This weekend Margie and I took a day away, to be together, to talk, and be refreshed. We determined not to hurry but to enjoy the leisureliness of the time, to let things unfold quietly. Our topics of conversation were only partially determined ahead of time—including some speaking and writing we are working on—but that consumed only a portion of the day. The rest of the time we talked about whatever came up, and enjoyed times of silence together.
We drove to Minneapolis, and so began talking on the hour’s drive from Toad Hall to our first destination: Black Sheep Coffee. We ordered lattes (Margie’s was soy) and as always, found the atmosphere lovely and refreshing. Then we drove to The Museum of Russian Art to see two shows: “Concerning the Spiritual in Russian Art” and “Jewish Life in the Russian Empire: Photographs from the Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russia.” Lovely, poignant, moving. Before having dinner at the Himalayan Restaurant (very good), we wandered over to Lake Harriet, found a bench near the water and sat in the sun.
The bench near Lake Harriet was situated between walking and biking paths, so bikes swept by just behind us and people walked or jogged just in front of where we sat. All ages were represented, some strolling leisurely, some walking dogs or pushing baby strollers, others in pairs or little groups. After sitting there for a while we realized we were hearing snatches of conversations, so I started jotting down what we could make out.
(boy) …I didn’t know if you needed a drink…
(woman) …I just don’t feel like going to work tomorrow…
(woman) …they bought a new coffee table… (woman) …and they redid the tile, and they redid the bathroom, and the hall, and it looks wonderful…
(man) …Triska! Triska! No! No!...
(woman) …I said I was definitely concerned about the conversation…
(man) …You can go boating out there on this lake? (man) Sail boating.
(woman) …so far my white sheers go well enough…
(woman) …my friend and I were starry-eyed…
(woman) …my bike is really slow. I’ve got it in the highest gear though…
(man) …my flag holder in front has created…
(woman) …I’m going to start digging…
(man) …I didn’t really feel good but I’m doing it anyway…
(man) …is that an answer? (woman) What?...
(boy) …give me my bike back, c’mon, give me my bike back…
(man) …I didn’t know if that was the trade-in value…
(woman) …my shoulders are sore, but I don’t know…
(woman) …black and red, black, red dot, red dot…
(boy) …I need to go to the bathroom (woman) Well right now we are kind of moseying…
(man) … (laughs) I should probably creep down (laughs)…
(boy) …faster, Dad…
(man) …and why is that? (woman) It’s kind of cool. No…
(man) …no, we really do (woman) I thought your mother took care of it (man) Yeah, I did too…
(man) …another alternative is to say to the group…
(girl) …zippity zippity do…
(man) …I know it is so annoying (woman) Yeah, Heather watches people…
(woman) …is she celebrating Mother’s Day? (man) Yeah, my sister knows this seedy bar…
(woman) …my cousin won’t make a dessert…
(young woman on cell phone) …so it is, like, possible, and she said, oh gosh yes, and I was like, because I told her so, and she was like, literally overwhelmed…
And that’s the news from here.
Both Keith Richards and Rodney Crowell have spent a lifetime in music, and both can look back on performing and recording legacies that have served to touch the imaginations of numerous fans. It’s true that Crowell has never achieved the fame of Richards and the Rolling Stones, but art is measured in reach as much as it is depth, and here Crowell has the edge. Both men know firsthand something of the devastation wrought by alcohol and drugs, and both can look back on relationships that were thrown away selfishly and of others that brought sweet rumors of grace.
I read both books because I respect both men as musicians. I like the music of Crowell far more than that of Richards, but recognize that both men have honed their craft over many decades of dedicated practice, touring, and recording. Their styles are different, of course, very different, but both are part of the cultural world in which I grew up and still live. Both men are still active, making music and thus helping to both shape and reflect the culture in which I live and seek to understand.
Yet, the books are very different. Keith Richard’s Life is massive and detailed, full of gossip and facts, reflections and anecdotes. Rodney Crowell’s Chinaberry Sidewalks is more modest, a childhood memoir of a home in a poor Texas community with an alcoholic, violent father and an unstable mother given to Pentecostal fervor. But there is a deeper and more vital difference as well. Richard’s reflections reek of self-satisfied self-centeredness, and seldom is grief or regret expressed over the excesses in which he indulged. Crowell’s story, in contrast, is imbued with a quiet honesty tinged with forgiveness, the thoughtfulness of a man who tells his story, warts and all, but does not think that all is fine simply because it is his story.
I did not carefully read every word of Life, but scanned some sections because I was weary of the tone. When I finished Chinaberry Sidewalks, on the other hand, I purchased tickets to go see Crowell in concert—it was a wonderful evening. Recently Crowell has been collaborating with poet Mary Karr (I recommend the CD Kin, with Karr’s lyrics and Crowell’s music and performance), after being in Emmy Lou Harris’ band since 1975.
