Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Star Trek for Today

May 18, 2009

Watching movies must be my all-time favorite hobby, not least because they help me think. I don’t even have to agree with a movie in order to like it. I just want it to ask good questions and attempt to answer them with some intelligence. For attention-deficient people like me, movies do what books and plays did for previous generations.

Don’t get me wrong: the medium has its limits. I recently read Twilight before I saw the movie, and the book was way better. Two-hour movies can’t always capture everything, like subtle character development or the passage of time. But movies serve as insightful windows into the thoughts and dreams of the cultures that produce them.

Consider the long stream of Star Trek episodes and movies, which saw their latest installment this month, borne out of the prolific minds of J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof (the producers of LOST). Like any franchise that survives a succession of decades, Star Trek tells us a lot about the changes that have taken place since the series began.

Stanley Grenz argued that the replacement of Spock (from the late 60’s) with Data (in the early 90’s) illustrates the shift in our cultural values from the former generation to the next one. Spock was a purely rational being (even if he was half-human), a cool, objective bystander to the human condition, who judged Kirk’s dilemmas from his unaffected left-brain perspective. (Incidentally, some have also noted how the moody Dr. McCoy personified the other half.) Data, on the other hand, is not so purely logical (despite the fact that he is just an android). In fact, he seems preoccupied with becoming human, as if he is on a perpetual search of self. Grenz explains that this mirrors the shift from modernism to post-modernism. Spock represented the fully matured product of the Enlightenment, which taught us to trust Reason and pursue Science as the solution to every problem that life can throw our way.

But then Science failed us. The closer we looked into the make-up of our universe the more our neat categories crumbled and dissolved into uncertainties. Now mystery permeates all we do, just as Data is always mystified by events and by the choices of the strange creatures around him. Data represents the postmodern recasting of Spock, Grenz says, and he represents a sea change in our ideals. I would have to agree.

In fact, Zachary Quinto’s 2009 version of Spock does much the same thing, except with perhaps even more boldness. Now we’ve become so skeptical of Reason that we feel the need to rewrite the canon, making even Spock himself as susceptible to subjective bias as anyone else. In Abram’s movie, Spock is romantically involved with Uhura (who could blame him?), something unthinkable in Leonard Nimoy’s earlier incarnation. Quinto’s Spock is flappable and sensitive to insults (don’t talk about my momma!). Therefore he is no more infallible at the helm than any of us would be. Fascinating.

But perhaps most obvious of all (to me) is that James T. Kirk’s history has been rewritten. Previously, as the story goes, Kirk became captain of the Enterprise with his own father proudly looking on. But this 2009 retelling of the story goes back and writes the father out of our hero’s life. A Romulan bad guy goes back in time and kills Kirk’s father just as the young Jim is being born. Now Kirk grows up unruly, undisciplined, thrill-seeking his way through Iowa with no father to tell him which way is up. This is the kind of protagonist that the child of today can identify with. He’s brash, irreverent, impulsive, sex-crazed, and yes, fatherless. Makes perfect sense, really.

The new Star Trek brilliantly goes where no prequel has gone before: It alters the space-time continuum, creating an alternate reality in which characters’ stories can now be rewritten at the complete discretion of the producers. That’s a masterful stroke, really. I trust the newer incarnation of Star Trek will thrill fanboys as much as the new Batman movies do the comic book crowd. I wish all reboots were in their league, but alas.

At any rate, there’s my observation for the day. The new Captain Kirk fits our generation as well as the new Spock does. We no longer worship rationality as we once did, and we no longer identify with well-adjusted heroes. But then again, what comic book hero didn’t lose his parents at some point in his childhood?

Like I said, fascinating.


Learning to Move On

May 8, 2009

Most of the students I teach are black. Incidentally, they never refer to themselves as “African-American,” so I’ll dispense with the political correctness for the time being (even if they are really more brown than black). Working with them has given me a new perspective on why the students I work with act the way they do. I’ll illustrate with two stories.

This morning during class an administrator brought one of my students a disciplinary form, asking her to sign it (indicating that the reasons for her suspension had been clearly expressed in her hearing). The student responded by crumpling up the paper and tossing it behind her before the administrator had even turned to leave the room. This is pretty typical behavior where I work. After the administrator left, the student announced to all who would listen: “My momma told me don’t never sign nothin’ the school give you!” Several of her friends voiced their agreement. “That’s the same thing my momma told me,” another girl offered. With parents harboring such deep distrust of our teachers and administrators, it’s no wonder we witness so much disrespect for our school’s policies.

