Power Religion: The Religious Right, a year of Trump and the corruption of the Gospel

In the year of the orange-haired hellbeast, chaos and corruption reign supreme.  We are just past the annual anniversary of the election of Donald J. Trump and now have an entire calendar year to look at the mounting consequences of America’s decision.  The damage to American institutions can be considered: the frequent attacks on the press, ignoring of scientific consensus on climate change (even from his own government), threatening former FBI agents on Twitter, assailing our intelligence community, the perverse wishing that he could control the justice department to prosecute his political enemies, or the little matter of his associate’s connections to Russia which more and more are looking like a rather comedic episode of a reality TV show called “stupid criminals”.  Of course there is more considering an almost daily barrage of Twitter nonsense and public comments which, at best, seem to re-imagine English language.  Put that in your “covfefe”.

In spite of the social media tirades, bumbling public interviews, and profane shouting matches directed at Congressional members of his own political party, Trump has still pulled off having a reasonably solid base of support.  Within this loyal following are the white nationalists and other assorted white supremacists led by people like David Duke and Richard Spencer.  Their love for Trump and at least parts of his agenda has been publicly on display even obnoxiously on the T-shirt of arrested white supremacist, Dennis Mothersbaugh, which declared “God, Guns, and Trump”.  Apparently a new American trinity.

Speaking of Trinity, many Evangelicals (religious right) still support Trump as another large block.  I have touched on the religious right before by calling for the retirement of James Dobson from public life.

Many people are still asking all the time how Evangelical Christians can continue to support Trump.  An important question certainly with multiple answers but still, considering the macro level that Trump has eschewed any sense of Christian living, any basic ethical considerations in his business dealings including casinos and strip clubs, one would genuinely wonder at what level Evangelical supporters may start to abandon him.  What would it take to pry Trump from the clenched, death grip of the religious right?  Could Trump shoot somebody in broad daylight in New York City (as he bragged he could) and still have their support?  After all, here is a man who has flaunted in a major interview that he has never asked God for forgiveness.  Apparently, blasphemy is negotiable within politics for some.

Back when I was in high school I was somewhat of a budding member of the religious right. Definitely more politically conservative than I am now.  This was the time when the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and the religious right aggressively and publicly confronted Clinton’s sex life.  The message revolved around the importance of Godly character and how as a leader he should be disqualified (or certainly not trusted) as he had cheated on his wife. In general, the religious right had a message about returning to America’s alleged godly heritage and putting in solidly Christian candidates.  Pseudo historian David Barton was a prominent figure making videos and writing books that seemed to make most of our founding fathers into Evangelical-style Christians.  Clinton obviously didn’t live up to this, according to their argument, and his downfall had the religious right flailing about on how America was sinking into moral degradation.  Not even twenty years later, they would support the candidacy of Trump and still carry his water through the first year of his presidency.

Some of the leaders within the religious right may be taken aback by how many Evangelicals (specifically millennials) have reacted in anger and called foul on the entire enterprise of supporting Trump.  A disillusionment has settled over this part of the Evangelical camp (if millennials are even still in the Evangelical camp).  People who grew up hearing about the importance of character and integrity in leaders and were reminded of the vitalness of these crucial aspects now suspect they had been lied too.  That most of the teaching revolving around this political perspective was a sham.  It is not just me and not just other articles across the web of people expressing their dismay but multiple people that I know and have corresponded with in person or through social media in my circles.

Why again has the religious right thrown in with Trump when his behavior has been so far over multiple lines of morality and decency?  Again, there are varied reasons but I want to focus on one of the reasons which brings me to the central point of this post.

Power.

The seductive allure of power.  Having a seat in the corridors of immense power where a group can have access to fame and money.  Power religion.  Control.  Oh, the people that know that religious faith can be used to manipulate.  Power is tricky because it is so easy to justify the pursuit.  The religious right preaches to itself that they can enact Christian legislation as a representation of their idea of Christ.  Laws, in the minds of the religious right, can coarce people to behave Christianly under threat of government punishment if they don’t.  American can be taken back.  Made great again.  A new flourishing godly awakening can sweep the land according to this delusion.

I was recently in a social media discussion with a politically conservative Evangelical and I asked in his pursuit of bringing theocractic dominion theology to America if pre-marital sex and adultery should be criminalized.  The response came back that this was a debated point.  So, a conservative who allegedly believes in limited government and uses slogans revolving around ‘keeping the government out of people’s lives’ debates the point that a government should have the power to go into the most intimate parts of consenting adult’s lives and dispense punishments if someone is going against the Christian ideal of sexuality?

Now, personally, I reject a lot of the philosophies that have come out of the sexual revolution in the 1960s.  There is tremendous value in holding to a sacred view of sex within marriage.  Isn’t it more powerful to have someone make this choice for themselves though?  What is more meaningful?  If I came home to my wife and stated that I would not sleep around with other women because I was afraid a government bureaucrat would punish me, is this at all meaningful?  Or if I said I would refrain from sleeping with other women because I had made a choice (a personal vow) to love my wife?  The difference is law and gospel.  A subject that all Christians versed in the New Testament should be familiar with.

In a blog post during the run up to the election last year, Dr. Amy Dickey (Breaths of Life) wrote about law and gospel in the context of Trump’s blatant misogyny and questioning how male Christian leaders could support him.  She wrote:

‘You have put your hope for advancing Christian values on your ability to control laws, but laws can only fail at this.  A main point of the Old Testament, as far as the New Testament is concerned, is that laws cannot change people.  Only Jesus can do that (Romans 3:21-26).  Representing Jesus in the way we treat others is the primary way to change culture and to advance Christian values.  You want to protect Christian churches and schools, but if the church is not representing Christ in the way we love others, why not just close them all?  We have already lost.’

