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Miracle at St. Anna

August 29, 2009 Leave a comment
Miracle at St. Anna Movie Poster

Miracle at St. Anna Movie Poster

It’s not black history month, but I can still talk about black history. Tonight I watched Miracle at St. Anna. James McBride and Spike Lee have given a treasure to all Americans that tells a story about the Buffalo Soldiers in WWII The 92nd division (all black soldiers) which has often been portrayed in a negative light (if portrayed at all) is given a wondrous and beautiful portrayal through a small band of soldiers. While the actual story is fictionalized, it is a story worth telling and does reflect element of the period.

James McBride has been studying this period, talking to the men who fought, and listening to their stories. Even while experiencing racial prejudice back home and abroad (from their white officers), these men laid down their lives for America and fought for all of the free world.

Thank you! I’m grateful for the service of these men and am glad to hear more of their stories.

We need to tell the hidden stories of Americans from all races. And I black history is not history for blacks. It is bringing to light stories and people that the greater culture often neglects. So I encourage all Americans to read more and learn more of the stories of blacks through our history.

Over the last few months, I’ve been writing a play on the Harlem Renaissance and was amazed to learn about the “Harlem Hellfighters,” an all black regiment in WWI who not only served heroically but introduced jazz to Europe (under the leadership of the regimental band leader James Reese Europe.

Living Amid the Ruins

April 9, 2008 Leave a comment

Almost four years ago I wrote about the fall of modern structures, suggesting that gatekeepers like government, media, church, and education were crumbling due to their reliance on a modern worldview that had collapsed. Later I was to discover that 30 years earlier, Ivan Illich had been thinking and writing in a far more comprehensive way on a similar theme.

As some people proclaim they are tired of church, others proclaim they are tired of voting. In fact, there is a great deal of disappointment and distrust of church, government, science, universities, and more. Whenever frustrations move from personal, localized distrust to mass distrust then something is not working in the society. I think this is a sign of breakdown of the Western world

Today while I was driving over to eat dinner with our little community, I started thinking of ways to better explain what I mean by the end of the Western world.

When we speak of the Western world, we generally refer to the commonality of cultures between people of Western Europe (including US and Canada). While the local languages may differ, there are certain common symbols that guide our way communicating, impacting the way we think and act. These symbols are rooted in a common core that reaches back to the forces that shaped our modern Western world: Christianity and Greek philosophy.

Even though many people reject Christianity and have never studied Greek philosophy, these symbols still shape the way they see the world. If we look backward into an earlier era such as the Medieval world, we are looking back to a time/place when people shared a different symbol set. The symbols may include a certain set of rituals such as the Latin Mass and a set of Holy Days. While there where local variations, the common mass and the common calendar defined a way of experiencing life and communicating life.

Each local area may express and develop the symbols uniquely through particular types of clothing, speech pattern, songs, dances and so on. In other words, the stuff of life that connects people: family, dress, home, language, worship, etc. When we speak of a world, we are suggesting that there is a commonality of symbols that caused people to see the world/understand the world in similar ways. While each person viewed and experienced the world slightly differently, a common set of boundaries for defining the world was shared by most of the people.

When I speak of the Western world, I am speaking in a similar way. The Western World might in one sense be a combination of eras that stretch back to ancient Rome up through today. In that sense, the Western world contains many worlds such as the Classical, the Medieval, the Renaissance and so on. The controlling group of people in any given era share some common core of meaning that allow them to communicate and build a society together. Every world is always fragile and never independent of the people within it.

As the Western world passed through the Enlightenment and moved toward the modern world, there was a great anticipation among many people that the world was going to get better. We could understand the world around us through disciplined reason. We could observe the world around and find the real. A sense of hope in progress propelled many of family and individual to expect a better world tomorrow. (This is a super simplistic reduction.)

While a sense of hope and anticipation led the charge, a certain pessimism also begin to grow. The multiple tensions within this world stretching for tomorrow might show up in the arts through artisits like Charles Dickens who kept reminding the “civil” world of an underclass with struggles and pains.

Charles Darwin exemplifies this expectancy of the progress just like many revivalist preachers did. Their zeal and hope were expressed in vastly different ways but a common threat still held them in a one world. Some people saw beneath the fabric and knew it was unraveling. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both identified a rotton apple within their world even if one moved deeper into faith while the other move away from it.

As the nineteenth century waned and the twentieth century waxed, a growing denizen of thinkers, writers and artist began to question the fundamental symbol sets that held the Western World together. Then Einstein rocked the science world with his theories. WW1 resulted in over 40 million deaths (Wikipedia). From 1918 to 1919, influenza killed off between 2.5% and 5% of the world’s population (see Wikipedia). These strains kept building and pressuring a world view that was already starting to crumble. As Yeats proclaimed, “The center cannot hold.”

Within ten years, nations around the world descended into a Great Depression and then another devastating war (WW2), which demonstrated that even science could prove the demise of the world through atomic warfare. These external strains were only coupled within internal strain that questioned the core symbol sets that pointed to a hopeful future, that trusted our reason, that believed in what we could see, smell, hear and taste.

Gradually more and more groups of people began to notice the problems of the Western world. It’s wasn’t as rosy as we had believed. The institutions made of people (like government and education and church) could act destructive. And collectively people could really be destructive. The stories and symbols and ideas that held this world together seemed questionable. They also allowed for slavery, prejudice, destruction of native American lands and families, sexual injustice.

The 60s was not a surprise blip on the map of the 20th century. It was when masses of young people finally abandoned the common symbols that bound the West together. The death that impacted many thinkers at the end of WW1 had now spread to young people. Some suggested the world would be so much better if we did away with all the trappings of Western civilization like religion and nations and conflicts.

The symbols that were cracking in earlier centuries completely collapsed in the twentieth century. Even the basic symbols sets of common language were questioned. Could we really even find a common meaning? RD Laing suggested that we could and would never know anoyone elses experience beyond our own. The meaning of words and even the trustworthiness of our own observations were questioned. We saw a man land on the moon, but did he really land on the moon? We saw a plane crash into the two towers, but did we really?

While the late 70s to the present have tried to turn the clock back before the 60s, it cannot happen. The 60s were an explosion of mass doubt and disbelief in the Western World that was a long time in coming. And yet the contradiction of the 60s (as well as the contradication of many would-be messiahs today) is that the people before screwed everything up but this modern project really does work and if we just make a few tweeks, through out a few behavoirs and add a few new gadgets, we can still make the world a better place. Using some vague modernist idea of progress, people continued to rely on a world view that was busted and broken.

We’ve watched over the last 40 years, the collapse of this world view played out in our institutions (made up of people who are losing their common symbol set). From the government corruption to the shootings at the schools, we see a world where we no longer trust institutions (and no longer want to go to church).

This disintegration is being played out all around the Western world, including the fighting in Iraq. While most people will point at someone or something else as the problem, they fail to see that the whole ship is sinking. We can never go back to 1950 (or the garden for the matter). Now we go forward to a new creation, a new world.

When I say that the Western World is dead, I mean that the symbols expressed in ritual and language and ideas no longer bind us together. So we abandon this civilization and revert to a tribe of like-minded people for comfort and security (liberal, green, conservative, libertarian and so on). We are living at the edge of chaos even if we try to convince ourselves otherwise.

We chaos will not prevail. The West will move forward. A new articulation of the future will eventually speak a vision of the world that will draw the masses together and we’ll move forward beyond this interim period. We will probably not even realize when that happens. But it will. And as I Christian, I believe that we will move forward learning and living out the radical implications of our confession in even more fuller ways. We are moving from glory to glory.

What will it look like to move forward? Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy suggested we move look back to move ahead. And many have begun to look back. The challenge of the church is to articulate through the voice of humility the way forward that leads to the resurrected Christ Jesus who calls us from glory to glory.

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