Gelassenheit

The world of a young filmmaker


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Noah Shuts the Door

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Let’s deal with this nagging thing right away: This is a very Western imagining of ancient Mesopotamia. We can talk clothes: Noah’s jean and jean-jacket stylings, Ham’s buzz cut and Naameh’s perfect stray curls. Going deeper, we can talk about how patriarchy becomes individualism and how the youth of Noah’s sons allows for familiar heterosexual coupling tropes. These things are a bit grating.

But I am completely missing the point.

Noah thrives in its brilliant imagination, it’s enlivening of a storybook world nevertheless populated by familiar humans. I found the first half of the film most compelling: a magical, mystical earth where the Creator always manages to appear in new and surprising ways. This is certainly not the story of Noah as I ever envisioned it, yet to me that is the incredible power and necessity of film: through film we are enabled to venture into new worlds as discovered by the imagination of other’s. This is a world of Aronofsky’s conjuring, so of course it is rather Western and the character’s speak English. So what? I must confess I am more intrigued by this project of personal adaptation than a period-piece literalism. All throughout, I wanted so badly to believe that this world could be true.

But I can’t.

I loved Noah for the way it allowed me to imagine, unbridled, an earth freshly created by God. In the end, however, the world of Noah is one that I inhabited tenously, as the film ended and I slowly drifted back to reality I was uncomfortable–dissatisfied both by the strange reality of the film and the familiar reality to which I was returning. In neither do I feel at home.

To me, the movie that has best defined a religious world is Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. The scene of Töre struggling with the young tree has stolen my heart forever. Meditating on it, I am struck by a crucial difference (perhaps the crucial difference) between the trials of Töre and Noah. Both are broad-shouldered, powerful men–the heads of their families–and both commit unspeakable violence, allowing even children to die by their hands. Töre, however, is swept away by his anger; after, he runs from the walls of his home and pulls a tree down to the ground, collapsing on it. No matter how powerful his hands may be, Töre is out of control, he does not have the power to protect his daughter nor the power to right the tragedies that befall him. He, like the tree, is a broken man. He can only lay face-down beneath the sky.

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Noah is in some ways the opposite, and here I think Aronofsky departs in meaningful ways from the Scriptures, whose stories I would argue are more akin to the ordeal of Tore I described above. In Aronofsky’s vision, Noah is not only called by the Creator but is empowered by him, given the ability to judge between the wicked and the righteous. To this end, with his family inside, Noah shuts the doorrefusing to open it even when begged by his family to save those who are battered by the waves on the peak of rocky outcropping. This wide angle is haunting, terrorizing, and yet I cannot help but feel that in it something fundamental has been changed from the Genesis myth. And I have already alluded to it, in the film Noah opens and shuts the door of the ark, in Genesis it is written that “the LORD shut him in” (NRSV). For this reason, I never get the impression from Genesis that Noah is empowered to decide who will live and die. Indeed, throughout Scripture, it seems that this power is too great for any person to hold. While the arc of Noah is a powerful one; I nevertheless feel it is incomplete in that the Creator seems to reserve little power for himself. Put another way, I cannot understand the relationship between the Creator and Noah, especially how it is portrayed, and Noah receives crystal clear visions at first but then fails to receive any support once inside the ark. This change, however, is never given voice, rather once the ark is shut Noah becomes a stand-in for the Creator, even though it nearly destroys him. 

I agree with Aronofsky that the tension between justice and mercy is at the heart of the story of Noah. I also know that it is impossible to film a dialog between God and Noah as written in the pages of Genesis. The reliance on visions in the beginning is a stroke of genius, but I find that the subtle shift from a more external conflict (Noah trying to read the Creator’s will) to a more stereotypically Western internal conflict (Noah trying to decide his own will) is a loss. Still, I cannot wait to view the film again, just to be saturated by its vivid imagination, perhaps the best telling of a biblical myth I’ve ever encountered. My constant struggle with Noah, however, is not that Aronofsky changed the details of the story but that he may have changed the heart of the story, blurring the relationship between Creator and created and creating a Great Man (as the poster can attest) when I find God usually chooses the most humble.


