Saturday, April 30, 2005

Counter culturalism and the Reckoning

The concept of being counter culture has been on my mind a lot this past week. I’d have to say there’s always a thread of it weaving through everything I work on, but sometimes the thread becomes something greater and larger. The creek floods to a torrent, and it preoccupies me.

It started on Monday morning when I took my mother-in-law to the airport. The night before, she lead a discussion at the Gathering, the creative church community we belong to, from a video series we’re going through. Being counter-cultural stood at the center of the discussion, and given that she’d had time to process, she had come to a conclusion concerning what makes the Gathering counter cultural.

“We’re counter-cultural as it relates to the church,” she told me. “But we’re not really counter culture to the world around us.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her speak a truth so clear. The reality of that statement became galvanized in an instant, all the little suspicions and ponderings that I do about the group of people at the Gathering, wondering what sort of Christianity we’re producing there. The statement rang so true I contemplated it all the way home from the airport. And I’ve been contemplating it ever since.

Last night Jenica and I watched a little known film called “The Reckoning”, which dealt with both the concept of being simply counter-church-culture and being genuinely counter-culture in a broader sense.

The story of the Reckoning is set in medieval England, and concerns a priest running from his past played by Paul Bettany, who joins a troupe of actors lead by Martin, played by Willem Dafoe. When the actors cannot travel to their appointed destination due to a washed out bridge, they are forced to detour, and sojourn at a small outpost in the English countryside. There, they witness the trial of a woman wrongly accused of murder.
Martin uses the opportunity of being stuck at the outpost as a means to finally put on a play that isn’t Biblical in origin. He wants to make a play about the same issues the medieval miracle plays were concerned with, but using everyday events to convey these truths. He believes that one day all plays will be done in this fashion. Some of the actors are dubious about this approach, stating that the pope has not sanctioned the use of such plays.

When the group performs the play, it brings out the dark truth beneath the false accusation which has condemned a woman to death. The sheriff of the outpost orders the actors out by sunrise or their lives are forfeit. The actors leave, but the priest remains. Along the road, the rest of the troupe are faced with the question the Gathering and many ‘culturally relevant’ Christians like myself need to ask; are you just counter-cultural to the church, or are you counter cultural where it actually matters?

To put on a play that breaks the tradition of the medieval miracle plays is simply counter to the prevalent church culture of the day. Many Emergent church movements excel in this area. They’re made up of people who blend in well with the culture around them, which offends the sensibilities of the Evangelical sub-culture. In my own case, I blend in so well people are surprised to find out I’m a Christian. They’re expecting something more clean-cut and less crass.

At the Gathering we pride ourselves in not being like other churches. We’re like postmodern reformers looking for our Wittenberg door. We revel in the freedom of the apostles, and the radical grace of Christ.
But I ask myself…now that we’ve separated ourselves from what we didn’t like about Church, when are we going to get around to being as diligently antagonistic about the things that ought to offend us in the world around us? We’re not involved in any social justice activity, and none of us are advocates for much besides our favorite music, movie or brand of beer.

This isn’t to say I want us to turn into sign-waving fanatics. I don’t think that helps much. But in watching the film last night, I wondered, what’s the truth the Gathering is ready to die for? You see, when the counter-church-culture play prompts genuine counter cultural action, a sacrifice becomes necessary. A sacrifice of life, or money, or reputation. We can spit in the face of the church and be pleased when what we deem as Christian poster children are offended by us, but we seem to pander to the rest of the world, not wanting to offend any of them.

All we seem to be good at taking a stand for is the use of pop culture in sermons, loud music in worship, and drinking in social gatherings. I’m wondering if I really take a stand for anything important anymore. How am I transforming the society around me?

I know that I’ve been able to redeem a lot of popular culture by incorporating it into the liturgical elements of what I do both at the Gathering and when I’m speaking on the road. But what about being transformative in my relationships, or transformational in changing the world, piece by piece by getting involved with some kind of social justice action?

Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s valuable to question what we’re doing in church, and reassess. I’m not advocating for people giving up on Emergent models. But in the case of the Gathering, we need to go beyond being counter-church-culture, and find out what it means for the Emergent church in Canada to be counter-Canadian-culture.

I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with consumerism, and how we treat the environment. And I think for all Christians, it has to do with how we treat fellow students, or co-workers, or the lady counting pennies in the lineup in front of us at the grocery store. For me, the question plaguing me is, “how is a Christian to be set apart from the world while still living in it and being part of it?”

I don’t want to reduce this to some pat formulaic set of rules, but I have set out to grab hold of counter-cultural endeavors in the spirit of Christ, one item at a time. I’ve noticed that there’s nothing counter-cultural about the way I spend my money, and so I’ll be thinking through how I can go about changing that.

What’s your counter-culture move?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Review: Blade Trinity

"How can he say that with a straight face?" my wife asked me after Wesley Snipes delivers one of the many abysmal one-liners David Goyer cooked up for him. In addition to all the really bad one-liners Blade utters, there are nearly every action movie and vampire movie cliche in the book. I'm going to rate Blade:Trinity in a blow by blow fashion, giving and taking away points for the final rating. So far the movie's sitting at 9 (10 less the one point) for all of the really bad dialogue that everyone but Ryan Reynolds is forced to find a way to deliver.

Second demerit - crappy death scene for Kris Kristofferson as Blade's mentor, Whistler. Here's a character who's made it through the first two films in the series only to get blown up offscreen. The only reason I was 100% sure that he was dead was that Blade throws his head back and delivers a REALLY BAD cry of outrage, which Jessica Biel later imitates...more on that in a moment. Down to 8 points.

Third demerit - the title. If Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds were the only people Blade joined up following Whistler's death then, yes, it would be a trinity. But they aren't the only ones. They join up with a whole team of them. So instead of trying to be clever with the title by using 'trinity' to mark it as the third film, just call it Blade 3. Anything else, given that there isn't really a trinity until the last 30 minutes of the movie is pretentious.
Fourth demerit - Dracula looks like a steroid monkey. Or at the very least, a pro athlete who's no longer in the game. And they keep calling him "Drake" because apparently that's what he calls himself now. Maybe its just me, but if that "make up your own name" didn't work for Prince, why would it work for a vampire who's been called Dracula for over 100 years thanks to Bram Stoker's book? I just couldn't buy it. So, basically, I think the Big Bad sucked Big Time in this movie. Bad acting, Bad sword fighting, Bad look...and not at all scary. Just really big. Too big for Dracula in my mind. Or Drake. Or whatever the hell he calls himself.
Fifth demerit - All the cliches. Big ol' stack of them. Huge. Stack. Of. Cliches. Too many to list. Sadly, I found out that Goyer wrote the first two movies, so I'm really confused as to where this one went so terribly wrong. He was also involved in working on the screenplay for one of my favorite films of all time, Dark City. Maybe he did this one in his spare time. Or maybe he was busy working on the screenplay for "Batman Begins". I'm scared now. Scared to go see a comic book movie, because if this is the tripe that Goyer's chunking out now...oy. And I watched the "extended version" so you can't even claim that all the good parts ended up on the cutting room floor. So I'm going to go ahead and take away TWO points because apparently Goyer can do better.

So there's the final score. 6 demerits. The film gets to retain the rest of its points simply on the basis that the fight scenes are still cool, albeit laced with some of the crappiest CGI I've seen on the big screen. Some moments looked so much like a video game I was scrambling for the controls.

The only thing that makes this movie worth a rental is Ryan Reynolds as one of Blade's supposed "Trinity." He's great at delivery the wise-ass remarks and acts as comedy relief with all the aplomb one could given the rest of the script. He's good looking and well-built. This guy needs a good solid script, the kind of thing that "Speed" was for Keanu. I sure hope his agent can find him one; in the meantime, I'll check him out in Amityville and hope it doesn't stink as much as Blade: Trinity did.

Friday, April 22, 2005


I had my first encounter with Dirk Pitt when I was in grade one. My teacher, Mr. Compton, was seated at his desk with his feet up, chair tilted back, reading a paperback novel while we were hard at work. I had finished the assignment and wandered over to ask him what to do next. I approached his desk, perplexed by the image on the paperback of something shooting up amidst a fantastic spray of water. I read the title.

“Something” the Titanic. Rise the Titanic? No, Raise the Titanic!

I knew what the Titanic was, hence why I could recognize that word before “raise”, which is really beyond a grade one vocabulary unless you’re me and had tried tackling the novelization of Star Wars earlier that year. The Titanic was a sticker in my book on ships; a ship that had sunk when struck by an iceberg. My burgeoning male psyche reveled in disaster; from the destruction of Japan in Godzilla movies to the explosion that consumed the Hindenburg, I was interested. So I was very interested in what Mr. Compton was reading.
Sadly, my attempt at reading Star Wars was a big enough failure to inform me I likely wouldn’t be reading Raise the Titanic any time soon. It would be another three years before I owned my own copy. It wasn’t hard to find, seeing as the movie adaptation was released that year. It featured the same cover art that Mr. Compton’s had, though I really liked my sister’s copy better, a dark blue monochrome of submersibles playing their lights across the surface of the ruined ship. I liked any picture of the titanic. My copy only had the stern rocketing up out of the water.

