Monday, August 31, 2009

Belated Anniversary, With Explanations: Why Sunday Sabbath Poetry?

Yesterday, even as I previewed the supposedly brief nature of this series' posts, as is typical I was unable to contain my own exuberant verbiage. Let's see if I can get it right this time.

From the outset, I started the "Sunday Sabbath Poetry" series simply for myself. In high school I loved reading and writing poetry, but the passion wore off gradually in college (along with confidence in anything I was able to write myself). However, in February 2008, on the occasion of my wife giving me Wendell Berry's A Timbered Choir: Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, the fire was spontaneously and powerfully rekindled. And six months later, when I started the blog, I thought Sundays could serve -- every so often, at the least -- as days to pause, to share a poem that had meant something to me, and even to include a poem of my own as well. If anyone enjoyed it, great; if not, then I was still keeping myself engaged with poetry by necessity, forcing myself to find new poets and write new poems on a weekly basis!

However, especially initially, I wasn't always or even usually featuring "poems" by "poets." Instead, I was posting lyrics to songs. By way of explanation, listen to Barbara Brown Taylor:
I know plenty of people who find God most reliably in books, in buildings, and even in other people. I have found God in all of these places too, but the most reliable meeting place for me has always been creation. Since I first became aware of the Divine Presence in that lit-up field in Kansas, I have known where to go when my own flame is guttering. To lie with my back flat on the fragrant ground is to receive a transfusion of the same power that makes the green blade rise. To remember that I am dirt and to dirt I shall return is to be given my life back again, if only for one present moment at a time. Where other people see acreage, timber, soil, and river frontage, I see God's body, or at least as much of it as I am able to see. In the only wisdom I have at my disposal, the Creator does not live apart from creation but spans and suffuses it. When I take a breath, God's Holy Spirit enters me. When a cricket speaks to me, I talk back. Like everything else on earth, I am an embodied soul, who leaps to life when I recognize my kin. If this makes me a pagan, then I am a grateful one. (Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith [New York: HarperOne, 2006], pp. 79-80)
Theologically, there is plenty for the orthodox particular to pick apart here. But listen to what she is saying, and realize that she is not making claims about natural theology, nor declaiming a "point of contact" between "God" and "nature," nor reciting pagan liturgy, ancient or modern. She is simply saying: Not a soul who recounts the thousand and one differences between God and nature, or who warns of the dangers of nature worship, or who reemphasizes the anthropocentric priority of Man -- not one! -- has opened his eyes and seen the glory of the God about whom the Psalm says "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." She is not concerned with orthodoxy, but with just how good God's pronounced "Good" over all creation was in the beginning, and is still today, and will be in the last day.

I have the same sentiment about art, and in this case, poetry. Sure, Maynard James Keenan and Thom Yorke and Sam Beam and Robin Pecknold and Jeff Tweedy and Andrew Bird aren't Christian poets; so what? They have beautiful, powerful, damning, and magnificent things to say through their words and their music -- why not listen? Why not listen especially as Christians? as ones who believe the glory of the Lord fills the earth? as ones who know we find the risen one in the most unexpected of places?

And similarly, why limit ourselves to "proper" or "legitimate" poetry? Poets as exquisite as the classics still live and write -- Li-Young Lee and Kevin Hart and Mary Karr and Andrew Hudgins among them -- but our poets also and especially are our musicians and rockers and indie bands and underground or local folk artists. There is no such thing as "low" or "pop" art: beauty and truth are beauty and truth. To be reminded from the oddest of sources is only to remember the sort of God we serve.

Belated Anniversary, With Explanations: Why Blog?

As I've mentioned a couple times, this weekend marked the one year anniversary of Resident Theology, and I delayed last week's mini-celebration to this week -- coinciding, to the detriment of my time management, with the beginning of classes for the fall semester at Candler. I originally intended the week-long series' posts to be brief, but now they may simply be a couple of paragraphs (after this one's unprogrammatic length...). I do want to go ahead and do it, though, because part of my hope was to explain a bit about the blog and my intentions with and for it, and to have that as a resource gathered together for anyone who finds their way in these parts.

Originally, I wrote on a couple blogs before I read any. I kept one for my successive summer mission internships in Jinja, Uganda, and Tomsk, Russia, in 2006 and 2007. They were enjoyable both when I was in the field and in between, as an outlet for my experiences and theological wanderings as well as a helpful space in which to interact with friends and mentors who lived in other places.

I was blog-less for about thirteen months, between July 2007 and August 2008. In that time I got married, graduated with my undergraduate degree, moved from Abilene to Atlanta with Katelin, and each of us were accepted to our respective graduate schools. I realized in the summer months leading up to the start of my first fall semester at Candler that I was sorely in need of a theological and literary outlet, and so I decided to get back in the blogging business. I knew nothing of the "theo-blogging" world (and not much more of the "blogosphere" in general), and I assumed I would have a small audience of old friends and fellow-travelers who happened upon the site.

Fast forward a year, and in the past 12 months I have written more than 213,800 words, spread out over 195 posts. Though I haven't blown up records for hits, I've had more than 1,200 unique visitors (something I neither planned nor expected!). I have been linked to by as disparate of sites as TrueHoop -- Henry Abbott's premier NBA blog -- and Br. Tom Murphy's blog devoted to all things Wendell Berry. Two of the three theological blogs I consider to be the best on the internet -- Ben Myers' Faith and Theology and Halden Doerge's Inhabitatio Dei -- now link to Resident Theology, and Richard Beck, the author of the third in that excellent group (Experimental Theology), has graciously commented on a number of posts here at RT. This summer a PhD student introduced himself to me at a conference in Nashville simply by virtue of his having stumbled upon the blog. I am looking forward to befriending Jimmy McCarty in the flesh this fall, because while he is now a first-year PhD student at Emory, we came to know each other first and primarily through mutual respect for and interaction with each other's blogs, all while he finished his MDiv at Claremont in Los Angeles. And just last week, with my friend Patrick I launched a music website over on WordPress, which already has attracted the attention (and participation) of various "legit" music critics and bloggers.

All that to say: From humble beginnings and zero expectations, it has been a fun ride and, even more, an unexpected gift to have received and shared in so much interaction, attention, prolificity, and affirmation in a context so simple (a blog) yet so dangerous (the internet). But the question lingers:

Why blog?

I think of Wendell Berry's prescient warnings, in the 1980s no less, of the latent potency for damage in the superficial neutrality of the computer screen:
A handwritten or typewritten page therefore is usually to some degree a palimpsest; it contains parts and relics of its own history -- erasures, passages crossed out, interlineations -- suggesting that there is something to go back to as well as something to go forward to. The light-text on the computer screen, by contrast, is an artifact typical of what can only be called the industrial present, a present absolute. A computer destroys the sense of historical succession, just as do other forms of mechanization. ...

[I]n using computers writers are flirting with a radical separation of mind and body, the elimination of the work of the body from the work of the mind. The text on the computer screen, and the computer printout too, has a sterile, untouched, factorymade look, like that of a plastic whistle or a new car. The body does not do work like that. The body characterizes everything it touches. What it makes it traces over with the marks of its pulses and breathings, its excitements, hesitations, flaws, and mistakes. On its good work, it leaves the marks of skill, care, and love persisting through hesitations, flaws, and mistakes. And to those of us who love and honor the life of the body in this world, these marks are precious things, necessities of life.

But writing is of the body in yet another way. It is preeminently a walker's art. It can be done on foot and at large. The beauty of its traditional equipment is simplicity. And cheapness. Going off to the woods, I take a pencil and some paper (any paper -- a small note book, an old envelope, a piece of a feed sack), and I am as well equipped for my work as the president of IBM. I am also free, for the time being at least, of everything that IBM is hooked to. My thoughts will not be coming to me from the power structure or the power grid, but from another direction and way entirely. My mind is free to go with my feet.

I know that there are some people, perhaps many ... [for whom] disembodiment is a goal, and they long for the realm of pure mind -- or pure machine; the difference is negligible. Their departure from their bodies, obviously, is much to be desired, but the rest of us had better be warned: they are going to cause a lot of dangerous commotion on their way out. (The Art of the Commonplace [Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002], pp. 77, 78)
As always, I take Berry's concerns and warnings with utter seriousness: the man is right about so much, and the dangers involved in interminably new technological innovations -- which people constantly claim they need or could never have lived without -- are so clear otherwise, that his fears must be taken seriously.

