Monthly Archives: May 2012

Memorial Play

A few hours before I watched Wes Anderson’s new film, Moonrise Kingdom, I was watching the undergraduate commencement ceremony at Biola University. It made me nostalgic to see 670 seniors receive their diplomas and officially conclude a long chapter in their journeys. I remember being there myself, seven years ago at Wheaton College, “commencing” a pivotal new chapter as my 22 years of being a kid gave way to the new adventure of independent adulthood. What a memorable moment, graduation day–abuzz as it was with the teetering uncertainty of the liminal spaces which were its backdrop: between youth, inexperience and protection on one hand and adulthood, maturity and risk on the other. Everything then was new, curious, possible. The world was there to be explored; adulthood to be experimented with.

Moonrise Kingdom dwells in a similar liminal space: between the innocence, wonder and “firsts” of childhood on one hand and the danger, letdown, and regrets of adulthood on the other. In the same way that Saturday’s commencement reminded me of the coming-of-age threshold of “student” life giving way to a truly independent “working adult” life, Moonrise evoked nostalgia for another transition moment: when the pleasant domesticated adventures of childhood began to mix with the restlessness and reckless passions of adolescence.

Among the many merits of Moonrise is the uncanny way it captures the way that children understand reality: as a parade of wonders, thrills, discoveries, not unlike the adventure novels they read. The film’s central pair–Sam and Suzy–forge a path together that flirts with adulthood (french kissing, setting up a camp together, “getting married” and setting off on their own), but they still make time to revel in the wonders of the world as curious children: dancing on the beach to the music of a portable record player, drawing portraits of each other, creating a camp in an imaginary inlet they call “Moonrise Kingdom.”

Moonrise excels at representing the intersection of “play,” “game” and “real life,” and the manner in which they sometimes all blur together. The Boy Scouts motif (“Khaki Scouts,” as they’re called in the film) exemplifies this. Scouting is a an activity of domesticated danger and simulated adulthood, where young men can play at being adults–warriors, indians, explorers, doctors, etc.–while also having fantastical adventures. As exemplified in the film, scouting is about learning to be mature and “adult” without having to give up one’s sense of whimsy and boyish bravado.

The Noah’s Ark motif also showcases the tension between “play” and “reality.” The film’s early scene of the youth musical presentation of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde,” in which Suzy plays a “raven,” is then juxtaposed with a real life flood near the end of the film. The former is a “safe” experience of the reality of the latter, and perhaps a preparation for it. Like the Boy Scouts, “play” is here both a whimsical experience of dress-up simulation but also something very grounded in and linked to reality.

In 1938, Dutch anthropologist Johann Huizinga defined play as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.” Pioneering computer game designer Chris Crawford adds that playing games provides “the psychological experiences of conflict or danger while excluding their physical realizations. In short, a game is a safe way to experience reality.”

The “playing” of childhood–as beautifully portrayed in Moonrise–is thus a sort of “bracketed” reality, a “safe” experience in between parentheses that nevertheless exists within and is informed by the larger narrative of a very real and dangerous world. From the opening sequence of Moonrise we see the motif of childhood and “game-playing.” Inside a comfortable house–“Summer’s End,” a name itself evoking childhood play–we see children playing games, listening to a recording of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, safe and comfortable while a storm rages outside.

The “Wes Anderson aesthetic” of symmetrical, boxed-in mise-en-scène also works to underscore the “parentheses” subreality that is childhood. Everything in this world is in a nice, tidy box: framed as if on a stage, or in a doll house, or a scene of toys a child might arrange in a particular manner. It’s a surreal, bracketed-off existence, full of adventure and “danger” that is very contained, as if in a Nancy Drew novel. In childhood as well as adulthood, play and games are about artificial conflict; about that protected place where we can experience adrenaline rushing, the overcoming of conflict and the solving of problems without any real, imminent dangers or threats. Sam and Suzy’s camping adventure is about “playing at” survival in the wilderness, like the Chickshaw Indians had to do. Sam suggests at one point that if they get thirsty they should suck on pebbles to generate more saliva; but then he admits that he brought plenty of water, so the pebbles won’t be necessary. In any case, he’s prepared–like a true Boy Scout.

In many ways college–my experience of it, at least–was like Moonrise Kingdom: a “bracketed-off” experience of surreal life, in which we played, and learned, and became prepared for the adulthood to come. It was a safe place–a “bubble” of protected learning, in a way–though not entirely innocent. We were free to fail, to be broken, to learn real-life lessons about heartbreak and suffering, just as Sam and Suzy are in Moonrise. But above all it was a time of exploration, of discovering oneself and the world; seeing it through new lenses (like Suzy and her ubiquitous binoculars), new books, new compadres (like Sam’s Scout buddies) with new teachers and guides (like Edward Norton and Bruce Willis are for Sam).

