Do Heroes Fight Skybeams? (Accidental Minor Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming)

Last week I shared some thoughts on the latest installment of the DCEU, Wonder Woman. I tried to stay focused on that film, but found myself floundering around with broader thoughts concerning superheroes in cinema. A friend and I were discussing Wonder Woman and he suggested that (spoiler ahead!) the scene of Diana courageously crossing No Man’s Land was the most heroic moment in a superhero movie since Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man was willing to remain maskless in front of dozen of onlookers in order to save their train car from disaster.

http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRhRZB-nqOU

In light of our conversation, I have been pondering this question: When was the last time a key moment in a superhero film revolved around the hero saving someone in an act of heroism? I’m not asking about pieces of dialogue where characters plan to evacuate bystanders or brief clips of people being pulled from danger. I’m asking about scenes that portray the heroism of the character, scenes that display courage or sacrifice.

Frankly, I can’t think of any such scenes that have occurred in any recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Many of those films revolve around some larger conspiracy or larger-than-life foe. Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, while MCU high points, are more concerned with internal conflicts within the superhuman community. Would it be so bad to see The Vision get a cat out of a tree (which could be both endearing and hilarious!) or watch Bruce Banner serve in a local free clinic as he steps back from the life of an Avenger? Batman hasn’t stopped a mugger since Batman Begins in 2005. Say what you will about Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.  Brandon Routh’s Kal-El is in the business of helping people.

Why have we as the audience traded heroism for the sky beams? It appears that studios believe we desire for higher powers like the Avengers or Justice League to confront insurmountable alien forces rather than reflect what courage, conviction, and compassion look like in the streets. The Avengers team rarely interacts with regular civilians in any substantial fashion.  Instead, foes and threats remain abstract to such an extent that they’re not even allegorical or symbolic for real world conflicts and tragedies.

I thought this post would largely be about my disappointment over this trend in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, over the weekend I saw Spiderman: Homecoming. (Surprise Minor Spoilers!) If you saw Captain America: Civil War, you know that that was Spidey’s first appearance in the MCU. This next MCU installment follows Peter Parker as he fights street crime in the snazzy Stark-spider suit given to him in Civil War. He desires desperately to be an Avenger and to take his fight beyond the streets of New York City (and mostly Queens). The film’s big baddy, played by Michael Keaton, who makes his money selling alien technology left over from the wreckage of the alien attack on NYC (in the first Avengers film). Keaton plays the Spidey villain, Vulture. I could write a post just on Vulture and his relationship with Spider-Man throughout the film It’s fascinating.

As I mentioned, Spider-Man wants to be an Avenger. He spends his after school time at his “Stark internship,” where he saves cats, helps old ladies, and thwarts bicycle thieves (sorta). At the end of each day, he leaves a voice message for Happy Hogan (so cool to see Jon Favreau again) which recaps all his activities and asking when he can speak with Tony Stark again.

Yet, by the film’s conclusion (spoilers) Peter Parker decides to remain “Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” The events of the film and the parallels between Vulture and Spidey convince Parker that he is needed in the neighborhood. This is in stark contrast to whatever larger-than-life conflict the Avengers are wrapped up in. Although Spider-Man will enter cosmic-grade warfare in Avengers: Infinity War, for the moment Spider-Man chooses to be the local hero. While giving an elderly woman directions and being awarded with a churro isn’t exactly the action of blockbuster cinema, there is a groundedness to this hero that much of the MCU and DCEU lack. Spider-Man’s The Vulture and Wonder Woman‘s Ares are foes that embody familiar realities. The Vulture is a villain born out of economic hardship.  Ares incites the chaos of war.  Both economic hardship and pervasive war are the subject of daily news headlines. Whether it be the Chitauri of The Avengers, or Ultron in its sequel (not to mention whatever Lex Luthor is doing in Batman v Superman), there is little to nothing these threats that make our heart ache for justice. By the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming, I was even aching for justice and mercy for Keaton’s Vulture.

Why do our superhero movies so regularly lack heroism, compassion, and a human connection? Wonder Woman’s exposed sprint to draw enemy fire in No Man’s Land is an act that inspires the enlisted soldiers to storm enemy lines. Tom Holland’s Spidey is a beat cop of sorts, who also performs even the most menial of favors. How do our movies define the word “hero?” Is the servant leader such a far-gone concept in our popular culture that our heroes can only be known as they fight large, structural oppression? Not only that, these structural oppressions in the MCU are a conspiracy of some hidden evil, and make light of the structural oppression that does exist.

Perhaps Tony Stark’s admonishment to Peter Parker “to stay close to the ground” reflects his own regret at not focusing his justice at the grass roots (in light of the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War). While such a pivot would be fascinating and likely welcomed by film goers in the MCU, a conflict on the scale that is promised by Avengers: Infinity War brings little promise of that.

