Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Buck Stops Here and Starts Again There

I stumbled across an article at Time Online today about the legacy of scandal that attends to preachers with media ministries. I always cringe when I hear of a new one, which means I cringe a lot, because they come pretty fast and furious.

The latest involves a woman whose celebrity is evolving with her life circumstance. She entered public ministry by repenting publicly of her promiscuous lifestyle, then went on the hunt for a good man to marry. Consequently, she became the new face of rediscovered modesty and chastity (don't ask me who the old face was). Now, after a whirlwind romance and marriage that has ended in divorce and allegations of violence, she has declared herself the new face of domestic violence. Send money and prayer requests now.

I cringe at such reports because I identify myself principally by my faith, and so do people like this woman. And so when such people make outlandish statements or claims--whether political, cultural, spiritual or personal--I have to somehow deal with it. They're like the cousin that makes everyone nervous because he's weird and he shares your last name. In fact, I happen to know a person who shares the exact name of someone discussed in the Time story; he lives on the opposite coast of the scandal du jour, and his ministry is profoundly different, but for a while at least whenever he introduces himself to a Time subscriber, he's going to get that look.

The article raises a particularly interesting question as it speculates why there is such a thing as celebrity church culture in the first place, and why it's so prone to scandal in the second. Here's a nice summary statement of the problem:

"Where else [but in celebrity religion] can you say that you were the church Jezebel," marvels Butler, "and then recast yourself as a pure, holy single woman living a godly life, then all of a sudden you get married in a big elaborate wedding to a bishop, with 40 bridesmaids and then go off and have a ministry with that husband and tell other church couples, 'This is how to love your husband because we got it right'? - and then your husband beats you up in the parking lot, and now you're an advocate for domestic violence?"

So, why is there such a thing as celebrity church culture in the first place? Why is it so prone to scandal?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How Raw Can You Get?

My new friend (as Facebook calculates time) Tabitha Plueddemann e-mailed me today with some thoughts about a writing project we've been discussing. In it she very creatively subdivided the literary quality of "raw." Before I share her continuum I'll give you a minute to define for yourself what "raw" means literarily.

Whenever you're ready . . .

OK. Time's up; pencils down. Here are the two subcategories Tabitha laid out for me:

* raw in the sense of a garden salad
* [raw] in the sense of a bloody shank of pork impaled on a hook and coated with flies

First of all, hilarious. Second of all, I find it interesting to think about raw in a countercultural sense. I've been conditioned, I think, to associate the term "raw" with the bloody-shank-of-pork end of Tabitha's continuum. I've also been conditioned to count "raw" as somehow "more true, more culturally resonant." The Zeitgeist, if I'm using that word properly, hovers somewhere over that end; as evidence I point to the return to TV of "Dexter," everybody's favorite, lovable serial killer. I'm told that the show "Prison Break" this season will take place in a third-world prison camp where inmates are groomed for violence and fed nothing but uncooked meat--"raw" in more than one sense.

But the ingredients of a typical salad are no less raw than the bacon you would never deign to eat, and you can make a decent meal of it. I'm reminded of the song of a few years back "Pretty Good Day," just a shiny happy song daring to be naively innocent in a harsh, jaded world--"raw" in its most countercultural sense.

So I'd be interested in hearing where people fall on this continuum when it comes to your consumption of culture. What qualifies a song or a story or a testimony as "raw"? What are you seeing that crosses a line "good" raw to either, on the one end, salacious spectacle or, on the other end, pollyanic naivete?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dave Does Impressions

I suppose it’s laudable that a church would have a “director of first impressions”; it suggests that the church recognizes and bravely undertakes the uphill climb it faces as it pursues a redemptive relationship with an increasingly dubious culture. It strikes me as unusual, however, that this same director of first impressions would wait to respond to an e-mail until two weeks after it was sent.

In defense of the director, I will aver that that a church big enough to have a director of first impressions probably has to categorize a lot of e-mails week in and week out, and in one sense my e-mail was likely difficult to categorize. Not impossible to categorize, however, in that two weeks after the fact the director of first impressions rightly concluded that my e-mail should be forwarded to the office of the person I was requesting a meeting with in the first place. Something tells me not to hold my breath waiting for that meeting; I suspect this new office has more than one layer of bureaucracy for my e-mail to penetrate.

