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Little Miss Sunshine

In Books, Movies and Television on December 25, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Little missThey are the Hoovers because they all pretty much suck.

At the dinner table–the symbol of familial unity–they eat chicken out of a bucket, off of paper plates and drink pop served in McDonald’s collectible glasses. The nutritive value of the meal is equal to the emotional and spiritual value of this communion. A message on the answering machine interrupts the dissonance of conflicting wills. The seven year old Olive has, by default, qualified tor the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. Reluctantly, the family must make the long trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California so that Olive can attempt to achieve her dream and become a beauty queen.

There are many reasons that Little Miss Sunshine is one of my favourite movies. The acting is brilliant and the screenplay works on all levels. It’s also funny, poignant, philosophical and redemptive.

This last term has produced shock in some. (SPOILER ALERT) If they’ve seen it, they point out that it includes a character that is homosexual and another that uses of heroine. It has strong language and a t-shirt that declares, “Jesus Was Wrong.” If that’s not enough, a seven year old girl dances, albeit naively, like a stripper. They often ask: “Even if there is something redemptive in this movie, is it worth seeing all the ‘garbage’ just to find that particle of truth?”

I find far more than a particle of truth in this film. Perhaps, part of the problem is that we have different approaches to understanding narrative. If the truth is a piece of a story that can be extracted from the whole and held up to be a true bit, then an argument could be made that there aren’t a lot or true bits in this movie and quite a few untrue bits. (This approach is rather like looking for the moral in a story.)

Implication is a more appropriate approach to narratives of any kind for it maintains the integrity of all elements of the story of which the “idea” is but one. The first definition for term implication in the Oxford English Dictionary is the one I have in mind: “The action of involving, entwining, or entangling; the condition of being involved, entangled, twisted together, intimately connected or combined.”
The truth of a narrative is communicated through the experience it expresses–the experience in which we are entangled. Viewers of Little Miss Sunshine will find themselves entangled in the story.
Every character has a dream, hope or driving motivation. Significantly, these motivations are completely individual and they tend to divide family members. Olive dreams of being beautiful; Richard wants to have success in his career; Duane want nothing more than be free from home and his means of escape is to become a test pilot; Grandpa seeks pleasure in his waning years; Cheryl dreams of a happy family; and Frank seeks recognition and love.

Which of these dreams do you not also, in part, share? If the Bible is right, most (all) people will have a longing for something. These dreams are consistent with the Biblical idea that we were created for more than what we experience in life (Link). This is the place where I become entangled in the story, for I am every character in this movie.

Each character is far from achieving his or her dream. Olive lacks poise and grace, and the sort of beauty that would win a beauty pageant. Richard will never sell his self-help plan because it is mostly empty cliché. The picture or a previous husband sitting on the entry table shows that Cheryl is divorced and her current family is far from harmonious. Duane hates everyone, especially his family–he has stopped speaking and will not until he is in flight school. Grandpa’s hedonism is self-destructive; his heroin use has gotten him thrown out of the nursing home. Frank has attempted suicide because he’s lost everything that he valued. Each character struggles with his or her own limitations as well as external circumstances.

It is very clear that, as individuals, they need something; as a family they need something; they need redemption. This too is consistent with the Biblical view of humanity. People were made to be in communion with each other. They began their journey seeking their own desires and their lives were dissonant and broken. They came together around a quest; they thought the quest was getting her into a stupid beauty contest, but it turned out the quest was the unification of their family around the protection of its most vulnerable.

If you are looking for the nugget of truth in this movie, there are many.

Here is a partial list:

  1. We all dream of being something more than we can possibly be, because we aren’t nearly the creatures we are supposed to be.
  2. We are limited by our sin and the effects of sin in the world.
  3. We do things out of love, but sometimes these things are not all that appropriate (Grandpa taught her the only dance he was familiar with); it’s a good thing that the love in our intentions is powerful enough to eclipse the inadequacy of the results.
  4. To be naïve is not the same as to be innocent.
  5. Even in our brokenness we can be a blessing to others.
  6. Actions are more powerful than words (the scene where Olive brings Duane back into the bus), and that’s why the Incarnation is so incredible.
  7. Human beings were made for community and within community we can transcend our individual weaknesses.
  8. Grace, forgiveness and LOVE are incredibly powerful.
  9. Self-sacrifice is fundamental to the expression of love.
  10. Suffering is important for growth.
  11. The world’s standard for winners and losers is completely wrong.
  12. There is a loving presence at the centre of the universe that orchestrates all things for out good.
  13. Life is tragic and beautiful and also pretty funny.
  14. Beauty pageants are stupid.

Dog Poop in the Brownies: How to read Philippians 4:8

In Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on September 20, 2012 at 1:15 am

I attended a youth event when I was in high school.  The speaker was a youngish, cool youth pastor and he challenged us to get rid of all our secular music.  He said it had to be destroyed; selling it or giving it away would just spread the evil.  He mocked the counter arguments leveled at him by those who loved the pagan lyrics and musical brilliance of Led Zeppelin and The Who.  One argument I remember, perhaps because it was mine, was that, although there is some “bad” content in it, there was much that was good in the songs of my favorite artists – especially Pink Floyd.

His response to this argument was the “dog poop in the brownies” analogy.  It went something like this: “If I offered you a plate of brownies and I told you that I mixed a tablespoon of doggy do-do in the batter, would you still eat it?”

I didn’t like this analogy.  For one thing, it seemed pretty convincing and I didn’t want to be convinced.

But, I also sensed there was something inherently wrong with this analogy.  I knew that Pink Floyd’s songs were artistically beautiful, which is more than could be said of most Christian Contemporary Music of the day.  What’s more, some of what the secular artists said was true.  I had a hard time reconciling the truth and beauty with the analogy.

I wasn’t so clever to reframe and ask, “Would he eat a plate of tofu and cod liver oil just because it had no dog poop in it?”

I still encounter this issue in my personal and professional life.  My musical tastes are now acceptable to most people except, possibly, my children.  Nowadays, I find myself in conversations around literature and movies like Lord of the Flies and Harry Potter; Shawshank Redemption and Hunger Games.   Those who question whether Christians should read/watch these often use an argument similar to the dog-poop analogy and they do so by invoking Philippians 4:8.

“[W]hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

I am almost certain the youth pastor who wanted us to burn our secular music used this verse as his scriptural back up.

After all these years, I can now declare confidently that I agree with Philippians 4:8; I can also declare that I don’t agree with the dog poop analogy.

Foundational to the analogy is the notion that there are things in this world that are purely good, and true and beautiful (chocolate brownies), and other things that are thoroughly evil, false and ugly (dog poop.)

. . . crossing the line between the sacred and the secular

This is a false dichotomy; not only logically, but also biblically.

All things were created by God and he declared it all, very good.  Later, with the Fall, the same “all things” were distorted by sin.  If this is true, then we don’t live in a world full of clearly evil things and clearly good things.  We live in a world where everything is fundamentally good and also profoundly distorted by sin; in other words, everything and everyone, is both good and evil.  When Paul tells us to think about things that are true and noble and right, we are going to be doing that in a world where it’s all mixed together.  And it’s not simply that one song on the album is good and true and beautiful, and the other is not; the blending happens within the same song.

This complicates life, but complicated is good in this case.  We can end up doing a lot of harm when we make things far simpler than they actually are.

I think the speaker of my youth was wrong when he suggested the Christian life meant burning all my secular music.  If he had understood Philippians 4: 8 in the light of Genesis 1-3, he would have told us to burn some of our “secular” albums, (and we knew which ones) and then he’d tell us to listen to our Christian music and burn all the trite, simplistic and sentimental gunk that was far from true, excellent and admirable.

Why Christian Education? (Part 1)

In Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on July 15, 2012 at 6:36 am

I was at a church service some months back and a guest pastor was, in essence, exhorting the congregation to get out of their Christian ghetto and do some good for the world.  He has a point, of course.  It’s easy to live in the suburbs and surround ourselves with other Christians who indulge in the same flavour of the faith that we do.  I agreed with the guest pastor completely until he suggested that this meant getting children out of Christian schools.  I was taken aback, but then some in the audience responded with applause and cheering.  Maybe I am a little sensitive, but I thought I heard some vindication in their applause.

As someone who has dedicated 30 years to the furthering of Christian education, I was saddened as I drove home, first, because there seems to be a passionate opposition to Christian education in at least part of the congregation, but more so, because the minister’s comments were based on a complete misunderstanding of Christian Education as I experience it every day.

Many sincere Christian parents send their children to the local public school.  This may be because there is no local Christian school, or because of financial constraints.  There are some, like the guest pastor, that believe the children of Christian parents are to be salt and light in the world.   Other more philosophical types have told me that they wish to avoid a sacred/secular dualism.  I will assert that the school that best addresses these concerns is the Christian school.  I don’t mean just any Christian school however.  There are different kinds and I’m not ready to defend all of them with equal fervor.

There are many reasons parents send their children to a Christian school.  This decision is often influenced by one’s view of culture and the Christian’s relationship to it.  Differing views of this relationship also results in different types of Christian schools.  In his book, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr describes various Christian perspectives on the relationship between Christ and culture.  These responses are useful for distinguishing these different types of schools.

One group of Christian school advocates sees an antithetical relationship between the culture and those who proclaim Jesus as Lord. Niebuhr calls this stance, Christ against Culture. Adherents believe that to be loyal to Christ one must reject culture.  One of the problems with this view, according to Niebuhr, is that separation from the world isn’t really possible.  Further, this view seems to presuppose that sin lies in culture and that by avoiding culture, one can avoid sin.  A final problem is that, at its root, the Christ against Culture model seems to suggest that Christ has little or nothing to do with culture—that the material world of which culture is a part, is at odds with the spiritual world, ruled by God.

It is not difficult to understand why adherents of this view of culture would seek a separate Christian education for their children.  The public school, like culture as a whole, would be seen to contain much that is in opposition to the ways of God.  The purpose of the Christian school, then, would be to further the separation of the Christian community from the culture as a whole.

Not all Christians frame the relationship between Christ and culture as an either/or proposition.  Most see much good in culture that may, or even ought to, be embraced.  Some of these views can give rise to a second type of Christian school.  In these schools, because of a positive attitude toward culture, there is little reason for the curriculum to be much different than that of the local public school.  It is a Christian school because various devotional practices have been added to the schedule.  These would be things like devotions at the beginning the day, weekly chapels involving corporate worship, religious instruction and prayer, and Bible or religious education classes.  We might think of the Christian aspects of this sort of school as the creamy icing spread over the already pretty decent cake that is the standard curriculum taught in the public school.

This view of the relationship between Christ and culture is perhaps at the root of many sincere Christian parents sending their children to a public school.  What the child learns at school may be considered as, at worst, philosophically neutral and the religious instruction and devotional activities that occur in the home and at church are considered adequate for the spiritual nurturing of the child.

Where the first anti-culture view underemphasizes the good in creation, the critique of this pro-culture view is that it underemphasizes the extent to which sin has distorted God’s good creation—including culture.  The failure to appreciate the extent of sin’s corrupting effects, often results in a corresponding failure to appreciate the scope of Christ’s redemption.

. . . crossing the line between Christ and culture

There is a third type of Christian school, one that is unlike the Christ against Culture model in that it has a far more hopeful view of culture.  It is unlike the second in that it places greater emphasis on the depth and breadth of the effects of sin.  The view of culture from which this school arises is what Niebuhr calls the Christ transforming Culture model.  Adherents of this third type of Christian school recognize three fundamental truths.  First, that culture is a manifestation of God’s good creation and a product of human creativity and community.  Second, that sin distorts every part of this good creation, including human culture.  Thus, there is nothing created, that was not created good, but there is nothing that has not been distorted by the Fall.  A third truth is that Christ is the redeemer of all that God created.  This process began with his death and resurrection, and continues, even now, by the work of his Spirit in and through his people.  The task of the Christian, then, is to explore what it means to live faithfully. This means that we strive to transform culture by enhancing and celebrating the creational goodness and also discerning the presence of sin and working to reduce its effects.  The role of the Christian, then, is to take care of the environment, feed the hungry and take care of the sick.  It also means to be involved in culture as movie-makers, lawyers, florists, plumbers and union leaders that bless our neighbours.  It means being available if God chooses to work through our meagre efforts and transform our local communities, or even the world.

