Pop Theology

Why Are We So Lonely?

If you try to describe the plot of Twelve Angry Men—all the action takes place in one room as a jury deliberates on a murder trial—it sounds mind-numbingly boring. I promise it’s not.

Somehow, I’d never gotten around to seeing the classic film until this weekend. After a slow start, the tension in the room and the unfolding clues grab your attention, and I found myself drawn in particular to Juror 9, the old man.

In my favorite part of the movie, the jurors are arguing about an apparent contradiction in the testimony of one of the witnesses. When asked what the witness would stand to gain by lying, Juror 9 says quietly, “Attention, maybe.”

And so he goes on:

“It’s just that I looked at him for a very long time. The seam of his jacket was split under the arm. Did you notice that? He was a very old man with a torn jacket, and he carried two canes. I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition—his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing. A man like this needs to be recognized. To be questioned, and listened to, and quoted just once. This is very important.”

Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?

And I thought: people shouldn’t feel this way anymore—but we still do.

Technology gives us a way to be recognized, questioned, listened to, and quoted. Anyone can post on Facebook, react publically to current events, upload a YouTube video, give unsolicited advice to the world, or write on a blog. (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?”

(more…)

Why Are Fairy Tales So Violent?

With fairy tales, there’s a certain expectation of a charming, sweet little story that takes place long ago and far away. Sure, we like the Disney storybook versions with pain-free happy-ever-afters, but guess what? When you count the original stories for those sorts of tales, you won’t find many.

Hugs and wise guidance from parents are far less common than abandonment and decapitation in the old tales. Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper, Snow White makes the evil queen dance in red-hot iron shoes till she dies, and instead of beautiful castles and red roses, there are mostly just monsters, unfair enchantments, and people getting rolled down hills in barrels filled with spikes. And those are just the fairy tales that Adam Gidwitz drew my attention to.

My latest road trip was occupied by listening to the amusing-but-unflinching narrator read Gidwitz’s collections of woven together fairy tales. (In case you’re interested, the second one, In a Glass Grimmly was by far my favorite.)

Plot points of these stories range from the creepy (a stepmother murdering a young boy and then framing the boy’s sister) to the gruesome (his father accidentally eating the son’s dismembered body for dinner) to the just plain weird (the boy’s spirit in the form of a bird dropping a millstone on his stepmother and then turning into a boy again). Same story. That would be “The Juniper Tree,” kids. Basically everything that happens in that one is a bizzare twist.

As I read, I wondered why these stories were ever considered appropriate for children. When I got to the grossest, grimmest parts, Disney’s cleaned-up versions were just fine with me. But as I thought about it, I realized the purposes of the old fairy tales weren’t the same. In an interesting essay, Gidwitz explains how fairy tales make abstract moral concepts real for kids: “Forests are where our fears turn into wolves, our desires into candy houses, where our fathers turn us loose to fend for ourselves, where the emotional problems we face at home are physicalized, externalized, and ultimately conquered.” There’s a moral certainty to these old stories, a weightiness. Good has to triumph and evil must be punished—that’s the way these tales work. You can count on it. It just will.

Probably the scary and violent details of these stories got by, experts say, because two hundred years ago, many kids didn’t reach adulthood and none of them were coddled, and there actually was a chance that a wolf might eat you if you wandered into the woods alone. I’m sure those are all true. But what intrigues me more are the high stakes that these violent old stories put on choices and their consequences. No kid who heard those tales and their vivid endings would wonder if wrong choices would catch up with them. Not going to happen. (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…)

On Knowing and Being Known

I probably shouldn’t be saying this since parents from my church read my blog, but there was a time when I was fairly sure I didn’t like kids. At all. The first time I babysat for anyone was in college, I volunteered to clean toilets on mission trips rather than play with toddlers, and I never offered to hold someone’s baby. (They cry and can’t tell you why. Who wants to deal with that?)

The first time I joined a kids’ ministry in college was an accident (long story), but having signed up, I was determined to stick it out…and in the process, found I actually enjoyed it. Radical thought.

When I went to my sister to gather advice about interacting with the little terrors, her first and best bit of wisdom was: “Learn their names.”

And wouldn’t you know, she was right? Saying hello to kids by name—even telling them to stop talking/fidgeting/jamming a pencil in their friend’s ear by name—matters, and I think I know why. Even from our earliest years, we have a need to be loved and known for who we are.

That’s what I thought about when I heard about the song Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. When talking about his inspiration, he said, “The headline in The [New York] Times on Sunday was, ‘Many Towns In Puerto Rico Feeling Forgotten,’ and that broke my heart.”

So he called up a ridiculous number of bilingual musical artists and wrote a song to raise money and awareness for the devastation in Puerto Rico, “Almost Like Praying.” You should listen to it. Several times. I choose to exercise my Miranda rights not to tell you how many times I’ve put this on repeat yesterday.

(For those of you who aren’t musical theater buffs, the opening lines are sampled from “Maria,” a love song from West Side Story, a musical about Puerto Rican immigrants. So Miranda just got about 1,000 symbolism points.)

