Sunday, June 29, 2008

"Your baby is the miracle the whole world has been waiting for."

I just re-watched the brilliant movie of Children of Men (Cuarón, 2006). The film portrays a dystopian future in which humans have become infertile and no children have been born for more than 18 years. The film explicitly links children to hope for the future (the main character Theo says "I can't really remember when I last had any hope, and I certainly can't remember when anyone else did either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what's left to hope for?") and then explores a world without hope, a thinly disguised comment on our own post-9/11 society.

The film argues the familiar point that our society's pervasive fear -- fear of imigrants, fear of terrorists, etc. -- has led us to violate our own and others' human rights. My friend Sara Shady discussed this theme in an essay on Bowling for Columbine in which she reconstructs Michael Moore's argument that our society's violence has its roots in the loss of loving communities. And I explored the same connection between fear and violence in my essay on Batman Begins in which I expore Christopher Nolan's argument that revenge is based on fear and then juxtapose that point to the New Testament's claim that fear is rooted in a lack of faith in God's providence. (I promise to post more about this one of these days.) So the link between fear and violence is nothing new to cinematic philosophizing. But what Alfonso Cuarón adds is a link to the third theological virtue. Along with Columbine's love and Batman's faith, Children gives us hope.

The film is arguing that our willingness to settle for war and torture -- note the visual references to Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay -- is a result of our failure to hope that the world could be better. It's too much to hope that we could fight evildoers without ourselves becoming evil. That's just the reality of war, and reality never changes. Or so we have come to believe. And, by structuring its story around the archetype of Christ's Nativity, the film goes on to argue that this failure of hope is due to a kind of spiritual infertility. What we need is the hope of the Second Advent of Christ, the belief that God's Kingdom will someday be established on earth.

Now, there is a problem with my reading of the film -- a problem I suspect Cuarón himself would raise. The problem is that it is exactly the utopian image of the Kingdom of Heaven -- what Hegel, Marx, and Fukuyama called "the End of History" -- that many philosophers would see as the source of our contemporary woes. When we have a vision of Kingdom Come, we are constantly tempted to bring it about through coercive tactics. And it's not just the Christian Crusades that is the problem here. Secular Communist and Neoconservative regimes have used coercive political and even military tactics to achieve their pre-determined ideals -- and they have done so at the expense of reality.

In an interview included as a special feature on the Children of Men DVD, philosopher Slavoj Žižek gives this sort of criticism. (You can watch the clip online here.) He praises the film's ending (in which the main characters are rescued by a boat named "Tomorrow") for demonstrating that the only true solution to the problem of utopia is postmodern "rootlessness". Žižek says: "What I like is that the solution is the boat. It doesn't have roots. It's rootless. It floats around. This is for me the meaning of this wonderful metaphor: boat. The condition of the renewal means you cut your roots. That's the solution." In other words, to avoid the political coercion seemily inherent in utopian idealism, we need to reject all traditions. We need to move forward, creating our own vision of the future together in such a way to include all viewpoints, silencing none through totalizing claims of absolute truth.

Now, I agree that we need to avoid the totalizing tendency of modernist philosophy which tends to silence alternative voices. But I also think the way forward lies in the rediscovery of tradition, not the cutting of all roots. As Žižek himself says in the interview, we can only have a "world" (or identity) by connecting to a culture's tradition. The key to keeping these traditions from becoming repressive is to see tradition as an evolving narrative -- not a pre-written narrative we are simply enacting in history, but a narrative we are writing together. (See my earlier post on Alasdair MacIntyre's narrative theory of tradition.) In other words, we need a model of utopia according to which the end of history is something that we can never be sure we have in view. We have to always be prepared to change course in light of ongoing discussion. This is what MacIntyre means when, in After Virtue, he says that the meaning of life is to live life as a quest in search of the meaning of life. If we ever think we have achieved perfect happiness, we will necessarily be wrong, because our world is constantly evolving.

