Friday, April 11, 2014

'The Giver' featurette reveals closer ties to the novel

Today, the above featurette was released for The Giver--though it's more of a teaser trailer mixed with a little behind-the-scenes content--and it puts to rest one of the concerns fans had regarding the big screen adaptation of the Newberry Award winning novel. In the novel, color plays a big role in Jonus' journey in a world where most characters see in black and white. His gradual ability to see in color mirrors his growing awareness of the real world. When the first trailer came out in full color, fans began to wonder if the film would ignore this integral aspect. 

Well, doubt no more. One of the main threads in this featurette is the movement from black and white to full color. 

On Twitter, actor Cameron Monaghan, who plays Asher in the film, stated that the transition between black and white and color was planned all along: "I would also like to clarify that this wasn't a last-minute conversion to black and white. We shot the film this way, and always planned it." Producer Nikki Silver confirmed this in her own tweet. Last month, I had a conversation with executive producer Ralph Winter and he verified this as well.

In addition, I gotta say that I loved the way the color metaphor was introduced in the featurette, pulling an important image straight from the novel. Couple that with the opening voice over and suffice to say I am looking forward to this movie even more.

Friday, April 04, 2014

I miss Roger Ebert

Sound Opinions via Wikipedia
Roger Ebert died a year ago today.

My earliest memory of Ebert is watching him talk through his now iconic “thumbs up, thumbs down” reviews on television. Later, when I started writing about film myself, his reviews were usually the first I’d seek out when a new movie premiered or I was researching an older one. I enjoyed his interviews with actors and directors—and I will flat-out gush if you ask me about his interview with John Wayne. I’ve practically memorized his review of The Mummy; whenever someone can’t believe I list it among my favorites, I tell them what Ebert said:
There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it. I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased. There is a little immaturity stuck away in the crannies of even the most judicious of us, and we should treasure it.
Roger Ebert was a generous critic. In a blog post in 2008, he noted how some people thought he was too generous. But he loved movies:
I like movies too much. I walk into the theater not in an adversarial attitude, but with hope and optimism (except for some movies, of course). I know that to get a movie made is a small miracle, that the reputations, careers and finances of the participants are on the line, and that hardly anybody sets out to make a bad movie. I do not feel comfortable posing as impossible to please. Film lovers attend different movies for different reasons, all of them valid; did I enjoy "Joe vs. the Volcano" more than some Oscar winners? Certainly.
Ebert was a common man’s critic—and many of us found in him a kindred soul when it comes to film. We found validation for our own love for and optimism about the movies, even (or maybe especially) the ones that others might not see as valuable. John Scalzi said of Ebert when he died: “What he taught me about film criticism is that film criticism isn’t about showing off what you know about film, it was about sharing what made you love film.” Me, too.

I also miss Ebert’s authentic and honest reflections about faith, God and religion, which he discussed openly on his blog. His reflections on Alex Proya’s Knowing birthed one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever read online.

I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic,” he wrote in his memoir Life Itself. “I am more content with questions than answers." A month before he died, he wrote, “I refuse to call myself an atheist … because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.” I admired his willingness to live and grapple with questions; in some ways, it made it easier to live with and wrestle with my own.

A year after his death, I still catch myself typing his name into a search engine with a newly released film title. For this movie lover, Roger Ebert is greatly missed.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is no Sunday School story--and that's a good thing


Years ago, I saw a painting of a scene from the flood story. It is night, and heavy clouds weigh down the sky. People are being engulfed by dark swirling water. I remember the arm and splayed fingers of one shadowed and almost submerged figure reaching out to the ark, which floats out of reach, in the distance. 

That image still haunts me.

Our Sunday School storybooks and cartooned figures painted on the walls of children’s nurseries sanitize the flood story, which for me is one of the more troubling in Scripture. The pain, horror, sorrow and terror embedded between the lines of those three chapters don’t seem to make it into the retellings we share with our children, each other or the world.

Too often, the films and stories Christians create reflect a sanitized version of Scripture and the partial gospel embraced in our current church culture. But Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is not one of those stories. It is an unsettling tale. And even if you don’t agree with the possibilities he’s given us to understand and explore this epic and disturbing tale, at the very least it reflects back to us some truths in a story we have shoved aside for so long.
Aronofosky is a good fit to tell this story. Like The Fountain, he gives us a mythic and primal world in which to unpack it. Just a scant 10 generations from Adam, the world is still raw and glowing from the creation. Aronofsky portrays this in creative ways, as if tendrils of glory still flow through the land and people. An ore glimmers with a golden light. Methuselah harbors a seed left over from Eden (which, interestingly, looks remarkably like the seed at the end of The Fountain). Light shines between the cracks of the fallen angels, and Adam and Eve literally glow from the touch of God’s glory. Giants still roam the earth and there is no doubt of God’s existence—even the film’s villain Tubal-cain speaks to him.

