Years back my wife (Jen) and I took a road trip up from Winnipeg, MB to L.A., before swinging back around through Montana and South/North Dakota on our way back home. While we were in L.A. we had an opportunity to go to Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant The London, one of the restaurants that emerged from his long running show. Jen is a chef, I am the furthest thing from. Which is to say, while she could apprecate the experience for what it was, I was very much out of my element. I couldn’t read or pronouce anything on the menu, and when whatever it was that I ordered arrived (part of a 3 or 4 course meal) I still didn’t really know what was on my plate. No word of a lie, it took me about 10 minutes to locate a glass of water on the menu.
I’m not sure which was braver, me for stepping out of my comfort zone, or Jen for walking through those doors with me (I’m going with her). For future reference, I prefer the experience of eating somehwere where it doesn’t feel like I’m ripping up my money by eating what are very small portions of what feels like i might as well be made of gold and be framed somewhere rather than consumed. Another way to put that might be, I prefer my comfort and familiarity and normal portion sizes.
I find an echo of this experience in this passage from Isaiah 55. The call in this passage begins with the simple invitation to “come”. What follows this invitation are three contextualized realities that shape this call:
This chapter in Isaiah pivots on the mention of the “I” in chapter 3 and the “covenant” or promise the I is making with those who are hungry and thirsty. The larger framework for this covenant is the image of the “suffering servant” in 55:2. What is interesting here is to note how the “I” (God) plays into the “he” (the suffering servant) whom the I has made into a “witness” to the peoples of this great feast. And somehow it is through the he that that we who are hungry and thirsty also bear witness to the all of these nations whom it says “surely will come” in 55:5.
What strikes me then is this two fold vision. The invitation to come hinges on the “he” through whom this covenant promise is made true and real and beautiful in our midst. The picture this covenant points to is fleshed out in the second half of Isaiah 55 inthis way:
Secondly, there is a sense in which we participate in this witness even as the “he” of this passage plays out this story in its fullness and for our sake. The promise that “I” will accompish what I desire through the “he” who is made a witness to this grand feast and invitation to eat and drink seems to play into those who either resist this meal and spend their money elsewhere as well as those who arrive at this feast to eat and drink. The promise is in play, but the call and the invitation remains equally true.
To return to the London in L.A., there is something that strikes me about this picture as saying something about this interplay between the covenant promise and the invitation itself. I imagine this contrasting picture of this upscale establishment and the local budget diner down the street. It is easy for me to sit in the diner and to look at this upscale establishment as a place where I do not belong. Where I do not feel comfortable. The food might be quality, and the portions might be made so as to savour and appreciate. I prefer the simple pleasure of that 3.99 breakfast plate. I judge the price, the social etiquette and dress that sets it apart, the expectations, and even the people who attend these kinds of restaurants.
Now imagine if The London was advertising its meal for free. And imagine if the only pre-requisite for entry was being hungry and thirsty. And then imagine if the establishment was not about the literal food and drink at all. You could get faus gras or that 3.99 breakfast special.
Here I think we start to get a little bit closer to the imaginatve picture of Isaiah 55. As the “all” breaks down those barriers that seperate one establishment from the other, in its place we find a different kind of food and drink, one that is interested in addressing the need for community, belonging, liberation and love regardless of background or social status. There is a powerful integrative nature with tihs sort of “spritual” longing and “spiritual” food and the real world social and economic reality that rings through the words of Isaiah 55. The story that the “he” is embodying brings together not just the covenant of David, but that larger story of exile and exodus to which David belongs. This is what it means for Jesus, who comes in the typology of this suffering servant, to embody the story of Israel, is to locate the idea of covenant faithfulness in a real world setting and context.
The real problem with that local diner is not the food or the location, but rather the socio-economic divide that it represents. I think of my own neighborhood here in the North End of Winnipeg, notorious for its low income status. To imagine a rich establishment down the road as I walk by the local Mcdonalds where many of the Indigenous families in our neighbrhood hang out feels deeply problematic precisely because this imagines the promise of an upscale meal that perpetuates this division between us and them. This feast appears to be doing something quite the opposite. It isn’t drawing people to some establishment, it is drawing people to a “he” through which all of these barriers between us and them suddenly fall away. This isn’t seperating people according to the kind of food we eat, which unfortunately we see in Christianity and its systems far too often, rather it is uniting people by a similar need. All who are thirsty, come drink from that which is free and will satisfy the true thirst for community and belonging and social liberation and healing.
To think about it from this perspective is to reframe what it means to partcipate in the Judeo-Christian vision of a feast where all of the nations are drawn and to which all of the nations comes. Sadly, if the vision of Christ as the fulfillment of this covenant promise is the one to whom these nations are drawn, we as Christ followers are prone to making this into something quite other than Christ imagines. How easy it is to treat this vision exclusively and to then prop up our establishments as an exclusive measure of what it means to eat and drink at such an establishment, with all of its proper “etiquette” enforced and menu items pre-determined and controlled. It’s no wonder many of us would rather just stay in the diner down the street, the irony being that these diners manage to achieve that Christ-like vision far more readily than the Churches that propose to be entertaining this grand feast.
Perhaps freedom then comes not from the establishment but from refocusing our sights on what precisely “he” is doing in Isaiah’s grand vision. Read it and reread it and give attention to this movement from the call to the fulfillment of this grand promise that informs this call, and ask ourselves how it is that I am participating in this feast myself. Recognize that for as much as we are being “fed”, the call here is towards the “eating” together.
How would it tranform our vision of this great feast if we placed the Cross in the center of the table? And what if we bring in the many Gospel passages that imagine a people who do not belong in the Temple being given the first seat? And what if by feeding on the drink and the food of the Cross that we begin to embody Christ and that the Christ that dwells in us is given its fullest expression in the taking up of our own Crosses for the sake of participating together in this great, unifying feast? Everything in the Judeo-Christian story is wrapped up in the seeming tension of this promised declaration that the kind of Kingdom promised in the latter half of Isaiah 55 has arrived and is here but is also not yet here. The words “seek now” for the kingom “is at hand” feels like an untenable juxtapositioned at best, frustrating and defeatist at worst. And yet this is precisely what we find in the “he” of this passage. Something very real happened when Christ took on the role of this suffering servant. The feast has arrived, the meal is there for the taking. In Christ the nations are being drawn. And yet we participate knowing the brokenness and the division this meal anticipates. Knowing the failures of our own participation in this meal in ways that have prevented the participation of others and buried the Cross at its center. Here the words of Isaiah ring true with the call to turn and reorient our actions and our perspective towards the “he” who is sweeping us up in to this grander story. Here I like to personalize this verse as speaking directly to me and my failures- seek the Lord, forsake my (our) wickedness and unrighteous thoughts so that God might have mercy on (me). To me this is the real promise that “he” came to fulfill, is that in doing so it is through my own Christlike partcipation that the Kingdom can then be built. This is the true currency we have been given through the suffering servants own purchase of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Maybe it’s the never ending pandemic. Or the heat wave currently wreaking havoc in places around the world as we ease into the long summer months, but Amazon’s recent release of The Tomorrow War resonated with me in a way that I’m not sure it fully intended to do. Certainly there is room for its obvious concern for “tomorrow” to translate into specific scenarios (if not an alien invasion then why not a pandemic or discussion of a potential future Hothouse Earth scenario).
Beyond mere correlation though, the film hit on some very real insecurities and fears that have been mounting in me as of late regarding these monumental realities. Some of this comes down to a line spoken by one of the women of the future, revealed in the opening sequences, where she contrasts “sentimentality” with the definite fact that this world they occupy will end. Now, there is a point in this film where this tension (between sentimentality and reality) does get swept up into a more hopeful disposiiton based on “our” ability to do something about it now (how that does or whether that does translate to certain resolutions I’ll leave for the film to reveal on its own time), but the most invogorating and tantalizing part of this very expensive blockbuster is actually the portion of the film that willingly spends time sitting in this tension and allowing it to ruminate and unsettle us as viewers.
For me, a never-ending pandemic with no firm as of yet promise of our human capacity to fully solve it, or a heat wave that seems to be giving fresh voice to the discussions that emerged with force in the early months of last year, particularly regarding the seemingly inevitable future of a warming earth now at a point of no return, is a tough thing to reconcile with my attempts to see the positive in the everyday. That’s simply if I’m being honest. Now, to be fair, many of these articles do still speak of the potential for us to redirect this path towards a better tomorrow, but most of the evidence seems to suggest that warming will continue and that this will cause challenges for humanity in the next 50 years. For all that is made of the human capacity to make this world better and be in control of our future, mass graves being uncovered at residential schools, the sheer inequity exposed by both a virus and a vaccine, rampant racism and division that continues South of the border, wars and conflicts and poverty and tragedy of man-made and natural proportions seem to suggest something different. Sure, we can speak about longer life spans and higher standards of living as evidence of modernity’s ability to solve our problems and move us from the depths of history towards a new and greater age ripe with freedoms and longevity and general prospering, but it would be a gross mistake to count this as equality or “progress” on a moral front. Even modern day movements like the womans liberation and the fight for greater rights for LBGTQ+ communities can be located somewhere in the past with an even more rigorous expression than we find them receiving today.
This might be the result of that old Darwinian falsehood that sees evolution as somehow linear and progressive and forward moving, but such “progressive” ideals are far better understood as part of a cyclical nature that ebbs and flows with the currents of what one could fairly deem actual “progress” (societal and technological development). Same questions, different context. Same problems, different pile. To see it as otherwise is to subscribe arbitrary categories for the kind of suffering we encounter today as somehow less valid and less shocking than the suffering that preceded it (represented in the belief that we live in the least violent, least suffered, least-“insert here”- society of all of history, which is a tired sentiment at this point).
Perhaps this owes something to that old adage that suggests every generation thinks the next one is going to hell in a handbasket, but when it comes to that inevitable question of “tomorrow”, what strikes me about the headlines today is that the finger is pointed straight at us as being beligerent, ignorant, racist… insert here…, and this sentiment isn’t wrong. It doesn’t take much digging to find the dire news populating online sources and discourse. In terms of the ecological discussion, article after article project that we will (not might) be facing a world that is too hot for humans to surive in the next 50-70 years. Add to that the increasing consciousness of viral threats (a problem that stems from a global society with an increasing ecological footprint) and, well, queue my anxiety. The call to “live for today” feels shallow and hollow in the current climate at best, irrelevant at worst.
Now, before I digress fully into “the world’s going to hell in handbasket” mode, let me be clear. I struggle with this tension. I do my best to live beyond it. On this front, the real problem I face in navigating this notion of “tomorrow” is navigating the narratives that surround it. I’m a person who likes to ask why, which is sometimes a good thing and other times this is best left alone in favour of more optimistic discourse. The “why” question gains relevance in the film The Tomorrow Wars precisely when the reality of tomorrow appears written in stone (or time). The world will end. Apply this to the heatwave and it becomes “the world will soon be too hot for humans” in the next 50 years. Apply this to a pandemic and it becomes “the world will be facing widespread pandemics” in the next 50 years. Apply this even larger and one could point to something like the recent book The End of Everything by cosmologist/astrophysicist Katie Mack as a question not of when but how (okay, with some when thrown in for good measure… hint, a small cosmoloical shift could bring it about tomorrow).
