Thursday, March 6, 2014

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts: Learning to See

In the pilot episode of the NBC’s Friday Night Lights, star quarterback of the Dillon Panthers, Jason Street, is about to lead a group of peewee football players in prayer when one of the inspiring athletes asks, “Mr. Street, do you think that God loves football?” to which Jason earnestly replies “I think that everyone loves football.” Although this might be true in the fictional Dilllon, a small Texas town that closes all of its businesses on Friday afternoon in order to focus its attention the object of its devotion, this was not true in the small suburb of Germantown, Tennessee in the 1980’s.
My high school football team won the state championship many times under the guidance of my best friend’s father, a decorated and highly respected coach. Our cheerleaders were also national champions. Although I did attend one football game my freshman year, eager to ascend the high school hierarchy by showing my support of the untouchable players and their bubbly cheerleader girlfriends, my attentions and allegiances quickly turned elsewhere. Within a year’s time, I was dressed all in black, wearing karate shoes and dark red lipstick, going to the Antenna club to punk shows, and sitting at the “cool” table in the lunchroom, where a lot of time was spent talking about good art, good music—and how much we disliked football and the social system that it seemingly upheld. We made some good points—but we were also sometimes self-righteous, arrogant, critiquing the process of labeling by, ironically, doing it ourselves.

Fast forward twenty years(ish): Two of my most thoughtful and culturally savvy friends encourage me to watch what they see as the best show on network TV, Friday Night Lights. I started watching it one evening, and realizing it was about football, immediately began to question the taste level of my friends: how could these artistic, complex, critical thinkers watch a show about football? 

But I pressed on and, although football was and still is a foreign language to me, I grew to love football because these characters that I grew to love love it. And I realized that Friday Night Lights is a show very much about learning how to truly see another human being, how to peel back the layers of all too easy stereotypes to expose raw, painful, and beautiful humanity.  

The above comments provide the context and background story for how I fell in love with this show. My brief analysis of some elements of the show itself can be found on the Relief Journal Blog.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday: Teach us to Care and Not to Care

Tonight I went to the first Ash Wednesday service that I have ever attended. A new friend invited me for dinner and then to attend the service. I had many things to do, and it was a long drive home. But I now know that it was the most important place that I have been in a long time. It was beautiful, sobering, Real. After my friend, Reverend Al Allison, put ashes on my head in the shape of the cross and said "The scripture says, 'From dust you came, and dust you shall return,' I was struck by this visible reminder that we truly do not own ourselves, that we do not have control of our origin or our end. God's grace enables us to recognize and participate in our ultimate end in Him, yet so much else is a mystery. We are trained by our culture to despise mystery, to despise surrendering control. The lush, seemingly absurd, and utterly fulfilling beauty of God's lavish grace is subversive in a culture that claims that the ultimate sins are boredom and lack of control (which are often connected). We must be entertained, and be in charge of that entertainment; it must please us in a simplistic, formulaic way that gives us a false sense of security and depth as we are spoon fed the very ideals that have taught us to hate mystery, wonder, and a recognition of our lack of control.

Tonight I realized that the more we try and control our lives, the more chaotic our lives become. This is such a simple truth--but it was a great revelation, a needed revelation to me. I pray that I will allow myself to be still and linger in the mystery enough that that revelation is not forgotten, swept under the rug of feigned control and depthless entertainment.

On my drive home, I kept thinking that I needed to read TS Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" when I got home. I am less familiar with this poem than many of his others, and I also knew that tonight's experience would cast a new light on the poem. Here it is in its entirety. But I wanted to highlight just a few lines that are really poignant to me, right now, directly after this service and my realizations about our lack of control:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself 
I too much discuss
Too much explain...

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks...