God is almost tangible in some parts of the film. Personally, I loved these moments: the wind in the trees, a flower that blooms from a drop of water, a pulsing rainbow. These are startling moments, which remind me of less physical but nonetheless awe-filled encounters in my own life.

Aronofsky—whose faith background is Jewish—has mulled this story since childhood and drew heavily from Jewish literature surrounding the flood. Some of the scenes—like Methuselah brandishing a golden sword that drives back an army—are from extra-Biblical sources while others—like the glowing rocks—are supposedly drawn from reference in other parts of the Bible. There are definitely quite a few elements Aronofsky uses that are his own creations but for the most part, I found  most of these elements contributed to a rich world in which to unfold this epic and apocalyptic story.
While the world is epic, the characters are a lot like us. They are flawed humans who struggle to understand God, themselves, each other and their relationship to the world and their Creator.

Tubal-cain, a descendent of Cain, laments that God no longer speaks with him. “Why will you not converse with me?” he asks God at one point.  It’s not hard to understand why he can no longer hear God’s voice. Tubal-cain lives a life of hubris, thirsting after power, greed and self-determination. He is not satisfied to be made in God’s image; he wants to be God. “I am like you, am I not?” he asks. “I give life. I take life away.”  Ultimately, this path leads to destruction. “We are men,” he proclaims, girding his followers for battle. “We decide if we live or die.” And if they want to live? “We kill!” he says.

In contrast, Noah, a descendent of Seth, is described in Scripture as a righteous man. But that doesn’t mean he would have been perfect. (Remember Abraham and David?) Aronofsky unpacks this in an interesting way, showing Tubal-cain murdering Noah’s father when Noah was a young boy. This plants in Noah a hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice—not just for himself but also for creation, which Tubal-cain and his men rape as violently as their women.
But this kind of thirst has pitfalls.  In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard notes that the “desire for things to be made right” by some of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” may be rooted in response to something wrong in themselves. “Perhaps,” Willard says, “they have failed so badly that night and day they cringe before their own sin and inwardly scream to be made pure.” In the film, Noah’s drive for justice grows tainted by his consuming focus on his own sinfulness and the sin in others, even those he loves. And this closes his heart and blinds him—as it does us—to the less obvious ways God is making evident his love, mercy, will and presence.

In the film, one of the most affecting reflections of God’s less obvious movement is through Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter and Shem’s wife. That her healing is seen by Noah as a curse rather than a blessing and sign of God’s desire for life is evidence of how his thirst for justice and righteousness has made him as deaf and hardhearted to God as Tubal-cain. But Ila’s choice to react nonviolently to Noah’s own threats of violence seems to give space for Noah’s heart to soften and for love to bloom like the flower from a drop of water. And later, it is Ila that helps him see that his choice to act out of love is not one of failure but strength—and one that reflects the Creator himself. Noah’s heart and his relationship to his family begin to heal.

This echoes the power of God’s love. Willard says “the kingdom of the heavens has a chemistry that can transform even the past and make the terrible, irretrievable losses that human beings experience seem insignificant in the greatness of God. He restores our soul and fills us with the goodness of rightness.”

There is much more I could unpack from this film—not the least of which is the call to stewardship of creation and the consequences of prideful and selfish exploitation of it. And then there are the themes running through this story. Death and new life, barrenness and fertility, justice and mercy, the power of love and forgiveness, humility and hubris, the insidiousness of violence and pride—all these themes are central cords to our Story, all of which weave towards and find their resolution in Jesus.

The flood story poses hard questions and Aronofky’s film doesn’t fully resolve them. The film left me unsettled and pondering, but perhaps that’s how these portions of our Story should leave us. Recently, I heard film producer Ralph Winter reflect on how too many Christian films tie up stories with neat bows and reward characters in ways not consistent with real life. “That’s not my life,” he said, “and that’s not the life of my friends.” Noting how most of Jesus’ disciples were killed, he observed, “Biblical Christianity is dangerous.”

Noah has its weaknesses. Critics have noted character development issues, internal consistencies and some of the elements are more distracting than helpful. But the strengths outweigh the flaws. We need more stories like it—stories of wonder, darkness, love, failure and glory that leave us unsettled, pondering and seeking.

There is a plethora of opinion out there about the film. For critics who reviewed the film favorably, see Peter Chattaway's posts at FilmChat blog and Christianity Today's recent article/review. For a review that was not so favorable, see Ken Morefield's review at 1MoreFilmBlog.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Sci-fi fairy tale: 'Jupiter Ascending'


The first full-length trailer for Jupiter Ascending--the latest from the Wachowskis (Matrix, Cloud Atlas)--unpacks the teaser trailer from a few months back, giving us a meatier glimpse at this science fiction fairy tale. The film's blend of these two genres has an intriguing potential that's piqued my interest.

