#firstimefriday To Turn On The Light, We Have To Know It’s Dark: American Animals

#firstimefriday To Turn On The Light, We Have To Know It’s Dark: American Animals

Have you ever watched someone you love barrel headlong into a potential life-ruining mistake and been powerless to do anything about it? If you have, you’ll know it’s an excruciating experience. Part of love and leadership and mentoring and training, of course, is allowing people to make mistakes and be there to pick them up afterwards, help them put themselves back together and make sure everything is manageable afterwards. As a parent, and as someone who has spent my whole working life thus far working with people, I spend a lot of time watching people I have varying degrees of responsibility for make mistakes and have to live with the consequences. Often I see the mistakes coming, and I’m a powerless to stop them – even if I’ve tried my best to help them see the potential consequences. It’s a strange, cringing, disempowering experience.

That’s what floated around my mind as I watched 2018’s American Animals, an at once thrilling and cringe-inducing heist-movie and documentary. It tells the true story of some bored young men in Kentucky, some of them college students, who tried to inject excitement in to their lives by attempting to steal some immensely valuable books; as the story is told, the drama is intercut with footage of the real people involved – the young men, parents and a few others, retelling their story, and their tragic, life-ruining mistakes.

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The young men’s arrogance and self-importance seems staggering at times; the film follows some of the classic tropes of a heist movie, so when we see them assigning and arguing over the code names ‘Mr Pink’ and ‘Mr Brown’, and so on, in exactly the same way as Reservoir Dogs, we can only assume it’s a satirical invention of the film-maker. As one of the characters points out, that’s a film that didn’t end well for anyone involved. It’s jaw-dropping to discover, however, that this is no fictionalisation. They really did that; and we wonder that they ever thought they would do this.

The film builds relentlessly to the actual heist; one or two of the characters reflecting on the chances they had to walk away, but never took. But they were bored – so very bored with what they had, with what lay ahead of them and what was expected of them – that they felt this was something they had to do. As one of them says: “I realised I had to make something happen on my own.“; as another says to an authority figure “This whole place [college] and goddamned town is a disappointment.

So with the arrogant naivety of the young, the heist comes along, a lengthy sequence which, along with its aftermath, is as thrilling as it is painful and sometimes absurdly funny to watch. You’re watching people ruin their lives – and that of others – for a thrill, an experience, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Have they learned anything by the end? That’s unclear – but they’re certainly regretful.

It’s easy to criticise these young men; and they deserve it, of course. But we need a word of caution to ourselves. How many of us have ever placed expectations on ourselves or others, not allowing the people carrying those expectations to show doubt, fear, weakness or a desire to take a different path? These young men are crushed by the apparent safety and predictability of middle-class suburban niceness and predictability; there seems to be no-one, no parent, no teacher, no coach, no pastor, no friend to whom they can express doubt or a hint of darkness in themselves. No one will hear they want to do or be something or someone else. No one who will listen to their hints of darkness and rob that darkness of its power by confessing ‘Me as well’, before it erupts as it does in to something all together more dangerous.

Wanting to have it all together, to be seen to be becoming or to actually be ‘a success’ (as much for our children as ourselves) can kill people. Maybe it can literally kill them; or maybe just kill the light and life in them until they whither away in to quiet safety, never rocking a boat that may be heading for an iceberg. Churches are rife with it; schools; universities; and especially the crushingly predictable environments of polite white-collar jobs that keep everyone safe but many unsatisfied.

It’s ironic especially to find such crushing safety and hidden darkness in churches and Christ-followers; one of the few qualifications for following Jesus is to admit our helplessness over our own darknesses. Church communities should, then, be places where people know they’re all broken and can talk about our brokenness with one another; even, or especially, the pastor, But so often they’re not, despite a prayer of confession being a regular feature of many worship services, true weakness and darkness is rarely confessed by any  – and then when a pastor or a church member truly crashes or fails, there’s wide-spread shock and precious little grace to welcome back.

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On their album reflecting on the ennui and predictability of suburban life (The Suburbs), Arcade Fire sang “I need the darkness/Someone please cut the light.” It’s a plea to shut off the painful predictability of the suburban glow of artificial light, the better to see the stunning natural light of the stars against the night sky. It’s also a cry for something more; there’s darkness in me. Hear it, and own it, before it consumes me. What would have happened to these young men in American Animals if they – or someone around them – had the strength to allow them to voice their darkness and temptations, and rob them of their power? What would happen to you, our churches, to me, to our pastors, if we allowed confessions of weakness and fragility before they overwhelmed us? Are we strong enough to see we’re all jars of clay?

Such questions are almost as hard to ask as they are to answer. Perhaps, however, in voicing them together we will find some the light we need.

They Shall Not Grow Old: Remembering The Stories That Shape Us

Much of human life can be understood as an attempt to keep something alive in the face of the reality of death. It could be the memories of loved ones, having children, leaving something to our children, achievements that will ensure we are spoken of long after we have died. It could be anything. The older we get the more aware we are of our mortality and we turn attention to what we will leave behind us.

This is one of the unique aspects of being human. We live with a profound awareness of our own death, and with that comes a seemingly inbuilt desire to outlive it. If the Biblical author is right this is in part explained by the understanding that God has ‘set eternity in the hearts of people.’ Other traditions have different understandings of this; but few seem to deny its reality. Societies wrestle with this on a larger scale; a key question is how to ensure that future generations don’t lose sight of the lessons of the past and so repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. In South Africa, for example, as the ‘born free’ generation (the first generation born after apartheid officially fell) grows into adulthood there is an increasingly urgent discussion about what stories and monuments must be kept and which should fall. These are conversations replete with emotion and fear, a sense of the widening gap between generations. Older generations want their stories preserved and learned from; younger generations want their unique voices heard, freed from the shackles of having to do what they’re told by people still perceived to fighting yesterday’s battles.

Global conflicts are perhaps the biggest example of this. How we remember them and keep the stories alive, without glorifying immense suffering or sentimentalisation is an increasingly fraught debate. This year we have recently marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, a date that leads to acts of remembrance in many countries involved in that war. As the gap between 11/11/1918 and the present day has widened, so has the diversity of opinions in how to mark these anniversaries. Red poppies? White? None? On football shirts or not? A minute’s silence at sporting events? And so on.

If one’s own family was not – like mine, as far as I know –  directly affected by the conflict, it’s hard to connect with these events. With a Jewish heritage on one side of my family – my Grandmother’s family had a narrow escape from the death camps – I have a more natural connection with the 1939-45 conflict. It seems like part of my story; World War One feels like something more abstract and theoretical.

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Enter film-maker Peter Jackson The New Zealand Director (best know for the Lord Of The Rings films), was approached by London’s Imperial War Museum to create something out of their archive material to mark the anniversary. The result is hallmark Jackson – technologically groundbreaking and in many respects completely overwhelming. Film as old as 100 years often operates at a variety of different speeds – sometimes within the same reel – so first of all the selected material had to be altered to be of a universal speed; in itself no small task. Then the images, obscured and clouded over the years, were cleaned up. Then they were colourised. To cap it all, soundless images were given a soundtrack – be it birdsong, an explosion or an actor bringing words to silently moving lips through the work of forensic lip-readers, with regional accents appropriate to the soldiers on-screen. The finished product – which in other hands could have been tacky, laboured or too worthy – is truly remarkable. It is called They Shall Not Grow Old.

The story of the declaration of war, joining up and training is told in black and white, a small television-sized box in the middle of the screen; as throughout the whole 90 minutes, recordings taken of veterans in the 1960s tell the bulk of the story from their own point of view. Then, as the soldiers arrive in France, colour and contextual sound spread to fill the viewer’s senses; the overlaid storytelling continues, with the background noise occasionally breaking through to the foreground. All of a sudden distant black and white faces seem to be peering in the viewer’s eyes – and soul. As the story of attack after attack is told, we see images relating to what the narrators are describing – maimed bodies, stumbling survivors, soldiers puffing on a cigarette. As the loss resulting from one attack is described, the camera pans slowly over a large group shot of soldiers gathering, smiling in a mystified, excited and oh so alive way right back at you; at one point, one of them says something; “We’re going to be on film!” he says. Everyone on-screen laughs; so do you.

It’s not uncommon for a cinematic experience to be described in pseudo-religious terms. Transcendent, an epiphany. This films offers that, and in doing so it seems almost unfair to describe it like one would any other film; it sits apart, a unique act of artistic remembrance that has the capacity to change minds and hearts. To keep the dead alive.

