Sunday, November 27, 2011

Initial Advent Reflections

I pulled out my bible at the airport yesterday, and turned to the beginning of Luke. I figured it was a good place to start, what with Advent about to begin and everything. Of the gospels, Luke seems to me to have the strongest sense of exile and its coming end, especially because of the Magnificat and the story of Simeon and Anna.

Upon meeting the infant Jesus, Simeon says to the Lord:

"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation... a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to you people Israel" (Luke 2:29-30, 32).

It's the poignant exultation of a faithful Israelite which expresses both the weariness and relief of a people who had been living for centuries with the central hope of their religious-ethnic identity in shambles. It was like if there had been several centuries between the middle and end of Avatar. The word for this in biblical parlance is "barrenness." It specifically refers to pregnancy and the inability of a woman to conceive, and its use has been a part of Israel's history since its beginning in Abraham. Everything in God's redemptive action can be summarized in that story, where the word of the Lord came to a barren couple with the promise of a child.

When God's people found themselves in the prolonged, dire barrenness of exile, God didn't answer them with fanfare and a quick fix, but rather with furtive promises on the edge of their corporate consciousness. The end to his centuries-long silence comes to Zechariah in Luke chapter one, promising the coming herald John the Baptist who would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Lk 1:17). Such a situation rewards the careful contemplation of Mary, rather than the casual inattentiveness of nominal religion. It is because of her silent pondering of the words and events she witnesses that she is able to burst into the rich and theologically-reflective song of the Magnificat:

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant... His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation... He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty... according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever" (Lk 1:46-55).

It's a magnificent summary of God's redemptive history with Israel made present tense and realized in the person of Jesus. Mary serves as our exemplary model in these early chapters, standing alongside Simeon and Anna as properly comprehending and responding to the arrival of Christ.

For those of us for whom salvation seems far off, or hidden, or even non-existent, these stories from the beginning of Luke call us to quiet ourselves and listen. Because even in our hour of darkest need, we see that God may very well not come to us in the way we would like him to, but on his own terms. In a way that asks us to be faithful long-term, like Simeon and Anna, even when God's answer feels like it will never come. I have my own struggles with hopelessness, despair and frank impatience with God's timing; these stories encourage me to seek the hope of Christ even when I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's not about insisting to oneself "One day all my problems will be solved and my hopes fulfilled!", but, rather, that there is a way of being faithful in times of exile, there is a living God waiting for us on the edges of our awareness--waiting for us to pull away from despair and towards the groaning expectation of those who put their trust in him.

"Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord. Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns. Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of you widowhood you will remember no more. For you Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man's youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer" (Isaiah 54:1-8).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

St. Antony the Baller

"Either cleanse these men by your logic-chopping or by any other skill or magic you wish, and calling on your idols, or otherwise, if you can't, lay down your quarrel with us and witness the power of Christ's cross."

~ St. Antony of the Desert

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Life's A Happy Song"

Rather than review the new Muppet movie, I'm just going to share this video of Kermit singing with Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords [which I can't embed! :( ].

The movie not only seems poised to revitalize the Muppet franchise, but it is bringing back an old stand-by: the Muppet characters casually riffing with popular comedians. The mischievous interplay of the crew with Jason Segel during his SNL monologue earlier this week is another sterling example, as well as Kermit's back-and-forth with Seth Myers on Weekend Update.

I don't know whether the Muppets have ever been clinically prescribed for depression (unless you count A Muppet Christmas Carol) but certainly these bits, the movie itself and (newly-discovered for me) "The Rainbow Connection", have gone a long way to warm this cynic's heart.

I recently confirmed to a friend that yes, if she bought into a movie's bullshit then it meant the film's producer had done their job well. I don't know all that went in to making this movie, but if I could talk to Jason Segel, I'd have to thank him profusely. Because the movie doesn't peddle bullshit (my emotionally-charged epithet for false or cheap hope, at least when I'm talking about movies or story-telling in general), but the observation that people can build family through love. It's something I suck at, frankly--my immediately family is a mess and I've always struggled with feeling alienated from whatever social group I happen to be a part of.

I'm probably going to number into a large crowd of late-twenty-somethings and early-thirty-somethings who didn't exactly grow up with the Muppets but will have a fervent response to the movie anyway. So what if I wasn't weaned on "The Rainbow Connection"? It still has the power to speak.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Forgive & Forget It Jesus, It's Chinatown: Christian Reflections on a Few Good Crime Movies

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”
~ Romans 3:10

“And again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”
~ Ecclesiastes 9:11

Movies about crime allow us an opportunity to become temporary voyeurs of a world we know or assume exists somewhere on the wrong side of the tracks. Most of us would never venture there willingly, but this illicit subculture is ripe with human drama and can offer insights about ourselves and our society.

