Archive | May 2014

Is Being Gay Bigger than Jesus?

nfldraft-1

Okay, so are we bored talking about Michael Sam yet? Good!

I glossed over this in my last post, but I just love hearing myself talk (and also wanted to explain my opinion in more detail to some people who I’ve talked to recently). In the week since the draft, quite a few articles have been written comparing Michael Sam and Tim Tebow, which isn’t too surprising on its own. What’s surprising to me is how most of them have managed to completely miss the point. Because the two players aren’t worth comparing because they’re so opposite.

They’re worth comparing because they’re so similar.

Each of the articles linked above talks about how all Sam’s done is be openly gay and people love him for it, and all Tebow did was be openly Christian and people hated him for it. Sam’s detractors have been fined and punished, Tebow’s detractors were given promotions or something. But let’s roll back the clock and really look at how accurate that claim is.

Coming out of college in 2010, Tebow was considered a long-term project with a high bust potential at best, and a complete waste of time with a high bust potential at worst. Despite this, the Broncos gave up three of their draft picks to get back into the first round and take him 25th overall. Fans nationwide were so excited at this choice that they immediately purchased so many Tebow jerseys it shattered a sales record. In fact, for that entire first season, Tebow sold more jerseys than any other player. This for a quarterback who didn’t start until the last three games of the season, after his team was eliminated from the playoff chase, the coach who drafted him had been fired, and the starting QB had bruised his ribs.

To put that in even more perspective, Ndamukong Suh was also a rookie that year, on his way to a 10-sack season, an All-Pro selection, a Pro Bowl nomination (which he passed up to have surgery), and defensive rookie of the year honors. Suh was a “distant second” among rookies in jersey sales. Sam Bradford, who played the same position as Tebow, started every game for his team, nearly went to the playoffs (on a team that was 1-15 a year before), and earned offensive rookie of the year honors came in third.

How could you not cheer for a man that thinks this is a pass?

How could you not cheer for a man that thinks this is a pass?

It hardly stopped there. Despite Tebow going 1-2 as a starter that year, he was still the most popular man in Denver, and the fans showed it. The next year he was again a backup, and they chanted his name on Monday Night Football and put up billboards calling for him to start. Once he started, he became one of the most talked about athletes in the world and everyone started “Tebowing.” Even in 2012, the middle of his completely forgettable season on the Jets, SportsCenter threw him a birthday party.

There was hatred for Tebow, but when he was in the league it was the minority. The majority of people loved Tebow and he inspired much more blind loyalty than blind hatred.

But that’s the thing: the blind loyalty and media love had just as negative an impact on his career as blind hatred would have. The attention and praise he received, despite delivering mostly average to awful performances, drew the ire of players and fans who didn’t love him, though (at the time) they were still the minority. The blind devotion is the single biggest reason he can’t even get a backup job in the NFL. The attention he draws isn’t worth it.

Most of the hatred for Tebow has come within the past two years, when he was either struggling on the Jets or not on an NFL squad. During this time, his haters have had all the talking points on their side. And that, along with some recent nasty rumors, has a tendency to alter our impressions of what actually happened.

Additionally, the claim that Tebow was hated for his beliefs raises a very important question–Why do none of the other Christians in the NFL have that problem?

Take, for example, this interview with then-Texas QB Colt McCoy, one of my favorite sound bites of all time. When asked what it was like to take his team to the national championship, only to be forced out of the game with a shoulder injury, he responded “I always give God the glory. I never question why things happen the way they do. God is in control of my life, and I know if nothing else I’m standing on the Rock.”

That’s one of the most inspiring, I daresay profound statements of faith I’ve heard from an athlete (compared with Tebow’s simple “God bless” at the end of interviews). And yet, no one’s ever said the NFL hates McCoy because he’s a Christian.

It’s also seems somewhat problematic that for all of the Tebow hate these articles claim existed, the closest any of them can come to proving it is referencing interviews where other players said they thought he should tone down his religious talk, or that fans said mean things about him on an internet comments section.

Wow. People being jerks on the internet. Surely Tebow’s the only one to have to face such abuse.

Yet they act as if that is a serious comparison to Miami Dolphins player Don Jones tweeting “OMG” and “Horrible” at Sam. These authors act outraged that the NFL punished Jones, one of their employees, and didn’t… punish the private citizens that were mean to Tebow? Force a team to sign him? I’m afraid I’m missing their point.

