“What goes around comes around.” Or as the main character from the show My Name is Earl puts it, “Do good things and good things happen to you. Do bad things, they’ll come back to haunt you.” Karma is pretty straightforward. You eventually reap what you sow within this lifetime.
The entirety sitcom is based off of this very principle. The show starts with Earl finding himself in a hospital bed after being hit by a car. His wife hands him divorce papers to essentially move in with his friend Darnell, the actual father to his son Earl Jr. And the winning lottery ticket in his hand at the time of the accident blows away in the wind. A comedic sequence of events puts Earl in the lowest point of his life.
And as he lays in that hospital bed watching Carson Daly on TV, he hears a brief explanation of Karma and realizes that his current state is the result of all the bad things he had done previously. He writes a list of all the terrible things he regrets doing to others: getting his friend deported, stealing a DJ’s equipment, and not giving his mother a good Mother’s Day, amongst a variety of other hilarious errors. And he commits to crossing off each one by making amends with those he’s wronged. All this in the hope that his life circumstances will change as a result of his good deeds. In many respects it’s a comedy with a really rich underpinning storyline. The power of forgiveness and reconciliation.
But despite the fictional nature of the story, one might be surprised to hear that based on a Statista poll in 2019 an estimated 31% of adults in the US “very strongly” believe in Karma and an additional 34% “somewhat strongly” believe. But is it actually how the world operates?
theology: the science of relations
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines theology as “the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.” And as such, in a culture that strives for a division of church and state, theology appears to be reserved for those sets of practices one does outside of the normal day-to-day activities that constitute much of our lives.
But as Augustus Strong writes in his Systematic Theology, “In defining theology as a science, we indicate its aim. Science does not create, it discovers. Theology answers to this description of a science. It discovers facts and relations, but it does not create them.” And he latter writes, “Science is not only the observing, recording, verifying, and formulating of objective facts; it is also the recognition and explication of the relations between these facts, and the synthesis of both the facts and the rational principles which unite them in a comprehensive, rightly proportioned, and organic system. Scattered bricks and timbers are not a house; severed arms, legs, heads and trunks from a dissecting room are not living men; and facts alone do not constitute science. Science = facts + relations.”
In essence, theology is an attempt to collect the facts of how life unfolds and to describe the relations between them. Karma is by that definition an attempt at theology. A distillation of life’s circumstances into a simplistic relationship. “Do good things and good things happen to you. Do bad things, they’ll come back to haunt you.”
And maybe a clue as to how pervasive this world view is, is just how irritated we get when these rules are violated. When the good die young. When criminals go unpunished. When the pure of heart suffer unjustly. When the consequences of someone’s actions are felt most by an innocent bystander. Almost all of our grievances in this world follows this pattern. People not being recompensed for their actions, good or bad.
who sinned that he was born blind?
John 9 speaks of a blind man who Jesus and his disciples cross paths with. And the disciples’ first question is “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In many respects, this question comes from a place that is similar to those who hold to worldview like Karma. How was this misfortune merited?
But Jesus responds “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” I’m sure this was not the response his disciples anticipated. The works of God are displayed in a man who has suffered incredibly and for no apparent reason? Is this really a God worth following if he would allow this man to endure this?
Yet Jesus then proceeded to heal that man of his blindness.
Is it possible that the man was better off for having gone through his blindness and being healed? Is it possible that the works of God might be displayed in the areas we least expect him to work?
And if that’s possible, could it also be quite true of the inverse? Is it possible that those who commit atrocities in this life and escape punishment in this life, don’t actually get away with it? A worldview like Karma has no room for such possibilities and it can often lead to great distress when the unfolding events in this world seem to mock the righteous expectations we have.
But I truly believe that the worldview that Christ embodies, lives out, and invites us into provides a far better explanation for the relations between us and God in this life. For even in his death we are given a picture of the greatest injustice that can occur: the mockery, torture, and murder of a perfectly good and innocent man. That the person least deserving could be subject to such horrific treatment, while other far less righteous people would be exalted within this life.
