1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Glenn Beck, Nihilist

If you're like me, when you hear "nihilist" you think of someone like Friedrich Nietzsche (as a dapper young man, below), not a radio personality such as Glenn Beck.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/be/1864c.jpg/175px-1864c.jpgBut today I thought of Mr. Beck as deeply nihilistic when I listened to his radio show. I confess to a certain fascination in listening to his show. He puts me in a bit of trance actually, and on some commutes, that's nice.

What's not nice is nihilism.  Without being overly pedantic, nihilism is the philosophical (and religious) conclusion that everything is, in the final analysis, meaningless. Meaningless because there is no substance to reality; only transitory impressions and bodies that carry them, and then they all fade to black.

Atheism isn't really the main point (though it certainly implies atheism and an atheist would need to struggle mightyly not to view reality nihilistically.

Perhaps a film clip would help. Lacking that, there is a bit of brilliant dialogue: In Signs, Mel Gibson's Father Hess (how's that for a pair of opposites!) has concluded that "There is no one watching out for us; we are all on our own."

Life, death, love, beauty, justice, goodness and desire all absurd and destined to die with our deaths. Cheers!

Mr. Beck's Nihilism.

Now I don't know exactly Glenn Beck's religion or particular denominational flavor, but functional nihilism is certainly compatible with a belief in God. Functional nihilism is similar to Pelagianism in the moral life: Jesus is an example for us, but we must struggle mightily (and alone!) to perfect ourselves. Beck seems to takes this view and transpose it to the social and political order.

The nothingness in Mr. Beck's world is indicated by the word "we."
  • We must do this.
  • We must join him now to do that.
  • If we don't do something now, what-have-you will happen.
I get exhausted just listening to him. I'm gratified that Mr. Beck's perspective is not, "It's all about me," but all this talk about we and us is a little ridiculous. Our President habitually slips into the egotistical "I" more often than commentators can count, but the less-than-royal We of Mr. Beck contains the same kind of presumption and encourages a kind of group think that is very unattractive.

Being, not being busy.

Albert Borgmann in Holding on to Reality notes that hyperactivity and sullenness go hand-in-hand. Just watch a teenager after playing 12 hours of Halo or somesuch. Busyness is not just for teens and the emptiness that drives busyness is pandemic in our culture today.

At the heart of emptiness lies nihilism: the conclusion that the alternatives are perpetual stimulation or despair from the yawing abyss inside.  The wonder of nihilism is that one can be infected and not even realize it.

Fortunately or not, the truth is that we (there I go!) can't save ourselves, and we can't give ourselves life. Sorry, Mr. Beck, something deeper is at the heart of reality. When we pay attention to that we become fruitful.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Blue Like Jazz

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-spIK-CkHWDc/TWCQyzy7pzI/AAAAAAAAFPk/Zq6XrwTese4/s1600/leftbehind1.jpgIf you're like me, every time you hear "Christian movie," you reach for a jug of Pepto-Bismol (and maybe some holy water, for good measure). 

With rare exception, most are deplorable. Christ is not glorified, but dare I say, horrified.

If you get the DVD of Blue Like Jazz, you may want to fast forward through the trailers. They are "Exhibit 'A'" of horrendous "Christian" movies.

Thus my expectations were very low when watched Blue Like Jazz, but I was pleasantly surprised. It did what the stereotypical Christian movie can't quite get itself to ever do: stay close to human experience. 
You know what I mean: the Christian film that begins with a premise of what life ought to be "from a biblical perspective" (does the Bible have eyes?) and then simply transposes this ideology into the realm of dialogue and wooden acting.

Granted, having good intentions and thinking this is enough to make a good film is not the folly of just Christians (but it seems to "help"): Freedom Writers nearly drove me to violence with its sweetness-unto-death.
Blue Like Jazz does something that is rarely recognized in film (or anywhere else in popular culture). It acknowledges the failure of Christians but insists upon the power of Christ. Now that sounds all pious, doesn't it? But what I mean is that it puts on display evangelical (well, Southern Baptist) absurdities, but in so doing it does not dismiss the religious questions at the heart of religion (the questions of Southern Baptists, too!). 
The film suggests that scandal does not dispense one from seeking out the meaning of life.
Donny's struggle is any thinking person's struggle: how do I reconcile the disproportion between who Christ is and the radical deficiencies of Christians? The film seems to answer it by saying, You don't. That is, the mystery of sin and evil are not problems to be solved, but are mysteries at the depths of each of our hearts.
Living as if God doesn't exist, doesn't solve the problem of sin and evil. As the saying goes, "Where ever you go, there you are."

The film touches upon the themes of scandal, friendship, higher education and meaning. A perfect film? No. But certainly one that can be enjoyed and re-watched. No Pepto-Bismol required.


Tuesday, May 07, 2013

I Dreamt of Jello

I know what you're thinking: "No way! Too far!"

http://rockthecam.de/wp-content/gallery/jello-biafra-radio-onda-20090827/jello-biafra-radio-onda-20090827-10.jpg They say that the raw material for one's dreams comes from everyday experience.

The night before I watched a bit too much of Jello, Ice-T and others on an Oprah episode from way back.

Jello was there with a vengeance in my dreams that night.

I knew it was a dream because Jello was listening to me.

We were at a bar and I was telling him how I credited him with part of my return to Christianity -- Catholicism in particular.

He took it really well.

I thought then (the late 1980s) and still stand by it: punk was asking the right kinds of questions. Sure, the questions generally don't ascend beyond the sociological, but still, in many ways DK was on the right track.

Here's but one example (on the nature of work): "Soup is Good Food"* treats the nature of work and the evils of treating people as disposable. It's a great song, but what's missing? Well, in a word or two: hope, transcendence, meaning. The negative is there (which is not nothing -- in an age where Original Sin is vilified or ignored), but what is the "ought" that ought to be there?

That's why punk ultimately fails. One needs not perpetual cheerfulness but reality. Neither optimism nor unbridled pessimism, but simply the whole truth of the human condition.

He will surely laugh and scoff, but I pray for Jello.

*CAUTION: The song has some naughty words.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Deliver Us from "Freedom Writers"

http://content.internetvideoarchive.com/content/photos/849/035693_3.jpg Take the Lead
I went into this movie thinking it would be "pious claptrap" about the saintly teacher who selflessly gives of himself to save beleaguered inner city youth. Ugh, another Freedom Writers?, I thought. Or perhaps a film about a cranky old guy who receives a revelation from today's youth in which he ditches his ways for the "wisdom" of youngsters.   
Films of either genre make my skin crawl.

On the contrary! Although it has some "Oh, come on!" moments (alleged spontaneous dance moments that have been obviously choreographed to death, for example), Take the Lead has an amazing performance by Antonio Banderas who is willing to say (and live out the ideal), "Everyone is entitled to a little culture" (which, from his tradition is...ballroom dancing!).
Not only is "white privilege" not mocked nor scorned, but it is suggested that the ancient things just might have a role in education today. Utterly refreshing.

This film is a meditation on the evocative power of beauty, grace and tradition. Yes, you'll have to suffer from a bit of hip hop (or enjoy it immensely, as I don't).

Wow, perhaps adults do have something of value to pass on; something that does not depend on our effort to make everything "relevant" to kids. Some things, the things of the heart, are always and everywhere relevant for those with a beating heart and an open mind.
Summary: somewhat like Stand and Deliver meets Strictly Ballroom.

In praise of ambiguity

It's a curious thing: I'm listening to some music I haven't listened to for years. The curious thing is that what "turned me off" years ago is precisely why I find it so interesting now.

Here's an example from Daniel Amos' album Kalhoun.

(Yes, literate reader, the lyrics are not that ambiguous, but for me, ascending the heights of enlightenment are arduous!)

But this ambiguity also applies to bands like U2, The Call, The 77s and others. It opens a space, a human space.

It is perhaps that becoming an adult means the refusal of fundamentalism? Perhaps.