Thursday, May 7, 2015

Describing poetry

At its best football is poetry, and at its best writing about football must attempt to translate the untranslatable. This -- the opening paragraph of Barney Ronay's recap of Lionel Messi's single-handed demolition of powerful Bayern Munich in the last 10 minutes of yesterday's Champion's League semifinal -- is a wonderful try.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Lionel Messi’s second goal against Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night was its gentleness. There were 80 minutes gone when Messi approached Jérôme Boateng, feigned to go inside but instead glided to his right, not so much a dribble as a kind of lullaby, leaving Boateng, Manuel Neuer and finally Rafinha lying down very gently on their backs in their own penalty area as the ball floated into the back of the net. In the space of five perfect strides Messi had effectively put the Bayern defence to sleep, lulled into a drowsy supplication at his feet by a moment of controlled gymnastic perfection.

 Read the whole thing here.


It's been years since I read A Scanner Darkly by the brilliant sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick (1928 - 1982), but something about recent headlines jogged my memory toward this haunting monologue.

It requires the greatest kind of wisdom, she thought, to know when to apply injustice. How can justice fall victim, ever, to what is right? How can this happen? She thought, Because there is a curse on this world, and all this proves it; this is the proof right here. Somewhere, at the deepest level possible, the mechanism, the construction of things, fell apart, and up from what remained swam the need to do all the various sort of unclear wrongs the wisest choice has made us act out. It must have started thousands of years ago. By now it's infiltrated into the nature of everything. And, she thought, into every one of us. We can't turn around or open our mouth and speak, decide at all, without doing it. I don't even care how it got started, when or why. She thought, I just hope it'll end some time. Like with Tony Amsterdam; I just hope one day the shower of brightly colored sparks will return, and this time we'll all see it. The narrow doorway where there's peace on the far side. A statue, the sea, and what looks like moonlight. And nothing stirring, nothing to break the calm.

A long, long time ago, she thought. Before the curse, and everything and everyone became this way. The Golden Age, she thought, when wisdom and justice were the same. Before it all shattered into cutting fragments. Into broken bits that don't fit, that can't be put back together, hard as we try.

Below her, in the darkness and distribution of urban lights a police siren sounded. A police car in hot pursuit. It sounded like a deranged animal, greedy to kill. And knowing that it soon would. She shivered; the night air had become cold. It was time to go.

For what it's worth, Richard Linklater's 2006 film adaptation of this novel is worth checking out. And if you put together all the movies based on Dick's material you'd have a film festival strikingly relevant to current events and debates.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


Boyhood is Richard Linklater's magnum opus. There's so much I could say about this film, and I already know it's one I'll return to again and again. It wasn't what I expected, but it was more than I expected. Maybe because I'm a parent I found the most compelling character -- and the one I most identified with -- to be the mother played by Patricia Arquette. She's the responsible one. Always present, doing the thankless "grunt work" of raising two kids, mostly on her own, albeit making some calamitous choices along the way. Yet by the end she's the one feeling most unfulfilled, unhappy, even alone. Perhaps there's a cautionary tale here somewhere.

Another fascinating angle one could go into -- which I won't since it would involve getting wonky -- is the portrayal of family values in red-state America. For example Texas -- the terrain of Boyhood and the terrain of the director -- has a strikingly higher divorce and teen pregnancy rate than a blue state like Massachusetts. Fodder for a future post?
One of the many things Boyhood does brilliantly is highlight the seemingly insignificant conversations and chance encounters that end up shaping our lives. Watching it feels like eavesdropping on a series of vignettes reproduced with exacting verisimilitude. "Life is what happens when you're busy making plans," a wag once said. As the final scene seems to say: more often than not the major turning points of our lives are a case of "the moment seizing us" rather than the reverse.

