Monthly Archives: January 2009

Thinking of Another Place

I was thinking just now about how I’d like to return to this little seaside town in Northern Ireland called Newcastle, which I had occasion to walk around for about 5 hours one summer a few years ago, with my best friend. We didn’t really know where we were, but we spent the afternoon walking around, playing little storefront casino games and drinking some sort of ale in the lobby of a fancy hotel. The air smelled salty and vaguely Nordic. There were green mountains all around, and low-lying gray clouds, and a famous golf course that someone said Tiger Woods really enjoyed. It was a lovely afternoon.

The town of Newcastle lies in the County Down, which was an area of Northern Ireland that C.S. Lewis was partial to (he once said that his vision of heaven was Oxford picked up and set down in the middle of County Down). Now I’ve only been in County Down for about half of a day, but I can see what Lewis meant. It’s a magical place. And—like so many places we find ourselves rushing through between the last and the next thing—it feels more immense and wonderful in memory than it was in brief encounter.

Today I felt, as I sometimes do, a little bit distant from the world. A number of thoughts—none wholly new or original—collected in my mind. The thoughts included, in no particular order: “there is always something more that can be known about someone,” “humans are so aggressively distant from one another,” “the best moments in life are fleeting,” and “I shouldn’t have left that homemade focaccia uncovered—it’s totally dry now.”

I also thought about how, at the end of the day, almost all of life is just one big, reckless, haphazard attempt to be known. Every human—in seeking love, affirmation, success, significance—is ultimately just working through this most rudimentary existential dilemma: to be known, both by others, by oneself, by God. The little blips of joy when we feel known by another person, or by a place—what Martin Buber calls “queer lyric-dramatic episodes” and what I like to call “Lost in Translation moments”—become our sustaining nourishments, our water in the desert. But these moments are rare; they’re not the norm. Most of life exists in the lack, in the divine discontent. We can look back and towards the knowing, and experience it in fits and starts as we daily live, but it’s always elusive. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)

Another moment I’d like to return to also occurred in the UK, this time in Oxford. It was a hot summer night inside University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and an audience was gathered to hear a British actor deliver a re-creation of the sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” which C.S. Lewis preached on June 8, 1941. Up in the pulpit, the actor—who resembled Lewis in appearance and tone—bellowed the epic, soul-stirring sermon for the better part of an hour. It was hot, sticky, crowded, and not air-conditioned, which is how epic summer night sermons should be received. I think a thunderstorm might have been happening outside the church walls too (though I might be mixing memories here).

In the sermon, Lewis describes the word “glory” in two ways. On one hand, the “glory” that weighs heavy on our being is the glory of being “noticed” by God. We want to be known by him (1 Corinthians 8:3; 13:12), and we dread being cast away from him (“I never knew you. Depart from me…” Matt 7:23). But the other sense of glory, says Lewis, is more literal: luminosity. It is the idea that we don’t want to merely see beauty, but to be united with it, to “shine like the stars.”

But we are not allowed to do that yet, Lewis points out: “we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.”

There is, of course, a deep sadness to the inability to fully touch this glory, to mingle with the splendours we see. This is probably why sunsets are so equally beautiful and tragic, why our strongest sense of “home” can sometimes occur on a brief afternoon on the Irish Sea. It’s the source of so much of our tension, our unsettledness, our petty preoccupations and quirks and insensitivity and malaise. It’s the thing that continually reminds us that we aren’t what we ought to be, that the world is aching for something better, that sometimes we just have to shrug our shoulders, take an aspirin, and be okay with a world that occasionally seems so present and yet so far.

The Most “Redeeming” Films of 2008

This according to Christianity Today. Every year we (the film critics for CT) vote on our picks for the “most redeeming” films of the year, defined as “movies that include stories of redemption—sometimes blatantly, sometimes less so. Several of them literally have a character that represents a redeemer; all of them have characters who experience redemption to some degree—some quite clearly, some more subtly. Some are “feel-good” movies that leave a smile on your face; some are a bit more uncomfortable to watch. But the redemptive element is there in all of these films.”

Here is our somewhat eclectic list. I mean, where else will you find a critics’ list that includes both Rachel Getting Married and Fireproof??

