Not Nice, Flan

Flannery O’Connor, America’s first mistress of the dysfunctional family, wrote a story called “The Enduring Chill”. In it, the son of a rural Georgia widow returns to his hated (of course) home from a failed attempt to make it as a writer in New York City. He is convinced that he is dying and writes and seals a letter for his mother in which he chronicles his bitterness against her hoping to leave her with an ‘enduring chill’ of doubt and remorse.

Instead, he reveals a chill of his own, and one shared by many others, I suspect.

“I have no imagination. I have no talent. I can’t create. I have nothing but the desire for these things.”

Thus is encapsulated the chill lurking in the back of any who wish to create: the fear that they lack the capacity to do what their heart longs to do. Its creeping icy wind stirs and grips artists and preachers alike.

My own version of hell is having an ear good enough to know that my guitar is out of tune, but one insufficiently skilled to bring it into tune. Cursed forever to be out of tune, falling short of the music one wants to make, leaving only the options of playing poorly or not at all. That is an enduring chill.

Thanks, Flan (is that what your friends call you?) for awakening that specter for us.


Hipster dis-Cred

I’m confused, not hip.

I’m confused on the one hand because some, but not all, of the things I read about so-called ‘hipster’ Christianity ring true for me.

What makes a church a “hipster church”? Does it have a one-word name that is either a Greek word or something evocative of creation? Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, and justice, and drop names like N. T. Wright in sermons? Does the church advertise a gluten-free option for Communion? If the answer is yes to all of those questions, chances are that it’s a hipster church. (Brett McCracken, “Hipster Faith”, Christianity Today, September, 2010)

I answer yes to some of these questions, but not all. Somewhere a few years ago, I took an online ‘hipster quiz’, an unhip thing to do, and scored 78/120. Not sure what that makes me.

I wear sandals, so suspicions are quickly raised. But I wear them because 30 years ago I met a very square and un-hip Scottish pastor who wore sandals and they looked (and are) comfortable. Sandals are hip, but so are the oft mentioned ‘skinny jeans’, and whatever those are I’m sure I’m not going to wear them. Goatees are hip, but they make one look sinister.

The Coen’s are interesting and often brilliant, but they have their lapses. (That’s hip to say!) Wes Anderson is beyond mystifying. (Not hip.) I love liturgy and literary fiction. Mumford and Sons is on my play list and I believe the kingdom certainly includes elements of social justice. (All fit the hip profile.) But I can’t cuss very well, much less in a sermon, I don’t like beer, and, as a Twitter post commented yesterday, intinction works better for cookies and milk than for bread and wine. (Not very hip). And a ‘gluten free option’? Simply sounds loving rather than ‘hip’.

I thought about this the other day when I decided to retire another element of possible hipster cred. After having completed the massive bio of Winston Churchill (The Last Lion) I moved on to read the popular fiction of David Balducci. Terribly unhip. Perhaps that stirred the hipster demon in me, for after finishing Balducci I had this uncontrollable urge to read Flannery O’Connor. Flan and I started out well, but the more she spoke the harder it became for me to grasp what she was saying. It dawned on me that I was reading her because I thought I was supposed to. Cool pastors read and quote NT Wright AND Flannery O’Connor, I guess. But not this one. Not now, anyway.

I certainly hope I’m not trying to be hip by claiming to be unhip. It can become all very mystifying.

I’d finish by quoting a pop music lyric (a hip thing to do) but the lyrics I’m most familiar with are over 40 years old. Not hip.

Oh heck (a hip pastor would have phrased that more strongly), I’m going to do it anyway:

But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.
(Rick Nelson, “Garden Party”, 1972)

Moonrise Sex

There is a title that’s bound to attract some search engines. But that’s not why I chose it.

I have friends who are big fans of the movies of Wes Anderson. Like the Coen brothers, I find that he is an acquired taste, one which I, after seeing Rushmore, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom am still working to acquire. Out of respect for my friends, and Anderson’s three Oscar nominations, and the fact that Moonrise Kingdom was nominated for the top prize at Cannes, I’m willing at most points to say that my lack of appreciation is a problem with me. I often simply don’t get Wes Anderson, but I’m willing to admit that that is my problem.

So I may not be the right person to address the question that Moonrise Kingdom raised for me. There is a scene in the film which probably made me, and many others, squirm. It made me ask, “When does a filmmaker’s reputation allow him to get a pass where he should not get a pass?”

The scene in question captures two child actors in a highly sexualized context. The scene itself is not distasteful. What is distasteful to me is the fact that two children were asked to enact it.

Curious what my friends thought, I asked their opinion of the movie. This led to a specific debate with them concerning the scene in question which I preserve below. I think that even for those of you who have NOT seen the film there may be some value in raising and considering the questions the scene raises.

