This week’s Blue Room email reflection (subscribe here, though we’ll be going back to monthly-ish once Lent ends) was about the movie Stranger Than Fiction, one of my favorites.
A friend and subscriber sent a message back that it’s also one of her favorites; in fact she taught a Sunday School class on it some time ago. The closing voice-over became the closing “prayer” for the class, and she was kind to send it along as a reminder. Here it is.
Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair,
in routine and constancy,
in hopelessness and tragedy,
we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies.
And fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies,
we can still find reassurance
in a familiar hand on our skin,
or a kind and loving gesture,
or a subtle encouragement,
or a loving embrace,
or an offer of comfort.
Not to mention
and nose plugs,
and uneaten Danish,
and soft-spoken secrets,
and Fender Stratocasters,
and maybe the occasional piece of fiction.
And we must remember that all these things,
which we assume only accessorize our days
are, in fact, here for a much larger and nobler cause:
They are here to save our lives.
I know the idea seems strange.
But I also know that it just so happens to be true.
from Stranger Than Fiction, screenplay by Zach Helm
This year I’m trying to see as many of the big Oscar nominees as possible. Last Friday I checked off my first film: Philomena, which is about an Irish woman’s search for her son, who was adopted by American parents some 50 years before. Philomena was one of the Magdalene girls, unwed mothers who were essentially incarcerated in various Catholic institutions and forced into unpaid labor as payment for their shameful mistakes.
It’s an excellent movie, though devastating to watch. It brings up any number of issues related to faith. Here are a couple:
The importance of forgiveness. I wished for a more nuanced portrayal of the topic, however. Near the end of the movie, there’s a scene in which a roomful of religious people practically cluck in disdain at the character of Martin Sixsmith (the journalist who’s been helping Philomena), who is livid at the injustice and secrecy that has persisted for decades. The implication in their response (including Philomena’s) is that he needs to let go of his anger and forgive because such negative feelings serve no purpose.
Forgiveness is indeed a gift of grace. And simmering resentments can corrode our lives. But Martin’s anger in that moment was appropriate. Given the magnitude of the injustice, it was more than that. It was righteous.
I’d wager that any anger the real Martin felt provided motivation for the writing of the book, which after all, served to bring this important story to light. Anger, properly harnessed, is a powerful fuel, and it bothers me when religious people are portrayed in such a milquetoast manner in popular culture.
But pop culture didn’t invent that image out of whole cloth. The Church, if I may be so monolithic, has offered plenty of inspiration for such a portrayal.
But it’s not just the anger and forgiveness thing…
Issues of the body and sexuality. We are still so primitive when it comes to talking about sex and our bodies. The young Philomena is doubly disadvantaged: she was not taught enough basic anatomy to understand how to prevent pregnancy. But she wasn’t taught anything about her body and its own pleasures, either—she admits with some chagrin that she enjoyed her “sin,” and exclaims to Martin Sixsmith, I never even knew what a clitoris was!
We in the Church are still dealing with the aftermath of that old Greek dualism in which the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers were steeped: spirit good, body bad.But as Martin’s character asks Philomena, what kind of God would create us with these natural sexual urges and then saddle us with such screwed-up, shame-filled religious baggage at the same time? How can something that feels so good be so very very bad? (Secular culture is not much better. Yes, the contours are different. But body image issues, self-punishment to fit an unattainable ideal, the rise of cosmetic surgery in the age of Photoshop—it’s not like the Church is a lone dysfunctional voice.)
We can rejoice that the Magdalene laundries are a memory (though not a distant enough one; the last one closed in the ’90s). But it’s still hard for us to talk about the body in a mature and meaningful way. The spiritual resources are there; we just have to embrace them.
Last week I wrote an endorsement for a book of spiritual practices for families. It’s a wonderful resource, full of ideas for parents to bring their faith into everyday life, whether it’s offering blessings at bedtime or welcoming a new pet to the family. It was one of the easiest endorsements I’ve written, and you’ll be hearing more from me about the book when it’s released.
But as I reflected on the legacy of Philomena, I realized with a start that there’s nothing in the book about children’s physical and sexual development. And I’m not saying this to knock the book at all—I myselfdidn’t see a thing missing until the movie prompted me to think about these things.
An obvious one: there must be a way for families (or at least mothers) to mark the occasion of a girl’s first period from a spiritual/faith perspective. My eldest daughter is excited because I’ve promised to take her to Spa World to celebrate this milestone. But there must be more that could be said or done. I’m not talking about a big show or an embarrassing display. I’m talking about some language celebrating God’s good gift of creation and the beauty of our bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made.
How about a teen’s first date? Or a first breakup? Surely the Christian tradition can offer more than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s…
What about a young person’s coming out?
And the real kicker. According to Wikipedia, the average age for a young person to have sex for the first time is 17. That means they’re living under our roofs when it happens. How do we respond to this from a faith perspective?
Can I envision what a faith-filled ritual would look like between parent and young person after she loses her virginity? No, I really can’t. Does such a thing sound easy? Do we need to consider the young person’s privacy and autonomy? No and yes. But that’s all the more reason for the church to be a resource for parents. Don’t we want the kind of relationships with our children such that they could share news of that milestone with us? If so, then we should be ready, with the best our tradition can offer them. (See Tami Taylor’s conversations with Julie on Friday Night Lights—some great stuff to build on there. So simple and authentic.)
I’m not talking about a lecture on abstinence. Parents should communicate their own values, though lectures aren’t terribly effective in my experience. I’m also not talking about the contraception/condoms discussion, though such a conversation is essential; it’s borderline parental malpractice not to have it.
No, I’m talking about making it clear to our kids that their sexual lives are not divorced from their faith, but an essential part of it. I’m talking about repairing the body/spirit duality such that our lives are one integrated whole.
Does a resource containing such rituals exist? If so, I hope my readers will alert me. If not, maybe my friend will write a sequel.
Hey, I’d love for you to join my email list for further inspiration and content. And if you haven’t already checked out Sabbath in the Suburbs, the price has dropped on Amazon! And of course it’s available from Chalice Press, my publisher.
Image: The Dench and Steve Coogan in a still from the movie. If you’re interested in discerning fact from dramatic license in the film, here’s a place to start.
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted a running playlist, because life. Also, I got it in my head to do an a cappella playlist, which proved harder than expected, despite many suggestions from you all. A lot of it was available on YouTube rather than download, and that’s a pain. I’ve not given up on the idea, but I’ve put it on hold. Here are the previous playlists.
This week begins with yet another kid illness, which stinks in its own right, but also gets me feeling sorry for myself because despite how self-entertaining my kids are at this age, I cannot think with them lurking about—and I’d planned some essential thinking work this week. Plus, the kid in question is too young to leave by herself, and I’m supposed to squeeze in six miles today, three tomorrow, and nine on Friday.
SO! I need serious inspiration… some music that says “No, you’re not a schlumpy suburban mother of three. You are a warrior, battling germs, inertia and an overstuffed to-do list!”
Nothing fills that need like a good film score.
There are so many great choices in this genre that I’ve decided to put together several different playlists, including one containing music solely from sports-themed movies (e.g. Rocky, Chariots of Fire). Matthew, my brother and partner in marathoning, helped suggest items for this week’s playlist: Epic Soundtracks. You’ve got your superheroes, your space operas… and your hobbitses:
Here’s the list. What have I missed?
“Also Sprach Zarathustra,” 2001: A Space Odyssey, Richard Strauss
Main Theme from Superman (John Williams)
“What Are You Going to Do When You’re Not Saving the World?”, Man of Steel, Hans Zimmer
“Helm’s Deep,” Two Towers, Howard Shore
“The Riders of Rohan,” Two Towers, Howard Shore
“The White Tree,” Return of the King, Howard Shore (otherwise known as the “lighting the beacons” music)
Theme from Batman, Danny Elfman
“Imperial March,” Star Wars, John Williams
“The Game Has Changed,” Tron: Legacy, Daft Punk (Robert’s contribution)
Main Theme, Raiders of the Lost Ark, John Williams
Robert and I went to see 42 last night. Good film, well worth seeing. There was the tiniest layer of cheese over the movie, and the score was not the least bit subtle. But it was well done, and it captured the essence of his story, at least according to Robinson’s widow.
A church member had told me to be on the lookout for references to faith, and they were certainly there. Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) quotes scripture as a justification for signing Robinson to the Dodgers, though he’s also clear that it’s a good long-term business decision. Loved the line at the beginning: “Robinson’s a Methodist! I’m a Methodist! God’s a Methodist!”
During their first meeting, Rickey talks to Robinson about how he is to respond to the racist vitriol that will come—he cannot fight back, even if provoked, because he will inevitably be deemed the instigator by a wary and suspicious public. His job is to play ball and to do it well. (Which he does… and there are clear elements of the trickster in the way Robinson toys with the pitchers when stealing bases.)
Jackie Robinson: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?
Branch Rickey: No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.
This idea is connected explicitly to Jesus’ teachings later on during a conversation between the two characters.
Given the Christian images that wove throughout the movie, I longed for just one scene of Jackie Robinson in church. It’s not that I need that validation as a Christian or anything. But there is no real sense of the community Jackie grows out of. Whenever we see him in the movie, he’s either on the field, with Rickey, or with his wife.
We see him inspiring countless African-Americans at the time (and it was cool to read that one of the most “Hollywood” moments of the story, involving a young boy at a train station as Robinson and the team pull away, was based in reality). But who inspired and sustained Jackie Robinson? Who did he look to for support? During the torrent of abuse, the pitches thrown at him, the petitions circulating behind his back, was there a community that he leaned on?
Even trailblazers need a community.
As I wrote last week, John Lewis talked recently about the training the civil rights activists received around non-violent resistance to racist attitudes and barriers. That kind of training didn’t spring fully formed in the 1950s, post-Robinson; it rises from a long history and a deep grounding in the stories of liberation in the Bible. I understand that in a movie you have to be economical with the story, but it felt a bit strained for Rickey, an old white guy, to be Robinson’s sole mentor helping him along the way. (Though I loved the character.)
Maybe a Jackie Robinson fan will come along and shed some light—and for all I know the film may be accurate that he was kind of a loner. But there’s a bigger point. I’m always a bit bothered by this kind of portrayal of our heroes. It strikes me as a very American way to tell the story—it’s the bootstrap myth on steroids—but it’s ultimately inadequate. What’s powerful about real-life hero stories is that they tell about real flesh-and-blood people who rise out of a community in a specific time and place. They may see themselves as nothing special, but their gifts and circumstance conspire to thrust them into greatness. Even so, they cannot do it alone.
Not everyone is called to be Jackie Robinson. Heck, not everyone can be Jackie Robinson. But our world needs people to aspire to great things. If the cultural story we tell is of the lone hero, I suspect that most people will choose to sit out because they think they don’t have what it takes. But if we get to stand on the shoulders of others who’ve gone before, I suspect that more people will get to climbing.
Mihee is a fellow pastor and Chalice Press author. She was with the board of the Young Clergy Women last week and talked about how it was a Sabbath experience, even though she was working:
…a mixed-up experience of Sabbath from daily living, i.e. from the babies. It was a Sabbath-work. It was space to breathe, without being stifled and smothered by my extremely loving babies. It was a space to be, and be not only a mom but a pastor, a sister, a leader, a thinker, a writer. It was a space to receive, and give in a different way.
A space she found restful and Sabbath-y.
I love this. One of the things I do in the book is explore different ways of thinking about Sabbath other than simply “not working.” For example, one section talks about Sabbath as a time to cultivate novelty. By moving into a different creative space, we are able to find rest and renewal.
She’s also got a great link to a TED talk called “The Art of Possibility.” How can you not lean in to that?
And he would know, eh? The reasoning behind his choices is enjoyable to read, as is everything Ebert writes:
The two [new] candidates, for me, are Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) and Terrene Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011). Like the Herzog, the Kubrick and the Coppola, they are films of almost foolhardy ambition. Like many of the films on my list, they were directed by the artist who wrote them. Like several of them, it attempts no less than to tell the story of an entire life.
In “Synecdoche,” Kaufman does this with one of the most audacious sets ever constructed: An ever-expanding series of boxes or compartments within which the protagonist attempts to deal with the categories of his life. The film has the insight that we all deal with life in separate segments, defined by choice or compulsion, desire or fear, past or present. It is no less than a film about life.
In “The Tree of Life,” Malick boldly begins with the Big Bang and ends in an unspecified state of attenuated consciousness after death. The central section is the story of birth and raising a family.
I could choose either film. I will choose “The Tree of Life” because it is more affirmative and hopeful. I realize that isn’t a defensible reasons for choosing one film over the other, but it is my reason, and making this list is essentially impossible, anyway.
Have you seen Tree of Life? We’ve had it sitting on our coffee table from Netflix for oh, two months or so. I will watch it!
Creativity requires an element of novelty, but novelty provokes uncertainty:
We now know that regardless of how open-minded people are, or claim to be, they experience a subtle bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertain situations. This isn’t merely a preference for the familiar or a desire to maintain the status quo. Most of us sincerely claim that we want the positive changes creativity provides. What the bias affects is our ability to recognize the creative ideas that we claim we desire. Thus, when you’re pitching your creative idea, it may not be the idea itself that is being rejected. The more likely culprit could be the uncertainty your audience is feeling, which in turn is overriding their ability to recognize the idea as truly novel and useful.
If the implicit bias against creativity is triggered by uncertainty, then crafting your pitch to maximize certainty should improve the odds of the idea being accepted. You can do this in a variety of ways…
Members of the NEXT Church and other change agents: be advised.