1. Wall•E
2. The Visitor
3. Gran Torino
4. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who
5. Rachel Getting Married
6. Fireproof
7. The Dark Knight
8. Shotgun Stories
9. Slumdog Millionaire
10. Man on Wire

Honorable Mention: As We Forgive, Prince Caspian, Defiance, Doubt, The Fall, Happy-Go-Lucky, Ostruv, Iron Man, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, U23D, Wendy & Lucy

Five Holocaust Movies Better Than The Reader

I thought The Reader was pretty good, and Kate Winslet was certainly terrific in it, but a best picture nominee??? I could think of at least ten movies from last year that are more deserving (see any listed here). Alas, the fact that it is at least partially about the Holocaust lends The Reader the sort of gravitas that Academy voters love. But there are much better Holocaust-themed films out there than The Reader, and just in case you hadn’t seen any of them, here are five of the best:

Schindler’s List: The granddaddy of all Holocaust films. Steven Spielberg’s passionate, timeless epic is not easy to watch, but it is a master class of classic narrative filmmaking.

The Pianist: Adrien Brody’s performance as pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman won him the Academy Award, and rightfully so. It’s a phenomenal performance, and a stunning film. The music scenes—especially near the end—are exactly what catharsis should be in cinema.

Life is Beautiful:
This film’s mix of joy, tragedy, laughter, and tears—featuring perhaps cinema’s only madcap comedic performance in a Holocaust film—makes for a truly compelling viewing experience.

The Counterfeiters: If you haven’t seen this 2007 film yet, rent it! The true story of a band of Jewish counterfeiters who stayed alive by lending their services to the Nazis (which, ironically, kept them operational and able to kill more Jews) is way more provocative than The Reader could ever try to be.

Night and Fog: This 1955 French documentary from director Alain Resnais (before he became a leader of the French New Wave) is supremely evocative and features some of the most devastating early documentary footage (e.g. bulldozed piles of bodies) of the horrors of the concentration camps.

Is Christianity Cool?

This is the title of chapter one of the book I am writing, and it’s the underlying question of the whole thing. I don’t expect to answer it definitively in the book, but it’s a question that begs to be explored, because it’s a question that is at least latently present in all the major movements and expressions of contemporary Christianity.

It’s a very complex question, to be sure. The book I am writing will treat it as such, and will not approach it in any sort of bifurcated, black-and-white manner. But that it is a complex question does not mean we should avoid talking about it and considering the very profound implications of the issues surrounding whatever answer we might give. Part of the problem in Christianity for the last several decades, I think, is that we’ve been unwilling to not only ask these questions but to wrestle seriously with them.

And so: Is Christianity Cool? In some ways it’s the leading question of our time, as evangelicals desperately try to keep their faith relevant in a rapidly changing culture. And most probably this question isn’t being explicitly asked, because to ask if something is cool automatically negates its coolness. Everyone who is or has ever been hip knows that coolness isn’t ever analyzed or spoken of in any way by those who possess it. Coolness is understood. It is mystery. It is contagious. And that last word is the key for many—especially those looking to sell something—seeking to tap into hip potential. Bridled cool is an economic cashcow. Translated to Christianity, cool is the currency whereby we must dispense the Gospel.

It is enormously interesting to me that we are so attracted and desirous of this thing called “cool,” but what is more intriguing to me is how exactly the search and adoption of coolness affects our lives. Is our longing to be fashionable, hip, stylish, and “ahead” of our peers benign? Or, if not, how does it affect our personhood (and, by extension, our Christianity) for good or ill?

The relative goodness or badness in the nature of “cool” is of utmost importance. Being stylish/trendy is certainly our society’s highest value, so the question we must ask as Christians is this: can we sustain integrity and substance in a world so driven by packaging? Must every work, every person, every message that seeks mass acceptance be form-fitted to the hieroglyphics of hip? Are the purposes and/or effects of cool compatible with those of Christianity? If we assume that “cool” necessarily connotes the notion of being elite, privileged, and somehow better than the masses, how can we reconcile the idea of “cool” with the idea of Christianity, which seems to beckon us away from self-aggrandizement of any and all kind?

Many will answer that making the church “cool” is simply a means to an end—a utilitarian approach to spreading the Gospel in a world where cool is the most efficient conduit of communication and transaction. If it is true that our culture today is most effectively reached through the channels of cool, does this mean Christianity’s message must be styled as such? What does this look like, and are there any alternatives? How does the Christian navigate in this climate without reducing the faith to an easy-to-swallow, hip-friendly phenomenon? Is the church’s future helped or hindered by an assimilation to cultural whims and fads?

