Monthly Archives: December 2011

Soren Kierkegaard approves of Jesus Christ Superstar

Last evening I watched Jesus Christ Superstar. I hadn’t seen the film since the year of its release. The songs and choreography are fun, and the portrayal of Christ offers some thoughtful moments.

The disciples and followers join in a frenzied dance, singing “Christ you know I love you, did you see I waved? I believe in you and God, so tell me that I’m saved.” Jesus replies with an accusation, the essence of which is: not one of you gets it. You don’t even know who I am or what I’m doing.

Soren Kierkegaard would agree. “In the world there is lots of talk about this or that strife, about this person in conflict with that person, about that man and that woman living in strife with one another, about this one challenging another to a fight, about there being unrest in the city, about a war that is impending, about the conflict of nature’s elements that rage fearfully. But if one should bring up or mention the strife and unrest that resides within every person with God–what an astonishing effect! To most people such talk is but nonsense, a mere trifle. There are too many other important things to talk about.

“Travel the world over, enter into conversation with all the different peoples, visit them in their houses, follow them to the meetings, and listen attentively to what they talk about. Now tell me if you ever hear anything said about the eternal strife, the war between God and man, the war within a person’s soul. And yet this strife is the affair within every single person.

“But it is certain that every person has opportunity, in one way or another, to become aware of this strife. And it is this strife that underlies all others. Oh, whoever you are, pay heed to this sacred strife. This alone is the strife of eternity.”

He means the war between flesh and spirit. He defines the spirit as the synthesis of the finite and the infinite.

For instance, Christ was spirit, a perfect synthesis. If finite necessity such as communicating with or healing people threatened to overpower the infinite and disintegrate the synthesis, he commonly withdrew and re-engaged with the infinite, thereby preserving his spirit.

Most of us are only vaguely, if at all, aware of the infinite. So any contact with that realm feels awfully foreign and dangerous, like madness, and naturally sparks fear.  On account of the fear, we resist its pull. For distraction from the dread this resistance creates, we occupy ourselves with all manner of insipid conflict, as in a current magazine headline: “Kim calls Khloe fat,” or with relatively trivial strife, such as our retirement accounts.

Unless we surrender to the frightening pull of the infinite, we never achieve the synthesis that creates spirit.

Kierkegaard points out that unless we integrate the finite and infinite our creator endowed us with, we not only have no spirit, neither do we have a true self. We don’t even have a partial self, because we sense the need for a true self and attempt to manufacture one by imitating others we see or imagine and come to believe we ought to be.

If we can surrender to the pull of the infinite, we can become ourselves. Otherwise, we are not real.

When, before Tae Kwon Do sessions, Master Jeong would tell us to meditate and  “Think about who you are. Not what you do or what you think. Who you are,” he wanted us to expel the trivial, invite the infinite, and become ourselves.

 

 

The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) satirizes Adolf Hitler and the growth of National Socialism in Germany with Chaplin in a dual role as dictator Adenoid Hynkel and a persecuted Jewish barber.  Hynkel implements policies of strict control on the Jewish population of the country of Tomania, while planning the invasion of the nearby country Austerlich as a first step towards ruling the world.  The barber resists attempts by storm troopers to take over his shop, and winds up in a concentration camp.

The Great Dictator raises the question about whether it is possible to make a successful comedy out of such grim subject matter as Nazi totalitarianism.  Chaplin himself said later that a comedy would have been impossible if he had known the full extent of what was going on in Germany, how utterly beyond the pale events were even compared to those occurring under other dictatorships.  Here Hynkel and his storm troopers are bumbling figures (Hynkel falls down stairs, dances with an inflatable globe, and rants in German gibberish; the storm troopers are neutralized with a bop to the head with a frying pan), and nothing so funny would seem to pose a serious threat.  Must laughter then be disqualified as a weapon against evil?

Chaplin, apparently deciding that humor is finally not enough, forsakes it in the final scene, choosing to end the film with a direct appeal to viewers’ hearts as the barber makes a speech denouncing the ills of dictatorship and calling for unity and democracy.  However sensible the ideas are, the speech itself has been criticized as preachy and out of character for the mostly silent barber (this is Chaplin’s first full-sound film, the better for the audience to hear the speeches).  Both humor and earnestness have their pitfalls, but what else is there to do within the bounds of cinema?

Chaplin’s performances are so impressive that it is easily to overlook the supporting cast, but some in particular deserve credit:  Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s then-spouse, both feisty and touching as Hannah, an inhabitant of the Jewish ghetto in Tomania who helps the barber in his struggle against the storm troopers, and Jack Oakie as the Mussolini figure Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria.  Napaloni’s food-throwing quarrels with Hynkel are among the film’s comic highlights.

The Great Dictator is not your average comedy; it provokes thought about what are the proper limits of humor and when one can say what topics just aren’t funny.  Although that may not have been at the forefront of Chaplin’s mind, that is the effect of his film, and raising questions about the nature of humor itself is one of the many things makes Chaplin one of the greatest of comedians.

James Garfield, a graduate of Claremont College’s Master of Arts in Flim Studies, serves Perelandra College as an administrator.

A Christmas Carol

When I mention Soren Kierkegaard to people well-educated in the humanities, psychology, or Christian studies, I usually get a response of admiration along with a comment that he is hard to grasp.

Though I let these responses pass without much comment, they are beginning to concern me. As a parent or softball coach, when a kid says something like “But that’s hard,” I try to help her understand that because something is hard doesn’t mean we can’t do it or shouldn’t bother to try. Master Jeong, a Tae Kwon Do ninth-degree black belt, used to give us this admonition: “Practice the move a hundred times. If you can’t do it right, practice a thousand times. If you still can’t do it, practice ten thousand times.” If something is worth doing, hard is no excuse.

A deep understanding of Christ and his message is certainly worth pursuing, and it’s not something of which we humans are incapable.

I love Christmas carols. I was listening to them and wrapping presents, and when Emmylou Harris sang “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,” I stopped and marveled over the recognition that God would give us such credit for both intelligence and potential for insight as to send a messenger with no hoopla, who would speak in parables and other ways that challenge all our abilities to understand. Such a vote of confidence ought to make us feel honored and driven to prove his confidence justified.

We humans don’t give ourselves enough credit.

Kierkegaard teaches about confidence in others as an expression of love. One way, perhaps the best way, we can learn to love better is to give credit to others for possessing love. Even though we don’t see evidence of it, if we believe God is love and we are made in God’s image and therefore endowed with love, then we can presume it resides in all people and determine to act toward them accordingly.

If we treat others with loving confidence even while we recognize that they, like Charlie Brown’s Lucy, might snatch the football away and leave us to go flying, then we are expressing purity of heart, pleasing God.

The failure to give ourselves credit for our God-given abilities is dangerous.  In Dostoyevski’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, in a section called ” The Grand Inquisitor“, Ivan, one of the brothers, tells Alyosha, his younger brother, a story set in Spain during the Inquisition.

Christ returns to earth and performs healings. Soldiers of the Inquisition arrest and deliver him to the Grand Inquisitor, who sits Christ down and explains the church’s position. He asserts that when the devil tempted Christ in the desert (see Matthew 4), Christ responded incorrectly on account of his belief that people as a whole are capable of choosing and living with freedom. The vast majority, the Inquisitor argues, would rather give up freedom up in exchange for food, security, and a simple dogma upon which to base all decisions.

The Inquisitor believes his judgments are in accord with human nature and so overrule the benefits of the freedom Christ offered us, since only a small minority of humankind would choose freedom.

Brother Alyosha won’t deny the Inquisitor’s assessment of human nature. Neither will I. But I will argue against joining the Inquisitor in his refusal to urge people toward freedom. And I’ll contend that we should do our utmost to challenge people to grow in depth of free, un-coerced, un-simplified understanding.

No matter how hard, how mysterious or confounding an issue may be, we should be willing to tackle it if for no other reason than in gratitude for God’s belief in us.

The importance of accepting such a challenge is multiplied in the case of preachers, artists, parents, coaches, or anyone else in a position to influence. If I could convince the writers of the Perelandra College community to assume one attitude, I would advise them to never consider anything too difficult, for themselves or for their audience. Sure, they may need to work harder to communicate. So be it.

To believe others are capable of more than we can observe in them is a primary quality of love.

Where Is Truth?

Soren Kierkegaard has been accused of forsaking reason in favor of searching for truth in the purely subjective. To that accusation, I say phooey.

His argument concerning the objective and the subjective and their value in the search for truth holds that logic, reason, and conclusions based upon sensory or scientific observation are only valid in the objective realm. Truth about our values, the meanings of our lives, the essential nature of reality, or our purpose for existing cannot be observed by using our physical senses, nor approached through reason except by commencing with a premise such as: what matters most is achieving the greatest good for the greatest number, or nothing exists outside what our senses can observe.

Without relying on such a premise, questions of value, meaning, purpose, or essential reality must be approached from outside the reach of the purely objective. To find answers, we must add another element to the equation.

In other words, Kierkegaard doesn’t deny the usefulness of the objective, but simply maintains that it can’t answer all of our concerns. Either we give up searching for answers outside the objective realm or we find another path.

Many, perhaps most, people choose to give up searching and instead choose to rely exclusively on someone else’s answers or to relegate any non-objective search to the category of nonsense.

Kierkegaard suggests, as an alternative to giving up or blindly following a leader, that we inquire of the subjective when we feel called to explore places in which the objective will only reach a dead-end. The subjective, contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily synonymous with wishful thinking or whim. In Kierkegaard’s  vision, the subjective involves a dedicated and relentlessly honest journey inward.  I’ll offer a few thoughts about this journey.

One way to begin is to cultivate solitude. Removing ourselves from other people and the distractions they bring can at least allow us time to discover what else we are and what our beings possess other than the superficial and obvious.

Kierkegaard proposes that “… anyone who stands alone for any length of time soon discovers that there is a God.” Though in this passage standing alone can refer to alienation from others, another of his central topics, it can also apply to solitude.

Anyone at liberty to practice solitude, or who sometimes longs for solitude, may appreciate reading Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island, which in one edition was subtitled “thoughts in solitude”.

But solitude is by no means the only route inward. Even while surrounded by people and engaged in activity, we can do our best to expel from our thoughts a lot of what normally occupies them. Many of us spend valuable time and effort needlessly passing judgment on people or things or situations. We not only judge ourselves but dedicate energy to making excuses for the thoughts or behaviors that led to those judgments. We listen to the opinions of others, or read books or articles, without absorbing or relating to any subtle insight or wisdom because we are occupied with creating arguments against or in favor of the speaker’s or author’s assertions or implications. All this activity, most of it fruitless, keeps our minds whirling, on the surface.

When I studied Tae Kwon Do, we began each session with a brief meditation. Master Jeong would guide us to: “Think about who you are. Not what you do or what you want. Who you are.”

Some of my deepest and most valuable excursions inward have come during long road trips. For an account of one such journey, and to experience how a journey inward can lead us to the kingdom of heaven, take a look at Reading Brother Lawrence.

Happy holiday preparations,

Ken Kuhlken

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marty

In director Delbert Mann’s 1955 drama Marty, the title character (played by Ernest Borgnine) is an overweight 34 year-old Bronx butcher, unpopular with women, who lives with his mother.  One night at the Stardust Ballroom, he meets plain, shy schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair), and hits it off with her.  The budding relationship faces opposition from his mother (who is afraid of living alone) and his peers (who consider Clara a “dog”).  It’s up to Marty to resist the social pressure and follow his heart.

