Thursday, June 28, 2012

Body, Soul, and C. S. Lewis?

Until a few years ago, when I began graduate work in theological studies, I had never heard much about the dangers of strands in the Christian tradition that more or less define the human being as a soul living in the shell of an unruly body.

If we think for a moment, many of us can detect this pulse. We can drum up verses like I Corinthians 9:27 (“I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize”) and Romans 8:13 (“…if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live”).

Even after people had pointed out to me these aspects of biblical scripture and their influence on Christians’ pitting bodily desire against the health of the soul, it took me a while to see what the urgency of this discussion might be. And I’m still learning, of course…but in the past couple of years I’ve certainly begun to see and feel the weight of this issue.

I say all of this to say that I’ve lately noticed several Facebook friends posting the following quote from C. S. Lewis: “You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” I want to take issue with this statement—not only because I now disagree with it, but also because I am a seasoned C. S. Lewis fan, so I’d rather give him a fair run rather than simply shake my fist at him. Also, I would never have taken issue with such statements if I hadn’t been encouraged to reconsider my stances. I would love to pass on that gift, for it has certainly proven to be a gift.

I have too much to say about this topic and too little time to write about it thoroughly (i.e., by drawing in the voices of the scholars and friends who’ve taught me so much about it)…so please read with the knowledge that I’m only hitting the highest highlights to the best of my humble capacities. And, as always, I would love to engage in further conversation about this topic with any and all.

* * *

When I first ran across Lewis’s statement above (taken from Mere Christianity, I believe) indicating that we have bodies but are souls, I probably thought that it was well-placed and profound. Of course, I used to think that pretty much everything C.S. Lewis said was well-placed and profound. When I was 17 my youth minister suggested that I read Mere Christianity; I dug up my parents’ 1950s paperback copy and had my nose stuffed in the book for every spare moment until I finished it. So began a general trend in my late teens and early twenties—in the years that followed I read (and often re-read) everything of Lewis’ that I could get my hands on.

I suspect that my reasons for developing a fond devotion to Lewis are not unlike the reasons of many of my fellow CoC-ers (as well as others from evangelical-ish traditions who have found such a connection with Lewis). His work provided me with a much-craved entre into sustained critical thinking about Christian identity, doctrine, philosophy, apologetics, etc. 
More importantly, this invitation was packaged in a fashion that, I think, I needed—coming from the religious and social context that I did, I would have found academic theologians and sociologists of religion off-putting and inaccessible with their unfamiliar jargon, tradition, and systematic aims. In Lewis I found a lay apologist with a prolific mind who produced concise, dryly entertaining prose that stimulated thoroughgoing reflection upon my religious convictions; he did this while preserving the confessional impetus of the Christian faith—not blindly, but with artistic commitment to rationality.

I relied on C. S. Lewis as a mentor for many years. I still find him one of my favorite reads for the sake of spiritual rejuvenation and/or re-centering, and I’d put his best fiction up against most anyone’s (two thumbs up for his sci-fi trilogy and Till We Have Faces. And don’t mess with Narnia or we’ll have issues). However, in the course of my studies I’ve had to reckon with the hard truth that this beloved teacher of ours is, well, human—for all of the gifts that he’s given us, they do not acquit him of human error.

We ought not be overly frightened by this possibility. As much as I’ve read of his work, I am confident that Lewis himself would be supremely perturbed if he found that his 21st century readers were unwilling to refine his insights in preference to clinging to them as life rafts amidst the sea change of “postmodernity.”

All of this to say that I believe this particular statement—you are a soul; you have a body—is in need of refinement. I would argue that the problems with this notion are implicated in many of the troubling post-Enlightenment paradigms in Western thought.

Let me (attempt to) explain: Lewis’s operative assumption here is more or less that our bodies are like vehicles steered by our souls. This notion is akin to broader perspectives of his day presuming that the soul and body are clearly distinct entities, and thus must be related either hierarchically (i.e., the soul/mind is more important than the body/drives) or competitively (the soul/mind is at war with the body’s impulses).

This way of thinking didn’t surface only in the soul/body distinction; it was hospitable to other binary oppositions, such as: discernment vs. instinct, mind vs. matter, inner vs. outer, light vs. darkness, male vs. female, order vs. disorder.
Notice the hierarchy? Notice what/who is supposed to win? 

We Westerners like to claim that we are “post”modern, that is, that we have moved beyond all of those oppositional pairings. But take a moment to observe human behavior—it is hardly the case that we have adopted utterly new ways of moving through the world. We’ve made some progress, to be sure, but we still tend to operate in the terms of these hierarchies, assuming that clear boundaries really exist between soul and body, mind and matter, male and female, etc. Because we operate this way, we easily fail to see that such boundaries are always fluid, shifting, impossible to nail down.

I believe that we tend to behave this way because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we long for sharp, identifiable boundaries. Why? Because they make reality more palatable/manageable for us as we struggle to secure our senses of who we are, what we’ve achieved, and—again, if we’re honest—who we can control.

As a Christian, I thus believe that our longing for and establishment of these distinct boundaries facilitates idolatry (that is, worshipping that which is finite, that which we think we know and can thus control) rather than authentic worship of the mysterious One who transcends yet undergirds our strange, exhilarating existence as subjects-in-process.

