Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Stranger Things and the theology of monsters

Image credit: Netflix

UPDATE: The sub-titles on the show reveal that El was not saying "God"she said "gone." So my whole interpretation of the episode goes out the window. (Well, that's embarrassing!) But hopefully there's still some good, biblical theology to take away from it all.

My wife and I just finished watching Stranger Things, Netflix's latest hit series.
If you haven't seen this show: watch it. Now. It's a relatively tame (TV-14) sci-fi/fantasy/horror series centered on small town residents trying to unravel a super-natural mystery. It's The X-Files meets The Goonies meets E.T., complete with the delightfully '80s setting of the latter two. It's smart, well-written, suspenseful, and entertaining. I was shocked when I realized that I liked every single character on the show. Nerd culture is front and center, too, making the series even more fun for, well, people like me.

Also, if you haven't seen this show: stop reading here. Sorry, but SPOILERS ahead. But if you have watched Stranger Things (wasn't it so good!?) then, by all means, read on.

At the heart of the story is a young girl named Eleven ('El', for short), whose mother was the subject of military experimentation which resulted in her daughter being born with, as one boy repeated puts it, "superpowers." El has the ability (among other, very Stephen King-esque powers) to make out-of-body journeys to "the Upside Down," a nightmare landscape that is the dark shadow of our world. Locations on Earth are mimicked in the Upside Down, only there they're cold and dark, and deadly. The danger lies in the Upside Down's one natural resident, a nightmarish and very hungry monster. When a gateway between that world and our own is opened inadvertently, the monster begins to prey on the unsuspecting towns-people.

Only once does this shadowy, alternate world and its resident draw any kind of theological reflection from the characters on Stranger Things. Late in the series, when El is searching the Upside Down for a missing person, she finds a dead body. In her terror and horror, El begins to cry out, "God! God!!"

Where is God in a world of nightmares? Is there a God in a world of monsters?

El's question receives an immediate answer: a kind voice calls back to her, "It's ok... We're right here... It's ok... We've got you... Don't be afraid." This is not God speaking, but the mother of a missing boy El is searching for, who is waiting with El's body back in our reality as the girl explores the Upside Down. The mother assures this frightened child that she's not alone, that she's safe.

Stranger Things's answer to our search for God in the midst of darkness and horrors is the presence and comfort of others. Friendship is a major theme in the show, but by the end it's not only friends who are relying on each other: a new, unlikely community has formed, made up of all of those who've encountered the truth and are committed to fighting against the darkness together. They support each other, and because they have one another, there's hope that good will prevail in the end.

Sometimes, when faced with the true monsters in our right-side-up worldmonsters like depression, suicide bombers, human trafficking, Alzheimer's, or cancer (one which, we eventually learn, casts a long shadow over the story of Stranger Things)we're going to find ourselves wondering where God is. When people are horrified and afraid, when the darkness seems overwhelming and people cry out for God, the Church has to be the voice that says: It's okay. We're right here. We've got you. Don't be afraid.

After all, we believe in a Savior who destroys monsters.

Demons routinely retreated before him. In a battle of wits, he outmatched the Devil himself (depicted later on, in Revelation chapter 12, as a man-eating dragon, all heads and horns and teeth). Jesus entered into the jaws of Death, and carved a path out the other sidea path that, one day, will allow all of his followers to elude Death's grasp and cause Death to die. That dread monster that consumes everyone and everything in its path will be swallowed up forever (Isa 25:8; 1 Cor 15:54).

And not only do we worship a monster-slayer, but we are his deputies in the world today.

Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to inhabit the Church, we have been called the "Body of Christ," his hands and feet in this world. When El cried out for God, a voice of human compassion answered her. We must be that voice of compassion, not because God is absent, but because God is present in the Church. God is not silent; God has chosen to comfort the afflicted, heal the wounded, and rid the world of monsters through the work of the Church. We're the community of those committed to fighting the darkness together, carrying on what Jesus started.

