Tag Archives: culture

Writing in the Hell of Exile

Or, some thoughts on Barton Fink (streamable it on Netflix or via Amazon).

You might be asking yourself, “Self, why is jrdk posting thoughts about a film that came out 22 years ago?”

To this the answer would be twofold: (1) The Coen Brothers are the greatest storytellers of our generation, so it is always appropriate to write about their films; and (2) jrdk is going to be writing an essay on the reception of the Bible in Coen Brothers movies, so he’s doing his homework.

I don’t want to get too fancy about the whole “reception of the Bible thing,” so let me put it like this: the Coens regularly use allusions to scripture as anchor points for interpreting the palettes of imagery that suffuse their films.

Barton Fink is a quintessential example of this.

Fink is a playwright. He feigns modesty, and is genuinely self-deceived about his commitment to the common man–toward whom he is endlessly condescending and to whom he cannot, will not, listen. But about whom and for whom he desires to write.

Barton Fink envisions himself as a creator, though he seems capable only of recycling the same lines again and again.

And, Barton’s move from New York to Hollywood is an exile. More specifically, it is a Jewish man’s Babylonian exile. The recipient of a novel entitled, “Nebuchadnezzar,” written by an author who is currently working on a screenplay entitled, “Slave ship,” Barton stays at a hotel that is a hanging garden evocative of the ancient Babylonian wonder. The film invites being read in concert with the book of Daniel, specifically, the recounting of faithful aristocratic Jews navigating their life in Babylonian exile.

The hotel seems to double as a sort of hell. The desk man, Chet!, comes up from a trap door in the floor–a typically devilish short of entrance. Fink signs himself into the guest book and we see it from the God’s eye view above. [“You can check out any time you like but you can never leave”?]

The Biblical resonances are more than faint allusions.

There is one scene where Barton is at his wits’ end, and picks up the Bible the Gideons had left in the desk drawer. He reads:

And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, “I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”

This is a modification to the biblical text, which does not name Nebuchadnezzar. It’s a change that helps us draw the lines between the text Barton reads, the book he receives earlier, and the whole idea of Babylonian exile.

It seems to me that this text points in two directions at once. First, there has been a chopping to pieces. It is the Coens, after all! Goodman Aflame in Barton Fink

But it also becomes a picture of what Barton is trying, and ultimately fails, to do: he is supposed to conjure up exactly what the studio mogul wants of him, but he’s not told what to do. The mogul has a dream, and Barton is supposed to tell it in his script. The studio owner says he wants that “Barton Fink” feeling, but… well… not so much.

The modified Daniel reference is immediately followed by another biblical reference.

Barton thumbs from Daniel to Genesis. And there, at Gen 1:1, rather than “In the beginning God created…” we see the first lines of Barton’s own film script, lines he has typed and stared at repeatedly:

Chapter One 1. Fade in on a tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Faint traffic noise is audible; 2. As is the cry of fishmongers.

The juxtaposition is significant. Later Barton will proclaim himself to be a creator. But what he creates is not in keeping with his “king’s” dream. His own words, replacing the words of Gen 1, show how Barton sees himself–playing God, creating a new world for the common man in theater, in film.

The biblical Daniel realizes that reading the king’s mind and interpreting his vision is not the work of any man on earth. Barton thinks himself a god-like being, and so possesses no such realization, making himself into a sort of anti-Daniel.

Barton ends up passing through a fiery furnace before all is said and done, another juxtaposition of his hotel with hellish imagery that signals to us that Barton’s project and his very self are not as noble as he seems to think.

One other biblical layer comes to mind.

Barton is supposed to be writing a wrestling picture. But he knows nothing about wrestling movies. And he knows nothing about wrestling.

I wondered if this failure to apprehend wrestling was one of the indications of Barton’s failure to grasp his own identity. Throughout the film Barton’s Jewishness is a recurring theme. But is he “Israel”? Is he one who knows what it is to wrestle with God?

If you’ve not seen Barton Fink, go watch it. We’ll wait.

If you have watched it, what do you think? Are there things I’m missing? Things you disagree with? Points you think are helpful for holding this film together?

A couple of my own ideas in closing: (1) the fact that someone is using biblical imagery doesn’t mean that they are retelling a Bible story, and we shouldn’t expect them too; but (2) the fact that someone isn’t retelling a Bible story doesn’t mean they’re not telling a biblical story. (In fact, I’d say that the Coens end up telling some of the most biblical stories in Hollywood precisely because they are free enough from the idea of retelling the particular stories to create new stories that capture things in fresh ways.)

Also, if anyone can explain that girl in the picture to me, I’d be eternally grateful. Hopefully, I listen better than Barton…

Creating Space

Blosphere confessional: I rant here sometimes. More than that, some might say that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about a couple issues that come around regularly.

To the point: I can be downright confrontational about the fact that the Bible is not inerrant or that the world as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.

Why poke the hornet’s nest? (And, it is a hornet’s nest!)

Here’s the reason: one of the most important messages we communicate when we talk about our faith is what the borders are, outside of which one cannot be part of “us.” The ways people speak about inerrancy and creationism in some quarters communicates this: that if there is an error in the Bible or if we are here as a result of an evolutionary process then Christianity is not true.

When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.

Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.

What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)

That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.

This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.

Why do I rant about “what the Bible is”? Mostly, because I want as many of us as possible to be creating more space within the world of faithful, Jesus-following Christianity for people to continue following Jesus whether or not they’ve found a mistake in the Bible.

Or, to put it another way: there is no reason that someone should feel as though their whole faith is called into question by Bart Ehrman’s NT Intro course.

I have a parallel agenda with evolution: I have read some about evolution. I’m no expert.

But what I do know is that by treating evolution as a scandal to the Christian faith we are creating choices for our college students that not only lead them to being unduly scandalized by their education, but also to fleeing from fields where they might be most useful to the world.

On the latter point: while we get our knickers in a wad about why evolution is demonic, I have an agnostic/atheistic friend who spends all day as an evolutionary biologist studying the evolution of cancer cells so as to help lay the groundwork for future more effective treatments.

He is making the world a better place (something I think God actually cares about) by helping push back the hold that a nefarious disease can take on our bodies (overcoming sickness–I think God cares about) by working in a field that we close off to our young people by raising all sorts of doubts about whether such activity is an active denial of the existence of God.


Here’s the deal: even if the most nuanced articulations of creationism over against evolution, or of what sorts of “creativity” we might find in the Bible could cohere with inerrancy, allow for the very things I’m talking about, most people will not hear the breadth of what is allowed in the nuance, and will hear, instead, the black and white either/or.

Part of my job as a biblical scholar who cares about the church is not simply to engaged in the finely nuanced positions of my colleagues, but the effects of what we say “on the ground.” And part of my calling as a seminary professor is to clear out the ground that people stand on from all the clutter that accumulates on any horizontal surface. In this case, it’s the clutter of what “chrisitanity” demands that Christianity does not, in fact, require.

So I rant about evolution. And I rave about inerrancy. In doing this, what I want to communicate is that you don’t have to make a choice between science and Christian faith or between history and Christian faith.

There are a lot of difficult choices you will have to make. I am not trying to make Christianity easy or conform it to the way of the world.

Instead, I am trying to clear out all this meaningless clutter so that we can hear, instead, that the real decision we have to make is this: “Will you lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel? Will you take up your cross and follow?”

Selling Sex

There is a sex industry because people are willing to pay for it. There is a sex industry because men (mostly) want to have sex, yes, but also because we want to be aroused by it.

Last night I attended a screening of Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, a Christian documentary about the sex industry. It focuses on the lack of freedom that the women and children have who are servicing the “Johns.”

They are entrapped. They are enslaved. They are held there through physical and psychological coercion.

There were two bright spots in the film, one of them in the progress that Sweden is making in cutting down on its sex industry.

Sweden criminalizes the hiring of a prostitute at the level of what would be a felony in the U.S.

And the prostitutes? They are treated as people who need social services, counseling, protection, and rehabilitation in order to escape the industry, recover their dignity, and reenter society.

The chief enforcement officer of Sweden’s sex industry policies demonstrated what it takes to institute these kinds of laws. Here’s the mentality behind them:

Every act of prostitution is a degradation of a woman.
Every act of prostitution is an exploitation of a woman.
Prostitution is not sex, it is a man masturbating inside of a woman.

Sweden’s laws are undergirded by a cultural shift in understanding of how to think about sex for money.

In America, we are in no place to institute such laws because all of us, all day long, are paying for sex.

Every time we buy our clothes at Abercrombie and Fitch, we are paying for the sexual titillation they have offered us through their hyper sexualized ads.

As Julie Clawson was lamenting earlier this week, NBC won’t even try to sell us Olympic sports where women are large athletes or compete fully clothed or covered.

And we’re not even talking about the $13 billion dollar per year porn industry. (In the U.S., that is.)

There is a sex trade industry because there is a market for it, a market that does not contain solid borders from which those of us who have never paid a sex worker are hermetically sealed. It is a market whose black fades to grey in the everyday purchasing of sex that drives our marketing- and consumer-dollar economy.

Men want sex. A lot. And we pay for it in various ways, even when sexual intercourse is not the actual product we’re buying. (The year that I worked in a restaurant, women servers typically made more money than men; men typically were paying the bill.)

The point in this is that treating women as sex objects, and exploiting that deep seated tendency, is a deeply seated disposition in our hearts and in our culture.

Behind the terrible stories of girls being kidnapped, of mob bosses paying for safe border crossings, of terrified children huddled in out of the way apartments–behind all of this is a market. Men who want sex. Men who will pay for it. Men who are paying for it every day even when we’re not soliciting prostitutes.

As I reflect on my week–watching the Chick-fil-A dust-up, reading Julie’s article on the Olympics, watching a little Olympic coverage here and there, and now screening this film, I’m humbled by a couple of things.

First, most of us are complicit in the selling and buying of sex. And I might say that all of us men are so complicit.

But second, I’m struck afresh by the message that the Church has been sending in the latest wave of our culture wars. We are acting as though the most egregious thing a man can do sexually is to desire and have sex with another man.

While all the time there is this multi-billion dollar sex industry, representing one of the gravest human slavery industries in the modern world, being driven, mostly, by men’s insatiable desire for women.

If only we could redirect our righteous indignation here, against the objectification of women that runs right through the middle of not only the dark alleys but our own living rooms. If only we could agree that the selling of women for sex is degradation and exploitation–and see, also, how we’re all complicit.

There Is No They

There is no they, only us.

I got a reminder of this today, an uncomfortable reminder that I probably needed to hear.

There is no “they.”

This is what I told the guy at the hardware store. More specifically, I told him, “YOU ARE True Value.”

I bought a hose storage unit at my local hardware store about a month ago. It worked well, for about two weeks. Then it started leaking.

Today was the day. I walked the half block, defective implement in hand, to ask for an exchange.

One guy said no, not before we try to fix it. He tried. It’s in worse condition now.

The other guy told me to send it back to the company, that they would replace it. “But I bought it here. How about we exchange it, and you send it back?”

“True Value won’t do that.”

“You’re True Value.”

There is no mystical “them” who is responsible. When you have a True Value store, you are True Value.

When you are part of a church, especially in leadership (but not only then), there is no “they” who will or will not do something.

In those moments when what needs to be done butts up against the policy, or when what they’ve done embarrasses us, deferring to “them” is not going to convince the person in front of you that you are not part of that “them.” That person will only be convinced that you are different when you act, when you do what is right.

I regularly need reminding of this. There is no “them” who is the church, or my employer, or my family, someone else to blame in that organization I’m a part of when I’m as frustrated as the outsider.

But probably the place where I need the reminder most is in dealing with Christians en mass. There is no “they” who are doing those things that drive me bat-poop crazy, only an “us.”

I can’t control “us,” but I can own us. I can take responsibility for how we are engaging, offending, alienating the person in front of me. I can take responsibility for apologizing for our brokenness and striving to rectify messed up situations.

Badmouthing “them,” or blaming “them” rings hollow when we are they. The person standing in front of us, or reading our blog post or our article or our book or our Facebook status knows that we are they, even though we’d like to distance ourselves and conveniently forget.

I need to realize it, too.

Eschatology, Death, & Animals

What if Christianity’s great, final vision–where sin and death are no more but have been swallowed up forever–what if this great, final vision is not just for us?

What if the specter of death is removed from all creation? What if this is indicative of a harmonious cosmos in which there is no fear of anything because death (whether natural or violent) is no more?

What if the great messianic banquet and the wine Jesus promised in the age to come indicate a feast without death?

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In other words, might the eschatological picture of new creation entail a world of peace for animals?

Don’t tell me if this is right.

You see, I believe not so much in realized eschatology but in faithful realizing of what lies ahead. In other words, our calling is to see the new creation God is creating in Christ and bring it to bear on the present (by way of the cross).

So if the future is one of peace. If, say, the lion will lie down with the lamb and the ox with the bear–and not in the reclining posture of lion eating said lamb or of bear eating said ox!–then you might very well make a strong case for Christians to be vegetarians.

I know that Richard Bauckham wrote an essay on this, waxing theological on the phrase that Jesus was “with the wild animals” in Mark 1’s temptation scene.

So it’s been said before. But I’m looking for a loophole. If you would: please tell me why I’m wrong. We shouldn’t be vegetarians, should we?

Let me know. I’ll read it after I get done firing up the grill for a nice steak or something.

Dad for Dinner?! Pig Family Photos

One of the best parts of having kids is getting to revisit iconic cartoons from my childhood.

One of little dude’s favorites is the Three Little Pigs Silly Symphony:

Good cartoons always have a little something for the watching adults. In this case, the source of amusement lies in the rather politically incorrect family photos.

Mom is what you might expect:

But here’s dad:

And dad again:

Dad for dinner, anyone?

Talk About Sex

Talking about sex is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of things.

The images and lyrics and jokes and stories that fill our culture place sex at the forefront of practically everything we see and hear.

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But when the church tries to speak about sex, it often does so badly, earning it the dubious honor of being the only voice in the culture told to shut its mouth when it comes to sex. Why should pastors be considered sexperts? Stick to what you know, please!

And yet, a strangely religious claim has crept into our culture. In order to free ourselves to have the sexual experiences that we long for, we have as a people decided that sex is a purely private affair, not the sort of business that is the business of the church–or anyone else for that matter.

We adopt a strange gnosticism here, dissociating ourselves form our bodies, claiming that what we do with our bodies does not impact or reflect what kind of persons we are. (Assuming here consensual encounters between adults.)

But this week, the folks at ReImagine did a brave thing: they hosted a discussion about sex. Brave, in that they called a meeting for conversation and listening rather than mandating. Brave, in that the people who did speak told their own stories.

And the stories were honest, raw, humorous, and beautiful accounts of where sexuality fits with their spirituality.

That night of conversation was tremendously valuable; it created a virtual tidal wave (ok, that might be an exaggeration) of people who wanted to go next; it did leave people clamoring for more.

People need to talk about sex in ways that are true to our own experience. And people need to have space to figure out how their sexuality can be conducive to, and an overflow of, spiritual health.

Body and soul come together, as humans our parts are not hermetically sealed.

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Hearing the stories was freeing. Storytelling is powerful. It can create a new normal. And, in fact, I would say that this is part of what our culture needs with regard to sex: a new normal.