We all want to do that – keep the dead alive. It’s impossible. The idea that an aged relative who served in a war – or experienced something equally unusual – can tell his stories to younger generations so they can understand may be worthy, but it is by nature dying off as the people do. So how do we do so? How do we remember? They Shall Not Grow Old gives us one way; it allows the voices themselves to speak, allowing us to hear and see them for ourselves. At no point are we lectured; we’re not told this is ‘good for us’ or that this is ‘important’. It is not ‘worthy’, in the worst sense of that word. The story is simply told in the first person, and we simply listen and watch.

Remembering  – more helpfully understood as retelling a story – is part of our human identity. Which is why it lies at the heart of our religious worship. For Christians the retelling of the central narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection  – Communion, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Mass – is the central act of thanksgiving. We retell the story, we take some of it tangibly in to us in the form of bread and wine, and our thankfulness is renewed. For some of us that is a weekly part of worship, a natural part of our life so familiar that as we grow old we may find that we no longer need a written text to help us say and hear the words; it has seeped in to the fabric our lives. Other Christian traditions see it as such a special occasion as to only mark it a few times a year. For some it is cloaked in ritual; for other it is clothed in profound but relaxed intimacy. Whatever it looks like, remembering is at the heart of our worship.

It would be too much to describe the remembering Peter Jackson’s film provokes in us in these religious terms. There is none of the elevation of the dead as perfect sacrificial heroes that can occasionally seem to accompany other acts of remembrance. Instead our narrators describe how they were lied to about the war, how they were considered “the refuse of the industrial system’; how they ‘weren’t to think for ourselves’. They signed up to heroically serve their country lest the women in their towns and cities adorn them with the white feather of cowardice; they ended up mercifully shooting dead fatally wounded men drowning a slow death in the mud and understanding themselves as ‘like rabbits, hunted by mankind’. There is no glory or heroism; instead individual tragedy is given a name and a face and a voice.

Simply put, the film is not an invitation to do something specific; it is an invitation to listen to a story, and let the story do the work it needs to do in you. As powerful an experience as it is, it will keep doing so days and weeks and months and years after you’ve seen it. In doing so, it has added mysterious layers to my awareness of what I am doing as I participate in the retelling of the 2000-year old story that stands as the pivot of history. It questions afresh the myth of redemptive violence and entices thankfulness that I, and my children, do not have to sign up to what these young men signed up to. It leads me to a rededication to retelling the story that shapes my life, that we all locate ourselves in that story.

In Praise Of The Beautifully Inessential

It began with a hushed conversation in a library. I was in my first year of theological study, preparing to enter ordained ministry in the Anglican church. I was talking to one of the more conservative students at our conservative college and said something along the lines of this: ‘My problem is that if theologians really believe that God is the most beautiful and significant being in the world, why is so much of what they write so boring?’. ‘Ah’, said the man listening to me. ‘You need to read some Eugene Peterson’. In my mind, up to then, Eugene Peterson was know only for The Message, a translation of the Bible in the language and idiom of the congregation he pastored in America. I hadn’t really considered that he might have written other things. That started a journey of discovery of theological and devotional writing that is characterised by clarity, deep theological thinking and an intoxicating love for words. It’s also true that unlike many theological writers, Peterson could write with a combination of economy and beauty.

It’s not essential for theology to be beautiful, of course. The Nicene Creed is generally accepted as a binding confessional statement for Christians; it’s full of good theological truth – but one could hardly call it beautiful. For its form, beauty is unnecessary. Beauty is unnecessary for objective truth to thrive, it seems.

All of which leads to me to a 10-year-old documentary film about a Canadian rock band. The film is Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. Back in the mid 1980s, Anvil was one of a series of rock/metal bands that appeared poised on the brink of massive global success. Whilst most of them went on to achieve that, Anvil got stuck. The majority of the film tells the story of Anvil, 30 years on, still writing, recording and performing with the band members in their 50s; only now they have ‘proper’ jobs on the side to pay (some of) the bills. The film bears many of the hallmarks of the rock documentary – backstage footage, gig footage, the writing/recording process, arguments between band members. What’s different here is that the band is not making money in the process; they’re not even in the ‘critically acclaimed, commercially under-appreciated’ sector.

There are many possible reasons for Anvil not becoming Metallica. Bad management and bad production stand out. To be blunt, they will never write a song as threatening and thrilling as Enter Sandman. That, however, is not really the point here. What matters for Anvil, and for us, is they glory in their process and output; although they dream of recognition and adulation, that’s not what they’re in this for. They want to make music and to play music. To them, that’s success.

