Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mat Hoffman, BMX, and the Birth of Big Air

Before I became a Christian at 18 years old, my religion had been freestyle BMX. I lived and breathed to ride. (I remember a corny adaptation of a Harley-Davidson ad that I made the caption alongside my senior photo in the high school year book: "Some people ask me why I ride. For those who understand, no explanation is needed. For those who don't understand, no explanation is possible.") Even in the long, cold winters of southwestern Ontario, I rode all winter long in my basement, with U2's Joshua Tree as the primary soundtrack (with an eclectic mix of Metal Church and Slayer!). I remember a crew of us scarfing lumber and scrap from wherever we could, building ramps of every shape and size. I remember saving up to finally build my own 8 ft. quarterpipe in the backyard with plans from BMX Action magazine. The feel of riding is something that has seeped deep into my bodily memory. Some nights lying on the couch I can still transport myself into the fluid feel of riding a quarterpipe, can still relive the contortions of freestyle. It's as if my bike is a kind of phantom limb.

Magazines were an alternative universe for me: in a little village of 600 people I waited hungrily each month for the next BMX Plus! issue to arrive, then BMX Action, and later Freestylin'. I lived vicariously through all of those beautiful people who lived in exotic places like Redondo Beach and Torrance, CA! I had always dreaming of making a pilgrimage so I could ride on the Redondo Pier (many years later, I'd teach just up the road in Westchester and regularly spent time in Redondo and Torrance, sans bike). Eventually, back home I started my own 'zine devoted to skating and BMX, with photos, commentary, even poetry! Deep in the recesses of our basement is a milk crate with old issues of the 'zine, my first forays into writing and publishing.

So, as you might imagine, I'm a bit of an X-Games geek (downloaded the app on my iPod!). But nothing (re)captured my imagination like ESPN's recent documentary--one of the 30 on 30 docs--on Mat Hoffman, one of the real pioneers of vert. I still remember when this yokel from Oklahoma started emerging in the magazines--crazy, crazy air (=height!) coupled with tricks that were unthought of before his advent. In fact, I would later compete against Hoffman in a halfpipe contest in Grand Blanc, MI. I say "compete against" in a generous sense: all that means is that Hoffman was still an amateur (he would soon turn pro), and we were participants in the same competition. He finished first; I think I finished 31st. But I did see his first attempt at a 900 in competition.

The ESPN documentary, "The Birth of Big Air," is very well done--and for anyone with any memory of this era, quite moving. It tries to set the record straight by showing the extent to which X-Games hype owes much to Hoffman's insane, unheralded efforts on rickety ramps in Oklahoma. Indeed, the contrasts between Hoffman's backyard zaniness and current X-Games televised glamor is striking (and, to be honest, disheartening).

But I'm also quite excited: my youngest son has expressed an interest in learning to ride more seriously. So I'm looking forward to tuning up my old GT Pro Performer still out in the garage.

Friday, July 30, 2010

On the Poetry of Charles Wright

Comment magazine has just published my essay on Charles Wright's poetry, "Show Me the World." The piece focuses on Wright's most recent collection, Sestets, which I highly recommend, along with his earlier collections Negative Blue and Scar Tissue.

Here's a snippet from the opening of the article:

Of late, a stream of Christian cultural criticism has encouraged conservative evangelicals to "look for God" in contemporary culture. Exhorting us to overcome a rather Manichean dissection of the world into holy and profane, this mode of cultural engagement encourages us to "find God" in contemporary music, Hollywood movies, and various forms of popular culture.

I'm not convinced this is the best hermeneutic frame for appreciating the arts. It still tends to instrumentalize the arts as a conduit for a Gospel "message" or "theistic" propositions. The result is too often a fixation on God-language in cultural artifacts or—worse—belaboured allegorical readings which see "Christ figures" everywhere.

We should expect art to be more oblique. And instead of asking artists to show us God, we should want them to reveal the world—to expand the world, to make worlds that expand creation with their gifts of co- and sub-creative power. The calling of painters and poets, sculptors and songwriters is not always and only to hymn the Creator but to also and often be at play in the fields of the Lord, mired and mucking about in the gifted immanence that is creation. With that rich creational mandate, a Christian affirmation of the arts refuses the instrumentalist justification that we "find God" in our plays and poetry. In a way that is provocatively close to the aestheticism of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, such a creational framing of the arts grants license for art to be quite "useless" —to (almost) be art for its own sake, for the sake of delight and play, for the sheer wonder and mystery of creating. Some of our best artists show us corners of creation we wouldn't have seen otherwise—and often because they've just given birth to a possibility hitherto only latent in the womb of creation.

Unhooking the arts from a "theological" instrumentalism also grants space for the arts to reveal the brokenness of creation without being supervised by a banal moralism. A painting or a poem reveals the world with a harrowing attention that will sometimes bring us face-to-face with what we've managed to willfully ignore up to that point.

