Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Risk, Art, and Truth

Christian pop culture in America often seems consumed by a concern for safety, or more specifically, harmlessness. This has always frustrated me, even though I am not a noted risk-taker in most situations. In fact, I grew up in a very safe Evangelical environment. I had a vague understanding of pop culture until I reached college years, and even now I often have to claim "homeschooled" when it comes to 80's and 90's movies, music and tv. But over the years, I've become more frustruated with the constant pursuit of harmlessness within the Arts among Christians.

I used to soapbox about it all; Christian bookstores that did not carry Tolkein or Christian radio stations whose slogan was "safe for the whole family," or friends who were not allowed to watch PG-13 movies until after they graduated from high school. I remember ranting about it to my co-staff-director at summer camp as we ran errands in the 15-passenger van in downtown San Diego. Surprised by my uncharacteristic vehemence, he ribbed me about quoting Narnia's "good, not safe" principle for the rest of the summer. The summer camp we worked for covered Christian apologetics in the curriculum, and despite my passion for working there, it was rare for me to take a decisive part in the many debates and discussions among the staff. But on this topic I was more willing to take part. It seemed more personal to me than arguments of Calvinism vs. Arminianism, or methods of evangelism.

Famously, medical students are taught the principle of primum non nocere, "first, do no harm." And wikipedia.com tells me that "Since at least 1860, the phrase has been for physicians a hallowed expression of hope, intention, humility, and recognition that human acts with good intentions may have unwanted consequences." The principle is that a cure may be riskier and more painful than doing nothing. In many ways, Christian pop culture holds to the same principle. The goal in most Christian popular art is simply to be innoccuous, seemingly out of fear of doing harm.

The difference between a physician taking risks, and a Christian in the arts taking the risk of vulnerability, is that the cure is certain; however, it is certain to do harm in some ways as it heals. But it will heal, in the end.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

O this is the great joy

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.

Could but thy soul, O man,
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.
--15th century song

Advent celebrates the coming of the hope of wrong being made right. The beginning of Christ's life is the beginning of the fulfillment. It is a hopeful sign to me that the actual fulfilment took place over time and within time. That's why the advent season is a process.

For most people, the process of the advent season goes something like this: Thanksgiving, Black Friday, weeks of shopping and parties, family events, dealing with the postal system, and, finally, a Christmas Eve candlelit service, which reminds us of the whole real story.

There are many calls to "remember the real reason for the season" within the church, some plaintive or demanding, some heartfelt and honest, but really after all, that's what the celebration of Advent is...a reminder to remember the beginning of our hope.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Films of Mira Nair

I recently watched the movie "The Namesake" over again, and remembered how much I love this film and another one by Mira Nair, "Monsoon Wedding." I have not seen any of her other directorial efforts, (including 2009's New York, I Love You), so I can't speak to them, but these two movies are beautifully told stories.

"Monsoon Wedding" is set mostly in India, while "The Namesake" is set in New York. However, the firmest prop in both films is the airport joining India to the U.S., and this strange meeting of cultures. Both stories are intimate, carefully drawn portraits of family and community and the tenuous connections that bind together despite the distance to the other side of world. Barriers of culture, language, generation, caste, and physical distance fragment the families in both stories, but in spite of these walls, somehow the heroes of these stories must always return to the family in order to make sense of their lives. These themes of heritage, separation, journey and return drive these two narratives, and are emphasized with lovely, meditative cinematography that seems to reveal a precariousness of loneliness within community.

The other thing that strikes so deeply about these stories are the strong and beautiful father figures, a characterization so rarely found in Western film. Both Irffan Kahn (of Slumdog Millionaire) as Ashoke Ganguli in "The Namesake" and Naseeruddin Shah as Lalit Verma in "Monsoon Wedding" are sacrificial, loving, and respected, even heroic father characters. This characterization is deeply touching, all the more because of its rarity.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

living with pennies

He says pennies are worth less than nothing
And throws them in the garbage can
plunk plunk ping (rimshot)

That was a joke he just told, according to the universe.
Because pennies are worth dollars
When there are hundreds of them.

My pennies are the little noticings
The tiny bits of joy.
That add up to living.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Steelehouse Podcast Christmas Pop Culture Essay Contest

There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on.
--Robert Byrne

Every week I wait for Friday to hear a great podcast I found about a year ago after I read Mark Steele's book "Flashbang: How I Got Over Myself." I had heard Mark speak at an Aquire the Fire conference years ago, and found the podcast while trolling through iTunes for some new listening material. The show, co-hosted by Jeff Huston, is hilarious, relevant, and engaging, and best of all, it helps to keep me "pursuing God in pop culture and the arts" with the great info, personal picks of albums, artists and tv shows, as well as the discussion threads on the facebook page.

If you haven't noticed from the long gap between posts, writing actual content has been somewhat of a dry well this year, partly due to time constraints and just overall life business, partly due to some other factors, extra committments, and purchasing a house. But once they announced that this year's Christmas competition was an essay contest, I decided to enter, and set it as a goal for myself, not necessarily hoping to win (I turned purple just hearing my name on air...a regular segment--part of the prize--would amount to something like torture), but hoping the deadline would inspire me to focus.

