Archive for December, 2009

Book Review: Show Them No Mercy – 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide

December 30, 2009

You’re talking with a new acquaintance and it comes up that you’re a Christian.  They respond with “I think Jesus was probably an OK guy.  But I could never believe in a God who demanded the deaths of civilians – women, children, the aged and infirm.  The Old Testament reads like a police report – and God is the criminal!  How can you believe in a God like that?”

Kind of a conversation stopper.  You manage to change the subject with a promise to look further into it and get back to them.  Sure enough, as you’re perusing the Old Testament, there in gory glory are the commands to destroy all the inhabitants of certain cities and people groups as the Israelites take possession of the Promised land.  Women, children – everyone.  God is demanding genocide there in black and white.  How do you make sense of that?  How do you answer your new acquaintance?  How do you come to a peace with your faith in a God who can demand such terrible things?

Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide is an important book for Christians to read.  Four theologians from various strains of Protestant Christianity attempt to make sense of God-ordained genocide in the Old Testament.  Three of the four are somewhat similar to each other, while the first author is in a completely different arena in terms of explanations.

C.S. Cowles is the first responder, and the most challenging – arguing for radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.  He affirms the terrible nature of what is recorded in the Old Testament, and concludes that God could have had no part in this.  Cowles is professor of Bible and theology at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA.  His arguments come close to writing off the Old Testament as completely irrelevant and riddled with flaws.  Those of you who have done your church history homework may find his arguments dangerously close to those of Marcion, the early Church theologian who argued that the Old Testament should not be considered as canonical.  While Cowles doesn’t go that far, he does assert that God did order genocide, and that where it is ascribed to Him, it is an error in understanding or transcription on the part of the writer.  For Cowles, the idea that God could order the destruction of human civilians of all ages is completely untenable with the revelation of God’s love made most clear in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.  Cowles’ argument essentially ignores textual evidence of God being not only a God of love, but also a warrior God.  While the other three authors attempt to deal with the text as legitimate, Cowles dismisses the text out of hand, focusing only on those texts (primarily Gospel-based) that describe the peaceful and loving nature of Jesus.  For Cowles, it is inconceivable that if God truly is the love incarnate in Jesus Christ, that He could also be a God of anger and judgment.  The effects of sin take care of themselves according to Cowles, and do not require any personal involvement on God’s part.

The other three authors fall more or less together in that they uphold the text as both reliable and God-inspired, and therefore assume that if the text says that God ordered genocide, then this has to be accepted as truth and dealt with.  Eugene H. merrill is a professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, who makes an argument for moderate discontinuity between the Old and New Testament revelations of God.  His argument is basically a dispensational one – God acted in one way at one time, and now acts a different way with His Church.

Daniel L. Gard is an exegetical professor at Concordia Theological Seminary (Ft. Wayne), who argues for an eschataological continuity between the Old and New Testament.  Essentially, the Old Testament passages of God’s judgment are foreshadowing the final, ultimate judgment that God will bring on creation with the return of Jesus Christ in glory.  He also argues that we are mistaken in holding God to human standards of justice, as it is impossible for a flawed creation to ever fully apprehend or understand the workings of a perfect creator. 

Tremper Longman III is a professor of Old Testament at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, and he makes the argument for spiritual continuity between the Old and New Testaments.  What was lived out in flesh and blood death in the Old Testament is transitioned onto a spiritual plane for the New Testament and today.  While Israel had God fight for or beside her against human enemies, today the Holy Spirit wages war against spiritual enemies.  This warfare will be dramatically concluded with the return of Jesus Christ and the final revelation of the victory that was won at Calvary and in the open tomb.

All of the contributors dismiss the idea that any nation or any church can claim today the right to wage holy war against another nation or people.  However they reach this conclusion through slightly different routes – Cowles be delegitimizing the Old Testament account or negating God’s role in it, and the others by affirming God’s righteous judgment as recorded in the Old Testament, but agreeing that this no longer has a place in our world today.

At the end of each essay, there are brief responses from the other three authors. 

