Monday, March 28, 2016
Revelation at the Intersection of the Supermans
The original Superman tended to suppress his deep, visceral passions for the sake of the greater good, which was presumed to be the smoothly functioning machine we hoped in by calling it society. He presented as a hero offering an impossible image of justice, with no spilling of sacrificial blood of embodiments of even the worst evils. The original Superman had no awareness of the dark possibility of destruction of the whole world hidden in its theoretical and technological crafting. Batman never used guns. Global peace and harmony was achievable through training and hard work on your feet with your hands, and through hopeful tolerance at the joints where different parts of the machine fit together.
The new Superman is the result of taking exactly that upside down image of the world being turned right side up. The hoped for global machine has been achieved, and on its surface has arisen global terror (see link for discussion of terrorism and BVS) in response. The passions previously latent under the surface now appear blatantly on the screen (even in a bathtub love scene). There is no distinction between hero and terrorist. Both are the presentation of possible global destruction. After a glimpse of nuclear war was what ended as the culmination of two World Wars, fear of the loss of a smoothly operating global machine dominates over hope in its achievement.
With such passions boldly on the surface of reality, heroes readily and JUSTifiably kill to keep the damn of terror from bursting. Batman uses guns (somewhat) indiscriminately as in a dream of what might be necessary. Leaving massive, city-wide destruction in his wake, Superman readily kills a fellow alien. Such a wake only sets the stage for man's greatest fear to later be realized - the impossibility of terror's suppression. We don't even know if the emerging new terror rising from our squelching of it is in the form of the hero or of Doomsday! The final image is of the anti-hero's warning that evil forces are on their way to over-take the planet.
From where I stand as a Christian, the problem with this, the reason it can be spoken of as the presentation of more than silliness but even as evil, is that it is the turning of one idol over into another.
A good and dear friend of mine sees a general problem in a cultural pattern of images that present the destruction of traditional images of stability, images in which good always and rightly triumphs over evil. The good guy always wins. Order, justice, law, and virtue always win over chaos, destruction, and bloodlust. The good image of reality should awlays win over an image of reality in which chaos, uncertainty, and instability move to the center of the stage of what appears in our world.
Of course, this presumes in the first place that good and evil, order and chaos, can be clearly and orderly presented as separate characters and goals in a story that depicts true reality. In American Sniper, this un-real convenience is achieved quite literally by putting black hats on the bad guys and white hats on the good guys. That makes good and evil easy to distinguish, which, in turn, also makes easy the allegiance to good.
I would wholeheartedly agree with this expectation for our cultural images of reality, if only the image of "stability" were actually Jesus. I would agree that goodness, order, and virtue should and do always present as triumphing - if only that were how God presented His reality to us. I would readily agree that good should be clearly distinguished from evil, if only I knew from looking back on my life on which side I always ever stood. "Why do you call me good?" And, I don't think this is a matter of semantical nuance.
It's not just a matter of adding the word "space" just before the word "Jesus." It's in the Babylonian creation story that order is almost roundly defeated by chaos. Order wins after apparent defeat and builds the world we live in on the bloody corpse of chaos. It's in the Babylonian empire where the King annually acts out this creation story of their world to the delight and exaltation of his people.
The real Jesus, however, doesn't triumph over chaos. He submits to it.
The real Jesus wasn't a patient of Freud's. Suppression of the deep visceral wells of desire wasn't a question. There was no vacuous outer space where aliens had perfect control over every aspect of their being like organic robots. Man can't build himself to do that. Idols are crafted rather than submitted to.
The real Jesus wasn't a projection of humanity's idealized version of himself and his world. The real Jesus spilled his own blood. On top of that, his bleeding WAS his depiction of true justice. Idols hope in fantasies that can't deliver on their promises. And, when idols do deliver on their promises, the bow on the gift isn't as beautifully and completely tied as we had hoped. That's why Zack Snyder's Superman so powerfully repulses part of me. I'm an idol maker, too. Faith would be easy if my idols succeeded. But, it would be faith in my idols. Faith is hard when "the cords of Sheol entangled me."
