Category Archives: Film
This story has been on my mind for some time now. I really appreciated this particular writer’s perspective. Please take the time to read it. It is painful remembering my own bullying stories each time a stories like Amanda’s finds its way to the headlines. And it seems there are far too many of them lately.
I was bullied mostly because of my weight and my family’s low income. I was called “Yasir AraFAT” by my neighbor who on occasion acted as my friend and invited me to help him clean his room. I always obliged. But when his friends were over he laughed at me, threw things and called me names. In junior high when my house burned down, while many kids who often picked on me gave temporary pause to be nice, others took it upon themselves to sing “Burning down the house” in my presence. High school was the worst. I was teased for dressing different (90′s Hip Hop, baggy pants Cross Colours and Karl Kani). I was threatened and pushed around by underclassmen who knew I would not fight: “Fat boy dresses like a gangster but he sure don’t act like one.” Another kid passed around cartoon pictures he had drawn, pictures of me naked, sitting on a throne-like toilet eating chicken. He passed them around almost every day in class. The only other thing I remember him ever talking about was going to church.
I get asked more often than I would wish how I can be a Christian with all of the evil in the world and specifically the garbage that goes on in the name of Jesus. But if I offer gut level honesty about this past that I do not like to expose (yet somehow know I still where on my sleeve), my faith and the hodgepodge network of friends I found through church were the only things that sustained me in these difficult times. For life at home was not very stable or supportive either. But that is not all. If all that drove me to believe were my concerns for myself I would believe in the pervasive myth of Heaven as escape to another realm and disembodied afterlife that all too often passes for Christianity.
But that is not all. There are people like Amanda whose stories have ended far more tragically than my own. Perhaps my own pain does make me more acutely aware of hers. But it is for Amanda and all like her – and not for my own escape – that I believe. For all who have stories that end abruptly or whose lives are made long and miserable and unbearable by various forces of oppression, for them I do believe. Teen bullying, genocide, homicide, racism, fascism, persecution, poverty rape, suicide, death in all of its forms. I believe in the historic and ludicrous Christian hope of resurrection. I believe that Amanda’s story cannot and will not end this way. For if it does our efforts to make the world a better place for us and our children are no comfort to her. I believe for Amanda. And for any Amanda who is reading this I believe and more importantly the creator and caretaker of the universe – who I know to our bewilderment can at times seem painfully absent – nonetheless does see, does care and does believe in you too.
The story dear Amandas, dear Waynes is not over. And all will be made new.
I believe the same question drives all belief and disbelief in the divine: Why do bad things happen? Nearly every religious tradition at some point – often its infancy – asserts some formula of belief, deeds or ritual that will guard against bad things happening. But in the end religion that is formulaic and self interested is just magic. But most religious traditions do grow beyond this and each develops its own Good News about what God is doing to put things to right, to bring order to a world where disorder all too often seems to reign supreme. And I believe that each religion and all of their various subsets of tradition has much to learn from each other and even from those who walk the path of disbelief. Honesty, genuine dialogue, asking good and difficult questions and a willingness to learn are not enemies of belief. These things foster and nurture mature believers.
In Christianity this Good News has most often been called the Euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον) or Gospel. The Gospel has at its center an enigmatic, first century Jewish Peasant and teacher named Jesus. His central claim, repeated over again in numerous ways was that the kingdom, or reign of God – that is what God is doing to put things to right and exert God’s authority over the chaos – is at hand. Traditionally Jesus’ followers have claimed that God is doing this good work in and through him. Not only this but we have claimed that he is the fulfillment of the Jewish expectation and longing for an earthly leader or Messiah and that he is also in some real sense the fulfillment of all religious longing: God with us.
But why Jesus? Or as Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the twelfth century famously framed the question Cur Deus Homo: Why the God-Man? While Anselm and I come to somewhat different conclusions, I am convinced he was asking one of the most important questions anyone can ever ask. But Anselm was neither the first nor the last to ask the question. Several centuries before Anselm, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria asked the same question. His answer was “He indeed assumed humanity that we might become God.” But of course Athanasius wasn’t the first to ask the all important question either. Most of the New Testament and the majority of subsequent Christian writings are manifestations of men and women wrestling with the same question.