Then again, maybe the best review of Boyhood is the one-line assessment offered up by Shannon as we watched it together last night: "watching this makes me want to hug our boys." Indeed.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Christian challenge to sexual determinism

The received wisdom of the day is that one is (or should be) defined by who they are sexually attracted to. If you're attracted to members of the same sex then it's folly not to act on that attraction, we're told. Indeed one should make it the core of one's identity. Thus the late-modern language of sexual orientation that would have left the ancients scratching their heads.

Challenge the conventional wisdom on sexual attraction and you're liable to be called deluded, in denial, or worse. Kudos to NPR Weekend Edition for letting us hear from two people who are so bold as to challenge, with utmost humility and graciousness, the CW (scroll through the comments for the requisite barbs and name-calling). Not only do they offer an alternative understanding of sexuality, they are living out a fuller and richer meaning of what it means to be human.

Click the link below to hear their story.

Attracted To Men, Pastor Feels Called To Marriage With A Woman

Monday, December 15, 2014

The virtue that renews the cosmos

A quiet hour with some writings of G.K. Chesterton in one hand, and a glass of ale in the other, is one of life's exquisite pleasures. Add to that some cheddar as sharp as the great man's wit and you have the makings of a memorable evening. If there were a dictionary entry on the expression "reading for pleasure" it ought to have a picture of Chesterton next to it. Aphorisms burst from his pen like Fourth of July fireworks. He's the Babe Ruth of polemicists. He wins you over to his point of view not by logic, but by magic and romance. Yet, once he's won you over, you see that the logic was hiding there all along.

The other night I read the article "Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson" which is the twelfth in a collection of essays published as Heretics. It's part of Chesterton's enduring relevance that it matters not a whit whether one knows Lowes Dickinson from Emily Dickinson. 

Chesterton's argument here is two-fold: that the modern conception of Paganism is incorrect ("Pagans are depicted as above all things inebriate and lawless, whereas they were above all things reasonable and respectable") and that Christianity is the one thing that can still be said to be of pagan origin ("If any one wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas"). Christianity adopted the pagan "rational" virtues such as justice and temperance, but to them added the "three mystical virtues" -- faith, hope and charity. The former are the "sad" and "rationalistic" virtues the latter are the "gay and exuberant" virtues. The pagan virtues are the "reasonable virtues" but the Christian virtues are "in their essence as unreasonable as they can be." In other words, each involves a paradox.

Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.


Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of hope that is of any use in a battle is a hope that denies arithmetic. Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of charity which any weak spirit wants, or which any generous spirit feels, is the charity which forgives the sins that are like scarlet. Whatever may be the meaning of faith, it must always mean a certainty about something we cannot prove. Thus, for instance, we believe by faith in the existence of other people.

Chesterton continues to scale the rhetorical heights by bringing in that other cardinal Christian virtue, the one that trumps all others -- humility. It was humility that transformed reasonable pagans into exuberant Christians. Humility gave birth to joy. The pagan set out on an admirable quest to enjoy himself, but in the end made the surprising discovery "that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else." He had thought that "the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by extending our ego to infinity, the truth is that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by reducing our ego to zero." Civilization had to discover humility, or die. For humility is the virtue that's "for ever renewing the earth and the stars."

The curse that came before history has laid on us all a tendency to be weary of wonders. If we saw the sun for the first time it would be the most fearful and beautiful of meteors. Now that we see it for the hundredth time we call it, in the hideous and blasphemous phrase of Wordsworth, "the light of common day." We are inclined to increase our claims. We are inclined to demand six suns, to demand a blue sun, to demand a green sun. Humility is perpetually putting us back in the primal darkness. There all light is lightning, startling and instantaneous. Until we understand that original dark, in which we have neither sight nor expectation, we can give no hearty and childlike praise to the splendid sensationalism of things. The terms "pessimism" and "optimism," like most modern terms, are unmeaning. But if they can be used in any vague sense as meaning something, we may say that in this great fact pessimism is the very basis of optimism. The man who destroys himself creates the universe. To the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sun is really a sun; to the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sea is really a sea. When he looks at all the faces in the street, he does not only realize that men are alive, he realizes with a dramatic pleasure that they are not dead.

