Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Treatise in Defense of My Man Card

Note: I am dipping into ‘the file’ again this week. This is an essay I wrote following a coffee break discussion with my co-workers about a year ago. Since I am likely in the midst of a string of film posts, it seemed appropriate.

I recently lost my ‘man card.’ There are a few factors at play here but the primary complaint is that I prefer ‘chick flicks’ to ‘action movies.’ Now let’s frame the issue precisely. Braveheart and Fight Club are my favorite movies. Pulp Fiction and the Matrix are in my top 10. On the other hand Jerry Maguire and Garden State are also in the top 10. I prefer well made movies with subtle but emotive soundtracks, good acting, philosophical themes and redemptive characters. It is immaterial to me whether these are shelved in the action or romance sections at Blockbuster. The problem is that only a couple of movies fit this description come out each year and I watch more movies that that. So the real issue is that if I am going to watch a mediocre or bad movie I would prefer a story about relationships to one with guns, fast cars and explosions.

Why I Watch Movies

I love story. Humans are fundamentally story tellers. Story has been at the center of human culture for millennia. This is actually one of the tragedies of the emergence of visual media as our culture’s dominant choice of entertainment; we have lost much of the narrative nature of our evolved and/or created race. Particularly as our sensibilities grow more postmodern and we reject meta-narrative, the quality of individual narratives seems even more essential. However, there are some in the visual arts that are actually fine story tellers, and I am interested in being involved in the narratives that shape the cultural and moral sensibilities of my society. So I watch movies.

It is therefore my contention that the prevalence of shooting, fast driving, chasing, exploding, punching and other ‘action’ sequences are usually departures from narrative. They are visual stimuli and seldom actually move the story forward in a meaningful way. If 40-70% of a 100 minute movie is comprised of action sequences that only leaves 30 to 60 minutes of story. I feel ripped off. And I think it is fundamentally a lack of imagination and symptomatic of a poor story or story teller.

As inane as chick flicks often are,[1] they do not have the option of shortening their narrative arc by a third or half through choreographed sword play or motorcycle chases. Each scene has to move the characters forward. Dialog is not optional. Relationships must happen (even if they usually happen badly). I prefer this.

Some Thoughts on Manhood

Admirable manhood is a specialized condition of true personhood.[2] My favorite quote on what it is to be a man was written about 1800 years ago by a man name Ignatius.

“I am not yet perfected in Jesus Christ, indeed I am now being invited into discipleship. At last I am well on my way to being a disciple. May nothing seen or unseen fascinate me so that I may happily make my way to Jesus Christ. Fire, cross, struggle with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crunching of the whole body, cruel torments inflicted by the devil – let them come upon me, provide only that I make my way to Jesus Christ. Once arrived there I shall be a man. Allow me to be a follower of my passion, of my God.”

Ignatius believed that passion was the heart of manhood. Being passionate enough about something[3] that life itself (as well as the intact nature of one’s limbs) paled in comparison. This theme emerges in both Braveheart and Fight Club (see inset) in nearly opposite ways and plays significantly into why I particularly appreciate these movies.

Hebrew Scriptures define the marks of manhood as humility, mercy and the love of justice. Since the thin themes of many action films often thrive on the principles of self reliance and revenge they actually depart from my fundamental principals of manhood and there is nothing intrinsically masculine in a preference for them.

Passion and love of justice are immaterial to the enjoyment of watching things blow up. And if the latter rather than the former is the requirement for holding a man card I gladly relinquish it.

Post script: I wrote this ~ a year ago. Then approximately a month ago I found this cartoon on the very good that made a similar observation and an opposite conclusion:

Post post script: For those keeping track at home, that is 2 Firefly/Serenity references in 3 posts. My man card might be in danger but my nerd card is untouchable.