The reader comes away with some very important things from this book.  Firstly, the reader gains the insights of four respected theologians, and can see how each of them attempts to deal with the idea of Biblical genocide.  Secondly, the reader comes away with a much more detailed understanding of holy war as described in the Old Testament.  What were the signifiers of holy war?  How consistently were they mentioned?  What were the repercussions when Israel sought to usurp the power of God for holy war without God’s actual approval?  How prevalent was the practice of completely destroying all of the people and animals of a given city or area, as per God’s command? 

I felt that the book dealt more with academic details than with dealing with the core question – how do we make sense of a God who could command this sort of behavior, when it is so universally understand as wrong today?  Cowles seems to deal most directly with this question, though his method and answer are severely flawed.  The other authors seem to think that by defining holy war in a certain way, they can make sense of the awfulness of what God asked for.  While the studies are interesting, at times they are somewhat repetitive.

I think a much shorter book of essays would have avoided these detailed studies of the elements of holy war, and dealt with the issue on the more simplistic level that Cowles does.  Cowles argues that we don’t make sense of it, because it either didn’t really happen or God wasn’t really in favor of it.  The others mentioned more orthodox and historical answers to this question, but they get swallowed up by the larger emphasis on defining holy war.  If we assume that the Old Testament is correct in attributing the command for genocide to God, how do we make sense of it?

Like Job, we don’t.  What is God’s response in the final chapters of Job?  Who are you to call me to account?  Who are you to hold me accountable to your understandings of things?  This is a difficult answer!  It’s not the one we’d prefer.  But it’s the one we’re given.  We’re reminded that we are merely creatures, and when we assume that as creatures we are capable or entitled to demand that God give an account of Himself, we are dangerously mistaken.  Our role is obedience.  If we are worried about whether we can obey a God capable of such terrible demands, look
to the cross, and see exactly what terrible lengths God is willing to go to on our behalf.  For our benefit.  To protect and rescue us. 

Tremper Longman raises the very good and appropriate response to the issue of God-commanded genocide.  All of humanity is in sinful rebellion against God.  God is righteous and well within His rights even in our understanding of justice to demand immediate and terrible punishment on all of creation for it’s rebellion.  Yet he limits that temporal punishment to an exceptionally small number of people at a particular point in time and space.  The question ought rightly to be asked, not why did God punish some so terribly, but rather, why does God show mercy and forbearance to so many so graciously?  Why them and not us? 

Christians are frequently criticized as being unwilling or ill-equipped to deal with some of the hard theological questions that are raised by a reading of the Bible – particularly the Old Testament.  Perhaps none is more pressing or important during this time in history than the question of how to reconcile a God of love with a God of war and judgment.  Particularly in light of  9/11 and Islamic jihad efforts – which we soundly condemn – how can we still uphold God’s actions in the Old Testament as not only righteous and just, but also, ultimately, loving? 

Read this book with a study group, and talk about your responses to the various answers these scholars provide.  And then go back to your new acquaintance, and sit and talk with them. 

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Movie Review: Time Bandits

December 27, 2009

We watched this with our kids last night.  While I remember when it came out, I never actually saw it.  It happened to have been our latest Netflix delivery, so we decided a quiet Christmas evening was a good viewing opportunity. 

Time Bandits is nearly 30 years old, and unfortunately, looks it. I can say that, since I’m older than 30. The editing in this film is atrocious, for starters. Scenes jump and flit with little transition or explanation. The storyline is equally haphazard. A young boy is whisked from mundanity and into excitement by time and location traveling dwarfs on the run from the Supreme Being, who wants the map of the creation that they stole from him to become master thieves. The various locales are all believable enough, but the poor editing does them a great disservice.

The overall storyline is rather stretched. The Supreme Being (a thin disguise for God) wants his map back. The Evil Genius (a thin disguise for Satan) seeks to be free of his imprisonment, courtesy of acquiring the map from the hapless dwarfs. A young boy (a thin disguise for humanity) is caught up in all of this rather unawares, and while seeking to sort through it all, is inevitably the wisest of his tiny companions. The dwarfs and boy travel through portals – holes in the fabric of the universe that allow someone to move from one place and time to another place and time. If you have the map, you can somewhat dictate where and when you’re traveling to. If you don’t, it’s rather a free-for all.

The movie muddles along rather pointlessly as a child’s fantasy movie until the final scene, which involves the Supreme Being and an extremely awkward and unsatisfying discourse on the purpose of evil. This movie is frequently billed as a children’s movie, and that seems fair. Whether visually or theologically/philosophically, it might amuse a child (it amused *my* children) but adults will find the willy-nilliness of it all to be rather trying. What is the line between the natural and supernatural world?
 
The dwarfs end up with somewhat angelic functions, appearing and disappearing and causing all manner of confusion in their coming and going. But their focus is oddly material (personal enrichment), and their methods are anything but successful. The boy seeks to make sense of it all and is left with nothing to hold on to other than the vague assurance that things are all well enough in the hands of the Supreme Being – even the Evil Genius. The boy functions as sort of a representation of the intellectual, a person concerned with the larger questions of life and the overall purpose of our existence. While his parents are mindlessly obsessing over kitchen devices, our protagonist is fascinated by history and the myriad accomplishments of human kind. He gets the chance to experience some of this history, finding it to be not nearly as glamorous as textbooks might lead one to believe. Suffering is endemic. Evil and harm, whether specifically facilitated by the Evil Genius or haphazardly caused by the dwarfs is the general rule.

The Supreme Being gives a rather flippant answer for why this is. It may be the right answer, but it’s not an answer that the movie itself would lead the viewer to be particularly trustful or reassured by. Terry Gilliam serves up another visual tour de force, but constricted by poor editing and an even weaker storyline, this effort does not have the impact of some of his later movies. Outside of implied cartoonish violence, this movie doesn’t have anything very objectionable in it (the word ‘damn’ is the strongest language in the film, and limited to one 10-second scene). Unfortunately, it doesn’t have as much to offer as it might have 30 years ago.

On an unrelated note, my wife and I were talking after the movie, commenting about how it seemed oddly familiar, as though we had seen it before – though neither of us could really remember seeing it.  It was then that she remembered that we were apparently watching this movie – or part of it at least – the night she went into labor with our oldest son.  Talk about surreal!  Fortunately, now that he’s seven and a half, he seemed to enjoy the movie quite a bit more than he did when he was in utero.  I’m glad one of us did.

Woebegone Christmas

December 24, 2009

I’m still chewing this one over, but I find it has raised some good thoughts from others.  Garrison Keillor of famed A Prairie Home Companion fame is raising a few hackles with a somewhat unexpected Christmas lashing out.  Read his full essay here.

He comes out swinging against those who seek to tweak and adjust Christmas to suit their secular or non-Christian preferences of the season, whether that be rewriting Silent Night to be less theistic, or writing annoying holiday tunes that have nothing to do with the actual heart of Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ.  I have to admit that I tend to agree with him.  Christmas increasingly has less to do with the reason why we’re celebrating in the first place (or the reason we began celebrating in the first place, to be more precise), and more to do with the celebration itself.  Rather than sing about why we have Christmas trees, we sing about who we saw kissing whom beneath them.  It’s the Starbucks drivel about wishing and how the season is all about wishing.  Except it’s not.  The season is all about the fact that God kept His promise to His people, and so maybe we should expect that He’s going to keep on keeping His promises.

I found Keillor’s article through this blog, Cranach: The Blog of Veith.  He finds Keillor to be a bit too cranky for his tastes.  Certainly Keillor is voicing things rather harshly.  But is it any harsher than if a bunch of unaffiliated folks began tweaking the meaning of Ramadan, for instance?  Can you imagine the outcry if people were encouraged not to focus on the purpose of Ramadan, but to focus, say, only on the joy of breaking the fast each day after sundown?  Who would die because of such crassness?  Keillor is right that familiarity breeds contempt, and it has become rather vogue to find Christians and their holidays contemptible.  I disagree completely with Veith that the secular celebration of Christmas is in some respects an unknowing tribute to the Christ child.  The people focused on holiday parties and presents, who have no idea why they ought to step foot into a church, and who blithely denounce God as dead are certainly not bowing their knees or confessing with their tongues just because they run up their credit cards and purchase peppermint scented deodorant.

Another good commentary on Keillor’s rant can be found here.  He rightly points out that Keillor’s liberal ideas of what Christmas should be about – a very private and non-public affair – are problematic.  However, I don’t think that this comment negates some of the value of what Keillor says.  Keillor isn’t directly arguing that Christian Christmas shouldn’t be part of the public cultural landscape, but rather that if it *is* going to be part of the landscape, it should remain Christian in nature.   Because that’s what Christmas is – Christian.  The Christ Mass.  For whatever other reasons people choose to celebrate this time of year, the only reason they’re doing so is because Christmas has been a fundamental part of Western culture for hundreds and hundreds of years. 