The message of Jesus that Dr. Dickey is articulating here is one of internal transformation.  The sermon on the mount was largely Jesus’ message of changing the innermost center of a person.  Murder starts with hatred.  Adultery starts with lust.  Stealing things starts with storing up treasures on earth or embracing materialism as an unsatisfying drug for the soul.  Therefore, the centermost part of a person has to be changed by the gospel.  A law will fall short of this kind of change.

When Lyndon Johnson passed the civil rights act of 1965, did this automatically end racism?  After all, we got a new law in America.  No, tragically racism goes far deeper into a cancerous sickness existing in a person or nation’s soul.  A law, even a good one, falls short of significant transformation.

Loving God and loving our neighbors is the antithesis to power religion. While power religion seeks control and to manipulate using the most sacred message of all, the greatest commandment invites people on their own volition to find meaning and hope in Jesus.  This is not something that can be coerced by the state but rather has to be something that people choose for themselves with the encouragement of their families or faith communities.

The grave concern is a considerable bloc within American Evangelical Christianity has lost the plot.  The truth that they had received has been exchanged for a cynical pandering of delivering votes for powerful politicians- the quid pro quo for a seat at the table of power.  Values and morality that they preached has been exposed as fraud as they have embraced a thrice married real estate developer whose abuses and assaults on women he has openly boasted about in the now infamous Access Hollywood tape.  His racism widely reported (see Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliant article “The First White President”) and seen recently in an Alabama rally, with all of it’s contentious racial history, attacking NFL players (a league that is 66% African-American) for kneeling in protest during the National Anthem.  “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!”

The American churches support of this will bring a reckoning and sadly, it is already in motion.  Ex-Evangelical and ex-Christian musician David Bazan in a recent interview talked about the growing number of people who were deconstructing their faith especially given this political reality.  He says:

“Until this election I personally had quite a bit of hope that the white American church was not a ‘lost cause.’ I saw it as being capable of maturing and evolving while still retaining its basic form and identity. And even if I couldn’t participate as a ‘believer,’ as I’ve said, I wanted to be a helper in that process if I could. But the fruit that appeared on the tree last November was, for me, the ‘cut the damned thing down and throw it in the fire’ kind of fruit.  So clouded by magical considerations that the vast majority couldn’t see the absurdity of what they were doing (forgive them…). For all the things they claim to believe, the election laid bare the actual, actionable loyalties of most white Christians in a way that one can’t unsee. Far too many of them still don’t even recognize it. They cannot be trusted. They can’t be taken seriously. As a group the correlation between their stated values and their real behavior is worse than random, they reliably champion evil and work against the best virtues of their own faith traditions.  There is simply no way around it at this point; the racism, misogyny, and disdain for the poor are out in the open now. Whatever good Christians are capable of promoting in the larger society is far outweighed by the sea of problems they create with their political gullibility. It’s crushing.”

The perspective of Bazan, someone outside of the church, is crucial to those of us who want to see the gospel held up in a holy place rather than being corroded down into a political tool.  We need to listen to how others see us. Do some still doubt Bazan?  Are there national Christian leaders who still wonder why so many young people are leaving the church?  A big part of the answer is exactly this discussion.

As another disturbing example during the past couple of weeks, the Roy Moore saga in Alabama has continued.  With a groundswell of support from the religious right both in Alabama and nationally behind his Senate candidacy, stories broke about the would be Senator’s past pedophilia.

If one thought this could not get any more outrageous, that is not all.  Alabama Auditor Jim Zeigler told the Washington Examiner, “Take Joseph and Mary.  Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.  There’s  just nothing immoral or illegal here.  Maybe just a little bit unusual.”  So, yes, an individual has literally used the birth accounts of our Lord and Savior as an attempt to justify child molestation.  Where do we even begin with a comment that is so disgustingly offensive and dumb at the same time?

For me and for many, this is a time of solemn lamentation.  The American Evangelical Church is sick.  We have failed to uphold the sacred message of the gospel of our Lord.  We have faltered in our help for widows, orphans, prisoners, minorities and the least of these.  We have acted to cover up and not believe the accounts of women who have been sexually assaulted, abused or harassed.  We have often made these same women out to be slanderers or divisive when they have come forward with credible allegations of abuse of those in power to our great shame.

A repentant course correction is needed immediately.  May all the political doctrines and ideas that we have added to the gospel as an act of syncretism be burned away like chaff.  A return is in order to the beautiful orthodoxy of Christianity:  a loving God, an inspired Scripture, a God-Man named Jesus, a death for sins and a resurrection.  As the book of James says, may it not stop with belief but be harnessed as action in love for our neighbors including those abused, immigrants, refugees and others in our lives.  Evangelical church leadership, which has largely been dominated by white males like me, need to be much more inclusive of others in our communities.  Women and other minorities should be invited into leadership roles to exercise their gifts, passions, callings and also, maybe most importantly, give new/ fresh perspectives on moving the church forward by the grace of God.

There is always hope for redemption with God and this begins with recognizing the grotesque mess we have created.  Let power religion die.

 

 

 

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“Fingers Crossed” Derek Webb’s Uncompromising and Risky Heart Surgery

“Oh God, what have I done/ without Your great permission/ knowing fully of the end at the start/ like a dirty g-ddamn trick/ I either sin as I resist you/ or I do it as I’m doing my part/ so all my empathy/ to Judas and the devil/ they were yours as much in light as in the dark.”  -D. Webb, “Chasing Empty Mangers” from his new album “Fingers Crossed”

Usually I fancy myself as a wannabe movie reviewer or jot down thoughts of books I have read but I figured I would venture into a music album review.  There aren’t many musicians I have followed the entirety of their career (especially 20 years) but Derek Webb is one of the few. Originally, I stumbled across Webb as one of the lead singers (along with Cliff and Danielle Young) of the band “Caedmon’s Call” in 1997.  I was 17 years old and was about to be connected to a love of folk music.  Growing up, Simon and Garfunkel was a staple but as a zealous Christian teenager, I was excited to hear a “Christian” band explore the folksy sound.

