Because life is a series of edits

On Noah: A Letter to Darren Aronofsky

In Arts, Humanity, Movies, Pop Culture, Thought on April 4, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Dear Mr. Aronofsky,

Noah director, Darren Aronofsky

Noah director, Darren Aronofsky

I’m sure you’re up to your eyeballs right now after the opening weekend of your movie, Noah, but I wanted to write anyway. I saw your film earlier this week and have enjoyed thinking through much of it since. I rarely go to the theater for new movies (let alone so close to opening weekend), but this one seemed to make sense both for the visual spectacle of the story as well as the inevitable conversations it would generate. While I have not seen any of your previous films, I’m glad to have seen Noah.

I’m glad to have seen Noah for several reasons, the first being because – like you – it’s one of my favorite stories. I loved how you set the entire film under “the Creator” and that, regardless of whether they were for or against Him, the characters within the film lived with what seemed a constant awareness of this reality, as those in the Ancient World were much more apt to acknowledge than in our modern day. In addition, I appreciated how you did not qualify the story of the flood as merely a legend to be believed or dismissed, but treated it as factual in its occurrence, much like the Bible and multiple ancient texts do.

I imagine you may have taken some flack for choosing this story to tell, but I’m glad you did. I appreciated how you directed Russell Crowe in his portrayal of Noah as a watchful father to his sons and a loving husband to his wife in the first part of the film. You (with Mr. Crowe’s capable help) really teased out a tenderness and affection in the title role, much like I imagined God must have developed in the real Noah of the Bible. I’ve always tried to imagine what Noah must have felt like leading his family to build the ark, answering his critics for his bizarre actions while knowing what was coming, and wrestling with the guilt of surviving something that no one else living at the time (save his family) did. I was touched by Mr. Crowe’s portrayal of the emotion of all this in the beginning and at the end of the film – especially with Noah’s renewal of the covenant – and appreciated your direction in it.

As you might imagine, I do have some questions. Since the narrative in the Bible is only about 2,400 words (and none of them are Noah speaking), I’m curious what inspiration you turned to in order to flesh out your two-hour-and-twenty-minute movie. From my perspective, while there were plenty of curiosities, I felt that you generally kept with the main biblical story up until the flood, but even after the flood (and despite taking a pretty big narrative off-ramp before getting back on the main road of the story), I recognized your attempt to present a Noah laboring under the stress of so many years pursuing what He understood (or thought he understood) about God’s will. In fact, the scene toward the end of the film in which Noah lies drunk in his nakedness made more sense of that particular passage than I had ever seen before on the heels of all he had just been through.

Was there another text or source that you were using? Did the emotion come out of your own past or experiences? Have you felt the kind of blinding psychopathic anger and confusion in your own spiritual journey that you depicted in the film’s abrupt departure from the biblical storyline? It was so different from the scriptural text that I couldn’t help but wonder what might be behind that particular diversion. Because of my own faith and familiarity with the story, I realize there are challenges in telling a story that the audience might already know (and I also realize it’s hard to dramatically top the flooding of the world), but it seemed to me you were going for something particularly deep and emotional in taking Noah’s character down such a cold and dark road of wrath before having him step back into the warmth and light of love. I would love to buy you a cup of coffee and hear more of your thought on that if and when you ever happen to be traveling through Oklahoma City.

As I don’t know you personally, I’m not sure how interested you are in some of the controversy your film has caused within the Christian community (not to mention the greater culture at large). While I’m sure the reviews and responses have helped the film’s bottom line, I have to believe that you are at least somewhat interested in what those of us who love the Bible think of your work. Has it been confusing for you when so many people who claim the same (or at least similar) beliefs have had such dissimilar responses to your film? I’m sorry for some of the hurtful things that have been said, as well as for any feelings of being misunderstood you may have as a result. People do strange things when they’re scared or threatened, and I don’t know why some of my fellow Christians have responded out of such blinding fear. (I often wish my fellow believers would get as riled up about some of the awful doctrine and artlessness we’ve put out in the name of “safe for the whole family,” but I digress.) Please forgive us.

I hope that through the preparation for and process of making the film you were able to grow in your understanding of the Creator God and His covenant commitment to mankind – a commitment that includes both a justice so passionate He was willing to destroy everything He had created in order to quell what we had done with it, yet a heart of so much love and mercy that He was not willing to give up on what He has always desired, namely that we would be His people and He would be our God. As mentioned earlier, I saw several glimpses of this recognition of that reality in your film, but I hope it was personal and not just cinematic for you in the midst of making it. Indeed, as scripture says,

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’

As I do for myself and others, I pray the truth of this passage will become more believable and beautiful in your life. The Creator God has given you much talent, Mr. Aronofsky, and I pray you do not let the world convince you that you are your gifts more than you are His child. The joy of the latter is what makes the endeavors of the former worth it. I hope you experience both in your life and art.

Blessings,

Craig

On Death and Dying in a Digital Age

In Church, Family, Friends, Health, Humanity, Internet, Places & Spaces, Technology, Thought on March 1, 2014 at 9:32 am

Moleta

“While the dead don’t care, the dead matter.
The dead matter to the living.”

Thomas Lynch

My mother-in-law, Moleta King of Owasso, OK, passed away earlier this week after battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the past two years. Hers was the first passing I’d ever been completely present for, from roughly 15 hours before the time of death early Tuesday morning through her burial Friday afternoon. For reasons good and otherwise, it’s been the longest week I can remember – good, in that this kind of loss forces us to slow down and mourn by way of our memorial traditions; otherwise, in that we (or some of us) push back against grief’s delays in ways our modern world has trained us – by way of technology.

Don’t get me wrong: there is comfort in hearing from hundreds of friends who, for various reasons, cannot be present with the living as they mourn their dead. A product of our overly-mobile culture, this distance disconnect can be overcome instantly via phone, email, and text messaging (along with our more traditional – but time-requiring – means of letter writing, card sending, and flower delivering). But what left me wanting this past week was the public display of affection made possible by social media. At the risk of offending those who employed it (all with the best of intentions, I’m sure), let me explain.

I became tired of people proclaiming they were praying for me/us on Facebook, mostly because I doubted they really were. It felt like there was a “crisis reminder” right next to the “birthday reminder” on the screen, so of course folks needed to click it and leave a trite message. “Praying for you!” “You’re in our thoughts and prayers!” And my personal favorite: “Prayers coming your way!” (Let’s be honest: if prayers are coming my way, we’re screwed; we pray to God, not to each other.) Of course, I know some – perhaps many – people did pray when they said they would (I’m not completely jaded), but I confess Facebook often felt too quick and too convenient to take the message to heart.

The other thing that bothered me (and I write this with no condemnation of my family, but as a completely hypocritical member of it) was how we gravitated to our own digital worlds in the midst of our grief. Both my family (wife and four girls, ages 10-15) and Megan’s sister’s family (husband and wife with five kids, ages 9-22) are fairly “wired,” and I counted at least eight smart phones, six laptops, and a desktop among us that received more than their fair share of attention this past week. Granted, some use was to make plans or to communicate them, but I would venture that just as much or more was in pursuit of comfort and general distraction. I kept wondering (again, without judgment of a crime – if it was one – to which I was certainly an accomplice), how much did we miss from each other because of the separation of our screens?

Years ago, I read a fascinating book titled Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality by Thomas Lynch. A writer, poet, and undertaker, Lynch writes from a unique first-person perspective of the generalities and nuances of life, death, and the often-uneasy tension that exists in their co-existence in our world. He has published several books along the theme of death and dying, including The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, and more recently, The Good Funeral: The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. (PBS’ Frontline actually turned The Undertaking into this documentary by the same name, which I watched with my four daughters a few hours before leaving for the visitation on Thursday as a way of explaining what all had happened since their grandmother’s death.) He writes:

“Grief is the tax we pay on our attachments…the price we pay for being close to one another. If we want to avoid our grief, we simply avoid each other.”

Was our family’s tendency toward technology in some way self-protective against the idea of losing each other as we had already lost Moleta? I’m not sure any of us would have verbalized it as such (nor probably would any of us still), but I do wonder. Was our handling of death and dying in our digital age normal? Was it healthy? Could it have been better without the phones and laptops? Would it have been? I don’t know.

A couple other observations from a tough week:

  • Everyone suddenly becomes a theologian at visitations, memorial services, and funerals. I heard plenty of bad theology from people – some who didn’t know any better, plenty of others who should – that it took all I could muster to keep from putting on sackcloth and ashes and weeping and gnashing my teeth. “Heaven got a new angel today!” “She finally got her wings!” And my personal favorite, spoken without a trace of irony: “I’m sure she’s having a great time, but Heaven sounds boring to me.” And then there came the platitudes: “Nothing can hurt her now.” “We’ll get to see her again one day.” “She’s in a better place.” While this last set may be true, I hate them, and I judgmentally hold in contempt those who use them. I’m not saying I’m right in doing this; I’m just saying I do this.
  • I can’t remember the last time I cried and don’t really care that I rarely do – it fits well with the Spock stereotype people often enjoy at my expense. (Interestingly, when I was not trying to get some work done across the week, I watched the first five Star Trek movies on Netflix just to touch base with my Vulcan counterpart. The more I learn about Spock’s back story, the more I happily embrace the aforementioned comparison. It’s not that Spock didn’t have emotions; on the contrary, as a Vulcan he was fiercely emotional, but was trained and learned to master his feelings to the point where he was confused for and known as being emotion-less.) All that said, I finally cried (“leaked” is probably a better word) at the end of the memorial service, so I really am human in case anyone was wondering.

As always with me, there are plenty more observations, but most are either too personal or too meaningless (or both) to write here. I’ve said before that death is life’s great perspective-bringer, but after experiencing death’s bringing of perspective this week, I’ve had enough, at least for now.

Which brings me back to Lynch and the comfort with which he writes and thinks about death. His is a wonderful analysis neither morbid in tone nor myopic in perspective; rather, he writes in a way that is warm, helpful, and full of insight into the meaning of life as viewed through death’s reality, which is not something to be feared, but to be embraced as another part of the whole of life:

“It was there, in the parlors of the funeral home – my daily stations with the local lately dead – that the darkness would often give way to light. A fellow citizen outstretched in his casket, surrounded by floral tributes, waiting for the homages and obsequies, would speak to me in the silent code of the dead: ‘So, you think you’re having a bad day?’ The gloom would lift inexplicably. Here was one to whom the worst had happened, often in a variety of ways, and yet no word of complaint was heard from out the corpse. Nor did the world end, nor the sky fall, nor his or her people become blighted entirely. Life, it turns out, goes on with or without us. There is at least as much to be thankful for as wary of.”

Indeed, but only because Jesus says so (and not because someone tells me on Facebook).

The Way We “Wrestle” Is to Pray

In Calling, Church, Educators, Family, Friends, Health, Humanity, Marriage, Oklahoma City, Parents, Places & Spaces, The Academy, Young Ones on February 14, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Wrist Prayer

Jesus was never one to over-spiritualize, but he did talk frankly of the Devil and his demons being at work in the world.

Following Jesus’ lead, I don’t want to over-spiritualize, either; yet multiple conversations with many of you in recent weeks have combined with my own acute sense of need to compel me to remind friends that, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:2).

The way we “wrestle” is to pray.

Because God is at work in the world, Satan wants to be as well. Depression, doubt, insecurity, fear – these are all evils from the pit of Hell, and multiple families are experiencing these attacks in various manifestations in the midst of physical sickness and mental weariness of late. Recently, we’ve had students and staff members who have been in the hospital for a variety of (odd) reasons, moms and dads who are struggling through hard life decisions, and just about all of us (my own family included) who are dealing with situations that are unfamiliar and out of our control.

To top it all off, we just finished a 12-day streak of some of the worst winter weather Oklahoma City has seen in a while, which can play havoc with our emotions as much as anything else.

Of course, not all of these trials are in and of themselves evil, but the discouragement that can accompany them (along with the often self-inflicted feeling of faithlessness in our handling them) can easily be used against us. Trust – in God, in each other – can erode, and Satan would like nothing more than to wash away all we have worked so hard to achieve.

With all this on hearts and minds, most of us are aware of at least one person or scenario in need of help. Would you ask the Lord to act in accordance with his “good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2) in providing it? As Jesus does in his prayer in Matthew 6, let me also encourage you to ask the Father to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Satan does not need more of a foothold in anyone’s life.

I’m not asking anyone to make lists or track answers; I’m just asking us – you and me – to take some time this weekend to pray, that God may meet us in our need, do what he wants through it, reassure us of his love in it, and be glorified as a result of it.

“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who settest the solitary in families: We commend to thy continual care the homes in which thy people dwell. Put far from them, we beseech thee, every root of bitterness, the desire of vainglory, and the pride of life. Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness. Knit together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh. Turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

From The (Online) Book of Common Prayer

(The pictured wrist above belongs to my friend, Jerome Loughridge, who wrote out the names of several of our school staff on his arm to remind himself to pray over the weekend. I was privileged to make the wrist…er, list.)

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