I can’t wait to hear from the director of second impressions.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Haloed in Anger

On September 11, 2001, I drove into work to the tune of "Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney and Wings. I was in a happy, playful mood. I soon wasn't. I remember clenching fists as our company gathered to pray. I remember our prayers being interrupted by the announcement that the second tower of the World Trade Center was collapsing. I remember being angry, and I remember later being consoled, if only slightly, by the words of the song "Cry Like an Angel" by Shawn Colvin. I printed those words cruciform on a sheet of paper and hung them on my bulletin board as a memorial, not far from the walnut shell I'd pocketed earlier that morning, found on the sidewalk as I enjoyed the morning, chewed by a squirrel into the shape of a peace sign. I don't think I can produce the words cruciform in this post; I'm not that skilled a blogger. But I thought I'd post the words nonetheless, with thanks to Shawn Colvin for giving me a voice and an outlet in the days that followed that day.

The streets of my town are not what they were.
They are haloed in anger, bitter and hurt.
And it's not so you'd notice, but it's a sinister thing
Like the wheels of ambition at the christening.

So I went out walking on the streets of the dead
With a chip on my shoulder and a voice in my head.
It said you have been brought here
Though you don't know what for.
Well the mystery train is coming right to your door.

And I hear you calling, you don't have to call so loud.
I see you falling and you don't have to walk so proud.
You can run all night, but we can take you where
You can cry like an angel. . . .

So look homeward baby; keep your eyes on the sky.
They will never forgive you, so don't ask them to try.
This is your party; I know it's not your ideal.
May we all find salvation in professions that heal. . . .

You can shout out an answer.
You can look like a fool.
You can call out to heaven.
We'll be listening to you.
You can sing Hallelujah!
You can fly like a bird.
You can cry like an angel when there are no words.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Humans and Other Apes

I heard a report on NPR today ("Ooh! He listens to NPR! He's sooo smarrrt!") that made me want to throw my poop at someone. The report was on research comparing the innate intelligence of human children to that of other primates, which is all well and good, but the reporter kept making reference to "humans and other apes." Now, maybe that kind of language is in vogue in scientific circles these days, but I'm not so far along in the evolutionary process that calling me an ape doesn't sound like an insult. I can accept the designation "primate," but "ape" is demeaning, I daresay dehumanizing.

The report indicates that human children showed no special advantage over chimps and orangutans when it came to mechanics and simple logic; chimps were at least as likely as the future leaders of our nation to be able to find a banana or do simple math. Where our prodigious progeny proved their evolutionary superiority, it turns out, was in their social intelligence--in their ability to figure out what the researcher was trying to show or tell them, and to turn that information to their advantage. Little kids were far more likely to learn from observing how to open a container and retreive the food inside, and they were much quicker to let the researcher know where food was hidden in the room once the expectation that the researcher would feed them was established. From this report I learned, among other things, what makes humans unique among the primates and, apparently, what makes kids today so fat.

The report went on to suggest that what sets apart humans from other primates more than anything is the ability to codify language, so that learning became socially cumulative rather than isolated and transitory. Once human beings learned how to communicate their wants and needs to each other, and to let each other in on the secrets they'd uncovered, and beyond that to archive that information for other human beings, the i-Phone was simply an inevitability.

There are some flaws in the research, of course. There were, to my knowledge, no nonhuman researchers, so the human children didn't have to do any inter-species translation work. The chimps and orangutans were at a shockingly obvious cultural disadvantage, and so the research is hopelessly biased, as far as I'm concerned. But it's an interesting premise nonetheless, and certainly smugly self-satisfying for a writer-editor such as myself: the ability to parse a sentence is an indication of higher social intelligence. We're kings of the jungle based on our command of language. Revenge of the nerds at last!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Abnormal Is the New Normal

Really, now, what's not to like about Molly Shannon? An entirely unique fixture on Saturday Night Live for years, she's had modest success in her leap to filmwork--mostly by putting her distinctness, on display in characters such as Catholic school misfit Mary Catherine Gallagher and the unapologetic fifty-year-old "sex symbol" Sally O'Malley, to death. She offsets her wild weirdness by being entirely endearing, so I cheered privately for her when she took on her first lead role in a film not related to her character work on SNL: The Year of the Dog, now on DVD. (Fair warning: I will spoil the plot again and again.)

One reviewer called Shannon's role in this movie "career-transforming," which is really appropriate, since her comedy here is deeply subtle and held in tension with a the very tender, fragile, nigh-on tragic story her character is experiencing. She plays a woman in her forties who's never married ("I never, you know I guess I never... that... that... that never happened. But I think some people just aren't as... you know... I don't know. It's like that, I guess.") or had children. She lives with her cute little dog Pencil, whom she dotes on like a child and confides in like a sibling. She is constantly framed in the movie alone, an observer to the lives of others, an oddity herself to be stared at. Her friends and family indulge her idiosyncratic relationship with the dog, but from her vantage point the quirkiness of suburban parenthood, the vanity of fledgling romance, the pointlessness of single-minded ambition, take on their own character of absurdity.

