Bright, Dark Lights

Bryan Singer, like Harvey Weinstein, used his movies to sexually abuse others.

The Atlantic has published the results of a 12 month investigation into director/producer Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, Bohemian Rhapsody). Of all the #MeToo bombshell articles I’ve read, and I’ve read many, this one was the hardest to read. Singer and his collaborators named in the article appear to be intensely depraved predators. The piece, which is graphic in detail, documents nothing less than an unofficial sex trafficking operation that targeted dozens, and probably hundreds, of adolescent boys. Assuming even the barest portions of this reporting are correct, Singer is a sexual menace who has continually used his work and connections to facilitate abuse.

It’s that last part I can’t stop thinking about. As I described it to a friend this morning, you can’t read this article and discern where the entertainment industry began and the sexual predation ended. Like Harvey Weinstein, Singer made his work as a filmmaker an integral part of how he abused teens. He funded “production” companies whose sole purpose was apparently to create a pretense for getting boys to parties. He abused boys on-set. In one instance, according to the piece, a group of teenage extras in one of his movies was directed to disrobe in front of camera after being misled to believe nudity wasn’t required. The portrait this investigation paints of Bryan Singer and his co-conspirators (of whom there appear to be many) is not one of work during the day, sexual abuse during the night. The work was part of the abuse. The abuse was facilitated through the work.

This should sound very familiar to you. Recall that Harvey Weinstein told actress Salma Hayek that he would pull funding for her movie unless she did a sex scene. A major theme in Hollywood’s #MeToo nightmare is how the films and studios themselves become not only complicit but instruments of the abuse. In Hayek’s case, her accommodation of Weinstein’s predatory demands is forever captured onscreen. In the case of some of those “Bryan boys,” theirs is, too.  Can you separate the naked “just acting” that you see in the film from the threats and manipulation that put it there? At what point are we actually watching the abuse we read about?

Of course, it’s impossible to know why every sexually explicit scene on TV or in film is put there. I’m sure there are many that exist solely because a writer or director thinks it makes for good entertainment. But ask yourself this: How likely is it that Harvey Weinstein and Bryan Singer are the only Hollywood storytellers that have used their stories as pretenses to sexually exploiting somebody on that screen? So much sexual content in film is extraneous, especially in big budget films. Almost invariably onscreen nudity seems to exist wholly apart from the narrative of the film; it’s just there, and then it’s just gone. Knowing what we know now about people like Weinstein and Singer, it seems almost impossible to notice an unnecessarily explicit scene without wondering if literally the only reason it exists is to satisfy a fantasy of someone behind the camera.

In fairness, I’ve never really admired the argument that Christians sometimes make against pornography that appeals to the exploitation of actresses as a reason not to watch. It’s not that I think such exploitation doesn’t exist (it most certainly does), nor that I think it’s fine for people to enjoy watching father-estranged girls being exploited (it’s not). My problem with using this as a reason to not watch porn is that I honestly cannot imagine such a reason ever working. Wanting to watch porn is not a desire that can be undermined by appealing to the injustice of the industry, anymore than an overwhelming desire for a Snickers bar can be blunted by an economics lesson on child labor in overseas candy factories. Lack of empathy is a real problem, but it can’t be the main focus of every ethical choice. Sometimes your heart has to turn away from something evil on the basis of what it is rather than what it does to others.

But what I find interesting is the way sensitive Christians who abstain from watching Hollywood sex scenes look a little ahead of the curve nowadays. For most of my life refusing to watch an explicit film made you a stodgy fundamentalist, on the basis that “It’s just a movie” and “Sex is a part of life, get over it.” Unless I’m very wrong, the tide is turning. As secular culture turns it attention toward sexual injustice, it catches pop culture red-handed in just the way that those stodgy Christians have suggested. Can you read these bombshell reports, watch the films named in them, and tell me where the sexual abuse ends and the “acting” begins? If not, don’t those dour fundies at least have a point?

photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.

Advertisements

The Conservative Soul of Soccer

Soccer, with its order and slow, drudging progress, offers an inviting metaphor in our speed-obsessed culture.

I was the first in my family to be enchanted with soccer. None of us grew up playing it. We lived in SEC and Little League country, so when we said “sports” we almost always meant March Madness and the Super Bowl. The World Cup changed that—specifically, the 2006 World Cup, which I watched with awe and fascination in my grandmother’s guest room, avoiding extended family like a good 16 year old. But it was the 2010 tournament that sealed my affections permanently, as I watched the United States play England in the opening group stage match and plunged into romantic notions that the world was very small and that soccer was the truest bridge anyone could ever hope to build on it.

There is a global allure to the World Cup, something undeniably beautiful in the awareness that billions of people on every continent, under every solar season, are watching and screaming and praying toward the same thing. That’s what sucked me in, but it’s not really why I stay fascinated with a sport I didn’t even understand until high school. Rather, I stay in love with soccer because it has a conservative soul.

The most common thing I hear from people I love about soccer is that it’s boring. Teams don’t score enough; it takes them too long to score; games end in ties! For these folks, soccer is little more than a flesh and blood version of Pong: the ball just moves and moves. Only if you’re lucky, 90 minutes of patience is rewarded with 10 seconds of joy. We scored a point! Now what happened to my afternoon?

I get it. All of the major American sports that we dream of playing as kids define success in terms of lighting up the scoreboard. There’s nothing more glamorous in baseball than a grand slam, nothing more noteworthy in basketball than a triple double, and nothing more impressive in football than a 3 touchdown game by a player. Football, still the country’s most popular and powerful sport, has radically transformed over the past 20 years into an offensive game. It’s all about points, points, points.

Doesn’t this remind you at least a little bit of contemporary American culture? The low hanging simile would be consumerism, of course. “Get all you can while the getting is good” is how most of our society interprets e pluribus unum. But I’m even thinking of another way that scoring points dominates our cultural imagination. What about information? Isn’t there something quite “pointsy” about the way we all seem to feel obligated to be connected to smartphones and Instagram feeds and Twitter arguments all the time? To ask for moderation in these things is to ask for precisely the thing they were invented not to give us. Our uber-connected age runs on the same logic as a chaotic sporting event wherein it is impossible to go too fast or try to score too quickly.

Soccer, though, is far more inviting metaphor. If the frantic, hero-ball personality of our popular sports shows off the spirit of the current day, soccer’s drudging, almost maniacal precision evokes a spirit far older and greener.

Soccer is about the implicit advantage that defenders have over attackers. Defenders don’t have to run with a ball between their feet. Defenders don’t have to worry about offside calls. Soccer’s conflict privileges defending what you have over creating something new. This is why it’s “boring.” It’s also why it’s a deeply true-to-life game. At the heart of the conservative mindset is the belief that good things are much easier to destroy than they are to make. There are all sorts of good ways to “defend” the good thing that already is, but there are far fewer ways to create something good in the old’s place. This is the precise opposite of the progressive, revolutionary mindset, which tends to recklessly attack the status quo in the faith that new good is inevitable and cannot really be pursued in the wrong way.

What matters far more than speed in soccer is movement. Straight line speed, the raw ability to outrun a defender, is certainly valuable, but it won’t achieve much if you can’t move: Move yourself, move the ball, move your teammates. Movement and speed are not the same thing, just like progress and continuance aren’t the same thing. The world of late Western capitalism demands speed without movement, attack without deliberation, and heroism without a team. This is, more or less, the pedagogy that’s defined the modern university for the past two hundred years, and now the children are eating the parents.

Speed without movement is incoherence. This isn’t business or productivity jargon, either. It’s what most people in my generation have forgotten. In the race to actualize ourselves, tell “our truth,” and shape the right side of history, we’ve slipped and fallen into the weeds of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and loneliness. We are learned but don’t know what to do. We are connected but haven’t a soul to talk to. We are accomplished and bright but feel lost and hopeless.

To watch soccer is to be reminded that life, especially the Christian life, is a long obedience in the same direction, not an inspired sprint. There is more movement than speed, more plodding than attacking. For those souls who see themselves primarily as agents of revolutionary change in their generation, and especially for those who have drunk deeply of cynicism toward existing institutions and transcendent claims on their identity, soccer looks like failure. But to those who understand the order of the universe—fixed, but not static; orderly, but not un-invaded—soccer looks a lot like the rhythm of life itself. There’s a lot of passing, a lot of staying where you are, a lot of making sure you’re where the people around you need you. And there are opportunities for glory, indeed. But they’ll be forfeited without deliberate care. A triple double is probably not in your future, but you may very well be part of a movement that does something special…if you can resist sprinting.

Soccer is a beautiful visual liturgy of the conservative spirit. One watches with wonder how individual players can function so cohesively as units, such that the one seems to know where the other is going even before he does. Give it a passing glance and all you’ll see is a ball moving seemingly aimlessly. Pass, pass, backward pass, sideways pass, pass. But the ball is going forward. Just keep watching.

Chris Pratt Pre-Evangelizes the MTV Awards

Last night, actor Chris Pratt accepted a “generational award” from MTV. He used his acceptance speech to give “Chris Pratt’s 9 Rules.” (erm, that sounds familiar) At the end of the speech, which was part serious and part funny, Pratt pointed his millions of viewers to grace, grace that was “paid for with someone else’s blood.”

8. Learn to pray. It’s easy and it’s so good for your soul.
9. Finally, nobody is perfect. People will tell you you’re prefect just the way you are. You’re not. You’re imperfect. You will always be. But there is a powerful force that designed you that way, and if you’re willing to accept that, you will have grace, and grace is a gift. And like the freedom we enjoy in this country, that grace was paid for with somebody’s else blood. Do not forget it, don’t take it for granted.

The NFL’s National Anthem Failure

The league has a right to make its own rules, but this was a missed opportunity to model a healthy public square.

The NFL’s new policy that players must stand for the national anthem or else stay in the locker room during the song is the wrong decision. Team owners, a group of 32 billionaires, took varying approaches last season to handling the public relations kerfuffle over African-American players who knelt during the anthem. The “compromise,” announced by league head Roger Goodell, is more of a mandate, a response to an unexpectedly significant public backlash that seemed to drag down the NFL’s all-important TV ratings. Of course the league has the legal right to make its own rules, but the new policy represents a failure of moral leadership.

It’s important to remember that while former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the kneeling as a way to protest black deaths at the hands of police officers, it was President Trump who played the most important role in the melodrama. The president made vulgar and unbecoming remarks about the few (at the time) players who were not standing for the anthem. The protests, which were then small and confined to a small handful of the league’s 32 teams, grew in response to Trump’s insults, until it snowballed into ESPN’s favorite topic of the year. Can you imagine a more perfect example of our dysfunctional public square than that?

Indeed, the NFL’s new mandate smells of the authoritarian flavor of the day. Conservatives who cheer on the NFL for making an example out of football players love to emphasize that the NFL is a private business and can do what it wants. Yes, and Google was a private business when it fired James Damore, and so are the elite universities that “disinvite” conservatives from speaking, and so is Facebook when it blocks pro-life advertisements, etc etc. This is a very strange time for those who adhere to traditional beliefs to be erring on the side of corporate autonomy.

The new policy is presented as a compromise between image-conscious owners and socially conscious players. But is it? According to the players who knelt, the entire point of the demonstration was not to express hatred of America or disgust at her citizens, but to express sadness for the centuries of racial animosity and violence that continue to gnaw at our country’s heel. You can make a good argument that kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner fails to sufficiently get this message across, but you can’t argue that forcing players who want to kneel—for reasons political, or historical, or familial—to stay in the locker room, out of sight, is an authentic compromise. Rather, it’s the exact kind of conscience gerrymandering that traditionally religious Americans are used to by now, the kind that offers “freedom of religion” in a toothless, privatized sense, but denies “freedom of religious practice” in public life.

Why the implicit comparison between racial demonstrations and religious practice? For one, the similarities between the responses to each from corporate America is too much to ignore. Secondly, the NFL is a surprisingly religious league, with more openly Christian superstars than either the NBA or major league baseball. It’s not hard to imagine that the league’s aversion to peaceful (even prayerful) demonstrations during the national anthem might be a prelude to a more holistic aversion to players whose beliefs and practices are outside the mainstream.

In fact, we don’t have to imagine this, because the NFL has already told us what they think of orthodox Christianity. By threatening to punish states that protect Christian conscience from transgender dictates, the NFL has already positioned itself as a arbiter of American ethics, fit to lecture us all on morality. The anthem mandate reveals impressive depths of moral hypocrisy: The NFL doesn’t want the views of black Americans to disturb viewers’ TV experience, but it has no problem telling those who believe in “male and female, He created them” that pro football is better off without them. So much for compromises!

Given the NFL’s commitment to the right side of secular history; given its comfort with telling players to stay out of sight if they want to take a knee; and given the number of professing Christians who play pro football, doesn’t it make sense to be concerned that sooner or later, billionaire owners are going to want their players to stop posting those bigoted Bible verses on social media?

Roger Goodell and the team owners have missed a valuable opportunity. They’ve missed an opportunity to model a healthy public square, one in which people with different perspectives on rituals and anthems can dialogue with each other in public, learn from each other, and work with each other. They’ve missed, in other words, an opportunity to model the idea of America. One doesn’t need to agree with the demonstrations themselves to see the value in a sports league that errs on the side of peaceful expression and dialogue.

The water is getting choppy these days for pro football. Millennials are less interested in touchdowns and more interested in CTE. There are some who argue that the physical costs of football render it unacceptable to moral society. Count me among the number who believe, as Roger Scruton says, that valuable things are more easily torn down than built up. I only wish the NFL would agree.