Moonrise is an elegiac memorial for those moments of youth in which we were “young and easy under the apple boughs… green and carefree… Golden in the mercy of his means,” to quote Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.” For me, it’s also a call for us to recover the sense of wonder that characterized those days–those Peter Pan days when we lived for fictional adventures, became transfixed by the breakdown of instruments in an orchestra, and  paused on our merry way to marvel at the curiosity of a drinking fountain. Those days weren’t actually a “subreality” at all, but in fact as real as what we call “real life” in adulthood. Or more real.

It’s a call for us to regain a vital imagination, in which dreaming and creation infuse us again, and not just as part of a nostalgic longing for our pre-utilitarian innocence. Imagination is key to thriving in this world.

I think part of the sadness and elegiac quality of something like commencement is that we remember what it was like to be young and free, “Golden in the mercy of his means,” with the world as our oyster. We lament that we’ve lost the sense of adventure, bravery, and risk that electrified those long lost days. And yet the truth is we need not abandon such things. We should be lifelong learners, career explorers, always re-imagining the world and discovering its wonders anew.

We may no longer live in the “lamb white days” of youth, or in the green days of the undergraduate college “bubble,” but we still exist in a world of inexhaustible wonders –a world with “the sun that is young once only” and “the moon that is always rising.”

“Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

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The Divine Guide in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:2-4)

“…also, on either side of the river, the tree of life.” (Revelation 22:2)

It’s been a year since The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and then opened in theaters. I wrote a review when the film came out but have since had the luxury of many repeat viewings and lots of conversations about it. There are numerous aspects of the film that have grown in interest for me as I’ve spent more time with it. Among other things, my belief that the film is fundamentally a deeply Christian, liturgical work has only increased.

Some people I talk to liken the film to a sacred masterwork on the level of Handel. Even critics like Roger Ebert see the film in this religious light. Ebert–who recently added Life to his all time top 10 list–called the film “a prayer.” And even if Life as a whole cannot be read as a prayer, certainly prayer is a central motif. The prayer candle is an image that connects past and present in the film, for example. And Jack (portrayed at times by Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken) is constantly heard in voiceover talking to what we assume to be God: “Brother; Mother: it was they that led me to your door.” “When did you first touch my heart?” “Where were you? You let a boy die.” “How did you come to me? In what shape? In what disguise?”

So also is Jack’s mother, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain): “Lord, why?” “Where were you?” “Who are we to you?” “Answer me.”

The film begins with Job 38:4 (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”) and ends with 15 minutes of Berlioz’ “Requiem,” the “Agnus Dei” section: Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest. / Thou, O God, art praised in Zion and unto Thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem. … Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them, with Thy saints for ever, Lord, because Thou art merciful. Amen.

These are the words (translated from Latin) that we hear a choir sing over the film’s final minutes, as images of catharsis and renewal fill the screen: reunions, resurrections, rising women in wedding dresses, a defeated jester’s mask, sunsets, sunflowers, the apparent destruction of earth, and hands lifted in unison, upward to the heavens.

Among the many questions prompted by a close viewing of this finale sequence–and indeed, the whole film–is the identity and meaning of the mystery woman seen with Jessica Chastain’s older and younger self in the “Amen” sequence. She shows up in part (usually just her hands) and in full on a number of occasions throughout the film–especially at the beginning of Jack’s life and in the film’s final fifteen minutes.

How are we to interpret this figure? I think it’s clear that she’s not meant to be taken as a literal human character in the story; she only appears in the dreamier sequences, has no lines and is never seen for longer than a few seconds at a time. We barely glimpse her face at all (until the “Amen” sequence). Who is she?

One clue can be found in the credits, where she’s listed as “Guide,” portrayed by an actress by the name of Jessica Fuselier (side note: there’s absolutely nothing on the Internet about anyone named “Jessica Fuselier,” which adds to the “Oh, so Malick” mystery).

It’s my contention that this “Guide”–this female figure, always clad in light colored dress, always “around” and a figure of comfort and care–is intended by Malick to be a sort of embodied symbol of the Holy Spirit. I could be totally wrong, and knowing Malick it’s probably nothing as direct as that, but given the film’s overtly Christian ambience I think it’s a fair reading. Here’s my reasoning.

