Doug Talks Torah

Reflecting on all the ways Torah builds the world.

Month: July 2010

Inception in a World of Real and Unreal

Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception

Richard Weaver wrote, “Ideas have consequences.” GK Chesterton once said (and I paraphrase), “There is a thought that brings all thought to an end.” Christopher Nolan’sInception” is a mind-bending trip through dream world upon dream world upon dream world, exploring the consequences of ideas and the power of ideas to bring our world(s) to an end.

Many of Nolan’s film wrestle with ideas about our perception, and the struggle to discern the real from the unreal. Both Batman films (Batman Begins and the Dark Knight) immerse us into a dark world where the hero (Batman) must face an ambiguous evil that disrupts the mind and turns the world upside down. In a strange way, it reminds me of 1 and 2 Kings. In his commentary on Kings, Leithart suggests that these books may really be considered wisdom books because they tell story after story where the ruler is thrust into ambiguous settings, and is called upon to make a decision.

The prime example is Solomon. Being forced to choose between two woman who both make claim to the same baby. Solomon needs wisdom to shed light in a situation where good and evil are not clearly in the light. Nolan’s films reveal characters thrust into those same murky places that confuse the mind. His characters need wisdom to know how to choose, how to act in the middle of the mess.

Ebert sees a connection between Inception and an earlier Nolan film, Memento. I agree. The story of Memento is told by a man with short term memory loss. His blind sight is our blind sight. At times, the film is disorienting as we try to make sense the story in his world. His body is covered in tattoos. Gradually, we realize that these tattoos are his memory. It is not until the end of the movie that we understand the story we’re in.

Memento tells a story backwards through bits and pieces of narrative, fleeting images, a body marked with memory. All these questions come alive in his newest film. Inception follows a man and his wife into a confusion of reality between waking and dreaming. As the lines blur, discernment about what is real and what is not fades.

There are multiple points through “Inception” when we the viewer almost lose our bearing. We are experiencing the chaotic struggle of the characters caught up in a world that intertwines fantasy with reality. While Inception delves inward toward a Jungian subconscious dream world, it explores themes that are just as real in our waking world.

The premise of the film rests on the idea that we can enter into another person’s dreams and learn ways to extract their secrets or even suggest new ideas. This is not the simple dream combat of Dreamscape from the early 80s. This dream tinkering requires a team of professionals: an architect to build the world, a druggist to control the dream state, a forger who is a master of becoming other people in dreams, a researcher who prepares the details, and of course the action man who steals the idea or in this film attempts to plant an idea.

All this inner exploring can be confusing. At one point, the viewers of the film are submerged in four different dream worlds occurring at the same time. All these worlds have been created through ideas. All these worlds have the power to  entrap, deceive and threaten life itself. These worlds are supposed to be about the inner world of dreams, but these inner worlds are not so very different from our outer world.

In the movie, they created symbolic worlds or worlds that carried and expressed meaning, even hidden meaning within a person’s soul. Our dream worlds are filled with all sorts of fascinating images and structures and people. Memory and meaning are blended in fantasy where it is difficult to discern what really real or true. But this isn’t just our dream world. In our waking world, we face the same challenge to discern the real from the unreal.

We live in a world where ideas give birth to homes, clothes, cars and entire cities. The power of a spoken idea is the power to set worlds in motion. As Weaver and Chesterton pointed out, ideas have real power, and some ideas can lead to the end of ideas, to the end of our world.

In this film, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to plant an idea in a man’s mind through his dreams. He knows this can be done because he has done it before with disastrous effects. Cobb himself is a man tormented by the power of deception and guilt to twist the waking and dreaming mind into confusion and limbo.

In this film, we see how ideas can twist our perception and our ability to know the true from the false, the real from the unreal. We see how some ideas can lead to the distrust of every idea.

In his day Chesterton realized there were ideas being planted in people’s mind that would eventually spring up and cause men to question rationality itself. In other words, he saw the danger of some ideas that would lead us into such a state of confusion, we’d be trapped in a limbo.

These ideas were not planted through dreams because the real place of influence is not through our dreams but through our ears. Speech has the power to change the world. To create the world. False speech twists the world into a confusion between the real and the unreal.

Hitler built a world on speech that twisted the real and the unreal. This speech took form in bodies, buildings, books, tanks, and war. Augustine built a world on speech in submission to Christ. The words he speaks in “Confessions” and “The City of God” still resound and still take shape in lives, cities, and societies.

