Thursday, January 28, 2016

I Didn't Go To Seminary So That I Could...

I drove up to the church, just days after the blizzard, and there they were.

Two stalwart members, digging out the sidewalk, trying to get as much done in the warm of the day before the freeze hit that evening.  I waved, they waved back, and I pulled into the lot.  When I got out of my van and headed for the church, I was carrying a bunch of things with me.

I had a Religious Studies degree from the University of Virginia.  I had a Masters of Divinity from my seminary, Magna Cum Laude, no less.  I had a freshly minted Doctor of Ministry degree in Pastoral Leadership Excellence.

And I had a shovel.

For the next hour and a half, I grunted excellently, hummed pastorally and showed leadership in heaving snow, because that was what needed to be done.  My shoulders and arms and glutes may have been worn from the days before, but they forgot their ache in the rhythm of the digging.

About half an hour in, a woman and her young son arrived with a shovel.  They weren't members, but had a plot in the community garden our congregation hosts on our property.  They joined in, and in the breaks to let my well worn late-forties back recover, I chatted with them about life and the church.

By the time we were done, the facility was entirely accessible, not just for our use, but also for those in the community we welcome in.

Four years of undergraduate education, and what became eleven years of postgraduate education, and I'm shoveling snow.

Which is, having paid attention to my good teachers during that time, exactly what I should have been doing.

It's one of the joys of pastoring small congregations.  Sure, you preach and teach and pray.  But your role is different.  You are not the manager, the one in charge of everything.  You are not the Face-of-the-Brand Chief Executive Christian.  You are not the Visionary Font of All Wisdom.

Oh, sure, you're "casting a vision."  The vision of you, doing what Jesus asked, no matter how much it may leave your ego hungry and your back aching.

You get dirty, and you break a sweat.  You get to use shovels and mops. You give food to the hungry, and you clean up the dishes and scrub the pans afterwards.

It's easy, in the institutional cultures of the Oldline or the corporate culture of AmeriChrist, Inc., to lose sight of that way of being.  You allow yourself to fall into a role, wearing a mask that has more to do with your place in the organizational hierarchy than with your journeying with others who have chosen to walk the Way.

"You didn't go to seminary just so you could [fill in the menial task here,]" an umbrage-filled voice may whisper in your ear.  "How dare they expect you to do that!"

This is probably not Jesus.

Just so's you know.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

More Power than We Need

For my birthday this year, my dear wife gave me a present.

She knows that my Scots Irish blood means I am a creature of peculiar contradictions.  I am, being a Scots Presbyterian, a lover of thrift, frugality, and the practical.  My inner Irishman, however, enjoys a good raging hooley, a bit of the wildness that makes life's story a story worth telling.

I've learned, over time, that it's best to let John Knox make most of the significant purchasing decisions.  And so though an efficient hybrid and a practical used minivan do their stalwart duty in our driveway, my heart longs for more exuberant things.

"Your present: go rent a fun car again," she told me on my birthday.  She's done it before, and it's a favorite gift.

As it so happened, inbound was a great beast of a snowstorm, the forecast "historic," the tolling bell of weather panic ringing from every virtual steeple.  As other Washingtonians scurried about like Tokyo denizens before a giant rubber suited man, I contemplated the optimal possible non-military surplus vehicle for dealing with the snow.

So on the day of the storm's arrival, I pulled into our driveway with a Big Red American Truck.  A Ford F-150 XLT SuperCrew 4X4, to be precise.

That first morning, as the blizzard howled, I cleaned the great red beast off and prepared to test it out on the 18 to 20 inches of unsullied powder that covered our suburban road.  The snow, up to my knee, seemed impossible, impenetrable, so deep it was a challenge to walk.

I've always been a confident snow driver.  Heck, I even enjoy it.

But looking at the depth of Snowzilla's first evening's leavings, I was convinced that I'd made a mistake.  This was a colossal boondoggle.  I'd pull out, and get stuck, and that'd be that.  It would be lovely driveway candy, for as many days as it took them to plow us out.

