“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.

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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.

Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2017

It’s the end of another year in cinema and, looking back on the year that was, I can definitively say that we are living in a golden age of television. That’s right, with streaming services and cable channels churning out tons of risky, unique stories on the small screen, I can’t help but be disappointed by the onslaught of passable, at times directionless fare we got on the big.

I had a ton of fun with movies like Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spider-man: Homecoming but then screamed in disappointment at a underwhelming new King Kong, a beautiful but bloated Blade Runner sequel, and, in my opinion, an offensively bad first shot at the Justice League. By the time awards season rolled around, I was feeling pessimistic about the movies 2017 had to offer.

I still don’t think it’s been a particularly strong year for film. Here’s hoping the trend of studios trying to make their own Stranger Things will pass soon. Even some of the early awards favorites like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri failed to connect with me. However, after a solid binge of movies we missed or were recommended to us, I’ve filled out my top ten movies of the year.

10. Split

Confession time. I love M. Night Shyamalan. Sure he peaked way early with The 6th Sense, and may have made a few enemies with The Last Airbender, but I still think he’s brilliant. Thankfully, we are moving into an era of not having to hide Shymalan fandom any longer. After surprising fans with The Visit, the “Shy-man” was back to form and this year rocked my world with Split. An incredible performance by James McAvoy and a story that both narratively and visiually kept me guessing makes this one of Shymalan’s best. Perhaps my favorite parts of this film were the things unsaid, the nuanced details I’ve since gone back and realized. Toss in a beautiful theme that would make Alessia Cara proud, and I’m ready for the upcoming sequel.

9. The Lego Batman Movie

When 2014’s The Lego Movie came into my life, I thought there couldn’t be a movie more tailor made for me. To that, The Lego Batman Movie says, “hold my drink.” Legos, super heroes, jokes, stunning animation, and a story about friendship and, really, the family of God, come on! Does it get any better? Batman isn’t even my favorite superhero, but watching him make mouth sounds to lobster thermidor warming in his microwave made me fall in love. Here’s hoping for a Robin-centric sequel. Fly, Robin, fly.

8. Detroit

From two movies that I’ve already watched multiple times, to two movies I’m in no hurry to watch again. The first of which is Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Telling the story of the 1967 events that tore a city apart, Bigelow brings her expertise in depicting war to the streets of Civil Rights America. The content is horrific and has left audiences split, but I don’t remember this story even being a footnote in my history books. The story has to be told, and, to do the story justice, the horrors had to be real. Our history is ugly and Detroit puts that ugliness on display. There is so much in the movie that will break your heart, but, after everything Bigelow takes her audience through, watching John Boyega’s character, Melvin, in his final interrogation scene might bring you to your knees. Read Heather’s complete reflection on Detroit here.

7. Wind River

Throughout Wind River, you’ll hear again and again how desolate, how draining, how terrible the living conditions are in its rural Wyoming setting. That narrative is so present it’s often the sole excuse given for the deplorable actions in the film. You may even feel cold watching the movie. Then you realize, for many of the characters, they have no choice but to live there. Writer/director Taylor Sheridan, who topped by list last year with Hell or High Water, here tackles the shocking reality of missing indigenous women. I’ve got mixed feelings about depicting sexual violence in film, but, again if this story is going to be told it has to be given justice. Wind River is heartbreaking, suspenseful, and masterful storytelling but telling that story means shining a light on the dreadful things happening in America’s dark shadows.

6. Molly’s Game

Molly Bloom is a fascinating person and her story, written in her book “Molly’s Game,” is a fascinating story, but those things do not make a fascinating movie. Aaron Sorkin’s writing makes a fascinating movie especially when telling remarkable true stories. Just as he did with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Steve Jobs, in Molly’s Game, Bloom, a former world-class skier who at 26 was earning millions of dollars running poker games for celebrities and mobsters, gets the total Sorkin treatment. In the hands of a less capable storyteller, this movie could have been a Rounders remake, but alongside thrilling performances by Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, Sorkin’s directorial debut had me all in.

5. Baby Driver

Baby Driver is a technical achievement. If you’re unaware, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), wrote this heist movie with the entire soundtrack in mind. The soundtrack is pumped through the headphones of lead character, Baby, who uses music to drown out his chronic tinnitus. Wright then took that soundtrack and blocked, crafted, and choreographed a symphony of chases and action scenes. It is breathtaking. Every step, every gunshot, every background noise plays into the music creating a chaotic harmony that puts fully on display Wright’s filmmaking genius. Underneath the technical skill, also lies a story about maintaining innocence in an increasingly harsh world. If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to put Baby in a corner, but straight into your blu ray player for repeat viewings as you unpack everything Wright jammed into the film. The soundtrack is also available on Spotify in case you find yourself on the run. Read my complete reflection with companion Psalms for Baby Driver here.

4. Get Out

The best theater experience I had this year (maybe ever), including Star Wars, was Get Out. With every twist and turn the the sold out theater came unglued with gasps, laughs, and screams. When it came to its climatic end, row after row jumped to their feet cheering, clapping, and dancing in the isles. It was cinematic magic. For many, it was a therapeutic, genre bending take on the horrors of their reality. With Get Out, Jordan Peele is giving audiences a creative taste of his own experiences. I suggest you watch it, maybe with someone who doesn’t look like you, because it is a film best enjoyed in community. Read my complete reflection on Get Out with discussion questions here.

3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I love The Last Jedi. Come at me! I’ve often considered my Star Wars zeal to be fairly moderate. I’ve read some comics, but haven’t read the expanded universe novels. I have a few toys on display, but haven’t attended a convention or own my own stormtrooper armor. I’ve seen every episode of Clone Wars, most of Rebels, and both Ewok spin-off movies. I’m a fan and I know that fans love how much they know about Star Wars, and director Rian Johnson took that hubris and knocked us right off our high horse. I would say, the majority of the hardcore fans I know did like it, but still there’s a lot of hate out there and I just don’t get it.