What kind of heroes do we desire? If we want to define heroes strictly in a mythological sense, god-like beings alone fit the bill. But if we want heroes that truly inspire us to live for others, then our heroes must defined by actions of selflessness and mercy. So far Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are the heroes that do just that.

show a friend

Wonder Woman: The Hero We Deserve (Minor Spoilers)

I have always been a fan of DC Comics. The pantheon of DC heroes is simply iconic. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman have largely defined everything we expect in superheroes. DC is still going strong in the DC: Rebirth titles, which I wrote on here. Decades ago, these heroes set the bar. So imagine my disappointment when the DCEU, was turning into a total mess of a cinematic universe. I, for one, did not despise Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as much as many audiences and critics. There was plenty I enjoyed about both films. Yet, it became apparent that the masterminds behind the DCEU did not understand what these iconic characters were truly about. The comicbook nerd in me could explain away the elements that seemed to betray the nature of these characters. I could buy a Kal-El who recently turned superhero being neglectful of human life while fighting Zod then snapping his neck in a fit of rage. I considered this to be a great moment for Supes to make his trademark commitment to protect all life. And I was intrigued by the idea of a Batman so devastated by the murder of Robin and so jaded after years of crime fighting that he was less discriminate in his preservation of life and his pledge to not use firearms. Such a dichotomy would have made for a fascinating dynamic between a young Superman and a seasoned Batman. But instead we got this.   And director Zack Snyder was adamant that his revisioning of the iconic heroes was his final intention. It seemed the DCEU would only ever offer us brooding, angsty, negligent superheroes who are so caught up in their own depression that they play fast and loose with human life.

But low and behold! One hero has entered the DCEU with the conviction and uncompromising virtue we comicbook nerds expect from DC Comics. Here are some Minor Spoilers for Wonder Woman!

Much has been written about the role of gender in Wonder Woman and the hopes that this film will encourage studios to tap into the treasure trove of female superheroes (superheroines?). These reviews are well worth the read. I have high hopes for how Joss Whedon, who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will handle the character of Batgirl, and I am curious about the portrayal of Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey/Phoenix in the next installment in the X-Men film franchise. But the gender study of Wonder Woman and the future of female superheroes has been discussed at length by others. What this film brings to the table is something that has been lost in the world of comicbook movie franchises: a hero with conviction, compassion, and idealism.

The film begins with Princess Diana growing up on the Amazonian island of Themyscira. Her mother, Hippolyta, tells her how Ares, the God of War, rebelled against Zeus and incited war amongst an otherwise peaceful humanity. It is the purpose of the Amazons to defeat Ares should he appear again, and, to that end, on Themyscira resides the weapon “the Godkiller.”

The plot thickens when the English spy, Steve Trevor, crashes onto Themyscira while fleeing German ships, and brings the reality of World War I to Diana’s attention. The unprecedented chaos and the moral ambiguity of the first World War stands in stark contrast to the idealistic paradise of Diana’s homeland, The Princess of the Amazons is adamant that the God of War has returned, and that it is her duty defeat him and return peace to humanity. The rest of the film follows Diana as she, with a ragtag squad of soldiers, penetrates the Western Front in search of General Ludendorff (a real historical figure) who she is convinced is actually Ares.

Spoiler Alert: Diana does succeed in killing Ludendorff. However, it is immediately evident that her understanding of war, humanity, and Ares himself is incomplete. I’ll let you find out who is actually Ares in this film. What is important is that Diana quickly learns how integrated good and evil are within human persons. In light of this, Diana must nuance her convictions and discover her role amidst the chaos and joy of human existence.

The element of Wonder Woman that I find the most well crafted is Diana’s integration into early 20th century western Europe. Once she and Steve Trevor are alone on the boat sailing away from Themyscira, she begins learning about this mysterious new world in a fish-out-of-water style of story. Yet the brilliance of Allan Heinberg’s screenplay, Patty Jenkins’ direction, and Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Diana, is that Diana’s convictions about justice, compassion, and the need to defeat Ares, never waver. While she may wear the clothing of the period and learn small pieces of etiquette, Diana remains uncompromising in who she is and what she believes is her mission. The film’s climax does little to undermine her core commitments to justice –which is a far cry from Snyder’s murderous Batman. Rather, she is forced to understand her convictions in a new light as she experiences the epiphany that the evils of the world are enmeshed in the human experience and not the machinations of one deific figure. These new revelations do not change Diana’s character, but call her into a deeper understanding of the principles she learned in her youth. What makes Diana heroic at the beginning remains what makes her heroic at the end. In fact, her powers are very much secondary to her convictions which is more than I can say for Superman in Man of Steel.

Wonder Woman stands out among superhero films because Diana’s heroism clearly inspires heroism in others throughout. This is most apparent when the troops push across No Man’s Land, following her fearless drawing of enemy fire, breaking the stalemate between the English and German forces. Unlike Man of Steel‘s assertion that the House of El crest (the iconic “S” emblazoned shield) means hope, or Bruce Wayne’s verbal desire for Batman to “become a symbol,” in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Wonder Woman does not require such verbal articulation because her actions and countenance convey exactly these things.

