How I Learned to Love Film and Hate the Oscars

Upfront I should confess my inadequacies to thoroughly discuss this topic. I dare not call myself an aficionado of cinema, though I do teach a course on it at the university and have a collection of movies that is rivaled only by my collection of books. Yet my stage in life as a parent of young children largely inhibits my ability to view film in the theatre. At least once a week, I eagerly await my discs in the Netflix envelope. Thus, I am often a full six months to a year behind in my film conversations. So while I long to form opinions on Birdman, The Imitation Game, and American Sniper, I am at a loss to do so. I hope, however, you will bear with me in my observations about the Awards in general.

I used to follow with rapt attention the exciting revelations of Oscar Sunday. Even as a young boy, I would watch as late as my parents would allow and check the newspaper first thing Monday morning to see who won. But I think it was around 2001 that I first lost my taste for the glitz and glamour. The exhibitionism and soft nudity of the red carpet never held much appeal for me, but I was suddenly disappointed that year in the Awards themselves.

Russell Crowe won Best Actor that year for his performance in Gladiator. And though I believe Mr. Crowe to be a fine actor deserving of many accolades, playing a sullen Maximus who talks little and grunts much is not quite award-worthy. But looking at the line-up in 2001, he was nearly guaranteed to win. Tom Hanks is practically the male Meryl Streep and would be nominated for every role he has played—but his Chuck Nolan in Cast Away spoke even less than Maximus. And the other three contenders—Javiar Bardem, Ed Harris, and Geoffrey Rush—played in films that received neither the press nor the box office receipts that Gladiator did, and so Russell Crowe seemed the most natural choice. Though he has gone on to play even more rounded roles such as John Nash, Jim Braddock, and Javert (not to mention Jor-El), the Best Actor award was more of a deposit on future acting than it was a deserved tribute for current work.

This may seem like a minor point to some, but in a tragic this-is-the-end-of-the-innocence moment a-la Don Henley, I realized the Oscars were not at all what they pretended to be (this should come as no surprise about people making their living pretending to be someone else). Despite the assumptions of artistic purity, the whole thing turned out to be a way to generate hype, and with hype more acclaim, and with more acclaim more interest—which naturally turns into more dollars. The actor who can attach the “Academy Award Nominee” next to their name in the movie trailer will give their appearance in the film gravitas—and presumably more press and box office receipts. They move from mere “actors” (a street corner commodity in Hollywood) to “artists” (the aspiration of American heartlanders longing to be in Hollywood).

But now everyone is considered an artist. For in a world when a singer as overrated as Taylor Swift can be nominated for every Grammy category available, either we are an age truly without talent or an age that has mistaken talent for celebrity. And it is celebrity that drives the Awards. Ever fearful of losing ratings, the producers of the show can no longer rely on the genuine wit of a Billy Crystal to entertain the masses and must settle for the underwear antics of a Neil Patrick Harris. In an effort to gain middlebrow dollars, the self-proclaimed highbrow descend to lowbrow tactics and celebrate spectacle while calling it art.

This year’s furor over not enough people of color being represented reveals two things. One, it shows that minorities are indeed under-represented in Hollywood. “Black films” are often marginalized to DVD release, and black characters are frequently limited to supporting roles. Rare is the success of a Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise; even more rare is the success of a Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman. This is a legitimate complaint from the African-American community, and counter-complaints of one network of BET are insignificant stacked up against how many WET’s exist throughout the cable world. We need not balkanize the Oscars, yet we should be aware of the biases implicit in the current corporate model of cinema. Perhaps studios don’t think white audiences want to see black stars, or perhaps they don’t think black audiences will pay to visit the theatre; or perhaps these are merely self-fulfilling prophecies.

The second thing it reveals is the blatant politicization of an award show. Should best actors and actresses be represented because of their talent or because of their color? If the Academy Awards are truly about talent, then the demographics of the artists should have nothing to do with their performance. But the truth is that these kinds of award shows have always been politicized popularity contests. Citizen Kane, though nominated for 9 Academy Awards, only received 1—in large part because of William Randolph Hearst’s campaign against the film. It was revealed that Sharon Stone gave Coach watches to Hollywood Foreign Press Association members in hopes of (in exchange for?) receiving a Golden Globe for her work in The Muse. Sally Field’s embarrassing cry, “You really like me!” exposed the Oscars to be little more than groove sessions for the psychologically distressed (also a characteristic endemic to the artist).

Perhaps my real beef is with the American obsession with accolades. We all want recognition for our deeds. I want people to read my posts, my blogs, and my poetry; I get a sense of satisfaction when others say they enjoy it; I like to evoke emotions or to generate thought. I long one day to be anthologized in Great Writers of the 20th and 21st Centuries Named Fullman and for graduate seminars devoted entirely to my body of work. But all such aspirations are self-serving, vain attempts to achieve base fame and pagan immortality in this life. We all want our lives to amount to something, to pass on a legacy, to celebrate a corpus of accomplishments. But to celebrate the artist rather than the art feels too self-congratulatory to me.