In sum, the arts can be a means of what we might call "horizontal" revelation without necessarily being connected to "vertical" revelation. Like the book of Esther, God might never show up. Nonetheless, the Creator might best be honoured when we face up to the puzzling, mysterious nuances of his creation.

This is why I have become a devotee of the poetry of Charles Wright—not because I "find God" in his poetry (though he does make some cameos, often in the second person, like in prayers), but because through his poetry I see the world again, the world that's been in front of me this whole time.

Read the rest of "Show Me the World."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Democrat Paradise

Though it appeared in May, I just had opportunity to read Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker story, "Agreeable." It seems to me that Franzen could be seen as something like the heir to Updike, not as a stylist, but in terms of his commentary on suburban, middle-class America. This story is a snapshot of Patty, a high school athlete from Westchester, NY who is basically exiled within her own family. And though she is violated, what's really disturbing in the story is how she is treated by her family, especially her mother. All of this is presaged within the first few paragraphs when Franzen pegs the mother concisely:
Patty's mother was a professional Democrat. She later became a state assemblywoman, the Honorable Joyce Emerson, known for her advocacy of open space, poor children, and the Arts.
The ambiguity of that final "of" is brilliant, as is the delectable capitalization of "Arts." But then he follows up with this zinger:
Paradise for Joyce was an open space where poor children could go and do Arts at state expense.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hitchens' Faith

Amid the hype over Christopher Hitchens' 'memoir,' Hitch 22, I think Ian Buruma's review in the New York Review of Books nails it. Entitled "The Believer," Buruma's rightly notes the provincialism of Hitchens' supposedly contrarian and cosmopolitan perspective. But most importantly, he points out the fundamentalist irrationalism lurking behind Hitchens' black-and-white universe wherein anything "religious" is ipso facto evil. Thus Buruma concludes:
Several times in the book he expresses his loathing of fanaticism, especially religious fanaticism, which in his account is a tautology. As a typical example he cites the Japanese suicide pilots at the end of World War II. In fact, many were not so much fanatical as in despair about a corrupt society going under in a catastrophic war. But if modern Japanese history must serve as a guide to our own times, Hitchens might have mentioned a different category of misguided figures: the often Marxist or formerly Marxist intellectuals who sincerely believed that Japan was duty-bound to go to war to liberate Asia from wicked Western capitalism and imperialism. They saw 1941 as their finest hour, the moment when men were separated from boys, when principle had to be defended, when those who didn’t share their militancy were disloyal weaklings. These journalists, academics, politicians, and writers were not all emperor-worshipers or Shintoists, but they were believers nonetheless. The man who emerges from this memoir is a bit like them: clearly intelligent, often principled, and often deeply wrongheaded, but above all, a man of faith.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Wilde Theology

"In every sphere of life, form is the beginning of things. [...] Forms are the food of faith, cried Newman in one of those great moments of sincerity that made us admire and know the man. [...] The Creeds are believed, not because they are rational, but because they are repeated."

~Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist,"
in The Portable Oscar Wilde, p. 125

Sunday, July 04, 2010

What I'm Listening To: Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros

I have to thank my brother-in-law, Luke, for putting me onto a new favorite: Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, specifically "Up from Below" (get the deluxe version with bonus tracks and video if you can). What whimsical profundity; what lighthearted sobriety; what cheerful terror; what enchanting haunting! Their sound emerges from a delightful array of playful musicians: they sometimes have the expansive crisp brass sound of a big band; at other times it's the simple plunk of what sounds like a toy guitar. But it's the vocals of the male and female leads that are most captivating.

Their sound is complemented and enriched by lyrical content that should not be missed. Indeed, sometimes there is a tension or dissonance between the sound and lyrics such that the accessible pum-pum-pum of the instruments might trick you into ignoring what's being sung, as in "Up From Below" which opens with sheer vulnerability to the abyss:
I was only five when my dad told me I’d die
I cried as he said son, was nothing could be done
No all the fists I thrown just tryin to prove him wrong
After all the blood I spilled just tryin to get killed

Cuz I’ve already suffered I want you to know God
I’m ridin on hell’s hot flames comin up from below
There are also some wonderful tunes that can only be described as "love songs," for lack of a better word, including "Jade" but most especially, "Home"--a beautiful, playful paean to true love, with almost campy rhymes that can only be appreciated when you hear them sung in sheer joy:

Alabama Arkansas I do Love my Ma and Pa
But not as much as I do Love you
Holy Moly Me oh My your the apple of my eye
Girl aint never loved one like you
Man o Man your my best friend I scream it to the nothingness
that we got everything we need
Hot and Heavy pumpkin pie
Chocolate candy Jesus Christ
Aint nothin please me more than you

Home, Let me come Home
Home is Whenever Im with you
Home, yes I am Home
Home is wherever Im with you
This also includes a "talking" interlude on the album which is reminiscent of some of Johnny & June's banter in songs like "Jackson."

But then the album also includes sorrowful songs like "Brother" in a mournful tune which is almost oppressive because the tune itself (a sort of calypso dirge) seems to be fighting to retain any shred of hope:
Somewhere over the earth
A song, a song
Somewhere I have heard
My brother is gone
Away, under the moon
Brother, brother
Away, gone so soon
Please singin his tune
Still singin his tune

And away he gone day
And away he gone night
And away he gone dark
And away he gone light
Up and away he gone away
But in a way he gonna stay
Oh brother of mine
We’ll be singing some day
Oh we’ll be singing someday
Undead audio, yes we’ll be singing someday

Some say I am to blame
Brother, brother
Some days I fell the same
And feelin that shame
Away under the moon
Brother brother
Away gone so soon
Please singing this tune
Still singing his tune

And away he gone dark
And away he gone light
And away he gone day
And away he gone night
Up and away he gone away
But in a way he gonna stay
Oh brother of mine
We’ll be singing some day
Oh we’ll be singing someday
Undead audio, yes we’ll be singing today

I border on being mesmerized by the band. If you really want to be hooked, watch them in the studios of Santa Monica's famous KCRW, performing "Home":

Saturday, July 03, 2010

3 Returns to Daytona

A post from my alter ego:

Last night was a big night for the Nationwide Series--the little brother to NASCAR's Sprint Cup elite. Returning to Daytona's superspeedway for the summer race, Nationwide unveiled a new car for the series. What's most striking about these cars is the fact that they actually look like their namesakes, providing at least a hint of justification for the term "stock" car racing. Unlike the cookie-cutter cars in the Sprint series, the new cars in the Nationwide series have incorporated design elements from their on-the-street versions--at least on the front nose design. So the Mustang looks a bit like a Mustang, the Chevy Impala looks like an Impala (I still miss the Monte Carlo). And all those domesticated dads who find themselves behind the wheel of a Camry (remember the emasculating tone of the word "Camry" in American Beauty?) can at least take a little pleasure in seeing it now make its way around Daytona at almost 200 miles an hour.

My favorite design, however, is the Dodge Challenger (my current favorite candidate for "mid-life crisis car"). Check out Michigander Brad Keselowski's lean, mean machine:

But the unveiling of the new car was overwhelmed by a bigger story: as a way to honor Dale Earnhardt's induction into the new NASCAR Hall of Fame, Dale Jr. had agreed to do just one race in the famed, untouchable #3 car (no car has run #3 since Dale Sr. died in the 2001 Daytona 500). And while probably most of us would liked to have seen the #3 in the Intimidator's signature black "Goodwrench" paint scheme, Jr. drove a throwback car decked out in Dale Sr.'s early Wrangler colors. For anyone with even a remote connection to NASCAR nation, it was an emotional scenario. And when Jr.'s #3 car pushed into the lead on the 3rd lap, and the entire grandstand raised their hands with 3 fingers in tribute,'ll have to excuse me.

The script ended with what would be a clich├ęd ending, if it weren't so utterly remarkable: Dale Jr.--who hasn't won a race since 2008, and hasn't won a Nationwide race since 2006--stole the lead with 26 laps remaining. On a late caution, he stayed out when he probably should have got new tires. He was now a sitting duck at the front of the pack in a final, 4-lap drag race to the finish. And with driving skills that surely made Daddy proud, Jr. brought the fabled #3 to the checkered flag for the first time in over a decade.

Perhaps the most beautiful moment was Dale Jr.'s final promise in Victory Lane: "This is it. No more 3 for me."

Even snobby dismissers of NASCAR might enjoy watching the final laps:

Thinking in Tongues / Science and the Spirit

Well, I got to see my first, real live copy of Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy this week--in the bookstore at here Regent College in Vancouver. (I'm out here teaching a two-week course, which has been delightful.) As usual, Eerdmans has done a great job of design--I think it's really sharp. They've developed a nice logo for the "Pentecostal Manifestos" series which is quite distinctive.

I gave a public lecture on the book and was very encouraged by the response, especially from the large international population here in Vancouver and at Regent. I had wonderful conversations with folks from Korea, Brazil, Romania, New Zealand, and more. One of my real goals in trying to articulate the rather scandalous notion of a "pentecostal philosophy" is precisely in order to articulate the shape of a Christian philosophy that resonates with the charismatic Christianity that is "world Christianity." So this first little outing for the book was some confirmation in this regard.

The 4th chapter in Thinking in Tongues, which is focused on issues in ontology in dialogue with the sciences, will be complemented by another book coming out in a couple of months. With Amos Yong, I've edited Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences, forthcoming from Indiana University Press. This brings together scholars from across the disciplines (including theology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, chemistry, biology, and technology studies) who engage the sciences from a pentecostal standpoint. It's really the first of its kind and we hope it's only the beginning of what will be a growing conversation in the next generation. Should be out in late August or early September.