God and Coffee: Local Justice

In my last post, I talked about how I believe that God cares about where we get our coffee from and how. In this post, I want to highlight some ways that I see God involved with what we do with coffee once it gets here. I see God on both sides of the supply chain, so to speak.

I want to emphasize that these are only a few examples that I am aware of. I would also mention that most of the things I’ll mention don’t have that much to do with coffee. It’s almost coincidental that they are coffee organizations doing these great things for the community. But maybe there’s something unique about coffee and the people it draws and the community it creates that lends itself to this kind of charity? That’s the topic for another post. I simply want to highlight a few really amazing ways that I have seen, in the world of coffee, people caring about things that God cares about on the local side of coffee.

The first time I really experienced this was when I wandered into a coffee shop after seeing the word “coffee” on a sign. (I was new too coffee then, and it didn’t take much to get me in the door at your shop.) Before long, I learned that this coffee shop was run as a non-profit in conjunction with a women’s shelter, that used the shop as a way to both raise money and provide income and job-experience for the women they took into their care. This was mind-blowing for me, and I admired the way this shop truly did good with coffee. I have no idea what the name of this shop is, if it’s still around, or if it was any good, but I remember it for what it, at the very least, tried to do.

Another tremendous example for me is also one of my favorite coffee roasters, MADCAP in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In addition to caring deeply about all of the sourcing and sustainability issues I talked about in my last post, MADCAP also decided to take it to the next level locally. To quote an article about them, “After establishing direct partnerships with international growers to ensure the harvesting of quality products, Madcap is now ensuring its practice of being socially responsible doesn’t just end once coffee reaches customers’ hands.” MADCAP did this by launching a Zero Waste program in their shop. This means that, instead of trash cans in their cafe, they have bus bins, which are sorted through by the staff and go into compost piles or recycling. They work with local organizations that are able to receive their “trash” and turn it into nutrient-rich compost or into future products, rather than ending up in a land-fill. Whether you agree or not, I actually believe that God cares deeply about the earth and has entrusted us to take care of it and not abuse it. In far too many ways, we as humans and Christians treat the earth as expendable and exploitable. MADCAP being willing to put in a bit of extra effort to make sure their coffee shop doesn’t do wrong by the earth and community that sustains it is amazing, and inspirational to us as individuals and other coffee shops. [Read more on this here]

As much as it pains me to say it, a recent move by Starbucks shows just how much good coffee companies can do in their communities. While the snobby, high-end specialty barista side of me hisses every time the word Starbucks is uttered, the news recently that they partnered with ASU to offer its employees the opportunity to go to college for free. This is an unprecedented move for the biggest name in global coffee, and silences the snobby barista in me long enough to smile and say, “God is good.”

If you read my post where I told the story about Tag and Dirty Water Coffee, you already know a little about what I have to say next. Tag inspired me to care about people and try to empower them with jobs and opportunities. In his honor, Tag’s dad is helping to start a shop in Oregon working in conjunction with a housing complex for homeless youth. This made it very easy to connect with him when I reached out to him to talk about using some of the equipment from Dirty Water to help an organization that I work with called Rose City Coffee.

Rose City Coffee is a non-profit based out of Rose City Church in Pasadena, where I attend. When the church reopened its doors under a new pastor, the pastor discovered that homeless youth had been sleeping on the property while it was unoccupied. Believing that a church’s mission should start with the needs just outside its doorstep, the pastor decided to invest in the lives of these youth and do everything he could to help them. Realizing that, on his own, this was too daunting of a task, he thought about what small part he could do with the resources he had at his disposal. Interestingly enough, the church building he inherited had a huge coffee cart in it, complete with all the fixings of many functional cafes. Putting two and two together, Rose City Coffee was formed, with the purpose of using the equipment to train the youth in how to be baristas, empowering them to find jobs in the ever-growing Los Angeles coffee industry. [Read more here]

I had the honor of joining Rose City Coffee some time later, stepping in to help with what I could, bringing some of my experiences and skills to the table of an already very motivated, talented and delightful staff. After a while in this capacity I stepped in as the director of training and got to lead three students through a training program and simultaneously write a training manual for the program. This experience was really eye-opening for me; I learned so much about the highs and lows, successes and failures, hardships and victories of doing that kind of work. It challenged me more than anything I’ve ever done. One of the students now works in coffee, and the other two are still looking.

Why do I tell you all this? I feel like I keep asking this question at the end of my God and Coffee posts. I’m very aware that these kinds of things are not that interesting to most people, and that much of this is so anecdotal to have little direct application to general life. I guess that if I’m trying to say anything overall in this “God and Coffee” series, it’s that I think God is in everything. Some theologians call it “general revelation”, some call it “prevenient grace”, and there are certainly differences to nuance between what different people call it, I think it’s important to recognize that most people of faith recognize that God is in the world outside of the church and outside of confessing Christians trying to set the world to rights. Christians would do well to recognize them in the world and call them what they are: God with us. This might actually be a way of telling the world what God is like, instead of screaming at them through bullhorns or pamphlets. I tell these stories to inspire, to persuade and to provoke.

And while I personally think that coffee culture is uniquely poised to enact justice in the world, the bigger truth I hope to point at in this series is that God can be found anywhere. Coffee just happens to be my passion. If you dug deep enough into the “secular” things that you are passionate about, I believe you would find God alive and moving. The walls between secular and sacred break down if you believe in the God of scripture.God cares about joblessness, homelessness, economic discrepancies, landfills and waste, and education. These are a few examples on the “home front”, so to speak, that remind me that being a barista while I’m in seminary are not two distinct expressions or experiences of my life, but both stem from the desire to know God more deeply and to join in God’s mission for the world.

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God and Coffee: Global Justice

The first thing that will help you understand the world of coffee better is to not think of coffee as a shelf-product, but as a crop. Coffee grows on trees, in a fruit. What we call a coffee “bean” is actually the seed of a cherry. 

Watch this brief, terrific video made by one of my favorite coffee roasters to see the actual process it takes to make a cup of coffee: http://vimeo.com/66520723

What I hope you notice is that the process from seed to cup involves a lot of people, from all over the world. It’s a lengthy process to get that coffee to you, and a lot of money and product has changed hands along the way.

And when money changes hands, especially internationally, there is a lot of room for exploitation. 

Because coffee can only grow well in particular conditions, it just so happens that coffee-growing countries are among the most impoverished. It is easy, then, for coffee buyers to take advantage of the farmers and pay them horrible wages. Other exploitations include using heavy machinery to remove cherries from the trees (machines that do not distinguish between ripe and unripe, and decimate the plantation so as to not be usable for the next harvesting season), increasing middle-man buyers (called coyotes) who buy the coffee at a low price and then sell it much higher because the farmers are unable to transport their goods or are unaware of its quality, among many others. 

Oromia-Farm

Suffice it to say, there is a lot of injustice taking place in the coffee industry. And the international nature of it leads to a lack of transparency. What we do know, though, is that even those who like to claim a moral high-ground aren’t being completely honest. 

Most people associate the words “fair trade” with ethical buying. For a lot of products, like chocolate and clothing, “fair trade” has become synonymous with ethical sourcing and treatment of workers. In a lot of cases, this is true. However, with coffee, it’s a bit more complicated. You see, “Fair Trade” is actually a certification controlled by a particularly organization. When something is “Fair Trade Certified”, it means that it meets a (pretty low) minimum requirement for wages paid and worker’s conditions. A study from April 2014, though, showed that the average workers’ wage was actually higher among non-fair-trade coffee farms than among the certified ones. 

This doesn’t mean that Fair Trade is unethical. I would never say that, because it’s untrue. The organization has done a lot of good. Unfortunately, when it comes to coffee, we can actually do better… and we already are. You can read more about these distinctions here.

