culture

Thought and Prayer

Today there have been a lot people turning their ire at the "thoughts and prayers" platitudes that follow an American mass shooting event. It's the go-to phrase for politicians, who are forced to say something after a public event. Annoying.

But a lot of other people say "thoughts and prayers" too. Look, it's a formulation. The words, "My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and families," don't really mean anything regarding the way they were originally arranged. For politicians it's like saying, "I acknowledge this event happened and will now engage in the appropriate way of saying so." For others "thoughts and prayers" means, "This event makes me sad," or, "Oh shit," or, "I wish this wouldn't have happened."

"Thoughts and prayers," as a phrase, does a bunch of heavy lifting we don't necessarily want to do in public. This is especially true when we're limited to 140 characters.

I don't get the ire. Living in a country as violent as the United States and railing against the phrase "thoughts and prayers" is like living next to a coal plant and shouting at the sky about air quality.

Anyway, quiet, contemplative, even conversational prayer is fine. Even good. Posting about it on social media doesn’t effect your reach, though. God don’t care about “likes” and RTs.

Lord, have mercy.

You Mad, Internet

Recently I wrote a piece for Ministry Matters, where I’m an editor and writer, entitled “American Sniper or Selma: How Christian is Your Movie Choice?” It was doing well in its first few hours of internet infancy. It seemed to be getting views and likes and shares through Facebook, decent clicks from the home page…the waters were calm, and I felt good. ‘People are getting it,’ I thought. ‘They’re getting it, maaaaan.’

Then Sojourner’s graciously ran the piece, and a wave of fury broke upon me. Suddenly I was no longer an American, just another naive member of the "extreme left" with thoughts of sugarplums and non-violent action running through my head. I was “comparing apples and oranges,” I was "misguided," I “got it all wrong,” and I even found out that I “wouldn’t survive a day of Navy SEAL training.”[^1] I was basically the devil.

Except when I wasn’t. Plenty of people felt like I’d done a perfect job letting them know which movie was the Christian option, which one was for Christians and which wasn’t. Only that wasn’t my point. I wasn’t trying to hold one “faith film” against another in order to measure which one was more Jesus. Although if you’d like me to do that, I can.[^2]

Neither flick is a Kirk Cameron special, some shallow made-for-TV movie about how to radiate the best American Christianicism. One is a war biopic, the other a historical biopic. Both have social commentary subtext. Both have a goal. The thing is, one is about a man doing something very Christ-like, and the other is about a man shooting people in the face. That’s the basis for talking about these movies as religious commentary. Subtext. I realize it’s not the easiest to find, down there in the sub.

For posterity, the point of the article was that a current formula running through entertainment is “sell violence wrapped in patriotism, and you’ll capture a large chunk of Christians eager to bring their religious fervor to the product.” A few readers caught that; a surprisingly few few.

I couldn’t care less which movie you see. See ‘em all; you develop taste and standards that way. But when you do, think about the message you’re being sold. Also think about the worldview you’re imposing on what you’re seeing, since that has just about as much, if not more, to do with what you’ll take away. If you’re a Christian, ask how Christ would call you to react if you were in the contexts of both films. What would Christ call you to have done before you ended up in those contexts? What does Christ call you to do in your actual context that looks similar or different to the narratives of the men in those two films?

The answer you come up with is what I was asking for you to find when you read the original article. It’ll show you the version of Christianity you hold dear; it’s up to you to figure out how Christian that version actually is.

[^1]: No duh. [^2]: Selma. Selma has more to do with Jesus.

Bilbo's Discipleship

Generally, I'm not a fan of posts that use some artifact from current pop culture as a source upon which to reflect. But here I go anyway.

I saw an early screening of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (one of the benefits of being an under-employed MDiv grad working at a movie theater) and read the book quickly in preparation for the film. Peter Jackson has pulled the first 102 pages of a 271 page (according to my edition) children's book into a two hour and fifty minute epic – the first of three. This is an exercise I disagree with on principle, but the movie was fine. I saw it in 48 frames per second (as opposed to the traditional 24) which was stunning. But I don't mean to write a film review.

