Wednesday, October 26, 2011

#OCCUPY: My Best Guess

On Saturday, October 15, I lost my faith in the media. I never saw the need to jump on the media-sucks bandwagon, from both the left and the right. By and large, I had faith that if something big was going on, it would get reported--even if just for the sensationalism. That Saturday, however, I joined Twitter to look at a picture of the Occupy Wall Street movement which happened to be quickly filling Times Square. Hundreds and hundreds of people filled the Square. I searched in vain on television for any reporting, even in the form of the bottom-of-the-screen ticker. I followed the protests on Twitter for hours that night and felt a new sense of cynicism grow within. [Here is a great video about the role of the media in OWS.]

What is clear from Old Media is that they are confused by the movement (or at least feigning confusion to save face with their corporate ownership). There are many, many reasons why my generation is leading the charge. Here are three reasons why Occupy Wall Street should NOT be surprising at all.

1. The myth of college. For some time now, going college has been billed as a way to get a job. Go to college, recruiters have told us, and you can get a job and make money and have the house and car you want. Evacuated of any kind of truly humanist ends, higher education has become almost entirely a very drunken means to a very certain end. One of the many ways in which the lies of deregulated capitalist enterprise have been exposed is through the crumbling of this particular myth for people in their 20s and 30s. [Not to mention that if you educate a whole bunch of lawyers, social workers, philosophers and teachers, they will probably do something creative if they aren't employed.]

2. Hipsters. OWS has also managed to parlay hipster angst into a very organized movement. Drawing heavily on latent frustration with the cultural status quo, OWS has harnessed hipster counter-cultural impulses into its own critique of oppressive cultural systems.

3. MLK, Jr. Day. I spent some time watching a livefeed of a "facilitation training" in NYC. This training was educating protesters on how to facilitate direct democracy. What is not surprising about the organization, inclusiveness and progressive assumptions about this movement is that the people leading the charge grew up learning the tradition of civil disobedience from elementary school on. What IS surprising is that despite the persistent efforts of Americans to co-opt and domesticate the witness of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., we somehow managed to tease the radicalness of Rev. King out of our elementary school history lessons. Our generation grew up learning to value those who stand up against injustice, and although it was taught with an implication that the time for direct action had passed us by, we took the examples given to us and are running.

This movement is for the 99 percent but Gen X and Y are leading it. If Old Media wants to understand OWS (and it's debatable that they do), they need to examine these generations in more thoughtful ways.

Friday, August 5, 2011

For the Love of Grilled Cheesus!

There's a semi-interesting little show called "The Glee Project" airing on the Oxygen network this summer. The premise of the show is that twelve young people compete for a guest starring role in the upcoming season of the wildly popular show Glee.

Each episode focuses on a particular theme from vulnerability to danceability to tenacity. The latest episode's theme was sexuality. One of the competitors, a 21 year old named Cameron, had already expressed discomfort with on-screen kissing in an earlier episode. The episode on sexuality, therefore, centered on his struggles with the theme, culminating with his refusal to kiss his acting partner and his eventual voluntary departure from the show.

Cameron's reasoning for his stand against on-screen kissing is his "Christianity," a label he throws around quite a bit without much definition or qualification. It is clear that Cameron does not believe in sex before marriage, a belief he links to kissing girls, it seems. Here's a clip to give you a better idea of his mind:

Now this all may seem very silly but here's why I find this infuriating. Ryan Murphy, the writer and creator of Glee, wants Cameron to succeed and urges him to stay largely because he wants to write in a truly Christian character on the show. He says in the episode, "One of the things that I think we have not done well thus far is represent a sort of more conservative, religious, faith-based character."

So here we have a person giving up on an opportunity to inject a more realistic picture of religious folks in a show that has come somewhat close but continues to miss the mark in this area. He gives up the opportunity in lieu of a false martyrdom, completely missing the chance to actually play a part in portraying religious people as thoughtful, sensible people.

Throughout the episode, Cameron's hipster wardrobe is tied together with a wooden rosary slung around his neck. The image (wearing a religious object that is not intended to be worn) is perfect for the kind of de-contextualized, immature version of religiosity-as-fashion that he represents. I can only hope that Murphy will write in another character who fill in where he has admitted the show is lacking.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

MY BEST GUESS: Casey Anthony and Social Media

I hope to make "My Best Guess" a regular posting. For my first, I am making the completely annoying move of commenting on what everyone seems to be commenting on: the Casey Anthony murder trial. Here's the question that keeps coming to mind when I read post after post on facebook about this trial-- why on earth do people care about this one case so much?

My best guess: the Casey Anthony trial is the perfect reflection of the current moment in our culture. I think that this trial combines social media, questions of justice, and social frustration about completely unrelated issues in our society together in a soupy mix of emotion. No matter how much the jurors of this trial insist upon the lack of evidence presented by the prosecution, millions of people will still be convinced of Casey Anthony's guilt in murdering her little girl. One of the biggest reasons (if not the biggest) for such widespread consensus on her guilt is the collection of pictures of Casey partying while her daughter was purportedly missing and in reality dead. This continues to surprise me because it seems deeply ironic. We usually assume 'social media' to be exhausted by Twitter and facebook but includes public sharing of our photos, including Photobucket, the website upon which Anthony's indiscrete images were shared and viewed. The irony comes when one considers that social media consistently facilitates behavior and comments for which people are not held accountable. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that there are some horrific things being said online about Casey Anthony herself, things that if said in person, in public, might be cause for arrest.

In terms of questions of justice, I think Americans feel the need to publicly (again, through social media) express their outrage about this case because it's an easy side to pick. "Porch Lights on for Caylee" is an easy thing to get behind. In this moment, we find ourselves part of a nation that has fought and continues to fight dubious wars in terms of justice, has been vehemently fighting over what is just for workers, and finds itself violently divided over what justice means for the body in the form of a healthcare debate. People want something to latch on to, something that allows them to pick a side and stand firmly within it--from the comfort of their keyboards, of course. It would be hard to deny the volatility of our current cultural moment, and recent politicking has taught people that they must pick a side and shout the other side down. The rub, of course, is that shouting doesn't work in a courtroom.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's new film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn left me underwhelmed, an ironic result given the film's attempt to overwhelm the viewer with images, cuts and its jolting lack of narrative. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes (the festival's highest prize), and I think I know why. When people see a movie that is different in some remarkable way--and The Tree of Life certainly is that--they think they are supposed to like it. The Tree of Life has the added benefit of being about "the big questions," presenting a juxtaposition of the beauty and vastness of the universe with the beauty and grace of the nuclear family capped off with voiceovers asking simple (and yet somehow stilted) questions of what most would assume to be God.

The journey of the family's oldest son is set against the images of creation Malick provides in the first twenty or so minutes of the film. After a neighborhood boy drowns in front of him, the oldest son asks God, "If you're not going to be good, why should I?" From there he spirals into acts of boyhood mischief that draw him away from his family and ultimately, himself. The best part about this film is how Malick is able to convey the gravity of just one young person's rather common mistakes. In another film, for instance, a twelve year-old boy shooting his brother with a bb gun could have a completely different tone and purpose (my dad shot his brother in the leg with a bb gun and the story always seemed more hilarious than tragic). Malick manages to turn what some might dismiss as the trials of growing up into an interesting commentary on sin and redemption.

I appreciate the attention Malick pays in this film to the relationship between the mistakes we make (especially in our families) and the cosmos. The film lacks a driving narrative but manages to make the viewer care about what is happening in this one family. It moves from the particular to the universal and back again, presumably to highlight the space between feeling completely inevitable and utterly insignificant that form the poles of our searching for God.

So this review sounds favorable but I have some issues with this film. The first is that it should not have been a feature-length film. I think Malick could have done a beautiful, halting job in like an hour. Too many images in the beginning made it feel more like Planet Earth than anything and I was distracted by the form and began to question the content (judging only by the shifting of the people in their seats around me, I would say I'm probably not alone on this one).

Secondly, for me, the ending added little to what came before it in terms of sin and redemption. All the beach-walking and hugging reminded me of several moments in other films that I hate. What is awesome about the majority of the movie is what I mentioned above: Malick drawing the universe and the family in ways that puts them in the same cosmos. Personally, I think the other-worldly beachland verges on undermining the very space he creates in the rest of the film.

Overall it's worth seeing, if only so you'll be able to nuance the inevitable and uncritical cocktail party reviews.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gender Bender

I read an interesting article today on NPR's website about the possibility of ours being a post-gender or gender-neutral society. "Does gender matter?" the author asks. "In a country with the ideal of treating everyone fairly and equitably, do we really need to know if someone is a boy or a girl? These questions are driving decisions and actions around the country."

