Heather’s Top Ten 2018

Last month we had friends visiting from Australia. They know we love movies and as we were talking about what we had seen recently, one of them asked “What story do you think movies were telling this year?” That’s a terrific question. Several recurring themes emerged from the cinematic landscape of 2018. It was certainly a year of representation. Stories with strong female characters abounded, as did a wide array of cultural narratives (nearly always intersecting). It was a year that explored the ways we relate to each other. In our current social/political landscape America is still wrestling with what it means to understand one another, to make space for one another. The movies that made my top ten all help us take steps towards each other as we attempt to tell a unified story.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG)

I do not like kids’ movies. I am rarely motivated to see an animated film. But the new animated Spider-Man is one for which I’ll make an exception. Following a young teen named Miles Morales (voiced wonderfully by Shameik Moore) who is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers, the movie draws on classic comic book tropes while giving a fresh spin to Spider-Man. Miles witnesses a villain open an inter-dimensional portal which inadvertently draws in Spider-People from several different dimensions. They must work together to stop the villain and return each of them home. The movie boasts stunning animation, creative use of comic source material, a great voice cast, wonderful themes of representation (see Ivan’s review), and one of the best post-credit scenes ever. This will be a favorite for huge fans and moderate fans alike.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

9. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

It isn’t often that you can leave a movie about depressing social realities and feel exhilarated. Only director Barry Jenkins can accomplish such a feat. As I unpack in my full review, Jenkins has a dizzying ability to film painful topics with warmth and beauty. His unique directing style imbues the characters with dignity and tenderness even as we watch them experience terrible injustice. Beale Street helps us see the intricacy of life, that beauty and love can co-exist with powerlessness and inequality. Life is complex, and so is this film.

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Director Barry Jenkins filming If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

8. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Thanks to last year’s fantastic Get Out, we are seeing a surge in thoughtful horror films. This year’s A Quiet Place is a heart wrenching view of parenting and family. Set in a world of invading creatures where “If they hear you, They hunt you”, a young family must maintain absolute silence to survive. It quite literally begs the question, “How can you bring a child into this world?” Featuring real-life spouses/parents John Krasinski and Emily Blunt (with a particularly powerful performance), the film explores the fears parents feel around keeping their children safe in a hostile world. Check out my full review here.

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John Krasinski in A Quiet Place (2018).

7. The Hate U Give (PG-13)

Lead actress Amandla Stenberg had an impossible task. She had to carry a film adapted from a beloved YA novel that spanned the entire emotional spectrum, contained multiple dramatic monologues, and she had to not make it cheesy. And she knocked it out of the park. The story follows a black high school girl who lives in a black neighborhood and attends a predominantly white prep school, and is present when a black male friend is shot by a police officer. She must navigate codeswitching and the racial dynamics at her school, process her own trauma, manage the reactions of her surrounding community, and decide how to participate in the national conversation around police violence. Buoyed by a wonderful cast, The Hate U Give depicts so many important topics that young people of color have to deal with every day and gives voice to their experience of the world. See Ivan’s review.

6. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

Sometimes the best movies are the ones you just walked into knowing nothing about. Bad Times falls into that category for me. Set in the late 1960s in a hotel that straddles the California/Nevada line, the story follows a cast of seemingly unrelated characters who are brought to the El Royale by a variety of interests. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, creator of Daredevil, the film unpacks deep themes of guilt, intervention, faith, and redemption. Featuring an incredible film debut from Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo, (Tony Award winner for her lead in The Color Purple) and the best performance to date from Jeff Bridges, Bad Times sails into my top ten. For other spiritual themes of the film, check out Alissa Wilkinson’s great review.

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Jon Hamm in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

5. Vox Lux (R)

I’m guessing the popularity of A Star Is Born this fall overshadowed the more poignant new release Vox Lux, but you do not want to miss this one. Starring Natalie Portman with original music from Sia, this is a story about a pop star that tells a much bigger story. Propelled to early fame as a result of living through a school shooting, Celeste (Portman) wrestles with fame, trauma, addiction, and terrorism. Maybe it’s because I clearly remember the Columbine shooting, 9/11, and VH1’s old series Behind the Music, but Vox Lux spoke to my experience of coming of age in America. The film is an exploration and an indictment of our cultural tendency towards distraction and avoidance through entertainment and substances. It is a snapshot of the first wave of millennials, the things that shaped us, and the the ways we attempt to cope.

4. Roma (R)

My pick for Best Director this year, Alfonso Cuarón pays homage to his childhood housekeeper/nanny in his latest film. Raised in affluence in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuarón was at the time unaware of the classism and racism in which he was unknowingly participating. Roma is dedicated to this woman who was part of his family and yet was never equal due to her different race/class. Roma is the name of the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up and the film follows the experience of an upper-middle class family and their indigenous maid. It beautifully details the sometimes obvious sometimes subtle classism the young housekeeper endures and the way her experience of the world differs from that of her employers. With stunning cinematography and a striking performance from first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, Roma tells an important story that will captivate you.

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Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (PG-13)

I dare you to see this movie and not be moved to tears. In a time where nearly all of our heroes have fallen to scandal and hidden toxicity, we were in desperate need of a hero who genuinely was good and kind. Look no further than Fred Rogers. This documentary brings to life Fred’s deep conviction that all people are endowed with dignity and value and we should all know that to be true. Driven by his Christian faith and a belief that everyone is made in the image of God, Fred wanted children to know they have an important role to play in the world. Helping us cope with deep emotions and tragic current events (from the JFK assassination to the Challenger explosion), Fred and Daniel Tiger were there to guide us. If you need to renew your hope in what our society can be, go spend some time in the Neighborhood.

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Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).

2. Eighth Grade (R)

“Hey guys! Today I’m going to be talking about…” In a shocking turn of unlikely creative sourcing, a 28 year old male comedian (Bo Burnham) made a beautiful movie about the experience of being a young girl. Having himself come of age as a teen YouTube sensation, he was able to empathize with the anxieties, insecurities, pressures and veneers that make up what it’s like to be an 8th grade girl in our modern times. Led remarkably by newcomer Elsie Fisher, the movie is sympathetic and awkward and insightful. It brings to life the vulnerability of being young, the ways it is difficult to connect with both friends and parents. It is not just about being an 8th grade girl, it helps all of us understand what it means to be young in an age of technology and connectivity.