Pictured: The type of person who only attacks Tim Tebow according to Cal Thomas.

Pictured: The type of person who only attacks Tim Tebow according to Cal Thomas.

Just as they seem to be missing that point Jones did deserve to be punished. This is a professional talking about a major event in his field. In what world is a tweet like that acceptable? As a teacher, if my response to a new policy from my employer, or new education laws, was to tweet “OMG” and “Horrible,” I would be lucky to keep my job and would certainly be disciplined. And rightfully so. An argument that the NFL overreacted with Jones might have some traction, but don’t even try claiming that he shouldn’t have been punished.

Which finally brings me back to Michael Sam. Because his similarities to Tebow (blind loyalty from a subculture, media love and adoration in disproportion to his accomplishments) are bad news, for everyone. For fans and (I have to assume) even non-fans of football, Tebow’s years in the league were some of the most frustrating. No one would talk about anything else, no one would look at his performances objectively. If you said a good thing about him, you were a bandwagon fan. Say a negative thing and you must hate Christians. Does anyone want to relive that? I certainly hope not.

For Sam himself, he could easily face the same fate as Tebow; being driven from the league by an overly-rabid fan base. The NFL uses up and tosses out so many undeveloped players each year, we certainly don’t need to add another one to the pile. Not for this reason, at least. Maybe the fact that his documentary has been postponed means someone realizes this much attention before he’s even made his team is a bad idea. I certainly hope so.

To this point in their careers, the NFL reaction to Michael Sam has been much more similar to its reaction to Tim Tebow than dissimilar.

And that’s unsettling.

Michael Sam

So in 2014, the first openly gay football player was drafted by the Rams. Immediately the rest of the football world went about proving that “you should be judged by what you do and not who you are” by comparing him to Jackie Robinson, showering him with media attention, releasing a statement from the White House (see the quote above), and offering him dozens of endorsement deals.

For a seventh-round pick who, according to his coach, may not even make his team.

I don’t get it.

Without even trying to approach the debate of this draft choice being a “good” thing or a “bad” thing, I think I can say with confidence that making a big deal about it is, objectively, bad. If the goal here really is to prove that we should judge people based on “what [they] do,” shouldn’t we wait to see the impact Sam has before making a big deal about him? If we don’t want to judge football players based on “who [they] are,” why treat Sam any differently than any other player drafted in the seventh (and final) round who may not make his team?

Morgan Freeman once famously said that the best way to end racism was to “stop talking about it.” The same principle applies here. Want to be sure there’s no stigma against gay football players? Great. Stop talking about it. Wait to see if his performance on the field warrants this excitement.

It was, after all, it was the unearned media attention and blind love from a few that led to Tim Tebow’s being so viscerally hated by everyone else. Not to mention his unceremonious exit from the league after just a few seasons. Inviting in the distraction of having a media darling just wasn’t worth it to any GMs who might have been interested in acquiring a mediocre player.

And Tebow was a first-round pick. A foolish first-round pick, granted, but he at least was drafted by a coach who saw Tebow as his team’s future.

That seems so long ago now. Tebow’s career was short, but what it lacked in length it more than made up for in dumb rants and stupid arguments. And no one should want to experience that again. Because every player, gay or straight, assertively Christian, passively Satanist, or confusingly Scientologist deserves to succeed, fail, or coast along on his own merits.

Michael Sam is the first openly gay football player to be drafted. He’s also a seventh round pick just hoping to make his team and get some playing time.

And it’s in everyone’s best interest to focus on the second of those two statements, rather than the first.

T&A (Titles and Answers)

Here at the Total Depravity of Mannings, I am all about being a month behind the internet. So, in case you missed it, on April 1, NPR pulled a nifty little prank on the internet. Absolutely no one was surprised at the result because… well, that’s just what people do on the internet. No one has time for silly things like reading any more, we form opinions and go.

Right?

The thing is, as much as we might criticize and complain about this trend, for the most part everything we do online encourages it. News stories, blogs, and other works of writing are specifically titled to give you an idea of the main point without reading them. I realize the goal is to incite a reaction, thereby inflating their traffic, but that doesn’t change the fact that encouraging people to react and then read is counter-productive if you want to help them be informed, which is, in theory, the goal of these sites.

