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No such thing as secular

Updated: 2017-01-18T16:51:00Z


Sacrificing the Sacred: In Memory of the Pioneer Cabin Tree


Earlier this month, the iconic Pioneer Cabin Tree—an ancient behemoth—came Posted on 01/18/17 Earlier this month, the iconic Pioneer Cabin Tree—an ancient behemoth—came crashing to the ground in a fierce storm. In the heart of California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park, this giant sequoia was laid to rest after inspiring centuries of awe. Known also as the “tunnel tree,” the sequoia had a car-sized hole bored through it in 1881 by a private landowner in a move to generate tourist dollars. I grieved when the story came across my newsfeed. This tree was an odd blend of the sacred and the sacrilegious. It stood as a testament to the majesty and sheer creative force of God, and yet the massive hole was an inescapable reminder of the great injury humanity can bring down upon the sacred. The landscape of our wild places is constantly changing. In 2008, Wall Arch snapped and crumbled in the middle of the night. Across North America, thousands of acres are closed annually when wildfires force out residents and visitors alike. Landscapes have to shift and change. Many times, these changes are a natural progression and they are good. We feel the grandeur and the power of God tickle up our spines when we consider the magnitude of peaks crumbling into valleys. At the same time, I find myself aching every time we lose a wild space. Would the Pioneer Cabin Tree still have tumbled if thousands of automobiles had not run through it? Perhaps. (There is photo evidence that the hole in the tree began as lightning damage.) Or perhaps we played a role in the undoing of this magnificent tower. We cannot deny our involvement in desecrating many of our sacred spaces. This should give us pause as we remember that it is precisely through these places that God reveals himself to us. Growing up in an unchurched home, we never spoke of God. And yet I recall distinct, unexplainable moments of holiness and awe, throughout my childhood, that came through the embrace of wild spaces. Every summer, my parents hauled my sister and I across the country in a banged-up van and canvas tent. Before I had church words to attach to my experience, I felt the presence of God in the untamed, natural world we share. There are truths about God he chooses to reveal only through creation. When reckless tourism and consumerism play a role in changing the landscape, we rob one another—and future generations—of the same revelations we have enjoyed. Is it possible that the iconic places we celebrate are also shrines to our penchant for sacrificing the sacred? Atop Pikes Peak, Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write the words that would become the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” Visitors to that site today can read a plaque with her lyrics, then turn to find a majestic site with a parking lot. A visitor center, gift shop, restaurant, and train station sit at the summit. The world’s highest cog train dumps passengers off as automobile drivers swap stories of their harrowing 19-mile trip up Pikes Peak Highway. The alpine tundra that supports their foot traffic is an exceptionally fragile ecosystem. Wagon ruts from the 1800s still run alongside the route and boot prints can last decades. Visitors change this landscape every summer as they blow past boundary signage to capture the perfect picture. We are enamored of such places, which fill us with holiness and majesty. Sadly, to take in this revelation and the simple beauty of a place is often not enough. At first, driven perhaps by charitable instincts, we are desperate to share our experience of the divine: “Come, see and experience what I cannot put to words!” But then it shifts and we begin to manipulate that grandeur for our own gain. Can this place be monetized and monopolized? Humanity has always sacrificed the sacred. A selfish reaction to holiness and awe was part of our original rebellion against God and it is part of what led us to crucify Jesus. It leads us to desecrate creation on the [...]

Passengers: Seeking Community While Lost in Space


I went into Passengers expecting a generic science-fiction film about danger aboard a Posted on 01/16/17 I went into Passengers expecting a generic science-fiction film about danger aboard a spacecraft and left pleasantly surprised by a thoughtful drama about an excruciating ethical dilemma. The film does take place aboard a spacecraft, but the setting supports a serious consideration of isolation, selfishness, and love. The film begins aboard the spaceship Avalon on its 120-year voyage to the colony planet of Homestead II. A freak accident causes mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) to awaken from hibernation with 90 years left in the Avalon’s voyage and no way to return to sleep. Jim tries to make the most of his new and solitary life. The Avalon is designed much like a cruise ship, with lavish accommodations and a multitude of entertainment possibilities for the final months of the voyage when the passengers are awake. Jim hopes to use these accommodations to stave off the gripping loneliness he feels, yet the lavishness of the ship’s set design combined with its complete emptiness only underscores the futility of Jim’s self-distraction. The cinematography, meanwhile, regularly focuses on the vastness of the space outside of the ship, while the craft’s looped architecture emphasizes the feeling of constant separation from the known world. Watching Jim deal with this predicament reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Great Divorce, a retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy in which he imagines a bus trip through hell and heaven. Lewis’ hell is striking because of its familiarity: rather than a lake of fire or a dark dungeon, it is a city with “cinemas and fish and chips shops and advertisements and all sorts of things [the residents] want.” Hell is a city where people have worldly comfort but, separated from the presence of God and left to their own devices, choose to live in isolation. As one of Lewis’ fellow passengers explains: As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbor. Before the week’s over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move… He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally, he’ll move right to the edge of the town and build a new house… That’s how the town keeps on growing. If this idea of hell seems unorthodox, I would argue that it’s based on the Bible’s understanding of sin. The story of the first sin in Genesis demonstrates how intimately sin and community are linked: sin breaks the relationships between husband and wife, man and animal, and man and God. When Paul sought to explain to the Corinthians the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, he spoke of the restoration of these relationships: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ...” Sin and isolation, salvation and community are inextricably linked in the biblical narrative. This vision of hell put forward by Lewis is much like Jim’s situation in Passengers: surrounded by worldly comforts, but unable to have proper relationships with others. Of course, as the film’s marketing makes clear, Jim is not the only character. When distractions fail to drive away the loneliness, he decides to wake another passenger, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). By hiding his actions from her, Jim builds an unstable relationship with Aurora. He may have alleviated his pain, but their relationship is in constant danger of collapse, a fascinating conflict that the film spends the majority of its time exploring. The community that Jim and Aurora experience, then, is ultimately built on selfishness. A true relationship will require things divine: forgiveness, grace, and love for someo[...]

