Competing Visions

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 9.]

From February 2-9, the Spokane International Film Festival celebrated its twentieth year, holding screenings of documentary and narrative features, as well as shorts blocks from around the world, including a Best of the Northwest program featuring local filmmakers. The festival opened with Benny and Joon, a 1993 film that was set and made in Spokane and which—I’m somewhat ashamed to admit—I had never seen.

I also saw The Fencer, a Golden Globe winner from 2016, about an Estonian man who is trying to avoid the Soviet secret police because they are hunting down all who had been conscripted by the Nazis to fight against the Soviets in World War II. It’s family-friendly and worth watching if you can find it.

My favorite narrative was The Endless, which is sort of a supernatural, psychological thriller involving two brothers who return to a compound where they used to live in shadowy, cult-like community.

But the film I keep thinking about is No Man’s Land (set to premier on PBS on May 7, but available now on Amazon Prime), a documentary about the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, south of Burns, Oregon. First, it’s simply a great documentary. It’s well-filmed, it allows the principals to speak for themselves, and it tells a compelling story. And second, it does what my favorite documentaries always do: it gives me understanding of something of which I was only vaguely aware.

Of course, I had heard of Ammon Bundy, and I knew something was happening in 2016 at an Oregon wildlife refuge where there didn’t seem to be much else going on. But I couldn’t quite understand what it was all about. Anti-government protest? Okay. Ranchers? Right. But why did they choose to do things this way and what did they expect the federal government to do or not do? The striking thing about this film initially is how close it is to the events. This is not a film shot years removed from what it documents, involving interviews of people who were present a long time before. The filmmakers are in and among, embedded right in the middle of everything.

There are also later interviews with others, including the county sheriff, and at least three members of the press. But that is analysis of what we watch unfold in real time on the screen. And what unfolds is a fascinating story with fascinating characters, and enough drama (ratcheted up by some of the players themselves) to keep the story moving.

As you might expect, and as other, recent protests have demonstrated, the overarching concern of a given protest puts out a wide umbrella. So the Bundys at Malheur draw to themselves anti-government activists of every stripe, nearly every one of them armed with rifles and handguns. For the first part of the story, those differences are drawn together by Ammon Bundy, LaVoy Finicum, and others. They seem to concentrate on over-reach of the federal government in claiming land in Oregon, the government not allowing ranchers to use the land as they wish for grazing, and a distaste for federalism in general.

If the viewer watches without already formed conclusions and biases, as I did, the Bundys and many of their concerns seem reasonable and considered. (What the film doesn’t say is that the Bundys are not from Oregon, and that they arrived there to protest the sentences of two ranchers who set fires on what the federal government said was federal land. But the film does show that apparently very few of those occupying the Malheur refuge were actually from Oregon.)

Because this protest (fed by social media) draws so many different people, with different complaints, it becomes harder and harder to hold it together. And, in fact, the lack of direction and the lack of any plan beyond the original protest causes it to fall apart. There do seem to be reasonable people with serious concerns (to me, Jason Patrick—not to be confused with Jason Patric—is one of the most thoughtful and reasonable, to the extent that he tries to calm some of the protesters when their rhetoric starts to incline toward inevitable violence).

But there are also unstable people with guns, the naive and inexperienced, and those simply spoiling for a violent confrontation. There are people motivated by racial concerns (although I wonder if the number of times an anti-Black-Lives-Matter sign is shown matches the percentage of the participants whose motivation is racial). What is clear is that very few of the protesters are concerned about Oregon or Harney County in particular. The location seems to have provided a convenient place to stage the Bundys’ protest against the federal government.

One aspect of the occupation that is shown, but not in its specificity, is the religious aspect. More than once, people at Malheur are shown praying, confident that what they are doing is God’s will. There is also one shot of a copy of The American Patriot’s Bible with a copy of the U.S. Constitution next to it. One is led to assume that the protesters are the “typical” American, “God and Country” Evangelicals. But, in fact, the Bundy brothers, as well as LaVoy Finicum, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that distinctly American religion. Apparently, the Bundys have claimed to have received divine messages directing them to undertake things like the occupation of the refuge. That is, at least for most Christians, a step beyond simply “God’s on our side.”

Not only does it highlight some of the problems with a mystically inclined enthusiasm that claims private messages related to God’s will, it also shows a virtual interchangeability of “God” and “Country.” Further, this goes beyond the idea articulated in the film that the Bundys have a vision for America that is competing with the contrary vision of the residents of Burns—not to mention much of the U.S. citizenry. It is also a vision of the relationship of Church and State that is far distant from many Christians in general, and Lutherans in particular.

