Apocalypse Now small group – Introduction

No, its not the Francis Ford Coppola war movie. But yes, there are movies. A good part of this small groups activity is watching and thinking about and talking about movies.

This small group will organize an online and face-to-face series of comparative studies for three contemporary films and two readings (one somewhat contemporary and one from Scripture).

The genre of the contemporary films is variously called science fiction, catastrophe, or apocalyptic, depending on whos talking. The latter two are also called dystopian.

The films are:

Volcano,

28 Days Later,

and Children of Men.

The readings are (1) the last chapter of The Politics of Jesus, by late theologian John Howard Yoder, the chapter entitled The War of the Lamb;

and (2) the Book of the Revelation of John (from the New Testament).

By viewing and reading these cultural productions in this order, and following brief cultural critiques (analyses) of each, we hope to develop an understanding of how storytellers and story-hearers participate in meaning-making together.

Since our own direct experience is contemporary, we will study how we participate as an audience in these three films, how values and norms are magnified and transmitted in these stories of extremity, and how stories of extremity are used to present then resolve big ethical questions.

We will also study the films for ethical norms that have Christian origins, even in contemporary stories that are not explicitly Christian.

With the Yoder chapter, we will read about the Revelation of John as an apocalyptic genre used by John of Patmos to reiterate the proclamation of Christs good news for his contemporaries (in 2nd Century Asia Minor) in the face of actual extremity. Yoder provides us with contemporary language to unpack past meaning-making in literature; and provides a perfect seg at last to reading and understanding the most misunderstood and often misinterpreted Book of the New Testament.

This study, during Lent which traditionally emphasizes penitence and reflection on mortality hopes to develop among its participants a shared basis of understanding of the experience of our own culture, the experience of the culture of the early church, and how this emphasis on mortality and penitence came into the world as a direct response to conditions of actual and intense extremity. This is important to us, in particular, because our daily lives in our own suburban culture have in so many ways been insulated from real austerity and extremity. Like Lent, extremity of circumstance often demands renunciations.

Ivan Illich said:

The certainty that you can do without is one of the most efficacious ways of convincing yourself, no matter where you stand on the intellectual or emotional ladder, that you are free. Self-imposed limits provide a basis and preparation for discussion of what we can renounce as a group of friends or a neighborhood. I have seen it, and I can witness to it. For many people who suffer from great fears and a sense of impotence and depersonalization, renunciation provides a very simple way back to a self which stands above the constraints of the world.

And such renunciation is especially necessary in the world in which we live. Tyranny of old was exercised over people who still knew how to subsist. They could lose their means of subsistence, and be enslaved, but they could not be made needy. With the beginning of capitalist production in the spinning and weaving shops of the Florence of the Medicis, a new type of human being was being engendered: needy man, who has to organize a society, the principle function of which is to satisfy human needs. And needs are much more cruel than tyrants.

We are those needy ones. And one form of renunciation for Lent is to renounce our disengagement by looking into our own culture and into scriptures with the real intent of better understanding who and whose we are.

It is also our hope that this small group will finish the study with a far keener appreciation and clearer understanding of the Revelation of John, as well as a deeper understanding of our own culture and how it interprets and misinterprets Scripture. There is no requirement to read the phenomenal exegesis on this Book of Scripture that has been done by Mickey Efird, one of our own nearby at Duke Divinity School, but he needs to be acknowledged up front as the thinker whose critique of dispensationalist accounts of Revelation was extremely helpful for the latter part of this study.

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Materials required:

Books (1) The Politics of Jesus, by John Howard Yoder. (2) The Bible

Films (1) Volcano, (2) 28 Days Later, (3) Children of Men.

NOTE: The reading from Yoders book is only one chapter. For those who do not have or do not purchase the book, we will make hard copies of the single chapter.

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Method:

The method of the group facilitator does not restrict or oblige any particular approach by other participants. I will make suggestions about the sequence and forms of participation; but you will determine what works best for you, how deeply you delve into the subject, and how to fit your participation into the other tasks and obligations of your lives.

