Although Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center has now cancelled his plan to burn Qur’ans, the general outline of the situation as it unfolded over the last few days is disturbingly familiar. Here is yet another leader of a small religious fringe group who threatened to commit an extreme act unless his demands were met (meeting with the leaders of the Islamic cultural center in New York and/or negotiating its relocation). Change the details, and that could describe any number of terrorist groups rather than a Christian one.

 I don’t think we should be surprised that the 9/11 attacks, committed by those on the radical fringes of Islam, would elicit a mirror response from someone on the fringes of Christianity. The point is, Christians who vehemently disagree with Jones’s stance toward Islam and his plan to burn the Qur’an now know something of what most Muslims feel when terrorist acts are committed in the name of Islam.

 May such empathy help lay a foundation for understanding that leads to peace in the face of the fear and tension felt by so many around the country.

Well, hello, SPOILERS! (Major spoilers for both Inception and 2001 follow; read no further if you haven’t seen the films.)

At first glance, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception is a clever variation on The Matrix. Both films explore the question of how to distinguish “real” reality from one that is constructed (and shared by multiple protagonists); both feature fantastic fight scenes occurring in their constructed realities; and both Inception and the Matrix trilogy end on triumphant yet distinctly ambiguous notes (Inception suggests that its hero’s escape to reality is in fact still a dream; the third Matrix movie suggests that Neo’s victory against the machines is merely one in a continuing series of iterations).

After two viewings of Inception, however, I propose that the other film with which it is in explicit conversation is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The evidence:

  • Use of mythology. In 2001, Dave Bowman is the modern Odysseus who returns home after a fantastic voyage, albeit having been dramatically transformed. In Inception, Dom Cobb’s primary reason for taking Saito’s offer is to return home to his children. In this case, his voyage is through multiple dream levels. But Nolan adds a second mythological layer to Kubrick’s Odyssean one: that of the labyrinth and the story of Theseus and the minotaur. Cobb recruits an architect named Ariadne whose role is to construct dream labyrinths; in the ancient myth, she provides Theseus with the means to escape the labyrinth through the use of a thread. Inception, then, posits Cobb’s wife Mal both as a modern Penelope, longing for his return, but also as the minotaur, stalking Cobb through the various dream levels.
  • Dialogue. In 2001, the scientist Heywood Floyd makes a phone call home from the space station, from which he is about to depart to the moon. The call is to his daughter, who wants to know when he’ll be home. In Inception, Cobb makes a phone call to his children after the botched attempt to extract information from Saito. Without having reviewed the dialogue in 2001, the two scenes struck me as being remarkably similar, at least in their tenor if not in exact wording. Floyd promises to bring his daughter a gift for her birthday; Cobb later delivers a gift to Michael Caine’s character to deliver to his children.
  • Visuals. Various scenes take place in gravity-free places in both movies, of course, but particular images are also similar. In 2001, Bowman’s trip through the “stargate” ends in an oddly sterile room; presumably, the alien force that brought Bowman there has attempted to recreate a familiar environment from his memories. Kubrick depicts him growing older through a brilliant series of shifts in perspective, one of which features Bowman accidentally knocking his glass to the floor, until finally Bowman lies in bed, an old man on the verge of death. In Inception, Cobb recreates the hotel room in which he and Mal used to spend their anniversaries. When Ariadne visits this room, Mal breaks a glass as she threatens her; at another point, Cobb steps on a glass as he walks through the room. And, of course, the crucial scene in the climax of Inception features an old man lying in bed in a sterile “hospital” room.
  • The journey through old age and return to youth. As noted, in 2001 Dave Bowman ages from a thirty-something man to someone extremely old before reaching out for the monolith one last time. In the final moments of the movie, he returns to earth—as what, we’re not entirely certain. But the image Kubrick gives us is that of an infant still in, but presumably about to break free of, a cosmic womb. In Inception, Cobb and Mal spend 50+ years in limbo, aging together as they build the world around them. Cobb’s realization that they need to return to reality, and Mal’s inability to handle reality when they do so, is the key to the story.

What to make of all this? I haven’t spent much time looking for reviews that compare Inception and 2001, but Greg Yolen wrote this:

Now, it’s a losing game, calling out 2001 in any movie not as good as 2001, (i.e., just about every movie,) and here it serves as a comparison only favorable to Nolan in that Kubrick himself wasn’t known for the warmth that exuded from his films, either. But Nolan’s use of this allusive room turns out to be a handy gauge for what separates the two filmmakers. In 2001, the room Dave Bowman enters is a place uncharted, the final destination of the odyssey into his own mind: ultimate truth. In INCEPTION, Nolan’s room is the equivalent of The Big Store in a long con game. It’s a false construction, built to fool the subject: a sham version of the 2001 space it emulates. Like the room that acts as its final treasure chest, INCEPTION is outstanding modern trickery – but compared to the 2001, it feels like OCEAN’S 2001. Just a game.

Yolen’s right that calling out Kubrick and 2001 is usually not a good idea. But how often does that really happen? How often does someone actually take up the gauntlet that Kubrick threw down and attempt to make a movie of the same scope and epic scale as 2001?* I’m no film historian, but I can’t think of that many films since 1968 that have done so (at least in the sci-fi category), much less announced their intentions of doing so.

* By which I mean, among other things, addressing a contemporary concern (in Kubrick’s case, Cold War-era fear of atomic/nuclear annihilation) while at the same time asking questions about humanity’s place in the universe and attempting to capture the otherness of an alien life force, all wrapped up in a cinematic form that sets out to do nothing less than recreate the conditions of being in deep space for the audience (2001‘s poster declared: “Space Station One: your first stop on an Odyssey that will take you to the Moon, the planets, and the distant stars”).

What I’m talking about is the nature of being inspired by a great work of art and how one responds to it. And here I’ll come to the point. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Christopher Nolan is a great admirer of 2001. I suspect that he’s asked himself the same question that I’ve asked about the movie: How do you top that? The answer that he ultimately came up with was to tell a story that went in, not out. Rather than go into the outer-space territory covered by 2001, he posited an interior dream landscape that could be just as expansive and crafted a story around it. As an artist he was not content to drop in a bit of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” or the odd image from 2001 as a throwaway shout-out, as most cinematic borrowings from that film have been. Rather, he grounded Inception in some of the very same thematic and structural motifs.

Now, whether you think that resulted in a more or less entertaining film is for you to decide. And like Greg Yolen, you may think Inception‘s borrowing elements from 2001 resulted in a cheap knock-off. But the nature of artistic creation has ever been thus. Virgil’s Aeneid is a clear reworking of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Kubrick’s 2001 announced its dependence on the latter work in its title. The Matrix is a mashup of kung-fu movies, Japanese anime, and who knows what else. Inception picks up the ball with its blend of mythology, classic heist movies, and questions about the nature of reality.

That Inception means to provoke these sorts of musings is proved by the final shot and the dialogoue we hear in the background. The first time I saw the movie, like the rest of the audience I focused on the spinning top, waiting to see if it would fall. On second viewing, I looked at what was behind the top on the table: glasses of water filled with paintbrushes and, I believe, a child’s toy or two, suggesting that Cobb’s children had been watercoloring or something similar shortly before he arrived home. Meanwhile, Cobb has joined his children. His young son exclaims, “Look what I’ve been building, Daddy!” Cobb: “What have you been building?” But then the son’s reply is muffled, although I thought I heard the word house.