Besides that snippet, the lyrics are almost entirely formed by the names of all 78 towns in Puerto Rico. Yes, the song’s got a great beat, but what really gives me chills is hearing those names. No village too obscure. The capital San Juan just a few breaths away from the 6,000-person town of Maricao, a name no one outside of its borders had heard before. Until now.

The message of the song is clear: you are not forgotten.

 

I love that. Some of my favorite verses in the Bible are Exodus 2:24-25, talking about the Israelites in slavery in Egypt pre-Moses: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

And one of my favorite stories in the Bible is about Hagar, the battered and scorned servant who met the Lord in the desert and had the audacity to name him “The God who sees me.”

Seeing a pattern here?

The theme of being known by name is woven all throughout Scripture, from obscure genealogies and recitations of the history of Israel to the parables of Jesus and the greetings of Paul. Christianity has a lot to say about being seen.

And yet, being human, Christians are often not great at seeing others. And I’m including myself here.

My challenge to you this week isn’t just about memorizing names, although that might be part of it. It’s just to do your best to slow down long enough to look for the humanity in those around you.

Resist the urge to define others by who they are to you. That checkout clerk has a life outside of a frustrating return policy and a half-lidded “Did you find everything today?” Every coworker or small group member or neighbor holds onto a thousand silent hopes and fears. Even your spouse or mother or best friend is not first and foremost your spouse or mother or best friend.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with this realization, especially scrolling through Facebook. We have more ways than ever to amass positive feedback about our appearance, choices, opinions, witty remarks, and beautifully-arranged dinners. And yet I see so many lonely people, hoping to eke out enough affirmation to make them feel that they matter.

How well do I love them when we’re face-to-face? How often do I pray for them by name? How easily do I forget that they are just as complex and interesting and loved by God as I am?

Whoever you are, whatever background you come from, don’t forget to see people. Not as masses or political parties or age brackets, but as names and faces and individuals.

Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton Review Disney’s Snow White

I realize this title sounds like a punchline to some sort of weird Christian literary joke, but it’s true. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis went to see Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs together when it first came out.

Neither man was terribly impressed—and that’s stating it mildly.

Tolkien was outraged at the portrayal of the dwarfs (because they were there for laughs and not, you know, a complex race with their own lore, language, and history). Of Disney’s works in general, he said, “Though in most of the ‘pictures’ proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them is to me disgusting. Some have given me nausea.”

Lewis’s thoughts were just as straightforward: “Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music. But all the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving. . . . What might not have come of it if this man had been educated–or even brought up in a decent society?”

(Confession: I did, in fact, roll my eyes at the thick condescension in the last line.)

“Ugly” and “nauseating” – Inkling endorsements for the film, considered a groundbreaking masterpiece in its day.

So, there you have Lewis and Tolkien’s official movie review. As I read the article describing these reactions, I thought, “That’s interesting. But I think I know which of their friends probably did like Snow White.” So I looked it up on the Internet, and tada! Evidence.

Allow me to introduce you to G.K. Chesterton (because apparently if you wanted to be a British Christian writer in the 1930s or thereabouts, you needed to have a mildly embarrassing first and middle name, which you then changed to initials). (more…)

The Problem with #Adulting

“Sewed on a button with floss because A. I don’t have real sewing thread and B. I don’t ever floss.”

“It’s been a good run, houseplant. I kept you alive for a record three months before you died a scorched and thirsty death. RIP.”

“I can’t adult anymore. If you want me, I’ll be in my blanket fort, coloring.”

Some examples of #adulting.

Welcome to the world of #adulting—“to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups.” It’s a trend that the larger non-Millennial world is starting to take notice of, not always in a good way. I’ve heard or read all of the following explanations:

  • Even if they’re competent, smart, and successful, young people feel they can’t brag about their real achievements on social media, so instead they talk about getting excited about buying a toaster or finally having a dinner that didn’t come out of a box.
  • High schools don’t teach basic skills like balancing a budget, cooking, or sewing, so what used to be common sense isn’t anymore.
  • Thrust into a difficult economy, surrounded by broken relationships, and facing an uncertain political climate, millennials feel a Neverland-longing for childhood. The world seems bleaker than ever, so in a way, #adulting mourns lost innocence.
  • It seems hypocritical for the generation that gave young people participation ribbons in elementary school to suddenly wonder why they seek out validation on social media and call them overly sensitive or lazy. Why not mentor them instead?
  • Millennials are reaching traditional landmarks (getting married, owning a home, etc.) later than any previous generation. When they talk about saving up to buy a lawnmower instead of the latest video game console, it’s a joking way of processing a transition that many of their friends might not even be going through yet.

There’s a nugget of sociological truth in each of these explanations, but I’m mostly with the people who say #adulting is a specific kind of humor that happens to be popular right now. Combine that with a wave of not-so-distant nostalgia (the Pokémon resurgence and live-action remakes of basically every Disney golden age classic ever, for example) and you get 20-somethings joking about accidentally turning their laundry pink or finally reading a book not classified as YA. (more…)