Friday, August 01, 2014

"We are Groot" -- A kingdom image

Marvel Studios

Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest addition to Marvel’s franchise, and it is an eclectic mix. It has the saddest and most moving opening of a blockbuster sci-fi movie since Abrams’ Star Trek, and yet it is as full of quips and wit as Whedon’s cleverly-dialogued Avengers. It has a bazillion homages to great sci-fi films, but it still feels like its own story—complete with a  fully believable walking, talking tree creature and a wise-cracking raccoon.

And smack dab in the middle of all this? One of the more unusual kingdom images* I’ve collected thus far.

(Warning: some spoilers ahead)

A common theme in comic book movies is a disparate group of people coming together to form not just an association but a new community or family. In the X-Men films, it is a group of mutants; in Avengers, it is a group of superheroes. In Guardians, it is a group of people written off by the galaxy: Peter Quill is a smuggler and thief whose mother died when he was a child. Gamora is an orphan trained to be an assassin who's seeking redemption by working against the evil Ronan. Drax is a warrior seeking revenge for the death of his wife and daughter who were killed by Ronan. Rocky, a genetically engineered raccoon who is tortured by the memory of experiments performed on him, is a bounty hunter. And then there’s Rocky’s partner, Groot, a kind but fierce humanoid tree creature whose language is confined to three words—“I am Groot.”

While their association begins with a mission to collect a handsome payoff for a mysterious artifact, bonds begin to develop between them. When they discover the artifact could destroy the galaxy and it falls into Ronan’s hands, Quill asks the rest of them to help him get it back so that countless others will be spared annihilation.

“You’re asking us to die,” Rocky tells him, giving them all pause.

Yet, each of them has had a taste of what it feels like to have friendship and family—something none of them have ever had. And that taste is enough for them to risk their lives so that others they don’t even know will have a chance to live.

At one point, after a long battle, they are facing certain death. Groot begins to extend and twine himself around them in a sphere to protect them—a gesture that risks his own life. When Rocket asks why Groot is willing to die for them, Groot responds, “We are Groot.”
Groot no longer sees himself as an individual. The lives of his friends are now enfolded into his own. The well-being of each of them is not only equivalent to but above his own because this family is now his identity.

I find this a crazily wonderful echo of life in the Kingdom, where God’s people are called and enable to be this kind of “we.” A family of disparate brothers and sisters whose lives are intricately interwoven. A family of brothers and sisters who now willingly lay down their lives for each other, who no longer see themselves as independent individuals but whose identity is now a "we"--a family rooted in Jesus, who said: "This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Lay down your life for your friends. If you love one another like this, everyone will know that you are my disciples" (John 15:11-15 and John 13:34, mix of The Message and NIV).

It makes sense that we will be known as Jesus’ disciples if we live as a “we” who loves like this because that is the kind of union and love from which we are fashioned. This is the kind of “we” and love shared among the Father, Son and Spirit. And if we are rooted in Jesus, this is the kind of “we” and love of which we are capable. This is the kind of “we” and love that strengthens, saves and restores. This is the kind of “we” in which God, as Dallas Willard puts it, “is tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.”

I admit, I wasn’t looking for an image that reminded me of kingdom life when I walked into this movie—and, if I were, I certainly wouldn’t have expected to find it in a tree-like creature that can only speak three words. But those three words remind me of what kingdom life is like--and that brings God-talk into these open spaces.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Broadchurch: The best stories raise questions

I expected a typical British police drama when I queued up the six-episode miniseries, Broadchurch. Instead, I discovered a gripping tale along the lines of P.D. James that pulls us not only into the mystery behind a murder but also an unsettling exploration of who we are.

Broadchurch is a small community on the coast of England suddenly unraveled by the death of an 11 year old boy found murdered on the beach beneath a looming cliff. As Danny’s death is investigated by newly appointed Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and town resident Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), we are confronted with the brokenness of human nature and our capacity for (self)deception, narrow-mindedness, and destruction—and how actions born of those things affect us and those around us. Broadchurch explores the things that bring us together and tear us apart. It explores how we see the things we want to see and don’t see the things we need to see. And it wrestles with our basic need for love in a culture of crowded isolation—and how that makes it difficult for us to love and be loved.
Central to the story is a search for truth and how to live life in its wake—and that search raises more questions than it answers. But that’s what good stories do. Recently, during a panel for The Giver at San Diego Comic-Con, author Lois Lowry reflected on the power of good stories. “I think the best books raise questions rather than give answers,” she reflects. “The best books don't have messages because there are different answers to those questions.”
And as Broadchurch unfolds, so do the questions. Why do we do the things we do—even when we know we will hurt others? We all need to be loved and to love others—but what inside us twists the need for love into something selfish and dark? Why do we know so little of each other? What keeps us from seeing the hurt, suffering and pain in those around us—or do we simply choose not to?

