Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Comet Ping Pong, Pizzagate, And The Pursuit Of Truth

What some are claiming is happening in the Pizzagate scandal is sadly not out the realm of possibility. We know that people at times do terrible things and cover them up. I'm thinking of the story about pedophila in the UK parliament; the under-reported story about known pedophile Epstein and the politicians and celebrities who hang out with himthe recent pedophile ring uncovered in Norway; and the bust of a huge child pornography ring in Canada several years ago. I think that's one of the inevitable results of a porn-saturated culture, but that's a topic for another time. 

The problem of pedophilia is real and apparently growing, and it doesn't help that more and more people are defending it. However, we need to make sure that we are focusing our justified anger properly. This is, of course, the debate about Pizzagate: have people uncovered an actual pedophilia ring that deserves righteous anger and swift judgment, or it is a groundless story that has taken on a life of its own? In an internet world full of fake, biased and distorted news, it's not always easy to tell. 

In the interest of letting you read and reach your own conclusions before offering mine, here is a list of relevant articles that represent lead voices on both sides of this story.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange has been crushing it at the box office, and rightly so. It’s gorgeous and smart, and it offers a compelling (albeit common) superhero narrative: ordinary people become extraordinary, and in the process they realize that with their great power comes great responsibility. This will require what we think of as virtues: bravery, wisdom, self-control, altruism, moral goodness, and a willingness to sacrifice self for the sake of others. There are plenty of places to read plot summaries and discussion of the movie as a movie. I would like to highlight several things that stood out to me.

THE CHARACTER ARC OF DR. STRANGE

I really like how the narrative moves Dr. Strange from a cold, rational, self-centered egoist to a man who realizes that he must be willing to give up himself for the sake of the world. What began as a myopic quest to gain enough power to heal himself becomes a calling to save the world even if he can never get what he wanted personally. By the end of the movie, he has even gone back and sought to mend the trail of broken relationships he was leaving when we first met him. 

Evil as presented in the movie is strong and mesmerizing early on - but isn't that the case with most things that tempt us? By the end, that same evil has lost its luster. The really cool people in this movie are the ones who are not only fighting for good but who are good. It's nice to have a movie that shows the rise in Dr. Strange's virtue as desirable and compelling.

THE IMPORTANCE OF CHOOSING THE GOOD

Some are arguing that Dr. Strange is actually a villain because he taps into the evil side of this power to bring about good. I didn't see that happening. Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, is shown to be wrong for making the kind of moral compromise ‘for the greater good’ that actually draws the evil to this universe. Dr. Strange rejects this (though he does later describe her as ‘complicated’, which may be setting up a scenario in which he is drawn to the same flawed justification). 

Mordo flatly rejects the Ancient One because he believes all the power into which they tap is evil. That does not appear to be true, but his opinion makes sense considering his experience. We see his start on a path to villainy: he is willing to kill anyone who has that kind of power - once again, for the sake of the greater good. Sound familiar? In the process of fighting the kind of moral compromise he saw in the Ancient One, he has given in to the same siren song of "the end justifies the means." His concern is legitimate; his methods are not. He has the potential of becoming perhaps the most sympathetic of the Marvel villains, one whose means we cannot justify but whose ends may well be more important than we realize.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Tougher Kind Of Thankful

"My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon." Japanese poet Masahide



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I don't know how your life has been, but this past year's circumstances  have reminded me that thankfulness doesn't always come easily. Sometimes it does bubble up naturally from a place of happiness - when the sun is shining in a cloudless northern Michigan sky over blossoming cherry trees, it's easy to love life. However, being thankful is often a commitment to finding that which is good even when the things we love burn to the ground.

As I look back over my life this Thanksgiving, I can see a number of gaps where barns once stood. I don't want to forget that when the smoke clears, the moon (or perhaps the Son) faithfully brings light to even the charred corners of the world. So, here's my attempt to see the beauty in the ashes.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

What This Election Has Revealed About The Church

Christians, let’s be honest: We weren’t ready for this election. We weren't ready for the moral quandary forced on us by both the issues and the candidates. In the next four years we have some serious soul-searching to do about a lot of things. However, I would like to focus on two that directly influence the life of the church.

1. We must recalibrate what ‘the good life’ looks like for Christians. 

"Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general." George Barna concludes, "Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change. We have very little time, he believes, to reverse these trends..." 

African Christian and famous missions scholar Professor Lamin Sanneh told Christianity Today recently that "the cultural captivity of Christianity in the West is nearly complete.”[1]

“Overall, the economy is the top concern for Americans regardless of religious affiliation (30%). National security (17%) and personal character (17%) also are significant issues. Supreme Court nominees (10%), immigration (5%), religious freedom (2%), and abortion (1%) are less important. ‘For churchgoers and those with evangelical beliefs, their pocketbook and personal safety are paramount,’ said McConnell. ‘Moral issues aren’t a priority for many of them.’”[2]


Lifeway's survey did not ask Christians to rate the importance of every issue. When that happens, Christians show a high value for things like religious freedom and life. This survey was different. It basically asked, "When push comes to shove, if you have to place these in order, what's most important?" And when phrased that way, our pocketbook and personal safety won.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

I’ve been a Jack Reacher fan for years. I’ve read all of Lee Child’s books (some more than once); I was privileged to see Mr. Child in person when he was at the National Writers Series in Traverse City. Dare I admit I’ve seen the first Jack Reacher movie five or six times in spite of the fact that Tom Cruise is no Jack Reacher? (Okay, he pulled off the persona pretty well. He’s just not 6’6" and 250 pounds of muscle.)

As far as filmmaking goes, Never Go Back is not as good as 2012’s Jack Reacher. The dialogue is not consistently good – which is a shame, because Mr. Child’s dialogue is one of the strong points of his books. The character development was clunky; the plot unfolded in giant leaps; the ending was unfortunately sappy.

However,  Never Go Back captures a darker side of Reacher’s persona, one that is consistent with the series. I like this turn. It doesn't gloss over Reacher's internal reality. I also liked the sub-plot of Reacher’s protection of a young girl. In a world where sex trafficking is epidemic and domestic violence is huge problem, Reacher reminds us of the importance of men protecting those around them who are vulnerable.

As far as modern protagonists go, Reacher is one of the better ones. He’s more the hero we want than the hero we deserve. He understands the importance of authority even while fighting against the corruption of it; he can’t walk away from injustice, especially if vulnerable people are involved; he won’t usually start a fight, but he will finish it. He’s smart, capable, honest, loyal, and brave. 

And yet there is an aspect of his character that lurks disturbingly beneath the surface. It doesn't make him an anti-hero, but it does challenge readers (and viewers) to consider what is acceptable in our heroes and what is not.

There are times in the series that he is portrayed as “feral,” as one character describes him in Never Go Back. In other words, he longs for violence. He lives for the hunt. He might not have gone looking for trouble, but he was glad when trouble finally found him. In several books he taps into the language of evolutionary predation: he’s the Alpha Male, built to kill. And kill he does.

He’s the guy you want on your side – always – because he’s going to win. He is a guy you trust, because he is always on the side of justice. He’s also a guy who is programmed for violence, and there are times the stone cold killer who lurks beneath the surface rises to the top. In Never Go Back, he snarls at the villain, “Look at me!” before he kills him. That’s more than justice. That’s vengeance. We saw hints of this in the first Jack Reacher movie - who's up for drinking blood from a boot? - but this movie makes that reality more tangible. That title draws from a quote from the antagonist who explains that guys like he and Reacher can "never go back" from their world of violence. The Reacher in this movie suggests he is right.

I suspect Mr. Child wants us to feel uneasy in these moments. It forces us to ask important questions. How much are we willing to accept in our heroes? How long can one fight monsters without becoming one? What cost do those who fight for us pay? It's one of the things that makes shows like The Walking Dead so powerful. We cringe when our heroes compromise; we long for them to win their wars, and we want them to be able to fight without being inevitably changed by the fight. We want them to be empathetic, warm and intimate with those they love while being and impervious, hardened and calculating when necessary when dealing with those who are evil. But does that work? Can that tension be navigated successfully? Can they 'turn back on' all the things that matter most when they must turn them off to deal with the evil around them? 

* * * * *

I think Jack Reacher is an important literary hero, not because he is perfect but because so many things he represents are worthwhile. He offers a vision of life where fighting for truth and justice matters. In a world in which the former is increasingly unclear and the latter is sorely lacking, these are stories worth being told. He fights for the vulnerable, and in so doing displays how the strong are meant to use their power. He might walk on the edge of his feral nature, but his code and his will are strong. I find that when I walk away from a Jack Reacher story, I want to be better man. I can't fight like him, but there are many ways I can be stronger in there service of what is good, true and just.

Maybe he doesn't need to go back. He might be right where he needs to be. He just needs a strong moral compass that keeps him clearly headed toward the true north of justice, truth and nobility. 


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Magnificent Seven

I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to see The Magnificent Seven. IMDB summarized the entire movie quite succinctly in one simple sentence: "Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves." I had not seen the original, so for better or worse I had no basis for comparison. I generally like westerns; I was impressed by the all-star lineup; I was intrigued by the previews. I went to see it without reading any reviews so I could experience it unfiltered.

The spectacular cast, the beautiful cinematography, and a story line featuring a small town of peaceful, church-going citizens who are badly in need of rescuing from a profoundly evil robber baron all work together quite effectively. In some ways Magnificent Seven is a classic good vs. evil scenario.  There is some sense of satisfaction as justice rolls down and wash away the violent men who have ravaged the land. The victims are truly victims who deserve our sympathy; the villains have committed genuinely deplorable acts that cry out for our anger. That's important to me in a movie: I want my emotions to match the reality of the situation. A good movie will get us to weep with those who rightly weep and celebrate with those who justly celebrate.

And yet...

Magnificent Seven is more complicated than that. In the middle of this timeless battle for good many smaller skirmishes take place, particularly among the Seven who ride into town as heroes. They are certainly fighting heroically, but... heroes? Maybe not so much.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hell Or High Water

"They treated my people's wounds superficially, telling them, 'Peace, peace,' but there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14)

Hell Or High Water deserves the acclaim it has received from both critics and viewers. Here's a brief plot summary courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes:

Texas brothers--Toby (Chris Pine), and Tanner (Ben Foster), come together after years divided to rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family land. For them, the hold-ups are just part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that seemed to have been stolen from under them. Justice seems to be theirs, until they find themselves on the radar of Texas Ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last grand pursuit on the eve of his retirement, and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their scheme, and with the Rangers on their heels, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the values of the Old and New West murderously collide.

Hell Or High Water is an exceptionally well made film: great cast, sharp dialogue, an excellent soundtrack, and a camera that captures the geographical and economic desolation of a place losing both direction and hope.

Of course, nailing the craft of filmmaking is only one kind of excellent. I view my entertainment through the rubric of good, true and nobleL is it made with excellence; does it tell an honest story about the world; and does it make me want to be a better man? I obviously think it's good, so let's consider true and noble.

Is Hell Or High Water true - Does it tell an honest story about the world? 

Absolutely. It's like watching the book of  Ecclesiastes unfold in the midwest. It's not hopeful, but it's honest about what life looks like when measured by money, sex and power. I found myself rooting for the protagonists not because they were good guys - Tanner in particular is most definitely not - but because they are so desperately in need of a glimmer of hope. They are overwhelmed by life: work is hard to find; banks are bullying small farmers into the ground; the Big Oil that makes some rich drives others into poverty; their families are either dying or deserting them. There is nothing that brings them peace. Vanity, says the Preacher. All is vanity.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Vote Your Conscience: A (hopefully) Helpful Guide For The 2016 Election

The Old Testament records that, when Israel wanted to have a ruler that looked like their neighbors, they had one demand of God: “Give us a king” (1 Samuel 8:6).  In God’s fulfillment of their request we are reminded of the caution that we ought to be careful what we wish for lest we get it. We are not Israel, but our plaintive “Give us a President!” resounds during this election with an unsettling biblical echo.

We the people – or at least the political machinery that claims to offer us all a constitutional republic that reflects our wills – have chosen two historically unpopular candidates. This looked like a banner year for third party candidates - but they have also taken quite a bit of criticism.

My friends, family and colleagues are more divided this election than perhaps any other since I began voting.  Many are reluctant supporters of Clinton or Trump; some are excited to some degree. More than usual are going third party this year if for no other reason than to send a loud message that is time for the independents to rise.

So what’s a Christian to do? We are citizens of Heaven first, be we are also American citizens who have been given the opportunity and perhaps even the mandate to be involved. The Bible uses imagery of salt and light to describe a Christian’s spiritual influence; it’s easy to see how this has a pragmatic call as well. It's just not easy to see what to do when when voting appears to be inevitably morally compromising.

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all approach. This is the kind of election where the oft repeated mandate to ‘vote your conscience’ carries more truth – and weight – than perhaps ever before. In the interest of providing a way to think through this choice, I have written a series of posts that cover various ethical theories that can be applied as one prepares for this year's election. I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity.