Saturday, March 26, 2011

What has Lotso to do with Bashir?

It is no secret that Rob Bell's recent re-picturing of the standard idea of hell has got a lot of people hot under the collar. One of the common refrains from Bell's critics has been that he has merely dressed up the gospel and hidden away all the uncomfortable parts about judgement and final justice. Whether that is totally true or not (and I don't think it is), what I find most interesting is the frequent charge that Bell is cavorting to the culture.

We see this when the Gospel Coalition's Justin Taylor approvingly quotes Christianity Today's Mark Galli to the delight of thousands of readers and hundreds of blog-commenters - denouncing Rob Bell's Love Wins as one more instance where "liberals have striven to make the gospel relevant." More famously, msnbc's Martin Bashir, in a tirade cleverly disguised as an interview, said to Bell:
"You’re creating a Christian message that’s warm, kind, and popular for contemporary culture. . . . What you’ve done is you’re amending the gospel, the Christian message, so that it’s palatable to contemporary people who find, for example, the idea of hell and heaven very difficult to stomach. So here comes Rob Bell, he’s made a Christian gospel for you, and it’s perfectly palatable, it’s much easier to swallow. That’s what you’ve done, haven’t you?"
This is a common evangelical trump card which is often quickly taken to mean someone's theology has gone to the dogs. It usually assumes that the work of discerning whether the culture is right or wrong is already done: The culture is wrong. Do not love the world. Argument closed.

That's another discussion. The crazy thing to me is that in this case I'm not even sure Bashir, Galli or Taylor are even right about contemporary culture.

Even if Bell said that there was no hell and no divine judgement (which he does not say), would this really be just a symptom of the stories our culture likes to tell itself? When the 'culture' tells its stories about good and evil - particularly when it comes to end of a long story arc and shows us the fate of either side - what kind of narrative does it weave? It wouldn't be hard to test this. Taking inspiration from Bashir's depiction of Bell's gospel, let's look at a widely popular, inter-generationally acclaimed, trilogy-finishing film which was nominated for best picture at the 2010 Academy Awards: Pixar's Toy Story 3.

Spoiler alert: In what follows I am going to ruin the ending for you. I assume if you haven't seen it by now you don't care. If it will help, you can see a six minute version of the film here.

The genius of the Toy Story series is the pleasure viewers get when they learn that when they aren't looking their toys have a life of their own. It is fun to watch. More amazingly, however, viewers also learn that despite these animated periods of autonomy, the toys' true freedom is found when they are putty in their owner's hands; weaved into his narrative and serving their created purpose. As the trilogy begins its finale we see that the owner is headed for college and the toys are headed for a melancholy, limbo-esque fate in the attic, where they will have years together to reminisce about the days they will always treasure most - the days of joy when they were living to their full potential as toys. Of course, things go desperately wrong.

The next thing we know Toy Story 3 is coming to its climax with this fellowship of toys stuck on a conveyor belt about to dump them into a flaming trash incinerator outside the city. When we watched it my kids were visibly gripped and on the edge of their horrified little seats. Fortunately, when death looms largest their leader shows himself willing to self-sacrifice for the sake of the group. In fact, when things are looking dour Cowboy Woody even tries to save the enemy - the one who had got them in this trouble in the first place - Lots-O-Huggin' Bear. Lotso, you see, was the oppressor who had ruled the other toys to his own advantage in the less-than-ideal state of life that had become the daycare environment.

Lotso is not pure evil, of course. He was once an innocent stuffed bear bringing joy to his owner, when tragedy sent him skidding. In a flashback we learn of the day he was lost. We see as he searches unsuccessfully for his owner his heart grows hard and cold. "Something snapped," we are told, and we empathize.

But the film and its audience still hold him responsible for his ensuing actions. Embittered and resilient in self-protection, Lotso manipulates the day-care toys to his advantage. Predictably, a small band of toys plans an escape with Woody at their lead, but they are caught by Lotso and he aims to have them destroyed. Things go badly for him, however, and he gets caught along with them in a conveyor belt headed for the flames. As he and Woody clamour for freedom, Lotso is shoved to safety by one he had tried to kill. Safe because of their mercy, Lotso has the chance to extend the favour and rescue them all. All eyes are on him - he could easily do it - but he does not. He leaves them there to die.

The film does not end sadly for the fellowship of the toys, of course, but has them pulled out at the last minute by three aliens to whom they are eternally grateful. Returned to their owner, they give us a touching denouement: The toys are not even put in the attic, but are given a new life of true toy freedom in a brand new home. Adults and kids alike have been known to leave the film with tears and happiness both. It is indeed a satisfying end to the trilogy.

But what about Lotso? Interestingly, we do get one last look at him.

The last we see of Lotso he is being tied to the front of a truck in the dump, where a bug-riddled toy advises him to keep his mouth closed because, it is implied, he could be there for quite awhile. The truck moves off and Lotso's fate is sealed. Annihilation in the incinerator would have been better than this.

Obviously, Pixar is too good to go with the cheesy ending. Or maybe it wants to leave kids with a sense of the consequences for evil or something. I don't really want to make too much of this finale, other than to point out exactly what kinds of stories the culture actually seems content to tell itself and its children. It seems pretty happy to have the oppressive villain judged indefinitely for his crimes, especially if he has been extended mercy and refused to have any part of it. It seems to me that the last thing it can bring itself to imagine is total justice and reconciliation. Or, where it could imagine it, it can only imagine it being phony and melodramatic.

I'm not trying to suggest that this proves anything, either way. It would be interesting to reflect on this further. I'm also not trying to advocate carte blanche for everything said in Bell's book. (I'm not done yet). My only point is that, at the critics prodding, when I actually look at the so-called 'contemporary culture' I find something other than what they seem to think I'll find.

I imagine I've made such generalities on my own blog before as well. But maybe we should call a moratorium on this evangelical trump card and actually talk about nuts and bolts.


Tony Tanti said...

I love this post, and I can't stand that trump card. It smacks of BS and to me nullifies the argument of all who play it. I think you're bang on when you point out that the world's culture isn't making the conclusions that out of touch Christians often assume they are.

Rob Bell is my hero, I haven't even read his book but I love that he's annoyed the morally superior modern day pharisees, aka the American Evangelical movement.

cathcoy said...

What bugs me (no allusion to another Pixar movie of a similar name) is the lack of ethics of the diatribor, Martin Bashir, as he conducts the rehab of his tattered career on the coattails of the American Evangelical movement. Bashir is well known in Bashir-watching circles as the man who got the biggest "gets" in journalism (Princess Diana and Michael Jackson) except that in both cases, he used duplicity and deceit to secure the interviews. Indeed, Bashir's duplicity can easily be seen in a side-by-side comparison of two sets of camera footage. Bashir is indeed the precursor to Andrew Breitbart (Shirley Sherrod fiasco).

But the evangelicals don't want to hear this solely because Bashir agrees with them. Journalistic integrity doesn't enter into their thinking whatsoever as they embrace Bashir as their brilliant apologist. No matter that Bashir told Paul Edwards that what he, Bashir, believes has nothing whatsoever to do with his interview of Bell. In other words, he knows the evangelicals' theology backwards and forwards and uses it to advance Bashir's agenda.

Bashir had better watch it, though, because as word gets out, only the most foolish newsworthy subject will agree to be interviewed by him. Such realization en masse can't come soon enough. Bashir is a journalistic hack with a British accent. Big deal.

Joel Hubick said...

I think I have something to add here, regarding the comments on ‘contemporary culture.’

I think you address the question ‘is what Bashir says true?’ Or more specifically, ‘does what Bashir say make sense?’ Your analysis of his comments reveals that certain phrases such as ‘palatable gospel’ and ‘contemporary culture’ are not so obvious, that is, they are being used in a certain way, but these particular ways, these specific definitions, are not necessarily corresponding to the whole of reality as it is found. You even provide a counter example to open up the possible meanings of ‘contemporary culture.’

Then at the end you conclude:
“My only point is that, at the critics prodding, when I actually look at the so-called 'contemporary culture' I find something other than what they seem to think I'll find.”

You concealed conclusion is, presumably, that the comments Bashir, and other critics use, do not make the kind of sense they always seem to take for granted.

I agree with your analysis, but it might only be half the story. What I think you have done is captured the ‘sense’ of Bashir’s comments, and then shown how that ‘sense’ is more questionable. This is good because it makes us think and question what he says in a new way.

But, in what sense could Bashir’s comments be perfectly true? Abstract, for the sake of this thought experiment, from what is ‘really true’ to ‘what could possibly be true.’ What sense, or history, would make Bashir’s comments become true?

I think any possible answer would be on par with ‘a history’ of some kind. In other words, there are many histories which can make Bell’s comments shift in meaning, make Bashir’s comments come across as questionable (as yours does) or come goldenly true (as some other might).

Despite the fact that I, personally, feel a kinship with the history you present, with the questionablity of Bashir’s quick-to-say-a-party-line, you can see how certain organisations, such as the Media, will always have their particular histories: histories that include ‘sounding smart’ and being ‘cutting edge.’ They are not really interested in the same thing as you, although both the Media and you will both use the same word for that interest: namely, truth.

But it is always more complicated than that; just as you yourself have already shown.

Jon Coutts said...

Tanti: I don't want to paint a whole movement with that brush, but I resonate with the frustration. I think an appeal to 'culture' to show that one's version or interpretation of something is 'culturally conditioned' is a legitimate exercise, in principle, but it requires more complexity than is often utilized. And even then I'm not sure what the payout is if it is denied that one's own critique is insufficiently aware of its own perspectives and presumptions.

Cathcoy: Wow, thanks for that. I hadn't much interest to track down Bashir's entire journalistic record but now I will have to follow up on the stuff you have left me there. Disturbing if true.

Joel, I definitely think that if one allows Bashir to refer to the culture of his choosing and then to read Bell's book just the way he wants to, then his statements can be deemed 'true'. But like you said, if we want to seek a truth beyond our choosing, we probably have more work to do. As simple as Truth itself might be, our knowing of it is a bit more complicated. I mean, whatever we perceive as 'true' we also wrap up in a whole bunch of perspectives and movements and cultural conditioning and so on and so forth. I'm all for the pursuit of a truth that transcends us and yet comes to us, but when we are unaware of or else aggressively in denial of our own perspective, we don't really do the pursuit a whole lot of justice. So I think I'm with you there, if I'm getting you right

Judith said...

In whatever forum Martin Bashir deftly inserts himself, he is, above all and forever, a creation of Tabloid Media -- to do its bidding, reap its rewards, and walk over its human casualties without a backward glance.