Religious Movies for Atheists

The movie Noah (2014) was released a few years ago, and I suppose I shall watch it eventually, but quite frankly, I have not been able to work up much enthusiasm for it.  I have seen a lot of biblical films.  In fact, I believe I have seen just about every Moses or Jesus movie ever made. But I have yet to see one that I enjoyed. And so I started wondering:  What is it about biblical films that I do not like?  Is it that the stories in the Bible never happened, at least not the way they were set down?  That cannot be it, for I like all sorts of movies about things that never happened.  Perhaps it is because the movies diverge from the original myth, which is one of the criticisms I have heard leveled against Noah.  But dramatists have been changing stories to suit their purposes since Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon, and often for the better.  Maybe it is the existence of supernatural beings that bothers me.  But that did not ruin Jason and the Argonauts (1963) for me, or, for that matter, The Exorcist (1973), a movie that definitely presupposes the truth of Christianity.

Maybe it is not truth that is critical, but morality.  Bill Maher has condemned the movie Noah in that it depicts God as a “psychotic mass murderer.”  In fact, such criticism is hardly limited to the story of Noah.  There is much in The Old Testament attributed to God that we regard as immoral today.  But I enjoy movies about immoral people, so why not immoral gods?  The gods of Greek mythology are often immoral, but that never spoils our enjoyment of the stories told about them.

I believe the problem is one of attitude.  Biblical movies invariably suffer from the oppressive weight of reverence, the sense that we are supposed to stand in awe of God, that we must bow our heads, fall to our knees, and worship him in all his glory. I get queasy just thinking about it.  Some people are atheists because they are unable believe that God exists; some are atheists because they are unable to believe that God is good; but some are atheists because they are unable to get down on their knees and abase themselves. This last reason, though it seldom gets as much attention as the first two, I believe to be characteristic of atheism in general, whatever the primary reason for disbelief.

Moving beyond biblical movies, it is primarily this feature that distinguishes religious movies that atheists might enjoy from ones they cannot.  A good example of this is The Godless Girl (1929).  Judy and Bob are high school students.  Judy is a militant atheist, who holds meetings ridiculing religion, accompanied by a monkey as a prop, whom she refers to as our cousin.  Bob is a Christian fundamentalist who leads a bunch of like-minded fanatics on a raid of one of those meetings.  A melee breaks out, during which a girl dies accidentally.  Bob and Judy are sent to a reform school.  After enduring much brutality, they escape and fall in love.  While bathing in a river, Judy admires the beauty of nature, made no less beautiful by a naked Judy, and she thinks how she might almost believe in a God who created it.  Bob, on the other hand, recalling all horrors of the reform school, says there is no way he can believe in a God who would allow such things to happen.  So far there is balance between the two.  But notwithstanding the fact that this is a pre-Code movie, I knew that it would be required that Judy pray to God before the movie was over.  I thought of San Francisco (1936) and The Spiral Road (1962), where the atheists in those two movies eventually kneel and humble themselves before God, and so I braced myself for the inevitable.

They are captured and returned to the reform school.  Bob is handcuffed to the bench in his cell, but Judy is handcuffed to a pipe above her head.  Within the movie, this was just another act of cruelty perpetrated by the guard.  But from outside the movie, it just did not make sense, since handcuffed like that she would not be able to use the bucket, but would have to foul her pants when she needed to defecate.  I suspected there was a reason this was put in the movie, but I could not figure out what it was.  But soon all was revealed. A fire breaks out in the reform school, and Judy is forgotten about as the flames close in around her.  In desperation, she prays.  It is a conditional kind of prayer, not exactly expressing full belief, but more importantly, she cannot kneel.  She thus retains her dignity, literally standing tall, and thus figuratively as well.

After Judy is saved by Bob, they rescue the brutal guard, whose dying wish is that they be pardoned, and so they are.  As they ride away from the prison, Bob curses the foul place, but Judy says that it was in that prison that they learned to believe, and let believe.  It is not clear exactly what each believes at this point, but they will clearly tolerate each other’s views, whatever they may be.  More importantly, because we were not treated to a vulgar display of humiliation and self-abasement on the part of Judy, this is a movie an atheist can enjoy, regardless of what Judy may or may not believe in the end.

