Saturday, July 30, 2011

What's in a name.

My given name is Lewis Adam Lawrence. Lewis is a family name, one that I like a lot and plan to pass on to one of my son, should I have that opportunity. Adam is the name by which my parents intended me to go.

In the second week of my freshman year at UNC, I auditioned for a play called Mere Mortals with Lab! Theater. I performed a monologue about a man disappointed by his box of animal crackers. I was very nervous, and ended up improvising a line or two, but I felt it went over well enough. The director and stage manager, Abby Manekin and Geoff Bridges, respectively, decided it was easier to remember me by calling me “Animal Crackers,” which they then shortened to “A.C.” It took no time at all for them to recall A.C. Slater from the show Saved by the Bell, and by the time I got to the end of my callback, I had a new nickname. When I was cast in the play the very first group of friends I had in college knew me as Slater. They were all I knew, and all they knew was Slater. So I let it stick and went by Slater for the rest of undergrad. (On facebook I remained “Adam Slater Lawrence” to accommodate both my college and high school friends.)

But now I’m about to go somewhere new, where no one knows me by any name. I’ve prematurely introduced myself as Slater to a few Boston people, much to my parents disappointment. One day my dad rather pointedly told me that “‘Slater’ is what the people down at Carolina called you, but that doesn’t mean it’s what people in Boston have to call you.” Of course, given how little I keep in touch with friends from high school, my dad might have well as said, “Just because 95% of the people you love and care about know you by a certain name, that doesn’t mean that you should put any stock in it.”

So I’m at an impasse, a sort of identity crisis. Sure, Juliet famously asked, “What’s in a name?” but it turns out that when you’re faced with the idea of being called something that you’ve grown largely unaccustomed to for several years...well, quite a lot can be in that name.

I discovered, though, that being called “Slater” by people who were not from Carolina seemed suddenly inorganic. Maybe that’s just because I’m home for the summer and have become “Adam” again for a few months, but it is nonetheless strange to hear. So I’ve decided that yes, I’ll go back to being called Adam in graduate school. The rest of you can call me whatever you know me by - I’ll always place great value on the name Slater, as it became a fairly substantial part of my identity and who I am today since I grew so much in the years that I was known by it.

Maybe this all seems odd or unsubstantial to whomever’s reading this, but I recently learned that it actually means a lot to me, what I’m called, so I thought I’d talk it out. Plus, now you know where “Slater” comes from. As I’ve always said, it’s a much less interesting story once you’ve heard it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hearts and Minds

I read a fun blog the other day discussing some common cliches in current Christian language.  Things like calling wives “brides,” and saying you’re gonna “love on” people.  I especially liked the one where we praise people by saying they have a “real heart for God.”  The author pointed out that people rarely talk about people who have “a real mind for God.”  After all, isn’t our command to love God with all our hearts and all our minds?  What place is there for intellectualism in modern Christianity?  

Sure, there are divinity schools and seminaries for a higher education approach, but divinity schools do not train pastors in the same way as seminaries, and seminaries run the risk of being hopelessly subjective and biased.  I remember looking around The Ehrman Project website, where several seminary professors refute the opinions of a university professor on various questions surrounding the New Testament and early Christianity.  But I wonder if there isn’t some middle ground, a more reasoned form of faith that can objectively embrace some factual arguments about our texts and history, while not compromising a faith that hold fast to those texts and history nonetheless? 

I remember Donald Miller, in his book Searching for God Knows What, making some really excellent arguments about the way we reduce faith and teaching to elementary formulae, and then talking about Moses and what he wrote in Genesis (or maybe some other book from the pentateuch).  Which was really frustrating because I think it’s generally acknowledged now by many scholars and laymen alike that Moses almost definitely did not write the first five books of the Bible, and even if there is a small outlier of a chance that he did, it’s kinda lazy for a renowned Christian author to casually slip it in like it’s an irrefutable fact.  It’s particularly a shame because it clouds some otherwise excellent points with questionable scholarship.  (I felt the same problem of shoddy scholarship pervading Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis, and I suspect some of his other writings as well.)  

This is approached poorly from the “other side” as well.  In a brief article advertising a new book, Bart Ehrman lists several non-canonical texts from the time the New Testament was being compiled, arguing that they were texts once considered legitimate teaching by real life actual Christians.  He is correct, as he frequently is.  However, he did not address the process by which the New Testament was compiled, any individuals like Eusebius and Athanasius who offered canon lists, or the fact that the books included were considered at the time to be legitimate in their authorship, and representative of a consensus among Christian leaders as to the appropriateness of their content and teachings.  So even though this article is meant as a teaser and advertisement for a book which would surely address these issues more fully, the presentation remains misleading and incomplete, almost certainly intended to make us casual Bible-readers feel bad for not knowing more about these additional sources.  If the Christians at the time of these non-canonical writings knew even then that their authorship was the result of pseudonyms and forgeries and fiction, then surely we should not be made to feel guilty for disregarding them 1700 years later.  

I know these are fairly basic examples, but still I wonder why is it so difficult to find middle ground here?  For people of faith to acknowledge or at least consider realities and facts about the history of their own sacred texts and for scholars to more readily acknowledge that they do not (and cannot) have all the answers?  Why do faith and intellectualism seem at odds with each other so consistently, and how can we create spaces where we can make them compatible?  Is it so much to ask that we love God with all our hearts and minds?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Interpretive Dance

So I was reading My Utmost for His Highest, catching up on a few missed days, and one of Oswald Chambers' writings addressed Matthew 5:39 - the verse that says to turn the other cheek.  Chambers' message was one of exhibiting the Son of God in us, and is well taken.  But seeing that verse considered in a way that did not attempt to assess whether we are to take it literally or metaphorically was refreshing.

You see, it is common to hear Christians (and non-Christians) debating this verse at length - some say it means we should be always be pacifists and never support war, while others argue this is Jesus exaggerating, just kind of joking around, and his point is really more one of our willingness to be pacifists than that we should actually practice the words spoken.  But the rhetorical devices of this specific verse aren't what I want to talk about.

I get confused sometimes by the way we endlessly interpret or resist the interpretation of certain passages and verses, applying hermeneutics here and there to get a message that applies to modern culture, while insisting that some words in the Bible must be taken literally, and to read them any other way is an affront to God.  Some progressive or liberal Bible-readers who might insist that Matthew 5:39 is literal, and cause for us to protest modern warfare might also insist that Romans 1:26-27 or 1 Timothy 2 cannot be taken literally because they show outdated cultural thinking, the evidence of extreme patriarchy - after all, it was nothing but power hungry men who actually wrote these words down - so given the massive strides we've made culturally to establish equality in the eyes of God, women and gay people should be permitted places of authority in churches.

Literal here, hermeneutics there.

Or on the other hand, let's say a more conservative, traditional Bible-reader might see that Romans 1 and 1 Timothy 2 are plain and simple examples of God giving us direct instructions on how our communities should operate.  But when Jesus tells someone he must go sell all of his belongings and that it is easier to fit a camel through a needle than for rich people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven...well, that conservative, traditional Bible-reader can also see how obvious it is that Jesus is just making a joke!  Of course, it's some sort of cultural joke that we don't really understand anymore, but clearly we don't have to sell all of our belongings because isn't that such a funny image Jesus drew?  A camel squeezing through a needle, hahaha!  He was just messing with our heads a bit, making a lesson about how we all have to make sacrifices to follow Him.

So again, literal here, hermeneutics there.

At what point does the inconsistency of our approaches to Scriptural interpretation become hypocrisy?  I'm not making accusations here - I'm sincerely asking.  How do we avoid crossing that line and making ourselves look like Biblically illiterate individualists making the Bible say only what we want it to?  I suggest we start by acknowledging that inconsistency.  I'm sure some would read this and dismiss it, fully confident that when they read the Bible, they always approach it faithfully and prayerfully and that guides them to the right answers.  But when it comes to evangelism, it's not hard for attentive seekers and questioners to poke holes through your arguments if you're not even on the same page as yourself.  So let's take a minute, figure out how we want to read the Bible, and try to stick with it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hogwarts Forever

It has recently come to my attention that there are some party-poopers and spoil-sports who would have us all feel ashamed or even idiotic for our fervor concerning the release of the final Harry Potter movie. They say how sad it is that we consider Harry Potter to be such an enormous part of our whole childhood, or that the movies aren’t all that great anyway, so we should not get so excited. Not only are these types of dismissive comments incredibly inconsiderate to the very real feelings of excitement and sadness shared by a great many people, but they are also rather foolish.

To begin with, brushing aside an eight-film franchise that has garnered consistent critical praise by calling them average is a display of ignorance. One comment I read claimed that the last 2 films have been the only above-average entries in the series. But surely when we consider the first two films, featuring the misadventures of 11 and 12 year-olds, along the parameters of the family-friendly ventures they were intended to be, we can see that they are enormously successful.  You wouldn't criticize other family films for not behaving like The Godfather, would you?

The 3rd movie, Prisoner of Azkaban remains the most intellectually stimulating entry given they way if deftly maneuvers through a time-traveling plot. Add to the complicated narrative the way the director chose to insert images and symbols related to time passing throughout the film (e.g. the many shots of clocks, a ticking sound used as part of the music score, the camera actually passing through a clock’s cogs when Harry and Hermione travel back in time, and the use of the Whomping Willow to move through the seasons), and we see a grand collage of transformation, featuring a werewolf and pubescent lead characters (take another look at the opening scene, featuring a 13-year-old boy shaking his magic wand under the bedsheets and tell me the director isn’t trying to subliminally show us the changes in question). The entire film, every element of it, is grounded in the themes of time and change and the necessity of forward motion, visually and artistically representing the themes of the book’s narrative. 

The 4th was primarily a transference from page to screen, but a visually stunning one, one must admit, despite the apparently drunk Dumbledore stumbling and slurring through the whole movie. And while I do not care for the 5th as a film, it did have the difficult job of adapting the book with the most material, and the director, fresh from TV, was still trying to figure out what he wanted from the films. He has since figured it out, and the series as a whole has remained since the start technically and artistically impeccable, visually and emotionally satisfying in nearly every way.

So are the books better? Well yes, in many ways, just as nearly every book that is ever adapted into a movie will be better in many ways.  But please, do not dismiss so many films in one fail swoop by calling them all average or “mediocre at best.”  Tread lightly if you’re prepared to call the most economically successful franchise in movie history, a series that has the respect and love of audiences and critics alike (unlike, say, Twilight and Transformers, both generally considered to be just plain terrible), just not all that special. Because that’s a fight you’ll have a hell of time trying to win.

As to the many comments about our “childhoods ending” with this last film: of course, you’re right, many of us are in fact of legal age to perform magic outside of school, and therefore are adults already. Our childhoods are behind us in many ways. Very few of us believe that our lives are actually ending with the release of this final movie. It’s an exaggeration to say so and we know that.  And yet...

Some people feel that their lives are suddenly empty when they’ve been performing in a play, the play closes, and there are suddenly no more rehearsals to go to.

Some people feel that their lives are suddenly empty when they’ve spent all summer watching World Cup games or Tour de France races, when before they know it, there’s a winner, and there are no more games and races to keep them occupied during their otherwise dull afternoons.

Some people tune in to that extra special episode when Jim and Pam get married, or when the cast is going to try to sing their way through a musical episode, or when it's the series finale and we simply must know if Tony is going to get whacked, or just what the hell that island was... and then that episode passes, and while some are elated and others disappointed, everyone who tuned in suddenly feels a little more empty knowing that they’ll never get to have that feeling of anticipation, the result of a many years long commitment, again.

