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.