The absence of violence wasn't a question in the real world of Jesus. Jesus took violence to be a fact of the world. Jesus' justice was to eat that violence, to take it upon himself, to carry it upon his own body. To submit to it. Jesus was the real gift, and his whole body was stained with blood. His piercing pierces through my idol that falsely hopes for perfection free of cost. The spear in Jesus' side breaks my illusion of the beauty of the original Superman. In Love, I am given to see an infinitely greater Beauty.
Jesus' achievement of justice wasn't presumed to carry the weight of the hopes and fears of the entire globe on its shoulders. Jesus' justice was the murder of an innocent Jewish carpenter rabbi in a small and distant Roman outpost that was a mere constant thorn in her side. "Jesus, King of the Jews" was meant to mock the Jews. That tiny and seemingly insignificant event within the whole known world that was called Rome, however, did just so happen to carry cosmic significance for all of humanity. The humble presumptions of the Incarnation's achievement reveal the inevitable result of man's making the whole planet into his idol.
The key word there is inevitable. As I said at the beginning of this post, the new (post-modern) Superman inevitably turned out from the original (modern one). The idol was the exact same in both cases. The two presentations of Superman are simply two different views of the same idol. And, the idol I am speaking of isn't Superman. The idol I'm speaking of is man's crafting of a planet for himself. The idol is the globe. The idol is the same as Nimrod's. Babel was left as an unfinished structure, but we never stopped trying to put it all together.
I try to readily accept, however, that the structure isn't mine to finish. The structures that we take to be our images of reality are not ours to complete, not ours to stabilize. Comic books, by the way, constitute such an effort of man as his own craftsman - into a Super(or Bat)-man.
The assumption that stable structures are ours to complete, coupled with the assumption that we begin the building of that reality in the first place, is precisely the meeting place between the two versions of Superman. Both versions of Superman have those assumptions in common. That meeting place, then, man's image of his globe, is where the two (modern and post-modern) worlds of Superman - his being a projected idol of the modern hopes of man - is seen to utterly fall apart into silly, hopeless, fantasy. And, when I say fantasy, I don't mean that Superman was originally a comic book. I am referring to the political fantasies of man that fuel both versions of Superman.
The good guys don't always win. God's values don't always defeat lawlessness. God's people and God's values aren't even necessarily depicted in the (modern) structures that we take to be stabilized images of a good world. The truth is, the bad guys won, and the murderous tyrant was freed. The truth is, God used that perfectly completed image of present reality to reveal the truth of the injustice latent at the heart of all of our idols. There is no need for despair. Don't be depressed that Batman resorted to the use of guns to thwart global terror or that Superman lost his perfectly robotic control over his passions. All of that really did happen. Zack Snyder's Superman is even more hopeful than the gospels. Lex Luthor was sent to prison while Barabbas was freed. And God still won. Not coincidentally, I saw Batman Versus Superman on Easter :)
Monday, March 07, 2016
So, I saw “Risen.”
Before I saw it, I asked someone who had seen it if it was a well crafted film, if it had good acting, direction, cinematography, and if it weaved a good story together. They said yes and explained that it was a good story about a Roman centurion who came to know Jesus in the time between his crucifixion and ascension.
After I saw it, someone asked me what I thought. I told them that I was pleasantly surprised that most all of that turned out to be pretty much true. The acting, especially by the lead, was excellent. And, taking the film for what it was, it was generally very well crafted. So, I was pleasantly surprised by how some of the things about the film were very good.
I should have been less than surprised, however, that a central and key measure of the worth of a film about Jesus came up severely lacking. That is, considering that it was a major box office motion picture, I shouldn’t have hoped that the film would actually do a good job of telling the story of Jesus. One day, when I learn better my basic point of this blog post, I will not make such a mistake.
Here’s the bigger problem, though. The particular ways in which the story mis-tells the story of Jesus are the exact ways the American church does the same. I’m not sure whether the bigger problem is that the film well represents the church or that the church well represents the film.