* * *

Mahatma Gandhi says, “The soul must languish when we give all our thought to the body.” And who can argue with Gandhi when it comes to this statement? Perhaps this too is the gift that we can take from the passages in I Cor. 9 and Romans 8. Like Gandhi, they remind us that it is no better to give all of our attention to or indulge the “other” members of those binary pairings—instinct, matter, darkness, female, disorder, etc.  That is certainly not my purpose here (or elsewhere, for those of you who worry that I’m close to becoming a feminist vigilante!). I merely want to say that, for the reasons outlined above, I believe that it is vital that we understand all of these entities, including body and soul, as deeply interwoven.
I agree with Lewis that we do not have a soul. But neither do we have a body. We are embodied souls, as I’ve often heard my professor Doug Meeks say.

I believe that this is a perspective we cannot take for granted, as "post"moderns, but must work for continuously and deliberately. To this end, let us attend to the presence of bodies, which take us out of our heads, make demands upon us. And at the heart of the Christian faith lies a crucified and resurrected human body: that of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us, disrupting our schemes at self-securing in a fashion that addressed body and soul as one—he preached and laid hands on the leprous; he taught and fed hungry people with fish and bread; he prayed and washed dusty feet. He taught us that, in the coming kingdom, God is making all things new—and that includes humans as embodied souls.  

As far as C. S. Lewis is concerned, I’m forever indebted to him for the ways that he has taught me to think and re-think that have enriched my life with, I believe, eternal ramifications. Looking at his work, when it comes to the question of bodies and souls I’d prefer to share the following passage from The Screwtape Letters. Herein the demon Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood regarding how best to distract his human “patient” when praying to God, “the Enemy.” Screwtape says:

One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘a sense of supplication’. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time. At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.[1]

[1] Letter 4 in The Screwtape Letters

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

You (In)Complete Me, Valentine

There may or may not have really been a “Saint Valentine.” If he did exist, he was most likely a martyred bishop or priest. Early tradition has it that he lived in 3rd century Rome and was arrested for aiding persecuted Christians—this aid including presiding over the marriage of Christian couples—and that he was eventually executed by a well-rounded combination of being stoned, beaten with clubs, and finally beheaded.

And somehow we’ve wound up with this?

Alas, I don’t have time to wax eloquent on the evolution of the Valentine mythos into its current state, as an over-commercialized reason for ensemble-cast chick flicks and the obligatory purchasing of $5.00 greeting cards (I mean, c’mon. I have books that cost less. Good books).

What I do want to take time to sermonize about is this: I find it 100% frustrating that a lot of my fellow Christians would claim that the high premium they place on “getting everyone married” has something to do with their faith commitments. As far as I can tell, this impulse is in no way distinct from secular society’s values—nothing makes it as clear as does the common rhetoric on Valentine’s Day cards. Here are a couple of standard examples (you may help yourself to them at your neighborhood CVS pharmacy):

I don't have to tell you that there are a jillion cards with similar messages, and the subtext is clear—“You complete me, Valentine. Let’s find some meaning in life together.” Most every chick flick, sitcom, and soap opera sends the same message. Our secular society shouts it from rooftops that rise as high as the steeples topping the churches from which the same tidings emanate: romantic relationships, culminating in marriage = happiness.

Of course, this is a great American tragicomedy. “Marriage equals happiness” until it gets boring or demanding, at which point “a new relationship equals happiness.” Last time I checked, marriage rates are down in the United States while divorce rates are intimidating; moreover, we Christians more or less rack up the same percentages on the divorce tally. And yet, the secular and religious alike still press single people on towards the marriage finish line without stopping to think about what we may be losing in doing so.

I am all for our discerning, taking seriously, and celebrating the gifts of the marital commitment…but is it not high time we drop the “happiness” farce? Based on my brief 1.75 years of wedded bliss, I can already affirm that marriage brings a multitude of opportunities to one’s life: opportunities for the creativity and dynamism that comes with sustained commitment to someone, for deepened friendship in sharing the sacred mundane together, for an increased sense of awe at the mystery of the neighbor/partner one can never fully know, for the humbling self-awareness that accompanies the everyday realization that it is deadly difficult not to act out of conceit.

There is rich, real joy in all of this…but it is costly joy. It most certainly is not chick flick happiness. Show me a married couple who says it’s all sweetness and light, and I’ll show you a couple that’s been married for about five minutes. As my friend and burgeoning theologian Peter Kline points out, “Saying marriage vows does not magically make you competent in love. You will say them against yourself. Saying them is like taking a first step into a pitch-black room that you can only feel and stumble your way through. Which is why you must say your vows as prayer, as a calling out to God—who is love itself.”

So we want single people to be happy? We might start by recognizing that real happiness, the costly joy one discovers in the purifying flames of the love God is, belong just as much to single people as to anyone. Single people step into a different pitch-black room and stumble through it alone, guided by the trust that God’s seal on their heart has marked them with the love that is as strong as death, with a jealousy as unyielding as the grave (Song of Songs 8:6). The gifts of this journey are costly yet plentiful…and they are impossible to retain once you are married and step onto a different fumbling path.

If you aren’t convinced by my testimony, consider the fact that it is blaringly obvious that everything about Jesus Christ’s way of socializing flies in the face of the standard family model…this is not to mention all of that uncomfortable stuff he says in Matthew 10 about being willing to deny family members for the sake of the cross. And of course, the apostle Paul’s take on marital union is pretty apparent in I Corinthians 7: for Paul, marriage is for those who are too spiritually weak for the preferable state of celibacy.    

