Like so many people this year, I have been swept up into the world of Lisbeth Salander and the Millennium Trilogy of the late Stieg Larsson that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Needless to say, the books follow a fairly predicable pot boiler thriller formula akin to a Scott Turow, Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel: an innocence protagonist is thrust (whether by chance or fate – you choose which *you* think organizes our lives) into a deeper world of deception and  intrigue than typically meets the innocent eye.  In the midst of this awakening to the darkness of the world that lurks just below the surface, the hero’s journey takes on the classic bildungsroman tradition of German Romanticism where a gathering of companions occurs to assist the protagonist in their journey of self discovery, healing, and building of courage to take on and overcome the evil (“All the Evil” as its called in The Girl Who Played with Fire)that only they are equipped to deal with.  In the midst of this journey, the protagonist will face a choice – either to run from their fated journey toward redemption of both world and self and try to remain in their seemingly safe world that existed prior to being chosen/thrust into this dark world…. or they will choose to face down the dragons, the beasts, the evil of the self and world and risk losing everything – life, love, hope – in the name of redemption.  It is a tale as old as time to be sure and this latest iteration found in the world of a Swedish cyberpunk computer hacker and a washed up magazine journalist is written in the well-worn genre to be sure.

But there are thousands of thrillers published every year – what has made this trilogy such a global hit?

I think in many ways one of the reasons is that Lisbeth Salander (in addition to being one of the most evocative female protagonists in popular fiction – a mix of Alias’ Sydney BristowBuffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly’s River Tam with photographic memory and serious ink) has ripped the curtain back to show our worst fear in the 21st century and exposed the truth of the world in which we live:  there is no such thing as forgiveness as we had previously hoped or even imagined because now that our lives exist in cyberspace, our sins can never, ever be erased. Lisbeth Salander is the bearer of the apocalypse in so many ways: the idea of ‘starting over’ is a novelty of an age where people could forget their past by burning a box of letters from old lovers, throw away pictures, move to another state and begin again.  To think that only 20 years ago the quaintness of a movie like 1991’s City Slickers offered up a world where after your life had spun out of control you could have a “do over” and start again – new life, new love, new future.  That world is as antiquated as Western Union delivering a telegram to your door.  In the Millenium Triology, Lisbeth Salander shows us the truth:  there is no “do over” as we might have imagined.  Everything you have ever written online is always there, every picture uploaded and tagged, every whimsical thought benignly put onto Facebook, every video caught on a phone and loaded onto YouTube, every email pinged back and forth sits on a server somewhere as a ticking time bomb just waiting for a person to hack into it and pull a file together.

In his July 19th article in the New York Times entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting“, Jeffrey Rosen shows us the unforgiving landscape of the digital age in all its starkness:

[The question for all of us is simple:] how best to live our lives in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever. With Web sites like LOL Facebook Moments, which collects and shares embarrassing personal revelations from Facebook users, ill-advised photos and online chatter are coming back to haunt people months or years after the fact. Examples are proliferating daily: there was the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; there was the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.

Strangely enough, one of the comforts I find in all this “exposure” is that it is long overdue that we learn that, in the end, forgiveness is ultimately never about forgetting.  As someone who came through 80’s evangelicalism and its view that God forgave us in a way akin to a divine Etch-A-Sketch: we ask for forgiveness and that prayer somehow shakes God up and down vigorously and leaves a clean slate so total that somehow God can’t ever access our past ever again.  From Aristotle’s view of the soul as the ‘unscribled tablet’ from “Περί Ψυχῆς” (De Anima or On the Soul) through to Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes and John Lockes’ Tabula Rasa and onto City Slicker’s mantra of the “do over” there is a perpetuation of forgiveness as equivalent to forgetting.  To be honest, perhaps that is the true prayer of our hearts – that what we desire isn’t forgiveness anyway but merely forgetting on the behalf of God and others.  How many of us choose to move on from the regrets, losses, flame outs in our lives with a ‘year zero’ approach – never speak of the past again… this is the new day…

Forgiveness is something so much more profound than mere forgetting. For one reason, forgiveness means we are forever changed in our redemption where mere forgetting is leaves us in the sameness of our brokenness.  Sure, we make a break with the past in forgetting, but we are still the same without any deep and abiding shift in who we are and therefore only ready, willing and able to make the very same mistakes and errors over and over in some sick and twisted version of Bill Murray’s 1993 Groundhog Day (which coming out only a couple of years after City Slickers signals to me that the “do over” mantra perhaps didn’t have the purchase we had hoped).  But forgiveness never forgets but is rehabilitating and unflinching in its gaze upon all that we have been and become and never lets us settle on the ease of walking away from our past nor merely getting everything back ‘as it was’ after we say “I’m sorry.”

[SPOILER ALERT]

This was the genius of Jeff Bridge’s Oscar winning turn as “Bad Blake” in last year’s Crazy Heart. As a drunk and relationally derelict fame-faded country singer, Bridge’s Bad Blake burns through bottles of whisky and serial relationships as an attempt as ‘forgetting’ as forgiveness over and over and over again.  Yet when he stumbles into the relationship with a young women and her son whose love not only won’t allow him to forget his past, but also shows him that life worth living will cost him more than his own self-despair and loathing. When tragedy hits and causes a reckoning, Bad Blake loses everything but instead of trying once again to forget he begins the journey of forgiveness that alcoholics know in ways that so-called sober folks can only guess.  To stand up at AA meetings week after week and introduce yourself as an alcoholic is an act of forgiveness and the furthermost thing from forgetting as it gets.  Like a communal Lisbeth Salander, AA meetings hold up evidence of where and what you have done and we stand before the collected evidence and acknowledge that while the fact of our failings remain, the bigger story is the faith of forgiveness that wraps its arms around our failings with all the blood, sweat and tears of our past included and walks it into the light of day.  The fact that Bad Blake ends the film without the girl he loved because the damage done was too great is a testimony that forgiveness also means we don’t get the world as we wish all the time… but healing and redemption is still worth it.

Let Lisbeth Salander dig away… what is forgotten can still be forgiven.

To escape the Seattle heatwave, my daughters took me to see “Toy Story 3” last night (air conditioning and a good flick beat sitting in our house that was reaching 90 degrees upstairs).  I had read quite a few reviews and heard that Pixar really hit the ball over the back field fence in completing the Toy Story trilogy and this was certainly the case.  My friend Jeff Overstreet – author and movie critic – mentioned that he has never seen an American film trilogy that had each film continually exceed the previous film with each new release like the Toy Story franchise has done.   I still hold the first one in highest esteem, but will have to say that the maturity of Toy Story 3 and (dare I say it) humanity with which the film raised the bar for choosing loyalty, compassion, and ultimately stating in no uncertain terms that (akin to 1 Corinthians 13) without love everything else in this life is not worth living for was masterfully done.  I won’t go into the film’s plot beyond saying what has been generally revealed in press releases:  the story begins with Andy – the owner of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and all the other assorted toys – coming of age as he “puts away the things of childhood” and readies himself to move out of his home and go off to college.  Through a series of missteps, our cohort of toys are separated from Andy and end up at Sunnyside Daycare and enter into the Mattel and Hasbro equivalent of Shawshank prison.  It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination (this is still a Disney movie after all) to guess that there will be a reunion with our fearless action figures and their owner, but what happens is what takes this movie from being a thing of mere multiplex and into the realm of Gospel proclamation.

(NOTE:  SPOILER ALERT – STOP READING *HERE* IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING OF THE FILM!)

As Andy prepares to finally take his leave of his mother and his childhood home, the toys watch from the concealment of a cardboard box as Andy’s mother hugs her son and tells him (to paraphrase) that she has to let him go so that she will always have a part of him with her.  In short, Andy’s mother makes the move I am arguing for in Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads in that what constitutes the kenotic self as the defining mark of followers of Christ in the world is this: in order to fulfill the mandate of love at its deepest and most abiding, we must relinquish that which we wish to hold on to the most… for only in the freedom and risk of love is it actually alive and not idolatry.

