Saturday, September 26, 2015
Friday, September 25, 2015
Monday, September 14, 2015
Sometimes, images echoing the kingdom show up in unexpected places.
Take Furious 7, for example. The latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise took in $1 billion in 17 days. That’s faster than Avatar, The Avengers and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.
Interestingly, the muscle car and high-octane action franchise has a wide appeal. Forty-nine percent of the Fast & Furious 6 audience was women. The films attracts across ethnic lines as well.
In a Washington Post article, Stephanie Merry notes that the film’s success is due to a combination of factors, including appealing characters, charismatic and multi-ethnic stars, and car race and chase scenes “whose James Bond-caliber inventiveness and sheer grace let you ignore their absurdity.”
Then Merry notes the film’s surprising emotional core: “the loyalty of these engine-revving, brawling, backyard-barbequing street racers-turned-heist artists who consider themselves ‘family’.”
The Fast & Furious family centers around Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), a tough but good-hearted ex-con and elite street racer. He’s protective of his sister Mia, whom he raised after their father was killed. Mia falls in love with and eventually marries Brian O’Connell (the late Paul Walker), who becomes like a brother to Torretto.
Over the years, others—most of whom live on society’s margins and have little if any connection with their biological families—graft into this diverse, unified, forgiving family. Each brings gifts and talents which make them stronger together. They bond deeply and share their resources. Individual members often sacrifice their own best interest for the best interest of each other and the group.
“I don’t have friends,” says Tortetto in Furious 7. “I have family.”
This surrogate family is their primary group. “The most important thing in life will always be the people right here, right now. That’s what’s real,” says Toretto.
One of the most iconic images of the franchise is the crew gathered around a large backyard table sharing a prayed-over meal. In a culture fraught with individualism, it’s no wonder Fast and Furious family speaks to our craving not only for connection but deep bonds like theirs.
There’s plenty in the Fast & Furious world that conflicts with the Jesus Way of life, but I find this grafted-together, table-gathering family a thought-provoking image echoing the kind of family Jesus calls us to.
“Jesus radically challenged His disciples…to join the new surrogate family of siblings He was establishing—the family of God,” says Joseph Hellerman in When the Church was a Family.
“Who do you think my mother and brothers are?” Jesus asks. He stretches out his hand toward his disciples, a grafted-together eclectic group that occupies the margins of society. “Look closely. These are my mother and brothers” (Matthew 12:48 Message).
This family was their primary group, not only nurturing spiritual growth and formation but also serving as economic safety nets for each other. Noting Jesus’ conversation with his disciples after his encounter with the rich young ruler, Hellerman points out that Jesus expects this surrogate family group to reflect the practical benefits of biological families, including access to the material resources.
Early Christian literature is full of stories of the ancient church living this out. And let’s not forget all that table-gathering, the most basic of family activities and a simple yet profound act of resource sharing.
While Torretto’s crew probably isn’t what Jesus had in mind when he put all that in motion, perhaps it should give us pause. In some ways, the Fast & Furious family reflects Jesus’ kingdom family better than many of us live out today.
“The group, not the individual, took priority in a believer's life in the early church,” says Hellerman says in a Christianity Today article. “If we are really serious about spiritual formation, we must become really serious about creating churches that act like real families.”
This post originally appeared as a column for MWR.
Thursday, September 10, 2015
Monday, September 07, 2015
Sunday, September 06, 2015
Saturday, September 05, 2015
Thursday, September 03, 2015
Wednesday, September 02, 2015
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
IT’S JANUARY IN BEIRUT, LEBANON. The air is cold in the shade of the old apartment building I walk into with Hoda Melki and two other women from Heart for Lebanon, a Lebanese faith-based relief and development organization working with Iraqi and Syrian refuges.
Over 1.8 million Syrian and Iraqirefugees have fled to Lebanon due to the Syrian civil war and the unrest in Iraq. H4L, which Hoda and her husband Camille founded in 2006, provides food and hygiene distributions to over 800 Iraqi families in Beirut. Hoda is taking me to meet one of the families.
Inside the building’s concrete foyer, a door opens to a tiny elevator, its floor hovering a few inches above the foyer. It isn’t big enough for all of us, so I follow Hoda up four flights of stairs to a small landing with only two doors. One of the doors opens and we step into a long corridor.
Inside, a kind faced Iraqi man in his 30s meets us. The women talk with him in Arabic and introduce me. His name is Adeeb. His family shares this apartment with a number of other refugees.
