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


(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.