I don’t want the galaxy to return to the state it was in when Episode I begins, a too-big-for-their-britches Jedi order and a world steeped in bureaucracy. It has to evolve to something more. For decades now, Star Wars has been a beautifully simple story that anyone can relate to, but as the universe expands, the complexity has to expand. War is not simple, and The Last Jedi, led by a conflicted and weathered Luke Skywalker, isn’t a simple story and one even the most learned fans couldn’t see coming. The original Star Wars was a surprise to fans in 1977, and now the finale of this new trilogy has the opportunity to do the same. Read my complete reflection on The Last Jedi here.

2. Mudbound

Mudbound is a beautiful and tragic film. Director Dee Rees took a book about life post-WWII in the Mississippi Delta and created a film that feels like your reading an epic southern novel. This is a time-period that feels like a world in flux. America just got back from helping to liberate countries at war, countries ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice and, yet it was an America that was still being ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice. Under their brilliant auteur, this cast gives so much life and breath to the lives of these characters. Sometime soon Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Detroit) will win an Oscar and I hope it comes from this one, along with a potential statue for Mary J. Blige as well. Mudbound has the ability in the matter of minutes to take you from the thrilling hope of progress, togetherness, and healing into a space of fear, division, and ignorance and still the characters keep pressing on into the future. As we keep pressing on today, it was a helpful reminder of the ups and downs of progress. Read my complete reflection on Mudbound here.

1. Logan

Logan did the impossible. I hate Wolverine. I hate that he is a terrible teammate. I hate that he constantly runs into battle with no plan just screaming and slashing. I have hated his two solo movies, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine, mostly because they feature him running, screaming, and slashing for two hours. Even in X-Men movies I like, for example Days of Future Past, Wolverine is the worst part. Seriously, watch the final battle in Days of Future Past…with no plan and no thought he runs straight at Magneto, who can control the very substance Wolverine is made of, and immediately gets tossed aside. He’s the worst, but Logan made me love him.

All of his mistakes, all of the running, screaming, and slashing, is coming back to haunt an older, regret-filled Wolverine. He now hates the things I hate about him. This is an uncomfortably violent and bloody film, but that is kind of the point. His life has been defined by violence and this is now a cycle he can’t rip his way out of. Tragedy has struck everyone he’s been close to and all of the running and screaming in the world couldn’t save them. Logan plays out as Wolverine’s penance. Throughout the film he is emotionally and physically torn apart piece by piece until there is little left.

Still, what is left, is hope. What Wolverine had never realized in movies before is that he’s not the X-Men’s greatest weapon, but he could have been their greatest protector. As he comes to terms with his mistakes, he begins to change his role and, in doing so, preserves the future of mutant-kind. Also, watching Logan care for an aging Professor X, with an awards-caliber performance by Sir Patrick Stewart, showed me vulnerability I’ve always wanted and had never seen from Wolverine. As superhero fans begin to expect more complex stories from their big blockbuster films, the brutal and emotional Logan has sent me running and screaming into the next era of comic book movies.

Check out Heather’s Top Ten movies of 2017 here!

The Power of The Last Jedi

“You underestimate the power of the dark side,” says Darth Vader to his son and desired apprentice Luke Skywalker. It’s one of those Star Wars lines that sticks with you. The line is meant to strike fear in young Skywalker, but it puts on display one of the major themes of the saga and one that is so beautifully at the center in the newest installment, The Last Jedi. In an expansive galaxy like that of Star Wars, with expert pilots, exotic alien creatures, and supernatural warrior priests, who has the most power? What does true power look like?

Luke_vs_Vader

The easy answer for many long-time fans would be “The Force.” After all, according to Obi Wan Kenobi, The Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” The genius of The Last Jedi is that it, not only calls into question what we know about The Force, but shows us that it is not the be-all-end-all of power in the galaxy. The ancient war that has been waging for decades across the saga, framed by a simple conflict between light and dark, just isn’t that simple after all. Which is a lesson Luke Skywalker, the legendary hero of the original trilogy, has had to learn the hard way.

What the new movies have done so well is thematically and narratively explore the lives of the old cast through the eyes of the new. 2015’s The Force Awakens did this through Han. Han Solo has always been the ultimate lone wolf, on the run from one thing or another. In Episode VII, we meet Finn and Rey, two people at a point in their lives where they are ready to escape and Han is the perfect spiritual guide. Throughout the movie Rey, ready for a father figure, bonds with Han and with his ship, the Millennium Falcon, which has been the ultimate getaway car throughout Star Wars cannon. Finn escapes his life as a Stormtrooper and is confronted with a decision to keep running or be a part of something bigger. There are so many parallels to what we know of Han’s story in both Finn and Rey. The Force Awakens was very much Han’s chapter. In the same way, The Last Jedi is Luke’s.

rey-hands-luke-his-lightsaber-in-the-force-awakens-credit-disney

Even in the final moments of Episode VII, there is a literal hand-off of the story taking place. Now if we’re going to explore the life of Luke Skywalker that means we have to explore The Force, the history of the Jedi, and the allure of the dark side. The Luke we meet in The Last Jedi is a failure. He tried to live up to his legend and lost control setting into motion many of the events of the new movies. He’s spent his time since absorbing all of the past mistakes of the Jedi, knowledge that brilliantly ties together the mythology of the prequels to the original trilogy. Back in 2015, I wrote about the failures of the Jedi order, but basically Luke has realized that the Jedi failed because of their own quest for power. At their peak, the Jedi assumed reign over the galaxy, but just when their power peaked, when they thought they had it locked down, they were vulnerable to manipulation, deceit, and were over thrown. This was the story of Episodes I-III.

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Into Luke’s despair and regret walks Rey pleading with him to be her mentor, to show her where she fits in the grand scheme of things. Really, what she is pleading for is exactly what the Jedi were supposed to be. It is very difficult to be defined by your power when you are actively trying to help someone become more powerful than you. At the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren tells Rey she needs a teacher, a sentiment she repeats to Luke. She doesn’t need a Jedi knight to ride into battle, she needs a Jedi master. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” I won’t tell you who says this to whom in The Last Jedi, but it might as well have been Jesus talking to his disciples or Barnabas talking to Paul.