Crime films are legion and often recognized as the best the medium has to offer--The Godfather, and so on. The subject material autmatically supplies two essential elements of an entertaining movie: conflict and spectacle. Many movies about crime of both high and low caliber coast by on this fact alone. But as I was thinking about how I love a lot of movies about crime, I decided the most interesting ones were not simply about crime fighting (police procedurals, most comic book movies) but also about the criminals themselves. Because taking the criminal perspective offers an opportunity to understand the criminal in all of us, one restrained by social conditioning, fear of the law and hopefully transformed or being transformed by the grace of God.

I scribbled down some crime movies I know and love that fit this description. I didn’t want to have to watch anything new in order to make some good recommendations and offer some thoughts, so there may be omissions that reflect this (like The French Connection, Scarface or A Clockwork Orange). I’ve also omitted some that are over-exposed, so I won’t be writing about The Godfather or Pulp Fiction--God knows there’s enough people on the internet already doing that.

I don’t know whether I need this caveat or not, but if you don’t like blood and profanity in your movie selections—well, stick to the ones that were filmed before Woodstock. This blog entry includes some YouTube clips--I've indicated where I think someone might be offended.

9) The Departed

“When I was your age they would say we could become cops or criminals. Today, what I'm saying to you is this--when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"

Martin Scorsese is one of several directors on this list who made a career of filming the minds and lives of on-screen reprobates. The Departed came in 2006 as a late career return to form for the director, painting the town (and the walls) red with a cracker-jack screenplay about opposite undercovers in the Boston mob and state police. I think what you can get a sense from in this film is both the capacity for those seeking good to resort to the wrong means and the ability of those seeking bad to masquerade as good guys. It paints the pursuit of justice into a morally murky, testosterone-charged corner. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both do fantastic jobs depicting men who have lost or are losing their moral center, and all of these boiling identity conflicts seem to literally explode out of their heads by the film's end.

The following video contains brief strong language, a racial epithet and a glimpse of strong violence. The boy Jack Nicholson's character takes under his wing grows up to be Matt Damon--the scene sets up his induction into the criminal underworld. Notice that his gateway to crime is groceries, comic books and a father figure.

8) In Bruges

In Bruges is a witty and elegiac comedy about hit-men sightseeing in “the most well-preserved” town of medieval Europe (Bruges, Belgium). Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson achieve an odd couple rapport in a screenplay that tries to find what dignity a couple of murderers might have. If that dignity remains disconnected from an authentic sense of socio-moral location for these two men, the actors work hard to sell the vulnerability. Farrell’s neophyte gunman is seeking a kind of absolution or reprieve from a tragic hit-gone-wrong, Gleeson comes alongside him with something resembling fatherly compassion and ultimately selflessness. Ralph Fiennes figures in as their livewire boss and wrench in the gears. The resulting and banter and gunfire plays out in stark relief to the somber historical setting and is rendered melancholic by a spare and haunting melodies of the score.

7) Jackie Brown

Adapted from a book by crime-wit writer extraordinaire Elmore Leonard, this hip caper centers on So-Cal flight attendant Jackie Brown as she becomes caught between cops, criminals and a bail bondsman over a bag full of money. Quentin Tarantino cast 70’s icon Pam Grier in the title role and gives her a mo-town soundtrack to underline themes of economic desperation and feminine empowerment. She plays both sides off each other in a series of crosses and double-crosses in order to do something for herself in a world that’s given her nothing. The budding /potential romance between her and the bondsman (the charmingly weathered Robert Forster) adds an element of wistful sweetness amid all the thuggish posturing. Strong supporting performances from Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton round out the cast.

6) Fargo

Sarcastically “based on a true story,” Fargo takes a simple tale of blackmail and sublimely twists it into a violent absurdity. A scheming weasel of a Minnesota car salesman attempts to squeeze money out of his cantankerous but wealthy father-in-law by having his wife kidnapped. The aftermath takes one turn down Murphy’s Law lane after the next, until most of the principal characters are dead or in handcuffs. Said salesman (William H. Macy) squirms his way through the film in a staggering display of wimpy depravity. The silent hulking introvert who acts as one of the two kidnappers unravels all the carefully laid plans via violent outbursts which erupt unexplained from his ineffable depths. And the highly-praised Frances McDormand stars as a sweet and pregnant cop who seems smarter than everyone else in the movie, and providing the film’s bleak universe with both a brain and a heart.

In the following clip, you can see the seeds of discontent take root as the car salesman's foolish first scheme unravels right in his face.

