Breaking my bubble with art

I’ve been struggling a lot lately with how to break out of my political bubble. I hoped that a quick change to my facebook newsfeed might be helpful, adding the National Review and America Magazine to my diet. This lasted maybe a week as I found I couldn’t stomach a lot of what the NR was publishing and that America Magazine was more inside my bubble already than out. Evidence of this? How about this article that was published back in February that, if anyone looked too closely, one might assume I plagiarized in a recent blog post about the same topic. In reality, this is just evidence of the greatness of contemporary music speaking to two people in different corners of the world – but it also speaks to how America Magazine is not going to be what breaks my bubble.

This weekend I participated in my most recent ministry interview with the United Chruch of Canada. A pastor and good friend drove me down to Belleville for the day and on the way we discussed all the arts and culture that usually populates our conversations between discussions and reaffirmations of theological issues. He’s from Ontario, but has family in the States and did his post-secondary education there as well. Both he and the other chaplain at my school played a big role in keeping me from the front lines of vitriolic hatred in political discourse. In light of Trump’s election, it is so easy to just ignore the opposition. But here I’ll say something that might surprise you: avoiding debate with the opposition is not a bad thing. I have no interest in having political discussions with people on the other side of the aisle from me for two reasons. 1) I am not a politician and have no access to political power that could use compromise to move forward on certain issues that can be agreed upon. 2) I don’t see people on the other side of the aisle as completely human in the way that I ought to. In the same way that our culture asks us to objectify and dehumanize everyone around us, I have an idea of what “The Right” is and that is likely divorced from the lives of those people. I hear stories from people of colour, queer folk, immigrants, and women in my spheres that place me squarely against ‘those’ people; however, that is no excuse for trying to at least understand them complexly.

But how do I do that? I still firmly believe that protesting keynote speakers coming to colleges and shutting down the platforms accessible to the most vocal of The Right is perfectly within my rights as a human being. Just because I don’t believe that the government shouldn’t have the authority to throw people in jail over what they believe does not mean I believe all spaces are spaces for “free speech.” It was during and after this car ride that I had a realization about how I can begin to imagine others complexly without inviting vitrolic conflict into spaces where it can only do harm.

I was introduced to this song which has some really beautiful poetry in it about how Alabamans imagine themselves. But more importantly, it sparked in my brain the notion that art could be the first place where I could start to break through my bubble.

This wasn’t the first time I had done this; black metal is a genre that I engage with to understand how pain and anger at the church and God can reveal beauty and truth. I don’t have to agree with the artist to see how their art is calling to the transcendent in this world, even if it’s a different transcendent to the artist than it is to me. The same is true with the Right and with the South. In a similar vein to my piece on passing the microphone, I want to hear the good and the bad about communities from people within those communities. I want to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd to understand how white southerners construct their identity in the same way that I listen to Outkast to understand how black southerners do the same. I want to listen to the Drive-by Truckers to hear critiques and celebrations of Lynyrd Skynyrd instead of listening to Neil Young’s decrying of those southern men. I want to remember that neighbourhoods, cities, states, countries, and religions are not monolithic. They are complex and multidimensional, containing voices that can speak inward and outward with more authority than any old liberal culture critic. Because isn’t that really the lesson that both the Bible and contemporary social justice writers have been telling us? The Bible demands that we talk to our communities differently than we talk to the rest of the world because we hold ourselves to higher standards. Social justice authors have been begging us to listen to the lived experiences of the suffering as long as social justice has been written about. If you can’t go and debate and discuss with people on the other side of the aisle, I do not blame you. But it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to try and imagine others complexly. When we have the strength and courage to do so (understanding that a lot of the time we just don’t) I think this is a way to start peering outside our bubbles.

And to celebrate here’s some Skynyrd.

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Three Rolling Stones Records Because YAWWWWNNNN

So I listened to three more Stones records, and it blows my mind that the good folks at Allmusic give all of them 4.5 or 5 stars. 12 X 5The Rolling Stones Now, and Out of Our Heads are some of the most boring records I’ve ever heard in my life. And it’s not necessarily that they are “bad” or anything. They’re just completely undistinct one from the next. Only one of them comes close to that level of quality and that’s because it has “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on it. That song is such a breath of fresh air on the fourth record in a row of pure rip off blues rock.

Seriously, it’s the only distinguishing factor between the first four Stones albums. I couldn’t tell you the name of any song on any of the albums except that one because they all bleed together.

So here you go, the first better than okay Rolling Stones record.

What makes a film scholar love hockey?

Have you ever heard of sportsball?

Spending most of my time among nerds and academics, the general attitude towards all varieties of competitive professional sporting competitions is the sarcastic and deriding tone of “sportsball”. While I grew up watching hockey and football (and a little baseball with my dad and grandmother), once I found my geekdom I embraced the Noam Chomsky school of sports criticism.

