Tuesday, March 21, 2017

See Yourself on the Silver Screen

My daughter has been looking forward to seeing Beauty and the Beast since the first trailer aired.  Unfortunately, she has to wait just a little longer since she's going with her Girl Scout troop as a celebration of their cookie sales.  Many friends saw it last weekend however, and I'm told they completely loved it.  There was no mention of any "gay agenda" being forced upon them, nor was there any disgust at any explicitly homosexual scenes.  I know my daughter couldn't care less about such controversies, and I'm willing to bet that when she does see the movie she won't even notice the subplot and scene in question.  Despite calls for a boycott, the movie opened last weekend to a March-record $170 million box office and an over $350 million worldwide take.

But this isn't about the boycott.  There has been plenty written about that already, most recently at Unfundamentalist Christian.  No, this is about the silver screen itself and our desire to see ourselves reflected, or rather projected, as the heroine, the princess, or at times even the villain.

My daughter wants to see the movie because she wants to see Belle dance and sing (along with candelabras, teacups, and clocks).  She likes to watch Mulan to see the girl become the hero.  She loves Lilo and Stitch because of the rambunctious girl who always seems to get into trouble, yet always finds a way to work everything out in the end.

But not everyone can enjoy movies that same way.  As a middle-class white male, I don't have to think twice about whether or not I'm represented on screen.  And if I can't relate to a character, it is usually because of the choices he makes or the dialogue he fails to deliver convincingly.  I don't think twice about whether that character looks just like me or represents my demographic.

Having LeFou's latent homosexuality slightly more explicit than was depicted in the animated movie means a lot to homosexuals who long to see themselves depicted on the screen.  For this to be the first explicitly gay character in a Disney movie is taken by some to be groundbreaking.

But this post isn't about homosexuality either.  Because they are not the only minority group struggling to be represented in Hollywood.

I'm a comic book nerd, so I haven't been able to avoid hearing about the "whitewashing" of characters from The Ancient One in Dr Strange, to The Major in The Ghost in the Shell; or the missed opportunity to cast a minority in The Iron Fist; or split opinions over Idris Elba being cast as Roland, the Gunslinger, in The Dark Tower; or the celebration over the casting choices for The Black Panther.

These things aren't new.  It was a big deal to have a single mother portrayed in a leading role on Murphy Brown just as it was groundbreaking (much more so than any character in Beauty and the Beast) for there to be a gay lead on Will & Grace.  What is new to me is that now I notice.

I have a lot more to write about "white privilege" that will have to wait for another time.  But in this case, I wanted to call our attention to the fact that white straight Americans take for granted our position in society, as evidenced by the roles we see in movies and on television.  Black-ish has become my favorite TV show because it challenges my perceptions and assumptions.  I wouldn't call myself "woke", but I'm getting there.

As Christians, we need to have more empathy.  Period.  I'm not saying minimizing sin (if that's your conviction) for the sake of tolerance, because that just goes in line with being politically correct.  No, empathy is a heart-condition.  It is the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and to see the world the way they do.

In the case of Beauty and the Beast, there are closeted gays who might for the first time feel accepted simply by a couple lines in a movie, who might no longer be suicidal, who might for a change have hope.  And that should be celebrated, not boycotted.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Music Monday: Faith in Music

As I'm still getting back into the routine of writing here regularly, I also need to resurrect some of my regular features- one of which are 'Music Monday' posts.  Here, I'll usually offer some thoughts on a song or a an artist just to stimulate deeper thoughts when we listen to music that sometimes we take for granted as just background noise.

I'm not going to do that today though.

Last weekend I read this article at Relevant Magazine by Marc Barnes about how music critics don't "get religion".  (As an aside, a whole blog is dedicated to the media coverage of religion, or lack thereof.  I wonder if Marc would be interested in starting a similar site focused solely on music.)  He hits the main points I try to with these posts- that if you listen carefully, you can glean spiritual, religious, or even explicitly Christian themes and messages.  Some artists are more overt, others subvert.  But when headliners or Grammy winners (see, Chance the Rapper) turn to religion, the typical music critic doesn't know how to treat that material.

I'm never going to be the next Lester Bangs (or his protege Cameron Crowe, yes 'Almost Famous' is one of my favorite movies).  When I listen to music I fail to hear the "[infused] angularity, with an industrialized blur of motion" (quoted from one review in the article).  I don't even know what that means.  But what I do hear are themes of redemption, hurt souls crying out for hope, and finding peace in a higher power.  If you listen carefully enough, you'd be surprised how common these themes are.  Does that make them explicitly 'Christian' in content?  Sometimes, but usually not.  So it is up to us, as believers who live to be salt and light, to search out the redemptive qualities of the secular space and to highlight those to the rest of the world so they may understand "the reason for the hope that we have" (1 Peter 3:15)

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

For God So Loved the Exoplanets

I've always been a bit of a space nerd, moved by awe-inspiring images from the Hubble Telescope, imagining what it would be like to explore the beautiful depths of the cosmos.  Less abstract, the ever-growing list of planets discovered by the Kepler Observatory have captured my curiosity and its latest discovery, announced last week, reminded me of unanswered questions.

These questions are a staple of science fiction, exploring answers from the varied perspectives of linguists, politicians, the military, and families.  We imagine ourselves in the role of discoverer, peacemaker, victor, and victim.  But no one really knows what it would be like if we ever discovered alien life.  The biggest question, that I wish I had a good answer for, is what would such a discover mean for our theology?

Ever since Galileo got into trouble with the Catholic Church over the observation that the earth revolved around the sun, science and the church have been at odds (and probably longer, despite the many significant contributions believing scientists and mathematicians have made throughout history).  Evolutionary biology challenges the six-day creation account.  Geology challenges the age of the Earth.  Astronomy challenges the 'firmament' described in Genesis 1 and the notion of God spreading out the heavens like a tent.  And cosmology questions the need for an active creator.  Well-meaning and well-informed Christians can debate the theological significance of each but an undisputed discovery of alien life would turn all these debates on their head.

Most challenging, besides trying reconcile what this would mean for the existence of God, not to mention destroying the tightly-held doctrine of biblical inerrancy, would be the question of what would this mean for salvation and atonement?  Do other worlds have their own gardens of Eden?  Would sin be defined the same way for creatures that wouldn't communicate or interact the same as we do?  What form would divine revelation take?  And most importantly, are there several alien Jesuses saving the universe one planet at a time? (After all Jesus did say there are sheep other than these, meaning us, that he needed to save.)

I expect Christians would display a range of reactions to the discovery of alien life.  I think some would be inclined to respond with skepticism in the same way they react to global warming.  Others would react with hostility to anything that would cast doubt on the inerrant, authoritative, word of God.  But I think the most common reaction would be fear as if such news was a threat- not the threat of an alien invasion, but rather the threat of their long-held worldview being wrong.

You've probably done this exercise at VBS youth camp, or maybe even in a personal Bible study- look up John 3:16 and make it personal: "For God so loved (your name here) that he gave his only son, that if you believe in him you shall not perish but have eternal life."  You've probably heard this as well, 'if you were the only person on the planet, Jesus would still have gone to the cross for you.'  This is a nice sentiment, but I don't entirely agree and it is this emphasis on a personal savior and individual salvation that is at the heart of much of American Christianity theology.

But I don't think the Bible supports that.  Throughout Romans, Paul's most theological letter, Paul always defines salvation in context of God's Covenant faithfulness.  Even when he quotes Joel to say, "anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13), it is in reference to the Day of the Lord that is a fulfillment of God's covenant.  Jesus, while certainly emphasizing God's love for each of us individually as well as emphasizing our own personal responsibility in following him, framed his ministry in the context of the Covenant- "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets... but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17)  I have to admit that I am influenced by scholars and theologians who have emphasized 'Israel's story' to define the Gospel (most notably Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright) but I also think such a view would help us reconcile the notion of alien life and whether they would be in need of a savior.

