Reviews > Culture

Disposable realities

Culture | Pass the remote and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Justice to the Chief," Jan. 23, 1999

Wicked stepmother
Divorce, remarriage, and the resulting confused children are so commonplace these days that they have nearly become clichéd topics. Filmmaker Chris Columbus, the Home Alone guy, bobbles the subject in the winter-hit tearjerker Stepmom (Columbia Pictures; rated PG-13 for language). It starts with Julia Roberts as the live-in girlfriend of divorced Ed Harris (of recent Truman Show fame). She's fighting for his two kids' acceptance and tries to grab a share of attention from their real mother, Susan Sarandon. The kids don't like New Mom and still cling to Old Mom. So the Old and New engage in a war of wits, both trying to outschmooze the kids and outmanipulate each other into submission. Meanwhile, Dad just hangs over things, making a profound comment from time to time to set the mood. He seems a bit like a pagan patriarch from ancient times managing his rancorous wives. It's unintentionally profound: Whereas the ancients had polygamy, postmoderns have serial polygamy through remarriage. Oddly, Old Mom and New Mom don't seem to care much about their man; they want control of the kids. One tries to outfox the other until a you-saw-it-coming tragic plot twist forces a change. The trouble with Stepmom is that the initial conflict is perfectly reasonable. Any kids whose Dad traded in a woman who looks like Susan Sarandon for a younger, hipper model who looks like Julia Roberts have every right to be suspicious. Naturally, Stepmom must let everybody reconcile-and Chris Columbus takes a long, melodramatic path getting there. He wants the audience to sympathize with both Old Mom and New Mom, thus presenting an endless array of Big Moments that cancel out one another. Like the other big dramas this season, A Civil Action (see World, Jan. 16) and Patch Adams (see World, Jan. 9), this suffers from lazy filmmaking that eats a lot of screen time with wasted moments. Worst of all, this movie posits a worldview that parents are interchangeable and marriages ultimately disposable. Cyber-gnosticism Could you live your entire life from your armchair? You might not want to, but the technology keeps coming that can make it possible. Beyond the alternate universe of the Internet, everything from souped-up home theaters to digital televisions to voice-controlled environmental systems are taking suburbia to the cutting edge. And this convenience is getting cheaper and changing the way we live. Sony of America's CEO, Howard Stringer, bragged at this month's Consumer Electronics Show that all this innovation has "changed leisure habits irrevocably." Remember when just being able to change channels with a remote control was a big deal? Today's couch potato can bank, shop, flip the lights, and turn the heat up and down-all without getting up. Even the Postal Service is getting in the act, selling stamps online and saving people trips to the post office. And the remote controls are getting better: A new model displayed at CES can send signals through walls, floors, and ceilings. Last Christmas was the first time online shopping was a major part of the retail season. That's just the beginning. The coming conflagration of cable TV, the Internet, and the phone system will only multiply the services available. Whereas earlier generations wanted to get out and explore the world, today's techno-wizards want to bring the world inside the house. All this fervor isn't just about convenience-it's also about escape. As neighborhoods become more unfriendly-and crime spreads to the suburbs-people will turn to technology to provide their necessary links to reality. That's a perennial theme in cyberpunk science fiction, most notably Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Not everything in this revolution is succeeding (online grocery shopping is struggling to survive, for example), but billions are being spent on this, from Amazon.com to the AT&T/TCI merger. The goal: Shrink the world into the picture on a screen and a jack in the wall. With all that, one might wonder: Who needs the physical world? Problems with western civ
For centuries, Western culture has tended the seeds of its own destruction. Unless believers take up the call to a biblical worldview, the continuing crisis will only get worse. That's the case presented by Christian philosopher Michael W. Kelley in his book The Impulse of Power (Contra Mundum). He traces some of the West's major isms that did battle with the faith over the ages. From the pre-Socratics of Ancient Greece to the Romantics who rebelled against the Enlightenment, he describes a spirit of the age that endlessly mutates. Like secular author David Gress in From Plato to NATO (see World, Dec. 19, 1998), Mr. Kelley says that trying to convince people to bring back a golden age is not enough to solve the culture wars. This book is deliberately supercritical of its subjects. Mr. Kelley seems to pick figures about whom he can make pithy comments. For example, Augustine is the only "hero" in his story and the Reformation never appears. Still, the author's doggedness at raising tough questions about the past makes this an important read. After all, we should not accept every song in the medley of our Western heritage just because it is hated by the multiculturalists. Mr. Kelley's best remarks are about the misuse of science in the Enlightenment. Science needs Christianity to exist, since it sees the material world as a useful part of God's creation. But later thinkers tried to reduce all reality to what could be mathematically quantified. This produced the mystical reaction of the Romantics, who sought to restore emotion and spontaneity to the forefront. The two sides came together as a utopianism that built socialist programs to build a just society. Mr. Kelley puts everything anti-Christian under the generalization of "humanism," meaning that either people wish to build their societies without God or keep biblical truth in a box so it won't upset their plans. He says, "Western man is morally rudderless on a vast ocean" and the only way to fix the "leaky vessel" of our culture is to use biblical principles to rethink the problems that left the damage.

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