but i’d really love to know
i’d really love to climb
my way into your heart
and see what i could find
i’d walk into your skin
swim through your veins
see it from your eyes
cause i’d really love to try, yeah
Jars of Clay, “Disappear”
There’s one trait I think I admire and aspire to more than about any other: the ability to understand another’s point of view. I love being able to get outside of my boxes and framework, and really have that “a-ha” experience of understanding how someone else sees things completely differently than me. Nirvana is to be able to understand two opposing sides–people in conflict, generations clashing–and, through questions and probing, be able to help them find common ground.
Truly great writers do this (and I keep hoping one day to blog about some of the classics in literature I’ve been reading lately). And last night, I saw a truly great movie that got me inside another culture in a hauntingly powerful way.
I’m not an “art house” movie kind of guy. I don’t claim to be a movie buff. But Kirk Mylander, a long time friend, invited me last night to go with him to Cinema 21 in downtown Portland to see “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus;” and, I have to say, it was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a portrayal of the true poverty of the south, and how alt-country music has developed from that culture. That should have eliminated me right there, because I hate country music (sorry, Scott Winter), and even though I have the travel bug with a list of places a mile long that I want to see before I die, I don’t think anyplace in the south is on that list.
Seeing this movie NOW, when I’ve been wrestling in thought with poverty in the world and the U.S., was a really good kick in the butt. We like to think that we’re really not all that middle class, not all that different, that we could relate with anyone, that our church could welcome and minister to anyone. That’s a bunch of crap, and this movie assaults you with that realization within 20 minutes. I realized that the truly poor in America are invisible to me. Jim White, who evidently is a fairly famous alt-country dude, narrates and participates in this journey of discovery, and he says early on (to paraphrase): “You don’t know the south until you get 10 miles off the interstate. If you just pull of the interstate, all you see is a Cracker Barrel, and you think you’ve found the south. But you haven’t. You gotta get WAY off the highway.” And the movie gets you off the highway, and my first reaction was, “I ain’t never been anywhere like that, I don’t want to go, and even if I did, I would have no way of relating.” The invisibility of the poor, everywhere, is one of our safety nets.
To understand the south, White narrates, you must realize that everyone there has to make a decision about Jesus. You either follow him all out…or you go to an all out “no”. We hear stories, amazing stories from amazing people; about how people in the south made up stories about the people they would see in the Sears Roebuck catalog, stories about the perfect people in the pictures that they couldn’t relate to, because they all had all their fingers, for instance, and no one in the south could imagine a huge group of people who all had all their fingers. We hear the stories of people in hole-in-the-wall bars, the stories of about a dozen men in prison. The movie begins by portraying the lives of those who’ve said an all out “no” to Jesus, and it gets them to talk about Jesus and faith. And what you hear is that they just wanted to do something, to feel something, anything, even if it was feeling what was wrong. And they, themselves, called what they did wrong.
Then the movie turns to the Pentecostal holy roller experience in the south. White narrates that the out of control emotional fervor makes sense in the south. The same culture that leads people to want to feel something, anything, even if it lands them in prison, makes church and spirituality a rockingly feeling experience. And for the first time, I saw the holy rollin’ freaks I’ve looked down on before as incredible missiologists, reading and relating to their culture.
Maybe it was just my experience of it, but I felt like the first half of the movie I was slammed with the realization that I really am radically different from poor people in the south. I have to face my closed in, homogenous, white suburban world. But the whole second half of the movie, I was moved by our common humanity. You see the incredible art form of story telling (let alone the music) that is creatively and powerfully making sense of their world in their images and their ways. Jim White talks about this guy we never see in the movie, this guy who painted his house magenta and hung hundreds of milk of magnesia bottles from the trees. I hear and imagine that picture, and I condescendingly smirk. But White says (again, paraphrase), “What an incredible fit of artistry, what creativity must have overwhelmed this guy, that he just had to let it out. But all he had was magenta paint and empty bottles of milk of magnesia…bottles he surely drank himself.”
These movie makers got me inside the lives of people I never even noticed, and it made me think. I’ll be buying the DVD when it’s out.
Disappear from the album “The Eleventh Hour” by Jars of Clay is playing in iTunes.