Thursday, March 24, 2011

Happiness and commandments

What follows is a wonderful guest post by my friend Krista Richardson. Its a sermon she gave last month in her ward. I really like it for several reasons. This talk is beautifully written and reflects the wonderful creative way she has of dealing with her topic. Also, I don't know if Krista is all that familiar with the work of Abraham Heschel but I am reminded of of what Heschel said about commandments. He wrote that commandment are a "call to creativity" telling us that its up to us to find the ways to inhabit our religious practice that allows us to find the nobility and holiness that is made possible in them. I think Krista is is giving us a similar message. Read it, ponder, Enjoy.

There’s an old argument about the nature of human beings—a very old argument--about whether we are born moral, with the tools to choose between good and evil, or whether we’re at the mercy of our circumstances--whether we are capable of cultivating peace within ourselves, and by extension happiness, or whether we need a leader who will force us to keep order. (Locke vs. Hobbes, Christ vs. Lucifer)

It’s obvious which side our Savior invites us to join, and I’m happy to say that happiness is the birthright not just of those born into a free society, but to every child of God.

Nephi tells us that we’re created for joy. Joseph Smith likewise said that “happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping the commandments of God.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 255–56).

In Moses 5 we read Adam’s prophesy that he would have joy in this life and see God in the flesh.

(And in that day Adam blessed God and was afilled, and began to bprophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my ctransgression my deyes are opened, and in this life I shall have ejoy, and again in the fflesh I shall see God.)

Joy is a gift that, through the Atonement, we can think of in terms of the lives we’re living now, not just as a promised future reward.

James E. Faust gave a talk ten years ago in which he refers to happiness as an innate quality. It’s already there; we just need to access it. He warns us against thinking of it as, “a package that we can just open up and consume. Nobody is ever happy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Rather than thinking in terms of a day, we perhaps need to snatch happiness in little pieces.”
What is it that taps into our innate core of happiness? We call them gospel principles, but someone unfamiliar with our terminology might say, doing good to our fellow man; living in tune with God: welcoming his influence to become a part of our daily experience, and ultimately to shape who we are.

Like any of the gospel principles that make it possible, happiness can become a habit. Principles only really become practice when we embrace them, and make them a part of us.

There’s a poet, Louise Gluck, whose poem, “Celestial Music” I read many years ago. And of all the other lines I’ve read and forgotten, I remember these:

“I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.”

The two friends walk down a road together talking about how it is possible that sadness and light can exist in the world, and how her friend’s faith makes her see beauty everywhere.

She continues:

“In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We're walking
On the same road, except it's winter now;
She's telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:”
Just as Elder Faust says we can “snatch happiness” in bursts, I think it’s possible to order it a la carte. In other words, we can test principles of holiness by being honest, kind, helpful and forgiving, and experience the good results. But that’s not a perfect system. There is opposition in the world, and fairness isn’t to be relied on.

So if we only do good in hope of the reward, or if we rely on others for our happiness, we’ll be disappointed. Brigham Young asked, “Do you think that people will obey the truth because it is true, unless they love it? No, they will not” (in Journal of Discourses, 7:55).

So how do we grow to love what’s right? I suppose by trust and hope—in other words, by beginning with faith, the first principle of our gospel.

Have you noticed that, by taking the Spirit on us, we see the world differently? We see more good. We feel inspired by ideas for improving our lot and the lives of others. We can bear up under enormous loads of fear, tragedy, and doubt. Even through the darkness we can experience transcendent beauty, hope, and joy, and we can live worthy lives. If we endure to the end in this way, we can become like god.

We know from Moses that, in our current state, we can’t even stand in the presence of God without withering. We have to be transfigured by grace. Even now, in our fallen state, living gospel principles can change us too, until we are more than the sum of our good and bad choices, but have become, as Paul says, a “new creature.”

That’s what I would like to be. I am longing to reconcile what I am with what I could be. When I reflect on myself—which I do alarmingly often the older I get—I find that this is my greatest source of frustration: that I am not what I could be.
As much as I long to change my whole being, I am still at that stage of ordering happiness a la carte, sometimes just coasting along. I read Solomon’s words in Proverbs 3, and felt inspired:

My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments:

For length of days, and along life, and bpeace, shall they add to thee.
Let not mercy and atruth forsake thee: bbind them about thy neck; write them upon the ctable of thine dheart.
These thoughts of transformation took me back to memories of a painting class I once took. The teacher showed us a painting by Henri Matisse, called “The Green Stripe.” It’s a portrait of the artist’s wife and right down the center of her face is a line of green paint.