Earl’s circumstances turned for the better when he started doing the right thing. And while this may very often be the result of improving our actions, it isn’t always a guarantee. And sometimes misfortune occurs that’s not necessarily earned. But maybe God has plans to reveal his glory through those moments in ways far more profoundly than if we were never in that circumstance to begin with. The past 2,000 years certainly seem to indicate God had far more plans through Christ’s crucifixion than any could have thought in that moment.
Theology, like all sciences, is about the discovery of facts and the relations between those facts. Every life experience is a data point and if we’re intentional about our worldviews, we try to understand how all these life experiences relate to one another. Karma affords a simple relationship. You reap what you sow. But life will prove that this framework is insufficient to navigate life’s storms.
Jesus offers us something far richer. A more detailed map to understanding how to live this life and respond during both the highs and lows. Divorce your actions from their consequences. Do good even when it repays you with evil. Know that you aren’t abandoned by God when the outlook is bleak. And in every circumstance, God may be using the opportunity to display his good works.
I never knew before having kids that I would one day become a bubble solution connoisseur. After a few run-ins with poor quality bubble solution and the tears that ensued (Tristan’s, not mine to clarify) I’ve been taking notes on which brands perform the best and asking family and friends alike who their dealers are for the best performers. You learn quickly with kids there are few things more deflating than going to blow bubbles and nothing coming out of the wand. As a parent you have to be prepared and stocked up with the highest quality solutions. And for those that are wondering, Sun Burst, Fubbles and Disney brand bubble solutions all seem to take the prize.
Well over this past summer I think we probably used at least a few gallons worth of bubble solution. That means watching our kids blow A LOT of bubbles. And I began to notice something…
While the wind may carry all of them in a general direction, the individual flight patterns of each varies considerably. Up, down, left and right, forwards and backwards. Almost always following the prevailing wind direction but occasionally going against it too. You can’t anticipate with certainty which way they would go next.
And it reminded me of this interesting verse from John 3:8. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
wind, spirit and breath
The original Greek words for “wind” and Spirit” used in this verse are pneuma and pneumatos respectively. I’m no scholar on ancient languages, but we can see that these two words are clearly related in the original language. In fact in both the Old Testament and New Testament, the words wind, spirit and breath are, as far as I know, almost always used interchangeably. While we see them as being distinct from one another, our ancestors saw them as synonymous.
Let’s consider school spirit. It’s not a material object you can touch, move, or see with your eyes. It cannot be reduced to atoms bouncing off one another. It cannot be modeled by empirical formulations. And it isn’t bound by the laws of physics. Yet, I think all would agree it exists. School spirit animates students and teachers alike. It has the ability to breathe life into kids. It can move through a body of students much like the wind.
It’s why the word spirit shares the same root as words like inspire (“to give breath”), respire (“to breathe again”), and conspire (“to breathe together”). We still have remnants in our language of a former way of seeing the world. A way of perceiving that we still see in part.
Or consider the wind motif that is still in many of our movies. It often represents this subtle force that moves characters and pushes the plotline along. It’s found all throughout Disney movies like The Lion King, Frozen II, and Pocahontas. It’s difficult to articulate the exact purpose wind plays within a story, yet we all intuitively understand its role. Here’s a scene from the Lion King that captures that essence beautifully.
Much in the same way, we can intuitively understand how spirits govern the actions of individuals, schools, communities, families, and entire nations for good or for bad. Yet, they often go unseen and unrecognized just like the wind unless, like Rafiki, we’re attuned to discerning them.
the social sciences and the discernment of spirits
Recently I have started taking interest in topics pertaining to the social sciences. Personality disorders, counseling and therapy, mental health, family systems, the rise and fall of ideologies, religions and nations… it’s all relevant to the social sciences.
The social sciences is a field of study I would have scoffed at in my high school and college days for being something of far less value than the hard sciences. And yet, here I am a bit older and realizing just how crucial these studies are and the value they can provide when done well.
