Friday, December 30, 2011

A Tale Of Two Nativities

We all know the Nativity Story.

The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary. Mary conceives as a virgin. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for a census. The inn is full, so they stay in a barn. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Angels appear to shepherds who then worship baby Jesus. Magi from the East see the star over Bethlehem and attend Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod. Finally, they travel to Nazareth in Galilee.

Nice story, but can you tell me where this complete tale can be found in the Bible? This is a trick question, of course. This whole story does not exist in one place in the Bible. It is, rather, a harmonization of the only two accounts of Jesus' birth, given in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2. You probably knew this. But what you might not realize is how little the two accounts have in common. Let me illustrate. Here is the same passage, but now I've highlighted the text to indicate its source. Passages from Matthew are red, passages from Luke are blue, and overlapping story elements are purple and bolded.

The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary. Mary conceives as a virgin. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for a census. The inn is full, so they stay in a barn. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Angels appear to shepherds who then worship baby Jesus. Magi from the East see the star over Bethlehem and attend Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod. Finally, they travel to Nazareth in Galilee.

Not very much in common at all. Why the difference? Well, the biggest reason is that Matthew and Luke were written for two different audiences. Luke tends to emphasize Jesus' holiness and his role as a servant. It is fitting, then, that Luke's Jesus would have a humble beginning: born in a barn and worshipped by shepherds. Luke traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to Adam, and has him descended of David through his son Nathan. Matthew, on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecy. Jesus is attended by Kings. His persecution under Herod echoes that of Moses, further emphasized by his flight to Egypt. Matthew traces Jesus' lineage only as far back as Abraham, going through David's successor Solomon. Two distinct lineages, two distinct coherent narratives with contrasting themes.

This begs the question: is it even appropriate to harmonize the stories into one? Personally, I don't think so. Not only do they differ in narrative and tone, but there is one detail that could be read as a direct contradiction. The Magi visit Jesus in a house, but they visit him in Bethlehem, at a time when Jesus and Mary and Joseph were staying in a barn. See, in the Matthean account, there is no mention of Joseph and Mary leaving Galilee. When the narrative has the family return to Israel from Egypt in Matthew 2:22-23, it says that Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to Judea (where Bethlehem is) and instead he withdrew to Galilee, to a town called Nazareth. The implication here, according to Matthew, was that Joseph and Mary already lived in Bethlehem. They only moved to Nazareth to avoid Herod's son. Whereas in the Lukan account, Joseph and Mary were Nazarenes who temporarily journeyed to Bethlehem for a census.

So how do we reconcile this? How did we end up with two disparate accounts of Jesus' birth? The key may be in their few similarities. In each story, we see that Jesus is a Nazarene, born in Bethlehem to a virgin who conceived through the Holy Spirit. That is the sum total of their similarities. It may be that those are the only details that the two authors had, and each constructed a birth narrative in keeping with their individual messages. The idea that someone could be from Nazareth and Bethlehem merits some explanation, so each author contrived a way for that to happen.

We certainly have no reason to accept the historicity of either account. There is no record of Luke's census conducted at that time or in that manner. Sending people to their home towns is a pretty ludicrous census-taking method anyway. Historically it makes no sense, but it works as a literary device to give Luke's Holy Servant a humble beginning. Likewise, there is no record of Herod the Great murdering Jewish babies (keep in mind that at this time the Hebrews were not slaves, but Roman subjects). Historically this makes no sense, but it works as a literary device to emphasize Jesus' connection to Judaism. Each author took the sparse details available and worked them into their unique depiction of Jesus' birth.

In a way, the tradition of harmonizing the Nativity into a single account is a bit of a tragedy. Luke's Jesus and Matthew's Jesus (to say nothing of Mark's or John's) are substantially different characters. When we try to blend them, we muddy the individual portraits, blurring the edges as a conceit to make the myriad appear whole. What does that get us? Three Wise Men in a barn--the idea is absurd, and it certainly isn't biblical. But most believers would rather have a single thematically incoherent narrative than a series of cohesive ones that disagree with each other about the unimportant details. At some point, the church decided that there is nothing to be learned from a story that can't be taken at absolute face value, and that is the truly great irony of fundamentalism. In the attempt to preserve the man, you distort the message. Perhaps it is better to think of the Nativity stories as parables. This didn't actually happen, but what can it teach us?