In a sense, this aversion to the posture of worship and reverence extends well beyond the nonbeliever and into the general population.  The typical hero in a movie may believe in God, but the subject rarely comes up.  He certainly does not regularly attend church on Sundays. And as for Bible study in the middle of the week?  Don’t be absurd.  Unless the movie is biblical, or at least set in the distant past, if a character is excessively devout and pious, he usually turns out to be a hypocrite or a fool, as in Elmer Gantry (1960) or Inherit the Wind (1960).  Of course, women in the movies are allowed to be more religious than men without suffering any disparagement, and in such a case, her husband can go along, so to speak, as in Friendly Persuasion (1956) or Tender Mercies (1983).  But if it is the man who is more religious than his wife, then watch out, especially if he has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his fingers. In any event, if the general audience enjoys seeing excessively religious figures in a bad light, then all the more so can such be enjoyed by atheists.  But movies mocking the devout are not really religious movies, and thus do not count, just as movies about the Devil, like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Angel Heart (1987) do not count.  Finally, irreligious movies like Bedazzled (1967) or Religulous (2008) do not count either.

Rather, what I have in mind are religious movies that are inspirational, generating those feelings often associated with religion in a positive sense, and yet in such a way as can be enjoyed by an atheist.  The Razor’s Edge (1946) is well known and requires little comment. The fact that the principal character gets much of his inspiration from his trip to India, thereby stepping outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, may account for its being palatable to atheists. Groundhog Day (1993) would make an excellent Christmas movie were it not for the fact that the story is firmly attached to February 2.  Much like the notion of reincarnation, Bill Murray has to keep reliving the same day over and over again until he makes enough spiritual progress to move on.  Except for one brief upward-looking gesture on the part of Murray, when a homeless man dies, the role of God, or belief in such, is practically nonexistent.

A less well-known movie is Strange Cargo (1940).  God, in human form, slips into a penal colony and joins a bunch of prisoners in an escape, along with a prostitute. Each of them, with one exception, comes to repent his wickedness and transcend his selfish nature.  God seems to act only as a catalyst, employing no supernatural powers, and even has to be saved from drowning by Clark Gable.  Needless to say, this God demands no worship, reverence, or self-abasement.

Finally, there is an unusual religious movie that an atheist can enjoy, although it is not inspirational (at least, I hope not), and is not ruled out by any of my criteria, like being about the Devil or being sacrilegious.  The movie is Gabriel Over the White House (1933), set in the early thirties, during the Great Depression.  The president is like Warren G. Harding, a man of dubious morals.  He believes in limited government, saying unemployment and organized crime are local matters, which gives him more time to fool around with his mistress.  Being reckless, he crashes his car while speeding, and ends up in a coma.  Gabriel infuses the spirit and wisdom of God into the president, and then wakes him up.  He becomes a dictator with the symbolic trappings of Lincoln.  He disbands Congress under threat of martial law, puts the unemployed to work, suspends habeas corpus, has gangsters rounded up and executed by firing squad, and that is just his domestic policy.  Then he demands that the European countries pay their war debts, which they will be able to afford, because they don’t need a military anymore, they just need to do what America says, or else they will be destroyed. Having established peace and prosperity, he dies.  And what is important is that throughout this fascist fantasy, though inspired by God, he never goes to church or gets on his knees to pray, and thus the movie is devoid of any sense of reverence or worship.

So there are religious movies an atheist can enjoy, but they are for the most part set in modern times, because the general public is not too keen on seeing displays of sincere piety and devotion in the modern setting either. The public’s tolerance for this sort of thing, however, increases the further back one goes into the past, until we reach biblical times, where it is deemed appropriate and even expected, and thus likely to prove insufferable to an atheist. It is for this reason that I look forward to watching Noah with a sense of dread.

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Warren Buffett Predicts Dow 1,000,000 in 100 Years

It sounds as though Warren Buffett is pretty bullish on America. He has optimistically predicted that the Dow Jones Industrial Average will be over 1,000,000 in 100 years.  But what does this actually amount to? Let i be the annualized rate of return for the Dow over the next century.  The Dow closed today at 22,413.  So, we have the following:

22,413 (1 + ) ^ 100 = 1,000,000

(1 + ) ^ 100 = 44.6

(1 + ) = 44.6 ^ (1/100)

(1 + ) = 1.039

= 0.039 = 3.9%

In other words, Warren Buffett might just as easily have said that the annualized return on the stock market over the next 100 years will be less than 4%.  But you can’t grab headlines with a lackluster prediction like that.

