Thursday, June 30, 2011

Art: A Big Fat Lie

"Art is not truth; art is a lie that enables us to recognize the truth." -David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto

Manipulation. Calculation. Scrutiny. Precision. Editing. Revising. Reworking. Re-imagining. Removing. And taking away, and away, and away.

The art of making art--no matter the medium--is more scientific than many artists would care to admit. It's about a vision (i.e., a hypothesis), and the working out, playing with, and truth-testing of that vision (i.e., lab work). Even if that vision is nothing in particular, or concrete, or even known to the artist him/herself, it's still there. It's a still a vision; a vision blind to the work that invisibly lays before it.

Like science leads us to facts through evidence, and hints at truth through its exhaustive testing (and re-testing) of its hypothesis, art's process is somewhat similar. It creates (sometimes from nothing and sometimes from too much of nothing) a reflection, a window, a portal, a tiny shaving of sight for the viewer to see. To hear. To touch. To smell. To taste. To ponder. To wonder. This is art's incredible potential. Yet, art's end result subtly (and not so subtly) hides its complicated and calculated and consuming labor. This is one way art lies so well (and why it's necessary for it to do so). For example...

When you're sitting in a darkened theater watching images unfold before you as if they were seamlessly one collective story, one effortless film, you're not thinking about the 7,459 people it took to make it. You're not imagining the 10 different takes an actor had to make before he got the line right, nor the make-up artist who stood just off to the right of the camera to make sure the blood would stay in the right place on the protagonist's forehead. In a way, your eyes are covered--blinded, even--to the glorious masquerade that is, in truth (and mostly lies), the nature of art...which is the editing of all things (tangible and intangible) to make a lie appear true. Gut-level true. Like, you-see-it-and-you're-heart-is-shocked-and-surprised-at-the-revelation-you're-seeing-for-what-seems-like-the-very-first-time-kind-of-true. It's about the emotional, the visceral, about touching (for better or for worse) fragments of the physical, emotional, and spiritual self. Basically, art is so non-holistic in its process (so detached and dislocated and dislodged), it transforms (or appears to transform) into something holistic (and holy) in the eyes of the viewer once it's finished.

At the end of the day, all the lies appear true. And the most provocative thing about this revelation is that you can't reach this truth without understanding the necessity for lies in art, without failure to put on the make-up right or screw up miserably those first 9 takes of a scene. If art really set out to be true (and truthful) we'd be forced to digest the whole artistic process--all 750 hours or more--and it would be excruciatingly dull, painfully monotonous. I'm not saying this wouldn't be a good thing to experience on occasion but I am saying that if this was art's norm, art's primary method, primary praxis, few would have the patience, the cognitive stamina to reach any mini-truth-epiphanies after watching the film Avatar, if what preceded it was 7,983 hours of interviews, and documentation on just how it was all done. This would be the 'truth' (or rather, the facts) but it wouldn't be art, nor would it enable us to recognize the truth any better I think.

This is why the statement, 'art is the lie that tells the truth' is so powerful (and so true). David Shields and Richard Walter and Madeleine L'Engle and Picasso and many others artists over time have said the very same thing (in their own way, from their own artistic medium perspective). The necessity of lies (not just in art, but in life) is what makes art possible. Without lies, art would cease to exist. For how can we see truth if we can't see the importance and value and beauty of lies?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Bible: It's Not About How It All Ends

"Some people think that the Bible has to do with the terrors of the apocalypse, and that the apocalypse is 'the end of the world'. The end, they believe, will see the divine 'final solution' of all the unsolved problems in personal life, in world history, and in the cosmos. Apocalyptic fantasy has always painted God's great final Judgment on the Last Day with flaming passion: the good people will go to heaven, the wicked will go to hell, and the world will be annihilated in a storm of fire. We are all familiar, too, with images of the final struggle between God and Satan, Christ and the Antichrist, Good and Evil in the valley of Armageddon--images which can be employed so usefully in political friend-enemy thinking. These images are apocalyptic, but are they also Christian? No, they are not; for Christian expectation of the future has nothing whatsoever to do with the end, whether it be the end of this life, the end of history, or the end of the world. Christian expectation is about the beginning: the beginning of true life, the beginning of God's kingdom, and the beginning of the new creation of all things into their enduring form. The ancient wisdom of hope says: 'The last things are as the first.' So God's great promise in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, is: 'Behold, I make all things new' (Rev. 21:5). In the light of this ultimate horizon we read the Bible as the book of God's promises and the hopes of men and women--indeed the hopes of everything created; from the remembrances of their futures we find energies for the new beginning." -Jürgen Moltmann, from the forward of his book, In The End The Beginning.

'Christian expectation is about the beginning.' I'm not sure about you but that wasn't my experience in the Baptist church I grew up in near Bob Jones University in Simpsonville, South Carolina. From the age of 5, I remember hearing stories about heaven. No more tears. No more pain. No more stealing pencils from Jennifer's utensil box. It would all be over. Done. Finished.

The ending would be the happiest place on earth (if it were on earth, which it isn't--Mrs. Hyde had apparently been there).

I know that the main purpose in telling us kindergartners this was to share the gospel, and inform us of the fact that our souls would go to heaven in the end when we died if we believed in Jesus but, but, but...there could've been a better way of going about this. They could've also told us how every day (from sleeping hours to waking mornings) is a reflection of this reality. And it's not all bad. Endings aren't to be feared, agonized over, casting teams over who's in and who's out. Endings, as in stories, are about people becoming better, people learning something new, something fresh, something to help carry them from this ending to their next beginning.

This is one of my criticisms with mainline (evangelical Protestant) Christianity, today. I don't think we're doing a good job of educating and empowering people to live as 'Christian beginners' (the hopeful perspective); all too often, there's just a whole-heck-of-a-lot-of 'Christan enders' (the fearful perspective). And that's not a good end to be on, if you catch my drift. That's the end of the playing field where people (sometimes) are bullied, harassed, and slaughtered because of difference. Because they're an 'other.' Not just an 'other' in dress or lifestyle, but in belief, in their view on how life's going to end (if they believe there's an ending at all).

It's a travesty so many people boast and bicker over how it's all going to end. I wonder what would happen if instead, these 'Christian enders' lived life, humbly, as 'Christian beginners'. Beginners, like most children, are open to life, open to change, open to new experiences. Their mind is a race, running after knowledge and pleasures and excitement. Each day is a wonder. The future is full, wide, open (similar to how heaven is described as--which is upsetting because we're told we won't get there or experience anything like this until we're dead). Beginners are rarely proud because they don't know enough of something to be so prideful. They're in a perpetual state of learning, forming, growing. Wouldn't it be nice to be known (as Christians) for this? To be seen as someone who lives each day fully, each day faithfully, each day truthfully? To be someone who doesn't waste any new beginning with talk and talk and talk over (how they think) it's all going to end?

I wonder how much better it would have been for my K-5 Sunday School teachers--instead of sharing with us all about 'the end'-- to have shared with us on how to live life (in all its preciousness), beginning with today. To have shared how to get along with those who believe differently from us (and not be told they're going to hell or that we should tell them they're going to hell). I wonder what America--and the world would look like now--if we were taught (from the impressionable age of 5) to love the 'others' we come across each and every day, and to pray for others' happiness and well-being more than we pray for our own.