Just something to keep in mind next year when you sit down to watch your child's Christmas Pageant.

Happy Holidays,

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Case Against (Serialized) Self-Publishing

On two separate occasions, I've been in conversations with people interested in writing who suggested self-publishing a novel a chapter at a time as a way to make money quickly rather than try to sell it to a publisher. I remember thinking initially that this was a bad idea, but not really being able to articulate why. After some thinking, I found my articulations.

Nobody Wants to Read Text-Only Serialized Content

There are serialized content entertainment media out there, don't get me wrong. They consist of comic books, web-comics, web-series, and some television dramas. What do these have in common? They're all more-or-less fixed-length, they all have a substantial visual component, they all require a heavy investiture of time and effort to produce, and they're all designed in such a way that you can pick up anywhere. Books do none-of-the-above. Books don't have a "previously on" intro. Books are meant to be read from the beginning, and they have had such lasting appeal because you can use a book to tell a fantastical story for very little outlay. Consider the audience for books. Who really wants to wait a week or more to read the next chapter? Who really wants to start a book in the middle? How do you accommodate a reader like that? I don't want to make it sound like there have never been serialized novels, because that's simply untrue. Great Expectations was originally published as a weekly serial in a popular literary journal. How many people do you know with subscriptions to literary journals? How many magazines that publish fiction do you read? There's just no audience for it.

Writing a Serial Novel is Actually Harder Than Writing a Normal One

...at least if you care about quality. You can churn out pulp week after week, I suppose. You'd basically have to, because serialization forces you into constraints. You can't edit anything that you've previously published. Your chapters have to be a consistent length and should end with some kind of cliffhanger so the reader is clamoring for the next chapter. Since we're talking self-publication, you're going to be publishing digitally, which limits your readership. And as an avid ebook consumer, I can honestly say that nothing sounds like more of a hassle than trying to read an ebook via a subscription model.

Self-Publishing is a Poor Business Model If You Don't Write Web-Comics

First let's talk about the exceptions. The two that come to my mind are Scott Sigler (fiction) and Jonathan Coulton (music). Sigler offered his novels as a serialized audiobook for free via podcast. And if I remember correctly, he signed with a publisher as soon as he could. He started doing this before everybody-and-their-brother had a podcast, so he was able to capitalize on the wave of a new technology. Coulton offered a song a week for an entire year. He is the exception-that-proves-the-rule for music, but he's a lot more of an exception than people think. First of all, he's ridiculously talented. Second, he was fortunate enough to get his name attached to the breakaway surprise hit video game of 2007. In both of these cases, the creator made a rather large personal investment into the project and produced something with fairly decent production values that they then gave away for free. Neither of them has a particularly huge fan base (Coulton's isn't large, although it's certainly devoted). And those are the exceptional successes. The traditional publishing model gives you things you need: an editor, a marketing budget, a legal department with experience in keeping people from stealing your content, and a filter for consumers. It gets eyes on your product and guarantees a minimum standard of quality to buyers. But even if you could overcome that...

No One is Going to Pay You to Try Out Your Content

There's too much affordable, high-quality entertainment out there for people to fork over money to audition content from an unproven source. And if you're posting it on the web, people expect it to be free by default. And even then, what are the odds of it resonating? What bands do you listen to now that you discovered on MySpace? How often do you troll Amazon searching for something cheap in your favorite genre from an author you've never heard of?

I didn't think so.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Meh-ppets

Abby and I went to see the new Muppet movie. We may be the only two people in America who feel this way, but we were pretty underwhelmed by it. I should say that it isn't bad by any stretch. And despite Frank Oz's denunciation, The Muppets isn't a cynical cash-grab. It's everything you'd want from a Muppet movie, and very much in the spirit of the original television show and the first few movies. So why didn't it work for me?

The Story

A muppet named Walter, raised by humans and seemingly unaware of his muppetness, travels with his "brother" Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to see LA. Whilst there, they tour the Muppet Studios and find it about to be demolished. The only way to save it is to get the gang back together for one last show. Here's the problem: I don't care. Haven't we done two movies with roughly this premise already? It's been done. But you know what? I could even handle that if the new film were less saccharine or self-important. But the whole theme of the movie seems to be that the Muppets need to be saved because they're the Muppets and that's important to society, for some reason.

