Archive for August, 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

Most of the women in my life have read the book, The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s mega-best seller.  I have not.  But I overheard so many conversations about the novel that I knew I’d want to see the movie.  The trailer got me.

For the first twenty or thirty minutes or so, I realized why there were so few others of my gender in the packed theater.  As I scanned the room for other guys I thought to myself, this one is a serious, unapologetic chick flick of the first rank.  (The stranger next to Carolyn struck up a conversation over the shared experience of reading the book, and then expressed shock that her husband [I] was there seated beside her.  Hers, she explained, came up with a convenient excuse for missing the movie.)  As The Help’s sound track quieted down for the dialogue scenes, I could hear the sub woofer explosions and rapid shots of automatic weapons firing in the next theater over.  I figured all the other dudes must be over there watching some digital world blow up.  But there I was, next to Carolyn, feeling like I had been secretly ushered into a bouquet jammed, flower scented, boutique sitting room to listen in on a pack of polished, coiffed, manicured, chattering women blissfully unaware that there was a male present.

I actually whispered a prayer of thanks that I was created male.  Those opening scenes.  Women can be so catty, so cruel.  With a glossy smile, they can cut each other to pieces.  Us guys do the same thing, I guess, but mainly on the field of athletic competition utilizing physical contact or scoring skill as our primary mode of establishing superiority.  On a woman’s turf, the damage can be just as severe.  But the warfare is verbal and the bloodshed emotional, even psychological.

Discrimination is a major theme of the book and the movie.  That first part of the film, as I have explained, I was most acutely aware of the gender discrimination, which was, in the Jackson, Mississippi of the early 1960s, as pronounced and stark as all those other segregations and stereotyping.  This is a woman’s world.  No men allowed.  Maybe at no other time in history – the white, post-Gone-With-The-Wind South – were gender roles so clearly differentiated.

But as I grew accustomed to the company of these women, I tuned in to the powerful performances and the great characters.  Minny and Aibileen transform from necessarily passive housemaids to a powerful pair of warriors: Aibileen, quiet, simmering, intelligent; Minny, take-no-prisoners, quick-witted and daring.  Minny’s outspoken, independent spirit gets her fired more than once.  Her strength emerges when she takes on the ditsy blonde outcaste, Celia Foote.

This film (and the book) is really about that other discrimination – racial discrimination – when schools were as segregated as the public transportation and drinking fountains and diners.  Stockett contextualized the film through her main character, Skeeter Phelan, whose college education has sensitized her and dreams of becoming a writer energize her research.  Through her, we are reminded of the Jim Crow laws that had been protected by a Supreme Court ruling since the Reconstruction era in the aftermath of the Civil War.  This was the early sixties, when Medgar Evers was murdered in the streets of Jackson just after President John Kennedy’s speech called for Civil Rights.  The Help makes domestic workers a metaphor for the epic social change unleashed nearly fifty years ago.

Bryce Dallace Howard was interviewed on how she could possibly play the role of that despicable social butterfly with a supremacist’s determination.  She explained that the breakthrough came when she realized that her character, Hilly Holbrook, really believed that her obsessive commitment to segregation was in everyone’s best interest.  She believed she was right.  She considered her activism noble, courageous and virtuous.  She also got the confirmation of the political establishment, and enjoyed the admiration of her friends.  Her proposed legislation, to require every household to provide separate toilets for (colored) domestic helpers won wide support.

All of us cheered the victories of Minny and Aibileen over Hilly and her detached, insensitive battle for superiority; her tireless efforts to preserve a separation that she argues will her prevent the “contamination” of the races.  As Aibileen explained, her strength “came from God.”

Both the book and the film have critics from both ends of the political spectrum.  Some believe the story exaggerates the problem.  Others believe Stockett’s book and the film understate the problem and leave out too much.  But this is a work of fiction.  This is storytelling.  A novel will never satisfy the academic crowd on either side.  That’s why, in addition to the novel, we have the dissertation.

As the world shrinks and our neighborhoods become less and less homogenized, we still have much to learn from the Civil Rights era.  The Help presents us with an ideal.   Barriers can be eliminated. “Let the walls fall down,” wrote Billy Batstone.

When we listen, when we care, we develop mutual respect… even affection.

As Aibileen took little Mae Mobley in her arms, she taught her to say, “I’m kind.  I’m smart.  I’m important.”