Of little value then is the temporary buzz we generate at the end of every February. There seems to me no purpose in making predictions on who will take home the prize or in holding Oscar parties if the recipients are to be chosen on factors other than the quality of their performance. If an actress receives her award because her time has come or because her acting generated more headlines than her competitor, then it ceases to be about the art and becomes mere publicity. If a film is chosen for Best Picture largely because its message, politically correct by media standards, is considered subversive to fly-over country, then it ceases to be about the art and becomes social engineering viz. entertainment.

I am not one of Shakespeare’s puritans who deride the theatre. No, I think the art of drama allows us to see the deepest and sometimes truest parts of the brotherhood of man. In film we connect with others and catch glimpses of the human soul. Further, I want to hear the opinions of aesthetic experts, people who know and appreciate beauty, so that I can judiciously choose and refine my palate for cinema. But, for this audience member at least, the Academy Awards forsook their ability to judge and to influence long ago.

Idolatrous Love

Spring is nearing, the time of year when a young man’s thoughts turn toward love. Another Valentine’s Day has come, leaving in its wake new romances and newly broken hearts. One wonders what couplings occur as a direct result of the holiday, for in our quest not to be alone on this most sacred of fertility rituals we might find ourselves with a person who, in our more rational state of mind, we wouldn’t give a second thought. I’ll leave you, dear reader, to decide if such is a positive or negative consequence. Within my own industry, if the Boston Herald’s conclusions are at all accurate, college hookup culture is still a problem, though nowhere near as large a problem as we’ve been lead to believe, and nowhere near as mythologized as the false narrative of the college rape culture. Regardless, our seasonal disaffections and cultural expectations might give us misleading impressions of our own feelings. This truth was vividly illustrated to me one day as I was grading papers.

A student of mine wrote recently in an essay that we live on this earth so that we can find someone to spend the rest of our life with.

As a (somewhat reluctant) hopeless romantic, I am attracted to this idea, much like Aristophanes’ soul mate myth is intensely alluring. But after considering more carefully their words, I have an equally intense desire to drop the whole professor gig and become a welder. Is it true, I lament inwardly, that the highest achievement in life for this generation is no greater than to live it with someone else? The Lost Generation sacrificed their sense of purpose to redeem civilization, even if they could not understand it, while the Greatest Generation sacrificed their youth in Europe and the Pacific to defeat tyranny. As a result, subsequent generations raised in the peacetime of Hollywood live primarily for love.

On one level, this may be a vice that needs no condemnation. After all, without a Great War or a Great Depression, we must attenuate our desires to more personal aspirations. But a life lived solely, or even primarily, in pursuit of personal aspirations proves to be a hollow pursuit. So we become a culture which holds eros more significant than war, more unifying than friendship, more fulfilling than parenting, more transcendent than religious experience.

Christian cultural criticism has its fair share of polemics. We can upbraid Fifty Shades of Grey for its romanticization of inflicting pain for the sake of pleasure—and we should. There is a place for rejecting deafening calls for gay marriage and the redefining of the only consistently trans-cultural institution on earth—and we must. Far more insidious, however, is the subtlest sin that makes an evil out of a good and calls it virtue—and we are silent.

In aiming their barbs at culture, Christians frequently miss the target and forget that the true enemy is within. While focusing our criticism on wrong conclusions, we have lost sight of the darker assumptions we hold in common with the world. We have embraced the pop cultural norms without realizing it. We want the high. We want the soul mate. We want fulfillment in another person. We just want to be the ones to set the boundaries on it. Yet it is the same desire that leads us away from the Creator toward the creation—when the creation should point us toward the Creator.

This is highlighted by the fact that so many Christians are practicing sexual atheists. They rightly acknowledge a high moral code of sexual ethics but universally disregard them. Both these statistics and my student’s claims reveal how deeply ingrained the love narrative is written into our collective unconscious. They also reveal how completely terrified we are of being alone. Our zeal for finding The One is so intense that we will sacrifice nearly anything to find them—and we consider it noble. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of modern romance, such actions are not noble but stupid.

In Book II of his Confessions, Augustine recounts his reading of the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas. Aeneas and Dido share the transcendent eros that all of us yearn to find, and yet he must still fulfill the prophecy of founding the New Troy. He departs from Dido, and as she watches his ship sail away towards Rome she impales herself on her own funeral pyre. Augustine, when he reads this story, cannot help but weep, much as we might weep at the stories of Romeo and Juliet, Casablanca, or Titanic. It is in hindsight that Augustine realizes the futile temporality of romantic love and its poor substitute for divine agape. He later understood, as another student wrote, that a film or book cannot really show what love is about. True, it can depict instances of love—but no movie can adequately portray a life spent in service to another. That kind of love can only be lived.

