Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Real joy in a reel world

Robert Johnston’s Reel Spirituality is terrific. It’s a compelling read and the man is a genuinely literate cineaste - and it shows. In broad strokes and some deft analyses he surveys the influence of films on culture (and vice-versa) and challenges Christian moviegoers to think through contemporary issues addressed in films. The idea of engaging films in a kind of reverse hermeneutical dialogue is timely and I found his theological reflections insightful.

So I didn’t think twice grabbing Prof Johnston’s new book Useless Beauty in Kinokuniya. Titled after Elvis Costello’s song about “all this useless beauty,” the book looks at connections in contemporary movies and Ecclesiastes, fleshing out the futility of life in a Godless universe in a fresh new way. Interesting. I have read Ecclesiastes several times (even taught a young adults class), but putting on cinematic glasses to read this old Book of Wisdom – now that’s right down my alley!

As modernity unravels, increasingly people are turning to reel life for help with real life, says Johnston:
“To hold together joy and sorrow, meaninglessness and meaningfulness is a vexing problem in any age. But it was particularly difficult during most of the twentieth century, given our philosophical commitment to a linear epistemology. We came to believe that when understood clearly, everything would or could follow logically and orderly without friction or intrusion. But as modernity’s epistemological bankruptcy became more and more evident, our culture turned elsewhere for models by which to understand existence, including the arts.”
Hmm, movies as signposts and reference points (I think of Sleepless in Seattle – a movie inspired by Cary Grant’s An Affair To Remember, and whose characters referenced the latter for its plot). Of course you don’t watch a movie merely to pick up philosophical or theological nuggets. You know, you just want to sit back and have a good time taking in a really great movie (i.e., LOTR Trilogy which is one long movie, really) or maybe indulge in two hours of brainless diversion (i.e., Napoleon Dynamite). Yet neither medium nor message is without consequence, so one is either na├»ve or plain lazy to imagine a movie is a movie is a movie, and nothing more.

The existentialist underpinning of many of today’s movies (ie, American Beauty, Ikiru) compares remarkably well with Ecclesiastes where the themes of meaninglessness, contradictions, and paradox are prevalent. Yes, all these may be a painful fact of life, but that’s not the end of the matter: there’s hope yet, and Ecclesiastes tells us why in its concluding verses. As messy as life appears, God is in his heaven, and joy, one hopes, is not beyond grasp.

On the question of joy and pain, Johnston quotes Lewis Smedes’ How Can It Be Right When Everything Is All Wrong?:
“Joy also has to be compatible with the pain within me. To promise joy without pain is Pollyannaism, make-believe, deceit. Legitimate joy must be the experience of joy along with pain. And it seems to me possible.”
Here at home away from the reel world, we’re dealing with an illness in the family, my Dad’s. I’m treading water; in a sea of possibilities, I’m trying to keep my head up in spite of bleakness and pain. Naturally the conversation that Useless Beauty prompted had me hooked from page one.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Last mile?

It hasn’t been easy: It’s the Lunar New Year and the family’s reunion dinner but Dad’s not in good health. He had not been well in the last couple of weeks and Mom was understandably affected. Dad asked for his favourite dishes, Mom told us, the fragility of our conversations and clanging cutlery strained by sounds of Dad retching in the washroom.

Last Christmas Dad was decidedly more cheerful; he was frail, but there was colour in his cheeks. We exchanged gifts, and the kids took turns performing. BJ put together a moving powerpoint presentation of the family history in photos; In that one moment of song and laughter, it came to me anew that love, as the Bible says, covers a multitude of sins. The family is surely one of God’s good gifts to humanity, I thought. We drank a toast to Dad (champagne, no less), and he thanked God for extending his life and expressed gratitude for health and family.

And now, this. Two day after the New Year reunion dinner, Albert had him admitted to Sunway Medical Centre. A growing tumour, enlarged liver, more pain in the sternum, near zero appetite, bloody stools, low platelet counts, low sodium level, etc are all telling signs that he is deteriorating. Dad’s cancer is relentless.

It’s one thing to be aware of what’s happening but arriving at a consensus regarding the next course of action is difficult. Dad flip-flops between resignation and optimism – he wants to keep his appointment with a doctor in Singapore who’s scheduled to evaluate Dad’s suitability for an experimental treatment. Yet physically he is weakening, and so he hesitates. But the ticket’s bought, and my brother is taking time off work to fly down with him.

How do you tell the difference between the will to survive and false optimism? How do you tell your own Dad to face up to the inevitable? Nearing the last mile, how do you tell a dying man about dying well?

Should we?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

I'm The Hobbit!

