Sunday, July 22, 2007

Examining a dirty word -- Censorship

Back in May, a book review by Richard Schickel was featured in the Los Angeles Times about book Freedom to Offend: How New York Remade Movie Culture by Raymond J. Haberski Jr. on the era just after the movie censoring of the ‘50’s. I’ll admit I haven’t read the book. However, as with most book reviews that use the book topic as a springboard for the book reviewer’s opining, I don’t need to have read the book confront Schickel’s point of view. Here is the link to Schickel’s book review below.

Read the article

Now that you’ve had a chance to read it, here is a statement that he made that I want to unpack in the context of other thing that he says in his article.

…The real issue was the widespread belief that movies, as a mass art, required closer censorship than other arts. The censors argued, ludicrously, that they were protecting a completely mythical creature, the innocent child who might someday wander into a theater and, in effect, see Mommy and Daddy doing it. Might have, I suppose. But so what? Children see and hear all sorts of things we'd prefer they didn't…

Now my goal is not necessarily to defend the movie censors, their methods or their rhetoric. That is a topic for another post. I will say in regard to this book review that I have a bias: I sympathize with the essential idea that there is an innocence that children possess that adults have an obligation to protect by setting boundaries.

Countering this idea is Schickel who is in the same ilk as Bill Maher when Maher says, “children aren't innocent” (Maher also says that Jesus wasn’t Republican, which is true, but that’s another issue). Here’s what at stake in denying the existence of innocence in children. If there is any idea that there may be a special innocence to the lives of children then it opens the door to arguing that some sort of boundary somewhere is appropriate is appropriate and that some censorship of some kind must take place to enforce the boundary.

While often claiming that parents should confine their jurisdiction of values to the “home”, Schickel and those who share his belief, use a rhetorical sword that thoroughly dismisses the ontological possibility that children have any special innocence. It is this sword that, taken to its logical conclusion, cuts into the very jurisdiction of the home. If the innocent child is a completely “mythical creature” and therefore is as non-existent as the tooth fairy, why should any parent ever raise a finger, a voice or an eyebrow to ever demarcate boundaries to protect a child’s innocence.

Likewise, there is the equal and opposite rhetorical sword; the one that says that there is a special innocence to children. It is a sword that is wielded by those who favor the imposition of boundaries that cuts into a realm beyond the jurisdiction of home and cuts into society at large, and even into the realm of the movies. In response to this threat, Schickel and those who share his belief are willing to use an opposing rhetorical sword that is able to cut into more than they are willing to admit.

What is happening in the paragraph cited above is Schickel in the process of A) creating the rhetorical sword to cut at the idea of children’s innocence, and then B) trying to hold back the sword from cutting along the full arc that his blade is designed to cut. He does this by first declaring that the innocent child who might wander into a theater is a purely “mythical creature” but then admits that "Children see and hear all sorts of things we'd prefer they didn't…".

It is almost an offhand remark, "Children see and hear all sorts of things we'd prefer they didn't". There is more importance and meaning in that statement than Schickel lets on, or is even able to admit to himself, which is why I want to camp out on it. Who is “we’? If we assume for the sake of convenience that “we” is adult society, is this adult society completely and utterly wrongheaded in its preference? Is the preference completely and utterly baseless and devoid of any claim to truth or reality? Here is the problem. The preference that “we” have would need to be completely and utterly baseless in order for the innocent child to be a “completely mythical creature”. “Completely” doesn’t leave a lot of room for ambiguity or nuance.

Perhaps Schickel would try to explain his position by saying, as many would, that A) the reality of kids seeing adult content and B) the desire that we would have for a child to not see it is the difference between what is "real" and an "ideal" in the world. Here, our “preference” is that which is ideal, while the reality of kids being exposed to adult content is that which is “real”. If Schickel took this line of thinking, he would be saying that the “ideal” is something that is purely mythic, and that what is “ideal” in human affairs does not have nearly the claim to being real when compared to that which actually occurs in day-to-day human affairs.

