Thursday, January 27, 2005

Oscar nominations

Conspicuous in their absence from the Oscar nominations announced a few days ago were two films that, in a certain sense, encapsulated the socio-political, cultural, and religious trajectories of the last year. The brainchildren of two Michael's from opposite ends of the political and religious spectrum symbolized well the polarization which divides and defines the modern American milieu.

On the one hand, Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 sought to represent the millions of Americans disturbed by the Bush administration's handling of the so-called 'war on terrorism.' Particularly striking was the patriotic tone embraced by the filmmaker to emphasize his own love for country even as he critiqued its policies. And while entertaining to me, the movie was clearly a piece of propaganda; however, I do not think that the movie suggested it was anything but a slanted, biased ideological confession. If anything, the movie should serve to remind us of how common human bias is in the media and how we ought to be most suspicious of those individuals and outlets which incessantly claim to be 'fair and balanced' or 'the most trusted name in news.' The critical acumen of the American consumer of media must be sharpened if we hope to be informed. Should this film have been nominated? Probably not. Although it inspired its own kind of passion, it was not a piece of art like Finding Neverland and, in my mind, was not deserving of the kind of critical approval the Oscar carries with it.

On the other hand was Gibson's The Passion of Christ. Although the film had its thoughtful moments--including the powerful depiction of Peter's rejection of Christ and the touching interactions between Jesus and his mother, an aspect of the human Christ too often neglected by Protestants--the gruesome, endless violence served solely a masochistic, guilt-inducing purpose. To compare the gospel accounts and classic artistic representations of the cross to this gory spectacle is to compare works intended to evoke contemplation and thought to one solely hoping to make another buck in the entertainment industry. Particularly disturbing to me was the mass marketing of the film conducted by the church. Gibson didn't need to spend a dime on promoting the film as pastors and churches served as advertising firms; their passion to promote Passion left no room for critique and thought. This film also did not deserve the highest of critical approval.

I agree with Andrew Sullivan when he writes in his blog, "Kudos to the academy for ignoring the execrable 'Fahrenheit 9/11' and the pornographic 'Passion.' Right-wing and left-wing ideologies will be disappointed. But what do they know about art?" I do expect both sides to claim that their favorite film was rejected because of ideological reasons. In my mind, all you have to do is watch some of the current nominees to realize that these movies, though culturally significant, are simply not in the same class.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Theological interpretation of an 'act of God'

Insurance policies speak rather ambivalently of 'acts of God' so as to define the limits of liability. Just as flippantly, some ecclesial leaders will short-sightedly inject tragedy with divine retribution.

Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America." Somehow, the attack on veritable symbols of American military and economic power did not factor into Falwell's facile theological calculus.

Unfortunately, a natural disaster cannot escape receiving such analysis. ABP reports that Henry Blackaby, the author of Experiencing God, "told a Kentucky pastors' conference workshop he recognized God's hand of judgment in the tsunami after he saw a map published by Voice of the Martyrs showing areas of intense persecution of Christians worldwide." The article goes on to detail how others have responded and argued the theological and factual vapidity of Blackaby's assertion.

Of course, such an impetus is nothing new. The bible, especially the Hebrew scriptures, grapple valiantly with the potential for God's judgment coming upon the wings of locusts or the edge of a conquering sword. Seeking a theological motive behind inexplicable disaster is a natural human reaction but one that should be tempered with compassion and theological humility.

John 9 reports that the disciples quizzed Jesus as to the theological source of a blind man's affliction. Jesus deflects the question and instead showers the man with compassion and love. This tragedy was not a theological judgment but a tragedy ripe for God's grace. I just hope that this kind of compassion will prevail in this situation and that God's hand will not be blamed for natural or human tragedy in the service of our own ideological battles.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Leonardo Code

In Dan Brown's imaginative--and lucrative--tale, the ideal Renaissance man (Leonardo) and Jesus become inextricably linked in a dazzling web of intrigue, conspiracy, and covert ideologies and power. While a great deal of attention has been paid in the press and amongst Christians concerning Brown's attempted revisioning of the sources of the Christian church (a move wholly rooted in novelistic concerns and very little in actual historical datum), whether Leonardo's character was maligned or represented unfairly has not produced much contemplation. In the Jan. 17, 2005 edition of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviews two recent biographies of the Renaissance man.

The juxtaposition of these two works reveals interesting dimensions of a man who has inspired something of a modernist cultic following. Is Leonardo a scientific precursor to recent discoveries? Was he modern before being modern was the "cool thing" to do? Though we may try to make Leonardo an enlightened precursor of modernity, the evidence may struggle against our anachronistic ways. Gopnik illustrates,
"The famous figure of Vitruvian man, for instance, splayed out in his encircled square, is in origin a derivative illustration of an antique idea about regular proportions: a man's proportions when the arms are horizontal make a square; with the arms diagonal they center a circle. Though it is possible to see this as a 'humanist' ideal, it is not necessarily so; it says not that man's proportions are divine but merely that they are regular. The point of the image is not that man is the measure of all things; it is that man can, like all things, be measured. But the tension between this abstract and diminishing idea and its realization as a strange, aged, specific figure, with a strong, ostentatious but perfect body and a grave, unforgettable face--half Don Imus, half St. Jerome; Nicholl suggests that it is a self-portrait--gives the image a certain heroism, as though the individual had stoically lent himself for a scientific trial."

What seems to be the case was that Leonardo tread a precarious line between thought worlds colliding in the intellectual and spiritual ferment of the Renaissance. He further notes,
"Is Leonardo a scientist? We would like to make him one of ours, and are encouraged because through the years we have grown accustomed to the thought that scientists are in significant ways like artists: they imagine and observe and leap to hypotheses as poets leap to metaphors. They see beyond the thing at hand to the mysterious relation it may have to another thing at hand--when an apple drops on their head, they ask what dark, occult force in the earth drew it there. And yet, reading these new lives of Leonardo, one begins to think that scientists are not so very much like artists, and Leonardo least of all. He was a magus, and remains firmly on the far side of the scientific revolution. As Lisa Jardine's fine life of Robert Hooke reminded us recently, the real scientific revolution consisted of a willingness to measure once and again and then measure yet again. Doggedness, drudgery, and dutifulness--the three 'D's' of Protestantism--are at its heart, and those Leonardo never knew. He still thought by lunges and in metaphors. Things are understood by being shown to be like other things: the uterus is like a cosmos, the blood like rivers, the world is a microcosm."

I think that such insightful gazes into the thought world of Leonard lifts some of the mystery that permits Brown's imaginative mind to involve the artist in the greatest conspiracy of all time. These two biographies may provide us a portrait of an artist and not the caricature of a henchman.

And although interesting in and of themselves, these insights caused me to reflect on the task of theologians and, specifically, Biblical exegetes. Historical criticism spurred the 'scientific' study of the biblical texts which came to dominate western academia through the current day. No longer the queen of the sciences, theology had to justify its endeavors in an academy more and more interested in the so-called 'hard' sciences. The rise late last century towards literary criticism in biblical studies shifted the tide a bit along with an interest in narrative as a theological model. Yet the discipline remains quite entrenched in a scientific mode, broadly speaking.

How then ought we to label ourselves, scientists or artists? Do we follow the stricture of method and concoct testable hypotheses or do we interpret the impression of a text and summon theological significance with image and metaphor? Is there a middle ground for the theologian to claim as her own?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

On the inauguration

In days to come the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
-- Isaiah 2:2-4

Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
-- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 1953

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Linking cultural hermeneutics and fundamentalism

Today, I finished reading Michael Brown's survey of African American hermeneutics, Blackening of the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Interpretation. Overall, I found that the book provided an excellent overview of the main trajectories of African American hermeneutics over the last few generations of scholars. Most enlightening, however, was Brown's assessments and critiques of this interpretive enterprise in his closing chapter. I was particularly interested in the causal ties Brown discerns between the mostly academic enterprise of cultural hermeneutics and the mostly ecclesial rise of fundamentalism in the African American church. He explains,
In my opinion, a great deal of African American biblical hermeneutics is a reaction or response to the perceived advancement of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalism in the African American community... Of course, such an apparently reductionist statement is open to a considerable amount of challenge from those desiring to account for other factors that have affected the development of African American interpretation. For example, many associate the rise of this mode of interpretation with the spread of various liberation theologies, but especially black theology. African American hermeneutics, then, serves as a form of biblical engagement that promotes the larger liberatory enterprise. All of this is true. I contend, however, that the development and spread of various liberation theologies coincides with the development and spread of fundamentalisms as reactions to modernity. Although they may be opposite or antagonistic responses, they are related nonetheless. As moderns, African Americans have experienced an acute separation from their past and thus from their posited collective identity. Fundamentalism is one way to construct such an identity. Black theology is another. In this sense then, African American hermeneutics is a reaction or response to the spread of conservative Christianity in the community. (154)

In other words, the certainty of a fundamentalist reading of Scripture provides a fundamental cultural component denied to African Americans by a tragic history of exploitation. The question remains whether liberatory theologies or fundamentalism are more successful in this crucial cultural function. Do the efforts of academics actually seep down into the pulpit and pew? What are the ultimate effects of academic study of the bible, both positive and negative?

Appropriately, the academy receives a hefty critique along these lines:

African American biblical scholars have begun to challenge the pervasive Eurocentrism they perceive as operative in the discipline. African American hermeneutics then is a counterproposal to a form of scholarship enamored with its European roots. It is the fruit of a critical mass of scholars "come of age," willing to challenge the discipline on something it took virtually for granted. And this is true. I contend, however, that embedded in this critique is a realization on the part of African American scholars that biblical scholarship has to this point enabled the spread of conservative evangelicalism by unwittingly providing scholarship that, when filtered, is used for evangelical advancement, and by demonstrating widespread disinterest in the social consequences of biblical interpretation. Through a certain form of benign neglect, biblical scholarship allows for the proliferation of scriptural readings that maintain an uncritical and potentially dangerous Eurocentric bias. (154-5)
With an insipid and "benign neglect," mainstream academic study of the bible has provided the necessary logical and interpretive fodder to sustain and feed fundamentalism, a result likely unexpected from scholars. African American scholars of the bible are thus seeking to turn the tide of the trickle-down effects of academia.

Whether Brown is correct in discerning a concomitant affinity between cultural hermeneutics and fundamentalism is a fascinating question to me. I absolutely concur that fundamentalist readings of scripture embrace distinctly moderns modes of interpretation and, too frequently, sap the mythic and spiritual dimensions of pericopes like Genesis 1-2 while simultaneously over-spiritualizing ethical demands which cut against the grain of a modern life imbued with nationalism and far too little concern for the poor and marginalized. A hermeneutical tact which recognizes the situatedness of all interpretation is both a clear reaction to and an initial step towards alleviating such a situation.

Ultimately, however, I wonder whether all-encapsulating terms like "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" simplify a daedal situation. Can these two terms be used interchangeably? Many of my "post-evangelical would likely demur. Can we speak of an "evangelical" or "fundamentalist" as such? The source of the ecclesial battles now raging in our churches are obfuscated when labels such as conservative/liberal dominate our discussions; morality or cultural values are certainly not central either.

In my mind, the most divisive issues of the day are hermeneutical in nature. How do we speak of biblical authority? How does God speak to us through scripture? These are the fractures which divide us and not the relatively simple ideological rhetoric of manipulative politicians or self-aggrandizing preachers.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Is it just me, or did I just miss a trend?

Bloggers have clearly taken center stage in cyberspace over the last year. For better or worse, one's thoughts can be broadcast around the world for anyone who cares to scour and sort through the internet. I have been intrigued for quite some with the possibility of starting my own blog, but due to various reasons --technical incompetence, the intense dread of having nothing to say and no one to hear it, and, ultimately, an admixture of a lack of free time and a love for mindless television--I never took the plunge. That is until one startling excursion on the internet when I stumbled upon my good friend Jake's appeal to start a blog. I took the challenge and here I am.

So what might we expect on this very public diary? Whenever I run across something intriguing in my reading, I will try to share it. Whenever a masterful film catches my attention, I may critique it. Whenever certain politicians make crucial theological missteps, I will be likely to comment upon it with swift vengeance. And, most importantly, whenever a torrid television program catches my fleeting attention, I will most definitely dissect it.

Within this eclectic mix of "high" and "low" culture, I hope to develop my own thoughts and continue conversations with friends both near and far. Even as distance has kept me from my close friends in the Garden State of New Jersey or the Independent Nation of Texas, my fondness for our conversations has not abated. Please join in this conversation. I hope friendships will both begin and continue to flourish. All in all, though, I hope that this blog may form one, very small component of our journeys together here on this earth.

Soli deo gloria.