Pop Theology

How I’m Like the Avengers

Several years ago, I had what I call the Really Weird September. I’d gotten an offer for a dream job (without even applying)…in a time when I felt clearly called to stay where I was. I’d been extended a hopeful second chance to re-try an old relationship…and I said no. I’d met someone who quite possibly could have been a great friend and mentor…who was moving away in a few days.

It was a series of weeks that felt full of “almost”s and “what-if”s and “Am I crazy, what am I even doing?”s. Even though I felt some peace about the decisions I was making, it felt like way too many narrow misses for all the things that were supposed to make me happy.

Soon after, I listened to the song “The Wrong Year” by the Decemberists—don’t ask me to tell you what the lyrics mean, I have no idea. Except for maybe this one part: “And the rain falls on the wrong year / And it won’t leave you alone / Won’t leave you alone.”

I heard that line. Heard it again. (And again and again—it’s in the chorus, so you know, that happens.) And I thought I might know what it felt like for rain to fall on the wrong year.

One spring, we had massive flooding in my home state, road closings and school cancellations and storm after storm with no letting up…when the year before had been one of the worst droughts we’d ever seen, full of parched corn stalks and dried-up grass.

What might have been considered a blessing in a different situation was inconvenient and even damaging, because it was the wrong year.

When something like that happens, it nags at you in the back of your mind where the “why”s aimed at God gather up and sometimes fester. It won’t leave you alone.

That’s how I felt. I’d think: what if I’d gotten the job offer right out of college, or the relationship had never ended, or I’d been living here at the right time to be mentored by someone I respected? Did all of these things happen on the wrong year? If the timing had been slightly different, or I’d made tiny adjustments to my choices…what could have happened?

That’s what I thought about after watching Avengers: End Game, because time travel is one of the deepest kinds of wish fulfillment.

Haven’t you replayed a conversation in your mind, thinking of how you’d do it differently if you only had a chance? Don’t you have a collection of “what-ifs,” from silly missteps to major life decisions, that keep you up late at night, wondering? Can’t you name the regrets that still twinge in your memory?

Haven’t you ever wondered if the rain fell on the wrong year? Just slightly off, a little too late or early, too much or too little. And whether you felt like it was your fault, or someone else’s, or even God’s…it’s a hard emotion to deal with.

That’s how we relate to the Avengers at the start of End Game. So many characters have lines that mention failure, regret, and resentment:

“You could not live with your own failure, and where did that bring you? Back to me.”

“Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be, Thor.”

“He thinks he failed, which of course he did. But you know there’s a lot of that going around, ain’t there?”

(That would be Thanos, Thor’s mother, and Rocket for those of you playing “Guess the Quote” at home.)

We also get to see how the Avengers respond to their apocalyptic-level failure. As the audience, we’re supposed to sort their reactions on a spectrum from healthy to unhealthy.

Captain America counseling others to move on? Good. Thor swigging beer and playing video games? Bad.

Natasha heading up a squad of super-peacekeepers from the survivors? Very good. Hawkeye going on a revenge spree murdering criminals? Very bad.

The Hulk trying to act like none of it is a big deal and embracing his celebrity, and Iron Man isolating himself to live his second-chance life? Sort of in-between?

Probably, everyone can see themselves in one of the Avengers. (I can picture the BuzzFeed Quiz now: “Faced with a soul-crushing regret, which Avenger would you be most like?”) But even though some had better ways of coping than others, nothing was satisfying for us as an audience…until they had a chance to go back and fix things, to undo every awful thing that had happened in the Snap.

We waited on the edge of our seat until the moment when everything was made right again, and the Avengers—all of them, even the fallen—assembled. And saved the world.

In the real world, we’re not there yet. We’ve got the regrets, sure, and plenty of failure and blame and heartache to go around. Only when we look back, the story doesn’t change. There are no Infinity Stones to capture and rearrange reality with. We have a deep need for everything wrong to become right again…but we don’t have a time machine.

So what do we do?

I’ll admit it: the reason I sometimes wish for time travel is because I want more control. I’m searching for some tiny changes I could make to settle everything back into place and make things feel the way I think they should, hoping that I can fix everything. Somehow.

It won’t work. It could never work, and it never does.

Back in the Really Weird September, I handed the decisions I made over to God, dragging all the “why now?”s and “did I do the right thing?”s and “what if no one else ever comes?” out of their dark corners and praying. It was only then that the doubt and regret finally left me alone.

Because if I really trust God, there’s no such thing as the wrong year. Not for rain. Not for the timing of the Really Weird September.

Not for when or where any of us were born, not for how the events our lives shaped us, not for the people placed around us at any given time. It’s all purposeful. Not a dice roll, not bad luck or arbitrary punishment or a random Snap.

I still can’t tell you what would have happened if I’d said yes to that guy or accepted that job or moved away from Minnesota after a year, or any of the other not-quite choices I could have made. I can tell you some of what I would have missed out on, because that’s the reality I’ve lived the past four years, but some of the whys and why nots will always be hidden from me. And that’s okay.

I made meaningful choices, but this is also the story that God put me in. The only story.

