Opening a Fresh Wound

I was faced recently with a terrifying proposition a week or so ago. I have been wrestling with issues dealing with race. I think it is important to deal with them and air them out to begin dismantling the power of racism. But what if it’s not so easy?

What if racism is so ingrained that our brains act out those concepts without our being aware of them? What if our words and speech patterns are polite, gentle, compassionate, but our body language shows fear, apprehension, or even aggression? What message are we sending? What thoughts flow through our minds without us even realizing it?

The podcast Invisibilia brought these idea to my attention, daring me to begin sifting through my own mind. They warn that this kind of self-examination can be difficult, emotionally draining. So why do I bring it up in the first place?

I bring it up because I was faced with a terrifying proposition… oh, you thought I had already gotten to it? No. The idea that shocked me into a truly self-reflective mode was this question: “When we read scripture, which characters or people do we relate to?” For my whole life I had assumed that I should read myself as the Israelites, or the Jews in the New Testament – claiming some kinship with the fathers of my faith. But then the next question arises, “What is one of the defining characteristics of that people?” The answer is – they were almost never in power and almost constantly assailed and oppressed. The only time ancient Israel had a large, unified empire was right after David and through Solomon’s reign. Leading up to, and following, the Israelites seemed to be in constant apprehension of the next great world power that would attack or threaten or cajole them. The Jews post-exile hadn’t fared much better, gaining a modicum of power following their successful revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes and his Greek empire, only to later fall under the thumb of the Roman Empire, noted for its cruel efficiency.

So the dangling question is… “Who do I relate to?” Have I experienced the oppression, the fear, the wandering of the Israelite? Have I experienced the fear, anguish, longing, and disenfranchisement of the Jewish exile or Jew under Rome? I don’t know that I have… I think I would actually relate more to the Roman, the Greek, the Babylonian, the Assyrian. Suddenly I find myself on the side of a Jonah’s call to repentance to the Assyrian capital of Ninevah. I find myself in the position of Cornelius, faced not with an opportunity to climb to the heights of power, but a call to join with those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice (righteousness), with those who mourn, with the poor in spirit, with the peacemakers, with the persecuted.

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” – ┬áideas 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?