Fortunately I don’t need to worry about people reading my stuff. It’s obviously my goal, but not something my career depends on (or would even necessarily benefit from). So suffice it to say, when I come up with titles for my posts, my aim will be to give away as little as possible. You might need to do some reading to learn my whiny opinions and political biases. And I’ll probably lose some traffic.

Darn.

GND

And speaking of being a month behind the internet (and the importance of titles) I finally saw God’s Not Dead this week. I know the internet has already ripped itself to shreds over this, multiple times, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the parts of the film I normally would. Besides, you know all of that stuff already (the dialogue is on par with a high school freshman’s fan fic of the Bible, only one actor [Sorbo] makes it through with any sense of dignity intact, the prof is closer to a professional wrestling heel than a character, and so forth). If my comments on these aspects ever mattered, I missed that window by a few weeks.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I hadn’t seen the film a few weeks ago, but the reason I stayed away is, I feel, still worth discussing. So gather ’round, y’all, it’s time to whine about: how darn trivial American Evangelicalism’s become.

It wasn’t always this way, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. When the movement started, it had a clear purpose, or at least that’s what I’d like to believe. I’m certainly far from the first disillusioned 20-something to critique the Evangelical movement, but for my money you’d be hard-pressed to find a

Like all good heels, he blindsides our hero in his moment of triumph.

Like all good heels, he blindsides our hero in his moment of triumph.

better representation of how wrong this movement can go than GND. And it’s not even that I disliked the film. It’s that the whole thing was just so trite, starting with that title.

The phrase “God’s not dead” is obviously meant to invoke two things. More directly, the Newsboys song of the same name, which makes an appearance in the film and pervaded the advertising. More significantly, both are derived from Nietzsche’s quote “God is dead,” and right away that’s where the trouble starts.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Nietzsche, having read regrettably little philosophy in my life, and almost none of his. I do, however, claim to have had a professor who was an expert on philosophy. As he explained it, Nietzsche’s quote wasn’t primarily a statement on religion as it was a statement on knowledge. The idea of God as the foundation of knowledge, as the shared root of all that we know to be true, is what he was saying was dead. And, for what it’s worth, Nietzsche was right. Religion and dogma are no longer the starting points of knowledge. What our culture holds to be true does not end with the church. For better or for worse, the “core” of our knowledge has shifted.

As an atheist, Nietzsche would obviously say that God didn’t exist, but that was not the focus of this particular assertion. For the film (and the song) to invoke that quote while merely asserting a belief in the existence of God indicates how little the film’s creators seem to have engaged their sources. Which raises a few questions on how well they researched the debate their film attempts to portray.

More importantly, though, is the fact that “God is dead” is a profound quote. Like it or hate it, agree or disagree, it’s a bold statement on knowledge and society. There’s a context to it. It’s connected to an argument that is both well-reasoned and invites discussion. And I don’t see how any of that can be said of “God’s Not Dead.” That’s not an argument, it’s a text message, a Facebook status, at best. It’s just disconcerting to think that, 130 years after Nietzsche’s statement, the most well-known response from the church amounts to little more than “Nuh-uh!”

Taking a deeper look at the film, though, there is one significant scene that demonstrates with troublesome accuracy how trite we Christians tend to be. Just after the second of their three debates, the evil, smirking Professor Radisson blows our hero Josh’s mind by revealing that, despite his atheism, he has, in fact, cracked open a Bible (side note: Shane Harper’s face when he hears this news is by far the worst and most amazing part of the film). At this point, we learn that Radisson only became a sad, evil atheist after he prayed his mother would be healed of her cancer, only to have her die anyway (truly a troubling backstory worthy of Heinz Doofenshmirtz, himself). I don’t mean to make light of cancer, or the difficulty of losing a family member to it, but the whole plot is so contrived.

Doofenshmirtz

He might have been better off had his mother died of cancer

But not nearly as contrived as Josh’s response. Because you already know Josh’s response. Because it’s the response we all go to, by default, when confronted with this situation.

“Sometimes the answer’s ‘no.'”

And that response sucks. I know it’s true. I know most any Christian has experienced it at some point. It still sucks, and it’s a response that we need to stop leaning on.

It’s a terrible response because it’s canned. It works for every situation, and every individual person. Consequently…

It’s a terrible response because it makes it so very easy for us to free ourselves from the burden of listening to or empathizing with the other person. What? You’re hurting? Well, y’know, sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is “no.” Now excuse me, I’m on to the next person’s problems. But most importantly…

It’s a terrible response because it’s an easy answer for a situation that has no use for such things. Death is a hard and complicated subject to deal with. Unanswered prayer is, too. Providing an “easy,” pat answer is not helpful.

