Finding Jesus in Wonder Woman

You may be thinking, “What does a Greek-based, pantheon-touting, superhero film have to do with Jesus?” And that would be a fair thought. But there is something to the idea of taking every thought captive and submitting it to Christ. And, really, if we want to help our kids, they need to learn to see God’s Big Story wherever they can. Sure, there are going to be some cultural moments that are born entirely from the muck and mire with little or nothing to redeem them, but these are rarer than we think. Take Wonder Woman, DCs latest film endeavor, for instance.

The following paragraphs contain spoilers galore, so continue at your own peril.

The story involves the child of a god who is sent into the world of “man” in order to provide a positive answer to the problem of evil and suffering at the hands of an enemy. The world doesn’t deserve this hero, but this hero must find a way to defeat the enemy, even at great cost to that hero. Sound familiar? It should.

Diana learns over the course of the film that she is a child of Zeus, who embued her with the ability to defeat the enemy of the Olympian gods and humanity – Ares, the god of war. Ares’ motivation is to prove just how evil humanity is, not by outright forcing people to make war or initiate cruelty, but by whispering ideas, inspirations, encouragements toward greater acts of violence. Before Diana leaves Themiscyra, her mother states outright, “Mankind doesn’t deserve you.” And, to all intents and purposes, her mother is right.

Diana encounters the effects of war on both soldiers and civilians and becomes indignant. She puts herself at risk multiple times in order to break the siege of a still-inhabited village. WWI still stands as one of the more gruesome and terrible wars of history, due to the clash of old and new warfare that no party involved knew how to handle, and those dark realities shock Diana. Diana discovers that her “team” is a group of outsiders, liars, murderers, smugglers, and thieves who use their skills to help her reach her destination.

Near the climax of the film, when Ares’ identity has been revealed, Diana finds herself reeling upon discovering that Ares’ hasn’t forced humanity into fighting, but has just encouraged their inner darkness. Diana up to this point has believed firmly in the inherent goodness of humanity, but her faith is shaken. One conversation with Steve has him saying, “We need you, Diana. No, we don’t deserve you, but we can save millions of people if you stay.” Diana ends up losing the man she loves as he sacrifices himself to destroy a weapon that could annihilate London. Diana defeats Ares in a rather flashy showdown that ends with some intense lightning bolts being thrown about – but seeing as Diana is Zeus’s daughter, lightning isn’t much of a problem.

This movie lends itself well to finding God’s Big Story. Jesus is God’s son, sent to a world that didn’t deserve him, on a mission to defeat an enemy that works through deception, lies, and whispers. Jesus, like Diana, is concerned with the plight of humanity, the poor, the oppressed, the outsiders, even his enemies. True humanity, as God created it, is inherently good – but that humanity has been corrupted by violence and selfishness, but Jesus’ work frees humanity from the slavery to and oppression of sin and death. And like the climactic scene in Wonder Woman, the moment the hero seems completely overpowered is the moment the victory is won which bring Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection to mind.

In so many ways I have praised this movie for its triumphs. I also understand it isn’t a perfect movie either, and have chided it for a few issues here or there. But the overarching plot does resonate with Jesus’ story. And, really, we should be looking for God’s Big Story in whatever we see. We spend so much time and energy looking for the negative, the evil, and the critical – why not spend that time and energy looking for whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable?

How can you help train your kids to find Jesus’ story in the media you view? What questions can you ask to help your child think critically about what they are watching, reading, or playing?

Wonder Woman: “More than we deserve”

I finally saw Wonder Woman. Gathering my thoughts on this one might take a little while, so join me on a journey of discovery as we sort things out together. (Please don’t leave, that last sentence was a rhetorical device – I mean, I’m not a DC movie, after all.)

Cheap jokes aside, DC has finally crafted a solid film that keeps pace, maintains a consistent logic, gives characters fair amounts of screen time, and tends to favor the underdog in a way the previous DC films have been less than eager to. Wonder Woman contains good writing, great acting, and a diversity of cast that makes for a depth of world that has been missing in previous films.

So let’s start with the obvious – this is a female led production directed by Patty Jenkins, and acted by Gal Gidot. Both shine in their respective roles, taking risks by showing vulnerability and strength in just the right ratios to create realistic characters, while managing to lean into the inherent campiness of the superhero genre for the first time in a DC movie. (Suicide Squad doesn’t count, it lacked the joy that I think campiness should bring.) The first twenty minutes, at least, are entirely centered on women – of all ages and colors. The women are shown in multiple roles: from teachers, to warriors, to queens, to senators, to homemakers, and beyond. In such a short amount of time, Jenkins manages to truly show off the gamut of women’s roles – in a society run and inhabited by only women. (Can I just note, cynically, that it seems a little sad to need an island populated entirely by women in order to show off that diversity? I’m looking at you nearly every other major film.) Gal Gidot proves herself an immensely skilled actor being able to portray power and naivety in a way that holds both in tension but never drops either in favor of the other.

Which brings me to the writing. Diana’s (aka Wonder Woman) character faces the moral dilemma of choosing to see the good in humanity or to focus on the darkness in humanity’s heart. Diana’s eternal optimism and desire to save as many as possible is a rare treat in a DC film where destruction has been prioritized over the whole “superheroes are supposed to save people” idea. Diana is entirely focused on protecting the innocent lives caught up in the brutal realities of the WWI Western Front’s “meat grinder.” (You can thank Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast for that description.) Diana has several wonderful moments where she has the opportunity to speak out and call those in authority out on their selfishness, their privilege, and misuse of power. She is also the least sexualized superheroine currently in film. Her attractiveness may be part of the package, but it certainly has little to do with her character – she is first and foremost a woman on a mission.

As far as plot goes, my wife and I were both a little on the disappointed side that many of the major plot points seemed lifted directly from Captain America: The First Avenger. There were some truly unique moments though including Diana’s charge through no man’s land, Diana exploring her powers for the first time, and Diana’s relationship with her mother and aunt. There was an interesting twist involving several characters and actors as to who the real villain was – and I was pleasantly thrown off.

I had few real issues with this film. One, the shaky camera trend probably needs to go away for a few years and then come back as a piece of film vocabulary for when things really are chaotic in a character’s perspective. There was a couple of character details that seemed like they should have gone somewhere, but were left dangling. One, in particular, involved the Scottish character, Charlie, and his ability to perform on the battlefield which was mentioned once and then never showed up again.

One moment still has me scratching my head. In one scene near the end, a large explosion goes off near two main characters and the sound goes dead as if the characters’ have been temporarily deafened. We can’t hear what either character is saying very well, but a few minutes later the character recalls what was said in perfect clarity. So my question is, were we, as the audience, “deafened” by the explosion or were the characters? If the audience was, why bring up the conversation again? If the character was, how did they then recall it perfectly later? I do realize, that if this is my biggest complaint with the film, it did most everything else very well.

Ok, for the troublesome stuff. Cursing was kept to a minimum. I think I only heard a few at most – and seeing as the setting was World War I, it seemed rather mild. There are some nasty wounds shown and scenes of war where Diana finds herself faced with the horror of war and its effects on the soldiers and civilians, for example a shot that includes a soldier lying on the battlefield crying in pain and missing half of a leg. There are some scenes of drinking, in a pub, and after a victory, but again it feels more like setting the scene than glorifying the drinking. As far as sexual content, there are some awkward exchanges between Diana and Steve (the main love interest) but nothing is shown past a kiss. The bisexual nature of the Amazons is also more of subtext and allusion rather than stated out right. I can only think of two very short moments where it even arose. If you are not keen on violence, then maybe reconsider going to see a film set in WWI – otherwise the violence is pretty acrobatic and relatively bloodless.

The soundtrack is appropriate, but didn’t really stand out to me. The only track that sticks out is the current Wonder Woman theme that, as my wife pointed out, uses an electric cello to achieve its unique sound.

