaber
  • Assault on a planet-sized, planet-destroying super weapon
  • A ground team disrupts shields while x-wings attack
  • Someone mind-grabbing a lightsaber stuck in snow
  • A father-son confrontation
  • Rey uses the “Jedi mind trick” on a storm trooper like Obi-Wan did
  • The New Order looking for a droid carrying important information
  • Han asks about a garbage chute and trash compactor
  • Finn mans the gun on the Falcon and shoots down TIE fighters
Besides these very specific echoes, most other locations are similar to those in the originals. I’ve already mentioned the desert planet, but there are also scenes in a snowy environment, and the Resistance base is on a verdant planet like the moon of Yavin in the original film (or Endor, for that matter.) There are also scenes in an interrogation room and the New Order leaders speaking to the new equivalent of the emperor via hologram. The scene between Han and Ren feels reminiscent of Luke and Vader after their duel in Empire: both characters are in a precarious position high above a chasm and the good character ends up falling (although Han is dead and Luke goes willingly).

The Death of Han Solo

The only potentially “shocking” moment in TFA is Han’s death, although it didn’t come as a shock to me. Harrison Ford has been suggesting that Han’s character be killed off since back in the original trilogy days, so in that sense it’s not out of nowhere. I wasn’t sure that Abrams would have the temerity to do it, since Han is such a beloved and important character. The way it was done, though, is perfectly acceptable: Han is killed by his own son, who is also supposed to be the main villain of the new films. Everything about the scene suggests that Ren not only will kill Han, but must in order to establish his character. The two enjoy a seemingly genuine moment before Ren ignites his lightsaber while both of them are clutching it, impaling Han before he falls to his unceremonious death. This probably should be shocking, but at this point Han’s secondary role in the plot was well established, and the story needed Ren to do something utterly execrable in order for the audience to hate him sufficiently. Ren’s killing of Han takes care of these various needs in a way that seems organic to the story, so it works. We as an audience did at least get to enjoy some nostalgic moments of Han flying the Falcon and laying waste to storm troopers before his end, and I’m grateful for that. It looks like Luke will have a larger role in the next film, so it was time for Han to step aside, one way or another.

Pacing, Script, Tone, Other Film Jargon

Although it’s difficult for me to look at TFA as a film (because it’s STAR WARS and may as well be real events affecting real people to me), I can try to apply some critic-sounding language to it. In general I thought it was well-paced; it never drags or becomes tedious or boring. Exposition is minimal and only stated bluntly when the audience simply can’t get much-needed missing information any other way, as for example when Han and Leia talk about how their son became an evil jerk. Tonally it’s very similar to the original films, in that it’s a mix of action and excitement and occasional serious character moments with some comic relief sprinkled here and there. As I’ve said before, TFA feels like a Star Wars movie, and I think that’s largely due to the similarity in tone.

The script is fine, if imperfect. There were a few scenes in which the dialogue felt a little clunky, a little awkward and silly, but this was almost exclusively whenever anyone was talking about the Force. In the writer’s defense, the Force is an inherently silly concept, and it must be difficult to write dialogue about a magical energy that some people can control with their minds without sounding silly. It’s not as though every single line in the original films is a gem either, so it’s not a huge problem. The plot is believable enough, easy to follow, and rewarding for the audience.

As far as the direction goes, not much else needs to be said: JJ Abrams knows how to make a movie. It looks fantastic, even the CGI bits, which were used (thankfully) with restraint. The film was shot in various actual locations using actual sets and practical effects, much like the original films, and it feels real. It has plenty of action sequences without being a schlocky mess of explosions and sword fights; in fact, there’s only one lightsaber fight in TFA, keeping very much with the tradition of the original trilogy, and it is entirely in service of the plot.


TFA is not a perfect movie. Although my impressions of it are overwhelmingly positive, there were a few things that bugged me. First of all, it doesn’t appear that Kylo Ren wears a scary mask for any reason other than that he wants to be like his idol, Darth Vader. Ren takes it off several times during the film and seems to have no practical need for it whatsoever, and it’s never explained why he has it. I’d also like to know, while we’re on the subject, how exactly he came into possession of Darth Vader’s charred and mangled helmet, since Ren wasn’t even born when Vader died. Who kept that thing around?

