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No such thing as secular

Updated: 2017-11-21T18:49:00Z


The Persistent Religious Presence in Madame Secretary


Like The West Wing and House of Cards, Madame Secretary focuses on a powerful political Posted on 11/21/17 Like The West Wing and House of Cards, Madame Secretary focuses on a powerful political player: United States Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni). Yet while she is almost always the central character in the main plot, her husband Henry (Tim Daly), a religion professor, has proven to be one of the most intriguing supporting players. His character brings a deeper, more human element than is normally seen in the typical political television drama. We first meet Henry in season 1 guiding a group of undergraduate students at The University of Virginia through a passage of Thomas Aquinas. When Elizabeth accepts her position as Secretary of State, Henry begins teaching at Georgetown. Over seasons 1 and 2, Henry’s character becomes instrumental in two ways. In the first, he connects his religious studies to Elizabeth’s new role, drawing inspiration and comfort for her from religious thinkers. Knowledge of the religious traditions of mankind becomes key to solving political challenges, as well as equipping the Secretary of State with moral and mental stamina. Secondly, Henry’s military past combines with his scholarly expertise, enabling him to assist the government’s intelligence agencies. Henry brings an awareness of human religious motivations and a deep knowledge of particular practices to the table. If religion is, as Georgetown University’s Thomas Farr described in a recent lecture, “the human search for a greater than human source of being and meaning,” then Henry’s awareness of this facet of humanity gives him insight that his materialistic colleagues fail to perceive. Henry helps one man understand the teachings and psychology of a cult, allowing for successful infiltration. His understandings of Islam propel him to the Murphy Station task force, a team paralleling the real-life efforts to find Osama bin Laden. Eventually he is named head of the CIA’s Special Activities Division. Henry’s understanding of human beings as religious creatures not only enables his success, but complicates the typical Washingtonian character. Henry adds a spiritual dimension to a character type usually defined by desire for power, progressive beliefs, and reflexive materialism. By illustrating the reality of religious beliefs, Henry upholds a truth about human nature that is grounded in Scripture. As John Piper has written in regard to the Psalms, human beings were made to worship. Our problem, of course, is that we often worship the wrong things. When God summoned his people to Mount Sinai after the exodus, the first two laws he gave them concerned what they were to worship and what they were not to worship. As the apostle Paul wrote, all of humanity knows God at some level, through natural revelation. Madame Secretary’s Henry McCord reminds us that all people are worshippers, and that an effective government policy cannot separate people from this worshipping capacity. Thus far, season 4 of Madame Secretary has not continued to draw on this aspect of Henry’s character. We’ve seen Henry struggle to balance work and parenting, his compassion for an agent with a drug problem, his continued support for his wife, and his efforts to help his son navigate high-school romance. Hopefully, as the season continues, his uniquely religious perspective will return to the forefront. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="" width="560"> Comments (0) [...]

Justice League: Wonder Woman Amidst the Lost Boys


Among the many refreshing things about this summer’s Wonder Woman was the way the Posted on 11/20/17 Among the many refreshing things about this summer’s Wonder Woman was the way the movie looked at its title character, played by Gal Gadot. As the first blockbuster superhero movie directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, the film focused on Wonder Woman’s power above all else. It was a small but important counter to Hollywood’s culture of objectification. Justice League—the latest installment in the DC Extended Universe, in which Wonder Woman teams up with Batman (Ben Affleck), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher)—represents a troubling step backwards. There’s a new director (or old, considering Zack Snyder also made Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel) and a notably different attitude toward Gadot’s character. It’s as if the clock turned back and Wonder Woman never happened. To be fair, Wonder Woman still comes across in Justice League as incredibly powerful, as well as clever, intelligent, and emotionally attuned to the dynamics of this super team in ways that her male counterparts aren’t. Indeed, as this Justice League battles some sort of interdimensional demon who wants to transform Earth into a fiery hellscape, Wonder Woman registers as the most capable of the bunch. She’s fearless, and her acrobatic battles with the demon have an exhilarating electricity and personal touch that the rest of the action scenes can’t match. But notice how the movie often looks at her, and talks about her. On more than one occasion, camera angles are positioned to draw our attention to one of her physical features (and not her eyes). If Wonder Woman, without obfuscating Gadot’s beauty, emphasized how her body was that of an athletic warrior, Justice League too often sees her as a body, period. And then there is the matter of how the men in the movie respond to her. For every moment that acknowledges Wonder Woman as a valuable team member, there is another one laced with sexual innuendo. Alfred (Jeremy Irons), who I never thought of as a dirty old butler before, jokes that Bruce Wayne’s interest in her may not be entirely professional. Aquaman, while under the power of her truth-compelling Lasso of Hestia, almost starts drooling while describing how attractive she is. Then there is the unfortunate moment, during a battle scene, where The Flash falls on top of Wonder Woman in a compromising position while she is momentarily unconscious. It’s played for easy laughs. Am I making too much of these moments, being too politically correct? I’d like to think that I’m holding Justice League to a standard of respect for female characters that should have been in place before Wonder Woman made the distinction so clear. And it’s a biblical standard as well. When we talk about the importance of seeing others as being made in the image of God, that includes the way we see women, in our movies and our everyday lives. Writing about Wonder Woman for TC, Marilette Sanchez praised the movie for its surprising representation of certain Scriptural truths. She also noted that the film left her feeling “empowered and inspired” as a woman. “I shocked myself when I started to bawl like a baby during a key battle scene in Wonder Woman,” she wrote. “It was literally the act of her fighting that turned on the waterworks.” My guess is Marilette was also responding to how that act was depicted—with admiration for Wonder Woman’s intrinsic values (bravery, self-assuredness, a willingness to sacrifice), not just her external features. If it is true that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” then we should create and appreciate art that honors our commonality in Christ—our imago dei. This doesn&r[...]