I was wrong.  In four high, with traction control engaged, and with 1,500 pounds of snow packed down in the bed right over the rear axle, the truck was unstoppable.  The big Ford just...pushed.  And the snow got out of the way.  I made two runs through the neighborhood, carving nice deep walking tracks into the snow, perfect for walking the pup.

As the blizzard roared on, I got out every hour or two, and kept tracks running through the neighborhood.  It was, occasionally, a bit technical.  And more than a little fun.  I got through, pounding through four foot snow berms.  The truck and I could not be stopped.  Six thousand five hundred pounds of 4X4 with 420 foot-pounds of torque just gets where it needs to get.

So I ran errands, checked in on my parents and my in-laws as the storm roared, shuttled my teens to help with shoveling afterwards, and surveyed the scope of Snowzilla's impact.

A day passed.  Then another.  The roads got plowed.  Not all of them, but most.  I ran errands.  We visited my parents, and my in-laws.  I stopped to help the stranded, including a plow that got stuck on a hill I'd traversed just three minutes before.

It was utterly enjoyable.

But on the last day I'd rented it, as streets reached the point where I could easily traverse them with one of our more frugal vehicles, I began feeling, well, odd.

Here I was, in a glorious beast of a truck, and...I didn't need to be.  I'm not a farmer or a contractor.  I don't live in the Upper Peninsula or Fargo.  It felt like excess capacity, like the kind of meal that sets well after a day of hard labor, but that just leaves you feeling off if you've been sitting around all day.

And as fun as it had been, I found myself eager to be out of it, and back into something that more reflected my actual needs.

Power, after all, can be a dangerous thing if we become too used to it.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Morning Duties

My dog is very confused.

She knows, precisely, her responsibilities, and she's really very diligent about them.  If other humans walk by on the sidewalk, she is to bark fiercely to let them know that she can bark fiercely.  If a squirrel or bunny slinks into our yard, she is to bark even more fiercely for as long as possible, because squirrels and bunnies are clearly a menace to her humans.  Particularly if it's early morning.

Should a strange human come to the door, she is to snuffle and wag with evident glee, because obviously they're supposed to be there, or they would not be there.

The rest of the day she naps and conserves her energy, because one never knows when there might be a fox,  or perhaps even a deer, and that requires you to be at your best.

And then there are her Morning Duties.

The hairier human wakes, stumbles about making some peculiar smelling hot black fluid, and then attaches the apparatus she uses to lead him through the neighborhood so that the call of nature can be attended to.  It is known, with all the certainty of her knowing, that said call must always be heeded in specific predetermined locations.

Inside the human pack's den?  Never.  On the places where the humans walk?  No.

There is that grassy spot at the top of the hill, and that other one around the bend at the bottom of the street, where the feng shui is just so.  Those are the places, and that is where the thing that must be done may be performed.  This pattern is as reliable as the rising sun, her responsibilities clear.

Only suddenly, the whole world has just disappeared.  The wind howled, and the humans hunkered, and when it was done, everything was different.

All of the familiar smells and sights, all of the grass and the walking places, obliterated.  In their place, white stuff, deep and cold, washing out everything.

It has happened before, though her memory cannot hold it.  And every time it happens, she is lost.  She knows she has to follow the clear rules of the Morning Duties.  But what do those rules mean, in the madness of a totally new world?

She locks up, utterly confused.  She can do nothing, no matter how many times the humans who are her pack walk her, no matter how much they mutter and moan.  In the face of a world made new, she has no idea what she's supposed to be doing, because the old rules have lost all purchase.

It is only because, being a simple animal soul, she doesn't know the purpose of the rules.

We aren't that different, we humans.  We have our patterns, the scent trails and habit places of our lives.  We know our responsibilities and our duties.