I. “When did you first touch my heart?”

“Guide” is one of the functional roles of the Holy Spirit as seen in Scripture. It is the Holy Spirit that leads Christ into the wilderness (Luke 4:1), and Romans 8:14 tells us that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.”

In the film, the “Guide” leads Sean Penn’s character through the wilderness, ultimately through a “gate” signaling some sort of spiritual breakthrough or coming to faith. The Guide also leads little children through a gate in a forest, along a riverbed, gently signaling for them to follow her. This sequence–set to the music of Respighi’s “Suite No. 3”–begins with Jack’s voiceover: “You spoke to me through her; you spoke to me from the sky, the trees. Before I knew I loved you–believed in you” (as we see a dove-like bird flying in a sun-filled sky, and then trees, and then more skies). “When did you first touch my heart?”

From there we see a montage of Jack’s parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) falling in love and his mother giving birth to him. Interspersed are oblique images of the Guide–clad in a white gown–pointing the way through a gate, then whispering something to a child (toddler Jack) whilst holding a candle, showing the child a tiny little book, guiding a group of children through a forest, followed by a shot of toddler Jack swimming through a door of an underwater house and then a shot of a woman in a wedding dress swimming upwards in a similar fashion (a shot repeated in the final moments of the film). This sequence is a lot to digest, to say the least. But the impression we get in terms of the Guide is that she is a benevolent force that, even from the moment of birth, is there to guide Jack and lead him in the way of light and truth.

The Holy Spirit, we are told in John 16:13, “will guide you into all the truth” and will “declare to you the things that are to come.” The “Helper, the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus in John 14:26, “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit–the third person of the Holy Trinity–is thus identified as an advocate, a helper, a guide toward the truth (John 15:26). But it also serves as comforter and interceder, helping us in our weakness, “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought… the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). We see this aspect of the Spirit in Life in a brief shot of a woman’s hand hovering over Jack’s head and chest (0:57:44) as in voiceover we hear him pray: “Help me not to sass my dad, help me not to get dogs in fights, help me be thankful for everything I’ve got, help me not to tell lies.” Later we see those same hands gently giving Jack a drink from what looks like a communion cup and sprinkling water on his forehead as if in baptism (1:12:55), evoking another biblical association of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).

Another scriptural motif pertaining to the Holy Spirit is that of resurrecting power, as seen in Romans 8:10-11: “But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit give life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” We see images of this with the Guide in the film’s climactic Requiem scene–as she is seen extending her hand to what looks like someone in a grave, who appears to have risen from the dead (2:05:23). Moments later, we see a bride in a wedding dress lying down as if asleep, and then standing upright, resurrected and alive (2:05:40).

A few seconds later, the Guide is depicted as a being to be worshipped: On the beach, older Jack (Penn) bows at her feet (2:06:20). We then see her embrace and cradle the head of the boy with burn scars on his head (2:06:35). The last time we see her is in the “Amen” finale to the Requiem prayer, where we see her surrounding Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) in a state of sun-bathed harmony and peace, helping her lift up her hands as if in praise.

Revelation 22 should be a guiding text in our interpretation of Life’s eschatological climax, if only because it depicts the restored Eden and its “tree of life” (vs. 2). Verse 17 seems particularly interesting if read with the images of the “Amen” sequence in mind. The verse reads: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” It’s a call directed to Christ–the bridegroom–to return to earth and reign in the New Jerusalem with his people. Given the “bridal” imagery that we see in cryptic snippets throughout the film (appearing to be Jessica Chastain), perhaps in that final “Amen” sequence she represents the “Bride” of verse 17 and the Guide represents the Spirit. Certainly the “bride” imagery has eschatological connotations, as does the Spirit’s resurrecting the dead, both of which we see in Life’s final moments.

II. “Always you were calling me.”

Even though the total screen time of the Guide in Life is only a few minutes, the presence of the Holy Spirit if felt throughout–the film’s opening and closing with the mysterious, God-like wispy flame should suggest as much.

One of the functions of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is to convict the unbeliever about sin (John 16:7-8) and catalyze the process of renewing faith (Titus 3:5). We see this in the arc of Jack–who comes to a convicted place about his sin and recognizes that God was behind it. Following the episode where he shoots his brother’s finger with a BB gun and then asks him for forgiveness, Jack wonders–as the camera pulls upwards in a God-like point of view–“What was it that you showed me? I didn’t know how to name you then. But I see it was you. Always you were calling me.”