However, the specter of the computer screen or of writing on a laptop, and the justification of their use, require no elaborate explanation here. We are celebrating an anniversary, after all! Allow me, instead, simply to share, having acknowledged (even if only some) pitfalls and temptations, why I blog, and in fact, why I love blogging.

First, as with most other superfluous practices, we must remember that one should seriously question one's involvement in blogging from the outset if one does not love it. There is much bragadociousness and anger and arrogance and competition in the blogosphere, and so little activity carries what N.T. Wright calls an epistemology of love. But my modus operandi in blogging is all love.

I love blogging because of the connections it makes. I actually participate in serious theological conversations with old friends, new friends, strangers and potential friends all the time.

I love blogging because of the discoveries lying dormant, simply waiting to be found. My favorite living poet (not really, but close) just happens to be one of my brother's best friends, David Ayres, whose poems make any day sweeter when they are read. Also, he will be graduating college this year.

I love blogging because I learn new and enriching things nearly every day. I read x, in response I write y, someone comments z, and so I respond with a 6-part series called xyz -- and then random Divinity student a links to me, and I click over to his blog which is all about b, and I find out he knows my friend c -- who always taught y when I thought x. And then we email about it, all of us.

I love blogging because I love lists. And all good bloggers make good lists, endlessly and not listlessly.

I love blogging because my brain, sometimes, refuses to stop running, and the little beige box on Blogger welcomes every last syllable of my 3,500-word epics.

I love blogging because with an immediacy that is truly revolutionary, I find others whose words speak for me when I cannot find my own, especially in response to events awful, baffling, or literally awesome.

I love blogging because there are no limitations: I have posted movie reviews, short stories, sermons, autobiographical tales, love notes to my wife, poems, scholarly essays, goofy essays, angry missives, thoughtful questions, quotidian fluff, book reviews, lists of best films and albums of the year, and more. I was born with my mouth gaping wide open at the bare and uncensored brilliance of this glorious world, and equally at how many seem to walk right past it without noticing, and blogging is a way of saying -- especially as a Christian -- "Don't you see? That song, and that film, and that book, and that tree, and that other tree, and that man, and that painting, and that poem, and that leaf, and that life, and that song ... it is all the glory of God! Unwrapped and set before and beneath and around us like an ever-present birthday gift, we live in a world of wonders too mighty and too gaudy for our minds, but if only we would look and put words to the silence we might catch a glimpse of what is unspeakably too much for us, yet also meant infinitely for us. Let us take the time needed to do that thing, to look and to watch and to say what comes to mind, and let us all do it together in a whirlwind of happy overwhelmed shouts of joy."

In a word, or more or less, that is why I love blogging; and therefore my reasons, among others, for doing it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry (One Year Anniversary Edition!)

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the very first post here on Resident Theology, and just a few days after that first entry was the inaugural "Sunday Sabbath Poetry" post, featuring its inspiration, Wendell Berry. It only seems fitting, then, to feature him again today, as I have every few months in the past year. Below is one of his angrier poems, but in truth less angry than sad, almost a national lament focused on a particular character and vocation whose monstrous task is the domesticated, standard mission of death by precision. If only such a lament could be read in pulpits across the country.

My own afterward is fitting for the occasion, a strange (but hopefully honest, being that I had forgotten about writing it) poem on poetry itself. Enjoy, and happy anniversary!

- - - - - - -

Air

By Wendell Berry

This man, proud and young,
turns homeward in the dark
heaven, free of his burden
of death by fire, of life in fear
of death by fire, in the city
now burning far below.

This is a young man, proud;
he sways upon the tall stalk
of pride, alone, in control of the
explosion by which he lives, one
of the children we have taught
to be amused by horror.

This is a proud man, young
in the work of death. Ahead of him
wait those made rich by fire.
Behind him, another child
is burning; a divine man
is hanging from a tree.

- - - - - - -

On Poetry

I sometimes wonder if
these words of mine do not
rhyme by skill or relief,

if my art like a song
overdue for a chorus
cuts the second verse;

instead of filling out
the skyline, I stop halfway
up the Sears Tower.

These lines, like the thirsty
blood colored gold beneath
my stuttering hand, are

perpetual fount, my
stubborn filthy window
happy only to see

landscape on the other
side. The fix is worth it.
Put your eyeball slant to

the page's truth, and if
you hold back even a
hint of your soul, if you

do not snort these lines with
a patient violence worthy
of their authors -- spill

that gold on the page until
it congeals into
truth, reminding you of

the need, that something must
do this thing, that as an
animal of prayer you

owe it to yourself. Breathe.
Left to right. Imitate.
Be still all your upward

apologies: beauty
like a net thrown by a
thousand hands of history

has claimed by rights your life,
and all its tapestries,
all its tributaries,

all its many-colored
gossip and gore. Let go
this moonlit breath and fall

into the spoken words
of men whose love will sate,
will devour you entire.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Case of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: On the Ethical Question of Cinematic Violence

I

Recently an ongoing discussion with my wife came to a head: for her, the violent content of today's movies as represented by Quentin Tarantino is the line in the sand and her wake-up call to the ill effects of cinematic violence in general. One of our favorite memories together is when, as a senior in high school, I organized a viewing of Pulp Fiction at my house for anyone interested, having done so out of the realization that so few people had seen such a great and influential film. I ended up hosting more than 40 fellow students, split between two television sets, and all things considered it was a successful night. I coveted Katelin's opinion in particular, and as I suspected, she enjoyed it as much as I did. We've returned to the film a number of times since, and she even made the goofy mistake of sharing with church camp leaders the following summer that Pulp Fiction was her favorite movie.

Six years later, she's reconsidering. It's not that that particular film has lost its charm, or that Tarantino's other films have disappointed, or that other movies in general containing violence have elicited disgust or rejection. It was simply the long-developed realization that it was not clear why she was choosing to subject her eyes and her ears (and thus her heart) to images and sounds (or, more broadly, to actions and stories) that in any other situation would rightly be deemed damaging, corrupt, broken, horrific, and sinful.

And this realization was uniquely directed at the medium of film; the written word involves and requires the imagination in such a way that we do not -- as we unarguably do with modern special effects today -- come face to face with what our brains understandably receive as the real thing. To read "And he took the adrenaline-filled syringe and injected her heart with it" is of a substantially different sort than to watch John Travolta stab Uma Thurman in the chest with a six-inch needle.

And so Katelin put the question to me: As an on-the-record unabashed lover of film in general and of Quentin Tarantino in particular, would I be seeing Inglourious Basterds, and if so, why? What theological and ethical reasons as a Christian persuade me either to eschew violent movies or to watch them? And is there any reason that would not merely be self-interested rationalizing?

II

Before we came to any sort of answer -- which, allow me to reveal immediately, has not been reached and is therefore not forthcoming -- we discussed the relative presence and merits of violence in the visual medium. At the very least, it was and is helpful for me (a) to recognize differences in style, purpose, and type of violence in film, (b) to refuse the temptation to label it "all or nothing" and then to attempt some arbitrary judgment in favor or dismissal of it, and (c) simply to name the amount and quality of visual violence that dominates so much of American entertainment culture, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status. (The latter observation truly is staggering.)

So I arrived at a general formula or range to quantify or group examples of different types of violent films. If plotted visually, we might go from far left, to left, to center, to right, to far right; or, if plotted numerically, from one to five. (Please refrain from reading political assignments into simple horizontal direction plotting.)

Far left, or #1, would be a film or television show that, however violent or explicit in its content, contains incontrovertible social value, even to the extent that viewing it has the potential to make one a better person (though this of course does not require that people ought to watch it). Examples include The Wire and Schindler's List.

Left, or #2, would be a film or television show that, though undoubtedly artistic, unarbitrary, meaningful, and/or profound, contains enough violence or explicit content to render its relative import on the formation of human being questionable. Examples include The Godfather and Pulp Fiction.

Center, or #3, would be a film or television show whose relatively tamer violence is equal to its analogous taming of clear social, cultural, or ethical relevance or meaning. Examples include Lost and Collateral.

Right, or #4, would be a film or television show whose violence is actually the substance and purpose of the excitement and intent in viewing it, but for that reason is fantastic, unrealistic, heroic, or escapist. Examples include The Dark Knight and The Lord of the Rings.