But we struggle to grasp the purpose of them, the reason we live and breathe and move through our days.  It's so much easier not to think, to just mindlessly pursue the same pattern over and over.

When we stand in encounter with something that breaks that pattern, with the storms that shake our simple souls, we can fumble around trying to make the old pattern work.  It won't, not in this new place we inhabit.  And so we become lost and confused.

Humans have always done this, clinging to old patterns in the face of the new, unable to shift, unable to find their reason in the face of the changes that are part of our Creator's work.  As a poet-prophet once sang,
See, I am doing a new thing!    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?I am making a way in the wilderness    and streams in the wasteland.
But we don't perceive it, because we want to follow the way just exactly as we always have, and cling to the letter of the law rather than to the One Law from which it springs.  So we stumble about, and whine, and feel lost.  Sometimes, we make messes.

Fortunately, God understands that accidents happen when we're confused.  And God has all the time and patience in the world.

"C'mon, you.  Figure it out."

And eventually, we will.







Thursday, January 21, 2016

God-Fearin' and Cosmic Horror

Over the last year or two, my writing on faith and multiversal cosmologies has splashed out into a couple of short stories, both of which involve evolved artificial intelligences and cosmic horror.

One of those was just published in the webzine-reboot of the classic sci-fi mag OMNI, and it's pretty cool seeing it there.

It takes a lot to scare a spacefaring AI, but I figure the terrifying immensity of the multiverse just might do it.

Cosmic horror, as a genre, was pretty much defined by H.P. Lovecraft, whose feverish, clammy mythopoetics gave narrative form to the human encounter with the reality of the depth of the universe.  He wrote at a time when human beings were realizing that the scope of our history was essentially meaningless.  Our world was not six thousand years old, but billions of years old.  The space we inhabit was not defined by our planet, or our sun, but by a vastness that yawned out into mindbending and inhuman distance.

From this new understanding of existence, the "monsters" of Lovecraft's storytelling were not the demons of human myth, but the alien and ancient things that he imagined existing in a universe that was dizzyingly deeper than human comprehension.

That depth is, I think, one of the reasons that so many "faithful" retreated into fundamentalism rather than allow themselves to stand in honest encounter with the work of the Creator.  The scale of things was just too shattering.

But where traditionalists struggled, science imagined it had caught up during the 20th century.  The boundaries of our inflating bubble of spacetime became more clearly understood.  The Big Bang seemed more and more self-evident, the age and scale of things comprehensible. The dynamics of physics down to the subatomic level slowly came into view.  A grand unified theory of everything seemed within reach.

And then the Creator smirked, and drew back the veil a bit more.

What scientists encounter, as they consider multiversal existence, is a creation so vast that it defies measurement.  It cannot be known.  It is, for lack of a better word, Numinous.  And that's intimidating.

How intimidating?  There's a wonderful, comprehensive recent essay at space.com, written by neurologist and thought leader Robert Lawrence Kuhn, that lays out our best understandings of the dynamics of a multiversal creation.  Kuhn concludes thusly:
"If, from this essay I seem rational, coolheaded and self-assured about multiple universes, then I have been unintentionally deceptive. I am intimidated by the ineffable endlessness of an overarching, overwhelming multiverse. I shrink before the terrifying vision of the 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal: 'The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.'"
He doesn't use Lovecraft's favorite word "eldritch," sure.  But Kuhn's reaction, as a scientist, is the reaction of a Lovecraftian protagonist.  The reasoned, structured, empirical mind reels in the face of a reality that inherently cannot be grasped.

Which is why faith..real faith, not the comfortable delusion of fundamentalism...is so very necessary for our sanity in this wild new cosmos.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How the Big Church Fails America

The problem with America, I think, is that we want to be a big church.

The sprawling Jesus MegaCenters of AmeriChrist, Inc. have come to define community for tens of millions of Americans.  We're still a nation comprised primarily of Christians, and of those, the majority now spend their sacred time in large congregations.  That sets a particular pattern of expectation for how we relate to one another.

