Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Living in the Crisis

Two years ago, I blogged through Strauss and Howe's The Fourth Turning, a book written in the late 1990's that suggested, among many other things, that we would be soon entering a culture shaking crisis.

And then, a few years after that book came out we had 9/11
.... and the war on Terror
.... and the rise of China as an economic superpower
.... and the immigration crisis
.... and the re-establishment of Soviet-like aggression in Russia
.... and now the financial market debacle

Friends, we're not just entering the crisis.... we are living in the midst of a crisis that is maturing around us as we speak. The voices proclaiming the decline and fall of our culture are many. Consider a few titles on the shelves at your local book merchant:

Also consider the panic that is setting in: a herd mentality driving sell offs in securities, people snapping up gasoline in the South due to shortages, anger over the bailout bill leads millions to call their congressional representitives. Things loook bad.

Yet, strangely, this is the great time of opportunity.

Strauss and Howe offer suggestions for living in the crisis: build relationships, self reliance, return to the classic virtues of thrift, reliability, integrity, etc.

I suggest also that these times ought lead us to prayer, study, fellowship, worship, and a greater generosity. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians (that wonderful book of comfort that should be required reading for us all in these times) "For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised." (5:14-15). We are not our own, but His. And we will be His and live for His sake in times of prosperity and fatness, and in times of leanness and struggle.

Indeed, this may well be an opportunity for many of us (and I count myself chief among all sinners) to repent of our self-centered ways ... to trust in the Lord's provision and be about the business of being a blessing to other people. "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Eph 2:10) Part of living for Him is living for others ... not that good works earns us salvation, but that when we're saved, He shapes us for good works.

We'll all be struggling: financially, emotionally, in our homes. This is the time for us to draw closer together .... look at how we can share, help one another out, meet one another's needs as we're able. We'll discover that we can entertain ourselves, rather than relying on the cradle of narcissism that celebrity culture has become. We'll discover that we can make many decisions for oursleves, without relying on experts to tell us how we ought to be. We'll discover our own tastes and styles, rather than being lapdogs to the mavens of fashion.

Our culture is not falling apart --- just the high-flying consumeristic element of it that preys upon the insecure. Now, we who build our lives upon the Rock that is Christ have the opportunity to build better culture.......

So let's be about it.

Soli Deo Gloria


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Election Addiction

Yesterday on Talk of the Nation, I heard a conversation with Megan Daum about election addiction. The idea that she had presented in an article of the same topic, was that we have moved to an unhealthy obsession with this election. She notes that people are showing all the signs of addiction ... abandoning hobbies to focus on the election, continually logging on to get the fix of the latest election news, etc.

I've seen it too. And it just plain bothers me. Yes, Christians ought to participate in the political process, but we ought not be obsessed by it. Idolotry of any form is .... well it's a bad idea. Neither McCain/Palin nor Obama/Biden are my saviors. (and in the interest of equal time, neither are Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party, Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party, Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party, Charles Jay of the Boston Tea Party, or any of those others). The issues are important, but at the end of they day, Christ is my savior.

Another tangential issue is that much of what passes as "political news" is actually analysis of strategy, tactic, polls, and campaiging. There's little substantive conversation going on about the issues.

And even if there were substantive conversation about the issues, it would have little bearing on the presidential race. Take a look under the hood of the political process in Washington, with it's byzantine collection of committees, staff, oversight duties, symbolic gestures, hearings, votes on procedure, press meetings, and pomp. One person's stand on the issues, while important, gets quickly dwarfed by a candidate's capacity to work through the labyrinth of legislation and administration. Simply put, much of what goes on in the electoral process has little or nothing to do with how governance actually happens. The best thing about the election process is that it gets the candidates out there rubbing shoulders with ordinary people, so they won't forget who it is they serve.

So I've turned off most of the news. I've turned my attention back to books and special projects and church and spending time with friends, family, and people in the neighborhood. Sure, I'm taking time to look at candidates web pages and their records; but I'm trying hard not to spend too much time heeding punditry..... I've got a life, after all.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Now Playing double feature: Lars and the Real Girl and Be Kind Rewind

I had not planned on watching Lars and the Real Girl. It's the story of a shy upper midwesterner who orders a life-size girl doll (yes, one of those), and carries it around with him everywhere, passing it off as his "girlfriend". However, when an octegenarian says "You must see this movie", well, I sit up and take notice.