Behind this splendid prose one begins to see the outline of a figure that embodied the perfect principle of humility so sought after by the ancients. A man. Indeed, one who called himself the Son of Man. The Apostle tells us this God-man emptied himself -- made himself nothing -- so that he could identify with the oppressed race of Adam. Furthermore, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. By this humble act a new humanity was created, and by it one day the cosmos will be renewed. Incredible, isn't it?

Elsewhere Chesterton exclaimed:

When a tree really looks like a man our knees knock under us. And when the whole universe looks like a man we fall on our faces.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Life's parade at your fingertips."

Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) is a film admired by many of the greats of contemporary cinema. For example Martin Scorsese features it in his fascinating Journey Through American Movies -- a series I recommend to anyone looking to increase your knowledge of American movies. Here and in several other films (see especially Magnificent Obsession) German émigré Sirk created a unique emotional vocabulary through a rigorous stylistic approach to color and framing. He knew how to get the most out of actors too. Jane Wyman's performance in All That Heaven Allows is one for the ages.

In a time where everything (it seems) is permissible the thematic elements of this picture may seem clichéd or just plain incomprehensible to modern viewers. That would be a shame. This movie must have exploded like a bomb in the consciousness of a generation of middle-class housewives, and if you allow it to transcend it's particular time and place it remains a devastatingly effective viewing experience. Except for the "Hollywood ending" it's perfect. A more appropriate final scene would have been the one below, which concludes with a shot of such emotional power it made my jaw drop as I watched it last night.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Are we playing baseball or soccer?

After the gut-wrenching 2-2 World Cup match between the USA and Portugal a couple weeks back a friend posted on Facebook: "Soccer is too much like life; I need more fantasy in my sports." As any soccer aficionado knows all too well the game has a unique ability to deliver suffering and heartbreak. Are there other ways soccer is more like real life than other sports?

David Brooks explores this question in his most recent column "Baseball or Soccer?". After positing that baseball, while a team sport, is a game made up of hundreds of individual actions, he explains how soccer is all about the collective activity of controlling space. In this way, Brooks argues (and I agree), soccer is more like real life than the American pastime. He writes:

Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize. . . . Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning.

Second, predictive models will be less useful. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify. Even the estimable statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Brazil a 65 percent chance of beating Germany.
Finally, Critchley notes that soccer is like a 90-minute anxiety dream — one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way. This is yet another way soccer is like life.
Recently I had the opportunity to take the Clifton StrengthsFinders test. To my surprise my top strength was "Connectedness" with "Harmony" and "Adaptability" close behind. According to Clifton an individual with the strength of Connectedness isn't necessarily someone with a lot of personal connections. Instead, Connectedness enables a person to see connections between people and events that others miss. "People with the strength of Connectedness believe that everything happens for a reason. They have the unique ability to ‘connect the dots’ between what is happening in the here and now with deep personal meaning."
When I was a young libertarian I thought people's lives were defined primarily by the individual choices they made. And I loved baseball (now I only watch it when the World Series comes around). I thought I was playing baseball, but now I realize that I was playing soccer all along.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Looking for grace at the World Cup

In spite of the hype, the corruption, and the sometimes malevolent behavior of its fans, soccer remains the beautiful game and the World Cup its ultimate stage. Now I'll be the first to admit it -- looked at from one perspective -- soccer is boring. So why can't I keep my eyes off of it? What am I and the millions of others who live and breathe football waiting for as we suffer through long stretches when nothing seems to be happening?

Here's a fine answer from Simon Critchley writing in the New Republic.