What is so baffling is that you begin to see that the behavior of groups start to follow patterns in a similar fashion to the traditional sciences like biology, physics, and chemistry. Political factions, dysfunctional families, churches, work environments, and even the lives of individuals tend to play themselves out in patterns that those in the social sciences can track and monitor with relative predictive ability. In many ways the social sciences have helped elucidate what has long been considered opaque. One could say what was once considered the unpredictability of spirits, has to to a large extent with the help of modern social sciences become predictable.
And yet, I can’t help but notice that more often than not the consensus in the social sciences is regarding that which is pathological. Around how to live the good life, it seems very much that the jury is still out. It’s easier to identify addiction, personality disorders, dysfunction, cults, or what constitutes something like poor school spirit than the alternative. It’s easier in many ways for modern movie makers to depict villains than it is to create an engaging hero. It’s easier to see where things went wrong than to know how to fix them let alone articulate what the ideal is. And I think this is one of the points Jesus is trying to express to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, when he makes the aforementioned statement regarding the necessity of being born of the Spirit.
Jesus and the unpredictable spirit
Pharisees have a bad reputation for being hypocritical. And yet, on the other hand you have to recognize their attempt to live an upright life, even if hypocrisy was at play. In contrast to many around them, they were at least expressing an intent to lead a righteous life.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus for a conversation because he recognizes that Jesus could not perform the miracles he had, if he were not from God. Nicodemus is essentially trying to confirm that they are both laboring for the same team. And yet Jesus responds in a surprising manner. He doesn’t openly embrace Nicodemus but instead states that even Nicodemus still needed to be born again of the Spirit if he wanted to see the Kingdom of God.
Nicodemus, like the Pharisees in general, was predictable, following a set of rules and operating in absolutes. Jesus however lives by a different Spirit, and one that – like the wind – often surprises people. He zigs when others expect him to zag. Much of the gospels can be summarized as different individuals and groups thinking Jesus is on their side, trying to recruit him to their cause only to find out that he operates in ways that confound them. Jesus is, in a way, unpredictable. Not erratic. Unpredictable in the sense that he is able to hold within himself in perfect harmony what we often perceive as conflicting virtues.
And for 2,000 years individuals, families, communities and nations have been altered and animated by this Jesus and the Spirit by which he lived. Part of what makes him such a captivating person is his ability to avoid being compartmentalized. He’s unpredictable like the Spirit that moves him. He sets impossibly high standards yet communes with the sinful. He made bold claims to his own divinity and authority yet he humbled himself to the point of being unjustly hung on a cross. And he chastises his disciples for having little faith yet has the utmost patience and grace.
Even today, Jesus is used as a model for both inclusion and holiness. Both grace and judgement. Both perfect service and kingship. The lion and the lamb. The first and the last.
Yes, the path the Spirit calls us to may be to take the narrow path and avoid the wide path to destruction. Some look at that life and say it’s restrictive. And to a certain extent, yes the prevailing wind is predictable and he does ask us to bear his yoke. But beyond that narrow path are wide open vistas of a life that to many will seem as “unpredictable.” The type of unpredictable that leads to admiration in the greatest of saints, and perfected in this Jesus of Nazareth who has captivated so many for so long. And he offers his Spirit to continue to breathe new life into this world.
While everyday that passes can certainly be considered just another day in the books, there are particular events that you know, even as they are still unfolding, will remain the topic of conversation for years to come. The types of events that will likely make there way into textbooks. That our kids and grandkids will ask us about. That will be considered pivotal moments for our culture. The cliché phrase “we’re living through history” seems all too fitting for these trying times.
Is it an overstatement to say the rioting at Capitol Hill fits that category? Or even that much of the social strife experienced over the past year will be worthy of reflection for future generations? Events filled with opportunities to teach lessons or at least offer a snapshot of what life was like within the United States in the early 21st century?
While it’s always difficult to assess the significance of a particular event within such a short timeframe, this feels even more difficult to put into words. Was this the climax of a long-building crescendo? Or is this just another “bump” in the long road of turmoil within our nation?