It’s just trite. Especially when you compare it with a more genuine response.

In my first year teaching at my current school, we attended, as we do every year, a local convention for Christian schools. That first year, the keynote speaker was Dr. Joe Martin, a very passionate Christian who came out of a terrible childhood in the Florida Projects.

Joe was once asked by a young girl why God wouldn’t answer her prayers. Because every night she prayed that her parents would stop beating her.

He told her, “I don’t know. I don’t know, but I’ll tell you, when I was your age, I used to pray to God every night that He would get me out of the Projects. And for years, my prayer went unanswered. And I would get angry, and I didn’t understand why God wouldn’t answer my prayer, but I think I do now.

“If God had answered my prayer when I wanted, I wouldn’t be able to relate to you the way I can now.”

You may notice some subtle differences between what Josh said and what Joe said. A sense of empathy, of support, even of solidarity. Everything a response like “Sometimes the answer’s ‘no’” needs to have and utterly lacks. I don’t want to deify Joe, or his response, but it’s a notable improvement.

In the final scheme of things, God’s Not Dead is not an awful film; I can’t even really call it a bad film. It’s entertaining and it delivers what it promises. It’s a well-structured approach to postmodern film making. But it is a film that is uncomfortably too comfortable with the simple; simple ideas and simple messages.

It’s the type of film that we need to expect more of. Delivering on the promises it’s made isn’t enough. We need to demand that films like this make better promises, aim for higher goals, that they don’t settle for the low-hanging fruit. And then we need to demand that they deliver on those goals.

We can’t keep accepting the trite.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Mild spoilers follow, but nothing too shocking if you’ve seen the trailer.

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So I caught the second installment in the Garfield-Webb Spider-Man film series last night, and after viewing it, I can confidently say, without any sort of hyperbole, that it is the fourth-best Spider-Man film of all time.

I know, right? I’m sure Marc Webb feels immensely honored, even though he couldn’t be reached for comment.

Just to be clear, when I say fourth-best, I’m ranking the films in this order:

Spider-Man 2
Spider-Man
Spider-Man 3

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Amazing Spider-Man

Yes, I would rank all three Maguire-Raimi films ahead of either of the Garfield-Webb films, even the deeply flawed (though unfairly maligned) third film, for one simple, yet fundamental reason. It’s something that bothered me, even though I couldn’t really explain until other people pointed it out. But now that they have, I have a hard time seeing past it.

Garfield’s Peter Parker is a dick.

There are other reasons I prefer the Maguire-Raimi trilogy, of course (and Bruce Campbell makes up most of them), but ultimately I think that’s the main weakness. The appeal of Spider-Man has always been that its protagonist is a normal, likable guy, forced into situations beyond his control. And while the Garfield-Webb films have done well enough with the second half of that sentence, in my opinion they’ve messed up both the “normal” and “likable” parts.

Conversely, this was where the Maguire-Raimi trilogy shined. Through the first two films, Maguire is wonderful as the big, lovable dork. It’s probably not a perfect comparison, but to me he seems like the science geek version of Tony Horton (the P90X guy, for the uninitiated) in that he’s prone to doing and saying dumb things. Things that are so dumb, the only reasonable response is an embarrassed laugh. Laughing at him, sure, but mostly laughing with him. In short, he’s endearing, despite being kind of dumb and annoying (for some crazy reason I find that type of character relatable). Maguire is decidedly less likable in the third film, which is a large part of what makes the film so much less likable. Even before the symbiote begins influencing him, he’s kind of an ass. But at the same time, that film takes place after Peter’s been Spidey for a few years and has reason to feel he’s figured his life out. It seems natural he would have acquired some arrogance as a result.

On the other hand, Garfield’s Peter Parker is just so… cool. And not in a good way. He seems more inclined to bring his acoustic guitar to parties hoping to impress chicks than to stay up all night because he got caught up on a science project.  He has his likable moments and his vulnerable moments, sure. But they’re outshined by his way too “cool” moments. The skateboarding scene springs to mind. Denting the goalpost with a football. Heck, 10 minutes into Amazing 2, he rushes in late to his graduation ceremony, makes out with his girlfriend on stage, and hi-fives the dean on his way offstage rather than stopping to shake his hand.

