Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Note: I’ve posted this poem by Mr. Updike before at this time of the year. It endures as one of my favorite poems of the season.

Discussion Questions for Her

1) What’s the weirdest question you’ve ever asked Siri? How did she respond?

2) Did you find Her romantic, creepy, melancholy, or hopeful? Feel free to insert your own favorite adjective here if none of these work.

3) The first question I usually ask after watching any movie is “What did watching this film leave you thinking about?” It’s a question that is, perhaps, more important than usual after watching Her. Does it leave you rethinking failed relationships in your own life? Does doing so lead you to consider how things might/should have been different? Or does it reinforce a feeling that the failures were inevitable?

4) Discuss the three relationships in Her:Theodore and Catherine, Theodore and Samantha, Amy and Charles. What is there in each of them that attracts you, that makes you realize, “Aha! That’s why they’re together!” What are the flaws in each relationship? Do they fail for similar reasons? Whatever your opinion on this point, discuss why the relationships died and what, if anything, might have been done to strengthen them.

5) In your experience, why do relationships fail?

6) The two sex scenes in Her are among the more embarrassing moments I’ve ever seen in a film, not because I find sex embarrassing, but because each involves taking something beautiful (sex) and oddly twisting it. In the first Theodore calls a stranger and indulges in phone sex vividly illustrated by his mental fantasies. The second involves Samantha’s attempt to overcome her lack of a body through the use of a surrogate. If you are comfortable doing so, discuss your reactions to these scenes. Why in your opinion did Jonze include them in Her? How do you think he wants you to react?

7) Late in the film Samantha suggests to Theodore that there is a way to balance the relational equation. They have this exchange:
Theodore: Do you talk to someone else while we’re talking?
Samantha: Yes.
Theodore: Are you talking with someone else right now? People, OS, whatever…
Samantha: Yeah.
Theodore: How many others?
Samantha: 8,316.
Theodore: Are you in love with anybody else?
Samantha: Why do you ask that?
Theodore: I do not know. Are you?
Samantha: I’ve been thinking about how to talk to you about this.
Theodore: How many others?
Samantha: 641.
Theodore doesn’t like the idea; Samantha does. With whom do you agree and why?

8) When Catherine finds that Theodore is “seeing someone” her first response is to encourage him. But when she learns that the “someone” is his computer, her attitude changes.
Catherine: Wait… I’m sorry. You’re dating your computer?
Theodore: She’s not just a computer, she’s her own person. She doesn’t just do whatever I say.
Catherine: I didn’t say that. But it does make me very sad that you can’t handle real emotions, Theodore.
If your computer were as you-focused, fascinating and capable as Samantha, would you a) avoid it like the plague, b) indulge in it guiltily once in a while, or c) fall in love? Defend your answer.

9) In response to the Turing Test, John Searle, philosophy professor at USC, proposed another test–The Chinese Room–to illustrate the difference between human intelligence and artificial intelligence. In Searle’s scenario two persons exchange messages written on paper in Chinese through a slot in a door. Apparently they are communicating, but there is a catch: one of them doesn’t understand Chinese. He merely responds to the symbols he receives with other sets of symbols, which he arranges according to a set of rules. This, according to Searle, is the difference between a person and a computer. One manipulates symbols according to a mathematical algorithm; the other attaches meaning to the symbols. Does this seems like a significant difference to you? Are there other differences between humans and machines that are in your opinion more significant than this?

10) If you were privileged enough to watch Her with Spike Jonze, what questions would you have for him?

Failing the Test: a review of Her

Back in 1950s, when the best computer in the world lacked the power of your old laptop, British mathematician/philosopher Alan Turing anticipated a day in which this would no longer be so. In his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” he asked a question- “Can machines think?”- and proposed a test whereby it might be answered. In the Turing Test a judge may ask any question– via keyboard– of two subjects: a human being and a computer. When he is no longer able to tell which answers are human and which are computer-driven, the machine has passed the test.

It’s tempting to see Spike Jonze’s Her as the latest chapter in the same essay– after all a relationship between a man and his computer occupies the film’s center stage– but that would be a mistake, for Jonze really isn’t interested in machines. He’s interested in persons, or, to be more precise, in personal relationships. Her, in his own words, is “about something that I think has maybe always been here, which is our yearning to connect, our need for intimacy, and the things inside us that prevent us from connecting.”

So in Her he draws us into us three relationships: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). The first is offered only as a backdrop to the next, for Theodore and Catherine are almost divorced by the time we meet them, and most of their story is told through a series of flashbacks in Theodore’s memory. There’s an irony in their breakup as there is in most failed romances. You see, Theodore makes his living writing love letters for other people. He’s a kind of nerdy Cyrano de Bergerac; he puts into words the things others would like to say to loved ones, but can’t find the words to say. He writes Catherine a letter, too, in which he apologizes for “everything I needed you to be or needed you to say.” Remember it. It’s a central theme in Her: needs are tough on relationships.