Humanity will end. The earth will end. The universe will end. We might have a decent set of years to see how far we get with this whole idea of “human innovation”, but even then, when it comes to navigating something like Hothouse Earth what becomes evident is that our biggest problem remains ourselves. Or further to that point, our mass populations and the inequality that maintains it (to be fair, there is a rebuttle to this that is compelling, but even then inequality and consumption remains well within its sights). Further, on the level of scientific study there is a decent case to be made that our mass populations and the functions that flow from these populations that regulate them and maintain them remains the reason why humans haven’t evolved beyond where we are (also a hotly contested topic that is currently being debated), Even those arguing for evidence of modern day evolution in humans tend towards citing more adaptive responses and examples which require smaller, disparate and spread out populations to work (see debates above). And when it comes to the current and growing human population, the fact that we have to factor in questions of an evolving morality remains the biggest challenge we have to technological progress and artifical evolution (the move towards genetic innovation and human bred technology and environmental influence). Otherwise you can be sure that we would have cures for cancer and be well on our way to populating space by now. Even when considering the Hothouse Earth scenario, the problem isn’t human survival, but what to do with the masses that colonize coastal cities and third world countries and which rely on mass production of farming and ecological stability, ect.. This is a moral question. Or to put it otherwise in line with the film- this is a question of sentimentality.
But why be sentimental about mass humanity’s fate? After all, a Hothouse Earth would be good news for the portion of humanity that would eventually thrive within it. Certain portions of the planet will become “eden” like and adaptive to these new climate realities, and those with the means will be able to make the most of it. Sentimentality reallocates at least some of humanity’s obligation to addressing the question of the whole in the interim, that is those who, given the speed of these coming changes, will be the ones to suffer, to die, and to struggle. This is the same mentality used to justify a vaccine rollout which many argue should rightly serve the first world first (after all, your third world country is simply eating it’s own cake and sleeping in its own bed, right?…. I heard that reasoning echoed in two different articles this past week).
Add to this the convoluted narratives that accompany these first world and upper class discussions. For those with the privilege of asking these questions from this vantage point, it basically comes down to three motvations (not including religious ones, which come with their own set of questions)- you either privilge nature, humanity, or progress. One can claim these are interconnected, but when it comes to understanding the narrative and taking stock of allegiances and motivations both real and rhetoricized, one of these plays the dominant role. If it is nature, you will hear people speaking about how nature would be better off without humanity and how, in some unarticulated fashion, the problem is that humanity has changed and affected the role and balance of nature. Thus whatever nature does and whatever nature wills should be the thing we submit ourselves to, even if this means our extinction. The problem with this of course is that we aren’t facing the upsetting of the natural balance (the earth has fluctuated many times before, we’ve seen many extinctions before humanity ever came to be and since, and hothouse earth’s and ice ages have dominated the natural course since the beginning), we are facing an expidited climate change that will wreak havoc on a fair portion of humanity and its economic stability. As well, suggesting that the natural order is the highest ideal doesn’t account for evolution since the arrival of humans and the discovery of fire. The whole course of evolution changed from that point on, with most of it being artificially produced even before Modernity. Naturalism doesn’t really have an end game either, it just has an assumed and imposed morality that gives it its proper power over us (as part of the natural world).
If humanity takes precedence then we begin to attend for some level of human exceptionalism. Here we reserve some degree of rights for survival at the expense of the natural world. We need it, but if it comes down to it that bear will die if it encroaches on human territory. And Western society has long demonstrated that civilization reserves the right to relocate habitats, articially redirect land purposes, and generally conduct ordered society accordingly, including heated and cooled homes, sewage systems, all the way up to the minute modern conveniences. Human exceptionalism assumes that we are responsible for our future and long term survival, and that will happen beyond the confines of this present earth.
Or progress becomes the highest value. The most important elements of this view are the questions associated with what long term survival means and looks like, particularly when it comes to making choices that favor technological progress at the expense of human and natural life (assumptions that get made all the time). In this narrative, humanity isn’t relegated to our mere human form, but rather the future is determined by technology and its ability to transform our present humanity into its next iteration in our artificially bred evolutionary story. This might mean one thing when talking about an artificial heart, but the near future will be asking questions of the mind and brain that far surprass any figurative boundaries we feel might be in place even now.
And all for the concern of longetivity of life and future as the primary measure of success. We are obsessed with the future, whether we want to admit it or not.
And this is the conversation that informs our future. We all know it. We just rarely like to see it in these terms in their most honest form. We like the narratives spun positively because they give us purpose and allow us to be sentimental about nature, human life or progress. The perpetual romanticizing of the future to pad the present, allowing us to create these kinds of narratives, is what gives life its meaning in the present.
Until something throws you into upheavel and you find that human ambitions can’t change this reality. Until you face suffering or tragedy that suddenly cascades all this future obession back into the present with a certain degree of fervor and disallusionment. Nihilists have famously in recent history given much attention to attacking our denial of the meaningless present with vigor. They claim religion is obsessed with “tomorrow” to the detriment of our ability to face death itself as part of our present reality. There’s a reason why its very rare to encounter someone who actually lives as a nihilist. We can romanticize death, but only inso far as we have a narrative to shape the future in its place, be it nature, human exceptionalism or progress. This is no diferent than attending to the very difficult tension of this present reality by means of faith in religion, desiring hope for the future that makes sense and can live up to its promise. The most egrarious challenge of secular society (I hate that term, but for lack of a better one) is contending for or acknowledging its own highly irrational assumptions when it comes to “meaning-making” or the necessary sentimentalization of this world. It does seem to be ingrained into the human condition to need to imagine a future and find some kind of hope in a meaning-making narrative. Secularists must contend with the fact that we then must thrive on “false” narratives that sell ourselves everday on something that is not true just in order to survive and keep moving forward.
The main character in The Tomorrow War is Chris Pratt. His challenge is finding meaning-making in a reality that seems to have revealed itself as meaningless. The future is revealed, and humanity will end. So what we do? How do we respond? How do we continue to exist and move forward? From where do we find hope, and how do we avoid simply collapsing into frivilous revelries of the moment and seizing the day, end of the universe or the world or life be dammed? More importantly, how do we make sense of those sentimentalisms that seem to still be pervasive in the souls of much of humanity? To what end is there worth in giving oneself for the sake for another and investing our time and energy into their well being when the same end point can be seen for all involved? These questions shift with the story in the film into different forms and different interests. But for a good deal of it they do permeate the activity and the choices and concerns that face our characters. And when they begin to take on a slightly different emphasis, it becomes easy to become skepical of the narrative that allows them to do this without seeming contradiction. It seems to both be pointing to some kind of universal truth about the human experience while also betraying this same truth. Which is also a reflection of the tension I’ve mentioned above. The real question is, is false hope made true simply because we believe it to be so, or does the fact this hope is false shed light on the meaninglessness of it all. Something tells me this depends on the questions we are willing to or want to ask in this direction.
And yet, for as skeptical as one can be, there is something unavoidable about the presence of hope within these narratives, our narratives, and the place it demands in our daily life. That seems to say something about how life, which to date has no real shared definition within the scientific community, works, and even more so how humanity (slightly more defined) works. The fact that it is within our humanity that we find the clearest definitions of life taking root seems to suggest this hope might be something we are forced to contend with, which is why I supposed this tension exists. Tension is, by its very nature, hope as much as it is doubt. And sometimes when it feels and appears all is dire and written in stone, that’s enough to carry us forward into the places that truly matter. And in pandemics, genocides, climate change and hothouse earth potentials, those happen to be places of hardship, struggle and suffering that desperately long for this hope to emerge.
Riders of Justice (Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, 2021)
Daring twists and turns and plenty of misdirection leads you through the full gammot of emotions. Sharp left turns into timely humor (this is a deeply and genuinly funny film) give way to philosohpical and existential wonderings before steering us straight into an action packed thrill ride. That it is also such a deeply felt character drama with a truly excellent ensemble piece is due to the compassionate and excellently crafted direction and another knock out role for the mighty Mads.
The Legend of Hei (Directed by MTJJ, 2021
A 2D Chinese animated film that is the perflect blend of dramatic precision and detailed art and bombastic, action packed story. It is steeped in Chinese culture, and thus draws us into that world of storytelling with is emphasis on the human-creation divide and the role of the spirit in healing that rift. It’s a beautiful story, if a bit familiar from animated films in this genre, but there’s a freshness to it all that quickly endeared me to its intentions and its craft. Plus it has a wandering cat spirit, which is a definite plus.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Directors Ellie-Maija Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, 2021)
This small but powerful Canadian indie gem Directed, performed and produced by an Indigenous Canadian woman was recommended to me with reference to another Director that I adore (Chloe Zhao). The comparison is apt, estblishing itself within the first 10 minutes- the desire to capture the natural movement of its characters, the slower pace, the emphasis on faces. But Tailfeathers and Hepburn set themselves apart by steering away from Zhao’s grand emphasis on cinematography and setting and instead giving us detailed structural design and framing devices. It’s all meant to play with persepctive, telling the story of two women over the course of an evening as they deal with the subject of abuse, and more specifically the confronting the cycles of abuse. Powerful, emotional and deeply meaningful.
Nobody (Directed by Ilya Naishuller, 2021)
Starts off as a cathartic fantasy for anyone who has ever felt like a nobody, insignificant in a large world full of seeming sombodies. Veers sharply into a metaphor for our dualing natures, progresses into one of the coolest action films I’ve seen in a long while, and ultimately strives to pull from this something of a redemptive narrative, albeit of the most unconventional kind. It all suggests that sometimes being a nobody is answer enough when it comes to existing in this crazy world. Unless your name is Christopher Lloyd of course.
About Endlessness (Directed by Roy Anderson, 2021)
Never before have I encountered a film that is so clearly having a blast entertaining it’s own sense of utter meaninglessness ane existential angst. To be even more frank- this film absolutely gets me on many levels. It is basically a series of sequences, some with reoccuring characters telling a somewhat succinct story about their own existential crisis. It mines questions of significance out of the most mundane moments, turning a subway ride into an opportunity to despair over an identity crisis, a dead car on the road an opportunity to sit in the wasted time and struggle that goes into simply getting from here to there, to the larger and more problematic existential crisis of faith and loss of faith. It’s all kind of humorous in its own way, for as long as we are able to laugh at oursleves along the way from time to time, and the film does find a way way to infuse moments of spontaneous joy. Ultimatley though it seems content to simply be here to help us raise a glass to the wonder of the existential crisis
Divine Action, Determinism, and the Laws of Nature by Jeffrey koperski
I confess, I understood about a quarter of this detailed book about the relationship between physics, philosophy and theism, but Koperski makes this so immensley readabe that this doesn’t really matter. He throws just enough of a bone every now and then to make sure someone like me is able to keep up. To be clear, this is now a book arguing for the existence of a god, although one is certainly free to find that within the data. Rather, what he is interested in is bridging the relationship between physics and philosophy by establishing a playing field in which such conversations can take place. By uncovering what the study of physics believes about itself, a practice that requires preestablished boundaries in order to function, he is able to tease out the spaces that necessarily surround these boundaries where philsophy necessarily intersects. And once we are able to perceive this, we can begin to ask questions about how it is that theism can imagine a god that participates within these laws, playing that back into some common ideas, misperceptions, arguments and theologies regarding determinism and freedom in a coheseive fashion.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed Kindle Edition by Lori Gottlieb
I knew very little about this book going in, but I was intrigued by the synopsis. When I was doing my Masters I spent a brief stint in the counseling stream before shifting to what was famously described as a choose your own adventure degree (that incorporated some of that counseling focus). I wish I had this book while I was engaged in these studies as it offers a really unique and very accessible look behind the scenes of the therapeutic and counseling practice and process. This is due to it being something of a memoir that tells the story of Lori Gottlieb’s personal journey from growing up to heading to medical school to becoming a therapist… from the lens of her own time in therapy looking back on her life (which is a part of the therapeutic and counseling process). The book is intentionally structured to locate specific themes within its story, affording some poetic undertones to its simple, linear arc. It has the feel of unfolding in real time while pushing and pulling us at any point through past, present and future contexts, all with a definite reflective quality that conotes its clear retrosective quality.