How did we get here? Whose fault is this? Where do we go from here? And how could this have been avoided?
As to be expected, there are many who are quick to give answers or at least vent their frustrations. Who’s at fault? The President? His base? The party that never reeled him in? Fascists? White supremacists? The patriarchy? Fake News? The Swamp? The Deep State? It depends who you ask. But for so many in this country, still living through the fog of a tumultuous year, the answer is crystal clear. The problem is the other tribe and it has been for a long time.
What’s sad is that in almost every rant that makes its way onto social media, there are at the very least kernels of truth. There’s no shortage of reasons to cast blame on pretty much everyone mentioned previously, which is what makes this so messy. One can easily make the case, that just about everyone has contributed in some way to getting us to this point.
And so, as much as we may want to cast judgements on the events of the recent past, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that this isn’t an isolated incident that came out of nowhere. It may be even more helpful to view this event against the backdrop of larger undercurrents that have been forming within society over many years and decades. To take a step back and try looking at it from a 10,000-foot view.
As I so often do in many of these posts, I find movies and TV shows so incredibly helpful because they represent the stories we tell ourselves that both inform our culture and reflect where it currently stands. Often popular art can give us a glimpse into where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. And I can think of no genre of movies and TV shows that reflects this evolution (or maybe better put “devolution”) more clearly than the super hero genre.
these aren’t your granddaddy’s super heroes
I’ll admit. I’m no comic book junkie. The extent of my comic book reading as a kid consisted of Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert, and The Far Side. I never really dabbled in the super hero genre. It just wasn’t my thing.
My exposure to super heroes as an adolescent was largely relegated to an occasional viewing of the Batman animated series and the live action Batman and Robin movies. You know, the ones with the over-the-top “KAPOW” and “BANG” lettering intermixed with each and every fight scene. It was enough for me to ask for my own Batman utility belt. But that was about the peak of my interest.
But my love for the super hero genre, really began with the first Iron Man movie and the introduction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Marvel Studios has been producing many of the highest grossing movies of the past decade, (for good reason) and continues to pump them out at an increasing frequency, no doubt to capitalize on an opportune moment while popularity remains high.
Sure the visual effects and CGI has taken current films to a completely new level of production quality than the older films. But maybe one of the most notable changes has come with the with the characters themselves.
Unlike the typical superhero trope of the past, none of the super heroes within the MCU maintain their secret identity. Ever since Tony Stark revealed his identity as Iron Man in the first movie, almost none of the characters have maintained an alter ego. There is no stark division drawn between their public and private lives. And that means for the viewer, you are presented with all of the flaws and weaknesses of the heroes.
In the past, clear lines were drawn between good and evil without much of a character arc required within the individual. But in today’s movies, although there are certainly clear “good guys” and “bad guys”, the protagonists have flaws, and deeper context is given for why the antagonists became who they are. Changes that certainly make the movies all the more engaging and are worthy of note.
But where this genre really takes a turn is with one of it’s most recent adaptations. The Boys, a very popular TV show on Amazon Prime that just finished its second season, demonstrates this shift in culture by very clearly contrasting itself against the many super hero stories of the past. And boy oh boy (pun intended), is it a doozy.
The show was recommended by friends of ours. With an 8.7 rating on IMDB, many award nominations, and considered one of the most popular shows today, this show is certainly drawing a lot of attention. And as usual in our household, Morgan started watching without me. Go figure. But I just so happened to sit down in time to catch this scene from the fourth episode which gave me an introduction into what this show was all about and I was immediately intrigued by its message.
Disclaimer: There is swearing, blood/gore, and disturbing content in this clip. The show is rated for mature audiences. While there is no sexual content in this clip, please know for future reference the show itself does contain pretty gratuitous amounts of it in the remainder of the show. In short, I don’t recommend this for kids.
I’m not sure if this scene hits you as hard as it hits me, but I can’t help but feel my stomach turn when they lie to the passengers that everything would be okay and abandon them to their demise. This scene encapsulates in just a few minutes what this whole show is about.
