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

Friday, June 13, 2014

What's with all the Bible films?

It’s not hard to see why headlines proclaim this as Hollywood’s “Year of the Bible.” Son of God opened at the end of March, followed by Noah a month later. Mary, Mother of Christ and Exodus are slated for this December. In various stages of development are films about Pontius Pilate, David, Goliath, a Ben-Hur remake and another Moses movie. In addition, a handful of faith-based films are also on the big screen this year. Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead came out earlier this spring, and Left Behind is due out in October.

Bible movies have been around as long as film itself. Film critic Peter Chattaway, in “Battle of the Bible Films” published in Christianity Today, notes Bible films were very popular with the major studios in the silent era and in the post-war boom of the 1950s, culminating with a record 11 Oscar wins for Ben-Hur (1959). But in the 1960s, their popularity waned as audiences turned to other genres.

Why the renewed interest? It seems to have started with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004), which made over $600 million worldwide. It revealed a niche market of religious moviegoers, and Hollywood took note. Screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine tells Chattaway that Bible stories also have “a built-in recognition factor” attractive to major studios.

Chattaway also points to growth in foreign markets and that the latest Bible films share similar elements with “sword-and-sandal” action movies like Clash of the Titans (2010) and 300 (2006), which are popular overseas. Son of God filmmaker Mark Burnett tells NPR that the surge in Bible films “just has to be that God is moving. There is no other explanation for it.”

Whatever the reason, many Christians are excited by the trend—but also wary, particularly of films made by secular filmmakers.

Reverence for and faithfulness to Scripture are top concerns. Indeed, some films stray far from the text. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is a familiar example of straying so far as to become irreverent.

But films made by Christians aren’t exempt from this concern. Some smooth over difficult aspects with modern sensibilities. Still others, favoring plot or fearing controversy, lack the deeper, more troubling themes and confrontations in the stories. Son of God was criticized for trying to please too many, resulting in a bland film and a bland Jesus.

It’s important to keep in mind that any film, made by a Christian or not, will take creative liberties to fill in gaps as it takes the story from the text to the screen—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“We need to be able to approach each film with a willingness to discern which bits come from the Bible, which bits don’t, and how God might be speaking to us through both,” writes Chattaway in a blog post about Noah.

In “Can an Atheist Make a Good Bible Movie?” film critic Brett McCracken reminds us that God gives his gifts to both Christian and non-Christian artists, and we need to “open our minds to the possibility of truth, beauty, and goodness shining forth in films from even the most secular filmmakers.”

We won’t always agree on which films do this. But if we approach films with Chattaway’s and McCracken’s advice, we may find the truth of the text comes to us in a new way on the big screen.

This post first appeared as an article in the Christian Leader. See my reviews of Noah here and here. See my review of Son of God here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Godzilla: Saved by something greater

I have a confession: I am a fan of disaster movies. I totally get why folks tend to dismiss the genre, but Gareth Edwards’Godzilla is a good example of why I’m a fan. It not only contains many elements that attract me to disaster films but also puts on a grand scale one of my favorite themes in the genre: We are creatures in need of saving.

Film scholars point out many disaster movies are metaphors for cultural anxieties: political angst (Cold War era Red Dawn and post-9/11 War of the Worlds), biological threats (Andromeda Strain, OutbreakWorld War Z), natural disasters (Earthquake, TwisterArmageddon) and new dangers like climate change (The Day After Tomorrow).

But hope is also a major thread in many of these films. Film scholar Stephen Keane points out that disaster movies typically end with of images of rescue, redemption and reconstruction. This operates on a grand scale in 2012, of which Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman reflects that all that destruction serves to “clear the world . . . of the mess it’s become. So that it can become something better.”

Disaster films also explore humanity’s redeeming qualities. Often, disparate groups of people unite, easing divisions. Producer Alby James notes some characters are almost messianic, sacrificing themselves so others can survive. The best of these films, says James, “remind us of the meaning of life, the people we care most about.”

Many of these elements resonate in Scripture. If we pay attention, disaster films give us a chance to think about biblical truth from a new perspective.

In Godzilla, concerns about powerful technology and our effect on the Earth take form in gigantic ancient parasitic creatures reawakened by humanity’s use of nuclear power. These malevolent Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects feed on the radiation created by humans to grow and reproduce, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. Humanity doesn’t stand a chance against them — until Godzilla, their natural predator, rises from the ocean.

Godzilla and the MUTOs are godlike in power and size, exposing human hubris. As one character puts it, “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” We too easily fall prey to the illusion that, with all our advancements, we have tamed nature and mastered our planet. Godzilla, like other disaster films, reminds us we are not in control.