Megachurches are, by necessity, corporate in structure and implementation.  They require certain forms of infrastructure if they are to maintain their size.  They have a carefully constructed hierarchy and org chart, with the pastor serving as a face-of-the-brand CEO.  In order to maintain the integrity of the structure and vision, there's a single defining worldview that establishes organizational direction and purpose.   Big churches carefully cultivate "brand identity."  Big churches enforce sameness of perspective, because that's key to maintaining the unitary vision that is central to the growth ethic of a franchise.  Like stopping in at a Subway, you get the same seamlessly choreographed meal every Sunday.

America is not that, not if you really look at us.

We're a sprawling, multifaceted, bubbling mess of a republic, rich with flavor and difference.  If the goal is to create a viable and vibrant sense of belonging, the corporate model of community ain't gonna cut it.  That rigidly managed approach to life together is a Procrustean bed, and no matter how much we stretch and lop at ourselves to fit, we won't.  All we'll do is bleed.

Healthy smaller churches are different.  In a smaller community, you have to get to know people, with all of their mess and all of their difference.  If the community is to maintain integrity, you have to be willing to embrace them, despite their difference.

And you have to trust, because trust is the glue that binds a thriving tribe.

Not the hegemony of structural and institutional authority, not the manipulative selfishness of brand, not the grasping anxiety of consumer culture, but trust that differences matter less than life together.  Trust that we're all in it together, that we've all got the common good at heart, no matter what we're doing.

This can be a hard thing, trust can, particularly in a marketized society, where caveat emptor becomes the rule of our every relationship.  Trust, as the market teaches us, just makes us suckers.

In that context, healthy trusting relationships have to be learned and practiced.  But we don't learn or practice, because most of us don't participate in small things anymore.

Like small businesses, little churches and all other microcommunities have suffered in the Walmart era.  Our encounter with difference is sabotaged by the echo chamber of social media, and the commodified character of our daily interactions.  Our ability to maintain the organic relational vibrance of a goodhearted tribe is undercut by our endless diaspora, as we are torn from place to place by the vagaries of a speculative economy.

And as we've move to the stale efficiencies of corporate scale relationships in our work, our relationships, and our faith, we've lost something.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Why The Church is a Bad Sport




It was a silly video, really, just a little bit of feel good fluff that drifted into my social media filter-feeding.

The images, from an Australian professional tennis match, in which Leighton Hewitt and Jack Sock, two globally ranked athletes, are having at it.  Leighton Hewitt serves...boom.  The service is called out, and he prepares to take his second shot at it.

Only Jack Sock, having seen the ball in, shouts out to him that he really should challenge the call.

There is bafflement, and laughter, and the call is challenged.  The video is reviewed, and indeed, the ball pasted the line, a clean, perfect ace.  It's a great example of good sportsmanship, or so we are told.  Here, someone willing to lose, because winning at the expense of honesty would just be unacceptable.

Yet though it was a feel-good flit across my awareness, of no more import than a video of a puppy saying cheese, it stirred theological thinking in me.  Because everything does.

What I thought was: this is why it's so hard for congregations to be moral agents.  Because congregations are teams, and the morality of teams is different from the morality of individuals.  Our genial tennis player, seeing the ball clearly in, is able to quickly make a choice as a moral agent.  He would rather lose the point than lose his sense of integrity.

But singles tennis is a competition between two individuals.   What if this were a team sport?  What if this were football?  If an opposing player catches a pass for a touchdown at the end of the endzone, and it's ruled out of bounds and incomplete, and you've seen his feet clearly in bounds...what do you do?  The moral calculus is different.  Can you make that decision for your team?  Do your ethics define the ethics of the group?

The answer, more often than not, is no.

