The Devolution of the Super Hero and the Decay of Social Capital

While everyday that passes can certainly be considered just another day in the books, there are particular events that you know, even as they are still unfolding, will remain the topic of conversation for years to come. The types of events that will likely make there way into textbooks. That our kids and grandkids will ask us about. That will be considered pivotal moments for our culture. The cliché phrase “we’re living through history” seems all too fitting for these trying times.

Is it an overstatement to say the rioting at Capitol Hill fits that category? Or even that much of the social strife experienced over the past year will be worthy of reflection for future generations? Events filled with opportunities to teach lessons or at least offer a snapshot of what life was like within the United States in the early 21st century?

While it’s always difficult to assess the significance of a particular event within such a short timeframe, this feels even more difficult to put into words. Was this the climax of a long-building crescendo? Or is this just another “bump” in the long road of turmoil within our nation?

How did we get here? Whose fault is this? Where do we go from here? And how could this have been avoided?

As to be expected, there are many who are quick to give answers or at least vent their frustrations. Who’s at fault? The President? His base? The party that never reeled him in? Fascists? White supremacists? The patriarchy? Fake News? The Swamp? The Deep State? It depends who you ask. But for so many in this country, still living through the fog of a tumultuous year, the answer is crystal clear. The problem is the other tribe and it has been for a long time.

What’s sad is that in almost every rant that makes its way onto social media, there are at the very least kernels of truth. There’s no shortage of reasons to cast blame on pretty much everyone mentioned previously, which is what makes this so messy. One can easily make the case, that just about everyone has contributed in some way to getting us to this point.

And so, as much as we may want to cast judgements on the events of the recent past, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that this isn’t an isolated incident that came out of nowhere. It may be even more helpful to view this event against the backdrop of larger undercurrents that have been forming within society over many years and decades. To take a step back and try looking at it from a 10,000-foot view.

As I so often do in many of these posts, I find movies and TV shows so incredibly helpful because they represent the stories we tell ourselves that both inform our culture and reflect where it currently stands. Often popular art can give us a glimpse into where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. And I can think of no genre of movies and TV shows that reflects this evolution (or maybe better put “devolution”) more clearly than the super hero genre.

these aren’t your granddaddy’s super heroes

I’ll admit. I’m no comic book junkie. The extent of my comic book reading as a kid consisted of Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert, and The Far Side. I never really dabbled in the super hero genre. It just wasn’t my thing.

My exposure to super heroes as an adolescent was largely relegated to an occasional viewing of the Batman animated series and the live action Batman and Robin movies. You know, the ones with the over-the-top “KAPOW” and “BANG” lettering intermixed with each and every fight scene. It was enough for me to ask for my own Batman utility belt. But that was about the peak of my interest.

But my love for the super hero genre, really began with the first Iron Man movie and the introduction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Marvel Studios has been producing many of the highest grossing movies of the past decade, (for good reason) and continues to pump them out at an increasing frequency, no doubt to capitalize on an opportune moment while popularity remains high.

Sure the visual effects and CGI has taken current films to a completely new level of production quality than the older films. But maybe one of the most notable changes has come with the with the characters themselves.

Unlike the typical superhero trope of the past, none of the super heroes within the MCU maintain their secret identity. Ever since Tony Stark revealed his identity as Iron Man in the first movie, almost none of the characters have maintained an alter ego. There is no stark division drawn between their public and private lives. And that means for the viewer, you are presented with all of the flaws and weaknesses of the heroes.

In the past, clear lines were drawn between good and evil without much of a character arc required within the individual. But in today’s movies, although there are certainly clear “good guys” and “bad guys”, the protagonists have flaws, and deeper context is given for why the antagonists became who they are. Changes that certainly make the movies all the more engaging and are worthy of note.

But where this genre really takes a turn is with one of it’s most recent adaptations. The Boys, a very popular TV show on Amazon Prime that just finished its second season, demonstrates this shift in culture by very clearly contrasting itself against the many super hero stories of the past. And boy oh boy (pun intended), is it a doozy.

The show was recommended by friends of ours. With an 8.7 rating on IMDB, many award nominations, and considered one of the most popular shows today, this show is certainly drawing a lot of attention. And as usual in our household, Morgan started watching without me. Go figure. But I just so happened to sit down in time to catch this scene from the fourth episode which gave me an introduction into what this show was all about and I was immediately intrigued by its message.

Disclaimer: There is swearing, blood/gore, and disturbing content in this clip. The show is rated for mature audiences. While there is no sexual content in this clip, please know for future reference the show itself does contain pretty gratuitous amounts of it in the remainder of the show. In short, I don’t recommend this for kids.

I’m not sure if this scene hits you as hard as it hits me, but I can’t help but feel my stomach turn when they lie to the passengers that everything would be okay and abandon them to their demise. This scene encapsulates in just a few minutes what this whole show is about.

Clearly Homelander is a parody of Superman. Queen Maeve, a parody of Wonder Woman. There are other super heroes that allude to Aquaman and to The Flash. This whole show takes the oh so familiar concept of a group of super heroes like the Justice League, and flips it on its head. What if those who are responsible for our protection aren’t just incompetent at times, but they’re actually malevolent?

If you watch the show, you will see that this twist doesn’t just occur with the super heroes. Nearly every institution in this show is untrustworthy. A Christian organization is led by a man that is sexually deviant in private after condemning it publicly. A big pharmaceutical company is led by completely dishonest leaders and misleads the public every step of the way. Politicians are corrupt. Cults take advantage of their followers for monetary gain. Many of the relationships depicted are absolute train wrecks. Innocent bystanders killed all the time in both domestic and foreign affairs. And the show makes barely veiled allusions to many of our cultures hot-button topics like white supremacy, the #MeToo Movement, and police brutality. It has it all!

This show is at its core a thought experiment. What if we took the super hero concept and made a dystopian version of it? That my friends in a nutshell is The Boys. A show that probably would not have received anywhere near this level of popularity in the past. A show that probably won’t stand the test of time. But a show that shows so saliently what so many are feeling today.

And what’s their proposed solution? “The Boys.” A group of nobodies who have been hurt in the past by these super heroes and who group together to take down them down through not only non-violent means, but also through violence. The solution is a grassroots resistance rebelling against the powers at hand. Does this sound familiar?

The Decay of social capital

It may not come as a surprise that public trust in government has been hovering around an all-time low for much of the recent past. The below chart from Pew Research shows just how precipitously we’ve declined in trust in public officials these past 60 years.

Then one could look at the status of marriages over the past century and the waning influence it has within our society. And with the reduced rate of marriages, we have seen related patterns in the increase of babies born out of wedlock, certainly a condition that does not afford stability to the children – a storyline I would note that one can also find within the plot of The Boys.

I’m sure one could easily find similar studies showing trends for diminished trust in the police, our neighbors, clergy, state and local officials, schools, etc. And similar levels of disconnection from other institutions like church, community groups, friends and family. Despite having the ability to connect more easily today with anyone around the globe, we are more disjointed and less trusting of those around us.

Is it any wonder why a show like The Boys would resonate with people today yet almost certainly be incredibly off-putting to generations past? Is it any wonder why so many on both the right and left are resisting and rebelling against who they perceive to be the perpetrators of these conditions? Is it any wonder that many feel that resorting to violence is the only way for them to feel heard?

Social capital is rarely mentioned measure of a culture’s health. Honestly I wasn’t familiar with the term until very recently, but it is quite obvious once you hear it. Social capital is the value of the relationships within a society that not only bind us together, but propel us to live admirably and function effectively. High trust within a society reduces the need for regulation. Moral behaviors that arise from constructive relationships reduce the need for law enforcement. Social capital provides increased levels of satisfaction, stability and predictability to our lives. And it affords opportunities for the most disenfranchised to be heard when those relationships are prioritized between all levels of the hierarchy.

When societies are functioning at their best, social capital is high. Sadly many of the previous attributes mentioned do not describe the experiences for many in our nation today. In many regards, that dystopian vision of The Boys is not too far off from what many perceive to be reality. So what can we do?

so how do we build social capital again?

One may say that maybe our trust in the government in the past was too high. That the very carefully crafted propaganda of our past that afforded such a unifying vision of our country’s leadership cannot occur in this modern era, nor would we want that. Can you imagine a current president being able to hide for years their limited mobility like FDR did in the past?

Like that aforementioned change made in the MCU movies, for better or for worse, we are presented with far more of the strengths and flaws of our leaders than at any time in the past. With cameras everywhere and an expectation that communication not just come from polished speeches but from half-baked tweets, we will get an up-close view of not just their public lives, but their private lives too. In fact, with the advent of social media, we’re confronted with the best and worst of many of our peers as well. To some degree we need to learn to live with the messiness of one another that is aired out for all to see in ways it hasn’t in the past, including our leaders (not to be mistaken as an excuse for these recent riots).

But there are many other changes that have been occurring within our society over the past several decades. Many seemingly small and innocuous decisions are made by all of us that over time accumulate. The decision to continue a marriage or end it. To get to know our neighbors better or ignore them. To attend church and invest time into the community or spend every leisure hour on ourselves. To be diligent at our work or let our quality slip when no one’s looking. To be dependable to our children, parents, and friends or look out for #1. To build social capital, or to let it decay.

We didn’t get here overnight. And we’re not getting out of it as quickly either. We don’t have to live within a dystopia. But in order to promote trust in our institutions again, the people who make up those institutions have to start generating more social capital again. And violence is never constructive.

Jesus said to his disciples in the hours leading up to his execution, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Jesus found himself within the midst of a very harsh culture war and instead of resorting to violence he encouraged his disciples to seek a new way. The Boys glorifies violence as its solution to the problem of malevolent actors. Jesus proposed a different, albeit far more costly and difficult way to approach others, even our enemies.

To continue to invest in others, even when it’s at the cost of yourself. Those aren’t the type of heroes we glorify today. But those are the heroes we need to turn things around. Then, and only then, will we actually begin to see and feel indications of healing. And maybe, just maybe, we will look back at these recent events as the pivot point towards something better.

It’s up to us.

Is Santa Real?

What traditions haven’t been altered in some way by the year 2020? Family gatherings delayed indefinitely. Vacations postponed if not missed altogether. Holidays without the whole family around the table. Even regular events like apple and pumpkin picking, made a little less comfortable with masks on. One can only imagine how different Times Square will be for New Years Eve and I can’t wait to see the Year-in-Review montage they put on. It’s impossible to overstate how much 2020 has impacted our most firmly held traditions.

Well… sadly for us we will not get a picture of Tristan with Santa Claus this year as is the case for many other families. I’m sure the old man is in the high-risk category anyway and I think we’d all understand if he decides social distancing is the way to go this year. Of all the years for this to happen though, I’ll selfishly admit this year probably worked out best for us. We got our Santa pic last year for Tristan’s first Christmas. And he’s not quite old enough this year to really understand who this jolly man named Kris Kringle truly is. If he were to miss a year on this experience, this seems to be the best one.