The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War Louis Menand
This is a bit of a beast to get through, but this sweeping and fascinating exploration of art and thought in the Cold War makes it worth the effort. Whereas the question of American culture is often examined in terms of its influence on the rest of the world, this sees it from the perspective on how it was birthed, shaped and influenced by the international movements that surround it. This offers us a way to make sense of what American culture is as a working dialogue with the rest of the world, shedding light on how this shaped the Country in immeasurable ways, especially with the creation of “pop” culture. Despite the length, the book never let’s one part of the unfolding narrative to get old. It’s always moving, and each story comes with its own insights and observations and historical interest, which leaves you more with a canvas than a singular, pointed observation or idea.
The Conference of the Birds by Ransom Riggs
I determined at the beginning of the year to finish this series, because evertime I read one book I’m reminded of how much I enjoy it, but then I inevitably fail to move on to the next. And what I really enjoyed about the book previous to this one is how the series was really starting to break open the worldbuilding process, providing less of a stand alone narrative and more of an interconnected story. This ensured that this one was able to hit the ground running, throwing us straight into the action and furthering the stakes. Its one of my favorites this far, and of course I can’t wait to pick up the next one. So hopefully I won’t wait.
The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities From the Heart of the Continent by Darren Bernhardt
A must read for any born and bred Winnipeger, and even for those interested in the city as an outsider. This is the kind of book that I love to seek out when I am visiting other places, so I imagine it works well on that level too. Some of these stories I knew, a lot I didn’t, but the story’s are written in such an entertaining style that even the familiar carried fresh perspective and detail. As one would expect from any city, Winnipeg is complicated, complex, intriguing and interesting in its dramatic history. Those who live here love to rag on it of course, which is true for most places you live in, but this book is a good reminder that what makes a place interesting are the stories, and this is one place to encounter some you might not have heard before.
Ellie Holcomb- Canyon
The perfect tonic to lift your spirits during the never ending pandemic, Holcomb’s Canyon is rich with her familiar tendency towards layered melody and instrumentation, but also recognizably hope filled in ways that are needed and welcome. If the title track canyon imagines a divide between the way things are and the way we long and hope things to be, a song like Paradox imagines how it is we carry this tension with us as we take steps forward out of the darkness and into the light. It imagines hope not as easy answers, but as a deeply rooted longing that endeavors to hold us and carry us and invite us into its mystery. And through Holcomb’s artistry this mystery truly does come alive and real.
Celeste-Not Your Muse
A relative newcomer, but arriving with the presence of a seasoned artist, Celeste’s recently released full length album Not Your Muse is the perfect showcase for her magical voice. The album moves, sometimes in drastic shifts between upbeat to downbeat, in a meandering fashion, but if one thing is made clear by the opening track, Ideal Woman, the journey we are invited on is her own, expectations be dammed. She will not be subsumed by the industry, and the world is a better place for it.
Jennifer Nettles- Always Like New
I’m a considerate fan of Nettles, and I have to say, this album really caught me by suprised. Say interpretive take on “Broadway” music fused with Nettles signature inventive Country-Blues-Rock style and I’m left scratching my head. Until I heard it. Then I figured out this was the album I never knew I wanted or needed from her. In line with the album’s title, this is unlike anything she has done before, which is what makes it so dang exciting.
Crowder- Milk and Honey,
He had been slowly dropping tracks for this new full length album for the last few months, so the full length effort arrives with some familiarity. What has been interesting in terms of looking at Crowder’s career up to this point is measuring his present reincarnation as Crowder with the illustrious legacy of his band years. While he remains best known for a handful of easily accessible worship songs, what once defined him was the creative edge of his instrumentation and the aristry of these complex arrangements. Accessibility was often something of an allusion that could catch some listeners off guard once they ventured past the radio cut of that Sunday morning staple. As Crowder he has been demonstrably more pared back. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to a bit of inconsistency, as though he is trying to craft a clearer cut and grown up identity while still being that crazy and unpredictable persona that many of us love underneath. This album has many of those markings, but what I like about it is that he appears to be finding a way to navigate this with a greater degree of confience than some of his most recent works. Moving from song to song feels natural even though they represent wildly different flavors and styles. There are a few immediate hooks, but what I most appreciated is that this album feels like is offer lost to ruminate on that will require multiple listens to fully appreciate.
Butterfly Ali- Preachers Kid,
Definitely a good candidate for album of the year, Butterfly Ali’s effectual project Preachers Kid is about as self defining an effrt as one can find. There’s little doubt this is an EP interested in digging underneath who he is as an artist- lyrically, personally, spiritually, communally, artistically, sonically, and it does so with such a vigor and an energy that it is impossible not to simply get swept away into that story and to experience what he is experiencing. It moves, it soars, it reflects and it inspires.
The Biblical World- Passion Week (Episodes 6, 7 and 8)
This is a new podcast that made this space last month, and it continues to occupy my interest. What I wanted to highlight here is the three Passion Week episodes which walk through the archeology behind this particular portion of the text with interesting and eye opening information and history. It’s inspiring, immensely enjoyable and extremely interesting, and its from experts in the field so you always feel like you are in good hands as you traverse the lands and gain a sense of the world as it was.
Song Explorer- Arlo Parks- Black Dog
The full album easily could have made my list or top monthy listens, but for a deeper dive into one particular song, highlighting this episode will certainly do.
The Next Chapter- Ivan Coyote and David Alexander Robertson
Given the recent revelations of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada, I recently decided to invest in some indigenous authors and their books. A small thing in what feels like insurmountable grief, sadness and tragedy. One of those authors is Robertson, and this is a great opportunity to hear a little bit from him as an influential voice and writer.
The Reluctant Theologian Podcast- Episode 74, Posthumanism with Christine Diagle
Every so often you encounter something or someone, be it a sentence, an idea, a revelation or an experience, that ends up digging its claws into you in a way that you can feel reshaping some of your perspetive. Diagle’s discussion surrounding posthumanism and how that fits with larger discussions about shifts in thinking and worldview offered me a way of thinking about this world, ourselves, and what this all means that I had never really considered before. Post humanism is in a way taking stock of where we are but also imagining where we are headed, opening up questions that are worth posing and thinking about.
Unbelievable: Episode 768 Paul Davies and Jeremy England, The Origin of Life; Do we need a new theory for how life began? and Episode 766, Gunter Bechly and Joshua Swamidass, For and Against Intelligent Design
I could pinpoint the entirety of this current series centered around subjects of science, universal origins, and different discussions relating to discussions of faith. The two I highlight above are my favorites, but perhaps more relevant for my purposes is the window this opened up to different books and authors in the field. There is some exciiting developments and shifts happening in terms of the broader conversation, and hopefully a greater embrace of the ways in which philsophy intersects with science (and the voices in the field that are interested in both).
“And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Reading in Wright’s History and Eschatology this morning I found myself reflecting on this idea that Jesus “is” making all things new. It is easy to transport this passage entirely into a vision of the future where it reflects something that will some day happen.But this is not the view of the Biblical wrters. They understood that when Jesus died and rose again that something very real had taken place, not something that will happen someday in the future, but something that has happened and is happening in the here and now, in the unfolding of history. Jesus has in fact acended to the throne and the new creation project, this making all things new, has already begun. But, this feels like a difficult thing to believe and to feel in a world blanketed by a pandemic, the contined uncovering of rampant racism, abuse and genocide, and unending political, cultural and social divide, and so in some ways it is much easier simply to assign this vision completely to the future.
I remember encountering in 2020 this idea that the whole of scripture is basically composed as one big hyperlink to the first 6 chapters of Genesis, and since then I’ve made it a practice to revisit these chapters any time I am working through or reflecting on a passage of scripture. And it is striking how true this is. Through this lens scripture uncovers this ongoing movement between the old and the new, the struggling and the healed, the sinful and the forgiven, the broken and the restored. And yet it does so from within this consistent and often desperate need to make sense of this truth within an already-not yet reality. Perhaps one of the most powerful realizations of encountering this narrative vision in the pages of scripture is the simple recognition that I am not alone in wondering how it is that we make sense of this proclomation- I am making all things new- when things feel very much to the contrary. It perhaps points to the idea that we all need hope, and yet where we locate this hope can be one of the most difficult things to reconcile. It feels more like Genesis 6 where the ordered creation is continually crashing back in to chaos over and over again than the ordered vision of Genesis 1 and 2 that imagines rivers leading out from its life giving source to feed the world with a much needed promise of continued newness, love and hope.
Wright contends in his book that where Modernity has largely seperated the idea of Jesus from the idea of history, relocating Jesus within history remains one of the most important tasks of the Christian today. And also one of the most challenging precisely because it forces us to contend with this vision of the new creation being enacted and declared in the here and now, this notion of heaven and earth coming together rather than being pulled apart. Here I’m reminded of a song from Elie Holcomb’s new album called Paradox. In the first verse Holcomb sings,
This is as true when I parse through the local, national and global stories as it is when I contend with individual stories that express and live with deep pain and struggle every singe day. This resonates so powerfully in my spirit with another song from Holcomb’s album called Constellations, where she pleads to the heavens to “promise me I (we) are not alone” out here in the dark.
I have a lot of good friends for whom this paradox remains something that cannot be reconciled. And I get this. I am often asked by these friends why (or maybe how) I still hold to the Christian faith. And honestly, I don’t always know why, especially in times when we collectively need to find a way to reconcile the great abuses of the Church with the promise of this hopeful vision. I’m not sure there is a narrative that can address this paradox without carrying this tension and falling prey to the same scrutiny, particularly when it comes to those bigger questions of what makes this life worth living and how it is we collectively buy and sell ino this grand idea called hope with any degree of certainty and conviction.
What I do know though is the worth of knowing and hearing that we are not alone in this endeavor. There is an intimate connection in scripture between the promise of new creation and the equal proclamation that we are being swept up into this new creation work as transformed people, people who are in fact being made new within the very fabric of this working paradox. And how is this made true? Through the fruit of our willing participation in the new creation project. If Christ is true then Christ must be true within history, not as some grand and distant reality that exists out there. And within the Genesis vision of humankind bearing the very image of God, we know the truth of Christ only when we participate in the realm of history. This is where hope is made real, is when we are able to say to another, you are not alone. As Holcomb imagines, hope is made true when we enter into the low places where suffering and struggle persists. If we are to hear the voice of God telling us “we are not alone” in the darkness, we must look low before our gaze can be lifted upwards with Holcomb’s resonating chorus,
I am reminded of the clear Genesis hyperlink in Isaiah 43:18-19 where this hope filled vision resounds,
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
How hard it is to believe in the truth that God is in fact “doing a new thing”, and to say that “now it springs forth” in the way of the ordered creation where rivers flow not from a garden, the functioning image of a temple where God dwells in our midst, but from he wilderness and through the desert. The question, “do you not perceive it” carries a sense of familiar exasperation not because it is unexpected, but because this paradox is so very real. This becomes easier to believe when we see someone embodying the words and making them their own by entering into the low places with us. The question we ask then is, am “I” doing a new thing? Am I making a way for others where Christ has gone ahead of me?