I recognize the inherent risk I take even broaching this subject. Unlike Augustine, I do not reject eros—though I think we should place it in context. As one who fell hard at a young age and who is married to an amazing woman, I happily recall my blessings. Still, I hold blameworthy, though ever gently, those who yearn so eagerly for love that they build of it an idol. I am reminded of the wisdom of the teacher who told the daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken love before it blooms.

C.S. Lewis claims in The Four Loves that few of us are actually in danger of loving too much or too deeply. This is not the sin of our age. Our greatest peril lies in valuing someone too little and ourselves too highly. We wish to see, like the philistine (sadly), a person who will serve our whims, or like Lord Byron (tragically), a reflection of our own self in our lover. What we truly want in our quest for romantic love is for the beloved to serve us rather than for us to serve the beloved. And therein we realize the harshest truth: the idol is not the beloved but ourselves.

A Discerning Spirit

The Talmud tells an intriguing story of Moses’ youth. When only three years old and playing on the floor next to Pharaoh, the young Moses snatched the crown right off the king’s head. Knowing the boy’s questionable heritage, two of Moses’ advisers believed this fateful action portended the end of the kingdom: as Moses stole the crown in his youth, so too would he rip the nation from Pharaoh years later. Pharaoh needed to act quickly, they argued, and kill the interloper before he could become a man and fulfill his destiny. But a third adviser pointed out that Moses was only a child and could not help being attracted to the beautiful, glistening crown. History reveals which advisor bent Pharaoh’s ear.

This likely apocryphal account says as much about humanity as it does Pharaoh. Torn between two options, Pharaoh could have murdered his adopted grandson (in a second attempt) or simply let it go. If legend holds true, there was as much Messianic expectation for a deliverer in the days of the Hebrews living in Egypt as there was in the days of the Jews living under Roman oppression. Had Pharaoh heard the prophecies? we wonder. On the one hand, he risked the wrath of his daughter by slaying his grandson, but to do nothing risked the ruin of his kingdom—and he chose one legacy over another.

What is it that governs our actions? How do we determine our choices? Few of us have such monumental, world-changing decisions to make. But we do make decisions that change our world.

The irony in the story is that the more reasonable adviser turned out to be wrong. The first two viziers were governed by mysticism, seeing symbols and signs in every action. The last one was governed by reason. He adopted a scientific, materialist worldview—and ultimately gave the worst advice. Yet his was the outlier, as the ancient world saw gods and spirits behind human events. In the modern world we ourselves would find the last adviser to be the most reasonable; and we would have laughed the other two right out of town. Perhaps there is something to be said for signs and symbols after all.

But then what signs are we to follow? And when? And how will we recognize them? This is complicated by the fact that we who are of faith believe that the Spirit guides our decisions. Thus, the believer will often claim, “I felt moved by God to do such and such.” The mystic in me believes—and indeed yearns to believe—these claims. But I am torn when the believer claims a revelation unanchored by scripture. Curiously enough, the belief in the salvific and guiding power of the Word is itself mystic and defies all rationalist Christians’ attempts to make it a material process. There is a growing movement that exists—and in truth has historically always existed—that the Spirit moves independently from the written Word. In and of itself, I have no problem with this movement as I am wont to think God’s earthly operations are not restricted to letters on a page. But it is when the movement of the Spirit appears to contradict the letters on the page that I begin to take umbrage.

The believer who claims an internal peace as an approval from God for all of her actions. The believer who embraces and even acts upon his same-sex attraction without shame. The believer who justifies his mistreatment of a brother because he thinks the brother in the wrong.

Surely each of these examples might justify their actions with scripture, and some might even develop proof texts for their justification—in which case we now enter into problems of interpretation. The rationalist in me knows that this is an intellectual process. Yet at the same time, it is at this point that we must “test the spirits”, using personal revelation, reason, and most importantly, scripture as our guide. As the great Victorian philanthropist George Mueller stated when trying to ascertain the will of God, “The Spirit and the Word must be combined. If I look to the Spirit alone without the Word, I lay myself open to great delusions also. If the Holy Ghost guides us at all, He will do it according to the Scriptures and never contrary to them.”

It may be that Mueller’s advice is too outdated for our far more “interesting times.” It may be that that thinking worked a century and a half ago but no longer applies today. Nevertheless, as a man who resolved to collect no money for his orphanages, Mueller proved to a skeptical age that he would do nothing outside the will of God and would fund his charities, and his own livelihood, with prayer alone. I am loath to believe that we are so far advanced in our understanding of the world—both temporal and eternal—as to ignore the wisdom of the ancients in favor of more palatable self-interest.