The series displays the power of learning another’s story in confronting and exploring these questions. As we learn the characters’ stories—especially those of the suspects—more times than not, they are not who we thought. We begin to understand their actions, which often rise out of suffering, wounds, shame or fear. It changes the way we see them—and, in most cases, it gives us some measure of compassion.

The series reminds me that who we are and the relationships we share with each other are complex; by knowing each other’s stories, we close the gaps between us, and that makes for a more authentic community. But it also makes me think about how little we know most of the people around us. It makes me contemplate the things that keep us from knowing each other—both within us as well as in our culture.

I was particularly drawn to the story of Ellie Miller, who has never investigated a death before. At first, she’s disturbed and irritated by Hardy’s constant reminder to watch and take note of the people around her as they try to figure out who killed Danny. At one point, Ellie laments the person she has become, open to suspecting her friends and neighbors of having the capacity to murder a child.

But, as Hardy tells her early on, we all have that capacity. The evil out there is in us as well. And one of the uncomfortable strengths of this series is how skillfully it confronts us with the awful truth of our capacity for harming others, often those closest to us. Marital affairs, substance abuse, accusations out of fear, turning a blind eye to suffering—all those times we put our own selfish desires and needs before that of others lead to actions like these.

The characters give us a difficult gift: they show us who we are and could become. How do we respond to that, in ourselves and others? With compassion? Disgust? Humility? Love?

There are some interesting moments of hope in the story, most having to do with our capacity to choose a different path. In one of those, Broadchurch’s young vicar tells the community that they’ve failed the second of the commandments, to love one’s neighbor—which literally led to a physical death but has the potential to lead to the death of their community. The inclusion of such a moment in the story allows us to consider a different way through our messy, broken lives.
Broadchurch reminds us that the way of love often isn’t easy. Love requires confession, forgiveness, and truth. And in this story, truth is a surgeon’s tool, cutting deep into our nature and exposing the cancer from which we all are dying. The series’ portrayal of the complex ways we respond to that is part of what makes Broadchurch so noteworthy.

I appreciate that faith is a theme in Broadchurch—especially that honest questions are voiced, easy answers are hard to come by, and struggles with faith and God are portrayed; those are parts of our journey that don’t get a lot of air-time on television or in church culture. But its impact on the characters and how they approach their struggles is rather limited—at least, in this part of the story. Apparently, series creator Chris Chibnall (Life on Mars, Doctor Who, Torchwood) originally envisioned a trilogy of stories, and another installment with most of the key cast members was announced in May. It will be interesting to see if and how this thread is continued.

There are lots of meaningful and revelatory moments in Broadchurch, most of which I can’t talk about without spoiling those moments. You’ll just have to watch for yourself—but watch it before the American version, Gracepoint (also penned by Chibnall and starring Tennant), comes out this fall. While Gracepoint’s trailer is almost word-for-word and scene-for-scene the same as Broadchurch’s first couple of episodes, Chibnall promises it will diverge after that. It will be interesting to see if it carries the same themes and weight as the original.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A good story can change your life

Recently, Pure Flix managing partner and God’s Not Dead producer Michael Scott talked about his approach to faith-based films at a summitsponsored by Variety. For films to succeed, the message, he said, must come before the story.

“The engine that drives the train is the message,” Scott said. “We start with the message and then build the story around it.”

He went on to describe how Pure Flix surveyed leaders in their target audience for the messages they were interested in and then spent months marketing the films. Why?

“We need to let the consumer know what’s coming,” he said.

By box office standards, Scott’s approach is working. Yet, this philosophy not only reveals a key aspect that weakens many Christian films but also cheats us of the power of story and Scripture.

We live in a message-driven culture in which story is often seen as a tool to deliver the message. For example, The Flying Tigers film was made to encourage support for the Allies during World War II, and last summer’s Elysium had critics both hailing and lamenting its health-care agenda.

Pure Flix’s approach results in Christian movies in the same vein. On his FilmChat blog, film critic Peter Chattaway notes how audiences for these films are “entertained by propaganda; they want someone to preach at them, telling them what they already believe.”

This leaves viewers and artists unchallenged, says Chattaway — the exact opposite of what art should do: “draw the artist and the audience out of themselves and into something other.”

Message-driven stories are good at rallying the troops, but good stories are so much more. They reveal something about human experience, challenging us on what we think we know.

Good stories don’t simply wrap around a message; truth saturates and seeps out of them. “A story does not say, ‘Let me tell you what is true,’ but ‘Let me tell you what happened,’ ” says Daniel Taylor in The Skeptical Believer. “That illumination may simply entertain you, but it may also cause you to change — to modify your present story or even to abandon it for another.”