The Holy Spirit also serves to help us in our battle with sin (“the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, to keep you from doing the things you want to do,” Gal 5:17), which we see in Jack’s Romans 7-esque inner turmoil about his own nature (“What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate”). It is that humbled conviction that leads Jack in the next scene to seek reconciliation with the brother he has wronged.

We see a similar thing happen to Jack’s father a few scenes later, as he too recognizes the faults of his nature: “I wanted to be loved because I’m great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”

A close listen to this sequence will reveal that the quiet piano score we hear is actually a melodic quotation of the Respighi excerpt from the “When did you first touch my heart?” sequence of Jack’s birth and the Guide leading the children. We should take note of the aural parallel here between that early sequence (Edenic in its beauty and innocence) and this sequence (both Jack and his father recognizing their flawed nature–“I’m as bad as you are”–and accepting the way of grace). No music is arbitrarily chosen in a Malick film, and this Respighi melody seems to embody the theme of grace in the film. The way of “nature,” on the other hand, is represented in the mournful melodies of Preisner’s “Lacrimosa,” which we hear during the universe creation sequence (as Mrs. O’Brien asks God the “Why?” questions of suffering) and then, in subtler piano quotation, during Jack’s “I do what I hate” sequence of sin and guilt.

The triumph of grace over the despair of nature in the film doesn’t happen by accident. As we see through a close read, the Guide is present throughout the film–embodied but also implicit and unseen–helping these characters in their spiritual journeys and guiding them through grief, sin, and the constant battle with their errant impulses and prideful nature.

Considered in the broader context of the film, the nearness and presence of a benevolent guiding force represents the immanence against which the “where are you?” perceptions of a distant God are juxtaposed. The film’s 20 minute creation sequence–sandwiched as it is between one Texas family’s intimate pains on one hand (a son’s death) and joys on the other (a son’s birth)–establishes the bigness of the universe and the smallness of man. It’s a massive, cold, ruthless universe, magnificent and beautiful in its ambivalence toward the individual life (one dinosaur spares another, but in the next scene nature–or God?–destroys them all by hurling an asteroid to earth). And yet the pastoral adventures of Jack’s youth and spiritual epiphany that follows do not bear out this dire assessment.

Rather, Jack’s life is guided by God at every turn–even if he doesn’t recognize it.

In some ways the Guide can help us make sense of the film’s real understanding of “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” Nature assumes that we are all on our own–that we are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, wandering purposeless (Sean Penn in a desert, perhaps) in a hostile creation. That “way” is self-interested and, given the eventuality of mortality, ultimately aimless. We are all going to suffer the same extinction as the dinosaurs, so what is our telos? Lacrimosa dies illa indeed.

Grace, however, inserts a telos into the story by offering up an alternate “way” that rebuffs self interest (“grace doesn’t try to please itself”) and directs our attention to the Divine Other from which hope and purpose derives. The “Guide” is the helper, the voice of conviction, the spiritual awakening helping us to desire the way of grace–which is the way of humility, of relinquishing our grasp on our own natural way, of, finally, giving up our insistent hold on that which we believe to be our rightful property or path.

“I give him to you,” says Mrs. O’Brien in the film’s final line. “I give you my son.”

She’s discovered the way of grace.

“I’m nothing,” says Mr. O’Brien.

He’s discovered it too.

Jack also sees that he’s been guided all the time (“I see it was you; always you were calling me”), that he’s been watched over and led to faith by a divine Guide, out of the dry desert of sin, stubbornness and pride and into the lush, Edenic landscape of oceans, waterfalls and the river of life.

III. “The great river that never runs dry.”

This is not a new idea for Malick. His other films have explored it too–this notion of giving up one’s insistent, natural urge to “please oneself” and humbly accepting a path that–though directed by Another–ultimately leads to a place more pristine and satisfying than we could have found for ourselves. It’s the arc of Pocahontas in The New World: her Eden is destroyed by the depravity of man and yet cannot be regained on her own merits; she must relinquish control and trust the Divine direction (“Mother,” to whom she prays), even if it isn’t what she’d imagined for her life (e.g. John Rolfe instead of John Smith).

Likewise for Private Witt in The Thin Red Line: his Paradise is lost early in the film, and his attempts to regain it midway through only serve to reinforce how grave is the “war in the heart of nature” and how deeply red is the stain of sin. He too opts for the way of grace, in faith moving forward in the unknowable fog, ready and willing to go wherever he is guided (even unto death).

In The Tree of Life, Jack too finds his Paradise/innocence lost (“How do I get back where they are?”), and wrestles with his inability to overcome the misguided desires of his nature (nearly quoting Romans 7:15: “I do what I hate…”). Jack’s lament for innocence lost and reflections on his own depravity echo the inner monologues of The Thin Red Line: “This great evil: where’s it come from? … Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.”

For Jack and for Witt–and for any of us–one of the problems of evil is that we so rarely see it as our problem. We must see that the fallenness of nature touches us all, and that the way of grace is likewise available to all as a redemptive alternative. It’s only when we humble ourselves and recognize the extent of our brokenness that we can begin to heal.

We must loosen our grip, cede our control and broaden our horizons to include the possibility that we were not made for our own glory, but for Another’s. Look at the beauty around us–look at the wonder! Malick’s films beckon us to pay closer attention to the majesty and complexity of creation (in the ground, in the sky, in our neighbor) than we do ourselves.

In Life, Malick offers us a liberating vision of a way of living that draws us out of our own “my road or the high road!” autonomy and into a path of humility in which we are subject to a Director other than our self–a Director whose intentions for us may include loss, suffering, and challenges we’d never choose. It’s a subversive vision in a culture where individual happiness is the chief goal and the means to that end is each individual’s assertion of their absolute right to freedom of choice, freedom of identity, freedom to determine one’s path independently of any other.

Malick’s early films–Badlands (1972) and Days of Heaven (1978)–centered upon iconic, lone ranger figures of American solidarity, blazing their trails westward and subject to no one but themselves. Martin Sheen’s James Dean-esque outlaw, Kit, in Badlands is unapologetic in his refusal to have his course set by anything other than his own (sometimes homicidal) whims and slapdash fancies. Richard Gere’s Bill in Days of Heaven has more of a conscience than Kit but is no less resistant to having his absolute autonomy compromised. Neither Kit nor Bill really know what they want, and their paths are resultantly schizophrenic and (literally) all over the map. Bill hops on a train to Texas wheatfields one minute and flies off with a circus act the next. Kit–his equally aimless girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) in tow–is on the open road to nowhere, wandering aimlessly in a barren western landscape not unlike the desert of Sean Penn’s wanderings in Life. In the end, Kit and Bill meet lonely, sad ends–their insistent, prideful autonomy having failed to locate whatever specter of Eden plagued their restless hearts.

With Malick’s later films–The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and now The Tree of Life (2011)–however, the autonomous individual protagonist becomes much more reliant on others. In Line, Witt can still be read as a Thoreau-esque individualist, a canoeing wanderer searching for truth on his own–and yet he’s very much aware of and attentive to the Other, a divine “spark” he feels in the air and sees in the eyes of others. It’s not just about him; he’s willing to be shown things by others, by God, by the glory around him (“all things shining…”). In World, Pocahontas shares Witt’s hyper-observational awe and humble curiosity about the world around her. She’s wide-eyed and enraptured by the beauty around her–even when it’s harsh and alien (the Jamestown colony, her trip to England). Even when she’s wronged, when her people are driven out of their lands, she reacts with humility. Like a tree whose branch breaks off but continues to grow, she adapts and moves on in faith.

The New World opens with a voiceover prologue from Pocahontas in which she says, “Come, Spirit–help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother… we rise from out of the soul of you.” These lines are accompanied by Edenic images of a river–reflecting the sky, the trees, the clouds–and then an image of Pocahontas on the beach, lifting up her hands to the heavens as if in praise (quite reminiscent, in fact, of Jessica Chastain’s “Amen” motions of praise at the end of Life). Throughout the film Pocahontas wonders about the presence of “Mother”–“Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Give me a sign”–in a manner not dissimilar from Chastain’s ponderings near the beginning of Life. Pocahontas prays to Mother: “How should I seek you? Show me your face. You, the great river that never runs dry.” (Side note: the actress who plays Mother in World–Irene Bedard–was the voice Pocahontas in Disney’s animated version, and also has a 5-second cameo in Life, where she’s credited as “Messenger.” See 0:17:32 in Life for her brief, cryptic appearance, caressing R.L. through a window curtain and kissing his face).

Though Pocahontas is unaware of Christ at this point, I believe that “Mother”–the deity to whom she prays–represents the echoes of Eden and the pangs of lost communion between creatures and Creator that every human feels (the sensus divinitatis, as Calvin might say). It’s interesting that she describes this deity as “the great river that never runs dry,” which brings to mind the River of Life in Revelation 22–the passage that also mentions the “Tree of Life” (vs. 2) in its description of the renewed creation and restored communion between God and man. Indeed, it’s also interesting that at the end of World, after Pocahontas comes to a peace (“Mother, now I know where you live)” the film ends with an image of a river, and then a tree in the final shot. Could it be read as a Revelation 22-esque “Eden restored” in the same way as Tree of Life’s finale?

