Five Stupid Things About Faith Healers

Amazing what you can build from pure nonsense.

I have strong personal reasons for disliking faith healers. By now, I’d have probably lost my grandmother anyway, but when she died in 1988, she still had at least 5-10 decent years left. She threw those years away because of her belief in Christian Science.

I understand why she couldn’t abandon her beliefs in spite of the pain her (undiagnosed) disease was obviously inflicting on her. She’d lost a husband and a brother to cardiovascular diseases that went untreated because of their shared beliefs. She’d let one of my aunts lose her hearing in one ear from an untreated ear infection. As my Dad said, she just had too much time in the ideology to walk away.

My great aunt was older than my grandmother, but she outlived her by a decade, mainly because she’d ditched Christian Science after an untreated infection nearly killed her in her late teens. Ironies abound in this.

I don’t think of my grandmother as a fool. She wasn’t one. Maybe if she’d been more foolish we could have talked her out of Christian Science, but when confronted my grandmother had a master grifter’s talent for the shuck. No PR flack for a tobacco company ever spun as well as she did. The mountains of contradictory evidence just melted when she spoke. Of course she was getting better. Of course the prayers were working. And if they weren’t working, it was because our negativity was inhibiting her healing prayers.

It pains me to think about it.

All this was meant to introduce Steve Shives’s excellent video “Five Stupid Things About Faith Healing”. Subscribe to his channel. It’s one of the good ones.


42 after ’71 (Final Part)

Here’s the last installment of my forty-two favorite movies since 1971. (I was born in 1971 and I’m 42 years old, see…) Here are parts one, two, and three.

32. Blazing Saddles: I recently caught an episode of the Rockford Files that costarred Cleavon Little (RIP James Garner, by the way). Cleavon didn’t do a lot of television or movies, probably because no one was offering him parts as interesting as the classical roles he was doing on Broadway. Still, he often the best part of anything he was in, which in Blazing Saddles meant he was the best part of a whole lot of funny. Mel Brooks’s strategy in Blazing Saddles is to throw as much insanely funny stuff at the screen as he can and never allow the audience to breathe. (This strategy would later be adopted by the Zucker, Abrams, Zucker team for AirplaneThe Naked Gun, and Top Secret.) The movie is so quotable that you’ll spend the next decade after seeing it repeating its lines, from “It’s twue! It’s twue!” to “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives” to this, which I use whenever I see those people at the Texas border yammering about shooting immigrants:

What did you expect? “Welcome, sonny”? “Make yourself at home”? “Marry my daughter”? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.

33. Bound: Everyone has stories they’re suckers for. I’m a sucker for noir movies. I’m a sucker for gangster pictures. I’m a sucker for heists. Bound is all these, centered around a lesbian couple who navigate tricky issues of trust to liberate millions from the gangster husband of one of them. The movie has one of the sharpest seduction scenes I’ve ever seen on film (a fun twist on the “inviting the maintenance person over to fix the sink” fantasy), tons of smart dialog, and a set of lock picks so imaginative it’ll have to be continued on the next set of lock picks. See it.

34. Life of Brian: Another insanely sharp comedy, and really my favorite of the Monty Python pictures, following the life of faux Messiah Brian Cohen, son of Naughteous Maximus. From its Latin Graffiti lessons to Brian’s accidental fall into religious leadership, to his sermon to his flock to his crucifixion, the movie is a brilliant political and religious satire that we’ll still be watching in 100 years. Remember, we’re all individuals, except for that one guy.

35. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet StreetTim Burton’s style is always memorable, even when he doesn’t have a good story backing him up. This time, he has the story, one right in his wheelhouse, and he gets all he can out of it. The movie tweaks the musical. There’s no chorus of victims singing “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”, and Tobias Ragg is rewritten to be less of a simpleton, but the tale of Sweeney Todd’s well motivated but ultimately ruinous revenge odyssey is told with a shocking amount of power. Alan Rickman is a splendid Judge Turpin, and though Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter won’t make us forget Len Cariou (or George Hearn) and Angela Lansbury, they reinvent the characters for the screen in a way that reminds us that, whatever they are now, there was a time when they were something else, before life ground them up (pun intended).