To put it plainly, what would've happened if we children were raised as 'hopeful beginners' rather than 'fearful enders'? How much different would we be today? Or more important, how much better?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

'The Tree of Life' as a Psalm of Lament

Terrence Malick's new film, The Tree of Life, is a strange thing of beauty. Nothing can really prepare you for what you see. In it, life is in the details. It's about nothing, yet everything (as well as nothingness and everythingness). It's not a story, but contains within it a million tiny stories. Like the picture/poster to the left illustrates, it's a film about new life, new creation, beginnings, taking steps, growing up. Walking through the chaos in the cosmos, so to speak. Yet, it's also about the lines and creases on the bottom of our feet. They get dirty, messy. They age. We age. From the groaning of creation (via God, evolution and nature) Malick whisks us away into a dark (but beautifully lit) world. Generational sin is there. Goodness is there. Grace is there.

The Tree of Life is like the perfect/ultimate 'Psalm of Lament' film. It captures, in so many ways, the pain, the screams, the disappointments in life (to the good and bad of us--which is all of us, at some point). No one is exempt. Everyone suffers. Some of us, suffer a hell of a lot more. Yet, like the Jewish and Egyptian Wisdom Literature traditions teach us (e.g., the Old Testament Writings), after the storm comes the sun. And Malick captures this beautiful sun(set) and sun(rise) over and over, again and again. Could Malick be suggesting something here? Something about this glowing sun over a suffering setting? Simply put, it seems to be a daily reminder to him (and to all of us) that pain is not eternal. Like the Psalms of Lament express, 'joy comes in the morning.' Heartache will not win out. Suffering will, eventually, end.

Yet, some endings (as the film's beginning reveals) are the hardest on those left behind. So how to cope? How to go on? How to survive? How to grow up with a conscience full of sorrow, regret, deep loss? And how, if ever, can you let it all go? Should you let it all go? Can you forget the painful past, even when riding the elevator up a glass-highrise tower at the age of 50?

In Buddhism, the writings talk about 'the way to the end of suffering.' In a strange, mystical sense, The Tree of Life tries to explore this way, this path, this journey through time--from birth to death. By the film's end, you'll feel as though you've re-lived your own life, too. And even if you don't feel so much for the characters, you see (by the film's end) that the characters you're watching are really fragments of yourself. Fragments of your past lives. Past selves. The ones you've been and lost through the sands of time. Those selves that can be found walking around in the desert searching for a place to call home.

The metaphor of the 'home' is a powerful one in The Tree of Life. It's where life is conceived, where joy swings, and where cruelty lurks. It's also one that (in the end) is lost. Abandoned. Gone. Never to return to again (at least, not in this life, not in this world). Why is that? Garden State talked about home being an 'imaginary place'. This is, according to that film, what defines a family: "a group of people that miss the same imaginary place." There are echoes of this understanding of home all throughout The Tree of Life. It's like a childhood portal where everything looks beautiful but feels tragic. The kind of tragic look that comes when you visit a place that no longer exists.

But that's not all this film is about. I think one of its biggest themes is wonder (a word that's even uttered a few times by its characters). Its the film's own understanding of awe. The way the film's wonder perceives nature and the evolution of humanity that surrounds it. This wonder feels alive, and new. It's like the film is seeing these images for the very first time. That freshness, that child-like-life angle of perception, is captivating. You start to imagine what a baby must be thinking when he/she enters the world (if he/she could cognitively describe what a messy array of images they're encountering, daily). Thus, being fascinated with images (arresting images) is also one of the film's many wonders. A wonder it's asking its viewers to take seriously. To think. To feel. And most important of all, to see. But not just 'to see', but to see, anew.

For how many times have we looked at a tree and seen only a tree? Just a tree? Sitting there on top of a stump spitting out leaves for us to rake up, pick up, clean up?

And how many times, conversely, have we looked at a tree and seen (and thought, and breathed in) the word, the image, the object that is, life? The tree as life-giving? As nature's expression of grace? As the tree of life?

Not often enough.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Love Is Strange: More thoughts on 'Blue Valentine'

After watching Blue Valentine for the third time tonight, something hit me: love is strange. Complicated. Messy. And probably more than anything, disappointing. Similar to what every Yasujirō Ozu film would tell us about life.

Each time I've watched Blue Valentine, I've seen it differently. The first time, it was all about the highs and the lows. Smiling from grin to grin, heartbreaks going up and down. Left to right. Fits of rage, sexual passion, dancing to a song titled, 'You & Me.' It was all there. And I felt it. Everyone did.

The second time, I noticed it was a story about dealing with (and accepting) relational brokenness. Like the doomed fate of a child who still believes in Santa Claus (e.g., one day, that belief will be dropped), love is (sometimes) all about disappointment. Going from the honeymoon of dating to the throws of a difficult relationship, there are more than just a few bumps along the way. People tell me, 'it's not all bad. It's really worth it.' So why are there so many movies like this out there telling us how sticky, tricky, and just-plain-horrendous marriages can be? Isn't it because it's but a reflection of what see? Or is it just what we choose to see? Or is it just our selfish desires getting in the way of making the other happy? Is it happiness for us, first, that gets in the way? Or do we all just want to feel special and that's when things start to go south?

The third time seeing Blue Valentine, I kept noticing how in the first act both characters talks about 'feelings.' This was the feeling they had, and so, they went with it and 'poof!' what happened? Their risk failed. Their love failed. Their feelings, failed. Like a Greek tragedy, like Romeo + Juliet, it was all lost. And the two people standing face-to-face by the film's end looked more like strangers than former lovers. What happened? Don't they remember? The beginning? The past? The journey along the way? In their attempt to take the risk of love, they end up seeing just how unfortunate (and painful) love can be. They see how loves sometimes turns us into strangers. Strangers to the people we once were, to the people we once loved. But is it really all lost?

As the song by Mickey & Sylvia goes: "Love. Love is strange. A lot of people take it for a game. Once you get it you never want to quit. After you've had it, you're in an awful fix."

In Blue Valentine, both characters were in more than just an 'awful fix.' For them, the stars failed to align. Instead, clouds came, fireworks blasted off, and the burning blues of their future (room) was the only thing made clear. This was their clarity. And not surprisingly, they both couldn't face it.

Sitting in the audience, we want to believe that hearts would soften, minds would be cleared, and their lives would change. Some way. We plead, silently, from the inside-out and hope. A hug. A kiss. A touch. A glance. Something. Something to (maybe) make the other person--and maybe even the person, themselves--change. Do we believe that love changes? Or is it merely that the feelings do? Can we find our way back into love? Or is it like trying to find your way back into being a kid again? Achievable on days when you're at Disneyland or on the playground or coloring with crayons but seemingly impossible anywhere else.

Perhaps this is why Blue Valentine is so rare, so pure, so good. For it presents us with two people, two dreamers, two kids, essentially. Kids trying to grow up in a very broken, very difficult world. Are they ready for love? Maybe that isn't so much the question as is this: are they ready to receive love and not only give it? This is, perhaps, the biggest thing no one tells you about getting into a relationship. It's not just about what you give, what you take, what you're willing to sacrifice. It's also about what the other person is willing to receive. And, also, what they're not willing to receive. Are the two souls in Blue Valentine willing to let themselves be loved? It's hard to say for certain, but I'm doubtful (that's why they seem so insecure, so self-protective, so distant in times of pain, confusion, and loss).

