On Smart Phones, Freedom, and Alephs

Aleph

When people ask me what makes something “literary,” I typically say something about how literature reads you even as you read it. Literary art provides an opportunity to think.

The moments at which my job is most satisfying are those in which the stories and poems I’ve assigned point an accusing finger at me and draw back the curtain between the mystical and the “real” in my life. I love it when the book I’m reading seems to know me, and I really love it when it tells me I’m not OK.

I have, like many others, brought my smart phone into numerous aspects of my life. It is communication, entertainment, work, and study; so much of what makes me human has been given over to the machine. There is a certain liberty in this. I am now able to find answers and questions anywhere I am. Wherever I am, the universe is before me in all its complexity, its strangeness, and its dullness. So remarkable is the device, I never stop to ask whether it is me or the phone that’s the tool.

I’ve thought of instruments like my Samsung as a kind of power so liberating I’ve even encouraged my students to wield it, but I wonder if I’ve been living a free life within a prison.

The Aleph (short story collection)

The Aleph (short story collection) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I taught Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph.” The story is landmark of magical realism, and therefore asks the reader to not only question the distinction between magic and real, but to look for the magic in the real.

The story’s narrator, Borges, has an irritating acquaintance, Carlos Argentino, who is the cousin of Borges’s late love interest, Beatriz Viterbo. Carlos Argentino is a bad poet who, as it turns out, has access to a magical point in the universe in which all other points in the universe can be seen. This is the Aleph, and it gives Argentino direct visual access to all the objects, landscapes, and people about which he writes his terrible poetry.

The story is awe-inspiring as a work of literary art, and the paragraphs in which Borges describes what he finally sees in the Aleph are particularly mesmerizing. In addition, it is an extremely funny story, with Borges’s subtle digs at Carlos Argentino’s ineptness and inflated ego providing the narrative spine of the story. I was therefore a little disappointed that it proved to be a little alienating and difficult for my students to enthusiastically embrace.

To combat moments moments like this, I’ve developed a little bag of teaching tricks, and I pulled one of them out during our discussion of “The Aleph.” The internet has given us tools for live polling via text messaging and Tweeting. When I have difficulty getting students to pose questions or make observations in class, I will from time to time project one of these live polling environments to the screen in our class. Often, this will jump-start conversation by providing students with a concrete statement or question to respond to.

In this particular case, however, our retractable white screen was as silent as my students. This was slightly disappointing, but I was mostly irritated by the fact that the vast majority of the class were clearly typing things into their smartphones. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but even I could deduce that I was merely providing them cover while they mentally exited my classroom and entered the intoxicating liberation of cyberspace.

Eventually, I squeezed a little water from stone and we had a decent conversation about the story. One moment in particular seemed to draw some interest. After Borges has experienced the majestic, God-like view the Aleph offers, he stumbles into the street and makes the following observation:

In the street, on the Constitución stairs, in the subway, all the faces struck me as familiar. I feared that not a single thing was left to cause me surprise; I was afraid I would never be quit of the impression that I had ‘returned.’ Happily, at the end of a few nights of insomnia, forgetfulness worked in me again.

This puzzling moment was productive for us. It raised questions about the value of mystery, wonder, and imagination. Carlos Argentino had endless, literal access to everything in the universe and his poetry suffered for it (though he ironically garners acclaim from the publishing industry – another hilarious cultural critique Borges offers). His direct, instant access reduced his poetry to pale, mimetic description. His poetry was strangled by the brutish hands of fact and the oxygen of imagination was cut off.

The fear that Borges experiences then is a powerful one, and the relief his forgetfulness brings is tangible. The overwhelming clarity of the Aleph threatened to sap the very joy from life, which lies in encountering the unknown and struggling to make sense of it.

After class, I wandered back to my office and noticed just how readily and enthusiastically students slip into the black mirrors of their smartphones at any opportunity. Like Carlos Argentino scurrying under his basement steps to submit to the easy immediacy of the Aleph, we compulsively reach for our devices to connect us to our digitized universe. And this is by no means exclusive to the young. At playgrounds, restaurants, and school assemblies all over the industrialized world, people of all ages, myself included, shun the profound, magical surprise of the street, the stairs, and the subway for the pale titillation of the virtual.

What to ultimately do about this new reality is unclear to me. Until I figure it out, I will leave my phone in the car when I go out to eat with my family. Perhaps the answer lies in the unexpected things children say.

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Dave Ramsey and the End of Community

I once spent a little too much money on a coat at a small, struggling mall store owned and solely-staffed by a really nice Christian man. This was apparently un-Christian of me.

The Dave Ramsey Show

The Dave Ramsey Show (Photo credit: .imelda)

Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University has found a vibrant marketplace in churches across America. The program of responsible spending and saving that Ramsey has packaged together speaks to many of Christendom’s historic values; temperance, wisdom, and modesty, to name a few. Particularly in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession, FPU has been instrumental in helping many people responsibly live within their means.

