Thursday, November 28, 2013

What are you thankful for?

I think Thanksgiving is a sacred thing, and I think the act of contemplating/expressing gratitude can be quite important and therapeutic.  So I'm just going to write a short little list of things I'm grateful for this year.  Feel free to join me in the comments.

I'm thankful for:

1 - My family, to whom I try to stay close even when they're 2400 miles away.  I'm thankful for the technology that allows me to keep in touch with them; I'm thankful for the emails and phone calls and text messages and Facebook posts that keep them part of my life when I don't get to see them.
2 - My wonderful roommates and friends, who have become like family to me.  A couple days ago we hosted a "Friendsgiving" at my house; we cooked our own turkey and everything.  People brought side dishes and feasted and relaxed and enjoyed each others' company.  It was beautiful.  I am thankful for the opportunity to meet and know these great people, and to learn from their examples as they maneuver their lives and as I try to maneuver mine.
3 - My job, which is so much more than a job.  I've mentioned before that I work at a Residential Treatment Center.  Those kids are my life.  I don't know where I'd be without them (this is quite literally true, as my original plan was to leave Utah after college and now I really don't want to!).  They teach me patience and empathy and resilience.  Those students have been through so much and have been lied to by so many, yet they continually impress me with their persistent willingness to push forward and upward and to become better.  I am also thankful for the co-workers I have the pleasure to work with; they have made (and continue to make) me who I am.  Their example is inspiring and their friendship is unconditional.
4 - My God.  I am grateful for a God who listens to me when I feel like I don't deserve to be heard.  He is patient with me in ways I don't understand and He constantly gives me opportunities to grow as a person.  He is ever-present in my life even when I am not making sufficient effort to be present in His.  He is a Heavenly Father and He loves all of us equally.  His aim is to teach us to be like Him so that we can live a life like His - a Heavenly life indeed, full of love and life and knowledge.  I hope next year to be more like Him than I am today.

Your turn, readers!  What are y'all thankful for this year?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On Ender's Game and contextual consumption.

Let's talk about Gavin Hood's film adaptation of the classic Orson Scott Card sci-fi novel Ender's Game!

If you happen to be unfamiliar with Ender's Game then I will simply say that it is a wonderfully written, extraordinarily inventive, and culturally important story about mind games, war, children, objectification, and the loss of innocence.  I don't want to spoil too much more than that.

If you just want a simple review so you can be on your way, here's the short version of my reaction:  it's not bad!  And occasionally, it's very good.  Certainly there are parts of it that feel rushed and underdeveloped, but unless you're Peter Jackson, that may be inevitable when adapting books to films.  The film's strengths (particularly in its powerful third act) overcome its weaknesses, I think.  My more detailed reactions (spoiler free) are included below, but if you're just clicking to decide if you should see it or not, then my short answer is, "yes, probably see it.  Especially if you're a fan of the book (which you should be).  But be warned that it's certainly not without its flaws."

Okay, let's get started.  When consuming art/media of any kind, context is very important.  Your circumstances determine how media effects you.  For example, the last time I watched Forrest Gump, four years ago, it was nearly unbearable, because of the girl I was dating at the time and her reaction to it.  We actually ended up having a pretty big, stupid argument about the film.  Unfortunately, to this day, Zemeckis' undoubtedly masterful contribution to American cinema reminds me of that discomfort.  With that example, I aim to illustrate that media is not a standalone experience; its influence on our lives is always informed by the other influences that surround us, either in obvious or subtle ways.

The reason I begin with that thought is because my experience at the theater this weekend with Ender's Game was very different from my experience many years ago with the same story as a book.

When I first read the book, I was quite young.  I have read it several more times since then, but its story has always been connected to my late childhood and young adulthood, and all the feelings that I associate with that era of my life.  From an adolescent perspective, Ender's Game is about isolation, disillusionment, and fear.  It's about the painful paradox of societal expectations placed on teenagers:  the world wants them to act like adults, but treats them like infants.

Experiencing the story again now is quite different because I don't have the same context of vulnerability and angst.  My context now is more that of a tired, disillusioned adult; I'm worried about the future of this world and I'm uneasy about warmongering governments.  I didn't have that disillusionment as a teenager, thank goodness.

