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No such thing as secular

Updated: 2017-06-21T14:00:00Z


‘The Keepers’ Delivers the Truth about Sex Abuse


Since it released last month, the documentary Netflix series The Keepers has been compared Posted on 06/21/17 Since it released last month, the documentary Netflix series The Keepers has been compared to Making a Murderer. Like that popular true-crime drama, The Keepers centers on the mysterious death of a young woman and the police’s inept response. But that’s where the comparison largely ends. The Keepers isn’t primarily interested in solving a murder case but in probing the mystery of evil: how it infects both individuals and entire institutions. As Christians know, from a human standpoint, that mystery is unsolvable. The Keepers centers on the death of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a young, beloved nun who taught at an all-girls Catholic high school in Baltimore. In the fall of 1969, she left the apartment she shared with another nun to buy an engagement present for her sister. She never returned. Two months later, Cesnik's body was found in the woods, and the killer was never identified. Cesnik’s case lie dormant until 1994, when a former student, “Jane Doe,” came forward with a shocking claim and a lawsuit: She had been raped for years by the high school chaplain, Father Joseph Maskell. According to Doe, Maskell took her to the woods to see Cesnik’s dead body, then said, “This is what happens when you talk.” Doe’s account is the lynchpin that connects Cesnik’s murder to the sex abuse and a seeming coverup. According to dozens of anonymous victims, who came forward after Doe and are interviewed here, the abuse involved other Catholic leaders, local businessmen, and police officers. Maskell’s abuse was particularly heinous in that he used a faux-spiritual rationale, telling victims that his actions would "purify" them. The Keepers includes repulsive descriptions of sexual depravity, and many viewers may not be able to stomach it. Maskell’s victims bear emotional and spiritual scars; some have left the church, while others struggle decades later with shame and anger. As did the excellent 2015 movie Spotlight, The Keepers takes an unflinching look at the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23) and how evil kept in the dark only grows and begets more evil. To quote a friend of mine whose community is dealing with its own abuse scandal, when sin is hidden out of fear, “it’s like taking rotten meat out of a pantry where it was hidden to avoid having to put it in the trash. Sin festers. It doesn’t just go away.” It’s worth remembering that God did not deal with human sin by simply making it “go away.” Rather, God dealt with it using the most extreme measures, by sending his Son to die a torturous death on the cross. Even while God has vanquished the power of sin and death once and for all, in this earthly life we still feel its consequences acutely, in ourselves and in our common life. In the already-and-not-yet, as we wait for God to put to rights all that is wrong in the world, he gives us measures of common grace. One of the most powerful forms of this grace in The Keepers is Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub. Two of Cesnik’s former students, they begin piecing together the mystery of her death and the abuse coverup as a labor of love. Here, investigative journalism is within the purview of anyone who cares to find the truth. In a time when much news media has devolved into snark and opinion, journalists who are committed to accuracy, diligence, and fairness—even if they aren’t getting paid for it—can provide an immeasurable gift to their neighbors and communities. One of the most powerful reasons well-meaning people don’t go to authorities with news of sexual abuse is fear that the news will tarnish their community’s reputation. Time and again, Christian leaders want to handle abuse "in-house" so that it doesn't get "bad press." This was a powerful dynamic in the Catholic Church scandal uncovered by The Boston Globe, and in sever[...]

What ‘Master of None’ and Thomas Kinkade Have in Common


“Going to Whole Foods, want me to pick up anything?” One of the most Posted on 06/19/17 “Going to Whole Foods, want me to pick up anything?” One of the most memorable lines from Master of None season two is never spoken. Instead, it’s a calculated text, recycled to a sea of potential online dates. In the context of comedian Aziz Ansari’s ripped-from-real-life narrative, it’s presented as a breath of fresh air amid a thousand “hey”s and “hi”s from other serial daters. Dev is a serial dater too, of course. Everyone in his world is. But Dev is different—or at least, that seems to be the message of “First Date,” the episode that follows Dev on a series of Tinder connections. Each date goes brutally wrong, ending badly because of the other person. Dev is presented as the helpless, sometimes hapless nice guy, a victim of his own sincerity and good faith. Master of None doesn’t present Dev as naive; throughout the show we see his genuine friendships and family relationships. We see idyllic meals, vacations, and strolls down the street, punctuated by rousing and enlightening conversation. In these contexts, Dev’s words seem as calculated as that opening text message. They are equal parts kind, interesting, and undeniably effective. For instance, when his friend Denise confesses to him that it's hard being a lesbian in a black family (“Everything’s a contest for us, and your kids are your trophies. Me being gay is like tarnishing her trophy”), young Dev assures her that he doesn’t agree. “There’s plenty of straight trophies. I think it’s cool,” he replies. While Master of None sometimes acknowledges Dev’s faults in small ways, he is largely presented as a good-hearted kid up against the world. Dissatisfaction and loneliness stem not from his flaws and boneheaded relational moves, but from the world out there. In fact, Dev’s various comfort zones have the warm feeling of a cocoon. To me, they called to mind what some of our parents must have felt when they gazed at a Thomas Kinkade painting of brightly lit cabins and inviting landscapes. Kinkade once said of his work, “It's not the world we live in. It's the world we wished we live in.” Kinkade was self-aware enough to note that his art was always aspiration, not reality. By contrast, Ansari’s breakthrough series seems more concerned with proving that such a world is within our grasp, if only everyone were just cool to each other. Master of None is a convincing and well-crafted model of a sentimentalism you may have seen espoused through Twitter bromides. Declarations assure us that “love wins.” Online community guidelines simply inform users, “Don’t be a jerk.” Pointless Facebook drama is wrangled with an exhortation to “be cool to one another.” This leads to a host of relational implications, of course. God gives us relationships not merely to encourage us but also to sanctify us. In ways that go far beyond “iron sharpens iron,” our friends and family are in our lives not always to make things easier and more comfortable, but to challenge us. We see commandments, allusions, and models throughout Scripture of this principle: the Proverbs warn us against becoming enraptured by our own wisdom, and the prophet Nathan’s confrontation of David shows us how crucial it is to have someone willing to speak truth to us. Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples seem to have been chosen for their diversity of approaches and opinions. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he didn’t merely leave them on their own. He left them, in a sense, pitted against one another. They had to learn to work together in spite of their differences. Modern bromides suggest that if you have a friend who doesn’t love you exactly as you are, you should dump them, for th[...]

