Friday, March 19, 2010

What’s Happening to our Young People?

You have seen them and so have I: bright, enthusiastic young people leading worship, heading out on short term mission trips, collecting food for the food bank. And we think, “Ah, the future of the church is in good hands.”

But what happens to those young people in the years that follow? Do they fulfill their potential for church leadership. If so, why? And if not, why not?

Check out the rest of this post, and find some links to John Bowen's new book: What’s Happening to our Young People? – Highlights from John Bowen’s Latest Book

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 5

Part 1 begins here, and part 2 (on Clement of Rome) continues here. Part 3 (on Flannery O'Connor) can be found here. Part 4, on Sufjan Stevens, can be found here.

The Wrestler

When the Christianity Today movie blog reviewed Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, commenter Roland gave the film one star, and wrote the following:
My one star comes from if I would recommend this for Christians. Im not sure if this site is something thats promotional to Christian values but "The Wrestler" does everything BUT promote any kind of good meaningful message of any kind. As a Christian myself I can sit through this film objectively and see the real storyline and the helpless position the main character goes through. I do find it peculiar that the reviewer of "Christianity Today Movies" doesnt mention the 2 dozen shots of T&A , or the extremely graphic imagine of Rourke having sex in a bathroom with a stranger after snorting cocain. Interesting story to tell. If you like skin flicks.. this one is for you, probably not your pastor.

I'm not sure how Roland would feel about the fact that this particular pastor not only found The Wrestler to be theologically significant – unlike the Christianity Today review that made no mention at all about the theological content of the film – or what he might think about the fact that this pastor also commended the film to his parishioners in the parish newsletter.

That this film is intentionally theological is apparent in the very first few moments of the film. When Randy visits Cassidy in the strip club, she says:
'He was pierced for our transgressions, and was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.'
Randy: What was that all about.
Cassidy: It was the passion of the Christ. You have the same hair. You've never seen it? Dude you gotta. They throw everything at him. Whips. Arrows. Rocks. They beat the living shit out of him for the whole two hours. He just takes it.
Randy: Tough dude.
Cassidy, pointing at Randy: The sacrificial Ram!

But notice that Cassidy doesn't say that she is quoting Isaiah – she is quoting The Passion of the Christ. Later, Randy will play himself in a videogame with a boy from his trailer park. Cassidy's son will play with a Randy the Ram doll. We learn that Randy's real name is Robin when he quits wrestling for a short time to serve meat at the grocery store. We are constantly reminded that the imitation is never the fullness of the original. The crucifixion is mediated through the film The Passion, and this is again mediated to the Randy ignorant of both scripture and film; the video game perpetually simulates the high point of Randy's career; toys in the hands of a child act out live matches; Randy is both more himself and less than himself when he gives up wrestling and is given another name. Like the dying notes of the Christian narrative, Randy becomes increasingly removed from those things that make him himself, and increasingly difficult to recognize.

These reminders, but particularly the connections drawn between the wrestler losing his physical abilities in a kind of forced kenosis; his sacrificial giving of himself for the sake of the crowds; and through his abandonment by the single person that believed in him, we can't help but see that Jesus is both strangely present and absent in this man, like the faded Jesus tattoo in Randy's back. Grace is seen in Randy's love of Cassidy (despite her own failings), his friendships with the boys in his trailer park, and his attempt to make good with his daughter. One of the most moving scenes in the film is of Randy and his daughter, reliving once-lost memories, dancing and laughing together in a condemned and decaying ballroom. It is a moment of reconciliation, forgiveness, and love, sandwiched between his earlier abandonment of her, and his subsequent betrayal of her trust.

Yet despite the confidence of Cassidy, pointing out Randy's stigmata and confidently calling him the sacrificial victim, we are reminded throughout the film just how far Randy is from sanctified. He deals Vicodin and Percoset from his trailer; he continues to take the steroids that are so destructive to his aging body; he is estranged from his daughter through his own negligence. Yet grace penetrates this man's life, not despite of his sin, but because of it. Despite the fading notes of his own personhood, and his ignorance of the story of Jesus, Jesus remains an active, even sanctifying presence in his life. Randy’s fallen and sinful motivations become the very grounds of grace, whether that be his selfish self-neglect that leads to his presumed death at the end of the film – a presumed death immediately followed by a screen as empty and black as the tomb itself. The wrestling ring, where he acts out the costly battle between good and evil with his friends, is the location of his sacrificial death for the crowds, a death that arises out of his own ability to be anything more than a wrestler. There is no moral voice excusing Randy, or vindicating him; his life simply plays out, violently and yet strangely full of a grace made possible because of his own failings.


