Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Melancholia: Life as a Wicked Idea

"The human race is just chemical scum on a moderate size planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a billion galaxies."  
- Stephen Hawking, 1995, in "Reality on the Rocks: Beyond our Ken."

 Melancholia, a highly praised film from Lars Von Trier, follows the imploding lives of the characters as the earth awaits imminent destruction from the planet Melancholia. While stunningly beautiful in its cinematography, it is hauntingly hopeless in its depiction of a life without meaning.
Perhaps appropriately, none of the main characters are compelling. Justine is the melancholic whose longing for nothingness ushers in the rogue planet that will destroy earth.  She cares for no one but herself: she dumps her groom on the night of their wedding; she is casually cruel to everything around her; she can't stand the rituals of normal life.  Since nothing matters, the arrival of the doomsday planet  is not something she fears at all.  One of Cormac McCarthy's characters in the Sunset Limited could have been her spokesperson:
 “The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy. Every road ends in death, every friendship, every love. Torment, lost, betrayal, pain, suffering, age, indignity, hideous lingering illness... and all of it with a single conclusion. For you and everyone and everything you have ever chosen to care for… And there's no going back, there's no setting things right, there's only the hope of nothingness.”
Her sister, Claire, is perhaps as unstable as Justine though their personalities could not be more different. "I hate you so much," she says more than once to Justine.  Claire is married and has a child; she cares too much what others think, and follows convention with a commitment that threatens to wind her so tight she seems always to be on the verge of breaking.  Justine rejects the apparent shallowness of every social convention; Claire embraces them all to infuse them with a level of meaning they were not meant to bear.
Claire and Justine's parents are morally and socially vacuous. Claire's husband is a man of science and convention who places all his trust in order and predictability, with tragic results. Their friends are shallow; their servants are pawns; her boss is an ogre. In this story, there is no one for whom to cheer.

The director intended to ask a particular kind of question with this film: Is everything hollow?  Does anything matter?  Money, possessions, science, family, careers, friends, and tradition all fail in the end. Justine muses that "life is a wicked idea," a sentiment the director seems to share.  In this kind of reality, the hero (if there is one) is the person who recognizes that Macbeth was right: all is but toys.  Since our end is despair and destruction, the less we value, the less we stand to lose.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lapsing into Chaos

     German social philosopher Arnold Gehlen talked about two parts of society: the foreground and the background. The foreground is the area of life in which people willingly and freely make choices.  The background is the area in which people automatically fulfill certain societal or communal expectations.
  • When Kobe Bryant shoots, his form is background – he’s practiced that shot release ten thousand times, so he doesn’t have to figure out each time where his elbow should be.  His decision when to shoot, however, is foreground.
  • When I leave my house, I wear clothes (background), but I choose to wear Ohio State colors (foreground).
  • I buy presents at Christmas (background), but choose gifts to match the recipients (foreground).
  • At a blinking red light, I stop (background), and I choose to go when there is an appropriate break in traffic (foreground).  

Modernity moves the background to the foreground.  In other words, it takes what we accept as normative and makes it subjective. Before, people went about their daily routine without too much reflection (self-aware choice) on particular issues, as the background institutions in society brought predictability and normalized structure to their lives. Not any more.

Modernity has given the power and heightened the desire of choice.  People have increasingly rejected the power of tradition and institutions and have begun to find their own way through life.

Since modernity has brought about an increasing amount of foreground reflection, we increasingly reject the power of institutions and embrace what Gehlen called secondary institutions, which “offer entire packages of beliefs, norms, and identities to individuals.”

If this is true, it would explain the rise of radical environmentalist and animal rights movements, the increasing polarization in politics, the increased belief in the sacredness of artistic expression, and the monomaniacal fixation on sports among middle and high school families (ever spent a weekend at a travel league soccer tournament?).

All of these things have their place, of course, but not as replacement background institutions which guide and shape every area of life. Based on my past 15 years of working with youth as a pastor and teacher, I believe there are three huge background shifts effecting American culture.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bitterblue: Fighting for Truth in a Kingdom of Lies

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit the latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

There will be spoilers.

Kristin Cashore's recently released Bitterblue, the sequel to Graceling, premiered at #2 on the New York Times Bestseller List. If early reviews and previous successes are any indication, the list of accolades will be impressive – and deservedly so. Ms. Kashore is a gifted writer who spends years honing her books, and it shows.


The story takes place approximately 10 years after Graceling ends. Bitterblue, once rescued from certain doom by Katsa and Po, now rules a kingdom still reeling from what Bitterlblue calls “the rape of her mind” by her maniacal father, the former king. He had subjected the realm to unspeakable cruelty with a Grace (a gift) that made people believe the lies he told to cover up his fixation with torture and murder. Many people disappeared when he was alive; many more still hide very dark secrets even though he is long gone.

Though the people are beginning to recover emotionally, physically, and economically, the new queen faces a daunting task. Overwhelmed by responsibilities and immersed in paperwork, Bitterblue passes her days isolated from not only her kingdom but also the servants in the castle. When she finally realizes that this isolation is orchestrated rather than incidental, and that her father’s legacy still rules from the grave, she determines to find out the truth of her father’s lingering influence for herself.

Bitterblue begins to leave the castle, slipping at night “ into a world of stories and lies.” A series of furtive campaigns into the city giver her an unfiltered view of the kingdom. The underground rebellion she finds slowly reveals what she must do to break the nation free from her father’s lingering horrors.

But her father was not the only one with a capacity for deceit, and Bitterblue has a lot to learn about what it means to rule – and live - with truth, justice, and integrity. Secretive advisors and lying friends may surround her, but some secrets are best kept hidden, and the deception of friends may sometimes be a gift. Bitterblue has no Graces, but she has heart, determination, and a longing for truth. Will that be enough?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Slouching Toward "Project X"

"I think that people should really say what they feel... 
everybody has the right to speak their mind."
- Lenny Kravitz
That's a fascinating idea.  People should say what they feel.  In other words, people have the right to speak their mind and say exactly what they want to say.

If I understand how human rights work, an identified right brings with it an imposed obligation on others.  According to the United Nations, "Human rights entail both rights and obligations...The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the individual level, while we are entitled our human rights, we should also respect the human rights of others."

People have a responsibility - an obligation - to uphold the rights of other people.  

So if people truly have a right to say what they feel - without exception -  and I hinder or stifle their ability to speak their mind,  am I automatically a human rights violator?  I stifled my 16-year-old's speech just last week; am I a moral monster?  When people violate human rights, we put them on trial and punish them. I'm not sure that "Shut it! Don't talk to your brother that way!" is really that risable of an action. But, perhaps it is.  I decided to put this egregious error into the context of other well-known human rights violators:
  • Slobodan Milošević -  human rights violator.
  • Pol Pot - human rights violator.
  • Saddam Hussein - human rights violator.
  • Slave owners - human rights violators.
  • Father telling his son to "shut it" - human rights violator.
As much as we (rightly) defend the ideal of free speech, I just don't think all speech (or all speakers) are inherently endowed with a level of freedom of expression that rises to the level of a fundamental human right.  Libraries don't stock every published work; bookstores hide certain adult books behind locked glass; TV and radio stations edit bad language; theater owners won't let you yell "fire" in a crowded room; you can't slander or defame others; you can't incite a riot unless you are at an international soccer game; and the Secret Service won't let you threaten the president, even if you are a hunter/gatherer/rock star.