Friday, December 28, 2012

Wanderlust and the Fairy Tale of "No Rules"

The 2012 Paul Rudd/Jennifer Aniston vehicle Wanderlust is a very underrated comedy.  It includes perhaps the funniest scene of the year, but one that is miles too profane to link to here. Directed by David Wain (Role Models), Wanderlust is the story of a "normal" couple (Rudd and Aniston) who lose their jobs and home and find themselves spending time at a hippie commune in Georgia.

Most of the comedy comes in fish-out-of-water form, with Rudd and Aniston trying to get used to a community in which there is no personal property and no boundaries, down to the absence of a door on the communal bathroom.  Everything is free: love, flesh (Joe Lo Truglio plays a character never seen in a stitch of clothing), and food.  It is supposed to be a community of freedom; one devoid of the constricting rules of the outside world. Then this happens:

As it turns out, then, there are rules. Of course there are. Hippie or preppy, we surround ourselves with rules. Without them, life doesn't make sense, chaos reigns...and even hippies avoid true chaos. (Tullian Tchividjian wrote about our need for rules recently in a wonderful post about Javert's suicide in Les Miserables) Of course, hippies and preppies have different rules (for instance, a different make of car might be acceptable or forbidden in each camp), but they are rule-bound nonetheless. 

Wanderlust's hippies show us our compulsion: they've been in rebellion for so long, the things they're rebelling against (for instance, walkmen and fax machines) are all hilariously out-of-date. We need to rebel, but the object of our rebellion is secondary. We set up rules to organize our rebellion, and find ourselves to be no different from those legalists we hate so much.

Friday, December 21, 2012

I Can't Believe That Was Good: Goon

It's not that I'm surprised Goon was funny. Coming from the writing team of Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg (log-time stalwarts of the Judd Apatow repertory company), the laughs were a given. What I wasn't expecting was the heart. In other words, I'm not surprised it was good in the sense that it'd be fun to watch with a bunch of like-minded, desensitized friends. But I can't believe it was good in the sense that I'd recommend it to more thoughtful people.

That's not to say that Goon isn't profane. It is, and gloriously so. Baruchel's character's dialogue would be 65% bleeped if this film ever made it to network television (which it won't). Seann William Scott stars as a pleasantly dimwitted Canadian bouncer who, while attending a local game, beats up a minor league hockey player who climbs into the stands. A coach is impressed, and offers him a contract. Scott finds himself in a whole new world, when he never understood his first one all that well. What he knows is how to be loyal, and he gives a winning performance. Liev Schreiber also plays well as a grizzled, broken-down version of the player Scott has set out to be.

Hockey films are ripe soil for drama, being ordinarily set in more blue-collar worlds than other sports films. Minor league hockey is perhaps most ripe of all. There are no million dollar contracts and no groupies (well, there's one, played by Alison Pill, who's dealing with her own issues), just tattered jerseys, rusting buses, and frozen sidewalks. Everyone's scraping to get by, and this allows humor and gravitas to exist in equal parts.

Goon will embarrass you if you try to show it to your mom, but only because of the naughty language. It's a film where the big game victory only ensures the hero of a playoff spot, a much more true-to-life reward than the usual lovable-losers-become-champions plotline. The goals might be modest, but they're carried off with a lot of feeling.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Next Jeremy Lin Already?

There's a Chinese player at Virginia's Oak Hill Academy (a school famous for producing NBA talent such as Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith) named Chris Tang. He toiled in total obscurity until those magical nights last winter when "Linsanity" struck New York. Now, good luck finding his name anywhere on the internet without an attendant mention of Jeremy Lin. Tang has been labelled, for better and worse, "the next Jeremy Lin."

It's better for Tang now because his profile is exponentially higher. He has a much greater chance of attracting the attention of major college recruiters and NBA scouts now that he has a tie (fabricated though it may be) to an NBA success story. It's worse for Tang now because he must labor under the "next" banner, as we've discussed before in relation to Michael Jordan. He can never just be Chris Tang, as long as there's a Jeremy Lin.