Ramsey has, of course, clumsily talked his way into the Culture Wars as of late, but I don’t want to use this space to pile on his comments about the poor. Instead, I’d like to reflect on the consistency of his Financial Peace with the the notion of Christian Peace.

I too have gone through the program, which was a series of videos and homework assignments designed to systematically identify belt-tightening and investment opportunities in the student’s actual finances. I won’t spoil the details of Ramsey’s system, but I will say that it was, in an amateur’s opinion, pretty logical advice.

I was never entirely comfortable with the enterprise, however.

For one thing, there was, to me anyway, a crassness and a brashness about Ramsey’s on-stage persona that often made me squint like Clint Eastwood in an old Spaghetti Western. His beaming self-confidence, his carefully manicured “working-man’s clothes,” and his absolute faith in individualism can at times make one feel as though they are watching a particularly bad TED Talk.

These particular complaints all spring from personal preference however, and, though I find these rhetorical strategies to be an uncomfortable fit with the Christian ethics Ramsey tries to tie his product to, they are not what most unsettles me about the enterprise.

What is most disturbing about Christendom’s relationship with Financial Peace University is the extent of Dave Ramsey’s influence and the fact that his ideas are not simply taken as wise advice about personal finance, but as a broad philosophy about the nature of human communities. In short, the problem with Ramsey is not one of kind, but of degree. To live within one’s means is good. To live within one’s own isolated economic reality is not.

Without giving away any of his specific financial success secrets, I came away from Dave Ramsey’s sales pitch with an overall sense that the responsible person will seek to take such command of his or her own finances as to completely withdraw from any shared economic relationship with others. In the Ramsey-verse, all debt is evil, while goodness is found in the individual consumer prying the lowest price from a retailer, no matter the social cost.

This is not simply advice, it is philosophy, and it is a socially dangerous one. It is not dangerous because it favors the Wal-Marts of the world over local businesses (though it certainly does). No, the danger of Ramsey’s philosophy lies in its lack of imagination about what human beings are. It reduces each of us to isolated economic functionaries whose value is primarily measured by purchasing power and accumulated liquid wealth.

What this philosophy undercooks is the fact that humans need other humans. In fact, part of what makes us human is our dependence upon relationships with one another. Those relationships are social, sexual, and even economic.

Many of the Bible verses we’ve committed to memory – “Do unto others” etc… – emphasize the need to de-centralize self-interest in Christian community. Not many people in Christendom would seriously advocate self-centeredness as an ethical standard in friendships or romantic relationships, yet our wholesale adoption of Ramsey’s product (and I keep emphasizing this basic fact of the enterprise’s nature) basically advocates centralizing the self in our economic relationships. This puzzles me.

People will surely argue that I am ignoring moments when the product mentions the ethics of community, and certainly I remember a few obligatory nods to things like giving to charity and so on. And sure, I suppose that if an individual becomes rich, they can conceivably give away more money.

This is theoretically plausible, but in the context of FPU’s overall emphasis on self-empowerment, even this act of giving is itself one of power, not of the powerlessness that is the emphasis of the Christian Gospel.

Save your money and spend it wisely.

Give your life away to others recklessly.

I leave it to the reader to reconcile those two philosophies.

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Mark Driscoll and Christian-on-Christian Crime

By now, most people who would care about such things already know about the allegations of plagiarism against Mark Driscoll, the Seattle-based megachurch pastor. For those who wish to get caught up on the situation, Slate ran a fabulous take-down of Driscoll that should fill in the gaps, here.

Pastor Mark preaching at the Temple of Artemis

Pastor Mark preaching at the Temple of Artemis (Photo credit: Mars Hill Church)

His guilt or innocence is less interesting to me than the public conversation about him. I frankly have rather low expectations for much Christian writing, so the idea that a Christian Bestseller is less than academically rigorous is not exactly world-shaking to me. Andy Crouch wrote what I think is the best response to this situation, and he makes that same point. Crouch’s main point, however, is a brilliant one; that the major problem with the Driscoll plagiarism affair is that is an example of a dangerous idolatry among believers, a point I will return to at the end.

I am, however, still haunted by the question of how people of faith should respond to one another.

One thing I constantly try to do in class is to get my largely Christian students to think critically about their faith. “Critical” is the critical word here, because this goal necessitates casting suspicion upon people who ostensibly believe as they do. This sometimes causes friction with students who take an broad “us against them” view of the role of salt and light in the world. 

This conflict spilled over into my personal life as well. Like many people, I posted a snarky link to the above Slate article on my Facebook page, with a comment along the lines of “Hey Driscoll, is it the kick-butt Jesus or the panzy Jesus that cites his sources,” alluding to (and let’s just admit it — poking fun at) Driscoll’s famously hyper-masculine view of the Christian faith. There was a pretty good conversation that followed that link, but I later noticed, in other friends’ feeds, status updates that complained about Christians publicly complaining about other Christians (I know, I know. The irony of that was not lost on me either. It was all I could do to refrain from pointing it out — you guessed it — publicly). 

