Monthly Archives: October 2009

Christians Need to Love Each Other More

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“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is one of the last things Jesus said (John 13:34-35) to his disciples on the night before he was crucified. He told them to love one another in the same way that he had loved them.

This is a verse that gets a lot of play in many churches today. The necessity of love is increasingly heard from pulpits, Christian books, radio shows and so on. Churches and Christians everywhere are scrambling to love the world and serve it selflessly. And that is a wonderful thing. I’m glad to see love making a comeback.

But what about Christians loving one another? Are we as good at this as we are at loving those outside the church? In the Christian world of feuding factions and denominations, theological catfights, and near constant bickering, I sometimes wonder.

Read the words of Jesus again.  He doesn’t say people will know we are Christians because we have so much love for the world. He says people will know we are Christians because we have love for one another.

Perhaps Jesus did mean something more human and universal when he said “one another.” But it almost makes more sense if he was talking specifically about the church loving its own members—his disciples loving each other. Why? Because an unconditional love between people of such diverse backgrounds (Jew, Gentile, poor, rich, black, white) bound only by a common allegiance to Christ IS the most noticeable kind of love. There aren’t many circumstances in this life where people of every sort of class, race, circumstance and struggle are unified and bound by unconditional, unearthly love. But this is what Christianity is supposed to be. And when it IS this way, it is such a powerful witness.

Christianity is about becoming a community of disparate believers who nevertheless fuse together under the auspices of that most binding and barrier-breaking of all sealants: Christ’s all surpassing love. It is only natural that this will look countercultural to a world that more often than not divides itself along whatever lines (ethnic, class, gender, nationality) it can come up with. The Christian church distinguishes itself (ideally) by putting aside these arbitrary dividing lines. As D.A. Carson famously described in Love in Hard Places, we are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake:

The church itself is not made up of natural “friends.” It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance.

Christians loving each other may prove to be the most difficult love of all (because heaven knows we are all so broken and annoying and stubborn), but in the end I think it proves to be the best witness.

I’m sort of tired of Christians fighting with each other so much, tearing each other down, etc. If from the outside, Christian communities look as petty and unkind as anyone else in the world (or worse), why should anyone be interested in Christianity? But if Christians love each other with the sort of unconditional, self-effacing altruism that Christ modeled for us, we will live up to our namesake and people will know we are Christians just by looking.

So let’s put aside our differences, look to Christ, and love each other more.

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Still Walking

You may not think Still Walking is about very much. It’s a Japanese film about a day in the life of an average Japanese family. Three generations gather at “Grandma’s house” to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the eldest sibling’s accidental death. They eat a lot of meals, take a few walks, take naps, baths, and catch butterflies. Nothing much happens. No sex, violence, or screaming matches. Hardly anyone even raises their voice.

But there is a lot of drama in this film, and its normalcy and universality is exactly what makes it so compelling and, ultimately, heartbreaking (in much the same way as Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours approached quotidian epiphanies earlier this year). This is a film about life, aging, death, and family. Everyone feels all of those things deeply at one point or another.

Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life), Still Walking is a film that is strongly Japanese. But it is not foreign. It will resonate with anyone with a heartbeat who has ever felt the void of a lost love, lost childhood, or lost hope. Koreeda builds on the minimalist style of Japan’s cinematic master, Yasujiro Ozu, who died the year after Koreeda was born in Tokyo. Still Walking is sort of like Tokyo Story in many ways, a strikingly nondescript glimpse into sublime everydayness. Some of the shots and mise-en-scene so thoroughly evoke Ozu that I almost felt like I was watching a reincarnation of the great director.

In his book The Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader theorizes that Ozu’s filmmaking style was strongly derived from Zen art, for which the most basic principle is mu, the concept of negation, emptiness, and void. “Emptiness, silence, and stillness are positive elements in Zen art and represent presence rather than the absence of something,” noted Schrader.

The structure of Still Walking strikingly recalls Ozu’s zen-like structure, which alternated between “paragraphs” of drama and exposition and “codas” or “pillow shots” of static nature or stillness, in the same way that the space in between the branches of ikebana give form to the overall arrangement, or the vast spaces between the big rocks in a zen rock garden infuses the whole thing with peace and balance.

Likewise, Ozu’s films, wrote Schrader, “are structured between action and emptiness, between indoors and outdoors, between scene and coda:

The conflicts are always explicated indoors, usually in long dispassionate conversations… These indoor discussions are set off by “codas”: still-life scenes of outdoor Japanese life, empty streets and alleys, a passing train or boat, a distant mountain or lake… In Western art one would naturally assume that the codas are inserted to give weight to the paragraphs, but for Ozu, as for Zen, it is precisely the opposite: the dialogue gives meaning to the silence, the action to the still life. Ozu is permeated with mu; it is the single character inscribed on his tomb at Engaku-ji.

In the same way, Still Walking contains long stretches of dialogue and intense interpersonal passive-aggressive dynamics. But between and amid these scenes are shots of flowers, or incense, or trains passing against an ocean backdrop. For every probing shot of an emotion-filled human face, there is an equally probing shot of rice balls or corn being picked off of the cob. Koreeda is not equating humans to corn; He’s simply pointing out that our perception of one is always informed by our experience of the other. All things are bound up in this thing called existence, so that a morning walk to the ocean never exists in a vacuum that is uninformed by the emotions, tensions, and stresses of everyday life.

There is a scene near the end of this film in which three generations of men—grandfather, son, grandson—are walking down the hill from the house to the beach. Though they walk in silence, there is so much being expressed in this passage of time. There is a three-shot of them descending stairs that is particularly evocative: Each man is at a different point in his journey of life, and yet here they are together, still walking, in the same air. When they get to the beach they are standing on the same sand, looking out at the same ocean. And something about the way we see it too—the way this story unfolds cinematically—makes us feel like we are right there with them, so different and yet so much the same.

Pause for Autumn’s Arrival

The weather in L.A. is FINALLY beginning to cool off and the air and sky are feeling a bit more fall-like everyday. This is my favorite time of year. Around this time of year, I like to read a good bit of autumnal literature and/or poetry. Rilke’s “Autumn Day” is one I always come back to, so if you have a moment to read it and reflect on the meaning of the season, I highly recommend it:

“Autumn Day,” Rilke

Lord: it is time. The summer was so immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials,
and let loose the wind in the fields.

Bid the last fruits to be full,
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.