Far right, or #5, would be a film or television show that both exists for the sake of its own explicit brutality and intends to push the boundaries of what can be created visually to represent as believably as possible the reality of death and violence (though, note that this does not exclude the possibility of artistic or meaningful intent as well). Examples include the Saw series and 300.

Notice, too, that some films or shows fit awkwardly in between certain categories, and that others have elements of multiple categories. The premier example of the latter is The Sopranos, which unquestionably has extraordinary meaning on multiple levels, yet at times seems to exist merely for the sake of being entertained by brutal, voyeuristic violence. An example of the former might be Ong-Bak (a Thai martial arts film, probably a 4.5) or the Revenge Trilogy of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook (whose films some would place at 2 and others at 5, but probably lie around 2.5).

Regardless: The point is, what is or can be justified for a Christian to watch, what cannot or should not, and why? More to the point, where does a film like Inglourious Basterds lie -- and how can one know in advance? If the artistic merits of a film can commend itself over against the content or amount of its violence -- like, for example, Schindler's List, or as many Christians would argue, The Passion of the Christ, though that is a different case altogether, and not necessarily a happy one -- is it reasonable or foolish to "try out" films before, by point of fact, one can know whether its merits do in fact trump its violence? And is all of this merely a moralistic or pietistic or bourgeois conversation to begin with -- or, alternatively, self-justifying and blinded by forgetfulness of the gravity of sin and by a false desire for cultural participation or relevance -- and therefore to be shunned from the outset?

III

In After Virtue, in a discussion of the potential defects of an inadequate account of the virtues, Alasdair MacIntyre notes the possibility of "too many conflicts and too much arbitrariness" (p. 201). He finds an example of this endless oscillation between innumerable and irrational choices in the life of T.E. Lawrence. MacIntyre goes on to say, "Commitment to sustaining the kind of community in which the virtues can flourish may be incompatible with the devotion which a particular practice -- of the arts, for example -- requires. So there may be tensions between the claims of family life and those of the arts..." Though in many ways unrelated to our discussion, here MacIntyre names a very real but often overlooked fact of a coherent moral life: sometimes things have to be cut out completely. For example, I am sometimes amazed when I hear the responses of Christian friends who fear the specter of sectarianism if the church were to embrace the logical consequences of the renunciation of violence toward enemies -- for think of all the jobs and offices and positions they would be unable to inhabit! Well, we don't think much of the fact that we assume a Christian cannot ethically or coherently make his trade as a pornographer, or a sex trafficker, or a mercenary torturer, or a thief, or a professional propagandist; yet exact or similar forms of every one of these professions exist in the industrialized West today -- many of which are occupied by self-professed Christians!

The point being, as MacIntyre notes and as I argue with others regarding the practice of violence, there are actions and decisions that cannot coexist together coherently or for the betterment of the human person. In this discussion, it may be violence in film, or at least certain types of cinematic violence or certain types of film. Irrespective of the real or supposed artistic merit of a film, the brutality depicted visually and the rawness thereof may overwhelm any reason to see it.

In an essay entitled "Freedom and Decency," after a blistering assault on the argument against any form of censorship followed by a nostalgic remembrance of cinema days long past, David Bentley Hart writes:
Nevertheless, the current state of cinema seems to suggest that where good or at least clever writing is not a commercial necessity, and where there are no artificially imposed limits within which writers must work, the general intellectual quality of the medium cannot help but decline, and do considerable cultural damage as it descends. It would certainly be hard, if nothing else, to argue credibly that artistic expression has been well served by the revolution in standards that has made script-writing an occupation dominated by sadistic adolescents, or that the art has exactly flourished in an era in which it has been proved that immense profits can be generated from minimal dialogue but plenteous bloodshed, and in which practically nothing is considered too degraded or degrading for popular tastes. (In the Aftermath, pp. 75-76)
As a frequenter of "fanboy" movie websites like Ain't It Cool News and /Film, I can attest to this reality: strangely, hauntingly, the more violent, bloody, realistically gory, and/or brutal a film is or possibly will be lends itself in direct proportion to the (froth-)level and groundswell of anticipation. But this phenomenon is not limited to the geeks: legitimate or arthouse critics, though sometimes more sophisticated in their language or their reasons, are just as guilty as their despised brethren of swooning for awful realities depicted visually. As long as it is "honest" or "soul-bearing" or "meaning-filled," or sometimes just plain part of the fun of the movies, the respectable guys are just as much along for the ride, and just as much give their ringing endorsement to films whose content is unspeakably violent, with little to no question of the effect(s) the images and sounds might have on living, breathing human beings who are shaped, molded, and formed by all that they receive through their senses.

IV

But of course, I have no room to speak: last night I saw Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. I saw it with the expressed interest of using it as a test case in my wife's and my conversation about the ethics of cinematic violence. And as I suspected, I walked away with more questions than answers.

On one level, I find myself utterly befuddled at any attempt to assess the film critically (more on this confusion below). On a technical level, as with all of Tarantino's films, it is a work of identifiable excellence. The man was born to make movies. As a film, it works even better than the sum of its parts (and if you've seen the movie, you'll know that description is as literal as it is metaphoric): it is patient, steady, detailed, well-acted, emotional, engaging, creative, funny, surprising, and morally suggestive. Some critics are decrying the blatant ugliness of rewriting history through a reversal-of-fortunes tale of Jewish vengeance on the evil-and-deserving Nazis; some are commending the well-written, well-directed, superb craftsmanship of it; some are saying there is a great deal more going on than many are recognizing -- namely, Tarantino is turning vengeance itself upside down on its head.

Personally -- and I speak as someone for whom all of Tarantino's previous work stands as the tireless output of an inimitably gifted auteur -- my first thought is that it was brilliant. And setting aside the standards by which I did or ought to judge the film, I was actually surprised by how much less violence there was than I had prepared myself for. There were a few scenes easily anticipated, and brief, from which I chose to avert my eyes for a moment, but as seems to happen with every new Tarantino film, even when expecting the unexpected, the unexpected is a surprise.

What was profoundly more disconcerting than my enjoyment of the film or the relative presence of its violence -- and what is keeping me up into the night even as I write this -- was the reaction of those around me. I saw Inglourious Basterds at 7:00 pm on a Monday night (alone), and I would say there were maybe a dozen other folks in the theater. Of those, most were between 16 and 24 years old. (There was actually a woman with an infant near the front, who left multiple times when the baby would start crying.)

During the most explicit and horrifying violence being broadcast onto the screen, multiple voices, both male and female, from different groups sitting in separate parts of the theater, would start laughing hysterically. (Spoilers herein.) When Eli Roth's character "The Bear Jew" was bashing some Nazi officer's face in with a bat, they were laughing. When Brad Pitt's character was bloodily and gruesomely carving a swastika into the forehead of a Nazi officer, they were laughing. When the Nazi-filled theater (in the movie) was bathed in flames and two of the Basterds started unleashing their machine guns into the fleeing audience, they were laughing. Cold-hearted, real-looking, torturous and terrifying pain and suffering were depicted by moving image and sound on a large screen, and my stranger companions of a similar generation were laughing and giggling and having a grand old time.

This isn't a new experience. I remember the opening night of The Dark Knight, when The Joker is introduced and does his "magic trick" of killing a random criminal by smashing his face down onto a table where a pencil is pointing upward and smashes through his eye -- just describing the scene makes one nauseous, and yet this is a movie young teenagers saw repeatedly! -- and hearing in response a smattering of applause and (masculine) cursing (in approval). Or the packed opening weekend of M. Night Shyamalan's (awful) The Happening, in a scene where out of nowhere a young boy is shot through a window by a shotgun, and a handful of teenage boys on the front row of the theater started laughing and cheering and high-fiving.

These instances are neither rare nor trivial. They are no less serious or concerning than a group of guys cheering on John McClane in Die Hard, or laughing at the gore in Dawn of the Dead, or applauding Maximus or William Wallace slaying their enemies by the sword. Violence on the television or the big screen is cool, fun, funny, removed, heroic, virtual, distant, laudable, amoral, and something to be watched and rehearsed, alone and in groups, as much as possible, and in the name of entertainment.

V

A few things require further elaboration.