A song can bring them together but it can't keep them from falling apart.

Maybe this is part of the film's power, its mystery, its wonder, and tragedy. For two hours, we get to see the evolution (and destruction) of a relationship, played out as if time ran parallel--the bad running alongside the good. The only problem is, the music has stopped and the couple (may be) beyond repair. Are they?

I guess that depends on who you are and how you see it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Atheism for Lent: Ash Wednesday (Day 1)

Why atheism for lent?

Karl Barth once wrote that it was the Church and not the world (or the Jews or Romans) who crucified Christ. Such a statement is a powerful philosophical and doctrinal assertion. Since the Church was wrong about Christ, can the Church be trusted? Should we ever allow the Church to dictate what a community must follow or must believe? Ask an everyday Christian this and I'd be curious to hear their answer.

"But God loves the Church! Christ loves the Church."

Really? Then why the hell did the Church turn on Christ? I mean, really. Why would people do such a thing way-back-then? How could they do something to their so-called Creator, or even, to a Rabbi who brought about good news and great joy to those who had ears to hear? What kind of Church is this?

Many fundamentalists would defend the Church saying, "they were deceived" or "they knew not what they were doing". Well if that's true, who's to say the Church knows what it's doing now? Who's to say people won't be defending the bigotry that passes for right doctrine and right belief today in many churches, 100 years from now? Can we trust the Church, today? When pastors tell us that gay marriage is wrong, today, is that unlike the rabbis and priests and religious leaders and temple players of Jesus' day telling us that Jesus was wrong? Jesus, a heretic? Jesus, a blasphemer? With the Church's track record, shouldn't we have (more than enough) reason to be a little suspect? A little uncertain? A little doubtful?

The story of Zacchaeus always fascinated me as a little child. To me, it was told (and taught) as a story about a small man, a seemingly insignificant man, being heard and noticed and acknowledged by Christ, when no one else would acknowledge him. Now, I understand why people of that time wouldn't acknowledge a man like Zacchaeus. For he was a modern day homosexual. A flaming gay Christian, so to speak. His evil tax collecting ways were shunned by the most religious of society. So when Jesus said, "Zacchaeus, I'm going to your house today," (that time, the equivalent to standing alongside gay advocacy groups or clubbing at the Abbey in West Hollywood), the crowds (full of religiosity) cringed.

When you examine this story closely, it's peculiar (and fascinating) to note the language used in the Scriptures. Particularly in verse 7 of Luke 19, where it reads (following Jesus' insistence on staying over at the chief tax collector's house): 'All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”' To break it down pretty simply, Jesus basically went against everyone. 'All the people' were wrong. And remember, all these people were church-goers (or at least, the majority of them were). If they weren't, why else would they comment on Jesus going to 'be the guest of a sinner?'

Therefore, on this Ash Wednesday--where we're reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return--perhaps atheism becomes the only lens by which we can see Christ--the Christ crucified by the Church--clearly. This is why, I think, atheism is so important, so helpful. And this is why I'm so excited to be starting this journey. A trip into the dark where the Church is wrong and the excluded, outsider, "lost ones" are finally seen as right.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Atheism for Lent: The Day Before the First Day

In the preface to his book, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, Merold Westphal writes that he's writing to the church. To the pastors. To the laity. To all Christians who've grown complacent, swirling and circling in a faith that serves the self more than it serves others. Wesphal ends with a hope that his book will prove to be "edifyingly disturbing" to its readers.

I like that concept: to edify by/through disturbing. In light of this, a small group of Fuller friends and I are embarking on what many people our age are thinking about, thanks to a gentle prodding from Peter Rollins, and that is "Atheism for Lent."

Now, some of you may be wondering: 'I thought Lent was about giving something up? About sacrifice?' And you'd be write. But here, Rollins explains how atheism for Lent is an act of giving something up that in turn, can deepen and mature one all the more. He also suggests 'atheism' is part of Christian belief, Christian faith, and in fact, lies at the very heart of Christianity.

Rollins claims, "Every concrete theism creates its negative, its atheism. There are as many atheisms as there are theisms. All affirmations create their negations. Whenever a concrete religion is faced with its own negation, one of two things generally happens: either the church rejects those who reject it, pushes those who question it and who deny it outside the fold, pushing them away; or they listen to those who question, they listen to what they have to say, they consider it and they attempt to use it in a way to deepen their faith. However, there's a third position and it's where one attempts to integrate the negation into the very affirmation, itself. In other words, one takes the critique and sees it as an integrate part of faith. This is something we bear witness to at the very heart of Christianity itself. For in the cross, when Christ cries out, 'my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?', we see that the absence of God, the felt absence of the Divine, is brought into the very heart of the faith. Instead of seeing it as some kind of test that we have to endure, or the result of our sin and our finitude, what we see is God experiencing the absence of God. Therefore the absence of God is seen to be apart of the life of faith. If a Christian is to participate in the crucifixion, to stand with Christ, then part of the Christian experience is that absence, itself. In a similar way, when we are confronted by the atheism that is generated by Christianity, perhaps we should not see it as an enemy that we need to fight, or as a stranger that we need to listen to, but rather we should view it as a friend and a comrade, that we must embrace and welcome as our own."

So with the help of Merold Westphal, myself and four other friends will be embarking on a friendly existential journey into the minds of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, daily, for the next 46 days. Hopefully, we'll come to a place close to where Kelly James Clark came to, after reading through Westphal's book. In the forward she writes:

"Their [Marx, Nietzsche, Freud] deep insights startle us, find us out, shame us, catch us up short, claim our assent, and damn our pretension. We realize, to our benefit, that we are not as good, faithful, just, and humble as we thought before we started this book."

Here's to 'damning our pretensions' and letting the absence of God make room for the possibility of God, and the gift of suspicion and faith.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Neville's Oscar Picks-Pricks-and-Predicts: 2011



Best Picture
What will win: The King's Speech
What should win: Toy Story 3
What can't win because it wasn't nominated ('those pricks!'): Blue Valentine

The King's Speech
and The Social Network are said to be neck-and-neck, but consider this: all too often, the picture with the most noms goes home with the B.P. gold (Shakespeare in Love won over Saving Private Ryan, Titanic over L.A. Confidential, etc.). Even though I wouldn't be surprised if there was an upset here, I do think that The King's Speech is the better film and so, deserves the prize. However, I'd love--love--to see an upset and have another film (not one of these two) win. Consider Toy Story 3, and let's do a 2003 repeat by awarding Best Picture to the third film in a film/story franchise (e.g. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).



Best Actress

Who will win: Natalie Portman for Black Swan
Who should win: Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine
Who can't win because they weren't nominated ('those pricks!'): Kim Hye-ja for Mother

I feel an upset in this category is in order. Maybe it's the post-prop-8-of-2008 political California air--and the fact that it's a multiple-nominated, no-win Annette Bening up against the young, she-has-plenty-of-chances-to-win-again-in-the-future-favorite Natalie Portman. Whatever the case may be, Natalie Portman's frantic, frenzied performance is why awards shows exist. But don't rule out Bening. She could steal the prize so don't bet too much on this category. And of course, I'd love a repeat of 2002 Oscars and have someone like Adrian Brody win (the equivalent in this category being, Michelle Williams, who seems to be favored 4th to win). That would make my heart skip a beat. As far as Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole was a strong film but her performance seemed a tad uneven, and over-the-top), and Jennifer Lawrence (the best thing about Winter's Bone), this year will not be their year.