Clearly Homelander is a parody of Superman. Queen Maeve, a parody of Wonder Woman. There are other super heroes that allude to Aquaman and to The Flash. This whole show takes the oh so familiar concept of a group of super heroes like the Justice League, and flips it on its head. What if those who are responsible for our protection aren’t just incompetent at times, but they’re actually malevolent?
If you watch the show, you will see that this twist doesn’t just occur with the super heroes. Nearly every institution in this show is untrustworthy. A Christian organization is led by a man that is sexually deviant in private after condemning it publicly. A big pharmaceutical company is led by completely dishonest leaders and misleads the public every step of the way. Politicians are corrupt. Cults take advantage of their followers for monetary gain. Many of the relationships depicted are absolute train wrecks. Innocent bystanders killed all the time in both domestic and foreign affairs. And the show makes barely veiled allusions to many of our cultures hot-button topics like white supremacy, the #MeToo Movement, and police brutality. It has it all!
This show is at its core a thought experiment. What if we took the super hero concept and made a dystopian version of it? That my friends in a nutshell is The Boys. A show that probably would not have received anywhere near this level of popularity in the past. A show that probably won’t stand the test of time. But a show that shows so saliently what so many are feeling today.
And what’s their proposed solution? “The Boys.” A group of nobodies who have been hurt in the past by these super heroes and who group together to take down them down through not only non-violent means, but also through violence. The solution is a grassroots resistance rebelling against the powers at hand. Does this sound familiar?
The Decay of social capital
It may not come as a surprise that public trust in government has been hovering around an all-time low for much of the recent past. The below chart from Pew Research shows just how precipitously we’ve declined in trust in public officials these past 60 years.
Then one could look at the status of marriages over the past century and the waning influence it has within our society. And with the reduced rate of marriages, we have seen related patterns in the increase of babies born out of wedlock, certainly a condition that does not afford stability to the children – a storyline I would note that one can also find within the plot of The Boys.
I’m sure one could easily find similar studies showing trends for diminished trust in the police, our neighbors, clergy, state and local officials, schools, etc. And similar levels of disconnection from other institutions like church, community groups, friends and family. Despite having the ability to connect more easily today with anyone around the globe, we are more disjointed and less trusting of those around us.
Is it any wonder why a show like The Boys would resonate with people today yet almost certainly be incredibly off-putting to generations past? Is it any wonder why so many on both the right and left are resisting and rebelling against who they perceive to be the perpetrators of these conditions? Is it any wonder that many feel that resorting to violence is the only way for them to feel heard?
Social capital is rarely mentioned measure of a culture’s health. Honestly I wasn’t familiar with the term until very recently, but it is quite obvious once you hear it. Social capital is the value of the relationships within a society that not only bind us together, but propel us to live admirably and function effectively. High trust within a society reduces the need for regulation. Moral behaviors that arise from constructive relationships reduce the need for law enforcement. Social capital provides increased levels of satisfaction, stability and predictability to our lives. And it affords opportunities for the most disenfranchised to be heard when those relationships are prioritized between all levels of the hierarchy.
When societies are functioning at their best, social capital is high. Sadly many of the previous attributes mentioned do not describe the experiences for many in our nation today. In many regards, that dystopian vision of The Boys is not too far off from what many perceive to be reality. So what can we do?
so how do we build social capital again?
One may say that maybe our trust in the government in the past was too high. That the very carefully crafted propaganda of our past that afforded such a unifying vision of our country’s leadership cannot occur in this modern era, nor would we want that. Can you imagine a current president being able to hide for years their limited mobility like FDR did in the past?
Like that aforementioned change made in the MCU movies, for better or for worse, we are presented with far more of the strengths and flaws of our leaders than at any time in the past. With cameras everywhere and an expectation that communication not just come from polished speeches but from half-baked tweets, we will get an up-close view of not just their public lives, but their private lives too. In fact, with the advent of social media, we’re confronted with the best and worst of many of our peers as well. To some degree we need to learn to live with the messiness of one another that is aired out for all to see in ways it hasn’t in the past, including our leaders (not to be mistaken as an excuse for these recent riots).
