Sunday, June 21, 2015

Psalm 23

The first and most important thing to know about this Evangelical Tract Distributors offering, titled Psalm 23 (A Friend That Goes With Me), is that it does not mention Psalm 23 at all. The cover, with a nice photo of a church in front of a field, is the only place that title appears.

There are other Psalms on the inside - this is a Scripture-quote tract, with six quotations and a brief write-up on what they are supposed to mean. We have Psalm 84:11. We have 68:19. We even have Psalm 145:1 - 10. But Psalm 23? Nope.

With a gaffe like that, you'd think the author would want to remain anonymous. Nope again. His name is David Buttram (no, I am not making the obvious joke here, I have some standards), and it is printed right there on the cover under the titular Psalm that this tract is not about.

So the title is off. What about the lines of Scripture (and David's write-ups of them) on pages 2 & 3? Nothing terribly interesting or new. "Even though the world surrounds me with temptation, danger and death," he writes, "I feel safe and secure because of His watchful care over me." Apparently that's what Psalm 32:7 and 34:4 mean.

"I know the evil one is trying to follow me," he says, "but God is following even closer." And as awesome as God is, "I know this is only a taste of the future He is preparing for me." So God will keep you secure and safe from the evil one, and will make your life fantastic. Sounds nice, but we have to take David's word for it. And since the guy can't even title his tracts properly, well...

"Would you like to have this Shepherd living in your life?" David asks, before presenting the Sinner's Prayer on the back page. This is the first time he's mentioned a Shepherd, apart from quoting "The Lord is my shepherd" right at the beginning. One assumes the animal wrangler he's referring to is God, then. Odd, though.

Heck, the whole thing is odd. Too odd to convert anyone, I would say. Scripture-quote tracts assume that Bible verses are relevant to your life. If they aren't, they sound nice but have little power. Certainly not persuasive power.

You're getting very low marks on this one, David Buttram (still not making the joke, I'm above that!). Nice cover image, but that's the nicest thing I can say for it. A trip back to tract-writing school would seem to be in order, Mr. Buttram, because if this is your best effort, you can crumple it up and ram it in your butt.

...couldn't resist.

Psalm 23
Likely to Convert - 1
Artwork - 4
Ability to Hold Interest - 1
Unintentional Hilarity - 1
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 1

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Is There Something Missing In Your Life?

This one would have gone perfectly with this collection of tracts I reviewed back in April of 2012. It's a popular theme, the notion that there is "a vital part of your existence that isn't there" that is "crying out to be filled" that can only be filled with Christ.

The tract asks three questions: What is missing? How did it happen? What has been done about it? The answers are the story of Adam and Eve sinning, after which "every one of us has been born into sin" and doomed to "eternal separation from God in hell fire." Then the tract tells us "Jesus Christ, the God-man" went and "offered Himself the perfect, sinless sacrifice unto God" in order to "give life back unto men."

So, because of something two alleged people did thousands of years ago, you're missing something and are going to go to Hell because of it. Fortunately God killed himself so that we could not only fill up that empty void we all have, but we can go to Heaven instead. A two-for-one deal! Sounds great, but the tract author doesn't bother trying to prove it.

It's a dodge, is what it really is. 'Hey, buddy! You look sad. That's cuz you don't have the one thing that'll make you happy - Jesus! Act now, and He won't burn you for eternity!'

"My friend, are you dead or alive?" the tract begins, then attempts to convince you of the former. It didn't convince me. Evidence and a compelling argument are the somethings missing from this tract.

Is There Something Missing in Your Life?
Likely to Convert - 1
Artwork - 3
Ability to Hold Interest - 2
Unintentional Hilarity - 2
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 2

Common Sense

You know you're in for a bullshit storm when a religious tract makes an appeal to common sense. Like When The World Is On Fire, a tract I reviewed back in 2008 that urged readers to "face the facts", this Evangelical Tract Distributors offering makes promises it has no intention of keeping.

Pastor C. Leslie Miller, the tract's author, uses half the space to ask questions and provide Bible verses as answers. Is it common sense "to live for sin, pleasure and money," and to "believe it makes no difference what you believe," or will it pay "if your life is replete with thrills, and hilarious with fun and pleasure" if you die and end up "in eternal darkness and unending torture?" Pastor Miller assumes you are already a believer - why else would these questions be relevant? But if they aren't relevant to non-believers, why is Miller asking them?

The next half-page makes statements that must be true, based on the questions and Scripture we have just read. "It is common sense... to prepare to meet your God," and "to realize the reality of eternity and prepare for it." Miller also hits us with some whoppers: "It is sensible to believe that death is not the end of everything, but the beginning of an unending existence in another conscious destiny." What?!? No it isn't! "The most intelligent thing you could do is to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour" so He doesn't "pronounce your sentence of doom." No! That's only intelligent if it is demonstrably true, and Miller can't prove that and doesn't try.

"It will pay... to be sure I am safe, and ready to meet God." I'm sure it will - if you can in fact be sure. And you can't. I for one am not about to jump into a religion because of a bunch of unfounded claims.

