Storytellers

what Joel and Ethan Coen can teach us about reading the Old Testament

I’ve been wondering what the relentless realism of the Coen brothers’ films can teach us about reading the Old Testament.

Earlier this week Stanley Fish posted a provocative appreciation of the Coen brothers’ latest film, True Grit (a remake of a John Wayne movie). I say provocative because Fish concludes by contending:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

I’m keen to see the film. Not least because Fish’s review reminded me of this imagined conversation between Karl Barth and Joel and Ethan Coen about No Country For Old Men.

I can’t say that I’ve found many of the Coen brothers’ films enjoyable to watch. Especially not No Country.

But neither can I say that I enjoy reading a whole lot of the Old Testament. The historical narratives in particular often leave me feeling bewildered — and a little bit nauseated.

To me, biblical Israel’s history resembles nothing so much as a horrendous car wreck in slow motion. Perfect source material for Joel and Ethan Coen!

Of course, there are flashes of grace. There are hints anticipating God’s ultimate triumph. Indications that he does have purposes — good purposes — that he’s patiently working out in and through the messy, tragic humanness of it all.

But these flashes don’t point to some fulfilment of an intrinsic trajectory within human history. As if there were some promising germ of perfection within it — buried deep but straining continually towards realisation (lurking somewhere in the special identity of Israel perhaps).

Instead, they point to God’s apocalyptic, unlooked-for, in-person invasion of human history. Not to cancel it out. Or offer an escape from it. But to finally perfect his original intentions for it — in liberation, redemption and glorious transformation.

That is, they point us to Christmas. And beyond it to Christ’s return.

I don’t think this resolves all the problems we might have reading the Old Testament.

But I am convinced that learning to face reality squarely (from the likes of the Coen brothers, for example) may help us embrace God’s governance of history without smoothing over its tragic angularities — either in the Old Testament or in our own experience…

In praise of the Blues

It sounds oxymoronic, but Blues music makes me happy.

I bought Steve Earle’s new album Townes on the weekend. It’s a tribute to the legendary singer songwriter Townes Van Zandt and is a series of covers of Van Zandt’s songs. If you’re a knee-jerk country music hater, you’ll hear the first twang of the banjo and scoff. That would be a pity, because it’s a magnificent, muddy, raggedly emotional ride. I broke out in a big cheesy grin the minute the electric guitar kicked in on the charcoal-y Lungs and had to play it back a second time. So, I had a good belly laugh when I later read that that electric guitar was being played by Tom Morello*. Awesome.

Won’t you lend your lungs to me?
Mine are collapsin’
Plant my feet and bitterly breathe
Up the time that’s passin’
Breath I’ll take and breath I’ll give
Pray the day ain’t poison
Stand among the ones that live
In lonely indecision

Steve Earle is such an admirer (and close friend) of Van Zandt’s that he named his kid Justin Townes Earle. I also bought Justin’s acclaimed album Midnight at the Movies. It’s good — although he’s still got a few things to learn from Dad. But definitely worth a listen.

*Morello’s the guitarist from Rage Against the Machine. Not that any of you needed me to tell you that…

In praise of Douglas Coupland

Have you ever wondered about the cultural insights to be gained from a cereal box? Or the psychological effects of working in an office supplies megastore? Or the place of shampoo in contributing to modern identity?

Figuring out your daily hair is like figuring out whether you use legal- or letter-size paper in the copy machine. Your hair is you — it’s your tribe — it’s your badge of clean. Hair is your document. What’s on top of your head says what’s inside your head.

(From Shampoo Planet, 1992)

In spite of, or perhaps because of, all the ridiculous observations he makes about contemporary life, Douglas Coupland is one of the best mirrors that’s been held up to my life (Scriptures excepted). He’s weird, but in a good way. His NY Times blog is unfortunately inactive, but the last post is simultaneously profound and bizarre.

Concerned with the physicality of books — the materiality and produced-ness of paper — he reflects on the way wasps create paper from wood pulp and, flowing out of those reflections, re-creates his own books as arresting, masticated installations. You can see them here. Go and look at the images (I wouldn’t want to breach copyright by reproducing them here) — and then hopefully you can appreciate our cheesy alternative title suggestions for this post:

  • The Word Made Nest
  • Fiction To Chew On
minifigs (in case you don't know)

minifigs (in case you don't know)

If you know what a minifig is, and can face up to the fact that you are probably a geek, then chances are you’ll really enjoy reading his 1995 novel Microserfs. In case the title hasn’t given it away already, it’s about computer programmers working at Microsoft (but who worship Apple), and jump ship to a risky start-up. It feels dated already (email is in its infancy in the novel), but it’s surprising how little that matters. There aren’t many people I know of writing good, entertaining books that make critical comment about what it’s like to work in an office with computers — in fact, put like that it sounds impossible. But Coupland does it. Here’s how it starts:

This morning, just after 11:00, Michael locked himself in his office and he won’t come out.

