Of the Flesh: Zombies and Vampires

On Sunday October 13, the AMC television show The Walking Dead premiere drew in 16.1 million viewers, topping out the ratings for the 18-49 demographic, which even beat out Sunday Night Football. This is one of the many instances of the growing fascination with zombies, paired with a similar fascination with vampires. Whether the zombie waves multiplayer mode in Call of Duty, or the upcoming Dracula show airing on NBC, Americans relish the undead. But these legends go much farther back.

Zombie was originally a Haitian term for a corpse reanimated by witchcraft, and with the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, the zombie appeared in its modern, recognizable form of an ambulatory, animated (yet still dead) corpse. It came to be used as a symbol of conformity to an establishment, usually eats the living or turns them into zombies, and is often depicted in a mindless (and causeless) pandemic. Hence, the sub-culture warily expects an apocalypse for which we must always be prepared, when the undead will begin to spread and infect the planet.

Vampires, on the other hand, are a far older and more global legend. Tales of vampiric beings were spread among the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans, though the lore as we know it today originated in early 18th century Europe. Usually “vampires” were evil spirits that inhabited corpses and devoured the living. They were viewed with horror and often hunted by the panicking public, much like witches in Salem. Authors began to delve into the vampire lore, and from this came Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula, establishing the current idea that vampires need blood to survive, their fear of daylight and garlic, and also the image of sensual, seductive characters that charm and kill their victims.

When Dracula became a movie sensation, right around the same time that the proto-zombie stories were emerging, vampires steam-rolled into the popular icon they are today. Playing up their immortality, and the unfortunate blood-sucking habit, we finally arrive at the angst-filled depiction of romantic vampires in the teen-favorite Twilight stories. No longer malicious, vampires are seen as pitiable people and, since it really isn’t their fault they got bit by other vampires, we are asked to look past their natures. In the zombie culture, there is potentially a similar trend emerging: the recent film Warm Bodies depicts a male zombie who falls in love with a non-zombie girl and the two try to work out their awkward relationship across the lines of dead/living.

Two types of creatures, whose origins were associated with demons and death, have become a normal subset of our popular fictions, whether as something we fear or as something we misunderstand. The stuff of Halloween is fabricating the terror of things like vampires and the undead, and the successful movie is about surviving their attack, or sympathizing with them as victims. Their mythos, both then and now, centers on being dead but not dead, on being immortal by stealing the life from others; they are unending flesh and unending bloodlust.

I point this out because the things we imitate or enjoy shape us and resonate with what is already inside of us. Regardless of the particular changes in taste, stories have usually followed the beautiful things that give hope to the reader and set an example. Even if historical knights were wicked noblemen, who started wars without cause, at least the knight in shining armor was an ideal of courage, a figure we could look to for timely rescue. We strive to become like the knight, and encourage others in the quest to be truly noble and heroic. Quaint or silly, traditional myths look to the good for their entertainment.

But what can be praiseworthy in zombies and vampires? The conformity metaphor is promising, and the connection of blood to immortality has, for Christians, a great potential for the gospel. However, these are not the things we look to in this sub-culture. More troubling even than the cases of ‘good’ zombies and vampires, is the traditional reveling in the ‘badness’ of the undead. Horror haunts are replete with gory corpse-like walkers or smartly-dressed fanged figures, meant specifically to scare the living daylights out of us. Popularity with zombies is precisely the fear they engender, and the best zombie narrative is when the living have no chance to defeat the undead, only to escape. Vampires get the most ratings as seductive bachelors, or as back-stabbing, rather than neck-biting, teenagers.

In short, these legends are mostly enjoyed for their darker side, not as examples to avoid or evils to be redeemed. Zombies and vampires lose their appeal when they can be defeated; then the apocalypse ends, and the cat-and-mouse game is over. We want them to scare us, not to tell us what our fears mean and how we can overcome them. When a culture enjoys being scared, by reliving an incurable despair, can it be good for their future dreams? When a generation is raised on stories of unexplained fears that offer no hope of being overcome, only of being outrun, can we expect those people to ever be heroic?

For disciples of Christ, this culture of fear is particularly troubling. These undead are mockeries specifically of the crucifixion, faith in which brings salvation. Zombies rise from formerly dead bodies, not imbued with eternal life but with eternally extended death, tortured into an inhuman animus that relentlessly haunts the living. Vampires do not give eternal life by sacrificing blood, but steal the life-blood to make themselves immortal; remember the strict Mosaic commands against consuming any creature’s blood.

The undead bring death, not life. Whereas Jesus offers peace, these demand, and have their mythic life, through fear. They are of the flesh, the worldly system that is our bitterest enemy and seeks to prevent souls from finding new life in the Savior. How much better can Satan cloud the central theology that we have eternal life through Christ’s death and resurrection and through ‘drinking’ His blood, than to support legends of terrifying blood-suckers and dead-walkers? I cannot say what future Christian myth-makers might be able to do to redeem this genre, but I can say that, currently, the undead sub-culture is a huge, subtle slap in the face of everything we believe.

Think Like Vintage Mafia: Lessons On Justice from “The Godfather”

 “I believe in America. America has made me rich.”

So states a customer of Vito Corleone, the Godfather. Someone raped his daughter and was promptly acquitted by means of a small bribe. This is a preponderant theme throughout the movie: the ideal system of American justice pays forfeit to the American dream of wealth. When this man asks that the Corleones avenge his daughter, Vito bristles in reply: “If you had come to me first, it would have been a matter of justice. Now, it is business.” The man’s loyalties are where the money is—America. And only when he finds out that American justice also lies where money is will he turn to family ties and personal connections for help. He’s offended Vito by making family secondary. Vito returns the favor, insisting on the same relational distance: “it’s not personal, it’s business.”

Hence, the driving question of the story: is justice business or is it personal?

Even a cursory read of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States would demonstrate that the American justice system was designed for balance and reasonable objectivity. Look up images of Jefferson’s muse, Lady Justice—she’s blindfolded as a guard against any material incentive that would taint her judgment. One would hope that her objectivity eliminates personal bias. But in Corleone’s New York, people make money hand over fist by operating the justice system like it’s their business. The Corleones are the most powerful syndicate precisely because they pay off the most powerful New York politicians. Blindfolding the eyes of justice is a risk; who’s to say it isn’t being tweaked here and there? Instead of being unbiased, justice is merely redirected towards different (and quite personal) biases. Seemingly objective decisions get personal—fast.

Moments later, we are introduced to Michael Corleone at his sister’s wedding. He is in American military uniform, secluded in a corner with his American girlfriend. Clearly, his loyalties are splintering off from his family and its un-American ways. His life reverses after the assassination attempt on his father. The night he visits a comatose Vito, finding him without guards and possibly at risk of another assassination attempt, Michael spins his loyalty from ‘truth, justice and the American way’ toward the ways of the Corleones. We’re later told that ‘Corleone’ originally wasn’t the last name of the family—it was the name of the Godfather’s birthplace. Corleone, in wider scope of the film, is not just a family—it is the heritage, culture and, sometimes, the very dust of Italy. Within Michael an identity firmly rooted in American idealism was beginning to grow. But it turns out that independence, reason, and ideals just couldn’t outweigh the passion and tradition of an identity passed down through generation. Injustice, it turns out, is always personal. You can make a business out of justice but check the other side of that coin and you’ll find you’ve set off a chain of personal offenses.

And, in practice, do we really object? If you are five, won’t you find playground bullying personal? If you are twenty, won’t you find workplace discrimination personal? If you are sixty, won’t you find medical malpractice personal?

Maybe you find it objectionable to identity with Michael. After all, he essentially accepts lordship over all New York mafia members—he is inheriting the kingdom of crime. The Corleone family is a monarchy through and through. Democracies run forward on rhetoric but monarchies continue from honor. In democracies, laws are incentivized with rhetorically powerful presentations. In monarchies, the monarch alone makes decisions—loyalty to these decisions is rewarded with honor and disloyalty punished with death or exile. This is precisely how Michael steps out. He restores the Corleone family to order and supremacy by killing their enemies and executing all betrayers, even his own brother-in-law. Loyalty is the family’s non-negotiable rule. Loyalty is for everyone’s protection; your own welfare is implicitly bound up within it. It’s not a matter of following objective justice. It’s molding justice within the pre-determined lines of loyalty.

We certainly would like to think that we would never conform justice to our loyalties. We would like to think that our system of court and law is the best in the world—that it empowers everyone to receive and administer justice in right proportion. But after World War II, as America realized she was fully in an age of modern warfare, the culture felt raw after seeing masse death through increasing masse media. When news and images were distributed nationally, there was a paradigm shift in power distribution. Power to communicate was less localized. Though it started with planes and bombing runs, when the obliteration of Hiroshima occurred without a single casualty to the aggressors a similar paradigm shift in power distribution occurred. Power to kill was no longer constrained to hand-to-hand combat. It centralized down to a button on switchboard and evolved into current drone strikes. And so, writers and artists post-WWII began to express how undeniably powerless they felt (cf. T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland). Soon, there rose entire worlds of crime in New York and Chicago where families tried to reclaim power on a more individual scale.