But taking him for his first pictures last year made both Morgan and I ponder, was this Santa Claus tradition one we wanted to continue with our kids? We both grew up with parents who had entertained this tradition with us. Leaving out milk, cookies and reindeer food. Having to stay in our rooms until sunrise. Even opening letters from Santa on the years when we just barely made the cut for the nice list. For many many years the answer to the question, “Is Santa real?” was an emphatic “Yes!” No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

But things change for all of us as we grow older. We begin to question the ability of one man to bring gifts to the whole world in one night, how reindeer can fly, and why Mom and Dad have been holding out on Christmas gifts for us all these years. We eventually learned that the story behind the presents under our Christmas trees wasn’t exactly what we were told when we were younger. Instead of a high-octane sleigh ride through the sky to deliver presents from the North Pole, our parents simply survived the brawl in the Toys ‘R’ Us parking lot on Black Friday to get the gifts we wanted. Today those gifts are obtained in more humane, albeit far less exciting ways like Amazon Prime. And on Christmas Eve they were “simply” walked to the tree from one room over in our parents’ closet. The milk and cookies weren’t eaten by big man from the north pole, but the big man we called “Dad.” The answer to the question “Is Santa real?” went from an emphatic “Yes!”, to an equally certain “No!” It was all so obvious now. Why didn’t we see through this hoax all along?

I don’t recall the moment my parents telling me the truth about Santa as being particularly traumatic. I had a hunch for some time but didn’t talk to my parents about it. But once I knew, it was expected that I would take part in maintaining this “secret” to keep from ruining the magic of Christmas for my younger siblings. Was Santa real? It depended when you asked me and if my little sister or brother were around.

It was this same hesitation that made Morgan and I ponder what we would do with our own kids. Cautious about repeating traditions just because that’s what we’ve always done, we wanted to make sure we knew why we were doing what we were doing. We had heard of other parents avoiding the Santa tradition because they didn’t want to lie to their kids or unnecessarily sow distrust in their relationship. Others that saw parallels between Santa and God and not wanting to unsettle their kids’ faith when they would realize Santa wasn’t exactly who they believed him to be. Genuinely thoughtful stances, and opinions that we were considering ourselves. Once you start to look up articles online about this topic, you’re bound to find plenty of people willing to tell you how to raise your kids. This is a personal decision (one we’ve clearly been working through ourselves) and one I do not want to critique in other parents.

But I wanted to offer a new way of framing this conundrum around how you could tell your kids about Santa without the feeling that you’re simply being deceitful. We decided we would continue this tradition ourselves and I thought it may be valuable to share why. One practical reason was that we would rather be the ones telling “lies” than our kids. We didn’t want to have them navigate how to “lie” to their friends who did believe in Santa Claus at such a young age. But there was a second reason, that really convinced me that I wanted my kids to believe in Santa as children.

When we ask the question, “Is Santa real?” what in the world do we mean by that word “real?” I’m assuming when most of use the word real in regards to Santa, it’s to say that the only way he would be real would be if he was a living breathing human alive today, living at the North Pole who delivers presents to all children with his magical reindeer and sleigh. And in that sense, no Santa is not in fact real. But maybe there’s an opportunity to teach our kids that maybe there’s another, and quite possibly a better way of thinking about what is in fact “real?”

Are the only real things in the world those that we physically see or touch? Those that we can measure or quantify? Those that can be explained by the hard sciences like physics, math, chemistry, or biology? The problem is that if these are the limits to what we can consider as real, then what do we make of things like Christmas spirit, generosity, kindness, or love?

Many of us would say that these are also real, yet we can’t see them, physically touch them, measure, or count them. Yet these very “real” things animate us. Move us. Motivate us to live in particular ways. They govern our actions. We can feel them. To give gifts as parents without an expectation of anything in return, even the recognition for giving our children gifts. To behave as children like we are always being watched, even when Mom and Dad aren’t within sight.

Many of the most “real” things in this world are not made of merely material things. Love, joy, wealth, patriotism, ideologies, school and team spirit, are all in their essence devoid of material substance yet they drive people to act in a multitude of ways.

Likewise Santa, the embodiment of generosity, kindness, charity, without expectation of reciprocation, has motivated parents and kids alike, over multiple generations to take part in this beautiful Christmas performance of giving and receiving. A performance that most likely would not occur if not for the story of Christmas and the way that story has manifested itself in the character of Santa Claus.

So is Santa real? I think he’s one of the most real things we have in our culture and I look forward to sharing him and the story of Christmas with our children. And when they are old enough to question the actual existence of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, I’ll be excited to share with them that the story can continue to inspire generosity, kindness and love within us if we are willing to play a role in the magic.

It was never really just about Santa. Santa points to something even more real about the culture it fosters within our families and communities and getting a better glimpse of the true meaning of Christmas.

The most real things are those not bound to temporal material things like gifts or even our lives. They are the those things that are most enduring and that motivate us to live and love well. This cultural adaptation of the Christmas story has lasted long before we were born and will almost certainly last beyond our final days. And it is a story that we are all invited to partake in.

So is Santa real? I would say most definitely “Yes!”

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!!!

Update: After finishing this post, we had the pleasant surprise from none other than Santa himself who happened to make his way into town. Our neighbor captured a fun photo for us to remember this less-than-ideal, yet very special 2020 Christmas season. Thank you to the local fire department for making that special event happen for our son, who was very excited to see the renowned Santa Claus!

A Few Thoughts on Our Current Political Climate

I forgot just how much I dislike election years… But as November 3rd gets closer and closer, the temperature gets up all the more. Tensions are running high for most everyone and I’m no exception.

Over the last several years since this past presidential election cycle got underway, I have on several occasions wanted to write something but didn’t quite have the words to say and decided to take the path of silence. This post is very much an outflow of my own internal processing over these past four years. I didn’t post it before because I didn’t want to incite any anger or hurt anyone, a seemingly impossible task these days. That decision to hold back was probably for the best. To take four years to step back, read some history, listen to some new voices and barely scratch the surface of trying to understand how we arrived at this juncture has been fruitful. Maybe even now I should be holding my tongue, but we’ll see how this goes.

It’s probably good for you to know upfront that I didn’t vote for either Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton this past election. Yes I did vote, but I did not give my endorsement to either candidate. This isn’t something I’m necessarily proud of (as I’ll discuss later). I share this because I hope you see that I’m coming at this issue with a relatively moderate view. No one is truly unbiased, and pure centrism isn’t necessarily an ideal to be lauded at all times, but I’m doing my best to write that way. We have enough divisive political content. I want to try and offer something different.

It’s a difficult topic to write on without angering someone but I hope I can pull this off. Here we go!

there Are Only (REALLY) Two Options

If you had to choose between eating a warm slice of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a handful of dirt (not that crushed Oreo’s and pudding concoction) which would you choose? I think all reasonable people that don’t have a gluten allergy and lactose intolerance would take the pie and ice cream over some gritty dirt in a heartbeat.

But what happens when the choice is between that warm slice of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a chocolate cake filled with hot fudge? All of the sudden the decision gets more difficult for most people. The conclusion becomes more situational… What did I have for dinner? Am I around people who will judge me for a particular food choice? Did I have enough fruit and vegetables today to justify all that chocolate?

While for some people, election decisions may feel like a choice between eating pie or dirt, others may relate more to the choice between the pie and cake. During a year like this, I think these people who see overwhelming positives to both candidates are a minority. I’m sure for many others it may feel like a choice between getting a gut punch or a kick to the shins, where neither option is ideal. For even the most staunch supporters of a particular candidate, how often is it because the other side seems all the more unbearable.

When a decision comes down to only two candidates who represent platforms that cover such a wide range of topics it should be much more complicated and situational than a choice between pie and dirt. The two-party system presents a false dilemma fallacy. The notion that this is black and white often keeps us from understanding the complex decision others, like us, are trying to make.

There are so many issues that have substantial complexity to them and deserve discussion and dialogue. The economy, national security, supreme court justice nominees, racial and gender equality, border security, immigration, education, tax policy, environmental regulations, energy policy, the criminal justice system, abortion, foreign relations, religious freedoms, cyber security, and now pandemic response just to name a few.

There are people who dedicate their entire lives to studying just one of these issues and come to different conclusions on the right way to address them. Every person who voted for Trump does not necessarily have the same opinions on all of the topics. And neither does every person who voted for Clinton. I think I’m safe to presume the same applies to this election.

If you completely align with one party’s beliefs, it makes the choice much easier. And sure, there are certainly reasons why a general consensus forms around each party’s platforms with general acceptance among wide swaths of the population. However, while aligning entirely with a party’s platform may make for easy voting, you may wish to consider if it should really be that easy. Considering party platforms have changed considerably over time (compare party platforms to what they believed even a couple decades ago), what’s to say they won’t continue to change? And does that mean you will change your beliefs to align with an ever-changing platform? Where is your anchor set?

Let’s remember we’re reducing a lot of complexity to just two (sorry third-party candidates) choices for most elections. Assume that other people are giving as much thought to this complexity as you are. They may not be. But it’s certainly a more charitable starting point if you presume they are and I would argue more productive.

you live alongside people on the other side

I have friends and family who hold views on both sides and I’m sure almost all of you do as well. Especially over the past few years, I have consistently heard people paint those on the other side with a broad brush. “Anyone who voted for X is fill in the blank.” Stupid, greedy, racist, lazy, ignorant, bigoted, unpatriotic… you get the idea. I’m sure most of you agree with me when I say this is incredibly difficult to listen to because we know people we value, respect, and look up to who fall on both sides of the political spectrum and we don’t think they fit these stereotypes.

Many of these people are incredibly bright, kind, generous, well intended, and patriotic people and fall on differing sides and there’s a reason for that. Picking a candidate to vote for is a very complex decision that people have to make. That doesn’t mean that people might vote for someone for reasons that are not admirable. But my experience has been, that more often than not the reasons given have been very much commendable even if they seem unsound.

When we see those across the table as people who are doing the best with what they know and believe to make a choice for the betterment of the nation instead of adversaries with malevolent intentions, we can change the tone of the conversation. I think one of the best reminders we can tell ourselves is that most people are trying to make the best choice for our nation and their communities and families and may come to a different conclusion than we do.

I know I’ve changed my views or at least broadened my understanding of topics over the last several years. I’m glad others have been patient with me as my views have evolved. I’m sure in the future I will look back at myself now and will see areas where my thoughts have changed. And very likely other views that have become more firmly established. That’s how we all work through these topics. I think we should extend that same patience to others that we expect for ourselves.

the morals of our leaders are important but not everything

It would be much easier if we only had to vote based on the issues, but we also take into account the temperament, morals, and likability of the candidates during an election. I think it is on this issue that we have seen the most strain. I realize those last two statements weren’t exactly the most cryptic but please stay with me.

