When wealth divides
I went to see Elysium because I am fond of science fiction and believe it one of the best genres in which to explore the deeper questions of life.
Elysium is written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, who had (partially) impressed me with District 9 (2009). That film failed because Blomkamp seemed so eager to make certain we understood his point that he turned the movie into a heavy-handed allegory. Critic Roger Ebert noted the parallels—the aliens landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, were kept in an isolated township called District 9 (like District 6 where “Cape Coloureds” were forced to live before being forcibly relocated), the plot is about the forced relocation of the aliens, and the alien’s speech includes numerous clicking sounds similar to some black African languages. “Despite its creativity,’ Ebert says, “the movie remains space opera and avoids the higher realms of science-fiction.” Still, it was creative, especially visually. The sets were striking and both wide-angle shots and closer shots including background details revealed a director who knew how to express ideas visually.
Since Elysium starred both Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, I hoped that it would be a better film, but was disappointed. The allegory remains heavy-handed, this time set in the future (the year 2150) when the disparity of incomes between rich and poor has grown even more sharply than we experience today. The wealthy few live in an idyllic space station and the rest live in squalor on what remains of planet earth, exploited and hopeless. Both themes that Blomkamp has chosen to explore in these two films are important. When we see those different from ourselves as alien, and when wealth removes accountability from the process of gaining those riches, the very meaning of human dignity is called into question. What’s needed, it seems to me, however, is a subtler story line if the impact of the film is to awaken the conscience of those who subconsciously have chosen to pursue personal peace and affluence as primary concerns in life.
Elysium is exciting, and the visuals are again striking (the surgery scene worth the price of admission), but it comes off as an action film rather than a story that makes us think. And there are two technical aspects that were irritating. First is the (over) use of a hand held camera. I realize this technique of filming draws the viewer into the action, but it can also be unsettling when used too much. It is unsettling here. And second, I understand the need in the story for the fight scenes and do not dispute that. However the film takes great effort to make us see how very human and ill the Damon character is, but then has him fight as if he were a hero in a Marvel comic. I suppose the point was to stress the importance of his struggle, but the lack of reality in the sequence made it merely implausible, instead.Someone needs to tackle this theme, because it is as real as apartheid and just as deadly. As long ago as the 7th century BC the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk issued a warning that if wealth is gained at the expense of others, an accounting will someday occur.
Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain
to set his nest on high,
to escape the clutches of ruin!
You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.
The stones of the wall will cry out,
and the beams of the woodwork will echo it (Habakkuk 2:9-11)
Sounds like the plot of a science fiction film, doesn’t it?
I have already said how much I like Jamie Quatro’s collection of short stories, I Want to Show You More. My review can be read here. She is a gifted artisan, crafting words with thoughtfulness and practiced skill, a beguiling storyteller, and an author that reveals, for those who have eyes to see, an imagination deeply steeped in a Christian worldview.
As I also noted in my review, some people—including some Christians—may be surprised by some of her stories. Since posting my review, a few friends have asked for help understanding or interpreting some of the stories in the collection. I have never met Quatro, and claim no special insight into her intentions or motivations as an author, but I am willing to suggest a question that seemed crucial as I read her stories. This question is not unique to Quatro’s work, but is one of a series of questions worth asking as we read fiction. You can find more detail about reading fiction with discernment here.
The question that helped me gain insight into the deeper levels of meaning in the stories in I Want to Show You More is this: Does the story function as a slice of reality, or a microcosm of reality, or a metaphor for reality? A slice of reality is just that, a story that we can imagine happening just as the author tells it—the films, Babette’s Feast (1987) and The Station Agent (2003) are good examples. A microcosm of reality is a story that every reader knows didn’t happen as it is told, but realizes instead it is intended to capture a sense of all of life within its narrow confines—see, for example, the films The Matrix (1999), The Lord of the Rings (2001), or The Tree of Life (2011). A metaphor for reality is a story that can be imagined as happening as it is told, except that it contains some aspect that is, by itself unimaginable unless it is allowed to be a symbol for some issue of significance—see, for example, Lars and the Real Girl (2007) or Snow White and the Huntsman (2012).
Some of Quatro’s stories in I Want to Show You More are slices of reality, stories we can very easily imagine unfolding in life just as they do on the page. “1.7 to Tennessee” is surely in this category, and we can imagine driving along the highway up the mountain needing to keep an eye out for Eva Bock as she walks along the shoulder of the road. Her grief over the loss of her son and the form letter generated by the White House resonate with the frustration many of us feel when our vote is required by faithfulness yet seems not just powerless, but worthless. The same holds true for “The Anointing” and some of the stories dealing with sexual desire like “Caught Up” and “You Look Like Jesus.” We may be uncomfortable with them but that makes them no less real. The level of reality is such that we can imagine them not only happening, but we can imagine inhabiting the stories ourselves.