As Reinhold Niebuhr noted in the last century, it's why collectives have such trouble living up to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  Individuals may be able to love enemies and turn the other cheek, but groups do so with difficulty.  The morality of the collective is justice...the balance of claims within the group...not grace or mercy.  The purpose of the group is self-preservation, not self-sacrifice.

Perhaps that's why churches, like corporations and political parties and armies, tend to be struggle so mightily to play the game by the rules Jesus taught.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

12 Reasons The Force Awakens is a Terrible Movie

I'll admit to being a contrarian.  When something's supposed to be the most amazing thing ever, and everyone is singing praises, I approach it with shields up.  I am wary of the whims of the herd.

Having lived and breathed Star Wars as a kid, I was doubly guarded about The Force Awakens, and continued to be so as flames of enthusiasm poured from the LucasArts/Disney publicity engine.

Everyone tries to latch on to that energy, pitching out their "the theology of Star Wars" and "the science of Star Wars" schtick.

It's just not that great a film.  I say this as a film lover, as a geek, and as someone who saw the powerful use of archetypes at play in the first trilogy.  

Watching it, I honestly struggled with why it is that otherwise sentient folks imagine that it's anything more meaningful than one-a-them Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon movies.

So here, because we are in the drab heart of a listicle age, are the twelve reasons The Force Awakens isn't the thing our culture claims it is.  Or, to be more precise, eleven trivial flaws that bugged me, the pebble-in-my-shoe dissonances of plot, character, and continuity.

And, to cap it off, the one catastrophic failure of vision that sabotages the myth.

1) Finn seems to have no problem killing.  We're introduced to a character in the throes of psychological trauma.  Another trooper dies...a friend, we're supposed to infer...leaving a bloody mark on his helmet.  He stands, helpless to act, unable to engage in the savagery all around him.  It's one of the closest moments the film gets to being moving.  This faceless trooper, overwhelmed by the human horror at violence.

And then, within minutes, he's blasting the crap out of people, hooting and hollering as he massacres his former colleagues by the dozen.  He doesn't freeze up.  He doesn't weep or shudder.  He doesn't even seem to notice, other than shout victoriously.  For me, as someone with counseling training, that was more than a little jarring.  And it was the first in a series of dissonant, wrong character notes.

2) Rey is an amazing pilot.  We take that for granted.  But why would she be?  I mean, sure, Han Solo is a pilot.  That's his character.  And Luke Skywalker had experience taking out womp rats in Beggar's Canyon back home.  But Rey?  Rey may be a scrapper and a rockclimber and cunning, but nothing in the story leads us to believe that she's ever even been anything other than a passenger in a spacecraft.  We are shown that she lives a feral existence, much like the children in the third world who make a meager living scavenging from trash heaps.  That's her story, as we're introduced to her.  Take one of those children, put them in the cockpit of an Apache helicopter, and see what happens.

I'll tell you what happens: dark, brief comedy.

It was jarring, in the same way that derpy young Anakin's preternatural giftedness at all things was jarring.

3) Swordfighting is like the easiest thing ever.  I took kendo classes for about six months, years ago.  Kendo is the Japanese art of swordplay, taught with bamboo and wood "blades" and armor.  It was jolly good fun whacking around, but it taught me that you can't just pick up a blade and expect to be amazing.  It also taught me...through repeated blows administered by a black belt...that someone trained with a sword makes quick work of a novice.

Yet we're expected to believe that a sanitation engineer and a street urchin could both just pick up a light saber and more than hold their own against someone with training.  Heck, even Skywalker had to be trained first.  Right?  I mean, right?   We remember that, right?   Hell, how do they even know how to turn the damn thing on?  

It's as if, having just been handed his father's lightsaber by Old Ben, Luke suddenly was confronted by Asajj Ventress...and beat her.