36. The Dark Knight: One of my first picks for this list was the 1977 Superman movie, which I think captures the essence of why we love Superman. The Dark Knight is here to remind us, if not why we love Batman, at least why we respond to him psychologically. We’d like to believe that we could throw ourselves into combat against grotesque evil while never losing our belief in human goodness or our own moral code.  But The Dark Knight does more. It tells us what Batman would like to believe in–the hero with the face, Harvey Dent. That’s what makes Heath Ledger’s Joker role work. He ends up representing a challenge to both. That’s why this movie matters.

37. AirplaneAh, the ZAZ team! They took a script from a moderately watchable airplane thriller–Zero Hourgave it the MST3K treatment ten years before the existence of MST3K, and gave their best riffs to the actors. (Oh, and they added a disco scene from Saturday Night Fever and a beach scene from From Here To Eternity). They took anything for a laugh and modified to anything-three-to-four-times-simultaneously-for-the-sake-of-a-laugh-you’ll-have-to-watch-this-twenty-two-times-to-get-all-the-jokes. I don’t know where I’ll be when people stop laughing at this movie, but I won’t smell too good, that’s for sure.

38. The CandidateAn idealistic lawyer, and son of a former California governor, has a chat with a Democratic campaign manager who wants him to take on an ostensibly unbeatable senator. The campaign manager promises the lawyer that he can be his own man and say whatever he wants. The guarantee is written on the back of a matchbook: “You Lose”. The lawyer starts out doing just that, but soon, fearing general election humiliation after a disappointing primary victory, he starts trying to win. And that’s when he gradually loses himself. The Candidate is my favorite look inside a political campaign. (Yes, even The War Room comes second.) It’s smart. It’s funny, and it ends with the most important of all questions, one which campaign managers seldom answer.

39. Cabaret: My taste in musicals tends to run dark, and what could be darker than a musical set during the tumult of late Weimar Germany, as Hitler’s rise began. Liza Minnelli and Michael York star as a showgirl and a teacher of English as a Second Language, living in Berlin. At first, it seems like a haven for free spirited libertines, with the Nazi ugliness serving as discordant background noise. But over the course of the musical times change and shadows fall, impacting, in ways both subtle and terrible, the lives of this couple and their friends. I also admire Ebb and Fosse’s Chicago. But this one works on more levels.

40. Full Metal JacketI have a cousin who is said to have said that this was the movie that inspired him to join the Marines. Having seen this movie a dozen times, I can’t claim to understand that attraction, but I do love and admire the movie. The movie says to me that to survive war a soldier doesn’t just have to do terrible things, a soldier must become terrible. He must divest himself of all humane values if he’s to become what the Corps requires–an indestructible man, a man without fear. Kubrick doesn’t answer the question of what it means to live in a civilization whose survival depends on manufacturing men like this. Instead, he leaves it for us to ponder, which I’ve done even since I saw this picture.

41. Eyes Wide Shut: The critic for the Seattle PI, William Arnold, said of this movie that he didn’t really like it now, but he knew he would in 10 years. Such is often the way with Kubrick’s films. As Vincent Canby said of Kubrick’s work:

The best Kubrick films – “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Barry Lyndon” – are always somewhat off-putting when first seen. They’re never what one has expected.

Certainly Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t what audiences were expecting. Tabloid and the lazy entertainment writers who work for them, spread all manner of rumors about the project, starring Tom Cruise and then-wife Nicole Kidman. One that I remember was that the couple were supposed to play psychiatrists who sleep with their patients. Some of these scribblers did notice that the movie was based on an Arthur Schnitzler novella called Traumnovelle, (literally, Dream Novel, surprise), but nobody bothered to do what I did: bop on over to the University library to read it.

