Tuesday, April 5, 2011

SEARCHING FOR THE REDEMPTIVE


Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
- The Apostle Paul, Philippians 4:8
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Most people think of entertainment as something that helps them relax.  Most people seek entertainment as an antidote to the utter boredom of the routine and monotony of their lives.  This is only natural.  But, the majority of consumers take their desire for entertainment too far.  This includes you and me.  Over ninety percent of that which is produced for our entertainment is absolute garbage ... because garbage is what we demand.  Entertainment garbage is specifically designed to discourage you from thinking, to deaden your senses, to enable you to forget for a few hours the tediousness of your own life, and to lull you into a sense of escape from having to make any effort to do anything at all.   In this essay, I'm going to argue that our allowing this is listless and needless submission.  You don't have to settle for bilge when there are things of worth out there for you instead.

Rest and relaxation are healthy for the soul. But there are different kinds of relaxation.  There is a difference between being refreshed and being numbed. Entertainment, enjoyment, laughter, amusement and other miscellaneous diversions have the capacity to deaden you as they have the capacity to strengthen you.  Historically, art was created to stimulate the viewer to appreciate, to reflect upon, and to desire that what is both noble and beautiful.  But, in our modern culture, most films, TV shows and music do not direct us towards these ends.  We have lost our appreciation and cultivation of beauty in modern times.  Our standards have lowered to the lowest mass-marketed common denominator and the result is a counterfeit replacement for art - a counterfeit that devalues your thinking ability and your comprehension of that which is true, ennobling or beautiful.

So here’s the thing.

If you make the choice to set higher standards for yourself, suddenly a whole new unexplored and adventurous world opens up before you.  Yes, relaxation can be a pursuit that is healthy for the soul.  It can enliven you, waken you, open up your eyes to see beauty where you never even thought to look for it, cultivate a deeper understanding of what is worth spending your time upon, and even change you for the better.  In other words, film, television and music (among other art forms) ought to be redemptive. You can enrich your free time if you so choose to.  It ought to be refreshing.  It ought to be capable of making you into a better person.  It ought to encourage you to be good.  If you decide to listen to music, to read a book, or to watch a film, you have the opportunity to choose between that which will enchant, educate and edify your soul and that which will desensitize, warp and deaden your capacity to think and to feel.

And here’s where things can get exciting, because this type of art within entertainment does, in fact, exist.  It takes effort and a little self-education to be able to find it, but it is out there. Films and TV shows that inspire are being made by a small collection of artists who do actually take the time to think.  A minority of thoughtful and creative people have been producing entertainment for the small collection of consumers who do set higher standards for how they spend their free time.  These are the artists & musicians, authors & filmmakers that you need to seek out.  I promise that spending time with them and their works will be a rejuvenating experience.

Forget about pop culture.  It’s not worth the time.  The trendy, the popular and the fashionable are, most often, not the edifying.

It is time to take extended breaks from your life of social networking. For every four or more hours per day that a person spends texting and blogging and youtubing and emailing and myspacing and facebooking and twittering, you could read one life stretching book, or watch two entire films, either of which could make you look at the world around you with new eyes.  It is high time to raise your standards and to make the effort to spend your time with that which is of both depth and worth. Am I repeating myself here yet?

There is a flood of consumer entertainment media that is begging for your attention.  For the rest of your life, there will be a vast distractingly attractive collection of hyperlinks and advertisements trying to convince you to spend your time on meaninglessness and triviality.  In this flood, the good and the worthwhile will be lost if you do not know how to seek it out.

If you walk into a music store, the music that takes greater skill to create is going to be mixed in and lost in the middle of a majority of low quality mass-marketed copycat noise.  If you walk into a Blockbuster, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, The Coen Brothers, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Akira Kurosawa, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Wim Wenders, Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenneth Branagh or Terrence Malick will most likely be difficult to find.  If you walk into a modern bookstore, you are going to have to know precisely where to look to find anything at all of the quality of writers like Frederick Buechner, Patrick O’Brian, William F. Buckley Jr., G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, David Foster Wallace, Clyde Edgerton, Mark Helprin, Richard Price, Marilynne Robinson, Dorothy Sayers, Roger Scruton, Charles Portis, Shusako Endo or Flannery O’Connor. In any Borders or Barnes & Noble, the “Great Books” section will be one of the smallest sections in the entire bookstore if it, in fact, exists at all.  In other words, seeking out that which possesses virtue will always be just like a treasure hunt.  It requires work and effort, and its reward can be magical.

Why not strive, with your friends or family, to begin the hunt?