There were actually a couple parts of the film that were deeply moving to me. One of them was when Jesus embraced and healed the leper. It was beautiful, and it was powerful. More importantly, it was moving and motivating. In the context of the film as a contextualized embodiment of gospel truth, however, this scene ends up reducing hospitality and love to fragmented principles to follow rather than elements of an integrated story being told by God himself in which we are participating.
Let’s start with the obvious. There was no such thing as a Roman detective. Sherlock Holmes was a late 19th century invention. There was no such thing as detective work until positivism brought the intellectual thrust of the Enlightenment to its fullness and end. Rome had no CIA. The West’s Tower of Babel wasn’t that high yet. The continuously present arm of Caesar simply responded to actual threats with actual violent force. In the trial of Jesus, Pilate wasn’t analyzing measurable data to predict social outcomes. He simply wanted to know, considering the raucous crowd in his courtyard, if Jesus presented an active and viable threat to Roman order and peace. Minus weeks of media discussion, of pouring over hundreds of files of information presented to him by his council members, Pilate rightly determined that Jesus had no intention of leading a violent rebellion. That’s all Pilate wanted to know.
Suddenly, three days later, with rumors that this Jesus was alive again, Pilate sends a centurion on a detective mission to find Jesus’ body to prevent the uprising he had already determined wasn’t going to happen even if he hadn’t killed him on the cross? Remember, Rome had no such thing as detectives. Please….
The scriptures mention that the Sanhedrin started a rumor that Jesus’ body was stolen. Pilate’s response would have likely been, “And that’s my problem why?” So, the Sanhedrin would have been left to its own devices to find the body if it was that concerned with it. But, even granting that Pilate may have been willing to play along, seeing as how the Jews are the ones who conjured up the rumor and did so knowing that the reason they did was because they had no idea what really happened to the body and simultaneously wanted the issue to just go away and wanted to attempt to scapegoat the disciples for the body's disappearance, why would the Sanhedrin be responsible for a giant detective mission that makes a big public spectacle of the issue?
The rumors of Jesus’ resurrection were just that – rummagings of rumors. There was no giant threat to Rome. There was no immanent threat to the authority of the Sanhedrin. Even the disciples reacted initially with a combination of utter shock and disbelief and dismissive confusion. Even granting that an ancient Roman would go on an analytical detective mission, what pressed the issue to being of such importance as to go on one?
It seems as though the answer to that question is that a contemporary Christian wanted tell a hypothetical story of what it might be like for a similarly contemporary skeptic to go on a mission to confront his doubt. The Case for Christ wasn’t written until 1,900 years after the Sanhedrin’s confusion. Not only was there not yet such thing as apologetics, but early apologetics didn’t have the same dynamics, the same antagonisms, the same concerns that drove it as the ones that drove the making of Risen, which, unfortunately, happens to be about the time before even that early church that didn’t yet have those concerns that drove the making of a film about that time. That sounded repetitive. You get my point?
So, Risen lost me at the basic premise.
The problem with that is the church tends to have very little understanding of the historical context of the gospel stories. And, it shows in what the church is and how it operates in the world.
Also, why was the band of disciples depicted as a jolly, traveling family of harmlessly loony nice guys? I truly enjoyed their joy, and, as Paul indicated, truth, power, and witness clearly lay the joy of a disciple. However…
The disciples seem overcome by a naïve, optimistic hope that smiling really big will convert Hitler to Jesus. The blindness of this optimism is affirmed when Pilate kicks Bartholomew in the shin while he’s already down. After spending the entire conversation up to that point trying to convert the Roman centurion with his giant white teeth and the gleam in his eye, Bartholomew’s Bohemian hair covers his face when the only thing he can do is look down at the ground and yell at Clavius to stop to indicate that the officer’s point was received. Bartholomew, his nice guy identity now broken, is unable to look Clavius in the face in that moment. The depiction of the character of the disciples not only has no reconciliation to the cross but no sense of how the vision of their King confronts the rulers of this world.