Alice Adams (1935)

The title character of Alice Adams, played by Katherine Hepburn, is a young woman who lives in a small town named South Renford. At first, it appears to be the strangest small town you ever saw, because everyone seems to be rich except the Adams family. Alice gets invited to dances and parties by rich women, but she cannot afford to dress the way they do. The rich men never ask her out, so she has to coerce her brother Virgil to escort her. At the dance, the rich men prefer to dance with rich women, and as her brother deserts her, she is left alone and comes across as a wallflower. In other words, we never see other young women of working class background for her to be friends with, and we never see working class men ask her out for a date. What an odd town.

Of course, we know that this cannot be. No town is like that. In fact, there are bound to be far more working class families than rich ones: young women of her own class to be friends with; young men of her own class to date. Moreover, it is clear that her brother does stick to his own class. He even enjoys shooting craps with black servants, and at the dance, he greets the black bandleader, who in turn is happy to see him. They obviously know each other from nightclubs where working class people go to have fun. But not Alice. In fact, she is mortified when her brother says “Hi” to the bandleader.

To put it bluntly, Alice is a big phony. And yet, we know we are supposed to feel sorry for her. To a certain extent we do. We all know how young people desperately want things that really don’t matter, and it is painful to watch her suffer so from pretending to be something she is not, especially when we also know that she could be happy, if she just let all that go. In fact, that is why we never see young women of her own class inviting her to parties or young men of her own class asking her out. If we did, and she snubbed them, we would despise her. But by making it look as though she lives in a town where everyone is rich but her and her family, absurd as that is, we are more forgiving, because we are led to believe that she has no such opportunities.

At the dance, Alice meets Arthur (Fred MacMurray), who seems to be quite taken with her, but she is just as much of a phony with him as with everyone else. It is hard to understand what he sees in her.

But while we are trying to overlook Alice’s affectations as the folly of youth, we discover that her mother, apparently in her fifties, is just as foolish as Alice in such matters. Instead of encouraging Alice to stay within her class, she berates her husband for not making more money so that Alice can continue to socialize with the town’s upper crust. So much for the wisdom that supposedly comes with age.

Alice’s father is recovering from a long illness. His boss, Mr. Lamb, continues to pay him a salary and holds his job open for him, and her father wants to go back to work there when he gets better. But Alice’s mother pushes him to go into business by starting a glue factory, based on a formula that actually seems to belong to his boss, inasmuch as Alice’s father discovered it on company time.

What we are hoping for is that Alice will realize how foolish she has been. Instead, the movie justifies her. Virgil gets into a jam and steals $150 from Mr. Lamb, whom he also works for, probably to pay off a gambling debt. In other words, we can no longer admire Virgil for being content to fraternize with those in his class, thereby making it seem right for Alice to avoid such people as unworthy.

Anyway, with Alice’s father stealing the glue formula and Alice’s brother stealing the money, Mr. Lamb shows up at the Adams house to let them have a piece of his mind. It all looks pretty grim. But Alice tells him that it is all her and her mother’s fault for pushing her father to make more money. Mr. Lamb is magnanimous, willing to let Alice’s father have his job back when he gets well, willing to give them time to pay back the $150, and willing to let Alice’s father share in the profits from the glue formula.

But we should note that while Alice takes responsibility for her and her mother pushing her father to start a glue factory, she gives no indication that her desire to hobnob with rich society was an unworthy goal, only that she and her mother should not have pushed her father to make more money.

Ultimately, she has learned nothing. We had hoped that she would quit being a phony, make friends with women in her own class, and fall in love with a man who is also from a working class background. But no. The movie rewards her phoniness by having Arthur fall in love with her and want to marry her. Because he is one of the elite, and presumably has plenty of money, she will get what she always wanted, inclusion in the upper class of South Renford.  Now she can be the real thing.

Rich and Strange (1931)

Rich and Strange is a second-rate movie, made all the more disappointing by the fact that it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  We expect more from Hitchcock, so we feel let down when we watch one of his inferior films.  Because the movie fails to fully engross us, keeping us completely within the movie as it were, we are freed up to reflect upon the subject matter outside the movie.  That is to say, we find ourselves thinking about life.

Fred is disgruntled.  He is tired of his job, the routine of domesticity, and the kind of entertainment afforded them by the radio and the movies.  Emily, his wife, appears to be satisfied with their situation, but he is frustrated that he cannot provide for her properly.  But mostly, he wants the “good things of life.”  There is a painting of a ship that he points to, indicating that he wants adventure.  He is irritated that Emily seems so content, thinking she ought to want more.  In his exasperation, he flings something at their cat to get him off the table.  Finally, he concludes, “I think the best place for us is a gas oven.”  If this movie had been made in the aftermath of World War II, that would have been much too heavy a line, but as it was made in 1931, Fred presumably is only suggesting that they would be better off if they committed suicide by sticking their heads in a gas oven.  Needless to say, Emily is appalled, noting that they have a plenty of food and a roof over their heads.  And needless to say, Fred is not impressed.