So I guess the real question is, would I take my daughter to see this movie? Well, technically, I did – she’s still in my wife’s tummy. Yes. When my daughter hits the preteen age, I think I would like her to see a movie that includes a strong, non-sexualized, vulnerable, opinionated, capable, intelligent woman as its lead character. DC finally pulled out a good film that has a character that I wouldn’t mind my daughter looking up to.

Darn These Feelings!

I recently watched a ballet performance. I do not understand it. Ballet, to me, is like listening to someone tell a story in a language I don’t even recognize, let alone understand. I have not studied the vocabulary of dance to know what the performer is trying to instill or draw from me. As an audience member, I will be honest with my ballet friends and say, I will clap and cheer, but that applause will come from a place of profound appreciation of the physicality and flexibility it takes to perform at a high level of skill in the ballet world. I can appreciate the hours of practice, hard work, memorization, and rehearsal it took to put that dance on the stage. But please, at this point in my life, do not ask me what it meant or how I felt… because I don’t even know.

This experience reminded me of an episode of Invisibilia that I listened to recently. (Yes, you’re all going to be pulled into another of my podcast ventures again.) This episode was on emotions. One of the researchers interviewed in the course of the show presented her findings that emotions are not innate, but taught. That emotions are “concepts” – ¬†ideas that our brain uses to explain what’s going on inside of our body when introduced to something around us in the world. She referenced the fact that there are cultures and societies in the world that have markedly different emotions and reactions from one another to similar experiences. Because these “concepts” of emotions are learned, what we experience inside our bodies can differ dramatically from someone else, but it also means that emotions may be much more under our control than we may have thought previously.

When we have words and concepts to understand the world around us, and inside us, we can respond better to what’s going on in the world. A trained musician understands the language of music and can hear what the composer is trying to convey through the piece being played. A professional dancer can watch and feel what a dancer is communicating through their body and movements. A writer can see the subtle allusions and puns hidden throughout a piece of literature. And someone who has been raised to understand emotions and how to respond to them is better able to control themselves in emotional situations. In other words, to understand something, we have to have a vocabulary to explain it. That vocabulary may be actual words, but it may be a collection of experiences as well – such as dance, music, and even food. My favorite example of this was pointed out in the Cracked Podcast in several episodes: the Greeks had no word for the color blue, which meant they probably didn’t see blue – their description of the sea was often “wine colored.” On the other hand, some Eastern European languages have multiple commonly used words for the color blue linked to different shades, and so they, on average, are able to see more shades of blue than other groups. With the “concept” comes better understanding and the ability to see, sometimes literally, the world better.

I understand that emotions have become, in the last few decades or possibly the last century, something of a taboo subject for society, especially for men. Despite this, our historical and literary record is full of men and women who are strong, capable human beings who understood emotion and were able to show that emotion even in positions of leadership. I wonder how children today view emotions or if they receive training at home in how to handle them?

Do they hear that it’s normal to be angry, but that we should not lash out because of it? Do they understand that sadness, grief, and joy all may warrant tears, and how to work through loss or gain? Do children hear about shame, guilt, conviction, and how each of those differ? Do children understand the difference between happiness and contentment? Do children know what to do with boredom and excitement? What about fear?

Without training in emotions and how to develop healthy relationships with them, we cannot expect children to be able to handle stressful scenarios later in life with as much grace and resilience. A stoic personality may be able to cope for a while, but trauma has a way of destroying whatever stoicism a person may have.

What kinds of conversations do you have at home about emotion? How do you model emotions and reactions to your family? How do you explain emotions when they happen and how to navigate through emotional moments?

Quitters never win…

And winners never quit.” I’m sure the saying has been around forever, but my grandfather (we call him “Bear”) and my mother would often hand me this saying when I would inevitably want to stop something I had started. Whether on the little league baseball diamond, band drama in high school, or my stupidity in over-committing in college, this phrase rang around in my head. It’s also akin to some phrases Paul liked to give about running the race marked out for us, and being willing to push through suffering because it produces character, and then hope.

