Sunday, October 30, 2011

Who is my neighbor? Part I: "Goodbye Solo"

This week I find myself working on an article on "The Good Samaritan" figure in contemporary film.  Rather than looking at films that explicitly retell the story, I have decided to look at a few films whose characters enact elements of the narrative form found in the parable: persons in need being aided and assisted by those whom the narrative audience would consider least likely to come to assistance.

I've narrowed by thoughts down to three or four films.  Since the article is not due until the end of November, I thought I'd use my blog for the next couple of weeks to reflect on a few films I've been watching lately.

The first film I'd like to reflect on is a lovely indie shot by the Iranian director, Ramin Bahrani, entitled "Goodbye Solo."  This 2009 film was shot in, of all places, Winston-Salem, NC, here in my neck of the woods.  In the film, a Senegalese cabby, Solo, is offered $1000.00 by one of his fairs, an older white North Carolinian named William, to drive him later in the week to Blowing Rock, up in the Appalachian mountains.  When Solo finds out that William is planning only a one way trip, he suspects him of wanting to go to the mountains to jump off Blowing Rock.  The narrative unfolds with Solo trying to help William, offering a place in his home, finding him a hotel, taking him out nights to socialize, while trying to find out and resolve William's secret.  The film's characters are a study in contrasts. Solo is surrounded by friends, has a newborn infant and a bright and charming step-daughter, and spends meaningful days in a lively and exciting immigrant community.  William, on the other hand, goes to the movies alone with the sole purpose of having brief conversations with a boy at the teller window, a boy who is utterly unaware that the old man talking to him is likely is mother's long-estranged father.  The contrast between the two characters is also artfully illustrated in the cinematography.  Through much of the film, we see Solo's cab driving through the hauntingly gritty post-industrial night-time streets of Winston Salem.  The final scenes provide a shock to the senses, with the yellow cab driving in the colorful morning excesses of the late-October North Carolina mountains.  The film concludes at Blowing Rock.  Yet the narrative remains unresolved, with William's fate implied only by the image of leaves and sticks blown upward off precipitous rocks.

Whether intentional or not, this film captures beautifully the apocalyptic context of Jesus' parable.  There is a sense of urgency to Solo's efforts.  Solo's frenetic and bubbling wit, his chaotic life, and lively friendships contrast so sharply with William's tense and laconic vocalizations, his chill loneliness, and flat apathetic aspect.  Yet the film is not a cheap morality play. While Solo is deeply disturbed by William's plan, and as a "Good Samaritan," tries everything to prevent it, the main point of the film is not so much either to focus on Solo's good will or the tragedy of William's suicidal desire.  Like Jesus' parables, the film elegantly expresses the sense of urgency, expectancy, and surprising nature of new life, the coming Kingdom of God, even in the face of human despair and decay.

By looking at the parable again through the light of this film, I am reminded of how strong the compulsion is to moralize the parable.  After all, Jesus does conclude the parable with the command, "go and do likewise."  But what if the parable is more about the man who was robbed as it was about the one who stopped to help him?  Note that the expert in the law is asking "who is my neighbor?"  and Jesus concludes the parable with the question, which of the three (the Rabbi, Levite, or Samaritan who encountered the wounded man on the road) was a neighbor.  The narrative draws the parallel not between Jesus' interlocutor and the Good Samaritan, but between Jesus' interlocutor and the wounded man on the road.   By moralizing on this parable, the church preaches this as a story about how we are to help others.  However, the question is not so much,  "who are we a neighbor to?" but "who will be a neighbor to us?"  I don't think we're being urged to compare ourselves with the Good Samaritan.  Jesus compares his audience to the wounded man on the road.

In the past couple of weeks, I've finally gotten around to reading Putnam's book "Bowling Alone."  While some of the data in the book is probably quite dated by now, the trends he points to about the increasing isolation in many parts of American society--the dissolution of families, churches, and neighborhoods--have likely only accelerated in the past ten years.  "Goodbye Solo," however, points to hope.  There are small pockets, perhaps among the ones whom the "majority culture" prefers to ignore, where people are experiencing the apocalyptic hope and vibrancy of renewed community.  Maybe there is hope that some among us are experiencing life and community in various subcultures, whether among Latin American sojourners, or among the "Wall Street" tent protesters that have set up in the hearts of urban America.   I hope only it is not too late for the rest of us to give up our craven desire for isolation and find a group where we can join.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

But Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs that Fall from the Master's Table

It has become popular for some churches to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis (it was on Tuesday) with pet blessings.  I have never been to one, but have always wanted to.  For some people, this may be kind of a controversial ceremony.  It makes for great publicity for the church.  The church need not be some stuffy, rigid haven of orthodoxy.  What a wonderful opportunity to present the church as an inviting community, by posting pictures on the church website of parishioners with their "fur babies" being blessed by their pastor!

Several years ago, Janka and I were adopted by our own creature, a now 100 lb Rottweiler mix who decided one morning he was going to be part of our family.  After greeting Janka at the car as she was leaving for work and giving her a kiss on her hand, he followed me to our front porch where I proceeded to slam the door in his face, hoping he would get the message and go away.  Later, after I had gotten ready for the day and was pulling around the house from our garage, I saw him still sitting on our front porch.  Lo and behold, he was still around when I got back later that evening.  The neighbors said he stayed by the door the whole day, waiting for me to come and let him in.  We took him in that night and "Bear" has been with us ever since.  He has been a great and loving companion for us, a huge and humorous presence in our home, a loyal protector, a gentle giant.

It is strange to me that there are so few dog stories in the Bible.  As I understand it, the ancient Israelites were a herding folk.  Other symbols of their herding life, such as the staff and harp, continue to have great meaning, even in the Christian tradition.  Dogs did apparently play a role in Israel's herding life (Job 30:1) and were likely used as watchdogs (Exod 11:7?; Is 56:10-11).  They may have even played a role inside the family home; although I'm thinking the rhetoric in Matt 15:27 indicates that having dogs in the house would have been considered ritually impure and a practice among Gentiles (it is the Syro-Phoenecian woman talking here).  I'd love to know whether archaeologists have found any evidence of dogs in the home as part of an ancient Canaanite herding culture.  In most cases in which dogs are mentioned in the Bible, they are associated either with violence (consider the stories of Naboth, Jezebel, and Ahab), ritual impurity, and/or slurs of one sort or another.   There does not seem to be the association of dogs with loyalty and protection.  This is a cultural difference.  As Janka and I have witnessed, we have seen a growing acceptance of dogs in the home over the past decade or two in Slovakia.   We think it has something to do with growing affluence and the influence of Western culture.  Anyway, the evidence, at least with regards to dogs, would mean that dear St. Francis would not have thrived so well in biblical times.

So are there any good pet stories in the Bible?  I can really only think of one, Balaam's ass.  Of course any story where there's a talking donkey is bound to be good.  But the cool thing about this story is that God reprimands Balaam for unnecessarily beating his donkey with his staff; and then commends the donkey as being more spiritually acute than the seer himself (Num 22:32-33).  Of course, this probably is a piece of irony poking fun at this foreign prophet.  Still, I suspect the conversation between Balaam and his donkey would have been perceived by ancient audiences as a kind of magical realism, qualitatively different from other theophanies and miracles that are so much a part of the biblical world.  In any case, Balaam's ass makes the short list of characters in the Bible who are given a vision of the divine.   When we come to think of pet blessings and the like, perhaps we should recall this story and at least consider that our pets, in some ways, may be more spiritually acute and less stubborn than we ourselves.