Thursday, August 11, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond

“Be yourself!"
"Be who you are!" 
"You’re on the right track, baby; you were born that way!”

Sound familiar? We hear these phrases (or some form of them) constantly. The idea is that if you can just find the real you and live it, all will be well. As compelling as that idea is in theory, it's often disastrous. I often think of Joss Whedon’s counter-commentary: “Remember to always be yourself – unless you suck.” It’s not Shakespeare, but you get the point.

The idea of “being who you are” shows up in Star Trek: Beyond, the third installment in the recently re-imagined Star Trek universe. While there's much to be said for the movie (including how critics and fans are in agreement on its merits), I am going to focus on the remarkably different outcomes in Kirk and Krall's respective efforts to be true to themselves.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Post-Orlando Question #3: "Are Christians Creating A Dangerous Moral Climate for the LGBT Community?"

In the wake of the tragic shootings in Orlando, I decided to address several issues that dominated headlines for a time. Part One addressed the question of who was responsible for the shooting in Orlando. Part Two offered some thoughts on how we know when individuals truly represent groups. The third and final post in this series will address an even more complex dilemma:

“When it comes to the creation of a ‘moral climate’, is there a proper difference to be made between disagreeing, criticizing, discriminating, oppressing, dehumanizing, and killing, or is this all one thing on a continuum?”

After the shooting in Orlando, The Atlantic’s religion reporter wrote, “There is a loose connection that is very difficult to pin down between some of the anti-gay and anti-trans rhetoric that we’ve seen in the U.S. not primarily from Muslim groups but from Christian groups that have laid a foundation for homophobia and transphobia. Although most of the groups that are supporting that type of rhetoric would not condone the type of violence we saw in Orlando, it does create an environment of bigotry and acceptance of homophobia against LGBT people.” 

Is this true? And if so, how is this climate created? And if it exists, is it as bad as many commentators are suggesting? Let’s start by looking at some common definitions of the words I listed just so we have a common starting point for this discussion.

  • Disagree: have or express a different opinion
  • Criticize: indicate faults in a disapproving way; to talk about the problems or faults of something
  • Discriminate: recognize a distinction; differentiate; make an unjust or prejudicial distinction in the treatment of different categories of people or things.
  • Oppress: keep someone in subservience and hardship, especially by the unjust exercise of authority; to burden with cruel or unjust impositions or restraints
  • Dehumanize: deprive of human qualities, personality or spirit; divest of individuality; to treat someone as if they are not a human being.[1]

I am going to venture a guess that we all acknowledge that disagreeing and criticizing are just a part of life. We do it all the time. We think for ourselves; we have preferences; we believe some things are right and other things wrong.  It's a natural part of the human experience.

We also discriminate constantly. We do this when we shop, go out to eat, choose a college, and decide where to get our news. We do it when we choose friends or spouses. We do it when we decided where to live. It’s not so much that we make distinctions; it’s whether or not those distinctions are just or fair, and if we have navigated the process with proper emotional and relational decorum. We all practice discrimination in this form; the question is when it becomes unjust and prejudicial. We will come back to that shortly.

Does it go without saying that oppression and dehumanization ought to be avoided at all cost? We might disagree about when these things happen, be we all agree they should not.

So, how do we make a distinction between just differentiation and unjust discrimination? And how do we identify when unjust discrimination creates a moral climate that moves people from discrimination to oppression and dehumanization?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke

Zach Snyder's Batman v Superman offered a controversial dark knight that was truly beginning to fall into the darkness he claims to fight (the extended addition makes that even more clear than the theatrical version). The Killing Joke (which is based on the 1988 story arc from Alan Moore and Brain Bolland) builds on this trajectory in a move that might rightly be called Breaking Bat.You can find summaries of the plot elsewhere; I prefer to focus on the worldview within the movie.

A flashback to the Joker's early life reveals the first meaning of the title, The Killing Joke. He was a struggling comedian looking for a joke that ‘killed,’ the one that got the audience rolling with laughter. He was desperate to support his pregnant wife and do something meaningful in the world. When some criminals approach him about helping them with a heist, he reluctantly agrees. One big score is all he needs to keep his family – and his dream of making people laugh -  afloat. It falls apart, of course. On the day of the robbery, he receive that news that his wife and unborn baby have died. The mobsters won’t let him off the hook. That night, he falls into a vat of acid while running away from Batman and emerges as the Joker.

That’s where we find the second meaning to the title. Life is the killing joke. Life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The Joker is the comic book world’s premier nihilist. He just wants to watch the world burn. If that’s not possible, he will do everything he can to burn away the goodness and sanity of those around him.