Correspondent #1: I saw Moonrise Kingdom at the local ‘indie’ theater when it opened last May. As always with Wes Anderson, I love taking in the aesthetics – the sets, the costumes, the attention to detail, the soundtracks, the original scores, the cinematography. All those things alone do not a good movie make! I don’t remember being particularly impressed with the story or the characters. I remember a time or two feeling uncomfortable at the pre-teen romance. In general I found it entertaining enough, but it didn’t really ‘stick’ with me, I haven’t looked back at it since.

RRG: All you say about MK is on the money: quirky, visually intriguing, etc.

But here is what bothered me, not only for its troubling nature, but also that so many others, and particularly Christians, were not bothered by it. I can’t say what the definition of child pornography is, but would not filming children involved in sexual activity for the entertainment of others qualify? If that is accepted, then the question becomes ‘what is sexual activity’. When a 12 year old male actor is invited to and does place his hand on a female actor’s breast in the company of sexually oriented conversation, is that not close to, if not actual, child pornography (albeit of a mild sort)? These are not 20 year old actors playing 12 year olds; these are actual 12 year olds. Does it get a pass because it is Wes Anderson? Or am I revealing a level of latent prudishness?

Correspondent #2: Agreed about Moonrise for the most part. Only saw it once and thought that it was a little disturbing. Probably Wes Anderson’s weakest to date. He’s always fascinated by young lust, and those early awkward moments may have gotten the best of him in this film. Cinematography, acting, etc. was great as always, but the story didn’t do much for me. The letter writing back and forth and man/nature aspect could have been interesting if developed more…but as a whole…

RRG: See – this is my struggle! We ask a 12 year old to fondle another, and the worst we can say is that this ‘must have gotten the best of him’! We can’t bring ourselves to say that that was wrong? Maybe it’s just me enjoying a bit of my own self-righteousness here.

Correspondent #2: Ok…I would imagine you’ve enjoyed some movies with “worse” subject matter, no? And if not, if indeed this is the most offensive I would be curious as to why. They are peers in the movie, and they are both curious, so if in the abuse/fondling aspect I would definitely put it on the lighter end of that spectrum. Again, not condoning, just sayin’. And for what it’s worth, that scene did not bother my wife much who is VERY sensitive to sexual stuff on screen. There are many different trajectories he could have gone with it, but he leaves it there. No further. Still, curious as to why that got to you so much. I’ll continue thinking about this…..and if you’re self righteous, well I’m that plus desensitized. So you might need another opinion altogether.

RRG: There is difference between what I watch and what is appropriate behavior for actors. We would agree that for one actor to actually KILL another actor for entertainment purposes would be wrong. Right? So, we simulate that. I can watch a naked man and woman, within reason, on screen, but at least assume that these are adults who have been naked before and they somehow have figured out how to make this merely a professional engagement. Would I want my wife stripping naked for a camera? No… but I get that it is done and that those who do it are in some measure able to treat it as a job. However, we draw the line at actual intercourse, don’t we? That is reserved for the pornographic, xxx videos. Right? We still preserve a line there which legitimate cinema does not need to cross. Like killing, it is simulated. It does not need to be shown.

But in this movie, it is not the watching of the act that bothers me. It is that for the sake of entertainment, an actual 12 year old is asked to do what he would not ordinarily do (we hope): put his hand on the budding breast of another child actor. Is it okay for us to ask a child to violate another child like that? In actuality an act occurred – not simulated, but really. Anderson may have a fascination with young lust, but at this point his fascination verges into voyeurism which I think wrongly violates two children.

So does that help explain my issue?

Correspondent #2: Yea, it does. I heard a similar argument from a friend regarding people (women primarily) being nude on screen or on a stage, etc. His argument was it should never be done because the actor or actress has crossed the line of “acting” immodestly (if portraying sex or someone scantily clad or something) to being immodest. I get that. For Moonrise, from what I would say is a safe assumption, in the world of prepubescent youths, simply doing what they did is pretty tame and not all that uncommon – at least from what all is out there in the world.

Would you have been okay with the scene if they were shot from the neck up, the words were the same – whatever they were…”I’m going to touch your breasts now” or something like that explaining what he was doing, but it did not show said act OR the act was not actually done, just acted out in that sense? Just curious.

RRG: I understand the nudity issue, but have managed to somehow put that aside. I’ve lost too many arguments with artists who paint from live models. It’s too hard to make an ‘always wrong’ or ‘always right’ case in that regard. But I want to say that it IS always wrong to ask children to act in this way for the sake of entertainment. And perhaps it is mild, but I still think it is wrong to ask them to do it on screen for our entertainment. (And, as a side note, an article written about the film did note that their kiss was their absolute first, which, I suspect, suggests that they have not been out there feeling breasts either.)

And yes, if the words were the same, but they as children were not asked to do the act, I would not be as troubled. I’m troubled with 12 year olds losing their sexual purity, but I know that it happens. But I would not want to be one to encourage that.