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Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018).

1. Black Panther (PG-13)

I saw this movie four times in theaters. I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back, director Ryan Coogler changed the game with Black Panther. It redefines what a superhero movie can be. Who would have thought that a comic book movie could explore the experience of the African diaspora? So far beyond simply blowing things up and high speed chases, Coogler used the platform of Marvel to ask deep questions about identity, belonging, and the future of a global society. A master at taking source material and adapting it in a way that honors the original content while giving it countless new layers of meaning (Creed is another prime example of his abilities in this area) Black Panther stays true to the comics while helping all of us process our place in the world. With terrific performances, a stunning variety of female characters (see my full review here), this is the most enjoyable and most important film of 2018.

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Letitia Wright and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018).

Check out Ivan’s Top Ten here!

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If Beale Street Could Talk: The Difference Good Lighting Can Make

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and without hesitating I replied, “The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It is one of the most important books of the 20th century.” I would strongly urge any American to read it, or anyone who is interested in understanding the history of race in America. James Baldwin brought a crucial voice to American society in the middle of the 20th century, one that is being carried on by many black American artists today. One of these rising artists is filmmaker Barry Jenkins. He hasn’t even turned 40 and already directed the 2016’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Moonlight. His next film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel by the same name.

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Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, it is the story of a young black couple who are hoping to marry and start a life together when the young man is falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. The creativity and insight of both storytellers results in a powerful combined narrative of love, injustice, powerlessness and resilience. The character’s lives are fraught as they try to pursue hope for a bright future while hitting constant roadblocks of inequality. From housing discrimination to racial profiling, the cards feel continually stacked against them. It is a story of families striving to protect their children to build a better life for them in the face of social degradation. It is a story of resourcefulness in the absence of access to resources, a story of beauty and hope intermixed with fear and disappointment. Beale Street progresses with a slow burn, but the gradual saga it weaves is finely tuned.

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Jenkins has a distinct and moving style of filmmaking. He has a unique ability as a storyteller to depict harsh realities with an aura of warmth and beauty. Rather than bleak lighting for bleak themes, Jenkins’ subjects exude vibrant colors. Both Beale Street and Moonlight are visually stunning, mesmerizing in the beauty of their cinematography. He uses long straight-on shots of the characters, endowing them with dignity and a sense of wonder. As you watch them move through their worlds you feel that it is an honor to see them in their fullness, that you are catching a glimpse of something rare and profound. Even when they are suffering or treated with cruelty by others, Jenkins’ camera imputes a constant tenderness that cannot be taken away. I recently heard a comment from someone in the film industry that you need people of color making films because actors with different skin tones have different lighting needs. On a technical level, it can be challenging to make all actors look equally good on screen. Jenkins’ skill in this area is unsurpassed. The actors in his films all look radiant, a testament to what can happen when structural changes are made to bring out the best everyone has to offer.

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What Jenkins accomplishes on screen speaks to a bigger call to our American society. A major theme of Beale Street is the creativity that the black community has been forced to cultivate in the absence of opportunity. Deprived of social equality, parents and individuals have to find alternate ways to put food on the table and to try to protect the next generation from harm. This is an exhausting and limiting way to live. Baldwin raises an important question in The Fire Next Time:

“The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like themselves. This point need not be labored; it is proved over and over again by the Negro’s continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity. America could have used in other ways the energy that both groups have expended in this conflict. America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not.”

What would America look like if racial inequality had not been consuming our energy and creativity for centuries? What could we have achieved by now if we allowed all our citizens to contribute the best of what they have to offer? What else could we have innovated by working together rather than keeping many groups silent and powerless? Segregation and inequality not only damages marginalized groups, it robs all of society. The characters in Beale Street wanted to create and contribute to the flourishing of society. Their contributions were dramatically limited by systemic inequality. Jenkins grew up with incredible environmental challenges and yet has managed to offer art that is lovely and compelling. The call for equality is so much more than a social crusade. It is a call to unlock the God-given potential that lies within our whole country. To seek the flourishing of the marginalized is to seek the flourishing of us all. If we have come this far with a very broken system, imagine how much farther we could go with a system that works for everyone.

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Content advisory: Beale Street contains some language and two scenes of sexuality, one including nudity. The scenes are filmed with tenderness and care and compliment the story, but viewer discretion is advised.

 

 

Tree of Life Synagogue and the Need for Weariness

Some families take vacations to Disney World. My family would vacation in Pittsburgh. This was partly because my grandparents lived there, partly because Pittsburgh is a wonderful city. I spent 12 years post-college living in the Pittsburgh region and in many ways regard it as my home city. It is a city known for its many distinct neighborhoods, my favorite of which is Squirrel Hill. I have spent countless hours there with family and friends. A predominantly Jewish community, it also houses restaurants and shops from a wide range of cultures and nationalities. It has the best movie theater in the city, and is a welcoming neighborhood full of vibrant culture and life. Despite the terrible violence there on October 27th, nothing will change that.

When I first starting seeing breaking news that a Pittsburgh synagogue was being attacked, I knew it was likely in that lovely community. Watching the story unfold, my primary response was weariness. After a week that was already marked by hatred and violence with the mail bombs, this was overwhelming. I felt sadness and anger, but mostly I felt numb. This has to stop. Things have to change.

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When we look at God’s history with the community of faith, He has used weariness in the past to move us forward. Buried in the middle of the Old Testament book of Numbers is a remarkable passage about some unexpected fruit of growing weary. Numbers in general is an often overlooked book that packs a punch. It follows the time of the Israelites leaving their enslavement in Egypt and their forty years wandering in the wilderness. God led them out of Egypt through signs and wonders and guided them straight to the Promised Land. But the people were not ready. They were so accustomed to slavery that they could not imagine freedom. All they could do was look back at their bondage and believe that it was normal and as good as it gets. They could not imagine that the unknown could be better than the comfortable past, so they believed it must be worse. They froze because all they could see were giants, not milk and honey (Num. 13:31-33).