But there are many other changes that have been occurring within our society over the past several decades. Many seemingly small and innocuous decisions are made by all of us that over time accumulate. The decision to continue a marriage or end it. To get to know our neighbors better or ignore them. To attend church and invest time into the community or spend every leisure hour on ourselves. To be diligent at our work or let our quality slip when no one’s looking. To be dependable to our children, parents, and friends or look out for #1. To build social capital, or to let it decay.
We didn’t get here overnight. And we’re not getting out of it as quickly either. We don’t have to live within a dystopia. But in order to promote trust in our institutions again, the people who make up those institutions have to start generating more social capital again. And violence is never constructive.
Jesus said to his disciples in the hours leading up to his execution, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Jesus found himself within the midst of a very harsh culture war and instead of resorting to violence he encouraged his disciples to seek a new way. The Boys glorifies violence as its solution to the problem of malevolent actors. Jesus proposed a different, albeit far more costly and difficult way to approach others, even our enemies.
To continue to invest in others, even when it’s at the cost of yourself. Those aren’t the type of heroes we glorify today. But those are the heroes we need to turn things around. Then, and only then, will we actually begin to see and feel indications of healing. And maybe, just maybe, we will look back at these recent events as the pivot point towards something better.
What traditions haven’t been altered in some way by the year 2020? Family gatherings delayed indefinitely. Vacations postponed if not missed altogether. Holidays without the whole family around the table. Even regular events like apple and pumpkin picking, made a little less comfortable with masks on. One can only imagine how different Times Square will be for New Years Eve and I can’t wait to see the Year-in-Review montage they put on. It’s impossible to overstate how much 2020 has impacted our most firmly held traditions.
Well… sadly for us we will not get a picture of Tristan with Santa Claus this year as is the case for many other families. I’m sure the old man is in the high-risk category anyway and I think we’d all understand if he decides social distancing is the way to go this year. Of all the years for this to happen though, I’ll selfishly admit this year probably worked out best for us. We got our Santa pic last year for Tristan’s first Christmas. And he’s not quite old enough this year to really understand who this jolly man named Kris Kringle truly is. If he were to miss a year on this experience, this seems to be the best one.
But taking him for his first pictures last year made both Morgan and I ponder, was this Santa Claus tradition one we wanted to continue with our kids? We both grew up with parents who had entertained this tradition with us. Leaving out milk, cookies and reindeer food. Having to stay in our rooms until sunrise. Even opening letters from Santa on the years when we just barely made the cut for the nice list. For many many years the answer to the question, “Is Santa real?” was an emphatic “Yes!” No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
But things change for all of us as we grow older. We begin to question the ability of one man to bring gifts to the whole world in one night, how reindeer can fly, and why Mom and Dad have been holding out on Christmas gifts for us all these years. We eventually learned that the story behind the presents under our Christmas trees wasn’t exactly what we were told when we were younger. Instead of a high-octane sleigh ride through the sky to deliver presents from the North Pole, our parents simply survived the brawl in the Toys ‘R’ Us parking lot on Black Friday to get the gifts we wanted. Today those gifts are obtained in more humane, albeit far less exciting ways like Amazon Prime. And on Christmas Eve they were “simply” walked to the tree from one room over in our parents’ closet. The milk and cookies weren’t eaten by big man from the north pole, but the big man we called “Dad.” The answer to the question “Is Santa real?” went from an emphatic “Yes!”, to an equally certain “No!” It was all so obvious now. Why didn’t we see through this hoax all along?
I don’t recall the moment my parents telling me the truth about Santa as being particularly traumatic. I had a hunch for some time but didn’t talk to my parents about it. But once I knew, it was expected that I would take part in maintaining this “secret” to keep from ruining the magic of Christmas for my younger siblings. Was Santa real? It depended when you asked me and if my little sister or brother were around.
