Friday, September 18, 2009

Matthew Lee Anderson has a new piece I find fascinating and will blog about at some point

I've written quite about Matthew's writing before and never quite finished writing everything I thought about his earlier essay. That was for the natural reason that not everyone would want to read that but this recent piece proposing that on-line church is the natural extension of video preaching intrigues me, particularly since I have had a decade-long connection to Mars Hill and, as Anderson notes, Driscoll refutes the idea that church on-line is valid.

If sacraments have to be taken physically to be valid as sacraments then clearly preaching can't be a sacrament ... or is it? Anderson is right to point out that Driscoll's working definition of sacramentology becomes incoherent at this point. A person who hears an on-line sermon or video-taped sermon is not participating in a sacrament ... or if they ARE experiencing a means through which the grace of Christ is made effective and real for them then why WOULDN'T an on-line church experience be legitimate? What about disabled people who listened to Driscoll's sermons and were blessed by that. Is Driscoll going to say that that wasn't the work of the Spirit or will he propose that preaching itself has no sacramental capacity or might he say that the physical act of hearing the Word preached constitutes the sacrament. Would that then imply there is no corresponding quality of God's work when reading sermons by Spurgeon or Martyn Lloyd-Jones or Packer? Or listening?

I am certainly a Protestant but it seems to me that many evangelical Protestants see the sermon, especially the expository sermon, as a means of grace ... in other words a sacrament. This is not so much because people want to propose there is a priestly class. No, we affirm the priesthood of all believers but some are more priestly than others.

Anderson may be right that Driscoll, for instance, is deeply inconsistent in saying he can preach to you via video but that it is singularly not okay for church to be on-line if Driscoll holds that preaching has any kind of sacramental function. But if Driscoll does not hold there is any inherently sacramental function, that preaching and teaching doesn't do anything to mediate any efficacious grace for sanctification or salvation of any kind, then Driscoll isn't inconsistent. I would propose that Driscoll has a far more sacramental view of a lot of things than first appears. He sees marriage as having the goal not of making you happy but of making you holy and that the woman will be saved through childrearing is presented as a sanctifying grace through which the mother can learn more of God's grace. In other words, Driscoll presents marriage and parenting as sacraments ... but not sacraments.

Anderson's statement that an on-line church is a natural outworking of video venues can be taken as going either way--it can be both correct and incorrect depending on one's sacramentology. He is right to point out that these issues arise from the very nature of evangelical Protestant ecclesiology. For instance, in a congregational or presbyterian government video-venue preaching would be problematic since the video preacher has no inherent connection to the people to whom he is speaking. In an episcopal form of government or a denominational structure video venue preaching might still be permissable. The reason is that the pastors presiding over the sacraments represent the highest level of leadership. If you are video streamed to Arizona from Seattle in a non-episcopal government things are off. There really is no inherent connection between the preacher and the people. In an episcopal system, arguably, there is a connection since the pastors presiding over the sacraments of baptism, communion, marriage, and any other sacraments are there on behalf of the leaders.

Arguably Mars Hill has shifted through a range of governments in the last thirteen years. A set of elders appointed by mutual agreement through the elder board that are self-nominated and not necessarily nominated by members of the congregation with an executive elder board looks pretty much like an episcopate as best I understand the concept. So if preaching has no sacramental function and there are campus pastors presiding over the sacraments then Anderson's case that Driscoll is deeply inconsistent may be moot. This would not in itself mean that video venue preaching is all roses, but it would mean that Anderson's argument against virtual church might have to be made on other grounds.

