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May 2006

Da Vinci and X Men

I've been meaning to post my reviews of these films, so, though late, here they are.

Da Vinci Code

I'll not address the story and its issues (I've already done that in a previous post). As a film I thought it was fine. All the reviews are accurate in their criticisms, but I didn't really mind. I still enjoyed the movie.

2 film reels
3 1/2 popcorn kernels

X-Men 3

I probably need a second viewing to really get my sense of the film. Overall it wasn't bad as a conclusion to this series. I do think it tried to do too much in a limited amount of time and would have been better served as a plot drawn out over a couple of films.

I loved the visual of ripping the Golden Gate Bridge from its moorings, though it really served no serious purpose and is pretty ridiculous. We were also struck wondering why it turned nighttime suddenly. It was daylight when he ripped the bridge up and planted it on Alcatraz and then the very next shot it is the dark of night. Hmm.

The Advocate had an article before the film came out about the gay subtext and how the new directing/writing team that was straight was working extra hard to keep that subtext prominent. In fact, they made it even moreso. They said that in production they debated the ramifications to gay people, especially teens, to their plot choices. For example, they filmed two outcomes of Rogue taking the cure and weren't sure which way to go. I was troubled by their choice, given then article where they discussed the potential meaning of her taking it.

The film weakened seriously during the denouement. I think that after the climax, there was much left unresolved and that the denouement was weak.

Particularly weak was the develop of Magneto. What made this series stand out from the opening shot was that Magneto was different. The first film began with him in the Holocaust. He was initially fighting to keep the same thing from happening again. Over time he turned into that which he hated most. The final film should have brought that to some sort of development. His unmotivated, "What have I done?" was not enough and wasn't authentic.

2 1/2 film reels
4 popcorn kernels

Clothed With Power

Clothed With Power
Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
Ascension Sunday
28 May 2006

In 1993 Sarah McLachlan recorded a song with these lyrics:

All the fear has left me now
I’m not frightened anymore.
It’s my heart that pounds beneath my flesh
it’s my mouth that pushes out this breath

and if I shed a tear
I won’t cage it.
I won’t fear love
and if I feel a rage
I won’t deny it
I won’t fear love

Companions to my demons
they will dance
and we will play

Peace in the struggle to find peace
Comfort on the way to comfort

if I shed a tear
I won’t cage it.
I won’t fear love
and if I feel a rage
I won’t deny it
I won’t fear love

The title of this song is “Fumbling Toward Ecstasy.” To me, this song conveys two basic truths -- our desire for the ecstasy found in genuine intimacy with another, and the fact that we fumble and stumble along trying to fulfill this desire.

We humans have long had the feeling that we aren’t complete unless we are bound to another. We tell stories about it. Isaac needs Rebekah to pull him out of his funk. Cinderella needs her prince to rescue her. Jerry Maguire isn’t complete without his wife. Jack Twist can’t quit Ennis Del Mar.

In the Western world we developed a romantic myth, its basic premise was that each person is bound to one other person, that we must each find our soul mate. The idea actually originates from one of the speeches in Plato’s Symposium. Aristophanes tells a story that at the dawn of time there were three types of humans -- male, female, and those that were half male and half female. Humans became a threat to the Olympian gods, so Zeus cut all of them in two, therefore we now spend our lives looking for our other half from which we were separated. Most people don’t realize the pagan and, in fact, queer origin of this idea. Nowadays you are more inclined to hear a conservative Christian claim that God has one person fated for him or her. I’d like to tell them where the idea originally came from.

I don’t think we have soul mates. I don’t think we are fated to find one person. This Western romantic myth is false and often destructive.

But there is part of it that expresses a truth, that is, we really do seek to find union with another and when that is accomplished we feel an unparalleled ecstasy.

Lately I’ve been using the poems of Jalal-addin Rumi to illustrate sermons and prayers. Rumi wrote many love poems for his lover Shams of Tabriz. One of his poems, entitled “Water From Your Spring” conveys this sense of unparalleled ecstasy:

What was in that candle’s light
that opened and consumed me so quickly?

Come back, my friend! The form of our love
is not a created form.

Nothing can help me but that beauty.
There was a dawn I remember

when my soul heard something
from your soul. I drank water

from your spring and felt
the current take me.

Genuine intimacy transforms us, it changes who we are and how we perceive the world. We are drawn out of ourselves and must be concerned for someone else, either as deeply or more deeply than we are concerned for ourselves. Hear this poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art or shall be, there or here;
And this . . . this lute and song . . . loved yesterday,
(The singing angels know) are only dear,
Because thy name moves right in what they say.

Of course some of this is the hyperbole and silliness that is known only to adolescents or those in the first stages of infatuation. But there’s something wonderful and pure about the giddy phase. Don Wilson had the unfortunate luck to call me when I was typing this paragraph. I mentioned what I was writing about, and he just laughed and said how much he enjoys that early infatuation phase. He told me that when he first met Bill he was goofy and ridiculous, that Bill was all he could talk about, and that his friends got all annoyed and kept asking if there was anything else that Don could possibly talk about other than Bill Powell.

Even if that giddy, infatuation phase goes away, as it must, otherwise we’d drive everyone else around us completely nuts, if you do find a genuine connection with that person, even in the more settled phases of love we are still “taught the whole of life in a new rhythm” as Browning says.

Our desire for an ecstatic union with a beloved is just the tip of the iceberg. We humans seek union, connection, community with others. Marlin will cast everything aside to find Nemo. The orphan Harry Potter longs for friends, who become his real family, as Mary Frances reminded us last week in that beautiful sermon on friendship.

We even have this deep, powerful desire for relationship with God. This desire is often expressed in the language of ecstatic union. That’s how the mystics have long spoken about their relationship with God. It’s represented in the Bernini sculpture of St. Theresa that shows her in the moment of ecstatic rapture. It’s also in my favorite poem by John Donne:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

Oh, I love that last line.

The true test of our personal enlightenment is if we finally see that we must be connected to everything else around us. Walt Whitman sings the Song of Myself, but that song is a detailed list of every sort of person, every race, gender, creed, occupation, region, age, etc.

And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.

This is part of the great wisdom of all the great sages and prophets. The world desires true communion; this is the ecstasy for which creation longs.

The goal of creation is reconciliation, genuine ecstatic fellowship, as has been God’s will from the dawn of time. And the church is God’s agent to bring about that connection. At Christ’s ascension he proclaimed that we would be “clothed with power from on high.” Christ is announcing that the Holy Spirit is about to come upon the church and that if the church is faithful to the leading of the Holy Spirit then we will be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The church is to bring about true fellowship in this world.

Now, you are probably thinking. Wait a minute. But the Christian church has been an agent for division, destruction, harm, and violence as much or even more than it has been an agent of healing, reconciliation, and fellowship. We have recently been reminded of that by all the publicity surrounding the Da Vinci Code. That story says that Christianity has often been a negative force, blocking the more life-affirming and ecstatic elements of spirituality.

It’s true, we haven’t been very good ambassadors of reconciliation. We have more often perverted this call to mission and used it to destroy people instead of seeking the ecstatic connection of genuine fellowship. And in doing so we have not been fulfilling the mission of God’s Holy Spirit. Rather, we have been grieving the Spirit.

James McClendon, the baptist theologian, writes that “The fellowship of the Holy Spirit is participation in nearness to God with others in whom the same Spirit works.” As I’ve tried to illustrate in the previous sermons in this series, we must think broadly and inclusively when we consider who all is a part of that Spirit work. The Christ works in various cultures in various settings to bring about the reign of God. We need to be witnesses who listen and discern where Christ is working and then join in.

All too often what we Christians have done is to rob ourselves of the very thing we are seeking. Out of fear, out of self-protection, out of selfishness, out of a desire for personal power, we have missed finding true power, true glory, true ecstasy. We will fulfill our deepest human desires, draw closer to God, and be transformed into who we really are only when we learn to find fellowship with one another. I read all those love poems and songs because they use a language that is more like how we should view one another. Our relationships with each other in this room, with the stranger on the street, with the suffering people of Darfur, with the agents of Christian fundamentalism, and even with the terrorists should be more like our relationship with our beloved than they are different from it.

I must confess that this is a challenging word for me. It is challenging because I am so far from being able to live this way.

You see, I’m still struggling with learning how to get along with people I know and care about. I’ve been working at my relationship with my mother for over 32 years now, and you think it would be better than it is. And how often do we in this room end up quarrelling with each other. The very thought depresses me, because it means that we are so far away from God’s true vision for us.

That’s why I’m glad there’s grace. God loves us so much that God accepts us just the way we are. Sure, God wants us to grow and change and become more like Christ, God really does expect stuff from us. But, at the same time, God loves and accepts us just the way we are whether we change and grow or not.

The truth is, we don’t have the ability to do this on our own. To even try would be unhealthy and mistaken. Jesus knew that we can’t do it on our own. Jesus knew that the disciples couldn’t do it on their own. We are fumbling toward ecstasy.

Folks, we are dealing with a grand vision for the culmination of all creation. We are doing well if we just keep fumbling in the right direction.

Or as Bono sang,

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
But yes I’m still running
You broke the bonds
You loosed the chains
You carried the cross
And my shame
And my shame
You know I believe it
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.

Let us pray:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down and set your Spirit loose upon the world that we might be consumed with your power and your glory. Restore us, O God, let your face shine, that we may be saved. Amen.

Contemporary American Fiction

Recently A. O. Scott wrote a great piece on contemporary American fiction for the New York Times. It was prompted by the Book Review polling various literary figures asking them to determine the great American novel of the last 25 years.

As was guaranteed, the request brought lots of agonizing responses and analysis of the meanings of the terms in the question. And it brought agonizing comparisons with similar periods in American lit past.

The five winning books were:
5) American Pastoral by Philip Roth
4) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
3) "Rabbit Angstrom" the one volume compilation of the four Rabbit novels by John Updike, though only two were actually published within this 25 year period
2) Underworld by Don DeLillo
1) Beloved by Toni Morrison

Scott then goes into a really nicely done analysis of these books and what they might have in common that compels us to rank them high. He is not surprised by Beloved and says that no one should be, since it is the one novel from this period that has so quickly and clearly become canonical. Almost all of these books are reflections upon our past, which is quite interesting.

Also of note is how diverse the voting was. It only took 15 votes to win. There is great diversity of opinion currently in American letters as to what is the best. Philip Roth was clearly considered the greatest writer, with more of his novels receiving votes than any other author, which also meant that votes for Roth were spread out.

One interesting point is this:

So the top five American novels are concerned with history, with origins, to some extent with nostalgia. They are also the work of a single generation. DeLillo, born in 1936, is the youngest of the five leading authors. The others were born within two years of one another: Morrison in 1931, Updike in 1932, Roth and McCarthy in 1933.

Scott notes that the Baby Boomers haven't produced great writers. Almost all the great writers currently living were born in the Roosevelt era or before. Only Marilynne Robinson and Tim O'Brien (Baby Boomers) received votes. This is unlike previous periods in American lit. The last time a vote like this was taken, in 1965, almost all the authors on the list were under fifty.

Also surprising is that none of the vibrant work of the younger generations made the list -- Franzen, Wallace, Chabon, etc.

Read this essay, it is quite good. And I've love to sit and drink wine and discuss its conclusions, if anyone is interested.

Anonymous Sources

Since the Plame affair broke, it has become a standard for the news to report why they grant anonymity to a source. This is a positive trend. However, this particular one caught my eye today in a New York Times article:

One senior Republican strategist, granted anonymity because his assessment would put him at odds with party leaders, said that Democrats were succeeding in their main goal: turning the race into a national referendum on Mr. Bush and the Republican Party. "Is the race being nationalized?" this strategist said. "Yes."

So, "because his assessment would put him at adds with party leaders" is grounds for granting anonymity? Seems awfully weak grounds to me. I would think that anonymity should be granted in cases where the content of what the person is saying is crucial to getting out the story to the public. However, it is not clear that this article required this quote in order to make its point or to get out information crucial to the public interest and common good.

Since anonymous sources must always be viewed somewhat skeptically, it seems a significant weakening of the practice to have granted it in this case, for this reason, for this unimportant quote.

Day Four

Will Willimon was good to finally hear in person. He both preached and lectured. His sermon ended with "People of God, the Holy Spirit is with you. Watch out!" In his lecture he attacked what he called "PowerPoint Preaching." Not necessarily using the computer program, but sermons that boil everything down to bullet points that give you the five easy steps to make life better, stuff like that. He was very critical of Rick Warren, for instance, and said that Warren was actually doing what 19th century liberals had done who hadn't taken the Bible seriously enough. Willimon said you can't sever the form of the gospel from its substance. At another point he said that sermon listeners must have a willingness to be confused. At the end he took question (the only person to do that thus far) and ended up dancing and dancing around a question about what he would say to George Bush if he had the chance. It was disappointing from a man who has spoken prophetically in many places and there was much discussion afterward that maybe becoming a bishop had had an effect on him. I will say that during his sermon he more bodly took a pro-gay stance than he has before. In fact, his exegesis of the Ethiopian eunuch was COMPLETELY different than his published commentary on the passage. In the commentary he dismisses that the Ethiopian was even an eunuch, while this morning he embraced the queer reading of the text.

Frank Thomas was impressive. He's a younger minister from Memphis who spoke on the African-American preaching tradition with the title "Making music with what you have left." He said that African-American preaching had always operated out of a paradigm of hope despite current circumstances that was based on four principles 1) God is the unquestionable sustainer of the world; 2) the world maintains a permanent physical and moral order; 3) God is loving, powerful and in control; 3) God is able. Among notes I wrote down from his lecture: the greater the adversity, the greater the potential for hope; construct and marshal a vision of hope that then allows you to protest your way through to it; he called militarism, racism, and extreme materialism the "Axis of Evil." It was a very good speech with the amazing rhythms of the African-American preacher.

Mostly I've taken notes from the lectures and not the sermons, so I didn't take any notes tonight of the worship service led by Kenneth Samuel and his congregation Victory for the World which is both baptist and UCC. It is an African-American mega church that lost 2,000 members when Dr. Samuel led them to become welcoming and affirming and to join the UCC. Now they have been rebuilding and have over 4,000 members. He preached one of the most powerful sermons I've ever heard. It was on the widow before the unjust judge. He preached about the power of the powerless, the power to speak up, express yourself, and persevere. The sermon was filled with one amazing line or turn of phrase or insight after another. Toward the end he led in this buildilng litany about how we needed to "agitate, agitate" that ended in a standing ovation and a Pentecostal furvor in this room full of mostly white, mainline Protestants. I felt like dancing afterwards.

He preached at the Cathedral in Dallas in Lent; I'm sorry I missed him then.

Bad Hair Leads to Genuine Adventure

My monthly Hard News Online column is about the Da Vinci Code:

I haven't read The Da Vinci Code. Not because I have any objection to it; I just never got around to it. It sounds like a fun, pop thriller. I'm sure I'll see the movie, even if Tom Hanks' hair is hideous.
Ever since the book came out, we ministers have fielded lots of questions about its content, which I think is great because people are asking about parts of church history and biblical scholarship that they usually aren't interested in. Though the book is fiction, many have taken it to be fact, which is unfortunate. Now there are lots of other books out there responding to the novel, and various churches around town are having special events to discuss aspects of the story.
The truth is that early Christianity was a really complex, diverse mix of different theologies and practices. It was far more diverse and separated than the current denominations are.. . . [Read More]

Day Three

James Forbes said that America has been sleeping through a devolution, paraphrasing MLK who said that many American clergy had slept through a revolution during the Civil Rights Movement.

The best person so far was Anna Carter Florence, of whom I had not heard before this week. She's had the best sermon and the best lecture yet. Among her bits of wisdom: you cannot preach the text if you are trying to prove that you can; you can't preach God's Word without putting your own word on the line, unprotected; the text does not take orders, especially from humans; testimony is the move from "He is risen" to "I have seen the Lord;" our testimony will be heard as nonsense, it is rejected, but it will linger; and her concluding sentence "Don't worry about the bullshit, that's the way it is supposed to be -- it builds up the church."

No notes to pass along from the other presentations.

Day Two

Barbara Brown Taylor lectured this morning. Her main point was that we should preach what we practice, that preaching should arise out of our spiritual practices.

Peter Gomes lectured and preached. His lecture thesis was "the Bible is a dangerous book, the less we know about it, the more powers we ascribe to it. He had a number of good points: there is a difference between making sense and making meaning; experience instead of explanation; don't confuse the Word of God with scripture; there is a difference between preaching the Bible and preaching the good news (the Bible suggests and points to the gospel, to replace the gospel with the Bible is like mistaking the signpost for the destination); biblical preaching is always counter-cultural and edgy. The bulk of his lecture developed the theme that we pastors must create listening congregations by 1) developing a climate of expectation that something will happen today; 2) creating a climate of trust by looking for the things that heal; and 3) by developing mutual experiences by doing things together over time.

Barbara Lundblad also lectured and I really liked it. It was after lunch, though, so I was tired and fading and didn't take good notes. She mostly discussed upcoming lectionary texts and ways we might approach them.

Taylor and Long

Oh my God. The church we are in, Peachtree UMC has the most amazing sanctuary. New, stunningly gorgeous with phenomenal acoustics (though a little live, but perfect for the organ), and the most amazing organ. First up was an organ recital that was so splendidly a foretaste of heaven that I was in ecstacy (some of you have seen me in such a state, look at my picture from the Counting Crows concert, for instance -- in the photo album Bringing in the Silliness).

Barbara Brown Taylor preached on the Good Samaritan. Her emphasis was on how we find life not by belief but doing, as Jesus taught in this parable. Particularly, we find life when we draw close -- the first of the fourteen verbs that describe the Samaritan (as opposed to only two verbs each for the priest and Levite). She made a point about how in God's reign we always come back to love and care for humans in their bodily form.

It was quite spectacular to hear her in person. She was a little fast in her delivery, but otherwise wonderful. A great use of humour throughout the sermon, but combined with scholarly erudition.

After worship, Thomas Long lectured on how we should be concerned with the aesthetic quality in sermons. He talked about how sermonizing often follows a Kantian formula of first knowledge, then ethics, with beauty kinda tacked on. But what would change if beauty was our first concern? By beauty he used an Eastern Orthodox sense of something that draws us with mystery and awe to desire something beyond ourselves. He said that our sermons should not succumb to the contemporary use of language that has lost eloquence and refers to nothing. He said that our language is too focused on simple things because we have become too focused on simple things. Preaching should avoid this by using language that evokes mystery and awe, though at the same time "not dancing too far from the language of the streets." He cited some brilliant examples of this, the best a C. S. Lewis sermon.

Tomorrow Long will preach and Taylor will lecture. Peter Gomes will lecture and then preach after that!