A common plot point in a fairy tale is for someone to get his wish, only for things to go terribly wrong.  Presumably, the point is to make us content with our lot.  In any event, as in a fairy tale, a letter arrives from Fred’s uncle, who has decided to give Fred an advance on his inheritance so that he can travel and enjoy life to the full.  They set sail from England, heading first to France before eventually ending up in the Far East.

On board the ship, Fred gets seasick, leaving Emily enough free time to make friends with Commander Gordon, with whom she soon falls in love, though hesitantly.  Fred finally recovers, meets a princess, with whom he soon falls in love without any hesitation whatsoever.  He is so obvious about it that Emily forms an even stronger attachment to Gordon.

At this point, a word seems necessary about the movie’s philosophy of love.  Emily asks Gordon if he has ever been in love, and he replies, “No, I can’t say that I have.”  Gordon is played by Percy Marmont, an actor who was about thirty-eight years old at the time, so we can figure that Gordon is supposed to be a man in his thirties as well.  The idea that a man could reach that age never having been in love is preposterous.  So, we have to assume that what most of us would call “love,” this movie would dismiss as puppy love, infatuation, or simply lust.  In other words, this movie has an idealistic notion of love, from which vantage point it is assumed that the only way for a man to still be a bachelor in his thirties would be if either he had never truly been in love, or if his true love was unrequited, something he never completely got over.

At the same time, Emily espouses a grim view of love.  She says that because she loves Fred, she wants him to think well of her, but because he is so clever, he frequently makes her feel foolish.  In other words, he belittles her with his “cleverness.”  She goes on to say that love makes people timid.  They are frightened when they are happy and sadder when they are sad.  Everything is multiplied by two, such as sickness and death.  That’s why she is so happy with Gordon, she says, because he is not clever, and if he were to tire of talking to her and excuse himself, it would not be a big deal.  They agree that it is lucky they are not in love.  But then she concludes that love is a wonderful thing.  In other words, love justifies all the misery it puts people through, which is an essential feature of this movie’s sentimental notions of love.

Things eventually reach the point where Fred and the princess are going to run off together, and Emily is going to leave Fred and marry Gordon.  But Gordon makes the mistake of telling Emily how much he despises Fred, that he is a sham, just a “great baby masquerading as a big, strong man.”  He then goes on to mention that the “princess” is actually an adventuress who wants Fred only for his money.  That brings out Emily’s pity.  She leaves Gordon to go back to Fred, noting at one point that a wife is more than half a mother to her husband.

When she gets back to their room, she finds Fred and the princess making arrangements to leave.  Speaking sotto voce, the princess tells Emily she was a fool not to go with Gordon, for then both women would have benefited, after which she leaves, ostensibly to let Fred and Emily speak to each other alone.  Now, Gordon may have made a mistake bad mouthing Fred to Emily, but she turns around and not only tells Fred what Gordon said, but that she realized he was telling the truth, so that’s why she came back to him.  When she repeats to Fred that Gordon said he was a sham and a bluff, Fred says he ought to smash him.  But Emily says that Gordon wouldn’t be afraid of him because he knows that Fred is a coward.  The reason she came back, she says, is that she now realizes that all along she had dressed up his faults as virtues, and that he would be lost without her.  Well, Fred would have to be the cowardly worm Emily says he is in order for him to remain married to her after she said all that.

Meanwhile, the princess takes off with 1000 pounds of Fred’s money (about $77,000 today).  Almost broke, they catch a cheap ship to get back home, but it almost sinks and they are abandoned.  But a Chinese junk comes along, the crew of which are intent on salvage.  Fred and Emily board the ship.  One of the crew gets tangled up in the lines, struggles, and then drowns.  The rest of the crew simply watch, with no one making a move to help him.  Back in those days, it was believed that people in the Orient were indifferent to the suffering of others, and this movie reflects that notion.

While Fred and Emily are on the Chinese junk, a woman has a baby. From the way they look at each other, there seems to be the suggestion that Fred and Emily are inspired to have a baby themselves, now that they are reconciled. Back home, Fred wonders whether they can get a “pram” (baby carriage) up the stairs, and Emily responds that they are going to have to get a bigger place anyway, presumably because they will need an extra bedroom.  So, it looks as though the baby is a done deal.

