The Prelator

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Book Review: “Reclaiming Fair Use” by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi

Posted by darklordofdebate on August 15, 2011

Earlier this summer, I made the winning video for Public Knowledge’s video contest to create a response to YouTube’s “Copyright School” video, which made only a token mention of the crucial exception in copyright law for “fair use” and portrayed fair use as being too complicated for ordinary YouTube users to understand. Public Knowledge challenged the online video community to create a video presenting a more balanced view of fair use, and my video, “Fair Use School: The Rest of the Copyright Story,” ended up winning that contest and even received a bit of news coverage, such as in this TechDirt article.

Soon after my video was announced the winner of Public Knowledge’s contest, I was contacted by Patricia Aufderheide of American University, who is also the director of the Center for Social Media. She graciously offered to send me a copy of the new book she recently coauthored with Peter Jaszi, called Reclaiming Fair Use. I have spent the last few days reading the book while on vacation in Washington state and British Columbia (my family thinks I’m crazy for reading about copyright law on vacation), and enjoyed it immensely.

Overall, I found this book to be an excellent resource on the current state of fair use law in the U.S., complete with succinct analysis of changing judicial views becoming friendlier to fair use, and valuable strategic insights for those involved in the copyright reform movement. The basic thesis of Reclaiming Fair Use is that, far from being a dead letter or uselessly vague concept, fair use today is alive and well; and the more people insist on exercising their rights under fair use, the better they can shape the practices which will ultimately come to define fair use for their communities.

The book starts out with a brief recapitulation of the many flaws of our current copyright system, which should be familiar to most people concerned with this subject. Copyright today lasts longer than ever, is broader than ever, and actually licensing copyrighted content for new uses is more difficult than ever. This has resulted in a significant chilling effect on the creation of new cultural works, as ignorance about fair use rights and fear of copyright lawsuits have kept many from creating as freely as they might otherwise have done.

The authors then give a detailed history of the fair use doctrine, from its origin in the 1800s, through its codification in 1976, up through the present day. Even though fair use went through a brief period of decline in which it was marginalized by a law-and-economics approach to considering whether a new use competed with the market for the original, judges have more recently recognized “transformativeness” as the key element of fair use analysis. If copyrighted content is put to a new use that adds new meaning, message, or purpose rather than merely superseding the original, courts today are much more likely to find fair use, even if the new use could conceivably compete with some market for licensing the original material.

While I found the history of the fair use doctrine and current judicial interpretation enlightening (I did not previously know that courts now consider transformativeness to be more important than economic impact), the part of the book I found most fascinating was its insights on the strategy of the broader copyright reform movement. The authors argue that copyright reform advocates were far too quick to concede that fair use is too vague and nebulous a concept to be of any real use to those wishing to put copyrighted content to new and transformative uses. Instead, scholars like Lawrence Lessig and others began advocating either for radical changes to the copyright system that are unlikely to ever happen, or for alternatives to traditional copyright such as Creative Commons.

Aufderheide and Jaszi argue that it was a mistake to concede so much ground to content owners, such that many copyright reformers had effectively given up on fair use. As Peter Jenkins once wrote in response to the quick dismissal of fair use by copyright reform advocates, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” Rather than giving up on fair use and allowing it to atrophy, we should rather be aggressive in asserting our rights to make fair use of copyrighted content.

Fair use was deliberately designed to be a flexible concept, very much tied to contemporary practice and community norms. Aufderheide and Jaszi argue that it is up to fair users themselves—not their lawyers or their gatekeepers—to define for themselves what fair use means for their community. One of the best ways to do this is by developing “codes of best practices,” which set forth standards for what is believed and accepted to be fair use by a given community, be they documentary filmmakers or media studies teachers. The authors then go on to cite a number of encouraging examples of how these codes of best practices have helped empower several creative communities to throw off the shackles of unnecessary licensing and fear of copyright lawsuits and begin making fair use of copyrighted content in ways they previously considered impossible.

Personally, I found the authors’ insights into the strategy of the copyright reform very enlightening, and was encouraged by the work they have been doing promoting codes of best practices in fair use. I too have previously noted how easily many copyright reformists have given up on fair use as having any practical value. One of the most important things I learned through competing in policy debate in high school and college was the concept of “ground” in a debate, where the side that most aggressively seizes ground in the early stages of a debate and successfully holds onto it usually wins.

When viewed in this way, it was indeed a grave tactical error for the copyright reform community to concede fair use early on, as it has only made it much more difficult for us to retake that ground and begin restoring utility to the fair use doctrine. I was glad to read of the many successes the Center for Social Media has had promoting its codes of best practices in several key creative communities. I wholeheartedly agree with the authors that the best way to fight against overly restrictive copyright laws is by boldly asserting our rights under fair use whenever possible.

One thing I disagree with the book on, however, is that I don’t think codes of best practices will always necessarily be the best way to do this. While codes of best practices may work great in professional communities such as documentary filmmakers and media teachers, they are much less useful in creative communities that do not have any well-defined structure or representative organizations. This is particularly true in the amateur online video community. While I admire the Center for Social Media’s effort to create a Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in Online Video, I don’t see how it could ever reach enough people to have a meaningful impact. I run a website called, in which I provide tutorials on fair use and guides for dealing with copyright issues on YouTube. I get messages from YouTube users facing copyright takedowns several times a week, and do my best to help them by giving general pointers about fair use and the YouTube copyright dispute process (without crossing the line into giving legal advice of course).

From my experience, most YouTube users know virtually nothing about fair use, and even when informed about their right to dispute copyright claims against their videos, they are too terrified of drawing the ire of copyright owners to risk filing a DMCA counter-notice. Add to this the fact that YouTube’s dual systems of copyright enforcement (both the automated Content ID system and the DMCA takedown process) are hopelessly confusing and leaves gaps in which videos can be blocked with truly no recourse, and copyright continues to be a huge obstacle to online video creators, regardless of the existence of a code of best practices (which most online video creators do not even know exists). Ultimately, as I argued in my forthcoming student note (to be published in the fall 2011 Regent Law Review), I think it will take clear legislative protections for noncommercial, transformative works and real penalties for abuse of the DMCA to solve this problem.

And while this criticism goes beyond the book itself, I also don’t think the Center for Social Media’s code goes far enough to cover the majority of what online video creators actually do. It strongly implies that any use of a complete piece of music in a video cannot be transformative, and therefore is unlikely to be fair use. Coming from my perspective as a vidder who has made several highly popular anime music videos, I would disagree with this. Even though my vids use complete copyrighted songs, I (like other AMV creators) deliberately craft my videos so that the music and video are inseparable parts of a new work of art, where both mutually reflect upon the other and add new meaning and message that would not be present with either the music or the video alone. If this isn’t transformative, I don’t know what is. The fact that these songs would be impossible for amateur creators to license any other way should only add to the case for fair use in these situations. Personally, I would love to see a more expansive code of best practices for online video that recognizes things like vidding—even where complete songs are involved—as fair use.

These minor criticisms aside, I found this book a highly informative and insightful read on the current state of fair use law, with lots of valuable suggestions on how to reclaim and expand fair use rights in the face of long and strong copyright restrictions. It is a must-read for anyone interested in issues of copyright reform, and I hope it will lead to more and more people standing up and exercising their rights under fair use as one concrete step we can all take to fight against overly burdensome copyright laws.




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Book Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy

Posted by darklordofdebate on June 3, 2011

So it’s been a while since I’ve written a book review or anything that’s not about tech policy. But I decided I simply have to share my thoughts about my latest read, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I know this review will be just one of many considering these books are all the rage right now with the movie just beginning filming, but they’re so good I don’t care.

I just heard about the Hunger Games books recently after someone at my internship mentioned them and I saw a couple news articles about the movie, so I downloaded the audiobooks and listened to them pretty much constantly over Memorial Day weekend, and now I’m re-listening to the whole series because I just can’t let it go. As a huge fan of dystopia stories, and of young adult sci-fi and fantasy literature in general (except Twilight–I refuse to ever touch that series), I found these books absolutely thrilling.

For those that don’t know (in which case you probably shouldn’t be reading this since there WILL be spoilers), the Hunger Games are about a future dystopian society of 12 districts in the remains of North America, ruled with an iron fist by the evil Capitol, located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. [Note to various fan sites from a Coloradan–it is NOT Denver. The book clearly says it is on the WEST side of the mountains, not the east.] The Capitol’s trademark form of oppression is a twisted reality TV show called “the Hunger Games,” where 24 children called “tributes” must fight to the death every year, in an event that’s a cross between the Roman gladiator games and the TV show “Survivor.” The story follows a girl called Katniss who is forced to fight in the games, and ultimately winds up the reluctant figurehead of the rebellion that overthrows the tyranny of the Capitol.

The story’s central premise–the Hunger Games themselves–was pure brilliance on the author’s part. The very idea of forcing randomly selected children to fight each other to death for the people’s entertainment evoked a sense of horror and pure evil on a level I haven’t encountered in literature since reading Orwell’s 1984. The monstrosity and abject cruelty of the idea is simply breathtaking. I once formulated a theory that the best books in the dystopia genre are the ones that focus on some fundamental aspect of human nature and craft a society that either takes that away or corrupts or perverts it. I always thought one of the most horrifying aspects of 1984 was the state’s perversion of language itself to deprive people of the means to even express dissent. In this case, the idea of the Hunger Games contravenes the fundamental human instinct that children are to be valued and protected, and instead throws away their lives as pawns in a game, which the evil government uses both as a form of entertainment and as a means to keep the populace in line.

Not only do you have the tragedy of children dying, but the perversion of forcing them to kill each other, turning otherwise innocent kids into murderers and causing them to lose not only their lives but a part of their souls as well. All this is done not only to entertain the decedent Capitol populace (which would be bad enough), but to send a message that the state is absolutely in control in the most terrifying way: “We can take your children and not only kill them, but corrupt them and steal everything they are.” The psychology of oppression and control is a huge element of these books just as it was in 1984 (it plays an even bigger role in the psychological games President Snow plays with Katniss in the third book), and is just one thing that makes these books so good.

The story itself is absolutely enthralling, to the point where you simply can’t stop reading. When I first started these books, I found the first-person present narration a little disconcerting. But I quickly discovered it serves to draw you into the narrative in an incredibly immersive and intimate manner, forcing you to focus on the present and giving the feeling that all this is happening right now, to you. It almost makes you feel like you’ve become the character, feeling what they feel and experiencing what they’re experiencing. All that gives the story an intensity I’ve rarely seen in books. This is especially true during the parts in the games, where it really conveys the intensity and emotion of it all. I was constantly imagining the most intense airsoft/paintball/capture the flag game I could think of and magnify that 1000 times and add in constant fear of death at every turn. [Though for characters that are constantly faced with immanent death, they seem to think surprisingly little (read: none) about what happens after death, almost as if this society had absolutely no concept of an afterlife, which I found somewhat disappointing as it deprived the story of some of the philosophical depth it could otherwise have had.]

Speaking of death, it was that constant theme that struck me most about these books. Death is everywhere in this story, with no attempt by the author to sugar coat it or make it seem any less painful. Two death scenes in particular struck me as probably the most heart-rending scenes I have ever read in literature: Rue’s death in the first book, and Prim’s death in the third. Rue’s death was especially heartbreaking, and I swear the professional reader’s voice in the audiobook even cracked with tears during the part where Katniss sings Rue to sleep with a bittersweet lullaby. When the movie is made, I believe that scene has the potential to be one of the emotionally powerful scenes in modern cinema, especially if this amateur production of the scene is any guide. I absolutely can’t wait to see that scene on film, and especially to hear what the film’s composer does with Rue’s Lullaby.

Prim’s death in the third book was just as painful, though in a different way. You would think the author would give her death at least as much screen time as Rue’s, considering she’s the little sister Katniss has been fighting for the whole time. But her death happened so fast and unexpectedly, it was like a knife in the gut, but then the story moves on so quickly the reader doesn’t have any time to grieve until Katniss’s character does at the end of the book. At that point I really felt the full weight of Katniss’s grief. It was made all the more powerful because by that point I had already seen pictures of the actress (Willow Shields) who will play Prim in the movie, who, just like her character, is a sweet, innocent, adorable little girl who would raise the strongest protective instincts in any adult. There could be nothing more tragic than imagining a child like that dying a horrible death in battle, driving home the emotional impact of the story in a way that nothing else could.

All in all, this trilogy had one of the most poignant, bittersweet endings of any story I’ve read. Normally you expect this kind of tale to have a happy ending, and it does in a way, but by the end of the series so many beloved characters have died, it is clear that Katniss, like the reader, will never be the same. These books are sad, but their power can be seen in how much they really make you FEEL. I read another review that said it best–good books are memorable, but the BEST books are the ones that haunt you and make you feel like you have given a piece of yourself to them. That is certainly true of these books, and it is why I think they are fully deserving of all the hype they are getting with the upcoming movies. I can only hope the films manage to do them justice, and will be eagerly awaiting the first one’s release next March.

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Musings on the End of the World

Posted by darklordofdebate on March 5, 2009

I’ve discovered bi-weekly bus rides into DC are a great time for listening to audio books, so having recently finished Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, over the last couple weeks I’ve been listening to the City of Ember books by Jeanne Duprau, continuing with the theme of young-adult fantasy/adventure stories. I watched the movie of City of Ember the same week I watched Golden Compass for the first time, which put both high on my reading list (the movie adaptation of Ember was far better than Golden Compass though, since they didn’t butcher the plot near as much). While the Ember books didn’t have anywhere near the literary quality or philosophical depth of Dark Materials, they did combine two things which have always fascinated me–an underground city and a post-apocalyptic setting.

I’ve always loved caves and being underground (as evidenced by my penchant for exploring storm drains), and the idea of an underground city intrigues me. The scenes involving Zion were my favorite parts of the Matrix trillogy, and I absolutely can’t wait until they make the movie of The Silver Chair in the Narnia series so I can see how they visualize they underground city in that book. For the last few years I’ve also had a growing fascination with post-apocalyptic survival and dystopia stories. I love disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow and the TV show Jericho, and books like 1984, Brave New World, the Giver, etc.

These types of stories are especially vivid for me, and I often wonder what it would be like to survive some kind of great disaster that causes a significant disruption to society, and wonder what life in such a world would be like. Literature provides different answers, from the rise of monolithic totalitarian states like in 1984 to a new dark age as in the Ember books.

This last idea I find particularly intriguing. The Ember books take place approximately in the 2340’s, after a combination of nuclear war, disease, and famine decimated Earth’s population around the year 2100. Needless to say, it’s a very different take on the 24th century than Star Trek! Humanity never really recovered from the disaster, and society is reduced to a number of small settlements and villages with no more than a few hundred people, which have reverted to a largely pre-industrial civilization–albeit with remnants of the old civilization scattered about and re-purposed for new uses. There’s no electricity, no plumbing, and no gasoline or motorized vehicles (they rip the engines out of pickup trucks and tow them with oxen). People live in thatched earth huts, use candles for light, and survive on subsistence level farming. Virtually all knowledge of how to make or use present-day technology has been lost, and current society has been mythologized as a lost golden age.

This idea intrigues me, and I often wonder if such a thing is possible. Could all our knowledge and technology really be lost? Is it possible for a civilization as advanced as ours to completely disappear? From history I know that all nations and civilizations have ultimately ended, and yet today humanity seems to have advanced so far technologically and become so globalized socially that it would be impossible for that civilization to collapse. And can a nation as powerful and advanced as the United States really fall? What would such a fall look like? What would it take for America to actually cease to exist? And what kind of world would follow if it did?

Yet as impossible as it seems, there are other things about our modern world that just seem untenable in the long-term. Can technology really continue advancing at the incredible pace it has for the last 200 years? What are the limits of science and technology? For thousands of years, mankind lived essentially the same, and it’s only during the last few centuries that the kind of technological progress has taken place that created the modern world as we know it. Will that progress continue indefinitely or will we one day take it too far and bring about a calamity that erases all the progress we’ve made?

Then I read articles talking predictions for future biotechnology–where neural interfaces will merge man and machine and where regenerative medicine will make man essentially immortal. And I wonder, how much longer will God allow this to continue? If God smacked man down when he got too arrogant at the tower of Babel, how much more are we setting ourselves up for a divine smackdown today, with skyscrapers reaching thousands of feet taller than Babel ever did and with people claiming they can make man into gods by merging our minds with computers? Even if that doesn’t happen, it seems sooner or later man must pay a price for all his technology. Even if not through environmental disasters like global warming (which I still doubt is even real), can we continue using energy resources at the rate we have for the last century and expect to still be able to power our advanced technology 500 years from now? Perhaps Christ will come back before then and we won’t need to worry about it, but what if he waits thousands of years? Can humans continue living the way we do and with all the potential for self-destruction that exists today?

I think one reason apocalyptic fiction appeals to me is that it expresses a nagging feeling I often have that perhaps this world will end during my lifetime–that maybe I will experience a catastrophe of such magnitude that it will bring an end to America, or even modern civilization itself. There are so many things wrong with the world–economic collapses, terrorism, the possibility of nuclear war–that I wonder if it’s not inevitable that something will happen that brings it all to an end. Oh I know the human race isn’t going die out–God would never let that happen–but He never promised to preserve this particular civilization or this specific country.

I remember a few months ago reading an article where a Russian intelligence expert predicted the United States will collapse and break up in the next few years. While the guy obviously had a vested interest (he seemed a bit too happy at the idea of Russia conquering Alaska), and however much we may mock his idea as preposterous, I must say I sometimes wonder if he might be right. I think the current recession (depression?) has demonstrated that capitalist economies are inherently unstable and subject to total collapse at any time. And government controlled economies are even worse–which is why Obama’s so-called stimulus plan will do absolutely nothing and will probably make things even worse. America is weaker now that it has been in a long time, and if a rogue nation like Iran decided to take advantage of America’s weakness and light off a few nukes in major American cities, I wonder if our country could really hold together or if it would collapse into anarchy as portrayed in the TV show Jericho.

These thoughts are especially vivid on my weekly bus rides into Washington DC. As I sit staring at the magnificent buildings all around me–with their gleaming white facades of neoclassical columns and Romanesque engravings that practically scream of permanence, majesty, and power–I wonder how much longer it will all really last. What if I woke up tomorrow and Washington was gone? What if I was one of the last people to see that beautiful city, and all that remains for future generations is a distant memory of a time when America was great and people lived in comfort and luxury, surrounded by machines with almost magical powers? What would I tell my children in those days? How would I describe these things to them, which would be as foreign as the idea of non-passengers being allowed on airport concourses is to the child born after 9-11? What if I, in the words of The Day After Tomorrow, have spent my entire life preparing for a future that no longer exists?

In the end, I am reminded how everything in this world is only transient and temporary. Nothing is fixed, nothing is permanent. And nothing should be taken for granted. For Christians, we may take comfort in the knowledge that this world is not our true home, and that our true citizenship belongs to the Kingdom of Heaven not earthly nations which rise and fall like the tide. No matter what the future holds, we may live secure in the knowledge of His sovereignty, knowing that all things work together for His glory. For me, I also resolve never to take my world for granted–to live the life I have been given to the fullest and treasure it as much as possible. I wish to see as much and learn as much as I can, so if this world ever does come to an end, it will still exist in my mind, and to me at least, can never truly be lost.

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His Dark Materials – Book Review

Posted by darklordofdebate on February 16, 2009

Over the last week I finally Phillip Pullman’s famous His Dark Materials trilogy. I’d been wanting to read this books since the movie of the Golden Compass came out last year and I read all the reviews about how controversial the series was. After I finally got around to watching the movie a couple weeks ago, I decided to get the trilogy on audio book so I could listen to it on the bus into DC for my internship. I thought it would make some nice reading material and I could do a little opposition research on the series that has been called the “anti-Narnia”–an atheistic fantasy tale which sets itself up as the dialectical antithesis to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Or that was the plan. In reality, I ended up falling in love with the story, and found it so enthralling I couldn’t stop until I had finished the entire trilogy.

I must say that I found Pullman’s trilogy to be incredibly well written and an absolutely captivating story. The characters were extremely engaging and believable, and even though I had already read the plot summaries on Wikipedia and knew they end up killing God in the end (or at least Pullman’s idea of him), I found myself increasingly sympathizing with them. Philosophically, the series was one of the deepest I’ve ever read, on the same level as 1984, Brave New World, or the Giver (see my previous post on Dystopias). The ending was absolutely heart breaking, probably the most poignant I’ve ever read. The scene was even more powerful because I was listening to the “enhanced” audio book–a hybrid audio book/dramatization with a full unabridged recording that also has a full cast of actors. The voice acting was superb, and hearing the utter despair and love torn anguish in Lyra’s voice when she and Will learn they must be parted after so recently discovering their nascent love, had me in tears for the rest of the evening.

No doubt Pullman has created an incredible epic, with literary quality equal to or perhaps even surpassing Narnia. (It even has a voyage to the land of the dead, which at least according to one of the only things I remember from my Western Lit class is an essential ingredient of a classical epic). And since this series is essentially an atheistic allegory with the declared intent to undermine Christianity in the same way Lewis’ tale bolsters it, I think it’s important for Christians to be familiar with it to combat its underlying philosophy.

For those who haven’t read His Dark Materials, the plot is so complex it’s nearly impossible to summarize. It is about two 12 year old kids (Will and Lyra) from different parallel worlds that unite to ultimately overthrow God himself. The book’s basic premise is a sort of sequel to an inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Satan was the real hero and the fall was actually a liberation. God on the other hand is seen not only as an imposter, but a cosmic kill-joy who seeks to suppress all human joy and pleasure. Pullman posits that Satan was right in Paradise Lost when he said God (called the Authority in the trilogy) was actually just the first angel who deceived the other angels into thinking he was the creator, setting up a tyrannical monarchy and exiling all the angels who resisted his rule.

By the time of Pullman’s story (roughly present day, which would have been the late 1990s when he wrote the books), the Authority is so aged and decrepit that he is no longer capable of ruling, but is locked away in a crystalline coffin (a sort of stasis chamber) while the Regent of Heaven, the Angel Metatron (sounds like something out of Transformers) rules in his stead. Toward the end of the last book (The Amber Spyglass), Will and Lyra stumble upon him and free him, whereupon he immediately dissolves into nothingness from his own frailty as soon as he is exposed to the air. As numerous Christian reviews have pointed out, this symbolizes the idea that the idea of God quickly dissolves when exposed to the illumination of human reason.

The real genius of Pullman’s trilogy however is the idea of “dust” which is known in our world as “dark matter.” This he says is a type of elementary particle which forms the essence of “spiritual” matter. Just like atoms with their component particles such as electrons, protons, etc. form the basis of physical matter, dust is the basis for spiritual matter–out of which all spiritual beings are formed and whose presence in material beings confers consciousness and sentience.

Unlike most atheists, Pullman does not deny the existence of the spiritual realm outright, but instead acknowledges its existence while claiming that it is fundamentally no different than the material world. And just as physical forces can be understood and harnessed by human science, so can spiritual ones. In fact, Pullman even goes so far as to mysticize atheism, since his universe (or rather, multiverse) is populated with mythological creatures such as harpies, and dust itself is portrayed as having a type of mystical consciousness which can be tapped into through various types of divination (most notably, Lyra’s alethiometer). Pullman also incorporates into his story the “many worlds” hypothesis of quantum physics, where there are an infinite number of parallel universes coexisting simultaneously.

It is through dust that Pullman makes his chief theological attack on Christianity. Dust is the source of all consciousness and forms the soul of all sentient beings. In Lyra’s world, people’s souls manifest themselves physically as various types of conscious animals (called daemons) which constantly remain with them and are an extension of their own personality, though apparently capable of a certain degree of independent thought and action. Children’s daemons can change into any form they wish, but become fixed (or “settled”) at puberty into a particular form which symbolizes their personality and role in society (lesser people have lesser animals for daemons). At the same time, Pullman reveals that daemons only started to become fixed at the Fall, when in a bizarre alternate version of Genesis 3 he describes how this was a direct effect of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. (“And when the woman saw that the tree was … to be desired to reveal the true form of one’s daemon…”)

In the first book, The Golden Compass, the Magesterium of the Catholic Church (which basically rules the whole world since apparantly the Protestant Reformation never happened in Lyra’s world–John Calvin is the pope) determines that settled daemons are thus the physical manifestation of original sin, and try to prevent children from being affected by sin by severing the connection between them and their daemons before they become fixed–turning them into mindless zombies in the process. This implies that sin, rather than being a flaw, is actually a central part of human nature and is in fact what makes us capable of free thought in the first place.

It is also no accident that daemons settle (bringing on the full onset of original sin) at puberty, when children reach sexual maturity. For Pullman, as it seems with just about everyone else in the non-Christian world, everything ultimately comes down to sex. His central criticism of the Christian church is what he sees as its eternal war to stifle the joys of human sexuality–and indeed every other good pleasure life has to offer. (At one point, a missionary/assassin goes into a new world and immediately starts strategizing how to “evangelize” the creatures there by convincing them that the thing they love doing the most is sinful.) For Pullman, Adam and Eve’s actions were not a Fall but a coming of age in which they reached their full potential, and as such is to be celebrated not condemned.

In Pullman’s tale, Will and Lyra are prophesied to be the second Adam and Eve, who repeat the Fall by falling in love, which somehow restores harmony to the universe (as one commentator put it, “How exactly is two kids getting it on in the bushes supposed to save the world?”). There is nothing explicitly sexual about Will and Lyra’s “Fall,” in which they do nothing more than kiss. I would disagree with those who say the story implies they went further. Pullman himself has said for 12 year-olds, a kiss is more than sufficient–and remembering back to my own thoughts about love at that age I quite agree. However, there is a clear sensual aspect to it later when they touch each other’s daemons, against which there is a strong taboo and which is earlier established to be an intimate act. At most it is, in the words of another review, “sex by analogy” as it is a means of sensual expression that simply doesn’t exist in the real world.

However, Pullman’s message is clear. He believes Christianity has set itself against human sexuality, which it has sought to suppress from the very beginning. In this he expresses what I think is probably THE main reason many non-believers reject Christianity–because they disagree with its prinicples of sexual morality and want to be free to act as they like. Christianity is therefore evil because it seeks to deny them that pleassure. And it’s a view I can well understand. How many times have I myself been tempted to think this way and see God as just a cosmic kill-joy forcing me to deny my own desires and pleasures? It’s rather convicting, actually, to think how often I’m tempted to think exactly like Pullman, and I have to constantly remind myself that His ways are better, and that sin only looks better but in reality brings only pain.

And this I think is where Pullman ultimately fails to hit his mark. The entire trilogy is an explicit attack on Christianity (through lines such as “the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake”) and the Authority the characters defeat is explicitly identified with the Christian God. Yet the god Pullman describes is nothing like the God I know. Pullman’s god is an impostor, cruel, vindictive, weak, uncaring, and joyless. My God is kind, loving, merciful, true, and is the source of all true joy. He is the one that, rather than setting himself up as the tyrant of heaven, sacrificed his own Son to reconcile mankind to himself, so that we may experience his blessings forever.

Furthermore, Pullman describes Christianity as completely negative and oppressive, seeking to suppress or destroy every good thing in life. Yet he ignores the fact that Christianity has been the most powerful liberating force in Western history, providing the impetus for the development of modern science, the rise of democratic government, and the motivation for countless human rights causes from ending slavery to women’s rights.

Both in his portrayal of God and his refusal to acknowledge anything positive about the Christian religion, Pullman completely fails to make an accurate critique of my faith. Instead, he merely sets up one gigantic straw man argument (or in this case, straw God?) and proceeds to topple that, leaving  Christianity as I know it unscathed. Maybe Pullman did defeat a god in his books, but it wasn’t my God.

Finally however, this doesn’t mean we should completely disregard Pullman’s criticism. Pullman’s criticism is not without some merit, and one of the most important lessons Christians can take away from these books is to consider if perhaps he may sometimes be right. Indeed, his perspective could teach us valuable things about ourselves if we’re willing to listen. For example, the Christian church has often gone too far in its efforts to prevent impurity–from scarlet letters to the efforts of many people in my own background among Christian homeschoolers who attempt to convince people that all adolescent romantic relationships are sinful, and must therefore be avoided at all costs.

Having grown up in this kind of environment, I know well what it’s like to feel ashamed of even being attracted to someone, like I would be somehow be wronging a girl if I ever expressed interest in her. It’s a feeling I have struggled to shake off to this day, and it’s in cases like these where Christians have simply gone too far in their efforts to avoid falling into sin, such that they legalistically turn things into sins that are really not, and end up stifling perfectly legitimate joys and fulfilling relationships in the process. It’s a warning we would do well to heed, lest we become like the Magesterium in Pullman’s novel–going to such lengths to prevent people from falling that we end up destroying their very soul.

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Lessons from Dystopias

Posted by darklordofdebate on August 5, 2008

Right now I’m on a family vacation to Oregon, driving from Denver to Portland. As I write this, driving across the wastes of Idaho, I am contemplating the book I just finished reading on the way, The Giver by Lois Lowry. I first read this book several years ago in high school and at the time I hated it, thinking it was sad and depressing. Over the last few years however I’ve developed an interest in dystopia stories, whether books like the Giver, Brave New World, or 1984, or movies like the Matrix or Equilibrium. Beginning when I first read 1984 before leaving for college, I’ve gained a much better appreciation for why these stories are so powerful.

Usually set in some kind of distant future, post-apocalyptic world, dystopian tales often describe supposedly perfect societies that arose from the ashes of the world as we know it in an effort to force humanity to live in perfect harmony, with all memory of war, pain, and suffering erased. They all, however, have a fatal flaw, some critical aspect of humanity-whether freedom, emotion, or individuality-that was sacrificed to achieve this harmony.

In each story, the protagonist is the one that discovers the resulting illusion of peace and security wasn’t worth it, and in some way rebels against the oppressive regime that forces people to be something less than human. Sometimes he succeeds in restoring that which was lost, sometimes not. But in either case, I find myself connecting with these stories on a much deeper level than other types of fiction I have read. I think this is because of the pure philosophical depth this kind of story has to offer, and because of what it teaches us about ourselves and the world we live in.

The first thing each of the stories teaches us is what it means to be human. It is no accident that all of the great dystopian stories single out a particular trait of humanity that is suppressed for the sake of achieving some form of ultimate peace and harmony in society. It 1984, it is human freedom and individuality, which are both subjugated to the will of an all-powerful, all-seeing state embodied in the image of Big Brother, which actually exists not to achieve a perfect world as it claims but to cause fear and suffering in a Nietzschean will to power.

The film Equilibrium takes this concept one step further, where not only has freedom and individuality been sacrificed to a totalitarian state, but humans are also deprived of their ability to feel strong emotions by a pacifying drug called Prozium. In the Giver, all memories of the past, together with its feelings, experiences, and differences have been sacrificed, to be born instead by the Receiver of Memory, who must carry that burden while allowing the community to remain free of both its joys and sorrows. And in Brave New World, human relationships and choices have been rendered meaningless by careful social engineering and a society based on hedonism and empty entertainment.

In each case, the antagonist is far more insidious than in other kinds of literature simply because it does not attack individuals but the essence of humanity itself. As a result, these stories tell us something about what it means to be human, what we value, and what completes us and makes us who and what we are. They reveal that which we most greatly fear to lose-whether our freedom, individuality, emotions, or memories-the things most essential to our humanity.

More importantly, these stories acknowledge something which we all subconsciously know-that there is some fundamental part of our nature that we still lack; and that just beneath the surface, there is something severely wrong with the world we live in. In the Matrix movies, that thing turns out to be that everything people thought was real was actually artificial-an illusion created to deceive them and prevent them from discovering their true nature and identity. In 1984 it is the freedom to be an individual and to declare the truth that “two plus two equals four.” In the Giver and Equilibrium, it is the lack of feelings and emotions which complete our humanity and make us who we are.

While these stories are fictional, there is something just as fundamentally wrong with the “real” world; and though they may vaguely suspect it, most people are every bit as blind to it as the souls trapped in the Matrix. As Christians, we of course know that thing to be sin, caused by a real Fall in which mankind did indeed lose a crucial aspect of what it means to be human-our relationship with God. Deep inside we all know that we are somehow incomplete, that a critical part of us is missing which we long to restore. Characters such as Neo, Jonas, or Preston thus fill the role of a messiah, restoring to humanity that which was lost. Or in the case of Winston in 1984 or John the Savage in Brave New World, they ultimately fail to bring about any meaningful change to their world, leaving it in a state of unredeemed despair and hopelessness.

Luckily in the real world, we have the comfort that our Messiah has already come and restored to the world that which was lost, and will one day complete the process of making humanity whole again. And as Christians, we have the ability to regain that missing part of our humanity, living as whole humans while still on earth. In this we are every bit as different from the rest of the world as Neo and his friends when they returned to the Matrix, as only they knew the truth about the world around them, only they had achieved their full potential as humans.

So it is with us, and that critical difference should give us tremendous power. Just as Jonas could see colors while everyone around him could only see shades of gray, we too have the power to “see beyond,” with knowledge of an entire spiritual realm that remains hidden to the world.  In this we can see what the world cannot, and can do what the world deems unthinkable, all through the power of Him who completes us.

Thus, there is one critical difference that sets us apart from the characters in these dystopia stories. In each of these stories, man sacrificed part of his humanity in search of a false hope of peace and harmony which ultimately proved untenable and not worth the sacrifice. The salvation brought by the likes of Neo and Preston was only a restoration of the way things previously were, not an actual improvement in basic human nature. While these stories show us that pain and suffering can never be eliminated by sacrificing our humanity, they ultimately fail to present a true solution for how they CAN be abolished. But as Christians, we may look forward to the day when all evils in the world WILL be banished, all pains erased, and all humanity made complete in the harmony that can only be found in Jesus Christ. And that, is a hope worth fighting for.

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