And no story can change us more than the Bible. “Stories are God’s idea,” says Taylor. “The Bible does not simply contain stories; it reflects God’s choice of the story configuration as the primary means by which to tell us about himself and how to be in right relationship with him.” It is this story by which we understand where we came from, who we are and who we can be.

Yet we often express faith and Scripture as sets of doctrines or propositions — or messages, if you will. In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight notes our tendency to reduce the gospel to a “Plan of Salvation.” While this plan flows out of the gospel, we miss out on a more robust and transforming understanding of the salvation if we don’t submerge it and ourselves in the larger story of the Bible. Yet habitually we default to propositions, often packaging them in a way to persuade others.

Films like God’s Not Dead reflect this approach, using story as a tool in which to package a message designed to affirm or persuade a salvation decision — a laudable effort, but one which feeds back a limited understanding of salvation and the gospel.

What can we do to break out of this message-driven cycle? “To become a gospel culture we’ve got to begin with becoming people of the Book, says Mc­Knight, “but not just as a Book but as the story that shapes us.”

Message-driven stories can entertain, please and even persuade. But a good story? It can change your life.

This is a slightly longer and linkier version of my column that ran July 21, 2014, at MWR.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Pulling on a thread in another featurette of 'The Giver'

It is reassuring to seeing Lois Lowry in this featurette because it reminds me how involved she was in the film. Bringing novels to the bring screen is always risky, especially when it is like The Giver—not only beloved by a generation of readers (of which I am one) but a story woven rich with themes, questions, metaphors and characters that speak directly into our own lives and culture.
This featurette pulls on several of those rich threads, one of which is: What do we do with the pain and suffering we experience in life and cause each other? What if everything that caused us pain could be erased or controlled?
In a Wall Street Journal interview with Sohrab Ahmari, Lowry reflected on how she came up with the idea for The Giver. She was going through a difficult time in her life, and coming home from a visit with her aging parents in their nursing home. Her mother often wanted to talk about Lowry’s sister Helen, who had died young; her father, whose memory was failing, alternatively couldn’t remember Helen or what happened to her and had to be told over and over again.
“When I was driving back to the airport that day,” Lowry reflects, “I began to think about that, the way a writer does: Well, what if you could manipulate human memory, so that people didn't have to remember bad stuff that had ever happened? Wouldn't that be nice—and comfortable? By the time I got home, I had formulated the beginning of a book."
At first it does seem idealic, but The Giver explores the disturbing consequences of such a choice, not only for an individual but for a community. In attempting to remove pain, loss, hatred, and enmity, we also lose joy, compassion, and love (which, we know from our Story to be a most transformative and saving power).
Part of the power of The Giver is the way Lowry leads us down a road with which we flirt in our culture. Gradually we begin to understand just how horrific those consequences are—so horrific, in fact, that some people think the novel is not appropriate for children to read.
So why read stories like that? I resonate with and appreciate the way Lowry expresses an answer to that question in her response to censorship efforts surrounding her novel:
"That's the irony of it," Ms. Lowry says. "In talking to people about censorship, and the fact that there've been attempts to censor this book . . . the people who bring the challenges, they do so with the best of intentions. They really want to protect their children. I have children. I have grandchildren. I would love to protect them from everything as well. 
"But it's the wrong way of going about it. The best way to prepare them for the world that they face is to present what the possibilities are and to let them be scared of what might happen." She adds: "I think that's really what literature does in every realm. You rehearse your life by reading about what happens to other people."
That’s what good stories do: give us the opportunity to walk down a road of possibility and explore what might happen to the world—and to us. It reveals key truths about the world we live in, the people around us and ourselves. The really good ones? They even change the way we see and act in the world. And stories like that intersect with our own Story in ways that help us see more clearly. But I will save that for the film, because if it gives us the spirit of Lowry’s story, it’ll do just that—and that will bring God-talk into open spaces.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What this survey really tells us

The Barna Group recently released another survey, this one on church going in America. The numbers aren’t surprising, and I’ll leave it to others to mull all that over. The most revealing part of the survey isn’t even the reasons that people give for not/attending church. For me, the most revealing aspect is what the survey asks—and what that reveals about the way we understand “church.”
The survey focused on whether people attend church, how often, and why they do/don’t attend. According to the report, the results reveal that America is evenly divided on if church is important, and then goes on to explore why Christians think it is important.  

But perhaps the question shouldn’t be if or why church is important but even more basic: What is the church? If we start there, we’ll find a road that will lead to a new way of approaching church (and, perhaps, the surveys we use to evaluate it).

For this reason, I appreciated the inclusion at the end of the article of Jon Tyson’s approach of going back to the early church while reflecting on Barna’s results (but then, I do have strong Anabaptist leanings). That is an excellent place to start exploring what is the church.

Today, we commonly use “church” to refer to a building or place we go, but for early believers it means something different.  “Ekklesia” is a Greek word referring to a calling out of citizens. They are the called-out ones of the kingdom-coming, the people of God. In TheUpside-Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill says, “The church consists of the citizens of the kingdom… . The church isn’t a building, a sanctuary or a program. It’s the visible community of those who live by kingdom values.” And this church has a mission: “The church is not a place to which people go,” says Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement, “but a spiritual body that is on a mission to draw, as did Jesus, others to the One who sent him.”

In other words, we are the church—not a place to go but a people to be. And we are designed and called to live like a family.

Integral to Jesus’ kingdom movement, says Joseph Hellerman in When the Church Was a Family, was creating an alternative and surrogate family — one characterized by family-like relationships and bonds in which we’d be consistently and persistently loved, our physical needs met, our gifts nurtured. “People did not convert to Christianity solely because of what the early Christians believed,” Hellerman says. “They converted because of the way in which the early Christians behaved … The ancient Christians were known for their love for one another.” And because they lived out church as God intended, “the whole Roman Empire ultimately bowed its knees to the King of kings and the Lord of lords.”

As God’s people today, we talk about being a family, but the reality too often falls way short of the early church experience. Yet we are called and enabled to live like this, too.

This has been part of God’s plan from the beginning, says Hellerman: “Biblical salvation is a community-creating event. We are saved not simply to enjoy a personal relationship with God; we are saved to community:”
…. when we get a new Father we also get a new set of brothers and sisters. In Scripture, salvation is a community-creating event…… To be sure, ours sin must be forgiven or we cannot enter a community inhabited by the Spirit of the Living God. But God’s overarching goal since Pentecost (as was the case in the Old Testament) is the creation of His group. And under the new covenant, God’s group is His church—a society of surrogate siblings whose interpersonal relationships are to be characterized by all the family attributes encountered in the previous chapters of this book.
What does “a society of surrogate siblings” look like? When we look at Scripture, says Hellerman, it is characterized by “intimate, healthy, long-lasting relationships with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.” In the Roman world, says Hellerman, Christians “placed the good of the church family above their own personal goals, desires and aspirations” and “could count on support from the community to meet their material and emotional challenges that often came with commitment to Jesus.” Above all, Hellerman notes, Christians became known by what Jesus said they would be known by and even sought after: their love. God’s family becomes a living, breathing message of the good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it.

Surveys like this one, however, still approach church as place to go and measure it in numbers and size (incidentally, the way our consumer culture views health and success).

It wasn’t surprising to me that community is one of the least cited reasons people seek church. I have a confession to make: I don’t “go” to church for community, either. The way we define and structure church today, especially Sunday mornings (and that is the core occurrence surveys like this measure) doesn’t make much for community or family. Like many others across  America, I walk in the door of a building, talk with a few friends,  sit in a row of facing a stage, sing songs of worship, listen to a sermon, stand in line to take communion with my kids and husband, sing some more songs, and leave. I find many of these activities very meaningful, but except in a very broad sense, there isn’t much of the family life Hellerman describes in that weekly event. (I know there are exceptions out there—and your gatherings may be one of them; I am speaking of church culture and experience as a whole.)

I find that family and community in bits and pieces throughout the week—gathering with others in smaller groups, serving side by side, working through messy situations and relationships, listening to struggles and rejoicing in celebrations. These are family-like activities; they reflect loving God, each other and those around us.

But frankly, I thirst for a deeper and broader experience of what it means to be God’s people. I long for the spread of missional communities who yearn and actively seek to live as the families that God calls and enables us to be. I long for a people that don’t see church as a place to go—one more activity in our week full of activities—but families who we gladly place above our own personal goals, desires and aspirations, families who live and breathe gospel rhythms, eat together regularly, are the first ones we pick of the phone to call in joy or sorrow, the ones with whom we love and serve side-by-side our neighbors.
To be fair, I’m pretty sure George Barna understands all this—after all, he coauthored with Frank Viola Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practice, which gets at a lot of this. And frankly, he has my sympathy; I’m not sure how one would go about developing a survey to measure church as a people to be instead of a place to go.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I fall in with those who observe that the reality of kingdom community is the exception rather than the rule, at least in this part of the world. And that breaks my heart. We are not only limiting our experience of the fullness of the salvation and redemption and transformation that God has planned for us from the beginning, but we are failing to live out the lives we were meant to live—to be the people in which God, as Dallas Willard puts it, “is tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.” 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Extant: AI, aliens and philosophy

Artificial intelligence. Robots and cool tech. Space stations and possible alien encounters. An unexplainable conception. And the promise of explorations on the definition of life, souls and meaning. While the premiere episode of CBS’s new soft sci-fi series Extant was a bit sluggish and even clumsy at points, I am intrigued by its near future world and the questions it poses.