[1] And they do not get a free pass. Romances need an obstacle to keep the couple apart for 80 minutes. In the vast majority of these movies, this obstacle is miscommunication or some one else (often a husband or wife!!!). These are tired and dysfunctional obstacles and also symptomatic of a deficient story teller. Art should ennoble and inspire to the beautiful and heroic. I would be 10 times more likely to watch a movie about trying to make a marriage thrive (something I, with a significant portion of the American population, am currently trying to do) than another movie about falling in love (which was great fun, but I don’t really plan on doing again).
[2] This is a dense and dangerous idea that I am throwing out carelessly. At the heart of feminism is the question of, to what extent, masculinity and femininity are specialized forms of personhood. I am not qualified to speak to this with any authority and my language here is vague and sloppy. I’d ask my deconstructing friends to overlook my imprecision.
[3] In his case and mine, Jesus.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Briony’s Unsatisfying Atonement

In the past couple weeks, in separate conversations, I’ve been asked for recent movie recommendations and found myself almost entirely at a loss. In the last few months I have only seen two movies that I can strongly recommend. Blame the writer’s strike I guess. My wife and I are in possessions of hearts. We were as enamored as any one else with Juno. But the real winner, which stands out all the more in contrast to its almost non-existent competition, was Atonement. When my friend Dan recently got me to unpack why I liked this movie so much, I was surprised by my answer. I loved Atonement because I felt its conclusion was entirely unsatisfying.

Spoiler alert: I do recommend seeing this movie. However, it is the kind of movie where the experience will be significantly diminished by knowing too much about the ending. I suggest postponing this post if you have any interest in the movie but haven’t seen it. I will try to talk in generalities and not give too much away but it will make more sense if you’ve seen the movie.

Atonement follows the life of a precocious pre-teen Briony, who out of childish jealousy tells a pernicious lie. Due to the immanent start of WWII this lie ends up irreparably devastating the lives of the two people she cares about the most. From about the half way point, the movie follows the Briony’s psychological trauma as a young adult and ailing senior as she tries to atone for the damage done. The young woman turns down a spot at Cambridge in favor of a hard life of military nursing. You can almost feel her futile attempt to pile good deeds on some cosmic scale against the dark sin of her childhood. There is a great scene during her nurse’s training where she is scrubbing the floor and then her hands in a Macbethian frenzy. In the background she read a letter to her sister:

Dear Cecilia, Please don’t throw this away without reading it. As you’ll have seen from the notepaper, I’m here at St. Thomas’s, doing my nurses’ training. I decided not to take up my place at Cambridge. I decided I wanted to make myself useful, do something practical. But no matter how hard I work, no matter how long the hours, I can’t escape from what I did and what it meant, the full extent of which I’m only now beginning to grasp. Cee, please write and tell me we can meet. Your sister, Briony.

The movie ends with an interview of an old and dying Briony, who has since become a great novelist. She is still sad and reflective, and reveals that the effects of her childhood lie were actually far more devastating than we had originally believed. But she seemed to have found a troubled peace, a thin ‘atonement,’ in recreating the ruined lives in a work of fiction. She eased her tormented conscience by giving the people she loved the life they could have had were it not for her youthful intervention.

Until the final moments Atonement was gripping and fully emotionally vesting. Every bit of dialogue and every emotion rung true. Joe Wright is quickly becoming one of my favorite film makers and his work was rightly recognized here. This final resolution, however, was entirely unsatisfying and it stood out dramatically against the backdrop of two hours of narrative with emotional resonance.

In my opinion, the stark failure of the ending actually made the movie more powerful. Because, honestly, apart from vicarious atonement Briony had no better option. Giving the tragic characters the lives they were cheated out of in a work of fiction is a hollow atonement, but it was the best available to her. And as the credits rolled the brought with them a wave of despair and emptiness.

The topic of vicarious atonement is not an abstract category for me. I have some experience with the despair of personal responsibility for broken lives. In the summer of ’97, between the time I spent in Nepal and the beginning of grad school in Wisconsin, I worked as an Assistant Program Director at a Mennonite Summer Camp in Lewis County. Towards the end of the summer I was involved in an accident that left a 12 year old in a coma. I cannot articulate the depth of despair. The guilt was soul crushing. I resonated with Briony’s complete lack of resources to atone for her actions.

The story of the accident ends with miraculous grace.[1] The young man made a full recovery. But God does not always choose to do that kind of thing. And what interests me here is the weeks of uncertainty that preceded the boy’s awakening from the coma.[2] No amount of good could have been accumulated to off set the pain I had caused. I needed Atonement from an external source, beyond my resources. And this was the moment at which the gospel was most real to me. Under the unbearable weight of accusation brought by my conscience and socialization[3] I learned to point to the cross. At the center of the story of Jesus is a cosmic transfer of guilt. Never have I found theology more existentially applicable. Our maker has not left us without resources in this broken world, even when we are the ones doing the breaking.

I guess it is my experience with guilt[4] that made the Briony’s solution ring hollow. It may seem a poetic turn or a clever lemonade out of lemons response, but fundamentally it is not a sufficient atonement. And I think the film maker understands this, sending his protagonist into the haze of forgetfulness and death a devastated woman with a thin supporting narrative. And this is why I found it so impactful. Because I have known Atonement. It is powerful and it is sufficient…but only because it was acquired by a champion who is both of those things.
[1] I mean, seriously, have you ever looked at the statistics on how often CPR ‘works.’ It is practically a placebo. And don’t even get me started on people waking from comas or the dismal range of outcomes for those who do survive either CPR or comas.
[2] As well as the question ‘what if he hadn’t?’
[3] Among other more sinister sources.
[4] And here I am speaking of actual, ontological, guilt, not a misplaced or socialized emotion.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Preaching Transcripts and MP3's

I suspected that weeks in which I preach I’d have trouble posting. At least this week it was true. So I have started a secondary site with transcripts from my messages. They tend to be longer than the posts I have been posting here, but they do represent my creative content for the week so I will link to them in case anyone is interested. This week it was a message of the parable of the treasure in the field for FBC’s youth ministry.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Fragments and Links

I think that one thing Nietzsche and Bill Simmons have in commen is much of their best work is actually published in fragments. They are both observers more than orators and the kernel and digressions of their prose are always more interesting than their writing itself. So along those lines, I have collected some observations, quotes and links that do not warrant their own post but that I think are fun or provocative none the less.

"I find that I’m much sadder about the state of Dr. Horrible soul after 43 minutes than I was about Anakin Skywalker’s soul after—what, 12 hours?—of Star Wars I, II, III." -my friend Tom I have to say, I'm a big fan of decentralized production of art and this can only be a step in the right direction
Was anyone else startled by the honesty of "Believe" by The Bravery? Very Camus.
There's a smell of stale fear that's reeking from our skins.
The drinking never stops because the drinks absolve our sins
We sit and grow our roots into the floor
But what are we waiting for?

So give me something to believe
Cause I am living just to breathe
And I need something more
To keep on breathing for
So give me something to believe

"The call to service is often harder to exercise when power is so readily available." -Darrell Bock Commentary on Luke - on the Church's transition from movement to institutions.
It seems to me that the first question in Christian political theory is not what we should do with our power but is power the kind of thing the Church should wield. Power can provide the mirage of a shortcut to change when our mandate is service and proclamation. Bonhoeffer used to say that a church that expends most of its energy fighting for its own rights and struggling for its own existence has already ceased to exist.

My wife's response to the 'I kissed a girl and I liked it' song..."She makes some really good points."

Does anyone else feel disoriented that Stargate Atlantis has a Dr. Keller? The role is played by actress who was Kaylee, the ebulient mechanic from Firefly/Serenity, one of my favorite science fiction characters of all time (who SA is basically wasting as a timid flirt). But every time Shepherd dramatically yells 'go get Dr Keller' I envision the brilliant, bald, senior pastor of Manhattan Pres emerging to save the day.