That first self-titled debut still holds a place as a life soundtrack at the end of high school and beginning of college.  Same with their followup “40 Acres” (although this was a college release for me) which seemed to cement them as the ultimate Christian college band.  “Caedmon’s” plugged in a little bit more for their third album “Long Line of Leavers” and then did the cliché contemporary Christian music thing of releasing a worship album “In the Company of Angels”.

Many of us Evangelicals who were college-aged latched onto them.  Hell, I saw them 8 times in my collegiate years whether in Indiana (where I went to school) or driving to Ohio, Illinois, and even Liberty University in Virginia which was the last time I saw them (April 2003) and it actually was not a very good show.  They opened for “Jars of Clay” and at that point, Webb had left the band (he would reunite with them later for the albums “Overdressed” and “Raising Up the Dead”).

Of course, Webb departed from Caedmon’s to pursue his own solo career.  The inaugural album was “She Must and Shall Go Free” and this is still a well-regarded folk rock album in the Christian music community.  The launch was immediately met with criticism and some Christian retailers not stocking the album because in the song “Wedding Dress”, Webb calls himself a “whore” and a “bastard child”.  These Christian retailers apparently have never read the book of Ezekiel contained in the Bibles they stock on their shelves.  I digress.  “I See Things Upside Down” followed as the second record which found Webb offering criticisms of the Evangelical subculture (“They’ll know us by the t-shirts that we wear”) and blasting celebrity pastors (the song “Ballad in Plain Red”).

Lyrically, Webb often was among those who existed at what seemed like the forefront of what Christianity Today, Time Magazine and others labeled new Calvinism.  For any listener, it is not difficult to find rather blatant statements in Caedmon’s Call songs and in the early Webb solo records of God electing people, humans being unable to do anything good without divine help (the Caedmon’s song “Thankful” for example), and other ideas that could, at least loosely, be traced back to John Calvin.  I mean, here is one line off Caedmon’s “Long Line of Leavers” album:  “You’re an army in a horse / And you have taken me by force / All the freedom in this world could not resist /The sweet temptation of your sweet elusiveness.” (the song “What You Want”) This one lyric almost encapsulates all of the 5 points of Calvinism either directly stated or implied.

As his solo career continued, Webb took on more social and political issues starting with “Mockingbird”, then “The Ringing Bell” which I consider his weakest solo effort and also  the rather fun “Stockholm Syndrome”.  The Christian faith was a definite thread in these more politically-charged songs.  On “Stockholm Syndrome”, Webb tackled slavery (“Becoming a Slave”), the civil rights movement (“Jena and Jimmy”), LGBTQ rights (“What Matters More”), and immigration (“American Flag Umbrella”).  All of this would be followed with “Ctrl” which is a very underrated record and “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry and I Love You.”

The third solo record “Mockingbird” featured the 2005 song “A King and a Kingdom” which asked Christians to rethink *which* kingdom they should ultimately belong too.  The song had these lyrics that some may find eerie in their potential premonition:  “But nothing unifies like a common enemy / And we’ve got one, sure as hell / But he may be living in your house / He may be raising up your kids / He may be sleeping with your wife / Oh no, he may not look like you think.”

There are also songs on his first solo record that resonate with the current life situation of Webb being that “She Must and Shall Go Free” is almost exclusively about the church being the bride of Christ.  As a matter of fact, Webb has publicly commented about this on his Tumblr account:  “the tone & spirit of the songs i’ve written over the last decade or so have sometimes been called ‘prophetic,’ a term that i’ve worn with extreme discomfort. but it turns out my songs have been eerily prophetic in my own story…there has always been some measure of distance between me and the content of my songs. there’s a sense in which even the most confessional of my songs, like ‘wedding dress’ or it’s more recent sibling ‘heavy’, felt like they were about someone else. so, the accidentally prophetic sting of those songs is especially acute and painful in light of my great failures. songs like those have never been more difficult to sing, but i’ve never been more grateful to have to.”

The Tumblr confessional brings us around to Webb’s latest album, “Fingers Crossed”.  The personal events that inspired this album came to public light with the announcement that Webb and his wife, Sandra McCracken, were getting a divorce after 13 years of marriage.  The statement read: “While we both acknowledge our own human sinfulness, Derek has taken full responsibility for the events which led to this decision.”

Further clarifying on Tumblr, Webb confessed:  “the truth is, i cheated. i betrayed the trust of my wife. i betrayed the trust of my family, my friends & my community. and i betrayed the trust and support that many of you have entrusted me with for many, many years. what started as a brief, inappropriate, and quickly confessed connection with a very old friend evolved quickly into something more serious, which was hidden from spouses and friends. it continued in secret for a matter of months, was eventually discovered, and set into motion the consequences that i will now live with for the rest of my life.  or, more simply said: i was a fool. i believed lies, which led me to tell lies.”

With “Fingers Crossed” released on September 29, 2017, Webb has commented on social media that the album is about two divorces with one, of course, being from his ex-wife and the second divorce being (potentially) from his faith in God (i.e. the Christian faith).  The new record is, not surprisingly, sad with a regretful melancholy from start to finish but many songs also contain Webb’s signature provocations and a listener can sense an underlying fury to a lot of the work.  A fury that Webb turns on himself but also seems to direct at God.