I'm not a natural critic, far preferring the world of possibility to choosing just one thing and defending it, so most of the choices below were very tough calls for me. At times, I wanted to throw the entire set out the window and quit, mostly because I hated set the limits to only one. But in the end, though rushed (my laptop died, and I had to finish in moments snatched on my sister's computer), I finished and submitted the entry at 10:30 pm pacific time December 7, just about 30 minutes before the deadline. Below is my entry.

1. Album of the Decade: Over the Rhine Ohio
This album is a purely personal choice reflecting my own journey of music choice over the decade. For me, the 00's saw me through the years of college sophomore to now, in early career years, and the music I was listening to at the beginning of the decade represents a sort of starting point in really learning about music and relating to it on an artistic level. The music that reached me most clearly always had to do with both deep faith and real humanness, and 2003's 2-disk Ohio is a great example of that. The lyrics range from tongue-in-cheek ironic, to uncompromisingly honest, to compassionate. Narratives, backstories, names, political and historical references and poetry weave through the songs, and all of this is filtered into memorable, pithy lines and sweet jazzy melodies. While probably not technically the best album of the decade, or perhaps not even my overall favorite Over the Rhine album (Drunkard's Prayer, 2006), to me this album represents that honest human struggle with faith through art, that attempt to reconcile our understanding with God's perspective.

2. Film of the Decade: Return of the King.
I tried and tried to work this in different ways, but I just could not avoid putting the Return of the King in the top spot. Finally, I watched the film over again, and realized why. Like so many, I loved the books first, and have my own arguments with some of Peter Jackson’s interpretations. But the movies, particularly the last one, defined the word of the 2000’s, epic. For three years, I had a standing date on opening weekend, usually just after Finals week was over with about 20 friends and family members to go to the nearest big theater and see each film as they were released. The fearless drama of this tribute to Tolkein’s work, as well as the pioneering visual techniques both set a standard and opened the door for story work on a grand scale. The only thing that would make it better would be an extended version that included some favorite scenes that were left out because the studios didn’t have enough faith in the bladders of theater audiences.

3. TV Moment of the Decade:
I have to say that one of my favorite TV moments, cheesy as it sounds, is the first edition of the American Idol special edition show "Idol Gives Back." I don't know if it counts as an actual moment, but I see it as influential; not as a pioneering effort, obviously, but because it clinched the reputation of the 00's, as a globally aware culture. Of course, the idea of having a soapbox is now part of any good celebrity's profile, as mocked by 'Extras,' '30 Rock,' etc., but I saw those moments of many artists jockeying for cameos in the show as indicative of showing that awareness of global issues had actually been clinched as some sort of value in the entertainment industry. And I did shed a tear when Josh Groban sang with the African Children's choir.

***"doh!" note from the author: last night, I finally smacked my head and realized what should have been my TV moment, the one that still brings me to tears when I see it over. I wrote this entry very last and could not decide what it should be, and therefore wasn't really satisfied with my defense. But if I could do it over, I would choose Susan Boyle's audition on Britain's Got Talent. Despite the furious publicity and debate over her now, that was an extraordinary moment. Still, I fully acknowledge that both of my choices reflect an abysmal lack of good television-watching skills. I would have liked my choice to be from a drama, not from a reality show, but there I am. Let the mocking commence.


4. Book of the Decade: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, published in 2004
This is a very quiet, intensely beautiful story of a minister in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. The story is of a quite ordinary life in many ways. It is written in a series of letters from the minister to his young son, reflections about his life and the things he wants his son to know. This basic premise, however, is written in powerful and lovely prose. It is so packed full of imagery and clear thought, that I felt as if I was being led through a series of prayers or meditations on different aspects of human relationships with God, the world, and with the people in our lives, a prayer walk of sorts.

“Ludwig Feuerbach says a wonderful thing about baptism. I have it marked. He says, “Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural quality that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies at the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance.” Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religion as anybody, and he loves the world. Of course he thinks religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised. That is his one error, and it is significant. But he is marvelous on the subject of joy, and also on its religious expressions…That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”

5. Entertainer of the Decade: J. K. Rowling
Though the first Harry Potter book was published in 1996, it was in the 2000’s that Harry Potter became a household name. The fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, hit markets in 2000, and the Christopher Columbus-directed first film came to theaters in November of 2001. I was in later high school when the first books first came out and since the first books were geared toward a younger audience, I had not read them. But on Reading Break in 2001, my friend Juliann and I went to go see the first of the movies. We were enchanted by the story, by its detail, imagination, and sheer sense of fun. On the way home from the movie theater, we stopped at Barnes and Noble to buy the first book, and the rest is (ongoing) history.
J.K. Rowling has become a household name over the last decade along with her books. The global brand of Harry Potter has been estimated at over 15 billion dollars, but Rowling’s success story has also been marked by a positive influence on a generation of students who grew up in the 2000’s. Between the movies, the books, and the way Rowling has created a rapport with her fans and the media, she definitely deserves to be entertainer of the decade.