Copyright Kenneth E. Kemp

Note – a good friend and LeaderFOCUS reader, Jim Adkins has written a terrific book in which he addresses the issue of racism. Take a look.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

Basic Christianity, in fact, was a little more accessible to me as a twenty-something than Mere Christianity.  Both C. S. Lewis and John R. W. Stott were Brits, and in their utilization of the English language left their American counterparts well behind.  Stott, perhaps more than Lewis, went directly do the point.  In those early, impressionable years, both influenced me deeply.

As a youngster, Stott aspired to be a diplomat.  Lewis, a literary critic.  Both of them converted to Christianity as unlikely candidates.  Both had been thoroughgoing skeptics.  But they became convinced, and opened their hearts.  The rest is history.

While Stott’s attempt to summarize the Christian faith for a disbelieving audience (Basic Christianity – first published in 1958) didn’t sell quite as well as Lewis’ (Mere Christianity – first published in 1952), it sold 2.5 million copies and has been translated into 50 languages.  Royalties from the sales of the book did not enrich Stott who, as everyone who knew him would affirm, lived simply.  His favorite pastime – bird watching.  The proceeds from the brisk sales of the book were poured directly into a non-profit organization (or better, organisation) he called Langham Partnership International – designed to provide theological education and encouragement to international church leaders with little access to either.

News of Dr. Stott’s passing just this week released a flood of memories.  He was, without reservation, one of my favorite seminary professors.  All three years, he was professor in residence the third quarter.  One year, we lived in the same apartment building on campus.  (Occasionally, his discarded tea leaves would clog the drains.)  I realize now that between lectures that year, he was working on the Lausanne Covenant which in 1974 became the basic document binding together a global association of evangelicals.  He and Billy Graham convened that conference which drew more than twenty-five hundred leaders from over one hundred countries.  This week, Christianity Today said, “Stott’s skill as a diplomat was never more in evidence, as he chaired potentially fractious meetings, getting people to listen to each others’ views. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to draft and redraft the covenant, finding wording that would capture various points of view without doing violence to any… Lausanne was a defining moment in global evangelicalism. Billy Graham was the indispensable convener, but John Stott was the indispensable uniter.”

Dr. Stott combined all the best qualities of a scholar, theologian, pastor and professor.  He explained things.  He read widely.  He knew the philosophers and the influencers.  He demonstrated an understanding of the issues with which we grappled.  His sermons/lectures would begin with a statement of the problem – usually controversial.  He did not address solutions or responses until he exposed the challenge.  Sometimes his analysis was so convincing, so precise, we wondered how we might ever find our way out.  Then he would proceed to apply biblical insight and the fog would clear.  He modeled a faith that investigated fully – listening intently, reading broadly, assessing deeply – to interact with concerns of the day.  He saw no distinction between evangelism and social action.  They were one in the same.  He did not envision theocracy as the goal of this life.  “That Kingdom is yet to come,” he would say.  The gospel is not something we impose on the world, we invite.  Stott prepared thoroughly.  He reasoned carefully.  He disagreed gently.  He taught us to do the same.

I knew him as a professor, and as a neighbor.  Then I witnessed his role as pastor of a congregation of some twenty-thousand collegians when he led us to the Communion Table in the great conference hall at the University of Illinois (Urbana 1981).  He raised a loaf of bread, and broke it.  He drew us to the table of mercy and grace, forgiveness and hope.  I’ll never forget it.

Carolyn and I were on the hunt for Charles Dicken’s Museum in London in 1994 (our twenty-fifth anniversary trip).  We rode the London Double Decker through the city and by no advanced planning, stumbled across All Soul’s Church.  We saw the name on the map, jumped off the bus and walked to the domed worship center, wondering – could this be the place?  The marquis identified John R. W. Stott as rector, and announced that he would be speaking the following morning (Sunday).  After visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, we just assumed it would be another ecclesiastical museum, long on history, short on worshippers.  We thought we would “pad” the audience for our old friend.

We arrived promptly at eleven the next morning.  But there were no seats left.  Every spot, including all those in the balcony, were taken.  Crowds waited in the lobby.  We were ushered to the front and invited to take our place on the floor.  Dr. Stott preached that morning, as promised.  We enjoyed an unforgettable conversation afterwards, reminiscing over the Trinity years.

In 2005, Time Magazine listed Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  In his response, Billy Graham stated that Stott’s work is foundational to the explosive growth of the church in the developing world.

It saddens me today to think of the loss.  His family was by his side.  They all listened to Handel’s Messiah as Dr. Stott breathed his last.  His legacy lives in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew him, everyone who read any of his fifty books, all of us who aspire to be ministers of reconciliation.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

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