Review: Beyond the Mask

Note: A review copy of this movie was sent in exchange for a review. It releases today, and you can look for a local showing here

It isn’t often I’m sent a movie to review that I get excited about. Holy Rollers was an exception, as were the films by the same director. But those were documentaries. When it comes to fiction, I’ve found them lacking.

But watch the trailer for Beyond the Mask and tell me it doesn’t at least look like it deserves a shot. Continue reading Review: Beyond the Mask

On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

If words matter–and you’ll find that I am very quick to contend that they do–then we ought to be careful with the language we speak. For some, this point might seem like something akin to an argument against profanity. I’m not (necessarily) out to destroy those with foul mouths–it isn’t my habit, and it is one that I prefer as strong emphasis rather than filler words, but if done with thought and a certain sort of intention behind it, a chosen “swear word” can pack the necessary punch to communicate precisely what was intended. (See here Paul’s use of the word ‘skubala’) Continue reading On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

Little Hope Was Arson – A Review

Note: A review copy of this film was provided to me in exchange for a review. I thank especially the film’s executive producer, Bryan Storkel, for working to make sure I received this documentary, since I asked for it such a long time ago. In addition, you can check out the film’s website here.

There is no easy way to sum up the issues that naturally arise in a film about a pair of arsonists who target churches, starting with the church they grew up in.

We’ll start with the merits of the documentary. The easiest way to sum up the film’s credentials is to say this: you wouldn’t be wasting your time, by any means, if you decided to give this a watch. The narrative is well crafted without feeling contrived–no easy task in a documentary, confined on the sides by reality and compelling rhetorical tricks. The story is not so well known that you’ll feel like you know the ending (unless you’re from east Texas, I imagine), but also not so localized that it feels as though it is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Mild spoilers to follow. Continue reading Little Hope Was Arson – A Review

“Even tough guys need Jesus,” a review of “Fight Church”

“Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?”

The question was posed to a camera in the documentary Fight Church. The film takes a look at a recent surge of interest in fighting for sport within the church. There are an estimated 700 churches in the U.S. participating in various forms of martial arts, according to a statistic near the end of the film.

As a documentary, the film certainly succeeds. There are some strong opinions from various perspectives offered throughout, even if the majority of the speakers land in the firm “Yes, MMA fighting is good to participate in” camp.

Here are the two sides, so to speak:

The first views this entire thing as sport: much like you can participate in football, basketball, soccer, tennis, or any other sport as a Christian, surely you can participate in martial arts. And what would prevent a preacher from doing so, in particular, if it is not barred for your average, everyday Christian? For these fighters, this physical activity isn’t an act of violence, at least by their own telling: one pastor/fighter describes his training as a form of worship, and another describes it as an art form. One even goes so far as to write off the term “violent” as a descriptor: “violence” is to violate somebody’s rights, and a cage fight is two adults who have consented to participate in the ring in a contest of skill.

The other side comes from two primary perspectives. The first is from an Episcopal priest, who stands now and has always stood against the violence displayed in cage fighting. He argues that the Church is to respect the dignity of the human person, and that cage fighting is intrinsically at odds with that. He goes on to compare the violence of cage fighting to war, saying: “War hurts; war demeans. Violence makes us less than we should be.” The other perspective that still lands opposed comes from a former MMA trainer. As he continued in his study and devotion to Christianity, he became convinced that the two were not compatible. He ended up pursuing a PhD in Philosophy of Religion, and spends his time producing apologetics training videos.

I’d like to get to those two sides a little bit more deeply, but first a quick comment on the quality of the film. Not only is the documentary well shot, it also manages to present each person’s position fairly. While many of us will cringe at some of the displays of violence, others may cringe at the closed-mindedness of the priest. But the film shies away from none of this, offering the conflicted perspectives of spouses, the bizarre mentality of children and early teenagers, and the quirky, quip-filled fighters who joke about having the gift of laying on hands. The fights are presented in their brutality, and the participants are presented in their moments of joyful loss and joyful wins, and the events are presented just as they are run. I couldn’t guess from the framing of the film where the filmmakers stand, since I can levy evidence both for and against each position. That’s a good thing.