I have more to say on superheroes. But that is for next week. In the mean time, go see Wonder Woman. 

show a friend

Jacob Travlers Goes on an Indefinite Hiatus

Can I share a secret with you all? Writing fiction can be challenging, especially if what one is writing is a long, plot driven narrative that requires cohesion and few (hopefully none) plot holes and incongruities. Frankly, The Life and Times of Jacob Travlers has turned out to be more than I can chew in this season of my life.

When I first began this story, I aspired to write a serial epic in the style of the pulp stories of the late 19th and early 20th century. I was very much hoping to channel my inner Edgar Rice Burroughs (without the racism) and Charles Dickens (likely without the same wit and charm). The original title for this section was Pulp Fiction Friday! I was hoping to encourage other writers I know to take on the task of writing a serially published story so my readers would have a new chapter every Friday from three or four alternating tales. Each story would get a monthly installment, and several genres would be represented.

That was the portion of the blog that I was most excited for.

Alas, writing serial fiction requires extensive planning and forethought, so writing week to week is a poor strategy. While it certainly worked for the first couple of seasons of Lost, it is also a reason the show floundered in the middle, killed off characters without reason, then crashed into an ambiguous ending with unanswered questions.

I certainly hope to bring Jacob Travlers and his adventure to the world wide web again. I have notes and scribbles and other such gris for the proverbial mill. But I’m not sure how soon that will be. Consider this an indefinite hiatus.

I thank you for reading what four chapters I do have posted. I will continue to share with you all where my imagination goes and what musings come to the surface.

Peace, fellow pilgrims.

show a friend

A Year Later

Holy guacamole! Noggin Squall has been live on the world wide web for over a year! Honestly, I’m a little surprised. I have the unfortunate tendency to dream up cool ideas, then abandon them rather quickly, and then regret that project’s indefinite hiatus and/or death six months later. But not here! I’m still blogging strong (ish) since May 24, 2016.
When I started this blog, it had no clear focus. On the About page, I describe the blog as “my attempt at reflecting on my integrated, scatter-brained self on the Internet.” It was what spawned both name and the tag line- “More chaotic than a brain storm.” Noggin Squall has been nothing more than my creative experiment. For a year it has been my place to throw stuff against the wall and see what stuck. I’ve enjoyed it, and having the relative accountability of a blog has kept me writing. I think my writing has sharpened significantly since my first post. I learned very quickly that Noggin Squall was just as much about my own self-discovery and pilgrimage as it was about blogging. And I hope that shows and will continue to show.
Within this experiment have been several smaller experiments that yielded varying results. I’ve really enjoyed writing Minor Spoilers, and yet they don’t draw the same attention as my more self-reflective pieces. The Life and Times of Jacobs Travlers was my first endeavor into serial fiction writing, and damn, I was surprised at how challenging keeping up such a project would be. I was quite naive about the planning and forethought required in writing a continuous narrative from one month to the next. There have been moments when I’ve been a touch more political than I had expected, and there have been posts that you all loved when I thought I spewing nonsense. It has been a fun way to sharpen my writing skills, and my written voice. For being part of this process, I thank you all.
However, the blog has very quickly become more than a mere splattering of random thoughts and mental rabbit trails. My first series, Why Christians Should Write Genre Fiction, started bringing a focus to the blog. Or perhaps a fulcrum is a more appropriate image. Or in the interest of keeping with the storm imagery of Noggin Squall, I have begun to recognize the eye of the storm.
The eye at the center of all my mental wind and debris is the role of the imagination in engaging the spiritual life. For my part, this is largely reflected in my love for narrative as it plays out in a host of nerdy mediums. Frankly, being a geek and being a person of faith feels like inseparable pieces of myself. It reminds me of a soft-serve ice cream cone that is twisted chocolate-vanilla. Have you ever watched a younger kiddo try to lick away one flavor first? It can’t be done.
This feels like a revelation, friends. With the discarding of my cerebral veil (at least in part), I am very excited for the future. Here is some glimpses of what is blowing our way.

  • The blog is about to undergo some aesthetic changes in the coming weeks. Some renovations, or a facelift, if you will. Along with this, you can expect some revisions to my “About” pages.
  • I’ll be expanding my social media presence. As of now, you can find me on Twitter. But soon you will be able to track me down on Facebook and Tumblr. Both platforms will be additional avenues for you to keep up with the blog, but even better, we will be able to converse and share with each other. You can see what I’m excited about, and share with me what you’re excited about.
  • The Life and Times of Jacob Travlers will no longer be featured. It is a story that I will keep crafting and writing, but I’ve decided the blog is not the place for it at this time. I will be sure to let you all know when and where my fiction shows up.
  • The pseudo-syllabus for Imagination as Resistance will be revised and edited. I fear I wrote that from a place of greater frustration and anger than maybe was helpful. I stand by the concern and mission of that series, but I’m sure I could articulate it in a more dialectical fashion.
  • Finally, I am in the midst of writing a book. I actually have an outline. The book is turning out to largely be about identity, and the experience of growing up a nerd and a preacher’s kid amidst the evangelical youth subculture at the turn of the millennium. As I scrounge up the courage to share those wounds and reflections, I’m sure I’ll post some chapter samples. The goal is to have a completed manuscript come September.