In the beginning of 2021 I started a personal research project on the subject of memory, something I’ve been giving some time to off and on over the past 6 months. One of the aspects of memory that I have found interesting to dig into was this seeming competing relationship between how it is that we remember the good and the seeming ease with which we remember the bad.
For example, it is a common when we take a trip and go on vacation to experience the vacation in the moment as challenging, frustrating and exhausting. And yet for most, when we look back on that vacation after the fact we tend to remember the good rather than the bad. While this appears to connect directly to whe ways in which we establish our memories and translate those memories to an accepted narrative, what is intersting to note is that research also seems to suggest that it is far easier to remember the bad than the good.
Despite still knowing very little about how memory works, theories abound about how these two seemingly contradictory truths seem to work together. But one thing seems to be clear- if most of our brains are prone to remembering the bad (which seems to biologically be the case, developing as a survival mechanism), the way we remember something as good is by thinking about our memory and actually (actively) reforming that memory into something good or emphasing the good portions of that memory. For example, it is possible when recalling a memory and thinking about that memory to take what was wholly negative in the moment and associate it with something humorous, allowing ourselves to laugh at what at the time made us frustrated. Or we can choose to elevate that sunset as the interpretive picture through which to understand the flat tire. On the extreme end we can also actively control the flow of the narrative, shaping the plot of a that vacation in a positive direcion.
In other words, while our brains might be designed to remember that encounter with a bear or that flat tire or that horrible hotel room, it would seem that there is a degree of natural agency in how we translate those bad memories into a good experience. Biologically speaking it seems to be true that the good takes longer to store and requires thought to retrieve, but what might be even more important is the ability of our minds to translate bad experiences into a positive or good narrative that, in the larger scope of our life story has the power to actively reshape our understanding of ourselves, others, God and the world.
I’ve been thinking lately about what the dominant narative of my own life is. I have found that, as someone with an anxiety disorder, that I tend to struggle between the bad and good on a daily basis, and when I engage in exercises that try and recall and locate the story of my life and make sense of how it is that I find myself where I am today, there is a strong tendency to wrestle with competing storylines that can write that in one direction or another. This is likely why many tend to call me positive and optimstic, while at the same time I find I dwell a lot on the negative and hold a high degree of cynicism. This is the challenge and power that memory holds.
Case and point, the other day I was visiting an old house and street where I used to live when I was a young boy (see photo): It was easy to remember the chronic nightmares I experienced sleeping in the shared room on the top floor adjacent to my parents. In fact, these form the earliest memories I have of my life as a young child, reaching back to when I was 4 and 5 years old. When I dug a little more into the faint hints of that past, out came more positive memories that seemed to be equally ingrained in my mind, just buried a little further down, including days spent roaming the block with a neighborhood friend (and similar aged indiginous boy named Arnold) and encounters with super sized killer bees the size of my shoe (at least that’s how my memory recalls it).
There is also this particular memory of an old shop at the end of our street that used to sell ice cream.
What I remember about this ice cream shop was Mr. Mugs. Mr. Mugs was not only a favorite children’s story I still recall reading, butit was also a dog who looked exactly like Mr. Mugs and which used to hang out in front of the shop every day, usually lounging and waiting to say hello to passerby’s and visitors.
At the time, my young mind was convinced this was the real Mr. Mugs come to life, and I used to imagine the adventures of the book playing out in real time as a I hung out with this oversized white and grey bundle of fur. Little did I know that this would be the beginnings of a life long love affair with imagination and story, something that would serve me well in equally challenging years that lied ahead.
Which is all to say, while its a bit disconcerting to think about the ease in which our brains hold onto the bad, there is something liberating about the idea that we also have the power to reshape those memories and reform them into something positive and good. That we have some degree of control over the way we tell our stories. To be sure, this brings up some other unsetlling thoughts about just how reliable memory is and the danger and possibility of manipulating our stories in order to ignore and avoid the bad, but at a very base level knowing that intentional investement and thought can bring about change is a hopeful idea. In fact, one could argue that if we are prone to remember the bad as a survival mechanism, being able to reshape our stories as good memories is an equally important tool for living. The reason we do this after all is because while vacations might reflect difficult and frustrating experiences, we also know that vacations are important and helpful and necessary for life to prosper. To remember them as good means we will be driven to take another one even if the last one proved a disaster. Equally so when it comes to our experience of relationships. This is the power of perspective in play. And as we approach the summer and a province (where I live) still in lock down and entrenched in Covid restrictions, longing and imagining that potential vacation as something good holds a lot of sustaining power right now.
For anyone interested, this is a really interesting article on the science behind such agency to actively change and reshape our memories. It’s focus is on research into things like trauma and PTSD, but it has implications for everyday living. Of note is the fact that they are finding memories to be malliable and shapeable in that space between embedment and recall, and that this persists through the whole of our lives. Which means that even when our brains make these concrete connections between experience and memory, with that connection becoming stronger and stronger the more we recall, the fact that the memory remains shapeable everytime we recall it means that we have the opportunity to control the way we see and understand that memory as a working narrative. We can shift it, replace it and reassociate it, opening up opportunities for the bad to become something positive and good. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/251655#how_do_memories_form
The purpose of this blogspace was to provide me with opportunity and (hopefully) motivation to dialogue with and capture the stories that inspire me, form me, challenge me, make me laugh, cry, or shout out in anger. These stories come from film, books, music, podcasts, people, experiences, friendships, family. Some of these stories spark deeper and more extensive reflection. Others simply arrive and say something in the moment.
This post captures the latter, inspired first by an episode of a favorite television show (Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist), a powerful film from my movie diary this past film, and a new song from one of my favorite bands (Needtobreathe).
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist: Season 2, Episode 10
I promise, no spoilers in case you are still catching up on the latest episodes. I’m a few episodes behind myself, having recently finish episode 10. A big, big fan of the first season I was very excited when they anounced the renewal of the show for Season 2. And dang it if Season 2 didn’t come out of the gate strong. I was super impressed that they avoided simply narrowing in on and playout out the back and forth relationship drama that easily could have occupied most of its attention, opting instead for an almost stand alone thematic episodic format that emphasized different themes and topics. For as strong as season 1 was, the first quarter of Season 2 I felt was churning out some of its best work yet.
The latter half has been a bit more hit and mess, leaning back into the relationship drama and playing that out in an overly familiar and at times tired fashion. I’m far more interested in seeing where they take the story of this community beyond the back and forth love affair that I feel we got plenty of already in Season 1. That’s not to say there haven’t been solid moments of inspiration in the back half thus far. It has still been enjoyable. But it hasn’t reached the level of that first quarter… until Episode 10.
Ironically Episode 10 is almost a story of two halves. The first half immediately sets up for the familiar relational drama that has been informing the previous episodes. But then it finds its way in the second half to reach those inspired levels it is capable of achieving, particularly in its inspired final 10 minutes.
So what stood out for me personally? The way it works all of these relationships together in a mutual co-dependency struck a chord in the midst of a never ending Covid lockdown. As summer sits beckoning on the horizon, any promise of open Provincial borders here in Canada and opportunity for escape from the confines of our humble abodes still feels like a faint hope. What this episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist spoke loud and clear (for all to hear) is that although it might feel like it, we are not alone, and this truth reminds us that we not only have an opportunity to be that place where others can unpack and unload pent up emotions, but we can also take solace that there are others in whom we can unload our own. In probably its most striking move, the show frames this notion arond the picture of a cross and a Church, framing this as a three way connective relationship- God, ourselves, and others. We all need a place to lay our burdens, and God invites us not only to lay those burdens at the feet of the Cross, but at the feet of one another. We are called to see Christ in one another, and to be Christ to one another and in this find healing and hope.
Needtobreathe: What I’m Here For (Single)
Leading up to the full release of their new album titled Into the Mystery and an upcoming tour by the same name, Needtobreathe has been slowly releasing singles over the past couple months. Their latest, released late last week, is titled What I’m Here For. If the three songs released thus far are any indication, this new album is going to have an intentional and very real relatonal focus, thus far spanning familial themes, love, God and community. As the chorus in What I’m Here sings,
I don’t need silver linings I don’t need so much more I just need room to be wrong sometimes That’s all I’m hoping for I feel like we could find it If we knocked on heaven’s door I’d say God I’m only human You’d say that’s what I’m here for
It’s unclear precisely who these lyrics are speaking of (and speaking to), but as has been documented regarding the accompanying “making of” documentary,
Which is to speak of this moment of isolation and this need of togetherness, a place to begin to unload the unspoken burdens that such a time can bring. If the larger arc of the song appears to set it in the context of pursuing dreams and the tension of success and failure that comes with striving to be and become and perhaps mean something in this messy existence, the message readily plays into that universal story of being “only human”, an endeavor we inevitably embark on and journey through together, whether we know it or not. Once again we find that 3 way connective relationship expressed- God, ourselves and one another, and as we bring our burdens to God we also find the room to be wrong with one another in those necessary ways that make us human.
Faces Places (Directed by Agnes Varda, 2017)
A joint endeavor with French potographer, artist JR, this most recent effort by reknown and studied French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda is an equally striking study of what it means to be human together. Speaking of her pesronal legacy, Film Critic A.O. Scott for the New York Times had this to say about the film in his review.
At 89, Agnès Varda is an artist with nothing to prove and everything to discover.
He goes on to describe the documentary of their largely unscripted travels across the French countryside and its villages and communities to simply capture these “faces” as the are in the given moment with their struggles, joys, fears intact and unhibited.
Despite its unassuming, conversational ethos — which is also to say by means of Ms. Varda’s staunchly democratic understanding of her job as a filmmaker — “Faces Places” reveals itself as a powerful, complex and radical work. Ms. Varda’s modesty is evidence of her mastery, just as her playful demeanor is the expression of a serious and demanding aesthetic commitment. Almost by stealth, but also with cheerful forthrightness, she communicates a rich and challenging array of feelings and ideas. As we contemplate those faces and places we are invited to reflect on the passage of time and the nature of memory, on the mutability of friendship and the durability of art, on the dignity of labor and the fate of the European working class…
Without pressing a political agenda or bringing up matters of ideology or identity, they evoke a history of proud struggle and bitter defeat, a chronicle etched in the stones of the villages and the lines on the faces…
Beneath the jauntiness and good humor there is an unmistakably elegiac undertone to this film, an implicit acknowledgment of lateness and loss. The places will crumble and the faces will fade, and the commemorative power of the images that JR and Ms. Varda make will provide a small and partial compensation for this gloomy inevitability. The world and its inhabitants are protean and surprising, but also almost unbearably fragile, and you feel the pull of gravity even in the film’s most lighthearted passages.