The darkness is realmaybe not the kind of horrors you can see on Stranger Things, but horrors no less. Things that break our hearts, scar our souls, and shake our faith. The good news about monsters is that they're things that will pass away one day, things that God will heal and make new (Rev 21:1-4).
But in the meantime, while we live in this broken world, Christians can't simply offer words of deferred comfort and imperceptible hope. We have to stand in the gap and, empowered by God's Spirit, confront every horror we can spot, so the world can know what God is about and see that God's work isn't done.

We have to demonstrate with our lives what a good theology of monsters looks like.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What is mission?

When I was growing up in the church, "mission" (if we talked about it at all) meant evangelism. It meant sharing a message about sin, faith, and eternity. Mission was about saving souls. And so we'd carry tracts with us to school for classmates and leave them on restaurant tables with our tip; we'd go door to door in neighborhoods asking people questions about Jesus; we'd memorize scriptures that could sum up this gospel; and we'd generously support missionaries serving overseas. Occasionally, those missionaries would do some odd, side-tasks, like teaching English in schools around the world, or leading sports camps for a community's children, but the heart of the mission, the reason we sent them out there, was to share "the gospel," in a very John 3:16/Romans Road sense of the word. That was what "mission" meant.

But over the years my idea of "mission" has expanded.
It expanded as I learned to use a chainsaw and helped clear debris at people's homes after Hurricane Gustav. It expanded as I read the gospel of Luke and Jesus' manifesto about bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:16-21). It expanded as I learned that my money is God's money, given to me to help others, not to spoil myself. It expanded as I connected Martin Luther King Jr.'s demand that "justice roll down like water" to the Old Testament prophet Amos (5:24). It expanded as I spent time studying scripture and praying with "the least of these" (Matt 25:31-46) living behind bars, and heard about their dreams, their regrets, and their struggles.

Over the years, these experiences stretched my understanding of mission, and today I believe that "mission" means bringing good news and blessing to the world in Jesus' name.

Mission means telling your friend, whose choices are destroying his life, how you found a better way with Jesus.

Mission means delivering sandbags to people who are watching the water get closer and closer to their front door.

Mission means taking bags of dog food to the local shelter, so the creatures God called "good" don't go hungry.

Mission means treating folks who are homeless to a trip to the beach and a pizza dinner in the heat of summer.

That's what Pope Francis has been doing lately. I read this about a bus from the Vatican that, each afternoon, picks up 10 homeless individuals, and gives them a ride to the beach  (towels and swimsuits included!). After some fun in the sun, the group stops at a local pizzeria on their way back to Rome. (Once back in the city, the archbishop and others deliver free dinners to the hungry. You can read about more of Francis's efforts to serve the poor in the article above.)

An afternoon at the beach may sound a little superfluous—after all, these men and women don't have anywhere to live! Shouldn't we focus our energies on that? Obviously that's important. But, at the same time, God doesn't just want people to survive. God wants people to thrive, to experience joy, to have life "more abundantly" (John 10:10).

I don't think I'll ever forget a story Rob Bell shared, in his book Sex God, about the liberation of a concentration camp at the close of World War II. The Allies who liberated the camp were totally unprepared to begin to address the horrors they found there. They didn't have the supplies of food and medicine and clothing that they needed for the prisoners they'd freed. One thing they did have, for whatever reason, was lipstick. Probably not the top of their priority list. People were sick; people were starving; people were suffering the effects of malnourishment - what good was lipstick gonna do? But when women from the camp found the lipstick and started putting it on, there was a transformation. The Nazis had treated these people like they were sub-human, like their lives didn't matter at all. A little human luxury like wearing lipstick? That reminded these women that they were human beings, that they were people of worth. The lipstick wasn't going to help their physical survival, but it was going to help them learn to thrive again.