And someday—don’t forget, this part is important—the Christian faith teaches that everything will be made right again. We have that deep, aching need for a reason…it’s just that we can’t do it ourselves. With or without a time machine.

Why I Disliked the Ending of Infinity War

Here are three facts that should not all be possible at the same time: it took me six months from release to actually watch Avengers: Infinity War.

I volunteer at a youth group full of superhero-obsessed teenage boys who get great joy from getting a reaction out of me.

And I didn’t hear a single spoiler about this movie.

It’s a miracle.

That’s why I waited so long to write about the latest installment in the Marvel Universe, not because I needed to think deeply about it or was trying to give a spoiler gap for others. (Several not-highly-specific spoilers will follow, so be warned.)

So. That ending.

What?

Listen, I don’t require my stories to have happy endings. I appreciated the gray-area triumph of Dunkirk, with its flawed heroes and realistic grief. The bittersweet, open-ended conclusions of Home by Marilynne Robinson and The Long Road Home by Louise Penny were both fantastic, and I’ve read several of Shakespeare’s tragedies this year and greatly enjoyed them.

So, why didn’t I like this particular sad ending?

No offense, Marvel people, but you dragged us through two-and-a-half hours of introducing all fifty dozen superheroes and having them do things that were supposedly important to saving the world and such. (My rallying cry throughout? “Cut the side-quests. The people demand more witty banter!”) We at least expect to get some narrative satisfaction after the smoke clears.

But instead, we ended in the middle, in that moment where all hope seems lost. Not even the moment when our heroes decide to rally and make one last desperate stand or we see some glimpse of lessons learned or justice vowed. Nope. The moment before that.

Every now and then, I don’t mind a good cliffhanger that will be resolved later in a series, if the author has good enough payoff. (Brandon Sanderson, I’m looking at you.) But I don’t like being left in despair.

I was reading reviews of Infinity War to see if everyone else thought the ending was artistic and bold and I’m just crazy. One had this gem when explaining why the movie was hard to watch: “Plans fail. Character fails. Even sacrifices fail.”

That’s it. That’s exactly it. (more…)

Why I Enjoy Owl City

So, some people seriously hate Owl City—and I understand why. Musically, Adam Young’s pop hit generator isn’t often complex, even with time to mature after its glory days on the Top 40 charts. Lyrically, I read an article recently where the kindest review was that the songs “could make a motivational speaker seem suicidally depressed.”

(Which is funny but SO TRUE. Like, if you froze the laughter of unicorns and put it into a blender with fresh sunshine and synth, you’d get an Owl City smoothie.)

When thinking about why I don’t have the same violently negative reactions to Owl City that some critics do (and why I sometimes feel ashamed admitting that I don’t) my immediate thought was Citizen Kane, probably because I watched it this weekend. The classic film deals with a man so unlike Adam Young’s lyrical persona that you’d only overlay the credits with one of his songs if you were making a parody.

(Do you need to warn people about spoilers for a movie that is over seventy years old and consistently named as one of if not the greatest American films of all time? If your answer to this hypothetical question is “Yes,” then skip the next three paragraphs because it gives away the movie’s ending.)

In the movie, we are taken through an investigation of the life of Charles Foster Kane, billionaire newspaper magnate, basically watching him use and discard everyone around him. In each scene, a reporter interviews those people, seeking to find the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.” After finding nothing, the reporter reasons, “Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost.”

In the last few minutes of the film, the audience—but none of the characters—realize that “Rosebud” was the sled that young Charlie played with before his carefree childhood ended and his parents sent him away from them.

So the reporter was right after all. Kane lost his innocence and security of being loved that day, and he spent the rest of his life trying—and failing—to get it back, often in terribly selfish ways.

Here’s the point: it occurred to me that most of us relate more to Charles Foster Kane and his life than we do to Adam Young and his songs. We’d rather assume the worst of people than idealize them. We are afraid of being hurt or abandoned. We know it’s cool to seem aloof and rational and independent. We’re more comfortable with cynicism than joy.

Again, feel free to critique Owl City’s musical ability or the “sameness” of many of his songs. If you like, you can flood the comments with technical analysis, and I will probably agree.

For example, I can think of creative projects that have the same spirit of innocence but with more artistic value.

But the reason I don’t mind is this: almost every Owl City song is about Rosebud.

Unlike Kane, who pursued what he lost and couldn’t get (which was his own prideful fault), Owl City songs are about love and innocence found or maintained or remembered. The narrator of his songs has a childlike happiness. He’s not afraid to love, and even love foolishly. He doesn’t take simple things for granted. He’s not weighed down by the drama and trauma that we mistakenly define as all that “real life” means.

Instead of going for gritty noir or stark realism, Adam Young is talking about playing in his basement as a kid, pointing out the scenic details of various places he’s traveled, making bad puns about dentistry, praising the people he loves, and dancing with fireflies. And, critically valuable or no, I appreciate that.

Is life “always a good time”? No. Of course not. And it’s silly to put those songs on a loop in an “Everything Is Awesome” Lego Movie sort of way.

We need fugues and laments and hymns in minor key. We might even need breakup songs and cautionary tales and rallying cries for difficult issues facing us today.

But I think it’s good to have a reminder of the small joys in life too. Without those voices, it becomes easy to accept a distorted and incomplete story about the world: that failure is inevitable and terrible things happen to good people and love isn’t worth the risk and all heroes fall and the only one you can really count on is yourself.

I don’t want to be trapped in that story or feel threatened by art that is simple-but-earnest just because it’s got a happy ending (and sometimes beginning and middle).

Why Mr. Incredible is More Interesting than Mrs. Incredible

Character growth will always be more interesting than a cool motorcycle.

That’s the short, spoiler-free version. Read on if you’ve already seen The Incredibles and its sequel, or if you don’t mind having the general plot revealed.

To me, Incredibles 2 had some fun moments, but it took the same lesson as the first movie—family is important—and put it into a different plot with a slightly different premise.

But the nice thing about how similar the two movies are is that it’s fun to compare Mr. Incredible’s character arc from original film to sequel.

Setup

In Movie 1, a complicated mixture of pride, desire for justice, and sheer fun of super-heroics causes Mr. Incredible to take up undercover work, lie to his family, make his wife suspect he’s having an affair, endanger his kids, and abandon all rational suspicion to nearly get himself killed on a supervillain’s island.

In Movie 2, that same mix of emotions is going on…but this time, Mr. Incredible doesn’t get the opportunity to put the mask on. The call to action comes for his wife instead, and circumstances force him into a state of powerlessness. He doesn’t understand Dash’s new math. Violet is furious at him for publicly embarrassing her and ruining her adolescent life. He bought the wrong kind of batteries. The baby won’t go to sleep. (Also, he explodes.)

Results

In Movie 1, Mr. Incredible’s family basically rescues him, dramatically revealing his messed-up priorities and the value of what he’s been missing.

And in Movie 2, we find that being present for what he’s missing has a cost. It’s boring and hard and exhausting and totally without glory. But Mr. Incredible learns the new math and apologizes to his daughter and calls in a babysitter equipped to deal with exploding babies.

I found his character journey way more interesting than SuperMom’s, because while she got the cool action scenes, she never has to confront her weaknesses in the way her husband does in both movies.

The script was not subtle in the scenes where Mrs. Incredible admitted it was nice to be the one who was needed, or when Evelyn flattered her, saying she could do it all on her own. Even the reversion back to the silver Elastigirl uniform instead of the family logo made me think, “Great, they’re going to explore the potential danger of rugged independence and girl power!”

After all, in the original movie, Mrs. Incredible goes through a ton of emotions. Her desire to protect her family and later, suspicion of her husband, trigger a lot of the plot. Then, she learns to trust her kids and let them have some independence and renews her vow to keep her family together.

But in the sequel …there’s no payoff. Mrs. Incredible’s actions don’t have consequences. Her fatal flaw is a talking point that does no damage at all. And she ends the movie in the same place she started. (more…)

What the British Baking Show Taught Me About Accepting Criticism

I realize I’m several years behind the craze of The Great British Bake-Off, but when lots of my friends were raving about it, I decided, without ever seeing an episode, that I would loathe it.

My reasoning? I hate reality TV. And I enjoy baking, but in a very imprecise, hey-that-looks-like-about-a-half-cup, yay-frosting, look-I-coated-myself-in-flour sort of way. The last thing I wanted to watch was a dramafest that would also give me impossibly high standards for future batches of cookies (sorry, biscuits).

The judges and hosts of the show.

Thankfully, that’s not what the show is like at all. The drama is mostly: will the rolls rise in time?!? Or what if the ice cream melts inside the baked Alaska and makes it (gasp) soggy? It’s almost entirely about talented people making beautiful, delicious food. So, five stars from me.

The contestants from 2014 (the season I just watched).

But one people-watching aspect of the show that intrigues me is seeing how the bakers take criticism from the judges. Some are so extreme on the people-pleasing scale that they go out of their way to agree with the judges…and offer additional information on why their bake is even worse than originally thought. Others make a self-deprecating joke or agree to work on that aspect in the future or just say “thank you” and retreat.

But what always gets me are the people who argue with the judges.

Granted, some things are a matter of taste, but even then, do you really want to contradict two respected culinary authorities while being filmed?

Actual comments contestants have made include:

  • “Well, I quite liked it.”
  • “I really don’t think it’s that bad.”
  • “But you’ve missed the point.”

All of which were met by a sarcastic comment from Paul and a raised eyebrow from Mary (which, in understated Mary-speak means, “I am completely appalled by your rudeness, young man/woman”). None of their excuses, shockingly, changed either the judges’ minds or the state of the baked goods in front of them.

But the defensiveness is easy to understand. These people have put their identity in what they’re doing, and to have it critiqued is hard. “I am a good baker,” they’re saying. “Everyone has told me this. To criticize my baking is to criticize me and all of my hopes and dreams.”

So they respond with excuses and miss an opportunity to grow and improve.

And I cringe because that is totally me. (more…)

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 publicly 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…)