About 10-15 years ago, what we call the “third wave” of coffee began. (The first wave was the mass-production of office-type coffee, i.e. Folgers, and the second was the rise of large chains of specialty coffee houses, i.e. Starbucks.) This wave has been characterized by a high commitment to quality and ethical sourcing. A few roasters around the country, notably Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture, began developing “direct trade” relationships with coffee farms, investing in them long term toward the goal of increased quality, but also sustainability. These roasters began to pay premiums for outstanding coffees, and invest in building better facilities on the farms and cooperatives, offering incentives, micro-loans, and straight-up-charity in the interest of good, honest business. Intelligentsia pioneered the practice of paying farmers the same amount of money as the previous year even if the crop was decimated by drought, pests, or severe weather. They were willing to pay to receive nothing, in the interest of a long-term relationship with their farmers. This became industry standard. Stumptown partnered with local corporations to offer cooperatives in Ethiopia  a three-year micro-loan to develop a washing facility for them all to share so they would have to travel less to process their coffees. It was paid back before the end of the first year. Counter Culture developed their own certification called “Direct Trade Certified”, in order to hold themselves accountable to their coffee buying, and they annually publish sustainability and transparency reports to the public. 

This type of justice-oriented coffee has caught on. These three roasters are now nationally known and sought after, and these practices, as I’ve already said, have become industry-standard. I know of a small roaster in Tulsa, Oklahoma that built a medical clinic on one of the plantations it sources coffee from. Among the high-quality coffee roasters of today, these ethical practices are second-nature. They have become built into the system. If you want good coffee, you’re going to have to go about it the right way. And the world is better because of it. 

stump

But we have a long way to go. There’s still a lot of confusion about these issues in the general public. People often are looking for “fair trade coffee” and don’t realize that what they really want, which is ethically-sourced coffee, may not bear that official label. Many see no difference between powdered coffee from the grocery aisle and the $20/lb bag at the “snobby” shop across the street. I write this post in part to raise awareness: where we buy our coffee from makes a HUGE, GLOBAL DIFFERENCE.

For example: Ethiopia, which is widely believed to be the birthplace of coffee, is a great example. If you are ever looking for a great coffee table book about coffee (with pictures), I highly recommend this one, from which I pull this quote: “Ethiopia is the world’s eighth-poorest country, but it has the greatest store of genetic diversity of coffee. Its coffee, if successfully linked with the growing specialty and boutique-specialty coffee trends, can create real results for the country’s economy. Ethiopia currently exports 600 million pounds of coffee per year; a price increase of just $0.10/pound would equal $60 million in additional income for the nation.” (pg. 1)

The reason I tell you this is because a lot of people ask me about my coffee job. They wonder why I care about something as run-of-the-mill as coffee so much. They wonder why the shop I work at charges upwards of $5 for a cup. And the answer is, well, its complicated. And it has a lot to do with my faith. 

I, like many others, believe that God cares about justice. The whole Bible is all about justice, about a God who cares about the poor, the orphan, the widow. All of the law and the prophets boil down to loving God and neighbor, as Jesus says, and that includes our international neighbor. Unfortunately, we know that the Almighty Dollar gets in the way. (The Bible says quite a lot about this too.) The world of coffee is a perfect example of this. Something that we all consume everyday may very well be contributing to the impoverishment, exploitation, and even enslavement of our international neighbor, all because we are trying to save money. 

But the coffee industry is bending a different way, just as I believe the world is. I believe that Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and that the world is being bent toward justice and love and peace in spite of the pervasiveness of evil. I don’t know how many of the people involved in these changes are Christians. It might be interesting to know, but I think we also know that in some ways we share the values and hopes that God has for the world. 

And isn’t it crazy to think that something that used to seem so mundane as buying a cup of coffee can actually shape the world toward justice? It’s things like this that bring flesh to an old phrase: “God works in mysterious ways.” For me, one of the ways I find God in coffee is by participating in this industry that works so that farmers get paid more than what they deserve, and economies elsewhere can grow and life can flourish as God so desires. 

Let this be a challenge: think about where the things you buy come from. We all stand to benefit from justice in our coffee buying – if for no other reason than it leads to better coffee! But simple changes and awareness can allow you to participate in what God may be doing in some of the impoverished nations of our world – allowing economies to stabilize and people who bear the image of the Creator to afford food, clothing, education, and opportunity. 

God cares about where your coffee comes from. God cares about Ethiopia, and every other impoverished country taken advantage of for our benefit. So should we.

 

God and Coffee: A Story

In this, my first “meaty” post about God and Coffee, I simply want to tell a story. It’s a story you may know if you know me personally, or might have a connection to in some other way. It’s nothing more than a personal story about how coffee, and a small little world made possible, changed my life. This felt like an especially poignant story to tell because of all the news and opinions about mental illness surrounding Robin Williams’ death.

This is only a story, and you may wonder, “What does this have to do with God and coffee?” Well, this story has coffee in it, and it has God in it, so that’s my first qualification. But mostly, I tell this story because I think this whole situation was made possible because coffee is something that most of the world shares in common. It’s something that almost all of us drink, young and old, and unites us with the rest of the world: where coffee drinking, farming, and distributing take place. It’s a shared experience, and I think God is in it.

In 2005, an espresso and smoothie catering company called Dirty Water Coffee Co. was started in Oklahoma City by an ambitious, but driven 20 year old named Taggart Dertinger, affectionately known by the name Tag. From scratch, Tag developed a fully mobile coffee and smoothie shop that could be set up in 15 minutes or less, and offer everything from espresso shots to Busted Bean Frappuccinos, or the classic Snozzberry smoothie. By the time I joined the company in 2011, Dirty Water was doing upwards of 20-25 events per week, with four full setups that could be in different places at once.

I started working with Dirty Water Coffee in 2011 after I graduated from college. I was looking for a solid summer job in OKC before I moved to California to begin graduate school in the Fall. I was interested in coffee, and considered it a hobby, but I had never worked in it before. This was my *first* coffee job.

kevin_dirty water-2

And Tag was just the right guy to teach it to me. Before I ever trained on my first day, he invited me to go rock climbing with his friends and the other coworkers. Tag loved physical activity, whether it was rock climbing, triathlons, water skiing, skate-boarding… nothing was too extreme for Tag. And he loved people more than anything. He was always listening, inviting, investing, and encouraging. Training with Tag was always fun – he always seemed so impressed – and it almost always included a meal and goofing around. And yet he earned the kind of respect that is normally reserved for Presidents and CEO’s, despite being only four years older than me.

Most importantly, Tag had a unique compassion – a once-in-a-lifetime type of compassion that sees people as equals, hurts for people who are disadvantaged, and forgives constantly. He forgave me twice, and neither time I came close to deserving it. Any other employer would have fired me for falling asleep at the wheel on my first solo appointment, or for scraping the van on a post and then trying to cover it up… but Tag didn’t. His forgiveness actually empowered me to be a better employee and a better person. He was also always more social than me; I can be something of an introvert, but the job demanded that I not hide. This is something coffee service continues to teach me. When I am one day a pastor, I will owe Tag and every other coffee job I’ve worked a lot for teaching me how to engage new people and be welcoming and outgoing.

tag

But Tag had compassion for more than his employees. Tag had an especially deep compassion on people who were homeless or struggling to get by. I often ran errands with Tag, and any time a homeless person would ask him for money, Tag would ask him what he was good at and offer him a job. Tag would create jobs that he didn’t need to be filled just so that people could earn some money. He knew he had a lot to give, and his generosity wasn’t afraid of people who were homeless, begging, or disheveled. Every once in a while, someone took him up on this, and Tag would buy them clothes and get them everything they needed to have the opportunity to succeed. And it broke his heart when they didn’t show up when they were supposed to. He was old fashioned in that way, but he was also right. Tag never wanted to give a handout, but he also knew how many things were working against people who genuinely wanted to make a way for themselves.

I remember one time we were driving near the capital in Oklahoma City, and Tag saw what appeared to be a drug-exchange at a gas station less than a mile from the ornate capital building. Tag got angrier than I had ever seen him, furious that something like that could happen so nearby to the people who had a responsibility to do something about it. He wasn’t political, per se. But he believed in the dignity of every person, that everyone deserved a shot, and he was broken by the fact that so few people were willing to do anything about it.

On November 13, 2012, Tag Dertinger lost a lifelong battle with Bipolar Disorder, taking his own life. He wasn’t aware of this struggle until late in his life, when it began to take its largest toll. At the time of his death, he was running Dirty Water mostly on his own, and the company has not been active since. I was already living in California at the time, and was stunned by the news. Tag was more than a boss, and more than just a friend. I looked up to him, I learned so much from him about how to be good person and an adult, and I’ll never forget him.

