role reversal

how the church isn’t what it shouldn’t be, how the world is what it shouldn’t

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Of course, this is painting with a broad brush: it’s not like life away from ecclesiastical trappings or vocation has been all daisies and tulips, and it’s not like church was a complete and total wasteland. However, the trends are at the very least disturbing for the sustainability and even basic recognition of the Christian movement and mission.

The church isn’t merely content with shooting the wounded; Evangelicals are now openly practicing a form of religious eugenics, drawing out those who fail to adapt to the hegemony, isolating them, eliminating them. In the process of creating a movement of themselves, by themselves and for themselves, Christians have only further alienated themselves from the very world they were tasked to serve and redeem. Those who do not comply are not excommunicated–that would be too direct, and conflict is a sign of dissension and weakness. Rather, the idea is even more injurious: marginalize, isolate, ignore. Abuse not of commission, but omission.

Move the herd one way, move the black sheep toward an already-open gate. When they leave, they leave freely. And Uriah was killed in valiant service to his king.

This complex exists in both ‘progressive’ (progressing toward what, exactly?) and ‘conservative’ (conserving what, exactly?) Evangelical circles, both of whom at their core share fundamentalist moorings derived from a political vantage rather than any sort of theological conviction.

Guess what, heathens? It’s not a good time to be looking at American Christianity. Not exactly a buyer’s market, and nobody wants what they’re selling.

I wanted to be a part of that world; to serve in ministry and build bridges of redemption into a community. Yet, though I was raised as one of them, though I shared a common commitment to the cause and did everything they asked me to do, at considerable cost and personal sacrifice, I was rooted out. Those who supported me turned their backs, or betrayed me in favor of the denomination, or to cover their own backsides.

When you’ve been blackballed by Christians, it’s not just you they’re after: they go after you and anyone you’ve ever known. Think Terry Benedict, but with even less class or tact.

That was over ten years of my life: amounting to not much of much, driven out of ministry, forced to improvise, forced to deal. Thankfully, I have dealt. And I say what I have said above not out of spite, but out of cold, detached truth. That was my experience, it was very hurtful, and it came at that hands of those who are supposed to sow Christ-likeness into others. Some can never cope with a fraction of those experiences, some have baggage from a lot worse. Many I know who were placed in that crucible emerged as anti-theists, or ran as far from Christianity as they could. This is the legacy they’re leaving. And they couldn’t care less.

Again, the world hasn’t exactly been a paradise: I found myself in two very toxic work environments where I was eminently overqualified and undermined by superiors. But it’s a new day.

What is ‘the world’, anyway?

Since there’s no official definition in this case, we can rely on experience and context. For the typical Evangelical, it’s little more than a bogeyman; an othering term to classify that which is acceptable and that which is not. The world is supposed to be a hostile place, a place deprived of Christian virtue or otherwise profaned by the absence of redemption.

All of that is lunacy.

If anything, life disembarked from the good old gospel ship has shown me what the church is supposed to be, and decidedly isn’t. I found more support out here than I ever did in pursuit of ministry. I wasn’t a gadfly to be suffered until I flew out the cracked car window; I’m a person with significant skills and abilities to be invested in, harnessed and utilized. I’ve encountered amazing people, some of whom were outcast themselves or otherwise thoroughly disillusioned with religion. Even some of those I’ve met who couldn’t give a crap about religion have been profoundly decent people: generous, thoughtful, gracious and kind.

What my experience in the last six months has underscored to me is that the church is so far detached from reality, and so self-insulated, that its inhabitants fundamentally lack the ability to connect with anyone who isn’t one of them on even a remotely-human level. Their efforts to connect with the community are alien to the community they with which they try to connect. The only way they know how to share their concern is through ham-handed cliches and tired gambits. If my time in the world has taught me anything, it’s that I’d frankly rather be with them than with a church with one foot in the sky and the other in a grave, not knowing and not caring which will be taken first.

This is precisely opposite of the incarnation. This is the great apostasy: not that American Christians have backslid from faith, but worse, from reality. More frightening yet, they may not be alone in the effort.