For those that highly value the demeanor of those in leadership, cracks in authenticity and morality can be crippling to their view of that candidate and the party they represent. As a result, it can be easy for them to criticize those who support that candidate and are sometimes unable to understand how they could ever vote for them. On the contrary, those that highly value the policies and platform of the candidate can often overlook the implication of words and actions and do not always see that the way a leader carries themselves has a significant influence on the temperament of the nation.

Voting for a particular candidate does not mean someone endorses every act the candidate does and every word they speak. Someone who criticizes a candidate for an act they do or word they say should not, by extension, condemn all who voted for that candidate. Likewise, those who voted for the candidate should be able to make criticisms when they have been wrong and not take offense when others criticize the candidate.

As an example, FDR despite being a lightning rod for divisions in politics, is still considered one of the most highly touted presidents in our nation’s history for his ability to lead through incredibly trying times. He and his wife Eleanor championed a lot of causes, especially during World War II, that greatly improved the quality of life for women and African Americans in particular and were incredibly gifted at shaping the direction and sentiments of the citizenry. If you have a chance, look up just how many listeners he had for his fireside chats. People wanted to hear from him and be encouraged with his words during trying times.

Despite his ability to lead the nation, he had his own personal failings. FDR had an affair while married to Eleanor with Lucy Mercer before his presidency. In his final months before his death he spent time with Lucy without Eleanor’s knowledge or consent. After his death when Eleanor found out, as you can expect, she was crushed. In addition, he could be incredibly shallow in his friendships, use them for political gain, and abandon them like when health issues arose for Missy LeHand, his personal secretary. In addition to the failings in his personal life, the internment of Japanese citizens and rejection of Jewish immigrants during World War II are widely criticized today. A leader who was, and still is, widely celebrated for his accomplishments had his own personal shortcomings that are often overlooked.

Even the presidents that are often most praised have failed at times. My intention is not to stain FDR’s presidency but instead to highlight the mixture of good and bad that can happen at the same time.

All presidents, even the best ones, have had morality issues throughout history. Every person in the world, to varying degrees, has done something immoral in their life. That’s the complexity of the issue of morality. That doesn’t mean we diminish those errors or look past them. It also doesn’t mean we allow that to cloud our judgement so that we condemn those who supported that candidate or all other actions of that leader.

Party lines have to disappear when it comes to these issues of morality like adultery, lying, and slander, otherwise our credibility is lost. We should try our best to consistently judge the actions of our leaders while also having an understanding that every leader who has lived and ever will live has failed or will fail at some point. We are imperfect people led by more imperfect people. It’s therefore a given that there are always going to be morality issues and we’ll have to learn how to respond to them. We have to view every political leader with the same level of objectivity, regardless of party if we want those around us to respect our views. Once double standards occur, the ability to have productive conversations is hindered.

The tactics politicians and mainstream media use do not work for friends and family

Every time I was at the “judgement-free zone” of Planet Fitness, I would find it a bit humorous when watching CNN and Fox News up on the TV screens in front of me with their “Breaking News” and “Fox News Alert” ribbons at the bottom of the screen. Ever notice how those are on for nearly the entire shows even when incredibly trivial matters are discussed?

I’m sure we’ve all heard the story of the Boy Who Cried “Wolf!” right? When everything is urgent or alarming don’t we lose a sense of what topics are actually urgent and alarming? Or when one side is painted as being exclusively responsible for all the issues our country is facing, isn’t it easy to fall into tribal tendencies? Unfortunately, the media is largely driven by the number of eyes they can get on their content. And what has proven to be most lucrative is a form of reporting that is meant to be first and foremost entertaining to the masses.

Sure reality TV shows may be entertaining, but a culture can dissolve quickly when every household starts to reflect these same values and devolves into reality TV shows themselves.

Politics, similarly, are driven by the desires of the masses. FDR didn’t necessarily want to detain the Japanese Americans in internment camps or turn away ships carrying Jewish refugees during World War II. He decided it was politically advantageous to follow the opinion of the masses in these decisions because he would be up for reelection in the future. Andrew Jackson, a populist candidate elected by the masses for his heroics and selflessness in war, is now widely criticized for his treatment of the Native Americans, when at the time his decision to eradicate them from their lands was the popular decision among Americans.

Even Abraham Lincoln, who wished to give the Emancipation Proclamation earlier than he did, decided to wait about six months for the tide of the public to match his desires and values before giving the proclamation. Many people in the north were not ready for the idea of emancipation. Abraham had to wait on them to work through their own beliefs and for the appropriate moment to present itself. Politicians are walking a fine line of making the decisions they think are right and what decisions the public wants them to make.

In that sense, they can often serve as a mirror to ourselves. They to a certain extent embody the values we broadly hold as a culture. And that should scare all of us.

The hotly contested shouting matches that are often depicted in political debates and on the mainstream news is in a similar position. They are walking a fine line of making the decisions they think are best and what the public demand is. There are clearly benefits for them to be outraged and aggressive, otherwise they wouldn’t do all the theatrics. That same approach to discord does not benefit us in the same way.

We’re dividing over these issues. Finding our echo chambers and refusing to come out. The aspects of politics and media we most despise are due, at least in part, to the culture we have fostered. If we can change our demand for better forms of political discourse, maybe we can turn the tide. But it starts in the little conversations with the friends and family we have disagreements with.

closing thoughts

So what now? When I said I wasn’t necessarily proud of my decision to not vote for either party’s candidate it was because I feel like I should have been able to look at all of these factors and make a decision that would actually endorse a candidate in contention. I knew my vote wouldn’t change the outcome in 2016 and didn’t want to contribute to the election of either candidate. I had a gut punch/kick-to-the-shins outlook on the election and said “no thank you” to both. I plan to vote for one of these two candidates this year, and I’m not particularly thrilled, but I think there’s value in contributing to which platform is, in my opinion best for the country.

That being said, we can also fall into the mistake of thinking all change must start from the top of our government. We tend to assign all our praise and hope or blame and misery to the people in power. Unfortunately that mindset only feeds this issue more as the public becomes more and more dependent on the input and direction of these politicians and media that feed these thoughts. Patience, which I think is key to unity, can only occur if we believe the world won’t end if our candidate doesn’t happen to win.

In closing, I would like to offer one memory that I have that has left quite an impression on me. Just before my friend’s wedding ceremony, the pastor said a prayer for my friend asking God to help them develop a marriage that would positively influence their families, which would positively influence the community, which would positively influence the regions and then the nations.

How we treat those around us has a far more profound impact on our quality of life than any past, current, or future presidents, supreme court justices, or congressmen will ever have. People have lived good, fulfilling lives in the midst of all types of government systems throughout history. That’s not to say politics or advocating for the things that are important to us don’t matter. And that’s not to say that different government systems don’t influence the quality of life of their citizens. I’m saying that a good life starts in the closest relationships we have, and the fruit that comes from those relationships is what will nourish and build up our families, communities, and nations even in times of political division.

Change can be a long and arduous process, but it starts at home and works it’s way up from there. And that is what I am most hopeful for because it’s this type of change that we have the most control over.

In 10 years, when new people are in office and we look back at this chapter of our lives, will the discord we allowed between us and our closest friends and family over politics really be worth all the division we have sown? If not, maybe now is the time to change.

The Chocolate Bunny and Idolatry Today

It’s quite possible that I will never be able to shake this song from the popular Christian children’s show VeggieTales out of my memory bank. The musical number was none other than “The Bunny Song” from the Rack, Shack & Benny episode. I mean this episode had everything! Crowd favorites Bob, Larry, and Junior were the main protagonists in the story. It had the obnoxiously hilarious giant chocolate bunny statue. The gripping flying scooter chase scene through the HVAC system of the Chocolate Factory had you sitting at the edge of your sofa while you sipped your Capri Sun.

But that song featuring the asparagus as backup singers has embedded itself so deeply within my brain that even now, 20-some years later it finds a way to come to the fore at the most random of times.

While washing dishes, showering, or sneaking a piece of chocolate I quietly mumble to myself… “The bunny, the bunny, oh I love the bunny…

Well, I’m almost 30 now, and one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that the Bible isn’t merely a book of children’s stories that can be adapted to suit adults, as some may presume. It’s much more a book for adults, that through media, like VeggieTales, can be adapted to suit children. Certain stories are more easily adapted than others and there are many stories that are often set aside altogether until children get to an appropriate age. But if we think VeggieTales, or similar Christian media for children, exhaust the depth of these stories we’re missing the profound potency of them.

Consider the story of “Rack”, “Shack” and “Benny”, which is a riff on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego found in Daniel 3. They were three young men who were taken as exiles to Babylon after the capture of Jerusalem, where the Temple was shortly thereafter destroyed. They were no longer in their hometown, but found themselves within the heart of the Babylonian empire being trained to fill positions of great responsibility and service to King Nebuchadnezzar.

They were given new names. Trained to be important leaders and administrators within the empire. And after years of providing loyal service to the Babylonian Empire – with few conflicts beyond those due to remaining faithful to their religious dietary laws – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego found themselves confronted with a challenge. Would they bow down and worship the giant statue King Nebuchadnezzar had erected, or would they resist and face the threat of being thrown into the giant furnace the king had created for the disobedient?

It’s a familiar story. And one that we probably overlook since we know the ending so well. But this story has probably even more to say to us adults than any children’s adaptation could express to kids. That idolatry, despite being less overt, is still present even today.

what is idolatry?

It’s probably worth noting that the first and second commandments God gave the Israelites were orders against the worshipping of other gods and manufacturing of idols. I mean all ten commandments are clearly important, but for these to be listed as one and two, probably means something right?

But wasn’t idolatry the worship of others gods? Like when people bowed down for statues and created things instead of the God of Israel? Isn’t that something only those primitive and uncivilized people of the past did?

I think the problem is we tend to have a low resolution understanding of what these “gods” were back then. And just because we don’t refer to things as “gods” today doesn’t mean there aren’t equivalents to them.

Idolatry is so much easier to spot when viewing another culture from the outside. It is far more difficult to spot from within. It can be like the air we breathe. The water we swim in. While it might not be a golden statue like the one Nebuchadnezzar erected, our idols today promise similar things.

Yet they always fail to deliver on those promises. And therefore, it’s beneficial to us to see them for what they are before they ultimately let us down. Here are a few ways I’ve learned to spot idolatry in action today. Maybe they can help you as well.

That we can think no higher than

Whether it’s the grand utopian visions of a completely equitable society and the perfect political platform being implemented, the lowly carnal desires for our next “fix” or sexual encounter, or anywhere in between, we all have something to which we are aspiring. For some, those goals have never been achieved. They are lofty and seemingly unachievable. Always out of our reach. Yet for others the most salient desires are those that they have been conditioned to enjoy through previous encounters with them. Sex, drugs, the acquisition of wealth. For everyone, there is something that sits at the top of their hierarchy of values.

For King Nebuchadnezzar, the statue wasn’t erected simply to have people worship it. While there’s debate as to whether the image was that of one of the gods of Babylon or of the king himself, its safe to say there was a purpose behind it. Their religion was not mutually exclusive from their everyday lives and the success or failure of the empire. He was expecting something in return from the people worshiping it. Something that was of utmost importance to him and probably most in the Babylonian Empire.

Maybe that goal was unity. If you force everyone to worship the same thing with the threat of death, you have to a certain degree established a form of unity if everyone obliges. Maybe it was to worship a god in an effort to seek blessing upon their empire in the form of wartime success, fertility, health, fortuitous weather for crops, or material wealth. Whatever it was, they were willing to bow down and submit to it.

I’ve heard it said that idolatry is “that which we can think no higher than”, assuming that thing is not God himself. What are the ideals or values of which we can think no higher than?

Unity? Diversity? Equity? Freedom? Liberty? Kindness? Strength? Wealth? Power?

We may not have statues dedicated or godlike names given explicitly to these ideals today, but we have flags, posters, banners, and movements dedicated to them. Can we think of anything higher than these values? And are we willingly or reluctantly deciding to bow down and submit to any of these ideals?

WORSHIPING the gift

When in college, I accidentally stumbled upon an absolute gem of a book. I initially thought The Great Divorce was a book on marriage and decided to read it. Boy was I wrong, but it has become quite possibly the most influential book I’ve read in my life.

C.S. Lewis, in this wonderful novel, details the journey of a bus-full of travelers leaving their homes in hell to visit heaven. The story is told from the perspective of one of those travelers as he observes each of his fellow passengers have their own encounter with residents in heaven. One would think they would all find heaven to be blissful and alluring. But that’s not the case.

For each visitor, what keeps them from experiencing the fullness and grandeur of heaven were the “gifts” they had come to love. Knowledge, pride, material wealth, sex, kinship, and even marital relationships. Good things, heck many of them we would consider great things. But when they become the ultimate thing they keep people from experiencing the fullness of a relationship with God. When asked to give up these gifts in pursuit of God, they all fell away and preferred their residence in hell to a life in heaven. In essence, they were trying to enjoy the gifts without recognizing the Giver.

“The essence of idolatry is enjoying the gifts but not honoring the Giver.”

Warren Wiersbe

Throughout the book, Lewis shows how in heaven, a proper appreciation for God redeems all of these gifts. Sex when corrupted may take the form of lust, but in it’s proper place can lead us to a greater understanding of the love that God is. That family relationships, when put in its proper place as a secondary to our relationship with God, can keep us from smothering our family members with existential burdens and unattainable expectations and allow those relationships to point us to a relational God. That knowledge, for the sake of accruing knowledge, may lead to conceit instead of pointing us to the transcendental.

What are the gifts we strive for? Can they bear the weight of all our expectations in this life? Or do they just get corrupted when we fail to acknowledge the God who gave them in the first place?

what i give up everything for

There are many things vying for our complete allegiance. Our jobs. Our families. Our schools. Our political parties. Our country. Our bank accounts. Our political movements. Our urges and temptations. Our churches.

The reality is there are no shortage of things to which we can be dedicating our lives. We all sacrifice ourselves for some thing or purpose. But what are they?

I would give up everything for fill in the blank. It’s probably a worthwhile question for all of us to ask ourselves from time to time.  It may just point out the idols we have today. 

we adults need reminders too

What is it that we can think no higher than? What gift in life do we treasure above everything else? And what is it I would be willing to give up everything for? Our answers to these questions are not necessarily bad things. But if whatever they are isn’t God, we are bound to corrupt them under the unbearable weight of our expectations. And they will fail to deliver what we seek from them.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego worked for the benefit of the Babylonian empire, but when it was at odds with their desire to worship God and God alone, they did not submit. King Nebuchadnezzar sought unity, something that is not a terrible ideal, but when that becomes they only ideal to which we strive it becomes distorted.

But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who had shown over several years a desire to serve the empire and see it prosper, were willing to disobey the order to bow in front of this image, even in the face of execution. They chose to be faithful to the One who rightly deserves our praise and utmost devotion. We must likewise discern what is good and worth participating in within our society, and be willing to not submit when they fall out of alliance with the God we serve. Even when it’s unpopular.

That being said, I do think this VeggieTales episode really points not just children, but us adults in a useful direction. Consider the lyrics to “The Bunny Song.” Although they are saturated with messages for kids like eating healthy food and avoiding sweets as one’s main sustenance, there is also very much a message the show creators are pointing at. Something deeper and more profound that we all need to aware of.

The bunny, the bunny, whoa, I love the bunny
I don’t love my soup or my bread, just the bunny
The bunny, the bunny, yeah, I love the bunny
I gave everything that I had for the bunny
I don’t want no health food when it’s time to feed
A big bag o’ bunnies is all that I need
I don’t want no buddies to come out and play
I’ll sit on my sofa, eat bunnies all day
I won’t eat no beans, and I won’t eat tofu
That stuff is for sissies, but bunnies are cool!

I don’t want no pickles, I don’t want no honey
I just want a plate and a fork and a bunny
I don’t want a tissue when my nose is runny
I just want a plate and a fork and a bunny
I don’t want to tell you a joke that is funny
I just want a plate and a fork and a bunny
I don’t want to play on a day that is sunny
I just want a plate and a fork and a bunny

The bunny, the bunny, whoa, I love the bunny
I don’t love my soup or my bread, just the bunny
The bunny, the bunny, yeah, I love the bunny
I gave everything that I ha-a-a-ad…
For the bunny

7 Tips on How to Have Good (Difficult) Conversations

During incredibly tense and raw moments like these, our ability (or lack thereof) to have good and constructive conversations about sensitive topics becomes all the more apparent. Desiring to talk to those closest to me and grapple with the implications of recent events us as individuals and communities, I’ve spent much of the past couple weeks pondering about what good conversations look like. Whatever progress or regress we experience in both the short term and long term will hinge on how successful we are at having these difficult conversations.

This isn’t something that pertains only to recent events. Difficult conversations can happen often. In the lead up to an election. Within our marriages and dating relationships. With family. With friends. With coworkers. With fellow congregants, teammates, or neighbors. We will be presented with moments throughout our lives where hard and challenging dialogue is required. How are we going to approach these moments when they inevitably arise?

Much of this post comes from my own experiences. From my successes to a degree. But even more so from my failures at trying to have good-faith dialogue with others. I by no means have perfected the art of having these conversations. But one opportunity at a time, and often with forgiveness and graciousness of the others I’m dealing with, I’ve been able to start figuring out a better way to have a conversation. And my hope is that these lessons I’ve learned over the years can be of benefit to others. That it can make your conversations more effective as well.

So here we go!

1. HEAR THEIR STORY

One of the best pieces of advice that Morgan has given me in our marriage was to allow the other person to speak for at least two minutes without butting in. This was a counseling tip she learned during college, and it’s something I think we’ve practiced well in our marriage. Honestly, it works wonders!

By giving people room to share their story without interruption or assuming what they are thinking and feeling, you give them license to share what they are truly thinking and feeling. I think we all know that sometimes finding the words to say can be difficult. By allowing them space to reason through their thoughts, you will often find they get closer to the root of the issue by the end of the two minutes. And allowing them to work through that process, will only help the conversation move from the surface level issues, to the deeper concerns your conversation partner has.

The first few times I tried it, I had to make a conscious effort to pause and count to 120 seconds and allow that breathing room in the conversation. I wanted to respond and give feedback earlier, but resisted. You would think it would be awkward, but people actually sense the freedom you are offering them to speak their mind. And they inevitably fill in the void.

After a few times, it became natural and every time I’ve made a conscious effort to do this, I have been able to take part in a much more genuine and fruitful dialogue. Unless we truly hear the other side out, we may wind up talking past one another. And that rarely leads to a successful conversation. So give space in the conversation to really hear the other side out. You may find you’re already starting from a better spot.

2. what makes us angry?

Anger almost always results from unmet expectations when we feel a lot is at stake. While a child might be angry that strawberry jelly was used for their PB&J instead of grape jelly, we would hope an adult would not respond likewise. To the child, the unmet expectation of what jelly would be on their sandwich is substantial at their stage in life. The adult however, should (hopefully) have a much broader and appropriate perspective in life.

Yet, and I don’t think you need me to say it, adults do in fact get angry too. Sometimes very much over minor things but, more often than not, it’s usually over things that are substantial. The betrayal of a friend or family member. Getting dangerously cut off by another driver. Being overlooked for a promotion. Or most recently, the unjust death of a man at the hands of law enforcement. When events like these get us angry, it’s because our expectations for life were unmet and that’s a big deal.

Unlike a simple matter of getting the wrong jelly, these unmet expectations can feel like life or death. While our response is often to great extents in our control, the very fact that we react in anger can tell us so much about what we value and how we perceive the world.

Asking our conversation partners to try and elaborate on what in particular about the difficult topic that makes them angry can shed a light on what is of most importance to them. What are their expectations, and what is at stake for them? It helps us to bring the humanity back into the conversation and better understand what is seemingly at stake in this conversation for one another.

3. find common ground

I’ve heard it said that the best conversations happen when two people have enough of a foundation shared that they can talk to one another, but enough differences to keep it interesting. Whether it’s shared experiences or shared values, there must be enough commonality to bear the weight of difficult conversations. Even the shared desire of respect for the opposing view would be enough.

As I think through the events that have unfolded over the past couple weeks, I cannot help but think there’s much more common ground shared than our news and politics make it appear. Whether it’s the nearly universal condemnation of the officer, or even the desire to see at least some amount of police reform in response, there is common ground to be had. Often this is very much the case in all of our conversations.

The desire to love and be loved. The desire to care for one’s family. The desire to pursue the truth and better ourselves and our communities. We may have varying ideas on how to go about these very things. Oftentimes vastly differing ideas. But I think more often than not we are conversing with other people who share the same good intentions we hold. And if that good will is not shared by both, the conversation cannot be productive.

Maybe as we share our stories with one another and reflect on our shared experiences and values, it will help us to see we’re not as divided as we once thought. And that maybe we can take a bit of that confrontational spirit out of the conversation.

4. define your terms

We all are culpable of throwing around rhetoric and loaded words that we often aren’t completely masters of ourselves. Even seemingly simple terms like “love,” “kindness,” “systemic racism,” “social justice,” or heck even the word “God.” They often serve as shortcuts in a conversation, but are we sure we are talking about the same thing when we use them?

Loving someone well depends upon what love in fact is. Often it’s through watching the embodiment of love in others that we learn what it is. And is kindness just tolerance, or is it more than that? Maybe we could view kindness as a more active trait, like using our resources to the benefit of another. Those are two very different ideas of kindness.

Maybe right now, no bigger term requires defining than systemic racism. This term has been so widely used lately for the purpose of admitting guilt and at times to compel others to see their complicity in “the system.” This term is unfortunately the perfect combination of ambiguity and humiliation and is rarely ever defined by those who use it. And as a result we often don’t really know what one another is saying, and many just tune out.