…Does that sound like something Peter Parker would do? And I don’t want to sound like I hate the film or the actor, or that I’m in love with Maguire’s performance. They both have their strengths and their weaknesses (and both pale in comparison to Josh Keaton in the unjustly brief TV series The Spectacular Spider-Man. Seriously, check it out). But in terms of personifying the fundamental character traits of Peter Parker, Maguire got so many things right that Garfield totally eschews.

Well, what about Spidey being a normal guy, then? In other adaptations, this is what most distinguishes Spider-Man from other heroes. Unlike certain other characters, Peter lives in a dumpy little apartment, he can never quite come up with monthly rent, and he struggles to even pass his classes despite his immense intelligence. These are all plot threads that the original trilogy incorporated naturally and often humorously (and that Spectacular Spider-Man did a fantastic job with. Seriously, it just came out on Blu-Ray. At $30 it’s a steal). Between the two newer films combined, they’ve so far appeared twice. Both times it was Aunt May, not Peter, struggling to make rent, and neither film was impacted at all by this. The only effect is that we see Aunt May working as a nurse at the end of 2… I guess because nursing school is cheap? Or only takes a few days to complete?

Then there’s the love interests. Maguire’s Peter took two full films before he could finally get together with Mary Jane, enduring multiple humiliations along the way. Garfield’s Peter, by comparison, was barely through the first half of his first film when he first kissed his dream girl. I won’t spend too much time on this. In the end, we knew Peter and Gwen were going to get together, maybe it’s better not to drag it out. But it all just seemed so easy. That’s not how Peter’s life is supposed to work, nor is it typically considered good story-telling.

But far more significant, to me, is the story arc involving the Parker parents. The story told in the original trilogy was… Well, there was no storyline. Peter’s parents just weren’t there. I’m not even sure they mention them in any of the three films, or if we’re ever told if they died or just skipped town. Peter’s just another kid being raised by someone other than his birth parents. But take this new series, and right off the bat we get some pretty blatant hints that his parents were involved in secret, probably illegal, research on spiders. By the end of the second film, we’ve learned that because of this research, only Peter could ever have become Spider-Man.

Maybe I’m crazy, but to me the former makes for a much more compelling tale than the latter. In the former, Peter isn’t “meant for greater things,” it’s not destiny, he isn’t the chosen one. He’s just a guy, no different from you or me, who through, as Spidey so spectacularly puts it in Spectacular Spider-Man, “a twist of fate, bad luck, a random bug bite” is given the opportunity to change the world. And we get to see his growth and struggle as he comes to understand what this means. That’s a much more interesting story than Peter being fated to become our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, or at least being the only one who could have.

It’s entirely probable that the story told in these new films is closer to the comics. Despite spending the majority of my life obsessed with the webhead (21 years… and counting), I’m actually not familiar with his comics. But even if that is the case, I refuse to see that as a justification. If your source material tells an uninteresting story, tell a different one. What’s the point of even making a film if you’re going to stick rigidly to the story of the comics? We already have that story, we don’t need someone to tell it again.

All of that aside, and despite everything negative I’ve said about the film, I did still enjoy it a lot. While I have problems with Garfield’s Peter, he is a very good actor. From a pure acting standpoint he may be better than Maguire. Emma Stone gives a typically superb performance (as a love interest she’s superior in every way to Dunst’s Mary Jane). Jamie Foxx, despite being horribly miscast as Max Dillon (Topher Grace as Venom was honestly a better casting choice) holds his own, and is even great at times, once he becomes Electro. The action scenes are great, probably the best to appear in a Spider-Man film even though they rely too much on CGI at times. It’s worth noting that, much like the first film, none of the villains here have a fleshed-out or believable arc, but there has been improvement this time around.

Thinking back on this film, I feel mildly conflicted. Part of me still loves the idea of seeing my favorite super hero in movies ad nauseam, but it’s locked in combat with the part that can’t help but feel others could (and have) told this story better. I hate to be that guy in the theater going “Seen it!” but, well… I have seen it before. We all have.

At the same time, if the second effort from the Garfield-Webb team is an improvement over the first, can it really be considered a negative? I guess not. I’m mildly skeptical about the future of this franchise, but for now call me a fan.

The latest Spider-Man film doesn’t quite make it to “amazing,” but it’s worth a watch.