Monday, March 31, 2008

Sioux Falls Seminary Groundbreaking

Well it wasn't the prettiest of days, but the event went off without a hitch.

Read the Argus Leader article here.

More photos may be viewed clicking here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Fluidity & Structure of Light

Over the past few years I have been pondering something I read by Paul Tillich about how the Spirit works amidst structures. Our culture following in an individualistic libertarian vein of thought perceives structures as oppressive to the autonomous freedom of the person. They impose burdens upon people. They are oppressive in their ideologies. These ideas spill over too into our thoughts of the church and the shape of our ecclesiology. The church as an institution has suffered a great deal in the last 200 years at the expense of the individual liberties our country promotes. The church is perceived to be an impediment to self expression and fulfillment. I have heard some say that the structures of ecclesiology seem to stop or resist the movements of the Spirit thus they jettison the institution itself rendering salvation as a matter between the individual person and their personal savior Jesus.

I am not suggesting that the personal relationship does not have its merits, though it is not strictly listed in the bible and is a fairly recent addition to our Christian vocabulary and language. And yet, it is an over-simplification of the Christian faith that ignores the body of Christ as God’s chosen vessel of embodying the liberating message of the Gospel to the world. The church is certainly a broken vessel, and yet it is how God, in the name of Christ, empowered by the Sprit is at work within our world. We cannot dismiss it so readily as we are apt to do.

The image on the left is a blurred long exposure of a hanging chandelier in a Sioux Falls hotel. The image on the right is a pendant light that hangs in a stairwell at Sioux Falls Seminary. Their juxtaposition creates a conversation about the tenuous balance of fluidity and rigidity of the ecclesial constitution which becomes the bearer of God’s light in the world.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tangled LImbs

This is another piece in the Axis Mundi series which explores the sacred in our every day lives. This one uses the literal body as the space of sacrality. We are strange creatures who both worship and degrade our bodies. We suffer under cultural expectations of what is beautiful and we suffer at the hands of others both intentionally and unintentionally. And yet, if we are created in the image of God, and somehow that means we have been made as physical beings, the human body in a substantive way is sacred.

I love how this piece came together. I was not interested in trying to perfectly match the structure of one to the other but rather the suggestion of line and movement toward and sort of embrace of the other.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Themes Amidst the Void: A Holy Saturday Homily

We who are sitting here today have both the benefit of knowing history and the outcomes of this story: Good Friday brings Easter Sunday. And yet, because we know the story, we can never experience it again for the first time. But let me invite you to part company with your preconceived notions. Suppress your tendency to know what will happen. Try to hear the story with virgin ears not dimmed by your memory. And perhaps then we may glimpse a new reality of this dark day.

Old Testament Job 14.1-4
Psalm Psalm 130
Epistle 1 Peter 4.1-8
Gospel Matthew 27.57-66, John 19.38-42 (Blended)

Remembering our Journey Thus Far
We are here appropriately scattered and silent. We have come this far in this Holy Week to sit here in silent wonder…confusion…sadness…profound tension of life and death. We have journeyed with Jesus into Jerusalem where crowds have thrown their cloaks and branches as he passed by in triumph on a donkey. We have witnessed intimate moments among friends. We have dined with Christ and the apostles in the Last Supper. We have watched helplessly as Judas betrayed his friend. We have been witnesses at the trial. We have seen injustice. We have suffered the horror of seeing God incarnate hung on the cross.

And now, our Christ lies dead behind a great and immovable stone. And we wait in this the longest of days.

Themes Amidst the Void

Today is a day of tensions.
Our historical vantage point allows us to know of what comes tomorrow. But today we are in between…caught in the middle of sorrow and hope. Today is lived in the tension between the crucifixion and the resurrection…between despair and joy…between presence and absence…between the darkness of Friday and the light of Sunday…between the defeat of life and the victory over death…the end and a new beginning.

