Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Night Here Comes Again

That line from Ryan Adams goes through my mind these days fairly often at about 8:00pm. At that point I begin to feel tired and ready for bed, and I have absolutely no gurantee that I will be able to get an hour straight of sleep. I do have a pretty good guarantee I will not sleep through the night.

I think we have all stayed up obscenely late and paid the price the next day. Many of us have also woken up obscenely early and paid a similar price. Usually it is because we know that the late night chat or event is worth the tired next-day or that the morning hike or sunrise or meeting can often be made up by an early next-night bedtime or a nap.

But there is little comparison to months-on-end of repeatedly interrupted sleep. It really is quite something.

Seriously, how many times in life do we get to enjoy being repeatedly woken in the middle of the night so we can be awake for periods ranging from 2 minutes to 2 hours at a time? Now there is an experience!

Last night I was up from 2am to 4am. I read for a bit and held a baby and walked around for awhile, trying desperately not to drop said baby in a sleep-walking stupor.

This is life. This is not heroism. This is barely even survival. This is what (almost) every parent has done for their child. It is crazy, really. But it is the self-sacrifice naturally invested into humanity. You either rise (literally) to the challenge or you don't. I've only been at it for a few days and sometimes I honestly don't know how people do it.

One night at a time I guess. Take help in every form it is available. Try to enjoy it. Truth is, there is much to enjoy. A baby sleeping is pure delight. A baby laughing in his sleep is sheer joy! A content child in the arms is a pleasure. But Chicken Soup for the Soul already told you that.

What we need to also remember with a sense of humour in the darkest hours is that even a squirming writhing tiny body of chaos is a wonder to behold.

Just some fragmentary thoughts from a frazzled but basically intact father.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Twins! (with a couple photos now)

Hey blogging friends.

Just thought I'd let you know that my brave wife gave birth to twin boys on Thursday morning at 10:05 and 10:28 am. The first was 6lbs13oz and came by natural birth; the second was 6lbs8oz by C-section. Long story short: It was a chaotic half hour with a very happy ending.

So, the oldest twin is named Jesse Ransom Coutts.
The youngest is Mattias Gabriel Coutts.

Perhaps some time I'll tell you about them and/or about the experience but for now I'm going to bed. I might be a little preoccupied for awhile, but if you want something to do when and if you visit here you can tell me where you think the names come from.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What I Heard in Niagara Falls Part 2

It has been quite a while since I was in Niagara Falls already and the motivation to talk about it is fading. But here are some things which stuck with me from various sessions I attended at the Mid-Atlantic Popular / American Culture Association conference:

The Songs of Bob Dylan:
Talk about them all you want, you still can't do much better than just reading, better yet listening to, the lyrics. Of the incredible songs that were discussed I was blown away again by "Masters of War."

The Neo-Colonialism of the "Anti-Colonialist" Film Blood Diamond:
Within the critique of colonialism, the white man is still called on to save the day for the stereotyped black man. Point well taken.

Redeeming Grizzly Man:
This was the most fascinating of all the papers I heard. It was entitled "The Sacred Abject in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man," and it was Robin C. McCullough of York University's attempt to find a "meaning" for Timothy Treadwell's life against all the criticisms that have been weighed against it. I understand the impulse. You want the guy to win, even though he lost.

In this case the Ms McCullough sought past the typical "evangelical" reading of the grizzly man which said that he put his hopes for personal salvation ultimately in the wrong place---the bears---and it ended up in his own death. She inquired about the inherent value of a useless death as the highest of protests against a culture hell-bent on capitalist, materialist definitions of usefulness and saw Treadwell's as a sacrificial death of the highest order. But this was not as compelling in her eyes as the view of Kristeva, which find Treadwell's gift in his longing to be one with the bear, to be inside the bear, and therefore within nature and all. In this view the fact that male and female ended up as one within the bear is a victory.

I don't agree with these points of view, but I find interesting and intriguing ideas in them. I think the evangelical reading can even include the others to some degree. After all, isn't it in Christ that male and female are said to become united in perfect communion in the future? Isn't it a martyr's death against the powers of evil that we are called to? Whether Treadwell had any of this is not my point. I just thought it all quite fascinating what this presenter was able to pull out of that film.

Chesterton's Sense of Place:
One of the presenters in my own session was a geographer who finds Chesterton's sense of "place" to have been one of his great strengths. His point was that in our travels we too often miss out on the encounter with the "other" and settle for a displaced experience of our own home. In other words, we'll travel to Singapore and eat at McDonalds. I'll go to Niagara Falls and shop at Walmart or sit in a casino. Chesterton had a knack for emphasizing the romance of the place he was in. Thus he wrote no myths. Just stories set locally, and yet as fantastic as myths.

The Falls Themselves:
At first when I saw them they were as unimpressive and surreal as a postcard. But then you get down there and you remember that there is no substitute, no virtual reality, that can replace the real thing. Every chance I got I walked down and around to the horseshoe falls. They are spellbinding. Watching water cascade over the lip mesmerized me for the longest time. At night it was even a bit scary. I'd just sit there at the edge and watch it all go over. Engulfed in mist I'd be soaked head to foot and all I'd hear was the crashing sound coming up from below.

I didn't even notice that the person next to me was proposing to his girlfriend until she was screaming and they were making out. Turns out I'm on a whole lot of cameras just dopily staring at the falls. But I just went back to watching the falls. I couldn't take my eyes off them. Truly magnificent.

They say that there are more negative ions around the waterfall and that might explain the dizzying effect. I don't know. All I could think was that if there were waterfalls before there was a Fall of humankind I don't see how there could not have inevitably have been a death. Seriously, I've been pondering that. No precipices in Eden? How does that work?

I stayed with the parents of a friend. People I'd never met. His dad drove me wherever I needed to go. There is nothing quite like old-fashioned out-of-the-goodness-of-your-heart-expecting-nothing-in-return hospitality. It is a blessing to the soul.

. . . And that is what I saw and heard in Niagara Falls. Didn't step foot in the wax museum to serial killers, I am very proud to say.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What I Heard In Niagara Falls: Chesterton, Zizek, and "Christian Atheism"

On a recent trip to Niagara Falls I had the opportunity to hear Aaron Dunlap of Temple University give a paper entitled "Revolution, Paradox, and the Christian Tradition: A Chestertonian Debate between John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek."

This paper was very interesting because it shed light one of the most renowned philosophers of today (Slavoj Zizek) and explained the main connection he has with G.K. Chesterton (whom he quotes frequently). It also included a concise and arresting presentation of what I consider to be one of Chesterton's most provocative statements. You do not see it quoted often in evangelical writings, but Zizek loves it, and Dunlap explains why. What follows is an excerpt. You can read this paper in full at The Land of Unlikeness, where the conclusion is especially wonderful.

"To get right to the point, it seems that what Zizek really gets from Chesterton is the idea that, in the arsenal of human language and thought, paradox is the best weapon we have, the most effective way of getting at the truth of human existence. Chesterton's description [from Orthodoxy] of Christ’s cry from the cross is a good example of how he employs paradox:

'When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.'

Zizek quotes these words in a book of his entitled On Belief, and when he calls himself a “Christian atheist” as I heard him do once at a talk in Philadelphia he is agreeing with Chesterton that Xity, by revealing God to have been abandoned by God, places a certain value on the atheist, as when Chesterton notes that 'The next best thing to really being inside Christendom is to be really outside of it.'

For Zizek, and I think for Cheseterton as well, this brutally honest cry given by the dying Christ, is an example not only of a unique kind of God, but also sets the groundwork for a certain type of thinking, for a certain type of philosophizing. In reading Zizek a quote from Chesterton is often followed by one from Hegel, for it was Hegel, according to Zizek, who gave philosophical voice to paradox, who even constructed his entire system around it.

