Popular culture

so you want to get prophetic at Christmas, huh?

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Yes. It’s that time of year again…

My newsfeed is filling up with photos of over-the-top Christmas parties, food, and presents in counterpoint to anti-Christmas jibes, rants or links to fuller rants.

I’m not talking about the Santa = Satan variety of rant (along the lines of “Oooh! Look — you can rearrange the letters … and they’re THE SAME!!!”).

I’m talking about rants that are equal parts anti-Pagan Hijacking Of A Christian Holy Day and anti-consumerist.

(OK. So given the political tilt of many of my Facebook friends, the distance between these two things is sometimes thin to vanishing.)

It seems like everyone either wants to get paralytic or prophetic at Christmas time.

Who knows? Maybe this is a throwback to the early days of biblical prophecy, when it seems like the two came as a package deal.

And hey — I can sympathise with the sentiment here.

I used to be animated by something very similar to it. I would wallow in resentful misery. And, if given the chance, I’d wax wrathful at the whole pseudospiritual-capitalist complex that obscured ’the real meaning of Christmas’.

It would have been like a annual possession, except for the fact that I used to be about as much fun to hang out with all year around!

(Oddly enough, I think the period of my Grinch-y gloom began at roughly the same point in my life at which I had to take responsibility for buying/making presents for other people.)

But then I got Christmas — or rather it got me.

These days, I find myself less in the mood for grim prophecy and more in the mood to celebrate the glory of what Christmas is all about.

Although I can still happily live without the ubiquitous reindeer antlers, I’ve even started to enjoy Christmas carols.

When else does the Australian general public verbally exult in the Incarnation?

And when else do parents and children together rehearse the earth-shattering news of God the Son becoming a flesh-and-blood human being and embarking on the road into the far country as he pours himself out and is crowned with glory and honour for us and for our salvation?

Sure — there’s plenty more thought that people could put into it. And lots of ways in which we could resist the insidious consumerisation of every aspect of Christmas (if I’d had time or been better-planned this year, I would have loved to make more of the presents I’m giving).

I’m not suggesting it’s enough simply to sing songs, give gifts, and dispense Hallmark-ised ‘Season’s Greetings’.

But I do wonder if we’d win more of a hearing if we visibly enjoyed (rather than merely endured) this culturally-sanctioned opportunity to retell and reflect on the story of our Saviour’s birth?

why I’m giving up on Q&A

I have a confession to make.

I’m giving up on Q&A.

Yes – I know it’s the ABC’s flagship talk show. I know it’s all about giving different views a hearing. About that all-Australian virtue of giving each other ‘a fair go’.

But it never fails to make me angry. And sick.

Q&A has this aura of respectability and seriousness. As its
About page
states, Q&A is hosted by one the ABC’s most respected journalists – Tony Jones.

But every time I watch it, I can’t get over how deliberately it’s been set up to amplify conflict. And ultimately how it plays to the worst elements in contemporary media culture.

All of which has got me thinking about the deep connections between our modern Western notions of fairness — the distinctively Australian “egalitarian and larrikin spirit” boasted of on Q&A’s About page — and the way we’re increasingly held hostage to the sound bit and the scandal.

The aspirations of ‘serious journalism’ are well-known — and easy enough to sympathise with: present both sides of the story, give everyone a hearing, don’t jump to conclusions.

And such aspirations have traditionally been opposed to the stomach-churning stuff that typically dominates the tabloids — manufactured drama and conflict, rumour and innuendo, or playing up anything that might give a hook for a story (‘Wow – does Celebrity X’s choice of loose-fitting clothes conceal a baby bump?’).

But Q&A manages to bring them both together.

In doing so, I wonder if it’s the perfect apotheosis of our media culture?

Does Q&A expose the inner unity of the journalistic drive towards ‘fairness’ and the tabloid impulse towards ratings?

And hold up a mirror to the ugliness in our hearts in the process?

Or maybe that’s too dramatic…

Attention! Attention!

Apparently we’re living in an attention economy — where one of the most scarce and precious commodities is our attention.

What this means is that whoever and whatever can capture and hold our attention ‘wins’. (Which I guess means it’s fitting that I read about this attention economy by following a link from my Twitter feed.)

