“So Much for Hope”

Tonight in the space and time between buying my sushi dinner and eating my sushi dinner I found myself wondering about the challenge of guarding your hope.

Snoopy recently mused some about hope.  As is often the case with Peanuts, funny and a kind of tragic all at once.

Snoopy's Hope(image from gocomics.com)

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Avengers for the Everyday

Avengers of the the EverydayLots has been said about the “larger than life” aspects of Avengers: Infinity War, which is good because it’s true.  The movie does an amazing job with the spectacle of the story and the large size of the cast.  Something that I hadn’t appreciated as much as usual, perhaps with reason, is the significance of the movie’s quieter scene.  Thankfully, the folks over at First Things have that angle covered.  From an essay by Christopher Altieri:

The assumption of the villain of the piece—who is really the great villain of the Marvel franchise—is that life, as such, is not good. Thanos claims that his quest is ultimately for balance in the universe. This means that, to him, the Infinity Stones are not keystones holding everything in balance—making it kosmos—but tools to be wielded by one who would bend the world to his own design, a design in which life is disposable. Against this diabolical vision, the film offers fleeting glimpses of goodness at work in the ordinary world and in the souls of powerful and flawed characters.

The film establishes its theme by showing the tension between the ordinary and the extraordinary, epitomized in conversations between characters involved in relationships that we might call—however unsatisfactorily—romantic. These conversations come at crucial moments in the story: Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Pepper Potts in the park talking about settling down and starting a family, right before Dr. Strange appears to enlist Iron Man’s aid in the fight against Thanos; Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) and Vision on Cockburn Street (I think it was) in Edinburgh, where they are almost literally blasted to smithereens, along with their fleeting dreams of an ordinary life, in an attack that seems to come out of nowhere.

“Ordinary” might be roughly synonymous with “everyday”—but it also denotes that which gives order to our lives. The good guys in this movie want to find order in the ordinary. The bad guy wants something else.

Altieri goes on to add this:

The moral of the story is that life is good—indeed, that life is a good, one the good guys seek to preserve, and bad guys seek to destroy. We know they’re bad guys when they seek to destroy life, however apparently noble or genuinely compassionate their real or stated ends may be.

I think the reason that I overlooked this angle on the story was because it is in the very nature of the best Marvel stories to work with the everyday-ness of things. School and work, family and romance, power and responsibility.  Those are day-in, day-out realities for Marvel characters.  That’s not always the case with those from the DC Universe or from some other companies.  But the house that Marvel built stands and falls on the everyday relatability of its characters, even the wealthy and the mystical.

You can read the rest of the essay here.  It’s a good one.  And you can catch Avengers: Infinity War at your local theater.

(image from thewrap.com)

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Between the Programs and the Pews

RNS-PEW-CATHOLICFor the last year or so, I have often found myself thinking about my “pet false distinction” when it comes to church life: either “eat the body” or “be the body.”  The former points to a heightened place of liturgy that crescendoes in communion.  The latter points to a heightened place of the church program that crescendoes in mission.  I totally admit the false distinction, what I communicate to my students as the “either-or fallacy.”  Both of them, too easily and too often, are missing out on something that we neglect to our danger.  Henri Nouwen points to it in the “where do I begin?” chapter of Spiritual Direction.

Through the discipline of spiritual direction, we explore in the presence of another wise Christian companion or two God’s claim on our lives, what has been and what may now be.  We recognize God’s activity and again say yes to the direction in which the Spirit calls us.  The direction might be fearful or even quite radical, but we might also be surprised to see that the call of God is a call that is very attractive and that we are able to respond to it because we are being drawn by a loving force.

It is not enough, Nouwen asserts, for us to be content with something like this conversation of “spiritual direction” as a rare and limited thing.  And it’s not just “psychological questions with psychological answers.”  There is a deeply spiritual reality at play in between the programs and pews of our churches.  Nouwen continues:

It is important that we start to think about a ministry in which we help one another to practice spiritual disciplines and thus live in such a way that we become more sensitive to the ongoing presence of God in our lives.  What finally counts is not just that there are good spiritual men and women in this very chaotic world, but that there are communities of Christians who together listen with great care and sensitivity to the One who want to make this healing presence known to all.

This is no easy thing, definitely not as tactile as communion or as measurable as programs and projects.  And while it’s always been necessary, many of us have done a good job of making it optional at best and irrelevant at its worst.  Maybe it’s a “chicken or the egg” situation: we do not have people asking the questions because we are not practicing and showing a better way.  The sooner we can start practicing the better way, the sooner we will, perhaps, find people asking better and deeper questions.

(image from sojo.net)

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The Passage (not Saved by the Bell)

One of the best contemporary fiction reading experiences I’ve had over the last few years was with Justin Cronin’s The Passage.  The book was one of those rare “first in a trilogy” books that was so well-done that a continuation seemed almost unnecessary.

So I’m pleased to hear that FOX has picked up The Passage (with Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Wolgast) for a run this next season.  It’s been long enough that I don’t remember all of the details (and it’s no small book), so this trailer is engaging without giving too much away (or making too many easy call-backs).

FOX did a great job this past season with The Gifted, a comic book property that was basically X-Men without the X-Men.  If The Passage is anywhere near as good, as well-paced and well-acted, then it should be a great television experience.

