Star Wars: A Rey of Hope

“Dear child, I see it in your eyes. You already know the truth. Whoever you were waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.” Oh those eyes, those deep, expressive eyes. Those eyes act as a light speed tunnel for us on the thematic, cinematic, and emotional journey of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. These are the eyes of Rey, who makes The Force Awakens my favorite movie of the year because I think her story is exactly the one we need to hear, a story of survival and in that survival…hope.

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However, now, many…many a critic, fan, and YouTube troll has come to the conclusion that Rey isn’t a complex or interesting character. That perhaps she is unfit to be our new Star Wars hero. That she is actually too perfect and not relatable at all. That in her trek through the film she sees very little conflict and is practically playing through the game with all the cheat codes on. To this I completely disagree, and I would argue that there is a lot they may have missed or been ignorant to in the film.

Before we take a closer look into who Rey is, it’s worth addressing why some have been blind to the larger aspects to her character that really nullify the argument of her being what some would call a “Mary Sue.” Rey is a woman. As much as we want to say how forward thinking we are and how much we love strong female characters, this Rey backlash reveals how, even unintentionally, some are still blinded by a bias against female action heroes. Would there be any backlash, any controversy at all if Rey was played by Chris Pratt?

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Not to pick on Andy Dwyer, but just last year we watched him play a character that was eerily similar to Rey…Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star Lord. He’s abducted as a child and forced to survive amongst a band of space pirates. When we meet him at the beginning of the film he is bumbling and overly confident…but then actually bests some of the main baddies in the galaxy to escape. Throughout the film we watch him do it again and again. He doesn’t really fail. Star Lord was a well formed hero that was equipped mostly before we entered his story and those experiences made him perfect for the mission he was about to go on.

Pratt’s character in Jurassic World was nearly a copy. He’s a super soldier in the movie that is functioning at such a high level raptors can’t help but respect him. All of his experience that led him there happened in his time in the military and we don’t see that in the film. Let’s say it, these characters are less controversial because they were men. After Jurassic World broke records most of the online rhetoric was focused on the movie’s heroine being able to run in heels. Preposterous, right? She was in a jungle after all. See this delightful take on why it actually might have been brilliant. Nobody was calling Pratt a “Mary Sue.”

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It is easy for us to see The Avengers’ Black Widow and Mad Max’s Furiosa as strong female characters because they are immersed in universes led by men. That’s why we haven’t seen a Black Widow movie yet. Even Furiosa has an extremely slim chance of landing her own movie even though she was one of this year’s most loved characters on the silver screen. These are film universes driven and formed by men. Here’s what confuses me though, the same people that are critical of Rey, are the most vocal supporters of Furiosa. For my money, Rey’s character goes further than Furiosa’s and is oceans deeper than anything a stubbly Pratt has done recently. Rey is more a Buffy or a Jessica Jones than she is a Black Widow because The Force Awakens is her movie, her universe, her life. And what a life it is.

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Rey is a survivor. What do we know about her? At a very young age, she was dropped off on Jakku in the hands of a sketchy scavenger in a community of vultures and thieves. Already her upbringing makes Luke Skywalker’s childhood look like a rousing round of Candyland. When we meet him, Luke is a whining, brattish teen eagerly awaiting the day he can abandon his life with two stable parental guardians, a stable job, and safe place to live. Rey endures her life of barely eating enough, living in isolation, working in dangerous conditions, and potentially living in even more dangerous conditions all because of the promise of a family that will come back for her. Luke can’t wait to leave, Rey is fighting her whole life to be able to stay. That is different and interesting.

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How was she so good in a fight? Well imagine the life she has survived living as an attractive, young woman on a lonely planet of starving scavengers. Beyond the types of aliens that would see her as food, picture the neighbors she had that would love to have her chained to them in a metal bikini, physical violations not so different from the mental violations she resists from Kylo Ren. Why was she able to navigate around the Star Killer base? Her whole life has been a ridiculous parkour training regimen light years ahead of the brief time Luke spent doing handstands on Dagobah. She knows Imperial technology and spacecraft, it has literally been her life. But then she pretty expertly flew the Millennium Falcon, what gives? In the brief amount of dialogue we get when she is on the Falcon she makes it clear that it has been a part of that shipyard for years and she has helped over the course of that time to work on it.

Rey’s back story perfectly outlines how she became the warrior that we see in the film, she’s a survivor, but she’s also not perfect. We see her make terrible choices in the film from nearly crashing the Falcon to hitting the wrong fuses to leaving the safety on her blaster on to running away from her destiny on several occasions, and most of these poor decisions have fatal consequences. Finn nearly dies several times as he sticks close to Rey, and Finn’s quest to save Rey ends at an extremely high cost for Han Solo fans. Rey is not a Mary Sue, she’s not perfect, but she is a survivor and I think that once the force awakened in her, attaching to that survival instinct, Rey could be the most powerful Jedi we’ve ever seen. Survival produces strength.

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Luke was far less equipped to be a hero, but why does that make him more compelling? Why is a bumbling man more interesting than a well-equipped woman? If the story was about moisture farming, maybe Rey would fail, but this is a story about hope in the galaxy surviving and for that we need a survivor at the core. I would argue that Rey is just as flawed as Luke in some ways. The difference is, Luke’s flaws got his hand chopped off, where I would wager Rey would chop off her own hand to survive a situation her insecurities and flaws put her in.

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This new trilogy is Rey’s story and Rey’s story has me actively asking what my life experiences are preparing me for. The hardships I’ve survived, the darkest moments in my life that I’ve seen the other side of, how will they help me in the future? Rey’s story is a story for all of us. As dark times come, as tragedy strikes, we will make it through and on the other side of that darkness is the light. Those eyes that are filled with this complex back story are screaming out to us to just survive because hope waits for those who endure. Rey was equipped for this new adventure because of her life on Jakku. What adventures is your life preparing you for? As the advice to Rey continues, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.”

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The Veil Grows Thin

The words are familiar ones, thanks in large part to their inclusion in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Linus recites it to America every year on national television.

It’s Luke chapter 2, the birth of Christ being announced to the shepherds. It’s fitting that it be widely and indiscriminately read to our whole society, because the message to the shepherds is exactly that kind of announcement: the proclamation of the royal birth of the King of the World to some normal working guys who were on the job. Nothing exclusive or secret, a message of Good News to anyone that wants to hear it, about a Savior who comes for everyone.

Why the shepherds? What made them special enough to receive this personal heavenly missive? As far as Luke lets on, nothing. They are special in that they are highly ordinary. We don’t know their names, we don’t know their faith, we just know that they hear this wonderful message. Luke is showing his readers that the Messiah has come for average working people, for anyone who will receive the message with gladness. The Good News isn’t for the elite, it’s for everyone.

I can’t speak for you, but when I read the part about “The glory of the Lord shone around them”, I always pictured a bright light. A host of angels is pretty impressive, so it would make sense that as heavenly beings they would be surrounded by light. I paid closer attention to that wording this year, and noticed something much bigger. In the Old Testament when the “glory of the Lord” is mentioned, it always meant God’s presence. (Ex. 33:12-23 is one of many examples.) This appears most often in reference to God’s presence filling the Temple (Ex. 40:34-38). At the time of Christ’s birth, God’s presence hadn’t been seen in Israel for centuries. When the exiles returned and rebuilt the temple, God’s glory is noticeably absent (Ezra 6:13-22). The Israelites continued worshipping God, but the glory of His presence wasn’t manifested. Until the birth of Jesus.

I don’t think I can emphasize enough how much God’s glory appearing to a group of normal people was just not a thing. God’s presence would appear to individuals with a calling to leadership like Abraham and Moses, and the prophets received the Holy Spirit to be able to communicate to the people on God’s behalf, but it didn’t happen to random people in a mundane setting. What happens with the shepherds is entirely unprecedented! God Himself was drawing near to earth to participate in sharing a message of great joy that would be for all people. The angels aren’t the main event, they’re the entourage.

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This would roughly be like the President of the United States calling me to say that he is making a visit to Pittsburgh and he wanted to let me know that he’s staying downtown at the Super 8 if I wanted to stop by. POTUS doesn’t need to care about who I am and I don’t need to be involved in matters of State. Blue collar shepherds shouldn’t need to be involved in the royal birth of the King of the world. In earthly terms they’re unimportant. But this is a different kind of world leader, and His is a different kind of Kingdom. Christ came to remove the veil of separation that stood between us and God. This would be fully accomplished on the cross when Jesus would reverse the powers of death and separation (Matt. 27:50-54). And yet even at His birth, the veil was growing thin. Christ’s coming was so powerful that the gap between heaven and earth immediately narrowed. The Lord’s presence drew near as a foreshadow of the full reconciliation that was to come.

Have you read or seen “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”? In this story by C.S. Lewis there is a White Witch who represents the powers of evil and death, and she has a strangle-hold on the world of Narnia. She has created an everlasting winter in their land, where “it’s always winter, and never Christmas.” When the Christ-figure, Aslan, begins to make his way back into Narnia, the snow starts to melt and Father Christmas finds his way in to deliver the overdue gifts. When the creatures see the power of the witch weakening and being beaten back, they say to each other, “Aslan is on the move.” And so it was with the shepherds. They were witnesses to the powers of sin and darkness growing weak. God was near, Christ was on the move, everything was about to change forever.

“Christmas sends a death notice to all systems of oppression and injustice, every force that perpetuates the darkness of sin. An angel choir sang their joyous hymn, announcing the Good News, not to the powerful and privileged, but to those who had nothing else to hope in but the One Great Hope that God would come to rescue us from ourselves. The King, who sits on the throne, says, “Behold, I am making all things new!” This is why we celebrate.”

~ Sam Levy, CCO staff at Slippery Rock University

What if we’re supposed to hate the prequels?

It is Star Wars week, as in the week that Episode VII: The Force Awakens is hitting theaters and has already been destroying presale records…destroying them like they came with a tiny port that could succumb to a couple of well aimed proton torpedoes. Not only that, but all of the coolest online sources are featuring special Star Wars articles and videos to add cars to the hype train. And with new Star Wars excitement comes fresh fear that the new one will be on par with the dreaded prequels. We know that fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate…fresh hate for the prequels.

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What does hate lead to though? It only leads to suffering so I offer a deep, overly thought-out search for the silver lining of George Lucas’s long-time loathed, CGI extravaganza. I will offer a defense for some of Lucas’s most questioned creative choices as I attempt to step into his mind. I won’t be going into the casting of actors or dialogue or Lucas’s decision to do everything in CG. Though, I do think he gets too much heat for most of that, especially the CG. If Episode I was made the same year as Avatar they would look nearly identical. Mostly, however, I’ll be asking a lot of whys and what ifs about the story. When thinking about the prequels the most important what if might be…what if we were supposed to hate the prequels?

Where do we begin? How about the OG trilogy! What do we know about the state of the galaxy both before and during the original episodes? We know that there was once a great peace-keeping entity in the galaxy known as the Jedi. The Jedi were the most powerful weapon in the entire universe. With their mastery of the light side of the force along with their commitment to a simple, unified life, they were the perfect guard against evil of any kind. Then something happened and we are left with only Obi-Wan and Yoda.

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Knowing that, what is the prequel trilogy really about? The most exciting promise of the prequels for many was that we would go on the journey of Anakin Skywalker transforming into Darth Vader, but I will argue that this is just a symptom of a larger narrative unfolding in the galaxy. The prequels are largely and mostly about the fall of the Jedi. Not just Luke Skywalker, but the Jedi as a whole are the “new hope.” The finale of the entire original trilogy is a “return of the Jedi.” So it makes sense that the mighty Jedi’s fall would be the main task the prequels had to accomplish.

Therefore another question to ask leaving the prequels is did George Lucas accomplish this? I argue yes, and how he did it not only makes sense but appropriately should leave you hating the movies themselves because of the story they tell. Why did the Jedi fall? In the films, the events that surround it may seem complicated, but I believe they boil down to three main points.

The Jedi Became Arrogant

The Sith could have struck anytime. The master plan of the eventual Emperor didn’t start with the birth of Anakin Skywalker. The Sith weren’t waiting for the-kid-that-would-be-Vader to come into the scene before they struck. They had pieces moving for decades. So what made the time of the prequels the perfect time for the Sith to make themselves known?

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Imagine being the Jedi, the greatest force the galaxy knows. You are loved by everyone that loves good. Your bodies and minds are beacons of the strongest power in the galaxy which means no problem is insurmountable. Spend hundreds and hundreds of years in that role and you are bound to fall asleep a little bit, right? The prequels are filled with references to the Jedi’s vision being clouded and slowly throughout the story we find out times when elaborate things were happening right under their nose.

We see the Jedi’s arrogance in little ways. Episode I begins with them sending obvious Jedi into a situation that would only become exacerbated by Jedi being involved. Why weren’t they stealthier? Qui-Gon is perhaps the personification of this brash arrogance. We see it in his inability to listen to the Jedi council about not training Anakin and we see it in the saber battle that leads to his tragic death. He and Obi-Wan were barely handling Maul together, why did he rush in to fight him alone? The events of Episode I are a shot in the mouth of the Jedi and they spend the rest of the prequels a step behind which leaves them vulnerable.

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The Jedi Were Vulnerable to Bureaucracy

If you are the leader of the Sith, knowing that you’re out numbered and out powered by the mighty Jedi, how do you go about bringing them down? There is no way to match them in a physical battle. The only way is to Olivia Pope them! You make the galaxy stop trusting them. And when the galaxy stops trusting their galactic police, chaos ensues. With the wisdom and power of the Jedi in question after Episode I the senate and therefore the galaxy turn to a political leader and a vast clone army.

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This is probably the most relatable and infuriating part of the prequels. Rightfully so, just like here in America, the galaxy had checks and balances to ensure that power isn’t abused. The Jedi probably humbly set this form of galactic government into motion. Then they were arrogant and made a mistake forcing them to be held in check. Yoda alludes to them being deceived and perhaps needing to take a step back. And then the Sith played the political machine like a fiddle because sometimes that machine is driven by idiots.

Bureaucracy is Often Run by Idiots

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Jar Jar Binks. No entity in Star Wars lore boils the blood more than this childish buffoon. But what if the prequels are also about learning to hate Jar Jar because he represents the most realistic aspect of government? When everything goes down, it is Jar Jar that has gained the trust of Padme and others. In a time of great suffering, the senate should have been able to cling to the Jedi, but now they were clinging for the government to save them. This leads to Jar Jar having real, political influence.

The prequels are about the fall of the Jedi and they are also about the rise of an oppressive government. The Jedi are personifications of wisdom, truth, and goodness and the government, personified by Jar Jar and used by the Sith becomes a metaphor for evil, injustice, and lies. Perhaps what is so maddening about the prequels isn’t the movies themselves but the story they tell…a story that is real to our lives, a bad story, a story that is meant to make us hate injustice, a story that is to warn us about getting complacent and arrogant like the Jedi, a story that prepares us for political leaders that will make bad decisions. Ultimately, we are supposed to hate the prequels, the story of the fall of the Jedi, so that when the Jedi finally return we can be filled with uninhibited joy.

The Bible in a Year…or Two and a Half

Even though I grew up in the Church, I didn’t read through the entire Bible until I was 26. My biggest hang-ups had been in the Old Testament and I would get bogged down in Leviticus, or the minor prophets. or 1 and 2 Kings. Finally my church was doing a biblical literacy campaign and I committed to reading the Bible cover-to-cover in a year. I would like to say that I stayed on track with the highly reasonable daily assignments, but I quickly fell behind. Occasionally I would catch up, and then I would hit a busy stretch and would be weeks behind. Then I tried something that would revolutionize my life: I started listening to the Bible read aloud.

For most of history, believers did not own personal printed copies of God’s Word. It was far too expensive to reproduce, so they would rely on hearing it read aloud in their synagogue or church. Moses did not hand out copies of the Law when he came down from Sinai, nor did Paul send his letters with pamphlet versions to give out to everyone in the church. God’s Word was given to an entire community of faith and they would come together to hear it proclaimed. The majority of our brothers and sisters throughout time only ever received the Bible in its spoken form, and it was written with this in mind. It was meant to be heard.

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Two primary things happened when I started listening to the Bible on my phone app. First, I was able to cover more ground more quickly. I could listen to several chapters while I was doing chores or cooking. This was particularly helpful with parts of the Bible that can feel more clunky and “boring”, it kept me moving through them to take in the whole thing. I didn’t finish the Bible in a year, but I did finish it!

As I went along, I was able to make connections between passages and books. The Bible is not a collection of isolated short stories and essays, it is a cohesive narrative about God and His relationship to the world. I love how Bartholomew and Goheen describe it with the title of their book, “The True Story of the Whole World.” All of it points to God’s love for the world He created and to Christ’s redeeming work to bring all things into reconciliation (Col. 1:15-20).

Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8) and all of scripture is written by the same God who agrees with Himself. The OT and NT are not in opposition to one another, there is no “God of the Old Testament” that is different from Jesus the Savior and Friend. Reading all of what God has written is the quickest way to resolve perceived contradictions or inconsistencies in the Bible. It is an incredibly intricate book that must be taken as a whole. Reading it through helped me understand this and gave me a desire to keep reading and keep learning more about how God reveals Himself through the Word.

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The second thing that happened was the Bible became part of me. After I had been primarily listening to the Bible for four years, I realized that it was a voice in my head. Not a literal voice that sounded like the reader on my app, but the voice of a close loved one where you can anticipate what they’ll say about a given thing. I could look at the world and immediately think, “I bet I know what God would say about that.” I learned to hear the voice of God more distinctly by first learning what His voice sounded like through his written Word. As that happened I could much more readily apply scripture to my life and to the people around me. It wasn’t abstract ideas or memory verses, they were living and personal messages from the Creator. I think this is what David means when he says in Ps 119 that he meditates on God’s law all day long. I don’t think he’s sitting in his room all day every day just thinking about the Bible. He had spent so much time making God’s Word part of his mind and heart that it’s always with him and always guiding him.

Do whatever you have to do to read more of the Bible. I recommend trying a listening method, but that may or may not work as well for you. However it happens, knowing God’s Word more can only result in wisdom and flourishing for you and the world around you.

97 Oh, how I love your law!
    I meditate on it all day long.
98 Your commands are always with me
    and make me wiser than my enemies.
99 I have more insight than all my teachers,
    for I meditate on your statutes.
100 I have more understanding than the elders,
    for I obey your precepts.
101 I have kept my feet from every evil path
    so that I might obey your word.
102 I have not departed from your laws,
    for you yourself have taught me.
103 How sweet are your words to my taste,
    sweeter than honey to my mouth!
104 I gain understanding from your precepts;
    therefore I hate every wrong path.

 

Between the Snap and Me

What is the story behind your profile picture? That avatar is the door to who you are as a person in so many ways. It’s the image you have chosen to represent everything one might need to know about you…or what you want them to know about you. It accompanies every thought, share, or like that are the building blocks to your online persona. Often times this image is carefully crafted, a small point of control we can exercise in our lives.

But what happens when a friend takes that control out of your hands and tags you in a picture that was shot at an upward angle or doesn’t hide your muffin top or shows that O-Town t-shirt you only wear when you’re among your most trusted friends? Devastation. The scramble to untag can be ferocious and daunting. What if people saw it? What if the people whose opinions you care about the most saw those characteristics that send your lips into a gradual frown the more you look into the mirror? Image control is out the window.

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Recently, I was honored, blessed, convicted, scared, sad, angry, encouraged, discouraged, inspired by the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book “Between the World and Me.” In the book, Coates pulls his readers into his mind as he contemplates what control a black person in America has over their body. “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

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Coates writes from his experience protecting his body as it is surrounded by the dangers of racism in America in its many forms. When he comments on being afraid for his own body his story is haunting and, even further, when he talks about fearing for the body of his child, it’s terrifying. Many of the situations he described throughout his journey are physical threats, but today the range of racism has almost no bounds.

We saw this recently on the college campus where I serve. The scope of racism extends beyond the body and into the image. The danger isn’t just physical its digital. Think about the image that we all carry from the very beginning. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” All of us, together, male and female, black and white, all the nations, carry the image of God, the image of the creator of all things. That image is powerful. It’s beautiful. It’s unique among creation.

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Profile pics have given us some semblance of power over our image. On our campus, however, someone took that image of some of our students and cut deeply into it with words of death. A Snapchat was sent with a racial slur written over it. The victims of those words had no opportunity to filter the lighting, crop out what they didn’t want to show, or perhaps lobby for a reshoot if they blinked. Their image was stolen and marred for what I am guessing was supposed to be a harmless joke.

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts…” If you can’t quite understand the damage, Proverbs 12 puts it into perspective. The blade of rash words is swift and severe. It only tears down, it fogs the image. In an act of fleeting communication that was supposed to disappear within the 10 second limit of a Snap, a group of Americans, college students, lost control over their image.

Still don’t understand why this incident was so harmful? After all, it was an innocent joke that was only for the eyes of the sender’s closest friends. Imagine someone changed your profile pic to the worst picture anyone ever took of you. We can see the hairs you usually wax off. We can see the dark circles under your eyes. We can see those rolls that you usually hide with vertical stripes. Now add to that equation the weight of centuries of oppression, misunderstanding, and hate.

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The library at Howard University where Coates spent hours and hours.

Every vulgar phrase those black students have ever heard in their lives was affirmed with that one that appeared on the Snap. And then it spread like a deadly bacteria going viral in their time lines, news feeds, group chats, and even the local news. The headlines of their minds read that they are less than human. That split second decision of the sender took their image, the image of God, the image of personhood away from them.

John Perkins once said of the work of racial reconciliation, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it.” That is what I want for all of the students on our college campus. For the image of their creator, their personhood, their dignity to be affirmed. So often this work begins by looking closer.

That is what is so beautiful about the work of artist E.J. Brown. Brown took images, images that have been imposed and stereotyped onto his fellow students of color, and reclaimed them. To get the full impact of these images you have to look closer. See the cap and gown the subjects are wearing. Read the degrees spelled out across their chests.

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In an instant, an image of a group of black students at our library during finals week was transformed into a deadly sword thrust. The other half of that verse in Proverbs 12 can teach us all about the power our words can have, a lesson I hope the Snap sender will receive through this. “But the tongue of the wise brings healing.” As much as words have the ability to destruct, they also have the ability to construct, build up.

One of the more inspirational moments in Coates’ story was in describing his pursuit of knowledge, heading to the library everyday to devour up to three books in a session. He is a brilliant mind that was forged in those days and nights at Howard University. It makes me wonder what kind of minds are housed in our library? What kinds of future leaders and innovators are gathering around those books? What I do know is that there is potential in those students, a potential put in them by the image of their creator.