You're The Hobbit!
by J.R.R. Tolkien
All you wanted was a nice cup of tea when some haggard crazy old man came into your life and told you it was time to do something with yourself. Now you're all conflicted about whether to stick with your stay-at-home lifestyle or follow this crazy person into the wild. While you're very short and a little furry, you seem to be surrounded by an even greater quantity of short folks lately. Try not to lose your ring, but keep its value in perspective!
Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

You know, the first time I took the quiz, I came off as Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (see my post on xanga). Now I'm The Hobbit. It's true then - you can't judge a book by its cover. But 'short and a little furry?' There's a smidgeon of truth in there somewhere, because someone did come into my life and told me to do something with myself. I did, and that's how I ended up where I am today, for better or for worse.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Goodbye, Claire

International student Claire from Korea (front, second from left) poses with her farewell gifts and some members of our CG. After 11 months at Hope EFC she left behind fond memories of a bubbly girl who became very much one of us. We'll miss her.  Posted by Hello

Friday, February 04, 2005

Genes vs Grace

My third uncle passed away in Ipoh, Monday. Not unexpectedly, since he had been in and out of surgery after a tumour was found in his brain 2 or 3 years ago.

Drove down with my wife and kids, and Auntie May - my Mom’s younger sister - who told us that their brother CY was a dissolute man who almost gambled his family away. He was the family blacksheep whose name was spoken with a look of mild contempt. He would shamelessly approach relatives (including nephews young enough to be his son!) for money - always with a promise this would be the last time, that he would reform.

Incredibly, his wife and children took everything in their stride although shame kept them from meeting up with the rest of the clan more regularly. CY’s four children have done remarkably well for themselves despite constant setbacks and the occasional threats from loan sharks.

Then almost 10 years ago, things changed: the witness of Auntie May brought him to Jesus. His conversion was signaled with the delivery of a gift hamper and RM500 cash to Auntie May, thanking her for her help (and rebuke!) through the hungry years. CY went to church faithfully (by this time the rest in the family had also come to the Lord) and even took a trip to the States with a church group to a Promise Keepers Convention!

It is fashionable these days to say that gambling is genetically predisposed, an unfortunate pathology that dogs millions of compulsive gamblers. I don’t know about that. However I do believe genetics does not negate responsibility even if the range of behavioural responses may be narrower than for most. As I see it, in God’s economy, there’s always room for grace.

Awhile back, my friend DF who in a voluble moment declares belief in genetic determinism found himself between a rock and a hard place when some co-workers repeatedly failed to carry their load. “Hey, they couldn’t help themselves – didn’t you say it’s in their genes?” I joked. He admitted that determinism sound fine in theory, “but you can’t live it,” he added.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Left gets it right 2

“I took refuge in a knee-jerk liberal identity for a long time, but now it's threadbare and not as comfortable as it once was” wrote Jeff Simmermon in his blog after interviewing Iraqi expats in the US casting their votes. Titled, Like Millions Of Iraqis, I Made A Long Journey To The Nearest Polling Place Today, this honest bit of reporting is one of a kind, and a link to Instapundit brought in 10,000 visitors. The last time I checked there were 99 comments.

Definitely worth a read. Comes with pictures too.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The left gets it right

It appears some researchers have found a way to quantify liberal bias found in U.S print and TV news media. Last year in a study called, “A Measure of Media Bias," Tim Groseclose of UCLA and Jeffrey Milyo of the University of Missouri found it was possible to pick out more objectively the political inclinations of news publishers and broadcasters using a statistical technique that's like the U.S. Congressional voting records. The findings?

The Wall Street Journal ranked highest left off center (85.1 - the higher the score the more liberal), followed by New York Times (73.7)and CBS Evening News (73.7). [More here]

So it was refreshing to read that Wall Street Journal has something nice to say about Iraq for a change. The feature titled, The New Iraq: So Much For The Argument That the Arabs Don’t Want Democracy is no gushing prose, but it admits that the recent elections proved the terrorists were an unpopular minority rejected by the majority of Iraqis:
The world won't know for a week or longer which candidates won yesterday's historic Iraq elections, but we already know the losers: The insurgents. The millions of Iraqis who defied threats and suicide bombers to cast a ballot yesterday showed once and for all that the killers do not represent some broad "nationalist" resistance.

The true Iraqi patriots are those who risked their lives to vote, apparently in much larger numbers than anticipated. "I would have crawled here if I had to," 32-year-old Samir Hassan, who lost a leg in a car-bomb blast last year, told Reuters. "I don't want terrorists to kill other Iraqis like they tried to kill me." Yesterday's coverage on TV and in print was full of similar comments from Iraqis--which is especially notable since so much of the Western press has been anticipating a much worse outcome.
Read the rest of it here. It's not the end of terror, but it sure is a step forward.