Meta-Thoughts for Forum Blogging

It might have slipped your notice, but the Evangelical Outpost found six Torrey Honors students who were keen on writing, tsk-tsked at our lonely Blogspots and well-hidden journals, and invited us into the open, the fray of forum blogging. Instead of constantly writing by ourselves (and mostly, for ourselves), the forum-structure offers a chance to refine our blog posts with dialogue. The major premise of EO content isn’t a particular theme or audience; it’s inter-editorial feedback. So, I won’t say they let us go completely unscathed, not with the weekly grooming and shearing our pieces get. We subscribe to the blog-dialogue approach, where every post is part of a larger conversation.

Sometimes, Facebook feed and daily blog skimming unearths posts which are actually aspiring to be essays—pieces that stand-alone on internal consistency and supported argument. Timothy Bartel recommends an excellent set of questions for what qualifies as a good ‘essay-post.’ But that’s not the only way to read or write. In fact, it’s rare in the blogging world. Several of us are looking into what we do with those messier, less-polished posts that don’t deserve the wide, public audience an essay would.  Rebecca Card-Hyatt suggests we are writing for a difference audience: peers, friends and like-minds.

The future for blog-dialogue offers several promising effects:


Relevance / ‘In Real Time’  

 Write a review of a presidential debate. Then, refine it for a month until it qualifies as an essay. There’s too much distance. While the written response might be insightful, interest in the instigating event has already peaked and disappeared. Our friends have already watched, opined about and moved beyond the following four debates. Essays aren’t naturally conducive to interacting with fast-paced culture. One alternative is to devote all blog posts to what’s transcendent, limiting ourselves to only abstract ideas and excluding current events. That’s a limiting alternative, however. range of interests, though. For me, writing in conversation with like-minds runs on a spectrum of interests, including everything from the ordinary to the sublime. All due respect to the ordinary, writing quickly is the way to keep pace with up-to-date topics.


More critical thinking, not less

Real conversations crumble under the siege of poor speech and lazy thinking. The challenge of having real forward movement required you to move forward at a shared pace, going step by step, thought by thought. Simultaneously, the challenge of communicating to someone else requires you to think through old thoughts in new ways and invent an apt expression for them. The blogger keen for listeners and responses wants the same things as a normal conversationalist, simultaneously aware that blogging is susceptible to sloppiness of thought and delivery but, placed in a dialogue atmosphere, might become an opportunity working out real communication. Each post functions like a few statements, building on previous thoughts and anticipating nearby implications. The guidelines and challenges of an ordinary conversation shape limits for the writer which naturally improve her work.


Layers of timbre

I encounter a lot of over-assertiveness in individual blogs. The writers are distinctly aware that, aside from their font and background color choice, confidence is their only platform. But too often, the anxiety of being their own endorsement makes their tone more obnoxious than persuasive. The blog-dialogue distributes the weight of authority between all the participants, giving everyone a chance to risk sharing their idea without fearing the ‘you-don’t-sound-expert-enough’ response. It allows different timbres to color the general tone: curiosity, concord, humility, uncertainty, etc. Instead of being delivered in one tone bent on asserting the speaker’s authority, the blog-dialogue has a layered tonal atmosphere that illumines the topic directly, in addition to highlighting the speaker.  The wider range of writers increases the range of readers.  The entire team of writers draws an audience of diverse shape, eliciting fresh density to the tone of the pieces. As a result, the audience watches how their attention actually contributing to the conversation, validating their input and watering down the emphasis on who is following, sharing or tweeting whom.



Images seeped with memories. Rock-bottom questions. Words with long histories. Inside jokes. Recurrences are facilitators of our best conversations. They are reminders of how common understanding between people makes listening worthwhile. They function as comfortable resting points during strong disagreement. Ultimately, they support our weird questions and crazy assertions with credible backstory. Spouting out statement after statement like meteors that light up and then die keeps a writer on a surface his audience can instantly access. Without backstory with his audience, he won’t reach the level of discourse where his thoughts begin to build new ideas on familiar concepts.

