The Chocolate Bunny and Idolatry Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what is idolatry?

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

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

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

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

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

That we can think no higher than

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

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

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

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

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

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

WORSHIPING the gift

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

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

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

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

Warren Wiersbe

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

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

what i give up everything for

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

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

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

we adults need reminders too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hidden Meaning of Onward

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

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

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

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

more than a story of two brothers

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

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

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

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

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

the pitfalls of modernity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the meaning crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

the most unexpected of heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

more than just a beat-up old van

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Illusion of Omnipotence in the Midst of a Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the illusion of american omnipotence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reality is stranger than fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

waiting quietly in the midst of uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Messiah

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

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

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

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

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

rethinking “Messiah”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the messiah of easter week

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

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

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

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

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

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

“who do you say I am?”

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

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

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

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

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

The Upside-Down World of the Joker

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

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

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

have we been lying to ourselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

turning today’s narratives upside down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what is the solution?

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

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

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

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

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

an alternative upside down kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.