Boasting Stephen Spielberg as an executive producer, Extant revolves around astronaut Molly Woods (Halle Berry) who has just returned home from a one-year solo mission on a space station. Readjustment to life with her family—husband and robotics engineer John (Goran Visnjic) and their “son” Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), an artificially intelligent android John created—is complicated when she learns that she is unexplainably pregnant despite infertility and having no sexual contact since before her mission.

During flashbacks, however, we learn that Molly has kept secret a mysterious encounter on the space station with a man from her past who’s dead—though the surveillance cameras showed no evidence of it. Dead people seem to have a habit of turning up in Molly’s life—near the end of the episode, she also encounters a fellow astronaut who supposedly committed suicide and claims to know about her “hallucinations” on the space station. Meanwhile, John tries to get funding to continue his research from the creepy and mysterious Hideki Yasumoto, who has some secrets of his own.
Extant is set in a near future that could be conceivably our own. The technology is just on the other side of possible—driverless cars, high tech trash disposal, television and internet activated by touch on our bathroom mirrors, toy spaceships that levitate in our living rooms, and space stations that spin ala 2001. And kudos to the FX folks; it was fun to watch bits like Molly climbing up the space station ladder and moving into weightlessness (though the episode wasn’t flawless—i.e., a tear ran down her cheek instead of floating, etc.).

And Gagnon (who played Cid in Looper) is an excellent choice for something’s-definitely-a-little-off Ethan. Does he have genuine emotions? He gets angry and hits a boy while playing, yells at Molly after his ice cream falls on the ground, and may have killed a bird afterwards. Or are his emotions simply practiced or programed responses? He practices his facial expressions in the mirror—and his attempt to deflect Molly’s concern after discovering him with the dead bird is almost over-the-top creepy (“Your hair looks nice”).

It’s around Ethan that the show’s most interesting questions revolve—some of which are posed in John’s presentation to the board of Yosumoto’s company who will vote whether or not to fund his program to create more Humanichs like Ethan, whom John loves and raises as his own son. One key aspect to Ethan’s creation is his “free-will,” the ability to make his own decisions--an aspect that is very important to John. This causes concern among the boardmembers:


MS. DODD: What is the protocol in the event your experiment fails? Do you have an emergency plan for their shutdown…for their termination? 
WOODS: To kill them. 
DODD: That wording is a bit inelegant, but yes. 
WOODS: Do you have a child? 
DODD: I have a daughter. 
WOODS: Do you have a plan to kill her? 
DODD: My daughter is a human being. 
WOODS: I don’t understand the difference. 
DODDS: Well, for starters, she has a soul. 
WOODS: With all due respect, Ms. Dodd, there is no such thing as a soul. What you call a soul I call a cumulative effect of a lifetime of experience—simple information traveling in the neuropathways in your daughter’s brain. 
DODD: Believe it or not, Dr. Woods, there are plenty of people in this world who still believe that there is more to us than can be explained by science. 
WOOD: Well, those people are idiots. 
DODD: I am one of those idiots. 
WOODS: I’m sorry. 
DODD: I accept your apology. 
WOODS: No, I mean I’m sorry that you’re one of those idiots.
I love the questions that run through this exchange. In our lifetime, it is likely we will see robots that mimic human life—how will we respond to that? How close can AI come to human life? Can AI have a “soul”? What is the soul? Is it simply the cumulative effect of a lifetime of experiences? Or is it more than that—are we more than that?  What is consciousness? What is free will? Does life have meaning—and what gives it meaning? These are the kinds of questions that make for good stories—and why science fiction is such a good place to explore them.

But Woods seems to approach these questions from a messy philosophical base. He passionately advocates materialism but equally as passionately advocates the reality of meaning, love and free-will—and that intrigues me almost as much as the questions this episode raises. Is it sloppy writing, revealing a lack of understanding of philosophy by the writers? Or is John’s philosophical base different than the one he presents here and the writers will reveal it as the series goes on (i.e., AI is the next natural evolutionary step and his arguments for free-will, etc. is a tool to advance that)? Either way, I am intrigued by how this exchange reflects a worldview with contradictions that seem to go unexamined.