So what do we make of this sort of church-sponsored event?I tend to land closer to the second camp than the first; that is, I tend to suspect that the sort of violence inherent in cage fighting is incompatible with Christian doctrine.It seems to me that the majority of the reasoning behind the participation of the sport equally applies to other sports. That much I find myself in agreement with the fighters, as far as it goes. But the analogy fails when we consider the sort of things being compared. The defense of sports rests on the intrinsically harmless nature of the purpose of sports; most sports involve injury, but tangentially. The injuries are accidents of the sport, not features. These accidents can be abused, of course: a football player with an insatiable thirst for blood is, of course, sinning in those desires.

One fighter, when speaking about his favorite MMA competitor, says “He’s the best. He’s malicious. I want to be just like him.” Any sport that prizes maliciousness is incompatible with Christian virtue. One man argues throughout the film that we need a ‘warrior ethos,’ something he claims we’ve lost in America. There’s a section of the documentary where this man is showing his children–who appear to be somewhere between the ages of 6 and 12–to use handguns. The children are very much frightened of the weapon (as is healthy), but this doesn’t deter the father from teaching them.Another clip in the film shows the training of kids and young teenagers. They are all drawn in by the cool factor–which is certainly forgivable, given their age. But one kid admits that he just likes fighting for the sake of fighting. When he mentions that the trainers “do this for Jesus,” he says so with a shrug of slightly-confused indifference. Another kid prepares for his first match, and says he’s going to “rip [the other kid’s] head off.” This is hardly the loving view that the sport allegedly fosters.

One of the MMA-fighting pastors finished up his remarks with the following challenge:

“I double-dog dare any Christian to go through the preparation to get into the cage. Not to actually get into the cage, but to go through the preparation. I guarantee you they will change their views.”

If “preparation” means spending months training one’s body to be in peak physical condition, then the only reason we ought to eschew that advice would be if it hindered our spiritual lives in some way. Physical fitness is important–something I myself slack in, much to my own detriment–but there is such a thing as taking too much time on, well, anything.”Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?” I struggle to answer this in the affirmative. Even in the context of sport, where some injury is bound to happen, acting to intentionally bring an opponent to submission, with an aim to incapacitate, strikes this viewer as against Christian ethics.

There may be a theoretical place in which you can participate in a sport centered around harm and do so out of love. I’m open to that possibility, but if this film is any indication, that loving embrace is difficult to hold to. The harm on display is not limited to the physical–even if it were, we ought to pause and reconsider. Aside from the physical harm, though, is the intense emotional experience of fighting. The thrill of the testosterone, the instinct to fight, and the rush that comes from it seems to bring out the worst in a large number of the men displayed in the film.

Lionsgate is releasing the film on iTunes and most all other On Demand and Digital HD platforms starting today. You can also purchase the DVD from their website.

Note: I was sent a copy of this film in exchange for a review. Much thanks to Bryan Storkel for sending it along.

Storytelling and Expectations: How I Met Your Mother, The Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite

When we hear a story for the first time, I think we all try to predict the ending. Sometimes we’re spot on, and sometimes we are way off. The “twist” reveals as much about what we thought would happen as it does about the story we are hearing: sometimes a “twist” is so unexpected and out of the blue that it ruins what felt like a coherent story. Other times, like in Fight Club, the story is appreciated far more the second time through, with the twist revealed. The upending of our expectations is something we all sort of want, but some storytellers go too far.

One film that managed to avoid this problem was Pacific Rim, which is probably the most straight-forward film of the past few years. The trailers promised you giant robots fighting against giant monsters, and the film delivered exactly that. The story may have felt somehow less “interesting”, simply because there wasn’t really a twist. There was danger and a progression of that danger, but there wasn’t a sudden reveal that maybe we were actually the problems all along, or something of that nature (maybe the kaiju were actually our deep-seated fears, and the whole thing happened in our minds, or some other inane twist). But twists for the sake of twists are hardly worth examining.

Last year there were quite a few games that were (rightly) praised highly: The Stanley ParableThe Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite come to mind. The first I’ve already written about, but the game functions as an exploration of our expectations, as a way to take what we think a game is and, well, upend it. The latter two, however, don’t really step outside of the way a game is put together. They’re both linear, and you follow the story regardless of the decisions you make (Bioshock: Infinite has a few choices, but are not nearly as significant as the choices in Mass Effect, for instance). In fact, in a time where choice is becoming a near requirement for games, I appreciated both of these games for just letting me play the story that the games had to tell.

Spoiler warning for both The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite.