The outworking of blog-dialogue continues to evolve. Some actually address their posts to their intended reader, as though writing a letter. Others have a heyday with embedded links, drawing lines out to as many available perspectives as possible. At the Evangelical Outpost, there’s always a dialogue behind the scenes in the editorial process. The future of the approach doesn’t require commitment to any one tactic. Blog-dialogue will and continues to occur wherever online publication multiplies one thought into several ideas, one question into network of thought-projects, and one person into a community.

This Millennial Isn’t Leaving the Church

I, a millennial, am not leaving the church. Recently there has been a small flashflood of articles unearthing possible reasons and remedies for the ongoing exodus of millennials from the Christian church. I read them as a stranger to the departing crowd.

Rachel Held Evans suggested toning down the trendiness and giving a listening ear to the thoughts and passions of a millennial near you. We are actually thinking about the creeds, science and faith, sexuality, and holiness, but we wonder over them in questions, not “predetermined answers.” Her last word is to “encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”

 Brett McCracken rebutted, asking millennials to give a listening ear to age and wisdom. Millennials are highly sensitive to nearby flaky self-images and the nearest one is our own. ‘Tis our season to scrabble through liminal self-perceptions toward a strongly rooted identity. So, the church should take a cue from the millennial and become as sensitive to their potential fakeness as they are to hers. McCracken thinks “that the answer is decidedly not to sit the Millennial down and have him or her dictate exactly what they think the church should be. But this is what Evans suggests.”

Not quite. Evans got timid with her final plea and left it vague. McCracken is being unfair, inserting this scenario when nothing in Evans’ statement gestures to it. Picture this specimen Millennial in a coffee shop with this specimen church-goer/deacon/die-hard. Never mind who asked whom.

There should be mutual listening. If either person actually thought they were coming to give a monologue, they could have found a pulpit or a stage. This is a conversation. Each speaker shuts up every few sentences. Granted, when people are ignored outright, intervention is advisable. But opening the dialogue by staking out one party’s right to be heard over another doesn’t allow for much traction down the road. If we all concede that good listening is lacking but key and then promise to stop tuning out our counselors’ or therapists’ practical tips to improve active listening, real conversations are just around the corner.

Where Evans and McCracken solidly agree, I ask for a significant nuance. In McCracken’s words, “Christianity has become too obsessed with how it is perceived.” I could easily interpret that two different ways: either he means ‘obsessed with first impressions’ or ‘obsessed with the self-image.’ If the latter, then of course we are obsessed with how we are perceived. Christianity nurtures concern for self-image. What begins as a shallow itch for approval is just the shadow of our deep human longing to be seen. We are created: we are created beautiful as well as functional: we are art. As art invites an audience, so we long to be displayed to each other. For Christ to completely restore us to what makes us truly human, we may only expect Him to increase our hunger for more and more attention.

But if in fact we are obsessed with making first impressions, no wonder we are frustrated. First impressions are one or a series of quick insights about a person based on visual (or other sensory) impressions. I don’t say judgments because the word connotes a distasteful opinion that we’ll probably end up dismissing as incorrect. Perceptions could be entirely correct. They just aren’t going to be deep. What we need in addition to first impressions is a certain space to be seen, where those impressions will purposefully become contemplation.

There’s no way to be a functioning human for long in a gallery space. We’re best displayed elsewhere in the space of shared experiences, alongside creations like ourselves. There, seeing and being seen are real possibilities.

Maybe we look to family, friends and professional circles or artistic communities for shared experiences. Yet, in proportion to human history, these are young, recent communities. Additionally, they may be more transient than permanent. They are less-than-guaranteed spaces for shared experience. The church is human history’s longest living community. It offers an extensive architecture of shared experiences (cf. its calendar, reformations and revivals, plus contributions to art). It is a certain space to be seen.