Connoisseurs like to argue that football is an art form, and it’s true that the enjoyment it generates is fiercely aesthetic. As I’ve written elsewhere, for me, a product of the Irish-Anglo minestrone of Liverpool, football is working-class ballet. There is a great beauty in a deft move or sequence of plays. Sometimes this is the tiki-taka of Barcelona at its peak, the Barca players harrying the opposition into losing possession, then moving the ball relentlessly, then effortlessly tapping it home. Sometimes it’s the physical power and attacking speed of Bayern Munich as they demolished Barcelona 4-0 (then 3-0 for good measure) in the Champions League semifinal last year. As in art, one movement gives way to another. Part of the anticipation for this World Cup is which school will emerge ascendant.
But more essentially, the truly great players possess grace: an effortless containment in their bearing and elegance of movement, long periods of idling interrupted by sudden accelerations and pivots, bursts of controlled power. When a player does this alone, the effect is stirring; when four or five do this in concertas with Brazil in 1970 and 1982, and Spain in 2010it is breathtaking.
There’s another component to grace, however. It is the cultivation of a certain disposition, some call it faith, in the belief that grace in its physical form will be dispensed at the crucial moment. Found in the players who have to believe that their bodies will perform at the precise instant when they are called upon, it is what we call composure. Yet it also exists in fans, who may find it hard to be composed, who may in fact be red-faced and screaming their heads off, but who are nonetheless bound up in something larger by their belief that something graceful, magical, is about to happen on the pitch. One hears from skeptics that football is boring, but it is the inaction that allows for the sudden, sometimes absurd, ultimately vitalizing escalations of tempo and drama. You have to pay close and constant attention or you miss those moments, and that lends intensity to the viewing experience; the avid fan, I have noted, is merely seeking to maximize the intensities of existence, as Spinoza taught. He or she gives himself over to football in an almost tantric way. It is a form of a fandom that requires, one might even argue, a philosophical attitude. I would say thatI’m paid to teach philosophybut it also happens to be right.
Then every four years comes the World Cup, when, especially during the group stages of the first two weeks, one can justifiably maximize his or her intensities for an entire day, getting up only to eat something and stretch the legs. One match ends andjoy of joysanother one begins in an hour. Now, the fan knows that there are very few teams that are actually likely to win it all. Compared with the big American team sportscollege basketball, NFL football, the NBA, which there really are Cinderella stories, or at least unexpected champions, World Cup football really does tend to follow a script once the knockout stages begin. Since its inception in 1930, only eight nations have won the tournament, and a final without Brazil (five championships), Italy (four), or Germany (three) counts as a twist. The location of this World Cup makes its outcome even more predictable. On each of the seven occasions the World Cup has been held in the Americas (not forgetting the final in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in 1994 and twice in Mexico City in 1970 and 1986), South American teams have won. Chile looks very useful and Uruguay plays like a resilient, coherent club team, but as much fun as it is to think about either winning, it’s really going to be either Brazil, if it can endure the pressure, or (my pick) Argentina. Along the way there will be a lot of rolling around on the grass, time-wasting, cynical tactics, and Mourinhian defensive displays. There will be triumph for a very few and righteous injustice and pain of defeat for the rest of us. But there will be this, too: Something unexpected, wonderful, and possibly even magical might happen. There will be grace.

If you're interested in reading more commentary like this then bookmark the New Republic's World Cup blog.  It will be essential reading for the next four weeks.


Monday, May 12, 2014

The gift of a happy childhood

This morning as I backed out of the driveway to go to work I caught sight of my almost-Kindergartener Samuel with his face pressed against the window waving goodbye. I was instantly struck by a bout of "mono no aware" and transported back to my own pre-adolescent childhood and memories tinged with sadness and regret. Mono no what? This recycled post from January 2011 explains it. . .

Becoming a parent has produced a sudden awareness of my mortality. I'm also beginning to realize that I have less control than I thought I had -- or like to think I have -- over Samuel and Benjamin's future. So much is out of my hands! But there is something. A happy childhood is no guarantee of a happy life (and as a Christian I have higher aspirations for my children than mere happiness) but giving them a happy childhood is something I do have a great deal of control over right now.

I was moved by these lines from author Alison Gopnik (The Philosophical Baby):

Parents often feel a kind of existential anxiety as they watch their children grow up—as we say, it goes by so fast. We watch that infinitely flexible, contingent, malleable future swiftly harden into the irretrievable, unchangeable past. Japanese poets have a phrase, mono no aware, for the bittersweetness inherent in ephemeral beauty—a falling blossom or a leaf in the wind. Children are a great source of mono no aware.