Well, my eyesight has never been the same. For the rest of the semester I couldn’t paint anything without seeing all of these unexpected colors in the subjects. When I talked with people I would be looking at the purple and green and grey in their faces. I wasn’t seeing green stripes, but I was seeing that there are a lot more colors inside skin tone than I ever had imagined.
If we can see gospel principles for what they are—the stuff of happy lives—they can illuminate our vision. They change the way we see everything.

I asked some friends of mine who are established artists in various fields, from painting to poetry to filmmaking to music, if they could corroborate that experience of having their sight changed by their artistic training and practice.
One artist, a painter and photographer, told me how looking through a lens had changed her perception of “the way light comes in through a window—bursting or falling lightly.” She sees beauty in the cement peeling on her studio walls, or “the blooms left by an ink spill.”

We talk about pure intelligence flowing through us and I imagine it as a current of water—we just have to step in its path to feel it. I have felt this way when reading the scriptures. I’m sure you can relate with the experience of looking at the words, but not really seeing them. Instead of the particular message on the page your mind can feel flooded with inspiration: in my experience, it might come as specific and urgent ideas about someone I should call, some project I should start, or some service I should offer.

I think that’s a wonderful thing. I think the gospel can open up to us that way: when we endeavor to live by it, we step into its current and it can sweep us forward if we let it.

A filmmaker I asked described his understanding of his artistic vision this way: “it’s the emotional resonance of a filmic image that counts most.” Finding that poetic image “is about observation. It uses the stuff of everyday life as its source material but in being closely observed, and becoming an image, daily life is transformed; it becomes unique, takes on a sense of wonder, and its emotional content is brought forth.”

For the artist, “the experience of daily life, then, is to move through the world seeking out the wonder manifest in … transformative opportunities; and to use it in satisfying ways.”
If we look at the first principles and ordinances, as defined by our 4th article of faith, it’s easy to see that each of them is an opportunity designed to transform us.

FAITH: is a transformative opportunity.

My brother has a poster in his office that says, “I WANT TO BELIEVE.” There’s a picture of a flying saucer hovering above it.
I feel that way sometimes. I always wince a little at the poem I quoted earlier, because I feel myself in the position of the women who, with all she knows, literally talks to God. The implications of the poet or the sympathetic reader seems to be, how utterly deluded that woman is.

In the text of my graduate thesis on poetry of spirituality, I confessed that I had a personal stake in uncovering poetic worship in contemporary poetry. Historically poetry has deep roots in devotion and worship, but modern poetry more often takes on themes of doubt. I wanted to uncover, amidst all the doubt, some devotion, or some faithful grappling with spiritual themes. I wanted to know others felt the same way I did. I wanted backup.
I am happy to say that I did find some, although in all my hope and optimism about finding a community of believers in literature, I also had to face up to the fact that faith sometimes asks for our willingness to stand alone. It could even mean that sometimes we will appear naïve, or weak to others or even to ourselves. Otherwise, faith could become just a symbol of some lovely, but archaic idea.

As part of a routine class exercise I once brought in a poem one day by an ancient poet. It referred to the practice of sending a departed loved one out to sea on a funeral boat, to meet his creator, and the words were really powerful from a purely artistic point of view. There was quiet for a minute while people appreciated the poem, and then another student in the program said that he found belief really lovely, and that he wished he could have real faith in a god. He implied that, at some point, you can learn too much to believe anymore--that if you can’t return to a state of blissful ignorance, you can’t have faith.
And that’s what I think is really miraculous about faith. It can and must exist in the presence of knowledge. And even when lost, it can be restored. I know this because I have felt my own faith renewed over and over again; and sometimes this feels unexpected, but usually not. I’ve come to rely on the return of faith: when I ask for it—when I seek it out, I have always found that the Spirit of God testifies freely of the existence of good, the power of righteousness and the reward of coming to him.
I want to believe. I choose to believe. And in this way I feel that my faith in the mystery, beyond what I know, really can transform me into a creature of greater depth: a person for whom there is always something to learn and discover—even, maybe, into a person who is able to face unpleasantness with hope.

Why is faith not stupid? Because it’s informed. God does not ask us to believe without testing, and he wants us to learn all we can. “Prove all things,” he invites us through Paul.

Why is faith not naïve? Because it relies on works to fulfill its purpose. Because it seeks to do, not just to be.
Why is faith not weak? Because it has the power to transform us into greater, more powerful beings. It can lead us to action. How have the great civil rights leaders of our time made such strides if not for faith, and the belief in mankind’s innate right to happiness?

Indeed, how else has any great evil been overcome, but by the belief that goodness can and must win?
During the second World War the Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert, was a known dissenter who resisted the Nazi invasion of Poland and was later—after years of exile in France—celebrated in his own country for speaking out against the Nazis. In a poem called, “The Power of Taste,” he very modestly says,

“It did not take any great character
our refusal dissent and persistence
we had a scrap of necessary courage
but essentially it was a matter of taste”

It was who he was, with his taste for goodness and humanity, that made him act against evil—not any single act of courage-- although I’m sure that was there too.

