Posts by mrgibsonsstudy

I'm an Alabama boy who loves to read and write, and through both grow in my relationship to my King and my God, Jesus Christ. I believe in the three pillar virtues of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty and strive to live and promote all three. I'm a graduate of Reformation Bible College, and I've worked as a teacher and social media manager previously. Now I'm boldly going into the world of writing, which is where I've wanted to my whole life.

Friday Essay: Second Guessing Providence?

question

“What if?”

“What if” is the driving question of the Alternate history genre. It is a less well-known genre in the broader world of fantasy and speculation fiction but I think many people have often asked “what if” about the past, even if only their own past.  What if you had made a different choice, or a different opportunity had arisen? We tend to second-guess ourselves, so it’s no surprise we tend to second guess history.

As a dedicated fan of the alternate history genre, a question I’ve wrestled with is “Should a Christian engage in a genre seemingly based on second-guessing the ways of Providence?” If that was the extent of the genre’s intent, I would say a Christian should avoid it. After all, God’s ways are highest and his determination best. But Alternate History not inherently about second-guessing the course of history.

Alternate history is an exploration of cause and effects, how action A, which in reality led to outcome X, could have led to outcome Y if action A had a variation.  If the French had not aided the American colonists against England, how would history and our world today be impacted? What if Charles Martel had not withstood the Moors at the Battle of Tours? History is forged link by link by human decisions as governed by God’s will. In Alternate History, the idea is to show the fragility of outcomes and for the Christian, this should make us thankful for God’s providence in directing history.

This appears to make sense as long we explore undesired alternate outcomes. But about fantasies of a “better” timeline? Alternate history by showing seemingly “better” world reminds us of how fallen people mess up.  It’s a reminder of the corrupting power of sin and the ease with which we make mistakes.

For these two reasons, and the sheer fun of imagining answers to “what if”, I enjoy a good story of alternate history.  They remind to both be thankful for the sovereignty of God in history and aware of my sinfulness and the impact my choices make.

Friday Essay: The Manly Moonmen

There are spoilers in this essay for the 1950 Movie Destination Moon so if you care about spoilers for a seventy-year-old film, watch the movie first and then read the essay.

 

destination

Jim Barnes (top right), Gen. Thayer (top left), Joe Sweeny (bottom right) and Dr. Cosgraves (bottom left)

We live in an age where the majority of movies aggressively seek to suppress traditional notions of masculinity and male heroics. And no, male superheroes or male action heroes are not the sorts of masculine heroes of which I speak. Physical strength and combat skill are certainly historic traits associated with male heroes but these are not the sole qualities which make a male into a man. I was considering this question – where are the men in contemporary films? Not the “dudes” (I’m thinking of Starlord from Guardians of the Galaxy in particular and to some extent Poe Dameron from The Last Jedi), not the male characters, not the dead-beat father figures (Han Solo) – the men. Quite honestly, they are a rare find in movies today (the only real example I can think of from the last two decades is the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and in a society plagued by fatherlessness, men in our movies and stories are needed more than ever to provide so many boys with positive examples of how men should act. But I think it’s obvious with the current cultural climate in Hollywood and the film industry, we won’t be seeing such characters for a long time.

The best way forward then, is to take a look back. There are plenty of older movies with positive male heroes but when I asked myself “What is movie have I seen that has the manliest men you could imagine?” I surprised myself by answering “George Pal’s Destination Moon.” Destination Moon, released in 1950, was the science fiction drama that ushered in the 50’s science fiction craze at the cinema. The writer of this iconic film was the legendary Robert A. Heinlein who took inspiration on several plot points from his book Rocketship Galileo (which is incidentally one of my favorite works of science fiction even if it is on the juvenile side).  And yet despite the cheesy and cheap productions to follow in its popularity, Destination Moon was not cheesy and presented a dedication to realism that quite honestly makes the movie something of a bore on a sheer entertainment level.

The plot is literally, “American corporations come together to put a rocket on the moon and they do.” Now, there is conflict, both from a nameless but presumably Soviet-backed opposition and from technical dangers that complicate their return voyage. Personally, I wish Heinlein would have borrowed more from Rocketship Galileo for his central conflict – in Rocketship, they encounter a hidden Nazi base on the moon – simply adapting the Nazis to perhaps be the Soviet opposition that the movie heavily implies but does not deliver on.  And yet, Destination Moon is a visual treat with all the fixtures soon to be classic sci-fi movie tropes such as the bullet-shaped rocket, a dry and cracked lunar surface and accordion-jointed space-suits.  But more importantly, Destination Moon features first three and then four of the manliest men I’ve ever seen in a movie.

destination moon 3

General Thayer pitches his idea to Jim Barnes

Let’s start with the three. First, we have the manliest of the bunch – Jim Barnes (John Archer) an industrialist manufacturer of aircraft and engines. Next, we have Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson), an engineer extraordinaire. Last, we have General Thayer (Tom Powers), the former military man who’s dream starts the whole expedition. Each of these men displays great skill and intelligence in their fields, and enormous dedication to the vision once they commit. But their trust test of courage comes in two separate occasions.

The rocket is a privately funded project, with several companies coming together under Barnes’ leadership to make this expedition a reality. They are incentivized by the military potential of course, and also by a strong sense of patriotism (which goes back to the hints of Soviet opposition). However, when they request permission to test the atomic-energy engines on site (at White Sands, New Mexico) their request is denied unless they move testing to the South Pacific. Unwilling to spend more money they don’t really have, and also determined to push on with their mission, the three men make a bold decision to fly the rocket themselves rather than let the government (influenced by Soviet-manufactured public opinion against the testing) stop them. The decision is not reckless. They go in knowing full well the dangers of flying an untested ship, and ready to sacrifice their lives if need be. They have a courage not built on bravado or pride but on conviction.

The fourth man has an arc that takes him from boy to man. Enter Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson), radio and radar technician from Brooklyn who is interesting solely in “beer, babes, and baseball”. Sweeny enters the four-man crew with seventeen hours to go after the original fourth man (a character we meet once) is taken sick with appendicitis (hinted at by the movie earlier) and Joe Sweeny is the only one left who is trained to use the equipment. Barnes and Thayer convince him only once he is assured the rocket will not blow up (and, in his mind, not even budge). Sweeny handles the challenges of the voyage less than gracefully and on the Moon, he is interested in frolicking and not in serious exploration.

destination moon 2

Dr. Cosgraves (Blue) and  Jim Barnes (Orange) land on the Moon’s surface

The final test of their courage comes in the movie’s final conflict. The ship burned too much fuel in the landing attempt, and as a result, cannot pull free of the Moon without dropping a ton a weight, so the four astronauts strip the ship to the bare bones. Finally, they have only themselves, one space-suit (for entering the air-lock when airless) and their radio.  But they come up 110 pounds short. With no other recourse seemingly left to them, the three men debate over who will stay each making a case for why he should make the sacrifice. Finally, Sweeny, watching from the background and wearing the remaining space suit, suggests they match for the honor and as they are distracted he quietly leaves the ship, intending to make the sacrifice himself. He shrugs off his gesture with his usual slang and bravado – “Goodbye fellas! Remember to the gals- any gals” – but then Barnes realizes a way to lose the extra weight without one of the men sacrificing themselves. I’ll let you watch the movie to see how.

Sweeny grows from a dude to a man, becoming like these three men he looks up to. Sure, the movie itself has some yawning moments but these four men teach us some relevant lessons on manhood. They exhibit courage, conviction, and self-sacrifice but also wisdom, grit, ingenuity, and duty. Cargraves, the only married man among them, is devoted to his wife and two sons in what few glimpses we receive into his family life. And in the course of their journey, these four men become fast friends.

There are other movies out there with men of this caliber – I think again of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – but one can never have too many stories with admirable heroes so I wanted to dedicate some attention to Destination Moon and its portrayal of the manly Moonmen.

Thank you for reading this post! I welcome civil and thoughtful discussions, so please comment your thoughts below.  If you’d like to keep updated on blog posts, please subscribe and if you’d like to keep up to date of my book efforts, please follow me on Amazon. Thank you, and God bless!