I certainly feel like ‘attention economy’ pretty accurately describes the situation in my household with an incredibly active and curious almost-two year old.

And I suspect many of us can resonate with this more broadly. Can’t we?

Think about the prevalence of the soundbyte. Or the highlight reel.

Or think about how quickly posts seem to appear and then disappear from your news feed on Facebook. Blink and you can miss massively important announcements — weddings, births, new jobs…

(In fact, the ‘experts’ tell me that in university student ministry, the ideal number of times to Tweet each day is between 2 and 8 times! That’s every day. Every. Single. Day. Posting mostly the same content. Just so people have a chance of seeing it.)

It’s like survival of the fittest for ideas!

But as well as keeping everything brief and punchy (to avoid tl;dr), our attention economy rewards novelty.

It’s all about freshness. Originality.

Everything’s got to be new — or at least wrapped in a shiny new package.

All of which poses some distinct challenges for Christians.

Because Christians are people who say we’ve had not just our attention but our loyalty captured and held by one thing. One person — Jesus.

Worse, the writer of Hebrews tells us that this Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”!

Worse still, Jesus himself tells us (in John 5) that he is supremely unoriginal. He does nothing new — but only what he sees his Father doing: “whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise”.

So in this attention economy is there anything that can stop Christians being boring when we always want to keep talking about Jesus?

And, maybe even more significantly, is there anything that can stop us getting bored ourselves? Not so much turning our back on Jesus as getting distracted — having our eyes and hearts drawn away towards something newer and fresher?

Well… Maybe.

I’m sure this is the bit where I’m supposed to pull a rabbit out of a hat and resolve the attention economy dilemma.

That’s certainly what I’d planned to do. I’d planned to point to the inexhaustible richness of the Bible’s testimony to Jesus.

And I wanted to sketch out a flexible framework that would allow this rich, multi-dimensional witness to emerge with relevance to the questions and issues we encounter in our everyday relationships…

But I’m not sure I know how to do this. All I’ve got is a hunch — a hunch that people like Tim Keller are on to something when they talk about the “irreducible complexity” of the core Christian message about Jesus.

Commenting on how ready the Apostles were to draw a line between true and false gospels, Keller observes (Center Church, chapter 2): “It would be impossible for Paul to condemn a ‘false gospel’ and affirm the preaching of Peter as ‘the gospel’ without assuming a consensus body of gospel content. And yet it is obvious that the various biblical writers express the gospel in significantly different ways.”

It’s almost like God’s anticipated the problem of our attention economy. Or maybe it’s not such a novel problem after all…

the games we all play

I’d like us to do some thinking about the games we all play.

No. Not those kind of games…

Games like Candy Crush Saga (or Angry Birds).

And I’d like us to set our thinking about such games in the context of a passage from the Bible — Colossians 4.2-6:

“Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the message, to speak the mystery of the Messiah, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it as I am required to speak. Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.” (HCSB)

Depending on how you take it, the idea of ‘making the most of the time’ in this passage can be tricky to square with the temporal black hole of gaming (something almost every gamer has experienced at some point).

In fact, a book I’m keen to pick up off the back of this review at Reformation 21, argues that this exactly is why gaming is incompatible with serious Christian discipleship:

“If there is a conflict between gaming and discipleship, its root is not necessarily gaming content or the pursuit of pleasure, but simply time. The intensive natures of gaming and of discipleship suggest that we may not have time for both.” (D Brent Laytham, iPod, YouTube, Wii Play: Theological Engagements with Entertainment)

Of course, there are ways to ‘redeem’ game playing — addressing the stigma of ‘total waste of time’.

Professional observer of digital culture, Tom Chatfield, identifies three in his book, How To Thrive In The Digital Age (pages 103-116):

  1. Game playing is a serious business. Not only is the industry massively lucrative (something only enhanced by the emergence of ‘playbor’). But an increasing number of our interactions have become ‘game like’ in their interfaces — think of the playfulness of Facebook’s interface or the more sinister game-likeness of the way US Air Force drones are remotely piloted.
  2. Games also offer us a fun, relaxing, boredom-killing form of escapism that we can inject into our everyday lives. The psychological benefits of which should not be underestimated.
  3. And gaming is loaded with educational potential. Not only those games that aim to teach everything from basic mathematics through to the risks of social networking. But also those like Candy Crush that present us ‘tame’ opportunities for problem-solving. While most of life is far from ‘tame’ — many of the analytical and goal-setting skills these games require can be fruitfully applied to more complex real life problems.

For my part, I’m not ready to give up on treating gaming as a waste of time. Precisely the opposite. What I’d like to do is redeem the notion of time wasting. And do it from Colossians 4.2-6!

You see, in its context the phrase ‘making the most of the time’ fleshes out how Christians are called to ‘act wisely towards outsiders’.

Humanly speaking, the key to the Colossians’ mission lies in maintaining relational and conversational readiness — corresponding to the boldness and clarity in proclaiming Jesus that is the key to the apostolic mission.

Paul wants ordinary Christians to keep their eyes peeled for opportunities to give gracious and ‘salty’ answers to people who ask them questions.

It’s about being ready to give the kind of answers that get the conversational juices flowing, whetting the appetite for more (rather than leaving people with a bad taste in their mouth).

Stepping even further back, this ‘making the most of the time’ readiness has its root in prayer. Devoted, alert and thankful prayer, to be precise. Thoroughly grounded in its acknowledgement that God is the prime mover and giver of every good gift.

What this means is that it’s a kind of ‘relaxed readiness’ — an unforced (and even a playful) readiness, secure in the knowledge that God is the main player in mission.

Such relaxed readiness is worlds away from the desperately activistic, guilt-ridden drivenness that expresses itself in thoughts like:

“I don’t have time to waste with video games! There’s work to be done. People to be plucked from the flames. People who’ll be lost if I don’t get my butt into gear…”

Not that there isn’t work to be done. Not that those who don’t trust Christ aren’t in need of rescuing. And certainly not that Christians aren’t given any responsibility in the face of that.

But that our responsibility begins — and is shot through — with prayer. With calling on God to do the heavy lifting. Looking to him to rescue people (as only he can). And asking his Spirit to do the work.

Ours is a readiness, therefore, that surrenders (mere) activism.

It’s a ‘making the most of the time’ that starts with a fundamentally playful ‘wasting time’ in prayer — not only not getting anything tangible done but giving up on the illusion that any of us ever gets anything done apart from the sovereign enabling of our gracious God…

pause and frame a thought

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It’s often said that the emerging generations (Gen Y, Z, and whatever else we’re up to) are more feelers than thinkers.

For us, apparently, experience is king. And (the argument continues) we’re so plugged in and connected that we’re too distracted to engage in sustained thought or serious reflection — the kind of thing required by novels, sermons, essays, etc.

Anecdotally, lots of people I know are far more likely to take a photo with Instagram and post it to Facebook than to sit and ponder the mysteries of existence. (Although, for some reason, popular New Atheist manifestos like The God Delusion often still manage to get traction. Hmmm…)

But I’m wondering if the judgement that’s been passed on younger generations is too hasty.

You see, taking a photo — and applying a filter (or border) to foreground particular aspects of the composition as Instagram allows, and giving it a caption, and then sharing it (potentially along with a number of other photos) — demands that you step back or aside from experience.

To snap a good photo you’ve got have at least one foot outside the moment. You’ve got to pause and frame it. And — even if you’re not yet fully engaged in reflecting — you’ve got to start moving in that direction.

This may be different from traditional ways of doing reflection. And it’s no doubt tangled up with all sorts of other things — the desire to capture/manufacture the quintessential ‘cool’ shot, a need to impress, etc (although traditional modes of reflection are hardly immune from these forces). But it isn’t necessarily a failure to reflect.

The challenge is to work out how to harness and develop this mode of reflection — even letting new generations teach the rest of us new (and potentially more powerful) ways recollecting and reflecting.

inundation and web-spinning

I wonder if you saw this amazing image from flood-affected Wagga Wagga?

No — it’s not a farm house surrounded by flood waters. It’s a farm house surrounded by spider webs!

How they organised this impromptu Occupy The Farm House bamboozles me. But I love it. Can you imagine walking out your front door to this one morning? You’d have to pinch yourself.

I find this image latent with more than purely Nature Is Amazing kind of significance. For surely this image of physical inundation triggering a frenzy of web-spinning — like the socially-networked protesters converging on Tahrir Square in response to a rising tide of brutality and economic insecurity — is metaphorically pregnant with the essence of the age we live in.

