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An Inglourious Problem

February 22, 2010

I’ll begin this reflection with a confession: I’m a Quentin Tarantino fan. I’m biased. As a lover of language I deeply appreciate the attention Tarantino pays to dialogue and narrative flow, especially when the narrative does not follow a traditional arc. And with Tarantino, it doesn’t. Roger Ebert made a convincing argument that Pulp Fiction is ultimately the tale of Jules Winnfield’s (the Samuel L. Jackson character) redemption, and the other storylines told in their strangely interwoven way serve that ultimate end. I also love Pulp Fiction precisely because it is Tarantino’s most overtly theological film. With his gross misquote of Ezekiel, Jules verbalizes every Christian’s dilemma: “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the Shepherd.”

This week there has been a lot of buzz around the entertainment industry that Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds, may actually win the Best Picture Oscar. I hope it does. I loved the movie. I found it disturbing, unsettling, hilarious, and (best of all) different from any film I’d seen in a long time. Christoph Waltz gives a surefire Oscar-winning performance as Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa whose job is to find and execute Jews in hiding, one of the most terrifying cat-and-mouse characters ever. Landa is a brilliant but terrifying man, a self-serving anti-Semite, a high-ranking Nazi officer, and a man whose intellect and charm are matched only by his narcissism and sociopathy. Brad Pitt plays Aldo Raine, the brutal leader of a small band of Jewish-American soldiers who ambush, scalp, torture, brand, and kill Nazis. Mélanie Laurent plays Shoshanna Dreyfus, a Jewish girl who escapes the clutches of Landa and goes about hiding in plain sight in the city.

And true to form, Tarantino frames this fanciful reimagining of World War II as a revenge fantasy. Tarantino loves revenge fantasies, but he doesn’t like them pure. Kill Bill was one long revenge fantasy told across two movies, but it was also a transformation/redemption story. The Bride is three distinct women: the assassin, a woman scorned and bent on revenge, and finally a loving mother who seeks to put her old life behind her. Tarantino made it clear in the DVD special features interviews when he said (paraphrased), “If the Bride is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, there would be no point.” The redemption stories of Jackie Brown and Jules Winnfield are also messy. But even messy, gritty redemption is not the genius of Basterds.

No, the genius is that Quentin Tarantino’s unique perspective on filmmaking allows him to do something very, very difficult. Inglourious Basterds is ultimately a meditation on evil, but a meditation that is free of moralizing or easy answers. You find yourself rooting for terrorists to win. The Basterds walk into a crowded movie theater with bombs strapped to their legs and you find yourself hoping they will succeed in blowing the theater up! But Tarantino does not fall into the trap of trying to make a political statement, or club you over the head with some heavy-handed moral. He doesn’t try to make us feel guilty for rooting for terrorists, nor does he tell us that terrorist tactics make us as bad as the others we identify as bad guys. Nope, he just lets it sit there. If we ask those questions, we ask them of ourselves later on in the parking lot of the theater or sometime later. Tarantino doesn’t have an ideology to promote or a political axe to grind. He’s just a storyteller using devices to move the story along. Are the Nazis evil? Without question. Are the Basterds’ tactics evil? Yes. Is Landa evil? Yes, and in its purest form! Even Shoshanna is no match for the temptation of revenge when the opportunity arises.

As soteriology was the fundamental question of Reformation theology (“How do I know that I’m saved?”), theology in the 21st Century revolves around maintaining credibility in a world shaped by Enlightenment and Post-Modern philosophy and around questions of theodicy (understanding God in light of incredible evil, including that perpetrated ostensibly in the name of God). While Basterds does not have an overt theological agenda, it does provide a profound reflection on the nature of both personal and systemic/corporate evil, temptation, self-preservation, and retributive justice.

Are we evil for taking sides? Is evil an effective weapon against evil? Do righteous ends ever justify evil means? Tarantino never urges us toward an answer. We just get to witness it and think for ourselves.