Today is a day of silence.
Today we sit in a no-mans land of scripture. With only few words of history. Our scriptures say little of this day. Only Matthew (26.62ff) shares that the priests and Pharisees visit Pilate on the morning of the Shabbat, asking to secure the grave. As scripture is silent on this day, we become silent. In this sparse day of words, we are left to contemplate and re-live the disorientation of the original followers. Scattered, they observed the Sabbath in utter confusion… weariness… and hopelessness. As Christ lays silent, dead in the tomb we sit in silence to consider our own impending death.

Today is a day to consider our mortality.
We live in a death denying culture. Even in death, the mortician tries to beautify the body. We go to the doctor, take vitamins and medication, eat right and exercise not just to be healthy, but to prolong life and delay death. We all dedicate significant mental and physical energy to postponing that final breath. But the truth is we are dying from the moment we are born. Death is not one final act but the final moment of a long process of dying. Today we are reminded of our finitude that we may, as the Epistle has told us to live the remainder of your days “not by human desires, but by the will of God.”

Today is a day of mourning.
It was for the faithful of that time a day of profound loss. Not just of a friend and rabbi, but failure of a communities Messianic dreams. Their hope for salvation crushed, hung out to dry on a cross, and now dead in a tomb. Regardless of how these men and women understood salvation and Jesus as the Messiah, those hopes had literally been killed. This is a day of mourning of the loss of a friend and shared dreams. Today the alter remains bare. Today there is no celebration of the Eucharist, for Christ is not present here.

Today is a day of rest.
The tendency of today is to rush in preparation for tomorrow. Groceries to buy. Meals to prepare. Homes to clean for family gatherings. Miles to travel. And yet, the heart of this day is the Jewish Sabbath. A day of rest. Today we are to see the connection to the first Sabbath…the Sabbath of creation. On the seventh day of creation God ordained a day of rest from the work of creation. Today, God incarnate rests in a tomb from the work of redemption.

Today is a day of waiting.
Again because we are caught in this tension of historical knowledge that this Jesus will rise, we must wait in this tension. I suspect that we are prone to jump all too quickly through this dark day. We don’t like to dwell too long on such topics. But to forget about this day in between the extremes of death and the resurrection is to miss a significant part of the original experience. What we transverse in a few moments of reading was played out historically over a good number of hours. In the course of only a few verses we move from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. To make our journey complete, we must not rush through this day. We cannot speed up the hours no matter how uncomfortable they may be. We must wait and pray like the disciples horribly suspended between Friday and Sunday.

Today is a day of hope.
As God rested from the work of first creation on the first Sabbath preparing for the for the eight day of creation and the first week; we are to see God Incarnate resting in the tomb from the work of redemption because tomorrow begins the first week of new creation…a new covenant. In the work of the cross we are to see an image of original creation.

Tomorrow, what was lost, will be reclaimed.

Tomorrow, the old will be made new.

Tomorrow, what was broken will be restored.

Tomorrow, those in exile will be welcomed home.

Yesterday’s end brings tomorrow’s new beginning.

And those amidst death, as we are, can hope for new life and resurrection because tomorrow we will see the death of death itself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Spirited Bodies

This is another piece I created (and re-created) several times for the Common Ground show last year in Sioux Falls. For some time I have been wrestling with ideas of our human constitution. Are we body? Are we bodies and souls? We are commanded to love with our whole heart, mind, and strength? How many parts are we? Are these ideas of body and soul remnants of a Platonic dualism? Do they send us down Gnostic paths? This piece is suggestive of those wrestlings. The image was taken on my brother-in-laws farm in Springside, Saskatchewan last summer.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Holy Week @ Church of the Good Shepherd

Jazzhands Jesus

We saw this at the Indianola Balloon Classic a few years ago. I've seen it on the cover of a book recently as well.

As my friend Dave said, "If this is how we are going to meet Jesus in the clouds, the rapture is going to disappoint a whole lot of people..."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

kairos or chronos?

Ok...I saw this in a church office while attending a friends wedding and just had to take a picture of it.

So much fun with this one...

Kairos or Chronos?
Woe to you when my batteries run out...

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Mt. 4.17)

Jesus said to them, "My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. (John 7.6)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tyler Durden: A Dark Christ-Figure?

Our small group has been studying the Gospel of Luke for the past 6 months or so and we continue to return to Luke 4:16-21 as a hermeneutical lens for understanding Luke’s perspective of Jesus.