After his death, Tag’s loved ones created a campaign called “Tag it Forward” to keep Tag’s legacy of compassion and adventure alive. I’ve stayed in contact with his partner, Staci, and his father Al, and both have worked hard in their grief and loss to help try to make the world a place more like Tag imagined it could be. Staci and Al actually worked together with me to donate a full catering setup to Rose City Coffee – an organization I work with now and will describe more in later posts – to use toward our goal of changing the lives of homeless and transitional aged youth through training and developing through coffee. This donation will strengthen our ability to do catering events, which both funds and provides a unique training ground for our youth development program. I recently learned that Al is helping fund and start a housing program for transitional youth as well in Portland, who also wants to open a coffee shop to provide jobs for the students it houses. They are going to call it “Tag It Forward Coffee”. I hope to send them all the resources I’ve found and developed at Rose City to help them with that project.

tagvw-2-small

This is just one of those stories that helps me find God in the complexity of life. I would never, ever say that Tag died for a reason, or that this was all part of God’s plan, or anything like that. What I do believe is that one person can be so inspiring, and so in-tune with God’s hope for the world, that even something as horrible as mental illness and suicide can’t stop the good they can do in this world. This story helps me believe that God can work in spite of tragedy and bring new life even out of death. I still cry when I think of Tag, and that pain will never go away and will never be justified. But I believe God felt that pain too, and is doing everything possible to bring good out of such destruction and sadness. And I believe that it’s working. I’m inspired by Tag daily, and I know many others are too.

Obviously, this is a unique story. I don’t expect many of you to have experienced “God and Coffee” in this same way. I promise the rest of my posts won’t be quite so personal. But maybe we can all relate to this story anyway; stories are cool like that. And maybe it just helps you understand where I’m coming from, and how personal this whole coffee thing is to me.

Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll talk about how God and Coffee relates to Global Justice.

God and Coffee

It’s long been in the works for me that I would write something about the theological beliefs and convictions that undergird my love of coffee. It’s one of those funny things about life that the passions that we have, even if they don’t come from a “religious” place originally, end up being places we find God. Maybe God gives us these passions on purpose, or maybe it’s just true that God is in everything, and if we dig deep enough into our passions we’ll find God there, transforming the world. I think I lean towards the second one; if we believe that God created this world and intends it for peace, justice, and righteousness, then we ought to be finding such qualities and characteristics bursting forth in all of the things we might call “good” in this world. This is what I believe about film, as any reader of my blog already knows.

But coffee? Really? That thing that we drink just to make it through work? (Or maybe just to make it to work!)

 

Yes, I believe that God is in coffee. And no, I don’t mean in a literal or supernatural way, like many Christians believe God to be in the Eucharist. What I simply mean to say is that at every turn, this passion of mine about coffee, where it comes from, where it goes, what it becomes, the culture it creates, the life of a coffeehouse, and the stories it creates are absolutely teeming with glimpses of the Kingdom of God in this world.

Honestly, it’s okay if you don’t believe me right now. You don’t have to. But if you’re at all curious, I encourage you to follow this new series I’m beginning. I want to convince you that a cup of coffee can change the world, that where our coffee comes from matters, that the coffeehouse you choose to go to might mean the difference between justice or extortion on the other side of the world. I want to convince you that coffee can transform a city, becoming a place where people gather and form community in the same way that people used to do at church. I want to tell you about the surprising ways that the coffee industry has become a place of openness and building each other up and seeking the welfare of the neighborhood. I want to tell you about how coffee brings joy, and how God smiles upon the the good things we “add” to creation in the name of peace. And I want to tell you some deeply personal stories about how coffee and people in coffee have dramatically changed my life… and I’d love to hear yours too.

So be on the lookout for new posts coming every couple days. I think coffee is one of the greatest passions that many of us share in common, and I look forward to searching for God with all of you at the bottom of our cups.

10,000 Children – Shame On Us All

 

Allow me to apologize at the outset, as a way of hopefully softening the anger with which this post is written. I am angry to the point of tears over the way the events surrounding World Vision played out last week. But yesterday the numbers finally came out that we all knew were coming, and yet none of us believed it could be so bad:

10,000 child sponsorships were dropped in two days after the announcement that World Vision would hire gay, legally-married Christians, in an effort to defer to denominations for doctrine issues and focus on serving the poor. 10,000 children were no longer sponsored.

Ten. Thousand.

TEN %#@ING THOUSAND.

10,000 children in poverty were held as hostages in a debate over doctrine. And they won.

Wait. I’m sorry. “Hostages” actually fails as a metaphor, because of the ten thousand who canceled their sponsorships, an appallingly small number returned to them after the decision was reversed. You know, like when someone holds somebody for ransom in a crime drama, and then kills them anyway after getting what they want. Except, in real life, with poor kids.

Never have I felt so ashamed to be a Christian.

And yet, being upset isn’t good enough. Writing a blog post isn’t good enough. Sharing Rachel Held Evans or Sojourner’s or whoever’s article about in on Facebook to express which “side” of Christianity you are on is not good enough.

Because the only reason that those 10,000 dropped sponsorships caused a reversal is because there weren’t 10,000 Christians on the right side of justice willing to put their money where their bleeding heart is.

We were too busy blogging about it.

Ultimately, we all failed, conservative and liberal; old-fashioned and progressive; young and old; evangelical and post-evangelical. We all failed. We did a bad thing, and then we shamed each other for doing the bad thing instead of doing the right thing. They will know we are Christians by our love… not by our right doctrine… but not by our well-timed Facebook post of our go-to progressive Christian blogger, either.

Shame on us for using children as collateral. Shame on us for allowing hatred to outweigh our compassion.

Shame on us for being “all talk”. Shame on us for thinking that separating ourselves from those who did wrong is the same as doing what is right.

Shame on us for dropping 10,000 kids. Shame on the rest of us for not sponsoring 20,000 the next day.

Shame on us for casting doubt on the phrase “love conquers all”. Love lost last week.

God help us.

 

This is clickable
This is clickable. Guess where it takes you?

 

God and Film: Noah

If there was ever a film ripe for theological dialogue, it’s “Noah”. However, my posts are usually initiating a dialogue between faith and film; this time I’m joining it. “Noah” has stirred up controversy, and I’m afraid that the direction it is headed has done more harm than good.

noah

But first, a story.

In my undergrad, I was asked to write a “children’s sermon” for a systematic theology class. I struggled through this assignment, because I am wholly and unabashedly NOT called to children’s ministry. While I was struggling with what to write the night before it was due, I naturally thought about all the bad children’s sermons I had heard, and began to meditate (read: not work on my assignment) on how the Church tells some of the most disturbing Bible stories to their children. In an effort to spoof this and provide some satire, I wrote a sermon and turned it in called “God wants to kill you with she-bears”, based on the story of Elisha. You can enjoy it for yourself  here.

I even got to read it aloud in class, and my professor and fellow students enjoyed it a lot. My dad, to this day, will read it anyone who will listen to it. And while it was mostly just a funny thing to write and present, I also intended it as a critique of telling horrifying stories to our children. The one that immediately came to mind was the story of “Noah”.

And I know you have all experienced this too. How many of us grew up with coloring pages of the Ark, or had a big mural on our church wall, or reenacted the play in animal costumes, all under the age of 8? I bet that most of us knew the story of Noah before we knew how to read.

But the story is not about cute animals on a boat. It is a story about judgment, about mercy, about chaos and sadness, a Creator who will not give up but must make things right. (Read: it is NOT a story for children)

With that in mind, since I am joining a dialogue already in progress, I have decided to respond to the most common Christian critiques of Noah that I’ve seen, in the form of address:

To those who thought that Noah was “too dark”

What the movie showed us, and many Christians wanted to reject, was that this is one of the darkest stories in the Bible. God literally drowns out all of humanity except one family and the animals. This is a terrifying story about judgment, and should be handled with care, not with coloring books.

I encourage you to read the story again. Ponder on the idea of being called to survive a flood that kills everyone, and the psychological effects that might have on you. Ask yourself what it might be like to be put in that position, and the doubts you might have, and the questions you would want answered.