I liked Eyes Wide Shut when it came out. It wasn’t the erotic screwfest the tabloids wanted. It has an orgy scene, but it’s  alternately comic or disturbing instead of sexy. The love scene between Cruise and Kidman is brief and tasteful, and the fantasy scene between Kidman’s character and the naval officer functions as motivation to Cruise’s character during his strange two-day odyssey through New York City’s weirder after hours haunts. I liked the movie’s dream-like quality. I loved meeting the strange people he met.  It’s a movie that made me wonder, and has kept me wondering, ever since.

42. Wall-ETo get here without giving a shout-out to Pixar. I couldn’t do it. And Wall-E is my favorite Pixar picture. I love its depiction of the home Wall-E makes of a desolated Earth. I love his curiosity and affection for musical numbers. (I was in a production of Hello Dolly once.) I adore EVE. I love the starship stuff and the Captain who thinks you can plant pizza. In fact, I think I’ll go watch it again. Excuse me.

Anyway, that’s it. If you like, try this exercise yourself on your own blogs or on Facebook or wherever. Link to it in comments to let the reading several know where to find it.





A Little Tease For My Side Project

Casey Raiha and I of MMIP Riffs have been busy riffing Amityville 2 (because, honestly, what other use does that film have besides target practice for two jokesters.) I’ll be talking about it a bit more as it gets closer to release in August. Until then, this little taste:

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How Long Do You Want Me To Be Scared?

Accorting to SlateMichael Robbins’s Slate book review of Atheists: The Origin of the Species is one of Slate‘s more circulated articles, probably because few subjects (except porn) drive traffic as much as atheist trolling. (Maybe atheist trolling porn… Excuse me, I’ve got to open a new Bluehost account.)

I’ll leave it to others to produce more comprehensive critiques of Robbins’s screed. I’ll limit myself to one aspect, the one where Robbins insists that, as a serious atheist, I should feel awful about the nonexistence of gods:

“The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists,” Hart has written, “is rereading Nietzsche.”

This is wise counsel for believers and atheists alike. In Nietzsche we find the full power and terror that atheism is capable of, for Nietzsche scorned mere unbelievers, who, Hart writes,

do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

Well here’s the rub: I’ve never taken any gods–be they of the “man in the sky” or the Robbins’s “ground of all being” description–seriously. I’m well aware that other people can’t help doing so. My grandmother spent her final years dying of a disease we couldn’t diagnose because she was a Christian Scientist. And I endured six years of life in Utah, a place where every aspect of life revolves around people’s belief in a man who said he used a magic stone in his hat to read golden plates. I’ve spent a lot of time around people who take their religious passions seriously. I’ve just never shared them. For as long as I can remember pondering what the universe means, I’ve thought the only real meaning it has is whatever we’ve chosen to assign to it. I’ve accepted that life is contingent and absurd, that deserve has got little to do with anything, and that when life ends, it ends. But unlike Nietzsche, or the existentialists who followed him, I see nothing frightening in this.

Does this make me a shallower atheist than Nietzsche? Maybe. Or maybe it means that having lived in a country where it had been intellectually defensible to live without gods for over two hundred years, I see fear as an overheated response to the idea of divine nonexistence. The matter puts me in mind of an exchange from Get Shorty:

Karen Flores: Weren’t you scared back there?

Chili Palmer: You bet.

Karen Flores: You don’t act like it.

Chili Palmer: Well, I was scared then, but I’m not scared now. How long do you want me to be scared?

So I don’t feel bad about the nonexistence of gods, and I feel no impulse to prove my depth to Mr. Robbins and his ilk by pretending otherwise. If you’d like to know what does bother me, I’ll tell you. It bothers me that atheists in Indonesia can be tossed into prison for saying they’re atheists on Facebook. It bothers me that gays and lesbians in Uganda are threatened with long prison sentences for merely existing. It bothers me that poor people around the world, including the US, have almost no chance of escaping poverty. It bothers me that we haven’t done enough to reform the financial industry to make credit crises less likely. It bothers me that Europe can’t get its economic shit together. It bothers me that women have to deal with rape, and with men who don’t take rape seriously. It bothers me that the US congress is so shot through with global warming deniers that we remain paralyzed in the face of the problem.  It bothers me that innocent people are falsely convicted of crimes and are forced to waste their lives behind bars. It bothers me that people are so ignorant of history and of the sciences.