That kind of integrity, which defines a person more than the sum of his or her actions, is the best result of living gospel principles. It creates a home for joy. A heart that is converted, a changed heart, signifies the new creature that Paul teaches about in his 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
The gospel reconciles man to God, and these principles, faith and repentance first among them, are the bridge to him.
This 5th chapter means so much to me. I know so much less now than I did in my twenties, when I was so self-assured. I feel a steady decline in wisdom and knowledge every year. That’s probably not true and I realize it’s probably not true, and yet it feels true.

I’ve struggled and felt separation from Heavenly Father. I have needed that bridge back to him.

The moment you finally realize that being yourself means being imperfect can be either humbling or fully disabling. But Paul’s words make it possible for me to imagine a better self, “not made of hands,” but made “eternal in the heavens,”

“For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven.”

When I think of joyful living, of living with faith, of having hope in things unseen, I think of the great capacity of our imaginations. Our Creator made us creative like he is. He gave us the scriptures to foretell what “could be,” and in our imaginations we can carry that vision forward.

The human imagination is powerful. It helps us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to foresee consequences and dangers, and to picture people—including ourselves—as our best possible selves. And so we can imagine a perfect world: lives untouched by addiction, injury, hatred or fear. Where death is always followed by life. Where beauty overwhelms ugliness, and where we can be forgiven and find a bridge back to God.

REPENTANCE: is a transformative opportunity. Repentance is about embracing humility to see, as Moses did, that we are nothing alone. Repentance is a willingness to change for the better, and begins with a longing to be more than we are.
My painter friend described her creative process as “responsive.”

“I do something to the canvas, then continue to work on it until I’ve resolved the mess I’ve made. Even when I start with an idea of how I want the piece to turn out, I work responsively, altering the plan, ruining it as much as I am creating it. The finished piece rarely turns out like the original image in my mind. My training has allowed me to take the ruined parts and turn them into something I find very beautiful.”

I like that as a model for repentance. When does life turn out the way we expect it to? Our imaginations, goals, and commitments set us on our way. But something goes wrong. It’s not what we pictured. We have to transform, or be lost. Repentance is one of the surest ways back to our innate happiness.

BAPTISM is another transformative opportunity. Among other things, baptism is a willingness to join and declare our discipleship. I confess: I am not by nature a joiner. I am a loner.

And so I thank Heavenly Father for the organization that brings me together with people. As a child you don’t think much about how different you are from your friends: you think of what you share. As an adult I feel my difference more keenly and it’s easy to put people into compartments and to put up barriers that block relationships from developing. My approach to friendship making has often been to wait for it: to let others come to me, or let circumstances bring me together with people. It’s kind of like being in a ship on the ocean, waiting for another ship to bump up next to me: maybe it’ll happen and maybe it won’t!
This church discourages that kind of passivity. I’ve welcomed that and through my effort, and the efforts of others, I’ve been blessed with fantastic transformative friendships, and a feeling of belonging that outshines membership in any club.
HAVING THE HOLY GHOST: is a transformative experience.

I confess that I don’t just feel ‘that feeling’ (that we call the Spirit) when I’m thinking or talking about my religious faith. I feel it everywhere, in all the places where good inspires men and women to do god-like things.

I feel it when I sit in a classroom and another person stands up to teach me something.

I feel it in the painful recognition that not all of God’s children have what they need to physically survive in this beautiful but unforgiving world: because I have felt the Spirit with me in my time of need, I know that God is there too. And he is forgiving.
This way of seeing the world as an interconnected family of peoples and destinies, that gift from Heavenly Father, feels profoundly human to me and I know that he extends it to every one of his children, without exception.

This is a big topic—much bigger than I am—and I can only testify to you that these gospel principles do bring happiness. I wouldn’t call it an unmitigated happiness. I think that when we finally learn to live in complete harmony with our principles, and have complete integrity, we can experience that joy because of Christ’s Atonement. In the meantime, we suffer the dissonance between what we want to be and what we really are: imperfect creatures.

Here is an area I can speak to personally because I feel this pain regularly. Sometimes it feels like I could fall into complete despair and be disabled from pushing forward. My faith wavers. My desire gets clouded. My courage falters.

And then, there it is in front of me: that greatest gospel principle, the Atonement.

It is the ultimate transformative experience. When we enter into a partnership with Jesus Christ, taking on his grace to compensate for our shortcomings even as he takes on our sins, we may feel that joy he promises.