Whereas the Bundys and their fellow travelers (of whatever type) are absolutely certain about the rightness of their cause and their actions, Christians who belong to the Kingdom of God first will always be ambivalent about any political cause, process, or government. But what the protesters (or many of them) view as their constitutional stance, contrary to the anti-constitutional actions that they oppose, has become (I don’t think it’s too much to say) their de facto religion. It has ceremony, rituals, order, and martyrs.

While a Christian might, as a citizen of the United States, agree with some of the opinions and interpretations of what this country is supposed to be and be like, that same Christian cannot be whole-heartedly for “the cause.” No one can serve two masters. As concerned as I might be about what looks like an unjustified shooting, about the curtailing of freedom, about the way the federal government (and all government, really) always advances and extends its powers and never recedes in its authority, about the surveillance that seems to grow with technological ability, and about the complete lack of what the Roman Catholics call subsidiarity, none of that will ever lead me to put all my time, money, and energy into defending one or another competing vision of the Constitution, or of liberty, or of the American founders’ conceptions of the limits of the federal government.

That doesn’t mean I won’t exercise my rights as a citizen to promote the vision of the nation that best seems to serve the common good (which, in my case, would mean a governmental power far more limited than what we see today). But it means that, finally, my life is bound to the cross of Jesus and not to the Constitution or to any form of patriotism. There are, indeed, enemies of the American self-understanding—some of which have been and continue to be within this nation itself. (Read, for one example, Whittaker Chambers’ description of them in Witness.) It is right and good to oppose such enemies.

But that can never be an unconditionally certain enterprise, as it is for most of the people in No Man’s Land. As far as Christianity goes, since we are strangers and exiles within whatever land we find ourselves, it is always and everywhere a serious mistake to assume any kind of direct overlap between American and Christian understandings of citizenship. One is temporary and conditional, the other is eternal and absolute. As fascinating as this documentary is in terms of our current political and societal divisions, the division between a Christian’s finite loyalty and his infinite loyalty is the more interesting and the more fundamental.

In Praise of Escapism

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 14.]

It is endlessly tiresome to consider all the Christian think-pieces that come out after any significant secular film, trying to find a metaphor or an allegory under every narrative. There are certainly films outside of “Christian movies” that contain Christian themes and tell stories that intersect or are parallel to the Story. But we can try too hard. Consider all the nonsense straining to connect the Force to a possible conception of the Christian God. Or as The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions proved, whatever intimations of Christianity the first film might have had, it was really just a gumbo of spiritual eclecticism. Sometimes a film is just a film.

And I think that might be okay. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake. The problem comes not when entertainment is not taken seriously enough but when it’s taken too seriously. In our culture, entertainment, politics, sports (and everything else) are elevated to pedestals far too high for them to remain without tottering and falling. They are our cultural idols which have their own temples, rituals, iconography, and gnostic lingo. People who do not worship God in Christ do not worship nothing. Rather, since creatures must worship, they will worship anything and everything. And personal gods are always jealous gods, before whom their adherents will force everything else to bow—like a college student taking a single class in cultural criticism and being unable to think in any other terms. To someone whose only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail.

To 21st century North Americans, with our particular modern hammers, everything is Political. Everything is a Game. Everything is (or must be translated into) Entertainment (cf. Neil Postman). That’s too much weight for any of those things to bear. We must not take them so seriously. When it happens in cinema, every film, actor, and director has to “make a statement.” But in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, it’s when a film tries to “say something” that it fails, both commercially and as good film. People know when they’re being propagandized, and unless they’re totally on board already, they don’t like it—not to mention that it usually creates bad art.

So, instead of being “meaningful” and “profound,” just give me a good story. Interestingly, good stories are usually meaningful, even profound. But even if they’re not—even if they’re just fun—that’s good enough. For example, Baby Driver is a fun little flick that flirts with delving into deep, childhood grief. It’s a romance and a comedy and an action movie. But it doesn’t try to be too much, and I’m okay with that. It shifts effortlessly (pun semi-intended) between serious crime-and-car-chase and witty dialogue and humor (“he puts the Asian in home invasion” or Mike Myers/Austin Powers Halloween masks instead of Michael Myers Halloween masks). There are a lot of heist movie character clichés, but Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx are good enough actors to play those clichés as they should be played: all the way to 11.

I’ve also been enjoying the Department Q films on Netflix. Based on books by Jussi Adler-Olsen, these Danish films are excellent detective/crime movies. They are, like Bosch and True Detective (Season One, at least; I didn’t hear good words about Season Two), more character studies of the detectives than they are narrative-focused (although the stories keep moving).