4) The Republic.  What and the what?  The destruction of the "Republic" by the Starkiller was, well, it was such a rushed plot point that we aren't given time to think.  Think about what?  Well, how about the idea that the capital planet of a galactic republic...presumably the one that was re-established in the wake of the fall of the Empire...sees a planet-sized vessel approaching, and then draining all of the energy from the freakin' sun, but doesn't bother putting out a fleet of ships to resist it.  We only see a rushed sketch of panicked cities and a fleet getting incinerated in low orbit.  Wouldn't they know about the First Order?  And be actively resisting it on a war footing?  You know, like the freakin' Rebel Alliance did?

What we're given is just a sketch of a civilization, a plot point penciled on a napkin at a quick luncheon meeting, so devoid of detail as to be irrelevant.

Maybe they're counting on fanfolk to retroactively write coherence into it.  Maybe there's fan fiction out there that fleshes this whole thing out.  Because Lord Have Mercy, that made no sense.

5) The Starkiller Itself.  So here's the mechanism, as presented:  you lumber your carved-out-of-a-planet death machine into a system.  You charge up your Megadeathbeams (tm) by sucking the system's sun dry.  Then, you blow up all enemy planets in said system with your Megadeathbeams (tm).

The issue with this seems obvious: the Megadeathbeam (tm) is completely redundant.

If you CONSUME THE SUN, you kinda sorta render a solar system uninhabitable.   Why even bother blowing up the planets?  Everyone not in a ship or a sealed habitat is going to die anyway BECAUSE THERE IS NO SUN.

AAAAAAAAAAGH.

Which, of course, raises the question: how are people traipsing about on the surface of said Starkiller?  Sure, it's a "planet."  But it moves from system to system, right?  Meaning, the surface is probably more like the surface of Titan, meaning: it's not just winter.  It's seas of liquid methane.  And given that they're destroying the freakin' sun, that'd be rapidly freezing methane.

That would add a different spin to some of those later scenes.

6)  Attacking the Starkiller.  Sure.  It has shields, which have to be taken down.  But if the way to destroy the planet is to blow up a large armored building on the surface...why use tiny little fighters with tiny little payloads?  How 'bout the aforementioned capital ships, which have big guns that'd blow the bejabbers out of a ground-based target.  It's not like you *need* little fighters to peg a womprat sized hole.  That odd conceit was just to make it feel like A New Hope.

It's this huge freakin' object right out on the surface.  Just take the shield down, and bombard it with big ships and their big guns.

7)  Attacking the Starkiller.  Yeah, again.  But the thing about attacking the Death Stars was this: it was hard, hard enough to be a major plot point.  You had to have the plans ferreted away in a droid, the getting-of-which-to-the-Rebellion was the whole first movie.  Many Bothans died to get the information required to take out the second Death Star.

But the Starkiller, the Super-Death-Star-On-Steroids?  The attack plan is basically: "Eh, we'll wing it."  We'll use a low level sanitation engineer's limited knowledge to kind of figure out how to blow things up when we get there.  Good thing it was remarkably easy.  I mean, why would you have any significant security presence around a vital heat management system?  Or any staff, for that matter?

8) The Map.  BB-8's A New Hope Artoo redux schtick involved having a portion of a galactic map in memory, one which shows the way to Luke Skywalker.  But, we are told, there's a problem.  Without the full galactic map, there's just no way to know where that piece fits.

Why?  The galaxy in question may be far far away, but it's a mapped place, in the same way our planet is a mapped place.  We know, having watched the last scene of the Empire Strikes Back, that galactic civilization has advanced to the point where it can move beyond the galaxy and observe it.  Key features are known.  If said key features show up in a map..even just a part of it..you'll know where it is.

If you give me a map of England showing the route from London to Stoke-On-Trent, I won't need a freakin' globe to know where the heck that is.  I recognize familiar features from existing cartography, and boom.  Unless for some reason both cartography and astrophysics in the Star Wars universe are less advanced than that on Earth today, this seems something of a narrative flaw.