In Everything New, philosopher Jeff Cook defines two kinds of ways we see the world—two sets of glasses, if you will. One of those is the lens of materialism, which sees humanity and the world through the physical sciences:
The human body is an amazing mix of flesh and bone, blood and juices all working together … tiny molecules all dancing to the laws of motion. The most basic details about me—of my thoughts, my desires, my beliefs, my joys—were created by swirling masses of atoms slamming into one another. These explosions not only produced my fears and happiness and hopes and memories and pleasure and pain, they also produced my beliefs—my view of what was good, what was beautiful and what was true.
In we follow the lens of natural order to its horizon, then meaning, love and free-will are illusions. Our bodies are pre-programmed to think and act to promote and replicate our genes. Love is a chemical reaction. Entropy rules the universe, and nothing we do will last—not our work, culture or children. Even the meaning we find in moments of pleasure in accomplishments or friends and family is insignificant, “nothing more than fluids, luck, and the random collisions of molecules”:
My life may be enjoyable, at times even beautiful. I may accomplish all I wish. I may pursue and choose “the good life”, but the end has been scripted and it’s not gracious. I will read my books, I will take my pictures, and then the world which handed me my out-of-control body will take it back again…. [E]verything we own, everything we have built, every person we enjoy, every object of our affection will soon be destroyed with ruthless vigor right in front of us…. The thoughtless natural order will eventually hack to pieces all those people and all those pleasure we love most. Such a future is not merely possible. It is scientifically verifiable.”
Or as another ancient philosopher was paraphrased by a 1970s rock band, “Everything is dust in the wind.”

So, if there is meaning and free-will, Cook points out, it must come from outside of ourselves. Nothing we do will produce for us “either a life of freedom or lasting significance.” Our only hope “to escape the ramifications of death and bondage to the chemicals within us”?
help—help from something immaterial, help from something separate from the blind, degenerating natural order…. something beyond nature that not only has the power, but also has the will to breathe into us a bigger kind of life—a life of freedom, a life that lasts... Only a God-like being … could choose to infuse us all with a life that is more than chemical reactions… and mercifully change our natural course. Death and genetics are immensely powerful, and … it would take something with enormous muscle and compassion to push back the course of nature…
John’s definition (or rejection) of the soul fits smack dab into the middle of natural order and the lens of the physical sciences. But what is the basis for his belief in the reality and value of meaning, free-will and love? While he rejects the idea of a soul, John places a high value on free-will and finds great meaning in his creation. Where does that come from?

John may not be appealing to a God-like being or God-belief as his authority, but he is appealing to something—something that advocates the reality and value of free-will and meaning in a natural order ruled world. And I, for one, am eager to see if Extant will explore that.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

First trailer for 'Exodus: God and Kings'

Well, it is the year of the Bible movies, and Ridley Scott's Exodus: God and Kings at the very least promises to be a gorgeous sand and sandals epic. If you are a film geek like me, you can get a shot-by-shot analysis (as well as some initial speculation as to where Scott's interpretation may be headed) at Peter Chattaway's FilmChat blog.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A rather chilling teaser for Hunger Games: Mockingjay

Not only does this teaser play on a dominant plot thread in the Hunger Games series (and Mockingjay in particular)--the use (and cost) of media in propaganda wars between the Capitol and the rebels--but it reminds us of the power of images and music to sway the heart and mind. One of the reasons I love this story is because it makes us wrestle with things like that. 

Take heed, citizens.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A generational faith journey told by a fortysomething GenXer

Somewhere in our attic, there’s a copy of a 1990 Time Magazine emblazoned with “Twentysomething: laid back, late-blooming or just lost?” On my bookshelf is a twentysomething copy of Douglas Copeland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991). Back in the 1990s, I was just out of college and newly married to my twentysomething husband with a Reality Bites (1994) poster hanging on the wall of our apartment. I read everything on GenX that I could get my hands on. I want to believe it came from a desire to understand better myself and those around me, but we GenXers did tend to lean a little towards self-preoccupation in those days.

Lately, I’ve been running across quite a few articles about what’s become of us GenXers, now in our early and mid 30s to late 40s and early 50s. I particularly enjoyed Whitney Collins’ witty “Generation X’s journey from jaded to sated.” I laughed out loud reading her descriptions of a GenX childhood (her son’s Nintendo 3DS “spews out more verbal encouragement and gold redemption coins and psychological incentive in 30 minutes than my generation heard in 15 years”) and our teenage years (we came of age back when very little could be done if you were born unattractive…. so we all just slumped along in our glasses and retainers and Jordache jeans that went all the way up to our flat chests”).

Humor aside, her descriptions fit right in with many of the articles written about Generation X. Born between 1960ish and 1980ish (depending on what article your reading), we were labeled the latchkey generation and fended for ourselves in an After School Special world with which most of our parents were unfamiliar. We grew up pragmatic, jaded by Boomer consumerism and seeking truth to the point of navel-gazing. The world of our childhoods was more diverse than our parents; our lunch tables and peer groups were gifted with a variety of ethnic, racial, cultural and (non)religious backgrounds.

While for most of us war was grainy images of conflicts we were too young to remember or were over before we were born, we had our share of cultural and political anxieties. We grew up wondering not if there would be a nuclear war but who would push the button first. We survived to see the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union only to watch the Gulf War unfold. As burgeoning adults, we sat glued to our televisions on 9/11 and now we’re living through an historic economic recession in the middle of raising children (and worried we won’t have enough money for retirement).