One thing is certain: blatant excess does not necessarily mean an artist can not achieve excellence, and unless Richards has sources of which I am unaware, his memory is both remarkable and far better than mine. Those with a special interest in the Rolling Stones and their very long career at the top of the charts in popular music will want to read Life. Richards reflects on numerous concerts and recording sessions in the book in incredible detail.
Listening to people’s stories is important if we want to hear something that gets past the surface details. Crowell uses the details of his childhood to tell a deeper story, while Richards amazes us with gossipy trivia in what seems to me to be primarily an ongoing exercise in self-aggrandizement. If you doubt that an artists’ deepest convictions and values—the world and life view that resides in their heart of hearts—shapes their music and their posture in life, read these two books, and then listen to some of Richards’ and Crowell’s music.
Life by Keith Richards with James Fox (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company; 2010) 547 pages + index.
Chinaberry Sidewalks: a memoir by Rodney Crowell (New York, NY: Alfred Knopf; 2011) 259 pages.
As Christians our primary allegiance is to Jesus as Lord of all, and to God’s kingdom in which he reigns over all things as sovereign. We live in an in-between time, after the kingdom’s inauguration but before its final consummation, when we acknowledge Christ as king yet realize a prince of darkness actively disputes his right to the throne.
It is always difficult to be in a now/not-yet situation. Living by kingdom values is never easy—which is why it’s called a life of faith—and as our Lord promised, doing so would never be popular in a world in revolt against its rightful sovereign. It is hard to be content when things don’t always seem to be moving in the correct direction. Waiting has never been a strong suit for fallen human beings. And it is hard not to be seduced by visions and agendas that promise relief and better times, if only they could be implemented by the powers that be. Every political ideology—libertarianism, conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, nationalism—takes an aspect of created reality, makes it central and then builds a political vision and agenda around it. This is why each usually has some good ideas and good proposals: each is rooted in an aspect of created reality and so is not completely removed from life in a fallen world. Which is what makes political ideologies attractive even to the people of God.
A great deal is at stake in all this. The primary issue is God’s glory and the honor of Christ as Lord of lords. Ideologies are grounded in something less than Christ, and that is why the biblical term for ideologies is idolatry. Also at stake is the integrity of Christ’s church. If political ideology supersedes commitment to the gospel of the kingdom the church’s unity begins to crumble. And at stake is the church’s witness to the gospel, because the perspective of a believer shifts radically when they move from a kingdom vision to seeing things as an ideology defines life and reality.
A gloomy “slouching toward Gomorrah” view of culture leads, I think, to meanness. If we think we are on the losing end of the arc of history, we slide into outrage. If we see ourselves, though, as part of a kingdom that is triumphant in Christ, we ought to display a kind of provocative tranquility. We see those who disagree with us not as threatening to us or to our gospel, but those who, like all of us were, are held captive to an accusing power. We speak with convictional kindness because we love our neighbors, and because we are confident in our gospel. If the gates of hell won’t prevail against Jesus’ onward march, then why are we terrified by Hollywood or Capitol Hill? [Russell Moore, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention]
I believe Moore is correct, and in this brief statement has put his finger on something we as Christians need to take seriously. As I read his words, several practical questions came to mind. Reflecting on them can help us identify the extent to which we have slid from a kingdom perspective towards an ideological framework in our thinking, feeling, and doing.
1. Am I discouraged, disappointed, or depressed after an election cycle, a Supreme Court ruling or a legislative effort? It is true that in each case kingdom values may cause us to prefer one outcome over another. Still, we know from Scripture that there is ebb and flow in history. Read the Old Testament and see how good and bad kings, moral and immoral leaders rose to power but never once did God’s rule slip out of control. Our calling remains the same regardless of the details, and that is to remain faithful to the kingdom of God. If our hope is in God and his kingdom alone, we have reason for contentment and joy.
2. Do I consider leaving a church or Christian fellowship because I disagree with the politics of leaders or other members? Or as a variation on this, are there people in my church I shun because I find their political views untenable? This is, from a biblical perspective, an extremely important issue. It is dangerous when we essentially see our political agendas as equal in significance to our commitment to the historic orthodoxy of our faith. Christian unity is grounded in the teaching of Scripture, summarized, for example in the beliefs of the Apostle’s Creed and not in the values of a political vision. Make the wrong choice here and our souls can be at stake.