Put in Christian terms, we have to keep in mind that because we are finite creatures, the Church will never be fininished with the infinite calling to embody Christ on earth. So whether or not we take the Second Coming to be a literal future event, the Kingdom of Heaven remains a kind of Kantian/Pragmatist regulative ideal that could never actually be achieved. The essential thing is that we have this hopeful vision to ward off the forces of nihilism.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

"There's nothing worse in this world than bitterness and revenge. Hold your head up and stay true to yourself."

I watched Persepolis (Satrapi, 2007) this week. And, as much as I loved Ratatouille (Bird, 2007), I think Persepolis actually deserved the Best Animated Film Oscar more than the Ratatouille did. Persepolis has beautiful traditional animation with its own unique look -- a rarity today in the world of bland computer generated animation.

The story (about being a teenager in Iran) raises interesting and subtle questions about remaining human in a politically repressive culture (see the quote I used as the title to this post). But one thing that struck me while watching the movie was how similar fundamentalist Islam is to fundamentalist Christianity. In fact, I began to wonder if Islam hasn't somehow influenced Christianity in things like the rejection of alcohol, belief in the literal interpretation of Scripture (seen as divinely dictated word-for-word), use of political power to coerce religious adherence, divine voluntarism in ethics (i.e., the belief that God arbitrarily makes up moral laws that have no necessary basis in human nature), etc.

None of these doctrines is traditional in Christianity (I don't know about Islam). They seem to have arisen for the first time around the time of the Protestant Reformation in the Late Medieval/Early Modern period. So where did they come from? Some of these common doctrines are probably due simply to the nature of fundamentalism itself and tend to show up in any religion's fundamentalist wing (e.g., literalism and coercive politics), and others do in fact seem to have derived from a direct historical influence of Islam on Christianity (e.g., voluntarism), but where does the prohibition on alcohol come from?

Friday, June 27, 2008

"This is our last goodbye..."

Since I finished my one year teaching gig at Azusa Pacific University, I had to turn in my beautiful MacBook Pro yesterday. It was such a sad day that I listened to Jeff Buckley's "Last Goodbye" all day.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Emerging Church and/as Avant Garde

In yesterday's post, I used the artistic avant garde as an analogy to explain how progressive theology can be innovative while still remaining within the orthodox tradition.

For example, one of the most notorious pieces of avant garde art is the urinal that Marcel Duchamp claimed was an artwork. (See photo to the left of Duchamp with his urinal) What is important to notice is that without a tradition of sculpture, Duchamp couldn't have made this claim. The title of the piece (Fountain) links it back into this tradition.

Indeed, without a tradition of professional artists, critics, museums, and even the avant garde itself, this piece couldn't achieved the status of art. For example, even an artist as great as Michelangelo couldn't have declared his chamber pot to be an artwork. So, while Duchamp certainly challenged contemporary understandings of the nature of art, he did so by working from within the context of a tradition of art.

Today I want to point out two more interesting features of avant garde art. First, notice that what begins as shocking avant garde experimentation often becomes assimilated into mainstream artistic traditionalism. For example, every textbook of 20th Century art today includes a discussion of Duchamp's Fountain. More radically, remember that impressionism was once considered shocking and avant garde. Now it is considered trite and bourgeois -- you can find Monet posters everywhere from college dorm rooms to dentist's offices. Moreover, impressionistic techniques are used in advertising -- and it doesn't get more mainstream than that!

So what avant garde artists do is experiment with new ways of making art -- new styles and new languages of representation -- and, if successful, these elements become part of the standard vocabulary of visual artists in the popular culture. Now, as I pointed out yesterday, I want to be clear that I don't share the modernist prejudice that only original experimentation is good art. Pop culture can be totally traditional while still being artistically excellent. The directorial work of Clint Eastwood is a good example of this. But even the most mainstream Hollywood movie owes a lot to an avant garde ancestry. Consider the way cinematic narrative language has developed: from Brecht to Goddard to Tarantino to everybody else.

Second, notice that most avant garde art is really bad art. Anyone who has been to a contemporary art gallery can attest to this. Not every artwork that makes it into a museum is worth seeing -- and most of the stuff in private galleries will never make it into a museum. Most avant garde art is failed experimentation. But that's simply the nature of experimentation. Most experiments (whether in art, science, theology, or whatever) don't work out. And that's why the avant garde is so important. Advertisers, Hollywood filmmakers, and other pop culture artists don't often have the luxury of true experimentation. They are working with large amounts of money from investors who demand certain practical results. But avant garde artists are allowed, even expected, by their patrons to make challenging and controversial work. Without the avant garde's constant experimentation, our artistic traditions would never develop any new tools.

Now I want to use these two points as an analogy to explain what the so-called emerging church ought to be about: (1) the avant garde is the source for new ideas which trickle down to mainstream outlets, and (2) the avant garde discovers these new ideas through free experimentation. The role I see for emerging church is to act as the avant garde of Christianity.

Most churches don't have the luxury of radical experimentation. They have to be good stewards of their resources, not gambling them on schemes that may not work. And they have to be more mainstream, appealing to as wide an audience as possible. (I'm assuming here that most congregations should be as diverse as possible. Part of the point of gathering together as Church is to learn from and balance each other.) But emerging churches are made up primarily of young people who are excited about experimentation. They can try new things. They can see what works and what doesn't work, and then what does work can trickle down to mainstream congregations. For example, an emerging congregation might experiment with dialogical sermons (i.e., replacing the traditional lecture format with a panel discussion model that, ideally, includes audience participation). It might take some practice to figure out how to make this work. But once a working model is developed, it could be taught to more mainstream churches.

This sort of experimentation can happen with theology, too. Emerging churches are currently pioneering the attempt to synthesize evangelical and liberal theologies into a single postmodern theology. If a coherent "post-evangelical" synthesis can be worked out, it could be beneficial to more traditional denominations.

In short, what's important about the emerging church is that it has the freedom to fail. To change the analogy, emerging communities can be the laboratory of the church. What this means is that the emerging church should not be an alternative to the mainstream church: it is a ministry to the mainstream church.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof."

In yesterday's post I wrote about the two approaches to Scripture at work in the current controversies within the Anglican Communion. Today I want to look at two concepts of Tradition.

The importance of Tradition is beautifully captured by the opening lines of the film Fiddler on the Roof (Jewison, 1971): "A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!"

Interestingly, despite opening with this affirmation of Tradition, the movie spends the rest of its time describing the kind of cultural assimilation that threatened to put an end to the unique Jewish identity made possible by these traditions. In the movie, the motivation for assimilation is romance. So in the context of a Hollywood musical, the audience is set up to root against Tradition. But in a larger historical context, we can see the loss of these Jewish traditions as a tragedy. In this way, the movie asks interesting questions about the tension between tradition and enculturation.

When he baptized Maggie two Sundays ago, Barry Taylor offered an a propos piece of advice on Tradition. (He attributed it to Pablo Picasso, but I have been unable to find the exact source.) "There are two ways of honoring your traditions," he said. "One is to wear your father's hat. The other is to have children." This quote perfectly captures what, yesterday, I was calling the static vs. the dynamic conceptions of Tradition. Is Tradition, as the static theory says, a set of timeless and unchanging doctrines handed down from one generation to the next? Or is Tradition like a narrative that evolves over time as the dynamic conception says?

In his books After Virtue and Whose Justice, Which Rationality Alasdair MacIntyre argues that the static theory was invented in the 18th Century by Edmund Burke. Whether this is true as a historical claim is less interesting than MacIntyre's distinction between living traditions and "dead" (Burkean) traditions. (Compare Imre Lakotos's distinction between "progressive" and "ad hoc" research programs.)

One problem with dead traditions is that adherents follow them by rote, without understanding where the traditions came from or why they are important and meaningful. These lines (the very next lines after those quoted above) from Fiddler on the Roof exemplify this problem: "Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know. But it's a tradition."

This is the problem Evangelicals often have with any sort of Catholic Christianity (Roman, Anglican, Orthodox, etc.). They claim that Catholics only follow traditions out of meaningless habit. Now, that is certainly true some of the time. But I think this problem is actually more prevalent within Evangelical denominations themselves. Catholics may not choose to educate themselves about their traditions, but explanations of those traditions are available to them. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have an entire theology explaining why sacraments such as baptism and Eucharist don't actually do anything for us, but then they insist, nevertheless, that we must still perform these rituals because God told us to. In other words, the official Evangelical attitude toward sacraments is: We don't know why we do these things, but they're traditions. And this is exactly the attitude Evangelicals object to in Catholics!

And, as I argued yesterday, another problem with the static/dead conception of Tradition, is that it is a form of fundamentalism that doesn't take seriously the ambiguity of the world. Like Scripture, Tradition has to be interpreted. And, also like Scripture, Tradition is not actually univocal. Christianity has always had multiple traditions. Even Roman Catholicism, which solves the interpretation problem by appeal to the authority of the Magisterium, has multiple traditions: there are Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, Evangelicals, Liberals, etc.

But there is a problem with the concept of living traditions, too, and this is what is most philosophically interesting to me. Go back to the Picasso quote: if the better way to honor one's traditions is by having children, then how do we make sure that the next generation is actually our children and not some random bastard who bears no genetic relationship to us? Consider, for example, the Eucharist. We don't have to "wear our father's hats" by saying exactly the same Eucharistic prayer our fathers said. We can allow the language to evolve in order to remain meaningful to new generations. So, in that sense, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the "child" of the 1928 BCP. But what if, in the 2030 BCP, there is no Eucharist at all? Suppose the Church is overtaken by Evangelicals who decide that the Eucharist is too Catholic or too old fashioned and not relevant to today's culture or simply a waste of time, and so they replace the traditional ritual with a longer sermon and more singing? Would that be an evolution of the Anglican tradition or simply a rejection of that tradition? The problem is the one that confonts Tevye at the end of Fiddler on the Roof. After bending his traditions for the sake of his first two daughters' happiness, his third daughter pushes too far in the direction of cultural assimilation: "If I try and bend that far," Tevye says, "I'll break." But how do we know what is too far?

Here I think MacIntyre's concept of narrative is helpful. If, as we attempt to live the next chapter of the Church's story, we want to know if a particular scene is part of our Tradition's narrative, we can see if it is "intelligible" as the next event in our story. It wouldn't make sense if, half way through The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy woke up and found herself living in 1904 St. Louis and singing the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". The audience would be justified in supposing that the channel had been changed, because the film would lack a coherent narrative. In Picasso's terms, the later scene would not be the "child" of the earlier scenes -- it would have no genetic connection.

I also find Arthur Danto's similar Hegelian-inspired theory of art history helpful. In books such as After the End of Art, Danto argues that something can be an artwork at one time in history even though it would not have been an artwork at an earlier time in history. For example, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (the infamous readymade urinal), could be art in 1917 though it wouldn't have been art in 1719. The explanation for this phenomenon is the narrative shape of history: events gain their identity by how they fit with what came before and what comes after them. (On this point, see also Danto's Narration and Knowledge.)

In other words, being part of a tradition means accepting limitations and pushing the boundaries only one step at a time. An artist can't jump too far ahead of her place in history or no one will recognize her work as art. She may be appreciated as "ahead of her time" by later generations, but she will still not really be an integral part of the tradition. In analogy to religion, she'll be like one of those heretics whose theology we come to appreciate centuries after they were burnt at the stake. They might have been right all along, but they were still heretics. But if our goal is to avoid heresy by remaining faithful to our traditions, then we have to push the envelope from within like the artistic avant garde. (Though I want to point out that it is a modernist prejudice to think that only the avant garde is "real" art. Remaining comfortably within the bounds of current traditions is not a bad thing unless you begin to idolize tradition by denying that the avant garde is art at all.)

Of course, these artistic metaphors don't help if what you want is certainty. Tevye says, "because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do." This is an understandable goal. But it is an impossible goal. Tradition is not the solution to our shakiness; it is the cause of our shakiness. Being faithful to Tradition is a balancing act, like trying to play the fiddle on the roof.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Scripture, Tradition, and the Anglican Communion

Right now in Jerusalem, conservative Anglican bishops from around the world are meeting at the Global Anglican Future Conference (or GAFCON) to discuss issues surrounding the possibility of a schism (or, euphemistically called "realignment" by the conservatives) in the Anglican Communion. If you read/watch the news at all, you have probably been told that what is at issue is homosexuality: the Episcopal Church (as well as other "progressive" churches like the Anglican Church of Canada). The conservatives, however, deny that the issue is homosexuality. They claim that the issue is the authority of Scripture.

There are a number of problems with the claim that only the authority of Scripture is at issue in the current controversy. Most obviously, there is the fact that many gay Christians do in fact attempt to support their position from Scripture. (For one among many examples, see Mel White's essay at the Soulforce website.) Conservatives may disagree with the pro-gay interpretation of Scripture, but it is simply false that all (or even the majority of) gay Christians reject the authority of Scripture.

Moreover, when many conservatives say "authority" what they mean is "inerrancy". (A major moderately conservative theologian who actually understands the difference is N.T. Wright. See his excellent essay "How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?") The mistake here is the failure to accept the Bible as it was given to us: in the form of culturally mediated narrative, not a set of timelessly true, quasi-scientific propositions.

Another problem is that most conservative appeals to Scripture assume the incoherent Reformation idea of Sola Scriptura. Appeals to "The Bible Alone" are always self-deceptive. In reality, all appeals to Scripture are located within the Weslean Quadrilateral of Scripture-Tradition-Reason-Experience. Without Tradition, there is no Scripture: for example, we only know which books belong to the Bible by the authority of the Church. Without Reason, we cannot make sense of Scripture: for example, we only know when a particular passage is hyperbole or metaphor through our Reason. And it is simply impossible to interpret any text "neutrally", without bringing one's own personal and communal experiences to the text: in theological terms, this is the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation.

The source of all these errors is the desire for unambiguous and "absolute" truth. (Less charitably, I am tempted to say that the error is the desire to use the Bible to control others, forcing them to submit to one human interpretation of God's Word rather than to God Himself, the Giver of Scripture.) But there is no unambiguous truth. God has not given us a Bible which can serve as a rule calculator or mechanistic world-decoder. Like it or not, God has given us two texts -- Scripture and Nature -- which are both ambiguous and which both require the ongoing, messy task of interpretation by our fallible human community. The search for Truth is infinite.

So, while Scripture does seem to be at the center of the current Anglican controversy, the issue is not that one side accepts Scripture as the Word of God and the other side rejects it. The issue is that one side believes in the "perspicuity of Scripture" (i.e., that the Bible is so clear that it does not need interpretation) and the other side believes in hermeneutics (i.e., that all texts require interpretation) and human fallibility.

But more than this disagreement about the nature of Scripture (better: disagreement about God and the nature of human beings God has created), I believe one of the most fundamental issues dividing Anglicans is the concept of Tradition. The number of conservative Anglicans who are Biblical Fundamentalists as described above is relatively small. Many of those who are considering leaving the Anglican Communion appeal to Tradition, rather than to uninterpreted Scripture. But the assumption they make about Tradition is that it is constituted by an infallible body of doctrines which have been handed down from the Apostles to us. This view, of course, is just another kind of fundamentalism (a Catholic fundamentalism), and, as such, has all the same hermeneutic and phenomenological problems of Biblical Fundamentalism already discussed.

In contrast to this static view of Tradition as unchanging, mainstream Anglicans have a dynamic view of Tradition as evolving through time. This contrast is the contrast Alasdair MacIntyre has in mind when he contrasts Burkean vs. Narrative views of Tradition. These two concepts of Tradition are what I was really interested in when I started this post. But since I've been writing for quite a while at this point, I will stop here and continue my discussion of Tradition later this week.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"This is the moment of your death. I'm not afraid."