First, it still may not be clear why, either from a Christian perspective or for human persons, it might be dangerous or harmful to view violence depicted through the visual medium. Of course, after 2,500 words I am not going to offer a unified theory about the negative potentialities of violence in film. Instead, I simply want to emphasize that Christians, over against the regnant spirit of American culture, not only believe in healthy limits to every aspect of life, but believe that whatever comes into our bodies and upon our spirits shapes us into the type of persons we will be. Moreover, we have no stake in the belief that each individual is so lord of her own life or captain of his own ship that each person knows what is best for his or her own well-being. Instead, we only know what is best for us because God has revealed it to us, and he has done and continues to do so through the life of his Son, through the presence of his Spirit, through the discipline of Scripture, through the gift of prayer, and through the discernment of the community. These are the loci around which our ethical questions and answers, however tentative or guessed at or believed with conviction, gather and are shared and take tangible form through truthful openness, listening, trust, and surrender.

And so on the one hand, I am not addressing the question of cinematic violence as one of those "bad" areas of "the world" or of culture "out there," which Christians ought to be afraid of or reject out of hand. Christians are most uptight in this sort of way about language, and in my experience such rigidity is detrimental to the possibility of meaningful relationships with large segments of society whose language is just too salty for good middle-class suburban folks. Therefore my concerns in this discussion imply no fearful seclusion of the church into a safe bubble free from the world's dirtiness.

But on the other hand, Christians also believe that by faith we see the world as it is: a place and a time of conflicting powers, a fallen and violent age passing away before the suffering groans of the coming new creation in which all will be made well. Foremost among the awful continuing realities in this contested arena is the presence of violence, and the gospel of the crucified one speaks a word of peace to a world caught up into the awful machinations of suffering, torture, disease, murder, war, and death. Thus it is or ought to be unquestionably problematic for Christians uncritically to view movies or television shows full of violence, much less for them to enjoy them for that very reason.

What is closer to my heart, and which was borne out in my conversation with Katelin, is that on the broadest level possible, I am simply unsure how to orient myself with regard to the art of film. For, as MacIntyre rightly notes elsewhere in After Virtue, to come to excel in a particular practice -- such as filmmaking or film critique -- one must "accept the authority of those standards [of excellence internal to the practice] and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice" (p. 190). And surely this is right: in order to learn what good film is, I must immerse myself in the happy but patient process of learning what movies are considered to be "good" versus "less good," of watching them, of identifying what makes them "good," and of training my eyes and my language to see these traits, and then eventually to find other previously unknown traits or even to disagree with previous assessments of viewers.

Applied to film, then, the question arises: How, as a Christian, can one come under the tutelage of the art of film at a time when the medium is dominated by the explicit visual representation of realistic and believable forms of violence? The question was not necessarily pressing 60 years ago, for much was left to the imagination, by reason of either artistic restraint or lack of resources. But today, if a medium is so compromised as to render it unable to be healthfully or ethically engaged in its fullness by Christians, does that entail giving it up entirely?

The implications for lovers of film, and for self-fashioned amateur film critics -- and in both categories I place myself -- are not hopeful.

VI

As it stands and as I promised, even if one seems obvious, I ultimately have no answer to offer. I want the awful and seemingly apparent effects of movies on demand that feature uncensored, graphically realistic violence to move me immediately to forsake all or nearly all violent cinema from here on out. Unfortunately, not only did I enjoy Inglourious Basterds, not only did I think it a worthwhile film -- I am deeply glad I am now able to share in the cultural conversation it has produced. Does that mean I should have seen it? Absolutely not. Does its violence render it morally questionable as a piece of art to be digested with the eyes and ears? Without a doubt. Should the state of desensitization and agreeableness toward violence in current American culture (and especially in males) cause Christians to reconsider the content they choose to intake? There can be no question.

But is there an answer in this case? More importantly, is there an answer in the broader sense? Is there any justification for viewing violent films and television shows except on rare occasions?

For my wife, a time has come when the line is drawn and can be seen with clarity. As for me, I'm still searching.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Delaying the Celebration

This upcoming Saturday, August 29, is the one year anniversary of the first post here on Resident Theology. I had planned to have a series of five relatively brief posts commemorating the anniversary and exploring various contours of why I blog, my intent on this blog, etc. However, this weekend has brought unexpected and painful news for friends and family -- not for sharing here, but nothing health-related -- and thus it is not the appropriate time for a celebratory week of self-congratulating blog posts. We'll probably get to those next week, but for now, this week will be pretty sparse. Until then.

[Update: Unexpectedly, I was taken over with the need to write about the ethics of Christians and cinematic violence, and because the topic wasn't upbeat or celebratory like the originally planned series was going to be, I went ahead and posted above.]

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R.S. Thomas

Half of the poets whose work I replicate here on Sundays need no introduction from me; but because part of my goal with these posts is providing a place where interested readers with little awareness of helpful resources can find stimulating, worthwhile poetry (Christian either explicitly or by relation), forgive the potentially unnecessary intros.

R.S. Thomas is one of the giants of poetry for the 20th century; born barely a dozen years into it, he died before the dawn of the new millennium. A Welsh clergyman profoundly in harmony with creation and with those who tended to it, Thomas loved his land and his neighbors who inhabited it. Here I share two sermons dealing with revelation, salvation, incarnation, and Trinity -- so much weight packed into so few words -- published in 1972 and 1975, respectively. My own poem afterward is, to the examination of my own eye, so unrelated as to be comical; but it is one I wrote a few weeks back that I particularly enjoyed, possibly because I think my best poems are written while a professor is speaking. Nevertheless: enjoy.

- - - - - - -

The Coming

By R.S. Thomas

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.


- - - - - - -

Mediations

By R.S. Thomas

And to one God says: Come
to me by numbers and
figures; see my beauty
in the angles between
stars, in the equations
of my kingdom. Bring
your lenses o the worship
of my dimensions: far
out and far in, there
is always more of me
in proportion. And to another:
I am the bush burning
at the centre of
your existence; you must put
your knowledge off and come
to me with your mind
bare. And to this one
he says: Because of
your high stomach, the bleakness
of your emotions, I
will come to you in the simplest
things, in the body
of a man hung on a tall
tree you have converted to
timber and you shall not know me.

- - - - - - -

German For Reading Comprehension on the Eighth Floor of Woodruff Library

Float upwards above the trees
Drift toward the ordered windows
Frame them barely, blackly, bookishly

Peer inside the classroom high above the ground
Smell by intuition the fading pages of knowledge
Print them on the sacrifice of giants in parallel stance

See the man toddling around before younger eyes
Watch his small weathered Indian body speak
Notice life in the eyes when fun spills from the mouth

Observe the histories intersecting, introducing themselves
Listen to their tales, tall and small, finding the earth whole
Stay, stay quiet; remain, and do not depart

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Introducing ... "80 Minutes For Life"


After weeks of dreaming, scheming, prepping, planning, writing, mixing, emailing, giggling, editing, fixing, troubleshooting, learning, listening, and waiting, today Patrick Gosnell and I officially launch our music website: "80 Minutes For Life."

The idea originated in an ongoing plan I have with my youngest brother, Mitchell, whose birthday and Christmas gifts from me over the past couple of years have been sprinkled with what I originally termed "Best Of" mixes. While I don't burn or rip albums for myself or others for legal and ethical reasons, I wanted to find a way creatively to introduce all of my favorite bands and artists to Mitch without simply copying a bunch of CDs. So I decided to make ideal composite collections of songs over the span of the entire output of various bands, each a sort of introductory mix, to pique his interest and to see which styles or sounds he liked; then he could go on to buy for himself whatever albums from whichever bands most grabbed him.

Then a couple months ago, after jamming out with my friends Patrick and Seth -- they on drums and guitar, respectively, myself on bass -- I found out Seth had never listened to Wilco, my favorite band. I decided to put together a similar-style "introductory mix" for Seth as I had for Mitch. As I lovingly fashioned the mix over the coming weeks, and continued to listen to it incessantly, I realized just how fun it was both to make and to enjoy such a mix -- and part of the reason my mix was so good (no shame here) was that, as a rabid Wilco fan, I knew every album, every song, every b-side, and not only that, but the place and meaning of the various musical periods of the band's life and work together. How cool would it be to have that same sort of ideal mix, knowingly and thus lovingly crafted by a true and committed fan, for every band and artist in the last half century?

The possibilities seemed endless -- almost literally inexhaustible. So I emailed my friend Patrick, a fellow music junkie here in Atlanta, about his thoughts on the matter, specifically pertaining to a website devoted to such "introductory mixes." He loved the idea from the start. Between the two of us, we both agreed it was a perfect combination of talents and passion to put this thing together, because while I am primarily a writer, Patrick is a freelance photographer and graphic designer. So we decided to go for it, and to see what would come of it.