I may even take this to extremes sometimes. I have a hard time not finishing things now, which has led me to hate-read a book or two out of spite in order to say I had finished it. An unfinished project will keep me awake at night. Ok, so maybe this attitude is not the healthiest at its compulsive level, but it has helped me to tackle some daunting challenges and make it through in one piece.

To me, honoring commitment is a thoroughly godly trait. Now, I admit there are exceptions for when that commitment turns out to be in the direction of something ungodly – theft, injustice, murder, selfishness. (See the amazing act of the Egyptian midwives in Exodus 1 who refused to follow through on their commitment to their Pharaoh when he required them to murder.) But for the most part, if we commit to something, we should stick with it.

I see faith this way. As with all of us, I have had my periods of doubt and frustration. (I don’t relate to to the prophet Elijah and the apostle Thomas for nothing.) I’ve gone through a whole year of questioning, of bowing, kneeling, begging God for some kind of direction and answer. But here’s what made the difference – walking away was never on the table for me. I have known what my baptism meant – a vow made before a congregation to God and a transformation – and I wasn’t going to quit. Quitters never win, and winners never quit. Faith to me is a trust, a commitment, a decision that goes beyond doubt or belief. Faith is what keeps a marriage healthy. Faith is what keeps friendships viable. Faith is what keeps a congregation together. Mutual commitment is at the heart of every relationship, human and divine.

Our children must have a foundation of what commitment means. Our children must value their word as their bond. Jesus said to let our yes be yes, and our no be no. If we commit, we must stick with it, no matter the challenge. We shouldn’t need to use vast promises and reassurances to convince others that we will keep up our end of the agreement – we should just do it, and let our actions speak for us.

When do you find time to discuss and encourage commitment in your children? How does your example of commitment and faith differ from the culture around you? What have you struggled keeping commitment-wise? What kept you going?

Peace in the Family?

I’ve been thinking a lot about child-parent relationships lately – mainly because I’m already trying to develop one with my own little girl. (A few months left before a face-to-face visit, but I’m already making sure to spend time with her nearly every night, talking to her, playing her music, and giving her some rubs. My wife’s not sure how to feel about the whole thing, but she’s being a good sport while I talk to her tummy.)

Not only has my own child’s impending birth got me thinking, but a passage in Romans got me thinking as well. See, Paul and I used to never get along. Growing up, my understanding of Paul was limited – I saw him as an angry grump who decided to switch to a Greek mindset once the Jewish community had ousted him enough times. I saw his trips to the synagogues in each town as more of a “let’s get this over with” deal. And because of that, the way I read his work was through a primarily Greek mindset – using philosophies built on Plato and Aristotle via the Middle Ages and Enlightenment. Recently, though, I have had a rather profound “duh” moment when I had an author (NT Wright) point out that Paul remained strikingly Jewish throughout his life and writings. Suddenly, I realized I need more insight into that line of thinking, and so I undertook a journey through the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and began listening to Rabbis to get a better grasp of how Jews view the Torah. And, fellow Christians, we’ve been missing so much!

Anyway, back to Paul, in chapter 5, he speaks about how we now have peace with God – a relationship… a parent-child relationship. In the previous chapter, he talked about how faith is the basis of Covenant membership now and how Abraham had been given covenant membership before his circumcision and the giving of the law. So now, the whole world is eligible for covenant membership based on faith – in trusting God who sent Jesus and raised him from the dead. And on that basis of being called “in the right” we have peace with God, a reconciled relationship.

The idea of reconciliation of family is a theme that runs deep in Jewish thought, and especially the Torah and Prophets. In Genesis, we see four sets of brothers, who become increasingly reconciled, but never reach the point of complete peace: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. Joseph and his brothers come the closest, but his brothers still remain on edge in case Joseph decides to revoke his kindness and pay them back. The Prophets continually use the metaphor of family reconciliation to talk about the time when God will forgive the idolatry of His people and heal the relationship between them. Both of these threads tie up nicely in the person of Jesus who made that peace possible through his own faithfulness in Israel’s place.