Now in a church setting like Mars Hill where giving can be done on-line, sermons can be heard on-line, and people are asked to sign up on a social networking device to be part of a virtual community Anderson might be able to say the reason there's no compelling reason to not have the rest of the church on-line is because Mars Hill has virtualized the church experience. Except for the sacraments ... but in the time I have been connected to Mars Hill I have to confess that even I have no idea what kind of coherent sacramental view Mars Hill elders have ever had. And if I answered questions on behalf of Driscoll for a few years and even I don't know what views Mars Hill has on communion or other sacraments (if indeed there are any beyond those two) then if Anderson uses Driscoll as an example of an inconsistency it might be more fair to say that Anderson is using Mars Hill as a one-time example of a church that has an inconsistency when it might be more fair to say the church has also not worked out a coherent view on the sacraments they have. And if Mars Hill weren't often beset by the beguiling prospect of reinventing the wheel the issues at hand might have been worked out by now.

I would suggest, in sympathy, that sacramentology is precisely the domain of theology a church needs to address in order to establish that an on-line church is or isn't appropriate. I am not sure Mars Hill pastors as a group, to say nothing of Driscoll himself, are really serious enough about that branch of theology to tackle the issue. I think they could do it, really, but I'm not sure there's been much evidence that they are interested in the subject. But I do want to thank Matthew Lee Anderson for bringing up the issues and using Driscoll as an example. A church at the forefront of using the internet to build a larger church is a church that NEEDS to think seriously about what sacraments are, what things they hold to be sacraments, and what connection that has to the life of the church. I seee Mars Hill as a multi-site church that is avoiding the big "d" word and the "s" word in attempting to articulate why you should consider joining the church but also not see downloading sermons or on-line fellowship as "real".

Conversely, with such a historically low sacramental approach and a lack of theology about what, if anything, constitutes a sacrament, Mars Hill leadership runs the risk of a whole lot of special pleading. We've done everything in our power to make virtual church the wave of the future ... but we don't really want it to be that because we still want you to show up. At the risk of simply being a smartass addressing sacramentology as it applies to worship (i.e. the church is where you break bread, drink wine, get married, confess sin, pray for the sick, etc) is the thing Mars Hill will have to do to counteract the virtualizing tendency it has had over the years. I am confident that they can do it but I am not sure it's Driscoll who can accomplish that precisely because by means of video preaching he has literally disconnected himself from any sacramental anything for most of any given year.

All that is to say that I think Matthew Lee Anderson makes a great point that stands if Mars Hill can't articulate a clearer sacramentology. The trouble is that if Mars Hill elders DO articulate a clearer sacramentology it may undercut the video venue method of preaching. If there is no mediation of grace by the work of God in Driscoll's preaching then there's no compelling reason it has to be Driscoll preaching. The campus pastors would do just as well, if not better, preaching to the local congregations because they are really connected to those people. Anderson, if he's pointing out that Driscoll is claiming church members should be physically at church to participate in the sacraments, really IS being deeply inconsistent, even at a laughable level, if he simultaneously justifies video preaching but argues that virtual church means you aren't participating in the sacraments. When you're the video preacher you don't really have the right to tell people in New Mexico that they "should" be at the campus participating in communion because, let's face it, you're not there with them, are you? The argument from the sacraments becomes self-defeating.

Then again, if we're talking about an episcopal form of church government and if we've worked out what our view of the sacraments actually IS, then things could be copacetic. This is an opportunity for Mars Hill elders to become strong on something they have historically been really, really weak about.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

the sins of fathers and sons, the idols we pass down and take up

Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me

For someone raised in a more Pentecostal background the implication of this would involve, for some, discussion of generational curses that have to be broken. It might also include some discourse on the need to use the sword of the spirit to cut soul ties and be very literal about it as though that accomplished anything. I obliged at least one relative on this rather fruitless set of rituals.

We may not immediately realize that with respect to our explanations of the human condition we are not more enlightened in the end than our forbears. When God says that He visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children through the third and fourth generations we object ... but we don't object in the same way if, apart from God, we recognize that genetically sustained infirmities strike us.

In politics the threat of visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons to the third and fourth generation is precisely the whole point. Liberals evoke this for their causes while conservatives evoke it for their causes, quite apart from even any religious context. Do this government healthcar ething now and you will be destroying the financial future of our children. Do this war thing now and generations of children will become the targets of increased terrorism or evil because of an unjust war. Vote for this international trade agreement and you are selling out the jobs America's grandchildren could have that keeps the economy strong. Don't vote for it and you are stifling the spirit of free enterprise now so that children will have no incentive to be industrious in the future. And so it goes.