George Saunders Imagines Life After Death


George Saunders has made a career out of telling stories about people who are caught in Posted on 06/15/17 George Saunders has made a career out of telling stories about people who are caught in the gears of the universe. Ensnared in events and social systems far bigger than any individual, his characters either conform themselves to the machine or get ground up by it. That may sound like a recipe for a po-faced wallow in misery. But the magic of a Saunders short story—captured in his 2013 collection, Tenth of December, and in his 1996 debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline—lies in his ability to good-humoredly trace the contours of typical humanity amid the absurd. A Saunders character works at a Civil War-themed amusement park that’s haunted by the ghosts of a pioneer family, but like anyone else, he worries about his mortgage. Whether they are extraordinary pushovers or everyday monsters, his characters follow the same fantasies we all occasionally indulge: fantasies of purchasing the winning lottery ticket or accomplishing spectacular feats of heroism. All of us have our own stories continuously unspooling inside our minds; in most of these stories, we and no one else is the central character. Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’s new novel (his first), features ghosts inhabiting a graveyard who have all the time in the world to tell and retell their stories to one another. Like the denizens of Dante’s Inferno, these spirits are eager to rehash their memories, and unwilling to accept that life has been taken from them. Their graveyard is more a purgatory than an inferno; the “bardo” of the title refers to the Buddhist concept of a limbo state between one life and the next. But there’s still plenty of lamentation to go around. A trio of ghosts serves as the novel’s protagonists and a Greek chorus of sorts, narrating events and commenting on their fellow specters. But when their stasis is interrupted by the arrival of Willie Lincoln—the son of Abraham Lincoln—these unquiet spirits are forced to confront the facts of their circumstances. Lincoln in the Bardo is remarkably ambitious. Alongside Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, it signals a new strain of American mythmaking about the Civil War and the legacy of the slave trade. Beyond that, it exhibits a spiritual imagination that Christian readers can give thanks for. To be sure, very little of Bardo’s afterlife accords with orthodox Christianity. Yet Saunders’s exploration of the mysteries surrounding death and eternity feels right, somehow, in a way that’s difficult to articulate. From its opening pages, the novel establishes a solemn mood; Saunders does not approach his subject matter flippantly. At the same time, he uses humor and surreality to suggest that he holds lightly to his imagined version of purgatory. This spirit of seriousness leavened with playfulness invites us to engage with his speculative afterlife in the same spirit. The novel develops the quality of a myth, in the vein of classics from C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. For Lewis and Tolkien, the word myth denotes not a falsehood but rather a truth that is best understood through a story. In his essay “Myth Became Fact,” Lewis writes, “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.” For the earthbound, still-living reader, what could be more abstract than the experience of being dead? Who can imagine what it’s really like to stand before Christ on his judgment seat? (In one of Bardo’s standout chapters, Saunders offers an astonishing vision of what divine judgment might feel like.) Lovers of storytelling—especially Christians, redeemed and set free—should welcome the chance to experience these things, even if in an imperfect, clo[...]