Sigmund Freud’s lesser known theories include one that the source of all conflict is sibling rivalry – that each child is vying for resources, particularly parental love and affection. Children may perceive parental love as a limited resource, rather than the unceasing fountain that it often is.

As I’ve wondered, I reach this point: how will I make sure my children understand that love will never run out? How do I give them each the affection they need to keep them convinced of their status of peace in the family?

How does your love model God’s to your kids? How do your priorities show your kids that love?

Table Triumphs

I recently finished a book called Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman, which is a history of several flavors that have become uniquely American. It covers several of my favorites, including vanilla, garlic, and chili powder. (I highly recommend the book. It’s written in a conversational tone, gives lots of stories, and provides surprising information.) Learning about the history of food helps me to appreciate the long, or surprisingly short, histories of the flavors that make up my favorite dishes. It got me to thinking… what are the flavors of my own history?

Honestly, the book has me pegged as far as flavors go. Vanilla has always been used in my house. Now, some houses use vanillin, the artificial extract which, scientifically, does work better in cookies. Growing up, my mother had discovered Mexican vanilla during her trips to Texas and visits to Progresso, Mexico. There is something unique about vanilla produced in Mexico that provides a depth of flavor that makes any dessert truly special. In fact, this stuff is so precious to us that any member of the family that goes near Mexico is charged with bringing home several bottles. To this day, I have a bottle of Mexican vanilla that I bake with, and I am looking forward to sharing this flavor with my little girl once she gets here.

Butter. Scoff all you like, butter was and still is a flavor in my house, as it was growing up with my parents. During the “oil is better” craze in past decades, my parents still believed in butter. Butter added a richness to grilled cheeses, a presence to mashed potatoes, and provided a weight to scrambled eggs that is unmatched in my opinion. Butter was a topping on popcorn, a way to fry food, and a lubricant for pans and baking sheets that did more that create a non-stick layer – it added flavor. Today I live differently by using unsalted butter, but the butter is still ever-present. As I grow and cook more, I’m beginning to truly appreciate butter and how it behaves in the pan and in dishes. My family has never been able to make good friends with margarine, but butter has always been welcome.

Sage. Why sage? It seems like such an odd herb. To me, this herb has just the right about of bite, savoriness, and sharpness to create something magical – see breakfast sausage. Sage is one of the primary flavorings of our breakfast sausage (or at least the way I make it.) Sausage was something that we ate often growing up – Tennessee Country Pride, if I recall the brand correctly. We’d usually go for the mild, but every once in a while we’d accidentally grab one of the hot ones and have quite the surprise at the breakfast table. My dad prepared sausage – and was up earlier than the rest of us, so he made breakfast every morning for us. Sausage and egg days were the best. And then, on the weekend, that same sausage would be crumbled up and made into a cream gravy that would cover our biscuits in a goodness so rich, you’d have to take a mid-morning nap after eating it. Sage’s sharpness would shine through at each stage of that process, providing a lightness to the gravy that might not have been there otherwise.

Banana. And here’s where we take the turn into left field. There is one dessert that will cause me to go out of my way – banana pudding. Call me simple, that’s fine, but even an adequate banana pudding is ambrosia and joy to me. My mother would get a wild hare every once in a while and make these banana puddings, layering pudding with bananas and nilla wafers that I still remember. We’ve always talked about driving over to the Banana Pudding Festival (yes they have one, and it must be a beautiful sight!) near Memphis, but we usually have something else going on that weekend. If you ever go, eat a second helping in my stead. Or, really, whenever you eat banana pudding, go ahead and eat a second helping in my stead… Or better yet, bring me some?