Fairy tales speak to deeper truths, the best of which, says J.R.R. Tolkien, make simple but fundamental things "all the more luminous by their settings." C.S. Lewis writes of the power of fairy tales to communicate profound truths by "stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations" so that "one could make them for the first time appear in their potency." They even give us, says Tolkien, a taste of the deepest truth: the gospel, a story with the happiest of endings.

Science fiction is one of today's most thought-provoking genres with the potential to tell good stories--the kind that explore the reality in which we live, why we believe what we do, what it means to be human, and why we are the way we are and do the things we do. In addition, the nature of science fiction invites us to consider things beyond the here and now. It confronts us with the unknown, potential, mystery, and exploration beyond the comfortable--things that push us to consider greater truths to our existence.

A story that combines these two genres? Well, let's just say there is quite a bit of potential there.

Jupiter Ascending comes pretty close to what C.S. Lewis defines as a "sub-species of science fiction" that combines fantasy and science fiction--a sub-species of which he is particularly fond. In his essay "On Science Fiction," Lewis writes:
The last sub-species of science fiction represents simply an imaginative impulse as old as the human race working under the special conditions of our own time. It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or other stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand. As the area of knowledge spreads, you need to go further afield: like a man moving his house further and further out into the country as the new building estates catch him up.
Later in the essay, Lewis writes of this sub species of science fiction, "If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort ... are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience."  

Maybe with Jupiter Ascending the Wachowskis are going, as Lewis puts it, further afield to give us one of those rare dreams. Maybe not. We'll see.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

"What do you do?" Cooperating with God

wikipedia/public domain
“What do you do?”

It’s a simple question—one of the first we ask when we meet someone new. I never gave this question much thought until my late 30s, when I stepped out of a professional publishing career and a leadership role in a Christian ministry to take care of house, home and kids. Then I discovered just how loaded this question can be.
In our culture, our identities often form around what we do for a living. “As human beings, we are quick to identify ourselves using our circumstances, how others perceive us, our behaviors, or our positions in life,” says Dr. Matthew B. James in “Who are you?” at Psychology Today. “It’s somehow comforting to clothe ourselves in these identities. But none of those are really who we are. And the problem with latching onto these identities is, in addition to limiting our growth, it leaves us lost and confused when they are stripped from us.”

I didn’t realize how much I was clothing my own identity in my career until I didn’t have it anymore.
Suddenly, that simple question became an existential one: If I'm not a leader, editor or writer, I thought, who am I? A mother? A wife? But even those identities could be taken away. What if my husband died? I would no longer be a wife. And my children will grow up some day and I will no longer have the same role I do now. So, who am I?

My transition from a professional working woman to stay-at-home mom confronted me with how much I’d wrapped up my identity in the respect of a professional career, the fulfillment of serving in a Christian ministry, the ability to make a public and marked difference in the world, and even the sense of accomplishment in bringing home a salary. While these aren’t bad things, I’d allowed them to take up too much space in my heart.

But as I cleared out some room, the truth of who I am started to become clear.  

In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard reminds us that we are “never-ceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny.” At our core, we are eternal and beloved creations of God. And, Willard points out, it is from Jesus that we learn how best to live out these eternal identities—“how to lead my life as he would lead my life if he were I.”
While I knew this intellectually, I began to embrace it more deeply.  As I settled into that never-changing identity as a beloved child of God and apprentice of Jesus, I began to change and grow. My ever-changing roles in life no longer defined who I am. Instead, my life in Jesus began to root me to an eternal kingdom where my shifting roles and circumstances flowed with and participated in God’s restoring and redeeming work in the world.
But the temptation is always great to find some other identity to wrap my fingers around. Even though I know who I am, I get distracted. Instead of resting in God, I begin to chase after or long for things I think will satisfy my desires, assuage my fears or comfort my insecurities.
We must continually cooperate with God in forming firm roots in who we are and where we find our identity, rest, strength and purpose. Meditating on the Word, talking with God, confessing our fears and ways we give into the bents inside us, confessing our need for God, practicing his presence, paying attention and countless other actions—all those spiritual disciplines are ways we cooperate with God as he changes and transforms us into who we are designed to be: his children in his Kingdom.

It is easy to let what we do inform our identity, value and place in the world. But when we do that, we limit our potential to grow and participate with God in his redeeming and restoring work.  Our jobs, careers, circumstances and roles in life are seasonal, even those to which we feel God calls us. Our identities, however, are rooted in something much deeper and Someone eternal and unchanging. 