Ren’s first scene in fact is with a captured Poe Dameron, who doesn’t seem particularly impressed or intimidated by him. Poe makes light of their confrontation and completely dissolves any tension that had built up around this dark figure. I’m not sure if that was handled properly, although it does establish Dameron as a bit of a rogue and Ren as less imposing than Darth Vader. Perhaps it works, but I did question the use of humor in that particular scene.

The assault on the latest Death Star seemed a little hastily developed, although if I think back to the original film, it’s largely the same. There’s only something like two hours in movie-universe time between when the Resistance discovers that the New Order has this terrifying weapon pointed at them and when they destroy it, and all of that seemed to unfold rather quickly. There are also the usual “it’s a movie” coincidences putting important characters in the same place at the same time, and the eventual meeting of Rey, Finn, and Han and Chewie is eye-rollingly coincidental.

I also thought the movie should have ended right after R2 and BB-8 put their map pieces together to reveal where Luke is hiding, since that would set up the action for the next film – finding Luke. Instead, the film goes on a few minutes longer to show Rey walking around a remote rocky island only to find Luke and present him his old lightsaber. This actually turned out to be the most emotion-stirring scene in the entire film, but it seemed like something that might have worked as the driving force of the next film instead.

Highlights, Final Thoughts

I didn’t even make it through the opening title crawl without tearing up, and I was routinely dabbing my eyes under my 3D glasses throughout the film. It’s a serious nostalgia trip, and of an intensity I’ve never experienced before. If Star Wars has been a big part of your life as it has of mine, watching this film is an emotional experience. The first memorable moment for me was when Rey and Finn are running for their lives on Jakku, looking for anything for Rey to pilot to get them away from the attacking New Order forces. Rey suggests a fast-looking craft ahead, while Finn suggests a different ship off camera; Rey dismisses his choice as “garbage” (my Spidey sense begins tingling). As Rey’s choice explodes in front of them, she acquiesces to the “garbage” ship instead. The camera pans over to reveal the Millennium Falcon, and I basically die. Everyone in the theater cheers, and I want to pause the movie so I can go cry for 15 minutes. Ditto any moment where an old character is revealed, even though Han and Leia’s first scenes aren’t really all that dramatic. I immensely enjoyed Rey discovering her power, and her duel with Ren is fantastic. The scene at the end with Rey holding out Luke’s lightsaber for him as he slowly turns and reveals his face is possibly the most powerful scene in a Star Wars movie (although I’ll note that I'm too young to have experienced Vader’s “I am your father” bombshell in theaters).

The highest praise I can give Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it’s worthy of the Star Wars name. It has an uncontroversial script, a good balance of old and new characters and story elements, and it looks and sounds absolutely amazing. I’m going to see it again, and then again, and then again.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christianity, The World's Most Falsifiable Religion?

I find myself not writing about religion very often anymore mostly because I’ve got the gist of Christian apologetics at this point and am rather bored by it, so I’m much less often inspired to respond to something I read. Still, something extraordinary does occasionally drift by, like this article from Michael Patton, Th.M., (presumably not the Mike Patton from Faith No More) entitled “Christianity, The World’s Most Falsifiable Religion.” It struck me as odd that someone with a background in theology would write so confidently about the historicity of the core claims of the Christian faith. Then again, the major endeavor of Christian apologetics is to attempt to muster up some kind of argument other than “you just need to take it on faith,” even though most believers would not cite “the overwhelming persuasiveness of Christian apologetics” as the reason for their belief. Apologetics is not for convincing nonbelievers, it’s for reassuring believers that they have legitimate, non-laughable reasons for the beliefs that they already hold, beliefs that don’t actually have their origins in the cosmological argument, or the teleological argument, or the moral argument, or the [insert apologetic du jour] argument.