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The Seer

A poem for our present time. Since last week, the controversy of vision has been on my mind, sparked of course by a controversy about an organization committed to vision.

We become so divided by the ways we see. The only meditation I would offer are these words.

 

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I see them over the ridge

Father says they are strange

Mother says the word has other meanings

like when it’s said to me

 

Our leaders have gone out to parley

But the priests have not joined in

Father says if they did he would ignore their tax

Mother says they would starve

and I’ve seen them share food with the orphans

 

Father says that my vision is failing

Mother says there is no such thing

She said the same about death

until sister

 

I see them over the ridge

Father says we’ve had enemies before

Mother says she gives bread to the prisoners

but I’ve never seen one up close

 

If they cross the plain, how will I tell us apart?

 

I hold my breath

I’ve seen one set foot on the ridge

She is small, like me

I gasp!

It is my sister!

 

Father says he saw a corpse

Mother says she saw a ghost


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Les Mis Domesticated: What the Musical can learn from Hugo, and from Christ

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me

What your sacrifice was for

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more

I first read Victor Hugo’s epic a few weeks before the release of Tom Hooper’s film adaptation. At that time, I wasn’t overly familiar with the structure of the musical adaptation and I was floored by what I saw as an unfaithful interpretation of the book’s thematic content. Just last night, I had the privilege of enjoying a phenomenal performance of the music at the Grand Rapids Civic Theater. Unlike the movie, this stage adaptation seemed to get stronger as it went and I still have the haunting lines of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” running through my head (bravo Michael Peneycad!). However beautiful the song can be, the truth is that I still hate it.

Now, Hugo’s novel is far from perfect. It’s plot may be overly drawn out, at the least it is convoluted and the musical does a nice job of distilling a coherent thrust. Moreover, the novel follows a nineteenth century ideal of interpolating philosophical discourse between narrative segments. This makes it rather hard to read and detracts from some of its narrative power. On the other hand, these discourses serve to wrestle quite intensely with the nature of a true revolution and whether the (failed) revolution of 1832 was a heroic or futile endeavor. In the end, Hugo refuses to explicitly answer this question, a move that I found sympathetic to an understanding that revolutions can be both heroic and futile. More on that to come.

The musical, on my reading, eschews this possibility. The cost of the young revolutionaries death is driven home twice, first with the women and wives of the town, second and most poignantly with Marius. At the culmination of his song, Marius dares to utter the lines above, questioning whether his friend’s death was worth anything in the bigger picture.This is a bold move, and as the song ends in applause I believe the novel’s political content has been domesticated.

Domestication is further achieved by the dramatic, ridiculous shortening of Marius and Cosette’s love affair and the universalist quality of the final song, pinioned on the beautiful line “To love another person is to see the face of God.” The inclusion of the Thenardiers at the finale has always bothered me, as if their love of each other and relationship built on scheming is as proper a theophany as the love between Valjean and Fantine. This also levels the playing field for Enjolras and his crew; their salvation comes not from their martyrdom but from their comradery and solidarity.

Yes, I said it: martyrdom. I believe the musical adaptation of Les Miserables collapses the possibility of martyrdom, in effect (and not surprisingly) distancing itself thus even further from the more explicitly Catholic content of the novel. Hugo’s novel is a thoroughly political world, one in which the established powers have ostracized the poor to the point of starvation. Revolution in this world is a desperate attempt to upset the oppressive balance, an attempt which Hugo does not seem to believe is guaranteed success but one whose aims are noble, especially in the realization by young men that their individual lives do not belong to them but to a higher cause, one which may require sacrifice. In the musical adaptation, the social critique is present but blunted, pointed particularly at sexually voracious window shoppers and not so much at the financially wealthy, as we are treated to a ball complete with some degree of social mobility as the Thenardiers pass for a Baron and Baronness. Suddenly, the story is much more palatable to the Western middle class.