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schlock peddlers

The laughability of Persecuted and the prophetic voice of the movie critic

In a stunningly brazen attempt to turn poop into a diamond, the press kit for the film Persecuted, which opened in limited release a week ago today, quoted no less an authority on film than Politico, touting the Christian action-thriller as “House of Cards for the religious set”.

Of course, the sleight of television rests on the assumption that you, the viewer, will not bother to fact check what can be presumed as critical praise. I happened upon the story from which this laudatory fragment was pulled–aren’t you glad I’m here?–and the benefit of context, conveniently forgotten by humans of all stripes when they want nothing more than to feel good about themselves, provides a truer perspective into what one Politico contributor thinks of Persecuted, Christians, conservatives and the like:

Daniel Lusko, the movie’s writer and director, told me he was an admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, and aimed to emulate his work. But Persecuted is more like a made-for-TV melodrama than The Man Who Knew Too Much. It is rife with ham-fisted symbolism—Luther’s name is just one example—and plot twists that range from inexplicable to implausible. Imagine House of Cards for the religious set: that’s Persecuted[Sarah Posner, ‘The Movie the Faithful Want You to See’, Politico Magazine, 9 March 2014. Note the subtitle of the feature piece, as well.]

That’s not even getting damned with faint praise.

And never mind that the moniker John Luther was already employed by a highest-order BBC crime procedural, the cynical schlock peddlers behind marketing Persecuted are all too happy Posner invoked the guilty pleasure, David Fincher-Beau Willimon-fueled, Washington-as-swamp-pun-intended Netflix drama House of Cards. Cards, powered by the indomitable Kevin Spacey and an outstanding supporting cast, is compelling if not sleazy and Spacey nails, if not eclipses outright, the Senator Palpatine high water mark for being deliciously evil. (Yes, Ian McDiarmid’s performance in the underwhelming Star Wars prequels and Return of the Jedi is praiseworthy.)

Did the folks behind Persecuted even watch House of Cards? And is that an association that would seem appropriate to the target market for the film–politically conservative, fundamentalist Christians?

I paraphrase 20th century Chicago and Toronto minister and orator par excellence AW Tozer–and am happy to commend you to his prophetic, transcribed essay from which I borrow, though I do not sanction that website or any of its other contents–when I say that the idea of a Christian movie is doomed because it fails to be either evangelistic enough for the faithful, itself a contradiction in terms, or a decent movie in its own right. He also said this roughly 70 years ago.

Yes, the three words ‘bad’, ‘Christian’ and ‘films’ have been linked to a single concept since before the Great Depression. Who will drive the bus, anyway?

***

As I’ve mentioned here before, due to the nature of our work, we have two of the major cable news channels on televisions in our command center-styled office. While I try my best to keep my eyes on my computer monitors during downtime, a few weeks back, my peripheral vision caught the tail end of a spot, the money shot with title card for Persecuted. Even the cheesy quality of those profaned few seconds, muted and displayed on an ancient projection screen across the room, betrayed the fact that it was another in a long line of horrible Christian movies. Being familiar with the lingua franca of Evangelicalism, I knew exactly what it was, shook my head, and eagerly awaited critical response like sharks to chum-infested waters.

They didn’t let me down. In fact, quite the opposite.

***

At a time when the world offers us no shortage of examples of what actual religious persecution looks like, for a film to indulge in this particular brand of self-righteous fearmongering isn’t just clueless or reckless; it’s an act of contemptible irresponsibility. [Justin Chang, ‘Film Review: ‘Persecuted”, Variety, 17 July 2014. I strongly recommend this review. Chang is clearly sympathetic and even-handed; Metacritic translated his review to 0 out of 100.]

This terrible attempt at a political thriller for the religious right is aimed not at Christians in general but at a certain breed of them, the kind who feel as if the rest of the world were engaged in a giant conspiracy against their interpretation of good and truth. [Neil Genzingler, They’re Out to Get Him, Whoever They Are‘, The New York Times, 17 July 2014.]

Even if you agree that Christianity is being undermined by politicians, this shrill B-movie strictly preaches to the choir. [Kyle Smith, ‘Even a higher power cannot save dopey thriller ‘Persecuted’‘, New York Post, 17 July 2014.]