And so I remain a millennial church-goer. While my voice matters, I don’t stay on the condition that I am heard. Although my elders’ wisdom is a far better gift, I’ll persist to give as well as receive. Many, many concerns prick me every time I go to worship—I notice her lack of good discourse on human sexuality, feel her tight rein on artistic honesty, and wonder when her missionaries will feel called to America.  These concerns are powerful enough to activate me toward change and confrontation within the church, but will never rise to become conditions for remaining in the church. I pray to love the church as I hope to be loved: unconditionally. And similarly, I affirm that both the church and millennials have responsibility toward each other—to heed or challenge concerns, not as terms and conditions, but as doorways to unconditional love.

Why Minimalism is Communication 101


“Your total is $12.85. How will you be paying?”


“Would you like your receipt?”

“No, thank you.”

“I can help who is next in line.”

There are days when the check-out line is the only place we score points for clear communication. Not that the achievement is encouraging—it raises to its full, trivial stature and mocks us: “Today, at your best, you managed an information exchange that could have been handled by a moderately intelligent computer.” Maybe if our only needs were for food (and sleep) then we could fill our minds and hearts from the grocery store, as well as our bellies. But we’re determined for something more meaningful, yet frustrated for trying to access it.

There is power in the simplicity of the cashier-customer exchange. It shows how much small units of information may be handy for the listener. Even more, it shows how direct statements are responsible for the speaker feeling heard and being understood. Simplicity is so powerful, in fact, that it frequently balks at our attempts to harness it and send it to work. When the required information is insignificant, like finding out the price of dish soap, we manage. For something more significant—maybe unease about Sunday’s sermon or piercing convictions about change for your community—we exert ourselves for ideas, people and emotions; an infinite number of factors and factors which are infinitely complex. More often than not, one factor is under-or-over-represented or neglected completely, restricting its significant contribution to the situation.

That’s overwhelming. What if we stopped sweating over how direct we’re being and expressed ourselves more spontaneously? Not feeling heard? Just increase your repetition and your volume to an unavoidably noticeable degree. This response may explain one part of my generation’s seething interest in free speech and increasingly uncensored self-expression. That approach will eventually self-correct. Trying to feel heard implicates you in trusting others for some listening. But when everyone is ‘shouting’, no one is heard. Some will have to play listener. Simple communication aids listening and gathers listeners.

Yes, but what if simplicity is too great a risk to significance? There’s nothing like the sinking feeling for when the Trinity is the topic at bible study and climactically, it’s simplified to a metaphor about eggs or Neopolitan ice cream.

Minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once shared: “I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”  He composes to convey the singularity and purity of an abstract idea; the music is the minimum sound necessary to indicate that idea, bypassing all notes that are frills and fringe. Instead of undermining complexity, simplicity works to elevate the most critical and essential aspect of a thought above its various details and nuances.  It is achieving the total idea with simple elements. Then, in the act of listening, the audience hears the whole idea as something in several parts. It affirms that the simplicity used by composer allowed his audience to receive the complexity of the idea.

The task of conveying what’s on our mind introduces the tug between the things we are positive we know and things we vaguely grasp. You have a choice. Sometimes, you limit yourself purely to what you know for certain. But other times, it seems worthwhile to expand your sentences and cast around for more intricate words, hoping that groping for a thought will eventually mean stumbling into one. You could use plain wording or decorate things up, hoping that all your little gestures will get your listener one step closer to understanding you.

I notice the latter most often. It’s been my preferred method until recently. It’s pretentious. Every time, I am pretending to know more than I actually do. The simplicity of the former way gets for points for sincerity, winning over more listeners.

Minimalist conversations aren’t universally useful. If it works at the grocery store, that doesn’t mean it’s going revolutionize your next family reunion. It’s often quite appropriate to process aloud, despite the baggage of unclear wording, tangents, and assumptions. But as an experiment and a tool not often used, minimalism refreshes us to the possibilities of simple speech and its power to deepen the significance of conversations where it is closest and most important to us.

