Monday, October 27, 2014

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Seeing Ourselves on the Big Screen

I cry every time that I watch the end of Fellini's masterpiece 1/2. When I told my students this the last time I showed it in a film class, they look quite puzzled.

At the end of this stunning film, Fellini reminds us that an entire cast of characters has created and acted within the chaotic and joyful screenplay of our lives. So perhaps the older one gets, the more this resonates as she has more faces to remember, more aches and joys, etc.

The film is also deeply beautiful and real as it highlights the internal disarray of all human beings--and the role of the artist to accurately and honestly recreate this confusion. This is one reason why at least some of the films we watch should make us feel deeply unsettled, as the truthful retelling of our messy inner selves is not a comfortable thing to see on the big screen. And only after acknowledging the truth of our own messiness, can we seek redemption.

I have written a bit more in depth on this last scene of the film (and a few of the film's major themes) here at Relief Journal. Please check it out!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

My Punk Rawk Past

I have just thoroughly enjoyed writing a piece about why and how I feel that punk rock has played a large part in my own spiritual formation. You can find it here at the Christ & Pop Culture Website. I would actually love to tell more of my story--and to spend more time both remembering and researching punk rock. I have so many vivid memories of turning points: when my jr. high youth director introduced my to the Violent Femmes. When one of the (cool & hot) youth group leaders introduced me to The Replacements shortly after. And then I remember my freshman year of high school, and how I had tried the first semester to fit in with the "popular" sororities, to play by their rules, to ooh and ah and try to fit in. Things changed when my friend Rachel came back from Christmas break carrying a black spray painted lunchbox as a purse, wearing karate shoes, and sneering at the popular kids. I soon found a sense of confidence and pride (not always healthy) in being an outsider. Last memory: When I was a student at Covenant College, a few friends and I took at road trip to Atlanta to see Fugazi. Although the band's frontman, Ian Mackaye, more often than not refused interviews by the big music magazines, he agreed to give my friends and I an interview for the Covenant College newspaper, The Bagpipe. We then went backstage and ate carrots with Ian. I have no idea where the text of that interview is now--it never got published. But here is Ian, patiently talking to three three Christian college kids after a Fugazi show at the Masquerade.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

You Didn't See Me...

I was solid gold
I was in the fight
I was coming back from what seemed like a ruin
I couldn't see you coming so far
I just turn around and there you are


You didn't see me I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park
You didn't see me I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart
You didn't see me I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in a park
You didn't see me I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Need for a Memorial

I have never seen this photo before: MLK picking a (previously burning) cross out of his front yard will his son stands by. I tire of people saying things like "racism is a thing of the past" and accusing anyone who speaks of the institutional racism that still plagues the country as "playing the race card." Things are much better, yes. But it takes longer for hearts and minds to change than it does for mere laws to change. And I believe that it takes the power of God to change hearts and minds, so I hope we can all faithfully pray that progress continues. I took a course at Newcastle called "Cultural Representations of Slavery and Genocide;' one of the course's central questions was why the US has no national memorial or museum for the many, many victims of slavery? We have a holocaust memorial--and a national holocaust museum (and I think this is a very good thing)--but where are the slavery memorials? Where is the national slavery museum?It seems that the efforts to build one in VA died because of insufficient funds. What does that say about us? Don't we need a space for public grieving and remembrance--rather than an encouragement to sweep it all under the rug and pretend this has always been "land of the free"? For many the American dream was an American nightmare. Of course, fixating on the past and holding on to hate (on either side) does not help either. But I strongly believe that we need a space to memorialize the many who lost their lives (physical, mental, emotional) to the corrupt, dehumanizing institution of slavery.