We don’t need to have textbook-level definitions prepared for our conversations. But we do need to step back and realize we may not understand each other because we’re assuming different meanings for the shared vocabulary we use. If we are willing to flesh these ideas out, we will better understand where each other is coming from.

5. What’s your solution?

I learned in premarital counseling that we (mostly men) should remember to be slow to offer solutions to other people’s problems. With that in mind, hopefully we’ve already heard each other’s stories, shared what makes us angry, established common ground, and fleshed out some of the vague terms we use as shortcuts in our conversation before offering advice. It’s at this point that I think it would be appropriate to discuss what we think the remedy to the situation may be.

This is often a challenge to do. We all have a much more difficult time defining the good than defining what is bad. It is far easier to know what we should be running away from instead of what we are running towards. This is probably no clearer than in many movies and TV shows today.

It is far easier for many of us to relate to and understand villians than to appreciate when storytellers try to depict the perfectly virtuous and upright character. We often feel dissonance when presented with altruistic characters because they’re so much more difficult to relate to. None of us can live the perfect life, and so we struggle to articulate what the greatest good would truly look like.

Yet, trying to define the solution to the situation is a very important aspect of the conversation that we need today. Social media is packed with negative stories pointing out all the flaws in the opposition. And those can certainly have a place in the conversation. But how many people are really casting a vision for what the good looks like? How many people are really trying to define and articulare what the remedy may be?

What are we aspiring towards and how are we going to get there? If we don’t ask this question, we’re spinning our wheels and probably just complaining the whole time. That’s a recipe for a conversation that goes nowhere but downhill.

6. Steelman not strawman

After listening to one another, one of the most helpful and difficult things you can do is to try and repeat back to your conversation partner the essence of what they are saying. Our news and politics is saturated with the strawman approach. They pick the most ludicrous and asinine versions of the opposition’s viewpoints and (as expected) dismantle them with ease. It’s an easy game to play.

Instead, consider that your conversation partner is disagreeing with you for the best reasons and intentions possible. Summarize back to them the clearest and most charitable “steelman” version of their argument to make sure you truly understand where they are coming from. And allow them to correct, supplement, or endorse your version of their argument.

You may find that the opposing side has some good reasons for holding the position they do. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their argument, but it does mean you are lending as much credibility to their stance as possible. And that should only foster good will for all parties involved.

7. who is irredeemable?

Finally, and most importantly, tense conversations tend to lead to deriding remarks and contempt for the people who share different views than our own. It’s not just that the actions of that police officer are condemned in the killing of George Floyd, but anyone’s opinion that may not completely tow the line with the current sentiments of the social justice movement. And it’s not just them. This guilty-by-association trend can often spiral beyond appropriate boundaries in any of our difficult conversations. It’s a byproduct of tribalism in whatever form it takes.

But especially over the past couple weeks, there has been a severe lack of forgiveness present in our conversations. A significant void of graciousness with one another.

If you want to hear my biggest concern with the social justice movement it’s this: That there is no mechanism for forgiveness in this relatively newfound religion (yes, I think this is a religion) and it will probably divide us. Look at Drew Brees. Look at Grant Napear. Look at Evergreen University, Relevant Magazine, or the Methodist Church. Look at past movements which have dug up old social media posts and hung people out to dry for past remarks. And even those who publicly confess their previous unawares to the privilege and supremacy of their past, will never excape the crushing weight of shame heaped on your shoulders. No one in the past is forgiven and it’s hard to imagine anyone will be today.

Can that approach to dialogue ever produce the long-term growth necessary to effect positive change in this world? Are people really to be completely written off by a couple statements, whether you believe their remarks are good or bad? What about the looters? The police? Our friends and family members we disagree with? Dare I say, even the police officer who killed George Floyd? Is there no forgiveness for anyone?

To me, this is what is most at stake. That divisions will be created where they weren’t before. That nuanced conversations will not be allowed. That we cannot take the dialogue to places that some deem uncomfortable. Feel free to disagree, but that’s what I feel is at stake.

I believe in a God who was willing to die for me to buy me back from all my transgressions. To redeem me when I was least deserving of redemption. He didn’t have to forgive me. He didn’t have to offer forgiveness to any of us. Yet he shared in our pains and paid our debts so that we could live fully through him. He could have shut us out but was willing to lean into us even when it meant pain and sacrifice for Him.

I’ve seen the change this type of sacrificial love can bring to people’s lives. It brought that change to mine and so many of my friends and family. It’s the kind of love that makes you want to extend that same love and forgiveness to others. The kind of love that can make communities out of a bunch of screwed-up misfits. The kind of love that can put political and social divisions we may have at the time into proper context.

This God affords redemption and forgiveness. Are we offering that to each other in our conversations?

We can disagree. There can be a lot at stake in our conversations worthy of anger. But are we willing to heal the scars and restore community by making the sacrificial move to forgive one another? That my friends is what will make or break our famillies and communities. Let’s try to converse well.

The Hidden Meaning of Onward

One of the best perks of being a parent is seeing your kids enjoy things for the first time. Whether it’s petting a baby bunny, wading in the water, or tasting cake and brownies, the overwhelming joy they experience is contagious. The world is infused with wonder not just for them but for the parent, often in a way we have so long forgotten was possible. These experiences make you question what ever happened to the fascination that we had as children.

So much was new and there was so much to be learned. Seeing a giraffe or elephant at the zoo took your breath away. You were struck with a sense of awe when staring at the stars at night or looking out from a mountaintop. Even the seemingly small joys like seeing your parent return home from work elicited uninhibited elation. And they provoked unfiltered and pure amazement with the world for child and parent alike.

So what happened to us? Where did the excitement with the world go? Was the new car smell destined to wear off once we lived long enough to see the world for how it really is? If having kids seems to give us a little taste of this experience again, could there possibly be other ways to recover the appreciation for life from our childhood?

Cue Pixar’s movie Onward, which, maybe better than any movie I can recall seeing, can point us toward rediscovering that fascination with the world all over again.

more than a story of two brothers

Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and best of all—there was magic. And that magic helped all in need. But it wasn’t easy to master, and so the world found a simpler way to get by. Over time, magic faded away, but I hope there’s a little magic left in you.”

Pixar’s latest film begins and ends with these words from a father’s note to his sons Ian and Barley. A note accompanied by the father’s gift of a magician’s staff and a spell that would allow him to visit them for a day, which were left behind for his sons’ use long after he passed away. A gift that, when received as teenagers, would spark an adventure for these two elven brothers.

Their mother cautioned them that he was only an accountant, and that “he got interested in a lot of strange things when he got sick.” She was bracing them for what she thought was inevitable. That this gift was a nice gesture of their dad’s affection but sadly nothing more. There wasn’t really any magic. The world had long forgotten it and failed to even acknowledge its existence anymore.

And so, to their surprise when Ian’s attempt to bring their dad back partially works – bringing back the lower half of their dad – they have to embark on a quest to find another Phoenix Gem to finish the spell and restore the rest of their dad so they can see him face to face before the spell wears off. A quest that provides the setting for an endearing and relatable story about two brothers that is poignant in its own right. A story that certainly jerked a tear or two from me (like nearly every Pixar movie), but also struck a chord even deeper. Something beyond the mere tugging of heartstrings.

I think the writers’ intended to offer much more to their audience. A subtle and hidden message that is so relevant, especially today. A story that has everything to do with rediscovering that wonder that has gone missing.

the pitfalls of modernity

People haven’t always thought about the world in the same way that we do today. It seems like such an obvious thing to say, and yet, it is so hard to step back and understand the very frames or lenses we use today to see the world. Having a child helps you to see it. You get to relive aspects of your own childhood and experience the novelties of life a second time. You may be visiting the beach, lake, or park, or spending time with family like you had done for years before having kids. But suddenly it’s all the more meaningful. The setting hasn’t changed. Your perspective has.

In the opening scenes of Onward, the note from Ian and Barley’s father shows the stark contrast he found between the ways of the past and the ways of today. In the past, magic was integral to the community and to every facet of their lives. But as science offered easier solutions to life’s problems, the apparent need for magic slowly faded away and with it, their ties to it. It was pushed further and further to the periphery of society until it was almost completely forgotten. Magic was still available to them, but they could no longer see it.

Motorcycles, cars, and planes replaced their previous methods of transportation. Sprites didn’t know they could fly and instead started a motorcycle gang. Centaurs, who could run up to 70 mph, gave it up to drive their cars.

Historical architecture was commodified into nothing more than a fantasy version of Chuck E. Cheese. And the ancient fountain which served as a significant landmark for past ancestors was considered an “old piece of rubble” by current citizens and an obstacle to be removed for new construction.

Unicorns garbled down some garbage from a trash can and a mermaid basked in a inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. And maybe nothing captures this change in culture more than the fact that what was left of magic was now relegated to a trivial board game that only the geeks would take part in.

The writers of the movie attempt to draw a line between magic and science within this movie and the outcomes of society’s dependence on each.

One could make the argument that we, like the citizens of New Mushroomton, are living in the afterglow of the scientific experiment or the Enlightenment. For a few centuries we have attempted to live within what philosophers would term a “modernist” frame of mind. The things worthy of the most study and debate became more and more exclusively devoted to those things that can be measured. Epistemology, or the theory of how we know what we know became all the more important. And therefore science came to the forefront. Anything that could not be proven by the scientific process of measurement and observation, would be of lesser value than those that could.

As a result, we increasingly discovered more of the world at the cosmic and atomic levels and everywhere in between. We discovered and subsequently studied and named phenomena like black holes, quarks, and photosynthesis. But in the process we largely domesticated the incredible complexities of these amazing aspects of the universe. Yes, to make our lives easier and safer, but at some cost. As the power of science was touted more and more the need for grand metaphysical claims diminished more and more over time. Religion and philosophy were pushed to the periphery like magic in New Mushroomton.

Ian and Barley were living in a post-magic world. Well… almost a completely post-magic world. We likewise find ourselves largely living in a society that is very skeptical of any claims to any overarching story or truth. Have we lost something by getting to this point?

the meaning crisis

I can recall talking to a friend a few years ago who lamented that the story he had been told for how to live his life seemed shallow. Here’s the gist of that story our culture implicitly told young people, like himself, to pursue.

“You get a few years of childhood. Then you go to school to get good grades and try to be the best athlete or musician you can be. Then those good grades and achievements help you get into a good college, where you work hard to get more good grades and accrue more achievements. Then you get your diploma which hopefully turns into a job. Then you work for decades of your life until you may be able to retire. Maybe you enjoy some leisurely activites and hobbies along the way. And then you get a few more years to enjoy in retirement before you die. What’s the point? It’s all meaningless.”

Few have the foresight to actually consider the eventual end of their lives and courageously confront that reality. Or maybe we’re scared to. My friend was willing to face it. And the sad thing was he felt he had no framework afforded to him that could infuse his everyday experiences with meaning. What was the grand purpose beyond the temporal accumulations of wealth, prestige, or bliss, if in the end we were to die and cease to exist? Culture told him the story of life was progress, but the story didn’t jive with how he knew it would end.

