How to Vote with God – an election day message from Jeremiah

Tomorrow is the big day. We will all vote and bring to fruition this 18 month-long election season, which has been divisive, anxiety-inducing, disturbing, and unnerving. We’ve seen the worst in each other, the worst in ourselves, and will have to come terms with the outcome; which, at this point, very few will be able to take any satisfaction in. I wish I could say that this will all come to an end tomorrow, but I think we all know that’s not true. There will be some fall-out, some hard feelings, and backlash.

I’ve been fairly opinionated on who and what I support, and I understand if some of you are coming into reading this with suspicion, that I’m going to lay out a biblical argument for the candidate I have chosen, or particular propositions. But this post is not for that. This post is something of a sermon about what should be on the minds and hearts of the Christian who walks into a voting booth tomorrow. It’s a sermon about how to live in a place and participate in its well-being. As the reader, it is up to you to interpret how this applies to your own ballot, to your local elections and measures, and ultimately to your candidate. I don’t seek to change anyone’s mind or anyone’s vote with this sermon. If anything, I hope that it will only change your posture: the way you see yourself as participating in the process of voting, in engaging with the world in a political way. If we agree on nothing else, I hope we can all agree that we want to vote in Christian kinds of ways; ways that make this world that God loves more like the one God is reconciling us to become. Voting is only one tiny part of how we do that, but it is a valuable one.

As we anxiously enter our polling places, maybe the comforting words of scripture come to our minds. I know that many of us, when we need a verse of comfort, often turn to Jeremiah 29:11. Most of us can quote this on command:

 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This is great news for a country in a state like ours, and no one could blame you for quoting this to yourself this week, or at any other period of stress in your life individually or in our shared life politically. It’s important to remember that God is pulling us toward a better future, and that there is always hope. God is not crumpling us up like a failed art project to start over, but is always finding new ways to work with the mess we’ve made to bring a hope and a future.

What is a huge bummer, in my opinion, is that everyone quotes Jeremiah 29:11 and never reads the rest of Jeremiah 29. It’s common Christian practice to take a single verse and make it into a mantra or “life-verse”, and I do think this has some value. But often it robs the verse of much of its meaning, because the Bible is not a collection of helpful sayings and sentences, but a dynamic collection of various writings that bear witness in hundreds of different ways to the work of God in history. When we take out a sentence, we sometimes take it from the middle of a poem, from a letter written to a specific audience, from a history book or a parable. At worst, we can end up believing some terrible things because we don’t do diligence to the source of our “verse”. (This is called proof-texting, and has done immeasurable damage to Christians and those they encountered for thousands of years.)

Reading Jeremiah 29:11 in its context is so much better. You find out who it was originally intended for, what it meant to them, and you can see yourself even better in it. And then you come to discover that these promises of God have been fulfilled in the past, and you learn exactly what it is that God expects out of us in order to find this “plan” that God has laid out for us.

What does this have to do with voting? Well, Jeremiah 29 is a letter written to the people of God who are in exile. And I have come to believe, and suspect that you might too, that our current situation as Christians in America can best be described by this same narrative: exile. We are strangers in a land where we once had a foothold, a primary seat at the table, and now we are all scattered and disillusioned and fiercely divided. Now, we can argue about how we got here. (I’ll save that sermon for another time, but if you want my thoughts, read the book of Micah.) But at the present moment, in America, we Christians are in Exile! There are conservative Christians and liberal Christians and everything in between, none of whom can really get along at all, and our leaders don’t really stand for any of us. As many news sources have announced, (and many great scholars have been saying for fifty years,) the Evangelical political machine has all but died, and we’re all left not knowing quite how we got here or what to do about it. It’s a horrible situation. It’s what has caused our churches to die, for young people to leave church altogether, and for an election like this one to even be possible. Something is dying.

But the news is not all bad. For one thing, we’re not the first people to go through this, and now more than ever we can look to the part of our Bibles we’ve been neglecting and see teachings that have long been forgotten. (Trust me, those pages aren’t as crinkly as the other ones in American Bibles.) Secondly, it’s okay not to be afraid that something is dying, because we happen to be people who believe in a God that brings things back from the dead. (Your mind might jump to the Resurrection of Jesus, but you can stay in the prophets and read Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones and get a sense that God can even bring Exiles back.)

And Jeremiah 29 is specifically written to those in Exile who are asking this important question: “How do we live, as people of God, in a place and a time when being the people of God doesn’t carry as much weight anymore?” I think if we’re honest, this is the question of this election.

If you feel so bold, take a moment to read Jeremiah 29:4-14. If you want, read all of Jeremiah 29, or read all of Jeremiah! It won’t disappoint. But I want to highlight a few messages for Exiles like us from this letter of Jeremiah, from the words of God to God’s people who found themselves in a similar situation. Each one will first be a word of what to do as people who find themselves in exile, and the second one will be a word of how to participate in that by how we vote.

1.  Get Comfortable, and Be Present. God says to those in Exile that it’s going to be a while. Verse 5 says to build houses and plant gardens. In other words, this Exile might be for a while, and you’re not going anywhere. One thing you will learn if you spend time in the prophets is that, for God’s purposes, the Exile was not an accident. It was a judgment, and the Bible bears witness to God letting the Exile happen as part of the journey of the people of God. It’s not a time to get angry or cast blame as to how we got here. It’s a time to build houses and plant gardens. Get comfortable in this place that God has led us to. We may not be a “Christian nation” anymore, but God is still God, and God is just as much God in Sweden, in Iran, in Russia, in Australia and Austria as God is God here today, yesterday, and tomorrow, and God has led us here. 

To be honest and obedient in where God has led us is to be present and local in our participation. It means that where we have found ourselves matters, both in place, and in time. Don’t spend your time longing for a bygone era, wishing to go back there. Don’t flee to another place where you think God might be more God in. Be where you are, be when you are, and seek God there. Pay attention to local elections and measures, and seek God’s best in the minutiae. Chances are that more of your neighbors’ lives be be affected by the Propositions that you didn’t research than by who gets to live in the White House.

2. Invest, and Think Ahead. Verse 6 expands this idea by telling Exiles to get married, to have children, and for those children to have children. It makes this point again that this Exile might be for a while, so put down roots where you are rather than being anxious about where you wish you might be. More so, it is a call to invest in the future. Maybe the hope that you have may not come to fruition in your lifetime, but the choices that you make now will affect how many will experience God in the future.

Thinking ahead means voting in such a way that goes beyond the immediate moment and its needs and asks what kind of world we are creating for our children and our grandchildren. It means not only caring about how candidates and propositions determine the things that we think are the most important, but how they will come to affect multiple generations ahead of us. What world are we creating for them? When they read the history books, what will they think of the decisions we made?

3. Everyone’s welfare is your welfare. This is the most important teaching that I think the prophet Jeremiah has for our political engagement as people of God. When we quote Jeremiah 29:11 out of context, we are hoping for God’s prosperity and welfare. When the verse says, “plans to prosper you”, a better translation is “plans for your prosperity/welfare/peace”. That word is a noun, and it’s the Hebrew word “shalom”. You’ve probably heard of it. It has a wide meaning, but is often translated “peace”. More than that, it means God’s perfect peace realized on Earth. And that is what we’re all after, isn’t it? Well, earlier in the passage, God actually tells us exactly where to find that shalom. Verse 7 says, “Seek the [shalom] of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its [shalom] you will find your [shalom].”

Boom. Wow. This is the message of Jeremiah, the hope for participating where we feel exiled. This is fulfillment of Jeremiah 29:11. Every time you’ve quoted this verse seeking God’s plan for your welfare, you were only four verses from its fulfillment. Do you want God’s peace on you, on your family, on your church or on your country? Seek God’s peace for everyone in your city, and you’ll find it. This should come as no surprise for followers of Jesus, and yet it always seems to still catch us by surprise.

As people in Exile, the way we find God’s favor for ourselves and for our country is by seeking welfare for everyone. This is not Welfare with a capital ‘W’, though that may be part of the answer. But as people of God who enter a voting booth tomorrow, please remember this if nothing else: if you vote for your own welfare, for yourself or your own betterment, and you are not also voting for the benefit of everyone who finds themselves in your city – you will not find your welfare there. You will find peace and prosperity for yourself and your family when you seek it for everyone else, especially the least among you. This is the lesson that Israel forgot and brought them to Exile. This is the lesson that America forgets time and time again.

