Thursday, August 27, 2009

Still thinking about death

I can't seem to avoid this topic. Besides Senator Ted Kennedy, the news has also highlighted the recent passing of South Korean president and Nobel laureate Kim Dae-jung, author Dominick Dunne, 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt, columnist Robert Novak, theologian Geoffrey Bromiley . . . the list goes on and on. A couple days ago I remembered what would have been my father's 70th birthday, had he not died in 1998. He has been gone now for almost a third of my life, and I still grieve his absence. And just last night I learned that a high school classmate had been killed in a car accident this past weekend, leaving behind her husband, daughter and son. So sad.

I read a lot of the Kennedy coverage yesterday, and the article that jumped out at me most was this one in the New York Times, because it gives insight into how Kennedy prepared to die. He was a "man who in his final months was at peace with the end of his life and grateful for the chance to savor the salty air and the company of loved ones." He spent time with family at dinners and singalongs, and he told friends, "Every day is a gift" and "I've had a wonderful life." He ate ice cream and watched James Bond movies and 24 episodes. The article makes brief mention of Kennedy's growing reliance on his faith in his later years. He was described as "someone who had a fierce determination to live, but who was not afraid to die."

All this reflection on death makes me wonder if I'm ready to die, or if I really live my life like I could die anytime. I don't mean that I'm afraid to die, but I feel like I should be thinking more strategically, more intentionally, about everything I want to do before I die and focus on that. Do I spend too much time on stuff that doesn't really matter and that I should just quit doing? What should I be doing that has eternal value?

I'm reminded that Henri Nouwen wrote somewhere that death brings us into solidarity with all humanity. All of us are part of the same human community that journeys this earthly life together. All of us are mortal, and our time here is brief. I was reading Facebook comments about our classmate, and one of the things that struck me is that even though many of us didn't know her well in high school, all of us feel a sense of loss. It doesn't matter if we perceived each other back then as jocks or nerds or partiers or outcasts - nineteen years later, we're just people, all aware of our own mortality. John Dunne wrote, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind." So we grieve our classmate, and we are reminded of our connections with each other. And we pray for one another for comfort and hope.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Thinking about death

There have been quite a number of prominent deaths this summer, and not just Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. TV host Ed McMahon. Veteran news anchor Walter Cronkite. Vietnam War-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Former Philippines president Corazon Aquino. ’80s filmmaker John Hughes. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics. Memoirist Frank McCourt. And in the Christian publishing world, Robert Short, author of The Gospel According to Peanuts, and Marie Little, wife of IVP author Paul Little. All of these passed in just the last few months.

I just looked up some of these and discovered that Wikipedia has running entries like “Deaths in 2009” or month-by-month listings like “Deaths in July 2009." Reading these entries is sobering, as you see the lives of the famous and the not-so-famous summarized in a single sentence, often with the cause of death - colon cancer, heart attack, car accident, hanging, brain aneurysm. Regardless of the individual's notoriety, fame, wealth or power, death comes to us all.

I'm certainly familiar with death; I've already lost my father, a cousin, an aunt, an uncle and all four of my grandparents. But it feels like there have been several recent reminders of death close to home; my wife's aunt died of cancer earlier this summer, and a publishing industry friend lost his wife. It's scary when people of our own age or generation start to die. It's my twenty-year high school reunion next year, and I'm nervous about finding out if any of my classmates are gone.

So how do we live in light of the presence of death? As I get a little farther along in my mid-to-late 30s, I find myself a little more aware of my own health. I get worried that aches and pains could be more serious. A friend from church found a benign tumor a few months ago. What if that shoulder or back pain isn't just a muscle or joint thing, but cancer?

I've been thinking about all this partly because I'm the editor for a forthcoming book by Rob Moll on The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (releasing spring 2010). I was reviewing an early draft of the manuscript as my wife's aunt was in the final stages of cancer. And what struck me most about Rob's book is that throughout most of church history, Christians have practiced the spiritual discipline of dying well, of anticipating one's own death. It had been an intentional practice of numbering one's days, of reckoning with one's own mortality.

These days people often say that they hope to die quickly, in a sudden accident or something. But Christians throughout history usually preferred to have time to prepare and anticipate one's death, to make peace with God and others. One's approaching death was a time of saying the important things, like sorry, thank you, forgive me, I love you. The reality of death often jolts us into living more meaningfully.