Adeeb leads us by a sparsely furnished living room and kitchen, down a long hall and into a bedroom. Four single beds pushed together and neatly covered with blankets take up most of the room. The walls are empty except for a baseball hat and a single window with brown curtains. A small television sits on a cloth-covered table in one corner, and a large cabinet takes up space along another wall.
Adeeb’s wife, Doha, is sitting on the bed at the end, her legs covered by the blankets. She smiles a little as she talks with the other women. Translating their conversation, Hoda tells me that Doha isn’t feeling well. She has had an allergic reaction to medicine she is taking for an infection.
Two boys—Joseph and Aynar—bring plastic lawn chairs through another door that leads to a tiny balcony. Their sister, Sarah, leans on metal crutches and watches me with a small smile as I pull out my camera and recording equipment.
When we sit down, one of the women pulls the youngest boy, Aynar, onto her lap, talking to him in Arabic. He smiles and shyly answers her questions.
Then one of the women ask Adeeb and Doha if they would share their story again, telling them Hoda will translate for me. Doha looks over and nods.
ADEEB AND DOHA lived in a small Christian village in Iraq. They had a good life and lived in a beautiful house with their extended family. Adeeb was an English teacher, and Doha stayed home with their four children. They had just bought land on which to build their own house.
“But now we cannot go back,” Doha says.
One day last August, ISIS began shelling their village. The family was taking shelter in the garden.
"My son, David, was four years old,” Doha tells us. “He and his cousin were playing, and a bomb landed on him.”
David and his nine-year-old cousin Milad were killed. The bomb not only destroyed the house, but also David’s body. The children in the village brought pieces of his body to his family. One of Adeeb and Doha’s sons found his brother's ear.
The people in the village took pictures, and Doha wants to know if she can show them to me. When I nod, she gets out of bed and moves over to the cabinet. From a shelf of neatly folded clothes, Doha pulls out a large envelope. Inside are official papers regarding David’s death and a stack of photographs.
On top are photos of flesh and body parts that are no longer recognizable as human. Pictures of her son. In silence, she hands them to me one by one. At one point she looks away.
She pauses on a photo of smiling young boys. She hands it to one of the other women in the room, who tells me it is David with his cousins before the bombing. Underneath it are photos of injured children in torn clothes lying on beds, their bodies blackened and bloody. One of them is another of David’s cousins.
“Why are we suffering like this?” Adeeb asks. “My children had to pick up the pieces of their brother…. I am so sad, thinking about all this.”
AFTER THE BOMBING, most of their friends and family fit whatever they could into their cars and fled the village. Adeeb, Doha and their children stayed behind to take care of David. Adeeb washed what was left of his son’s body, and they buried him.
By the time they left, ISIS wouldn’t let them take anything with them, including their car. “ISIS took everything from us," Doha says.
They walked for days. Sarah, who was born with a paralytic condition that affects her legs, was on crutches. Adeeb shows me where he had to mend one of them after it broke.
They lived on the streets, fending off stray dogs at night. “No covers, no clothes, no money," says Doha.
Eventually, the family took shelter with others refugees in a school in Arbil. A local church had turned it into a refuge. Adeeb, Doha and the children were there for a month and half.
“How did you get here?” one of the women asks her.
Before the crisis, Adeeb and Doha traveled to Lebanon to seek medical care for Sarah. While here, they met a nun and priest who, after they heard about the family’s situation last summer, sent a car for them and helped them leave Iraq. The family stayed at a convent in Lebanon until they moved into this room in the apartment.
"Everything you see here," said Doha, nodding to the tiny room, "is from them."
THE TRAUMATIC EVENTS of the past six months has taken its toll on their children. They are scared to go outside or leave their parents. Sarah needs a surgery that would help her regain use of their legs, but Adeeb and Doha don't know if they'll be able to get it for her.
Doha tells us about one of Aynar’s recent dreams. David came to him and asked, “Why did you leave me? Why don't you come home?”
"Anyar dreams this because we buried David, and then we left," Doha explains. Her voice breaks. "We did not have time to visit the graves."
Adeeb and Doha are waiting to see where the UN will send them, but the process is slow. While Sara's medical needs and David’s death may be factors that enable the UN to process their status more quickly, they will probably be in Beirut for many more months—even years.
That is distressing for Doha and Adeeb. Jobs are almost impossible to find for refugees, and landlords often unfairly raise rents. Adeeb and Doha also worry that Sara may not get the medical attention she needs and that their children are not going to school. With hundreds of thousands of refugee children in Lebanon, the schools don’t have the room to take them in.
“I want to get out of here,” says Adeeb. “I want a better life for my family.”
