Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bingeworthy: The Americans

"Only duty and honor are real, Mischa. Isn't that what we were told?"
Irina in The Americans

Happy Fall Semester, Friends!

This summer has been a whirlwind. I spent a week studying theology with a bunch of high school students, enjoyed a weekend thinking about the American church & public life with a bunch of pastors, visited my alma mater, and remodeled a 1950s bungalow. AND of course I watched Wonder Woman. Amidst the chaos, I managed to write a bit and get some research done. But I am way, way behind on t.v. watching and recommending! Mea culpa.

This spring I'll be teaching American Church history, and to prepare for it, today's post is about one of my recent favorites: The Americans.

At first glance, The Americans - a show about deep-cover Soviet spies in the 1980s who try to undermine the U.S. government while living under cover as a "normal" American nuclear family in Washington, DC -  might seem like a strange choice for class about Christianity in America. But The Americans offers watchers an opportunity to think about Civil Religion, a key concept in American religious studies, from a distinct point of view.

The term American civil religion describe the rituals, holidays, cultural events/places/spaces drawn from our national history that create a religion of America. This religion has key beliefs ("all men are created equal," citizens are guaranteed "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) that amount to a kind of orthodoxy, and key practices (saluting the flag, standing for the national anthem, observing Independence Day, etc.) that are a kind of orthopraxy. The idea is that to be American, one must participate in the beliefs and practices of American civil religion.

The Americans offers us a chance to observe American civil religion from the perspective of those who believe that this religion is unorthodox and in fact a great evil that must be fought at any cost.... or is it? Through the eyes of "Elizabeth" (aka Nadezhda, played by Keri Russell), we see someone who works to maintain a purist vision of the Communist Party, and who is and disgusted by the materialism, comfort, and social injustice that surrounds her. Her partner/husband "Phillip" (aka Mischa/Mikhail, played by Matthew Rhys), on the other hand is not so sure. He finds that he actually enjoys American culture and he is reluctant to leave the life he has built there. After all, what's so bad about Coca Cola & McDonald's (this is the 80s - people don't hate these institutions yet)?

The Americans is about intrigue and global political strife, and it stands up very well as a political thriller. But it is most interesting when it parses out the tensions between Elizabeth and Phillip as they wrestle with whether or not they have been fully baptized into American civil religion. Elizabeth believes that her convictions (coupled with her brutal ability to extinguish human life on behalf of the Soviet Union) are enough to create a distinction between herself, her children, and American civil religion. The equally ruthless Philip wonders if the practice of being American has made him, and indeed their entire family, true believers.

What does it mean to be religious? Is religion about beliefs? Or practices? And what does it mean to be American? Is it enough to have citizenship, or must one convert? These questions and more are at the heart of one of my favorite summer binges.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Weekend Watching: Gaslight

"You're slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind."
Joseph Cotton as Brian Cameron in Gaslight

The term "gaslighting" has been making the rounds in American political discourse. My advice? See this classic film. 

Gaslighting, which is synonymous with manipulating a person or group into thinking that they are going out of their minds, comes from a classic play Gas Light that has been adapted to film twice. The 1944 version of Gaslight, staring the incandescent Ingrid Bergman, is my favorite. 

Bergman stars as Paula, a troubled young woman who witnessed her aunt being murdered as a child. As an adult, Paula is caught up in a whirlwind romance, gets married, and is now living with her new husband in relative isolation. Unfortunately for Paula, her happiness in love is short-lived. Soon, she begins seeing and hearing things... a creaky floor, a flickering gaslight. Her husband assures her that she's mistaken. Eventually Paula begins to think that she is going mad. But is she? 

Gaslight explores psychological abuse in a creepy, personal way. Watch it and you can decide for yourself whether or not it is a good metaphor for the state of our body politic.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Bingeworthy: Rectify

 "At the least I feel that those specific coping skills were best suited to the life there, behind me. I doubt there will serve me so well for the life in front of me, so I will seriously need to reconsider my world view." 
Daniel Holden in Rectify

Last week, I mentioned the glacial pace of one of my favorite shows, Rectify. Rectify, a moody, dreamy Southern Gothic drama about a man who is released from prison after serving 19 years for a rape and murder he may or may not have committed, moves at the pace of a humid Southern town in August. There is plenty of time to watch Daniel Holden struggle with life outside his cell walls and to watch his family struggle to reintegrate him into their web of relationships. And, there's ample space to enjoy sunset and fireflies and classic drawls (Clayne Crawford's Alabama roots shine in his spot-on performance as a Southern frat-guy character Ted Talbot Jr.).  