I used to believe in magic. I used to think the Jesus question was the only question that mattered. I believed that succeeding or failing to answer it correctly was the only thing that really made a difference in the world. But over the years I have come to see the Christ event – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – as God’s answer to the most important questions that we ask. As God cries out to God on a first century Roman cross “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” perhaps it does not quite answer the question: Why do bad things happen? But it does address this question: In our deepest moments of suffering, God where are you? God answers emphatically: Immanuel! I am with you always, even to the end of the age. These words of comfort, according to the traditions of his followers were spoken after he defeated the death and chaos that still appear to reign supreme and remain markers of this age. This gives us hope of an age to come when God will be all in all.
So apparently vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan likes to listen to grunge and sip micro-brews wile he reads Ayn Rand. But that is not really the surprising part of this article. Ryan is only a few years older than me and came of age when Kurt and Courtney were crowned the unexpected king and queen of pop culture. The part I found both surprising and alarming was this:
“According to a recent University of Michigan Institute for Social Research survey of 3,000 adults, just 5% of Gen Xers said they are “alarmed” and 18% said they are “concerned” about climate change. Most of the group surveyed last year, or 66%, said they’re unsure if global warming is happening, and 10% said they don’t believe it’s occurring.”
While I am a baby Gen-Xer, it is still my generation. I will never say of those who are my people “You are not my people.” However, I am still deeply saddened by what my generation has become. Like the Baby Boomers before us we pumped our fists to a revolutionary soundtrack and swore we would grow up to change the world.
But also much like the Baby Boomers before us, Generation X “grew up” as our hearts and souls diminished. We took the narrative structure that was lent to us by prophetic voices such as Chuck D and Tupac Shakur, the musical exploration of Faith No More and Red Hot Chilli Peppers and a pinch of the sonic crunch from Nirvana and Soundgarden and we offered the world Limp Bizkit. We gave a pass to any Scott Stapp or Chad Kroeger trying to pass himself off as the next Eddie Vedder.
But far worse, we stopped trying to change the world. It is really not my intention to tell anyone how he or she should cast their vote or to insult anyone’s musical palate. Neither am I advocating for a perpetual state of youthful naivety. But there must be some sort of balance between Peter Pan syndrome on the one hand and the hardened cynicism and lack of care that seems to plague my generation.
Well, I know this sounds cornball but I’d like to somehow make a difference in people’s lives.
On the Cover
I still remember the first time I heard the name, heard the voice, saw the image of Tupac Amaru Shakur in a baseball cap, gold chain and denim jacket surrounded by a group of black men in Klan-like hoods. It was an album Dan Quayle would soon say “has no place in our society.” If anyone made a judgement based solely on aesthetics – which let’s face it most of us all too often do – there would be little wonder this album, and Tupac’s subsequent art scared the wits out of white America, my parents most definitely included.
There is no doubt that this scare factor appealed to my teenage rebellion and is part of the reason I became a Tupac fan that day. But the problem with the image, the brand that was 2Pac, is that the man that was Tupac Shakur was far too complicated and at times contradictory to ever fit into any branding niche.
Of course this is nothing that was new or revolutionary with Tupac. Our lust for two-dimensional characters and a world that can be easily divvied up into heroes and villains is as old as human nature. And the ugly cult of celebrity that is largely dependent on this kind of narrow world view was perfected by Hollywood, the record industry and the media long before Tupac’s 1991 arrival into that world. And it has continued on just fine without him since it chewed him up and spit him out on the streets of Las Vegas in 1996.
Beyond the Image
Still, there was plenty that was new, perhaps even revolutionary about Tupac. Long before his untimely death, he was for better or worse the first real hip hop martyr. His first ever run in with the law came after his first album 2Pacalypse Now was released. He received a beating from police after a jaywalking episode. He bore the scars on his face for the rest of his life. Then there was the incident that led to Dan Quayle’s public backlash. A young African American male in Texas shot a state trooper and his lawyer claimed the young man was influenced by 2Pacalypse Now and its frequent referencing of police brutality. Indeed Tupac’s first single “Trapped” is a first person narrative of a young black male harassed and even shot at by the police. In the song the character 2Pac fires back. The song ends with the line “I’d rather die then be trapped in the living hell.” The video for the song features Tupac rapping from a jail cell.