So God consigned them to 40 years in the wilderness, one year for every day that the spies were in the promised land (Num. 14). Enough time for the generation that was born in Egypt to pass away. An entire generation is born in the wilderness, a generation that is listed in the middle of Numbers (chapter 26). The genealogies in this book is typically where readers get bogged down, but they are there to show us when a change begins. Something significant happens with this generation born in the wilderness. They no longer look back, they start to dream about what is ahead.

The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. Num. 27:1-7 (NIV)

The daughters of Zelophehad begin to imagine possibilities of things that have never been before. What if women could own land? Not only that, they are envisioning life in the Promised Land. They are thinking about what it will entail and they do not want to miss it. No longer are the people looking back to slavery as their frame of reference. They are looking ahead and dreaming about things that have not yet been.

These young women represent what God was trying to do in the people through their wandering. To bring change in their desires. To wear them out on life that is sub-par so they start dreaming about abundance. So that when they are led back to the edge of the Promised Land, they want to go in and never look back. They want to take hold of God’s rest, provision, equity, and goodness. They were meant to hate the wilderness and former bondage so they would love the fulfillment of God’s promises.

This story offers a similar application to our weary hearts today. It is normal and good to feel sadness and anger. It is fitting and right for us to hate the works of evil. And our Godly response can be to dream rather than freeze. Many giants of evil are dominating our cultural landscape, but we serve a God with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut. 7:19). Take your weariness to your community’s inter-faith gatherings and support your Jewish neighbors. Use your platform to remind yourself, and others, that acts of hatred and violence are not normal or as good as it gets. Research the candidates running for office in your region and go vote for people who will pursue righteousness and peace. Pray for the Lord to move all of our hearts away from selfish complacency and towards new possibilities for Kingdom flourishing. May we be a people who are shaped by the promises and power of God and who dream of things greater than we have yet seen.

 

Does Sexual Purity Do More Harm Than Good?

If you were a Christian kid in the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, you probably encountered some form of the “Purity Movement.” There were books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity that touted the benefits of courtship over dating. Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings. The Silver Ring Thing and other organizations held gatherings and were present at music festivals to encourage young people to commit to remaining sexually pure until marriage. It was a major topic in youth groups and Christian youth-based curriculum.

A recent book by Linda Kay Klein has drawn the spotlight back to this era in the evangelical church. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free details her experiences along with interviews of many others. In a recent NPR interview, Klein tells her story of legalism and shame and the trauma it caused for her and others. She recounts stories of being told she needed to dress differently to prevent the boys from “stumbling” (a biblical term meaning to fall into sin), and that she ought to exhibit less knowledge and enthusiasm for learning so as not to undermine the leadership role of the boys. Along with countless others, she internalized shame and anxiety about her body and her thoughts. She was constantly worried that she would do something that would compromise her purity, a standard that was inconsistently communicated and therefore even more anxiety-provoking. During college and beyond she began to move away from the teachings she received about sexual purity, but struggled for years to have a sexual expression that was not also marked by visceral reactions of shame and anxiety. Through her own story and those she interviewed, she posits that the purity movement left a generation of young women traumatized.

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I am only a few years younger than Klein and remember all too well much of what she described. I also read Joshua Harris’s book in high school and also heard the narrative that sex before marriage will make you damaged goods that no good Christian man will want. I also absorbed a transactional faith that if you are a pure and modest woman, then God will reward you with a husband and a wonderful marriage. Although not as extreme as the teaching Klein received, I too internalized a largely sexist standard that women needed to help guard men from sexual sin (men bearing little to no responsibility for their sexual purity) and that men were to be the leaders in all relationships. I listened to her interview and felt deep sadness and sympathy for the pain she experienced. I know that it is real and valid, and worthy of affirmation and grief. In no way do I wish to diminish the very real hurt she received from destructive teaching. At the same time, I took a different path from Klein which is also worthy of telling.

My story is entirely a testament to the grace of God transcending toxic and unhelpful distortions of what is meant to be good and beautiful truth. Through the work of the Holy Spirit and faithful community around me, here is what I received instead. 

Purity is the wrong word

The very language that is used to describe a call for young people to abstain from sex until marriage sets up a false expectation. In a spiritual sense, to be pure is to be without sin. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the only human who has ever lived a sin-free life. Therefore to talk with young people about a very sensitive and intense topic using language that implies perfection is a sure recipe for guilt and shame. It is impossible to always remain 100% pure because even a stray lustful thought will mean you are no longer pure.

The way the movement was constructed led to an emphasis on personal behavior, which led to legalism, which leads to inevitable failure, which leads to despair and isolation. If our driving motivation is to be perfect for God, we are doomed from the start. Rather, we are made perfect BY God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this life we will always struggle with sin and our hope is in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, not our personal willpower. I had to reorient my perspective away from being focused on my own ability to be perfect, and towards a perfect God who loves me unconditionally and accomplishes what I cannot do for myself.

Celibacy is not a vending machine

I very much wanted to be married and yet was perpetually single. I was always highly involved with my church and in my mid-20s even entered vocational ministry. By all accounts I was doing everything right and was deserving of God blessing me with a great husband. Yet no husband presented himself. Over the course of multiple years I had to wrestle with what my celibacy was for. A particular parable from Luke was deeply convicting:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10

On the surface this parable may seem harsh, but it essentially means that we cannot put God in our debt. I will never be able to work hard enough or be good enough for me to become better than God and for God to then owe me something. If that is the case, then everything I have is a gift from God. Nothing is earned by me but is freely bestowed by a generous God. The Lord did not owe me anything for my celibacy, I was only doing my duty.

This was one of the most important lessons for me to learn. I have seen a great deal of pain and despair among men and women who “did everything right” but remained unmarried or had marriages fall apart. This has led to disillusionment and in some cases rejection of their faith. If we have been taught and believed that making all the right choices will earn us the things we want, we will have little to which to cling when life disappoints us. I had to make peace with the idea that marriage is not a biblical guarantee and God does not owe me a life-long happy marriage. God promises me that He will always be with me, and says that is enough. I came to a specific turning point where I believed that God is worthy of my obedience because of who He is, not because of what I want from Him.