4.  Ignore False Prophets. It’s interesting that when we name the famous prophets of the Bible, we name Jeremiah and Isaiah and Micah and Ezekiel. The truth is there were tons of prophets at that time, and those four were some of the least popular. For the most part, they were hated and despised, because they told the actual word of God, rather than what people wanted to hear. There are prophets who feed into what you already believe and your current prejudices, who stir up things in you to get you riled up for a cause, or distracted from another one. The prophets who are truly from God don’t tend to get much credit until long after their time, and sometimes not even then.

This election, we’ve seen religious leaders, pastors, professors, and candidates spout religion and quote verses in support of their candidates. Both of the major candidates profess Christianity at their convenience, and otherwise fail to uphold anything remotely close to it. You can Google a Christian defense of Trump, Hillary, and everything on the ballot. However much it is possible for you, tune these people out. Seek out Christian leaders who you trust, who you actually know, not just ones who made videos you used to watch or pastors a big fancy church you’ve heard of. If all else fails, seek out true prophets of the past, like Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Jesus. Study them, and see if you don’t find them speaking truth into your ballot.

And finally, remember to hope. Exile may be for a while. Whoever is elected, whatever gets passed or not, God will be God, and God is bending this whole world toward Shalom. This passage brings this message in full force for those of us who need to hear it, that if we heed these words and at the end of our Exile:

“When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will give heed to you. You will search for me and find me, if only you seek me wholeheartedly. I will be at hand for you – declares the Lord – and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places to which I have banished you – declares the Lord – and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.”

As you vote tomorrow, vote with hope. Vote knowing that however fed up you are with how things are and how they’ve become, that God is still God, and you are here to seek God’s best for where you are. Seek God’s best for your city, and you’ll find God’s best for yourself. Seek God’s best for the generations who will come long after you’re gone, and you’ll find it for yourself. Seek God’s Shalom in the voting booth, and everywhere you go afterwards.

Peace, my friends, and Godspeed.

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God and Film

(This was my manuscript for the first of a series of lessons I did called God and Film at Rose City Church. It serves my introductory lesson to the topic, and over the next several weeks we watched a few films and discussed them. I will be releasing the three manuscripts specifically for each movie on here as well, but my approach applies to all of my “God and Film” posts.)

godtalk

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Kevin Nye. I’m a third year MDiv student at Fuller Theological Seminary. My emphasis is in “the Church in Contemporary Culture”, and I have taken now six classes related to theology and pop culture, four of which interacted directly with film. (In case you’re looking for ‘qualifications’, but since you’re already here, I doubt you are.)

To me, the topic of theology and film is interesting, and not just because I love theology and film separately, though I do. For me, theology and film is about a much bigger question: how does God interact with the world? I want to convince you, before we watch these movies, that our theological tradition leaves room for God to be at work in even the least religious, silliest, most escapist of films, and that entering into that work provides a new way for us to engage the world.

I want to briefly turn to scripture to point out some places in which we see God acting outside of the traditional faith community, and what that looks like. Part of the story we hear every Christmas is these Magi, who saw a star in the sky and recognized that it was something strange, and decided to follow it. They followed it, and it led them to the Christ-child. Something we may miss as we hear this every year is that, in this story, God is working outside of the faith tradition to draw people to Christ. These Magi were not Jewish, but likely practiced cultic religion based on nature – the stars, as it were.  And yet God acted in a way that they were able to recognize; they caught a glimpse of something that they didn’t quite know what to do with, and it let them on a journey; a journey where they met with Jewish leaders who listened to what they experienced, and took it to their scriptures, and pointed them toward the Christ-child. There are all kinds of stories like this in Scripture; God uses donkeys, enemy-nations, bushes, prophets. What else could God use?

Now that we’ve talked about how God interacts with the world, I want to ask another question: how does film interact with the world? In 1942, after the classic Disney movie Bambi was released, deer hunting saw an astronomical, unprecedented drop.  Whether we want to admit it or not, movies profoundly affect us as a society. And how much more now than in 1942? Two years ago, “The Avengers” made 1.5 billion worldwide. 1.5 BILLION. WORLDWIDE. The film experience has expanded from being an American culture-maker to a global one.

With all this in mind, if God works outside of the faith tradition to draw people in, and film reaches and affects people by the millions, why would God not be at work in film?

If we believe this is true, and God is active in the films we watch, how could we then approach a film, or what we can call our “film culture”?

I think the story of the Magi might serve as an archetype. If we replace the star with a particular film that strikes a chord with a person, we can see how this might play out. A person watches a movie and has an experience; they see something they believe is true about life or about the world; something profound. Whether on purpose or not, this sets them on a journey. Maybe a small one, maybe a big one. Along this journey, one in which we believe God is active, perhaps they will come across a person of faith and enter into a dialogue. In the story of the Magi, the Jewish leaders were receptive to the idea. They didn’t say, “Oh, you mystics saw a star? That has nothing to do with our God or our religion.” They engaged it, and together, the non-religious sign and the faith tradition pointed them to a revelation of Christ.

Are we so open? I think we ought to be.

As Christians, I believe we ought to engage films with God in mind. And I think we ought to engage all kinds of films, whether they are Christian films, anti-religious films, rated R films… It’s easy for us to distinguish between what is holy and what is profane, but throughout scripture God confounds humanity with the way Father, Son and Spirit engage the profane, enter into darkness and reveal light. Our belief in the incarnation is about God entering into the profane, taking on humanity, in a lowly stable to an unwed mother, and breaking down the walls between the sacred and the secular. If we try to do theology in an ivory tower, I fear we are not truly doing Christian theology, since the Christ we glorify is the Christ who came down from his ivory tower to save us among our messy realities.

I have selected for these God Talks films that I believe reveal something about God or about humanity that is profound, or help illustrate some harder truths about how God meets us in our contemporary culture. Some of it will be challenging, some of it will be profane, and some of it will be rated R. But it doesn’t take many glances at the Old Testament to see that God is in the midst of rated R content. I suspect many Bible stories, if committed to film, would garner an R rating, if not NC-17. I will of course warn you not to bring children, or to avoid films if you think they are not appropriate for you. But I will also encourage you to engage critically but openly with films you might normally avoid. One of the upcoming films, Gran Torino, is an example of a film that is rated R, contains racial slurs and gang violence, and yet is ultimately a story about redemption, reconciliation, and freedom. The movie uses language, violence and racism, but it certainly does not certainly them.

As we watch these films, I encourage you to seek God. It is easier with some movies than others. Not every film talks about religion, and not every film has a “Christ-figure” to point out. But movies, at least good movies, tend to make claims and play out scenarios about humanity, about purpose, about reality. And these, because we believe in a God made flesh, are theological issues.

In Matthew 16, Jesus challenges the Pharisees. They ask Jesus for a sign from heaven, and he tells them that they are unable to interpret the signs of the times. I believe this challenge is for us today. As we look for ways for the Church to engage culture, we may be in danger of missing the signs of the times by not looking for God in new places. We serve a big, active God.

May we turn our attention to the ways God might be at work right under our noses, and see if things we thought were innocent, escapist, unclean, or trivial may be pointing us, and our world, to Christ.

Theological Dialogue: 007 Skyfall

(Looking at Turner’s famous 1839 painting of the soon to be scrapped battered British gunship, The Fighting Temeraire)

Q: It always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Grand old war ship. being ignominiously hauled away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?

James Bond: A bloody big ship. Excuse me.

Skyfall, the 23rd entry in the Bond franchise, is something else entirely. It’s more than a Bond movie; it’s a Bond film. It’s actually about something more than a hero chasing a villain. There certainly is that – and the action is top-notch – but it contains a deeper theme, made explicit in smaller scenes like the one I shared, one that I think the Church can learn from. A key word in the movie is “Resurrection”. And this is a word that deserves our attention.

Continue reading “Theological Dialogue: 007 Skyfall”

Theological Dialogue: Looper

Before I jump in to this movie, I want to remind my readers of a few things from my first post on theology and culture, namely that my reviews contain spoilers, and may often be of films with adult content. Looper is rated R for violence, language and nudity, and it is the ending in this movie that offers the most value to us for dialogue, so you have now been warned about both.

But seriously, if you haven’t seen Looper, go see it, and stop reading. This post WILL ruin the ending, and it’s really worth not knowing in advance.

Continue reading “Theological Dialogue: Looper”

Theological Dialogue: The Dark Knight Rises

In the third and final film of the trilogy, Batman faces an even greater foe than ever before: the expectations of living up to the Dark Knight.

Unfortunately this is one foe that Batman is unable to conquer, but let’s be fair: the odds were not in his favor.