The passage states, “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The scroll was open to Isaiah 61 which should be read a fuller understanding for this context but Jesus’ own words suffice as a summary. Verse 19a of the Luke passage or 2a of Isaiah 61 mention the “year of the Lord’s favor” which points to the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 where all property shall be returned to its rightful owners and debts are forgiven.

With that in the back of my mind, my recent viewing radically changed my perception of Tyler Durden. Kelton Cobb, in The Blackwell Guide to Popular Culture states that Jack apprentices Tyler’s in an “ad hoc twelve-step program that Tyler devises to free Jack from his bondage to the dominant paradigm of consumerism” (p. 11). I began to wonder, is Tyler a sort of Christ figure, albeit a very dark one?

Much of what the Lukan passage suggest and recurs throughout the Gospel is liberation from illness, oppression and the structures of society. Tyler is trying to liberate Jack and subsequently the rest of the men (and also the participational viewer) from the burden of branded identities and consumption. Tyler whispers to Jack while he is on the phone with the police, “Tell him the liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perception.”

Another telling scene is in the basement of Lou’s bar or tavern. Lou enters and proceeds to pummel Tyler. Tyler willingly accepts this beating for the sake of others. Tyler motions to Jack to stay on the sidelines because his entry would derail his purposes of obtaining this venue on behalf of the greater whole. He, like the Space Monkeys later sacrifice themselves so that fledgling community of Fight Club may go on.

Another telling scene takes place in the back of a convenience store…the epitome of unnecessary consumption. With the glow of soda machines in the background the store clerk, Raymond K. Hessel is hauled out at gunpoint and made to kneel on the ground. Tyler sifts through his wallet finding an expired community college I.D. card he asks what he studied. The clerk, fearing for his life manages to dribble out barely understandable words. At one time, he had wanted to be a veterinarian and having become overwhelmed by the work involved he left his dreams behind to work in a life-sapping environment of consumption. Tyler takes the man’s license and says that he will check in on him in 6 weeks and will kill him if he is not on the way towards becoming a veterinarian. Afterwards Tyler says, “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day in Raymond K. Hessel’s life.” Raymond is awoken from the slumber of self in a society bent on selfish consumption and freed to pursue his dreams. In fact, his life (both metaphorically and literally) depend upon it. In a later scene, we see the back of a door covered with stolen drivers licenses signifying that this was not a random act. Rather they had encountered many attempting to liberate them from consumption towards a greater good.

Another central question that should be asked is the nature of the violence. To what end is the violence. Is there meaning in or redemption from the violence? In these particular scenes it would seem that there is. The cross, the supreme act of violence in the Christian tradition becomes the central motif for Paul and the means of our salvation. Here too the violence is the necessary method of freeing others from the oppression of social structures. Raymond K. Hessel and all the others represented by their drivers licenses have been in someway freed. The Space Monkey’s too have been freed from their miserable lives to find meaning in liberating others. And we as the viewer also are to find liberation by participation in the story.

Tyler may be thought of a sort of Christ-figure insofar as he gives sight to the blind (awakens slumbering culture to the effects of consumerism) and then heals them by giving them a new identity, and brings good news to the poor (both literally poor and of spirit), and frees them from the burden. The clincher for this Christological lens is the year of the Lord’s favor…the Year of Jubilee. Tyler, and project Mayhem are bent on bringing down the credit card industry to level the economic playing field. By destroying this harmful and oppressive banking practice Tyler initiates what to many would be the Year of Jubilee.

And yet, we must consider (as one of my students pointed out) not only what Tyler is liberating them from, but to what/where are they going? And this is where the Christ-figure lens would seem to fail. Robert Bellah points out a fantastic irony in Habits of the Heart by saying, “just where we think we are most free (we’ve cast off these oppressive structures and philosophies), we are most coerced by the dominant beliefs of our own culture. For it is a powerful cultural fiction that we not only can, but must, make up our deepest beliefs in the isolation of our private selves” (p. 65). Radical individuals fail to see that they cast off one set of traditions for another set. Thus Tyler leads them from the oppressions of one tradition (namely consumption) to another (namely violence and anarchism). If this is correct and the film finally does not endorse the violence it portrays, Tyler can simultaneously be thought of as an anti-Christ leading his followers into another form of oppression.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

confused marketing

Every now and then something will catch my odd sense of humor.