One of the interesting things about the way Varda esablishes the movement of this journey into and through the lives of others is that she uses it to comment outwardly on her past relationship with fellow French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard, someone whom she shared space with in her dedication to the French New Wave and avante-garde stylings, and further yet on the developing relationship unfolding on screen between her and JR. As we apply this to the relationships we enocunter through their photos of others, Faces Places (or in its French translation, “Visages Villages”, which connects the person intimately to both time and place) becomes undeniably about the need for those unspoken struggles and burdens and those moments of often fleeting happiness and joy to be shared with one another. To be seen by an other.
A powerful and needed sentiment that rings true for me in the midst of never ending lock downs and isolation. It is true that it is easy to feel alone. Sometimes we need that reminder that we are not alone. This is where we can say with the apostle Paul, “we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (5:5), which is the hope that what is wrong will be made right even, as it indicates in Chapter 4, the barrenness of the present moment feels all to real.
Although this is something I was aware of, a recent chapter from the book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand really brought to light how the West arrived where it did in terms of understanding the relationship between youth and the elderly.
The move to create and define the word “teenager” is actually fairly recent in Western history and connects directly to cultural and economic interests. One could argue that America wouldn’t have developed its cultural and economic footprint without the development of this term. Almost overnight (an immediate 400 percent increase) the framework for highschool was established, creating this definable middle space between youth and adult and distancing the West from the way we have viewed “youth” throughout history. The statistics are actually quite astounding. What followed soon after was the creation of post secondary education, something that developed in large part because of the economic interest and viability of a “youth culture”, shifting it from a 3 year gap to a 6 year gap.
Although this belongs in a larger more nuanced discussion (the seeds were largely already planted) this shift essentially elevated the future oriented thinking of progress that saw “youth” as the future (positive) and aging as the past (negative). And overtime the “youthful” age has simply been getting younger and younger in the West following suit with those cultural and economic interests. As the book suggests, selling youth culture is one of the most lucrative businesses out there.
A couple interesting outcomes from this: 1. If rock n’ roll was the first to become fully synonymous with youth culture (and all that it symbolizes), it is interesting to note its origins with black culture and black voices, and how quickly that became advertised as the white man’s genius.
2. If you ever had the thought that it seems like youth culture always seems to be driven by the interests of 13 and 14 year old girls, that’s because it is. This is the number one demographic targeted by those selling youth culture even if that was coopted and rebranded in a “man’s” world.
3. It’s also no mistake that youth culture was used to capture this dominating image of the free person as a movement towards self discovery and self identity. One can argue this is the soul of what makes youth culture what it is.
4. With those three things in mind, what’s also clear is that as we follow this development we also see the gradual shift away from some of the cultural norms that informed Americans development and towards a culture shaped by this high school-post secondary structure and its ability to give birth to this notion of the “individual” embodied by this cherished (and lucrative) youthful zeal. What got discarded was any necessary language for understanding the relationship between youth (however the culture defines it) and the aged, including the general demise of family systems and structures that tend to inform it. And to be clear, this appears as evident in the development of the old conservative models of the nuclear family as it is in the rest of modern western culture. And at the same time what got glorified were the same enlightenment values that planted the seeds for youth culture to become the bedrock of western society and our continued obsession with the future.
It’s a small snapshot of a multi-generational family that helps redefine and repurpose (or maybe better, erase) that gap between “youth” and adult, or young and aged. We often don’t realize that here in the west, due to our long and storied obsession with youth and youthfulness, that this obsession with the future that has been tightly interwoven into our systems (social, religious and political) in problematic ways. Ageism, and the unspoken challenge for many in reconciling their worth when these vey systems discard them, is a very big and very real problem. It just gets swept under the rug and not really talked about. Heck, I felt it the day I turned 40, that negative assertation and label, rearing its ugly head.
I do think that immigration can and does help to infuse different narratives into the dominant western motif, even if it can still get confused and muddled in the process. In fact, people often equate the presence of immigration as proof of the Western narratives worth and that the grand American experiment as the symbol of the Free World is in fact working. The would suggest that this is the reason why people come to America or Canada for example, and that it should then be expected that those coming to a Western society built on the backs of thsoe who made it need to assimilate to this same youthful and future laden obsession. The idea of imigration I dont think its anywhere near that simple or narrow. In truth, there are many reasons why one immigrates, many benefits that immigration brings to a given society on social and economic levels, and varied ways of co-existing. Perhaps more of note is how it is that we entertain this notion of co-existing in the first place, something that deserves a much larger and more embodied discussion in terms of what pluralism is, what pluralism looks to achieve, and how that fits with our view of the future, the function of a global society and the moral questions that flow from that. Unfortunately these questions get pushed to the side in favor of this youth-full and future oriented obsession, with the aged often bearing the consequence.
The author D.A. Stewart actually noticed my love and affection for my favorite author Lawhead and sent me an early copy of this book to read and review. I was honored to do so of course, but my honest thoughts also spill out into my genuine appreciation for the book itself. It will definitely hit the mark for fans of Lawhead, but what I appreciated most about it is the way the author distinguishes himself in a busy field and genre. Narrowing in on a key figure in legend and history, and a specific time in legend and history, Stewart weaves a story that stays simple in scope, concise in its focus and noted in its thematic concern. Usually these narratives juggle the larger world that surrounds it. Carson narrows in on the key figure, telling a story that brings together faith, struggle, ancient systems and adventure. Genuinely hard to put down.
Hope of the Gospel by George MacDonald
Part two of my noted effort to read some MacDonald in 2021. Beautiful, concise, aware and challenging. MacDonald has a way of pushing back against religious conventions while bringing all of the questions and concerns to light within the frame of scripture, Tradition and the Christian faith. The end result being a refocusing on the essential nature of the Christian Gospel itself.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
A classic that I fell in love with immediately. I loved the way Lowry offers a critique of modernism by weaving a dystopian narrative chalk full of progressive ideas and developed moral and ethical concerns with an old world setting open to the spiritual and the religious and filled with myth and metaphor. I can see this being a challenge for some modern readers, but it is something I think many of us in this present age are craving and longing to recover, that sense that there is more to this world than what mere rationalism can provide.
In this same way, Lowry has written a children’s story with grown up perspectives. It’s a marriage of the childlike questions and grown up cynicism. These kinds of stories always land for me in a special way, and in the Giver we see Lowry looking to explore an aspect of the human experience that has perhaps been neglected in the modern age.
Lowry has written a story about how it is that choices shape us, and it is within this that we are able to see this idea of ‘memory” emerging as one aspect of the stories central concern. For modernists, memories are not trustworthy. In the Giver they are a gift precisely because they hold the power to tell our stories in meaningful ways.
In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, And Family, Far Away by Dionne Searcey
I did not think I was going to like this book when I picked up, but did so upon recommendation. Turns out this will likely be in contention for read of the year when things are said and done. I loved it, the way the author, telling her story of subplanting her family from America to Nigeria to report for the Times on the plight of Nigerian woman, intersects her story with the revelations that emerge from her time in Nigeria. It never gets bogged down in politics, instead providing something personal, entertaining, funny, meaningful and and inspiring. That it ends up so readable is as much a testament to her story and her willingness to live it and learn it as it is to her ability to write so succinctly and effortlessly about it.
Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
A year in the life of an independent bookseller in Scotland. He’s brash, cynical, funny, and, well, Scottish. But his particular experience, documented in a diary that goes day by day and month by month, provides a window into the honest plight, investment and experience of independent booksellers everywhere, with its very real challenges and joys in tow. The quaint and storied Scottish seaside setting is simply a bonus.
Honorable Mention: Faye, Faraway by Helen Fisher (a spiritual and personal drama about faith, doubt, struggle and hope, told from both a personal and familial perspective)
The Classics: A Special Day (1977), Safety Last (1923)
Safety Last is an early silent era film that has long been overshadowed by more prominant voices. But it is no less influential in what it does and what it accomplishes. The deeply rooted humor is ripe with social commentary, particularly as the world it captures forges ahead into the modern era. This is irony at its best. Equally important in the way it captures the waning hours of Italian neo-realism’s long and storied influence is A Special Day, Set in the 30’s and incorporating some stunning historical footage, the film is an exploration of tensions that run rampant through the dramatzation of its period and the represenations of its characters on this very “special day”. There’s a poetry to the film’s bookends, but the real stuff is found in the gradually unfolding relationship that occupies the films body. Personal, universal, gender and political, particular and cultural divides are on full and equal display.
Horror/Thrillers: Session 9 (2009), Joint Security Area (2000), The Hitcher, Belzebuth (2017), Thelma (2017), Sator (2019)
I watched a number of thriller/horror films this month. I guess I’m in a mood. Two of the more memorable films came from the current Fear of God Podcast series, which is exploring what scares us as “listeners” (The Hitcher and Session 9), one of which veers more psychological the other towards a more direct moral quesiton and crisis. Perhaps the most disturbing and effecting watch comes from Shudder’s recently added Belzebuth, a film that had my jaw on the floor in the early going. Be aware, this is not for the faint of heart, but as a blending of spiritual themes, real psycholgoical drama, and religious imagery the film’s steady and even handed first three quarters gets blown wide open in the final act. Truly unnerving and frightening.
Perhaps in a slightly different vein (or most certainly) is 2000’s Joint Security Area. A culturally centred thriller that sets us on that symbolic and quite literal line that divides North and South Korea. As a story about family bonds, social conflict, and the power of our often arbitrarily defined borders proves as effective in evoking humor and tension as it does in delivering an emotional punch.
Still on a different level yet is the subdued, patient, high minded horror of Sator (a film that revels in tone and atmosphere as its driving force) and Thelma (a unsuspecting supernatural/psychological horror that delves into its symbolism and is characters). They are both less traditional and more experimental in their approach, but equally fascinating and effective works of art in their own right.
The Oscar Line-up: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), Minari (2020), The Mauritarian (2021), The Father (2020)
These are old news for many elswhere, but here in Canada the Oscar favorites are finally and slowly getting released. That includes the spiritual and pastoral Minari, a film that is as entrenched in is sense of the particular American story as it is in exploring its essential humanity, the powerful and weighty Judas and the Black Messiah, a film that captures a similar point in history as The Trial of the Chicago 7 but with much greater resolve and effect, the Mauritatrian, a tight and taut poltical/court room thriller that spotlights Foster while delivering an entertaining and well paced narrative, and the emotionally gripping The Father, which not only gives us Hopkin’s career defining performance but also offers us the best depictment of dementia ever put to film. All worthy of your attention.
For The Children: Anina (2013), Raya and the Last Dragon. Psycho Goreman (2020), The City of Lost Children (1995)
So these might not all be your traditional children’s films (so veto accordingly), but from the compassionate edge of Anina’s focus on childhood struggle (including its simple but endearing style of old school animation) to the fresh and invigorating cultural adventure of Raya and the Last Dragon (Disney really needs to make more films like this), to the laugh out loud nature of Psycho Goreman’s tame horror filled galavant through a young minded adventure, to the creative, weird and quirky nature of The City of Lost Children’s imagination (featuring an early Ron Perlman central performance), they all fit the bill for me in their own way.
