Monday, September 24, 2012

comic books and caring for creation

In the Natchez community lately there's been a lot of talk about the need to educate folks about recycling--you hear this call in the newspaper every few days, it seems. Well I'm all for education on environmental issues, and so I've come up with the strangest, most roundabout way I could of talking about it.

In the early 1970s, writers at DC Comics, home of icons like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, created a character called the Swamp Thing.
Swamp Thing, as the story goes, was a brilliant young scientist, Alec Holland, who, through complicated circumstances, an explosion, and a lot of chemicals, was transformed into a giant vegetable-creature. The Swamp Thing led a typical comic book monster life, facing off against vampires, zombies, and the like, rescuing damsels in distress, being misunderstood, and occasionally rubbing shoulders with some proper superheroes.

terrible rubber suit

Over the years this comic monster grew in popularity which blossomed into the absolute low-point of Swamp Thing’s career, a lame 1980s B-film, complete with an awkward beauty-and-the-beast romance and a man in a terrible rubber suit.

Stay with me here.

A couple of years after this cinematic monstrosity, DC decided to give the plant-man a facelift. They offered the writing position on The Saga of The Swamp Thing to a young, talented Brit named Alan Moore, who went on to imagine some of the finest and most interesting stories and characters printed by DC in almost a century of publication. By the mid-80s, Swamp Thing was one of the most respected and popular titles in the comic book world.

One of the more subtle but fundamental changes that Moore made to the comic had to do with the character’s origin story. For years, the Swamp Thing had longed to recover his human form, to return to his life as Alec Holland—this was a running theme in the stories. Under Alan Moore’s pen, however, the character made a startling discovery: he wasn’t actually Alec Holland at all, and he never was. The Swamp Thing was a purely vegetable entity that had absorbed the memories of the long diseased scientist in the sci-fi chemical-explosion scenario mentioned above.
The Swamp Thing was no longer a man trying to cope with life in the body of a vegetable-monster; now the Swamp Thing was a plant trying to understand and endure the habits of the human beings surrounding him. The whole orientation of the character’s experiences was flipped on its head. It was no longer a story about a man—it became the story of a vegetable (still with the occasional vampire, zombie, or superhero, of course).

I really appreciate this move on Moore’s part because, oddly enough, you can find a similar move in the Bible.
What do I mean? Well, take Psalm 104, for example. The psalm-writer goes on for verses about the natural world without much mention of us at all:
You put gushing springs into dry riverbeds. They flow between the mountains, providing water for every wild animal--the wild donkeys quench their thirst. Overhead, the birds in the sky make their home, chirping loudly in the trees. The Lord's trees are well watered--the cedars of Lebanon, which God planted, where the birds make their nests, where the stork has a home in the cypresses. Lord, you have done so many things! You made them all so wisely! The earth is full of your creations! Let the Lord's glory last forever! Let the Lord rejoice in all he has made!
Psalm 104:10-12, 16-17, 24, 31

It's a long psalm, and I had to leave out so much, so check it out for yourself. But the point is, the Lord rejoices in all he has made, all the creatures that fill his earth. He tends to each, supplying the needs of all (104:27-28). Creation has its own relation to God, apart from humanity. The story of this world isn't just a story about men: its a story about vegetables too, and animals--they have their own plot line, their own roles, and their own peculiar importance in the eyes of God. 

It seems to me that Christians, if they talk about it at all, usually talk about the diversity of life on this planet in one of two ways. Either these creatures have been provided by God to meet our needs, as resources for humanity, or they are here under our care, and human beings are stewards of the creatures around us. The problem is, both of these views define creation in terms of humanity. It’s a story about human beings and how we relate to the creatures around us. This is all true, but we can't stop here. As we see in the psalm, this is not the only story the scriptures tell. The trees of the forest shout out for joy before God (Ps 96:12)! The Lord made the great creatures of the ocean, not for us to hunt or domesticate, but just so they could play in the water (Ps. 104:26)!
You don't have to talk about humanity to talk about creation--it’s not all about us. God enjoys the good world that he created, and the creatures of that world worship God in their own ways (see Ps 148:7-12). And it has gone on this way for quite a while. Both the book of Genesis and the natural sciences witness to the truth that the world was full of plants long before humanity came along—we are latecomers to creation, and creation can get along just fine without us. The Creator enjoys his world, and the world enjoys its Creator, with or without us. 

This fact should change the way we treat God’s world. Christians need to live on this planet in ways that don't interrupt the praise the rivers and mountains offer to the Lord (Ps 98:8), ways that won't make the lion's roar a cry of lament (Ps 104:21). Steps we take to preserve the world's ecosystems, recycling, fighting pollution, all of these things you've heard a thousand times, these steps really do matter. The story of God's world isn't just a story of men and women. It's a story about moles and pumpkins, orchids and cypress trees, and their own relationships with their God. As servants of this God we have opportunities--and a responsibility--to acknowledge that story every day, in all of our consumption and habits and the smallest decisions. Yes, including recycling.

Monday, September 17, 2012

B.I.B.L.E.?

In church growing up I remember hearing an acronym that we all thought was pretty good. The Bible is the B.I.B.L.E.: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
It’s catchy—I can remember it now, a decade later. It made good sense, too. We receive guidance through the scriptures for our life on this Earth, until the day God takes us home, away from here. And that was definitely the goal, getting away of here, to be with God. We were heaven-bound.

The problem is, my B.I.B.L.E. tells a very different story than the one we were all caught up in, the story about getting by through the trials of life and looking for God to save us from this temporary, material pit stop.
The message of the Bible isn't about escaping Earth to an eternity in heaven. It's actually just the opposite! At the end of the story, we see the holy city descending out of heaven, and we hear that "the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them" (Rev 21:3). This isn't the story of a rescue from the material universe God made in the beginning, but the restoration of God's good creation so that He might dwell here, amongst His creatures forever.
That's why the hope for salvation in the Old Testament can often take forms that sound so strange to us. For instance, listen to the prophet Isaiah:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping by heard in it, or the cry of distress... They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

Isaiah 65:17-19, 21-22

This starts off the way you'd expect, new heavens and new earth, no more weeping or distress. That's all well and good. But what's this talk about houses and vineyards?
No, seriously... why the houses and vineyards? Why is Isaiah concerned with economic justice in his vision of eternity? Because spending eternity with God is not about running off to heaven--it's about God dwelling with us on a world made new, a world set right. God is not giving up on the Earth, but making a new heavens and a new Earth, cured of the diseases tormenting our world, even the social injustices we see around us. It's a new Earth. That's Isaiah's vision.
And that's the New Testament vision too: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying... 'he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away'" (Rev 21:1, 3, 4). We don't leave Earth for heaven: heaven comes to Earth. Earth is made whole.

And the most exciting part is that this new creation work of God's has already begun!
In Jesus' Resurrection we see God's first act of giving new life, of delivering from the power of Death. In Easter Sunday we see the new beginning, the first day of the week, when God is creating again: a new heavens and a new earth. It all starts with Jesus.
And from Jesus the new-creation fire spreads. "If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor 5:17) The Church is the community of people God is making new in Jesus, the people called to put on the new self (Eph 4:24). And as God's ambassadors on Earth, we get to share the news that a very new day has begun to dawn. More than that, as the Holy Spirit works through us, God's new work touches the world even now--the Church is a little colony of newness. Obviously there's still work to be done; that will always be the case until God thunders: "See, I am making all things new" (Rev 21:5). We can't bring in the Kingdom ourselves, but in Christ our work is not in vain either (1 Cor 15:58).

That's what is so treacherous about the idea I grew up with, the idea that God wants to take us to heaven and wash his hands of everything here below: it whispers that the work is in vain. It distracts Christians from, calls them away from, God's new-creation mission, holding before us an other-worldly hope that's so much less than what our Lord has in mind. All the while, the Triune God wants to transform us and to transform the world through us.

That is what my B.I.B.L.E. says.

Monday, September 10, 2012

reflections on a nerdy trip



Emily and I spent Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, at an event called Dragon*Con. Dragon*Con is a gathering of fans from all over the country—nerdy fans. Fans of Star Wars and Star Trek; fans of comic books and fantasy novels; fans of anything nerdy that you can imagine. The convention is filled with special events, like celebrity meet-and-greets, panels featuring the stars of different TV shows, and gladiatorial combat between people’s homemade robots, you name it. Oh, and it’s filled with people, to the tune of 40-50,000, all crammed into four major hotels in downtown Atlanta, when they’re not clogging the sidewalks and restaurants all around. Did I mention that almost half of these people are in costumes? This is the recipe for first-rate nerdy thrills, and Emily and I had a great time.