If Christians cannot save ourselves from our paranoid excesses, then someone’s got to be Balaam’s ass. In this case, enter the locust-and-wild-honey, sackcloth-fashioned film critics, who are truly doing the Lord’s work in slapping down the hucksters foisting this trash on a naive and all-too-willing demographic.

Sincere Christian believers have been starved of entertainment for them for so long–as though this were a human rights deprivation of justice along the likes of the suffrage movement or water to third-world villages like Detroit–and thus feel liberated from the confines of pious, church-based activities, as well as the foreboding warnings of generations past, by joining in the rest of the world in shelling out too much money to sit in a dark, freezing room watching crap on a gigantic screen and enduring the annoying glow of people Snapchatting four rows ahead from opening scene through denouement. Hell, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Even though the voices of reason here likely won’t have a credible opportunity to witness the best Christians can and should offer, they are the only ones here with the with the requisite integrity to call spades spades. The religious set will in turn likely view this criticism as the scoffing of the heathen, further alienating themselves from the world which they were mandated (Son of Man-dated, perhaps?) to serve and redeem with the grace of God and the power of the resurrection. To receive mocking and derision is to ‘count it all loss’, a badge of honor instead of a chance at self-reflection and self-awareness so desperately needed in the church. (And elsewhere, but those are separate matters for another day.)

More troubling, the film critic has shown light into the dark corners into the American temple of the Holy Spirit, and we see quite clearly what a house of cards really looks like–steeples, darkened auditoriums, coffee shops, bookstores and rubberized walls.

briefly, oprah foster kane

Some people get to the point where they are utterly unapproachable, their presence is profaned by the rest of us common folk. It’s not merely fame which creates that kind of impenetrable social barrier, lots of famous people are gracious with their time and presence. It’s not money, either; some of the nicest, most pleasant and personable people I’ve ever met have been people of means.

It’s power that most often creates social distance, to the point that some people are on a social island, detached from the rest of us.

Tonight, Oprah Winfrey admitted as much on the red carpet at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Wife is a huge fan of awards season, and I humor her by sitting in and watching (and lipping off as much as possible before she gets irritated) with her. It’s the right thing to do; that, and it’s vicarious payback for all the Sunday nights I spent growing up knowing that everyone else was up watching an awards show while, for me, it was a school night and I had to go to bed. (Take that, Mom!)

(ummm…love you, Mom. kidding. please don’t grimace.)

Oprah showed up, and would not leave the door of her Escalade limousine until her entourage was there to escort her. Even when she was interviewed by Giuliana Rancic, she had three others there, as though she couldn’t even function without her people. Oprah is not merely famous or merely wealthy, she is a power broker, a person maker and breaker and has been for years.

Oprah Foster Kane.

Those of you who have seen the original cinematic epic Citizen Kane know exactly what I’m talking about: Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane, newspaper and media magnate, wound up dead, alone with his enormous wealth and property, Xanadu. Such power and opulence are not liberating, but imprisoning as life goes on. The powerful end up crushed under the weight of their own power, so long as they drink deeply of their own kool-aid. Such is the fate of despots, politicians, celebrities and titans of industry, these all sacrifice their privacy to be a person of note and means. But that’s not the crux of the matter: they sacrifice their humanity when they use fame and fortune as a way to dominate others.

It’s hard to be buddy-buddy with the president or CEO, no?

How many billions of dollars were in that room tonight? And they needed Chase, United, Grey Goose Vodka and Subaru to sponsor their broadcast tonight? And we tune in to watch them celebrate…themselves?

I don’t mind watching TV, taking in a movie or otherwise being entertained. The difference is that I live and then choose to be entertained, I don’t get entertained so that I am permitted to live. Many of these entertainers have no idea, or have long forgotten, what it is like to live.

When they pass away, they’ll get a snippet in the ‘In Memoriam’ section of the following year’s awards show, they’ll cut to an ad for Brawndo, and the show will go on. After all, Anne Hathaway has a dental plan, since she’s unionized and all.

Then the sleds will be burned and the world will keep on turning: no one will care about Oprah’s Rosebud.

epilogomena rises

[Before proceeding, I would apparently be remiss to not mention that, since I’m touching on subject matter pertaining to a certain film which was released in theaters this weekend, what happened in Colorado was horrifying and despicable. As if the Denver area hasn’t suffered enough over the past fifteen years, or even the past few months, for that matter. Prayers go out for the families affected and for appropriate justice for the perpetrator. –b.]