Accidental Courtesy and the Difficult Call to Love One’s Enemies


America’s greatest sin may be the pernicious racism that has persisted since the Posted on 11/16/17 America’s greatest sin may be the pernicious racism that has persisted since the country’s inception. No matter the economic heights the nation climbs nor the technological feats achieved, the United States has been plagued by the injustice of racial inequality. The documentary Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, & America, available on Netflix, chronicles one man’s unlikely and unusual attempts to counter this awful legacy. As the documentary details, African-American musician Daryl Davis has embarked on an individual outreach to Ku Klux Klan members. His efforts are both mind-boggling and moving. For years, Davis has made it his goal to collect the hoods of KKK members by initiating friendships with them. As awkward, uncomfortable, and ostensibly foolish as his actions may seem, they are equally remarkable. Putting himself in personal danger by fostering relationships with leaders of what amounts to a vicious American terrorist organization, Davis does something so daring and rare that it has caught the attention of a worldwide audience. Through personal conversations, he achieves what many governments and social institutions have been hard pressed to accomplish: the softening of racist ideologies. As a Christian, I see Davis’ work as a modern-day response to the biblical call to love one’s enemies. Christ’s command goes even beyond the turning of one’s cheek. We are told to actively “do good to those who hate you” and to “pray for those who mistreat you.” At a time when the KKK is still active in 22 states and white nationalist groups exist across the country, Davis’ actions represent the deep sacrifice and selflessness that lies at the core of our faith. Watching the documentary, I was left fantasizing about the implications of lives like his on the rest of humanity. If only the world could love like Davis, what could be achieved? Of course, in another sense Davis’ example of African-American love in the face of white supremacy is nothing new. For years enslaved Africans raised the children of their oppressors, took care of them when sick, and sought no revenge for being brutalized. Even in post-slavery America, the collective response of the African-American community was to seek the acceptance of European Americans, while attempting a relationship of servile integration. Tolerance and respect for individual African-Americans in this context was not unusual, as it represented the isolated benefits of tokenism. Yet group acceptance in addition to the promotion of collective policies that promote justice, fairness, and restitution have been much more difficult to achieve. In this way, Davis’ actions are far from a panacea. As a middle-class African-American, I have experienced this same kind of personal acceptance, one that stretches only as far as my willingness to assimilate ideologically and deny uncomfortable truths about our national identity. Were Davis’ KKK friends to pursue active love rather than passive non-hatred, this would represent not only the kind of repentance supported in Scripture, but also true progress in collective race relations. As the author Cornel West reminds us, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Davis’ testimony is complicated by another matter. At one point in the documentary, Davis has a conversation with leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, who are critical of his approach to racial reconciliation. Rather than offer them the same courtesy that he shows to members of the KKK, he immediately responds with insults and denigration. The patience and humility that is on display for the previous hour of the film flies out the window in a matter of moments as he attacks these leaders for their questioning of his approach. This part of the film is heartbreaking, as [...]

Taylor Swift’s False Reputation


I've followed Taylor Swift’s career from the beginning. I’ve admired her Posted on 11/15/17 I've followed Taylor Swift’s career from the beginning. I’ve admired her flair for storytelling, her ability to transform the mundane details of everyday experience into profound life lessons. I’ve also admired her knack for creating an endless number of catchy melodies. Being a fellow millennial woman, I feel like I’ve gone through the awkward transition from insecure, adolescent teenager to self-assured woman right alongside her. Yet I can’t help but feel that each of our brands of womanhood are worlds apart. With Swift’s latest album, Reputation, the world has witnessed her complete evolution from squeaky-clean country sweetheart to femme fatale sex symbol. This shift has seemed to jolt many a critic and T-Swift fan. The synth sounds that she introduced on 1989 are center stage on Reputation. Gone are the guitars, replaced by layers and layers of keyboards and bass-filled drums. Even Swift’s voice goes through a vocoder on “Delicate.”  As John Caramanica noted in The New York Times, there is a shift away from Swift’s signature melodies into a style that uses her voice as an “accent piece, or seasoning.” (To be sure,  “Delicate” and “Dress” retain the one-note melody that has worked so well for her in the past.) According to Caramanica, the songs of her new album “emphasize the cadence of her singing, not the melody or range.” This musical element is an appropriate choice, since it seems to reflect Swift’s move to further de-personalize herself. Reputation is a coming-of-age album, showcasing plenty of “firsts” for Swift: her first on-record curse word (“I Did Something Bad”), her first time singing (repeatedly!) about consuming alcohol, and her first time singing overtly about her sexuality. Of course, boasting of sexual prowess is pop culture’s way of dubbing a female artist a true “woman.” Although Swift had been dropping hints for a while, from 2010’s "Sparks Fly" (“Give me something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around”) to 2014’s "Wildest Dreams" (“Tangled up with you all night / Burning it down”), Reputation is shamelessly drenched in the theme of sexuality. In “Dancing with Our Hands Tied” Swift reflects on a lover who chose to look past her shortcomings and “turned [her] bed into a sacred oasis.” In “King of My Heart,” she mentions a “kingdom inside [her] room.” In “Delicate,” she tells her lover, “Just think of all the fun things we could do ...  Do the girls back home touch you like I do.” The steamy “Dress” exemplifies this the most clearly. (Apparently, the song was too much for Swift’s parents to handle, as they left the room when she played it at a listening party she hosted for fans). Over a slow-jam beat that seems a more likely fit for a Rihanna song, Swift sings, “Say my name and everything just stops / I don't want you like a best friend / Only bought this dress so you could take it off, take it off / Carve your name into my bedpost.” Our popular culture, including Reputation, often disregards God’s design for sex, limiting our God-given sexuality to the physical, instead of encompassing all aspects of our sexuality. It glamorizes pre-marital sex, purposefully leaving out any negative consequences. In The Gift of Sex, in which Clifford and Joyce Penner discuss sexuality as a component of God’s design for marriage, the authors write: Lovemaking cannot be just physical … If there is to be a fulfilled relationship, there must be more to it than meeting physical needs. The total person—intellect, emotions, body, spirit, a[...]

