Heresy Monday

Chase Your (Ordinary) Dream

“So, you made it out.”

A few others I’d met on my work trip through my home state of Indiana had made similar comments, but this woman, an older lady working at a Christian bookstore, wasn’t saying it with a teasing laugh. She was serious—wistful, even.

When you reach a point like this in a conversation, you have a choice: you can either change the subject to appropriate small talk—the weather or favorite kinds of tea or the lovely bookstore display of scented candles—or you can push a little.

(Guess which one I almost always pick?)

“Interesting. What do you mean by that?” I asked.

To my surprise, she actually told me. “I always thought I’d get out of this place as soon as I could. But I never did.”

After a few more questions, I heard an abridged version of this woman’s life story, including a number of things she hadn’t done—she’d never attended college, never seen the mountains, never moved away from her rural Midwestern town. I also heard about some things she had—she’d married her high school sweetheart after he came back from Vietnam, raised strong (and some strong-willed) children, wandered out of the church and then back again.

Still, she finished her story by saying, “When you get to my age, you wonder sometimes—what if?”

It was like meeting an alternate version of the older brother from Jesus’ parable, one who secretly longed to be a much better behaved prodigal child. See the world, experience something new, and just for once, fully intending to return…leave home.

But there were the eleven grandchildren whose tired parents needed a break, and the ninety-year-old mother in her last days to watch over, and the daily, weary ache of a body that’s not as young as it used to be.

I told my new friend that those daily acts of love are of great worth in God’s eyes, probably more than she’ll know till she gets to heaven. I even talked about some of the dangers and downsides to moving away and wanting to achieve something great—of loneliness and burn-out and reality not living up to expectations. That not all those who wander are lost…but some are.

I don’t know if she heard me. Her heart was somewhere else, flipping through a scrapbook of long-buried hopes and ambitions, somewhere beyond the horizon. (more…)

How the Ents Are Different From Black Panther

At first glance, a story about barefoot hobbit and an African warrior-king-superhero don’t have much in common. But the works they’re a part of, The Lord of the Rings and Black Panther, are both attempting to process meaningless violence—Tolkien’s experience with the brutality of WWI and the oppression of the black community throughout history.

What’s interesting to me is that LOTR casts industrialization and technology as one of the villains, and Black Panther slots it in as the hero. (*Spoilers for both ahead.*)

This is both characters’ “moral philosopher face.”

While talking about gun control issues recently with my family, I said, “The trouble is that I can’t think of a single time that humans have voluntarily stepped backward technologically because they realized that what they created had terrible implications. Not even in fictional stories.” I then cited Jurassic Park and a bunch of robot movies…and then I stopped.

Because I remembered: there is at least one time in fictional history where the heroes have chosen to set their entire culture back several steps technologically for the greater good.

My friends, I bring you: the Ents.

I love these guys. Is that because I love trees in general? Yes. Is it also because they’re just as curmudgeonly as I am? Probably. (Their scenes are also way better in the books because you can read their dialogue at whatever speed you want and no one can stop you. Take that, J.R.R.!)

The Ents’ big moment, embedded above in case you need a refresher, is completely destroying Isengard, the industrial complex the wizard Saruman built to manufacture minions of evil. The Ents go in there with a fury, smashing orcs and machinery, tearing down the dam that once powered what it’s now wiping out, and completely submerging the weapons of war.

Ents. You gotta love ‘em. It might take them three days to decide to do anything, but once they’re set, you don’t want to get in their way.

The last time I watched the movie version, I thought that what they didn’t do was interesting. They don’t confiscate weapons or take over the caves and try to use, say, the water wheels to produce something helpful to their efforts. They destroy it all, and it’s presumed that after Saruman is dead, no one would be able to recreate something like Isengard again (because I’m pretty sure there’s not an engineer Uruk who secretly designed the whole thing and will leak plans to Aragorn for some Longbottom Leaf).

The Ents destroy it all. Except the pantry, I mean. Technology is good for something, right?

Contrast that with Black Panther. Now, I realize that commentary about every complex sociological issue would be too much to expect from a superhero movie that already had a lot going on, but at some point, I was hoping someone from Wakanda would ask, “Would it actually be good to introduce this technology to the world?”

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Can Technology Make Us Better?

“I’m going to tell you a story about a time I made someone cry,” I told the fourth and fifth grade Sunday School class. They settled in, excited, as I described the scene: sixth grade, the start of a long stretch of awkwardness. One of my classmates was trying to collect his thoughts in answer to a question and couldn’t quite get there. “I think…I think…” he said, then trailed off.

“Do you even think at all?” I blurted out. And the other kids laughed. The boy I’d made fun of ran out of the room crying. I’ll never forget the look on his face before he did.