Each of Malick’s films is in some sense about the specter of Paradise Lost and the felt breach of communion between God and man (on account of sin). Each film evokes that longing for an eschatological recovery of that wholeness, that Rev. 21 moment when God will once again dwell in physical presence with his people. But before that day comes, in between the Gen. 1 and Rev. 22 “trees of life,” God’s presence is also made available to us, by grace, in the form of the Holy Spirit. Because of what happened on another tree (the cross of Christ), God’s presence is given to us through the Holy Spirit: a guide, a helper, an advocate, a spirit of resurrection within our own feeble frames.

It’s a Spirit that Malick’s Life makes explicit through an embodied character, but also implicit as an unseen divine presence, calling characters to faith, to worship, to humility and to love. It’s a Spirit that is with us throughout our journeys (“guide us to the end of time…”) if we are open to being led.

Come, Holy Spirit. Guide us.

9 Tips for Eating Christianly

For the last 10 months I’ve been writing a book about Christian approaches to consuming culture, and one of the things I discuss in the book is food. How can Christians be better consumers of food? It’s a topic pertinent to anyone of faith (we all eat), but maybe not one that is discussed as much as it should be (though a number of great books have been exploring it of late–such as this, this, and this.)

The subject of a “theology of food” is one I recently explored in a cover story for Biola Magazine: “Soul & Stomach.” Though it’s hard to cover such a massive topic in a four page article, I’m proud of how the piece turned out. For a more expansive treatment of the subject, check out my book when it comes out in 2013.

In the meantime, here is a sidebar from the article, listing nine tips/suggestions for how me might approach our consumption of food more thoughtfully and Christianly:

  1. Slow down. Try to find time to truly enjoy food. Prepare it yourself. Savor it.
  2. Give thanks. For the food you have, for the hands that prepared it, for the land and animals it comes from; above all, for God the provider and sustainer of life.
  3. Show hospitality. Invite others to dine with you. Follow Jesus’ example. Share food with strangers. Throw long dinner parties.
  4. Eat in community. Enjoy food with others. Let it be a unifying source of social pleasure.
  5. Be sensitive to those around you. Many people struggle with food-related issues (dieting, food addiction, eating disorders); keep this in mind as you eat. Know there are many Christian resources available if you or a loved one need help.
  6. Eat justly. Recognize that your eating affects others. Try to support ethical and just food practices through discerning consumer choices.
  7. Fight global hunger. Remember that nearly 1 billion people in the world do not have enough to eat. Keep that in perspective and do what you can to feed the hungry in your communities and across the world.
  8. Develop taste. Expose yourself to new things and expand your palate. Learn to appreciate quality food, unique flavors, textures, combinations.
  9. Eat humbly. Rather than eating food to show off your culinary sophistication, eat with humility and thanksgiving, awestruck by the beauty and goodness you are privileged to enjoy.

Why Partisanship is the New Normal

The ferociously partisan atmosphere in America these days isn’t limited to Washington D.C., though it certainly is epitomized there. No, the divisive, bitter ambience in this country exists everywhere, from sea to shining sea. A few minutes on cable news or a cursory scroll through one’s social media feed at any given moment (but especially on days like this) confirms it. And it’s getting worse.

“Moderate” is increasingly a relic in American culture. The ouster of Indiana senator (and moderate, bipartisan-minded Republican) Dick Luger is just the latest evidence of this. Republicans are getting more conservative and Democrats are getting more liberal. The country’s middle ground is quickly becoming no man’s land.

Issues like gay marriage are further entrenching both sides. The day after North Carolina became the 30th state to adopt a ban on gay marriage, President Obama  ended his “evolving views” stalling and admitted to supporting the opposite view, thrilling liberals and stealing some of the spotlight from what happened in North Carolina. For Obama and his ever bluer base, opposition to gay marriage is seen as gradually eroding. The expectation is that soon enough gay marriage will be completely acceptable in society. But there are signs that, for red state America, the opposite trend is occurring. Voters in North Carolina–a swing state that went blue for Obama in 2008–actually voted for the ban on gay marriage by a larger margin (61-39%) than expected, and seven percentage points larger than the 2006 margin (57-42%) of another gay marriage ban in fellow Southern swing state Virginia (also went blue for Obama in 2008). This appears to be another sign that the red base is getting redder on wedge issues like gay marriage, even while the blue base is becoming bolder and louder on such divisive issue.

