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

Peace With People Amidst a War of Ideas

I have observed two kinds of tyranny in the media and public forum when it comes to moral, religious, or political conflict.  The first kind is a tyranny of bigotry which takes firm held beliefs about politics, religion, ethics, etc., and attempts to coerce or shame others into agreement.  It disregards the humanity and dignity of those with whom it disagrees.  The second kind is a tyranny of tolerance.  This tyranny regards “tolerance” as the highest (if not the only) virtue, and then attempts to coerce or shame others into a malleability of all other beliefs besides tolerance.  It is as though anything but indifferent relativism is a hate crime.

Continue reading Peace With People Amidst a War of Ideas

Little Hope Was Arson – A Second Look (Film Review)

Note: a review copy of this film was provided in exchange for a review. Visit the film’s website here. See our earlier review from James here. Spoilers follow.

If you’ve ever been to Texas, you may have noticed the Jesus fish symbols on billboards used (presumably) to alert viewers that the company is Christian owned, or that it only takes a few minutes on the road to realize that there is almost literally a church on every corner. Continue reading Little Hope Was Arson – A Second Look (Film Review)

Pumpkins and Thanksgiving

In Germany, the asparagus harvest marks a national celebration. Whole restaurant menus center around asparagus, filling the hearts and stomachs of Germans thrilled by the wonderful harvest season. Asparagus has been an important crop in Germany, so the foundations of the festivities have economic and historic roots. In America, we have a similar celebration of the harvest of a particular vegetable — the pumpkin. Continue reading Pumpkins and Thanksgiving

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

Christian Parents of Non-Christian Children

God be with Christian parents of non-Christian children. They are heroes of the faith. In their Bibles, the edges around Proverbs 22:6 have grown once frayed and untouched, again, with memorization. Once, they read those words daily, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” After years, it grew harder to read. It certainly seemed like they had raised up their children in the way they should go. And it certainly seemed their children had departed. It was in the Bible, and how could it be wrong? Suspicion drew shadows of self-doubt at the edges of thoughts and sermons with the question, Where did I go wrong? Continue reading Christian Parents of Non-Christian Children

Children, God, and Human Nature: How Being a Nanny is Teaching Me About the Universe

In my day job, I work as a nanny for three adorable children. The brother-sister twins are almost a year and a half, and their older brother, Sam, is four. I’ve learned some things that I more or less expected to learn after taking this job: how to change a diaper, how to prepare bottles, how to spot from across the room a baby chewing something he’s not supposed to chew. However, I’ve also learned some things that I didn’t expect as much. Continue reading Children, God, and Human Nature: How Being a Nanny is Teaching Me About the Universe

“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.

The Stick and the Carrot: Exposing the Hidden False Gospel of the Purity Movement

I have previously written a post on what I believe to be missing in the teachings of the Purity Movement.  I am writing now about what I believe is problematically present in the Purity Movement.  The calling to pre-marital abstinence is consistent with what Christianity has always taught.  However, the Purity Movement took this teaching, and twisted it beyond recognition with false motives, false methods, and false consequences which not only surpass the tenets of Christian teaching, but actually contradict them.

The Purity Movement often employs two different methods to promote a subculture of abstinence in a post-sexual-revolution world.  The first method is to motivate with a stick, the second a carrot.  The stick method is to teach young people that the one thing of value which they possess is their virginity, and that if they fail to abstain from premarital sex then they are worthless.  The carrot method is to promise young people that if they abstain from premarital sex, they will have happy, sexually satisfying marriages that will last a lifetime.

The Stick Method

There are countless analogies which the movement will employ in order to reinforce this notion that virginity = worth.  It is vital to recognize that – no matter how well meaning speakers, authors, youth leaders, and parents have been – these analogies damage the dignity, the hope, and the self-worth of those who hear them.  One example is comparing a non-virgin to a pair of underwear which someone else has worn.  Other analogies compare a person’s virginity to a rose designed to be a wedding gift to their spouse – if you give it away you have nothing left to offer.  A further analogy, and perhaps the most disgusting, is that virginity is a cup of fresh water for your spouse to drink and any person you have slept with has spit into that water.  Who would want to drink from a cup in which other people had spit their saliva?  The analogies continue.  Each of them create either tragic or repulsive images with which a person is to associate themselves if they have lost their virginity, or with which they should fear to to be associated if they lose their virginity in the future.

The first thing I want to say about these analogies and this teaching is that they are absolutely contrary to reality.  The second, is that they offend even the most basic tenets of the Christian faith.  It is evident that self-worth does not reside in virginity by the mere fact that, if it did, then marriage would be stupid.  Why commit yourself to a lifetime of monogamy if sex is a one-time gift?  If the first time is the only time that counts, why do we want to have it more than once in our life?  It just seems obvious that sex is one of those recurring gifts, otherwise we would do it once and be done.   In addition, these disturbing analogies are equal propaganda against monogamy; after all, who would want to drink from a cup of their own saliva?  Or who wants to re-wear their own underwear?  Or, regardless of who has plucked off the petals, what good is a stump of rose?  These analogies do not speak against fornication or promiscuity, they really just speak against sex and against finding self-worth in anything else.