And, that’s probably because the vision of their King himself, in the first place, has no sense of how who he is and what he does confronts all the treasures upon which the world is built. When Jesus came face to face with authority figures - say, the Roman centurion or the rich young ruler – his words and his actions were like arrows heading with power straight for the bull’s eye of difference between what moves the world and the Word standing before his audience. When the resurrected Jesus came face to face with Clavius, Jesus had no bull’s eye. It was simply a soft and open smile of acceptance without confrontation, sacrificial blood, or atoning fire. It was the presumption of an easy and complete union without repentance. As a result, in the scene of Bartholomew’s questioning, the disciple of that passionate king had no bull’s eye, no passion, no way to reconcile with his suffering inflicted upon him by this authority figure who questioned him.
The problem with that is, the church operates as if it has very little understanding of how it presents a confrontation between the King of the universe and “the rulers…the authorities…the cosmic powers over this present darkness…” And, a big part of why the church is overcome by this naïveté is because it projects it’s own history of modern Christendom – which is perfectly happy with the church BEING the “ruler” and “authority” of “this present darkness” – onto the historical context of the New Testament. No wonder the writers of the script of “Risen” seemed confused on how to portray Bartholomew after Clavius kicked him. It’s easy to be nice when you’re in the seat of power.
And, that reminds me of my final big complaint with Risen. I don’t know how to say it other than to simply say that the ending was utterly stupid. I’m sorry.
In ancient Rome, walking alone through the desert was called forced exile. No one chose to do it unless Jesus was pushed there by the Holy Spirit or Paul went there to relive Israel’s Exodus after God had already joined him to His body. The ending of “Risen,” though, implies that the strength of Clavius, after being clearly presented with the truth of the resurrected King of all of creation, couldn’t quite get himself to join with his merry band of fools and, yet, also couldn’t return to Egypt. He’s left to confront the open horizon alone with the existential angst of bearing responsibility for deciding his own eternal fate resting upon his shoulders to make the ultimate of spiritual decisions.
The problem with that is the continued influence of the Billy Graham disease upon the church. Does the ending of the film reflect the ideology of the altar call, or, rather, is the ideology of the altar call in the mega church to add to their demographic and financial numbers extended out into the ending of “Risen”?
Of course, the reason for this disordered ending is twofold. First, this individualist wondering through the desert of existence is because neither Jesus nor the church presented a message of clear choice between one mission and another. The lips of the Jesus who greets Clavius with a warm smile of naiveté about the cross he’d just died on would never have said “No one can serve two masters,” much less “Whoever is not with me is against me.” The same idiot’s optimism that can’t look the violent ruler’s aggression in the eye later leads that very ruler with not only the false illusion that he doesn’t have to choose between his own rule and that of Jesus but also with the illusion that such a choice doesn’t involve the membering of himself to one body or another. Of course, needless to say, no one in ancient Rome would have suffered such an idiot’s optimism. No one in ancient Rome would have forgotten they had a body, either.
Secondly, speaking of the lack of clear choice of a master (that leads to the lack of clear choice of a body), Clavius’ end of aimless wandering through the desert to endlessly ponder what he’d just seen assumes a self-autonomy that, quite simply, no one in the ancient world pretended to even begin to fathom. A running theme of the film is the Roman centurion’s quiet resentment over being forced to be at Pilate’s beck and call whenever “Pilate summons you.” I doubt anyone in Rome enjoyed being under Caesar’s thumb anymore than any modern enjoys being forced by their bosses to do what we don’t want to do, but the whole reason Clavius’ annoyance at Pilate’s summonses is supposed to provide amusement and vicarious connection to his character is because he is most foundationally assumed to be self-autonomous. As if he had a choice, anyway, or as if it was possible in the first place for him to “do his own thing” or to “think for himself.” No.
Subjection under something or someone greater was simply a fact of life in the ancient world. At that point in the gospel narrative, fitting quite well with the fact that most of the disciples fled from Jesus when captured and Peter denied him at his trial, Bartholomew would have been quivering in fear for his life standing before the judgment of Clavius. When, after Penetcost, John and Peter later stood before the Sanhedrin with such boldness, the Jewish leaders were, quite appropriately, utterly shocked.
