Odd Inspirations

I woke up much more easily this morning…sunlight is beginning to come through the window again by around 6:30 a.m. in Virginia. It makes for a much better day…I was up, forced myself to look professional, and off to work I went.

On the way, I listened to a great discussion about the theology of music. The Kindlings Muse posts these discussions on their podcasts frequently (they’re hinting of discussing U2’s new album in May), so it’s an exploration with which I’m familiar. Today’s discussion primarily involved Bob Dylan. The discussion of the faith content in his music is interesting if you’re into those sorts of discussions, and worth listening to. I found myself distracted part way through, however, and wondering things.

I listened as one of the panelists discussed Dylan’s “Christian period,” and it was at that point that I drifted into some introspection. I find myself envious of any artist so free to spend their days pursuing their craft that others reflect on their work enough to dissect it into periods. While I don’t think of myself as any less of an artist or as any less creative, I long for their freedom to speak truth, to voice opinions, even to dress and look the way they want. I’m thankful for the opportunities I’m given to speak truth and to express what is given me, and I’m grateful for both mine and Karen’s professional positions that pay more than just the rent. Sometimes, though, I feel as though I’m a cog in the machine, forced to dress to a certain code, bound by expectations of professionalism that get in the way of doing one’s job well at times, and a daily routine that certainly can act to dry up wells of creativity. There are moments when I wonder if we are not similar to the drone people of the foreign planet of L’Engle’s imagination in A Wrinkle In Time, where complete uniformity is required, and individuality is not tolerated for fear of the difficulties it will pose.

As with everything, however, I’m faced with the choice of either succumbing to life, or redeeming what is there. I’m choosing to redeem it…not only in my seeking to impact those people whose paths I cross each day in my professional field, but using overall experiences as inspiration, as what a close friend calls “grist for my writing mill.”

I read a long time ago somewhere that a good writer is a good observer. I think that is true of any artist. The only other art I have experience with is theatre, and I can certainly say that a good actor is a good observer, as well. To act a lifestyle, one must have seen the details of that lifestyle. To write about a human life, one must have observed human lives in all of their good and all of their bad. Clinically, I observe people every day in order to have an objective analysis of where they are, a piece of their holistic puzzle that I attempt to put together in my head to know best how to help them.

I know I’m not the only creative personality to ever struggle with feeling as though I’m a prisoner of an industrialized age…that anything fun or passionate in life is taken away by responsibilities to family, to work, even to God. There’s a danger of becoming resentful to all of these, of becoming tired of being forced to give up our creative time to any of the three. In fact, though, I think that the only way one can be creative is to give up some time to all three, because it is in all three…as well as other realms of life…that we acquire the foundations for our prose, our paintings, our poetry, and our plays. In doing so, we serve our art, thus serving those who walk down the street next to us. In doing so, we serve the Divine.

And, in doing so, we neither become cogs in the machine or rage against it. We do something so much better than that. We act to redeem it from the inside out, with language and beauty that ultimately points to faith.

Not-So-Total Recall

So, the most recent series of Dr. Who has inspired yet another post. With some mourning, I packaged the bonus features disk to be returned to Netflix tomorrow. Karen didn’t want to bother with it after watching the season over the last two months or so, but I insisted. I like the way it walks me back through the episodes, and allows me to catch some of the nuances I missed the first time: the foreshadowing, remembering the brilliant character development, the incredible writing. Of course, the problem with that is that the huge finale of this season involved recalling one of the most emotionally wrecking moments I can remember from a television series over the past two years, combined with a new twist that is heartbreaking all in itself.

For those of you uninitiated to the Dr. Who universe, the Doctor (the title character) is a Time Lord, the last of his race, and he travels space and time stumbling into various situations in which he heroically and selflessly “saves the day.” The science fiction and time travel theory are brilliantly written, with plot twists that you just don’t see coming until they blindside you. The Doctor travels with various companions, people (typically ladies) who join up with him and become his friends and co-adventurers for some period of time. Two seasons ago, he fell in love with one of those co-travelers, only to have her trapped in a parallel universe in which she was forever barred from being with him. He projected his image to say farewell to her, stating that he was burning up the energy of a star to say goodbye. I’m not afraid to admit it: I was nearly in tears by the end.

This season’s companion was someone who struggled to shake her identity as a “nobody,” and, in her travels with the Doctor over the course of the season, ends up being declared “the most important woman in all Creation,” saving more than one civilization and living adventures she never dared dream. Due to a series of events at the climactic end of the series, however, the Doctor is forced to erase any memory of himself or their travels together from her mind in order to ensure her survival. This is the most tragic ending for her character: all of her dreams were realized, and she became the person of which she had always dreamed, only to be returned to her former life with no memory of any of it whatsoever, doomed once again to be a “nobody.”

