The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

'Ex Machina' is 'Frankenstein' for the Digital Age

The question of what makes us human has been around pretty much as long as we have. Attempts at tackling it have produced a veritable hall of fame of iconic results: Frankenstein. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire bibliographies of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. The list goes on.

But the thing about big unanswerable questions is that although we may never get closer to figuring out the answers, it can be awfully fun and rewarding to keep asking them. And with advances in society and technology, the question of our humanity — and its future — seems to transmogrify by the day.

In the grand legacy of stories about what separates us from the animals (or, in this case, androids), Ex Machina, the directorial debut of screenwriter-novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) is nothing new. It’s a direct descendent of FrankensteinThe Island of Doctor Moreau, and scads of stories that have come before, bringing up classic issues of nature, nurture, and what happens when we play God. But Garland’s sci-fi thriller smartly wears those influences on its sleeve, adding to them a sharply modern sense of style, with a plausible approach that’s both intriguing and troubling to consider.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee at a large tech company, who wins a contest to hang out for a week with the company’s reclusive genius founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded house/research facility. Upon his arrival, Caleb discovers the real purpose of his visit: Nathan wants him to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot he’s created, and determine whether she can convincingly pass for human. The conflict arises when Caleb’s true role in Nathan’s test, and Ava’s own mysterious intentions, come under suspicion. How much of Ava’s behavior is what Nathan has programmed into her, and how much is she acting on her own?

Writer-director Garland has always excelled in creating satisfying thrillers with deeper questions in mind, particularly in the realm of exploring uglier parts of human behavior. In Ex Machina, he may have created his best work yet, working with a very small cast in a limited space that gives the characters plenty of chances to turn on each other in subtle, clever ways.

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Poll: Americans Say There’s No Turning Back on Gay Marriage

The Supreme Court will hear arguments next week in a landmark case on gay marriage, but most Americans already have made up their minds: There’s no turning back.

In a nationwide USA Today/Suffolk University poll, those surveyed say by 51 percent to 35 percent that it’s no longer practical for the Supreme Court to ban same-sex marriages because so many states have legalized them.

One reason for a transformation in public views on the issue: close to half say they have a gay or lesbian family member or close friend who is married to someone of the same sex.

Kraig Ziegler, 58, of Flagstaff, Ariz., acknowledged being a bit uncomfortable when he attended a wedding reception for two men, friends of his wife, who had married.

“I still believe what the Bible says, ‘one man, one woman,’ ” the mechanic, who was among those polled, said in a follow-up interview.

On the other hand, he said, “I got to know the guys, and they’re all right. They don’t make passes or anything at me.”

Now he calls himself undecided on the issue.

In the survey, a majority — 51 percent 35 percent — favor allowing gay men and lesbians to marry, and those who support the idea feel more strongly about it than those who oppose it: 28 percent “strongly favor” same-sex marriage, 18 percent “strongly oppose” it. Fourteen percent are undecided.

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Explaining 'Working Poor' to my Privileged, Middle Class Children

For my privileged, perhaps overly comfortable children, something as trivial as our Internet being down constitutes a crisis. When we do our “gratitude inventory” (aka, a way to get them to reflect and pray), they rattle off things as a matter of routine that many people would only dream of.

So how do I explain something as alien and complex a state as being part of the working poor in a way they can have a at least a chance to internalize?

This was part of my goal in taking on My Jesus Project, a year-long endeavor to more deeply understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus: to move from ignorance to empathy, which can only be achieved sometimes through direct, personal experiences.

For a month, I was assigned by one of my “Jesus Mentors” to go out of my way to walk and/or take public transportation to get places, with the intention that I would come into contact with people I might otherwise miss or overlook. As I did it, I realized my kids could benefit from it as well.

The first sign that they needed such an experience was that when I announced to them we were taking the bus and train to do our family activities one weekend, they were excited. It was a new experience for them, rather than a necessity. As for the mile-long walks to get from place to place when the transit system didn’t get us exactly where we were going — they were a little less thrilled with that. And yet, we slowed down more, spent more time talking, and while on the public systems, I noticed we looked each other in the eye a lot more, rather than all facing forward (with the kinds inevitably with their faces fixed on a screen) in the car.

My son, Mattias, who is on the high end of the autism spectrum, is a keen observer, and I suppose a natural byproduct of that is that he asks questions. A lot of questions.

“Dad,” he said, after jumping off the final leg of the bus route one day, “why were some of the people sleeping on the bus?”

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5 Lessons from the Resignation of Bishop Robert Finn

When Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Missouri Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted three years ago for failing to report a priest suspected of child abuse, he sent a powerful message to the Catholic Church.