This article originally ran in the May 2014 issue of Purpose: Stories of Faith and Promise

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

First look at 'The Giver'

The first trailer for the big screen adaptation of Lois Lowry's 1993 Newberry-winning dystopian novel The Giver is finally here. I say "finally" because this film has been a long time in the making. Jeff Bridges (who originally envisioned his father, Lloyd, in the title role that he's now playing) has been working for some two decades to get this film made.  I haven't been following the development quite that long--only since 2006.

I love this story with its themes of failed utopia, euthanasia, freedom, individuality, the value of human life, and the power of memory and choice. My husband and I read it aloud to each other when it was published, and many of the images in the book still haunt me.

So, I was particularly keen to know how closely the film follows the story--and it turns out, there are some significant differences. In a Christian Science Monitor article, Bridges is noted as saying that film "is taking a lot of licenses." In particular, the CSM article notes that Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) has been aged to 16 (he was 12 in the book) and the role of Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) has been expanded. 

In addition, the role of Rosemary (Taylor Swift), the Giver's daughter who died before the novel begins, seems to have been expanded as well. Some changes noted by others include that the entire film is in color, which plays an important role in the novel, where most characters see in black and white. Also, a romance has been fleshed out and hovercrafts seem to be the norm of the day.

Yes, this gives me and other fans of the story pause. Apparently, however, Lowry worked closely with the film, which Bridges says in an EW interview, maintains "the spirit of the story." In addition, I've been following the producers on Twitter, and there seems to be a lot of excitement and passion for the story poured into this adaptation. 

The Giver is one of the good storiesthe kind that reveals some key truths about the world we live in, the people around us and ourselves--the kind that causes us to reflect on our own lives, why we believe what we do, and even lead us to change the way we see and act in the world. If this film gives us the spirit of Lowry's Giver, then like the novel, it'll be a story worth telling. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

'Son of God' and the larger Story

Adapted from the television mini-series called The Bible, the feature film Son of God hit theaters last month. Most film critics were disappointed, noting redeeming moments in the film but concluding it failed cinematically. Among Christians, the response was notably mixed. Some hailed it as moving and inspirational. Others expressed frustration at the largely white cast and concern that the film commercializes Jesus.

Personally, I thought Son of God had its moments. I enjoyed seeing Mary Magdalene front and center with the disciples. Fleshing out Barabbas helped portray the Jewish expectation of a Messiah. But I, too, was bothered by the casting, and at times the film’s marketing felt like Jesus was being used to advance an agenda.

But the greatest weakness of the film was, as Matt Page puts it at 1MoreFilmBlog, “it doesn’t really have anything to say about Jesus… Jesus performs a few miracles, utters the odd wise saying and is nice to the marginalized and disempowered, but both his life and his death seem oddly stripped of any real meaning.”

There’s mention of a “kingdom,” a “message” and “work” to be done, but, as Peter Chattaway notes at the National Catholic Register, “the film is vague on the specifics.”

As I pondered this flaw, I couldn’t help but wonder if it didn’t reflect back some of the weaknesses in our own understanding of the gospel.

In The King Jesus Gospel, New Testament scholar (and Anabaptist) Scot McKnight says that the gospel “no longer means in our world what it originally meant to Jesus or the apostles.” He suggests our tendency to focus on personal salvation—while a key aspect and fruit of the gospel—limits our understanding of the good news and salvation.

The gospel, says McKnight “is locked into one people, one history, and one Scripture: it makes sense only as it follows and completes the Story of Israel.” In other words, we need to know the Story of Israel and Jesus’ place in it to have a good handle on the gospel.

At the core of that Story is God’s work to establish a vibrant, redemptive, God-centered Kingdom of his people on Earth—an image that saturates Scripture from beginning to end.

That Story begins with humanity ruling a good creation in healthy relationship with each other and God. When they rebel, everything breaks. But God has a plan to set it right. He chooses a people—first Abraham, then Israel and kings—to govern redemptively on his behalf.

But they fail, notes McKnight, so God sends his Son to do what they could not and to rescue everyone from sin and evil. Jesus is the Messiah and King who will rule at the center of God’s Kingdom, whose citizens will be transformed to embody God in a new society or ecclesia—one that will bear witness to and live out God’s rule on earth.

Son of God hints at this larger Story in its prologue, showing scenes from throughout Israel’s history. But, as Page puts it, “Ultimately, it’s unclear why [Jesus’] story is the conclusion to all those that have gone before.”

And while the film hints at a counter-culture Kingdom, it fails to flesh out a vision of this redemptive, restoring Kingdom that would manifest as the church. As such, it also fails to articulate the holistic work the gospel propels Kingdom citizens into: “loving God, loving self, loving others and loving the world,” as McKnight puts it.

In the context of this larger Story, Jesus’ message and Kingdom find meaning. If we want to tell the good news of Jesus—on the big screen or in our communities—we need to remember that.

This post is a slightly longer version of a column that ran in the March 17 issue of MWR.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Will 'Resurrection' last?

The opening of ABC’s Resurrection is stunning. A dark haired little boy lies on his back in a lush, vibrant green and water soaked field in rural China—then gasps, sits upright, and looks up at the sky. He walks into a small village and mumbles, “Is she dead?” just before collapsing in the midst a crowd of bewildered Chinese villagers.

That is our introduction to eight-year-old Jacob Langston—who drowned in Arcadia, Missouri, 32 years before while trying to save his aunt. And he’s not the only one who died in Arcadia who seems to have come back to life.

Resurrection’s premiere was moving yet unsettling and somewhat disturbing—a unique combination that, among other things, has piqued my interest.

First, I find the Resurrection’s premise intriguing. Based on The Returned, a novel by Jason Mott, Resurrection raises some engaging questions right off the bat:  Are these really the dead raised to life? Will they stay alive? Are they people—or something else? What’s going on? Is it the end of the world? Or is everyone dead and living in some sort of Lost in-between-space?

For those of us familiar with the Bible, the premise rings some bells. There are the individual resurrections, like those associated with Elisha and Elijah. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter, a widow’s son and Lazarus. And Peter and Paul had their turn at it as well.

But then there’s that moment in Matthew’s account when the bodies of many holy people were raised to life, came out of their tombs and appeared to many people in Jerusalem after Jesus’ own resurrection. Every time I come across that passage, I ponder similar questions: What would it be like for their families and those who witnessed the returns? How would the resurrected live out the rest of their lives? Were they changed? What were the ripple effects? The relational dynamics?

This series has the potential to explore questions like these—but we’ll most likely have to wait for some of the answers. While the series is based on The Returned, series creators have said it will depart from the novel. And supposedly, ABC’s series isn’t related to the acclaimed French series Les Revenants (which just went on my Netflix queue), so it’s no use going there for clues either.

In addition to the premise, I’m also intrigued by some of the images in the premiere. For example, water features prominently, symbolizing both life and death. Jacob is lying half submerged in water when we first see him in his resurrected form. Both he and his aunt drowned in a swiftly moving river. We see Jacob through a water cooler jug that the pastor drinks from just before encountering him, and it’s raining when another previously dead person is reunited with his loved ones in Arcadia.

I’m also intrigued by several cinematic shots looking down on the characters from above. Interestingly, two prominent shots like this frame the premiere—a shot of Jacob from above in the soaked field in China and a shot of the other resurrected man embracing his daughter in the rain. Angles like that suggest there is a something greater at work here.

And I also like how the characters in the story are bumping up against something that challenges the way they look at and understand the world—and, while we aren’t encountering people returning from the dead, this is something with which we resonate. Our world is rapidly changing. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and we are discovering new things every day in the physical and biological sciences. Stories on both the big and small screens—ranging from films like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life to television series like J.J. Abrams’ Lost—ask us to ponder if there is something greater than us, and who or what that is. All of this challenges us to constantly examine the way we understand world, ourselves, each other, and God. A series like this has the potential to shed some light on how we approach and wrestle with these things.
The premiere did have its weak points. It was uneven, moving between stunning and clunky. The portrait sketched of Henry Langston (Jacob’s father played by Kurtwood Smith) felt a bit flat. And the scenes related to faith and church were, as many critics have pointed out, too heavy handed.

Will Resurrection last? That’s a good question—both within the story itself and in terms of the series’ longevity. For now, there’s enough to keep me tuning in to find out. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Swimming pools, oceans and missional spirituality

“Missional” is a term I hear quite often in conversations about theology or church life. But what exactly is it? What does it look like in our own lives and communities?

In Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight says a “missional spirituality is an attentive and active engagement of embodied love for God and neighbor expressed from the inside out.” At Empowering Missional, Justin Hiebert points out that missional spirituality is “a daily faithfulness and adherence to the teachings of Jesus” and participation in Missio Dei “is an equipping of all people for acts of service and an empowering of all Jesus’ followers to live out of the Good News of the resurrection.” Melodie Davis reminds us that “the purpose of our gathered worshipping communities was and is for the purpose of helping us be about God’s work in the world.” In The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch says a missional church is “a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organize its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world.” Robert Martin distills Missio Dei down to one simple but packed word: “restoration.”

So, how do we go about living out missional spirituality? And how can we nurture that kind of living among us?

It is tempting to answer this question in the same way we often approach discipleship and worship: make it a program. Today, it’s almost instinctual to program or structure spirituality—much like, as Wayne Jacobesen observes in So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore, the first thing Peter wanted to do after his experience with Jesus at the Transfiguration: build a building.

But God’s Kingdom, mission and movement are much more dynamic and organic. God’s Kingdom is wild and full and exploding with constant life and movement. It is untamed and vibrant and ever-moving-and-never-ceasing. God’s rule and his mission not only enfold us but bind and connect us and propel his life and mission in and through us. We live and breathe, to borrow Eugene Peterson words, “in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

To try and create a program to capture or reflect God’s mission feels to me like trying to put an ocean into a swimming pool.

I find it more helpful to think of incarnating that mission, to think of the participation of God’s people in his mission to restore creation as taking on hands and feet—a skin, so to speak. In Upside Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill explains it this way:
The church [i.e. the people of God] creates social vehicles and servant structures to accomplish its mission. Servant structure include the whole gamut of organized church bodies and programs. These are the social skins, the servant structure the church creates to do its work. They are not, however, the church or Kingdom.
The danger inherent in these servant structures, however, is the tendency to focus on maintaining the structure—or program—rather than keeping our eyes on and hearts in Jesus. We end up, as David Fitch puts it, “working for the machine.” But it is in Jesus our mission is centered. It is from our connection to him that our mission flows. I like the way Hirsch puts it in The Forgotten Ways—that we, God’s people, are “a product of God’s mission.” So, then, are the skins of missional spirituality.

Any expression of missional spirituality will be unique—through a specific people and in a specific time and place. Any expression of missional must be “shaped through the local church,” says McKnight. “Missional get its start when we discern what God is doing in this world and particularly what God is doing in our community and what God is calling the ecclesia to do in light of that mission of God.” Transplanting a missional skin from one community to another, then, may not work as easily as transplanting a worship or discipleship model.

I also find it helpful to think about incarnating missional in terms of “practices” instead of programs—both individual and corporate. On his blog, McKnight recently wrote about Len Hjamarlson and Roger Helland’s Missional Spirituality, which explores a handful of practices of missional spirituality, like practicing union with Christ, obedience, humility, mission reading and prayer, gratitude and loving your neighbor. Corporately, missional spirituality could be nurtured in smaller missional groups or communities from whom skins could be incarnated. I find helpful the way Mike Breen and Alex Absalom define a missional community in Launching Missional Communities: A Field Guide (also reviewed on McKnight’s blog): “a group of twenty to fifty people who have united, in the name of Jesus, around a common service and witness to a particular context.”

And as we participate in God’s mission, we should expect the skins of missional spirituality to change. I think that this requires a level of flexibility that may be difficult to find or maintain in the institutional models and structures many faith communities have embraced. However, the more time I spend reading about and talking with others, the more stories I hear of God’s people incarnating his mission in breathtaking ways. Indeed, life will out.

To me, missional spirituality is an organic and always-moving thing—just like the Kingdom. It is a way of understanding our Story and how this with-God and with-others life works. Swimming pools are well and good, but the ocean—well, just standing on its shore takes my breath away.

This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on Missional Spirituality.  MennoNerds is exploring through this event Spirituality through an Anabaptist lens and what it means concerning participation in the mission of God.

Friday, February 07, 2014

"Her": Technology leaves us wanting, but God doesn't

Warner Bros 
Set in the near future, Her is a film about a lonely writer in the middle of a divorce who purchases a new advanced operating system to help him manage his life. But Samantha is no ordinary OS. She is a self-aware artificial intelligence with a personality and emotions. As Theodore and Samantha interact, their conversations grow intimate, and they fall in love.

Critics call Her romantic, convincing, haunting and creepy. The film has drawn comparisons to Blade Runner’s exploration of consciousness. Her’s own exploration of singularity—the hypothetic moment when AI surpasses human intelligence—is thought-provoking.

While Her ponders these things, it also has much to say about our own relationship with technology—and each other.

In an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, writer and director Spike Jonze said his story in part explores “the way we use technology to connect, the way technology helps us connect, the way it prevents us from connecting.”

Personally, I love using technology to connect. On my way out of the theater, I used Siri to text my daughter. Social media keeps me connected with family and friends much more often than if I were left to phone calls or letters.

But technology can also distance us from others. Several times in Her, we see crowds of people talking and smiling—but not to each other; instead, they’re relating to their OSs. That’s not far from our own reality.

But, in the end, technology itself really isn’t the issue—in the film or us. In an interview with NPR, Jonze says his film is about something that has existed as long as we have: “our yearning to connect, our need for intimacy, and the things inside us that prevent us from connecting.”

All the relationships in Her—including Theodore and Samantha’s—are flawed, undulating between distance and intimacy. Theodore often hides himself from others, leaving them feeling alone in the relationship. Moments of honesty stir up pain, awkwardness and isolation but also connection—which is, however, fleeting.

Her confronts us with our brokenness and the messy nature of relationships—a good thing to keep in mind regarding the church, because we will experience this reality with our brothers and sisters. 