This left me thinking tonight about how critical memories are. Our ability to access events from our past, to re-live them in our minds’ eyes, is so incredibly important to how our present, and our future, are shaped. I am so thankful for the technology of digital cameras and camcorders, both of which I have found ever-present with me at family events over the past few years. Two Christmases ago, I carefully recorded and edited the family Christmas movie, knowing somehow that it would be the last Christmas I would have with my grandmother. That prediction turned out to be correct; every minute of video, every single photo, I have of her is now beyond value to me.

When Karen and I were engaged, she bought an engagement journal. Essentially, it is a book with space to record things like our first date, what we both wore, our first meeting of the families, the wedding day, the honeymoon, etc. She has been trying to get me to write in it since we were married, and I still haven’t gotten around to it. Tonight, though, I’m impressed with just how important it is for me to do so. We have a handful of photos from the honeymoon, and a beautiful wedding album…even a video from the day. But certain events, the little things that were said when we were dating and the “inside jokes” that developed but have since faded away, are beginning to drift from memory. I suddenly realize that to lose those would be to lose something so invaluable that I couldn’t even contemplate it…that there would be no way to even measure the loss.

Amazing that, being a writer, I would have a hesitancy to record a journal…especially since that is essentially what I do here. Amazing that I’ve procrastinated that particular journal for so long…something I plan to rectify very soon, because I think to be robbed of our memories, as the character in Dr. Who was this season, would be the cruelest of all things that could happen to us in this life.

And to allow ourselves to forget…well, that’s an oversight we simply must not leave room for.

If you don’t journal, or blog, or keep photos or video, or record your precious moments in some way, then take my advice and begin. Even if they are only for you to read later, they will be worth more than you will ever be able to measure with monetary value. They will be a glimpse into what and who made you who you are today. You don’t ever want to lose that.

Hiding in the Shadows

Karen wants to dwell in the light.

Those were actually her exact words last night. Ironic that she would say that, as I am, physiologically, so sensitive to sunlight. Take it away, I get depressed. Give me a lot, I’m pretty happy. Perhaps that’s the reason that the only season I really have any use for is the summer. I’m a pleasant sort of guy. I enjoy being in the light, as well…yet, I spend so much time in the dark.

Karen has difficulty reading my fiction. She gets, to use her words, “freaked out.” When I write fiction, I tend to explore the dark, to probe its depths, in order to find a way to redemption, or at least to the possibility of redemption. Art, after all, asks a question…it isn’t so much in the business of providing answers.

That leaves me concerned a bit for myself. I believe that I am “in the light” now, or at least I actively attempt to follow that Way. Yet, I spend a great deal of time in the dark. The people I help every day at work, the friends I walk beside who are wrestling with dark times, the memories of my own spiritually unhealthy decisions…these are all part of the journey to bring me to the light. Unfortunately, I don’t portray the “in the light” concept nearly as well as I explore the darkness that preceded it…what Buechner called the tragedy of the Message preceding the comedy. When I act, I act dark roles the best. I gravitated toward Heath Ledger’s final performance as the Joker last summer. I direct drama better than comedy. I write explorations of the darkest parts of our souls, and leave the discovery of the light as a question mark, a possibility that is beyond me to articulate.

That’s not to say that I don’t think we discover the light; to the contrary, I have done so. We all slip back into the dark periodically, however, and I’m sometimes concerned that it is that part of the human condition that I explore the best. Of course, art that explores the other side tends to lack substance at best, or be didactic at worst, so perhaps the issue is that I’m afraid of being either of those things.

All that to say, I think I’m really good at exploring the side of us that we don’t like to recognize is there, because ultimately humans don’t hold an answer to the problem anyway. At the end, I long to point to the Way, and I am in hopes that I do that in some capacity.

And, if not, I think I’ll have to find an editor other than my wife.

Random Television Talk

I grew up with PBS. My best friend who lived just down the street did, as well. I don’t recall if we were already mutually hooked on the original Dr. Who series when we met, or if he was the one who first introduced me to the show. I only remember that it became a Saturday night ritual for my family. There were several BBC shows that we received through PBS, but Dr. Who was by far my favorite, and to this day I can recall many plots and episodes and companions, and could tell you my favorite incarnation of the Doctor. I was always a science fiction fan, getting it honestly from my mother the Trekkie, and Dr. Who was among the most original sci-fi I have experienced to this day (I even remember going to a convention in middle school, and wearing question mark lapel pins).

In my bachelor days of yesteryear, I remember when the Sci-Fi Channel began running BBC’s revival of Dr. Who, somewhere around my second year of grad school, and I tuned in with much anticipation and interest to the new series. Of course, Karen and I long ago gave up the dinosaur of cable television, but we always have the boxed set of the latest Dr. Who series interspersed in our Netflix cue as soon as it is available (we usually get it a season behind in America).

Dr. Who isn’t alone in our British favorites. Karen enjoys many of their murder mysteries, and my most recent interest is MI-5. Even in my news consumption periods, I gravitate toward BBC’s Word Service, because their coverage of world events is just so superior to America’s.

Which brings me to my point: why is British television programming so superior to American programming?