We will view three films first, one per week. Buying or renting the films (Netflix anyone?) to view at home is sugggested, so the film can be viewed more than once. We will also have a group showing of the film at the Ministry Center. The order of viewing is Volcano, 28 Days Later, and Children of Men.

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PREPARATION

The Ecology-Culture-Personhood Triangle a different kind of lens

Throughout this small group program, participants are challenged to keep the idea of a Ecology-Culture-Personhood Triangle in the back of their minds. This triangle is a notion I am borrowing from anthropologist Alf Hornborg, author of a very good albeit academic book called The Power of the Machine. The idea of the triangle is that three macro-forces in our lives are in constant interaction ecololgy, culture, and personhood and that each reciprocally influences the development of the other. Our personhood the experience of being one person is shaped by our general physical environment (ecology), which in turn is changed (and often abused) by culture (technology, economics, art, religion, language, et al), which is shaped by place (an aspect of ecology), etc, etc, etc.

In reality, theseparts of the triangle never exist independent of one another and are inextricable from one another. But we can break them down to provide us with a particular analytical perspective a way to think outside of the box.

Three Basic Terms

In addition to using the ECP Triangle as an analytical standpoint, there are three terms that are not universally familiar, standing for three ideas, that participants need to understand: epistemology, heuristics, and cultural criticism.

Epistemology: Theory of knowledge; also, the way we think we know.

Heuristics: Methods that help in problem solving in turn leading to learning and discovery.

Cultural Criticism: Analyzing and describing aspects of culture from one or more critical perspectives.

How It Works

You figure out how to acquire and view the films. Ideally, you will watch the films in sequence, and have each of them available for possible re-viewing throughout each films respective week. During that week, I will post something called just Notes, e.g., Notes on Volcano. Read over the Notes before, during, or after one or more viewings, as works best for you. We all have different schedules and learning strategies. One evening a week, those who can will meet any place agreed upon to watch the films together. Tentatively, that will be Friday night at the Ministry Center (not etched in granite yet).

Feb 27 – Volcano (showing – discussion through comments section of web site)
March 6 – 28 Days Later (showing)
March 13 – Discussion
March 20 – Children of Men (showing)
March 27 – Discussion
April 3 – War of the Lamb Discussion
April 10 (Good Friday) – Revelation Discussion

We may supplement with Sunday discussions before services, if people want to.

REMINDER: This is not a study that requires anything. The depth of participation is your choice. It can be an occasional pastime, or a a college course. It is also free to share with anyone and everyone; and it is not restricted obviously to Lent. Comments sections are also now open (but will be moderated, so comments will not go up immediately). CHANGE TWO with apologies Comments are disabled here, and will all go to the Feral Scholar web site linked here. Click it on, and comment away. Again, apologies while I work out the glitches.

Sabbath as Interruption

Much has happened in the last couple of years, including the necessity for me to look for, take, and hold a job… not a position, a job. Even then, when I started searching at 55, after a decade of politics and all the infighting, and all the inflammatory statements, and all the travel, and all the public stuff…even before the great burst of the great bubble, the non-profit world was not looking for a middle-aged man with things like sniper and communist tucked away in his CV. No craft experience, not even a clue about the latest cubicle-work divisions of labor, no accounting experience, no nothing…55 mattered, too, and 57 matters now. Having a couple books on one’s resume then creates the “overqualified” stigma, because people think writers earn good money. So there were three tries before I settled into the job I have now.

I worked with a landscaping crew for $10 an hour, the only Anglo besides the boss. On the first day, I cut around 15 very large, well-landscaped lawns, running the mower in neat rows to give them the striped effect. We pulled weeds, raked, shaped fill dirt, hauled and scattered mulch, shoveled and mattocked through clay… grunt work. Plenty of it. I admit I hated it; and I was learning fast to resent the very people without whom we’d have no jobs – the people in the big houses who could afford landscapers.