Best Actor
Who will win: Colin Firth for The King's Speech
Who should win: Colin Firth for The King's Speech
Who can't win because they weren't nominated ('those pricks!'): Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine

He didn't win last year for A Single Man, which he deserved to win for over Jeff Bridges (sorry, but it's true--Jeff Bridges should've won a long time ago, not for Crazy Heart). But alas, that's not how Oscars seem to play out these days. Therefore, Colin Firth is a shoe-in. Jesse Eisenberg is great, but he'll win an Oscar before he's 40, so the Academy won't give him one just yet. At least, I don't think they will. Same goes for James Franco (who really held and sold 127 Hours).



Best Supporting Actress
Who will win: Melissa Leo for The Fighter
Who should win: Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom
Who can't win because they weren't nominated ('those pricks!')(tie): Leslie Manville for Another Year and Dianne Wiest for Rabbit Hole

Leslie Manville's performance in Another Year was a revelation. It is a shock she wasn't nominated. See the film and tell me that isn't the strongest supporting actress performance of 2010. But I digress. I know people are talking about how Melissa Leo may lose this award because of her controversial, self-publicized "for your consideration" ads, but I'm not buying it. I think with the film's momentum, and the fact that it's more of a showcase for actors (not really an original story/film), Leo's got it according to me. However, this is the category that tends to go crazy. In the past, the shoe-ins have lost to nominees no one thought could've garnered it. So don't rule out Helena Bonham-Carter who, while the performance was just average, has made a career out of playing wonderful women and not being awarded for it. Plus, she was the best thing about Alice In Wonderland last year, so an award for her here is an award for her career. The young star of True Grit could also upset (given the film's surprising recognition in nominations, alone) but I still think that's not where voters are going to go. However, if I could make one wish, if I could hope for one award to go a different way, it would be for Jacki Weaver to win for Animal Kingdom. In it, she plays a truly original, truly terrifying woman (the matriarch of an Aussie crime-family). With every kiss, with every speech, with every embrace, you can feel the duplicity of Weaver's character. Out of these five nominees, she clearly is the strongest. And the year's 2nd best supporting actress performance has (like Manville) also been grossly overlooked. Two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Wiest (Rabbit Hole) was the best thing about that film, and stole every scene she was in. If I could write in a name to vote for, Wiest would be my pick.



Best Supporting Actor
Who will win: Christian Bale for The Fighter
Who should win: Geoffrey Rush for The King's Speech
Who can't win because they weren't nominated ('those pricks!'): Andrew Garfield for The Social Network

I have a theory: if the real man Christian Bale portrayed wasn't featured in b-roll footage at the end of The Fighter, he wouldn't be winning this statue. However, since it was, we're shown what an amazing impersonation he did, how he really did embody that character of a drugged out, washed-up boxer, self-destructed and all. My opinion? Too much, too much. That kind of acting is for the stage and to be honest, I never felt that Bale wasn't giving a 'performance.' It was never more than this. Geoffrey Rush, however, did the opposite. He embodied the spirit, feeling and truth of Lionel in The King's Speech and in some scenes, stole them away from Firth. He's that good and he deserves the win here, hands down. As much as I love Mark Ruffalo, this isn't the film he should win for (The Kids Are Alright). He'll win one before 2020, though. Guaranteed.

---

Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stones


If we could all
just stop throwing stones,
and stoop, knees bent
and write in the dust,

we'd see that the dust
was once stone--
grand, and hard, and proud, and tough--
now ground and dissolved
in grace and tears.

So...how much better
to be a grain of dirt
on that kind prophet's hands
than a stone
in the cold, accusing Temple
of the pure.

-Kester Brewin, from this book,
Other: Loving Self, God, and Neighbour in a World of Fractures

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Top Ten Films of 2010


The financial crisis of 2008 is partly to blame for the mediocre year that was, 2010. From The Fighter to True Grit to Winter's Bone, 2010 was definitely a year filled with films that we, the audience, were "supposed to like" more than we actually did. Apart from documentaries (and there were many great ones this year--see a few lines below), the story-department seemed to run a bit dry. Nevertheless, I've narrowed it down to the best-and-my-favorite films of 2010. Although my number 10 spot could've gone to many (Catfish, She's Out Of My League, Inside Job, Exit Through The Gift Shop, or Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), I decided to go with the one (I think) will be looked back on and regarded as a very special cultural text---a film about humans and where we now live. So here we go. Number 10.


10. The Social Network:
"We lived in farms, then we lived in cities and now we're gonna live on the internet." This line uttered in the final minutes of David Fincher's The Social Network sums up why, in a sentence, critics are praising this 'film-for-our-times.' It couldn't have been made 10 years ago, and it couldn't be made (like this) 10 years from now. It's our generation's Network. It's entirely and utterly a-movie-of-and-for-the-moment. With a zippy, razor-sharp, feels-like-fists-are-swinging screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (the Oscar is his to lose), an ominous, chilling score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and a talented cast led by the always wonderful Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, Adventureland and his best film, The Squid & The Whale), The Social Network isn't the best film from a (pretty) weak film year, but it is one that will go down in history, studied and remembered for being a film that sums up a generation. My generation. For this is where (and how) we now live. Friending. Tagging. Facebooking our way into life, as we now know it.

9. How To Train Your Dragon: The sleeper hit from early 2010 ('thank you' audience word-of-mouth buzz, which put the film at the number one box office spot weeks after its initial release--an unheard of feat) turns out to be one of the dreamiest, most giddily entertaining films of the year. What stood out to me most, while watching the film was its mature, sage perspective on 'what and who is evil' in this world. There's a fantastic theological conversation going on in How To Train Your Dragon, and one question that keeps haunting our protagonist Hiccup's mind: mainly, 'why is the dragon the enemy'? From the Vikings' perspective, it has to do with fire, death and destruction. But once Hiccup seeks to reach across the island waters and understand the dragons (and where they came from), something cinematically (and narratively) enlightening emerges. As a metaphor for our globalized, pluralistic and increasingly big/small complex world, How To Train Your Dragon reveals what it will take to understand one another today, tomorrow and in the future to come. Of course, as Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, this sort of message and movie can only come at us in the realm of fiction, and fantasy. And what a grand, provocative fantasy this is.

8. The King's Speech: The year's biggest surprise, The King's Speech sounds like typical made-for-TV-movie melodrama but it's not. It's a throwback to the golden age of cinema. It's as conventional as the very best mainstream movie can be yet, its heart (and script) are in a very good, very true place. The theme of finding one's voice is not new to contemporary cinema but here, it gets a colorful (literal) makeover thanks to solid performances from Colin Firth (his second knockout performance in two years, following last year's tragic A Single Man) and Geoffrey Rush (his best work since Quills). While watching the film, I couldn't help but think "How was this not made into a movie sooner?" For it feels--almost effortlessly--like the perfect piece of cinema: entertaining, enlightening and (in its own soft-spoken way) enthralling. Kudos to the perseverance of screenwriter David Seidler for a script that honors the incredible spirit (and providential humanity) of history. For a story he's been wanting to write since 1980, and someone who dealt with a stammer himself, it's not hard to see why The King's Speech leads in Oscar nominations this year.