There are also many opportunities to consider the nature of justice, redemption, conversion, and repentance. How does a man who will always be connected to a terrible crime find forgiveness or freedom? Daniel struggles to attain both. How does 'hope deferred' change a person? Daniel's fiercely loyal sister Amantha, who worked for her entire adult life to secure his release, struggles to find meaning in her life. For those interested in conversations about whether or not the criminal justice system should be retributive or restorative, Rectify gives viewers a meditation on what imprisonment does to a human soul. And, there is one scene - a classic tent meeting complete with gospel choir and baptisms - that captures the enthusiasm and earthiness of revivalism in the American South. 

If you want a visual treat, a thoughtful discussion of justice and love, and an immersion into Southern religion, try Rectify.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Weekend Watching: The OA

There are certain things that I know I should like, but I just can't. Like sushi (not cosmopolitan enough). Or hiking (not outdoorsy enough). Or craft beer (not hipster enough). The OA falls under that category. The premise is this: a young woman, Prairie Johnson, makes a dramatic reappearance in middle America after disappearing for seven years. Her parents are anxious to welcome her back to her old life, but there's something very different about her this time around. For one thing, she used to be blind but now can see. For another, Prairie insists that she be called The OA. Mystery surrounds this woman and soon she attracts a ragtag group of followers who are fascinated by her storytelling abilities.

I could go on, but I'll just stop there. You know, dear readers, that I am a fan of this genre. But in order for a high concept show like this one to work, a viewer needs to be able to buy into that concept (or even just understand what it is) by the time the first episode concludes. The OA doesn't provide any such narrative structure. Without a story core to hold it together, we at least need some snappy dialogue or chemistry between characters to stay with it. But, the pacing of The OA is slow. Glacial. And, I can handle slowly paced television (Rectify is one of my favorites!).

It's really a shame because The OA plays with a lot of themes that historians of religion appreciate. The idea that a story can change the world, change history, and change the hearer in a fundamental way has rich potential. And, The OA herself - a fragile woman with mystical powers and reluctant but mesmerized followers - almost makes me want to watch a season 2. Am I missing some way to frame The OA that will help me recognize its greatness? You tell me.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Weekend Watching: Travelers

"We, the last and broken remnants, vow to undo the errors of our ascendants, to make the earth whole, the lost - unlost, at peril of our own birth"
Time Traveler's version of a Hippocratic Oath in Travelers

It's a classic dystopian sci-fi premise: humans in the future ruined the earth and it's up to an intrepid time traveler(s) to set the world right years before it goes wrong. In Travelers, they do it by using tech from the future to digitally override the brains of people in the 21st century who are about to die. But is it moral to override someone who is about to die, but is not quite dead yet? And when do you know that you've saved the world? What if saving the world means losing your very existence? The characters in Travelers wrestle with these questions as they work to redeem the world, one mission from the future at a time.

Travelers is theoretically right up my alley, but I'll admit that I was slow to appreciate the show's charms. Its stars are a bit too inexplicably attractive (which for some reason works for me on CW shows but doesn't work elsewhere); it stars Eric McCormack, who is a good actor, but I will always see him as Will from Will and Grace; it's also pretty humorless... I can handle bleak (in fact, some of my favorite shows are uber-depressing... ahem, Battlestar Galactica), but bleak is only bearable with a few laughs every now and then.

The final episodes pick up the pace, however, and they start asking some better-than-run-of-the-mill sci-fi questions. Such as, where and what is God in this future world? Does fixing the future eliminate free will? How do we know we can trust the powers that be in the future? And what would it take for the future people to become so attached to the present that they forget their vow to undo the errors of their ascendants? In the end, I found that the quality of Travelers increased along the way. And the questions they asked made the binge-investment worthwhile.