Part of what was new – at least at that time – was the particular contradictions that Tupac embodied. A dear friend of mine at seminary wrote a fine exposition of the history of hip hop for one of his final papers at seminary. In that paper, he positioned Tupac in a Genre of his own in between the socially conscious rap scene of the late 80′s and early 90′s and the gangster rap sub-genre Tupac somewhat inadvertently helped launch permanently into the multi-platinum selling stratosphere. But even this was not completely unprecedented. A few years earlier Ice Cube and Ice-T had both already sold tens of thousands of records combining the political consciousness of Chuck D and the gritty street narratives of other rappers.
The first song I heard after I saw that album cover art was actually the last song on the album. I remember it well. It was right after church. A couple of girls from my church youth group asked me if I had heard of this new guy, so new that I think they were still pronouncing his name as two-pack. The song was called “Part time Mutha.” It was a haunting and largely sympathetic look into the the lives of three single mothers. The first verse is about a woman named Cindy whose sexual exploits with men occurred one after another as they lined up in “single file.” The listener hears “That would be cool if she was a lover/but f__ that Cindy was my dope-fiend mother.” The second verse, rapped by a female guest, is the first person narrative of a teenage girl sexually abused by a step-father. She too becomes a part time mother. The twist comes in the final verse, again rapped by Tupac, is when a one-night stand leads to the male narrator also being “a part time mutha.” It was not exactly a slogan for a women’s right campaign but it was noticeably different from the way women were being talked about in other hard core hip hop during that same time period.
This pattern continued and the contradiction became more blatant with each album. Two of the four singles from his second album serve as a fine example: “I get around” a song about how Tupac and his friends from the group Digital Underground “just don’t stop for hoes” and “Keep Your Head Up” a beautifully written song in which Tupac declares:
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
So who was the real Shakur?
Tupac: part scholar, part prophet, part political activist for black males and spokesperson for African American women
Or 2Pac: at that point in time my parents worst nightmare, a young black male, angry, vengeful and yes convicted of a sexual assault charge.
Was he a hero or a villain? Could he be both? It is not my intent to defend a sometimes self-contradictory perhaps latent sexist or to call into question his undeniable prophetic voice. But it is my intent to re-humanize the demonized figure and perhaps cast a shadow on the sainted one.
On the Inside?
Another unfortunate and sometimes devastating aspect of our obsession with fame and our people branding tendencies is that we often think we know the inner workings of our heroes and villains better than we really can from a distance. I certainly felt that way about Tupac. And I was not alone.
Of the various aspects of this multifaceted man it was the paradox between macho bravado – so typical of the male dominated rap music scene – and raw vulnerability that appealed to me most. This is something that has since and often been imitated but never duplicated by any artist in hip hop. My guess is that as Tupac inevitably matured his music would have went the more peaceful and even somewhat bohemian direction of his early poetry (which has since been published) but with greater maturity. But it is a guess.
I have heard several movie critics who were big fans of his work declare he would have eventually left music altogether and developed a fine acting career.
But it is not uncommon to read on a hip hop blog something to the affect of “If 2pac were still alive rap would not be so soft.”
All sides of this complicated man had their appeal. And nobody – really nobody – knows who he would be today if it were not for his untimely death.
Tupac was truly part of the last generation that had icons – icons in the classic Hollywood sense of the word, up on the silver screen or in news papers. People who -whether we chalked them up to be heroes or villains - seemed untouchable to most of us. This has since changed drastically, at least in our perception. Now days even pop stars as big as Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber can be “friends” on facebook or twitter with 10,422,183 of their closest fans.
