Saturday, December 10, 2011

Advent, stuff I don't need and one more piece of junk you don't really want.

Advent weeks one and two

Been trying to spend more of my time focusing on things that actually matter to me. I've been trimming some of the fat in the department of commitments and trying to rearrange the furniture in my life to free up some space. To that end I'm also trying to spend a little less time on the interwebs, but I saw this on a friend's facebook, liked it and thought you might all as well. Happy Advent.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ziezek, Kung Fu and the Spiral of Violence

As of late I've been reading David Fitch's newest book The End of Evangelicalism? (a really great interview about the book and some of the ideas found therein can be heard here) and I hope to have my own, more thorough post, about the book up sometime in the next month. For my purposes here I'll just say that Fitch's big conversation partner is Slavoj Ziezek. Ziezek, for the uninitiated, is a foul-mouthed Slovenian, continental philosopher, and cultural critic. If you happen to know of anyone who is 1) of interest in the world of philosophy and 2) not dead, then it's probably this guy. One of his big projects is around a kind of cultural psycho-analysis via film. We're the ones shelling out the cash to see them so "What does a film say about the human condition?" should be a more interesting question than perhaps it seems on the surface. By way of example I'm including a couple snippets of a movie he did called The Pervert's Guide to Cinema ("Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire - it tells you how to desire."). Before you watch these remember that these films have struck a deep cord with many of us, otherwise we wouldn't keep watching. So what is that deeper cord?

As we do this it's also helpful to note that this deeper cord is not always going to be some greater truth that we appreciate about ourselves. Like any good therapy we should also come to aknowledge where things we unconchiously think and believe (and subsecquently act upon) are deeply pathological.

A few weeks back I went to the Kung Fu Double Feature, part of the Olympia Film Festival. Was supposed to meet up with a friend before we went to the movie to grab a beer but he was running late and so with an hour to kill and my trusty porter in hand I started digging into Fitch's book. So I had Ziezek on the brain while watching The Mystery of Chessboxing and The Bastard Swordsman (two grainy and terrible/amazing 70's era Hong Kong, Kung Fu films). So with that as an all-to-long intro I wanted to talk about what I think these movies do for us.

The Mystery of Chessboxing
Plot breakdown:
Our clumsy protagonist Ah Pao, wants to learn Kung Fu so that he can kill Ghost Face Killer (called "Ghost Face Killing" in about half of the subtitles. We'll just refer to him as GFK) to avenge his father. He eventually becomes the pupil of the local chess guru (/surprise Kung Fu master!) Chi Sue Tin. We find out later that the reason GFK is running around killing all sorts of people is because those are the people who apparently conspired together to kill him 15 yrs ago. The movie ends as GFK comes to kill Chi Sue Tin (turns out he and GFK were buddies but then Chi orchestrated the assassination plot 15 yrs ago) and they get into an epic fight scene that makes Rod Roddy Pipper's in They Live seem reasonable in terms of duration (this fight scene is almost the entire 3rd reel of the film). And BIG SPOILER: GFK dies at the end.

Let me see if I've got this straight: Chi Sue Tin and Ah Pao's dad (among others) tried to kill their buddy GFK. It didn't work and now he's upset about the whole thing. He kills the folks who tried to kill him (but points out he has no beef with their families). Ah Pao then does essentially the same thing as he attempts to avenge his father. Attempting to put on my Ziezekian goggles, it seems to me that this film works as a great lens for how we tend to unconsciously think about violence in our society at large. Through what Walter Wink has called the myth of redemptive violence we move into a spiral of violence. Where would it make sense to stop the violence? Based on the logic of the film if GFK has a kid don't they have a legitimate reason to seek vengeance on Chi Sue Tin and Ah Pao? Revenge is our protagonists driving force as he seeks what Ziezek calls the Objet Petit A, the destruction of GFK and all that he represents. And this is where I think it hits home for us, when the bad guy dies that is, we think, the end. But in reality there is always something else after the curtain closes. Like in the romantic comedy when the couple gets together at the end of the film we aren't shown the part 6-months later where they have the fight over dirty dishes or laundry, that would spoil the illusion. It's only when we pull back that curtain can we break this hypnotic hold these stories are able to illicit.

Ah Pao's real problem isn't gone (he remains a victim of horrific violence).