Here is Patton’s thesis:
“Christianity is the only viable worldview that is historically defensible. The central claims of the Bible demand historic inquiry, as they are based on public events that can be historically verified. In contrast, the central claims of all other religions cannot be historically tested and, therefore, are beyond falsifiability or inquiry. They just have to be believed with blind faith.”
The TL;DR version of my response: No, Christianity is not historically defensible. Its claims, like those of all other religions, are not falsifiable, and you do just have to take it on faith. Here’s the long-winded version:

What is History?

To explain why the claims of the Christian faith cannot be investigated historically, the first thing that needs to be done is to define what history is, and just as importantly what history is not. (I’m borrowing heavily here from the work of Dr. Bart Ehrman, New Testament scholar and historian.) History is not the past. History is what we can show probably happened in the past. This is not a trivial distinction; there are things that certainly happened in the past but cannot be shown to have happened with any high probability. For example, there is a factual answer to the question “What did Benjamin Franklin eat for dinner on October 23rd, 1778?” Unless we’re fortunate enough to discover Franklin's journal meticulously detailing his prandial selections on that day, we have no method of seeking the answer to this question. So although the question asks about a particular event in the past, it is not a historical question – it can’t be investigated historically. Let’s look at the claims of the New Testament and determine if they are historical claims, i.e. claims that can be investigated historically.

History as a Genre

Not every piece of writing that talks about the past is historical. “History” is a specific literary designation, and any writing deemed to be “historical” must meet certain criteria, just as any writing claiming to be satire or science fiction or biography must meet certain criteria. So, what exactly is history? The word itself comes from Herodotus, the 5th century BCE Greek writer commonly referred to as “The Father of History” (an honor conferred upon him by Cicero, no less.) Herodotus begins his famous work with the immortal words “Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε,” “This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus.” The Greek word whence comes our word history means an investigation or inquiry. In this hugely influential work, Herodotus establishes many basic features of the genre of historical writing. First of all, he clearly identifies himself by name and place. Second, he often gives multiple conflicting accounts of a story and identifies to which people each perspective belongs. In the case of events he didn’t witness himself, he tells the reader where he got his information and reports it neutrally, inviting the reader to decide which side is telling the truth, if any.

Thucydides, Herodotus’ 5th century Greek contemporary wrote a detailed history of the war between Athens and Sparta as it was unfolding before his very eyes. His methods are even more mindfully scrupulous than those of Herodotus, and he tells us explicitly in Book I, section 22 how he gets his information:
“And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.”
Thucydides’ work is also noteworthy for his inclusion of long speeches, about which he gives the following disclaimer in the same section:
“With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”
So, history as a genre was established more than four hundred years before the New Testament: a transparent inquiry into events by an author who identifies himself, dutifully reports on sources, and declares any biases. It should already be clear that the writers of the gospels make no effort to be historical in their approach to narration. But wait, there’s more!

Investigating the Historical Past

Having established what historical writing looks like from its ancient roots, we should mention what modern scholars of history look for when trying to determine what probably happened in the past. The most important resources in investigating the historical past are primary sources – first-hand accounts reported by people who witnessed the events. Historians want not only primary sources, but multiple primary sources that were created independently of one another, are consistent in their description of the events, and have no obvious bias in reporting. How do the gospels of the New Testament fare as desirable historical evidence? Let’s find out:
Are the gospels primary sources?
The stories narrated in the gospels are not eye-witness accounts and don’t even claim to be. Even worse, the original autographs of all New Testament books are lost. The earliest texts of the gospels we have are copies from a century later or more. Historians don’t know what the authors of the gospels originally wrote because the original texts don’t exist.

Are the gospels multiple independent sources?

Well, kind of. Multiple? Yes, technically. Independent? Definitely not. The first three gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) are plagued by a troublesome debate known as the synoptic problem, a veritable cluster-fuck of scholarly confusion as to where the hell the writers of these books got their information, because large parts are repeated verbatim across the three books, and the authors never mention their sources.

Are the gospels consistent in their descriptions of events?