Why Christians Should Rediscover Old Movies

On digging into the treasures of the past to answer the problems of the present.

I am an Anglican parish priest. In that role, I get to hear some of the concerns of my congregants and other Christians on a fairly regular basis. I know many, many faithful Christians who complain about “all the trash that’s on TV and in movies.” Parents and grandparents in particular worry about the corroding effect that current shows, films, music, and commercials may have on their children.

They have my sympathies. Gone are the days when you could go downtown in the evening with a couple bucks to watch a fun, kid-friendly western, and munch on some popcorn. There’s a fair bit of nostalgia mixed with this kind of moral concern as many of us reflect that what used to be a happy childhood diversion has become a perilous spiritual minefield of gore, f-bombs, sex scenes, and disrespect toward parents (as just a small sampling of Decalogue-breaking inducements springing forth from Hollywood). As the Statler Brothers once opined, “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?”

I saw a recent article outlining how a growing amount of children’s television will feature characters with sexually immoral lifestyles, a trend that’s been on the rise for a couple years now. This normalization of spiritually sinful practices is of course not new to American pop culture. On the other hand, as Dean Abbott has so clearly argued, modern’s children entertainment seems to be getting notably worse (with even some non-Christians noticing)

Predictably, this creates a good deal of hand-wringing in the pews. I have had more than one parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle voice frustration that there isn’t anything “wholesome” on television or the movies anymore. Some film companies feed off of this desperation, which is how we get atrocious, embarrassing flicks like God’s Not Dead and Facing the Giants. Too often it feels as if the choice for believers is between morally un-compromised cheese and aesethetically excellent garbage. Many Christian parents are unaware of or are (understandably) unwilling to force the former category on their homes. The net result, though, is that unthinking consumption of every new film or sitcom has become the norm for many.

But why? Perhaps it’s time to admit that this problem is self-created. What motivates our acquiescence and lack of discernment is often nothing more than hype and FOMO (fear of missing out). Even worse, the screen has become an alluring babysitter for many Christians. Faced with the fact that a large amount of American entertainment cannot be consumed in good conscience, what is a “plugged in” Christian to do?

In the first place, Christians need to be the foremost people rethinking the omnipresence of screens in home life. You don’t have to go far to find good reasons why people, especially children, are generally better off outside or buried in a book than glued to a soft blue glow. American culture has a whole especially needs to recover the idea of play, and not the overly regimented, helicopter parented type. I don’t presume to have expert suggestions here, but ought not Christians of all people be willing to take radical steps to counter the inert, pornified, disaffected spirit of the age?  This may mean no video game systems until the teen years, or no smart phones until legal adulthood. Such are matters of Christian liberty and prudence, though I’ve found Andy Crouch’s The Tech Wise Family to be an incredibly helpful guide on such matters.

But there’s another opportunity here. Consider the reality that older films, television, and music were often (at least at a surface level) morally and even artistically better than a majority of what is produced today. It is a tragedy that most American teenagers are completely unaware, for example, of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” movies. It’s a tragedy not only of Christian discernment but of cultural heritage (especially when we consider films and music of particular excellence). Christians should be paying closer attention to old things.

There is a vast ocean of classic movies and music, much of which, if not explicitly spiritual, at least does not actively undermine Christian moral formation. Many of these films and albums are inexpensive. For the cost of taking the kids to a cinema matinee, one can stock up on dozens of excellent movies. Put some time in to study the keystones of American cinema which reach back nearly a century. Request and borrow them from a local library if your budget is tight. Save up and acquire copies of era-defining television dramas that delighted your own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. You can even buy re-runs of Looney Tunes and those pulpy Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoons like Johnny Quest. The threat of “binge-watching” notwithstanding, these options can last a family a long time.

This is an invitation to Christians who love pop culture to become real students of it, by reaching back in the past to preserve and enjoy excellently made things. Perhaps we should think of the steward of film and music as not unlike a discriminating librarian: he highlights and saves that which is best. We all currently endure what John Lukacs called an “inflation of ideas:” more and more works that seem to say less and less. Children as well as adults need to have our tastes formed, matured, and perfected. And that weighty task need not be unpleasant.

Yet again, I think it is time for Christians to be different from other Americans and not be among the heaviest consumers of entertainment media–especially not the newest and latest. Unplug a bit. Build up a library of good films and shows that are examples of good art. It rarely hurt anyone to skip over the latest, shiniest, and untested. I’m not the first to suggest this, and I won’t be the last. But I can’t help noticing that this is what I start thinking about when folks complain about these issues. Pull the plug. Be weird. It’s not going to kill you to miss pop culture references. Take it from a happy homeschool alumnus. The western world is going mad; not need to drive yourself crazy keeping up with it.