Being who I am, the whole thing reminds me of any number of Philip Roth stories. The Ghost Writer, for example, spends much of its narrative energy chronicling young Nathan Zuckerman’s conflict with his Jewish community over the scandal of his fiction. The story naturally bears striking parallels to Roth’s own personal history with his community’s reaction to his work going back to the beginning of his career. Essentially, the conflict boils down to “is it good for the Jews.”

The communal fear on display in this story is not without merit, but also not healthy from a perspective of self-reflection. I wonder if Roth’s work offers parallels that Christians might make use of as we adjudicate Driscoll’s actions in public. Primarily, we must ask if it is truly bad for the Christian public image for believers to show that we are thinking beings and that we demand certain ethical standards be met in spite of our “oneness.” Is it really better that we remain publicly silent while the culture of idolatry that Crouch identifies proliferates and is rewarded?

I believe this all points to a paradox built into the very fabric of the faith. I’m sure than many Christians who prefer the “Thin Blue Line” approach to controversy point to New Testament passages like 1 Corinthians 6 as their guiding scripture. The edicts of those verses demand that Christians show a united front to non-believers and that they not bring public lawsuits against one another. There is, of course, much wisdom here, but I think it must be doing more than asking “is it good for the Christians?” It is asking of believers to rise above the crassness and self-interestedness of their non-believing neighbors. If Crouch is right, then are Driscoll’s critics not identifying a similar crassness in his public-celebrity persona?

This is a complication, but the paradox I mentioned above lies at a different level. The passage from 1 Corinthians. Has that letter not become a public scolding of Christians by another Christian? Does the visibility of that fracture within Christendom not build respect for the faith? What is good for the Christians?

 

 

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Falling into Fiction: On Meeting Philip Roth

Philip Roth, Nobel or not, means more to me than any other writer. Reading his work for the first time was like stumbling blindly into an experience both familiar and alien, and built wholly from words. These words did not represent the life I had lived, but they captured the life I’d felt. Roth’s words projected a truer than true landscape of human relationships on the wall of my Platonic cave. Through the experience of his fiction, the skirmishes between my individuality and my communities found a vocabulary and a mythology — and this magical purgatory was entirely constructed out of words. It all hung on the word.

The precise word to call just the right sense and emotion into being. For all the joy this act brings to the right reader, it is, most surely, a brutal task for the writer.

Roth, now 80, has cited this brutality in his decision to call it a career.

As disappointed as I am, I also understand.

I’ve been struggling for months to capture a particular experience in words and, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, preserve it for posterity. Yet the weight of this task has been too much for me and linguistic paralysis set in. It isn’t writer’s block I’m struggling with (I know this because there is no such thing). Rather, I feel too much responsibility to choose the right words to capture something truly unique and special. Like the speaker in Keats poem, for whom the urn was “Sylvan historian, who canst thus express/ A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme,” I feel my words can’t do justice to the event.

Fiction, Life, and the Park Bench

Last March, I had the honor of presenting a paper on Roth’s work at a conference in celebration of his 80th birthday. The conference was in Newark, New Jersey, which may sound disappointing to most readers, but it is Roth’s hometown and we were treated to some opportunities that were truly remarkable for people interested in his fiction. In addition to the excellent academic conference, there were guided tours of Roth’s childhood home and other special events. The main event was a speaking engagement featuring a litany of literary dignitaries and culminating with a talk by Roth himself, followed by a birthday party at which we would occupy the same room as The Great Man.

The “life in photos” collection at the Newark Public Library was special enough, but when I broke out a copy of Goodbye, Columbus while there and read passages describing the park across the street, I was overcome. In a strange haze, I hobbled to the bench Neil sits on as he surveys the park and library, reflecting on his attachment to Newark.

Here is a point where my failings as a writer taunt me. I don’t have access to The Words.

It was as if I had briefly entered the novella I’d so long admired. For a moment, I was able to step out of my existence and into the fictional body of Neil Klugman. Postmoderns like myself love to talk about the collapse of ontological distinction between fiction and the actually-existing world, but, so help me, it happened. Either I diminished into the world Roth’s words wrought, or those words escaped the covers of their book and sat with me on that park bench. I cannot stress the strangeness of this moment enough and, if you stick with me, I will return to it again.

Falling into Fiction

Our Disney-Roth vacation also included a bus tour that took us to various Newark landmarks, Rothian and otherwise. Each bus load of wide-eyed academics was given a tour guide who gracefully read passages from Roth’s work that described the locations we visited. The readings were often, as one would expect from Roth’s work, humorous, but what stood out to me was the descriptive power of the writer’s words. Though Newark has morphed into an altogether new social space in the 50 years since Roth became its emotional historian, his words, when religiously invoked in those spaces, collapsed time and space. Just as with my experience on Neil Klugman’s park bench, Roth’s words, when experienced in the places they froze in literary time, recreated the modern world in the image of Roth’s Atlantean Jewish Newark.

In a comically appropriate way, the driver of my bus was surely the doppelganger of the elderly Arthur Miller, and, fittingly our representative from the world of fiction drove us headlong into that world.

The tour’s highlight was a dual stop at Roth’s youth. First, we pulled in front of his old school, Weequahic High, and we scurried into the cold to snap photos of ourselves in front of its entrance. Here is my own selfie:

2013-03-19 13.05.03

The postmodern romantic in me likes to think that with each of these photos, we not only commemorated our visit to literary history, we hurled ourselves into literature. This act intensified when we boarded our bus again and headed to the pleasure-dome of Alexander Portnoy’s own “Kubla Khan,” The Philip Roth House.

Located just around the corner from the high school whose daily lessons we interrupted, the house that Roth grew up in politely sits in a quiet, even pleasant neighborhood, so utterly dignified that it disorients the devoted reader of Roth’s sometimes raucous fiction. Undaunted by all this oppressive respectability, my colleagues and I tumbled out of the bus for voluminous digital photographs of Alexander Portnoy’s house of Atreus, each shutter-click seemingly inaugurating dirty jokes by extremely smart people. There was a sense that we’d been dissolved into Roth’s great fiction and were powerless to behave like folks with Ph.Ds. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself immensely, nor that I regret the dirty jokes and neighborhood disturbance. I am simply in awe of the experience.

 The Counterlife

As the day drew us closer to The Event, my metamorphosis into a fictional character escalated. At a stop on the way back to the fabulous Newark Museum, where the festivities would be held, I was approached by a reporter who asked if I’d like to comment on the tour. I didn’t catch the gentleman’s name at the time and I assumed he was a reporter for a local, Newark paper. Professionally and politely, he asked me several questions about my experience and, still on a fanboy high, I answered them. As it turned out, the reporter, Matthew Schuerman was a reporter for WNYC, New York City’s NPR affiliate, and he completed my voyage into Wonderland by describing me, in his article, as almost sounding like one of Roth’s “compulsive, self-doubting characters.” He might as well have introduced me as “the nebbish, Danny Anderson.” Note that I don’t blame Mr. Schuerman for this. He crafted a fine account of the event, and it isn’t his fault that I had chased the White Rabbit so far down the hole.

Oh, and, hmm…well…there’s also…you know…an…audio package that was aired and features my interview. Here’s the link: http://www.wnyc.org/story/276933-bus-tour-brings-philip-roths-newark-life/

 Out of Body Experiences and Jumping Valences

My pumpkin eventually brought me to the ball in my best suit and I lightly entered the ballroom, certain that I was going to be found out and escorted home — or at least back out into the streets of Newark, with Cory Booker nowhere around to save me. Yet this did not happen. Instead, I saw some of my fellow academics, many of whom are actual big-wigs in the profession. The fact that they were as outwardly shaken by our shared out-of-body experience as I was either comforted me or added to my terror. I could not distinguish.

Nonetheless, we chatted about our excitement, hit the fruit-and-cheese table, and I avoided the alcohol, thinking water was the wise choice given my recent postmodern dissolution into fictionality. Like Bob Hoskins’ fear of Toon Town in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I was sure I was dangerously close to becoming Alvin Pepler and I decided not to take unnecessary risks.

So, feigning a witty and urbane manner, I nibbled on my kiwi fruit and cheddar as the small talk took us. Events then began to snowball.

First, someone identified Paul Auster in the crowd. City of Glass is a favorite novel of mine and I involuntarily gasped at the sight of its writer. Our celery sticks were abandoned as we started to scamper into the crowd, pointing out literati as if we were playing nerd-bingo. “Look there’s Nathan Englander.” “I heard Mia Farrow was supposed to be here.” “Is that Jonathan Lethem? I almost wrote about him in my dissertation.”

Then.

My index finger rose and directed awe-inspired traffic to Don…“DeLillo! He wrote White Noise, for Pete’s sake!” I unashamedly swooned in front of my colleagues, and not because of DeLillo’s purple sweater.

By this time, the room had been transformed into a great atom, with excited electrons like myself whirling around it. I had no idea how not to buzz around in such company. I just write and teach about these people, I don’t rub shoulders with them. Yet, as a former person who was now a fictionalized avatar, I did.