For me, and many moviegoers and critics, the Dark Knight Rises did not live up to the impossibly-high bar set by its predecessor. While it was still a great film and a crowning achievement, it fell short of what we all hoped it could be. Personally, I don’t think the film was as smart or philosophical as the first two. But the movie was still very reflective, and gives us a lot to think about.

Continue reading “Theological Dialogue: The Dark Knight Rises”

Theological Dialogue: The Dark Knight (pt.2)

In the last post, we explored the character of the Joker, the Joker’s “truth”, and a Christian response to it.

In this post, we will take a look at the film’s ending. In a unique and surprising twist, the movie doesn’t actually end on a happy note. The Joker has accomplished his goal by turning Harvey Dent, gotham’s best hope for a legitimate future, into the homicidal villain Two-Face. Two-Face has gone on a brief rampage, killing cops and kidnapping Gordon’s family. In doing so, the Joker has won the battle for Gotham’s soul. All they had worked for was gone, having banked on the reputation of Harvey Dent. The criminals would be set free, and their spirit would be broken.

But in a self-sacrificing move, Batman realizes that he doesn’t have to be the hero. Batman can be the villain, because he’s a symbol, “whatever Gotham needs me to be”. Batman takes the blame for Harvey’s death and the murders Harvey committed, living a lie so that the truth doesn’t destroy Gotham. The movie says that “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. People deserve to have their faith rewarded.” In similar fashion, Alfred burns a letter written by Rachel before her death that says she was going to choose Harvey over Bruce. The movie suggests, then, that there are times when it is better to lie than to tell the truth.

As a side note, these are themes which resurface in the third film. In a fascinating way, Rises really questions the integrity of the ending of this movie. But we’ll get to that when we get to that.

Until then, we have to take this movie on its own terms. Is a lie ever better than the truth? What is the nature of truth? And what do we make of Jesus’ declaration, “I am the truth”?

And more importantly… did the good guys win?

The first observation to be made is that this ending forces Batman into the kind of ethic he fought so strongly against in the first movie. As we explored in the Batman Begins post, the movie is essentially a debate between situational ethics and idealistic ethics. Ra’s Al Ghul believes that it is right to kill some for te sake of the many, but Batman believes that there are a set of principles that should never be violated that govern human interaction.

But at this juncture in the movie, Batman compromises that ethic by saying that sometimes it is better to lie than to tell the truth. (Not to mention the ethical issues with the sonar system he builds.) The Joker may not have turned him into the killer, but he managed to turn Batman into a liar; a noble liar, yes, but to get Batman to question his ethical code at all was enough, and we see the implications of it in the third movie.

This may be a thought experiment, however, in which neither utilitarianism nor kantian ethics are good enough. Consider the classic “noble lie” situation: suppose you are hiding Jews in your attic in Holocaust-Europe. A Nazi soldier comes to your door and says, “Are you harboring any Jews in this house?” Your answer to this question, if your only two choices are a utilitarian and kantian ethic, is a lose-lose. If you operate under the principle that lying is wrong, you are forced to tell the truth to the Nazi and ensure the death of the fugitives. If you tell him a lie, you admit that there are situations in which principles are set aside, and that opens the door for endless ethical interpretation.

This is the quandary Batman finds himself caught in, and this is why, in the end, this story is a tragedy. Like the classic Shakespearean tragedy, nobody walks away unscathed. This is the Joker’s final victory.

But what was Batman to do? He had to make a choice between two ethical camps just like the first movie, but this one isn’t as cut and dry. There’s a significant grey area when it comes to “truthfulness”. Truth isn’t always black and white.

This now runs the risk of being more philosophical than I am capable of handling, so my smarter philosopher friends be sure and correct me and help me out. But I think there is an important distinction to be made between “truth” and “fact”, and I think the former has some theological implications.

This comes primarily from Peter Rollins’ book “How [NOT] to Speak of God”, which you just simply must read. But in this book, Rollins examines this idea of truth and lies related to the thought experiment from earlier:

“In response to this question we have three options:

  1. we regretfully say ‘yes’, acknowledging that we are held under a higher moral law which requires that we do not deceive
  2. we say ‘no’, judging that it is the lesser of two evils
  3. we say ‘no’ and feel happy we told the truth

In this example, most contemporary Christians in the west would, I suspect, choose (2) as closest to their own position. However, if we take truth to mean any act which positively transforms reality, rather than describes reality, then there is no problem acknowledging that, while denying there are Jews in the house is empirically incorrect, it is true in a religious sense precisely because it protects the innocent (as well as protecting the soldiers from committing a horrific act).” (61)

Rollins here redefines “truth” as being separate from “fact”. These are, in fact, two different words. Fact is that which “describes” reality, and Truth is that which “transforms” reality. “Truth-telling” is therefore a positive, creational act that makes a better world out of the one we have, not a risky, ethical quandary. With this understanding of Truth, no-one in the scenario commits any sin or evil. In fact, the person who “lies” to the Nazi has instead created a better future in which the innocent are protected and the victimizer has not committed evil.

I would also argue that this is an essentially Christian position. While in the Batman Begins post I suggested that a Christian position is closer to a Kantian ethic than a Utilitarian one, it is important to note which particular “principles” we hold firmly to, and the one thing we are called to hold firmly to as Christians is Christ. And Christ said that the law and the prophets (all the ethical quandaries) rest on two commandments (which are actually one commandment): love God and love neighbor.

But Jesus also said, “I am the way, the TRUTH and the life.” (Emphasis added.) If Jesus IS Truth, then we must, in a discussion abut what truth is, bring Jesus to light. If Jesus is truth, then “telling the truth” can never be an act which harms the oppressed or neglects to love God, neighbor, or even enemy. This is why Rollins’ definition is so poignant. Truth is “that which transforms reality” because Jesus is “that which transforms reality”. This is an important lesson, perhaps for another post, that sometimes what is “fact” can be wielded and used to destroy or harm maliciously, and is therefore not “truth”.

So what about Batman? Batman essentially chooses (2) of Rollins’ three choices, under an incomplete definition of truth. This causes the events of Rises to occur, in which the “buried” truth literally comes up to the surface and rips the city apart.

I don’t know what Batman should have done in this situation. The movie presents Batman as the tragic hero, who in a Christ-like manner absorbs and takes on the sins of others for the salvation of the city. But the difference between Batman and Christ (among many) is that Batman’s self-sacrifice is based on deception, burying the truth and attempting to live out a lie. Living out the truth, unflinchingly, is what got Jesus killed.

While the events of our Holocaust-Europe thought-experiment  led to a dichotomy between fact and Truth, I’m not sure that Batman is justified in his actions. The city actually had much to be proud of; they subverted the Joker’s attempts to turn them all into villains on the two boats. Harvey Dent may have served as a painful reminder that we are all potential villains, there were other commendable figures such as Rachel Dawes, in memorium, or especially Commissioner Gordon, that the City could place their hope in for a better future. The city needed a hero that was alive (or Resurrected?) to place their hopes in. At the end of the movie, all Batman’s lie gives Gotham is a dead hero and a murdering Batman. What kind of hope is that? I’m thoroughly unconvinced that the stakes were as high as they were in the thought-experiment, and the third film proves that Batman and Gordon did not make the right choice, but would any of us have done any differently? I like to think that if Batman and Gordon had more time to think it through, there was a better way. But the fact that they didn’t choose that way, and the Joker truly wins the fight for Gotham’s, and Batman’s soul, is what makes this movie the unprecedented, tragic, iconic, and unforgettable film that it was. Not every story has a happy ending.

 

Theological Dialogue: The Dark Knight (pt.1)

As it stands, my two favorite subjects in the world are movies and theology. On this blog, I’ve been having a blast combining these two passions thus far. But today I get an enormous privilege in getting to not only do this once more, but to do it with one of my favorite movies in the entire world, The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, as I was about halfway through this post, I realized that this movie is so much more complex than I could do in one post, so this is now “part one”. In this one, we will explore the character of “the Joker”, whom this film is truly about, and in the second we will explore the ending of the film: whether Batman’s sacrifice is truly noble, and whether a lie can be better than the truth.

The movie deals with the fallout of Batman Begins, an amazing trait of these films. Now that Batman has struck fear into the criminal world, “escalation” occurs. A psychotic terrorist with visions of chaos arrives with something to prove. As I mentioned in my last post, director Christopher Nolan has one-word themes for each of his Batman films; this one’s is “chaos”. Nolan wants to imagine how a superhero like Batman deals with a villain who doesn’t actually “want” anything or, worse, fear anything.

What’s truly terrifying about the Joker in this movie is that truly nothing motivates this villain except for pure destruction. As Alfred tells Batman in the middle of the film: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Couple that with a truly unbelievable performance by the late Heath Ledger, and you have the greatest villain ever put to film.

My struggle is this: do villains like this actually exist? I have to say “no”. When we look at criminals, even terrorists, in our world, we see people motivated by greed, desperation, hatred, and religious ideology. The only exception to this is mental illness, what we would call the psychopath. And while the term “psychopath” is used to describe the Joker in the movie, I don’t think he is truly portrayed that way. The Joker is actually quite the self-aware, methodical genius. You could argue a combination of psychological and social disorder, of course, and that probably is the case in this film. But generally speaking, the terrorists of our world want something or intend to accomplish something with their terror. The Joker doesn’t want anything. He even burns the millions of dollars he acquires just to make a point.

What’s makes the Joker such an amazing villain is that he operates under a particular ideology that, I would argue, is essentially true. In Batman Begins, we saw two moral ideologies go head to head, and I suggested that Batman defends an essentially Christian premise. But in this movie, the Joker holds a dark belief that I’m afraid may be true: if you take away order and push people to their limits, ANYONE can become a villain.

This happens all throughout the film. The theme is given away early on, as Harvey Dent says over dinner, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The Joker is out to make villains out of everyone. He twists police officers to do his dirty work through the mob; he threatens to blow up a hospital and turns an entire city into assassins; he pits the citizens against the criminals to see who will kill each other first to save themselves; and ultimately, he turns Gotham’s “white knight” into the villain “Two-Face” in order to achieve final victory: the destruction of Gotham’s spirit and progress since Batman’s arrival.

The Joker here is more than a villain. The Joker is more of a “devil”. Sure, the Joker commits villainy on his own, but his ultimate intention is to turn everyone else into a villain. Biblically, there is something to be said here about such a “character”.

The Bible has a recurring, though inconsistent, character known as the devil, Satan, etc. By inconsistent, I mean that the Bible never takes the time to explain who this character is, where they came from, and there are a lot of interesting instances where stories in different books do not match up, and we’re never really sure what sort of relationship there is between God and this devil. (See Job to be thoroughly confused about how this “devil” works.) The Bible uses this character as a way of showing an important truth, which is essentially the Joker’s truth: we are all capable of evil under the right circumstances. The Joker, and the devil, personify the circumstances under which we are all capable of being villains.

As a point of clarification, I am not saying that this means the devil isn’t real. (To be fair, I’m also not NOT saying that.) For a more detailed understanding of my theology on this matter, refer back to my Credo. What I want to say is that a biblical understanding of the devil is a lot like the way we understand the Joker; less as an external villain and more as a way of remembering that, given the right circumstances, WE are the villain.

The final scene with the Joker shows how true this is. Batman had focused all his attention on catching the Joker and finally does, but this was not the Joker’s final play. The Joker had placed the criminals and the citizens of Gotham in two separate boats, each rigged to explode, and each given the trigger for the other boat. The citizens, and the criminals(!), foil this plan, showing the Joker (devil) that they were ready to make the right choice. But what’s interesting is that Batman had no way to help them make that choice, short of his reputation and the inspiration that he had caused to that point. Batman was trying to fight the devil and trying to keep his own soul intact, but not even a superhero can stop the spread of evil in a world where even he could become the villain.

I wonder how often we as Christians play up the superstition of “the devil”. Whatever we believe about this strange biblical character, I think it can be risky to take the devil too seriously on its own merit. We ought to take VERY seriously this idea that we are all capable of evil. Far too often, it’s easy to believe that there are “good people” and there are “bad people”.

What’s funny about this belief is that nobody has ever believed this and simultaneously believed themselves to be the “bad people”. Perhaps the essential misunderstanding about evil in this world is the idea that “there are good people, there are bad people; I am a good person, you are a bad person”. Substitute “I” for “We” and “You” for “You all/They”, and you’ve just diagnosed every war in human history.

The terrorists behind 9/11 didn’t do it to “watch the world burn”. They did it because their religious belief said “We are the good guys, you are the bad guys, and therefore we have the right to kill you.”

Is Christianity any better? Though we may not always act like it, theologically the answer is Yes! Christianity recognizes that there are not simply good people and bad people, but that the line between good and evil runs between each and every one of us. We are all capable of great good and great evil. Circumstances push us into situations where we ultimately have to make choices about which of those we value more highly.

This is where our premise disagrees with the Joker’s, though. The Joker’s ultimate goal is to prove that everyone is as sick as he is. I personally have a higher view of humanity than this… but there is certainly a discussion to be had with human nature, depravity, the image of God, etc. Feel free to discuss this further in the comments!

We as Christians would do well to take the Joker seriously on this matter. If we are not careful, we may become the villain. Our theology of evil is not one about good forces and bad forces like the old Greek myths or the star wars movies. Our theology is about people who make choices and face the outcome of those choices. We can become a hero, or we can become a villain. Or, we could do worse, and never care enough to be either, and let the harsh circumstances of life force us into villainy we never thought ourselves capable of. And the way of the hero is, as the movie says, death. Jesus says the way of the cross is foolishness and death.

But what happens after the death of the hero? What about resurrection? These are themes that are explored in the third movie, but we’re not quite done with this movie. Because I’m not convinced that Batman “dies a hero”, or is even a hero at the end of this movie. The question for the next post is, does good or evil win at the end of this movie, and what does that mean for us?

Theological Dialogue: Batman Begins

I had the enormous privilege of getting to watch the entire Dark Knight Trilogy in IMAX on opening night of The Dark Knight Rises last week. Truly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I can therefore not resist the urge to do a post of each of these movies, that, though being movies about Batman, are philosophically rich, and some of my favorite movies of all time.

I’m tempted to say that this is my favorite of the entire trilogy. No, it did not have the spine-tingling, award-winning performance of Heath Ledger like The Dark Knight. No, it didn’t have the hour-long visual spectacle of a conclusion like The Dark Knight Rises. But, from start to finish, this movie is perfection. It accomplishes everything it intends to, reintroduces a timeless character in a fresh and believable way, has charm and wit to spare, high emotion, and a timeless philosophical debate at its heart.

This is not the Batman of the 1960’s, with Adam West and onomatopoeias. It’s not the gotchic Batman of the 1990’s with Michael Keaton, or the campy wise-cracking Batman with villains who make puns out of their names for 90 minutes. Christian Bale, under the direction and scripting of the Nolans, creates a Bruce Wayne/Batman that is deeply realistic, motivated by a philosophically rich understanding of justice, and who experiences the kind of character development that makes the conclusion so satisfying.

Christopher Nolan gave one-word descriptions for the theme of each of his Batman films. The word for Batman Begins is “Fear”. The heart of the movie’s tension is in the use of fear. The League of Shadows, and the villain Scarecrow, use fear as means of making Gotham tear itself apart. Batman uses fear as a weapon as well, to give criminals something to be afraid of themselves. One of Batman’s greatest tools is deception, darkness and misdirection. People fear what they don’t understand, and Batman exploits this weakness amongst the depraved of Gotham.

While fear may be the primary the primary weapon of both the villains and the heroes, it is not the primary theme of the movie. “Fear” is not why the good guys and bad guys are fighting. Ultimately, this movie comes down to a fundamental disagreement about ethics. The villain, Ra’s Al Ghul, head of the League of Shadows, operates under a utilitarian ethic. This is most basically understood in the phrase “the ends justify the means”. This moral philosophy separates the actor and the action. Motivations, intentions, good-naturedness do not play a role here. The action that should be taken is the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is why the character Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows are “immortal”, in a sense. It is not about who they are, or which person takes the role of Ra’s Al Ghul (translated “the Demon’s Head”), it is the ethic they embody that allows them to, for centuries, to execute their version of justice, which is to destroy civilizations that get out of control. Ra’s claims that the League has toppled Rome at the height of its depravity, among other nations throughout centuries. It is now Gotham’s turn. In their eyes, it is better to simply destroy the city, even if it means the loss of innocent lives. The ends, a world without corrupt Gotham, justifies the means, the destruction of an entire city and all its inhabitants.

Batman operates under a different ethic. During his training by the League of Shadows, Bruce is asked to kill a captured criminal, without knowing his crime and without “due process”. In the best line in the movie, Ra’s tells Bruce, “Compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share”, and Bruce/Batman replies, “That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.” Batman operates from a more Kantian ethic, which determines morality from the means rather than the ends. A common phrase you could associate with this would be something like, “It’s the principle of the matter!” Kantian ethics operate on moral principles, not situational circumstances.

What this movie ultimately asks, then, is: “Do the needs of the many outweigh the rights of the few?” This is not a debate easily settled, but the movie certainly takes its stance. Batman chooses to fight on behalf of the corrupt city, standing up for the scum and the innocent equally, as he believes that he can achieve redemption for Gotham City through more principled means. The redemption of Gotham is the goal to which the whole “Dark Knight Trilogy” aspires. Batman’s primary ethical instinct is that even a city as evil and lost as Gotham is worth saving, and that this saving can only be accomplished through ethical means. Batman has moral rules and principles, like not killing, that govern his behavior.

The story of this film then, beyond being an action movie with a superhero, is that true goodness and justice is principled, based on intentions and motives, rather than outcomes. The question for us, then, is does this story match up with the Christian story?

My first instinct, and another reason I love this movie, is that it does. In Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to take moral principles from the Old Testament and hone in on the motives and intentions that drive the actions. These are the statements where Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said… but I say to you….” Old Testament principles against killing are intensified, such that Jesus says it is just as wrong if a person harbors hate; hate being a motivator for murder. The Old Testament law against adultery is extended against the mere act of lusting, which is the motivation for adultery. Jesus clearly isn’t primarily concerned with the outward result, but with the inward character. It would seem that Jesus rejects a utilitarian ethic that would separate the person from the action. There is a direct correlation between the two, and Jesus chose to save the world through the actions of one person (himself), sacrificing rather than conquering, loving rather than condemning, and calls those who would be followers to do the same. God is about the formation of people who reflect the primary characteristic of love,and believes that even a depraved, corrupt earth can eventually be saved, and is, indeed, WORTH saving.

To start some interesting discussion, there’s an interesting story in the book of Genesis that shows an early struggle with this idea among the Jewish people. Most people are familiar with God’s destruction of Sodom, but less people are familiar with a story that is reported to us about a discussion between God and Abraham on the matter. While this story takes place before, in Genesis, to match the chronology, scholar Walter Brueggemann, among others, argue that this is a later tradition, meant to be a theological “corrective” to the story of the destruction of Sodom. Without this dialogue, we have an old story about God behaving a lot like the League of Shadows, destroying a city rather than saving it. But this dialogue gives us a different way to view the story, one in which Abraham presents a different view of ethics, and God *agrees* with Abraham. This passage is ripe with potential controversy, as the imagery in it plays out like a courtroom in which Abraham is the accuser, and God the accused, and God relents. This has profound implications on biblical study, intercessory prayer, and the development of theology throughout the Bible. I’m not ready to open this can of worms in a post about Batman, but this is a deeeeeeep text to dive into for discussion. How are we to understand this version of God, rebuked by Abraham for first suggesting a utlilitarian ethic, and persuaded to spare the innocent (Lot and his family are spared in this instance,)  with the words and life of Jesus, who would rather sacrifice himself than see the world destroyed? I think if we have to choose, we choose the image of Jesus, who is the fullness of the image of God. I would speculate that the image of God we are given in Genesis represents a community struggling with a God who is not yet fully revealed, not a clear picture like we have in Jesus. This does not mean this text is worthless. Quite the opposite: we see an evolution/development of theology throughout scripture fully revealed in Jesus. Perhaps the earliest struggle of the ethic of God plays out in this confusing way because we hadn’t quite figured out God yet. Feel free to sound off in the comments about this.

The moral tagline form Batman Begins: “It’s not who we are on the inside, it’s what we do that defines us.” A first read would make this sound like utilitarianism, but it actually unites the action with the person. “What we do” IS “who we are”, and conversely, “what we are” is “what we do”. Batman’s actions to save Gotham rather than destroy it come from a place of belief that compassion is better than hatred, redemption is better than destruction, and salvation is a hard earned battle, but a battle worth fighting. And I believe these are, essentially, Christian themes.

Theological Dialogue : Katy Perry: Part of Me

Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows I was excited to see this one… As a very frequent listener to pop radio, I’m very familiar with Katy Perry’s catchy tunes and would probably consider myself a fan of her.

And aren’t famous people fascinating? There’s this interesting phenomenon occurring lately, that these celebrities who seem larger than life are letting the public in a little more, and being rewarded for it. From reality tv to documentaries, our generation more than ever is seeing an “unmasked” version of our celebrities, and Hollywood should take notice, we like people who are real. Granted, we still only see what they’re willing to show us, but is that really so different from how we interact with the people around us? An interesting thought…

This movie brings up some very interesting questions for us. For those of you that aren’t aware, Katy Perry was raised in a highly conservative, Pentecostal Christian home. Her dad was a fiery traveling preacher. Katy herself was originally a gospel singer, before she went “mainstream”.

So what makes a person do that? How does a person go from Christian gospel singer to… well… Katy Perry? Because it’s becoming rather common amongst our generation to leave the church behind and never come back.

First, I want to suggest that the Christianity that Katy Perry was raised with is worth rejecting. Aside from “denominational” issues like being “slain in the spirit” that you see in the movie, Katy’s sister remarks that as children they weren’t allowed to eat Lucky Charms, because luck was from Lucifer.

I’ll be honest with you… If this was the Christianity I was raised on, I would probably not be a Christian still either. In fact, there are many aspects of the much-less-uptight Christianity I was raised on that I’ve rejected. I was fortunate, however, to be pursuing ministry and have great friend, family and teachers who helped me find a more satisfying (and True) version of Christianity to replace it with.

I find it sad that Katy Perry had this as her model for Christianity, and I really can’t blame her for leaving it behind. I would’ve too. It’s unfortunate that she has yet to find the God and Christ underneath it all that rejects out bad religion as outrightly as she did.

Katy makes a brief mention that she still believes in God, but not in the same ways as her parents. She says that she has a one-on-one relationship with God that isn’t anyone else’s business.

Sadly, I find this to be just another version of Christianity worth rejecting. The idea that one’s relationship to God is nobody’s business is remarkably unChristian, actually. This is not to say that we don’t each have a unique, personal relationship to God. I certainly believe this is true. But true Christian faith is intended to be experienced and lived out in community, in this thing called Church. In creation, the only thing God calls “not good” is for people to be alone. And I think it’s sad that Katy Perry has traded a bad church for a bad spirituality.

So that addresses her “spiritual” shift as the movie chronicles it, but what about her music? Katy at some point makes the shift from writing and singing gospel songs to writing and singing songs about relationships, parties, sex, and heartbreak.

The movie highlights a lot of tension in her song writing around “authenticity”. Katy wants to write songs that reflect how she truly feels, and there doesn’t seem to be a place for that in gospel music or in her first few labels.

(Side note: let’s not pretend that Katy Perry has “arrived” in this sense. While many of her songs are a lot deeper and honest than other pop songs, tracks like “California Gurls” and “Let Me See Your Peacock” are clearly nothing more than money grabs exploiting her sexuality, so it’s hard to accept her “high-ground” on this subject.)

However, she may have a point about Christian music. Personally, I stopped listening to Christian music about 4 years ago because I found it to be uninspired, unimpressive, and unoriginal. If you enjoy listening to Christian music and are encouraged, I don’t mean to insult your experience or your favorite bands. That’s just what I think.

But what I will say, and defend, is that “popular” Christian music does not allow for the whole of the Christian experience like the Bible does. Most Christian music sounds like (and is based on) the Psalms, many of which are exclamations of praise toward God from a position of optimism. But it doesn’t take long in the Bible to find other prose. Read Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, or the other half of the Psalms (!) and you will see what I mean. The Bible (and God) allows for honest expressions of doubt, anger, desperation, and frustration at God. But does our music?

From what I’ve heard, it doesn’t. Maybe we shouldn’t sing negative songs during Praise and Worship at church, but shouldn’t the Christian music genre include such things if the Bible does? I’m afraid that if some lament psalms or passages from Ecclesiastes were put to music, KLOVE would not play them. And it’s unfair, and presents a one-dimensional Christianity, if music (which is one of the most profound ways we express ourselves) does not reflect our reality.

And the funny thing is, some Christians find music in touch with our experience on the other stations more often than on KLOVE. And I think that’s okay.

I personally don’t want to be the one to tell God that God can’t use secular music to teach us things or glorify God. Would the person willing to do so please stand up?

I think Christian music can learn a lesson from Katy Perry’s story. As a songwriter, she was unable to express the reality of her experience within the Christian music genre, and I think many listeners experience the same thing. The idea that there is “Christian” music at all seems a little limiting doesn’t it?