Barton Gingerich is an assistant priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, VA and a contributor to the Faith and Honor podcast. He earned his B.A. in History from Patrick Henry College and his M.Div. with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

Fundies and the Super Bowl

This is a hard read. It’s harder not just because of the tragedy of a husband and father’s brain disease, but because this story, and many others like it, will be in the back of my mind as I watch the Super Bowl. I love football, and, as my 16 month old son begs to watch highlights and throw the ball with me after work, I doubt very seriously if that will ever change. It’s “in the blood.” But football, like everything else, was made for people, and not people for football. CTE’s destruction of its victims is a testimony to the reversal of that equation. Football is for people, not people for football, and people come first, because if football comes before people, you’ll run out of both.

I’m seeing some people respond to these stories by remarking how they aren’t able to watch football anymore. Others have wondered aloud whether it’s even moral to watch football in CTE’s shadow. They struggle to reconcile the risk and the disease with enjoyment. How can you enjoy it anymore? Doesn’t every play, every tackle, and every down just scream reminders of Rob Kelly and Junior Seau?

I guess I live inside this tension a little more ably than others  because I’ve practiced it on a lot more. Here’s an example: Growing up, the Super Bowl parties that I attended would change the channel during halftime and most commercial breaks. This was the most valuable advertising space in the world, and when corporations need something to seize a golden moment, they reach for sex. Whether crude jokes or scantily clad subjects, the content of the Super Bowl around the game itself was not fit for most living rooms I sat in. I’m very used to watching something with enjoyment loosely held. I’m very used to having my hand near the remote control. Some might suggest that kind of life isn’t worth living. Just give up the Super Bowl, or else give up my puritanism. But the awkward tension feels like home to me.

I’m wondering if perhaps “fundies” have advantage in our emerging justice culture that others don’t have. Fundies grew up knowing that what they watched and where they went had moral importance. Fundies understand from an early age that entertainment is never just entertainment, and that mindlessly consuming anything is probably mindlessly consuming something bad. Fundies are well acquainted with putting moral demands on the world around them. They are usually scorned viciously for it. But doesn’t it feel like the fundies were ahead of the curve? I mean, when you live in a post-CTE, post-Weinstein, post-Nassar, post-Woody Allen era, might not the fundies have a lesson to teach about what life is like when you realize you can’t think deeply and enjoy heedlessly at the same time?

Those who grew up in conservative evangelicalism often joke with one another about what their families didn’t allow them to watch/say/do. Yes, there are silly stories to tell, and yes, we didn’t always get it right. But I admit: Watching secular friends agonize over the moral implications of the NFL and Miramax pictures does bring back some nostalgia, as well as some gratitude for being introduced early to the idea that things matter. So I’ll watch the Super Bowl, hand near the remote and eyes watching the players, silently praying for no head trauma and no husbands who forget their wives. I can live in that discomfort. I have for a long time.

On “The Godfather Part II”

Netflix has recently added both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II to its streaming library. Below is something I wrote in 2014 on what makes Part II so great.

“That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” Michael Corleone is not lying when he says these words in The Godfather. He means them. He means them so much he joined the military merely to prove them. We learn about that in the penultimate scene of The Godfather Part II, a flashback that surely ranks as one of the greatest filmmaking decisions of all time. Michael, sitting with his brothers awaiting their father and Corleone patriarch, casually announces his has joined the Marines. This angers and confuses them, since young Michael was given a draft deferment (this is WWII) and—as Tom says—“Pa had to pull a lot of strings.” His family interprets this as gross ingratitude, but we know better. Michael went to war to avoid becoming a gangster.

But the war ended, Michael (Al Pacino) returned home, and the rest is history told in the first movie. The dinner flashback at the end of Part II is crucial to the narrative of the Corleone family because it inserts the final missing piece of our understanding of its youngest son. Why, for example, does Vito tell Michael in the first film, “I never wanted this for you”? Why does Michael, years later, ask his mother if it is possible to lose a family? The answer is that Michael no longer knows himself.

It is important to see that famous final scene of The Godfather—in which the door to Michael’s world is literally shut on Kay (Diane Keaton)—as a beginning and not an end. It’s at that moment that Kay, who represents director Francis Ford Coppola’s audience, realizes that she will never really know her husband. In the terrifying and flawlessly acted scene in Part II in which Kay tells Michael that she aborted his unborn son, we understand she no longer wants to. “It was a son, and I had it killed because this must all end,” she thunders, right before Michael hits her (bringing to our remembrance the murder of Carlo, who married and then abused Connie Corleone so a rival family could assassinate Sonny). The “this” in that sentence is the first and only time Kay makes explicit reference to the Corleone family’s organized crime. The illusion of “It’s not me” has died. Michael has become a monster.