But I could not help wondering, “Whose baby is it?” The movie is not explicit about how far these two went with their philandering, although one gets the sense that Fred and the “princess” went all the way, while Emily and Gordon never went beyond kissing. But with these old movies, so much is left to the imagination that it is hard to tell.

Then again, even if we assume that Emily and Gordon did not have sex, I can’t help but wonder how long it will take Fred to start wondering whose baby it is.

And in any event, if Fred gets so irritated with their cat, what is he going to be like when the squalling baby arrives?

Are we really supposed to regard this as a happy ending?

Is Hate Innate?

In the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Barack Obama quoted Nelson Mandela in a tweet:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

In addition, Nikki Haley issued an email to her staff condemning the hatred in that same event, noting that “People aren’t born with hate.”  These remarks are in response to President Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists generally, who are undoubtedly filled with hatred for blacks and Jews especially, but for anyone who is not white or not Christian.  But what caught my attention here is the fact that Obama and Haley were not content merely to condemn hate; they went further and insisted that we are not born with hate.

Presumably, they suppose that by denying the innate existence of hate, they are making some kind of case against hatred. However, as they do not explicitly make that case themselves, it is left to us to try to figure out what they have in mind and what they suppose it proves.  Hopefully, their point is not that babies do not emerge from the womb filled with hate for people of a different race or religion, for that would be a simpleminded argument against a position that no one has ever held. Rather, the only interesting question is whether people are born with a disposition to hate, an emotion that will become manifest under certain circumstances.  In other words, the question is whether people are born with a natural inclination to have feelings of enmity toward those who are different. Therefore, let us be generous and suppose not that Obama and Haley were making a case about what the newborn baby is thinking and feeling before the umbilical cord has even been cut, but rather that they are saying that there is no innate disposition to hate which may express itself as the child grows up.

Obama and Haley would seem to be of the same frame of mind as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  In his book Émile, Rousseau averred that “all is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things, all degenerates in the hands of men.”  In an earlier work, Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Men, he argued that it is civilization that has corrupted man; for in a state of nature, he is noble and good. For writing such things, Rousseau was accused of impiety by the archbishop of Paris, because his assertion that man is basically good contradicted the doctrine of original sin, which held that man was basically evil. The question as to whether man is basically good or evil is not the same as the question as to whether man has a natural inclination to love or to hate, but they are close cousins.

Given that Obama and Haley do not believe people are born with a disposition to hate, we do not know, unfortunately, whether they believe that people are born with a disposition to love.  But given the readiness with which a baby comes to love its mother and the universal tendency for people to fall in love later in life, hopefully they do accept that at least love is innate.  But to say as much for love, yet deny the same for hate would be bizarre.  In defending the doctrine of original sin, St. Augustine pointed out that if babies had the size and strength of adults, they would be monsters.  In his Confessions, he says:

Who can recall to me the sins I committed as a baby?  For in your [God’s] sight no man is free from sin, not even a child who has lived only one day on earth….  If babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.

I have myself seen jealousy in a baby and know what it means.  He was not old enough to talk, but whenever he saw his foster-brother at the breast, he would grow pale with envy….  Such faults are not small or unimportant….  It is clear that they are not mere peccadilloes, because the same faults are intolerable in older persons.

It may be that Obama and Haley are trying to say in their incomplete way that while indeed people have innate dispositions to love and to hate, the object of their love or hatred is not inherited but acquired.  In the old days, when marrying well was an important goal for young women, it was often said that they went to college to get their MRS; for while no one can be taught to love one person rather than another, it is nevertheless true that we tend to fall in love with someone we are around a lot rather than someone we run into only occasionally.  Love, that is to say, cannot be taught, but it can be encouraged and abetted.

In a similar manner, hate cannot be taught, but it can be encouraged and abetted. But only up to a point.  My grandfather belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. My father never joined, but he would have fit right in.  And he used to say, regarding the Jews, that Hitler had the right idea.  Raised in the Jim Crow South, I was taught not to use the water fountains or restrooms marked “Colored.”  I observed the rule much in the same way that I used the silverware at the dinner table in the proper manner. But my heart was never in it.  I have often thought that many of us in the Jim Crow South really did not believe in segregation, but we went along with it in order not to incur the wrath of those who were filled with hatred for blacks. So when integration was finally imposed on the South, it met with no resistance from people like us. Had all whites hated blacks, the Civil Rights movement would have failed. But as the haters were in the minority, it succeeded.  The main point of all this, however, is that while I was taught to hate blacks and Jews, I never did. In other words, people are born with varying dispositions to love and to hate, and those dispositions can be stronger than the influence of education.