Maggie was baptized last Sunday. And this week I've been reminded of one of my favorite cinematic illustrations of the sacrament of baptism: Fearless (Weir, 1993).

The hero of the movie (Max Klein, played by Jeff Bridges) has a near death experience in a plane crash and then feels invulnerable because he is a “ghost” -- he can't die because he's already passed his own death by. Another survivor (played by Rosie Perez) calls him an “angel”, but his wife rejects this: “he is a human and can’t live up there.” Thus the movie suggests that Max is expressing a Platonic view of fear and invulnerability, and then argues that this lack of fear entails lack of ability to relate to other humans.

In this way the movie could be seen as anti-Christian: any theory of life according to which the suffering of this life is overridden by an other-worldly meaning inevitably drains the significance out of our relationships with other finite and vulnerable beings. But the Christian view is not identical to this Platonic-Stoic view. In the movie, Max's therapist says Max has to re-live his near death experiences to keep up the “high” of fearlessness. (This is confirmed by the fact that Max intentionally puts himself in mortal danger throughout the film whenever his real life starts to close in on him again).

But as Christians we need not be angels or ghosts or physically invulnerable to escape our fear. We don’t have to “live up there” because Christ has come down here. And through baptism we are sacramentally united to Christ in his death raised to new life through him. Like Max, we can’t fear death because we have already died. But this does not entail an inability to acknowledge vulnerability and to relate to humans. Christian fearlessness is closer to a Heideggerean being-toward-death: an acknowledgement of finitude which gives value to our present embodied moments. But what Christianity adds is the Schleiermacher and Otto feeling of dependence/creaturehood that comes along with finitude: once I recognize that I am not God, I can encounter the true God and relinquish control to him, thereby overcoming fear.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Christian Art as Redemption of Culture

With Baby Maggie here now, I've been home a lot more lately than I have in a while. And I've been looking at my art collection more than I have before.

"Collection" is a bit of an exaggeration. I only own two pieces of original art (as well as a signed print of The Promised Land by Nelson de la Nuez). One is by Amanda Tan, a Los Angeles based artist and personal friend of ours. (You can see a couple of examples of Amanda's art here (you need to scroll down a bit), and here. The Tan piece we have is the most like the piece you can view here.

Our other original artwork is by Robin Zimmerman, a student of mine from Biola. Robin's piece is the one that has been capturing my attention lately. It's in my bedroom where, before I had a baby, I only really spent time when I was asleep. Now I hang out in there a lot trying to get the baby to sleep, so I've been able to contemplate it anew.

The Zimmerman piece (see image to the left) is an icon of St. Francis painted in chocolate (milk, dark, and white). The gold background is made from candy bar wrappers (Twix, I think she said). And the flesh tones were highlighted with caramel. (A year and a half since its creation in late 2006, the chocolate elements of the artwork have held up nicely, but the caramel has begun to run due to gravity.)

The chocolate icon was Robin's final project for an Aesthetics class I taught. In that class we talked a lot about the Incarnation of Christ as an affirmation of the original goodness of creation and an act of redemption of the world. This is a somewhat radical point at an Evangelical school like Biola where students are constantly given subtle Gnostic-like messages about the inherent evil of the world. (I think most Evangelicals unwittingly hold to a kind of Docetist theory of the Incarnation.) But more radically, I was suggesting an Eastern-Orthodox influenced soteriology according to which the Incarnation (and Resurrection) are at least equally significant (and possibly more significant) for our redemption than the Crucifixion. According to the Evangelical "penal substitution" view of salvation, the whole point of the Incarnation was to get Jesus killed as a sacrifice for our sins. But on the alternative Orthodox "theosis" view, Jesus's life (not just just death) is itself an act of salvation. As St. Athanasius put it, "God became human so humans could become gods."

Throughout the class, I argued that Jesus's life was like a piece of performance art meant to embody the Word of God (AKA "the Way, the Truth, and the Life") on earth. (This is certainly the way the author of the Gospel of John sees Jesus's life. Consider his use of the word "sign" to refer to miracles and other acts of Christ.) I also argued that the Christian liturgy is a piece of performance art in which the Church participates in Christ's redeeming work, constituting the continuing life of his Body on earth. Finally I argued that the vocation of Christian artists is to use their painting, music, dance, writing, etc. to also engage in this redeeming work of embodying the Kingdom of God on earth.

