Monthly Archives: August 2007

Trivial Pursuit

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When you get on the Internet, what are you there for? To find some piece of information, perhaps: movie times, train schedules, store hours, etc? Or maybe you are there because it is habit: every day when you wake up, and sporadically throughout the day, you must go through your cycle of websites (for me it is CNN.com, then my three primary email accounts, then Relevantmagazine.com, then occasionally I’ll make a stop at my fourth email account). Or perhaps you go online simply because there is nothing else to do—and there is EVERYTHING to do on the web.

It is this last motivation that I’m the most interested in. The Internet, beyond being the most useful information-getting resource ever to be at mankind’s fingertips, is also the largest and most wonderful playground we’ve ever had. You can go anywhere, watch or listen to anything, buy whatever your heart desires, and do scores of other things that may or may not be acceptable in the “real” world.

With all of this at our disposal, it’s no wonder so many of us go online when we have a spare moment. It’s no wonder we can easily drop 3 hours online when we only intended to check our email. It’s like going to a massive and wonderful amusement park with the ostensible motivation of trying out the new rollercoaster. Of COURSE you’re going to stay all day and ride everything you can, while you’re there!

So it is with the Internet. It’s built on links and ads and things to push and pull us in new, alluring directions. It’s all about movement, dissatisfaction, keeping you wanting more.

Because there is EVERYTHING on the web, it is almost impossible—if you don’t have a utilitarian reason to be there—to choose where to go. Thus we rely on links and pop-ups and “if you liked this, you’ll like…” recommendations to guide us along the way. Thus, a typical session online is a hyperscattered, nonsensical web of aimless wandering, dead-ends, backtracking, and rabbit trails. But I think we like it this way. How nice to not be looking for something, but to be finding wonders and pleasures by the boatload, so easily! The search bar is our pilgrim guide online. Give it any clue as to what you desire, and it’ll lead you the rest of the way. Hit the google button and get your surf on.

But what is it we’re pursuing? The vast terrain of the web is an amusement park in which information is the diversion. Collecting more useless knowledge and facts is the name of the game. Whether we are there to check sports stats, see what we can download for free, or watch the latest goofy clip on YouTube, it’s all a passing trifle. It draws our attention for a second, but only until the next interesting link pops up.

For all the great and valuable things the Internet provides us, I wonder if it has done irreparable damage to our ability to think critically—to really mull over questions (that don’t have easily-Googled answers), seek out the big questions and not be at the mercy of a marketplace that prefers to ask and answer the questions for you. We should live our lives in a state of search, I think, but the Internet all too often makes “searching” a trivial pursuit.

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Top Ten Most Unflattering Portrayals of Christians in Film

Because top ten lists are fun, and because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how Christians are perceived in culture, I thought it would be interesting to comprise a list of the most unflattering portrayals of Christians in cinema. On a future post I will probably do the same for the most flattering portrayals.

Keep in mind that I am not slamming these films; several of them are actually very well made. I’m only pointing out that, for secular audiences watching these films, Christians come across as crazy, annoying, dangerous, stupid, or some combination therein. Thankfully most of these films were not seen by very many people. But even so, I think it’s important to be mindful that they exist—that for some people, this is the only picture of Christianity they have.

51zm1nsnknl_ss500_.jpg10) Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? (2004)
Though less hostile than most documentaries about Christians, this incoherent exploration of a much-too-broad topic leaves the viewer as confused and cynical as the disparate talking heads that sound off in the film.

71q4wy4rxwl_aa240_.jpg9) Night of the Hunter (1955)
This classic kicked off the “fundamentalist Christian as psychopath” trend that has been a favorite in cinema ever since. “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” has never sounded as disturbing as when Robert Mitchum sings it.

51dc5nhyssl_aa240_.jpg8) My Summer of Love (2004)
More tragic than comical, this indie film portrays a group of British evangelicals as positively bonkers and dangerous to family dynamics, as one of the church’s leaders (Paddy Considine) pays more attention to prayer meetings than he does his own struggling family.