Then I was given a job for the same pay by a stone mason – a damn good stone mason, Brooks Burleson, old school, who I believe could cut stone with a claw hammer if need be. Another hard job, and one that went through summer before last when we had three straight weeks of triple digit temperatures. By 10 AM each day, I was soaked in sweat all the way down to my cuffs, sun-poisoned, with blackening nails from hitting them with stones, and inflamed hand joints from the hammering. I would go home, eat a full meal, and follow it with a half-gallon of ice cream, and still my weight barely stayed above 165 pounds (I was 180 a year before).

Then I found a job, this time with bennies (I had some dental problems that were giving me fits), working with a deconstruction crew (we take buildings apart to salvage materials for re-use). That’s where I am now. And it’s not the drudgery of landscaping, nor does it have the plain physical intensity of stonewalling, but still it’s a hard, dirty job that leaves me pretty emptied out at night and pretty stiff when I get up in the morning.

A lot of folks from my pre-laboring past are asking why they hear so little from me these days, and there are a number of reasons for that – including burn-out – but one big reason is that when I’m not working now, I am really just tired. Mornings were always my best writing times, my head unscrambled by the discharge of dreaming and my circuits lit up with caffeine. Now, if I get up at 5:30, along with preparing my breakfast and lunch, packing up for work, and driving my beater across town to get there, I can squeeze in 30 minutes to answer mail, moderate the Feral Scholar blog, and maybe read a bit of news.

Prior to this proletarian interlude, I was lucky enough to have a few people paying me to write and speak and organize, so I had been freelancing for about three years, and during art of that time Mike Ruppert’s online publication, From The Wilderness, was sending me a living-wage check each month to produce exactly the kind of thing that I most enjoy doing anyway – synthesizing news and events into a kind of intelligence analysis, something that satisfies the undead Special Forces intelligence sergeant that still resides in my head, the wannabe academic that missed the boat a long time ago, and the writer still trying to grow up.

In that time, however, I also became obtuse about day-to-day reality (particularly what was going on in my own family), sectarian at times, inappropriate with people I liked and didn’t like, and a wee bit bipolar (a descriptive not diagnostic term in this context). So, in a very real sense, I needed to be brought down to earth by grit and grunt work and fatigue and the economy of time that starves most of us in “civilization” these days.

I also started to find a lot more time to spend with someone Id been missing: my spouse, Sherry.

I set Sundays aside for church and family (always including Sherry) now; which is one reason I don’t even consider going out of town anymore for speaking gigs, even though I was making from $500-$1,000 a day when I did that (for the trip, the rate drops considerably when you factor in the travel preparations, working on a presentation, and catching up after you’ve left town). My pay now amounts to around $390 a week, after the tax collectors take their cut.

If I were calculating my circumstances from a shopkeeper’s perspective, I suppose this “withdrawing” from that public sphere could look foolish; from the perspective of my old political colleagues, the criticism has been explicit – I have abandoned “the struggle.” These are serious concerns. I do not like being in debt (and we are); and the state of history and politics on a day-to-day basis assaults my sensibilities and conscience in some way nearly every waking moment.

On October 26th, however, I had a very good day. We, Sherry and I, had a good day. I think that day merits a description, because were it not for all of the above circumstances, October 26th wouldn’t have happened. I didn’t remember that it was my dad’s birthday until later (October 26, 1906).

Sherry and I went to church, which is a rented elementary school gym actually. All Saints United Methodist Church, in the exurban borderlands between Raleigh and Durham, along the approach and take-off azimuths of Raleigh-Durham International Airport. It’s dead in the heart of an upscale and immensely destructive development called Brier Creek (These developments always take the name of the nature they destroy, like army helicopters take the names of slaughtered nations – Apache, Blackhawk, Kiowa – cruelly stealing the names to retain some essence of what was lost by “developing” or waging wars of conquest).