Frankly I don’t find Keillor’s essay to be particularly cohesive.  But in his overall warnings against the danger of intellectualism or elitism, he strikes a few chords that – at least for now – I find make beautiful music together. 



Who Do You Gift?

December 23, 2009

About a month or so again, I was amused to dump the newspaper out of it’s plastic sleeve and notice a printed note on holiday paper.  Had I been more with it, I would have saved it to scan it in.  But I was not with it, so you’ll have to deal with an approximation of what it said –

“Dear Valued Newspaper Client –

My name is so-and-so, and I’ve been your newspaper delivery person since late October.  I wish you the happiest of holidays, and a wonderful New Year.  My address is blankety-blank-blank-blank.

Sincerely,

so-and-so”

For a moment I was kinda shocked to remember that in our age of automation, newspapers are still delivered by hand.  I can only remember one newspaper boy – a kid named Gary (I think) who was our newspaper boy when I was in junior high.  I knew him because in those ancient days, in addition to actually reading the scroll with the king’s notice to every household, the newspaper boy was responsible for collecting payments, trying to upsell subscriptions, and the like.  I never saw him deliver the paper, but I knew him from these other contacts.

I guess I assumed that newspapers were now airdropped, but I was mistaken.  Human hands still had to lovingly toss them about 5 feet from the street to the very very edge of my driveway every morning.  So-and-so had only been handling this job for about a month at the time they thoughtfully included their little note. 

The insinuation was clearly that this is the time of year to give little gifts to those people in your life that provide you with niceties like delivering newspapers or mail or what-have-you.  However, I missed the class on which folks you’re supposed to gift.  In fact, I’ve never gifted any of the people who cut my hair or hook up my wireless Internet or do any of those other essential niceties that I already pay them to do.

I’m sure this tradition of gifting people hearkens back to days of smaller communities, when you actually knew the person who delivered your paper (as well as the person who printed it), or your mail, and other such essential tasks.  You probably went to church with them or saw them in the market.  I live in a relatively small town of 63,000 people.  But I have never met nor heard of my newspaper delivery person.  Or for that matter, my mail carrier. 

My question is, who do you gift this time of year?  How do you gift them?  Am I the only Grinch out there?  What are the current guidelines on these practices?

Loose Lips and Big Pockets

December 23, 2009

Just in case you thought there hadn’t been adequate controversial press coverage of a Christian church or individual lately, I offer this up for your consideration.

A Church of England priest is advocating – as a last ditch option – shoplifting as a way to survive these tough economic times.

Tim Jones, in a recent sermon, indicated that he thought it was acceptable for those who are at the end of their economic rope, and who have exhausted all legitimate forms of charity or employment, to shoplift from large shopping chains.  Such losses are ultimately compensated for with higher prices to other consumers, a trade-off Jones seems to find acceptable.

His higher-ups disagree with his statement, although he’s sticking with his guns.  Come to think of it, if shoplifting were no longer an option, I wonder if armed robbery would become the next best solution in Jones’ book?

As the politician in the associated video points out, theft is against the Ten Commandments.  Then again, by some interpretations of those same Commandments, so is allowing your neighbor to go hungry.  But does one wrong counter-act another wrong?  Not likely.  It’s rather disheartening that the article concludes with Jones’ higher-up saying adamantly that theft is not an adequate solution, and then referring people to a public charity organization, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.  Unfortunate that there isn’t any indication in this article that the Church ought to consider the Biblical injunction to care for the marginalized more seriously than simply shaking fingers at parishioners who spend plenty on themselves but give nothing to the less fortunate. 

Till Death Do Us Part – Seriously

December 22, 2009

I would vote for this (if properly worded).  Would you?

I first heard about this from a friend of mine who is irritated that California’s Proposition 8 passed, limiting marriage in the state of California to one man and one woman.  For a variety of reasons we haven’t fully explored yet, she thinks that any adult ought to be able to marry any other adult, so she was publicizing this initiative.