An article by Jay Caspian Kang (subtitled "Oak Hill Academy's Chris Tang and the pressures of being the Great Yellow Hope") on Grantland discusses the "next so-and-so" phenomenon:

Once Jeremy Lin became a referendum on all things Asian American, the next Jeremy Lin was an inevitability. And unless this Chris Tang makes it to the NBA, the next Chris Tang will be called Jeremy Lin, as will the next and the next and so on until a Chris Tang goes out and actually supplants the legend of Jeremy Lin. The great American underdog narrative demands a hopeful coda — when you come out of nowhere to inspire a people, the last shot in your movie will always show a bunch of kids running around a playground in your replica jersey.

Reading this undeniably true description of the way in which the world works reminds me of Peter's description of the devil: "like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). The law of "be the next Jeremy Lin" has devoured Chris Tang, and it will continue to devour Chris Tangs until one Chris Tang eventually surpasses Lin. But the law will not then be satisfied. It never is. It will merely morph into "be the next Chris Tang." (The same principle is at work in the "next player who needs to win a championship" discussion here) The law is a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.

But whence this lion?  This can't be an infinite regression. It must have begun somewhere. Long ago, someone was the first "one you've got to be like." In basketball, it was perhaps George Mikan, the first "unstoppable force." In the world? It was God.

The reason that we all experience an irresistible undertowing desire for perfection is that God is actually perfect. His law is a reflection of that. In the same way that a lion roars and prowls for food by its very nature, the law judges and condems. It can do no other. It is too holy, righteous, and pure, as a description of the Creator, to affect us in any other way.

There is, unfortunately, no cure for the law. As Luther famously said, the quest for glory (i.e. perfect law-keeping and living up to the Jeremy Lin standard) can never be satisfied; it can only be extinguished. We humans are swallowed up by the roaring lion, which is then tamed by Christ, enabling us to leap, newborn in his form, from its now toothless maw.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Truman Show and Fleeing a Good Deal

In Peter Weir's 1998 film The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays Truman, a man who unwittingly lives inside a giant television studio, his life broadcast to the world in the highest rated show of all time. His family, friends, neighbors...everyone in his life is a paid actor. As the film opens, Truman begins to suspect that there is something false about his surroundings. In the film's climax, Truman sets off to leave the island on which he lives, finally getting to speak to the show's creator (Ed Harris' Cristof), at the climactic moment:

Note the perceptible pause when Cristof tells Truman that he "is the creator...of a television show." We are clearly meant to think of Cristof as God. Cristof tries to tell Truman that the world "out there" is no different than the world to which he's grown accustomed, but the audience knows the difference: inside the studio, Truman isn't "free" in any real sense. His psyche has been manipulated to make him fear water, his potential mate and best friend are chosen for him, even the advertisements he sees and the radio he listen to are designed to have a particular desired effect on him. He is steered.

Outside, the audience believes that, at least, he will be able to make his own decisions. This is why they cheer so raucously when he makes his courageous decision to leave the world that has been constructed for him and go it on his own.

We feel the same way as the audience, which is why we "leave" (i.e. disbelieve in) a God who is controlling (i.e. constraining our free will) and embrace a God who supposedly gives us our freedom. But look at what Truman is leaving!

"In my world, you have nothing to fear. I know you better than you know yourself. It's okay...I understand. I've been watching you your whole life. I was watching when you were born, I was watching when you took your first step. I watched you on your first day of school...when you lost your first belong here. With me."

Throw away the specific details of the plot, and you begin to see: when we throw off the shackles of a "controlling" God, we are running away from a loving deity who has watched over and cared for us for our entire lives, who creates a place in which we belong, he calls us "okay" and understands us, and promises us a life without fear! And yet we still celebrate our striving for freedom! We are sure that we can do better, if only we are allowed to exercise our freedom!

