Hating Our Bodies

On the surface, horror moves seem some so rebellious.

There is all the violence, rebelling against expectations that entertainment be docile and tame.  And the subject matter itself: explorations of evil, refusing to be swept under the rug.  And also lots of boring old people telling us not to watch.

I think I was almost disappointed when I first encountered critical looks at horror.  When I think about the slasher movies of my misspent youth, it is hard to deny the subtext of the formula: kids go away from the safe world of adults.  Some of them do drugs or have sex.  Inevitably, the young lady who does those things wanders off alone, and she is killed for her troubles.   Despite the gloss, it is the most boring kind of morality play.

As I watched the conclusion of last season’s Walking Dead, I came to a similiar conclusion about the zombie genre: despite all appearances, it is also a lot of old fashioned ethics masquerading as something counter-cultural.

More specifically, the whole idea of a zombie is nothing more than a potrayal of what we think of our flesh.  The antagonists of these films (and books and comics) are an object lesson in everything we fear about our bodies.  The monsters, by definition, have been stripped off mind and spirit and soul.  A body with out these things is nothing but appetite, a harbinger of doom.

There is a long history of villyfying the body.  It is easy to notice the pains we locate here.  It is understandable how we blame our physicality for our weakness.  But this is such a one-sided view.  Ectasy lives here in the body, too.  And so many of the negative things we project onto our bodies don’t belong here at all.

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Finding God In the Waves

There are these people who give me little snap shots of who they are, and I think, “Wow.  I want to know more.”

That is how I have always felt about “Science Mike” McHargue.  He is a thinker, writer, and blogger.  He is also  one of the two Mike’s behind the liturgist podcast, and does some solo work, here which is more focused on science.

I got what I had been wishing for.  I just finished his book, “Finding God in the Waves.

If you could spin the book really fast to force all the things that went into it to separate, or maybe boil the book, and reach the melting point of some of the constituents in order to isolate the things that make it up, I think you would come up with 3 different ingredients.

First, the book is a spiritual autobiography.  Science Mike spent the first half of his life in a fairly conservative/evangelical Christian Church.  When life circumstances lead him to question his faith, he began a transition to closeted atheist.  He eventual left the closet, and began a journey back to a reconstructed faith.

Secondly, the book is an attempt to balance the newest findings of science with the ongoing wisdom of following Christ.  Astronomy and brain chemistry get the most attention, but there’s lots of compelling psychology and sociology, too.  I can be a bit of a snob about these sort-of attempts.  In my experience, authors who try to bring together faith and science usually end up doing a mediocre job on one of these.  Or both.  McHargue is kind of intimidating, because he is way smarter than me in both these areas.  So near as my little brain can figure, he gets them both right.

Thirdly, “Finding God in the Waves” is a blue print of what a reconstructed, science-informed faith might look like.  There are times that this book reminded me of Descrarte’s Meditations.  The French Philosopher began with the question, “What if everything my senses bring me is wrong?”  The American thinker begins with the question “What if everything I used to believe is wrong?”  Both authors respond to this by creating a series of axioms that will prove to be the building blocks of a new set of beliefs, which hopefully end up being more defensible than the previously unquestioned assumptions.

My favorite thing about the writing here is how frequently it flips the script.  I will be cruising along, reading almost on autopilot.  A few key sentences will start me heading in a certain direction, and then, from nowhere: Blam!  Suddenly, things do exactly the opposite of where I expected to.  The effect is sometimes funny, or touching, or both.

My favorite thing about the author is that he is so courageously even-handed.  That’s a thing about hanging out in the middle: Sometimes it feels like you are pissing off everybody.  I wonder if the author sometimes feels tempted to play to one side, or the other, just to get somebody to sign-on, whole-heartedly with his ideas.

This even-handedness plays out in a couple ways.  Sometimes, it is around intellectual debates.  He takes an amazingly consistent approach with calling out the good and the bad in targets as diverse as New Atheism and Old-School Baptist Churches.