The ending for The Last of Us is one that I hated. I know many thought this was the best game of the last year, and in many ways they are right. The game is mechanically impressive, providing a depth and terror to the combat that many games lack. I felt real emotions for the characters, akin to some of my favorite books. There were, in fact, quite a few moments where I was emotionally flustered but had to act; a character just died, for instance, but I needed to shoot my way out of whatever situation I was in.

At the end of the game, the protagonist (who you have spent the majority of the game playing) lies to save the girl he now thinks of as his daughter. The daughter might be the only way to save the world from the terrible disease that has infected so many, but she would need to be killed to do so (she wouldn’t survive the operation required). In a terrifying last scene, you break into the room and save her from the surgery, only to whisk her away unconscious. When she awakens, she asks where you are, and you explain (falsely) that there are others just like her, that she isn’t unique, and that the world will eventually be saved anyway.

At this point I was upset with the protagonist, but could live with it. This girl had seen through lies before; it takes someone fairly smart and quick to survive as long as she has. But the finale of the game is a bit more harrowing: she forces the protagonist to look her in the eye and promise that he’s telling the truth. He does it, and she is satisfied. The end.

The frustration that I’d embodied this man who was not only unwilling to make the sacrifice to save the world (which is understandable, considering the cost), but he couldn’t even tell the truth to this young girl who thinks of him as father was almost unbearable. I had to rethink the entire game, and every development that the protagonist made felt empty in light of this moral failure. It felt as though the conversations I’d sought to have with the young girl were all to build trust, only to have that ripped away.

And maybe the story wanted to teach me that people are evil. But I already knew that, and didn’t feel better for the new “realization.”

Bioshock: Infinite was far more philosophical in nature, in regards to the twist. With jumps between various parallel universes throughout, the twist in that game ended up faring far better. The reveal that Booker (the protagonist) is also Comstock (the villain) works well, primarily because the protagonist reacts the same way that we do: Booker is angry and distraught, and immediately seeks to make sure that this isn’t going to be the case for him. The game even ends with Booker drowning his alternate selves (who chose baptism into a new name, Comstock), simply to remove the universes of his own evil. That’s a far cry from someone consciously lying to their child about perhaps the most important truth in their world.

Both of these games were heralded partially for their gameplay, but also for their unique stories. The twists made them, in a sense, memorable. I’ll likely not forget either of them, and would be interested in replaying both in a couple of years when the intricacies of the stories aren’t so fresh.

The breaking of expectations can go either way: sometimes we herald the story as ground-breaking and beautiful, while other times we decry the absurdity of the change to the story we’ve been told all along.

Even earlier this week with How I Met Your Mother‘s finale we saw the way people reacted to broken expectations. Some were frustrated, and some felt the show had a great conclusion.

Spoiler alert for How I Met Your Mother.

My friend Sarah Parro nailed many aspects of the conclusion, but one bit in particular is worth repeating:

 […] the finale does not change the overarching messages of the entire show, as much as it may attempt to. With the shift of focus back to Ted and Robin and the kids’ sharp insight into Ted’s underlying feelings for Robin, the driving narrative of being with “the one” still holds up amidst the rushed and stunning events of the final episode.

The end of the show was somewhat predictable (I knew that the titular Mother would die, for instance), and somewhat painfully consistent. The show was always about Ted and Robin, even when it wasn’t. The show always had Marshall and Lily together, even when they broke up for awhile. The show never had Barney settling down (which makes his new-found love for his daughter a little hard to swallow, considering what else he goes through in the show). The one question that is left unanswered is whether or not Ted and Robin will work this time; they’ve both tried this before, after all, more than once. But maybe now that Ted had his children and Robin had her career they can finally settle down with each other. The show really was about meeting the Step-Mother, not the Mother.

So did HIMYM break expectations? Sure, in some ways. I didn’t expect the show to end at all (I kid, I kid). For the most part, the show landed precisely where it always fell: the Universe wants you to be with the One, and you will be with the One, unless you screw it up somehow (but even then, you’ll probably end up with the One).

Twists are valuable, of course, but only insofar as they are twists that we can swallow. If I were to re-watch HIMYM, I should see, from the start, that Robin and Ted were meant for each other (for the record, Barney and Robin were a far more endearing couple; they both started at a similar place and grew together, which has quite a bit of merit in its own right). But I suspect I’d see the same convoluted story of on-and-off again romances that we felt the first time: only now we’d chime in with Ted’s kids that no, someone other than Robin isn’t right for you anymore.