Ask yourself this question, is your favorite pet saved?  When you were a child you might have been told that the pet that died went to heaven, but do you believe that now?  Did God make a covenant promise to dogs and cats, complete with a list of conditional curses and blessings that include the end-state of either damnation or salvation?  In the same way, we have no evidence (obviously) of God making a covenant promise to any alien civilization.  Therefore they wouldn't need their own alien Jesus.  In fact, if God did make such a promise it would most likely be very different than we could even imagine and Jesus might not even be involved at all!

But would that mean we have to redefine the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to go and make disciples of every... planet?  Or what if that alien invasion we fear is really them coming to evangelize us?  Maybe their advanced technology has shown them how much we need saving.

And maybe they're only 39 light years away, wandering in space, waiting to enter into their promised planet.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Romans 14 in the Age of Fake News

It happened again yesterday. While scrolling through my Facebook feed I came across an article that I knew right away was "fake". It was posted by a well-meaning friend as well as being liked and shared by several others. The headline was compelling enough that I had to click the link to read what all the fuss was about. Everything written seemed plausible, despite the obvious typo in the headline, but then I reached the end of the article where it read, "source: ufomania.org".

Graphic from CNN.com
Thankfully this happens less now that the heat of the campaign season is behind us. But people are still biting on the bait and getting hooked even if it is with less frequency. Later in the day another friend shared a meme (so it was without any source) making a dubious claim that put down another only to score a political point.

Why do we continue to get sucked in like this? There were numerous articles following the presidential election regarding fake news and how social media has become an echo chamber that only serves to reinforce our opinions. Here are just a couple articles that go behind the scenes. I'm going to summarize what many see as driving this phenomenon.

We desire a validation of our worldview. This isn't limited to politics. It extends to religion, sports, and entertainment. I'm guilty of this- if I watch a move that really gets my wheels turning, one of the first things I do is check reviews to see if anyone else picked up on the same things I did.

We want validation and acceptance. That's why we congregate around like-minded people. That's why it is more joyful to watch sports in a crowd versus alone on your TV (and why tweeting during live events has become so popular- so much so that some sports websites even include a social media frame along with live streaming). This is human nature and why headlines that reinforce our points of view are compelling. We tolerate our own cognitive dissonance because being validated is more important than being right. At the same time seeing news, articles, or memes that fit our preconceptions subliminally convinces us that our opinions are right (thereby making other opinions wrong, which is technically impossible).

We want to believe. Sometimes we think we know something but maybe we lack confidence in its truth. So we cling to anything that builds up our personal lack of faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as "confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see" (going with the NIV translation- you can switch out confidence and assurance with "substance" and "evidence" if you'd rather rely on the King James). So faith is inherently confident and is self-reinforcing with its own evidence. This definition of faith then assumes some level of trust.

But we don't apply faith that way. We have faith in things we hope for, but hope is only that. We hope something is true, but we lack confidence or assurance so we seek out evidence. This type of faith is the type that implicitly exclaims, "I told you so!" when we find what we think is proof. So we share articles about NASA scientists that proved the calendar is missing a day because of Joshua making the sun stand still thousands of years ago.

We get sucked in by sensationalist headlines. Did you know that in the mainstream media journalists don't write their own headlines? Did you know that in publishing authors usually don't come up with their own titles? There are professionals whose job is to write the headline that will get the most attention or book titles that will sell the most copies. There is research in the social sciences that takes this as far as identifying the best fonts, verbs, and even the maximum number of words to use. Online we try to maximize our Search Engine Optimization.

Over the weekend I was watching one news program where a journalist was getting grilled about a sensationalist headline that the host then claimed qualified the news as "fake". The journalist tried, with little success, to defend his work by noting that he didn't write the headline. He tried to steer the discussion to make the point that what some are calling "fake news" are simply examples of sensationalism or bias (both of which drive ratings, clicks, and shares).