Most monsters become what they do to protect something truly valuable. In Michael’s case, it was his wife and children. His downward spiral is precipitated by a botched assassination attempt in his home. It has to be an inside job. “Keep them alive,” Michael instructs his men as they hunt the gunmen. Later on, impatient with a relative who doesn’t seem to understand What’s At Stake Here, he indignantly screams, “In my home! Where my wife sleeps and my children play!” Whatever happened to “it’s not personal, just business”?

But that’s the point, isn’t it? It was always personal. Murder is never strictly business. The parallel story line in Part II shows us the ascendancy of Vito Corleone and his empire. We watch as his mother is shot right in front of him by a local mobster. He escapes Italy and emigrates to New York, where he works hard and loves his family. When another mobster tries to extort him, he kills him, and thus begins a life of violence that is business and very personal, a point driven home when he returns to Italy as a prosperous adult to stab the old man who killed his mother.

The difference between father and son seems to be that Vito knew this kind of power is ultimately meaningless, and Michael doesn’t. When Michael senses his empire slipping away, he doubles down. He violates the dictum that he gave to young Fredo in Part I (“Never take sides with anyone against the family—ever”) and aligns himself with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), believing that the Jewish bankroller can finance him into a position of unassailable power. “We’re bigger than US Steel,” Roth intones, one of The Godfather Part II’s most recognizable lines. By the third act, Michael is no longer thinking about his family, but about his empire and revenge. Right after the assassination attempt, Michael departs for Miami to meet Roth. An odd choice; did he not question the wisdom of leaving his family at such a time? There’s a haunting scene after Michael returns home that shows him arriving at an eerily silent house and creeping his way to the bedroom where Kay is knitting. Rather than embrace his wife, he retreats into the shadows, perhaps ashamed, perhaps unsure. Nina Rota’s score plays sad, somber notes, music for a love gone cold.

All of this makes the film’s most important moment—Michael’s execution of his brother Fredo—comprehensible. The word “family” no longer means what it used to for Michael. There are only friends and enemies. Fredo’s assistance to the assassins (never fully explained in the film) makes him an enemy. The key scene is Michael’s confrontation of Fredo, which becomes a familial airing of grievances for two fatherless boys (“I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!”). Cinematographer Gordon Willis made a masterful decision to put the two characters on either side of the shot and in shadow, emphasizing the beautiful but lonely snowfall of the exterior. The brothers are strangers to one another now, joined only by the kingdom which winter is now burying.

John Cazale plays Fredo perfectly. He’s weak and sexually unconfident, and resents the opinion, shared by Michael, that he is too dumb and soft to be of much use to the family. Cazale died of cancer at only 42 years old, and those who knew him said he also was fragile and sensitive. Notice the way he trembles when explaining how he feels disrespected, and then recall how he fumbled his gun in while gangsters shot his father in Part I. He feels things deeply, and in the Corelone world, that’s a liability.

The Godfather Part II is, in any functional sense of the word, perfect. There are no needless scenes or busy characters. The screenplay by Coppola and Mario Puzo is so confident in its narrative that we get scenes of contemplation and atmosphere, and nothing for the sake of merely keeping our attention. Nina Rota’s music is iconic and the film’s famous “Immigrant” theme is bold and anthemic without ever becoming distracting. Every element of the movie ties into the stories. That’s the definition of great art.

Both De Niro and Pacino were nominated for Oscars. De Niro won, not undeservingly, but The Godfather Part II really belongs to Pacino. He is asked to transform before our very eyes in a way that De Niro wasn’t asked to do (since the latter’s character is split into two actors playing a boy and a man). Coppola said years later that the decision to cast Pacino in Part I was largely due to the way Pacino “communicated” with his eyes. Watch the penultimate scene between Kay and Michael and you’ll see what he means.

The film’s last shot gives me chills. It’s one of the boldest and most unnerving close ups I can remember. An aging Michael is seen on a park bench, staring out into space. We watch his tired eyes and ask if the entire film was simply a replay of his memories as he sits here. He is alone and knows why he is alone. As Rota’s famous theme plays, I find myself torn: Do I want to know what he’s thinking?

In Defense (Somewhat) of Self-Help

When I was in Bible college, few things received scorn as unanimously and frequently as the self-help genre. The corner of your local bookstore dominated by big, bright covers and names like Oprah and Tony Robbins was, almost all of us young, restless, Reformed pre-seminarians agreed, poison. We understood that the self-help genre was a gospel-less, Jesus-less, church-less, and worst of all, theology-less morass of pop psychotherapy and New Agey gobbledygook. The enormous sales numbers of such books was an implicit challenge to my generation of Christian leaders: Whatever the cost, get these books out of your church members’ homes, and get them reading the Bible instead.

To this day, I still feel a twinge of guilt whenever I am listening to a “motivational speaker,” the same kind of twinge I got as a 15 year old sneaking down to the basement to listen to Top 40 radio. Though I can’t hear any bad words, I know this “sound” is not something I, as a Christian, should enjoy. The sound of someone telling me to focus more, to identify my purpose, to take more charge of my days and to understand my limits and my potential and my calling—well, that’s the sound of non-gospel. Right? Right?

Here’s what I’m having a hard time with nowadays. For all my theological education, I tend to have only the foggiest, most vague ideas about my life. I know that the whole universe exists for God’s glory. That fact, alas, did not translate into a workable budget for me last year. I know that God works all things to the purposes of His will, and that no one can thwart him. But not one person in my church or seminary life has ever explained to me that the reason I feel behind at the end of most weeks is that I haven’t identified what was most important to me at a personal level. A few weeks ago, I randomly stumbled across a YouTube video of a motivational speaker who warned his audience against failing to set priorities. If you don’t identify what matters, he said, your days and then weeks would bleed into a directionless, reactionary existence. Whoops.

For all my Christian culture’s scorn of self-help, couldn’t we at least have talked about actually living life in a non-theoretical, non-gospelly cliche way?

One of the things I am having to slowly unlearn is the idea that having good theology is the most important thing in life. I cringe even as I write that sentence, because for years to even think a sentence like that indicated, I believed, a willingness to embrace bad theology. The only people who talked about moderating the importance of theology, I was convinced, were people who wanted me to believe the wrong thing. It turns out I was wrong on both counts. It turns out, on the contrary, that while those whose professional lives rest comfortably at the intersection of study and theoretics (which describes a huge percentage of the “thought leaders” in my corner of Reformed evangelicalism) can afford to say “theology” when they mean “all wisdom everywhere,” many of us cannot afford to do the same.

Sometimes it was supposed in Bible college that the real reason people read self-help books is that they don’t want to be confronted with the moral demands of the Bible. I actually think that’s incorrect. I think most people read self-help lit because they know they need insight, motivation, and perspective from outside themselves. What’s more, I think many Christians read secular self-help lit because they have tried and failed to resize their life to fit a 20 minute per-day devotional box. They read books on becoming a better them because they believe, rightly, that Jesus calls them to be something greater than what they naturally are, but so much of their “gospel-driven” books seem to think that their problems will go away if they know more about divine sovereignty and human agency. In the absence of a relatable explanation of what following Jesus means for being an authentic human being, most people will assume that what they need to know about being an authentic human being and what they need to know about following Jesus are two separate issues.

In my experience, Reformed evangelicals are often so eager to engage in polemics against culture that we often create a conflict that isn’t actually there. And in this case, we tend to create a conflict between common sense and faith. Self-discipline, forward-thinking, intentionality, awareness of one’s own weaknesses and strengths—how is any of this inherently frictional with Christian confession? If it’s not, then another question: Where is the theologically orthodox and accessibly literary body of Christian self-help literature? Perhaps we balk at the phrase “self-help.” Fine. What ideas do we have for alternatives? Is there a space for Christians writing about motivation and inspiration and discipline in a way that is decidedly spiritual but not decidedly reducing life to propositional theology?

I hope all will understand that my point is not that our reading or thinking should be less Christian. My point is that there’s something to be said for not setting up false antitheses, and for articulating a Christian vision of human flourishing that actually meets felt needs, not just intellectual ones. If we sigh at pop culture’s flocking to the latest TED Talk for spiritual guidance—and there’s much to sigh about there—perhaps we should ask ourselves what our seminaries and churches are doing about it.

 

image credit

Children and the Peril of Internet Fame

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

A parent records their child doing/saying something moving/saddening/remarkable. The parent then posts the video of their child to social media. Social media reacts strongly to the video, and before you know it, the video—and the child—are “viral” digital sensations. They start trending on Buzzfeed, being re-shared by celebrities and athletes, and almost everyone seems to be talking about this child and what he or she said or did.

Unfortunately, the people of the internet start looking for some information about this child and his family. When they find some, it turns out that the family, and especially the parent who recorded the viral video, has some unsavory, even morally offensive social media posts on their account. Just as it did with the original video, the online “community” ensures that the new information about the family, including screenshots and pictures, goes viral.The same internet that was just a few days ago sharing the video with captions of admiration and appreciation is now outraged that any family or adult with such offensive ideas/posts could be given a platform.

This is precisely the story now of the video of Keaton, a young boy whose tears have been shared by many people in my social media feeds. Keaton is bullied at school, and his mother decided to record an emotional moment for her son and post it online. Oceans of sympathetic well-wishes poured in from millions of people who watched the video. But some Twitter users found the mother’s own Facebook account, where she posts pictures of her kids holding confederate battle flags and screeds against black NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. Just hours ago the online world wanted to support Keaton. Now they wish he and his family would go away.

Perhaps we need periodic reminders that children and the internet are not usually a good combination. I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou here. I’ve posted photos and videos of my son online, too. But this episode with Keaton and his family reminds me that I probably shouldn’t be comfortable about that fact. My concern is not that this family is being treated unfairly by an outraged online mob (though I think there might be a point to make about the inherently non-redemptive outrage of the internet). My concern is that Keaton’s vulnerable, emotionally fragile moment, a moment that thousands of other kids identify with every day, was broadcast to millions of strangers, the overwhelming majority of whom do not really care about him. The online fame paid off in one sense, and backfired horribly in another. Keaton’s grief over being bullied by people he knew in flesh and blood at the school is now compounded by the angry crowd that wants to hold him accountable for political and racial ideas likely far beyond his comprehension.

This just isn’t how it’s supposed to be. There are deeply troubling dynamics to online fame, and they only get worse when applied to children. Keaton’s anguish belonged off-camera. His very real heartbreak should never have been given to the masses. If Keaton’s mom thought online fame would balm her son’s wounds, she may have been right, but then what does that mean for Keaton going forward? Is the only suffering worth living through the suffering that can help us go viral?

The internet is a double-edged sword. Its greatest strength is that it can get anywhere. Its greatest threat is that it can get anywhere. Its pervasive presence in all aspects of public life is what gives the social media age its power for good, and its power for evil. When we stop thinking seriously about the costs of online life, we will start to sacrifice much, much more than our privacy.

I wish the best for young Keaton. I hope that he will understand that bullying is not the last word, that he is loved and fearfully and wonderfully made. And I hope he will learn quickly not to test that truth against the approval, or outrage, of the digital age.

3 Kinds of Patriotism

A quick taxonomy:

  1. The patriotism of duty is the patriotism that involves material acts of fidelity to one’s country. This is the patriotism of military service and other varieties of selfless sacrifice. This is where patriotism becomes embodied, and its ideals take on specific actions worthy of praise.
  2. The patriotism of affection is the patriotism of the heart. It concerns one’s inner desire for the well-being of his country. The patriotism of affection can be seen in the patriotism of duty, but it does not necessarily result in it; one can genuinely love his country and yet be a coward, just like one could theoretically perform a patriotic duty and yet feel apathetic about the welfare of the country.
  3. The patriotism of manners is the patriotism of customs, written and unwritten. Placing one’s hand over the heart during the national anthem is the patriotism of manners. It can be done by anyone without requiring real patriotism of affection or of duty. Whereas the above forms of patriotism reveal, at least partially, a person’s true beliefs and hopes, the patriotism of manners is mostly establishing a set of protocols.

The problem with modern American conservatism is that it has reversed the order of this taxonomy. Whereas the patriotism of duty is the highest and noblest form of patriotism, American conservatism, intellectually crippled by talk radio and mass media, constantly fixates on the patriotism of manners, and makes it the true test of one’s “Americanness.” This is why most cable-news watching conservatives are vastly more offended at NFL players who kneel during the national anthem than they are at a sports league that routinely takes advantage of taxpayers in building enormous stadiums. The latter may be unfortunate, but it’s just politics as usual in the Real World. Kneeling during the national anthem? Traitors.

The fixation on the patriotism of manners is symptomatic of a conservatism for whom patriotism is constantly detached from reality. David Barton’s success among evangelical conservatives owes almost entirely to the fact that his revisionism is “patriotic.” It promulgates the “God and country” narrative of the American founding. Never mind that calling Thomas Jefferson a true Christian is an aggressive insult to Christian doctrine. That’s not what matters. It’s patriotic to think so. That’s what matters.

A friend told me yesterday that President Trump’s insult to NFL players would likely work in his favor politically, by eliciting hysterical reactions from the progressive media. Maybe. For my money, though, the most hysterical reactions I’ve seen to Trump’s comments have come from conservatives cheering him on. This is where we are right now.