How Christians are to Live In this World

I found this excellent article by John Zmirak on Stream, where he deals with the so-called ‘Benedict Option’ with straightforward common sense. I recommend you read the whole thing, but I especially want you to read the section from the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, which I’ve reproduced below.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. …

Why Guys Like ‘My Little Pony’

Recently, after hearing it praised again and again, I watched the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. To my slight amazement, it quickly became one of my favorite animated shows. I mean, I have very broad tastes in entertainment: I can view a romantic comedy, musical, or a Disney cartoon with as much real interest and enjoyment as a John Ford film, an action flick, or a horror movie. I would think nothing of watching Aliens and Emma in the same day. Even so, I didn’t expect to fall in love with a show about magical talking ponies directed at grade school girls.

Now, my taste is fairly unique, and like I say, I have extremely cosmopolitan views when it comes to fiction: if it’s done with quality and care, and has an at least decent moral premise, I don’t care what the premise is. But I’m not alone when it comes to this show: it has a huge male fanbase, and many of them are thoroughly obsessed with it (I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Brony’ because I just think it’s a good show, but there’s a lot of other shows and stories I’m more interested in). That raises the question of why? What’s the appeal?

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Yes, raw cuteness is a factor.

Part of it is sheer quality: it’s simply a very well done show with appealing animation, great characterization, intelligent writing and often gut-bustingly hilarious humor. The leads are not only all likeable, but remarkably vivid, three-dimensional characters with believable passions, virtues, flaws, and foibles, sketched with great care and skill and brought to life by some wonderful voice actresses.

Despite being aimed at younger audiences, the show actually tackles some rather complicated themes in surprisingly intelligent fashion. For instance, an early episode featuring a conflict between settlers and natives allows both sides to make good points and ends by suggesting that the natives have ultimately benefited from the spread of civilization. How many kid shows – or, heck, adult shows – do that?

So, it’s a good show; miles better than anyone would expect. But it’s still a show aimed at little girls, and there are a lot of good shows out there: why do so many grown men, like me, find it so appealing?

I don’t think we appreciate how girls come across in a lot of media, especially stories aimed at girls. There’s a sense that the story is of girls triumphing over men, and where the ideal man is one who is supportive, but otherwise content to take a secondary position. See Kim Possible, for instance, or Zootopia or Moana on the big screen. I like all those stories to a greater or lesser degree (for what it’s worth, the ranking would go Kim, Zootopia, Moana), but many of the themes found in them trouble me.

The thing is, this sort of thing is fine once in a while, but become disturbing after seeing it time and again, especially in conjunction with other, more virulently misandric attitudes that we hear all around us, from movies, shows, books, teachers, people in the news, and on and on, all talking as if women were in competition with men, that men are stupid slobs who need to just get out of the way of women, that women need men like a fish needs a bicycle.

‘Unisexuality,’ the idea that men and women are and ought to be fundamentally the same, is a very popular idea these days. We live in a time where it’s actually considered good advice to write female characters exactly the same as male characters, and considered a compliment to say that there was nothing to distinguish the heroines from the heroes. I think, having been raised on horror stories of male sexism, that most people believe it to be a compliment to women to portray them as being basically the same as men, with only trivial or superficial differences. This has become more or less the standard practice of our day; female characters are to be written as male characters, only with an extra dose of resentment from being ignored and oppressed by men. Would Moana have been fundamentally different if the lead were a young man instead of a young woman? How about Rogue One, or The Force Awakens? How many times do we have to hear the heroine complain about the male characters trying to protect her, or not listening to her, or treating her different because she’s a woman?

After a while, this ceases to be original or charming and just becomes annoying. Female characters who aggressively reject being feminine, who treat the men in their lives with brittle resentment unless they fully support them, and who are fundamentally no different from the male characters except for having a nicer shape and a chip on their shoulder eventually become a chore to sit through, even if we don’t want to say anything about it for fear of appearing sexist.

In such a world, finding a show about a group of intensely and cheerfully feminine characters who don’t act like that, who are mostly focused on their own lives, but who show no animosity towards the men around them, and who, by and large, bypass the whole question of feminism, and who are also visually appealing, well-written, and funny, comes as a breath of fresh air. Even guys who agree with feminism must get tired of it after a while and want to spend time with girls who have better things to worry about.

That’s exactly what My Little Pony gives us; intensely feminine characters who are interesting in their own right without feeling like they’re trying to one-up us guys. The characters aren’t just self-possessed, confident, and brave, but they actually have real personalities and interests that they care about for their own sakes, rather than being preoccupied with how they are perceived or what social message they’re sending. In short, it’s a series that embraces normal human emotions about the sexes; that men and women are different, and that they generally like each other that way. It does this simply by allowing its female leads to be unapologetically feminine.

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Plus it has stuff like this. That helps.

For instance, you could argue that, say, Rainbow Dash is an atypical feminine character, since she’s obsessed with sports and winning, but the way she’s written is that she cares about excelling for it’s own sake, not for the sake of being a ‘woman who excels.’ Significantly, she has just as much admiration for men who excel as for women. Besides which, Rainbow’s a tomboy, but she’s still feminine; she enjoys gets dressed up for a fancy party, coos over adorable creatures, and occasionally showcases her nurturing side. The point is, she’s still clearly a girl, even though she’s a highly competitive athlete.

Another thing I don’t think we appreciate enough is how much guys like girls as girls: that uniquely feminine flavor to personality, attitude, and perspective. It’s at once mysterious, amusing, and charming, but in the rush to make girls ‘strong’ I think a lot of female characters have lost their particular girlish charm. So, when it is used, it has all the appeal of relief.

This particular appeal stands out especially strong here, where the characters are completely de-sexualized (not that that’s stopped some people in this day and age, but never mind that now). They’re cute, and we accept that they are meant to be attractive ‘in context,’ but it’s their personalities that are the main source of their appeal. The sheer girlishness (not to be confused with ‘girliness’) of the characters, untainted by either the bitterness of feminism or the crudity of sexual desire, stands out in all its beauty.

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It also has John de Lancie. That helps too.

In other words, the show gives its male fans something they don’t get very often in today’s world: a chance to spend time with unashamedly feminine girls who are perfectly comfortable in their own skin and who don’t have any kind of grudge against their male counterparts. The male characters are almost all relegated to secondary roles, but that’s simply because that’s the kind of story it is, not because they’re being deliberately sidelined or subordinated. The heroines get along fine with their male co-stars, unless there’s a real reason they shouldn’t.

For instance, when, in an early episode, Applejack argues with her brother about whether she can handle the harvest herself while he’s recovering from an injury, it’s not because he’s a boy and she’s a girl, but because she’s stubborn and proud, while he’s more level-headed and practical. Amazingly enough, the whole ‘sexism’ issue is completely bypassed in favor of a more universally applicable lesson about not letting pride lead you to bite off more than you can chew. This isn’t just more enjoyable, but it’s better writing, making Applejack a three-dimensional character with believable flaws rather than a bland ‘strong woman’ roll-model. Again, the show gives us well-written and cheerfully girlish female characters without imposing tedious feminist shibboleths.

The show gives us this, plus engaging and well-crafted storylines, plus vivid and memorable characters, plus intelligent writing, plus some side-splitting humor, plus catchy music and appealing animation.

No wonder it’s so popular.

New Federalist Essay

My latest piece is up at The Federalist, using King Kong and Godzilla to describe the human condition. Because I do that sort of thing.

Sample:

I say an anti-war message doesn’t suit Kong because, especially as depicted in this film, Kong is a warrior, and really doesn’t have the option to not fight. His presence is the only thing that allows the island’s natives to live in a cartoony utopia (that, for some reason, doesn’t include smiling) and possibly prevents the rest of the world from being threatened. Godzilla was in much the same position in the previous film, as the only thing standing between humanity and destruction by the electricity-draining MUTOs.

In either case, the image is of a world that is only allowed to continue in whatever state of peace or safety it has because there’s a ferocious warrior standing guard, ready to push back the things that threaten to destroy it. “Godzilla” made this link explicit by casting soldiers as its human leads (in fact, “Godzilla “was the closest thing to a pro-war, or at least pro-warrior, movie I’ve seen in a long time), while “Kong” has its chief human warrior character as an Ahab-like antagonist.

The good news is that “Kong” has more than enough sheer creativity and enthusiasm for the material that makes it worth sitting through tired anti-Vietnam agitprop. Also, the medium undermines the would-be message. The very nature of a kaiju film like this forbids any kind of triumphant humanism. In a world where monsters the size of buildings stand guard against creatures that can shut down a city with a single move, there really is no room to hope that mankind has the wherewithal to end the perennial ills of the human condition.

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Phineas, Ferb, and Feminism

It’s a fairly familiar scenario: there’s a major female character in a predominantly male cast. She feels constantly overshadowed by the male characters, who by contrast seem to have all the advantages that she lacks; they can get away with anything, do anything they like, and receive almost universal praise, while she has to struggle and fight to achieve her goals, which seem always cruelly beyond her reach. Feeling frustrated and ignored, she sets out to prove that she is every bit as good as the men around her.

As I say, a pretty standard set up…except that, in this case, the girl is the antagonist and her attempts to one-up the male characters are presented as wrong-headed and ridiculous.

I hope everyone’s familiar with the show Phineas and Ferb, which aired on Disney from 2007 to 2015. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much: weird-looking kids perform wacky stunts in their backyard while their bratty older sister tries to tattle on them to their parents and their secret-agent pet platypus battles an evil scientist. It seems at once too weird, too generic and thoroughly childish, especially when you learn that practically every episode features a musical number.

But first impressions can be deceiving. In truth, it’s a smart, hilarious, and heartwarming piece of work, bursting with creativity and endless goodwill. I’ve been wanting to write about it for a while, since there’s actually a lot of meat under the cheery surface, but today I want to focus on what I see as the hilariously countercultural message of Candace’s character arc.

candace3_8397The Face of Modern Feminism

Candace is Phineas and Ferb’s teenage sister, whose role in the story is to endlessly attempt to reveal the boys’ activities to their mother, only to inevitably fail at the last second (their mother is basically the only person in town who doesn’t know what they’ve been up to and dismisses Candace’s stories as resulting from an over-active imagination). This is one of many running gags that are endlessly played with throughout the series.

Her reason for continually trying to get her brothers in trouble is, more or less, because she’s jealous. Not so much of what they do, which she is at pains to dismiss as being childish and stupid, but of the fact that they get so much attention for it, while somehow never getting into trouble for breaking the rules (“Hi, Mom! I’m digging up the Northwest United States! You okay with that?!”). In other words, her envy stems, not from the fact that Phineas and Ferb can build a rollercoaster in the backyard over the course of a morning and she can’t, but just from the fact that they’re successful: that they’re more popular and admired than she is, that they excel at whatever they try while she doesn’t, and, most of all, that they never get caught. To that end, she will endure anything if only she can one-up her brothers just once and prove that they’re not as cool as everything thinks.

In all this, she’s missed the simple fact that…it’s not a competition. Though she’s continually trying (and failing) to outshine them, Phineas and Ferb aren’t trying to outshine her, or anyone else; they’re just doing what interests them. “We don’t do this to compete,” Phineas tells Candace in one episode. “We do it for fun!” (“And for the ladies,” Ferb adds). That’s the point: there is no conflict except in Candace’s mind.

Far from seeking to overshadow their sister, Phineas and Ferb actually admire Candace and want her to participate. They’re always inviting her along on their escapades and providing her with the means to join them (“We built [that rocket ship] for Candace; I don’t know why she took ours”). But Candace would rather show up the boys and spoil their fun than actually partake of it herself. As far as she’s concerned, the mere fact that Phineas and Ferb are involved immediately taints the activity for her.

Candace is focused on the personal aspect; she really, really wants to be able to one-up her brothers by ‘busting’ them to their mother, just to show that they aren’t as great as everyone thinks and (in her mind) make herself look better by comparison. Phineas and Ferb, on the other hand, are focused on the actual activity itself. The important thing to them isn’t who does it, or who’s better at it, or any of that nonsense; the important thing is simply that it gets done.

This dynamic is showcased in an early episode centering on their mom’s birthday. Candace once again sees it as an opportunity to outshine her brothers, refusing to help them with their preparations, growling about who has ‘won’ each part of the day, and even going so far to sign her card, “The child who loves you best.” Meanwhile, Phineas and Ferb culminate their multimedia birthday celebration by playing the song Candace wrote and inviting her up on stage to sing it live. Again, they don’t care who does what, just so long as their mother has a nice birthday.

Now, Candace goes through a lot over the course of four seasons, yet the show makes it abundantly clear that, to put it bluntly, it’s pretty much all her own fault. If she’d only let go of her petty jealousy and loosened up a little, she would be much happier, more relaxed, and be spared the numerous mishaps that she’s subjected to. In fact, on the odd occasion where she’s either cooperating with the boys or going on her own adventure, she tends to be very successful and to have a good time to boot. But, rather than learning to lighten up a little, she persists in her Sisyphean quest to ‘bust’ her brothers and so keeps bringing disaster down upon her own head.

This all should sound pretty familiar: it’s the attitude most self-styled feminists adopt. It’s the notion that men and women are in opposition, that men are the oppressors of women and that women must do whatever they can to escape the shadow of ‘the patriarchy.’ When, actually, most men (at least in the West) rather like women and want them to succeed at whatever they’re interested in.

For one particularly silly example, we hear a lot from feminists how we need to get more girls interested in STEM fields. They decry the ‘gender imbalance’ in such things, and in pretty much everything else where there’s difference between men and women (unless, of course, the women have the better share). Like Candace trying to outshine her brothers, though, this misses the whole point; it focuses on who is doing it rather than on what they’re doing.

If a girl wants to go into science, technology, or what have you because she’s interested in the subject, that’s awesome, and she should definitely be encouraged to do so, but because it’s a worthwhile endeavor in itself; not because her doing so will add a checkmark to someone’s imaginary ledger. If she’s going into the field to close the ‘gender gap,’ then frankly she’d be much better off doing something else: something she’s interested in for its own sake. No occupation or field of study is helped by anyone (male or female) who gets involved with an eye towards correcting social ratios, only by those who care about the subject itself (i.e. I’m sure Amelia Earhart would have wanted to fly even if every other aviator on Earth at the time were a woman).

You see, when someone sets out to do anything with an eye towards the societal aspect, her attention has, for that very reason, been taken off the thing itself and placed on an abstract social image. Most people (men and women) in whatever field she’s involved in will find this annoying, because their focus is on the work itself while she’s preoccupied with what the work means for her and her idea of society. This is what will make her unwelcome: the fact that no group of people likes it when someone who isn’t really interested in their subject imposes herself on them, even less if she’s doing it to make some kind of point.

More to the point, if you’re trying to go into space, would it make any difference to you who designed your rocket, as long as it worked properly? When Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, was anyone thinking about how many women versus how many men made that possible? Would that achievement have been any more outstanding if there had been an equal proportion of men and women at NASA?

As all this indicates, I think a lot of modern feminism is a big fuss over nothing: people who get furiously competitive over a conflict as imaginary as Candace’s rivalry with her brothers. Because, let me say it again, the ‘gender gap’ doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who is doing the job, as long as the job is done well, and it doesn’t matter how many women or men are in any given field, as long as those who are genuinely care about their subject and know what they’re doing.

Candace is, in fact, living out a broad and, today, very popular worldview: that it is the identity of the person doing the act that matters; not the act itself. To her, the fact that her brothers are doing these things are what is important: her brothers who constantly overshadow her, who can get away with anything, and who are just so annoying. The fact that what they’re doing is amazing, fun, and often beneficial to others is secondary.

By contrast, Phineas and Ferb are focused on the act itself. They are close to the position described in The Screwtape Letters: of being able to design the best roller coaster in the world, know it is the best, and rejoice in that fact, and yet be just as happy if someone else were to design it instead. If Candace went out and built her own supersonic jet or a skyscraper to the Moon, Phineas and Ferb would just think that was awesome. Any reservations they would have would be based on the fact that they would have liked to have done that cool thing themselves, but the idea that they would object because their big sister is trying to overshadow them, or because she’s a girl, would simply sound weird to them.

Most people today (at least in the west) see nothing at all strange in the idea of women doing great things. We’ve been taught feminism all our lives and raised on a steady diet of tales of female empowerment. But, for that same reason, we find demands for perfect parity between men and women in all things to be childish and silly. Nothing seriously excludes a woman from pursuing pretty much any job she wants: why not just let her do what she wants and stop stressing over who does what? It’s not a competition, after all.

Candace’s urge to ‘bust’ her brothers is ridiculous because one, it’s obvious the effort she puts into it is ludicrously out of proportion to any kind of payoff she could receive, and two, because her rivalry with the boys only exists in her own mind. It’s funny, because she’s driving herself past the point of human endurance in pursuit of a purely symbolic victory that no one but herself cares about, much like current-wave feminists spend millions of dollars and countless hours of time advocating for things that either they already have (i.e. equal pay) or which simply don’t matter (i.e. the ratio of men and women in any given field). Candace herself, in her better moments, understands that her whole crusade really isn’t worth it. I only hope modern feminists might come to the same realization. I think they’d be much happier.