SOTU thoughts.

I think that deep down the President really wants to ehlp, but he’s just going to kill the economy…

Movie Thoughts

My wife and I are plowing through a stack of art-house films we got from our local library.  Here are some quick thoughts.

The Squid and the Whale – very reminiscient of Wes Anderson’s films, which is of course appropriate as writer and director Noah Baumbach is a close friend and collaborator with Anderson.  This one was more moody however, and revealed the deep pain caused by divorce.  My parents are happily married, but with a number of friends who have lived through divorce., the wildy erratic behavior of the children was familiar.  Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney give excellent performances, and Baumbach’s use of a subdued rock soundtrack is an excellent touch.  Less whimsical than other similar films, the movie does keep up with Anderson’s trick of shooting a retro film in a modern setting, so while the main character is driving an early 1980s Volvo, the camera is catching a modern 4-Runner on the streets.  Cute.  This was a tough movie to watch, but this sort of pain is worth confronting if we are to see just how brutal divorce really is.

Bottle Rocket – Wes Anderson’s first movie.  Lori and I are huge fans of Anderson, so I thought that we should be sure to see his first film.  The key to Anderson’s film is setting, and I always have a hard time adjusting to movies set in the Southwest.  Still, the film is deeply affectionate towards its characters – no cynicism, no snark.  Instead, we are treated to a kind image of what it means to find a friend and a father, and just how we are to define what is normal.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – This is the second movie we’ve seen that was based on a novel by spy write r John LeCarre.  (The first was the recent and brilliant The Constant Gardener).  As a film, Martin Ritt’s directing is incredibly powerful.  Of course black-and-white was the only way to do things in 1965, but once we – as viewers – come to see how the format was used by directors, movies take on a whole new meaning (See Night of the Hunter, for example).  I found this movie to be visually compelling, and of course the script and the acting (Richard Burton is phenomenal as a drunken, bitter spy) are magnificent.  LeCarre is a first-rate novelist, but my great problem was the moral ambiguity of the whole enterprise.

LeCarre’s consistent premise is that while Communism is (was?) thoroughly rotten, the West isn’t much better.  The final verdict of the movie is, in essence, “a plague on both your houses.”  In one sense, of course, he’s right that any human system is frought with peril and corruption.  On the other hand, it simply cannot be argued that the seedy underbelly of the intelligence world somehow makes the capitalist West just as morally bankrupt as the Communist bloc of eastern Europe and Asia.  There is a mighty death toll that argues to the contrary.  Whatever bad stuff was done by the West, we can point to a pile of 100 millions corpses in Russia, China, Cambodia and North Korea and say that while we did a lot of rotten things, we did not do that.  What a shame that LeCarre still cannot tell the difference.

We also watched Whit Stillman’s wonderful film The Last Days of Disco yesterday, but I must say more about it later.  Too good a film to boil down to one little post.  Up next:  Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

Advent is Counter-Cultural

Quick post that is a little late (obviously).

When Christians celebrate Christmas in conjunction with Advent and Epiphany, they are being countercultural.  They are saying “wait on Christmas” when we refrain from overdoing things, at least until December 25.  They are saying “it’s not over” when our celebrations last until January 6.  Christians who starting blaring Silent Night on Thanksgiving Day and take down the tree as soon as the grandkids pull out of the driveway aren’t doing things very different from their pagan neighbors.  Our actions indeed reveal our true thoughts on the matter, and what we are saying is that Christmas – despite some nice rhetoric from the preacher – is nothing very special.

When the Christian community mourns and laments its way to December 24, it says to the world that not only has the Savior come, but that the world – you and me – actually needs Him.  To sing “far as the curse is found” is that much more relevant when our communal life actually demonstrates our need.  So for Christians who are anxious to distinguish themselves from their secular society, Advent and Epiphany are easy and obvious ways to demonstrate that following Christ indeed sets one apart.

Whatever Happened to Gary Cooper?

“Nowadays everybody’s got to go to shrinks and counselors, and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know is once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up. And then it’s dysfunction this and dysfunction that and dysfunction va fa culo!”

 

The above exchange took place in the first episode of the landmark HBO series The Sopranos, in what was either the second or third session between psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi and mobster Tony Soprano.  Following a series of panic attacks, Tony begins seeing Dr. Melfi in hopes of revealing whatever underlying stress has been causing the attacks.  Tony is uncomfortable with the arrangement on several levels.  He chalks it up to being Italian and male – “Look, it’s impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist,” and viewers are quick to understand that Tony is mostly reluctant because a mob capo would never, ever meet with a psychiatrist.  (Indeed, this revelation at the end of season one results in an attempt on Tony’s life).   These issues aside, however, Tony still seems to be fundamentally bothered by the idea of therapy.  He argues that such an endeavor will not help, but instead will only lead to more and more dysfunction. 

Of course, in a sense he is exactly right.  On the surface, many of us could agree with Tony’s complain.  We do live in an age where our therapeutic culture has proven to be paralyzing.  We are so busy talking about our problems that we often fail to get anything accomplished.  We drown in a sea of overanalyzation.  The great Southern writer Walker Percy has much to say on this point in this nonfiction, and even a few of his fictional characters – Binx Bolling, Will Barrett, Thomas More – seem to deal with this problem.  I do not think that vulnerability and honesty (at least on an emotional level) are their own virtues outside of very personal relationships.  So when Tony Soprano rants about the slow death of Gary Cooper, I have to admit I am deeply sympathetic.  I believe that as a culture we miss that stoicism; how else to explain our fascination with John Wayne, Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi and, yes, Gary Cooper?  (Ever seen Johnny Cash’s video for his cover of the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt?”  It is so disconcerting because Cash is physically unable to remain stoic.)