It is not explained in the Torah necessarily HOW the sins of one generation are visited upon subsequent generations. It is not fixed as to how a sin passes from one generation to the next. To say that "idolatry" is what happens is too much a simplification of the trouble. We can see throughout Israel's history that some of the worst Judean kings had some of the best offspring and vice versa. David brought forth Amnon and Absalom and Adonijah, none of who were chips off the old block in any of the old blocks' best qualities. Josiah was not evil like his father, quite the opposite. If anyone's life should have proven the unstoppable efficacy of generational curses Josiah would have been the proof. Chronicles tells us Manasseh repented near the end of his life Manasseh shows us that there can be a deathbed conversion just as Joash in Judah shows us that there can be a kind of mid-life apostasy.

What I have considered of late is that despite our youthful rebellion we may actually take up the idols of our parents in unexpected and even unobserved ways. If I have a mother who revels in knowledge of spiritual things or simply supposes she is wiser than usual and prizes spiritual knowledge I may not be a know-it-all in precisely the same way but I could still be a know-it-all. This would not be because I really think I actually am smarter than most people but because I emulate the example and values of a parent. If I have a father who tends to love the Lord with his mind and keep his heart to himself I may rebel against that propensity and yet in the process exemplify that fault in another way.

If a man takes pride in his marriage and in his wife and attempts to sell everyone else who isn't married on the necessity that they be married that, too, can be a kind of idolatry unawares. His daughter might grow up to rebel against traditional Christian teaching and shack up with some unbelieving boyfriend. The Christian father would note with disappointment his daughter has not lived out the ideals he has tried to inculcate in her.

Yet, paradoxically, she isn't rebelling against her father's values at all in terms of their substance but merely rejecting the form, living them out to the last details except for the part about getting formal recognition from the state. The child who defies a Christian upbringing and defines themselves by means of a sexual relationship isn't so much rebelling against the values of his or her parents as implementing them in another way. We may be beholden to the flaws of our parents even in our attempts to rebel against their flaws or abuses.

Now for Christian parents the scary, tricky part is that we must understand a distinction. The term "functional savior" can be bandied about too readily but it is a useful thing to discuss in generational contexts because whatever your Christian profession is, a child who rebels may reject the profession but look for solace and meaning in the family idols. A Christian father who is obsessed with his work may raise sons who do or don't profess Christ but measure themselves by their work. In other words, whether or not your children follow Christ they may still struggle or give in to the idols that you struggled with. If you have a legacy of eating disorders, comfort food, and having a talismanic view that just eating certain foods will make you healthy your children can pick up on that. They may not pick up on it precisely the same way, but they may well pick up on it.

Scripture reveals that idols tend to run in families, literally. Idols could function as deeds to property, after all. Generational sins are not necessarily "curses" that can be magically uttered as though some witch or warlock can just "hex" you with this or that sin, generational sins are better seen as proclivities that manifest across generations. Alcoholism, compulsive behaviors like gambling or sex, a history of mental illness or neurological disorders are probably more accurate ways of discussing what would be considered generational sins. At the risk of invoking the cliche, we live in a world marred by sin. Even in our rebellions we reveal our conformities.

The child of fundamentalist parents who becomes an atheist will likely retain their missionary zeal but direct it toward a new cause, yet the character flaw has remained stable from one generation to the next. It becomes all the more difficult to observe because a person can look at their life and believe that because the form is different the substance is different. They do not realize that the sin has been visited on them because they think the change of form is a change of content.