Since you’re here, you’ll have noticed that I’m a blogger and bloggers can’t go to something like this without turning around and writing about it.
Nien Nunb
So, here we go: Four Things I Learned At Dragon*Con
  1.  At a nerdy convention, you should never be surprised by who you bump into when you turn a corner. Like Nien Nunb.
  2. I have a new appreciation for that phrase you encounter throughout the gospels “the crowds.” The crowds followed him, the crowds pressed in around him, etc. I spent a long weekend walking amongst the crowds. I have a new appreciation for the disciple’s exasperated question: “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” (Mark 5:31) At times, you could barely take two steps without bumping into someone’s lightsaber, tripping over some clown shoes, or stopping with the traffic as people ahead of you paused to have a photo-op with Batman or Professor Snape. Oh, and escalators were not designed for “the crowds.”
  3. Some of the things I learned at Dragon*Con were more surprising. I learned that people want to be involved in something good, something that helps others. There was a blood drive going on during the convention, and people came out in droves to give. Gamers, superheroes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you could find them all at the blood drive center. At last count, over 3,200 people had contributed. People didn’t go to Atlanta to give blood; yet the prospect of helping someone in dire need, of saving a life (up to three lives, they told us), of making a difference, drew a lot of folks. People want to take part in something good, something that can change a life.
  4. And people want to be a part of a community. A lot of people at Dragon*Con talk about how, more than anything else, the community and camaraderie that they experience there really make the event. There’s a very special sense of like-mindedness there. One fellow told me that seeing all of the people come together like that gave him hope for the human race. A lot of people are looking for a community, a place to belong, a place where there’s not division and hostility but honest fellowship.

The last two things really struck me.
It should be pretty clear why. The Church is meant to be a place where people are involved in something good, something that can change lives. The Church is meant to be a community where there’s no division, no hostility, but like-mindedness and sincere fellowship. If people are drawn to these things, crave these things, shouldn’t people be drawn to, crave, the life of the Church?
And while some people are drawn to the Body of Christ like that, many are not—many of the people at Dragon*Con are not.

Why?

Really, why? What is it that the Church is not doing, how is it that we’re falling short of our purpose? What perceptions of the Body do people outside have that obscure or overshadow whatever else we may be and do?

And how can we change this? What do we need to be doing to make apparent the new kind of life that God is calling us to? Because people are drawn to goodness and love, selflessness; people are drawn to authentic welcomes and genuine interest, impartiality—the things the Church is called to be and do. How can we show these people that they can find what they’re looking for in Jesus and in the community he called together, the community God energizes with his Holy Spirit?

Why do you think people are not drawn to your church? What has your congregation done to try and make the Body of Christ more visibly faithful before the world around you? What can you do?

Monday, September 03, 2012

Robin Parry on the church

Worshipping Trinity by Robin Parry, who keeps an interesting (and quirky) blog at Theological Scribbles, is a really insightful little book that is full of good, brief discussions of different issues in Christian belief. As I read the book, though, maybe my favorite moment came when Robin talked about the "John Wayne Christianity" that he grew up with and that so many embrace today. This is a faith that focuses on my relationship with God, my personal Lord and Savior Jesus, my worship experience, and on and on. Christianity is about a man and his God, and the deep intimacy between the two. Church is only for the weaker Christians, who still need encouragement from others. It's certainly not central to what Christianity is.
Maybe you've heard this before.

The only problem is, none of it is true.

This view of the Christian life is up a creek without a paddle and is the spiritual equivalent of handing a drowning man a concrete life jacket! The church is not simply a club of like-minded people who meet until they are strong enough to go it alone. Nor is it about being part of a social club of like-minded individuals. Being a Christian is all about being part of God's community. The church is the family of God sharing one Father, the body and bride of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. God's plan has never been to save lots of individuals who will all relate to him individually with 'Jaayy-zus' as their personal saviour! God's plan has always been to create a human community of people who love God and love each other. That is what humanity was all about in creation. That is what God's new humanity of Israel was all about. That is what the church, God's transformed end-time Israel, is all about. Being a Christian just is being part of that new humanity in Christ. (53-54)