And here we are: the official launch of "80 Minutes For Life." What is it, anyway?

“80 Minutes For Life” is a blog dedicated to love for music. There is such a wealth of wonderful music being created every day, all around the world, and few have the time even to scrape the surface of all that is out there — much less all that has come before. “80 Minutes For Life” is a place where fellow music lovers introduce bands and artists old and new to one another. The form of this introducing is by “The List”: an 80-minute mix of songs, impeccably ordered, spanning the entire scope of a band’s time and range and style and output together, that introduces a new listener ideally to a new musical artist. Not a greatest hits; not a set of singles; not #1 hits. A representative set of songs that say, in so many words, “Hello. I’m Wilco. I began in 1994 and I’m still going strong. These songs, in this order, from all my life and work, will tell you who I am and what I’m about. Try it out; I hope you like what you hear.”

Hence “80 Minutes For Life”: the given length of time for a CD, encapsulating both a composite of the life of a band together over time and a comprehensive distillation of a potentially unwieldy and expansive output into one singular mix, for life. Hence: “The Perfect Introduction.”

But of course, we can’t do this alone; and thus the venture is communal, a coming together of those who love and, accordingly, know their music. The posts will for the most part be written by various and random contributors simply by their willingness and desire to do so. There is so much music out there; and we want those who truly know it, who know the discography of some indie band or obscure 70s artist front to back, whose CDs are torn up from overuse.

If you are at all interested in contributing, or have any questions, please email us (or me or him individually) and we’ll figure something out. If not, stick around and get in on the conversation: we don’t merely want writers, we want listeners! It is, after all, essentially a resource, a growing collection, an intersection of myriad musical passions, and we want the conversation as much as we want the initial stimulation. So today and in the coming weeks and months, we want you to click on over, bookmark "80 Minutes For Life," pull up iTunes, put on some headphones, and enjoy!

- - - - - - -

Let me hasten to add, in personal terms, just how excited I am about this. I haven't said this yet, but I am merely a lowly writer; the site's design and images are beautiful, and it is truly a gift both to be friends with and to work with as a creative partner someone who is so talented at what he does. For each and every post we put up, Patrick creates a banner image for the band or artist being featured and a wonderfully idiosyncratic image for "The List," which in turn links directly to iTunes where the official "80 Minutes For Life" iMix awaits, ready to be sampled, worked, or downloaded in full!

Not only that, but we already have some "legit" music writers and bloggers waiting in the wings to post lists of their own for their favorite bands. Liz Frith of The Bliss List (who has been wonderfully helpful in all this, and whose site towers above the music blogging scene) will be contributing for both Broken Social Scene and Stars; Blair Hook of Certain Songs will (at least) be writing on The Hold Steady, with half a dozen or so more likely to come later; and Will Oliver of We All Want Someone To Shout For will be submitting for Arctic Monkeys.

Any and all are welcome to participate; just email us at 80forlife@gmail.com if you have a band in mind, and we'll work it out. Either way, we look forward to seeing you over there; and be sure to enjoy today's first official entry, an epic piece penned by yours truly on the one and only Wilco.

Fitting, I should say.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part VI: Becoming God's Peaceable People

In John Howard Yoder's book Nevertheless (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1971), he outlines the various, sometimes overwhelming sorts and stripes of pacifism represented by different texts and groups. The chapter devoted to his own claimed position is called "The Pacifism of the Messianic Community," and he explicates the descriptive phrase further:
To say that this is the pacifism of the messianic community is to affirm its dependence upon the confession that Jesus is Christ and that Jesus Christ is Lord. To say that Jesus is the Messiah is to say that in him are fulfilled the expectations of God's people regarding the coming one in whom God's will would perfectly be done. Therefore, in the person and work of Jesus, in his teachings and his passion, this kind of pacifism finds its rootage, and in his resurrection it finds its enablement. ...

When we speak of the pacifism of the messianic community, we move the focus of ethical concern from the individual to the human community experiencing in its shared life a foretaste of God's kingdom. Persons may severally and separately ask themselves about right and wrong in their concern for their own integrity. That is fine as far as it goes. The messianic community's experience, however, is different in that it is not a life alone for heroic personalities. Instead, it is a life for a society. It is communal in that it is lived by a covenanting group of men and women who instruct one another, forgive one another, bear one another's burdens, and reinforce one another's witness. (pp. 133-34, 35)
This description accords with that of Richard Hays in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996):
The vocation of nonviolence is not exclusively an option for exceptionally saintly individuals, nor is it a matter of individual conscience; it is fundamental to the church's identity and raison d'être. ... The church is called to live as a city set on a hill, a city that lives in light of another wisdom, as a sign of God's coming kingdom. ...

Not only the teaching but, more important, the example of Jesus is determinative for the community of the faithful. The passion narrative becomes the fundamental paradigm for the Christian life. This means that the community is likely to pay a severe price for its witness: persecution, scorn, the charge of being ineffective and irrelevant. When the New Testament canon is read through the focal lens of the cross, Jesus' death moves to the center of attention in any reflection about ethics. ...

[However,] the New Testament's ethical teaching must always be situated within the context of eschatological hope. If we fail to read the New Testament texts on violence through the lens of new creation, we will fall into one of two opposing errors: either we will fall into a foolish utopianism that expects an evil world to receive our nice gestures with friendly smiles, or we will despair of the possibility of living under the "unrealistic" standards exemplified by Jesus. But if we do read the texts through the lens of new creation, we will see that the church is called to stand as God's sign of promise in a dark world. Once we see that, our way, however difficult, will be clear. (pp. 337-39)
Building off both men's work, Lee Camp puts it this way in Mere Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003):
Thus "church," biblically speaking, is much more than "doing church right." Being church means embodying God's intentions for the world as revealed in Christ. "Church" is not about showing the world how to be "religious," but showing the world how it is supposed to be a world that reflect the intentions of its creator. The body of Christ, by simply being the church, exhibits to the world "the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (Eph. 3:9-10). The church embodies the new social order, the new-world-on-the-way; the church exists as an outpost of the coming kingdom. (p. 106)
And in his book What About Hitler? (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), Robert Brimlow names clearly the frightful and seeming impossibility of this calling:
So this is, I believe, the fundamental difficulty of [choosing not to respond to Hitler with violence]. Our call to follow Jesus and be peacemakers means that we will die. We don't like this message, so we recoil from it and consider it incomprehensible; and we find ways to try to reinterpret the gospel or to understand the "real" meaning of Jesus's message in order to obfuscate and avoid this conclusion. He could not have meant what he said; "death" must be a metaphor for something else.

We maneuver in this way because we are afraid. The anxiety of dying and death -- in their physical and spiritual manifestations -- seems overwhelming in their incomprehensibility. We are already on Mary's path in the Lazarus story. Our relationship to Jesus has become inverted in that our hope is more fundamental than our faith, and our expectations of him determine how we will live; rather, we ought to understand that his expectations of us should determine how we will die. ...

I think this difficulty is right on the mark. As long as peacemaking and repaying evil with good are seen as extraordinary, they will also be seen as outrageous. I think this is also true for most of what the gospel calls us to be as disciples of the Lord: the prohibitions against divorce and fornication, the requirement to give of our goods and ourselves to the poor, that we must love all our neighbors -- even the bad ones -- and on and on. All of these things run contrary to our instinctive reactions; all of them are unnatural; all of them are counterintuitive; and all of them appear extraordinary. And in the right circumstances -- circumstances that occur too often -- they are also outrageous. We have a problem with the message of the gospel, but the problem is with us and not with the message itself. Our task as the church is not simply to grit our teeth and accept peacemaking as the outrageous requirement it appears to be but to live lives of following Jesus in such a way that such actions (they are all related to each other) become ordinary and run-of-the-mill, so that they express the way we are as people of God. (pp. 167, 168)
As these and so many others attest, God's people are called to peace. The body of Christ is God's peace for the world, a keyhole vision into the mutual life of the triune God which will be the shared life of all creation in the coming new age, when all strife and all division and all violence will be abolished by the word of the rider on the white horse. The body of Christ is that community of men and women (and children!) who treat one another and their neighbors with the kindness, gentleness, patience, and grace which will characterize life in the new creation, for they live as if the coming age is already here because in point of fact it is: in the broken body of Christ on the cross, and in the triumph of God over death in the raising of his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit, the old is gone -- the new has come! In the life, death, and resurrection of Israel's Messiah all of the hopes of God's people for God to act once and for all to heal his creation have been fulfilled and accomplished, and through the presence of the Spirit this Messiah, Jesus, reigns as Lord over all things and reveals himself in the common life and suffering service of his community of disciples, the church. Just as he emptied himself in love for his enemies on the cross, so his disciples embody the form of the Christ's kenotic life in love for all people: in hospitality to the poor, in renunciation of violence, in sharing of goods, in marital faithfulness, in telling the truth. The mission of this community of disciples is to announce the good news to all nations that in his Son and by his Spirit and through his people, the creator of all things, the God who is love, has acted, is acting, and will definitively act for the just rectification and merciful amelioration of all brokenness and suffering, all violence and death, all absurdity and all chaos; and that in order to see and to share in this eschatological action now, even today, one must witness the life of the body of Christ, and finally turn from the old ways of the passing age and instead become part of the vanguard of God's kingdom.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part V: The Question of Martyrdom Revisited