Sidenote: as a minister of the Christian faith, it is my firm belief that nonviolence is the preferred response to violence, that mercy triumphs over revenge, and that grace is better than retribution. While I don’t endorse themes of revenge, I do think we in the narrative-telling business can learn a thing or two from a master like QT.

Wherein the Troublemaker is Recommended for Ordination

February 10, 2010

I suppose I’ve been pegged as a troublemaker.  A boat-rocker.  Against the advice of wiser minds and leveler heads I tend to speak my mind.  WYSIWYG.  I will be accused of acting without thinking far more often than thinking without acting.

I suppose I could rationalize and glamorize that by naming it “claiming my prophetic voice,” or some such.  Others may use Tolkien’s classic line, “his mouth works faster than his brain.”  As usual, the truth is probably a little bit of both and mostly somewhere in between.  I’m not afraid to speak my mind, and sometimes I fail to consider the consequences of doing so.  Other times I carefully consider the consequences and speak my mind anyway; damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Knowing this about myself created a great deal of anxiety for me this week.  Monday afternoon was my interview with a team from the Board of Ordained Ministry to determine whether I am stole-worthy.  I came face to face with a reality that I myself created:  I was seeking the approval of a board that I have criticized publicly.  I was terrified.  (Okay, that was slightly hyperbolic.  I was really, really nervous.  I expected my earlier blog posts to blow up in my face.  I expected a call to repentance.  I didn’t fear for my life – I was simply justifiably concerned that I might be continued rather than approved, solely on the basis of my public critique).  Instead the interview went very, very well.  I wasn’t asked anything that threw me too far off balance.  My written work received far more compliment than critique*.  The subject of my public grousing about CPE never even came up. When all was said and done I was told that I am being recommended to the board for ordination as an Elder in Full Connection in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church.

And as I reflect on that development, I have come to one interesting conclusion:  I want to join the Board of Ordained Ministry.

I know, I know.  Some of you might be thinking that I want to join the board because I have an axe to grind.  Truth is I’m past that.  I don’t resent having to do CPE.  Sure it was expensive in terms of time and treasure.  Sure it was more of a refresher course than the new educational experience it is designed to be.  I felt like a big league hitter taking batting practice.  But I don’t resent it.  I’m not angry about it.  I do still rationally and reasonably believe that I could have used a different educational experience in its place and that I would be a better pastor by formally addressing other growing edges.  I still believe that the board might do better to address the gifts, graces, growing edges and deficits of individual candidates than to run us through a standardized mill.  But that’s not why I want to be on the board.  I don’t believe grinding that axe would make anything sharper.

No, I want to be part of the board for one reason alone: I want to work in the Residence in Ministry program.  I was very critical of the Residence in Ministry program while I was in it.  I dreaded every session.  I often left the meetings processing anger and frustration during my drive home.  It felt like we were given assignments that were designed just to give us something to do rather than something to do that addresses our written and oral work in the ordination process.

But I don’t want to work for Residence in Ministry because I have an axe to grind, either.  To paraphrase Bishop Willimon, “either your conference is serious about having young clergy or it isn’t.”  And I’m serious about young clergy.  As I entered the process I could have been considered young clergy but as I complete it calling me young (at 41) is a stretch.  (In our conference 41 is quite young in relative terms, but seriously – if your definition of “young clergy” is early 40s there’s a problem somewhere).  I don’t want to stand on the sidelines whining and moaning about how bad the process is or what I think needs to be done.  I want to work within the program specifically because I stand right at the borderline between young and experienced clergy.  I’m old enough to understand and carefully consider the concerns of the older generations of the church, but young enough to relate well with younger clergy and to help them in a discernment and preparation process.

Too many exercises we did in Residence in Ministry felt like a rehash of seminary or CPE processes.  We debated about whether that was because the designers really miss seminary and CPE and want to relive the experience, or because they couldn’t think of anything else to do.  I want to design exercises for Residence in Ministry because I am excited to see a younger generation of leaders in the United Methodist Church and I want to see them succeed.  I want young clergy to come out of the RIM process feeling confident and well-prepared for turning in their written work and facing their interviews.  I want to see young clergy address their personal growing edges, nurturing their strongest gifts, and energized to engage in effective, exciting ministry.