Well, there it is. Comment away.

Dear Diary…

I mused a few weeks ago about the lost art of the diary.

Apparently, according to the New York Times, I’m not the only one musing along those lines. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York has apparently brought together an exhibit focusing on the art of keeping a diary. Oh, to be able to visit. If the previous post sparked any interest at all, this article will be worth the read.

As I did, the author here sees the relationship between the diary and things such as Facebook and Twitter.

Our own era, of course, has turned spontaneous journalizing into something of a fetish, as 140-character tweets supposedly spring spontaneously from the thumbs of celebrities; scores of electronic walls sprout on which “friends” post tirelessly about their socially networked activities; and blogs are tossed into the electronic ether like rolled-up notes floating in virtual bottles. And though far less distinguished, the contemporary mix of self-invention, self-promotion and self-revelation is probably not that different from what is on display here.

But the most interesting observation she makes is on whether written self-reflection is true. Some diarists clearly wrote for history, and tidied up their lives to make themselves look good. Others wrote for themselves, and might have been excessively hard on themselves. For honesty, she commends the author of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” John Newton:

An enormous volume by the British slaveholder John Newton recounts his spiritual conversion (which led to the composition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and to his later opposition to slavery), but also his “repeated backslidings”: “I have been reading what I have recorded of my experience in the last year — a strange vanity. I find myself condemned in every page.”

My own journal keeping occurs early, early in the morning, when sometimes my soul is as dark as the sky is outside. It’s not necessarily an accurate description of my whole view of life!

Anyway, fascinating reading.

The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

– William Shakespeare, A Midsummers Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1

Be Careful What You Cheer

This article is one of this week’s most emailed stories from the pages of the NY Times. It tells of a woman who stormed a Loveland, Colorado art gallery and destroyed a painting reportedly portraying Jesus having sex with a male.

The artist says that it was a commentary on abuses in the Roman Catholic church. The iconoclast says that it desecrated her Lord.

So, do we cheer her? Or distance ourselves from her?

When we have read reports of Muslims getting all moody over cartoons depicting Mohammed, we wonder what the big deal is. “Chill,” we say. In a similar vein, in this case, I believe Christians need to chill.

Yes, from what I read of the image, it is offensive. But are we to destroy every offensive representation of Jesus? I find it particularly offensive that Jesus is seen as the champion of the Republican party. I find it offensive that He is preached as the one wanting to provide all my wealth and prosperity. These are desecrations of Jesus.

If we are to take on every offensive portrayal of Jesus, then we should be sending Christian SWAT teams into many churches where He is presented as a mere man whose body rotted in a Palestinian tomb. [Sadly, I’m afraid some might think this is a good idea.]

We should be saddened by such things, but not surprised or overwhelmed.

Paul did not take a hammer to the provocative and idolatrous images in Athens. Rather, the provocation they caused in his spirit led him to do what he could to bring the kingdom of Christ to bear upon the city. He preached.

We must ignore the taunts of the enemy. He wants a fight. What he does not want are faithful Christians living out a Christian life of love before and with their neighbors. And what he does not want is Gospel truth being faithfully proclaimed. But that is the very response we should bring.

So, please, step away from the crowbar.

Pottery Noteriety

I have mentioned before my delight in Nigel and Cheyenne Rudolph pottery, here and here (the mug referenced in this last post has since been replaced).

Now they are experiencing greater notoriety.

The article points out the utilitarian focus of their artistic work:

“Drinking coffee out of a mug that says ‘super dad’ is awesome, but I think when you drink coffee out of a handmade cup, it kind of puts it on another level,” he said. “You are paying attention to not only the coffee, you’re paying attention to the handle and the rim.”

These extra details, not offered by mass produced mugs, make the everyday activity of drinking more special, he said.

One does not ‘use’ an oil painting on the wall the same way one uses a mug. But both are art.

I love drinking my coffee out of a work of art.

Until I drop it.

I asked Nigel if he were to grow a full beard whether he would then be a Hairy Potter, but he has not answered me yet.

Pottery Sale

If you are in the Bradenton, which means anywhere in Florida, this weekend, and want to buy some gifts for you or others which will really make them happy, take note of the Rudolph Clay Studio Holiday Pottery Sale.

I have before drawn attention to their work. I greatly encourage you to drop by.

(There is a rumor that Friday night might feature, in addition to the normal line up of art-show-type cheese and cracker type snacks some samplings of cinnamon rolls. That rumor is as of yet unconfirmed, but comes from a reliable source.)

UPDATE: If you can’t read the fine print on the postcard, the show is Friday, Dec 4, from 5pm to 9pm, and Saturday, Dec 5, from 10am to 8pm. Even if you don’t buy anything, this is worth attending.

UPDATE #2: Further fine print resolution. They are located here: