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/u:bæ∫Ik/[n] The greatest, most superlative of its kind;[n] Elegant and stylist;[n] amalgation of German-Franco lexicon, describing hypercool translinguistic supracultural phenomenon.

Thursday, January 17, 2008
Metafiction (mā-tä-fik-shən) is a fictitious narrative that self-consciously deals with the nature and technique of fiction. Yes, it's a trippy subgenre of fiction where sometimes the characters are aware of being in a story, where the author is preoccupied with the act of writing, where there's a story-within-the-story.

It is by no means a new invention - Shakespeare himself flirted with it for dramatic effect in Hamlet when the titular manic-depressive male character puts on a play for his mother and stepfather-cum-uncle about how a man kills his brother and marries his sister-in-law. However, in these days of French post-structuralism and deconstruction, metafiction becomes a serious commentary on the nature of life itself.

Metafiction makes for interesting cinema too. I can think of 3 recent movies.

1. Adaptation. (2002)
This movie is done by the same team that gave us Being John Malkovich - director Spike Jonze (aka Adam Spigel) and writer Charlie Kaufman. It's an utterly self-referential, hyper-aware narrative about writer's block and the business of screenwriting. Nicholas Cage stars as Charlie Kaufman (yes, the writer himself) trying to adapt an actual real-life nonfiction book titled The Orchid Thief for a film. He drives himself crazy when, faced with studio pressure, he realizes the book simply cannot be adapted into a film.

This is one of Nicolas Cage's more memorable roles - he plays a pair of identical twins. Kaufman got awfully metatextual by throwing in a fictional twin brother into the mix, but it makes for good comedic acting for Cage. Furthermore, there are constant references to Kaufman's success as the screenwriter for Being John Malkovich. Apparently the plot was far from fictional (but of course hyper-self-referential), as Kaufman was actually hired to adapt The Orchid Thief but couldn't pull it off. Sadly, I thought the ending was rather contrived and weak, and the strong cast (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Catherine Keener) couldn't save it. Throw in full-frontal nudity, masturbation and crude language into the mix, and the movie becomes one writer's incoherent rant against writer's block.

2. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006)
There is a little-known satirical novel that was published in 1759 in Britain. It had the innocuous title of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Indeed, it's actually a book about nothing (think Seinfeld, but more self-referential, autobiographical and with a British accent) where the title character simply talks about his life. In fact he doesn't reach his own birth till one-third the way of the book.

How do you adapt such a book into a film? By weaving a cheeky narrative about a film production trying to adapt it. Lesser-known Brit funnyman Steve Coogan stars as an actor playing Tristram Shandy. It's less a philosophical musing on fiction than it is a wacky take on celebrity and filmstudio politics, although the actor's life does have interesting parallels with Shandy's one.

3. Stranger Than Fiction. (2006)
I saw this movie two nights ago, and it's the best metafictional movie of the three here. It's an amazingly simple story with layers of meaning and significance that'll take days to ponder and appreciate.

Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, a neurotic IRS taxman who starts hearing a female voice with a British accent narrating his present activity and thoughts. Turns out he's a character in a famous author's latest book. Her name is Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson delivering a fantastic performance), and she is known for killing her main characters off in creative and compelling ways. So, Crick begins to enlist a literature professor's help (Dustin Hoffman playing a character called Jules Hilbert) to save his life.

There's a wickedly poignant and subtly layered twist as the movie nears the end, and there's a few Gospel allusions to unpack throughout the film. Besides, I think there's something significant in the characters' names. To top it off, the sexual themes and language aren't as offensively jarring as the other two.

In my next post I will explore the question: What does metafiction have to do with the Judeo-Christian Scripture?

Friday, January 11, 2008
In my last post I talked about how Francis Collins' book 'The Language of God' got me thinking seriously about the ways in which we should approach Genesis 1 - 3.

First off, I am convinced that Adam and Eve are not figurative characters. That is to say, when the Scriptures refer to them, the author(s) had in mind two individuals who actually existed in the course of history. Here's two reasons why I say that.

  • Genesis records clearly the genealogy of Adam. It says that he fathered Seth at the age of 130, and died after having lived 900 years.
  • Luke traces Jesus' male lineage from Joseph (Mary's husband) straight back to Adam.

  • I think that's an important fact to consider as we think about whether an evolutionary account of origins is compatible with a Biblical anthropology. Here's a few more questions we need to think through.