I shouldn’t have to mention the obvious connection between the lack of clear choice between missions and bodies presented by Jesus’ merry band of fools in “Risen” and the presumption of Clavius' individual self-autonomy. By now, I hope it is also obvious how those two interwoven reasons for the ending don’t just cause the ending but are embodied in the acting out of it.
The ending was unbelievable. The basic premise was equally unbelievable. The characterization of the disciples was silly. And, the depiction of the face of Jesus would have been better taking a lesson from Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” and been avoided entirely.
Generally, all of this was because the story of the film didn’t tell or fit into a coherent gospel story of the climax of God’s story for all of creation by which He not only won’t but can’t fail to redeem all the world to His purpose, glory, goodness and beauty. The story of the film is as confused as the disciples ACTUALLY were all the way right up until Pentecost! Of course, in the film, when Bartholomew is asked if he believed Jesus would rise again after he was crucified, he – not without a naively, cheerfully, and warmly smiling – says, “Well, he said that’s what would happen, but I did doubt it a little bit.”
NO! When Jesus was crucified, the disciples’ world was utterly shattered. When Jesus died, to them it meant he wasn’t who he said he was. It meant that everything in which they had placed their hopes had just been cast into the sea attached to an anchor the size of Leviathan. Jesus’ death meant they were nothing and no one. Jesus’ death was, as far as they were concerned, their own.
The ONLY way you get from that complete shattering into infinite depths of inescapable darkness to the kind of crystallized joy depicted of the disciples in “Risen” within a couple of days of the resurrection is by a mighty work of the Spirit that shook the very foundations of the building in which they prayed at Pentecost!
Again, my basic point here is that there is no contextually embodied and coherent story told of the mighty work of God in the world. Of course, that very much means that the film itself is not an embodiment of such a story, either.
The reason I don’t hail “Risen,” then, is because I couldn’t participate in the action. There was no real action in which to participate. Despite its being a story (supposedly) about Jesus, I found myself sitting on the bench on the sidelines of whatever other story it was that was being told.
I would think that if you wanted to make a story about the confrontation that occurs when the arm of Caesar is confronted by the powerful presence of Jesus but, in the end, can’t take Him seriously, then you would want to write “Hail Caesar.“ Instead, “Risen” manages to write the same story while avoiding the confrontation and still not taking Jesus seriously.
Thursday, March 03, 2016
Fire in the Presence of God
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
- from 2 Peter 3
I discussed those verses previously in talking about the ACTING OUT of the covenant, of covenant MAKING.
I ended the last post of this series with two references to the covenant. One, in the context of “Where I am, there you will be also,” was, “And you know the way where I am going.” The other reference to the covenant was 2 Peter 3: 12, about the disappearance of the heavens and the earth.
Everyone knows that a covenant is an agreement between two parties, much like a contract. What gets missed, however, is that a covenant is between two members of what is to become a newly unified body. As an extension of this lack of understanding of the forming of a BODY in a covenant, we often don’t realize that the Hebrew word used for covenant comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to cut” (reference HERE). In practice, an animal was cut into pieces - apparently, based on GENESIS 15, into halves - and the two halves of the animal were passed between by the two parties of the covenant being “cut.” As discussed previously HERE in this series, this means that ancient covenants were, prior to the dawn of speculative thought and, in this case, prior to the earliest known phonetic alphabets!, ACTED OUT. The cutting up of animals was the acting out of the death of an old body or bodies, the bodies both of the symbolic sacrifice and of the actual or concrete party or parties in the agreement. The shedding of blood was the loss of the flow of life, and the acting out of the covenant, then, was the acting out of a new state of things, of new living. In some cases, such as in EXODUS 24: 8, the parties participating in the acting out of the new living were covered in the life blood of it.
