Hope Touches Us

I think the most difficult aspect of living with a chronic condition is maintaining hope.  As a pastor, I have been a fellow traveler with many people through illnesses and conditions that had no prospect for improvement, and watched them confront that reality.  As a father of two sons on the autism spectrum I have been on a journey of discovering from the inside what it is to live with a situation that changes, but does not resolve.  If hope is desiring something with an expectation of attainment or arrival, chronic illnesses or conditions that we will carry to the end of our days would seem to crush hope.  For hope to have any weight against such a force, it must have a quality or substance which is beyond what we measure in the world of time and matter.  This idea forms a kind of lens through which I have seen much of what I observe or experience for many years now.  It is through that lens that I found the new television show “Touch” to be so disappointing.

I have been trying to write about this for more than a week, since Fox premiered “Touch”, featuring Kiefer Sutherland.  When the show was first promoted, it was about a kid with autism and his dad, but by the time the show got to air, there was a clear attempt to back away from that idea (in the pilot, there is a scene where a social worker refers to the boy having autism, and the father responds that there are several labels that have been applied to Jake, but none of them quite fit).  Instead, the premise is that the boy has a special gift which enables him to understand and interact with numbers in a way that few can.  This gift allows him to see connections between people that are invisible to the rest of us, according to the show’s “guru” (played by Danny Glover), who seems to be an apostle of new-agey pseudo-science.

I was prepared to hate this show.  In fact, the first promo I saw on television seemed so trite and simplistic I began to cry with anger.  I told my wife I was sure I was going to hate this show, and that I was going to use this and other venues to make that plain.  As the show drew closer, I read whatever I could find about it.  Then, I watched the show, and realized it wasn’t what I expected it to be.

Which is not to say that I was pleasantly surprised.  I was actually even more disappointed than I expected to be.  A week’s worth of reflection on it has helped me to see that hope is at the center of much of my disappointment and dissatisfaction.

The show’s back and forth behavior about the boy’s condition is the first problem.  The previews of the show prepared me to expect the boy to be more of a plot device than an actual character – an update of the “magical negro” – and the indecision about if he has autism or not continues to feed that suspicion.  I read one interview (which I can no longer find) from show creator Tim Kring in which he said that the boy’s autism-like affect was a plot device to help make the story “timely” or “relevant”.  However, this interview with Sutherland suggests not only that the autism diagnosis hasn’t been dropped, but there will be a special effort to show autism in an authentic way.    Considering that his “autism” enabled him to see the future in the pilot episode, that’s going to be an uphill battle.  It is easy to imagine the contours of the boy’s “condition” conveniently matching the needs of future episodes again and again.  People (not people with autism, all people) deserve more respect and dignity than to be reduced to plot-moving devices by lazy writers.

Since it has been revealed that Kring has a son on the autism spectrum, I hoped he would understand that. Unfortunately, this is a man with a sketchy history when it comes to creating well-developed and consistent television characters.  As was the case with his last show “Heroes”, the early returns suggest that the story he wants to tell is the big thing, and the characters will fit into that story, coherently or not.

The story Kring wants to tell is the second, and larger, source of my vexation.  His story – his hope – is grounded in the notion that everything is connected in ways we cannot see and rarely discern.  The point of “Touch” seems to be to tweak reality (hence the boy’s pseudo-autism) to emphasize this notion of interconnectedness and purpose in a world that seems to be cruel, random and without meaning.  By telling a story with harrowing and heartbreaking notes which ultimately resolve into a coherent and hopeful chord revealing cosmic purpose, Kring is trying to give hope to the hopeless.  In fact, Sutherland referenced that hopeful thread in one of his interviews when he said “wouldn’t it be great if the world worked like that?”  The fact that it doesn’t – unless kids with autism actually are super-evolved inter-connectors – means that this is a hope that can’t last past the end of each episode.  It’s a fairy tale.

My family’s life is no fairy tale.  It is also not hopeless.  My sons are magnificent, and each of them is advanced in their own ways, and each of them finds it almost impossible to do things that virtually everyone else takes for granted.  Sometimes our life together is beautiful and laughter-filled and awe-inspiring.  Sometimes our life is ridiculously complicated, and after years of it still causes me to cry with frustration.  But through it all, I have hope, and it is grounded in this: Jesus is Lord.  Every time I try to tell you why that’s enough hope, my sentences fall apart, but it is true.  And when this life is over, Jesus will still be Lord.  And whatever we become, in this life and beyond, Jesus will still be Lord.  Our troubles may be chronic, but they are not eternal.  Thanks be to God.

Genre Studies

I’m currently flying through Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I started reading a couple weeks ago when I was hanging out with Zach in the Meijer toy department at 2 a.m.*, and it grabbed my interest enough that I bought a copy, even though I’ve got several more important books I’m supposed to be reading at the moment.

*When Zach has an occasional sleepless night, which is one of the side benefits of autism, I’ve found that he enjoys going to the local Meijer and sorting the shelves in their toy department.  It soothes him, and keeps him from waking up everyone else in the house.  And, all of Meijer’s Elmo toys get the orderly sorting they deserve.  Everyone wins.  