There’s something here to think on. I often hear parents (and sometimes their children) talk of the need to get a qualification – and hence a job – that will produce something; that will contribute the economy and provide for all their current future needs. What the child must do is do some necessary, important and tangible; she must produce. Clearly we need lawyers and doctors and engineers and builders and the like. Sciences matter. I’m not denying that; but they are not the sum and total of what we need. The moment we think of ourselves as units of economic production we run in to trouble; we’ve allowed an un-critiqued version of capitalism to overwhelm our identity. I studied for a degree in English Literature, not a degree renowned for its job prospects. I jokingly refer it as ‘a degree in reading’. Stop, though, before laughing too hard: when was the last time you (or someone you know) seemed incapable of seeing the real meaning of Facebook post or an email? Why do so many people swallow fake news uncritically? Now do you want to tell me that a ‘degree in reading’, in truly understanding a text, is unimportant simply because it doesn’t lead to a tangible end-product?

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God has given us some clues here. God didn’t have to create; before creation, He was perfect within Himself. In his relationship with the 3 parts of Himself, he needed nothing. Yet create he did, an expression of love that wanted an outlet, a glorious,  indulgent extravagance. Seas, mountains, rivers, plains, plants, insects, animals, fish, plankton, stars, planets, sun, moon, woman, man, snow, rain. All so unnecessary, all pouring out of an abundant self-expression of light and sound.

Or think on music. Almost all religious expressions involve music and singing; it has often been where new musical expressions have taken root. But why? Do we need to sing? For the Christian the words of Be Thou My Vision or My Jesus, My Saviour remain just as true if they’re spoken aloud. The music isn’t necessary in that sense. But can you imagine a world in which congregations just said those words, to the backdrop of silence?

Music, and art in general, may not be objectively necessary but they do something to us. They speak to us in a form that’s more true than mere facts, deep calling to deep (in itself a Biblical metaphor that achieves a truth that is more than factual). Jesus and the prophets don’t just speak in objective statements of truth; also stories, metaphors, poetry, word pictures, dramatic actions.

Why, then, do we settle for less in our or our children’scareers? Only pursuing that which is productive? A nation consisting solely of tangible product may be economically booming, but it would be colourless.

Why, then, do our churches often seem to only use one form of music (whichever form is the preference of that one subset of the culture)? Is there space for new melodies, rhythms and harmonies alongside the established?  Why is so much Christian ‘art’ of recent years so plainly didactic? Why not take the poet’s eternal advice:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

The truth is that Anvil just aren’t that good a band; having seen this film I won’t be downloading their albums. But I am reminded with fresh energy that meaning matters more than material production; that fruitful labour may look different to that which is deemed apparently successful. I’m concerned that, within the church especially, we are uncritically accepting a fully capitalist worldview where even the pastor’s role must be described with precision and point towards outputs and markers. That church members must serve an ‘end product’ of a church machine geared to keep us busy and numerically growing, forgetting to allow the beauty of relationships and creativity in the image of an endlessly relational and creative God to flourish.

Do we, our life choices and communities, allow meaning and beauty and relationship to define us? Or are we too busy making and producing to simply be in the presence of God and each other, basking in the beauty God showers us with and invites us to co-labour with Him in creating? Do we want to build a society of units of production and end product, or a kingdom in which God-given gifts are allowed to flourish in response to One who delights in the unnecessary and inessential?

 

God In The Slow Lane

It’s often said that the urgent can drive out the important. From responding to emails to health issues and much in between, there’s evidence to suggest this is true. Our attention is automatically – and often necessarily  – diverted to that which is most pressing. If your house is on fire at the moment when you’d set aside time to work on your tax returns which are due in a month’s time, then you’d be a fool to do anything other than deal with the urgent, important as tax returns are.

How do we discern which is which? Rarely are faced with such a binary or obvious choice. The minister by whom I was trained told me many things which have lodged in mind: one of them was the importance of discerning the difference between a good idea and a God idea. It might be – for example – a good idea to introduce a church service led by the youth to the programme of services; but is it the right idea at the right time? Are the youth ready? Is the rest of the church ready? That’s the leadership decision; Victor Hugo is paraphrased as writing that no-can resist an idea whose time has come. There’s truth in that.