Wouldn't it be cool if preachers had entrance music like baseball players. OK, it would actually be wrong on so many levels, mostly how it would play into the already problematic celebrity culture of the teaching ministry. But it is fun to think about what songs I would choose. I think I would have to go with "My Exit Unfair" by mewithoutYou or "Crawling" by Linkin Park

Speaking of mewithoutYou, (and here) I have had favorite bands before, but this is my first time as a hard core fan waiting anxiously for each new release, keeping careful track of touring schedules and buying the T-shirt. One of Charis' first words was 'ity bit' as she put her thumbs and pointer fingers together requesting the itsy bitsy spider song. I am convinced she is into spider themed music b/c we went to mwY's Brother Sister concert when Amanda was 39 weeks pregnant. (Incidentally, if you have never seen the look in a guy's eyes who is trying to decide whether he should card a 39 week pregnant woman who wants to get into Slims in a shady part of SF, it is truly a delight).

I think I am going to expand on this idea in a future blog, but Keller (the pastor, not the fictionalcheif of medicine) dropped a fantastically provacative quote the other day: "Christianity is the only religion that does not claim moral superiority of the believers to unbelievers." (paraphrase)

Speaking of moral superiority, I love this website. It is written as a helpful guide for Latinos, Asians and African Americans to negotiating the strange world of liberal Anglo culture: "stuff white people like". #'s 14, 21, 28, 30, 35, 39, 44, 61 and especially 73 (Gentrification) totally nailed me. I love #2 (Religions their parents don't belong to.)

I highly recommend visiting the comments section of my last post. Our friend Tiffany knows us from more life stages than any one else (Beaver Camp, Madison and Buffalo - and she and Josh even visited CA). She is a bona fide English Professor and excellent poet. She has posted an Allentown poem of her own and I couldn't be more honored. For those of you who are wondering what we are talking about with all this bronze angel stuff, Amanda and I lived in this second story dive in downtown Buffalo. It had mold, was under heated, grew icicles on the walls (inside) and is still my favorite place we have ever lived. It was across from a great restaurant/bar called Gabriel's gate which had a large bronze statue of the angel Gabriel with 2 propane torches on top of it. Our window afforded the finest view of Gabriel in Buffalo. The first time i saw it at night I thought the building was on fire.

Rilo Kelly's "Pictures of Success" is one of the best songs I've happened on in a while. I love the verse:
I've had it with you
And Mexico can f%@&ing wait
And all of those French films about trains
'Cause I’m not scared
But I’d like some extra spare time
I'm not scared
But the bills keep changing colors
Bills changing colors to convey various levels of lateness and urgency is such a visceral image of uncertainty and upheaval.

A friend recently said ‘profanity is the crutch of the inarticulate.’ I understand his point. But for those of us who love words, though we tire of their overuse, taboo words are too rich and powerful to completely set aside.

I actually think this guy is an atheist and many of these dioramas (for lack of a better term) are actually deconstructions or decenterings of the text. His intent is clearly to undermine the Biblical narrative by highlighting the sex and violence. But he just does such a great job. He parses of the description of Solomon’s Canaanite wives and concubines he could fit as many images of his extensive Lego sex scene as possible (and props to him as Lego's are not known for being particularly limber). And honestly, this gets at the heart of the narrative. Solomon wisdom was no match for his sexual apatite. Intelligence is not a particularly helpful weapon against moral failure (and may actually be a detriment). The Bible is a remarkably honest book. Prudes tend to make poor exegetes.

All of this talk of Legos reminds me of the very good Death Star Canteen sketch. It is fun to think about how many levels of management there must have been between Vader and the guy who hands out trays in the Death Star Cafeteria.

Speaking of an exegete who is not a favorite Mark Driscoll line of late: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas...unless its itchy."