I can’t thank you all enough for being my faithful and/or casual readers. I hope a little piece of me resonates with a little piece of you. I pray that this summer, you all find time to read good books, take long walks, and drink cool beer.

As always, peace be with you.

DRG Edwards

 

show a friend

Advocate for Net Neutrality

I tend to be a fan of the internet, and I am sure I am not alone. While the internet may have much unwholesome or offensive content, it is where many people find their news, gather recipes, post pictures of cats, and watch videos of teenage boys shooting fire works at each other. What’s not to love?

The world wide web is an expanse of information, entertainment, and innovation. It is here that many find outlets for their passions in the form of blogs, visual art, and crafts on sites like Tumblr and DeviantArt, and Etsy. It’s where aspiring musicians share their talent and seek exposure on platforms such as SoundCloud. And it is where many have sought to find financial support for their passion projects, or even physical needs, through crowd funding.

It stands as the only space where any individual can carve out his or her own niche. The beauty of the internet is that it is largely not owned by anyone. It is predominantly an unrestricted space for the exchange and sharing of ideas, art, information, and knowledge. Sure there is garbage and false information, but it is our responsibility as individuals to sift through that mess ourselves.  The internet is a near infinite resource!

In 2014, Kester Brewin re-released his book Mutiny!– Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us for free online here. Originally published in 2012, Brewin made this work accessible online, no charge, in the interest of “enriching the commons.” His decision to release it into the public domain was to be in keeping with the premise of his book. The book covers the social and economic history surrounding piracy, the intent and development of copyright law, and the implications of sailing under the mark of a dead man. While I encourage you to take the time to read all seven chapters, it is Brewin’s discussion of the internet that spurred me on to tracking down Mutiny! this week. Brewin describes the internet as being the new “commons,” a space for the free exchange and cross-pollination of ideas and innovation. Brewin’s discussion mostly concerns Facebook and Google’s selling or sharing of their users’ personal information, and the development of algorithms that cater ads to one’s surmised personal interests. But today, I believe the greatest threat to the commons internet is not Google and Zuckerberg.

This Thursday May 18, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission will vote to move forward with rolling back net neutrality. The proposal comes to floor on behalf of chair of the FCC, Ajit Pai (who previously worked for Verizon). For those of you who are not aware, I’ll let John Oliver explain it best (warning: obscenities do ensue).

In brief, should the FCC remove the Title II classification from ISPs (Internet Service Providers), ISPs would be able to adjust internet speeds based on what you, the consumer use the internet for. For example, if you prefer to stream your favorite shows through Netflix rather than Hulu, and your ISP is Comcast, you may find that Netlix drags and doesn’t load at a viewable speed, while Hulu is lightening fast. Why would this be? Because Hulu is owned by NBC which is owned by Comcast. Your ISP would be able to inhibit you from surfing the web outside of what benefits that ISP. Similarly, if you’re a gamer, an ISP could slow your internet connection and then charge you more so you can play World of Warcraft.

“Dan, isn’t being concerned with your internet speed kind of a first-world gripe?” Fair enough. And my examples certainly pertain to leisure and luxury. But should ISPs no longer fall under Title II, what is to stop ISPs from charging outlandish prices to low income neighborhoods or regions, effectively stifling access to information and knowledge in those areas? Those in economically depressed areas such as rural Appalachia or inner city Philadelphia could be hindered from resources they’d otherwise have access to. ISPs would have to the power to prevent networks and online communities from developing. Imagine if Verizon effectively killed social networks and online communities like Facebook and Reddit because they refused to be bought out by the ISP.

I can’t say this enough. We should be wary of any thing that potentially prohibits the general populace from accessing information. Watch for those policies that would preserve ignorance among certain demographics.

It has been argued by those in favor of these rollbacks that the removal of Title II classification would stimulation competition among ISPs in the “free market” fashion. In light of this, I have an experiment for you:  Call an ISP that is other than the one you currently have and ask for quotes to service you area. Give them your address and what not. I suspect you will find that this other ISP does not service your address. Why? Because often times, regions and neighborhoods only have one or two ISPs. Verizon and Comcast rarely service the same city block. Where is the alleged “free market” when where you chose to live effectively selects your ISP and that ISP has no reason to offer competitive rates?

If you use the internet, and here you are reading my online blog, you should research net neutrality. I’ve added some links to help you all out.

 

show a friend

Anime and the Biblical Narrative

I’ve been on anime kick lately. I tore through Durarara!!!, and ate up One Punch Man. Check them out. I stepped back from the medium several years ago but now I’m back in it. I’m not sure if anime had a dry spell or if only the lamest shows (except Gurren Lagann!) were imported from Japan after 2010. But now… it’s like I’m experiencing an anime renaissance. It’s pretty rad.