We see this sign every time we head home to Saskatchewan. Paris Cafe serving Chinese food?

Who does their marketing?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Fight Club, the Hegelian Synthesis and Robert Bellah’s Individualisms

The Hegelian synthesis suggests that from a thesis will arise its anti-thesis and as a way to mediate between the two a synthesis will emerge blending and rejecting elements of both the thesis and antithesis.

Fight Club, while giving voice to the frustrations of many post-moderns, seems to utilize this very modern construct.

The thesis is represented by Edward Norton’s character Jack or the Narrator as a buttoned-down un-happy white-collar worker in an un-ethical and mind-numbing job. His antithesis, Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt is the alpha-male unrestrained by societal rules and its ways of functioning. Tyler is Jack’s self-created, self-liberating alternate personality.

For this to work we must ask, does the film ultimately condone the violence of Tyler’s actions as they are portrayed? The final scenes would seem to give us ample direction to say that the violence portrayed is not the ultimate answer. The Jack at the end is no longer the slave to the Ikea nesting instinct he was at the beginning and yet neither is he the slave to Tyler’s ambitious anarchy. Jack in the final scenes would seem to represent the synthesis. He has been liberated from desire for consumption but also its antithesis of violent rejection. He is not the emasculated male nor the hyper-violent male either.

I think we see the synthesis at work in Tyler’s words too. On one hand he says that “You are not your khakis” but also, “You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We are the all-singing, all dancing crap of the world. We are all part of the same compost heap.”

Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart describes individualism in two particular forms: utilitarian and expressive. Benjamin Franklin is the epitome of the utilitarian expression of individualism where the individual rises to success through hard work and personal initiative. They are identified by the proverbial “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” Many believed that if each individual vigorously pursued his or her own interest, the social good would also automatically emerge (p.33).

Expressive individualism, a form of Romanticism and best exemplified by Walt Whitman, arose in reaction to the materialistic pursuits of utilitarian individualism. Expressive individualism sought to cultivate the self and self-expression where each person has a “unique core of feeling and intuition that must unfold if individuality is to be expressed (p. 333-4) These sentiments are easily identifiable in Whitman’s writings, as well as, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and others. For the expressivists, “the ultimate use of the American’s independence was to cultivate and express the self and explore its vast social and cosmic identities” (p. 35). We hear this in our language of “finding oneself.”

Fight Club seems to critique both the materialistic utilitarian individual as well as the self-cultivating expressivist. And yet, the film avoids becoming preachy and dictating the synthesis. It is left to the individual to navigate and mediate between the utilitarian and expressivist, as well as the emasculated consumer and ultra-violent alpha male. Jack becomes the one who has successfully escaped both but we are left to fill in what his life will now look like.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hospitality of Psalm 23

The following is a homily offered today in chapel at Sioux Falls Seminary for our Lenten Communion services.

Psalm 23
1 The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. 2 He makes us lie down in green pastures; he leads us beside still waters; 3 he restores our soul. He leads us in right paths for his name's sake. 4 Even though we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil; for you are with us; your rod and your staff— they comfort us. 5 You prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies; you anoint our heads with oil; our cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.

I want to spend the next few minutes thinking about hospitality which has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, both inside and outside of the church. And yet the two conversations are often radically different each competing for our desires. Elizabeth Newman, professor at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond Virginia has written a powerful reflection on the nature of the Christian hospitality called Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers.

Beth begins by critiquing our cultures distorted understanding of hospitality. The world around us sees hospitality through the eyes of HGTV, Martha Stewart, Southern Living, or Ladies’ Home Journal. We are sold images of the immaculate private retreat homes, lavishly decorated for this and every season where only the select few are welcomed. We see friends gathered to rough hewn Asian hardwood tables sold at your local Pottery Barn…enjoying elaborate feasts cooked in beautiful shining pots from Williams Sonoma…served on the newest line of dishes from Crate & Barrel.