9) Poe Dameron's wildly varying skill level:  That scene where the X-Wings come sweeping in, and Poe Dameron proceeds to take out a Tie Fighter every two seconds?   I mean, he's supposed to be good.  But this was "oh you've got to be kidding me" good.  It felt analogous to that scene in Two Towers where Legolas surfs down the stairs on a shield, blipping off arrows like it's just the easiest thing in the world.  It's not cool...it's cartoonish, Wiley Coyote absurd.

And then, in the attack on the Starkiller, they seem to be struggling.  Why, would this be, if you've got a pilot who can pop a TIE Fighter every two seconds?  I'm sure there's some explanation having to do with midichlorian depletion, but...c'mon.

10) Maz Kanata.  Really?  Jesus Mary and Joseph, her name is Mas Que Nada?  I found myself humming that opportunistic Black Eyed Peas remix of the Sergio Mendes classic almost the moment that name dropped, because it seemed apropos.  It was an Admiral Ackbar's flagship Mon Calamari moment, only they kept saying it.  It just reminds us that this really is a silly thing that doesn't mean anything, which...hey.  That's what mas que nada means.  Hmmm.

11) Captain Shinyhelmet Wusses Out.  Evidently, she's supposed to be amazing or something, which again, I'll leave fanfiction to work out.  The sketchy script means we never see her do anything but tromp around and look shiny. But as a villain?  She's pretty mediocre.  When you point a blaster to her head and say: "Give up the information that will allow us to destroy this entire world, defeat your right-wing reactionary counterrevolution, and kill everyone under your command?"  She does.  Is this the reaction of a cold, hardened warrior?  "Go to hell," she would say.  "Your Resistance is doomed," she would spit, right before they coldcocked her.

Speaking of which: what the hell happened to her?  Did I miss that?  I mean, I know she's showing up in the next episode, because, well, duh.  But did they lock her in a closet?  Did they take her helmet as a souvenir?  Did they, having gotten the information, pat her on the head and send her on her way?  I should remember this, but maybe my mind was wandering at that point.

There, eleven reasons it didn't work for me.  And yes, I get it. It's fantasy.  It doesn't have to feel real.  These are trivial, my geeky overthinking and nattering.  But there's something more, and it's this:

12)  The Force Awakens destroys the Myth of the Original Trilogy.  What we got from JJ Abrams, frankly, was similar to his craven cannibalizing of the Khan narrative in that wildly disappointing second Star Trek film.  He didn't create a new movie.  He just cobbled together a film from bits and pieces of earlier work.

And sure, it's better than the prequels.  Anything is better than the prequels.  

But The Force Awakens, unlike the Benedict Khanberbatch debacle, does not exist in a convenient alternate universe.  It is part of the same story.  And cast into the light of what will end up being a nine movie series, the derivative character of The Force Awakens corrupts the mythic narrative of first trilogy.  It destroys the power of the Star Wars story.

All of the story of the Original Trilogy?  The narrative arc that affirms the triumph of light over darkness?  The tale of victory through the final redemption of a fallen soul?  All of it, a complete waste of time.  Things are just going to fall apart again, so quickly that not even a single generation will have passed before a functionally identical conflict returns.

Mythopoetically speaking, it's like having another battle after Ragnarok.  It turns the Return of the Jedi from a moment of apocalyptic fulfillment to just a meaningless datapoint in an endless Nietzschean cycle of return, the final cosmic victory demoted to a moment of self-delusion in the ever-turning wheel of samsara.

But damn, it's made Disney a lot of money.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Emperor Wears No Clothes

Maybe it was the buildup, the unyielding relentlessness of it.  Month after month, reveal after reveal, one manufactured controversy after another, to the point where my innately contrarian nature was feeling a little put upon.

Or perhaps it was that Star Wars Battlefront has been spooled up on my Christmas-gift PS4 for the last week, and that I was so steeped in the immersiveness of that medium that any additional LucasArts inputs couldn't feel new.

Or maybe it was that, as a introvert-pastor on a Sunday evening, I was a little neurally fried.