The film is not crude. Indeed, it's sweet. Lars is so chronically shy, he can't even endure skin contact with another person. He's not insane; he's not dangerous. He's just deeply wounded and trying to process what it means to be an adult. As Lars goes through this delusion, insisting that this doll is a wheelchair bound child of missionaries from Brazil, the whole town rallies around, trying to help him by treating her as though she were a real person. The whole community engages in this elaborate fiction.... even to the point of giving this doll a life of her own separate from Lars's life. This gracious extension of love and imagination becomes the classroom in which Lars learns what it means to grow up from a wounded child into an adult who takes responsibility for doing the difficult things in life. Lars' brother also gets confronted with owning up to his own past failures as a brother and seeking forgiveness. All of it because the whole community rallies around Lars to offer love.

And this is why I make the connection with Be Kind Rewind. This movie was something of a disappointment. Mos Def and Jack Black work in an old video store, and through a bizzare series of events, Jack Black erases all the videos. They hurriedly try to re-film all the movies themselves. Watching these two morons recreate Ghostbusters is a riot. Soon the whole neighborhood gets involved in making the movies and enjoying the movies. When the copyright goons come in and shut down the operation, the two heroes understand that they can make their own film. They create a documentary about legendary musician Fats Waller .... bringing the whole neighborhood in on the act. It's a complete work of fiction, but the project of creating the fiction brings the community together.

In both cases, we have instances where the community gathers in an act of creative storytelling. In both, we have strange quirky characters who are both annoying and loveable. In both we have a celebration of community, togetherness, and a confidence that even in the face of tragedy or discouragement, the community can write a newer more lyrical reality.

It's very telling that Lars is shown reading to his real girl from Don Quixote, the great story of a man who created his own reality of being a knight errant, and he was more alive in his world of fantasy than he was in his world of reality. Quixote understood that the name a man chooses for himself is oftentimes more his own than the one he's born with.

It's an interesting trend in film.... parallel with the epic larger than life superhero films, we have these very homey films that focus on the community. These films help us reflect on such community oriented passages as Romans 12:4-5 "For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another." -- come what may we belong to one another. Maddening though we are to each other, we are God's gift to one another. I Corinthians 12 hits at this as well "to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." (v 7) and the whole chapter becomes a meditation on how the Spirit grants different roles and gifts within the body of Christ.

Strange and quirky as they are, these films help us reflect on what it means to live as the body of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, September 11, 2008

As we sit at the seventh anniverary of 9/11, I simply link to this engaging book review from the Economist, August 23rd issue. It's the review of two books from two friends, one a Palestinian, the other an Israeli. The theme however, is music and its unifying power. I think it a fitting homage to the victims of those tragic attacks that in the midst of our remembering, we also look ahead to building anew.

I believe that lasting peace is found in Christ alone; I also believe that we are called to be culture makers (following the theme of Crouch's book which I've been slowly reviewing here) and this review has some pertinent ideas for culture making:

"We live in a world in which different voices -- different expressions of political will and behavioral norms -- collide and compete. Some struggle to be heard; others seem to be continuously present. In music we have the perfect model of contrasting voices working together harmoniously."

The review itself is well worth a read.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Culture Making Ch 4 -- Cultivtion and Creation

I truly enjoyed the film Tortilla Soup. Hector Alizondo plays the role of a great chef whose wife has died. Every Sunday, he and his three adult daughters gather for a home-cooked meal. The film dwells on shots of the selections of ingredients and preparation of food .... and we see that this family is bond together by the regular routines of preparation and enjoyment of a great meal.

Andy Crouch evoked memories of that film in this chapter on Cultivation and Creation. He makes the argument that the only way to change culture is to make new culture that displaces it. He gives the example of homemade chili. His kids may protest against it now, but with the consistent creation of it, he will teach them that preparation of food is a delight and a valuable thing. They may make their own recipies as a way of doing something else, anything else other than chili, but they still will have been taught the value of making their own meals.

Crouch thinks through the other stances toward culture in relation to Creation and Cultivation:

condemning culture: does very little... that which is condemned is still there. The show goes on unless an alternative is offered.