Because we were all told this story as kids, we saw it in black-and-white. Those people were good, those people were bad. The good person got to live and the bad people died. But as adults we know that the world is more complicated than that, and we have to re-read this story and ask some of the harder questions. I believe that is one thing this film was trying to do.

To those who thought that the story took too many “interpretive leaps”

Welcome to biblical studies. We all make interpretive leaps, whether we realize it or not. Interpretation is simply what happens when we read anything: our brains are reading our own experiences, outside knowledge, assumptions (true or not) into the text between the lines. Let me give some examples:

Do you believe in the Trinity?

Do you believe in the Fall?

Do you believe that the snake in the garden was Satan?

The Bible tells us none of these things. They are all “interpretive leaps” that we make in an effort to make sense of the larger biblical narrative. And just to make it very clear, not all Christians share these conclusions. They are interpretations. I, for one, do not believe that the snake is representative of Satan. But that is for another post. The point is, it is impossible to read the Bible without interpreting the Bible.

It’s also impossible to make an interesting movie about the Bible without filling in some gaps. The Passion of the Christ did it, Son of God certainly did it. And I am actually impressed that “Noah” did it while keeping the spirit of the larger Genesis story, which leads me to this:

To those who think the story is “unbiblical”

Again, I encourage you to re-read the story. The film actually portrays a very informed, close reading of Genesis 1-10. The director, Darren Aronofsky, included elements like the Nephilim, (which many Christians haven’t heard of because their preachers are too scared to talk about it,) and the inclusion of Methuselah, who, based on the ages and times given in the Genesis accounts, would have been alive for the flood event mathematically. Aronofsky also weaved together the whole account of Creation, Adam and Even, and Cain and Abel to great effect, much like the Genesis account does in its syntax and story-telling. The flood story truly is an un-doing of creation; just as God separated the waters above from below, in the flood, water comes down from the heavens and up from the earth.

Certainly, this movie included things that were not in the text. These are the “interpretive leaps”, filling in the gaps. But as we know, this story of the Flood was passed down orally for hundreds and maybe thousands of years before it was written down in the version we have. And we also are all keenly aware of, every time a story is told by a different person, it takes on new life. A person adds their own details or emphasizes one character or hones in a specific theme to tell a story because it means something to them or their audience, Stories are wonderful in that way: they don’t just exist on their own as a list of historical facts but they breathe and have life and can be given meaning and significance through their telling.

Darren Aronofsky told the story in his own way. And while he may not have told it word for word from the biblical text,  I think he was very true to the themes of the story and helped me and many others to understand it in a deeper way. Which leads me to one more address.

And to those Christians who think this is “our story”

It’s not. The story of Noah’s flood actually belongs to the Jewish community, which you have been adopted into. That means that you can celebrate that the God in Noah’s flood has been revealed in Christ, but it does not mean that you now can take that story and read it in your way.

This means that when you get upset that the movie never says, “God” but rather, “Creator”, you’re ignoring that the Jewish community has so much respect for God that they refuse to utter that name, but rather use terms like “Creator” or “Father” so as to not disrespect.

This means that when you find the film “too fantastical”, you’re ignoring that the ancient Jewish understanding of the world is not your own. In their earliest understanding of the world, the Jews believed that the world looked like this and that the waters were ruled by a Leviathon and had stories of angels coming down and mating with humans. The film should not have to apologize for not being “realistic”. The ancient Jewish understanding of the world was very mystical, and the movie did a great job showing that.

The Sad Result

In the end, I think this was a great film. I barely have time at the end of this post to address the beautiful, theological and God-honoring themes it contained: like what it means to care for God’s creation, the balance of judgment and mercy, the promise of new-life, the provision of God or the experience of doubt in one’s calling. Instead, I spent an entire post defending a movie from the people that should’ve been supporting it.

It’s a sad day for me, because I learned a while ago that God could move through film and I’ve wanted to share that with everyone. It’s why I started writing about it here and why I taught a class on it at my church. My belief is that if we can engage film with an open mind, we might be able to partner with God in bringing people into our community who might not otherwise find their way.

“Noah” was a perfect opportunity to do just that. And we blew it.

An esteemed director took a story from the Bible and brought it to life, highlighting themes of God’s love and faithfulness, of justice and mercy and compassion. One of the hardest, most difficult stories, no less, and handled it with care and creativity and made the audience feel the anguish of Noah and also empathy for a world that should be more like the Creator wanted.

$40 million worth of ticket sales in its opening weekend, this movie likely made a lot of non-Christians think that the Bible might have something for them. If “Noah” succeeded in making them feel something, or even gave them the slightest inkling that they could believe in the type of Creator this movie lovingly portrayed, then perhaps they could’ve looked at the Bible with fresh eyes.

Instead, the Christian world shouted from the rooftops (read: Facebook posts): “THIS MOVIE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BIBLE!”

And so that one person, or ten people, or hundred people, or maybe even thousand, who might have come to the Bible believing it had something for them, were told that what they experienced was not God, but just a movie that was “not Christian”. And so, as they did before, these people will look elsewhere to find what they’re looking for.

God help us. This has been a hard couple weeks to be a Christian. World Vision tried to show that serving the poor was more important than a silly debate… and they were proven wrong. 10,000 children lost sponsorships, and World Vision had to change their minds. And then a non-Christian director put his admiration of the Bible on screen and millions of people saw it and maybe experienced admiration of their own… and we told them they were wrong.

God help us.

God and Film – Gran Torino

(This was my manuscript for part two of my God Talk series, “God and Film”. The featured movie was Gran Torino, and this manuscript came after viewing the film, which would also be the best way to read it.)

gran torino

 

While it was snubbed by the Oscars, Gran Torino garnered a lot of critical acclaim for Clint Eastwood’s acting and directing in 2008. The film deals with life and death, race, violence, gang activity, and even theology, centered around Walt Kowalski and his Gran Torino.

Before we get too far in, I want to say that this movie is in no way a perfect analogy for Christian theology. I’m going to be drawing similarities and parallel’s between Eastwood’s character and Christ, but the metaphor does not extend to the furthest degree. Walt’s anger, racism, crudeness and propensity toward violence demonstrate a stark contrast to the character of Jesus Christ. But I do believe that in some ways, Walt is a Christ-figure. Let’s not forget that we ourselves are intended to be “Christ-figures”, and we fail mightily at the same task.

It does appear that the film wants to be understood theologically, at least to a degree. The character of the priest serves to show the presence, but also limitations of religion in the story. Over time, Walt becomes more receptive to hearing what the priest has to say to him, but only somewhat. Even his confession is superficial, and we find him actually confessing to Thao in the next scene. Despite the character’s anti-religious nature, this movie wants to talk about life and death, salvation and forgiveness.

Walt’s new neighbors are what set the plot in motion. We see Walt slowly being won over to these people who need help, despite years and years of engrained racism and callousness, due in part to his experience in the Korean War.  Eventually, though, these barriers are broken down. Now, if Walt is to be seen as a Christ figure, this process can be seen as an Incarnation. Again, the analogy is not perfect, but we see Walt becoming immersed in the culture and forever linked with the destiny of a people that were not his own, just as Jesus was incarnate “for us, and for our salvation”, as the Nicene creed reads. Walt’s “incarnation” into the culture of the Hmong people next door became for that family their salvation on a few occasions, especially in the end.

By this part of the story, it becomes obvious that something big has to happen to free the Hmong family from the violence of the gang. The gang kidnaps and abuses Sue, in their climactic act of evil. We are set up for a final shootout, as Thao and Walt talk revenge and the priest fears the worst. The film brilliantly uses Clint Eastwood’s history as a Western action hero to play with our expectations. Clint Eastwood has faced worse odds than this! We the audience wonder if this will be Eastwood in old fashion, concocting a brilliant scheme to blow the bad guys out of the water. We accept the narrative that violence is the only answer. Either the Hmong family will be killed or the gangs will be killed.

I think the situation portrayed in the film is comparable to that faced by the first century Israelites at the time of Jesus. Whether you see the freeing work of Jesus as related to evil in a spiritual sense, or sin, or physical, embodied oppression by political and religious systems, the New Testament talks of our situation as being enslaved, trapped, unable to free ourselves from the situation we are in. God’s people were looking for a messiah to come in like a war-hero, setting them free from Roman rule and establishing a literal kingdom on earth for them to flourish. Instead, they got Jesus.

This is where Walt truly becomes the Christ figure. Both challenge these forces of evil through small defiant acts. Walt challenged the gangs as they cornered Sue, or showed up on the Hmong’s lawn; Jesus cast out demons, reinterpreted the law, and claimed to be the Son of God. Walt refuses to allow the gang to control the destiny of those he has come to care about, and it leads to his death; Jesus challenges the political, religious, and spiritual forces of evil that held us captive and they put him on a cross.

As Walt falls to his death, arms spread out and feet together, as if on a cross of his own, we realize that he didn’t come to return violence for violence, but to take the violence upon himself and break the cycle. His sacrifice made a public spectacle of evil, and the witnesses are all the police need to finally put this gang behind bars.

Walt’s death is a way to talk about what we call in theology “atonement theory”. This simply means trying to explain how the crucifixion/resurrection event provides for our salvation. There are many theories about this, but one is helpfully imaged here. Confronting the powers led to Jesus’ death on the cross, just as Walt’s confronting the gang led to his. But both of these deaths are victorious, because they both administer a death blow to the Powers by not conforming to them, but by submitting to them and thereby exposing them. John Howard Yoder writes, “The concrete evidence of this triumph is that at the cross Christ has ‘disarmed’ the Powers. The weapon from which they heretofore derived their strength is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince us that they were the divine regents of the world.” Just as the Jews expected a militaristic Messiah, the audience expects the Clint Eastwood finale of Dirty Harry or another classic. Instead, Walt uses the violence of the gang against them by submitting to it, and exposing their nature to the public so that their myth could be dispelled, and the neighborhood could be free of their oppression. The film’s climax exemplifies what Paul writes in Colossians 2:13-15: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”

Again, it’s not a perfect analogy, but it wasn’t intended to be. What I believe we have instead is a reflection on the nature of sacrifice, and how the cycle of violence is broken. This same idea has been picked up on by many theologians on how Jesus accomplishes victory on the cross, and then ultimately in Resurrection. What I appreciate most about this movie is that it helps us talk about atonement that includes elements of sacrifice, even substitution, but avoids the unhelpful ways that many Christian traditions accept those terms. Many atonement theories say that Jesus took the punishment that we deserved, and becomes the substitute for our penalty. The problem is, this sets up a very violent, vengeful God, who is out for blood and for punishment and is “appeased” by the death of Jesus. More problematic, it makes it seem like Jesus and God are working toward different ends, and God is ultimately thwarted by Jesus. God is working against Godself in this model. Using GranTorino, though, we see an example of someone dying in someone else’s place, and sacrificing themselves to set another free, without returning violence for violence, without harmful views of punishment and what is deserved, and ultimately performed out of love and compassion. Just like Jesus, Walt’s death stems from love, and accomplishes their salvation.

I will now open it up to discussion. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Both? What else do you see in this movie?

God and Film: Life of Pi

(This was my manuscript at my first God Talk, “God and Film”, to open up a discussion following a viewing of the film “Life of Pi”. It’s important, if you want to participate in this conversation, to watch the film first, then to read this.)

life-of-pi-tiger

Just a few notes about this movie’s reception: Life of Pi was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won four (more than any other film from 2012): Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score. It was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and won for Best Original Score. The film also won awards for cinematography, film editing, sound effects and original score at several other awards ceremonies. It earned over $600 million worldwide, and is based upon a book with an unknowably larger audience.

So here we have a movie that was seen by millions and millions of people, that explores immensely deep philosophical and theological questions. So much for escapism! More so, the movie received accolades on the highest levels in the film industry, demonstrating that not only was the film interesting to watch, but it accomplished a resonance in story-telling and the medium of film above and beyond the vast majority of films that were released in that year. This movie about religion, humanity, and belief, encountered millions of people, and those people, to some capacity, saw it and said, “Something about this movie resonated with me.” The challenge for us, as Christians who believe, is to not dismiss this reality but to enter into the conversation with an open mind, bringing our own convictions and truths, but allowing ourselves to be critiqued and taught as well. If a movie has an impact on this many people, we should expect to find God somewhere in it.

Themes of religion pervade this movie, as I’m sure you noticed. We are introduced to a boy who experiences God through three mainstream religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. While we Christians may have gotten excited at Pi’s experience with Jesus and his fascination at God’s love, the feeling may be short lived, as it is not common to accept and practice multiple religions at once – even if it leads to some good jokes about feeling guilty before hundreds of gods. We may find ourselves actually resonating with Pi’s father, who tells him that he cannot practice every religion, because their beliefs about God and the world are mutually exclusive.

But this movie’s perspective on religion goes much deeper than pluralism. At the end, we are given a choice: do we believe in the fantastical, beautiful story of a boy on a boat with a tiger, or do we belief the tragic, horrific, human story of a boy on a boat watching his mother killed – unleashing his own darkness and having to come to terms with it?

The movie presents this question as ultimately religious; from the beginning we are told that this story “will make you believe in God”, though many viewers came away with the opposite experience. The question the movie leaves us with is, “Which story do you think is true?”

The problem is, we don’t know. The book and the film intentionally do not answer this question. They suggest to you that both stories are possible. The difference between the stories? One is beautiful, and leads to life. The other is tragic, and leads to misery. All the characters, including the storyteller, choose the beautiful one with the tiger and the floating zoo. But does the movie want us to choose that, or is it critiquing our innate desire to choose what is more pleasing? Is the movie saying that we have a propensity to accept wild stories because they shelter us from facing the harsh realities of life?

But let’s take a step back. The truth of the movie is not that one of the stories is true and the other is false, even though we know that they cannot both be true. The truth of the film, and the reason it was found to be so compelling, is in the question itself – not the answer. The religious question of the movie is not about which religion is correct or deciding between religion and science: the question raised by the film is, “On what criteria do we make these kinds of decisions?”

The implications of this are endless, but I want to start with one to help get conversation going. Christians over the last two thousand years have spent countless amounts of time trying to “prove” our “rightness”. Whether it’s against science or against other religions, we often find ourselves trying to argue or prove our way to God. Think of the most recent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. Millions of people watched, but we all knew this was not the first time this conversation was had – nor will it be the last. Christians can be very occupied with this project of proving that God exists, that God created the world, that Jesus rose from the dead, etcetera.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I do believe that those things occurred, and that they are real. However, I cannot prove they are – no-one can. The debate has always resulted in a stalemate; Christians have never proved that God exists, and science has never disproved it. And as far as we know, neither side ever can “prove” it. And yet, how many “evangelistic” efforts are made in this way, trying to outsmart the atheist or win the debate for our neighbor’s soul?

What this film portrays, and that I believe is true about our world, is that we do not make our religious choices based on facts, on data, or on objective sources. We ultimately choose the story that gives us life – the one that is beautiful. Do we believe that our story is true? Of course. We believe that God is real, and not just a fantasy our ancestors made up to hide from the harshness of the real world. But if we can’t prove that to a person, perhaps we ought to spend more time showing the world that the story of God is life-giving, that it is beautiful, and is worth living into for that reason. The two investigators and the writer walk away believing the unbelievable story because it gave life where there should have only been pain and suffering and tragedy. Our story has that power. And yet too many have experienced the Christian “story” to produce pain instead of life, and we have to come to terms with that. In John 10, Jesus claims that he came so that we may life, and have it abundantly!

I want to open it up now to discussion. What are your thoughts?

Possible Discussion Questions:

1.            Do you think the writer of the novel or the director of the movie have a bias in which story is true? How does this affect the outcome of the reader or viewer’s decision?

2.            In what ways can our story bring life? How have you experienced God to be life-giving in a way that someone outside of our community could believe in?

3.            In what ways is this critique true, and in what ways is it false: Religion functions to protect us from the harsh realities of life, an “opiate of the masses”, as it were?

4.            What other lessons could God be teaching the Church and/or teaching the world through this movie?

Advent Project: Silent Night, Indeed.

