April 28, 2019

About that [SPOILER] at the end of Avengers: Endgame

 I’m going to indulge in a little pop fiction today, because it’s right up my alley in multiple ways. In particular, it's an interesting exercise in the logic and principles of world building within hypothetical scenarios. We must "read the novel as if it were true."

 ***WARNING: Major SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame appear below.***

 There’s one question lots of people are asking about this amazing movie. How does Steve Rogers get back to that bench by the lake? There are two possible explanations, and they are both problematic.

 If Steve grew old naturally in the prime reality (the MCU timeline as we know it through all 22 movies), he must have lived a long life without changing anything. That would logically imply old Steve has always been hiding in Peggy’s life, which probably complicates some details from Winter Soldier and the Agent Carter TV show, but a bigger problem is pointed out by Meg Downey on the Gamestop website: Steve has never been the kind of person who could sit by and let bad things happen, and even if we suppose that he changes that m.o. for the sake of his love life, it’s horrifying to imagine that peacefully aging Steve spent decades ignoring all the ways his future knowledge could have prevented vast quantities of human suffering. Thus, explanation number one is a clever in respecting the time travel rules but this is simply not a desirable scenario to consider. In Downey’s perhaps not too strong words, it ruins the film.

 Option two makes more sense from the perspective of Steve’s character but creates a gaping plot hole. If Steve and Peggy’s past life changed anything at all about the MCU timeline then old Steve would wind up growing old in the alternate reality his actions created. It’s tremendous to think of Steve and Peggy working together to rescue Bucky, keep Hydra out of Shield, keep the tesseract out of the wrong hands, prevent the Chitauri from coming to earth, and potentially so much more… but then how does old Steve make his way to that bench by the lake? How could Steve Rogers “jump” (without using the quantum suit) back into the present timeline, and why would he do so at all?

 One efficient way to suggest solutions for problems like this is by letting one question answer another. Oh, yes. There’s a more perplexing question that nobody seems to be asking.

 How was Steve able to return the stones to their places? Yes, I know Banner seems to think he can do it. Yes, we should they made a plan together before Steve went back in time. Yes, I know Steve tells Sam, on that bench, “I put the stones back.” Still, there is one major unspoken problem in all this.

 The reason Steve shouldn’t have been able to accomplish his mission is because the objects he took with him in that briefcase were six colored gems. He did not have the cube. He did not have the scepter. He did not have the orb. We know *THOSE* are the objects, originally housing the gems, which Rogers is supposed to put back. Maybe Steve and Bruce thought about this in advance, but how did they intend to deal with it? We are not told. How is Steve supposed to manufacture those objects and put the stones back inside them once he gets back to those alternate timelines? Thus, we have two problems. How did old Steve get from his married future in some alternate reality to the lakeside? How did Steve manufacture the objects he needed, once he went back in time? I suggest the solution to both problems could be Tilda Swinton.

This universe is only one of an infinite number. Worlds
without end... [a] vast multiverse." -- Dr. Strange (2016)

 Suppose Hulk sent Rogers first to the Sanctum Sanctorum in 2012. He returns the time stone and asks the Ancient One for her help in returning the other five stones to their places. (Alternatively, perhaps the two of them decide the other stones can be put elsewhere for safe keeping, as long as they go back to exist in their own proper realities. Either way, the rest of this scenario is the same.) The Ancient One might also hold onto Mjolnir until 2014, at which point it can fly across the universe into Thor’s hand, moments after its past self disappears with pudgy future Thor. Finally, having finished his business from 2023, Rogers uses his stash of Pym particles to enact his own secret plan.

 Going back to 1945, Steve finds Peggy and begins an incredible new lifetime, creating a glorious new alternate timeline and enjoying that reality until Peggy dies of old age in 2016. Bereft without Peggy, elderly Steve returns to Greenwich Village and asks the Ancient One to transport him to the prime MCU timeline he departed from so many decades earlier. Although this is not the same Ancient One he met in the alternate 2012, this Ancient One is equally well aware of multiple realities. She inquires further, somehow locates the prime timeline, and agrees to help.

 At this point, if not sooner, Steve will have one more thing to do. He flies to the arctic, wakes up his frozen younger self, gives him the quantum suit and the Pym particles and sends him back in time to have another fresh start in 1945. However, he keeps the shield so he can give it to Sam. With this last loose thread tied up, Steve returns to New York where the Ancient One transports him and his original shield into prime 2023.

 Voila! Old Steve lived a long life in an alternate timeline and still got back to the lakeside.

 Assuming Steve didn't lie to Sam, by the lake, I really like this solution. But you tell me. If the Ancient One didn't help him recreate the cube, the scepter, and the orb, then who did? And if she did help him do those things, and we know she outlived Peggy by a few months or a year, then it makes sense to me that when Steve wanted to exit this timeline he would naturally think back to the point of his entry.

 At any rate, that’s my fan theory. It’s a more satisfying scenario to me. Avengers fans, imagine something different if you wish.

 Let me also say THANK YOU right now to Kevin Feige, Joe and Anthony Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for all their amazing storytelling efforts. If you guys like this fan theory, I'll accept my "No Prize" anytime... or in any timeline!


April 22, 2019

Progress & Frustration

Hello, faithful readers. This month's post is just a quick story and an old joke, with brief reflections on both.