But there is another side to the ephemerality of childhood. There is a kind of immunity about a happy childhood, not an immunity from the disasters and catastrophes that may, that almost certainly do, lie ahead, but an intrinsic immunity. Change and transience are at the heart of the human condition. But as parents we can at least give our children a happy childhood, a gift that is as certain, as unchanging, as rock solid, as any human good. 

Gopnik writes from a naturalistic worldview, so, naturally, there were things I disagreed with in her book, but overall I found it to be an illuminating glimpse into the minds of baby humans. I enjoyed the movie references sprinkled throughout (the author must be a film buff). At one point she suggests that the unself-conscious consciousness of infants is like that of an adult watching an absorbing Hitchcock film. "For a baby, watching a Mickey Mouse mobile may be like being utterly, blissfully, selflessly captivated by a good movie."

Sounds like a great life!

Quotes from p. 121 & 202:  The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (Picador, 2009)

Photo of our two sons taken 1/12/11

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who's out of touch?

The leadership of my church spends a lot of time strategizing about how to reach Millennials (the generation born between 1980 and 2000). That's a good thing. If we don't have success attracting this demographic then our congregation will die a slow death. Many books and articles have been written on the subject. Here's a good one.

But might there be subtle dangers in putting so much emphasis on catering to the tastes of a particular subset of our culture? Here's a thought-provoking quote from millennial author Andrew Byers.

Disappointment in the cultural irrelevance of the church is justifiable.  But much of the disappointment may stem as much from a culturally conditioned arrogance as from a sincere commitment to missional, crosscultural living.  When we younger adults rail against the Christian subculture of primarily older generations for their narrow-minded cultural illiteracy, we often fail to notice that we are ourselves part of a subculture with its own narrowness and cultural ignorance.  We seem to suppose that anyone who can’t quote lines from ‘The Office’ or lyrics from Wilco is out of touch.
But maybe Aunt Gertrude [i.e. older Christians] is not so out of touch.  To be out of touch with that particular slice of society to whom Michael Scott’s awkward antics on ‘The Office’ have such appeal is not to be out of touch with everyone.  There are other slices of American culture made up of folks who have never heard Arcade Fire playing on a coffee bar’s satellite radio station while sipping a latte.
It is important for those of us in the younger generations to step far enough back from our own cultural milieu to observe that the marketing power directed our way is staggering and quite disproportionate to the size of our subculture. …Is it possible that all this attention from Hollywood, Apple, the music industry and online networking companies has spoiled us to the point that we have now become rather high maintenance, demanding lavish catering from the wider church?  (If I can download multiple apps to my smartphone, then why can’t the local church give me what I want?)
Christians must become more adept at reaching the younger generations, but are those of us in those younger generations willing and able to reciprocate and bridge the cultural lines of our elders?  Are we striving to understand the struggles of those in their mid-forties rearing teenagers?  Are we making strides to relate to the loneliness of empty-nest divorcees?  Are we able to express genuine interest in the news programs and game shows that feature in the living rooms of our grandparents?  Are we willing to venture out into the cultural realm of retirees or learn from that diminishing number of WWII veterans?
It is noted at times that younger Christians are more in tune with culture and more familiar with society’s technological innovations.  But maybe culture-savvy twenty-seven-year-olds are really only savvy about their own particular subset of society.  Or maybe they are only so culture-savvy because they have more time to watch TV and surf the Internet than a forty-seven-year old with teenagers and aging parents.

The above comes from Byers' book Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. I think one of the takeaways is that churches need to be careful that their outreach to millennials doesn't contribute to the innate narcissism bred by things like Facebook and the "there's an app for that" mentality. Instead, it should be for the end of making lifelong disciples of the One who calls us to escape the prison of self, to lose our life in order to find abundant life.

via The Reformed Reader