I’ll Save My Gucci For Sundays

A smashing outfit is worth a thousand words. I buy what “fits my image” and dress to “make a statement.” Apparel advertising buttons our identity to our body. It encourages self-expression through something visual that we create or select with the cooperation of our minds and our hands. For that reason, fashion savants likely claim ranking with other types of visual artists. For an animal, its outerwear is defense against weather. But ‘wardrobe curators’ and the like explore more complex uses for clothing by engineering it for communication between people. It communicates status and role, dispositions toward authority and levels of self-esteem. Even more abstractly, it communicates a person’s unique ability to relate linear patterns, colors or shapes.

So, clothing—it’s an image of who you are. Granted, it’s a brief image—we can’t statically frame our outfits for study. Our own moving bodies are the frame. Outfits are assembled for certain moments or a stretch of hours, and then get dismantled, sort of like the short-form of installation art. But when taken as a whole, the right wardrobe is evidence of someone’s good taste correctly conveying their peculiar identity.

We’re attracted to those people, wondering how it is they deftly create consistent, genuine images of their identity. Come Sunday morning, Christian adults who dress well have this effect on me. Their identity in Christ—an identity centering on Christ while radiating his image to the world—is now made visible in a small way. It absorbs me in the thought of Christian adulthood. The image of their identity is profound motivation to mature my own identity and invites me to become the disciple of my elders.

Yet we don’t often think immediately of clothing when our church communities encourage us to develop our faith through carefully considering culture and art. Quite possibly, clothing has been waylaid while we catch up on learning how to healthily consume higher art. It’s likely, though, that we should encourage more attention to it in our after-church fellowshipping and small-group conversations. Kent Reister recently described a healthy consumer as someone who loves something “for its aesthetic power” by encountering it with “focus and deliberation,” turning an “overload of film and music access” into “searching out the infinite design of God in one good story or track.” Pausing in the ‘image bombardment’ of our culture to give diligent awareness to the intelligent design and significance of a few images transforms consuming into partaking of God’s nature. Taking pause with clothing as an image is doubly worthwhile; clothing facilitates encounters with beauty as seen distinctly by another human. Particularly in a church setting, a conversation about clothing is a trustworthy convergence of becoming a better consumer and seeing the image of God in the soul of our neighbor.

The Christian communities I am familiar with have no strong resistance to dressing fashionably. They also don’t encourage or articulate stronger aesthetics beyond  principled modesty. If that’s the only governing principle for the art of grooming, then the only criteria for being ‘well-dressed’ is probably ‘finding clothes which minimizes thoughts about sex.’ There is easily more to motivate our clothing choices than sex. Human beauty is not inherently sexually attractive. Otherwise, how would you justify telling your daughter she is beautiful? We are daily discerning human beauty without experiencing it sexually.

To caveat, I am deeply grateful to my parents and church for teaching me the protection and freedom of modesty. But limiting discussions of clothing to modesty is doubly restricting. It veers toward more application for women than men. Men don’t get (need? deserve? what are we telling them?) much training in clothing aesthetics.  Also, it only teaches women to dress their body by thinking of its sexual purpose. The gender compartmentalization ends with recognizing the sexuality of the body and falls short of recognizing its humanity.

Limiting theology of clothing aesthetics to modesty boxes it into the one season of life where modesty is relevant. Dressing well is merely fad for the young and sexually aware. It plays no role in drawing us further up and further in to Christian maturity. But if you are like me, you are convinced that dressing well may become a means to glimpsing part of God’s nature. Naturally, you hope that your peers are not the best available experts on clothing aesthetics. Instead, you look to your elders and hope to find their conversation both seasoned and eager.




Let Writers Be Unashamed of Having Homemade Imaginations

In my last article, I gave a broad overview of interest-based living .  This follows with a specific instance of an unfolding interest that has actually resulted deeper immersion in my communities and greater liberty as an artist.

Writing strong short stories is a recent interest of mine, but it is I was unintentionally prepared for. I come from a small hometown and a tight-knit family. I picked up on lots of the details about the culture of my immediate and local surroundings.  Happily, I discovered that short story fiction reads best when they simmer with an indigenous flavor. Why is that so? Well, there’s this instinctual, three-part code that raises the short-story writer from infancy. Its persistent purpose is one thing; keeping the story poignant and sincere by grounding it local culture.

