Author: joy and matthew steem

Jupiter Descends

9 Jupiter Ascending“Boring,” “boorish,” and (my personal favorite) “profoundly terrible” are some of the nicer descriptors that can be found in the reviews of the Wachowski siblings’ latest movie. At just over two hours, this space-opera-cum-heroic-fantasy is acknowledged as visually appealing with its impressive special effects, but declared decidedly drab in the plot department. Worse than merely drab, however, some of the more literary minded commenters pronounce Jupiter, the main character, as nauseatingly implausible. Now, while I do agree with them that Jupiter is most definitely not a classical hero, I wonder at our underlying assumptions of heroism that leave some of us with the feeling that Jupiter got the crap side of the stick in this movie.  

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a brutishly rudimentary plot summary (spoiler warning). Jupiter, the female protagonist, is a young, overworked, under-appreciated, and unfulfilled maid in Chicago. Trapped in a life of scrubbing toilets and cleaning up other people’s trash, she starts and ends each day in exhaustion. Jupiter lives in extremely tight quarters with her Russian immigrant mother and extended family, which gives her little personal space or room for expression: the theme constantly upon her lips before her big adventure is, “I hate my life.” Pressured by a capitalistic cousin into selling her eggs at a fertility clinic, she is nearly abducted by assassin aliens and soon thrust into an interplanetary journey where she learns she is actually Earth’s royal owner. Assisted throughout the adventure (and rescued again and again … and again … and then some) by a genetically altered ex-soldier with flying boots, she is kidnapped, conned, and beat up by royal alien siblings intent on harvesting Earth’s population into a vitality serum: a practice they have been doing on other planets for thousands of years. Always rescued at the last minute by flying boot boy, the aliens are thwarted, the earth remains blissfully ignorant of and safe from the villains and Jupiter lives to see another day. The movie ends with her sacrificing sleep to cheerfully prepare breakfast for the relatives, taking up her cleaning job, and going on flying adventures with her new boyfriend (flying boot boy) and his now-returned sexy set of wings.

Okay—my apologies to anyone who has seen the movie and can readily identify the 27 important plot points that I have casually omitted. But, I trust the theme is clear: little Miss Royalty is rescued (a lot), is not particularly ambitious, seems perfectly content to return to an unimportant job and crowded house, and never seeks out public recognition. Oddly enough, it seems somewhere along the journey she internalizes a new axiom: “It’s not about what I do, it’s about who I am.”

As you’ve no doubt gathered, this is not your typical hero story. But what is a hero story, and what makes it so?

For those who’ve read Paradise Lost (a 17thcentury epic poem that dramatizes the creation and subsequent eviction of Eve and Adam from the garden. Satan and his super sneaky schemes to destroy the happy couple and amass an army to usurp God’s Kingship also play a prominent role in the plot) in class, or are generally familiar with the story, we were taught according to two schools of thought. One, Milton screwed up and made Satan the show-stealing character by accident. According to this ideology, Satan is actually the hero of the story. Strong, cunning, ambitious, independent, and a natural-born leader: Satan is clearly the classical hero whom Milton himself unwittingly valorizes. Paradise Lost, then, becomes a tragedy because our favorite guy, Satan, loses.

The other school of thought suggests that in Satan’s unquenchable thirst for status (he wants to be ruler of the world), we uncomfortably identify our own fallen and destructive lust for prestige. Educators of this persuasion suggest that in Satan’s defiant pursuit of dominion, Milton demonstrates the seductive dangers of the quest for control. This second school of thought is a less popular one because in Paradise Lost, Satan is such a sympathetic character; and, indeed while we may not overtly root for him, our culture often tells us that complete self-sufficiency is the key ingredient of happiness. Satan, according to our society’s mores, is a heroic figure. The question then becomes a matter of identifying our current model of heroism.

Which brings me back to Jupiter Ascending. Much of the angst at the film is directed at its improbable plot and boring main character. What kind of story stars a hero who goes on a journey to learn s/he is really, really important (and has a whole lot of resources at her/his disposal) and then moves back to an inhospitable and banal homeland, bickering neighbors, takes up a menial job, and smiles about living the daily grind, saying “it’s not what I do, it’s who I am that matters”? Not a contemporary hero.

Culture often tells us that as heroes of our own stories, we must have status in order to experience personal fulfillment. We have been told that we need resources to experience the world and get the recognition we crave. In other words, we have been told that to be successful is to wield power; and, perhaps even more importantly, be recognized for that power.

I wonder if it’s possible that some of our dissatisfaction with Jupiter’s choices mirror our own consumption of a toxic cultural narrative: a narrative that says, it’s never about who you are, it’s only about what you do. A narrative that uncomfortably sides with Satan’s quest in that old tale of so much discussion.