Redemption and Restoration on HGTV’s Fixer Upper


Fixer Upper, the fifth and final season of which premieres on HGTV later this month, stars Posted on 11/14/17 Fixer Upper, the fifth and final season of which premieres on HGTV later this month, stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, a husband-and-wife team who renovate houses around Waco, Texas. Chip brings construction expertise and goofy, self-deprecating humor, while Joanna brings focus, design skills, and the ability to laugh at Chip's antics. In each episode, Chip and Joanna are hired by clients to find and renovate a house. As Joanna says, "We take the worst house in the best neighborhood and turn it into our client's dream home." My brother, a new homeowner, introduced me to the show, and since I discovered that Hulu had the first three seasons I’ve been watching almost daily. As an apartment renter, I would have thought that watching a show about people getting their dream homes would be discouraging, but I feel only joy watching the projects come together. When I see the new homeowners’ tears of happiness, I cry, too. I dream about homes often. Apparently, this is common. Psychologists theorize that houses in dreams represent ourselves. For me, there is also a more tangible source for my dreams. Growing up we moved frequently, and as an adult I've moved often as well. Houses—and housemates—haunt my dreams, sometimes with nightmarish rehashing of conflicts, sometimes with glorious visions of beauty, space, and love. For me, those latter dreams represent my dreams being fulfilled, as scarcity is replaced with abundance. Jesus spoke of houses in John 14, where he told his disciples that his father’s house “has many rooms” and that he was going to prepare a place for them. The King James Version translates the word “rooms” as “mansions,” which at that time meant simply a house or dwelling place. But the idea of spaciousness is there in the word “many” (pollai), which carries the sense of abundance I find both in my dreams and in Chip and Joanna’s houses. Not just abundance for the lucky couple that gets their dream home, but abundant welcome for all who come looking for a dwelling place. This theme of abundance is woven throughout Fixer Upper. Each client starts with a set budget. Chip then finds houses for far less than that, leaving them ample money for the renovations. They knock down walls, widen doorways, and raise ceilings, creating a feeling of spaciousness in even the smallest home. Sometimes they expand into the yard or attic, literally adding square feet to the house. Joanna favors light colors and large windows, so everything looks bright and airy. You barely seem to be in a private house at all, but a great hall, created for gatherings. It brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the great banquet in Luke 14, where the host instructs his servant to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Being relatively poor and somewhat lame myself, I’m grateful for the thought that there will be room for me at the banquet. There is a messenger coming down the streets and alleys for me, and for all of us. If houses represent ourselves, then finding a bedraggled, neglected house and restoring it to a new beauty can be symbolic of our own healing and renewal through Christ. Chip and Joanna’s specific vision is to find the worst house to renovate. Their joy, and the excitement of the show, is in the contrast. The worse the house looks in the beginning, the more dramatic the reveal at the end. It’s somewhat similar to the dramatic revealing described in Revelation 21: Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I hea[...]

Sexual Misconduct and Hollywood’s House of Cards


In the wake of numerous allegations involving sexual misconduct by movie mogul Harvey Posted on 11/13/17 In the wake of numerous allegations involving sexual misconduct by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the #metoo hashtag has—“like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains”—empowered a deluge of women and some men to share their stories of sexual abuse or harassment. Each private, visceral, terrible experience seems to share one thing in common: the exploitation of power. Perhaps no Hollywood enterprise has come to be more emblematic of this abuse of power than House of Cards—both onscreen and off. Kevin Spacey’s President Frank Underwood is the antihero we hate to love, the sinner for whom we cheer. Frank and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are breathtakingly cunning as they plot and claw their way up the political ladder, with no regard or compassion for those they obliterate as they ascend. Frank (with Claire’s approval) involves himself in an affair with a young female reporter, only to push her in front of a train when she becomes a liability. He and Claire engage in seemingly consensual sex with their Secret Service agent in order to satisfy loyalties. Claire crushes her lover’s reputation when hers is at stake, and she goes so far as to murder another lover when he becomes untrustworthy. Each of these victims is portrayed as a necessary casualty, as Frank and Claire continue their nuclear rise. With the recent flood of allegations of sexual misconduct against Spacey himself, I now feel a certain level of conviction when I consider my participation in the House of Cards fandom. When constrained to the small screen, Frank Underwood demonstrates the brokenness of the world and the seedy underbelly of American politics. But when Spacey sheds Frank’s skin only to reveal a frighteningly similar monster underneath, House of Cards takes on a degree of reality that leaves me disgusted. Frequently, sexual predators, abusers, and harassers seem to go unpunished, profiting from a systemically rotten culture that enables their behavior. Society too often ignores the men and women who have been defamed, manipulated, harmed, and silenced. And so the testimonies and solidarity that make up the #metoo campaign have been a welcome form of justice, allowing the abused to come forth in safety, knowing they are neither isolated nor blamed for what has been done to them. But we cannot stop there. First, we as Christians cannot turn a blind eye to the abuse of power (including sexual abuse) that exists in the Church. It’s so easy for us to see this evil thriving in Hollywood and to ignore the manipulation and sin happening in our own pews. Terribly, this abuse of power by way of sex isn’t only a Hollywood problem, as #metoo testimonies involving the Church have made clear. We must acknowledge that our Christian institutions and communities are not insulated from this sort of sin, and then we must act in response: by holding leaders accountable and creating an environment where painful stories from those who have been mistreated can be honored, listened to, and fully investigated. As Christians, we also know the Bible instructs us on how to wield power. This should be our model for anyone in a position of authority. In Matthew, Jesus told his disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Within the Church and without, we must hold those in power to the highest standards of servant leadership, not allowing them free pas[...]