This is a common belief but inaccurate belief. In truth, that which tangibly occurs in the realm human affairs is merely an existential realm of reality. An ideal is not completely mythic in the sense that Schickel intends the word "mythic" to mean, as something as fanciful as the tooth fairy and that can be totally dismissed from serious discussion. Ideals are an intangible part of reality that are as real as our existential and tangible reality, even as our existential and tangible reality falls short of the ideals most of the time. Nevertheless, ideals shape, and should shape, our existential reality profoundly. Human affairs exist in the tension between what is ideal and what is real, and we would quickly think our way into savage behavior if we completely abandoned ideals.

As an example of this, we all know what junk food is even though we eat it. If a Martian were sent to Earth to conduct a superficial survey of what it is that people, in fact, eat, the Martian would discover that lots of people eat a lot of junk food. The practice of eating a purely nutritious diet is “mythic” in the sense that it is an Olympian task that the vast majority of people fail at. However, the need that people have for nutrition is not mythic at all. It may be impractical to prevent people from eating junk food. It may even be that people in a free society need to be free to have junk food. Whatever the case may be, there is an intellectual canyon that is crossed by telling ourselves that it isn't, in fact, junk food or by saying something tantamount to it, i.e. that junk food is completely harmless.

Of course, the nutritional value of junk food can be verified in a laboratory. The innocence of children can’t. The epistemology of tangible scientific empiricism is not always suited to the realm of grasping at ideals any more than it is suited to explaining the mystery of beauty and art. As with many issues, one person’s studies with one agenda can be pitted against another person’s studies and statistics with another agenda.

But maybe, just maybe, the innocence of children exists in some plane of reality, where it is a real thing, and kids are, in some way, better and healthier for having a sense of innocence protected. If this is true, then violations of their innocence are a spiritual and emotional junk food of a different kind. It is my assertion that it is this ephemeral reality that the antennae of collective adult preference is pointing us to, and our intuition, though not provable with scientific precision, may not be completely wrong.

I think that Schickel knows this on some level, which is why he includes his reference to our “preference" in stating his opinion, even as he has crafted his opinion as a “take no prisoners” rhetorical sword. He doesn't want to be too dismissive of the remote possibility that kids have an innocence that needs to be protected and nurtured. However, Schickel doesn't want the faint possibility of this to in any way get in the way of the way that movies are presented to the world.

Schickel criticizes the idea that the “mass art” required some “closer censorship” by brushing aside any concern about the possibility that a few kids made it into the theaters. So Schickel doesn't seem to be bothered by a few kids going in. But that is an easy target of his blasé. The real question is whether he bothered by a vast swath of them going in? It would be more intellectually honest for Schickel to say flat out that he wouldn’t mind in the least if most, if not all, children made it in to see movies with adult content. But then again, his “preference” would get in the way of making such a bold statement.

In regard to movie boundaries, more and more allow more and more sex and gore has been allowed in movies under the R and PG-13 rating over the years. In relation to what was censored in the ‘50’s, more and more kids have been "brought in" to the theatre to more sex and gore. For all intents and purposes, the 1950's boundary that Schickel dismissed has now been significantly breached. Now what?

Later in his book review, Schickel bemoans that "American film is almost universally pitched to teenage dimwits and the nation's addiction to pornography is chronic and more alarming… ”. So what does this have to do with adult content in movies? Movies are part of the larger media infrastructure that has increasingly brought raunch, and gore into the mainstream. And movies for “dimwits” and “porn” are both appeals to our base nature and the lowest common denominator for and easy buck.

What Schickel is actually bemoaning is the taste for raunch and gore and has run amok, that has become so dominant in our society that it imposes its own unique form of tyranny. As our society demands some form of “closer censorship” in the form of a ratings system, so too does our present society demand raunchy spectacle in movies, and it is this demand that has financial clout and with it, the creative clout to crowd out better movies. While certain aspects of some movies may be “self censoring”, the market is not.

Schickel plainly loves the "heady days" of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and hates prissiness and dismay of the guardians of moral purity and the contempt of the high culture that came before and the drivel and raunch that has come after. Here is a scary possibility for Schickel. It is possible that there was a value to the force of censorship, even as the rhetoric of it was grating. The force of ‘50’s era censorship probably kept a lot of dimwit stuff and raunch in check by making movies work harder on different levels to be appealing without having easy access to sex and gore.

It is also possible that the first generation to be free from '50's censorship had the creative spark that was extruded though their being part of a culture that still had a more of a value for the sacred. I think that this enabled the first generation of movie makers who were free from censorship to be able to deal with sex in more aesthetically sophisticated ways than was accomplished in either their past or in their future because it was suppressed for decades in our culture. Their creative ability came out through the pressure of the culture like the force soda after it has been shaken, only to become warm, sticky suds on the ground later. It is possible that sex for lowest common denominator of raunch and gore has become the sticky “suds” of American cinema and media oozing out of spent creative and intellectual fire of the past.

Schickel knows, on some level, that the proliferation of raunchy garbage and the associated costs to our society is the price that he is willing to pay for the artistic freedom that he wants, the price for having enjoyed the “heady” days of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. The problem is that in the cognitive dissonance of completely denying the existence of the innocence of children, but not completely, he has not risen completely to the task of admitting the true extent of the cost of the artistic freedom he wants.

In regard to children's innocence, for Schickel to say that children's innocence is there and is violated would be honest. For him to say that we have allowed it to be violated and that we've all become cynical and blasé to sex and violence would be honest. For him to say that our society values the freedom of movie art and movie economics more than the innocence of children would be honest. For him to say that he and many others are willing to accept the trade-off of allowing raunchy and dimwitted movies to proliferate and help dumb many people down and injure the innocence of many kids in order to allow for greater artistic freedom would be honest.

However, for him to say that the innocence of children is not there to begin with; that it is simply a fairy tale myth with not claim to reality, is not honest. It is simply less painful to his conscience than admitting that the possibility that innocence of children has been injured.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Unsolicited Advice -- Examining Matthew 7:3

Matthew 7:3 Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

Many people read this passage to mean that one person, whom I will refer to as the “confronter”, should not confront another person, whom I will refer to as the “confronted”, on a small fault when the confronter has not dealt with his large violation of that same fault. This interpretation of the passage is based the most obvious and clearest form of hypocrisy. If I am criticizing another person for a small infraction, when I am committing that same infraction on a larger scale, I am obviously guilty of hypocrisy. Others may interpret this passage in the broadest possible sense to mean that anyone with a large fault in any realm of his life cannot confront another person on a small fault, even if the large fault of the confronter is completely unrelated the small fault of the confronted.

The problem with the former interpretation is that it is too narrow and does not call many confronters to enter the full X-ray of self-examination. The problem with the latter interpretation is that it is too broad and makes the standard for confrontation too high – who is not guilty of any large faults in any aspect of his life?

The passage is best interpreted to mean that there is something about the large fault of the confronter that it is affecting the confronter’s ability to operate with love and integrity as he approaches his brother in confrontation. Here, Jesus is saying that that one must remove any obstacle to operating with love and integrity as one begins to operate in the process of confrontation.

If the “speck” that belongs to the confronted is a genuine fault, then an unsolicited confrontation may be necessary on the part of the confronter. However, in order to proceed, the confronter must make sure that is not guilty of committing that same fault. That is the first test of integrity. Then, the confronter must make sure that he has repented of any insecurities or latent issues that are in any way keeping him from operating carefully with love, care and precision as he attempts to confront his brother. This is the second test of integrity, and it solves another potential problem. It is possible that the “speck” belonging to the confronted is not a genuine fault at all but only appears to be that way in the eyes of the confronter. It is also possible that the “speck” is a tiny fault that appears to the confronter to be much larger and more urgent that it really is.

It is the confronter’s failure to operate out of peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control that will render him unable to see clearly to approach his brother. For the confronter to operate without hypocrisy in all of the ways that hypocrisy can affect the confrontation, he must first take his emotions captive and surrender his emotions to the ministry of God’s Spirit. He must also apply his mind to discern the true severity of the fault that he is about to confront another on, according to Biblical standards of what constitutes a severe fault. The quality of the confronter’s emotion processing and Biblical/intellectual discernment will determine the quality of the confrontation.