That's just common sense.

Common Sense
Likely to Convert - 1
Artwork - 2
Ability to Hold Interest - 2
Unintentional Hilarity - 4
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 2

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed!

This one’s a little off the beaten track for this blog. It isn’t a religious movie per se, but it does have a very religious-supporting agenda. Basically, it’s Creationist propaganda, and that’s close enough for this blog.

Brace yourselves, it’s going to be another long one.

There’s an old comedy article I read long ago about how to win arguments. If you are losing, and our opponent has the stronger point of view backed up by irrefutable evidence, the only way to win is to compare your opponent to Hitler.

“You know who also talked about Global Warming? Hitler.”

“Increase the minimum wage? Sounds like something Hitler would do.”

You get the idea.

And it’s exactly the argument made by Ben Stein (Win Ben Stein’s Money) and is crew in this ‘documentary’ about Intelligent Design theory. The fact that Expelled resorts to that argument should tell you everything you need to know about the solidity of the case it puts forth.

What is that case? “Intelligent was being suppressed in a systematic and ruthless fashion” by the scientific establishment. Ben and co. try to take that case even further, suggesting that freedom itself is under attack.

“If we allow freedom to be expelled in science, where will it end?” Ben ponders in a voice-over. Expelled is peppered with bon mots like that one, with Ben inserting himself into the starring role a la Michael Moore.

“Why is the scientific establishment so afraid of free speech?”

“Evil can sometimes be rationalized as science.”

I’m going to pause here to point out that this film has been reviewed, dissected and discredited by people a lot smarter and more knowledgeable than me. You can find out Expelled’s dirty secrets here and here, for starters. I wanted to limit my review to my own observations, and take the film at face value. That would provide a more honest review, and no doubt a much shorter one, too.

But I did not. I did what I so often do when writing these reviews and throw discipline and brevity to the wind in favour of attacking every little thing that annoys me.

The opening credits are played over footage of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Next, our ‘hero’ Ben Stein takes the stage to give a talk on his views; his journey from his dressing room is accompanied by uplifting music and clips of scientists poo-pooing I.D., and the waiting audience greets him with thunderous applause. Ben speaks somberly about how great freedom is, and asks what America would look like “if those freedoms were taken away. Well, unfortunately I no longer need to imagine it,” he goes on, telling us that freedom is being lost “in one of the most important sectors of our society - science.”

So, what have we been told? Freedom is awesome. Freedom is under attack. Those trying to take freedom away from you are scientists!

Freedom good! Science bad!

Up next we have what, to Expelled, passes for proof. Ben interviews some people whom the guardians of all things sciencey have punished for uttering the forbidden words. One is a scientist who was ‘fired’ from the Smithsonian over a paper he published that mentioned I.D.; the second is a professor ‘fired’ for simply mentioning I.D. to her class; third, a neurosurgeon who said that one doesn’t need to study Darwinism to understand the human brain, who came under fire for that statement. Clips of random violence are intercut with these interviews.

Now, I could do the research necessary to debunk and/or provide revealing context to these stories, but I won’t. Like I said, smarter people have already done so here. When I first saw this film, I gave the producers the benefit of the doubt and assumed the stories were true. I thought it sad that people were being persecuted for suggesting an alternate theory to evolution. Poor silly, naive me! That’s exactly how those producers wanted me to feel. To younger me’s credit, I didn’t believe everything the film told me - some of the stuff that followed gave me plenty of reason to suspect Expelled’s motives.

The next segment features clips of scientists who don’t support I.D.. Those clips are edited together with very little context, presenting a unified front of I.D. bad, say bad people!

“How can there be a theory about life,” Ben muses, “without a theory about how life began?” This is the second and most important bit of the film, where Ben and his crew score the most points with their intended audience. It is so central to Expelled, they even used it in their trailer (and DVD intro). The scene is a classroom, with an evil-looking mad scientist type teaching evolution. A hand goes up at the back - it’s the dude from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Mask, Ben Stein! “How did life begin?” he asks, and the flustered mad scientist isn’t able to answer. In a rage, he sends Ben to the principal’s office, possibly to face Ben Stein’s own character from Ferris Bueller.

How did life begin? That’s a question modern science is still trying to answer. In other words, they don’t know! Those smarty-pants scientists who think they are so smart don’t know how life began!

Not that there aren’t theories. We see clips of scientists describing various ways life might have started: one involves proteins forming on crystals; another suggests extraterrestrial visitors might have seeded the planet with DNA. At this, Ben pulls what is probably the greatest deadpan give-me-a-break expression I’ve ever seen. “Crystals? Aliens?” Ben says in voiceover. “I thought we were talking about science, not science fiction.” Because extraterrestrial life and proteins on crystals is a lot less credible than an invisible being with omnipotent powers creating everything in seven days!