Other of her stories are metaphors for life, so that the details may be unrealistic in the narrow sense but serve to help us see deeper levels of reality with greater clarity. “Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives” isn’t told to make us believe a decaying body appeared in this couple’s bed—the corpse is a metaphor for the lasting effects that unfaithfulness brings into a marriage. The story gives the lie to the myth that infidelity can be so innocent, so pleasurable, so removed from the need for commitment that a spouse can engage in it without fear of lasting repercussions when their betrayal is discovered.
I suspect that Quatro is a runner, because the details in “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement” are quite exquisite. Still, is it intended to be the story of an actual race? Or is the race here a metaphor for life’s pilgrimage, and the statues a metaphor for the silly weights we lug around in a society obsessed with athleticism and sexual vitality? What is it we get through the mail that might produce those ungodly burdens?
If I am correct in these musings—and I suspect there is much more waiting to be discovered in Quatro’s stories—would you not agree that she writes not just good stories, but stories that subversively expose the weak moral and metaphysical foundations of postmodernity?
I think it’s winsome and brilliant.
|Anita's creatively crafted lawn at Toad Hall|
…The history of the lawn begins at least 900 years ago in Great Britain and Northern France, both of which have maritime climates with relatively mild winters and warm humid summers that are ideal for many different grasses. In its inception, the word ‘lawn’ may have referred to communal grazing pastures—clearings in the woods where sheep and other livestock continually munched wild grass into submission. Even today, some place names retain the memory of these early lawns: Balmer Lawn in England, for example, encompasses 500 acres of grass pasture. Soon enough, people found other uses for grasses: aesthetics, sport and leisure. King Henry II (1113 to 1189) had gardens at Clarendon Palace that boasted ‘a wealth of lawns’ and Henry III (1216 – 1272) ordered laborers to slice up tracts of naturally occurring turf and transplant them to his palace. The world’s oldest bowling green, in Southampton, England, has been maintained since at least 1299.
In ancient times, lawns were not always expanses of unbroken green, however. Some medieval paintings of gardens depict carpets of turfgrass stippled with various flowers, such as lily of the valley, poppies, cowslips, primroses, wild strawberries, violets, daisies, and daffodils. People walked, danced and relaxed on these flowery meads, which were meant to imitate natural meadows. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans used white clover, chamomile, thyme, yarrow, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and other low-growing meadow and groundcover plants—sometimes mixed with grasses—to create lawns and pathways on which to walk and mingle. In the early 1900s, a weed known as cotula (Leptinella dioica) began invading bowling lawns in New Zealand. When the groundsman of the Caledonian Bowling Club tried to get rid of the weed by scarifying the lawn, he only quickened its spread. Rugby players noticed, however, that they ran faster and played better on the tightly knit, smooth carpet formed by the weed than on grass. By 1930, Caledonian Bowling Club replaced all its grass with cotula; other clubs did the same.
For most of history, however, mixed plant lawns and non-grass lawns have been the exception, in part because a smooth, well-kept, lush grass lawn became as much a symbol as a functional part of one’s property. In the early 19th century, vast grass lawns surrounding manors were not only aesthetically pleasing—providing unobstructed views of an estate—they were also further proof of wealth. To keep their lawns neat and trim, British aristocrats and landed gentry had to look after grazing animals—most commonly a flock of sheep—or hire laborers to slice through overgrown grass with scythes….
You can read his fascinating post here.
It is hard to discuss economics today, both inside and outside the church. You wouldn’t know that from the frequency with which it is debated, because by this measure it seems to be an almost constant topic for discussion. The difficulty becomes clear, though, if you actually pause to listen carefully to what is being said. There seems to me to be three barriers standing in our way.
First, not surprisingly, is the lack of civility. Start talking about economic policy or theory and depending on what we say, there is a chance we’ll be tagged by some label: “socialist” and “uncompassionate” are two favorites. If we face a lack of civility outside the church, well, we should try our best to learn to communicate as clearly and winsomely as possible, but we really shouldn’t whine about it. Facing incivility within the Christian community, on the other hand, is reason for concern. I could list lots of biblical texts dealing with economic issues that will take a lot of hard work to interpret correctly. The biblical texts that describe how we should treat one another—for example 1 Corinthians 13—are unambiguous and clear enough for a child to understand.