Why are we experiencing such unprecedented ideological divergence in our culture? Why is it looking–tragically–as if the recovery of a middle ground and a bipartisan, cordial public discourse is increasingly unlikely?

It may sound obvious, and it may be old hat by now, but I believe a huge factor contributing to all of this is the Internet. Namely: the way that it has fragmented and niche-ified our media consumption. For former generations, “news” was the thing everyone watched at the same time at night on TV. It was the local newspaper. There were far fewer options, so everyone tended to learn about the news from the same sources. Some big cities had multiple newspapers with slightly divergent political bents, but for the most part normal folks didn’t have easy access to “news” with a decidedly partisan bent.

Not so today. Now, we have 24/7 access to it. Whatever one’s political leaning may be, an entire personalized media landscape can be constructed to reinforce it. There are TV channels, YouTube channels, websites, tumblrs, blogs, e-newsletters,  newspapers and radio stations for whatever political opinion you may have. Everyone processes media narratives that are as infinitely different from one another as snowflakes. Each of us has a totally unique combination of blogs we follow, news sites we read, and social media connections who shape our media intake. No wonder “consensus” is a thing of the past. We don’t live in a Walter Cronkite world anymore. We live in our own iNews bubbles of self-perpetuating, fragmentary and volatile media flows.

And it creates a snowball effect. Given the choice, liberal-leaning folks naturally will spend more time watching MSNBC and filling their Twitter feeds with people of a similar bent. Conservatives will naturally choose to watch Fox News and populate their feeds with advocates of GOP-friendly ideals. In a world where it’s as easy as clicking “unfollow” whenever someone says something that challenges our beliefs, our “feeds” of self-selected narratives of reality will make us neither educated nor enriched; they’ll simply make us more ardent in the beliefs we already hold.

In this “million little narratives” world of individually curated and (often) hyper-politicized media experiences, it’s easy to see how fringe groups and all manner of Anders Breivek-style zealotry may develop. It’s easy to see how ideology-oriented communities can become dangerously insulated and prone to “no compromise!” hostility to the Other. It’s easy to see why we’ve become so bad at talking cordially with those who are different than us. There are just so few forums for us to learn how to productively converse with a plurality of differing voices. And even if there were, would we willingly enter those forums when there are unlimited options of lesser resistance at our disposal?

I think we must. The landscape of new media, I believe, is such that society is only going to become more divided. There will be more turnover in Congress. Less ability to “reach across the aisle” without dire political consequences. It will not be easy to recover cordiality, and the values of respect and moderation in the public square will be lost, to disastrous effect. That is, unless we each make a point of combatting this in our own lives. Some suggestions for how to do this:

  • If you watch news on TV, watch a different channel every night, even if it pains you.
  • Don’t just pack your social media feeds with people who agree with you. Curate a diverse plurality of voices.
  • Avoid commenting on articles, Facebook posts or other online forums when you are angered or upset. Take time to think it over, and if you still want to say something, say it with care and nuance.
  • Just say no to the social media “instant commentary!” impulse.
  • Do you have at least some friends who have different political views than you? You should. Engage them in friendly, loving debate.
  • Avoid watching the “crazies” too much (whether on Fox News, MSNBC, or any other channel… you know of whom I speak).
  • Read books on complicated subjects, not just news articles or tweets.
  • Learn to value humility and (gasp!) be willing to change your views on something, if reason (not peer pressure) leads you there.
  • Read Marilynne Robinson.

And on that note, a wise quote by Marilynne Robinson’s stellar, prescient essay for our times, “Austerity as Ideology“:

Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform and trust one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them “Western civilization” would be an empty phrase…

In the strange alembic of this moment, the populace at large is thought of by a significant part of this same population as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their “values.” There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives. In consequence, the nimbus of art and learning and reflection that has dignified our troubled presence on this planet seems like a thinning atmosphere. Who would have thought that a thing so central to human life could prove so vulnerable to human choices?

Riots in Real Time

L.A. is such a mystery to me, as much now as it ever was; as baffling now as it was to my 9-year-old self watching the 1992 riots unfold live on the news, or to my 11-year-old self witnessing the surreal O.J. Simpson Bronco chase on the 405, a freeway I’ve come to know well in recent years.