“Stop Listening” seems an appropriate opening track introducing the new Webb to his fan base.  The lyrics imagine a conversation between Webb and his long time Evangelical Christian fan base where he gives them permission to stop listening if they want too.  The second verse has the fans responding, “and if you stop listening now/ we’ll know we were right/ cause cash can’t buy a jealous eye/ when you’ve betrayed your wife.”  A wink from Webb as those same long time fans will recognize the “cash can’t buy a jealous eye” a misquoted lyric from his first solo album.

In “A Tempest in a Teacup” he describes himself in new terms “it’s an honest to god ironic rebirth/ but it’s a tempest in a teacup/ a verdict with no judge/ it’s nothing and it’s everything to me”.  Irony (or what many of his fans may declare to be tragic irony) surmises a lot of the songs on the record.  “Love is not a choice” seems to find Webb wrestling with the end game of his Calvinism:  “Love is not a choice/ cause I’ve chosen not to love you anymore/ and I don’t have a voice/ that a heart can hear/ when a heart knows what it wants.”

“Love is not a choice” winds up winning the award for being the darkest song on the record (believe me, it certainly has competition).  Surveying what he did to his family, Webb sings: “oh my god/ I came to just in time to watch it burn/ gasoline on my hands and a grave lesson learned” (“grave lesson learned” yet another self-referential throwback lyric to the 1997 song”Center Aisle”).  He continues:  “so I am fantasizing/ getting homicidal/ want to kill the man who did this to you/ cause he’s a thief and killer/ a fucking wrecking baller/ he’s driving wild in my rearview”.  Of course, that man is himself.

“Easter Eggs” seems to use the tradition of hiding eggs on the holiday morning as a metaphor for faith in general.  “but us kids have a thought/ that mom’s been making it up/ so our hearts won’t break like Easter eggs.”  Later he sings, “see, our daddy left/ I never even saw his face/ but mom insists that he was really real/ but we look just like her/ immaculately made/ the truth well-hidden just like Easter eggs.”

The first time I heard the intro to the song “I Will”, I thought my playlist had switched over to Phil Collin’s “I Can Feel it in the air tonight” (a song I actually don’t own) with the 80s sounding, slow beat synthesizer.  Webb here cries out to God that he wants to be taken back to the beginning of he and his ex-wife’s relationship where he has no shame and no regret.

Toward the end of the record, we find the title track “Fingers Crossed” awash in synthesizers and ramping up the intensity even more than it already has been.  “Just because I fucked up/ doesn’t make me a cross/ on which you can hang your sin/ and expect to be forgiven.”  The final verse finds Webb again perhaps letting the audience into his new thoughts on spirituality:  “what if there is no sin, there’s no cross/ there’s no them, there is no us/ there’s just you and what you do/ and how you pay for what you choose/ fingers crossed.”  These lyrics first struck me as one of the biggest tells as to where Webb may be at spiritually.  The act of crossing one’s fingers signifying random luck or a wishful thought that has no weight to really change anything may be analogous to what he now thinks of religious faith.

In an interview on the “Inglorious Pasterds” podcast, Webb opened up about the song actually stating that there is a triple meaning.  “Fingers crossed” could indeed mean crossing one’s fingers and hoping for luck.  It could also signify deception where someone would tell or promise you something to your face while crossing their fingers behind their back.  Finally, according to Webb, the phrase could reflect classic pictures of Jesus crossing his fingers and holding them up in the air.  A plea for help being directed toward God.  He is ambivalent about a final meaning to the song (as most artists would be) but it is fascinating to think about the lyrics through these various lenses.

The album closes with “Goodbye for Now” which doesn’t conclude anything.  There are no final explanations or answers found here.  Even the music at the end of the song does not end on common or predictable chords.  “I still believe in love/ like I believe in just war/ I think it’s possible/ but maybe just not anymore.”  He again continues singing about the divorce from his wife and loss of faith in God with both of these topics so intermingled it is sometimes hard to know which one he is referring too.  “I’ve been looking for the one I lost/ and for eternity in the wrong places/ so either you aren’t real or I am just not chosen/ maybe I’ll never know/ either way, my heart is broken.”

For Evangelical fans of Webb, this will certainly be a tough album to digest thematically.  For those who have been through divorce or a spiritual crisis of some sort, they may find some solace here.  No matter what one thinks of the ideas Webb takes on with this album, it is his best and feels like a substantial artistic achievement in his career.

Call the record a haunting provocation that is eerily beautiful and will certainly further those age old discussions about why people can so strongly connect with art that is nakedly about someone else’s pain and grief.  Webb has a bundle of references to drinking and being hungover on this record including a track that sounds like a modern worship song until he cries out for alcohol at the bridge (“The Spirit Bears the Curse” which I think is the weakest song on the record).  However, the despair may be oddly more intoxicating while listening.  Like an imprecatory psalm or the author of Ecclesiastes trying to get a handle on any kind of sense this fallen world can make.

I wish Webb to find peace with God and peace with his family situation.  As he sings on the second track “The Devil You Know”:  “Good things and bad things always mingle/ no stories are simple.”  One cannot argue with that.

 

 

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Coen Marathon: True Grit

“I am struck that LaBoeuf is shot, trampled, and nearly severs his tongue, and not only does not cease to talk, but spills the banks of English!”

“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”

“Time just gets away from us.”

______________________________________________________________

When I first heard of the Coen Brothers remaking “True Grit”, I thought this seemed an odd choice given their filmography.  Of course they had done a remake before with “The Ladykillers” but that 1955 film was relatively not well known.  “True Grit” was previously made in 1969 by director Henry Hathaway and featured the iconic legend John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.  Wayne, my dad’s hero, won the Best Actor Oscar for that portrayal.  So in 2010, the Coen’s remade a popular movie “True Grit” well after the Hollywood western genre had faded from popularity?  Well, yes.