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

During communion, we sang along with "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (Sufjan's version). Perhaps you are like me and the "prone to wonder Lord I feel it" is often the line that resonates the most deeply. But this is the line that takes me back to the lack of control, and to one of the most reassuring pleas in scripture: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!". Amen.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Zbigniew Preisner: Blue and The Tree of Life

In revisiting Kieslowski's masterpiece, Blue, in class today, I was again deeply moved by the beautiful musical composition that actually tells the story itself. It is Julie's love, her loss, her grief, her ache. 
In the last scene of the film, we finally hear the dramatic ending to the "Song for the Unification of Europe." I am writing this short entry (and hope to write a longer one tomorrow about the film itself) just to call attention to the music of Zbigniew Preisner, a composer whose work is not merely beautiful, but almost frighteningly sublime--and to post links to his compositions from both Blue (posted above) and The Tree of Life.
In the creation scene from the Malick film, we hear the "Lacrimosa" portion of Preisner's "Requiem for a Friend," the deeply stirring piece of music that he wrote for his friend, Kryzysztof Kielowski's, funeral. When I discovered this connection, I was amazed. So I wanted to share this in case anyone else is a fan of both films and did not know this, or just wanted to take a minute to watch/listen to both scenes again.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Hollywood, White, Glam Jesus and Comments about "Christian" Art

"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him/ nothing in his appearance that we should desire him./ He was despised and rejected by mankind/ a man of suffering, and familiar with pain./ Like one fromwhom people hid their faces/ He was despised, and we held him in low esteem." Isaiah 53:2-3
I am guessing that I am not the only one that sees the huge disconnect between Isaiah's description of the prophesied suffering servant and the image on the poster for the new Son of God film.
First, a disclaimer: I have not seen this film. And I generally get annoyed when people write off things that they have not yet seen. I may or may not see it. But I am interested here in just saying a few words about the marketing and reviews of this film, as well as some deeper considerations about "Christian art" that both the reviews and online conversations instigate.

As for the choice of actor not "fitting" the biblical description: I do not have huge problems with some artistic liberties when re-narrating biblical stories. After all, there are many things that we are not directly told and must imagine. What I do have a HUGE problem with is a film about Jesus  that  (seemingly) conforms more to superficial American marketing standards than to the heart of the gospel narratives, the point that Christ came as a suffering servant, that his birth, life, and even death were not glamorized, marketed, or airbrushed for mass appeal. Again, I have not seen this film so I can only speak to the marketing--and this image of Jesus, as well as others that I have seen from the film, really concerns me. Many critics, Christian and not, have commented on the "sexy," model Jesus. It seems to me that marketing a desirable, easy on the eyes, sexy Jesus is completely missing the point of the gospel itself and pandering to a desired target market. Of course, producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) is no stranger to glam Hollywood formulas.

My second thought about this film deals more with the reviews and conversations surrounding it. Both some Christian and "secular" reviews have commented that the film is mediocre, bland, not well made, --a somewhat tired cataloguing of "Jesus' greatest hits." None of the reviews that I have read have been snarky or mocking of the biblical story; if anything, they are disappointed that such a glorious, beautiful, complex story is told in such a mundane, one dimensional fashion. The best review I have read yet is from The Washington Post. The critic commends the film for its earnestness, but speaks of it as very underwhelming art.

I have a problem with a biblical narrative being made as underwhelming "art." A big problem.  This speaks to the theologically problematic "Christian" cultural view that the quality of the art does not matter as long as it conveys a good message. Of course, then one begins to ask the difference between art and propaganda (I am not saying that this film is propaganda--but I am questioning the often made claim that aesthetics don't matter and are even worldly).

I also have a problem with the idea that critiquing a "Christian" work of art is anti-Christian. We have to separate the reality of the biblical narrative, the mysterious, human, God Jesus Christ himself from a human ret-telling of the story. The story can be told in an unhelpful, shallow way. It can also be told in a way that leads us to ask more questions, puts us in a state of wonder, urges us to become angry at injustice and thirst for righteousness. Good art can put us in this state of mind when it tells the truth. Of course, I do not even think we need another human re-narration of this story to put us in this state of mind as we already have the gospels. But if one does attempt to retell the story, it should be breathtaking, difficult, challenging, revolutionary. It should be true.

On a side note, it would be interesting to compare Pasolini's beautiful film The Gospel of Saint Matthew to the more recent depictions of the gospel narratives. Pasolini's film is gorgeous, powerful art. Most of his actors are Italian peasants, not really actors. Pasolini, a Marxist atheist, made this film after reading the Gospel of Matthew one night in a hotel room. He was utterly captivated and had to retell the story. Of course, his artfully made film does have an agenda; his Jesus is a Marxist revolutionary, whose care for the poor is his central focus. And he also is crucified and resurrected. But the film does leave us in a state of awe and mystery...

My last point is a response to a quote from the above mentioned Washington Post article: "But Downey and Burnett clearly mean for their film to make an impact not as an aesthetic experience, but as a spiritual one." I could write pages in response to this very problematic statement concerning its false dichotomy; this is an old debate. It makes me deeply sad that many Christians do not see that an aesthetic experience can and should be a spiritual experience. Instead, there is still the widespread idea that Christian art should be purely functional, a (shallow) and uplifting way to reenforce what you think you already know. If the art we encounter is not changing us, we need to start questioning it.

 If anything, Christians should spend the most attention on making complex, glorious, even sublime art to point toward the author of complexity, glory, the sublime. So much "Christian art" peddles one dimensional, sentimental pictures of reality; Christians, of all people, should recognize the infinite beauty, complexity, and mystery of life, of ourselves, of God. Making films and art from a seemingly Christian perspective that flattens reality seems, at best, deceptive and shallow and, at worst, heretical. In "The Church and the Fiction Writer", Flannery O'Connor argues that when we partake in sentimental art, we arrive at a mock state of innocence, perhaps even ignoring the need for the cross. Any "Christian" depiction of a sanitized, one dimensional, comfortable reality is a false one, one that ignores the great mystery, beauty, and tragedy of the human condition. Good art should tell us the truth, remind us that we need beauty, grace, and redemption from our own brokenness.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Wenders and Fujimura: Artists Converted via Their Own Art

In a class I am teaching called Post-Secular Film, Fiction, and Theory, we recently watched Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, a film that allows us to see the citizens of Berlin (before the reunification) from the vantage point of angels. We do more than see these Berliners; we hear their thoughts and watch the angels comfort and protect them. We get a strong sense of the existential states of these many minor characters, and we see that children, not most adults, can see the angels.
I have many things to say about this beautiful film but the main reason for this post is to share a wonderful interview with the director, Wim Wenders, from Image Journal

In this interview, Wenders, raised a nominal Catholic, explains that when he made this film about angels, he did not actually believe in them. They were merely a creative mechanism that enabled him to film Berlin from an almost omniscient vantage point. Wenders was a painter before he became a filmmaker, and he claims that he was not interested in story, only images. He saw no place for the metaphysical in film.

After making this film, he realized that many people saw things in his film that he did not intentionally put there, metaphysical narratives, things of the life of the Spirit. This amazed and challenged him to come to faith. He claims that in the making of the film "angels had been present, or that something had been present, that used me somehow...".

I just had to add that a friend just sent me this link of Wim Wenders telling his own story at an arts conference given by the BerlinProjekt church in Berlin (a church that I am excited to say I will be visiting next month). Unfortunately for me, the lecture is in German. But if you can speak German, enjoy. And if you speak German and have a very kind and patient heart, maybe you will even translate it for me.

This amazing account of an artist whose own art was used in the process of his conversion also reminds me of artist Makoto Fujimura's conversion narrative.

Fujimura trained in a Japanese art college whose taught painting techniques were steeped in Buddhist ideology; there was not a significant Christian influence that overtly influenced his view of reality or art at the time.  When I heard the artist speak at a conference, he very humbly told the story of his creating a painting that was so beautiful, he was overwhelmed, even frightened. This painting was sublime, not merely beautiful. He was in awe of its source as he know immediately that this beauty came from beyond him. I do not know the details of his entire conversion but I do not that this encounter with God via his own art was the turning point.

The Heart of An American/ Imperialist Psycho

For the past few weeks, I have been teaching Conrad's Heart of Darkness, arguably a (muddled) critique of the European Imperialist mindset. Of course, the journey down the river with Marlow to find the mysterious, feared, and adored Kurtz is the heart of the novel. But Conrad's novel intentionally has no heart. We long for it, we go on Marlow's journey hoping to find the answer in the person of Kurtz at the end of the river journey, but the reader and Marlow are both left wanting because the man, Kurtz, is "hollow at the core."While listening to Marlow on the deck of a boat going down the Thames, the novella's unnamed narrator tells us that this storytellers' yarns are not like those of "other seamen" who tell simple stories, the "whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut."In fact, the only meaning in Marlow's storytelling is not to be found at the end of the tale, projecting meaning and sense onto everything leading up to it, but in the actual telling which might provide us with very "hazy" snippets of information and, at best, some moments of devastating self realizations.