There is much more that could be said (and has been, if you’re interested) to nuance all of this anti-marriage sentiment from our single savior and the most effective Christian missionary in history. However, my immediate point here is that, of all places, the church should be a community where people are not threatened by ways of sociality that are different from their own—because, let’s be honest: perhaps we “worry” about single people because they potentially undermine our way of sociality. Especially if they are happy being single, God forbid. The church ought to be a place where diverse forms of sociality are affirmed and embraced as integral to the body of Christ, and my hunch is that if we started recognizing and listening to the spiritual wisdom our single members have gained by virtue of their singleness, then they would feel a lot more comfortable in our congregations.

Which brings me to my final point: it’s also time that we stop defining ourselves according to marital/familial status, as we clearly do in our smaller fellowship groups or classes. While I absolutely enjoy communing with people in a similar phase of life to my own and realize that there is much to gain from this, I also believe that we are profoundly impoverished when we have little consistent, close interaction with fellow believers who are in different life stages. So, not only is it time for Christians to drop the “marriage = happiness” absurdity—especially under the pretense that it’s somehow wrapped up in our Christological identity—but let’s also stop herding ourselves together according to marriage and family identifiers. It only furthers the illusion.

I don’t mean to spoil your Valentine’s Day. Goodness knows I’m not one to come down too hard on any excuse to eat more chocolate…and who, except for the snobbiest of film snobs, hasn’t at some point enjoyed the mindless fantasyland of a chick flick? Plus, if I can weasel my way into some Radiohead tickets from my husband under the auspices of a Valentine’s gift, I’ll happily dye my hair pink in honor of the day.

But I would urge you to keep both eyes on the absurd unreality of the $5-card-narratives we tell ourselves about singleness and partnership…and certainly don’t waste your energy today feeling sorry for your friends who aren’t coupled off. Your time would be better spent asking for their prayers. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Theological Viewing of Three Horror Films

October is my favorite month for an abundance of reasons, not least of which is because of Halloween and all of its glorious trappings (…haunted houses, hayrides, bonfires, candy, costumes, costumes, oh, and did I mention costumes?). Of course, there are always those humbug Christians who ruin most everything fun who will say that we shouldn’t celebrate Halloween. I won’t preach to those people right now, but what I do have to say to them for the moment is: really? Is your spiritual imagination that myopic?

I’m not sure, but I imagine that an argument most of those fraidy-cats would conjure up is something along the lines of the “pagan/godless” nature of the holiday being dangerous for us to participate in. Aside from all of my more shallow problems with these people needlessly skipping so much fun in life, I should also say that I find it odd—even dangerous—when people automatically assume that because something is scary or horrific, it has nothing to do with God.

Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky didn’t make this assumption. He talks about Moses’ assent of Mount Sinai as an analogy for the frightful experience of encountering God: first, Moses meets God in the burning bush, at which point he encountered God as light. Later, when he climbs Mount Sinai, Moses “enters the darkness, leaving behind him all that can be seen or known; there remains to him only the invisible and unknowable, but in this darkness is God. For God makes His dwelling there where our understanding and our concepts can gain no admittance.” (Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 35)

God is cloaked in darkness. This means that God dwells in places where our words and concepts fail us…which is, indeed, frightening. As one of my favorite HU Bible professors John Fortner is known to say, “God will eat your face off.” Not a particularly comforting image.

In this darkness is God.” Does this mean that God is in all darkness? In a sense, yes. It is nonsensical to affirm that God is the creator and sustainer of all, and yet is somehow absent in the horrific aspects of existence. Of course, this brings up all of the disturbing questions of theodicy that we confront: the why of the Holocaust, genocide, natural disasters, despair, cancer, all of it.

It’s generally best for us to maintain silence when we sit with those who are on the brink of these gulfs. “Mourn with those who mourn” is what Christ recommends. Of course, in our speechlessness in the face of such darkness, we can remember a key part of our story—that God is not indifferent to our suffering but rather enters into it as pointedly as the Son who is crucified, as the Father who suffers the loss of the Son. This knowledge doesn’t divinize suffering or make it easier; the point here is not to present an answer to the question of “why does a good God allow evil to occur?” Any human answer to that question is going to remain unsatisfactory.

It’s just a way of affirming that “in this darkness is God.” This means something (to me, at least).

However…there is another sense in which we will not find God in darkness—particularly in the darkness of evil. Evil is unique; it is what some theologians have called “the nihil,” nothingness: the absence of anything life-giving or purposeful. It is constituted by the presence of forces that work towards utter destruction, emptiness, nothingness. There is no saving the nihil; there is only redeeming us from it.

So, if we’re going to attend to God, we have to figure out where and how God dwells in darkness. This means that we have to learn how to identify evil too, especially as it works today, in and around us. There are a lot of different angles we could take on the discussion, but for now I want to look at a resource that goes largely untapped in our discussions: the art form of the horror film.  Admittedly, it’s hard to dig up a good horror film, which is a crying shame, because a good one is sooooo good. I think the abundance of bad horror films has something to do with the fact that humans are so uncomfortable with facing and presenting the nihil in its true subtlety, although we’re haunted by its presence so we fantasticize it in a multitude of ways. Looking at evil for what it is and how it invades our daily lives is uncomfortable, frightening work…but it is worthwhile.