The funny thing is, I probably would be more supportive of it than she is, in actuality. 

While the guy is doing this mostly for laughs and as a form of protest against Proposition 8, it makes a variety of interesting statements.

First off, it points out just how disposable marriage is in the eyes of many people, when the idea of cementing it’s permanency is considered outlandish or laughable.

Secondly, it points out the hypocrisy of a culture that wants to argue for the sanctity of marriage against one form of threat (broadening the legal definition of marriage to include homosexual relationships) against the institution, but not against another (the ease and frequency of divorce).  Christians are often found to be loudly defending the ramparts against the first threat, while quietly leaving the drawbridge down and undefended on the second front. 

I think it would do marriage a great deal of good if people realized that they were going to be committed to it for life – without recourse (I would argue that the Biblical grounds of abandonment or adultery should continue to be legitimate grounds for divorce).  Maybe people would take it a tad more seriously.  Maybe people would be more inclined to make sure they were getting lots of good input from friends and family, rather than seeing it as largely a personal decision.  Maybe marriage would take on greater significance than simply an emotional reaction or impulse. 

Most likely, we’d simply see marriage rates plummet as more people decided to just live together rather than take a chance having to actually live out their vows with someone.

Book Review: unChristian

December 19, 2009

unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why it Matters


by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons


If you’re a Christian under 40, you are probably aware of most of the things this book deals with.  In fact, you’re likely to share many of the views expressed in this book.  If you’re over 40, or haven’t given much thought to how Christians and their churches are viewed by younger non-Christians, this book could be a valuable eye-opener to you. 

Christians are not viewed particularly positively these days in our culture.  There are many reasons for this.  Philosophically we’ve moved into (or through) a period where Truth is demanded to be a personal, relativized thing.  What’s true for me doesn’t need to be true for you.  Media often portrays Christians in a negative light, focusing on the isolated acts of extremists rather than on more positive things that Christians are doing.  Music, movies, television – all of these things tend to question and attack Christians and the faith more than defend.  And last but not least, educationally the drive to separate Church and state often results in the conveyance of negative views about the Church.  It is less separation than denigration.  In the constant effort to not offend, the one group that seems to be offendable with impunity is Christians.

Many of the issues this book raises are valid.  As flawed, sinful human beings, Christians often act in ways that are contradictory with our professed beliefs, validating charges of hypocrisy.  We are often judgmental and unloving – both to non-Christians as well as our fellow-believers.  Biblical Christians are usually anti-homosexuality – which is being turned by the media and homosexuality advocates into an equivocal stance with being against homosexuals as people.  Many Christians are concerned about the spiritual and eternal welfare of those around them, resulting in a preachiness or perceived inauthenticity. 

The book is good for pointing out these perceptions by under-40 non-Christians.  Relevant statistical data is displayed throughout in tidy black, white, and grey bar charts.  The conclusions are inescapable and undeniable – for much of our up and coming population, the Church is already irrelevant because they perceive it as failing to live up to the standards it demands the rest of the world to follow.

The book offers an inadequate solution:  try harder.  Be less judgmental.  Be more loving.  Be less strident in focusing on social agendas and issues that you disagree with.  Relate to people honestly rather than masking hidden agendas.  These are all good things to be pointed towards, but they’re ultimately inadequate.  The solution to my sinfulness is not within myself.  That’s why Jesus came to live and die and rise again for me.  I am not capable of meeting the high demands my faith espouses.  Not that I shouldn’t try, and shouldn’t try much, much harder.  But ultimately, it will be inadequate.  Always.

The problems which Kinnaman identifies are ultimately not problems with Christians – they are problems with everyone.  We are all not loving enough.  We are all judgmental.  We are all hypocritical.  We all have people or positions that we are not tolerant of or every hostile to.  These are some of the many results of sin.  Yes, these are found in churches, because they are found everywhere that people are.  The Church simply has the inside track on why and how this is.  As such, Christians ought to be more diligent about guarding their mouths and actions soas not to give a false impression of their faith.  But it doesn’t always happen.

