Tag Archives: narrative

Three Metaphors at a Closing of a Story: Part 1 Diverging Paths

The story ends, as all stories eventually do
A door closes, a world comes to its conclusion
And I stand watching as the words that conjured it
Sink slowly into the deep sea of memories.
Its characters who became my companions on the road.
I have known their names, I have shared their dreams
I supped at their table and walked their winding way
But they now recede with their world as my path diverges
Their story ends and mine continues forward
And I have been changed on this journey through their world
Rarely do I walk out of a story unaltered by its magic
I’ve seen another world and talked with its denizens
Yet, other worlds beckon from the shelves invitingly
There is a beautiful, tearful, strange magic in these words
Which invoke such vivid reactions in my mind
It’s time to close the book, maybe someday I’ll return
To share this journey once again, to rekindle friendships lost
And rediscover the people and place in these pages.

Star Wars, National Identity and the Seduction of the Dark Side

takeheraway-anh

I was five years old when Star War: The New Hope (or Episode IV) was released and as a child I watched it countless times. I anxiously awaited each new chapter in this space opera which would become for many one of the great American stories. I grew up wanting to be Luke Skywalker, being able to wield the force and fly in X-Wing Starfighters and I believe many of my peers wanted to be either Luke or Han Solo or Princess Leia. Yet, there has been a trend I am noticing more and more lately and I think it says something about our society. In a narrative about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker there has become an increasing fondness for the fallen Anakin, or Darth Vader and the Empire which he serves.

I never reflected on this phenomenon until recently. Admittedly the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader had the cooler costumes with their skeletal look. Yet one of the reasons for portraying these soldiers in this manner was to reinforce the message of the Empire they served, one of fear. I enjoyed the occasional video of Darth Vader and his troopers dancing to M.C. Hammer as it combined pieces of my childhood. Yet, the movies continually presented the Galactic Empire and its forces, or the First Order in Episode VIII, as forces that needed to be rebelled against. Lucas intentionally or unintentionally tapped into the piece of the American narrative that rebelled against an English empire in the Eighteenth Century that was perceived by the colonists as oppressive. The movies wanted us to identify with the Rebellion for all their flaws. Yet, somehow in culture something shifted, at least partially.

The movies and the literature and other media they spawned, with all their successes and flaws, presented a worldview that many Americans embraced.  Yet, for at least a portion of the American audience there was the shift in alliances. Perhaps I should have noticed the increased use of the Imperial March with its brassy statement of power and control being used by high schools and colleges within football games and other sporting events. Perhaps the emergence of things like the 501st legion which was committed to cos-play using Stormtrooper, Sith Lord or Clone Trooper costumes should have been something I noticed. Yet, it wasn’t until last summer when Benjamin Burnley from the band Breaking Benjamin, who I knew was an avid fan of many pop culture items like the Star Wars series, launched into a praise of the First Order/Galactic Empire to play the imperial march that I began to wonder, “do we know what we are rooting for?”

Ultimately a rock musician loving the Imperial March or a bunch of people creating Stormtrooper costumes for fun is not something that I worry about too much. Yet, when we begin to embrace the ideals and policies behind the Galactic Empire it does become extremely worrisome. When Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief advisor can remark, “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” The peace and order throughout the galaxy in the movies was only achieved, temporarily, by the use of fear and military power that had no moral qualms with destroying entire worlds that disagreed with their policies or were merely inconvenient. Our current administration campaigned on the rhetoric of fear, and has continued to govern using that rhetoric. When a nation that has struggled throughout its life to become a place where “all men (and women) are created equal” begins to be governed in a way that appears increasing xenophobic (much as the Empire’s policies were portrayed) I worry about the image we are attempting to mold ourselves into.

I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, during a time when there was a fear of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact which existed behind the iron curtain. It was a group of nations that had an enormous military and was equipped with a massive nuclear arsenal. Within the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact there was not the free press or the ability to protest that the United States and its NATO allies enjoyed. In the 80s it was easy to paint the Soviet Union as the ‘evil empire’ and at least for a young boy they became the concrete manifestation of the Galactic Empire within the Star Wars narrative. I still remember hearing Ronald Regan challenge Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mister Gorbachev tear down this wall!” When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall did fall, when former Warsaw Pact nations like East Germany and Poland as well as pieces of the former Soviet Union like Estonia and Latvia became a part of the NATO alliance I think we found ourselves at an identity crisis without the same type of massive enemy. Afghanistan and Iraq, where our forces have been deployed most recently, were no match conventionally for the United States military. When a nation with the best equipped military and an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction begins to use the rhetoric of fear on its own citizens as well as our allies throughout the world, when we begin to become the ones talking about building a wall, and when we begin to close ourselves off from others because of race or religion then our fragile American experiment is at risk of becoming a different vision.  When we American power comes from fear rather than projecting ‘certain unalienable rights’ that our founders claimed then we have lost our way. Darth Vader (as well as Satan) may represent power but not a power that I would be willing to align myself with.  If that is what our republic becomes then it will be indeed time for a rebellion to arise within our nation again. I, like many, hope that the rebellion if it occurs is done peaceable and through protest, mobilization, and voting. Again, this is one of those places where I pray that I am wrong, but through the stories of my youth and my faith I have a very different vision for this country than I fear our current administration does.