5) No Country for Old Men

The film's opening narration:

Also from Fargo’s directing duo of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country is a kind of successor to that film—without the brain and heart. To paraphrase Luke Skywalker, “If there’s a bright center to the universe, this is the film that’s farthest from.” It’s bleakness is accentuated by the casualness with which it transpires couple with the characters’ weary resignation to it. The plot is almost inconsequential—bag of money, wanted by more than one person. However the filmmaker’s find in Cormac McCarthy’s source material another ineffable killer in the creature of Anton Chigurh, a relentless hitman in a bowl cut and armed with a cattle-dispatching tool powered by compressed air. It resonates thematically as crime film especially in its depiction of law enforcement’s confusion and impotence in the face of indifferent and careless evil.

The film's utter hopelessness for mankind to solve its darkest problems forces the question of Christian hope. Where do we place our hope? Who do we trust for our security? The resurrection of Christ calls us to look at a world as bleak as the one of this film and still live and act as beacons of love and selflessness within it.

4) Chinatown

“Forget it Jake—it’s Chinatown.”

The above quote has become a shorthand for the cruel and indifferent mess of the world. It also serves as a shorthand for the movie itself, a meandering noir whose gumshoe protagonist (Jack Nicholson) is lost in a web of murder, a women, powerful men and something to do with water rights in 1930’s Los Angeles. Filmmaker Roman Polanski is a Holocaust survivor and a probably disturbed man with a notorious and high-profile criminal history. In Chinatown he uses noir tropes of elusive truth and capricious conspiracies to flesh out a dark world that exists right on the sunny L.A. streets. The infamous revelation at the center of the film seems arbitrary, and exists almost solely to push home the perverse cruelty of the universe. But as someone with a deeply personal connection to one of the greatest criminal acts of the modern world, the wounded cynicism of this film may have something to say about the toxic circumstances which engender misanthropy and criminal rebellion against society’s norms.

3) Psycho

Hitchcock believed in playing the audience like a musical instrument, keeping a tight rein on their suspense and investment with the events on-screen. If not quite his masterpiece, the stabby thriller Psycho is a virtual study in the manipulation of audience expectation when it radically shifts gears after the “shower scene” it made famous. The film begins with a crime—again a missing bundle of money—which brings an otherwise innocuous woman ought into the countryside where the ominous Bates Hotel and its caretaker(s) wait to receiver her. Rather than play out as a sin-and-consequences morality play, Psycho works mostly as a mystery about evil lurking in unexpected places. Whether a chummy hotel clerk or pretty office receptionist, the criminal mind and behavior is right beneath the surface. One of the many ways Psycho was timely was its release in a year (1960) pitched right as America’s postwar conformity was ready to explode and unravel as the country’s crimes (like racism) began to pierce the repressive Eisenhower-era fa├žade.


2) Heat

What Heat asks of its leading male characters is whether they can live the lives their compelled to have and still function as human beings. Both Al Pacino’s manic cop and De Niro’s laconic bank thief are loners, incapable of maintaining extracurricular relationships due to their work commitments. Pacino holds onto the angst engendered by dead hookers, child-abusing junkies and other tragedies entailed by his job because it “keeps him sharp; on the edge; where [he’s] gotta be.” De Niro’s commitment is to have nothing in his life he can’t walk out on in thirty seconds—otherwise he’s dead. The crime and pursuit essence of the film is slick, smart and excellently choreographed. It takes on an epic scope by the sheer number of sharply-drawn characters caught in a web which boils down to one man’s pursuit of the heist and another’s pursuit of the law.

1) Goodfellas

“Ever since I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

This actually based-on-a-true-story movie is great for so many reasons. Through and through, director Martin Scorsese infuses the whole film with the texture and verve of a raucous Italian family at mealtime. The speech patterns, the cars, the machismo, all the little ethnic idiosyncracies—the film gets them all so right. Moreover, in Henry Hill we’re given an entry into the mafia world we can identify with—and a lifestyle aspiration. Because Goodfellas illustrates the seduction and pull of a lifestyle that offers everything, anything you can think of; it’s the American Dream in a heartbeat. Nowhere is this more lucidly and vividly displayed than the famous Copcabana tracking shot (I can't find a good embeddable version.  Follow this link if you're curious).

It’s at once a technically marvelous, unbroken camera pan through an elegantly choreographed scene and a window into how life in the mob made the world Henry’s oyster. His smitten date can only wonder, “Where do you work?”—it’s uttered with the kind of rapt disbelief usually reserved for high-powered men quick to rattle of their achievements, accolade and prestige. The allure makes the criminal life relatable, demonstrates to us how our often hidden and internal desires for such things could pull us down the same path.

"Everything was for the taking... And now it's all over."

This past year the majority of the ministry work I did was in the local jail. I learned there that I couldn’t afford the pretense that I was a better human being than the men I worked with. I think another reason crime movies are appealing is that they can show what it’s like to act out in seductive, self-serving and ultimately destructive ways. It’s fun to see people run off with the cash, the car, the women, the respect, and so on, but it’s telling that so few crime movies allow their characters redemption without some kind of cost.