In my younger days, L.A. was Bayside High, California Dreams, Encino Man, “Valley Girls,” Beverly Hills 90210, Disneyland, Hollywood, the Oscars. Or it was a place of constant calamity: the Northridge earthquake, mudslides, fires, various  car chases chronicled by the vulture news helicopters L.A. helped normalize. The point is: my understanding of L.A. was (and still is, to some extent) formed by media portrayals, mass-communicated narratives of “reality” packaged chiefly as entertainment. This is how we understand the world.

The ubiquity of media and its nonstop coverage of events has gradually shaped the way we perceive reality. So much of what we know about the world, and how we know it, relies on the way we receive it via media. When I was growing up, that meant television and movies. Now, it includes a whole lot more.

I expect that for many in my generation who grew up far from Los Angeles, the L.A. Riots were a formative influence in the shaping of perceptions of the City of Angels. I remember watching it on the evening news from my comfortable suburban home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, feeling like I was witnessing something from a movie, or at least something happening in a third world country. The surreal drama and (dare I say it) can’t-turn-away entertainment of it all was precisely what the mediators were going for. It’s engrossing. Big ratings.

Los Angeles lends itself especially well to the surrealist blurring of “news” and “entertainment,” perhaps because this town is the world’s largest factory of fiction, even while it is home to 4 million very real and very explosive, intersecting stories. In many ways the city narrates itself, making sense of its impenetrable complexity through reductionist cliches (E!), gossip blogs (TMZ, Gawker) and self-referential experiments in storytelling (think of The Hills, the Kardashians or anything featuring non-stars who become stars simply by playing the part on TV).

Against this backdrop, I present @realtimeLARiots for your consideration. Operated by L.A.’s local NBC news station, this Twitter account has over the last few weeks presented a fascinating experiment in anachronistic media narrative: what would the #LARiots have looked like to us had they been narrated tweet-by-tweet? In 1992 all we had were local news choppers and CNN coverage. TV. Twenty years later, the Internet and social media allows for a more real-time, fragmented, staccato form of storytelling. What does  that look like when applied to a dynamic, unfolding-over-days crisis like the Rodney King riots?

I followed @realtimeLARiots because I thought it would be interesting/entertaining to relive those riots via Twitter; a history lesson as told through a contemporary medium. And indeed it was. The account incorporated archival photos, videos, quotes, and statistics seamlessly, telling the story of the riots through 20 years of collected data and hindsight, with a tone of urgency (#crisis) that lent the experiment a feeling of almost-authenticity.

The experiment raised a few questions for me:

  • How have “big events” been understood in recent years in a different way through social media than they would have been had they occurred decades ago? 9/11 predated social media, but it’s interesting to think about how our understanding of that day might look different had we all experienced it on Facebook and Twitter.
  • What does it mean to receive 140-character bursts of news (#UPDATE: Riot-related injuries up 1,800, says LA hospitals)–news that is very real and tragic for the people it is actually happening to–in between tweets about Jessica Simpson’s baby and a viral video about cute kittens? How does the leveling “feed” format of social media intake change the way we understand the weight and significance of any given thing?
  • What is the real purposes of something like @realtimeLARiots? Is it to educate and inform, to entertain, or to try something interesting and experimental with Twitter? I suspect it is the latter.

The whole thing feels like something Marshall McLuhan or Jean Baudrillard would be fascinated by, and indeed, I think this quote from the latter captures something of what we’re talking about here:

“…what if the sign did not relate either to the object or to meaning, but to the promotion of the sign as sign? And what if information did not relate either to the event or the facts, but to the promotion of information itself as event? And more precisely today: what if television no longer related to anything except itself as message? This is where McLuhan’s formulation can be seen to be absolutely brilliant: the medium has swallowed the message and it is this, the multi-medium, which is proliferating in all directions. And we are, indeed, seeing terrestrial and cable channels and services proliferating while actual programme content is disappearing and melting away — the TV viewer’s almost involuntary channel-hopping here echoing television’s own obsession with its own channels.

“But this is not where the true corruption lies. The secret vice, already pointed out by Umberto Eco, lies in the way the media become self-referring and speak only among themselves. The multimedium is becoming the intermedium. This already problematic situation is aggravated when it is a single hypermedium — television — eyeing itself. All the more so as this tele-centrism is combined with a very severe implicit moral and political judgement: it implies that the masses basically neither need nor desire meaning or information — that all they ask for is signs and images. Television provides them with these in great quantities, returning to the real world, with utter — though well camouflaged — contempt, in the form of ‘reality shows’ or vox-pops — that is to say, in the form of universal self-commentary and mocked-up scenarios, where both the questions and the answers are ‘fixed’.”

-Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out (2002)