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.