Critiquing culture: This looks for redeeming qulaities. It may shape the framework of some, but it only has lasting value if someone creates new culture in response (I'm reminded of a drama workshop I attended years ago taught by Charlie and Ruth Jones. Charlie opened with a talk about TS Eliot, the great poet who decided that his literary talents were better used in writing essays about the culture. Today, nobody reads the essays, but everyone still has to study The Waste Land in some literature class in their career. The illustration holds... analysis has value....but it's lasting value lies in what is done with the analysis. However, Eliots Criticism did arouse some pretty lasting effects.... that perhaps is a subject for a different article)

Copying culture: creation of a subculture is OK and something of a refuge for those in the subculture, but does little to touch those outside the subculture.

Consuming culture: Use the power of the purse to shape culture. Crouch uses the example of Barbara Nicolosi's "othercott" against The DaVinci Code. The idea wasn't to boycott going to movies the weekend of the opening of the lackluster film adaptation of Dan Brown's controversial thriller. Rather, the idea was to go see anything but the DaVinci Code. If Hollywood understands things in terms of dollars and cents, then in addition to punishing objectionable fare, positive and healthy fare needs to be rewarded. Crouch shows how this is a good idea, but on the aggregate scale, the kinds of numbers required to really make a difference are staggering.

Culture Making, by contrast, requires a decision to participate in the cultural tradition of which we are a part. This begins with Cultivation .... learning the tradition. It begins with the habits of conserving the true, the good, and the beautiful in our tradition and teaching them to the next generation. “One who cultivates tries to create the most fertile conditions for good things to survive and thrive.” (75)

Crouch points out that disciplines are simply systematic methods of cultivation. The pianist running through scales. The basketball player practicing free throws. The writer sitting down for his daily 30 minutes of writing. The disciplines we do on the day in day out, week in week out basis are the things that prepare fertile soil for rich and deep culture making.

This is one of the reasons Tammy and I have chosen to put our children in a private school centered on the Classical model. Yes, our children will spend much of their elementary school years memorizing and packing facts into their heads (fortunately they memorize using fun methods like songs, chants, body motion, and a variety of other methodologies).... but the disciplines of learning all these things will become a deep well from which they can draw in later years. Of course, I don't object to christians sending their children to public schools....there are great public schools here in Cincinnati, and many of our congregation members are public school teachers. However, this was a decision that was right for our family.

Another example....I somtimes get some of our members who say "you must read a lot, how do you find time to read all these books?" Admittedly, I do read a lot. However, I've been reading a lot for over 20 years. Just because I refer to a book (or a film) in a sermon, that doesn't mean that I was reading that particular book last week. Over a couple of decades, I've built up a deep well of knowledge about literature, history, and the arts. I'm not particularly more clever than anyone else, I've just been doing serious study for a long time.... and I've been archiving information in notes and journals so that I can come back to it later. This is just a basic discipline that cultivates the mind.

“So underneath almost every act of culture making we find countless small acts of culture keeping. That is why the good screenwriter has first watched a thousand movies; why the surgeon who pioneers a new technique has first performed a thousand routine surgeries; and why the investor who provides funds to the next startup has studied a thousand balance sheets. Cultural creativity requires cultural maturity. Someday my own children will undoubtedly cook me a wonderful meal – but by that time, they will also have learned to love chili. With any luck, they will be both culture keepers and culture makers – both cultivators and creators. And then they will be prepared to both conserve culture at its best and change it for the better by offering the world something new.” (77)

However Crouch points out....that is only the first step. Cultivation only sets the conditions. Then there comes the act of Creation. And here, unfortunately, Crouch ends the chapter. Of course he comes back to the call to create, but I would have liked more.

I would have liked more on the fears that are involved in creating. Creating seems to be a tremendous act of ego.... and it is terrifying. Bayles and Orland, in their work Art and Fear deal with this very issue. They talk about the fear of not being able to make the art we create match the art that is in our head. The materials are never as supple as we hope they'll be. They never fully respond the way we want. Bayles tells the story of learning to play the piano: After a few months practice he moaned to his teacher “but I can hear the music so much better in my head than in can get out of my fingers.” To which the master replied “What makes you think that ever changes?” (14-15)

Bayles and Orland also tell this most revealing story:
A ceramics teacher divided his class into two groups – those on the left would be graded on the quantity of the work they produced, those on the right solely on the quality of the work. The second group only had to produce one pot, but it had to be perfect to get an A. “Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” (29)

In other words, a significant part of culture making....of the cultivation process itself....is in doing. We need to be producing.

So I ask ... what are you working on. What creative disciplines (beyond the spiritual disciplines) have you developed?

Soli Deo Gloria