Unequivocally, this film displays a humanity that not only needs saving but needs saving by something greater than itself. There is nothing anyone can do to save themselves or those they love from certain destruction. Military power is useless; some efforts actually edge humanity closer to destruction.

Images and themes of rescue and redemption are displayed on a grand — even divine — scale in this film. Godzilla is called “a god” at one point and declared humanity’s “savior” at another. Godzilla is bent on bringing balance back to a nature human action has unbalanced, even if it costs him his life. I agree with Christianity Today’sTimothy Wainwright, who calls Godzilla the “weirdest Christ figure” he’s seen, but director Edwards somehow makes it work.

Of course, that doesn’t make Godzilla a profound film. But, as with other disaster movies, I resonate with the way it explores and works out our place in the world in its own style. And I appreciate the grand scale in which it displays that we are creatures in need of saving by something greater than ourselves.

This post is a slightly longer and more linky version of my column that appeared in the June 9 issue of MWR.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

'The 100': The unbinding and unwinding power of sacrifice


The 100 is uneven, eye-rolling and yet, at times perplexedly moving. Its strongest moments are those that flirt with the edges of deeper truths, especially those that revolve around a dominant theme exploring the temptation to act on self interest in environments that beg us to give into a “survival of the fittest” worldview. I am particularly intrigued with the way the series explores the unbinding and unwinding power of sacrifice as way to navigate through that challenge.

The 100 is set about a century after a nuclear war on Earth. The only survivors were 400 inhabitants of 12 space stations in orbit. The 12 stations linked and reformed into one station called the Ark, and three generations later, they now number 4,000. With limited and dwindling resources, the leaders of the Ark enforce harsh measures—like population control and capital punishment for even minor crimes—to ensure humanity’s survival.

When chief engineer Jake Griffin discovers that Ark’s life support systems are critically failing, he wants to tell the rest of the population, believing the Ark community had the ability to make a decision together that would be best for all. The Council, fearing riots and chaos, execute him and imprison his teenage daughter, Clarke, to keep her quiet.

As they grow more desperate to reduce population and preserve humanity, the leaders send a group of 100 juvenile prisoners (most ranging from pre-teen to 17) to Earth’s surface to see if it’s habitable. Among them is Clarke, whose mother (the Ark’s chief medical officer) finds herself increasingly at odds with the rest of the leadership as they wrestle with how to prevent the extinction of the human race.

One of the strengths of the series is the parallel explorations of the best and worst in humanity in both the youth and the adults. The adult leaders on the Ark exhibit conflicting instincts and approaches. Some push for utilitarian solutions; some, who don’t agree with those solutions but give into them seeing no other choice, are eaten away by guilt; and others, like Clarke’s father, risk (and sacrifice) their lives to find alternatives. On the earth’s surface, the 100 give us a more literal version of the adult struggles, vacillating between a Lord of the Flies survival-of-the-fittest and acts of self-sacrifice and compassion.

Kane (CW)
This contrast confronts us with the fact that we humans—young and old—are broken, flawed and selfish creatures but also creatures with the capacity to sacrifice our own best interests for the best interest of others. While the characters in The 100 initially seemed to fall into stock roles (like Clarke as the voice of reason and compassion on the ground and Councilman Kane as the representation of a coercive utilitarianism on the Ark), over the first seven episodes the individual characters actually begin to flesh out as they vacillate between the two contrasts. However clumsy some of those character shifts are, I appreciate the exploration of the how our own individual choices are not always consistent—and why.

But a greater strength of the series—or at least one most interesting to me—is its emerging theme of the power of self-sacrifice as a way to confront, navigate through, and even diffuse situations of violence, coercion and deception.  

In “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” the leadership of the space station must finally make a decision about what to do about the dwindling air supply. Not knowing that the Earth is safe, Councilman Kane urges the Council to act on a secret plan to seal off a section of the space station and leak a sleeping agent into the air supply in order to euthanize over 300 of the population and buy more time for the remaining people.

In desperation, Jake’s widow, Abigail, leaks a video he’d recorded informing the population of the problem and his confidence that they could work and pull together to solve their problem. To the rest of the leadership’s surprise, instead of rioting, far more than is needed of station’s population volunteer to sacrifice their own lives for their spouses, children and the rest of the Ark's population.

Admonished and overwhelmed by guilt, Chancellor Jaha wants to join them. Against his own best interests, Kane (who’s been after the Chancellor’s position from the beginning), urges him to stay, confessing that Jaha can inspire the people to pull together, something they need in order to survive.