Pastor Efrem Smith tweeted recently, “If Christians were meant to pursue political power at any cost, Christ wouldn’t have turned down Satan’s offers in the wilderness.” At the height of Jesus’ ministry, he gave up his life and at the height of his power, after resurrecting from the dead, he ascends into Heaven giving space for the apostles to lead. This has to be the example Barnabas was following when it came time to develop his apprentice, Paul. In Barnabas we have the man who vouched for the murderer Paul, the man who took that villain and trained him to be a Biblical hero, but to do all that he had to risk all of his power and eventually give it all away to Paul.

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This is also a lesson ace pilot Poe Dameron must learn in The Last Jedi. He has been flying by on his ability and skills for too long, and now must learn what it really means to lead the rebellion. Luckily, he is surrounded by resistance leaders who, just like Luke has learned his lessons about the Force, have learned their lessons about war. Without the legend of Luke Skywalker supplying hope to the resistance, Poe and Leia are racing against the clock to keep the rebellion alive. What is perhaps most heartbreaking about The Last Jedi is that, as Han’s story handed off to Luke at the end of Episode VII, Episode VIII, in so many ways, hands the story off to Leia and the resistance. This, however, is a chapter we will never totally see. The story of Princess Leia has ended off of the silver screen.

There are times in The Last Jedi where it feels like everyone is failing, and they are. The film reminds us, though, that failure is the greatest teacher. When we feel like we can’t fail, like the prequels’ Jedi order or Supreme Leader Snoke, or when we are afraid to fail, like Luke when he was training Ben Solo, we may have failed already. What does it look like to give your power away to the next generation? What does it look like to lay your life down in the ultimate resignation of your power? The answers to those questions are the ones Rey, Poe, and the resistance learn in The Last Jedi and will guide the saga into Episode IX.

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Wrestling Your Friends to Church

I like to get there early. This gives me time to mill around in the lobby and do some people watching before I find my seat. Once I find my seat there is always a pleasant murmur filling the space as others file in. Everyone is excited, cheerful, brimming with anticipation for things to get started. Without warning, the lights go out. In the darkness, we all know…this is only the beginning.

Since the turn of the millennium, I’ve been to over 20 live professional wrestling shows and they have all started virtually the same way. There is a rhythm to the experience. The most seasoned wrestling fans are privy to the cues. They know the lights turning off is the call to worship. They know when a wrestler is punching another in the corner of the ring they need to start counting to ten. They know when a wrestler kicks out of a pin before the count of three it’s time to yell “TWO!” at the top of their lungs.

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Did you know there was such an ingrained cultural liturgy in professional wrestling? I recently took a group of non-wrestling fans to a live event put on by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and I watched their faces as they witnessed the show play out. It was a consistent mix of confusion and unbelief. There was so much they didn’t know or understand and this left them bewildered and, dare I say, bored.

How did this happen? The art of wrestling has been capturing my imagination for almost two decades. The problem is I didn’t prepare them enough. I never gave them a chance to participate fully in the experience because I never told them about the liturgy of the event. Don’t we do the same thing with church, though? When you invite someone to church, how do you prepare them for the liturgy, the cultural norms that guide the experience? Do you prepare them at all? I wonder if there is anything I can glean from my experience bringing newbs to a wrestling event that can translate to how I invite people to church?

Call and Response

Wrestling fans are constantly Woooing. The lights go off at the beginning…”WOOO!” A wrestler open-hand chops another wrestler across the chest…”WOOO!” Basically, if there are any moments of stillness in the ambient noise in the arena…”WOOO!” It’s the fault of wrestling legend, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. The 16-time champion often slipped into fits of wild Woooing with the crowd jumping in. Now, because Woooing is fun and easy, it is the common response to a lot of what happens in the show. It might be the closest thing we have to a wrestling “Amen.” If you know nothing about Flair, however, it might sound like you’re surrounded by crazy people.

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This may have been how I felt the first few times I attended a more traditional church service. The person upfront would say or do something and the crowd would respond together. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying. It felt like there was so much I didn’t know. I felt left out, so confused, somewhat embarrassed, and started to check out. The Lord’s Prayer? The doxology? The people in the pews might as well have been Woooing. It was nonsense to me.

This isn’t confined to traditional churches, though. Most churches feature a set of music, right? Well, when I started going to church, this was my least favorite part. It wasn’t that the band was bad or the music was lame. It was because I had no idea why we were doing it. When was the last time you thought about every element of your worship service and wondered why you do it? Could you explain that to someone who had no context for it whatsoever?

Wrestling Psychology

When I was a novice pro wrestling fan there was one wrestler who grinded my every gear. His name was Bret “The Hitman” Hart. His style in the ring wasn’t flashy. Hart didn’t take many death defying dives off the top turnbuckle and wasn’t big enough to hit punishing clotheslines. The Hitman wrestled a slow, methodical pace that, as the uninitiated, I found to be the equivalent of a sleeper hold. As I begun to understand more about the art form, though, I discovered it wasn’t so much what you did in the ring but when you did it. Hart is a legend because he was a master at working the crowd, or as most people in the know would call it, wrestling psychology.

The most skilled at wrestling psychology are basically emotional conductors who pull the audience through a symphony of different feelings throughout the match. Performers read the temperature of the fans and that dictates what they do. The right move at the right time can take a match from average to phenomenal. As much wrestling as I’ve watched over the years, every once in a while, the best wrestlers can surprise me and send me off my couch into the air screaming with anger, shock, or pure joy.

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The mistake new wrestling fans often make is wanting a match filled with big stunts and not a big story. It’s the story that matters, though. The bigger picture, the greater context happening before, during, and after the match. When you invite someone to church do you prepare them by selling the big stunts? The music is amazing. The preaching is awesome. They serve awesome coffee. Experiencing a church service that way might send new attendees away from the Bret Hart of churches. Our greatest worship experiences come when the leaders move us into a big story, a story that taps into our lives and emotions, a story that moves us from sitting on the spiritual couch to leaping in the air in victory.

Wrestling Isn’t Fake

“Professional wrestling is fake isn’t it?” This is the question that most often follows any invite to watch wrestling. As my friend, Tommy, told me after I took him to a live event, “Why do people get so hyped about something that isn’t even real?” Let me settle this once and for all. Professional wrestling is scripted, live sports entertainment. The physical feats that happen in the 20’ by 20’ ring are real, the story is on par with any scripted show on television. Wrestling isn’t fake, it’s entertainment. People ask me all the time how I, a grown adult with advanced degrees, can enjoy professional wrestling. I show them this video.