Dramas: Wild Mountain Thyme (2020), A Hijacking (2012), The Half of It (2020), The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982),
I also, as per usual, watched a lot of dramas this month. The standouts for me- the unexpected Wild Mountain Thyme, a film that has been panned by critics (not sure why), seemed tailor made for my sensibilities. It’s an Irish romantic comedy at its core, and it infuses metaphor, romanaticism and a fairy tale like appraoch in order to tell what is a deeply poetic story. On the flip side of this is A Hijacking, a film that would make a perfect doduble billing with Captain Phillips, but which is underrepresnted in the shadow of that films much more visible presence. It’s success comes from its intentional focus on the negotions, which are white knuckle tense. The coming of age drama The Half of It also came out of nowhere for me. It’s a classic love story with a twist that weaves its way through the story in all kinds of intersting and unique ways. There are religious elements interewoven throughout, giving it the feel of a sort of Biblical epic as it navigates the notion of a divided self being made whole in community with the other. Lastly was the Italian fairytale The Night of the Shooting Stars, a film that uses realism to break through the reality of war and locate a people and their dreams hanging in the balance. It’s poetic, profound, and well realized in its ability to use the motif of a “children’s story” to tell a genuine adult tale.
Honorable Mention: Mostly Martha (Fun, humor, cooking, drama, a love story, wonderful chemistry, Italian culture set against German tendencies. I watched this with a smile on my face the whole time. All the right ingredients to create the perfect, savory rom-com with just a touch of that seasoned dramatic conern).
Biblical World: Ugarit and the Bible with Mary Buck (Episode 4)
The Biblical World is a new addition to the On Script brand that uses its connection to the rich world of Christian studies to explore archealogy in relationship to scripture. These are experts in the field, and in this particular episode it explores the important findings of Ugarit and what they can tell us about the ancient and Biblical world.
The Sacred: Chris French on skepticism and the psychology of paranormal beliefs (Episode 98); On Being With Krista Tippett: Jill Tarter- It Takes a Cosmos to Make a Human (Episode 868)
Two episodes that inspired some further reflections from me in this space. The first one demonstrates the potential of helpful and fruitful dialogue across different perspectives, with the host of The Sacred dialoging with sociologist Chris French about some of the challenges of integrating science into the everday workings of life and belief in a meaningful way. The second is a really interesting discussion between On Being’s Krista Tippett and cosmological scientist Jill Tarter, the inspiration for the film Contact, on space exploration and the long future of humanity. My interest in this episode centered on how it is that she makes a case for our necessary interest in space exploration, something that I think represents certain challenges when pairing that with the more existential concern for the human story and human meaning.
Kingdom Roots with Scot McKnight: The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Conversations with Beth Allison Barr) Episode 183
Beth Allison Barr has been making the rounds in support of her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, and this is a great place to get familiar with what she is all about (also see The Holy Post)
The Friendship Onion: Six O’Clock Twinkies (Episode 2)
Welcome to the fun hour with Merry and Pippen as they put their lasting and enduring friendship to good use.
Undeceptions with John Dickson: Guilty Conscience (Episode 65); Unbelievable: NT Wright and Douglas Murray- Identity, myth and miracles, How do we live in a post-Christian World (Episode 760)
Another two episodes that inspired further reflections in this space, this time on the subject of forgiveness and its essential place in the Christian narrative. Both episodes seem to ultimately land on forgiveness as crucial for the recovering of the Christian story in the modern, Post Christian world, with the Unbelievable waxing a bit more theological and poetic (with a historical minded attention to the larger picture), and Dickson’s podcast digging more into the more hardnosed philosophical and historical underpinnings. Taken together they provide some food for thought.
The Great Books: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (Episode 101); The Book Review: Louis Menand on The Free World; Theology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies: Astonished by Love- Storytelling and the Sacramental Imagination with Alice McDermott; The Symbolic World: Paul Kingsnorth- Environmentalism, the Tower of Babel and the Disintegration of Culture (Episode 158)
Four podcast episodes inspired new reading ventures in the coming months. I’m already digging into Louis Menands intriguing book The Free World, which takes a look at the cultural formation and influence of America not by way of the traditional outward influence perspective on the world, but on the ways the international communities and cultures shaped American culture between the World War and the Cold War and made it what it was. On tap is the classic The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, a book ingrained in the religious and philosphical ethos of Western history, a line up of books by storyteller and practicing Catholic Alice McDermott, and Irish poet, Christian and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth, a vivid voice in the ongoing and important movement towards reenchantment in the Western world.
The Symbolic World: Richard Rohlin- A Universal History (Episode 159)
Speaking of the movement towards reenchantment, this is a great snapshot of what this is all about. It’s an exciting time for Christianity in the West, and I’m thankful for the work the host and many others have been giving to undercovering the language of the ancient world long lost to the enlightenment’s fascination with rationalism and progress. Also paired with this is the youtube version here- https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=_N5s4n_lwB8&feature=youtu.be
The Sheepdogs: Rock and Roll (Ain’t No Simple Thing)
Everyone’s favorite Canadian rock and rollers are finally back and proving to be every bit the grisled, workmanlike veterans we might forget they are. After all, if you are like me it might be easy to think they are still relatively fresh on the scene. Make no mistake, this album signifies that sweet spot between familiarity and growth that is the measure of the artist playing the long game, and it provides the perfect ease into those cherished summer days and nights. Actually, forget the ease, this will help you off that chair and into the necessary groove to make the most of it.
In case you’ve missed out, the link above will introduce you to the grand project that is Tulsa’s immensely interesting exploration of a piece of its history and culture. One that is rich with hip hop and the Black voice, but also set against the tragic nature of the 1921 Massacre and Black Wall Street. It’s worth a deep dive into the podcast if you’re interested, but the album and the upcoming documentary are also worthy of your attention.
Here’s the synopsis of the albums creation from the site:
Future of Forestry- Remember
I’ve been a fan of FOF for a while, and I have to say, this new full length EP might be some of their (or his) best work yet. Rich with melody and attention to detail, much of this leans into FOF’s familiar penchant for creative imaginings and lends it an accessible and almost invitational presence. This is an album you aren’t simply meant to experience and appreciate, its one that I think you can also participate in.
Kacy and Clayton- Plastic Bouquet
I’ve had this album in my playlist for a little while now, and it has slowly been captivating my attention more and more. It’s not just the folky roots of its infectious tones, rather its the compelling story of its collobaration and composition that lends this such an interesting voice. It’s distinctly Canadian with the duo establishing their place as trail blazers, but brings in the story of New Zealand songwriter and storyteller Marlon William as a kind of cross-cultural experiment. The dedication to bringing out the lore and tradition of these largely indigenous based histories within the songs makes this an album one needs to absorb carefully and slowly. Thankfully the bluesy, folksy, country flavors make that easy to do.
Mat Kearney- January Flower
Kearney clearly invested some time in bringing his latest release January Flower to fruition. I haven’t felt this deeply connected to one of his records since City of Black and White, an album that remains close to my heart due to its release the year of my wedding. It provided the soundtrack for that journey, framing the excitement of crossing the Ontario border on our way to New York City. While his subsequent releases have all been good, I have found them more experimental than personal. This album feels personal, trading in the deviations into fresh pop constructions and instrumentation/production for a back to basics and more acoustically driven approach. Kearney appears to be telling an intimate and weathered relationship story that frames the albums lyrical journey, and this I think plays a role in the album’s welcome restraint.
Natalie Bergman- Mercy
I’m far from the only one getting on the Bergman train recently, and for good reason. Mercy represents a heartbreaking and quite profound spiritual journey through some personal life trauma. Which isn’t to say this album is dire. It’s far more reflective, using the platform of her story to foster personal reflection on God, life, faith, hope and struggle. This only proves to provide layers for the album’s artistic genius, which is bursting with carefully thought out melodies, instrumentation and structure. It might at first feel deceptively pared back and melancholic, but there is an urgency and energy to this album that is undeniable.
Honorable Mentions: Iron & Wine Archive Series Volume No. 5: Tallahassee Recordings (in case you missed it, this is the last in the archive series, albums digging into the salvaged tracks of Iron and Wine’s early years, with this one reaching the furthest into that lost repertoire); Jon Bryant- Back to Love (lyrical, Canadian, and the kind of smart pop the world needs right now); The Gray Havens- It’s Possible (check out the podcast episodes breaking down each song here- https://www.thegrayhavensmusic.com/, and then check out the album. You won’t regret it); The Black Keys- Delta Kream (might ultimately feel like a bit of the step back from their earlier works, but the band seems to be more than content in simply writings the songs they want to write, with Delta Kream sitting definitively within their comfort zone); In case you missed it in 2020, The Lone Bellow- Half Moon Light’s (Deluxe version is here).
Not only does it fit will with my previous post on Covid, published in this space, it has some major overlap with a book I’m reading right now called The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand, which, although I’ve only read a small portion of it thus far, has my full recommendation.
Menand argues in his book that while the tendency is often to try and understand American culture and philosophy by reading it from the inside out, that is, to understand America’s influence on the world through its influence on the world, we would do far better to see the current shape of America by looking at the influences that gave America its shape from abroad. For Menand, this comes from the crucial junction that frames the shift from the World War to the Cold War, subsequently conflating Nazism and Stalinism into a singlular definition of totatiltariansm while polarizing the two political sides.
As Menand points out, what holds this dicsussion together is the interest in liberty and free will. What we see though, as the article below also helps to bring to light, is an emerging ignorance of the subsequent conflation of both politics (or power) and philosophy (or Truth) in American culture. According to Menand’s book, elevating this notion of the free will justifiably leads to forms of individualism and an interest in relativism. These things are hard to reconcile when faced with social concern or social issues, and ultimately struggle to make sense of diversity and tend to get mired in the constant struggle to avoid decending into disorder. Thus we arrive at the neverending push and pull of the quesiton, what do we sacrifice in order to uphold the notions of liberty and free will, and subsequently what do we sacrifice to uphold the social or the collective good.
Both Menand and Shullenberger seem to recognize, more or less directly, that in absence of objective truth (the propping up of relativism) we simply arrive at the need for other forms of truth. Or as Shullenberger puts it in his dealing with Foucault, in the absence of a grand narrative here in the West, we quickly become driven simply to replace it with a different narrative. The problem is that these grand narratives that shape our drive to protect these polarized sides are at best inconsitent, often competing, and rarely articulated. In the modern West they are most often expressed through the language of individualism and relativism, the two essential components of the narratives grand ideal for liberty and free will, while the presence of diversity (and diversity of opinion) is a constant reminder liberty and free will are, as Foucault would recognize, mere allusions in a world built on socially constructed norms. And left to themselves they tend towards disorder.
These inconsisties in the grand narrative probably wouldn’t be as big of a problem if not for this subsequent marriage of philosophy and power in the Western myth. If philosophy allows us to think about the disorder of these grand narratives in terms of meaning and value and importance, the concern of politics is always uniformity and order. The problem then comes down to this tricky word “truth”. Or capital T truth. If politics equates to uniformity and order, then politics also equates to power, or the power stystems that can ensure uniformtity and order. It is when philosophy as “Truth” gets paired with politics as “power” (and power driven systems) that things get murky. This heightens the problem of this absence of a grand narrative that diversity imposes on notions of liberty and free will. What we end up with are two sides employing power in order to resist power, often in the aim of the kind of self interest liberty and free will allude to. Which is the necessary language of revolution on one hand, but also the language of so many destructive ideas (racism of course being one of them)
This marriage of politics (power) and philosophy (truth) needs a grand narraive (Truth) in order to work. The question then is what is Truth in the modern world. What is the Truth that guides and builds American culture and politics and how does it play into these allusions of liberty and free will that inform its interests. It is when we ask this question that we, in the West, tend to bring in that third entity, that ever so crafty god called “Knowledge”. This creates a trifecta from that disctint American muddledness which is the marriage of power and politics, with knowledge functioning as that secret and sought after tool through which to construct these positions of power, much in the same way that the mystery religions did. This gets even more complicated with science becomes knowledge, which becomes truth, which becomes power, all on the basis of ones (or one side’s) philosophical claim on capital T Truth.