Jaha (CW)

Three hundred volunteers—fathers, mothers, individuals, couples, husbands, wives—bravely and resolutely enter a chamber and sit on the floor, slowly falling asleep as the air supply eventually is cut off to the section. It is a moving scene, driving home the tidal power of self-sacrifice to unravel deception, coercion and self-interest and move and inspire others to act in the best interest of others.                                                                                                                                                             
That episode gets at a deeper truth in our own experience—and in our larger Story. I don't know if the writers knew that episode would air during Holy Week when they wrote it, but I couldn’t help but think of how it echoed the self-sacrifice of a God who is desperate to save us in our Story.

The theme resurfaces even more boldly in “Contents Under Pressure.” One of the Grounders (a group of people who survived the Earth’s holocaust but appear to live in brutal and tribal groups) saves Octavia’s life when she falls down a ravine, but keeps her captive to protect her from the rest of the Grounders. Even though Octavia begs her brother Bellamy and others not to harm the Grounder when they rescue her, Bellamy orders him killed. When the Grounder fights back, Jasper—for whom Clark has deep feelings—is wounded by the Grounder’s poisoned blade.

Octavia and Bellamy (CW)
Bellamy strings up the Grounder in a crucifix-like position and wants to torture him for information. Clarke, who has repeatedly pleaded with the rest of the 100 to stop making violent choices because “this is not who we are,” not only doesn’t argue against Bellamy’s choice, but literally gives her assent because she wants to know the antidote to save Jasper. When beating the Grounder fails to make him talk, Bellamy drives a spike through the Grounder’s bound hand.

Clarke (CW)
In desperation to stop the torture, Octavia slices her arm with the poisoned knife and kneels before the Grounder with antidotes in her hands. The Grounder, wanting to save Octavia, reveals the antidote, and Jasper lives. But it is Octavia’s sacrificial action that takes center stage here. Her action breaks the cycle of escalating violence and not only affects the Grounder’s choices but surprises, admonishes and even convicts Clarke and Bellamy, the former actually breaking down in confusion over her choices. In addition, Octavia’s action builds trust with the Grounder, who, in an apt metaphor, unclenches his fist in trust to allow her to clean the wound her brother had made.  

As in our own world, choosing to act in the best interest of another and doing the right thing doesn’t always end well. In The 100, Clarke’s father was sent out an airlock for his risk. Wells, another character who made sacrificial choices, is senselessly killed early on in the series. The Grounder is still a prisoner. But these acts of self-sacrifice consistently work to convict, admonish and dismantle self-interested utilitarian actions, soften hardened hearts, and lead to reconciliation, transformation and healing. Jake’s sacrifice inspires 300 others to sacrifice their lives, and their sacrifice causes a deepening crisis of conscience in Kane, who by the end of “Contents Under Pressure” is reexamining his actions and confesses to his mother that “I don’t know who I am anymore.”

Consistently in this series, acts of self-sacrifice offer a new way to face life and interact with others, both for the one who is sacrificing and those who witness it. In spite of continual challenges and pressures, ways of coercion, power and fear give way to trust and reconciliation. Deception is dismantled. Hearts are softened. Lives and hearts change.

This echoes our own Story. Jesus calls his followers to a new way of life. He calls us into a new Kingdom ruled by a King who is sacrificial love. This is the way he has chosen to work in his mission to restore and redeem a broken world and people. If we walk with and live in trust of him, we find that he has joined us to that mission—a mission in which we chose a way of love-drenched self-sacrifice in submission to a Lord of love over the way of fear, coercion and power. When we do that, we see over and over the dismantling of deception, the diffusion of violence, the restoring of the broken, reconciliation of enemies, and the changing of lives. As in The 100, that doesn’t mean we’ll come through unscathed; it may even cost us our lives. But we know that this is the best and most powerful way. We know because we know the end of our Story: love wins.

But we don’t know how The 100 will end; that story is only beginning. When Clarke reflects on and questions their actions at the end of “Contents Under Pressure,” Bellamy tells her that “who we are and who we need to be to survive are very different things.” And while they now know Earth is now habitable, the leaders on the Ark face the reality that they don’t have enough transport ships to get everyone onto the ground. “We are on the Titanic and we don’t have enough lifeboats,” the Chancellor tells the other leaders. The screws are tightening, and we can already see new deceptions winding their way in to replace the old ones.

This show has potential. Just as I roll my eyes, it has a moment that makes me take notice. If the series can develop a little more evenness in its characters and writing, I wouldn't mind sticking with The 100 for the long haul. In fact, I'd look forward to it.