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No such thing as secular

Updated: 2017-02-16T19:34:00Z


The General Revelation of La La Land


Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of Posted on 02/16/17 Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of the articles are available as a pdf package here. Although La La Land heads into the Oscar race on a wave of nominations (14, including Best Picture), it also faces a fomenting backlash. While most moviegoers have embraced this original musical, in which Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play romancing artistic types in modern-day Hollywood, some have grumbled that it’s too derivative, too pleased with itself, too inconsequential. Sure it looks good, the argument goes, but what does it mean? When it comes to awards, we tend to prefer movies that feel important—and we tend to associate importance with a film’s story or theme. Yet La La Land, as I argued when I placed it on my top-ten list, brilliantly brings to the forefront cinematic elements that often get less attention: music, dancing, singing, costuming, camera movement, staging, color. Who is to say that the inspirational narrative of something like The King’s Speech—2011’s Best Picture winner about King George VI’s struggle with a speech impediment—has more intrinsic value than La La Land’s aesthetic elegance, of which the most inspirational element may be the way Stone swings her canary-yellow dress? There is, interestingly, a theological parallel to this question, one that involves the Christian notions of special and general revelation. Most Christians affirm that God reveals himself both through Scripture (special revelation) and through the general revelation of creation itself. Just as some moviegoers can place less value on a film’s formal elements in favor of its narrative or theme, so some Christians can treat general revelation as a mere afterthought. (Never mind that Paul argues vehemently in favor of creation’s power to reveal “God’s invisible qualities.”) Writing in The Banner, Donald Oppewal pushes back against such an imbalanced approach to revelation: “Those who readily dismiss the validity of general revelation seem to argue that only special revelation is normative, a particular application of the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. What this view seems not to consider is that the trustworthiness of both revelations is rooted in God as the writer of both books.” God is not the writer of La La Land (that would be Damien Chazelle, who is also the film’s director). But Chazelle and his collaborators are, like all of us, made in God’s image—and they bear that image in numerous ways, including in their glorious creativity. As I wrote earlier on TC, movie musicals are one of the best genres for celebrating the various creative gifts God has bestowed upon us, his created beings. This image-reflecting creativity is why La La Land does, in fact, mean something. Not necessarily for what it says, but for what it displays. Although God’s glory is filtered through fallible human beings (I’ll admit the movie isn’t perfect), we can see it in La La Land much like we see it in nature. Consider Psalm 19:1-2, another scriptural case for general revelation: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. What exactly does a sunset mean? I couldn’t really say. Yet I’d watch its remarkable display each night if I could, knowing that I was encountering evidence of God in the melding colors and awesome rays. Similarly, I’ve frequently revisited “Another Day of Sun”—La La Land’s bravura opening number, which transforms a congested, concrete L.A. freeway into an elaborately choreographed dance party. With each viewing, something joyous is revealed—about God, his world, and the boundless creative energy with which he blesses us all. And that, I can say, mea[...]

Bible Study with Sufjan Stevens


Sufjan Stevens is on a tear. The mysterious, press-shy, and often obtuse indie-music Posted on 02/16/17 Sufjan Stevens is on a tear. The mysterious, press-shy, and often obtuse indie-music darling has been leaving little to the imagination when it comes to his Christian convictions lately. It seems desperate times call for desperate measures. Stevens has a platform, dadgummit, and he’s gonna do some preachin’! Although Stevens’ music has been imbued with spirit and soul since day one, he’s been explicitly exploring Christian theology in a series of blog posts that kicked off about three weeks ago at His first missive, entitled “The Ten Commandments,” laid out the artist’s frank declaration that God’s law is really not all that complicated. “The Ten Commandments are neither profound nor difficult, at all,” he writes. “They are meant to distinguish us from barbarianism and narcissism.” He goes on to outline a passionate, urgent, acerbic, and even humorous understanding of the law. For Stevens, it’s about living for others, humility, service, and honesty. He contrasts the simple message of Moses’ tablets with the values of today, and in doing so throws down the gauntlet for the entire series of posts. Some time later, after a few smaller posts in between, he returned with a scorcher that starts: “There really is no such thing as an illegal immigrant, for we are all immigrants and refugees in a wildly changing world that is dominated by superfluous boundaries built by blood and war.” His latest installment is even more politically engaged. Labeled as a  “Friendly reminder,” it tackles the notion of Christian nationalism. After an opening salvo that plainly outlines the incompatibility of biblical Christianity with “My country right or wrong” jingoism, Stevens gets downright Pentecostal on us. “A ‘Christian nation’ is absolutely heretical,” he declares. Stevens goes on to reference about a dozen different Bible verses. His reminder that Jesus said “you must hate your mother and your father and you must love your enemies” are direct allusions to Luke 14:26, Matthew 10:37, and Matthew 5:44. When he declares that “God is love, period,” he has 1 John 4:7-8 as support. And it’s hard not to think of Paul’s egalitarianism in Galatians 3:28 when Stevens calls for a “spiritual deployment of true identity, which no longer resides in skin color, nation, ideology, genealogy, name, people, places, and things...” In fact, you can practically hear him waving a Bible opened to Matthew 22:21 and pointing a pastoral finger as he bellows, “When Jesus Christ says, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ he acknowledges a necessary evil (and throws some shade), but he also compels us to participate honestly and responsibly and with righteousness and stewardship in a faulty and dysfunctional society even as we are called to be ideologically and socially dispossessed.” Dang! There is certainly room for some theological pushback. Stevens’ suggestion, for instance, that the Ten Commandments are easy to understand might be mistaken for an insinuation that keeping those commandments is easy, which is obviously not true. His casual approach to unpacking Scripture can also lend itself to moments of over-simplification. But it might be his literal embrace of the words and work of Jesus that makes his argument so radical. His simple, some might say conservative, reading of Scripture leads him to a culturally progressive conclusion: “To gain your life is to lose it. To lose your life is to gain it. The life you live is not your own. Give your life away.” I believe that we need more of our artists to sow seeds of holy discontent. This is a good start. It would be really exciting if Stevens’ faithful passion could be translated [...]