For the following piece of this post, I asked my amateur-film-critic-brother Luke to write up an analysis of three of his favorite horror films, attending to how they subtly present evil as it infects us here and now. The following is not for the faint of heart (or faint of gumption to take interest in the way these films work). But if you can handle it, Luke is worth listening to (he has the DVD collection to prove it, I promise)…and one of these prophetic films is, I’d say, worth your watch tonight.

Luke writes:

Alien (Evil is empty)

Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien is a must-see for any film aficionado or thrill-seeking moviegoer. Alien attains a rare cinematic achievement in that it is considered a standard in not one, but two different genres: while hailed as a science fiction masterpiece, Alien is also considered a highly innovative horror film due to its framing within the expanse of outer space.  The film cleverly blends many age-old science fiction motifs with the tension and brooding atmosphere of a classic monster horror film.  Most notably, the timeless man-vs.-machine motif first set forth in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, further expounded upon in later sci-fi classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator, underlies the horrors that the crew of the mining ship experiences throughout Alien
While at first glance the obvious villain is the elusive and rarely glimpsed alien, the vicious, coldly objective programming of robots and the indifferent mentality of the ship’s mainframe persona play equally important roles in the demise of the crew.  
Technology, an age-old antagonist, maintains an overbearing presence in the film, accentuated by the heavy use of metal-laden imagery.  Even the story of the film centers around a generation symbolically birthed and nourished by technology.  The crew is dependent upon the proper functioning of the their ship, dubbed the Nostromo, for their very survival while travelling through space.  They aptly refer to the Nostromo’s mainframe personality as “Mother”, further symbolizing their reliance on the machines around them.
Ironically, it is “Mother” and the Nostromo, the very technology that the crew depends upon for survival, that are ultimately responsible for the introduction of the monster aboard the ship and the subsequent demise of the crew.  The film’s protagonist, Ellen Ripley (brilliantly portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in one of cinema’s earliest feminist roles), is beset on all sides by nefarious mechanical plots, ranging from “Mother’s” dispassionate betrayal to the revelation of a robot secretly posing as a human.  Even the iconic alien closely resembles an elaborate conglomeration of sleek metal bulkheads, dark cords, and gracefully curved rods. 
What is it about this cold metal existence portrayed on this film that instills and speaks to disquiet deep in our souls?  Perhaps it is the alienation we as humans feel towards the seemingly amoral and empty technology that engulfs our society, further compounded by our faint realization of the extreme extent to which we rely upon such an inanimate force for our very existence. 
Ultimately, this alienation and detachment felt toward technology stems from a very basic fear that all share:  the fear of the inhuman.  This is the horror intrinsic in Alien and is perfectly captured by a simple dialogue held in reference to a distress signal that has interrupted the Nostromo’s weary trek home:

Dallas: It seems Mother has intercepted a transmission of unknown origin and got us up to check it out. 
Cane: SOS?
Dallas: Don’t know.
Ripley: Human?
Dallas: Unknown.

The primary attribute of evil remarked upon by Alien is that of emptiness.  This emptiness is not only portrayed by the overabundance of and eventual betrayal by technology in the film, but is also visualized by the empty void of space within which the film is set. Space is here the definition of emptiness: uninhabitable, cold, and lifeless. 
One particularly poignant scene which remarks upon the “nihil” that entraps the crew is the image of the bulky Nostromo, lifelessly drifting ahead while Ripley’s faint echoing calls for air traffic control support are swallowed by the vastness of the surrounding void. 
Additionally, the character of technology serves as an effective allegory for evil; there are no moral considerations to be had, no conscience to be pricked, no logic to appeal to within machines. Ash’s affectionate admiration for the creature is a concise commentary on the nature of evil at play in the film:  

Ripley: How do we kill it?
Ash:  You can’t.  You still don’t know what you’re dealing with, do you?  A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.  I admire its purity.  A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

Rosemary’s Baby (Evil is insidious)