There is, of course, much to be said here but one thing that really struck me about the article is its presentism. Discussions of gender must be steeped in a recognition of the complexity of gender, complexity that both neutrality and reductive sexism miss. Part of respecting this complexity requires an awareness that these questions are not new. They aren't even just questions from the 1960s. What little work I've done on burlesque comes immediately to mind when trying to historicize the content of this article. Check out this picture ( of one of the pioneers of burlesque, Lydia Thompson:

Clearly gender-bending is not new. To say this, however, is not to dismiss the question. I for one find it immensely comforting that we're not venturing into completely new territory. The work, of course, is to approach the current moment with enough appreciation and knowledge of the past to give these questions the level of sophistication and nuance they deserve.

For the theologian, the work is informed by both cultural history and the Tradition, particularly the historical claim of the Paschal Mystery. It is unhelpful to simply catalogue the ways in which the examples given in the above article and beyond in our society miss the mark in terms of Christian anthropology. Time might be better spent asking why the question persists and how it complicates our theology. Or better yet, where we have succeeded and failed to be true to the Gospel on the question of gender. Uncritically reasserting rigid gender roles in the name of Truth belies the mystery of what it means to be human and fails to account for the complexity of the issue of gender that even the Church has recognized in the saints.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Nuclear Summer

I've spent more time than I'd like to admit this summer watching post-apocalyptic movies and TV series. I watched BBC's Survivors and am currently in the middle of Jericho. I'm going to guess that most people haven't watched these shows, let alone both of them and let alone recently. This genre has proved to be quite thought-provoking for me in many ways. Recently, it's led me to think about violence.

One of the major differences between these two shows (besides that Survivors is good and Jericho is pretty mediocre overall) is that one is American-made and the other British. This difference has given each show a particular position when it comes to guns. As far as I can remember, Survivors has only a few guns in the entire two seasons. One shotgun gets moved around from character to character, each time the gun itself being questioned as a solution to the characters' predicament in a post-pandemic world. In Jericho, however, guns are pervasive. Nearly each episode has a firefight as the citizens of Kansas try to protect their town after nuclear bombs destroy most of America.

Even though Jericho is not a great show, I think it's a helpful reminder about the problem with the perspective on violence that pervades American culture. The arguments I hear against pacifism or nonviolent resistance seem to rely heavily on fears of what the world would be without the 'protection' of weapons. The challenge for a community whose God died on a cross at the hands of state violence, however, is not to fear what the world will become but to imagine how the world might be otherwise. Relying on the fear engendered by nuclear deterrence seems to run counter to this call for hopeful imagination. Moreover, the more faith we put into weapons, no matter who wields them, the further we mire ourselves in the hopelessness we are called to reject for the hope we find in Christ.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


During Holy Week, people freaked out over Lady Gaga releasing her song, "Judas." (I don't know if she wrote it but I will just assume ownership of the song on her part for brevity's sake.) I suggest listening and not watching the YouTube video for the purposes of this post.

I would like to offer that this is yet one more example of a failure of imagination on the part of Christians. I believe there are two interesting things going on in "Judas," things that are even theologically compelling. The first is simple and the second a bit more complicated.

1. "Judas" is a traditional reflection on sin in an untraditional form. In the song, Gaga sings in the chorus, "I'm just a holy fool, oh baby it's so cruel/ but I'm still in love with Judas, baby." Scandalizing, right? Well, yes. Anyone who has read the Passion narrative in a Catholic Church on Palm Sunday or Good Friday is no stranger to this scandal. The narrative puts the words "Crucify him!" into the mouths of the congregation. So the very community that has gathered as a testament to the Resurrection has to remind itself of its own betrayal of the Incarnate God. It's a deliciously uncomfortable and endlessly important moment.

The point is this: "Judas" is an unconventional reminder of the many ways in which we are "still in love with Judas, baby," if Judas represents the selfishness and short-sightedness that turns us away from God. More from Gaga: "I wanna love you/ But something's pulling me away from you/ Jesus is my virtue/ And Judas is the demon I cling to." It's possible that my reading is too literal. I'm not a literary scholar. I do think, however, that Gaga's "love" for Judas has a referent in the tradition, namely that moment in the Passion narrative where we must vocally betray the Lord we profess to love.