It wasn’t until this past weekend, when I’m almost done with the book, that I realized that it is considered by some to be Young Adult Lit.  This always makes me a bit uncomfortable, as though I’m wasting my time or “slumming it” literarily.  In fact, Daniel Radcliffe pointed straight at my feelings on this during his Saturday Night Live monologue this week: “To all of the adults who bought the Harry Potter books and devoured them I just want to say: those books were for children.  You were reading children’s books.”  However, I’m ready to reject the label on Miss Peregrine and continue to read without embarassment.

I think we’ve become too specialized in this regard.  Is the book YA because the narrator is a 16 year old?  Is it because the author has given his narrator an authentic 16-year-old’s tone?  I consider this a good thing (preferable, for example, to 29 year olds playing high school students).  It is not beneath adults to read an engaging and thoughtful story just because the story isn’t told by their own peers.  In fact, isn’t that part of the power of literature, to tell us stories that aren’t our own?

Taken For a Ride

Earlier this evening, I took a prescription in to the pharmacy. After standing in line for an unusual amount of time, I started to pay attention to the customer in line in front of me. Specifically, I began to tune in to his non-stop monologue to the pharmacy technician, because I heard him mention “my pastor”, and something about it sounded familiar. It only took about 15 seconds to realize that this man had been in my office two weeks ago weaving a story about the hopelessness of his situation, and how he longed to get down to Southern Illinois where he aunt had offered him a place to live – if only he had the money for gas to get there. I won’t tell you the rest of his story, but I will tell you that I had fallen for it: I took him to the gas station and got him a gas card so that he could fill the tank on his way south. Now, here he was, telling the technician (whose face betrayed how tired she was of hearing the Neverending Story) how “his Pastor” had gotten him this gift card, and told him to buy what he needed to, but that above all he needed to get gas for his car, but he was going to get this prescription first, and he’d find another way to get gas for his car. When he finished his story, he turned around and ran right into me – and gave no evidence that he recognized me.
So, what have I been feeling? Irritated that I got taken. Even more so because I use the fund I have access to for emergency help situations, and it never has enough money to help all the people who come to us. I know that I am capable of being tricked, but I’d rather not think about it too much. Eventually, I got angry, because I felt like a fool. This guy’s act was so obviously contrived here in the store; why wasn’t it more obvious in my office? But where I finally ended up was sad. Here’s a guy who lives a lie: he’s clearly made a side job of duping churches and other people. I’m not sure what has to happen to a guy like that to actually see God for the generous giver he is.
Of course, the answer is: only grace.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens died yesterday, at age 62.  He was a writer of considerable skill, and had become one of the public faces of New Atheism.  I just read a comment on his life which quoted a speech he gave in October at the annual Atheist Alliance of America convention in Houston.  The point was that Hitchens clung fiercely to his denial of God right to the end:

“We have the same job we always had: to say that there are no final solutions; there is no absolute truth; there is no supreme leader; there is no totalitarian solution that says if you would just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you would just give up, if you would simply abandon your critical faculties, the world of idiotic bliss can be yours.”

Other than the assertions that there is no absolute truth and there is no supreme being – which someone as smart as Christopher Hitchens had to know he couldn’t prove – I would say the job of the Christian overlaps very much with what Hitchens saw as the job of the atheist.  May we never give up on inviting people into the Kingdom, a place where there is no totalitarian reign, where freedom of inquiry will be rewarded with joyous understanding, where the active embrace of our critical faculties serves the end of knowing God, caring for the world God has given us, and cultivating the beauty within it.  I do see that as bliss, and if it is idiotic, then let me be a holy fool.


Looking Beyond the Planet of the Apes

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was released for home video this week.   This isn’t a review of the film, but I was reminded of a statement from one review I read which resonated with me.  The reviewer was talking about the extraordinary quality of the visual effects for the film, and said that this film was the first he had seen in which the CGI became invisible – he wasn’t watching cartoon apes, or actors in ape suits; his eyes told him that he was seeing apes.  I have to agree that I thought the visuals were extraordinary, and didn’t make me think of the trickery, but only served the story.

As CGI has gotten better in recent years, and as it continues to get better, it allows storytellers to unhinge themselves from reality in the service of telling the story.  Impossible characters like the apes in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” become possible.  A city can be folded on top of itself in “Inception”.  This has to be thrilling for the creative people who make films, and it opens up new vistas for those of us who watch them.  Now, if we can imagine it, we can see it in photorealistic images.

For many of us, entertainment is an escape from reality, and so the more thrilling and absorbing it is, the better.  We have a virtual world of entertainment available to us now, and it is enticing to sink deeper and deeper into it when our lives (and the world around us) are unappealing.

But as I thought about the CGI marvels of “…Planet of the Apes”, it made me consider howI believe Christians should function in the world.  I believe that we, too, are capable of presenting something more compelling, more thrilling and beautiful than the everyday that so many people are eager to escape.  If we are actually living the reality of the Kingdom, we should be able to show people a better life, one that in its own way is even more beautiful and extraordinary than anything we can dream up.  It’s not flashy, but it’s fully three dimensional.  Can you imagine it?