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Flights of the Procrastinator

So I finally sat down and finished setting things up for my summer travel plans, flights here and cars there.  It’s the most planning I’ve had to do since New Zealand a few summers ago.  I’m really looking forward to every moment of the time away, though.

Funny enough, two Sunday strips were about planes today.  The first is a classic Calvin and Hobbes, which means there’s a lot more stress involved for anyone on the plane he’s piloting:

Airplanes 2The FoxTrot strip is much more tame.  And a nice reminder of the simple reality of flight.

Airplanes 1(images from gocomics.com)

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Lanier and the Care of 21st Century Souls

Ten ArgumentsIn his recent interview with New York Magazine, futurist Jaron Lanier responded to a question about his “urgent” arguments against social media.  And while he has a whole book about the topic dropping at the end of the month, he ends the interview by positing a concern based on the spiritual consequences of digital life.  From the interview:

The argument is that social media hates your soul. And it suggests that there’s a whole spiritual, religious belief system along with social media like Facebook that I think people don’t like. And it’s also . . . phony and false. It suggests that life is some kind of optimization, like you’re supposed to be struggling to get more followers and friends. Zuckerberg even talked about how the new goal of Facebook would be to give everybody a meaningful life, as if something about Facebook is where the meaning of life is.

It suggests that you’re just a cog in a giant global brain or something like that. The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.

Just because it’s “phony and false” doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there, and I think Lanier knows it.  Like any emergent system, the network of social media apps has become something bigger than any one thing.  Even if it is a shadow of true living, it is still a kind of life.  Strange to think, but we’ve created and nurtured a culture of so little substance that social media has become a necessary substitute from which only some kind of people can afford to refrain.

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And so we might find ourselves hollowed out on both sides: socially and spiritually, on both the outside and the inside.  But the inside is vital.  The Three Ages of the Interior Life speaks of the complete necessity of a healthy interior life, of an interior space and conversation where creation and Creator meet.

This interior life thus conceived is something far more profound and more necessary in us that intellectual life or the cultivation of the sciences, than artistic or literary life than social or political life . . .

This shows the the interior life, or the life of the soul with God, well deserves to be called the one thing necessary, since by it we tend to our last end and assure our salvation . . .

The interior life of a just man who tends toward God and who already lives by Him is indeed the one thing necessary.  To be a saint, neither intellectual culture nor great exterior activity is a requisite; it suffices the we live profoundly by God.

For many of us, the ubiquity of technology has accelerated the chipping away or obliteration of any kind of interior life.  Evidence of “living profoundly by God” isn’t always easy to come across in the current climate.

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This dovetails nicely with the second question posed in Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Direction: where do I begin?  Or, perhaps for some of us, where do we begin again when trying to make space for an interior life that serves as a well from which God’s Spirit can flow?  This is especially pertinent if so much of our lives now happen online.  Nouwen asserts:

There is a real tendency to think of the spiritual life as a life that will begin when we have certain feelings, think certain thoughts, or gain certain insights.  The problem, however, is not how to make the spiritual life happen, but to see where it actually is happening.  We work on the premise that God acts in this world and in the lives of individuals and communities.  God is doing something right now.  The chipping away and sculpting is taking place whether we are aware of it or not.  Our task is to recognize that, indeed, it is God who is acting, and we are involved already in the spiritual life.

And so the question arises: what space can we carve out from our routines that makes room for a God bigger than our technology?  And how do we put technology and its attendant apps back in the place of “tools” instead of the place of “masters”?  That will be a question good for us to wrestle with as we move deeper into the 21st century.  So the perceived “desert of the moment” brought on by the digital is the place that most of must start from.  That or we have to set up places of rescue on the desert’s edge, ready and waiting for the exiles and refugees of digital life.

(image from amazon.com)

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A Land of Lonely Hunters

comment.transparentlogoA common theme from the last few weeks of news articles and essays and reading points to the issue of loneliness as a real fruit of our modern era.   I suppose we’ve known this since the release of Bowling Alone, at least.  But loneliness has its many facets, makes appearances in surprising ways at every stage of life.

The folks over at Comment Magazine are putting together a summer issue dealing with loneliness and social isolation.  They’ve already posted this editorial from James K. A. Smith and this essay from Wesley Hill about loneliness and celibacy.  It is good to see difficult things addressed well.

Henri Nouwen also has something to say about loneliness in his collected writings on Spiritual Direction.  From the chapter on “Who Will Answer My Questions?” Nouwen writes

To live the questions requires that you first look within yourself, trusting that God is present and at work within you.  This is a very difficult task, because in our world we are constantly pulled away from our innermost self and encouraged to look for answers outside of ourselves.  If you are a lonely person, you have no inner rest to ask, wait, and listen.  You crave people in the hope that another will bring you answers.  You want them here and now.  But by first embracing solitude in God’s presence, you can pay attention to your inner, clamoring self before looking to others for community and accountability.  This has nothing to do with egocentrism or unhealthy introspection because, in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to a young poet, “what is going on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love.”

Sobering words, yet true.  And they hold out the hope of being some kind of corrective for a society and culture of growing loneliness.

You can learn more about Comment Magazine here.

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