There are lots of things that seminary and “new pastors’ orientation” don’t teach you about being an effective United Methodist pastor, and RIM should be there to fill in that gap. I am convinced that some good candidates are continued on the basis that they did not fully understand the assignments given them or didn’t understand what is expected of their written work.  RIM should make the assignments and expectations clear.  I want to be a part of the RIM process because I genuinely believe I can help.

I will gladly remain a troublemaker and a boat-rocker for the sake of the Reign of God and for the benefit of the United Methodist Church.

*Our guidelines for written work stated that “All materials submitted must meet graduate level standards of correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, and clarity of thought.”  However my work was critiqued as being “too academic,” even though I intentionally weaved personal narrative and academic insights throughout.  My answer to that critique was, “I was told over and over that this is an academic assignment, so I won’t apologize for turning in academic work.”

I Am George Harrison

January 18, 2010

Okay, maybe not.  I’m a generation younger, a USAmerican, and nowhere near as famous or as talented.

But I relate to George in ways that bear articulating.  I am a deeply spiritual person.  My seminary classmates used to scoff when I mentioned this, but I have a very deep sense of piety.  Not “piousness,” or holier-than-thou-ness, but genuine reverence for God and God’s creation.  That, of course, is balanced by my frequently irreverent sense of humor and snark.  I try to allow myself to be irreverent but not blasphemous, aloof but respectful, and mostly silly but loving.   Like Life of Brian.

I haven’t been crazy about some of the Beatles covers you can hear at The Beatles Complete on Ukulele.  (If you want to hear the wonderful combination of Beatles music and ukulele you’re better off checking out The Beatles Uke by former Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes or WS64’s YouTube channel.)  But some of their essays are spot on (and sometimes they fall into the old “John was a genius, Paul is a weenie” trap that really grinds my gears, but I digress.)  Their most recent post gives this succinct psychoanalysis of George Harrison:

George Harrison was smart enough to know that money and fame is a chimera, that materialism is a dead end. Well, life itself is a dead end.

Is that all there is? Que sera sera?

Sic transit gloria mundi.So passes the glory of the world. All things must pass.

George craved meaning, which is a rough go when you are a natural born cynic.

But inside the armor of every isolated cynic is a jilted lover of truth. He tried all the world had to offer and kept on looking.

I love that next-to-last line.  “But inside the armor of every isolated cynic is a jilted lover of truth.”  That is a slightly more articulate version of something I’ve been saying about myself for a while, “a cynic is really a heartbroken romantic.”  I’m not so much a pessimist as an optimist with a broken heart.  I’m an idealist whose high hopes have been crushed by the corruption and apathy of the world.  I can be a real Reinhold Niebuhr, proclaiming that our responsibility is to do our best even though our best probably sucks.

I wish I could be a Paul McCartney who can sing “Good Day, Sunshine” without a hint of irony, a Bob Marley who can chant “Every thing’s gonna be alright” over and over and mean it.  I have undying admiration for their ability to do just that.  And I’m glad that I’m not a John Lennon, whose entire understanding of the world changes with every emotional whim.

Nope, I’m a George.  I can sing “Give me love, give me love, give me peace on earth,” so long as it’s tempered with “give me hope, help me cope with this heavy load.”  I can see the optimistic vision of the future; what a theologian might describe as God’s eschatological vision of  the world redeemed and transformed; but I cannot deny the heavy weight of the world as it is.  I can sing praises to My Sweet Lord, but not without warning you to “beware of sadness – it can hit you, it can hurt you, make you sore and what is more – it is not what you are here for!”

And like George I recognize that nothing can sweep away my cynicism like an old Hoagy Carmichael song played sweetly on the ukulele.