While Polish director Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning horror film Rosemary’s Baby is a masterful and eerily convincing tale of the idyllic American Dream turned macabre nightmare, perhaps more disturbing was the misdirected and brutal murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife and unborn child by members of the Manson Family the following year in 1969.  This gruesome event bolstered the notion set forth in Rosemary’s Baby that the evil inherent within the world is indiscriminate and may come calling, regardless of its subject’s innocence. Much of the horror of Rosemary’s Baby is implied and is rarely direct, as is true in life.
The film paints a disturbing portrait of the paranoia and dread experienced by a young pregnant woman (Rosemary Wodehouse portrayed by Mia Farrow) who fears that her unborn child may be the coveted object of a plot contrived by her cultic neighbors.  Although Rosemary’s Baby deals with the subjects of witchcraft, curses, and satanic cults, the film is remarkably subtle in its handling of these classically sensationalized topics: there are no green pea-soup fountains spewed, scatological demon-children to be restrained, or murderous nannies to be seen. Rather, there is only an overwhelming sense of dread that slowly takes root.
The gnawing sense of paranoia is achieved by an assault of the sensations, ranging from the unsettling sounds of shattering glass in an underground laundry room and the pungent odor of tannis root, to a chalky undertaste of the chocolate mousse supplied by the intrusive neighbors, to Rosemary’s excruciating cramps that are almost nauseating to witness. Furthermore, the aftermath of evil is relayed by the discovery of an empty closet barricaded by a large dresser for no apparent purpose, or by a brief glimpse of a message scrawled onto a shred of paper stating, “I can no longer associate myself…” 
The evil shown in the film is smothering, enveloping all aspects of Rosemary’s life, reaching from her seemingly frail and overly friendly neighbors, to her highly acclaimed obstetrician, and even so far as her husband with his proverbial soul-swapping deal with the devil.  However, the real irony is that while Rosemary is concerned with the wickedness surrounding her, the greatest evil of all is slowly growing inside of her. Rosemary’s Baby ultimately portrays evil for what it is: pervasive, indiscriminate, and insidious.
It is for this reason that the scene where Rosemary catches a glimpse of herself instinctively devouring a raw piece of liver resonates so effectively with the viewers: when Rosemary witnesses the ghastly transformation she has undergone, she is revolted, much as we are when we perceive the horrific consequences of the sin we harbor within. Rosemary’s condition serves as a relevant allegory for the pervasive, indiscriminate, and insidious evil that we humans nurture: we rarely comprehend the toll that evil has taken on and in us until we are confronted with the horrific transformation we have undergone.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Evil is chaos)

It is unfortunate that when the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is mentioned these days, most people assume that the film being referenced is the blood-soaked, garish 2003 remake starring Jessica Biel.  This seems especially regrettable due to the fact that Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not merely a classic, trend-setting horror film, but is, more importantly, a groundbreaking mastery of cinema with an intensity rarely achieved by any other film.  It is continually bewildering that this intensity is lost on so many modern viewers who casually claim that the 1974 film is “boring” or “not scary.”  My experience with this particular film is the essential antithesis of this blasé indifference…as the credits rolled after my first viewing of this film, I was left with the distinct burned-out feeling that I had just experienced my first panic attack.
If there has ever been an instance in which the use of the clichéd critique of “gut-wrenching” is warranted, it is in reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  What makes this film so unbearably intense?  There are a number of factors contributing to its masterfully agonizing quality, ranging from exceptional performances by Marilyn Burns, as the prototypical lone virginal survivor, and Gunnar Hansen as the crazed Leatherface, to the minimalistic home-video style of the film itself, conveying a certain nightmarish quality stemming from primitive violence and a deluge of nerve-wracking chaos. 
However, the true brilliance of this film (and any other truly great horror film) lies not in what is seen, but rather what is implied.  While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is initially perceived as extremely violent, there is actually very little gore and only a minimal amount of blood underscoring the violence.  Unlike its modern counterpart, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses this “dry violence” to further enhance the terror felt by its viewers, allowing their imagination to paint the gruesome effects of such carnage. 
The aspect of evil at play in this film is that of chaos, or rather the absence of order.  If hell is equated to the absence of God, it follows that such a godless dimension would be one of pure chaos, devoid of any semblance of reason or order.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre deftly captures such a dimension, never offering an explanation for any of the calamities that befall the characters, which is why I question any viewer who can deny experiencing even the slightest pang of primeval horror on watching this film.  Even Leatherface himself is almost pitiable, grunting and squealing aloud as he hysterically searches his dilapidated house for another unannounced visitor.  This leaves viewers wondering if there is any rhyme or reason to Leatherface’s actions, or if he perhaps is no more than a frenzied animal, whose actions are as senseless as his thoughts.  Therein is evil personified: senseless, chaotic, relentless, and de-humanizing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Poverty of the Wealthy Social Network

Lately I’ve been thinking about the human tendency to mistake means for ends (and vice versa), and how this seems to be a possibility especially afforded to people with leisure time and buying power—essentially, to us, the wealthy.

And before you protest, let’s all face it: we—that is, most anyone who is reading this blog post—are the rich.
This becomes undeniably evident to me when I spend time in Africa, as I have this past month. My friend Mary makes a wall out of a cardboard box for her home in Tanzania, while I ponder over which neutral shade I’ll paint the walls in my newly purchased home in Tennessee. Mary is just as smart as I am, and more industrious; the only reason why I have what she doesn’t is because of happenstance and privilege. This is the situation in which we, middle-to-upper-middle class Americans, find ourselves.

When I spend time with Mary, I notice her energy and generosity and humor, not her comparable poverty. I feel like she exudes with ease something that I’ve nearly lost, but can’t quite articulate—something akin to a connection between who she seems to be and who she is.

But as much as I am amazed by Mary’s spirit, it would be disrespectful of her humanity for me to idealize her. I’m better to remember that our Lord surely spoke the truth when he said, “Blessed are the poor,” who cannot easily place their faith in superficialities, and “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your reward in full.”

That’s a frightening thought indeed, for what reward have we really gained for all our striving? Only bigger barns: a larger network of false security sources. And, it seems to me, a greater and greater estrangement from authentic existence comes along with those false securities.

These “bigger barns” can include technological advancement—reliance on technology is certainly one of the most stark differences between Mary and me. Of course, they don’t necessarily include it…humankind has always pushed forward, technologically-speaking; and this can’t be an evil in and of itself. Granted, I wish we all still composed letters via quill and parchment; but I don’t think that anyone could launch a respectable argument that the advent of e-mailing inherently marks a downward slide in human morality. Technological advancement in itself is neutral, ambiguous—a mark of human ingenuity, which may prove either helpful or destructive in our quest for authentic existence.