Justice experiments. That’s what the original federalists thought of their work with the colonies and, eventually, the Constitution. They were experimenting with a progressive design for a system of justice. Distinct from governments which are half-determined by revolutions and half-designed by theorists, this government was founded on “self-evident truths”—incontestably visible and objective truths—about justice and human rights. If that’s so, America moving forward is justice moving forward.

Or is it so? If we are sensitive to having historical continuity and consistency in our identity as Americans, we will be pricked to the question, “what is and what has been the outcome of this justice experiment?” The Godfather canonizes a section of American history which should agitate rather than affirm our certainty in the self-evident nature of justice and human rights. We daily ask for our Father’s will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Why else would we, unless we are unsettled about the justice as currently administered? Discussing the questions brought up by The Godfather goes beyond mere artsy jabber—it lines up directly with questions which are obediently, implicitly and rhythmically ingrained into the Christian life.

Tarantino and Luhrmann: Two Tactful Giants for a Less-Than-Subtle World

For some an itch and for others a yearning, but we all like some subtlety. So it’s completely natural to love the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Baz Luhrmann—simultaneously. Some of the most sensitive, subtle material in current American film comes from these two directors.

Draw a line between the subtle and the obvious, and you’ll often cross both out. Subtlety is a layer (or six) down. If you strip away all discernible surface what was subtle is suddenly bare and becomes what’s obvious. Being obvious actually produces the potential for subtlety. Subtlety’s real danger is the cliché. To be sure, inspiration from art or incorporation of others ideas is the stuff which keeps art going. But original thought get trashed into cliché if the idea is carelessly repeated. It’s like wearing all your clothes inside out to redesign your entire look. You’ve just reversed the gesture and it often ends up being another cliché. The trick to being subtle is to skirt around clichés without being cliché.

I’ll test this in the details for both directors.

For The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann had this challenge: the potential snares of period-style pieces. Realistic vintage clothing is notoriously distracting from the actual story. I know several Downton Abbey circles who are “just watching for the costumes.” Luhrman glides through the problem hilariously. The gaudier, more garnish and tawdry his costumes get, the less distracting they are. The costuming—particularly in the party scenes—is similar to MTV music videos. And unlike MTV in recent years, this actually works. Pop culture has a strong visual language of the garish and gaudy. With it, Luhrmann is able to shade off the indications that this is a period piece. He cuts off our associative links to old high school curriculums and Robert Redford by gesturing to the current day. And he does it without turning a single shirt inside-out.

Tarantino’s Django takes a different route.  How are Westerns revived? Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the Cohen Brothers True Grit remake have already broken new ground in visual and conceptual redesign. So Tarantino charts a new course through the soundscape. Right from the first scene—all those spurs, stirrups, bits, guns, chains, and giant springs with a nodding, fake tooth for a plume. They pop as though the editor put less effort in the blending and overlapping process. It’s not an interruption; it’s non-representational dialogue. Then there’s the actual accent of Dr. King Schultz. After all, what’s a Western without all the accents? Wait…which accents? There’s one loophole in the cliché which Tarantino dives into, creating a strong contrast with Calvin Candie’s all-too-familiar southern verbal syrup. And all throughout, the audience is hearing a seamless blend of Gospel and rap, Spirituals and Ennio Morricone. What we tend to separate, genre by genre, Tarantino appropriates into one big bite of cohesive art.

Together, these films both follow a gentle but significant curve away from traditional love stories. Both trace the outcome of men who, desperately in love, turn tyrannical, insisting that any relationship with their women is better than none. As a recently freed slave, Django’s first choice is his choice of clothes. He opts for an azure blue, pre-colonial gentleman’s suit. His partner attributes it to his “flair for the dramatic.” That flair explodes when Django embraces his acting role as a freed-slave-turned-slave-dealer, showering slaves, freeman, and dandies alike with charmless sass. And in a climactic grasp for freedom, he crosses from freedman to outlaw, condemning his wife to be on the run with him for life.

Meanwhile, Gatsby’s gives the overall impression of a man with boundless power, yet he doesn’t have enough self-control to listen to the woman he loves. Nick gets a taste of how limitless Gatsby’s influence is when Gatsby’s servants descend, uninvited, to transform Nick’s humble home for one afternoon of tea with Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby continues to draw near to Daisy on the basis of his endless means. After all, his power seems to sets him free to do anything he wants. The day he wants Daisy to choose him over her husband, he cannot let her be free to do it. He inserts himself to make the choice for her. The story of what lengths a man will go to in order to get a woman has been told. Tarantino and Luhrmann take that and nuance it, giving less room to justify what the man wants and more space to depict how much fear, hatred, and other antithesis of love infiltrate that man’s journey.