Living Brave Reflection 11- Integrating Stories

Mosaic from the parish church of Saint Michael and Saint Peter, Antwerp

Mosaic from the parish church of Saint Michael and Saint Peter, Antwerp

I’ve often joked that the pieces of my story don’t easily fit together in one life. I was a civil engineering major in college, an officer in the military, a seminarian and later a pastor. I lived in seven states in my adult life (which means I’ve moved frequently) am a father to two kids both very bright. I had to figure out how I would raise my son who is high functioning autistic and be a long distance father to my daughter after my divorce. I had to figure out how to date again in my late 30s and early 40s and then learn how to be married again after being single for five years. I’ve had to go back to the moments of crisis and learn from them, seeing the ways in which they knit together all the different pieces of the story. How the heartbreaks could lead to a new place of wholeness and healing and how the transitions became the opportunity for new beginnings and adventures. It hasn’t always been easy but overall it has been good. I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without any one piece of my story, but my story is (hopefully) far from over and I have a lot I still want to write.

In many respects I am amazed at how far I have come. The journey has changed me in drastic ways but I am proud of who I have grown to be. I may not always be the hero in my own narrative, life is more complex than that, but I feel like I have grown wiser in the joy and suffering of my life. There are times where I regret the opportunities to show kindness that I turned away from but I am also cherish the times where I was compassionate enough to see another’s need and not to turn away. There may be times where I was an easy mark, where forgiveness left me vulnerable to being hurt again and yet, I wouldn’t change that. That is a part of the person I want to be, a person who can see the best in others and can hope to make a difference in some small way.

Perhaps the learning comes from the way in which I have allowed myself the grace to be the complex mosaic of stories and experiences and feelings that I am. Rather than trying to mold myself into some monolithic image to allow the plurality of facets of myself to be seen. Perhaps a part of the difference between the immediate emotion and the later understanding of the broader story comes in the forgiveness I can extend to others and me, in learning to be open to not just giving help but receiving it. Perhaps in learning the story of my own heart and claiming it I have found the courage to own my stories and to enjoy living with them not in some nostalgic way, longing to return to the past, but more as pieces of a journey that brought me to the place I am today.

 

Climbing Out of the Rabbit Hole: Walking Away from Post-Modernity

cheshire cat

I’ve probably been spending too much time with philosophy lately, and I know that many people don’t ask the same type of questions that I do, but I am curious-I like a good challenge. I am willing to take an intellectual journey intentionally wrestling with some of the deep questions that are asked by philosophers and historians and artists, but I’m also willing to, after taking seriously what they have to say, walk away unconvinced and disappointed that good questions often can lead to answers that are indeed poor and shallow. I was first made aware of post-modern thought around the turn of the millennia when I began studying at seminary, and I guess that it would be hard to study any liberal arts discipline without being exposed in significant, if not always obvious, ways to the questions of postmodern philosophy, and while I am thankful for many of the perspectives that these questions exposed me to, it is time to climb out of the rabbit hole and to begin to reconstruct a different way of looking at the world.

I am taking the climbing out of the rabbit hole comment from a series of movies that was quite intentionally shaped by a postmodern viewpoint, The Matrix.(The link will take you to one of the more famous and most representative scenes of the movie) If one can get past the huge amount of violence that is present in all three of the films they ask some very deep philosophical questions about the nature of knowledge, of truth, of authority and power, of free will and volition and in almost parabolic form the main character Neo become the one, a Christ-type figure that liberates a portion of humanity to their enslavement to a system of illusion and lies, but the reality that he has to offer is a brutal, ugly and equally ambiguous one…it may be the truth (or at least closer to it) but it is an uncomfortable one.

So first, what is this postmodernism I am talking about walking away from? It is a reaction to the optimistic worldview that eventually we would be able to fix all of our problems through science, society, technology and information. In the words of Morpheus from the video above they became aware that “there is something wrong with the world…like a splinter in their mind driving them mad.” Not a unified group, they began to question the progressive hope that humanity could and would continue to get better and better off, because despite the privileged status of many of the early postmodern thinkers and artists (most of these were members of the academic and artistic portions of society in the 1950s and later)they viewed the world critically and often felt betrayed by this optimistic worldview. Instead they viewed art, language, society, history, science and technology all serving the political ends of those in power, while those without power were victims of progress. Postmodern thought is certain in its uncertainty, in an information society it views most information needing to be distrusted because it is merely  being utilized to create a narrative to benefit those in power, and in reality taken to extremes it borders on paranoia. For a postmodern person all meta-narratives (the big stories that help us make sense of our lives-whether Christianity or national identity or history) lost their authority and that truth, at least a universal truth, is impossible and some manner of relativism is what we are left with. Truth instead of being something that is true for everyone is instead dependent on one’s standpoint (i.e. am I viewing this question as a woman, as Hispanic, as poor, as an immigrant, as a person in the third world, etc.) and even language itself is a cultural construct.  Ultimately we live in our constructions of reality, our world and our truth revolve around us. Everything from art and literature to science and technology became subject to an endless set of qualifications and limitations. If you go down the rabbit hole very far it can become very disabling, it is a type of cynicism that makes you question every foundation that you try to place something upon, it allows a person to be a great critic but denies the narratives and structure in which to create. Honestly, most postmodern artwork is ugly, much of its thought is highly depressing and in its quest to liberate people intellectually it managed to take away their tools to bring together people for societal change.