Just a few thoughts. Sound off in the comments and let’s talk about it!

Also, check out the new “Theology and Film” tab above to engage with me with other films.

Theological Dialogue : Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Yep, this is happening.

News of this movie coming out polarized moviegoers. Primary responses were “that’s stupid!” or “that’s awesome!” The movie is based on a book by author Seth-Grahame Smith, an author known for literary and historical “rewrites” that insert mythical characters into beloved stories. His first was “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which, last I heard, is in development as a movie as well.

Personally, I was looking forward to this film. I’m eager to read the book, because I’ve been told that it is a seriously good piece of literature, deeper than anyone would’ve expected, using vampires and action as a device to present in a unique way the plight of the slaves and the “stakes” of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Unfortunately, the movie only caught glimpses of this. It’s a catch 22, really. In choosing the director they did, it was unlikely the movie was going to be anything but style over substance. But, the action scenes were incredible. In the hands of a different director, we may have gotten a better movie, but the action scenes would probably have been less of escapist fun. It is a rare director indeed that can do both well, and with material titled “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, I doubt many of those directors would want to be involved.

That being said, the movie we got was the movie we got, and it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. But nonetheless, there are some brief, interesting things to be said about it theologically.

First, there is a lot of biblical imagery in the movie. The primary means of killing vampires in this movie is through the use of silver. Silver is cursed by God, according to this movie, because of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for pieces of silver.

If I cared more about this post, I would do research on vampire myth. This is not the first appearance of the “silver” as a weapon against vampires. Other movies show that vampires can not touch those with a cross necklace. (Also something about garlic? Not sure about the imagery there.) What’s interesting is that this movie takes the story of Abraham Lincoln and inserts vampires as the driving force in his life and the perpetrators of major historical events, and does a good job of making it credible. But the whole vampire mythos supposes that vampires fit within a Judeo-Christian story as well. The question becomes, is that credible? I leave this question to you, and would love it if we could all discuss it in the comments.

But so that this post isn’t completely phoned in, I will reflect on a particularly thought-provoking line toward the end of the movie. This means, of course, SPOILERS. The final scene of the movie occurs as Lincoln is about to leave for the theatre (to his death, as only the audience knows). The vampire that trained him to kill vampires offers Lincoln immortality, by turning him into a vampire as well, saying that “they could fight side by side as a team for eternity. Lincoln, having accomplished so much great change through his life, replies that “Vampires aren’t the only thing that live forever”.

This is a deeply profound reflection on what is referred to in the Bible as “eternal life”. It is part of the Christian view, and indeed part of Jesus’ teaching, that following Jesus leads to eternal life. And it is an ancient Jewish belief that after death, there is Resurrection and judgment before God. One thing I have come to believe over the last five years or so is that while the ideas of eternal life and life after death are related, and I believe are both true, they are NOT actually the same thing.

Jesus’ proclamation was that the kingdom of God is both coming and here now. To enter into eternal life is not to die and go to heaven. Eternal life is not simply about an extension of life, but an entirely different kind of life begun now that continues on after death. Part of participating in the kingdom of God, then, is participating in those ideas and concepts of God that go on forever as well, like freedom, love, justice, and peace. This is what it means for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven”. We are the conduits by which heaven takes hold of earth and shapes it to look more like what God intended all along.

Lincoln, in real life and in this movie, participated in the bringing about of freedom for the oppressed, an extension of his love for all of God’s creation. By doing so, Lincoln participated in the kingdom of God because he found something that was really true, lasting, and eternal, and helped bring it to life. This is the idea of incarnation, that one can put skin and flesh on ideas like love that mean nothing without embodiment.

An underlying assumption of Lincoln’s quote in this movie is something Christians often neglect: it deeply matters what we do here. The Bible simply does not support a worldview that says life on earth is simply a “waiting room” for heaven. This is lowest and most common form of escapism. And really, why would we wait for heaven later if we can experience it now, and do we really deserve heaven later if we don’t want it for everyone else now?

Lincoln’s legacy is such that the world will never be the same because of the good that he did. We can say, theologically, that Lincoln participated in the kingdom of God by making the earth a little more like heaven. And we ought to strive for the same.

John 3:16 says that Christ has come that all who believe in him may have eternal life. Let us be reminded that eternal life is about both quantity and quality, and may we, like the crazy ax-wielding vampire hunter, find ways to facilitate the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven… though hopefully with less violent, crazy ax-wielding means.

Theological Dialogue: Prometheus part 2

This is the second post on the movie Prometheus. The first one explored why we shouldn’t rule out this movie based on its seemingly anti-Christian themes. This post will explore the movie itself, and hopefully show that this movie is not as unchristian as we might have preemptively assumed.

For starters, let’s address that this movie is overwhelmingly religious. From the title “Prometheus”, to the cross necklace around the main character’s neck, this movie is just dripping with religious imagery and symbolism. If you want to look further into this, this is an interesting article exploring that more: http://t.co/gCiS4m3j

There’s some interesting stuff there. I remain unconvinced that the movie is as smart as that article assumes. There are far too many plot holes and way too much nonsense in this movie for me to believe everything in that article is intentional. google “Prometheus plot holes” and you’ll see what I mean. And if you end up at this video (beware, LOTS of language), know that’s it’s not because I “recommended” it, but because you’re just lucky…

But even so, the movie is very much about religion and science, a debate most Christians and scientists (and Christian scientists) are not over. Scientists, in this movie, are motivated to learn more about human origins. They find evidence and are on a mission to learn more.

But what we see in this movie by the main character is not a mission to disprove faith. It’s simply a mission to find truth. Noomi Rapace’s character is actually deeply religious, clinging to her cross necklace despite her scientific discoveries.

And this is the point that is interesting, to me, theologically. I personally believe that science and faith can coexist happily and inform each other. I believe that science and faith, or even science and scripture, are out to answer different kinds of questions. Science asks questions like, “how does x happen”, or “what is the origin of x in light of the evidence”? Faith asks, and scripture tries to answer, different questions like “who are we?”, and “why are we here?” Science fails when it tries to answer existential questions, and, conversely, faith and scripture fails when it is used incorrectly to try to answer scientific questions. Genesis does not begin: “here is a scientific account of the actual way in which the universe came into existence”. Rather, Genesis begins with the theological affirmation that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”, am assertion that the earth and its inhabitants we’re created intentionally, with purpose, and infused with meaning.

Prometheus is a fantasy story about this tension. Rapace’s character, when finally confronted with one of the inventors, screams existential questions at it, only for the inventor to begin a killing spree without answering a single question. Turns out, our creators are incredibly violent and vengeful (and we’re supposed to believe they sent Jesus to teach us how to live? Come on, Ridley…)

And the conclusion of the film is especially telling. Rapace’s character has an opportunity to return home after alien attacks, having an alien squid baby ripped from her abdomen, and losing everyone she’s ever loved. Instead, she asks to go to the planet that the creators came from. Unsatisfied with her quest for meaning, she neglects her home and her health to pursue it further.

This movie can be an interesting parable for our search for meaning. The Prometheus traversed the universe for four years, when some of us would argue that the answer was around her neck the whole time. (Though Ridley’s suggestion that Jesus was one of the “inventors” subverts that meaning.) Science can tell us wonderful things about where we came from, what we’re made of, and in the process cure diseases and offer hope or a better future. And all of that is great. But there will never, CAN never, be a scientific discovery that answers the existential questions of “why?” And at some point, we all end up asking that question, and we all answer it in different ways. Prometheus is a movie about, ultimately, that question, and failing to answer it.

…Until the sequel.

Please, God, don’t let there be a sequel.

Theological Dialogue: Prometheus part I

I’ve divided my analysis of this movie into two parts, because there are two elements to deal with. First, I want to talk about the unique situation this movie presents because it is perceived as “anti-Christian”. In the second post I will do the actual dialogue between faith and film. But this movie provides an interesting opportunity to talk about the way theology and film dialogue often unnecessarily breaks down.

Some Christians will refuse to see this movie because it features an alternate view of creation that doesn’t feature God. In the film, humans are created by a superior alien race, who later wish to destroy us.

To make it more controversial, director Ridley Scott said in interviews that an original script idea made it clear the aliens wished to destroy us 2,000 years ago for crucifying Jesus; who was, in fact, one of the aliens in question, come to earth to set things right.

As you can imagine, this is an issue for some. Some Christians are very… ahem… particular about creationism. To them, any thing that challenges a literalist, conservative interpretation of Genesis 1 is dangerous. I can see the preachers from the pulpit saying things like “Don’t go see this movie, it says that God didn’t create the world, aliens did.”