Now we are all icons in the smallest sense of the word. Everybody is a brand. We have brought the stories of heroes and villains first told around the flicker of campfires and eventually the glow of the silver screen down to the 13 inch screen that sits in my lap. And most of us are on one. We all have our page, our miniscule piece of the world wide web. Next to the icon is a little description of political and religious beliefs, a place for a bio and what we do for fun. We can lie until our heart is deceived that it is content or we can be blatantly and brutally honest. And then we can decide if the image another person is broadcasting to the world is what we deem to be good or bad. Are they red or blue? Believer or skeptic? We can now divide everybody up into heroes and villains, those we don’t trust and those for the time being we still do. We can relegate everyone to a category, a perceived level of intimacy or estrangement. If we want, we can assign people to an infinite number of concentric circles with varying levels of goodness or closeness. And we can do this all without ever leaving the comfort of our own home.
It would seem our lust for two dimensional characters and a world easily divvied up between heroes and villains would finally be satisfied. But we really don’t know each other any better than I knew Tupac or you know Lady Gaga. Everyone is an icon; and when everyone is an icon no one is. So many people feel more lonely, angry and disaffected than ever.
I think Tupac – at least the part of him that was undeniably a prophetic voice in the world – would say we have to change the way we eat, we have to change the way we live and we have to change the way we treat each other.If we don’t we are headed for a 2Pacalypse now, more than ever.
The old way wasn’t working. Why did we go even farther down that path? This is what happens when we do what we think we need to do to survive. Lord have mercy!
I think I may have found a new favorite film. The Adjustment Bureau is much less depressing than most of my favorite movies. I am sure that says something about who I am and who I am becoming.
There is a lot that can be said about the religious, spiritual and philosophical questions this movie explores. But tonight I was more interested in a potential psychological illustration I believe the movie subtly offers.
The agents – the powers that be in the world of The Adjustment Bureau (see it for yourself to find out more) – they do not want David and Elise to be together. The agents do everything they can to keep them apart. When their various meddling efforts go awry, they try a different approach. One agent tells David that neither he nor Elise will reach the great heights they are destined for if they have each other: the chemistry between them brings out David’s free and impulsive side and will cost them both greatness.
Later another agent played superbly by Anthony Mackie (who played a mentally ill version of Tupac in Notorious) tells David that was a lie. He insist that the problem is not that Elise brings out the worst in David; rather the problem is that she will be enough for him. He will stop reaching for greatness.
I am not a big fan of Sigmund Freud. But I think he was on to something with the whole id, ego and super-ego thing. The agents’ lines of reasoning on why David and Elise should not be together sound a lot like a super-ego out of control: fear your impulses; fear your heart; they will lead you astray. If some brand of asceticism doesn’t work, the out of control super-ego then attacks happiness and contentment: there are more lofty aspirations to be considered. Sacrifice for some greater good.
I do not mean to downplay self-giving. It sort of plays an important role in my religion. And of course setting aside one’s desires and privileges for the sake of another can be the most profound of human experiences. But the unbridled super-ego is so vulnerable to self destruction and outside exploitation:
Churches use Jesus’ words “sell all you have and give it to the poor” to get the poor to forsake all they have and give it to the rich.
National war machines use “For god and country” to enlist the masses in protecting national interests by desecrating the god and country of another nation.
But this is not meant primarily a critique of religious exploitation. Neither is this an anti-military rant. Every institution – the girls scouts selling cookies at my door, the investment firm trying to strong arm employees to give a few more hours to the company, the makers of brand name cheese, clothing and SUV’s trying to tell sell us products they insist our children need to be happy – they all prey on (and pray for) super-egos that are out-of-whack.
But the one we have to worry most about is the voice we hear when we look in the mirror. The one that says you’re better off not great, your better off less than happy, discontentment will give you an edge, reaching for the stars will not leave you grounded in reality.
I often wonder if it is the super-ego, not the id, that tells us to have one more beer, a second cheese burger or an extramarital affair. If it can’t drive us into a desert of self imposed saintly isolation, it will offer a hungry id opportunity to exploit food, fun and community, anything to ensure we don’t use and give thanks for these gifts properly. Lest we become great.
And this is what we do. People with insatiable super-egos form id adjustment bureaus in the form of economic, political, religious and even artistic structures, to make sure some pockets and bellies stay empty while others stay fat – as long as all are unhappy. Because that is what we believe we deserve.