The work of Redemption is Christ’s, but we are invited to participate in it.  Rikk Watts of Regent College in Vancouver once left me with this analogy:  We are called to imitate Jesus, like a child who enthusiastically pushes his plastic lawnmower behind his dad when he’s mowing the lawn.  “Look Mom! We’re mowing the lawn!”

What kind of Christian School arises from this worldview?  It would not disengage from culture for that would be a failure to recognize the essential goodness of the creation found in it, but neither would it indiscriminately embrace culture (and I have found this is a much harder task that it first seems), for to do so is a failure to appreciate the distorting effects of sin that is present in all aspects of life.  This Christian school would, therefore, explore all aspects of creation, including culture, and celebrate the creational goodness that we find there, but it would also train students to discern evil, not just “out there”—where it certainly is, but also inside our most intimate circles and within ourselves.

I work at Abbotsford Christian School and its mission statement clearly shows this transformational relationship between Christ and culture.

Abbotsford Christian School, operated by Abbotsford Christian School Society Members, seeks to serve Christian families by providing a secure learning environment in which God’s students can continue to explore, evaluate, and experience all of life under God.  We aim to nurture students in the discovery and development of their abilities and unique gifts so that they are enabled to be faithful, discerning, obedient and creative servants of God and of neighbour, and stewards of His creation.

So what might this look like in an actual classroom?  One of the units I have taught in English 12 is called “Dystopian Literature and Film.”  In this unit, we read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and sometimes Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; we analyze portions of films like, Logan’s Run, Bladerunner, Minority Report, Gattaca, Brazil, The Island, and I, Robot.  Our library includes books that are available for further reading in this genre, like The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale.  I am sure there are many schools in North America that teach a unit on like this, but in our school the transformational worldview is foundational.  I organize the unit around the questions, “What aspect of our culture is being critiqued in the novel or film?” and “Are these critiques legitimate?” Through our investigation, students discover that each author/film-maker places a high value on the human being and that each novel/film is very critical of subverting the human’s essential value under some other aspect of creation. This inversion is the essence of the Biblical notion of idolatry.  Humans are the image of God, and to supplant the human with something other aspect of creation degrades his image—in this way it is something akin to idolatry.  Thus, the unit is actually an exploration of the Biblical teachings on human identity and idolatry.  These artists are proclaiming the evil of sacrificing the image of God to the idols of power, pleasure, technology, society without murder, genetic perfection, bureaucracy, longer life, ease of life, survival, or religious paternalism, respectively.   It isn’t enough to learn these truths, however.  As a school, we are always engaged in helping students to blur the lines between knowing and doing.  There aren’t too many teachers that would just end a unit like this with a test or an essay.  Students are asked to respond in a personal way to what they’ve learned through this unit, identifying where and how this inversion occurs within their family, church, school, community or in the world.  This is how we strive to nurture the future transformers of our culture.

At schools like Abbotsford Christian School, it’s not just the lessons and units that make it a Christian school.  All aspects of the school fall under the Lordship of Christ: our understanding and use of technology, our approach to learning assistance and special education, the way discipline is carried out, how budgets are finalized and the programs we offer.

Human experience in this world cannot simply be divided up between good and evil where we, as Hamlet says, “Throw away the worser part of it, and live the purer with the other half.” Nor can we live as if Christ is something we can add to the surface of culture like icing on a cake.  Rather, Christ’s Lordship is at the core of every aspect of life—and this would include the way we educate our children.

Rather than isolating children, as the guest pastor supposed, a Christian education can be instrumental in nurturing graduates who will be “faithful, discerning, obedient and creative servants of God and of neighbour, and stewards of His creation.”

Read: Why Christian Education?: Part 2