(And this doesn’t even get to all the personal shit that bothers me. Take me out to dinner and I’ll talk your ear off about that.)

All these things that bother me have one thing in common: they are real problems that can be solved through human action. They are many and varied, and the solutions will require millions of us to work hard and long, but this work must be done, because no god is going to swoop in to do it for us. Knowing all the energy, mental and physical, that solving these problems will demand, I think the shallow ones are those who burn even one calorie bemoaning the nonexistence of the nonexistent.

What Should Germany Do With Mein Kampf?

Yesterday, the U.S. Holocaust museum held a Twitter chat about the impending emergence of Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf from copyright and what the former owners, the city of Munich in particular and Germany in general, ought to do now that they can no longer easily inhibit its publication.

My answer: they should let it be published.

Mein Kampf is certainly a hateful book. I had to read it in translation when I was in college for a class on modern European history, and Hitler’s rants against Jews and other races are both frequent and long. Getting through it was hard enough for that, but there was something else that made Hitler’s magnum opus an even worse slog.

Adolf Hitler was a dull-as-shit writer.

My edition of Mein Kampf was a little over 800 pages long, and there was not a witty or charming sentence, much less a page, in the bunch. Now, maybe you’d like to blame that on the translation, but according to William Shirer, SS men–fanatical Nazis, mind you–found the book equally hard reading in its native German. In Mein Kampf Hitler rambles and digresses, sometimes for entire chapters. He promises to make points that he never gets around to making. And sometimes, after twenty pages of discourse he just throws up his hands and gives up on whatever argument he was trying to advance.

Much of this was a function of the way the book was written. Hitler didn’t write Mein Kampf; he dictated it, mostly to his flaky adjutant, Rudolf Hess. And though Hitler’s editors did their best, the text still feels like being trapped in a room with Hitler, a self-involved, unstable crank who’d been delivering these same dreary, hate-filled rants since 1910, when he was haranguing his roommates (and sometimes their empty chairs) in Vienna’s flophouses. From birth to the bunker, Hitler had always been tedious company, and his book is equally so.

So why the nervousness about it? I think what it comes down to is the success the Nazis had in other media in convincing both themselves and the wider world, that there was something magical about Hitler. Nazis held it as an article of faith that Hitler had preternatural powers of persuasion, and many outside Germany bought the myth as a way of explaining to themselves how the Nazis managed to achieve political success and drive a civilized nation into barbarism. Our own History Channel sometimes runs a documentary that speculates on Hitler’s occult powers and connections, and I suppose if you think that way, Hitler’s Mein Kampf becomes a kind of spell book that can infect any reader unlucky enough to gaze upon the symbols found within.

But we know a great deal about the real source of Hitler’s charisma. There’s no mystery. It came not from magical rune powers, Hitler’s internal stores of dark greatness, or from his skilled team of spin doctors, but rather from that 42% of German voters, agonized by political paralysis and economic collapse, whose yearning for simple solutions and autocratic saviors motivated them to reimagine a bizarre, raving Austrian corporal as a God. Few of these 1933 voters ever read Mein Kampf, which is probably a big reason why so many of them were comfortable seeing him as someone they could trust with their futures.

So I think Germans should read Mein Kampf when it comes outThey should wade through Hitler’s long, tangled sentences and reams of racist imbecilities, pausing to think “My great-grandparents thought this guy was Germany’s savior?!?” Maybe it’ll inspire them to ponder, as we all should, the value of our wish for saviors. It’s gotten our species into no end of trouble.