Of course, the book has an uneasy relationship to luxury as well, as Marius is rescued from the barricades and taken to recover at the palatial estate of Monsieur Gillenormand, a monarchist. It is here that Marius and Cosette’s love flourishes, ending in their marriage. Valjean, however, self-exiles from high-society, his secret is too hard to bear amongst those who see themselves as more free. The novel ends, however, with an affirmation of Valjean, the true hero of the novel, the social exile. In this way, the novel at least shows more signs of struggling with Marius’ privilege where the musical simply celebrates it, almost as a homecoming.

This I find incredibly troubling. I found the book, like any great artwork, to be arresting and challenging of my own relationship to privilege and poverty as well as my sense of self and what it might be willing to die for. As a pacifist, I was constantly uneasy while reading Les Miserables with the notion of justified revolution. In this way, I began the work more in line with the musical’s conclusion that violence is always tragic and never necessary. I still share this conclusion, but I was struck by what I would now call the novel’s appreciation of martyrdom. The absence of any sense of martyrdom in the musical is a great loss, as I have tried to detail above.

Martyrdom is always and everywhere challenging. In this sense it is prophetic, one makes of oneself a symbol that can energize a culture around a cause. In Les Miserablesthe students are willing to die for the sake of the poor; they stand with the poor and therefore against the government, a position which held brazenly enough will often end in execution. I believe this is also what happened to Jesus. Yes, Christ’s death was an atonement for sins in a spiritual sense, but let us not forget that Jesus was executed by the Jewish authorities because he represented a threat and rebuked their sense of social class and power. Jesus’ life was never free from political overtones; he died like so many early martyrs because he would not bend the knee to earthly powers, he would not (to paraphrase Augustine) become a citizen of any city but the City of God.

Animated by love, Jesus took sides with the oppressed and thereby became an enemy of the oppressor. Jesus was therefore hunted, much like Valjean was hunted by Javert. Christ’s death, though, is more akin to the students death at the barricades than Valjean’s peaceful end. While Jesus did eschew violent revolution, he was a revolutionary none-the-less. He was a revolutionary like the Bishop of Digne, who offered Valjean two silver candlesticks, his most prized possession, to “buy his soul for God.” The Bishop’s hospitality effects a personal revolution, bringing about Valjean’s conversion, and Valjean in turn extends his own love to Cosette and finally to Marius, saving Cosette from poverty and Marius from early death (which in the book is likened to suicide). 

This vision of salvation through love is so inspiring to me. On the surface, the musical preaches the same gospel, but digging deeper I have found that the musical’s conception of love is contentless. It is a Romeo-and-Juliet love, a love at first sight so powerful it almost causes death. In the novel, Marius’ attraction to Cosette is borne over months and while the two young lovers are still a symbol of naivety and purity, their love is not as ridiculous or easily-won as the musical would have it. More powerfully though, in the novel love does not embrace everyone, there is a strong sense that choosing to love one person may make an enemy of someone else. Thus, Valjean’s love of Cosette leads him to continually run from Javert. Thus, Enjolras and the students’ love of the people leads them to fight at the barricades. It is also thus that the Thernardiers are exiled to America by Marius, where they become slave traders. In the final scene of the musical, heaven seems to meet earth and the dead return to lead Valjean to eternal peace. An inspiring sense of good will prevails, however, this last scene (and the musical on the whole) buries the thought that there may actually be evil will in the world. Rather, Javert and the Thernardiers are as much a part of the heavently ensemble as anyone, the whole nation it seems has been united by Valjean’s love. This is anything but truthful, and while the inversion may seem slight I think, in the end, the gospel preached by the musical is that love will always end in peace and unity, perhaps suffering for a time but ultimately reconciliation.