To take but one example: to a person, I think, those who told their stories expressed some experience of shame in their struggles to get comfortable in their own skin sexually. Gay and straight, single and married, virgin and sexually active and currently celibate. The struggle to find freedom from shame is normal.

Another point where we need a new normal: more isn’t the way to healthier sexuality, and less isn’t the road to dysfunction. Appropriate sexual expression requires what the Bible calls wisdom: knowing what is right for who you are at a given time.

The question of how sexuality influences and is influenced by your spirituality is likely to have as many answers as there are people who take up the question.

But here’s where storytelling is so helpful: it lets us see and hear that it’s complicated. Living as an integrated person is not simply about following a simple rule of no sex until after you’re married and then as much as possible from that time forward.

The “no judgment zone” is not a place where many evangelicals are comfortable. We want to assess, size up, and judge the stories in order to immediately point people toward what we understand to be the way of holiness.

And pursuing holiness in our sexuality is crucial.

But if we are not willing to create space where “normal” is shown to be far from our own experience, if we are not willing to hear that neither the “normal” of the world nor the alleged “normal” of the pulpit is the reality of the people we live with every day–if, in other words, we are unwilling to set up the “no judgment zone,” we will never achieve the vulnerability required to grow beyond the presumed “normal” and into truly integrated people.

Without telling our stories truly, first of all to ourselves!, we will never be able to achieve fidelity. Telling our stories is not the destination, but it might be the only way to begin the journey–not only as individuals, but as communities.

What does such a story look like?

1.5 to 2 typewritten pages.

Tell your story–past, present, and/or future.

Ask yourself: how have I experienced my sexuality? Where has God been? Where is there guilt or shame? Where is there joy and celebration and ecstasy? Who am I right now, and what does it mean to be a sexual person (even if not currently sexually active)?

Have at it. And share it with a friend.

No Country for Old Qoheleth

Over the past couple of weeks, the Reel Spirituality folks have posted the first two parts of a three part series I’ve written on Coen Brothers films and biblical wisdom literature.

The first was on True Grit and Proverbs, the second on A Serious Man and Job. Today’s installment is on the Qoheleth-haunted landscape of No Country for Old Men.

No Country for Old Men operates within the world of vanity, an absent God, nothing new under the sun, and unaccountable actions that we discover in Qoheleth.

The film, like the Cormac McCarthy book it is based on, tells the story of Sherriff Ed Tom Bell hunting Anton Chigurh who is, in turn, hunting Llewelyn Moss, a character we first meet when he is, yes, hunting. But… (read the rest at Reel Spirituality)

“Racism” in First Grade

Today I took little dude to a 5-year-old birthday party. Most of the kids in his pre-K class were there. About twelve to fifteen adults were native Spanish speakers; three of us were white; two were African American.

At the same time, Laura was on birthday party duty with CM, attending the festivities for a classmate. The 7-year-olds were supervised by a room full of about 50% white, and 50% Middle Eastern, Latino/a, and African American.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In our San Francisco world, “normal” means racially mixed company.

Perhaps this feeds my dissatisfaction with CM coming home from first grade on Friday all prepped for MLKJ day with a new vocabulary word: “racism.”

It’s not that the topic isn’t important. It’s not that MLKJ Day isn’t a crucial time to talk about issues of race and the struggles our country has had and continues to have. But I wonder if MLKJ’s memory might not be better honored by my first-grader celebrating the diversity that she lives in every day (her class is, at most, 1/3 white) rather than giving her a category for people whose destructive prejudice have marred, and continue to mar, the social fabric of our country?

So that’s my honest question for debate as we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. today: is his memory best honored by teaching our young children about the full darkness of racism upon which King shone his light? or is it better honored by celebrating with our young children the reality that he saw and that they are, in many ways, living into?

I am aware that questions of race strike deeply at the heart of many people’s identity. So please be aware of that and, as you my awesome readers often do so well here, let’s make sure we keep the conversation civil and constructive even if/as we disagree.