According to Time magazine, a recent study published in Science has found evidence that when inundated with information, we network. Specifically, they found that:

  1. We are increasingly processing the tsunami of information threatening to swamp us by networking. When we don’t know the answer to a question, we start thinking about how we can get access to the Web to answer it
  2. We are increasingly outsourcing our memories — failing to commit things to memory when we believe we’ll easily be able to save and access it again later
  3. And what we are remembering is not the information itself but — in an Information Age mutation of the social-psychological phenomenon known as transactive memory — where and how we’ll be able to find it

This certainly resonates with the way I learnt theology. I was forced to think much more about the connections within the overall system — as well as how these linkages are made — than the precise details (of historical debates about the doctrine of creation etc).

What about you? Does it ring any bells for you too?

I’ve been doing some (postmodern) soul-searching

Now we’ve got a 3 month old son, Natalie and I watch a lot of DVDs. (OK, so we did that before we had a child.) Between Christmas and New Year this year, we ploughed through the first season of Dollhouse — which was created by Joss Whedon (the man behind Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Serenity).

I’d been wanting to watch Dollhouse for ages — having caught a couple of episodes on a plane. And it didn’t disappoint. It’s an intriguing exploration of what makes us human.

The premise itself is cool. An underground organisation, the Dollhouse, takes beautiful young people who find themselves in a sticky situation and offers them a way out — if they give up five years of their lives to have their memories wiped so their bodies can be programmed to be anything: the perfect date, a super-assassin, or a hostage negotiator with asthma.

This gives the show plenty of scope to sound the murky moral waters of rapid technological advance, to show off the versatility of lead actor, Eliza Dushku, and to ask the all-important question about what makes us who we are.

As a piece of story-telling, it’s brilliant. I especially appreciate how smoothly Dollhouse does exposition — filling in lots of backstory without any of the clunky-ness that could easily have accompanied this.

But what I love most about Dollhouse is the way it weaves together the two recurring threads in Whedon’s work:

There’s his anti-humanist delight in confronting us with a starkly postmodern picture of a world in which massive (and mostly hidden) structures eclipse and put the lie to human agency — where power is the supreme reality.

And — cutting across this in important and endlessly interesting ways — there’s his deep humanism. Again and again in his work, Whedon seems to look at the power-dominated worlds he cynically renders and say “Yes, but…”.

He seems almost obsessively with the need to chip away at the edges of his postmodern sensibility, struggling to pinpoint its unexplained remainder.

You could call this unexplained remainder the human ‘soul’.

But what is it? And where is it?

I don’t think it spoils anything to say that, as Dollhouse progresses, it becomes clear that the ‘soul’ is bound up with a person’s body — quite literally. Even those people who’ve had their memories overwritten seem able to learn and develop creative agency.

This typically Nietzschean answer has merit and interest of its own. But better still, it steers us towards the biblical picture of integrated human personhood — and the created goodness of bodily existence (as underwritten by the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus).

traces of humanity in popular culture

'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' (1944) by Francis Bacon

The artist Francis Bacon once described his own paintings as looking “as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events”.

I love that description! And if you’ve ever seen much of his work, I’m sure you’ll agree it rings true.

Although often evoking violence and feature abject ‘bodiliness’ (recalling severed limbs, excrement, etc), somehow Bacon’s art manages to testify eloquently to our humanity.

Brutal, almost forensic honesty somehow yields a celebration of what makes us human — or at least the mess left over at the end of this wild party we call being human.

That’s how the classic gothic novel, Frankenstein, works too.

Even though the monster is gruesomely assembled from bits and pieces of the dead, you find yourself sympathising with him. He’s just far more human than the other characters — especially his maker.

But it’s not just in high culture where this dynamic is in play.

I’m increasingly draw to pop-culture artefacts — especially TV shows — that foreground themes of what it means to be human by backlighting it with violent and distorted perversions of humanity.