I was sucked into anime fandom at the ripe age of 6. Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon aired at 6am on Saturdays before the western cartoons such as Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series came on. I woke up that early just to cram CocoPuffs into my mouth while Goku learned to kamehameha and ride a flying nimbus. It was captivating. The art style blew my mind. And 6 years old, I learned that these shows were telling a long story that dictate I had see previous episodes to know what the heck was going on.

This stood in stark contrast to the western shows I was watching on Saturday mornings, or the shows I noticed my parents were watching. Those were all episodic stories. The narratives only lasted for the length of 24 minutes. Next time you’re perusing some of your old favorite late 80’s or early 90’s television, see how many stories carry from episode to episode. While shows like Friends or Cheers may have had larger seasonal arcs that culminated in 2-part season finales, the meat of these season were still composed of a series of plots that changed from episode to episode.

I’d argue that it wasn’t until J.J. Abrams brought us Lost in 2004 that mainstream network television began airing shows that required viewers to be invested in a season/series long narrative. Sure, the “will they/won’t they” Ross and Rachel plot beats of Friends kept many a fan intrigued and guessing. But if a casual viewer first watched an episode in season 4 rather than season 1, that viewer could still enjoy that particular episode’s plot even if he or she didn’t pick up on the subtler details of that season (Chanler and Monica are dating in secret, etc). Drop a viewer into the second season of Lost, and later Breaking Bad or 24, and he or she would only have the slightest inkling of what was occurring on screen.

Anime was ahead of the game when it came to this long-form story telling. And I soaked it up. The worlds were so large and the plots so thick with tension from week to week.

My interest in anime, and Japanese culture in general, continued well into high school. For over a decade, long-form narratives were what captivated me. Japanese RPGs offered a similar narrative structure.

Did you know the Bible contains a long-form narrative? I didn’t know this until I was in an Old Testament Survey class in college. Up until the age of 19, Scripture had never been taught to me as a whole. Rather, sermons and Sunday school lessons were like sitcoms: each week a different biblical episode. I could gather some distinguishing features (Jesus was in the New Testament, the kings and Moses were in the Hebrew Scripture). Yet most passages were presented as individual stories and they were almost never connected to the broader narrative at play from Genesis to Revelation.

Imagine my joy to sit in a college class and find that what I loved about anime was not only present in Scripture, but integral in understanding the weight and glory of God’s redemptive work in history.

Boom. Mind. Blown.

All of a sudden, the Bible turned into an epic; it became God’s epic. To truly understand Jesus, I had to understand the Old Testament. To understand anything the prophets said, I needed to understand Moses and the Levitic Law. If I really wanted to grasp half of what was at play in the four gospels, I needed to know what occurred in in those obscure (to a Protestant) books known as the Apocrypha and learn about this thing called the Second Temple period.

To this nerd, Scripture became alive! It was like a coming into Game of Thrones at the Red Wedding and realizing I had three seasons to go back and watch. Confused. Captivated. Thirsty for the rest.

Now most major networks having primetime shows that are season/series long narratives. Over the past decade or so, the west has really grown to love an complex and intricate epic tale.

And yet sermons that seek to tell the grand narrative of Scripture, in my experience, seem to be the minority, Stories of the Israelites, of Jesus, and of the Apostles are preached as if they occurred in some vacuum apart from Scripture as a whole. They often lacked any context or “Last week… in the Gospel of Mark”-style prologue.

Leave it to a National Geographic television mini-series, The Bible, to give many church folk their first real taste for the broad narrative of the biblical text.

When Scripture is portrayed as largely episodic, then many of these stories became more like fables preached from the pulpit. They become cautionary tales with a moral lesson, rather than a witness to God’s redemptive work in thousands of year of history.

So if any of my pastor friends want some anime suggestions, direct message me on Twitter or comment below. Or just watch Breaking Bad for one of the best long-form narratives in television history.

 

 

show a friend

The Week After Easter

I really didn’t have anything to write this week. This is the week after Easter Sunday, so I feel like I should have something profound to write about. Frankly, I don’t. No Easter reflections formulated to be typed in a coherent manner. At least not yet. We shall see what next week brings.

But not this week. Holy week is a busy week that often leaves me relieved it’s over. Holy week is a emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t stop moving for seven days! Seven days of highs and lows, victory and defeat, life and death and life again! And that’s not including how intentional or disciplined one was about engaging in Lent (confession: I wasn’t).

We start with the joy and seeming triumph of Palm Sunday, then by Thursday we are reluctant and expectant as Jesus is betrayed by his own and arrested. And on Good Friday, if we are fortunate enough to be in a church community that is willing to dwell on and in Good Friday, we sit in mourning as Jesus is tortured and executed under the Empire. Saturday is full of ominous silence, for God may truly be dead. Finally, on Sunday we celebrate ten-fold that Christ is risen (He is risen indeed!) And we eat chocolate bunnies and fellowship with one another.