There is no way to know the outcome of the roads we walk, as many of them are not answered directly by scripture—the Bible cannot tell me what career path I should take. Will choosing to marry someone make us happier? Will we find greater rewards in one town over another? Will helping the homeless man at the off-ramp really do a lick of good?

In many ways, how we respond to these queries depends greatly on our own worldview. And our worldview depends greatly on how we respond to the existence and agency of God. The mystic in me affirms the answers to these questions and heartily welcomes the Spirit into those decision-making processes. And the mystic in me is further heartened in the belief that the anchors of scripture will not lead me astray.

So what is it that guides our decisions? The spiritual or the material? The mystical or the rational? The answer is, likely, whatever you believe in.

Letter from a Montgomery Office: A Response to Martin Luther King

Dear Dr. King,

As you no doubt recall, on Good Friday fifty-two years ago, you found yourself under the eyes of a guard and under the burden of proof. When the SCLC ignored the court-ordered injunction against your march in Birmingham, you and your fellow “agitators” were arrested for disturbing the peace. You will remember that you scratched together a letter in the margins of the day’s newspaper. Your fellow clergymen wrote “A Call for Unity” in that paper, prompting your eloquent and impassioned response. Today your letter has become a testament to the just cause of civil rights and is taught (though not near often enough) in high school and college classrooms around the country. I fear my own words too feeble and my experience too limited to properly answer your imprisoned cries for justice and equality, but I wonder what you might think about how the nation has progressed.

You once wrote in your Birmingham prison cell, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” You wrote those words to affirm the moral principle that evil is the natural state of man, and that in the absence of good people confronting evil it will only spread its tentacles through our streets and farms and highways and homes. If it can happen legally in Mobile, it will happen legally in Montgomery. Should we stand by like the priest or the levite, the innocent will die bleeding on the road. For those of us who call on the name of Christ, our silence will condemn the innocent and nullify our Christian witness.

I am concerned that people, myself first of all, lack the moral will and fortitude to confront evil. I am concerned that your example falls fruitless to a cynical and selfish age. I am concerned that your words, powerful though they are, are manipulated to bring the powerful more power.

I am confident you did not live your life in the hopes that your birthday would become a national holiday, still less that Americans half a century later would use what your birthday has stood for as an extra day to sleep in. Knowing you as I do (as anyone can know a historical figure), my guess is that you would have used your extra day to be about the business of justice. Our corruption of the “holy day” demonstrates our tendency toward ease than toward holy labor. You are frequently invoked by politicians, celebrities, and clergy as an inspirational figure, but inspiration without perspiration creates a vacuous desolation. Your birthday means little if we do not remember, and our remembrance means nothing if we do not act.

You are likely disillusioned in how other groups have opportunistically capitalized on the success of your movement. I think of the misery endured by slaves in the early centuries of America and ask myself, does the union rep demanding more wages equate to the slave under the lash? His pathos is infused with the tones of Douglas and Garrison. His anger and societal revisionism is laden with Marx. In hopes of attracting many to his cause, he invokes your name and pulls out your quotes to prove the justice of his cause. But it is not only the advocate of economic equality who has appropriated your work. No one has set the dogs on supporters of the same-sex marriage movement, yet these too have adopted the tone, language, and rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Millions of Americans today see little difference between your march and the march for gay rights because they fail to make the distinction between status and behavior. Further, while praising choice they have failed to understand the responsibility of choice, and so fail to see how your movement has been made into a parody with the addition of transgender equality, the supposed next frontier of civil rights. Though societal norms, such as traditional marriage laws, are not themselves the arbiter of justice, they are likewise not flaunting justice simply by existing.

Finally, I am certain you are disappointed in how apathetic many have become to the cause of justice. It would seem too much is invested in the status quo to overcome the crippling inertia of inequality. You wrote often on the problem of ambivalence, of how not only the white man wouldn’t care to change things but how also both the affluent Negro and the dispirited Negro couldn’t care to change things. Far too many prominent voices have asserted that minorities have no chance at success in America. The race-baiting frauds like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have prospered with a message of oppression, but an oppression of their own communities, an oppression of the mind. Education, they are told, is a waste of time if the white employer will never give them a high-paying salary. Politicians, they are told, want to steal away whatever rights they do have. Nonviolent protests are nowhere near as profitable as the threat of legal action. The legacy of your successors is one of lethargic victimhood.

