Tragic

It was a blessing,
The ignorance.
To strike
A silky reef
Between the planks,
Farewell between the ribs.
To headline godlike comedy
By chance.

What would they gain by knowing?
To slay a father by will
And not by chance,
To drive a court mad
Not for hasty revenge,
For the sweet love of fragmentation?

Would you tell Peter
Or Paul?
Would you buy Judas his drink
Say you had to talk?

Our eyes drink light
Like juniper gin
And where do we meet our hangover?
Our ears touch the wind
And where do we settle?
In a land of crenellations
Scorched by eclipse.

What do we gain from knowing the end?
A gutshot stumble home
To the heart
In the morning
Star.

Doggone Idolatry

Last week, as I closed the gate behind me and obscured my dog’s despondent face, I said “I’ll be back later. I love you.”

Why is it so easy to express love for a dog, and so difficult to express love for the most important people in my life? Why is it easier to express affection for an irrational creature that cannot grasp or return my affection, than for a rational and volitional creature that can?

And then I realised – it is easier because the dog cannot grasp or return my affection.

Application to preaching about idolatry after the cut.

Sermon Structure: the abyss

So I preached on Psalm 41 recently, and today started work on a sermon on Psalm 72. The contrast between one sermon and one proto-sermon got me thinking about how sermon structure actually works.

I feel like I’ve been closing in on my preaching voice recently, gradually focusing on one meta-structure for my sermons. But it’s not a structure I would ever mention in a sermon.

Have a look at this sermon outline:

SP: Person of Interest 123, Fire Wall

Episode Summary

Our Number is psychologist Caroline Turing. Someone has hired HR to kill her. As Our Heroes try to protect her, Reese gets trapped in a hotel with both FBI and HR closing in. Carter and Fusco realise they are both on the side of Our Heroes, and as the episode closes Finch is confronted by a figure who wants to know more about the Machine…

 

Surveillance Report

AMY ACKER BABY!

This episode shows a kind of narrative self-awareness that is not common in procedural television, and is very fun to boot. It doesn’t advance the themes of the show but it serves a stark warning that those themes are more than the balance between liberty and security. There are stranger things than patriots in these waters.

Spoilers coming…

SP: Person of Interest 122, No Good Deed

Summary

Our Number is Henry Peck, an NSA analyst with so little personal life that it’s difficult to imagine him as a victim or perpetrator. Then Peck is framed for drug possession and run out of his job. Turns out that he has been asking questions about certain details that get added to his reports and end up exposing terrorists. This is of course how the Machine’s relevant Numbers are being disseminated.

ISA gunmen show up hunting Peck and Reese has the difficult job of protecting a Number without revealing his presence. After Peck goes in and out of police custody, Finch turns up and confirms Peck’s suspicions that the Machine exists before giving him a new identity. Corwin listens to their conversation.

In flashback we find out that Finch was quite happy ignoring the irrelevant Numbers, and that Nathan Ingram coded a backdoor into the Machine.

 

Surveillance Report

This episode works pretty well because Finch’s emotion gives foundation to Peck’s. But Peck himself doesn’t contribute much to the proceedings. He drives the plot, yes, but his reaction to what is going on doesn’t show us anything new about the themes of the show. Slight missed opportunity.

However, the show starts gearing up for the big arc across its five seasons; and it is both appropriate and good storytelling to explore this arc through the procedure of saving Numbers. The episode also draws a number of parallels between characters in different timeframes, helping us understand one through the other.

 

Ingram and Peck

Both Ingram and Peck are good men whose virtue places them in danger. The morality that governs the shadowy group trying to discredit or kill Peck is a totalising one – it does not allow other approaches to right decisions, it does not even obey the laws of the country they seek to protect. There is no idealistic understanding of the USA in play here, only a brutally realist and humanist one. America is the people. So do anything to keep more people alive – even silencing inconvenient good people.

This materialist-patriotic kind of shadow will gradually be replaced across the course of the show by a super-national that does not care about ordinary people or their safety or even the present state of the human race. The threat in this episode treats people as something to be conserved as a whole; what matters is that the USA as broad institution is not destroyed by terrorist attacks. The new threat will see people as a whole as something to be transcended and revitalised through submission to AI.

In both cases the focus on abstract universals rather than individuals leads to tyranny and a free use of violence. It is only by applying abstract ideals to real people that Our Heroes can provide a counter-argument.

 

Ingram and Finch

We find out that it was Nathan Ingram, Finch’s friend and cover story, who couldn’t handle the irrelevant Numbers and started to do something about it. The ironclad commitment to helping Numbers, the sense of universal justice applying to every individual, is something Finch learned from his friend. Once again the show says that morality is as much about the right relationships as the right beliefs; being friends with good people makes you better, as both Reese and Fusco have shown.

 

Finch and Peck

Finch sees a great deal of himself in Peck. Ingram wanted justice and that led to a desire for truth, but Peck is purely interested in truth and understanding. Like Finch he is a natural system-thinker. And that has put him in the same place as Finch: on the run, hiding in the shadows from others who live in the shadows.

This episode shows us the normal life that Finch (like Peck) has lost: a relationship with a woman named Grace. He isn’t bitter because he got far more time with her than Reese ever had with Jessica. But connecting these two relationships can’t help but critique Finch. When Reese left Jessica behind out of a desire to protect her, out of emotional cowardice, that led to her death. Giving up life and love to live in the shadows is a bad thing so far in this show. I wish that it remembered that more often.

 

Finch and Corwin

By empathising with Peck (the main way Our Heroes save Number, it seems) Finch reveals himself to Alicia Corwin. She has also been driven into the shadows. Becoming aware of Finch’s existence will bring her back next episode…

Telling the gospel

I was talking with some friends the other day about the difficulty of explaining the gospel to people without any shared frame of reference: no belief in God, no belief in the objective good, no belief in inherent wrongness or sin, etc. I’m not great this but I thought I’d give it a try.

Here is how I might explain the gospel and why I believe it to someone willing to listen for a bit.

SP: Contemporary pop culture is incomple

Some passages from Lionel Trilling’s chapter on Mansfield Park in the Pelican Guide to English Literature vol 5 (and then some development of his point):

The concern with the profession was an aspect of the ethical concept which was prepotent in the spiritual life of England in the nineteenth century, the concept of duty. The Church, in its dominant form and characteristic virtue, was here quite at one with the tendency of secular feeling; its preoccupation may be said to have been less with the achievement of salvation than with the performance of duty.

State of the Blog

If you are reading this, I am probably already dead…

No, I’ve just been pulled in other directions. Owing to (1) preparing to do a part-time research master’s, (2) a resurgence of anxiety and depression, and (3) committing to writing film reviews over here, I have had less ability to post.

But I have returned (like Sauron) and intend to at least finish season one of Person of Interest and the series on pornography.

I have also changed my mind about some parts of online writing, more to follow on that.

Keep flying, cowboys.

SP: Person of Interest 121, Many Happy Returns

Summary

It’s John’s birthday! Finch gives him the day off and a mysterious key for a birthday present. We see that Reese plays xiangqi with a friend in the park and lives in a Spartan apartment.

Meanwhile Donnelly enlists Carter’s help to investigate the Man in the Suit’s first crime – a possible murder in New Rochelle. Because everything goes badly for John, always, Finch has given him the day off because their Number is on the run from an abusive husband. Carter’s investigation and flashbacks show us that the dead man (?) in New Rochelle was Jessica’s abusive husband Peter Arndt. She called Reese for help but he was delayed by the mission to Ordos. He arrives to discover that Peter has accidentally killed Jessica and then covered it up with a car crash.

The Number at first appears to be an identity thief and conwoman. But in fact, the warrants have been faked by her abusive husband who happens to be a US Marshal. After direct threats fail to warn him off, Reese kidnaps him and drives away. We hear that Marshal Jennings is imprisoned in a Mexican jail, possibly alongside Peter Arndt and Andrew Benton (the serial rapist from Cura Te Ipsum).

The episode ends with Finch revealing that the key opens a lovely new apartment for Reese.

 

Surveillance Report

This episode is like emotional sandpaper. It refuses to flinch in its portrayal of abusers and the way their obsessions destroy the lives of others. On a more personal level, we see that Reese doing one more mission contributed to Jessica’s death; that the normal man with whom Reese wanted her to be happy turned out to be lethal. His emotional cowardice at the airport was damaging to both of them rather than a sacrifice for her good.