I was sucked in to the film from the outset. As a thirty-something nonparent with two cats, I get the sense of isolation that can creep up on you as you try to empathize with people whose lives have taken on a different character. I'm also well-attuned to the cultural presumption of pronatalism, a term I learned from my sociologist wife that suggests that American culture's normalizing of marriage and parenthood is a social construct that to one degree or another marginalizes single people and nonparents. I became a big fan of the term pronatalism when my friends started busting my chops about when I was going to have a kid, using lofty scriptural allusions such as "arrows in a quiver" to suggest that maybe, just maybe, by not bearing offspring I was sinning against the Lord.

So far, all my fellow "antinatalists" out there, so good. But the film takes a turn when Pencil dies, apparently after having gotten into some rat poison in the neighbor's garage. The insensitivity of Shannon's friends and family is damning; it becomes clear that they don't get her, that she'll go through this grief alone. She finds some sympathy in her neighbor's sentimental solidarity--his childhood dog died accidentally--but he loses his charm when he makes a move on her and it comes out that his dog died because he shot it accidentally while hunting for moose.

Shannon gets a call from the veterinarian's office inviting her to take a new dog, this one abandoned due to some behavioral problems and thus requiring special care. The veterinarian befriends Shannon and introduces her to a more radical animal-loving lifestyle, one that includes veganism (a diet that forgoes any food coming from animals, including milk) and activism (protests against harsh farming practices and such). This new lifestyle puts her more and more at odds with her friends and family, pushing her deeper and deeper into isolation. Suddenly, to the viewer, they seem a lot more normal, and Shannon seems to have come unhinged. She embezzles from her company to fund animal rescue and, when her new dog is put down by her friend the veterinarian after attacking and killing another dog, she frantically adopts nineteen dogs scheduled for euthanization and ultimately attacks her neighbor with a knife.

But wait--there's more. Shannon is nursed back to health and received back into her relationships, all of whom have become more sympathetic not only to her but to her love of animals. Her seemingly soulless boss even sneaks his new pet dog into the office to keep him company. But something has changed: this normal life Shannon has reverted to is no longer enough. She writes an eminently sane farewell letter to all her loved ones, and hits the road to live a new life fighting for animal rights.

My immediate reaction to this film was that I didn't like it. It was hard to keep up emotionally--hard to continually revisit my feelings toward individual characters and to stay supportive of Molly Shannon throughout. But the more I think of it, the more I think that this was the point: the film wants to play with the idea of what constitutes normal, to make the audacious suggestion that normal is what you make of it.

This is nothing new; a survey of contemporary film and television taken with a critical eye reveals that the rules are changing all over the place. Big Love renders as not only legitimate but plausible the notion of polygamy; Weeds moves the ethically dubious terrain of drug dealing from the inner-city street corner to the suburban soccer-mom minivan, and Californication makes a bed-hopping middle-aged lecher into a sympathetic postmodern hero. The film Year of the Dog was written and directed by the same person, Mike White (born the day before I was, incidentally) who wrote Jennifer Aniston's quietly complex film about infidelity, The Good Girl, so perhaps I should have anticipated that what constitutes normal in this film would be a matter of following the bouncing ball.

People of faith often wring their hands in light of this kind of reconfiguring of ethics, morals and worldview. But I want to suggest that it's not, as many assume, some demonic conspiracy to turn everything upside down but rather a good-faith effort to figure out what's true, noble and good in a world where the foundations have been effectively shaken. If one does not automatically grant the premise that God intended sex to be experienced within the confines of a covenant relationship, for example, or that marriage is intended to be a covenant between two and only two people, how in good faith does one determine what constitutes a meaningful relationship? How does one even define covenant? And if a person has entered into a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with the people he or she loves, the people that love him or her, how then shall he or she live? If everybody's looking for a happy ending but nobody's working off the same script, how will the story play out?

For Year of the Dog, the happy ending was for Molly Shannon to leave, to ride off into the sunset not with her brother or her celibate vegan ex-boyfriend or her naively romantic best friend but with a busful of strangers each concluding in isolation from one another that the best life is one spent on behalf of innocent animals victimized by people. I ended the DVD happy for Molly Shannon that she'd found her bliss, but sad that she'd lost so much life in the process.

One conviction that remains with me is certainly this: no happy ending is truly happy if it leaves you sitting alone on a bus.