Furthermore, the first teaching of a Christian anthropology is that God made men and women in His own Image.  If we are created in God’s image, then to ascribe our innate worth to our sexual behavior is somewhat sacrilegious.  Our worth, our identity, is in the Image of God which we bear.  Contrary to this theology, Christianity actually teaches us that even in our sins, God loves us.   God doesn’t merely tolerate us if we are willing to follow the rules.  God is willing to incarnate Himself with our very flesh and blood, to suffer, to die, to be rejected by us even still, because He loves us.  How many times in the Old and New Testaments do the Scriptures compare God’s people to an unfaithful spouse whom He loves and desires to return to Him? God still wants us – no matter what.  To pretend that God, or anyone else, will hate us if we fornicate is not just to lie about sex, it is to lie about God.

The Carrot Method

If the purity movement has not succeeded in motivating us with the stick of worthlessness, it will attempt to motivate us with the carrot of bliss.  This is where things get really creative.  Employing a short term interpretation of the rewards which accompany obedience, the Purity Movement advertises a list of rewards that you will receive if you wait to have sex until your wedding night.  If you abstain from sex while dating, you will have less marital conflict, total lifelong fidelity, little-to-no risk of divorce, unwavering attraction to your spouse, and instant and continual sexual compatibility.  Contrary to physiology, experience, and reason, the movement tells us that sexual desire and sexual pleasure are cumulative.  In other words, if you wait until marriage to have sex, it will be all orgasm all the time.

In his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Josh Harris tells a story of a couple who did not hold hands before marriage and therefore could not keep their hands off of each other after they were married.  In her book “Passion and Purity,” Elizabeth Elliot describes her own experience of waiting as if waiting produces sexual fireworks.  Young women are told that if a man can prove that he is willing to wait for you, then he will never leave you.  If you abstain from sex, then God will bless you with a peaceful, fun, fulfilling marriage.

Now there are several big problems with this prosperity propaganda.  First, no one in the purity movement tells the other stories.  They don’t tell the stories of the men and women who suppressed their sexuality so that even after marriage they still feel guilty after sex.  Or the stories of people who abstain from sex and dating only never to find a spouse.  Or the stories of men and women who have closed themselves off so much that they can’t detect whether or not they are sexually attracted to their partner.  Or the stories of how long it takes to become sexually compatible with your spouse, or how sex can be challenging even for healthy couples, or how jealousy can poison even secure relationships.  In short, they don’t tell the stories of how you can be faithful to follow all of the rules and still suffer just like everyone else.

In this way, the Purity Movement lied to us.  No one can guarantee any of the promises which were made to us.  No one can guarantee bliss because life isn’t fair.  And no one should guarantee bliss because God does not promise us a lack of suffering in exchange for obedience.  If we took half a glance at reality we would realize this, or if we have ever read the book of Job.  The world would make conveniently more sense if judgment took place this side of heaven and everyone always received what they deserved.  However, so long as the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, it is vital to realize that not all suffering is punishment and not all blessing is reward.  God does not promise to reduce our suffering but to restore us through it.

This brings me to a further problem with the carrot method.  If someone actually does experience the gifts which the Purity Movement has promised them, they think it is because the formula worked.  This means that, not only do we believe all disappointments are merited, we also believe that the blessings in our lives are really rewards.  The Purity Movement taught us to look down on people whose marriages struggle as though they are doing something wrong.  We were hindered from being grateful for the real blessings in our lives because we thought that we (meritoriously) had merely done the right thing to acquire them.  If someone was emotionally hurting, it was their own fault.  We were not taught to feel compassion for young women who were going through pregnancy alone, or young people dealing with the heartbreaks of broken relationships, or men and women who felt they had lost all self worth because they had been promiscuous, or people who were lonely because no one wanted to date them.  We were taught that they were in some way getting what they deserved.  Perhaps the worst part, if we believe that bad things don’t happen to good people then how do we respond if a woman is raped?  We ask what she was wearing.

Finally, if someone once makes a sexual mistake they often stop looking for a healthy marriage.  They were told that a happy marriage is something people must earn, therefore they think that God does not want to give it to them anymore.  Even if God could be persuaded to forgive them for their sin and not send them to hell, they are certainly in some sort of timeout for the rest of their earthly life so they can think about what they’ve done.  People stop looking for good things because they have been taught that they themselves are worthless and that good things don’t apply to them anymore.