The ads pimped it for months now, the posters, the web ads, everywhere, you couldn’t ignore it. Epilogomena at the box office. You undoubtedly saw it if you watch television, surf the interwebs or otherwise are in any way media savvy. They preyed upon your curiosity, and it will garner them millions of dollars in box office revenues and untold millions more in royalties, licensing and, finally, home video sales.

THE LEGEND ENDS.

I have not yet seen The Dark Knight Rises, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first two installments of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Epilogomena could have, in fact, been telegraphed by the first film, indeed, the climactic third film plays off the inaugural title: why else Batman Begins? And I, like many others, look forward to seeing how the trilogy concludes, that is, when I have some liquid assets that can be burned at the box office and not in my gas tank. Still, the fact remains that the entire ad campaign predicates itself on the fact that our culture can be stoked and swayed on our anxieties over how a particular noun is going to end.

And we apparently will pay roughly ten bucks to find out. Endings make for big business.

A similar phenomenon happened earlier this blockbuster season with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (forced in England to be rechristened as Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, to the confusion of most of us in America, but to my lasting appreciation for those like myself who don’t view pop culture as necessarily disposable) was released and crushed sales records, as it is in itself a form of epilogomena in that it took five major tentpole films–and post-credit Easter eggs, now de rigueur for Marvel, for the patient–to form a supergroup of a movie. (I haven’t seen that yet, either.)

[Those Easter eggs are an exercise in e, too, now that I think about it.]

So, epilogomena is big business, as The Truman Show tacitly informed us. We will pre-order tickets for it, abandon our lives and apparently truck our small children to a midnight showing to satisfy our morbid fetish with what happens to Batman. This morning, scores of adherents went to church and were told that the end of the world was imminent, or were, under bowed head and closed eye, asked to raise their hand if they didn’t know where they would go if they died tonight. Batman becomes a salvific figure–one reviewer of the film mentioned a potentially-deliberate allusion of the protagonist to the Messiah–in the same way that many view the Christ event as substitutionary atonement. The only difference is the color of the cape.

And all of this is entirely consistent with American culture throughout history; an unnamed Unitarian minister, via cultural critic Neal Gabler:  “We have seen it out here in the West, where beside our rivers and lakes our towns expand; the first petal it puts forth is the Church—the second is the theatre.”

To the question of whether all of this elevates the movie or debases the religious gathering, I answer, yes. Ultimate concern, friends. Ultimate concern. Why else the outrage over what happened on opening night? How is it any different from a madman shooting up a church on a Sunday morning, or an Islamic fundamentalist sect bombing an opposition mosque in the Middle East? To violate the sanctity of sacred space is unacceptable (just ask the Clan MacLeod.) All acts which are fundamentally un-human and morally deficient, but nonetheless telling. Nolan’s statement, though overall an appropriate extension of condolences, included the following: “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.

And the faithful will undoubtedly be back next weekend, and perhaps throughout the week. Anytime the doors are open, it used to be said of the faithful religious. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it’s a disposable rom-com, an epic conclusion to a well-executed trilogy of films or a film to which everyone already knows the ending (and has already seen it, no less!) If it has an ending, we want to know what it is. And we will order our lives in a way which allows for us to make it happen.

Epilogomena has risen, epilogomena has risen, indeed.

ashes and wednesdays

“Everything burns.” — The Joker

For millions of Christians around the world, today is the advent of Lent (Ad-Lent, perhaps?), Ash Wednesday. Most of America recognizes this as the time of year when a whole crapload of fish and seafood items are placed on restaurant menus. Most of Wisconsin, as undeniably Catholic and Lutheran as it is, thinks of it as a 40-day-long Friday fish fry. (Nothing wrong with that, mind you. Being exiled from God’s Country, I miss me some Friday fish fry and potato pancakes that can only come from Milwaukee.)

The point of Lent is to give something up for the season, which stretches through the paschal week and culminates with Resurrection Sunday. (And you wonder why Easter hams are de rigueur.) The ash in Ash Wednesday comes straight from the scriptural accounts of mourning and repentance with [sackcloth and] ashes. Presumably, when everything burns, all that is left is to mourn. The Lent practitioner ‘burns’ something in a sign of devotion and recommitment to God. This, like all rite, is often empty posturing, as giving up red meat means about as much in terms of soteriological efficacy as offering to settle a lawsuit rather than going to court.

At that point, the only thing one gets out of Ash Wednesday is a dirty forehead.

Giving up something needs not be a strictly religious practice, though. If we intend to lose weight or clean up our arteries, we will change our diet. There are physiological benefits to fasting, detoxing, rebooting. Give up television for a few weeks and see what happens. Log off facebook. Go without your cell phone. Skip a few Sunday services. When you revisit a regular diet, regularly scheduled programming, the stalker feed or turn your phone back on, go back to church, none of it is the same. Old patterns lose their flavor, lest we struggle with addiction; make no mistake, ours is a culture fraught with addiction. Addicted to addiction, perhaps. And yes, church and church stuff can be and often is deleterious to authentic religious experience.

Perhaps it’s time to make some ashes.

Being raised in a fundamentalist environment, where we were tacitly instructed to treat those ‘dead, mainline denominations’ with unhealthy skepticism, Lent was always just a weird time when those Catholics didn’t eat beef, and some of them didn’t even drink (that, typically, didn’t last very long in a part of the world where cheap beer flows like water from a bubbler.) There was often no perceptible change in everyday life in Central Wisconsin. So, what if we set fire to that which we hold so dear? Or, more to the point, that which holds us hostage?

In Tanakh, in periods of mourning, suffering or repentance, a prophet, king or grieving party would trade out their typical garb for sackcloth and put ashes on their heads. This was an outward sign of an inward state of being; the same logic behind water baptism or Eucharist/communion. Ashes were the indicator that something had happened to the suffering.

Ashes are a sign of the messy collision between the past and present. When a house burns, there is seldom anything left. When a forest burns, the lush of trees and other plant life is replaced by a barren, charred landscape. When a body is cremated, it doesn’t get a coffin, but a jar. A campfire which provided light and warmth in the morning is nothing but smoldering embers. Wearing those ashes is a sign of stasis; repentance is regret, mourning is the refusal to let go of the past. For Ash Wednesday’s earnest participants, the ashes are a day’s stasis in mourning the selfishness of past deeds.

We aren’t meant to live in a perpetual Ash Wednesday. And, those who have been stricken with a lifetime of fundamentalist revival services are not usually cognizant of the fact that repeated goings to the altar are no different from going to the apses, taking the host and having ashes put on their heads. That is, what really matters happens after.

It is perfectly acceptable to mourn and grieve, as it is right to reflect in a penitent mode. We should, though, set fire to that which causes us to obsess or steers us from what should be our ultimate concern, look back, and suffer. And, then, move ahead, knowing that what we’ve laid to waste is ash, and a lot of what we laid was straw and not silver. And we are not, at least, not yet.

Ashes then, are not the end, but the beginning. Repentance is typically a Christian term with a religious connotation, but there are a lot of things we do which we could do without, regardless of religious predilection or the lack thereof. Thus, the call to give something up to strive to be something better is not necessarily a religious one.

Or perhaps the opposite is true: we are an inherently religious people, as religion is the pursuit of one’s ultimate concern. There is nothing more ubiquitous to the human experience than ultimate concern. There is also nothing exclusive about selflessness, compassion, kindness and mercy. We all need it, be it from God or from one another. If I may be completely honest, I’ve found more of these qualities away from the ecclesiastical sphere of influence than I ever did as a part of it. Perhaps the Western church, too, could stand to burn. Those would be ashes worth wearing.

So, on this first day of Lent, let’s be reminded of the futility of material pursuits, the emptiness of self-sating pleasure and the vanity of our ambitions. Let us, instead, mourn the life we liked, so that we may live never ceasing to love.

Everything burns.

romance in the age of mindless hook-ups

We are a civilization, whether or not we realize it, obsessed with narrative. We have a desire–I know not if it is inherent or merely deeply entrenched in our collective psyche–to be a part of a story, to write our own stories, to be subject to things like fate, destiny, divine ordination. Being a part of the story, or feeling like the work is being written as we go about our business, gives us a sense of security, knowing that we are congruent with the wishes of a higher order.