The second test of integrity, of taking insecurities captive to the truth of Scripture and the ministry of God’s Spirit, solves yet another problem. A confronter who is being driven by insecurities to act impulsively is not assessing the true gravity involved in confronting another person. When we are confronting another person, we are drawing from a certain “negativity bank” in our relationship; there is a certain, limited degree to which we are prepared to hear things that are necessary but negative from another person with whom we are in relationship with. Any confrontation, no matter how small, even if it is only to dispense advice, is never “no big deal”, and must always be done with care and forethought so that we do not draw from the “negativity bank” carelessly. To treat any advice and criticism that one offers another as “no big deal” is to be flippant in regard to what is real about relationships. Anyone who is being intellectually honest will admit that this is true for anyone, including him.

It is the teaching of Jesus for us to be slow to confront another over what, according to Biblical standards, is a small matter, and to put our hearts and minds through several tests before proceeding in a confrontation. The wisdom of this passage can be summed up, by saying, “do unto others, as you would have them do unto you” by confronting others with the care and precision that you would like to have applied when you are confronted. A confronter’s failure to confront another with the precision and care that he/she would like to be confronted with is the subtlest and most common form of hypocrisy that Jesus is addressing. The inability to confront a brother in love and precision is the most common form of “plank” as it superficially presents itself. It is taking the hard, necessary step to examining the sin and insecurities that are causing this inability that we are able to understand the specific nature of the “plank” that needs to be removed as it is lodged deep in our hearts

One of the most common ways that the teaching is this passage is violated is when people give impulsively give advice/criticism to others. It will invariably be grating and will be interpreted as unloving criticism by the person receiving it. The insecurities that can fuel the impulsive giving of unsolicited advice/criticism are many. Someone who is giving advice/criticism impulsively may have the fear he/she is not effective in influencing the world and is trying to soothe that fear by trying too hard to seem wise and effective in the company of others. This form of insecurity is the result of a fallen, misapplication of a God-given need that we all have to affect the stage of history.

Someone who is giving unsolicited advice/criticism can have an even deeper an uglier problem; the need to find comfort in conforming to the standards of the world and the impulse to act out of discomfort to “fix” another person to conform to worldly standards. There is a demonic torpidity that lurks in the hearts of those who affect the stage of history in order to make themselves more comfortable according to worldly standards of comfort. This sin is compounded by intellectual dishonesty when those who act out of their desire for comfort excuse and justify the unsolicited advice/criticism by saying that it is “no big deal” or that they were “just” trying to “help” the other person. It is in this case the giving unsolicited advice/criticism can be the manifestation of a deep idolatry on the part of the person giving it.

These are only a couple of the insecurities that can fuel hypocritical and impulsive criticism and advice giving. It is A) impulse to give hasty, unsolicited advice and B) the empty justifications for giving it that Jesus calls us to crucify in the application of his teaching in Matthew 7:3 on how to proceed to properly confront another.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Dealing with Wounded Energy

We have each been hurt. We have each been punched in the gut by some form of injustice, whether committed by group or an individual, whether intentionally or un-intentionally.

I know that there are Christians who say that we must immediately invoke the gratitude of Jesus' death on the cross as the antidote to our wound. I find that this advice vexing. It is empty advice even as it contains some aspects of truth. It is in the family of “forgive and forget” advice that does not honor the difficult and thorny process of dealing with hurt. At least I can say that that sort of advice has never cut it for me.