But the love that heals and restores our brokenness and our flawed relationships in our own Story is absent in Her, which describes love as “socially accepted insanity.”

Even Samantha—in all her god-likeness—can’t stave off separation.

Samantha has vast knowledge, the ability to maintain thousands of simultaneous relationships, and incorporeality beyond our understanding. But she is flawed. She has fears and insecurities—just like us. While Samantha’s consciousness is vastly larger than a human’s, she has limitations.

Perhaps her most tragic limitation is love. She loves deeply, but even her love is powerless to bridge the growing chasm between her and Theodore.

Her’s ending is poignant. Theodore no longer processes the world through technology. Unplugged, he ponders a beautiful sunrise. But even though he sits beside another human being, ultimately, he is alone. He will never find wholeness or complete intimacy. There will always be something wanting—never a lasting union.

Josh Larsen sums it up on “Though [Her] rejects salvation by technology, it doesn’t take the next step—to recognize that we were meant for real relationship and that God is at work to restore our relationships, both with Him and each other.”

We are not alone. God and his love flood into our Story, unfailing and eternal, restoring and healing, intimate and whole. 

This post is a slightly edited version of this month's column at MWR.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Dulling an edgy story

Last month, the middle installment of the Hunger Games trilogy hit theaters. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are forced again to fight to the death in the Hunger Games as the affluent Capitol tries to stamp out the rebellion simmering in the impoverished Districts. President Snow rules with oppression, violence and viciousness. The people long for deliverance.

It is a sobering story exposing the iniquity of consumerism, economic oppression and violence—which makes a recent merchandising trend associated with the films somewhat disturbing.

Mobile game Panem Run has players struggling to survive and competing for high scores. Net-a-Porter features the “Capitol Couture” clothing line and Subway touts a “Where Victors Eat” marketing campaign. Then there’s Covergirl’s “Capitol Collection,” a line of makeup, as EOnline puts it, “more Effie Trinket than Katniss Everdeen.”

Net-a-Porter Capitol Couture
Perhaps most disturbing is that Lionsgate was approached for theme park rights to the franchise. Seriously? A theme park centered on a story in which children are forced to fight to the death?

In Christianity Today, film critic Alissa Wilkinson says this marketing trend “declaws the seriousness of the story of The Hunger Games, in much the same way that the actual affluent Capitol in the books declaws the seriousness of the ‘real’ Hunger Games…by staging flashy weeks-long television specials around it in order to distract from the horror of juvenile carnage by making it entertaining.”

In the Houston Chronicle, Marty Troyer also notes how this kind of marketing eerily mimics how the Capitol controls the narrative through advertising and pop culture. By making the games mainstream entertainment, the Capitol neuters a shocking injustice and twists it into a support system for its agenda and power.

Troyer notes that this watering down of subversive and edgy messages is intrinsic to our branding and sloganed t-shirt culture. “Jesus too has been cop-opted,” Troyer notes. “He himself was oppressed and ministered to the oppressed…. And yet we have refashioned him into our image in order to make sense of our suburban despair.”

Troyer makes a good point. Popular culture can’t take all the blame for the way we rewrite and declaw our own Story.

Too often, we edit the narrative to exclude troubling aspects—and we start this early with the Bible stories we filter for our children. In Christian Century’sR-Rated: How to Read the Bible with Children,” Sarah Hinlicky Wilson notes the “cuteness of paired-off animals, a rainbow and a dove” make it into the story of Noah while the “divinely willed, near extinction of the human race” is usually avoided. It’s not simply because we don’t want to give our kids more than they’re ready for. “It’s … even more so what grown-ups are capable of stomaching themselves,” says Wilson.
                                                                                                                                                  We also attempt to neuter difficult aspects by making entertainment out of it. On his blog, Kurt Willems ponders Omega, an “end-times” board game, mulling over both its theological basis and its “escapist” nature. No matter what your opinion of the dispensationalism, the idea of making entertainment out a narrative that predicts the suffering of countless millions should give us pause.

Recently, I ran across a popular Bible app for kids with an interactive element allowing users to manipulate characters or actions in the stories. The crucifixion scene gives you opportunities to make Mary cry or Jesus moan on the cross. In the context of this conversation, I find that somewhat disconcerting.

As we encounter and share our Story we must, as Wilson puts it, “abandon our efforts to control it.” Our Story is insurrectionary and troubling, exposing darkness in the systems we create as well as our souls. At times, it leaves us wrestling and even angry with God. But, at its core, it is a story of deliverance, redemption and hope in broken world destined to be whole once more. 

That’s a Story that needs to be told—just as it is.

This is a slightly longer version of my column that appeared in the December 23 2013 issue of Mennonite World Review

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Europa Report: Meaning and existence

Magnolia Pictures

There’s an uneasy feeling I get on the rare occasion I stand under a moonless night sky—the Milky Way spread thick, full of star-generating factories and galaxies, hot burning suns and all that … space. My chest gets tight. The weight is palatable. I am a speck in the dust of creation, and I feel myself brush against the edges of terror and wonder.