Yet we're guilty of promoting the sensationalism we're being fed. In the example I opened with, which wasn't a political story at all, the headline was catchy enough to share without even reading the contents of the article. Had the person done so, I suspect she would've noticed the suspicious source being "UFO Mania". But that's not the only example. During the election a friend shared an article about Planned Parenthood based on a headline that seemed to reinforce her worldview. She apparently didn't read the article, because the article made the opposite point she was trying to advance. And this leads me to my last reason...

We have a problem with a lack of discernment. Much was made of the "intelligence gap" or "education gap" identified in polls during the election. But this isn't necessarily a matter of intelligence or education. Discernment is different. A lack of discernment takes things at face value without critical thinking. Discernment is the ability to take information and question its validity, independent of knowledge, information, or opinions you already have. You can be uneducated and have discernment. This is often described as being "street smart". At the same time, you can be highly educated and lack discernment. We see the same thing in church where someone might be described as "so heavenly minded they're no earthly good".

I hate to say it, but the church is guilty of promoting this lack of discernment. We listen to sermons built around verses that are proof-texts for the point that is trying to be made even if taken completely out of context. We do not follow the example of the Bereans who were of "more noble character" for checking whether what Paul was preaching was true (Acts 17:11). Meanwhile we reinforce a leadership structure that assumes a hierarchy of knowledge, holding those with a  DMin or MDiv with special esteem. Even though we have access to more information than ever before, tools that can help us study the Bible with unprecedented depth, we're really not that much different than the peasants who were kept in line by the church by their illiteracy.

If we don't dig deeper on matters of eternal importance, why would we expect to be any different when it comes to the media we consume? We blindly trust what a particular news source has to say the same way we nod our heads and proclaim "amen!" during a sermon that makes a point nowhere to be found in scripture.

Which brings me to Romans 14.

Romans 14 would seem like a non sequitur after the discussion of politics in Romans 13 but then we remember that this also follows the Romans 12 admonishments to "not think of yourself more highly than you ought" (12:3) and "as much as it depends on you, live at peace with one another" (12:18). Taken in that context, you could consider Romans 13 and 14 as applications of 12.

Interestingly, Paul immediately follows his discussion of politics with a warning to not quarrel over disputable matters, as if anticipating the obvious divisions to come. At the same time, he tells us to "accept the one whose faith is weak" and uses dietary laws and religious feasts as examples. What we sometimes miss when reading this is that these religious duties aren't analogous to whether or not it's ok to watch R-rated movies, rather they are demonstrations of one's own religious identity.

Follow the train of thought Paul is providing us: live at peace with one another, submit to authority because everything is under the authority of God, don't get wrapped up in disputable matters, and don't allow those things to become central to your religious identity. In other words, don't let politics define your religion. Because if you do, it will prevent you from being at peace with others, make you unable to submit to governments whose policies you disagree with, and lead you into useless arguments over matters of opinion (a literal translation of "disputable matters").

Sounds a lot like the state of the church today.

Running through this train of thought is the notion that some will be able to do this easily and others will not. Some will have faith that is "strong", while others will struggle because of their "weak" faith.

It may sound mean to say that those who revel in "fake news" are weak in their faith, but taken in this context it is the truth- they merely lack discernment. That doesn't mean I get to look down on them or mock them (which I am seeing far too often from Christians on the progressive end of the political spectrum). Rather Paul tells me that I need to be patient with them and put aside my own convictions for the sake of their faith.

So what do we do to confront the fake news we see nearly every day? We need to remember that the Kingdom is not a matter of Republican or Democrat (to paraphrase 14:17) and that "anything not done in faith is sin" (14:23). We need to ground our politics in faith- faith has to come first- and practice our convictions with righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (the rest of verse 17). We have to be humble enough to set aside our political points of view for the sake of others. Really, if our political discourse is causing someone else to struggle- whatever the reason, whether it is based on fake news, or is argumentative, or devalues the unnamed 'other'- we need to knock it off.

And prayerfully by applying the word we can learn discernment, by having confidence in God's love we can overcome our need for validation, by growing in faith we can increase our confidence in those things that are unseen, and with our eyes fixed on Jesus may we not become distracted by sensationalism because in him alone is Truth. In Christ there is nothing fake.