As a rhetorician, Augustine understood that speech touches to heart and the mind and the body. Classical rhetoric is about learning how to speak. Quintillion said that rhetoric is the “art of a good man speaking well.” Great rhetoric integrates the mind with the emotions and moves the body to act. What is often called rhetoric in our world today is simply a shell of what once was a great art, thus it is often seen as manipulative and dishonest.

As I watched Inception, I thought about the power of speech. I thought about how wrong ideas can cloud out ability to perceive our world. Our perception can be distorted by anger, hurt, pride, and self ambition. False words can cloud our ability to see what is really real. But I also thought about the power of true speech to rebuild a world that is crumbling.

Paul writes to a people in Corinth who are being seduced by an idea that suggests the physical world is unimportant and only the spiritual is of value. He sees the danger in this idea. He proclaims true speech over false speech. He challenges the distorting power of false ideas with the true idea. He proclaims gospel (good news). He proclaims resurrection: the bodily resurrection of Christ and the bodily resurrection of His people.

In so doing, he reaffirms a real world. A real material world that really matters. His words still resound in people who need the wisdom of God to make wise decisions, speak wise words and act wisely in a world that confuses the real and unreal, the significant and the trivial, the true and the false.

Hear O Israel

Shema (image by Yaniv Ben-Arie used by Creative Commons)

Lately I’ve been thinking aloud about listening. I’ve been talking about the different forms of listening like empathic listening, active listening, ethnographic listening. Along the way, I’ve made a bunch of mental notes, and I’m having a hard time keeping up with them.

I remembered a story about listening while I took a shower this morning. It seems I always remember things while in the shower. Sometimes I wonder if I might find a lost set of keys by simply taking a shower. Anyway, back to the remembered story.

Shortly after Kelly and I were married, she noticed a peculiar habit of mine (one among many). I pointed at food during our meals. We would be talking about the day’s events when I would point at the bread. She handed me the bread, and then I’d point to the butter.

At my folks house, she noticed everyone pointed during the meal. After about a month, she asks me, “What’s with all this pointing during the meal times?” No one had ever asked me, so I never even thought about it before.

“Well, my dad likes to tell stories, and he doesn’t like to be interrupted. So in my family, we just started pointing at food instead of asking someone to pass it.”

I grew up listening to my dad’s stories. And in many ways, I’m a better storylistener than storyteller. People tell me their stories. And I like to listen.

But listening is not always easy.

I don’t like the telephone because it’s too easy for me to get distracted from listening. Without the person in front of me, my mind wanders so easily. A friend is talking on the phone. He is trying to remember a mutual acquaintance. “Old so and so. What was his name?”

As he continues talking, all I can hear is, “old so and so.” Only in my mind’s eye, I see the words, “sew and sew.” I see a big pair of scissors opening and closing. Then I see them up on an old Cas Walker building on Broadway. The neon scissors are opening and closing as they cut prices. I hear Cas say, “Shop at the sign of the shears.”

Sign of the shears. That sounds funny. What if the big scissors were atop the Sears building on Central? “Shop at the sign of the Sears.”

I’m slipping. I see a flashing neon light over a steakhouse, “At the Sign of the Steers.” I tumbling down into Alice’s Wonderland of Rhyme when suddenly me friends’ voice breaks the fall, “So what do you think?”

Think? Oh great. What was he talking about? I scramble. “Well, what do you think?” he starts up again. Whew, that was close. I must concentrate. Pay attention.

Like I said, listening can be hard.

Back in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were a bit hard of hearing as well. They kept misunderstanding what he said. When he told the story of Israel and God’s purposes for His people, He told it in a way that sounded different.

“What is he up to?,” some of them queried suspiciously. They didn’t trust him. Then again, they didn’t trust his Father either. Isaiah told Israel as much. He warned that they would become blind, deaf and lame like the idols they trusted.

One day a Pharisee asks Jesus what is the greatest of the commands. Jesus replies, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” He responds by reciting the “Shema.”

Israel recited, prayed and even posted this command in the Mezuzah they placed in their doorways. Shema comes from the Hebrew word for prayer. First and foremost, the Israelite must hear.

As Jesus speaks, he is not simply repeating Moses’ age old command. He is the Word Made Flesh. And he is the Son of Man who truly obeys the command. He hears and obeys.

As Jesus speaks, it is with the same power and authority of God as He spoke at creation, “Let there be Light.” And there was light. Jesus says, “Hear O Israel.” Even as he speaks the power of God is present to heal deaf ears and mute tongues. When man can no longer hear the Word of God, he loses his power to speak as well. His words fall like powerless chatter.