I paused the story. The kids, the present-day ones, looked alarmed. This is not where they thought the story was going. Most of my stories have happy endings, and along the way involve funny things like zombies with lightsabers, exploding grape slushies, and me launching an offensive disguised as a bush during a game of Capture the Flag. They probably thought I’d made someone cry with joy, or, more likely, by accidentally injuring them in a comical way.

This Amy, they were starting to realize, did something mean. Plain and simple.

“Do you know why I did it?” I asked.

Twelve pairs of wide eyes stared up at me. No one volunteered an answer.

So I gave it to them. “I did it because I wanted to.”

I went on to explain that I loved being the center of attention. I wanted people to like me and think I was funny. So when I saw a chance to make a joke at someone else’s expense…I took it.

That’s what I thought of when I saw this clip from a Louis C.K. interview about how cell phones have changed bullying. (The main point is in the first two minutes, and if you just listen to those, you’ll also miss the language.)

I use this example in particular partly because it’s got something profoundly true to say about how technology can distance us from others. As Louis C.K. says, a cell phone can’t teach empathy.

But I also included it because Louis C.K. is one of many Hollywood figures caught up in a storm of sexual misconduct and abuse. In that aspect of his story, we see some of the complexities of technology: it’s given victims a voice and it’s made it easier for us to hurl condemnation from afar. It’s made entertainers into idols and then publicized their falls.

I saw a response by Sarah Silverman, his friend and colleague, who talked about the hurt that comes when someone you love does bad things. What stuck out to me most, though, was at the very end when she said, “We need to be better. We will be better.”

And I have to admit that part of me wondered, “Will we? Does saying it make it true?” (more…)

Let’s Talk About Technology!

During my senior year of high school, we were supposed to write a personal essay on a topic of some kind.

That’s how I remember it, anyway. It’s possible the instructions were more specific than that, but then again, I recall my very structured sister vehemently hating this assignment, so maybe not.

Regardless, I decided to write about writing. More specifically, how much easier (and better) it was to write first drafts by hand rather than using a computer. My teacher loved it. He had me read it out loud to the class, and I confidently waxed eloquent about how the convenience of technology can be a danger as well and how writing is more pure, undistracted, and real when begun by hand.

“There’s something about a computer that distances us from our writing,” my essay declared. “In a way, it could have been anyone’s hands that typed this sentence. Each letter on the keyboard in front of me has been pushed thousands of times and has come out in the same Times New Roman size 12 mold each time. . . . Admitting that it feels intimidating to entrust my writing—in a way, a small part of myself—to the impersonal Document1 makes me feel a bit ridiculous, like I just confessed that I don’t like to have my picture taken because I think that the camera will steal my soul. I know that, logically, this essay would be the same whether typed on a laptop or scribbled in my messy handwriting…but it doesn’t feel the same.”

There was only one problem: it was a lie.

Oh, sure, I’d gotten the idea while brainstorming in the margins of my notebook, even written the first paragraph and some of the best parts in the middle on notecards, to be rearranged later. But the bulk of the essay, contrary to what I claimed, went straight from my head to the impersonal Document 1 by way of the computer.

That wasn’t how I planned it. It had just sort of…happened. And by the time it did, I decided to turn the essay in anyway. When my conscience poked me about it, I told myself that it would be too much work to change topics, that I’d have to rewrite the whole thing, that (to be honest) I didn’t know how to explain my complicated feeling about technology. (more…)

The Last Jedi and Everyday Evil

It’s game night. We are playing a “social deduction game” where the object is to either assassinate the player who is Secret Hitler or to get Secret Hitler elected Chancellor, depending on whether you’re a liberal or a fascist. As usual, I am defending myself, and as usual, the people who know me best don’t believe a word I’m saying.

Finally, someone comes to my defense. “Come on, guys,” he says, holding up one of the world-famous chocolate chip cookies I’ve brought with me. “No fascist would make us cookies.”

“Yes, they would,” I say automatically. Then I explain that one of my philosophy professors had a song called “There’s a Little Hitler Inside of You.” Looking back, this didn’t help my case at all.

SecretHitler

It really is a fun game. You should try it.

Since I am getting strange looks from the people who met me twenty minutes ago, I don’t tell them that I’ve read dozens of books about racism and genocide, and most of the people involved were decent, mild-mannered neighbors who donated to charity, doted on their children, baked cookies…and turned away from a vast and sweeping evil that they could have resisted.

And I certainly don’t say that every time someone watches a movie or the news and tells me, “I can’t imagine how anyone could let something like that happen,” I think, You have such a limited imagination, my friend. Or maybe just a short memory. How long has it been since you dwelled on something dark and secret instead of turning away? Since you felt hatred for someone you didn’t really understand? Since you saw the way out of temptation and didn’t take it?

Not long, at least not for me.

While I’m thinking these things, the game goes on. I am, actually, a fascist (but not Secret Hitler). I get assassinated and the liberals rue the cookies they ate in confidence. They should have known better.

(more…)

The Best of 2017

(Disclaimer: this is momentarily going to be somewhat depressing, so go ahead. Skip to the fun facts if you want. I don’t mind.)

It’s the end of another year and the fourth birthday of this blog. Along with all the usual greetings wishing everyone a happy new year in person and on social media, I’ve noticed more people than usual commenting on how they hope this year will be better than the last one.

That’s a wish we probably all share after a 2017 that was hard by most measures—we had political strife, natural disasters, global tragedies, and a front-row seat to the decay that goes on when morality doesn’t matter anymore.

As a friend or family member, I hope your 2018 is without those sorts of trials, personal or public. As an imperfect person with half-finished thoughts living in a sin-stained world, I know your 2018 probably will be marked with the same signs of brokenness as the one before. As a writer who has continually been amazed by the grace of God at work in the midst of the craziness, I trust that instead of losing hope, you’ll be reminded to depend on the only one who is actually in control.

And now for the usual year-end recap.

Assorted Fun Facts

  • The Monday Heretic is up to 244 posts if you’re new to the blog and want a deluge of back-reading…but only 41 from this year. Out of 52 weeks, that means I wasn’t quite as consistent this year as in the past. No bonus points for me!
  • Besides the US, top countries for views are: Canada, the UK, Australia and South Africa (a new entry in the top five countries this year).
  • This is the first year since the blog began with no posts that were actually a disguise for a secret code for some sort of escape room/puzzle challenge. Yes, really.
  • I’m running out of Lord of the Rings characters I can use for my annual Hobbit Birthday Party. I might switch to linking “gifts” to relevant places or significant props. If you’re a LOTR fan, you can help me out by commenting with your top three settings or top three objects in the books.

Most Viewed Posts

Gold: The Wise and the LeFous

I love that this post and its sequel, below, got just about the same number of views. And I hope is that each one didn’t get passed around to people who already agreed with it. This one was a challenge to articulate a difficult position in a nuanced way (I feel like that was a theme of many of my 2017 posts).

Sample Quote: “Our faith matters. It relates even to areas of our life like what animated movies to watch. This isn’t a ridiculous overreaction…as long as Christians thoughtfully and graciously make and explain their choice. What we watch may be important, but more important is who is watching us to see what Jesus is like.

 

Silver: LeFou Gate, Part Two

This is one of those posts that bothered me until I wrote it, the critical missing sidenote to the original that I think was more important because it asks tough questions. What does it look like to live out our beliefs? How does the “love” part of “speaking the truth in love” come in? Where have we failed to act like Jesus? I didn’t articulate everything perfectly the way I wanted to, but I’m glad I added this.

Sample Quote: “These are real people who you might have offended with your general anti-gay post about the movie because, no matter what your actual beliefs are, they are hearing that you wish people like them did not exist, or at least that you wish they’d exist silent and unseen.”

 

Bronze: The Church’s Biggest Problem

Controversy! Also, I get to quote from my friend Greg’s book, Single Gay Christian, so here’s a reminder that it’s so good. This one has a message that I want to shout from the rooftops all year long until my voice is hoarse…and remind myself over and over till it finally gets through.

Sample Quote: “I am deeply, desperately afraid that we are destroying our witness in our pursuit of the Christian version of the American dream. The world is looking at what we’re doing—and not doing—and coming to conclusions about the God we claim to serve…and they’re not always good. Sometimes, we are silent when we should speak. Sometimes, we talk too much when we should listen first. Sometimes we just run away.”

 

Amy’s Favorite Five Posts

In no particular order, here are five posts I particularly enjoyed writing.

Advent Stories: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Why: All of the Advent Stories this year were delightful to write (there’s a good chance that I’ll continue with more carol stories next year), but Ernest’s prodigal son story has been brewing in my head for a while. I’m glad I got the chance to share it.

Sample Quote: “Charley thought it would a lark, an adventure, a response to the taunting of his friends who had enlisted to skirmish with those know-it-all Southerners and be back home with medals and glory in a few months. It’s been over three years. The war isn’t over, and for all I know, it never will be. We’ll just go on fighting and fighting until the Mason-Dixon line is nothing more than a boundary between two graveyards.

 

When You’ve Almost Lost Hope

Why: This one combines my favorite metaphor of the year with my favorite Storytime with Amy. After all these years, I can finally admit how I conned my way into my high school’s advanced choir without being able to read music. (Confession is good for the soul.)

Excerpt: “We’re the choir, church. Sometimes we’re not going to know what’s going on, and many times we’ll feel mildly terrified when it’s our turn to break the silence, but the world needs our song. Let’s go with what we know—the truth that’s gone so deep it’s a part of us—and sing it loud.”

