Friday, April 17, 2009

My Vocation Calls...

In the unlikely case that you follow this blog regularly (whatever that means at this point), bear with both the redundancy of my title and my recent hiatus. In addition to the normal rigors of academia, I am at the end of the semester, where more personal research has been piled onto my already busy load.

More again soon (assuming I survive it).

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Internal Revolutions

Sam Mendes tells the story of the courtship of April and Frank Wheeler in a series of vignettes so brief and overshadowed by everything that has come since, that we get the feeling that they can't remember being happy. Much of the rest of the story is their attempt to recover what they had or what they thought they had for a moment.

I must confess that I approached the film with a great deal of anticipation. On more than one occasion, I have imagined what kind of "dream team" I would assemble were I a film producer, and three names that most regularly show up on my list were involved in the making of this film: Mendes himself (ever since American Beauty bowled me over), Roger Deakins (the D.P. who certainly deserves consideration in the "Most Shafted by the Academy" award), and composer Thomas Newman (who could be a runner-up for same, said award). In addition, I must also admit to being a bit obsessed with the film's central theme of the deadening effects of the American suburb. I have felt those effects, and I have witnessed churches that have only reinforced the culture's emphasis on the need to look materially successful and socially together when they should have been proclaiming our own ineptitude. In addition, the fact that Mendes had already addressed the topic so bitingly in American Beauty led me to expect from this film a kind of development of his own ideas about those effects, but not only was this film much more tragic in its handling of those themes, I am even now finding myself wondering if this picture might have marked a retreat from that beautiful piece of satire.

The film has hardly introduced us to Frank and April before we see them at each others' throats, and the undercurrent of all of the screaming is one of settling. Frank struggles to find a purpose, which we get the sense is tied to his vocation, but he settles into a middling position at the same company where his father worked to apparently no distinction. We suspect from April's performance in a poorly received performance of a play that she at least attempted to pursue some ideal version of her dream before settling on a life of the ordinary. (One might be reminded of Ricky Fitts's brutal attack on Angela in AB for being "boring" and "ordinary.") Much of the tension of the rest of the film is between their (mostly her) urge to break from the boring life of the suburbs and those forces that would suppress anything extraordinary. These forces do show up subtly in the allure of financial success, the opportunity to prove oneself, and that oft-used and overdetermined symbol, the house itself. Even (I might say, especially) the children, who aren't so much born into this household as materialize out of thin air, threaten to anchor this couple to mediocrity, according to standards that remain amorphous throughout the film, but which we are led to believe may be solved by a bold move - literally - to France. 

As I watched, superb performances and expert direction kept me rooting for them, hoping for them to be able to break out of the mold and get away, even as it grew more obvious that they would not be able to do so. To some degree, I was frustrated by how their inability to leave Revolutionary Road reinforced the perception that in France everthing would be different. We all know from our own experiences that merely relocating does little to change our identities and consequent behaviors, but that France as a symbol remained a distant beacon, even as things in the American suburbs were falling apart, seemed to contradict that reality. 

To illustrate, bear with a brief digression. My family has a bit of wanderlust. In the fifteen years of marriage, my wife and I have moved five times; this makes me relatively stable by my own family's standards. From the time I was born until I left for college, I moved eighteen times, and most of these were cross-town moves because the neighbors turned out not to be so great, or the lack of neighbors was a factor we hadn't counted on being such a problem, or we didn't like the layout of the house after all. The point is that, while we were sophisticated enough to not admit it, there was a sense in which we hoped and expected the next place that would make it all good. Of course, it never did, and we were foolish in a fallen world to think that it might, but I have found myself reflecting on where that expectation that place should make all the difference comes from. To be sure, some of it does arise out of a refusal to address ourselves as the core of our own problem, but I why do we associate renewal so readily with place? Much has been made of the exact nature of the Garden as described in the early chapters of Genesis, and many exegetes discuss allegorical aspects of the nature of the heavenly city, but the intriguing part to me is that we will be a new people as we enter a new place and each will have been prepared for the other. 

A part of me wanted to see the Wheelers get to Paris so that I could have a better sense of either a paradise in which their travails prepared them to inhabit a place that would seem as if it had been designed and waiting for them all along, or that I would see the real and pernicious effects of hoping for the place to make the people.

In the end, what we know is that something amazing has to happen before we can even get there.


It had to come out sooner or later that I am, in addition to being a film nerd, also a Simpsons nerd. The above call to panic from Kent Brockman tends to come to mind any time I come across eschatologically preoccupied Christian friends. In a recent conversation with a group of them, the talk turned to the rapid increase in communication technologies. After recounting all that is wrong with them and wringing hands about the demise of our culture that they are facilitating, one friend said words to the effect of, "It makes you wonder if the end is near and Christ is coming back soon." No, not really.