Marty is a modest, intimate film that wound up a box-office hit and Best Picture winner.  Dramas like this need strong performances to carry them through, and Borgnine anchors it all with his star turn as the romantic underdog, facing choices in love, employment, and family life.  Paddy Chayefsky’s script (based on his earlier teleplay) fleshes out this character study of a lonely man dealing with middle-class problems (his aunt moving in, his boss offering to sell the butcher shop to him), and his relations with friends and family–making this story of more universal interest, appealing to more viewers than just men who have troubles with women.  There are no villains in Marty, just flawed people (Marty’s crude friends, his mother who dislikes Clara because “she’s not Italian”) so everyone gets a fair shot at impressing their individuality and humanity upon the viewer.

The central romance is handled quite believably, not glamorized, just coming across as a logical extension of the two individual characters.  Marty is afraid of being hurt as he has in the past, but finds himself easily opening up to Clara, who is pleasantly surprised at finding a man who isn’t turned off by a shy schoolteacher, and they wind up having a wonderful time together.  (They have a better time of it than Marty’s cousin and his wife, a more conventionally attractive couple who fight all the time.)  Of course, it’s debatable whether in real life anyone ever lands a soulmate this quickly, but the relationship and the obstacles it faces still come off as more realistic than is typical for Hollywood.

The realism continues in Marty’s relationship with his friends.  They don’t lead lives of adventure—they find themselves confronted with boredom and indecision, hence the lines that have infiltrated pop culture: “Whaddya feel like doin’ tonight, Marty?” “I dunno, what do you feel like doin’ tonight?” Friends can hinder your dreams as well as encourage them; the theme of following one’s own way despite peer pressure is one many viewers can relate to.  Marty’s family drama, involving finding a happy place to live for aging relations, as well as his mother’s disparagement of Clara, again gives us relatable problems rather than high adventure and intrigue.  (The Italian accents of the older women do seem a tad exaggerated, if not in Chico Marx-land.)

A quiet but involving film, Marty is one of the highlights of 1950s cinema, with unforgettable characters and a subtly handled rise-of-the-underdog plot that earns its happy ending with little inauthenticity.

 

James Garfield, a graduate of Claremont College’s Master of Arts in Flim Studies, serves Perelandra College as an administrator.

What Is Truth?

“Truth is the work of freedom,” Kierkegaard wrote.  “…truth exists for a particular individual only as he himself produces it in action.”

We might test this theory by allowing ourselves freedom to experience a variety of attitudes, beliefs and actions and asking which of them makes our conscience feel free. Then, as we act in accord with our conscience, our actions become the truth. Not the results of truth, but truth itself, as John Keats expressed when he wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Notice he didn’t claim that beauty is true and truth is beautiful.

Truth as action and substance rather than mental construct is a central tenet of Kierkegaard’s vision of Christ. He asserts that when Jesus claims to be the truth, it doesn’t mean Christ’s teachings are true or his example is the right way to behave. It means, Jesus, his person, his existence, is the truth.

The validity of the test suggested above depends upon whether or not we have a conscience. Not long ago, I realized that when I was a boy, the word conscience was commonly used, but I couldn’t remember having heard it in years. No doubt the social sciences knocked the stuffing out of the word with the theory that the conscience once viewed as part of human nature is actually a result of early childhood programing.

While we are certainly affected by parental and cultural programming, I’ll argue that a deeper level of conscience exists. This conscience recognizes the good and will guide us toward the good, if we set it free. Sure it’s buried deep, under heaps of learned opinions, attitudes, prejudices and fears. To find it we need to devote the will, time, and effort to journey inward.

Kierkegaard has plenty to offer concerning the journey inward, which can become the adventure of a lifetime. And which I mean to explore next week.

For more about the journey inward than a blog can offer, Ken Kuhlken’s Reading Brother Lawrence.