This is simply not true, if it were then Jesus never would have been executed. Think about that. In the end, a part of why I find the story of Les Miserables as told in the novel so powerful is that it is not scared of this challenging truth: true love of others often brings suffering upon ourselves. Sometimes, it even brings death. Am I prepared to die for those I love? More radically, am I prepared to die for those whom Jesus would have me love?

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungoldy. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, NRSV)

We are called not only to love those who love us, but also our enemies. I cannot help but wonder how a true appreciation of this teaching would have changed the reaction of so many to the Worldvision announcement earlier this week. For those of us whose hearts are rent by the backlash and recanting of that announcement, I offer the message of Les Mis: true love of others often brings suffering upon ourselves. This is hard gospel, but it is the gospel to which I belong. It is the way of the cross, imagined so powerfully by Victor Hugo. I only wish that his story, the story of the wretched ones, had not been so co-opted, tamed, and emptied by its most popular rendition. May someone revive it in its full power someday soon.

Even so come, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

 


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The Noise and the Tao: Consumption/Contemplation

Do you ever sense “The Noise?” Does it blind you, strike you, confuse you? Does it make you dizzy or force you to sit? Sometimes it does that to me.

Most of us live amidst “the noise.” Everywhere we turn: we are bombarded. Advertisements, art works, opinions, debates, news. Each of these can be deafening in their own right. Together, they can conjure memories of first learning to swim. As a person deeply interested in multi-media as well as philosophy, theology, literature, and many other things, “The Noise” is almost impossible for me to escape. Further, I suffer from impatience, wanting to consume all their is to know and learn as immediately as possible so that I can put it into action, make something of my knowledge. I think this is a good drive. But it also drives me to insanity.

Enough venting. Let’s get to the good stuff.

I am continually reminded of the value of contemplative practices, times of silence that offer peace and reaffirm identity as something other than a speaker for “The Noise.” This is an area of my life which needs greater development (if I can manage it without adding to the strain of the self-improvement projects “The Noise” commands). Still, one practice I have had (sporadically) for a few years is meditating on the Tao Te Ching. Let me say this: praise God for the Tao Te Ching. Now, of course, I’ve just run the risk of conflating this wonderful work with religion, something that is often done and which limits the potential of this poetry to inform people of all religions. As far as it is possible, I will here attempt to extract the Tao Te Ching from its religious associations and meditate on the words themselves, remembering not to cling too tightly to any interpretation (due to my lack of relevant scholarship in particular) but simply lingering with the strangeness of the ancient art instead. Today, I simply want to reflect on a single entry that struck me the last time I was overcome by “The Noise:”

Colours blind the eye.

Sounds deafen the ear.

Flavours numb the taste.

Thoughts weaken the mind.

Desires wither the heart.

 

The Master observes the world

but trusts his inner vision.

He allows things to come and go.

His heart is open as the sky.

(“12″ from Tzu, Lao. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. London: Frances Lincoln 1999)

To disagree with Mae West, too much of a good thing is not wonderful. Perhaps, as Behind the Candelabra investigates, a certain amount of peace and comfort–however pernicious–can be found within excess. In my life, however, I have not found this to be the case. In the barrage of colors, sounds, flavors, thoughts, and desires, what does the Master do? He “observes the world” and “allows things to come and go.” This gracefulness (wu-wei) is strinkingly similar to gelassenheit, a letting be. The Master does not consume the world in the way we moderns are prone to do: hanging posters of our favorite characters in our bedrooms, taking online quizzes to reaffirm our identities, and buying the Blu-Ray to have ready-access to our favorite world. Rather, the Master watches and then lets go. That is not to say the Master does not process, engage, or discuss. But he doesn’t let the world take hold of him. Two weeks ago, I wrote about our culture of addiction, which cannot let be but rather must own, over and over again.

His heart is open as the sky.

