Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Have We Given Up on Change

I was born and raised in a Christian environment, specifically a Wesleyan, evangelical environment. One thing for sure about us, we're all about change. Conversion and transformation is at the core of Wesleyan theology and evangelical faith practice. The idea that people can become fundamentally different than they were before is an assumed and accepted foundation of my life. This is the Saul/Paul story in the Bible - super hardcore Jewish purist, killing Christians one moment and becoming the leading voice of the movement the next (well, it took a couple decades, but it feels very immediate in scripture).

I had a realization, today, though, that this foundation is far from universal. I wonder if our society at large has given up on the notion of change. When I say that, I mean real change - from being one thing to being another. We're big on change in the sense that some facade we put up can come down to reveal our true selves on the inside. This is both the beauty and the tragedy of the movie Green Book. You've got an overtly racist guy who's really got a heart of gold underneath and this friendship, portrayed in the movie brings it out of him. He didn't change, he just got more comfortable with who he is.* We love those stories, I think, in part, because we don't actually believe in change. We believe people are who they are and that they're basically good. The only change is not substantive, but perspectival.

I got thinking about this because a guy at the gym today had a shirt on that said, "If you don't respect this flag I'll help you pack." I spent the rest of my hour on the elliptical playing out the conversation we'd have if we were able to unemotionally talk through that line of thought - if I went up to him and said, "Where am I supposed to go?" He might ask what country I'd rather live in and I'd reply that there isn't necessarily another one, I'd just like this country to be better.

At the core of this notion - like it or leave it - is the idea that change isn't possible. Reform might be possible - we can get slightly better or slightly worse based on hard work and circumstances, but deep down it is what it is.

We take this same approach to relationships, a lot of the time. This situation isn't working for me anymore, so I'm out. We don't expect another person to change, because we wouldn't accept them expecting us to change. What's more, we don't think change is possible - either for ourselves or someone else. We might have hope that our true selves can come out more clearly, but we may also be delusional about what our "true self" actually is.

In my marriage, some of the most difficult, important, and ultimately positive periods have been those where either myself or my wife says to the other, "this situation is untenable going forward; something has to change." Those are difficult conversations, because we're imperfect and self-conscious. We get defensive and we argue and feelings are felt and stepped on, but we come out the other side and we change. We had a brief argument yesterday where my wife reacted in a way that would've been appropriate ten years ago. She expected something out of me that would've been dead on in 2007 or 2009. My reply to her was, "Don't act like I haven't changed."

It didn't seem like much in the moment, but in retrospect, today, it was important. Both because I think she understood and accepted that response, but also because it's true. We're such different people than we were - not just because we've been married almost fifteen years, but because we've both changed (I'd say, demonstrably, in both cases, for the very much better). Yes, we're both more our true selves than we were before - which hopefully happens in any long-term relationship, but also because we've fundamentally changed.

I think a large part of that is the environment in which we were raised, where true transformation was not only possible, but expected. It sure creates a high bar in our minds for each other, but it also allows us to reach those expectations (once in a while). I'm not saying other people can't have these experiences, but I don't see a society that really believes in genuine change.

I see it in my daughter all the time. Part of it is because she's six - there's a lot of permanence built into her world view and a lot of black and white thinking. Somebody does something mean; they are always mean. I'm sure it's a failing on our part that we haven't done better to create that environment of change in her life, but it just seems like the messages she receives - not curricularly from school, but socially and relationally - is that the only real change is conformity: we act as we're expected to act, because that's how society works.

One of the hallmarks, they say, of millenials, is constant change. New job, new relationship, new city, new ideas, whatever. Young people are more comfortable outside routine. That's true in a lot of ways, but I also wonder if it's not a reality because they've been conditioned not to expect change. If things aren't going well here, they never will; let me find something else.

There's a sense of optimism there - that something better exists elsewhere - that isn't really present in older generations (I'm going to stick with this job/relationship/situation because nothing else is better), but I'm guessing both outlooks are ultimately joyless and fruitless without a real belief in change.

Can we say we'll invest in something because we believe it's possible to be different - like radically and substantially other than what it was before? I don't know that society has the tools to do that anymore and it's something I think the Church could offer, but if so, we've got to rid ourselves of our own Christian version of the same thing.

It's easy for us to fall into behavior modification as a default position. We don't expect people who come to Jesus to change substantially, we expect them to change behavior. It's our worst failing, for sure. We, as the Church, have largely give up on the idea of transformation and settled for a specific, comfortable sub-culture that's not fundamentally different than the rest of the world (just labeled with a cross).