I don’t mind twists. I think some twists are fundamental to good stories. But some stories can be told well without them, and HIMYM might have been more honest if it hadn’t attempted to include lots of twists at the end, no matter how expected.

Perhaps if the ending to HIMYM was something like this, we’d all feel that it was too generic and familiar (or, dare I say it, happy). Perhaps if The Last of Us had ended in sacrifice, we’d all have been bored to tears by the now-played-out sacrificial father role. And perhaps if Bioshock: Infinite had just forced us to kill Comstock, instead of realizing that we were him, it would have been forgotten as a game with above-average gameplay and writing that neglected to do anything new in the genre. I might have preferred that ending to the first two, even if I would likely have forgotten the last soon after finishing it. But sometimes I’d like a happy ending that doesn’t skirt my expectations, except the expectation that the ending will be happy.

“Her”, Physicality, and the Nature of Love

Her made me uncomfortable.

If you walk out of Her completely comfortable with the way relationships are presented, there may be something wrong with you (for my friends at The Critical Hit Podcast, discomfort comes primarily from unexpected outlets: the nature of purchasing an OS, the nature of consensual desire in phone sex, etc.). The big question of the film you can glean from the trailer: what does it mean to fall in love with a person who doesn’t have a body? More so, a person who was artificially created with the express purpose of serving you. It seems clear that Samantha isn’t human, at least to me: I’d say humanness is wrapped up in at least an initial connection to physicality (as a Christian, the Incarnation makes this a clear stance). But the bigger question is whether or not Samantha is a person. Much like India argued that dolphins are non-human persons, so do I suspect that Her is contending, tacitly if not explicitly, that Samantha is a non-human person, complete with rights and feelings and abilities that extend beyond the majority of animals.

Some people have already fallen in love with the machines, at least if we measure “love” in devotion, rather than sex. We spend hours and days interacting with our phones and computers, sometimes without using them as a medium for interacting with others or with ourselves. My phone can be a portal to interact with others via voice or Facebook, much like my computer allows me to communicate with readers. But these are means, not ends in themselves; technology should function for a purpose. Her flips this on its head: Samantha is literally a piece of technology, but she’s functioning as an end in Theodore’s life.

Samantha reacts emotionally to Theodore, he is consistently amazed at who she is, she has a sense of humor, Theodore gets jealous of other AI’s. The whole relationship mirrors what we would consider a normal romantic relationship between two humans: ups and downs, sexuality, anxiety, self-esteem issues, etc. all abound in both of them. The relationship even ends when Samantha falls in love with hundreds of other individuals, and then ends up leaving to join the other AI’s in some vague metaphysical reality.

We’ve already touched on Her here at Evangelical Outpost. Hannah had this to say at the conclusion of her article:

Truthfully, part of me would rather just message back and forth forever and not deal with flesh-and-blood people. Because people are scary and imperfect and not contained in my computer. But I know that keeping people contained to chats isn’t the way to go. Because in an actual live relationship, I learn something. I grow. I pick up on ways to be better at the relationship and ways in which I am selfish.

I think this is what the film really wants to hammer home, even as it is intentionally ambiguous regarding the goodness of the relationship with Samantha. In a pivotal scene in the film, Theodore has lunch with his ex-wife to sign the divorce papers. When he tells her that he is in a relationship with an OS, she accuses him of being afraid of the reality of a physical relationship, of a “real person.”

And there’s something there. While his ex-wife is hardly the protagonist of the film, I think she provides a unique look at Theodore’s soul. While some of his friends are fully supportive (he goes on a double date, for instance, providing earpieces for the other couple), here’s a woman who knows first-hand the problems that Theodore will face in a deep relationship. Ex-wives are hardly the first place you ought to go for relationship advice, but she speaks for many of the audience members when she brings up her concerns (granted, she does so in a far more accusatory manner than I suspect most of us would).

Some of our relationships are done primarily through connections that could only exist with technology. I spend time weekly with people who don’t live in the same city I do, let alone the same country. There’s a goodness there, but there’s also the recognition that even those relationships have a physical component, or at least the potential for that. If I found myself in the same city, I’d opt to see them in person, rather than relying on Skype and e-mail. We shouldn’t avoid using technology to further our relationships. We most definitely should avoid replacing our relationships with technology, however.

“Heavy Rain” May Be the Best Game I’ve Played

Video games have long held powerful narratives. I’ve talked about that extensively here at Evangelical Outpost, and up until a few weeks ago I would have said that The Stanley Parable was one of my all time favorite games, primarily for how it handled choice. I recently was given the opportunity to play through Heavy Rain, which is as much a visual Choose Your Own Adventure novel as it is a video game. I’ve got to say: this is a game that handled moral choice expertly.

If you intend to play the game, I strongly recommend that you stop reading at this point. I went into the game with no knowledge of the story, and I think I was better for it.

The premise: you play Ethan, a man who lives a fairly normal life: you’ve got a wife and a couple of kids, you’re an architect by trade, and you live in a nice house with a backyard for your kids to play in. The game opens with a short story that ends with your older son, Jason, dying in a car accident that also puts you into a coma. Your wife leaves you, when your son visits you he isn’t really interested in talking with you, and your life generally turns upside down. There’s also a serial killer on the loose who kidnaps children and drowns them. The game’s real story kicks off when your other son, Shaun, goes missing. He’s been kidnapped.

Throughout the game, you play as four different characters. But the game’s real kicker moments come when you continue on as Ethan. He starts receiving messages about the location of his son; the messages ask what he would be willing to do to save his son. The first “mission” given by the killer is insane: drive into oncoming traffic on the freeway for a certain distance. There are four other missions, of various levels of intensity: everything from killing someone at a certain address to cutting off your own finger with whatever you can find in the room. As you complete missions, you are given clues about where to find your son.

At first, the choices were easy. Driving into oncoming traffic would be insane and dangerous in real life; but in a game, I’m pretty confident in my driving abilities. I’ve driven into oncoming traffic tons of times in games, with a modicum of success. But as I was engrossed in the story, I stopped considering video game laws and started to wonder how a father should react in this situation. What was appropriate action to save your child?

Taken asked the same questions, but managed to answer them as well: a father should not stop until his child is safe, even if it means killing people. Heavy Rain is a bit more ambiguous, though my ending suggests that I made the right choices.

For the record, I chose to act in any way that did not guarantee the harm of another individual. I cut my own finger off, for instance, but chose not to kill the drug dealer that I was ordered to kill. He had a family too, after all. But I felt it was appropriate (and in character) to put myself in harm’s way.

The choice to cut off my own finger was perhaps the hardest I’d made, strangely. Some were black-and-white: don’t kill someone for the sake of maybe saving your son, for instance. But the game was visceral enough that I knew that choosing to cut off my finger would include a graphic depiction of the act and of the pain. I was prepared for it, but at the same time there was nothing I could do to prepare for it. I watched (and cringed) in horror at the result of my choice. Fortunately, I ended up saving my son.

Much like my experience of playing Dishonored, this sort of choice can force us to consider our own moral intuitions. Some might think that it is absolutely acceptable to kill–particularly to kill a drug dealer, someone generally viewed as evil–in order to save your own flesh and blood. Taken took this route pretty openly, and was still a hit film. If you find yourself making those decisions easily, you may be able to draw conclusions about yourself (of course, the conclusion may be that you don’t take games seriously, or that you were attempting to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and make decisions they would make). But if you struggle, you may find yourself sailing through uncharted waters, so to speak. Any game that allows us (and, in fact, encourages us) to think through moral or philosophical issues is  one that likely deserves a stamp of approval.

Helix Fossils, Anarchy, and Playing a Game with 150,000 People

If you follow gaming news, you’ve probably already heard about Twitch Plays Pokemon. For the uninitiated, here’s the short version: Pokemon Red, a game released in 1998 (in North America) alongside the superior Pokemon Blue (can you tell which one I owned?), is being played through a streaming serviced called Twitch. Usually people will stream their games for entertainment, but in this case the chat section is being translated into in-game commands. Effectively, every viewer is holding a GameBoy, attempting to press the right buttons to help complete the game. There are interesting tweaks going on, like the voting between Anarchy (where every button press is registered) and Democracy (where every few seconds the button or combination with the most votes is inputted into the game), but most interesting are the emergent near-religious devotions of the players. If you’re seeing people say things like “Praise the Helix Fossil” on Facebook, they haven’t joined a cult. Probably.