Then, through an archway that divided the marble room from the marble hall that encircled it, I saw Philip Roth. He was maybe 100 feet from me, thin, healthy, and dressed in black. As if bombarded by an intense heat source, the highly charged electrons in the room tried to jump levels, from the nucleus of finger foods and plastic wine glasses, up the brief staircase to the energy source dressed like Johnny Cash. Physics got in the way of my migration, however, as the staircase served as a bottleneck that trapped me long enough for Roth to be removed to the auditorium in preparation for the talks in his honor.

C-SPAN fortunately recorded this part of the event, so I need not try and recreate my experience of it in words. Words, it seems to me, are sirens, tempting sailors to their doom. An experience like this, that was for me so meaningful and profound, begs me to not let it drift off onto a Sea of Forgetting. Never again, I suspect, will my consciousness touch the border between our physical world and that of our cultural imagination. I have been tortured by the desire to keep its magic ever existent, carrying it with me through my everyday life without it falling victim to the Everyday. I could do so, I suppose, by boring people with my story for the rest of my life, like the speaker in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” But it seems to me that this is what writing is for. The tortuous act of rendering multifarious experience into words is supposed to accomplish the work of Keats’ Grecian Urn.

Yet finding those words is brutal. Worse yet is the act of placing the words into the right relationships, and capturing not only fact and chronology, but emotion, newness, and wonder. This is, I think, what lurks behind Roth’s retirement. A lifetime of finding words, typing them, becoming discontented with them, erasing them, and replacing them is more than I can imagine bearing. Let me just say that I’ve never been more captivated by a speaker in my life. Listening to Roth read a few pages from Sabbath’s Theater was what the Romantics meant by sublime. Thank God for C-SPAN’s videographers and sound engineers. Do yourself a favor and take some time to watch it here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/311957-1

Shaking the Hand that Shook the Liver

I had assumed that Roth’s speech would be the end of the evening, and that would have been enough. There was more, however. The attendees, great and small, would gather once again in the marble Xanadu of the Newark Museum to wish Roth a happy 80th birthday and consume pieces of an amazing cake, which was baked and frosted into images of Roth’s novels. I ate a piece of Nemesis, myself.

Standing near Roth while we sang and toasted to his honor (Louise Erdrich provided a toast in Ojibwe — Roth responded that he had wanted her to “jump out of a cake”), was, I thought, the culminating moment in my escape from tyrannical reality. I was wrong.

Roth proceeded to sit down at a table and, organically and without prompt or organization, two greeting lines formed. Still uncomfortable in my alternative-universe skin, I suppose, I hesitated to join the line. Meeting Roth terrified me. I tried even to avoid eye, let alone physical, contact, as I didn’t wish for my carriage to revert back to a pumpkin at an embarrassing moment. My dissertation adviser, friend, and mentor, Judy Oster, however, pushed me into line, providing me with a gracious and loving slap in the back of the head.

As I waited, I watched others greet the man and I was jealous that they actually seemed to have something to say to him. I am, in professional circles, rather a Nobody. I feel that my great contribution is almost entirely in the classroom and not the journal. So I watched and waited my turn, jumping in and out of line to snap pictures of the others, who I now realize were just as awestruck as I was. The childlike giddiness with which they took in their own experience of the event was a truly heartwarming sight. That people who had held me in such envious awe were, in the end, not so different than me, was an oddly comforting epiphany.

As my camera was passed to a colleague for my own photo op, Roth’s intimidating gaze landed on me at last. Maybe it was the lifetime of breaking experience down into sensory-rich words that gave Roth’s eyes such an intensity, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was under observation even in conversation. Were he to write another novel, what great schmuck might I inspire?

Surrendering at the outset, I decided to get out quickly. I said, “Mr. Roth, I don’t want to take up any of your time. I just want to say that it’s a great honor to meet you and to wish you a happy birthday.”

I was satisfied with this. I had spoken to him and shaken his hand. I needed no further magic. Yet there was some. As if to convince me that I was not just a disembodied consciousness perceiving an experience, but also a being to be perceived myself, Roth held me up: “Ok. Now who are you?”

“Who?” The events of the day had somehow almost made me forget that I was a Who. Ironically, Roth had reached within the novel I’d sunk into and pulled me back out into my own skin. The creator of fiction re-established my reality. I was not “the nebbish, Danny Anderson,” I was, again, “Danny Anderson.” A name that once having recovered, I announced to the man shaking my hand. And then, “I’m just a teacher, and I wanted to say how much I admired what you did tonight in your talk. You made literature come alive in me in exactly the way I want it to come alive in my students.”

Roth politely listened to me, we shook hands again, and I ceded my place at the table to the next admirer.

I walked away, restored to my body and name, emerged from Wonderland, filled with an extraordinary magic and the dread of losing it.

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Christian Kryptonite

Kryptonite

Kryptonite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For some reason, I can’t get away from Superman this week (is it the abs, do you think?). My last post puzzled over Man of Steel, I brought the movie up in my Introduction to Literature class, and here I am responding to more critics of the film.

This time, I want to address the phenomenon of Christians taking umbrage with the Christologizing of Kal-El.

Lately, I’ve been on the hunt for journals of cultural criticism that aren’t stupid and petty. The quest led me to an article calledMan of Steel and the tiredness of Christ Figures” at a website called think Christian. The author, Josh Larsen, has written a thoughtful and somewhat surprising diatribe against finding Jesus in secular movies, Man of Steel being the occasion for his argument.

I find the article intriguing, if only because it is so unexpected. The overwhelming trend in Christian cultural criticism (if such a thing exists) seems to be to (maybe a bit desperately) usurp popular cultural artifacts and re-purpose them as extended metaphors for the Cross. I think there must be some money to be made here in packaging youth group bible study curricula or something. “Finding Jesus in True Blood.” Coming to a Christian bookstore near you.

But I digress.

At any rate, Larsen argues that this is a wasteful endeavor and he makes a sound case for his position. In addition, I find it admirable that someone writing for what seems to be a mainstream Christian publication has the courage to stand against that very current. His willingness to challenge cultural orthodoxy is a welcome sign. Somehow though, his claim doesn’t sit entirely well with me.

The following statement is where I get stuck:

It seems to me that the practice of identifying Christ figures almost always brings more to the movies at hand than it does to our understanding of Christ. It adds religiosity and resonance (even if neither are intended), yet rarely informs our faith. As a theological exercise, Christ-figuring is a one-way street.

Larsen is a good writer, and the claim he makes here offers an insightful dissection of a shallowness in much Christian thinking about culture. He is right; often, Christians who try and apply the Jesus-stamp to movies like Man of Steel approach it in an intellectually lazy way that serves neither the faith nor the film very well.

Yet while Larsen correctly identifies a flaw in contemporary attempts at what he calls “Christ-figuring,” I think he unnecessarily pushes the practice as a whole into the mud as well.

If anything, a film like Man of Steel should be a very productive theological exercise if the viewer is willing to challenge his or her own imagination. The film presents what is clearly meant to be a vision of Jesus, yet this is not the same thing as presenting Jesus himself. It is in that distinction, subtle though it may be, that the “one way street” Larsen identifies can open up a new lane.

If we are to accept the analogy of Zack Snyder’s Superman as Jesus, then it offers a challenge to the Jesus that Christians widely accept. This Sacrificial Lamb takes out a whole lot of buildings on his way to Golgotha, mostly by throwing a rather sympathetic Satan through them. This is a motif in the film that many critics point and laugh at, but to the Christian viewer who is willing to stretch his or her imagination, it can be thought-provoking and it might just be profound.

Does a Christian really believe that the coming of Christ had a profound impact on the world? If so then we must accept that it was an act of utter violence, not just to the body of Jesus, but to the structures and fabric of human civilization. Christ is every bit as offensive to our world (including us) as Superman is to Metropolis’s version of Grand Central Terminal.

I do not suggest that this is a great film (though I freely admit enjoying it a great deal). I do, however, think that it offers the Christian who is willing to challenge his or her own personal orthodoxies an opportunity to do so. For the Christian who is, as Larsen complains about, simply trying to project dogma upon the movie, I agree that their efforts are juvenile. Shallow readings such as these have done incalculable damage to the Christian Imagination.

There is, though, a possible second direction in this cultural exchange. There is a revolutionary quality to Jesus’s messianic work, and revolutions do not look like Vacation Bible School crafts. By reflecting the horror of abject violence back at Christians who want to see smiling, gentle Jesus in everything, Man of Steel forces the imaginatively vibrant Christian to come to terms with a disturbing element of the faith, and though perhaps not entirely orthodox in itself, this vision can strengthen Orthodoxy in the long run. This, however, requires a dedication by the Christian to engage with culture via multi-lane highways, not, as Larsen identifies, one way streets.

Though we may like to imagine Jesus as muscle-bound in spandex, there are consequences inherent in that image. But I argue that the Christian Imagination is an underdeveloped muscle that needs tossed against a few buildings from time to time.

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Critics of Steel

Man of Steel

I am not well-equipped to comment about current events or, God-forbid, new movies. For whatever reason, having opinions about new things doesn’t interest me, and it sure doesn’t come very naturally.

I am, however, a bit confused at the critical reaction to the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. So confused, in fact, that I must jot a few notes down about it. I just returned from watching it with our French exchange student and was surprised to find myself entranced. I had gone in expecting to be underwhelmed and was, happily, not.

I’m not a movie critic, so I won’t play on in the blogosphere, but as a viewer of the film and an observer of culture, I found it to be thrilling, thought-provoking, and full of heart, everything its critics say it is not. Ultimately, I think that the movie has much to add to our contemporary discourse regarding the freedom of the individual to be unpredictable and, thereby, vital.

The Atlantic‘s Connor Simpson recapped the movie’s opening-weekend success in a rather snarky way:

Hey, so, a whole lot of people sat through this two and a half hour bad movie. Man of Steel’s very successful opening weekend in the wake of a week of bad press for being not good and also kind of soulless was definitely a surprise. This was the second best opening of the summer. The only movie to have a better opening weekend was Iron Man 3. It’s just another example of D.C. falling behind Marvel at the movie theater. But, who cares? This thing already has a sequel planned and will make a jillion dollars globally. Then, in three years, we’ll get an equally bad and soulless sequel and the same thing will happen because people won’t remember how bad this one is. The movies are just magical.

A heartfelt, soulful review if there ever was one. Also, it’s probably worth noting that the definitive evidence offered in his summation of critical response were links to two other articles from The Atlantic. So at least he did his due diligence, I guess.

In all fairness, though, I read other responses to the film in advance and the sentiments described above pretty well cover much of the critical reaction. However, to read this blurb one would think that the film was universally panned. On the contrary, Rotten Tomatoes has it checking in in the mostly good range, with audience reaction positive by a wide margin. 

As I’ve said, I’m not interested in bashing critics, but I am confused about what they want at times. Is it too ridiculous? Is it too serious? Can it be both? (I’ve linked only to the same Atlantic articles as above, so I guess I’m a lazy reviewer too).

Let me just say that I think Superman is difficult to film in our day. He is not dark. He is an overwhelmingly good person. This has been traditionally what makes the movies about him suffer in recent years. How many ways can we think of to get kryptonite into our hero’s general vicinity?

I thought that Man of Steel did the only thing that could have been done with such a dilemma. It made the notion of actually being Superman central to the plot. So yes, this means that much of the opening act will be pensive and serious. What does it mean to be Superman in the modern world? For all those complaining about Christopher Nolan’s darker influence in the film, perhaps the answer is that it means something similar to what it means to be Batman.

I’ve also read critics who are bored with the whole Jesus thing going on in the film’s subtext. I can see their point on some level, but I don’t see how it’s a particularly boring mechanism. In fact, it seems that messianic imagery is so inescapable in this source material that to excise it is to impose an academic orthodoxy upon it by mechanical rote. Have fun with it. Make Superman tell us that he is 33 years old (as they do in the movie). We get it. We can nod appreciatively or dismissively, whatever our religious preference.

One element of the film that I found particularly rich, and that I haven’t seen written about, is the cultural disintegration of Krypton described in the movie. Superman’s father, Jor-El (played brilliantly by Russell Crowe) is debating with General Zod (played with more nuance than he’s getting credit for by Michael Shannon). One point of contention between the men is that Superman is a product of natural childbirth, the first in centuries on Krypton. The culture had instead come to develop Matrix-style fetus-farming, genetically pre-conditioning every Kryptonian for his or her role in life. Zod was designed to be a soldier etc.

Jor-El saw this as a dangerous avoidance of chance and partially blames its de-humanizing effects for the ultimate doom of Krypton. Zod saw Jor-El’s actions as heresy. This, to me, correlates with a contemporary debate in our society.

Our economies, our technological advances, our governmental structures, and our educational systems, seem to more and more favor specialization for the individual. College degrees must be STEM degrees and so on. Against these systematic forces stand the humanists and the people of faith (too often at odds with one another to see that they share the same adversary). I draw the battle lines between the forces of icy efficiency and those of passionate humanity — though I realize that those lines are not always (or even often) very neat. Nonetheless as we allow less and less room for uncertainty and individual diversity into our policy, do we risk creating a generation of Zods? Good men defending their own individual roles against the greater good of society, and ultimately becoming monsters?

In all the critical complaints about the necessity of another origin story for Superman, perhaps what is being missed is that Superman’s origins are indelibly tied to the doom of his race. And this might stand as a warning for our own future.

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The Twitterati and the Limits of Christian Charity

What would I be capable of if I weren’t bound by the ethics of Christian charity?

Let’s see. I might write something like this.

Earlier this week, from seemingly nowhere, I was attacked on Twitter by a complete stranger. I woke up, checked my email, and saw that some (I suppose we should call him a) person had responded to six or eight of my recent tweets in a most hostile manner.

Now let’s bear in mind the origins of these tweets of mine. Most of them were online articles I had posted links to, and the rest were little jokes forwarded from my Facebook page, ephemeral quips like:

Twitter   Interactions 1 (Internet is boring)

Nothing world-shattering here, merely me obviously ready for beddy-time.

Nonetheless, our hero-from-the-Twittersphere apparently took great offense to this.

Twitter   Interactions 2 (Internet is boring response)

Well.

First, while we’re on the topic of mirrors, let’s just say the blurring feature I’ve used here has done the world a great favor. But to my larger concern, what could provoke such disproportionate hostility?

One might, if one were so inclined, assume that the lets-call-him-a-man who composed the response falls into the ever-useful category of “nerd.” The particular variety of geek I’m thinking of is that which so-wanted Second Life to make it big because their Actual Life was lonely and pathetic. Days spent lusting over this or that animated woman, nights occupied with online message-board arguments over authentic translations of Klingon. What have you.

The argument for this assumption is simple: the personage responsible for the Tweet seemingly has no life outside its Linux-based operating system, so it must desperately cling to the mechanisms of its tenuous relationship with what passes for social. The internet is the best option for such a …

See now here is where I get confused. I can’t quite get myself to refer to the Tweet-consciousness as a person. This is why I reject the “nerd hypothesis” I just outlined. I kind of like nerds and find them to be extremely human.

Instead, I honestly think that this… I guess for simplicity’s sake, we should call him a person… person conceives of himself as a “brand.” A product habitating a cyberspace where social awkwardness is rewarded with “followers” and body odor is irrelevant. The Onion recently captured the essence of such an individual.

I’m quite convinced of this because of the full context of our exchanges.

In addition to his defiant defense of the internet, I awoke to a barrage of insightful commentary about what he kept referring to as my “techno-phobia.” I assume from his use of this term that he thinks I’m against recognizing marriages between blenders and the iPhone 3. I’m not really sure what else it could mean.

At any rate, I had, recently posted a few links to articles that were certainly critical of techno-utopianism. What’s-his-face, however, drew some starling conclusions from these posts, and his reactions were severe. For instance, I posted a link to an article that calls attention to some of the destructiveness of Silicon Valley. It’s an illuminating piece that offers a fair critique of the Sean Parker wedding. The brand responded with:

Twitter   Interactions 3

For some reason, I decided to jab back.

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Alright, I’m immature. I know this already. Move on.

This wasn’t the end of his assault, either. I had also linked (at some point) to an article about attention spans and internet writing.

Here is the offending Tweet:

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His response was actually a fair one, if dogmatic and defensive:

Twitter   Interactions 6

This all took place, mind you before I woke up in the morning. Without a single peep from me, our friend from the fantasy land of microchips and no girls went off:

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Well, I never.

I decided to fire a shot across the bows.

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My accusation, I maintain, was spot on. I took a look at his Twitter activity and it’s pretty clear that he is driven by an attention-seeking mechanism worthy of Paris Hilton, Rasputin, and the Naked Cowboy of Times Square. A large percentage of his tweets are, like the ones he aimed at me, inflammatory, un-invited, and focused on absolute strangers. He, in fact, is a troll, looking to start fights so as to establish his “brand” as an “influencer” in the social mediasphere. When he lures someone into his acne-ridden web he responds like this:

Twitter   Interactions 9

Checkmate. A pathetic gesture that brings back memories of junior high, when the geek (usually me) guilted a moderately attractive girl to couple-skate down at the rink at 7:30 on a Friday night.

This is all on Twitter, so I can only speculate about what our friend sounds like in real life, but I imagine it’s like this:

And yes, I decided he would get nothing. And like it.

Only by nothing, I mean pushback against his egocentric techno-mania.

His witticism regarding my troll comment:

Twitter   Interactions 10

And then…

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Again, I know. Immature. Youbetcha.

Then he got nasty (in the way you’d expect from someone who cuddles up to his Ewok Pillow Pet each night):

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I’m having a little fun here, but I do want to make a serious point. As the conversation (if such a thing is possible on Twitter) progressed, the shallowness of his reasoning, and more importantly his worldview, revealed itself. As if he forgot his own dig at the humanities, he threw out a quote from a …gulp…novelist, Isaac Asimov. The subsequent responses are telling:

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First of all, yes. His name is apparently Julian. Let it go. Focus instead on his lack of response when I brought up the specific implications of his quotation. This silence demonstrates to me that he basically found an isolated quote that, out of context, supports his narrow worldview. There is no attempt to struggle with the complications his “source” introduces in the conversation. In my freshman composition class, this merits a major point deduction.

This is the root of my caution when it comes to messianic visions of technology. The world is not written in binary code. It is impressionistic at its most clear.

The English nerd that I am, I also scolded the logic of some of his rhetoric:

Twitter   Interactions 14

…and so here we are.

There was no immediate response, nor has there been a delayed one. The troll is never interested in depth, only the ignorant defense of ill-considered dogma — and the acquisition of “followers.” Well I will not follow a fool down a blind alley.

Despite this fellow’s assessment of me, I am not against technology. Case in point, I’ve employed it in the composition of this post and I use it in the classroom each day. I am, however, cautious about it. As a tool, it is wonderful. As a philosophy in and of itself? Not so fast. Just look what it has done to our poor troll’s ability to think.

Fortunately, I am bound by notions of Christian charity, so I would never write such a mean-spirited, vengeful thing as this.

Oops. Dang.

As always, I’m ever-dependent upon Grace.

Ashamed of myself,

d