When was Jesus executed? Mark (14:12, 15:25) and John (19:14-16) can’t agree on the hour or the day. Did Jesus carry his own cross, as John says (19:17), or did Simon of Cyrene carry it, as Mark (15:21), Matthew (27:32), and Luke (23:26) say? Were the women watching the crucifixion from far away, as Matthew (27:55), Mark (15:40), and Luke (23:49) say, or were Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister, and Mary Magdalene close at hand as John (19:25) says? What were Jesus’ last words before dying? Did he say “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” as Mark (15:34) and Matthew (27:46) report, or “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” as Luke (23:46) reports, or “It is finished,” as John (19:30) reports? That’s just a small selection of the inconsistencies in the crucifixion story alone. The gospel writers don’t tell the same story about anything.

Are the gospels unbiased in reporting events?

The gospels are stories narrated as if factual with no attempts whatsoever at impartiality. The authors of these books were 1st century Christians who already believed these stories and disseminated them for the purpose of converting people to their religion.

So, the gospels display precisely none of the characteristics shown by actual writers of history, and the texts have none of the characteristics that modern historians look for when investigating historical events. I could stop here, but wait, there’s more!

The Nail in the Coffin (Stone in front of the Tomb?): Miracles

As if everything mentioned thus far wasn’t problematic enough for the historicity of the claims in the New Testament, Dr. Ehrman reminds us of an even bigger problem: miracles. What is a miracle? A miracle is a suspension of the natural order of the world - an event that transcends the very physical laws that govern our entire existence. A miracle is not just an improbable event, but an impossible one. It’s rolling a 7 on a six-sided die, or being raised from the dead, or correctly folding a fitted bed sheet. Historians, as we established earlier, have to try to demonstrate what probably happened in the past. Miracles are by definition the least probable things that have ever happened. Of course they are – if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be miraculous. The conflict should be obvious: the least probable occurrence can never be the most probable explanation for anything. Thus, for a historian, no miraculous story can ever be a historical one. This is why history text books do not mention gods, demons, angels, fairies, and hobgoblins when explaining the D-Day invasion, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the French Revolution. Highly improbable explanations have no historical explanatory power.

What About Other Sources?

There aren’t any. Jesus of Nazareth, whoever he was, wrote nothing. His disciples wrote nothing. His contemporary followers wrote nothing. (This shouldn’t be surprising – lower class people in Judea in the 1st century were illiterate.) The earliest author we have is the apostle Paul, who never met Jesus. Everyone else, including the gospel writers, the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman historian Tacitus, came later. There are no verifiable historical witnesses to the crucifixion, to the empty tomb, to the resurrection. As far as historians are concerned, these claims cannot be evaluated, let alone shown to have probably happened.

Conclusions and Caveats

If you're a Christian and reading this (or if you're Michael Patton,Th.M. - Hi Mike!) and frothing at the mouth right now, please note that at no point have I said that the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the resurrection did not happen. To say that a claim is not historical is NOT to say the event did not happen. Michael's claim is that the Christian stories about Jesus are historical, and I've explained why that isn't true.

I don't personally believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. I'm not even entirely convinced that anything reported about him in Christian texts is factually true, given how powerfully unhistorical they are. I cannot, however, state with absolute certainty that the claims are false, because they are unfalsifiable. The complete lack of evidence to substantiate any claims about Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection strongly suggests to me that the claims are false, but it does not prove that they are false. It could be that there was a 1st century Palestinian Jew who performed miracles and survived his own murder, just as it could be that Benjamin Franklin had steak and eggs for dinner on October 23rd, 1778. Both could be facts; neither is historical.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Absurdity of Monogamy

Monogamy is ridiculous. There, I said it. This is something that I've been subconsciously aware of for my entire life but only recently had the clarity of mind and testicular fortitude to declare, and I do so confidently and without apology. I offer by way of introduction this short video by Dan Savage, noted sex columnist, in response to the question, "Does society need to rethink its views on love and commitment?" (NSFW language - it's Dan Savage)

He gets at the core of this issue, which is that we as a collective society have placed the utmost importance on the idea of sexual exclusivity in all serious, long-term relationships and marriages. Nearly everyone agrees that infidelity is wrong. I'm firmly in that camp as well - infidelity, after all, amounts to lying, and lying is generally wrong. There is a massive disconnect, however, between the number of people who condemn infidelity and who refrain from it, and this disparity is a major contributor to the failure of monogamous relationships.

Statistical Reality

Finding rigorous, reliable, and recent statistics on infidelity is annoyingly difficult. First of all, much of the current research is to be found behind paywalls in academic journals, so direct access to anything but abstracts has been impossible for me. There's also the problem that these statistics all rely on self-reporting, and given the general stigma attached to infidelity, many people are reluctant to admit to it even in an anonymous survey. This is particularly evident when looking at the stats for people who reported being cheated on vs. those who admit to cheating - there's a rather large gap between those two figures in any survey of these questions. So, here are some of the figures I have been able to access regarding the prevalence of infidelity:
  • a Psychology Today article cites a research paper from the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy (Atwood & Schwartz, 2002) which completed a meta-analysis of existing research on marital infidelity. That analysis found that 45-55% of women and 50-60% of men engage in extramarital sex at some point during their marriages.
  • Peggy Vaughan in her book The Monogamy Myth reports similar figures - around 40% of women and 60% of men will have an affair during marriage, and perhaps more shockingly, 40% of these affairs go on for more than 2 years. These aren't drunken mistakes on business trips, they're fulfilling, long-term relationships with people other than one's spouse.
  • A recent survey of divorce professionals revealed that 28% of divorcing couples cite infidelity as the primary reason for separation.
  • There are entire dating websites catering to married people looking to find extramarital partners. has over 33 million registered users, all of whom are either married and looking to cheat or single and willing to be the home-wrecker.
So, nearly everyone agrees that cheating is wrong, yet better than 50% of all married people will do it anyway, and a quarter of all divorces will be a direct result of it. In order to try to understand why these problematic figures exist, we should examine why people place such an importance on monogamy in the first place.

Animals are Naturally Monogamous

This is one of those "science facts" that you've known for a really long time - that many animals "mate for life."(The Onion has even recently had some fun with this) The problem with "science facts" that you've known for a really long time is that most of them are actually wrong, including this one. Many species of birds, for example, appear to be monogamous, as they tend to form persistent "pair bonds." These are social bonds rather than sexual, though - genetic analysis of offspring frequently reveals that a percentage of them weren't fathered by the social mates. There are perfectly reasonable evolutionary explanations for why it's advantageous for birds to do this, and the same factors may explain human tendencies toward polygamy as well.

We have anthropological and biological evidence to suggest strongly that homo sapiens is not a naturally monogamous species, although biologists have trouble pinning us down on the monogamy/polygamy spectrum. Polygamy is generally abhorrent in the modern, civilized world, probably because the advantages it offers are no longer relevant to centralized, industrial societies. George Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas reports that, of the 800+ different cultures he cataloged throughout the world, only 137 of them, or 16.1%, were monogamous. Even without definitive answers to these questions of human sexuality from science, a glance back at those statistics above should dispel any notion that we are naturally monogamous.


One reason many people will insist on monogamy is that it's some sort of moral imperative as decreed by Almighty God. Of course, if actually asked to substantiate this strongly-held belief with specific citations of passages in holy books, the people spouting this tired argument will generally fumble and equivocate. The Bible says quite a lot of things about marriage, most of them the sort of laughable, irrelevant, contradictory nonsense that one typically finds in its pages. Deuteronomy 21:15, for example, addresses men with two wives (and not for the purposes of telling them not to have two wives.) Abraham has "concubines" (Genesis 25:6), Esau takes two wives (Genesis 26:34) and then another one (28:9). 1 Kings 11:3 notes that King Solomon, the greatest player in human history, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Those are suspiciously round numbers, but apparently God was cool with K-Sol slamming 1,000 bitches, give or take.