Presumably, then, Obama and Haley wish to emphasize the goodness of man and the importance of education in their remarks.  It is an optimistic ideology, for if hate is not innate and if education is efficacious, then we can all look forward to a future in which racism and other forms of discrimination no longer exist.  But I doubt that “love comes more naturally to the human heart than hate.”  It all depends on the heart. Hatred will always be with us, for many people are born with a natural disposition to hate those who are different, and that disposition can be easily reinforced through education and friendship.

Musings on the Market

One of the frustrating things about politics is the sense of futility one gets.  I live in Texas, a winner-take-all state that always goes Republican in a presidential election.  I live in Houston, which has gerrymandered districts in which incumbents almost never lose, mostly because they are never even challenged. The inevitable result is apathy, a reasonable attitude to have regarding something beyond one’s control.  I manage to overcome this apathy just enough to vote the straight Democratic ticket, but that is about all.  As most of the people I play bridge with are Republicans, the opportunity does arise occasionally for a discussion of politics. Theoretically, there is the possibility that a nice argument might persuade someone to reconsider his political views, but as a practical matter, it never seems to happen.

In many ways, one also gets a sense of futility when it comes to the economy. As with politics, there is nothing I can do about America’s fiscal policy or the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, and there is nothing I can do about whether Obamacare will be repealed or whether there will be tax cuts for the rich, except to become more apathetic.  As with politics, I can engage in discussions of economics with the Republicans I play bridge with, though without any hope of persuading anyone to my point of view.  Occasionally, when my partner and I are down by over a thousand points, I will casually remark between hands that I think it would be a good idea to raise taxes and cut defense; for my Republican friends are not apathetic, and there is the hope that my offending comment will be so disturbing as to throw them off their game.  I actually think it has worked once or twice.

Unlike voting in an election, where there is the nagging feeling that that one’s vote does not count, one’s vote when it comes to personal finances can have consequences of great significance.  Far from producing a feeling of apathy, making decisions about one’s own money can produce a great deal of anxiety and insomnia. You can read all the books you like, allowing others to persuade you to invest your money one way or another, but when it comes to time to buy or sell, you don’t have to persuade anybody.  The stakes are high, and you are on your own.

In one sense, I am quite fortunate.  The amount of money I have saved in combination with my Social Security checks is adequate for the necessities and a few luxuries.  So far.  There is a lot of longevity in my family, so even though I am seventy years old, I may have to support myself for decades. And that means that if I make a mistake with my money, I may find myself facing a hard old age.

Until recently, I had been rather sanguine about my investments.  The stock market had been advancing nicely since 2009, and the dividends I had been collecting had been giving me a warm feeling of security.  But then things started becoming worrisome.  The stock market, by many metrics, had become overvalued. The “Trump bump” made it even more so.  The Federal Reserve had started raising interest rates, and they are talking about unwinding their four-and-a-half trillion dollar balance sheet.  And then, on March 4, 2017, Trump tweeted that Obama tapped his phones and that Obama was bad or sick. That was the proverbial last straw.  I said to myself, “This will never end well,” and on Monday, March 6, I sold every share of stock I had.  But now, instead of those nice dividends, the interest I get having all my money in a money market fund is less than one percent, which in turn is less than inflation, giving me a real return that is negative.  So, instead of worrying about a bear market, I now have to worry about declining principal.

Anyway, among the Republicans I play bridge with, there are several retired financial advisers.  One in particular made the usual arguments, to wit, that no one can successfully time the market, that I won’t know when to get back in, that buy and hold has worked over the long haul, and so on, arguments that I have been familiar with and accepted for forty years. And since, according to my calculations, the gains in the stock market since I got out plus dividends I would have received amount to an opportunity cost to me of five percent, this financial adviser has been giving me a none too subtle raspberry for the last five months.

Of course, financial advisers are biased.  Even if a financial adviser knew that going to cash was the right thing to do, he could never recommend such action to his clients.  After about six months to a year of being in cash, receiving a paltry interest rate, which would be more than swallowed up by fees, it would likely occur to a client that if his money is just going to sit there in a money market fund, he doesn’t need a financial adviser at all. Then, after the passage of another six months or so, after the client had moved on to another financial adviser, who would have put him right back into the stock market, suppose that same stock market began a precipitous forty or fifty percent decline.  The original financial adviser would finally be vindicated, but it would be too late; for having lost all his clients owing to prudence, however justified, he would have long since had to find another line of work.