As we read the story, Jesus’ word, “Hear O Israel” steps out from the page and breaks into our heart. He is speaking directly to us. We are the deaf ones. He is restoring our hearing, and He is engrafting us into Israel. When He says, “Hear O Israel,” we are included.

His Living Word breaks into upon our deaf ears, giving us ears to hear. For only in “Hearing” the Word can we believe. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom 10:17). Now oddly enough, this makes me think of a science fiction movie I recently watched called, Moon.

In the story, one man lives on a moon station with no other humans. He has been working there for almost three years and will soon finish his commitment and get to return to earth. But there is a problem. Everything his believes about his world is wrong. He is bind and deaf to what is real, and it will take another voice outside himself to reveal this.

We are like this man working alone on the moon. We have limited knowledge of our world. At any given moment, our perceptions are limited and distorted by our own feelings and responses to the events around us. We misunderstand ourselves and the people around us. We hold grudges; we struggle against bitterness; we remember too many sorrows and not enough joys. We are incapable loving perfectly.

Jesus calls out, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Mark 12:29-31).

He breaks into our self-contained world with His Word of Truth, His Word of Life. He says, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” And acknowledging our complete inability to obey the Father, He answers the command. Jesus, the Son of Man, responds to the call of God and He Loves the Father with all His heart, soul, mind and strength. He loves his neighbor as himself (see John 15:12).

So we rest in Him. We live in Him. We love in Him. By His Spirit, He heals our deaf ears, He anoints our blind eyes, He leads us step by step into a world of truth beyond our distorted perceptions. Through His healing touch, I learn to listen to people around me. I learn to hear them as He hears them. I learn to love as He loves.

He keeps speaking through His Word. He keeps transforming me in His Spirit. He keeps leading me into the love and glory and life of His life in the Father, Son and Spirit.

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)

Moon and Summer Hours

Sam Rockwell in Moon

Last Friday I enjoyed a double feature, watching Moon and Summer Hours. On the surface, both films seem like worlds apart–literally. With nods to 2001 Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Solaris and a host of other sci-fi greats, Moon tells the story of relationship, survival and sacrifice through one’s struggle to survive a lonely outpost on the the moon. By contrast, Summer Hours follows the intimate interactions of French siblings as they eat and talk amidst a collection of fine art and thriving plants.

I enjoy watching two films at a time. The similarities and variations in the films raise questions that I might not have noticed in isolation.

So to paraphrase Tertullian’s biting question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?, ” I wonder aloud, “What does Moon have to do with Summer Hours?” in response, I offer a few thoughts below. Just a warning before you proceed, there are spoilers in my post. So if you haven’t seen the films and want to be surprised, you might bypass my comments.

Moon
Moon opens with commercial promising an abundance of energy for almost all people on the planet to enjoy. As it turns out, the moon provides a source of harvestable energy the planet Earth. Cut to Sam Bell, running on a treadmill with his playful, “Wake Me When It’s Quitting Time” t-shirt. As it turns out, it is almost quitting time.

Sam (Sam Rockwell) is at the end of a three-year commitment, and he’s about to wake up. There’s something about working alone for three years (and no live feed from earth), that is about to drive Sam crazy. From the bright white interior of the moonstation, the videos from earth, to the stark blackness outside the moonstation, many of the images in Moon communicate isolation.

His only companion is the moonstation robot, GERTY, who expresses his feelings via a mini-monitor with emoticons. Sam records his work and his mental state on the videocam. He is weary and ready for home. “Three years is too long for this commitment.”

On a routine mission, Sam crashes in the side of a Helium-3 harvester. We join the disorientation of Sam as he awakes in the recovery room and wonder alongside him, “How did he get there?”

Sam begins waking up to the fact that he’s not Sam. We follow Sam as he clambers across the moonstation like a baby learning to walk. He IS a baby learning to walk. He eventually discovers and rescues the other Sam, dying in the crashed moon vehicle. We puzzle alongside him, as he realizes the other Sam looks like him, has his memories and claims to be the real Sam.

The Sams gradually awake to the realization they are but clones of the original Sam, and that many more clones stand ready to replace them after a three-year interval. GERTY assists Sam in this discovery when he learns to ask GERTY the right questions.
The film turns into a beautiful exploration of Blade Runner’s question, “What does it mean to be human?” We watch the two Sam’s struggle with the bitter reality of their predicament, we also witness genuine human compassion and self-sacrifice. Sam Rockwell offers a stunning portrait of inner angst, the human tenacity of struggle for life, companionship and the tenderness between two humans.