So what does it mean to be a heartbroken romantic, a jilted lover of truth when you are a preacher and a pastor for a living?  Well, you sing love songs to the truth that you love.  You uphold the romantic vision.  You sing it with passion.  And you embrace the reality that we just ain’t there yet.  The darkness does surround us.  There really are people standing ’round who’ll screw us in the ground.  And our bridges between the darkness of the present world and the transformed eschatologically redeemed world are grounded and manifest in spirituality and action.

Maybe a George isn’t a bad thing for a pastor to be.

The Wesleys and the Gospel of Zoysiagrass

December 14, 2009

On his Twitter feed, United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter wrote that the gospel of sin management has turned us into Christian vampires who are interested in Jesus only for his blood. (paraphrased).  To my mind, there’s a lot of truth in that statement.  Modern evangelical Christianity does place an awful lot of emphasis on Jesus’ death.  My father-in-law, who grew up Baptist, refers to the Baptist hymnal as “the bloody hymnal” because of all the blood hymns.

There is a fountain filled with blood

Now the point of this post is not to dispute the doctrine of blood atonement – it is one of many keystone doctrines of our understanding of atonement.  Rather, I simply want to ponder a Wesleyan approach to the Christian life in a way that fleshes out my agreement with Slaughter’s statement.  There is, to put it bluntly, far more to the Christian life than avoiding or stopping sin.  (“Are we able to stop sinning on our own” is an interesting Systematic Theology question for another day!)

The finest, lushest, softest grass in the world is zoysiagrass.  If you’ve ever been to a really nice golf course you’ve walked on it.  The tee areas and fairways are almost always made of zoysiagrass.  It’s like a natural carpet.  And I think there’s an awful lot of Wesleyan wisdom and indeed Gospel reflected in zoysiagrass.

  • Zoysiagrass requires maintenance.  If your lawn is zoysiagrass, you probably need to be prepared to aerate the soil by walking around in spiked shoes or using a lawn tractor attachment.  And it grows so thick that it can be difficult to mow if you let it go too long.  It’s also important to keep it properly thatched and watered if you want it to be at its greenest and loveliest.  Likewise, the Christian life requires regular maintenance.  Holy tempers, Holy habits are vital to living a truly Christian life.  Prayer, scripture study, worship, sacrament, Christian action (e.g. visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, Matthew 25 stuff), fellowship – these are all essential stuff for maintaining a truly robust and healthy Christian life.  Never forget that the Wesleys were ridiculed by their classmates for their devotion and rigor and were derided as “methodists.”
  • Zoysiagrass is the first to turn brown in fall, and the last to turn green in the spring.  This makes me think of the old story of two monks who argued over whose Master was greater.  The first monk said his master was greater because he spent hours upon hours in prayer and could recite the scriptures from memory.  The second said his was even greater than that because he “eats when he is hungry, drinks when he is thirsty and sleeps when he is tired.”  It’s almost as if zoysiagrass has an intuitive sense of kairos:  it knows when it is time to green up, time to lie back, time to grow, and time to sleep.  John Wesley’s Exacter diary showed that he was concerned (if not downright obsessive-compulsive) about how time is spent and achieving proper balance between private and communal acts of worship and mission.
  • Zoysiagrass is drought resistant. While it needs water to be at its greenest, zoysia will go into a dormant state during periods of drought.  Hard times may put it through a Dark Night of the Soul, but will not kill it.  I don’t need to expand that metaphor, do I?
  • Zoysiagrass chokes out weeds. You will not need to poison your lawn to kill dandelions, clover, crabgrass or buckhorn if you have zoysiagrass.  When properly healthy, zoysiagrass chokes out weeds on its own.  When properly maintained, the Christian life is so full and so robust that many of our sins become incompatible with our lifestyle.  I’m not saying that being a healthy Christian chokes out all sin, but it certainly does choke out many sinful habits – and this understanding is essential to a true Wesleyan understanding of Entire Sanctification.  Consider Slaughter’s term “the gospel of sin management,” which implies a lifestyle of weeding and pruning.  While weeding and pruning are important, so are fertilizing, aerating, watering, thatching.  Holy habits encourage naturally choking out some sin rather than wasting time trying to chase them all down and pull them out.
  • Zoysiagrass spreads. Those who can afford it will have rolls of sod spread over their lawns, planting the zoysia all at once.  Others will buy it in plugs.  When those plugs of sod are planted in your lawn, the zoysia will choke out your other grass around it and eventually those patches will grow together.  Eventually it can take over your neighbor’s lawn!  And a Christianity that is robust and healthy like zoysiagrass will be evangelical more by nature than by intention.