Lost in Ozark


Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is a lost man. A middle-aged financial planner with two kids Posted on 11/09/17 Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is a lost man. A middle-aged financial planner with two kids and an unfaithful wife named Wendy (Laura Linney), he lives an uninspiring life in the suburbs of Chicago. It’s a life that appears on the surface to be managed, yet not long after we’re introduced to the Byrdes in the Netflix series Ozark we find them on the run, fleeing to the rural backwaters of the Missouri Ozarks. In a decision that continues to unravel throughout the show's first 10 episodes, we learn that Marty’s flight to Missouri is related to a money-laundering scheme involving a drug cartel. When the cartel suspects that some of their money has gone missing, Marty talks his captors into giving him a second chance to recoup their losses in the “cash heavy” tourist area of the Ozarks. Given just a month to clean $500,000, the Byrdes pack their suitcases full of cash and head south.     Despite rising to number one on streaming charts over the summer, Ozark received mixed reviews. With comparisons to Netflix’s Bloodline and AMC’s hit Breaking Bad, Ozark was accused by some of borrowing from the already well-worn theme of “middle-aged, white male antiheroes.” While the show admittedly shares much in common with these previous series, Ozark brings a central difference in that its characters have all laid their cards on the table. Marty knows his wife is unfaithful; his two children know why they are on the run; and, most importantly, Marty himself never plays the part of the pitiful victim. He refrains from justifying or blaming. He simply accepts that he has made a definitively bad decision. At IndieWire, Ben Travers described Ozark as “one of the darkest shows on TV.” Indeed, as dark as the series gets, you are never shocked when it turns even darker. Manipulation and deceit guide nearly every relationship and the depictions of broken human sexuality in the form of prostitution, adultery, and strip clubs is shown without romanticism. The entire series is cast in gray tones and matching, melancholy tunes. Marty, meanwhile, is not periodically redeemed with acts of valor and compassion. In contrast, the Byrde family moves from one horrific decision to the next, constantly bound to an endless cycle of choice-and-consequence that fails to remedy their first fall from grace. In other words, Ozark refuses to dilute the drink. In Marty Byrde we glimpse humanity in the raw, fumbling towards descending levels of Dante’s Inferno while falsely believing that with just enough effort and ingenuity we can save ourselves. The brilliance of Ozark is its truthful depiction of life without hope. Life all alone. Life without a lifeline. The kind of life many people in our world live daily, were attempts are made to remedy our regrets with a never-ending series of more regrettable decisions. In this way Ozark serves as a modern parable of the age-old adage that “two wrongs do not make a right.” Lies covered up by lies eventually come to light. Suffice to say the show is absent of any redemptive presence. Even the kids are making dangerous decisions of their own by sleeping with strangers and stockpiling illegally purchased weapons. Everyone, from Marty’s cheating wife to the FBI agents breathing down his neck, are all equally broken people, desperately trying to deal with the private hells they have made for themselves. And yet, in this unflinching bleakness there is truth. Ozark shows us a world where there is no “higher power,” no “triumph of the human spirit,” no “happy ever after.” It imagines a world without God, where humans are left to save themselves. The isolated woods of the Ozarks is[...]

Happy Death Day’s Scars of Redemption


Despite its slasher trappings, Happy Death Day is more fantasy film than horror flick. Posted on 11/08/17 Despite its slasher trappings, Happy Death Day is more fantasy film than horror flick. Sure, some viewers might jump when an attacker in a baby mask kills medical student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) after her late-night birthday party. But when the scene cuts to Tree back in her bed, beginning anew the day that just ended, we know we’re in the realm of wish-fulfillment. Happy Death Day doesn’t want to scare us as much as it wants to indulge the fantasy of a do-over, a second shot at a day (or life) gone wrong. Before getting caught in her time loop, Tree lived according to her own inclinations, with no regard for others. Rothe gives a comically rich performance as a sneering sorority girl who belittles low-status classmates and launches materialistic machinations against her head sister. She fully embodies the party girl archetype that was parodied in Mean Girls and offed in Friday the 13th. Director Christopher Landon, working from a script by Scott Lobdell, transplants this character type into a structure cribbed from Groundhog Day (which Happy Death Day explicitly acknowledges). Like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, the narcissistic Tree evolves into a caring person by reliving the same day and learning from her mistakes. Or, more accurately, she becomes a caring person by learning that she has treated many people very badly. Fearing that others may be doing unto her as she’s done to them, Tree spends much of the film mistrusting even the most benign interactions. When one of her professors (Charles Aitken) performs a medical examination on her, he projects genuine empathy, dispensing advice and offering to buy snacks. But given that Tree happens to be having an affair with him, she worries that his wife (or perhaps the professor himself, should he be looking for a way out) may be trying to eliminate her. Landon and cinematographer Toby Oliver saturate the hospital in putrid green during this scene, while the camera conveys Tree’s paranoia by following behind her as she searches the facility for signs of ill intent. The implication is that her behavior has tainted an otherwise safe space. It’s during this sequence that the movie adds a wrinkle to its time-loop structure. The medical tests reveal contusions on Tree’s brain and scars on her body—remnants of the violence she has suffered in earlier versions of the repeated day. When Tree wakes up, she’s sore from being hit by a truck or has lungs full of the water in which she just drowned. Though she’s alive again, her “deaths” still leave marks. Sometimes, as Christians, we think of forgiveness as a complete do-over. When we read that our sins “shall be as white as snow,” we hope this means that it will be as if our transgressions were never committed. But Christianity is a religion of scars. In Jeremiah, God says this of Israel’s sin: “Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing.” And while in that same passage he promises to “restore you to health and heal your wounds,” God also insists that actions have consequences. As with the Israelites wandering in the desert or David losing his son, the effects of our violations linger, even if the price of our sin is paid. God’s grace may not erase scars, but it does redeem them. In the same way that Christ’s wounds are a testament to what he endured for us, so also do the scars of our shortcomings remind us of God’s salvation. Paul’s epistles demonstrate this when he declares that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. If Paul was, perhaps, still tormented by the persecution he enacted as Saul of Tarsus, he nonetheless knew that God’[...]

Star Trek: Discovery and Creation’s Diversity


The Star Trek franchise has long been a place to try new things and imagine the future of Posted on 11/07/17 The Star Trek franchise has long been a place to try new things and imagine the future of humanity—and of television. In the 1960s, it broke ground in terms of diverse casting and depicting interracial romance. In the 1990s it introduced black and female captains. The franchise also imagined technology that would come to be; early flip-phones were designed to mimic the original series’ communicators, while contemporary tablets look a lot like the ones on Star Trek: The Next Generation. One innovation accompanying the newest iteration, Star Trek: Discovery, is the fact that the show has been released only via a specific streaming network: CBS All Access. Of course, other aspects of the show reflect its location in the late 2010s: better visual effects, a season-long story arc, and (to the disappointment of some) a darker view of human nature. Where else the show might innovate or help us imagine a future is harder to say after watching only a handful of episodes. One thing I was happy to notice about an early plotline, though, is the way Star Trek: Discovery has turned its historical attention to inclusiveness toward the non-humanoid. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp), the lead science officer of the Discovery, is working on technology that travels large distances quickly using a fungus. (Spoilers ahead.) The affection Stamets shows for his mushrooms reminds me of the specific joy and delight in creation I’ve seen from my friends and colleagues who study science. The Discovery crew soon learns that an animal-like creature that eats the mushrooms is the secret to accurate, safe transport. This creature, which they call a tardigrade, looks very similar to the earth micro-animal of the same name (also called a water bear). After several successful “jumps,” however, science specialist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) notices that the tardigrade seems to be in pain. The animal may be key to their safe passage, but it is being depleted by the act. At the end of the fifth episode, the tardigrade is set free into space at the order of acting captain Saru (Doug Jones). Narratively, it’s clear that this movement on the part of Saru is an action made out of empathy and moral motivation, not strategy, as many of his earlier decisions had been. In fact, strategically, releasing the tardigrade negatively impacts the ship’s usefulness in war. I will say I miss the more optimistic view of the older series, which modeled our aspirations more than our failures. Yet I appreciated this tardigrade storyline because it reminds me of something my scientist friends inherently recognize: that God’s beloved creation extends beyond humans, to everything God has made. This includes animals and plants and maybe even lifeforms we don’t know about yet. As a reformed Christian, I also believe that God’s redemptive love will transform all of creation, not just people. Some scholars point out that the wording in 2 Corinthians 5:17 is ambiguous. The Greek more or less says “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!” Some translate that to say that a person is a new creation; others take it to mean the entire creation is new. The latter meaning reminds us of just how much God made and is transforming—maybe even on other planets, but certainly here around us. God calls us to not just love each other (a hard enough task), but also to love his world. The image on Discovery of mercy for creatures that seem far from human reminds me of the expansiveness of the love God calls us to. This love can be hard to carry out when these creatures are weird-looking and potentially useful to us, like Discovery’s tardigrade. But[...]

Thor: Ragnarok’s Prophetic Call to Confession


Thor: Ragnarok will be remembered as the goofy Thor installment, thanks to a zany middle Posted on 11/06/17 Thor: Ragnarok will be remembered as the goofy Thor installment, thanks to a zany middle section set on a psychedelic planet named Sakaar where Jeff Goldblum, sporting blue eyeliner and space pajamas, presides over a gladiatorial tournament. And while those scenes are enough to recommend the movie, I wouldn’t want to overlook a rich and theologically resonant narrative thread that involves Thor’s home planet of Asgard. Asgard—a land of bright seas, lush forests, and cascading waterfalls—serves as the seat of a benevolent monarchy. In the Asgardian throne room, a series of massive, elegant murals depicts Odin (Anthony Hopkins) establishing peace among the Nine Realms and preparing to pass the ruling of them to his son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Reminiscent of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, these murals also boast a cinematic bonus. The Renaissance-style figures are given a slight motion effect, so that the halos around Odin and his anointed son seem to glow, pulsing with approval. The overall impression is that of humming prosperity—purple mountain majesties, a kingdom fully come. It turns out, however, that this is a lie. The narrative proper—the reason Thor must escape slaphappy Sakaar and get home—involves the arrival of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the banished older sister Thor never knew. Upon her return to Asgard, Hela shatters the murals in the throne room to reveal an earlier fresco painted underneath. Here, with similarly shimmering motion but in darker shades, we see Hela and Odin conquering the Nine Realms by brutal force and subjugating their inhabitants. This is the true story of how Asgard was founded. Given that she is also the goddess of death, Hela is tired of the planet’s shiny-happy facade and wants to return to ruling it and expanding its influence by lethal force. Her first step? Deposing Thor and making a claim on Asgard’s throne. There is a special significance to the filmmakers’ decision to depict these Asgardian murals in motion. It suggests that history is always moving, and that this movement has repercussions on the present day. If this is true for fictional space kingdoms, it’s also true for contemporary nation states. Consider, in particular, the current American debate over Confederate monuments, markers of a certain era in the country’s history. Can’t these, too, be seen as falsifying frescos, willful attempts to paint over nothing less than slavery, the nation’s great historical sin? It’s also interesting to note that in Thor: Ragnarok it is the movie’s “good guys” (particularly Odin) who are perpetuating the deception. And Asgard’s comfortable citizens are willing to go along with it. Their blind patriotism involves an unwillingness to acknowledge their planet’s faults, to see themselves as anything other than a purely heroic power. Sometimes it takes a goddess of death—or, more peaceably, a kneeling NFL player—to shatter the lies we tell ourselves. For the nation of Israel, the prophets served just this purpose. Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah—these and others tried to shake God’s chosen people from their stupor, to bring them to confession of their sins. Often it took great humiliation, even the crumbling of a nation, for that confession to come. Unlike Hela, however, destruction wasn’t the prophets’ end game. Their reputations as doomsayers belies the fact that they almost always placed the demand for confession within the trajectory of redemption. Consider Hosea 6: “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces  &[...]

Beck’s Colors: Songs in the Key of Joy


It’s not unheard of for me to cry while jogging. Something about the endorphins and Posted on 11/02/17 It’s not unheard of for me to cry while jogging. Something about the endorphins and just the right track mixed with a bit of exhaustion can prove to be an intoxicating concoction. If you find me nearing the end of a five-mile trek, just drive by blaring the closing minutes of Sigur Ros’ “Glosoli,” and you are sure to get me all puffy-eyed. Recently I went running after a particularly good Sunday at church. So many things had clicked that day. I was feeling a whole range of emotions, from gratefulness to surprise to abiding pride in the members of my congregation. As I ran, I was listening to Beck’s new album, Colors, trying to figure out what to write about it. I’m not sure exactly what happened. Maybe it was the way Midnite Vultures-era distortion scissored through the bridge of “Dreams.” Or maybe it was the pan flute synthesizer on the title track. Maybe it was the Elliott Smith circa 2000 jangly piano of “Dear Life.” Maybe it was the backbone of “No Distraction,” clearly inspired by Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.” Or maybe it was the way Beck’s guitar revved up before the chorus of “I’m So Free.” Possibly, it was just the sheer silliness of a song titled “Wow.” Whatever it was, I was seriously choking up. In that moment, I realized that Colors is not an album meant to be hyper-analyzed. It’s a project to be experienced. It’s like a modern art piece, an abstraction. Colors is not complex in one sense because Beck is specifically trying to achieve a feeling. In an Exclaim interview he said, “I just want to make something that, when you hear it, it just makes you happy.” The single “Wow” is a perfect example. Essentially, it’s three notes on a synth with a skeleton 808 beat. But when Beck croons, “Giddy up, giddy up...” I’m ready to drop whatever I’m doing and break out my worst white boy dance moves. There is no formula for generating a feeling. An artist has to discover how very simple parts fit together to move his listeners on an emotional level. In the opening title track, Beck confronts us with this provocative question: “All the colors, see the colors / Feel the colors / Tell me, do you feel alive?” Not are you alive, but do you feel alive? Are you seeing the colors? Are you just living life, or are you experiencing it with all of its emotional depth and beauty? The tracks of Colors are like the splashes of vibrant blue and yellow of the album’s cover art, meant to help us feel alive. Why is it that an artist can lay different sound frequencies over one another in a specific pattern and suddenly elicit joyful precipitation from my tear glands? Why does a twinkling star sound effect pushed through heavy reverb instantly make life feel a little less heavy? Why do I want to shout a nonsense lyric like, “You can hear me / From Topeka to Belize now”? It’s a mystery. And yet Beck achieved all of these feelings this past Sunday afternoon. “It just clicked.” That’s what we say when we can’t explain how everything came together so perfectly. Sometimes we call it an epiphany. The word comes from a Greek root that means “a sudden appearing.” Although Colors is not complex on a lyrical or musical level, it is complex on the abstract level. It manages to create the feeling that we get in moments like this past Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we can sense life … just clicking. The happiness of Beck’s Colors is richer for believe[...]