Couple that with the narrative that comes out of several of today’s big thinkers like Sam Harris. What seems to be one of the major frontiers for science today is the study of human consciousness. But the story that thinkers like Harris are telling thousands of young people are that we are simply a lump of cells with no autonomy or agency over what we think, do and say. That our own experience of agency in our life is an illusion. Every keystroke I hit to write that was just a part of the constantly unfolding process since the Big Bang and I have no control in it. And neither do you with any aspect of your life.

You want to see the pitfalls of a modernist framework of seeing the world? You can find it in these two dogmas we so often cling to. Progress and particles. We are told to hop on and stay on the hamster wheel of life and keep striving for the sake of progress. And then we reduce everything, even our own sense of agency to mere atoms bouncing off one another. And then we wonder why people are taking drugs and drinking to numb their sensations, using virtual reality to escape the reality they find themselves in, and committing suicide at higher rates. We’ve given them a decrepit story to live within and expect them to be happy with it.

Our society is in desperate need of a change of narrative. And it is this sad state we find ourselves in that Onward speaks to.

the most unexpected of heroes

The first time you watch this movie, if you’re like me, you’re probably fixated primarily on Ian’s story. The development of a young man gifted with magical abilities but lacking in confidence into a completely self-secure wizard who saves his family and town. It’s a classical hero’s journey story, like so many we’re familiar with and it naturally draws our focus in.

However, I think it’s Barley’s story that is much more veiled yet valuable to today’s audience. Barley is written off by the viewer early on because he’s the goofball, clumsy, older brother who can’t seem to figure his life out. The two things he’s seemingly most passionate about are his board game and beat up van. He doesn’t seem to have any clear direction in life. He’s an embarrassment to others in town and even to his own little brother. He’s not showing any progress. If anything he appears to be regressing.

We as a society often write off similar people in our community. The ones who fail to launch. Who bounce between jobs. Who don’t reach their potential (whatever we envision that word to mean). But Barley has something else to offer. Something unique to him that the rest of the community needs, including Ian. He even has something that we as viewers probably need.

The completely integrated life that invites others to find the magic again.

When you watch this movie, you will find that Barley far more than any other character helps others bring their life back into touch with the magic they had long foregone. He states to the sprite biker gang that “they used to fly around spreading delight.” A comment that provokes a fight but ultimately leads to the sprites rediscovering their ability to fly.

Barley reminds the Manticore that she isn’t just a restaurant manager but the heroine who wielded the Curse Crusher and led people on quests. And maybe most importantly he serves as the biggest supporter for his younger brother and helps him realize his potential. He helps Ian to see in himself what Barley has always seen in him. Barley is the unlikely hero who revives his family and community. And how does he do it?

more than just a beat-up old van

When the trailer for this movie first came out I was really curious what the title would have to do with the story. Most other Pixar movies have pretty self-explanatory titles to them. Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Up, The Incredibles, and Cars… But Onward is much more mysterious.

That is until you get to the car chase scene with the sprites when Ian has to shift Barley’s van Guinevere not into drive, but to “O for Onward”. You may not have noticed this, but the O was written on duct tape. The point wasn’t that all vehicles in this alternate reality called the drive shift selector position “onward”. Barley had duct taped this over the normal “D” for drive.

And a closer look at the name for his van “Guinevere” indicates the name’s meaning is “white, fair and smooth, or soft.” A fitting name for a van with a Pegasus adorned on both sides. A van Barley constantly referred to as his steed. His proudest accomplishment that he wanted to share with his dad. And the van that Barley sacrificially gives up to help them escape the police. Notice how much of this pivotal scene embraces the magical and mythical elements of what Guinevere represents to Barley.

The sound of a horse in the revving of the engine. The galloping motion and sounds when the tire is punctured by the rock. The van taking flight and the unpaid tickets resembling wings. And then the camera’s focus on the Pegasus adorning the side of the van. This was more than a van. Barley lived a completely integrated life where everything, even his method of transportation was infused with his belief in magic. She was more than just “a beat-up old van.”

His method of transportation was more than a piece of technology helping him get from Point A to Point B. It was so well tied up into everything he believed to be true about the world. His whole life was a quest and Guinevere epitomized this reality.

This movie is similarly laden with seemingly unexceptional moments that become so crucially important and meaningful later. A bag of cheese curls. A splinter from the wizard’s staff. And the reflector that falls off Guinevere.

This movie reminds us that everything can have meaning again if you’re willing to look back in history for what we’ve lost along the way. As Barley says, “On a quest, the clear path is never the right one.” Maybe the clear story our culture is currently telling us to live by may not be the right one. The story of Onward never indicates that science in and of itself is a bad thing. It just cannot be the thing. It asks us to consider that maybe there is a way of seeing the world from the past that can bring the wonder back for us today.

I think that’s what Ian and Barley’s father wanted for them as his dying wish. That gift of a story one can live within may be the best thing we can hand down to the generations after us. Something he clearly imparted to Barley and that Barley then gifted to Ian. A beautiful depiction of the role we can play in helping to restore the lives closest to us and helping all in need.

I think Ian and Barley’s father said it best.

Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and best of all—there was magic. And that magic helped all in need. But it wasn’t easy to master, and so the world found a simpler way to get by. Over time, magic faded away, but I hope there’s a little magic left in you.”

I certainly hope there’s a little magic left in us too.

The Illusion of Omnipotence in the Midst of a Pandemic

If 20 formative years of your life involve a major terrorist attack, two recessions, exorbitantly expensive and unnecessary wars, tangibly worsening inequality, climate emergencies, and incompetence during a global pandemic, it might make you think things aren’t good.

Well that’s a pretty sobering post to find in your newsfeed on Facebook…

Odds are you have read similar posts to the one shared by one of my old college acquaintances. But they aren’t the only one sharing this type of feeling during this time of crisis. Across the spectrums of political party affiliation, age, gender, race, and class there are many who see that things aren’t as they seemingly should be. And to be clear upfront, those frustrated feelings are understandably so.

One can pretty easily presume where this person would align politically, and the crowd to which this post would most resonate with. A fact which I have no intention of taking issue with. I’d ask that we set aside any gut reactions we have about tenor of the post and focus on the more important things they state that we can all probably relate to right now.

I think we can all agree that life was different in many ways before and after the events of 9/11. I think we can all agree that the subsequent wars and then the recessions we have experienced have shaped our realities in one way or another. We can all agree that there have been seismic events in recent history that have caused significant turbulence in all of our lives. And very likely some very personal events for all of us, obviously not listed in their post, that would similarly fall into this category of life-changing moments. Loss of a job, the death of a pet, a breakup or divorce, or the passing of a loved one. Moments that many of us would not consider “good.”

This global pandemic similarly does not fit the criteria many of us would call “good”. This current situation clearly doesn’t meet the expectations this person had for the world, and probably doesn’t meet most of our expectations either. I don’t think any sane person would prescribe this for their own life, except the diehard introvert. Although I think even we introverts are getting tired of spending so much time with ourselves.

And yet this is where we find ourselves today. Life will be different after this pandemic has come and gone in ways we will not truly understand for a long time.

While we continue to confront life-altering weeks and months ahead of all of us, we will often find ourselves looking for explanations for how it is we wound up where we are. Who is to blame for the calamity we find ourselves in the midst of? Was it someone’s incompetence, as the author of post assumes? On whom shall the blame be cast?

Whether it’s substantial loss of life, a massive economic recession, or both, this isn’t and will not be ideal by any stretch of the imagination. We’re past that point already. And the restlessness for a fix to the situation will continue to grow.

But what should our expectations really be for this world and our lives? And what does “good” really look like?

I don’t intend to downplay the significance of what has occurred or lies ahead. I’m honestly pretty scared myself of what’s potentially in store. Nor is my intent to minimize the culpability of a multitude of parties. But this situation has led me to give some reconsideration to my own understanding of the “good” and I hope to share that here. An exercise in reminding myself of what I believe to be true, even if it’s so difficult in times like these to grapple with.

And I don’t think there’s a much better way to do that, than to look at recent history and the old and new ways we tell stories about this very situation.

the illusion of american omnipotence

In 1953, British political scientist D.W. Brogan wrote a famous essay at the time entitled “The Illusion of American Omnipotence” to address what he saw as a significant issue arising within American politics at the time. In the wake of World War II, the United States had gained even more leverage on the world stage. And with this increased leverage, a greater sense of power and influence beyond its own borders. We were, as some jokingly say today, Back-to-Back World War Champions.

But Brogan notes that many Americans held to “the illusion that any situation which distresses or endangers the United States only exists because some Americans have been fools or knaves.” That essentially the only reason things didn’t pan out the way we, Americans, wanted them too, was because someone lacked competence or was corrupt.

His idea of an illusion of omnipotence proved to be prophetic within a couple decades as we engaged in the Vietnam War. Contrary to the belief of many today, Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to enter the war was widely supported initially by Americans as an attempt to stave off the influence of Communism in the global political arena. Maybe it’s revisionist history that we paint the war as so lopsidedly unfavorable, but the reality is many were on board with the decision early on. But after years of frustrating losses with little to no gains to show for the military engagements, the public support waned and faded.

The high favorability enjoyed by LBJ early in his presidency in the wake of JFK’s assassination diminished quickly as the citizens realized this was a war that would not be resolved the way they initially hoped. But LBJ and his Cabinet kept sending troops and crafting new narratives to try and justify the prolonged military engagements. Unable to see the significant barriers ahead of them or justify the losses already sustained by conceding the war, many would point to LBJ and his administration for causing many more lives to be lost with little to no political or military advantage to show for it.

The illusion of American omnipotence was revealed as a mirage, at least for the time being. We finally realized, at great cost, that we couldn’t destroy our enemies or shift global politics as easily as we had once thought. But the circumstances were difficult. And while there is plenty of justifiable blame to be cast on LBJ and his cohort, the reality is this was a difficult war to win, and maybe we cannot assign it all on our own country’s failures or to one particular person. Even I struggle while writing this to not fall into this very habit.

But how much has changed since then? Are we still under the same illusion?

Fast-forward a half century and we find ourselves confronted with yet another potential catastrophe, albeit not a military or political threat. COVID-19 has within a matter of a couple months developed from a peripheral issue hardly given much attention, to quite possibly the largest collective threat in recent world history. Whether it’s the risk of a global economic depression from social distancing measures or the loss of potentially millions of lives, we are in uncharted waters. A dangerous and unnerving situation to say the least.

While many of us probably thought the risk of pandemics like these were a thing of the past, we are all suddenly confronted with the reality that maybe we aren’t as safe today as we once thought. With so many advancements in science we thought we were secure from a threat like this, and yet here we are. Yes, with more tools at our disposal to confront this challenge. But at the same time, facing the very same enemy that our ancestors have for millennia. It’s this reality that makes us think this situation is not “good.”

Maybe we’re not nearly as well equipped to shield ourselves from the dangers of this world as we had thought. Maybe despite our best efforts to quell all threats, we’ve only left ourselves more susceptible to the foundation-shattering moment when we realized it was a mirage the whole time. Like a forest fire, when none of the underbrush was allowed to burn before, we’re wholly consumed. Like the dam that has been breached, where we don’t know what to make of the floodwaters heading towards us.

With situations like these, words to explain how it is we can and should respond are often evasive. But stories can help make the ineffable tangible. Let’s look at a recent film and a very ancient story to see how we have tried to grapple with similar predicaments over the years. Because whether your religious or not, the same is true for all of us. We are much more fragile than many of us thought we were a couple months ago.

reality is stranger than fiction

Tucked in between his comedic performances in Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Will Ferrell played the lead role of Harold Crick in a little movie called Stranger than Fiction. It was a surprising role for Will Ferrell. The movie certainly had its humorous and lighthearted moments, but not enough to make the film overtly comedy in genre.

The film begs the question, what would you do if you could suddenly hear the author of your life story narrating your every move? And how would you respond when that author said you were going to die soon?

Crick is an IRS worker, who leads a life that few would think make for an interesting story. But he was just starting to figure out his life. He was falling in love with Ana, his tax-delinquent client and life was seemingly “good.” Hearing the narrator state that his death would be coming soon was not how he envisioned his life unfolding.

He seeks out a psychiatrist to help him work through the voice he is hearing in his head. Initially the psychiatrist attributes it to schizophrenia, but says if Harold is convinced there is an actual narrator behind the story, he should lean on Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman), a literature expert to help him figure out who is behind the narration of his life.

Jules recommends a variety of ways to fight the author’s storytelling to no avail. So Jules recommends that he make the most of his situation and enjoy the rest of the life he has left. Harold takes off from work, teaches himself guitar, develops a friendship with a coworker, and starts dating Ana. Confronted with the reality of his impending death, Harold starts living his life more fully.

That is until he finds out who the author actually is behind his story. He is able to meet with her and plead with her to let him live. She had no idea the main character of her story was a real living person. But for the story to work, he had to die. She offers to let him read a draft of the ending, to get his approval but he can’t get himself to do it.

It leads to maybe the most brilliant scene in the movie, when Harold talks to Jules about the draft ending, and asks if there is any way to avoid his death.

Jules informs Harold the only way the story can work is if Harold knowingly confronts his death and lets the story play out. That death is inevitable, but that this death the author was prescribing would be the most poetic or meaningful death he could go through. That it would make for a beautiful story.

Harold would go on to jump in front of a bus to save a boy from being killed. Although the author decides last minute to save Harold because he demonstrated character worth preserving, the viewers are left asking themselves would they be willing to face death if it was for a noble cause.

We, like Harold, like to think we are the authors of our own story. Yet in times like today we realize to a great extent, that’s not actually true. As that Facebook post indicated, what do we do when we can’t see a noble end to the situation? When the authors seem more incompetent than the author depicted in this movie? Can we really believe that everything, even bad things, happen for a reason as we so often tell ourselves? That something poetic will come of all this pain and hardship?

waiting quietly in the midst of uncertainty

Buried in the back of the Old Testament is this little obscure book called Habakkuk. It’s considered one of the minor prophets and was a book I only recently read for the first time.

The book of Habakkuk was probably written around 600 BC, just a few years before Judah was to be taken captive and many of its people exiled to Babylon. While many of the other books in The Prophets describe oracles, or “burdens” that the prophets had for the people of Israel and Judah, the book of Habakkuk tells of a conversation between himself and God about the incoming Babylonian invasion. A conversation about why God would allow this tragedy to befall the nation of Judah.

What is so interesting is that the book starts with Habakkuk struggling to understand how God can be good and just and allow the injustice they are experiencing. In essence, he is questioning where God is and how he is or isn’t acting in the bleak situation he’s observing. A very similar question that many of us have towards those who are charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe today. Why would you let this happen as the author of our story?

Habakkuk braces himself for a rebuke from God, but instead of deflecting blame or pointing fingers elsewhere, God responds graciously to Habakkuk. Yet he surprises him by taking ownership of raising the Babylonians up against Judah. Habakkuk understandably complains, that if he God cannot tolerate wrongdoing, “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” Habakkuk shows that God is at work, in ways we often don’t always understand or appreciate in the moment. But he allows us to question him.

The book does not end with God deciding to curb the Babylonians’ invasion. Jerusalem would still be sieged. Inhabitants killed and taken into exile. Their population dispersed. The Temple destroyed.

Harold Crick gets to save the child, get the girl, and live at the end. Even if the author didn’t change the story he at the worst would have had a poetic ending. However many of these people in Judah would not see anything close to a poetic closure for several generations. Would we be comfortable with this type of death that seems to be for no good reason for the foreseeable future?

Maybe the toughest question for any theist to answer is why do bad things happen to good people? Actually it’s a tough question for anyone to answer. Why would God allow this pandemic to happen? Or why would “X” politician, nation, organization allow this to happen?

Habakkuk could try to offer an answer to this question, but in an oddly satisfying way, he doesn’t. The book ends with a prayer where Habakkuk is confronted with the glory of God, he finds himself trembling in his presence, and vows to wait patiently for God to provide justice to the incoming calamity.

"Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights." Habakkuk 3:17-19

Even in the midst of terrible circumstances, he could rejoice in his God. Even when confronting the demise of his people and likely himself, he would wait patiently on the Lord.

It may help to remind ourselves that this has been a question people have wrestled with for thousands of years and we will all continue to do so. We can plead with the authors of our lives to shield us from all harm, but calamity and death will find us all. The question is can we live within that reality?

This illusion of omnipotence is by no means suggesting that we should do nothing and idly stand by watching the pandemic run its course. There are countless stories of heroism like the priest who relinquished his ventilator to save a younger person. Actions that reveal the depth of goodness in people, many of which we will never hear of. Yet, this pandemic is providing that very opportunity for reality to be revealed, for better or for worse.

Despite our best efforts to manage all threats and keep them at bay, the threats of the natural world will always pose a threat. And when the next one occurs, we will all be inclined to point the finger and assign blame. But maybe, just maybe we can learn to wait patiently in the circumstances. To give up our illusion of our own omnipotence. And to trust that there may be an author with sufficient competence to write our story.

A Different Messiah

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”  
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah." Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. 
- Mark 8:27-30 

I recently finished reading through the Gospel of Mark and noticed something that I had never realized before. What is it with Jesus constantly requesting of his disciples and those he heals to not tell anyone about him? If you reread the story closely, you will see that this happens consistently throughout the story.

He requires this of the possessed man after he drives out the spirit (Mark 1:24). After he heals many sick and demon-possessed people (Mark 1:34 and Mark 3:11-12). After healing a man with leprosy (Mark 1:44) and restoring a deaf man who could barely speak (Mark 7:36-37). He even requests this after raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:43).

Jesus also orders Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone about his Transfiguration as they came down from the mountain (Mark 9:9) and the same to all his disciples after Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah.

It is an incredibly strange pattern throughout this entire story. Why would Jesus require this silence about who he is? And if he truly was the Messiah, why wasn’t he comfortable with others proclaiming it?

rethinking “Messiah”

Throughout the Gospel of Mark you will see a stark contrast drawn between the faith (of lack of faith) of the disciples and the abundant faith of all women and healed people within the story. The Gospel of Mark does not show the disciples and especially Peter in a good light.

Peter’s profession that Jesus is the Messiah follows shortly after the feedings of the five thousand and four thousand. Significant miracles to behold for anyone, but the disciples had the added privilege of having front-row seats to the spectacle. They were responsible for the distribution and collection of the fish and bread. They saw firsthand how the food had been multiplied to serve the people.

And yet, after witnessing these miracles, Peter and the other disciples still lacked faith that Jesus could feed them, the twelve disciples, with the one loaf of bread they brought with them on the boat. I don’t think it takes high-level math to see how Jesus could have provided for a dozen after tending to thousands.

Many of us believe if only we saw a miracle or God revealed himself to us that we would believe. But maybe, as the disciples demonstate, we don’t quite work that way. But it’s pretty fascinating that Peter would then, shortly after demonstrating such weak faith, profess that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah.

For Christians living on this side of the resurrection, this seems so obviously to be the right answer to Jesus’ question “Who do you say I am?” I mean it is the right answer, isn’t it? Jesus is in fact the Messiah, correct? Jesus certainly doesn’t dispute it.

But maybe we miss the context of what was really being said here. What did Peter think being the Messiah meant? How did he envision Jesus’ ministry proceeding? He didn’t have the luxury of foreseeing all that would transpire like we do. And maybe for those very reasons, Jesus steers their conversation in an unforseeable dirction, like he seems to do with every conversation.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” - Mark 8:31-32

Peter could not fathom how the Messiah would have to suffer, be rejected, and then be killed. That wasn’t at all what he had in mind for the one who was expected to restore the throne of David from underneath Roman occupation. They had waited so long for the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.

Jesus, the king they were waiting for, could not fulfill his role if he were to be killed. Which is why Peter so emphatically insists that his friend Jesus would not be killed. That this plan had to be thwarted. He was so convinced he knew who Jesus should be that he actually rebukes Jesus himself for not fulfilling Peter’s vision of the Messiah. And as a result, he was met with incredibly harsh and pointed words from Jesus in an exchange that unsettles anyone’s belief that Jesus was just nice and harmless with everyone all the time.

Could it be that Jesus requests the secrecy of his disciples and those he heals in order to allow him to show what type of messiah he would be? For him to be able to preach and teach what his ministry and the Kingdom of God would actually look like? That the disciples and so many of the Jews had some preconceived notions of who the Messiah would be that needed to be changed? That just knowing him to be the Messiah wasn’t everything?

the messiah of easter week

Quite possibly, this contrast between the messiah envisioned by so many peers of Jesus and Jesus himself is no more clearer than in the events that occur between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was initially met with the offering of palm brances, a symbol of royalty and triumph. He rode into the city on a colt echoing the prophecy from Zechariah that they would receive a king who would bring peace and reestablish his kingdom. The crowd shouted “Hosanna!”, meaning “Save!”, a clear proclamation of what they expected of Jesus.

But by the end of the week, he had been betrayed by one of his own disciples. Arrested by the very people he came to serve. Disowned by one of his closest friends. Mocked with a purple robe, crown of thorns, and sarcastic proclamations to his royalty. He was beaten, humiliated and led out to be crucified.

What started out with a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, ended as the most degrading execution a “king” could incur. The Messiah who was greeted with palm branches and shouts of joy just days earlier was now pierced on the cross after the same crowd shouted for his crucifixion.