A Muslim Comedian’s Search for Belonging in America


Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King—a new Netflix comedy stand-up special—is a Posted on 06/13/17 Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King—a new Netflix comedy stand-up special—is a series of stories held together by a common thread: a search for belonging while caught between two cultures. Minhaj is the American-born child of Indian immigrants, and a comic perhaps best known for his comments at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He was raised by his dad for the first eight years of his life. His mother returned to India shortly after he was born to finish medical school. Upon her return to the United States, she brings a daughter, Ayesha. With touching hilarity, Minhaj recounts the unique experience of growing up with an immigrant father and finding out he has a little sister. The adolescent Minhaj loves his family but is acutely aware of how their food, clothing, and love of Zee TV (an Indian cable channel) make them different. He’s Indian-American, but to some Americans, including neighbors in Davis, California, he will always be “other.” Minhaj longs to belong, but his dual identity leaves him without a firm footing. Minhaj recounts the day after 9/11, when someone calls the Minhaj house and calls his dad a “sand n*****,” then busts the windows out of their family’s car. As Minhaj watches in stunned silence, his father calmly sweeps the glass from the street. He questions the fairness of having to endure these hate crimes while having his patriotism questioned because of his skin color and religion (Islam). While his dad feels that racism is the price immigrants must pay for living in America, Minhaj believes he has the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as any other American. Minhaj is of course right: he’s an American simply by nature of his birth and thus can be assured that he “belongs.” Likewise, Christians belong to God and each other simply by nature of their belonging to Christ (Rom. 8). As we are born again, we are given a secure place in heaven (1 Pet. 1:4) and within the body of Christ. Yet we, like Minhaj, often struggle to receive and live into this truth. Minhaj recounts a saga that began in high school when he befriends Bethany Reed, a white girl who has recently moved to Davis from Nebraska. They become best friends, and she asks him to be her prom date. But when Minhaj arrives at her house on prom night, her parents tell him that they have a different plan; they are worried that there will be a lot of pictures sent to family in Nebraska, and that he isn’t “a good fit.” Years later, Minhaj tells his dad what happened; his dad implores him to forgive Bethany. He recognizes that her parents were afraid for their daughter. As a dad, he identifies with the desire to protect one’s children from the unknown and the ridicule of those within your tribe. Minhaj’s father tells him he must “be brave, that his courage to do what is right has to be greater than his fear of getting hurt.” Fear is always a barrier to belonging. But just one brave choice to do the right thing can lead to generational change. Minhaj learns from his father, and Bethany—who later stands up to her mom after she meets another Indian man—that love is always greater than fear. Early on Minhaj asks his dad if there is something that unites all humans beyond race, class, color, and creed, as his father initially rejects his son’s choice to marry a Hindu woman due to centuries of hostility between Hindus and Muslims. He does not tell us how his father responds, but as Christians, we know the answer to Minhaj’s question. In Christ, we are given a place in a new tribe by nature of our relationship with the Son of God. In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female (Gal. 3:28). But we don’t always [...]

Wonder Woman and the Search for Female Role Models


“They don’t want us to be priests. They want us to be obedient nuns.” Posted on 06/12/17 “They don’t want us to be priests. They want us to be obedient nuns.” That was actress Angelica Huston in 2015, telling The New York Times that the film industry is “kind of like the church” when it comes to women leaders. In the two years prior to that interview, women had composed only 1.9 percent of the directors of the 100 top-grossing films. Since the interview, the numbers have shrunk even more. The recent release of Wonder Woman, with its historic pairing of a superheroine (played by Gal Gadot) and a female director (Patty Jenkins), has released a barrage of think pieces and reviews. Such conversations about female empowerment and gender inequality echo a conversation Huston not-so-subtly alluded to. Both women in film and in churches and ministries who want to lead face a sheer lack of representation. Consider the statistics above concerning female directors; consider also the recent Barna Group research that found “large numbers of Americans embrace the presence of female leadership at work and in politics, [but] they are least comfortable, comparatively, with women leading the church.” A woman who aspires to direct films—or who aspires to lead in a local church setting—may not always see people who look like her behind the camera or at the front of the church. Hence the relief and excitement that accompanies a discovery of a mentor, a role model, or a figure doing just what she wants to do in her field. As Arise editor Rachel Asproth writes of her first time hearing a woman preach, “Seeing a woman in the pulpit was a powerful confirmation of my prophetic authority and capacity for leadership.” Likewise, many moviegoers saw Wonder Woman as an empowering, even emotional, experience, and why they are thrilled that young girls can see Diana Prince as a superhero who kicks butt and also looks like them. Well, sort of. For all of the critical conversations it’s stirred, Wonder Woman remains flawed in part because of the seeming flawlessness of its title character. Sure, we can identify with Diana’s frustration at the compromises of war, at the “selective outrage” we mere mortals often rely on to avoid burnout. But how many of us can really identify with an Amazonian demigoddess? As Alicia Cohn writes for Christianity Today, “What Jenkins has not created . . . is a relatable female superhero . . . She loves, apparently, but without any of the mess we mortals endure in our relationships. She even has impeccable taste in non-Amazonian clothes.” For Christina Cauterucci, writing at Slate, "by the time the action got too fast-paced and loud for any more characters to marvel at Diana’s fine bod and bone structure, I was about an hour past being sick of the ‘sexy lady is also hypercompetent’ joke.” It seems even a female-directed, female-led superhero movie in 2017 can’t entirely avoid the stereotypes. At the end of the day, though, perhaps we can take Wonder Woman as simply a step in the right direction—a smaller step than many might have hoped, but a step nonetheless. Similarly, women leaders in the church can find plenty of cause for discouragement, as stereotypes and unrealistic expectations abound there, too. Yet we can also reexamine the Barna statistics and see that “the percentage of Protestant senior pastors who are women, though still small (9%), is triple the percentage of 25 years ago.” We can see steps in the right direction, however small they might be. The temptation at this point is to let those steps stop because women have made some progress in the world of film and church ministry alike. We might hear voices saying, “Isn’t that enough for now? Shouldn’t you be satisfied?” [...]

Impact Winter and the Limits of Our Created Bodies


If I’ve learned nothing else from survival games, I have learned this: we may dream Posted on 06/07/17 If I’ve learned nothing else from survival games, I have learned this: we may dream of romantic comedies, perfect sunset beaches, and thrill-a-minute action stories, but we live in the mundane. Eat, drink, work, sleep. Every day the same, and every day, largely ignored. Sometimes it takes a game to highlight the importance of these things—and help us appreciate the goodness that God has given us in those mundane moments. It may seem strange to learn such things from an entry in the relatively new survival game genre, but that’s one of the things I took away from Impact Winter. The apocalypse story here involves a giant meteor that has smashed into the earth (in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, of all places), blowing so much dust into the atmosphere that it plunged the world into deep, permanent winter, killing billions. The game player controls Jacob, the leader of a small group of five survivors holed up in a church, waiting for rescue after receiving a garbled radio promise of help in 30 days. The game consists of traversing a frigidly beautiful snowscape, looting buried houses, hospitals, airports, and cars for the stuff of life. Each character needs food, drink, warmth, and sleep. Assisted by the all-purpose floating robot AKO-Light, Jacob must explore further and further away from home base at the church as he exhausts the supplies of nearby locations. Trudging through the snow is itself an exhausting activity—never mind having to fend off attacks from wild animals. This is also a crafting game: if Jacob collects the right parts, the people back in the church can build, say, a better furnace. What this means in practice is that the game is about constantly chasing things we take for granted in our daily lives. Those of us living comfortable lives in the developed world assume we’ll always have sufficient food, that we can get healthy running water whenever we’re thirsty, and that the central heating or cooling will keep us comfortable. We don’t give it a second thought. But in Impact Winter, the reality of the human condition becomes abundantly clear. I might want to hunt down components for an ice melter to supply hydration, but will my food supply last long enough for me to do that? This is a difficult game (and, I should note, a bit buggy right now; if you’re interested, you might want to wait for another game update to be released by the developer). Every act becomes a negotiation with the requirements of life, highlighting the things our technologically advanced society struggles to efface so that our lives can be a non-stop pursuit of less mundane experiences. In a strange way, the constant attending to physical needs reminded me of how we are designed as humans. We are no angels, no pure spiritual beings. God built us with bodies, which became corrupted after the fall. And while the needs of our stomachs might seem at times like irritants or maybe even burdens, God made us to enjoy the sensation of a cool breeze on a hot day, to savor the taste and prickly bubbles of an iced orange pop, to delight in the sweet crunch of a crisp grape. As the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” Impact Winter also made me consider the role of hope amidst the mundane. As good as such things are, eating and drinking and sleeping with no end would, as we also learn from Ecclesiastes, be meaningless. In Impact Winter, hope means rescue from the unending snowdrifts and haunted houses of a destroyed town. This is a compelling element in the game, and one common to many of our popular narratives, but still of a limited[...]

Movies Are Prayers


My first article for Think Christian was a fumbling attempt to ask if a pair of grim movie Posted on 06/06/17 My first article for Think Christian was a fumbling attempt to ask if a pair of grim movie heroes from 2008—Batman of The Dark Knight and James Bond of Quantum of Solace—were worthy representatives of the biblical notion of righteous anger. I’m not sure I offered a good answer (or even phrased the question in a compelling way), as the piece was an early attempt to bring explicitly Christian reflection to my film criticism. On June 13 InterVarsity Press will publish my first book, Movies Are Prayers, which hopefully reflects greater aptitude for such a task than that first TC article. I had the germ of the idea for this book back in 2008, but was in no way qualified to write it. I needed a few more years to figure out what it meant to write about movies through the lens of my faith. After becoming editor of Think Christian in 2011 I was able to learn on the job, exploring alongside other contributors what it means to think Christianly about contemporary culture, including the films we watch. Movies Are Prayers certainly isn’t the final word on how to do this in relation to the cinema. But it’s my best attempt yet, in which I explore the idea that prayer can be expressed by anyone and can take place everywhere, even in movie theaters. I examine dozens of seemingly secular films, revealing how—in both form and theme—they function as various forms of Christian prayer: praise, lament, anger, confession, and more. Here’s an excerpt, in which I suggest that Field of Dreams can be seen as a prayer of obedience: It is popular cinema’s most familiar command, perhaps even more so than Charlton Heston’s Moses demanding, “Let my people go!” Standing in his corn field, surrounded by lush green leaves and the warm embrace of an early evening sun, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) hears a whisper: “If you build it, he will come.”                 Field of Dreams, in which Iowa stands in for heaven, depicts one man’s spiritual journey of prayerful obedience. Given a vision of a baseball diamond, Ray decides to build a full-scale field on his farm, complete with bleachers and lights. Doing so is a considerable sacrifice, considering corn could be grown on the land, yet Ray obeys. “I have just created something totally illogical,” he says, surveying the perfectly manicured grass and straight white lines with a grin. His neighbors aren’t as amused, and their disdain is a reminder that Christian obedience often doesn’t make sense to an outside world that operates on a different set of rules. Eventually, someone does come: Shoeless Joe Jackson himself (Ray Liotta), along with a number of other players who were banned from baseball after being accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. Having been stuck in some sort of purgatory, they find freedom on Ray’s field, able to play their beloved sport once again. Director Phil Alden Robinson lends a hushed holiness to these scenes, as the men reverently toss a ball back and forth under the soft glow of the field’s lights, a deepening dusk rising from the surrounding cornfields. It’s a magical moment. Even if you don’t care a bit for baseball (and I gave up the game around age ten, when it consisted of long lonely stretches in right field and being beaned at the plate by errant, pip-squeak pitchers) Field of Dreams makes you feel what one character describes as “the thrill of the grass." Later in the film, Ray receives other commands: “Ease his pain.” “Go the distance.” Following each one leads to a certain peace for others, as happened with Shoeless Joe, while Ray plays[...]