What makes this leadership decision so difficult much of the time is that people have very different ideas of what’s urgent and what’s important. I’m always hesitant to blame the still-new tool of social media, but certainly Facebook and the like can amplify this tendency – the louder you shout or the more dramatic the news or the tighter the deadline, then the more likely you are to get heard. And there does seem to be an awful lot of shouting. The ticking time-bombs of climate-change, American mid-term elections, Brexit and the like all scream for attention. Not to mention the varied issues that are – or appear to be – related to these and other situations; the gap between rich and poor in various countries, volatile economies, diplomatic relations strained to near breaking point, racial tensions, the rise of political extremism. It seems that something must be done on each of these, now.

We bring this to church, too. Can you give me 5 ways to improve my prayer-life? What’s the best way to read the Bible? Can we have a course to improve marriage/parenting/surviving as a single person? The need screams importance and urgency; set up a solution, now.

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The problem is that God seems to work to altogether different timetables. The God who defends the poor and is concerned for justice and liberation seems to wait most of Moses’s long life-time before finally sending him to lead them to freedom … which in the end turned out to be 40 years of wondering apparently aimlessly in the wilderness. Jesus waited for 30 years of presumably normal education and manual labour before doing much that was worth recoding for future posterity. As the letter-writer says in 2 Peter 3: ” With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” That’s to say – God is not so much concerned with any one thing we do or don’t do as He is the state of our souls, our relationship to Him. He’s prepared to give us a lot of time.

All this is somewhat fraught with problems. It may seem quite easy for me to say that God is patient and is biding his time for my eternal sake; but unlike some who live in this city, my house didn’t just burn down leaving me homeless and shorn of resources. The mid-term elections have a date on them, as does Brexit. If I were to receive a terminal diagnosis tomorrow (there’s no likelihood that I will), then every day would suddenly take on new weight. We’ve become so accustomed to having much of what we want or need on demand that we expect the same of the spiritual life and the faith communities we are part of or lead. Added to that, one of the perpetual burdens of leadership is to be able to see with clarity the gap between where an organisation is and where it could or should be. This gap between our time-bound urgency and God’s slowness seems to be a recipe for human frustration and angst.

What to do, then? I’ve never understood prayer, and am rather suspicious of anyone who claims to do so. I am aware, however, that when I am able to pray, two things happen – often simultaneously – something changes in the situation or person I’m praying for, and something changes in me. So I should pray, then. That’s all well and good, but in this period of my life – children, not great health, full-time job and the like, I don’t have much time. I pray a version of the daily office some days; I fire off prayers at some points in the day if something prompts me so to do. But it’s hard to turn attention to God when there’s so much that is, dare I say it, both urgent and important. Like many parents, I’m tired. I go to bed tired, and I wake tired. Prayer is hard when you’re tired.

God is working in my life very slowly at the moment. I’ve only recently realised the truth of something that happened to me around 25 years ago. Why didn’t God help me do it earlier, and save us all a lot of time? I don’t know. Things in church happen slowly; of course, we’ve never really arrived, we’re always changing and adjusting and growing – but it strikes me that in one particular area of my church’s life we’re only now beginning to reach a place I first dreamed of about 8 years ago. For so many people – including myself and my own relationships – I can see where we or they could be, but we all seem to take an inordinately long time to get there.

I read this week that in Paul’s great hymn to love, 1 Corinthians 13, the first definition given of love is patience; or as older translations have it, long-suffering. God seems to love me, you, us so much that he’s willing to suffer long for us to get to where he needs us to get to. He won’t rush us because to rush us would go against his innate love for us. He loves us more than our deeds, more than our urgent actions or calls to action, more than any one thing we can make happen. He wants us to work for him – but he wants that to come not as duty or forced obedience, but as loving response to his long-suffering on our behalf.

There is much we come up against that might be fixed by urgent labour or donation of money or the like. Sometimes that will need to happen; but more often, perhaps, we will find ourselves called to what Eugene Peterson termed the ‘long obedience in the same direction’; the long-suffering with ourselves and others, as God does with us. There’s no 12 week course to fix injustice; there’s no quick fix for my prayer-life; there’s no easy route to better relationships. Love is patient, long-suffering – requiring us to exercise the kindness and the benefit of the doubt to ourselves and others that God is so willing to exercise to all of us. That doesn’t allow us to be lazy, or to make excuses for damaging or violating patterns of behaviour; but it does mean that we are to find within us that part of ourselves that bears the stamp of the long-suffering creator, to let His patience call out our own with ourselves and others.