The Gags

This is actually one of the things that worked for me. Part of the mirth of the Muppets is how self-aware they are. The gags were frequently aimed just over the heads of younger viewers: Cee-Lo's Fuck You sung by chickens or Beaker singing "my libido" (as "me me me mo") in a Barbershop Quartet rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Occasionally the jokes are over-explained. Traveling by map is a pretty funny bit even without Fozzie saying "Hey, let's travel by map". The character "80's Robot" is pretty funny on its own without him explaining that he's offering Tab and New Coke (they're clearly visible on his tray). But in general, Muppet humor is the only thing that saves The Muppets from Muppet over-sweetness, and the jokes work best when they're stacked right on top of each other. Gonzo had a throw-away line about wireless toilets that I'm still laughing about.

The Cameos

If the camera lingered too long on New Coke jokes, it skipped far too quickly over the cameos. I barely recognized Dave Grohl as an imitation Animal. Mostly people just show up. Sara Silverman is a hostess at a diner, but all she does is show Amy Adams to a table (nothing like the legendary performance from Steve Martin in the original The Muppet Movie). For all the misses, there were a couple of magnificent hits. I'm looking at you Neil Patrick Harris and James Carville.

The Visuals

Puppetry is kind of an old-school special effect, so for me the mixture of puppets and CGI is actually a bit unnerving. In the spirit of the Star Wars re-hashes, the inconsistency is what's the most bizarre. If you're using CGI, why use puppets? Again, I realize I'm in the minority here, and nowhere is it written that you have to be all practical or all CGI. But the mix-and-match of non-realistic puppets with not-terribly-photo-realistic CGI... it really did not work for me.

The Non-Muppets

Jason Segel is fine, I guess. At no point did I ever like Amy Adams. I take it back, she had the funniest line of the movie (when Kermit initially decides not to attempt a reunion, Adams comments that "this is going to be a short movie"), but apart from that, she was a plot device. The only person in the main cast that seemed to be having any fun with his part was Chris Cooper as the bad guy, Tex Richman, but even his reading felt off. The humans weren't playing it straight, nor were they trying to match the Muppets in over-the-topness. In fact, the only human who really, truly sold his performance was--and I never thought I'd say this--Jack Black.

The Music

...was problematic for me. A big problem is that I have no love for Flight of the Concords. I respect them as artists, but their music doesn't work for me. But the music in the movie (much of it written by FotC) has too many FotC hallmarks in it. State absurd premise ("Am I a man or a muppet?"). Make absurd premise even more absurd without changing much ("If I'm a muppet, then I'm a manly, manly muppet"). Invert premise, because it's not like you're doing anything else with it ("If I'm a man, then I'm a muppet of a man"). Lather, rinse, repeat. Chris Cooper rapping was... well... an old white guy rapping. Why it fell apart here but worked so well in Tropic Thunder is anybody's guess, but I just couldn't enjoy it. When Amy Adams started off her song in the diner about being alone... I was waiting for someone to walk up and ask her why she was singing, because it's the Muppets and they're terribly self-aware. I felt so embarrassed for her during that song, because all the other patrons just kept eating and ignoring her. I get what they were going for, but it truly did not work. The only new song that really worked for me was Life's a Happy Song, and even that was only good-but-not-great. There was no The Rainbow Connection or I'm Going To Go Back There Someday or Movin' Right Along.

Of note: the one thing that I've heard complaints about is the use of Starship's We Built This City On Rock And Roll. I honestly wasn't bothered by that. It's very much in the spirit of the TV show. It's an awful song, but it's a montage, whatever.

The Inevitable Realization

I don't like the Muppets. Not just the movie, I don't care for them as an institution. This is, frankly, flooring to me. I remember thinking pretty highly of the TV, but it has not aged gracefully. Neither have the early films. I still love the post-modern awareness and I have some very fond memories, but with the possible exception of A Muppet Christmas Carol, I don't enjoy them. Nostalgia backfire. I has a sad.

So I'll just reiterate my earlier point. The Muppets isn't bad. It's probably a really great Muppet movie, but it's not a great movie, no matter what everyone else on the planet seems to be saying.

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