Your Smart Phone Is Evil, And So Are You

It seems that anyone wishing to write a piece urging people to consider what smart tech is doing to their heads is branded as a Luddite, or at least gets tagged as having Luddite sympathies. So before you grab your L-shaped stencil and your scarlet thread, let me clarify. I don’t think smart technology is evil; I do, however, think we need to consider carefully its effect on our lives, perhaps in a way that has not often been done. Continue reading “Your Smart Phone Is Evil, And So Are You”

Ontological Vroom

Elizabeth Malbon, in her book Hearing Mark, gives this insightful gem:

Perhaps Greek philosophers worried about the essence of God, but Jewish and Jewish-Christian storytellers focused on the activity of God and God in Christ. In the biblical tradition not only have the people of God imagined their relationship with God as a story, but also individual members continue to experience their own lives as stories. Perhaps this is why it is so easy for us to get caught up in the story Mark’s Gospel tells.

Continue reading “Ontological Vroom”

Not Ashamed

Let’s say that my parents, my siblings, and I are at an event where I am to be the speaker for the evening. After being introduced, I ascend to the podium and say, “Before I begin this evening, I’d like to thank my family for being here.” Unless I’m speaking at an event for families, this probably isn’t necessary, but it would be a kind gesture, wouldn’t it?

But let’s say I don’t do that. Instead, I walk up to the podium and say, “Before I begin this evening, I’d like to thank my siblings for being here,” or “Before I begin this evening, I’d like to thank my father and my sister Laura for being here,” without mentioning either my mother or other siblings. This would probably no longer be regarded as a kind gesture, at least not by those who know I have two parents and three siblings in the audience. Now the statement seems cruel, designed to hurt the family members left out. It would be better for me not to say anything at all about my family, or to generally thank them without naming them all, than it would be to name two and not the others.

This was my contention with the movie Wildflower, a low-budget Christian film about a girl struggling with mental illness who witnesses a crime. The movie was good in so many ways– good use of motif and imagery, good cast, great perspective on mental illness, good plot– nevertheless, the film failed in one respect. It was distinctly “Christian” and never mentioned the person or work of Jesus Christ.

There were two church event scenes in Wildflower, four overtly religious conversations, and one prayer. And Jesus was not mentioned in any of them, overtly or covertly. God was mentioned a lot. So were concepts like hope and faith. But not Jesus.

I’m not saying that Jesus has to be mentioned in order for a film to be Christian. I’m not saying that God has to be mentioned for a film to be Christian. But to quote Scripture, mention God, and show snippets of one sermon, one Bible study, one prayer, and a few “Christian” conversations without Christ? It seems that this is either a deliberate oversight on the part of the production team in an attempt to be more relatable to the non-Christian world or evidence that the writers and producers of the film themselves don’t know that Jesus is the very soul and center of our faith. In either case, this film showcases Christianity without Christ, a Christianity of which I want no part.

I’m not saying the movie was wholly bad. It challenged me on several levels. I recommend that you watch it. Watch it, and pray that God will raise up producers who are not ashamed of the explicit message of the cross.

“A whole bushel of apples.”

How do you like them apples?

I can’t prove it, but I believe the writers for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl used apples as a strong motif throughout the movie. In the scene where Elizabeth Swann is eating with Captain Barbossa, he offers her an apple, tells her about the Aztec curse, and then offers her an apple again. Later on, when they’ve reached the gold chest, Barbossa says to Elizabeth, “You know the first thing I’m goin’ to do after the curse is lifted? Eat a whole bushel of apples.” The curse is not lifted, of course, and the story moves on. As the Black Pearl is set to fire upon the Interceptor, Jack picks up an apple and says to Barbossa, “I suppose I should be thanking you because, in fact, if you hadn’t betrayed me and left me to die, I would have an equal share in that curse, same as you.” He then bites into the apple. At the end of the scene, he offers the apple to Barbossa, who takes it, glares at it, and throws it into the ocean. At the conclusion of the film, as the pirate crew of the Black Pearl enters the cave with the Aztec gold for the last time, Barbossa is carrying an apple, and when the curse is lifted and he dies, an apple falls from his open hand.

What should we make of this? Perhaps I’m seeing an apple motif where there is none; after all, wine, meat, and bread are also present in the dinner scene, and I’m only picking up on apples. I think there is reason to suspect some degree of intentionality, however. First, apples are only mentioned or seen in scenes revolving around the Aztec curse. Second, they’re mentioned at odd times, almost artificially inserted into the storyline. And possibly most compelling, the apple that falls from Barbossa’s hand wasn’t in his hand in the shot directly before (I checked). Taken together, this points to a deliberate theme.

Motifs don’t just exist for the fun of it, however. What does the apple symbolize? Given the conversation surrounding the “apple scenes,” I think the apple symbolizes the fullness of life denied to the pirates because of their curse. This is why there is such a hunger in Barbossa’s eyes when he offers Elizabeth the apple. Voyeurism has become a substitute for first-hand experience. It’s also why he makes the comment he does at the cave: “You know the first thing I’m goin’ to do after the curse is lifted? Eat a whole bushel of apples.” The way the pirates laugh makes his seemingly innocent remark sound dirty, and it so the apple takes on a euphemistic quality. This explains why Jack can eat an apple and Barbossa can’t. It also explains why as Barbossa dies, an apple falls from his hand. Life has been denied him at the last.

Motifs don’t tell us anything new, but they can help us form an interpretive grid. The presence of a motif can give some insight into a situation we don’t yet understand. For example, after the credits play in Curse of the Black Pearl, we see a close up shot of an apple bobbing in the water, panning up to a shot of Barbossa’s body. Might this suggest that life isn’t done with Barbossa yet, that there may be another chance for him to eat the apple? The next time we see him, at the end of the second movie, he’s alive and finally eating his apple.

I’ve run out of room, but I think that reflecting on well-done motifs in good stories can give us room for rich reflection on the symbols and themes that Scripture uses to communicate itself.

Sexism in the Bible: Uncleanness

This post is part of an ongoing series. The series is introduced here.

MadonnaLeviticus 12:1-8 gives instructions for purification after childbirth. It’s been cited as further evidence of the Bible’s horrible terrible no good very bad misogynistic worldview. Reading the passage, it isn’t hard to see how someone could come to that conclusion. If a woman gives birth to a boy, she is unclean for seven days, the boy is circumcised, and then she is to continue in “the blood of her purifying” for thirty-three days. But if a woman gives birth to a girl, she is unclean for two weeks, and must continue in the blood of her purifying to sixty-six days. Why is it that the mother is unclean at all, first, and why is it that she is unclean for twice as long after the birth of a girl?

It seems that in the Levitical law, everything that proceeded out from a person made them unclean. In Leviticus 13-14, skin diseases were leprous and made the diseased unclean if they went deeper than the skin, revealing the inner parts. In chapter 15, any bodily discharges which issued from the inner parts made the person having them unclean. Keep in mind that these laws for Israel were given to show them (and us) to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Cleanness was not principally a moral category. It was a ritual category which was then analogically used to talk about holiness and sin (Leviticus 18:24-25).

The impact of these laws from chapters 12-15 was to communicate that everything which proceeds from within us makes us unclean. That’s what we are. We’re unclean from the inside out. When Christ came into the world, however, he said “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.“He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38, NASB). When Jesus comes, everything changes. No longer are we unclean from the inside out; now we’re made clean, and rivers of living water flow, cleansing everything around us. It’s an example of the way Jesus reverses the flow of the holiness continuum. In the New Covenant, clean things make unclean things clean, rather than the other way around.

For a woman to be unclean after giving birth was not a statement about her worth or about the innate rightness/wrongness of a woman’s sexual organs; it’s a statement about sin. Being sinners from birth, doesn’t it make sense that we would taint the world around us?

But if that is the prime consideration here, why is a woman unclean for twice as long after giving birth to a girl? Commentators on Leviticus have put forward a number of possibilities, ranging from medical complications to ancient near eastern fertility myths. I believe the answer has to do with the sign of circumcision. Circumcision is the covenant sign, and the uncircumcised nations were unclean (Isaiah 52:1). Symbolically, then, if a male is circumcised, he (and by extension, his mother) is no longer unclean. There is no corresponding ritual to circumcision for females in the Old Testament, and so they are unclean for two weeks.

This passage in Leviticus is not an example of sexism. Israel is yet again playing out a typological drama of sin and redemption before the world, much like the prophets did at times. There are roots in this passage stretching back to the curse and the first promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15, and tendrils stretching forward to the new that comes in Christ and makes all things clean.

The Stories We Tell

TransgenderThe thing about the zeitgeist police is that they haven’t been trained to think critically. I should probably say it isn’t their fault; they were born this way. (Don’t you find it interesting, by the way, that the phrase “born this way” has passed out of vogue? I guess it doesn’t sell as well for the transgender issue as it did for the gay rights movement.) The bad news here is that these people can be difficult to reason with– not because they’re stupid, but because reason doesn’t have the same weight in the public square as it might have a number of years ago. The good news with all this is that some of the same arguments they use can be used against them. Call it rhetorical Judo.

I have a friend who works as middle management in a big company, and has come up against this recently. Some time ago corporate sent out a mass email detailing how employees are to welcome clients to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. My friend (let’s call him John), after a short period of prayer and seeking counsel, met with his boss to tell her he could not enforce the company’s policy. There are a number of ways he could have approached this conversation, and many of them would have been good. What he said was that enforcing the company policy would violate his identity as one who belongs to Christ and therefore is under obligation to uphold the God’s laws and God’s proclamations about the world. John was being serious, of course. By referring to his convictions as a part of his “identity” (which they are), he forced his supervisor to make a decision. If she attempted to impel him to comply with policy, she would be making a statement to the effect that his identity is somehow less valid than those of the transgender stripe. If, on the other hand, she agreed to exempt him from having to enforce the policy, she would be admitting that there are valid opinions other than the prevailing secularist view, a concession not currently well tolerated by our culture-war overlords.

I should say this about John: he has been commended and promoted more than once for his work ethic, his creativity, his leadership, and his competence. This isn’t the case of the Christian dole bludger who wants to laze around and then act the part of a paladin when the chips are down. John has been living his Christian witness all along.

John’s boss, surprisingly, sympathized with him. She also, unsurprisingly, passed the buck higher up the corporate chain. He had a meeting with a special HR team, and they told him he would not be required to enforce the company transgender bathroom use policy. This is an amazing outcome, especially for where John lives (in a large, progressive city) and where John works. It’s not everything– the company is still being immoral, of course. But it is significant that John is no longer being asked to bow the knee on this issue.

Wiser men than I have been saying this for a while, that we need a theology of Christian resistance. I agree, and I think we need to go further. We not only need a theology of Christian resistance, we need heroes of Christian resistance. I’ve said before that the stories we tell envision our values, but they also reinforce our values. They strengthen our convictions. Many Christians are now or will shortly face fearful circumstances at work where they feel forced to choose between their much-needed income and their faith. They feel trapped. What they need to know is that they are not trapped. The culture war, no matter how bleak things appear, is not over. It is decided, of course– it was decided the moment that Jesus put aside his shroud. Because he is risen, we can challenge and engage culture faithfully. Not everyone will have an outcome quite like John’s– in fact, I imagine that for a while, he may be the exception to the rule. Nevertheless, the snow has stopped, a warm breeze has picked up, and the whisper runs everywhere from ear to faithful ear– “Aslan is on the move.”

Why Christian Movies Are Terrible

I know, I know. Outrage. But before you grab your pitchfork, hear me out. Blanket statements aside, I think we can admit that many of the Christian movies released in the last ten years have failed the test of good media, and not just because their budgets were so small.

Let's get back to this guy. At least he had chops.
Let’s bring back this guy. He had chops.

I think the reason for this lies in the way we think about worldview, and the communication of a worldview. Worldview, as I’ve said before, consists of four interlocking components: catechesis, narrative, liturgy, and lifestyle. Catechesis is our propositional instruction, the content of our beliefs. Those beliefs are codified in our catechesis, but imagined, imaged in our narratives. If catechesis is the brain of a worldview, then narrative is its soul. The stories that we tell about ourselves, our origins, our heroes– these influence us in profound ways, possibly more than we realize.

We must realize that catechesis and narrative, though they overlap, though they communicate the same realities, are different modes of expressing those realities. They communicate the same truths in different ways, as they are intended to do. Catechesis can utilize narrative, but it needs to be propositional. Imagine if all we had were stories, with no statements about the meaning or morality of those stories. Discerning the truth would nearly be an impossibility. Likewise, narratives can be (and should be) catechetical, but they cannot capture our hearts and imaginations with the same degree of potency if they are primarily so. Stories make us yearn for realities which our catechesis tells us we should yearn for. Stories make us hate the things we ought to hate, and love the things we ought to love. It does this better than instruction, because it was designed to do this better than instruction.

Many Christian movies, I find, are doctrinal statements (and poor ones at that) with a thin veneer of story overtop. They cannot make me love the things I ought to love, because the story is so anemic. I admire the desire of these filmmakers to have a Christian presence in the industry, and I admire their commitment to Christian truth. But their product cannot do what they want it to do (that is, capture the hearts of their audience) because they aren’t telling stories; they’re giving expensive multi-media devotionals. To adapt Lewis, “The world does not need more Christian movies. What it needs is more Christians making good movies.”