We each had our own copy because we were voracious readers, although my sister had two years on me in reading comprehension. As a result, she got to the part where the Russians threaten to cut off the femme fatale’s breast first. Deanna was always a more sensitive soul than I was in this regard. Gore never bothered me much. She quailed at the story of Solomon ordering the bifurcation of the baby claimed by two different mothers. I used to sit and look at the picture of Goliath getting a rock sunk in his frontal lobe with awe and wonder.

It would be another five years or so until I’d get to read that part. In addition to the threatened mastectomy, the book featured more coarse language than I’d ever laid eyes upon. Someone always seemed to be saying the “f-word” as we called it in those days. Raise the Titanic! went on the banned reading list in our house.
A note about that movie adaptation before I continue. I remember that Obi-Wan Kenobi was in it. And I remembered that the Titanic did indeed, get raised. Nothing else about the film was memorable. I don’t think the Russians threatened any mutilation. And above all, when I got around to reading Raise the Titanic! as a teenager and realized that Dirk Pitt was the hero, I couldn’t remember for the life of me who played him in the film.

It turns out it was Richard Jordan, who looks and acts nothing like Dirk Pitt. Clive Cussler, the author of Raise the Titanic! was so disappointed with the film adaptation that he vowed to never again allow one of his books to be made into a movie.

Somewhere along the way to 2005 he caved, but only with the proviso that nothing got done without his permission. Hollywood got tired of waiting for Clive to approve the perfect script, and went ahead and made Sahara, another novel that Dirk Pitt is the hero of.

Because Dirk is the hero of the lion’s share of Clive Cussler novels. After I read Raise the Titanic!, I read the rest of the books about Dirk Pitt that were available back then. Dirk joined the long list of my fictional heroes; Conan, Doc Savage, Superman, Mack Bolan, Wolverine…the list goes on, but unlike Conan or Superman, I kind of thought “I could be like Dirk.” He was an attainable hero goal (or at least I was naieve enough to think so at the time), especially since I usually read those novels in the heat of summer and could go swimming (All of Dirk's adventures are related to being under or on the water).

I had though the same thing about Doc Savage, and as a result was doing an exercise program about the same time my parents made Dirk verboten. Doc was a great hero for a kid or a young teen, but Dirk was the hero for a guy looking to become a man.

Dirk is a "man’s man," as the opening lines from What Women Want describe one. He smokes cigars, drinks hard liquor, has a great tan, wavy hair, chicks dig him and he’s tough as nails. He’s cavalier and yet compassionate. He’s intelligent but not a pedant. And most importantly, he lives a life of adventure.
And adventure is what Sahara is all about. It’s the sort of adventure that was in vogue in the mid to late 80’s, with treasures to be found and villains without any real political affiliation to be fought. In Dirk’s universe, bad guys are bad and good guys are good (but not too good) and Dirk takes it all in with a sly grin.

I’ve read some of the reviews for Sahara by Cussler purists. They likely think the old man has a leg to stand on in holding a grudge against the filmmakers. It goes without saying that Steve Zahn looks nothing like the Al Giordano of the books, but he sure makes a great comedic counterpart to Matthew McConaughey as Dirk. And while some people don’t like Matthew's portrayal, I think he’s perfect. He’s got the build and the tan and the wry smile, and above all…he’s got the wavy hair. Dirk has wavy hair. Something a guy with natural curl likes in a hero. After years of trying to get my naturally curly hair to look like Tintin’s, Dirk was a godsend. Furthermore, for those who don't like Matthew as Dirk, I have two words for you. Richard. Jordan.

I'm really hoping Sahara opens the door for a Clive Cussler film franchise, because I'm sick to death of James Bond, and Jack Ryan can often be a bit of a bore, and I'm not into Jason Bourne's grim universe where no one ever smiles and the hero never gets to drop a one-liner. I like the universe Dirk Pitt inhabits. It just looks like everyone is having a good time. Someone needs to go tell Clive that's the whole point, is to have a good time. Mr. Cussler, I had a great time reading your books, but I really liked the movie too. Now get over it. I have three words for you. Raise. The. Titanic.

