Dylan Peterson

"Dylan Peterson is a writer and DJ from the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. He hosts a weekly music show for the Chicago Independent Radio Project every Tuesday night (10pm PST). In addition to the Curator, he has written for Christianity Today, Burnside, Killing the Buddha, Patrol, and is a former editor for Relevant Magazine. He blogs at Total Darkness vs. Blinding Light, and tumblrs at Judge Ye Not (celebrating the satire of Mike Judge)."

Go Bulls

I smile after wrapping up another cell phone conversation with my dad. I haven’t talked to him this much in my entire life. After just about every Bulls game this season, one of us calls the other to discuss our favorite plays in the game, adjustments we hope to see in the next, and just the general joy we both feel when it comes to this current team. We’ve been experiencing a basketball drought in Chicago for over a decade, but this season has filled us with elation, and we just have to share the good feelings with each other.

Derrick Rose, NBA MVP.

I know we’re not alone either. Derrick Rose was voted the Most Valuable Player this year, Tom Thibideau won Coach of the Year, and the Bulls had the best record in the league this season. They haven’t been this successful sine the Jordan ’90s, when, unfortunately, my dad and I couldn’t have the relationship we have now.

Michael Jordan’s Bulls were an essential part of my childhood. Before I became an angsty high-schooler with punk rock aspirations and spiky hair, I was a skinny little Bulls fan with Nike Air Max’s and a Scottie Pippen jersey. While my mom and dad were fighting their way through an ugly divorce, I was out in the driveway pretending I was MJ. Jordan’s heroics made what should have been a tumultuous time for me just a little bit easier to cope with.

“10 seconds on the shot clock, Chicago down one but with possession. He brings it up the court. Seven… Six… Five… here’s the crossover, the drive… Three… Two… the shot is up… It’s good! At the buzzer! Bulls win! Bulls win!”

Yeah, this is what I would pretend, when the Bulls weren’t doing it in real-time.

Perhaps my favorite memory growing up is that last shot Jordan took against the Utah Jazz in the ’98 Finals. At that career-defining moment, every Chicagoan leapt out of their seats and screamed into their ceilings. Over and over again throughout that entire decade we experienced some of the greatest moments in sports history, and we were a proud city. No matter what difficulties plagued our personal lives, we were happy when we were Bulls fans.

Sadly, I couldn’t share these moments with my dad back then. I was living with my mom, and I only saw my dad once a week. MJ’s last game wasn’t on a Friday or Saturday night, so we couldn’t watch it together. Even though my dad probably took just as much joy in that moment as I did, the tension between him and my mom was always thick enough to keep me from developing a deep bond with either of my parents.

I knew my dad loved the Bulls though, and I wanted to share that love with him. He had the Bulls bumper sticker on his truck. He had the official championship t-shirts. But we didn’t go to games together. We didn’t discuss coaching tactics. I was a Bulls fan, and so was he, but we lived in different suburbs, and we didn’t talk on the phone.

When a kid’s parents hate each other, it creates a viciously awkward situation for the child. Is there a right or wrong side? If I call my dad, will my mom yell something derogative that he’ll hear on the other end? If I stick up for my mom when my dad yells at her, will he yell at me in retort? Adult relationships are awful, complicated things. Especially when (as the old cliché goes) kids are in the middle of it all. It took growing up a little bit myself, and forgiving a little more, in order to learn this.

Now I, too, am a complicated and awful adult. And I like this current Bulls team even more than the ’90s dynasty of my childhood. Not simply because they play magnificent team ball and are led by a fellow South-Sider, but because now I can finally share the experience of Bulls basketball with my dad.

We’re just two men who love the Bulls, but we both feel like kids again.

My dad never used text messages until this season, but only during Bulls games, usually parroting one of the local announcer’s catch phrases: “Cherry pie!” “Mr. MVP!” “Bench mob!” “TAJ!” My siblings marvel at this development as if he just gave up meat for vegetarianism.

