Pop Theology

Don’t Live For Others

Have you ever thought about the hidden danger of being Mary Poppins?

The Disney version of the world’s coolest nanny is pretty, delightful, boundlessly creative, and a good singer on top of it all. Everyone, children and adults alike, adore and admire her, and she’s quite perceptive about the world.

Then, once she’s solved everyone’s problems, made people happy, and become a legendary figure, she just…drifts away.

She doesn’t really need anyone else—she’s practically perfect in every way, after all. And I can’t be the only one who’s thought, watching the Disney movie, that she seems rather lonely, despite the fact that she never seems to exhibit a stray emotion.

And it makes me wonder…is there a difference between being a beloved person…and being loved as a person?

Because, while I’m sure the Banks children will miss their temporary governess, are they really missing Mary Poppins herself, or just her magic? Just what she could do and the atmosphere she created? Come to think of it, we know very little about Mary herself. Not much slips through the controlled image she projects.

Disney producer Thomas Schumacher put it this way: “Who of us doesn’t want a Mary Poppins in our life? Someone to love us unconditionally, to be magical but not too sappy, to enchant us and to make everything right, and then to leave us to do it on our own.”

It’s a very good description. Anyone would want a Mary Poppins.

But I don’t think anyone would want to be one.

And yet, sometimes we are. Sometimes—often—I am.

Why?

Partly, it’s fear. Deep down, sometimes we doubt if we’re really all that likeable. If very few people really know us, they can’t hurt us, right? It’s easier, sometimes, to keep up a practical perfect persona than to risk others sticking around when we let it slip.

And then there’s pride. If we can do it all on our own—if they need us but we rarely need them—that makes us feel good about ourselves and our abilities. Admitting we are not fine or don’t know or need to talk would make that come crashing down in the time it takes to say “Please help.”

And maybe that’s the most dangerous thing about this: it looks so…holy from the outside.

We give of our time and energy and resources until we feel empty…but we never give ourselves, the most carefully-guarded parts of us, anyway. We are willing to serve, but never to accept service. We accept admiration and become a loveable icon and hope that it will be enough to make us feel acceptable and useful and worthy.

It won’t. It can’t be. If you live for others, you will soon find that they are fallible and frail, just like you. They can love you, and some of them will. They can see Jesus in your weakest attempts at imitating him. They are worthy of your time and attention, even when you feel you don’t have much left.

But they cannot give you purpose.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is beauty in giving, even to the point where you surrender your own desires over and over again for others. In an era where empowerment and self-fulfillment are virtues, I want to say something completely different, to applaud the quietly heroic sacrifices that many around me make every day.

But I also want to remind you, gently, that it’s not enough.

You can love others with all the strength you have. You can be magical but not too sappy. You can be enchanting and make everything right.

That’s not what God has called you to.

If you spend your whole life dispensing wise advice and cheery tunes and spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down, no matter how hard you work and how good you appear, in the end you’ll find it’s a hollow imitation of what your life could be.

Yes, love others. But let them love you. Stay when you could move on. Ask for prayer. Admit when you don’t understand. Mourn for something you’ve lost. Accept forgiveness. Most of all, live in confidence as a child of God, not as everyone’s favorite hero who’s practically perfect in every way.

LeFouGate, Part Two: A Christian Response

Have you ever had this strange, twingy, glance-over-the-shoulder feeling that something is wrong even when there are no obvious signs of it? That’s how I felt about my last blog post on Christians’ reaction to the announcement that LeFou would be portrayed as gay in Beauty and the Beast.

At first, I couldn’t pin down what was bothering me. Most everyone loved it. It was pretty mildly worded and cautious. I didn’t get sucked into the sarcasm trap or say anything that someone could take personally.

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And, although I felt like I didn’t cover nearly the ground I wanted to, the main message was helpful: if you’re going to be offended by something, be careful to explain why in a gracious way to start better discussions.

But there’s something important that I completely left out.

All of the sample explanations I gave were reasonably worded. Even if you totally disagree with their take on sexual ethics—whether homosexual relations are okay or not—I hope they came across simply as people taking a stand on something they believed.

But—and this is hard—I think some, even most, Christians were not just upset about a gay character in a Disney movie because of their interpretations of the Bible or because of their desire to maintain the innocence of their children.

They were upset because sometimes they do consider LGBT people offensive. They find the idea of loving others who deeply disagree with them in this area incredibly hard. Some are trying to work out what that looks like. Some, sadly, don’t want to. (more…)

The Wise and the LeFous: Responding to Beauty and the Beast

In the spirit of considering how to have better conversations on tricky things, I have a proposal for my Christian friends who are reacting to the news that Beauty and the Beast will feature a (sort of) gay character.

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(This post is mostly directed at Christians, some of whom are outraged, some of whom think this is no big deal, and a whole spectrum in between. If you’re not a Christian, read on! Just know that’s who I’m talking to.)

If you are joining in on a boycott of this movie over LeFou’s sexuality, I have a request: when you talk about it, especially on social media, can you explain why? Yourself, not trusting people to read an article and assume it states your position.

You don’t have to, obviously. You are free to post an article about LeFou being gay with just a mad emoticon. Or “Guess I’m not going after all…” or something like that.

I just think it would save you a lot of trouble in responding to comments if you elaborated a bit. More importantly, I struggle with the fact that many people view Christians only as “people who are against stuff.” If they don’t understand why this is an issue for you, you’re just one more tally mark in the “easily offended for no good reason” category.

Here are some examples that I thought of that might be helpful in avoiding the rage-fests I’m seeing in the comments. (more…)

Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr.

Let’s start with this: I think Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr. are both great. (For very different reasons, of course.)