Don’t get me wrong, there are excellent American programs. They just seem to be difficult to sort out of all the fluff. The House and Bones quality of programs exist, but they are of a much different nature than the character development and theatrical presentation of British programming. American science fiction plot lines, with the exception of the occasional Firefly or Sanctuary or similar glimpse into true originality and excellent writing, are almost always less imaginative. I think it is because screen acting from the UK seems to have the feeling of having originated on the stage. My personal bias is always toward live theatre instead of film; I think acting for the stage brings with it an organic beauty that just isn’t duplicated in Hollywood. Of course, 90% of Hollywood’s offerings are low-quality garbage, but…still. Could it be that by taking acting off the stage and placing it on the screen in the manner in which Hollywood and the major television networks have, we’ve taken some of the ingenuity out of the art? Is that why our friends across the pond produce such better quality programs than we do?

Karen is a film lover, and would argue my bias toward stage acting. She feels that shooting out of sequence, facial close-ups, etc., makes acting for film much more difficult, and thinks I don’t give it the respect it deserves. I think it is more than just the difference in acting method, though. I enjoy what British programming leaves to the imagination. Even in our age of special effects geniuses, programs such as Dr. Who leave a great deal for our imaginations to fill in, instead of letting the effects artists tell us what it looks like through post-production. Similar to the stage, the hint of what is present beyond what our eyes see is there, and our imaginations fill in the rest. Certainly, in our video-game saturated, mathematics deifying, and largely illiterate age, imagination is a thing that receives far too little emphasis…or exercise.

I like letting my imagination work. I like filling in the blanks myself, as opposed to having everything painted out for me. I prefer to do some of the work, to participate with the story as it unfolds. Because, if we’re not doing some of the work…if we’re not engaging the story actively as we experience it…then we’re just being entertained into a vegetative state, lulled into a stupor by one more soap opera.

For the sake of my brain cells, and my imagination, I’d just as soon avoid that.

The Semantics of Signage

Sometimes, semantics lead us into problems.

I recently talked about the degradation of language here, but, at the risk of becoming repetitive in my ranting, I passed another sign Sunday morning that really irritated me. This time it wasn’t text message language used in advertising, it was formal English. It wasn’t at a business, either, it was at a church. The sign simply proclaimed: “The victim of Good Friday is the victor of Easter.”

Victim? Victim??

Before we even discuss the concept of marketing and applying it to a community of faith, let us stop and think about this. Since when did Christ become a victim? As I recall the Scriptures, He specifically stated that no one took His life from Him, but that He willingly laid it down. He made the choice when He decided the Father’s will be done over His. Being a victim involves the absence of choice. Should you or I, God forbid, be victimized by a crime, we had no choice. We were walking down the street, for example, and the mugger stepped out of the shadows. We didn’t choose for that to happen, but it happened to us. We were, in this hypothetical situation, victims. Yet, if I pass someone on the street that is asking for money, and I give him that money, I’ve made a choice. I have no right to complain about not having the money later. I’m not a victim.

I’m sure the signage in question was meant well and with none but the purest motives, but their clever alliteration proves truly damaging upon closer inspection. Are we taking the victim mentality of which we’ve become so fond in America, with which we shun responsibility for our actions, and projected that onto Christ? Are we claiming Jesus was a product of His environment? Worse, are we claiming that He got pushed into something He didn’t know was coming? If He was murdered, then how in the world does that benefit us? What use was it? To say He was a victim is theologically very dangerous, because it robs Him of His deity, and thus robs the action of its power.

What disturbs me even more is what I perceive to be the issue behind this problem. Any writer or advertiser, when pushed up against a deadline, can come up with some low-quality copy in order to get the project in on time. I’m sure that’s what likely happened here, but let’s look at the bigger issue…you know, besides misrepresenting Christ to everyone driving by. The issue is: why do we feel the need to market our communities of faith? Why do we feel as though we have to place clever slogans on signs by the roadside to “bring people in?” Or worse, place gaudy digital light shows in front of the buildings that give the weather and announcements in addition to “clever slogans,” as well as make you think you’re approaching an emergency vehicle when you get within a block of the church building? Since when did we become convinced that Christ needs marketing? Doesn’t Scripture say that He draws people to Himself? I don’t recall reading anything about target demographics in the Canon.

I think we’ve derived this from our horrible Western tenacity that leads us to adopt the view that we are “building a church,” in the same way that one would “grow a business.” Suddenly, it is about raising attendance on Sunday mornings, about quantity over quality. And so we advertise. And so we market. And so we inadvertently damage so much, so many, in our pressure to make the deadline for the next sign, or the next set of bulletins, or the next set of graphics.

I hope that, at some point, we’ll realize that what we think is clever alliteration isn’t perceived by skeptics as clever at all, but is in fact perceived as stupid. I shutter to think how He perceives it. We’ve become enslaved to our Western business model as a manner in which to “do church.” I think we’re so entrenched in it, so shallow in what Packer referred to as our “thousand-mile-wide and inch-deep” faith, that we truly have become victimized by our own pressure for success.

Don’t blame us, though. We’re just products of our environment.