Category Archives: art + literature

happy halloween

From Radio Free Babylon. Those guys are amazing, really. They’re motto is “pray with your eyes open,” which I take to mean be aware of the surrounding culture and its trappings (or, as the case may be, its opportunities for expressing the Gospel).

Their motto also seems to be “making fun of oneself is healthy.” With which I heartily agree.

prometheus

My dad and I went to see the new Ridley Scott film, Prometheus, last night in Aggieland. The film purports to be a “prequel” to Scott’s 1990s Alien series–but the only sign of this is the last thirty seconds, wherein is spawned a recognizably Alien-like alien from another (more human or Titan-like) alien.

Apart from this brief reference, the film stands alone as an allegorical sci-fi drama.

The first thing to note is that Mr. Scott has disdained to evolve with the industry, preferring melodramatics and an orchestral soundtrack befitting 2001 or Jurassic Park to more interesting sci-fi filmmaking like that recently undertaken by younger writer and director Brit Marling. (See Marling’s Another Earth if you have not already. I am still waiting for her new flick, The Sound of My Voice, to be released in Portland.)

Leaving those superficial elements, note must certainly be made of the plot’s obvious allegorical implications. The main character, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), is a scientist determined to meet her makers (which, going off of various cave paintings, she believes to be the aliens) yet also persisting in the Christian faith of her father. The lion’s share of the allegorical import lies in the (rather ill-performed) anguish over the dual facts of humans’ having been made by the Titan-aliens and the Titan-aliens’ intent to destroy Earth.

(SPOILER ALERT: The film’s main twist comes when the Titan-aliens are revealed to be mortal, thereby raising the question of their having been made by another, more titanic, Maker. Thus, Shaw’s faith in a divine creator over and above the Titan-aliens is not so much vindicated as left untouched. Such a “back to square one”denouement imitates many other sci-fi films–perhaps most famously the Planet of the Apes movies.)

In addition to being shallowly allegorical, the plot leaves the viewer guessing as to why the Titan-aliens might wish to destroy humankind. To Mr. Scott’s discredit, the possibility of humanity’s corruption (what theological parlance might call “sinfulness” or “depravity”) as a sufficient cause for annihilation never emerges–despite the obvious references to interpersonal (and intrapersonal) brokenness such as infertility and filial strife.

(Another aside is required here: I have been using the term Titan-alien to refer to the large white human-like aliens the film features, but the film itself leaves them unnamed. They seem to represent the mythical Titans in the sense that they “stole the fire” of creating from the gods (or God). But the humans in the story also seem to stand-in for the Titans, insofar as they hope to plunder the divine treasury to discover the truth about human existence–a hope the name of their ship, “Prometheus,” serves to confirm. Perhaps these coincidences are hints of deeper complexity than I have heretofore recognized…)

All the above brings us to an important observation about the cultural significance of Prometheus. If the humans are to represent the mythical hero Prometheus unironically, and if Dr. Shaw’s faith is not stripped from her but in some small, indirect way affirmed, then Ridley Scott can be said to be Hollywood’s idealistic pundit. Not idealistic in the common sense, mind you, but in the philosophical sense. Specifically, Scott seems to wish to continue the projects of the great German idealists of the 19th century.

Here’s Jürgen Moltmann on the nature of this project:

For Goethe, Schiller, Ranke, Karl Marx and many others, Prometheus became the great saint of the modern age. Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, stood in contrast to the figure of the obedient servant of God. It was possible to transform even Christ into a Promethean figure. Along with that there frequently went a philosophical, revolutionary millenarianism which set itself to build at last that realm of freedom and human dignity which had been hoped for in vain from the God of the divine servant.
(Theology of Hope, p. 24)

In contrast to both this idealistic presumption and the postmodern despair (epitomized in Camus’ “thinking clearly and hoping no more”), Moltmann proposes a thoroughly Christian attitude of hope. Only hope, he maintains, is life-giving. Further, hope–and neither presumption nor despair–is really realistic.

As our generation enters an era disillusioned by scientific knowledge (even as scientific discourse marches onward as the only permissible discourse in public reasoning; Ridley Scott obviously got only one of these memos and not the other!), we would do well to remember that the Gospel alone provides the hope necessary for authentic existence.

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daniel quinn is ishmael

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and SpiritIshmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here are my thoughts written out to a former student who read this book and liked it a lot but also needed some guidance with it:

I think there’s some wisdom here–our species’ arrogance has certainly gotten us into a lot of trouble–but I wonder what nature “fixing itself” would look like. I think the claim that humans are the imago Dei and therefore at the top of the pyramid of creation is not a normative or prescriptive claim (“things ought to be such and such..”) but rather a descriptive one (“on the basis of observation, things simply are such and such..”). Thus, any “solution” to the environmental problem is going to involve us.

Secondly, we must remember that although we may be at the “top,” we are nevertheless still part of nature: so nature “fixing itself” without human interference is nonsense. (Unless we purposely enact mass self-extinction–which, some would argue, is where we’re headed anyway!) This brings us back to my first point. If it is nonsense to talk of nature fixing itself and our presence at the top if nature’s pyramid is undeniable, then we are–in a way–nature’s “conscience.” If we don’t fix the problem (a problem which, admittedly, we created), then it won’t be fixed. The only question at that point becomes how to fix it.

Quinn seems to give this Taoist “return to the way of nature, man” suggestion. But he doesn’t do a good job of explaining how that works–or even of characterizing that more noble, natural way that all creatures except certain types of humans still emulate. You’re absolutely right about the weakness of his conclusion.

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matthew zapruder, “come on all you ghosts”

5

Come on all you ghosts.
Bring me your lucky numbers
that failed you, bring me

your boots made of the skin
of placid animals
who stood for a while in the snow.

Bring me your books
made of blue sky
stitched together with thread

made of the memory
of how warm
even the most terrible

among us has felt
the skin of his or her beloved
in the morning to be.

Come on all you ghosts,
try to make me forget
one summer lost

in a reservoir and another
I keep in my chest.
Come on all you ghosts,

try to make me repeat
the most terrible thing I said
to someone and I will

if the mind of that someone
could ever be eased.
Come on let’s vote

for no one in the election
of who is next to die.
Come on all you ghosts,

I know you can hear me,
I know you are here,
I have heard you cough

and sigh when I pretend
I do not believe
I have to say something important.

Probably no one will die
of anything I say.
Probably no one will live

even a second longer.
Is that true?
Come on all you ghosts,

you can tell me now,
I have seen one of you becoming
and I am no longer afraid,

just sad for everyone
but also happy this morning I woke
next to the warm skin

of my beloved. I do not know
what terrible marvels
tomorrow will bring

but ghosts if I must join you
you and I know
I have done my best to leave

behind this machine
anyone with a mind
who cares can enter.

Yes. (Happy Valentine’s Day.)

leslie & the LY’s

Thanks to Rachel for ruining my brain with this Philistine junk.

You can practice more aesthetic suicide here.

the sociology of the hipster

Check it.

I don’t have time to comment now, but this essay ought to provoke some discussion–particularly in the realm of aesthetics, art criticism, etc.: Is all “taste” in art and culture conditioned? Are all attempts to fashion and preserve a canon of high culture simply power displays??

makarora valley

Howdy, folks. I’ve just spent a few days with some wonderful folks in Makarora Township, just south of Haast Pass.

Andrew and Ingrid Shepherd have a lovely house and garden, three beautiful girls, and a wealth of knowledge and experience about living in Christian community, practicing Christian virtues of stewardship and hospitality, and finding one’s call in a world where CV-building takes priority over lived discernment. Andrew helped me coordinate transport to the Gillespie Pass tramp (see below)–four days, three nights–and since then I’ve been playing house with Julia and Kristin, going into Wanaka to see Where the Wild Things Are at this hip cinema, cooking Andrew and Ingrid some fantastic breakfast migas (with homemade tortillas!), and talking about theology, the land, and scriptural witness endlessly.

“Tramping” in NZ is rather different from the “hiking” we Americans are used to. “Hiking” usually involves driving to the base of a mountain, walking a trail up to the top, and then coming back down the same day–often with a feeling of rich satisfaction. But New Zealanders rarely summit mountains; their “tracks” (= trails) are mostly energetic climbs up valleys, over minor passes, and through bush-laden woods. Kiwis don’t go tramping for the “sights” (say, for example, the vistas from the mountaintops) as much as they do just to be “in the bush” or for simple exercise.

This cultural difference also leads to a logistical difficulty for a lone tramper like myself: the popular tramps in NZ aren’t usually circuits; rather, they’re likely to be one-way traverses of a mountain range–so you end up in an entirely different region (let alone carpark!) than the one you began in. One must hitchhike, sometimes for miles and miles, to make it back to one’s car.

Sometimes, one can get fairly delirious…


Why is this relevant?

Because JRR Tolkien differentiated his Lord of the Rings trilogy from The Hobbit by making a technical literary distinction between “quest” and “adventure.” The Hobbit, Tolkien explained, was an adventure: Bilbao Baggins left his home in the Shire, went out into the Great Unknown and encountered sundry foreign phenomena, but at the end of the book he returns to the Shire unharmed, and all is as it was.

In The Lord of the Rings, in contrast, Frodo (and, arguably, Aragorn and Sam Gamgee by affiliation) ends in an entirely different location–perhaps not physically, but psychologically and emotionally–than where he first began. See, Frodo went on a quest, a quest that changed him significantly, a quest the end of which wasn’t predictable or convenient. Bilbao Baggins went on an adventure: as Tolkien admits, The Hobbit is a children’s book, and at no point in the story does one truly doubt that Bilbao will make it back home again.

(I’m getting all this from Tim Keller, by the way, in a sermon called “Real Security and the Call of God.”)

Folks, the Christian life is a quest–not an adventure. It is highly unpredictable, and very often inconvenient. I came to NZ to learn more about something I had a lateral interest in; I’m going to leave with a lot more questions–and a lot more “lateral” interests–than when I arrived here.

But that’s OK. God is in control.

Period.