God asks hard things for good reasons

Celibacy is hard. I spent much of my 20s feeling lonely and wondering where to find affirmation if not from a boyfriend/husband. I was not single by choice, I was single by default. It can be draining to take care of yourself by yourself, it requires a great deal of emotional energy. I wrestled with discontentment and wanting my life to look different than it did at various points. And yet I would not trade those tumultuous years. The Lord showed me what it meant to depend on Him and to rest in being fully known and fully loved by God.

There were many evenings where I would sit on my patio and have a stream of consciousness prayer conversation with God about my day and about my thoughts and feelings. I would not have done that if a husband was there. God used what could have been a purely lonely time to show me what intimacy with my Creator can be. It was time of learning that God cares about the things that happen in my day that only I care about and is closely involved in my life. God is a comforter who sees my emotions, sees my confusion, and draws near to speak the assurance of truth. Jesus is trustworthy even when nothing else is going to plan. Those years were hard but also a precious gift.

Friendship and marriage are equally important

Not everyone can or should be married and marriage is not the only way to experience love and intimacy. The purity movement focused almost exclusively on marriage as the ultimate prize and gave us no idea for how to cultivate meaningful and lasting friendships. When churches focus the majority of their ministry on marriage and family, many others are alienated, and all of our lives are poorer for it. Intergenerational friendship has been a tremendous joy in my life that has added a great richness. No matter your stage in life, friendship is essential for knowing each other and knowing more of who God is.

Sexuality is highly spiritual

When it comes to teaching young people about biblical sexuality, we’re bad at it. The purity movement largely lost the beauty of why God calls us to sexual fidelity. It is so much bigger than, “sex before marriage is bad so just don’t do it.” God presents a much more lovely picture of what sex is for and why it is important. Frequently in scripture God will equate marriage with His relationship with the community of faith across both the Old and New Testament (Hosea, Eph. 5, Rev. 21 just to name a few). The sexual and emotional intimacy between a husband and wife is one of the clearest pictures of the spiritual intimacy we all share with God. The way we experience our sexuality is designed to be intertwined with the way we understand our connection to God.

In marriage a husband and wife commit their whole selves to one another. They commit to sharing everything about themselves and make a vow to love the other person unconditionally. Tim Keller frames it well in describing sex as an act of “covenant renewal.” The act of sex is giving yourself in the most intimate way to another person. It is meant to occur in a context of deep trust and vulnerability, an expression of not holding anything back from the other. This is the way that God loves us and commits Himself fully to us. To love us unconditionally and to never leave or forsake us. When we trivialize and dull our experience of sex we inadvertently diminish the way we experience God’s love and fidelity to us.

Waiting until marriage is a blessing

It is true that if you have remained celibate through training yourself to see sex as bad, a switch does not automatically flip on your wedding night to make you enjoy sex forever. But because sex is profoundly significant, it is still worth waiting for. Something unique happens when there is only one person that is the source of your sexual pleasure. When we also abstain from pornography and masturbation within marriage we are solely dependent on the other for sexual expression. We cannot find sexual pleasure apart from the person we have pledged ourselves to, and that creates a bond that is lovely and designed to last. Sex is also far more than only pleasure, it is a vulnerable offering of yourself in the assurance of emotional and physical trust and safety. Sharing your whole life with someone is not easy, and our American culture is increasingly skeptical of the benefits of marriage and monogamy. Yet God designed it this way because we need a deep and unique bond to help sustain us through the trials of life. Sex is a very good gift that is a powerful sustainer of love and unity.

This is by no means a comprehensive exposition of everything that the purity movement got right and everything that it missed. There is also much more to say about the ways that God heals our sexuality when it has been abused or misused, and the way we experience the connection of sexuality and spirituality in celibacy. My intention is to share from my journey, which is my own and therefore has limits. I welcome questions and on-going conversation about what has shaped your journey and your hopes for the Church moving forward.

Speaking Power to Truth

So here we are in the fullness of postmodernity. Our current cultural era that gained widespread momentum in the 1980s and 1990s is largely defined by relativity and fluidity. A reaction against the absolutism and potential arrogance of the Modern era, postmodernism has decentralized the concept of universal truth. Rather than holding to ubiquitous definitions of what all people everywhere ought to believe, today’s culture allows truth to be defined more by personal experience and cultural vantage point. We have reached a threshold where an entire generation has only known postmodernity, it is now part of who we are.

Much of this is beneficial to society. Postmodernism creates space for a diverse and complex humanity to be expressed and acknowledged. Modernism tended to frame the “normal” human experience through the lens of white western ideals, ignoring the perspective of ethnic minorities in the US and around the world. Our current climate has given birth to an increasing democratization of whose experience gets to inform the social consciousness, bringing important and valid representation out of the margins. It has given rise to the storytelling phenomenon of the “anti-hero”, characters who are both flawed and sympathetic. Narrow depictions of heroes/villains are rare, now we recognize that all people are capable of great destruction and great good. We are enjoying remarkably rapid advancements in technology and innovation. In a culture where absolutes are gone, there is more room to reimagine what might be possible and the process through which new things can be created.  These are developments that should be celebrated.

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We are also seeing the fullness of the dark side of postmodernity. In an age where truth is relative and each person “speaks their truth” as they see it…who decides who’s truth shapes the cultural ethos? If there are no widely agreed upon standards for human functioning, who has the authority to affirm or condemn a particular set of behavior? If everyone is speaking their truth, who is allowed to call certain language or views incorrect? In the absence of universal truth, the only thing that remains is power.

2016 made it increasingly clear that relative truth is a door that swings both ways. The backlash against being “politically correct” was based on indignation at what felt like double standards. Why do some people get to express themselves without reserve while others feel shut down in their views? Many felt that diversity is celebrated unless it comes from a certain sector of society. So 2016 became a power struggle over who gets to define the cultural narrative. Very little of that year was based on seeking the good of our whole society. Instead, it was marked by fracturing and a frantic scramble to stay in control. We were all angry, scared, and willing to sacrifice integrity along with compassion for the sake of being in power. This is the downside of relative truth: whoever is in power defines truth. Sadly, power often brings out the worst in us.

So where do we go from here, particularly those who seek to be Christ-followers?

Repent

First, we should search our hearts and invite the Spirit to reveal where we need to repent. Where did we get caught up in our own version of seeking power? When did we forget to love our neighbors as ourselves? Where do we fall prey to fear and anger? We could all use some healthy soul-searching. How might our attitude change if we are consistently asking Christ to give us hearts of flesh rather than hearts of stone?

Communicate the common good

As a Christian who has a deep love for the Bible, I am convinced that God’s desire is for all people to experience flourishing. This includes exhortations both positive and painful. Those that are most painful are often commands that invite us to turn away from selfishness and destruction. How can we better demonstrate to our communities that the Bible’s exclusive claim to truth is for the good of all?

However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you,If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.

 ~ Deuteronomy 15:4,7-8 (NIV)

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

            ~ Deuteronomy 10:17-19

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 

35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

            ~ Luke 6:27-28, 35-36

The nature of the way God invites us to live is such that if everyone followed Him, society would be marked by mutual care and trustworthiness. We would not be afraid to show vulnerability. We wouldn’t hesitate to build others up because we would all be motivated to seek the good of others. No power struggle, only a commitment to love others with the love we have received from God. That starts within the Body of Christ living that way with one another acting as a model to the world of a better way of connecting.

Employ grace and truth

This is hard to do and yet it is what defines Jesus.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

~ John 1:14

 Loving people well includes telling them the truth, even when it will be hard to hear. If you read the whole Bible, you will see sections where God is very clearly confrontational and condemning of behavior that is destroying human dignity and society (literally all of the prophets). God hates poverty and injustice and sexual exploitation because it diminishes the value of human life and each person as bearers of God’s image. Those are messages that Christians need to hear as well as our broader society. The value of all persons is a core message of the Bible, and God gives us guidance on how to pursue that value in culture. As the Church, let us reconnect with that truth. That is how we seek to share both grace and truth with the world.

Humans are meant to have some measure of structure. Structure can sound binding, but it actually elevates purpose. Chaos is a breeding ground for meaninglessness. Humans are far from meaningless in God’s eyes. That’s why we long to be connected to something big that matters in real ways. Let scripture be our guide in affirming that which is good and Godly in postmodernity. Let scripture, along with the example of Christ, be our guide in calling the world to know a complex God who created a complex world that is guided by common good and universal wisdom. What better way to embrace postmodernity than by demonstrating that truth can be both personally good and universally beneficial?

 

 

Jurassic World and the Creative Obligation

“We can’t just let them die.”

As the newly released “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” opens, society is faced with a dilemma. After the natural disaster that occurred in Jurassic Park in the previous movie installment of “Jurassic World”, the island containing the dinosaurs has been abandoned. It was clear (yet again) that trying to create and control nature will only result in chaos and unintended consequences. But the island of “Isla Nublar” that continues to be home for the dinosaurs is about to experience a volcanic eruption that would once again bring the creatures to extinction. Is that nature’s way of self-correcting something that should never have happened in the first place, or is it an opportunity for environmental intervention? Not surprisingly, humans decide to act and make a Noah’s ark-esque attempt to preserve the species from a second extinction.

The rest of the film follows the quest to rescue the dinosaurs from the volcano and then to decide what to do with them afterwards. At times the storyline relies heavily on tropes and jump scares, but overall it is a solid offering of dino-packed action and suspense. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the movie is the question of what creators owe to the things they create. The Jurassic Park franchise has always explored the difference between “can” and “should” as modern science pushes the limits of possibilities and ethics. This latest film dives deeper into the aftermath of living with our decisions and assessing who is obligated to handle the clean-up that follows our actions.

“Fallen Kingdom” invites us to wrestle with our motivations for creating new things. From dinosaurs to other scientific ethical dilemmas, why do we use our creative capacities? Is it to gain wealth and status? Is it to try controlling life itself and the avoidance of death? Can it simply be to enjoy something that is good and beautiful? If something that we have produced becomes out of our control, do we recognize our limitations or double down on seeking to have power?

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The Jurassic films are so successful, not only because dinosaurs are real and that’s awesome, but because they tap into an urge that is core to being human. To be created by God in the image of God means that to be human is to desire to create. The imprint of God within us and the Cultural Mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:26) propel us towards cultivating what is and wanting to make something that has never been. This is fundamentally a very good and Godly impulse. The world was not meant to be static but to be dynamic with humans acting as God’s stewards who would unlock more and more of the creation’s potential. Yet sin in the world and in our hearts projects a false narrative that we can be like God (Gen. 3:5), the ones who are in control. To be human is also to experience a perpetual struggle between producing things that are good in response to God’s character, and trying to obtain mastery in response to our sinful hearts. If we have cultivated out of evil intentions then our ability to steward the growth of what we create will be gravely impaired. Like “Fallen Kingdom”, will we seek flourishing for the beauty of the earth, or manipulate and violate the creation for our own ends?

Part of why we love to ask these questions about the motivations of the creator is because we feel that tension with God. Humans continually wonder if we were put here by a loving Creator who still cares for us. We fear the possibility that life could be random and that God could be careless or outright malicious. We wonder what we would do as creators of something new in order to find out what God might be doing with us. Our longing to be in control on earth is often to assuage our anxiety that there may be a lack of care in heaven. If we can establish that we take good care of what we produce, maybe we can believe that God will take care of us.

Pursuing that desire to be good caretakers can actually be exactly what God intended. If God gives us a picture of what it means to create, then God is also our best guide for tending the created order. God alone demonstrates pure motives and constant watchfulness towards the world.

24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!  27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! – Luke 12:24, 27-28 (NIV)

If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:32, 35, 38-39

We tend the creation because God lovingly tends to us. We know what it looks like to care for the world because we serve a Savior who exemplifies sacrificial love. We can act out of pure desires for flourishing because the Spirit gives us new hearts and better minds. In all things we look to the One who calls forth beauty and goodness, and the One whose eye is on the sparrow.

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“This Is America” and the prophetic voice

The internet has been in an uproar. While Donald Glover was hosting Saturday Night Live he unexpectedly dropped a new music video from his hip-hop persona Childish Gambino, This Is America. It has 92 million views in less than a week, sparking debate and vigorous attempts to interpret the social meaning of the video. Directed by Hiro Murai, a frequent director on Glover’s FX show Atlanta, the camera follows Childish Gambino as he dances his way through a series of viscerally intense scenarios. The scenes depict Glover’s experience of being a black man in America, raising conversations around gun violence, black entertainment, the socializing of black children, protests, poverty, and more. (The video contains two brief scenes of shocking violence, a marijuana joint, and one curse word, all handled with artistic value.) For a thorough breakdown of the themes of the video without the moments of violence, go here.

TIA gif

From my vantage point as a white female viewer, I was most struck by This Is America’s use of distraction and redirection. The first time I watched the video I was captured by Gambino’s dance moves and expressions. The background action is often intentionally out of focus, making it that much easier to only notice the entertainment and ignore the chaos taking place behind him. Multiple times Gambino is surrounded by teenage school children, dancing in perfect synchronization with smiles on their faces. To be quite frank, my first thoughts were, “Wow, Donald Glover is actually a really good dancer!” For me that was a major part of the genius of the video. As a casual viewer I immediately fell into the trap of only being entertained without wrestling with the deeper themes of racism and violence in America. In so doing I was confronted with my willingness to only notice things that are pleasant to watch while tuning out harsh realities that lead to feelings of discomfort or sorrow. Is that not a widespread temptation in our society today? To be pleased when we are comfortable and angry when we are confronted with things we would rather ignore?

As I watched the video a few more times, I was soon reminded of the Old Testament prophets. From Isaiah to Malachi, the role of the prophets was to proclaim God’s word to God’s people. God spoke through the prophets over and over again to call the people away from sinful disobedience and back to God’s covenant relationship. The people continually fell into all kinds of destructive practices that were eroding their society. The prophets would call out the sins of the people, commanding them to return to the Lord before they became past the point of no return. There was always an assurance of restoration, God’s perfect balance of justice and mercy. God would act in response to violence and exploitation of the vulnerable, and would always seek the good of the people. Let’s look at a few of the prophetic exhortations:

The word of the Lord came to me:

“Son of man, will you judge her (Jerusalem)? Will you judge this city of bloodshed? Then confront her with all her detestable practices and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You city that brings on herself doom by shedding blood in her midst and defiles herself by making idols, you have become guilty because of the blood you have shed and have become defiled by the idols you have made. You have brought your days to a close, and the end of your years has come. Therefore I will make you an object of scorn to the nations and a laughingstock to all the countries. Those who are near and those who are far away will mock you, you infamous city, full of turmoil. 29 The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice. ~ Ezekiel 22:1-5, 29

“My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.

10 Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house,
and the short scales, which is accursed?
11 Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales,
with a bag of false weights?
12 Your rich people are violent;
your inhabitants are liars
and their tongues speak deceitfully. ~ Micah 6:3, 10-12

27 Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
28     and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
29 Should I not punish them for this?”
declares the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself
on such a nation as this?

11 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace. ~ Jeremiah 5:27-29, 8:11

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. 12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. ~ Zechariah 7:8-12

Stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. America is not the nation of Israel, and to my knowledge Glover does not profess a Christian faith, but This Is America is tapping into some universal biblical truth. The prophets frantically tried to hold a mirror up to Israel to show them where their comfort and self-indulgence were resulting in the dismantling of their society. Those themes are echoed in this modern expression. The video confronts its viewers with the ways that our desires for comfort and excess are causing us to ignore the marginalized, allowing violence to go unchecked.

TIA cars

It is also fitting that this call is coming in the form of a music video that makes use of symbols and extreme imagery. God frequently commanded the prophets to physically act out behaviors that were metaphorical for Israel. Hosea marries a prostitute who cheats on him and runs out on him. Yet Hosea pursues her and brings her home, symbolizing in a powerful way God’s love and pursuit of an unfaithful people (Hos. 1-3). Ezekiel builds a mini replica of the siege of Jerusalem and lies on his side for 390 days, then his other side for 40 days to symbolize God’s judgment on Israel and Judah. He is given instructions to make a specific bread with specific daily rations, indicating that the people would eat “unclean bread” during the Babylonian exile (Ez. 4). Jeremiah is commanded to buy a linen belt, place it in the cleft of a rock by the Euphrates and leave it for several days. He then went and retrieved it, revealing that it was now ruined as a garment in the same way that Israel had become worthless in their disobedience to God (Jer. 13). He is also commanded to break a clay jar to symbolize God breaking all their tools of idolatry (Jer. 19).

God is a brilliant communicator who understands that as humans, just being told something does not always mean that it will sink in. Sometimes we have to see it acted out in order for the gravity of a situation to become real. In a very similar style, This Is America puts forth jarring representations of uncomfortable realities in a way that causes them to be unavoidable.

All good art elicits a reaction. The question now is whether our reactions can move past cultural decoder rings and into hearts softened by compassion and repentance. The prophets were notoriously hated and often martyred. Anyone bearing a message that the public does not want to hear is putting themselves at risk. Will we be better listeners than those that came before us? Will we listen when confronted with experiences we may not all share but which call us to active engagement? Will we hear the cries of the prophets that echo across time and place? I pray that we will respond, not just to modern art, but to God’s timeless love of justice and mercy.

The Horrors of Parenting: A Quiet Place

“How can anyone bring a child into this world?”

Have you ever heard someone say those words, or perhaps said them yourself? In many ways that sentiment is understandable. The world is a harsh place, full of potential threats and abuses and hurts. Full of prejudice, division, and evil. Life is fragile with no guarantees of tomorrow. That is a lot of uncertainty to take on if one is going to be a parent. To be responsible for another life in a world where all you have to do is turn your back for a second and your child could vanish.

quiet place turned backs

It is this very fear that the horror/suspense film A Quiet Place confronts. On the surface it is a movie about a world inhabited by monsters (perhaps the result of an alien invasion) who are blind, but have an extremely heightened sense of hearing. The smallest sound could immediately attract them, throwing you, and anyone near you, into grave danger. The tagline of the movie is, “If they hear you, they hunt you.” It is in this environment that a family is attempting to survive together.  They’ve succeeded so far by living off the land, settled on a remote farm. With few, if any, people around them, the potential for sound is much more controlled.