Here are my top 3 picks for TV shows that employ ‘traces’ of humanity to explore this territory:

  • Dollhouse — another glorious monster from the creator of Buffy and Angel, Joss Whedon: what appears to be a misogynistic premise (a woman who has her memory wiped and reprogrammed on the whim of an elite, mostly male clientele) turns out to be so much more!
  • The Wire — OK, so maybe it doesn’t explicitly foreground an exploration of what it means to be human; but it’s way cool, and does highlight the way institutions (whether the police force, the gangs, or the unions) enable even as they constrain and imprison.
  • Being Human — Natalie and I are only just getting into this show; I can’t decide yet whether it’s more subtle or more ham-fisted than the others in handling these themes.

Do you have any tips for other TV shows (or movies) that might do a similar job?

are you a victim of the Rush Effect?

As a rule, I reckon Australian police and crime dramas have a way to go to fully mature (making an exception for East West 101 of course).

Maybe it’s just me. But we seem to struggle to produce anything with the kind of grit and reality of Law and Order — and its various franchises — even as we shy away from the ridiculous-but-uber-cool stylishness of something like Life.

So, last week, when I caught the promo for the imminent season return of Rush, I couldn’t help but chuckle.

Rush always strikes me as overwrought.

Every episode I’ve seen features fairly pedestrian, run-of-the-mill urban Aussie crimes hyped up beyond all recognition.

My impression is that it’d be fairly typical to see something like a bag snatcher at Docklands being chased down by officers on foot — set to a dramatic, tension-filled soundtrack more appropriate if the fate of the entire world hung in the balance.

But it doesn’t.

So it’s just stupid.

And yet as full of scorn as I am for television like this, I have to admit that I often fall victim to the Rush Effect myself. I have a pronounced tendency to inflate everything that happens in my personal life to cosmic proportions.

So my weekly peak-hour commute across Melbourne (against the flow of traffic no less) becomes a titanic struggle, where everyone’s out to get me.

Or I get so wrapped up in my frustration with myself that I’m still pretty crap at soccer — even after a lifetime of playing it — that I often give in to the temptation to whinge and blame others (since it can’t possibly be my fault I’m not fitter than I am).

Sure, Paul tells us Christians are in a pitched battle against the devil and the spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly places.

But come on. A bit of proportion wouldn’t go astray, would it?

I think I need to go and re-read Alexander Pope’s melodramatic mock-epic poem, The Rape of the Lock, for a dose of reality…

what Rupert Murdoch, Law & Order, and Franz Kafka have in common

High speed police chase

High speed police chase by m.laconte@sbcglobal.net, on Flickr

I was part of one of those tea-room conversations yesterday.

We were talking about Rupert Murdoch. (Who wasn’t?)

As inadequate as we found his Select Committee interview, we were all glad he’d been brought to some kind of public account. Although, most of us were sceptical about whether he would face significant legal sanctions like imprisonment — barring some kind of massive internal leak at News Corp.

At this point the conversation took a sharp left.

We began to tally up all those prominent public figures who had managed to avoid the pointy end of the law they were so obviously in breach of. We shook our heads at the fact that so many get off on technicalities even when the moral ‘spirit’ of the law lies in tatters around their feet.

Who would have thought? Our mundane tea-room conversation had joined the swelling chorus of all those throughout history lamenting the lack of justice in the world!

Then someone observed that all those crime shows on TV tap into exactly this.

They complained that no-one ever gets what they deserve. And they cited all the the plea-bargains and back room deals as evidence that the idea that justice system actually works is a total sham.

I wasn’t so sure that this was the moral of the story. And I realised as I sat on the couch watching Law & Order later that night.

From where I was sitting, the chord progression Law & Order endlessly riffs on is that justice is bigger and deeper and harder to get at than mere laws allows.

What Law & Order dramatises — and what we see acted out in the Rupert Murdochs of the world — is an ancient dilemma, one which ethicists refer to as the Kafka paradox (in honour of Franz Kafka whose dense and dark fiction returns obsessively to themes of law and justice).

The dilemma is that the demand for justice that calls laws into being is often hijacked by those very laws.

Hence, all the effort goes into the technicalities of determining who’s legally wrong instead of dealing with wrong.

That job — the job of dealing with wrong and establishing justice in the widest sense of good and right order — is always tantalising beyond the reach of human laws.

For it requires not simply the transformation of human hearts (transformed men and women still have past wrongs to answer for) but the utter condemnation of wrong and the total renewal of wrongdoers.

In short, it requires death and resurrection … even new creation!