Furthermore, I've been thinking and reading and watching a lot about war (particularly Vietnam) lately.  In the past month I watched Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and Coppola's Apocalypse Now for the first time.  War is often meaningless; war is chaos; indeed, war is Hell.  And who do we send off into this hellish, chaotic, meaningless nightmare?  We send our young; we send our "able-bodied."  The average age of American soldiers who died in Vietnam was 22: that's four years younger than I am now.  Like most kids, I used to think of soldiers as "grown-ups."  I thought of people older than me and bigger than me - people whose understanding of life and sex and violence was so beyond my own.  But now, when I think of soldiers, I think of kids, much younger than I, often still in their late teens.  I think of people who were very recently told by their High School teachers and counselors that they could do anything they set their mind to.  Then, within less than a year in many cases, they were trained and hardened and shipped overseas to shoot bad guys.  When I think of war, I think of young men fighting old men's battles.

One more bit of context:  I work at a residential treatment center (which doubles as a therapeutic boarding school) for adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18.  My responsibility to take care of the students is a huge part of my life.  I think about these kids all the time:  their drawings fill my car, their names populate my prayers, and their anxieties fill my nightmares.  That's perhaps the most significant context in which I experienced the film adaptation of Ender's Game.  Because while I watch Asa Butterfield's performance as Ender Wiggin, I no longer see an avatar for myself; rather, I see a representation of my students, those who look to me as caregiver.  The character of Ender speaks to me deeply and tragically, because he represents an objectified subject, an exploited innocent, a mistreated child.  He represents the psychological cost of war.

As a teenager reading the book, I wanted to be the protagonist.  Now, ten years later, I want to protect him.

Because of this context, I found Ender's Game to be pretty powerful, and like I mentioned in my brief review above, I thought its ending was particularly effective.  However, the film has its flaws.

I think the film's main problem is pacing.  It darts from scene to scene for the first hour, and therefore struggles to let its audience get their emotional footing.  It feels rushed and abbreviated, which takes a lot of the potency away from its more heavy moments.  The characters and their relationships feel underdeveloped because of this pacing problem.  I understand there is no easy way to avoid this issue when adapting a long and complex book.  The Harry Potter films struggled with the exact same thing (except for the seventh film, which had a wonderful balance of character and plot and was well-paced).

Another problem the film has is that its narrative edges are too soft, so to speak.  It pulls its punches.  The book drives its point home with real costs, and with brutal and devastating violence (both physical and psychological), but the film obviously has investors and the MPAA to please.  So it ends up feeling sterilized, both aesthetically and thematically.  It's too shiny and soft when it should be terrifying, and this takes away from its allegorical strength.  A review in Christianity Today claims that because the movie has "scalped the more brazen, the more expected, violence," it "feels morally listless and dishonest."  I think I agree.

Despite these problems, I think the film was worth seeing.  I won't deny, however, that my reaction was informed by my own subjective biases and individual experiences.  I am a product of circumstance and my context happened to make Ender's Game a pretty edifying experience.  If your experiences have been similar, then perhaps you'll feel likewise.  Or perhaps not.  I wish I could endorse the film more wholeheartedly and universally than that, but I cannot.  It simply isn't good enough for me to.

But after a decade and a half of waiting, I'm glad to have at least seen something.  Because one of the greatest sci-fi stories of our generation deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible, and if more people are exposed to the book because of this movie, then I'm happy.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Let's talk about Feminism and Priesthood.

Many of you have probably heard about Mormon Feminism and recent discussions about the Priesthood.  You've also probably heard that there is a plan for a petition/demonstration sort of thing during this upcoming General Conference (I hesitate to call it a "protest" as some articles have; this demonstration doesn't feel quite as angry, per se, as a "protest," and it's probably therefore an unfairly loaded word to use when describing it).  Let's explore this, and its implications, a little bit.

Let me start by pointing out that I haven't really picked a "side" on the issue of LDS female ordination, and that's because I don't think it should be about picking sides.  It should be about raising questions and cultivating healthy discussion.  I said this before when I wrote about gay marriage, and I'll say it again:  here we have a more complicated situation than many are willing to admit.  Unfortunately, people like to stubbornly argue without recognizing the legitimacy of other people's opinions.  This understandable human tendency becomes particularly ugly when it happens in the Church, I think, because isn't our job supposed to be to provide a place where people feel loving acceptance - not vitriolic name-calling?

This isn't about who's right and who's wrong; this isn't about sides.  This isn't about feminism versus patriarchy, or progress versus tradition, or women versus men.  This is about people - all on the same side - who are trying to understand and be understood.  I think this is an important point before we have any discussions about Mormon issues of any kind:  we're all on the same team.  We're all trying to get closer to God and closer to each other (or, if you want to zoom out further to a non-religious or multi-religious perspective, we're all trying to get happiness and we're all trying to build a better world).  The second we develop an "us against them" mentality, either to create sub-divisions within our culture or to separate our culture from the rest of the world, it is dangerous and exclusive and contrary to the teachings of Christ.

So, let's get down to the issue.  Women and the Priesthood.  Traditionally the LDS Church has ordained only men to the Priesthood (thus only men can be Bishops, Apostles, Prophets, etc).  There are those in the Mormon Feminism movement who believe this patriarchal system is man-made, not divinely inspired; furthermore, they contend that this system is inherently sexist, as are the arguments most often used to defend it.

Let's take a look at one of the most prominent of those arguments:

"Men may have the Priesthood, but women can bear children.  Priesthood therefore is to manhood as motherhood is to womanhood.  So it's not unfair; it's just different."

This is a very problematic defense.  It is too simplistic, and it implies that a man's role in child-rearing is less important than the mother's role.  The truth is that men have just as much of a responsibility to be caregivers for their children as women do (that famous Proclamation signed by the First Presidency and Council of Twelve Apostles back in 1995 said "fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners." That's pretty clear, right?).  So if men are expected to be good fathers just as actively as women are expected to be good mothers, then the male equivalent of motherhood is not Priesthood; it is FATHERhood.  And the female equivalent of Priesthood therefore cannot be motherhood; what is it, then?  PRIESTESShood?  Perhaps so.  (We'll talk more about Priestesshood in a few moments.)

I get the idea behind this defense, though.  I really get it.  I get that men and women are different and therefore it's logical to assume they'd have different roles which compliment each other (though of course this does not mean that one is more important than the other).  Now, when I say that men and women have different roles, I don't mean to say that our current model works.   I don't mean to say that the typical gender roles we assign to men and to women in our societal, political, and religious culture are perfect.  In fact I think our typical gender roles are far from perfect, and need a heck of a lot of work.  But that's okay; it's work worth doing and yet it's also work that will take time and is worth being patient for.  Anyway all I'm trying to say when I concede that men and women "have different roles" is that gender roles are not arbitrary, and that in the Celestial order of things - which we certainly haven't yet attained - there will be gender roles.  Because gender makes a difference.  What that difference is, exactly, is our task to define.  And again, I'm ready to admit we probably haven't defined that difference very well yet.

So, okay, back to that idea of the "Priestesshood."  The problem here is that we don't know what it really means, nor do we know what powers/responsibilities it entails.  There's a question mark in that part of the equation I think.  And it's okay to have question marks!  Remember, "we believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things," says Joseph.

Maybe we can understand this question mark ("Priestesshood?") a little better, though, if we examine the idea of "Priesthood" and what it means.

I like to look at it sort of like this:

The textbook definition for "Priesthood" that we are used to giving in Sunday School is "the power and authority to act/speak in God's name."  That is a very vague description, and it has nothing to do with manhood or womanhood.  It just has to do with God's name.  Now, we know that Christ is God.*  Therefore anyone who can pray in the name of Christ is using God's name.  They are sanctioned to do so; in fact, they have been instructed to do so in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is part of the order of prayer to use God's name, and God's instructions to us - ALL of us! - are to do so every time we pray.  That which we are instructed to do, I'd imagine we are authorized to do.  Therefore all men and women are authorized to speak in Christ's name - at least in the context of prayer.  Does that mean everyone everywhere has Priesthood?  Sort of.

Certainly my definition of Priesthood implies that we must describe someone's "having it" or "not having it" in degrees, much like we cannot say someone is "saved" or "not saved" without using degrees.