Intellect and Imago Dei in the Women of Hidden Figures


Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of Posted on 02/14/17 Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of the articles are available as a pdf package here. “In all my years of teaching, I’ve never seen a mind like the one your daughter has. You have to see what she becomes.” With those words in Hidden Figures, a teacher at little Katherine Goble’s school sets her on a journey to fulfill her potential, while filmgoers take a journey to rediscover people who would have otherwise been lost to history. Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Hidden Figures employs truth, humor, triumph, and earnestness to tell the story of three African-American women whose work was crucial to NASA’s success in the 1960s—a time when gender norms and Jim Crow laws worked doubly against them. It was because of their work that John Glenn was successfully able to orbit the earth and return home in one piece. Goble (who would later marry and become Katherine Johnson), Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan possessed an ambition to blaze a path none like them had traveled. They were among NASA’s first non-white, non-male “computers”—women who checked the calculations that all-male teams of NASA engineers performed for potential space exploration. But it was more than ambition that motivated these women. It was their intellect—their unique minds—that made them trailblazers. Thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that imago dei (the image of God) existed in a person’s intellect—that it was perhaps their most God-like quality. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote that “nothing is more like to God than the human soul in its generic and intellectual nature, because as Augustine had said previously, 'Things which have knowledge, are so near to him in likeness that of all creatures none are nearer.'” If this is true, no viewer of this film could fail to see the image of God in these characters. Holding on to that image is essential, as Jim Crow-era segregation so often sought to deny it. To dramatically emphasize this, Hidden Figures repeatedly shows Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) running all the way across the NASA campus to the “colored ladies” restroom, as she wasn’t allowed to use the restroom near the office where she had recently been promoted. Hidden Figures shows these women as fully rounded characters, with vibrant and rich family and community lives which serve to augment their intellect and their work—not detract from it. There’s a sense that these women are in this together. Sometimes that’s what it takes to blaze a trail. That strength to be the first—to be a trailblazer—must, indeed, come from somewhere. Perhaps it, too, is part of our imago dei. In showing such vision and making the most of their intellect, even when the world would hold them back, the women of Hidden Figures reflect the goodness of the One who first blessed them with those very gifts. Comments (4) [...]

Rethinking Neanderthals


No one likes to admit that a long-held idea is wrong. The more invested we are in an idea Posted on 02/13/17 No one likes to admit that a long-held idea is wrong. The more invested we are in an idea and the more it aligns with our overall worldview, the more likely we are to cling to it. It was interesting, then, to read a New York Times Magazine article by Jon Mooallem explaining how multiple scientists have been compelled to admit that long-held views about Neanderthals were incorrect.  Neanderthals have been explored in scientific literature since the 1800s. One influential paper, referenced by Mooallem, was written by William King in 1864. That article ends with a line that shows King’s worldview much more than it tells us anything about the Neanderthal skull he aimed to describe. “It more closely conforms to the brain-case of a chimpanzee,” King wrote, “incapable of moral and theositic conceptions—there seems no reason to believe otherwise than that similar darkness characterized the being to which the skull belonged.” Looking at little more than a skull, King made harsh judgements about the moral character of the individual (even the species) he was studying. King’s assessment, and those of his contemporaries, had lasting consequences for how Neanderthals have been seen for the last 150 years. For decades, every discovery was presented against a backdrop that assumed Neanderthals were thoughtless brutes, incapable of culture. They were animals. Mooallem quotes a history of Neanderthals in his article, writing, “Neanderthals became ‘mirrors that reflected, in all their awfulness and awesomeness, the nature and humanity of those who touched them.’” The evidence that Neanderthals are more than brutes became clearer when geneticists joined the discussion. Mooallem’s article discusses the geneticist who has played the largest role in changing our understanding of Neanderthals: Svante Pääbo. A researcher who successfully sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome at high resolution, Pääbo recognizes that pushing a field to change its mind is difficult. “Science is far from the objective and impartial search for incontrovertible truths that nonscientists might imagine,” he writes in Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. With the field reset by genetics, those studying Neanderthals have been able to think more broadly about their subjects. Mooallem writes, “A lot of the new thinking about Neanderthals comes from revisiting material in museum collections, excavated decades ago, and re-examining it with new technology or simply with open minds.” This new work has revealed that Neanderthals used tools, had culture, and buried their dead. The geneticists have taught us that Neanderthals are not simply human beings from long ago, nor are they just another ape. Neanderthals are certainly human, though demonstrably not the same kind of human as we are. So how does our Christian worldview—that this is God’s good created world, twisted by sin, redeemed by Christ, and heading toward complete restoration—affect how we see Neanderthals? We can choose to meet them with hostility. We can squirm at how they do not seem to fit into the early chapters of Genesis and, driven by that fear, declare that all of the genetics and paleontology must be wrong. We can stumble over them and decide that Scripture has lost its veracity. Those of us who try to teach or speak about science and faith have certainly seen the strain science can place on faith. Books like Adam and the Genome, by theologian Scott McKnight, are written in part out of a pastoral concern for students of science. But Neanderthals do not have to be seen as threatening any more than previous scientists viewed them as animals. Since this is God’s good world, made and sustained by our loving creator, we can greet N[...]