So: the top spins in front of a set of artist’s brushes and we are left with the question “What have you been building?” I suggest that the top is not only a totem for all the dreamscape/reality questions the movie raises but also for questions of inspiration and artistic creation. Cobb’s son’s declaration is Nolan’s declaration to the audience: “Look what I’ve built.” And Cobb’s reply is the audience’s: “What is it?” Nolan is dealing here with the anxiety of influence by addressing it head-on. He means for us to recognize his usage of 2001 and The Matrix (and possibly other films) and is asking us, rather directly, “What do you think? Did I do it? Were you as entertained/inspired by Inception as I was by these other films?” And the last image of the film is the top spinning and spinning (and wobbling?), waiting for my answer and yours.

Practicing the presence of God is to deliberately engage with heart, soul, mind, and strength what Adam and Eve desperately tried to avoid after they sinned—and what we’d prefer to avoid too. That, as I understand it, is the challenge of the contemplative life and the point of every spiritual discipline.

OK, I confess: I have a hard time finishing a book before starting another. I’ve also realized I’ll never get around to writing full-fledged book reviews for every book I read. So here’s a little summary of what I’ve been reading lately. If you’re reading some of the same things, chime in and tell me what you think.

  • Gregory Fruehwirth, Words for Silence, and Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year. After taking my first retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani last fall, I’m more and more attracted to the idea that—as the monks themselves declare—anyone can live the contemplative life. These two books are aids to doing that. They’re both organized around the church year. Fruehwirth, a member of the Episcopal Order of Julian of Norwich, has written meditations based on chapter talks he gave to the order. Joan Chittister’s book is not simply a dry history of the origins of the church calendar; rather, her chapters are meditations on the meaning of each liturgical season. I’m finding both books valuable in grounding myself in the liturgical calendar.
  • Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed. Um, why did I wait so long to read this? Six years on, this is still an incredibly potent book. Their targum of Col. 1:15-20 is so powerful, I had to put the book down for a couple minutes after reading it. Recommended if you’ve been wondering what all the fuss about postmodernity and empire was all about.
  • Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments (Interpretation). I’m only a couple chapters in (still, that’s 100 pages), but this is clearly going to be a standard work to return to over and over again. Miller explicates the meaning of each commandment, as you might expect, but the real value of the book may be in how he traces out the trajectory of the commandments throughout scripture, including the New Testament. I blogged an example here.
  • Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. I don’t know if Armstrong knows anything about the emerging church, but those familiar with Pete Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God (or Pete’s sources, including the Christian mystical tradition) will find much familiar here. Armstrong makes clear right up front that she’s interested in tracing out the apophatic traditions about God in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, although her major emphasis is on Christianity. I’m about halfway through the book, and over and over again she emphasizes how believing the right things (a certain prescribed set of doctrines) is a relatively recent development compared to the long tradition of emphasizing right practices. It seems pretty clear what she’s going to conclude, but I’ll reserve judgment until finishing. My only question at this point is whether she could’ve accomplished her task in briefer compass.
  • Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity. I’m only about 7 chapters in, but it seems pretty clear that this is Brian’s “here I stand, I can do no other” book. Like Richard Hughes (see below), Brian is putting his flag down firmly, but his writing is, as usual, irenic and highly accessible.
  • Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity. Cairns is a poet and professor of English at the University of Missouri. In this book he’s taken some of the early church fathers and mystics and adapted/translated their writings into poetry. The results are just beautiful. I’m slowly working through these, usually reading a few on Sunday mornings before church.
  • Richard Hughes, Christian America and the Kingdom of God. I finished this a few weeks ago, but haven’t had time to finish my review, so wanted to include it here. Hughes gets right to the point: the notion of a Christian America propagated by many, particularly on the evangelical right, has little or nothing to do with the biblical portrait of the kingdom of God. Hughes spends a lot of time tracing the kingdom of God in scripture—a helpful reminder, to be sure—but perhaps more valuable for me was his rehearsal of evangelical history showing how the idea of Christian America developed as it did.

What are you reading?

This week I ate at two places new to me. The Silly Goose in East Nashville features locally grown and organic food in its dishes; a chalkboard on the wall lists some of their suppliers and the foods they’ve supplied. The Goose’s menu is very simple and, I imagine, subject to change with the seasons. I actually ate there twice this week.

Inside The Silly Goose

The first time I had the Sparky wrap, with turkey breast, basil aioli, dried cranberries, brie, pecans, and baby greens, with a side of herbed couscous and a basil lemonade. All very tasty, and the basil  lemonade was a revelation. A touch of balsamic syrup on the couscous was just right. On the second occasion, I had the Goose Stack salad, with chopped mango and roasted red pepper, sliced avocado, goat cheese, tomato, baby greens, mint, and basil. This dish was very artfully prepared. The greens, topped with a ginger-citrus vinaigrette, were separated to one side of the plate, while, as the name indicates, the other ingredients were stacked: tomato slice on the bottom, topped with the other items. Again, very tasty, and all the ingredients were fresh. My wife and I tried the orange coriander ice cream, which was fantastic. Check out the Nashville Scene’s review of The Silly Goose here.

Cafe Bosna turned out to be in an unassuming strip mall I’d passed many times without giving it a second thought. Owner Sevala Kulovic and her husband were refugees from the Bosnian war and have now been in the States sixteen years. Her menu features a mix of American and Eastern Europe-inspired dishes; she usually has a special or two not listed on the menu. On the night we visited, it was the traditional goulash, which I couldn’t pass up. I had it over rice, with a side salad and pita bread. Delicious. The beef practically melted in my mouth. (Yes, I generally avoid meat unless I know where it comes from. So sue me. I loved every bite.) My wife had a ginger veggie wrap, which she gave a thumbs-up to. Check out The Tennessean’s recent review here.

Sevala Kulovic, owner of Cafe Bosna

In addition to the delicous food, what made dining at these places enjoyable was the friendliness of the staff and the intimacy of the spaces. The Silly Goose is practically a hole in the wall; there are only four tables and a bar with four stools for seating. Apparently they are set up to do a lot of take-out. But the staff was very friendly and helpful, and when your food arrives there’s no doubt it’s been hand-made. Cafe Bosna has a somewhat bigger space but, like The Silly Goose, its seating area and kitchen area feel very open to each other, with only a counter separating them. The night my wife and I were there, only a couple other patrons were in the restaurant, and Sevala took time to talk to us and tell us a bit of her own story. Honestly, it felt like we were visiting a Bosnian great-aunt we never knew we had. We promised we’d be back—and we will.

So, a couple of discoveries in Nashville dining this week. And the more you find places like this, the harder it is to go back to the corporate, industrialized, pseudo-hospitality dining of Chili’s, Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, etc.

It was May 24, 2000. Several months before O Brother, Where Art Thou? hit movie screens, Joel and Ethan Coen and T-Bone Burnett mounted a concert of the movie’s music at the Ryman Auditorium. In part, “Down from the Mountain” was a fundraiser for the new Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. A friend and I were there, and on the second row, because a couple of weeks earlier I had emailed the answer to a trivia question to the local newspaper (What Coen Bros. movie won the Palm D’or at Cannes? Barton Fink) and scored the tickets.

Joel and Ethan Coen were there, and Billy Bob Thornton was on the front row. Holly Hunter kicked things off by explaining the rationale for the show and introducing the opening act. For the next couple of hours we were treated to performances from some of the great bluegrass and Americana (and blues and a cappella) artists around: Alison Krauss & Union Station, John Hartford (who was also the emcee), the Fairfield Four, the Cox family, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the Whites, Ralph Stanley, etc.

Of all the great highlights of the show, the best for me was Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings’ rendition of “Green Pastures,” backed up by Jerry Douglas on dobro. You know how there are some songs that, even if you’ve never heard them before, on first listening it seems like you’ve always known them? “Green Pastures” was like that for me. (If you’re interested, Emmylou Harris also covers the song on her Spyboy album.) After the show, we drove home in possibly the hardest rainstorm I’ve ever had to drive in. It was really unbelievable.