But let’s get real here. Ridley Scott is not trying to argue that an alien race created the world instead of God, any more than C.S. Lewis was trying to argue that there is a secret world hidden in your closet.

This is a work of fiction. Just like Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or anything else of the sort. None of those stories contain God. Prometheus is a movie about human origins, what it means to be created, and seeking answers to life’s biggest questions.

So before we start exploring these themes, it’s important that I say this: Prometheus is a movie that invites conversation about creation and the meaning of life. And it made $50 million in one weekend. That means that $50 million worth of people went to the theatre and saw a movie that asks questions about the purpose of life, and if you do a quick internet search, you will find… they are STILL talking about it.

And Christians, out of some sense of propriety, fear, “holiness”, or some combination, are not able to participate in this conversation. They won’t even see the movie. And frankly, I think this movie, thematically, is actually incredibly OPEN to a Christian worldview. Honestly, watching the movie, I found myself wondering if Ridley Scott was a Christian. Seriously.

Let me for a moment say that there ARE reasons for a Christian not to watch this movie. It is rated ‘R’, which means that it is inappropriate for some viewers. If you are uncomfortable with violence or language, then this movie may not be for you. In addition, I really didn’t think this was a very good movie. I’ve been continually disappointed with ever summer movie so far besides Avengers.

But, if you don’t see it, please don’t NOT see it because you think it’s anti-Christian. Because when we do that, we’re in danger of missing out on discussions we actually have something important to add to.

I will finish with this quote  that I put in my first Theology and Pop Culture post, because I think it very much applies to this movie:  our world is having theological and philosophical conversations at the cinema instead of the church, and Christians are rarely present, or even invited. (and sometimes we intentionally exclude ourselves for the wrong reasons)

Check back soon for the theological analysis of Prometheus.

 

Theological Dialogue: (500) Days of Summer

This post is more geared to the class I wrote it for. The class watched 16 films and put them into dialogue with Ecclesiastes, the most depressingly hopeful book in scripture. So, just know that this has a different “voice” than most of my posts because it was written for a particular occasion. Our final project was to choose any film and bring it into dialogue with Ecclesiastes as we had in class. I chose (500) Days of Summer, which is one of my favorite movies. If you have the time, and actually want to understand this post, I would recommend watching that movie and reading Ecclesiastes. If you’ve already done both, then on you go!

Theology and Film: Ecclesiastes and (500) Days of Summer

Elvis Costello asked, “What shall we do with all this useless beauty?” In the film (500) Days of Summer, first-time director Marc Webb asks this question about a fickle thing called love. What are we to do about relationships that go wrong, when one person is madly in love and the other just is not? Is the pursuit of love meaningless? Is it all vanity, vapor? It is easy to see then how this book can be a dialogue with Ecclesiastes. While Ecclesiastes is a critique of the whole experience of life, (500) Days of Summer focuses its attention on the vanity of romantic relationships, and I believe does so in a similar vein to the Qoheleth. One might say that (500) Days of Summer is the “Ecclesiastes of rom-coms”. I hope to show that an analysis of Ecclesiastes will inform our understanding of this film, and, furthermore, that our analysis of this film will inform a better and deeper understanding of the book of Ecclesiastes.

But first, some theory: the field of theology and film is an expanding one, as it is being taken more seriously qualitatively and quantitatively. What I mean by this is that there is an increasing respect and understanding in the Church that the study of film may be beneficial to the Christian experience and teaching (qualitatively), and that there is an exponentially increasing number of books and teaching materials related to the field (quantitatively). While entire books have been devoted to the theory side of theology and film, the why of it all, I want to simply take the time here to not attempt to convince all that this field is credible. There are enough (great) books on that. But I will take a moment to share the specific things I have read that convinced me.

The primary thing we have to deal with is that film dominates our culture. Hundreds of millions are spent at the box office each weekend to see the newest offering that Hollywood has for us. Movies are quoted in public with the expectation of recognition. You can’t even really go a day without hearing some allusion to Star Wars! Johnston writes that the filmmakers “are the ones who are creating the root metaphors by which we seek to live.” (Johnston 21)  A proper methodology for film studies, then, would seek to find the ways in which not only the films “remind” us of or “look like” biblical allusions, but we must also embrace the way that films reveal to us something about the world we live in, the way people think, and the truths that our world holds. It holds an insight for the sake of understanding the world, and if we can understand the world, I think we have a much better chance of participating with God in its salvation.

(500) Days of Summer does exactly this with romantic relationships, better than any movie I’ve ever seen. The film received an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review website. Some of the critics it assembled for the review spoke highly of its honesty: Mark Pfeiffer wrote, “The film’s bruised yet clear-eyed romanticism is refreshing to find in a genre that often settles for something less than truthful or passionate.” Bruce Bennett writes, “Charming yet brutally honest. Offers a certain mainstream appeal for anyone who’s experienced love’s thorny and persuasive illusions.” And one reviewer even suggested, “If it just misses being this generation’s ‘Annie Hall’, it’s still deliciously refreshing.” Annie Hall, a timeless classic in the romantic comedy genre, could very well be another movie to take the Ecclesiastes-like look at love.

The way this movie and only a handful of others, including Annie Hall, does right by romantic comedies is that it takes the painful nature of relationships very seriously. As the movie’s narrator tells us right at the beginning: “This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.” This realistic depiction on life’s hardship is exactly what we find in Ecclesiastes. The most oft used phrase in Ecclesiastes is “all of this is vanity”. “Vanity” here is sometimes translated meaningless, but is really the word for “vapor”, so it could be rendered as meaningless, useless or vain, but could also be meaning something like “fleeting”, “temporary” or “passing”. Indeed, Ecclesiastes recognizes that point and season of life in which nothing is right or fair, and it all seems meaningless. Johnston breaks down some of the truths of Ecclesiastes into the following statements: “Death is our common fate”, “We cannot know what we are to do”, Life lacks any discernible moral order”, “Life is messy”, and “Given life’s incoherence, all attempts to masster life by our own effort are simply futile.” (Johnston 172-173) This is not the end of Johnston’s list, nor the end of the story, but it serves my purpose here to show that the negative, realistic view of love in (500) Days of Summer reflects the negative, realistic view on life in Ecclesiastes. The titular character, Summer, says early in the film, “I think relationships are messy and people’s feelings get hurt. Who needs it? We’re young, we live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world; might as well have fun while we can and, save the serious stuff for later.” And the relationship turns out very messy, as Tom hopes to break through this barrier while falling in love with Summer, and she actually begins to let him in, before finally shutting him out for good.

Love, in the film, is analogous to life in Ecclesiates. But what does Ecclesiastes say about love? One small verse, in 7:26, shows that the view of the Qoheleth on love does not stray far from the movie in question. “I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her.” This passage, along with many Old Testament wisdom texts, does not celebrate a high view of women. It’s important that we not accept the potential underlying theme that women are symbols of evil and heartbreak. But Ecclesiastes certainly does not have a high view of women like Summer who are a trap, who play around with love without ever taking hold of it, and who destroy others along the way. And, interestingly enough, we are in danger of a low view of women as much in this movie as we are in this text. Before the movie begins, the author’s note on the screen reads: “The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch.” Whether it is true or not, we are led to believe from the beginning that the filmmaker has an axe to grind, and that the portrayal of women may be less than fair and come from a place of bias. This is something that could probably be said truthfully both of the film and the Ecclesiastes text.

One of the unique things about film is that beyond enabling a story to be told, it allows countless ways for how a story is told. And often, the way a filmmaker chooses to tell their story can tell you as much about the message as the story itself. This movie uses non-linear story-telling, using days from 1-500 as chronological markers for where in the story we are. Non-linear stories are a token of postmodern filmmaking, exemplified in movies like Memento. This movies uses this tool to juxtapose the highs and lows of the love relationship. We are first shown a trip to IKEA in which Tom makes a joke to Summer and she brushes it aside. This trip takes place on day 282. Shortly later in the movie, we see a trip to IKEA that takes place on day 34, a scene absolutely oozing with chemistry and playfulness between the characters. This scene contains some of the most memorable quotes and moments in the entire film. Other scenes are juxtaposed, such as two instances in a record store. But perhaps the most obvious juxtaposition is the scene done in split-screen format. The narrator introduces this scene by saying: “Tom walked to her apartment, intoxicated by the promise of the evening. He believed that this time his expectations would align with reality.” The scene then breaks into split-screen, where on the right we see Tom’s “expectations” of what will occur that evening. In it we see a happy greeting at the door, lively conversation, ending in Tom and Summer kissing at the end. On the right, we are given Tom’s “reality”, what actually happens at the party. Summer greets Tom awkwardly, is alone for much of the party, and leaves in a fury having discovered that Summer is now engaged to another man.