This series began with a post entitled, "'To No Good End': Requesting a Coherent Account of Christian Martyrdom," in which I argued that it seemed to me any Christian justification of violence precludes the possibility for a coherent account of martyrdom. That post, in turn, prompted a healthy and immensely helpful dialogue with Bill Carroll, whose comment to my original piece I posted in full. And just a few days ago, Shane posted this comment:
Of course it's possible to give a coherent account of martyrdom. I'm not even sure what you mean by the question.

Consider the following moral rule (Call it "The Rule of Obedience Unto Death" or something): "Whenever the authority of the state demands you perform an intrinsically evil action, you must resist, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice your own life."

Now here's the Just War Claim: "Violence is sometimes a necessary means to attaining a good end."

There is no contradiction whatsoever between the two rule of obedience and the just war claim, not even an implicit one as far as I can see. For it is perfectly compatible with the rule of obedience to believe that the state has a legitimate interest in punishing evildoers and preventing the harm of its citizens with the use of force if necessary.
I am fascinated by this response, partly because I don't seem to engage the Just War tradition at all in my post (I reference it once in my opening paragraph), but primarily because it seems to presume from the outset that the argument is about the state's use of violence, when what I am after is justified Christian participation in that and other forms of violence, and the ensuing incoherence that justified participation implies for the content of Christian martyrdom.

Perhaps a comparison might be helpful. I am little educated concerning Muslim martyrdom proper, but the distorted popular form of it embodied in the practice of fanatical violence toward others, whether intentionally suicidal like blowing oneself up or potentially so through disregard for one's own life in the pursuit of killing the infidel, offers a perfect counterpoint to Christian martyrdom. For the Christian martyr by definition not only refuses self-defense and self-preservation, but (1) denies all legitimate resort to violence in the sure confidence that God will vindicate him or her (2) through God's own patient justice and (3) through the resurrection of the body in the coming age, specifically as (4) participation with Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in (5) his nonretaliatory suffering on the cross, (6) his clash with the rebellious principalities and powers of the old age, and (7) his love for enemies as fallen but beloved creatures of God. Thus, subversively appropriating David Bentley Hart's pejorative phrase, I defined Christian martyrdom as "murder to no good end": from the perspective of the world, not only were the early Christians not dying for "religious reasons," there was nothing apparent "for" which they were being killed. Only the sight faith provided could see that there was both hope and meaning in the seemingly meaningless deaths of the martyrs.

Thus martyrdom cannot be merely dying "for a good cause" or "in the midst of the good fight," nor even "whenever the authority of the state demands you perform an intrinsically evil action," because part and parcel of the martyr's witness is the refusal both of violence and of the necessity for obvious, externalized, uninterpreted meaningfulness. (A martyr's death may have nothing to do with refusal to perform evil and everything to do with the faithfulness of a life or a community that witnesses against the insanity, violence, or oppression of a ruling power, as we will see below.) To argue that vocations or offices exist in which the agency of authorized violence may be performed justly by a Christian seems intrinsically to exclude, for that Christian, the possibility of martyrdom. If so, we must ask: Is there such thing as a Christian excluded from the call, if the situation arose, to be a martyr, to be a peaceable witness to the love of Christ? I see no reason to answer in the affirmative.

I return again to the example of a Christian soldier on the battlefield. What if the enemy group/nation were to proclaim clearly and straightforwardly that they wanted to kill the soldiers who were Christian precisely out of hatred for Christ? What if the violence were intrinsically religious violence? Would the Christian soldier's allegiance to Jesus as a disciple or responsibility to the military as a soldier obtain priority? How would such a decision be made systematically and not arbitrarily (i.e., whatever each individual thinks is best)?

I realize I am stacking the deck with my presumption against all organized participation in violence on the part of Christians, but I am sincere when I say that, in the acknowledgment that there is sincere disagreement within the body of Christ on this issue, I would deeply appreciate and give serious credence to a coherent account of martyrdom that somehow accords with justifiable violence. However, I see the situation much more in line with the description William Cavanaugh offers in Torture and Eucharist (Malden: Blackwell, 1998):
In modernity, we have been scripted into a drama in which state coercion is seen as necessary to subdue a prior violence already inherent internally in civil society and externally in the form of other nation-states. Given that the state arises in conjunction with the atomization of civil society and the creation of national borders, however, it can be said that the state defends us from threats which it itself creates. The church buys into this performance by acknowledging the state's monopoly on coercion, handing over the bodies of Christians to the armed forces, and agreeing to stay out of the fabricated realm of the "political." Acquiescence to this drama saps the church's ability to resist where and when states become violent. (p. 9)
Cavanaugh goes on to narrate the story of the Catholic church in Chile and its attempts to resist the oppressive rule of Pinochet, and in a conversation with Bishop Alejandro Jiménez discovers that, in a very real sense, the church abdicated the allegiance and discipline of its members to the state. In Jiménez's own words:
The problem is that it is not only a matter of personal relationships, because the soldier above all forms part of an institution and has to obey absolutely his institution. ... [Private conversations] are valuable insofar as the soldiers have a bit of influence to change some things, but they are insufficient because [soldiers] form part of a body in which not they but their superiors have the final word. (p. 95-96)
Cavanaugh responds, "But if the person is a Catholic, aren't you his superior as bishop and he therefore has to obey you?" Jiménez's reply is crucial, and devastating in what it reveals; he says that "you can't demand St Thomas' attitude of [the soldier]" that the authority of God or the church trumps that of the state,
Because it depends definitely on his conscience, what he wants to do and how he wants to react. The authority of a bishop is a very strong authority, the most powerful of all because it goes directly to the conscience. But it is the most fragile of all authorities, because for the conscience to accept it or not to accept it depends, in the end, on the person. (p. 96)
Cavanaugh goes on to articulate what has happened:
The soldier is expected to comply with an order without delay because, as Jiménez says, he is a member of a "body," the Chilean army, an organization of people bound by a common mission and a common discipline. What that common discipline indicates here is control over the soldier's body. When an order comes from a military superior it matters little if the soldier of lower ran agrees in conscience or not; the order must and will be obeyed. As a Catholic, however, the soldier belongs simultaneously to the church, which in this view is not a body in the same sense. The church is not bound by the same sort of discipline, but can only speak to the interior consciences of its members, and hope that those members might freely accept the church's word. When it is considered a body at all, the church is only a "mystical body," uniting all Catholics, torturers and tortured alike, in spiritual, not bodily, union. (p. 96)
A merely spiritual union of "torturers and tortured alike" is exactly the sort of incoherence that results when the body of Christ forsakes its primacy and hands over its members' bodies to a rival social body, believing either that it continues to reign "spiritually" in the "souls" of its members or that the church is indeed only a collection of individuals whose respective consciences must each make up their own minds as to what is right. On the contrary -- and here we conclude -- as the imitation of Christ, martyrdom
is rather a highly skilled performance learned in a disciplined community of virtue by careful attention to the concrete contours of the Christian life and death as borne out by Jesus and the saints. ...