Both of these directors understand that making movies which build up raw and spectacular awe inside of us requires a subtle touch. Christopher Nolan and his predecessor, the Wachowskis, have delivered films with refined, intellectual design and they work well enough to generate conversations and deeper thinking. But the subtlety of Luhrmann and Tarantino sets them apart. Their subtlety is a force that pounds past your head, your boredom, and your wariness and into those secrets—sensual and violent and vulnerable—which aren’t always visible to your mind. In this way, their subtlety brings our peripheral vision into focus, either to strike us with new beauty or indicate places of possible self-deception.

“I met Harrison Ford!”: Reflections on Celebrity Worship

Yesterday, I met Harrison Ford.

It was one of those classic L.A. moments that all of my friends back home assume that I have every day. My coworkers and I strolled out of our Santa Monica offices, stretching our cubicle-weary legs, headed for the food trucks at the center of the business park. On our way, we passed two fellow assistants.

“Guess who we saw back there!” they exclaimed.

They told us.

We got a little excited. They resumed power-walking back to the office to clock in on time.

One of the guys and I started to awkwardly gallop in the direction they’d pointed, while the other guy laughed.

“Do you think they’re for real? Are we really gonna run? Why would they have said they saw him? I bet they’re full of it.”

We slowed to a more professional pace, too cool to look like idiots once we were out in the open. We casually scoped, but grew doubtful. My running-mate coworker shrugged and made for the Greek truck. My eyes lighted on the ever-popular “India Jones” truck—always the best choice for curry. Wouldn’t it be funny if…

I turned to my skeptic coworker.

“That old guy isn’t…nah…?”

We paused. Right next to India Jones stood a gentleman in jeans and tinted glasses, with quite a few decades under his belt. And he seemed oddly familiar. My coworker, a skeptic no more, quietly confirmed what we both knew.

“That is Harrison [expletive deleted] Ford.”

After a few seconds of panicky-excited deliberation, we agreed to be each other’s celebrity wingman. We walked OH SO CASUALLY over to India Jones, and I thought about how glad I was that I’d decided to wear a nice dress this particular Monday. Somehow I forced myself the last couple of feet to casually interrupt.

“Excuse me, but am I right that the fact that you’re by this particular truck is ironic?”

“Yes,” Harrison Ford said. “It’s super ironic.”

I somehow managed to squeak out a request for a picture, and he thanked me for my polite approach, but declined.
“It’s not you,” he assured me. I nodded my total understanding. He could be easily mobbed with this many people. It only made sense. Thank you. Nice to meet you.

We maintained our casualness for the first ten feet before booking our way over to the Greek truck to tell our other office-mate what he’d missed.

We were the talk of the lunch table.

Now that I’ve worked in L.A. for a while, you might think that celebrity sightings get old. After all, this isn’t my first famous-person rodeo. But it still takes all of my twenty-something willpower not to freak out or go for a stealth picture. I know it’s not Hollywood professional, but I still haven’t quite shaken the fan-girl in me.

And on top of it, so much more than the sighting is the story. It’s not just that I saw Lance Bass from N*Sync, it’s that I got to ask him what he thought of the new Justin Timberlake album. Again, of course, with this record-high level of forced casualness.

A friend of mine was telling me the other day about the time she saw Jennifer Lawrence. Standing in the midst of a huge crowd all shoving and straining to see her go by, my friend thought back to the reasons why people love Ms. Lawrence.

“She’s so down to earth! I feel like we could be best friends!”

And yet, my friend concluded, none of us ever will be.

Which is the thing about celebrity worship. We try so hard to be close just to be able to act like we know Han Solo any better than the next guy. We memorize trivia and analyze hairstyles. We wait uncomfortably for hours just to maybe catch a glimpse or a Marcus Mumford guitar pick. Just to have that story.

20 Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. 21 She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”
22 Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.”And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matt. 9:20-22 NIV)

Matthew tells about a celebrity sighting that was worth way more than a Facebook photo. A lifetime of pain, gone.

What a story.

How great that there’s a Famous One who isn’t only found on Rodeo Drive wearing concealing Ray-Bans, but who can be found by anyone who seeks. We won’t even be a bother to him if we interrupt. He likes it.

And we have no reason to be nervous to come near him. We already have his autograph on our hearts. And he’s shown us, by just how “down to earth” he became, that he really could be our best friend.

We can awkward-gallop towards the throne of grace with confidence—heedless of those intimidating angel bodyguards—and tell the biggest celebrity of all time,

“Hey, I’m a big fan of your work.”

And the crazy details of our run-in with him will be a story we tell forever.

“I Do, I Don’t”: One Christian Couple’s Tale of Love, Divorce, and Loss

I Do, I Don’t is an all too common story: a young Christian couple decides that they are going to get married. We see the proposal happen during (perhaps at the end of) a worship service that both parties are helping lead. Gil is one excited guy: he’s thrilled to be marrying the love of his life, especially after his admitted past struggles with sexual activity. Sidney is equally excited, as far as we can tell: she’s got some hesitations (she’s young, he’s a few years older, people are hesitant, etc.), but she keeps saying that God is good, and that she wants to be an excellent wife for Gil.

The lead-up to the marriage is wholesome, and pushes the boundaries of what boundaries you shouldn’t push. The couple decide not to kiss until they are married (and the kiss on the wedding day is incredibly awkward; we aren’t spared the sight in the film). They talk about the pressure of people watching them (since they are both involved in church ministry), but both seem to truly want God to be glorified in their relationship. Sidney even says at one point that divorce isn’t an option, no matter what happens.

The screen fades to black shortly after the wedding. Six months later, we see Gil in a class, and all of his students are asking to see Sidney. He says she’s at work, and suggests that they pray that she can come to school with him again.

Then the film reveals that Sidney left Gil three months into their marriage. Gil is heartbroken, but still considers himself married. He was asked to leave his church (for reasons we aren’t told; presumably related to the reasons that Sidney left him, though that is hardly confirmed), and found himself in a new church, serving as best he can. The remainder of the film focuses on Gil’s actions towards his out-of-contact wife and his new pastor’s thoughts on the situation. There is an interview with Sidney at the end, where she says that they shouldn’t have gone through with the wedding.

If that feels like a lot to take in, then I’ve communicated the film’s emotive power correctly: throughout the entire film, viewers ought to feel tense. This is marriage we’re talking about; people’s lives hang in the balance.

Half-way through, I started to respect Gil quite a bit. His pastor recommended that he pray about ways to be a faithful husband even when his wife was absent. Gil took this very seriously, and started sending his wife Scripture verses regularly. While this might seem odd to some, it struck me that Gil was actively attempting to fulfill God’s calling in regards to his own marriage. That, in itself, is awesome. And difficult. I can’t imagine how difficult that would be.

He and his pastor echo the same truth: God hates divorce. You see it all over the Bible, you hear it from the words of God and from Jesus himself. So Gil decides to tough it out. He said he’s love her forever, and so he shall. The weird part comes when the film is over: we find out that Sidney is still living the single life, but that Gil has “found the girl of his dreams” and gotten married.

The film leaves the viewers with a lot of questions: why did Sidney leave Gil? Why did Gil’s church ask him to leave (and Sidney stayed at that church)? What changed with Gil’s heart that made him comfortable to remarry, after all his beliefs about marriage and divorce? Is Sidney open to remarriage, or has she decided to remain “faithful” to her once-spouse?

While those are specific, the questions for Christian viewers are far more important: what should a person in Gil’s situation do? Are we called to “remain married” to someone who leaves us, Biblically speaking? What can break a marriage, death aside? Some argue that adultery is cause for divorce, but many don’t even believe that, these days. God seems to put grace and forgiveness at the forefront of all marriages–see Gomer and Hosea, for instance. Not to mention the parallels with Israel’s history: if marriage is a representation of Christ and the Church, ought we always to seek after our spouse, even when they won’t have anything to do with us?

None of that is easy. Perhaps I’m being too quick to judge; from the sidelines, it seems relatively simple to say that he should swear off all other relationships and seek his wife in faithfulness. If I were sitting in that position, of course, I’d likely have a much harder time of it. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong, necessarily, just that situations like these are complex. If someone gets remarried after their spouse leaves them, perhaps they are committing adultery. But God is bigger than that, and He is capable of forgiving; we should be able to do so as well.

I’ve known people who’ve been divorced, I’ve known people who’ve gotten remarried after a divorce, and I’ve known people who’ve stayed married until death parted them. It’s the middle category that I find hardest to support, however. Divorce is ugly, and everyone agrees on that point (I hope). But if your spouse leaves you, I find it difficult to support a decision to remarry, Biblically speaking. The narrative of marriage throughout Scripture (God’s faithfulness in the face of Israel’s idolatry; the leaving of one family to join another; Gomer and Hosea; and the ‘two become one flesh’ language) emphasizes pursuit and love, not resignation and absence.

All in all, the film is a difficult one to watch. If you’ve had friends go through a divorce, it might be helpful to see someone else’s perspective on the whole thing. You can purchase and view the film here.

Access to the film was provided by United Films.

Pacific Rim: Hope in Humanity

If you haven’t seen Pacific Rim, it’s an experience worth having in the theater. Remember how the visuals of The Matrix astounded us? Those transferred fairly well to the small screen. But some movies, especially something like Transformers, really feel out of place on a small screen. Pacific Rim is big, explosive, and tons of fun. But can it teach us anything?

Over at Many Horizons, author LA suggests that Pacific Rim is mostly optimistic in its view of humanity:

The monsters are other than ourselves, and if we stand together in unity, the indomitable human spirit will not be vanquished. Humanity melds itself with advanced technology to fend off its giant foes, as if to say that evil will be conquered through human means. Yet, a flip through a history book or the news, perhaps even a look in the mirror for some us, will show that humanity does not strive for the ideal good. We make an awful mess of things, and we have since time immemorial.

We do make an awful mess, don’t we? We’ve been pretty good at sinning since time began, or at least pretty shortly thereafter (“shortly” might mean a few million years, depending on your view of the age of the Earth). Pacific Rim doesn’t seem to think we’re all that broken: humanity is defined by our ability to overcome our difficulties. On a large scale, that means beating the monsters with our big, human-looking robots; on the small scale, it means acting against the chain of command when necessary. The point is that pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps is the truest form of humanity.

In a lot of ways, there’s truth to that. Mankind was made to work, and we’ve definitely done that. Our accomplishments–ranging from the clothes I’m wearing to the computer I’m typing on and beyond–are daily reminders of the progress we’ve made.

But Scripture teaches us that we can’t do everything on our own. Salvation comes through Jesus Christ, for it is by faith through grace we are saved, not of our own works. Humanity couldn’t do it on their own: we needed a savior. But when Jesus is born, when he lives a perfect life and offers to save us from our sins, it is worth remembering that he was fully human. Humanity, when paired (not combined) with something more (divinity) happens to be the right formula for eschatological success. (“Happens to be” is a joke: circumstantial this was not.)

So what of Pacific Rim? Let it inspire us, and let us remember that there are great things about humanity. We’re made in the image of God, after all, and the robots are made in the image of us. But don’t forget that while we’re quite capable, there’s always going to be the hurdle we can’t jump over entirely on our own: sin. Praise God for grace.

Minimalism, Monasticism, and Paris Hilton

We are raised to be a culture of consumers. Advertisements on television, in magazines, and alongside our Facebook feeds bombard us with products, programs, and self-help items. We are promised that material goods will make us happier, healthier, sexier, smarter, or better liked. However we feel to be lacking in our lives, there is a product out there that assures to fill the gap. Even if we don’t feel like we need anything, we are told that we do, in fact, need many things. While filling my tank at the gas station the other day, a recording blared from the speaker above the pump informing me that I “deserved” a cool treat after my “hard day,” and that I should head inside the store so I could purchase my allegedly well-earned reward.

Last week, I went to see The Bling Ring in the theatre with my family. I am generally a fan of Sofia Coppola’s work, so I was looking forward to her latest film. It tells the true story of L.A. teenagers who burglarized the homes of Hollywood celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, stealing high-end jewelry, designer clothes, money, and more. I won’t go into too many details, as this is not a review of the film, but it got me thinking about American culture and consumerism. The characters in the film are, largely, unremoresful for their actions. The teenage girls are giddy when they enter Hilton’s walk-in shoe closet, and they begin trying on clothes like children playing dress-up. Toward the end of the film, when a reporter asks one of the thieves why he thinks the ringleader, Rebecca, wanted to steal from celebrities, he said he thought she wanted to have a taste of “…the lifestyle that everybody kind of wants.”

Do we all want that lifestyle, though? Or, if we do, should we?

As we drove home after the movie, my husband and his mother both commented that they felt depressed watching the film, and I think I understand why. It’s hard for me to fathom living the life Paris Hilton lives, the kind of life the characters in the film long to have: multiple walk-in closets filled to the brim with designer clothes, shoes, handbags, and jewelry; giant mansions in gated communities overlooking Los Angeles; expensive sports cars; thousands of dollars in cash tucked away in drawers and under the bed. I just can’t imagine having so many possessions that if a few dresses or pieces of jewelry went missing, I probably wouldn’t notice for a while. I can’t imagine having—or wanting—so much stuff. Yet consumerist culture teaches us that we should want what the teenagers in the film want. Perhaps the message is not as extreme, but the bottom line of every ad and commercial is that if we buy more things, our lives will be “better” and more fulfilling. The idea is depressing, I think, because fame and fortune are not true sources of fulfillment and satisfaction for humans.

I’ve mentioned before my interest in minimalist living (This blog has great tips and advice on how to de-clutter and simplify, as well as some interesting philosophical perspectives on minimalism). I get excited when I stumble upon a space-saving IKEA hack online. I use Pinterest to save photos of nearly-bare rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, and blank, white walls. By employing minimalist tactics in our home, my husband and I can ensure that we only own things we truly love and use. (Don’t get me wrong—we still have a long way to go, plenty to purge, and much to learn. I should also note that pragmatic, day-to-day minimalism can and should be adjusted to fit your lifestyle and family needs.) But while minimalism has many financial and pragmatic benefits (my husband and I recently moved out of our apartment, and nothing is a better argument for minimalism than the exhaustion of moving!), I believe a minimalist lifestyle aligns well with Christian living.

Consumerism is inherently self-centered: I buy things for me, because I want/need/deserve them. Conversely, Christ challenges us to die to our selves, master our passions, and forsake the things and desires of this world. The values of the rest of the world—like the values of the teenage thieves, or their celebrity victims, in The Bling Ring—are not the ones we should adopt. Minimalism helps me remember that experiences and relationships are more valuable than material wealth and possessions; likewise, Christianity reminds us that pursuing righteousness and sanctification through Christ and His Church is more valuable than achieving anything this world esteems. While we’re getting rid of things we don’t need and saving money by not buying more, we are in a better position not only to extinguish self-centeredness but also to care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46), those who are truly in need. In these ways, minimalism fits naturally within the Christian life.

I am also intrigued by what could be called an extreme form of minimalism: the monastic lifestyle. I believe minimalism is a way to embody some aspects of monasticism without necessarily fleeing to the dessert and living in a one-room cell for the rest of your life, although I say that in no way to disparage true monastics. Modern Christians have much to learn and benefit from the lives of monastics. Recently, I’ve started reading The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which recounts sayings and experiences of ancient Christian monastics, and this quotation from the foreword puts it well:

Radical simplicity and integrity is [the sayings’] aim and purpose. The literature of the desert might be called the essence of Christian monasticism; but as the monk is preeminently the one who seeks to live by the Word of God, it has a basic relevance for all Christian people.

I’m not very far into the book yet, but already I can see that control is a large part of the monastic journey: control over the self, the tongue, the stomach, and, ultimately, sin. The lesson of control is one that I think all Christians, myself included, ought to learn and put into practice. Just as gluttony is slavery to food, consumerism is slavery to things, and living simply is one way to stop being subject to things and desires that should be subject to us. When our passions are under control, when our minds and homes are clear from the clutter of worldly and unnecessary thoughts and goods, then we can better focus on things that truly matter: things not of this world, but of God. When the weight of worldliness is lifted from our souls, we are better prepared for the journey of salvation, one that is best traveled lightly.

How Deep Does the Rabbit Hole Go?

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book here. There’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

 In 1999, there was one film people were talking about (let’s ignore movies like Toy Story 2, The Sixth Sense, and The Phantom Menace, though that last one is for entirely different reasons). The Matrix immediately caught the attention of freshman philosophers all over the nation. There were people who argued that it was just a retelling of Plato’s Republic, which it sort of was. Others said it was Descartes’ Meditations distilled, which is less true than the first. But the point remains: people were talking about this film. More importantly, we were asking questions.

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Morpheus doesn’t ask Neo a question: he presents him two options. It’s a backhanded way of asking a question, though: Neo is forced to ask himself what he will do, and audiences everywhere wanted to know how deep that rabbit hole went. We all know which way Neo went (and if you don’t, I’m terribly sorry, this movie is 14 years old). We wanted to follow the rabbit hole into the deeper reality it offered, regardless of what that actually looked like.

We even think we know that reality. But if the answer in the film is that the rabbit hole goes as deep as Zion and its corresponding life, the latter films suggest that reality is even deeper than that: the Architect informs Neo that he’s just in the most recent iteration of civilization. Perhaps we don’t actually know if we’re in reality.

Skeptics have been asking these questions for years. If The Matrix is Plato’s cave analogy, the latter films push a deeper skepticism; no longer are we concerned with education and liberation, but with great deceivers and possibly solipsism.

If anyone has a corner on questions proper, it’s skeptics. The position is, after all, centered around and based on questioning everything. But if we stop with questions, I think we’ve missed the point. Let’s learn to question well, and then move on to answers.

So a few answers, down and dirty. How deep does the rabbit hole go? If the rabbit hole is reality or existence, it leads directly to the Source–in the Matrix series, this is the leader of the machines, an artificial intelligence of sorts. For us, the source of all reality is God himself. That’s fairly straightforward, I think. But almost nobody actually liked the sequels. Why?

Maybe it is indicative of a culture that eschews answers in favor of questions. Maybe the movies were just poorly made. Maybe we don’t have the attention span, as a culture, to follow deeper philosophical sci-fi over the course of three films (there are a lot of counterexamples to this latter point, at least). Or maybe we can only handle Keanu Reeves’ expression for so long.

This is an answer I don’t have. Maybe sometimes questions are enough.

Man of Steel: Morality Gone Wrong

If you haven’t seen Man of Steel yet, and you don’t want certain things about the film to be revealed to you, you should walk away now. In other words: Spoiler Alert.

There’s a lot to be said about Man of Steel, whether we’re judging Snyder’s directorial imprint on the iconic superhero or Henry Cavill’s (nearly perfect) attempt to portray Superman himself. The actors are all exceptional, with no exceptions. I’d be hard pressed to rain on their parade.

But this isn’t a review, so I won’t explain how neat the special effects were, or how gritty the punches felt, or what I thought about the use of flashbacks to tell a large piece of the story. Instead, there’s one bit of the film that drives me nuts: when Clark Kent’s father dies.

Kevin Costner does an excellent job playing Clark’s dad, Jonathan Kent. There’s weight to every line he gives us: this is a man who has clearly thought long and hard about the realities of raising a boy who would one day be Superman. While his lines make this incredibly obvious (“You’re going to change the world, son, for good or for evil,” paraphrased), it is more subtle than that: we see the trappings of a man who has thought so long about this that he can’t see new thoughts. He doesn’t leave room for his son to argue because Clark is still the young boy, even as he grows older.

Here’s the moment of frustration, the moment of alleged morality: Jonathan allows himself to be killed in order to prevent Clark from revealing his true power. This line of thinking (namely: preventing the world from knowing about this boy with superhuman strength and senses was more important than saving lives) is introduced earlier in the film. When Clark is still a kid, his school bus drives off a bridge, into the river below. In order to save the lives of the children on the bus, Clark gets out and pushes the bus to the shore. A few of the kids see him do this, and their parents confront the Kents.

When Jonathan goes out to talk with him, he explains that they have already talked about this; it is vital that the world not yet know about Clark’s powers. But Clark is having nothing to do with this, and makes the most obvious and powerful counterargument: “What was I supposed to do, let them all die?”

For some reason, Clark’s dad says “Maybe.”

He goes on to explain that the world isn’t ready for him, that many more lives could be lost if the government found out about him, and other similar arguments. This is where Jonathan’s moral views have failed him. He has spent so much of his life considering the consequences of this child’s identity that he no longer sees the immediate good. He was able to seriously consider sacrificing the lives of a dozen children in order to protect the identity of his own. It doesn’t help that the reason for protecting the identity of Clark is based on speculation and potential danger, not confirmed danger. If you’ve reached the point where you’re willing to let a dozen kids die for a perceived possible threat, your moral compass needs a new magnet.

Jonathan’s views end up leading to his own death. During a tornado, he rushes out to save a dog, risking his own life. When he gets stuck in a car, and eventually steps out, he makes eye contact with his son, Clark. With a slight shake of his head, Jonathan tells Clark to stay put. It would have been trivial for Clark to save Jonathan, but the risk involved–that is, the risk of allowing some relatively small number of people see him perform the task–was apparently too great. No, Clark couldn’t be allowed to save a life, just yet.

Throughout the film, many characters consider the weight of revealing to the world the story of Superman. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) makes the same comment to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), when she comes to him about the story. Even if the story were completely true, he remarks, imagine what the world would do, how the world would react. There’s some validity here, even in the confines of the world we’re witnessing: when Superman is revealed, he spends some time as a target of the military. Even once he proves himself, the government is actively trying to learn more about him, when he’s asked them to simply trust him. It seems that everyone agrees that public knowledge regarding Superman’s abilities is dangerous. Lois Lane goes so far as to say she wouldn’t turn Superman in, even as Zod threatens to destroy the world.

One thing I hope we can all agree on: lives are valuable. I really hope I wouldn’t be the sort of person who would sacrifice a life in order to avoid a difficult situation.

From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Three weeks ago I wrote about Christians having to live with TV and pop culture that is frankly yucky. I said that even though pop culture is often disgusting and rotten, Christians who are moving from death to life in Christ have to engage with it because 1. there is some good in it still and 2. they do not really have a choice not to have some level of interaction with it. In a discussion on Facebook, someone pointed out that I focused too much on tolerating evil than on moving toward good. Here I want to properly emphasize why Christians should learn to deal with stuff that is yucky and gross: the point is not merely to prolong our existence but to endure long enough to introduce what is truly good, free of taint and impurity. With that, I will turn once again to the video game Fallout 3. Continue reading From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2