"Yes, but," you retort, "those verses are all from Ye Olde Testamente, that forgotten opening act to the triumphant and glorious GOSPELS overflowing with the WISDOM OF JESUS OUR LORD AND SAVIOR!" Well, in Matthew 19, Jesus and his disciples discuss how, since divorce isn't allowed (19:9), it's probably best not to marry. Jesus suggests castration as another viable option (19:12). Jesus also advocates abandoning one's wife to follow him (19:29). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says it's best for men and women not to touch each other, and people who aren't already married shouldn't bother (7:27). I mean, the world is coming to an end really soon, you guys. There's no time to get married. So actually, the God of the Bible is perfectly fine with polygamy, and Jesus doesn't seem to give a shit either way, because he's more important than your marriage, and the world is ending soon anyway. The idea that monogamy is a Biblical imperative from God is simply false.

Exclusive Sex is More Special

And yet, the idea of monogamy is pervasive even among scientifically literate, secular people. Sure, the misguided religious folk have a monopoly on crazy reasons for insisting on it, but even your super progressive, Green party-voting, Chomsky-reading, Trader Joe's-shopping, vegan girlfriend would probably dump your ass the second she came home early from her barista shift and saw a pair of someone else's TOMS on the floor.

We're just doing yoga, I swear!
Certainly there are pragmatic reasons to prefer monogamy, like mitigated risk of STIs/need to go on the Maury Povich Show. [This of course only applies when both partners are actually monogamous, which, as we know, they often are not.] But this is not generally the justification given for monogamy, especially among unmarried couples who have no legal obligations to one another. In this case, so the argument goes, sex is a special thing because two partners decide only to do it with each other.

This argument could be persuasive, in the same way that communism could be a viable economic model. If two people go to their graves having only had sex with each other, then yes, sex was a special thing. Mission accomplished, criticism retracted. This accurately describes something like 0% of the population. In reality, most people will have multiple sexual partners in their lifetimes; hell, many people will even get married multiple times. The argument that sex is somehow special because you're only doing it with one person at a time becomes difficult to take seriously when you remember that you and your partner both likely had other sexual partners before the current relationship and will likely have more still after it's over. This argument from "special...ness" becomes less persuasive with each new sexually exclusive relationship.

Note also that it would be patently absurd to talk about other aspects of human relationships in this way. Parents don't decide against having a second child because they're afraid they won't have enough love for both of them. No parent looks forlornly at an ultrasound revealing twins and laments, "oh, now they're each only half as special." We don't put a limit on the number of friends we have because we're afraid that we're going to run out of love, or that our existing friendships won't be as valid anymore because we've made new ones. One can assert that having multiple concurrent sexual partners somehow renders the act less special, whatever that means, but the fact remains that there are no practical implications for this, and I'd defy anyone to demonstrate otherwise. The meaningfulness of sex is not inversely proportional to the number of partners, current or historical. (Einstein came up with that, I think. Look it up.) Just as we all have unlimited capacity to love our kids and love our friends, we also have unlimited capacity to have maximally meaningful sex.

Pretty sure it's that bit on the left there.
The Intimacy Fallacy

Sex is almost inextricably mated to intimacy, despite the fact that most sexually active people know from experience that the two aren't necessarily synonymous. Sex is not an inherently intimate act. (If you don't agree, consider sex workers of all kinds - are porn stars enjoying intimate moments when they saw away at each other on camera as a vocation? What about non-consensual sex? Incest? Bestiality? Necrophilia? Wow that escalated quickly...) Sex is a biological imperative; this we know for certain. What the act means, though, is entirely up to the individuals engaging in it, and it could be entirely different for each person engaged in the act. Sex can be powerfully intimate, completely meaningless, and every single nuance of difference in between. Simply combining one's genitals with someone else's does not in itself mean anything at all - it means whatever the people to whom those genitals are attached feel it means.

Two airplanes share a powerfully intimate moment.
"Sex" as a lexical item is woefully inadequate to express the innumerable manifestations of the act, which is why we consequently have innumerable colorful phrases to fill the gaps. Making love is different from fucking is different from shagging is different from going all the way, et cetera ad infinitum. Intimacy does not come from an act, it comes from the feelings that people have for each other, which they bring to any act. Two lifelong lovers gazing poignantly into each other's eyes is infinitely more intimate than two practical strangers drunkenly porking in a dance club bathroom. The idea that an unfaithful partner has shared a profoundly intimate moment with someone else is not necessarily true simply by virtue of the act itself.