Sadly, so too is the legacy of your opponents. Too frequently contemporary white Americans are deaf to the calls for civil rights, associating them with the likes of Jackson and Sharpton. They see Sharpton at a Ferguson rally and assume that the cause surrounding Michael Brown must be the same as that surrounding Tawana Brawley: smoke without fire. They assume that affirmative action has done its part to eliminate racism and that a couple of laws solve it all. They assume that fifty years removed from the events of Mississippi Burning, a mere two generations have rooted out inequity. The effort to be colorblind is, sometimes, willful blindness.

On the one hand, much has changed. Institutional, de jure racism has been brought to heel. It still exists, as I was reminded by an older sister in my Sunday school class just last year. But Jim Crow laws have been struck down, minorities are not barred from voting (despite claims to the contrary with the “oppressiveness” of Voter ID Laws), and one cannot be legally denied employment on the basis of color, much less gender, religion, and age. For those with the eyes to see it, many do judge others by the content of their character.

On the other hand, we have a long way to go. De facto, relational racism still exists, and will always exist so long as there are differences. White women still fear the mythos of the angry, aggressive black man, while black men still fear the mythos of the angry white mob. Black people lack the benefit of the doubt police officers give whites. Believing still in the goodness of people, I believe many want these circumstances to change and are glad to play their part in ignoring stereotypes and treating each other as individuals. It is a battle that must be fought within—and among each other—and, if I may use your words, combating ignorance with knowledge and hate with love. But, as I said, we have a long way to go.

I sit in my comfortable Montgomery office, just a few miles from the birthplace of civil rights, and think too little about the struggle for racial equality. This city is sharply divided, geographically and ideologically, on the subject of race. It is one of those national subjects we’re “talking about” all the time in our speeches and cable news shows—but one which we never do anything about. Perhaps we don’t know what to do. But perhaps it starts with an intentional shift, the desire to sit in a different seat and to change the view.

The arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, but the end of that arc is often found only in eternity. Until then, and like you, we must do our part to urge it to bend closer toward our own time.

Respectfully yours,

JF

The Post-Christmas Blues

Those who know me well know of my intense love for Christmas. Well, for the whole of December really. In fact, more likely the final three months of the year. It is about the build-up, the anticipation for December 25th. The nearing of the end. Truly, there is something eschatological in the air. The cold settles in on the world. Fall leaves transform to winter snow. Decorations appear from dusty boxes to line shelves and dinner tables. Most importantly, there seems to be a spirit of good will permeating a hardened humanity. Peace on earth—if only for a season.

For me, Christmas is an historic event. By that I mean it is a day that connects me to the Celtic past. From as far back as the fifth century, Catholic missionaries were in the practice of appropriating ancient pagan practices and infusing them with new Christian meaning (see Imbolc and the Lupercalia for a couple of these examples). Christmas, of course, is no exception. While the Celtic druids of Northern Europe celebrated the winter solstice and the rise of the sun god, the emerging Christian dispensation saw parallels to the gospel story and replaced the solstice with Christmas. Therefore, as the Celts worshiped evergreen trees in their homes, so too eventually would German Christians also haul in the tree to remember the cross. Gifts that would be exchanged at harvest would find biblical precedent in the gifts of the Magi and so continue the tradition. When I think of Christmas, I consider the biblical Nativity; but I also think of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, of the medieval Yule log, of the 1914 ceasefire—generations of Christians celebrating the Lord’s birth throughout the ages.

So when the holidays are over, I find myself in a bit of a funk. The day after Christmas I’m more than a bit sad when I hear the change of music in retail stores as “Jingle Bell Rock” is replaced by “For Those Who Are About to Rock” (I only resentfully agree to give up my holiday music on Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas). Like Charlie Brown, I sit on the existential wall in the last pensive scene of the Christmas special and say, “Another holiday has come and gone.” History has passed and I am living firmly again in the 21st century. Perhaps that says too much of my penchant for romanticizing history, but I agree wholeheartedly with the philosopher Bon Jovi, who famously opined that he wished every day could be like Christmas.

Hemingway says he always felt a mixture of happiness and sadness when completing a good story. I think this is a fitting description for the arrival of the New Year. Having spent all fall counting down the months and festivals until Christmas, I take a long walk through a valley that doesn’t really rise until I begin anticipating summer break. Viewed through the wide-angle lens, it would seem most of my life is spent waiting. Like in an absurdist play, I imagine the future rather than remain in the present.

My problem, I suppose, is more universal than simply unique to me—and I’d suppose further that the post-Christmas blues are merely a symptom rather than a diagnosis. Far too quickly do we move on to the next experience without relishing the fleeting joys of the present. We’re always anticipating the next day, the next get-together, the next vacation—as if real life were not worthy of our rapt attention.

It may be difficult for us to train the next generation to live in the moment when the moment can be so un-entertaining. The question they are asking their forbears is ontological. Why settle for reality when fantasy is so much more appealing? When we have video-on-demand and games-on-demand and communication-on-demand, why do we need to live in the moment?