But this even-handedness plays out in another way that is a little more difficult to articulate.  One way to say it is to say that he has all these different intelligences.  He is compellingly analytical when the situation calls for it.  And then, a page later, he will say something that demonstrates an emotional intelligence, that isn’t about chopping things up so much as looking at the big picture.  His proficiency with using the right mental tool for the right mental job lead me to be so fascinated that I  read this book in like 3 days.

You should go buy it and read it.  It was really good.  It will be released on September 13

 

The Problem With Female Protagonists

Story matters.

Story provides us with this map of who we should be.  There is this understanding of story, where a hero begins in the world he is born into.  He glimpses a wider world, a bigger world, a magical world.  He enters into this world.  He fights.  He grows.  Eventually, he returns to where he came from.  But somehow, things are different, new, made magical even in the mundane world he left.

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When I wrote that above paragraph, it was so easy for me to slip into using the masculine pronoun.  Kind-of ironic, considering the things I am really focused on as I write this.

I was thinking tonight about the differences between the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey.   More specifically, the role of romantic love and attachments to the old world on these journeys.

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Frodo Baggins doesn’t much engage in romantic love on his entire quest.  Harry Potter has a couple girl friends but is required to leave them until his journey is complete.  Luke Skywalker (in terms of the movies) has only a brief (pardon the pun) flirtation with romantic feelings, and by the end of the original trilogy we find out the object of his affections is his sister.  Peter Parker recently made a deal with the devil himself to have himself un-married.  Bruce Wayne and James Bond prove there respective dedication to their missions through leaving the women they love behind them.  One of the first things Hamlet does, when he decides to engage in the mission of his ghostly father, is to terminate his relationship with Ophelia.

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Meanwhile, Bella in New Moon is largely occupied by choosing between choosing between the “safe” werewold and the otherworldy vampire.  Katniss is torn up between the man she came to know in The Hunger Games and the man she partnered with before she left home.  The protagonist of the “5th wave” sits in the middle of a similiar triangle.  Though they don’t generally have fantasy elements, romantic comedies and eighteenth centuries novels, and stories about women that were told before, and ones that are told after…  It seems like they inevitably are built around the trope of the bad boy.  Almost always there is the safe chance, a representation of the world that they have always known, and some other guy who represents the heroine’s entry into the larger world.

One thing worth being disturbed about is how often the message seems to be: Choose the safe one, young lady.  Stick with the world you know, young lady.  Don’t enter into adventure.  Play it safe.  Sidestep the journey.

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We would not watch a movie where the hobbits decide not to leave the shire.  We would feel cheated if Harry Potter ignored the owls.  We know that Luke needed his aunt and uncle to be killed so that he would be launched into the world.

But there is a deeper problem, a more fundamental thing.  It seems like our stories have this implication that women access the world only through the man they choose.  There is some sense in which women, in story, are not allowed entry into the wider world with out a husband, or worse yet, the doorway itself is which husband they choose.

I know that there are all sorts of problems with the stories focused on men listed above.  I know that there are great things in some of the stories about women.  I am not suggesting that these stories are the cause of sexism in our society.  But the fact that they are around, and that they are so hard to notice, is certainly a symptom of something which is not good.

 

Seeing Her Again.

Sometimes, I think society views most of our emotions in the same way it views defecating. Sure, we can recognize that everybody poops. Similarly, we are allowed to have emotions. But we’d better not go too far in exploring them, discussing them, admitting to them. It is just… unseemly.
There is a positive to this. Wallowing is really not helpful.
But neither is denial.

I have been writing about my moms death, recently. I have been writing about it because it is on my mind and on my heart. I have been writing about it because I think it’s not good, how we want to just sweep everything under the rug. I have been writing about it because I guess maybe I am looking for some sympathy. But I am also looking to validate somebody out there. Society wants to give us a statuate of limations on our grief. But we deserve better than that.

I miss her.

She’s been gone for about 3 weeks now.
I have gone a lot longer than this with out seeing her. Some times, I have gone longer than this with out even talking to her.
But it’s funny and sad. When we know that somebody is there. Available. Reachable. Sometimes, that’s what we need. We don’t need to contact them. We just need to know that we could, if we wanted to.
I believe I will see her again.
She will be healthier and stronger than she’s been in years. And so will I. We will be at our best. Better than we will ever be in this world.
I have to work at reminding myself about this. Maybe it’s the not-knowing when this will be. Maybe it’s immaturity– some day, these short years I spend in this world will be such a tiny little preview of the eternity I will be living in.
In short, it helps some, to know that I will see her again.
But it doesn’t make it all the way better, to know this. It still hurts. I still miss her.
I guess what I can do is live in this hurt, some. Learn from it. Grow through it. I think that’s why we are here, in this broken world. To learn and grow.
I wish it were easier, sometimes.

Allegory and Applicability

Tolkien's Cover Designs for the First Edition ...
Image via Wikipedia

Watching the Lord of the Rings movies has renewed my interest in a topic I ponder and flirt with, every few years.   The question is, “In what sense is Lord of the Rings an allegory?”

There is a huge debate on this topic.  People who get excited about these things tend to have pretty polarized answers to the question.

Knowing that he fought in World War I, and wrote much of the trilogy through World War II, who could deny that the author’s experience didn’t shape them:  War is central to the books.  It’s hard to imagine that these experiences wouldn’t shape the books.  But as I thought about this, the thing that occured to me is that niether side of the debate has any reason to deny that Tolkien’s experiences shaped the book.

The most famous quote from the author himself seems to fly in the face of those who want the series to be an allegory.  Tolkien said: 

But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

I think the whole debate is answered in these couple sentences.  It’s all about a wider question: What is allegory?

Tolkien views allegory as something intended by the author; a thorough and consistent way of understanding symbols through out a series with the intent of controlling how the reader understands the story.

If we use the strict, narrow definition of Tolkien, it seems tough to make the case that it is an allegory.

First off, the most obfious symbols seem to paint a picture of atleast 2 (maybe 3) different stories.  There are elements of the Christian story lurking in the books.  But there are also elements of World War I.  And then again, there is maybe even some World War II.

And even these three stories don’t mantain a lot of consistency.  For example: Who is the Christ figure in the books?  Is it Gandalf, who comes back from the dead to lead the heroes?  Is it Frodo, who takes on the sin of the world (i.e. the ring) to destroy it?  Is it Aragon, a king returning to his throne, blessed with healing powers?  Is it Sam, the silently suffering servant? 

World War I, Camp Meade, MD, 1917-1918
Image by Center for Jewish History, NYC via Flickr

If one calls Lord of The Rings an allegory in the strictest sense, it’s a problem that there are multiple Jesus figures.  It’s also a problem that Frodo, Sam, Aragon, and Gandalf all make errors and sometimes behave in un-Christlike ways: Not only does LOTR contain multiple Christ figures, it also lacks a single figure who consistently acts as a Christ figure.

This is a marked contrast with, for example, the Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.  Aslan is consistently a Jesus figure.  And really, he’s the only Jesus figures.  The whole series seems designed to be a microcosm of the biblical account of the world.  

It doesn’t drift too far from what we often mean by allegory, though, to define an allegory as a work where nearly every element stands for something else, in some other account or story.  Understanding the historical details of an author’s life often helps to untangle what these things might be.

World War I, for example, was the first war ever fought on this scale.  It was the first to cause wide-spread environmental devestation.  It was the first with any meaningful air combat.  Knowing these things gives us reason to see the combat in the books differently.  In the book, the whole world is pulled in.  Massive environmental damage is wrought.  Death reigns down from the skies.

It seems to me the Elves often represent the United States: a distant country, possed of superior might, considering isolating itself for ever.   Even while Frodo and Sam might be at least two representations of Jesus, the Hobbits as a whole might represent the common person, whose importance in WWI and WWII was established by virtue of the need for such tremendous number of troops.

