Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Weight of Olympic Expectations

Bode Miller was the clear goat of the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. America's best skier (possibly of all time), Miller came into the Olympics expected to medal in all of the five events that he entered. He became infamous in the days leading up to the competition by making repeated claims that he didn't care if he won, that he just wanted to have a good time, and by admitting that he skied drunk. After winning two medals in Salt Lake City (2002), Miller was the "darling black sheep" of American skiing. Coming into Torino, though, he was outspokenly apathetic: “Whether somebody wants me to get five gold medals or whatever it is, I sort of feel like they are all other people’s concerns and issues, not really mine. ... I don’t really care what everybody else says,” he said.

For those Olympic fans out there, you know what happened. He won zero medals, and took major heat for saying the same thing after the Olympics: "I don't care" (my paraphrase!). Pilloried for four years, Miller was dismissed this year. Called "a clown" by much of the sports media, he was completely overshadowed by Lindsey Vonn coming into these Vancouver games. In fact, he quit the U.S. ski team shortly after Torino, training whenever he wanted.

Less than a year before this year's Olympics, Miller discovered in himself the desire to ski for his country. He applied for reinstatement, and was granted it. (I'm sure it didn't hurt that he remains one of the best skiers in any downhill discipline in the world). In an Olympics when all attention is focused on Vonn and Miller was all but forgotten, all he he has done is rack up three medals (a gold, silver, and bronze) through four events.

Miller credits the medal count to his attitude. It is interesting to note that his attitude is the same as it was in Torino. It's the exterior forces that have changed. From a recent article about Miller's success:

As for the Olympics, he added, it’s not about obsessing over medals — and certainly not about obsessing over other people obsessing about your winning medals.

Today, as he occupies the pinnacle of his sport on its biggest stage, having cemented his stature as the greatest American skier ever, he says that it’s about “having fun, about skiing like I did when I was a kid.”
As a teenager, Miller showed the sky’s-the-limit-potential he first delivered on with a pair of silvers in Salt Lake City eight years ago. But that success may have actually hurt him, setting him up for the huge fall of 2006, when other people’s expectations made him surly and, worse, almost defiantly non-competitive.

And there you have it: Pressure from the outside "made him surly and...defiantly non-competitive." It was only when he was forgotten about, when the pressure was released, when he was branded a clown, that his performance reached his potential. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Miller's performance was freed when he was seen for what he was: an over-hyped clown. Miller could, this year, own his clownish nature and ski without feeling the pressure to be the cold-blooded Olympic assassin we all wanted him to be, but which he never was.

Miller's story serves as a highlighter on our repeating message of judgment and love, critique and grace, pressure and release. It is when pressure is released, when the law is lifted, that "performance" can meet expectation.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"I Will Sell This House Today": The Law and American Beauty

As an introduction to the character of Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) in Sam Mendes' American Beauty, we see her arrive at a house, determined to sell it. She opens the front door and intones, "I will sell this house today." This is a very name-it-and-claim-it strategy. I'm told it's also the strategy of The Secret, but I will confess to having failed to read that book. For those of you who have seen the film, Carolyn sets out to clean the HECK out of that house, determined to sell it.

But she's already at a disadvantage: Across the street, there's a house being offered for sale by Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), the "King of Real Estate." Watch:

Notice the Law operating on Carolyn on two levels: Buddy Kane is the embodiment of the Law to her. One of the most notorious qualities of the law is that it masquerades as tame, when it is actually a wild animal. I think it was Martin Luther who said that the Law appears as a cat, but, when released, turns out to be a lion, which then eats you! Carolyn thinks that the law says, "Sell this house" or "Be a successful real estate agent." The laws are arguably fulfill-able. The underlying law, though, is the one with real teeth: "Be Buddy Kane."

Despite all of Carolyn's hard work (we might say, her "good works"!), she is unable to sell the house. She has failed. And now, the Law begins operating on Carolyn in a new way: She hates herself for being weak, for feeling something, for crying. In the classic hymn "Rock of Ages," Augustus Montague Toplady (great name for an emo band, right?) asks of Christ: "Be of sin the double cure / Save me from its guilt and power." Sin and the law work on two levels. On the first level, Carolyn is convicted. She is not a good real estate agent. She is not Buddy Kane. This is the law's power. Then, she hates herself for her weakness. This is the law's guilt. Toplady saw that self-loathing follows quickly on the feels of failure.

So this little clip illustrates two things: First, that the laws that are most damaging to us often masquerade as perfectly innocuous. "Be Buddy Kane" masquerades as "Sell this house." "Be a good Father" often masquerades as "Get a raise at work" or "Go to your childrens' soccer games." We're surprised to find ourselves unsatisfied by "accomplishing" our goals, by living up to our supposed laws. Second, the law gets at us on two levels: by convicting us of our inabilities, and by allowing us to "name it" but not to "claim it," by keeping The Secret to itself, making us feel terrible about ourselves.