It has been a long while since I have seen John Wayne’s “True Grit” and I have never read the book by Charles Portis (although I’m curious to do so) which leaves me in the position not to compare the Coen’s work with the previous material.  The reporting is that the Coens adapted the material as screenwriters more directly from the book then the 1969 movie did.  All of that being said, “True Grit” 2010 is a solid film that is entertaining to watch and is probably the most commercially assessable film of the Coen’s since “Intolerable Cruelty”.  Indeed, the movie grossed $171,031,347 at the box office (per imdb) which is a mammoth hit by Coen standards.

The storyline is incredibly straightforward.  A young girl of 14 years, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires an infamous, aging US Marshal (Cogburn) and an assistant Laboeuf (Matt Damon) in tracking her father’s killer deep into Indian territory which leads to conflict and the inevitable western shoot outs.  As I mentioned previously, the film is very entertaining and engrossing.

One of the reasons why are the performances.  Jeff Bridges (returning to the Coen canon for the first time since “The Big Lebowski”) takes up the reins as Rooster Cogburn.  Bridges plays Cogburn like a homeless bum with a considerable amount of street skill in tracking and using a weapon.  Donning the iconic eye patch, Bridges gives a hell of a performance with a helping of lines and reactions to situations that are funny.

Almost stealing the show and having a high degree of chemistry with Bridges was newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.  Portraying a 14 year old, she is fierce and determined to enact retribution against Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for murdering her father.

The Coens have always been known for having high production values and they really show off their skills in this movie.  The desert landscapes, largely shot in Texas at the hand of the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, are bleak but have an eerie sense of beauty (sort of like “No Country for Old Men”).

The problems with the film are, for the most part, minor but definitely threatened my suspension of disbelief.  Coincidences happen with characters meeting each other and then some cliché moments where a hero shows up at the last possible moment in order to save another character.  Most of these issues are in the third act and they are noticeable because the Coens have built such a sense of realism leading up to the climax.  Perhaps I’m being a little hard on this film because the project is such an example of straightforward genre storytelling and I have come to expect a high degree of originality from the Coens.  If Coen fans love to expect the unexpected when seeing their movies, Joel and Ethan Coen threw their fans for a loop by remaking a standard studio motion picture but one that is professionally crafted and fun.

That brings me to the epilogue which is brilliant.  Leave it to the Coens to have justice served triumphantly at the end of their western but then turn the proceedings melancholy.  The character, Mattie Ross, is the narrator and at the tail end we see her older.  She is trying to track down older Cogburn who had helped her all those years ago.  The final monologue is indeed sad and features the closing line, “Time just gets away from us.”  My take on this is that Mattie Ross went on this high adventure with Cogburn and Laboeuf but nothing else in her life after that would ever match or live up to that time.  So the years, as they tend to do, slip away.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

Fargo (review here)

A Serious Man (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

True Grit

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Burn After Reading (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

 

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September 11, 2001

For me, it is hard to remember when the date “September 11” had no extra weight.  The day was one out of 365.  Ordinary.  Average.  I mean, one of my friends from college (who later officiated my wedding) birthday is on September 11 but other than that, the day carried no additional value.

2001.  The tragic and historic day that all changed.

That Tuesday morning I had no classes.  Always nice to sleep in during my senior year in college.  Atleast until, oh, 9am- I forget what time chapel started exactly.  I was a senior at Grace College in Winona Lake, IN, a sleepy and small Midwest college town that was near Warsaw and about 45 minutes from Fort Wayne.

At the time, I was a resident assistant (RA) so my job was to somewhat keep an entire hall of guys in line or be a leader or something.   I lived in Kent Hall which is apartment-style living.  This building was newer when I attended school so it was nice and the atmosphere was epically quiet.

Anyway, my alarm went off.  I took a shower, got dressed, put some books in my backpack for classes later on that day and started walking to chapel out of our dorm across a practice soccer field (which served mainly to entertain intramural sports).  I cannot stress enough how absolutely ordinary this morning was and I sensed nothing was different. Strolled past the science hall, the gym, took a left by Philathea walking across a parking lot and into McClain Hall where in the basement, the student body gathered for chapel service (if I remember right, chapel was Tuesday through Thursday).  Students were getting seated and I had found a seat, if I recall, somewhere in the middle looking toward the stage.  Again, I was totally oblivious but I think the people around me that I was chatting with were too.  My senses picked up nothing wildly different.

As I remember, the service was late getting started. Eventually Jim Swanson (the dean of students) walked up to the stage and grabbed a microphone.  Now, Jim was a big man and by big, I mean tall.  Maybe 6’7 or 6’8 or perhaps my mind is betraying me (he could correct the record of course).  In my interactions with Jim, he was a solid guy and fair in his dealings with students in my experience but we did get the sense that one did not want to screw around with him.

Jim, who could be an imposing figure to some, started to cry as he gripped the microphone.  I had never seen him cry and he muttered a sentence:  “Perhaps the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history has happened this morning.”  The statement was barely finished before more tears came.  An eerie silence fell over the entire room which was a decent sized space.  I didn’t move in my chair. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.  More reporting came from him or someone else in the room, “A plane has hit the World Trade Center.” A shock came over me.  The state of bewilderment was so considerable that I was trying in my mind to picture what the World Trade Center looked like and I couldn’t do it regarding one of the most famous landmarks in our country.

More reports from the audience (maybe from Dr. Mark Soto who still teaches there).  “Another plane has hit the second tower.”

Somebody else.  “A plane has hit the Pentagon.”

And another. “A plane has crashed in Pennsylvania.”

Different individuals kept calling out reports from the audience.

