Monthly Archives: November 2012

on advent, anticipation, and active hope

This year, the first Christmas party to which I was invited will be taking place on December 1st. I informed my husband, enraged. “There was a time when Christian meant anticipation! What happened to living in the already and the not-yet? What happened to the patience of hope?”

He thought I was being unfair. “It’s the culture, love,” he said in his best soothing voice. But I will not be soothed. I go off on how it used to be that Christmas day began the twelve days of festivities, that no parties occurred before Christmas because it was a season of anticipation. Now, if I want to anticipate, I need to begin around Halloween. No wonder the stores put out their stockings when Fall has barely begun.

He attempts to use reason, “It’s not a good reason to want to go back to a tradition just because it’s what we used to do.” Which is true, of course, but not my argument at all. “I’m going to decline on theological grounds.”

Israel knew how to wait. They waited, expectantly, for the New Jerusalem. Even with the knowledge that they may not live to see its coming, they lived in hopeful anticipation.

In advent, I remember that Mary knew about anticipation. I would think every mother does. From the realization of the first missed menstruation until the child is in arms, a mother lives in anticipation of that tiny breath. It’s not a passive waiting, she actively works towards it, feels her body change, increases her food intake. She prepares not only in her body, but also her home, child-proofing and readying. She prepares psychologically. At the birth of her child, she will become a mother, and spend the rest of her life learning to be what she already is, a mother.

So what does it mean to anticipate the birth of a boy who became the man who taught us to pray “Thy Kingdom come”? I would suggest it means living in anticipation, active and excited anticipation, working towards new life and new creation with a patient hope. Perhaps advent teaches us to be patient for 30 days, so that we may be patient for another 30 days, 30 years, 30 generations as we actively work to bring the Kingdom into existence.

Or we could have a Christmas party to start off December. That sounds just as good, right?

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sexist gifts

I’ve been compiling my Christmas list for gifts to craft or buy for loved ones in my life. I flip through gift guides looking for inspiration and ideas, seeing if anything triggers thoughts of someone I know. Most gift guides are sorted by gender, which is not entirely useful. Women’s guides are full of jewelry, clothing, kitchen gadgets, art/craft supplies, and what my aunt calls “smelly stuff”–soaps, lotions and perfumes. Which is mostly fine, except for many men who are cooks, artists, and fashion-forward dressers. I’ll admit to being inspired by women’s gift guides for male friends. More than once.

Gift guides for men, truthfully, are downright insulting. “Smelly stuff” is only acceptable if it’s bacon-scented or beer-infused soap. There is only one kitchen gadget: bottle openers. On walls, on keychains, on sandals. Apparently men must have a half dozen ways to open a beer at any given time. The lack of food prep gifts would make you think that perhaps men weren’t interested in food, but there are plenty of edible options: most of it bacon-flavored, chocolate-covered, beer-infused, or some combination thereof. There are also a lot of games: lego sets, videogames, “silly putty or other slimy substance“, and nostalgic toys from childhood.

Is this an accurate image of men in our culture? This is the portrayal of children. They must be coerced to use soap, they only want to eat fatty or sugary foods, they’re excited about the same games and toys you would give prepubescent boys. (Did you click on the link to bacon-scented soap? From a company called “Perpetual Kid”. All I did was google “bacon soap”, and it came up first.)

The only difference? If you’re romantically involved with him, you’re encouraged to give him massage oil (presumably for you to use on him) and lingerie (for him to use on you).

This isn’t the men I know. And these aren’t the gifts I give. But when blog after blog, magazine upon magazine, gift guides from so many sources echo the same sentiments, I can only assume that this is, at least to some extent, a reality in many gift-exchanges across USAmerica.

I want to urge: don’t believe the media. We often have conversations around unrealistic images of women’s bodies and how those should not be the expectations. How dare we ask that men view us more fully than our media caricatures, when we perpetuate the caricatures of them? Let’s talk about the portrayal of men as stupid, sloppy, and childish, and work to restore their dignity. Which makes a thoughtful Christmas gift carry within it a deeper, better gift: respect.

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blessed are the arrogant: a viewing of magnolia

In evaluating which character in Magnolia represents the “poor in spirit”, we must first find a satisfactory understanding of the phrase.

Humility is one interpretation. Chrysostom believed the blessing to be for those who were intentionally “humble and contrite in mind.” Robert Schuller writes we are to “humble our attitude … ask for help.” By this definition, I don’t think any characters in Magnolia can be viewed as poor in spirit.. The closest would be Phil, the nurse, humble enough to order Hustler and spend hours begging with strangers on the phone in order to help his dying patient make amends with his son. However, not much personal humility is required in order to ask on the behalf of another; it costs more to receive than to give.

Let’s try again. Brown proposes that the phrase means “those who are oppressed by the rich and powerful.” In which case, I turn to the Exodus allegory of Magnolia, set up most obviously by the falling frogs, the most prominent of the many references to Exodus 8:2, “I will smite thy borders with frogs.” Throughout the film it is thethe children, both young and grown (Claudia, Frank, Dixon, Donnie, and Stanley), who are enslaved and exploited for the benefit of their fathers, who represent the Egyptians. The children are “poor in spirit”, used and exploited for sexual gratification or financial gain, and ignored by those in a position to help. This is satisfying as a reenacting of the oppression in Exodus, and yet as I watch the film I cannot help but be empathetic toward the pain of the adults. Earl abandoned his son, yes, but I feel for him in his remorse. Jimmy might have molested his daughter, and yet he’s not an entirely unlikable character, no matter how much I want him to be. Why would PT Anderson construct these characters in such a way if they are meant to be hated?

There is yet another definition of what it means to be poor in spirit. In this understanding, “poor in spirit” is not a virtue to attain nor a socioeconomic circumstance. It is a negative term, depicting the losers, the outsiders, the people who don’t deserve to be blessed. Dallas Willard re-writes the verse, “Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’,” theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. When “poor in spirit” stops being one more requirement for entry, it is freed to truly be a blessing upon those have no reason to be blessed. This is an understanding to which every character in Magnolia can say: well, that’s good news.

The Kingdom of Heaven is for the divorcees, the uncared for children, the lonely, the child molesters, promiscuous seducers, adulterers, greedy exploiters, thieves, and coke addicts.

Who is poor in spirit in this film? I ask back: who isn’t?

This piece was written as an assignment for Reading Practices with Jo-Ann Badley, responding to the question “Who, if anyone, represents the poor in spirit in the film Magnolia?”

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