519yjscqqyl_aa240_.jpg7) The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Repressive Christian parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) in suburbia drive their innocent daughters to suicide. Because not being able to go to prom just does that to you…

41vya0s7ksl_aa240_.jpg6) Citizen Ruth (1996)
It’s pretty gutsy to satirize abortion, but Alexander Payne did it successfully in this film, which lampoons both the firebrand evangelical pro-lifers and the equally insane pro-choice feminazis.

41f8bashpl_aa240_.jpg5) Facing the Giants (2006)
Oops! I thought this was made by Christians!? Indeed, but this horrendous film (which we have Georgia’s Sherwood Baptist Church to thank for) is as embarrassing to Christians as anything Pat Robertson ever said.

5193nba10cl_aa240_.jpg4) Saved! (2004)
This film relentlessly points out evangelical absurdities, featuring a command performance from Mandy Moore as the Christian school queen bee who spreads Jesus’ love by throwing bibles at people.

51rkjjzs12l_aa240_.jpg3) Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple (2006)
To the uninitiated, People’s Temple appears to be just one more crazy sect of fundamentalist Christianity. Which makes this true story of delusion and mass suicide one of the most damaging witnesses to American Christianity in the twentieth century.

31rnwfmchml_aa240_.jpg2) Hell House (2001)
A truly scary documentary about a Pentecostal church in Texas that uses Halloween, buckets of fake blood, and scenes of abortion, suicide, and AIDS to scare hordes of lost kids into accepting Jesus.

510jrnqd6dl_aa240_.jpg1) Jesus Camp (2006)
In addition to its portrayal of six year olds speaking in tongues and praying over a cardboard George W. Bush, this film boasts the honor of having grade-A ironic footage of Ted Haggard talking smack about gays just months before his own admission of having solicited a male prostitute.

The Search Circa 1992

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I just finished Jon Krakauer’s fantastic book Into the Wild, which I wanted to read before the film version (directed by Sean Penn) comes out this September. The book tells the story of Chris McCandless, who graduated college in 1990 and went on a two year trek across North America in search of raw, transcendent experience. Tired of a predictable, bourgeois existence in suburban D.C., McCandless decided to “escape” from the real world that frustrated him. He drove his car out into the Mojave desert, abandoned it, burned all his money, and proceeded to live as a wayfaring tramp and hobo for the next two years (see movie trailer below).

Into the Wild is a fascinating account of McCandless’ adventures as he travels throughout the American West—from South Dakota to the Salton Sea, Las Vegas to Astoria, Oregon, and finally to the Alaskan wilderness, where his Jack London-inspired quest came to a tragic end.

McCandless wrote in letters of his desire to break from “a life of security, conformity, and conservatism” in favor of “unconventional living.” As he writes:

“Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future… The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

McCandless longed for a richer, more natural and grounded existence than what his middle-class lot had outlined for him. I can’t help but compare him to another tragic, alienated soul of his generation—Kurt Cobain—who famously rebelled against the comfortable establishment he was born into.

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Whereas Cobain vented his frustrations through drugs and music, and McCandless through communion with nature, both men epitomized the “grunge” rebellion and disillusionment of Generation X in the early 1990s. Call them slackers, or neo-hippies, or whatever—but they made explicit the “search” that haunts all generations.

Writer Douglas Coupland, who has come to be the literary voice of Generation X, described in 1995 the mindset of “X-ers” as being the desire “to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence.”

I think we all can relate to this desire at some points in our lives—when the weight of success and the expectations of family, society, and self become too heavy a burden. Whether McCandless and Cobain are to be respected or pitied (for their searches both ended in solitary deaths, in 1992 and 1994, respectively), I’ll leave to you to decide.

But regardless of their failures and ultimately tragic ends, McCandless and Cobain were earnest in their longings—and through culture (music, movies, books, etc) their rupturing of the status quo lives on for future wanderers to ponder.