Monday, July 27, 2009

May We Celebrate That Which We Find Lacking?

Leading question: What is the proper Christian response to things that move us, but do not (seem to) arise from the Gospel?

Last night I indulged in a favourite film of mine, Cool Hand Luke (1967) starring Paul Newman. I like(d) Newman. I especially like the character he plays, Luke Jackson, a kind of smooth-talking 'maverick' (sorry, the word just fits) who at the beginning of the film is arrested and sentenced to two years in a Florida prison camp for damaging municipal property (i.e. cutting off the heads of parking meters.) Much like the later and notable film Shawshank Redemption, the plot of C.H.L. centers around the injustices of prison life, as well as the problematic dialectics of authority-to-freedom, conformity-to-individuality, legality-to-morality. Newman attempts three escapes, all of which fail, the last of which costs him his life (presumably; the film leaves it only somewhat in doubt.) In the final scene, his fellow inmates - who quickly warm to Luke's incorrigible spirit - spend time reminiscing about 'that ol' Luke smile' which seemed to transcend the confines of their prison life. The film leaves viewers with an overwhelming affinity as well: Luke is someone free, someone outside; someone lawless and yet deeply true, deeply human. He is a stirring character, one with whom we want to relate, and probably do relate, at some level or another.

I suspect many have similar sensations from various kinds of art: music, paintings, theater, etc. I'm also aware that some people prefer to 'switch their brains off' when they do engage these things, and I don't find fault in this. I guess I'm just not like that. For me, the question that always seems to arise is this: how am I supposed to think about this moving representation of a life - as a Christian? Or in other words: how much or little should I celebrate a life or form of life that - to the best of my knowledge - does not place Christ at the centre?

Several answers come to mind, but the first bell to go off is a sober warning: temptation lurks all around this kind of enquiry. There is the temptation first to presume too much (Luke did not know Christ); then to observe too narrowly (Luke did not show Christ the way I expect someone should); or to profess self-righteously (Luke is not the kind of person I am); and, perhaps most fatal (but also most problematic), finally to abstract ourselves from humanity (Luke is a sinner; I am a saint). These four plus several more represent the extremities of some faulty or just plain sinful perspectives on that which is not noticeably in the exclusive province of Christian faith. As with any 'interpretive lens' we need to recognise that its focus may need to be adjusted or even radically changed; and furthermore that we ourselves need to be placed in that very field of vision, the parts of which we plan to judge for the sake of learning, affirming, celebrating and at times even refusing. Jesus' command in (fittingly) Luke 6.42 proves instructive: first take the log out of your own eyes, and then ...so on and so forth.

In fact, rather than making this self-examination the preface to every exercise of judgment, it seems better to argue it is continuous with the act of judgment itself. It would be wonderful to arrive at that place which is free of log-jams, free of our own sinful ways, but such an event is not the luxury of the Christian in this life. That is why the answer to the question 'how should I think of this movie, this testimony, this example, this life?' goes something like this: you should think of this in continuity with the common experience of humanity in the light of the creation, fall and redemption of that humanity in Christ. If the image or representation elicits our reflection, the place to start is where we begin when we wish to make sense of anything in this life: that is, the nature of our condition in the light of the revelation of God in Christ. With the Spirit's help, the 'nature of our condition' invariably implicates us in it, so that what we may now observe in others not in Christ is the faint echo of the common human experience that is, yes, irreducibly multiform, but no, not of such a nature that it does not reveal something more to us about the nature of humanity which is common to us all.

This much said, what do I think of Mr. Luke Jackson, of 'cool hand Luke'? In a few brief words, I think he illustrates the inner struggle which many have felt: that struggle against a world of laws and regulations, taboos and expectations that sometimes seem so arbitrary, so fake, so ready to be overthrown. Luke, of course, is not without his own spiritual journey. In his final hour he finds himself in an old church sanctuary, where he asks God to speak, to deal him some better cards. What is God's answer? Well, Luke gets caught and shot. The viewer is then left wondering whether Luke made his peace with the Almighty; or whether the message is that no true peace can be made in a world that never tires to spoil our transcendent longings with brute suffering and violence.

Then there is Luke's smile: that intractable grin which never lets on about the imprisonment he endures. What to make of this smile? I wonder if it's part of the mystery of the human condition. For all our theorising, we can never justly exhaust the depths and complexity of one another. The sensation we feel when others go through so much, only to turn about and rejoice; or to reveal some beautiful expression on a worn-out face; or to rend their garments in ceaseless tears; or to capture the moment in a single word, all of these things Christians ought to celebrate and affirm, placing them in the stream of God's love which flows through that good so often inexplicable.

Yet in their celebration, Christians recognise incompleteness and restlessness. That is why the true virtues of the church - faith, hope and love - never cease to exercise themselves within the celebration that is both final and not yet final. Which is finally to say that the Christian who celebrates what lacks in affirming Christ, does not cease to hope in God and believe all things, and act in love toward the true good s/he affirms.

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