In fairness to these kinds of views, I should belabor a couple of obvious points:

  1. These technologies are progressing at disorienting rates - Most of us over the age of thirty remember what it was like to actually have to wonder something that - barring our own recall, immediate good fortune, or the ability to somehow find what we wanted to know in the reference section of the library - we were going to have to be content speculating about. The internet soon solved that problem. (Good thing, too, because I don't know how I could have lived without knowing the name of the actor that played Mr. Green Jeans on Captain Kangaroo - Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum, by the way.) Of course, information retrieval was only one of the technological issues we were encountering. People far smarter than I were confronting obstacles to the speed, ease, and mode of communication, and their solutions can be hard to handle. The first time I saw someone speaking on a Bluetooth headset, I caught them from the non-headset side, and just thought that the kind of craziness we're used to associating with big cities had wandered out to the suburbs (which, in a way, it had). I have to admit, between classes on the campus where I teach, I've taken to counting just how many people I see speaking or texting on their phones. Invariably, it is in the neighborhood of one-in-three, and it's hard not to imagine all kinds of deleterious effects or to project forward these kinds of advances to extreme levels of invasiveness and potential control at the hands of would-be tyrants, busybodies, etc.
  2. These technologies can seem to promote increased privatization, dependency, etc. - I get that beyond the apparent ubiquity of the technologies or their speed of advance, many thoughtful people see in them not just the potential for abuse but the open door for accelerating the effects of thoughtlessness, which are not pretty things (and I'm not just speaking about cell phone use while driving). One might justly be prone to wonder whether the endless noise that MP3 players and cell phones introduce into our lives more than offsets any immediate, practical benefit they might offer. It's not just leaving the television on for background noise, we now take our distractions on the go, leaving little opportunity to be genuinely alone in our own thoughts for any substantial period, raising questions about possible vulnerability to politicians, advertisers, and our own unchecked lusts.

That said, some Christians should probably be aware of the implications of their luddite fears before pronouncing on them with such self-assurance. First, these claims show a remarkable ignorance of patterns in cultural history. Consider the following statement: "If it be true, that the present age is more corrupt than the preceding, the great multiplication of internet technology has probably contributed to its degeneracy." Now, replace the phrase internet technology with the word novels, and you have a verbatim quotation from the Reverend Vicesimus Knox's essay "On Novel Reading," written in 1778. Did you get that? Reading the kinds of novels that we now think of as ennobling and generally beneficial classics was considered by many religious leaders of the mid-eighteenth century to contribute to unhealthy expectations of life, distaste for traditions, and an over-emphasis of autonomy. The intriguing point is that the eighteenth-century claims were somewhat valid within their own culture, just as many current criticisms about text messaging are valid, but could it be that, just as the first trend turned out not to be the harbinger of the end that many had anticipated, that we too might not want to be looking to the skies just yet?

If this doesn't carry much weight for you, consider also the history of speculative dispensationalist Christian eschatology in this country. I was an undergraduate in college when the first Gulf War broke out. If you remember that time, you may recall a lot of hand-wringing in the culture at large. Politicians speculated that 40,000 soldiers would be returning home in body bags. The ubiquitous presence and urgent tone of national news coverage regularly crossed from gravity into grandstanding. Not to be outdone, the Christian presses were publishing book after book that laid out who in the book of Daniel Saddam Hussein was supposed to be and when Russia - which was of course known to be "Magog" - would jump into the fray, heralding the final battle. You may cringe, as I do, when I reflect on how badly evangelical Christians handled that situation, but the most serious implications of that behavior was not a damage to reputation but a loss of focus. Here we were, presented with an ideal opportunity to say something meaningful about equity, justice, charity, empire, and the place of faith in politics; and instead we tried to show ourselves masters of "the secret things"(revealing along the way a doubt that the gospel speaks to life in any immediate sense).

There are other practical theological implications of seeing every cultural trend as a potential enemy: we tend to reflect a lack of grace and develop what is commonly referred to as a "fortress mentality." I have written about this before, so I am not going to dwell on this point for long, except to encourage other Christians not to lose the perspective that God's works include both creation and providence. Just as God declared the creation "good" at various points, there is a very meaningful sense - despite real evil, real pain - in which those works that are carried out in providence get a similar declaration. Sometimes that declaration is expressed in judgment, but we should be prepared (as St. Paul was in Acts 17) to recognize his work in surprising places in our culture - not just as some superficial moment of manipulation toward what we want to talk about but because, as the saying goes, "It's all good."

Am I advocating an unreflective or naive approach to culture? Quite to the contrary, I think we need to constantly look for that point at which what is gospel departs from the norms of the world system, but we need to do so 1) mindful of what we really mean when we say gospel - quite the opposite of behaving morally, 2) receiving the works of culture as qualified goods, works of providence mediated through culture, and 3) eager to see where God invades even those worldviews, habits, and artifacts that try to discount the Author of Grace.