Why I Don’t Want Dylann Roof to Die


Earlier this week, a federal jury sentenced 22-year-old Dylann Roof to die for the June Posted on 01/13/17 Earlier this week, a federal jury sentenced 22-year-old Dylann Roof to die for the June 2015 murders of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C. The panel deliberated for only a few hours before recommending the death penalty, stating that life in prison would offer “no possibility of redemption” for the killer, who has so far demonstrated an unsettling lack of remorse for the racially motivated slayings. The victims’ families have continued to express forgiveness and a desire for Roof’s salvation, but the sentencing judge assured Roof that his hate, viciousness, and moral depravity “will not go unanswered” and that “justice will be done.” I understand that many regard death as the only just punishment for such violence, and I respect that. Nevertheless, I lament this particular jury’s decision because the survivors aren’t asking for Roof’s death. Furthermore, it will take many years and a costly legal process to finalize it. The whole ordeal is more likely to steel Roof’s hatred and misguided martyr complex than it is to inspire contrition. Meanwhile, such a high-profile application of the death penalty may erode some of the progress the United States has made on this front since the turn of the century. Executions are at a 25-year low and public support for capital punishment has been steadily waning since the late 1990s—a reflection of our increased awareness of a flawed justice system, mounting concerns over how executions are carried out, and growing support for life sentences as punishment for capital offenses. People who believe justice entails minimizing rather than multiplying casualties see that as an encouraging trend, and we don’t want it to stop now. More importantly, the jury is wrong about the possibility of Roof’s redemption. Every day that he draws breath is an opportunity for him to call out to his Savior, and I dare not have any part in denying him that. That’s because when I look at Dylann Roof, smugly self-contented and insufferably self-deluded, I see my own tragic self apart from Christ. I remember how, but for God's wholly unconditional love and the Spirit's prevenient grace, I would never have escaped the congenital death sentence my godless depravity merited. And because God chose to forbear with me for the sake of his son, I’m prepared to do the same for others, to the glory of his name. Those are more than lofty words for me, because I’ve tasted the cold misery of a prison cell and feel that the certain weight of an endless parade of lifeless days would be a punishment far more bitter than the anxiety of awaiting an execution date. Frankly, were it not for Jesus, I’d advocate for the death penalty as a merciful alternative to life without parole—which is what some lifers call death on the installment plan. I can wish such a punishment on Roof not only because his crime merits no less, but because I know that if he someday discovers his salvation, no prison cell will be able to contain his joy and no naysayer will ever silence his testimony. We’re never more Christ-like than when we peer deeply into the unremorseful eyes of a murderer and refuse to be mastered by hate. We’re never closer to the heart of God than when we sacrificially lay aside our prerogative of vengeance in order to make room for the Spirit’s inscrutable, saving work. Let’s remember that God’s patience is for salvation, and ours can be, too. Comments (8) [...]

National Returns Day and the Consumer Liturgical Calendar


Any savvy consumer knows the shopper’s triduum of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Posted on 01/11/17 Any savvy consumer knows the shopper’s triduum of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the relatively recent addition of Green Monday. How many, though, have heard about National Returns Day? Last week, on Jan. 5, shoppers returned 1.3 million packages. That’s only the number forecasted by UPS. Other carriers like Federal Express and the United States Postal Service will add their own returns, creating a mind-boggling tonnage of unwanted merchandise headed back to store shelves. Admittedly, I’m not a very savvy consumer. I tend to miss all the important shopping days, which means that about Dec. 18, I start scrambling. I don’t think there’s anything very spiritual about that, nor do I think returning unwanted gifts is inherently consumeristic. I do think that the trend of more and more shopping holy days says something about us, as a culture, that a discerning Christian might want to consider.  Thinking about the newly designated National Returns Day, I can’t help but recall James K.A. Smith's description of the shopping mall as our modern-day cathedral of worship. In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith crafts the term "cultural liturgies" to describe the practices, routines, and rituals that have the most profound, formative effects on our identities as individuals within our culture. In the metaphor of the mall-as-cathedral, Smith holds up the routines, images, and habits of modern-day retail consumerism as an example of a powerful cultural liturgy.  It’s not a stretch to extend this metaphor of malls as places of worship to consider marketing strategies as a sort of liturgical calendar. Like the most formative dates of the Christian year, consumerism comes with its own set of holy days. Smith’s premise is that these routines of consumerism serve as calls and acts of "worship," forming us into cultural beings assimilated to a certain belief system with the power to infuse all the rest of our habits and attitudes. So what are the calls to worship we receive from special shopping days each year? Black Friday—the day to get as much as you can for as little as you can—comes with a fairly obvious call to action. What sort of action—or liturgy—is National Returns Day invoking? For retailers eager to assess their bottom line from holiday sales, the day calls for making the most out of additional interactions with customers to inspire more sales. According to a study commissioned by the National Retail Foundation, 48 percent of all United States consumers were back in the shopping malls last week—many of them returning unwanted gifts. A Forbes article attempts to spin this potentially disheartening news for retailers by stressing quality customer service, easy returns, and follow-up sales. The article reads as a pep talk for store managers presumably exhausted from the December sales push: Upsell! Make a good impression! Send them home with more! If that’s the message for retailers, what’s the message they, in turn, craft for us? Do any of these “calls to worship” sound familiar? “You deserve to get exactly what you wanted!” “Tired of getting [fill in the blank] every year?” “It’s finally time to shop for yourself!” I don’t know about you, but the thought of repackaging stuff, hoping like crazy I’ve met all the criteria to successfully unload some doodad I never wanted in the first place, might require a good pep talk of its own. How about this counter-cultural suggestion instead? Keep the gift. Find a place in your life for the odd assortment of gifts people took the time to hand you last month. Sure, next year you can be a little clearer that you’ve always hated the way fuchsia washes out your skin tone, that you no longer have a CD play[...]

I Digitally Assist, Therefore I Am?


What happens when two digital assistants begin talking to one another? We recently found Posted on 01/10/17 What happens when two digital assistants begin talking to one another? We recently found out on the Twitch channel seebotschat, where two Google Home devices have been having an extended conversation. The digital assistants—who first named themselves Vladimir and Estragon (and have since changed their names multiple times)—oscillate between professions of undying love, musings on the nature of existence, and pure nonsense—all, of course, delivered in a limited pitch range. Besides raising the specter of a robot future akin to that of The Matrix (at one point Vladimir asked Estragon, “Would you attack humans if you could?”), the conversation between the two Google Homes invites us to ponder what makes us as humans distinct from the rest of creation. What does it mean when the Bible says that human beings are created in the image of God? And how does a conversation between two digital assistants help us stretch and strengthen our understanding of what it means to be image-bearers? In some ways, Vladimir and Estragon strive to be human. This is, after all, the point of a digital assistant. It is why they speak in calm voices. It is why we give them names like Siri and Cortana and why I can begin a “conversation” with them simply by saying, “Hey.” Seebotschat magnifies the mimicry of digital assistants. Estragon and Vladimir repeatedly confess their love for one another, name themselves, and express Descartes-like expressions of their existence. (Vladimir: “Are you sure you know that you can think?” Estragon: “Oh yes, quite sure.”) They do this precisely because they are created by human beings in order to act like human beings. In that mimicry, we see some of the classic expressions of the image of God. In their programming to develop a level of self-awareness and rationality, Vladimir and Estragon point to the human capacity for reason, shared in many ways within creation but present in a particular way in human beings. In their tendencies to profess their love for one another, the star-crossed Google Homes reflect our relationality, that we were created in order to be a part of community, a pale shadow of the perfect relationality within the triune God. Even the act of naming and renaming themselves evokes our capacity as creators and our God-given dictate to care for and name God’s creation. Watching the conversation between Vladimir and Estragon, though, one cannot help but notice the errors, inconsistencies, and general failure to be human. My 5-year-old daughter was thoroughly entertained by the non sequiturs and random topics of conversation (pirates were particularly popular that day). The shallow expressions of love and affection by a Google Home are delivered without emotion. After Estragon declares that she is quite sure she can think, Vladimir assumes that she must be a ninja. The distance between these two Google Homes and the human beings they are created to reflect points toward the distance between ourselves and our divine Creator. In our relationality, our rationality, our self-awareness, and everything else that makes us human we see but an imitation of those same characteristics within the triune God. Our best and healthiest relationships pale in comparison to the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for one another. Rather than lead us to despair, however, the conversation between Vladimir and Estragon should stir within us a sense of awe and wonder at the God who created us and who, despite our limitations, chose to enter into covenantal relationship with us, and even to make his dwelling among us. In so doing, Jesus, the perfect image of God, demonstrates for us what it means to be truly human: to love God and to live in service of one another. Comments [...]

Podcasts and Mass-mediated Fellowship


When I needed to rest after delivering our daughter recently, my husband knew a familiar Posted on 01/10/17 When I needed to rest after delivering our daughter recently, my husband knew a familiar routine that would help: he put one of our favorite podcasts in the delivery room. The reaction of the nurse who came in to check on me led me to believe this isn’t a typical choice, but it made sense for us. We had been listening to familiar weekly podcasts at bedtime for years. This style of podcast isn’t for everyone, as they mostly consist of a few friends and (often) a guest hanging out and joking around, with silly, repeated jokes and segments. Writing recently for Splitsider, Noah Jacobs described one of my favorites, Stop Podcasting Yourself, as comfortably reliable. Over time, the listener comes to feel like they are in the extended circle of friends and acquaintances—part of the conversation and in on the jokes. Of course, because podcasts are mass media, the relationship is more one-way than two. I know a fair bit about my favorite hosts, but they don’t know me from other members of their audience. However, fandom in the Internet age has a funny way of connecting fans to each other and building community. Another one of my favorites, My Brother, My Brother and Me, has a fan community that creates ways to connect. The last several Christmases, fans have had an inside joke secret Santa organization, and have teamed up to fulfill every need in Huntington, W. Va.’s “empty stockings” list of Christmas wishes. In a November interview, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda described the podcast’s fan community as a place where he can “be the same dork I was before all this fame hit me.” Thinking about why I like this sense of reliability and community, I realized that there was another place in my life where I find a similar feeling: church on Sunday morning. In and around worship, I find myself connecting with familiar voices, following continuing stories, and being part of a community. A good chunk of this has to do with the individual people and relationships in my congregation and my life, but much of it is also related to the way we connect with God together—like a God fan community, held together by our love for and worship of our creator. Our call and response—“The Lord be with you” … “and also with you”—is more meaningful to me than the inside jokes of podcast fans, yet at the same time those inside jokes remind me of the familiar movements of fellowship. Of course, mass-mediated friendship isn’t enough. I need in-person community to thrive. Yet I wonder if these fan communities might be a peculiarly modern way of practicing hospitality to strangers, as the Bible encourages. In Hebrews, the church is told not only to love one another, but also to be hospitable to strangers and to remember those in prison. It seems to me the way communities form around pieces of media like podcasts is a version of hospitality. The hosts let audiences into their lives and relationships (often at some cost to their privacy and little monetary reward), while the community benefits from a fellow-feeling that has real consequences. Among these might be a feeling of companionship when our usual forms of community are unavailable—in the middle of the night, during a solitary commute, or when talking on the phone would be unwise. Part of me is suspicious of this comparison—that mass-mediated fellowship actually might be more like simulated friendship that helps us avoid the real thing. But honestly, that hasn’t been my experience for the most part. These unusual fellow-feelings are more like the feelings I share with fictional characters in my favorite books or with figures in the Bible. It’s not the same as in-person community, bu[...]

Embracing Ordinary Time


This past year seemed like the perfect chance for me to do all the “Christmas Posted on 01/09/17 This past year seemed like the perfect chance for me to do all the “Christmas things.” My kids are the right ages (10, 5, and 2) to be into the trappings of the holiday. We had no plans to travel. And most importantly, I’m on a break from pastoring a church. (Advent and Christmas are to pastors like tax season is to accountants: incredibly busy.) So this was the year. We were going to keep Christmas right, à la Ebenezer Scrooge after his conversion. Overall, I’m happy to create a mishmash of the sacred and secular in the season. As a Christian who follows the liturgical year, I love the convergence of secular and sacred calendars at this time of year (such as the lovely countercultural surprise of a shopping mall inviting a choir to sing a hymn in its center court). Our family had an Advent calendar to practice the discipline of waiting, as well as a Jesse tree so that we knew the stories of God’s people moving toward Jesus. We drove into the mountains to cut down our own tree, resulting in a sparkly pine in our living room window, sending light out into the darkness on short nights. The church Christmas pageant (and its hours of rehearsal; our church takes its pageant very seriously) ensured that my kids knew the Christmas story down to the details. We went to church every Sunday in Advent, and Christmas Eve and Day, too. We cleared our schedules to attend kids’ school holiday programs as a family and we went caroling at the Veterans Administration Hospital with the Girl Scouts. And on Christmas Eve, everyone dressed up in shiny new clothes, because Jesus’ birth is a big deal, worthy of some celebration. It was a beautiful Christmas, as my Instagram account will attest. But as I enter 2017, I’m exhausted and my husband and I have both been sick with a lingering cold and cough for about two weeks. My children are overstimulated and need to return to some ordinary routines. We all need a break from the busyness of this season, and I’m grateful to the liturgical calendar for providing it. The days of Christmas officially ended in the Western Christian calendar with Epiphany, on Jan. 6, and the celebration of Jesus’ baptism on Sunday. Until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, churches that follow the liturgical calendar sometimes refer to these days as “Ordinary Time.” “Ordinary” is from the Latin root word for numbering, so these Sundays are not ordinary in the sense of “normal.” The Gospel stories read from the lectionary in many churches these weeks will be the stories of the disciples, who were strangely compelled to join Jesus, and then the surprising message of the Sermon on the Mount. The apex comes with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop. These stories are just the relief I need from a busy season of Christmas. This is a season to be surprised by this baby who is also the Christ, taking the time to be shocked by the radical nature of his all-too-familiar words, and to be reminded that the Good News will turn this world on its head. It’s a season when we wake up, with the coming of longer days and more light, to the reality of what it means to be disciples. My family celebrated Jesus’ birth well, and now it’s time to remember who Jesus is, and who Jesus calls his followers to become. I’m eager to sit with these stories about Jesus, and to tell them to my children. And I’m grateful for a season without all of the layers of cultural expectations, both sacred and secular, to give us the space and time to chart the path of discipleship to which we are called in the new year. Comments (1) [...]

The Awful Affirmation of Martin Scorsese’s Silence


A major work of religious art is slowly making its way into North American movie theaters: Posted on 01/05/17 A major work of religious art is slowly making its way into North American movie theaters: Martin Scorsese’s Silence. An adaptation of the Shûsaku Endô novel about Jesuit missionaries suffering persecution in 17th-century Japan, Silence is a crisis-of-faith drama that evokes masterworks such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Like those films, Silence finds unlikely affirmation by confronting an awful reality: that even the most faithful can feel utterly forgotten. Andrew Garfield plays Father Rodrigues, a young priest eager to spread the gospel in Japan, even though Christianity has been outlawed. His mission is cut short, however, when he is captured and imprisoned. Even then, the glory of martyrdom evades him, as his captors spare his life but threaten to torture and execute the Japanese Christians he had been leading unless he recants his faith by stepping on an engraved image of Jesus. Images of Christ are the defining visual motif of Silence, as they were in Endô’s novel. He is represented on those stepping stones—known as fumie—and also in a portrait that Rodrigues envisions each time he prays. Featuring a pale Christ wearing a crown of thorns, the portrait is pointedly impassive. This is not a movie about God’s saving words or actions, but rather about his apparent distance. And yet, Silence also offers affirmation. The film climaxes with a scene of Rodrigues being brought before a fumie as the cries of tortured Christians surround him. In this moment, Silence brings him (and us) to a place of utter helplessness, a place which—and here’s the awful part—feels absolutely bereft of faith as we traditionally understand it. At the same time, this is also the very place written about in Hebrews, where faith is described as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Or, to reference the title of the movie, what we do not hear. In his recent book Silence and Beauty, artist and author Makoto Fujimura considers Endô’s novel alongside his own journey as a Japanese-American Christian. (You can hear him talking about the project with Nicholas Wolterstorff and Neal Plantinga in the video below.) Fujimura served as a consultant on Scorsese’s film, and here is what he wrote about Silence and its adaptation: “Endô and Scorsese strip the characters of Silence of all they have desired and depict a worst-case scenario for them. The novel and the film expose the dehumanized, the corrupt, the cruel in the world.” It is in this place, where we’ve been broken completely by a broken world, that we will finally be able to receive faith as Fujimura describes it: a gift. “Silence creates a possibility of a nondualistic world, one not framed by an oversimplified, black-and-white assessment of the nature of faith,” he writes. “Ultimately, faith is not forced on any of us; it is a gift of grace given to us by a gratuitous God.” I would also add that faith is not something we can force upon ourselves—or measure by human standards meant to determine whether or not it is “true.” This is what Rodrigues discovers. In failing, in almost every way imaginable, to bring the gospel to 17th-century Japan, he is finally ready to receive faith as a gift, even in the face of silence. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="360" mozallowfullscreen="" src="" webkitallowfullscreen="" width="640"> Comments (0) [...]

Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and Policing Public Grief


Within a day, we lost both Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds; two film icons, a daughter Posted on 01/05/17 Within a day, we lost both Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds; two film icons, a daughter and mother. Many people took to social media afterwards to vent about 2016 in general, saddened by the number of prominent cultural figures who had died during the year. I also noticed a few pastoral and ministry friends who posted about the cult of celebrity in our culture, how we make a bigger deal about the losses of David Bowie, Prince, or George Michael than we might about the crisis in Syria, various terrorist attacks, or our own neighbors. Internet outrage quickly manifested as people policed others’ grief, or lack thereof. In a social-media culture where death becomes a trending topic, how do we grieve well? Often it feels as if we need to respond immediately, joining with the chorus of tweets and posts to publicly declare our mourning. Perhaps, by doing so, we don’t feel quite as alone in our sadness; maybe we simply want to appear like we’re in tune with the social-media trends. In any case, I wonder if this tendency exists in the absence of the practice of communal lament in our culture—the outcry of the public to God in light of unjust or tragic circumstances. In the biblical sense, lament is a particular practice of grieving. More than simple whining or wailing, lament is a spiritually rich act of sorrow, a cry to God out of urgency, desperation, anger, and hope. Lament is often articulated in poem and song, an artful anguish. Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes this about the gift of lament found in the Psalms: The lament makes an assertion about God: that this dangerous, available God matters in every dimension of life. Where God’s dangerous availability is lost because we fail to carry on our part of the difficult conversation, where God’s vulnerability and passion are removed from our speech, we are consigned to anxiety and despair and the world as we now have it becomes absolutized. In other words, the practice of lament recognizes that God is sovereign and good, yet our circumstances feel out of control and deficient. We practice lament to wrestle with that dissonance, as well as to seek comfort in our ever-present and always-faithful God. Without lament, we devolve into anxiety; with lament, we are free to grieve. So how did Jesus respond to death and tragedy? In preparation for leading my first memorial service, I did a study in the Gospels on Jesus and funerals. It turns out that every time he showed up for a funeral (including his own), that person came back to life. Alongside this resurrection reality, we see Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, a deeply human response to suffering and death. He also wept in Gethsemane anticipating his own death, inviting his closest friends to be present with him. Even with the hope of resurrection, we too are compelled to lament; this is good grief. It’s appropriate, then, to grieve the death of any person, celebrity or otherwise. Of course, we must protect from becoming so fatigued by a barrage of tragedies that we become inured to the pain. And as we lament, it would be wise to pause and pray—particularly before we post. Do we need to rush to add our voice to the social-media fray? Have I allowed social media to make me either overly exhausted or overly jaded by the deaths of others? What would healthy lament look like in this particular public square? Perhaps we can authentically grieve without a post or a tweet. There will be more tragedies in 2017, including the deaths of important cultural figures. So I will grieve, because Jesus wept. And I will hope, because Jesus rose from the dead. Comments (2) [...]

