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, etc.in 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



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Finding freedom in our work

I just finished reading Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work (Dutton, 2012) by Tim Keller and co-author by Katherine Leary Alsdorf, the director of Redeemer's Center for Faith & Work. This book is a good introduction to the excellent work of that ministry. It's helped me approach my "day job" with a healthier attitude and shown me that I can serve God (and my neighbor) at work even though I'm ambivalent toward the mission of the company I work for.

In the last chapter the authors talk about the concept of "the work under the work." This is what truly motivates us to work. It could be merely the paycheck, or it could be achieving  a sense of success and self-worth by being more productive than our peers. It could even be something as noble-sounding as making the world a better place. Every Good Endeavor argues -- effectively in my opinion -- that if the "work under the work" isn't grounded on the promises of the Christian gospel then our work will ultimately be a futile attempt to find redemption apart from the only one who can provide that -- namely Jesus of Nazareth.

Keller and Alsdorf also unpack the symbiotic relationship of rest to work as seen in the Old and New Testament's teaching on Sabbath rest, most notably in the Fourth Commandment. In Deuteronomy 5:15 the observance of the Sabbath is tied to God's rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt -- the Sabbath is portrayed as a "reenactment of emancipation from slavery." (p. 235) How might observing a rhythm of work and Sabbath rest apply to us? We're not slaves are we? Well, maybe. Here's a good quote.

Anyone who cannot obey God's command to observe the Sabbath is a slave, even a self-imposed one. Your own heart, or our materialistic culture, or an exploitative organization, or all of the above, will be abusing you if you don't have the ability to be disciplined in your practice of Sabbath. Sabbath is therefore a declaration of our freedom.  It means you are not a slave—not to your culture's expectations, your family's hopes, your medical school's demands, not even your own insecurities. It is important that you learn to speak this truth to yourself with a note of triumph—otherwise you will feel guilty for taking time off, or you will be unable to truly unplug. (p. 236)

The Bible's depiction of healthy work and healthy rest is great news for a culture in which busyness, restlessness and anxiety are constant companions -- and this book quite brilliantly unpacks it much more than I can do in a short post. Bottom line: read this book! You can have my copy as long as you pass it on when you're done.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A conversation full of light, mercy and grace

A while back I posted some thoughts on one of the most compelling books I've ever read: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

This week's White Horse Inn podcast is a conversation between the author and Michael Horton. I hope you check it out.

An Interview with Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

Monday, February 24, 2014

What evolution can't explain (Chesterton)

It is not contended here that these primitive men did wear clothes any more than they did weave rushes; but merely that we have not enough evidence to know whether they did or not. But it may be worthwhile to look back for a moment at some of the very few things that we do know and that they did do. . . . we do know that they did have pictures; and the pictures have remained. And there remains with them, as already suggested, the testimony to something that is absolute and unique; that belongs to man and to nothing else except man; that is a difference of kind and not a difference of degree. A monkey does not draw clumsily and a man cleverly; a monkey does not begin the art of representation and a man carry it to perfection. A monkey does not do it at all; he does not begin to do it at all; he does not begin to begin to do it at all. A line of some kind is crossed before the first faint line can begin.


Quote from the chapter called "Professors and Prehistoric Men" in The Everlasting Man


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)

When I heard the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death on Sunday afternoon it hit me harder than I would have expected. The melancholy has lingered and I couldn't have said exactly why until reading Ross Douthat's tribute, where he captures why Hoffman meant so much to those of us of roughly the same generation of film buffs.

So his greatness was not the kind of greatness that we’re used to from our actors, and its full measure seems fully apparent only in hindsight, now that he’s been taken from us. Or at least that’s how it seems to me, and maybe this is mostly just a highly personal reaction … because Hoffman began to deliver great performances around the time I began to really appreciate the movies — during my late teenage years, so that “The Big Lebowski” and “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (“Tommy — how’s the peeping?”) are all clustered together in my memory, and he stands out as one of the first contemporary actors whose work I really, truly noticed. But in noticing it, I also came to take it for granted, as something that would always be there, something to be counted on, something as essential to the moviegoing experience as previews and popcorn, blockbusters in the summer and Oscar bait in the fall.

That's it. The last few days I've been recalling memorable Hoffman performances and it's funny how many of them came in films that were revelatory experiences during the time when I was morphing from casual moviegoer to devoted lover of motion pictures. The first Hoffman role I thought of when I saw the Breaking News headline on CNN was the hospice nurse Phil Parma in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia (I can remember exactly where I was sitting, stunned, in the movie theater as the closing credits rolled on that one). Happily someone has uploaded one of Phil/Philip's scenes to YouTube. I post it here as tribute.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Eight lies, or maybe ten (depending on how you count)

"President Obama issued a statement today to mark the forty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade. A mere paragraph long, it contains enough euphemism, evasion, and outright falsehood to serve simultaneously as a model of dissimulation and concision." (Matthew Schmitz @ First Thoughts)


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