An all powerful God, for Hegel, is revealed most truly in the moment of greatest weakness and desolation, which is a necessary moment in the revelation of that God. For Hegel the all powerful God of the Jews, inasmuch as he communicates with his creation, does so most authentically not through a revelation of words, of sacred texts, but through a revelation of Word, that is, incarnation."

Like I said, the conclusion is excellent, and explains why, in the end, Zizek is really more atheist than Christian. But I have always thought this an intriguing and insightful point, as I said previously in my post on Bergman's Winter Light, and so it was awesome to hear this paper not only broach the issue but deal with it so eloquently.

I hope to share some more of what I saw and heard at Niagara Falls, but that was one of the most interesting things for sure.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Short Story Party Game

Whenever my family gets together we'll pull out a game like Dutch Blitz or Scattergories or some variation on the party game theme (Taboo, Catch Phrase, etc...). Every once in awhile we put the over-priced board game aside and just play something we've made up. I mentioned the "top three" game before. This week we played a short story party game (which I imagine has been done before).

Basically, each person writes a sentence and then passes on the paper for the next person to add a sentence until all the papers get around and you are left with several different short stories authored by each person collectively. In our case we were left with seven short stories of seven sentences. We added a variation to a couple of them in that you were not allowed to see the sentence before.

It was kind of fun, and I've got the papers all sitting here, so the best two are below. One was written without being able to see the previous sentences written, and the other was written with each person building on the sentences before. Hope my family enjoys seeing these again.

Story 1

Every Sunday started the same, the horses would take offence to something I said, tempers would flare and somebody would get hurt.

I had never seen horses get upset so easily until I started working at this ranch.

So I immediately set out to find out the source of the conflict.

The cook said, "Look around, maybe it's you."

As I am wont to do, my initial reaction, of course, was to throw around some glares, shot to anyone with bullet-like broiling heat.

On this particular Sunday, though, I decided not to hold my glare but I stopped and thought about what the cook had said.

I decided I was okay with being the problem and continued to offend the horses every chance I got.

Story 2

One day the monkey got tired of being a monkey.

It was a hearty soup, with 12 kinds of meat and a fried egg.

We always have so much fun when we get together as a family.

They all seemed to be angry, and they walked toward their destination reluctantly.

"Eat it, Stew!"

Brillian, fiercely, wonderfully, she spoke--a feral girl-child as born like a new-born babe with squalling hesitancy and insistent expectation of things to come.

In the end this incident ended the way most do, without incident.


Good times.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Chris Farley (1964-1997)

Two days ago I saw this book on the shelf at the library that I knew I just had to read. The biography of Chris Farley. It was almost impossible to put down. Finished it an hour ago. It made me laugh, it made me cry. Can you believe he has been dead for almost eleven years?

This biography (co-authored by his older brother) reminded me of so much that Chris Farley introduced into my life that is still a part of me. It was really sad to lose him. I'm even sadder about it now, knowing the story. Of all the famous people who die, here is probably the one I miss the most; the one I felt most attached to. Maybe that sounds odd. I think it is true.

Reading his story reminds you of all that was lovable about him: His "Chris Farley Show" interviews (as seen below); his "Da Bears" routine; his "Motivational Speaker" bit; his "Tommy Boy" comedic masterpiece; his spunk; and his genuine love for life and ability to lift those around him (which you sensed, not knowing him, and which it turns out was the real deal).

This story also opens your eyes to the normality of famous people and to the dangers of mixing insecurity, family baggage, a fast rise to stardom, and addiction. As a wake up call to the death-toll of addiction alone it is a worthy read. As an insight into our common human struggles it is a reminder to be there for each other. It is a deep and compelling story told in a very simple interview style with people who knew him and, of course, it is laced with a lot of humour. There are not many books I can recommend more highly than this one.

Most of all I just wanted to pay my respects and to bring the memory of this face to mind. I wish he were alive today. I wish I was taking my boys to a Farley movie in a few years. I am convinced he would have gone on to make some pretty incredible movies that would have made us laugh and which also would have moved us.