I still don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of what Chomsky says in the above clip; but at the same time, I’ve rediscovered the intense love of hockey that began for me in 2002 with Jarome Iginla in the Olympics. For years I said I was a Flames fan because of Iginla and because the Leafs sucked following the disappointing end to their 2002 playoff run against the Hurricanes. But eventually, hockey just began to wane in my interest as first professional wrestling then football became more interesting. Wrestling was exciting and melodramatic and football brought in the chess-like strategy and slow buildup of tension that makes so many Superbowls so fun to watch.

Then two things happened as I went to university: the NFL’s concussion and domestic abuse scandals, and my first season of fantasy hockey.  I had just joined the campus safewalk service and when the lockout ended I joined the service fantasy hockey league. In the draft I got nothing particularly interesting in the first couple rounds, but then I got a young Nazem Kadri in the 4th and picked up a bunch of Leafs thereafter.

For those who were watching, 2013 was an exciting year to be a Leafs fan. After years of utter crap, the leafs were surprising most nights and earned a playoff berth. My player, Nazem Kadri, was the breakout star of the season along with James Van Riemsdyk and of course Phil Kessel. It was a joy to watch them play as it seemed the curse of the choking Leafs might finally be over.

Then that night happened.

(I wasn’t watching Steve Dangle at the time, but he was a big part in bringing me back to actually enjoy watching the game so I want to cite him here.)

The Leafs had this amazing comeback story going into game 7 and then did the exact thing every Leafs fan dreaded – they choked. It was just of the story of Toronto sports teams at that point. The Leafs haven’t won since 67, the Jays since 93, and the Raptors since… well ever (though they haven’t been around as long). Just in terms of the playoffs the droughts had been 8 years for the Leafs, 20 for the Jays, and 5 for the Raptors. This could have been the start of the era that we are now living in, but, as we all know, the crash just continued from there. The era of sustained quality in Toronto sports really started with the Raptors in the playoffs in 2014, the Jays in 2015, and now finally the Leafs in 2017.

Tonight the Leafs made it to the playoffs for the first time in 10 full 82-game seasons. And what’s more, they did it because they won rather than someone else losing. They played a long difficult game tonight. Their goalie got injured; they suffered an embarrassing own goal tipped off a defenceman’s skate; they got the lead back and held it with an amazing performance by their backup goalie and a team full of rookies. I was with people while the game was on. Close friends of the “sportsball” variety that were a little stunned at how immersed I was in the game. I remember being surprised myself when I first realized I was enjoying hockey again, but the more I watch the more I realize that it’s not an intellectual thing at all, it’s a feeling.

I watched the Leafs-Lightning game on Thursday night and the Leafs-Penguins game Saturday night and I’ll tell ya, the reason I watch hockey is because it is narratively and aesthetically beautiful. When the Leafs are playing at the same level as their opponents you have 12 titans skating with all their might in a battle that seems to carry more importance than it actually does. And when the Leafs are not playing on that level, you can see it on the screen and from interviews you know they can feel it on the ice. I don’t know how exactly to describe it; but, even though there are two teams at full strength on the ice, it just feels like one side has more people. It’s not an intellectual experience at work here. This isn’t a logical flow of events that I synthesize in an evaluation of quality. Just like the way you feel a film is working or not working, you feel the flow of a hockey game on an aesthetic level.

So on Saturday when the Penguins had a delayed penalty call in the third period and the Leafs pulled their goalie, the immediate shift in momentum was felt. Despite the players just bouncing around the screen, faces and identities obscured by speed and size, you knew that they saw this as an opportunity. That the feeling of exhilaration, excitement, and energy was being felt simultaneously on the ice, on the bench, in the stands, and across the viewing public. This is why I watch hockey. It is an act of community with millions of people. And aside from all the high-minded waxing poetic, damn it’s fun.

Passing the Microphone

For about two years I have been part of a private group on Facebook for political discussions. It was created as an attempt to not flood our Facebook friends with political posts during the Canadian and American election cycles. I enjoyed this group a lot and still like a lot of the regular contributors. Many were people I knew from school which made the discussions feel more open and authentic than what you would get on r/canadapolitcs.

But I just left that group, at least in part because the vast majority of people contributing to discussions were cis white men. The group had some women and some people of colour in the membership, but few of them were actively engaged in the discussions. I can’t speak to why this is as I’m not inside their heads but, if I had to guess, the nature of impersonal political discussions probably had something to do with it.

“The personal is political,” is practically cliche at this point, yet it still denotes the more substantial difference between the two worlds I have engaged in. On one side you can have “evidence-based” political discussion that are divorced from the personal lived experiences of the humans affected by the debated policies. On the other side, the lived experiences form the basis for the political discussions. I used to prefer the first kind of discussion because it was filled with facts and figures that could lead me to the “right” answer; however, as my politics have become more radical, I’ve seen how completely unrealistic those discussions are.

So, I’ve made a decision: speak for justice when I’m in the position where I am the only one to do it, otherwise pass the microphone. It’s honestly easier than I thought it was before, and it doesn’t have to involve bringing in marginalized folk to re-explain basic concepts. In true academic form, it can begin with citing your sources.