What I mean is, everyone is "saved" in some degree, or at least, saved from Death.  But Joseph says to be fully saved is to be placed beyond the power of all your enemies - so in a sense, only the Celestially exalted are fully saved.  I am drawing a parallel between this line of thinking and my definition of Priesthood:  I believe everyone has Priesthood, in the sense that everyone is authorized to pray in Christ's name.  Some people have even more Priesthood.  Some of those people are women - we may recall that Joseph often allowed women to give blessings to the sick back in the days of the early Church.**

Here we run into our next roadblock.  "This is all well and good," a feminist might say, "but what about the administrative Priesthood?  A Bishop holds authority to preside over a meeting in the name of Christ and that is something that, according to our current practice, a woman will never be able to do (furthermore, a woman can never baptize or give the Gift of the Holy Ghost).  Why the sexual segregation in that 'degree' of Priesthood if the ability to use Priesthood in other, 'lesser' degrees is so liberally distributed?"

This is a very good question.  My first answer might be that our Church has plenty of powerful women, including Relief Society Presidents and Young Women Presidents, and they certainly have presiding authority and that is not nothing.

But I feel like that answer does not hold much water with most feminists (and it shouldn't!  It's a weak answer!).  After all, Relief Society Presidents report to the Bishop, but not vice versa.  So is it accurate to say that an RSP is just as powerful/prestigious as a Bishop?  Furthermore, is it compassionate to say "okay, not EXACTLY as powerful, but it's close enough?"  That sort of dismissive attitude doesn't do anyone any favors.  What you're basically saying is "you're right, you don't have as much power.  But deal with it and stop complaining."  (On the other hand:  is this part of the discussion phrased in an inherently problematic way anyway?  Why do we worry about "power" or "prestige?"  Why don't we spend our efforts trying to lift where we stand instead of trying to aspire to "higher" callings?  What did Paul say about the body of Christ, after all?  Isn't every part just as "important" as the other?)

So my final answer is that I don't have an answer.  But at least this unanswered question ("why don't women hold administrative Priesthood offices in the Church?") is a smaller and more specific question than that which most of the rest of us have to tackle (namely, "why don't women hold ANY Priesthood in the Church?").  With my somewhat revised interpretation of the word Priesthood, at least I can be empowered to say with some certainty that men and women have a lot in common:  this perspective allows me to point out easily that both men and women offer prayers, bless their children, preside over their homes, minister to the sick, etc, with essentially the same authority (that is, using the same name and with the same authorization).  The only degree of authority that remains inexplicably segregated is that of Church administration and the performances of ordinances.

And I don't have an answer to that.  But that's okay.  If I'm left with answerless questions, then feminism has done its job well.  It's good to ask questions; it's good to be critical; it's good to wonder (ask, seek, and knock, right Jesus?).  Recall what Joseph says in his Articles of Faith:  God will reveal many things, and true Latter-Day Saints will believe those things when they come.  So, who knows what's on the horizon.  Perhaps some answers.***

But, again as Joseph taught us (when he was only fourteen!), we don't get any answers until we're willing to ask the right questions.  This is why conversations like this (and prayerful study about them) is important for all of us.

* A theological clarification:  what I mean when I say that "Christ is God" is not that Christ the Son and God the Father are one in the same.  According to LDS teachings these beings are two separate personages, but one in purpose.  So Christ is God in the sense that He also is Divine and is a member of what we call "the Godhead" (a system that closely resembles what many Christian philosophers would call social trinitarianism).  Contrary to popular belief, this model of the Trinity does not disqualify us from being Christians.  It just makes us different than many (but not all!) Christians in our ontological and metaphysical assumptions about God and His Son. 
** It ought to be noted that this is no longer common practice, at least not in most LDS congregations.
*** An important side-note, I think, is that it's inappropriate to seek a specific kind of answer when we turn to God for answers.  It's okay to want clarification.  It's okay to want revelation.  It's okay to have concerns and questions and even criticisms about how we're running God's church down here.  It's okay to assume that we don't have everything perfect.  However, it ISN'T okay to demand that God change something specific just the way we want it.  Maybe the answer to our question is "no."  Asking questions is a supremely important part of Mormonism, but so is having the humility to recognize that the answer may not be what we had anticipated.

Postscript:  I have to note that this post leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and even unaddressed.  There are other great posts on Mormon Feminism out there that cover a lot of ground on topics I barely touched (or didn't touch at all).  I suggest this post on male privilege (I only agree with about two-thirds of it, but it's an important and well-articulated article), and this analysis of some risks involved in LDS feminist activism (I don't really agree with all of this one either, but it's a worthy counterpoint to some of the more aggressive feminist rhetoric out there). I also suggest this post about the parallels (and differences) between Civil Rights and Feminism in the context of Mormon activism.  Last but not least, I strongly recommend a close reading of this article about Heavenly Mother, co-written by my favorite professor in my entire academic career, Dr. Paulsen.

There's a lot out there that's been said.  And there's a lot more to say.  But before we jump to conclusions, let's listen to every side.  Let's respect every opinion.  Let's avoid dismissing people (especially people we disagree with!) as "power-hungry feminazis" or "misogynistic mansplainers."  That sort of language and that sort of tone doesn't help anyone.  We're all on the same team.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On therapy, empathy, and The Road.

Let's talk about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  This is one of the most emotionally gripping stories I’ve ever read.  It is about a man and his son who are trying desperately to survive as they travel across post-apocalyptic North America.  They scavenge for food and supplies; they avoid other survivors (who are almost always barbaric and dangerous); and, perhaps most importantly, they struggle to maintain their sanity.

The man and his son are never named.  They are simply referred to as “the man” and “the boy.”  Also left ambiguous is the specific nature of the apocalypse that had apparently happened a decade or so before the book’s beginning.  I believe the intention of this ambiguity is to allow the reader to immerse into the world and its characters.

One of the main themes of the story is the idea of being the “good guys.”  In such a bleak environment, it is important for the father to keep assuring his son that they are the “good guys.”  Good guys, after all, are hard to come by.  “Are we still the good guys?” asks the boy after one particularly terrifying incident.  “Yes, [and] we always will be,” replies his father (77).  This theme comes up over and over.  The boy always wants to make sure he is one of the good guys, and that he and his dad are still “carrying the fire.”  Why is that important?  Why is that more important than survival?  This is one of the ideas the narrative explores.

At one point in the story, when the man and his son seem on the brink of starvation, they miraculously find an underground bunker full of food storage.  Whoever had left it behind was certainly gone.  They marvel at their good fortune and then there is a silence.  The boy seems hesitant.  The father asks:  what’s wrong?  “Do you think we should thank the people?”  What people?  “The people who gave us all this.”  Well.  Yes, I guess we could do that.  “Will you do it?”  Why don’t you?  “I don’t know how.”  Yes you do.  You know how to say thank you (145).

Then the boy, after some more silence, offers up what sounds to me almost like a prayer:

“Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff.  We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldn’t eat it no matter how hungry we were and we’re sorry that you didn’t get to eat it and we hope that you’re save in heaven with God” (146).

Whenever I read this passage, I am brought almost to tears.  This is a beautiful reminder of humility and priorities.  The father has been disillusioned by now and his son is the one reminding him of virtues long forgotten (like gratitude, for example).  The son indeed reminds all of us that even in the darkest of times, even in the direst of circumstances, being good and grateful is more important than surviving.  It is more important than anything—because virtuous traits shape your identity.  Surviving does not make you who you are; choosing to be empathetic, however, does.

I have been reminded of this lesson many times while working as a mentor at my internship at Maple Lake Academy (a residential treatment center that specializes in helping adolescents with learning disabilities).

My job is to be a caregiver throughout the day and to help the children learn and develop academically, socially, psychologically, and hygienically—so that they can meet their therapeutic goals and be better prepared to function in society when they graduate from the program.  Because these students lack basic social skills, there are many fights and arguments.  Often, my role is to mediate peer interactions and help them learn to communicate effectively and tactfully with each other so they can get along better.  I remember one time a student was trying to be nice all day to her peers and she wasn’t getting the responses she wanted (people were snapping back at her, probably defensively as she has been awfully mean in the past).  This really frustrated her to the point where she broke down crying and expressed sincere hopelessness in her efforts.  “Why bother trying to be nice,” she asked, “if people are just going to be rude to me anyway?”  I tried to explain to her that it was important to be nice, even if everyone else is rude.  She can’t control other people’s actions, but she can control her own.  Social results, as reassuring as they are, shouldn’t be our main motivation in trying to be more kind.  We ought to want to be kind just for the sake of being kind—just for the sake of being able to know that we are one of “the good guys.”

This is a difficult lesson to internalize, and it is certainly difficult to teach.  We all want recognition; we all want reciprocation.  But sometimes we simply won’t get it, and when that happens, we face a true test of character.  Are we willing to do what is right regardless of reward?  Are we willing to stand up for principle even when we aren’t thanked for it?  This is something I think about often, because of my internship and because of Cormac McCarthy’s novel.  In The Road, the atmosphere is dark and hopeless and yet our protagonists try so persistently to maintain their dignity and morality.  This is a good lesson because often life may seem dark or hopeless (especially, perhaps, if we are a student at a therapeutic boarding school, surrounded by peers whose social inadequacies match our own and who are not good at being kind to us).  And when those moments come, when we find ourselves in those situations, we must remember that goodness is worth achieving for its own sake, not merely as a means to an end.  A spirit of gratitude for all people, and a recognition of all our debts—as exemplified by the boy in The Road—makes us better capable of facing challenges uprightly and courageously.  Then we will be better able to help those around us along the road.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love is a verb.

Okay, it's that time of year again.  The stores are selling flowers, chocolates, and wine.  People are getting closer to their significant others, planning extravagant dates, making life changes, and finding ways to express their love.  That's what the day is all about:  a celebration of "love."

But what is love?  [Baby, don't hurt me.]

I'll start by making clear what love is not.  Love is not a feeling that you get.  Love is not something that happens to you.  Love is not a pit you helplessly fall into.  Love is not a magic spell. There are a lot of people out there trying to sell that image of love:  love as a state that falls upon you, that envelops and transforms your world.  This is the image of love you see in romantic stories and in jewelry commercials.

The image of love is butterflies.  Hormones.  Impulse.  Sweeping orchestral music.  But this image is absurd.

Love is not a noun; it is a verb!  And love is not a feeling; it is a commitment!

Love is a choice!

Love is getting up in the morning and consciously deciding to commit to a person, to help them more than you help yourself, to care about their needs and wants above your own.  Love is a constant struggle to remember that commitment, to embrace it and to keep it close.  Love is consistent maintenance, work and effort; love is blood, sweat, and tears.  Love is humility and adaptability.  Love is emotional vulnerability.  Love is taking someone into the most intimate parts of your life.  Therefore, love is a gamble, because love is opening yourself up to the risk of others hurting you, hating you, or leaving you.  Love is suffering.

Love is empathy.  Love is looking at an imperfect soul and choosing to love it in spite of its flaws, and perhaps (in a way) even because of them.  Love is embracing a person holistically, scars and all.  Love is recognizing and respecting the humanness of an Other and inviting that Other into your world.  Love is compassion.

Love is a beautiful thing.  But it's beautiful because people are beautiful, and people are what make it work.  Love takes hard work!  And hard work is beautiful!

So, happy Valentine's Day, readers.  I urge you to look at the people around you, the people who count on you and care about you.  Find some way to love them.  And you will be beautiful.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

What makes a good martial arts film?

What makes a really good martial arts film?

If you're familiar with this blog, you may be puzzled by the question.  "But Chris," you're saying, "haven't you said before that empathy is the key to virtue, and that war is a psychologically and morally damaging disease, and even that football is modern-day gladiatorism?  What makes a movie about Asian dudes kicking other Asian dudes in the face any more edifying or discussion-worthy than overpaid and oddly-dressed American dudes trying to get a prolate spheroid of pigskin across a field?"

When I wrote the aforementioned tirade against football, I got a lot of replies from people claiming that I "just don't get it."  And that's true - part of the appeal of watching football is that it reminds us of how much we enjoyed playing.  Sports are a formative part of a lot of people's childhoods.  Through sports, kids learn teamwork, determination, and focus, in ways that stick with them forever.  Heck, I've heard people quote their football coaches over the pulpit in church.  But my experience with sports was nothing like that.  Most of the super-athletic people I knew growing up were over-competitive, arrogant, and obnoxious.  I never felt like I could relate to them.  So, to me, when I watch football, it's just a bunch of big guys running into each other.  I don't have an emotional connection to it.  I do, however, feel connected to martial arts.

This is where I must reveal my bias:  I've spent a good 25% of my life practicing martial arts.  I did Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, and Shotokan Karate - three times a week, for over half a decade.  Eventually I even earned a Black Belt.  I can say without hyperbole that martial arts has made me who I am today.  It calmed me down.  I started as an aggressive, impulsive kid who got in fights.  I became mellow, patient, contemplative, and (for the most part) disciplined.

Many who have never practiced martial arts probably look at something like Bruce Lee's The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury) in the same way that I look at football:  simplistic, unnecessarily brutal, and more about bodily spectacle than thematic weight.

But to me, it's different.  Martial arts is philosophy.  The six "Tenets of Tae Kwon Do," as I was taught in my youth, are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, indomitable spirit, and humility.  Those tenets are what a good martial arts film is about.

Good martial arts films tell stories about honor despite adversity, self-control despite corruption, and resolve despite hopelessness.  And in a good martial arts film, violence is a means to an end, never an end in itself.  Brutality is a reluctant choice, never a primary option.

On the other hand, a bad martial arts film forgets its roots.  A bad martial arts film glories in violence without regard to the reasons behind (or consequences of) that violence.

Bad martial arts films exist because filmmakers misunderstand the needs of their audience.  These filmmakers look at something like "Fight Club" and misinterpret it as an American plea for testosteronic catharsis.  They look at action classics like "Die Hard" and totally ignore the reasons why John McClane is such a likable character - assuming that we really just want to see countless bad guys getting mowed down.  They forget about character and focus on the killing.

Then these filmmakers produce something like "The Raid."  Have you heard of it?  It's a fairly recent Indonesian martial arts film that the critics are raving about (one critic even called it "without a doubt the best action film of the last decade and maybe one of the best action films of all time").  But why?  I don't understand what's so great about it.  It's a mindless, soulless, and bloody film.  Its only merit is occasionally impressive choreography, as it was clearly designed to showcase the Indonesian martial art known as "Pencak Silat."  But it does a poor job of representing what martial arts are really about.  If this is the cultural picture Indonesia wants to present to the world, it's an oddly vicious and ugly choice.  I did some research on Indonesian culture and on Pencak Silat, and couldn't find any obvious justification or sociological context for "The Raid."  It looks to me like this is simply what the filmmakers thought people wanted to see, and if they were going to showcase their particular brand of martial arts, this is how they'd have to do it (and they were right, weren't they?  It's one of the most successful Indonesian films ever made, financially and critically).  What does that say about the action genre (or, specifically, the martial arts genre)?  And what does that say about us (remember, you and I are the people who pay for these flicks to exist.  Film is a commercial art form.  Therefore film reflects culture more than it dictates it)?

Remember, back in Jackie Chan's heyday (from the late '70s to the late '90s), the hero was almost always a reluctant one.  Violence was a last resort.  Certainly Jackie's films were spectacular, but the spectacle wasn't in gratuitous brutality:  it was in Jackie's escaping from brutality.  Take a look at the ladder fight scene from "First Strike."  It's incredible!  Chan is the Charlie Chaplin of Hong Kong cinema.  But he pulls off that Chaplin-esque level of charm and wit in his performance precisely because his characters are trying so desperately to avoid trouble.

Today, it seems this sentiment has been lost.  Films are becoming more shocking for the sake of shock.  While relatively new stars like Donnie Yen maintain a respect for traditional martial art values in their films (like in the beautiful biographical epic "Ip Man"), there are countless other stars and filmmakers who awkwardly try to mix martial arts with the gritty, nihilistic, and exploitative themes of darker genres.  I don't believe that mix works well.  This trend will bastardize what the martial arts truly represent.

You can do your part.  Your wallet has a voice.  Support pure martial arts films.  And don't watch "The Raid."