Dialogue is sifted through filters called ‘dialects’ 

It makes for irretrievably bland reading when characters time their words, pursue ideas, and cuss with undifferentiated style. It’s suspicious. Maybe the characters are just surrogates for the author’s pet thought projects. After all, experience shows us that conversations are not under the control of one mind and we wouldn’t enjoy them if they were. The author can defer to that by giving each character its own dialect; its own distinct pattern of funneling thoughts into words and words into sentences. These patterns are the foundation of dialect.

Dialects are languages within languages. Think of the genteel verbal graces of a Southerner or the contrasting caterwaul of a bog-dwelling hick. Whereas an actor relies on the sound of the accent for embellishment, a writer configures his words precisely so that a sounding accent is irrelevant. It’s simply felt in the word choices. The process is to mull between, say, what characters repeat and what they would never say, whether they always speak in complete sentences and why they say “gender” not “sex.” All these sorts of differentiating decisions intensify each character with a habitual, ingrained dialect.

Characters are in behavior, not postures.

Sometimes you read a story where you can’t stop visualizing everyone in some sort of pose. They aren’t moving anywhere or handling anything. Unless the majority of us grew up in photo shoots and fashion shows, that isn’t what we are accustomed to expect from humans, especially in the current age where we even greet each other with salutations to our busyness.

“How are you?”

“Doing this, this and this thanks.”

“I see. I as well. That’s actually why I have to go…”

Plausibility emerges when characters are doing things: washing the dishes, defacing public monuments, putting on wedding veils, etc. Characters are attempts to represent people; they deserve a psyche outfitted with the ordinary, common stuff of birthplaces, families, and favorite foods.

Once you give them an activity, you put them in context. Are they washing the dishes by hand? Is a dishwasher doing most of the work? How many other times has this person pasted art on public monuments? In the few words which answer these questions, you add a time and a place to the character’s psyche. The more they become believably native to some place and time, the more likely it is that they truthfully portray an actual human.

Perspective has consistent bias

Perspective is the frame of the story; it is the deciding line between what is included and what is excluded.  Short stories resonate with peculiar integrity when they are told from the viewpoint of a single narrator. None of those omniscient intrusions from the author to invoke a muse or explain the meaning of the parable. Anytime in a real conversation when a person attempts an all-seeing, all-knowing statement, we usually treat as their perspective and consider it from our own perspective.

The implication is that short story perspective is biased. The viewpoint doesn’t move from character to character but stays faithful to the perception, assumptions and empathies of one person. The character gives us a taste of his own experience without pretending to have the omniscience of God. At its most meaningful moments, the character’s perspective will not be universally meaningful. Instead, it’s tremendously meaningful to a certain person, his surroundings and his people. Biased perspective allows local flavor to emerge at its strongest.

These three boundary lines push me to find inspiration in the local culture of my hometown and of my townspeople.  This directly assists a valid danger I encounter in trying to live an interest-based life. Sometimes, new interests make us feel naïve because our curiosity is directed right at what we don’t know. And in a culture which prizes experts, it’s embarrassing when you only have half the puzzle; you’d really like to have more. The short story code helps me beyond the fear of not knowing because it redirects me from a vague, bleak unknown. I have intimate knowledge of my home. I and only I may claim mastery of my experiences. The question of expertise dismissed, I am free to nurture my interest without the fear of speaking ignorantly.

And as a beautiful result, this artistic freedom encourages me to go deeper into my community. It leads me into nursing homes, opens my eyes to the homeless and less fortunate and keeps me loyal to even the most difficult family relationships.

Take Up Your Hobbies and Follow Christ

 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?”

Matthew 5:13, ESV

This is where I get the beginnings of my theology of nurture and pampering. In context, this culinary analogy is pointing to the fact that certain human communities (*ahem* Israel) were in the business of being the most-sought commodity in the marketplace. A holy people of God, set apart to make them worth pursuing. They were set apart from the world not to abandon, but to bless it. We see Israel continually navigating this in their past and often failing. Either they compromise their best peculiarities and end up with idols in the Temple or they hedge them too protectively, and get denounced by Christ . Notice that Christians inherited the same business of being distinct without being inaccessible. We simmer over how to be ‘in the world, but not of it.’