I love this line, but it is puzzling. First, I think it best to just sit with the words, let them open your imagination. I immediately see the sky above the Rockies, where I spent a few summers at 9000 ft. and took the photo “Wide Empty.” The picture isn’t my best, but it still helps me remember the perfect clarity of the blue skies that lit up the horizon that summer. To have one’s heart be as open as that sky speaks to me through that photo. It whispers of feeling at home, of belonging. I think belonging is a huge part of the identity of “the Master,” she is one who lives in simple unity. Of course, this is the very heart of the Tao Te Ching, that being the Tao itself. The goal of its philosophy, likewise, is the alignment of one’s heart with the primal way of things. This is but one way to describe the Tao.

I’m very skeptical that this kind of mastery and this sense of belonging can be obtained outside of a religious system. At the very least, one needs a body of spiritual disciplines to root oneself in the world of “The Noise,” a world where a million vested interests want you to find belonging with them. Again, I wrote on this just recently. Today, however, I want to focus on how to approach “The Noise” when it is filled with good things: with film and music, painting and theater, theology and testimony, conferences and even dialogues with friends. We cannot learn directly from the Master here, for the Master “trusts his inner vision.” What I am interested in is the process of education, of exposing oneself to the world in order to develop one’s “inner vision.” What if “The Noise” has something to teach us?

I think, however, an answer has already been presented. For a true Master is never done with learning, rather, her “heart is open as the sky.” The Master belongs where she is, yet at the same time she is learning from the experiences of others. The Master does not just “trust his inner vision” at his home, for vision is most needed when on a journey. In Colorado, I had many opportunities to climb magnificent mountains, many times on marked trails but sometimes while having to discern the trail ourselves. It is in those times when a trail is not evident that “inner vision” is most needed.

Thus, the Tao Te Ching here reminds us to be in constant cultivation of ourselves, trusting what we do know and hold dear but always seeking out new experiences when appropriate. Moreover, the engagement with these experiences must be cautious, lest we lose ourselves. I have occasionally been affected by a film in which I was immersed for a few days, but at the end of that time I always emerge, renewed. Such engagement is, I think, appropriate. It is the engagements we never seem to emerge from that are more dangerous. We must be wary of addiction. We must, truth be told, be wary of “The Noise” itself. When the things I engage in begin to be overwhelming in number, that is–begin to swirl into a whirlwind of “The Noise,” I must step back and engage in more contemplative practices. Given the world we live in, contemplative practices are likely needed as a daily rhythm, a way to affirm ourselves in silence lest we lose our inner peace, and with it our inner vision. Looking around at my media-saturated culture, I fear this kind of loss may have reached critical mass. But that is for another post.

Thanks for reading. Now get offline and rest.

Do your work, then step back.

The only path to serenity.

(“9″, ibid.)


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United in Struggle: A Prayer for Valentine’s Day

BehindTheCandelabra

Recently, a friend asked me why a lot of my public life lately has been wrapped up with issues of human sexuality, specifically homosexual/bisexual orientation. He had a point: I am currently working on two screenplays on the subject, am planning a film discussion night on Behind the Candelabra, just published a poem on this blog that could be understood in that light, and have steered much of my private dialog in that direction. But why? I must confess that I am straight and even married despite my young age. So why do I keep indefatigably trying to create dialog on the subject? Well, for one, I see myself in a rather dangerous proximity to systems/communities/cultures of oppression. In this blog, I’m going to define oppression as silencing an opponent, pretending they don’t exist or don’t have an opinion worth hearing. As a Christian, and specifically a member of the Church in the present age, I think it is vitally important to create safe spaces for dialog, and beyond that fellowship and even common worship. Christians confess to believe in the “holy catholic Church.” These days, that’s sounds derisive, but it is meant to be anything but. And, speaking to my Christian readers (for whom honestly this post is for), I believe the Church has done and is doing some incredibly dangerous things in the present day.