7. Inception: Christopher Nolan's dream-within-a-dream film has been criticized on many levels. My wise film friend Eugene Suen said this to me after seeing Inception (we argued for over two hours about the film until 3:30 AM on a Friday night, after I saw it a second time): "There is so much damn exposition about the logics of its own universe." I agree. But I defended the film, saying, "The particular dream world that was constructed needed this type of exposition. It needed a setup that explained the inner working-world of Cobb's (Leonardo DiCaprio) dreams." Call it cheating. Call it bad screenwriting. Call it whatever. But for me (and millions of other people), it worked. It engaged me. I was entertained. It made me think and reflect on dreams I've longed to get stuck in (and forget about) since childhood. And I liked the un-reality of Inception. For dreams aren't supposed to be about reality, but they're about what reality can't reveal to us. In Inception we see a man so troubled and traumatized and tricked by his own love for dreams, his life (literally) disappears before our eyes.

6. Last Train Home (归途列车): Lixin Fan’s laborious documentary about a migrant workers’ family journey home once a year for the Chinese New Year festival celebration is not just an exploitation of China’s economic boom (and its back-breaking, painful side effects on the family at hand) but it’s a global snapshot of a world (and a people) just trying to keep up. The last half of the film is so emotionally taxing, you begin to sense what it must feel like to be one of the 130 million migrant workers (who make your jeans, your t-shirts, your shoes, your pretty-much-everything—e.g., “Made In China”), living in a world that’s forgotten them. Fan—who also served as cinematographer here—pays visual homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence and Edward Burtynsky’s photography in the way he captures a people literally held captive by the world’s economic demands. Uncomfortable, disturbing yet wholly cinematic, Last Train Home is a portrait of a family being severed, slowly. In a year filled with wonderful documentaries--from Inside Job to Exit Through The Gift Shop to Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work--Last Train Home is, I think, the best of the best.

5. Another Y
ear: On paper, Another Year looks like an impossibility; a film that just 'couldn't work.' Its central characters--a rock-of-calmness-and-goodness couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen--are flawed, but there's little gloating over their flaws, just gloating over their hospitable gentleness. They're that rare cinematic couple that seem to have learned (in their old age) how to love, accept and live in and with each others' brokenness, while never seeming to be fixated on them. A cinematic (and real life) rarity, indeed. Additionally, I think they're the kind of elderly couple so many of us aspire to be--youthful, playful, and in love with life, with this earth and with each other. So it's a surprise to see that the conflict arises not so much from within them but within the lonely people woven into the vocational and familial relationships they have. Director Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky) showcases an exactitude for the mundane and transforms it into the remarkable. By creating a cast of normal people who feel so real, their very idiosyncrasies reveal the inner world as physical world, Leigh's created his smallest and quietest great film in years. It's better and stronger than Happy-Go-Lucky, and stays with you longer than Vera Drake did (as it's not merely about an issue or social problem but a universally felt, common human experience). This is at the heart of Another Year's wisdom and drama. I loved eavesdropping in on this world. Perhaps because, minus the aged wisdom, it resembles my own.

4. Undertow (Contracorriente): The 2010 Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Audience Award) winner deserves all the praise it's been getting. Peru's Undertow (Contracorriente) is a ghost story like no other. It's about cultural and religious traditions, gender roles, masculinity, family, God, and being gay, yes, but it's much more than this. At its heart, it questions the very things in life that weigh us down and literally, drown us--day by day, night by night, tear by tear--til' the day we return to the ground from which we came. Writer/director Javier Fuentes-Leon's brilliant (yet small and quiet) first feature film is that rare piece of cinema that knows what it wants and goes for it. A parable like no other--and far better than Brokeback Mountain, a film it's often compared to--Undertow is one of the most moving films of the year, and one of my favorites. For a glimpse into a world many people rarely visit or experience, see the achingly beautiful Undertow.

3. Mother (마더): Mother is a movie that's brimming with cultural satire, family melodrama and swift suspense. There's not a wasted scene and the payoff at the end, is nothing short of (visual) brilliance. From the opening scene to the haunting final shot, we know what this film is about and yet, we're also completely lost with nearly every scene unfolding more unpredictably than the one before it. It makes sense but it doesn't, it's heartbreaking but maddening, melodramatic but mesmerizing. Mother is the year's best, genre-bending, cinema-as-paradox film. South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host) proves he's one of today's great directors as Mother is his grandest and greatest achievement to date. It's like his earlier nuanced, Seven-meets-Zodiac, Memories of Murder remade, 10 years later. Only better. In some sense, it's a film that gives us a glimpse of the future possibilities of cinema and narrative storytelling in a digital age. By tapping into themes of savvy adolescent techno-literacy, poverty, and a Korean mother's (a dazzling performance by Kim Hye-ja that makes Natalie Portman in Black Swan look like amateur acting, a shame she was snubbed in the Best Actress Oscar race) relationship to her one-and-only son, Bong Joon-ho has made a thriller like no other. If Alfred Hitchcock directed Memento, Mother would be its movie-child.

2. Toy Story 3: Jürgen Moltmann would be proud. This is, basically, his theological treatise book, "Theology of Play," translated onto the 21st century big screen. If that means nothing to you, then let me just say this: this movie is loads of fun, entertaining and giddily funny, and in the end, reminds us all never to lose that child-like sense of wonder and, well, play. Academy Award-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) has crafted another comic masterpiece, combining the light and dark sides of humanity into one, seemingly effortless cinematic story. It's the most surprising (and the most touching) of all the Toy Story films, as it comments not just about the loss of childhood, but the loss of play (and imagination) in today's society. For the most beautiful story-metaphors, look no further than to Pixar's Toy Story 3. To quote one of my favorite critics from Entertainment Weekly, the film is a "salute to the magic of making believe." By the film's end, we all do.

1.
Blue Valentine: When I walked out of Blue Valentine, I didn't see it as the year's best film. It has its flaws, its story structure issues, its emotional holes here and there. But it's a film that lingers and stays with you, in the most uncomfortable (and surprising) way. Drawing slightly (stylistically/in editing) from Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and in mood/story from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blue Valentine is the kind of experimental, art-house film that breaks your heart, the way a Tom Waits song does. Yet, through its relentless, raw flashback-flashpresent narrative, there's a kind of romance presence here that is bursting with chemistry and full of life. There are moments--several scenes, in fact--that made me smile like I was watching the most romantic moment from my life played out right in front of me, courtesy of two of the year's most underrated performances (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams). This is what movies are supposed to do, and Blue Valentine does it well. At the same time, there are other moments that make you cringe, the inner felt aftershock of a blow to the stomach. Blue Valentine isn't so much a story as it is an experience. An experience into the past of a relationship (and every past/present-romantic relationship of its audience) juxtaposed against the future all tied together with a song that (although it is 'their song') quickly becomes our song, too. It's like a symbol standing for the hope that exists between any couple who are too battered and beat up and tired to find hope within their love again. Or perhaps, for the first time. Although it's an extremely difficult film to watch (and is for adults only, to be sure), it captures the spot as the best and my favorite film of the year because it's so paradoxically human. A film that will haunt me and stay with me, forever.