All in all, it was probably the best concert experience I’ve ever had. What we couldn’t have known then, but know now, is that O Brother would turn out to be the Coens’ biggest financial success to date, and that the soundtrack would help ignite the bluegrass resurgence of the last decade. For that reason, too, it was a historical occasion, never to be repeated.

The concert was filmed by documentarian DA Pennebaker and is available on DVD. The first third is behind the scenes footage, meaning the entire concert is not actually shown. Hopefully, all of the footage will be released one day. (And yes, you can see my 2000 self if you know where to freeze frame.)

Note: In this reflection I’ll consider primarily today’s Gospel reading.

Reading: John 1:(1-9), 10-18

John 1 is one of those passasges you just can’t say too much about. Today’s reading is a grand christological/theological proclamation, audacious in its claim that God did something unprecedented in the incarnation of Jesus. At the same time, John is clearly attempting to connect Jesus to Jewish tradition, to remain within the bounds of “orthodoxy.”

What do I mean? First, of course, we notice that verse 1 reformulates Genesis 1:1, placing Jesus with God at the beginning of God’s creative work. Except, second, we notice that John avoids naming Jesus and instead calls him “the Word.” Whatever the other implications of the Greek words logos, John identifies the Word as a figure through whom all things were created, a concept found in Jewish tradition in the figure of Woman Wisdom (for example, see today’s accompanying readings in Sirach 24 and Wisdom of Solomon 10).

Then we come to verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Here is John’s most scandalous statement. To assert that God would in any way become visible directly contradicts the Second Commandment, in which God commanded the people not to make idols—of other gods, of course, but also and apparently of God, too. As John goes on to assert in verse 18, no one has seen God. So to say not only that the Word became flesh, but that we have seen his glory (“the glory of the Lord” is a common OT euphemism for God’s presence) appears to be blasphemy of the highest order.

But there may be a certain theological logic behind John’s statement. As Patrick Miller notes in his recent book on the Ten Commandments, it may be that one of the reasons God prohibits the people from making idols, or images, of gods or Godself is that God had in fact already created an “image of God”—that is, humanity itself. The only one allowed to create an image of God is God. Turning back to John, then, it should probably come as no surprise that, in order to make the stunning assertion that God became flesh, John takes the reader back to Genesis 1 and God’s creative action. God creating an image of Godself when the Word becomes flesh has a certain continuity with the idea of God creating humanity in God’s image. With the notable exception, of course, that this particular image of God is full of God’s grace and truth (see also Colossians 1:15, where Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”). Finally, if we read slowly, we notice that it is not until John establishes this basic idea that he goes on to name Jesus as the particular one in whom the Word became flesh.

Heady stuff for Christmas (in typical secular understanding). But these words from Gregory Fruehwirth say it nicely: “The fullness of God’s Self was present in Jesus, and as a result of God’s indwelling Spirit, we can begin to live the moments of our lives as likewise filled with God, open to the full reality of the eternal Word. This new potential of creation to bear the fullness of God’s life and light is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is what Jesus’ birth announces” (Words for Silence, p. 43).

I’ve just started Patrick Miller’s new book on the Ten Commandments. I’m still in the first chapter on the first and second commandments, but one of the aspects of the book I appreciate already is that, beyond merely explicating its meaning, Miller surveys how each commandment is picked up and used throughout the rest of the biblical literature beyond its appearance in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

For example, Miller notes that Jesus affirms the first commandment (“you shall have no other gods before me”) by quoting Deut. 6:13 when tempted by the devil to bow down and worship him: “The Lord your God you shall fear/worship; him [alone] you shall serve.” For Miller, the significance of this is that, even—or especially—as the Son of God, Jesus’ relationship to God is not marked by special privilege that exempts him from giving ultimate allegiance to God; rather, the opposite is true. For Jesus’ disciples, this means that