Bill (Bill!) sent Michael this totally wicked flame-mail from hell on the email sytem — and he just whaled on a chunk of code Michael had written. Using the Bloom County-cartoons-taped-on-the-door index, Michael is certainly the most sensitive coder in Building Seven — not the type to take criticism easily…

…Finally, at about 2.30AM Todd and I got concerned about Michael’s not eating, so we drove to the 24-hour Safeway in Redmond. We went shopping for ‘flat’ foods to slip underneath Michael’s door.

In praise of Dave Eggers

‘Wunderkind’ is the kind of descriptor someone unimaginative would give to Dave Eggers. Glorious, deeply incisive, and sublime would be appropriate adjectives. His first book is modestly entitled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The preface (which you’re instructed not to read, but which you undoubtedly will anyway) indicates just how self aware and ironic Eggers intends the title to be:

…he [the author] is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all of this, and will preempt your claim of the books irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story…

And the thing is, it really is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Neither AHWOSG and his more recent book What is the What are novels in the strictest sense. Both are fictionalised accounts of real life; AHWOSG of Egger’s own and What is the What that of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achek Deng. You can’t walk away from either of these books unchanged. In What is the What the narrative flips between the present, in which Deng is a victim of a home invasion in the USA, and his experiences in Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. Both experiences are horrific and yet the story is somehow also beautiful and hopeful. This is a moment from the home invasion:

 Finally he [Deng’s boy-captor] emerges from the kitchen with a phone book. He carries it over to me and holds it over my head.

“Young man! What are you doing?”

He drops the book. It is the first time in my life I have seen something coming toward me and been unable to properly react. I try to turn my head but still the book lands squarely on my face. The pain is compounded by my headache and the ricochet my chin makes against the floor. The phone book slides off, toward my forehead, and rests there, against my temple. Thinking he has accomplished his goal, he returns to the kitchen and the volume goes up again, This boy thinks I am not of his species, that I am some other kind of creature, one that can be crushed under the weight of a phone book.

The pain is not great, but the symbolism is disagreeable.

He’s a pretty impressive person too. He’s committed to writers, writing and creativity more generally, establishing magazines that nurture writers and artists and setting up writing programs for kids. This is a guy who practices what he preaches. Similar to the way we expect the faithful to bear ‘fruit’ for the gospel — I reckon Eggers bears fruit for writing and creativity.

In praise of Hans Rosling

Don’t worry, you’re not expected to know who Hans Rosling is. In fact, I don’t know a great deal about him — but what I have seen is truly inspirational. This is a series about great storytellers (c.f. Intro, #1, #2, #3), so I imagine you will laugh when I say this: Hans Rosling is a statistician. 

I work with stats and geographic information systems (GIS, i.e. computerised mapping) and spend a lot of time figuring out how to communicate statistics meaningfully to a non-expert audience. I think a lot about data visualisation.  If I ever acquire the ability to turn statistics into the kinds of stories that Hans Rosling creates I will be a happy woman*. 

He is a miracle worker at using statistics to make sense of (and problematise) commonly articulated narratives about global development. If you have the time, I highly recommend watching the video below (or see another one here). And, thrillingly, you can play with his data visualisation engine here.

So … lies, damned lies, and beautiful stories.

*Note: Chris isn’t the only one who posts here. I do too.

In praise of Joss Whedon

serenity_one_sheetI wanted to call this post “Quentin Tarantino eat your heart out”, but decided to stay with my established pattern so you would know what on earth I was talking about. 

Joss Whedon is favourite storyteller #3. For those impoverished people who don’t know who I’m talking about, Whedon is the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly (among others). It would be tempting to label these gorgeously layered creations “vampire” or “sci-fi” flicks, but the reason for the Tarantino reference is this…

Tarantino uses a variety of genres in any given film. Kill Bill, for example, blended martial arts, noir, and anime to name a few. Reflect for a moment on Pulp Fiction and see if you can create a list of genres it encompasses. But the thing is, when I watch a Tarantino film, the use of genre is all just a bit too clever and Look At Me I’m Using Lots Of Different Genres.

In contrast, Whedon creates a series like Firefly (and the subsequent film Serenity), which you could potentially label Sci-fi-Western-Adventure-Romance-Thriller-Comedy-Coming-of-Age, but you don’t even notice him doing anything funky with genre because genre is serving the storytelling and not the other way around. 

Tarantino’s ostentatious flaunting of his clever use of genre, suddenly looks kind of clunky next to Whedon’s artful use of storytelling heritage to create imaginary worlds that are complex and captivating but accessible and entertaining at the same time. 

So … Quentin Tarantino eat your heart out.

In praise of David Attenborough

OK — hands up how many of you thought that by ‘storytellers’ I meant fiction novelists? That would be a sorely deficient definition of the various ways we weave together meaningful narratives about our world. 

Meerkats at Taronga Zoo (April 2008)

Meerkats at Taronga Zoo (April 2008)

Other than the Lord Jesus, David Attenborough is as close as I get to a hero. While other children of my generation watched Disney movies on repeat, Ed and I watched taped copies (on Beta) of Life on Earth and Trials of Life. This is a man so committed to narrative that he recounts how, while producing The Living Planet (1)

Together we had taken the project through all its stages — debating the shape of initial scripts, selecting the species to use as examples and then zig-zagging in separate groups around the world … Sometimes I came back having been filmed speaking the first half of a sentence that fitted neatly on to a second half that we had filmed on another continent two years earlier.

One of the things I’ve always found delightful is how easily my emotions are manipulated by the way he tells the story. For example, when the film focusses on a mother cheetah, and Sir David tells me how her cubs will die if they don’t eat soon, I cheer on the cheetah in the hunt: “Catch the wildebeest — go cheetah go!” The urgency is dire. If the cheetah embarks on the chase and doesn’t catch anything, she will have expended so much precious energy that each successive hunt becomes more difficult. 

However, Sir David can tell me the other side of the story to equal effect. Using almost the exact same footage, he tells me about the way the wildebeest cluster together to protect the weak, the music soars and I find myself chanting at the television: “Run, wildebeest, run!”

(1) Life on Air, David Attenborough 2002, BBC Books London, p294.

In praise of storytellers

staplerMost Christians would agree with me if I were to assert the the Bible is The Greatest Story Ever Told (TGSET), and most would agree that Jesus was a divinely gifted storyteller. But I suspect some would begin to wonder about the ongoing need for storytelling (other than re-tellings of TGSET) this side of the cross. Maybe a case could be made for history or biography, but what place can fiction have?

I love stories — real or imagined — and I have great respect for good storytellers. One of my favourite story-tellers, Ursula Le Guin (1), writes of the opportunity science fiction affords her:

An imagined setting may be the most appropriate in which to work out certain traits and destinies… Those images [of space travel, imagined technologies, etc] used by a serious writer are images and metaphors of our lives, legitimately novelistic, symbolic ways of saying what cannot be said about us, our being and choices, here and now. What science fiction does is enlarge the here and now.

Le Guin argues that this is not fundamentally different from any other form of fiction:

All fiction offers us a world we can’t otherwise reach, whether because it’s in the past, or in far imaginary places, or describes experiences we haven’t had, or leads us into minds different from our own.

So, fiction allows us to explore in our imagination what is impossible in real life. Yet, at the same time, it is about real life — relationships, character, growth, failure — and helps provide insight and clarity in brief glimpses. Brief glimpses, like those described by Tessa Hadley recently in a short story in The New Yorker:

Sometimes, when she moved back out of the book and into her own life, just for a moment she could see her circumstances with a new interest and clarity, as if they were happening to someone else.

Jesus’ parables do a similar thing don’t they? They are fictional accounts that reveal our own circumstances with a renewed clarity (if we let them). 

Despite the fact that people are messy and finite, and our stories will never be characterised by the same razor-sharp insight of Jesus parables, I think story-telling is a pretty key part of our divine image-bearing. I can testify to the fact that fallen people have created stories that are beautiful (or sublime), that teach us about ourselves and provide insight into the worlds of those around us.

So, over the next few weeks, I hope to share some reflections on the story-tellers I admire, who have helped provide me with moments of renewed clarity.

(1) Introduction to Fisherman of the Inland Sea (Harper Paperbacks, New York: 2004). As an aside — I reckon this article, which heavily refers to Jane Austen, could have been an influence behind The Jane Austen Book Club. I haven’t been able to find any hard evidence on-line but the author, Karen Joy Fowler, was a Nebula winner before she wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, and if you’ve read the book/seen the movie you’ll know Le Guin’s books play a critical part in the plot.