Paramore’s Sugar-Pop Sadness


Paramore’s latest release, After Laughter, is a fascinating contradiction. On one Posted on 06/06/17 Paramore’s latest release, After Laughter, is a fascinating contradiction. On one hand, it sparkles and shines like the best pop music. On the other hand, the lyrics paint a grim picture of pain, doubt, and failure. It’s a bitter pill wrapped in corn-syrup bliss. For a work with so much going on, however, it still comes up short in a few ways. Sadly, I think that is intentional. If you’re looking for a collection of songs to play at your next pool party, you could do worse than this unapologetically ’80s-sounding set. Considering that none of the band members were more than toddlers in that decade, they do a convincing job of channeling its most synthetic and hooky overtones. The influence of acts like The Fixx, Oingo Boingo, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Human League, and INXS range from subtle to obvious, but are all filtered through a genuinely modern lens. Even at their punk/emo best, Paramore has always been a pop band at heart. These loops and samples just make it official. And make no mistake, Paramore knows what they are doing. The first four or five times I spun After Laughter it gave me a happy feeling, like I was back in high school hanging out with my friends. But then the record’s split personality started to gurgle to the surface. Suddenly other high-school emotions came to mind and I ran to the bathroom to check my face for pimples. For all of After Laughter’s saccharine joy, the lyrics paint a deeply disturbing and profoundly sad picture of a young woman barely able to keep her head above the flood waters. Not since Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now” has pop music so craftily disguised a mental breakdown as fodder for a dance party. Chief lyricist and frontwoman Hayley Williams seems to be crying for help. Anxiety, fear, self-loathing, resentment, anger, apathy, hopelessness, and cynicism are explored, confessed, and at times even embraced. Williams seems determined to convince you that she is truly miserable, and she and the band use some of the most uplifting and catchy music to ironically accompany the message. It’s like a jelly donut filled with blood, and once the darkness catches up to the sugar, the effect is dizzying. Williams and various other on-and-off members of Paramore have been at this for 15 years now, which is actually more than half of their lives. As such, After Laughter offers an interesting perspective on the emptiness of celebrity in the social-media age of millennials. The band’s well-documented internal struggles, member changes, relationship challenges, and even lawsuits have been lived out online. As with their other releases, After Laughter functions as a sort of musical status update. Whereas their earlier work, perhaps shaped by their Christian backgrounds, seemed to offer a “hang in there/be true to yourself” kind of aspirational hope, this set seems doomed to be accompanied by a fuming, weeping emoji that happens to be wearing a Devo hat and a Cyndi Lauper t-shirt. The early Paramore song “We Are Broken,” from their 2007 album Riot!, acknowledged a need for healing and hope in the form of a desperate prayer to a God with “arms like towers.” In that song Williams reflects the long tradition of psalmic lament. She describes brokenness and yet resolves to cling to something bigger than her pain. The song echoes King David, hiding in a cave, singing about hiding in the shelter of God’s wings. The saddest thing about After Laughter is that there seems to be nothing bigger than the pain. There is no shadow to hide in. Being honest about pain is important. Refusing to sugarcoat the struggles of life is one of the key differences between tho[...]

The Gospel Romance of Everything, Everything


In an especially poignant passage of Song of Songs, Solomon's bride declares, Posted on 06/05/17 In an especially poignant passage of Song of Songs, Solomon's bride declares, “Love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.” I can think of no better words to describe the most important takeaway of Stella Meghie's charming new film Everything, Everything. For in this winsome teen romance, based on the bestselling novel by Nicola Yoon, the pursuit of love literally is a matter of life and death—and it’s a bittersweet, beautiful thing to watch. Eighteen-year-old Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) suffers from a rare immunodeficiency that basically renders her “allergic to everything.” For as long as she can remember, she's lived an isolated existence in a specially constructed, clinically sterile home, where her mother (Anika Noni Rose) serves as her personal physician and tends to her daily needs with the help of a private nurse (Ana de la Reguera). But when handsome Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door and the two become infatuated with each other via playful text messages and clandestine meetings, Maddy decides that she can no longer countenance the wearisome protection of life in quarantine. Yearning to live “one perfect day” in the real world, she coaxes Olly to accompany her on an impromptu trip to Hawaii to visit the beaches she has longed to see—an impassioned getaway that both realize may end in tragedy. It would be difficult to say more without spoiling things, so I won't. But many of the film's most beautiful (and heartbreaking) scenes occur after Maddy decides to flee the controlled sanctuary of her home. In one of my favorites, she stands with Olly at the precipice of a cliff, preparing to jump into the ocean along the Hawaiian coast. Though Maddy desperately wants to do this, she balks at the height—a delightfully ironic response, given that she's already done something far more dangerous simply by coming here at all. To bolster her courage, Olly offers to go first. “See you at the bottom,” he says, leaping into the water. As he surfaces with a triumphant “Woo!” and beckons her to follow, we watch Maddy's expression morph from timid uncertainty to joyous abandon. When she finally jumps, we realize that this scene isn’t about Maddy overcoming her fear of heights. It’s about the terrifying, glorious bliss of falling in love. It’s about her reckless courage in doing whatever it takes to be with the one she loves, even if it’s only for a little while. Cliché? Sure. But this isn’t a movie that aims to challenge stereotypes. It’s the kind that invites you to simply revel in the fantasy. The saccharine romance it depicts, after all, is exactly the sort many of us dreamed about in the days of our youth, before we became too “grown up” to believe in such things. But while human relationships often fail to live up to our fanciful standards, that kind of love most certainly does exist—in the perfection of God’s character. Indeed, it’s because we’re made in God’s image that we can even conceive of the kind of love we see in a melodramatic flick like this; and as Song of Songs reminds us, all noble love stories are signposts of the everlasting love with which God relentlessly pursues a relationship with his people. That’s why seeing Maddy and Olly go to such extravagant lengths to be together makes me think about the extraordinary measures by which God makes it possible for sinners to approach him in their spiritual infirmity. There’s a key difference between these two stories, though. In Everything, Everything, it’s Maddy—the sick on[...]

U2 Sings the Gospel on Jimmy Kimmel Live!


U2—all four members—made an extended interview appearance on Jimmy Kimmel

Posted on


U2—all four members—made an extended interview appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week, promoting their 30th anniversary Joshua Tree tour. We’ll soon have a reflection on the tour itself from TC’s John J. Thompson, who is attending in Chicago this weekend, but for now we wanted to share the interview, as well as the band’s impromptu performance of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Early on in the interview, Kimmel describes attending a U2 concert as “a religious experience,” which is no surprise to those of us well-versed in their Christian background. The conversation itself doesn’t turn toward faith, at least until Bono introduces “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as “a gospel song with a restless spirit.” Be sure to keep listening to hear the Selah Gospel Choir, who was seated with the audience, help the band turn Jimmy Kimmel Live! into a church service. After all, it’s not every night on a major talk show that you hear lyrics like this:

I believe in the Kingdom Come

Then all the colours will bleed into one

Bleed into one.

But yes, I'm still running.


You broke the bonds

And you loosed the chains

Carried the cross of my shame

Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

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Is Hulu’s The Path Any Stranger Than Our Own Faith?


Aaron Paul may have top billing in The Path, a Hulu original series, but the real star of Posted on 06/01/17 Aaron Paul may have top billing in The Path, a Hulu original series, but the real star of the show is the cult known as the Meyerist Movement. A combination of New Age conceits and 1960s drug culture, Meyerism is a fictional religious movement about how the “Light” will save people from their damage and grant them eternity in a “Garden.” Meyerists believe the path to salvation involves climbing a spiritual ladder, which manifests as literal rungs of maturity and leadership, from 1R up to 10R. Daily life is completely transparent and devoted to helping others unburden from their damage—with the help of hallucinogens and outdated, electro-stimulation devices. For those who grew up outside of a particular religious tradition, The Path might feel more like a comedy than a drama, considering the strangeness of the practices it depicts. Even those of us who have grown up in the church feel the instinct to laugh while watching. The show’s commitment to making Meyerism believable often includes rituals and language that seem silly. Outsiders, for instance, are referred to as “the I.S.” (Ignorant Systemites). In the Meyerist lingo, followers “offset” (atone) a “transgress” (sin) by planting trees. They also strengthen each other by “sending Light” with raised hands. During one Meyerist gathering, a character unburdens how her dad used to sell her to other men for sex. So one of the leaders comforts her with a song: Carry each other to the Light I’ll carry you, you carry me We will carry each other to the Light, oh Light The congregants soon join in and the cheesy chorus continues as the scene shifts to another character rescuing an I.S. kid from a drug den and “carrying him to the Light.” At first I snickered at all of this, and at the gullibility of the characters who believe it. Yet then another song popped into my head: Would I have turned and walked away And laughed at what He had to say And casually dismissed Him as a fraud Unaware that I was staring at the image of my God Nichole Nordeman wrote “Wide Eyed” about mocking the strange practices of other religions and wondering whether she would have done the same to Jesus. There’s nothing strange to us about following a man who claimed to be God. In The Path, one character scoffs at the Meyerists’ beliefs, prompting another to respond that his wife believes in a virgin birth. The first character replies, “Yeah, but that actually happened.” But believing that we’re right doesn’t make our beliefs any less strange. In fact, when we seek to prove our faith, it often seems like we’re trying to prove that our faith isn’t unusual. We want the world to know how logical and historically factual Christianity is, but none of that changes the fact that we believe some extraordinary things. Not only do we believe in a virgin birth, we believe that a child grew up as both fully God and fully man, and that he died and rose from the dead. Nothing about that isn’t strange. And that’s precisely what makes it so beautiful. The people in The Path who join Meyerism are usually broken, confused, and looking for answers. What they find beyond a cathartic unburdening session and a loving community is the wonder of something totally other, something transcendent. If God gave us a longing for eternity, then wonder will never be far from the human heart. The beautiful strangeness of Christianity is its promise that there is more to this life in the life of a man who, by all accounts, should still be d[...]

Moana and Knowing the Way


Questions of human identity are as old as literature and as contemporary as the local Posted on 05/31/17 Questions of human identity are as old as literature and as contemporary as the local multiplex. One of the more encouraging recent explorations of identity appeared in Disney’s Moana, particularly in one of the movie’s signature songs, “We Know the Way.” Moana tells the story of a young Polynesian girl’s rediscovery of her past. In that discovery, Moana finds her identity through tradition, place, and the search for home. Her grandmother asks Moana, “Do you know who you are?” Over the course of the movie, Moana discovers the answer. “We Know the Way,” written by Opetaia Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda, is sung over a flashback that teaches Moana who her people used to be, before a fear of the open ocean kept them constrained to their island. Once, they had been a proud nation of seafarers. Their exploration took place within a tradition. In the flashback, a captain sings, “We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain.” As explorers they practiced certain navigational crafts which told the sailors their place: “At night we label the stars, we know where we are.” The song goes on to connect the categories of place and identity: “We know where we are / We know who we are, who we are.” The repetition of “we know who we are” emphasizes the message about identity. The captain’s song teaches who these people are; their essence is to roam the sea. And yet, they do not abandon the importance of home. As they find new places, they “keep our island in our mind / And when it’s time to find home / We know the way.” In this song, the tradition of elders, the location of oneself in a particular place, and knowing the way home all contribute to identity. The imagery accompanying the music highlights the value of knowing one’s tradition. As the song begins, Moana is alone in a dark cave full of discarded canoes. But as the flashback gets underway, we see the vivid blue sea being crossed by a whole community engaged in exploration. In contrast to her isolation in the darkness, Moana sees how her people once lived together, in the light, pursuing their craft of seafaring. By the end of the movie, Moana recognizes herself as “the girl who loves my island, and the girl who loves the sea.” Situating herself within the tradition of her people, the crafts of ages past, and reconciling her love of home with the urge to explore, she sings “I Am Moana!” Of course, questions of human identity go even further back than the oldest literature. The kind of identity Moana discovers parallels the identity God gives his highest creation in Genesis. The first humans are made in a particular place (Eden), given a network of relationships to each other and to their Creator (marriage and fellowship), and a set of practices which enable flourishing (stewarding the garden). While the man and woman work the garden and enjoy it without violating the sole restriction, it is their home. Neither Adam nor Eve find happiness in making their own identity, but instead in receiving their identity through their place in creation. Such identity, according to Andy Crouch, does not diminish human worth, but rather connects it to a purpose. In Culture Making: Rediscovering our Creative Calling, Crouch contends that God placed human beings in a world (our place) filled with potential and commanded them to cultivate it (through our traditions). This work involves transforming the potential into the real. In this way, Crouch argues, even taking the potential of eggs a[...]

Twin Peaks’ Spiritual Warfare


When Twin Peaks recently returned to Showtime with its first new episode in nearly 26 Posted on 05/30/17 When Twin Peaks recently returned to Showtime with its first new episode in nearly 26 years, fans experienced something both familiar and perplexing. No moment better captured this sensation than when detectives in Buckhorn, S.D., arrest Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard), a respected and affable high-school principal, for the brutal murder of a librarian with whom he was having an affair. Lillard plays Hastings as a man of moral fortitude, even as crime-scene evidence undermines his innocence. Worse, Bill admits that, on the night of the murder, he visited the librarian’s apartment in a dream. Longtime Peaks fans have seen this before, as the original two seasons centered on the killing of beloved prom queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) at the hands of an upstanding citizen who was admired by neighbors. That investigation by Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) uncovered years of sexual abuse and violence within the titular logging town. Stories about idyllic communities with dark secrets were already cliché when the Peaks pilot aired in 1990, but creators Mark Frost and David Lynch distinguished their vision by placing it within a supernatural cosmology. This paranormal aspect spawned some of the series’ most memorable characters: the dancing, backwards-speaking little person (Michael J. Anderson); The Giant (Carel Struycken), who warns Agent Cooper of duplicitous owls; and, of course, the demonic Killer Bob (originally played by Frank Silva), who made good men into murderers and might be now controlling Bill Hastings.   Twin Peaks fuses the natural and spiritual by making mundane settings feel otherworldly, such as the suburban living room in the “Lonely Souls” episode of season two. Lynch increases the horror by filling the soundtrack with the mechanical rhythm of a needle bumping against the end of a record. He holds his camera far too long on a hallway and a ceiling fan, making their banality seem sinister, before shining a literal spotlight on a white horse and then on the victim. These details suggest a supernatural presence within the everyday, yet the series never clarifies what people do through Killer Bob’s manipulation and what they do of their own volition. We simply know that hidden indiscretions allow Bob influence over his agents. Given Lynch’s signature use of dream logic, it’s neither useful nor satisfying to attempt a coherent statement about the metaphysics of Twin Peaks. The series works on an intuitive level. As I watch, I’m reminded of the warnings made by the first apostles against giving “a foothold” to the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion.” Paul develops this notion in 2 Corinthians 10, which teaches the church to use weapons that are spiritual, not worldly. The former, he explains, begins with one’s mental life, and he urges readers to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” More than a mere set of boundaries, this admonition builds upon the concept of rebirth that Paul introduced earlier in the letter, when he declared, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here.” As a new creation, transformed by the Holy Spirit, our thoughts and deeds should be in accordance with Christ. With its harrowing violence and surreal imagery, Twin Peaks demonstrates that even the most covert wrongs on the spiritual level can lead to serious harm. At the same time, the series also celebrates acts of kindness and grace, no matter how trite. Square-jawed Agent Co[...]