He’s one of those dads who hates to use email for anything. I’m not sure if he even knows what Twitter is yet. He was a carpenter for his entire life until a back injury forced him into an early retirement a few years ago. Hard work and physical activity are what my dad is all about, so the very thought of those 50-year-old, thick-calloused fingers texting cute messages on a cell phone that he doesn’t even know how to set up a voicemail for is downright valiant. I don’t know if he realizes it, but he missed the potential father/son experience between us during the last Bulls championships. It’s not that he didn’t want it, but the circumstances kept us both timid. Now, we’re seizing the moment. That is, we’re taking the Bulls by the horns.

Sports are exciting only if they are experienced within some sort of group atmosphere. Sure, while I’m by myself I can pretend I’m hitting the last-second shot of a championship game on the rim above my garage door, but it’s just that: pretend. When a real, professional team sets out to win a championship for the pride of their city, the community comes together in genuine camaraderie. The flags come out on porches. The shirts and hats all turn to crimson. The lights atop the Hancock and Willis Towers are lit bright red. Families that might not have talked much before the season suddenly come together behind their team and high five each other. And there is excitement. And there is the thrill of competition.

After the Bulls won their first playoff series a few weeks ago, Dad sent me a text message that I’ll never forget: “It’s been an incredible season so far, and it’s been an honor to be able to share it with you.”

We really didn’t see it coming. At the start of the season, we didn’t predict the Bulls would be in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. We didn’t think our hometown hero would be the league MVP this soon either. But now that it’s here, there’s no way we’re missing it again. This time, we’re experiencing this thing together. This is for us. “Go Bulls.”

Meta-Mocks

Donald Kaufman reminded us, “There hasn’t been a new film genre since Fellini invented the mockumentary.” But we need an addendum to that scene of Adaptation. In the past year, two movies were released that blurred the lines between documentary and mockumentary. The more popular was I’m Still Here, the “hoax” film about Joaquin Phoenix’s downward spiral out of show-business. The more interesting film was Blood Into Wine, the story of how Tool’s Maynard James Keenan shifted his attention away from rock and roll and decided to create a winery in the Arizona desert.

Joaquin Phoenix in character for "I'm Still Here."

Neither of these films are documentaries in the traditional sense. Ken Burns probably wouldn’t endorse either of them. Documentaries, as Michael Moore boldly claimed when he won his Oscar, deal with non-fiction. I’m Still Here and Blood Into Wine are unclear in where their “non-fiction” is based. And yet, they are not exactly Guestian mockumentaries either. There is reality inherent in these films, in spite of vehemently false aspects. Let’s call this new genre, the meta-mock.

Postmodernism triggered a self-conscious ambiguity in film. Zizek asserted that the virtual is now the reality, and he’s right– hence the popularity of reality television, online social networks, and this new film genre that straddles the fence of documentary and mockumentary. Due to this paradoxical genre’s simultaneously real-yet-false qualities, the virtual is more real in a meta-mock than the “non-fiction” Bowling For Columbine was.

Meta-mock is like the filmic version of Kierkegaard’s philosophy: truth is subjectivity. Just as Nietzsche and Sartre would be nothing without the existential groundwork of Kierkegaard, I’m Still Here and Blood Into Wine probably would not exist without the trailblazing of Werner Herzog. He directs both fictional and non-fictional (documentary) films, but the latter are never straight-forward. Herzog has a keen sense of what makes a subject interesting, and may linger on it for over an hour, without narration. However, he is never afraid to insert his own opinion into a story. His own subjectivity may enhance the overall quality of the film.

In Grizzly Man, Herzog decides to not reveal the video or audio of Timothy Treadwell’s bear mauling. He insists that it is too gruesome, and must not be revealed to the world. He even says that the tape should be destroyed.

What nerve.

To have non-fictional material that documents a major event in the film, and to throw it away. As a “documentary” filmmaker, how can Herzog make such a decision?

Now we can begin to see the blend. Before, we assumed that all documentaries were true, and that all mockumentaries were jokes. Meta-mock is intentionally indeterminate, and would rather leave questions out there for us to ask for ourselves than give us objective information. Herzog did not want to tell us what happened in Treadwell’s final breathing moments; he wanted us to imagine it instead. What is this material that is so horrific that it cannot even be seen or heard on film? Truth is subjectivity.

In Adaptation, a movie that is neither a documentary or mockumentary, but is meta-aware of its guile, Charlie Kaufman toys with what a film means to reality. Is it meaningful? Is it true? What do we come away with in the end if not a fleeting feeling of being entertained? In meta-mock, these questions are cornerstones, but are altogether more introspective. Appropriate to their content, the major theme in both I’m Still Here and Blood Into Wine is self-discovery.

I’m Still Here is about one man: Joaquin Phoenix. His character believes that to be himself, to follow his dreams, he must give up acting to pursue the art of hip hop. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t the true desire in Phoenix’s physical reality, because it is the true desire of the character in the film. Every protagonist has a desire. This is another reminder from Adaptation‘s McKee.

The protagonist in I’m Still Here goes about his journey in an important setting: the real world. Camera phones, blogs and real human eyes perceive this not as a performance piece, but as an actual man who has lost his mind. Have they been tricked by Phoenix? Not really, because his performance was intended for the film all along. The final product needed real camera phones, real blogs and real human eyes. The character wanted to take a journey of self-discovery, not simply trick consumers of popular media. How can you discover your self if not in the setting of real world?

Unfortunately, most critics missed the point. They felt tricked. They thought this was some sort of attempt at a post-Andy Kaufman stunt. But where Andy made his trickery a 24/7 gig, Phoenix was only playing a single role for a short amount of time. Andy was also a comedian. Phoenix is not. Big, big difference.

I’m Still Here is a movie about embracing individual reality. Did the Phoenix character find what he was looking for? That’s for the viewer to interpret. But the more important question to ask is, are we on similar pursuits? Are we being true to ourselves, or are we fooling ourselves? What does it mean to be an actor? What does it look like when we’re faking it?

Blood Into Wine asks these same questions, and self-discovery is also at the film’s core. But this film lets the forgeries roam freely. Tim and Eric open the film as the hosts of a fake talk show called Interesting Things, in which they ask Maynard questions about his winery. Right at the start, real and fake are colliding in a meta-mock world that can only exist in cinema.

Throughout the film, recurring disorientation pummels the viewer by way of new age healers, comedians and gag scenes that cause us to question the non-fiction aspect of the whole thing. Everything that is intentionally supposed to look real, (the wineries, interviews, product designs, etc.) does look convincingly real.

Is it really real though? There are staged scenes, that is certain. But where is the reality?

By the end, just when we think that there really might be a winery in Arizona run by Maynard James Keenan, he looks at the camera and says, “Who knows what happened when the camera was off? We could have set up this whole thing. This could all be bullshit… As soon as the camera’s on, people act different. That’s the nature of reality TV. This may not be how I am.” Why would he even need to say that if everything is real? Because this is a meta-mock. Its joke is on itself. It knows that it’s not reality and yet, there is still communicable life and inspirational power in those recorded sounds and images. The viewer is in real existential reality, but that LCD/Netflix mirror in front of us is there to help us question ourselves.

As the father of meta-mock (Herzog) propounded: “Ecstatic truth. I’ve always tried to strive for a much deeper truth in the images, in cinema, in storytelling, on a screen, so whether I’ve achieved it or not remains to be seen…” Only through subjective eyes may we see it. And in this way, welcome our newest film genre–the meta-mock.

Jack Chick is Robert Crumb

I just concocted a new conspiracy theory. A year and a half after seeing R. Crumb’s illustrated Genesis in the New Yorker, I’ve had some time to digest it and I now believe that Robert Crumb and Jack T. Chick are the same person.

I knew that I had seen those crude black and white comic drawings before. But for some reason those happily forgotten memories of Chick tracts (those creepy little pamphlet/comics about the eternal dangers of non-Christianity) were coming back to the surface, convicting me to get saved all over again. All thanks to the agnostic king of underground comics, R. Crumb. But how can I really posit that Crumb and Chick are one and the same? The evidence piles up surprisingly quickly.

After Crumb’s initial rise of popularity in the late 60s, he went on to become an icon of 1970s pop culture with characters like Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and the “Keep on Truckin’” guy. Coincidentally, Chick Publications began productions in 1970, and ever since then, the same demons Crumb had been exorcising were being battled by Chick. Both of these artists created stories that dealt with sexual perversion, fear of authoritarianism, existential dread, and shocking violence. The one key difference was that Crumb worked from a psychological lucidity, while Chick came from a daft, religious point of view. Gruesome nudity is commonplace in Crumb’s comics, but Chick tracts can be just as disgusting. People who celebrate Halloween, gay rights, or religious tolerance are often cast as the villains in Chick’s stories. Basically, if the reader does not accept Jesus by the end of the tract, he will burn in Hell for eternity.

One Chick tract is about Henry, a non-Christian man, who molested his daughter due (somehow) to his pornography addiction. The victim daughter is never seen in the comic, but the protagonist father is convicted of his sin. A Christian tells Henry that he will go to Hell if he doesn’t repent. Henry fears for his afterlife and says, “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done. I’m so ashamed… I don’t want to go to Hell.” Then he prays a prayer and gets saved. Suddenly, he feels clean. Later that day, he tells his wife that the most wonderful thing happened to him, but before he can say “Jesus” she confronts him about how he’s been sexually abusing their little girl. Henry quickly explains that Jesus can fix everything, so they commence prayer. The wife gets saved too, and then the daughter makes a surprise appearance at the last frame. The parents tell her “We’ve got wonderful news Lisa, your Daddy and I will never hurt you again.” A frightened looking child holding a teddy bear up to her ear responds, “Really?” They assure her, “Really, honey. We love you, and Jesus does too.” And they lived happily ever after. The end.

In Chick’s comics, the bottom line is Jesus. It doesn’t matter how big or small your sin, everybody is going to Hell, and that’s all that matters. If you believe in evolution you’re going to Hell, or if you molest your daughter you’re going to Hell. The sin itself isn’t really that important, as long as you ask Jesus to forgive you of it (because he will, no matter what!).

Chick tracts are an anomaly in both the underground comics scene and fundamental Christian circles, neither demographic fully embracing Chick’s work. Underground comics artists are a community who often support and encourage each other, but Chick was never a part of this group. And Christians may either despise or adore Chick tracts, depending on the individual’s level of close-mindedness and self-righteousness.

Chick’s comics are so controversial, extreme, and vile, it seems improbable that the man sincerely believes in the messages he presents. Then again, the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t a joke– not even a really bad joke.

But one can’t help but wonder. After all, Chick studied drama in high school and college, even receiving scholarships thanks to his acting talents. And back then he wasn’t a Christian. Could a man so creative and prolific be equally as hateful and narrow-minded?

After reading a Chick tract, a thinking person’s first reaction is something like, “is this satire?” The standby evangelical question, “do you know where you’re going after you die?” is the core of every Chick tract. The morals come from the purest form of fundamental Evangelicalism, even down to the occasional King-James-Only tirades. They are offensive and crude, but nearly 1 billion of these tracts have been published (more than any other underground publisher). How can an anonymous evangelical nut accomplish such a feat? Power of the Lord, I guess. Either that, or the power of Crumb.

The best-selling comic book author in the world recently received the filmic treatment from Kurt Kuersteiner in God’s Cartoonist: The Comic Crusade of Jack Chick. The film is a flawed attempt to perpetuate the infamy of Jack Chick, full of cheesy music and choppy editing. But by the end of the film, the subject of Jack Chick becomes even more mysterious and perplexing.

The documentary features interviews with authors who have written about Chick, as well as a few friends of the artist, and various other religious figures who do their best to explain who the man behind those horrible gospel tracts is. Unlike Terry Zwigoff’s acclaimed documentary Crumb, which is mostly camera time with the subject, Chick is not seen in Kuersteiner’s film. In fact, Chick has never been interviewed on camera, and he intends to keep it that way until the Lord takes him home, or returns in the rapture. (Chick is a dispensational premillenialist; Jesus will return in the clouds to take him and all Christians up to Heaven prior to the forthcoming Apocalypse that destroys Earth in seven years).

While Crumb has given more than a handful of interviews over the span of his career, Chick remains intentionally unseen. Could it be because Chick isn’t even there to give an interview? Just another clue that my conspiracy theory has legs.