The toys – especially Woody – see this exchange and take the risk of love as well.  Packing themselves up neither to be mothballed in the attic nor to be archived on a shelf in Andy’s dorm room as a token of childhood, the toys are given away to another generation.  As Andy sits on the lawn of a young girl at the end of the film with his toys at his feet, his car sitting in the middle of ‘the road less traveled by’ and idling ready to head off into adulthood, he takes a moment to lament and grieve these physical markers of his youth with this new owner.  Rather than merely doing a “dump and run” of donated goods, Andy ‘stories’ each toy into life for her – telling her their name, how he liked to play with them, even evoking the voices he gave them.  But if this was just a ‘telling’ then we would have merely a hand off from one person to another without any connection.  No, what Pixar does next in why so many bloggers and reviewers have outed themselves as getting misty-eyed at this end of this seemingly benign animated film.  Andy doesn’t merely tell her about the toys and his experience… he plays with her and allows her to own these toys in her imagination and the way she needs to understand them.  They leap around the lawn, zooming in and out of make believe scenes – an older college bound boy and a young girl finding a common language and tying their lives together that seems so simple and care free and yet exhibiting the hunger to make connect that is lost in the age of Twitter.  By relinguishing his stories, his sense of play, and his love for these toys, Andy is not only giving this young girl new toys – he has reminded himself of the meaning of love as a freedom to release and remember.  As Andy drives off down the road, we are left with not only a new chapter in the lives of Woody, Buzz and the rest… but a calling to what it means in this life to not grasp and control but to truly give and receive love as free people.

In the end, Toy Story will be remembered as one of the most human trilogies on film and a call to us all to seek after a repose of relinquishment and release for the sake of love that will take us to “infinity and beyond.”

As with most years, my wife and I sat in front of the fireplace and watched “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Perhaps it is because my Scots-Irish heritage goes back to the Bailey clan that I connect with George’s bildungsroman so well. I have to admit that I am a bit of a weeper when it comes to such things, and after years of watching the film (pretty much every Christmas since high school), it’s the same story and the same result: George Bailey, the everyman of America’s early 20th century – survivor rather than thriver of the American dream – feels his life is worthless and decides to kill himself. Given the chance to see what life would be like for everyone else if he had never been born, he finds that life is indeed the greatest gift of all. In its now iconic ending that Frank Capra sets up so well, all the townsfolk show up at George’s house to bring gifts of money (akin to suburban Magi), but the most important gift they bring is something George has had in spades all along: friendship that has endured for decades. George’s now-famous brother, Harry – a war hero and all-star football player – comes center stage and raises a glass in toast to “my big brother George, the richest man in town.” Everyone joins in the chorus of “Angels we have heard on high” and the bells of all christendom chime to announce not only that Clarence, the angel second class, has now got his wings – but that the world is not forgotten if we remember it and each other.

Needless to say – I love this stuff and it only gets better as the years press forward. Every stage of life draws a different emphasis in the film – I longed for a relationship like George and Mary’s courtship in my late 20’s, I saw the pain of George struggling with his dreams in relation to his occupation – a job he never wanted but was destined to fulfill. In my 40’s I watch George the family man – the guy who for all the good he is doing in the world comes home and creates chaos for his wife and kids. Here is a guy I can relate to all-too-well – the darkness of anxiety and fear that you bring home with you and find leaks out into your relationships with those most dear to you. The looks on his children’s faces when he explodes in the living room should be required viewing for every father – it doesn’t get more real than this guys…

That said, as I face Christmas Eve with my children this season – I will be raising a glass to George Bailey amidst the darkness of the day as well as the light. Here is to taking another step into the world with faith rather than fear…here is to not having all the answers…here is to the courage to say “I am so sorry” when we explode like monsters in the presence of our kids and wife and see our dark humanity all-too-well… and here is to friends and the community of saints that surround us that remind us that despite all this we can live another day to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.

Here’s lookin at you, George Bailey… Merry Christmas…

(view the ending at YouTube.com here… but have some Kleenex with you…)

Like most people I both love and detest “best of” lists – I often gawk at what people choose (I mean, do the Oscars EVER get it right?) but at the same time can’t keep myself from pouring over them.  With that, I culled through my downloads and streaming for the year and akin to past Theology Kung Fu lists, have let the year set the number.  So here are my nine recordings to consider for download and streaming (you will see why I make this designation as you look at the list) before singing Auld Lang Syne at your New Years party:

9. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse with David Lynch, Dark Night of the Soul

One of the marks of this decade was the move of artists to (in the words of the Flobots) ‘fight with tools’ such as Garage Band, Facebook and MySpace to subvert the industrial strangehold on music distribution to varying degrees of success.  In the vain of Radiohead releasing ‘In Rainbows’ for ‘donation only’ via the web, Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse teamed up with a bevy of artists to record an amazing album true to its Carmelite title –  a homage to St. John of the Cross’ passive purgation into the ‘dark night of the soul.’  Filmmaker and auteur David Lynch (he of Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead fame) joined in to create filmic versions of the project as well as producing a photo journal.  The entire project was slated to be released with EMI this Fall but the project was pulled.  But if the move to the ‘computing cloud’ has taught us anything it is that no power on heaven or earth can stop the world wide web.  The album can be heard in its entirety via NPR’s First Listen site here.

My favorite track: Suzanne Vega on “The Man who would play God” and Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals on “Just War”

8. Fanfarlo, Reservoir

Lovers of Hey Marseilles, Arcade Fire, Beirut will find a home with Fanfarlo’s bookishly twee graduate student  aesthetics.  Similar to the Decemberist’s Victorian revisionism, the London sextet took their name from, of all places, from a book by the 19th century French critic Charles Baudelaire. As lead singer Simon Balthazar said in an interview on NPR “I was reading French symbolists at the time, and I sort of just reached out on the table and there was this book [by Baudelaire].”  Keeping with Baudelaire’s romantic sensibilities, Fanfarlo blend cello, violin, trumpet and mandolin into literate reflective flow that feels both at home at the circus and the critical theory post grad seminar.

7. The Flaming Lips/Stardust – “Borderline” off the Covered: A Revolution in Sound compilation

It probably isn’t fair to put just one song… let alone a cover song… let alone a cover of a Madonna hit from the 1980’s… in a list of “best of” releases at the end of the 21st century, but what can I say?  Wayne Cody, frontman for The Flaming Lips teamed up with Stardeath and White Dwarfs (which is fronted by his nephew Dennis Cody) to record this freaking AMAZING revisioning of this Madonna chestnut of yore. Like Madonna – while the songs made for great fun on the dance floor, it was the visuals with the dawn of MTV that grafted music to image for all time and this isn’t missed by the Lips.  As with all things Flaming Lips, there is the tinge of spaceman irony in their aesthetic – to hear them is to see them as it were with the big bunny suits and huge plastic beachballs. As the Lips toured this year they threw this cover into the mix to roaring acclaim and you can see why in the video of the song.  As the song builds, watch Wayne Cody in the background with his Emo puffy coat banging the large gong while his nephew in the argyle vest throws his hair around like Kurt Cobain at prep school and think “I bet Thanksgiving is a riot at their place…”

(btw – the Covered compilation that has this track also has a cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” by… wait for it… Adam Sandler. Yes… THAT Adam Sandler.  He sings it straight up and it isnt that bad…)

6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

When Fox Confessor Brings the Flood came out, the days of Neko Case being the secret crush of KEXP and NPR listeners was over.  With that CD, the sometime-singer in The New Pornographers whose pure voice channeling Patsy Cline, swirling lyricism of a bookworm, and non-sequitur arrangements forged by someone who spent too much time on craigslist (she bought up 100 pianos on craigslist and stored them in her barn… go figure) came to roost.  While the 2009 release of Middle Cyclone wasn’t quite the level of genius that was Fox Confessor, it still stood head and shoulders over many of the releases this past year.  Her cover of “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Nature” stands in the middle of the playlist as a tent pole for the eco-centric themes running throughout – whether it is the fact that Killer Whales get their name for a reason in “People Got a Lot of Nerve”  to the 30 minute plus (yes… 30 minute plus) ending track “Marais la nuit” which is just the sounds of her backyard at twilight (I wonder how many people just download that single…) it is really a tour d’force.

