Archive for October, 2010

The press is in full-bore analysis mode as it assesses the significance of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” Of course, what irony-challenged pundits often miss is that they themselves are among the rally’s main targets — hence Stewart and Colbert estimating the rally’s turnout as somewhere between “10 million” and “6 billion.”

What I liked best were the signs: “More Sanity, Less Hannity” and “Use Your Inside Voice” were among the good ones compiled in a slide shows here and here at Talking Points Memo.

Still, of the commentaries I’ve read so far Christopher Beam’s discussion at Slate captures best what was going on:

The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear, held on the National Mall Saturday afternoon, ridiculed the whole idea of a political rally. But it also managed to send a message about the broken political system, how the media abets it, and why it’s OK to care—even for professional ironists.

If you spend any time watching Stewart and Colbert (and if you’ve read this blog for a while, you know I do), below the surface of the sometimes (OK, often) profane skits and pin-point mockery is a very serious critique of our media system and political process. As Bean notes:

Stewart has always walked the line between irony and sincerity. He’s a jokester, but he cares about political discourse, if not the minutiae of policymaking.

Stewart and Colbert can veer toward being smug at times, but far more often they help us laugh — otherwise we’d be in tears. However “successful” the rally was (and how do you define success?) their dissection of our politics has often been far more incisive than the national press, which too often serves as facilitator of all that is broken in D.C. If you watch Stewart enough, you can see it slip through that he’s not just angry about the national press — he’s also broken-hearted.

Brian Stelter at The New York Times picked up on this theme, calling the rally a class in “Media Criticism 301.” Stewart’s closing statement also was  telling:

This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times — not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.

But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.

The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen — or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

If we amplify everything we hear nothing.

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Something can be labeled “Christian” and not be true or good. …

It is possible for music to be labeled Christian and be terrible music. … Just because it is a Christian book by a Christian author and it was purchased in a Christian bookstore doesn’t mean it is all true or good or beautiful.

A Christian political group puts me in an awkward position: What if I disagree with them? Am I less of a Christian? What if I am convinced the “Christian” thing to do is to vote the exact opposite?

Christian is a great noun but a poor adjective.

— Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis

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The video speaks for itself. Only in the internet age.

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The best journalism does much more than dispense information; it transports us into the world of others.

That’s exactly what Laura Poitras has accomplished with her exceptional documentary, “The Oath.” Poitras takes us back and forth between Yemen and Guantanamo Bay, exploring the stories of two men connected both by family ties and their association with Osama bin Laden.

We meet Abu Jandal at his home in Yemen, tending to his young son and driving his taxi cab in the city of Sana’a. At one time, Jandal was also bin Laden’s bodyguard and “emir of hospitality,” overseeing prospective jihadists as they arrived at Al Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan. Though he met nearly all the 9/11 hijackers at one point or another, he had left Al Qaeda and was imprisoned in Yemen when those airliners rocketed into our buildings and transformed our lives.

Jandal was not the original focus of the film; Poitras started out trying to examine the life of someone held at Guantanamo. She pursued Salim Hamden (of the Supreme Court ruling in Hamden v. Rumsfeld), but she could not gain his cooperation. Hamden remains a presence in the film, and we learn of him through his letters, brief encounters with his wife and children, comments from his attorneys during proceedings at Guantanamo, and finally from Jandal himself.

That’s because Jandal is Hamden’s brother-in-law, and he recruited Hamden to join Al Qaeda — a point over which Jandal expresses remorse.

So it is Jandal who is the complicated, contradictory center of the film. On one hand he seems charismatic, if not outright likeable. On the other hand we see him show off a photo of his son as a newborn — lying on a blanket, with hand grenades one each side and an AK-47 resting above his head.

We see him barter with customers over cab fares in a manner that can prompt a laugh, and we see him holding court with prospective jihadists at his home.

And we see him explain that he rejected attacks on civilians, preferring to meet Western infidels on “the battlefield,” but when an Arab TV interview asks if Jandal has renounced his oath to bin Laden, he sidesteps the question.

Poitras presents all these threads of Jandal’s life, but she avoids a heavy-handed presentation — instead she leaves it for viewers to wrestle with all the contradictions. It is quite a balancing act, to view Jandal as a full, complex human being while not glossing over his life as a terrorist. As Poitras says in notes included with the DVD:

To acknowledge that humanity is not a justification of their acts, but rather an acceptance of an uncomfortable reality.

In an interview earlier this year with The New York Times, Poitras recognized the difficulty of her task:

You have to show the charisma to understand how this organization (Al Qaeda) works. But it also feels like you’re playing with fire because you don’t want to be a mouthpiece for him. …

He’s a complicated protagonist and, in a sense, he’s irreconcilable. The film was very much about constructing a mystery around who this guy is. There’s a constant questioning about his motivations.

But it’s in this choice, to treat Jandal as a complicated human and not a cardboard cut-out, that is the film’s triumph. As we sift through today’s news reports of bombs targeting the United States, “The Oath” challenges us to examine the origins of terrorism more fully. It is difficult to grapple with the humanity of those who commit inhuman acts. But if the West is to wise, and not just strong, we must have the courage to see.