In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, Crumb said, “You don’t have to be a Fundamentalist Christian to be interested in the Bible. It’s really a fascinating mythology.” He wasn’t talking about the success of Chick tracts, but his own personal interest in the Bible and his reasons for illustrating the book of Genesis. However, it’s possible that quote could be used to explain why Chick has no need to do an interview.

Although Chick attempts to portray Biblical messages in very literal, easy-to-understand layouts, it’s possible that his art is more similar to Crumb’s than either man would ever admit. Crumb always knew that his crude art was a projection of his subconscious. He says in Crumb, “I don’t work in terms of conscious messages, I can’t do that. It has to be something that I’m revealing to myself while I’m doing it, which is hard to explain. While I’m doing it, I don’t know exactly what it’s about. You just have to have the courage to take that chance.”

In a sense, Chick’s comics require some psychological courage as well. The images, though literally interpreted, come across rather surreal, not unlike a Crumb comic. Grim reapers shoving businessmen into a pit of flames. An angel flying through space like Superman. It can be quite a trip. And yet, Chick’s art is actually an attempted representation of literal truth, not semiotic metaphors.

Interestingly, Genesis has more realism than perhaps any other Crumb comic, which is ironic considering the mythic content. And when that spiritual surrealism combines with realism (in black and white comic layout), the two artists appear amazingly similar in both their style and substance. Both are straightforward and simple, but both feature an anthropomorphic God of the universe as a key character in the plotline. What both artists achieve most successfully is a visual representation of things that ought not be understood in a concrete sense. Whether religion is perceived as a mental or spiritual manifestation, both Crumb and Chick are able to make invisible worlds apparent to the naked eye.

For Crumb, the artistic merits of his comics hinged on freedom of expression. Though mainstream comics rehashed old Superheroes and Looney Tunes characters, Crumb’s daring work shocked even the most desensitized cynics. The underground landscape was essential in enabling Crumb to exercise the freedom of unleashing any psychological monsters that were terrorizing his mind. His art was his catharsis and his savior, and inspired millions of readers to relate to his openness.

Chick is also concerned with freedom. Even though Canada banned his comics as hate literature, he’s a flag bearer for bigoted Christians across the U.S. And his freedom is found in accepting Christ, not gushing out his repressed psychological demons for the sake of the collective unconscious. His art is a means to an end/savior. Soul-winning is priority number one, even if that requires bullheaded ignorance and illogical opinions. Of course evolution is false and leads to eternity in Hell. Of course.

Could there be two underground comic artists who deal with the exact same neuroses? Or is it just one man who deals with his neuroses in two different manners (spiritually or psychologically)? Are Crumb and Chick the same man? I posit they are. But if not, Crumb still has a chance. If he read a Chick tract today, he could choose Christ and enjoy an eternity with Him in Heaven. And Chick still has a chance to see a therapist.

Bring Back Biblical Video Games

For the past decade, two cultural phenomena have played major parts in American society, yet with curiously little reciprocation: video games and Christianity. Elderly people play Wii Sports, Rock Band is a house party staple – and remember DDR?

And every other week, the cover of TIME or Newsweek says something about the state of America’s faith – or an American Idol contestant sings a song by Switchfoot or Third Day. Nearly half of the country still votes based on whether or not a candidate subscribes to “Christian values.” (If you haven’t realized how massive a force Christianity is in the U.S., you’ve probably been playing too many video games.)

What I can’t figure out is why the two worlds haven’t collided yet. Left Behind: Eternal Forces, the video game about surviving the Tribulation, garnered some attention at its release, but was ultimately a flop. Where’s the Moses video game? Where’s Spiritual Warfare? Where’s David and Goliath?

About twenty years ago, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) did have “Christian video games.” They were only sold at the Family Christian Stores. For this, they were not legitimate NES games at all – completely unlicensed, actually. The cartridges weren’t even the standard shape or color. They were subversive in their religious infiltration, marketing solely to the Christian audience. If you didn’t grow up in an overly-churched family, you didn’t know about these games.

A company called Wisdom Tree released the big three: Bible Adventures, Exodus, and Spiritual Warfare.