If I haven't been plain enough, let me give you another example. For everyone who whined about Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, I have a VHS copy of an old Ralph Bakshi flick I can lend you.
If you’re looking for mindless adventure that’s just a good time with no real pretense at being anything more than those things…go see Sahara. Or read any of Cussler’s novels. They won’t change your life, but they’re excellent page turning thrillers, so long as you don’t mind a whole lot of convenient coincidences, the proliferate use of the “f-word” and the occasional damsel in distress.

Just don’t tell my mom I told you to. I don't think she knows I got that second copy of Raise the Titanic!

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Sin City as Secondary World

I can’t imagine that any of the Christian movie parable sites are using Sin City this month. I can’t imagine any of them ever will, except for maybe those radicals over at Hollywood Jesus. Anyone who can get spiritual content from American Pie has a radar that sees Jesus everywhere.
For the average Evangelical Christian viewer, Sin City is just way too violent, smutty and dark. It’s the first film where I could say I say more than one castration. It’s the first film I’ve seen in ages that featured as much skin as bold a fashion. So for the majority of Christians, I think you should just stop reading this review at this point, and hear me say loud and clear, “You people should not see this movie.” Oh. And my mom too. My mom should NOT see Sin City.
With that out of the way, let me tell you why I rated it a ten and would not only see it again, but plan on owning it.
I can digress to a number of reviewers across the web to disseminate the information concerning the artistic merit of the film. Much has already been said about artistic vision, Rodriguez’ integrity to the source material and its creator, the high caliber of actors and their performances and all the other things that make this a great movie; I would only be restating what’s already been overstated.
But I know what people will be wondering. How can I justify enjoying the viewing of a movie such as this?
I’m not sure my agenda would ever be to justify it. I don’t know why we have to constantly go around justifying everything. Especially in a world where Christians support the NFL without justification. So I won’t justify it.
I will attempt to explain it a little.
It has to do with that Secondary Worlds concept I explored in an article a while back. Seeing Sin City crystallized a new Cinemaprophecy concept for me; it’s all about the secondary world.
Secondary worlds aren’t exclusive to the fantasy genre. I would propose that every work of fiction creates a secondary world of sorts. Morality becomes defined within the context of the story being told. The morality of Sin City is not our everyday morality, at least not our ideal morality, and thank God for that. However, it may in fact be an amplification of the way we are. When I first started thinking through the extension of the secondary world concept to all fiction, I realized that in and of itself, the secondary world premise does not guarantee a morality cogent with our own. But it must have an inner coherence in order to be successful.
The work of Cinemaprophecy becomes then the task of an anthropologist, a linguist, and a sociologist to each and every secondary world the viewer comes into contact with. It is useless to talk about the violence of Sin City as though it is directly related to the violence of the world we live in, because there is no North American city where prostitutes rule the inner city. In real life these relationships and dynamics are more complex. In film they become grossly simplified.
Some stories are very close to being the world of the reader. These, most would argue, are ‘realistic’ stories. But at best, all the fictional world can gain is verisimilitude. To replicate reality would result in a book the length of War and Peace where nothing ever really happens. Stories are always an enterprise of secondary worlds, even when they’re based on fact. Catch Me if you Can, while biographical, moves into the mystical from time to time through the onscreen relationship of Frank Abagnale Jr. and his father, since in real life Frank Sr. was dead shortly after Abagnale ran away. Or take any ‘period’ piece. Even if the replication of that time period is immaculate, it is not the world we presently live in, and as such becomes a secondary world. Fiction can never truly be about the primary world. One might be able to argue that a good deal of non-fiction is involved in the construction of an idealized secondary world that the primary aspires to. Self help books, books about faith practice, the environment, relationships, even travel books with their glossy perfect scenario presentations offer a secondary world to us.
In fiction though, these worlds are more purely distilled. The idea of story is to take us on a journey through this secondary world, not to see that world bleed into our own, although this may be an outcome of cinemaprophecy.
So in the secondary universe of Sin City, where all the priests and nearly all the police are corrupt, Marv is our Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of his psychotic temper, Gail is King Arthur watching benevolently over her queendom of street walkers, and Hardigan is Christ, taking the blame for a crime he never committed, and sacrificing himself to insure the angelic Nancy Callahan goes free.
It may not be a secondary universe you’re interested in visiting, and as such, you have my blessing to stay out. Just don’t look down your nose at me if I borrow a quote from AC/DC and head down to Sin City.