Here are five takeaways from the news, which the Vatican announced on April 21.

1. This is a big deal.

During the past decade, the most intense years of the Catholic Church’s long-running clergy sex abuse scandal, thousands of priests have been punished or defrocked for abusing children, and a few bishops found guilty of molestation have also quit.

But until Finn, no American bishop had ever been forced from office (despite the terse Vatican announcement that he “resigned”) for covering up for a predator priest.

That sets a precedent in an institution where many have regarded the hierarchy as a privileged caste that should not be held to the same standards as others in the church. Some feared that if a bishop were pushed out for failing to do his job, it would create a domino effect that could topple the entire superstructure.

“We all know there are other U.S. bishops wondering ‘who is the next?’” tweeted church historian Massimo Faggioli.

But Francis seems to be betting this sort of accountability at the top will strengthen the church, and even help restore the credibility of the bishops.

2. Finn was an easy case.

Finn is the only U.S. bishop ever convicted in court of failing to report a suspected abuser, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who was later sentenced to 50 years on federal child pornography charges.

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Pope Accepts Resignation of Bishop Robert Finn for Failing to Report Abuse

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of an American bishop who was found guilty of failing to tell police about a suspected pedophile priest.

The Vatican on April 21 said the pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn, who led the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.

The resignation was offered under the code of canon law that allows a bishop “who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause” to resign.

In 2012, Finn pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for failing to report suspected abuse after the Rev. Shawn Ratigan took hundreds of lewd images of children in Catholic schools and parishes.

Finn became the first U.S. bishop to be convicted in a criminal court of failing to report a suspected abuser and was sentenced to two years’ probation.

Ratigan pleaded guilty to child pornography charges and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

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When 'Saving the World' Hurts

In recently released Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World, Jonathan Hollingsworth and his mother, Amy Hollingsworth (best-selling author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers) tell the story of college-age Jonathan’s mission trip to the African country of Cameroon. After participating in a short-term mission trip to Honduras, Jonathan felt inspired to serve others in a more profound way. When he connected with a missions organization that promised him a year of exciting opportunities to serve in Africa — and he was able to raise the necessary funding — he seized hold of the opportunity with a vulnerable heart and a zeal for personal sacrifice.

After reading the above description, you might be surprised to learn that Runaway Radical is actually a story of spiritual abuse. But by the time Jonathan prepared to leave for his yearlong trip to Cameroon, his entire family — and his supporters — were groomed for abuse. They were groomed by ideas perpetuated by many people and many organizations, teachings many Christians would follow without much of a second thought. The first idea asserts that everything done in God’s name is good. The second idea works in companion with the first, declaring there is always more you can be doing, more you can be sacrificing, to prove your commitment to your God and to his mission.

When Jonathan traveled to Cameroon, not only did his host prevent him from serving in the ways he had hoped, his mission organization used him and his funding for their own selfish purposes with little regard for his health and well-being. During his time in Cameroon, Jonathan’s organization forbade him from developing relationships with locals whose behavior did not follow their stringent moral code, defined for him who the “real” Christians were, and denied him immediate access to medical care. Jonathan also learned that the leader of the organization lied to him about the status of the the supposed projects of which Jonathan was to be a part.

What began as Jonathan’s eager and well-intentioned trip slowly and painfully morphed into a constricted and disillusioning journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish.

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Aunt Roma's Lessons for Eco-Living

Years ago as a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I was befriended by a wonderful family around the corner from my home. The patriarch of the family, Edward Blunt Sr., was a hard-working executive for a telecommunication company; the matriarch, Roma Blunt, lovingly called Aunt Roma, was a consultant for several local educational institutions; and their son, Ed Jr., became one of my best friends and adopted brother.

Ed and I played sports, shared the same birthday, and graduated from high school and college together. Ed's family provided a unique gift for the young men in our neighborhood. As a result of their southern roots and deep-rooted village values, they believed adults — especially adults of African descent — had a responsibility to aid and assist in the development of young men in the community.  

At least weekly, a gang of musty, sweaty, boisterous young men crowded into the Blunt household to take part in a ritual of culinary excellence provided by Aunt Roma. In this house we did not own, pay for, or live in, we witnessed the southern artistry and gastric creativity produced with a palette of collard greens, gumbo, cornbread, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fried okra, and fish on the canvas of our senses. The white house on Green Road became our hangout, respite, and my second home. Since I lived geographically closest to the Blunts’ home, I found myself at their address more frequently than other "brothers" in our network.

