Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sermons I would like to hear: The Disappointment of Christmas

This is part of a series on this blog where I allow myself a little more freedom with religious language than a strict reflection of my beliefs might allow. I like to imagine slinking into a church and hearing this sort of thing from the pulpit.

Originally when I shared the sentiments of this particular post in conversation I said that if I was a preacher at Christmas time then I would preach this. I guess I sort of am, on this blog. So here it is.

Note: Usually I leave old writing intact but  I've given this a little edit for 2015. I hope it reads more clearly.

This Christmas in some churches when they talk about the nativity they will call it a signpost. They will argue it points to the fulfillment of “a promise”. The fulfillment of that promise is not there yet in the birth of Jesus, nor is it even there in the crucifixion. Nor is it even there in the resurrection.

They will preach that the nativity is a signpost pointing to a promise fulfilled in Judgement Day – the second coming of Jesus. This is when the Messiah will reappear in full wrath and might; Jesus will impose their holy will on the earth as God's anointed King. This is supposedly a good thing – there will be no more victims of sin like little children abused. However by some reckonings all the little children who don’t believe in God are going to be thrown into hell so it may be more of a frying pan to fire outcome for some of them.

This shift of focus from the baby in the manger to Jesus with a flaming sword can be blindingly fast and in that lack of pause I hear shame. I hear shame and disappointment that when a peoples' awaited Messiah came they were a vulnerable and needy newborn. Vulnerable and needy are not words that many can comfortably attach to their God. Not when our Gods still function competitively in our psyche and our divine (or secular) powers ultimately prove themselves by their sovereignty over human affairs. 

Quickly Jesus must be aged, his human limitations removed and his divinity weaponised. This way, instead of reflecting on how Jesus might have needed their ass wiped, we can jump to a future vision of ass-whupping by a righteous king. A king is always meant to be unchallenged. The centre of the universe can’t be a baby.

But I don't hear anything in the nativity story that gives this permission to look away from the crib – to hurry time till Jesus grows up, dies, rises, comes again and makes everything alright by being the sort of Messiah they should have been in the first place. No, this is supposed to be “it” ; the long-awaited God dealing with humanity. This infant is Gods' cards thrown down on the table in a hand of two high.

One rationalisation of the Christmas disappointment is that God wanted us to have at least two thousand extra years for us to learn what right and wrong is. Jesus Mark I, the infant and the crucified, was the teacher and example. Jesus Mark II, the warrior, will set the final exam. It seems downright churlish to question this sort of reprieve. To accept it also potentially points history towards us as the real generation of Gods' will fulfillment, a reasonable feed of our ego.

But that’s bullshit. People were being raped two thousand years ago and I’m willing to wager they and their rapist knew what was happening to them was wrong well enough. If ever Gods' people needed a saving and avenging God it was the first century. They cried out for it from beneath Roman boot heels. The moment was ripe.

To spend Christmas talking about an avenging Messiah who is to come seems to me to be a denial of Christianity itself, a refusal to engage with the most basic mystery of the Messiah we got. Instead the nativity calls us to sit with a reality that includes the collective disappointment of God's conquered people. We should be able to hear their grief  still relevant to victims today;  “This, this is what we got God? A baby? Thanks heaps.”

No sword. No power. Another mouth to feed basically. A God who didn't come to kick our enemies arses at all. Instead they came to teach us to love our enemies and did so from the only position we would be willing to hear that from; one of us from the word go.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why we need a shining Star.

My local community run cinema, The Star, has been publicizing a need to raise $65,000 dollars in order to convert their technology to show digital format films. The fear is that without this conversion the Star won’t be able to continue as a functional cinema in the Australian environment.

In addition to being one of a dwindling number of community run cinemas in Australia the Star is the only “art house” cinema in Bendigo, a regional Australian town of approximately one hundred thousand people. I’m not a huge fan of the term art house but there is no denying that the films shown at the Star, compared to Bendigo’s other more mainstream cinema are generally from smaller film studios, and include more characters that don’t conform to being white, wealthy, heterosexual and other stereotypes of “normal.”

My immediate thoughts on this matter in order were;
1. No! The Star must go on. What can I do?
2. $65,000 is an awful lot of money to be raising. How on earth is that going to happen?
3. Can I justify promoting this cause instead of promoting other, more bread-and-butter fundraising campaigns?

I’m not going to discuss thought number two in this blog post. Bendigo Council and Empowering Eaglehawk (the local traders association) are making contributions. For all I know $65,000 is quite achievable, if we all chip in. Also this is primarily a philosophy blog so I’ll skip to the philosophical concerns.

My primary philosophical concern is my vacillation between thoughts one and three. As I contemplate asking friends and family to join me in donating to the Star and as I contemplate how much to donate myself an embarrassing question occurs to me. Is fundraising for my local cinema just a feathering of my own privileged nest (or cosy two person couch, as that’s what the Star uses for seating)?  Shouldn’t my money and my friends’ money and attention go towards other more prosaic concerns like clean water in the majority world?

To answer these questions I want to illuminate what the Star really contributes to Bendigo. To do that we first need to consider what a cinema is. A cinema is a place where stories are told in moving image and sound, sure, but there are many places where such stories are told. In fact thanks to cyberspace, “films” to use their anachronistic title are shared anywhere we have a connection to the internet. And that’s possibly everywhere you go in a day if you’re reading this blog. The short film format in particular has never been so popular with facebook or twitter regularly guiding us to you-tube or vimeo. Perhaps we can declare that cinema is dead, but long live video.

This would be a loss however. What distinguishes a cinema from anywhere else is not what it does for us in telling stories but how we listen to those stories in a cinema. We listen without distraction and with devotion. If the moving image has become as ubiquitous as God is purported to be by believers – then the cinema is like a church, a place set apart specifically and reverentially for the object of its fascination.

Be honest– when was the last time you paid continuous attention for longer than an hour to any story told in moving image and sound? For me it was in a cinema. At home my best chance of achieving this is if my partner and I are both watching a dvd. Even then we’ll probably be stopping the film to put the chickens away, or make a cuppa or some custard.  Heaven help us if the film is boring at any point. Some movies don’t get finished.

On the internet there is simply no hope of my attention lasting that long. With a world of other information and entertainment only a click away then anything longer than ten minutes will almost definitely be interrupted. I recently made it thirty four minutes into an absolutely fascinating lecture by Douglas Rushkoff but I was watching it while making both apricot jam and fudge.

I’m not alone. According to a few internet articles which I skimmed and some videos I barely watched while opening another tab in my browser to check facebook, polls and experts recommend online videos be between two and half to four minutes long  or between ninety seconds and two minutes or  not much longer than fifteen seconds

Given that a cinema provides a rare space for reverent attention towards the moving image it’s fair to say that the loss of cinema from our culture would be a real loss to how video story telling is received. I believe this is important because there is something uniquely important about movies. Although this would take numerous essays to do justice I’m going to attempt to explain this unique value here in just a small part of this post.

I’ll begin by suggesting that wisdom only develops when we encounter the world rather than studying it from a distance. We need to meet, with all the unforeseen circumstances such meeting might bring, other “worlds” (from cliffs to factory farms to outer space) to incorporate them into our reality. Otherwise we only know about them. We will have only stayed in our world in which those “things” are mentioned. If this seems remarkable to you then consider how you learnt about members of the opposite sex, or your own body, or spaghetti or the flu.

Video stories when completed with editing, sound and soundtracks and particularly when attended to in a darkened cinema are a way to simulate the encounter of other worlds. They are our best approximation of dreaming. I have respect for the lucid dreaming communities but I think movies done right exceed their efforts.

Before any bibliophile stabs me with their library card I’ll acknowledge that books provide encounters with other worlds – sometimes better than movies do. But ask yourself this – would you finish a book you pretty much disagreed with? If so you’re exceptional. I for one will probably never make it from the cover to cover of some new age mash up of self-help and quantum physics. But I watched “What the Bleep do you know?”  and I watched it at the cinemas believe it or not. (Cinema Kino in Melbourne I should add so as not to tar the Star.)

Likewise if I wanted a friend to open themselves to the idea that the Jesus archetype is relevant to today’s world and not just as a long past historical event then I could probably find many books for them to read. None of them would have much chance of being opened. I would be the most dreaded Chris Kringle . On the other hand I could introduce them to the film, Jesus of Montreal and they would probably watch it to the end. Even if they loathed the movie they would get a sense of what appealed in it to me while only losing a couple of hours of their time. 

Neither of these worlds of string-theory inspired positive thinking or Jesus Christ vs the Catholic Church are going to get an airing at Bendigo’s other cinema, Bendigo Cinemas. That cinema is committed to carrying the movies that generally cater to the mass consumer market and which come with the guarantee of entertainment rather than disturbance. This doesn’t mean “bad” movies at all  - I loved both the Avengers and the My Little Pony movie. They even include the occasional grungy and atypical story. I saw Animal Kingdom there, albeit on their smallest screen.  Still the only times Bendigo Cinemas will feature a film with a non-white main character, it will probably be an animated pony or car.

This is why the STAR in particular matters. We need to go beyond the mainstream to gain the wisdom to address exactly the sort of issues that might legitimately call us away from the STARs funding concerns – issues like Australia’s treatment of refugees for example. The same is true if we just want to see more nuanced conversations about relationships and growing up than the Disney model would give us. Those conversations might include unwanted pregnancies or same-sex attraction. These elements of reality do get a decent showing in movies at the STAR.