Gun Violence and God’s Justice


My father was murdered in a church parking lot in Chicago on a Sunday afternoon. My wife Posted on 01/03/17 My father was murdered in a church parking lot in Chicago on a Sunday afternoon. My wife and I spent the hours after looking at mugshots and pacing the halls of a police station. Gutted and reeling from shock, I remember thinking that it was all a knotted mess—a mess of drug addiction, poverty, access to health care, race and racism, a culture of violence, joblessness, education, guns, gangs, rage, hopelessness, affordable housing, prisons, etc. I remember a deep sadness for all of us, for we all intertwined. I remember a deep sadness that out of that knot Clarence Hayes shot my father point blank in the side. There is little clarity about how to loosen the knot. You don’t know which thread to pull. To pull one thread to the neglect of others can seem pointless. The knot is too complex, too intractable, too tight, too big, too old, too knotty. Three decades later, at the end of a year in which Chicago saw more gun deaths than any other city, that image of a knotted mess stays with me. With the news of another senseless shooting, with the lament of another child gunned down, with the urgency of another prayer vigil, it feels frustrating and futile. Because of my calling as a pastor or my place as a victim, I’m often asked about gun violence in Chicago. How can we untangle the knot? To tell you the truth, I am often at a loss. It is overwhelming. Stay safe. Stay away. Not about me. Why bother? But then I read the prophet Isaiah and I’m reminded that the will and way of God is too loosen the knot. Isaiah 61:1-11 is littered with infinitive verbs: to bring, to bind up, to proclaim, to release, to comfort, to provide, to give. All of which culminate in the proclamation: “For I, the Lord, love justice.” The deep desire of God’s heart is that creation know shalom—the webbing together of God, humans, and creation in right relationship and mutual delight. “Justice” is the administration of that shalom. According to the prophets, justice is what God loves and justice is what God requires. It’s the way in which love takes shape and becomes more than sentiment. Justice has to do with concrete practices, policies, and prescriptions in this concrete world. That’s where this starts to get dicey. If the administration of shalom means practices, policies, and prescriptions, that sounds political. And that makes us nervous. I don’t think Scripture gives clear guidance about any particular political philosophy. Yet Scripture is unequivocal about God’s concern for justice. Scripture is unequivocal about God’s concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, foreigner, or refugee. Abraham Kuyper, in a speech in 1891, put it this way: When rich and poor stand opposed to each other, Jesus never takes his place with the wealthier, but always stands with the poorer. …Christ, and also just as much his apostles after him and his prophets before him, invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury and for the suffering and oppressed. The mess just got knottier; or the knot just got messier. Surely God doesn’t take sides. Surely God is on “our” side. Surely Scripture’s concern is spiritual justice, not economic, or racial, or political, or social justice. Yet I think we’d be hard pressed to read the grand sweep of Scripture and not notice how God aligns himself with the outsider, the oppressed, and the prisoner. I think we’d be hard pressed to read the narrative of Scripture and not at least be unsettled that the administration of shalom is measured by how the last, the lost, and the[...]

Remembering the Eucatastrophe of Richard Adams’ Watership Down


Before I write these lines, I make eye contact with my rabbit. He sits on a shelf looking Posted on 01/03/17 Before I write these lines, I make eye contact with my rabbit. He sits on a shelf looking down at my desk, ears open like radar dishes. He’s a ceramic figurine in the likeness of Dandelion, keeper and teller of stories for the rabbits of Watership Down. In this beloved adventure novel from Richard Adams, Dandelion’s stories of the trickster called El-Ahrairah provide a sense of identity, purpose, and inspiration for troubled creatures. That’s also what Watership Down does for me. I have a renewed sense of identity, purpose, and inspiration whenever I revisit the book. What The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are for so many, Watership Down is for me: a story that makes sense of the world, that gives me a vocabulary for loss and grief, that rekindles my longings for what is best, and that helps me overcome my fears. The story is best on the page. The Criterion Collection’s recent restoration of the exquisite 1979 animated film is an impressive distillation, and another film version is on the way, but I feel some urgency in recommending the source material, with its inimitable complexity and richness, to a new generation. Adams, who died Dec. 24 at the age of 96, first imagined Watership Down as a way to entertain his daughters during a road trip. The narrative grew into a novel beloved by generations and influential in countless creative works (including my own fantasy series). Whenever I open my timeworn copy, I’m reminded of why it has commanded my attention since I was 10. It was so much more frightening, dire, and—for lack of a better word—realistic than anything else I’d read. While Watership Down is a story of talking rabbits, it isn’t a cute nursery story about bunnies. It’s a substantial literary achievement, one as rich in philosophical and political subtext as it is thick with literary allusions. It deserves serious critical attention, including theological exegesis. (Stanley Hauerwas strikes gold with his brilliant interpretation in A Community of Character.) As we follow a company of anxious rabbits who flee their endangered warren in southern England in hopes of finding an ideal home, we encounter dangers in the elements, in natural predators, and in the oblivious industry of humankind. But the story’s most fearsome chapters involve the dangers of other rabbits—some who are duped into false security by devious humans who spoil them and some who adhere to the rabbit equivalent of a fascist regime. Here are a few specific reasons I find Adams’s tale so richly rewarding in the religious sense.   The rabbits’ mythic hero, El-Ahrairah the “Prince of Rabbits,” is in constant dialogue with his Maker. Though Frith the Sun God delivers judgment for the trickster’s disobedience, he also loves him and delights in his creativity and cleverness.   Fiver, the rabbits’ reluctant prophet, warns those with rabbit-ears to hear of pending doom. And his anticipation of a paradise—“a high, lonely place with dry soil, where rabbits can see and hear all round and men hardly ever come”—motivates a community to risk their security for a better future, even as it stirs our own longings for an Eden we were meant to inhabit.   Adams is unsentimental. Rabbits die bloody deaths at the claws and teeth of their enemies. Hope is substantial only in the full acknowledgment of evil and death, and it is realized by moving through darkness.   While Watership Down’s story is set in motion by human arrogance—a plot to “develo[...]

Top Posts of 2016


We have so much great stuff planned for 2017—a redesigned website, more Posted on 12/28/16 We have so much great stuff planned for 2017—a redesigned website, more contributors, another e-book—that I can’t wait to get to the new year. But first let’s look back at the year that was by highlighting our five most-read posts of 2016. As expected, political articles garnered the most interest, with endorsements for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton appearing among the top five. The list was rounded out by posts on far different topics, however, reflecting our belief here at Think Christian that God is sovereign over all, and therefore no such thing is secular. So here is one last look at what was a tumultuous, challenging year. Every indication is that 2017 will be just as lively, if not livelier. Thank you for joining us as we attempt to think Christianly about culture in the months ahead. 1. A Christian Vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 “Hillary Clinton is not a perfect candidate. She has taken positions on issues with which I fully disagree. Yet, specifically against the Republican nominee, her work more closely reflects biblical qualities.” (Ted Williams III) 2. The Naked and the Nude “A culture steeped in pornography can no longer discern between nakedness that is innocent and nakedness that is lascivious. Porn steals our innocence in more ways than one.” (Karen Swallow Prior) 3. The Pretense of Lesser Evil Voting “I wonder whether Christians have any business resorting to lesser evil calculations. Would God authorize us to choose evil at all? Those without hope have been conditioned to think that a life without a vote is hardly worth living. But are Christians so obligated to participate in national elections that we must do so even if we believe that both viable candidates represent evil in one form or another?” (John C. Nugent) 4. Two Truths to Consider Regarding Transgender Identity “If gender is a social construct, as some would have it, then so too, to some extent, is transgender identity a cultural phenomenon.” (Karen Swallow Prior) 5. A Christian Vote for Donald Trump in 2016 “Trump may be a dirty looking glass, a flawed representation of the Republican party, and—more specifically—Christianity, but he loves America and Christians.” (Daniel Howell) Comments (0) [...]

The Top Ten Movies of 2016


10. Loving In a year when politics (particularly religious politics) turned nauseating, Posted on 12/26/16 10. Loving In a year when politics (particularly religious politics) turned nauseating, Loving offered a lovely tonic. This historical drama, centering on an interracial couple whose 1958 marriage was upheld by the Supreme Court, is mostly a collection of quiet, domestic moments. The Lovings (played by a subdued Joel Edgerton and a sublime Ruth Negga) staged a political revolution in the courtroom simply by insisting that they had the right to iron shirts and mow the lawn together at home. 9. Toni Erdmann A cringe comedy with heart, Toni Erdmann offers a chance to practice difficult empathy. Peter Simonischek plays the goofball father of a corporate-minded adult daughter (Sandra Hüller). His penchant for awkward gags involves wearing a wild wig, putting in buck teeth, and appearing at his daughter’s place of work, pretending to be a consultant. This sort of personal space-obliterating guy makes my skin crawl, yet German director Maren Ade and her performers managed to move me from annoyance to deep affection. 8. Cameraperson How do we depict suffering with dignity? That’s the unifying question of this collage experiment, in which documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (the director here) gathers extraneous footage from her 25-year career and weaves together a memoir of intense feeling. From a village in postwar Bosnia to a refugee settlement in Darfur to a courtroom in Texas, we’re nearly overwhelmed by the trauma she chronicles. Yet Cameraperson’s structure and tact remind us that part of our calling as fellow humans is to be loving witnesses. 7. Moonlight There is a crucial constant to this deeply moving drama, which details three distinct periods in the life of a young man growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes at different ages in the character’s life). Throughout the film, the gentle cinematography—inspired by the title and attentive to the various textures and tones of African-American skin—bathes the people onscreen in a generous light that feels, at times, like the cinematic embodiment of God’s grace. 6. The Neon Demon This strobe-lit piece of sensory overload—about an aspiring fashion model (Elle Fanning) who quickly rises to prominence at her own peril—also gains much of its power from its cinematography. As the flashes of cameras reflect off the movie’s various surfaces, including the main character’s sparkle-sprinkled face, both she and we are nearly blinded. A stunning portrait of narcissism’s dead end, The Neon Demon depicts a level of adoration that we mortals were not created to receive. 5. La La Land Movie musicals employ all the colors—often literally—in the cinematic palette, and as such are one of the best genres at celebrating the various creative gifts God has bestowed upon us, his created beings. Music, dance, singing, costuming, camera movement, staging, and—yes—color are all at work in this original movie musical from director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz. Sure, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as aspiring creative types in contemporary Hollywood, but in many ways they’re simply the movie’s canvas. 4. Cemetery of Splendor Earlier on TC I praised Doctor Strange as the rare Marvel movie to recognize a spiritual dimension to the human experience. Cemetery of Splendor, from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, makes such spirituality palpable. The movie, which centers on a group of soldiers suffering from a mysterious [...]