It was this same hesitation that made Morgan and I ponder what we would do with our own kids. Cautious about repeating traditions just because that’s what we’ve always done, we wanted to make sure we knew why we were doing what we were doing. We had heard of other parents avoiding the Santa tradition because they didn’t want to lie to their kids or unnecessarily sow distrust in their relationship. Others that saw parallels between Santa and God and not wanting to unsettle their kids’ faith when they would realize Santa wasn’t exactly who they believed him to be. Genuinely thoughtful stances, and opinions that we were considering ourselves. Once you start to look up articles online about this topic, you’re bound to find plenty of people willing to tell you how to raise your kids. This is a personal decision (one we’ve clearly been working through ourselves) and one I do not want to critique in other parents.
But I wanted to offer a new way of framing this conundrum around how you could tell your kids about Santa without the feeling that you’re simply being deceitful. We decided we would continue this tradition ourselves and I thought it may be valuable to share why. One practical reason was that we would rather be the ones telling “lies” than our kids. We didn’t want to have them navigate how to “lie” to their friends who did believe in Santa Claus at such a young age. But there was a second reason, that really convinced me that I wanted my kids to believe in Santa as children.
When we ask the question, “Is Santa real?” what in the world do we mean by that word “real?” I’m assuming when most of use the word real in regards to Santa, it’s to say that the only way he would be real would be if he was a living breathing human alive today, living at the North Pole who delivers presents to all children with his magical reindeer and sleigh. And in that sense, no Santa is not in fact real. But maybe there’s an opportunity to teach our kids that maybe there’s another, and quite possibly a better way of thinking about what is in fact “real?”
Are the only real things in the world those that we physically see or touch? Those that we can measure or quantify? Those that can be explained by the hard sciences like physics, math, chemistry, or biology? The problem is that if these are the limits to what we can consider as real, then what do we make of things like Christmas spirit, generosity, kindness, or love?
Many of us would say that these are also real, yet we can’t see them, physically touch them, measure, or count them. Yet these very “real” things animate us. Move us. Motivate us to live in particular ways. They govern our actions. We can feel them. To give gifts as parents without an expectation of anything in return, even the recognition for giving our children gifts. To behave as children like we are always being watched, even when Mom and Dad aren’t within sight.
Many of the most “real” things in this world are not made of merely material things. Love, joy, wealth, patriotism, ideologies, school and team spirit, are all in their essence devoid of material substance yet they drive people to act in a multitude of ways.
Likewise Santa, the embodiment of generosity, kindness, charity, without expectation of reciprocation, has motivated parents and kids alike, over multiple generations to take part in this beautiful Christmas performance of giving and receiving. A performance that most likely would not occur if not for the story of Christmas and the way that story has manifested itself in the character of Santa Claus.
So is Santa real? I think he’s one of the most real things we have in our culture and I look forward to sharing him and the story of Christmas with our children. And when they are old enough to question the actual existence of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, I’ll be excited to share with them that the story can continue to inspire generosity, kindness and love within us if we are willing to play a role in the magic.
It was never really just about Santa. Santa points to something even more real about the culture it fosters within our families and communities and getting a better glimpse of the true meaning of Christmas.
The most real things are those not bound to temporal material things like gifts or even our lives. They are the those things that are most enduring and that motivate us to live and love well. This cultural adaptation of the Christmas story has lasted long before we were born and will almost certainly last beyond our final days. And it is a story that we are all invited to partake in.
So is Santa real? I would say most definitely “Yes!”
Have a Merry Christmas everyone!!!
Update: After finishing this post, we had the pleasant surprise from none other than Santa himself who happened to make his way into town. Our neighbor captured a fun photo for us to remember this less-than-ideal, yet very special 2020 Christmas season. Thank you to the local fire department for making that special event happen for our son, who was very excited to see the renowned Santa Claus!
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?
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.”
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
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.
“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.
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?
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.
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.
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.