Now the language of "redeeming" suggests an interesting mode of art-making for Christians. To "redeem" something is to "buy it back". We "redeem" pawned items, financial bonds, or coupons. So "redemption" is an economic term for trading it a marker for something of genuine value. Metaphorically, then, Christ is buying us back from the devil's pawnshop -- from our slavery to sin, error, and death.

What, then, would it look like for an artist to "redeem" something? How might an artist take something from God's good creation which has been enslaved to a dying culture, cut off from the life-giving presence of God, and translate it into the Kingdom of God where it can live again? (Writing this sentence I am reminded of Heidegger's theory of art as "unconcealing" nature's true reality so that it can finally be itself instead of disappearing into modern mechanistic culture where it is used up in service of human beings' shallow goals.)

One way this sort of redemption might look is Robin Zimmerman's Chocolate St. Francis. What Robin has done is to take an "icon" of American slavery -- candy, whose empty calories exist only to enslave us to gluttony, and whose role in the economy is only to reinforce our consumerist addiction to buying what Fight Club's Tyler Durden calls "shit we don't need" -- and transform it into an icon of Christian freedom -- St. Francis, who is known not only for his ability to see God in nature, but (more relevantly) for introducing the vow of poverty into Christian monasticism. Robin has taken something that had belonged to the devil and redeemed it for the Kingdom of God.

Another of my favorite examples of this tactic is the work of St. Johnny Cash with Rick Rubin's American Recordings record label from 1994 until Cash's death in 2003. Cash's five albums recorded during this time consisted mostly of covers of rock songs. But somehow when Johnny Cash sang the same lyrics, their meaning completely changed. An obvious example is his cover of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus". Originally it was the song of a lover to his beloved. But in some indefinable way Cash makes it sound like Jesus Christ's song to a lost sinner.

But the most artistically successful of the American Recordings covers is "Hurt", originally by Nine Inch Nails. If you haven't seen it, check out the music video by director Mark Romanek here. Consider the chorus of the song:

What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

Hearing Trent Reznor sing these lyrics in the original version of the song, they are the cries of a depressed young man whose heroin addiction has driven away all his friends so that he declares everything he has achieved to be worthless. But when Johnny Cash sings these exact same lines, they seem to echo the message of Ecclesiastes: an old man at the end of his career declaring "all is vanity". (Romanek draws this theme out by setting the video at the run-down Johnny Cash museum "The House of Cash".) When Cash laments the loss of his friends, it is their deaths that he has in mind. (Again Romanek is insightful: on the line "my sweetest friend" we see an image of Cash's wife June Carter who died shortly after the video was shot.) And most importantly, the "you" to whom he is giving all his achievements is God.

In this way, Cash has redeemed a song about nihilistic despair, turning it into a song about the vanity of fame and the need to give one's life to God. And that's what Christian art is all about.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Maggie's First Movie

We just got back from taking six-day-old Maggie to her first movie: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008).

Maggie slept through the whole thing, but I thought it was awesome. The movie itself was harmless fun without much artistic or philosophical interest -- nowhere near as cool as Speed Racer (see my post on that film here.) But it was really amazing to be at the movie theater with my daughter on our first outing away from home since she was born.

It was especially appropriate that out first cinematic experience was a movie about an iconic Hollywood hero meeting his son. I look forward to many more father-daughter movie matinees.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Maggie Sue is here!

Margaret Susanna McAteer was born at 10:55am on June 3, 2008. She weighed 7 lbs and was 19 inches long. Both she and her mother are in perfect health.

Pictures are coming soon! For now, enjoy these pictures of her namesakes St. Margaret of Scotland and Susanna Wesley.

Monday, June 2, 2008

I'm off to the hospital!

My wife has gone into labor, so I'm off to the hospital. I'll be back in a few days...