But Cristof is right. The world out there (in freedomland) is just as controlling, just as enslaving, as our God, and yet not at all caring. Worse, outside of our "controlling" God, we are expected to save ourselves; to live lives worthy of eternal glory. Inside, we have been chosen -- a world has been created just for us -- to be part of God's life, and family, forever. 

The film ends soon after the above clip, but anyone who has lived here, outside the studio, for even a few minutes can easily imagine Truman running almost immediately back into Cristof's waiting arms and comforting embrace, like the prodigal son realizing that a controlling but loving father is infinitely preferable to the "freedoms" of a pigsty and bean pods. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Barry Zito, a Broken Leg, and the Outer Christ

Barry Zito was once known as one of the most dominating pitchers in Major League baseball, winning the 2002 Cy Young award. Then, in 2007, he signed a huge free agent deal with the San Francisco Giants and became known as the worst signing in recent memory, a choke artist who never lived up to a tenth of his contract, much less the entire $126 million. As evidence, note that when the Giants made the playoffs in 2010, they left Zito off the roster completely, and went ahead and won the World Series without him.

Finally, during last year's playoffs (and eventual World Series victory), Zito began pitching well, in the face of all expectations. In the recent ESPN The Magazine "Interview Issue," he took a stab at explaining why:
I was raised so out of the box. From a spiritual side, my grandmother founded a religion [Teachings of the Inner Christ] and a teaching center in the '60s in San Diego, and I was raised on that. That's where a lot of the eccentric, Zen things [for which he is famous] come from. But I just needed more structure, and sometimes you have to go through difficulty and physical trials to really get broken down. In 2011, I got broken down physically as well as mentally. In August of that year, I committed my life to God. I realized I'd been relying on my own strength for so long, and man, I'd been wearing it. So this was about finding a strength outside of myself. The way I was raised, that's a concept I never would have given any credence.
I had this very odd injury in April of 2011 -- a lisfranc ligament tear. I came off the field after never being hurt in 11 years and said: "All right, something bigger is going on here. A message is being sent, and I've got to listen." A few months later, my best friend told me an old story I really love. A shepherd will be leading his sheep, and one of the sheep will be walking astray from the pack. The shepherd will take his rod and break the sheep's leg, and the sheep will have to rely on the shepherd to get better. But once that leg is completely healed, that sheep never leaves the side of the shepherd ever again. That's a really beautiful metaphor. A lot of things happen to us as people, and we realize we've been relying on our own strength for too long. I got a tattoo, and it's the only one I have, of a golden calf on the inside of my right biceps. I show people that, and it signifies idolatry and that I was putting things before God.
Doesn't the name of Zito's grandmother's religion just say it all? "Teachings of the Inner Christ," indeed. Zito needed a savior from without (the Outer Christ), since the one from within wasn't doing him any good. The illustration is instructive too, as it can only be seen as a good thing from the perspective of a healed sheep. In the moment? To the sheep which has just had its leg broken? God might not seem such a sympathetic figure. As Tullian Tchividjian says in his book Glorious Ruin, "God doesn't save you from suffering, he saves you in suffering." The potentially disturbing metaphor of a shepherd breaking the leg of his sheep takes on a much more compassionate tone when you understand that shepherd himself has suffered and died for the lives of each one of his sheep.

Barry Zito needed the freedom that came from a reliance on the Outer Christ to pitch well. He never suggests that this is a path recommended for others, or that it will necessarily produce "results." Results become, if anything, a natural outgrowth. Note how much of all of this is natural, rather than chosen. It took a "very odd" injury for him to have his eyes opened. In the same way, though having our leg broken by the shepherd is never something that we would choose for ourselves, it is often the only way for God to open our eyes to our paralyzing need, and to the truth that there is a shepherd there to nurse us.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Something Winners Never Do: Real Life and Little Miss Sunshine

We've talked about the 2006 indie-comedy Little Miss Sunshine before, in the context of our struggle to be seen as a "winner" in the midst of all our losing. In our second "Sunshine installment," we'll talk about another level of losing. Check out this dinner table scene from early in the film:

Steve Carell's Frank describes a heart-rending descent into depression: every time Abigail Breslin's Olive (speaking for the audience) says, "...and that's when you decided to kill yourself?" he goes a step deeper. Doesn't this often seem to be the way of things? Our disappointments, struggles, and painful experiences often seem to pile on one another until they threaten to overwhelm us.