If there are two kinds of people, those who think the Flobots are a gimmick and those who think they are an immensely talented and refreshingly contemplative hip hop act, count me in category 2. Love the muted trumpet. Love the themes.

Eminem is a technical virtuoso. But his stuff just ends up making me sad. His creative genius is obscured by his lack of emotional maturity.

A movie like "The Kingdom" wants me to believe it is a deconstruction because of the heavy handed moral ambiguity of the ending (which was about as subtle as the rat at the end of "The Departed"). But if you make a movie that is 60% gunplay and Jenifer Garner's pouty lips...and market it as 98% those may assuage your conscience by your quaint little deconstruction - but you are just war profiteering.

And on the topic of action movies that try become message pieces with a brief post script...I finally saw "Lord of War". Unlike the tobacco lobbyist in ‘Thank You For Smoking’ I never felt a thing for Cage's protagonist. But it did have 3 very interesting lines
"She didn't know I existed. I was beginning to think she had a point."
"Maybe that's what I can't escape. You can fight a lot of enemies and win. But you can't fight your biology."
"They say evil prevails when good men fail to act. They should say evil prevails."

I noticed that I pass a Decatur Street on my new bike ride to work a couple weeks ago. Last week in Omaha, one of the students in the class I taught showed me a picture of a sediment problem at the bridge in Decatur. I don’t actually know where Decatur is. But what went through my head in both of these instances:
Our stepmom, we did everything to hate her
She took us down to the edge of Decatur
We saw the lion and the kangaroo take her
Down to the river where they caught a wild alligator
Speaking of Sufjan, I saw a really intriguing film that parenthetically tells the story of his rise. The movie actually follows the Danielson Family on tour. At the beginning of the movie he is ‘my brother’s buddy Sufjan.’ By the end he is an international phenomenon. But Danielson is intriguing in his own right. The Church has only recently abdicated a central role in the realm of creativity and art. I find it interesting what kinds of art emerge from a life of faith that turn out to be of value to those outside the church. In this case the answer is…slightly disconcerting art.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Flaming Bronze Angels From The Omaha Airport

So another 60 hour work week is not conducive to creative output, but ‘fortunately’ I am stuck in the Omaha airport (going on 7 hours and counting) and I find airports to be a particularly productive ferment for poetry. For some reason, like 80% of the poems I write come from planes and airports. So I banged one out that has been percolating all week. First, an introductory word about my ‘poetry.’ Every time I share a poem with someone I hear the Smith’s melancholy British dig ‘I never knew you wrote such bloody awful poetry.’ I suspect that it isn’t actually poetry but something vaguely like it…more like stream of consciousness prose. Some day I hope to actually learn how to write a poem from a bona fide English professor. But until then I doggedly adhere to Chesterton’s dictum that ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.’

So I spent the week in Omaha, easily the most surprising city I have ever been to. If you were to score cities with a ratio of actual coolness to expected coolness, Omaha would have to be near the top on the strength of a solid numerator and a very weak denominator. Chalk it up to east/west coast elitism I guess. Anyway, downtown Omaha got me thinking of downtown Buffalo and I got a little nostalgic. So here it is, six years later…an Allentown Poem.


Gabriel, the majestic greenish seraphim
holy fire obscured
through the condensation on
my second story window.
Now I see in part as through a glass.

Early morning streets,
soft with the cold cashmere
of untouched effects of the lake.
Street lights refracted in all directions
by the curiously clumps
of solid precipitation.
I squint to see
through my windshield,
carelessly scraped.
Now I see in part as through a glass.

Oh, Buffalo.
Where bison fly but never roamed.
City hall could be the playground
of some costumed vigilante,
like some obtuse Gotham envy.
And the great coliseums overflowing
with passion and disappointment.
Ornate Victorians,
the aging smell
of your steel money exhausted decades ago.
Your proud faces, rarely white.
Your rust belt glory.
Now I see in part as through a glass.