Quoting resisters and survivors, sharing their work, promoting their art: these are first steps on a path to allyship that will then include engaging quietly and supportively in spaces where you are not in control of the discourse. I’m no expert on the ethics of allyship, but it first requires that you prioritize living ethically as an ally.

 

In a bus driver I heard the voice of God

On Monday and Tuesday of this week I attended Opening Frames: Cinema and Transcendence, a conference put on by the Institute For Christian Studies. While there is a lot I could say about the conference, I’m still thinking about something that happened to me on Monday night.

As I left the Lightbox to go back to East York, a homeless man got on the bus I was on. He looked pretty young, and he kept talking loudly to no one in particular. The bus was pretty full and everyone was obviously trying to avoid eye contact with this guy. He went up to one woman who was sitting reading a newspaper and started asking her… something. I was trying to avoid any non-verbal communication with him so I sat with my headphones on and eyes closed.

I could hear the woman getting more and more frustrated at his repeated questions and I was getting more and more nervous at the possibility of him coming to me next. As someone who feels called to church ministry, I’m painfully aware of how awful this feeling is. I could come up with a list of excuses as to why I didn’t want to have a conversation with this man, but fear was the overwhelming cause of my discomfort. It is a selfish fear that would rather stay in my shell than actually make time to communicate with someone who wants to talk. In my quest for good mental health, I have had to learn how to not be ashamed of things that I ought not; however, this has also made me realize what things I should feel shame over as the first step to ethical living. Engaging with “difficult” people scares me and that is the biggest internal hurdle on my path to ministry.

But, back to the story. Once the woman succeeded in shaking him off, he went up to the front of the bus yelling, “ARE WE IN EAST YORK?” I was expecting the bus driver to kick him off at the next stop, but then something weird happened. The guy was still talking, but more quietly. The bus driver just calmly engaged him and the situation was defused. I felt awful and yet inspired. I had just heard Paul Schrader talk about the transcendence in calm and silence in cinema and now, in front of me, was a real life example.

In a bus driver I heard the voice of God.

Amen

Iconography of the Fallen City – Rap and Witness

I spend a lot of time thinking about religion, spirituality, and art. These thoughts are often unorganized, but today listening to Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book I had (what alcoholics refer to as) a moment of clarity. In Rock and Country I can only point to a handful of songs that seem to grasp for the transcendent: Relient K’s “Deathbed,” ELP’s cover of “Jerusalem,” and Garth Brook’s “Belleau Wood” stand out though I admit there must be more.

However, in the past few years, a proliferation of powerful religious music bled into the mainstream on the back Kanye West.

I didn’t understand the importance of this record when it was first released. I was 10 and Kanye was not exactly allowed in my Dad’s record collection. While it may be a little on the nose at times (e.g. “But if I talk about God, my record won’t get played?”) it broke ground on how pop music could reflect a Christ that is not comfortable. He followed this with songs like “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Homecoming,” “Lost in the World/Who Will Survive in America,” “No Church in the Wild,” “Bound 2,” “Only One,” and most vulnerably in “Ultralight Beam.” These songs give you a glimpse at Kanye’s experience of God, though I would suggest that you need to hear his albums in whole to really grasp where he’s going. Kanye’s is a black American liberation theology and he now shares that stage with others that are creating a Catechism for this age.

I didn’t get Good Kid, M.A.A.D City on its release either. This time there was no excuse, I was just pig-headed and refused to lean in and hear what Kendrick was saying. Luckily, To Pimp a Butterfly connected with me immediately, in large part because of “Alright.” This is an anthem of hope, creating space for life on the margins to see a world that is better. If there is anything that Christianity inspires in the faithful, it is hope. Kendrick uses this album to take the listener through the experience of black life from the historical context that informs contemporary liminality through to how black culture envisions itself moving forward. He’s speaking both to the world at large and to his community; “we have hope” as a statement of fact and “have hope” as a statement of faith. If Kanye is trying to understand God, Kendrick seems to be trying to find God in the world around him.

Then we’re back to Chance. The fact that Chance The Rapper is as celebrated and popular as he strikes me as miraculous. How does an album like Coloring Book, a fully religious record, become this popular? I think academics would throw words like post-secularism around to describe the phenomenon, but I think it’s simpler than that. Chance published an authentic witness to God and religion; the spirit moved through this witness to move a world that hasn’t heard an authentic witness in decades. Above is just one song that moves you, but again I highly suggest you listen to the whole record.

(I should also say that R&B and other black genres have also been contributing to this catechism with Beyonce and D’Angelo coming to mind immediately.)

Yet what I find more interesting about this phenomenon is how the most ardently and publicly “Christians” ignore it. Racism obviously plays a key role in this chosen ignorance, but I think it’s actually a competing Christology creating this distance. If life is more complicated and sinful than you want to admit, then any Christology that points towards that becomes a threat to your worldview. And it is a shame because this could be so transformative if white evangelicals would give it a chance.

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