For the most part, having your money in the stock market is the right thing to do. Buy and hold, dollar cost averaging, reinvesting dividends—all these things pay off over the long haul.  So, financial advisers are basically doing the right thing by keeping their clients in the stock market.  But what occurred to me in all this is that what is appropriate for someone who is young or even middle age may be completely inappropriate for someone who is retired.  Actually, this is an established principle, which is why people are advised to put increasing amounts of their portfolio in bonds as they age. Would that I could!  But the interest on even long term bonds is pretty paltry right now, thanks to all that quantitative easing. Moreover, if interest rates rise, as surely they might, those bonds will lose value, and so there may be just as much risk in ten-year bonds as in the stock market.

The thing is, when I was working for a living, I could regard a decline in the stock market with dispassion.  I didn’t need my investments to live on, because I had an income.  In fact, I would continue putting my savings into the stock market and reinvesting dividends, because, as they say, the stock market was going on sale. But that is no longer true.  Now, I must dip into my savings to fund my retirement. And that creates an uneasy feeling.

My bridge partner has been retired for about a year now, and she is talking about going back to work.  It is my impression that she has plenty of money, much more than I do, in fact, but I think I may know the reason.  After a lifetime of adding to her savings, she is now bothered by having to make monthly withdrawals from her nest egg.  Like me, I am sure she has recalculated her finances to reassure herself that she will have enough money to last the rest of her life, even if she lives to be a hundred-and-three years old.  But drawing down on one’s savings is spooky, and she may need the feeling of security that income from employment brings.

The financial adviser who has been giving me raspberry for getting out of the market says that all I need to do is keep five years’ worth of living expenses in cash and invest the rest. That used to be my thinking.  And since I retired in 2007, just before the Great Recession, it is well that I observed that rule. But five years is not always enough.  Depending on the index you use (Dow Jones 30 or S&P 500) and depending on whether you just look at the nominal values or reinvest dividends and adjust for inflation, if you had money in the stock market in the late 1960s, it would be anywhere from fourteen to twenty years before you broke even.  If you had money in the stock market in 1929, it would be somewhere between twenty-five and thirty years before you got your money back.  And if you were in the Japanese stock market in 1989, then today, twenty-eight years later, you would still have lost half your money.

Let us be conservative and pick the least amount of time from these three examples, which is fourteen years.  That would mean that if I had five years’ worth of living expenses in cash and the rest in the stock market, then after five years I would have to start selling my stocks at depressed prices and continue to do so for the next nine years, almost guaranteeing that I would run out of money, if I lived another twenty or thirty years.  And God forbid that a Great Depression or Nikkei scenario of twenty to thirty years of depressed prices should be my fate.

The way I see it, there are three phases to saving and investing. In the beginning, there is the saving phase.  For the first few thousand dollars you save, it doesn’t matter what return you get.  The important thing is that you are saving the money, even if it just sits in your bank account.  The second is the return on investment phase, where the amount of return you get is important in order to benefit from the miracle of compound interest.  Third, there is the capital preservation phase, where keeping what you have is more important than getting a return.  That is where I am right now.  If there is never another recession or bear market in my lifetime, if this bull market goes up and up forever, and if I have to suffer raspberries from that financial adviser every time we play bridge, at least I will not run out of money (barring some catastrophe, like my having a stroke and having to go into a nursing home).  But if I got back into the stock market now, and if a bear market like any of the three I mentioned should occur, I would soon be impoverished.

From this I dare to generalize.  The baby boomers have had an impact on society and the economy from the time they were born owing to their overwhelming numbers.  Of those that are now retired, many of them will be in my shape: maybe a little better, like my bridge partner; maybe a little worse. But they will be as sensitive to and as fearful of running out of money as I am. They may be in the stock market now, desperate for yield, but the need of retired baby boomers to get out of the stock market will be much greater when it starts to go down in a big way than when they were still working for a living and could better stand the declines. In other words, the mega-bear market I fear may be exacerbated by the fact that many baby boomers have so much more to lose by being in the stock market now that they are retired, and thus will be more likely to panic and sell everything as the market descends.

