Putting the X back in Xmas

There has been considerable furore in local Christian circles about the intentional secularising of the public face of Christmas. When quizzed about the absence of nativity scenes or even the word ‘Christmas’, shopping centres admit to actively de-Christianising the ‘Holiday Season’, much to the chagrin of Christians. I, for one, fail to see what the fuss is about. Continue reading


Miscellaneous Musings

Fear and Islam

A friend of mine alerted me to the recent banning of another book because it is allegedly offensive to Islam. The book is called The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones. Even though it is a work of fiction praising one of Muhammad’s wives and is supposedly written with high regard for the Islamic faith, and despite taking submissions from Islamic scholars before publication, the book has been banned from various countries, including my own, South Africa. Islamic fear tactics regularly twist the arms of policy makers, but I think the world has handled Islam badly. I’m not in favour of causing offence for the sake of it, but the Islamic approach to offence seems similar to my three-year-old‘s approach to being denied her way. My daughter has recently attempted using the tactic:

a) give me what I want, or
b) I will do naughty thing x.

I explained to her that I cannot entertain that bargain, on the grounds that if I did, I would either be giving her what is bad or teaching her to be bad. I explained it in not much more simplified language than that, and she understood and accepted it.

Now it seems to me that whenever Islam says ‘dance to our tune, or we’ll blow little bits off of you’, we should gently tell them that that’s not going to happen. If they want to debate whether or not the ‘offending’ item is fit for human consumption, then, by all means, we can talk like grown-ups about it. But walking on eggs around international brattery is only encouraging it. My three-year-old can see the ethical problem in doing so, how about asking Islam to grow up a bit?

I’m also prompted to consider whether Christians do much better on this front. Do we picket and boycott the right things for the right reasons?

Excitement and abbreviated cricket games

20-20 cricket (a far shortened version of the already-shortened limited overs format) has injected some excitement into the public perception of cricket. Unfortunately, much like the American suggestion that soccer goals be enlarged and the field of play shrunk (in order to increase the number of goals scored), it fundamentally misunderstands what it is that generates excitement.

The thinking seems to be that the exciting things in cricket are sixes and fours (high scoring aggressive shots) and wickets (when the batsman gets dismissed). And the exciting periods in the game are usually the first 10 overs, when the ball is new, and the last 10, when the tension builds to its climax. So, surely a game is more exciting if you maximise the aggressive batting, and if you remove the middle overs in which all that banal stuff happens, jamming together the first 10 and the last 10 overs?

Unfortunately not. This pays attention to what the exciting events are, but not what makes them exciting. It ignores contrast, context and climax. A four or a six is exciting because it stands in contrast to the long, patient game of collecting single runs. If you set up a game in which fours and sixes are the norm, they cease to be exceptions, and therefore lose their power to genuinely excite. In fact, when the batsman doesn’t score, that is the more significant and ‘exciting’ event, albeit of a more frustrating variety. This is also the reason why netting a basketball is not exciting, even though the player has scored. It is expected that he should do so regularly.

Secondly, context is key in generating excitement. An aggressive stroke is exciting because of the degree of risk that it entails. In the context of a long game, that risk is pronounced, because if the batsman gets out, it puts more pressure on the less accomplished batsmen to follow, because they might be unable to survive the long time that remains in the innings. In a very short format, there is far less time to bat, and so far less risk to the team if a batsman plays too aggressively. So, again, his aggression is no longer exciting, it is necessary.

Finally, the climax of a long game is exciting because it combines the power of the first two elements. The end period of aggression stands in contrast to the early periods of patience and careful strategy. It is powerful and tense because it is the playing of a team’s final strategic cards, with everything at stake: one has to take risks commensurate with how well one did in the patient periods. And most importantly, with more time and greater gravitas, there is space made for excellence and heroism. Someone, through skill and determination, has to take the game by the proverbial scruff of the neck. If there’s room for greatness in a 20-over game, you’d need to pack it into about 5 minutes.

Terror and Tension at the Movies

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that horror movies are truly terrifying only in so far as they’re able to make us believe that the setting and characters are possible, or even normal. If we’re able to imagine ourselves inhabiting the movie world, then we’re able to feel the supernormal circumstances that much more deeply.

I happen to hate horror movies, and I’ve seen hardly any of them. However, the principle of believability is so important to all kinds of dramatic tension, and yet it is so often ignored by Hollywood. Stories almost always involve a character triumphing over the odds, and the bigger the obstacle, the more satisfying and uplifting is the victory. But how often the story falls apart when credulity is over-stretched.

Consider Schwarzenegger’s ‘Commando’. Admittedly, it is a doltish action movie, but in the climactic scene, Arnie besieges a heavily guarded fortress single-handedly. Now, this would be fine if the story had a remotely plausible way in which this was possible. But, no, Arnie runs for 100 metres across an open lawn while 50 mercenaries fire on him with automatic weapons. Every one of his haphazardly sprayed bullets seems to find its mark, and he is never hit. Writing in an unacknowledged miracle to save your character means no tension for the audience, only irritation. And the same applies to every hero who’s ever fallen three storeys and then caught a ledge with his fingertips; or any character who’s been miraculously thrown to safety by an explosion rather than being torn apart; or any movie in which Woody Allen gets the girl.