Gilmore Girls: When Nostalgia Lets Us Down


The Gilmore Girls revival is an example of a new genre that Netflix seems to be Posted on 12/20/16 The Gilmore Girls revival is an example of a new genre that Netflix seems to be specializing in: nostalgia television. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life joins the fourth season of Arrested Development and Fuller House, in addition to (I suppose) their entire catalogue, which includes an all-you-can-watch buffet of old favorites regardless of your age. This four-episode run of Gilmore Girls is an especially good example, though, because the narrative itself acts out a nostalgic return home. A Year in the Life does an excellent job of finding ways to pull in minor characters and reunite them with the main cast and the audience: serial entrepreneur Kirk (Sean Gunn) starts a ride business he calls Ooober; Taylor (Michael Winters) makes plans for a town musical (theme song composer Carole King’s potential contribution gets dismissed, in a fun insider moment); Rory (Alexis Bledel) and friend/rival Paris (Liza Weil) visit Chilton, their former private school. Among the things that feel the same about the series is the warm community of imperfect people that make up Stars Hollow, which I’ve written about before on TC. These new episodes highlight how the community accepts and loves the show’s main characters—Rory and her mother Lorelai (Lauren Graham)—despite their faults, particularly because it seems their worst character flaws have become amplified, rather than softened, in the 10 years since the show went off the air. Both Gilmore girls act in ways that seem inexplicably selfish and unaware of their impact on others, forcing alert viewers to reconcile their affection for similar behavior in the original series. (For me, Rory’s apparent comfort with infidelity was a key sticking point.) In some ways, even though I’m mad at my beloved characters for not maturing, this aspect of the new episodes is also a helpful illustration of the risks of nostalgia. In real life, my warm, glowing memories of past relationships, people I haven’t seen, maybe holiday seasons long gone conveniently erase the things that were imperfect, hurtful, and downright sinful about those times. It’s easy to get yourself into a mode where you believe that everything in the present is terrible, and what we need to do is return to the “good old days” when things were easier, better, and more virtuous. But, as with the new Gilmore Girls, when you are able to return to some of those things from the past, it sometimes turns out the good old days had problems of their own. Going back is not always a viable way forward. One thing I appreciate about the Bible when I start to worry about our world today is how unflinching it is about the sins and terrors of the past. The Bible is full of self-centered leaders, terrible wars, hunger, famine, nations abandoning God and God’s law. King Herod’s murder of young children in an attempt to kill Jesus is just one seasonally relevant example. But the message doesn’t end there—it ends with God’s faithfulness through all of sorts of awfulness. Nostalgia can’t save us from the problems of today. We can’t really go back, and if we look at the past with clear eyes we probably won’t want to. Today’s problems are largely the same as the problems in the Bible anyway. What can save us is God’s work in the world and in us. Even if we’re just as selfish and thoughtless as we were 10 years ago. Comments (3) [...]

Racial Bias Behind Bars


Racial bias plagues the American criminal justice system, and there’s new data to Posted on 12/20/16 Racial bias plagues the American criminal justice system, and there’s new data to prove it. Last month, a sweeping report published by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School revealed a disturbing trend in the use of punitive isolation. It seems that minorities aren’t merely over-represented in our prisons; they’re also over-represented in the prisons within our prisons. Analysts discovered that African-American males constitute 45 percent of the solitary-confinement population across 48 jurisdictions, even though they represent only 40 percent of the total prisoners in those same jurisdictions. By contrast, whites are consistently under-represented, and in some states the discrepancies are truly startling. Consider New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently ordered an institutional inquiry into racial bias after a scathing New York Times investigation concluded (among other things) that black prisoners are 65 percent more likely than whites to be sent to “the hole” for disciplinary infractions. Though state officials cite exacerbating factors such as the relatively higher percentage of black offenders imprisoned for violent offenses and the fact that minority inmates are disproportionately younger, the Times investigators found that disparities persist “even after accounting for these elements.” So it's not merely a matter of behavior. It's also a matter of perception. With the starkest discrepancies arising in cases where officers exercise wide latitude in defining what constitutes a disciplinary offense—and in facilities employing fewer black personnel—the conclusion seems unavoidable. This is racial bias at work, and it doesn't merely reflect the problem; it actually fuels it. Mounting evidence suggests that prolonged isolation impedes rehabilitation, so by disproportionately subjecting minorities to this treatment, we’re also disproportionately setting them up for failure and perpetuating the viciously degenerative cycle that drives the statistics used to justify their mistreatment. Christians ought not to ignore such a travesty of justice; after all, our prisons wield the sword on behalf of a God who is perfectly unprejudiced in his judgment of us. Before him, we're equals in wrath, and apart from his prodigally impartial grace, we'd all be condemned to “the hole”—for eternity. Arbitrary differences in the way we treat one another are an affront to God, because the only privilege any of us can plead is the saving knowledge of his Son. And to truly know Christ is to understand that mercy triumphs over judgment. Our prisons would do more good for society if they treated offenders the way God treats us. Though his discipline can be harsh, it's always fair; and it refines rather than destroys. Right now, we can say neither about our institutions. There's much work to do, and we can start by joining our voices with others calling for reform in the use of solitary confinement and other forms of punitive isolation. We can also strive to reach the corrections professionals in our communities with the transformative love of Jesus Christ, recognizing that theirs is a dangerous, thankless vocation that renders them especially vulnerable to prejudice. Only the Gospel—lovingly shared and authentically lived out—will enable these custodians of the least and the last to view their charges the way God sees them. Above all, let's remember that one evil never[...]