When I was attending undergraduate college, my standards for entertainment were low.  My friends and I would settle.  We just wanted anything gratifying to our appetites or that would distract us from the boredom of our class assignments.  We wanted to make as little effort as possible in seeking for anything that would serve.  We spent countless hours on poorly made TV shows.  We spent countless hours on antisocial video and computer games.  We spent countless hours going to see anything that Hollywood studios rightly thought we would be willing to waste our money on.   And we spent countless hours filling all our free time with the addictive vast new world of technological social networking, succumbing to the peer pressures of our age, and always conforming to the ever changing tastes of celebrity pop culture.  I acted like one who was asleep. I acted like I was drugged.  I didn’t like the work it took to stretch or think for myself.  I dallied over and discussed the meaningless and transient fads and fashions obsessed over by my own generation.  I chose laziness.  I chose self-gratification.  My eyes were closed and my mind was ignorant of very much of anything outside my own little self.  I'm not saying I'm past all this by any means.  This is still my natural inclination.

A few years ago, I was deployed in the United States Army for a year to Iraq. Going on a series of combat missions, if there was anything I learned while out underneath that huge Middle Eastern brightly star-studded night sky, it was (a) that life is short, and (b) that the truism that one ought to “stop and smell the roses” was just a trite cover for something of far more meaning than I had ever realized.  Most of us don't pause to really look at the Creation around us.  We take things like the night sky, the wind, the trees, or the rain all for granted. And, worst of all, we take most of the people walking around us for granted.

Consider this.  There are more great works of literature out there for you to read than you will have time to read in your lifetime.  There are more great films out there for you to see than you will have time to see in your lifetime.  There are more beautiful, haunting and inspiring works of music out there for you to listen to than you will have to time to listen to in your lifetime.  Your life just isn't long enough.  You do not have enough hours in the day.  I could go on and on trying to emphasize this point - there are more perfect works of sculpture, beautiful paintings, structures of intricate architecture, provocative reflections in theology, philosophy, history, literature, etc., etc., that exist than you will have time to experience in your short life time.  So why do we settle?  Why do we spend time on that which does not have value?  Why rest or relax with entertainment that will never affect for good who you are as a person, when you could instead relax and be refreshed with works of art and culture designed to speak to the innermost parts of your soul?

If I had read the above paragraph five or six years ago, I still wouldn't have listened.  I'd just have asked something along the lines of “What’s the harm with killing time with some harmless amusement?” and then I'd just have kept doing what I'd been doing.  When you are young, you aren't that worried about wasting some time here and there. Time is a luxury.  And luxuries are opportunities with which to indulge ourselves.  Boredom is our enemy, and therefore, any weapon handy with which to fight it is good enough.  Or so we think.   I'll address the very concept of “boredom” a little later, but for now let me just flat out declare that “killing time” is never a habit you should ever encourage within yourself.  It reaps certain and particular results in who you are as a person.

Fighting boredom by killing time is just another modern idea for an overly self-centered, self-focused and self-indulgent people. Modern day psychology may tell us to focus on ourselves.  Modern day social networking may intensely focus us on the little trivial details of every facet of our own self-thoughts and feelings and fears and random quirks.  But this way leads to death.

Just over the last couple decades, television has become a prime example of a hidden and unseen world closed to a majority of unquestioning consumers.  Quite recently, a few filmmakers decided that the TV show medium did not have to stay in the dumps as only a mass-marketed lower art form.  There was no reason age old stories of redemptive value could not be wrestled with and explored by a filmmaker ... if he was just brave enough to ignore the majority of the self-satisfied consumers' demands.  There was really no reason that the quality of the cinematography, script-writing and acting could not be raised to the same level as that of an Oscar worthy film.  In fact, the TV show medium offers a great filmmaker the unique opportunity of developing his story and characters far deeper than he could in a regular two hour film.

So along came a small band of guys like Steven Spielberg, David Chase, Joss Whedon, David Simon, Daniel Knauf, David Milch, Bruno Heller, Matthew Weiner, Bryan Fuller, Terence Winter, and yes, even Martin Scorsese.  They decided to collect writers like George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane to write their scripts - and suddenly there are now a whole number of different TV shows with redemptive worth to them available to those who willing to use a little effort and discrimination.  If you do not yet know who these men are, I envy you the experience of discovery that you now can make.  You have a whole new fascinating world waiting for you whenever you decide first ask yourself what TV would be like if it was created by a modern day William Shakespeare or a contemporary Charles Dickens.  I'm asking you to be a questioning consumer.  Ask questions about what you are offered as entertainment.  It's not that hard, and if you start demanding something of higher quality, your demands will be met.

