Life Among the Dutch…

It was in late 2008 or early 2009, I can’t remember which, that I first found myself staring with some confusion at a church directory containing a truly ridiculous number of entries under V and Z. Also, there were no Toews. Nor Thiessens. Nor Klassens, Peters, nor Enns (not even Ens!). For a guy who grew up surrounded by Mennonites in an evangelical church in Saskatoon, the utter lack of Enns was frankly disturbing. But what the directory lacked in Enns and Thiessens it more than made up for with Van Xs and De Ys. I was attending a new church, a Presbyterian church filled with the Dutch.*

When attending in person it was not simply the names that were astounding, it was the dizzying tallness that truly set one reeling. I’m not tall, I know that, but I’ve always felt about average until I came into contact with the Dutch. It’s an odd sensation to stand, as a grown man, at shoulder height to another person. It is truly humbling to stand at shoulder height to an entire room of other people.

But then we worshiped together, and talked, and ate together, and I loved them.

It was there that I encountered Christians who have been deeply shaped by a stream of Protestant theology that I did not know well; Kuyperian Calvinism. Now, I was no true Calvinist, nor am I now. But these infinitely tall Kuyper fans taught me gently about a kind of cultural engagement that I had, until then, denigrated. They taught me about a love for culture. They taught me about a grace-filled engagement with art, and politics, and food. They spoke a language that struck deeply resonant notes in the depths of my heart. The tension between life as a Christian and life in the culture to which I have been born and in which I was raised has always been difficult for me. I had reached, by the time we moved to Hamilton, a kind of uneasy truce with my culture, but nothing more. It was the Dutch who taught me better.

I saw people who truly believed that their work, whatever that happened to be, had a redemptive purpose grounded in the work of Christ. It brought a great dignity to all work, from teaching to framing to lawyering to sculpting. It all, somehow, became art. It wasn’t just the pastors or missionaries who talked about vocation, it was everybody.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think postmillenial theology is kind of a wild pipe-dream, and I don’t think anybody will ever talk me into being a real Calvinist (though they came surprisingly close on child baptism a couple of times). But life among the Dutch was a powerful and beautiful thing. It altered Jinny and I in subtle but powerful ways, and I’m deeply thankful for that short sojourn.

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*Okay, they weren’t all actually Dutch, but there were a lot of Dutch people man! Like, a lot!

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Once More, With Feeling…

Taking a break as Sunday evening winds down, and what better way to take it easy but to watch some Buffy?  And lucky me, my favorite episode ever just happened to be next in the queue.  “Once More, With Feeling…” is one of the most original episodes of television I’ve ever seen.  A whole episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer set to music.  What could be better?  The juxtaposition of broadway-style music with vampires and action scenes is bizarre yet brilliant.  Emma Caufield and Nicholas Brendon provide the show’s most charmingly funny scene with their duo “I’ll Never Tell,” but Joss Whedon also provides more than a few painful and touching moments as well.  Another fun bit of trivia?  Whedon (the show’s producer and creative genius) actually learned music in order to write the episode.  Pretty impressive.

Speaking of the best of Buffy, how about best TV episodes generally?  That would be an interesting top 5 list.  Any suggestions?

Whose Metanarrative?

I’ve been watching TED lectures during my breaks for the last couple of days, and just now at lunchtime I watched this talk by Alain de Botton.  The talk, if you don’t feel like watching it yourself, is about redefining success in modern culture.  de Botton says an awful lot of things that I agree with very deeply.

His most interesting point is that, no matter how much we like to pretend they are, our societies are not strict meritocracies but that there are many accidental factors that go into the making of the life of any given person.  This means that just because someone isn’t “successful” in the minds of the general public (rich, famous, blah blah), it does not follow that they are intrinsically unworthy.*  De Botton goes on to suggest that we should show much more something to people who are not “successful” in the popular sense.  I say something because he never really defines what he means.  It’s like being nicer to those people, but without the sense of patronizing them.  It’s like understanding those people and understanding that given a different set of circumstances you or I could be in that self-same situation, but with the additional burden of also loving them.  What he’s talking about, though he never uses the term, is grace.  Not ballet-dancer kind of grace, but the grace-of-our-Lord-Jesus-Christ kind of grace.

De Batton also talks about the importance of strong father/mother role models in the lives of men/women respectively, and how what we need in a father (or mother) is a combination of firm discipline to instill in us the sense that we are responsible creatures, and deeply compassionate love to remind us that we are also subject to the vicissitudes of life.  He is describing, whether he knows it or not, the Christian conception of God and also the Christian conception of good human parenting.