For instance, suppose a man comes from an abusive family and resolves to never continue the abusive legacy of his family, whatever the nature of that abuse or neglect might be. He builds a family and inside his family he is gentle, kind, patient, and understanding. But toward co-workers, subordinates or people outside that family he may be capable of withering verbal abuse or vent his frustrations through physical violence. In his own heart this man may be persuaded that he has successfully overcome the legacy of abuse in his family because he doesn't treat his family in an abusive way, little realizing that he actually HAS continued the abusive legacy of his parents but has compartmentalized it outward to people who aren't considered his family.

A man can believe he is above reproach (basically) because he doesn't treat his family badly but believes he can't really err in how abusive or angry he is toward others. A pastor who treats his family like royalty and self-sacrificingly serves them but is impulsive, angry, and verbally abusive is no better than a drunk who beats up his wife in the end. He doesn't realize that he's just as much an abuser as the wife-beater because he DOESN'T say or do anything harsh to his wife. Indignities he would rebel against if he were subjected to them he doesn't bat an eyelash about dumping on people who aren't family.

A person who grows up with an emotionally distant and unapproving parent may channel all his or her affection toward family and then have a performance-based, using way with "friends". This person may sincerely believe he or she is not living out the mistakes of the parent who expressed love conditionally (after hoops had been properly jumped through) but will not realize that his or her whole foundation for defining someone as "a good friend" is simply a self-deluding way of using people when they are useful and suddenly having no use for their friendship once they are not useful or once a first-level conflict arises. We paradoxically continue the sins of our fathers through the very means we believe sets us apart from them. We repent of their sin of ice and do not realize that our sin is water, the form and temperature have changed but the substance is still there.

Those Israelite and Judean kings who repented did not simply repent of the FORM of the sins of their fathers but also of the substance. Rehoboam had an opportunity to listen to the old men who saw the mistakes of Solomon (because obviously Solomon did not necessarily tell Rehoboam "I screwed up"). He had a chance to repent on behalf of his people and his family. And repent he did, after a fashion, but he decided on the basis of advice from the young men he grew up with living in royal luxury that the real problem was the Israelites needed to be treated more and not less sternly. This is a variety of "quit your bitching, do what you're told to do, and give me more money and sacrifice because I'm your leader." And the response of the men of Israel was "What portion do we have in David?" The kingdom divided, and both parties turned to woshipping other gods, promoting apostasy and immorality.

If you were to ask Rehoboam if he had repented of the mistakes of his father he would have said, "Yeah." But instead of repenting of the true flaws of his father Rehoboam simply took the mistakes of his father Solomon further. He had learned from his father's mistakes, so he thought, and wasn't going to make the same ones. It just turned out that his solution to not being like not-so-dear-old-dad blew up in his face. It was a historical case of those who have will be given more and those who don't have even what they have will be taken from them. Rehoboam thought he had the kingdo (he did) but in clinging to it he lost even that and the very efforts he made to seize things for himself cost him the thing he sought. Ironically trying to be "better" than his father made him much, much worse.

Sometimes it seems as though the sins of the fathers get visited to us because we embrace them ourselves and out-do our fathers in those things. We think that we need to change the scale or direction of our parents' sins rather than considering the essential quality of those sins and how it resides in us as well. The old saying for pilots and soliders is that when the crisis comes you revert to your training. The young woman who shacks up with her boyfriend may sincerely believe she's not living by the training her parents inculcated in her but that would be fooling herself. A son who becomes an ardent Calvinist having been raised by theologically sloppy Arminians may think he is being different from his parents because of the formal doctrines he holds to but the zeal or religious mania remains untouched. A daughter who bails on Protestantism for the Catholic church or Anglicanism ostensibly makes a bigger jump but in some sense the quest for the one true church touched by the Spirit of God that is better than the others may still have residual power. Even in our attempt to make ourselves different from our parents we reflect their values whether we plan to or not.

And, paradoxically, we can differ from our parents most in how we implement those values, qualities, and actions we most admire about them. Once my mother and I were having a disagreement and discussion about politics (or theology) and I mentioned that she had often said she raised me to think for myself. Maybe the problem was that she got exactly what she wanted and now that I think for myself I don't agree with her very much about theology. At least in the last year she's been able to laugh when I point this out. It wasn't a laughing matter most of the previous twelve years. In my own way I was determined to care very much what the scriptures say to the point where I don't agree with my parents on any number of issues. It can't be easy for them to know that my disagreement with them on any number of concrete issues actually stems from the essentially shared principle that I, as I was taught, care what the scriptures say.

Something else I want to say in closing regarding generational sins and how the Lord may visit them upon succeeding generations. We may see that the visitation of that sin may actually be the inculcation of certain virtues as the parent sees it. A Christian parent who is a culture warrior and a rabid partisan for one side or another may find their child takes that up and they will see this as a success. In fact it could simply be the inculcation of the parents' idolatry into the child. The same might even apply when the child switches side. I had a friend who was as militantly paranoid an atheist for some time as he was a militantly paranoid Christian while he was a Christian. His essentially manic dread that the other side was out to destroy liberties hadn't changed. Fortunately he figured this out and has mellowed way, way out on those issues. All this is to say in perhaps too-serious a tone, what Bill Cosby joked about, that mothers have a curse and the curse is tha tyour children will be like you. And this curse works. Christ can break the power of that curse and has broken it but it sure does help if you repent of not just the sins of your fathers but even of their virtues.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

a lot on my mind

I'll write about some of it later. Having read some of Wendy's thoughts over at Practical Theology for Women I was struck by the story of a home-schooled by who sexually assaulted another child. This has had me thinking a lot about the reason parents may or may not home-school children, one of which is ostensibly to protect them from the sinful outside influences. This runs the risk of failing to observe how profoundly sinful your own children really are.

While I was in the thick of on-line debates and discussions at Mars Hill I recall debates about six or seven years ago about Christian parenting. I recall seeing people seriously propose that Samson's parents "dropped the ball". Why the anonymous posters on the publicly accessible unmoderated forums proposed this defies my comprehension, I just recall that some Christians were very serious in claiming that Samson's parents messed up and that was why he was so sinful.

Only the scriptures never say this! They don't even imply that Samson's parents made mistakes. We are shown clearly how they tried to dissuade their stupid horndog son from marrying a Phillistine but he would not listen to them and God had plans for that stupid horndog with superpowers. God in select cases is capable of usin gthe worst, most sinful attributes of a person to accomplish a plan that He has that we are not privy to.

So if a Christian parent discovers that he or she has raised a child who turns out to have not really been a Christian at all but has embraced whatever it is he or she was merely biding time to participate in at the earliest convenience that Christian parent is NOT a failure. This is not to disclaim parental responsibilities but simply to point out that even the most protected home-schooled kid has a heart full of sins (not all of them, mind you, consciously chosen because sin is not just about what we actively choose in defiance but also about all the ways we fall short even in our best intentions). Particularly as someone who has grown up as an American Protestant and seen how culture war this and counterculture of evangelicalism that has played out over the last twenty years I believe that many home-schooling parents are unintentionally setting themselves up for the most heathen generation of young adults this country will have seen in some time. But I don't feel like expanding upon this idea at the cost of sleep deprivation. This is more a hint of a wide range of topics I have been contemplating that I will get to later, God willing.

tying threads together: iMonk on women in evangelicalism, Mockingbird on conditional parenting, and me connecting it to homeschooling

I was intrigued by iMonk's recommendation of a book about women in evangelicalism.
I have also been thinking about evangelicalism and women. I have had a sometimes puzzling upbringing in which I heard it explained that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and you have to believe all of it but that Solomon and lots of biblical authors were simple-minded haters of women. The tension was in, if you will, hearing the necessity of young-earth creationism while also being told that the authors of many biblical books were misogynists, particularly in Proverbs where women were denigrated all the time.

Eventually I observed that this was a gross simplification of the wisdom literature that almost completely missed distinctions between a Proverbs 7 woman and a Proverbs 31 woman. Then, when I had noticed that distinction for a good chunk of my life I heard the troubling proclamation that the Proverbs 31 woman never REALLY existed but was simply an ideal to shoot for. Okay ... but that left the Proverbs 7 woman as being all too real.

Really there are times when I understand why evangelical feminism exists.

And there are times when I consider the nexus of home-schooling, quiverfull theologies to be potentially disastrous. More than a century ago laws were passed banning certain types of publicly displayed religious clothing in schools. Separation of church and state was valued precisely so there would be no Church of England equivalent in the United States and particularly so that Catholicism would not be too prominent in the land. Fast forward a century later and the separation of church and state that was lauded by churches that had a not-so-tacit majority in the culture is being denounced as a sign of how godless the United States has become. Ironically conservative Christians were getting upset about the consequences of precisely what they wanted.

I don't feel any need to get to the details of long-term unforeseen consequences of combining child labor restrictions with compulsory public education and prohibition or the New Deal. Christians, suffice it to say, have often created what they believe are their most pressing social problems simply by forcing the issue of what they want now in exchange for whatever may come later.

A fascinating and sad dynamic existed with Christians in medieval Europe. Jews weren't allowed in guilds because they were Jews so they often turned to the things they were allowed to do, get into money-lending and banking. That, in turn, reinforced the stereotype in the minds of Christians of the Jew as a greedy money-lender and a champion of sin even though if anyone had stepped back and considered the circumstances they might have seen that letting Jews work in trades could have pre-empted that whole social evil the Jew was so mired in.

I have grown skeptical about the efficacy of home-school for kids not because of the results. I have met home-schooled people who are living proof that it can be great. One such person wrapped up a doctorate in chemistry recently. Another is a happily married mother and a good friend.

But other home-schooled children were poorly served by this process, in my very unvarnished opinion. I've seen intellectually stunted people who, frankly, are never going to realize their intellectual or creative potential because they seem to have gotten more quiverfull and home-maker instruction than anything about how to integrate into adult society on any other grounds. Too many Christian parents who are attracted to home-schooling are attracted to it because they fear the godless influences in the public schools and not because their child's education is too important to them to NOT pursue directly. If as the scriptures say perfect love casts out fear then a parent who can only send his or her child to public school who loves their child can still be involved in the child's education. The idea that teachers at nine hours a day five days a week somehow have the lion's share of time with the child may be a legitimate concern ... but I'm creeped out by the way Christian parents think.

Let me put it this way, an older guy I know pointed out that people set up Christian schools because they saw how terrible things were in public schools or private schools. Then it turned out that Christian schools were as bad as the public schools and so Christian parents who saw this decided that home-schooling was going to be better. And then those parents discovered that their kids are just as sinful in any event as they would have been in public or private schools, Christian or not. Yep, it's painful,tragic, and infuriating I'm sure, but that's what I'm getting at. We as Christians are tempted to think that we need to protect our little ones from the evils of the outside world without realizing how much evil our little ones can embrace. Beating it or driving it out of them doesn't work because it certainly didn't work with us, did it?

That home-schooled kids can be sexually immoral, liars, cheaters, brawlers, bullies, apostates, and all the rest of the litany of sins is not something I see getting discussed much. For folks who don't hold that there is even such a thing as original sin I get that that discussion won't come up (though those folks might want to at least be aware of Piaget to the extent that the egocentric child does display the need to understand that the cosmos doesn't revolve around him or her).

I have heard a lot of chest-thumping Christian men say it is important to protect the women. Yeah, I have heard that a few times, particularly with respect to sexuality. But I have grown cynical about this because often I have seen a "protect from" mentality that has with it a "protect to" mentality that defines femininity and masculinity in ways that makes marriage and family an idol.

Let me be clearer, a woman who is raised with the quiverfull home-schooled experience and is told that marriage and child-rearing are the highest goods she can attain may simply not want that. She may come to believe that if that is the high earthly calling Christ has ordained for her that she'd just rather not be a Christian, even if she's ostensibly a good little home-schooled quiverfull girl in such and such a family. She has not really been given the good news of Christ but the good news of home-schooled quiverfull theology. She has also, probably, not necessarily been given the opportunity to build anything like a competent adult life for herself that doesn't involve a significant other.