We can all agree that the ultimate purpose of the church on earth is, as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “nothing else but to draw men into Christ.” But the challenging question is this: to what extent do we assume that men are drawn to Christ by the style in which He is presented to them? In other words, as the messengers of the gospel, are we to let the message speak for itself or must we jazz it up or package it in such a way that it is salient to the masses?

It is certainly appropriate that “packaging” is at the forefront of many church discussions today. In a world so obviously obsessed with style as a gateway to substance, we are right in viewing this as an important issue. But what are we losing when we start to sell Jesus as the ultimate in cool commodities?

Here’s another wrinkle: there are two very distinct categories of “hip” in today’s world: 1) The natural hip, and 2) The marketed hip. What I am speaking of above—about Christianity harnessing the horses of hip to help spread the message—is definitely the latter. When it’s about using cool to spread a message, it’s not naturally cool. Cool can never be authentic if it is a self-conscious activity (some might say, then, it is never authentic…).

But the majority of Christian hipsterdom is self-consciously so. This includes the churches that have candles everywhere and serve micro-brewed beer and cognac at potlucks to attract the rebellious young hipsters. These are the youth pastors who emphasize how God is all over things like The Sopranos, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course, U2. These are the Christians who like to speak of Jesus as a hippie countercultural activist who was a Che-esque revolutionary, and who probably would have smoked pot and listened to Radiohead were he on earth today. Essentially, this is a Christianity that bends over backward to be incredibly cool.

But in some instances, hip Christianity has been an organic phenomenon (that is, it hasn’t consciously striven to adopt some trend or characteristic of cool from the larger culture, but rather it has been a “first generation” cool that sets the trends of the larger culture and appears “cool” without really trying). Examples might be Daniel Smith (of the band Danielson Famile) or Sufjan Stevens—truly original artists who have embodied a certain strand of “indie/arthouse” style and subsequently launched many other talented, original Christian artists. I also think of people like Shane Claiborne, who—in efforts to live the humble life among the poor and downtrodden, Mother Theresa-style—has inadvertently framed Christianity in a “radical,” “progressive,” cool light.

Lest it sound like I am praising the Sufjans of the world and criticizing the, um, Toby Macs, let me just say: I’m not totally convinced that these “more authentic” Christian hipsters are substantively different than the inauthentic kind. At the end of the day, cool is cool—whether painstakingly strived for or halfway stumbled-upon.

And so there are many questions, many complexities. I haven’t got it all figured out. But I welcome your feedback.

I’m writing the book not to position myself as some sort of expert or to make some audacious claim about anything, but because I love Christianity and the church. I want to see her thrive, expand, and be all that she can be in the world. I want to see the cause of Christ advanced and nut muddled up. And this topic—the relationship of the church to the notion of “cool”—strikes me as a vitally important topic that needs to be addressed with tenderness, nuance, and–when appropriate–constructive rebuke. I hope to spark some necessary conversations, discourse, and soul-searching. And I don’t care if it’s all hopelessly uncool.

For Your Consideration: Gran Torino

Not that I make much of a difference, but I figure it’s time to throw my digital weight behind a film that I really would like to see get nominated for best picture on Thursday when the Oscar nominations are announced. I saw this for the second time last week, and it impressed me even more than the first time. Clint Eastwood’s film is small, unique, and deceptively simple. And it’s about America.

Maybe I’m ethnocentric, but I really miss good films about America. Last year we had There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, but this year Gran Torino stands pretty much in a class of its own. Perhaps Slumdog Millionaire says as much about India in 2009 as Gran Torino says about America, but I don’t live in India. It isn’t my country. Gran Torino is a metaphor for my country – for the uncertain, changing moment we are in.

The title of the film refers to a ’70s-era American muscle car, and the story is set in Detroit, at a time when the shrinking, suffering American auto industry—coupled with rising crime and changing demographics—has left everything slightly run-down and depressed. Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), a Korean war vet who worked 50 years for Ford—lives in a Detroit neighborhood full of front-porch, paint-peeled, post-war houses now inhabited by immigrants and aging widowers. The place is rife with the ghosts of a simpler, booming time—when Ford’s assembly line was a symbol of the efficient homogeneity of life after the wars, when white picket fences and neighborhood barbers infused everything with a decidedly homegrown, rust-belt patriotism.

But in 2008, things have changed. Detroit is on its knees, praying for a few extra years. American auto manufacturing, like Walt Kowalski, is experiencing its cantankerous twilight, shaking its head as new paradigms set up shop and kick the old school callously to the curb. Kowalski represents the vestiges of a bygone era, but he will not go quietly into the night.