The article from Shullenberger pushes this notion further.
In other words, that common interest in liberty and free will can be narrowed down to “life” itself. And if the interest of politics (power) is life, then what we have is the inconsistant nature of our power systems attempting to enforce laws that protect life in ways that tend to collapse into madness precisely because power is life and life is power. Speaking of the all consuming presence of power that persists across the political divide, Shullenberger goes on to write regarding the implementation of the god of “knowledge” as the necessary weapon of choice.
In other words, where the god of knoweldge is wielded as a weapon that we can use and that serves our purposes, elite knowledge based systems emerge as that which then holds power over the other, which is the allusion of liberty and free will. The thing that stands out for me in this equation is the notion that in the absence of a grand narrative we simply come up with new narratives to take the place of the old, or new gods to replace the old. And whatever god it is that we bring in to fill the gaps, when that god is paired with politics and philosophy, and likeise funneled into “science” by way of these knowledge based systems, we are dealing with the potential abuse of “power” as “Truth”. To play that backwards, Marry this power to politics on either side of the political spectrum, and then marry the politics to “Truth” and you have a very real and potentially dangerous conundrum that threatens to collapse all of our ideological infighting in on itself. This becomes particularly rife when allusions of liberty and free will confront the social reality of conformity and construct.
The article by Shullenberger on Foucault has a particular interest in how this applies to the ongoing battle against Covid, with a primary concern being the gridlock that emerges from this kind of ideological infighting. Yet one could easily parlay this outwards into any socio-political issue. As I wrote about in my previous post on Covid, the conundrum of inconsistencies when it comes to employing these grand narratives at will can be seen, for example, in discussions of climate change. The real question becomes less about what the problem is (climate crisis) but about why one should be concerned and how we address the concern. To connect that to the above article and the formulating argument of this post, if the ultimate concern for liberty and free will comes down to “life” itself, to what end does our battle to “save the planet” (which itself is an undefined notion) sacrfice life for the sake of climate concern? And in doing do, to what degree does this ideological concern begin to collapse back in on itself? This is why the far more important quesitons are the why and the what, and as the above discussion as pointed out, what frames our grand narrative becomes crucial to understanding what it is we are then elevating as capital “T” Truth through the employing of our power based systems. Is nature itself our god? In that case we must ask what life we are willing to sacrifice to allow nature to take itse due course. Is humanity our god? In that case human exceptionalism must ask what we are willing to sacrifice to allow humans to compete and survive within nature. Is progress our god? In that case we must ask what we are willing to sacrifice to allow progress to happen. That the “we” here remains undefined is precisely what awakens us to the existence of those necessary power systems. And here it would also be prudent to readdress a central problem I brought up in my previous post as well, which is this notion that in the push and pull of these modern, power based systems (all employed in a similar concern for life), we have not true and acting defintion of what life is. And the absence of this definition is only getting more and more blurry as technology progresses and space exploration pushes further. Ironically, life out there becomes more valuable while life here on earth becomes less and less definable.
In my mind, the problem is that the assumed age of the new gods that American culture continues to proclaim and project (with according to Menand is itself a bit of a conundrum full of allusions and inconsistancies, particularly when it gets detached from history) has simply traded in the old with a confusing new pantheon. Nature? Humanity? Progress? Technology? Depending on where your allegiance alligns withiin this pantheon- and chances are most of us appeal to all of these gods when we need them to prop up our power systems- you will come away with very different and largely inconsistent interests and perspectives. Which is why the notion of a grand narrative built around liberty and free will remains a convoluted and often allusionary exercise, one that most people simply don’t want to aknowledge or think about. Why? Not only because we need a narrative in order to live a meaningful existence, but because we need a narrative to hold the power over the other. To feed this back into the question of Covid then, its not so much a question of whether there is a problem, its rather a question of why (or what motivates us) and what (how we address the problem). Peel back the layers and we find this common interest of “life” being played through competing visions of liberty and free will. The irony being that both sides are employing power and power based systems to protect the interest of life. What this should reveal though is how much of this happens wihout much understanding of that grand narrative or its absence. We are unable to define what precisely life is, and thus unable to define what it is we are sacrificing on either side of the equation, and what precisely we are sacrificing for. That this would leave so many in a state of unease (again, on either side) should not be surprising. That underneath our power driven, socially constructed attempts to maintain control over that less than defined narrative (employing the god of knowledge and reason as fighting our battles and being on our side over and against the other) we can perceive inequality, corruption, the loss of life, and disorder should be even less suprising. This is after all the very bedrock of our allusions towards liberty and free will. When power comes from everywhere, when life is power and power is life, we are left enslaved to its will and driven by its pursuit. In the name of liberty and freedom of course, but with little ability to define precisely what this means, what this is and why it matters. The very idea that power requires the sacrifice of life in order to be upheld, and that it does so without a grand narrative on either side able to inform this sacrifice, should give us pause. In its place should come the kind of humility that Shullenberger suggests we can glean from Foucault. We all have our gods after all, despite our ability to convince ourselves that liberty and free will can operate without them, and those gods exist in service of (and in service to) the power based systems we are trying to protect.
For what its worth, even though I’m not a fan of either McDowell’s, the recent Unbelievable conference tackled precisely this question. How do we live in this world of contradictory narratives with a better story in mind. Wright and Holland and Murray are of particular interest there, all of which are represented at least partially in these two episodes:
Some news this week. I finally got vaccinated (for Covid 19).
While this certainly doesn’t feel revolutionary- I’m far from the only one getting vaccinated, and as the vaccine rollout continues to ramp up in my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba it should become more and more common of a story- there were some realities that flowed from this experience for me personally that I think have been worth some further reflection.
First off, while I haven’t struggled with the idea of getting vaccinated, as someone with an anxiety disorder I have struggled with much of the conversation surrounding the vaccinations. If my anxiety has already been quite high over the reality of Covid, reading all of the divisive opinions surrounding the vaccines and its potential dangers had managed to cast the whole ordeal in a degree of uncertainty. I didn’t realize how much so until the evening before my appointment. I had a panic attack. I know that I had a panic attack because I must have spent a good 3-4 hours that night obsessively reading through all these differing opinions, my hand hovering over the “cancel appointment” button a couple of times in that process.
One note about my anxiety struggles. Years ago I recognized that I have Orthorexia. Orthorexia is, simply put, a form of OCD that revolves around healthy eating, including the compulsive obsession with researching and reading medical information and the overwhelming fear not necessarily of germs (I’m not a germaphobe) but of potential toxins and unknowns present in the environment and the things I use and consume. This is why I had to make a very hard and fast rule for myself a while back not to read and research things that can trigger these obsessions, becuase once I go down this endless pit of information it is very difficult for me to pull myself out. At the peak of my struggle I had binders and rooms filled with articles and information which often created the extenuating problem of having all of this information now floating around in my head 24-7 with nowhere to go, wreaking havoc on my mental health and well being.
Factor that then into this evening of obsessive reading and I could immediately feel all of those old anxieties rushing back to the surface.
Fast forward: I forced myself to go, I got the jab, came home and wrote a post on my facebook wall in a bout of sleeplessness about how the anxieties of the night before had now transmorphed (is that a word? I feel like it is) into a whole different kind of anxiety given that the vaccine was actually now inside my body for better or for worse. The point of my post was simply to say that while many online seemed to be overly joyous and happy about getting the jab (and rightly so), my experience was a bit more complicated. Turns out I’m not alone. I don’t think I have had more comments or responses than I have had to that post, with many informing me that I put into words something they were afraid to say out loud, many now looking at or in the middle of getting the jab but with similar reservations and anxieties in tow. There is just enough unknowns surrounding the vaccine and its rollout to leave a clear window open for speculation, and that speculation has been enough to leave many well meaning individuals genuinely uneasy.
So where has this been driving my thoughts this week? In a couple directions. First, I found myself wondering about the nature of this speculation. What is it about the vaccine that is making so many either anxious or joyous? While many have been tending to dismiss others concerns over the vaccine with ready-made accuastions of anti-science and anti-vaxxer motivations, what surfaced for me in my own thinking and in hearing the genuine concerns of others is that the conversation is actually much more complex than this. Yes, for some there is a preconcieved agenda that arrives ripe with misinformation and rampant conspiracy theories. We should be wary of this and all do our due diligence. But one of the things I have appreciated about some of the voices I have heard questioning the vaccine rollout is their desire and their willingness to table certain questions others are ignoring or not deeming necessary to ask. Of pertinance to my own struggle and reflection is the question of the vaccine’s genetic makeup and its relationship to the larger field of medical advancement and progress. I’m reminded of an interview with Director James Gray where he discusses his powerful and poignant film Ad Astra. In this interview he discusses the themes of the film and suggests that we as a modern society, living in an age of such rapid progression and change, stand in real danger of arriving at the future without the ability to answer the most necessary moral questions that can help us make sense of the future, and perhaps with little awareness or ability to even ask the necessary questions to begin with. To be sure, using RNA genetic code to develop a new kind of vaccine is far from the the only development of its kind in the field. The vaccine is a small slice of a very large pie that is very likely the future of much technological advancement, and it is evidence of work that has been going on for a while and that is very much present in many areas of medicine and science today. That a vaccine though can bring the word “genetic” to the forefront of the popular consciousness does shed some light on an interesting aspect of the larger conversation regarding a development that is much further along than even the most educated would care to admit or tend to address. This general unawareness of the conversation bears weight for the moral questions that necessarily follow such a vision of progress and the future.
For example, how precisely do we define “life”. Many might be suprised to realize that there is no real consensus on what that defintion is, and that this has real world implications for the different fields interested in the sciences and technologies that will be the driving force of future development (see Carl Zimmer’s book Life’s Edge). Similarly, consider the recent conversation with Jill Tarter on the On Being podcast, the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the film Contact and the founder (or one of the founders) of SETI, which is engaged in the ongoing search for civilizational intelligence (Episode 868). What comes to light through her and others research within the SETI program, which, although is more concerned for the long future of humanity than the here and now, is asking similar quesitons about what progress actually means, is the similarly evasive question of what it means to be human, or to borrow her word an “earthling”. She makes the case that it is through imaginging other life out there (and in imagining its possible discovery) that this can then turn a mirror back on us, showing us how it is that we, in our current form, are all the same. We are all what we would define as “earthlings”. What that means though and why it holds importance both in the long history of evolution and the imagining of a long future remains largely undefined in her view. Or at best highly simplified and assumed.