There are ways that churches and Christians could address some of these issues.  But there is a lot of cultural baggage (church culture) that is going to need to be jettisoned.  Our preoccupation with ourselves and our own worship environments and preferences and programs.  Our over-sensitivity to people who are different from us, or who may exhibit visible signs of sinful  living.  Our insistence that people conform to our beliefs and behaviors as a condition for joining our worship and community, rather than as a byproduct of joining.  Such changes are going to take a lot of time, and will only come by the power of the Holy Spirit.

For Christians who are under 40, the challenge becomes dealing with the tension of being an ‘insider’ to the Church, while yet retaining many of the cultural attitudes, assumptions, philosophies, and ways of thinking.  How do you resolve the fact that you probably agree with most of the critiques this book is going to address?  How do you respond when people begin to go off on these issues?  How do you make them more relevant and pressing to your church family, while not completely agreeing with every assertion of those outside the church?  How do you live in tension as an imperfect person part of an imperfect church while being called to emulate Christ in anticipation of the perfection you will one day inherit by the Grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ?   

When dealing with those outside of the faith, we need to take very seriously Paul’s admonitions that we not judge them by the standards we judge one another.  This becomes complicated within the political realm, which has led many outside the faith to fear or distrust the Christian political agenda.  When we demand that others play by our rules legally, when we are unwilling to engage with people personally to share the Gospel in a meaningful way, such distrust is not unwarranted.  Does this invalidate Christians being involved in politics?  No – but legislation is simply that.  It’s law.  Laws can change.  The Gospel is the Word of God, and it doesn’t change, and the impact that the Gospel can have on a person’s life can in many ways make civil laws rather pointless.  If we were better at sharing the Gospel, we wouldn’t need to legislate and lobby quite so vociferously.

No congregation is immune to the accusations that are often rallied against Christians in general.  We will find our share of hypocrisy, stubbornness, cruelty, gossip, slander, and all manner of other failings.  The fact that these things exist is not a reason to write off the congregation – unless they are being facilitated or condoned.  These things should draw us constantly back to our own need for forgiveness, the necessity of our own dying to self.  There is a time and a place for congregational life to deal with persistent sin in its midst, and this time and place may not be of our own design or choosing.  We have to be careful not to fall into sinful behavior or thoughts or attitudes in reaction to the sinfulness of others.  

 







 

Movie Review: Away We Go

December 18, 2009

When I first saw the trailers for this film, I had great hopes. I was familiar with Maya Rudolph from Saturday Night Live. Frankly, at first I thought the lead male was Ashton Kutcher, and John Krasinski seems to be channeling aspects of Kutcher throughout. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t succeed much as a romantic comedy, nor is it thorough enough to be considered an intellectual probing of the nature of family or relationships. In the end, it comes off more as a string of curious encounters, punctuated with moments that are meant to be poignant, but without a greater overarching theme, end up more pointless than poignant.

Verona (Rudolph) and Burt (Krasinski) embark on a multi-city tour ostensibly to determine where they are going to live, since they have no reason to stay where they are. They are unmarried because Verona sees no point in the institution, and they are unexpectedly pregnant. The key setup for the movie is in a brief discussion they have near the beginning of the film, as they huddle in their trailer with no power and a “cardboard window”. Verona voices the fear that perhaps they are “f— ups”. Burt denies that they are, but the fear hangs heavy over both of them. By worldly standards, they do appear to be rather messed up. In their early 30’s, unmarried, pregnant, living in a trailer, driving an old car, without friends or close family, they appear to have somehow missed the boat compared with friends and family elsewhere. Their road trip is perhaps less focused on where they want to live, as who they want to be as a family.  They assume they have a lot to learn from others who have been doing this longer.

They visit an old co-worker of Verona’s in Phoenix, Verona’s younger sister in Tucson, a cousin of Burt’s in Madison, old college buddies of Burt’s in Montreal, and Burt’s brother in Miami. While each appears to be comparatively successful in material terms, all of them demonstrate profound dysfunctionalities that surprise, disgust, or trouble Verona & Burt. Typical of our post-modern, nothing matters but us sort of mentality, Verona refuses to marry. Ostensibly this is because her parents both died when she was in college, and she doesn’t want to get married if they can’t be present. But more accurate is her insistence that she doesn’t see the point, despite John’s obvious desire for them to be married. Verona is also depicted (again, somewhat typically these days) as the stronger, more intelligent of the two. The sorrow of her parent’s death seems to be intended to lend her a maturity and self-awareness that, while not complete, is farther along than the idiosyncratic Burt.