A woman who leaves this and goes out to "live in sin" may appear to be sinning (because she is) but my potentially gruesome critique at this point is that soldiers and pilots understand the axiom that when the emergency comes you revert to your training. In other words, you may be the parent who trained her to so value the sexual relationship (i.e. marriage as the touchstone of all life) that even in her would-be rebellion she's just finding a different way to live out what you trained her to do. Real rebellion for a Reformed home-schooled quiverfull girl would be converting to Catholicism and becoming a nun!

And for men, well, the prospects are really not necessariily better. A home-schooled boy who grows into manhood may be just as intellectually stunted or, more pragmatically, have been trained to be a breadwinner in a globalizing economy where higher education is seen as more necessary for higher-paying work and social mobility but increasingly expensive out of any proportion to the net worth that education has in a job search. He will rightly suppose that college education isn't worth it but he will also likely suppose that higher education might make him a flaming liberal or a commie (let's face it, that is often a criticism of higher education by Christians drawn to homeschooling).

If he gets raised with the idea that socialists and heathens are bent on destroying everything that made this country founded on Christian principles great, well, then we get a fellow who may not hack it in the job market, has been raised to understand fatherhood as a central good, and who is not situated to get a "real" job to support a would-be wife and kids. If the wife at some point has to work it becomes his failure as a man and not a grim reality of the kind of economy and society we have. If work goes to migrant workers then a theology that redounds to racial resentment has been conveniently and probably witlessly set up.

Ironically the Christian parents who want to keep their little boys and girls safe from the ghetto of academic heathen liberalism can set up their own little ghetto that traps them. Those who rebel against this think they have broken free of it when they probably haven't, especially if they don't actually get the education they would need to be aware of alternatives, which is understandable given how expensive things are.

It is strange how when we have freedom, the freedom we as Americans supposedly crave and won't accept being deprived of, we can feel miserable. "You can do anything that you want to do" is great for Blues Clues episodes but the truth is that by the time you hit about 18 years of age I'm not sure anyone in his or her right mind REALLY thinks that is the case. the Greeks used to say that character is destiny and to go by the way Christians home-school it would seem that education is character. In their own respective ways the Christian home-schooling right and the secular "elite" left both believe the same thing regarding the way in which children are the future. But what if that isn't as true as we have told ourselves? An agnostic or atheist child can grow up to become a religous conservative just as a homeschooled quiverfull conservative Christian background can produce someone who is an atheist or a gay rights advocate.

The race is not to the swift nor victory to the strong but time and chance happen to them all. How often we attempt to sell ourselves on the idea that this just can't possibly be true. We want the silver bullet, the magic words, the things that will ensure that where others have screwed up WE will get things right.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

a disorganized rant about 9

The new animated film 9 is, in a word, lame. But one word will not suffice. It is a visually pretty work but it is trite at essentially every level. Now I have friends who sincerely believe that trite and cliche is good because whatever is cliche is what "works". Not so with 9. This is a film that revives the trope of technology has no heart or soul and that humanity was destroyed for want of imbueing its technology with some of its own soul.

Nonsense. A film like 9 is essentially dishonest and trafficking in platitudes of the worst sort. I have always hated films that involve a simplified triumph of the human spirit and one of the most essential problems of a film like 9 is it is both unreflective and lacks any sense of irony (no, the fearless fighter being a girl doesn't count because that usurpation of expectation is so mundane as to become a trope).

The solution to the dystopia in the world of 9 is to follow the heart but the human heart is what created the problem. Oh, but that would be the heart of a general rather than the heart of a scientist who nevertheless regrets what he has done in somehow only putting his intellect into "the machine" rather than his soul, which he saw fit to put into burlap sacks.