An example of this ambiguity may be found in social-networking e-venues. I often wonder if they are as good for us as they are bad. Of course, Facebook (I don’t MySpace or Tweet, so I can’t speak to them as confidently) can be and is an efficient forum for keeping up with distanced friendships. I’m sincerely thankful for this, because as much as I enjoy more proactive, personal forms of communication, I’m lousy at keeping up with everyone’s e-mail addresses, much less their physical ones. Perhaps more importantly, Facebook and Twitter (and all such sites that I’m behind on) can facilitate participation in conversations regarding issues that concern all of us. The recent phenomenon of the Facebook group, "We are all Khalid Said," that sparked the demonstrations in Egypt is an excellent case in point.

Such are the upsides of these innovations…good things indeed.

But don’t most of us also have a vague, lurking sense that sites like Facebook more easily lend themselves to a cheapened relational existence, rather than its solidification? At least half the time, I log off of Facebook with a slightly Brave-New-World-type feeling, like I’ve just been personality shopping online. People and nature both end up seeming much like objects in advertisements, and I often wind up feeling farther away from them than I would if I had never looked at them under this glossy light.  

But now that we have Facebook and its sister sites, can we ever go back? I mean, how else can we so easily comfort ourselves with the impression that someone out there knows (and, we assume, cares) about where we’re travelling, what we’re thinking about or annoyed by, what we’re wearing or reading or crafting or eating?

Ironically, most of us know that this is cold comfort in the face of our isolation epidemic. I’ve heard enough people talk about it to know that I’m not the only one who feels like it’s dehumanizing when we interact with each other so much—which is absolutely too much—in this way. Within the social networks of the wealthy, our poverty is revealed, for here we easily present ourselves and perceive our acquaintances as if we were all products for consumption.

The problem is, we so readily mistake the means for the end—that is, we so mindlessly make online profiling the endpoint, rather than a means for reaching the real goal of authentic connection (which only occurs through vulnerable, proactive interaction)—that we are left with an emptiness we can’t seem to fill. And so we log onto Facebook to see if anyone has commented on our posts.
Quite the vicious cycle…and a difficult one to overcome, particularly if you live in a world of overabundance, easily lost in the barn building.

I realize that this blog post reads much more like a journal entry than my other posts thus far…I have a hard time making all of this connect in a non stream-of-consciousness way. But it’s weighed heavily on my mind, and I don’t believe that we’ll ever overcome our confusion of means and ends until we become the poor in spirit to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs…that is, until we make room for the Divine Spirit for whom “no thing is merely a thing.”[1] Within this schema, we may employ social networking technology with a less desperate purpose; we should enjoy it as a means to press deeper into the mysteries of God that take the shape of our friends and relational experiences.

Lest we receive our reward in full now—and a pretty paltry one, at that—let us practice some self-restraint. Let us remember that just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it, and that the possibilities afforded to us by excess are not just benefits; as Tillich says, “they are also temptations, and the desire to actualize them can lead to emptiness and destruction.”

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, III (Chicago, 1963), p. 260

Thursday, June 16, 2011

ZombieLand of the “Free”: You Are What You Eat?

If you’ve been generous enough to follow my blog, you’ll know that I recently vented my frustration with our culture’s current obsession with making monsters “sexy,” a tendency that provides evidence of the degradation of the horror film genre in the past hundred years (among other more serious societal ills). However, it’s time for a confession: unlike my warm feelings towards the elder vampire Nosferatu, I’m not so nostalgic about the oldest zombie flicks. Not that the oldies aren’t great in their own way, or that zombie films have necessarily gotten better over the past fifty years—unless they’re comedic, they always seem to slip out of control these day—but I have to say that I find 28 Days Later much more frightening overall than the original Night of the Living Dead. I remain hopeful that we may still produce a masterpiece because, for some reason, our culture has left zombies off of the sexy bandwagon—and thank goodness we have, because to do otherwise would result in the ultimate distortion of monstrosity.

Of course, I’m not going to give us credit for being self-aware on this one, so I’m curious as to why it is that we’ve allowed zombies to remain scary. If anything, our fear of them seems to be increasing. One of the most noticeable developments in the portrayal of zombies since George Romero’s classic 1960’s and 70’s Living Dead series is their threat level: zombies in today’s films are usually a whole lot faster, with the most lethargic of humans seemingly morphing into a record-setting sprinter once bitten; they are also stronger, and they’re always more grotesque. In addition, zombies are getting a lot more coverage. The 1990’s and 2000’s witnessed an explosion of media attention to the undead, from the Resident Evil videogame (which, by the way, may be the scariest rendering yet—I’m pretty sure that the time I spent watching my brothers play it is the root cause of one of my recurring nightmares) to Image Comic’s Walking Dead series, to 28 Days Later and all of its cousins on the big screen, to the more recent self-aware “zombie irony” that gives rise to lovable parodies like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and the novels written as zombie re-takes on classics.