The Horrible Familiarity of Stranger Things


For the last year, a part of me has been stuck in the Stranger Things story. Stranger Posted on 11/02/17 For the last year, a part of me has been stuck in the Stranger Things story. Stranger Things opened a new world for me, and I’m not just talking about the “Upside Down”—the dark and evil abyss that swallowed young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) in season one. Certain pieces of art feel like a privilege for a generation to take part in, and Stranger Things has been like that for many of us. My heart was moved by the fierce bravery of a mother longing for her missing child; by the bond among childhood friends; and by the skepticism and yet unspoken hope of a small town's police chief as he investigates Will’s mysterious disappearance. Stranger Things captured the human experience as we live between the brokenness of this fallen world and an eternal hope that has been written on our hearts. When season one ended, I felt as if the whole world sat still. I’ve been anticipating Stranger Things season two ever since, especially since the finale left us with so many questions: how dead is Barb (Shannon Purser); why the heck is Will throwing up little slugs; and why is the sheriff hiding those Eggos!? Season two was released last week and many of you have probably binged the whole thing by this point. In the off chance that you haven’t, I’d encourage you to take it slow. After all, you will only experience Stranger Things season two for the first time once. We might as well savor the sweetness of reuniting with our favorite characters. Once again a bold, science-fiction color palette, reminiscent of the 1980s, is mixed with the dark and sinister feel of a Stephen King film from that same era. The show is both eerie and heartfelt, a weird and complex combination that ultimately evokes vulnerability. The musical score recalls both vintage sci-fi instrumentals and ’80s pop classics. The nostalgia is thick. Watching the first episode of this new season, I am thrown off at first by a car chase, fearful that season two will be a completely different storyline altogether. But then I see a familiar tattoo, revealed on the wrist of a stranger who appears to have telekinetic powers—just like Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the terrified, timid girl who escaped from a secret facility in season one and joined up with Will’s friends. A close-up reveals the numbers 008 and my intrigue is ignited: Is Eleven not the only one of her kind? Will we see a band of telekinetic women with shaved heads battle the monsters of the Upside Down? The appearance of 008 is not the only new factor at play in season two. I also see a new side to many of the returning characters. They seem to be carrying a burden, struggling to cope with the disturbances of their past. They are worn down by a fallen world and its harsh realities. And so coping mechanisms become a recurring theme. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), frayed by the search for her son, seeks normality in a new relationship. Hopper (David Harbour), the broken and gritty yet genuine police chief, is in full protection mode, quarantining Eleven in his home and reminding her, “We don’t take risks because risks are stupid and we are not stupid.” Will, who is now safe and sound, nevertheless struggles to rejoin a community that considers him a freak. Nancy (Natalia Dyer), the traumatized older sister of one of Will’s friends, gets wildly drunk, “pretending to be a stupid teenager,” while trying to deal with the death of her best friend Barb. The horror of these characters’ circumstances and the hurt they’ve suffered are beginning to take a toll. They are all just t[...]

The Divided Heart of Tyminski’s Southern Gothic


It’s rare that the first lyrics of the first song on a new album are enough to keep Posted on 10/31/17 It’s rare that the first lyrics of the first song on a new album are enough to keep me listening straight through. But Tyminski’s “Southern Gothic,” from the album of the same name, has done just that. Blackbird on the old church steeple Spanish moss hanging in the setting sun Every house has got a Bible and a loaded gun We've got preachers and politicians Round here it’s kinda hard to tell which one Is gonna do more talking with a crooked tongue Talk about a hook! Those six lines channel all of the best elements of Southern Gothic literature: spooky settings, decrepit architecture, twisted irony, shady characters, and a scathing rebuke. And he’s just getting started. “This town's got the Good Lord shakin' his head,” the man with the perfectly American tenor twang sings, “Lookin' down thinking we ain't heard a word he said.” Considering the scary misrepresentations of Christianity dominating the American political scene at the moment, we’re long overdue for an old-fashioned Southern Gothic critique. This unlikely mash-up of pop production, dance-y loops, twangy samples, and radio-ready hooks—along with Tyminski’s trademark voice and thoughtful, Christ-haunted lyrics—manages to work on both a commercial and prophetic level. Dan Tyminski cut his teeth in the roots group Lonesome River Band and later became a critical ingredient in Alison Kraus and Union Station’s success. He then hit the mainstream when he was cast as the singing voice of George Clooney’s character in O Brother, Where Art Thou. “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” from the soundtrack, took Americana music to an entirely new place and seemingly helped expand Tyminski’s imagination about the value of musical experimentation and reinvention. In 2013 he accepted an invitation from Swedish producer Avicii (Tim Bergling) to be the featured voice on an EDM/pop song called, interestingly, “Hey Brother.” Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that he’s decided to blend electro-pop production and a bluegrass aesthetic on Southern Gothic, his solo debut. In Tyminski’s hands, the results sound nothing like a novelty. Where pop country bands like Florida Georgia Line take the twang out of their music in order to sound more commercial, Tyminski leans as hard into his Americana roots vocally as he does into his programmed grooves. The tracks are boldly clubby, while Tyminski’s voice is as true as ever. In lesser hands this might come off as a gimmick, but Tyminski embraces the extremes—the pop and the twang—and finds a surprisingly effective thread connecting the two. Add in flawless melodies and lyrics that reflect real life and you have an album that crosses genre lines with intention and integrity. There are also theological implications to this sonic mash-up. In their incongruous construction, the tracks on Southern Gothic reflect the incongruity within the human heart. Tyminski is, effectively, a “double-minded man”—musically and lyrically. “Breathing Fire” works as an echo of Romans 7, where the Apostle Paul meditates on his sinful nature. (“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”) Locked into a stomping beat, his vocals stacked to the ceiling, Tyminksi expresses something similar: “Is it something in the water or just my DNA / That makes a Sunday morning saint out of this old piece of clay? / Do I make another promise or pray a sin[...]