The only way out from under is the Montague way: Admit the guilt and power, and ask for the cure. There's a wonderful clip illustrating this from Thank You For Smoking, but to see that, come to Jesus at the Movies on Sunday Night!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Gospel, Chained to a Radiator

Ever wanted to watch a movie about a nymphomaniac chained to a radiator? Ever wanted to feel good about it? Black Snake Moan is for you. Craig Brewer, the man behind Hustle & Flow, brings us the story of Rae and Lazarus, the nymphomaniac and the owner of the radiator, respectively. Played by Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson, Rae and Lazarus begin their relationship when Lazarus finds Rae lying by the side of the road, raped and beaten. He nurses her back to health, but when he discovers her compulsions, he chains her to the radiator, to "cure [her] of [her] wicked ways." The movie goes as movies do, and they develop a close relationship, closer certainly that that of Rae and her mother, who stood by while Rae was sexually abused as a child.

This movie is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the profanity-averse. But it is pure Gospel, through and through. Rae's chain does nothing but drive her wild, even pushing her so far as to attack a pre-pubescent boy. Like Martin Luther's caged lion (who only rages against the cage), when Lazarus frees Rae from her bondage (saying, "You an adult. You should live however you want to."), Rae is domesticated to the point of cooking dinner for Lazarus, the young boy she attacked, and the local pastor!

To explain Luther's lion a little bit: Martin Luther compared the action of the Law (judgment and critique) to chains restraining a lion. We believe that if we unchain the lion, it will devour us. After all, it is roaring and struggling against its chains! What we miss is that the lion is only struggling because it is chained! Released, it no longer has reason to rage. In the same way, when the weight of the law is removed, people don't react with wild sin, as we might expect...they relax in their new freedom.

Given the freedom to run, Rae stays by the side of the man who loved her when no one else would.

There's a great Justin Timberlake sub-plot, as well. JT is looking to become the next Mark Wahlberg (singer turned talented actor), and this is a step in the right direction for him. Everyone tries this move, but with the exception of these two and Andre Benjamin (of Outkast and Four Brothers), most fail, rather spectacularly. Eminem was another notable exception. In any event, Timberlake's Ronny is in love with Rae, and she is in love with him. Rae realizes that "we're [expletive] up. I know I am. But that don't mean what I feel ain't real, that I can't love somebody. And I know what I done is real real bad, but um... So if you want to quit on me I understand. But please don't."

It is in their pain and suffering that Rae and Ronny find the love for each other that they need to carry on. Lazarus' first instinct is to impose the law on Rae, to cure her of her wicked ways. When that only serves to make her rebel more wildly, he gives her Gospel. He frees her from her chains, and she can love again. And, loved, Ronny can love the girl who loves him, even though he has every reason to abandon her.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

So I Finally Saw "Avatar"

-- This post contains spoilers --

There are many things to like about Avatar, and many things to dislike. Ultimately, it's not that great a movie. The story is profoundly formulaic, and terribly predictable. The photography (whether real or CGI) is wonderful. I saw it in IMAX 3D, which is worth the extra money, I think. Without the IMAX 3D, it's just a computerized movie in which you can see every plot turn coming a mile away.

Much has been written about this movie, and most of the writers are more thoughtful than I am. David Brooks wrote an interesting piece about it in the New York Times. His argument is that the film is ultimately insulting to the very populations it purports to support. Can I say that? "Purports to support?" Anyway, the idea of an American being a better Na'vi (the alien locals) than the Na'vi themselves is what seems insulting. In fact, ultimately, they can't win without him! Brooks calls it the White Messiah Complex. The idea is that the peaceful, at-one-with-nature Na'vi (read: American Indians) need the "White Messiah" (read: Kevin Costner) to come and save them. So this is a quasi-religious thing that might be worth talking about in the blogosphere. But to me, the more interesting thing than the Dances with Wolves aspect is the at-one-with-nature aspect.

The goddess of the Na'vi is called "Eywa" and is described in the movie as "the combined energy of all living things." The Na'vi are able to connect with Eywa by connecting to nature. I'm less concerned with the pagan (in the purely adjectival, non-pejorative sense) aspects of the Na'vi religion than I am with the power of Eywa. Sigourney Weaver plays a woman who is studying the Na'vi, falls in love with them, and is injured defending them in battle with the humans. She is mortally wounded, and the only chance for her to survive is for the Na'vi to ask Eywa to transfer her soul into her avatar, the genetically engineered remote body she's been using. Got it?

So the two bodies, Weaver's and her avatar's, commune with nature, but the process doesn't work. The transfer doesn't happen. The Na'vi priestess basically says that her wounds were too great. She was too far gone. Eywa tried to save her but failed.

And there you have it. Eywa is too weak! This God can't bring Weaver back from the dead. Ultimately, that's the problem with earth- (or Pandora-) based deities: They are bound by natural laws! The God of Christianity specifically raises people from the dead. The argument of the Bible is that death must come before true life can be had. Jesus said that, in order to be his servants, we must take up our cross and follow him. In other words, we must die. Eywa can heal wounds, but she cannot resurrect. She IS nature, she is not above it. I'm glad to worship a God who created nature, is not defined by it, and who can therefore supercede it.
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