By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 3/23/12 in The Madera Tribune
Comedian and actor W.C. Fields (1880-1946) presented his first performances, juggling, in churches and theaters at the age of 15. Three years later he left his parents’ Christian home in Pennsylvania and soon became a headliner on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Many years later, a friend found him — now a known atheist — reading a Bible in a hospital. When the surprised visitor asked why, Fields replied, “I’m checking for loopholes.”
Weeks later he died of an alcohol-related stomach hemorrhage.
Whether flippant or sincere, his attitude is hardly limited to those at the end of life. A joke tells of a Catholic school cafeteria with a crate of milk cartons and a sign that read: “Take only one. God is watching.” At the end of the lunch line sat chocolate cookies. On a napkin someone had scrawled: “Take all you want. God is watching the milk.”
There seems to be a nearly universal desire in humans to justify what they do, whether before God or others. Why is this?
Many religions, Christian and non-Christian alike, believe that humans possess a “conscience” — an understanding of right and wrong. The Latin roots of the word itself literally mean “with knowledge.”
Though heartfelt, the conscience judges the morality of an action using one’s reason and understanding, and that can sometimes be its downfall. Who among us hasn’t been biased, mistaken, or misinformed? A well-formed and truthful conscience is vital.
Many religions would again agree that it is for this purpose (among others) that divinity speaks to humanity — to remind us of the truth about good and evil. Even so, educating and correcting one’s conscience is a lifelong task. Neglect or abuse of it brings blindness.
Two movies opening in U.S. theaters today may help refresh the sensitivity of our consciences. These are “October Baby” and the literary adaptation “The Hunger Games.” Though I have only screened the first one, I have read the young adult novelettes behind the second, and encourage moviegoers to see both if possible.
In far different ways, these films look at the effects of socially-approved violence on children and society.
The light drama “October Baby” does so gently and uplifts, though it does so with a heroine that some might find taboo: a grown survivor of an attempted abortion. In contrast, the lightly science fiction trilogy that begins with “The Hunger Games” directly challenges the myths of U.S. entertainment and culture by showing the scars that killing inflicts on those who do it, even when it is arguably justified.
Elsewhere in media, many video gamers have been infuriated by a disappointing end to a blockbuster science fiction triad. On Wednesday, Bioware promised to heed the backlash.
Its recent game, Mass Effect 3, may have sold 890,000 copies ($60 each) in the U.S. within its first 24 hours of availability earlier this month, but the final minutes of the 90-120 hour trilogy left a sour taste. It offered three similar sad endings with the main visual variation being the color of the explosions.
The irony is that, before the one-size-fits-all end, the series maintained an illusion of freedom and consequences. An act of kindness or brutality, diligence or laziness, by a player could shape future encounters far down the story’s path.
In games and reality, we want our choices to have meaning. Our conscience insists some do, at least outside of a fantasy.
In 1933, the Nazi government outlawed all non-religious youth groups unconnected with the Hitler Youth paramilitary organization. Within three years the remaining church youth groups were also purged.
Among the secular casualties was Jungenschaft, a high-spirited teenage boys club in Germany. With equal gusto and appreciation, members explored woods, ice-cold rivers at dawn, wild bird migrations, fine arts concerts, museums, cathedrals, plays, and movies.
They were wiped out by the Nazis, who arrested and imprisoned its young members for weeks or months and destroyed their diaries, magazines, and songbooks.
Yet lyrics of the group’s favorite song survived, and the message holds true today.
“Close eye and ear a while / against the tumult of the time; / you’ll not still it or find peace / until your heart is pure.
“As you watch and wait / to catch the eternal in the everyday, / you freely choose to take your role / in history’s great play.
“The hour will come when you are called. / Be then prepared, be ready; / if the fire dies down, leap in; / again it blazes, steady.”