Infidelity as an Extinction-Level Event

The lamentable consequence of these unrealistic expectations about sexual exclusivity is that countless otherwise healthy, loving relationships are destroyed simply because one partner, for whatever reason, has sex with someone else. Terminating a relationship based on the revelation that one partner was unfaithful sends the absurd message that a singular act can be more important than potentially decades of love and commitment. Marriages are destroyed and families are fractured because we have decided that unfaithfulness is the worst possible transgression in a monogamous relationship, and we see the unfortunate results of this in the divorce statistics.

This persistent attitude combined with the fact that around half of all married people will at some moment be unfaithful paints a terribly grim picture for the future of monogamous relationships. The solution, of course, is plainly visible, although most seem dogmatically unwilling to embrace it: we simply must be more realistic about sexual exclusivity. No amount of preaching morality and the sanctity of marriage, of swearing oaths before God and man, of insisting intransigently on uninterrupted monogamy will change the fact that people desire other people. Making a sexually exclusive commitment to one person does not palliate one's innate sexual desire to fuck other people. A lot of other people. As many other people as will agree to it. And yet many partners act completely surprised when they discover that they haven't been the sole object of sexual desire of their spouses.

Completely lost in the shame-and-blame hysterics about infidelity is the fact that cheating can actually save relationships rather than destroy them. It's not the solution for every struggling couple, but sometimes simply getting a need met elsewhere is preferable to ending an otherwise healthy relationship. Having an affair can also bring a trenchant and novel perspective to one's relationship by the inevitable comparison it engenders. This Psychology Today article describes how this is possible:
Why is this? Well, if we go back to the original premise -- stepping out of our primary relationship because certain needs aren't getting met -- and we are then finding those needs met in a secondary relationship -- the secondary relationship, by its very nature, stands in contrast to the first. By way of comparison, this contrast can prompt a shift in perspective that brings us from a place of seeing what were missing in our primary relationship to a place of recognizing what we have in that relationship. This shift in perspective provides us with a crucible for determining what it is that we actually need in a social relationship to feel satisfied.
We tend to hear about the relationships that are destroyed by cheating but never about those saved by it. From a pragmatic perspective, declaring infidelity to be implicitly, unambiguously wrong seems at least slightly misguided.

Honest Attitudes about Sexual Exclusivity

By no means am I contending that monogamy is impossible, or that it's even undesirable. There are happily monogamous couples who will remain happily monogamous for the duration of their relationships, and they wouldn't have it any other way, and that's perfectly fine. There are a great many people, however, who enter into monogamous relationships because they feel that they don't actually have a choice - a serious relationship generally entails, implicitly or explicitly, sexual exclusivity. Whether it's just a serious, committed relationship or a legal contract between two people who have promised in front of witnesses to be faithful, many people are making these vows knowing full-well that they're not likely to uphold them, at least not perfectly, not indefinitely. It behooves us to acknowledge that this obsession with monogamy is at odds with our nature, and this acknowledgment must color our perception of the importance of unbroken sexual exclusivity in relationships.

γνῶϑι σεαυτόν reads the sign at the Oracle at Delphi - know thyself. If you make a commitment to another person to be monogamous, you're obligated to uphold that commitment - a promise to a loved one is a promise, and broken at one's peril. If strict monogamy doesn't sound particularly attractive, or fulfilling, or even possible to you, then don't make any such commitments. Understand that this is a part of who you are and what you need to be happy and fulfilled, and be honest about it. Speaking openly and honestly about our desires in matters as important as these is imperative in order to destigmatize relationships that aren't strictly monogamous. Many people have these relationships now - whether their partner knows it or not - and we'd all benefit from a less hostile space in which to talk about them.

(A special thank you to many of my married friends who provided valuable insight on this matter as I was writing.)