The most recent one, Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith, does have an underlying discussion about what any kind of religious faith is for, since one of the detectives, Assad, is a Muslim, and they are investigating a small religious cult’s connections to the abductions and murders of children. The final scene in particular surprised me as I was moved emotionally more than I expected to be.

But finally, they’re simply good stories. And a little entertainment and distraction and escapism is all the more needed when everything is being co-opted politically and culturally. If it’s good, it’s good, even if it doesn’t check all the right political and social boxes. Yes, a fictional world that is constructed to tell a good story can turn our eyes more critically back on the real world. Yes, films and other entertainment can help us see things more clearly. But that’s not their primary purpose (or it shouldn’t be).

For example, Get Out is a pretty good picture of a horrifying alternate reality. But people want it to say too much. And I suspect it’s a much better description of the sorts of people who take every opportunity to prove they’re “woke” than of the veiled racism that may or may not exist in every social interaction. I think both the people who see it, on the one hand. as a necessary and fundamentally important exploration of racist social structures or, on the other hand, as a shallow, typical, and unreal progressive social statement are missing the point that it’s a tense and fun ride while it lasts.

Simply stated, let me have my escapism. When politics is taken too seriously, the president is either destroying everything or saving everything, and this is the Most Important Election in our lifetime. When sports are taken too seriously, people get far too angry and bitter about wins and losses and teams and rivals. When films are taken too seriously, we have to find profundity in everything, even if it’s not there. Not everything affects everyone. Not everything is political. Not everything is a game. Not everything is entertainment.

But such things can be ordered correctly only if one has the true God. Idolatry inverts the right order of everything. Only when the crucified and resurrected Jesus has made His Father our true God again by faith is everything put back into its proper place. The true God, the Creator, subverts all our attempts to make created things bear too much weight. The true God subordinates truly subordinate things. Then we can actually worship the only One who should be worshiped, while the penultimate things remain penultimate; politics becomes a way of ordering our civil life together in this creation, sport remains play, and entertainment remains escapism that is freed to hint at the true Story of things by its narrower sub-reality. And that is as it should be.

In the new creation, there will be no politics (as we commonly understand it) because its full and only polis will be the eternal, visible reign of God. There will be then no entertainment that subverts the good, true, and beautiful, nor will there be entertainment that points us beyond that eternal moment. And while there may be play in its truest sense, it will never be subjected to our corrupted hero-worship and tendency to make created things the measure of reality. So, for now, while we wait in this distorted and corrupted creation for that new and restored creation, a place for everything, and everything in its place—even movies.

Minnesota DFL Ad

This ad was sent out by the Minnesotat Democratic-Farm-Labor Party (DFL).  I saw it here at the National Catholic Register online.  I e-mailed the head of the Minnesota DFL with this:

Mr. [Brian] Melendez [chairman of the Minnesota DFL],
I saw a postcard that your organization sent out (noted here), and though I am not Roman Catholic, I was surprised at the vitriol and the ignorance it displayed.  Please reconsider that postcard and perhaps issue an appropriate apology to Roman Catholics and, by extension, all Christians who work and care for the poor.  Surely, with a degree from a Divinity School with a concentration in ethics, you could not yourself have approved that ad?

And this is the response I got:

The ad is part of a two-piece mailing that highlights and criticizes the policy views of Dan Hall, a preacher who is the Republican candidate for the Minnesota Senate. I enclose both sides of both pieces. I understand that some Republican bloggers have taken one image from the first piece, and claimed that the mail is somehow anti-Catholic. But the text explicitly criticizes Preacher Hall for distancing himself from policy views that have been taken by the Catholic Archdiocese, by the [Evangelical] Lutheran Synod, and other leaders in Minnesota’s faith community. Dan Hall is willing to enlist God and religion in his campaign when it helps him — but in fact, his views hurt the poorest and sickest among us, and this mailing holds him accountable for those views.

Donald McFarland
Communications Director
Minnesota DFL Party

Here are the other parts of the ad, sent to me by Mr. McFarland: Mail_piece_2, Mail-Piece_3.

I’ve never heard of Dan Hall (though I found his website here, as well as this and this, and this is the map of the district he’s running to represent; looks to be south of the Twin Cities?), so I don’t know his views on the poor.  But “views” don’t hurt people, poor, sick, or otherwise.  Obviously, the implementation of certain views can hurt people, but I doubt Dan Hall is explicitly trying to hurt the poor.  The DFL may disagree, and I understand the nature of politics as we approach Nov. 2, but the part of the ad I saw first clearly does not differentiate between Dan Hall and those the DFL say they are not criticizing, such as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese (of where?).  And why the clerical collar?  Does Hall wear a collar?  (Not in any pictures on his website.) 

