Saturday, August 15, 2015

Waiting for "Superman" (originally posted in 2011)

Be warned. Watching Waiting for "Superman" is a pretty depressing experience. It left me discouraged about the future of our country and anxious about the future prospects of my two boys. I think it's must-viewing though, especially if you've ever said something like: "I'll never send my kids to that school." This movie convincingly hammers home the unassailable fact that our public schools are failing a vast number of children  -- this despite spending unprecedented amounts of money and sallying forth with one ballyhooed reform effort after another. Millions of children are still being left behind. This fine 2010 documentary succeeds by presenting the numbers  -- often with nifty animations -- but even more effective than the damning statistics are the stories of the real life parents and kids told to us by filmmaker (and father) Davis Guggenheim. The statistics on failing schools can seem abstract, but here they come attached to names and faces.

Among the takeaways from Waiting for "Superman": he -- the Man of Steel that is -- doesn't exist, and there isn't a magic bullet solution to the education mess. The closest thing to education Supermen are reformers like billionaire Bill Gates, who understands that our nation's fortunes are tied to a quality public education system, and Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children's Zone, who's demonstrated that it's possible to give a quality education to children from the most at-risk neighborhoods. Another takeaway is that most teachers are heroes, but that teachers unions are a menace to our kids. If you think menace is too strong a word, then watch the scene where we visit a "rubber room" in New York City where tenured teachers accused of incompetence (and even sexual misconduct) are paid to do nothing while they wait for their cases to wind through the bureaucracy. It's virtually impossible to fire a tenured teacher, and the unions want to keep it that way. Usually what happens is that bad teachers are passed from school to school -- a process called "the lemon dance" -- leaving devastation in their wakes.

Failing schools a/k/a "dropout factories" a/k/a "education sinkholes" aren't just an urban problem though. Waiting for "Superman" follows 8th grader Emily from a tony Silicon Valley suburb where the median home price is in the high six figures. At Emily's ostensibly "good school" her chances of getting into one of California's stellar public universities are jeopardized by an arbitrary process called "academic tracking." Because of this her family decides to enter the lottery to be accepted at a nearby charter school where students aren't tracked. For more and more families the chances of their children getting into a good school are tied to a bouncing ball or a randomly generated number. This is a scenario that could be in my family's future, and is already a reality for some of our friends.

Waiting for "Superman" paints a devastating picture of dysfunctional institutions victimizing those within their grasp, but the blame can't all be laid at the feet of educators and politicians. For every single mom or working family doing all in their power to get the best possible education for their child, there are many others who just don't care. This film also makes evident that if there isn't support at home then even the best teachers and administrators have an impossible task.

As someone who used to be somewhat anti-public schools I came away from this film convinced that reforming public education is both a national security and social justice issue. Some will argue that taxpayer-funded compulsory education was a fools errand to start with. Perhaps they're right, but that horse has long ago left the barn. We simply can't give up on the millions of children for whom public schools are the only option. The truth is, somebody's kid is going to have to go to that school. You know...the one I wouldn't dream of sending my son or daughter to.

Waiting for "Superman" ends with a montage of the families we've gotten to know attending lotteries that will decide whether their child gets one of the coveted spots at a high-performing charter school. The stakes seem almost life and death. Tears rolled down my face as I watched the disappointment set in as their child's name or number wasn't called. Is this the best we can do? A lottery to decide a child's future? This film might depress you, but hopefully it will make you mad too. Hopefully it will rouse you to action. Our future depends on it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Calvary



(Mild spoilers ahead.)

In the twentieth chapter of John's Gospel we see the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples as they cower behind locked doors. He announces, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." Jesus goes on to say, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."

This charge, or sending out (Latin: 'missio'), forms the basis for much of the Church's understanding of its mission in and to the world. Here too is the origin of our words missionary and another word much in vogue in contemporary Christian discourse: missional. If the church, and by implication, all disciples of Jesus Christ are sent into the world as the Father sent Jesus, what does this look like? What does it imply?

Certainly it implies a measure of triumph. After all,  this charge is issued by someone who's just been vindicated as the conqueror of sin and death. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me", he will later tell the disciples. All authority. But set aside the triumphalism and let's see what else our sending brings with it -- if indeed our sending is one like Jesus of Nazareth's.

We will be mocked. We'll be told we are irrelevant, unwanted, a relic of history. We'll be scrutinized for any sign of weakness. We'll be tempted. We'll be beaten. Knowing our holy calling some will flaunt their basest sins in our face and watch to see how we react. We'll be let down by the weakness of our colleagues. Our dearest consolations will be cruelly taken away. We'll be called upon to bear the sins of our community, maybe even the sins of our church. And in the end we'll die at the hands of those we're trying to save.

All this happens to Father James, the hero of Calvary, a 2014 film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh and set in an Irish coastal village. This is a magnificent film in every way. Not always easy to watch, but magnificent. The final encounter on a beach in County Sligo is permanently seared in my memory. Brendan Gleeson plays the priest and turns in a mesmerizing performance, indeed the whole cast is a delight, including legendary character actor M. Emmet Walsh still going strong at 80. (For what it's worth Calvary shares a stylistic and thematic kinship with Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. McDonagh's script makes the connection explicit by a reference to the French Catholic author Georges Bernanos, who wrote the novel Bresson's masterpiece is based on.)

Calvary begins on a close-up of James in the confessional, listening as a voice off-camera threatens to kill him "a good priest" on Sunday next as revenge for the vile abuse the unidentified confessor suffered as a child at the hands of a "bad priest." Viewers more perceptive than me may guess the identity of the would-be assassin before he's finally revealed. I for one was surprised. Throughout the week following the threat we witness a series of encounters between the priest and his mendacious parishioners, each one freighted with meaning and portent. Also carrying the story forward is a growing rapprochement with his troubled daughter Fiona (we learn that James entered the priesthood after losing his wife), and along the way there's an encouraging encounter with a devout Frenchwoman who faces tragedy while in Ireland on holiday. It's these flickers of faith amid the darkness of unbelief that keep Father James from abandoning his vocation.

Judged by contemporary notions of success, Father James is a failure, but his faithfulness in the face of suffering is a needed corrective to romantic notions of pastoral ministry. And lest we forget, there is joy in heaven over just one sinner who repents. In a final conversation between James and Fiona they speak about forgiveness as the supreme virtue. This draws me again to Jesus' words quoted above: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." Theologians have long debated the meaning of this enigmatic promise, and different church traditions interpret it in different ways. But at the very least Jesus seems to be saying the same thing he demonstrated supremely on the cross, that one act of forgiveness brings forth the possibility of more forgiveness. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." In a parabolic way the epilogue of Calvary shows the possibility of forgiveness breaking the cycle of evil, or in St. Paul's words: "overcoming evil with good."

Earlier I pointed out that "missional" has become a buzzword, especially in evangelical Christian circles. It's a good word and a needed discussion. As the world around us becomes more secular, more post-Christian, it's not enough to open the church doors and expect people to come. Like the first-century church it's time to recognize that the church isn't a building or programs, it's people taking the good news to the streets. It's about being the church rather than merely doing church.

On the other hand I think missional can easily become a synonym for "cool" or "relevant" or "popular." If so the mission involved bears little resemblance to the one modeled by our trailblazing Lord. To be sent into the world as Jesus was sent may bring success and popularity, but it's just as likely to bring being mocked, marginalized and in extreme cases killed by the very ones who need to hear the message of the gospel the most. It may mean being crushed between a rock and a hard place. N.T. Wright has written that Christian discipleship is "to become for the world what Jesus was for the world." Calvary is a beautiful picture of one such becoming. I can't recommend it highly enough.



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.

Broken

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


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.

And

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, 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.