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Real Girls: What Amanda Palmer Taught Me About Vulnerability

9 Rock pile

I have a friend who has this gnarly summer job—she calls it an “opportunity.” The thing is it’s not, in truth, gnarly at all. I mean, if picking rocks in the broiling sun is immensely amusing, or if spending most of a day uncomfortably bent over with a linoleum knife hacking away the weeds from inside small prickly spruce trees is an escapade of frivolity, or if cutting heavily tractor packed sod with a shovel is a thing to delight in, then I guess her job really is “gnarly.” When she gets back from her summer job—at least she has a rocking hot tan—I offer my sympathies to her: “Whatever, pays the bills, right?”

“No!”she says, “whatever makes me happy … or at least makes it possible, THAT’S why I do it.”

“Cool, cool,” I reply in a mollifying tone. Hey, you don’t want to ever mess with someone who can chuck rocks, slash deftly with curved knives, or is used to manhandling (personhandling, I should say, just in case she is reading this) large chunks of sod or tree stumps. She could easily devour a prissy MBAer faster than she can slay a patch of undisciplined barbellate thistles, which is very quickly. So, I keep all this in mind. It’s healthier that way. Mainly for me.

My friend though, despite being able to kick serious ass probably will never have that sinewy side seen by more than a select few people. Other people see her and think she is little other than peach cinnamon pie with prettily puffed whip cream. “Oh, if only you knew,” I muse under my breath. And yet, while she is a pugnaciously hard worker and tougher than titanium, she is also a delicate artist and girl, and thinker, and saint. (You should see her with baby birds.) I mean, if Wendell Berry were younger and single, he would be after her.

No, really.

In the same vein, don’t a lot of us feel that way about our parents? Or that heroic individual that few others, except us, really know? Why is that? How can we know—deep down inside—that our mum or dad or brother or sister or certain friend is such a supremely groovy gift to humanity?

Here is a thought: is it because we are open to them and they are open to us? Like, in a way that is unique and allows for vulnerability? There is more, of course, but the act of being vulnerable to another person seems to be, to me anyway, significant.

A little while ago I had the pleasure of reading Amanda Palmer’s biography/philosophy/guide to life. It’s called The Art of Asking. Her words went inside my softer parts and made my emotions do exercises which they weren’t used to. Maybe it was like emotional yoga? Anyway, her startling honesty and willingness to uncover/divulge/display the tender parts of her artistic musician soul and heart made me wonder just how much better those of us who are more prone to emotional seclusion would be by being more vulnerable. (Not to everybody, because without a certain degree of interpersonal-confidentiality there could be little interpersonal-intimacy.)

One of Palmer’s central points is that everybody desires to be seen. Because to be seen means that something in us was recognized. Something of our identity was noticed by another and recognized as unique to us. And yet, for Palmer there are two parties responsible: the outside viewer who actually gives a hoot to see beyond just themselves, and the person themselves who must be willing to be seen. And this last part is where the vulnerability comes in.

And so going back to my friend, I wonder what she would think about Palmer’s philosophy of vulnerability. Surely there is a satisfaction in knowing certain parts of ourselves are neatly packaged and hidden, only to be seen by those select few who have been invited into the sanctum of knowing. But if, as Palmer suggests, vulnerability begets vulnerability, perhaps by learning to gradually expose ourselves, we could in turn increasingly recognize the beauty that surrounds us—and sometimes be the beautiful too.

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The Motivation of Art

9 Steem

It is surely something worthy of merit that G.K. Chesterton’s quotable words have been equally employed by those from both right and left of spectrum. Rarely can an individual be used thusly. Perhaps this is because it is so easy to capitulate to the laziness of polarization. Anyway, in an angsty mood I was looking for easy ammunition from GKC. While thumbing through Chesterton titles, I stopped at Utopia of Usurers. Cute, right? To be honest, I was looking for easy ammunition against materialism. Indolence often reaches for the easy weapon, and I was guilty. Happily though, Chesterton in an essay titled “Art and Advertisement” served up something grander than a mere angsty quote: this time it was a timely inquiry into motive in the creation of art.

As Chesterton sees it, before the advent of mass advertising, a substantial motive for artists in their creation of art was to make a living.[1] No surprise there. Artists need to eat too, and we surely love sautéed stems of asparagus more than those of the thistle, despite the fact that the later are, indeed, quite edible (you can even make a hearty soup from them if needs be). However, many an artist was paid by a patron—oh, how sweet the sound of that word—who valued the art that s/he bought for its own sake. Of course not all, there are rich philistines as surely as there are poor ones, but art, so GK argues, was valued more for the thing it intrinsically was—a beautiful creation.

And herein, for Chesterton, is the dangerous difference: while the earlier motive for the creation of art was, among other things, for it to be appreciated by a patron, the motive in the advertiser is to employ human creativity to sell more stuff.

This bothers Chesterton greatly enough, for it is taking a creative power and employing it for an exclusive monetary purpose. Is there a better definition of this than pimping? And here I am reminded of how clever advertisers are in first inciting our emotions with such and such a picture or whatever, and then craftily weaving into that experience a self-serving purpose—invariably one that will line their own silken pockets. The ways advertisers try to incite us to buy stuff is legion. And they do it by using art—or, if you like, human creativity.

But what’s worse for Chesterton is that as the power of art is increasingly realised for its substantial ability to incite desire, advertisers will increasingly invest more and more funds into enlisting individuals adept in the arts. But, of course, whereas before art of value was largely made possible by patrons who knew that quality would cost money, now the advertiser is equally willing to spend copious amounts of funds for quality creativity, too. The difference being the motive: the first was for the sake of the art and the second is merely for the effective harvesting of more cash from the public. And to Chesterton, this is akin to prostituting out human creativity. And I might add, that for the less educated of the population, who might not have experienced truly “good” art, how are they going to distinguish between art and advertising? After all, both evoke an emotion. Now that the advertisers have truly embedded themselves in the very fabric of our culture, perhaps part of the answer is to, as Northrop Frye advised, help facilitate an “educated imagination.” And part of this education, and aiding in the ability to distinguish, would be as Iris Murdoch has so astutely said, to make known that “anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.”[2]

[1] If you are looking for a philosophical reason why an artist does not have to make any money – what a thought! – in her or his art, and still be justified, see Josef Pieper’s Happiness and Contemplation. It will assuredly warm your heart.

[2] This quote, along with some other very grand thoughts can be found in her essay “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts.

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Is Christianity a dangerous religion?

Is Christianity a dangerous religion? by Joy and Matthew Steem

A review on Iain Provan’s book Seriously Dangerous Religion


When I mentioned to an acquaintance that I thought Christopher Hitchens, in his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, had made some fairly accurate points, I was met with astounded unbelief. “But why would a Christian read Hitchens? He is an atheist!”

And there was my introduction, all wrapped up in a beautiful bow just waiting for nimble fingers to gently unwrap it. In fact, being able to voice modern and relevant concerns that people have with Christianity is not only disarming, it takes Christians out of the category of “us versus them,” and greatly assists in opening up dialogue.

As a bonus, after the conversation is over, many times the questioner is left much more willing to hear what other believers think as well. This is, of course, good for everybody — since we are supposed to have, after all, the good news.

Unfortunately, some complaints people have about Christians on issues such as the environment and gender injustices are, indeed, relevant and valid. For these and other matters, some have called Christianity “dangerous.”

So, what if you could tell questioning classmates, family members, or coworkers that God really digs social justice and egalitarian ideology; agrees that male chauvinists should be rebuked and refuted; that treehuggers can be cultural champions; that money-grubbing corporations are awful and – maybe more importantly – that He wasn’t actually responsible for killing their beloved grandmother with some hideous disease or giving her diabetes or whatever?

dangerousEnter Iain Provan and his book Seriously Dangerous Religion. For a Christian who wants to engage with our culture and the pertinent questions that are being asked, Provan provides a truly luscious — not to mention exceedingly well documented — work. If anyone recalls Richard Dawkins’ riotous rants about the God of the Old Testament, they include words like petty, unjust, unforgiving, vindictive, bloodthirsty, and misogynistic.

But what Provan does, with devastating coolness, is methodically turn each of those ideas on their heads — though in a most amicable manner that is not hostile or haughty. Provan doesn’t even come to the tricky issues already mentioned from the New Testament as is done in many cases; instead, he works mostly from the Old Testament.

From the very beginning of the book, I was confronted with the supposed secular boogies of Christianity, only to delightfully discover that they are not really there: women were not created by a loving God as secondary inferior servants to be ruled by men (sorry, autocratic males); the creator did not give humans license to abuse and or pillage the environment (apologies unscrupulous strip mining companies), or indeed — and especially! — each other.

As Provan boldly asserts, true “belief in the one God is the very thing that will forbid me from living as an authoritarian nationalist, a violent bigot, or planetary rapist.” In fact, when we understand biblical faith fully, we can be assured that it certainly “does not advocate (or indeed justify) the bending of everything in nature to human ends, any more than it justifies an escapist or a passive approach to the natural world. It advocates a wise balancing of earth keeping … accompanied by people keeping as well, as we live out our lives in the good world in which the good God has placed us.”

Indeed, as Provan demonstrates, Christianity is a particularly dangerous religion, but not in the way that the some of the naysayers like Karen Armstrong or Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins claim. It is dangerous “to those who do not wish to think of every other human being as their image bearing neighbour.” It is dangerous to anybody who insists that “there is nothing special about human beings as a class.” Biblical faith is “dangerous to those among the powerful who would like to be left alone to use and oppress the weak;” and “to those among the rich who would like to be left alone to use and oppress the poor.”