What. A. Week.

So it’s no wonder many of us, especially clergy, find the passing of Easter to be a relief. I wish it wasn’t that way. Yet here I am.

Although I’m sure the disciples were mighty relieved after Easter too.

show a friend

Messiahs… I’ve Followed a Few: What Movie Should You Watch on Good Friday?

Holy Week is upon us! Tomorrow, those of us who identify with the Christian tradition will contemplate the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion, at the hands of the Roman Empire.
In 2017, we are quite removed from the world of first century Palestine. While many of us church goers are confident we know what the Roman world was like in Jesus’ day, there are some important political and social details that are often neglect in the average Sunday sermon. After all, it was 2000 years ago and half a world away.
But Fear not, friends! There exists a film that captures all you need to know about the history surrounding Jesus’ ministry, arrest, and execution. And no I am not talking about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Forget that violence-and-gore glorifying movie with all of its historical inaccuracies and Anglo-looking first century Jews. Oh no, the film I suggest you all watch is so much closer to the realities of first century Palestine… with a slight flair of dry British humor.
Friends, before you attend that Good Friday service, I suggest you all watch…
The Life of Brian.
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is a rich satire that follows the life of… well, Brian. Brian, born on the same night as a baby named Jesus, is a young man growing up in first century Palestine in the shadow of Roman occupation. Upon finding out that he is the result of his Jewish mother’s romantic entanglement with a Roman centurion, Brian retaliates by joining “The People’s Front of Judea,” which is not to be confused with the “Judean People’s Front.” Through various flukes and misadventures, Brian is mistaken for the Messiah, and a movement grows around him.
The film is full of the irreverent humor that is to be expected from Monty Python and I for one think it walks a very a delicate line. But the brilliance of The Life of Brian is rooted in the historicity of Brian’s mistaken messianic title. At one moment in the film, Brian is surrounded by his crowd of would-be disciples and protests vehemently that he is not the messiah. In response, character played by John Cleese responds “I say you are, Lord. And I should know, I’ve followed a few.” The line reflects Monty Python’s thorough knowledge of first century Palestine, which I suspect can be attributed to most of the troupe having received a classical education at Oxford and Cambridge. But for the rest of us, let’s get caught up to speed with Eric Idle and the gang.
During the first century, the Jews lived under Roman occupation. Romans were only the most recent in what had played out as six centuries of a rotating door of empires conquering and oppressing the Jewish people. The clearest representation of this oppression was that the Romans built Antonia Fortress immediately adjacent to the Temple. Not only that, but the walls of the fortress were such that Roman soldiers could observe what was taking place within the temple grounds. The Temple was the center of Jewish life, and three times throughout the Jewish year the Jews were supposed to make a pilgrimage to the Temple. With such a multitude of oppressed and disgruntled people all gathering at their holiest of locations on their holiest of festivals thrice a year, the position of Antonia Fortress was both tactical as well as symbolic. The towering walls seemed to proclaim “Remember who is really watching you, and it ain’t your god.”
As the Jews were conquered and re-conquered by the Babylonians, Persian, Greeks, and finally the Romans, there developed a notion amongst the Jews that God would send God’s people a divinely empowered leader; God would send them a Messiah (I should write on this development in later post!). While in the twenty first century, we instinctively attribute the “Messiah” with the Incarnation of God, the Jews during the Second Temple period (beginning in 530BCE with the reconstruction of the Temple) made no such association. For the Jewish people, the Messianic expectation meant looking forward to a powerful monarch and military leader that would rise up and rally God’s people, then kick the Romans out of Judea. This same Messiah would re-establish Israel to its glory days as an economic and military super power under Kings David and Solomon.
As this was the case, by Jesus’ day, there had been many self-proclaimed messiahs. These individuals were freedom fighters who sought to liberate their people from oppression. In Acts 5:33:-39, while advocating for letting the Apostles live, the Pharisee Gamaliel describes two such leaders who were executed and their movements scattered. Gamaliel says “If this plan or undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”
Self-proclaimed Messiahs were not uncommon, which is why I laughed until I hurt at Cleese’s remark “I’ve followed a few.”
Is it any wonder then why Jesus counted one Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15) as a disciple? When the Jews heard Jesus of Nazareth proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, they had a very concrete idea of what that kingdom was going to look like and how it would be brought about. There would be a revolution, and the Romans would get clobbered out of Judea! How glorious it would be!
Only it wasn’t.
Only, Jesus spoke of loving enemies.
Only, when this Messiah was arrested and one of his own drew a sword and cut the ear from one of Jesus’ captors, this Messiah rebuked his disciple and healed the wounded one who would arrest him. This Messiah was not the
On the first Good Friday, the Jews bring Jesus before the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and insist he be charged with treason for calling himself King of the Jews. “He stirs up the people all throughout Judea” (Luke 23:5). Jesus, they imply, is another messiah that is dangerous to Roman power.
Pilate gives them a choice: free Jesus or free Barabbas. According to Luke’s gospel, Barabbas has been thrown in prison for two things: starting an insurrection in the city, and murder. Insurrection? Could Barabbas be a freedom fighter, a patriot of Israel? Is he another Messiah? Could it be that on the first Good Friday, God’s own people were choosing which Messiah they wanted to lead them?
I think so.
It seems to me that when given a choice between a Messiah who insisted on loving and praying for His enemies, and a Messiah that would swing the sword in bloody revolution, God’s people chose a violent Messiah.
How often do we desire the same? How often do we want to forget that Jesus did not wage war as other revolutionaries waged war? How often do we want Jesus to be more like this messiah Barabbas?
Tomorrow, on Good Friday, I want to reflect Christ’s crucifixion. And I’m sure with many others across the Church, I’ll sing the words of that famous hymn “It was my sin that held him there/ until it was accomplished.”
While those lyrics are all well and good, I do not want to forget that 2000 years ago at a Roman trial, the specific sin that sent Christ to a Roman crucifixion was that God’s people chose violence. The people that were blessed to bless other nations chose a revolutionary carrying a sword and raising clenched fist over a servant carrying a washing basin and offering a healing hand.
Messiahs… I’ve followed a few. But only one told me to drop my sword.