But there I was, finally watching The Force Awakens with my family, the single most materially successful film of all time, and it was doing nothing for me.  It felt utterly unspecial.

It wasn't terrible in the way of the prequels, which were dismal messes.  Visually, it was superior, generally uncluttered and with a fine sense of scale.  The actors were trying, and generally competent.

But it wasn't working.

I was not swept up by the scale of it, by the palette of it.  The new characters failed to connect.  The old familiar faces just seemed...out of place.  The plot, wildly, impossibly flawed, less a reboot than a rehash, to the point of feeling faintly parasitic.

Honestly, though, I think most of the issue was fatigue.  When I lined up to see Star Wars that summer of '77, what I saw in the theater was wildly new, unlike anything I'd ever seen.  That wonder continued with Empire Strikes back, and was satisfyingly completed in Return of the Jedi.

But The Force Awakens felt...familiar.  I've seen this film now, a hundred times.  I've watched epic battles against impossible odds, explosions and wild heroics and CG hoohah.  Again, and again, and again, in Middle Earth, in Guardians of the Galaxy, in the Star Trek reboots, in the endless superhero movie conveyor belt.

Bing bang shooty-slashyness is so relentlessly present in the blockbuster-spectacle storytelling of corporate media that every movie may as well be the same film, clumsily shoehorned into a different skin.

It didn't feel light, or magic.  It just felt...industrial.

Ah well.  Everyone else seems to like it.  And I'm sure the shareholders are pleased.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Strange Familiarities

We arrived on the day after Christmas, tired and faintly out of place.

Christmas had been as it always is, the gentle candlelight and song of Christmas Eve worship followed by a quiet day with family, simple shared meals and gifts under the tree.   But then, we took to the sky, and found ourselves somewhere completely different.

We were Yankees right at the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica.  Being in a new place was, well, it was a little bit strange.  Here, we had traveled thousands upon thousands of miles, across seas to a culture I'd never encountered before, and I was expecting strangeness.

And strangeness came that evening as the sun was setting.  Our bags were unpacked, we'd rested up, and it was time to explore the city a little before dusk settled.  From across the corrugated tin roofs and down the peculiarly paved streets, there was the sound of ruckus, of thousands upon thousands of voices, of shouting and music.

It was Tope, the annual horse parade and festival through the heart of the Costa Rican capital, and we wandered a few blocks over to take a look.  I'd expected, well, something like Poolesville Day, only with horses instead of cheerleaders and old cars.  Or perhaps the Macy's Day parade, with horses all neatly in a row.

It was not that.  It was an equestrian bacchanale, with horses and riders by the tens of thousands posting and displaying in what felt like utter chaos, stretching out as far as the eye could see.  Mariachi bands trumpeted and strummed.  There was no evident order, no visible organizers, only a couple of grinning cops every couple of hundred yards, and occasional EMTs bearing stretchers bearing the bleary and the bloodied.  The dress code was Urban Cowboy, jeans and boots and ten gallon hats.  Everyone, riders included, seemed to be drinking beer, and the men's room evidently extended out into every nook and cranny of the surrounding buildings.

It was a riot of sound and smell, like a frat house party through which a herd of mustangs is stampeding.  It was totally outside of any frame of reference I had, beyond maybe a couple of Western films.  It felt, suddenly, like the 19th century.

With one exception.

Everywhere you looked, people were taking selfies.  Selfies.

There were clusters of Costa Rican cowgirls in their high-heeled boots, duckfacing into their iPhones.  On a huge prancing white charger, a barrel-chested sabanero held a beer in his rein-hand and a selfie-stick in the other.  A member of a marachi band one-handed his trumpet, videoing the band while playing.

In the midst of the wildness, it was strangely familiar, a new pattern of life peculiarly layered over the old.

And in that peculiar juxtaposition, of new experience and the familiar, of the old and the modern, it seemed an appropriate marker for the coming of a new year.