Daniel Bryan, Triple H, John Cena, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Chris Jericho are all 100% real to the kids who watch pro wrestling and sometimes I need to be reminded what it’s like to be a kid. Wrestling pulls me into mental spaces where anything is possible and the world is filled with fascinating, diverse casts of characters. Growing up has a way of beating skepticism and cynicism into our hearts. When I walk into the wrestling arena I get to leave the weight of disbelief the world has thrown on my shoulders at the door and start believing again.

I love the ways the Gospel of Jesus Christ inspires me to be creative and believe the place I live can be better than it is. When I first walked through the doors of a church sanctuary my guard was way up. I built a wall around me with bricks of guilt, shame, and mistrust. Not only that, I was terrified. I’m not sure if I was more afraid of being told I was a bad person, church making absolutely no sense to me, or that it might make perfect sense and change my life forever.

Jesus eventually broke through the wall and the fear. It might have happened sooner if someone told me that Jesus could handle all those things I was feeling. I didn’t have to build a wall, I didn’t have to be afraid. It wasn’t that I could leave all of that weight at the door when I walked in, but Jesus was inviting me to leave it at the foot of the cross. The Gospel becomes real when you approach it with fresh eyes like a kid watching The Rock deliver The People’s Elbow.

How intentional are you with your church invites? How intentional are you when planning a worship service? Are you setting your neighbors, friends, and loved ones up to have a genuine interaction with the Lord of All? If I can get my wife to drop the stigma of professional wrestling and give it an honest chance, I believe you might be able to do the same thing with someone that carries a pretty heavy stigma about church.

One of my favorite pastors is such because I feel so cared for by him through the course of any given worship service. The bulletin thoughtfully explains each element of the service and at several points he pauses to give easy-to-understand instructions, especially for elements like communion. I love it when a worship leader stops for a second to explain why they chose this particular hymn or why we’re reciting this particular creed. Coming from someone who still feels awkward at church sometimes, I promise these things aren’t a waste of time. What if we took greater care with our friends before, during, and after the church service? What if we set them up to become massive fans of Jesus and his bride? Occasionally, I wonder if our church leaders could learn a thing or two from the liturgy of professional wrestling

“Last Chance U” and You

Football season has begun. In today’s world, this means the season of talking about concussions, hearing about the horrors of domestic violence, your sports news crawl spelling out the newest round of DUI arrests, and debating the National Anthem. Has any professional sport come under more fire in past few years than football? In the midst of the controversy, comes another entry in the Netflix docuseries, “Last Chance U.” For some, football is life. Football is identity. Football is hope. As we debate football’s place in society, “Last Chance” has a great deal to say.

The show tells the story of East Mississippi Community College and their reputation for being the landing spot of college football’s most troubled top prospects. EMCC gives players with promise a chance to get their academic and criminal records in line in order to earn offers from the country’s most prestigious football powerhouses. Every man on the roster is missing a key that would unlock a position with the likes of Auburn or Ole Miss. After all, this is the place where brand new Denver Bronco, Chad Kelly, went to junior college.

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Wrapped in this premise are the stories of these young men. This is their last chance. If it were me, given a last chance, I would approach it with military precision. EMCC not only offers them a football team complete with the eyes of recruiters, but academic counseling to make sure they are eligible for those Division 1 scholarship offers when they come. Watching these young men, though, might send you searching for a tackling dummy to hit. They skip class, they sleep through coach’s meetings, they verbally assault professors, and as their counsellor, their biggest champion and cheerleader, is giving them advice, they nod to her blankly as music blares through their headphones. So many of these student athletes are playing fast and loose with their last chance.

Thankfully the series doesn’t show these seemingly disrespectful behaviors in a vacuum. Rather, the show gives the time to hear these young men out. As each episode plays, the pieces of their puzzle come together perfectly into a picture that is hard to reconcile. So much of their lives have been a series of confusing and painful contradictions.

The classroom doesn’t make sense. Now in college they are being told to work hard academically after years of schools giving them grades to keep them on the field. Meetings don’t make sense. They’re being told to listen and change when they’re athletic skills have always kept them out of trouble. They’re being told to sit there when, in their minds, they know all these professors and counsellors want is the use of their bodies. Society doesn’t make sense. They are so close to being like their heroes who appear bullet proof from racial oppression protected by fame and money, but they’re not there yet. They are still very much subjected to a world that often makes them feel like they can’t win, a society that makes them question if it wasn’t for football would they have any worth at all?

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The only place that does makes sense, the only small piece of sanctuary they’ve found, is that level patch of grass where they get to be heroes and saints. The football field has clear rules and clear systems of penalty and reward. If they do their job between whistles, they will succeed. This isn’t always the case off the field. On the field their enemy is easy to see. However, they can’t sack inequality. They can’t put a spin move on racism. At this point in their academic careers, no number of reps seems to help them understand algebra. Coaches scream in the locker room for harder hits. It takes a level of violence to play the game, but those same coaches then call them thugs when they use that violence to protect each other and lack compassion when that violence spills into the players’ lives. The game of life doesn’t make sense, football does. So that is where their hope, effort, and identity goes, everything else has become a waste of time.

I still believe football has a place in this world. I was never blessed with the stamina of a soccer player or the speed and agility of the best baseball players. The Lord did give me the size and strength to play football and the sport gave me a lot in return. When coached well, football can actually teach you discipline, resilience, teamwork, and how to manage your emotions for good. Coming from Steelers country, I also know how football can unite communities in powerful ways. For many of the Lions of EMCC, these helpful, good aspects of the game have been lost through lives lived in a world that tells them they’re winners in a system that has ill-equipped them to win.

In season one, this is most apparent in running back DJ Law. He feels inadequate in the classroom so he’s constantly falling behind and skipping class. The penalties of failing and missing class are outlined clearly at the beginning of the show and he has surpassed them all. Cut to the head coach saying they do everything they can to help players succeed only to roll that back admitting they don’t do everything. They do everything to win, so Law remains on the field. There are resources all around him to help him work through his academic challenges, but why go through that when all that really matters is football. Researching Law’s story after the show only provides more tragic evidence. He had an offer to play for a good school but got injured. Without football, his grades fell even further and now he’s no longer in school.

Towards the end of season two there is another heartbreaking example. Standout Isaiah Wright struggles through the season with several painful situations. Throughout his life, he’s been rewarded for what his body can do, but when he is injured and trying to take care of his body he’s penalized and yelled at. On top of this, Wright is dealing with a deeply sad life situation that I won’t spoil and has no idea how to handle his emotions. All of this amounts to incredible emotional and mental confusion. This confusion carries over onto the field. In one game, he fails to catch a punt that results in giving his team terrible position on the field and gets yelled at. Next time he tries hard to catch the punt but does so giving the team even worse position, and he gets yelled at. Even though anyone who has ever returned a punt knows when and when not to catch the ball, Wright, unable to reconcile everything that’s happened to him, can’t make these decisions and can’t handle the failure that results. He melts down. He loses his best scholarship offers and settles for a Division II school. Again, researching him after the show reveals he spent less than a year at his new school and has since dropped out with no prospect of returning elsewhere.

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Anyone working with young people would benefit from watching “Last Chance U.” Questions of identity constantly plague our next generation. Football, like anything else vying for our identities, can cause terrible damage if it is all a person has. “Last Chance” tells the story of young men who have had limited choices in where to place their identity. What could have happened if Law or Wright were given something else to motivate them? What if they could use sports for their intended purpose and not place the entirety of their hope in them?

Thankfully, season two also tells this story through linebacker Dakota Allen. Allen arrived at EMCC after nearly being charged with armed robbery. He lost his spot on Texas Tech’s football team and was labeled a menace to society. Episode 4 opens with Allen being baptized at the home of one of his coaches. After football was taken away, Allen needed something else to place his identity in and the advice he heard most often was to pray. This led to a deep belief in Jesus Christ. The episode in punctuated by Allen in church listening to his pastor exclaim the unending grace and mercy Jesus provides. As tears stream down Allen’s face, it’s obvious he knows what it means to have a another chance. I’ll let you see for yourself how his story plays out on the show, but I will tell you it was fun watching him playing on national TV as the season opened this year.

The title of the show is accurate. Football offers a finite number of chances and often takes more than it gives. If football is all that makes sense in the world, if it becomes the center of identity, then one bad hit or bad play will bring that world and identity down. With care, football can offer an avenue to express God-given gifts and achieve building blocks for life-long success. This can only happen if a young person is given the chance to place their identity into something that offers the infinite. In a world that is often unforgiving, the Gospel gives chance after chance after chance to be forgiven.

Why I Can’t Leave Social Media

What is the current status of your relationship with social media tools? I’m guessing it’s complicated. Let’s face it. It has been a rough couple of years for our online communities. Ideological differences, a heated US presidential election, the spread of fake news, more aggressive cyber bullying, more relatives joining networks making it less cool, and on and on and on. Creating lists of reasons to unplug probably takes most of us mere seconds. Many of you may have even done a Google or two to find a pastor or digital mentor to tell you it’s healthier or more spiritual to walk away. Forgive me, but I just can’t do that.

Who are the most vulnerable people in your life? Who is the person or people in your life that are particularly susceptible to any of the most horrific forms of online abuse. Now imagine your social network is a party. Your loved one walks through the door and moves through the party looking for community. Think about who might be in this room. In a shouting match over by the chip bowl are your conservative uncle and liberal cousin having it out in all caps. Behind your loved one in the bathroom line is that weird guy from the neighborhood who just keeps repeating, “I like the way you look in that outfit.” Leaning against the far wall someone stands, not really participating in the party, but just yelling racial slurs and jokes about people with disabilities. Are you ready to leave your loved one at this party?

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“I couldn’t have done this without social media. The world would not have known,” says 20-year-old Libyan cyber activist Danya Bashir. “We are blessed with the social media,” says blogger and women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif. “The power of women is in their stories. They are not theories, they are real lives that, thanks to social networks, we are able to share and exchange,” said Egyptian-American activist Mona el-Tahawey, kicking off a summit that brought more than a hundred of the Middle East’s leading female activists together in Cairo. For millions of the world’s most vulnerable citizens, the social media party is their greatest or only life line, their only platform.

What a privilege it is for me to even have the option of leaving the party. What a privilege it is for me to sit back and say I’ve got too many platforms, too many places for my voice to be heard. Social media tools offer incredible power and the cat is so far out of the bag at this point only a worldwide ban on electricity could shut them down. If we’re serious about caring for and being a blessing to the world around us, we might need to reconsider unplugging and reorient our beliefs and usage of the apps on our devices.

Do you believe that there is an original, created good imbedded in our social media tools? Why were they originally created? Imagine the whole world connected. Sharing information and resources and forming relationships across oceans and continents. The image bearers of God no longer limited by obstacles of distance and time. This good potential is still in there. The next time you start a post with, “Social media tools have made me…,” I invite you to rearrange that sentence.

Humans have been passing the blame since day one. Adam pleads with God in Genesis 3, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Oh, Adam, honey. You just blamed Eve and God for your original sin. When it comes to social media tools are we blaming the cart for the way the donkey is pulling it? We have always been bad at communicating with other humans. We have always compared ourselves to others. We have always and will always hurt each other with our words. Tell me if this describes you or someone on your timeline:

1 An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends

and against all sound judgment starts quarrels.

2 Fools find no pleasure in understanding

but delight in airing their own opinions…

13 To answer before listening—

that is folly and shame.”

Did the author of Proverbs 18 just describe an internet troll? Well they also include a stern warning later on. “21 The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” If the words of our tongue are words of death that is the fruit we’ll be eating. Anyone need some Tums? Before your acid reflux gets the best of you, don’t miss the hope in that warning. Yes, we can spout words of death…but we can also author words of life. Look back in Proverbs 12, “18 There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” How can we create spaces online that breed words of life and have the power to bring healing?

The best place to start is in prayer. Pray for forgiveness for the words of death you’ve typed or ignored. Pray for protection against the pitfalls our sinful hearts fall into like comparison traps, pornography, and bullies. Pray for a heart that desires loving your enemies, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless, and that is ready to build online communities that are a healthy platform for the least, the lonely, and the lost. We are all works-in-progress so as you’re continuing to pray for these things also pray for the Spirit to grant you wisdom. Here is a beautiful entry from the Book of Common Prayer that I find relevant. It is a plea for those who influence public opinion.

“Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

There are two players in this game, the users and the tools. Now that we understand a little more about the user, let’s talk about the tools. In my research on building relationships online (I wrote my thesis on the Twitter marketing of World Wrestling Entertainment), I found that academia refers to social media tools as “technology mediated communication.” This title is fairly self-explanatory. The normal communication model consists of a sender, a message, a receiver, and feedback. This exchange is hindered by what we call noise. Noise influences how the message is received. In online communication, there is incredible noise. It’s harder to read non-verbal cues like tone and body language and online tools rarely ever exists in a vacuum. They’re surrounded by tons of visual and audible content.

It is harder to communicate online. Social media tools are often where nuance goes to die. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I would argue we have two common responses when communicating online gets tough; retreat completely or make our online communication one-way (i.e. self-centered). Sometimes it’s a mix of both. In the younger generation, there is a skew towards using Instagram as the primary tool. I get it. Parents and other relatives have made Facebook super lame. They check up on you, constantly post nonsense, and barely know how to use it. It makes sense to retreat to the least interactive, most self-centered medium. Even with current updates, Instagram culture remains one of the most one sided forms of social media.

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We have taken tools meant to increase participation in the world and made them into soap boxes for projecting ourselves. Are you projecting or participating? What is your selfie ratio? Do you post selfies more than other-peopleies? Do you tag people or do you subtweet (talking about a person without tagging them)? Do you use hashtags, the best way for online tools to gather communities and organize content? Do you take more nuanced conversations off-line to really listen or do you spend your time wording your rebuttal?

I have seen vulnerable people come to life in our physical community because of the space created in our online community. I’ve been able to join in the trenches of painful situations with people outside of my geographical or cultural reach. I’ve been impacted by the stories of people who are drastically different from me. We have been given tools that allow us to record what God is up to in the world. Through this online collection of the stories of myself and my community, we are co-authoring our digital testimony across statuses, pictures, snaps, and tweets. If Jesus is Lord over every square inch of creation then that includes every inch of the endless online void. Invite God into your online spaces, create profiles that aren’t just about you, and stay at the party. We need you.

Combatting White Supremacy with Narratives Not Our Own

The vast majority of white people wouldn’t identify as white supremacists. The vast majority of whites think white supremacy is ugly and unacceptable. It is also true that a significant portion of the white community does not have close relationships with people of color. Additionally, it can be easy for white Americans to see minority-generated art (such as movies and TV) and assume it is made for a minority audience and is not for them.  But when we have few friends of color, and seek out little or no stories that are about people who don’t look like us, we are allowing our stories to be supremely white.

When we aren’t regularly seeing stories about people in different walks of life, we unconsciously think that everyone’s story is like ours. We become confused and sometimes angry about the way others react, or we say thoughtless things that we don’t realize are insensitive and insulting. The more we immerse ourselves in a variety of stories, the more readily we can empathize with people of color and think more effectively about our own actions and perceptions. Especially for people who are limited by geography and do not live in diverse parts of the country, seeking out the stories of others is a very simple way to broaden your understanding. If you were upset by the events in Charlottesville and want to fight semblances of white supremacy in yourself, here are some suggestions for movies and TV that you can watch in the coming months to help make your narrative less white:

Television 

Queen Sugar

I think this is hands-down one of the best shows on TV right now, and a lot of us haven’t heard of it. In its second season, Queen Sugar airs on OWN and is produced by Ava DuVernay (director of “Selma” and the upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time”). It’s a contemporary story set in New Orleans about three siblings and their extended family, and their struggle to maintain the family sugar cane farm. The storylines and characters are very complex and the show does a fantastic job of addressing social issues in ways that nearly always feel natural and relatable. The first season is streaming on Hulu, the current season is available for purchase on OWN’s website (or on demand).

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Black-ish

A sit-com on ABC, this show is funny and at times exaggerated  while also addressing issues of race and socio-economics in poignant ways. It’s about a successful black family in the suburbs navigating the differences between how the parents grew up (in a poor neighborhood and a hippy commune) and how to raise their children to understand race in America in light of their current affluence. I appreciate that the show depicts a wide range of modern black experience in humorous and heartfelt ways.

Luke Cage

This is a recent addition to the Marvel universe on Netflix. Luke is a super hero whose super power is being super strong and bullet-proof (an intentional play on the vulnerability of black men who live under constant threats of violence). The show is set in Harlem where the community is being pulled in many different directions between crime and renewal. Luke is caught in the middle as he tries to protect his neighborhood against violence and corruption. The show is quite gritty and has some adult content, so check the viewer warnings and decide if it’s right for you.

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This Is Us

This show was wildly popular so many may have already watched it. It’s a show that has a blended cast and talks about issues of race very thoughtfully. The cast is phenomenal and the writing is great. The family is predominantly white so for audiences who are unfamiliar with diverse narratives, it is a good entry point into more diverse entertainment. Use this show to start paying attention to how black characters are portrayed, how many scenes/lines they have compared to the white characters, whether they are portrayed as equals or as weaker/inferior, etc. The first season is streaming on Netflix.

Movies

Hidden Figures

This movie does a wonderful job of striking a balance between gritty realism and inspiration. Based on real people and true events, the film tells the story of black women working at NASA during the space race. It’s informative, it’s very engaging, and it’s appropriate for young audiences as well as adults.

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Creed

I’m a life-long “Rocky” fan, and director Ryan Coogler does a terrific job of breathing new life into this franchise. Actor Michael B. Jordan plays the son of Rocky’s rival and friend, Apollo Creed. The film has strong black characters and explores powerful themes of family and hope. One of my favorites in a long time!

Get Out

This is a technically a horror film so it’s not for everyone, but I normally can’t do scary movies and I was fine. The genre of horror at its best is meant to focus on a social issue and magnify it through the lens of fear. (The majority of horror films fail to do this, so don’t hear this as a blanket endorsement for all horror.) Writer/director Jordan Peale creates an extremely clever exploration of the appropriation of black culture and black bodies. He reverses the typical trope of the black side character being the first to get killed off, and forces the audience to confront our perception of black men as aggressors. If you can hang in there for a few scenes of violence and some suspense, it will be worth it. Check out Ivan’s full review here.

Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut, this film was ahead of its time in discussing police violence. Based on the true story of a young man, Oscar Grant, in San Francisco killed by subway security in 2008. The film tells his story and the events of his final day. It is sobering subject matter and simply shows Oscar as human. An early role for Michael B. Jordan, this is a helpful choice for exploring the topic of the relationship between the black community and police.

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Please think about trying some of these suggestions, and please know that this is only scratching the surface. My hope for you is not that you will watch a handful of these options and then feel that you know all black people. I hope that this will spark on-going interest to learn more and to also seek out personal relationships with people who don’t look like you. This is one simple step out of many that we can all take to move towards being a more hospitable and unified country.

Note: I’ve enjoyed a few comedies, “Ugly Betty” and “Jane the Virgin”, which are Hispanic-centered. This is an area of American entertainment that needs to keep growing. Unfortunately there are very few options for Asian American media. “Man in the High Castle” on Amazon has one of the largest Asian casts out there, but it is also sci-fi and is therefore limited in its exploration of current cultural issues. “Master of None” (Netflix) from comedian Aziz Ansari is a brilliant look at first-generation children of immigrants as well as broader racial/social trends. (The show will be fairly edgy for many viewers which is why I am not widely recommending it.) As audiences our money and viewership matters and we can join with others in asking for more stories and representation than is currently being produced. Keep paying attention to how different people are portrayed and put your support behind art that is complex and equitable. 

 

Men and women can’t be friends

“You realize of course that we could never be friends,” Harry says to Sally, slyly sneaking this disclaimer in to open the conversation of how sex always gets in the way of friendship. Possibly, he was just trying to work sex into the conversation any way he could. It is 1989, and Billy Crystal sits in Meg Ryan’s passenger seat painting a picture of gender relations past, present, future in the film When Harry Met Sally. It is a statement that, at the time, was describing gender relations in a post-sexual revolution era, but it also predicted how men and women would relate today in our world of app-based community and romance. Harry expresses his worldview in this context of two flirty college students, and it is charmingly funny, but when we look at where our churches are in the department of gender relations, it is nothing to smile about.

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As the millennial generation continues to put off getting married, we feel a larger and longer relational gap. To fill this void, many turn to positive, healthy friendships for belonging and community. Many more, though, participate in hook-up culture and online dating, where people of the opposite sex are commoditized. What is then created is an environment where relationships are defined by sex and isolation is created by the void of loving friendships.

The church might be feeling the fallout of this trend most. Recent research shows that because of this, women are making their exit. According to Barna Group, since 2003 the percentage of churchgoers that are female has dropped 12 points, and it is not because more men are coming in. Coupled with this, Barna also reports that only 17% of women feel like they are “very emotionally supported” in their church or synagogue.

I wonder if we trying at all to create environments where marriage isn’t the only priority in male-female relationships? But here we are, and I think our churches could be spaces where our current generation, which is relying heavily on friendship as their main source of affection and support, should find what they are looking for. This is not a quick and easy task. Even though community is a major priority in the church, our inability to form friendships between men and women can leave us like Ricky Bobby in his first interview, scrambling to figure out what to do with his hands. If something doesn’t change soon, if we do not find a way to encourage friendship among singles, thereby offering women the support they need, we could lose an essential component to representing the image of God in our places of worship.

Men and Women Need to Communicate

Sadly, our culture doesn’t stress communication and friendship between men and women. Sex and romance are the current language of male-female relationships. The current state of interpersonal communication is frightening. Reading through Parks & Recreation star Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance makes talking to the opposite sex seem like a myth, a rarely sighted animal that culturally never shows its face. Look at the narrative both men and women have been presented in popular movies and TV. Men are always the heroes, flying, swinging, or smashing in to save the day. This is true for the latest Marvel films, anyhow. The most recognized and powerful Marvel female leads, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, weren’t even invited to the party in the latest installment of the Avengers franchise. Why would they come anyway? In a bloated, male-driven superhero movie they more than likely would have served as little more than scenery. They are excluded unless the narrative calls for romance.

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Looking for a positive narrative for women, let’s investigate Disney’s Frozen. In a lot of ways, the film has become a beacon of hope in the normal princess narrative because it is a female-driven story about sisterly love and triumphing over the societal pressure for women to hide who they are. Nevertheless, you won’t find positive inter-gender friendship-building in this most recent Disney flagship. It is reasonable that Anna lacks the skills to make friendships. Being locked in a kingdom her entire life could do that. But when she emerges from her isolated world, she falls for the very first man who catches her attention. Here is the problem with the majority of our princess narratives: The action begins when the man arrives and ends with the happily-ever-after wedding. There always has to be a love interest, right? Even the resourceful Tiana from Princess and the Frog and the courageous Mulan from Mulan have narratives revolving around a love interest. What made these women who they are? It wasn’t the men. Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if Kristoff and Anna stayed friends or Tiana opened her dream restaurant without being betrothed to Prince Naveen?

If we look at the narrative of Jesus’ life, though, we find that He didn’t think it necessary to have a love interest in order to have women around. Luke 8 tells a little bit of the account:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”

These women were diverse, faithful, and incredible. Perhaps what stands out at first glance is how they financially supported Jesus’ ministry. They were dedicated to the cause as well as the cross. They followed Jesus all the way to the end and beyond and no wonder! Look at Mary Magdalene. Think about the absolute torture her life consisted of before meeting Jesus. What a story she has to tell. Our author, Luke, is a great example for our churches to follow. His first few lines tell you how he was a meticulous recorder of the history of Jesus. Many believe as he was on his travels alongside Paul, gathering information for a complete record of this story, he collected manuscripts and conducted interviews, interviews in which the women in Jesus’s life and ministry were not left out. In fact, it is likely that he even interviewed Mary, mother of Jesus. Can you imagine that conversation? Luke hearing firsthand Mary’s incredible story of being visited by an angel and life never being the same again. Our biblical authors didn’t pass these women up, and it means our churches shouldn’t either.