He doesn’t think it will be that hard. He believes that everyone is just one bad day away from embracing the insanity that has become his closest friend. One bad day where everything you love is ripped away. One bad day where all hope is lost. He seems truly convinces that even Batman or Commissioner Gordon would join him on the other side of reality if what happened to him happened to them.

This provides the plot to the story. The Joker does his best to force Gordon and Batman into that one bad day to prove his theory correct. If he is successful – if he can take the two best people he knows and break them not just bad but insane - he will be vindicated.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Planned Parenthood And The Lives That Don't Matter

In response to the latest police shootings, Planned Parenthood posted the following  response in an attempt to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement: "You deserve to parent your child without fear that he or she will be hurt or killed. Freedom from violence is reproductive justice."

I agree with Planned Parenthood's statement. I would have phrased it differently (can we include what kids deserve?), but I embrace the general sentiment. Of course black lives matter; of course we want a world where parents don't have to worry about children experiencing violence or being killed.

This is why I am also angry at the hypocrisy of this claim and heart-broken at the reality it supports. Do they really want to have a discussion about the intersection of violence and reproduction? Planned Parenthood is one of the leading providers of abortion in the United States, an act which by its very nature takes the life of a unborn human child. Thousands of unborn children suffer violence every day when someone receives an abortion in a Planned Parenthood clinic. If freedom from violence is reproductive justice, then there is no reproductive justice at any Planned Parenthood clinic by their own standard.

I know Planned Parenthood is attempting to support the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement, and as I noted earlier I agree with their sentiment. But their statement fails dismally because it only reveals their hypocrisy. Planned Parenthood's track record shows that, in spite of their rhetoric, not all black lives matter to them.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Post-Orlando Question #2: How Do We Know When Individuals Truly Represent Groups?

In Part One of Post-Orlando Questions, I began a short series covering three questions swirling around since the tragic shooting in Orlando. The first question was, "Is it fair to attribute the actions of Omar Mateen to a climate of hate created by the Conservative Religious Right"?

This post will address the second question: "Is there a way to make a proper distinction between what is inherent in or necessarily follows from the beliefs and actions of a group vs. what particular individuals or sects do?"

When people do terrible things in the name of their religion or worldview, are they acting consistently? Are they the true ambassadors of the group, or are they the aberrations, the outliers who have co-opted a religion or worldview for their own disturbing purposes?

I won’t attempt to answer for Islam, the faith with which Omar Mateen claimed affiliation. [1] I also won't attempt to answer for all the other political and social groups to whom this question equally applies on both the Right and the Left. [2] My interest lies in offering an answer as a Christian. I obviously won't resolve this in a simple blog post, but I hope it can provoke some thoughtful discussion.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s latest box office hit based on a comic series from 2006 and 2007, offers an important allegory for our post-911 times.*  It’s not a perfect movie – I’m still not sure why the Avengers were to blame for the explosion, and the villain's plot was preposterous – but the deeper issues are worth exploring.

The Avengers, a team of the most powerful people in the world, travel the globe to fight crime. They basically answer to no one. Unfortunately, in spite of all the good they do, there have been a number of missions that have failed very publicly (reminiscent of the starting premise in Batman v Superman). They are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would put the group under United Nations supervision. When asked to describe them, Thaddeus Ross says,
“How about ‘dangerous’? What would you call a group of US based, enhanced individuals who routinely ignore sovereign borders and inflict their will wherever they choose and who, frankly, seem unconcerned with what they leave behind? New York, Washington D.C., Sokovia, Lagos...”
Peter Parker, when asked why he acts as Spider Man, notes, ”When you can do the things that I can, but you don't, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.” That’s not entirely true, but we get the point. With great power comes great responsibility.  But what if you do the things you can do and because of that bad things happen? King T’Chaka claims that “victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all.”  If he is correct, that's a problem, because that’s how victory has been won time and again. That may be inevitable in a messy world, but must it be so often, and involve so many?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Post-Orlando Question #1:Was Omar Mateen Created By The Conservative Religious Right?

What happened in Orlando was a horrific and contemptible act of violence against people who bear God’s image. As a Christian, I believe that all people are infused with intrinsic value and worth; we should mourn the loss of precious human life, pray for healing for the survivors as well as the family and friends of the victims, and dedicate ourselves to finding a solution in which the leading of an individual’s moral compasses and the constraints of effective public policies will put an end to this kind of tragedy. 

I want to make sure I clearly say that before I explore some topics that have surfaced since this incident. I’ve been observing the online conversation about the “climate” or “mood” that exists in America, and I would like to respond to three particular questions in this series of posts.

  •  Is it fair to attribute the actions of Omar Mateen to a climate of hate created by the Conservative Religious Right?
  • Is there a way to make a proper distinction between what is inherent in or necessarily follows from the beliefs and actions of a group vs. what particular individuals or sects do?
  • When it comes to the creation of a ‘moral climate,’ is there a proper distinction to be made between disagreeing, criticizing, discriminating, oppressing, dehumanizing, and violently attacking, or do these all simply occupy different places on the same continuum of hate?

I will be answering these questions in a series of three separate posts. I will provide links as they are posted. I offer these observations as a starting point in a conversation (if you so desire). I welcome any thoughts you have that help to constructively pursue truth.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Graduation Slogans To Ignore - Or At Least Reconsider

Graduates, this is the time of your life when a lot of motivational slogans are thrown your way. 

“Reach for the Stars! You Can Be Anything You Want To Be! Believe You Can Fly!”

Today I want to challenge five of the many slogans you have heard or will hear, not because they are always entirely wrong, but because they are almost never entirely right.

#1 Keep On Being You! You’re Perfect Just The Way You Are!

No, you’re not. I’m not either. You have issues. If you don’t know that yet, you will learn soon enough. Your teacher in college will give you a C, and you will have earned it. Your boss will write you up, your girlfriend or boyfriend will be rightly upset with you, and your parents will not like every decision you make. No one is perfect but God, and He, too, is well aware of your deficits. As C.S. Lewis noted, God wants to take the shack of your life and turn it into a mansion. That will take some remodeling.

Learn to see your frailties and failures with honesty but without shame. Grow. Build your strengths and at least address your weaknesses, but don’t hide the fact that you are imperfect. We all know it already. It’s okay. We aren’t either. And it is in the midst of our weakness that the strength of God is seen most clearly.

#2 You can be anything you want to be!

No, you can’t. You are not limitless in your potential. You can't fly even if you believe you can. There are boundaries around your personality, opportunities, and skill set. Einstein once noted that the difference between stupidity and genius is that genius knows its limits. Be a genius. Seek to know and be what God has equipped you to be, because it’s within those boundaries that fullness of life is found.

Now, don’t settle for the safe middle of life. Push to the edges. Find out what you are capable of doing. Be fearless as you explore the risky and uncomfortable perimeters of the life you have been given, and don’t be afraid to fail.  But don’t get so caught up in what you wish you could do that you overlook the goodness of what you can do.

#3 Be A Leader!

We hear that so much that I want to push back just to be contrarian. I get it – don’t be easily manipulated; don’t blindly follow someone else; don’t settle in with a mediocre crowd. Those are all good reasons to be a leader. I am challenging you today to forget about leading until you learn what it means to follow. Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to become great, they had to first become a servant of all.

I don’t think Jesus meant, “Just punch the clock as a servant and impatiently put in your time until you finally get the recognition you deserve.”  Don’t be a servant just so you can become a leader; be a servant because in so doing you display the heart of Christ for the world. The best leaders I know are the ones who learned how to be content in a life of service, overlooked and unnoticed, knowing that their labor served a greater purpose.  It’s in those places that God raises up those who are ready to lead. Learn how to follow and serve.

#4 Don’t Let Good Be The Enemy of Great!

This is often used to remind us that we can settle for mediocrity when we should be shooting for excellence. That’s true, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Don’t let ‘great’ be the enemy of ‘good’ either. Don’t get so caught up in waiting for the perfect job that you turn your nose up at a very ordinary but very good job that can prepare you for the future. Don’t get caught up in waiting for the perfect spouse, or the perfect college, or the perfect church. There are none.

We can get so caught up in holding out for something that meets our every possible expectation that we do nothing. Meanwhile, a lot of good falls into our laps and we fail to see it. Oswald Chambers once wrote, “It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God – but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people.” Ordinary can be great too. Learn how to settle into the good without settling for just the good.

#5 Follow Your Dreams!

 Not every dream deserves to be followed. The book of Proverbs warns us that even though a way can seem right, it can be terribly wrong.If they take you down a lousy path, scrap the dream. The only way you should follow your dreams is if they build your maturity, integrity, and character while helping the world around you flourish. Don’t just rely on yourself to find out if that’s what’s happening in your life. Ask your family, your mentors and your trusted friends. Study history. Read God’s word. Do the hard work of seeing if your dreams match your gifts and talents, and if they will build the world rather than break it.