Throughout adolescence, I persistently asked my parents, mentors and pastors—all the obvious go-to sources for nurture—to let me know when they figured out how this was done. Oftentimes, their answer was “to be set apart is to be holy. Be holy and God will honor that by letting the rest take care of itself.” Sometimes, I was a very obedient child. I strained towards holiness like a first-year foreign-language learner. And I realized much later how handicapped I was by one, huge problem. ‘Holiness’ as a concept was too big, the details too vague. Even if turned out that holiness is the stepping stone to being simultaneously distinct and accessible, getting there seemed to require a Sasquatch-sized stride. More modest expectations seemed to be in order.

Accidentally, I overheard someone say, “salt makes food interesting.” I gradually took that to mean interest-based living was a viable way of following the proverb. Instead of the catapult strategy, I could try the ladder route, starting with interests. From there, I ascend to love and I’m told that, done right, love carries you straight on to holiness.

Interest-based living, roughly sketched, is filling life with activities of curiosity. Sometimes we call them hobbies or leisure pastimes; others broadly group them under ‘culture and the arts.’ Regardless, it counts wherever a person’s interests draw them out into the place or thing in the world where they follow imagination and experience wonder.

I just described interest-based living as the nurture of imagination, curiosity, and wonder. Unfortunately, interests get sidelined because we see them as things we pamper or indulge, not things we nurture. I think there’s good reason to change that mindset and stop limiting our interests to weekend sprees and midnight binges.In a life where there is no limit set on these things, there is the most opportunity for the growth of love.

It’s not uncommon in evangelical circles to find young adults who forego a relationship in order to “focus more on Christ” in order to “overcome insecurities.” It’s also not uncommon that the outcomes bear similarities to my old fumbles to find holiness. I think pulling that way is the wrong way to go about combatting insecurity. Fundamentally, insecurity arises from fears—fears of rejection, loneliness of insufficiency. Fear is cast out by love, so why not cast out insecurities with healthy interests? We don’t need to compartmentalize our relationships with God or with others based on whether or not we are secure in our identities. If we turn out from ourselves to investigate the world, our natural curiosity will probably rival agitating fears for our attention. Liberty to be ourselves in all our relationships will emerge gradually and naturally.

So go forth, stop pampering your interests, and start nurturing them.

Think Like Vintage Mafia: Lessons On Justice from “The Godfather”

 “I believe in America. America has made me rich.”

So states a customer of Vito Corleone, the Godfather. Someone raped his daughter and was promptly acquitted by means of a small bribe. This is a preponderant theme throughout the movie: the ideal system of American justice pays forfeit to the American dream of wealth. When this man asks that the Corleones avenge his daughter, Vito bristles in reply: “If you had come to me first, it would have been a matter of justice. Now, it is business.” The man’s loyalties are where the money is—America. And only when he finds out that American justice also lies where money is will he turn to family ties and personal connections for help. He’s offended Vito by making family secondary. Vito returns the favor, insisting on the same relational distance: “it’s not personal, it’s business.”

Hence, the driving question of the story: is justice business or is it personal?

Even a cursory read of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States would demonstrate that the American justice system was designed for balance and reasonable objectivity. Look up images of Jefferson’s muse, Lady Justice—she’s blindfolded as a guard against any material incentive that would taint her judgment. One would hope that her objectivity eliminates personal bias. But in Corleone’s New York, people make money hand over fist by operating the justice system like it’s their business. The Corleones are the most powerful syndicate precisely because they pay off the most powerful New York politicians. Blindfolding the eyes of justice is a risk; who’s to say it isn’t being tweaked here and there? Instead of being unbiased, justice is merely redirected towards different (and quite personal) biases. Seemingly objective decisions get personal—fast.