Each year, I blog through the Advent Season – a time of waiting, expecting, and longing in the midst of exile. This year’s Advent Project is my way of intentionally seeking truth in this time and motivating myself to reflect. Let’s reflect together about what it means for God to be with us, and how badly we need it.

———

All week, I had a particular post in mind. I had pretty much written the whole thing in my head, a process I usually do before I finally sit down and write. The post was going to be about how Christans often feel persecuted… I was going to bring in the classic “Happy Holidays” controversy, maybe sprinkle in a little Phil Robertson, round it off with a healthy dose of Jeremiah 29, and brush the dirt off my shoulders while the arguments and comments ensued.

This week I finally caved and posted a Facebook status about my thoughts on the Duck Dynasty debacle. I probably shouldn’t have. The comments rolled in, the debates began, and for two days I found myself constantly checking for comments or having to intentionally force myself not to.

To be perfectly honest, I spent my entire Sunday morning sitting at the back of the church typing away a response to a Christian who thought I was a heretic with a watered-down faith. On the last Sunday of Advent, instead of looking for Christ and waiting in expectation along with my sisters and brothers in church, I was in my own world, arguing and getting upset over a “current event” that will blow over in a week.

Not that I don’t think the issue is important, or stand by (most) of my words. But as Ecclesiastes says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Timing is everything, and Advent is not the time for arguing. Advent is a time to keep your mouth shut and wait.

There will be a time for the post I was planning on writing, about Jeremiah 29 and how Christians live in Exile. But now is not that time.

Two days before Christmas, to finish out a series about hope, beauty, and expectation, it’s time to shut up and take it all in; to sing a song; to spend time with loved ones; to build a snowman; to eat a home-cooked meal; to serve a stranger; to love silently.

Merry Christmas to you and yours. May your words be few and your hearts be large.

Advent Project: Isaiah 11 and the Year in Review (by guest-writer Naomi Wilson)

Each year, I blog through the Advent Season – a time of waiting, expecting, and longing in the midst of exile. This year’s Advent Project is my way of intentionally seeking truth in this time and motivating myself to reflect. Let’s reflect together about what it means for God to be with us, and how badly we need it.

This week’s post is a sermon written by the amazing Naomi Wilson, preached on the second Sunday of advent at her church this year.

12598030-chapter-1-of-the-book-of-isaiah-in-the-old-testament-of-the-holy-bible

A reading from the book of Isaiah, Chapter 11. 

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse

and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy

on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

The word of the Lord.

If we look at this year’s Time Magazine Year in Review, we will see joys, progress, and tragedies. Every year, it seems as if the list of tragedies is longer than any of the good things. Consider this year’s magazine: it mentions the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, wildfires in Arizona and Colorado, a plane crash in California, and the government shutdown—and these are only in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., there have been events that have been even deadlier. There is the Syrian civil war, including the government’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. There is the continued conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, including drone strikes which kill civilians. Malala Yousafzai is still recovering from the Taliban’s attempt to assassinate her in 2012. The magazine went to press before Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines and before Nelson Mandela passed away.

Our world is dark. Acts of terrorism, natural disasters, and violence abound. There is a clean water crisis in the developing world. Christians in a multitude of countries live in fear that if the government discovers their worship, they will be snuffed out like candles.

In a world filled with so much death and destruction, it would not be unreasonable to give up hope that things will get better. But this passage tells a better story than the one we live in—a story where God’s redemptive plan changes both humanity and creation. Because Isaiah is so well known for prophecies such as these, it is one of the most researched books in the Bible. In fact, I took two classes on Isaiah in seminary with the same professor. One of the more memorable moments in those classes was the day that we studied Isaiah 5, and my professor thundered, “If there is one thing that the eighth-century prophets want to communicate to us, it is this: that God hates social injustice.” Not only in Isaiah, but also in Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Joel, this point is stressed again and again.

I took these words to heart, and in further study of Isaiah have found the theme of God’s desire for justice running as a thread throughout the entire book. Isaiah 11 plays into this theme, telling us about who God is and what God has planned for the world. It tells us about God’s plan of salvation and redemption, as he comes to set all things to rights.

Now, most of us generally find history to be a little boring. Not me, I was a history major, but most of us find it to be distant, and abstruse, even. But understanding the context from which the prophet Isaiah spoke can give us a deeper insight into his words. So in the next few minutes, bear with me and try not to fall asleep. Jesus is watching.

We often read Isaiah 7 as a prophecy of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. And this is a fair reading of the text. But there is more in that particular text. Most scholars believe that it prophesies the birth of Hezekiah in the 8th century BC, the king of Judah who would withstand the power of the Assyrians, protecting the southern kingdom from falling.

A word about the Assyrians. During their time, the eighth century before the birth of Christ, they were the most terrifying people you could imagine. Their armies were powerful and well-equipped, and could sweep down into Israel and Judah at a moment’s notice.. Isaiah 5 tells us about how swift and deadly their armies were, saying:

None of them is weary, none stumbles,

none slumbers or sleeps,

not a loincloth is loose,

not a sandal-thong broken;

their arrows are sharp,

all their bows bent,

their horses’ hoofs seem like flint,

and their wheels like the whirlwind.

Their roaring is like a lion,

like young lions they roar;

they growl and seize their prey,

they carry it off, and no one can rescue.

They will roar over it on that day.”

The Assyrians were awful, and we can only imagine how much terror the people of Israel and Judah felt as they heard those words.

In the year 701 BC, the Assyrian king Sennacherib laid siege to the major cities in Judah, including Lachish and Jerusalem, which you can see on this map. Lachish was the second-largest walled city, and Jerusalem was not only the largest walled city but also the city where the king lived. Now Judah was a tiny nation-state compared to what we are familiar with. Imagine building a wall around the city of Los Angeles. Hezekiah called for the digging of a tunnel which provided fresh water to the city so that they could survive the siege, and in Isaiah we read about an angel of the Lord striking down 185,000 Assyrian troops in a single night, sparing the city and causing the Assyrians to withdraw.

Which brings us to the context of our passage today. While Judah was spared from the Assyrians in 701 BCE, the nation had been devastated by the sieges. And while in Isaiah 10 the prophet foretells the destruction of Assyria, Judah has also been damaged. It is from here that the stump of Jesse emerges. Not only did God deliver his people from the Assyrians, he continued to provide for them.

We usually read Isaiah 11 as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it was referring to someone who would have been king after Hezekiah? We know from the historical record and the Bible that Manasseh became king following Hezekiah. We also know that Manasseh was the worst king in the history of Judah.

Could Isaiah 11 be a failed prophecy? Was Manasseh the shoot from the stump of Jesse who wilted and died, and the only referent of this passage? Was Isaiah therefore a false prophet of salvation?

No.

The people of ancient Israel and Judah lived in the now and the not yet. Because of their history, they knew that God would save them, and that God was with them even as they struggled as a small nation-state surrounded by larger, more powerful empires. But they also understood God’s plan as the “not yet” — something which would come slowly. They waited for this Messiah of the not yet.

A scholar named Brevard Childs has done significant work with the book of Isaiah, including passages which we usually read through the lens of Jesus (including the prophecies of Immanuel in the early chapters of Isaiah, and the servant songs in the second section of Isaiah, such as Isaiah 53). Most biblical scholars believe that these prophecies actually refer to people who were significant in Israel’s history at the time they were written. Childs, though, suggests that these prophecies can have both ancient referents, but can also prophesy the coming of Jesus.

When we read this prophecy through the lens of Jesus, we get a glimpse of the kingdom which is here and yet still coming. It too is the now, but not yet. When Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem, it was heaven come down to earth, God in human flesh, the kingdom breaking in, the beginning of an era of God’s reign on earth.

Isaiah 11 gives us a glimpse of what the kingdom of God will be like when it is fully established on earth, while simultaneously giving instructions as to how we are to live. It also tells us how the Messiah will reign.

According to our passage today, the Spirit of the Lord will bestow upon the Messiah the following gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. A truly good ruler will have these characteristics. While ultimately the Israelite kings failed as rulers, Jesus did and does have all of these gifts. Because Jesus is wise, understanding, powerful, and omniscient, he is able to rule his kingdom perfectly. Moreover, his kingdom takes on different characteristics than the kingdoms of this world—almost to the point where it becomes something we might call an upside-down kingdom.

One of the things that is most evident in this passage is that God cares about poor and oppressed people. A central part of what the Messiah does is to seek out ways to make sure that the poor and the needy are treated equitably. This also fits under the heading of justice, but we cannot emphasize enough how central caring for the poor is to God’s mission. Jesus himself quotes the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4:18, saying

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus says in the New Testament that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. In our world, being poor puts you at the bottom of the pyramid not only economically but also socially and in terms of power. Under the rule of Christ, though, it is the poor who will inherit his kingdom.

Part of caring for the poor and oppressed is seeking justice for them. In a system where economic inequity is the norm, where capitalism allows major corporations to trample on the heads of the needy in pursuit of bigger profits and bonuses for CEOs who already make millions each year, God’s desire is for justice for the poor and oppressed.

So what are ways that we can pursue economic and social justice in our world? Perhaps it looks like working towards ensuring that every human being has access to clean water. Perhaps it means speaking out for those unfairly imprisoned. Perhaps it means campaigning for an end to human trafficking, and making an effort to purchase only slave-free products. Looking at Time Magazine, again, we get a sense of what justice might have looked like in 2013. Justice could have been sending money to relief efforts in Syria to help people who have been persecuted by their government, or working to provide supplies for those who lost everything in Typhoon Haiyan.

God’s plan for the world includes peace. In our passage today, we read about the wolf lying down with the lamb, the leopard with the young goat, the calf with the lion, and a little child playing with them all. We read about children playing near snakes without fear of being bitten. Biblical commentators not that in places like India, children dying of snakebite is a common occurrence. Imagine, then, a world where children can play safely and freely, where people and smaller animals do not live in fear of larger animals. Imagine a world in which people do not live in fear of natural disasters such as hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, fires, or tornadoes. Imagine a world where Trayvon Martin can walk down the street and get home safely. Imagine a world where Malala Yousafzai can encourage girls to pursue an education without fear of being assassinated.

There is one last image in this passage — the Holy Mountain. The Holy Mountain or the Mountain of the Lord is a common image in the book of Isaiah. For example, in Isaiah 25, we read about the Lord wiping away his people’s tears, erasing their disgrace from the face of the earth, and swallowing up death forever. This mountain, the same one, is how we are to understand the kingdom of God as it is presented to us by the prophet. The kingdom of God will be this mountain, where the proud are humbled, and the lowly are lifted up, where the lion and the lamb frolic together, where we can all live without fear or pain.

Although Christ came to us all those years ago, we still wait. In Advent, we await the birth of the Christ-child, just as Mary must have as she sang with her cousin Elizabeth as they rejoiced over their unexpected pregancies, just as Isaiah the prophet knew long ago that a true Messiah would come and save.

But we now also wait with anxious anticipation for the return of Christ, for the restoration of all creation, for all things to be set to rights. When Jesus comes again, he will bring justice for the poor and needy, restore peace on earth, and we will dwell together on the mountain of the Lord. While we wait, though, we are called to imitate Jesus our Messiah, the shoot from the stump of Jesse.

As a child, one of my favorite books was the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. In it, four children enter a land called Narnia which is ruled by an evil white witch. The witch has cast a spell, and in Narnia it is always winter and never Christmas, and all of its inhabitants live in fear. The children learn about a lion who is the one who will come to save the country from the White Witch—a lion named Aslan. The book is written as an allegory for the Gospel. When the children first hear about Aslan, these are the words used to describe him:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,

At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,

And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

This is the hope that we have in Jesus.

And as we await our coming king, please sing with me a reminder that Christ has come and will come again—O Come O Come Emmanuel.

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations bind,

All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife, and discord cease,

Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

in action
in action

 

Advent Project: The Darkness of Black Friday

Each year, I blog through the Advent Season – a time of waiting, expecting, and longing in the midst of exile. This year’s Advent Project is my way of intentionally seeking truth in this time and motivating myself to reflect. Let’s reflect together about what it means for God to be with us, and how badly we need it.  Continue reading “Advent Project: The Darkness of Black Friday”

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.

A Fuller Education

I don’t frequently use this blog as a means of sharing personal information. It’s more of an outlet for my thoughts and musings on what I’m learning and experiencing related to God, theology, and life. But since this is something that deserves some explanation and I want to make it available to a large audience (since I know that a lot of people are invested in me and care about my future), this seemed like the best way.

For the last year I’ve been attending Fuller Seminary online from here in Oklahoma City. This was my original school of choice for my Master’s after SNU. The reason I delayed moving out to California, where the school is located, was primarily money-based. I had cheap living and a bankable income at a job I enjoyed here in OK, and had neither of those things lined up for me in CA. In addition, I was nervous about starting over in a new place, with no friends, connections or contacts. I would complete the first year online and move out there in the Fall of 2012.

As the year went by, the inevitable happened. I began to become very attached to OKC. I began building more relationships and loyalties now as a graduate actively involved in culture. I changed churches and began to be a part of OKC First Church of the Nazarene, which has been incredible and life-changing for me. It began to look less and less appealing to say goodbye to all of these things for California. I began to explore the option of transferring to NTS (Nazarene Theological Seminary), which I could do through a module program at SNU, which I still live near.

For a while I was entirely 50/50 on these two choices. And honestly, for a while, I was leaning toward NTS. It is definitely the more comfortable choice for me. As I’ve said, I’ve built something of a life out here, and to leave will truly be to tear myself away.

But a lot of things have been swirling around my brain lately. I’ve been praying for clarity, and lately I think I’ve gotten it. I watched as my friends graduated from the same program I graduated from just over one year ago, and I was forced to think about where I am compared to where I was, and to remember what my undergrad education meant to me.

And it occurred to me that I have really been approaching this decision wrongly. I’ve been thinking about which one is best for me in the long run, which I think is how most people approach these kinds of decisions. And that’s what made it so hard – is it better for me to get a better education (Fuller), or to maintain connections, relationships, and comfort (NTS)? – and both seemed to have significant weight and importance to me and my future.

But I was reminded of something Dr. Crutcher told all of us incoming freshman in the theology department five years ago. It was early on, before we were broken in, and while I don’t think I always lived it out, this thought resurfaced many times through my academic career. He told us that, as future ministers, our education mattered most not to us, but to our future parishioners. Every little bit we can manage to learn, every extra book we can read, every class session we can attend, can make a difference later on when a parishioner comes to us with something important, or we struggle to make sense of a text we are preaching on. I remember thinking that our situation was similar to those in the nursing and medical programs – every little bit they learn can save someone’s life.

And frankly, I’d rather have the doctor that went to the better school.. and truly, I’d rather have the Pastor that went to the better Seminary. This is nothing against NTS, I think it’s a great school, and great men and women and pastors have come out of that school. But right now, for me, the kind of student I am and the kind of pastor I want to be, Fuller is the better school. I will be challenged more, I will learn more, I will learn better… and that is why I chose it to begin with.

So for this reason, and lots of others, I will be attending Fuller Theological Seminary as a resident student in September of this year. Thanks to everyone who helped me make this decision, it wasn’t an easy one. My parents were incredibly patient and supportive every time I called home to tell them where I was at with it. They have always helped me think through things clearly and correctly, and even supported me when I wasn’t. My friends were great as well, asking me the tough questions and not letting me get away with any bad thinking or decision-making. Daniel, Carson and Garron have listened to me babble about this decision for far too many hours, from the time that I was 100% going to Fuller, 50-50, 90% going to NTS, and now back to my 100% commitment to Fuller. And Carson single-handedly saved me from turning that 90% NTS into a 100% before I had really thought through it. And I have to thank the professors I’ve stayed in contact with since graduation. Dr. Dunnington and Dr. Michelson have become great friends and pushed me to keep thinking, keep working, and keep stay grounded. And even though we haven’t stayed in great contact, Dr. Crutcher spoke with me at graduation and it was that conversation that brought to mind the conviction that my education was more valuable to me than I had given it credit for. And mostly, I guess I thank God, for giving me some final clarity on this. It took a while… and I felt like I really wrestled with God on this one, and we reached a place we are mutually satisfied with. Thanks to everyone I didn’t mention, and wish me luck. It’s going to be scary. I have no job lined up, no church I’m set on being involved with, no place in mind to live, etc. But that will come. It only gets more and more interesting from here.