However much I may agree that our world is too therapeutic, we cannot apply this rhetoric to the Gospel.  With God, there is no such thing as the strong, silent type.  Indeed, Tony Soprano betrays this in the scene mentioned above, when, after persistent questioning by Dr. Melfi, he admits that he is depressed.  And not only is he depressed, he is depressed because some Canadian geese that had spent time in his pool have flown south.  How pathetic!  And yet so are we.  We are that weak ourselves.  Before the Cross we lose our masks and our personal constructs – we have no more persona and image.  We are left naked, as it were.  This is what the Gospel does to us.  Dr. Melfi lets Tony vent and rage against whatever it is – social patterns, marriage, his lazy, no-count friends – and then when he has exhausted himself, she goes for the kill. 

 “Are you depressed?”

Tony has nothing left.  His guard has been let down and he no longer has the energy for anything but to say “yes.”  Like Dr. Melfi’s gentle questions, the Gospel is equally persistent.  Eventually, it will out us for what we are – depressed, lonely, hurt, angry.  Whatever it is we are, it will show us that we are – fundamentally, thoroughly and totally – not ok.

We are, as Luther said, beggars.  And the sooner we understand this, the better.  Look at Jesus’ parable in Luke 14: 15-23.  A rich man wants to throw party, but none of his friends are willing to come.  They have excuse after excuse – business, family, etc.  (A few lessons there, to be sure).  The rich man – generous to the core – has no time for these excuses, and is so irate at his friends’ refusal that he tells his servants to go find every hobo and hoodlum in town and invite them to the party instead.  The party is filled with “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”  The party is filled with those, in other words, who have been stripped of all pretenses and are no longer able to conceive of themselves as anything but what they really are, which is to say, again, poor, crippled, blind and lame.  This is where Tony Soprano finds himself, if only for a moment. He has admitted that he is depressed.  His life is empty.  He has some good things, to be sure, but they simply are not enough to keep him going. More importantly, Tony has stopped making excuses and when pressed, he has owned up to the fact that he has run out of gas.

Let me note that I do not believe that our key to spiritual well-being is found in simply “being honest with God” as though he were Oprah sitting on her couch.  No, our ability to admit that we are not Gary Cooper (or Billy Graham or Tim Tebow or…) and that we are in fact poor pathetic beggars only comes though a working of God’s Holy Spirit.  After all, those beggars in Jesus’ parable did not crash the party.  They were invited.  And so are we.  We are invited to lay down our pretenses, lay down our masks and personas and own up to our nothingness.  We are invited to win by losing.  We are invited to live by dying.  If we admit who we are not, we are ever closer to admitting who we are.  There is a great feast that awaits us at the foot of the Cross.

Gospel and Law in the Classroom

It’s the end of the semester at the public high school where I teach.  For my senior students, that means Judgement Day.  A large number of them are nervous, because if they fail my class – even just this one semester – then they must take night school in order to walk at graduation.  Most students pass, though they do so with a fair amount of nervousness.  But some do fail, and leaves me, the teacher, in an awkward position.  School policy dictates that I allow them to retake their final exam.  I must let them look over old tests to see if they should retake them, and if they have a zero for a test, I let them take that, too.  The whole point is to do anything – everything – I can to help my students pass my class and move ever closer to graduation.

I have to confess that part of me resists this.  I look at my students who have slept in class, skipped school, shown up late, refused to turn in assignments and talked in class, and I find it very difficult to show them mercy.  When students shuffle through class preferring to talk about what they did over the weekend, where they went and what they smoked, I have little sympathy for a failing grade.  But what I miss at times is that while they do in fact deserve to fail, for those students who seek it, mercy is the only option. Some students will fail and never bother to ask for help.  Others will have done so little, that there is no help.  (On those two examples, the theological parallels break down hard.)  But others will come to me and our guidance counselor, and they are desperate for help.  They are seniors, remember, and only a few months from graduation.  There is no summer school to graduate on time.  They are, literally, at the end of their rope.

I could wax poetic about enforcing standards, and how students should learn the consequences of their actions.  Indeed, if my students were younger, I would likely do just that.  They are not young, though, and to fail them when I could allow them the opportunity to pass would be spite and retribution.  It would be a standard that existed for its own sake, not to help a student but to harm him.  Students in such a case would only resist and rebel by running from school and education and quite likely running (emotionally, at least) from their own families.   Educational standards – the law, as it were – must not exist in a vaccuum for their own sake.  There will always be times when a student simply quits, and I have no choice but to fail her.  Yet there are many times when  I can show mercy in hopes that , the student will feel relief – an unburdening, we might say – at the grace shown to them and they will leave high school striving to “go and sin no more” as it relates to their responsibilites in life.  As such grace has been shown to me, I have no choice but to show it to my own students.

Reforming Capitalism

Jonah Goldberg on a recent speech by Yuval Levin.

Key quote from Goldberg:

Yuval believes (or I think he does; all of this is open to correction by him), that what we need is not a reformation of capitalism, but of the culture. The solution to capitalism’s problems do not reside in the realm of economics, but outside of it. I think he’s very much right on that, but we can leave that to another discussion.

That is an excellent word.  The problem, for Christians, of course, is that men are broken.  Capitalism is the best of all the broken options.  Men do not need the government – we need the Gospel.

As Cramner noted, what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.  The market is only fixed to the extent that the heart is moved by the Gospel of grace to sinners.