Thursday, March 19, 2015

'Exodus: Gods & Kings' -- This Moses is no 'Noah'

via dvdreleasedates.com
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 Exodus. Unlike Noah, 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 io9 review.

Part of the inconsistency may be explained by Scott’s own struggle with belief in God while simultaneously trying to understand him. In Variety, 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 Exodus ultimately fails because Scott approaches the story by eliminating and adding elements to make it fit with his own unsettled journey and worldview. 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.

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 The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. “Instead of being an opportunity for redemption, the Bible becomes an opportunity for narcissism.”


To some extent, Noah and Exodus 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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

For Such a Time is Now

Syrian child in a tent settlement in the Bekka Valley, Lebanon © Carmen Andres
In January of this year, I traveled to Lebanon with a small team from my church to gather stories from Syrian and Iraqi refugees displaced by the civil war in Syria and the conflict in Iraq.
The unrest in the Middle East has unleashed an historical humanitarian crisis. More than two million have fled Iraq. In an attempt to escape the Syrian civil war, over three million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (which alone has almost 1.8 million refugees within its borders). Millions more are displaced within the borders of Syria.
To record my journey and the stories I gathered there, I created a space called For Such a Time is Now. Every so often, I will be cross posting stories here on In the Open Space because this issue is something I care deeply about--and frankly, these stories need to be brought into as many open spaces as possible.
Many of the stories are heartbreaking. Many of the refugees have lost family members—husbands, wives, children, siblings, parents—to the conflicts or on their journeys out of Syria or Iraq. Many fled with little more than the clothes they were wearing and what they could carry. Most are living in make-shift tent settlements or in apartments crowded with multiple families. The children, who have no access to school, are often sent out to beg or work.
But there are also stories of hope. There are people and organizations working hard to alleviate the suffering—and there are ways that you can help make a difference.
Those of us who live in North America and Europe are in a unique position. Compared to the refugees, many of us abound in wealth, influence and resources. We have the power to speak for those who do not have a voice (Proverbs 31:8-9). I am haunted by Mordecai’s conversation with Esther, who struggled with how much she might have to sacrifice in order to use her position of power and influence to speak for a whole people suffering and in danger. “Who knows,” he challenges her. “Maybe you were made queen for such a time as this.” Perhaps we are a population of Esthers whose wealth and resources were given for such a time as now.
Over the coming months, I will continue to add stories and photos to that site in hopes of raising awareness of the crisis and encouraging people to learn more about ways to help. I hope you will check in periodically with For Such a Time is Now and share what you learn with your family, friends, church and others.
Together, we can make a significant difference in the lives of those who are suffering.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A tale of broken codes

If you have Facebook, you’ve probably seen a lot of “Year in Review” posts, in which Facebook gathers a selection of photos from the past year and puts them together in a kind of mini scrapbook. Chances are you’ve done it yourself. I did.

And if you have Facebook, you also might have seen the story going around about one father’s reaction to the meme.

For web design consultant and writer Eric Meyer, it wasn’t such a great year. His six year old daughter died of brain cancer. For him, the “Year in Review” was painful. 

“To show me Rebecca's face and say 'Here's what your year looked like!' is jarring," Meyer wrote in a blog post, using his experience to illustrate the point that more thought needs to be put into designing code like the one Facebook used for its meme. "It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it's just unfortunate."

Meyer’s post went viral—a surprise to him, as he didn’t expect it to be read by more than a few hundred of his family, friends, colleagues and friends of colleagues.

I can understand why it went viral. When I read it, I resonated with his insights into and reminder of the stark difference between the technology we use and, well, we humans. I also resonated with his observation of the way social media caters to “the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user.”

But here’s where the story gets human. Facebook’s Year in Review product manager Jonathan Gheller saw the post and personally apologized to Meyer. And Meyer’s response?

This.

Meyer, whom we would give every right to rail against the machine and those who created it, apologizes to Gheller and his team. “I owe the Year in Review team in specific, and Facebook in general, an apology. No, not the other way around… He and his team didn’t deserve it.

Why? Because “failure to consider worst-case scenarios” is prevalent in coding everywhere, says Meyer. His original post meant to use Facebook's "Year in Review" as an example of that.

Instead, however, it became a rallying point of condemnation against Gheller and his team. Meyer was distressed by that response:

What surprised and dismayed me were the…let’s call them "uncharitable" assumptions made about the people who worked on Year in Review. “What do you expect from a bunch of privileged early-20s hipster Silicon Valley brogrammers who’ve never known pain or even want?” seemed to be the general tenor of those responses. 
No.  Just no.  This is not something you can blame on Those Meddling Kids and Their Mangy Stock Options. 
First off, by what right do we assume that young programmers have never known hurt, fear, or pain?  How many of them grew up abused, at home or school or church or all three?  How many of them suffered through death, divorce, heartbreak, betrayal?  Do you know what they’ve been through?  No, you do not.  So maybe dial back your condescension toward their lived experiences.

Meyer spends the rest of his post showing how Gheller’s team is just like the rest of us, falling prey to “a failure to anticipate how a design decision that really worked in one way completely failed in another.” That failure, says Meyer, isn’t because they are bad designers, lack empathy, or ignored their users. Instead, he says:

This is such a common failure that it’s almost not a failure any more.  It just… is.

This story makes my mind spin. It fleshes out not only several struggles we have in an increasingly technological world but also what it means to be human and the power of knowing a full story.

We are flawed, human creatures. Even when we have the best of intentions, we hurt others. Our tendency is to make assumptions of the ones who hurt us, to dehumanize and box them up in a stereotype. But each of us has a story—and often, knowing that story turns “them” into “us.” Knowing those stories often touches our own woundedness and brokenness, which gives us a context in which to relate to others, even those who hurt us.

And the willingness to see the humanity of those who have hurt us enables us to respond with Love, the kind of Love with which we are first loved—one that forgives.

In Meyer’s case, the hurt visited on him wasn’t intentional. Being human, we know that isn’t always the case. Yet there is still power in knowing the stories of others, even our enemies. It gives us a context in which to relate—for we too are broken and wounded. It won’t excuse hurtful actions or negate the consequences that must be borne for those actions, but it does enable us to begin a path towards wholeness and healing.

Meyer ends his post by calling for a thoughtful examination of the status quo:
We need to challenge that “is”. I’ve fallen victim to it myself. We all have.  We all will. It will take time, practice, and a whole lot of stumbling to figure out how to do better, but it is, I submit, vitally important that we do.

While Meyer is talking about state of technological coding and design, his words are also a call to challenge the “is” of the broken and limited coding that infects human nature as well. At least, it is for me.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Beyond physical science

Something about space exploration invites us to ponder our place in the universe. From the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey to last summer’s Europa Report, storytellers have explored the mystery of human existence against the vast unknown of space. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is one of the most ambitious of those.
In Interstellar, the Earth is dying. NASA sends a manned mission to explore 12 planets with the goal of finding one on which to resettle Earth’s population.
In the midst of a visually stunning journey, the characters wrestle with deeply human questions. What is the value of life? Are we simply biological creatures with personality and emotional settings to enhance our survival — or are we more than that? Is survival of the species the highest end? Is there something more? What? For what are we willing to kill or sacrifice?
I love those questions, but I’m most intrigued by the way Interstellar prods at materialism, a culturally embedded philosophy that says nothing exists except matter and things can only be measured or known through the physical sciences.
Materialism views humanity only with that lens. Everything about us — our thoughts, desires, feelings and beliefs — are chemical reactions preprogrammed to promote the survival of humans. According to materialism, things like meaning and freedom are illusions, says Jeff Cook in Everything New, “nothing more than fluids, luck and the random collisions of molecules” designed to “promote and replicate our genes.”
Interstellar offers a layered critique of materialism, particularly the ramifications of acting on the belief that the greatest end is survival of the species. Well-intentioned educators have no problem writing the Apollo moon landing out of history in an attempt to keep people focused on farming and survival. A scientist is willing to let Earth’s population die off in order to guarantee the survival of the species through embryonic reseeding on another world. Another scientist — who literally gives a voice to materialism — lies, manipulates and attempts murder to ensure his own survival.
Up against these narratives, Interstellar ponders the experience and existence of love. Is it part of our survival programming — a chemical reaction or social utility? Or is it more, something outside of ourselves that connects us to each other?
“Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful; it has to mean something,” says one character, pondering whether the way we think, act and perceive should be influenced not only by the sciences but also by love — “the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.”
While Interstellar doesn’t explore this as deeply as it could (e.g., if love isn't something we invented, where does it come from?), Nolan chooses love as the thing that raises us above our physical programming and destiny.
“Death and genetics are immensely powerful. . . . It would take something with enormous muscle and compassion to push back the course of nature,” says Cook. The only hope to escape the ramifications of death and our bondage to the chemicals within us is “help from something immaterial . . . something beyond nature that not only has the power but also has the will to breathe into us a bigger kind of life.”
Physical science is right: We are bound by genetics and death. “We all came from dust, we all end up as dust” (Eccl. 3:20,The Message). But there is more to the universe. There is a Love — not only transcending time and space, but entering into it — who saves us from our bondage and makes everything new, even us.
This is a slightly longer version of my column in the November 24 issue of MWR.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Interview with David Fitch: Evangelicalism, Anabaptism, and Being the Church in a Post-Christian Culture

This past spring, I spent a little over an hour on the phone with David Fitch, an author, pastor and theology professor. Our conversation has just been published in Anabaptist Witness, a journal published by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. 

For the last 10 years, I have been on a journey of rethinking what it means to be the church. Early on that journey, I stumbled on author and professor Scot McKnight, whose explorations of Jesus, the kingdom and the gospel as a larger Story were welcome manna along the way. As McKnight and Fitch are colleagues and friends, it didn't take long to run into Fitch's blog and writings about missional theology. I found Prodigal Christianity: Ten Signposts into the Missional Frontier a particularly challenging and affirming exercise of putting that theology into practice.

In May 2013, McKnight and Fitch were among the plenary speakers at Missio Alliance’s inaugural gathering in Alexandria, my home town. Missio Alliance is a multi-denominational coming together under a common commitment to provide a place to address what faithfulness to Christ and His Mission might look like for the churches of North America. In other words, what it looks like to be the people of God we are called and enable to be here and now.

I found great value in getting to know the faces and personalities behind the authors, thinkers, theologians and people in a conversation I’d been following for the last decade. In one session, Scot McKnight and Cherith Nordling touched on how the theological voices who change the way we think are not formless voices coming to us out of a void but connected to real people and personalities. And I enjoyed the chance to get to know those personalities, particularly Alan and Debra Hirsh, Todd Hunter, Nordling, Fitch, and McKnight.

And I was thrilled by the presence of Anabaptism in the discussion. It has been interesting watching the theology move from the margins and saturate the current conversation. For most of my life, I have straddled the Anabaptist and evangelical streams in my explorations of Jesus and the church, and I have found affirmation in maintaining that tension in Fitch and McKnight, who wrestle with those tensions as well.

Through Missio Alliance and writers like McKnight and Fitch (and Dallas Willard, Richard Foster—the list is quite long, actually), I have also found great affirmation that I am not alone in this journey. Truth be told, 10 years into it, I thought we might be further. But that’s my own weakness. Foster says it’s a slow process, and I’m impatient. But, for the first time in a long time, I am expectant. I see the movement of the church to the margins in a Post-Christian world as an unexpected opportunity, one that gives us the chance to loose the entanglements that have kept us from being the authentic communities of love, justice, and restoration into which our gospel compels us.

So, it was a pleasure to talk with David Fitch about what it means to be the church in a post-Christian world and about the growing relationship between evangelicalism and Anabaptism. May it be a helpful addition to the larger conversation about what it means to be the people of God we are called and enabled to be here and now.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Background noise

©  | Dreamstime Stock Photos
When I work, I often play music in the background. Recently I noticed that I was gravitating toward playlists I’d made from film soundtracks. I enjoyed the music itself, but I was also experiencing something else: comfort. It had been a challenging few weeks, and the music was helping me feel more grounded and peaceful.