3. Do we tend to see the citizens that do not share my political views as rivals (to be defeated or convinced) or as people I am called to befriend and love, even at cost (economic, time, health, life, political) to myself? Ideologies and agendas call their followers to work in order to win. The kingdom calls us to set aside our preferences and rights in order to help those created in God’s image to flourish though the gospel of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. I fear that much of the younger generation dismisses the gospel as irrelevant at least partly because of the politicization of the church.
4. Am I content as a Christian being faithful in the political sphere of life when that requires the hard work of being co-belligerents with disparate parties or candidates on various issues at different times because no single party fully embraces kingdom values and convictions? Because political ideologies are ultimately rooted in some aspect of created reality, none are completely separated from life. And there will be times we will need to abstain because no option is available that adequately reflects the imperatives of God’s law and character.
We need to read St John’s Revelation regularly. Don’t read it as a puzzle to be solved (it isn’t one) but as a series of imaginative visions (which they are). Each one is actually fairly simple: God’s reign is disputed, God’s kingdom is challenged, God’s righteousness prevails. It’s how the story ends, and the ending is certain. And that is why we can be kingdom people now as we wait, and wonder, and be content, and wait some more.
In terms of genre these three films are very different: Lincoln is a historical drama, Waste Land is a documentary, and Traitor is a spy thriller set in the international world of terrorism. In terms of craft, all three are well made films, telling very different stories in ways that show how cinema is able to imaginatively sweep us into worlds unlike our everyday experience. And all three present us with realities that rightly need careful reflection, and if you are a Christian, some unhurried prayer.
Lincoln (2012) is, of course, the story of Abraham Lincoln, set during his presidency as the Civil War rages and he seeks to lead the Congress and the nation in forever banning slavery through the passage of a Constitutional amendment. Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln and Sally Field, who plays his wife, seem to lose themselves in their roles in powerful performances on the screen. One proof the film is great cinema are several scenes in which little happens. Film depends on action, but in these instances we watch people watching a still Lincoln, deep in thought as he faces a crucial decision. Somehow Day-Lewis fills the stillness with tension, so that as the moments slide by we are not bored but filled with anticipation of what comes next. Based in large part on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwins’ magisterial study, Lincoln reveals the man and the period as heroic yet far from perfect.
Waste Land (2010) documents a multi-year project in the life and career of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. Having achieved success in New York City, Muniz decides to return to Brazil and make art in collaboration with the garbage pickers in Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill of the world just outside Rio de Janeiro. The pickers are among the forgotten people of the world, doing a job that is as dangerous as it is unseemly. They dodge trucks dumping dripping, rotting garbage from the city to pick out scraps of recyclable matter to sell for pennies in an attempt to make a living. The film does a good job of revealing Muniz’s conception of the art slowly, so we see it come together in an act of creativity that unfolds before us as it does within the lives of the pickers he befriends. Waste Land reminds us of the humanity of all people even those on the far margins of society, the meaningfulness of creativity even in the midst of filth and decay, and the dignity of all work even in jobs that are despised by everyone except those who have no other choice.
Traitor (2008) takes us into the world of international terror. Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a CIA agent so deep undercover that the FBI has formed a team with the express purpose of tracking and eliminating him as a terrorist threat. Horn is a Muslim, a skilled maker of bombs who is slowly gaining the respect of a terrorist cell intent on striking a significant blow in the heartland of America. The story unfolds naturally, as we follow Horn living in the shadows of a fanatical world and as the FBI team uncovers his tracks, so not until the end can we be certain who are the good guys—or whether any fully good guys even exist. To win acceptance Horn must make and detonate bombs, and in the process innocent people perish. It is a price that must be paid if Horn is to win acceptance and work his way up the ladder among the various terrorist cells to those calling the shots at the top.
Three remarkable and remarkably different films, yet each truthful in the stories they tell about the human condition. And so they pose questions worth careful reflection and prayer.
Lincoln. In 2013, as in 1865, America is deeply divided and increasingly polarized politically. Is there on the horizon stateswomen and statesmen who can be principled leaders to help achieve the common good? Are we as Christians, by our rhetoric and involvement in the public square, adding to the division and polarization or are we fulfilling our God’s given call to be agents of reconciliation in a broken world?
Waste Land. Who are the forgotten people that inhabit the margins of our world? Do we know the names of the janitors, dishwashers, or clerks that work in the background of our lives, and are there small ways in which we can show them the dignity they deserve?
Traitor. Can we provide a safe place to discuss the emotionally charged and impossibly complex ethical issues that attach to America’s war on terror? Are we clear on the difference between seeking justice and desiring vengeance? Are we supportive of the people—soldiers, spies, or other agents of government—that must inflict harm or perhaps do what they believe to be evil in order for good to prevail?
Lincoln, Waste Land, and Traitor—I enjoyed them as movies but even more because each, in its own way, reminded me of what it means to be human in a fallen world.
- 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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