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.

Don’t Sleep on Woke Christianity

Bryan Stevenson the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the main protagonists of the movie Just Mercy recently had an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air Podcast. (Yes, I listen to NPR at times. Don’t judge me…) The interview was certainly thought-provoking and Stevenson brings his share of insights to the conversation from representing people who have been illegally convicted or unfairly sentenced. The main point he wished to convey through the interview was that the listeners should deal with the racism of not only this nation’s past, but also of its present. One of the key mantras of today’s social justice movement.

But out of the entire podcast there was one story in particular that left quite the impression on me. It was the story of three young black men, who broke into a house to steal a TV and were confronted by the homeowner, an elderly black man. But instead of backing down, the three young men decided to kill the older man and steal his TV anyway. After telling the story Stevenson laments, “What type of society could produce young men who would do such a thing?”

It’s an interesting question… and certainly not a question that I would think to ask? This story and the question Stevenson poses here is critical to understanding the social justice movement. And questions like this should, especially for Christians like myself, make us take a step back, and discern on how we are to respond and engage with “Woke Christianity,” the Christian branch of the social justice movement.

Who is to blame for the sins that left this elderly man dead? Do the young men bear any responsibility? Does the “social system” that influenced them (however broad we wish to define that) bear any responsibility? We get a sense of what Bryan Stevenson thinks. But what should our response be as Christians?

there are real issues but… solutions aren’t so obvious

When I was in middle school, my dad served as the coach for a competition my friends and I were doing called Odyssey of the Mind. Each team of middle school students were given a creative prompt for a skit and had most of the school year to write the script, memorize the parts, create the sets and costumes for the show, and then go perform. But getting a group of middle school kids to commit to a single idea for a skit was daunting. It was like herding cats and we were willing to throw away weeks’ worth of work on one skit on a whim just because we found a small flaw in it.

My dad provided some sound advice that has always stuck with me. If you’re going to critique something, you better have an idea of how to improve it or replace it with something better.

We need to understand that the social justice movement has significant ties to Critical Theory, which emerged at the Frankfurt School back in the 1930’s. It was a tool, initially used to evaluate literature and critique (there’s the word “Critical”) the social and historical influences on the works to reveal and challenge these power structures. To be clear, I don’t believe that this critique, in and of itself, is a bad thing.

However, the real issue with Critical Theory occurs when Critical Theory as a tool becomes Critical Theory as a guiding star, especially when applied as a political and social movement. The theory claims that ideologies, often instituted by the oppressors, influence people to become something that they wouldn’t be in their natural state. That we are at the mercy of the systems and ideologies that govern our groups and we cannot see anything with particular clarity, unless you are oppressed. Then, and only then, can you actually see reality as it is.

It purports to provide liberation if we could only dismantle all of these systems that have shaped and molded people over all these years. But beyond that liberation experience, there is a void of any clear picture of what will replace these “power structures” once they are torn down.

For example, what are we to make of studies that show black men have to send out 50% more resumes to get an interview than white males on average? Or what about all of the studies done on the lingering effects of redlining practices within cities? Just a few deeper and authentic conversations with friends is all it takes to understand that our experiences can differ substantially, and those experiences seem to be tied, at least in part, to our race, gender, and sexual orientation. So it’s not completely unfair for Bryan Stevenson to be posing his question. Not everyone’s outcome in life is the same. Research in the social sciences demonstrate these patterns do exist even if they are often impossible to see in practice. We all do a disservice to the conversation if we don’t at least admit that disparities do exist.

But how we “deal with” said disparities, as Bryan Stevenson would challenge us to consider, can vary quite considerably. Ask someone how much of someone’s experience is based on any individual or combination of group identifiers and you are sure to get a variety of answers. Has Colin Powell’s son experienced more oppression than the son of two white parents who can’t stay off the pills or stay sober for a day?

And ask if all cis-gender white males are accountable for the majority of social ills we see today and you are bound to get a similar variety of answers. Do first-generation immigrants to the nation who happen to be white bear the same responsibility as an openly racist person? They still experienced privilege. What about affluent African Americans who have no ancestry back to slavery. They still get lumped in with the rest of the black community.

But the biggest giveaway is if you ask what specific legislations will resolve these disparities? Quotas for top executive positions like the one California passed? Are there also going to be quotas for NBA and NFL players? Or how about for janitors, nurses, construction workers, or trash collectors?

Or how about reparations for descendants of slavery? It’s one with precedent, but seems incredibly difficult to try and legislate so long after these offenses were committed.

In the 1860’s the legislative goal was clear. Abolition of slavery. In the 1960’s it was clear, desegregation and voter’s rights. But now… the critique of power structures is full throttle, but is there an answer offered for how exactly we will correct these so-called “systemic sins?” And does the church have an answer for these issues? Does the gospel come into play?

the spectrum of gospels

The late Christian philosopher and author Dallas Willard stated in his book The Divine Conspiracy, “When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins. On the left it is removal of social and structural evils.” The book was published in 1998. By no means ancient, but pretty prophetic of the movement that is really churning just two decades after he wrote it.

Christians who subscribe to the right wing of theology, as Willard elaborates further in his book, believe that the gospel message is essentially the good news of forgiveness for the individual. Taken to its most lackadaisical application, this gospel message serves as simply an insurance policy for the afterlife. A Get Out of Jail Free card if you will. That because our sins are forgiven, we’re not expected to be perfect and therefore there isn’t really a day-to-day change in how my life is to be lived or any obligation to conform to any particular way of living. This theology fights completely against anything that feels even remotely like a “works-based” religion and as a result has no framework for considering social and structural evils or what personal response, if any, is warranted.

But how can that gospel message deal with passages in the Bible like in James 2, that state a “faith without works is dead?” Not that the works save us or justify us before God, but that if there isn’t a change in how we live our lives and care for those around us, isn’t it fair for other Christians to doubt whether we actually have experienced the true life-changing salvation? A salvation from knowing God intimately (not just propositionally) and trusting in the willing sacrifice of Christ for our justification. A salvation that allows us to live in the Kingdom here and now and not simply await the afterlife.

Does that gospel not appear shallow in it’s ability to affect us in the here and now? If Jesus really did raise from the dead, shouldn’t that change something for us and how we live in this life?

Cue the left wing of theology, that provides a response to this apparent disconnect between faith and works that can so often be observed within the church. The pendulum swings from one side of the spectrum all the way to the other and then emphasis gets predominantly placed on urgent, expedient, and desperate attempts to effect change. In essence, to bring heaven down to earth. But oftentimes when we try to bring heaven down, we accidentally bring hell up instead.

How have proponents of “Woke Christianity” decided to contend with these structural and social ills that seem to be everywhere and yet at the same time are persistently just beyond our ability to grasp and define? Two ways… Shame and silence.

If you don’t believe me, listen to Bryan Stevenson’s podcast and listen to how prominent the shame tactic is in his mission to have America deal with her sins. The church is adopting a similar approach. It’s present in campus ministries. Getting members to stand and stew in the shame of being a particular race or gender and undeservedly enjoying their privileges all their life. It has even worked itself into so much of the social justice content coming out of evangelical and mainline churches.

But is shaming in keeping with how Christ wants us to deal with one another? Are we really supposed to be assigning guilt, defining their character, and shaming simply for the color of their skin or the Y chromosome they do or do not have? Shaming isn’t a sustainable motivator for kids so why should we expect adults to be different?

And silencing. “Shut up and listen.” “Listen and believe.” “Believe all women.” You may have heard of some if not all of these. We should listen to people. That doesn’t mean we have to agree. And telling people they no longer have a voice within the church, or that they are invalidated because of the group they are a part of is an incredibly reactionary and dangerous way to try and resolve these conflicts. It’s the quickest way to end important and difficult conversations and shove them underground. We need to talk about these issues. All of us, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, etc.

The trojan horse

Quite possibly the biggest reason the church needs to be careful with the “Woke Christianity” movement is directly tied to Critical Theory and it’s inability to be implemented at large scales. The reason the Trojan Horse worked on the city of Troy was because the horse, this apparent gift, was appealing to the Trojans. They would have never taken it within the city walls if it wasn’t. The reason that this woke movement has gained the traction that it has is because it is cloaked in good intentions. Good intentions that we must recognize and appreciate in our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. But good intentions cannot justify the hardship this will bring to churches and how it will hurt people.

We need to be observant of how other organizations are handling this social movement and notice the trends. Others have tried it, and the results aren’t good. Critical Theory only works if there’s something left to critique. It’s like a parasite living off its host. It can linger on as long as the host lives.

Critical Theory will leech life out of whatever organization or entity that tries to wield it. Read about Evergreen University with the Bret Weinstein situation. Or observe how the Christian magazine Relevant handled the Cameron Strang situation. Look at the split occurring within the United Methodist Church. Or heck, look at how even Hollywood has a tendency to eat its own.

What’s the common thread that weaves through all of these stories? An inability to forgive. And we as a church must fervently remind each other of our needs to forgive one another as God has forgiven us. Because if we cannot still allow for the forgiveness and redemption of individuals, even the overtly sexist or racist individuals, then we will tear each other to shreds. Endless critique, and often unjustified critique, without grace will undermine our churches and destroy communities and relationships.

And we’re robbing ourselves of some of the most beautiful aspects of the gospel if we don’t forgive like this incredible man did for his brother’s killer.

so what is the gospel message for a divided nation?

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28-

Jesus offers us an invitation to join his Kingdom. A kingdom where we all will be able to be united in Him. Where we will no longer cling to our heritage, skin color, gender, or class as a source of identity. It seems cliché, but we need to realize how radical this actually is.

Study history and you will realize that these struggles between men and women, different races, and different classes are not a fluke or bug but the default state of humanity. Critical Theory proposes that it’s ideologies perpetrated by oppressive power structures that make these divisions occur for their own gains. Oppressive leaders and groups have certainly exasperated these divisions at times. But to think our natural state if all these power structures were removed would be to sing Kumbaya together, is naive.

Furthermore, we need to be cautious about absolving people of responsibility for their actions and assigning blame to the systems that created them. Not holding those young black men accountable for killing an elderly man because they grew up within an oppressive society is a slippery slope and I don’t see anywhere in the scriptures where God says that if you belong to a particular group or had a certain set of experiences, you’re excused.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” -Romans 3:23-

That’s where the power of forgiveness is most necessary.

And we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves. But did Jesus say the Good Samaritan represented the idyllic neighbor because he went to the Roman government as an activist to get them to care for the man who was severely beaten? Oh wait, the Samaritan met the immediate needs of the man. Is there anywhere in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus teaches us that moral posturing and virtue signaling is the evidence of a life truly rooted in God? Or that seeking equal outcomes for all people was the goal of his Kingdom? I don’t recall those parts of his ministry.

This drive for acceptance and understanding of one another is a good thing, and it’s fundamentally a very Christian thing. But I think God actually calls us to more. We are to care for the needs of others. Get down and dirty with serving, not just being an activist or advocate. We’ve been too quick to name those who become “woke” as heroes when we are to be humbled far more to actually move towards and love others, even the ones we’re less inclined to love.

The Bible tells a story from beginning to end of a God trying to help his people learn how to treat their neighbors well while also discerning what values and ideals of those neighbors should or should not be adopted. Israel wasn’t very good at it. The church as recorded in the New Testament struggled with it. And we will continue to have a hard time living up to the challenge. We’re naturally bad at this.

But fortunately we have a God who is willing to forgive, willing to lead the way, and willing to pay the penalty that can afford us true unity in him. And that’s a gospel message I think is needed to heal the wounds we still see today.

WALL-E and the Prodigal Son

Beyond its charming love story and the adorable personification of a little trash compacting robot, WALL-E gave its viewers much to meditate on. WALL-E truly is a masterpiece in storytelling. Conveying most of the story with so few words, the story is strikingly simplistic and yet filled with incredible depth.

This 2008 Pixar movie has served as a G-rated version of classic stories like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, asking the audience very similar questions. Can wealth and comfort really provide the security and fulfillment we all long for? What are we giving up by trying to escape the difficult realities we are presented with on earth? What does courage really look like? And what exactly is it that makes this little robot so endearing?

But unlike Brave New World, WALL-E presents us with more lighthearted scenes with WALL-E going back to his home as probably the most memorable. We see the WALL-E trying to find a place for his newly found spork, creating a hat out of a trash can lid, and recognizing the beauty of held hands from a scene of “Hello, Dolly!”. And while that scene gives us a thorough introduction to what motivates this little robot, I don’t think we have to look much further than the first few minutes to get a glimpse into one of the most important and overlooked parts of the story.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that just before zooming in on a trash covered Earth, they were finishing the following lyrics from the song “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.”

There’s a slick town, Barnaby… Out there. Full of shine and full of sparkle. Close your eyes and see it glisten, Barnaby.”

The stark contrast is immediately drawn between the “shine” and “sparkle” we would envision for an idyllic world and the reality of a trash-covered Earth. Between the world we would all love to live in, like the Axiom ship the humans escape on, and the littered world this fictitious group of people decided to leave behind. Between the world we all would want to leave for future generations and the world this lonely robot is left to inhabit.

And yet, if we were to place ourselves alone in this polluted and toxic world like this, would any of us have the attitude WALL-E has? Would we be listening to music and humming along while working what to many of us would seem like a meaningless job like compacting little cubes of trash all day? Would we be content with such little impact and without praise from others?

Or would we be looking to escape that reality like the humans in the movie? To fill our stomachs to the full? To spend our time binge-watching more TV shows than we could ever watch in a lifetime? Trying to escape reality through whatever food, sex, drugs, alcohol, or virtual realities we can get our hands on?

If this robot was disgruntled, would he have nearly the appeal that he has had on people, or is it in fact his pleasantness in spite of the circumstances that makes him so alluring?

And yet, WALL-E presents us with another conundrum to consider. WALL-E is the only robot in the movie that from the beginning of the story seems to have transcended his programming. And he’s also the only WALL-E robot still functioning on Earth with all others losing functionality after 700+ years of hard work. All other robots are stuck doing routine functions without really giving consideration to why they do what they do. I don’t think this is a coincidence either, but rather an important facet of the story.

WALL-E, by the end of the movie helps both groups realize what they are lacking. He is such a powerful character because he serves as the unassuming savior of the story. A robot going about his business even to the point of his near destruction for love and for purpose. And this story is so poignant and moving because it invites us to ask how do we respond to watching such heroism and courage. And it’s this aspect of the movie that reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the Bible.

The passage is found in Luke 15 and it’s the parable of the prodigal son. So many of us are familiar with the story of the younger son. The younger asks for his share of the father’s inheritance. He essentially asks his father to liquidate half his wealth because he couldn’t wait for his father to pass away and acquire his share of his wealth then. Then he goes and wastes his inheritance on frivolous things only to find himself in trouble when a severe famine occurs.

He returns to his father only hoping that he would be merciful enough to allow him to work in his garden again. He does not expect to be received as his son again after what he did. But expects to be received like an average laborer, to earn a living just so he does not starve. But instead the younger son is welcomed home with open arms from the father and a feast. The story demonstrates that God is always open and ready to receive the repentant sinner. A story that fell therapeutically on the ears of the downtrodden, sinful, lost and forgotten in society both then and today.

But Jesus also continues with the story of the older son, which is often forgotten and discussed far less often. And this part of the story is intended for a second group in his audience. It’s the story of a son who worked in the garden, never asked for his father’s inheritance, and appeared to be doing everything right. Yet he was bitter when the younger son was received by the father so joyfully. The father asks the older son why he would not come inside for the party to celebrate the return of his younger brother, but the older son remained resentful.

“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

For a son who appeared to be doing everything right, and laboring away for his father, he was quite indignant and certainly not appreciative for the situation he was in. Despite being in the father’s garden, he was not happy, let alone content. Quite an interesting difference presented in these two brothers.

The parable of the prodigal son is an interesting one because it provides two examples of how not to live, but in a way insinuates that there is a third way of living. A life that enjoys working in the Father’s garden and is ready to invite others to join in.

WALL-E captivates me in many of the same ways that Jesus does. To the casual observer WALL-E’s job would appear to be without meaning of significance. He’s a trash collecting robot. There are far more inspiring things one could do for an occupation. And yet, he joyfully goes about his work diligently and when an opportunity arises for him to carry out a significant mission and return the lost plant to Eve, he’s prepared to do it. Through his actions he invites the other humans and robots to step outside of their comforts and their programming to see there are more meaningful things in life to pursue. He helps them transcend who they were to become would they could be.

Jesus lived his life in the very same manner. Whether we have tried to find an escape from the harsh realities of life through the dulling of our senses and the gratification of our fantasies or mustered all our strength to begrudgingly work through life, Jesus has something to offer us. A model of a willfully laborious life given sacrificially, even to the point of death and ridicule, all so that we can see there’s abundant life to be found living in this same manner. That there is a different way to live that may seem counter intuitive to the casual observer, but when acted upon, truly can provide life in its fullest.

We can get up to work each day in a world that is often missing its “shine” and “sparkle” and go about our little jobs even when they appear to have such little meaning. We can labor in the Father’s garden, being joyful for the opportunities that come our way, and excited for the day when others may decide to come back or join us in the labor. And who knows, maybe we find a little rest in the midst of the work. A message maybe as relevant today as it ever has been.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 –

So yeah, WALL-E is a beautiful and thought-provoking movie for many good reasons. But in my opinion, what makes it most influential, are the aspects that most echo the gospel. A life lived so radically that it brings life to those around them.

Can We or Should We Read the Bible “Literally?”

It’s hard to imagine there was a time before books were so widely available. Before we could walk into a Barnes & Nobles, grab a coffee and pastry and peruse the thousands of books available. Before we could download straight to an e-reader within seconds.

But what is probably even more difficult for us to imagine, is a time before we collectively had the literacy we see today. The extent of literacy necessary to produce the need for libraries, bookstores, and e-readers.

According to The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report “How Was Life? Global Well-being since 1820”, literacy levels across the globe have risen drastically in just the last couple hundred years. In 1820, only 12% of the people in the world could read and write. Today however, only 14% of the world population (as of 2016) remained illiterate, an increase from 12% to 86% in literacy across the globe. However, much of that growth occurred just within the last 65 years. During that span the global literacy rate increased by 4% every 5 years from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015. Nearly 1% a year!

There are sure to be multiple factors for these developments. Improved quality of life, which I’mled tohigher levels of education, and therefore increased literacy rates. But one significant factor that I think is often overlooked is the invention of the printing press. A technology that made it so much more efficient to disseminate literature and publications than ever before. For the first time in history, these writings could be mass-produced. And with mass-production came increased affordability. And with that the incentives were in place to bring about the widespread literacy we see today.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bible is the most printed book of all time. The printing press has, probably more than any other development in technology, put more Bibles in people’s hands around the globe. Even making their way into seemingly every hotel room’s nightstand drawer.

But with that widespread availability to literature and increased literacy could there have there also been unforeseen consequences that maybe we aren’t aware of? With Bibles so widely available today, has there been a seismic shift in how we read and interpret it? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Reformation occurred so soon after the introduction of the printing press. For better or for worse, we are on the other side of this pivot point in culture, and it would probably be beneficial for us to assess the consequences.

the problem with the word literal

I can think of few people who use the word “literal” more than those in the church. We cling to this claim of “literal interpretation” often in the faith as a buttress against conflicting ideas and beliefs from within or “attacks” from those outside. One of the most widely known arguments between Christians and non-Christians, and an oft-mentioned reason for leaving the faith, has been waged over the “literal interpretation” of passages like the beginning of Genesis.

There are Christians trying to poke holes in the credibility of carbon dating and the point to the lack of observable transitional species in fossils as evidence disproving evolution. I have heard some even look to passages noting the separation of the waters of the earth and the waters of the sky to justify the long lifetimes experienced by the earliest people documented in Genesis. We have estimated the total years documented in the genealogies in Genesis to justify that the world is only a few thousand years old. Heck, I just saw advertisements on Facebook for an entire children’s show dedicated to alternate versions of geological sciences used to justify the new-earth creationism belief.

In almost all of our arguments today, the issue often boils down to a what is the accurate interpretation of the Bible. And all of this well-intended effort is being made to defend this “literal interpretation” we have of the Bible. Is this really the fight that should be waged? Is this really how the Bible is to be used and read?

the difference between inerrant and literal

We can be quick to reference passages like the following from 2 Timothy and conclude that because the Bible claims that all scripture is inspired by God, that it is therefore inerrant, and therefore meant to be interpreted literally.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16

Verses like this are often used as a defense for the faith. An anchor that we hold on to. That we can combat the attacks of our “godless” professors, like was depicted in the movie “God is Not Dead,” with reason and a firm grasp onto the truth contained within the Bible. We focus on the inspiration of the scriptures and that because they are God-breathed, they must be without error. That they must be “literally” true.

And while I would attest to what I believe to be the God-breathed nature of scripture from my own experience, I think we go awry when we take the step of saying, everything must be “literally” true in the Bible. In essence we are saying that the Bible is true in its plainest and most simplistic reading.

I mean, what would a “literal” description of a story even look like? If someone were to ask you to describe your morning “literally”, how would you do it?

You might say that you woke up at 5:45. You stepped out of bed, got a shower, brushed your teeth, and got dressed. You went downstairs and got your coffee brewing. You threw a bagel in the toaster and once your coffee was ready sat down for breakfast. After breakfast, you packed your lunch, grabbed your bag for work, and left the house, locking the door behind you, and hopping into your car to drive to work. Seems like a pretty comprehensive story right?

The problem with the word literal, is that we assume any number of words would be sufficient to exhaust the entirety of the story. For example, why didn’t you say which side you rolled out of bed? Which specific muscles you used? Or how many sheets you had to move to do so? What was the thread count on those sheets? How many steps it took to get to the bathroom, which foot you used first, or the rate at which you were moving? What about the flow rate from the shower head, or the cubic feet of space you had in the shower? The number of bristles on the toothbrush, the flavor of toothpaste you used, the chemicals within the toothpaste that create the sensation you experienced? The number of steps to go downstairs, whether they are hardwood or carpeted, the length of the rise and run for each of them? Do you step on one lighter than the others because it creaks? What flavor of coffee you drank? Was it Starbucks brand, or just Folgers? Out of which mug? Where did you get the mug? How long did you toast the bagel and at what temperature setting? What was the remaining moisture content of the bagel? How many calories were in it? Peanut butter, jelly, cream cheese on top? What are the dimensions of the door, or the finish of the knob and hinges? Are there multiple locks on the door? Which way did you turn the key? What type of car do you drive? Were you parked in a driveway or on the street? How much gas was used on the trip?

If you’re still with me, thank you for persevering through an annoying list of excessive details. Don’t we get frustrated with friends and family that include seemingly irrelevant details in there stories? They are trying to recapture the entirety of what happened, which is impossible, and we all know that and we just want them to get on with the “meaningful” part of the story. Yet, by no means could this list of potential additional details ever be exhausted right? And that’s exactly the point.

Can we ever describe an event literally? Is that first story literally true? What is it that makes it true or untrue? With error, or inerrant?

Likewise, what would Genesis 1 read like if God had intended it to be written to appease our modernist society? I’ll take a quick stab at it.

“In the beginning, approximately 13.799 billion years ago, God took this incredibly dense and high temperature state called the singularity (which you will learn about later), and it expanded at a rate of 72 kilometers per second per megaparsec. Then God said let there be light, and let it travel at a rate of 299,792,458 meters per second…”

The details that one could squeeze into that version of the story would be inexhaustible. And by breaking it down in this way, doesn’t it cease to have any meaning? Lose any ability to inspire awe? Let alone the fact that it would be absolutely useless to people who did not see the world through our modernist lens?

Do we read all types of literature the same way? Do we read a note from a loved one the same way as research paper? Do we read poems the same as a historical account of an event? Do we read a children’s story the same as the front page of the news? Or lyrics to a love song the same as a work email? I think the answer to all of those should be a clear “No.” Language serves as a vehicle for communicating essence or meaning. It always points back to essence and meaning, and adopts different forms depending on the context in which it is used.

Genesis was likely written after the Israelites escaped captivity in Egypt. It wasn’t written as a firsthand account from Adam. It was a story about who this God was and how valuable people were to him. A God that was above all created things when neighboring peoples worshipped things within this world. A God that created man in his image, when they had been treated as worthless slaves for so long. A God that knew he could rest from his work, when all the Israelites knew was that their slave labor was what gave them identity and value. And this story has so much more packed into it beyond that. It’s poetic. It’s meant to contrast the Israelite God from the gods of their neighbors. And while there are cosmic elements to it, I don’t believe that was the author’s primary goal to be communicating in the passage.

As John notes at the end of his gospel, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” We need to realize that the Bible never claims to be exhaustive. It does not cover everything, nor could it. So how should we read it?

so how do we read the bible?

The Bible is filled with poems, dreams, songs, words of wisdom, letters, myths, stories, historical accounts of events, symbolism, and parables. All of which were written specifically to our ancestors of varying contexts, and they are now available to us today for our benefit. If we are to try to read the Bible as best as we can, trying to see the scriptures from their historical context is of incredible importance and can help us to see past our own interpretive frameworks and biases.

And maybe we should consider reading alongside others as often as we can. Nothing more quickly points out how different we can all interpret passages than by studying alongside others and even reading interpretations of Christians throughout history. People studied the scriptures communally before literacy was so widely held, by one literate person reading to a group of people and sparking conversation and I think for good reason. Increased literacy has allowed for more personal study of the Bible, which I don’t think is entirely a bad thing. But that can quickly turn into one heck of an echo chamber if we don’t bounce our interpretations off of others.

The rest of what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy says, all scriptures are profitable for what? It does not say it is profitable for understanding the details of the origins of the world. Nor does it say it is profitable for subscribing to the denomination that holds the perfect interpretation of the Bible. It says all scriptures are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Let’s get back to reading the Bible with that intent as well. Because I think the scriptures are very well equipped to do just that.

What Scandals Can Show Us

I can remember where I was eight years ago when the news about Jerry Sandusky broke. It was the first weekend of November. A rare weekend that was free from Blue Band commitments since the football team had a bye week. I was scrolling through the Facebook news feed when I saw our drum major share one of the first articles to break with the story of Jerry Sandusky’s arrest with a simple status update. “Oh no….”

Since the news broke on Saturday and the details were sparse, it was difficult to tell at the time just how significant this story was. I know I didn’t expect the story to get the traction that it did. Not because if wasn’t a significant crime and story. But because I had never been closely associated with a story this big before. But by the time Monday rolled around it was the talk of every news station. It was everywhere on TV and the news stations had their vans lined up in front of campus, reporting from the town where it all transpired.