  • Was 'God breathing life into man's nostrils' just a figurative statement? I think it could be.
  • What does Scripture mean when it says that man was 'formed from the dust'? If it's merely figurative, can it be harmonized with an evolutionary account of origins?

    Your opinions and comments are much appreciated.
  • Wednesday, January 09, 2008

    I picked up Francis Collins' much-publicized 2006 book "The Language of God" on New Year's Day in New York City.

    His first 2 chapters are basically a homage to C.S. Lewis. He reviews and reaffirms the arguments that this elder statesmen of apologetics put down in writing. I skimmed through chapters 3 - 5 because they are Biology 101 for your average football-crazed math-phobic American.

    So I jumped straight to chapter 10, where Collins outlines how theistic evolution harmonizes both evolution and the Bible. His quote from Lewis' "The Problem of Pain" is highly compelling:

         For long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain suffciently complex to execute all of the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have been clever enough to make things which a modern archeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends.

         Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say "I" and "me", which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgements of truth, beauty and goodness, and which was so far above time it could perceive time flowing past... We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods... We have no idea in what particular act, or series of acts, the self-contradictory, impossible wish found expression... it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, but the question is of no consequence.

    To be honest, I've never really struggled with the implications of reading Genesis 3 allegorically. Does this mean the Bible's (gasp) been wrong all this while?

    But if verses from Psalms and Ecclesiastes were once used to falsely uphold a geocentric astronomy against Galileo's heliocentric one, maybe it's not the Bible that's wrong. It's just the way I've read it all this while that needs changing.

    Tuesday, January 08, 2008

    As the Hew Hampshire primaries are in full swing, here's an excerpt from pastor Joel C. Hunter's latest book entitled "A New Kind of Conservative" - a thinly-veiled reference to Brian McLaren's hetrodox book?

        God loves people. He loves us enough that He does not exclude government as a tool by which He can inspire us to help each other. Through our government we have the chance to profoundly influence the lives of people all over the world. No, we cannot convert them through government. Yes, their eternal salvation is most important. That does not mean that every other provision that could be made through government is unimportant. It doesn't mean that the stewardship of the earth is not a concern because conversion is. Our government has certain powers, minor next to God's, bit still rather potent. Our government can feed the hungry, relieve people from oppression and even model strength with integrity to the world. But without action from the Christ followers in our nation, that potential will be incomplete, unfulfilled or morally destructive.

    I like his awareness of the United States' responsibility to the rest of the world in light of her power and status. At the risk of over-generalization, I'll say that few (college-age) Americans have that sense of global responsibility.

    Monday, January 07, 2008
    Boston Winter Conference 2008 is finally over. And it's been refreshing, encouraging, and uncomfortably challenging.

    I wish it had been longer. I would have loved to hear more from the life of John the Baptist, retold by an African-American pastor who preaches about suffering and brokenness in the same fashion as those prosperity-gospel peddlers - humourous and sobering and uplifting all at once, while acknowledging doubt and pain in all its inescapable reality.

    And in between watching a preview of an upcoming documentary and hitting the dance floor, I found myself thinking about gay presidents, the true meaning of tolerance and a career in academia.

    And over the week, as I told people that Blue Like Jazz was going to be made into a movie, I found the responses to be intriguingly ambivalent. Only one person said he could see it working out, and more than a few wondered how a semi-structured memoir could transition into film.

    If anything, I would like to see how they pull off the confession booth episode that's found near the end of the book. And if you haven't read it, you should - I've found that Christians who have read it either love it or hate it, and I seem to be the only one who stays comfortable in the middle ground.

    Thursday, January 03, 2008

    I'm writing this blogpost from the 2008 Boston Winter Conference Internet Hub. It's Day 2, and in about an hour there'll be breakout seminars, with 18 different topics being covered. Sadly there's only time for students to check out 2 seminars.

    After those seminars, there's going to be a preview screening of a brand-new documentary film called "Lord Save Us From Your Followers". From what I've heard, it's an edgy movie in the same vein as Michael Moore's work, and I believe the filmmakers want some audience feedback.

    The kids from Brown University will be checking it out, and you should check this space again for my review of the film.

    On another note, I was watching "The Sound Of Music" on ABC on the last Sunday of 2007, and something told me that (despite countless reruns) I had seen Captain Von Trapp before. A little Google research confirmed my suspicions that he is currently about 140 years old with a very successful news program on Comedy Central.