Across the street from the building that houses the gym/church, there is a scene I have called a Hieronymus Bosch landscape. Bosch did paintings depicting a surreal vision of Hell. He did peaceful kingdom paintings, too, but his Hells are more memorable. Bosch paintings are a peek into the religious psyche of Central Europe in the late 15th early16th Century period. What remains so striking in Bosch now – with his emphasis on the “un-naturalness” of evil, depicted in monstrous combinations of life – is that we too are seeing landscapes devoid of any natural process… except that we needn’t visit our own imaginations to see this un-naturalness… we live in it. We’ve actually accustomed ourselves to them, at some terrible cost.

So maybe the comparison with Bosch is overdrawn, but that scarred ex-forest across from the school/community center/gym is where we do church, so you can see some deep-down brokenness as you walk out the front door.

Around 25 acres has been bulldozed down to the red clay and rock, pancake flat where the wooded watercourses formerly provided a fractally curvaceous elevation and relief. The lots have been slabbed, and the PVC sewage inlets stick up out of the ground like a field of white plastic stumps. When the ground was freshly skinned and fleshed, what stood out from this landscape was the silence.

There are no birds singing here, an acoustical void that jars me. But here on the outer limits of this country club community, the economic crash that’s been cooking away since the latter years of the Vietnam occupation came to its head, several trillion dollars of fictional value suddenly evaporated, and the construction halted on those lots.

Now, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” (Dylan Thomas’ great phrase for a universal creative essence underlying life) has begun its re-encroachment. Weeds, so-called, have taken root… small phalanxes really of biome reconnaissance troops that are reorganizing the complexity that was sheared off the skin of the earth here by the bulldozers. With the new overgrowth, and the cessation of the machines, some of the birds’ voices have returned.

Resurrection is always in the offing; but we have to leave things be for it to happen. I think we surely need to turn off all the machines from time to time, but that’s a minority view.

Greg Moore and Laura Fine Ledford are the pastors at All Saints. Emily Scales is the intern pastor. Here in the middle of Consumer Mecca, across the street from where the plants and birds are trying to reanimate the land of the dead, we talk with others during Sunday School about the challenges of marital cohabitation. We rise and sit and rise and listen and sing our way through the liturgy. Then Greg does his sermon.

Greg is young, 30-ish, white, a former athlete with a haircut that would pass muster in the Marines. He was a philosophy major and a soccer player. He is recharged with enthusiasm from some event this week, and the Spirit is on him, riding him the way Haitians say a ti loa rides a human like a horse. He channels Yoder and Hauerwas today, because he gives a sermon – here in the middle of Privilege and Alienation Central – that proclaims the church to be “a movement.” Few in the congregation understand the implications of what he is saying, I suspect, but he puts it in their heads like an earworm, simple and memorable, this notion that the church participates in history… that is, that the church is as political as it gets.

Some get it. I see the heads nodding; I see some faces that register the impact.

He is suborning treason in the �?burbs.

He cites Jesus’ story of the vineyard workers – wherein the last shall be first, and the first last – here, with the Land of the Dead across the street, speaking directly to the inhabitants of Consumer Mecca. The Spirit passes through me; the hair on my body stands up; I almost shudder. He has invoked the sovereignty of God against the sovereignty of the powers.

After forgiving, we eat the body and drink the blood; we “send forth,” and we put away the chairs.

Sherry and I have decided that we are going to Umstead State Park nearby. It is a fine October day, with the leaves just turning, highs in the 60s, filled with benevolent sunlight. Armed with two bottles of water and the leftover communion bread, we get a couple cups of cappuccino at a gas station, and we drive into the park.

Sherry has her drawing pad and pencils; and I’ve agreed to take her on a trail with a great many opportunities to sketch.

This trail reminds me always of Haiti, for an idiosyncratic reason.