It's not really an us vs them thing - at least from a Christian's perspective - it cuts across the kinds of dividing lines we like to put up. You can experience and believe in transformation regardless of your faith background, for sure, but I do think it's something that's fundamentally at the core of Christianity. Although I'm wondering if even the Church is losing that battle.

Like many other core elements of Christianity, people are picking up these ideas and championing them outside the traditional forms and labels of "the Church." That's where my real passion and interest lies - I want to be someone who champions what I'd call Jesus-values anywhere they exist, regardless of how we label them (and maybe without a real need to label at all).

So in the end, this isn't a celebration of Christian and denunciation of the world, but a reminder and advocacy of a firm belief in transformation wherever it manifests itself. This kind of hope is vital for any real meaning in life and any sense of a fulfilling future.

*It's a tragedy, because the other character is an African-American guy who seems to have everything altogether and it's revealed over time that he's just a lonely, broken individual deep down - which is fine, since we're all lonely and broken a lot of the time, but the racial component of the white guy being good at heart and the black guy being flawed is all sorts of problematic - especially since the movie was written by the white guy's son with no input from the black guy's family.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody is the Movie Freddie Deserved

I've been absent from posting for a month! Sorry. I've been bogged down in basketball and illness. I'll be honest, I didn't even write this new - it's something I wrote when the movie first came out (of course I saw it right away). Now that "BoRhap" is up for a bunch of Oscars, it seems timely. If I haven't told you already, I think Gwilym Lee is a revelation! I did watch the movie a second time this week and found even more problems with it - I sure hope it doesn't win much, but it's worth seeing anyway. Keep yourself alive!

We all know by now the flaws of Bohemian Rhapsody, the jumbled semi-biopic about Queen front man, Freddie Mercury, but also sort of about the band itself. It plays like a film that lost its director halfway through production, which it did. The first hour is full of cliché and tired storytelling tropes. The casting and performances are excellent, but it drags under the weight of indecision.

That being said, the most compelling critiques of Bohemian Rhapsody are about its narrative choices. Mercury’s sexuality is downplayed or avoided, depending on who you ask, and Queen’s historical timeline was cut into a million pieces and re-assembled randomly, with key elements fabricated or “finessed” to serve a storyline that doesn’t deserve it.

Still, I walked out of the theatre on a high, partly because of how cool the recreation of Queen’s Live Aid set was, but mostly because the music of Queen is just so wonderful. Mercury was magnetic and his voice is unparalleled – I know, because I spent three hours the other day listening to Youtube links labelled, “Best Freddie Mercury Impersonators” and not a single one was.

Ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody is the story of perseverance and belief, the band’s belief in each other and Freddie’s belief in relationship and stability. It’s disappointing to moviegoers because what we know most about Mercury is the period he spent in Germany in the early ‘80s forging new territory in the definition of hedonism.

The most famous anecdote that’s been trotted out is from Lesley-Ann Jones’ biography in which she recounts Mercury serenading construction workers from a hotel balcony, before inviting up the one with the “biggest dick.” The film depicts one scene where Mercury tells Mary Austin, the love of his life, he’s bisexual and she contradicts him, “No, you’re gay.”

Mercury’s life was largely about refusing to be pinned down and defined. That translated to sexuality in ways that were beyond uncomfortable, even for much of liberal society. Queen guitarist, Brian May, and drummer, Roger Taylor, spoke intentionally about Mercury following his death from AIDS-related diseases in 1991.

They sought to combat the stigmatized public image of Mercury, reminding the world that he was kind, generous, and faithful to the people he loved. Whatever promiscuity and experimentation happened during the tumultuous German period was not what defined the man they’d known more than half their lives.

The general public might prefer a film that explores how someone so vulnerable on stage and in the public eye could also engage in some of the darkest debauchery the ‘70s and ‘80s had on offer. The struggle for an outwardly confident, incredibly unself-conscious rock star to reconcile a deep inner insecurity and loneliness would’ve made better Oscar fare and a more compelling storyline, but it wouldn’t be true to the vision of Mercury those closest to him embraced.

Bohemian Rhapsody is not the movie we wanted. Beyond even the awkward pacing, poor writing, and odd (lack of) directorial choices, it just wasn’t the story we wanted to see. Bohemian Rhapsody is, though, the movie Freddie deserves. It is an attempt to capture the essence of a unique individual beyond merely the accumulation of his actions. Freddie Mercury was outrageous and amazing and, at times, selfish, inscrutable, and offensive. To his friends, though, he was Freddie. Could the film have benefitted from better creative professionals? Absolutely, but this isn’t our story to tell; it belongs to those people who most knew and loved him. Even the best version of the story they wanted to tell would never make us happy.

That’s hard to reconcile for a man who so willingly and completely gave himself to his fans. “You’ve brought me fame and fortune and everything that goes with it; I thank you all.” In the age of Instagram, we’re accustomed to seeing behind the veil of celebrity. In reality, we’ve just agreed to the shared delusion that those “candid” moments are authentic as opposed to just another part of the overall marketing machine.

We want so desperately to believe a persona as larger than life as Freddie Mercury was everything we expected him to be. Bohemian Rhapsody shows a Freddie Mercury who wanted the same thing from himself. A more compelling movie would’ve explored how he reconciled the difference; his friends chose to make one that graciously explained such reconciliation wasn’t necessary.

It’s not what we wanted, but it is what we have. There’s no truer description of life than that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


I promise, this will be quick. It seems the TV "news" and internet gluttons-for-punishment have found their latest obsession in this piece of art by Jani Leinonen called "McJesus," which depicts Ronald McDonald as a crucifix. It's been displayed in other countries, but is now showing in Israel.

First: the actual context. Israel has a long history of using culture as a means of normalizing the oppression and mistreatment of Arabs in Palestine. We all know the Arab-Israel conflict is complicated and no one is helped by antagonism or violence, least of all from the side with all the power. I support Israel's existence, but I can't support the way it treats Palestinians. The very fact the artist himself doesn't want the piece displayed in this context should be reason enough to change something.

My bigger concern, though, is with those trolls and click-baiters looking to use this to inflame the old "Christians are persecuted in the US" trope. That's irresponsible for a number of reasons. One, pretty importantly, a large part of US "Christianity" these days is just a cover for specific social or political beliefs that stand up better under the banner of religion. That's nothing new to Christianity - our popular theology and practice has been shaped by politics for centuries; religion is not inherently the opiate of the masses, but it sure works well for that purpose.

The second issue, connected somewhat, is simply the scriptural tradition of such prophetic statements of religious hypocrisy, perhaps unfaithfulness would be a more welcome word (although I doubt it). This image is meant to express how society treats consumerism like religion, maybe not with words, but certainly with our actions. Western Christianity is far more concerned with immediate gratification, comfort, and power than with anything resembling "Biblical" Christianity.

That's also nothing particularly new, which is precisely the point.

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is chock full of confrontations between court prophets and those who end up becoming the writers (or at least subjects) of scripture itself. The court prophets told the people (and especially the rulers) precisely what they wanted to hear: you're doing a good job, things are looking up, we're right to live the way we do. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah are pointing out the sins of the people, the hypocrisy, and error. They're pointing out the areas in which God's people fall short; an important elements of any faithful religious belief.

Statues like this one make a very traditional prophetic statement, even if the artist isn't from among God's people (I'm not sure if he's a Christian or not, but that's never really been an issue when God calls a prophet anyway). God's people hear the words of correction with humility rather than defensiveness. Yes, this image should anger you, as a Christian; it should be offensive. That doesn't make it bad.

In scripture, those people who decried public prophetic statements of religious hypocrisy were called false prophets. Something to remember as we engage with the realities of our own personal and collective imperfections.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

God Can't by Thomas Jay Oord

I have known Tom Oord a long time. I was an eighteen year old freshman when I sat in his gen-ed philosophy class at Eastern Nazarene College in January of 2000. I was a history major at the time, with no intentions of studying theology; it was a class I had to take, I was a year ahead in the sequence, and I wasn't really ready to wrestle with those ideas. Still, my enduring memory of that course was (and I hope we know each other well enough now for me to use this phrase) being subjected to Oord's version of the (terrible) early Christian rock he loves so much.

I don't remember if he played all the instruments, but I know he wrote it and I'm pretty sure he sang it (and I hope desperately it survives somewhere and makes its way to Youtube). It was called, or at least about, the "Teleological Suspension of the Ethical." I suppose the fact that I remember the title eighteen years later is proof it was an effective pedagogical choice, although I do admit I had to look up Teleological Suspension of the Ethical for a refresher on its meaning.