Summer Hours

Summer Hours
Unlike the harsh visual contrast throughout Moon, Summer Hours is a visually soft film that captures the organic unity between humans and their creations in the midst of a welcoming landscape of plants and flowers and trees.

Instead of one person and one machine, we are immersed into an extended family of grandmother, children, grandchildren and a housekeeper. The film opens to children playing and running through a lush, green landscape. They are full of life, laughter and play.

Their parents reminisce, toast to life and celebrate the birthday of their mother Helene. They give her three gifts: a Philips cordless phone set, a soft afghan, and the first press of a book featuring the collection of art she has preserved during her life. Helene discusses the art collection with her son Frederic and encourages him to oversee that sale of this collection once she is gone.

After the children and their families leaves, Helene sits looking at her new phone in the twilight. This scene fades out like other key transitions in the film: the light gives way to shadows and then darkness. We since the day is ended for Helene, and it has.

As the light rises on a new, Helene is gone, and the children are deciding the fate of her estate. The film follows the gentle tension between Frederic who wants to preserve the art collection and the estate, and the other two siblings who prefer to sell it.

Life is Transition
While both films differ in style, substance and setting, I think they both explore the challenge of transition or change from different angles. Moon reveals a world that has tried to use clones instead of people to power their moonstation. Yet the clones are always trapped in a three-year interval, and they are exterminated after three-years.

Those who manage the moonstation have tried to create an endless three-year cycle to power their programs. In one sense, Moon is a sci-fi film about using technology to stop or resist change. The clones are expendable.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy suggested that when the parent refuses to speak to their child (the new generation) and chooses to preserve only the past, they have become decadent. Decadence always requires the sacrifice of the next generation.

This world has come up with a convenient form of sacrifice: clones. One problem. The clones awake to this dark truth, and like all humans fight to live. But I would suggest that it is not the drive to live that ultimately reveals their humanity.

Both Sams struggle with this threat to their existence. Yet instead of viewing one another as competitors for survival, they discover companionship. They play ping-pong together. They share their duplicates memories with one another. And ultimately both men are willing to sacrifice themselves for the other.

In the end, the older Sam convinces the younger Sam to escape to earth while he sacrifices his dreams and hopes of survival. As the film ends, a reporter’s voice talks about the newly arrived clone on planet earth, and there is a sense that the old Sam has sacrificed his life to change the future.

In this act, he fulfills what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy suggests is the power of change, the willingness to die/sacrifice to create the future.

While Summer Hours tells a tale about art and family and French culture, it is also telling a tale about change. In the first scene, children are running across the lawn and through different settings. They are in transition.

Virtually ever scene shows the main character going through doors, moving around, walking from inside to outside and so on. The film pulses with constant motion of people as well as the continuous interplay of light and shadows across windows panes and more.

The art collection is divided up, sold to private collectors and museums and given to some French museums (to reduce the tax burden). The art pieces that seemed part of the family background are decontextualized in the museum and sadly seem a bit lifeless.

The family is changing. Two of the siblings, Adrienne and Jeremie have chosen to leave France and building lives in America and Asia. Sylvie, Frederic’s daughter, is transitioning from childhood into adulthood. While Frederic seems a bit wistful, he adjusts to the transitions.

The film is lyrical movement of family and people and even objects in transition. While there is a sense of loss, there is also a sense of hope at the world ahead. In the final scene, Sylvie has a party at the old house before it is sold. Instead of an image of complete teenage debauchery, we see the old house come back to life and people laugh and dance and talk and move all through the house.

The camera follows Sylvie as she wanders through the crowd finding her boyfriend. Soon they are wandering through the fields. She pauses and laments the loss of this house that her grandmother had told her would always be there. Then she and her boyfriend climb over the wall of the estate and playfully run off into the trees.

In both films, the future breaks into the present in unexpected ways. In Summer Hours it is bittersweet, yet playful and lovingly intimate as a family learns to step forward into a new world. In Moon, change means sacrifice and death for one man so that another man could live. Both films continue to play upon my imagination as I think about the pain and joy of stepping into tomorrow.