When I thought about it, that made sense. The music is associated with some of my favorite films that, in the midst of their sometimes dark worlds, are life-affirming and woven through with redemption, hope and love. In some way, the music was weaving the truths of those stories back into my soul.
And that intrigued me. I’ve long known that we human beings are wired to respond to stories, but I was struck by how subtly and deeply they were influencing me and my outlook on life.
In “Why Fiction Is Good for You,” Jonathan Gottschall notes that research indicates fiction profoundly shapes our perception of the world. Happy endings and themes like poetic justice, says Gottschall, “make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is.” But believing that may make the world a more just place — “and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.”
This resonates, not because happy endings and poetic justice are lies per se, but because those two things actually reflect deeper truths: According to God’s story revealed in Scripture, we know the world should be — and, in the (happy) end, will be — a more just place.
All of that was stirring around inside me as I listened to the music from a few of those stories. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
No wonder Dallas Willard tells us we should be intentional with the things with which we surround ourselves. “We need to be in the presence of images, both visual and auditory (good sayings, poetry and songs),” says Willard in Renovation of the Heart. “These can constantly direct and redirect our minds toward God.” In particular, Willard suggests arranging these images in our living and work spaces as a way of “keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind.”
I do this in my house. There’s a quote from Augustine on the kitchen window sill and crosses on the wall above our television. Collections of posters of films that strike me for their connections with faith hang on our walls. Books that have spoken God’s truth into my life are collected on a shelf in my bedroom that I see every day.
I’ve learned this is important because I get distracted easily. In “Five Ways You Don’t Realize Movies are Controlling Your Brain,” David Wong points out that because our brains are built to process everything we see as a story, we quickly lose interest in things — like ongoing news stories — if they don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. We just kind of forget about it, he says.
This can happen with our own larger narrative as well. Though God’s story has an end, we are in the middle of it. If we lose track of it, we’re in danger of unconsciously taking on the culture’s narratives  images of which surround us every day on billboards, ads and magazine covers.
We’re influenced by story in deep ways, be it the stories that reflect our culture or stories that reflect God’s story. If we are intentional, we can keep God’s story in mind throughout the day — even by playing a movie soundtrack while we work.


This is a repost of my October 13 column at MWR.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Love will lead us home

The Giver is one of my favorite novels. Critics are mixed on the recent film adaptation, but I find it a good companion piece. I like how its visual nature heightens aspects like the impact of memory and the role of color. But most of all, I appreciate how it honors and develops the story’s focus on the transforming power of love.

The film matures Jonas and his friends from 12 to 16, adding a layer of depth to their relationships and the narrative, which stays pretty close to the novel. They live in a seemingly utopian community that aspires to “Sameness.” Everyone lives amicably, content in their assigned roles in a peaceable community governed by seemingly benevolent Elders.

That changes for Jonas when he is chosen as the Receiver. He starts to experience the world’s collective memories — from the beauty of snow to the horror of war and death — stored in the memory of the Giver, who serves as an adviser of sorts to the Elders.

Jonas also discovers that everyone in the community is medicated to control emotions in order to maintain an ordered society. But the injections don’t just eliminate hate, anger and fear. They also deaden love and joy.

The more memories Jonas receives and the more he learns about his community, the more he struggles to find a way to restore what they’ve lost. And love is central to that journey.

The Giver echoes a profound truth of our own journey: Love has the power to wake us to and transform us toward the kind of life we were meant to live.

God built into us the capacity and ability to love, says C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. The love we feel for friends, family and beloveds are “natural images” or “foretastes” of God — who is Love Himself. As such, they provide “proximities of approach” or on-ramps that have the potential to become profound modes of transformation, moving us toward the love of Love Himself: as Lewis says, “love that seeks the good of the loved object for the object’s own sake.”

This is how we were created to love. This is the kind of love that overcomes and transforms hate, anger and fear in ourselves and others.

When we forget who we are, love wakes us up. Experiencing it transforms us and opens our eyes to, as the Giver puts it, “a life of shadows, of echoes of what once made us real.” We may not see perfectly, says Lewis, but “to know that one is dreaming is to be no longer perfectly asleep.”

The Weinstein Company
The Giver explores this kind of awakening. Jonas receives his first experience of love in a memory of a family at Christmas (a packed symbol of love in itself). That starts to change him: “Something within him . . . had grown,” as the novel puts it.

Then Jonas starts to experience love for those around him. As his experience of and capacity for love grows, Jonas and the way he sees the world transform (quite literally, in the latter case). By the end of his journey, Jonas has the capacity for the best love of all: laying down his life for others.

And Jonas’ capacity to love opens him to other things. “With love,” the Giver says in the film, “comes faith, comes hope.”

And it is these three things — love above all — that will lead us toward that day when “we’ll see it all . . . as clearly as God sees us” (1 Cor. 13:12-13).

Love wakes us to our “life of shadows” and reminds us of who we were created to be and the God who created us. In this world, we may not love perfectly. It may be “only an echo,” to play on Jonas’ final words in the film, “but it will lead us all home.”