Monday, February 14, 2011

It's All The Love I've Got

"When I die, when I die, I'll rot. But when I live, when I live, I'll give it all I've got. Well I have known you for just a little while. I feel I must be, wearing my welcome, I must be moving on. For my intentions, were good intentions, I could've loved you, I could've changed you. I wouldn't be so, I wouldn't feel so, consumed by selfish thoughts. I'm sorry if I seem self-effacing, consumed by selfish thoughts. It's only that, I love you deeply, it's all the love I've got." -Sufjan Stevens, from the song "Age of Adz"

I've heard this song for months. It's eclectic. It's beautiful. It's grungy-meets-ballad. And apocalyptic. Sort of post-love, post-human, post-break-up-esque. Post-so-many-things, really. Like the album of the same name, it's all over the place. A lovely noisy mess.

But I've never heard it like I did tonight. Every line hit me. It knocked me out-of-balance and I had to shake my head to make sure I was hearing the lyrics correctly. I now know exactly what the end of this song, "Age of Adz" is saying. I understand this place. I get it. I hear who Sufjan was crying out for (himself, perhaps, or maybe everyone who's had their heart broken so swiftly, so quickly).

"Well I have known you for just a little while," starts it all for me. It's the beginning of the impending end, it seems. A haunting little hint-of-a-sentence. It makes me cringe every time I hear Sufjan sing it. The opening line to the song. The way he feels like he knows the person. Before. "Before the earth was split in five." And yet, he knows it's ending. It's not going to last. It's almost over. And he feels it.

I think I feel it, too.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

the Maybe World

"Listen to the exhortation of the dawn. Look to this day, for it is life, the very life of life. In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence, the glory of action--the bliss of growth the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision, but today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well therefore to this day. Such is the salutation of the dawn."-Excerpt from The Holy Quran

After the storm, comes the sun.
After the fire, rain.
After the hurt, joy.
After the past, future.
And then, there's the present.

What does it mean to welcome, to salute, to dance into the dawn of today? So much of living in the present moment usually depends on us choosing the past, focusing on it, and living from within it. It's not about moving on, letting go. It's about being held. Captive, almost. Like you're stuck inside two worlds and you can't escape to the one called 'life' and 'living.' Sort of, 'stuck in a moment' you can't get out of, as U2's song recalled. It's that place between a "Beautiful Day" and one's "Elevation" (yes, this is where Track 2: "Stuck In A Moment (You Can't Get Out Of)" falls on their CD--after the day, before the elevation).

Living in the present is so hard, at times. I think it's because we only see it as a place where we're somehow, in some way, stuck, and a not a place we see as being open to the possibility of joy, bliss, and love.

Ironically, though, this is where these things exist. Not in the past or in some distant future, but right here, right now. This is what the wise old Rabbi teaches his disciples. If you can't touch, feel, or love what's right in front of you, how can you learn to love yourself, others, and God? Much more, life? This is what Lisa Germano is referring to (I think) in her lovely song (from the album of the same name) "In The Maybe World."

We all seem to want to live 'in the maybe world'. It's safer there. In this world, we don't have to leave our pasts, our fears, or worries behind. In this world, we choose safety over risk, past over present, control over love. We don't want to take, what (my favorite author) Madeleine L'Engle calls "the fearful gamble" of actually living a life of love, in love, for Love.

Here's to moving beyond the 'maybe world.' As hard as that may be.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Joy

"Alone, even with all the wisdom in the world, we are powerless: castaways adrift in an impersonal ocean. You can't love a computer or a software program or even a book as you can love another person. Sometimes you just need a human." -Tim Sanders, Love Is The Killer App

My last post just after Thanksgiving focused in on 'hurt'. In it, I was approaching the subject from a variety of perspectives, from a sea of ambiguous faces all trying not to say what I really wanted to say. It was a bit maddening. I wanted to write within my current state of disappointment, darkness, and distressed anxiety, but it was difficult. After all, how do you articulate the hurt that so (unassumingly) creeps up on you? How do you put into workable words ideas so steeped in emotion, pain, suffering?

Sometimes, writing feels like a bi-polar, inner-self dance. A dance between the writer's insecurity and their own (failed) attempts to get out the right words, to speak the appropriate truth. The truth, that exists, just in that moment.

Since that day after Thanksgiving, when I wrote about the subject of 'hurt,' I've experienced--particularly in the past week--a grandiose amount of joy. From so many angles, it keeps piercing me, like an unexpected rush of good fortune, good cheer, goodness. Like the word 'Radiant' webbed by Charlotte to save her dear (pig) friend Wilbur, I feel--in some weird way--like the last 5 days have been a gift. A gift so undeserved, blessed, and profoundly overwhelming, I feel as though I can't take it. I'm speechless. In awe. So struck by the beauty and gift of the moment I have to scatter around on the floor in my head to catch my breath.

Blindsided by joy, if you will.

In the Psalms, the writer writes, "My heart leaps for joy, and I will give thanks to him in song." I like this image. Joy leaping up at us via song. One of the first songs that comes to mind after reading this line is the lovely Mac Davis tune, "I Believe In Music." The chorus to the song, says it all: I believe in music, I believe in love, I believe in music, I believe in love.

I think this is partly what I was getting at a few weeks ago when I wrote. My hurt was a loss of faith. A loss of love, in a way. Love for myself, love for my voice as a writer, for my humanness. We all have such a hard time loving ourselves, I think. We don't think we deserve it. We often choose people to love who don't love us well because we don't think we deserve a love worthy of who we really (truly) are. So we settle. Settle for lies over truths, productiveness over playfulness, criticism over kindness. But it's never too late to see it a different way.

Catholic priest Brennan Manning calls the lack of love for self, 'self-hatred'. He believes it is the antithesis of God. The ultimate slap-in-the-face to creation, humanity, and love. Author Donald Miller believes it's one of the most difficult concepts to grasp in life. The still-small-sinking-sick voice telling us we're not worthy, we're not good enough, we're not lovable, often drowns out the simple love-of-self voice within us.

Thankfully, people come into our lives sometimes who help us see the love we're too stingy to give ourselves. For me, this came in three forms (and then some) this past week: 1) a screenwriting professor, 2) a kindred spirit sharing a wonderful art piece with me courtesy of U.P.S., and 3) a new, breath-of-kind-and-fresh-air, friend, who loved on me in a way only a person who doesn't know you can. All seemed to come out of nowhere, yet, all (also) seemed to connect with me at just the right time, just the right moment. It's baffling to me now, even still. I feel joyful, but writing that seems so silly. So insignificant in capturing the rapturous feeling of ecstasy it has brought me.

I've come to realize (this feeling) is more than joy, really. Much more. It's a joy, transformed; transformed into utter gratitude. A gratitude that thanks God, karma, and all the other broken-people-humans out there who've been so gracious, so wise enough to love on me when I can't seem to love myself.

This is when one of Anne Lamott's two prayers is all that can be expressed, at the end of a week like I've had. I must simply close my eyes, sit and silence, and utter: "Thank you, thank you, thank you." That's all I feel now, too. My heart feels full, drunk on gratitude, spinning over too much love, too much grace, too much goodness, kindness, gentleness, happiness.

This is pure joy. What often comes after the hurt.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Hurt


It's hard to feel thankful when you're hurting. When you're grieving, it's even more difficult. Growing up in the church, I often heard people talk about 'giving thanks in all circumstances.' It's in the Bible, yes, it's the way many Christians say we're supposed to feel, supposed to act, supposed to supposed to supposed to.