So I encouraged my congregation yesterday to give themselves a Christmas gift by planting a little Wesleyan Christian zoysiagrass in their lives: to engage in holy habits that will choke out sin, make us resistant to droughts, encourage healthy balance, and will grow and spread.  A Zoysiagrass Christianity will be tough as nails at the roots but gentle on your feet and beautiful to the eye.  Good news!

Blue Monday: Blue Monday

November 16, 2009

Yep.  Today I decided that Blue Monday’s post should be its namesake so sit back and groove to the Fat Man.

Friday (the 13th) Five: Luck

November 13, 2009

In keeping with my tradition of following Scott’s Friday Fives, let’s discuss luck – both good and bad.

Bonus:  If I could wake up tomorrow with one guitarist’s skills, I would probably choose Brian Setzer.  He’s amazing.  Here’s Brian with the Stray Cats doing “Lucky Charm”

Me used to be angry young man

November 10, 2009

Me hiding me head in the sand.  You gave me the word.  I finally heard.  I’m doing the best that I can.

Why is it that the Beatles so often relate to my life so closely?  I find my experiences, feelings, and even my spirituality reflected in their lyrics and music.  At various times in my own life I could have shouted, “Help me if you can, I’m feeling down; and I do appreciate you being ’round.”  “Say the Word and you’ll be free … Have you heard, the word is LOVE?”  “You don’t realize how much I need you.”  Even in my practice of meditation, “turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.”

I tend to be a big fan of Paul’s music, of John’s raw emotion, and of George’s spirituality.  Today it’s the classic “Getting Better,” one of Paul’s gems.  Well, except for the whole “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.”  That’s nothing like my relationship with Katy.

But I did used to be an angry young man.  More accurately, I have a tendency to be a depressed man, and that depression can manifest itself as anger.  If I let myself, I can be a downright bitter, cynical, jaded and angry person.  But as I’ve gotten older I came to the realization that my Angry Young Man shtick got old.  Real old.  And not just to those around me.  To me too.  If I’m going to burn my energy on emotion, anger is just not one that’s ever going to do me any good.  Living with regrets caused by angry actions requires a lot of mental and emotional energy that I’m not willing to expend anymore.

I wish I could say that it was easy, but in the words of Steve Earle, transcendence is never easy.  Insight – while essential to healing – is never enough.  It’s taken a lot of prayer, a lot of time, some counseling and antidepressant medication to get me where I am today.  It’s taken behavioral intervention and work.  I’ve had to learn to recognize my patterns of bitterness before they turn even unhealthier.  I’ve learned to trust my wife who sees those patterns before I can.  I’ve learned that anger might get my way in the short term but always messes things up in the long term.  The reinforcement of the short-term benefits makes it difficult to let go of anger because in the heat of the moment I can only see the short term.  I have to be intentional in reminding myself that I am not the center of the universe or even of my own little world, and that what I want right now may not be what’s good for  me or anyone around me.

There’s a famous photograph of John Lennon at his desk, and you can see a postcard he wrote to his son Julian.  It reads, “Every day, in every way I’m getting better and better.”  John later used that line (changing I’m to it’s) in his song Beautiful Boy.  And that’s very much how I feel these days.  I sincerely believe that God’s healing in my own life has come in the form of excellent counselors, a patient and loving family, and even antidepressants.  I simply cannot deny that the power of love is transforming me.  I am becoming a better man, a better person, because I am loved.