As such, martyrdom recalls into being a people, the people of God, and makes their life visible to themselves and to the world. They remember Christ and become Christ's members in the Eucharist, reenacting the body of Christ, its passion and its conflict with the forces of (dis)order. The martyrs and all the faithful followers of Christ make up in their own bodies what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of his body, the church (Col. 1:24). (p. 62, 64)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: John Donne

After reading through various Sunday Sabbath posts, Bill Carroll remarked, to my surprise, that he hadn't seen John Donne, but highly recommended I check him out. I was surprised because I knew I had posted my favorite poem by Donne, but after checking realized that I had shared it in a random post last February following the trauma of my wife's grandmother passing away unexpectedly. It is one of my favorites precisely due to its power in such moments of overwhelming grief; in that way it deeply reflects the apocalyptic, even triumphalistic undercurrent of the New Testament, that in the death and resurrection of Christ death has been defeated: a day is coming when death will die, once and for all. Donne articulates this hope with profound pathos.

My own poem afterward is a sort of extension of Donne's, which I wrote last week after finishing David Bentley Hart's The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? I hope the same spirit so evident in the righteous anger of Donne and the hopeful lament of Hart comes through in some meaningful measure.

- - - - - - -

Death Be Not Proud

By John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

- - - - - - -

December 26, 2004

The poet once penned an ode to death, but
Turned the cosmic tables at the end, by
Bidding bitter farewell; having then put
Death in its grave, he knelt his head to die.

We raise our fists to the heights of heaven,
To the untethered doors of the sea;
But by the end into that raw haven
Our times and our loves are swallowed fully

By the bloody kiss of sun and moon, earth
And sea. Entirely our ragings find
Submission into violence the sole birth
Allowed us from this womb so fiercely blind.

And yet our fists we shall not let beside;
The only sanity defies the tide.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

William Cavanaugh on Torture as the Anti-Liturgy of the Omnipotent State

"It is clear from studying firsthand accounts of torture that the questions do not stand apart from torture as the motive but are in fact themselves part of the enacted drama of torture. It is the form of the answer, or the fact of answering, that is of prime importance: 'We know you are a communist, but we will hang you until you tell us in your own words.' The medieval ordeal used pain to seek truth; the crucial distinction here, in contrast, is not between lies and truth, but between those answers which conform to the torturers' reality and those which deviate. The victims are made to speak the words of the regime, to replace their own reality with that of the state, to double the voice of the state. The state's omnipotence becomes manifest in the horrifying production of power, what Scarry calls a 'grotesque piece of compensatory drama.' Torture may be considered a kind of perverse liturgy, for in torture the body of the victim is the ritual site where the state's power is manifested in its most awesome form. Torture is liturgy — or, perhaps better said, 'anti-liturgy' — because it involves bodies and bodily movements in an enacted drama which both makes real the power of the states and constitutes an act of worship of that mysterious power. It is essential to this ritual enactment that it not be public... The liturgy of the torture room is a disciplina arcani, a discipline of the secret, which is yet part of a larger state project which continues outside the torture chamber itself."

—William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden: Blackwell, 1998), p. 30

- - - - - - -

In the midst of the horror and profundity that emanate intermingled from each page of Cavanaugh's book, all I can think is that it may be one of the most prescient works of theology since The Politics of Jesus. Just this week I was re-watching Soderbergh's Traffic, and the role torture plays in the Mexico scenes seems taken directly from between the covers of Torture and Eucharist. Some extraordinary work has been or is waiting to be written connecting Cavanaugh's work with Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Jack Bauer on 24, and Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure. Such incredible connections to be made between the state of our national culture and what probably constitute as the most hell-like human-manufactured situations in the history of the planet.

Marana tha, amen.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part IV: Rwanda and the Proclamation of the Gospel

Lee Camp begins his book Mere Discipleship with a discussion of the nation considered in the early 1990s to be the most evangelized, Christian nation in Africa: Rwanda. Camp directly contrasts this general, confident consensus with the brutal reality of the genocide in 1994 that devastated Rwanda in its awful efficiency, hellish intentionality, and geographic totality. The poster child for American Christians' evangelism of Africa went from pacific harmony to unspeakable violence with a seeming flip of a switch, and before the swift cruelty of the machete, the faith, given and received, did not stand a chance.

Oddly enough, Rwanda is often a test case or paradigm example offered by Christians (or others) who seek to argue that in such a horrific situation, surely violence is justified, either for individual self-defense or (more likely) by foreign powers (such as America) intervening responsibly for the just cause of preventing genocide. In this case, we will confine our discussion to the question of the church, but let it be noted that, as we explored in the previous post, the simple application of a violent solution is never as simple, or as predictable, or as salutary as its proponents claim.

Regardless, the assumption, for Christians, that violence, of all times and of all places, is justified here, is sorely misleading. It reminds me of the anecdote Richard Hays shares in his Moral Vision of the New Testament, how in response to the question of Hitler put to pacifism he offers a second question in reply: What if the German soldiers, almost all of whom were explicitly or nominally Christian, had refused to fight? What if, because as the church's faith was taught and lived out violence was understood as inherently inimical to the gospel, German Christians knew from the start that fighting for the Führer and following Jesus were mutually exclusive options?

Similarly, what if Christian missionaries around the world proclaimed the gospel as intrinsically a challenge, a judgment, and an alternative to the violence and national loyalties of all peoples? Neither Rwanda nor Germany, two of the most nominally or culturally Christian nations of the 20th century, could descend into a maelstrom of ethnic hatred and genocide at the very least without casting off or seriously distorting the claims of the gospel. More likely and more importantly, though, a new and hopeful possibility might emerge: the formation and training of a people who knew and claimed and lived, as an embodiment of their conscious communal calling, peacefully and with love for enemies and hospitality to strangers. A people unwilling to sacrifice any life but their own for the sake of others. What would the presence of this sort of people mean for a society? What sort of futures would it make possible that otherwise were unimaginable? What reconciliation and what friendship could emerge within its own life and in its slow emanating leavening?

In short, the renunciation of the sword must be part and parcel of the missionary proclamation of the gospel of Christ crucified. And not only in exotic or far away places like Rwanda or China, but in the West, and in America in particular. The nation in which we find ourselves is no less a mission field than elsewhere, except that we have been given the even greater challenge to reformulate and refashion our prior, faulty, syncretistic, shallow, sometimes-Gnostic faith into the full-formed, biblical, flesh-and-blood, demanding call to take up our cross and be God's people in a foreign land. To do anything less would be to forsake the commission we have been given to make from all nations disciples of the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus of Nazareth.

John Howard Yoder, in an updated essay originally written in 1954 entitled Peace Without Eschatology?, shares a story to conclude his thoughts that serves adequately for our own conclusion here:
[I] was present in 1950-51 when Karl Barth dealt with war and related questions in the lectures which were to become volume III/4 of his Church Dogmatics. For most of an hour his argument was categorical, condemning practically all the concrete causes for which wars have been and may be fought. The students became more and more uneasy, especially when he said that pacifism is "almost infinitely right." Then came the dialectical twist, with the idea of a divine vocation of self-defense assigned to a particular nation, and a war which Switzerland might fight was declared — hypothetically — admissible. First there was a general release of tension in a mood of "didn't think he'd make it," then applause. What is significant here is the difference between what Barth said and what the students understood. Even though a consistent application of Karl Barth's teaching would condemn all wars except those fought to defend the independence of small Christian republics, and even though Barth himself now takes a position categorically opposed to nuclear weapons, calling himself in fact "practically pacifist," every half-informed Christian thinks Karl Barth is opposed to war. ... This tendency of theologians' statements to be misinterpreted is also part of "political reality." Even the most clairvoyant and realistic analysis of the modern theologian is thus powerless against the momentum of the Constantinian compromise. Once the nation is authorized exceptionally to be the agent of God's wrath, the heritage of paganism makes quick work of generalizing that authorization into a divine rubber stamp. (The Original Revolution [Scottdale: Herald Press, 1971], pp. 83-84)
What is true for "theologians' statements," all the more so for the proclamation of the gospel. The exception, or the negotiable or the unspoken, by the "quick work" of the "divine rubber stamp" of pagan appropriation, inevitably becomes the rule, and then the assumption — and then unquestionable.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Andrew Hudgins

Andrew Hudgins is a contemporary American poet, a sort of Southern mix between the sly wit of Billy Collins and a (sometimes irreverent, sometimes flat-faced) awareness of the holy. The following poem is representative of Hudgins' ability to see what others do not, particularly the numinous in apparently base places, but spoken with unflinching language. My own afterward is nothing of the sort, romanticism and sparseness summoning all that I can of Li-Young Lee and Wendell Berry. I hope I succeeded.

[Update: I have taken down poems I am in the process of submitting for publication. I apologize for the confusion and/or inconvenience!]