In closing I want to bear testimony that faith and repentance and the Atonement will always be the principles we reach for, because they apply to every situation.

How can I teach my children who they are, where they come from, and what is expected of them? Prayers, scripture study, honesty, love

When my children suffer from painful illnesses, and I alone can give comfort, how do I make it through? Hope, kindness, sacrifice, longsuffering, prayer

When family members go through bouts of deep depression and can’t find their own way back to happiness? Endurance, love, forgiveness, humility, prayer

How do we make it through difficult parts of our relationships, marriages or family life, when it’s very hard to understand one another? Honesty, charity, forgiveness, love

These principles are practical. And they do bring happiness, although sometimes I think happiness equals the strength to make it through another 10 minutes. Until we become that new person inside and out, we keep practicing, not with the hope of a reward or the expectation that everything will work out the way we picture, but because acts of goodness and virtue are their own reward.

I will close with the words of Christ at the last supper, just after he has bent to wash his disciples’ feet: “And if ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Beatitudes

My sense is that I have never understood the Beatitudes very well. But as I have read them this week I feel like I may have made some small progress.

Notes that in several of the Beatitudes these is a state of spiritual longing or deficiency which will find relief, be satisfied, or comforted when certain types of people come in contact with the divine. This seems important because many take the beatitudes as a list of ideal traits of those who wish to follow Christ. But the language of the beatitudes is specific and further, contains no sense of becoming, or emerging, so if these are the traits we should cultivate in ourselves why isn’t there a sense of our individual transformation found in the Beatitudes? Perhaps its because the Beatitudes are for small groups yet, we want to make them universal, or we see what is promised to the people mentioned in the Beatitudes and we seek such rewards ourselves. Or maybe its because we want to see ourselves in the scriptures and so rather than admitting that one or more of the Beatitudes do not apply to us, we read ourselves into them.

To be honest, the question of how can we become meek, humble, or peacemakers and so on. Can be questions worth asking, but I am not sure these are the questions posed by the Beatitudes themselves. In any event these are questions that we can’t approach as generalities, by necessity these questions are unique to each individual, its only as individuals that we might have a chance of understanding our relationship to meekness, or mourning, or our understanding / concern for justice.

I would have to say though that I think the language of the Beatitudes offers an invitation to those who might feel that they would be found lacking, or unworthy to offer themselves to the fullness of God’s love. Such abundance of love can only feel uncomfortable, overwhelming to us as we dwell in our loss, in our state of half love, and unsatisfied hunger for God’s justice. The beatitudes may be saying to some among us that its o.k. in the end you will know the love and justice that seem so distant in life.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spiritual Cinema

What follows is my presentation from Sunstone last weekend. I was part of a panel discussion regarding spirituality and film. Its a challenging topic and one I've been interested in for over 10 years. In defining the genre of Spiritual Realism I take a somewhat formalist (and modernist) approach to defining the relationship between the spiritual aspects of human existence and Cinema as an art form. (since my notes have not been preped for publication or anything like that please excuse obvious problems with grammar etc.)

The assertion that the cinema has a spiritual dimension or potential is radical and we should hold on to the radical nature of this idea, it is not merely one problem among others, nor is spiritual cinema something that we can create by simply applying traditional methods, tools and ideas. At the very least the idea of spiritual cinema suggests that the cinema might be able to some how rise above its obvious and cumbersome material condition or use such structures to strive for something totally other. Thus the idea of the spiritual film should not be naturalized, or easily accepted. It should remain strange, challenging and distant. It should be something that we can’t quite grasp but that we strive to imagine anyway. This being the case what I say is going to be challenging, but I hope also provocative as an aesthetic, philosophical call to action.

In the next few minutes I want to present the aesthetic, philosophical, and poetic challenges, present in the films and writings of filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu, Majid Majidi, Abbas Kiarostami, Ingmar Bergman, and the director I will spend most of my time on, Andri Tarkovsky. I mention this very small group of filmmakers because it’s their work that forms the genre that is best described as Spiritual Realism.

For me the starting point for understanding Spiritual Realism is the presence of a certain kind of frustration expressed by both Bergman and Tarkovsky. If you read their interviews and journals you will notice that from time to time they both expressed a deep frustration with narrative structure. Both directors were aware of specific limits imposed by narrative, these were limits they very much wanted to escape while at the same time not knowing how to make their escape, how to take the step beyond. To me it’s noteworthy that perhaps the two most renowned directors to come from the European tradition shared the same kind of frustration. But what was the nature of the limitations they fought against? It was difficult for them to express, but surprisingly enough the philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a very good and concise description. When describing his own relationship to narrative he said:

“Narrative has always been a serious question for me. I’ve always said that I can’t tell a story. I’d love to tell stories but I don’t know how to tell them. And I’ve always felt that the telling is somehow inadequate to the story I’d want to tell.”