Just the other day, I heard about a non-profit called the Gay Christian Network. Researching it, I was filled with joy to know that there was a group committed to safe spaces. Hearing from friends who attended their recent conference in Chicago, my joy was increased to hear about the common worship shared and the powerful moments of encouragement and acceptance for those who have been silenced by their home churches. While GCN does seem to tend toward one position on a Christian view of homosexuality, what they testify to is a gathering of Christians with different beliefs who nevertheless devote themselves to studying and communing together, however briefly. It is incredibly encouraging to me to know that ministry exists.

As I mentioned, I am seeking in my own life to live into the Gospel in a manner characterized by listening. There are so many people hurt right now because the people they most care about refuse to listen to them or continue their friendship with them. There are many reasons this tragedy can occur, but a common one right now is sexual orientation. This breaks my heart, and I feel a call to listen more than anything else. I do not have the moral authority or qualifications to publish a possible position on a Christian view of homosexuality. I am not a theologian; I doubt I will ever be. That doesn’t mean I do not study theology; I do. But it means I do not teach others what to believe. That is not my role.

As a human being, however, and as a follower of Christ, I do have responsibility to listen and to fight oppression. Indeed, listening is one (but not the only) way to fight oppresion. What I’ve realized recently is that I need to hear with both ears. As one baptized into Christ’s Church, I cannot ridicule, degrade, ignore, or silence those who are the victims of oppression. Right now, many oppressed people are those with LGBT+ orientation. At the same time, as one baptized into Christ’s Church, I cannot turn a deaf ear to centuries of tradition that are, to use a modern term, hetero-normative. For much of its life, the Church has had consensus that heterosexual marriage is God’s intention and purpose for human sexuality. That is a hard word to hear.

To be honest, it scares me.

In part due to my American context, I have spent most of my life studying theology on my own and coming to my own conclusions. Of course, I have had dialog with others, especially with professors and the authors of the books I’ve read. But I’ve always tended to think that, especially in issues of ethics, it was important to grapple with Scripture and then come down on a position and embody it politically. Now, I still believe that one’s position is important. But I no longer think it is central. And I especially no longer think that I can treat the Christian tradition like a library, reading what I want in order to settle my own mind. The Christian tradition, rather, has tremendous moral authority, as well as wisdom. That is not to say that tradition never changes; rather, I think it is always adapting to its cultural context. But that task of adaptation is a weighty one. Over the past few years, I have been treating it too lightly.

So where is all of this going? As I said, I’m not going to outline or argue for a position on this issue. I’ve come to suspect that acting primarily in that vein does a disservice to everyone involved. At the extreme, it leads to our current state of cultural war, which is anything but grace-filled or exemplary. But even when more tact is involved, identifying with a political position is a mis-identification. My identity as a Christian is foremost found in Christ and his Church. Now, far be it from me to say that Church is not political, or doesn’t have a political calling. But the way the polis of the Church is primarily held together, the way it is meant to primarily identify, is as a worshipping community of God. Grounding ourselves in worship and in prayer is the only way to maintain the unity of the Church. Grounding ourselves in politics creates a million churches, as we have seen–especially in America.

As a worshipping, prayerful Christian, I cannot hold a position on homosexuality too tightly. I need to be able to listen to both sides of this divide, to affirm the commonality found therein, and to wrestle together in how to live in the current age. If I lose that ability to wrestle, I lose an important part of my Christian community. And the truth of the matter is, we are all wrestling with our sexuality: gay, straight, celibate, married, single, dating, etc. Sexuality is no longer (if it ever was) a purely private affair. We need a dialog about these struggles and this dialog particularly needs the voices of those who are struggling most with their sexuality: the ones who are oppressed. And above all we must remember that it is in struggle that we are met by God, who refuses to silence any of his children.

I know this will not be my last word on the predicament of human sexual orientation in the Church. I know this is not the end of the journey for the Church in this predicament. But I am increasingly convinced that in this struggle common worship and prayer must be our foundation. We must stay united as a Church during this time; it is when we stop struggling together that we are in danger. And so we must protect dialog. We must tend our love for one another.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.