As adults, we’re comfortable with change—we expect it. Born into a world without the personal computer, we saw the rise of the internet and became the smartphone generation. We are savy, skeptical and self-reliant. And we are more embracing of ethnicity and race than previous generations, highly educated, and we volunteer more than the other generations around us.

I resonated with a lot of what Collins says characterizes our generation today. For the most part, we aren’t consumed by our careers, defining what we do as quite different from who we are. We are aging gracefully, comfortable in our own skin and we’re more relational as parents. We accept impermanence and we’ve learned—or at least we are good way into learning—how to “let go and let life.”  

But as I contemplated all this I started wondering about generational characteristics when it comes to faith. I can’t speak for all GenXers, but I’m beginning to see how my own faith journey was influenced by the way these larger generational characteristics interacted with characteristics of church culture in the last 50 or so years—especially the prevalence of dispensationalism, a growing dissatisfaction with a consumerist driven church, and the birth of the North American emerging church movement.

My childhood was saturated with dispensationalism. You would think that if any theological community would be insulated from that it would be the Mennonites, but that wasn’t the case—at least in the large metro area I grew up in where we were rubbing shoulders with many different faiths and worldviews.

Throughout my junior high and high school years, this end-times and rapture theology saturated our experience—and the cultural Cold War anxieties only seemed to fuel the fever. Hollywood films like Red Dawn (1984) and Terminator (1984) got our attention in the theater while A Thief in the Night (1972) and The Late Great Planet Earth (1979) played in our churches and living rooms. In my corner of the world, we were a generation of kids pretty sure the world was going to hell—and thus we’d better be dang sure we were going to heaven.

Those expectations colored the way some of us looked at the future. As teens, we pondered the use of going to college or whether we’d ever get married. Why bother when the end could be no more than a few years down the road?

And joined to the long list of usual teen anxieties was the nagging question of whether our salvation was secure enough to get us in on the rapture before the world went to hell. It’s easy to see, then, why some of us grew up with the concept of salvation predominantly as a ticket to heaven and an escape from the upcoming tribulation.

As we got older and learned more about theology, however, dispensationalism came under the scrutiny of skeptical minds (at least it did in my corner of the world). With the gradual disintegration and fall of the Soviet Union and the thaw of the Cold War, the last tendrils of that theology started to unwind from our worldview.
In a way, in my corner of the world it left a vacuum of sorts. When life on earth didn’t end in nuclear war or the rapture, we started to seek a new paradigm in which to live—and, unfortunately, the church wasn’t providing that. We were dissatisfied and disillusioned with the church. Considering our generational tendency to seek truth, deconstruct structures and value authenticity, it makes sense to me why we found church culture, organization and experience wanting.

And my friends and I were scrutinizing and deconstructing everything. I remember long and winding conversations picking apart the worldviews and theologies in which my peers and I had grown up or encountered.  Like many of our generation, we’d rejected our culture’s Wall Street (1987) mentality, and as Christians, we saw the prosperity gospel as a sham; career, money and wealth weren’t the answer.

Wrestling with our dissatisfaction, we took various routes. As the relationship between religion and politics grew, some of my friends latched onto conservative political movements while others joined with more liberal political, social justice and religious movements. Some of those who articulated dissatisfaction with the consumer-driven church looked for more authentic experiences in other traditions. A lot of my college friends went into youth ministry, which almost seemed like a theology of its own. Some became the church of one. Others of us threw our energies into discipleship and service movements and ministries.

Only later did I discover that what my friends and I were experiencing was part of a much larger generational dissatisfaction with the organized church out of which rooted a European movement into North American soil: the emerging church movement.

I didn’t stumble upon this movement until the mid 2000s, when it was well under way. In the beginning, a lot of effort was put into defining exactly what this movement was about. Early on, it seemed to be mostly a conversation about everything from what needs to change to draw folks into existing churches to rethinking the whole way of doing church to figuring out how to get back to early church principles and life.

For me and some of my friends, it was an entry point—and a launching pad. It was an exciting place to be, a version of Morpheus’ now proverbial red pill. We weren’t alone in our dissatisfaction, and we were eager for change, something with which as a generation we were comfortable. We wanted a more authentic experience of what it meant to be God’s people and the emerging church movement was a fertile ground in which to start.

The movement ended up going a lot of different directions as key figures weaved in and out of its nebulous borders. Around and out of that movement came others like the organic church movement, monastic movement, missional theology, and simple church movement—and I know folks who are in or resonate with many of these. For me, here in the 2010s, Missio Alliance has become a home in my rethinking of what it means to be God’s people in a post-Christian world.

When I look back at my life and the characteristics that define my generation, I can see a lot of interplay between those characteristics and events and forces in church culture in my faith journey. The generational needs to confront and combat corruption and the need for stability and love are forces that play into our dissatisfaction with church and our need for authentic community. We are comfortable in a changing world, and a changing culture and church doesn’t threaten us—to the contrary, there is a good segment of us who are eager for that change.