Mint. I love mint. Put it in just about anything and I will be exceedingly happy. My dad and I share this flavor – and it all started for me when I ordered mint chocolate chip ice cream like my dad. My tongue fell in love, and has been adoringly enamored ever since. We both put mint jelly/sauce on our cuts of lamb, and enjoy it in candy bars. To gripe for a second, who at Hershey’s decided that getting rid of the mint chocolate cookie bar over a decade and a half ago was a good idea? No, seriously, and the nasty white chocolate cookie bar survived that purge? Did someone mistake one for the other, because I have been a touch bitter about that ever since – and yes, it was over 15 years ago at this point. I still remember spending the night at my friend Aaron’s house in high school and we would brew tea with fresh mint from his garden. Sure, maybe we were weird, but sweet tea with freshly crushed mint is a delicious treat on any day, especially those hot summer days.

These are just a few of the flavors I love, and that my parents passed on to me. These flavors make up a part of who I am, and are flavors I will hopefully pass on to my kids. See, to my family, food is something to be celebrated and shared… unless it’s unbearably good, and then you stash it and hope no one finds it. Seriously, though, we tend to tell long stories about the meals we’ve eaten, while eating a meal. We reminisce about trips we’ve taken, and the restaurants or snacks we found on the way. My grandfather always said, “All you get is what you wear and what you eat.” And we take the second part of that statement and run with it… right to the kitchen.

Consider that food is important, especially in the Bible, as a way to remember. Don’t forget that God commanded a yearly meal to remember the Jewish family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery in Egypt. Jesus instructed his followers to eat part of that same meal to remember his family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery to sin and death. Food tells a story. What story does your dinner tell your kids?

What flavors make up your history? What flavors have you shared with your kids? What are your food stories? What places can you take your family that you went to as a child?

Not Even Once

If you haven’t heard lately, the latest actually troubling news concerning a drug epidemic is taking place in lower income white families with the advent of increased use of opioids. The things about these drugs is that they are usually prescription, meaning that drugs typically used to control pain are being found and used or traded from inside the house. You know, that old horror movie chestnut: “It’s coming from inside the house!” I don’t write this to create more fear, only awareness that there is an issue. Also to point out that most families do not store these medications properly. Opioids are highly addicting and have caused many problems for those simply wanting to ease chronic pain who end up needing more and more of these substances to achieve the same effect.

I’m not particularly at risk for this issue because of my deathly allergy to codeine, which is an opiate. Having my respiratory system nearly fail again is not high on my list of things to do today… or any day for that matter. So, literally, between my asthma and opiate avoidance, my personal list of drugs I could use recreationally is short… meaning there’s nothing on the list.

That said, I had a thought the other day, about drugs and sin. No, probably not the thought that you just had about how drugs lead to sin or vice versa. More like how sin behaves like a drug. See, sin has this effect of deteriorating our humanity. Sure, it’s not very noticeable at first, but the effects become more pronounced over time. Small lapses of morality pick up steam usually. The picture I always seemed to have growing up was that sin was making holes in the lifeboat to heaven, and only Jesus could fix it. But what if sin had much more immediate, and destructive effects.

The first 11 chapters of Genesis show clearly the dehumanizing effects of sin, and how humanity sank further and further into its own self-glorification and away from God’s order. Romans 1-2 use the context of Genesis 1-11 to¬†detail how God’s created order is disrupted by sin, how truth and morality become distorted and confused. As sin eats away at how God created us, we can see an analogy in how hard some drugs are on the human body. The body ages, cracks, scars, and decays as the drugs take their toll. Sin twists our perspective, damages relationships, and drives us away from God.

And we all have taken sin. We’ve all fallen short of reflecting God’s glory, we have all given over our loyalty and authority to objects or people instead of God, and we have all felt the sting and decay of sin that leads to destruction. And this is where the new life of Jesus changes everything. God restores us by granting us the life to come now in anticipation of the age to come when God will restore all of His creation. We become truly what we were made to be: the image of God reflecting praise to God and God’s glory and order into the world.

Have you had a conversation with your kids about making wise choices with medication and drugs? How do you model the life to come in the way you forgive, apologize, and show love to your family and others? What does it mean to you to be a restored, complete human made in God’s image for a purpose?