show a friend

The More I Go to Cons… The Less I Like Church

The more I go to comic-book conventions, the less I like church. And it is not just because the best conventions conflict with Sunday morning services. No, I’m afraid it is much more essential than that. I like church less because these and similar cons seem to excel where many church communities in the U.S. miss the mark: they create a space where a wide variety of people feel at home in their own bodies.

Two weekends ago, I was one of 25,000 folks who attended Anime Boston 2017! And it was an absolute blast. This particular convention usually occurs on Easter weekend. Thus, it has never seemed prudent for an aspiring pastor like myself to skip Easter Sunday, which is arguably the most important day in the Christian calendar, to go to an anime convention. Since Easter is coming later in the spring this year, I jumped at the chance. For three days, thousands of otaku (anime watchers) like myself gathered over a shared love for this medium of story telling. It was quite special.

 

Nerd culture has come a long way in the last decade and a half. Thanks to Disney’s juggernaut marketing and an unfathomable budget, comic book movies are all the rage. Iron Man has ceased to be a lesser known, alcoholic Batman. The pervasiveness of video game consoles and mobile devices has turned nearly everyone into a gamer with slightly addictive tendencies. Even the popularity of Harry Potter and A Game of Thrones has made sword-and-sorcery fantasy fairly mainstream. It is a great time to be a nerd! The vast majority of U.S. Americans are wading in the shallows of comic book fandom and itching to visit the Wizarding World at Universal. The stigma that crammed many a geek into a locker, or made him or her miserable at the thought of crossing the threshold of a high school, has mostly been washed away. (Now teens have found new reasons to make their peers unbearably miserable. But I digress!).

Yet, even today, otaku have remained largely on the fringes of the nerd world. Anime remains a subject with its own stereotypes and stigmas, even in the medium’s native Japan. Somehow, in the heart of Boston, 25,000 anime fans gathered. Cosplayers, artists, YouTubers, bloggers (yours truly), and other Japanophiles sat in on screenings, met voice actors, or simply sat and chitchatted with new acquaintances. Wonderful.

It was a convention that insisted on perpetuating an environment of respect and safety. Signs such as “Ask before you take pictures!” and “Cosplay is NOT consent!” were prominently displayed. Here was a space where everyone was encouraged to be comfortable in their own skin, and to be comfortable that others were doing the same. Many cosplayers dressed as their favorite characters with varying amounts of exposed skin, both male and female. When I considered how many cosplayers did not fit the stereotypical body type of these characters, I found I was immersed in the most body positive environment I have ever witnessed.

For my readers who are protesting my condoning of cosplay and want to discuss modesty at cons, let’s please have that conversation. But in that conversation, let us to agree to refuse to body shame young women who have developed according to their biology, and instead tell young men not to ogle. Convincing a 15 year old girl that she is responsible for the leering eyes of her hormonal male peer who can’t bring himself to look at the floor or ceiling is unjust and nothing short of body shaming.

As I embarked on my 6-hour drive home after spending three days knee-deep in Japanese cartoons, colorful costumes, and J-Pop, I found myself frustrated with one thought: I have never been present in a church community that was as safe or as welcoming as this anime convention. I had never felt as relaxed and vulnerable in a church as I did for those three days. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that experience.

For those of us who grew up in the Church (and I for one had a largely positive experience) telling someone in our faith community that we avidly viewed anime was often met with fear and concern. The assumption that we must have been watching animated pornography was also not uncommon. If you want expose the ethnocentrism of your fellow church members, I know from experience that sharing your interest in Japanese culture and media will do it. “Well if they had Jesus, they wouldn’t have a culture based on honor and shame!” Well if U.S. Americans had Jesus, they wouldn’t have a culture that thrives on the myth of redemptive violence. 1-1, game is tied.

I am not writing this post to advocate for an outreach ministry to an otaku subculture. Rather, what I am trying to illustrate is this: A community that has gathered over a shared love for a format of film and television may very well be a safer environment for people to be themselves than a community that professes to have gathered over a shared love for Christ. This is the same Christ who did nothing short of creating safe spaces for prostitutes and lepers, and such a disparity should convict us. We who believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit and the role of Christ’s Church should actively pursue the nurturing of such an environment.

But if my brothers and sisters in the faith decide, through their actions and their fear of the strange and unfamiliar, that the community of faith is not about creating places of safety and vulnerability, then our churches will continue to decline and die. And rightfully so. If churches, whether evangelical or progressive, continue to tell the communities they inhabit that they are not concerned with fostering spaces that allow individuals to feel at home in their own skins, then they will find other communities that are. How do we expect people outside of the Church to be open to the transformation and mystery that only the Spirit can bring when we are not open to them? Honestly, I would rather spend my time at conventions praying to find other Christ-followers who, like me, have found more comfort surrounded by costumes and cartoons than choir robes or worship teams.

show a friend

Silence in the Theaters… And in the Pews: Minor Spoilers

In honor of the 89th Academy Awards, let’s chat about movies.

Last week, I wrote a pseudo-syllabus for my series Imagination for Resistance. While I have this week classified as Minor Spoilers, I also hope this will be something more than a film review. Several weeks ago I saw Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, which was based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. The film, first announced by Scorsese in 2007, has been the director’s aspiration since he first read the book decades ago. A film adaptation from one of the most renowned filmmakers of our time of a novel about the persecution of Christians in feudal Japan, featuring a talented cast including Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, and Andrew Garfield, should be the makings of a cinematic success.

Certainly Christians alone should have turn out in the greatest droves since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which reflected the director’s tendency towards graphic violence more than it perpetuated the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yet the Christians in the U.S. were the ones who brought the silence. With a budget of over $40 million, Silence was a bust at the box office where it only grossed just shy of $6 million over the course of its limited release. So do Christians just not go to the movies?

If the release of a film like God is Not Dead is any indication, Christians will turn out to certain faith-oriented films. God is Not Dead grossed over $60 million! What’s happening here? Why did Christians not buy tickets for a film about the struggle of missionaries in feudal Japan, but seemed to pack theaters to watch a college freshman have a philosophical throw-down with the actor who is most famous for playing a B-rated Hercules?

Tyler Huckabee wrote an insightful article for The Washington Post concerning the irony (dare I say tragedy?) of conservative evangelicals insisting that Hollywood ignores them, while evidently ignoring a film like Silence.

However, my hope is to go beyond yet another sign of the futility of this secular-evangelical culture war.

My friends, Christians and non-Christians alike, I am convinced that this is a symptom of a far greater spiritual condition. Christians in the USA have spoken with their dollars, and they have shown the world of cinema that they do not want to engage with the complexities, ambiguities, and downright painful agonies of reality, let alone faith. God is Not Dead equates a spirited philosophical debate between a smug college professor and a faith-minded student with enduring persecution. U.S. Christians would rather watch that film than be immersed into a cinematic world that forces them to witness real persecution.

In doing so, we (as a church) ignore the reality of the cost of following Christ. Not only that, but we functionally refuse to engage with the very questions that ache in the secular world around us. Silence became so entrenched in Scorsese’s mind and imagination that the director of films such as Gangs of New York and Goodfellas struggled to adapt it to the big screen for over 25 years. Why did we not rush to the box office, desiring to grasp whatever was in this novel written by a Japanese Roman Catholic?

I think we have lost touch with the mystery of faith. When faced with the ever-present questions “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “If God is good, how can evil be permitted to exist?” our answers have become pithy idioms and bumpersticker slogans. They have become no more than cheap words that grate like sandpaper on the wounds of parents who slowly watch their child die of leukemia, or like gasoline on the fiery anger of a boy whose father was killed by a drunk driver.

When we ignore a film like Silence, we ignore the human experience of living and breathing, of merely existing in a hurting world. We ignore the very questions that an aching world is asking.

At the start of the film’s second act, Andrew Garfield’s character is writing to a priest back in Portugal about the torture he has watched the Japanese Christians endure in Christ’s name. He hears their prayers, their songs, and the gasps of agony. Concerning whether or not God hears them, he writes “You’ll say He heard their prayers, but did He hear their screams?”

Do we hear their screams? Can we hear our own screams clawing out of our souls for answers? Are we so afraid of mystery or of suffering that we dare not go see a film portraying the agony and crisis of faith in the face of pain and persecution?

Can we hear the screams within our own sacred text?

“Why have you forgotten us completely? 
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us, 
and are angry with us beyond measure.”
-Lamentations 5:20-22 (NRSV)
“Go on, pray. But pray with your eyes open.” Ft. Ferriera (as played by Liam Neeson).

show a friend