Even less defined for her is why, in the necessary pursuit of space exploration and given the demonstrated finiteness of our earth, the current climate changes we observe in this present age and which have being tradtionally susbcribed to humanities ongoing abuses of the earth we call home, matter. This requires her to make certain leaps in logic regarding an unspecified allegiance to a form of human exceptionalism, elevating “us” as that which must survive and the earth as the current habitat that we surived within. And yet if the notion of “earthling” is not approrpriately defined and afforded its particular meaning, or if it can’t be in rational terms, why precisely is it that we should we be concerned about humanties particular and possibly threatened long term survival? Why does it matter precisely if changes in our climate lead to the same kind of changes we can observedly track through the whole of evolutionary history? And why does it matter if, as the evidence seems to suggest, technological advancements are effectively blurring the definitions of life and earthing altogether? If, as she says, life out there can reveal that life which looks differently than humanity has no greater or lesser value than humanities expressed uniqueness (or potential lack of), then why does it matter that our current state of life persists at all? If nature is apt to do what nature will do, and the natural order of things is found in the predictable cycle of life that brings about its ongoing change and diversity, then a changing climate in which some species flourish and others simply go away is simply the narrative that always was and always will be. We either claim to right to circumvent this for out own gain, or we relegate our species to the natural order. That seems logical enough, but it’s not a conviction many will feel comfortable going wholesale in on.
Unless, that is, we somehow elevate human made progress to some kind of godlike perspective. That is to say, we humans are here and we have the capability to think and be aware and discover what is “out there” and how this world works, and therefore we can claim superiority over the natural order. In this view, having a long view of the future where we can ensure our survival must become the sacred call. Why? Because the god of progress tells us it must be so, and this is in our nature to do so. That, to use Tarter’s own words, is simply the responsibile thing to do as a species. But here’s the problem. That perhaps makes some sense to those who are actually priviliged enough to make a difference in this world on that level (speaking of the ongoing survival of the human species). But when you dial that back down into the everydayness of the human experience, those who’s lives cannot possibly make a meaningful difference in such a long term view of humanities future, and those who look upon the suffering of others as in indication that this long form view is suspect at best, this begins to make far less sense and is certainly a much harder sell. To make matters even worse, this segment of humanity, which in effect can be described as the “majority” of humans that pouplates this earth, is actually effectively impeding progress through their existence. If not for that pesky thing called morality chances are the incredibly advanced technology that exists behind the scenes would be not only that much more advanced but it would already be employed and we would likely already be well on our way towards space colonization and even human made immortality. If not for morality things like cancer and viruses would percievably already be cured and eradicated. To make this even more complicated, the consequence of hanging on to some sense of morality (of the sort that deems the very real “Thanos” moral dilemma as an actual moral dilemma) is that we must then contend with immorality, which breeds inequality and the kind of overconsumption that threatens the lives of all and allows viruses like Covid to emerge.
This is the question at the heart of Ad Astra. When we arrive at said future, and when, as Tarter suggests it inevitably throws up that mirror, what will we see? Will we see life? Will see some form of humanity? And if the means by which we arrive at said future is currently replacing both nature and humanities own advancements with artificially bred evolution (read James Suzman’s book Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, or Yual Noah Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century), what meaning do those definitions ultimately have or hold to begin with?
And yet what the uncertainty that some have demonstrates or reveals is that we, as a collective humanity, aren’t conversing enough about the implications of such a future in terms of the bigger picture (of biotechnology, transhumanism, genetic research, ect). As was suggested, this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to genetics and development, technology and the sciences that is currently well underway. Those with concerns demonstrate a helpful reminder that these are questions we would do well to keep asking lest we lose site of the questions altogether, which stands to be a real danger for an already predictable future. And to push this further, those asking these questions from a relgious perspective are the ones who tend to ingore these questions the most, the sad reality being that they have a lot to contribute to discussions of morality, life and what it means to be human.
The 2019 film Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes by Director Jose Luis Torres Leiva and based on a book by James Sallis, a film I watched this week and which gains its title from a Cesare Pavese quote, the early 20th century Italian writer and poet, underscores this point. In it we are offered a picture of two women, life partners where one is facing an undefined terminal diagnosis and the other is left trying to be a presence in her life as she comes to terms with her inevitable and quickly approaching death. Refusing any further treatment, the one with the diagnosis begins the long journey of reconciling herself to the idea of death. And yet, as she does this the reality of her life begins to underscore the fallacy and lies of some the core assumptions that have been used and relied on to give her life meaning while she was in the throes of living. The common “generational” refrain, this idea that we live on through emerging generations, is a nice adage but gets exposed quite quickly once we try and reapply this to the worth of an individual and aged life in any meaningful fashion.
This idea that we live a life of worth until we are no longer worth something is a fallacy that has massive and largely ignored implications for our ability to define what life actually is. It has contributed to the very real problem of ageism, and focuses our attention on the future at the general expense of both the present and history here in the West. If we doubt this at all, all we have to do is look at Covid and reations many using the fact that it only affects the aged as a reason for why Covid is not the problem the governments are tell us it is.
As the film unfolds and we watch her journey towards death progress, we hear her tell two seperate stories, the first of which involves an older woman and a youthful child. In this first story we see the unspoken angst and uncertainty that comes from trying to funnel all our hopes and dreams into this fundamental assertation and idolizing of youth, only to realize how utterly isolated and meaningless this leaves life in its inevitable trajectory towards death itself. Equally so in the second story about a younger man who has a brief encounter with an older, married man. The younger man is not married and does not have children (and is not interested in having children), something which permeates this brief moment of impassioned desire as a kind of existential question that both intrigues and haunts the aging man. At the heart of this second parable is a similar question of meaning and what it means to define a life. This is why we remain obsessed with youth and youthfulness and remain uneasy with aging, whether we want to admit it or not. These two stories reposition a narrative about “generational” worth towards the problem of inherit meaninglessness in death. It is a way of allowing an irrational claim (eternal youth) to somehow and in someway give us purpose in a world that seems both undefined in its obscurity while being equally defined by progress and technological advancement. We take the meaning we can’t find in ourselves and we project it onto and into the future by way of this eternal youthfulness.
In this same sense, one of the oft criticisms of belief in a god that I have heard tends to come from the ridiculing of its tendency to try and find solace in a fairy tale, or its fairy tale illusions of heaven and immortality designed and manifested in its old world setting to hide us from death and afford us a false sense of comfort while making sense of the unknown and the uncertain. The irony is though, the entire human endeavor has always been seeking immortality, just now in a different form. It is equally as false in this view to claim that we gain meaning from our children as it is to say we gain meaning from god, and yet we spin this narrative all the time for the purpose of allowing ourselves to make some sense of this world and our lives. In fact, I know the false nature of this story well given our own diagnosis of infertility. When one can’t have kids, or when one never gains a partner with whom to have kids, the cruel nature of a life that deems our worth in this vision of eternal youthfulness comes rushing back to the surface very, very quickly. And yes, this is how life works in the view of modern progress. One has to look no further than the current Covid crisis for proof of this. I remember stating when all of this began and articles released touting the beatiful, unified nature of the worlds collective push to create a vaccine that we would end up in a place where the affluent countries eventually reaped the rewards of the vaccine while the less than affluent were left to struggle (and even more pointedly, where the rich gained the most reward of all). And guess what’s happening now? This crisis is a small picture of what will inevitably happen in the future on a much larger scale when even more powerful technologies emerge with the ability to accentuate this kind of inequality. If we don’t believe this to be true then we are remaining blind to how technological advancement actually works and how it will continue to work. True progress and advancement as defined in technological and scientific terms demands and fosters inequality to function at the level we need it to. It’s not an out there claim to say that we wouldn’t have the vaccines if not for this basic truth.
But, and here’s the shocking thing, most of us mostly know this to be true, even if we are ignorant of it, and we deal with it by continuing to hinge our undefined definitions of life and humanity on necessarily irrational claims and narratives that allow us to ignore it and bury it. This is what allows us to remain ignorant and to live in this world as it is. To use immortality as an example, what makes us able to glorify death as if it is some great, virtuous notion while also living in a world that now deems a life span of 80-100 years as the effective norm and measure of an appropriate length of life? Why do we shift in this direction when the rest of human history would imagine this same narrative vision applied to then then common 30-40 year span? And further, why would we think that we would effectively stop with 80-100 years when so much of our attention as a species is given to eradicating disease and prolonging life? What do we think happens when we find a cure to cancer? When we crack the puzzle of aging (which is still a great mystery)? Most actual studies that take the science at face value would suggest that we meaure the value of a life based on the presence of struggle, pain versus quality of life rather than its length. In short, death has meaning because it positions us on one end of this pendulum. When the pain and suffering can no longer be tolerated and when relief fromt his pain in death is better understood as a reward, and fruther when that cycle is measured according to the potential 80-100 year life span, we consider it a tragedy when someone dies “before their time.”
That this is completely contextualized to our present experience of pain and suffering or quality of life is ignored by many a modern philospher and critic of religion trying to wax poetic about death’s virtues without a god to afford it some sense of meaning. That death as a virtue can be spoken of in ways that idoloize its function can only truly be spoken of from a position of either privilege or necessity. We continue to fight against death because death in fact matters. it is, in effect a problem that we are intuitely aware of. To say otherwise is to look for ways of finding meaning where there otherwise would be none, and ways of narrating life and death according to the “natural” cycle of life itself positions itself entirely in service to that necessary future where human progress and advancement and survival is both our god and our given human purpose (not that many of us asked for that). What makes this convolutted is that this is a future without an actual vision to hang our hats on lest we imagine some version of a potential utopia. And yet that utopia and our endeavor to create it and bring it to life necessarily collapses our mutually led efforts to try and suggest that this present struggle that we call life has meaning within its visible struggle and in its inevitable death. This confuses progress as our god and humans as the gods who bring it about, and again, this only works from a position of position or necessity. Privilge breeds inequality and necessity breeds false and irrational narratives. In truth, all we really have without a god is our association to nature, and this is, in fact, the story of all of biological life, not the necessary cycle that gives it meaning but the striving to adapt in order to survive it. That we arbitrarily then want to apply this in some terms of meaningful specieism might be the most irrationally bred human narrative of all, because as a human species we do so by projecting this notion of human exceptionalism. That’s the way progress then is allowed to become a god. Otherwise let nature have its way with us as it will, right? If we disappear from this ecosystem then what it the big deal. In scientific terms after all all, evolution is not a linear and progressive narrative. Far from it. In truth though we don’t actually believe this. We need a narrative in order to live, some kind of linear story to know where we’ve come from, where we are and where we are headed. Which is a part of the conundrum that we face when it comes to the creation of Covid vaccines and the development of genetically enhanced or targeted sciences. We create these advancements with little ability to actually understand the narrative and the questions that flow from these narratives.
Which is all to say, for as much as we like to paint those hesitant about blindly embracing the vaccines as crazy and foolish and anti-science, we might do well to heed some of their example by holding some of these necessary questions to the fire. These are the questions that haunted Cesare Pavese as he eventually succumbed to suicide. These are the questions that guide myself and many others in this world, towards notions of God and faith that actually challenge some of these narratives. These are important questions for any of us today, as important as that perennial question, “are we alone in the universe.” What is life and what does it mean to be human feel as vital to our existence as a vaccine that can help eradicate a virus stealing so much of that human life. And one clear and important aspect of this that is important to recognize is that the meaning of an individual, the meaning of the collective, and even further the meaning of the whole of the created universe and world are interwined, easily corruptable, but equally important and shared concerns. It’s as true to locate ones concern for the vaccines affect on an individual life over and against concern for the collective as a negative and narrow sighted as it is recognize the equal challenges that arise in pursuing that narrative of progress while ignoring the common concern and need to define individual meaning. I think we create more division than not when we neglect the multi-layered nature of these inherant questions.
Some things I’ve been thinking about anyways.
“Every luxury must be paid for, and everything is a luxury, starting with being in this world.”