This is how many in our cultures think of hospitality.

So too, our cultural perspectives on hospitality have become synonymous with sentimental expressions of forced smiles, nice manners, pleasantly bland conversations[1] and has often been relegated to the private sphere of our home life.

Not all forms of hospitality are confined to the home. There is of course the hospitality industry of spas, hotels, restaurants, cruises and resorts. This form of hospitality operates on the market economy where services are exchanged for money. Here, hospitality is rooted in our culture of leisure and consumption, branded and bought identities and lifestyles, and is driven by our desire of desire itself.

Perhaps we have been invited to sail away from the busyness of life on a Carnival Fun cruise that will take care of your every need or whim…for a price.

We are also invited to soothe the soul by comforting the body through luxurious indulgences of exotic skin treatments and massages at spas…again for a price.

I am not criticizing these things outright, but we must ask, are these really acts of hospitality…or is it mere entertaining?

Hospitality as entertaining/entertainment is concerned with cultivating a particular appearance rather than a true self giving to ones guest. What is intended to welcome another into ones way of life becomes a way to hold others at a distance.

And yet in our Psalm today we are given a glimpse of God’s hospitality.

John Goldingay says Psalm 23 is a psalm of radical trust[2] told through symbolic images of Yahweh as shepherd and host, protector and provider. Yahweh acts as our caring shepherd by his guidance and protection and as generous host where we enjoy feasting and celebration.

Several things in this psalm stood out in my preparation.

First, Israel refuses to see a distinction between their physical and spiritual needs. Yahweh, is the satisfaction of all. If we are to take this psalm seriously we must consider our own consumption in the market of desire and the call to utter reliance upon God’s ways to first define our desires and then offer their fulfillment.

Second, a shepherd generally watches over a flock rather than individual sheep, this psalm is a recounting of Yahweh’s past protection and provision recalling Israel’s exodus and journey through the wilderness. The powerful potential of the psalm recognizes that its hope is intimately tied to its memory. By rehearsing God’s past hospitality, we reconstitute our hope for the future in our present celebration and worship.

Newman states, “Just as God provided manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, Christians acknowledge that God continues to provide living bread in the body and blood of Christ and living water in the pools of baptism. God has provided for us and always will.”[3]

This table and these elements become the means of God’s hospitality. Here we are received and welcomed through the power and gift of the Spirit to participate in God’s own triune life…an unimaginable abundance of self-giving and receiving.

But here at this table we also receive our identity. This table and these elements become a central means of forming the distinctive characteristics of God’s flock utterly dependant upon God’s protection and provision.

Gathering together as we are and through these practices, we are more than a collection of individuals. Alexander Schmemann goes further suggesting that in the liturgy, we become “a whole greater than the sum of our parts.”[4] Here the Spirit gathers us from around the globe to forge us into the physical body of Christ that we may embody God’s hospitality to the world, unbounded by the walls of our homes.

At this table you are not held at arms length.
Here you are welcomed into the life of God.
Come and receive the Gifts of God for the People of God.

Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanks giving.

[1] Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality, 23.
[2] Goldingay, Psalms Vol. 1, 345.
[3] Newman, 15.
[4] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 25. See also Newman, 49.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Fight Club and Nihilism

Most commentators suggest that Fight Club is a nihilistic film likely based in the anarchist and violent tendencies portrayed by Tyler Durden.

First we should consider a basic concept of nihilism. Literally it suggests “nothingness” emanating from a “complete rejection of and possibly the destruction of beliefs and values associated with moral and traditional social structures. Philosophically, nihilism represents an attitude of total skepticism regarding objective truth claims. Nihilism views knowledge as dependent upon sensory experience alone, so that moral and theological claims are meaningless” (Stan Grenz, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms).

In many ways, these ideas are embodied in the film. There is a rejection of capitalism and consumerism that most hold dear in our culture. There is a rejection that violence is bad. Pain, or other sensory experiences becomes the means to awaken to real life. We see that latter with the scarification ritual in the soap-making kitchen. Tyler says, “this is the most beautiful moment of your life, don’t deal with it the way those dead people do.” Which is another critique of the therapeutic tendencies of our culture.