Admittedly, zombie fascination in our culture is not terribly new; folklore concerning corpse re-animation has been present in Western society at least since the 1800’s. However, pop culture’s current level of interest in zombies is unprecedented. There’s zombie s.w.a.g. galore, and recently as I was driving through Nashville I noticed a marquee for a camping goods store that said, “Get your zombie survival gear here.” It’s not even close to Halloween, and this is no Spencers-esque novelty outlet. What’s going on with us? 

Some might suggest that this recent upswing is due to our ubiquitous access to T.V. and obsession with carnage; throw in our increasingly global consciousness, and it’s no wonder that we’ve been consistently paranoid about a worldwide zombie apocalypse since the advent of Romero’s Living Dead. There are even folks who seem eager to go ahead and get the apocalypse started. You’ve heard of the “zombie walks,” right? If you live in a big enough city, you’ve perhaps even witnessed one? This phenomenon originated in 2001 and is contained primarily to larger urban areas in North America. Basically, a zombie walk entails a decent-sized crowd getting together to stagger around town, in character, as the walking dead. Most of the time they do it for no particular reason, although there are some charitable zombies who use the walks as an opportunity to raise money to combat world hunger (it would be irreverent if it weren’t so clever).

…As a side note—it only seems natural that if these people really want to stay current, they should be conducting “zombie sprints” around their cities. It would make a great Halloween Day marathon, if nothing else.

It’s hard to believe that all of this heightening anxiety about/fascination with the un-dead only stems from our inundation with visual stimuli and violence (although I’m confident that these proliferate our obsession). Instead, I wonder if it doesn’t have more to do with our repressed fear that we are witnessing the zombie apocalypse already—that we are becoming, more and more, the living dead.

Think about it: What characterizes zombies? First, they look like they are alive but aren’t. This might correlate with the widespread depersonalization endemic to our culture. We humans have an inherent tendency to place ultimate trust in those things which will not sustain us—to passing pleasures, especially rising social statuses of various expressions. A culture like ours that privileges one-upmanship is especially encouraging of this tendency (and it’s time we admit that our resistance sub-cultures are not exempt from this temptation either). And when we can’t numb our emptiness in the forms of wealth/beauty/fame, we usually turn to over-medication, intoxication, and other forms of escapism. Thus, we easily become those who continue working and socializing, looking as if we were alive when we have actually forfeited our humanity and are enslaved to success and escapism.

Second, zombies are intent on one thing only: the consumption of the living. This probably speaks to our one-upmanship once again, wherein people become little more than means to desired ends. What’s more, in our quest for success, we make ourselves into “means” as well, striving to become that product which other people want not for relationship but for benefit. The zombie’s appetite also probably connects with our paralyzing insecurity in light of the physical and emotional violence we perpetuate: we assume that most people are out to get us, so we’re gonna get them first; and round and round we go. If you are what you eat, it's no wonder that we're all behaving like the undead.

Finally, when it comes to zombies, everyone has the same personality: the individual is consumed by the masses and is then unidentifiable from the masses. This probably correlates, again, with widespread depersonalization and viewing the self as a product of consumption. These conditions engender our interacting primarily via contrived forms rather than genuinely and vulnerably. The result is the irony of isolation—by closing ourselves off from one another, we lose our individuality.

Essentially, I believe that our culture is obsessed with zombies because, in the back of our minds, we feel like the picture zombie fictions paint may not be far from the truth. I’m reminded of the tagline on the original Dawn of the Dead poster: “When there’s no more room in HELL, the dead will walk the EARTH.” Catchy. However, I might tweak it a bit: “When the dead walk the earth, we create our own hell.” We are so afraid of vulnerability that, to borrow Paul Tillich’s terms, we “avoid non-being by avoiding being,” worshipping that which we control instead of that which is of ultimate concern. And so we become the living dead. It’s worth mentioning that, of course, Christians are not exempt from this danger. Christians are human and so, though we profess to worship that which is ultimate--God--we are much more apt to place our trust in the tangibles of our culture along with everyone else.

However, all of this zombie-mania could encourage us Christ-followers to admit and even find solace in the fact that there are two things we cannot avoid: First, we cannot escape the fact that to be human is to seek ultimate meaning and security in something, and that most of us (“Christians” and non-) find it much easier to put our faith in that which, in the end, lacks the power to save us by giving meaning to our existence. Pretending otherwise is just another form of escapism, and a quick ticket to zombieland. Let’s admit instead that faith is an ongoing struggle: that because we are finite, the element of uncertainty will always be there. However, we should also recognize that there is something beautiful in accepting that. Turning again to Paul Tillich, “If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it. It is a consequence of the risk of faith…Faith includes courage. Therefore, it can include the doubt about itself.”

And second, let us come to terms with the uncomfortable reality of our mortality. We cannot escape our embodiment, try as we might through anti-aging procedures and reliance on technology. This means that we Christians should resist making “salvation” abstract, and that we should more readily acknowledge that we are ALL going to die. However, let us not forget that that proclamation is paired with the promise of resurrection—not corpse re-animation, but re-creation into the fullness of life that we’ve yet to experience.

Perhaps our clearest reminder of this is the Communion Feast, a celebration which is the ultimate reversal of the zombie myth. In it, we are not consumed but rather feast on the body and blood of the crucified Christ, and in doing so our embodied souls are brought to restoration, renewal, and resurrection. Until our Lord comes, this sacrament proclaims his death, teaching us that the final word will not belong to death but that there will come a day when the dead may walk in the newness of life. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Tell Me All Your Religiopolitic

Well, I had originally intended to write this—my second blog entry—on the theological implications of zombie obsession. For those of you who would find that topic more interesting than mediocre reflections on a subject you’re likely already tired of, I apologize for buzzing about something more cliché.  For those of you who would rather avoid my nerdy rants about the horrific and supernatural, be forewarned: zombie reflections are forthcoming. 

For now, I’ll talk about something I’ve thought about far less (believe it or not), and I’d like your take on it. Basically, while watching the news this past Tuesday night, I was reminded that I’m often disappointed with the showing of Christians who visit with political talk show hosts. Allowing a few welcomed exceptions, it seems that they generally make us look like people who can’t give a solid account for our beliefs.

Of course, rationalists averse to Christian faith might respond by suggesting that Christians, in general, aren’t all that intelligent. Though I’m not here to build a defense for the overall IQ of the faithful, I have hung out with enough Christians to contend that our A-team does not doesn’t tend to make up the group that speaks most loudly. At least, not on television.

In addition, just to be sure that they get a good knee-jerk reaction from their viewers, the talk show hosts and commentators seem to work towards making their guests look (at least a little bit) foolish. Rob Bell’s recent semi-disastrous foray into the MSNBC political realm serves as a good case in point, don’t you think?

Though it’s hard to blame them for coming up short when put on the spot so publically, I do wish that these folks had better responses on the ready. If nothing else, Christian viewers themselves usually aren’t amenable to finding commonality with extremists or sentimentalists who speak from whatever end of the political spectrum they oppose. For those of us who care about unity and/or progress, this leaves us with our hands full; not to mention it makes more onerous the task of demonstrating to non-believers that Christians aren’t all potential (or confirmed) nutjobs who spend their time opposing one other. But I digress.

Of course, right now it seems that everyone is weighing in on the death of Osama bin Laden, either by celebrating it or cautioning against such celebration. Naturally, this makes excellent religiopolitical fodder for the talk shows. I don’t begrudge this, but I do wish I could turn on the TV and hear a more articulate Christian response—from the Left or the Right—to this sensitive issue than I’ve heard thus far. If you’ve come across one, please do share.

What stemmed this particular reflection is when on Tuesday night I caught an interview with Father Edward Beck on the O’Reilly Factor. Perhaps I'm an overly harsh critic, but I found it following the standard drill: he made a few solid points but ended up seeming as if he hadn’t thought things through (at least, I’m sure all of those who’d disagree with his starting place or conclusions would say so…and not just for the sake of disagreeing). The interview was followed up by the usual vitriolic commentary, potentially sealing Beck's fate as one more unreasonable Christian voice on the airwaves. 

Am I wrong here? If you think so, I’d genuinely like to know why...maybe I’m overlooking something. See what you think: 

Of course, I’d hope that most of us non-crazy Christians would align with Beck's being “uncomfortable with the killing of Osama bin Laden being celebrated like a Superbowl win”—frankly, I’ve found the fanatical mass-celebratory reaction pretty unsettling, whether coming from Christians or not. Touché, Father Beck.

However, I was disappointed when he began sending mixed messages: on the one hand he attributes bin Laden’s death to necessary evil, while on the other suggesting that we ought not respond to violence with violence, equating a non-response with forgiving jihadists who “know not what they do.” So, which is it? Necessary or unnecessary evil?

And as for the rest of us Christians, what would we say? Is it human to feel relieved at the news that a perpetrator of mass violence is no longer with us? Surely. Is it morally incumbent upon us to protect innocent people by doing what we can to end mass violence, even if it means resorting to violence ourselves? This is an age-old question on which Christians have disagreed; however, a strong case can be made that it is our moral duty to do so, and that this is a case of “necessary evil.” However, it seems of utmost importance that we view it as such—an evil—and thus a tragedy, not a cause for celebration. Speaking of which, are we at liberty to call Osama bin Laden “evil” as O’Reilly does? Father Beck is not comfortable issuing this judgment, preferring to call only bin Laden’s actions evil. However I’d contend that, of all people, Christians (should) acknowledge that humans are intimately tied to what they do; so evil actions, in some sense, lead to an evil person.

With the same breath, however, I’d tell O’Reilly that my faith stipulates that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Thus, while it may be natural to feel relief that bin Laden is out of the equation, it seems clear that Christians ought not endorse celebrating his demise with party horns in the streets. Because when we celebrate, we work to solidify the distance between ourselves and our “enemy”…but, the truth is, he is human. Thus we are much more like him than we’d care to admit. When we deny his humanity, we deny the potential we all have to commit murder, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise.

Post script: This is why I’m okay with the fact that bin Laden was afforded a ritualistic burial, with prayers read for his soul by his Muslim brother: the sailors on that ship seemed to sense that they should acknowledge the sacrosanct nature of God’s creation, the embodied soul. Regardless of how “evil” that soul may be (which, by the way, is God’s call, not ours), we are all tied to it—for we all were created out of God’s love; we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; Christ died for the sins of all of the ungodly.

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories C. S. Lewis tells. He remembers speaking with a priest who once had seen Hitler in person, and asking him (rather foolishly) what Hitler looked like. “He looked like all men,” was the priest’s reply: “like Christ.”