To be honest, I didn’t know an outrage nationally could occur this quickly. And I had never been a part of a community as rocked as ours was by this sudden turn of events (or at least the public revealing of past events). My only connection to the story was that I was a student at the university. But that didn’t keep people in the comment sections from saying that students like me were a part of the problem. A school, student body, and family of alumni that for years touted “Success With Honor” as one of our main mantras was left wondering was there ever really honor associated with that success?

Friends of mine lost sleep over Joe Paterno’s firing and soon-to-follow death. Some students transferred out of fear of remaining associated with an institution who’s name had been significantly tarnished. And trust in the leadership of the university and its athletic programs was shattered. Nowhere near as shattered as the lives of the victims must have been. But nonetheless, the sins of a few men had much wider ripples that extended beyond these young boys. Ripples that extended to their families and to the community at-large.

One cannot help but think about how much this story undermined what so many thought they had at Penn State. A seemingly infallible persona in Joe Paterno. A football program that was supposed to serve as the epitome of molding men and student athletes. A football program that was above reproach. And it was an identity that so many fans and students adopted willingly and joyfully.

The removal of the Joe Paterno statue eerily represented the sudden decline in the institution’s public image. And many were left wondering if Penn State ever was representative of the ideals we flaunted.

Just a quick reminder, the Penn State Scandal wasn’t the first scandal to ever occur. Nor will it be the last unfortunately. A similar one from the recent past occurred within the Roman Catholic Church. A similar coverup of sexual crimes against minors that had been pervasive throughout leadership. And just like the news with Jerry Sandusky, the revealing of these transgressions and the subsequent concealment of these issues, led to a similar distrust of authority within the church, widespread abandonment of the Catholic Church and the questioning of the Christian faith in general. This scandal leaves us with similar questions. Did the church or Christianity ever represent the ideals they claimed to hold?

The Penn State Scandal, a representation of when school spirit and the protection of an identity as a successful athletic program goes bad. The scandal within the Catholic Church, a representation of when a church hierarchy degenerates into an institution that is more preoccupied with preserving its image than serving as ambassadors for Christ and protecting the least of these. But the scandals don’t have to be at a national scale for them to impact us.

How about when you find out a friend has stabbed you in the back? Was that friendship ever really genuine? Did I ever mean anything to that person? What do I do with all those memories that at the time seemed so positive? Hasn’t this backstabbing distorted these memories and left us jaded?

Or how about being cheated on by a significant other? Doesn’t every memory come under immense scrutiny? Where did it go wrong? Did they ever love me? Can I ever see myself being back in a serious relationship or trusting someone else again? Could a child of divorced parents ever convince themselves to pursue marriage after seeing it fall apart?

And what about the revealing of significant errors made by politicians, CEOs, and celebrities? Does this undercut our ability to have any confidence in them or the organizations or agencies they represent?

The list goes on. We see parenting, politics, religion, friendship, sports, and life itself done in so many ways that are to the detriment of others. And when these seemingly good things go bad they eat away at our certainty in what has often served as pillars and foundations for our lives.

When I was at Penn State, this scandal fractured the school pride that I had at the time. To associate with Penn State was embarrassing for a while. My self-worth wasn’t wholly tied up in the school’s image, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t partially connected. This scandal forced me to ponder two questions.

The first was, where should I put my faith if these other things have failed me. I have never been perfect in my dependency on God, but He has served as that firm foundation. He has been unchanging, faithful, and dependable through the difficult chapters of life even when I haven’t always been steady in my response and trust. He was before dependable before the scandal rocked my community. He was during it. And He has continued to be afterwards. I’ve tried to set aside these foundations I formerly had and that did not hold up in difficult circumstances. And to the degree that these foundations have been exchanged for my faith in God, is the degree to which my security improved.

The second question has taken a longer time to answer. That question is how do we move forward after being hurt by others and/or institutions that fail us. Sometimes we withdrawal. Sometimes we lash out in anger. Sometimes we quickly try to find something new to fill that void left in our life. We will all respond in slightly different ways in the immediate aftermath of something significant like a scandal.

What I have found to be true in the long term though is that in almost every scandal or breakdown in relationships and communities, it is because something that was good became twisted from it’s ideal purpose.

The Penn State Scandal hurts because school spirit and community are not in and of themselves bad things. But when that school spirit motivates people to worship coaches and conceal criminals to protect an image, it has been distorted.

The scandal in the Catholic Church hurts because the church itself has incredible power to love and serve people. But when those who are entrusted to lead the flock, protect the wolves in sheepskin, the power of the church gets turned into something incredibly demonic and all authority and credibility gets destroyed.

The same goes for our relationships. Divorce is so unfortunate because the potential good of a healthy marriage, not just for the individuals, but for their families and community is lost. A broken friendship casts a shadow of how incredible a dependable friendship can be.

Just because a friendship or a relationship go as planned doesn’t mean we need to give up on all friendships and relationships. Just because a leader or an organization fails us, doesn’t mean we need to disassociate from any and every group.

As C.S. Lewis states in his book “The Great Divorce,” the stronger an angel, the fiercer devil it is when it falls. Some of the most tragic and scandalous things we see in the world don’t occur because they are inherently evil. It’s because something that has the potential for much good has fallen, been corrupted, and now has the power to do so much damage.

As I reflect on eight years since the Penn State Scandal broke, I continue to think about these two things. What is my foundation built on? And am I willing to open myself up to the good that can come from things that have gone poorly? Am I willing to up myself up when I’ve been betrayed before?

There can still be some good there. It will take courage to fight through the instinct to pull ourselves back. We just have to keep a discerning eye, always watching for when the good goes bad. And remembering that even the bad can show us glimmers of the good when we’re willing to search for it.

Advice for Life in 5 Words

A friend asked a seemingly simple question on Facebook a few months ago. The question was, “If you could give your best advice in 5 words what would you say?” Of course there were a variety of answers provided, but one that was mentioned by several people.

The advice was “Don’t Change Yourself for Anyone.”

If one were to take a sample of all the platitudes commonly thrown around today, I have to think few are used more often than this one. And while it can be useful in particular contexts, like discouraging young people from compromising their values for a relationship or to fit into a particular social group, is it really sound advice that can be applied universally to life? Heck, can it even be applied broadly to life beyond these very specific scenarios?

Should you really not change for anyone? Does it no difference if that “anyone” refers to an acquaintance, a colleague, a friend, a mentor, a family member, a parent, a significant other, or a spouse? Is there no one within our lives for which we should be willing to change?

Is there a certain age where you should no longer change? I think many of us would say that toddlers, especially when throwing tantrums, must change their behavior as they grow up. Should they not change? I’m sure many of us know adults who still act very much like toddlers. Should they not change? Does changing stop when we become 18 and graduate high school? Or when you obtain a certain level of post-secondary education?

Why do we tell each other to not change ourselves for anyone? Could it be that it sounds therapeutic especially when coming out of a tumultuous season of life, which seems to be when this phrase is often uttered? Could it be that maybe when we need to evaluate what changes may need to be made, we’re often scared to start that process and this reinforces that we’re fine to stay as we are?

I think for many of us, the word change can be a terrifying thought. But maybe it’s the conscious and purposeful kind of change that we’re most scared of.

There were several trends I recall growing up as a 90’s kids. Tamagotchi. Pokemon cards. Furby, Ty Beanie Babies. Dunkaroos. Capri Sun juices. Colored ketchup. Walkmans. Gameboys. How often was it that our desires reflected those of the people around us? That, while these are all material things, the fact that our friends had them and desired them, we were (subconsciously) willing to change to be like them and desire the same things.

Just to be clear those Furbies still creep me out to this day. Just staring into those eyes…. I’m going to have nighmares tonight.

And was there anything more damaging to one’s status among classmates than being labeled a “poser?” That if you were caught copying or imitating someone else, you were lesser than everyone else. I thought imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. Yet, the conscious effort to follow someone growing up was disdained even though we were all doing it subconsciously.

Consider how even as adults, the people who identify with counter-cultural groups like hipsters, rebels, punks, and hippies have all followed nearly identical trends within specific groups. In their avoidance of mainstream culture, they simply change to follow and adopt the patterns of their own subgroup of the culture.

So can we ever be purely an individual? Is there really a way for us to not change? And is the status quo really worth striving for?

If I could offer an alternative five-word piece of advice it would be this.

“Find someone worthy of imitating.”

Change is inevitable and we are social beings that are constantly watching those around us. Whether it’s trying to keep up with the Jones’ or just trying to fit in with coworkers or friends, we are all in some way or another trying to conform ourselves to be accepted.

So why not shift this process from the subconscious level to the conscious? Why not be proactive in selecting who in our lives are living in a manner worthy of our imitation? If we are all “posers” anyway, why not pose after someone who will help you become a better person?

In an ironic way, we may find that there’s a whole lot of freedom to be found in this type of conformity. That maybe imitation done properly will provide so much more good than telling ourselves to not change at all. That maybe we don’t always know how to best live well, and emulating someone else may help us get closer to figuring this out.

So how about you? Any life advice you would share in five words?

The False Dilemma of Hannah B. and Luke P.

I like to think I’m a good husband for being willing to watch The Bachelor and The Bachelorette with my wife. At times (actually pretty often), I’m sure she would disagree. I’ve try to cut back on the jokes I make regarding the overtly shallow and hollow conversations they have. And I try to limit how often I mention how awkward it is that there’s a camera man standing within feet of them pretty much at all times. But I just can’t help myself sometimes. Most of the time she laughs with me, but on a few occasions she’s told me to go to the other room because she can’t watch it with me.

I’m normally not one to voice any strong views against TV shows and the same has largely been true for this show. While I wouldn’t recommend anyone pursuing a relationship in the way they do, I’m not forced to watch the show and the participants on the show aren’t forced to partake in it. I think it’s pretty clear why pretty much all relationships in the world don’t start with this type of approach. And as Hannah B. said herself when tearfully struggling to pick between the last two guys, “This is why you don’t date two people at the same time.” That’s quite an astute observation Hannah.

However, this past season, especially as it got to the end of the season, felt starkly different. I felt there wasn’t a resolution to some of the big topics being discussed and that this did a disservice to those watching. I felt that these topics warranted more dialogue.

the false dilemma

Hannah’s season of The Bachelorette will be remembered for news surfacing of her fiance Jed never really ending his former relationship prior to going on the show and then the ensuing ending of the engagement. But maybe even more memorable than the ending will be her constant struggle with Luke P. over issues of faith and sex. It was a topic of conversation that the producers of the show chose to highlight. And highlight it they did.

As we’ll clearly see soon with the Presidential Debates, we are often presented with a problem of “false dilemmas.” That is when we’re presented with two options, and only two options, we feel the need to side completely with one or the other. Hannah’s season of The Bachelorette presented us with exactly that in the very turbulent and unstable relationship between Hannah and Luke. The stark differences in how they viewed their faith, and specifically what that faith meant to their personal lives and their views on sex, became increasingly more evident through the season and hit its climax in their last date together before he was sent home.

I think it’s safe to say that date didn’t go very well.

In the Men Tell All episode, host Chris Harrison states that they have never had this much conversation on faith and religion before. The false dilemma we are presented with in this “conversation” however pressures us to feel the need to agree with Hannah or Luke, two individuals who, in my opinion, reflected some of the most flawed examples of how followers of Jesus are to view sex and relationships. Couple that with the fact that Luke undermined his own credibility throughout the entire show by lying and being manipulative and prideful and you can quickly see who most people will align themselves with in the conversation. The touting of anyone as the winner in this conversation would be wrong, but that’s exactly what happened as this show unfolded.

the differences between hannah b. and luke p.

To give context, both had sex with other people prior to being on the show and were open about that upfront. They both claimed to be Christian. But that’s just about where the similarities end though. On the one hand you have Luke, who very recently became a Christian and who wanted to push all of his recently experienced moral convictions onto Hannah. He tried to “save” her from the other men and from her desires to sleep with some of them prior to their potential engagement and marriage. He consistently berated and belittled her for making these decisions and expected her to make the same moral commitments that he’d been convicted of himself in his life. He was afraid of marrying someone who would be sleeping with other men weeks before their potential engagement. Instead of choosing to leave the show though, he was absolutely convinced Hannah was the one for him and was then willing to flip-flop on his own convictions to maintain a relationship with her.

On the other hand, you have Hannah who used her Fantasy Suite date with Peter, to notoriously have sex in a windmill four times, and boasted about this as a way of getting back at Luke. In her final date with Luke she was quoted as saying, “I have had sex and Jesus still loves me.” A quote that quickly turned into a rallying call of sorts. And people in attendance were printing it on t-shirts for the final episodes.

Just search that quote, and instantly dozens of articles will come up discussing the implications for sex positivism, “slut-shaming” (as Hannah termed her experience with Luke), and faith. Hannah said off the show in an interview, “I think sex and faith are all very individual relationships, and what I might feel comfortable doing sexually is not the same as the next girl, but that doesn’t make her any less worthy.” Clearly she believed she should have the freedom prior to marriage to do what she felt comfortable doing sexually and that Luke was in no place to ask her to not act on her desires. Without being privy to all their conversations, it’s difficult to know if they were upfront with each other on their views on this topic or if they changed throughout the season. But there was no doubting that they did not see eye-to-eye on this at all towards the end.

The fact that their conversation on sex and faith garnered this much attention speaks to the void we have today in the discussion of this very topic. And that’s partially why I find this so frustrating. Like two diplomats representing completely different foreign policies when visiting another nation, Hannah and Luke claim to represent the same team but hold starkly different opinions on what that faith means for themselves and their relationships.

reconciling their differences

So how do we reconcile these two drastically differing views from two people who both claim to be faithful followers of Christ?

Hannah, in her argument with Luke alludes to a pretty well-known story within the Bible, and one that I think is incredibly relevant. She responds to Luke in one of their fiery conversations, “What you just did was you’re holding your stone up at me, and asking and trying to see what I’ve done, and I know that I have God in my heart, so I know that everything that I do, and who I am, is light. I am light. Do I make mistakes? I’m not Jesus.”

Maybe you caught the reference to a specific story of Jesus’ life. The passage she refers to regarding the “stone” is about the woman caught in adultery, which is found in John 8:1-11. I figured it would help to read this short passage.

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

“No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

Jesus said he does not condemn her for her mistakes. Committing adultery with someone can have incredibly disastrous effects on others. This is serious. But the one person without sin, who as he said would have been justified to bring judgement by throwing the first stone, withholds punishment for her adultery. Like the adulterous woman, we have all fallen short of what we know we should do and who we should be. Yet, he does not give up on her. He does not give up on us. He gives her, and us as well, forgiveness and mercy for our shortcomings.

That being said, Jesus tags on an impossibly difficult command at the very end. “Go and sin no more.” It’s a strange thing to say at this time right? I used to think it sounded harsh. Like he’s telling her to get her life together. But I think at the time I was misinterpreting what Jesus was really saying to her.

I think we all would agree that we would live differently if someone, especially someone we respected, gave their life sacrificially to save ours. Whether or not you believe in the resurrection, Jesus went into his execution believing that he was giving up his life so that we could live and have life to the fullest. And to him, life to the fullest includes avoiding sin because those mistakes can seriously harm us and others. Often we are willing to accept the forgiveness God offers, but are resistant to making the changes in response. Jesus is imploring this woman to move beyond this adultery and be obedient, which will produce a far better life for her. He’s not telling her to fix her life just for the sake of following the rules. He says it because he has something much better in store for her. We need to ask ourselves if we respect and trust God enough for the sacrifice he made, to be willing to be obedient in response.

So what is the implication of this passage on our topic of faith and sex? And why is sex before marriage considered a sin to begin with? God very clearly desires for us all to wait until marriage for sex and is consistent with this throughout the Bible. And I don’t think this is some arbitrary rule. Statistics show marriages are less likely to result in divorce and are much happier with less sexual partners beforehand. And I think it’s easy to see the trends that are found in stable marriages and the benefits it provides for the children. It’s all connected.

So where’s the tension? We are so often easily tempted to desire something expedient instead of delaying gratification and working towards the ideal. And often we don’t realize that there is something better in store for us if we’re obedient. That there is something worth striving for. We are so caught up in what we want now, that we cannot see the potential implications this decision can have on our future.

I don’t think it’s wrong that Luke wants to wait for marriage for sex or expects his partner to not sleep with other men within weeks of when he would be proposing. However, the heart does weird things when it gets entangled. He should have walked away if his convictions were that strong and Hannah showed no willingness to abandon her views and approach to sex. And maybe he should have avoided going on the show altogether since it hardly aligns with his convictions.

Regarding Hannah’s position, yes we all fall short, and the Bible gives us examples of seemingly every type of failure man and woman can do. But it also shows how a faithful God who is more merciful and gracious than we could ever imagine can also desire much more for us than we can ever imagine. Hannah wants her forgiveness but doesn’t trust that God will provide what she wants if she were to be obedient to his rules. We all do this to some degree of another. It’s just that she was largely celebrated for being rebellious in this way and I think God wants so much more for all of us than to continue extending grace for our mistakes.

Hannah was right to say, “I have had sex and Jesus still loves me.” But love doesn’t just mean acceptance. To “love” is to will the good of the other. And sometimes that means God wants us to change. We will all miss the mark at times but we should not boast about it. Forgiveness came with a significant cost.

There is healing from past mistakes offered by Jesus’ willingness to lay himself down for us. But we have to recognize that to accept this gift, we will enter a life of pruning and refinement. While we can come as we are, we are to become a new creation and conform to the image of Christ. And that’s something to be excited about and not dreaded.

What in the World are Spirits?

You may not know this, but I’m a bit of a board game enthusiast. Yes, I’m self-aware enough to know I’m a nerd. Ever since being introduced to Dominion in college, I’ve often been searching for newer and even crazier games to play with friends and family. And I have accrued quite a collection over the past few years. Codenames, Avalon, Pandemic, Puerto Rico, you name it… But there’s been one game in particular that I found this past year and boy has it been a joy to play. The game is Spirit Island.

For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s like a mix between Dominion, Pandemic, and Settlers of Catan. Hopefully I didn’t lose all my readers there. It’s the perfect game for millennials because the spirits of the island are teaming up with the island natives to fend off those oppressive European settlers who intend to settle and blight the island. Hopefully I didn’t lose all of you by now because this isn’t a board game review. Although this is one of the highest rated games and I do recommend it!

I think Spirit Island provides illustrations of the widely held views of what spirits were to ancient people. They were those invisible forces of nature that tribal people used to believe in. They were the mysterious entities crafted by our older generations before they had the ability to disprove their existence through science. They were the result of person-hood being assigned to the elements like fire, water, and lightning. These phenomenons that they experienced at the time but could not explain in any other way.

Maybe that’s what our ancestors thought. I’m sure that is what some of them in fact did think. But maybe there’s a bit more to this idea of spirit as well.

If you consider yourself a Christian, you will likely have to ask yourself what to make of the references to spirits within the Bible. And even if you’re not a Christian, you’re probably wondering why those Christians believe in spirits at all? I mean the Holy Spirit is right in the Trinity right? It’s kinda a big deal. Yet, speaking for myself personally, for many years I have avoided giving this question sufficient consideration. Maybe you have as well.

What made me initially want to become a Christian was my adoration for who Jesus was. The way he interacted with people. The wisdom he shared. The love he said he had for me and everyone else when he gave over his life in his execution. Isn’t it adoration that makes us want to follow anyone? I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least like Jesus. They may not like Christians, and I understand why, but Jesus himself, tends to be a pretty likable figure for many people today.

Yes, some of you may say I was suspending disbelief to put my faith in a man who died and rose again. The resurrection is as much today, as it was then, a mystery and a miracle worthy of debate and doubt. But I was at a point where I decided Jesus was worth following, he was the basket I was willing to put my eggs in, and I would see where it would lead. But I wouldn’t at the time suspend my disbelief on spirits. It just wasn’t something I was giving much thought to at the time.

I have often struggled or avoided this topic of spirits. To me, spirits were similar to the topics of angels and demons, which have unfortunately been represented often in a manner similar to that depicted in The Emperor’s New Groove with an angle and a devil on each shoulder telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. I mean c’mon, it’s clear to everyone today that this was an antiquated way of representing what we now know is our consciousness. It can be reduced to a bunch of synapses and neurons firing at all times.

As an engineer, someone who has spent much time in mathematics and the sciences, how could I believe in these spirits? There’s no proof of them. Nothing materially to show they exist. If it weren’t for their prevalence in the Bible, I probably wouldn’t be wrestling with this question. But here I am. I cannot continue to kick this can down the road. For myself, I needed to give some more thought to the topic. And before that question of who the Holy Spirit is could be answered, I had to ask what in the world spirits even are.

what spirits do we have today?

When you hear the word “spirit” in what context is it often used today? School spirit possibly? Team spirit? The type of spirit associated with Halloween that floats around like a ghost? Wine and spirits? Spirit fingers?

According to Google NGram, the use of the word spirit, not surprisingly, has diminished in use over the past couple centuries. I know I personally don’t use the word often and would often turn my head sideways when I met someone who did. But it’s with this diminished use of the word that I believe there’s been a loss of understanding of what in the world “spirit” even means.

If we consider uses of the word like team spirit and school spirit, I think we can start to get an understanding of what spirits may be. As a Penn State alum, I know full well what school spirit looks like. There are few experiences that compare to that of watching a Penn State football game with over 100,000 other Penn State fans at Beaver Stadium. People screaming their heads off. Giving up their entire Saturday to tailgate, eat food, yell chants, sing the Alma Mater and show up shirtless for a November game. The same school spirit that causes people to lose sleep for days when Joe Paterno was fired. How do you define that school spirit? Is there a scientific way for representing what that school spirit is?

Or consider team spirit. I’m sure many of us have taken part in a team sport, musical ensemble, or worked with a group of people at multiple times in our lives. There are different feelings associated with each group. Maybe times where everyone “gels together” and maybe times where there is clashing and infighting amongst the group. Is there a way that this team spirit can be quantified or measured? I don’t know that it can.

Maybe instead of spirit, we would call these “values”, or more broadly “ideas”. But I think the problem with using the term value or ideas is that we often state that we have values or ideas. Yet Carl Jung, a well-known psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, flipped this notion on its head and said “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.” I think this quote is quite relevant for explaining how we experience values, ideas, and even things like team or school spirit.

How responsible are we for adopting these spirits or values? It didn’t take much effort at all for me to hop on the Penn State school spirit train or to want to belong to the teams I have participated in over the years. Do we possess these values or ideas, or could it possibly be that these values, ideas, or, dare I suggest, spirits have us?

Consider the dark side of these so-called spirits. Is it that hard to say that a spirit colonized the people of Germany leading up to and through World War II? We’re not talking about a few people here. We’re talking about millions of people who fell in line with what turned out to be a horrific viewpoint. To them at the time, it was completely rationalized, yet look at the fruit that spirit produced. They were in a sense controlled by what we would term an evil ideology today. This isn’t to absolve individuals of responsibility, but to demonstrate how people can passively, and sometimes actively, absorb these mindsets and ideologies. Is it hard to say that maybe “spirit” would be an appropriate term for this example that is comparable to the team and school spirits we discussed previously?

Or even spirits within families? As children, aren’t we largely passive in our intake of the spirits of the very relationships of our parents, siblings, extended family members and communities? Are there not “spirits” that occupy the interpersonal spaces and relationships that we breathe in every day of our childhoods? When we say “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” can we not see that there is often some momentum within family dynamics that can be difficult to overcome? Can we not ascribe the word “spirit” to this constantly evolving (both positively and negatively) interpersonal space that affects us all?

These spirits aren’t quantifiable. They cannot be measured. They are unseen to the naked eye. But I think we can all admit they exist. We may call them values. We may call them ideologies. We may even give them the name essence. Could their fluidity, invisibility, potency, and ability to (again dare I say) possess people make them worth considering more deeply?

If you followed me to that point, then the next step beyond that would be assigning these spirits personhood. I realize that’s no small leap in assumptions. I’m not sure I’m there yet myself. But when one looks at the spirits that contend for our allegiance in political, familial, and societal spheres of life, I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to think there may be some credibility to the statement that a spiritual world exists. I was struggling with this idea of spirits before, but I think I’m slowly starting to see that maybe they just look different than the ones in Spirit Island. Maybe, just maybe, there’s some legitimacy to this whole spirit thing.

Who is the Holy Spirit?

I wouldn’t say I was an avid reader growing up, but there were several books that I thoroughly enjoyed reading as a child. The Lord of the Rings, The Hardy Boys, and Harry Potter come to mind immediately. When I first read them, I appreciated these books simply for the story. The joy of an unforeseen plot twist in the Hardy Boy mysteries. The constant evolution and unfolding of characters like Severus Snape. And the freedom to imagine new worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize these books contain more than just the stories themselves and have started to appreciate the author behind the story more and more. .

Similar to authorship, someone without going through proper education and training cannot just wake up one day and be an architect and design a house that will both stand and be aesthetically pleasing. And someone cannot instantly become a composer and write a piece of music worth listening to without some type of instruction. There are years of developing the skill and accumulating experience that leads to the final piece of art. I’m blown away by the creativity of these authors and am impressed with their ability to construct such poignant stories. I wish I could craft a story like the ones I read growing up, but it could not just happen by chance as The Simpsons so aptly illustrate in this clip.

In a way, the work of art is an extension of the artist. The house in some way takes on the character of the architect. Music takes on the character of it’s composer. The narrative takes on the character, or essence, of it’s author.

revising an old post

One of the first posts I ever had on my blog was “The Relationship of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter.” It seemed like the most fitting story to write about, as I was a big Harry Potter fan as a kid.

I was the type of fan who was waiting in line at the bookstore before the store opened to pick up my reserved copy of each book when it was released type of fandom.

The type of fan that would forgo sleep to read each book in a matter of days.

The type of fan that went to the Barnes & Nobles midnight release party for the seventh and final book.

The type fan that dressed up as Harry Potter himself (and in my opinion pulled it off well) for Halloween! Sorry Ashley and Alex for not running this by you beforehand. Nice cat ears by the way Alex.

The whole post was intended to share an interesting illustration of God the Father and God the Son that I had stumbled upon. The premise of the illustration was that the only way Harry Potter could know who J.K. Rowling is would be if she were to write herself into the story. Then, and only then, Harry Potter would be able to know his author. The realization for me being that the only way to truly know the author of our story, would be for that author to write him or herself into human history. As Paul says in Colossians 1:15, “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” Christ took on human nature to reveal himself and walk alongside people to show who the author (if we stick with the analogy), God the Father, is.

It’s hard to believe it’s been over seven years since I published that post. Within that time, my thoughts on this analogy have changed. Not that I think it’s a wholly inaccurate illustration but that it’s incomplete. The Father and the Son, although being incredibly complex on their own, seem to be easier to grapple with than the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, which I completely omitted in that post.

The Holy Spirit has often been mysterious, difficult to understand, and rarely discussed specifically, especially in our culture. Even as a regular church attender, I rarely hear much time dedicated to understanding probably the most obscure Person of the Trinity. And yet, the Holy Spirit is mentioned throughout the Bible from beginning to end. If you’ve been baptized, we are told that it is symbolic of being baptized with the Spirit. And that you have been given the Holy Spirit to dwell within you. What in the world does any of this mean? What is it that the Holy Spirit is doing? And who exactly is the Holy Spirit? I know these questions have been some of the most difficult for me to answer personally.

In my last post, I started exploring what spirits are. “Spirit” is no longer in our vernacular, and is probably indicative of why the Holy Spirit gets so little conversation in our culture. Spirits are similar to what we would call values or ideologies today. They are dynamic and invisible and are shared and developed within interpersonal spaces. Spirits can influence individuals, families, communities, and nations in both positive and negative ways.

But I think to really begin to see how spirits, and the Holy Spirit specifically are at work in the world, we need to explore what this word “spirit” has meant historically.

the root of the word “spirit”

Our use of the word spirit today derives from the Latin word “spirare,” which means “to breathe”. There are many other words that we use today that come from this same root that we probably wouldn’t associate with the word “spirit.” Aspire means to “breath on”, or to work towards a goal. Conspire is to “breath together” or craft a plot together. Inspire is to “breath into”. And even respiration, or to “breathe again” comes from this same root word “spirare.”

So what in the world does “spirit” have to do with breathing, and is this just another one of those weird aspects of the English language that our word spirit would be associated with this Latin root that seems unrelated?

Surprisingly the answer is an emphatic “No.” This isn’t just a “the English language is weird” thing. The Greek and Hebrew words for spirit were “Pneuma” and “Ruach,” respectively and both of these words were used to represent the words breath, spirit and wind. While in English we have separate words for all three of these, the Hebrew and Greek languages have one word that means all three. That breath, spirit, and wind were all related to one another within these cultures.

And this is consistent with how the Holy Spirit is depicted throughout the Bible. The Spirit hovering over the waters at the beginning of creation. God breathing life into the nostrils of Adam. God breathing life into the dry bones in Ezekiel. The Holy Spirit descending like a dove onto Jesus at his baptism. Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. The loud wind that is associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This imagery is even used for those born of the Spirit.

"The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." - John 3:8 -

From the vantage point of the writers of scripture, they saw the wind, breath, and spirit as one and the same, animating and giving life to the world around us. It sounds very mystical and like an antiquated way of looking at the world. But should it be?

the “trinity” in harry potter

Sticking with the Harry Potter analogy, consider that part of J.K. Rowling’s essence is found in every word, every sentence, and every chapter that moves the plot line. Her character, her values, her dreams, her aspirations, and her experiences are distilled and breathed into these books and animate the characters bringing this fictional world to life. That if J.K. Rowling were to write herself into the story, we could see a similar “trinity” in play. J.K. Rowling as the author, J.K. Rowling as the character within the Harry Potter story line, and the dynamic “spirit” of J.K. Rowling that permeates through and inspires the entire story line to bring about her desired plot line.

For Augustine, an early Christian theologian from the 4th and 5th centuries, love served as the best example he could use for the Trinity.

“Now when I, who am asking about this, love anything, there are three things present: I myself, what I love, and love itself. For I cannot love unless I love a lover; for there is no love where nothing is loved. So there are three things: the lover, the loved and the love.”

The person of the Holy Spirit only becomes more beautiful when we consider His role within the Bible. God’s Holy Spirit emanates from this relationship between the Father and the Son and it’s what gives life to the very story we are a part of. It’s similar to J.K. Rowling’s love for Harry Potter, and that love manifesting itself in what I think is a very beautiful and well-written story revolving around him.

And just like how J.K. Rowling worked through Dumbledore, Snape, Hermione, Ron, and a host of other characters to carry out this storyline, God has invited us to breathe in His Holy Spirit. He has invited us to allow Him to dwell within, motivate and empower us as He carries out his story. Not that this is the only spirit we are inspired by, but that it is the one spirit that gives life and blows us like the wind towards the things in keeping with who God is.

Maybe this is all sounds weird and strange. I would completely understand anyone who felt that way as I clearly couldn’t have articulated the Holy Spirit this way seven years ago when I first attempted this illustration. For me, this recent shift in my perspectives on the nature of God and specifically His Person of the Holy Spirit has been life giving. The ability to rest and not feel like it’s all in my power. And the ability to “test the spirits” as John would say and see what’s worth breathing in.

I’m sure many of us heard the old adage growing up “You become what you eat.” May I suggest one slightly modified? Maybe that you become what spirits you breathe in? The questions then are, “Is there an author to this crazy thing we call life?” and “Do you trust the author enough to breathe in their spirit and allow them to work through you?”

Quick disclaimer

I’ve heard it said that theology is like a map. The maps we use are scaled down and smaller representations of the actual world. It’s this smaller size that allows us to use the map. And the map hopefully has sufficient details for our purposes of navigating the world. Likewise, this illustration is not a complete and exhaustive depiction of who the Holy Spirit is. It is a reduction, or a map, that for me helps me to navigate my relationship with God. And my hope is that it helps you. And hopefully over time, that map becomes more detailed, more vibrant, and more accurate.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:12

Let me know your thoughts and if you have any other helpful ways you have found to explain the Holy Spirit.

Social Justice in a Post-Christian Society

Avengers: Endgame was a unique theater experience. I can recall going to see many several of the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies shortly after they hit the big screen but those experiences pale in comparison to that of watching Endgame.

I couldn’t find more recent data on how many people have seen Avengers: Endgame since it debuted this past April, but this article indicates that their survey conducted prior to its release showed that more that half of Americans planned to see the movie. It currently sits at the top for the highest grossing movie of all time at the box office, with a gross of nearly $2.8 billion worldwide (although they had to use some trickery to get there). The amount of conversation devoted to this movie among friends and families probably serves as enough of an indicator of how popular this movie was.

The movie felt like a cultural moment. It was the 22nd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the culmination of their first big overarching story line that weaved throughout each of the preceding films. It signaled the end of a chapter of movies that had been made for over a decade leading up to this point and it’s difficult to see anyone except Marvel Studios pulling something of this magnitude off again.

Yet, the euphoric feeling of that culminating movie didn’t really last too long. Yes, another Spider-Man movie came out (which I haven’t seen yet so no spoilers please!) and more Marvel movies are slated to hit theaters for the foreseeable future. But unless we plan to partake in Comic Con, there aren’t really opportunities for us to engage in these superhero stories beyond purchasing our tickets, reclining back in the theater, and wolfing down some popcorn. We can discuss the movie among friends and families, but even the novelty of that conversation wears off as time passes. It seems like it pulled so many of us together, but only for a short while. It’s like the movie points to something we all want, but the MCU thus far, even through 22 movies, hasn’t quite fulfilled it.

Can the MCU point to something that we desire? And what implications can it have for discussions on social justice, and how do we go about fostering good conversation.

we’re living in a post-christian society

We are divided along political, racial, geographic, gender, and generational lines. Except for the rare case like Endgame, there aren’t too many opportunities where we come together despite these differences. But were there always this few opportunities for community?

We could take a look at organized religion as an example. It’s no secret that church attendance is in decline, especially among younger generations. Studies everywhere show that pretty much across the board numbers are dropping as indicated in the figures below. Whether it’s the argument that science has disproved the claims made in the Christian belief system, the scandals and hypocrisy that have eroded its credibility, or the dangers posed by fundamentalist religions, there have been a number of reasons to avoid associating with any type of religion. However, as we can see from this graph, a significant portion of the nation belonged to a church just a couple generations ago.

Church membership was incredibly stable up until the late 90’s when it started to sharply decline. And this trend is represented even more starkly in the following chart.

I think it’s safe to say that these charts point to a seismic shift in our culture over the past few decades and as with any change their are side effects, often both good and bad.

Set aside the metaphysical claims made by religions for a minute and consider what the institutions of religion have provided historically. I mentioned that the Marvel movies have given reason for about half the nation to sit in front of television and movie screens a couple times a year for a few hours to enjoy what are essentially mythical tales. Consider that even today after all this decline in church membership that 50% of the nation are still members of a church that get together weekly to take part in a narrative of their own. A narrative that they have continued to take part in over vast periods of time. It’s almost like a weekly Comic Con and yes, some of the people are just as interesting.