Such notions are, by definition, romantic. We are a romantic people, and romance is not exclusively the province of roses and doe-eyed adoration of an ideal partner, living happily ever after. Romance, rather, is the sense that we are a part of something transcendent, part of a story.

That said, ‘romance’ carries many connotations, including the commonly understood boy-meets-girl kind of romance we have pimped to us every 14 February, or the sense some of us have of being a person of purpose or destiny, or the awe one feels when seeing the ocean or the Grand Canyon for the first time. It’s the sense of connectedness with something. With someone.

What is often too overlooked when we think of romance is that, often, what is at its essence most romantic is merely companionship. And mere companionship is much, much more than simply going the same direction for a segment of life’s journey.

“You could come with me.” — the [Ninth] Doctor to Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

“It is not good that the man should be alone.” — God, Genesis 2.18 [ESV]

Even the very creation story–note the noun–has embedded in it the need for a companion. Adam is not complete without Eve, and God is incomplete without a partner in creation. Those who argue for the trinity–umm…that might be another topic for another day–would go so far as to say that the triune God demonstrates the need for relationship as an a priori principle.

Also note that it is not merely enjoyable to have a person around, but there is imperative language in God’s caption: it is not good that the man should be alone. Male gaze aside, when we lack deep, meaningful relationship in our lives, we are not only incomplete, but something less than good. While there is something to be said for the classic American rugged individualist ethos, no one has done anything of meaning, be it historically, mythologically, culturally or otherwise, in a vacuum.

Maris had Mantle, Dr. Frankenstein had Igor, Tristan had Isolde, Brutus had Cassius, Jesus had disciples, Jordan had Pippen, David had Jonathan, Michael Corleone had Tom Hagen, C-3PO had R2-D2.

Great stories are built upon great relationships. Even Chuck Noland had Wilson.

Doctor Who is a great example of the need for companionship. A Timelord whose entire civilization and planet was wiped out, the Doctor travels through time, but is perpetually lonely. He lives forever, but that immortality comes with the curse of existential isolation. While he is a superior intellect on his own, what allows the doctor to persist throughout the ages (and 11 incarnations spanning six decades on television) is who: the companions. He doesn’t fall in love with them–Rose Tyler excepted–but it’s the relationship and the commitment that allows ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

If you’re feeling like you could do more and be more with your life, and you’re not able to figure out why things are in neutral, take a look around and see who’s holding you back. There is no romance to be found in mediocrity.

“Cross your heart to take me when you leave; Don’t go without me.” — C’est la Mort, The Civil Wars

“Just don’t leave.”True Love Waits, Radiohead

In the moral inversion of modern culture, we do not seek the companionship which would lead to extraordinary things, but rather seek our own gratification. The culture reflects this sea change in relationality: songs and stories as a crude reflection of a pathetic sum of poorly- and cheaply-crafted club anthems, random hook-ups and walks of shame, all under a chemical haze. Even a song about marriage betrays the dispensable nature of a mate. (Looking at you, Bruno Mars.) The story no longer is about anything approaching epic, but about getting from one weekend to the next as efficiently as possible. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The stories which endure, lives which are made extraordinary, are not set in parties or clubs. Even Casablanca‘s pretext is chapters of relationship and co-existence before Rick encounters Ilsa in his Moroccan nightclub. (And Rick never ended up with Ilsa. Not to mention the loyalties formed amongst Rick, Sam, Renault and Laszlo.) If Han Solo never returned, the Death Star wouldn’t have been blown up (and, we would have never found out that Vader was Luke’s father.) Charles Foster Kane dies alone, his life a cautionary tale of pursuing wealth and power while leaving friends and loves behind.

This is also why betrayal is such a prevailing theme in cultural or religious narrative: the violation of a relationship elicits pathos from the third party. Fredo betrays Michael, Vader turns against the Emperor, Judas kisses Jesus, Absalom revolts against David. Whether we realize it or not, the romance of a lasting relationship is inherent throughout history, and particularly when it is turned on its head by insurrection. We are shocked or offended by betrayal because we uphold and value lasting, committed relationships.