Blue Bloods and the Spirit of the Law


There are simply too many cop shows. We are all familiar with their stereotypical Posted on 10/31/17 There are simply too many cop shows. We are all familiar with their stereotypical plotlines: a crime is committed, detectives search for clues, and after a red herring or a car chase, the bad guy is brought to justice. Is it possible to find a series that feels new instead of toilsome? Blue Bloods, starring Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg, subverts cop-and-robber motifs to instead offer a rich and authentic look into the lives of a close, Catholic family who has been in law enforcement for generations. The Reagans find that delicate balance between the word of the law and the spirit of the law, a calling which each family member enacts with conviction and excellence.   The Reagans, however, are far from a perfect family, and the show does not shy away from exposing their flaws. Rather, it amplifies them, weaving their shortcomings into a redemptive, overarching plot. Despite the obvious imperfections in the characters, I don’t feel mentally or emotionally exhausted after watching a few episodes in succession. Instead, I’m left with the reassurance that God doesn’t only call the saintly to do his work. The Christian life is one where sinners are redeemable, and even the deeply flawed can find God and be used by him. In one episode in particular, entitled “Leap of Faith,” the family's understanding of God is challenged when a witness claims to have heard a voice from heaven telling her that her mother had been murdered. The Reagans find themselves questioning whether God actually communes with individuals, especially because Danny (Wahlberg) feels his relationship with God is confined to Sunday mass. A memorable scene in this episode occurs when the family (all four generations) sits down to Sunday dinner and participates in a liturgical prayer. This is familiar to faithful viewers of Blue Bloods, as nearly every episode contains a supper full of close-ups and quick-witted dialogue, where the Reagans break bread together. These scenes demonstrate the heartbeat of the series, and the dinner in “Leap of Faith” is no exception. The family initially laughs off the idea that God would speak to a witness, but when they discuss prayer, the patriarch (Selleck) says that he has felt God speak to him. Most of the Reagans respond with skepticism. Does God really talk back to us when we pray? Does he ever commune with sinners? The religiosity of the Reagan family is met with a deep spirituality. I am struck by the echoing chords of God’s mercy when I watch this fictional yet strangely familiar family sit down to dinner. Blue Bloods does something spectacular here: it achieves an honest dialogue about the divide between religious practice and its real application to life, all without a hint of kitsch. This is why the Reagans are so refreshing to me; it’s exceedingly rare to find a popular television show that can explore hot-button themes like police brutality, racial profiling, and divorce while still maintaining characters who are redeemed in spite of these things. And it does so while avoiding the cheesiness that often accompanies the blatant exploration of Christian themes. Ultimately, Blue Bloods is a striking example of how flawed, hurting individuals can still do great good. The Reagans are governed by a higher sense of justice, one which is inextricably tied to their devout faith. Yet despite this faith, we still see them question God and his goodness in the face of a tangled, sinful world. Eventually, though, even the most skeptical of all the Reagan family members can be foun[...]

Five Solas, Five Films


One way of summarizing the distinctive Christian teachings that emerged 500 years ago with Posted on 10/30/17 One way of summarizing the distinctive Christian teachings that emerged 500 years ago with the Reformation is through a collection of Latin slogans known as the “five solas” (from the word sola, meaning “only” or “alone”). In regard to how salvation is achieved and received, the solas answer: sola Scriptura: “only by Scripture” sola fide: “only by faith” sola gratia: “only by grace” solus Christus: “Christ alone” soli Deo gloria: “glory to God alone” It can be tempting to regard these doctrinal statements as smug, ritual methods of self-congratulation, ways of saying, “Yup—those late-medieval Christians sure were wrong.” Yet the danger there is we begin to sound like the Pharisee of Luke 18. (“God, I thank you that I am not among the misguided...”) What if, instead, we were to take up the five solas as calls to the ongoing conversion of our own lives? Can we experience the five solas as fresh calls to sanctification here and now, as we open ourselves to the continually re-forming power of God’s Spirit moving among us? In order to engage in that kind of spiritual exercise, we need tools that can tell convicting stories in the languages and images of our contemporary cultural imagination. Here, then, is a reading of the five solas through five films. The Book of Eli | Sola Scriptura In The Book of Eli, the title character (Denzel Washington) makes his way across a postapocalyptic America, a hostile and illiterate wasteland burned out by an event referred to only as “the flash.” Although Eli is adept at fighting off the roving bandits who rule the land, he restrains himself from getting involved in saving other people. Even as he watches a helpless person being ravaged, he repeats to himself, “Stay on the path; it’s not your concern.” His path, as it turns out, involves carrying a Bible all the way across the country to the sea, where someone will be waiting who can put it to rightful use. Along the way Eli encounters a town boss ironically named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Unlike the historic Andrew Carnegie, the great patron of American libraries, this Carnegie is a sola Scriptura kind of guy: he has his goons on a specific search for a copy of the Bible. He is convinced that with it, he can control others. “It’s not a book,” Carnegie says, “it’s a weapon, a weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. ...People will do exactly what I tell ‘em as long as the words are from that book.” This offers a terrifying vision of what sola Scriptura, taken merely as a rallying cry and not as a call to continual counter-formation, can amount to: a single-minded focus on holding onto and exploiting the Bible’s authority to motivate and direct people toward one’s own purposes. In battling Carnegie and his henchmen, Eli discovers a seemingly paradoxical truth about Scripture: sometimes it is only possible to live into and pass on the Bible’s wisdom by giving up control of the book itself. As he says, “I got so caught up with keeping it safe that I forgot to live by what I learned from it.” Get on the Bus | Sola fide This Spike Lee film depicts 20 African-American men riding a charter bus from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for the 1995 Million Man March. The men represent a wide variety of political, social, and religious orientations: Muslim and C[...]