2. Following this (simplistic) reiteration of our battle with sin, Gaga says something interesting and helpful about women. In the song, she identifies herself with the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her hair in the Gospel (see Luke 7:37-38). This woman has been conflated with Mary Magdalene, and the text describes her as a "sinner," which has been assumed to be some sexual sin. Later in the song, the bridge says, "In the most biblical sense/ I am beyond repentance/ Fame hooker, prostitute, wench/ Vomits her mind."

I don't know exactly what she's up to here but in light of my primary reading, I appreciate that she draws out this language. Crafting our relationship with both sin and Jesus in the terms of erotic love is scandalizing, but again, not without referent in the tradition (e.g. Teresa of Avila). Furthermore, I think the bridge is especially helpful for highlighting the way in which women especially can come to define their identities in terms of sexual sin, either on their part or on the part of those who perpetrate it upon their bodies. Gaga herself, of course, is dismissed or hailed largely in terms of her relationship to sex.

Maybe I'm looking for something that isn't there but--and how's this for scandal?--I'll take Gaga over the majority of avowedly Christian music any day. The beauty of grace is that it is found in the most surprising of places, and often in places that Christians would rather not look.

Monday, May 30, 2011


One of the more common approaches to technology involves pointing out the various ways in which it (mis)shapes our humanity. There are many iterations of this approach and anyone involved in discussions of technology and culture knows the argument well: technology consistently draws us away from each other and in turn, away from ourselves; we must be ever mindful of the ways that our gadgets affect us, which is to say that there are myriad ways that we are negatively affected by technology. Here is one recent example of this approach to technology though there are, to be sure, many more.

This particular approach is not uncommon for many Christians, as our community remains ever attracted to condemnations of 'the world.' My critique of this approach can be summed up in two points. The first is that the category of 'technology' presumed by this approach is often too narrow. Proponents fail to account for a broader sense of technology that can include the many ways in which we interact with creation. For example, clearly cell phones are technology but so are ballpoint pens, doors, and books. (See Bruno Latour)

The second point of critique is intimately related to the first and is what I'm more interested in today, namely that an approach to technology which focuses on its adverse effects on our humanity fails to account for our immensely complicated relationship with technology, even with that evil communications technology that many decry again and again.

The example I have for my second point is mud. Out of almost nowhere, many of my facebook friends--from different areas of my life and with no connection except through me in most cases--began posting pictures of or anticipatory statuses about extreme obstacle courses, usually involving large amounts of mud. I had certainly heard of these mud-runs before but not to the degree as in the past few months. My own brother and sister-in-law just completedTough Mudder. The 'objectives' of the course appear to be pushing one's physical and emotional limits, strengthening and starting friendships, and attaining a sense of personal accomplishment. I would offer that part of it is just reminding yourself about the joys of being alive and of the wonder of bodiliness.

I offer mud, therefore, as a helpful example for seeing the complex relationship we have with technology. When someone completes a mud-run, pictures are posted and stories are shared on facebook and twitter. Others become inspired, jealous, competitive, and do their own crazy obstacle courses. Pushing through the mud reminds us of our humanity but the moment was facilitated in large part by the technology. Technology is not external to us in a way that we can name it and then accept or deny it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Try, Try Again

Behold yet another attempt to keep a record of my reflections. The thinking behind this particular iteration of journaling/blogging is to provide a space for reflections on theology and culture.

The name comes from an idea I had at the beginning of last semester when our American Catholic cultural studies class was doing some research exercises in visual and material culture. Tasked with analyzing the windows of the campus chapel, I was struck by stained glass as a metaphor for theological reflection on culture.

Stained glass stands between the Church and the world. The walls of the Church were purposely taken or left out in places to accommodate beauty that would stand between it and all that surrounds it. Stained glass windows are received most fully in their beauty by standing outside of the Church, yet the right amount of light within can offer its beauty to the world. Stained glass itself, however, is not only part of the world but a product of it. It is testament to the goodness of creation and the ability of creation to transmit the glory of God. Theological reflection on culture, the stained glass of the Church, both reflects and affirms the truth within the walls of the Church. It also stands precariously on the edge between the boundaries of both Church and world, nature and grace, human and divine-- the work of human hands put to the glory of God.