Loyalty, then, is also taken for granted, until that kind of dogged commitment becomes the exclamation point. We are seldom truly committed to each other; more often than not, our closest ‘friends’ are those whom we tolerate the most. That is, until we tolerate them no more, at which point BFFs part company. We are no more companions than those who share the same row of seats in an airplane. When the destination is reached, we get our carry-ons and head for the baggage claim. One of Inception‘s most powerful shots is when the crew has arrived at LAX, and they disperse from baggage claim with little more than surreptitious glances at one another. To anyone else at the airport, it’s a bunch of people ready to get going. The audience knows better.

Finally, it’s not about the longevity of the relationship, but about depth and shared experiences. What convinces a person to not want to leave? What causes a person to stay? Years of knowing a person can and does get readily trumped by authentic understanding or by sharing life together. In fairness, these are not designed to be formulaic: rarely are all three present, while years can bring understanding or shared experience, experience and understanding can happen fairly quickly. Experience and years can go together, but two may never truly understand one another. Two may share years and have deep understanding, but may never share life together, creating a tragedy of ‘what if?’s. The presence of all three creates lives which are truly blessed.

“The pain now was the happiness then.” — Anthony Hopkins as CS Lewis, Shadowlands

And, when the time comes that a dear friend or love is taken from us, we hurt. We feel betrayed by the story or the author. Romance is a double-edged sword, as Hopkins’ Lewis so aptly puts it. Lewis is a tremendous example of all of the above: in a short time, he discovered a person who turned everything upside down. Joy Gresham was a friend and eventual love who deeply understood him off the bat. They shared life for a short while and she succumbed to cancer. The entire experience shook Lewis to his very core.

Loss, like betrayal, is a devastating thing, because the story goes on.

We take our health for granted until it is taken from us. We take our good times for granted because we exist so effortlessly when things are going well. Gratitude, a virtue seemingly non-existent in these times of disposable ecstasies, is only exercised when we’re bailed out of trouble. It is pain which, as Lewis put it, is a megaphone to a hurting world. Things are not right when we suffer: romance, that great and terrible fiction, endures in the loss of a loved one. That state of affairs is not right: companions ought not die. Life, experience, understanding–these things are often taken for granted until they are noticeably absent.

And we want those closest to us to come with us, to share life together in lasting–romantic–community, knowing full well that that which begins must necessarily end. Yet, we are not, in relationship, living in epilogomena but seeking to make the present moment as close to eternity as possible. This is where many Christians stumble, in seeking the blessings of eternal life–born again with the end in mind, mind you–we fail to realize that eternity is right now, and that there is no romantic quality to our relationship to God through Christ. Years go by with no understanding or extraordinary experiences, perfectly mediocre existence. (Bonhoeffer would be mortified at how the cost of discipleship has become thoroughly Walmart-ized: cheap, and cheaply made. And the time in the Sunday morning checkout line drags! I digress.)

We end up heartbroken because, when we love a person, that person becomes a part of one, and one of the other. And the pain of loss only reminds us that we had some wonderful chapters. But the story never ends, we go on, as do those we love, as we are their enduring legacy. Thus, we are to love both courageously and carefully.

So this is a call to reconcile ourselves to companions, to romance and to share life with one another courageously. To rediscover that we are a people capable of extraordinary things if only we bid farewell to the creature comforts of our current mediocre state. This Valentine’s Day, we should remember that the legend of St. Valentine’s is, indeed, romantic: giving his life so that others may live, and never backing down from his convictions. In fact, romantic love then is nothing more than the teaching of Christ: a person demonstrates no greater love than to lay one’s own life down for those whom one loves.

In the meantime, I have one request:

Come with me.

Working back into a rhythm

[Originally a reflection on a film for class, this ended up better than I thought it would. Enjoy, and thanks for being patient with me! –b.]

Revolutions are dangerous things.

When a group of people are (or perceive themselves to be) oppressed to the point where they throw off the shackles of government, one of three things historically tends to happen: 1) they can lose; 2) they win and institute a new form of government; or 3) they win and vengefully choose to obliterate their former oppressors. What is dangerous about revolution is far more than bloodshed, violence and strife: it is the demonstrable and terrible power of ideas. The French Revolution rallied behind ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, all while slaughtering the aristocracy and imposing a reign of terror that took Napoleonic despotism to finally upend. The American Revolution rallied behind principles of consitutionally-limited government in the wake of an oppressive and draconian British system of taxation, while the American Civil War less than a century later was on the grounds of states’ rights and economic imbalance via a system of tariffs that favored the northern states, amongst other things. (Slavery, contrary to popular belief, did not become a factor in the war until the war had already started.)