Gran Torino is a Clint Eastwood film in the strictest sense. Unlike his less successful (but no slouch) 2008 effort, Changeling, this is a film that feels utterly personal—a movie that might actually be as much about Clint Eastwood the man/myth/icon as it is about the fictional story he is telling. And if it is indeed his last acting performance on film, it is quite the note to go out on. Eastwood’s performance is a blood-spitting, mournful tour-de-force. In the wrinkles, the stilted gait, the dubious eyes of Eastwood, there is so much life lived, so much baggage and regret. As in so many of his movies (especially recently), Eastwood plays a man at odds with himself, his own failures, weighed down by his belligerent refusal to be forgiven his sins.

Torino celebrates life and honor in the same beautiful way that Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers did a few years ago. And like those films, Gran Torino is also a nostalgic elegy. It laments the passing of time and coming of mortality with the tenderness of a Japanese master like Ozu. Eastwood, like the character he portrays, is reflecting on his life, taking stock of his values and priorities as the sun begins to set. There are pains that cannot be resolved (“I’m soiled,” he says), but there is still value in living—still things he can teach and be taught. But, like the industry that was his life’s work and legacy (in the symbol of the Gran Torino), Walt also knows that his time is nearly up.

I’d hesitate to say that Torino is a metaphor for the death of the American auto industry, but it’s certainly a metaphor for a changed America. We are not a homogenous, white-picket-fence nation anymore. Old industries are dying, new ones rising up, neighborhoods shifting and communities re-aligning. Some things are the same, though: there is still hate and violence, just as there is love, determination, and hard work.

Gran Torino is about pressing on, living life with resolve, and making sure there is some continuity. As Walt discovers, we can lament change all we want, but ultimately what’s gone is gone. What’s important is what we leave behind—our successes, failures, and ’72 Detroit-made muscle cars.

This is a film that is profound on a number of levels—a commentary on our contemporary zeitgeist but also a timeless story of redemption, sacrifice, and grace. It’s Clint Eastwood working through his own Dirty Harry mythos, atoning for his own cinematic sins in the same way that any of us much reckon with our past as we age and the world changes.

[note: portions excerpted from my full review at Christianity Today]

The First Great Song of the Obama Era

Warning: Hyperbole and annoyingly effusive praise ahead.

It’s not everyday that you hear a song that just blows your mind. It’s not everyday that an album lives up to the hype. But that is the case with Animal Collective and their new album Merriweather Post Pavilion (released today), specifically the song “My Girls.”

The New York band, building on last year’s wonderful Panda Bear side project, increasingly seems to know how to gracefully weave a tapestry of postmodern musical mish-mash sounds—everything from screams to techno beeps to industrial crashes and subtle piano. Merriweather refines their sound and focuses their experimental tendencies like never before, resulting in an album that is an instant 21st century classic.

But what I really want to talk about is track #2, “My Girls” (which you can listen to here). It’s everything a song should be and more. It’s a song that builds: starts out quiet, starry, a wisp of electronic stardust in an ethereal blur. Then the harmonious, tag-team voice echoes come in:

“Is it much to admit I need
A solid soul and the blood I bleed
With a little girl, and by my spouse
I only want a proper house.”

Then, around the 2:12 mark, the beat starts in earnest, and all sorts of sounds and layers begin to express themselves, flowing together in mesmerizing concert until the 3:00 mark when the chorus comes in:

“I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status
I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls…”

At this point the song really takes off, and it’s hard to contain yourself. It’s a foot-stamping, head banging, body moving romp for the remaining 3 minutes, with whoops and hollers and bangs and beeps and an overwhelming sense of energy, joy and love.

It’s a song that captures the zeitgeist. It embodies the optimism and earnestness of this Obama moment – of an America in shambles and economic depression that nevertheless still strives for happiness and peace, with renewed vision and enlivened creativity. At a time when we’re paying the price for extravagance and careless home-buying, loan-lending and credit craziness, “My Girls” pares everything down and looks forward to a nostalgic but wholly modern vision of domestic life: “I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls”…

Buy this song. Buy the whole album. Hear the future of music, and be encouraged.