Ex-mafioso Hill ended up straight-jacketed by the Witness Protection Program to save his own skin. But he also eventually lost his marriage and his government cooperation by getting slapped with drug charges not too many years later. I find crime movies fascinating because they allow a window into either a take-everything-you-want life I’ll never have or the dark mess of the criminal life or both—because they show human beings letting go of the repressed release valve that keeps so many of our self-destructive tendencies. Sometimes a criminal with nothing left to lose seems more honest, more real about who they really are. He or she can offer us not a window but a mirror, making us ask our usually self-righteous selves—what’s the difference? Acknowledging our own utter helplessness in the morality department empowers us not only to seek the saving power of Christ all the more intensely, but also to see the helpless, broken and cruel in the world around us as desired by God to be recipients of his grace.

Monday, November 14, 2011

God-Loved Ghosts in Broken Machines

This is the homily I gave last Tuesday morning during morning prayer at Trinity. It's based on the psalm for that day, Psalm 78.

Memory. We take it for granted, but all of our perceptions and judgments are shaped by it. It’s where, in one sense, our view of the world comes from. Our minds are host to so many memories we can’t count—weddings and funerals, friendships gained and lost, sought goals that did or didn’t pan out. Probably most of these memories revolve around our connections to other people—the things we did with them, or to them, or vice versa. For better or for worse. But as Christians, we have another category of memory—that of our testimony, our past experiences of being tangibly connected to God. Our psalm for today shows how testimony can overcome living from the cumulative memories of a broken world.

Some ancient songwriter composed Psalm 78 long ago in order to remind Israel of her testimony. “Give ear,” he says, “incline your ear,” pay attention to the things “that our ancestors have told us.” What did the ancestors tell? First and foremost, that Yahweh set it up that Israel would be the people to put their hope in him and keep his commandments. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—these ancestors had a testimony from God setting them apart from their own ancestors, “a stubborn and rebellious generation.” Secondly, they told us through their actions that being the people of God is often, to quote Leonard Cohen, “a cold and broken ‘Hallelujah’.” Because the psalm goes on to recount the people of God’s history of vacillation between faithfulness and rebellion, between “Israel” and “Jacob”. The Psalmist is reminding the worshiper that to be Israel means to bend God’s way and not another, to be, in fact “Israel”—and to leave the wilfullness of “Jacob” behind.

The worshiper is reminded that Israel “forgot what [God] had done, and the miracles that he had shown them.” We’re also reminded of the God whom they encountered—not the bitter, fickle and angry God of some imaginations, nor the stoic dispenser of justice common to others. This God comes across as passionate, involved with and invested in the people he has marked for himself. His anger flares up at their disobedience, but steadfast love comes quickly on its heels, providing water and food. He’s a triune omnipotent groud-of-all-being person on a mission for the redemption of humanity, and in his millenia-long to and fro with Israel he demonstrates both his worthiness of character and humanity’s absolute need to be redeemed from above.

Psalm 78 bracingly reminds us of our shortcomings—Israel demonstrated the human capacity for open rebellion in the face of God’s kindness. The poet protests, “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!” We’re a fickle species, human beings. Being human can sometimes be like being a machine where some of the most important parts are missing, or a cake missing its best ingredients like sugar or chocolate. God knows that about us—he knew it about Israel, no doubt. To the point of killing some. But despite that, he remains invested in us. Our sinful actions anger him, but he has compassion because he knows our frailty, he knows how we have been compromised by the stain of sin and the poisonous memories bequeathed to us by our lives. It is knowing and trusting in this God which empowers us to transcend the bondage of common fare human living.

That we can see all these things in this Psalm belies the songwriter’s own frustration and love for the sometimes faithful of Israel. He’s rubbing our noses in the past, begging the worshiper to remember the God who saves and act accordingly. And, ultimately, his hope is for a God-sent king to shepherd us in this charge. David serves as the template, the preliminary sketch of the solution this messy situation demands—an unruly people brought under a righteous but deeply invested God demands God’s direct leadership. We are like Isaiah’s sheep, each turning to our own way, but God has instituted Jesus, son of David, to sort us out.

This all suggests that what we’re in desperate need of is an active remembering of God and his works coupled with the example and leadership of Christ. This is not in any way to lean towards a so-called “works righteousness,” but rather to wrestle with the real and dirty problem of being a human being and also a possession and follower of Jesus Christ. Because we all have our demons, so to speak, whether anger, pride, lust, gluttony or fill in the blank. I don’t have to name your sin, or mine, to be confident that it exists and that on some days it exists boldly. It’s why the confession is part of daily worship.

Let us be reminded, then. We must face the fact that our sin angers God, but we can be comforted to know he has compassion nonetheless. Whether this means prayer, or repentance, or bible reading, or journaling, or all of the above and more, we always need to be reminded of the powerful God who doesn’t always seem close and essential to our day to day lives.