Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The horror...the horror

After taking over a village in Vietnam, the Unites States Army decided to demonstrate its humanitarian intentions by employing its medics to inoculate the children of the village for polio. The military occupation didn't last, however, with the village re-captured by the Vietcong soon after. Upon reclaiming the territory, the Vietcong amputated the left arm of all the children who received the vaccination. One medial procedure counteracted by another.

Slavoj Zizek and Colonel Kurtz tell this story that is probably distasteful and inhumane to those of us of a particular conscience. What might seem more inhumane, however, is that both Zizek and Kurtz tell the story in admiration of the Vietcong. In Kurtz's words:

"...the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure."

Zizek is not as gushing with his praise as the fictional colonel, but nevertheless sees in this act of the Vietcong the purity of genuine revolution:

"Although difficult to sustain as a literal model to follow, this thorough rejection of the Enemy precisely in its helping ‘humanitarian' aspect, no matter what the costs, has to be endorsed in its basic intention."

To compromise, so the thinking goes, is to be already dead. Better to enter village life with only one arm than to keep both at the cost of sacrificing your soul. The wisdom of this should be quite clear to those of us of a particular conscience.

By way of pigeon-holing, this story creates three types of Christians:

1) Christians who reject the vaccinations of the Empire

2) Christians who accept the vaccinations of the Empire

3) Christians who see it as their duty to administer the vaccinations of the Empire

Historically, has Christianity moved from (1) to (2) to (3), or has there been, from the beginning, a mixture of the three?

And for those of you who want to help me with my dissertation next year, what role does second-century apologetics have in this history? If you could keep your comment just below 9,000 words that would be particularly helpful.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Insider

I'll leave it to ol' blind Buchie to sum up the story of truth-telling told by The Insider:

Conscience do cost.

The Insider may not have the repeat-viewing capacity of Heat, but this Michael Mann film is easily a top 20, possibly even a top 10. That it lost out to the utterly vacuous American Beauty for the Best Picture Oscar is a crying shame. I mean, that's like Shakespeare in Love getting the nod over The Thin Red Line, which would of course have been complete nonsense if it ha [gets word in ear that that in fact did happen the previous year].

These are end times, people. End times.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Like Crazy

Plato pitted rationality against desire and passion, with the latter needing to be harnessed by the former. Pascal said that "the heart has reasons that Reason cannot know", elevating love to a higher epistemological plane than rationality. Brokeback Mountain advertised love as a "force of nature" - uncontrollable, like a hurricane, impartial with regard to who it comes upon and apathetic to the suffering it may cause. Damned if you deny it. Just as damned if you don't.

Into this ongoing story of love stepped Like Crazy, a film about transatlanticism that would never leave the two lovers alone. But rather than absence making the heart grow fonder, their repeated absences only makes them needier, less trusting and trustworthy. What began as a source of vitality degenerates into a deadly disease eating away at their souls. The love portrayed cannot be lived without and cannot be lived with. It is at once keeping alive and killing.

The film does a reasonable job of telling this canonical trope, with love not so much being care for another as it is addiction to another, the love story resembling the efforts of two junkies desperately chasing that same high that made them who they are. It doesn't hurt that one of those junkies is the beautiful Felicity Jones, who also played the love interest in Cemetery Junction. Jennifer Lawrence is in this film too - a fact definitely worth mentioning. I also like that the man's job in this film is furniture making. It's a nice reminder that it's okay for a man not to have to wear a suit to work.

I can't say I was emotionally moved by the film, however. I'm not averse to crying in front of moving pictures, but this one elicited no tears, no strong desire for how the story should end. I never quite entered the lovers' solipsistic world. How could I?

One final note: the actors apparently improvised much of the dialogue to give the film an air of realism. I wonder if it works like that? As Ian McKellen explained in Extras, acting is pretending to be something you are not. Improvising could be described as pretending not to be an actor, which amounts to a double pretence. Does that make things more real or less? I suppose the proof is in the pudding, so you'll just have to see for yourself.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Countercultural Cult

The Westboro Baptist Church has been a source of discomfort for me for the last number of years. It’s not because I’m a target of their hatred, at least not directly. It’s not even because I’m deeply troubled by what they do – picketing the funerals of dead soldiers, spreading a message of God’s impending judgement on a sinful people. Of course I agree with neither their message nor their methods, but that’s not where the tension lies. The tension lies in the fact that in an age when the church strives to be countercultural, I can think of few "churches" more countercultural than the Westboro Baptist Church. Their apocalyptic worldview, millenarian ethics and communal life together strike me as far closer to the form of the early church than most others in the West today. 

It is my judgement that they are not “the most hated family in America” because the content of their message deeply upsets us. We don’t care all that much for the feelings of Jews, gays, or the families of dead soldiers, and are certainly not overly concerned with what a crazy fundamentalist family from the States thinks about them. Rather, we hate the Westboro Baptist Church because they refuse to play by the unwritten rules of free speech, which say that you are free to speak provided what you speak is in accordance with what we’d like you to speak about. We hate them because their voices are free, whereas ours are so enslaved to a form of tolerance that has been imposed on us.

Slavoj Zizek had this to say in a lecture: “If you take the ruling ideology seriously you are one step from being a dissident.” This is precisely what the Westboro Baptist Church have done, and so it is little wonder that they are hated. They are so cultural that they are countercultural. They have taken “freedom of speech” too seriously, and are thus as much liberal democratic heretics as they are Christian heretics. 

To be an enemy of the liberal democratic state is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed the problem with the countercultural movement in contemporary churches is that people too often try to make the church countercultural within the limits set by the culture, which amounts to nothing countercultural at all. And any voice that would seek to introduce a new set of co-ordinates is labelled as “prophetic”, which usually means that what you’re saying is good, but unrealistic.

The Westboro Baptist Church is wrong on so many levels, but they are right on one very crucial matter: they take their god seriously. More than anything else, it is this that discomforts me.