Following Jesus is not to replace the object of our worship but is a commitment to follow no other gods, however tempting they may be, and to worship the Lord your God and the Lord alone. Whatever identity is made between Jesus and God, whether in the language of “Son of God” or of “Lord,” the incarnate one embodies a faithfulness to the First Commandment that shows the way for all who follow him. (44)

I don’t think the significance of this can be overstated. The point can be made in many ways, but it’s especially obvious in the story of Jesus’ temptation: Jesus (and the early church) saw himself as being faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Did God do something unprecedented in raising Jesus from the dead? Yes. But for those early Jewish Christians, Jesus’ resurrection meant not the beginning of a new religion but the affirmation of the faithfulness/righteousness of the God the Jews had known from of old.

As Christians learn to follow Jesus, we learn that we are part of a story that stretches back to and begins with God’s creative intentions for the world, and includes the way God chose a people to embody those intentions. If some of our earlier ancestors in the faith had remembered this, perhaps some of the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism could have been avoided.

This is my half of the Christmas letter my wife and I sent out this year.

Looking back, I can’t help but think of 2009 as the year I lost a job that I really enjoyed. My position was eliminated at the end of July; but UMPH found another position for me in the organization. I was more fortunate than some of my colleagues and friends who were laid off; still, this was (and is) an unwelcome transition, one I’m still adjusting to.

      Development editing was a creative outlet for me. So, one of the things I did to compensate for its loss was to start blogging in the fall. The blog is a place for me to put down some thoughts in writing, even if no one (or not very many) reads them.

      Another of the highlights of my fall was my first-ever retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, where I spent a mostly silent week away from the noise and chatter of everyday life, trying to remind myself of what was really important.

      I’m more grateful than ever for Leigh, for family, and for friends. I’m more convinced than ever that being human means living in proper relationship with God, other people, and all of God’s creation. But I’m also more aware than ever of how hard it is to do that in this day and age.

        So I look forward to 2010 with gratitude for the past year and hope for the next one. I look forward to Leigh (fingers crossed) finishing her dissertation. I look forward to the transitions and changes—whether vocational, geographical, or both—that it would bring. I look forward to spending time with friends and family, and to getting outdoors as much as possible.

      I hope for a safe and healthy 2010 for all of you, but no matter what else happens, I pray that the peace of God is always with you. 

      Tim

Easter is. Joan Chittister makes this point perfectly clear in The Liturgical Year:

Christmas simply commemorates, not celebrates, the historical birth of Jesus, whenever that might have been. Because of Christmas, the life of Jesus was possible. Because of Christmas, the Incarnation can be fulfilled at Easter. Because of Christmas, the humanity of Jesus is fact. But the birth of Jesus is not the central meaning of the faith. On the contrary, it is the death and Resurrection of Jesus that are the core of Christianity. The liturgical year is, then, actually about Easter. (53-54)

One reason this is important is that it reveals just how profoundly distorted the secular glorification of Christmas actually is. Sure, the media covers Easter when it rolls around, but let’s face it—when it comes to American culture at large, Christmas is where it’s at. The crass commercialization of the holiday is just the surface representation of a much deeper—and I would argue, willful—misunderstanding of the Christ story.

Our culture is more than happy to give Jesus face time at Christmas because Baby Jesus is a safe Jesus. A cute Jesus. A gentle Jesus. A domesticated Jesus. A Jesus that makes no demands. Never mind that the infancy narratives of the Gospels (especially Matthew) anticipate Jesus’ own suffering when Herod orders the baby boys in Bethlehem to be murdered (an event remembered during the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the liturgical year).

Christmas, as it’s generally understood, is not the focus of the Christian faith. It’s merely the first stop on the way to Easter, a path that takes us through Jesus’ Passion and on to the Resurrection, an event that asks us to reexamine Jesus’ life and our lives in light of God’s radical in-breaking into the world. But make no mistake—amid all the bell jingling and toy buying, that’s the last thing the culture wants you to think about.

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