After that last report, I witnessed students exiting to the right in McClain Hall in a panic.  Being that our school was in Indiana, a lot of the student body was from Pennsylvania and were presumably going to call their family to make sure they were OK.  All that to say, even in a small Midwestern town far away from the horrors of that day, the terror and trauma was considerable.

For an extended moment, it felt like my (and indeed probably all of ours) world was crumbling.  Were there more planes that would attack?  Were we going to be invaded?  Who did this?  I assume that most of you reading this lived through the 9/11 terror attacks and remember how haunting some of those questions were when we did not have any answers.  Truth be told, the initial impression of the world crumbling was accurate.  Nothing has been the same since.

Classes were cancelled for the rest of the day and I retired to my dorm apartment with friends including my roommate, Zach.  We had cable news on for most of the day that was following the coverage and playing the excruciating shots of the planes over and over again.  There was anger.  There was the “we are going to kick someone’s ass” and the anger within ourselves and across the nation was understandable.

The finest moments of George W Bush’s presidency were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  His speech that day reflected on the duality of human beings:  “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature, and we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”  For a little while, there was an uncanny unity in our country behind the president’s leadership but it was short lived.

Regardless of the politics that came in the wake of September 11th, nearly 3,000 image bearers of God lost their lives that day.  Many first responders, police officers and firefighters and medical personnel, rushed toward burning and collapsing buildings to save lives.  Some of those people still suffer from that heroic decision with cancer and other physical elements as a result of that day.

When we say #neverforget I often wonder what people mean.  What is it that we want to remember?  Do we want to recollect on a time where radicalized ideological terrorists caught us off guard?  Or do we want to remember the people, the fellow citizens, who lost lives and the aid workers who risked everything to save and help as many as they could?

What have we learned from 9/11?  I mean, we have bolstered our national security apparatus but have we thought through other elements of this infamous day?  What all is there to learn?  How do we think about such a dark time in our nation’s history and indeed, a heavy dark shadow that still hangs over us?  The process of thinking about this lone day is far from over and I still wrestle with this collective tragedy in my own soul.

***EDIT on 9/12/2017- I have been informed that Dr. Mark Soto actually no longer teaches at Grace College.  Also, not all classes were cancelled on September 11, 2001 (professor discretion) but mine were.

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Coen Marathon: A Serious Man

“I am the junior rabbi. And it’s true, the point-of-view of somebody who’s older and perhaps had similar problems might be more valid. And you should see the senior rabbi as well, by all means. Or even Minda if you can get in, he’s quite busy. But maybe – can I share something with you? Because I too have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem, which is the problem here. I too have forgotten how to see Him in the world. And when that happens you think, well, if I can’t see Him, He isn’t there any more, He’s gone. But that’s not the case. You just need to remember how to see Him. Am I right?  I mean, the parking lot here. Not much to see. It is a different angle on the same parking lot we saw from the Hebrew school window. But if you imagine yourself a visitor, somebody who isn’t familiar with these… autos and such… somebody still with a capacity for wonder… Someone with a fresh… perspective. That’s what it is, Larry…Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world. He is in the world, not just in shul. It sounds to me like you’re looking at the world, looking at your wife, through tired eyes. It sounds like she’s become a sort of… thing… a problem… a thing…”

“The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.”

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” -Rashi

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Most people have probably not heard of the Coen Brothers movie “A Serious Man”.  That is a shame.  After making a film with a star-studded cast set in Washington DC (George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and JK Simmons), their next movie would feature a not very famous cast.  “A Serious Man” is, by far, the most underrated film in the Coen canon.  It is a brilliant film arguably just barely missing the greatness of “Fargo” or “No Country for Old Men”.

The film opens with a strange prologue that is in Yiddish and set in an unnamed eastern European country in the 19th century.  A Jewish man tells his wife that a man had helped him on his way home and he had invited this man to come over for soup.  When he mentions the man’s name, Reb Groshkover, his wife proclaims that Groshkover is dead and that the man who had come over for soup must be possessed by an evil spirit.  The wife plunges an ice pick into Groshkover’s chest and Groshkover turns and walks out into the snow.  Why did this happen and what does this scene have to do with the rest of the movie?  The question is the point.

The only connection of that prologue to the central plot is theme.  The film centers around a mid-western physics teacher named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).  He lives in a suburb in Bloomington, Minnesota and the year is 1967.  He and his family are Jewish and attend a local synagogue where his son is about to receive his Bar Mitzvah. Important to note that the Coen Brothers grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, are Jewish and this story is alleged to be somewhat based on their childhood and thereby is a more personal movie.

Anyway, Gopnik is a cinematic character that we will justifiably feel awful for.  His daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus) is stealing from him to save up for a nose job.  Danny, his son (Aaron Wolff), is a pothead who demands he fix the TV antenna and his wife, Judy (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can marry their friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and she swears (not that we are convinced) that there has been no “hanky-panky”.

Our protagonist, Larry Gopnik, fills an entire blackboard in his classes with mathematic proofs approaching certainty for the discipline of physics but what is he sure of in life?  What is certain in his existence?  Nothing.  As evidenced in his family life and beyond that, a land dispute with his over-testosteroned neighbor, and a student attempting to bribe him for good grades, Larry feels like his entire life is coming apart.

The film has appropriately been compared to the account of Job in the Old Testament.  The story of Job revolves around how his entire life became upended for no discernible reason to him.  His family died.  His wealth was lost. Job had no answers or explanations for why this happened to him.  For the tribulations facing Larry Gopnik, there are no explanations either.  Counseling with Rabbi’s, Larry seeks insight into the will of God.  An older Rabbi sits at his desk in a big long room and the secretary says that Rabbi is “busy” thinking.  Another Junior Rabbi is available that offers circular reasoning on the will of God question, tells Larry that he lacks perspective and asks him to consider a perspective of the parking lot outside.  We always have to allow the comic absurdity of a Coen Brothers film.