And watch the video below:

Obama’s Blow to Hipster Cynicism

When Obama won the presidency on November 4, 2008, hipsters everywhere were ecstatic. The vast majority of hipsters (that is: indie-dressing fashionable young anti-establishmentarians) were Obama fans, and those that were not were mostly anarchists or otherwise apolitical or libertarian. But while Obama’s election was a proud moment for hipsters, it was also a significant blow to their long-term viability.

Hipsterdom blossomed in the George W. Bush presidency, because he represented everything they were against: conservatism, boots, oil, ranches, patriotism, Neiman Marcus. After 9/11, even while many in the media forecast a new era of sincerity, hipsters became more cynical than ever before, retreating into irony and hedonism despite (probably because of) the government’s calls to be patriotic, unified, responsible citizens. Hipsters responded by becoming aggressively apathetic and cheerfully hedonistic. But during his campaign and ultimate victory, Obama unified the youth culture like it hadn’t been unified in a long time, and hipsters were called out in droves from their cynicism. Suddenly there was a reason to care about politics, to think good thoughts about America again.

In his post-election article, “The End of Hipster,” Joshua Errett wrote in Now magazine that following 9/11, today’s jaded counterculture “made a statement by making no statement, because no one was listening anyway.” That is, until Barack Obama started making his way onto T-shirts, posters and YouTube. “At some point during Obama’s presidential campaign,” wrote Errett, “an earnest, productive, engaged youth class was born out of a real desire for change. Hipsters essentially became hopesters.”

The same idea was expressed on the website Street Carnage (the thickly hipster site of Vice magazine founder Gavin McInness) following the election, in a blog post entitled “Obama Victory Renders Hipster ‘Movement’ Obsolete.” In the post, Robert Dobbs Jr., a Brooklyn hipster who writes under the name blogn***er, declared that, a week after the election, hipsters must come to terms with the fact that their affection for irony and “neo-cynicism” now look less subversive than stupid and defeatist:

Guess what – Obama has already changed the world by bringing hope and healing to B-B-BILLIONS of people around the globe. Neo-Cynisism [sic] can’t f*** with that – it’s real.

Elsewhere in the post, Dobbs discredits hipsters who allow themselves to believe, “for even a second, that there’s any deeper ‘meaning,’ or ‘movement’ behind our chosen music-and-t-shirt collective.” He’s just admitting what many gloom-and-doom hipster prognosticators have been pointing out for months: that hipsterdom is devoid of any substantial motivating logic. It’s about partying, being fashionable, being cool, and being cynical. The question is: are these things worth anything anymore? The argument is that, in a post-Obama world, hipsters who continue to proudly display the middle finger to all things establishment and all things idealistic are simply made to look the fool. Don’t they know? Earnestness is the new irony.

Well, we shall see. I’m not convinced that irony will ever really go away. I’m not convinced that Obama’s popularity among hipsters will lead them to throw in the towel on their supposedly countercultural existence. There will continue to be hipsters, if for no other reason than because the human desire to be cool has not and will not go away. Hipsters will just have to re-conceive of “cool” in an era when the word is ever more meaningless. They’ll have to forge a new argument for irony at a time when sincere belief in progress seems to be making a comeback. Hipsters will just have to work harder to establish themselves as apathetic revolutionaries because, well, what in Obama’s glistening new world is there to rebel against? But rest-assured: they will find something to define themselves against.

But even if they do, what if Obama really does bring vast and wonderful change to our country and world—what if the hope and rhetoric are proven correct, and our country comes together and pulls itself out of its malaise? If hipsters stay out of the process and continue their “who gives a f***?” approach to civic culture, they’ll just be digging themselves deeper into the hole of irrelevance. But maybe that’s where the hipster wanted to be all along.

Meanwhile, there is this phenomenon of Christian hipsters that I’ve been tracking (and that I’m writing a book about)—young, earnest, idealistic Christ-followers who look and sometimes act just like your regular hipster. They’ve always believed in things, and while still allowing for irony and bits of cynicism, Christian hipsters distinguish themselves from hipsterdom at large because of their sincere belief that things can change and that they can participate in real transformation.

As hipsters in general find themselves increasingly marginalized for their insistence on sarcasm, apathy, and cynicism, and scrambling to build up a new identity that is a better sell in a post-Obama world, Christian hipsters are perhaps in a better position to push the culture forward. They, after all, know sincerity. They know it sincerely. It matters not who’s in the White House. Hope is not a gimmick or catchphrase to them; it’s a way of life, founded on the reality of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the ultimate in subversive hipster acts.