Moments later, we are introduced to Michael Corleone at his sister’s wedding. He is in American military uniform, secluded in a corner with his American girlfriend. Clearly, his loyalties are splintering off from his family and its un-American ways. His life reverses after the assassination attempt on his father. The night he visits a comatose Vito, finding him without guards and possibly at risk of another assassination attempt, Michael spins his loyalty from ‘truth, justice and the American way’ toward the ways of the Corleones. We’re later told that ‘Corleone’ originally wasn’t the last name of the family—it was the name of the Godfather’s birthplace. Corleone, in wider scope of the film, is not just a family—it is the heritage, culture and, sometimes, the very dust of Italy. Within Michael an identity firmly rooted in American idealism was beginning to grow. But it turns out that independence, reason, and ideals just couldn’t outweigh the passion and tradition of an identity passed down through generation. Injustice, it turns out, is always personal. You can make a business out of justice but check the other side of that coin and you’ll find you’ve set off a chain of personal offenses.

And, in practice, do we really object? If you are five, won’t you find playground bullying personal? If you are twenty, won’t you find workplace discrimination personal? If you are sixty, won’t you find medical malpractice personal?

Maybe you find it objectionable to identity with Michael. After all, he essentially accepts lordship over all New York mafia members—he is inheriting the kingdom of crime. The Corleone family is a monarchy through and through. Democracies run forward on rhetoric but monarchies continue from honor. In democracies, laws are incentivized with rhetorically powerful presentations. In monarchies, the monarch alone makes decisions—loyalty to these decisions is rewarded with honor and disloyalty punished with death or exile. This is precisely how Michael steps out. He restores the Corleone family to order and supremacy by killing their enemies and executing all betrayers, even his own brother-in-law. Loyalty is the family’s non-negotiable rule. Loyalty is for everyone’s protection; your own welfare is implicitly bound up within it. It’s not a matter of following objective justice. It’s molding justice within the pre-determined lines of loyalty.

We certainly would like to think that we would never conform justice to our loyalties. We would like to think that our system of court and law is the best in the world—that it empowers everyone to receive and administer justice in right proportion. But after World War II, as America realized she was fully in an age of modern warfare, the culture felt raw after seeing masse death through increasing masse media. When news and images were distributed nationally, there was a paradigm shift in power distribution. Power to communicate was less localized. Though it started with planes and bombing runs, when the obliteration of Hiroshima occurred without a single casualty to the aggressors a similar paradigm shift in power distribution occurred. Power to kill was no longer constrained to hand-to-hand combat. It centralized down to a button on switchboard and evolved into current drone strikes. And so, writers and artists post-WWII began to express how undeniably powerless they felt (cf. T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland). Soon, there rose entire worlds of crime in New York and Chicago where families tried to reclaim power on a more individual scale.

Justice experiments. That’s what the original federalists thought of their work with the colonies and, eventually, the Constitution. They were experimenting with a progressive design for a system of justice. Distinct from governments which are half-determined by revolutions and half-designed by theorists, this government was founded on “self-evident truths”—incontestably visible and objective truths—about justice and human rights. If that’s so, America moving forward is justice moving forward.

Or is it so? If we are sensitive to having historical continuity and consistency in our identity as Americans, we will be pricked to the question, “what is and what has been the outcome of this justice experiment?” The Godfather canonizes a section of American history which should agitate rather than affirm our certainty in the self-evident nature of justice and human rights. We daily ask for our Father’s will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Why else would we, unless we are unsettled about the justice as currently administered? Discussing the questions brought up by The Godfather goes beyond mere artsy jabber—it lines up directly with questions which are obediently, implicitly and rhythmically ingrained into the Christian life.

Tarantino and Luhrmann: Two Tactful Giants for a Less-Than-Subtle World

For some an itch and for others a yearning, but we all like some subtlety. So it’s completely natural to love the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Baz Luhrmann—simultaneously. Some of the most sensitive, subtle material in current American film comes from these two directors.

Draw a line between the subtle and the obvious, and you’ll often cross both out. Subtlety is a layer (or six) down. If you strip away all discernible surface what was subtle is suddenly bare and becomes what’s obvious. Being obvious actually produces the potential for subtlety. Subtlety’s real danger is the cliché. To be sure, inspiration from art or incorporation of others ideas is the stuff which keeps art going. But original thought get trashed into cliché if the idea is carelessly repeated. It’s like wearing all your clothes inside out to redesign your entire look. You’ve just reversed the gesture and it often ends up being another cliché. The trick to being subtle is to skirt around clichés without being cliché.

I’ll test this in the details for both directors.

For The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann had this challenge: the potential snares of period-style pieces. Realistic vintage clothing is notoriously distracting from the actual story. I know several Downton Abbey circles who are “just watching for the costumes.” Luhrman glides through the problem hilariously. The gaudier, more garnish and tawdry his costumes get, the less distracting they are. The costuming—particularly in the party scenes—is similar to MTV music videos. And unlike MTV in recent years, this actually works. Pop culture has a strong visual language of the garish and gaudy. With it, Luhrmann is able to shade off the indications that this is a period piece. He cuts off our associative links to old high school curriculums and Robert Redford by gesturing to the current day. And he does it without turning a single shirt inside-out.

Tarantino’s Django takes a different route.  How are Westerns revived? Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the Cohen Brothers True Grit remake have already broken new ground in visual and conceptual redesign. So Tarantino charts a new course through the soundscape. Right from the first scene—all those spurs, stirrups, bits, guns, chains, and giant springs with a nodding, fake tooth for a plume. They pop as though the editor put less effort in the blending and overlapping process. It’s not an interruption; it’s non-representational dialogue. Then there’s the actual accent of Dr. King Schultz. After all, what’s a Western without all the accents? Wait…which accents? There’s one loophole in the cliché which Tarantino dives into, creating a strong contrast with Calvin Candie’s all-too-familiar southern verbal syrup. And all throughout, the audience is hearing a seamless blend of Gospel and rap, Spirituals and Ennio Morricone. What we tend to separate, genre by genre, Tarantino appropriates into one big bite of cohesive art.

Together, these films both follow a gentle but significant curve away from traditional love stories. Both trace the outcome of men who, desperately in love, turn tyrannical, insisting that any relationship with their women is better than none. As a recently freed slave, Django’s first choice is his choice of clothes. He opts for an azure blue, pre-colonial gentleman’s suit. His partner attributes it to his “flair for the dramatic.” That flair explodes when Django embraces his acting role as a freed-slave-turned-slave-dealer, showering slaves, freeman, and dandies alike with charmless sass. And in a climactic grasp for freedom, he crosses from freedman to outlaw, condemning his wife to be on the run with him for life.

Meanwhile, Gatsby’s gives the overall impression of a man with boundless power, yet he doesn’t have enough self-control to listen to the woman he loves. Nick gets a taste of how limitless Gatsby’s influence is when Gatsby’s servants descend, uninvited, to transform Nick’s humble home for one afternoon of tea with Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby continues to draw near to Daisy on the basis of his endless means. After all, his power seems to sets him free to do anything he wants. The day he wants Daisy to choose him over her husband, he cannot let her be free to do it. He inserts himself to make the choice for her. The story of what lengths a man will go to in order to get a woman has been told. Tarantino and Luhrmann take that and nuance it, giving less room to justify what the man wants and more space to depict how much fear, hatred, and other antithesis of love infiltrate that man’s journey.

Both of these directors understand that making movies which build up raw and spectacular awe inside of us requires a subtle touch. Christopher Nolan and his predecessor, the Wachowskis, have delivered films with refined, intellectual design and they work well enough to generate conversations and deeper thinking. But the subtlety of Luhrmann and Tarantino sets them apart. Their subtlety is a force that pounds past your head, your boredom, and your wariness and into those secrets—sensual and violent and vulnerable—which aren’t always visible to your mind. In this way, their subtlety brings our peripheral vision into focus, either to strike us with new beauty or indicate places of possible self-deception.