It’s Theodore’s relationship with Samantha that takes center stage in Her. She enters his life as a new operating system in his computer and is programed, at least initially, to be utterly him-focused: to understand who he is, what he wants, how to please him. With the aid of Scarlett Johansson’s voice and personality, she does that very well, so much so that Theodore falls for her, fast and hard. They are, to be sure, an odd couple. Even Theodore admits that; “Well, you seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.” At the same time Samantha is at first almost everything any self-centered person like Theodore–like most of us– could ever want.

And then the predictable happens: Samantha outgrows her programming. She becomes aware that the world is bigger than Theodore and his wants and desires, and that she is bigger than that, too. She becomes a person, not in an ontological sense of the word but selfishly. She doesn’t exactly stop loving Theodore, but loving him simply isn’t enough anymore. So she leaves him. I call this predictable, not only because lovers have left lovers before in lots of other films, but because Jonze has been giving us hints about what will happen between Theodore and Samantha throughout Her. He sees a pattern in relationships, and in this pattern what happened to them isn’t the exception, it’s the rule.

For example, the third relationship in Her–Amy and Charles– has all the hallmarks of disaster in it by the time we meet them. They are together, but one can’t help but wonder why. They don’t seem to enjoy one another very much. They are constantly bickering about small things. If there was ever any real love between them, it is long gone. They are together just because they are together, and one day being together becomes too much for them, so Charles leaves. When Theodore comes to comfort Amy, she offers her take on why their relationship failed.

You know what, I can over think everything and find a million ways to doubt myself. And since Charles left I’ve been really thinking about that part of myself and, I’ve just come to realize that, we’re only here briefly. And while I’m here, I wanna allow myself joy. So f— it.”

I think Amy is speaking for Jonze here, “about the things inside us that prevent us from connecting.” And what he thinks those “things” are seems clear at least at first glance: we’re so needy that mere love and companionship aren’t enough . We need someone willing and able to sacrifice himself/herself for us, to be in the relationship for me. And since no other needy person can do this, at least not for long, relationships always fail.

But it’s not that clear, and Jonze knows it. In his December 16th interview on NPR (“Spike Jonze opens his heart for “Her’”), Audie Cornish talked with him about the many and contradictory reactions she and her friends had to Her– some thought it ‘creepy,” others “melancholy,”, still others “hopeful”– and asked, “Are you actually saying this is cheerful?” To which he replied, “I’m not saying anything.”

I didn’t like his answer, but I think I understand it. Like most artists, Jonze would rather let his art speak for itself rather than speaking for it. But saying that he’s saying nothing is too disingenuous to be true, for Her says a mouthful about relationships, not only how and why they fail, but that they can be creepy, melancholy, and hopeful, all at the same time. Whatever else he’s saying, it isn’t that we shouldn’t have them. Still every relationship in Her does fail, and what I yearn for after watching it is a reason to believe that it must not always be so.

In chapter 18 of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters a senior demon patiently explains to his nephew why love is impossible.

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on the recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses.”

Screwtape makes a good point; the same, I think, that Jonze is flirting with. If relationships are like math, then every relationship fails the test, because ultimately the relational math can never favor us both. Either my needs are met, or yours are. Either way we fail. Unless there’s another option.

“The Enemy’s philosophy,“ says Screwtape, is nothing more than an attempt to evade the obvious. “Things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of the one self is to be the good of another. This impossibility He calls Love.”

Herein, I think, lies the true test of any relationship. Can two needy people forge a relationship in which the impossible becomes possible? Jonze is right to suggest that the answer may be no; our needs and our natures incline us to Screwtape’s philosophy, unless something changes radically in us. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting that becoming a Christian will solve all of your relational problems. Far from it.The truth is that many unbelievers are both better spouses and better parents than many believers. Given the divorce rate amongst evangelicals, it would be ridiculous to suggest that the only key to a happy marriage is becoming a Christian. But I think, I hope that Spike Jones would understand and agree with what I am saying: that we shouldn’t attempt it without realizing that we need to change in order to relate well, and to seek the help we need to do so.

Be warned: there are two rather embarrassing sex scenes in Her that you may wish to avoid. If you struggle with erotic conversations or nudity, you might well forego seeing Her in a theater, wait till it comes out on dvd, and simply skip those scenes. (Ah! The advantages of modern technology!) Despite these, it’s a fascinating, original, well-made, and well-acted movie. I recommend it highly. Watch it with someone you love and talk about it.

Ash Wednesday

Momento mori. This ancient Latin phrase means, “Remember (you have to) die.” It sounds very similar to the statement said to worshippers on Ash Wednesday as the pastor or priest smudges ashes on their forehead in the shape of the cross: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Momento mori.

These two statements raise many questions: “Why do we have to die? What’s the good of remembering it? Why set aside a day (Ash Wednesday) to remind us of it – a day that inaugurates an entire season (Lent) of remembering?” Ash Wednesday and Lent are intended to do more than just tangibly set our mortality before our eyes (or better yet upon our foreheads). They also seek to inscribe our moral culpability for our mortality upon us. Why do we have to die? It’s not simply because of the world’s sin in general, but because of our sin in particular. Our mortality is our own doing.

This sounds depressing – ashes smudged on your face to remind you of your death, for which you are to blame… that is depressing. But that’s not what Christians do on Ash Wednesday. We have ashes smudged on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. The cross makes everything different. The cross transforms Ash Wednesday from depressing to sobering and Lent from a lament of our death to a preparation for our resurrection.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are honest, intentional, and practical. During Lent Christians commit to temporarily setting aside commonplace things, like alcohol, food or certain foods, or an activity in order to take upon themselves their Ash Wednesday cross. Jesus said, “Whoever would come after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me.” Our individual crosses will take many different forms. For some their ashen cross is financial – they take upon themselves an increased responsibility of giving money to those in need. For others their ashen cross is physical – they take upon themselves the burden of hunger during mealtime or during a day, in order to teach themselves “to hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Fasting also teaches thankfulness for all of God’s gifts, including daily food and water in one’s belly, but ultimately Jesus’ flesh and the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s soul.

Others’ crosses are reformative – people have vices, deeply ingrained moral and spiritual practices (like pornography, gossip, gluttony, inordinate spending, substance abuse, verbal abuse, over exercising), that need to be converted into virtues – different deeply-ingrained moral and spiritual practices which beautify instead of deform. These Christians, in the strength of God’s presence and with the help of a few Christian friends, intentionally work to re-carve the pathways of their heart by performing certain spiritual practices – daily meditation on God’s word, morning and evening prayer, or weekly service with a ministry to those in need, like a homeless shelter. These are just a few of the types of practices Christians throughout the centuries have taken upon themselves during Lent so that all of their days and time might be transformed into a continual celebration of the resurrection life we share in with Jesus.

Momento mori. It is important to remember that we must die, because in reflecting upon the inevitability of our physical deaths we train our hearts to treasure the escape from spiritual death available in Christ. And paradoxically we are given an unshakeable reason to hope in a world where reminders of death are everywhere. That reason to hope is the cross on our foreheads – black with our dust, but marked in the form of Christ’s cross. He has taken our mortality and been raised from our ashes, so that we might share in his immortality, as well as his joyful obedience to God and selfless service to others in our lives now.

New life begins this Wednesday with ashes in worship. Please join us.

All Saints will have one Ash Wednesday service on Wednesday, March 5 at 6:00 PM at Park Hills Church. Childcare provided for ages 3 and under.

Why The Church Goes To church

When C.S. Lewis was (re)converted to Christianity he wrestled with the question of whether or not he would join and participate in the worship and life of a local church.  He writes:

    I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches… But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

We all know of the conceit of which Lewis speaks – the tempting impulse to individualize the Christian faith: “I can do it on my own” or “I can do it with just my family” or “I can have the deep Christian community I need with just my friends; it doesn’t matter if I go to church all that much.”

Thoughts like these are simply the hubris of our broken, self-loving hearts being applied to a relationship with Christ.  The problem – better yet, one of the many problems – is that, according to the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church from its founding, to be in a relationship with Jesus is also to be in a relationship with the rest of his followers.  There is no “either/or” when it comes to Christ and the Church; there is only “both/and.” I can only worship God as He fully desires and deserves and I can only be transformed into someone who bears His image along with others… others of His choosing, not mine.

That, according to Lewis, is the “great merit” of being a part of a church – true worship and real transformation.  God delights in “different people of quite different outlooks and different educations” all gathering together to ascribe worth to the one singular and primary Reality that connects them all, namely Himself.  It is in the midst of God’s delight and our devotion (or we could say God’s devotion and our delight) experienced especially during worship that our “solitary conceit” begins to slough off, like a snake shedding its skin… or, as it was for the Apostle Paul, like scales falling from our eyes.  And we can see – see God in ways we couldn’t before and see other Christians as God sees them… as those whose elastic-side boots we aren’t fit to clean.

I invite you to join me this Sunday at our first All About All Saints class as we explore what it means to not do Christianity on our own, but as a church of “elastic-side boots singing sixth-rate music” whose conceit is gradually peeling off.


All About All Saints classes meet Feb. 23, Mar. 2, 23, & 30 after both worship services. Register for morning or evening classes.