Many of the questions that postmodern thinkers asked needed to be asked, but it is one thing to be a critic and another to be a constructive critic which helps frame a way forward. The hermeneutic of suspicion, where everything is viewed with a sense that it might not be trustworthy, cannot be the system any sane person lives their lives out of. We need narratives, big stories that help us make sense of ourselves and our world. Do those narratives need to be trustworthy, absolutely and in particular some of the feminist and post-colonial critiques of biblical studies, theology and politics have helped me re-evaluate my own approach to these narratives, but I am also unwilling to collapse into a relativism that has no sense of truth that is universal. We need history and art and beauty, and perhaps a pre-modern sense of wonder and mystery. The world needs truth more than it needs facts and data, it needs a set of inter-related stories to help us make the tough ethical and economic decisions that we as individuals and society have to navigate. We need big stories of who we are as people, our past and our present and our hopes for the future as we engage in difficult decisions related to war and peace, crime and punishment, medical care and technological innovation as well as our everyday relationships with one another. So in my own way this is a walking away,a climbing out of the rabbit hole if you will, not unchanged by the experience and the questions, but rather in a sense that it is time to grow up, to put childish things aside, to realize that even in its imperfections that the we all need stories to make sense of our lives and that my story and the stories of those around me have more in common than I had been led to believe.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 3b: The Exile, Reconstructing Identity-Narrative, Practice and Hope

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage that they bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfares of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29. 4-7 NRSV

Even when the world as you know it ends, life still goes on, and we have to make sense of the conflict, the struggle and our place within it.  The communal memory becomes important, the stories parents have told their children, the history of families. In the midst of competing narratives what is the story that one can identify with? With the loss of the Davidic monarchy, the temple, the land of their ancestors the people did something amazing, they recast their identity.  They dug deep into their narrative, they began bringing together their stories, and in fact much of the Old Testament is brought together at this point. Stories of creation and exodus begin to be the patterns in which the present is made sensible and the community begins to come up with answers to the hardest question, “why did this happen?” They don’t come up with just one answer, they come up with many. They bring together their stories and the Torah (typically translated into English as law, but it is a term that is much more than what we understand as law in our context) begins to be center of their life.  Practice and story come together to bind together this community in exile.

This does not mean that everyone agrees, there is not a central authorizing authority for the narrative at this point, it is constructed mainly by the remnant of the elite (everyone else would have been illiterate at this point) from both the priestly and prophetic side. Some of the central ideas to emerge include:

Justice: a sense of living in harmony (shalom) with God’s desire for the way things are to be structured in society. This includes a strong sense of economic justice, compassion for the widows, orphan, immigrant, and the dispossessed. It is from this vision that many prophets operate out of, and this is a central image for the prophetic hope. The new Jerusalem, the new Israel is to be a place of justice where the nations around can look and say “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 3b, NRSV) and within God’s plan the nations will stream to Jerusalem.

Purity/Holiness: For us there is often a tension between Purity/Holiness and Justice, but it was not necessarily seen that way by the Jewish people.  Especially for priests there are practices that are to be done to prevent the contamination of unholiness from infecting them as a people and making them repulsive to the holiness of God. It also becomes a powerful way of distinguishing between themselves as a Hebrew people and the nations around them who are the Gentiles, the unclean ones.  This tends to be more of a priestly focus and there are conflicts between which will dominate going forward, but at the root both justice and holiness are practices which distinguish them from the hostile surrounding culture.

With these two distinctive directions emerges a new strand of a hope for a new beginning, a new temple, a New Jerusalem, a new anointed (and Davidic) king, a messiah.  Wrapped up within the memory of the stories of creation and the exodus of the people from Egypt hope springs forth of a return home and a new beginning:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make away in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people who I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. Isaiah 43.18-21

2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55, which reflects the time of preparation for the return home, while Isaiah 1-39 deals with the time before the exile) in particular is full of this vibrant hope, along with other voices.  Empires rise and empires fall, and a generation later Babylon falls to Persia (modern day Iran) and Cyrus (who Isaiah interestingly calls Messiah/Christ-same word in Hebrew/Greek) makes possible the beginning of a return home.  Their stories and practices have maintained their identity and given them hope of a new beginning. With the return to Jerusalem, the land, and the possibility of reconstructing the temple comes yet another transition.  It is to that transition that we turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com