I'm glad I did, because what I meant as an endearing and marginally embarrassing story actually provides good introduction to Oord's new book: God Can't. The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical is a philosophical argument from Soren Kierkegaard wherein a person is asked by God to set aside ethical norms for a higher purpose. The classic example is Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac; God asks Abraham to murder as a sign of obedience to God. Of course, we presume after the fact that God didn't intend for Abraham to go through with the killing, but that's not really pertinent to Abraham's decision: a teleological suspension of the ethical.

Having now followed Oord through a pretty lengthy and highly-praised career, it's pretty clear to see how the issue of God's consistency has become central to Oord's philosophical projects. God Can't is really a continuation of the things he was exploring in that song all those years ago: How can we maintain God's integrity in light of our increasing understanding and experience of the universe God created?

Kierkegaard's answer was simply that God's purpose (telos) trumps everything else - God does what God needs to do to accomplish God's mission. There's nothing wrong with that answer, but it's never going to satisfy such a committed Wesleyan as Oord (or myself). Love is the ultimate divine character trait for people in our tradition - and, if you take the logic far enough - love becomes more than a character trait, but the very definition of the divine. God is love. We take that very seriously and quite literally.

At this point in his thinking and writing, Oord's found an effective writing pattern, wherein he presents a new idea in a very technical, academic way in one volume, then follows with a book on the same idea written for a wider audience. This is how he connects his passion for academic philosophy with his call and mission to serve the world pastorally. God Can't is the popular exploration of his recent The Uncontrolling Love of God.

In many ways the idea is not new - Oord himself has been working out how to explain God as love for most of his adult life - but his challenging explanation has not been presented so succinctly or directly as it is in God Can't. He's essentially challenging the long-held Christian belief that God is omnipotent, specifically, that God is all-loving and true love is uncontrolling, therefore, because God has given agency to creation, God can't force people (or things) to do what they don't want to do.

There are some semantic arguments to be had there: one could argue that love itself is coercive; receiving real and genuine love from another changes us. We can certainly resist and refuse love, but it is a force that works towards its own multiplication. I imagine other thinkers and philosophers might explain the same thing in very different ways. I appreciate Oord's direct use of "can't," though, because it frees us from some of those Christian presumptions which come more form Greek philosophy than they do from Hebrew tradition or even scripture itself.

Oord's made these challenges before. He's written about God's relationship to time that challenges not only whether God can know the future (omniscience), but whether the future is even something knowable. The ability to make such uncomfortable observations and ask what many presume to be dangerous questions comes from a deep Wesleyan commitment to refuse fear. Perfect love casts out fear. If God is love, our questions and re-conceptualizations pose no danger, neither to God, nor to our own salvation.

Oord writes with a loving heart and the best of intentions. The very fact he chooses to make his ideas more accessible to the average person proves his pastoral heart. Each of the five chapters addresses a simple notion that colloquial Christianity takes for granted and probably gets wrong: God Can't Prevent Evil; God Feels Our Pain; God Always Works for Healing; God Works to Bring Good from Bad (but doesn't cause evil); and God Needs Our Cooperation.

Whole books are necessary to unpack the arguments and challenges inherent in those simple statements and God Can't is the first one you should read. Beyond providing comfort to those who have, do, and will suffer evil, it sparks deep theological engagement in ways that are open and accessible to nearly anyone. The language is easy to understand, the chapters are short, and Oord reiterates his points multiple times, from different angles, and using real life stories.

The weakest portion is in chapter three, on healing, where Oord overly simplifies arguments on the afterlife to smooth over one of the most pressing questions of life: namely it's length. He downplays the importance of physical bodies in Christian views of resurrection, which avoids the full exploration of the relationship between the present and eternity. That question is beyond the scope of the book and probably doesn't have as simple or easy an answer as Oord provides in the rest of God Can't, so perhaps this isn't the time or place, but the treatment of the issue here was certainly less than satisfactory to me.*

Overall, God Can't is an excellent resource for any person (Christian or otherwise) struggling with suffering and faith. It re-frames the conversation about suffering and faith. While it does leave us with more questions than answers, it's a much healthier place for exploration of God and scripture than those presentations of faith that purport to answer everything. It's especially poignant and timely in this age where so many are abandoning Christian faith because of it's failure to address the realities of the world. God Can't does so with love, genuine concern for people, and without fear.