Taking a homeless man to the beach and out for pizza reminds them that there's more to life than scraping to get by, and that people love you and want you to flourish. I hope that, there on the beaches in Italy, those men and women feel a little more like someone made in the image of God. As the archbishop who's driving these groups to the beach said, "We are not solving the problems of the homeless in Rome, but at least we are giving them back a little dignity."

People are being blessed; they're having some good news proclaimed to them, and it's being done by the Church in the name of Jesus Christ.

And that is mission.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

"My identity is rooted in Christ"

Last night team USA's David Boudia and Steele Johnson took home the silver medal in the 10-meter men's synchronized platform diving at the Olympics in Rio. (I missed the event, but you can watch their dive, as well as the gold-medal dive by the Chinese men, on the video above.) It's an incredible thing to see.

But what lit up social media last night was Steele Johnson's faith. In July, after the duo qualified for the Olympic team, Johnson told NBC Sports, "It’s cool because this is exciting, this is fun, but this is not what my identity is going to be in the rest of my life. Yeah, I’m Steele Johnson the Olympian, but at the same time I’m here to love and serve Christ. My identity is rooted in Christ and not in the flips we’re doing." (You can watch the qualifying dive and the interview here.) Boudia also spoke of his faith on the occasion, but it's Johnson's remark that people are talking about: "My identity is rooted in Christ and not in the flips we're doing."

There are all kinds of thingsgood, important thingsin which we can find meaning and purpose: in our work, in our passions, in our family, in our accomplishments. These things all help form our identity: I am a husband; I am a mother; I am a teacher, a nurse, an uncle, a musician, a pastor, an Olympian.

Yet, being a Christian means allowing Jesus to give you your identity.

The apostle Paul realized that after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me a gave himself for me...
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (2:19-20; 6:14)
Paul used to find his identity in his faith and his heritage: he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews" (Phil 3:5). Now he finds his identity in what Jesus has donethe love and faithfulness that we see at the crossand in the new thing that Jesus is making out of Paul's life ("a new creation," Gal 6:15). Christ gives him his identity. Who he was before has been "crucified." That life is over.  Now he lives a new life, a life of love and faithfulness, a life that comes from Jesus.

His identity is rooted in Christ.

What is my identity rooted in? Am I trying to keep on living my own life, or am I letting Christ live in me? Am I trying to make my own identityhusband, son, friend, pastoror is my identity found in Jesus: what he's done and what he dreams that I can be?

Is my identity rooted in Christ, or in the flips I'm doing?

I'm grateful that Steele Johnson gets to love and serve Jesus as an Olympic diver. He is! He's being a light to the world, and he's reminding those of us whom claim Jesus that Jesus wants to claim us. Christ is not only the Son of God we worship on Sundays, pray to before meals, and ask for help when the going gets tough. He is our foundation, the roots of our identity. The only way to be a faithful pastor, friend, artist, grandparent, chef, CPA, or anything else is to first be the new thing that Jesus's life can create inside of us.

You can read more about Steele Johnson's faith and his road to the Olympics here.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Review: Suicide Squad

Task Force X, a.k.a. the Suicide Squad, is the US government's answer to a world of Wonder Women and Supermen: it's a team made up of the baddest villains, who are offered a chance to stretch their legs (and maybe some reduced sentences) if they'll risk their necks to protect the USA from... unconventional threats. And this weekend, this little known comic book team hit the big screen in the latest superhero blockbuster. The movie's tagline: "Worst. Heroes. Ever." 

If you define 'heroes' as 'the ones who save the day' instead of the 'good guys' (because they are certainly not good guys), then the members of Suicide Squad actually may be the best heroes ever - at least the best heroes we have in the DC film universe so far. This is because writer/director David Ayers (Fury) manages to do something I never expected going into the movie: with a large ensemble cast, he crafts some of the most interesting, layered, and well-developed characters in the whole DC film slate. (Granted, there are only three films out so far, but the others were longer, with much smaller casts, and, one would think, had more opportunity to create strong characters.)

More on this below.

