|Photo by Meg|
Some years ago I became generally dissatisfied with contemporary secular literature. The more I explored the wild claims of biblical faith, and the more I applied them to myself and found them not only sound but also mind-blowingly coherent and penetrating in ways my weak little brain can only begin to unravel, the less interesting and profound and meaningful proved the messages from pop culture material which has no basis in or connection to anything remotely God-interested.
At the same time I discovered myself equally exasperated (and occasionally nauseated) by the troves of safe, saccharine, sanitary tripe offered up by too many Christian writers who seem too frightened of their readers, their publishers, the world, or themselves to deal with any topic that doesn’t wear the buttoned-up sweater-vest of a milquetoast eunuch.
But that’s a different subject.
Writers and artists have throughout history been the bearers of ideas and ideals. They document the ethos and experience of their generations. They catalog and challenge the status quo. They question the mores of their societies, their leaders, their detractors. Just as Christ used parables to reveal to man the nature of God, writers use stories to reveal their own natures, their own worldviews, their own perceptions of reality and life and meaning.
Words have power because of what lies within and behind them—truth or falseness, honor or vulgarity, love or hatred.
We forget (or ignore) this to our own harm.
The Life of Pi
Pi, the titular protagonist of The Life of Pi, practiced pantheism; he equally valued and observed the traditions of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, explaining that he “just wants to love God.” The movie depicts Pi’s narration of the events surrounding his shipwreck and subsequent weeks adrift in the ocean, as told to a journalist. Near the end of his beautiful, fascinating, and heart-swelling story, it becomes obvious that the animals with whom he claimed to share a lifeboat were in fact allegories to the people therein: his mother and her murderer, in fact.
When the journalist asks which version of the story is the true one, Pi responds with a question: “Which do you prefer?” The writer assents that he likes the story with the animals better. Pi replies, “And so it goes with God.”
My eyes closed and my heart sank with a disappointed sigh at the end of the movie. Such a richly filmed, gorgeously constructed story culminated in the assertion that God is a myth we create because his existence makes reality easier to swallow. If true, then we who believe are merely beautifully self-deluded fools who lack the courage to face the way things really are. And those who disbelieve will have no beauty or mystery in their prosaic lives at all.
But what disturbs me most isn’t that there are those who hold that worldview, or even that such an internally unsound theology continues to appeal to an unexamined and shallow version of self-worship. It’s that so few of us even recognize that this is what we’re meant to take away from the story.
Intentions & Agendas
Every word spoken or written has a subtext, a pretense, a motive behind it.
I once went out for a drink with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. At the door we had to show identification. She and I tried to carry on our conversation, but the bouncer kept us there at the entrance, chatting us up. When he asked where we had gone to high school, I finally had enough of his irritating interruptions.
“Why do you keep asking all these questions?” I demanded, attempting to derail the flirting.
He looked me in the eye. “Because I’m not sure whether you’re actually twenty-one or not.”
I misread his intentions entirely.
How? I was distracted by the conversation with my friend, negligent about the real reason the bouncer was there, and probably a little vain, too. He had a purpose in questioning us, and it wasn’t at all what I thought it was in my self-absorbed little world.
I simply wasn’t paying attention.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman
In Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the main character, Mr. Peabody, is a modern Renaissance man, a prodigy of talent in every arena of study, from literature to bartending, engineering to psychology. And he is also a dog. Poignantly cognizant of the wounds left upon him by his childhood of loneliness and neglect at the hands of those who did not understand him, he takes in an abandoned baby and obtains legal custody to raise the boy as his adopted son. Mr. Peabody later builds a time machine and takes Sherman on heart-racing and educational adventures where they encounter famous figures across the span of history.
The movie is delightful, original, and wholly engaging.