Do you ever feel tired of living in the 'supposed to' world?

In screenwriting, everything moves because of conflict. Without it, no one would go to the movies. Yet, so many of us avoid conflict, dodge it, suppress it (within others, within ourselves) because we think it will make our life better. But what if the opposite was true? Not 'what if we just made people's lives hell'. Certainly not. But what if we didn't avoid conflict. What if we faced it. They say in movies, audiences are attracted to characters who do the things they only think of doing. For example, if someone cuts you off, gives you the finger in traffic, your inner self may scream out loud and imagine following this person to the nearest Whole Foods to confront them and tell them how 'unacceptable that was.' But who does this? Really? Who has the guts to put into action the thoughts of millions of scared little broken people?

People in the movies.

This is (partly) why we care so much about cinema, about story, about characters. This is why conflict isn't so bad after all.

In Nine Inch Nails' brutal, cut-to-the-core-of-humanity song, "Hurt", Trent Reznor sings: "I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel / I focus on the pain / The only thing that's real." Conversely, there's a line pictured at the end of the film Into The Wild wonderfully summarizing Christopher McCandles' self-realization at his journey's end: "Happiness only real when shared." This was McCandles final entry into his diary before he died.

Two things are posited here as being real: pain and happiness. Like life, both cannot happen alone, in a vacuum. Pain often happens because of others, because of conflict, because of interactions and confrontations with the world. Happiness, according to McCandles, happens only with others. It means nothing to be happy if you're all alone. So why do so many of us avoid pain and believe happiness can happen when we do what we want to do, on our own terms, for the good of ourselves, for the good of what society, parents, friends say we're 'supposed to' do? So many people live lives married to the hope of pleasing others, of not letting our parents down, of being (in a deeply inner sense) found out. We don't want others to know how hurt we are or how much we need them. Of course, there's some good to this. I'm not expecting people walk around all day expressing their deepest hearts' desires to people with whom they don't have a relationship with. Yet, at the same time, it'd be nice to encounter a few more risk takers out there (myself, included). It'd be nice, just once in a very long while, to talk to a person who doesn't let what they're 'supposed to do' dictate what they really should be doing.

I think this is what the writer of that famous (overused) New Testament phrase 'give thanks in all circumstances' was getting at. Giving thanks the for hurt. Why? Because it's real. And because, happiness cannot be felt without it. Friedrich Nietszhe' words first pointed me to this truth, but I don't think I was ready to receive it then. No, I think before you can receive something like this (and when I say receive, I don't mean possess for I'll probably forget this truth in a few years and have to rediscover it in some other place, in some other person and learn it all, over and over again) you have to surrender to the hurt, to the pain, to the suffering inside your own head. It's similar to what John Carroll argued in The Existential Jesus. Like Christ, we all must face the pain of our own mortality, or own deserted, desperate (and painfully lonely) isolation, at times. If we don't, we will break.

Someday.

We will lose it. We can't fight it. We must surrender and accept, not run away and hide. For we won't be able to live with the power of denial and the refusal to see pain and suffering for what it is: real.

This is the water I'm treading in right now (and I have been for the past several months, I think). At times, it's exhausting. At night in bed, it can turn into a kind of all-consuming fear, a morbid sense of detached lifelessness. And then, there are moments (brief glimmers, really) where Joshua Radin's song lyrics struggle to the surface. Where I trust and hope and believe that one day (even though it's not today nor anytime in the foreseeable distance) "everything'll be alright." Where hurt morphs--in a surprise spark of illumination and transcendence--into happiness.

This is 'giving thanks in all circumstances'. When hurt is not marginalized and happiness is not exalted, but both--in all their mystery--are held together, closely. A kind of glorious song and dance of emotional conflict.

Some call this being crazy. I think it's just being.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A (Christian) Reality Check

"It is far easier to ask forgiveness of a god we can't see than from a person we can see." -Philip Gulley, If The Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus

I'm just finishing up Philip Gulley's new book, If The Church Were Christian, and it's been a breath (blast, at times) of fresh air. Sure, I disagree with some of what Gulley puts forth as 'the values of Jesus,' but for the most part, he's dead on. His latest book might make Matthew and Luke raise their eyebrows (I imagine Mark and John would be smiling all the way through, though). Why? Because this book has a Rabbinic flare to it, in that, it addresses what the Church has too often neglected: today's world, today's people, today's hurting souls. All too often, Christian orthodoxy focuses on future eschatology while leaving John's understanding of realized eschatology far, far behind. It's almost ironic the Left Behind series are called that; for that is exactly what they have done to millions of people. They've left behind an understanding of Jesus, an understanding of living life today, now, here, present in hopes of gaining some personal (eternal) security.

Years ago, I had a thought: "Doesn't heaven sound like the most selfish thing a Christian could ask for? Wouldn't the most sacrificial, love-act be (if love really is laying down one's life for a friend) to lay down one's afterlife, then, as well?" It seems counter-Christian to be so consumed with eternity, yet, this is the way of most church folk.

But that's getting me off track (this is the last chapter of the book, so perhaps that's why I jumped to talking about it because I just finished reading it). In essence, this book is a wake-up call for Christians who want to be real, who want to do good, who want to take life seriously, who want to not check their brain at the door in order to follow Jesus. Some people will tremble and go a little mad after reading some of what Gulley is questioning but this is to be expected. Throughout history, any re-imagining of what Christian Orthodoxy entails has always been met with a firm fist (and sometimes a sword). But Christians need to let go and let loose a bit, and stop thinking that the world rests on their mind's doctrinal stances.

One thing I really loved about the book? It reiterated (within me), why the topic of 'women in ministry' is so important (and still, so behind-the-Jesus-times in so many growing churches). Are we really still telling people that women can't lead--in those most high places--of churches? Are we really still saying their gender has to take a back seat as far as leadership ability goes when it comes to churches? If we are, shame on us. For if we can be so selective of what we will modify (and not modify) within scripture, God help us for what else we are capable of reading (or not reading) into. This book reminded me of the amazing nuances of scripture and how easily we brush over them in hopes of constructing a manageable, livable faith life. How sad it is when people say they're 'living by the good book,' while making slight changes and modifications to their interpretations along the way (and yet, still thinking in their mind what they've done is "absolutely scriptural").

Newsflash: it isn't. So please, don't kid yourself by telling yourself 'this is living like Jesus.' We could all use a lot more humanity, a lot more humility when following Christ. This is the way of Jesus. Additionally, as the book so refreshingly suggests, we need more people willing to follow Jesus and less people who simply want to 'worship him on a Sunday morning.' True discipleship is worship. Maybe that's what the Church has been lacking for so long.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Beauty of Being Indirect

"He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting." -from Oscar Wilde's short story, The Selfish Giant

There are a handful of people from history I would love to share a meal with; Oscar Wilde is one of them. When I first came across his short story The Selfish Giant, I did so because I heard he often read it to his children before bedtime. According to one of his sons, Oscar would always start to cry come the story's end. Once upon a night, his son Cyril asked his father why he always cried at the end of The Selfish Giant. Oscar replied, "Because really beautiful things often makes me cry."