First, let me mention some of the movie's problems, because there are absolutely problems:
  • The narrative is rushed. Like I already mentioned, this is the shortest of the modern DCEU films (20 minutes shorter than Man of Steel, a half hour shorter than Batman v. Superman). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think they could have used a few extra minutes. The development of the central conflict in the film and the appearance of the main villain felt artificial to me, and I think that had to do with it being rushed. The character development and backstories roll out at a liesurely pace, spread throughout the film, but this central plot point sort of comes out of nowhere, and it was pretty jarring.
  • There are a few lame moments in the action sequences. In a big, summer blockbuster action flick, that's unfortunate. Most of it's handled very well, really, but there were a few silly bits that disrupted whole sequences for me. Case in point: I don't need any slow motion Harley Quinn dodging and weaving. She's a psychiatrist, not an acrobat.
  • Speaking of Harley, she was both one of the best parts and a weak point in the movie. The filmmakers knew they had an incredibly popular character on their hands and a pitch perfect performance by Margot Robbie, and they decided to milk it for all it was worth. And then some. More on Harley below, but I think she was overused, and the movie could have been stronger if the Harley Quinn lagniappe had been dedicated to other characters or plot threads. The flashbacks added to her story; the elevator scene did not. Oh, and they could have salvaged an extra minute for the story just by trimming the multiple 'everybody watch Harley walk off in her itty-bitty bottoms' shots.
  • However unique Suicide Squad is among the comic book film glut of the last decade, it still comes off as stale a few times simply because, at this point, we've pretty much seen it all. The story throws us some curve balls, but the general arc of the narrative is predictable. Even the worst heroes ever still have to save the day in the end. 
OK, that's enough of that. Because - unless you're a professional film critic, apparently - no one's going to walk away from the theater talking about the movie's problems. They aren't nearly as impressive as its successes.

Those successes, by and large, are the characters. As you might expect, Harley Quinn and Deadshot (Will Smith) steal the show. Harley, the Joker's cackling paramour, may be overused, but she's also funny, intriguing, and her insanity (or is it just mad love?) is, well, adorable. I can't imagine another actress in the role - Robbie just knocks the ball out of the park. Deadshot is a smug assassin who never misses his mark, and Will Smith is perfect for the part. This character allows to the filmmakers to revel in over-the-top gunmanship in a way seldom seen since The Matrix, and it's as entertaining as ever.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad
None of that really came as a surprise. What did was how interesting and sympathetic both characters are. As I've mentioned, the film is generous when it comes to character backstories, and this is nowhere more effective than with Harley and Deadshot. The cold-hearted killer's family drama and devotion to his daughter and the mental health professional who fell desperately in love with a murderous mental case both just work, and you're left actually caring about the characters.

And the surprises didn't stop there. Perhaps the single most compelling character in the film is Diablo, portrayed by Jay Hernandez (I knew him from Crazy/Beautiful and The Rookie). This is a character I was totally unfamiliar with and totally uninterested in going into the movie, but his humanity made him stand out from the rest of the ensemble. Diablo is the only member of the task force who is disturbed by how dangerous he is. While the others blithely go about their work, joking and carefree, Diablo understands that he's a villain but refuses to own it. Hernandez has the presence to make that a powerful element in the film.

Viola Davis's Amanda Waller, the government official who assembled the Suicide Squad (and holds their leash), left you wanting more by the film's end. She is a potent reminder that this is not your everyday superhero story - it's full of shades of grey and ugly black marks, things that DC's forcibly inserted into their Superman films in recent years, but that are really at home in Suicide Squad. I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.

Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang, and Katana (whose sword, as in the comics, captures the souls of those it slays - way to embrace the material!) don't disappoint either. Really, the only character who did was Rick Flagg (Joe Kinnamon), but hey, you can't win them all, right?
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jared Leto's highly anticipated take on the Joker. Leto had the unenviable job of following Heath Ledger's Academy Award winning performance in The Dark Knight back in 2008, but I think he serves with distinction here. His Joker is more colorful and zany, less brooding that Ledger's, but he's no less unnerving and felt more like the Joker of the comic books, or even Batman: The Animated Series. With Harley at his side and a gang of killers in cartoon panda bear costumes, I can only hope we see Leto's Joker at the center of Ben Affleck's upcoming, solo Batman film. Those two could potentially give us the definitive live-action adaptation of the classic comic book rivalry.

I've spent so much time talking about the characters because they are why Suicide Squad works. Most of the critics seem to be panning the film, but there's another word for that: hatin'. They're just hatin'. Because, while the story may not be the most exciting, the characters are captivating, the performers deliver, and that combined with big action and plenty of unexpected turns makes Suicide Squad a thrill, and as satisfying a summer blockbuster superhero film as you're going to find. If you were hoping for more than that then, well, you're like the people who went into Cowboys and Aliens hoping for more than Harrison Ford riding horses and killing aliens with a six-shooter (spoiler alert: they were disappointed). Adjust your expectations and enjoy the show.

I've seen people asking online, 'is the movie family friendly?' Nope. It's about super villains... and not like Despicable Me. It's a harder PG-13 than most of the Marvel films: the film is darker (in more ways than one), violent from beginning to end, and more sexual than the competition - just not the sort of thing I'd take my kid to. I couldn't help noticing, though, the gobs of teenage girls at the movie. As near as I could tell, they were all there for Harley Quinn. While not much of a role model, maybe this is a sign that girls are looking for strong, entertaining female characters that these movies simply haven't been offering. Perhaps that bodes well for next year's Wonder Woman film. Of course, Wonder Woman is as different from Harley as they come, but we'll see.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

being a Christian in an election year

When I was in junior high I had a t-shirt with a picture of Uncle Sam on it, on his knees praying. It said, "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray..." (2 Chronicles 7:14). The verse goes on: "humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land."

This is a verse that you hear often among Christians in America (especially around election time), and you can see why: people are hoping that the nation will pray, seek God, repent ("turn"), and find forgiveness and the healing our land so obviously needs. It's a powerful verse.

But there's a problem here. There's some confusion. It was right there on my t-shirt, in vibrant red, white, and blue: Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is a symbol of the United States of America. The message of the shirt, then, with him there on his knees in prayer, was: if my people, the United States of America, will humble themselves and pray...

But the United States of America are not "my people, who are called by my name." That's Israel. The only nation the Lord ever singled out to be 'God's people' is Israel. It began way back in Genesis with the Lord's covenant with Abraham, and we see it continuing on in God's covenants with Moses and David, the Lord's warnings and promises to Hosea, and over and over in the Old Testament. Israel is God's people. When 2 Chronicles talks about people 'called by God's name', that's Israel (see Deut 28:9-10).

Of course, Christians believe that things have changed a bit since the days of 2 Chronicles. The story of Pentecost in Acts 2 goes into excruciating and tongue-tying detail to make it clear that the people who have seen God in Jesus Christ, the people who are bound to God and bound to each other by the Holy Spirit, they come from all nations. From then on there would never again be any one nation that was 'God's people'. Wherever the Church is found, there you have God's people, living as "strangers and foreigners on earth" (Heb 11:13).

So what does 2 Chronicles 7:14 mean for Christians living in the US today? It's not a call for the people of the United States in general (Uncle Sam) to humble themselves and pray. It's a call for God's people in America, the Church in America, to pray and seek God and repent. This is a call for revival among God's people.
I think the confusion here can sometimes distract Christians from our real business. Instead of waiting for a nation of Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, Scientologists, and so many others to turn to God, the Church needs to get busy committing our own lives to the Lord. Then, once the Church started looking more like Jesusreaching out in love to those in need, sharing about the good news of the kingdom of Godthen we would start to see some healing in this land.

OK, so if it's the Church in America that needs to turn to God... well, what does that look like? What do we need to do? I have a few suggestions for Christians during this election year:
  • We need to repent of letting fear drive us. Political campaigns almost always stoke people's fears, using a mixture of truths and half-truths and falsehoods to do so. Mr. Trump's acceptance speech from the Republican National Convention two weeks ago makes a classic example, constantly appealing to fear of terrorists, fear of immigrants, fear of crime. On the left, the appeals are a little different. There it's fear of 'assault weapons' or the fear of Mr. Trump himself, among other things. Fear can exercise great power over the voting public, and the campaigns know this well. But Christians cannot let fear drive them, because it is not of God. "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim 1:7). We are people who can "say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'" (Heb 13:6/Ps 118:6-7) We see the mess in the world and in this country, but we see it through the eyes of hope: hope in the one who has conquered death. If we're to be faithful, fear cannot guide our decisions and our relationships.
  • We need to repent of the misinformation. My Facebook newsfeed is regularly packed with political posts, many of which are misleading, and some of which are simply lies. Some are about Trump (such as his supposedly telling People magazine in 1998 that Republicans are "the dumbest group of voters"), and others are about Hillary (for instance, her telling the Des Moines Register that she would shut down the NRA and ban handguns)to say nothing of the ones about the President and other sitting politiciansand I've seen them circulated by faithful churchgoers, deacons, and even pastors. Five minutes on Google can verify that many of these are false, but apparently people will not take the time to check. Obviously there's a problem here of people simply believing everything they see on the internet (and of people being so taken in by partisan propaganda that they can't even recognize when a claim or a "quotation" is clearly false). However, my concern is that Christians are blithely participating in this misinformation. We must be committed to the truth (Eph 4:25), and if that means we need to research something for two minutes before we "Like" it or pass it along, well, I don't think that's much to ask. Christians have to do better.
  • We need to repent of grasping at Messiahs. They pop up on the left and the right: in 2008 Barack Obama was clearly the messiah figure in the race (HOPE, anyone?); this year, with the primary defeat of Bernie Sanders, it's clearly Donald Trump ("I alone can fix it"). If we place our hope in political leaders, we've misplaced it. "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God" (Ps 20:7). And yet, here we go trusting in horses and chariots againonly this time they're called things like "law and order." Of course a nation-state needs its military and its police force and so many other practical components which benefit our lives in more ways that we know. That's not where the issue lies. It's the trust, the hope, the expectations, the rhetoric, and the wild ecstasy in the eyes of the supporters when their candidate takes the stage. Christians must remember that any savior who isn't Jesus can't really save us.
  • We need to repent of our divisions. Rev. James Howell, in a recent blog post, challenged the widening rifts within my own United Methodist Church, saying
    Our country is dividing and splitting all over the place. Black are divided against whites. Police are divided against some of our citizens. Republicans are divided against Democrats. Republicans are divided against themselves. If the Church splits now, we are saying to an already cynical world, "We are just like you. We have no alternative to offer you."
    When we fail to offer the world an alternative, we are failing to be the church of Jesus Christ. We must, like Paul, show the world a "more excellent way" (1 Cor 12:31). And when it comes to divisions and disputes, our calling is clear. Paul numbers "rivalries, dissensions, divisions" among the works of the flesh (in contrast to the fruit of the Spirit, Gal 5:19-23). God's desire is that there be no divisions in the Body. And people can disagree without being divided. It's called marriage. We need to stop speaking (on Facebook, in the fellowship hall, wherever) as Republicans and Democrats and start speaking as Christians who prayerfully decide to support this or that candidate or platform. We are brothers and sisters first, voters...fifth? Eighth? Twenty-second?
If fear weren't obscuring our vision and our thinking, if we refused to listen to and perpetuate the lies, if we were seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and transform the world around us (rather than relying on secular, political power), if we held on to each other and showed our neighbors a different way to be, then who knows what God could accomplish through the Church?

But as long as we seek the same things as everyone else, by the same means as everyone else, for the same reasons as everyone else, I can tell you what will happen.

Absolutely nothing.