(from bcponline.org)


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Flappy Bird, Addictions, and the Empire of God

My Life Crashed Into Pieces When I Threw Flappy Bird Out Of My Life, Because I Never Truly Had The Chance To Say Goodbye. I Got Angry, I’m Only Human You Know.? So I Just.. I Deleted Him. And Before I Knew It.. Before I Even Had A Chance To Fix What Had Been Done, He Disappeared. I Guess It’s For The Better, Because, Well, He Truly Did Completely Screw My Life Up. My Relationships, My Schoolwork, Even My Eating Habits. He Alienated Me Into Thinking It Was MY fault, Like IM THE LAZY ONE.?!?! But I Still Missed Him. In My Days Of Mourning.. I Ran Across The App Called Splashy Fish. Now Now, We Have All Seen/Heard The Hate Comments About All The ‘Fake’ Flappy Bird Games. It May Not Be The Exact Same Thing, But, This.. THIS IS INCREDIBLE, ITS LIKE IM PLAYING WITH FLAPPY BIRDS LONG LOST COUSIN.!!! I’m Sorry Flappy Bird, For Replacing You. But Thankyou, Thankyou So Much.. For Your Cousin Splashy. It’s Filled The Void In My Life. A Void not Even Christ Could Fill. Yes, I Learned My Lesson. I Will NEVER Get Rid Of Splashy Fish For As Long I Live. -> Twitter: @Jesusistherazor

In Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral, Western society goes bezerk when their most beloved celebrity, Hannah Geist, suddenly dies from a viral infection. They cannot cope; the unexpected loss  creates a mad dash to consume what is left of her branded content. As the film continues, new technology begins to emerge that enables a kind of non-sentient immortality for Hannah. Called “Afterlife,” this technology allows the public to engage with their god once more. But, as the film reveals, the afterlife that is created is a grotesque perversion of what it means to be alive, calling into question the public engagement with it.

Those of you who haven’t seen the film (although I would definitely recommend it) can probably relate to a similar phenomenon: the rise and fall of Flappy Bird. Flappy Bird, as simple a game as could be, has proven to be gnawingly addictive to many people. My wife first got me hooked; I justified my first hours in the game as a suitable substitute of mindless consumption of the Super Bowl, which I began watching with less and less attention that night. Within a week, my wife had gotten about thirty people hooked on the game. It seemed impossible to resist it. Then, last weekend, the game was pulled from the market. Those who had already downloaded it retained their drug; those who had just discovered it or, like Jesusistherazor had just deleted it and wanted it back, were screwed. The developer claimed that he couldn’t take the buzz anymore and I can only imagine what he must have suffered given the buzz among us users.

In the wake of Flappy Bird’s death, a number of clone games have emerged, like Splashy Fish which Jesusistherazor satirizes (I think) above. One thing is clear: America is an addictive culture with a market for products that we can religiously identify with. I’ll spend the rest of the blog unpacking that in depth, but I think the basics are clear right away. To start to make things more serious, Flappy Bird hasn’t been the only story of addiction sweeping the internet these days. Of course, I’m speaking of the media buzz about heroin addiction after the sudden loss of a monumental actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Now, I would never argue that heroin isn’t a problem, but I fear the media coverage of police crackdowns on heroin trafficking, etc. are doing more harm than good. Let me explain: addiction is not a problem of supply but of demand. The same is true, I think, of many cultural evils, like school shootings. Too often we Americans reach for our police force to enforce a healthy society. This does nothing to address the problem of cultural demand, and as we should all know by now if people have a desire they will find a way to satisfy it. Restricting access to drugs or guns may be a good thing, but it does not solve the problem of people wanting to use them. And that’s the side of the problem I want to get at today.