This is a repost of my September 1 column at MWR.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Syrian stories: Why they need to be told



Hadija is 10 years old. She wakes up at 6:00am, climbs in the back of a truck full of children, and drives to a potato field in the Bekaa Valley where she will work for at least seven hours. 
Rami is 12 years old. Two years ago, he was in school in Syria, where his mom was a teacher. Today, he is in Lebanon, where he spends his day working behind a desk in a garage fixing tires. 
Abdel is seven. He sleeps on a cement floor in a tent with a plastic chair, a bucket and a few blankets. His last meal was the day before. Some rice. 
Dania is also seven. Under her Hello Kitty shirt is a jagged, stitched-up wound reaching from her belly button to her rib cage. Her legs are covered with scars from shrapnel. 
Raeda is 15. She lost sight in her right eye after being hit by shrapnel.

There are over three million other stories just like these. Three million. That’s the population of Phoenix and Philadelphia combined. That’s more people than live in Chicago.

(Syria 1, Emergencies 6) (9362333059)
Syrian refugee children living on the 
building site of a half-built apartment block
near Reyfoun in Lebanon (Photo: Eoghan
Rice, Creative Commons, Wikipedia)
For the past several years, the Syrian civil war has grown in intensity and scope, leading to an historic humanitarian disaster. Over six million have been displaced, fleeing the violence; three million of those have fled the country to nearby regions.

According to the New York Times, the rate of diaspora of those fleeing the Syrian civil war has been characterized by the United Nations as the worst since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. According to UNHCR, 1.4 million have fled to Lebanon, 600,000 to Jordan, over 800,000 to Turkey, and the rest scattered throughout the region, creating a tremendous strain on infrastructures and economies in areas already stretched thin. They leave their homes, possessions and communities with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Over four in five refugees are struggling to make ends meet in urban areas, while almost 40 percent, like Abdel, are living in sub-standard housing. Three-quarters of the refugees are women and children.

The Lebanese government has opposed the establishment of refugee camps in their country, so the refugees fit in wherever they can. According to ABC News, there are some 600,000 Syrian refugee children in that country, and at least half of them don’t attend school. Many of them, like Rami and Hadija, work instead.

It is hard to wrap our minds around the staggering numbers and the immensity of suffering. That is why stories are important. They cut through the evening news and statistics and makes it personal.  They confront us with real people. My son is six months younger than Rami. My daughter is a year older than Raeda. That makes my breath catch and my heart hurt--and it makes me want to do something about it.

And it should. That's what Jesus did. He saw a blind man and took him by the hand, led him out of a village and healed him until his eyes are clear. He saw and was moved to compassion by a mass of people, hungry and desperate, so he fed them. He saw a mad-man, cast out a legion of demons and then sat and talked with him for hours. Jesus really saw people. He sat with them, touched them and met their needs—be it sight, food or dignity.

When we really see people, we are moved to act, too. But what can we do, half a world away?

We can tell the stories. As we learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis, we can tell others about it, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. God calls us to speak for those who have no voice (Proverbs 31:8-9)--and many in this region are just such people. Their stories must be told—and we must hear them and tell their stories to others. Stories like these give all those numbers the faces of real, individual people and those places a smell, a sound, a feel. And that can move others to act, too.

And we can support organizations that are making a difference: 
  • Heart for Lebanon is a ministry my church partners with, which aims to be Jesus’ hands and feet to those who have been marginalized and rejected in Lebanon by providing long term and holistic care. One simple step? Buy a bar of homemade Lebanese olive oil soap and help sustain and create jobs—and for every bar you buy, one is given to a refugee family. 
  • World Vision is partnering with the UN to serve those displaced within Syria as well as those who have sought refuge in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. 
  • For my Anabaptist friends, there’s MCC, who’s providing emergency food, shelter, household items, trauma healing and education support and peacebuilding and disaster response training in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to address the growing needs of Christians and Muslims through partner organizations. 
  • There’s also Samaritan’s Purse, Save the Children, the Red Cross, UNICEF—check out the charities you are familiar with and see if they are in need of additional support to make a difference in the lives of those suffering in these areas.

A few months ago, I saw the above video by Save the Children, which imagines the nightmare a British child would experience if war hit England, driving home the experience of refugee children fleeing Syria. Last month, I sat in our church and heard about the refugees that Heart for Lebanon is working with. Like Danielle Dellorto, who tells Abdel’s story, I am overwhelmed by it all—and I resonate with the final words in her story: “I don't know what the solution is. But I know there has to be a way to help Abdel and the thousands of others like him.” 

Today, I’m beginning that journey. 




Friday, August 01, 2014

"We are Groot" -- A kingdom image


Marvel Studios

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

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

(Warning: some spoilers ahead)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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