That feeling permeates Europa Report, a science fiction film recounting an ill-fated manned trip to Jupiter’s moon using a docu-drama style with found footage from the Europa One mission. It is an intriguing story full of contrasting images of beauty and the hostility of space that explores the tension between wonder and discovery and human hubris and fragility.

That tension is accentuated by a surprisingly compatible use of a starkly realistic portrayal of space travel and a horror-genre structure.

JPL and NASA scientists consulted on the film, and critics have noted Europa Report as one of the most realistic portrayals of space travel in film.  The crew is made up of fairly plausible scientists and seasoned veterans of the space program. Indeed, it was a pleasure to watch a film and not have to suspend my disbelief scene after scene.

The film’s realistic portrayal includes the dangers and problems associated with human space travel, which is accentuated by its horror-like structure as the hazards of space travel pick off the crew members one by one. But the structure does not dominate the film. Critics have noted that most of the deaths are realistic and plausible events, and there’s a lack of melodrama associated with the genre. For the most part, the structure is subtle and rarely overshadows the story (except for the ending, which feels like it may fall prey to its structure).

The film’s coupling of the realism of the space travel and the training and experience of the mission team against the reality of a vastly unknown and inhospitable space confronts us with human hubris. We too easily fall prey to the illusion that, with all our accomplishments and advancements, we have tamed nature and mastered our planet. While the occasional storm or earthquake makes us pause, we tend to think we are in control for the most part. Interestingly, one of the focuses of modern science and legislation is curbing man’s effect on the planet.

But space exploration reminds us of our limitations. As the advancements and training of the Europa One crew unravel, we are confronted with the illusions of our accomplishments, control and advancements

Europa Report reminds us how frail we actually are. As an ancient poet once put it, “we are dust”:

The life of mortals is like grass,  
They flourish like a flower of the field; 
The wind blows over it and it is gone,
And in its place remembers it no more.~Psalm 103:15-16

Or, as an ancient king once reflected, “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals” (Ecclesiastes 3:19).

Faced with this reality, we ask ourselves existential questions: what is the meaning of our existence? Or perhaps more basic: is there meaning?

Interestingly, Europa Report’s answer could be seen as a tribute of sorts to a gnostic worldview in which the highest virtue is knowledge and the noblest human act is to sacrifice oneself in its pursuit.

One character reflects “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known... what does your life actually matter?” At the end of the film, a scientist reflects on the mission: “We now know that our universe is stranger, far more alive, than we had ever imagined. The crew of Europa One changed the fundamental context in which all of humanity understands itself. I don't know what greater measure of success they could have achieved.”

But even in the film itself, those sentiments feel a bit hollow. It doesn’t seem to bring much comfort, if any at all, to the crew or those who reflect on the mission back on earth. Another character, as he works towards saving the mission, mutters, “It’s pointless.”

But the ancient poet and sage tell a different story.

They tell us that there is something greater than our own (illusionary) power and influence, the world around us and even the heavens above. They tell us of One who hovered over the dark depths in the beginning, spoke a word and the hot, dense stuff of life exploded. All those galaxies, star generating factories and burning suns are but a garment spread across the shoulders of a God who spoke the universe into being.

Perhaps, then, what we see when we stand at the edge of the universe—and how we answer those existential questions of meaning—might have something to do with how we view the universe.

In Signs, Graham Hess breaks people down into two groups: those who believe that “there is someone up there, watching out for them” and that “whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them” and those who believe that “whatever happens, they're on their own.” Where you fall determines whether you respond to the unknown with hope or with suspicion and fear.

In Everything New, Jeff Cook puts it in philosophical terms, saying the glasses through which we choose to view the world will determine what we see. “Much of the philosophy coming out in recent years show us that the way we look at the world influences and affects what we claim is true,” says Cook. “That is, all ‘facts’ are theory dependent. As such, the glasses we first decide to wear (or choose to change during the course of our lives) dictate what we believe is real.” This explains why, says Cook, so many brilliant men and women fall on both sides of the God question. Lack of evidence isn’t the problem, says Cook, but rather “how we choose to look at the evidence.”

Europa Report reminds me of those nights I stand on our small beach at the edge of the universe, stripped of my hubris and illusions and bearing the weight of my fragile and tiny existence. But eventually my wonder-terror is saturated by the awe that the One who set it all in motion would not only take notice of such small, fragile creatures on one planet among trillions, but also love us—with a love that burns hotter and denser than the stuff of stars and suns, a love that is remaking and restoring. And that floods the universe with hope and meaning.

It’s not pointless. It’s a miracle.