If Hall is promoting Republicans from his pulpit, he’s wrong.  If he’s preaching particular policies from the pulpit, he’s misguided, but not immoral.  And I think it’s strange for pastors to run for office.  I disagree with preachers promoting partisan politics, but I also disagree with the DFL making policy positions into absolute moral imperatives.  So much for democratic discourse.

Timotheos

The President and “Science”

From Robert George and Eric Cohen in the Wall Street Journal:

First, the Obama policy is itself blatantly political. It is red meat to his Bush-hating base, yet pays no more than lip service to recent scientific breakthroughs that make possible the production of cells that are biologically equivalent to embryonic stem cells without the need to create or kill human embryos. Inexplicably — apart from political motivations — Mr. Obama revoked not only the Bush restrictions on embryo destructive research funding, but also the 2007 executive order that encourages the National Institutes of Health to explore non-embryo-destructive sources of stem cells.

Second and more fundamentally, the claim about taking politics out of science is in the deepest sense antidemocratic. The question of whether to destroy human embryos for research purposes is not fundamentally a scientific question; it is a moral and civic question about the proper uses, ambitions and limits of science. It is a question about how we will treat members of the human family at the very dawn of life; about our willingness to seek alternative paths to medical progress that respect human dignity.

What is “anti-science” is pushing a political agenda on the back of measures intended to pacify the rabid, anti-life Left–when science is moving in the opposite direction.  As everyone should know by now, embryonic stem cells (apart from their very nature as human-life-destroying) have made possible no new cures at all, while adult stem cells, and the advances in producing pluripotent stem cells from other sources (e.g., the umbilical cord), have produced multiple treatments.  This executive order is anti-science by definition.

Timotheos

When One Issue Isn’t One Issue

Publicity has been given recently to prominent Evangelicals who reject the perceived partisan politics of abortion and homosexuality for the broader, nonpartisan politics of global warming and the environment, poverty, homelessness, and governmental intervention in more problems.  Evangelicals have been criticized in the past for “one-issue” voting, usually abortion.  They have now, according to many commentators, taken the criticism to heart and have focused their attention on social issues more broadly defined.

The problem is, the criticism fails when it comes to most thinking voters.  The fact that I will not vote for a given politician because he or she is in favor of continuing the unlimited abortion license does not mean that my vote fails to take into account the many other good things such a politician might do.  So, for instance, a self-identified religious conservative might vote for Barack Obama because he has all sorts of things going for him (I say that simply for the sake of argument), regardless of where he stands on the abortion issue.  I suppose I could theoretically conceive of a politician who was wrong about abortion, but right about all sorts of other social issues, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in actual practice.

Abortion is not an isolated issue, unrelated to everything else.  In fact, I am 95 percent convinced that if someone is wrong about abortion, that person is likely to be wrong about much else as well.  If the question of when humans come to possess human rights is above a politician’s pay grade, it seems to me that the presidency is above his pay grade as well.  If you don’t know when humans have human rights, how can you work to protect those rights?  Further, if you don’t know when humans have human rights, why would it be okay to allow the killing of those humans, whom, admittedly, may or may not have human rights?  Which puts a lot more than the abortion license in question.

Being wrong about abortion also likely means that one is wrong about the family.  The premise of the “right” to murder one’s own child is that a woman has a “right” to do whatever she wants with “her” “own” “body.”  But this affects also the rights and responsibilities of fathers, which means it affects the marriage relationship itself.  If Paul is correct that the wife’s body is the husband’s and the husband’s body is the wife’s, then it makes no moral sense to say that the husband has nothing to say about what happens to the wife’s body, let alone the body of their unborn child.  I’d also be willing to bet that such a politician, instead of helping single mothers stay home and take care of their children (far better than daycare), would pay for daycare so the mother can work.  I’d also be willing to bet that that politician would be in favor of giving your money and mine to Planned Parenthood, which carries out the most abortions each year, supported by our tax dollars.

As a side note, it’s interesting that politicians who want as much government influence (or interference) as possible think that the government should stay out of abortion “politics.”

Those who vote or don’t vote for a politician based on his/her views on abortion should not be cowed into silence or working to end global warming as a response to the criticism that they are one-issue voters.  It’s not that simple.

Timotheos