Movie Review: Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

I’ve been on a documentary kick lately, and so this documentary on the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs drew my attention.  I watched it early this morning and thought I would pen some thoughts while it was still fresh in my mind.

The 2008 film is directed by a guy named Christopher Bell, who situates the larger story of steroids within the context of steroid use by his older brother Mark – who at 40 years old still aspires to be a professional wrestler – and his younger brother Mike, a competitive powerlifter.

Bell masterfully weaves his own family’s story within the larger questions of steroid use in America.  The film is not an anti-steroid diatribe.  Rather, it questions whether all of the attention that steroids have received is a red herring.  Did Congress really need to call all those baseball players into special session?  Is the use of steroids really to blame for ruining kids’ involvement in sports?  Why is Tiger Woods allowed to get Lasik surgery to improve his vision to 20-15?  Why are athletes allowed to receive cortisone shots?  Why are they allowed to sleep in altitude chambers to increase red blood cell count?  Are we really being consistent?  Are steroids really hurting people as much as we have been led to believe?

After all, performance enhancing drugs (of all kinds) are very much a part of American culture. Students take Adderall for increased academic performance, musicians take beta blockers to help with performance anxiety.  Fighter pilots take amphetamines called “Go Pills” (two American pilots on these pills mistakenly bombed friendly Canadian troops in Afghanistan).  The pharmaceutical companies spend $5 billion a year on advertising and the American public spends $250 billion on (legal) drugs.

Bell’s diagnosis is incisive precisely because he is unsatisfied with superficial answers.  Steroids, he argues, are simply a manifestation of a deeper problem: our obsession with performance.

We are addicted to winning, performing, succeeding, being the best.  And we will win by any means necessary, even if it means cheating.  This is why I call it an addiction.  Our desire to be the best controls us like a slave master.

The most poignant moment of the film was this moment when the Bell’s mom breaks down and tells her son that he is “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Through tears, she says, the real question is, “what did I do wrong? Why did my boys not feel good enough?”

Indeed.  Why don’t we feel good enough?

Most of us live our entire lives trying to prove that we are good enough, using any means necessary to pad our resume.  We want to prove how brave, how smart, how strong, how worthy we are.

It’s like we desperately need a verdict.  We need someone from the outside to come in and say, “you’re approved.  you are valuable.  you matter.”  We want someone to justify our existence.

Maybe steroids and our other performance-enhancing shortcuts are only a means to get we really want.

The feeling that we are good enough.

Question: Anyone seen the film?  Any thoughts on the use of steroids vs. other methods of performance enhancement?


Lent 2011

I have a few other posts in the hopper that I’m working on, but I’ve just felt swamped lately and haven’t been able to make time to crank them out.  So I thought I would write a quick post about how I am attempting to observe the Christian season of Lent.

For those who don’t know, Lent represents the 40 days of preparation for Easter.  Not all Christians observe the season, but for those who do, Lent is supposed to be the time when we review our spiritual lives, think about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, reset the compass of discipleship and train our hearts to press on after Christ.

One of the things that I love about Lent is the self-examination and intentionality that the season invites.  I encourage my students to either subtract something from their life or add a practice that will disorient their normal routine and create space for change.

This year I decided that for Lent that I would expand my mind and deepen my heart through reading six books, one for each week of Lent (not necessarily a book a week).  Each one relates to a different sphere of my life.

Spiritual: The King’s Cross by Tim Keller – Keller’s exposition of the life of Jesus via the Gospel of Mark. My aim in reading this book is to spend concentrated time looking at Jesus.

Vocation: Love Wins by Rob Bell – A very controversial book in which a popular mega-church pastor questions the traditional doctrine of hell.  I’d rather read the book itself than the reviews.  My aim in reading this book is to wrestle with the personal and pastoral implications of believing in hell.

Generosity: Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns – This book, by the president of World Vision, the world’s largest relief and development organization, calls Christians to reclaim our essential commitment to pursue justice in the world.  My aim in reading this book is to re-ignite my passion for justice as a central implication of the gospel of Jesus.

Fitness: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall – A book about running.  I am toying with the idea of training for a marathon this year, and this book has been highly recommended.  My aim in reading this book is to find inspiration and motivation to become a more serious runner.

Productivity: Getting Things Done by David Allen – It’s a book about personal productivity (no duh).  People swear by it.  I actually read the first half of this book before, but didn’t implement it into my life and promptly forgot most of it.  I consider myself a pretty productive person, but I feel like I am in a season where I am having so many ideas, projects and dreams that I need a better system to keep things from falling through the cracks.

Imagination: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien.  This is a re-read for me.  But it’s so good.  And I need something to nourish my imagination.  Plus, my friend James just got me a nice hardback copy.

Following Jesus for me means becoming more intentional in each of these areas.

So that’s my plan.  We’ll see how it goes.

Question: Any Lent commitments to share?  Any thoughts on Lent in general? Anyone read any of the above books?

Food, Inc. (1): WWDS (What Would Dickens Say?)

Last week, I finally saw the documentary Food, Inc.  It was disturbing, and I plan to blog more extensively about it sometime soon.

The film basically explores how the farm has been replaced with the factory.  It is an expose of the way that the giants of agribusiness have begun to produce food in a way that is inhumane to the livestock, destructive to the environment, oppressive to the workers and damaging to the health of the consumers.

One of the things I really love is how good literature continues to illuminate life.

Last year I read Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (not one of his better known novels). The story is an indictment of the Worship of Efficiency and Utilitarianism brought on during the industrial revolution.

  • Efficiency = getting the maximum results with minimum waste
  • Utilitarianism = a system of ethics that seeks to determine what is the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Both of these systems of thought have a tendency to be dehumanizing, to turn people into numbers or machines, and to write off imagination and leisure as distractions, a waste of human resources.

The first person to speak in the story is a man named Gradgrind, and his goal is to raise his children steeped in nothing but pure Fact and Efficiency. He tells his children’s teacher (hilariously named M’choakumchild) in the first line of the book:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will be of any service to them.”

The great enemy of Gradgrind’s worldview is Fancy, or Imagination. He teaches his children that they must “never wonder” and forbids them to read poetry. The story takes place in a coal-mining town named Coketown. All the buildings look the same; everything is painted alike. (Imagine a world with only engineers and no architects). The town is depicted as the embodiment of Fact:

“Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial aspect. The school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact… and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchasable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end. Amen.”

My conclusion upon watching Food, Inc.?  The food industry has constructed Gradgrind’s world.

And it is purely mechanical: a machine, without feeling, restraint, or humanity.

Question: Have you seen Food, Inc.?  What do you think?