Again, I am not speaking for all GenXers—and indeed, many GenX characteristics are shared across generations. My best friend is a Boomer, but we share many characteristics in our faith journeys. And my parents were deconstructing the church long before I started.  But it helps me to contemplate my own life and see where the path of my generation intersects and interacts with my faith journey.

However, as all this reflection has reminded me, navel-gazing is easy for my generation—maybe a little too easy. If Paul were writing to GenXers instead of the Colossians, perhaps he would’ve said: “Don’t shuffle along, eyes on your navel, absorbed with excessive self-contemplation. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that is where the action is. See things from his perspective.”

Indeed, a well examined life is good one, but a well lived life is better.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Thinking on 'Jaws'

Today is the 39th anniversary of the premiere of Jaws. In honor of that, here is a repost of a piece I wrote about the film (one of my favorites) in 2008, the day after Roy Scheider passed away.

Veteran actor Roy Scheider died yesterday. I am among those who best remember him for his 1975 role as Amity Island Police Chief Martin Brody in Jaws—one of my favorite films of all time.

I was too young to see Jaws when it first came out in the theaters and didn’t see it until I was in high school. I can’t remember if I first saw the film on VHS, laserdisk (remember that short-lived media form?) or television. But I do remember its effect on me. Heh, there was a period of time where I found it extremely daunting to swim in the deep end of a swimming pool—and to this day I have a very difficult time going into the ocean beyond my knees. And I still jump out of my skin every time that shark appears in the water while Brody is looking the other way. A bigger boat, indeed.

As I grew older, I came to appreciate other things about the film. I love how the ordinary-man-in-extraordinary-circumstances dilemma plays out in this film. I admire the respect and camaraderie between Brody and marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). After reading Moby Dick in college, I found Quint (Robert Shaw) priceless as a modern day Ahab (complete with a boat named Orca). And after getting married, I grew in affinity for Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary), especially the role she plays in interacting with and supporting Brody (the scene in Quint’s boat house where she goes to send off Martin on the infamous hunt is more affecting now). After I had children, I laughed a bit more wryly as Ellen chides Martin for ordering his son out of a boat—that is, until she looks at some of the pictures in a book of Martin’s. Oiy. I think I would have yelled even louder.


These things are easy to appreciate because (as industry friends helped me see) the film has genius and, as Roger Ebert (admitedly one of my favorite mainstream critics) put it at the time, the film “works all the better because it's populated with characters that have been developed into human beings we get to know and care about.” Undoubtedly, that’s why each time I watch Jaws I appreciate something new. When I recently saw it again (for the who-knows-how-many time), I found myself engrossed in another aspect of the film: Brody’s struggle between doing what he increasingly and intuitively knows is right to protect the community (which includes his family) and the pressure of his superiors who are motivated by the fear of losing tourist revenue for the island. Kudos to Scheider, who lets me experience Brody’s sense of guilt for (albeit grudgingly) caving into their pressure (which results in the death of a young boy), his determined steps to protect his people (who for most of the film don’t know they are in danger), and his resolute courage as he steps up and takes responsibility for protecting his community by going after shark itself (in spite of his visceral fear of water). Instead of letting his guilt and fears paralyze him or prevent him from acting, once Brody decides on the right course of action he is fully committed and doesn’t second guess himself again. (Well, maybe a moment or two on the boat, heh.)

I appreciate this. We all step off the path, and this film plays with how an individual’s misstep can ripple through a community. The mayor and other officials in town, while ostensibly focused on the community’s economic welfare, seem more concerned with their re-electability—and that permits death and danger to encroach into the community. Quint is so consumed by his past experience that it fogs his ability to sail straight, and that not only endangers his own life but those of Brody and Hooper (and if their mission fails, the community as well). Even Brody’s decision (albeit with much misgiving) to be swayed against his better judgment results in loss of life.


Yet the film also explores how choosing to get back on the path can save a community. Brody refocuses, refusing to give into his guilt or fears—but he doesn’t do it alone. Hooper is the best of comrades, fighting alongside Brody. And Ellen provides a solid background of companionship, a safe place for Brody to authentically struggle with his choices. In the end, I think these relationships strengthen Brody’s resolve and gird him as he faces down death and terror and prevails. Amity (which means "friendly relations" or "friendship", the name itself reflecting relationships and community) is saved.

In the end, as Ebert puts it, “it's one hell of a good story, brilliantly told.” And good stories usually have something to say to all of us about the choices we make and how those choices affect the people around us. And good stories invite us to ask questions like: Why do we make the choices we do? What do we fear? What do we value? What would we risk our lives for? What path are we walking?

And stories like that ultimately bring God-talk into open spaces.

(Images: copyrighted by Universal, via imdb and