Poitras has that kind of courage, as illustrated in an interview earlier this year with The Seattle Times, when she discussed a scene in which Jandal instructs his 5-year-old son in the way of Jihad:

I was very interested in that relationship, in both its extremes. This is indoctrination, but then there was the tenderness … It’s sort of the beauty of humans: that they surprise you, that they confound you, that they undo your preconceptions. That’s why I love doing this kind of work. You’re not recapping past events but you’re in the moment as people are making choices. To me that’s sort of the heart of drama.

Even when the drama is all too real.

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Had the chance to catch Gov’t Mule one more time last night at the Showbox SoDo. I rarely get out to see shows, especially midweek, but it was a wonderful midquarter break.

Highlights: Two very different instrumental tunes, the riotous “Thelonius Beck” and the jazzy “Birth of the Mule”; “Lay Your Burden Down,” which morphed into a bluesy, stretched-out cover of “Smokestack Lightning”; some other great covers, including a muscular version of Elton John’s “Have Mercy on the Criminal” along with a wah-wah fueled rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 was 9”; and some of their stronger new songs, “Railroad Boy,” “Open Any Window,” and “Broke Down on the Brazos.”

The band seemed to be in good spirits, with smiles and playfulness evident throughout the 2.5-hour show. The crowd was the most spirited I’ve seen at a Mule show, joining in on the vocals — especially on “Lay Your Burden Down.” Warren Haynes’ work on the slide guitar during the second set also was a thrill. These guys won’t be touring next year (according to their web site), so it was a treat to catch them a second time this year.

Oh, and I loved the guitar tech’s T-shirt:

Making the World a Better Place, One Guitar at a Time

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The Crystal Cathedral’s fall into bankruptcy — $43 million in debt — is as breathtaking as the scale of its facilities (as shown in the video tour). Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times captures the state of affairs:

The 10,664 windows did not get washed this year at the Crystal Cathedral, the iconic glass church founded by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, one of the original religious broadcasters. Volunteers are tending the church’s 40 landscaped acres, now that the gardeners have been laid off. And its renowned Christmas pageant — with live camels and horses, and angels flying overhead on cables — has been canceled for now.

I was never a fan of this kind of misplaced opulence, but I also do not want to gloat over others’ misfortune. We all have our share of folly in our lives. But from the beginning, the hard truth was that the Cathedral was a monument to our hubris, not to God.

That’s why the Wittenburg Door awarded Schuller the title of “Loser of the Month” back in 1990 when Schuller announced plans for an additional Prayer Chapel and Spire (which you can see in the video). Though their appeal to Schuller had no impact, the Door’s tough words are a reminder that all of us who follow Christ should take to heart.

We are not angry, we are disappointed and appalled. The Crystal Prayer Chapel and Spire is more than the Loser of the Month, it is a monument to what happens when the isolation of fame and notoriety clouds a person’s thinking.

This is not a monument to God, or even to Robert Schuller. This is a monument to Southern California, where wealth and materialism have become God, and where waste and insensitivity to the rest of the world are a way of life.

One need not live in Southern California, be a member in a megachurch or own an opulent home to fall into this trap. So many of us live with so much good fortune that we lose track of what really matters. As we witness the Cathedral’s financial fall from afar, it is better to reflect on where our own treasures — and hearts — reside.

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Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a terrific story by Nicholas Kristof on “D.I.Y. Foreign Aid” — cases in which individuals are doing extraordinary things to assist others in need around the world. It is a story in which altruism and realism often collide, and it could be said that these efforts make but a small dent in global poverty. But in an age in which the scale of problems can leave one feeling powerless, these stories challenge us to do more than we can imagine.

Almost as afterthought, at the end of his story Kristof turns his attention to Eugene Cho, a Seattle pastor who works with many of our students at Seattle Pacific University (his church is literally just “over the hill” from campus). Cho has launched an organization called One Day’s Wages, which urges people to give the equivalent of one day of pay to an organization devoted to fighting global poverty. That adds up to 0.4 percent of someone’s annual pay. One Day’s Wages essentially serves as a clearinghouse, channeling donations to organizations that have been vetted to ensure their legitimacy.

I have to admit, Cho is one cool dude (just watch the video above) — in fact, almost unbearably cool (and I say that as a compliment). But there’s a powerful sense of solidity, humility and authenticity that sets him apart from some other tech-savvy pastors of the “emerging” church. As the Seattle Times reported nearly a year ago, Cho and his family sought to lead by action and not just by words. They sought to donate the equivalent of one year’s income to the cause of fighting poverty, and they gave to the point that it hurt — clearing out savings, selling a car, even subletting their home.

All that gives him some real credibility, and in doing so he prods us to rethink what is possible. As Cho told Kristof:

The aim is to inspire the everyday person. We’re trying to communicate that you don’t have to be a rock star or a millionaire to make a difference.

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