This quote gets remarkably close to the heart of the issue, but it does so from the opposite position of filmmakers like Bergman and Tarkovsky because they did know how to tell stories, in fact they were very good at telling stories but still had this same sense that the telling was inadequate. Now in America this is a strange notion, we don’t think this way, because we have such tremendous faith in narrative that its difficult for many to fathom that narrative might not be an infinitely dynamic form. What is worse, in America the cinema is almost always thought of as synonymous with narrative. But from a spiritual perspective narrative is violence. Not just any violence but the destruction of the individual, of the subjective, of the unique.
That being said the question remains, what is it that these directors wanted to express that could not find its home in narrative? What does this have to do with anything spiritual?

I sketch a very brief answer around at three concepts, these being: time, observation and duration.

Tarkovsky wrote and talked about the cinema as spiritual more than anyone else and he forcefully argued that the cinema is a spiritual medium in the truest sense, this being that as a medium in its essential formal characteristics it has a closer relationship to the spiritual dimension of human existence than any other artistic form. And that’s really how he described it, as if he were constructing a modernist spiritual formalism of the cinema; in doing this he gave a definition to the spiritual through the special emphasis he placed upon time and observation.

Of time he wrote:
“Time is necessary to man, so that, made flesh he may be able to realize himself as a personality. But I am not thinking of linear time, meaning the possibility of getting something done, performing some action. The action is a result and what I am considering is the cause which makes man incarnate in the moral sense.”

He goes on to say:

“The time in which a person lives gives him the opportunity of knowing himself as a moral being, engaged in a search for truth. . .The rigid frame in which [we] are thrust however makes our responsibility to ourselves and others all the more starkly obvious. The human conscience is dependent upon time for its existence.”

But perhaps the most provocative thing he has said is that:

“. . . Time is a state: the flame in which lives the salamander of the human soul.”

Now this is a challenging metaphor, but what it, along with the other quotes, points to is the idea that what matters most, what gives our lives spiritual potential and what the cinema is going to need to comprehend in order to become spiritual is the way we inhabit time. For me this leads in several directions at once, and it’s not easy to pull all the threads together. So let me just mention two.

The idea that the spiritual and moral fulfillment of our human potential is a result of the way we inhabit time resonates with the work of Henri Bergson’s and his concept of Duration.

Bergson was also very concerned with time, and he was interested in trying to describe the movement of human consciousness, through time. Bergson described Duration by several metaphors, including music, memory as a cloak, and human experience as like a melting cube of sugar. The cube has a form that is identifiable as a thing as having being. Yet as it melts it becomes formless, and in that movement from form to formless there are a few moments in this process in which the melting sugar cube is both a sugar cube and its own transformation. In those moments it is itself, but it is also not itself, it is in a process of differing radically from itself in time.

As a metaphor for human experience it suggests that our movement through time is a process of continuous transformation, of continuous becoming. In our subjective habitation of time, none of us are now the persons we were a few moments ago, or will be at any given point in the future.

As Mormons such notions of time should sound somewhat familiar, in that our doctrine of eternal progression is made of similar stuff, progression means transformation, it means difference, and differing, and heterogeneity and continuous becoming while at the same time carrying something of a unity, a notion of self manifest in memory forward into this stream of continuous becoming. Granted a great deal of this transformation is probably of little interest to many of us. That is until we get to the transformations that have value and meaning to us, such as existential crisis.

Regardless of that, what matters here is not the idea that Duration is in some way similar to a religious doctrine, what matters is that this philosophical concept and this religious doctrine both point to something that is essential to the experience of being human. Continuous change and the entirely unique way any given individual inhabits time, and thus experiences the moral and spiritual expression of their lives.

So time is what we inhabit as moral / spiritual beings, and Duration is the way we inhabit it. The question remains: How does the cinema relate to this?

This brings us back to Tarkovsky’s formalism. For what he felt distinguishes the cinema as a medium from other art forms is not light, or line, or color, or space, or movement or any of the other characteristics it shares with photography, painting, sculpture and so on. What makes cinema unique is the fact that it takes an impression, and creates an image of time. And can reproduce that impression of time as often as we like. There are other arts such as dance, or music or theater that unfold in time, but that is something else entirely. What the cinema does is records time. And by extension, under the right conditions, the ability to record time should also be the ability to capture the duration of a character. To capture the unique way he or she inhabits time, his or her moral essence, that which makes an individual totally other.

In order to do this though, the cinema must turn away from the violence of narrative. Narrative, that nearly universal construction of 3 acts comprised of 8 sequences imposes a universal “story time” upon everything it touches. There is no room for an individual’s duration, within “story time” within structure intent on telling a story. For the way an individual inhabits time cannot be, packaged or universalized, it can only be observed in its individuality. Through precise observation the temporal structure of the film will adopt the temporal structure of the individual, as they inhabit the time of their existential crisis.

The possibility of recording time and capturing duration is artistic observation, observation in which someone who comprehends or senses what it is that makes an individual unique, can figure out a way of imprinting that uniqueness in time. Filmmakers such as Ozu and Kiarostami are masters of observation who insist that observing the material world can be in Kiarostami words “a jumping off point to something more.”

Tarkovsky believed this also and described it through an appreciation of Japanese Haiku such as those by Bosho:

Reeds cut for thatching
The stumps now stand forgotten
Sprinkled with soft snow.

Tarkovsky writes:
“What Captivates me here is the refusal even to hint at the kind of final image meaning that can be gradually deciphered like a charade. Haiku cultivates its images in such a way that they mean nothing beyond themselves, and at the same time express so much that it is not possible to catch their final meaning.”

He goes on say “The Japanese poets knew how to express their visions of reality in three lines of observation. They did not simply observe it, but with supernal calm sought its ageless meaning. And the more precise the observation, the nearer it comes to being unique, and so being an image. . .In cinema it is all the more the case that observation is the first principle of the image.”

So, I’m not sure how to conclude or summarize this very brief description. We have time that is the medium of the spiritual development of the human; we also have time the singularly unique formal characteristic of the cinema. And we have duration and observation as what makes it possible to join filmic time to the unique temporal existence of the individual.

By this schema, its safe to say that there has never been and may never be a Mormon film that is spiritual. Perhaps that is alright but I am already mourning the loss of what won’t come if Mormon cinema doesn’t find the courage to move beyond entertainment, to move beyond being a copy cat, “me too” party trick. To move beyond being a merely sub cultural appeal to a religious / institutional / cultural affiliations. There is a cinema worthy of the name spiritual out there, waiting to be made if only we could produce an artist skilled enough and willing to fulfill it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Postmodern Christianity: The Snakes on a Plane of Christian “Teaching” About Post Modernism

O.K. its doesn’t have to be Snakes on a Plane, but we all know movies, novels or other cultural products that are so terrible that we find perverse pleasure in them. Often times this enjoyment arises from the fact that the work in question takes itself very seriously as it launches, with abandon, down the course of its own absurdities; while at the same time containing a high level of formal and or technical ineptitude. The Twilight series of books and movies being the most recent examples of kitsch so painfully bad that there is an honest – admittedly morbid- pleasure in the experience of the work.

For the philosophical / religious version of this experience I recommend Dr. Leroy W. Thompson’s power point lecture series titled “Postmodern Christianity” which is available at iTunes U for free. It may well be the worst, most poorly informed, most derivative, and just plain wrong attempt at a critique of postmodernism I have ever encountered, and yet I was riveted. I listened to the lectures in one sitting. Beyond being bad, they are actually quite instructive as to how and why a certain kind of mind needs to knock down straw men that go by the names of “postmodernism”, “Jacques Derrida” and “Michel Foucault” among others. Granted, Thompson does not address Derrida and Foucault, rather he talks about someone named “Dairy-day” and someone else named “Michael” Foucault –its actually spelled that way on the power point card. This does make me wonder what Thompson would do if a student of his started talking about “Jesus Crust” or “Pontius Captain.”

Not surprisingly Dr. Thompson relies on a set of standard issue misconceptions of postmodern and post structural thought: the idea that postmodernism teaches there is no such thing as truth, that nihilism is inherent to it, that postmodernism is inherently anti-enlightenment, anti-reason and anti-religion. And of course Thompson insists that postmodernism can’t be defined. A claim he makes with the help of a series of images of Bart Simpson. What is curious is that Thompson spends a lot of time defining characteristics of postmodernism that he does not like and yet he repeatedly says that is has no definition.

This sort of thing has been going on for years so its no surprise to find it repeated yet again, but, what I find interesting is how it is repeated here. First, the lectures provide a very good example of the way certain types of conservatives see it as their job to advance a set of propositional statements that they believe provide intellectual certainty and fully describe the truth and correctness of their own ideology. What is more, these folks seem to believe that everyone else is up to the same thing, even post structural thinkers. Thus for Thompson all of human thought is reduced to ideological competition. This helps explain why some conservatives (and perhaps some liberals as well) are so threatened by contemporary philosophy and why they can’t understand it. It’s lost on someone like Thompson that Nietzsche or Foucault aren’t advancing a simple ideological scheme, that they might be presenting detailed critiques of the concepts of God or Truth and how these concepts function historically, culturally and so on, without making broad propositional claims of their own. For Thompson Nietzsche is simply guilty of attempting the pre-meditated murder of an actual God. Similarly, Foucault is a vicious cynic, who seeks to deny reality, destroy all truth, and everything Thompson believes with it. I find this fascinating and it sheds light on what is meant when some conservatives talk about a “biblical world view”. Its less a form of religious faith than it is a competitive ideological program that sees itself as embattled and always in need of defending, while at the same time its greatest hope is to achieve ideological hegemony.