I remember after events like Columbine and 9/11, one significant result and response was that people hugged their kids and had significant conversations with their loved ones. It seems to me that every new celebrity death in the news could be a trigger to remind us to do the same.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

How John Hughes's movies shaped Generation X

[I wrote an article on the impact of John Hughes's movies that was posted online yesterday at My working title was "Don't You. Forget About Us." Here's part of the article.]

Shaping a Generation
Looking for love, friendship, and community: How the movies of John Hughes shaped Gen X's ecclesiology.
Al Hsu

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In the 1980s, when the generation yet-to-be-tagged-as-X were still known as "baby busters," a series of John Hughes movies depicted what it meant to be a teenager in America. Sixteen Candles. The Breakfast Club. Pretty in Pink. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Some Kind of Wonderful. Long before Napoleon Dynamite, Juno or High School Musical, Hughes's films captured the particulars of teen angst and relationships.

Hughes died last week of a heart attack at the age of 59. His funeral was held yesterday in the Chicago suburbs where so many of his movies were filmed. Ben Stein, a longtime friend and one of the Ferris Bueller stars, said Hughes "was the Wordsworth of the suburban America post-war generation."

Hughes's movies are more than a time capsule of '80s music, fashion and hair. They were formational for the worldview of many Gen Xers and shaped how we view friendship and community. By extension, they offer a glimpse into what Christian Gen Xers yearn for in the church.

Another movie of the late '80s, Dead Poets Society, exhorted viewers to carpe diem, seize the day. But what would we actually do if we were to seize that day? Ferris Bueller's answer was to take the day off with his best friend and girlfriend and hit the city. The average suburban teen moviegoer could relate more to catching a Cubs game than reciting candlelit poetry and that barbaric yawp stuff.

But the overarching theme of Ferris Bueller's Day Off is not merely "follow your heart" or "skip school." It's friendship. While Ferris is the focus of the movie, viewers do not generally identify with him. He's too singular, too unconventional. His best friend, Cameron, is the Everyman character. We all know what it's like to want to stay in bed and hide from the world. And every Cameron out there needs a friend like Ferris—someone who does unimaginable things to challenge us in ways we would never expect.

Similarly, the female protagonist is not really Ferris's girlfriend, Sloane, who is little more than eye candy. The most important female character is Ferris's sister, Jeanie, struggling with sibling rivalry and family dynamics while searching for her own identity. She too is on a journey from alienation to significance, and she finds some degree of connection to others even as she becomes more comfortable with who she is.

Yearning for community

Likewise, The Breakfast Club is about an alienated generation's yearning for friendship and community. The movie featured one of the first true ensemble casts, presaging TV shows like Friends or Lost where no one character is the lead. All of the Breakfast Club members are equally necessary for the dynamic of the movie to work. It was not just a Molly Ringwald vehicle with a supporting cast. And all of us watching longed for a community of peers where we could have equal billing and our share of the stage, not just be a sidekick to someone else's lead.

The Breakfast Club identified teen archetypes but then transcended them. On one level, the takeaway message is the familiar refrain that "we're more alike than different," looking beyond the stereotypes to show that these five seemingly diverse teenagers have more in common than not. But on another level, the movie worked to hold individuality and community in dialectical tension. Each of the five protagonists remained their own distinctive character, even as they grappled with their particular problems in the context of a larger community.

A. O. Scott of the New York Times, in his appreciative remembrance of Hughes's movies, noted that "the great, paradoxical insight of The Breakfast Club is that alienation is the norm, that nerds, jocks, stoners, popular girls and weirdos are all, in their own ways, outsiders." As a high schooler, it was a shock to my system to realize that the popular kids had their own insecurities just like the freaks and geeks did.

A movie like The Breakfast Club is intended to be viewed with friends and then discussed afterward in community, as my high school friends did on many occasions in those late '80s. We asked ourselves, "So which one do you identify with?" And we'd surprise ourselves when we found that the athlete related more with the stoner or nerd than the archetypal jock.

My sophomore year of high school, I wrote some short stories with my classmates as characters. At first they were indiscriminate, with my entire honors English class as the cast. But they gradually centered on a smaller group of friends in an attempt to define a brat pack of our own. I wanted to bring together disparate individuals from different spheres and create a Breakfast Club-like community. But I learned that community could not be artificially orchestrated, and I was often surprised with friends I would not have expected or chosen.

[For the rest of the article, go here.]