Prophetic Faith

Moses the Prophet of the LORD (photo by rorris via Creative Commons)

I will sing of steadfast love and justice;
to you, O LORD, I will make music.
I will ponder the way that is blameless.
(The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Ps 101:1–2). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)

This morning as I reflected upon Psalm 101, I heard David singing. He is singing back the Word of God’s covenant faithfulness. He is singing about the “way that is blameless.” What is the “way” that he is pondering? Before we can begin to understand what David means, we must understand how the revelation of TORAH provides a foundation for everything in Scripture that follows it. By TORAH, I am referring to the first five books of Scripture. In TORAH, the LORD speaks His people “into being” through His servant Moses.

Thus Moses in rightly understood as the first and greatest of the Prophets (prior to the end of the ages when John the Baptist and Jesus Christ appear). The TORAH is God’s revelation, God’s Word, God’s breath, quickening the children of Israel into the people of God. The Ten Commandments in some ways captures the heart of TORAH. In Deuteronomy 5, after Moses speaks the Word of the LORD in the Ten Commandments he says,

33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess. (The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Dt 5:33). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)

The “way” includes obedience to the Word of the Lord. Per Deuteronomy 6,the “way” includes love of God, fear of God, meditation upon the commandments, obedience to the commandments, teaching of the commandments, living the commandments in the family and in the community. In one sense, “way” refers to the Word of God enfleshed in God’s people. It is obedience the commandments. This obedience is rooted in the life that comes from God’s Word alone.

God’s Word is not just a set a written texts, it is His Living Breathing Word, blowing through His servant Moses and calling forth the people of God. Just as the LORD breathes into clay and forms Adam, the LORD breathes into and through His people to bring life and righteousness and power and glory. This WORD is not simply ideas, but enters and enlivens human form. Adam comes to life. Israel becomes a people. Ezekiel speaks (blows) over the dry bones and they come to life.

As the ancient Israelites meditate upon TORAH, they soak and read and speak and sing and act the WORD of the LORD. They dwell in the Life-giving Breath of God. This prophetic faith was never meant to simply be carved into stone. The stone is but a memorial of the real carving, shaping, forming that the WORD of the LORD does as He breathes into the hearts of His people. It is prophetic is the truest sense of the word. “Prophecy” is the wind, breath, word of God that creates, brings light, brings life, and fulfills God’s Will. Ours is a prophetic faith because it is rooted in the creative breath (Word) of God.

6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Dt 6:5–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)

From the very beginning, His WORD was given to shape us into His image in our hearts. Circumcision pointed ultimately to the heart being shaped for love and life,

6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Dt 30:5–6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)

Just as the Spirit hovers over the waters of the deep at Creation, He hovers over the heart of man, blowing, speaking, convicting, shaping us into being as the Image of God. But the heart of man turns away of this Living Word.

17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. (The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Dt 30:17–18). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)

Simply having the Commandments carved in stone gave Israel no magic power. The stone was not a talisman that protected them from enemies. The stone was simply a reminder of the Living, Breathing Word of God sent forth to transform their hearts. But in turning toward idols, they turn away from Life and toward lifeless images made of wood and stone and other lifeless, breathless objects. Thus they have hearts of stone.

David sings about the way that is blameless. He is singing about trusting in this Life-Giving, Spirit-Breathing Word of God blowing forth from TORAH and obeying it (echoing it in our thoughts, words and deeds). The Old Testament tells a story of humanity resisting, rejecting and turning away from the Word of God. It also tells the story of God’s mercy and faithfulness and promise to fulfill His Word in His People. When God enters into history in Jesus, the Word is made Flesh. Jesus fulfills the Word in Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. He reveals and fulfills perfect love.

Like David, we continue to sing His words. The Psalms quicken us to rehearse, echo, breath the Life Giving Word. His Word will not return void. But calls us out of darkness and into light that the life of Jesus might shine out even in our own lives. We turn to Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We call upon Him. We trust Him. We abide in Him. And by His Spirit of Grace, He Who is the Way will present us blameless before the Father.

Note: I made a few minor updates on the post I originally put up earlier today.

After Parting

Photo by greekadman (used by permission via Creative Commons)

I continue to soak in the glory of Michael O’Siadhail’s poetry. In “Elegy for a Singer,” he writes one line that pierced and exposed my heart at the same time.

“…but know
that always after parting
I cherished you…”

One of the greatest treasures in my life is a meal and conversation with a few friends. And yet, I never feel that I sufficiently express my gratitude to the friends who spent their valuable time and presence in my life. After parting, the words of gratitude burn inside.

So as I read O’Siadhail, I can only echo the simmering love revealed in his words to a friend. I am rich for I have dined in the presence of glorious people who fed my soul and continue to strengthen my memories.

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