Another notable feature is the way Thompson points in the direction of phenomenology but does not recognize it or see it as salient to his own truth claims. Thompson criticizes scientists for believing that if something can’t be perceived with the senses it does not exist. His big “gotcha!” moment is when he claims to have asked a scientist if the man loved his wife. Thompson reports that the scientist answered in the affirmative that he did love his wife. Thompson insists therefore that the scientist’s worldview is inconsistent and unlivable because the scientist’s love for his wife can’t be perceived directly through the senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, or hearing. What’s odd here is that Thompson seems unable to tell the difference between a crude form of phenomenology and the application of qualitative and quantitative methodologies to scientific observations. Further, while Thompson is on some level aware of the distinction between human consciousness and the objects of experience, his awareness only extends to his own misunderstanding of science. The idea that this might be a broad issue for anyone attempting to describe the nature of the world, including himself, is not present.

One final point, Christianity is also done considerable violence by Thompson. It’s interesting that pretty much all of the villains in Thompson’s scheme are philosophers. In taking on philosophy as such he can’t help but to make his argument in philosophical terms that, unfortunately, reduce Christianity to a pre-modern ontological and epistemological conglomerate that is largely free of messy things such as faith, interpretation, and theology. Although he wants to argue from a Christian point of view, its very difficult to see how Christianity as such, as a matter of faith, informs Thompson’s understanding at all. In the end its clear that the Christianity Thompson seeks to defend is synonymous with a reactionary politics that longs for the good old days of pre-modern, pre-humanism, pre- phenomenology ontology.

Enter Caputo

The good news is that we don’t have to rely on Thompson as the only source available on the Internet that describes the relationship between postmodernism and religion. In 1999 John D. Caputo gave a talk at the Sunstone Symposium on deconstruction and religion, in which he summarizes a number of sections from his 1997 book The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. You can down load an Mp3 of the presentation here.

The juxtaposition of Thompson and Caputo is stunning. Unlike the embattled, ignorant, cynicism of Thompson, Caputo’s reading of Derrida is original, and poetic. What Caputo sees at work in Derrida in general and in deconstruction in particular is the structure of the messianic, a deeply religious structure that occurs in Derrida’s work without the formal trappings of religious institutions or authority. In short messianism is a way of describing an aspect of the future. Not a future that is predictable, like going to work in the morning or keeping appointments. This is a future that exceeds our horizon of expectations. It’s the arrival of the totally other, an arrival that cannot be predicted or anticipated, it can only be welcomed. This openness, the welcoming of the other is quite clearly located in close proximity to the notion of hospitality that has a long history in religion and philosophy. It’s the idea of openness to the stranger, the foreigner, and the outsider. This openness allows the other to lay claim to us, and calls us into a relationship of responsibility for the well being of the other. This openness is also called the messianic because the in the truest sense the totally other of the human is the divine. Thus the messianic in general finds specific examples in things such as the second coming of Christ, or in Jewish hopes for the arrival of a messiah.

It’s this religious structure that I find so exciting, and that provides the perfect counter to people like Thompson. Hospitality and the messianic are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition but as Christianity in America becomes more reactionary and overtly political in the narrowest sense, it has come to understand the arrival of the other as always consisting of a threat to the self. The other is always an opponent that must be defeated in order to preserve the ideological, political, social and economic position of the self. Thus, in order to preserve the institutional characteristics of formal religion, contemporary Christianity betrays one of its central and most beautiful challenges.

Postmodern Christianity then is the movement by which the entanglement of ideology and theology is put into question for the sake of allowing concepts such as hospitality, the gift, forgiveness and so on, to do their work without needing to directly serve the limited interests of political ideologies. Not that the entanglement of ideology, politics, and theology can ever be undone, it can’t be; but the impossibility of a total separation does not mean that we shouldn’t take the critique as far as it can go. Guiding us in the act of taking spiritual risks for the sake of a faith capable of finding expression in ways that we are quickly forgetting the names of.

Do listen to Thompson and Caputo and enjoy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

2009 Sunstone

I have been writing full time for the past few months and I have noticed that the last thing I want to do after 4 - 8 hours of writing is more writing. So I have neglected blogging, and email, and other things as well. But there is so much going on now to write about. Ah, so little time. Anyway The Constant Process is screening at Sunstone in Salt Lake City next Saturday 8/15 at 2:15 in the afternoon in the Canyons room in the Sheration Salt Lake City Hotel.