Dealing with gratitude and the cross in the context of ministry to ourselves and others is a big topic. Suffice to say for this post that my idea of Jesus is one who is active and living and who meets us in our hurts. It is this supernatural, pan-global availability of Jesus via the Holy Spirit was a primary reason for the cross (John 16:7 But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you). It is in the ministry of the here and now that the power of the cross time and space into the present moment. It is in the clear and present availability of Jesus in the here and now that my discussion of forgiveness and anger relinquishment begins.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish commentator, makes the observation that Jesus calls us not to be angry at our brother but only calls us to actually forgive those who have directly asked for it from us. There are some passages that speak of forgiveness as something we offer to one who asks us, and there are other passages that speak of forgiveness as something we offer to anywone (" we forgive those who trespass against us..."). Is there any difference between the relinquishment of anger/forgiveness that we are called to for anyone's offense against us and the act of offering forgiveness to the one who has specifically asked for forgiveness from us? That is an interesting question for another post. What can be said is that the common denominator in forgiveness and anger relinquishment is that we are called to is a journey of emotion processing that requires giving up our anger that must not depend on whether the offending party has repented.

The common denominator for any serious hurt from another that requires a serious act of forgiveness/anger relinquishment is that there will often be a long intellectual, emotional and spiritual journey to reckon fully and completely with the offence. There will be a long, staggered process to properly understand and put into words what happened to know with precision what exactly is being forgiven, so that the offense is understood in all of its dimensions. The hurt will be contained in our psyche in several pockets at different levels of depth. The exposure of these pain pockets will occur as we are continually ministered to by God’s Spirit and as we are placed under various stresses and pains. It is when these various pockets of hurt see the light of day that they can explode in our consciousness like un-detonated grenade that has been exposed in a mine-clearing operation.

Dealing with this hurt, as it is continually brought to the surface, is a long journey of managing wounded energy. There are bad forms of wounded energy, which include rage and other forms of malicious thought and behavior. There are good forms of wounded energy, which include compassion, passion, understanding and even a righteous form of anger. The nut-meat of deep forgiveness and anger relinquishment is the long process of letting go of the bad forms of wounded energy and the redemptive directing of the positive forms of wounded energy.

Wounded energy and the call to justice

While we are accountable to care about injustice even if we have not been directly hurt by it, being directly hurt by an injustice is an important way that God calls us to attention to care about injustice in the context of "faith, justice and mercy". To illustrate this in the context of urban ministry, John Perkins of the Voice of Calvary Ministry in Jackson Mississippi discussed the “felt need concept” of urban ministry. In John Perkin's ministry people with resources choose to enter a poor, distressed neighborhood, ie. the ‘hood, to become neighbors to those who are stuck there. As those who have chosen to live in the 'hood experience the injustices first hand, they are compelled to pursue justice for the inner city in their own enlightened self interest. The “felt need concept" is also about making the Gospel real and tangible by dealing with the needs that have been brought to the fore of people’s attention.

As humans, we live in the ‘hood of planet earth and the injustices therein. We are called to live on planet earth like those who have chosen to move into the ‘hood, as Jesus himself chose to enter the ‘hood when he became flesh. It is by “picking up our cross daily” that we continually own and re-own this choice. Like the wealthy neighbors who choose to live among the poor, as Christians, we are called to bring the wealth of the resources of knowing God intimately into the situation of our hurt. It is as we are hurt directly by injustice that we are able to feel the “felt needs” of planet earth in regard to the need for justice. This is enlightened self-interest for the benefit of ourselves and those around us to confront injustice that we pray with force for God’s Kingdom to come.

It is when we experience injustice that we are able to know evil on earth first hand and to have a depth of conviction to confront it and the compassion for others being afflicted by it. It is in this context that we can begin to give shape to the long process of managing our wounded energy so that God is able to heal us and guide our wounded energy for a redemptive purpose. It is via the experience of injustice that God heightens our need to fulfill our purpose and fulfill the calling of bearing His image. It is the act of trusting God that we enter into this calling, trusting that God will bless and harness all of the wounded energy that we have acquired for a good and blessed purpose.

It is in the face of being hurt, we have two-fold responsibility, each complimenting the other. The first aspect of responsibility to manage our wounded energy is directly tied to the moment of the hurt. We must immediately enter into a gear of operating in trust in God and giving up our rage and anger to God and to His direction and timing. We are to not return injustice with injustice. The second aspect of responsibility that we have is across the span of time. We are responsible to the bigger picture, and we are to allow God to use our wounded energy to be the engine of our conviction to confront the injustice under God's direction.

These two forms of responsibility operate symbiotically with each other. We are to trust "from the get-go" that vengeance and total judgment belong to the Lord. It is in the successful ministry of God’s grace and direction to our wounded energy that we are able to exercise the lesser forms of judgment that we are called to. As we operate in God's grace and timing in managing our wounded energy, we are able to operate in Godly wisdom and direction in the management of our heart and mind and our affairs with others and (see my post on judging).

Rage is crisis in the exercise of proper judgment in of the all realms in which we are called to exercise right judgment. Rage is a crisis in our sense of being able to protect ourselves from the slings and arrows that would subvert our joy and our fulfillment. In rage, the human self lashes out apart from God’s peace and direction, operating out of fear. It is in the impulse of rage that we have the impulse to exercise the sort of total judgment on another person that God reserves for Himself.

The beginning of being able to deal with rage is to recognize it as a form of fear. If we take it captive properly and early, we can present it to God while it is still in its “fear” form before it has mutated into something larger and darker in our psyche. If the fear has become rage, we must allow God to unravel it so that it is revealed as fear in our hearts, so that we can present it God as our fear and receive the ministry of God’s peace.

The point of God’s peace that passes understanding is not tranquil, blissful equanimity. Rather, the point of God's peace that passes understanding is that the peace is an essential part of our trans-rational ballast as we embark on God’s path to redeem our wounded energy. The peace is a "pre-articulate" part of journey with God, penultimate to the exercise of fierce precision that God would lead us to confront evil. It is in recognizing this that we can submit to God’s peace not as an act of “blowing out” in a Zen Buddhist sense, but as the beginning of a journey with God who wants to use us as instruments to confront injustice in the world.

I discussed forgiveness and anger relinquishment once with a non-Christian Japanese friend of mine who was still learning English. I was trying to explain a big concept in very simple terms. I explained that being hurt by someone is like being shocked by the electricity coming from a bare wire that one has stepped on. I explained that the generator for that electricity is coming from somewhere far and beyond that person. The process of forgiveness/anger relinquishment involves correctly identifying the spiritual source and putting the person who is the conduit for that spiritual source into perspective.

Forgiveness/anger relinquishment is the act of putting a conflict with another person into its correct spiritual and philosophical plane, transferring the battle away from its incorrect target and following the direction of God to enter the battle correctly. As we relinquish our rage and surrender our wounded energy to God, we are able to operate in God’s direction and timing confront the injustice as a larger philosophical and spiritual battle and let go it is as a "tit for tat" with another person. While "forgive and forget" is often bad advice, it is valuable in the limited sense that we are called to have the image of the “monster” as it has taken the form of a particular person vanish into irrelevance, as the image is juxtaposed against the truth, joy and wisdom of the Lord.

As we are able to walk with God to channel our wounded energy toward a correct and fruitful confrontation of evil, we are able to we are able to pray effective for the advancement of God’s Kingdom that will end the foolishness that we were subjected to. It is via God’s healing in us that we are able to glimpse how His Kingdom is being brought “on earth as it is in heaven”, and it is by God’s grace that we are able see how the Kingdom is advancing into earth. These moments of holy clarity usher the triumph of joy over rage and are landmarks on the road to the redemption of our wounded energy.

As this vision matures, God allows us to see how His kingdom is advancing into the lives of those who were the conduits of evil that we are experienced. It is then that we are able to “pray for our enemies” as an act of correctly applied spiritual battle, confronting evil in prayer with the force of passion, joy and clarity.

As the battle is a spiritual one, it is also a philosophical one. We are called to confront the intellectual anatomy of the foolishness of the ideas that caused or facilitated the evil that we experienced. As we walk on the intellectual journey of reckoning with the hurt, we are able to articulate the justice that we were not able to articulate at the time. As we do so for the defenseless self that we once were, we are able to do so for others who are in a position of defenselessness.

It is as we are confronting successfully on the spiritual plane and the philosophical plane of reality that we are able to be more effective confronting in the human to human plane. We are able to live out Jesus’ commands to call our brother’s attention (Matthew 18:15-17) to an offence without being in a state of sin that would cause harm.