The parents have created an elaborate system of silence. The father (played by John Krasinski who is also making his directorial debut) has created paths around the farm for the children to walk, lined with sand that will dampen any sound. They primarily live in the barn now because the old wood floors in the farmhouse are too creaky. Their eldest child is deaf (played beautifully by Millicent Simmons who is actually deaf) which provides a new blessing since the family all knows sign language and are able to communicate without speaking. Much of the film is silent, the dialogue and soundtrack are very limited. There in an ominous tension that pervades the film, but which is interwoven with sweet moments of the parents (made more believable by Krasinski and Blunt who are married in real life) connecting with their children and attempting to help them have semblances of normalcy. They are a loving family in a traumatic situation who are doing their best to live as a team.

quiet place family

As the film progresses you realize it is about much more than blind monsters, it is a metaphor for the fears of parenting. The setting of the story amplifies the reality that parents can never control their child’s every move.  Children will inevitably knock something over by accident. Even when you create literal paths for them to walk, they will veer off it. They will disobey and fail to understand the urgency behind their parents’ rules. They will perceive the world and have feelings that their parents will not understand or did not intend. The “horror” of A Quiet Place is the fact that it is impossible for parents to protect and control their children all the time, despite how much they love them or are trying to give them everything they need to live well. The frailty of the children is so keen. Beginning with the unpredictability of giving birth, to a newborn who needs to cry (Emily Blunt has some spectacular scenes here), to a pre-teen who is not always in control of her emotions. As an audience member you feel the parents’ anxieties and helplessness deeply.

And yet that is not all we are shown. As the suspense heightens, the children are separated from their parents forcing them to rely on their own wits and on each other to survive. As much as the kids are incredibly vulnerable, they are also profoundly resilient. We see flashes of deep emotional insight as they understand more than their parents expect. They are able to think on their feet and make connections that reveal they were listening to all the careful instruction. They are able to work together as they have seen their mom and dad work together. And what seemed like the greatest vulnerability of the family becomes their greatest strength. It was when the parents did not have perfect control that the kids grow and become stronger.

quiet place kids

A Quiet Place is ultimately a heart wrenching and hopeful picture of family. The world is a very scary place, but as the book It’s Not Too Late by Dan Dupee describes, being the perfect parent is not what kids need to be healthy. Kids need parents who love them, are involved with them, and who also allow them to experience life’s many facets. Sometimes the things we fear the most for our children, experiencing pain and unhappiness, are exactly what they need to become compassionate and resilient adults.

Black Panther: It’s really Nakia vs. Killmonger

Without a doubt Black Panther is a game changer. Ryan Coogler, director of Creed and Fruitvale Station has established himself as an incredibly insightful storyteller. A superhero movie that uses the genre to explore identity and the experience of the African Diaspora is very much worth the 1 billion it has already surpassed at the box office. Not only does the film break ground on creating the platform to imagine thriving African nations who are free to rule themselves, and the relationship between the continent of Africa and African-Americans, Coogler puts forth the best treatment of women that I have seen in any movie. Period. So much so that the Black Panther, T’Challa, is not actually the hero of the story. It’s Nakia.

Played flawlessly by Lupita Nyong’o, the character of Nakia at first seems like a love interest and a female supporting role with her own cool skills. But when I watched the movie a second time, I realized that the story actually pits her as the hero who stands in opposition to the “villain” Erik Killmonger. (Killmonger is a very complex and sympathetic character, the most poignant of the film for me. I think his approach is erroneous, but the question of the film is less “who” is the villain than “what” is the villain.)

(Warning: contains spoilers)

They both see the pain outside of Wakanda

Killmonger grew up in inner city Oakland, and also served in the military traveling extensively. He felt personally the pain of the African-American experience and the deep injustices that plague the world. Nakia has also spent extensive time outside Wakanda as a spy on missions around the globe. When we first meet her she is on a mission among human traffickers, not only rescuing the women who have been kidnapped but also protecting a male child soldier. They each have intimate knowledge of the ways that black people are suffering and in need of empowerment. Where they differ is in how they want to address it.

Nakia and Shuri

They both want to empower black people

After T’Challa is crowned king of Wakanda, he and Nakia have an important conversation as they stroll through the marketplace. T’Challa asks her what she would have him do as king. Without hesitation she replies, “Share our resources.” She is the first person in the film to suggest that Wakanda needs to look outward and move away from their seclusion. Herein lies a key difference between her and Killmonger: she looks at the mistakes of the world and wants to learn from them to improve upon what has been done before. She says to T’Challa, “Other countries offer aid and refuge, we could do it better!” Killmonger on the other hand looks at the mistakes of the world and seeks to recreate destructive patterns against the original perpetrators. When he and T’Challa are fighting he tells him, “I learned from my enemies that you have to beat them at their own game.” He sees suffering in the world and wants to use the resources of Wakanda to arm black people so they can turn the tables of colonization back on their oppressors. In the process he has no problem killing several black people. His plan would continue the cycle of death and endless power struggles. Nakia’s plan is to break the cycle entirely. When she rescues women and the child soldier from human trafficking she tells them, “Carry yourselves home now. Take the boy with you, get him to his people.” She gives them power to immediately take ownership of themselves and power to help someone else. Her every move preserves life. To learn from what has failed in the past and do something new and different that could truly change the world.

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They are both offered the heart shaped herb

Killmonger wins the right to be Black Panther and wastes no time consuming the heart shaped herb, the secret to the Black Panther’s abilities. His immediate next step is to destroy it so that no one other than him can have it. In that same moment Nakia slips in and plucks one last herb, again showing her drive towards preservation. As Nakia journeys with Shuri and Ramonda, T’Challa’s sister and mother, Ramonda urges Nakia to take the herb herself. Nakia is trained in combat and would make a very good Black Panther. But she refuses to grasp for power that is not rightly hers. She declines to join the power struggle and in so doing is later able to use the herb to save T’Challa’s life. She understands in a profound way how to use power in ways that are rightly ordered for the flourishing of all, not just for her own advancement.

They both exert power in Wakanda

Killmonger becomes king of Wakanda through an endless series of death. We see him kill multiple people on screen in his quest towards Black Panther, and he tells T’Challa about all the people he has killed along the way. “All this death just so I could kill you.” Killmonger is a man whose life has tragically been marked by death since childhood, and he sees no other way of living than to kill. When Nakia sees Wakanda teetering on the brink of destruction under his rule, she has a choice. She can support Killmonger as king and serve Wakanda in the hopes that things will turn out all right. She responds vehemently when asked to serve her country, “No, I’ll SAVE my country!” She partners with other women to fight Killmonger, and ultimately T’Challa tells her, “You saved me. You saved our nation.” The way they each exert power is diametrically opposed. Every choice she makes is for the furtherance of flourishing for all people.

They both interact with women

I did not see it clearly until my third viewing of the film (it really is that good), that Killmonger only has two significant interactions with women other than Nakia. We never see or hear of his mother, he is always surrounded by men and addresses men. He has a girlfriend who only has two lines of dialogue, and whom he treats as expendable. Then we see him strangle a female shaman when she initially balks at destroying the heard shaped herb. He threatens her, “When I tell you do to something, I mean that s***.” The only way he interacts with women is to dominate and treat them as objects. In refusing to be interdependent with women, Killmonger ultimately cuts himself off from true power and success. His life is lopsided and unidimensional.  He can only see one way of being and succumbs to the cycle of death. In sharp contrast, Nakia has thriving relationships with women and is nearly always working collaboratively with them. Together these women are creators and protectors, imagining many ways of being that can result in vibrant lives.

Nakia and squad

This is one of the strongest aspects of Black Panther, that the female characters are complex and diverse and all have meaningful relationships with each other. Part of what makes Nakia strong is her willingness to be interconnected with others, specifically other women. These women are also what make T’Challa and Wakanda strong. Their society is one that is marked by creativity and equity. When the women are shared partners in their national life, the possibilities become boundless. Wakanda is a fictional place that is giving all black people the opportunity to imagine different possibilities for themselves and their communities. Wakanda is also giving the whole world a chance to imagine what a shared future could look like for us all. If Nakia is leading the way, I’m here for it.

We just had an Epiphany

What takes up most of your time? What do you spend the most time doing? Would you notice if something new appeared in that setting? This past Sunday marked the first week of Epiphany, the season in the Church calendar where we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men to find the recently born Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). It is one of my favorite seasons because it has so many layers. It asks us to reflect on the ways that Jesus has revealed Himself to us and appeared in our lives. It marks the expansion of the Gospel as the first Gentiles (the wise men) recognized Jesus as the Savior of the world. And it demonstrates that God honors years of faithfulness to bear fruit we might never have imagined. Epiphany lasts until Lent, let us dig into all that this season offers.

Where did Jesus appear to you in the past year?

We know very little about the wise men. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they were scholars who specifically studied the stars and the natural world. They studied the night sky so closely that they noticed when a new star inexplicably appeared.

Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who is to be born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. – Matt. 2:2

I know next to nothing about astronomy, so it boggles my mind that a star could look so significant that it would cause observers to assume a great cosmic event must have occurred. What an incredible thing that God can communicate to humans through the natural world in such a way that we could realize deep spiritual thruths. The star was so special that it prompted these men to travel a great distance, likely over the course of months and even a couple of years, to find the Person that was living in its light.

The wise men saw the star because they were pursuing their vocations as scholars. They were doing their normal jobs and received this revelation in the process of their work. In the same way, where did you see Jesus show up in the course of your work and daily life last year? Where were you shaped in the process of living out your calling? Jesus can reveal Himself through the spectacular, and also through the very mundane. Spend some time thinking about where you saw Christ through simply paying attention to the life you have been given.

Jesus is for everyone

We have no indication that the wise men were Jewish, in fact they almost certainly were non-believers. They were definitely living far outside of Israel and were foreigners to the Jews. And yet Jesus revealed Himself to them in a way that they could understand. It made no difference that they spoke a different language or came from a different culture. Jesus is a savior who can cross any barrier that humans experience. Our current cultural moment is still very much defined by fear and distrust of anyone who is not like “us.” We struggle to find common ground and to reach out to one another. Let us draw on the power of Jesus to cross any border and find ourselves united by the Light of the world, the One who came to be a blessing to all nations.

What if Jesus saves your enemies?

Most Bible scholars have concluded that the wise men were from the region of Babylon, east of Israel. This is the place to which Israel had been exiled several centuries earlier. When God sent the people into exile there, He commanded them to make it count.

Build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them. Marry and be given in marriage, bear sons and daughters and multiply, do not diminish. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away into captivity, and pray to God for it; for in its peace you will have peace. – Jer. 29:5-7

They were not to just sit around, biding their time until they could leave. They were to see their time in Babylon as meaningful and capable of impact. What if the wise men were primed to see the star because of faithful Israelites who had lived out their worship of God in Babylon? Perhaps the period of the exile had left traces of God that the Babylonians were meant to find. They likely would have had access to Hebrew Scriptures and as scholars may have developed an interest in Yahweh (Hebrew for LORD) and a desire to learn more about Him. God may have honored the years of faithfulness in exile to allow new believers to find Jesus.

That is a beautiful thought, and also difficult. The Babylonians were not great people. Their attack on Jerusalem was brutal and they were a pagan culture. In every way they were enemies of God’s people. And yet Jesus chooses to intentionally target them for an invitation into the redemption story. It is easy to rejoice when people we love find Jesus, it is much harder when people we hate are called to become our spiritual brothers and sisters. And yet if we were all once enemies of God (Col. 1:21-22), Jesus saving enemies is very good news. Consider where you can be a blessing in places you might rather not be. A particular facet of your work, certain relationships in your life, classes you are tired of taking. Jesus may have plans for your presence in those places that you cannot yet imagine. Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you compassion for others and a desire for their good. May we all know Jesus more and make Him known in the places to which we have been called.

Prayer for Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that Your people, illumined by Your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that He may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.

– Book of Common Prayer