His execution was by one of the most harrowing contraptions conceived by man. The man without sin receiving the same punishment of death alongside criminals. And he was taunted to save himself. If he truly was who he claimed to be, he could prevent this from happening. And yet he didn’t. There was no way this could be God’s promised savior. This wasn’t the Messiah they were anticipating.

Would he have been the Messiah we were anticipating if we were in their shoes?

“who do you say I am?”

2,000 years later, many of us, including me, are still wrestling with the same question Jesus asked of Peter? “Who do you say I am?

Some say he was a good teacher, a really kind person, a revolutionary, a prophet or possibly even a lunatic. Or maybe you would claim that he is the Messiah, our savior. But what does being the “Messiah” really mean to us? Are we, like Peter, giving the “right” answer but bringing our own preconceived notions to the table about who this Jesus was and is? Are we quick to try and recruit him to our political or ideological agenda? Or to project our own wishes and desires onto him?

Jesus has an awe-inspiring way of escaping our categories and avoiding our recruiting efforts. The more you study his words and actions, the more he continues to undermine our preconceived ideas of who he is to replace them with something incredibly more glorious. The Lion and the Lamb. The Prince of Peace. The Good Shepherd. Wonderful Counselor. The True Vine. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Son. The Messiah.

I don’t think the author of the Gospel of Mark is asking us to be secretive about who he is. But maybe this story encourages us to take a step back and see, that though we may know and claim Jesus as the Messiah, that he can still surprise us in the way he goes about saving us. That his Kingdom is different than the kingdoms we have come to know here on earth. That even when things don’t unfold in the manner we would have prescribed for ourselves, he will continue to work through it all.

As we live our lives, and lean into Christ more and more, we will be amazed at just how wonderful this different Messiah is and how there is an endless depth to who he is. And that we can shout “Hosanna!” and know more and more the fulness of what it actually means to be saved.

The Upside-Down World of the Joker

One of the most compelling television series to air in the last decade and a half was Breaking Bad. The show displayed so brilliantly what happens when Bryan Cranston’s character Walter White, realizing he has terminal cancer, makes a seemingly altruistic decision to make and sell drugs during the time he has left to provide for his family when he’s gone. While this choice certainly had risks associated with it, he felt this was the best thing he could do to ensure the security of the family. However, his cancer goes into remission but he gets sucked deeper and deeper into the life of crime and the viewer is left conflicted. At different times rooting for Walter’s success and at other times his demise.

Walter White’s descent can be traced back to that initial decision to deviate from society’s more widely acceptable path for life. He lived for all intents and purposes a decently innocent and moral life beforehand. He was a good family man who loved his wife and son with disabilities dearly. But he decided he had to give up on teaching as his primary way of earning income to lead this double life where he cooked and sold meth to ensure his family’s financial security. A decision most would say was immoral but complicated by the good intentions behind it. But that one decision led to a cascade of subsequent effects not just for him but everyone around him. And the show so aptly demonstrates all that can come from one seemingly innocuous decision.

Joker, however, tells a much more harrowing and dark story. For how profound Breaking Bad was, I think Joker gets even closer to the heart of many questions we are asking today? What if this descent cannot be traced back to a specific decision made by the individual, but instead a complete letdown by their society around them? Is the Joker bad? Is he good? And what does this movie say about the healthiness, or unhealthiness of our culture and politics today? I think it’s these questions that make this recent Oscar award-winning film one of the most fascinating and timely movies to come out recently.

have we been lying to ourselves?

In elementary school, I can still remember the cheers we used to shout to start all of our pep rallies. “You can do anything you set your mind to!” “Together we can make a difference!” “Believe that you can!” Even as adults, we continue to give ourselves and one another similar pep talks. Our Facebook news feeds are filled with them. Little slogans we use to encourage one another through the grind of life.

And sometimes these sayings aren’t explicitly stated but are implicitly embodied within the very fabric of our culture. We remind ourselves that we live in the land of opportunity and that anyone can live the “American Dream” if they work hard enough and take advantage of their opportunities. While these mantras may be more questioned today than at many other times in our nation’s past, we cannot underestimate the power of promises like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on how we interpret the state of affairs today and on our aspirations for a better tomorrow.

But what happens when the things you set your mind to don’t happen? Or when there is no community you can find to connect with, let alone find a sense of purpose or meaning within? Or when it seems you’re very spirit has been crushed to the point where you don’t think you can keep going? When sickness or mental illness serve as a stumbling block? When the family you were raised in did not provide the upbringing that could lead to the same level of success as those from other families? When the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness seem to be a farce?

Joker presents us with this very conundrum. Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually names himself The Joker, cannot find assistance through his medications, social workers, family, friends, coworkers, strangers, or even the heroes he looks up to. He is an impoverished man with mental disabilities who represents what can happen to someone caught up in the perfect storm of social ills. He’s an outcast, despised, misunderstood, forgotten, and invisible to the world around him.

The entire movie shows how even a man with good intentions can tailspin down into the villain we know so well. He worked hard, but it didn’t pay off. He tried to find community and invest into relationships, only to be betrayed. And he started off with so much hope only to descend into absolute despair.

One of the sad realities of this film that the viewer must contend with is that there are many “Arthur”s in our midst and there have always been. Have we been lying to ourselves and to them all this time with cliché platitudes that everyone can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps? The viewer is left struggling to answer the question, who is to blame for what happened to Arthur?

turning today’s narratives upside down

Leading up to the release of Joker, there was much concern from many in the media (left and right) that this film was going to be dangerous. That this film, just years after the shooting at a theater in Aurora, Coloarado at a screening of The Dark Knight, could serve as the inspiration for similar incels. There were fears that people would rally around the Joker character, who epitomizes the upside-down world of an oppressed social outcast who becomes the ringleader of anarchists.

None of us should want to see a replication of that Aurora tragedy occur. And we should be very wary of the power of ideas to inspire action in people, both good and bad. But good art is intended to move us, and as demonstrated by the film’s numerous awards and the clear impact it had on viewers it seems to have done it’s job.

But I think there were other aspects of this film, that for good reason would make so many fearful of how “dangerous” this film could be. But dangerous in a different way. Dangerous because it breaks down all of the simple narratives we often cling to for comfort.

Dangerous because it attacks the idea that firearms are a fail-safe to crime and injustice in our world. All it takes is a firearm falling into the hands of the wrong person to create chaos.

Dangerous because it shows that even if you pour lots of tax dollars into the “social safety net,” it doesn’t guarantee that the social workers actually serving on the frontlines will necessarily provide the humane care and concern people require.

Dangerous because the easy storyline of “you reap what you sow” or karma don’t always work. Are we really comfortable admitting that sometimes bad things happen to well-intended people and it might not be their fault? Or that bad things may come down the road to us for reasons out of our control?

Dangerous because it makes us acknowledge that people who fall outside our typical oppressed categories can still be hurt. Arthur doesn’t fit the typical mold of who we consider to be oppressed in today’s society. But I think we would be hard-pressed not to see him in that light by the end of the movie.

Dangerous because almost no one is portrayed as a good person in this movie regardless of race, gender, or class? When we are so often looking for easy lines with which to divide ourselves between good people and bad people, Joker pulls the rug out from underneath us. It’s like looking into a mirror and realizing we’re all in this together, and we all together, are terrible neighbors to one another.

Dangerous because when someone cannot find any mobility within the social hierarchy available to them, they may, and often will find ways of revolting and finding their place in a new upside-down hierarchy. A hierarchy based on anarchy. How much more upside down can it get than by seeing a clown hailed as a hero? A person so far on the outskirts of society exalted as king?

And dangerous because, just like in Breaking Bad with Walter White, the viewer is given good reasons to empathize with Arthur. Something that can be incredibly unsettling. This feeds the inversion of our worldviews.

what is the solution?

As it is with every election year, these conversations about who should be elected and which party should assume leadership in Washington reaches boiling points. This year will be no different. These elections serve as a battle over ideas regarding what is best for society. The two ends of the spectrum often championed as the best solutions to our social ails are most often represented generally by the terms capitalism and socialism (or democratic socialism if we want it to sound nicer).

But you will find very little overt messaging within this film as to what their recommended solution is to this predicament? The movie actually says very little politically actually (which was another reason many media outlets were wary of this film). In fact, the movie seems to content to leave its viewers in a deep feeling of despair at the end with questions still lingering. Is there a solution to this problem? Will this movie serve as prophecy of what is to come for our society? Are we staring into the headlights of an oncoming train without adequate time to jump off the tracks?

If anything, I think the big question this movie asks is what would it have taken to prevent Arthur from taking the path that he did? And if we think that’s as simple as a limited government with a free-market system or a democratic socialist system with a big enough safety net we’re kidding ourselves.

Can any presidential candidate or political party change how we interact as neighbors with one another? Not just with the ones who return the favor, but the ones who cannot? That’s not to say politics cannot or do not play a role. They can and are important. But this movie strikes at something deeper and more profound. Something upstream of politics.

Where do we find our source of motivation today to treat each other well, especially the ones we tend to write off as not deserving it?

an alternative upside down kingdom

By the end of the movie, Arthur finds his identity as The Joker. He finds his acceptance and affirmation from others and takes his seat at the throne as leader of the crime and uprisings within Gotham.

This storyline isn’t without historical precedent. Riots have often served as a referendum on the state of affairs within a society. But I don’t think riots, social upheaval and massive deconstruction (both physically and metaphysically) are the most sustainable way or healthy way to respond to the issues the Joker presents us with.

Could religion, which is suspiciously absent from the movie, offer something here to help?

There’s an interesting passage in John 9, which has echoes of the story of Job, where Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. His disciples ask him “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” to which Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus is turning people’s understandings of the world upside down. Good standing in this life did not necessarily mean good standing before God. And poor standing in this life did not necessarily mean someone could not be found within the Kingdom of God.

In a society so often described as a dog-eat-dog world and governed by karma, or the retribution principle, Jesus further exemplifies a new way of looking at others and understanding the world. An alternative worldview that has for thousands of years served as a motivation for people to love their neighbors well. And a worldview that I would argue actually gives rise to stories like Joker.

We have to reckon with the fact that this movie would never be popularized within Nazi Germany or the Roman Empire (I know they didn’t have movies). There was no attention given to the lowliest. In fact, the Nazi’s were adamant about wiping out the very weakest in society for the betterment of the human race. This idea of taking care of the weak is so significantly tied to the ministry of Jesus.

And now this movie is wrestling with the question of how do we motivate ourselves to care for the disenfranchised as we quickly deconstruct our religious foundation within society? That’s why this movie is so poignant and relevant today.

So… Not every negative outcome in someone’s life is of direct response to something they or their family did wrong. There isn’t anyone who is too non-religious, oppressed, forgotten, betrayed, or hurt who cannot be reached by the restorative touch of a God who is rich in mercy and full of compassion for anyone and everyone.

And maybe, just maybe, the works of God can be displayed in the least of these. That God can choose the foolish things of this world, even a broken down man like Arthur Fleck, to shame the strong. That’s the type of motivation that I believe can actually change lives and change societies.