I am joined by two wonderful respondents, Margaret Young of BYU and one of the producers of Nobody Knows, a documentary about the experiences of black Latter Day Saints. AND Mary Ellen Robertson who is the director of Symposium for Sunstone. Both women are great thinkers and had very interesting things to say about the film at other screenings, so I really wanted to have their perspectives regarding the film for this screening because the theme of the symposium is: women's contributions to church and culture. I think the film provides a very interesting context to discuss such issues in Mormon culture. Obviously Susan Russell is empowered in a way that is impossible for a Mormon woman, but still Mormon women do craft theology, Mormon women do have powerful experiences of revelation, Mormon women are concerned about and working to encourage a better understanding of what inclusion requires. So I think this is going to be a good discussion.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Prop. 8 upheld by Ca Supreme Court

As many of us expected the CA Supreme Court upheld Prpp 8 while also allowing the gay couples that were married last year to remain married. Of course this is less of an ending than it is one moment in a longer narrative, so while disappointed I remain hopeful, and committed to the project of interfaith dialogue, and of working towards understanding in the Mormon community and the broader community. Below are some thoughts towards a progressive Mormon response to the decision:

1) As a Mormon I believe the emotional and spiritual growth, the life experience, the nurturing and acceptance we experience as members of strong, loving families is joyous, necessary and an expression of God's hope for all of us. Yet we live in a society that values some families more than others. I reject the idea that families with same-sex partners are any less vital, any less loving, any less able to nurture their members, any less deserving of recognition or protection than heterosexual families.

2) As a Mormon I am moved by the recognition that both the Mormon and gay communities have experienced the agony of misunderstanding, marginalization, violence, and persecution. Communities that share the pain of common histories and status as "outsiders" have a unique opportunity to come together; to empathize with each other, and to heal one another; to work together for the advancement of inclusive communities, and for the defeat of prejudice for the benefit of us all.

3) As a Mormon, I am lead by the essential Christian idea that the great commandment consists of a full commitment to God and to loving my neighbor as myself. This is not merely a feel-good truism; it establishes the very foundation of Christian ethics that call us into relationship with God and those who are different from ourselves. The way we listen to, engage with, and treat those who are radically different from us is a true test of our commitment to Christ. It's not enough that we be "tolerant" while living in judgment of and isolation from one another. Christian ethics insists that we allow our lives to be intertwined with the lives of those around us, even those who are radically different.

4) As a Mormon I see ethical dialogue as a way forward in difficult times. This is dialogue that originates from our commitment to community ethics and from a desire for mutual understanding. This is dialogue that seeks to include, to listen, and to guide us in doing our best for those around us. The Mormon community does not benefit when people respond to us based on stereotypes and fear. Nor does it benefit us to respond to other communities in such a way. Fear is never a legitimate basis of action. Dialogue is a tool for putting aside fear and building ethical and democratic communities.

In the short term I know there is a great deal of work to do. As one person I commit myself to dialogue, to community building and to resisting those voices that encourage us to fear one another. The lives and relationships of gay people embody the same dignity, love, respect, understanding, nurturing, and spiritual potential as those of straight people. I acknowledge this and hope that others will too.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Mirror Turns 35

I put film and aesthetics in the title of this blog but I have yet to write on aesthetics and my posts on film are limited to my own efforts. So here is the perfect excuse to write about Aesthetics and film.

Andri Tarkovsky's renound work The Mirror is 35 years old in 2009.

The Mirror has held a critical place in my imagination since first seeing the image of the woman on the fence, the wind moving through the trees and other images. The film is an example, maybe the best example there is, of poetic narrative cinema. It sets the bar high for those who want to work in that way.

The film does have something of a narrative arc,it presents characters and events but the organization and presentation is based on the emotional experiences and memories of the characters, rather than on traditional story structure. In its best moments it comes as close as any art form can to presenting individual consciousness and memory as such.

Granted this type of film leads to great confusion for viewers who come to it with traditional expectations about how a story is to be presented to an audience. In this film its difficult to tell who the characters are and even what some of the relationships are between them. The film moves fluidly between different times, sometimes announcing this movement, other times not. What is interesting is that on the level of plot many viewers would conclude that the film is a total mess. Be that as it may, on the level of emotional structure, and refinement of the image The Mirror is an amazing work. It's completely enthralling, its a beautiful slow lament mulling life lived. Its also amazingly liberating to experience, anythings seems possible, and greatness is made to look easy.

Here is part of the opening sequence from you tube.