Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Man On Fire And The Future Of Faith

If you have not seen Man On Fire, the superb action movie starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, and Radha Mitchell, and if you want to be surprised at the plot twists, read no further. Rent and watch the movie first.

As I was re-watching Man On Fire last week, I was struck by the power of our meta-narrative, the Christian story, to shape the narratives that move us even in action movies. As this film begins, two retired assassins (Washington and Walken) meet in Mexico. Out of nowhere, the protagonist assassin, John Creasy (Washington) asks, “Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” Walken’s character answers “No.” Creasy nods “I didn’t think so.” It is a short but absolutely serious conversation. Not a hint of irony. We have met characters who take damnation seriously, because they are living it.

Creasy takes a job as body guard to a little girl (Fanning) and is captivated by her innocence and her seemingly inexplicable love for him. She loves him because he is sad. It is a compassion that he does his best to resist, but is nonetheless touched. He becomes her swimming coach and teaches her the way to freedom from fear. Her swims are baptismal plunges into liberty. Each night as the alcoholic body guard drinks his whiskey to forget, he faithfully reads his Bible to remember.

When the girl is kidnapped and apparently killed, the plot moves into the all too familiar “myth of redemptive violence” (Walter Wink, Joseph Campbell) as Creasy tracks down the killers and executes them one by one. But after each killing, he swims in the child’s pool, a baptismal act in which blood washes from him – the stain of sin or the blood of life?

When she turns out to be alive, the myth of redemptive violence ends. Crucifixion religion leads to perpetual violence. (Rene Girard). But resurrection religion shifts his focus to a life for others. That is the point at which he stops killing to restore his sense of moral order and chooses instead to die to save someone he loves.

It is a beautiful story of a soul saved at great cost. What strikes me is that this story, which simply must be told and which we need so much to hear, could not be told and could not be heard without the context of the Christian story. The question “Will God forgive us?” would not arise. The Bible, the baptisms, the death and resurrection would not signify without the context of the Creeds. So many stories would not be possible without the meta-narrative of the Christian faith -- not just action movies like Man on Fire and cult classics like Easy Rider, but real classics like A Christmas Carol and Les Miserables.

Sometimes I am sanguine about entering the post-Christian era, thinking Christianity is at its best when it is counter-cultural anyway. But then I remember that culture is a channel of grace and that channel will be diminished without our signs, our symbols, and most of all, our story. I understand that W. H. Auden was still a young atheist when he went to Spain to fight in the Civil War. At one point, when the left (Auden’s own side) was triumphant; they silenced all the church bells. On Sunday, when Auden heard the silence, he knew he did not want to live in a world without church bells, and that meant he did not want to live in a world without faith. Even if he did not believe, he needed someone to believe. He needed the culture to believe.

As one who lives neck deep in the institutional church, I am as ambivalent about it as any “spiritual but not religious” person. But I do not look forward to a world without church bells, a world without faith – or worse yet, a world in which faith is abandoned to the hands of the fearful, the bigoted, and the mean-spirited. So I continue to pray and hope against the dry sociological data so ready, so eager to write our obituary, that we may yet live, that bells may continue to ring on Sunday mornings, and that people who believe and people who do not believe will at least know our story.

Is there any reason to sustain my hope? If not, I plan to hope without a reason. (Miguel de Unamuno). But here’s a little thing I imagine. My 2 year old grandson loves to march around the room carrying a cross (or a fly swatter if no cross can be found, but he calls the fly swatter “cross”) singing “knick knack paddy whack” or the ABC song. I imagine him as an old man after the culture has forgotten us still practicing “the old religion” like Obi Wan Kenobi and respectable adults warning their young people to “have nothing to do with that crazy old wizard.” (Star Wars IV). If our story is true, it will be hard to kill.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Art In Goldfield & Tonopah: Contrasting Aesthetics

The art scene in Tonopah could never be mistaken for the art scene in Goldfield. The main feature in Goldfield – and there is no competition – is right along 95 on the northern outskirts of town. It is a field of car art. There are simply no words to describe what some post-modern sculptor has done there to blow function apart, without obliterating the vestiges of function, while celebrating form for form’s sake. It is a parking lot with cars. But the cars have been mixed and mingled with all sorts of things. One small car sits atop another. One van wears a speedboat for a hat. On the grilles and fenders, the cars are adorned with toys, cattle skulls, whatever you call those curved little metal troughs that you spit (or worse) into in the hospital -- all manner of objects, generally having once had a practical use, now displayed like something from Andy Warhol for the sake of their shape and color – unremarkable when seen apart but amazing in the context of a community of forms assembled according to a design formulated in a uniquely appreciative mind. Yes, Goldfield. Who would have imagined it?

The public sculptures of Tonopah are of a mostly – perhaps not entirely – different order. The Tonopah exhibit is not concentrated in a single parking lot, but adorns the whole downtown. There are two basic kinds of sculpture. One is rust colored impressionistic representations of people from by-gone days. It is a historical theme – like the bronze statues of Boulder City – only the Tonopah figures are deliberately rougher and rustier. The other Tonopah kind of sculpture is arrangements of machinery – cog wheels, beams, mining equipment – which is somewhat like the cars of Goldfield. But Tonopah’s collections of metal are one color while the Goldfield displays are deliberately garish. And there is a deeper difference. Tonopah’s machinery sculptures and human sculptures are of the same color and texture – both roughly rusted. It doesn’t take an art critic to know that this similarity is deliberate and it is saying something. The question is: what? And here context may help to interpret. If I saw this likeness of humanity and machinery in Berkeley, I’d think it was a Herbert Marcuse critique of utilitarian capitalism dehumanizing workers. But not in Tonopah. I may be wrong. There may be some remnant of IWW radicalism at work in this art. But I don’t see it. This looks to me like a tribute to the resilient strength and courage of a mining town where people work like their equipment and with their equipment – together digging a life out of the earth, the iron rusty earth. We are more than what we do, these sculptures say, but we become ourselves while doing. Unlike the post modernist form for form’s sake of Goldfield, Tonopah’s art suggests stories as wild as the West and as human as anything by Zola or Hugo.

Speaking of great writers, not all the art in Tonopah is visual. There’s literature too these days. The best used bookstore I have yet found in Nevada is Whitney’s Books – open well into the evening. Whitney’s also hosts the AA and Al-Anon groups, which strikes me as showing some social conscience. Like any used bookstore, they carry the good, the bad, and the ugly. Someone at some point appears to have been a fan of Rod McKuen – groan. But I picked up two A. B. Guthrie novels and found several by Susan Howatch, as well as lots of classics – all for low, low prices.

So if you should be driving through Tonopah someday, don’t just think of the Mexican food at El Marquis, the historic ambience of Tonopah Station with its 1940’s Coca Cola posters and vintage gaming machines, or the educational value of touring the mining museum. Look around at the public art. And by all means stop in at Whitney’s Books.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Concord To Southwark: Reflections On Unity And Freedom

July 4 feels different to me this year thanks in large part to the efforts of Canterbury to rein in our Episcopal Church. I have observed the 4th by watching the HBO mini-series, John Adams, and it has renewed my appreciation of what a complex and life-tearing soul-twisting ordeal the American revolution was. It also led me to the following two, somewhat churchy somewhat political, reflections.

Reflection 1: The American revolutionaries appealed to a tradition of freedom and dignity which was their inheritance from England. The Declaration of Independence echoed the themes of Article 37 of the Articles of Religion, “The bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm.” Of course, the Declaration of Indpendence (and the Constitution after it) echoed the democratic themes of the Magna Carta and Elizabeth II’s policies of toleration and freedom of belief and conscience. How ironic that the source of our freedom-tradition had become our oppressor! More than ironic, this is telling. What startles me is that England declared its independence of the political-legal-ecclesiastical authority of Rome in the late 16th Century, then spent the 17th Century becoming a colonial power and wound up being, all too often, a force of oppression.

The American impulse to freedom, inherited from England, found expression in the Declaration of Independence and is heard today in the witty blog title, “The Archbishop of Canterbury hath no jurisdiction in this realm.” But we are no less human than our English brothers and sisters. We spent the late 18th Century claiming our freedom, then the 19th century buying and conquering our way to the Pacific Ocean, then the first half of the 20th Century establishing our own colonial dominion beyond our borders. The point: it is a tricky thing this claiming freedom. When we exert resistance to oppression, the energy of resistance can go awry after the oppressor is out of the way. That same energy can become oppressive. Freedom is good, but a spiritually vulnerable thing. It is guarded not by the continued assertion of the power that won the freedom in the first place, but rather by its restraint.

The defense of freedom with self-restraint was taught more deeply, wisely, and theologically by Reinhold Niebuhr and Langdon Gilkey. It was best practiced by George Washington after the war was won. His army was sick and tired of the ineptitude of the politicians in Philadelphia who had consistently failed to supply them or to pay them. The army officers decided to march on the city, impose a coup, and run this country right. Washington asked the privilege of meeting with them first which of course they granted him. He was after all George Washington. He took out his notes but was unable to read them. Fumbling for his glasses he said his eyes had grown dim in service to his country. And that was the end of the coup. Washington could and would have been the new king if he had wavered ever so slightly in his refusal. But he was adamant in resisting power and so became the American Cincinatus and we became a republic.

Reflection 2: The American identity is rooted in two wars: the Revolutionary War and the Civil War – one war to take a body politic apart; the other, to hold one together. “There is a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them together.” Ecclesiastes 3: 5. Ah discernment – knowing what time it is. One cultural legacy of Martin Luther’s bold stand of conscience is that we tend to make solitary stands of conscience heroic per se. We have a societal tendency toward secession. We like to stand up, make a heated statement, and stomp off. It proves we are brave and of sturdier moral stuff than the rest of the group. Churches, art councils, college faculties, and garden clubs fly apart with the centrifugal force of this self-enhancing assertion, a curious blend of conscience and pride.

Watching John Adams, I was struck by the divisions in the Continental Congresses. There were voices for independence from the get go (like Sam Adams), voices of conciliation and unity to the end (like John Dickinson), and folks who valued peace and unity but ultimately decided that authentic freedom demanded revolution (like Washington). The tension between peace and freedom, mutuality and independence, is a delicate dance performed in families, churches, and nations. Authentic relationship is not achieved by servility, dominance, or stomping out of the room. It starts with being our authentic selves and striving with care and compassion to find how we can be relationship with other authentic selves.

That point has implications for all our relationships. But in the limited context of the Anglican Communion, the question is how can our Episcopal Church be its authentic self and be in relationship with other Provinces that share our history but not all aspects of our polity or theology. Here again, it helps to remember our history. If the English bishops had been willing to consecrate an American bishop, Samuel Seabury, our relationship with Canterbury might be decidedly different today. But precisely because Seabury was an American believing in our independence, that is to say he would not swear allegiance to the king of England, they refused to consecrate him – a refusal echoed recently in the Southwark mitergate incident. Scottish bishops, who already did not swear such allegiance, consecrated him. Hence, we are not the Church of England in America. We are the Episcopal Church which shares history with the C of E, just as the United States shares history with the UK. The concept of a network of churches with this shared history (the Anglican Communion) was the idea of American and Canadian clergy in the late 19th Century. We began having periodic gatherings of bishops for prayer and fellowship, then more recently formed other ways to collaborate in mission. Having ourselves begun this informal spiritual network, constituted by “bonds of affection” not rules and power structures, I am confident we will continue to relate to our fellow Anglicans in a spirit of authentic care.