While the memes generated can be interesting, especially to those of us who grew up playing this game, the sheer number of people playing allows the game to function as a strange microcosm of the real world. We’ve got people who are attempting to lead by providing strategy graphics. Some want to watch the world burn, and are attempting to bring in as many people as possible to sabotage all progress. I suspect some just want to cause chaos, and are simply inputting random commands, in hopes of seeing nothing happen.

The most surprising, and perhaps strangely hopeful, turn of events is the amount of progress we’ve made. We’re probably seventy-five percent of the way through the main game, roughly. That’s impressive for a group playing any game, but one as complex as this (and with many opportunities to foil progress) didn’t leave me with much hope. I’m fairly sure they’re making it through faster than I did as a kid. A million monkeys with a million typewriters will write Shakespeare, but I won’t come close to the Bard.

It’s humbling, ultimately, to realize that a large group, even one impeded by individuals set on destruction, can still work their way through something. All you need is a little motivation.

“Nostalgia” probably won’t run a government anytime soon. We won’t make progress, politically or culturally, by banking on nostalgia alone. “The good old days” isn’t a place to stand, no matter how well you remember your childhood. Progress isn’t made by nostalgia, it’s made by collections of people.

Majority opinion, coupled with action, rules. There isn’t much more to it than that, no matter how many small, well-funded minorities wish to fight. You have to convince the majority to join you, ideologically, and then push those thoughts out of heads and into hands.

Nostalgia may convince me to do something “for old time’s sake”, whether that is play a game from my youth or something else. But power does not come from triviality; it comes from people.

A Year of Atheism: “Lord, I believe, but I’ll give up my belief”

Following a tried-and-true marketing formula, one former professor and pastor is attempting a year of atheism. He’s going to give up praying, reading the Bible for wisdom and encouragement, hoping that God will intervene in his life, and giving credit to God for day-to-day events.

Ryan Bell (no relation to Rob Bell, as far as I know) makes a few claims in his “coming out” post. Among many things, he says:

Christian educational institutions are not serving their students by eliminating professors that are on an honest intellectual and spiritual journey, just because it doesn’t line up with the official statement of faith.

The category of those who are on an “honest intellectual and spiritual journey” is a little larger than just those who are seeking atheism for a year. The push lately for those who are living “honest” journeys is a bit bewildering in its implications: if “living honestly” means that we abandon Christianity, does that mean Christianity is dishonest? If the educational institutions that Bell is referring to fire those who are living “honest…journey[s]”, what does that say for the professors who are still employed? While he “guess[es]” that many professors are in the same place that he is spiritually, he suggests that they live dishonestly in fear of termination.

If you are doubting and want to be honest about it, great. I’m absolutely okay with people who profess their struggles, even from the pulpit. It’s okay to say something is hard, it’s okay to say something is difficult to understand.

But if you’re teaching students or shepherding a flock and you’re to the point where you’re closer to atheism than Christianity, perhaps it is time you step back from leadership. Don’t be surprised when employers agree with the sentiment.

Christianity as a worldview is hardly filled with absolute certainty; sometimes faith is extremely challenging. That’s the reality we live in. We groan for a better understanding of the mysterious ways of God, we cry out in despair, and sometimes we get angry with our Creator. That’s acceptable. Even Jesus begs that the Father take the cup from him, before ultimately submitting himself.

If we don’t want to compare ourselves to Jesus, lest we be accused of arrogance, perhaps we can compare ourselves to the father of the spirit-possessed boy who confesses “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Or David when he cries out in the Psalms, often in ways that make us uncomfortable. Or even Job, who lived righteously and asked God some brutal questions.

The assumption that the Church cannot handle doubt is misplaced, but somewhat understandable. We’ve all experienced the ridicule of doubters, even if the mockery was subtle. Whether that was from the slam-dunk answers youth pastors gave honestly struggling kids or senior pastors who just didn’t take us seriously, it’s hard not to empathize with Bell’s frustrations.

But most of us also have experiences on the other end of the spectrum, where we sit with pastors or mentors, pour out our struggles and our frustrations, and are met with empathy and grace. We’ve all felt like Peter, ready to give up on Christ because the pressures are great. And to suggest that Christian institutions have, by and large, missed the grace offered to Peter is dishonest. At the very least, it’s incredibly sad.

There’s a difference between those whom God calls to lead and those we might term “laymen.” While it is appropriate for doubts to be a part of the Christian life at times, they ought not to characterize our leaders. Sure, frustration and doubt can creep up. We expect that, even in church leadership. But living a public year of atheism is a few steps beyond that. Doubt has manifested itself in a far more public and declarative way.