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Mary Magdalene's Left Foot

By Andrew Hudgins

I saw the picture in Newsweek or Time
and couldn't believe who was back in the news.
But there it sat, encased in antique gold
and pedestrian prose, apart from the rest
of her imaginably lush lost body,
which it recalls with false synecdoche.

The news is littered with the bodies of women
-- whores, some -- who have returned to minerals,
a pile of iron and zinc and calcium
that wouldn't even fill a shoe. We glimpse
of Mary Magdalene a golden whole
that never ached for flesh or grew hair coarse
enough to scrub mud from a traveler's foot.

But gold is meretricious flattery
for the whore who washed Christ's feet with tears,
who rubbed sweet oil into his sores, then kissed
each suppurating wound that swelled his flesh,
knowing that it was God's clear flesh beneath
its human dying. And that is more than you or I
will ever know of where we place our lips.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Peace of the Body of Christ, Part III: Efficacy, Faithfulness, and Worship

I would like to continue addressing the question of systemic violence and faithful responses that I began in the last post. It seemed right to conclude with the tragic and ongoing case of domestic abuse, to let it sit and not to make a show or an example of it, rather than to go on to the thoughts I share below (especially when the tone shifts from understanding or appreciative to critical or hostile). Once again, we are employing John Howard Yoder's The Original Revolution (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1971) as our guide in this series.

4. The presumption of violence.

One of the foremost challenges of Christian pacifism is its relentless refusal to accede to our cultural, received, taught, biological, and/or ingrown presumption that violence is in itself more likely to accomplish our purposes than nonviolent or peaceful action. For example, the story is told that when the assassination plot in which Bonhoeffer took part -- being the example par excellence of a former pacifist who gave up his unrealistic convictions and conspired to do the responsible thing -- actually came to pass, and Hitler somehow survived the bomb's explosion, he walked away convinced he was spared miraculously by God and became even more emboldened to enact his plans.

Of course, assuming the story is true, it does not decide for us whether or not Bonhoeffer was right in his action. What it does demonstrate is that we do not know what will happen. Our finite nature, and thus the poverty of our foresight and knowledge, impinges on our involvement and approval of violence perhaps more than in any other realm of life. To say dogmatically that there is only one clear course of action in any given situation that will "get the job done," and that that action must be violent, is not only to forsake the biblical faith, it is to presume that we know as God knows. And we do not.

5. Efficacy versus faithfulness.

The question of the efficacy of our actions, however, raises a deeper question: Do Christians live or act (or believe!) according to worldly effectiveness at all? The answer, of course, must be no; if yes, most of Scripture falls by the wayside. If effectiveness, or "a reasonable amount of success," were the biblical standard, would Abraham have believed the promise? Would Moses have led Jacob's children out of Egypt? Would the people have collected and eaten the Manna? Would the exiles have returned? Would Jesus have healed the sick and raised the dead? Would we worship a God crucified and risen? The very essence of the faith is constituted by a God clearly captivated by the most ineffective means available to accomplish his purposes. God's people, then, no less than their God, must be empowered and enlivened by a faith and a way of life that embody the trust that God has acted, today acts, and will again act through situations and human actions that, beforehand or seen from the world's perspective, are without question unlikely, strange, ineffective, irresponsible, opaque. This is what it means to be the church.

Thus "conversion" is a requisite before coming to follow Jesus. Conversion, according to Yoder, is less "remorse, regret, sorrow for sin" than "a transformation of the understanding (metanoia), a redirected will ready to live in a new kind of world":
When Moses met God on a mountain and received from Him the tables of the law, this law was for all the children of Israel. When Jesus from another hill proclaims again the statues of His rule, it is to His disciples. This is not a set of moral standards to be posed on everyone or on the unconvinced. It is not proposed that persons using these standards can rule the unbelieving world accordingly, nor that they will be prosperous and popular. The ethic of discipleship is not guided by the goals it seeks to reach, but by the Lord it seeks to reflect. It is no more interested in "success" or in "effectiveness" than He. It is binding only upon those voluntarily enrolled in the band of His followers. It is assumed that they will be a minority in society; how the world would look if everyone would behave as they is not a question we immediately need to answer. (pp. 38-39)
Our task, then, is to be disciples of Jesus, looking forward to the consummation of all things, to the full and complete realization of the kingdom of God. For as God's people, we know that this world and its institutions and all its nations and kings and wars and ragings are falling away, and because "[t]he consummation is first of all the vindication of the way of the cross," wildly, unbelievably, "[t]he ultimate meaning of history is to be found in the work of the church":
The victory of the Lamb through His death seals the victory of the church. Her suffering, like her Master's, is the measure of her obedience to the self-giving love of God. Nonresistance is right, in the deepest sense, not because it works, but because it anticipates the triumph of the Lamb that was slain. (p. 61)
And this has always been the case for God's people, from Abraham to Peter, from Maximus to Francis, from Luther to Bonhoeffer:
Just as has been the case ever since the patriarchs, and most notably at Christ's cross, the task of obedience is to obey and the responsibility for bringing about victory is God's alone, His means beyond human calculation. God's intervention, not human progress, is the vindication of human obedience. The Christian's responsibility for defeating evil, is to resist the temptation to meet it on its own terms. To crush the evil adversary is to be vanquished by him because it means accepting his standards.

...[The New Testament view] means being longsighted, not shortsighted; it means trusting God to triumph through the cross. Faith is just this attitude (as the examples of Heb. 11:1-12:4 show), the willingness to accept the apparently ineffective path of obedience, trusting in God for the results. (p. 63)
This is the gospel of the resurrection, of Israel's unpredictable and free Lord, the one "who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not" (Romans 4:17).

6. The how and why of worship.

The presumption of violence as necessary because it is effective does not merely lie harmless and limpid outside the walls of the church's gathering and worship; in the American context, it is as present inside as out. It comes to bear most prominently and most dangerously in the words used to define, prescribe, and mark out the reason and impetus for communal worship. How is it that we come together, that we are able to come together? Like so many others, I have heard the given reason.

American soldiers, overseas, securing and protecting our religious freedom.

A discussion of the military, or the concrete possibility of Christians serving in the military forces in America, is a minefield, figuratively and (in harsh truth) literally. That is for another time and place, preferably in person, undertaken by individuals who know one another well and love each other deeply. (Actually, that describes the context that ought to prevail for nearly any serious or consequential theological or political discussion.) It is likely easy, though, to know where I stand on the issue, so let me emphasize before I offer my thoughts on the issue of worship: all Christians in America may and ought to be thankful for and respectful of every single individual who chooses to put his or her own life in harm's way for the sake of others. That must be the starting place for any Christian discussion of violence, the military, and the demands of discipleship.

However, with regard to the issue of the gathered people of God, come together in petition and praise, word and sacrament, we must be absolutely clear about what is going on. There is no distinction whatsoever between the "how" and the "why" of communal worship: the answer for each is one and the same, the triune God. Whom do we worship? The God of Israel. Why do we worship? The resurrection of Jesus Christ. How do we worship? By the call and empowerment and indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

How, then, are we able to worship? Or why are we able to worship in this way? Once again, by the grace and gift and glory of the one true God. Would we gather to worship if our government did not authorize it legally? Yes we would. Would we gather to worship if, illegally, groups sought our dissolution or destruction? Yes, we would. Would we gather to worship if, for whatever reason, the soldiers of the nation in which we found ourselves were not serving overseas or were not willing to fight or did not exist at all? Yes, amen, we would. We would gather together to worship the triune God in spirit and in truth. We would read from Scripture together, and we would pray together, and we would share the body and bread of the Lord together, and we would sing to God in praise and thanksgiving for the gift of the Spirit and for the resurrection of the Messiah and for the faithfulness of the Holy One of Israel. We would do all these things: without protection, without authorization, without legalization. We would do so because we would know who we are -- a people who once were not -- and by whose hand we became so -- the gracious Creator of all things. And we would also because we know the object of our worship, him "whose name is jealous" (Exodus 34:14), and he will have no other gods before him.

But, most foundationally, we would in fact gather together no matter the situation, because our worship is not determined or constituted or delimited by violence. Rather, our worship is grounded in the deep and abiding shalom of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our gathering, our community, our worship is intrinsically, divinely, and truly peaceful. We do not depend on the violence of the nation, or of soldiers, or of our own hands in order to come together to see and to hear and to love our God. We depend on his grace alone, and for that we are thankful.