Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Why Does It Have to Be This Difficult? Because...Otherwise It Doesn't Work"

The headline to this post is a quotation from award-winning Director Ang Lee.  It's part of his lengthier comments on the arduous, multi-year process during which he led 2,000 people to turn Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning 2002 best-seller "Life of Pi" into what is expected to be an outstanding 3-D film.  Given Lee's previous achievements -- "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Brokeback Mountain" -- some expect "Life of Pi" to become a classic.

As testimony to the creative process required to make the movie, the comments are valuable in their own right.  But borrowing from Alfred North Whitehead's method of descriptive generalization, I would also like to note how they exemplify Whitehead's notion of creativity in general--and how, more particularly, they can teach patience and equanimity to those of us who are frustrated with the glacial pace of movements to reform the Christian churches.

Lee made his remarks in an interview with freelance writer Pam Grady, posted yesterday on the new "premium website" of the Houston Chronicle (www.houstonchronicle.com).  In comments toward the end of the interview, Lee notes how much of the movie's action takes place on water.  He notes that no one previously had much success capturing water in 3-D, then describes how hard they labored to overcome the challenge of water's reflectivity:

"You're so helpless... Water is really hard to deal with, especially a large quantity of water.  It's hard digitally when you're creating an image.   It's hard when you're shooting.  It's just very difficult.  Sometimes, between the 3-D and the water, we could spend 12 hours, all night long, and not get anything done.  You just curse and curse and curse, look up at God, 'Why?  I'm trying to make a stupid movie.  Why?'

"We sort of became the movie we were making...  It always happens that way, and I picked the hardest one, I think, this one.  You look up at God, 'Why does it have to be this difficult?,' but eventually God answers, 'Because it has to be that way, otherwise it doesn't work.'  You learn from those things, it's inspiring.  Everything goes, your imagination goes.  If it's too easy, it wouldn't be as provoking and solid as it should be."

To really understand how what Lee went through exemplifies Whitehead's creativity, I'll have to refer readers to my PhD dissertation, linked in the column to the right of these postings.  But in summary form:

Whitehead sees God offering each creature multiple opportunities to bring novelty to the universe and multiple means to give novelty life.  The process hinges on God's persistence in luring forth new creations, our creativity in responding to those lures, and God incorporating and harmonizing the results of our efforts into his ever-enlarging cosmic self.  Whitehead's capsule expression of this ultimate metaphysical principle appears at the very top of this blog:  "The many become one, and are increased by one."

Just before reading Lee's interview, I had read another article reporting that this week the Church of England is having a synod in London, where three houses (laity, priests and bishops) are being asked to decide if the Church of England will have female bishops.  The article prompted several emotions about the state of church reform.

One emotion is frustration that the Church of England is still struggling with this issue, when (unlike the Roman Catholic Church) it has no problem with women priests:  the article reports that already one-third of the Church of England clergy are females, as are one-half of candidates for the priesthood.  In addition, female bishops already exist in other national churches of the Anglican Communion, including the United States, where Kathryn Jefferts Schori has been the 26th Presiding Bishop since 2006.

However, several other considerations cushion the frustration.  Among them:  (1) unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, along with most of the churches of the Anglican Communion, believes that God does indeed call women to the priesthood; (2) thus the Church of England is much farther along on this issue than the Church of Rome, as well as some of the more right-wing fundamentalist churches in the United States; and (3) this allows God's Spirit to breath differently in different churches, perhaps thereby showing where all Christian entities are intended to be one day.

This last point is where I think Ang Lee's experience of creativity speaks most directly and most helpfully.  Lee reminds us that the creativity most worth achieving is rarely without tedious, painful, sometimes infuriating effort.  But especially in the context of Christianity, it also reminds us that the most sustained, reliable, predictable effort is God's own.  If some may say no to God's lures, God can be counted on to try others who might say yes.  When the Catholic Church, for instance, declares officially that God may not call women to holy orders, the experience of the Anglican Communion testifies that, au contraire, God certainly can and God certainly does.

So in the matter of trying to get the Christian churches to grow up and stop being obstacles to the realization of God's reign on earth, I think Ang Lee's experience of God and creativity provides a lot of perspective and encouragement.  "Why does it have to be this difficult?  Because...otherwise it doesn't work."

In the 1960s it was my firm conviction that the Spirit of God was trying to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within.  That appeared to be confirmed in many ways during the years of Vatican II.  However the curias of three subsequent apostate popes (Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) certainly put the brakes on that.

But I need to be reminded of what I argued in my own doctoral dissertation:  where and how God's Spirit blows is not ours to predict or decide.  If some church officials close their ears and their hearts to the Spirit's promptings, there are other church leaders ready to take up the cause.  Throw up road blocks though we may, the Spirit of the Living God is endlessly active, and sooner or later God will lure forth the universe God craves.

So to learn from Ang Lee:  the Spirit of God will not take no for an answer.  If the barque of Peter develops too many leaks, it may well sink.  But we shall stay afloat in whatever lifeboats the Spirit of God has provided--from the Reformation churches, from other religions, and from the experience of decent people everywhere.  Amen.

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