But I think the new Star Wars movie and the holiday celebrating a civil rights hero might have something else in common. So let’s see if I can explain this without sounding a few shots short of a Stormtrooper.

Although I genuinely enjoyed Rogue One for the great acting and payoff on plot promises, after I walked out of the theaters, I asked myself two questions:

Why can’t I remember any of the characters’ names except Jyn?

And why am I only mildly sad?

(Spoiler Alert: Bail out here if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to.)

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These are not the protagonists you’re looking for.

The movie’s suicide mission was, in a surprising twist of realism, actually a suicide mission. Our heroes got the Death Star plans, but died in the process. And yet, while Rogue One is darker than Star Wars IV-VII (those are the only other movies in the franchise I acknowledge), it didn’t feel like a tragedy.

Why not?

Maybe because Princess Leia calls the plans “hope” to save the galaxy…and we cheer when she shows up. We know her. That’s our heroine, the one who gets the happy ending, the guy, the glory. It’ll all work out in the end, we are reminded, and all those tragic deaths are a part of the bigger picture.

And maybe also because the movie pulled punches with character development. Meaning, all the characters are essentially orphans, or at least that’s the conclusion we’re supposed to draw since their backstories (except Jyn’s) are only vaguely hinted at. Their only goals are entirely contained in the success of the mission.

We’re hopeful at the end of Rogue One because our one-shot characters sacrificed to achieve victory for the real protagonist: the Rebellion. They got what they wanted, and so did the audience.

Again, let me say: this is not bad or lazy writing in my opinion, although I know some people who disagree. To me, it’s what you do if you want to create a standalone war movie where everyone dies and the audience feels sad but triumphant in the end (and you want to spend time on cool action scenes).

As I thought about the movie, the next thing that came to mind as was that Rogue One reminds me of African American History Month. Which led me to ask two other questions:

Why do I only remember the names of a few headliners like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.?

And why am I only mildly sad when they fight and live and die without seeing their dreams of justice realized? (more…)

The Bible Says You Shouldn’t Play Christmas Music Before Thanksgiving

It’s October, which means I’m getting taunting texts and Facebook messages from friends who are starting their season of listening to Christmas carols.

If you groaned when you read that insane sentence, this post is for you. If you guiltily turned down the volume on the Mannheim Steamroller version of “Little Drummer Boy” to keep reading…this post is also for you. (You may not know how desperately you need it.)

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Now, please don’t read this in a spirit of judgment. I just want to show, using Scripture, why God wants you to save the caroling for December, or at the very earliest, after Thanksgiving.

Let’s start with the biggest musical collection in the Bible: the book of Psalms. They cover a wide range of topics: helping the people of God to join in corporate worship to thank the Lord for deliverance and favor, repent of sin, and extol praises. All that to say—a season of thanksgiving is critical to our spiritual life, and is often neglected when we move too quickly to Christmas (often cluttered with all kinds of commercial baggage).

Are there songs about Christ’s birth? Sure. Mary’s song of praise is a lovely example, and you could argue that John 1 is an example of a poetic tribute to Jesus’ coming. But notice that they are kept in their place: Scripture sings about Jesus’s birth…when specifically and purposefully telling about Jesus’ birth, which we take time to do in December. (more…)

On Neverland and Growing Up

My generation has a problem, or so everyone seems to be saying.

Whether they’re commentators criticizing grown adults for playing Pokémon Go, or experts focusing on the fact that Millennials are less likely to marry, bloggers nicknaming us Special Protagonists, or columnists bemoaning the emotional fragility that requires a filter of political correctness and trigger warnings to discuss anything remotely controversial, you get a pretty grim picture of young people today from just about the whole world.

Which is a bummer, given that I’m a young person. Especially because, while I don’t agree with every article bemoaning our (multiple) flaws, I can kinda see their general point.

A recent hit by Twenty-One Pilots, “Stressed Out,” has been labeled an anthem from our generation. You can listen to the whole thing, but the general sense is in the chorus: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days, when our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out …Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face, saying, ‘Wake up, you need to make money.’”

So, catchy song, but I’ve got to admit, the whole idea of the good ol’ days being the era we spent drooling in our cribs sounds a little pathetic. In some ways I get the nostalgia for naptime and Lunchables, but with some stress comes great responsibility and at least a little power to, you know, drive yourself places, make choices about your future, think through ideas and beliefs, or,  if none of those appeal to you, at least stop wearing diapers. (more…)

On Leaving a Legacy

Last weekend, I lurked around the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, watching as hopeful attendees took classes and faced dreaded pitching appointments with editors and agents.

When you walk through those halls, you can almost feel the weight of all the ambitions and hopes, from the multi-published author struggling with doubt to the aspiring novelist who clings to a dream that seems impossible to the writer who’s facing rejection or anxiety or comparison.

And it reminded me of the tower of Babel and a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton.

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If the second half of that sentence sounds strange, then you’ve probably never heard of Broadway megahit Hamilton. I can’t universally endorse it if you’re bothered by strong language, but the story is compelling, the word play is ridiculously clever, and Washington’s cabinet meetings are rap battles.

Thematic Cliff Notes (no spoilers): Hamilton struggles throughout with a desperate need to leave a legacy, one that drives him to work harder than his peers…and neglect his family and make some incredibly stupid choices. “I am not throwing away my shot” and “Just you wait” are his constant, almost desperate-sounding refrains. He’s determined to make a name for himself, whatever the cost.

In contrast, I give you George Washington: “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

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I’m seriously considering making business cards with these two quotes on them.

Of the two characters, guess who has the best perspective on this one? (more…)