That same scene also gives us other insights into the nihilism of the film. Many forms of nihilism are naturally paired with atheism. If there is no God, than there can be no moral absolutes. Tyler’s monologue in the kitchen suggests that this form of nihilism is not atheistic.

“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. Never wanted you, and in all probability he hates you. this is not the worst thing that can happen. We don’t need him. Fuck damnation, man. Fuck redemption. We are God’s unwanted children. So be it. It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything.”

Kelton Cobb in The Blackwell Guide to Popular Culture states, “This is a bitter theism, a resentful affirmation of God’s existence” (p. 265-6). God seems to be a given. And yet we are forced to contend with the apparent realities of life rather than what we would like to believe about God. His experience colors his concepts of God. In return, he renders God as irrelevant.

The article on Nihilism from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy edited by Donald M. Borchrt also suggested, “nihilism is caused not so much by atheism as by industrialization and social pressures, and its typical consequences are not selfishness or suicide, but indifference, ironical detachment, or sheer bafflement.” This claim certain helps see the effects of consumerism as an institutional violence.

And yet, the nihilism portrayed in Fight Club is not absence of hope. Tyler says to Jack, “In the world I see, we’re stalking elk in the grand canyon around the ruins of the Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the vines around the Sears tower. And when you look down you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty carpool lane of some abandoned superhighway.” Kelton Cobb states, “For Tyler, Eden will rise from the rubble of cities that have been cleansed of the poison of corporate logos, global markets and consumer incompetence” (p. 265-6). Furthermore, if there is no hope and no meaning, why bother with the destruction of society to liberate humanity?

In many way’s the film is nihilistic. And yet there are glimmers of hope not unlike our eschatological hope. Times are dark and yet we can see and imagine a purer reality as it has been promised, and in some ways is already present.

Monday, March 3, 2008

He’s No Threat To You: Emasculation in Fight Club

Emasculation becomes a central theme in Fight Club as it is portrayed by the narrator Jack. William Romanowski, in Eyes Wide Open states, “Emasculated by the consumer culture…Jack finds solace (though under false pretense) in a support group for men with testicular cancer: (The castration metaphor is obvious.) There he meets Bob, a former body builder; who has developed feminine features resulting from his cancer treatment. Trying to comfort the sobbing Jack, Bob rasps in a high pitched voice, ‘We’re still men,’ with Jack affirming “Yes, we’re men. Men is what we are.”

Consumer culture emasculates by fostering false idealized images that motivate men to change what and who they are: men. They run longing for this idealized image to which Tyler, Jack’s idealized alpha-male alter-ego helps to free Jack from this burden.

At the outset of the film we find the emasculated Jack seeking solace and identity in consumable products rather than in himself…whatever that may look like. In an early scene where Jack and Tyler first appear in the same shot, sitting side by side on the airplane Tyler reads the emergency instruction card to which Jack replies something about the great responsibility that seat has to open the emergency door. Tyler asks if he would like to switch seats to which Jack replies, “I’m not sure that I am the man for that job.” Lack of confidence, or sense of responsibility Jack declines as a symptom of the emasculated male.

In one scene Jack describes the relationship between he and Tyler as, “Most of the week we were like Ozzie and Harriet.” We are not confused who is whom in this analogous pairing.

In another scene at Marla’s apartment, Marla says to Tyler, “Oh Don’t worry he’s (referring to a dildo) not a threat to you.” As the alpha-male, sure of his virile sexuality, Tyler is not threatened by a wobbling gelatinous penis on the dresser. And yet, earlier when Jack, the emasculated male is at the airport, the attendant insinuates that Jack’s missing luggage may have been a result of a vibrating dildo.

Craig Detweiler in his book, A Matrix of Meanings says, “A longing for God and fathers informs every frame of Fight Club” (p. 42.). We see this theme boy with out father-figures recurring throughout the film. In a later poignant scene, the two men sit and discuss their fathers.

Jack: “I can’t get married, I’m a 30 year old boy.”