Upon one of my routine visits after finishing another amazing meal, Aunt Roma passed on a special gift. She handed me a key to the home. She stated with matter-of-fact ease, "Otis, you're over here enough, you might as well have a key."

After I said thank you, she began to reemphasize the rules of the house. 

"You are always welcome here … you are welcome to eat, rest, and relax ... I trust you, and as long as you abide by the rules of the house and your parents are aware of where you are, this door is always open to you."

I was given access to the Blunts’ home because of my relationship with their son. I was given access to a home I did not create, build, or purchase. Because of my relationship with their son, I was given access to an environment I did not create.

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Preparing for Paris

As the world looks toward the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December, it would serve us all to reflect on California.

When I moved to California in August 1991, the state’s five-year drought changed the most mundane aspects of life. Throughout my East Coast childhood, this is how I learned to brush my teeth: Turn the knob on the sink, place the toothbrush under the running water, brush, spit, brush again, spit again, place your Dixie cup under the running water, rinse your teeth, gargle, spit, use the running water to rinse the sink of all your spit, then — and only then — turn the water off.

I performed that basic ritual during my first week in Los Angeles. My roommate scowled. She had moved to LA years before and had lived through the state’s drought. Over the course of those five years, every resident of California had taken ownership of the state’s dire situation by altering the daily routines of their lives.

Common measures included: placing bricks in the backs of toilets to use less flushing water, only flushing once or twice a day, only using the absolute minimum amount of water necessary to brush one’s teeth, cooler time-tight showers, and the list goes on.

History records my first months in Los Angeles as the tail end of the state’s late 1980s drought. People danced in the streets of South Central, East LA, and Santa Monica as El Niño’s waters soaked cracked earth in late 1991. But as citizens of a state in crisis, our shared sense of duty had transformed small changes in daily routines into a collective culture of conservation. In fact, to this day, many Californians still practice those same measures.

But it’s been 24 years since those dire days and California is fighting again, slugging into its fourth year of another drought. But this one is different. This is the worst drought in 1,200 years, according to a study published in the American Geophysical Union journal.

Standing in a brown field that should have been packed with several feet of snow on the first day of Earth Month, California Gov. Jerry Brown said: “It’s a different world. We have to act differently.”

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Al-Shabab Militants Create Chaos, Pain for Somalis

Sitting under a veranda at the former headquarters of Somali Airlines, Ali Bashir sipped coffee and chewed khat, an African herb, as he recounted 15 years of anarchy fomented by al-Shabab Islamic terrorists.

“Life is very hard here,” he lamented.

“There’s nothing to eat and nowhere to work. But the rebels will come and still ask you for money.”

Since Somalia’s central government collapsed in the early 1990s, al-Shabab has emerged as the greatest threat to international efforts to rebuild the east African nation. The al-Qaida-linked militants extort, kidnap, stage terror attacks, and control remote areas of the countryside.

Al-Shabab gained renewed global attention last week, when a small band of militants massacred 148 people at Garissa University College in neighboring Kenya, where they singled out Christians for execution. In 2013, al-Shabab terrorists attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, murdering nearly 70.

In the wake of this month’s attack, Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud called for more cooperation between Kenya and Somalia to eliminate al-Shabab, and Kenyan jets pounded two al-Shabab camps in Somalia.

Bashir, 28, who sold clothing before fleeing here, doubted the Somali government could do much about the terrorist group. He fled to the capital here a few years ago after al-Shabab seized control of a region in the south. He now lives in the old airlines headquarters with 1,000 other families.

“I have grown up in this country without knowing peace or stability,” said Bashir, a father of six.

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The Wisdom of Those Who Plant Seeds

The day after Easter, it snowed. I was carrying in my last buckets of sap before leaving for Portland and was not surprised by the flurries, but they still stymied my expectations of warmer weather. The equinox had passed several weeks before, and while the start of spring had been marked on the calendar, it was (is) dragging its feet in coming.

Who has known the mind of God or even a good 7-day weather forecast?

We see and know in part. Certainty has never been the steady state of the human condition. Our lives are stretched with the awareness that clarity, at its best, comes with a smudge.

The experience of knowing we do not know can be felt in different ways. One is confusion, another, mystery. Both are confrontations of the hidden or unknown, but one brings us to awe and the other despair. One can leave us feeling isolated and the other in wonder at our relationship to that which is so much greater than ourselves.

The space between the two is not in the level of knowledge but rather our relationship to the knowing and unknowing itself. In the midst of our unknowing, we are faced with a choice: passive uncertainty or the stumbling action of faith. The beginning of wisdom is not the expectation of certainty with knowledge but the understanding that the kind of life most worth living is always an act of faith.

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