I suppose I could ignore that the character 9 is the one who unwittingly activates the Machine. The Machine then goes about hunting for the nine soas to feed on their souls. Something that is never really explained about the machine is why it is the villain of the story. If the Machine assimilates all the elements of the scientist's soul then why wouldn't it become the thing that brings a new form of life to the earth? There is no real explanation. There is also no explanation why five parts of the scientist's soul in the nine can magically (yes, magically) make it rain. The whole world presented to us through nine is a sadly simplified dichotomy of machines and technology and intellect equals "evil" and magic and soul and feelings equals "good". The idea that neither unaided can accomplish the best of things for life never gets discussed. There isn't even a paltry hommage to the need for "balance".

Now films about how technology overtakes the nobler elements of humanity aren't new. in fact the idea that the intellect and the heart need a mediator to bring both together for the common good is as old as Fritz Lang's Metropolis! So there is certainly nothing wrong with attempting to address the moral quandary of balancing competing ideals and goods. The essense of tragedy isn't the triumph of evil over good but the terrible price that is paid when one good must be sacrificed for the other. The triumph of evil over good in this world is more properly the domain of horror, while in a tragedy there is room for the reader to see that a tragedy comes when filial piety is set against the welfare of the state (the most famous plays by Sophocles).

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet lays not in the star-crossed lovers themselves as in their respective families not setting aside their differences for the sake of two kids who love each other. Those two kids are stupid horndogs who want to get laid and are willing to sacrifice loyalty to their families, which doesn't make them heroes ... but the families are so dead set (literally) on destroying each other they don't realize that imposing their mutual animosity on everyone in their respective families will lead to destruction.

Nine won't have any of that and while Acker may aspire to tell us a fable about the need for humanity the moer trenchent, honest, and challenging fable about humanity would be WALL-E. There the machine's primary goal is to PRESERVE human life and it does so to the flaw that the captain articulates, "I don't want to survive I want to live." Paradoxically the Nine have the same mission the autopilot of the Axiom has.

WALL-E's vision of technology is compelling because WALL-E embodies for us our best and worst qualities. He can transcend his basest directives (collect junk and sort it) and yet his very being reveals the limits of our society. He is the last waste allocation load lifter earth class of his kind. And amidst our trash he finds his own treasures, relics of a time when humanity was still on earth.

There is a difference between creating characters that exemplify the paradoxes of ourselves and simply wanting to have it both ways. Acker's #9 is the latter example. 9 unwittingly awakens the machine and yet must become the titular hero of his own tale through heart and soul and burlap limbs. The scientist creates the red-eyed evil machine that has no soul but it doesn't occur to him to simply give the machine a soul. Nah, he empties his soul into nine burlap sacks that turn into nine bickering characters who are types.

As if cliche piled upon cliche weren't annoying enough there's the old canard of the evil military leaders. The stereotype of war-mongering soldiers is popular in almost any epoch for the simple reason that if what you do is fight for a living the stereotype sticks, much like the stereotype that guitarists in rock bands blow through copious amounts of cocaine and groupies. There is some basis for the stereotype but it is generally a notorious minority that establishes the reputation for all, much like the Fifth and Ninth symphonies establish Beethoven's reputation when many people who can sing snippets of those symphonies can't identfy the rest of his work.

Acker has a commendable visual style but his action scenes are by the numbers and his characterization is tepid. It's not fair but, really, even a Pixar short like Partly Cloudy displays more depth of character development in a more compressed narrative. It may be that the lesson for this year in film is that admirable short films that become feature length films don't always improve in the transition, which is what both 9 movies this year (9, and District 9) may or may not prove. To be fair I haven't seen District 9 yet so I'm suspending judgment about how well it comes off.

9 is a let-down and my advice is you're better served by revisiting Up or Coraline.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

blog entries pending

I have to vent my spleen about 9 at some point and I don't feel like doing it right now. If you've thought about seeing it and haven't seen it already don't waste your time or money. Go watch Coraline or Up again instead. I will vent my spleen about the film later, but for now I don't feel like doing so.