Wednesday, September 01, 2010

grown-up stories, kids' stories, and how grown-ups convince themselves they're not watching kids' stories

Something curious happened when David Zahl posted my essay on the Toy Story trilogy over on Mockingbird. There was a comment asking why someone would attempt to see gospel themes in a children's cartoon movie. I'll give the anonymous poster quite a bit of credit for granting that not all cartoon movies are for children and not all movies made for children are cartoons. I certainly would never want my nieces or nephew watching Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, for instance, just as Singin' in the Rain can be enjoyed by children but isn't a cartoon. The question was, broadly, how examining children's entertainment constituted a serious contribution to Christian thinking. That's a fair question and I think I have a fair answer.

If you want to see where metanarratives that shape the ethics and epistlemology of a culture really develop look at children's literature. The stories that adults tell each other are simply "grown up" versions of narratives we learned as children. We can dress things up in more "adult" situations and scenarios but the ultimate ethical or ontological discussions do not appreciably differ from what children are told most of the time. "You can be anything that you want to be, do anything that you want to do." This is a proud intellectual lineage in American thought and it is not less pertinent to our lives that this meta-ethic is more blatantly and outlandishly proclaimed in childrens' entertainment than it is in "adult" entertainment.

The stories we tell our children are the stories we tell ourselves which means that in the grand scheme of things the stories we make children learn are the most formative in how they perceive the world around them. Even when they reject those stories they often embrace whatever they perceive to be different, which means they are still even in their defiance beholden to the narratives and metanarratives given to them in childhood.

If one may be so broad-brushed as the anonymous poster, tragedies are for adults and comedies are for children. If tragedy is dad telling you that you won't make a difference in a cruel and indifferent world then comedy is where mom tells you that you are wonderful and special and she and dad love you and you're going to grow up to do and be something great. Of course Oscar Wilde probably put it better by pointing out that all comedies end with weddings and all tragedies begin with a marriage.

Now having watched more childrens' entertainment than most unmarried men as part of being an uncle to a few young girls, the metanarrative of America has a secular and a religious form. The secular form is probably best exemplified by a song in the Blues Clues Blue's Big Musical Special--you can be anything that you wanna be, do anything that you wann do. Now as far as children's programming goes you could do a lot worse than Blue's Clues (well, Steve Burns era Blue's Clues, anyway). The show was fun, don't get me wrong, and it had a cameo by Ray Charles as a talking treble clef. Really, folks, you could do so much worse than early Blue's Clues as childrens' programming goes!

Moreover Blues Clues is far from the only or most pernicious culprit in promulgating the idea that you can have total mastery over your life if you just dream. In fact I would say that the idea is less disastrous for children, who get told that sentiment through song but then get told when to go to bed, than for the adults who sell each other as well as children on the idea that if you follow your bliss things will work out. Braveheart is just a variation of a Blues Clues episode sold to adults. I'm the kind of bachelor who can see both forms of entertainment and, honestly, I come down on the side of preferring Blues Clues. The characters are more subtly drawn and more finely nuanced than they are in Braveheart. Really, anyone who pays any serious attention to childrens' entertainment may notice that the characterization in a Mel Gibson film is probably going to be less rather than more nuanced than characterization in a children's show.

We are taught, more or less, that we have the capacity to be another William Wallace. William Wallace is held in such high regard some people have fancied themselves William Wallace II or something very mcuh like it. Never mind that Mel Gibson said that was a fictionalized invention to sell movie tickets. Never mind that, even. The Braveheart narrative in that film is demonstrated in so many other stories that it still sums up a metanarrative we have inculcated into us from childhood.

Braveheart gave us a narrative of how one man changed the course of history and took a stand for freedom. Oh, and that would be the song that says you can be anything that you want to be and do anything that you want to do. It's sort of like swearing by your life and your love of it that you will not live for any one and ask that no one would live for you. Find and fulfill your destiny. Braveheart spirituality has its place ... I guess ... but over the last twenty some years of my post-high-school life I have come to see that whole approach to life to be for people who assume they are born winners. I don't assume that. I haven't seen the end of my story yet other than that I know death is inevitable. The entire narrative arc of Braveheart may, if you will, be annihilated in one pithy observation by Koholeth--it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion. Braveheart is a story that tells us at every possible level that it is better to be a dead lion than a living dog. Sorry, Bill-in-the-mind-of-Mel-Gibson, but scripture says that's wrong. I thought you were a better Catholic than that. Oh well, Gibson admitted his Wallace was an invention a while back.

Now if Koholeth said that it is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of laughter most of us keep wanting to go to the house of laughter and there is no surer sign of this than the stories we tell our children and, really, how can I fault that? Even someone as grim in his view of humanity as Hayao Miyazaki believes that though there is no hope for humanity as a race it is wrong to instill in a children a belief that there is no hope for the future or hope for improvement. There is, indeed, room for hope, but we must be careful what we teach ourselves and our children to hope for. As a poster on the BHT put it, it would seem as though many of us American Christians have been, well, the link pretty much says it all by itself.

Aaron J. Smith

I gave up on the “God has a special plan for your life” nonsense.

It seems to me that we (Americans) get so angry at God because he disregards what our metaphorical mothers told us: you are special and deserve to be the center of attention.

The story isn’t about us.

Tragedy has this way of stripping from us the idea that we are the Luke Skywalker of history. God’s plan of redemption does not include us in the staring role. But, tragedy sucks balls; it hurts, it steals from us things that we hold dear to our heart. We get angry because at the heart of our hurt is often the question “how could God do this to me?” The unspoken “doesn’t he know who I am?” is usually the last thing we want to admit we are thinking.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be hurt, sad, upset, confused, etc… by what happens in life. Life in a broken world is painful. Most times, it doesn’t make sense no matter how we justify it.

It makes no sense to us that Michael died. Why on earth would God allow us and people we care about to go through the pain of losing a child? Despite all our best efforts, we are still in the poor house: wtf is that all about God?

These questions and the like are, in my opinion, part of the human experience. They are natural responses to the suck of life that we know all too well.

My anger at God isn’t that I don’t understand; it’s that he allowed the pain to touch me, the special flower and chosen child. But again, I’m not the hero of this story. I’m not some Neo whom all of history has been waiting for.

I am just me. And God loves me with an unfailing love, even though I’m nothing special. If life was the movie Braveheart, I would be one of the faceless solders that probably gets an English pike to the head.

Jesus is the hero. My life is about him, just like Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptizer, Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Maybe I wouldn’t get so angry if I remembered this more.

In which a bachelor (me) links to a succinct yet thorough blog entry about cloth diapering

I was at ry and mi's wedding last year and it was a beautiful, joyous wedding. And now my comrades are expecting their first little one. In anticipating this mi has written about the pros and cons of different forms of cloth diapers and the arguments in favor of cloth diapering. Even though I'm a bachelor and won't find immediate use for this information I, nevertheless, found it so clear, informative and fun to read I'm linking to it.

Yeah, not what you'd expect from a blog that has concerned itself almost entirely with theology and classical music but, hey, I have linked to other websites I like to read and this one just happens to be about cloth diapers. I lived for about ten years with or near my sister and brother-in-law and in this kind of extended family scenario I ended up picking up a few things about diapers and the reasons parents go one way or another. I've also seen more than a few twitterpated lovebirds make goo-goo eyes at each other who have never considered things like this. So if you're dating somebody and it's serious, hey, go read this, because mi is doing you a favor by succinctly spelling out the options on cloth diapering. You don't know how soon you may find this overview useful (preferably after and not before your wedding day).