Whenever I read essays on investing, there is often a disclaimer at the end that has something to do with the essay not being advice to invest this way or that.  I suppose the purpose of it is to keep the author from being sued.  I guess I should do the same.  I wrote this essay merely to put my thoughts down on electronic paper and present them to others for their consideration and possible amusement.

The Green Pastures (1936)

It is impossible to watch The Green Pastures simply as a movie.  We cannot help but think of it as an artifact, an historical document reflecting attitudes toward African Americans in the 1930s, inasmuch as this movie has an all-black cast.  Furthermore, the movie is religious in nature, reflecting the understanding that African Americans had of Christianity back then; or rather, the understanding that whites had of the understanding that blacks had of Christianity:  for certainly, this is a movie for white audiences primarily and black audiences only incidentally.  This means that our attitude toward Christianity will intrude on our viewing of this movie just as much as our attitude toward representations of African Americans.

The attitude toward African Americans in this movie is that they are a childlike race, holding simple, naïve beliefs.  The movie begins on a Sunday morning, when the children are being rounded up for Sunday school.  The preacher is telling the children about how things all began, and as he does so, the camera closes in on the eyes of a child, just before the movie presents us with a representation of what was going on in Heaven before the Creation.  In other words, what we are seeing is to be understood as doubly childlike:  the conception of Heaven held by a child belonging to a childlike race.  Moreover, the child is a girl, and prejudice against the feminine intellect may also be at play here, further intensifying the idea that what we are about to witness is naïve.

Heaven as imagined by those in the Sunday school is one in which the angels seem to be having one long picnic and fish fry.  Presumably there is sex in Heaven too, because there are little angel children running about and references to mammies.  And there is even dancing on Saturday night.  I know what you’re thinking.  How could there be a Saturday before the Creation?  But this is just one of the many anachronisms and impossibilities in this movie, which goes with the simple faith of the uneducated “Negro.”  In fact, watching the stories of the Bible told anachronistically is part of this movie’s charm.  It is worth noting that even though all the angels are black, their wings are white.  I guess the association between white and goodness on the one hand and black and evil on the other was too strong to be resisted, even in a movie like this.  Angels with black wings would look like demons from Hell.

A more serious question might be the following:  with Heaven being such a wonderful form of existence, why would God create an Earth full of sin and suffering?  But that is a question one could raise without ever having seen this movie.  We cannot expect this movie to solve the problem of evil when theologians have been struggling with it for centuries.  Rather, I prefer to focus on what I believe is a novel answer provided by this movie to a problem that has bedeviled many a Christian.  The Jehovah of the Old Testament is a god of wrath and vengeance whereas the Jesus of the New Testament is a god of love and mercy.  This would make sense if Jesus were literally the son of Jehovah, distinct from his father.  But as we know, Jesus and Jehovah are one and the same.  Of course, in Revelations, the final book of the Bible, Jesus and Jehovah are united in the way they deal out death and destruction, condemning vast portions of mankind to eternal suffering in Hell, more cruel and bloodthirsty than Jehovah ever was by himself in the Old Testament.  But most people prefer a conception of Jesus as being a god of forgiveness.

Well, in this movie, after years of wreaking havoc on a sinful mankind, drowning most everyone and starting over, only to see people degenerate again into their sinful ways, Jehovah gets fed up and decides to abandon mankind to their misery.  However, there is this man called Hezdrel whose preaching is giving Jehovah a headache, so he goes down to Earth to see what is going on.  Hezdrel, in an anachronistic and impossible manner typical for this movie, says that they no longer believe in a god of wrath.  Now they believe in a god of mercy.  Jehovah asks him where he got the idea of mercy from.  Hezdrel answers, “Through suffering.”  Jehovah goes back to Heaven to reflect on the matter.  He realizes that the only way for him to become a god of mercy is if he suffers himself.

You can almost imagine Jesus saying to himself while growing up:  “Wow, this being a human being is a lot harder than I thought.  Life is just full of misery and suffering.  From now on, I’m going to be more sympathetic to these poor creatures that I created a long time ago.”  And then when he gets nailed to the cross and really finds out about the horrors of existence, he becomes even more determined to be merciful in the future.  In other words, Jesus did not die on the cross for our sins; rather, he suffered on the cross so that he could have some empathy.

Now, for all I know, there is some theologian I have never heard of who advanced this theory a long time ago.  But its presentation in this movie is the first I’ve ever heard of it.  Not that I’m buying it, of course, being the atheist that I am, but at least someone has finally tried to explain how Jehovah and Jesus could possibly be the same God.