Jesus is willing and eager to save us from our doubts. He kept Peter from drowning when he walked on water. Our doubts do not damn us.

But our doubts are distinct from those who hear the teachings of God and proclaim them too difficult. Those who cannot even fathom following are distinct from those who follow and doubt.

May God grant us the strength to believe, even in our unbelief.

Duck Dynasty, Pope Francis, and “Seasoned Speech”

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Colossians 4:6

Gracious speech has been a struggle for believers for as long as we’ve been around. Sometimes we get so caught up in truth that we forget to treat people like people. We ignore that many will be turned off by stale speech, instead preferring the seasoned words of the practiced rhetorician. But some of our truths are rather unpalatable to the modern ear. Children may not care for vegetables, but adults stomach them, regardless of whether or not they enjoy them: the goodness requires our action. And so it is with truth: sometimes we won’t like what is true, but must find a way to stomach it, for our own good.

Seasoned language, much like seasoned food, ought not cover up the subject entirely, but rather accent and enhance it, according to the palette of the listener. Some rhetoric seeks to cover the topic at hand, winning the listener over with sweetness; good rhetoric, however, ought to enhance the subject, rather than covering it up.

Perhaps I’m late to the game to discuss Phil Robertson and the Duck Dynasty clan. But if ever somebody spoke some truth (mixed with some falsehoods) that wasn’t well seasoned, it was probably him.

That’s a bit of hyperbole. Phil isn’t the first harsh speaker to hit the world, and he won’t be the last.

So let’s not talk about Duck Dynasty and the unsurprising statements from backwoods Christians. Let’s talk about how we ought to speak our minds day-to-day. How do truth and sensitivity interact? Must we silence our beliefs in order to win souls?

Pope Francis lands on the opposite spectrum from Phil, and not just in his beliefs concerning the nature of a church service. The Pope has been making news by stating what the Church has always believed, despite what caricatures of Catholics believe. But he’s also carefully answering questions. When he is asked flat-out what he believes about homosexuality, he says we ought to see everyone as people first. That’s far smoother than the Duck Dynasty version (which likens homosexuals to idiots who don’t know what they’re missing). And Roman Catholic doctrine hasn’t changed regarding homosexual activity.

However, if you use too much seasoning, at some point the dish itself doesn’t matter: all you taste is the topping. Some seem to think this is the way to go with Christianity (“If we make Christianity attractive by only talking about love and not judgment, maybe people will convert!”), but that is an offense to the Gospel. Francis has been accused of seasoning his words too much, but I think he has a robust dish to land on, so to speak. Catholicism is the sort of religion that changes far more slowly, if at all, even if Protestant Christianity has shirked that particular reputation.

So if you say “I’m Catholic”, people probably know where you stand on the issue. But if you say “I’m a Christian”, suddenly the world is without clarity on your stance. If it is our job to lead the world from sin and towards Jesus Christ, it is (at least partially) our job to point out sin. But many who claim Christianity do not believe that homosexuality is a sin, regardless of what Scripture makes clear (and not just Old Testament passages). So, what do we do? Do we speak our minds and offend, or keep our mouths shut and make friends?

The answer comes down to context, more often than not. If asked flat-out what you believe about homosexuality, you should have the strength to stand by and speak your convictions. If you are misunderstood, you may need to follow Francis’ example and remind yourself and others that those in the LGBTQ crowd are, first and foremost, people made in the image of God.

But if you aren’t asked directly, should you ever bring it up? Short answer: maybe. If your friends don’t have a clue where you stand (or even that you are a believer), perhaps you aren’t living your life for Jesus as strongly as you thought. But if they know you are a believer, and even know where you stand on homosexuality issues, it isn’t worth trumpeting every time you talk to someone. Really, it won’t do you any good. Don’t serve the same dish at every meal; it gets tiresome.

If you never seek to soften your words, if you only ever speak offensively, you cannot claim that you are being attacked for your faith. The world may persecute you for Christ’s sake, but if you are attacked because you never considered your words or your actions, you are being persecuted for your own sake. And, unless you’re already perfect, that’s not going to fly.

So, step back and consider your words. Don’t be needlessly offensive, but don’t avoid all offense. The gospel is worth losing friends over, but your unnecessarily brash language isn’t. Season your words carefully, but remember to vary them as needed.