When I had this thought during his talk it struck me that, though de Batton explicitly characterizes himself as a secularist, I was listening to the Christian metanarrative (that is, the Christian story or worldview).  Note that when de Batton cherry-picks from another thinker he doesn’t go to Nieztche or Plato, he goes to St. Augustine of Hippo.  I was tangentially involved with a conversation on Jon’s blog a few months ago where the claim was put forward that Christianity is basically just a religiousy version of the culture in which it is found.  This is certainly true some of the time, but it is important to note that the waters run both ways on this issue.  Whether he would admit it or not de Botton is, in this talk, pinching a Christian idea and dressing it in a secular waistcoat.  The problem, I would contend, is that disassociating the idea of grace from God robs the concept of both its legitimate philosophical underpinnings and also of its ultimate power and authority.

*I freely grant the tension here between this and my recent post on personal responsibility.  The tension is important, but that’s not what I want to talk about here.  Perhaps in a future post.

TED…

My father-in-law put me on to this great site called TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design…though they’ve branched out into other disciplines now). It has short presentations on all sorts of topics (from world poverty to physics) given by experts and public figures, some of whom are rather well known (e.g. Michelle Obama on education). The best part? They’re all absolutely free. I’ve only tapped bits and pieces so far, but what I’ve seen has been very interesting indeed. The catch-phrase for TED is “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Seems to me spreading interesting ideas is a practice worth pursuing.

Personally I’m going to start with this presentation by Alisa Miller on modern news-media, and then this presentation by Ken Robinson on creativity-centred education.

Update:

Well I’ve listened to both talks now. Miller’s was short and she clearly felt a little nervous, but her point was excellent and her visuals particularly drove it home. What she said, in a nutshell, is that the American news-media is almost entirely worthless if one wants to know anything apart from whether or not Britney Spears is sticking with her current diet. This is something I already knew, but it is always worth repeating.

Robinson’s talk was quite a bit longer, almost 20 mins, and was exceptional. His presentation was funny, engaging, and (most importantly) powerful and pursuasive. His point in a nutshell is that we need to radically rethink the way that we approach education. One of the most important and telling truths that he pointed out is that in the modern education system the “best” product that an education can produce is a college professor. Speaking as a doctoral student and somebody who someday wants to be a college professor, this is a very bad thing. It’s not that college professors are not valuable, it’s just that being good with (a very select and narrowly defined part of) your brain should not be the gold-standard for worth in young people (or any person). Performance in school is one of the primary ways that we evaluate a person’s worth in our culture, and with our school systems designed as they are we are doomed to underevaluate brilliance in children who are great at something other than mathematics or language. In any case, this lecture in particular is worth your time.

District 9…

Thanks to some generous friends we had chance for a night out this evening and went to see District 9, a new film produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp.  My thoughts in brief?  Go see this movie.  There, now if you like you can just skip the rest, which are my thoughts at length.

The basic plot is pretty simple.  An alien spaceship comes to halt in the sky above Johannesburg.  It doesn’t move for a long time so the government cuts into the ship and finds a whole host of aliens who appear to be starving.  They are ferried down to the surface where a refugee camp is set up.  When the story proper picks up the aliens have been in the camp, which has now taken on the form of one of the worlds worst ghettos, for some 20 years.  The government of South Africa has contracted a company called Multi-National United (a private paramilatary firm, a la Blackwater) to clear the aliens (derogatorily called Prawns) out of the current camp in Johannesburg to a concentration camp hundreds of kilometers away.  The main character is Wikas van de Merwe, an MNU employee who is heading up the team serving eviction notice to the Prawns.  Things obviously get more complicated from there, but I’ll let you go watch the actual film.

First of all the direction is superb, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better use of CG in a film.  Additionally, Sharlto Copley, who plays van de Merwe, is excellent and carries some very powerful scenes.  He also provides a performance that convincingly captures every moment along a pretty extended arc of character development.

Some of the “bad guys” are a little too typical, and there are elements of the plot that might have felt formulaic in another movie.  The thing is, those two issues are very easy to ignore in this film, because it is so conceptually original.  I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an alien movie, or a sci-fi movie, anything like this.  The whole thing just felt so completely real in a way that sci-fi and fantasy never quite do.

The one point of difficulty thematically is something that seems to afflict an awful lot of movies that explore otherness.  It’s the human being (read White Male) who saves the alien (read African, Asian, Woman, insert subaltern here).  I’m never quite sure what to do with this problem.  These kinds of films are trying to challenge oppression, and are particularly interested in creating a sense of filial love in the oppressor for the oppressed.  District 9 does this very well by humanizing characters who are, quite literally, not human.  And it’s also necessary to humanize van de Merwe, who represents the oppressor, in order that we the audience might identify with him.  And it’s even necessary for the oppressor to be the main character because that’s who we as the audience must identify with most closely.  We are the oppressors, so we must see our oppression.  But how can you encourage an audience, particularly in Western culture, to identify with a completely non-heroic character?

Even taking this issue into account District 9 is a brilliant piece of work that everyone should go see.  If this film doesn’t garner at least a whole host of award nominations, to say nothing of actual awards, it will just serve as further evidence that Hollywood is filled with dilettantes and tools.

Uh-Huh…

John Hobbins has a great post over on Ancient Hebrew Poetry about comparing and contrasting texts from different cultures (Genesis and Atrahasis are his examples).  Anybody interested in the relationship between the Bible and other surrounding cultures should read and think through what he says there, particularly the bit about contrastive approaches.  And the dialogue with Angie Erisman (whose excellent blog seems to have gone the way of all flesh) is also very valuable.  I like John’s description of intertextuality as a cultural web.  This serves as a corrective to those who use the term “intertextuality” to refer to any and every kind of allusion or reference and who constantly ascribe authorial intention to such connections.  Sometimes allusions are intentional, but a lot of the time they are just a consequence of cultural (or inter-cultural) meta-data, and discussions of intention and ascription and dependence are illegitimate.*

Also John’s notes regarding cultural divisions are very important.  “Culture” is a tough concept.  Where does one culture begin and another end?  How do we know?  Are these divisions simply arbitrary?  Just heuristic devices we use to keep our questions and answers straight?  I think they are probably more than arbitrary but it’s hard to know where to draw those lines.  One significant corollary for me is the question of the relationship between various levels of social interaction (family, community, culture, etc) and various sub-divisions of language (register, idiolect, dialect, language, etc).  One of the papers I’ll be writing in the near future will explore the possibility of using linguistic markers in concert with literary form in order to help identify and delimit passages in the Latter Prophets.  I still haven’t the faintest clue if it will work, but the problems inherent in inter-cultural relationships that John identifies in his post are the same problems that I’ll be facing as I try to eke out my methodology in that paper (albeit my questions will probably be more intra-cultural).

The moral of the story?  Whether inter or intra-cultural, these kinds of questions are difficult and lend themselves to tendentious arguments.  Great care is required.

*As a brief side-note, there are notable post-modern authors (e.g. Umberto Eco) who do make intentional use of intertextual irony, but even here I think such authors (Eco for certain) would admit that there are significant and important instances of intertextuality that are not a product of conscious authorial intention.  To extend John’s web metaphor, some strands are woven on purpose, and some strands are not.

Deadwood and Deep v. Surface Structure…

I’ve been watching the first season of HBO’s Deadwood.  One of the bits of controversy that has surrounded this story of an old-west town is the use of profanity.  Deadwood is the story of the real historical town of Deadwood, an outlaw settlement in the Black Hills of Montana in 1876.  But here’s the thing, the characters in the TV show swear like sailors.  The language is so offensive that I won’t even give examples.  Of course these words that the writers use are not words that people really used in 1876.  But the profanity of 1876 would sound silly to people in our time and culture, and so the writers decided to import modern profanity as a creative anachronism.  On a visceral level at least, this works very well indeed.

This goes to the heart of an issue in linguistics that I’ve been thinking about lately.  Linguists talk about deep structure and surface structure.  Surface structure is the actual grammatical structure of a particular sentence or phrase or utterance as found in reality.  Deep structure is the so-called “kernel” sentence or essence that underlies the surface structure.  A passive sentence is the classic example.  According to this thinking sentences 1a and 1b have different surface structure but identical deep structure:

1a: Wild Bill Hickok was shot by Jack McCall.
1b: Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickok.

Linguists who believe in deep structure say that the semantic value (the meaning for lack of a better term) of these phrases is identical.  Linguists who don’t believe in deep structure might deny this.

In Deadwood the use of anachronistic language assumes that modern swearing has essentially the same deep structure as the swearing of 1876.  Therefore replacing one with the other is actually a faithful way of translating.  But I wonder, and here is where deep structure becomes a problem, if there isn’t something else going on apart from semantics and if that something else might not be the same from 1876 to 2009.  Like I said, I’m still thinking about it.