A big part of the Jewish faith, to my understanding, is how many of them interpret their sacred Scriptures.  Many western thinkers and philosophers approach the Bible seeking a singular answer as the Word of God should provide answers to our questions according to this school of thought.  Many Jewish thinkers approach Old Testament interpretation with a perspective of wrestling with the text and perhaps coming out with no clear answer.  Think of Jacob wrestling the angel in Genesis 32:22-31.

For me, there is a central scene in this movie which is after Danny (while high on pot) completes his Bar Mitzvah.  Walking into the elderly Rabbi’s office, Danny walks slowly toward the desk.  The camera takes its time on this scene showing Danny slowly approaching the Jewish leader.  What will the Rabbi tell Danny?  Will Danny receive insight into the meaning of life?  A purpose?  Any answer to existence?  When Danny is standing immediately in front of the desk, the Rabbi opens his mouth and declares:  “When the truth is found to be lies/ And all the joy within you dies”.  Of course, these are the lyrics to a popular “Jefferson Airplane” pop song “Somebody to Love” and the Rabbi proceeds to recite the names of the band members.  Imagine the shock on Danny’s face.

The scene is hilarious in a darkly ironic way because the entire sequence, with the buildup, feels absurd and that is the point.  Or is it really a point at all?  I have nothing to go on but speculation however I imagine that if we wanted to know what the Coen Brothers thought about life metaphysically, we may as well start right here in this personal film of theirs.  In a scene where we may have expected a profound insight into life’s meaning, the teacher quotes a pop song from the 1960s.  To add another layer though, that song, simplistic as it is, does exclaim in the chorus:  “Don’t you want somebody to love/ Don’t you need somebody to love.”

When the conclusion comes around, I would offer a guess that a good deal of people who actually saw the film will be frustrated at the final frame.  Without giving away what ends up happening, to say that “A Serious Man” has an abrupt ending is definitely an understatement.  Scenarios are introduced that will massively impact the characters that we have come to know.  In the true spirit of this film, we will never know the outcome of those scenarios.  But remember, that is the point if it is any point at all.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

Fargo (review here)

A Serious Man

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Burn After Reading (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

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Coen Marathon: Burn After Reading

“If you ever carried out your proposed threat you would experience such a shitstorm of consequences my friend your empty little head would be spinning faster than the wheels of your Schwinn bicycle back there.”

“Talking here about department heads and their names and shit. And then there’s these other files that are just, like, numbers. Arrayed. Numbers and dates and numbers and numbers and dates.And numbers and… I think that’s the shit, man… The raw intelligence.”

“And you are not ideological?”

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Hard to follow up one of the best thrillers of all time so why not have the Coen Bros go back to screwball comedy in a funny movie that skewers the US intelligence community and the surrounding bureaucracy?  “Burn After Reading” came out in 2008 around the time I visited some friends in Philadelphia.  As I recall, we went to a downtown theater to see the latest Coen movie and laughed our asses off.

As the film opens, we see a “god perspective” looking down on America.  The picture eventually zooms in closer and closer to the Washington DC area and into a building. Members of the government bureaucracy are meeting with Osborne Cox (so great to see John Malkovich in a Coen flick) to remove him from his SIGINT position because of a drinking problem.  Cox, of course, denies this and lashes out at another partner in the room:  “I have a drinking problem? Fuck you, Peck, you’re a Mormon. Compared to you we ALL have a drinking problem!”  The stage is set.

Cox is something of a true believer in what he does.  Romanticizing the good ole days when people were dedicated and focused on their mission, he decides to write his memoir after he quits the CIA.  Through wild circumstances, a portion of his memoir ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym rats:  Chad (a crazy and hilarious Brad Pitt performance) and Linda (Frances McDormand).  These gym rats believe erroneously that they have stumbled upon classified information and seek to blackmail Cox in order to get some cash.  Literally, a gigantic comedy of errors and misunderstandings.

At one point, the gym rats get rejected by Cox regarding their blackmail offer and Cox angrily cusses them out so they decide to take their disk to….the Russian embassy.  Attempting to make a deal with the officials at the embassy, offering what they believe is the secret  intelligence for a sum of money, places this whole thing in even wackier territory especially considering our current news headlines for the past 8 months.  Joel and Ethan Coen made this film ten years too early.

Now, George Clooney, in his third go around with the Coens, plays Harry Pfarrer who works for the treasury department.  He is “happily” married and also is a rampant sex addict.  Katie Cox (wife of Osborne) portrayed by Tilda Swinton has been having a long term affair with Harry.  During this time, Harry begins having an affair with Linda much to the chagrin of the manager of the gym (played by Richard Jenkins) who is a sad sack that is madly in love with Linda.  The Coen’s pretty much go full Woody Allen here and maybe even beyond.

The plot is a labyrinth with all these characters but what is hilarious is the core of the story is a misunderstanding and thereby is really based on nothing.  Of course, that is intentional in a film about the intelligence community and government bureaucracy thereby making things all the funnier.

My quibble with the film is mostly at the end.  That is when the tone of the project changes from an absurd comedy (meant in a good way) to dark as in mean-spirited.  It just doesn’t seem like a few of the scenes at the conclusion fit with the rest of the movie which is just nutty fun.  Also, the writing at the tail end which brings some resolution seems like cheating.  It is abrupt and things that took place with certain characters are not shown on screen but are just explained by two bureaucrats talking to each other.  As much as I laugh at the conversation itself, this seemed like lazy writing.

All that to say, “Burn After Reading” is one of the Coen’s funniest movies.  With their focus on exploring different elements of American culture through different settings throughout their filmography, it is inevitable they would eventually wind up in Washington DC.  Could this be anything other than a screwball comedy?

