Deadwood and Deep v. Surface Structure…

I’ve been watching the first season of HBO’s Deadwood.  One of the bits of controversy that has surrounded this story of an old-west town is the use of profanity.  Deadwood is the story of the real historical town of Deadwood, an outlaw settlement in the Black Hills of Montana in 1876.  But here’s the thing, the characters in the TV show swear like sailors.  The language is so offensive that I won’t even give examples.  Of course these words that the writers use are not words that people really used in 1876.  But the profanity of 1876 would sound silly to people in our time and culture, and so the writers decided to import modern profanity as a creative anachronism.  On a visceral level at least, this works very well indeed.

This goes to the heart of an issue in linguistics that I’ve been thinking about lately.  Linguists talk about deep structure and surface structure.  Surface structure is the actual grammatical structure of a particular sentence or phrase or utterance as found in reality.  Deep structure is the so-called “kernel” sentence or essence that underlies the surface structure.  A passive sentence is the classic example.  According to this thinking sentences 1a and 1b have different surface structure but identical deep structure:

1a: Wild Bill Hickok was shot by Jack McCall.
1b: Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickok.

Linguists who believe in deep structure say that the semantic value (the meaning for lack of a better term) of these phrases is identical.  Linguists who don’t believe in deep structure might deny this.

In Deadwood the use of anachronistic language assumes that modern swearing has essentially the same deep structure as the swearing of 1876.  Therefore replacing one with the other is actually a faithful way of translating.  But I wonder, and here is where deep structure becomes a problem, if there isn’t something else going on apart from semantics and if that something else might not be the same from 1876 to 2009.  Like I said, I’m still thinking about it.


Half-Blood Prince the Movie…

**spoiler alert**

Jinny and I had a rare night out on Friday night and went to see the newly release Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This movie is based on one of my favorites of the 7 book Potter series and so I was curious (though frankly not excited) to see what they’d do with this one. My one word review? Mediocre. This film is more evidence that these kinds of books just don’t translate well to the big screen.

There was, however, a lot to love in the film. Dan Radcliff, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint (the actors who play Harry, Hermione, and Ron) seem finally to be coming in to their own. Grint’s physical comedy was particularly good, and he and Radcliff had a number of great scenes together. All in all the dynamic between the three friends was very good, much better in fact than in any of the previous five films. Additionally, Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore is a vast improvement over the absurdly intense Dubledore of Goblet of Fire and the ridiculously stoic Dumbledore of Order of the Phoenix. Gambon does a much better job this time out capturing Dumbledore’s odd combination of brilliance, intensity, ferocity, and oddball goofiness. It’s that eclectic nature that people like about Dumbledore, and I think that Gambon’s failure to capture it represents one of the key failures of films 3-5. Here he gets it right.

But those good things are not enough to make this a good film. It is just too choppy, too disjointed to ever be great. This choppiness notwithstanding it may have been a much better movie had it not been for the two worst adaptation decisions I’ve ever seen in a film. You’ll have to watch the movie to know what I mean, but let me just say that for the life of me I don’t understand what the Christmas scene was for, nor why they removed all of the action from the climax of the movie. Those writing/directing decisions were just plain weird.

If you’re a Potter fan by all means go and see the movie. There are enough fun bits to make it worth your money. If you’re not a Potter geek, just wait for the DVD, you’ll be glad you did.

Buyer Beware…

A discussion has been making the rounds regarding whether or to what degree amateur biblical scholarship is a legitimate enterprise.  You can see the relevant history (and trace the backlinks for the longer backstory) on Matthew’s page here, Jim’s here, and Doug’s here.  Though I find Jim’s position (leave the Bible to the experts alone) to be extreme, I certainly sympathize with his point.  There is an awful lot of nonsense out there that pases for “biblical scholarship.”  And it’s not just silliness like ex-firefighters chasing down the “treasure” of the Copper Scroll.  AKMA pointed to a new Bible software system the other day, and I must say that the list of “biblical scholars” who contribute to the expert videos was very worrying.  I mean, I’ve got nothing against Max Lucado, but he isn’t a Bible expert of any kind.  He’s a very good preacher, and I’m sure a good pastor, but his reflections on Scripture in his books tend to be rather shallow to be frank.  But people assume he’s an expert because he’s written and sold a lot of books.  I’ll let Jim and the others fight it out over whether Lucado is a bad guy because he hasn’t got a PhD (I tend to think not), because I want to make a slightly different point here.

As much as non-specialists can be dangerous when they spout off, the fact is that they are only dangerous if people listen to them.  The responsibility lies, in the end, with the reader to make good judgments about what is being read.  Credentials don’t equal correctness, but credentials do tell you one thing.  They tell you that the person who’s work you are reading has done his or her homework (literally).  I don’t care what anyone says, a PhD or ThD is not an easy get.  So, dear reader, if you want to know about the Bible and you want to avoid the dangers of being misled by people who may or may not know what they are talking about, let me recommend the following:

  1. Ask why the person you’re reading has the authority to say what he/she is saying.  Why are his/her ideas more valuable than your own?  Google the author, know who it is that you’re trusting.
  2. Ask where and to what degree the author is educated…and in what field for that matter (a PhD in Chemistry doesn’t make you an expert in Biblical Studies).
  3. Remember that the person who wrote the book you’re reading probably borrowed some of those ideas from other books.  Find out which ones and maybe read them too.
  4. Get to know an expert personally and ask that person for advice.  Most of the churches I’ve been a part of over the years have had at least one or two professors of theology or biblical studies hiding somewhere.  If there’s nobody in your congregation, then email a prof at your local denominational seminary.  I’m betting you’d get a very cordial reply.
  5. Instead of reading popular Christian literature about Jesus or the Bible, try reading a commentary along with your regular Bible reading.  I’d recommend a very accessible series like NIV Application or Interpretation, or the New International Biblical Commentary.  I talked my wife into doing this once and she said it was one of the richest devotional experiences she’s ever had.

The long and the short of it is this: buyer beware.  Getting a book about the Bible published is no harder than getting a self-help book published, and we all know what nonsense those things can be.  If you are a Christian you should take the Bible very seriously indeed, so consider your supplimentary reading carefully as well.  And by the by, all of this goes doubly and triply so for internet sources and blogs (including this one…I don’t consider myself an expert on anything yet).

The Road and Adaptation…

Early this summer I finished the best work of fiction that I’ve read in a long while. It was The Road by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men). It is simultaneously the most haunting and most powerfully touching story I’ve read in ages. A post-apocalyptic journey tale, it seemed like an odd fit for McCarthy (admittedly I only know some of his other work), but he elevated the genre to perhaps its highest point. He sidesteps all of the post-apocalyptic clichés with grace. McCarthy’s greatest accomplishment in this work is his ability to make you feel, down to your very bones, the emotions that his characters feel. Their dread is your dread. Their loneliness is your loneliness. Their despair is your despair. And most importantly, their fragile, precious, tenuous (even tendentious) hope belongs to the reader as well. I’ve never had an author capture me emotionally in that way.

One of the thoughts I had when I picked the book up at first was, “I bet somebody’s gonna make a movie out of this.” After all, post-apocalyptic stories are all the rage, and McCarthy’s last book-to-movie adaptation was essentially perfect (No Country). But as I was reading I became more and more convinced that The Road is un-adaptable to the big screen. Or maybe it’s better to say that Hollywood could never adapt it, because they would be unwilling to do what would be necessary to make the adaptation true. What makes an adaptation true? It isn’t necessarily about detailed accuracy, making sure all the little characters and side-stories and inside jokes make the cut. It is about spirit. It is about ensuring that the emotion of the film, the themes, the main characters, the ethos and pathos mirror the book. The Road is, it turns out, being adapted into a film. I’ve only seen the trailer but I knew immediately that it will not be a good adaptation. I won’t run down the specifics, but let’s just say that all of those clichés that McCarthy side-steps, the film very clearly blunders straight into. It might be a good movie, and it will probably be a popular movie (maybe even critically successful), but I cannot see how it could ever be a good adaptation.

Let me put this another way. All of the things that the Coens did to make No Country perfect, Hillcoat (director for The Road) has clearly failed to do. It’s too bad nobody got Joel and Ethan on board for The Road.


Crap, I’ve been added to a list.  I commented on a post over at Hebrew and Greek Reader and in reward for my thoughts Daniel and Tonya (they are two people right?) put me on their list of student bibliobloggers.*  Which means that now I have to actually pay some attention to my poor old blog.  For the past three weeks or so I’ve been right on the verge of taking randomcolin off the air for good, but I suppose that, now I’m on a list and all, I should try to live up to this great trust.  Though on an upnote, I did make their top ten list for their favorite comments recently, huzzah!

If you’re into Greek and Hebrew or linguistics generally (and who isn’t?!) go check out Daniel and Tonya’s blog, it’s excellent.  Plus they like Derek Webb and so must be very nice people indeed.  Plus they go to school at Stellenbosch and study with Christo van der Merwe, which is unassailably cool.

*For the record I hate this term, but as there are whole websites and tracking systems and rankings devoted to biblioblogs (a blog devoted, at least in part, to biblical studies), to say nothing of the annual SBL bibliobloggers’ dinner, the name is clearly here to stay.