 

Friday Essay: Viking Helmets Art of History

This past Tuesday being Leif Erikson Day, I was reminded of a movie I saw some years ago, a silent film called simply The Viking. Released in 1928,  The Viking is the first full-length Technicolor movie. This movie is mostly remembered for pioneering color-film technology, but in the process has received some good-natured ridicule for its portrayal of horn-helmed Vikings. Of course, this is a valid point – Vikings or Norsemen never wore such headgear – but I challenge whether it is a meaningful one.

Scene from "The Viking" (1928)

A scene from “The Viking” that displays the historically inaccurate horned-helmets.

Modern audiences seem extremely keen on having historically accurate movies and TV shows. It’s an admirable craving for authentic art and I personally love a good historical movie that seeks to be accurate. But I have two objections. First, it’s silly to believe movies today are somehow more historically accurate because they are darker and grittier. The History Channel’s Vikings may have more blood and gore and swearing than this old silent movie but it’s laughably inaccurate (especially in regards to the Christian Saxons). A dark color palette and a little dirt may give a movie an authentic feel but that is not the same as being historically accurate.

Second, not every film with a historical setting is striving for the same goal. The Viking is not an attempt at portraying historical events accurately or with authentic detail. It is fundamentally an opera and the opera in any genre has a different objective than what we typically consider historical fiction.  This is also seen in the difference between a Space Opera (Star Wars) and science fiction (The Martian). I would argue the Western genre died the day artists tried to blur the lines between “Horse Operas” and historical fiction in their grittier atmospheres.

Operas – Space, Horse or otherwise – are not gritty. They are highly stylized with tropes and high drama. Horned helmets like Stormtrooper armor exist not because they make sense but because quite frankly they provide a dramatic visual image and give an order to the elements in the production. You see a suit of white armor, you have a stormtrooper. You see a horned-helmet, you have a Viking. Besides being an easy visual reference, it employs the language of common perception. Yes, the horned helmets are inaccurate but guess what, the item is attached firmly to the Viking mythos since the 1800s.

Historical accuracy is a good thing, but let’s keep in mind that different genres have different purposes. And The Viking does not pretend to be historically accurate, it is a vivid adventure that just wants to have fun. I’m more disturbed by Vikings’ emasculation of Christian England and glorification of Viking barbarity than I am by The Viking‘s use of horned helmets because the former is made a channel literally called “The History Channel” and presents itself as an authentic depiction while the latter is simply an opera.

History and art have an important relationship, with art preserving much of history. But not all stories in a historic setting are intended as historical fiction, and in those cases, it’s best to let authenticity take a backseat to ones imagination.

Friday Essay: Things with Feelings

bilbo_cartoon_2

Bilbo Baggins is small, but he is more than a little human.

Growing up, I had a distinct preference in books and movies for human characters. I did enjoy stories about non-human characters. I loved the farmyard gang of the Freddy the Pig series, the classic Winnie the Pooh, the rascals of Uncle Remus and the relatable Garfield. You will notice a few commonalities – these are animals (or stuffed animals in the second instance)  and they exist in a world with humans.  But generally speaking, I prefer human characters. Especially in comparison to anthropomorphic inanimate objects.  I never knew why, but lately, I’ve been doing some thinking on the question – why do I prefer actual human characters over anthropomorphic ones? I believe my preference boils down to an understanding of what it means to be human.

It is generally understood that the most important aspect of a character in any story is their relatability. This does not require similar life circumstances, it merely requires the character to have motives, qualities, and struggles which the reader or the watcher can understand. I’ve never had to travel with a group of dwarves to their ancient mountain home to recover treasure and haggle with a dragon. But I understand Bilbo’s conflicted desires of adventure and home, the earning of respect and the development of confidence. Is this all there is to relatability, however? Is it simply a matter of relating to feelings? I recall reading an observation (in the form of a screen captured forum thread) to the effect that Pixar’s basic modus operandi is to create a story where something has feelings – toys, cars, bugs and of course even feelings themselves. I admire the creativity I suppose but I’m a little tired of humanity being boiled down to a matter of simple feelings.  I relate to Mr. Baggins on another level, a level I do not relate to with Lightning McQueen or Woody or even, honestly, Winnie the Pooh. Bilbo might be a “Hobbit” but biologically he is a human, just a little smaller than normal.