Having made science look dumb, the producers go on to show us some pretty cool animation. We see a video using casino slot machines to demonstrate the extreme odds against the right combination of proteins coming together by accident to create life. The next animated bit shows a close-up of a single cell. What is the point of this bit? They don’t say it outright, but I’d hazard a guess they wanted to show just how complex a single cell really is. The unspoken statement here seems to be, if a single cell is so complex, it must have been designed.

It’s worth noting here that Expelled doesn’t provide any evidence, of any kind, to support Intelligent Design. It’s also worth noting that evolution and the origins of life are two separate schools of study. Ask an evolutionary biologist how life began, and they may very well not have a good answer. They might even admit they don’t know. And why should they? The data isn’t there, and it’s not their field of research. It isn’t a relevant question for them.

Yet Ben Stein asks. And he provides clips of scientists suggesting theories he can easily mock. It’s like he’s trying to get his audience to think, ‘if these scientists don’t know how life began, how can we trust them about evolution?’

Ben doesn’t ask the scientists for any proof of evolution.

“What other societies have used Darwinism to trump all other authorities, including religion?” Ben wonders. “As a Jew, my mind leapt to one regime in particular...”

Yep, here comes the Hitler argument. Expelled makes the link between evolutionary theory and the Nazis, while a somber Ben Stein takes footage of himself at Hanamar, Dockow in Germany, a former concentration camp where Jews were killed. He visits the on-site memorial and lights a candle, very solemn and respectful, as his continuing voiceover hammers the evolution/Nazi point home.

“I know that Darwinism doesn’t automatically equate to Naziism,” he says, once he’s finished implying the exact opposite, “but if Darwinism inspired and justified such horrific events in the past, could it be used to rationalize similar initiatives today?”

WHAT?!? Of course it can! So can a lot of other things, chief among them being religion. It’s a completely pointless question, made after an equally pointless linking of Darwin to Hitler, simply to score more points with his audience.

Whoo. Getting a little emotional here. I’m definitely guilty of similar manipulation in this review - I’m not exactly presenting a fair and balanced look at this film. That’s very hard to do, however, given that Expelled is so completely one-sided.

Throughout the film, Ben talks about “a wall erected to keep ideas out,” comparing “what we are seeing happening in science today” to the erection of the Berlin Wall. He thinks this wall is “just a strategy for protecting a failing ideology from competition,” as if evolution is the theory that’s ultimately going to lose this debate. “I couldn’t take down the wall myself,” Ben goes on, “but I could confront one of its major architects.” At last we come to the final segment in Expelled, a showdown between Ben Stein and this major architect of the anti-I.D. wall, Professor Richard Dawkins.

Noted evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, Professor Dawkins is this movie’s coup - if they can make him look foolish on camera, they’ve WON. And they certainly give it their best shot. The producers have complete control over the footage - they could edit it together however they wanted.

They had all that power, and they still couldn’t make him look dumb.

Ben Stein goes in like a lawyer, trying to catch Dawkins out any which way he can. He asks leading questions, trying to get specific answers, and he tries to twist Dawkins’ responses to imply some other agenda. “Why spoil it for them?” Ben asks Richard regarding people who want to believe in a god. “Why not just let them have their fun and enjoy it?” Ben also turns the discussion from a debate about evolution into one about the existence of God - which isn’t what the movie is about.

“Well then, who did create the heavens and the earth?” Ben tries again.

“Why do you use the word ‘who’?” Richard replies. “You see, you immediately beg the question by using the word ‘who’.”

To imply a win, Ben has to cheat. He asks Richard how life began, and what kind of evidence he would need to see in order to believe in Intelligent Design. Richard suggests the alien theory (taking pains, I thought, to avoid using the word ‘alien’), and Ben makes his give-me-a-break face again. Then, when Richard says that evidence for an alien seeding of the planet might be found in the DNA, Ben edits in a voice-over saying, “Wait a second... Richard Dawkins thought Intelligent Design might be a legitimate pursuit?” No he didn’t. It’s a cheap trick, and it’s all Ben can do to pull the illusion of a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.

Expelled ends with Ben Stein concluding his lecture from the film’s beginning. He speaks of freedom and the need to bring down the wall, and receives thunderous applause once more. That audience may have been impressed, and after my first screening I admit I sort of was, too. Ben makes himself into a humble hero fighting a Goliath-like enemy, and he (and his filmmakers) are masters of manipulation. Maybe there is something to his struggle, I thought. A quick Google search, followed by a second viewing, and I felt very, very stupid. More, I felt angry. And I wondered, if they know the only things going for Intelligent Design are manipulations and bad arguments, why do they believe in it? If they have no case, why waste an entire movie trying to pretend otherwise?

“It wasn’t just scientists who were being expelled,” Ben voices over at the end, “it was freedom itself! The very foundation of the American Dream! The very foundation of America!”

I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out, but I think it’s extremely fitting that Ben Stein’s initials are B.S..

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed!
Likely To Convert - 0
Production Values - 5
Acting/Direction - 4
Likely To Be Sat Through - 2
Unintentional Hilarity - 3
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 6