Fortunately, I noticed a number of stories run after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death that attacked myths about addiction. Here’s a particularly good one at Electric Feast. The point of these was to point out that addiction is not a kind of selfishness or hedonism. Now, addiction might start as hedonism (although there are plenty of other reasons) but addiction quickly becomes a testament to the lie of hedonism: the myth that addiction isn’t a possibility no matter what practices you frequent. We are sometimes, through tragedy, reminded of the truth: when your practices become habits (which isn’t a hard transfer), you are changed by them. As Corrigan Vaughan at Electric Feast notes, “Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t out partying. He was alone in his bathroom, compelled.” Addiction changed him; it isolated him. Addiction is not a communal act. Addiction separates you from everyone, eventually in your death.

While the enjoyment of anything can start as a communal act, it doesn’t always end that way. I started playing Flappy Bird as a contest with three other Super Bowl-watchers. It was fun. The next day, they weren’t there anymore and I started to stop playing so much. Flappy Bird never became an addiction for me, but it seems to for some others. And those others quote an isolation from their friends and responsibilities. It’s the same pattern as any addiction, but until we find some related thumb-disease we are unlikely to take it seriously.

I want to take all habits seriously. And I mean that. I’ve become convinced that anything we do repeatedly has an effect on us. Since getting a smart phone about a year ago, I’ve noticed a certain addiction to it. In the morning, in the evening, and at noonday I check my phone for notifications, new stories from my network, world news, etc. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to stay informed. But I also think that my phone has become a source of identity for me. I check my phone and am reminded of my social world or my identity as a world citizen or even a Philadelphia Eagles’ fan. Through my phone, I am connected to various communities of similar interest. I don’t see these communities as harmful, but I still find it a bit unsettling how I have been identifying with them a hundred times a day without really even knowing it.

Now I’m going to put my cards on the table. As a Christian, I have the belief that following Jesus is a political act. In other words, being a Christian makes claims on my identity and my community. There has been a lot of theological talk lately about the Kingdom of God and, despite it’s gendered language, I think this discussion is a great one. As a Christian I am first and foremost a citizen of God’s kingdom, or empire. I actually like the term empire, even though some have used it for an Augustinian distinction between kingdom (civitas Dei) and empire (civitas mundi). But Augustine didn’t parse words, he called both the city of God and the city of the world a city. And I increasingly find in a market-driven America that there is a difference between the empire of God and the empire of the corporate. And I want to be identified with the former, which means my consumption of the latter’s goods (through technology, which is different than as technology, this point is Heidegger’s) is something to be careful of. That means it’s healthy to be wary of my phone, my television, not because they are new and sexy but because they are conduits for identity claims from all over. I think American culture has become numb to identity claims; we are subject to so many every day from so many different kinds of marketing that we don’t even notice anymore. I want to recover a sense for them and I want to empower the identity claims of Christ in the midst of the noise of the market. And so I am re-evaluating concrete practices, habits, like prayer, which repeatedly glorifies and thanks one Lord. And I am searching for ways to make these practices communal, as I think they were meant to be, rather than something I do by myself. On my own, I will never have the strength to overcome the noise of competing identities. I’ve tried it before and it failed. But in a community held together by the grace of God, we might be able to get somewhere as a witness to alternative politics. This vision could go on and on, and maybe at at later date it will. Today, I want to simply reflect on the formational practices that are all around us, the messages they convey, the addictions they create, and the ways in which we as people are dehumanized by them. And I want to start recovering humanizing practices that have been around for thousands of years.


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Straight: A poem

My last poem was one I wrote a few years ago. Today, I’m publishing my recent poem, which I am currently adapting into a short film. It’s called:

Image

 

I’ve no war drums

I stare

See myself in the glass

as you talk about him

 

Of course he doesn’t get benefits

And do you ever pause for question marks

 

But, I’ve no war drums

I stare

straight

 

©David B. Witwer, 2014; Photo: “Another Travel Day”

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