Arising out of this particular theologically charged aesthetic, where moral conviction is intentionally obscured or absent, and grace is made available according to the shape of sin and death, rather than despite of it, comes two implied criticisms. First, songs like Delia's Gone put the machines that churn out the kind of Christian art that offer the narrative equivalent of "Jesus is my girlfriend" under significant scrutiny, because they show the truth of a world mired in sin, and disallow any kind of propagandist isolationism where grace and the goodness of God become sealed away from the world God loves and redeems, a world under judgment and grace. Second, because it is a person of the Trinity who descends and interrupts through a graceful act while maintaining human freedom, it puts under scrutiny the narratives of the cult of the will, where moral self-betterment come without the intervention of the God from whom all good things come. As these artists probe the absolute boundaries of a world that God creates and loves, fallen and under both judgment and grace, we find ourselves pursued by a God unhindered by the depths of our corruption or even our seeming ability to forget, willingly offering himself to us according to that corruption, never disallowing human freedom as he offers to us his graceful redemption.


The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 4

Part 1 begins here, and part 2 (on Clement of Rome) continues here. Part 3 (on Flannery O'Connor) can be found here.

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens, an American Episcopalian and song-writer, offers another theological perspective on violence, this time from pop culture of a more recent vintage. In 2005 Stevens released a song on the album, Illinoise, about serial killer and rapist "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.":

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne's T-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

Are you one of them?

He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed he kissed them all
He'd kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took of all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss
On the mouth

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

We could hardly think of a person whose biography is more macabre than John Wayne Gacy's. He was convicted for the rape and murder of 33 boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. He buried 27 of his victims in a crawl space under the floor of his house. It's a story of a small business man, married with children, divorced twice, active in his local Democratic Party, who would dress up occasionally as pogo the clown. Stevens picks up on these kind of biographical elements, and offers us a portrait of a man with a mundane, middle class, bourgeois life of John Wayne t-shirts and swing-sets in the suburbs; a man who nevertheless, kissing his victims gently, chloroforms, rapes and murders them, hiding their corpses under the floorboards.

What I find remarkable about this song is that, while it follows the conventions of the murder ballad, it is also more than that. It has the hallmarks of the genre – it is descriptive, without a moral voice pressing to make sense of the violence. It describes characters either carrying out violent acts or suffering at the hands of another person's violence. There is carefulness with the truth. Stevens doesn't disfigure Gacy through any omniscient moral judgment against him. Rather, the acts speak for themselves. We have John Wayne Gacy, Jr. – a clown, serial rapist and killer. But there is also a kind of grace present, according to the internal constraints of the portrait. We are prevented from the simplicity of judgment, or of rationalization, and we are given a man with "quiet hands, quiet kiss, on the mouth." If this was a song about judgment, through a moral voice independent from the story, we would be prevented from seeing Gacy's life as a moment describing some kind of grace; if it was an apology for a serial killer, we wouldn't be able to plumb the depths of depravity. Instead, all these pieces of the life of this man and his deeds are laid out.

Most interesting in this lyric is the entry of the observer into the narrative himself as morally culpable. Stevens cries out "Oh my God", in both recoil at the horror, and in prayerful petition to the source of grace, inviting us to see a man, and a world of tortured relationships and deeds, subject to both grace and judgment. It leads to a horrible sympathy, even compassion towards a person whose behavior is inexcusable, but whose nature is shared*: "And in my best behavior," sings Stevens, "I am really just like him; Look beneath the floorboards; For the secrets I have hid". The significance, in this moment for this participating observer, is not judgment as though Gacy's story was no more than an opportunity for another morality tale. Nor is it a way of giving Gacy a free pass, chalking up his deeds to some equivalent of criminal insanity. It is an opportunity to find a fellow sinner, under judgment and in the hope of grace.

Sufjan Stevens, again on the album Illinoise, offers some theological reflection in the song "Casimir Pulaski Day", but this time on illness:

Golden rod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window

Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes

Stevens is working to his usual songwriting strengths here, with a story of another kind of violence, the kind of violence that disease is to a body, in this case cancer of the bone. A depth of sadness permeates, made even more powerful through the use of the mundane and the ordinary: sunlight on a shoulder, a person peeking a look at what someone was reading, the weekly routine of cleaning a house, and family pictures, but each punctuated by regret, weeping, and fear. The everyday is loaded, and freighted, with human failing, just as the terminal diagnosis of cancer is interrupted with a gracious gift. Stevens sums this up as a complicated, divine glory, arising from otherwise simple acts in the midst of tragedy: "Oh the glory that the lord has made; And the complications you could do without; when I kissed you on the mouth." The Lord's glory is not what simplifies, or what makes sense of things. It makes things more complicated. Nor does it mean that our character escapes from mourning his lover’s passing, nor does it mean that his lover escapes from bone cancer. The glory doesn't come with moral clarity; the glory doesn't come as contrary to the horrible death-dealing logic of cancer and it's effects on human relationships. The glory is a complicated interruption of a particular person's life as he copes with a friend's deathly illness.

So when the main character looks in the window, and sees a transparent reflection of himself, at once him and at once a world seen through him, he sees this glory again: "Oh the glory that the lord has made; And the complications when I see his face; In the morning in the window; Oh the glory when he took our place; But he took my shoulders and he shook my face; And he takes and he takes and he takes." This is where he meets the lord, in the self that is at once not himself, a lord who "takes his place," and reaches out to take the character by the shoulders, shaking his face. There is no miraculous interruption of the narrative and the cancer deals death's blow. The grace of the Lord's glory saves no one from that particular violence. And yet, this is the moment where the glory, and grace of the incarnation, penetrates most deeply into him, even as he is shaken by the Lord who takes and takes and takes.

part 5: The Wrestler, and Conclusion


After Criticality

I find myself in a relatively unique place in my church, and among my peers. Or maybe more accurately, because I find myself in this church, I also find myself in a unique place among my peers. Because so many of my peers, who both grew up within and without the church, no longer find themselves within the church, I find myself relatively alone. Since my vocation is within the church, I spend some of my time reflecting and thinking about why this is true. Why did all those friends, all the children of our faithfully attending parents, not emerge to a life lived in the orbit of this church that their parents love so much?

There are two things that came together, in my parent’s generation, that have given rise to this situation. The first is that my parent’s generation are the last generation of Christendom. Along with their parents, my parents lived in a time when institutional loyalties could be assumed, including institutional loyalty to the church. But both these things - “institution” and “loyalty” - are no longer part of our preferred intellectual and social landscape.

But this is not the whole story. There was another intellectual shift taking place. If you’ll permit me to simplify some rather complex ideas and historical ideas, there are three broad categories within the intellectual history of the West. These fall into roughly three ways of thinking: pre-critical, critical, and post-critical. Things are rarely so simple, and they aren’t in this case. But bear with me, because they are helpfully illustrative of what I’m attempting to explain.

Just as critical thought was being heavily introduced within the intellectual life of the lay members of the church, Christendom was on the edge of it’s rapidly eroding cliff. Our favourite bugbears, like John Spong, were writing popular level books, and introducing critical methods of reading scripture. And many members of the church latched onto critical thought, entering into a phase of hyper-critical readings not just of scripture, but of our theological, doctrinal and ritual heritages. This was, in its own way, life-giving. Bringing all of the critical intellectual advancements into the church, the same ones made outside the church for so many years, meant some protection from the accusation of being backward, and old fashioned. It afforded some response to those who would accuse us of being pre-critical. No, this church could be part of the broader intellectual landscape, and find some legitimacy in that. So, from the inside, many of us went into hyper-critical mode, dismantling and discarding many of our inheritances. But they stayed in the church, because some sense of institutional loyalty lingered.

We ended up in a rather curious place. Because critical notions had taken so long to filter into the church popular, we had two generations - a more generally pre-critical generation and a more generally critical generation - sitting alongside one another in significant numbers. They seem to have made an uneasy peace, held together by what? You guessed it. Institutional loyalties.

But what happens when the resources of a movement like the church are systematically found wanting, while at the same time the last remaining thing that kept things together - institutional loyalty - is discarded too? The institution, and the movement, fall apart. And it finally has very little left to offer it’s children.

So, it comes back to me. Why me? Why do I remain? I have as little institutional loyalty as many of my peers. My hunch is that I got lucky, and was able, under my circumstances, to make an intellectual move.

You can’t grow up in the church that belonged to my parents without encountering critical notions very, very early. Everything was at stake and under question. But rather than take hyper-criticality for granted as a good thing (along with the concomitant dismantling of scriptural, theological, doctrinal and ritual inheritance) the critical approach turned back in on itself. The critical method itself comes under scrutiny. Without discarding criticality, criticality comes to be seen as not quite enough; and we realize that there is life, and intellectual vigor left within the tradition. Perhaps not a static pre-critical tradition, but the tradition nonetheless.

I became convinced that the tradition can still speak into, and through, the whims of any individual’s ability and desire to discard or keep what is personally relevant or irrelevant. Not all my peers made this move; many of us took the hyper-critical stance for granted, along with the resulting notion that the tradition received has no legs left to stand on. And as I mention, combine that with no sense of institutional loyalty, and we all go missing.

One of the curious situations that I often find myself in, then, is that of being under the very critical evaluation of the last generation left in the church. When I make it known that the tradition we have has great value, and that it can be life-giving apart from a simply hyper-critical and parasitical relationship with it, I appear pre-critical and as an enemy to the critical camp. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Hyper-criticality has been tested, remains a part of our landscape, but it has been found wanting. Hyper-criticality does not give life on its own. And so I find myself in a healthier place, albeit a lonely one: in love with the teachings of my mother church about this strange God of ours, not because of any sense of institutional loyalty, but as a simple response to the Triune God, revealed in the God-man, who calls me home into the fullness of life according to his gracious will.

Labels: , ,