In sum, as Provan says, true biblical faith is “dangerous to those who are committed to the status quo.”

For those of us who desire to meaningfully engage our culture, and do it with credibility, this recent work of Provan’s makes for some excellent exploration of timely topics our detractors are concerned about. It demonstrates that biblical faith, when taken seriously by loving individuals, is truly a seriously dangerous religion.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Anosmia.

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Rediscovering the Good Samaritan

Rediscovering the Good Samaritan by Joy and Matthew Steem

If you were to ask anyone who knows me what my most obvious foible is, it would probably be my complete and utter lack of physical direction.

Before the advent of GPS, my family could expect about a half a dozen phone calls (or more) if I was out and about. Asking directions from me is probably as good as tying a wet, mangy dog to one ankle and an angry mule to the other – additionally blindfolding yourself too.

So you can understand my anxiety when a vision impaired, somewhat desperate sounding, and apparently homeless lady approached me in search of directions. Me? Provide directions? I am not proficient in this skill. Besides, I was running late for a meeting.

Unaccustomed to intentionally practicing any type of navigation and in an increasingly hurried state, when I finally grasped her desired destination, I did what came most naturally to me. I pointed.

It was at this moment the lady, complete with sunglasses and a red tipped walking stick, generously and sincerely addressed the obvious: “Pointing is not enough, my dear.”

This scenario made me wonder how often I forget this simple truth: that in a world blinded by sorrow, hurt, ambition and greed, the time-economizing scheme of mere pointing isn’t effective.

Let’s consider the story of the Good Samaritan. Somehow it wouldn’t resonate with us quite as profoundly if the Samaritan, say, would have speedily penned a note and put it beside the bleeding and destitute man. “Nearest inn is three miles, good luck!”

Even if the Samaritan had included enough money for accommodation and medical treatment, something integral would be missing from this parable. Of the spiritual virtues that impress me the most about this story, it is usually generosity. Not only in the financial sense, but in one of our more frequently coveted resources. Time.

Perhaps this was one of the reasons that I found Alan Fadling’s An Unhurried Life so exceptionally relevant. Immersed in a culture that enthusiastically embraces rush over rest and efficiency over inner-stillness, the discipline of quietude is often sacrificed at the altar of productivity.

Our days clothed in appointments, errands, and tasks, we assure ourselves that true quietness of heart and spirit are simply not luxuries we can afford. After all, haven’t we been told often enough “time is money!” Little wonder then that we might easily conflate the word “hurry” with “successful.” Yet Fadling’s retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan reminds me of the significant spiritual importance of compassionate and loving attentiveness that can come only through intentional spiritual rest.

Fadling points to the idea that often the currency of compassion is time; and, if we are to genuinely carry out the Great Commission, we can’t do it in a hurry. Love and efficiency, he says, are seldom friends. You might even say they live on opposite sides of the chessboard.

So it is in Fadling’s retelling of the Samaritan narrative that the traditionally unnamed humanitarian becomes Larry, a leisurely, jalopy driving journeyer who is “unhurried enough to care.” Not being a medical practitioner or person of local property, when Larry happens across the unfortunate victim of circumstance, he gently gives the injured man what he does have: tangible, unhurried compassion.

In this case, it takes the form of personally accompanying the victim to the inn and arranging for his physical needs to be met. Perhaps Larry knew that love often rests outside both production and consumption. In delaying his trip, Larry evidenced that he knew efficiency should never get in the way of love. Or perhaps, as Fadling encourages us, Larry’s tale demonstrates that “in the language of efficiency, love is willing to waste time.”

Larry knew that pointing was not enough.

For me, pointing is often the result of trying to avoid the uncomfortable question, as Fadling says, “if I’m not producing something, achieving something, accomplishing something,” then “who am I”?

I often point because I feel rushed or unqualified. I point because I think it is efficient. But is it actually effective? In fact, when I consider the prevalence of our culture’s quest for uncompromised productivity I am challenged by Fadling’s statement which I think would resonate with us all: “I surely don’t want to be known as unlovingly efficient.”

Scripture reminds me that my greatest resource is not my ability to monetarily capitalize on my time, money, physique, personality, or skill. My greatest resource is Christ’s continual presence in me, a resource that cannot be cultivated, harvested or shared with haste.

And so, in Fadling’s admonition to step back from the bombardment of distractions and embrace rest, I am reminded that love, or God’s love to me and in turn the love that I have been imbued with to share with others, is unhurried.

If you find Jesus’ call to rest inspiring, read Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture and Happiness and Contemplation.

Flickr photo (cc) by Rosie O’Beirne

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