The boys, who left earlier, come back into the room to talk with their parents. The women look concerned. Hoda tells me that the family’s dinner burned while we were talking to them. I understand why the women are concerned. Losing a meal means the family will go hungry tonight.
AS WE GET READY TO LEAVE, we pray with them. Sarah asks if she can sing us a song she had recently learned. She sings a children’s Sunday school song in Arabic for us. “She is singing, ‘God is so good to me,’” Hoda tells me. “’He loves me.’”
Before we go, Adeeb shows me a picture of David on his cell phone. A dark haired little boy stands against a brick wall in blue jeans and a sweater. I ask if I can take a picture, and Adeeb smiles and nods. When I take the family’s picture, I ask them to hold up the photo of David, too.
After we leave, Hoda and the other women walk straight to a corner store, buy several bags of groceries and carry them back to the apartment building. Adeeb and Anyar are coming out of the elevator and break into smiles. They load the bags back into the elevator as we leave.
“We burned their dinner,” Hoda says. “The least we can do is give them another one.”
* * *
This account of my visit with Adeeb and Doha originally appeared on For Such a Time is Now, a website dedicated to raising awareness of the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis. Adeeb and Doha’s story is only one of many—and those of us in North America and Europe are in a unique position to help them. Compared to refugees like Adeeb and Doha, we abound in wealth, influence and resources. We have the power to speak for those who do not have a voice (Proverbs 31:8-9). You can help by sharing their story with others and supporting organizations like Heart for Lebanon who are providing food and other aid to refugees. To learn more about Heart for Lebanon, visit their website. To learn about other organizations advocating for the refugees, visit For Such a Time is Now. To learn more about the crisis, go here.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
This month, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods & Kings came out on DVD. Below is a (slightly edited) reflection I wrote on the film in a MWR column earlier this year:
Last year, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods & Kings capped off a year of biblical films. Like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, it is a Bible epic made by a director who has identified himself both as agnostic and atheist. Yet Scott’s approach to his story is very different from Aronofsky’s — and both reflect ways we believers approach Scripture, too.
I enjoyed Noah, particularly how Aronofsky used midrash, an ancient Jewish approach to Scripture used to fill in narrative gaps in difficult or sparse passages with the goal to better understand them. While Noah has elements outside the Bible narrative, many of Aronofsky’s choices are rooted in Jewish and biblical texts. He shows a respect for the narrative that ultimately helps us wrestle with the story’s hard questions.
I was disappointed by . Unlike , it was not well-received by critics. Many found the film inconsistent, disjointed and unconvincing.
Take the film’s uneven portrayal of God. Moses’ first encounter with God comes after a head injury, suggesting his vision of God (as a grim and angry child) is a delusion. Yet God’s reality is displayed powerfully later in the film.
I was also disappointed by how the film’s flaws undermined its approach to one of the more disturbing aspects of the Exodus narrative. As Peter Chattaway points out in his review, Scott is troubled by why God would let people suffer so long, as well as by the violence of God’s actions. Indeed, one of the more moving parts of the film is Rhamses’ confrontation with Moses after the death of Rhamses’ son. “Is this your God? A killer of children?” asks Rhamses, holding out his child’s body.
That’s a question worth tackling, but we lose its context in the film. After all, the man asking the question demands to be worshiped as a god himself, strips an entire people of their humanity through slavery and follows in the footsteps of a man who slaughtered Hebrew children.
But we get no real sense of that in the film. Even as Scott fleshed out the Egyptians characters, he “watered down his protagonists, giving us almost no insight into their suffering and burning need for liberation,” writes Annalee Newitz in her . review
Part of the inconsistency may be explained by Scott’s own struggle with belief in God while simultaneously trying to understand him. In , Scott Foundas says the director describes himself as “compelled by the notion of Moses as a reluctant hero — a nonbeliever like himself who . . . finds himself actively questioning God’s plans and his own role in them.”
Or perhaps In an interview with Jonathan Merritt, Scott describes himself as a “very practical person” who chose what elements to accept and reject in the story based on “what did make sense and what didn’t make sense” to him. ultimately fails because Scott approaches the story by eliminating and adding elements to make it fit with his own unsettled journey and worldview.
That’s not an uncommon way to approach Scripture, even for believers.
“Some people read the Bible as if its passages were Rorschach inkblots. They see what is in their head,” writes Scot McKnight in . “Instead of being an opportunity for redemption, the Bible becomes an opportunity for narcissism.”
To some extent, and reflect these two approaches to Scripture. And that’s part of the reason I love film: for the stories it tells and how it tells them, and also for the way it challenges us to think about how we read and tell those stories.