How Should Christians Navigate the Gender Revolution?


Katie Couric recently hosted a documentary entitled Gender Revolution on the National Posted on 02/13/17 Katie Couric recently hosted a documentary entitled Gender Revolution on the National Geographic channel. A companion piece to the latest edition of National Geographic magazine, the documentary focused on matters relating to intersex and transgender people. Essentially, it raised questions about a world where it’s not merely gender roles that are up for grabs, but gender itself. The documentary was strongest when it focused on personal stories and Couric functioned as a helpful host. She served not as a lecturer, but as a learner along with the audience, taking time to introduce key terms and concepts along the way. For Christians seeking to articulate a theology of gender in the midst of this revolution, the most fascinating exchange in the documentary came toward the end, when Couric sat down with 82-year-old transgender pioneer Renee Richards and Hari Nef, a 24-year-old transgender actress and model. Their diverging approaches highlighted a tension and real conflict within the gender revolution.   On the one hand, Richards emphasized the essential nature of gender identity, underscoring that gender was binary: male and female get at the core of our very being. The documentary seemed to agree, insofar as it highlighted medical studies that indicate a variety of possible biological causes for gender dysphoria, including causes in utero, certain brain differences, and genetic factors. And the stories of intersex and transgender persons also emphasized that the sense of being one gender or the other was not simply a passing phase. In the words of one transgender girl, “I’m a girl in my heart and brain.” If this is a gender revolution, it is one that reinforces, rather than deconstructs, a male-female binary and the notion that this gender identity goes to the core of who we are. On the other hand, Hari Nef’s approach to gender was quite different. For her, gender should be seen as merely “wisps of smoke,” a kind of transient identity that changes and shifts over time. Indeed, her goal with respect to gender identity is “a world that chills out.” This approach seemed more consistent with a group of featured Yale students, who embraced a more nonbinary and fluid approach to gender. But Nef’s statement was jarring, especially after having heard the personal stories in the documentary. If gender is so fluid and transient, why would a man choose gender reassignment surgery after 45 years of marriage? What of the story of David Reimer, the subject of an experiment meant to prove gender malleability, only to have it result in a lifetime of pain and struggle? I do not know if or how advocates of a gender revolution would sort out this tension. But perhaps, from a Christian perspective, both Richards and Nef are onto something. Nef is right that a nuanced approach to gender must avoid naïve gender essentialism, where we mistake culturally specific gender expressions for the essence of what it means to be male or female. (Blue is for boys! Pink is for girls!) But Richards is also correct that a strict social constructivism (which sees gender as nothing more than a social construct) misses the way gender seems to be inscribed into the core of who we are. To navigate this tension, Christians must simultaneously affirm the givenness of who we are as male and female, while also affirming the call in creation to develop culture, which includes what it means to be “male” and “female.” Proper culture-making includes gender-making. This is not a blank check to do whatever we want. Rather, we both receive our gendered identity and, collectively and individually, are called to make something of that identity. If this is true, then Christians need to be able to listen patiently and sort through[...]

Hell or High Water’s Sweltering Critique of the Prosperity Gospel


Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of Posted on 02/10/17 Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of the articles are available as a pdf package here. About halfway through David Mackenzie’s Best Picture nominee, Hell or High Water, two Texas Rangers watch as a televangelist roars at them through a small hotel television screen. Reminiscent of a real-life Texas pastor, the preacher’s sermon reflects what’s known as the “prosperity gospel”—the belief that if one sows faith and obedience to God, they will reap or be rewarded with personal benefits. “God doesn’t say, ‘No,’” the minister punctuates in a southern drawl. “Whatever you believe becomes the truth.” Growing agitated, Ranger Marcus Hamilton (played by the amusingly grizzly Jeff Bridges) growls to his colleague, “God doesn’t talk to this man any more than he talks to my dog.” Hell or High Water may have all the fixins of a classic, if contemporary-set, western—thieves, oil, and greedy land grabs—but it can also be viewed as an indictment of the legalistic cues of the “health and wealth” gospel. In Mackenzie’s tough look at economic disparity in rural West Texas, the lines of punishment and reward curl together like the threads in its characters’ worn flannel shirts. Some individuals receive proper dues for their sowing; i.e. they get what they deserve. Then there are those, particularly the less influential, who plant and receive nothing, for others have stolen their harvest away. This theme of personal entitlement is told through the lens of two siblings turned outlaws. Hitting up small banks for quick cash grabs, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his wild ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) work to meet a strict deadline: they must accumulate $43,000 by the end of the week or their family land will become the property of Texas Midlands Bank. Before her death, the boys’ mother entered a reverse mortgage deal that offered just enough to cover her meager expenses. When she passed, ownership of the ranch was due to go with her. Hell or High Water isn’t preachy, but more akin to the “straight-shooter,” or lone cowboy who “tells it like it is.” Whether it’s the image of a billboard with the words “Fast Cash” emblazoned on the front or graffiti that laments corporate bailouts at the expense of working people, the background details often reveal the movie’s hand. This is a fable chronicling the fall of the self-sufficient American cowboy under the power of faceless institutions. If the prosperity gospel is the freedom to create your own reality, Hell or High Water imagines that freedom being yanked away without recourse. This is a world where hard-working people are left out to wrinkle in the parched West Texas heat. Banks exploit the elderly for profit. Manifest Destiny decimates Native American culture—a reality referenced by Hamilton’s part-Comanche partner (Gil Birmingham). A soldier serves his country only to return to a foreclosed home. The televangelist’s message just doesn’t play here. In her book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Kate Bowler cites a recent survey finding that 43 percent of Christians believe God grants the faithful health and wealth. A surprising two-thirds “agreed that God wants people to prosper.” Sure, we may scoff at Toby and Tanner’s decisions, or even the bank’s financial maneuvering, but Mackenzie’s tall tale pushes us to consider what our visions of the good life have in common with these brothers. Whether tempted towards the prosperity gospel or just a corrupted version of the American dream, our decision to pl[...]

A Tribe Called Quest’s Prophetic Vision


The year was 1991. I was a 14-year-old kid living in South Bend, Ind. It was there and Posted on 02/09/17 The year was 1991. I was a 14-year-old kid living in South Bend, Ind. It was there and then that I first heard the music of A Tribe Called Quest. My brother and I had the song “Scenario” on repeat. Tribe offered us a connection to a world light years away from our suburban, small-town, Midwestern existence, introducing us to a more dangerous, exciting, and culturally diverse experience. Five years later, as a Rutgers University student, I became intoxicated by the culture of the New York area. The lyrics of Tribe came to life and provided me with an education about the electric environment I was experiencing: the city, its people, and a world of hip-hop with which I longed to connect. And so when We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service was released last year, Tribe’s first album since 1998, this 40-year-old longed to relive the sensation of their music. On We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service, Tribe takes us on a musical journey that is equal parts political, urban, revolutionary, aggressive, prophetic, and smooth. They are able to do what few musicians can: combine mellow rhythms with the edge of social justice-driven hip-hop poetry. This effort reminds fans of why we first fell in love with the group. The album seamlessly vacillates between the 1990s and today, jazz and hip-hop, social anger and urban chill. In their anger, Tribe raises a critical question for the American Christian. Does our vision of redemption include all people, regardless of their economic or ethnic backgrounds? If so, how do we work toward that? By raising such a query, Tribe offers a Jeremiah-like prophetic voice, speaking truth to power and addressing the idolatry and inequality so present in the United States. Tribe’s skilled use of vocabulary and storytelling is in on full display in songs like “Kids,” “Conrad Tokyo,” and “Ego.” “Ego” is especially noteworthy, as it is a spiritual exploration of the motivations behind achievement, similar to that in Ecclesiastes. Another song, “Dis Generation,” provides both praise and admonishment for today's musical artists. “Melatonin,” meanwhile, unapologetically celebrates their own dark skin, firmly rejecting the historic American notion that it represents a liability. It is also heartwarming to hear Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, who died last year before the album was released, reincarnated for a number of tracks. His influence in the group, when stylistically contrasted with the vocals of Q-Tip, is what has always given their music texture. True fans await Phife’s lyrical intensification in the same way that fans of the Jacksons anticipated Michael's second-verse high tenor notes. On “Lost Somebody,” Tribe eulogizes Phife Dawg beautifully. As someone who teaches political science for a living, I found myself most intrigued by the album’s social commentary. On “The Donald,” Tribe highlights the strong connections between hip-hop and President Donald Trump. The braggadocio of the rap game, in which men become famous for their hubris, conquest of women, and glorification of material possessions, is quite similar to our current president's lifestyle. “We the People,” however, is the most consequential work on the album. It confronts both gentrification and xenophobia, while making an effort to redefine an important American constitutional principle. Who are “the people”? Does this populist identity belong to the poor minority groups who have suffered years of second-class citizenship, as described by Q-Tip, or the non-minority rural citizens who feel disaffected and forgotten, as described by Trump? Pe[...]

What if Christians Were the Ones Being Banned?


Following his Jan. 27 executive order suspending travel and immigration from seven Posted on 02/09/17 Following his Jan. 27 executive order suspending travel and immigration from seven predominately Muslim countries, President Donald Trump told CBN News’ David Brody that persecuted Christians would be given priority when it comes to refugee status. To understand why Christians—yes, Christians—should find this troubling, let’s imagine a somewhat similar scenario. Japanese Prime Minister Bans Chicagoans Effective immediately, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has issued an executive order banning all Chicagoans from entering Japan.  Abe said that given the extraordinary level of violence among Chicagoans, he could not take the risk of allowing them to bring their style of life to the peaceful island nation. He compared Japan’s homicide rate of 0.3 per 100,000 to the 15.1 per 100,000 of Chicago, and noted that “numbers like these don’t lie.” Abe was unwilling to speculate about the cause of Chicago’s violence. When pressed about the large percentage of Christians in Chicago, Abe agreed that there are certain strains of Christianity that have historically promoted violence, and that there might be some connections. Nonetheless, he insisted the travel ban was against Chicagoans, not Christians. Abe also banned citizens of Baltimore, Newark, Detroit, St. Louis, Memphis, and Oakland, whose homicide rates are all higher than Chicago’s. With Chicago, these seven cities account for a highly disproportionate number of homicides in the United States, he noted. When confronted with data showing the high percentage of Christians living in those cities, Abe reiterated that he was not singling out any particular religion for discrimination. The above story is fiction. Abe has done no such thing. But what if he did? How would American Christians respond? I think we would note a few things about violence and religion. First, all people are inherently violent, regardless of creed, color, or social standing. Second, if you are willing to kill or be killed for something, you are placing an ultimate value on that thing. In that sense, all killing is done in the name of an ideology of some kind, be it religion, nationalism, tribalism, racism, etc. Moreover, although Christians have committed horrible acts of violence, our religion does not demand it, and in fact insists on peace-making. Finally, a multitude of factors lie behind acts of violence, such as gender, addiction, greed, racism, fear, etc. So to single out one or two characteristics of violent persons would mean ignoring a plethora of others. Religion has often been used to justify violence. But let us not assume that our religion, nor any other, is its cause. Comments (24) [...]

Lady Gaga: Chaplain of the Super Bowl


Lady Gaga serves as a chaplain to the freaks and geeks and anyone who has felt like they Posted on 02/06/17 Lady Gaga serves as a chaplain to the freaks and geeks and anyone who has felt like they have been an outsider at one time in their life. Her followers, known as Little Monsters, look to her for acceptance. She is a bearer of hope, and yesterday she brought that hope and welcome to the Super Bowl halftime show. In conversations with many in my church and others online I sense a rising angst and fear. Those emotions should be taken seriously, yet in times of fear we still need joy. Joy produces hope, which allows the values of inclusivity and welcome to continue. Lady Gaga played chaplain once again last night, coming out in full force to provide temporary relief from rancorous American politics and encourage us to do as her song says: “Just Dance.” I enjoy her catchy pop ballads, but also I enjoy her because she weaves many progressive Christian themes into her music. Lady Gaga talks openly about her faith online and in her songs. Last summer she Instagrammed a picture of herself with a Catholic priest, whom she thanked for his homily. Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, she grew up in Catholic school (after attending West End Collegiate preschool, at the church I currently serve) and knows the stories of the Christian faith well. Writing in the Washington Post this past weekend, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons characterized Lady Gaga’s own faith this way: “In an American context where the media equates religion with social conservatism, Lady Gaga represents a welcome, non-fundamentalist Christianity. She is the closest pop culture version, in values if not tone, to her fellow Catholic, Pope Francis. She champions Christian values not of exclusion and discrimination but of empowerment, grace and self-acceptance.” Lady Gaga has opened up doors for those in the LGBTQ community and champions an ever-inclusive love for all of God’s children. The way she understands the Christian faith may not exactly match your or my understanding, but that doesn't discount the hope that she provides. Seeing as her music makes room for everyone, it’s ironic that many Christians aren't willing to make room for her. During her Super Bowl performance, Lady Gaga sat down at the piano and said, “We’re here to make you feel good. Do you want to feel good with us?” Her songs of hope and relief reminded me of Ecclesiastes 8:15: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat, and drink, and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.” Ecclesiastes reminds us to enjoy the moments of pleasure that produce hope. Lady Gaga consistently provides a place of hope, a spiritual engagement with modern issues, and creativity for the way forward. As I cautiously open my Facebook newsfeed these days and mostly find despair, it was refreshing to watch Lady Gaga’s performance bring hope and joy. Joy has a way of reawakening creativity and vision. Just dance, then, and keep walking by faith as well. Comments (12) [...]

If Trump Does ‘Destroy’ the Johnson Amendment, Churches Won’t Benefit


During a prayer breakfast last week, President Donald Trump told religious leaders that he Posted on 02/06/17 During a prayer breakfast last week, President Donald Trump told religious leaders that he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt non-profit organizations, including churches, from endorsing or opposing specific candidates. Under the current system, if a member of the clergy endorses a particular candidate, the contributions to his or her church are no longer considered tax-exempt. While rarely enforced, there are examples of this happening, as in the case of a New York City church that took out an ad against Bill Clinton. Although some on both the religious right and left might welcome the opportunity to directly endorse or oppose candidates, there are good theological reasons to refrain from doing so, regardless of whether the Johnson Amendment stays in place or not. For starters, if pastors oppose or endorse specific candidates, they risk going beyond their expertise and being distracted from their primary task. Abraham Kuyper’s vision of sphere sovereignty reminds us that God has created distinct spheres of society with various roles to carry out, including the church and state. The functions and roles of these two spheres are distinct, and we thus have a right to expect that a pastor and politician function very differently because of the spheres in which they are leaders. A pastor can certainly have political views and a politician can be religious, but being a pastor does not certify that one has a clear grasp of politics any more than being a politician validates one’s fitness for ministry. A second concern is the question of Christian liberty and the nature of politics. Politics often deals with complicated questions and issues for which there are no easy solutions. Candidates for office take stands on a variety of issues and people rightly have a variety of reasons that weight their vote one way or another. For example, I am not a single-issue voter. I have friends and family members who are. I can give them reasons why I think being a multi-issue voter is better than a single-issue voter. But can I legitimately say it would be “unbiblical” to be a single-issue voter or “thus saith the Lord: thou shalt take more than one issue into account when voting?” At the end of the day, even while I disagree with them, I need to affirm space for different rationales and strategies among Christians. This affirmation of difference is necessary because politics is complicated. Many people agree about ends (say, to ensure a flourishing economy) but disagree about the best way to pursue that goal (via more or less regulation?). Many political issues are thus “wicked problems” with no easy analysis or solution. Where even policy experts disagree, it would be presumptuous for pastors and churches to bind the consciences of their members and say, “If you truly want to follow Jesus, you must vote for/against this candidate.” Finally, if churches and pastors embraced this move, we would sacrifice our gospel unity on the altar of political power. As it is, our current political climate has people suspiciously looking down the pew, wondering if their brother or sister is on the “wrong” side of the latest Facebook firestorm. We, however, are called to be a people who are defined by Christ, not by worldly categories—including those of Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. As reconciled and reconciling, we believe, in the words of the Belhar Confession, that “God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth [...]

Fences: Wrestling with God for All the Wrong Reasons


Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of Posted on 02/03/17 Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of the articles are available as a pdf package here. Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington and adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson, centers on a man in the midst of a wrestling match: with himself, his country, and his God. Set shortly after the rise of Jackie Robinson in mid-century America, the movie’s main character is Troy, a recently promoted garbage handler who struggles with his treatment by whites and sees his current station in life resulting from their refusal to allow a black man to play baseball, despite his obvious skill. While rarely leaving the backyard of Troy’s Pittsburgh home, Fences focuses on the relationships between a husband and wife (played by Viola Davis), a father and his sons, two brothers, and even a man and his (perhaps imaginary) dog, Blue. Troy and his family feel the impact of life’s losses, be they in terms of his career, as a result of war, or caused by American bigotry and structural racism. Yet Troy is no saint, as is clear when his close friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) confronts him about his own transgressions. Later, when a defiant Troy taunts death itself (to the crackle of lightning and peals of thunder), he recalls Jacob, who wrestled with God until the morning. Washington gives a powerhouse performance of biblical proportions, as Troy sizes himself up to be great even as he’s reeling from the impact of his sins. Although Troy does confront God, there are important distinctions between his story and Jacob’s. After fighting God, Jacob asked for and received a blessing. But Fences does not end well for Troy. Maybe this is because Troy fought God for the sport of it, taunting him. The issue of vanity also comes into consideration. Troy used his winding soliloquies and arguments to capture the heart of his wife, the approval of his friends, and the admiration of his children. But he did not consider the importance of actually following the Lord. The fights that we have in the nights to come should be ones of honesty, but also obedience. Troy’s faults were not ones he asked forgiveness for, nor did he offer much consolation to his victims. Instead of mercy, he offered his vanity—powering up over those around him and eventually losing that fight for all to see. Troy is a Jacob figure who lost his way; he fought with a God he did not fully respect or love. To wrestle with God because we think we are gods is destructive. We must ask whether we are imposing barriers or being imposed by them. As Bono, Troy’s friend, tells him, “Some folks build fences to keep people out. Others build them to keep people in.” One must seek to understand and grow from our wrestling. God can work through anything if we submit ourselves to the power that comes through following him. Comments (2) [...]

Repair Cafes vs Throwaway Culture


When Life magazine ran an article on “Throwaway Living” in 1955, who would Posted on 02/02/17 When Life magazine ran an article on “Throwaway Living” in 1955, who would have guessed that the pope would reference the term nearly six decades later? In 2013, describing what he called an “economy of exclusion,” Pope Francis expanded his ecological critique of consumer culture to include human beings, who are “considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” Repair Cafes, a movement begun in Amsterdam in 2009, speaks to the Pope’s twofold concern—primarily by offering an alternative to throwing away broken possessions, and inadvertently by providing human care, as well. Repair Cafes team people with the shared goal of fixing, rather than throwing away, broken household items. Located in town halls, senior centers, and church basements, the cafes run on the efforts of volunteers who are skilled in a variety of fields. Free of charge, they help their neighbors fix broken possessions. In How to Build A Fire: And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew, Erin Bried writes, “Since the days our grandfathers were born, we’ve invented television, the computer, the Internet, the iPod, the cell phone, the flu shot, hybrid cars, the GPS, and even the Large Hadron Collider… You’d think all of this progress would have made us a smarter, safer, more sustainable society. And yet somehow we’ve lost our way.” A Repair Cafe tries to slow the progression of consumption with the sustainability of ownership. With the hundreds of millions of tons of garbage Americans throw away each year, preserving even a few lamps, couch cushions, and cell phones count as small wins for the Repair Cafe organization. Locations have spread quickly to over 1,200 sites across 30 countries (including 12 states in the U.S.). No matter the country and no matter the item, the motto is the same: repair things together. Togetherness is a fundamental element to the concept. Organizers have discovered that the act of coming together around a project builds camaraderie. While the primary purpose of the Repair Cafe is to refurbish damaged belongings, people often discover a new community of friends, as well. Volunteers get to display their knowledge and enjoy the feeling of helping others. Visitors get to learn a new skill and tell the stories behind their belongings. The team of repair volunteers at one location in upstate New York includes a psychiatric nurse who invites visitors into conversation because, as she says, “listening is a reparative act.” The emphasis of proper use of things and proper care for people counters a consumer culture with something of a sacred perspective. In emphasizing restoration through relationship, Repair Cafes inadvertently embody the sacramental view described by William Cavanaugh in Being Consumed: A sacramental view of the world sees all things as part of God's good creation, potential signs of the glory of God; things become less disposable, more filled with meaning. At the same time, a sacramental view sees things only as signs whose meaning is only completely fulfilled if they promote the good of communion with God and with other people. Simple acts of teaching neighbors how to repair a toaster or refurbish a couch cushion become visible signs of invisible realities. By taking seriously the care for both things and people, we enact the kind of care intended at the beginning of time and signal the making of all things new in our final home. Comments (2) [...]

The Place of Real Arrival


Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of Posted on 02/01/17 Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of the articles are available as a pdf package here. Good science-fiction consists of more than just alien invasions, body-snatchers, and “Take me to your leader.” Done well, sci-fi tells us deep truths about ourselves and our world. The Oscar-nominated film Arrival most definitely falls into this type of good sci-fi because of the way it takes the viewer deeper into the emotions of human experience. As film critic Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker, “What lingers, days after you leave the cinema, is neither the wizardry nor the climax but the zephyr of emotional intensity that blows through the film.” Director Denis Villeneuve is the wizard behind the wizardry of Arrival, while Amy Adams plays the main character: a respected linguist named Dr. Louise Banks. The United States Army seeks out Dr. Banks and her top-notch translation skills so she can help them decipher what a group of mysterious, newly arrived aliens want with the human race. Arrival doesn’t begin with the aliens, however. The opening sequence of the film shows us intensely emotional scenes from the life of one person, beginning to end. In a matter of minutes, we feel boundless joy, soul-twisting loss, and the agony of sorrow. Villeneuve masterfully crafts this sequence, helping us see and feel the fleeting nature of time from a distance, and all at once. We are voyeurs on the outside of time, looking in. This isn’t how we normally experience time, of course. We live in time. It’s something happening to us in a specific moment, like a dot on a timeline. In the first few minutes of the film, we are seeing one person’s timeline all at once, which highlights the brevity of life and causes us to feel as Solomon did, that life is a vapor and a vanity. The film’s aliens—who possess seven, symmetrical tentacles—are termed heptapods by Dr. Banks and her partner, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). For fun and as a reflection of growing intimacy, Banks and Donnelly come to call two of the heptapods Abbott and Costello. We soon learn that these squid-like creatures, who emit symbols of ink as their form of written communication, experience time much like we did through the film's opening. Like God himself, the heptapods view time all at once: they are above it, and outside it. As C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, "If you picture time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn... God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all." Unlike God, or the heptapods, our perspective of time is humbling. Bound by our linear experience, we are powerless to change the past or control the future. But what if we could? Arrival goes on to pose this question. If we could make decisions with knowledge of the future, would we choose pain and suffering? As Dr. Banks asks Donnelly in one of Arrival’s closing scenes, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?" But we aren't God, or heptapods. Instead, we live in the balance of human responsibility and God's sovereignty. We plan our life, as God directs our steps. We cast lots and he determines where they fall. God alone sees our future and he won't share that with us for good reason. He knows we are but dust, and he will not let us know today what he has for us tomorrow. It’s too heavy a burden for our human frailty[...]

Fighting Blight with a Gospel Mentality


Blight is like pornography: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. A Posted on 01/30/17 Blight is like pornography: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. A new Ohio law intends to prevent not blight, but the appearance of blight, by requiring boarded-up (i.e., abandoned) homes and buildings to wear polycarbonate sheets on their windows instead of the default material: plywood. The state’s thinking goes that nothing says “blight” like a bunch of boarded-up buildings, clearly a dispiriting sight to people who still live or work in a neighborhood where the practice is common. The polycarbonate sheets preserve at least the illusion of an occupied building, leading, one assumes, to a lesser perception of blight on a given block. But is that really the case? A person considering a real estate purchase, even a speculative one, would soon learn to spot polycarbonate “boarding” as quickly as plywood, I suspect. And while it may provide neighbors some comfort to not be living next to literally boarded-up buildings, the buildings are still abandoned, with all the same dangers (fire, collapse, squatters, pests) that those with plywood-clad windows present. It’s tempting to say that the Christian concern would be superficial appearance versus heart reality, as described by the Apostle Peter. But I don’t think superficiality is the real issue here. The question Christians need to ask themselves is not whether polycarbonate on the windows makes abandoned buildings look less blighted. That is an embalming question. (“Does this makeup make the deceased look too trashy?”) Christianity is not concerned about the best way to present death. Christianity is concerned with restoring life to what was previously dead. You may have thought that the Christian rubric of new life was limited to humans (I’ll not digress here with a fun but distracting discussion of doggie heaven). Yet I have become convinced—as a Christian, an architect, and a committed urbanist—that new life can come to cities as much as it can come to humans, and that it is a powerful work of God in either case. And as with humans, it comes one building at a time. I’ve designed many new buildings in my career, but the projects that really speak to my heart and sometimes actually bring tears to my eyes are renovation projects—projects that bring new life to dead (or nearly dead) buildings. To give one example, our work in Enid, Okla., not only gave the city a new event center (new building: relatively easy), it also revived their 1921 Convention Hall (a building that had been boarded up). Now, as a ballroom and meeting facility, the space brings great joy even to people who had lobbied for the building to be torn down a few years earlier. So our concern, in the case of polycarbonate versus plywood, is not which material makes a building look less dead (that would be polycarbonate, by the way). Rather, it should be how to restore life to abandoned buildings in our cities. Thoughtful Christians have long sought to address this challenge, from Habitat for Humanity to more recent efforts like Cedar Rapids’ Matthew 25. And John M. Perkins’ efforts at urban redevelopment are legendary. Such redevelopment brings new life—like Jesus did (and does)—to something that was dead. Doesn’t that sound a lot more hopeful than screwing plastic sheets to the windows of abandoned properties? Comments (0) [...]

Sundance 2017: One of God’s Good Gardens


There are probably a dozen ways to make sense of the Sundance Film Festival, Posted on 01/30/17 There are probably a dozen ways to make sense of the Sundance Film Festival, America’s largest gathering of movie fans, critics, and industry movers and shakers. It serves as a litmus test for the state of American independent cinema; it’s a way to gauge early critical buzz on some of the year’s upcoming releases; and it’s an acquisition market, where smaller films are picked up by distributors and begin the journey to a screen near you. This year, I also came to see Sundance as one of God’s gardens. The garden motif was suggested by Makoto Fujimura, who spoke at one of the Windrider Forum gatherings I attended while at the festival. Author, artist, and director of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center, Fujimura encouraged the 200 or so Christians in attendance to view the festival as a shared garden to be tended, rather than territory to be won. Our calling as culturally engaged Christians, he said, is “to reach out to the world which may not understand what we believe, yet we know God in his goodness gave this gift [of creativity] to unbelievers as well.” So what did I encounter in Sundance’s garden? Although different in many ways, three of the films I saw reflected our innate desire as image-bearing creatures to be valued and loved by our creator. In Roxanne Roxanne, based on the life of groundbreaking hip-hop emcee Lolita Shanté Gooden, a teen girl growing up in New York’s Queensbridge projects finds identity and affirmation in the underground rap scene of the 1980s, despite it mostly being a man’s game. As Shanté—played with a wide smile and rhyming ferocity by newcomer Chanté Adams—says at one point, “I made a record and did laundry at the same time.” Shanté’s songs, then, are not just a new form of music, but also a bold way of claiming her imago dei. A less inspiring journey toward affirmation is the one taken by the title character of Ingrid Goes West, played by Aubrey Plaza. Something of a Rupert Pupkin for our social-media age, Ingrid insinuates her way into the picture-perfect life of an Instagram celebrity (think Kim Kardashian, though played by Elizabeth Olsen). It soon becomes clear, however, that it isn’t the manicured lifestyle Ingrid desires (she can’t stomach the foodie dishes her new “best friend” favors) as much as the digital attention that Insta-celebrity delivers. Also seeking the wrong sort of attention in the wrong places are two of the family members of Landline, a 1990s-set dramedy in which an engaged adult daughter (Jenny Slate) who is cheating on her fiancé discovers that her father (John Turturro) is also having an affair. The dissatisfaction expressed by these characters is a sign of spiritual dislocation. We long to be in right relationship with God—to be recognized and loved by him as his created beings—yet we’re separated by our sin. Flailing about to fulfill that need elsewhere, we only increase our separation all the more. Both Landline and Ingrid Goes West follow a familiar Sundance pattern, which Craig Detweiler, another Windrider speaker, put in theological terms. The movies shown at the festival, he explained, are more often prophetic rather than pastoral—meaning they point out the problems with the human condition, without offering biblical answers. This was certainly true of another pair of movies I took in, in which the desacralization of sex was taken to extremes. Kuso—a revoltin[...]