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

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Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men (review here)

Fargo (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

Burn After Reading

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

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Coen Marathon: No Country for Old Men

“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

“And you know what’s going to happen now. You should admit your situation. There would be more dignity in it…Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

“He just rode on past… and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up…”

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In the winter of 2007, I first viewed “No Country for Old Men” with a friend in a Spokane theater.  After the somewhat abrupt ending, my friend turned to me and said, “well, the Coen’s have laid another turd.”  I could not disagree more.

Coming off their lowest moment in “The Ladykillers”, the Coen Bros arguably succeeded even their highest peak in “Fargo”.  “No Country for Old Men” is a masterful thriller that finds the Coens returning to Texas (“Blood Simple” was set there) in 1980.  The barren landscape, expertly photographed by Roger Deakins (a frequent contributor), is beautiful but also emotes a sense of loneliness and alienation.  The feel of the movie, as conceived by the Coens and Deakins and musician Carter Burwell who did the scoring, add up to a haunting meditation.

As the movie opens, a sheriff’s deputy is bringing in a strange man dressed in black with a freakish haircut.  The man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in one of the greatest portrayals of villainy in movie history) slowly loosens his bindings at the police station and casually strolls over to the deputy seated at a desk with his back turned.  Since the deputy is talking on the phone, he doesn’t expect to be strangled to death by Chigurh’s handcuffs but that is his fate.  The strangulation scene is vicious, long and drawn out perhaps with a singular purpose.  The Coens, of course, are known for their screwball comedies.  Here from the outset, they are morbidly serious.

We meet other characters.  An old, noble lawman (Ed Tom Bell played by Tommy Lee Jones) who provides some narration and Llewyn Moss (a solid performance from Josh Brolin).  While Moss is out hunting in the desert, he comes across the aftermath of a drug related shootout. Bodies are strewn everywhere.  Blood spatters on the ground and vehicles.  A dog was even shot multiple times.  In the back of one of the pickup trucks, Moss finds a mass quantity of packaged drugs.  The only thing that is missing is the money which Moss eventually finds.  Two million dollars.  A massive amount of cash for a guy who lives in a mobile home with his wife, Carla Jean (played by Kelly MacDonald).  Moss decides to take the money a fateful decision that will put him in the crosshairs of Chigurh and other drug lords trying to find their missing cash.

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy with the screenplay written by the Coen’s, “No Country for Old Men” becomes a thought-provoking thriller that delves into the depths of human nature, the moral choices we make plus their consequences and the unstoppable nature of fate.  There are moments of monumental suspense through old motels, along sparsely populated roads and along the Texas/ Mexico border.  These moments provide a genuine anxiety to the audience as we wait for what will come next but the real terror of this movie is what the film has to say thematically about our lives, our choices or lack thereof.

Bell, as a police officer, has the noblest of intentions to stop a seemingly unquenchable evil but he is old, tired and slow.  Sequences of scenes toward the beginning of the film have Bell arriving at the scene of the drug shootout and also at Moss’s trailer after Chigurh has already been there.  Obviously this is intentional.  The police man is perpetually lagging behind the force of evil.  Will the lawman be able to enact justice or even come close?

Moss is a character who may as well be us.  A man who grew up hearing about the American dream, got married and lives in a trailer with his wife looking for a way to better his life.  Two million dollars would definitely be his ticket to increased material gains and a more comfortable living style.  However, what is the cost of taking this money?  Moss is clearly the protagonist whom the audience is rooting to get away but as we move toward the end, is he still the protagonist after the consequential decisions that he makes?  His climatic choice provide reverberations that are beyond his well-being.

The Coen’s turn the entire genre of thriller on its head much as they redefined it with “Fargo”.  “No Country for Old Men” takes unpredictable turns and Joel and Ethan Coen’s love for irony is far outside comedy in their McCarthy adaptation.  The irony turns on the observation that the villain, Chigurh, is far more principled and a convincing keeper of promises then our protagonist, Moss.

Chigurh can be interpreted as the force of fate (until “fate” visits him toward the end) and a good Calvinist would see this as predestination but even a worldview that is absent of God can believe that our choices, if they exist at all, are narrowly limited.  A flip of a coin determines the fate of a gas station attendant who meets Chigurh and the attendant has no say in the matter other than calling “heads” or “tails”.  When we are not met with forces outside our control, we are perhaps further confined, like Moss, by our so-called ethical choices especially the ones we will not make atonement for.

Ellis tells Sheriff Bell, “you can’t stop what’s coming” and if the sheriff thinks he can that his mindset is “vanity”.  The sheriff will not stop reckonings that need to happen and he cannot stop the cruel landlord of this world:  death.

Another crucial conversation takes place between Chigurh and Carson Wells (played by Woody Harrelson).  As Chigurh points his homemade gun at Wells, both men know that Wells will die.  Chigurh says,” Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” What rule is Chigurh referencing?  Perhaps Wells’ life philosophy or religion.  Regardless of what Wells’ believes about anything, he is going to die a violent death.  What was the point of those beliefs?

Those scenes and others speak to the haunting nature of “No Country for Old Men”.  It is one of the best films of the 21st century and one of the greatest thrillers ever made.  Relentlessly thrilling but also a rather introspective, dark meditation on our existence.  McCarthy and the Coen’s are certainly tipping the scales here toward nihilism.  There is not any hope or foundation for the characters to hold on too.

Lester Lauding Level:  5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):

No Country for Old Men

Fargo (review here)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)

The Big Lebowski (review here)

Miller’s Crossing (review here)

The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)

Raising Arizona (review here)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)

Blood Simple (review here)

Barton Fink (review here)

Intolerable Cruelty (review here)

The Ladykillers (review here)

 

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