The second barrier to a thoughtful discussion of economics, both within and without the church, is that the topic has been politicized. By that I mean that almost as soon as the topic is mentioned, partisan positions, parties, policies or personalities are invoked. This should not be. For one thing, economics and politics are not coterminous. For another, as Christians faithfulness requires we figure out how to think about economics from a biblical perspective and only after that will we be able to figure out what that means in the political sphere of life.
The third barrier is that very few of us have seriously tackled the topic of economics from a biblical perspective. We have some texts we use to justify some of our beliefs on the topic, but truth be told we’ve picked those up somewhat after the fact, and they are pretty selective. If you are feeling guilty about this, that is not my intention. (Feeling guilty about incivility and politicization is a different story—for those repentance is in order.) We live busy lives and economics is a huge topic, richly nuanced and like all of life, constantly in flux. For topics like this, we can be thankful for thoughtful Christian thinkers who do the hard lifting for us. Which brings me to an article I am eager to recommend.
The article is free, online (www.cardus.ca) and is a wonderful introduction to thinking Christianly about economics. Even if you don’t discuss the topic much, you’ll have a better foundation for understanding the topic by reading this piece. “Capitalism, Religion, and the Economics of the Biblical Jubilee” is by Paul Williams, the Executive Director of the Marketplace Institute, and Academic Dean, at Regent College, Vancouver.
Capitalism as Ideology
Much of mainstream economics presents capitalism as a morally neutral economic system. It does so with two arguments.
The first focuses on the individual consumer (or firm or worker). Capitalism is morally neutral, it is argued, because it is designed to enable individuals to make their own choices based on whatever values they happen to have.
The second focuses on overall systemic outcomes: capitalism generates the largest possible economic pie and we can then choose what to do with the proceeds.
But are these arguments compatible?
Capitalism is not, in fact, morally neutral. The apparent neutrality of individual choice masks the underlying moral assumption that the individual is the final measure of good, and should always trump community choice, and that present choices should always trump those of our forebears. It also fails to account for the unequal nature of many actual transactions, so that frequently the choice of some undermines the freedom of others. My choice to shop seven days a week (or the choice of a superstore to open seven days a week) removes, or at least reduces, the freedom of the families of shop-workers to spend one day a week together, since the chances of both working parents getting the same day off recede and the influence of shop-workers on such economic outcomes is relatively small. The “good” of a family day of rest each week cannot be expressed in a system that only recognizes autonomous individualism….
Read the entire piece here.
A few weeks ago a dear friend confronted me about some unhealthy patterns of emotion she saw in me. She is, sadly, correct. The unhealthy patterns exist, have had a long history, and so far have been easier to cover up than actually face and address. That too, is unhealthy, and by God’s grace is undergoing change, though the process will be, I am assured by people who know such things, neither easy nor quick. So be it. One thing is certain: I don’t want to be the sort of person who exhibits such unhealthy patterns.
I’d be more specific but am not comfortable doing that right now—maybe someday.
Alas. The brokenness we must own as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.
In the weeks since our conversation I’ve thought and reflected, and prayed a lot about all this. Some things have become clearer and other things seem to need more clarity. The fact that patterns of emotion—of responses that seem so automatic as to be instinctual or reflexive—can remain below my threshold of consciousness is troubling. So much for thinking I was living an examined life.
But then good friends willing to have hard conversations that initiate a period of hard learning, growth, and hopefully healing: this too is a form of examination, and a necessary if painful one. I am after all, finite as well as fallen.
As I’ve wrestled with all this, some ideas about hardship caught my attention:
“From repeated research studies, [Russ] Moxley [former senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership] became convinced that the most important element of marketplace leadership training concerns how persons learn through hardships. The center’s research summarizes the lessons learned from hardships in four categories: self-knowledge with a clarifying of values, sensitivity and compassion toward others, limits of personal control over circumstances, and flexibility…
“Moxley… made another striking observation. He said that hardships are only useful when persons experiencing them have support systems that sustain them emotionally and that encourage them to reflect on the experience. ‘Hardships often evoke powerful and painful emotions, and an inability or unwillingness to face and reflect on this pain prevents learning.’ Vulnerability in safe relationships makes learning possible.” [p. 44-47]
That seems so very correct. I do want to be known for those four things: self-knowledge with a clarifying of values, sensitivity and compassion toward others, limits of personal control over circumstances, and flexibility. And I am grateful for the safe relationships that envelop me that will, by grace, make growth possible.
Source: Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told us about Surviving and Thriving by Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman & Donald C. Guthrie (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2013).
- Denis Haack
- Good conversation and a leisurely meal, shared over fine dark ale, is a precious gift. We can't sit and talk in our living room at Toad Hall, so this will have to do. I am a generalist, interested in almost everything, and my posts reflect that. I cherish your comments, for or against.
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