Traditional narratives are formed around character change, a moment of epiphany and transition, but there is no such moment in this novel. When Marlow meets Kurtz we see that he, like the story, only causes us to ask questions about our own depravity but provides us with no nuggets of revelation about the meaning of the story itself.

We do find out that Kurtz is, if anything, a consumer. THE consumer. Working for a Belgian company, he has found a home deep in the Congo in order to acquire ivory by any means necessary. Like many involved in similar colonialist "projects," he sees the Africans themselves simply as cogs in the imperialist machine. His quest to, as he says, "exterminate all the brutes" simply because he has the strength, rhetorical skills, and brilliance to do so is almost completely justified by much of the (very disturbing) Social Darwinist rhetoric of the time.

But Kurtz goes even beyond using the local people as tools and commodities; their awe of his power and brilliance propels them to set him up as a god to be worshiped, and he, naturally, concedes. Marlow tells us that "everything belonged to him"... that he would speak of "my intended, my ivory, my river...". Kurtz's lust to consume is never satisfied; interestingly, he is physically emaciated and weak when Marlow finds him. This visual depiction is a profound indication of his hollow spiritual state, a picture of one who consumes, consumes, consumes while getting less and less nourished, never recognizing his own illness. Many of Conrad's insights hold complex theological resonances, including this poignant image of an inner vacuum that, as Pascal argues, can only be filled with the infinite but is continually stuffed with finite things that never provide fullness.

Marlow tells us that "all of Europe" went into the making of Kurtz. He IS Imperialism. He IS the Nietzschean Superman. He IS the Social Darwinist. He IS the ultimate consumer. He IS a philosophical materialist. He is the logical conclusion of a Western mindset that is driven by progress and efficiency at all costs.

And he is just  not a shadowy figure from our distant literary past. In class, I mentioned how Bret Easton Ellis's novel (and the film) American Psycho is about many of the same values (or the negation of all values in the name of self serving consumption). Patrick Bateman, the novel's central character, is an acquisitions specialist on Wall Street; like Kurtz, he is in the business of taking, taking, taking. Everything is an object to be consumed, including people.

Also like Kurtz, Bateman, a young, attractive yuppie with a large inheritance, has everything he needs but constantly wants more. His desires are never satiated. And these desires become more and more dehumanizing and cruel as he lives a double life  as venture capitalist and serial killer. Ellis clearly makes the point that this connection, like the connections between Kurtz's cruelty and the Imperialist project, are not incidental. Bateman is the logical end result of the American religion of consumption, the worship of greed and pleasure, the desire for progress, and efficiency at all costs.

I will spare you too many gory details, but both Bateman and Kurtz enjoy the lustful power they experience when they maim and kill others; Kurtz puts heads on stakes to decorate his compound while Bateman keeps them in his refrigerator. They are trophies of power, reminders of the the sick thrill of playing God. At one point in American Psycho, Batemen tells us that "there are no more barriers to cross," words that could also be one of Marlow's many descriptions of Kurtz.

My main interest in the comparisons between these two sinister literary figures is that their existence is a metaphor for the logical end result of worship at the altar of modernity. There is something deeply moral in the depiction of both of these characters, a reminder that Nietzsche's Overman who desires "not contentment but more power...not virtue but efficiency "will end up imploding, only after destroying anyone who challenges his delusional authority. There is no character change, no epiphany, no real "story" in the traditional sense.

Interestingly, BEE's novel makes a much more obvious, darkly satirical point than Conrad's hazy novel; but I trust Ellis's intentions less. He lingers far too long on the descriptions of sadism and masochism, perhaps enjoying them. Because of this, I cannot whole heartedly recommend reading his novel. Conrad's novel is far less gratuitous, but more ambiguous.

But both can be seen as a warning of the dangers of consumption, objectification, materialism--critiques of the dark corners of the "progressive, efficient" Western mindset.