Friday, August 16, 2013

A new film from Werner Herzog "From One Second To The Next"

The German filmmaker Werner Herzog has fashioned some of the most fascinatingly bizarre movies in history. From a documentary about a man who lives with grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness to the epic German New Wave picture about Spanish conquistadors searching for El Dorado he's become synonymous with art house strangeness.

Now Herzog has turned to a more quotidian subject -- the perils of texting behind the wheel. Not only that this project is funded by some of the biggest corporations in America. But don't let that stop you from watching. I confess I've been guilty of texting while driving, but after watching these stories. . . never again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Terrence Malick's Beatific Vision cont'd

Last night I finally had a chance to watch Malick's latest movie To the Wonder (2012). If you're not a fan of Malick's fragmentary non-narrative style then this isn't for you. If you didn't like The Tree of Life (2011) you will hate this. Actually the two films form a pair. As if to make this explicit Malick includes a brief bit of footage from the earlier picture in To the Wonder, so brief that I missed it but it said so in the credits! Theological and philosophical ideas that were hinted at in The Tree of Life are explored more directly here. I don't have time to do a proper review -- and honestly one can only form first impressions on the initial viewing of any Malick film -- but this is nothing less than a continuation of the beatific vision that shows up in one form or another in all of his work, but especially so in the final pages of The Tree of Life.

Yet here that vision takes on an earthiness, a this-worldness, as explored via the character of Father Quintana (played by Javier Bardem), a priest walking through the valley of the shadow of doubt, yearning for a glimpse of heaven in the midst of the suffering and failure he witnesses all around him. Malick allows us to see that -- paradoxically perhaps -- the God that remains hidden to Father Quintana is strikingly evident in his life as he serves his community through word, deed and sacrament. God in Christ is at work in this world, heaven is invading earth, and this is happening through weak and doubting people like this priest.

To the Wonder is Malick's most ecstatic utterance so far, as exemplified by this montage accompanied by Javier Bardem's voiceover prayer. It's one you may recognize.


Friday, August 9, 2013

A further note on prayer (Gregory of Nyssa)

Gregory of Nyssa was one of the 4th century Cappadocian Fathers -- so called because they came from the region of Asia Minor called Cappadocia (present-day Turkey). Gregory's writings on prayer feature prominently in Worshiping With the Church Fathers. In the last post on this book I shared the Fathers' insight that the practice of prayer propels a movement from self-deception to self-awareness.

A large part of our self-deception is a misjudgment of what's really important. Even Christians can become practical atheists, leaving God out of our daily work and plans.

 Gregory described it like this. . .

For the craftsman considers that the Divine assistance is quite useless for the work he has in mind. Therefore he leaves prayer aside and places all his hopes in his hands, without remembering Him who has given him his hands. In the same way someone who carefully composes a speech does not think of Him who has given him speech. . . . everyone devotes all his energy to the work he has in hand, forgetting completely the work of prayer because he thinks that the time he gives to God is lost to the work he has purposed to do.
Thus, it comes about that life is so full of sin. . . . Everyone keeps forgetting God, and people do not count prayer among the good things worth pursuing. Covetousness enters together with trade; but covetousness is idolatry.

Gregory diagnoses this busy forgetfulness as a "spiritual sickness" because it leaves Christians vulnerable to the schemes of the evil one. If this was a danger in his day how much more so in a society characterized by the urgent imperatives of the moment. Rightly ordered reality -- which is what worship is (thank you for reminding me of that Pastor Dan!) -- reorders our priorities. Instead of forgetting God we begin to practice a constant awareness of him.

For when the consciousness of God is firmly established in the heart, the devices of the devil remain sterile.

Quotes by Gregory of Nyssa from pp. 146-7 of Christopher A. Hall, Worshiping With the Church Fathers (InterVarsity, 2009)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Culture and Agriculture. . .100-proof Berry

It's been a while since I posted anything from Mr. Wendell Berry, who had his 79th birthday on Monday of this week. I just began reading The Unsettling of America. This is the book that put Berry the essayist "on the map" so to speak, and it's a book that continues to have legs almost forty years after it was published.

In some ways this is the work of an angry young man (if you consider being in one's 40's young). There's a perceptibly sharper edge than what comes after. If I'd read The Unsettling of America before some of Berry's later nonfiction I might not have liked him as much as I now do. For instance, a statement like the following might seem too strident and over the top, as Berry inveighs against an "era of absolute human sovereignty" and "absolute human presumption. . . the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella in the hand of Columbus on the shores of the Indies becomes Old Glory in the hand of Neil Armstrong on the moon. An infinitely greedy sovereign is afoot in the universe, staking his claims." (p. 55)

Really? Can't we find any redeeming quality, any nobility, in mankind's impulse to discover new frontiers which led Columbus to discover a New World, and inspired a nation to put a man on the moon?

No, you won't find nuance here, but you won't find it either in prophetic writings going back to the Hebrew prophets and psalmists of old. The Unsettling of America isn't that kind of book.

The subtitle "Culture & Agriculture" points to this then unknown author's audacious aim, and he begins to bring the two together in Chapter 4: "The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture." It begins as Berry recounts the history of his beloved Henry County, Kentucky -- a county that was in Berry's childhood a rural farming community, but which was becoming in the 1970's merely rural. Once-cultivated land was succumbing to neglect, and farms that remained were increasingly owned by out-of-town operators who were able to adapt to the "get big or get out" imperative of government and agribusiness. (Here's a clue to what separates Berry's approach to the land from most "environmentalists" -- a term he dislikes. Rather than the environmentalist goal of preservation, i.e. keeping the wilderness in a pristine state, Berry is an advocate of wise use.) Berry's anger is incandescent as he describes the effects of the absolutizing values of efficiency and bigness on the farming economy of Henry Co.

And nowhere now is there a market for minor produce: a bucket of cream, a hen, a few dozen eggs. One cannot sell milk from a few cows anymore; the law-required equipment is too expensive. Those markets were done away with in the name of sanitation—but, of course, to the enrichment of the large producers. We have always had to have "a good reason" for doing away with small operators, and in modern times the good reason has often been sanitation, for which there is apparently no small or cheap technology. Future historians will no doubt remark upon the inevitable association, with us, between sanitation and filthy lucre. And it is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons. (p. 41)

Along with "efficiency" and "bigness" Berry indicts the mania for specialization in agriculture and education. This results in government bureaucrats telling farmers to eschew diversity in what they grow, and universities becoming places where one goes to learn a "profession," what Berry calls "fragmented, one-eyed specialties." An absolute faith in technology, and oversimplification, has replaced a holistic complex approach to the problems of agriculture and culture. Berry eloquently argues that the same values which nourish a healthy farm culture also make for a healthy culture. And what is that healthy culture? In offering a tentative answer to that question Berry's parochial concern for his native Kentucky soil takes on wings and soars.

A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes a calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well. (p. 43)

Quotes from The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (Sierra Club Books, 1977)