5. The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come

I first came across the Mountain Goats (the band fronted by John Darnielle) with their release “The Sunset Trees” a few years back and especially the single “This Year” which is a rousing singalong that I usually play every year now on my birthday and love the “maybe this year in Jerusalem!”

There is a level of irony that so-called Christian bands will try to reach their audience by making their songs as abstracted and removed from biblical references as possible with not so much as a fish symbol on their CD cover art, yet a deeply ‘secular’ band like the Mountain Goats will release an album of songs whose titles are all direct biblical citations.  To read the linear notes and track listing in “The Life of the World to Come” is to get more engagement with the Bible than a year of Sundays in half the rock band churches popping up in warehouses everywhere.

Yet rather than either dismiss the project as the work of a cynic or disregard the songs as having no hermeneutic relation to the texts cited in the title, take a moment and just listen to the stories that Darnielle spins forth in each track with a Bible in your lap.

“Matthew 25:21” takes the parable of the Sheep and the Goats into the room of Darnielle’s mother-in-law as she is dying of cancer.  When you think of his chosen text as a rendering of promise for the “good and faithful servant to go into the joy of the Lord” it puts irony out in the hallway.   For U2 fans, Psalm 40 is considered almost untouchable since the definitive version anchored their “War” LP in 1983.  That said, the Mountain Goats take in “Psalms 40:2” is a kicker with a pulsing bass line fronted with Darnielle’s charistmatically frantic voice proclaiming “He has fixed his sign in the sky / He has raised me from the pit and set me high” that he is seeming to dare God to save him.  In “Genesis 30:3,” Darnielle sits at an old beaten piano singing about a kind of love few songwriters have the courage to reflect on let alone sing aloud.  Here Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, offers her maidservant Bilhah to her husband so that they can bear a child: “I will do what you ask me to do / Because of how I feel about you” sings Darnielle with a weight to his voice that speaks of love, understanding and pain in ways that much of what is called CCM could learn from.

I will upload my top 4 downloads tomorrow… any guesses what will make the number 1 spot? 🙂

In the 2001 film Zoolander, Ben Stiller plays a male model Derek Zoolander  who is capable of seemingly endless sharp focused facial poses – Blue Steel, Le Tigre, Magnum – that are ultimately the same face.  It isnt like Ben Stiller to embrace the depth of Greek tragedy, but this alone captures the heart of ‘persona’ – the Greek notion of theatre where multiple ‘personas’ or masks are used by one actor.  The audience accepts the masks as truly distinct characters with the knowledge that in the end there is only one ‘true self’ under all the masks.  The question that drives so many people is simply finding what our true face is under all the masks/persona that we wear and inhabit.   Derek Zoolander so eloquently put it “I ‘m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.”  Identity and meaning haunts even the ridiculously good looking it seems.

One the questions that drives much of my work is the question of identity.  Put plainly: who are you, who am I, and why? Granted, this seems like a fairly benign area of reflection and almost self-evident: there you are, here I am, so what?! That said, scratch a bit deeper and there is a swirling confluence of influences struggling (or better yet often resigning themselmes) toward some place in the make up of an individual.  I am fascinated by the way people seemingly change overnight as well – going from a coward to a champion through a series of reletively small, incremental shifts.

I got a degree in Psychology and English Literature as an undergraduate in part to discover these contesting resources of the self – the demons and angels that haunts the recesses of our id, ego and superego and the artistic expressions of that inner-life writ large upon the canvas of creativity.  Theology has been an area of further exploration – how do we reach beyond oursleves, our limited humanity, and seek meaning and depth in sources so far beyond our grasp as to seem ridiculous and sublime at the same instant?  A hymn to God? A book that professes to divine the Divine?  On the surface such attempts seem utterly foolish, yet there is such a hunger to know (as Matthew Arnold penned it in The Buried Life) “from whence we come and where we go” as to put the seemingly ridiculous attempts at forging identity into the realm of wonder and awe.

Even the really, really, ridiculously good looking understand this…