Let’s also make something else clear. Do not take this essay of mine to be promoting artsy-hipster-yuppie excuses for pseudo-art appreciation.  I’m not trying to convince you to begin watching only art-house indie flicks.  One quickly tires of criticizing the schlock that Hollywood puts out for us every week but then being asked, “Oh ... so you like those independent indie/mumblecore films then?”  For every one indie flick with some depth to it (like oh say, Pieces of April or Lars Von Trier) there are ninety-nine other cliche ridden, self-absorbed, pretentious and trite exercises in narcissism out there masquerading themselves as alternative film.  There’s no reason to appreciate self-important pretentious melodramas on the troubled lives of yuppie existential angst anymore than there is to appreciate the latest Hollywood version of Rob Schneider in drag or Tyler Perry in a fat suit.  Much of art house cinema’s pretense at depth usually amounts to celebrations of what is supposed to be either culturally trendy or politically offensive.  I’m sorry, but I find nothing deep about the latest low-budget overly-sentimental slop about some guy who is so in touch with his feminine side that he’s able to have all the emotional problems of an immature pubescent.  Neither do I find anything of redemptive value about the latest quirky film provocateur who begs for attention with abnormal or condescending transformations of traditional subject matter (like gay cowboys).

It’s the same in music or any other art form.  Just listen to the drivel being written today as lyrics for your average indie rock crooner.  There’s just not even any comparison between most modern day song lyrics and anything written by back when song writers used to have talent (from Isaac Watts to Johnny Cash). What music today is near the skill-level and technical bad-ass artistry of guys like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Van Halen, Slash, Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton, let alone geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Tchaikovsky or Handel?  While Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, P!nk, Eminem or the latest popular winner of American Idol sit at the top of our music charts, we all know that there is a vast treasury of great music out there (of almost any genre) that we can spend time listening to instead.   So again I ask, why listen to that which is demonstrably of poorer and lower quality?

Don't get me wrong, lighter comic fare is not to be avoided or condemned.  I enjoy a good Jim Carrey comedy or Bruce Willis action flick as much as the next man.  Both Carrey and Willis have a certain genius within their particular genres.  You don't need to limit yourself to only entertainment of epic or somber proportions.  Judd Apatow has been producing comedies of redemptive worth since his first TV show, Freaks and Geeks (which is entirely about a bunch of teenagers sitting around in high school).  You can relax and laugh at Apatow's humor, but if you aren't completely unthinking, you shouldn't be able to help but notice that there's a method to his madness.  Unlike many other American comedies, the comedies of Apatow always seem to explore and affirm particular ideas ... ideas that go a little deeper than we'd expect them to and teach lessons in ways that comedies were originally meant to.

So you don’t have to wear a beret, chain smoke cherry cloves with stiff extended fingers, question your sexuality or learn French slang in order to strengthen your appreciation of, and preference for, beauty.  An Andrei Tarkovsky film goes better with beer than with sipping some mocha-frappe-latte anyhow.  You don’t have to aspire to ennui like it’s something cool.  You don’t have to look down your nose at other people who can’t sit through Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Richard Linklater’s Waking Life.  I can’t sit through that pretentious navel-gazing myself.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still great films out there that appeal to universal desires shared by each one of us when we stop deadening our senses and look up with wonder at what is actually outside our own little selves.   Some works of art have meaning, but others take themselves so seriously that they pretend to be meaningful because it’s fashionable to do so.  Let’s forget about being fashionable altogether. There’s no reason to take pride in being outside of the mainstream.  Refining your tastes in your entertainment does not make you better than anyone else.  In fact, the right sort of entertainment will make you more sensitive to the lostness of anyone who is still a slave to a stultifying, anti-intellectual, mass-marketed, techno-overloaded, aesthetically oppressive culture.

Now, time for us to rid ourselves a few modern ideas:

BOREDOM

If you are ever bored, it is because there is something wrong with you. Webster's Dictionary defines boredom as the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.  Summed up more concisely ... being bored is the state of not knowing what to do with yourself.  Let's say that over 90% of Americans who complain about feeling bored have never read the complete works of either William Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Patrick O'Brian, Raymond Chandler or even Hunter S. Thompson.  I'd guess over 99% of anyone whining about boredom has not, in fact, seen every film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky or the Coen Brothers (if any)... not listened to every beautiful piece of music written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Johann Sebastian Bach ... never seen Richard Wagner's complete The Ring of the Nibelung cycle ... likely never read a single adventure novel by John Buchan or Sir Walter Scott ... not explored every spellbinding HBO show ... never read Plutarch's Lives or Plato's Republic ... not listened to the complete works of Led Zeppelin ... never perused and wondered at many of the paintings of Rembrandt, Joseph William Turner, Raphael, Peter Paul Rubens, ... never memorized a single line of poetry written by Robbie Burns or William Blake ... or even never yet tasted the very best glass of wine, the smoothest coldest mug of ale, or the most mouth-watering single malt scotch.  This list could go on into the ages of before Middle Earth and yet it hasn't even mentioned the fellowship of good friends and invigorating discussion, the joy of hard outdoor work, or the exuberance of playing competitive sports.