Besides all that, however, Chris Farley was just a genuine person, a spark of life, and a devout Catholic who went to mass several times a week. He was born the day after Valentines, 1964, and died three days before Christmas, 1997. He was 33. I pray he is resting in Peace.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Wherein Lies Our Hope

Today is a big day for the US, and therefore for us as well. Over at A Resch Like Me Dustin has said something very good about this. Like him I am fairly optimistic about a Barack Obama victory today.

[I think Obama is a smart guy with some good ideals and a real desire for meaningful dialogue. I also think having someone other than an oil man in charge is a good thing. Of course, I am deeply concerned and heavily saddened by his pro-abortion stance, but on the other hand maybe his extremism on that front will be the thing that finally brings this issue to the center of political dialogue again. I'd love it if it was issue #1 in four years. I'm tired of everyone being afraid to talk about it. (Hear that Stephen Harper?)]

Whether there is reason for some cautious optimism today or not, what I wanted to echo from Dustin is that there is reason for hope. Why? I don't think I can put it any better than this.

The One, the Three and the Many

I am now only 16 years behind the theological world thanks to my recent read of Colin Gunton's 1992 The One, the Three and the Many. Though by now its best and most original points have made their way through to other theological works, this remains a very important book.

The subtitle says it is about God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity but it might more helpfully be described as How Trinitarian Thought Speaks to the Constant Back and Forth Between Individualism and Collectivism That Has Been Perpetuated by Modernism and Postmodernism Alike.

But that would be a long subtitle, and still doesn't help much. So here are some of the lines that typified the book and stuck out to me the most.

First, and most simply: "Freedom requires otherness" (37). The idea that freedom is one individual being able to do whatever one individual wants completely ignores our social construction as individuals and drastically undersells the slaverys a person can be under even when one is alone. This short and simple statement points to an important truth, I think, which is that whatever freedom is, it is experienced only as part of a social dynamic. Which leads to a critique of modernism, including modern Christianity:

"The Christian tradition itself tended to take an individualist direction, locating human particularity in the possession of a soul or some qualification of inwardness. It maintained one dimension of human relationality, the vertical, but not the other, the horizontal. To be was to be in internal relation to God, but not, essentially, to the neighbor or the world. So it is with modern doctrines of the human. The thought that our freedom comes to us from God is not inconceivable for the modern mind; the thought that it also comes from each other, as a function of our relationality, almost is" (65).

Gunton goes on to explain that in this mindset "freedom is almost invariably freedom from the other . . . . The other becomes the person or thing from which one must escape or over which one must rule if one is to be human" (71). And "when individual self-contemplation becomes the basis of the self, rather than the relation to the divine and human others on which our reality actually depends, [tragically and ironically] the self begins to disappear" (117-118).

This book isn't just a push for postmodernity, however. Mere pluralism and tolerance are no strategy for the freedom to be found in real communion. "Whereas modernism tried to come to grips with the ‘other’ by excluding it, postmodernism simply seeks to render it irrelevant. The underlying fear of it continues unabated" (69). So Gunton asks: "Is there no mean between the [individualistic] kind of ethic of self-fulfillment – the quest for relations by the essentially unrelated – which is so dominant in the liberal democracies, and the subordination of the many to the needs of the collective that still marks many political systems in the world?" (151-2).

As one might expect, Gunton finds resources for an answer in the doctrine of the Trinity; resources which no other concept seems able to supply: The one and many are brought together in the three-in-one. Indeed, if the perfect union of three persons is what makes up the Godhead, it can be understood that from this might be derived the concepts that give fabric to a human community beyond our wildest dreams.

More could be said, but that gives a pretty good taste of what the book had to say. It was a provocative book and succeeded in driving Trinitarian theology even more to the forefront in the years to come, for good reason. It made some very insightful critiques of our modern individualism on one hand and our postmodern pluralism on the other, while showing how the biblical revelation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the self-giving love shown in Christ just might offer the best foot forward.