Toni Morrison's dark, moving, profound, and Real 1987 novel Beloved is a memorial to the "60 million and more" that Morrison alludes to in the novel's dedication. Beloved is a ghost story based on the painful story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, a woman who slit the throat of her own child in an attempt to rescue her from falling prey to the very slaveowners that molested and abused her mother. The haunting of the novel might be the ghost of the mercifully murdered baby, Beloved, (this is implied but never clearly explained)--but it is also a metaphor for the haunting of our bloody past, a past in which dignity, justice, and an acknowledgement of personhood were traded for physical and psychological violence: "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief." These ghosts have not been exorcised; they continue to wreak havoc and prolong grief. Sethe, the novel's protagonist, claims that even after someone or something is dead, they have left a "rememory" that we can literally bump in when walking down the street. As Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun, "The past is not dead; it's not even passed." Only after acknowledging, naming, and memorializing the "60 million and more" can the past begin to move from a painful "re-memory" to a space of healing.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Ontological Angst

Lord David Muir, Scottish bard, storyteller, and evangelist visited the L'Abri manor house this past week. I told him that I taught Descartes in my classes--and the next day he told me he had written me a poem. Here it is:

“Ontological Angst” by Lord David Muir

I think; therefore I am, I think
But sometime I will cease to be
So then what happens to my thought?
A problem of ontology

I think but the content of my thought
It seems to matter not at all
And so I think, and so I live
And while I live, I have a ball

But while I live, Ah, there’s the rub
What thought comes beyond this coil
When others rise beyond this life
And I am left to be despoiled

Ontology then is not a cure
For all of life’s circumstance
I’ve heard there’s cure for all life’s ills
And he is called “Lord of the Dance.”

Friday, May 23, 2014

Buber, Sufjan, Coupland: What is a REAL Relationship?

During Wednesday’s lunch discussion, we talked about this perplexing statement from one of Andrew Fellow’s lectures: “The now, the present, is the only place where Reality exists.” Fellows is making a strong claim—that reality is found in the midst of relationship- and that Real reality must be experienced in the present. As you can imagine, it took us the full 1.5 hour lunch discussion time to attempt to unravel this.

Fellows’ excellent lecture focuses on the distinctions that philosopher Martin Buber makes between “I-Thou” relationships and “I-It” relationships. An “I-It” relationship is a relationship in which we relate to another person based solely on what they can do for us, for how they make us feel. An “I-Thou” relationship is one in which we appreciate, listen to, and live in a perpetual state of wonder as we encounter another person’s “otherness.” In a sense, an “I-It” relationship is viewing and relating to another according to his/her use value, whereas an “I-Thou” relationship is viewing and relating to another based on a deep conviction that the other is inherently valuable (not just valuable because of what he/she can do for you). “I-Thou” relationships are hard, so we slip in between these two modes of relating. We often objectify those who “serve” us in society (waiters, janitors, cashiers) according to an “I-It” way of relating. We see them merely as people put in place to make our lives function smoothly, to help us get what we want. How hard would it be to take a moment to actually stop, look into the other’s eyes, speak directly to them, acknowledging their humanity?Even these fleeting interactions can move from the realm of “I-it” to “I-Thou.” But we are culturally trained to focus merely on getting what we want, and getting it is quickly as possible.

The “I-It” relationship model is not practiced simply in consumer transactions; sometimes, a supposedly “deep” or “real” interpersonal relationship becomes an act of consumption. We see the other as someone to complete us, to fulfill our needs, to “fix us” (as the annoying Coldplay song about codependence says). The other person’s importance solely lies in what he/she can give us. In this sense, our supposed friend or beloved becomes an object whose purpose is to please us, to give us pleasure. An “I-Thou” relationship is not without pleasure—but the pleasure it engenders is from finding joy in the other person’s being—and even finding joy in serving the other person—as opposed to looking to the other as a means to the end of our individual happiness.

Another way that relationships can easily slip into an “I-It” model is when we attempt to create the object of our supposed friendship or love in our own image. We can easily project our own image onto theirs and supposedly love them because they fit our needs to exactly. Of course, projections that deludes us into believing another looks and behaves like us does not meet our true needs (which are to be sharpened and challenged, among other things) but lead us to deeper narcissism. Sufjan Stevens’ complex album The Age of Adz is the story of such an “I-It” relationship. The album begins with Stevens proclaiming “I do love you” multiple times. What follows is a jagged, chaotic, frenzied and beautiful mess that reflects the mind of the lover as he navigates the relationship. The album ends with the following confession that this relationship was not love, but objectification and narcissism:

“I never meant to cause you pain
My burden is the weight of a feather
I never meant to lead you on
I only meant to please me, however

And then you tell me, boy, we can do much more
Boy, we can do much more
Boy, we can do much more together
Boy, we can do much more together

I'm nothing but a selfish man
I'm nothing but a privileged peddler
And did you think I'd stay the night?
And did you think I'd love you forever?
And then you tell me, boy, we can do much more

I got to tell you, girl, I want nothing less
Girl, I want nothing less
Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure
Girl, I want nothing less than pleasure

I got to tell you, boy, we made such a mess
Boy, we made such a mess
Boy, we made such a mess together
Boy, we made such a mess together

Interestingly, Stevens' album tells a parallel story of the inner world of schizophrenic folk artist Royal Robertson. The “love” relationship that Stevens depicts becomes a kind of delusional schizophrenia as he projects his own reality onto his lover.

When talking about this song with a good friend several years ago, he made a poignant, thought provoking remark: “Don’t Christians do that with Jesus? Project themselves onto Him?” I do not remember the exact words—but the gist was that perhaps Christians were projecting their own image onto God. Objectifying Him. This insightful and honest question came from a friend who is agnostic—so the question is perhaps, on a deeper level, whether there is a real Jesus or if He is a complex web of our projections.

I do believe that Jesus is real, that He existed as a historical human being, God incarnate entering our time-constricted history. But I also believe that we often project our image on Him, make the relationship into an “I-It” one rather than an “I-Thou” one. And of course, the relationship between humanity and God is THE ultimate “I-Thou” relationship; without this relationship to nourish us, is it even possible to move past “I-It” relationships?

Douglas Coupland’s collection of short stories Life After God asks this very question as it tells the fractured stories of those who have been unable to have Real relationships, who resort to irony as a protective coating to prevent any more pain. Coupland shows us that in this postreligious culture, even some who call themselves “Christians” do just what my friend suggested: project their needs onto Jesus, using him as an object to meet their present need instead of recognizing the mystery, power, and reality of His brilliant Otherness.

I think it is clear that it is a human tendency to objectify and consume the other, whether the other is another human being or God. But I also believe that we were made for relationships. In our lunch discussion we emphasized that the trinity is relational, the three parts of the Godhead are constantly relating to one another. And if we are made in the image of God, then we are inherently relational; this is both our model and our nature. But our nature is also fallen—so we so often turn the wonderful complexity and mystery of the other into an object to be consumed.

This takes us back to Fellows’ quote from “What is a Relationship:” “The now, the present, is the only place where reality exists.”

What does this have to do with either the “I-It” or “I-Thou” models? I have also heard Fellows mention in his lectures that “The present is where we meet God.” Of course, scripture tells us to “Be still and know that I am God.” But what does Fellows mean by the notion that “Reality exists” in the present?

A lengthy section in Pascal’s Pensees is perhaps helpful in this regard:

“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does, so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts.

Pascal’s claim that we have a hard time keeping to the present, that the present “hurts,” relates very much to his idea that we need to sit alone in a room, to be still, in order to really think about our condition. We will soon find that it is “wretched,” and that we need God (these are all Pascal’s ideas). We meet God in the present moment. It is frightening because if we focus on the here and now we see our own brokenness and need and incompleteness.

But how does this relate to the “I-Thou” and “I-It” categories? I have gone over this in my mind and realized that when we live in the past or future, both God and others are objects within our minds; they are not living, dynamic Others. The present is unpredictable. Buber claims that anytime we have a true “I-Thou” encounter, we are changed. And this must happen in the present because we cannot control it. If we live in the past or future, we are shaping things into our own image—our romanticized notions of the past, our desires for the futures.

I still find Fellows’ comment a challenging, complex notion. But one worth chewing on: “The now, the present, is the only place where Reality exists.”

**I recommend listening to two of Andrew Fellows' excellent lectures if this topic interests you: "What is a Relationship" (quoted here) and "The Sacrament of the Present Moment."
Both can be found for free download here.