My Athenian tour guide, Costas Tsevas, told me (in 2001) that he'd come across a greek word somewhere in Aristotle which meant "I organize a vote by the raising of hands." Furthermore, Costas claimed, this was the same word used in Acts when Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in Galatia. As a house church advocate, and vigorously so at that time, I became very excited upon hearing this story but I didn't quite know what to do next. Did Costas try to verify his own reading? Did he investigate further? Was he planning to write or publish somehow? His friendly and amused reply was no, no, and no. Still delighted but slightly exasperated, I exclaimed, "If you're right, then this is a big deal. Why didn't you tell somebody?" Costas answered, laughing, "Nobody asked!"

This memory comes to mind at times whenever I feel down about the colossal indifference I have often received from various New Testament scholars. In particular, the struggle to work on my Master's thesis brings this story to mind. Why am I torturing myself to climb up to this level? Why couldn't I have been humble, content, and bemused like Costas? I've had some inquiries and some encouragement in recent years, but way back when I started engaging with bibliobloggers (in 2008), it was utterly true that nobody had asked. Still, I persist. But there are times I doubt that I should.

The second story is an old joke I enjoy. Three people were staying at a hotel one night--a sales executive, an engineer, and a mathematician--when each one woke up to discover their garbage can was on fire. In their own rooms, they each had a different experience: (1) The sales exec woke up, saw the fire, panicked, threw the empty ice bucket at the fire, filled it and threw it again a few times, eventually put out the fire by making a large sloppy mess, decided that's what housekeeping is for, and then went back to sleep. (2) The engineer woke up, saw the fire, jumped up smartly, sat down with a pencil and paper, calculated the exact amount of water needed to put out the fire, took the ice bucket to the sink, carefully measured the exact level of water, calmly poured the water, put out the fire, made no mess, and then went back to sleep. (3) The mathematician woke up, saw the fire, jumped up smartly, sat down with a pencil and paper, calculated the exact amount of water needed to put out the fire, and THEN, having determined that a solution DID exist, the mathematician promptly went back to sleep.

This joke comes to mind because I can be like the mathematician. There have been many points on this journey where I realized how much of my quest was being driven by my own curiosity. I have cut long passages from my drafts which illustrate little more than my own need to work through those ideas, remembering the scholar who said chunks of our work can be nothing but personal therapy. Vonnegut's "Tiger got to hunt" comes to mind also. I always knew this long-term quest of mine was at least partly driven by personal need, but I am surprised at how much I am struggling to follow through with all this formal writing now that I, myself, am pretty well satisfied that I understand what is actually going on. Having determined that a solution DOES exist, a part of me would like to get back to what I had been doing previously.

Here's a third story. This one is most personal.

A third reason I may be struggling is American politics. I remain shell-shocked by the 81% of 11/9/16. Although I was only evangelical for half of my college years, the house church movement I joined was largely in reaction to evangelical church problems, and it was our shared desire to influence those devout bible readers (to introduce them to vigorous levels of historical context in reading the New Testament) which sparked and fueled my chronological projects in the first place. I have always admired people who are willing to believe whatever christian scripture says, and it's fair to say my chief critique was (and still is) that believers should read scripture more intelligently. BUT I MUST SAY the scandalous support for our current POTUS has brought home to me just how deeply and profoundly the authoritarian movement is anti-intellectual by design. By design. By design.

There seems to be little point in presenting contextual arguments about how to read scripture with any groups of people whose leaders are SO HEAVILY predetermined to enforce dogma with whatever justifications are convenient. Okay, it's not like that whole concept was a revelation. Obviously, I'd seen that lots of times before 2016. What has shaken me so deeply is the extremity of justification, the intensity of blindness, the sheer willfulness of the ignorance. Most shocking perhaps was the number of my fellow former Edwardians who have fallen for POTUS45's authoritarian baloney. One of many things that drew me to Gene Edwards was the intelligence of his analysis. I am deeply disappointed to realize how many of our brethren were (evidently) drawn to his style of confident declaration (which I saw as an allowable defect, until my history project grew serious enough to make dogma unnecessary). My only other sad complaint about the old gang is our high divorce rate; the all-in ecclesial experiment was rough on family life, but I never dreamed so many couples would go bust. I still love the old man and I'll still defend him on many points to this day because most of those who complain about Gene have profoundly misunderstood him. Still, the crowd one draws is revealing. Apparently, our movement was more authoritarian than I ever supposed. Oh well, nobody's perfect.

Enough digression. Here is the one point of all these three stories.

These days, I struggle to continue believing that contextual reading of scripture will ever make much of an impact on the way Christians approach God and do church. Maybe it will for a few. Maybe it was never going to for most. The most I can muster, some days, is a stubborn hope that persisting in my past belief is a worthy endeavor. Maybe I'm just in a down swing. Maybe the long term results will prove that my earliest hopes were well founded. Maybe so. I hope so. I just don't feel it that much anymore.

Deep down, I still care just as much. I'm just not sure whether I'm doing anyone any good.

In this regard, it may be fortunate that I shifted gears, around 2009, in deciding my primary mission field would be communicating with NT scholars, rather than devout bible readers. None of them asked, but I do know that I have seen a problem and I do know that I have found a solution. Therefore, I believe I will most likely persist in trying to upgrade and publish my work, out of sheer stubbornness if not passion or duty. 

Hopefully, a future time is coming when more people will care.

If I can get through this bear of a thesis, I may return to caring more myself.

Good Lord, Academia is difficult.

Anon, then...
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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton