Thursday, February 24, 2005

The two sides of Princeton

The halcyon environs of Mercer Street with its boutiques and extravagant restaurants is deceptive. So also are the majestic buildings which dot the campuses of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. Often unacknowledged is a darker side of the town, darker both literally and figuratively. Recent news of immigration raids in Princeton and surrounding cities have torn a small gash in this proverbial curtain.

Behind the manifest wealth of the town is a thriving population of immigrants from Guatemala and other portions of Central and South America. These individuals play a silent, hidden role as they clean offices in the dark of night, cook food at the rear of restaurants, and clean houses on the weekends. Their struggles are muffled by the loud chatter of economic and intellectual success.

This stark divide was perhaps most pernicious in my mind at PTS. When students or faculty speak of the seminary "community," little thought was generally given to these individuals. Let me be clear; I do not exclude myself from such an arrogant posture. However, as Christians, I hope we can all do better in appreciating and perhaps even privileging the experiences of our sisters and brothers whose daily existence rests on a tenuous line.

On the one hand, this country depends on their labor and will look the other way when necessary. On the other hand, vile xenophobic rhetoric too often litters political discourse and seeps into cultural perceptions.

I know nothing of the experience of depending upon seasonal work for sustenance. However, Justo Gonzalez's reading of the parable of the workers has been particularly enlightening to me:
When this story is read in most churches, there is a general reaction that the whole thing is unfair. It is just not right that people who worked more should be paid the same as people who worked less. In that social context, all that is seen is the injustice, and the sermon then usually argues that God's grace is above justice.

In contrast, when the parable is read in some of our poor Hispanic churches there are people who immediately identify with the laborers, for they understand the plight of those who must go early in the morning to stand at a place where someone may come in a pickup truck and hire them. They may be lucky one day and find a whole day's work. Other days, they may spend hours waiting, and find nothing to do, or be hired only for a couple of hours. They clearly understand, because they have experienced it, the conversation between the landowner and those who are still standing around at about five o'clock: "Why are you standing here idle all day?" "Because no one has hired us." Then comes the surprising finale, where the landowner pays those who only worked a couple of hours a whole day's wage, and the reaction is not one of mystification and outrage, as in a middle-class congregation, but rather of joy and celebration. They can see that this is not an act of injustice, but rather an act of supreme justice. Those hired at five o'clock were not at fault in not having found work earlier. They were actually standing there all day, hoping against hope that someone would hire them. In a sense, they had more hope and stamina than those who were guaranteed a job early in the day. The fact that no one hired them does not mean that they will not have to eat, or that their needs will be lesser. They too need a day's wages in order to survive. Thus, the landowner's act in paying them a full day's wage is not a show of grace that goes against justice, but rather of a grace that understands justice at a deeper level than is customary. The landowner pays them what they justly need and what they justly deserve, not what society, with its twisted understanding of justice, would pay them. Common justice would wash its hands of any responsibility for these unfortunate ones who did not find enough work to earn a living. This utterly just landowner, in contrast, pays them what they need, and what they should have been ready to earn had they been hired earlier. (62-3)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

I have been a longtime admirer of Don Cheadle's work. He has always played interesting and well-drawn characters just on the edge of the movie screen. In Hotel Rwanda, however, Cheadle takes center stage and magnificently brings the tragedy of genocide to life. The internal conflicts of Paul Rusesabagina are brought masterfully unto the movie screen with a subtly and honesty that should make the Oscar voting for best actor a simple decision.

Particularly striking to me was how Paul's initial optimism in the empathy of the world is shattered in the face of cruel and benign neglect. In the film, the willful powerlessness of the west is symbolized by Nolte's character and remains a stinging indictment of the western indifference.

Having been engaged in a conversation about the issue of Biblical authority in light of the Canaanite conquest, the film was a visual and visceral reminder of why so many of us resist the presence of divinely sanctioned genocide. Add the current conversations about the accuracy and ideological impetus behind the composition of the book Joshua, and the question is only complicated. Can viewing this film place our view of the authority of scripture in a different light?

The most haunting line of the film comes from Joaquin Phoenix's character, a western journalist. When Paul expresses his hope that pictures and accounts of genocide would spur the west to action, the cameraman responds, "They will say, 'Oh God, how terrible.' And then they'll continue eating their dinners."

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Ethics and the experience of encountering the other

The recent news that the contract of New Brunswick Seminary's president was not renewed after officiating at his daughter's marriage to another woman sparked my memory. In Battle for the Minds, a documentary covering the fundamentalist takeover of Southern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Molly Marshall (an OBU graduate, just thought I'd mention it!) argues that the resistance exhibited by many conservatives to women in the pulpit are rooted in experience--to be more exact a lack of experience. She tells an illustrative story of the children's play in the nursery of a church which she served as a solo pastor. The nursery worker had to intercede in defense of the young boys in the nursery when the children played church. The girls insisted that the boys could not be pastors. The wise nursery worker had to explain, "Now, girls, little boys can be pastors too!" Marshall goes on to explain that these young children were building theological positions upon what they had seen and experienced and proposes that a lack of exposure to women in ministerial positions only buttresses conservative positions on the issue.

I have become increasingly convinced that personal exposure is an excellent check for our theological positions. In our typically isolated churches, the tendency to ignore the presence of homosexuals in the community or even in the pews only complicates the emotional issues around the reaction of the church to the gay and lesbian community. It is one thing to condemn and vilify a faceless stranger, a whole other matter when one is dealing with a neighbor, a friend, a sibling, a child, or a parent.

If there is anything upon which both sides of this controversial issue can agree, it is that historically the church has been cruel and unloving in its treatment of homosexuals; simply, we have not followed the example of Christ. The first step towards healing and understanding amongst us all is a basic appreciation for one another as creatures of God. It is a small step but an important step nonetheless.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

I read your blog . . . you're fired

Yahoo news reports that blogging can be dangerous to your career. Anonymity on the web sounds more and more attractive and much less of a possibility everyday.

Did Star Wars and Jaws ruin film?

Has Hollywood lost its way? If so, when exactly did the movie industry lose its soul? If you're anything like me, I love the movies and their ability to encapsulate both the hope and despair of humans in potent ways. However, I also lament the inane garbage that passes off as theater. Now don't get me wrong; I am not a film snob by any stretch of the imagination. I've probably seen Old School one too many times and will likely watch it anytime it shows up on HBO. I even have a good friend who proudly claims the moniker, "Frank the Tank." Nevertheless, there are a lot of pointless movies released so that the studios can make a quick buck in the first two weeks of release and then on the release of the DVD.

A recent article on the history and future of cinema in the New Yorker reviews several recent efforts to dissect and analyze the history of American film. Most mark a crucial point at which the movies started deteriorating, a veritable rise and fall account of Hollywood. For each account, a different development in the industry plays the role of the barbarian horde. One even had the audacity to blame Star Wars and Jaws for the 'blockbuster' attitude now pervading movie executives's minds!

Yet, why have we embraced the 'blockbuster' mentality and come out in droves for the opening days of the weekly must-see movies? Menand postulates,
The all-consuming desire is to get as many ticket buyers as possible into the theatre on the first weekend, and, amazingly, people oblige. The crowds at the opening of a blockbuster are a fascinating window on mass psychology. If people just wait a couple of weeks, they can have their pick of seats. But when they get back to school or to the office no one will want to hear what they thought of the picture. That was last week's conversation.
Menand continues as he explains how critically-panned movies still do well at the box office:
Before the word of mouth has made it around the block, the movie has already taken in, from the opening weekend, typically somewhere between twenty-five and forty per cent of its total gross.... The reason that those movies had such enormous grosses, despite terrible reviews and negative word of mouth, is that each opened on eighteen thousand screens simultaneously worldwide. As Shone says, about the typical blockbuster, "By the time we've all seen that it sucked, it's a hit."
But is the diagnosis a bit too dire. Have the movies deteriorated so precipitously from their heyday? We saw Million Dollar Baby the other night and learned once again that drama, powerful story-telling, and character development are not solely components of films from yesteryear. What do you all think? Have the movies seen a precipitous drop in quality and substance over the decades?

Thursday, February 03, 2005

A follow-up on tsunami theodicy

Scripps Howard New Service recently posted this article in response to theological postulations of God's role in the tsunami. Thanks to fellow OBU grad Jake for the tip.

Particularly perturbing to me in the current political climate of this country is the constant claim of victimization among too many Christians. While believers are struggling under great duress and oppression in places like Sudan, American Christianity has too frequently taken the posture of a victim when policies do not go their way. The banning of public prayer and religious displays suddenly becomes an oppressive strike against the core of Christianity. Violence in school and the general deterioration of society are blamed upon policy decisions that are perceived as anti-Christian.

Admittedly, some of the decisions passed down by school boards, legislatures, and the courts unnecessarily limit religious expression in public. For example, as long as different religious traditions have equal access, there is no reason why the expression of religion cannot have a place in public discourse. Nevertheless, facile rhetoric takes the place of thoughtful debate when these decisions are framed as a pitched battle between secularists and true believers. Let's be frank. Most Christians do not have to suffer for the faith in this country; while ridicule and disdain may be directed at some believers, slightly bruised feelings are not a sign of persecution.

Of course, theological explanations for the tsunami are not unique to the western world as Islamic commentators have also constructed their own theories. Finding meaning and purpose behind such inexplicable tragedy is a natural human reaction, yet we should also pause and reflect upon the various motives behind our ruminations.