A couple of years ago I was teaching a group of students who were all labeled with “behavior disorders.” One day I asked them: Which is worse, robbing a store at gunpoint, or telling the cops who did it? They unanimously asserted that the snitch was the real criminal. I told them that was pretty messed up but they just shrugged their shoulders and said “that’s just how it is.” Evidently these kids, who were constantly having run-ins with both school officials and law enforcement, were taught that siding with authority is the cardinal sin. And what’s even crazier, they apparently learned this from the adults who raised them.

One day it finally occurred to me: Multiple generations of blacks in the U.S., particularly in the South, grew up with racially unjust laws and corrupt law enforcement. When your local law enforcement is run by white supremacist segregationalists, you learn not the trust your authority figures. And you pass that distrust down to your progeny, and they pass it down to theirs. Now that equal opportunity is the rule of law, we’ve still got generations of convention to reverse, and it’s not happening quickly enough.

I’m watching black men and women try to discipline black students who were taught to distrust all authority, and it’s only reinforcing their social inequity. These kids are throwing away a free education and turning to crime so that yet another generation will grow up disadvantaged. If only their parents could acknowledge that the world has changed, or at least that they can no longer blame all their troubles on other people, things would change for them.

Maybe that’s why black churches are turning out most of the successful (law abiding) folks. They are preaching an alternative message. They are preaching personal empowerment. They are preaching prosperity through optimism and faith in God. And of course, in the best circumstances they are also investing in their communities, mentoring, and modeling responsibility to their young men and women.

I will occasionally make a crack about the prosperity gospel. I believe it misrepresents the message of pretty much every New Testament author, and it ignores the daily impact of the cross of Christ in the life of a believer. But I can see the benefit of all this optimism, too. I see great value in turning away from blame, racial defeatism, and of course violence and crime. These churches are teaching their members to MOVE ON. Look upward. Trust Him from whom your help comes. More power to them.

Freudian Slippers

March 14, 2009

Now that’s just hilarious. When you wiggle your toes, it looks like he’s sticking his tongue out. I just may have to get me a pair of these someday.

Speaking of Freudian things…I finished reading The Watchmen this week, so now I can be an educated viewer when I go see the movie. I’ve never seen so much Freudian thought integrated into a plot! And since I didn’t come across this series when I was younger, I don’t expect to be indignant about changes like some folks seem to be. For example, I won’t be sorry to see the giant squid thing disappear from the storyline. That was just over the top. Alan Moore has some serious issues (no pun intended).

I also realized after reading Watchmen just how much the creators of The Incredibles must have been influenced by this story. Whole lotta striking similarities, but without the nihilistic darkness and gore. I’ll stick with The Incredibles, thank you.


October 27, 2006

I think we need heroes.

Total depravity of man notwithstanding, I’m beginning to believe that there is a need for highlighting the times we get it right. Watching my children grow up, and watching the kids that I teach struggle with which way is up, I’m starting to see the absolute necessity of role models.

When I was a kid, I first wanted to be Superman. I wanted to deflect bullets, see through walls, fly, and melt things with my eyes. I mean, who wouldn’t? I even remember eating Cheerios at breakfast for months because I saw Superman eating Cheerios on a commercial once. I don’t even like Cheerios! But if he ate them, then dadgummit, I’m eating Cheerios!

Next I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I made a whip and tried my darnedest to find a fedora. I still wear a leather jacket from time to time, and wouldn’t you know it, I even seriously considered becoming an archaeologist at one point in my life. Only now it’s biblical archaeology. As a child, I didn’t quite understand what his occupation was, but whatever it was, I wanted in on it.

My last great childhood fantasy was to become Luke Skywalker. I wanted to be deeper than anyone else and move things just by thinking (obviously I came in on Star Wars during Luke’s later days–in his earlier days he was quite the whiny dweeb). I wanted to wear the cool outfit and weild a sword that glows and makes that cool “fshfshwoowoop!” sound. I wasn’t old enough to dig Leia in that outfit in Return of the Jedi yet, but I wanted to be the guy that understood things going on around him better than anyone else; and to me, that was the coolest thing of all about the Jedi. I wanted to be one.

The kids that I teach have heroes, too. Only they’re all criminals, like Tupac Shakur. They want to dress like thugs, wear grills like thugs, and sag their pants and curse out every authority figure just like their heroes do. They’re doing a pretty good imitation of the gangsta. And I don’t just mean the black kids, either. I mean the white ones, too. They all seem to be imitating guys with rap sheets a mile long. Their heroes end up in jail, and eventually get shot by their rivals. And these are the guys that so many of my students want to emulate. They’ll defend them at the drop of a hat, too.