The Helpless Horror of House of Cards


When I watch House of Cards I feel trapped. I’m trapped on the wrong side of the Posted on 05/26/17 When I watch House of Cards I feel trapped. I’m trapped on the wrong side of the screen. I’m roaring inside my head at the ignorance of the unsuspecting characters who are being manipulated by Frank and Claire Underwood, the exquisitely seductive First Family played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. The Underwoods are twisted at their core. They parcel out horror in a matter-of-fact, genteel way that feels like they’re talking to a neighbor about the weather. House of Cards fits the cliche: it’s so terrible you cannot turn away. This irresistible appeal is why Netflix will usher in its fifth season of the wildly popular political drama next week. The masterful use of soliloquy is part of the show’s brilliance and why it’s often described as Shakespearean. As the viewer, it feels like you live with the Underwoods. Frank talks to you like a friend. He considers you smart and informed, on his side of managing an ignorant populace. He shares his atrocities with you and takes a break from murder and violence just long enough to wink and offer an anecdote. At times you may even begin to like him, or at least identify with him. It’s a queasy feeling. Spacey can deliver soliloquies like few other actors. He’s a genius at speaking directly to the audience and keeping us glued to the screen. Yet the dark lighting and the occasional close-ups, which betray the slightest flinch on Underwood’s face, tell us he cannot be trusted. As the viewer, you are given knowledge and insight, but you cannot use it to save the peripheral characters you begin to care for throughout the series. A House of Cards fan must wrestle with both this trapped, anxious feeling and the nagging question, “Could this really happen?” At the conclusion of each episode you cannot help but take a breath and begin to look around at our own political realities. You notice both the subtle and overt abuses of power that happen in the real world and you wonder: which side of the screen am I really on? Who is talking to me (or manipulating me) for the sake of amassing their power? In a Washington Post interview, House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon said that while clearly the storylines on the series are exaggerated, “More often than not, people from Washington have said time and time again it’s one of the more accurate portrayals of Washington.” Political leadership around the world and throughout history has been marked by power-hungry influencers whose true motives are difficult to know. In Playing God, Andy Crouch writes that, “Power at its worst is the unmaker of humanity—breeding inhumanity in the hearts of those who wield power, denying and denouncing the humanity of the ones who suffer under power.” To be certain, there have been many a martyr and leader who led with great humility and a detachment from the allure of power, but this seems to be the exception to the rule. The Bible holds a vast collection of abuses of power by kings, queens, politicians, and wannabes. Within its pages we read of real-life Frank Underwoods with blood on their hands and we can only holler at the screen. House of Cards captures the thirst for power and control that has eroded the soul of humanity and fueled terror for millennia. Leadership around the world and throughout history has been infected by corruption and the influence of selfish motives. Of course, none of us is immune to this corruption. And so House of Cards poses another chilling question: “What would I do with that so[...]

Brad Paisley, Chris Stapleton, and Carrying Willie Nelson’s Torch


“I woke up still not dead again, today.” So jokes one of the last living Posted on 05/24/17 “I woke up still not dead again, today.” So jokes one of the last living treasures of classic Americana music, Willie Nelson, on his latest album, God’s Problem Child. His wry promise (“Still Not Dead”), framed in perfectly understated and traditional Texas country sounds, assures the listener that—despite Internet rumors to the contrary—the Red Headed Stranger is not dead yet. I just saw Nelson a few weeks ago, actually, as the brightest star in a tribute performance of the songs of his good friend, Merle Haggard. He sang a gospel song with Keith Richards, but that’s a whole other story. Hearing this excellent collection of new recordings from Nelson, however, reminds me that it’s not only Willie whose days may be numbered. Country radio has never sounded less “country” than it does right now. Hearing Nelson, 84, deliver such a soulful, clear-eyed set of songs reminds me of the way my brothers and I would mark our height on a doorjamb in the garage. In this case, Willie’s line is right up there next to those for Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings. Compared to this group, most current country artists are knee-high and shrinking. Enter Brad Paisley and his latest release, Love and War. I’m a fan of Paisley’s first few albums and there is no denying his blazing speed on a Telecaster, but this sprawling, 15-song collection of predictable, super-clean, cliché-laden songs sounds like a Disneyland ride after listening to God’s Problem Child. It lacks the most critical ingredient in Americana music: resonance. Like great blues and gospel, the resonance of the best country music comes from shared struggles and transcendent hope. Love and War, for the most part, lacks both. Paisley’s most spiritual number, the syrupy ballad “The Devil Is Alive and Well,” is a near miss. In it the artist laments “some of the worst things” that are done “in God’s name”—including television news, Internet hate, and other vaguely bad stuff—as proof that a conveniently externalized and personified “devil” is alive and well. The answer to all the evil is a kind of nondescript “love,” because “God is love.” It sounds nice, but rings hollow. It seems that he wants to kick at the hypocrisy of the contemporary “Christian right,” but he never quite does. He plays it safe, and that’s another missed opportunity. Paisley also continues to pepper his songs with celebrations of good-time substance abuse, soft-core sexism, light-hearted sexual sleaze, and UFC, so maybe he knows his soapbox is a somewhat rickety perch. I remember when Paisley was celebrated as a champion of traditional country, back when his songs documented what sounded like real-life experiences, characters, and emotions. Unfortunately, Love and War, though not completely devoid of quality, is so full of predictable tropes and cheap gags that its real value is as a clinic for aspiring shredders or people looking for slogans for gas station T-shirts. It left me frustrated. If Brad Paisley can’t capture an authentic and satisfying country sound, what hope is there? Are we doomed to beer cans and bro parties when what we hunger for is a satisfying sip of something true? Then I spun the new set from Chris Stapleton and my despondency over the state of country music was immediately dispelled. Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1 offers nine songs that demon[...]