I find one comment and one scene in the movie to summarize best the film’s overall approach to family and relationship. When visiting friends in Montreal, these friends, who appear to be the perfect married couple and parents, confide honestly about how difficult it is to be a family. They live with a deep and abiding sorrow that overshadows their relationship (at least as depicted in the movie). “You have to be so much better than you ever thought you could be”, states the wife, Munch (Melanie Lynskey). The sense of the weight of parenthood is palpable. The best solution that Tom and Munch can offer? Lots and lots of love. You have to literally pour yourself completely into the relationship and into the family.

But the final visit, to Miami, demonstrates that this clearly isn’t the answer, either. Burt’s brother calls him to say that his wife has left him. He has no idea where she has gone, and he’s facing the reality of having to raise their 8-year old daughter alone. He’s clearly blown away by this, there was nothing that would indicate that his wife had been unhappy or that she had a proclivity for abandoning her family. But that’s the reality. No amount of love-pouring into the relationship prevented his wife from simply disappearing.  Our own efforts can never be enough.

The most meaningful final scene in the movie occurs as Verona and Burt are lying on a trampoline. A quiet moment amidst the ups and downs (figuratively and literally) of their lives and the lives around them. At issue is the stability of their relationship, and the unknowableness of the future. Verona may refuse to marry Burt in the traditional sense, but the two of them create their own marriage as they exchange a series of vows on that trampoline, ranging from the silly to the profound. They seek some sort of assurance from one another that they aren’t going to end up like the other people they’ve visited. That they are somehow different. There is the implication throughout the film that they *are* different, if only in that they can recognize how messed up everyone else is. They sought to learn from others how best to establish their home and family life, but come away with the realization that what they’ve learned is how *not* to be, and that they’re already much better equipped for life together and as a family than the rest of their family and friends.

It’s a bold assertion. There are no objective assurances in the film that they *are* better, other than their reactions and rejections of most of the other examples of love and family they see. Their choice of where to settle at the end of the film is a convoluted mixing of this bold independence, with the bittersweet understanding that there isn’t anything new under the sun, and sometimes the best way to be yourselves is to revisit and embrace your past. Philosophically (and theologically), the film is utterly depressing and void. No hope. No promise. The vows they exchange on the trampoline are meaningless, since they are essentially no different than the vows their friends and relatives have taken. If the implication is that some people really *mean* their vows, even though they aren’t traditional, formalized marriage vows, and everybody else doesn’t mean them, this is a pretty arrogant and baseless assertion.

Critics of the movie have panned it in part on this arrogance, this assumption that we have it right and everybody else is messed up. Yet at a certain level, I think the film is merely making a larger issue out of what many of us believe deep down. We *are* different. We *are* special. We *are* going to make it. At the same time, the film faces head on those fears that many of us entertain as well – the fear that we’re wrong, and that we’re not going to make it.

The film represents the continued struggle of people (and a culture) that have no source of meaning or hope or permanence beyond their own abilities, even though those abilities are clearly inadequate given the magnitude of the task of being married (officially or otherwise) and raising a family. As much as we like the idea of thinking about Burt and Verona making it in the long run, the film offers little assurance or hope that this will be the case. Burt and Verona have a long row to hoe together, but if all we ultimately have to rely on is ourselves, the rest of us aren’t in any better shape.

Ashes to…What?

December 11, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve written about options after death.  But that hardly means the industry has been standing still, twiddling it’s figurative thumbs waiting for me to pipe up. 

In the battle for environmentally friendly options for the dearly departed, another option has entered the fray.  A Scottish firm has created a process that essentially speeds up the natural decomposition process that a body goes through after burial.  The search for a clever, inspiring name has led this firm to the term resomation.  If you weren’t clear about the eco-friendly aspect of this form of burial, the name should give you a nudge.  It borrows from the Greek word for the body or birth, soma.  Articles on this can be found here and here

Essentially, the body is boiled in a mixture of lye and water.  What is left are some bone shards and 200 gallons of environmentally-friendly fluid.  Said fluid is suitable for disposal down any drain, into the public sewer system.  It would also be usable for lawns or garden watering.  I would think it rather strange to use it to fill a water bed, but, to each their own, I’m sure.