Technology has made this ontological question possible, and it is the forbears’ fascination with technology that has created the quandary. Our mode of storytelling, as one example, has sensationalized all things to the point that we have trouble embracing the quiet and the ordinary. The musical interludes and montages of Hollywood fast forward through the seemingly inconsequential to move on to the significant scenes and moments; thus, we do not know how to pass real time. We think that our lives should be narrated by Morgan Freeman and that a soundtrack should play whenever we experience our own significant moments. Not only this but we fear isolation and we fear boredom; and so in a moment of quiet, we turn on the television or surf the web—or, if in public, we pull out our smartphones and check social media. For us, though we are too saturated within the digital chaos to recognize it, every day really is like Christmas.

Yet the ontological question can be reversed. Is the fantasy, arguably more appealing, truly more satisfying? Is a conversation via text better than face-to-face? Does watching an adventure on television beat going on one’s own adventure? Is pornography a suitable alternative to the beauty of the sexual relationship? If the answer to these questions is no—and for all but the truly perverse this will prove true—then the banal and mundane aspects of real life can be reaffirmed.

It is important to remind ourselves that it is in the middle period that life is lived. One cannot take part in the Eschaton without first making the long journey toward the Celestial City. The Christ spent most of his time in the mundane. Rarely did he see moments of glory while in the flesh. No dramatic music played when he changed water into wine. The five thousand could not experience a close-up shot when Jesus distributed the loaves and fishes. And the disciples fled rather than watch in tragic triumph when their rabbi was nailed to a cross. Real life is messy and uninteresting, and only rightly understood and given meaning in hindsight.

There is nothing more mundane than grading papers of apathetic freshmen comp students. But make no mistake: it is holy work. It may be that someone will tell my story many years from now. Perhaps my students will remember how my comments not only helped them become better writers but better Christian thinkers. Perhaps my biographer will record how my years spent grading those papers were essential preparatory years on the road to something greater (?). Or maybe few of my students will give a second glance (likely not even a first glance) to my comments, or maybe my life will pass without greatness nor the need for a biographer. Maybe I will live my life in the mundane, relishing the extraordinary moments and learning to embrace the ordinary.

This shy of eternity, every day can’t be like Christmas. The holiday is one to work toward, to look forward to, most assuredly, but one cannot give gifts without making money to purchase gifts. December is a holy month, but so too is January. It is in each moment that we should life, and live fully, and perhaps redeem the time.

Experiencing Advent

Come, long-expected Jesus. Excite in me a wonder at the wisdom and power of Your Father and ours. Receive my prayer as part of my service of the Lord who enlists me in God’s own work for justice…Excite in me a joy responsive to the Father’s joy…

Novice as I am to liturgy, and though fairly ensconced in the evangelical tradition, I am learning, however slowly, the deep richness in the church calendar. There is something powerful in consciously turning one’s attention to a facet of the Gospel story. There is something refreshing and ennobling in devoting one’s self to particular passages and prayers. The conversation with God, so often unmoored by our whims or moored only with prescribed daily Bible reading, is reinvigorated and refocused on Him, and not me.

Low-church detractors have historically scoffed at the notion of concentrating on the Nativity at Christmas or on the Resurrection at Easter. Shouldn’t we hold Christmas in our hearts the year round? they ask. No doubt we should, but do we? Does Christ exercise lordship over every area of our lives, including what and how much we purchase during a holy day? (I hear the reverberating echoes of Christ’s whip in the temple approaching.) I think our focus on gifts this time of year far exceeds the presents offered by the Magi. I bring this up not to shame our detractors, but to urge them caution. We could easily lament the commercialism of the season, and there is certainly a place for that. There is, for instance, something distinctly perverse in my sons’ LEGO® Star Wars™ Advent Calendar. The Christ child, not a brick minifigure of Darth Maul, is eagerly anticipated every twenty-fifth of December—and He is certainly no phantom nor menace. But rather than wasting time weeping and gnashing our teeth at how others celebrate the season, I prefer to refocus our attention on the meaning of Christmas. Redemption is a more glorious and Godly exercise than criticism.

To find redemption, however, we must exercise our memories. We must think back to a past long buried by worldly ambitions, adult stresses, and the presumption of maturity. Everyone can recall what it was like on Christmas morning: running to mom and dad’s room, dragging them to the stockings, marveling at the half-eaten cookies left for Santa and his reindeer, wanting to rip open every present at once. As adults, we can delay our palate for Christmas—in part because we possess a sizable purchasing power throughout the year that children lack—and so miss out on childish joy. We forget, as grown-ups do, the inability to wait a moment longer.

We must remember these moments, and with them look forward to an eternal future. The anticipation of Christmas morning, that tangible taste of joy, is an echo of the opening of heaven. That expectancy is captured in the urgent notes of Lauren Daigle’s “Light of the World”:

The world waits for a miracle

The heart longs for a little bit of hope

Oh come, oh come Emmanuel.

This, if you will recall, is the very purpose of Advent. The whole of December in the liturgical calendar is recreated as one of the darkest intermissions in Israel’s history. Successive oppressors for five centuries—the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans—have reduced the nation to slaves. Jehovah has returned them to their homeland, but as tenants, not landowners. The Hasmoneans introduce pagan worship in the temple, Pompey the Great steps foot in the Holy of Holies without any fierce rebuke from God, and the priesthood has become a corrupt oligarchy. Religion is nothing more than ritual—without revelation. Where once prophets and false prophets could be found on every street corner during the reign of the kings, not one has spoken for four hundred years. Spiritual hunger is quickly turning to starvation, which is breeding materialism, cynicism, and a lack of faith. The winter cold lies heavy on Israel, and her people have been awaiting Messiah.

It seems subtly and subterfuge are among God’s favored tactics. The Greek gods would have descended from Olympus, the Romans with cosmic battle. And at times the Hebrew God had done those same things. But he chooses this time to appear as a child, born to a poor family, announced to social outcasts like shepherds and temple devotees. He chooses to send his son into foreign lands and remote villages and the wilderness so that none could greet him with fanfare. For his mission was not conquest, curiously enough, but submission. Even in the Christmas saga, the shadow of the cross can be seen in the distance. Experiencing Advent means we are anticipating not merely his arrival but his purpose in arriving. He didn’t come to bring a throne, and Good Friday didn’t look so good that Friday.

Imagine the desperate sorrow and the broken anticipation of seeing Christ the King hanging on a Roman cross. Every expectation shattered, every hope destroyed. Imagine Mary, voiced by Sara Evans in her Christmas ballad “New Again,” weeping:

God, how can this be your will?

To have your son and my son killed?

And in one of the most profound expressions of faith in modern music today, Jesus, suffering on the tree, looks at his mother and kindly says,

Whatever happens—whatever you see—

Whatever your eyes tell you has become of me

This is not

Not the end

I am making all things new again.

All things new. He did not bring a throne, but he did come to usher in his Kingdom, one that exists, he says, within us. On Advent, we celebrate the coming of the King. Emmanuel. God with us—and within us. We remember the reason he came, we renew our purpose in the Kingdom today, and we wait hopefully for his return.

It is perhaps a supremely foolish and childish thing to reenact the Incarnation on one arbitrary month of the year—though I am confident there is nothing foolish or arbitrary about it. For after all, it is a supremely foolish thing to follow God sometimes. In the midst of pain, of confusion, of persecution, of claims to objectivity, sometimes submitting to an unseen God is one of the stupidest things we can do. When the storm rages, it is so easy to curse the rain. Yet when the storm rages, there is no greater anchor than the Rock that is higher than I. And when the storm passes and the sky brightens, the Rock remains.

For all who wait

For all who hunger

For all who’ve prayed

For all who wonder

Behold your King

Behold Messiah

Emmanuel

Emmanuel

Redemption is indeed a glorious exercise. The re-creation of all things. On Advent, we can confidently affirm he is making all things new again.

Media Matters: Truth (?) to Power (!)

A fire is being ignited in America today, its flames evidenced in curiously bizarre media reports floating around the websites and airwaves. The various controversies surrounding Lena Dunham. The Rolling Stone rape story and the frightening lack of due process in college rape cases. The (mis)information disseminated during the Michael Brown incident and the premeditated riots that followed. Now, it would seem, is the winter of our discontent. One wonders not only what has happened to the country but where all of this unrest is coming from—and where it is going.

The goal, it would appear, of these characters in our seriously silly play is indeed the unrest: the overthrow of the social order. Romantic notions of revolution seem to occupy the minds of these figures, all in the name of making this world a more “just” place to live. Racial, sexual, and aesthetic marginalization demands, we are told, a loud and sometimes violent retort. Forgetting the hard lessons of the French Revolution—genuine injustices committed in the cause of equality—they press on toward some indeterminate end. The fire, like that same one sparked in Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, is given the name Justice but is actually its opposite.

What seems to be unifying each of these causes, real or imagined, is the desire for power. Populism, of the left- and right-wing varieties, taps into the generalized national angst and into specific local or community concerns. With the rise of demographic-focused politics beginning in the 1960s, we have all become segmented into competing special interest groups jockeying for attention. Black, brown, anglo, feminist, gay, religious, secular, rural, and urban all want a seat at the throne. Assuming one’s cause is just and the other’s not, rarely do these groups think about the ultimate conclusion of their philosophy. They want it—and now.