Conclusion

If we are to promote abstinence, it must not be by contradicting reason and lying about Christianity.  We have truly lost sight of the goal with which we began if we are willing to feed people false beliefs about the gospel in order to manipulate their behavior into living as if the gospel were true.  If we want to promote chastity and healthy marriages, we will not accomplish this by lying to young people and abolishing all sense of grace, forgiveness, self-worth, and Christ’s power to restore the brokenness in our lives.  In fact, it is the grace of God that inspires us to be chaste.  Why would we trust a God who commands us to be chaste if we have established that he is fickle and perfectionistic?  It is the help, grace, and compassion of God that enables us to be holy, leads us to repentance, and inspires us to follow after Him even when His commands are hard.

 

A Defense of Traveling Without a Smartphone

Last week, my husband and I spent a few days in Montreal, Canada. It was our first trip up to the Great White North since moving to the Boston area almost exactly one year ago. I had heard that Montreal is primarily French speaking, so I was prepared for a bit of a cultural immersion. What I didn’t prepare for, though, was not being able to use my iPhone as soon as we crossed the border.

About two minutes after passing through border control, my husband and I each received text messages informing us that using data while out of the country would cost about an arm and a leg. This meant no more Google Maps; no more checking for updates on our lodgings in my Airbnb app; no more Instagramming, Tweeting, or checking Facebook. No more constant access to the Internet.

At first, this was nerve-wracking. Neither of us had ever been to Montreal, after all, and neither of us could speak French very well. As I’ve said before, I am an introvert who is afraid of drawing attention to myself (sometimes to a debilitating point), so I don’t like the idea of standing out as a tourist. In hindsight, however, the experience of exploring a new city without constantly referring to a screen was pretty nice. Aside from using my phone to take photos and videos from time to time, I didn’t take it out that much around the city. Of course, we had wifi in the apartment where we were staying, so in the mornings and evenings we looked for fun things to do online, made lists of names and addresses in a notebook, and marked their locations on a paper map given to us by a friendly employee at a tiny rest stop in northern Vermont. (We came to rely on that map a lot during our trip, so friendly Vermont rest stop lady, if you’re reading this for some bizarre reason: thank you.)

Not only did we quickly learn that most people in Montreal can speak English (at least when they want to), it was also a relief to find that the locals were pretty friendly and happy to help two lost-looking American tourists. One afternoon we sat down in a park and unfolded our map, trying to orient ourselves and find the quickest route to a bar where we’d read we could get some good local beer. Two friendly faced, stylishly dressed university students approached us. The young man greeted us in French but quickly realized that we didn’t speak it. He proceeded in English: “Do you need some help?”

“Well,” my husband said, “We’re just trying to figure out where to go next.” The blond-haired female student bent over us, looking at the map through her large hipster glasses.

“Do you want to know exactly where you are?” she asked in her lilting French Canadian accent.

“Sure,” my husband replied. “We’re trying to get to this bar nearby.” He pointed to our marking on the map, where earlier that day he had simply written the word “Beer” on the  intersection closest to the bar.

“Ah, Dieu du Ciel!” the girl said. She knew of it and told us a good way to get there.

The next day we made a wrong turn on our bikes trying to make our way back to the Latin Quarter (where we were staying) from the port in Old Montreal. Again, we stopped and opened the map. Not five minutes later, two young men approached us and offered to help. As we talked, they also gave us tips on some fun things to do that evening. That’s the thing about pulling out a map in public: it’s a universal signal that says, “I’m lost,” and it’s recognizable to speakers of any language.

While it’s definitely great and convenient to be able to pull up Google Maps and know exactly where you are, or to do a quick Yelp search for good restaurants in the area, traveling in a new place without that instant accessibility to information lent itself to a more human experience. We had more interactions with locals than we would have had otherwise; when we got lost or needed a recommendation, we had to rely on the kindness of strangers rather than our smartphones. And, of course, there was the added benefit of not compulsively checking Facebook every five minutes during meals together. Plus, using a paper map and finding our way as we went was kind of fun; to be sure, it was also occasionally frustrating, especially when certain streets seemed impossible to find on the map or had different names for some reason. But after a while, we got a better feel for how the city was laid out and which streets could take us where than I think we would have by simply following turn-by-turn instructions from a GPS.

I’m not making a broad argument against modern technology. Most days, I love having a smartphone. But it does seem that certain technologies can lend themselves to isolation, depending on how we use them. If my husband and I had been able to use our smartphones every time we needed directions or help of any kind, it probably would’ve been a little more convenient, and we probably would’ve saved a little time getting around, but we also wouldn’t have interacted as much with the people around us. And for an introvert like me, I often need an extra push toward interactions with strangers.

When visiting a new place, opening yourself to receiving help from the people there makes for an experience that is more human and more interpersonal. It makes you vulnerable and it’s even a bit humbling, because you can’t feign independence with a technology crutch. Instead, you must accept setbacks and delays as part of the reality of exploring someplace new, and if you need help, you must acknowledge it, reach out to your fellow man (or let them reach out to you, as was often the case for us in Montreal), and see where you end up.