This truth of life seems to be incontrovertible. Everyone deals with stuff. The bigger question is: what do we take our failures to mean? Do we, as Greg Kinnear's Richard does, think that the onus is on us? That we've just "made a serious of poor choices" and have "given up" on ourselves (which, of course, we would never do if we were "winners")? That, unless we shape up, we are doomed to continue on this downward spiral of self-loathing? Many people do think this way.

But, as Carell says, how could you stand it? Wouldn't you rather hear a life-giving truth, that our relationship with God is not dependent on our making better choices? That though we give up on ourselves, God never gives up on us? That, not only doesn't he give up on us, he comes down to us, in Jesus Christ, when we fail, again and again, and prove ourselves to be anything but winners?

Steve Carell is bracingly honest in this scene. He doesn't try to paint life with a rose-colored brush. He is in pain, like most of us, and like most of the people in our lives. Thank God we have a better answer than Greg Kinnear does. Who will rescue us from this body of death? Praise be to God, we delivers us through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:24-25).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bob Costas and "Perspective"

Early on Saturday morning, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, then drove to the Chiefs facility, thanked his coach, Romeo Crennel, and general manager, Scott Pioli, before shooting himself. Belcher and Perkins leave behind an infant girl.

As many have said more eloquently than I ever could, this is an unspeakable tragedy. Belcher's teammates have spent the weekend with microphones in their faces, trying to come up with something to say about a teammate that they, all of a sudden, fear they never knew.

There is no easy transition from the facts of the story to a discussion of anything else, which is why Bob Costas' attempt to do so on Sunday night has made some people angry. At halftime of the Sunday Night Football game, Costas made the following comments about what he heard people saying in the wake of the tragedy:

For our purposes, the gun control issue will be set aside. However you feel about the issue of the availability of guns in our nation, it is Costas' opening comments that seem to cut deepest. "That sort of perspective has a very short shelf life, because we will inevitably hear about the perspective we have supposedly again regained the next time ugly reality intrudes upon our games. Please. Those who need tragedies to continually recalibrate their sense of proportion about sports would seem to have little hope of ever truly achieving perspective."

Like so many thoughtful people, Costas' diagnosis is as on-target as his prescription is impotent. In fact, one might well argue that Costas isn't even offering a prescription at all, simply relegating those without perspective to the trash-heap of lost causes. He is precisely correct that everyone will be saying the same thing after the next tragedy. I'm reminded of the Onion article "Nation Somehow Shocked by Human Nature Again." There are, however, two truths that he's missing.

First, no one has any perspective. We are all absolutely convinced that we are the center of the universe, that we are in control of our lives and and at least somewhat in control of the lives that come into our orbits, that good deeds reap good rewards, and that a host of other "truths" define our lives when they do not. Even in the most basic sense, sports fans tend to have no perspective. My attitude rises and falls with the performance of my teams, despite the fact that they play children's games that needn't affect my life in the slightest. One might wager on the fact that Costas himself has lost perspective a time or two, feeling that a sporting event meant something far more than one team ending the evening with more points, goals, or runs than the other.

Second, everyone needs profound events for recalibration. This is the genius of the church. Each week, we must be brought, again, into contact with a truth that we forget, week by week: Our righteousness is secured by the perfection of another, and this righteousness has been gifted to us with no expectation of recompense. The way in which we commonly view the world (that we are the center of things, and in control, and will get what we deserve) is so profoundly backward that it takes a profound event (a humbled diety, dying a criminal's death) to recalibrate us.

As the days pass, and we forget, as we inevitably will, the ugly truth about the world and about ourselves, let us rest on the truth that profound events have happened (especially at Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter) that can recalibrate us, give us hope, and offer true perspective.
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