Sometimes, these 'beautiful things' can only be approached through story, through metaphor, through a roundabout way. Maybe that's why a movie like The Passion of the Christ didn't affect me personally as much as the movie The Wrestler did. The first is a straight story of the cross. It's about what happened, it's about going through the 'facts' (or, at least, the facts we have come to know), and the lives of Jesus, Mary, and the disciples. The second, however, is a metaphorical story of the cross. It's about the emotional, spiritual undertones. Pain. Suffering. Exclusion. Isolation. All these play into the scenes of the ripped, torn (human) flesh. All of them are as much about the physical as they are about the emotional, the spiritual. Many would argue that The Passion of the Christ succeeded in being about this, too, but I would heartily disagree. The Passion of the Christ gave us torture, gave us violence, gave us torn flesh, but the context was so stooped in religious controversy (and in religious historical debate), the story failed to connect with many people. And why? Because it was too focused on the facts, rather than the spirit and the truth of Christ's lived experience.

In The Wrestler, we see how scared, how confused, how alone Christ must have felt. It's similar, in a cinematic sense, to what Nikos Kazantzakis did in his fantastic novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. In it, Kazantzakis understood what human beings were missing when they were reading the Gospels. They constantly sought out Christ's divinity without every giving much thought to his humanity, his finite nature. That's not wrong or anything, but I don't think it's much help to us in terms of how we live, how we feel, how we love, or how we forgive. Furthermore, there's a distance that's created from the former approach compared to the latter. When you watch The Passion of the Christ you rarely think, "I am like Jesus. He understands my pain." No. All you (can't help but) think is, "I'm sinful. I would have killed Jesus, too. I could never do what he did for me." But when you watch The Wrestler, one is eerily empathetic to "The Ram's" plight because, well, we've all felt like he's felt before. We've failed in relationships, we've let our family down, we've abused our bodies for the sake and pleasure of others and ourselves. The loneliness, the drugs, the wrinkles in our faces. They all reveal time's toll on us. They all reveal the fact that we will one day die.

To take the analogy one step further, it's as if The Passion of the Christ was all about overcoming death and looking towards eternity, and The Wrestler was mostly about facing death and accepting one's own fate, one's own path into eternity. And what does this have to do with Oscar Wilde and The Selfish Giant? Because in it's final sentences, I was reminded of this narrative, literary, metaphorical power. The way you can hear the same story a thousand times and then, hear it told indirectly and finally 'get it.'

I still don't think I've 'gotten it,' but I do think Wilde has helped me see the Passion story in a new light. In the spirit of hospitality, charity, and comforting the week, the lonely, the down-and-out, Wilde has crafted a simple, short, beautiful story that reminds us (through a different type of garden encounter), of how to be human.

And this, Wilde believes, is what makes us divine.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Harvard

"I spent my high-school years staring at the pine trees outside my classroom window and picturing myself on the campus of an Ivy League university, where my wealthy roommate Colgate would leave me notes reading, 'Meet me on the quad at five.' I wasn't sure what a quad was, but I knew that I wanted one desperately. My college friends would own horses and monogrammed shoehorns. I'd spend weekends at my roommate's estate, where his mother would say things like, 'I've instructed Helvetica to prepare those little pancakes you're so fond of, but she's had a devil of a time locating fresh cape gooseberries." This woman would have really big teeth that she'd reveal every time she threw back her head to laugh at one of my many witticisms. 'You're an absolute caution,' she'd bray. 'Tell me you'll at least consider joining us this Christmas at Bridle Haven; it just wouldn't be the same without you.' I fantasized with the nagging suspicion there was something missing, something I was forgetting. This something turned out to be grades. It was with profound disappointment I discovered it took more than a C average to attend Harvard. Average, that was the word that got to me. C and average, the two went hand in hand. I was sent instead to a state college in western North Carolina where the low brick buildings were marked with plaques reading ERECTED 1974, and my roommate left notes accusing me of stealing his puka shell necklace or remedial English book." -David Sedaris, from the chapter "The Incomplete Quad" from his book, Naked

If you haven't read this book, you should. Everyone needs to laugh a little more in life than they currently do. Including me. Including you.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Angels

"Through the open door I could see a sliver of carolers, some faces peering inside at the scattered tatters of money, some faces turned to the sky and the snow, now beginning to fall. And there, in front of them, in the room with us, stood the family, their outlines barely visible within the weight of the room's light. It was a light so brilliant and white it could have been beamed from heaven, and Brian and I could have been angels, basking in it. But it wasn't, and we weren't." -Neil McCormick in Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

I know this quote probably means nothing to people who haven't read this book (or seen the film adaptation), but it's amazing to me how sometimes, a film can capture the very essence of the written word. It can enhance, enlighten and illuminate the words so brightly, so pitch-perfectly, you feel as though what you're seeing is exactly as you imagined it would be. The tragedy of this scene--in film and written form--is so overwhelming it (almost always) takes my breath away. Brian and Neil, two of the literary world's deeply wounded characters, emerge like angels from heaven, clinging to one another as if their life depended on it.

Something tells me it does. Maybe that's why this scene is so powerful to me. It's where I want to live. Where I want to be. Where I feel safe, inside my own (and some other wounded soul's) mysterious skin.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Existentialism

"Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could've been yesterday." -Albert Camus, The Stranger

Albert Camus' existential literary masterpiece begins with these (haunting) words. On today, Mother's Day, this quote came to mind. I thought, 'how could someone be so detached from life, from family, from reality to be so nonchalant about his or her mother's death? To not remember the day, the hour, the moment? Obviously, this is a bit of a stretch in the writer's world of this novel as it serves to engage with the reader's thinking, questions, ideas about reality and humanity and life. I know this. But I still find it interesting (and haunting).

It's not just an existential question or problem. It's a human one. And we really should be asking more questions like this, about ourselves (if we want to be really honest) more often.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Dying

"The first step to eternal life is you have to die." -Tyler Durden in Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

I like the idea of death being linked to eternity. I especially like the idea of this as it relates to reality and our present-day-existence (and living fully in that brief present-day-existence).

I was talking to a friend last night about death as it relates to churches and how funny it is that so many churches (and Christians) fear death as a sort of closing chapter or finality to a life and world in which they have little control over. We talked about how things--and people, and institutions, and ideas--need to die, how it's part of the natural process and a natural (evolving) world. It must happen before anything new can sprout up in its place. Sometimes, before anything good can grow, too.

But for some reason, many of us are surprised, aghast, and even offended when death comes in various forms to ourselves and our ideas and old ways of living our lives (as if we didn't think it was possible to ever end). My friend was telling me how he would go to Catholic church with his parents and how so much of it was just rigid, unchanging, elderly people--a sea of white heads clenching tight to the old ways of living (which are not to be confused with the ways of Scripture, for they are completely different than this). "They mean well," he said. "I know they do...but..." It's not going to last forever. Sooner or later, that physical building, that physical space, that relentless refusal to adapt and learn from life's new lessons (and God's new and ever-changing world) finally caves in and collapses. No more structures. No more budgets. No more people. At least, not in this particular place anymore.

Many Christians are afraid of these days (and claim it's a sign of the apocalypse). Me? I think it's just a sign that we've been doing church wrong for way too long and that our forms of spirituality are not connecting (at all) with the creative surge of life and humanity. And I think it's a good thing, I think it's what needs to happen before this world will be made anew. Before the so-called New Jerusalem will be a place right here, right now, on Earth. Theologians call this a realized eschatology; I call it living life, eternally. Dead, but really, alive.