You could argue encountering these marginilised worlds in a movie is unnecessary. Those worlds are all around us and even in our own lifes. Very few of us actually live out Hollywood norms. However until we see our atypical lives depicted on the big screen and given such respect I think we can censor even ourselves from ourselves. We tend to view our own difference as deviance – not a definining aspect of reality but an error in the code. The Star showed a documentary a while back about Australian roller-derby contestants - This is Roller Derby. While the film probably gave local roller –derby players very little new factual information it gave narrative worth to the Australian history of a sport sometimes just seen as a U.S. import. It changed what was included in “the real” story of roller-derby.

So there we have it. The train of my logic (or at least rhetoric) has brought us here. Cinemas are crucial spaces for us to pay attention to movies and movies are realistic ways (more realistic than books frankly) for people to encounter worlds beyond their own or even their own previously self-censored world. Those encounters produce wisdom. Lastly the STAR cinema is going to show the worlds that are far more rarely shown – worlds that can offer us the wisdom we need to tackle those competing bread and butter issues.

I’m not sure I’ve entirely convinced myself that supporting the STAR should hold a similar priority to addressing more mundane needs (giving money to Refugee Resource Centres for example). I just hope I have articulated how the two are connected. Losing the STAR will make affecting change in regard to a whole lot of issues harder. Currently I consider the STAR to have a profound and positive effect on my local culture. That’s something worth fighting for.

So donate.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Punk Parenting Part 2.

The last post hopefully spelt out why I respect a punk perspective. It ended with my doubts about the relevance of punk to parenting but a promise to tease out what might be possible to salvage when the two collide.

Ultimately I think the best parenting approach is child-led. I need to be willing to let my child show me if they need structure or spontaneity, more risk or more safety. Best of all if my child leads me I can parent beyond the limitations of my pre-conceptions. Who could predict some of the places their kid’s interests take them – bird watching for example.

“All children are different” may not be especially true, anymore than “all kids are the same” is, but it’s worth proclaiming anyway. “All children are different” permits and obliges us to pay attention to our particular child’s needs, rather than following any philosophy slavishly. “All children are different” gives us the cognitive and social out we need to escape what may be imposed on our children regardless of who they are. Feel free to use the phrase liberally in rejection of punk parenting principles too.

What I do want to address and lessen is something called “cognitive dissonance” (primarily for myself but maybe for you too). “Cognitive dissonance” refers to the major cause of burnout in many occupations when people are required in their jobs to be false to themselves. They might make decisions in their job roles that don’t reflect their values or pretend expertise they don’t have. This contradiction produces sick people. In my experience this sickness of hypocrisy, if unchallenged, leads to more and more faking of expertise and, well, becoming increasingly like a tosser basically.

Even more insidiously is when the same thing occurs in our parenting roles. The issue is not when people who don’t believe in punk values promote other values to their children. The issue is if people like me who do believe (somewhat at least) in punk values go against them because we lack the time, skill, language, imagination or effort to pull off a combination. That’s when we become tossers spouting advice ad naseum that we don’t even believe.

From such a position I think I have lost my legitimate authority to parent. If I can’t defend my true hopes and concerns in my parenting then its time to put down the pipe and exit the armchair. Mr. Brady needs to do a drumming workshop and figure himself out. That might mean recognizing some punk ideas are wrong and letting go of them. Anything would be better than showing my child a false self for the sake of propriety.

I don’t think it’s that outrageous an ask to combine punk and parenting either. Maybe it’s just that at some point in the world of fairy princesses, the alienation of the peasantry or the boredom of the princess has to feature. My child can handle that. She is often more instinctively just – and passionate - than I am. She demands happy endings and hates unfairness. No-one’s told her she needs to grow up in regard to magic or God – yet. She certainly dances, paints, and plays with less rules than I carry around. In fact if I let myself be truly child-led I may become more punk than ever.

So here guided by the music are what I see as some core elements of punk that can translate to my parenting:

Punk is not valueless

Painters and Dockers – Die Yuppy Die

You know that notion where your kids can do whatever they want with their life so long as it makes them happy? That’s yuppie philosophy – not punk. Punk is massively judgmental and every form of happiness or success is not respected equally. As the contemporary punk song, Sat in Vicky Park relays “numbers on a payslip are no indication of worth”.  The happiness of a new iPhone is likewise a shat upon joy.

Punk ideals are difficult to describe positively. Partly this is because many punk songs are negative – they describe what they don’t like. Partly this is because (as I see it) the primary ideal of punk is just a brutally honest reciprocal respect (for people not things). This includes honest call outs if you are being an asshole and a commitment to anti-discrimination. Sensitivities and prejudices are not coddled in Punk.

This can look like rudeness or even amorality. Punk certainly has no reverence for traditional moral absolutes such as property and sexual purity. Punk has subsequently been judged as a rejection of all standards - including musical ones. Rather it is that Punk recognizes that adding false standards takes away from the few that really matter. Punks rage is a focused lens. As George Bernard Shaw once said “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

Other punk principles include a high premium on creativity and absolute control over that creativity by the artist. This is tempered by a strong acknowledgement of the shared creative process. Punk artists recognize the lineages they draw on and this creates an artistic debt to the world.

Punks ideally share any wealth and good fortune from this perspective. The punk lifestyle of low budget creation and self-made fashion while proudly squatting is intended to be accessible to all. That’s a return to that reciprocal respect. Anyone can publish a zine and there are loads of people prepared to show you how.

How does this relate to my parenting? For my child at her age it’s really a case of modeling. I try and live economically in a way I’m proud of as much as I can. I’m as proud of the work I do for no pay as any job I have. I don’t need to judge people who live differently but I also don’t need to gush with awe at others’ wealth in front of my kid. I can rather save my highest regard for the art of making a difference in the world.

I also don’t tolerate bullying. My kid already knows some of the ways that bullying is acceptable in our society – such as Australia’s treatment of refugees. She sees me and her mum opposing that. I could be more careful not to add more standards than this. It’s amazing how many rules I find myself coming up with some days. I need to consider whether the more standards and morals I add diminish the importance of the key ones

Punk rejects forced choices.

Rage Against the machine - Testify

When our kid was young my partner and I discovered the benefit of offering forced choices. Instead of asking if our daughter wanted to go to bed we asked if she wanted to go to bed now or in ten minutes. Or we asked which book she wanted us to read instead of whether she wanted stories at all.

This same forced choice management style is everywhere. Instead of asking if we want a career it’s choose one. Pepsi or coke, environmental destruction now or in ten years, they’re all choices that aren’t any choice at all. Punk smells that rat. I hope my kid does too. So I need to face the contradiction between that hope and trying to get away with giving forced choices.

When my kid becomes a teenager I definitely don’t want her to accept the forced choices life offers her. I want her to be prepared to knock all the options off the table and imagine something different – something that doesn’t compromise her values. That requires skills and courage that she can practice on me. 

Punk demands a joy-filled, creative life.

The Ramones – I don’t want to grow up

Punk takes a look at the adult world of submission to chaos and stupidity - with the panacea of a few trinkets and therapies to get us by - and says “no fucking way.”
As several members of The Clash members express in a very watchable 1981 interview with Tom Snyder “Life is Boring and we want to make it interesting.” 

Traditionally parenting seems to include preparing our children to accept authority because its there, follow rules without reason, endure long periods of time wasted and so on. That’s what I might have to do as an adult after all. The line “I don’t always want to go to work but I still go” in response to our child saying that they don’t want to go to school has actually left my lips.

That attitude might make good sense if I am struggling to pay for the roof over my head, but not to pay for a sea of luxuries that don’t actually make me happy. In such a case I should hope to God my kid ignores me. I’m just peddling my fear and laziness.

I see this becoming especially pertinent when my kids become teenagers and the issue of their risk–taking appears even larger. My partner and I need to be honest with ourselves (and with our kids) if there are risks we are not taking that maybe we ought to. Have we grown too cautious after falling or have we found a rut to get stuck in? I should ask myself “What does such a person look like when they try to discourage risk in others?” Not like someone worth listening to.

To discuss risk with our children we may need to be prepared to be more adventurous ourselves. We need to be pursuing our joy with full gusto before our advice is worth listening to. After all there are lots of ways to go down the gurgler – sudden death by car accident or a slow death by sadness treated with chocolate and television.


These are just some initial thoughts on the topic. As I qualified in my last post, hard core punk isn’t my preferred music style. (Hence the use of some not exactly punk bands in these posts). However I find in Punk philosophy a criticism of power and refusal to be powerless that I try to share. It’s the voice of the angry youth railing against the establishment. That’s a sentiment that inspired freedom for me when I was younger. Figuring out how to honour that sentiment I think will make me a better dad.

Most of the time authority can’t see itself very well. I remember working on a ward with a boss who described patients as “attention seeking” – in a perjorative way. This boss had meanwhile put their name on their office door in gold letters. Like that boss I will probably struggle to notice the hypocrisies in my exercise of power as a parent.  Coupling my parenting with a philosophy that holds a blow torch to authority should help to catch myself.

If nothing else writing this post has taught me about the amazing and ongoing history of punk music. I regret not sourcing more female led bands. I really liked Bikini Kill and Bratmobile but didn't find a song relevant to the topic. I'm continuing my education aided by the Bad Reputation blog and their authors compilation of some global Riot Grrl songs. Check em out.