Tolkien, I think, is calling all these representations of other things applicability.  He doesn’t seem to care much about whether or not these were intended.   There is wisdom in that position.   How could Tolkien avoid writing, on some level, about World War I, whether he intended to be writing about it or not?

I think that the people who deny that the series is an allegory are responding to the idea that one consistent story quiet specifically intended by the author does not live underneath the story.  People who assert that the stories are allegorical are reacting to the idea that the books are crammed full with what Tolkien calls applicabalitiy.  Though they don’t form a single consistent narrative, the most obvious readings all fold nicely together into a fairly small number of stories. 

Both groups are right, I think; and in the end it all comes down to what we mean by allegory.

 

 

The Prophetic Voice of South Park on the Meaning of Christmas

 
The Spirit of Christmas (short film)
Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, I think we get paralyzed because there are so many good reasons to change that we’re paralyzed and overwhelmed by them.  We just cruise along on auto-pilot, heading straight into the side of a mountain.

Every year around this time I come to terms with the idea that there must be something we can do differently.  The holidays, for so many of us, is such a mockery of what it should be… or, at best, there are so many good things about Christmas, so much emotional black mail around bucking the system, that we’re worried about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and missing out.

The interesting thing is that it’s not like I come back to the same reasons to change every year.  As I think about these things for longer, I actually continue to find more and more reasons to change the way I do things.  And yet… I don’t actually do much to change.

This year, I’m working on being explicit about what the problems and solutions are.  I hope I’m not coming across as a grouch.  The dilemna with things like this is that if I wait until after Christmas, while it’s true that I won’t look like a grump, I also will be lacking in urgency.  This urgency will be lacking #1) because I won’t at that point be feeling it, I won’t be writing from the middle of Holiday Crazy Town and #2) I will be further away from the memories of just how backwards things have become.

My goal, for reasons I still am going to defer explaining, is to list 12 issues, problems, and solutions.  In this post, I mentioned the first four.

With no further ado, here is one I would like to add today:

#5) Christmas has become an act of idolatry. 

I’m not complaining about how the Christmas Tree tradition started with the Druids, or about how the December 25th day comes from the Pagans.  I believe that there is an issue that runs much deeper than these things.

The Jesus that I follow and worship is a God of reversals, a God of change, a God of redemption at the deepest level of things.  He is a judo-master, in some metaphysical way.  He reverses things and turns them on their head.  He tears our preconceptions inside out.  He infiltrates the systems of the world and defeats them in a much more thorough way than anybody ever could have envisioned. 

The Christmas-Jesus has become a hood ornament for the world he lives in.  He’s been tamed, simplified, and stripped down.  I have this imag of robber-barons, like the monopoly guy, placing a bit in his mouth and a yoke across their shoulders, saddling him to a cart of material goods.  The robber-barons, metaphorically speaking, are not necesarily those with a lot of money.  They are those who do not recognize that they are poor in spirit because their love of money has blinded them.  (Contrary to the nearly omni-present misquoting, the bible doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil; it is the love of money that is the root of all evil.  And the robber-barons going after Jesus in my little image, some of them have lots of money, some of them have no money. What they have in common is their love of money.)

I know that Santa Claus has become the most obvious symbol of Christmas materialism.  But I don’t think the dualistic thing we’ve created helps much.

What we now have is really 2 Christmases to choose from.  Their is a secular Christmas featuring Santa Claus.  And a spiritual Christmas featuring Jesus.  With it’s characteristic insight, South Park has caputred this well with it’s frequent pitting of Santa Claus against Jesus in Christmas episodes.  I hope you won’t be too annoyed with me if I go so far as to call the sometimes-obscene show prophetic.

One of the more recent Christmas episodes features Santa Claus getting shot down over Iraq and Jesus going in to rescue him.  The two figures here are shown to be allies after all.  I won’t go so far as to suggest it was intentional.  But I do believe that this picture is instructive.