What should be clear from these and other examples is that violence is a contingency to necessary perceptions of disunion and injustice: sometimes it is a last resort, sometimes a kneejerk response to mitigating factors. What fuels drastic action is the power of an idea.

When we are dropped into the plot of Star Wars, we are dropped into the fray of a rebel alliance fighting against a hapless imperial senate and forces that threaten to oppress the galaxy. The first scenes of the film depict a small space corvette being chased by a star destroyer, a small band of rebels fighting off hordes of stormtroopers, a member of the unraveling senate taken prisoner (in white, no less) by the dark lord of the empire (naturally, clad in black.) Why the empire is so bad, and why the rebel cause is automatically righteous in its cause is left unsaid, and generally left unexamined throughout the entire franchise of films. One can only presume the fact that the empire is run by a despot who is thoroughly corrupted by the dark side of the force. The major hero of the franchise is drawn to action only because he has nothing left for him on his home planet: Luke Skywalker only chooses to go with Ben Kenobi when his aunt and uncle are found on their torched farm, burned alive, and even then, they were killed because two droids ended up in their possession! Only long after that fact does Luke realize the politics and principle (if there is one to be found) of his choosing a side.

In an era when media dissonance, political posturing and myriad distractions blur the lines of reason and propaganda, it is or at least should be understandably difficult for a Christian to weigh out matters of war and peace. Christians have been historically divided on this matter: of course, Christendom Europe saw its fair share of warfare, when not with each other, then against the Islamic rule of the Middle East. Manifest Destiny fueled the exploration of the new world as well as the westward expansion of antebellum America. Charismatic Christianity in America was decidedly pacifist from the 1890s until World War II. And, of course, World War II changed everything.

WWII is the great example: peaceful coexistence became impossible when an oppressive regime fueled by a dangerous blend of Marxism, Hegellian superiority and a victim mentality leftover from the ‘Great War’ began to literally run over other nations’ sovereignty and liberty. Even the Soviet Union, itself a Marxist state, was forced to dissociate from their once ally when it became clear that the only thing Germany was interested in was expanding its power throughout the world. Liberalism came under threat by fascism and oppressive rule: the power of an idea thrust the world into ten years of chaos and bloodshed, and it had to be done. Even the conscientious objectors in classical Pentecostalism yielded their stance because something greater than their pacifism was at stake.

Disregarding the prooftexts of one side or another in the debate of whether or not it is proper for a Christian to be involved in the military—after all, the Bible is decidedly ambiguous in this regard—it should be clear that, sometimes, it is necessary to fight corruption and injustice, be it in an x-wing fighter, a foxhole or in a courtroom, since bringing someone to justice in a courtroom is, by any standard, an act of violence against another person. Some ideas need to be eliminated, and those who corrupt themselves by internalizing such ideas need to be brought to justice, whether with lethal force (hitting an exhaust port with a proton torpedo) or, for lack of better term, re-education (how else did we gain Jurgen Moltmann?) In the absence of clear guidance, we are, in my estimation, best served by heeding the wisdom of the preacher of Ecclesiastes: for everything, there is a season.

How is it that the Jedi and their Campbellian creator seem to understand this better than modern, American Christians? Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice in Star Wars, but they recognized that there was a time to be a justice of the peace and a time to act as sheriff and enforce or uphold the law. Americans today, especially Christians, seem to be suffering from Friedman’s failure of nerve over the necessity to put away the plowshare and take up a sword, whether it is with faulty doctrine, economic malfeasance or the spectre of a worldview that is utterly disinterested in the principles of Western civilization, much less the gospel of Christ. We ought to take this with great and terrible pause, as the thought of violence ought to rightly offend us; nevertheless, if we are to lay down our lives, sometimes it means letting go of the pride that comes with being certain of our point of view and rising up to defend something greater, whether it is in Christian mission or the clash of ideology in the halls of power or in the trenches.