Bastard Swordsman was equally laughably bad. But I think it's exactly because these movies are so bad (though entertaining) that it is easier to see why when we use similar arguments for the killing of former allies like Osama Bin Laden or the going to war over an atrocity like 9-11 won't fix the problem but will just continue the cycle of violence ad infinitum.

The story I think these films tell us subconsciously, a story we want very much to believe is that 1) evil is external (note Ziezek's points on Chaplin's The Great Dictator in the 2nd video) and 2) evil is a problem we can take care of with by force.

For those of us called to pick up our cross it's important, I think, that we acknowledge the ways that stories (in this case film) can and often does encourage us to buy into a story that is contrary to our own.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A New Genesis: the Second Sunday of Advent

This is the second of a series of posts on Advent. See the first one here

As we wait through the Advent Season it's worth our while to ask ourselves the good old fashioned newspaper reporter questions: who, what, where, when, why and how. For many of us we've heard this story (along with many of the biblical texts) so many times that they have become wooden, in service to a status quo (or remnant of a disappearing past age). Instead I find the story of the Nativity to be a wild counter-story, not just to the dominant Roman/Temple-State Judism of its day but the consumeristic/nationalistic/individualisticone of our own.

So with that in mind I wanted to share to really great pieces on the Biblical stories as Anti-Empire counter-naratives. As I'd say some of us are desperately in need of a new story
I'd like to suggest that the Genesis and God's new Genesis - that is new beginning - among humanity in Jesus are just the kind of texts we need.

First I wanted to point you to a discussion on Genesis 1-2
led by Wes Howard-Brook, a writter and educator (and aquaintance of mine) from the greater Seattle area [this one is part of a retreat at Holden Village]. His premise is that the Genesis story was written as a counter to the Babylonian Enûma Eliš with it's warring gods, with humanity as an afterthought (vs. cooperation and humanity as the culmination of creation "Let us make man in our image") and the city being the height of perfection (vs. the pre-agricultural garden). Enûma Eliš is a story that feels a little stylized for us moderists but seems like a not so distant cousin to our contemporary fairy tale called "progress".

Similarly in the Advent story we can see the resistance to the Roman/Herodian claims of kingship maintained by quid pro quoes, threats and force when required. A bastard baby of a refugee causing kings to get nervous about their status is an amazingly empowering story in my mind.

Welcome to the new Babylon. It's easy to buy into the Western European/North American civil religion with its gods of militerism, nationalism, industrialism and consumerism (and indeed many of us have and some of us struggle with it daily). Jesus spoke of a "Kingdom (Empire) of God", Paul and the other NT writters appropiated Roman immperial language (words like Gospel and Church) to show that this kingdom was something in direct controdiction to the current order.

(Part 4 of 7 of a discussion with Biblical Scholar Richard Horsley on Bible Study. I'd recomend the whole thing but in this part he covers some thoughts on the radical nature of Christmas)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I got no complaints...for a week

So if you've been reading along for a while I might be getting a bit of a reputation as someone who never has a good word to say about anything. In some ways this is why Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays in principle. I don't do thankful well and so a day set apart to be thankful works as a nice kind of Interuption of the Real, a point at which the facades we make for ourselves are torn appart and we get a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, as it were and real transformation is possible.

So, I'm a grouch...sometimes. So I decided to try and go without complaining. That's my goal anyway.

Today seems like a rough way to start the week and yet a few things seem a little more clear because I'm avoiding an action that has, in many ways, become my default.

1) Instead of dealing with a lot of my emotions I think I just gripe.

2) It's harder (just a little) to be a jerk or remain angry if you aren't verbalizing it. I'm not saying anger doesn't have it's place but it feels easier to let my emotions run the show when I feed into them.

3) Complaining seems to make it easier to put up with things were working to get at the root of the problem would be far more effective.

As I was writing this I just realized that those 3 things are pretty similar to the things that my employers have been telling me, for the last two years, about helping clients work through their own frustrations. Go figure.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Status Quo and the First Sunday of Advent

For better or worse Christmas shopping season is upon us. Black Friday/Buy Nothing Day/the single largest shopping day of the year was on Friday (ironically placed as it is after a day when we at least claim to be thankful for all we have and run out to get more and more than we need or even sometimes want) and today is the First Sunday of Advent. I hope to over the next four weeks to post some things about how the Christmas Story (when I make to pry it from the death-grip pop culture seems to have on it) speaks to and radically challanges me. I expect much of the reflections I share will be heavily influenced by the Advent book I'm planning on going though Follow the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.

Today I read a piece by Henri Nouwen where he says:

waiting is active. Most of us think of waiting as something very passive, a hopeless state determined by events totally out of our hands. The bus is late? You cannot do anything about it, you have to just sit there and wait. It is not difficult to understand the irritation people feel when someone says, "Just wait." Words like that seem to push us into passivity.
But there is none of this passivity in scripture. Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing.

That resonates with me because the world's messed up and I need to get my rear in gear to help fix it (I wrote a piece on work a few weeks back that seems particularly relivant at this second).

A Resurrected Christmas from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

The other side of waiting (and Nouwen does go into this) is hope.

I'm excited about some of the things that are happening in and around the #Occupy movement but part of that excitement for me is rooted in a hope the status quo is unsustainable and at some point must change but also that God's going to make things right. I've heard Stanley Hauerwas say that it's important for us to read the Bible in reverse and I think that's true in how we should read the Gospels (Good News) as well, with with Life beating the hell out of Death. And if we can't muster the strength to make that story one that is being lived out in our communities, it can feel like cheap lip-service to say we'll see it in the realm to come.

May we all learn to actively wait
To live out resurection in our own lives and community
And may we find our hope in things bigger than the stuff is (not) under our Christmas tree

A joyfull Advent to you all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Love Washington VS I Love Being Car Free

I love where I live, it's one of the most beutiful places in the world. And I love managing life without having to worry about a car. There are days and those days turn into weeks (see picture) were my love is tested and I think one of these has got to go...maybe the Craigslist jobs listings in Yakima deserves a close inspection or maybe a car really is worth not having to change my soggey underwear when I get to work...just a thought

Monday, November 21, 2011

The three books you get in prison? [My Answer]

About a week ago I asked folks a question: Supposing you had six months in prison with no guarantee of interaction with others, what are the three books you would want in prison. I wanted to take a minute and talk about responses I got from the folks at the Books to Prisoners project I volunteer with said and some of the reason folks gave for why their particular choices as well as to give my own answer.

I've been working with Books to Prisoners for going on two years now and so I've had a while to think about this one.

Another of the volunteers there easily had one of the best answers:
"I'd like to learn a new language and with 6 months, I got nothing but time. I'd get the biggest of those all-in-one language learning books that I could find."
Good call. As I've mentioned in the past I'm in a Spanish class and have been doing badly at Spanish for about 6 months now. With nothing but time I'll go with something that looks like it would be a bit of a struggle (because it's got to last me 6 months). Hopefully include some workbook materials, vocab, etc. that's a lot for any one book, this was the best I could find but it isn't a dictionary and that's going to create a struggle.

We all decided we needed a novel of some kind. There was also some agreement that it needed to be something that was insanely large and re-readable. The big contenders seemed to be Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Someone pointed out in this scenario they wanted a book that was written not to compete with TV and film but one where the author never had to worry about competing with the plug-in-drug.

So for me I'm choosing to take Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I recently ran across a lecture series in iTunes entitled Democracy: A Users Manual which included the first two lectures on this novel. While the lectures made it pretty clear to me that Dostoevsky and I probably wouldn't see eye to eye on politics, but I find it really intriguing that he was Dorothy Day's favorite novelists and that Sigmund Freud apparently refused to read his stuff because it felt to much like working with his patients.

Lastly, and this one sounds like a bit of a cop-out but I want a really big Bible. Ideally I'd love one that includes 1st Enoch and Shepherd of Hermas (both early contenders for inclusion into the cannon) but since those don't usually make it all into one volume (or a Study Bible made by the folks at Orbis Books...Please Orbis, make a Study Bible), one in a decent translation is all I ask (because I can only read so much in the King James). The prospect of having 6 months to read my Bible cover to cover without much in the way of distractions is actually a really exciting prospect. The last time I read the whole thing was ten years ago and the ways that I've grown to understand the Bible differently and the world fairly differently and I think things like "Blessed are the merciful" (Matthew 5:7) and ideas like forgiving a person who has wronged you not seven times but "Seventy times seven" (Matthew 8:22) would take on a significantly different flavor inside of prison.

So thats my list:
Giant Spanish Workbook
The Brothers Karamazov

What do you think? Good picks? Is there something I should be re-shelving?