The Setting up of this dualistic Christmas might have been well intentioned.    But it isn’t good. Much in the same way that we save one day a week for acting holy, we save all of our Chrismas holiness for Jesus Christmas, and then go act on all our greedy desires through the secular Christmas.

I’m not saying that we should stop all the Santa Claus imagery.  I’m not saying that the Christians who run around and expect everone to start celebrating the holiday like them are right.

I am saying that we ought to turn our critical eyes inward.  Are we celebrating our Christmas in a manner consistent with God’s ways?  It’s not enough to put a “Happy Birthday, Jesus” sign in the window.  The question we really need to explore is the question: are we trying to have our cake and eat it too; are we trying to steal the best part of the secular holiday and just cover it all up with a gloss of Jesus?

Running around in all this, there is actually a sort-of perversion of the trinity.  The part of God The Father playbed by Santa; the part of the Holy Spirit played by the reindeer and the elves and the other magic that gets Santa all around the world, everywhere he wants to be.

If I hit my goal of 12 principles, I’ve got 7 more to go.  What do you think ought to guide our reclamation of Christmas?

H.P. and the Deathly Hallows 2: A Great Movie, Fair Theologically

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Image by WorthingTheatres via Flickr

On an entertainment/story-telling/aesthetic level the  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2  gets an A+.   Spiritually speaking, it gets a C+.  I’m reflecting on some of those spiritual themes of the final book… and how they were changed for the film. 

If you don’t want the ending of either the book or the movie spoiled it’s probably a good idea to stop reading here.

It seems to me that this last book in the series was where J.K. Rowling sort-of came out of the closet.  It was growing increasingly clear that the books were quite spiritual.  But it’s not until the last third of the last book that things become quite specifically and inarguably Christian.

Most generally of course is the surprising idea that Dumbledore, who appears as a God-The-Father figure has been orchestrating the sacrifice of Harry to save everybody else from the incarnation of evil.   Further, Voldermort is identified with a snake.  Harry essentially comes back from the dead after going to “King’s Cross.”  And in the book, Voldemort has no power over Harry when he returns.

The movie was different on this count.  And a bit disapointingly so. 

When Harry comes back from the dead Voldermort continues to have power over Harry.   It was visually exciting but theologically disapointing.   

A profound truth that is difficult to put into words but was well-captured by the book: In yeilding, in weakness, we aquire this great strength.  Evil loses its ability to impact us when we submit in this way.

The movie redeemed itself somewhat on this count when Voldemort more or less disinigrated.  If Harry had used the groovy ultimate-power wand this action would have cared a profound implication.  The movie further redeemed itself when Harry broke the wand… but I still wish they’d kept these features of the book.

 A similiar theologically disapointing change was the scenes right before Harry’s death.

In the book a great spectacle is made out of kicking the crap out of Harry.  He is beaten bloody.  Theologically this was disapointing because I thought that the scene in the book was a really powerful paralell to the Jesus story, a bit like the scene in the Narnia movie where they shave Aslan before killing him. 

I don’t think you can even make the case that this change made for a better movie if you disregard theology.  Watching Harry got trashed would have heightened the drama.  And scenes like that one, where the antagonist trounces the protagnoist in such a public, humiliating, and flamboyant way heightens our hatred of the bad guy: it makes it clear that the villian is a sadist, doing the deed merely for the enjoyment.

Finally, the film seemed in some ways more reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Stand” than the book it was based on.  In “The Stand” the Satan figure has appeared omnipotent through out the whole book.   Yet as the climax nears he begins to fall apart.  Stephen King has spoken some about how he wanted to potray the idea that evil can seem so powerful and yet is something of a paper tiger.

I respect this view.  But I also disagree.  And I don’t think the idea wpowas really in the book at all.  But in the whole second half of the movie we see Voldermort doubting himself and looking like he’s on the verge of falling apart.  While I believe that Good is inherently more powerful than evil, I also believe that Evil is way more powerful than me under my own power.

However, the movie was great fun.  And spiritually challenging.  I can’t ask for too much more than that.