 

The Man in the Beard

Who is Reese before Finch gives him a purpose? It turns out that’s exactly the question Reese is asking in the flashbacks:

I was the guy who left her behind, because I thought she deserved someone better than me. I thought she deserved someone who would look after her, be there for her. I thought she deserved someone like you. So, I don’t know. I was hoping you could tell me.

Reese’s whole life trajectory of dutiful sacrifice for the good of others has been a bust. The CIA has tried to kill him, both the system (Snow) and his colleague and lover (Stanton). The big personal sacrifice of leaving behind Jessica so she can be happy with Peter has only led to her suffering and death in an abusive relationship.

Reese fights Peter and may or may not kill him, but it feels purely reactive. Reese doesn’t even stand up until Peter picks up a weapon. It feels like this is the start of the Reese we saw in the pilot: a man seeking death but not ready to commit suicide, so he reacts to violent people with violence in the hope that he’ll come to the end of himself that way. Reese doesn’t fight Peter out of a desire for vengeance. He fights because Peter has re-asserted his own identity as someone who is fought by people like Reese. It’s just old impulses briefly asserting themselves.

 

The man who does what others can’t

The flashbacks show us a directionless Reese. The present-day story shows us a Reese who is crystal clear on his purpose: to be there in time to help others. That’s the job Finch gave him and Reese likes doing it. But the specific person he needs to help is a victim of abuse. This triggers the most extreme tactics from Reese, because he’s familiar with abusive relationships and because he’s determined not to fail this time. Reese is returning to the same situation as Jessica, but thanks to Finch and the Machine Reese both possesses a firm self-image and arrives in time rather than too late (exactly the thing Finch promised in the first episode). But we see that Reese is dancing on the ragged edge of his purpose. He takes extreme action without listening to Finch: first beating up Jennings in an office full of marshals, and then kidnapping him when that has no effect. Finch had ample reason to be concerned about Reese’s response to a Number who is being abused.

But it’s difficult to argue with Reese when he tells Carter that this is his job, that he picks up where the law leaves off – because that is the premise of the show. If Carter doesn’t trust him to make this decision then why is she helping him make all the other decisions? Reese ultimately doesn’t kill Jennings. He just imprisons him for life, which is…better? Reese demonstrates a concern for life that was absent from his work with the CIA, nascent in his time in New Rochelle (as it’s implied he didn’t kill Arndt) and fully-formed in his work with Finch. Killing people is bad. Important lesson, kids.

But even though he tries not to kill Reese remains an extrajudicial force. He takes care of what the system can’t, like abusive US Marshals. Note that once again the normal systems of governance and justice are shown to be corrupt and incapable – especially incapable of policing themselves. But the very fact of Reese being outside the system means that he is outside the system, not just of laws but of other people’s moral judgements. Other individuals cannot restrain Reese’s action without obviating the physical and moral independence that lets him carry out his new purpose.

This is a basic part of the Western justice/vengeance construct. We can put it like this: Batman doesn’t care about what the cops think, because if he did he wouldn’t be Batman. Rejecting the system means accepting your own judgement as a replacement system. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy that “The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men.” In the same way, a criminal violates one law but the vigilante violates all laws, because he sets himself up in their place. We may say that the vigilante is only saying that their personal judgement is closer to justice than the abstract judgement and application of the system. But the confidence required to keep on being a vigilante means the faculty of self-correction becomes dangerously weak.

Reese (and Finch) cannot be restrained. But they can be influenced by those who do not seek to restrain them with force; that is, by those who love them. I think the episode gives no clear answer as to why Reese does not kill Arndt. But we do know why he doesn’t kill Jennings – his new purpose, his new friends, have made him not just a man who doesn’t necessarily kill but a man who doesn’t want to kill. As the show goes on and Our Heroes become more numerous and more complex this web of friendship will become a team – almost a sub-system of its own. Reese has friends. Batman needs Alfred, and Robin, and so on. Because without love, without a sub-system, those seeking justice outside the system are fascists or would-be gods.

Empty signals

When you read an article on church planting and it says “Don’t worry about your numbers,” but two paragraphs later mentions the size of the author’s church…

When you hear a sermon where the preacher affirms a certain life circumstance as godly, but later only applies the passage to people in other situations…