We all know that these communities have not always been a perfect reflection of the diversity of the community at large and as I mentioned earlier there are understandably concerns with the church. But traditionally churches have provided a place for people to come together and ideally consider how they were meant to live both in relationship with God, or the highest ideals for life, and with one another. Why do you think an event like the Notre Dame Cathedral fire had such a profound impact on people religious and non-religious alike?

Notre Dame Cathedral

There’s a reason that churches were placed in the center of communities and often had their steeples set at the highest elevation within towns. They served as a central meeting place. The ideals taught there were embraced largely by the surrounding community. And the prioritization of religion within the community provided a space that could draw people together to commune, share meals together, and take part in a narrative. Something starkly similar to I think what we try to find in the MCU movies (kudos if you can find the pun in there). Yet, can movies replace the type of community an institution like the church produces?

where can we go for community?

It is within communities that we have conversation. I don’t think that’s a radical idea. The question is what can replace the role that religion has played historically as people leave the church? And where do we hear and engage with difficult topics like social justice?

As I discussed in my previous two posts, the news and politics don’t seem to provide a great locus for dialogue. And if the church is no longer the place for many of us to tease out these principles where do we have to go? K-12 public education? Colleges or universities?

Public schools are probably the closest to offering this type of community because students have to live in community with each other for hours a day for years. But consider the fact that schooling for most people ends by your mid- to late twenties. Is there an institution that can take the place of church for adults? The workplace? Meetups? I honestly can’t think of one.

a conversation on the hierarchy of values

Let’s assume we find some place to have conversation. Whether it’s in a church or elsewhere, what type of conversation are we having? When we tackle difficult issues like social justice, what we are often discussing is what values are of most importance. Kindness, love, justice, freedom, fairness, etc.

It often seems that the virtues of kindness and compassion are king within the social justice movement. Often there is no narrative offered to support why these virtues are of most importance. To many who subscribe to this belief, these virtues are self-evident. We ought to be kind and compassionate towards others.

I would ask the hypothetical question, do you think the self-sacrificing scenes throughout the MCU movies would arise from every other culture in the world both throughout history and geographically? I would think we would be naïve to think it would. The question then becomes where did we learn that kindness and compassion were important?

With the diminishing attendance at church and role of religion in society, we are trying to replace the Judeo-Christian narrative that for a long time has served as one of the most substantial influences in our culture with the virtues that we believe to be self-evident without a religious narrative coupled to it. But can this modern social justice narrative adequately fill that void? Author G.K. Chesterton seems to indicate that they aren’t the same in his following quote.

“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

Consider the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. How would you define each of these?

Take kindness for example. Kindness as I mentioned is pervasive throughout the current democratic party’s platform and it seems straightforward. Kindness would probably be defined most often in this setting as tolerance and permissiveness. A “stay in your lane” mentality. Wokeness may even be considered kindness. Is that what Paul was referring to in this passage?

Or consider joy. Joy in isolation from these other fruits can be reduced to happiness. Do whatever makes you happy. Don’t change yourself. Don’t commit or get tied down. Life is short. Life for your enjoyment. Is this what Paul meant by joy?

When Paul wrote about these fruit he didn’t mean for them to be used in isolation because it is in their isolation that they each become distorted. Yet, we have done exactly that. We have separated these virtues that were learned over a long period of time through interaction both with myths and narratives and with other people through community. We thought they were self-evident and have distorted their meaning and application in life. And now they have gone wild and have taken on a life of their own.

why narratives are important?

So what was it that made Endgame so special? With more movies came the opportunity for more screen time for characters to develop their narratives. We got to see the maturation of their personalities into some absolutely beautiful moments of sacrifice, love, and courage for one another.

I know I left the theater feeling like the movie exceeded any expectations I had for it. It truly was a masterpiece of storytelling. I have to believe that’s a large part why people got so emotional, even to the point of requiring hospitalization.

There isn’t a problem with Endgame. It’s just that a movie like this is limited to providing entertainment and a limited amount of conversation because we can’t live within the story. We can contemplate the significance of the inclusion of female and minority superheroes and the virtues of the characters on screen, but at the end of the day none of us will be fighting alongside Tony Stark, Captain America, and the rest of the gang.

Without a story that we can participate in, I’m not sure that we have the ability to tease out how all of these virtues should interact. That’s where a narrative like the Christian narrative is different, because the story claims to occur within human history.

God as depicted within the Bible demonstrates in part all of these virtues interacting with one another. Even the statements “God is love” and “the greatest of these is love”, only have meaning within the context of the greater narrative and his interaction with humans throughout history. Similar to how the self-sacrifice of certain Marvel characters (avoiding spoilers here) has that much more significance because we know their backstory, the story of God’s relationship with humans and eventual self-sacrifice can illuminate these virtues and give them life.

It’s through our engagement with this narrative and the stories of others in the context of church in our communities that we can start to see how we can respond with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the midst of difficult situations and confront these problems. We can avoid the temptation to elevate one virtue above the rest and as a result diminishing all of them.

what narrative does the church provide?

So what is the meta-narrative offered by the church in regards to social reform and change? I’m still unpacking for myself just how significant the story of the Bible is. I will spend the rest of my life doing so. But if I could try to boil it down to a few relevant ideas they would be these.

First off, I find it interesting if you consider the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, how the Israelites told the story of their own nation’s history. These are the stories they passed down orally and then eventually wrote down to explain their origins. They descended from people who were lazy (Abraham), deceitful (Jacob), willing to trade their brother into slavery (Jacob’s sons), drunk (Noah), disobedient (Adam and Eve), murderous (Moses), and idolatrous (the rest of the Israelites) among a variety of other mistakes.

The story they chose to tell of their own nation’s history was brutally honest about how they had failed their God. They don’t applaud these behaviors, but decided to remind themselves of how often they fell short. Maybe a little honesty on the shortcomings of our past is healthy to have.

Second, I would consider that Jesus didn’t spend his life trying to change Rome’s system of government. He spent his ministry investing mostly in 12 men, a lot of time in prayer, teaching principles, performing miracles to heal the sick and lowly and communing with the outcasts and dispossessed. He restored relationships between the dehumanized and the society at large by giving value to the very people that no one at the time saw value in.

It was in this way that he would build his church and change the world in a grass roots manner. The locus of change was the individual that resulted in widespread impact. The early church constantly showed that community could be formed across racial, generational, class, and gender lines. A little more of that sounds like exactly what we need today.

Lastly, when John starts his gospel off with the phrase “The Word became flesh”, I think we need to consider how significant this statement is. The Greek used here for Word is “logos,” which essentially means in the context of this passage that God revealed Himself by speaking.

If we were in a classroom and a dog were to randomly show up in the room and be running around there would be chaos and confusion. However, if a faculty member were to come into the room and explain that their dog got off the leash and that it was friendly, everyone in the classroom would suddenly have context for the situation. Order would be restored. John is essentially saying that Jesus has provided context for the chaos of our world and revealed God to us through his speech and language to provide order.

Speech is important for all of us to figure out the chaos around us. There may be temptations to silence certain voices, but I would argue this silencing of differing opinions would be to our detriment. There’s a reason we have the First Amendment. There’s a reason John emphasizes the importance of “logos.” And there’s a reason you see cultures go in terrible direction when people are silenced. We need to value others thoughts even when we don’t completely agree. It’s through truthful and honest conversation that we can mold each other. We need more of it not less.

where do we go from here on social justice issues?

Does that mean we do nothing then within politics? I don’t believe that to be the case. I think we should advocate for change and when it’s in our power, try to make changes, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what’s happening in our own lives, families, and neighborhoods. Should we look down on progressives? By no means. Compassion for the dispossessed and disenfranchised is to be lauded and we should be able to discuss these issues. The desire to want to do something is not a bad instinct.

Should we disparage conservatives for resisting social reform? I don’t think so. There are stark differences between statutes that abolish slavery and ones that provide reparations. Just like there are stark differences between giving women the right to vote and requiring women on executive boards. Some regulations should clearly be supported. Others, despite seeming similarly compassionate, may not produce the same effects they are desired to. And systematic sin, if you’re willing to call it evil, is not always rational and therefore rational solutions cannot always be found for these issues.

Systemic sin is real. It’s difficult to quantify, but always present. And as we see in my own post from four years ago, I think it’s important to be patient with one another because viewpoints on these difficult subjects often change over time. I’m sure mine will change and evolve even more over the coming years.

Unfortunately the solutions to these pervasive issues are not so easily prescribed. Let’s resist the urge to buy into quick solutions, look for the principles that can be developed to move us from pity to action, and try to rebuild the sense of community that has been lost. Maybe you will find that in church, or maybe new institutions will come about to fill this void.

And maybe… just maybe, these issues may start to resolve themselves without policy. Whether you’re a Christian or not, we have to admit that the historical figure of Jesus changed the world and undermined the Roman empire by communing with those on the outskirts of society and not through political and legislative means. I think it’s through rediscovering our local community and investing there, that the public sentiment of the nation will be changed and good conversation can resume.