Thematically, Spiritual Warfare was like a more offensive version of Left Behind. It played like The Legend of Zelda, with overhead perspective and a square-shaped character. But instead of wandering around forests and collecting pieces of the Tri-Force, a “Christian” character must wander around forests and find various Fruits of the Spirit. Once a new piece of fruit has been attained, it can be used as a weapon. (Were the fruits of peace and kindness left out of the game?)

The “full armor of God” was also scattered about forests and city worlds – shields, and breastplates, and whatnot. And boots, which enabled the character to walk safely over hot tar. The boots were a nod to “feet shod with the gospel of peace,” obviously.

Collecting all of the objects was ultimately a means towards defeating/converting enemies. The enemies in the game were two-fold, physical and spiritual. Simple human beings (graffiti artists, drunkards, Hare Krishnas, and so on) would walk around, apparently trying to hurt you because of your blatant Christianity, so you were forced to throw fruit at them. If enough fruit made direct contact, it would eventually kill these people. But that was never the end of the situation. Once the nasty heathens were dead, the spiritual reality made itself known. A red demon would fly out of their corpse, attacking the righteous Christian fruit-flinger. Luckily the fruit was dualistic, as effective on flesh and blood as it was on metaphysical phenomena.

Exodus was similar to Spiritual Warfare in its gameplay, but much more maddening. The levels were a mind-numbing mix of puzzle and RPG that required players to exhibit the patience of Job. As far as Bible video games go, Exodus was probably the most appropriate adaptation. It likely took about forty years to complete this game, level after level of wandering agony. I really felt empathy for the ancient Hebrews after playing this drag.

Bible Adventures was a real treat, though. It played like Super Mario 2, and there were three different games in one cartridge: Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, and some sort of baby Moses debacle that required Miriam to carry the future Exodus superstar to the river. The only fun part of this latter game was the ability to toss baby Moses around. He was a tough cookie – inhumanly tough. But apparently this is what happens when you’re predestined by God to lead people to the Promised Land. If anything, it’s nice to see Miriam get a little more credit, even if the game is boring.

Noah’s Ark was good clean fun. An old, bald, bearded Noah had to run and jump around mountains and forests, picking up wild animals and dropping them off in the door of the ark. This really brought the story of Noah to life. If anyone ever wondered how every animal in the entire world, male and female, found its way into one boat in a specific geographic location, this game explains everything.

Animals are wild. They didn’t line up single file as they waltzed into the ark, which would be ridiculous. Noah had to go out and collect these animals himself. Snakes, lions, cows, monkeys and every species that can fit into a little cartridge – they’re all here. All you have to do is pick them up above your head and run them into the ark. But if you don’t move all of the species into the ark, Noah fails. So to avoid partaking in heresy, you have to win this game.

The game didn’t include any dinosaurs either. So maybe the creators of Bible Adventures were theistic evolutionists or progressive creationists, but all that fundamentalist talk about the dinosaurs being wiped out by the great flood seem glossed over in this video game. Maybe it was just a can of worms that Wisdom Tree wasn’t prepared to open.

The best Christian video game was easily David and Goliath. With a trusty sling, your playing character is young David. In the initial stages, the only danger is wild animals. But with dead aim, David can kill lions by flinging rocks. A great prelude to the final battle with Goliath is the fight with Goliath’s shield-bearer, an oft-forgotten Bible character. As far as Bible stories go, he’s very underrated. Verily I say, the shield-bearer was a tougher battle than the 10-foot giant himself.

After beating Goliath, players really come to understand the Biblical concept of violence. All of a sudden it wasn’t just something your parents did on Sundays: Christianity suddenly made sense to the first-grade mind after experiencing it on Nintendo. Christianity was about being better than the sinful world that’s against you.

It should be no different today. Christians still find victory and success very appealing, and what better way to garner accomplishments than by beating video games? Now would be a perfect time to resurrect the Christian video games. There are so many stories that would make for a great RPG. Jonah and the whale (or “big fish”), Joshua’s battle of Jericho, escape from Sodom and Gommorrah, Gideon. How amazing would a Samson video game be!

And if any of these games are successful, maybe they could even do Lego versions.