My Jehovah’s witnesses came around for the last time to my Copenhagen apartment today. They’ve been coming, as far as I can remember, more or less for the last two or two and a half years, about once a month or so. There’s one older woman who’s been coming the whole time, and then she brings along a different partner most times. Today it was a very stylish Danish guy with excellent glasses. Each time we have a little chat about the latest issue of The Watch Tower (today’s theme was miracles) and talk more generally about the weather, how life’s going for us both, and so on. The woman inquires after Rilla, and remembers that I’m moving countries and all those sorts of things. It’s presumably part of a good conversion strategy, but it’s also pretty cool that they do it. As always they were very polite, steadfast in their message that Jehovah is pretty great, and not at all exasperated by my continuing lack of finding of their faith. No, they’re pretty cool people. Today the stylish guy asked whether I agreed there was a lot we don’t understand about the world and I said I did agree. He pointed out that a lot of people like to embrace the idea of that there’s some order to it all, and I said I liked to embrace my ignorance. We all laughed. I’ll miss them.
While I was looking at something else (the awesome “The Hardest Game Boss Ever!” video), I randomly bumped into a video version of a riddle, called “World’s Hardest Riddle“. Watching, I immediately recognized the riddle and its answer from my childhood, when I guess I’d heard it a few times. Further, I remembered just how awesome I thought the riddle was. Really great.
So it was with some dismay that I realised watching it this time that it’s a deeply stupid riddle. Maybe all riddles are, I don’t know, but this one’s definitely a loser. Its basic flaw is a kind of ridiculous simplifying of the nature of life, a kind of fundamentalist view, say, aptly reflected in its leveraging of “god” and the “devil” in the riddle itself. A world of absolutes.
Alright, so the answer to the riddle is “nothing” right? Sorry if I wrecked your life, but there it is. After giving you the answer, the video smugly goes back through the hints showing you just how great it is. “NOTHING has seven letters” – well, that’s straightforwardly true.
“NOTHING preceded God” and “NOTHING is more evil than the devil”. Perhaps these are up for grabs for some of us. I remember finding it perfectly acceptable as a child, but now it irks me that there’s this particular rhetoric built in. But okay, we’ll give it to them, whatever.
Now we get weird. “All poor people have NOTHING” and “Wealthy people need NOTHING”. Wait, what? Some more intensely absolute ideology on the part of the riddle-maker. The religious stuff is kind of acceptable because, at least within the (Christian) theistic world view, those things are pretty much true. But under what view is it true that poor people have nothing and wealthy people need nothing? Crikey, we’re teaching our kids these riddles?
And “If you eat NOTHING you will die”. Fine. A more solid ending, relatively clever. Good, good. So, on the balance there are two relatively harmless components, two “depends on your theology” components, and two grotesquely objectionable, extremist capitalism components. Ultimately, to get through the riddle successfully you’d have to be some kind of raving theistic capitalist.
Like 80% of kindergarten children are, of course.
* * *
he made the stars.
* * *
along the ruler,
judging a good
length for your life,
makes a thumb-mark
on the rice paper.
* * *
A brief consideration this evening of people who believe in things. Well, who believe very strongly in things. Religions are the most obvious category of this kind of thing, but other beliefs, particularly concerning ethics, fit this too, like (ethical) vegetarianism or (ethical) environmentalism.
Something odd, perhaps, about those of our beliefs that we hold very strongly is that we often don’t act on them, or even act much like we really believe them. Take me being a vegetarian for example. If I believe that killing sentient animals for food is so very wrong, then why am I so willing to exist in a society where that’s the norm?
To me this is probably more of a problem for people of strong religious persuasions. The “problem” of hell is the best example, I guess. If I strongly believed (or “knew”) that my friend, who is not of the same religious persuasion, or even denomination, as me is going to hell (to burn eternally in a pit of fire etc.), how could I just let that happen? And what about everyone else in the world? Can I really think it’s okay to stand aside and let them suffer?
Some of this comes down to a kind of willful ignoring of the situation, of course (I’d put myself in that camp in terms of vegetarianism). Some of it might well come down to “well, they deserve to go to hell” kind of reasoning. But really, these don’t seem like particularly good reasons. Maybe “don’t rock the boat” is in there too, but does it outweigh eternal torment for others, or unethical killing of sentient beings? Surely not.
So really, although there’s coverage of the shocking beliefs and practices of fundamentalists of all kinds (from PETA to terrorists), it’s actually somewhat surprising to me that there are so few people acting on their deeply held beliefs.
In the last two evenings I’ve seen the movies Stalker (for the second time) and Knowing (for the first and last). I can’t imagine two more contrasting approaches to philosophies of life and cinema.
Stalker is a highly ambiguous movie, centered, I suppose, around an overwhelming awe of nature. The Zone, in the movie, seems to be the reversion of a small part of the world to a kind of magical natural state. The stalkers who go there, and take others, have immense respect for it. At the core of the movie is the notion that one’s wishes can be granted in a special room in the Zone, and the question of whether or not that’s a good thing, and whether the Zone itself is good or bad for people. It’s never resolved, but the exploration is painfully beautiful.
Then we have Knowing, a thinly veiled (is it even veiled?) retelling of bits and pieces of apocalyptic religion, and particularly Revelation from the Bible. Nicolas Cage finds out that a woman predicted major disasters by writing down their dates, locations, and number killed. Of course, the number killed isn’t the actual number killed but the media report of the number killed, so that Cage can verify the predictions on the internet. Never mind, there are plenty of insane bloopers like that to be had. What’s awful about the movie is just how literally deus ex machine it is. World’s ending, space aliens (dare I say it… angels?) come and save the pure of heart and give them pet rabbits (just children, and not bloody many judging by the number of spaceships), taking them to a nice new planet with a big tree (of life) on it. Happy times ensue for the kids while everyone else on earth burns to a crisp, though at least Cage’s family does it in a group hug.
These two distinct world views, ambiguity and nature versus certainty and religion/space aliens, make for radically different movies. Knowing is borderline fun if you don’t think too hard (and perhaps don’t watch the last half hour or so), but its rash certainty about the meaning of life is extraordinarily grating. Stalker‘s ambiguity and constant questioning is central to its beauty and I know which world I’d rather live in.
The one with the pet rabbits and eternal life dancing in fields of wheat around a glowing tree, obviously.