Tyler: “We are a generation of men raised by women…I’ wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”

Elsewhere in the film Tyler asks, “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”

Our culture’s lack of fathers point of orientation in development renders an incomplete identity that must be filled by things. Ultimately the we are shown what it means to be a man by those products rather than our fathers.

Jack narrates to the audience, “I felt sorry for guys packed into gyms, trying to look like how Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger said they should look.” And turning to Tyler asks, “Is that what a man looks like?”

Later Tyler responds to similar thoughts in a monologue to the local fight club, “Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

We have been sold a false bill of goods and the scales have fallen from our eyes. The mute now have a voice to combat the culture…to give an expression to their (and ours) discontent.

Tyler represents Jack’s desire to be a strong male rather than the passive slave to culture. And we are left to ponder our own emasculation. Are we simultaneously repulsed by Jack’s emasculation and attracted to Tyler’s freedom? If so, is that symptomatic of our own emasculation?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Fight Club and Consumption

This past week I had my class view Fight Club. While I had seen the film many times before, I had not seen it for several years. This viewing opened up several new layers of the film that over the next few days I want to spend some time wrestling with.

I saw the film first in 1999 when the film came out against the advice of a good friend who was thoroughly disappointed with the lack of fighting. He had hoped that it for a boxing movie to which Fight Club is sure to disappoint. The film is certainly violent, but it serves a different purpose than a film like Rocky where the hero rises against the odds to greatness. Fight Club uses violence as a subtext to explore what is necessary to subvert the dominant paradigm of consumption.

Fight Club is a scathing critique of our branded and consumable identities. The Narrator played by Edward Norton, who remains nameless save a few 3rd person references as “Jack” is shackled by societies addiction to things. The fact that he largely remains nameless is suggestive of two things: 1) that he finds his identity in those things he buys and 2) Jack is a sort of everyman in which we are to see that we too are kept by these consumeristic desires.

In response to the question of police about the destruction of his apartment, Jack states, ““That condo was my life. I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That is not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was me!” It was ME! His identity had become those things. In a consumer culture we can buy our identity, change it on a whim because we are buying not simply clothes or furniture but a lifestyle that tells others about who we are. For Jack, identity was found in his stuff…his Ikea furniture, his AX ties and DKNY shirts etc. In one poignant scene Jack tells Tyler, “I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.” To which Tyler replies casually, as if unbound to all forms of materialism, “Shit man, now it's all gone.” Jack’s identity was almost complete as if there is nothing of value within the self but must be supported and comforted with commodities and now, it was all gone. Without these material enhancements, Jack must now set out on a path of discovery towards who he really is.

In that same poignant scene come the most scathing critique of consumerism.

Tyler Durden: Do you know what a duvet is?
Jack: It's a comforter...
Tyler Durden: It's a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?
Jack: ...Consumers?
Tyler Durden: Right. We are consumers. We're the bi-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me, are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.
Jack: Martha Stewart.
Tyler Durden: Fuck Martha Stewart. Martha's polishing the brass on the Titanic. It's all going down, man. So fuck off with your sofa units and string green stripe patterns.

Here we get a glimpse of the final scenes of the film. That this cultures ways of consumption, this lifestyle obsession is coming to an end. We are left to wonder now in retrospect, does Tyler already have his plans in mind? This is also telling for Christians who are just as easily sucked into our cultures consumptive ways. We too are more interested in the personal enhancements, the versatile solutions for modern living, than issues of social justice. Certainly the health and wealth gospel only serves to uphold the cultures consumption. Messages of service and sacrifice, the Cross and martyrdom are sadly out of fashion.

If we are to critique our culture which in embedded in consumption, we must also provide a viable alternative in which we locate our true identity. Which the church has: the story of God in Israel and Christ. And yet, we must be careful not to package and sell the story in the medium of that same consumeristic culture. It is a telling irony, that Tyler’s anti consumption task force, Project Mayhem is funded by consumption or their selling of designer soaps. It points out the irony that anti-consumerism can still be sold as a product or identity. Jack says, “It was beautiful, we were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them.”

The Christian faith is not another add-on identity to those we have already garnered. It is something other. Something that demands the whole self.