Where did Michael Jordan go? What happened to the days when these kids wanted to be like somebody that had his head on straight? When did they stop aspiring to be doctors, lawyers, presidents, and professional athletes? Those heroes all had something honorable and praiseworthy about them. The perpetual adolescents that have replaced them seem hellbent on doing just the opposite of everything that the generation before them tried to grasp.

Somewhere along the way I think the world became too cynical to really admire heroes. Too many leaders have screwed up and left us wondering whether or not people should even try to become something better. Today’s Superman (played by Brandon Routh) is younger, less sure of himself, and has gotten Lois Lane knocked up (pardon the expression). Even our modern reproductions of fairy tales have to insert characters hounded by their own flaws and shortcomings. We say it makes us feel better because we don’t feel as far behind. And the truth is, I’m all for a realistic picture of human beings the way we are.

But we need our heroes. Without them we don’t even know what we’re shooting for. Human beings learn by imitation. We need to see lived out in front of us what it’s supposed to look like to be a person. During those moments when the right stuff shows itself, we need to draw attention to that so that we know what we’re going for.

I think a church like mine is sometimes hindered by the same problem. We have been so disillusioned by the phony-ness of most traditional Christianity that we run the opposite direction. In our quest for authenticity, we convince ourselves that we should never expect the righteousness of God to show up in ourselves. The folks I meet with maintain a really strong view of the fall of man, and they have been personally encouraged by the realization that “the Christian Life” as we know it is an impossible task. The truth is, I wish more folks could get that idea registered deep into their own minds. So much of what most Christians chase would become useless to them and they just might start pursuing things that really matter. We could all use a good lesson about the impotence of the human flesh when it comes to living like God.

But the other side to that coin is that the Spirit that was put into us by God’s grace is capable of doing so much more than we think. I have a notion that He is even capable of causing us to rise above our deeply-engrained selfishness to love one another even as He loves. I know this because a.) He said that He would do that, and b.) I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it happen from time to time. But now even when it does happen, I seem to have taught myself to see only the hidden selfish motives underneath every good deed. Now that I am capable of doing this without even consciously trying, I’m starting to wonder if this habit is doing more harm than good.

Paul often spoke of following his example. He also spoke of making note of certain kinds of people. When someone adopted a lifestyle contrary to the gospel, Paul encouraged the saints to mark that in their minds. On the other hand, when someone gave his life over to the Lord and the Church, exemplifying the character of Christ, he noted that, too. He asked them to give honor to those whose lives inspired it. He did this because he knows that human beings learn by imitation. We have to see it done before our own eyes. And we need someone to point it out when a lifestyle worth imitating comes around.

The catholics have their saints for a reason. The world has superheroes for the same reason. I think that we could benefit from a few heroes of our own.

Gimme a Break

October 6, 2006

It’s no wonder folks today have a hard time listening to religious people. Half the time we seem way too confident about what we think, while at other times we seem to arbitrarily change what we think.

Confidence is not in vogue these days, and some folks have a triple dose of it. Consider for example the groups that make the veins in their necks bulge when they tirade against Harry Potter, only to turn around and speculate about connections between the number 666 and European politics. While I invest years of my life trying to provide my children an intelligible worldview that doesn’t divorce faith from curiosity and learning, some of my brothers and sisters in Christ are popping up in a documentary that exposes a sensationalist, propagandizing religion that capitalizes on the malleability of the young. Like the new film Jesus Camp:

While surfing the web this morning I went from that news item to the next one about how the Catholic Church is debating whether or not they should lay to rest the concept of Limbo/Purgatory. Apparently popular Catholic practice has all but elimated this cumbersome halfway house for the dead anyway, and those who are trying to proselytize Africa and Arabia are finding that Islam seems nicer than Christianity when it comes to the eternal fate of unbaptized infants.

Now I’m not advocating for them to keep this strange medieval invention, but I wonder at the inconsistency in their logic for dropping it. If we ask why they want to lose this long-standing tradition they must either reply that, “Well, it wasn’t really biblical anyway”(which I highly doubt they’ll say) or else they must admit that public opinion has rendered this belief very unpopular. So like the evangelical churches of America, they are considering adopting the same market mentality which follows each new trend for all it’s worth. Give the consuming public what it wants.

The world is in desperate need of communities of believers that follow Jesus in simplicity and authenticity, and for crying out loud that use a little common sense! I’m holding out hope that even in this crazy place God will grow some folks who can sense their spirits and follow Him without losing touch with their minds. Reason and Faith need not be mutually exclusive commodities, IMHO.

But then, what do I know? I’m just another guy with a keyboard who thinks he’s got something worth saying.

Incidentally, here’s where I read the article about the impending death of purgatory:

I gotta stop reading the news.