 

Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton Review Snow White

Why: This was just a really fun fact to stumble upon when researching for a Snow White retelling I was working on…and a chance for me to see myself in some of my favorite Inklings, but in a negative way. (And since Lewis is basically a fourth member of the Trinity to some, criticizing him does actually feel like heresy, so that’s a bonus.)

Excerpt: “When I elevate myself above those around me, when I interrupt people who are clearly wrong to bestow my great thoughts upon them, when I divide everyone into “us” and “them”—I lose focus on what matters.

 

Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr.

Why: This is one where I processed something as I was writing. I’m still not sure I’ve got it all sorted out, but it was an interesting connection, and I’m still working out the implications. Also, it’s one of the few movie-reaction posts this year.

Whether these connections make sense or not, wherever you are on the political spectrum, whichever order you use to watch the Star Wars movies, I think there’s a takeaway we can all agree on: don’t reduce people. Don’t forget that they are not causes or archetypes or walk-on roles in a saga starring you. They are people.

 

How Do We Respond to Radical Extremism?

Why: Of my responses to current events, this one hit me the hardest. There is tragedy here. There is also a challenge, hope, and some book recommendations.

Excerpt: “I want to be a brave person. Even more, I want so badly to live in a brave country. But we have to remember: courage takes action when the stakes are low, in the small things, and those million tiny decisions make us who we really are.”

 

That’s it, friends! Thanks for reading along on the blog this year. I appreciate you and the good thoughts and conversations you’ve sparked, whether in the comments section or a private message or in person.

If you want to look through past best-of posts, go to 2016, 2015, and 2014.

 

A Cynic’s Guide to Thanksgiving

This is for the one who dreads the magical monotony of the incoming Hallmark holiday movie season.

For the one who grouches about the blatant commercialization of the holidays every time a Black Friday ad comes on, and sometimes even when it doesn’t.

For the one who feels a compelling need to explain that the snippet of praise on the Thanksgiving place card is actually from a psalm where David is asking God to slay his enemies, and would you like to talk about the implications of that over pumpkin pie?

I am right there with you, my friends. Let’s talk.

After the hurricanes and fires and shootings these past few months, I watched a number of people post this quote from beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers.

Part of me said, “That’s lovely and a very appropriate way to direct children’s attention after a tragedy and also, seriously, Mr. Rogers rocks that sweater.”

Another part of me said, “But…that’s not enough.”

It wasn’t the part of me that scoffs during cheesy lines in movies or expects to be double-crossed in games of Risk or writes satirical song parodies. That’s more surface-level.

It was the deeper part that loves both redeemed villains and fallen heroes and finds it easier to mourn with those who mourn than rejoice with those who rejoice and marks the pages of books with a special symbol for paradoxes.

Yes, there is beauty and strength in stories about people helping each other, and I’m thankful for those who make the right choices in the face of disaster, even at great personal risk.

But I look outside at the world and inside at my own heart and know that selfishness takes the day more often than not, sometimes in terrible ways. There is more destruction than reconciliation. It’s more common for people to reach for bitterness than forgiveness. In the war of the Image against the Fall, when I look around…sin nature seems to be winning.

And Thanksgiving is coming.

Sometimes, at least to me, this time of year can seem overly sentimental. Writing out your blessings seems great for the preschool set, but the appeal can fade along with crafts like candy corn turkeys and construction paper Pilgrim hats.

When I start to think this way, I have to remember:

  • Contentment takes courage. So does faith, even the simple faith that I sometimes pretend is inferior because I don’t have it. You know what doesn’t take much risk at all? Snarky comments about the state of society. Witty takedowns and sendups of everything that’s wrong in the world. Stances on issues that make us feel superior to all those people who just don’t understand. As the dour and disapproving Anton Ego in Ratatouille put it, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” The truly brave act isn’t cynicism. It’s joy.

 

  • Stories about the Image—the ways in which humans display attributes of God, whether that’s human interest stories of sacrifice or movies about grace in the face of adversity—need to be told. They remind us of what we ought to be, sure. But maybe it’s even better that they remind us of what we sometimes fail to be, because that points us to the one who is perfectly loving and holy and just when we are not.

 

  • Paul wrote Philippians, famous for its references to joy, while he was in prison and wrote it to a church undergoing persecution and opposition. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” wasn’t written first on a rustic pallet wall decoration or a calendar of inspirational kittens, it was a solemn charge to a suffering church, as were many of the promises and exhortations of the New Testament.

 

So what do we do?

We celebrate Thanksgiving, like the saints have been, officially and unofficially, for centuries.

We collect paradoxes and adjust our expectations toward the already-not-yet reality of our world, both bitter and sweet.

But we don’t get too comfortable, because there’s a better story coming. That’s what we’re living for, and all the blessings we have here are shadows cast from that ultimate reality.

And I’m grateful.