Since 1994, I have visited Haiti 21 times. On some of those trips, I stayed with country people – peasants – who lived vary far up in the mountains without roads, necessitating a brutal hike (at night, for security, after the last US-engineered coup) over some 13 kilometers straight-line distance, albeit along the serpentine line of rocky footpaths follow not lines-as-seen-from-above (the abstraction and deception of a map) but the actual geologic contours and fractures of a steep mountain landscape. This is a very challenging walk for a middle-aged blan, and I had to prepare before these trips.

Umstead State Park is where I did that.

The park is full of trails, well-marked ones that are nonetheless left mostly to themselves to form under the foot traffic – making the trails themselves a rich mixture of granite and quartz and hardwood roots lined with deep, long-term accumulations of crackling leaves. The whole park has retained a high tree canopy with a lot of biological diversity. So the sky is a kind of vast, illuminated overhead kaleidoscope. Sycamore Trail can actually be walked continuously – in a great teardrop on a string – for almost eight miles.

Near a bridal trail in the park, also near the highest ground in the park at all, Sycamore Creek Trail is accessible from a gravel road. Around half a mile from that entry point, there is a precipitous plunge in the trail from a heavily wooded ridge down into Sycamore Creek valley, with rocky switchbacks along a short stretch of steep terrain.

In addition to the Sycamore Trail loop, when I was “training” at Umstead Park, I would go up and down this steep stretch ten times in a row to get as accustomed as possible to climbing with weight on my back (a 30-pound pack). I switched up routes and directions to diversify my time there – from little Pot’s Branch Trail, to Company Mill Trail, Sal’s Branch, Loblolly… names that evoke the passages of time in these particular places.

This is how I learned this park, using it as a training ground for a bunch of political business that kept me for months out of my own home and away from my family. In learning a thing, however, one learns to love it. And Umstead State Park is very lovable.

I prepare to take Sherry to the bottom of this steep trail, the off trail for a brief distance to settle in below one of the small dams on Sycamore Creek. She interrogates me before we go.

“Jessie [her son, my stepson] told me that you walked seven miles in here just to find a fishing hole. Are you about to do something like that to me?”

It’s a joke… I think. Jessie exaggerates. It wasn’t more than three miles, tops. Jessie and I occasionally go to Umstead, and have since not long after we moved to Raleigh twelve yeas ago, to fish. We know a crappie hole on Big Lake and one below the dam along the southeastern turn of Big Lake. We have found bass all through Sycamore Creek, and sun fish, and bluegill, and channel catfish.

Sherry and I park near the equine trail head, and strike off east and south to intersect Sycamore Trail… marked by discrete little blue plastic triangles tacked into the trees at inter-visible points along the way.

Before we traverse the first couple of hundred meters, she begins commenting on various things in the park to sketch. She likes the fallen, weathered trees, and the knotty-rope designs emerging as tree roots along the path. Even puddling along as we were, the descent into Sycamore Creek Valley was accomplished by the time we warmed up.

Below the dam at the southeastern point of Sycamore Lake, there is a giant cascade of stone blocks and ledges – stones the size of buses, airplanes, whales – that layer themselves like a piece of the earth’s spinal column along a turn from the spillway to the resumption of Sycamore Creek below. The creek restarts itself as a 500-square-foot pool that flashes with ravenous bream. Across the pool from the trail side, there is a very old, dry-stacked stone wall, bonded together now by great masses of moist moss, lichen, insect dens, roots…

In the wall there is oldness; but in the rocks there is direct contact with the ancient, time measured in millions of years.

Sherry settles in at water’s edge, at the end of a long whaleback of gray stone, decorated by quartz seams from half an inch to a foot wide. The pool forms a big mirror of the sky that backlights her, even though her back is now to me. I climb up higher to look quietly down; and when I get as high as I can, right at the dam’s edge, Sherry forms this painter’s image, her seated form punctuating the smooth stoniness of smooth stone and the reflective wetness of a pool right where they come together. The same light hits everything. She looks new to me right that moment. We never have time to get to places that have the kind of space where we can see one another from a distance new.

Sitting above her like that, I looked closely – with my reading glasses on – at a bright lichen pattern on a boulder. It looked like a Mandelbrot design, repeating boundary designs on smaller and smaller scales, until I realized that a single line tracing the border of this lichen might stretch out for a mile. Right there, lit up in the middle of the day, and all I had to do was walk out there, sit down, and put on my glasses.

I had Sherry – washed in a new light – and this place where a serene complexity is still a manifestation of God’s voice. I ate a little bread. Then I got the notion of feeding fish.

Sherry and I started rolling dough-balls and tossing them into the pool, where the fish would rise up into view and attack the crumbling bread.

I remember reading Norman Wirzba on the subject of Sabbath… recently, in fact, so some things were fresh in memory. The bread ran out. Sherry sketched, and I meandered around, even climbing a wooded hillside to pretend I was spying on her… her down there, at water’s edge, sharing the light with everything, apparently alone and apparently content. She was paying attention to rocks jutting out of the creek; and they were in turn paying attention to her. Wirzba said that Sabbath is a time set aside to just be in Creation. God, in the first book of the scriptures, says that Creation is good. The Rule is remember the Sabbath. Let everything and everyone rest for a day, just one day out of seven. Interrupt yourselves.

Now I find myself out here, laying back and looking through the leaves at the sky, or gazing down through the vegetation at Sherry and the pool and the old stone wall… at peace.

Wirzba also emphasized another aspect of Sabbath: “Sabbath observance is what we work toward.”

And a lot more… interrupting is important on its own account.

“So what is at stake,” says Wirzba, “in Sabbath observance is not simply that we manage to pause and refuel enough to continue in our frantic and sometimes destructive ways. The real issue is whether we can learn to see, and then welcome, the divine presence where we are. Can we link up as servants of God’s covenantal love and see in that service our unending joy? …If we can do this truly, without the anxiety, worry, fear, competitiveness, and aggression that otherwise punctuate our life patterns, then we will have caught a glimpse of heaven…”

Nowadays, with the financial sword of Damocles hanging over us, we are witnesses to the pain and injustice at the end of a period of unceasing and completely restless competition. Everyone talks about policy in these historic pre-election days; but now the association of Sabbath and Jubilee are clearer than ever… as a way of life, as the embodiment of the kingdom of God. God said to interrupt things, frequently – every seven days, every seven years, every seven-times-seven years; and it seems pretty apparent to me that there were some very good reasons for this constant interruption. Without it, all manner of evil becomes joined with power. Sabbath and Jubilee are an embarrassment to those of us who live in this time as Jews and Christians, with secular modernism’s apotheosis of wealth accumulation. Sabbath and Jubilee, for human beings, is designed to place tight limits on hyper-accumulation as an evil in itself.

What party do you belong to?

The Sabbath and Jubilee Party. Does that make me a theocrat?

We have to start somewhere. Here I suppose. Sherry and I will be checking weather reports on Sundays. We want to do this every time we get the chance. We need to practice at creating interruptions. If we learn to make these little interruptions, then maybe we’ll figure out how to make the big ones.

When we got ready to leave, we decided to climb a small bluff to take a shortcut. Two old fifty-somethings about to do some dumb stuff. We survived the ascent, after sacrificing our dignity to scrabble for hand-holds on tree roots, grunting and laughing like hyenas.

Along the shortcut, smartass Sherry starts on the mendacious seven-mile story of Jessie’s… “you’re not walking me seven miles, too, are you?” It’s easy to be goofy out here in the woods.

That evening, we did something – for us odd. We laid down together and watched three consecutive episodes of the documentary, “The History of Rock and Roll.” The content was not the important thing, even though it was fun and interesting and nostalgic. We had stepped into Sabbath, into a mode of reception that requires interruption of the rest of life’s obligations and obsessions; and we weren’t ready to come back yet.

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