To be human is about more than feelings. My human existence involves a very physical dimension. I have two hands, ten fingers, two opposable thumbs, two feet, I walk on two legs in an upright position, I eat food that digests in my system and comes out again; I breathe, I have lungs and a complex arrangement of internal organs that protest if I injure them or eat the wrong food, I have blood flowing through my veins and a heart that quickens its pace when I run or get excited;  I can ache but also enjoy delights of a chilly breeze on a fall morning or the smell of sawdust. I can relate to actual human characters on a very fundamental level because I can imagine myself walking in Bilbo’s non-existent shoes and feel as he felt. If Tolkien’s Hobbit were an oak leaf or a potato, I would lose that level of connectedness.

Are these all exclusive to humans? Some are, some are shared with animals. But therein lies the fundamental flaw of anthropomorphic characters for me – they cannot be fully human. Animals come closer to emulating humanness than inanimate objects but only because they have the advantage of sharing basic physical experiences such as touch and smell. And yet, even with animals, the further a character is from the mammalian species, you lose more and more physical commonality. As a side note, I realize not all people share in some of the experiences I just listed. There are those unable to see, walk, talk, hear or those without limbs. But that does not negate the fundamental humanness of these abilities and experiences. After all, not all humans have the emotional capabilities either. But even those humans with “disabilities” share in the physicality of humanity. The issue is not about what do all humans do but about those experiences generally related to being human.

Am I saying that anthropomorphic characters are bad? No, they have their place. But I am leery of how heavily populated children’s media is with these wannabe humans. I am worried because of the message entire generations have internalized about what it means to human, a diluted half-truth that takes from them the full drama of humanness in all its ugliness and beauty. As a Christian, I believe that man is made in the image of God. I also believe that God the Son became perfect man, and lived a human life. Jesus experienced human life in its full physical and emotional state – he was truly man as the old creeds say. If humanity is something God himself made and did not disdain to share in, I think we should take care to preserve a full understanding of our humanity. Especially in the arts.

Friday Essay: Generational Community

2017-04-13_1619_001

Robinson Crusoe is one of my favorite literary works of all time, both narratively and thematically. Defoe’s classic is packed with insights into the nature of man and especially man as an individual and in relation to society, or in this case the absence of society. In February of 2017, I wrote an article for Reformation Bible College on the subject of society in Robinson Crusoe and how the absence of community is Defoe’s commentary on the need for companionship. In that article, I wrote:

However, it is the sheer absence of any society that proves to be the greatest nemesis to our hero. He successfully meets and overcomes the challenge of food, housing, and clothing; he even finds methods of making pottery, a luxury to a man in Crusoe’s dire situation. He establishes three houses and keeps a cave as an emergency storage unit. He grows wheat and makes bread. He also tries to brew beer, though he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. But despite his abilities in these areas, he cannot overcome his loneliness […] For Crusoe, all of his work is pointless if he has no one to share it with. He might as well be dead. 

Defoe is showing us what God said in the Garden, that man needs companionship.  But instead of Robinson Crusoe, I want to talk about another staple of castaway stories, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island and where the message in this novel both compliments and yet departs from Defoe. Unlike CrusoeIsland is not about isolation from one’s fellow man. We have a group of four men at the beginning, with some additions later on (or rather we have three men and a boy, but let’s not play at irrelevant semantics). But aside from surface differences, the books have deeper conflicts and thematic contrasts. Two major themes will be the focus here. First: Redemption of a single man versus Opportunity for mankind. In this theme, the novels differ. This will lead to the second topic: Incomplete Society, a theme where the stories share a common element but the authors approach the subject differently.  On a source note, while I prefer the recent translation of Island over the original (better rendering of dialogue and of course a correction of the  infamous alteration of Nemo’s last words from the more appropriate “Independence” to the cliched “God and Country”), I’m sticking to the original translation for this discussion because I have a hardcopy readily available and the differences are, aside from Nemo’s final words, not significant enough for me to warrant tracking down the recent translation.

As I said, in Island, the heroes’ see their circumstance as an opportunity, while in Crusoe, the hero’s dire situation serves as a means of personal redemption. Shortly after confirming their location is an island, the following manifesto is said by the sailor, Pencroft:

“If you like Captain, we will make a little America of this island! We will build towns, we will establish railways, start telegraphs, and one fine day, when it is quite changed, quite put in order and quite civilized, we will go and offer it to the government of the Union. Only, I ask one thing…It is, that we do not consider ourselves castaways, but colonists, who have come here to settle.” (78)

Pencfort’s declaration is crucial to establishing the tone of Island. Compare this to Crusoe’s “State of affairs” list, where considers the evil and the good of his situation. The “evil” is related to his loneliness –  “I am divided from mankind, a solitaire, one banished from human society (72)” – while the “good” consists in God’s providence and his deliverance from death – “But I am alive, and not drowned as all my ship’s company was (72)”.  Crusoe does eventually see himself as master of the island, but his understanding of his situation remains functionally the same. His efforts are toward colonization but survival and escape. The fundamental factor at play in their differing views, it seems, is society. For Crusoe, there is no society, which means his only purpose is to live with the hope of rescue and in the meantime improve himself. For Verne’s heroes – the colonists-  the situation is different, with a group of men stranded together. Naturally, their thoughts turn towards taking dominion of the island, transforming their new home into something like the world they once knew.  But what about Friday? When Crusoe eventually finds the native and is no longer a solitary man, his goal does not change. Is this merely a cultural or period distinction then? Can we reduce the issue to a matter of Crusoe not being a “Yankee”?

Culture and period certainly play a factor here, but in their differing circumstances and background, one similarity remains- neither Crusoe nor the Colonists have a true society. Crusoe recognizes this incompleteness – his first action upon finding and teaching Friday is to reconsider his ideas for escaping the prison of his island.  But what is this blind spot that the Colonists of Verne’s story ignore? The inability to guarantee the second generation. Crusoe sees the ultimate pointlessness of his work without others to share with or pass it down to. The Colonists see themselves as beginning a new American state,  but so long as only these three men and a boy are the sole inhabitants of the colony, the efforts have just as little meaning as solitary Crusoe’s.  Neither book mentions this idea, but it is a question and a conclusion the reader cannot escape: True society consists of both the current and future community.

Consider the first words God spoke to a human being:

And God blessed them, and God said to them, Bring forth fruit, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heaven, and over every beast that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28, Geneva)

To fully subdue the earth, there must be the continuation of life, new generations – simply put there must be families and there must be children. All of these words are hated by the progressive elements of our society. The simple reason for why Verne, himself a devout Catholic and no stranger to these truths, ignores – or allows his characters to ignore – this element in their task of dominion lies in his target demographic (boys), and his focus on adventure and general avoidance of romantic storylines. But Verne’s personal views and literary intentions aside, I think the hubris of the Vernian Colonists in imagining themselves the conquerors of their island when they had no heirs to inherit their hard-won kingdom, reflects the hubris of our day in believing ourselves advanced and progressive while downplaying the importance of organic families, children, and generational heritage.

CC_No_34_Mysterious_Island

In Robinson Crusoe, the lack of current society is an evident and explicit evil. In The Mysterious Island, the lack of a future society is a subtle but implicit evil that, thanks to their eventual salvation, is avoided.  The most meaningful and lasting legacy a man and woman leave are their children – not their work, not their achievements. These are good things but without future generations to enjoy them – they lose value. A great book is meaningless if there is no one to read it, a scientific progression pointless if no one will pick up the baton, a house dead if there is no one to live in it a hundred years hence.  Without future generations, there is no legacy, no important achievements. For a community to be true, good and beautiful, it must be generational.

Editions: 

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe, Tom Doherty Assc: 1988

Verne, Jules. The Mysterious Island, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1946.