It is common wisdom among church folk that discipleship ought to be taken on step-wise. Beginning with giving a little money in the collection plate, soon one might buy a few socks, toiletries, hats and gloves and bring them to the church to be donated to the needy. Then, a person could serve a night or two at a local shelter or meal program – maybe just on Thanksgiving and Christmas to start. Perhaps regular service in a community organization follows. Then a mission trip to some less well-to-do country – but not one too violent. And on, and on.

I have found that often this progression has implicitly in mind the privileged, affluent suburbanite. The logic goes that one must be eased into service among the homeless, the poor, the margins of society, places where the Gospels tell us Jesus dwelt and dwells still. I usually find myself nodding along with this logic. But in the past few days, reading The Hobbit and viewing the film, I have not found myself convinced by the common wisdom.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a profoundly Christian man. Indeed, he acted as midwife in C.S. Lewis' conversion to Christianity. If one is reading for it, and not just for escapist fantasy, one finds much in Tolkien's tale that lends itself to the life of Christian discipleship.

Bilbo

Bilbo Baggins, as the protagonist of The Hobbit, is an affluent Halfling. He lives in a beautiful, warm, well-stocked Hobbit hole. He has plenty to eat, plenty of friends, and his good health. He is happy. He loves food, books, his antiques, a good story, and his peace and quiet. He has never been on an adventure, and indeed, the idea of going on one is baffling to him.

When a wizard named Gandalf and twelve homeless Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield come to his home one night and call him on such an adventure, he stubbornly refuses. And yet, even after such a refusal, something about the call moves him to action. Bilbo lies behind the veil of ignorance before his adventure begins. He remains there when he sets off on a path guided by Thorin and the Grey Pilgrim, Gandalf.

Discipleship

It is no mistake that Gandalf's call to Bilbo parallels Christ's call to his disciples as portrayed by the Gospels. Christ calls and the disciples follow. They do not know where he goes. Christ does not lead them to safety but to death, and to new life. And yet they follow. Neither Bilbo nor the disciples tread their new path with foreknowledge of what awaits them. They have no experience with the road they travel. But they are compelled to follow, not by coercion but by something within.

Common wisdom calls this vision of discipleship foolishness. And so it is. But it is the call the Gospel makes to each of us, whoever hears it. We are not called into a step-wise progression into discipleship, but into discipleship wherever we are, in whatever we do, and whenever we can. We are called to leap, Soren Kierkegaard would say, and not to leap into a logical stepwise progression, but into relationship with Christ. And where is Christ? He is among the poor, with the alien, the stranger, the addicted, and the prisoner. This is the clearest thing in the world but common wisdom cannot see it. The Gospel message claims us but our lives often make us blind to it.

Fellowship

Making this call less foolish, perhaps, is the expectation that in answering the call we enter into a community of others. Our society, in its worship of the individual, discounts the power of community. Lincoln, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr., for example, are valorized as individual heroes, as if their accomplishments were possible without the help and work of others. Yes, they were brave. But to illustrate them as lone heroes, when it is not a nefarious re-writing of history, simply misses the mark. The Christian call to discipleship is a communal call, a fellowship call. As Christians, the individuals who make up the party we join may be equally foolish as we. But each member of the newly formed body is called together to do remarkable work, as Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Dwarves do. We bear each other up to that end and encourage each other in times of trial. One member may face their own challenges, but they meet such challenges with the courage learned as part of a wider body. The leap remains the leap of an individual, but we take heart at leaping into relationship.

The church could do worse than to emulate that foolish group of homeless wanderers made up by the Dwarves and Gandalf. They represent hope, fellowship, love, and the brazen desire to see some good come out of a desperate situation. They do so not out of a need to provide marketable and achievable goals, but out of a Dwarven fire in the belly for a life they hardly know. Yes, there are practical concerns. There always are. But the Dwarves face a dragon. In so many ways we face one too, if we could only open our eyes to see it. The Dwarves offer Bilbo the chance to face this dragon, and Bilbo takes it. More of our churches should be so foolish.

Run, Ye!

In both the book and the movie, Bilbo runs—he does not walk—to catch the company of homeless Dwarves for fear they will depart before he can join them. The movie does a lovely job of illustrating Bilbo's foolishness in the eyes of his neighbors. Anyone who has heard the call is challenged to follow Bilbo's lead.