However, near the beginning Sherman has an altercation with another child at school which leads to the intervention of Child Safety and Protective Services. Miss Grunion, the social worker assigned to the case, is an overbearing, power-hungry, misanthropic (or misan-dog-pic) harpy. She considers any canine—even one as brilliant, dedicated, and loving as Mr. Peabody—unfit to parent a human child, and sets out to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody. About the case she makes a number of pre-conceived judgments before she ever begins any form of investigation:
“Clearly, it’s because of how he’s being raised.”
“In my opinion a dog can never be a suitable parent to a boy.”
“A dog should never have been allowed to adopt a boy in the first place.”
Substitute the word homosexual in place of dog, and the scene becomes uncannily reminiscent of battles playing out in today’s courts and culture wars. And those opposed to adoption by homosexuals are characterized as prejudiced, mean-spirited, narrow-minded Miss Grunions.
But again, I’m less concerned about ideological agendas being woven into children’s movies, and more troubled that even Plugged In, Focus on the Family’s “publication designed to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving families the essential tools they need to understand, navigate, and impact the culture”, fails to take note of it in its review of the film.
Is Literary Criticism Even Important?
When I type “critical thinking” into my browser’s search window, the first definition that pops back is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” The word critical comes from the Latin criticus and the Greek kritikos, to judge or decide. When we are critical of something we assess it, weighing its merits and faults.
Should I buy this pair of shoes? Do I like them? How much do they cost? Are they comfortable? Do they match anything in my wardrobe?
Which job should I take? The one that satisfies me intellectually, or that which offers a larger salary? The one nearer my family, or the one that lets me travel the world? Which is more important to me, and why?
Is this the person I should marry? Do I find him attractive? What about his character? Is he honest? Kind? Wise? What kind of life could I make with him?
We make value judgments all the time, with consequences that run the spectrum from grave to trivial. But when it comes to words, what people and books and movies are telling us, do we listen with critical ears?
What is this author (screenwriter, advertiser, politician) saying, and why is he saying it?
What can I infer about the political/spiritual/intellectual agenda behind these words?
Does this agree with my perspective or challenge it? Does it make a good point, requiring me to rethink my position? Or is it a fallacious argument? How do I know for sure?
Cheryl Strayed’s popular book and movie chronicles her 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Devastated by the untimely death of her mother, and having reached a crisis point following years of self-destructive behavior culminating in a divorce, she undertakes this journey to seek spiritual enlightenment and a new sense of direction and purpose to her life.
Strayed writes beautifully, and her sense of wonder and hopefulness pervade both her memoir and non-fiction work. But the ultimate conclusion to Wild, which she narrates as she crosses the Oregon-Washington Bridge of the Gods near the end of her hike, makes me sad, and concerned about what other lost people might take away from the story.
Strayed concludes that her years of drug abuse and sexual libertarianism were ultimately good for her, and necessary to bring her where she is today.
This smacks of several popular, pseudo-spiritual myths:
All roads lead to God. (“God” meaning “self-actualization.”)
There is no greater purpose to life than becoming oneself.
The pursuit of my own happiness is a moral imperative.
Permission was granted for us to shoot heroine, sleep around, lie and cheat and do whatever else we feel necessary for our own journey toward self-understanding, with no comment on the consequences of those choices.
What happened to the child with which Strayed found herself pregnant? What about the diseases that accompany drug needles and profligate sex? What of the physical, psychological, and emotional damage done to people and relationships?
What Are They Trying to Sell Me?
Everyone wants to sell us something. A product, an idea, a philosophy—we all have our agendas and we encounter others’ agendas all day long. Sometimes the outcome is innocuous: should I succumb to the lure of Peet’s or Starbucks? Other times it has eternal consequences: is Jesus or Allah or Shiva most likely to get me into heaven when I die?
But if we don’t pay attention to what we’re being sold, we’ll end up buying a lot of things we never wanted and that aren’t any good for us. We’ll make our decisions based on what feels nice at the moment, rather than what makes sense for the long haul. We’ll get led into a lot of places we never realized were the ultimate destinations of paths we didn’t even know we were on.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
More likely, it’s paved with unchallenged agendas.