Image

…here I come.

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”.

Mark Dris-cult?

If you haven’t read this article, you should

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2012/02/mars_hill_pastor_mark_driscoll_faces_backlash_over_church_discipline_case_.html

For those of you that don’t want to take the time to read it, it basically details an incident at the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which neo-Calvinist pastor Mark Driscoll leads. The incident in question involves a church member who, it was discovered through his own confession, was engaging in pre-marital sex with his fiance and other sexual acts with another woman. Following this member’s confession, he was, to use the classical church vocabulary on this, excommunicated. What’s more, other church members were instructed to not engage in any contact or fellowship with this man as a part of his punishment.

There has been a lot of outcry on this matter, and rightfully so. Driscoll has always been on my radar because of his authoritarian, over-masculine, and, well, Calvinist beliefs and teachings. But while many agree with him theologically, this incident has put him under scrutiny from even many of his neo-Calvinist followers.

And I think this outrage is rightfully deserved. Our general instinct is that this crossed the line. I think the general public opinion here is that Christians ought to be able to love and entertain and fellowship with people in our churches who have made mistakes. This is why we are upset.

But here’s the thing: do we actually practice this ourselves?

I’ve seen and heard about a few church scandals in my day. Never once have I seen the pastor respond in these situations by telling the church members to ostracize the person.

But most times, the person has been ostracized by the church community. See, this is something we do on our own quite well.

Now, please hear me: I don’t mean to say that Driscoll’s actions were right. By no means. What I would like to point out, however, is that the outrage we express at Driscoll’s actions ought to be reflected in the way we treat these same kinds of people in our own churches without the pastor’s instructions.

I can’t help but think that this particular person would’ve experienced the exact same abandonment and public scorn in most of our churches. The only difference is that at Mars Hill, it was sponsored by the leadership officially.

Is it this way at your church? My hope is no, but my suspicion is yes. And we ought to be at least a little leery of taking the speck out of the other’s eye when we have a big nasty plank in our own. And we ought to pray that protect all of our eyes from a clearly unsafe lumber yard. (Over-extending the metaphor five!)

May we take our outrage on this issue seriously. May we be the kinds of people that when such an issue arises in our own churches, we remember how upset we were that the church was not able to be there for this man, and reach out to those in our congregations who have lost their way. And may we, only with God’s help, be the kinds of churches that show grace and love freely.

What is Faith?

This post has been on my mind for months and months now. I had the basic idea for it way back when, and have been developing it (very) gradually since, but now that I have a functional computer and am reading a book that accelerated the thought process for me, it is time I put this down.

The basic premise for this post comes from countless conversations I’ve had with Christians and non-Christians about the way I’ve come to believe about the world in light of my Christian education. Let’s take a few examples: I have come to believe that the life and teachings of Jesus call me to a life of redemptive non-violence, that therefore war is never justifiable, and that the best way to conquer one’s enemies is through love. I have come to believe that the livelihood of the poor and the disenfranchised in the world falls upon the entire community, especially the Christian, because we are committed to the belief that all are made in the image of God, and that everything I have is not my own (not because I have earned it or even deserve it), but is given to me by God in order to serve the world.

Now, the many objections I have received to these suggestions typically sound something like this: “That’s nice and all, Kevin, but that’s not the way the world works. It’s just not practical to believe that way.” It’s chalked up to being nothing more than naive optimism, and I’m usually told that when I’m older, I’ll understand better. It is believed by what I would suggest is the vast majority of the population that violence can be redemptive, and is sometimes the only option in a given situation. President Bush was criticized for his “bring the fight to them” tactic in response to 9/11, and yet shortly after entering office, President Obama sent more troops to Afghanistan, giving his own speech about war being necessary and redemptive.

With that as the backdrop, I want to take a look at a brief verse I think most of us are familiar with. Hebrews 11:1 reads, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” I want to ask the question then, What is it that we hope for, and yet do not see?

Typically, this verse is interpreted to be talking about a general belief in God. We don’t see God, and yet we believe anyway. Therefore we have faith. Allow me to suggest, however, that in the eleventh chapter of a long discourse detailing the nature of salvation, the identity of Christ, among many other topics, the author of Hebrews is not seizing the opportunity to make a Sunday School argument that we ought to believe in God even though we don’t see God. Especially since the community being written to is already an assembly of believing Christians.

What I would like to suggest, then, is that the things that we hope for and do not see, are those same tenets that Jesus taught and yet we have written off as being “impractical”. Jesus taught that we are to love our enemies, and that rather than retaliation we should more willingly be struck again. He taught that the poor among us are to be treated as if they were Christ himself, and that the way we deal with them has implications for eternity (Matthew 6). And yet we have written off such ideas as pacifism or socialism (gasp!) as being impractical and impossible.

But I think it all boils down to what kind of world we believe in. If we believe that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and that we are merely trying to get through this life to get to heaven later, then I would tend to agree with these fatalistic, pessimistic views on social action. However, if you believe that through Christ, God is reconciling the world unto Godself, that the Kingdom of God is bursting forth in the midst of this one, that we live in a world of abundance in which the birds and the lillies never want or need, and where love truly, truly conquers all, then EVERYTHING changes.

This thing we call faith, then, is not simply about believing in God rather than not. Faith is believing that the world really is the way Jesus taught that it is, even though it doesn’t appear to be that way. Faith is believing that responding to violence with redemptive love and humility is actually the best way, even though the world tells us that retaliation is justified. Faith is believing that the destiny of the poor among us falls on our shoulders, even though the world tells us that it is not our burden or responsibility. Faith is being sure that the world we hope for (the Kingdom of God) is real and among us, and certain that the world can be that way, even though we don’t see it fully realized right now.

I will finish with a quote from a phenomenal book I’m reading called How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins: “Faith, although not born at the crucifixion, is put on trial there.” The crucifixion was the point where all who had followed Jesus believed that it was over, that the movement had died. All practical belief that Jesus was the Messiah ended at the crucifixion, and would not be revitalized until the Resurrection. Crucifixion is where our faith is tested, where what we see is devastation and the death of an “optimistic” view of the world, and we are given the opportunity to either forget all we have learned or to believe that Resurrection is around the corner. I choose to believe that even though the world looks like a place of violence, poverty, greed, and hatred, Resurrection is coming.

So I Was Thinking About Hell Today…

With the flurry of discussion per the publishing of Love Wins, and the subsequent publishing of evangelical responses, hell has been on my mind. I haven’t hidden the fact that I support Bell’s book and the ideas found in it. But today I was thinking about these things while I was in the shower, which is where most of my brilliant thought happens, and something hit me.

When evangelicals defend the concept of eternal hell, they do so by making a case that many people deserve hell. One thing I’ve often heard is, “So if there’s no hell, does that mean Hitler is in heaven?”

Because not many people want to share heaven with Hitler. And that seems reasonable. If anyone deserves to go to hell, it’s Hitler right? We are quite comfortable with a doctrine of hell because it matches our sense of justice.

But the same doctrine that says Hitler is burning in hell for torturing and killing Jews also holds that anyone who has not accepted Christ will burn in hell along with Hitler.

What we are forced to accept, then, is that the very same Jews who we hold Hitler in the utmost contempt for torturing and killing are burning in hell right along with him.

And can we really believe that? Because frankly, I have a hard time with that.

Hell doesn’t fit our sense of justice anymore.

Furthermore, how can we suggest that Hitler is deserving of hell for the earthly torture of the Jewish people and in the same breath believe in a God that would send those same people to torture for eternity?

That’s a tough thing to swallow. Can we really believe in a God like that?

Now I know that IF God is truly like that, then it doesn’t matter whether we want to believe in that God. I don’t want to suggest that we construct God based on how we wish God to be.

However, I do wish to suggest that a God that would do such a thing as we have suggested with our doctrine of hell is not consistent with the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. A God of boundless love, quick to forgive, willing to sacrifice his own self to overcome that which had overcome us. I wish to suggest that those are not the same God, and that if I must choose, I will choose Jesus, who is the fullest revelation of the nature and character of God.

Just some food for thought.