Promoters claim it’s more economically friendly and efficient than either traditional burial or cremation.  And while this is true, it appears equally true that there are other even *more* eco-friendly options than this one. 

I find it interesting that they quote Catholic ethicist Sr. Renee Mirkes as saying the Catholic Church is fine with this option.  “The way we dispose of a human corpse takes its essential moral character from the motive or intention for which the particular dispositional method is chosen“.  I tend to agree, which is why I would consider this to be on shaky ground, morally.  It would seem that once again the emphasis is more on protecting the environment than honoring the dead.  And I’ll say it again for those who have missed it in the past – I’m all for protecting the environment.  Whether it’s leaching formaldehyde into the ground in traditional burial or using massive amounts of gas or other fuel to cremate a body, there are problems in our burial techniques which ought to be addressed.  And yes, resomation is similar to what happens eventually to a body.  But what is the ultimate intent here?

It seems to me that the ultimate intent and focus is the environmental factor, not the honoring of a human being.  What are people going to do with 200 gallons of fluid?  I’m sure the bone fragments will be suitable for placing in an urn on a mantle, but what about the liquid?  Are they just going to have that disposed of into the sewer?  Will resomation facilities have tanks for the fluid which are dedicated to watering the lawns and plants and other vegetation on the property?  I can’t imagine that someone is going to take several 55-gallon drums home with them for personal disposal.  It seems far more likely that the fluid will simply be flushed away, and that hardly seems like an honoring thing. 

Movie Review: Catch Me if You Can

December 8, 2009

This was a surprisingly delightful little movie. Not deeply thought provoking, not requiring a lot of thought or analysis. Character development was rather spotty. Plot development was rather haphazard. But I enjoyed watching the movie all the same.

The characters were eye-catching, if two-dimensional. The intrigue of wondering what Frank (DiCaprio) would attempt to pull off next, and the fun of watching him succeed was adequate to keep me interested enough – despite the length of the film (almost 2.5 hours). It flirts with being a lot of things. A love story. A father-son story. A family story. It brushes up against deep themes that captivate people – without ever getting bogged down in the tediousness of actually working with the themes. In this case, a wise move. The movie maintains a light touch throughout, which does render some of the closing scenes somewhat perplexing, but not disturbing.

Frank runs away from home as his parents are divorcing, creating new identities and vocations in a consuming quest to find the success, the respect, and ultimately the love that eluded his parents. Carl (Hanks) is the FBI agent in the fledgling bank fraud division who is attempting to first identify, then apprehend Frank. Maybe it was just me, but Hanks’ portrayal of Carl was an eerie sort of foreshadowing of the character Know-It-All from Hanks’ later effort, The Polar Express.

As the cat and mouse game ensues, Frank half-taunts, half-reaches out to Carl as a replacement father figure. Carl demands of Frank the one thing that Frank needs his own father (played by Christopher Walken) is unable to demand, and the one thing that Frank most wants his father to demand – that he give up his charades. Frank idolizes his father, and wants desperately for his father and mother to reunite, a delusion every bit as fantastical as the ones he pulls over on others.

At it’s deepest, this movie asks questions about the nature of truth. And in a typical post-modern fashion, the answers are that truth is what people make of it. “People only know what you tell them”, Frank tells Carl in one of their showdowns. If you tell people you’re a pilot, who are they to say you aren’t? If you say you’re a doctor, who is anyone to say you aren’t? Unfortunately, behind this breezy post-modern facade is the hard reality that actually, there are plenty of people who expect to know more than what you tell them, or expect that what you tell them should be true. As much as we seek to wish away Truth in a grander sense, it haunts us and reveals our dependency upon it at every turn. Truth is ultimately what Frank wants, despite his proclivity for lying. The hard truth of Carl’s world is ultimately what Frank exchanges his extravagant lies for, despite the goading of his real father constantly asking him “Where are you going tonight, Frank? Somewhere exotic?”

But don’t get me wrong, this movie doesn’t require you to think that much. Enjoy the period decor and costumes and cars. Marvel at Frank’s audacity and charm. But be assured in the end by Carl’s rather dour – but True – assurance to Frank – “The house always wins”. There is a Truth, and not only must it be known, we’ll all be relieved when it is.