Saturday, August 24, 2013

Liberal Arts in the Woods

A fresh crop of undergraduates has matriculated at my alma mater, and for the past two weeks I guided a group of eight of them through an intensive transitional program set in the beautiful northern woods of Wisconsin. Eight bright-eyed dudes, laden with books and rumors of books and myriad anxieties, scrambling up a 12-ft wall under the benevolent gaze of me, their bearded leader, silently cheering for them.

We ate meatball subs and debated the proper shape of Christian witness in politics under canoes lashed to the ceiling of the dining hall. We pondered the unfathomable depths of the love of God on a pontoon boat, which 20 minutes of effort helped to anchor in the shallows near the lake's bank under a patchwork cover of pine tree shade. We talked about community sitting cross-legged in cool dirt, stood up to brush off our behinds and hike back to camp. As campfire smoke filled our jackets and fleeces we talked Dostoevsky, transubstantiation, metaphysics, and dating. I commented on academic paper formats and the school's language requirements while picking marshmallow out of my beard.

I helped to build the cabin they slept in. We built it lincoln-log style from some kind of kit one year when I went north for spring break to read and work. During the long winters, the snow muffles everything but the sound of the wind across the frozen lake. It is possible to build a fire in the middle of the ice, a couple hundred feet from the nearest shore. Standing in its glow, looking at a darkening forest above the buried banks while the sun goes down, it can feel as though you've reached the edge of the world—where eternity clips time, as Annie Dillard says.

In late summer, the sounds never stop. Bugs and outboard motors, shouts, rifle retorts, backfires, fireworks, campfire crackles, leaves rattling like a cascade of rice across a counter, deer suddenly bounding through the woods in front of you, birdcalls. It all floats on a light wind, the organic counterpoint to the mechanical city hum I've become accustomed to.

We walked over acres of forest and grass, turning over ideas and perspectives in the workshops of our souls and burning off extra energy in a steady chatter. Hymns sung next to a sputtering Hobart lifted the dishwashing room into the celestial spheres. Our puckered hands slung food waste and scrubbed baking sheets. The damp that spread through aprons into t-shirts was holy water. We may as well have been wearing robes and tonsures. God smiled upon us, likely in amusement.

Of course, you have to come back to earth sometime. Those students are about to begin their freshman year; our wonderful faculty advisor is already busy advising his new advisees. The engine is about to turn, and within a few weeks, Wisconsin will likely seem distant in history. That doesn't matter, though. What happened will prove its relative value over time. I'm just glad to have been a part of it, whatever it will mean in the long term. Embodied, thinking creatures that we are, I don't know of a better place to start a liberal arts education than in the woods along the banks of Long Lake.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Hi all.

So in the interval since my last post, I got a new writing gig. I'll still be putting stuff up here whenever the mood strikes, but now you can also find stuff I write on a regular schedule over at Christ and Pop Culture, a repository of Christian cultural criticism.

The blog is a good one, and I'm pleased to be able to contribute content to it. So far, pieces of mine have gone up on Kanye's new album and Chabon's new novel. Check them out if you like! As always, thanks for reading.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Recent Media Intake in Review: Cloud Atlas, Telegraph Avenue, &c.

Cloud Atlas

An enjoyable weaving-together of stories across space and time, Cloud Atlas is at its best when it's at its least message-y. Rarely have I felt so bombarded by a movie's thesis. The prosthesis-heavy makeup, 172-minute running time, and an enormously unfortunate use of dialect also threaten to scupper the film, but for me there is a saving grace in a clutch of deeply human stories.

The message, though, clangs around like a bolt in a steel drum. Ultimately, its ubiquity is matched by its  simplicity: we are all connected, and our present actions will have consequences across future generations. In case you fail to hear it explicitly every few minutes in the dialogue, the Wachowskis decided to include a thorough exposition of the idea in a subversive broadcast late in the film. "From womb to tomb..." intones a central character into a microphone. As violence again bursts out in front of her, she delivers a speech to the world that sallies forth with all the rhetorical power of a few rejected Hallmark cards. The simple meagerness of the film's moral vision comes into a harsh light when this climactic piece of oratory is set alongside that of another film from a very different time.

From Cloud Atlas:

From The Great Dictator:

Sure, the comparison is unfair—The Great Dictator is unique in film history for the context of its creation, which is essential to its power and importance—but I also find it illuminating as far as it goes. The Wachowski's sentimental New Age-y spiritualism just doesn't fare too well next to Chaplin's urgent humanism. Make of it what you will. I enjoyed Cloud Atlas for its accomplishments with a complicated narrative, for several of its stories and its sheer ambition, but the transcendence it aims for seems to remain consistently out of reach.