I cannot help but wonder if the fuel to these flames is exacerbated by the media landscape. And I don’t mean The Media in some sort of conspiratorial, industrial complex way (although there might be room for that sort of discussion). I mean the greedy, irresponsible, crisis-driven reporting of events that has captivated mainstream, cable, and internet news.

The bent of journalists and editors toward crisis existed long before the early twentieth-century days of muckrakers. But at that time, news existed in a 1-week (newspaper) or 24-hour (network) news cycle. Today, we’re dominated by a four-hour news cycle, which means we have terribly trifling attention spans. But it also means we’re dependent on the dramatically shifting media narratives. Our information is filtered through the biases and errors of eyewitness accounts, grand jury testimony, and for most of us, news outlets who report this information. We cannot pay attention constantly, yet we want to be informed—and so we have little choice but to trust (even with some skepticism) those who report those events.

But sensationalism rather than truth has become the medium of exchange for modern news outlets. Whatever will make ratings, sell magazines, or get the most likes in the moment is what matters. Consider, briefly, the news stories above. For these few weeks at least, this is the fare to which we have been sumptuously treated. But then what? In what abyss is sent the stories once furiously occupying our televisions and news feeds? What was the result, for instance, of the congressional investigation in Benghazi? What is the status on the prison at Guantanamo Bay and rendition sites around the world? Why was it not boldy announced that Lois Lerner’s emails had been miraculously found after all? Where is the coverage of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine? What is happening in the streets and parliaments in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum? (More importantly, why is the world’s supply of chocolate running short?) And when something of great significance does occur, like the surprisingly tame and remarkably conservative pronouncements of Pope Francis in the last few years, more is made of it than it might actually deserve or is reinterpreted to fit a perceived pattern. The media builds the intensity of the crisis and then rides the ideological waves of change, claiming first-row seats to history. For without change, there is no history–and no ratings.

The thirst for ratings taps into the sensational and least discerning of the human faculties. Further, when reaching those parts of ourselves, the most likely emotion this will generate is fear. This is especially true of those with an agenda. Those who seek power must use fear to cow their opponents into silence. The oppressed, dispossessed, and disenfranchised rarely remember the abuses suffered, real or imagined, under the former regime; or they remember their abuses so clearly that they invoke the lex talionis against their oppressors. Anger is a poor substitute for wise thinking, yet it seems that the angrier someone is the more others will pay attention to them. Our characters are not motivated by virtue but by air time, book contracts and movie deals, and stretching their fifteen minutes into thirty.

The American consumer seems at least tacitly aware of this conundrum, as they rarely let media events dramatically challenge their worldview. School shootings, for instance, almost always precede a brief upswing in a public call for increased gun control before plummeting back to previous levels a couple months later. This has both positive and negative components, for people often stubbornly refuse to believe what their eyes tell them; yet if their eyes are being manipulated, then their refusal is justified. Lacking trust, we wind up believing in whatever fits our previously-existing (meta)narrative. If I think that police brutality against African Americans is more common than the media reports, then I’m likely to feel sympathy for the Michael Brown family and the entire Ferguson community. If I think police brutality against African Americans is exaggerated, I’m more likely to pity Darren Wilson and law enforcement officers. Both factions believe they are pursuing truth, and perhaps they are, yet the result is chaos.

Torn as I am between cynicism and optimism, I yet fear a society so un-governed by virtue that we would abandon our institutions in the vain hope of finding money, fame, and attention only to despair in the meaninglessness of our discovery. Long gone are the days of acolytes seeking to exercise their civic oaths, their business ethics, or religious orders in humble service to a greater good. We have fallen far from the examples of King and Mandela, of Jefferson and Monroe. But then again, they were men with direction and, we can reasonably argue, a commitment to virtue. How many of our journalists, celebs, and pols can say that?

But then again, perhaps truth is not found in the news ticker or feeds. Truth must deal with objective facts, yes, but it must also transcend those facts. Truth is never its own end, though it should be hunted with the same moral and intellectual vigor as if it was. Rather, truth is the means by which the individual moves to action. Because I cannot know the facts in the Michael Brown case beyond what I read regarding the grand jury testimony, what I do know is that a young man lost his life and another young man his livelihood. Such (limited) knowledge is likely to throw me into ambivalence or despair, neither of which are productive for the good life. Emotional wallowing would seem to be the default position here. Yet if I choose to employ the truth I can know in pursuit of the good I can do, then I can help build a world I can dream. Such aspirations are found in the simple choices of life, ones that will never receive attention in television reports, but ones that will make a lifetime’s worth of difference for each person and in the lives of those around them.

Media truly matters in a free society when it becomes the arbiter of facts and truth. Better that we, in our pursuit of virtue, become more discerning in our consumption of media.