If you are ever bored, it is because you have no imagination. You need something or someone to become inspired.

There are so many various noble pursuits to take up in this world that each of us has absolutely no excuse for not taking up at least one of them.  Every single one of us has desires, hopes, dreams, and persons, places, things and ideas that we are passionate about.  Everyone, when he or she stops to remember, has a longing for that which is inspiring and refreshing.  Everyone has something to care about.  And each one of us does not have enough time in the day or years in our life to spend on these things.

KILLING TIME

If I ever find myself killing time, then I am guilty of something criminal.  Remember that the time that we have been given is limited. We ought to be redeeming our time, not trying to get rid of it. Time killing is a form of suicide.

Yes, I understand it's just “an expression.”  But far too many of our activities are designed to take up our time and occupy us so that we won't suffer from boredom.  If suffering from boredom is a moral and spiritual problem, then the activity you pursue in order to avoid boredom is unlikely to be of any redeeming value.  In our modern age, technology has provided us with a vast plethora of time killers. All the time you spend wasting yourself away on little time occupying pursuits designed to prevent you from being bored, is time you could instead spend thinking or learning something of worth, or exposing yourself to new truth or beauty.

You kill time by not thinking.  Thoughtlessness is a time killer.  Surfing the internet for just 10 minutes turns to 60 minutes.  60 minutes can turn to 3 or more hours.  Watching one TV episode can turn into watching five or six episodes.  It's only a little bit at a time, but it all starts to add up, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

Let's instead pursue an older idea ...

THE REDEMPTIVE ARTS

Let take this idea back to something like film.  The United States currently churns out about 400 new films every year (almost all of which soon go to DVD). Worldwide about 5000 films are made per year. (This is only taking into account feature films, not pornography, education films, student films, or workplace related films). This isn't even counting the countless hours of Television programming that most people are glued to every night after work and for extra hours during the weekends.  Norman Herr, professor of science and computer education at California State University, has studied our addiction to the television and concluded “According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube.” And yes, mathematically, that's not counting time for sleep. Most people are using films and TV shows during their free time as both a time killer and a sedative.  This the culture we live in.  Add to this all the time the younger generations are spending on the internet and other social networking technology, and your average human being is intently staring at a florescently lit screen for what, 10-12 hours a day?

I'll let the doctors and scientists discuss what this is doing to our physical health.  I'm primarily concerned with the health of our souls.  Film can be a great art form.  But it's time to start weeding out the shoddy and the mediocre from your consumption.  If you don't know who Joel & Ethan Coen, Carl Theodor Dreyer or Andrei Tarkovsky are, it's time you discovered them.  If you have no idea who David Simon or David Milch are, it's time you put a little effort into finding their work.   If you even walk into a bookstore anymore, it's time to force yourself away from the shelves of Danielle Steel, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, James Patterson or Stephanie Meyer.

When you listen to music, it's time to focus on musicians who are more interested in music as an art form and in what is of spiritual worth than those interested in pop chart numbers (this eliminates almost the entire Christian Contemporary music industry by the way).  Even when you decorate your home, it's time to stop following the latest ever flitting art-deco fashion fads and instead seek out the noble and beautiful - there are masters who have created paintings and furniture with skill beyond anything you'll find in Walmart or IKEA.  Your home can be a place of light, refreshment, culture & nourishment rather than bad copies of the same crap that also fills the average corporate office space.

We only have to compare our education to the education of those who lived a hundred years ago to realize that, in Modern Times, we have been cheated.  There is something wrong with each of us.  We each have serious defects within ourselves, due to growing up in a mass-market culture that has trained us to seek immediate gratification of our most immediate and basest appetites.  We have lost our appreciation for beauty.  We have lost traditional training on how to seek out that which is meaningful.  We have been molded to only consume entertainment designed to be used as either sedatives or anti-depressants.

No matter what form of entertainment you are using to relax, there is a collection of works focusing on what is true and beautiful within that same form of entertainment.  But this means you have to stop settling and actively seek out those things that take you outside of your own self and focus you on that which is greater than yourself.  There are great works of film and literature that will refresh and reinvigorate you.  And yet, it seems like no one cares anymore.  If there is any boredom or dissatisfaction in your life, you'd better start caring.  We need to wake up and look carefully at how we are living.  We ought to be seeking wisdom and discernment again.  A single book or film can do far more than merely entertain you.  It can force you to ask questions.  It can provide the grounds for a provocative discussion with your friends or family.  It can challenge you to start acting or living differently.  It can open your eyes to that something other that still exists in the world, if only you'd stop for a minute and notice.

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