*I also have an issue with him using "evil one" as an analog for Satan. I'm not sure that reflects the most responsible scriptural view of Satan, especially in a book that essentially ascribes responsibility for sin to creation itself and free will, but that is certainly an argument and discussion for another time.

Personal Coda: I'm more grateful than ever for Tom Oord. The ideas he was wrestling with when I met him are not things that generally resonated with me. He was much more entrenched in Process Philosophy and Theology, which never really satisfied the evangelical part of me that was still pretty comfortable with traditional approaches. My time in seminary led me to ideas more informed by Open and Relational views of God that prioritize scripture over theological or philosophical interpretations. As I engaged that world more deeply, lo and behold I discovered Tom Oord had migrated there as well. I'm sure he'd connect his early and more recent influences more closely than would I, but I appreciate the place and prominence of scripture, practicality, and pastoral considerations in the work he's doing now. It's comforting to see the Holy Spirit drawing all of us towards the truth in fits and starts. I'm really honored to have been asked to read and review this book. I hope you'll all give it a chance.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Kingdom Ethics and Government Laws

Last week, my friend Jeremy Scott (no relation), asked, on Twitter, about Kingdom ethics that speak to a maximum wage." As is my wont, I answered quickly and without enough thought. I said, essentially, that forcing people to do anything is not really a Kingdom value; we should love people and allow their actions to be transformed through that love. I know, it's a bit optimistic, but I' ma believer in Jesus Christ, what can I say - I think things will work out in the end.

What I failed to take into account is this idea I struggled with earlier this year - and one that could use a bit more working through - that a big issue with being a Christian in a democracy is the assumption of responsibility. We feel, somewhere deep down, that we can't really pass judgement on the value or morality of a law, policy, or government action without also proposing an alternative. Because it's nominally a government of, by, and for the people, democracy requires something of us beyond support or opposition.

This is really where our citizenship in a nation comes into conflict with our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom doesn't have a government, other than the benevolent grace of God; and it doesn't have a law, other than the law of love, exemplified in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In many ways, nations give us an out. We're less inclined to sacrifice or suffer with or change our lifestyles very much to help others, address needs, or express radical, Christ-like love, because we've got this government over our heads with nominal responsibility to take care of people. Maybe we get off the hook by saying, "if everyone just acted like me, things would be ok," and hopefully we're making choices and living lives that bear this out, but that's far from certain.

Getting back to the question at hand: I think Kingdom ethics speak just as strongly to the dangers of wealth as they do to the dangers of poverty. They might be different physical situations (deprivation vs indulgence), but both are harmful and both lead to pain. So, in one sense, it's very easy to say Christians could support a maximum wage, in which the earnings of folks are simply limited.

I'm not so sure, though, you could make that claim and also be in line with the US Constitution. In other words, for the government to institute a maximum wage, they might have to appeal to a morality the first amendment specifically prohibits them from enacting. This gets into all sorts of grey areas and arguments about the relationship of the US to Christianity and the Kingdom to the nations of the Earth, but those are really discussions beyond the immediate.

I believe Christians need to be able to make ethical and moral judgments about the laws, policies, and actions of the government without feeling obligated to propose a government solution. It is not the duty of Kingdom citizens to ensure the survival or orderly operation of the nation in which they happen to live. We certainly have responsibility to our neighbors, but that relationship does not need (and probably should not be) mediated by the government.

Do I think people would be better off with less? As a general rule, I do. Is a maximum wage one way to help the richest among us live with less? Sure. Does that make it good policy? That's not really a question Kingdom ethics can or should answer. I mean, you can have a similar Kingdom conversation about whether a maximum wage really helps anyone else beyond the few very rich folks it effects. Does increasing the coffers of the government do anything to further the Kingdom? Probably not. Would additional funds for health care or education be beneficial to people? Absolutely. Will the consequences of this potential action be as we envision? Almost certainly not.

Of course, that's the rub with everything.

I believe Kingdom ethics dictate a communal responsibility to provide people with a love, a family in which they are nurtured and valued.
I think this manifests itself in things like meeting basic human needs: nutritious food, shelter, medical care, education, and work. Of course, Kingdom ethics say you shouldn't need money or taxes to do any of those things.

In the end, maybe that's the solution: to just continue to preach the Kingdom - sharing, sacrifice, hospitality, love - and let the distinction between those ideals and the realities of the world be a judgment in and of themselves. Compare the Kingdom that's lived out among God's people to life in the nations of the world. I'm not sure either party will come out looking so rosy on that one.