And, as in Leviticus 16: 20-22 and Leviticus 4: 13-21, it is also important that the animal being cut is chosen from the flock of one of the agreeing MEMBERS of the covenant. Just as “technologies are the extensions of man” (previously discussed HERE in the second post of this series), so also are his possessions. This is why, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It is also why we will “receive our inheritance” in the parousia. We are His possessions, so we will be joined to Him fully in life eternal. Anyway, just as the sins of the people are extended to the scapegoat and sacrificial bull when the goat or bull from their flocks is laid upon by the hands of the priest, the life and being of the MEMBERS of the covenant are PRESENT in the sacrificed animal as it is cut. The blood of the animal is theirs, and, as such, what happens to it is an acting out of the fact that the members of the agreement “mean business.” In actuality, the cutting is what gives meaning to the business in the first place.
No wonder a covenantal reading of the scriptures is no longer the primary one. The lens handed up to us by our history makes a covenant nearly impossible to “understand,” precisely because its members don’t intellectually assent to it but, instead, ACT IT OUT. As explored throughout the history portion of this blog series, man and his interpretation of the world and reality has changed quite a bit from the time when covenants were “used” to “seal” agreements. In fact, I put “used” and “seal” in quotes there because - as discussed previously HERE and HERE in this blog series in discussions of pragmatics and literacy - both of those terms, fundamental to our language and its meaning, are at the root of how we, now steeped in our literary vision, act out or lives and our reality. “Use” and “sealed” don’t have much to do with covenant making, though. They do fit well with a complex and intellectually theorized system, both seen and crafted in the mind, written down, and, at a distance from the thought and written theory, applied. It is the acted out covenant, however, which is, historically, as far from us as the ghost from the machine, that ties my whole argument that “heaven both is and will be here” together. And that, at least partially, is precisely because a covenant is between two members of what is to become a newly unified body.
Precisely because of the centrality of the bodily resurrection to the covenant narrative, when he sees the resurrected Jesus, Paul realizes that the last days of the old age of death, exile and bondage – the world as it had been known to him - had already ended, and the first days of the new eternal Kingdom of life and freedom from sin had begun! Because of the death of the God of heaven and earth (of the universe, you might say) on the Cross, the disappearance, the death, of the old heaven and earth, and of the old body, had already begun! The completion of this death or disappearance of the old had been mentioned by Peter in terms of the parousia in 2 Peter 3, which also mentions the judgment of the world and vindication of God’s family promised in Daniel 7.
will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed....the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!
I also associate that with the meaning of the burnt offerings of, say, Leviticus 1: 1-17, which occur in the presence of God and so do the work of God. I suspect Peter is making the same association in his latter.
Of course, that burnt offering was a pre-figuring of Christ and his work of atonement, of the formation of a body of people belonging to him.
Notably, that passage from Leviticus 1 also mentions this:
He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.
I draw that out, because I mentioned the idea in the blog post above - the importance of the offerings being members of the flock of the one making the offering. I mentioned the idea that possessions are extensions of the self...which is why the Israelite making the offering would lay his hand on the head of said offering. The extending out of his hand onto the head of the offering was an acting out of the fact that his flock was an extension of himself, and that this member of his flock was receiving his sin.
Anyway, the point I'm getting at is, I think Peter is using the imagery of the burnt offering to point to Christ. And, not only to Christ, but to Christ as the presence of God filling all of His creation "as the waters cover the sea." Obviously, all of creation includes the heavens. In other words, I am seeing the relationship between Christ and all of creation as being analogical to the relationship between the Israelite making a burnt offering and the burnt offering itself. As the burnt offering was to the Israelite making it, so all of creation, including heaven, is to Christ in 2 Peter 3: 10-12. As the Israelite's flock was an extension of himself, all of creation is an extension of Christ and belongs to him.
In other words, in 2 Peter 3: 10-12 all of creation becomes a figuring of Christ as a burnt offering.
Of course, none of that would make sense without having a concept of the ACTING OUT of the covenant, which I discussed in the blog post. In other words, this idea of the analogy between Christ and the burnt offering in 2 Peter 3: 10-12 wouldn't make sense if a covenant (and covenant making) is just an intellectual concept to understand.
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