Was Harry Potter the only part of my childhood? Absolutely not. I also had the piano and the saxophone, and plenty of other books and friends, and I lived in Germany for a few years so Europe became a big part of my childhood. But as an Army brat I moved around a lot, and starting in 5th grade when I read Sorcerer's Stone Harry became one friend who I knew I wouldn’t have to leave behind when I moved and one person I wouldn’t have to make friends with when I arrived somewhere new. I was 10 when I first read the first book, the same age as Harry when he started out. And I was 17 when the final book came out, also Harry's age. So was Harry Potter my whole childhood? Of course not, but he was one of the most consistent, trustworthy parts of it.

And then there are the movies. My dad took me to see the first movie during Christmas break of 7th grade, and we’ve gone to see each one together since. He started reading the books, but never did finish them. (I think he stopped reading when he started getting strange looks in the office from the soldiers he commanded...) So the tradition now is every year or so, a new movie comes out and I get to fill him in on the stuff he missed by not reading the book, and it’s great and it’s fun. So when my dad and I go to the theater tonight and I say goodbye to Harry, I’m also saying goodbye to that tradition and that specific part of my relationship with my father.

Was it the only part of my childhood? No. But it was right there along with everything else, so don’t you dare tell me it’s sad that I’m sad. It’s insulting, and it’s ignorant. You have things that you wish you could do or see again for the first time, and all this legion of fans is trying to do is make sure that when we get to experience Harry Potter in a new way for the last first time, that it’s memorable, that we savor it.

So much of the series focuses on loss and how to deal with it. Tonight (or last night, as the case might have been), Harry Potter fans are just trying to deal with this particular loss by acknowledging it, feeling it, and celebrating what it has all meant to us. We’re not crazy, we’re not pathetic, we’re just fans. And we don’t need you to feel the same way we do, we just want you to not be mean about it. Didn’t Harry teach you anything?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Back to the Present

As is common among young adults leading meandering lives, I sometimes take a stab at blogging.  I had one going strong a few years ago until eventually my posts dwindled to the point where I was basically only taking the time to make Oscar predictions, thinking that perhaps someone might care.  But I’m back again because this is America, which means that I have a voice, and this is the Internet, which means that I naturally assume everyone should want to hear what I have to say.  

Just now I’m home for the summer, awaiting graduate school, and I have very few ways of passing the time.  I found myself fondly recalling those times when I read fervently and took time to process the words I took in, frequently on my blog.  Or when I watched movies with such focus, that I simply had to go write about what I had seen - whether to share my experience with others or to selfishly relive it, I do not know, and do not especially care.

I have not taken that same time and care with my thoughts this summer, sometimes creating a facebook post or a tweet to summarize a brief insight, sometimes just pushing it to the back of my mind.  I have read less, I have certainly read scripture and other works of spiritual substance less, and I have watched more lighter-fare television shows than the types of films that had such an impact on me last year or the year before.  Is this laziness on my part?  Or perhaps exhaustion?  Again I do not know, and do not especially care because I hope that trend is past and I might once again find the energy and will to actively engage with the art of film and writing that I love so deeply, or with the discussions of religion and politics that so invigorate me.  

This is my recommitment to analytical thought, to careful consideration of the things I see and take in.  But it won’t be the same as my last blog.  It cannot be.  A few weeks ago I went to see Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s latest film, about a writer who gets the opportunity to visit 1920s Paris which he loves and admires dearly, meeting Hemingway, Dali, Picasso, Fitzgerald, and Stein.  He realizes though that the past he admires has a past of its own - he learns that it is just in our nature to always look back nostalgically, wistfully yearning for what used to be, either ignoring or unaware of the important present.  

So I intend to write here, now, in my present, about what I see or hear or learn or feel.  I acknowledge that this is primarily an exercise in my own mental stimulation, and that the majority of you who stumble upon this site, likely following a link I post elsewhere, just don’t give a crap.  But I invite anyone who does read this to give feedback on my thoughts and opinions, to challenge me, to ask me to cover other topics.  Hopefully I’ll get the ball rolling in a day or two.  See you then.