Tag Archives: culture

I just met Azar Nafisi!!

Well, if having her sign her book Reading Lolita in Tehran counts as having met her. I read the book back in June, and was absolutely captivated, and kept it in the back of my mind to see her speak if it ever become remotely possible. And then I found out she was coming to Baylor and, even better, the lecture was free! Awesome.

She spoke about “The Republic of Imagination,” and how important it is to have a “space” in modern life that isn’t defined by politics or politicized religion or science, but defined by an open and curious inquiry into humanity, led by literature. She’s as excellent a speaker as she is a writer, and she had an audience of probably two hundred (they had to bring in about twice as many chairs as they originally had set up in order to fit everyone) absolutely enthralled for over an hour. I think she brought up some excellent points, especially regarding our tendency to conflate all predominantly Islamic countries as “The Muslim World,” when the countries that make up the “Muslim World” range from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Turkey to Iran to Indonesia–all of which have individual histories and cultures that cannot be so easily reduced to “Islamic.” She suggested that defining all these countries purely by their current status as Muslim-regimed is similar to defining the United States by its two hundred years of slavery and segregation, and Europe by the Inquisition and Hitler. Now, I understand that there is a very real difference between Islam and Christianity, and she doesn’t address that (either in the lecture, or in the book), because she’s really a secular humanist, but her point about failing to take into account the thousands of years of history and literature of these countries because of what is, in Iran’s case at least, a twenty-five-year-old totalitarian dictatorship is well-taken.

In any case, she not only had thought-provoking things to say, but a very personable speaking presence–very humorous and witty. I want to be an academic like her. Except, not in academia. Have to figure that part out…

Leftover Beauty

The last sermon I heard at Providence was the one Chris preached the evening of July 30th. It was about how not necessarily everything from secular culture will be missing from the New Heavens and the New Earth, and that it may be transformed and glorified and brought into the new Jerusalem to glorify God. One point Chris made is that even though humanity, and through it, human culture, is fallen, it still carries the image of God, and therefore still reflects his glory in some way; flashes of that glory are sometimes still visible even in secular culture. I’m not phrasing it exactly the way he did, but I think we’re on the same page. The sermon really hit a few nerves with me, because this is precisely my approach to culture and criticism.

I call it “leftover beauty.” Understanding this is vital to understanding the way I write about culture, and the way I react to film, music, literature, television. I know I take it too far at times, and that’s one of the reasons I was so desirous to go to a Christian university that values popular culture…I need that grounding. But if I sometimes tend to value too much the output of a fallen culture, it’s at least partially in reaction against a Christianity that denounces it without even recognizing what value it does have.

My concept of leftover beauty is why I think American Beauty is one of the greatest films in recent years, because, quite simply, leftover beauty is precisely what American Beauty is about. It doesn’t know where beauty comes from or why, but it knows it’s there–it knows that somehow, in the midst of broken families, perverted sexuality, and isolationist despair, there is still beauty around, if we “look closer”. And that’s exactly how I feel about modern culture. There’s ugliness, sure. But there’s beauty, too…beautiful characters, beautiful scenes, beautiful technical skill, beautiful and skillful writing, beautiful acting.

I understand that others don’t feel this way, and don’t feel the need to expose themselves to certain parts of modern culture. But for me, it’s worth it to look through piles of dren to find one beautiful rose–and when I write reactions and reviews, I may forget about the dren, because I’m focused on the rose. I once read a review of Saving Private Ryan in World Magazine that basically stated “don’t see this film, it’s horrible because there’s a lot of swearing.” Granted, there is. And I know people who would avoid seeing it for that reason, and that’s fine. But to categorically say that no-one should see a beautifully made film because of one offense is heavy-handed and inappropriate for any reviewer, even a Christian one. And it’s something I refuse to do. I will meet films on their own ground, not lambast them for not living up to a standard they were never trying to meet. That’s unfair and underhanded criticism.

Consider this my disclaimer for the times when I praise a film that includes scenes you think are offensive, or times when I don’t call attention to such scenes. Sometimes I may be ignoring them purposefully because I feel the rest of the movie makes up for them. Often, I may have simply forgotten them, because I tend to do that. Seriously, I convinced my cousin and his wife to watch Garden State because it’s one of my all-time favorite films, and had to mention like four times that I had totally forgotten about such-and-such a sex-and-drug scene…they ended up ageeing with me, though, that the overall film was worth putting up with those couple of scenes. If such a scene seriously undermines the film, I probably will mention it. (And yes, despite how difficult it is to offend me, I have seen films that offended me so deeply that I refuse to review them, because I cannot judge them on their own merits–Quills is probably the best example.) Bottom line, I am not ScreenIt, though I do recommend ScreenIt if you want to know about every single “damn” and “hell” before you start a film. I am not a parent’s guide. If a reaction or review I write intrigues you and you want to know more specifics about content, ask me and I will tell you. And don’t think that just because I like a film or praise a book that I necessarily agree with its viewpoint or its message. Last month I loved The Unbearable Lightness of Being while simultaneously disagreeing vehemently with most of its philosophy.

I’ve been planning a post like this for a while, just to make clear my position and viewpoint when discussing film, literature, and television. But the immediate impetus is the July Watching Recap, which I’m about to post, and in which I praise a film called Transamerica, whose main character is transgendered (a man who wishes to become a woman). Everything about the film, on a filmic level, is so extraordinary that I couldn’t in good critical conscience give it a negative review, no matter how much I may disagree with the content. I’ve known for a while that I give greater weight to style than content (to the eternal annoyance of my mom, I think, who gives utmost weight to content and would most likely hate Transamerica), and that’s a bias that I’m trying to balance a bit. On the other hand, I really do think that it’s possible to disagree with a message while still respecting and enjoying the way in which the message is transmitted. Besides that, in the case of Transamerica, the message really isn’t “it’s cool to be transgendered” or anything like that…it’s almost a side plot, in fact…and that’s true of a lot of films that get denounced by Christians who get so caught up in all the ugliness that they can’t see the leftover beauty.

Off-the-cuff Postmodernism

Call me crazy, but I didn’t even notice that Pastor Meyers had gone overtime the past two Sunday evenings. That’s because he was talking about postmodernism as part of the Cultural Discernment series. First off, I love all the Cultural Discernment evenings. Secondly, things that smack of philosophy and media and pop-culture, especially all mashed together, pretty much tops my list of Interesting Things I Want To Hear More About. Thirdly, postmodernism itself especially interests me, and I was glad to hear such a clear and non-judgmental presentation of it. I thought he did a really good job of pointing out the good things about postmodernism and the critiques it has made against modernism, as well as point out places where postmodernism itself goes to far, or in a misleading direction. He’s posted this week’s presentation on his blog, in case you weren’t there Sunday night.

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