Today, we have our first female NFL coach, the first female graduates of Army Ranger school, a U.S. women’s World Cup title, a female mayor bringing gangs to peace in Compton, and on and on and on. These are opportunities and contributions that we do not see in male-dominated cultures around the world. Where women are oppressed, the culture suffers.

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Why then does it seem that the church is still behind in this area? Can you imagine what stories the church is missing by not communicating well to the women in our midst? Jesus didn’t have women there alongside Him by accident; He thought it was necessary, and we’ve got to move beyond the romance narrative and have real conversations. Men and women need to seek each other out, talk face to face, and learn to ask good questions. You’d be surprised how infrequently women are asked, “What do you think about that?” Does the way we communicate with women in church communicate their value? Based on the Barna stats, it doesn’t sound like it. Our churches need to seek out women’s stories, talents, and opinions because they have great value.

Men and Women Need Borders Not Boundaries

Men and women in the church need to have more conversations and interactions if they are to lean on each other as friends. This is normally the point in the conversation when we talk about building up walls. Stories of professional athletes and pastors never going to lunch with women or riding in cars or elevators alone with them creates a sense of fear and confusion. Well get your trumpets ready, people, because we are walking around those walls and bringing them down.

For decades, male leaders in the church have lived by what is affectionately called, “The Billy Graham Rule.” It is said that the famous preacher and evangelist Billy Graham had a “rule” for his interactions with women. He would never be alone with a woman who was not his wife–not in a car, an elevator, or a meal. His thinking is that this is the best way to guard his marriage and his ministry. The fear is both internal and external. It is internal because it squashes a situation where temptation will abound. It is external because even the idea that a leader might be out alone with a woman could cause rumor, suspicion, or false accusations. This could be a valid fear for a church leader. But with one quick Bible app search, you’ll read what Jesus thinks about fear. Where is our trust in our sovereign Lord if fear is this severe in our churches? Also, what if these rigid boundaries are causing more harm than good?

In a recent article for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, Dr. Halee Gray Scott tells some of the horrors of creating strict boundaries in gender relations:

“As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made business decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit.”

Yes, it can cause a myriad of problems to be alone with someone of the opposite sex, but strict boundaries can shut people out of important, valuable ministry. Instead of creating giant walls in our relationships, what if we created helpful borders that can be moved and crossed when appropriate? We’ve got to find a balance and that may involve balancing our intentions. 

Men and Women Need the “Friend Zone”

Oh, the “friend zone,” a term so dreaded in our society that it spawned a Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy, Just Friends. But what if the friend zone is exactly what we need in our churches?

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The friend zone begins with creating flexible borders, not steel-reinforced boundaries. For example, let’s say we are never going to hug anyone of the opposite sex in our church. After all, physical touch alludes to romantic affection (and not everyone even likes being hugged). But is this the model Jesus presented to us? Jesus touched. Jesus hugged. Jesus embraced people of all walks of life. It is true that hugs can become inappropriate, but they can also be incredibly appropriate. One way to navigate this is to always ask if it’s ok to hug someone. This can be awkward and difficult, but abandoning all physical contact creates a world much like a 7th grade dance floor, with each gender on the opposite side clinging to the wall for dear life. The church is about unity not division. There is no exact science or standard you can set because everyone has different needs and feelings about things like physical touch, spending time alone with someone, and frequency of communication. We need to work through these spheres with individuals to create a space where people are heard and friendships can flourish. As with anything that isn’t clear cut, mistakes are bound to be made but our churches and our friend zones need to have grace and forgiveness built in.

It may also be necessary to redefine why we are in the church. The church should not be defined by the romance narrative of the culture. Can anyone point me to the scripture reference where it says that the church is there for you to find your mate? The church is God’s invention to equip His people and bless the world, to restore shalom to all areas of life. Finding your future spouse may be a result but it’s not the main idea. Let’s say God has called you to be married. How many people are you going to marry? So then, what happens with all of the other opposite gender relationships in your life? If you are currently married, making your spouse your only friend is a surefire way to put crippling pressure on them to be your only source for support. The God of the Bible is a God of community, and friendship is a gift God has given us.

When marriage becomes your main target for bonding with people of the opposite sex, then it’s difficult to build relationships, even friendships, that aren’t defined by sex in some way. This is exactly what Harry was talking about.

“This myth, then—the belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships—has led many of us in recent decades to feel suspicious of, uncertain about, and at times even ashamed of deep friendships and has hindered our search for closer and more fulfilling ones,” says Dr. Wesley Hill, a leading voice in the spiritual friendship movement. Creating the friend zone involves both genders meeting in that space with the motive to hear each other’s stories, provide love and support, and build a vibrant, diverse church community.

Men and Women Need Each Other

Creating churches where genders are constantly divided is an effective mode of making people lonely and isolated. Do you remember the book Men Are from Mars, Woman Are from Venus? However gimmicky the title may be, there is some truth to the idea that men and women are different. Sometimes it does feel like we might as well be from different planets, but we both come from the same image. We carry the image of God together as the human race, and we need each other to show that image to the world and to the people in our church.

In my role as a campus minister, I get to meet and work with too many women who come from a background where they never had a healthy relationship with their father and have never been shown love and respect in a dating relationship. In fact, many come to college having been used and degraded in almost every relationship in their lives. What if a woman like that comes into a church environment where she is treated like something to fear? What if she is treated only as the romantic interest of a greater narrative? She will never experience the image of a Father who will never use and abuse her. She will never experience the image of a brother who has her back. She may never have the space to build relationships that speak the Gospel into her life.

When creating our friend zone, we must be looking and thinking about people as friends first. It means our first thoughts about these people are how we can love and serve them and wondering how they will positively contribute to the Body of Christ. It means recognizing gifts and hearing stories. It means bringing our true selves into our churches and sharing that with others by communicating openly and honestly. We’ve got to navigate these waters with the intent to be Kingdom builders, to welcome people of any gender into our houses of worship to meet our servant King. It’s time for our churches to step up and prove Harry wrong. Men and women can be friends, and if we are going to help our churches flourish and truly reflect the image of God we, in fact, are called to be friends.

This article originally appeared in Christ & Pop Culture Magazine. (Edit 2017)