This juxtaposition of good and bad, positive and negative, expectations and reality, is not only a reflection of true romantic relationships; it also reflects the way Ecclesiastes holds life’s contradictions. Johnston writes, “How can the writer [of Ecclesiastes] say, on the one hand, that ‘those who have never been born’ are ‘better off,’ for they ‘have never seen the injustice that goes on in the world,’ and yet reflect a few pages later, ‘But anyone who is in the world of the living has some hope; a live dog is better off than a dead lion’ (Eccles. 4:3; 9:4)? Such concurrent reflections of both despair and hope make no sense, and yet we realize from our own experience that they make all the sense in the world.” (Johnston 19) And later, he adds, “To hold together joy and sorrow, meaninglessness and meaningfulness is a vexing problem in any age.” (24) This is why (500) Days of Summer is such a captivating film to watch. It takes a genre known far too often for cliché, pandering, and unsatisfying surrealism and inserts pain, realism, and truth in a way that reflects human experience in a deep way.

This is one of the few movies in this genre where the two title characters don’t end up together. There is no “happily ever after” for Tom and Summer. This movie is a critique, then, of the whole romantic-comedy genre. From the opening declaration that “this is not a love story” to the realization that the two actors on the poster and DVD box don’t end up in love, we see that the film has something to say about how many movies of this type end. Tom’s job in the movie can be seen as a way the movie internally critiques this artificiality. Tom works for a greeting card company, writing sentimental and sappy statements for others to give to each other. Tom’s ability to write these cards is correlated to his situation with Summer. During the good times, he came up with top-sellers like “I love us”. But after the relationship falls apart, Tom is only able to put out a card that reads, “Roses are red. Violets are blue. Fuck you, whore.” Even this card is a critique of a cliché expression of love. Tom quits the company in a powerful moment. “This is lies. We are liars. Think about it. Why do people buy cards? It’s not because they want to say how they feel. People buy cards because they can’t say they feel or are afraid to. And we provide the service that lets them off the hook… It’s these cards, and the movies and the pop songs, they’re to blame for all the lies and the heartache, everything. We’re responsible. I’M responsible. I think we do a bad thing here. People should be able to say how they feel, how they really feel, not ya know, some words that some stranger put in their mouth.” In this way the movie uses his job as a greeting card writer to critique the artificial ways in which our culture doesn’t do justice to the complex and difficult nature of love and heartache.

But the ending isn’t all negative. Summer, against her own judgments, falls in love and marries another man. Tom, on the other hand, finds a hope of his own in a brand new season. While waiting for an interview for a job in architecture, his great passion, Tom meets a new girl and has instant chemistry with her. However, he is called to his interview in mid-conversation. The narrator begins a monologue about how Tom had learned his lesson with Summer: “If Tom had learned anything… it was that you can’t ascribe great cosmic significance to a simple earthly event. Coincidence, that’s all anything ever is, nothing more than coincidence… Tom had finally learned, there are no miracles. There’s no such thing as fate, nothing is meant to be. He knew, he was sure of it now.” But Tom’s actions actually interrupt the narrator. He stops, goes back to the waiting room and asks the girl to coffee. She agrees with a smile and introduces herself as Autumn. The film cuts to a new title card displaying “Day 1”, indicating a new “season of love” has begun.

Life as a sequence of seasons is a theme in the film, and in Ecclesiastes. In chapter 3, Ecclesiastes proclaims, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” It continues with a poem, juxtaposing mourning and dancing, love and hate, war and peace, saying there is a time at all. Life fluctuates; it peaks and dips, unpredictably and without purpose. But there is always hope, for there will always be a new season. This is the final message of hope in (500) Days of Summer, that for Tom a new season has begun, full of its own challenges and successes, expectations and realities, joys and heartaches; but Tom’s look at the camera upon hearing Autumn’s name tells us that he is ready and full of hope for this new season. Similarly, Ecclesiastes ends with an epilogue that insists that in all of it, God is still Lord. Many believe that this epilogue was added later to “soften” or “correct” the negative nature of Ecclesiastes, but a good reading of Ecclesiastes shows that this hope is pervasive throughout anyway. It may very well still be a redaction; in fact, it probably is. But it is not one that negates or even “corrects” the message of Ecclesiastes, but rather puts it into context and allows the final word to be of God.

If anything, the epilogue confirms the message of Ecclesiastes. By finishing the book with a confirmation of God’s lordship and our call to love and fear God, we are shown that all that has come before, the doubting and despairing, the cries that life is unfair and unjust, is part of what it means to love and fear God. We tend to romanticize the Christian experience to be all about joy, celebration and love. And these are valid and healthy expressions of faith. But anyone who has been a follower of Christ for any significant length of time knows that it is not all butterflies and rainbows. And when the hard times come, the temptation for Christians is to say that God is far away, or that they are in a spiritual-slump. The truth of Ecclesiastes is that this desperation and heartache is not a malfunction, but a genuine and true part of the human experience, and that God is present in it!

Ecclesiastes is a critique on an over-romanticized view of faith in God. (500) Days of Summer is a critique on an over-romanticized view of dating and love-relationships. In ways that pay close attention to the realities of life and experience, these works demonstrate that life and love are messy, hurtful, and fickle. To believe otherwise about either is dangerous, for the first instance of pain can rip us to the very core from which we may never recover. But both the book in scripture and the 2009 film offer hope and beauty within the despair, knowing that there are more seasons coming. In this instance, our watching of how (500) Days of Summer takes the rom-com genre and holds it up against reality, informs the way we read scripture! Theology and Film is indeed a two-way dialogue, because our watching of this movie gives a wonderful analogy to what Ecclesiastes does to the wisdom tradition.

Theology and Pop Culture

Over the last year I’ve taken two courses on “theology and film”. I did so because these two subjects are some of my favorite things in the world. I love studying theology and learning and talking about God in new ways. I also spend a LOT of time watching movies , talking about movies, reading about movies, etc. If you want to be my best friend, your best chance is to have similar theological convictions and movie tastes as me.

What I’m interested in, really, is where those two subjects converge; the ways that theology informs film and that films inform theology. Film is the youngest of the arts, and yet it is the most popular. People go to the movies in droves, and I’m coming to believe that it’s more than just escapism. People go to movies the same reason people used to go to church: to be a part of and experience a story bigger than themselves. And the sad reality is that for a long time, the church in America wasn’t telling a story worth engaging. But I do believe that the true Christian story, the whole, is the best story ever we could ever tell or hear or enter into.

All movies tell a story, and beneath every telling are inherent beliefs, truths (or untruths) that are often implicit to the reality presented on the screen. And these are the stories that our world shares, talks about, and interacts with.

A book I read says it this way: our world is having theological and philosophical conversations at the cinema instead of the church, and Christians are rarely present, or even invited.

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, mostly because I can’t think of anything to say. I don’t have “aha!” moments all that often. I don’t preach very often, so I can’t really post sermons. So, the direction I would like this blog to take for now is a dialogue between theology and film, especially entering the summer movie season.

A couple notes: these movies will not be inherently “Christian” movies. Most will not have explicitly Christian themes, and some of them may never say the word “God” in them short of an expletive. But finding God in the secular is an important practice, and a biblical one for that matter.

Secondly, it should be noted that some of the movies I will review may be rated R (maybe even NC-17). To say it bluntly, I believe in the power of God to speak through films that contain language, violence, sexuality, etc. But different people have different levels of tolerance for such things and I respect that, so please take any movie recommendations with a grain of salt. Just because I think that the movie Gran Torino can teach us a lot about atonement theory doesn’t mean you should gather the kiddos around the tv for it. Similar things could be said about bible texts like Song of Solomon.

This is going to be fun. I look forward to the comments and discussions that this will bring out moreso than my other blog entries. I’ve been thinking over the last couple weeks that if I could invent the position of “Pastor of Cultural Engagement”, I might be uniquely qualified to do it… We may be a long way from churches having such a position, but I honestly think it’s the direction we’re heading in, or at least ought to.

If anyone has any movie suggestions, I’d be open to suggestions. As it is, I’ll probably hit the big summer movies as they come along and any older movies that catch my eye in between. I may even do some television or music eventually. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Look for my first “theology and film” post this week on “the Avengers”.