Category Archives: Culture

Noah: A dissection.

Noah

 

How far would you go for God? How sure would you have to be that he was speaking to you? That it wasn’t just some delusion? What is our responsibility as Christians towards the planet? How important are the choices we make?

Those are just a few of the questions that Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah asks. And they are all very, very good questions. This review is going to be full of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, please go see it first. Do be warned, however – it is a dark movie, and quite disturbing at times. You know, kind of like the actual story of Noah.

There have been a number of responses to this movie, ranging from the EXTREMELY critical (as in, this movie is Satanic) to the academically critical, to the somewhat positive. A lot of reviews get caught up in the weird details that Aronofsky used (and there are a lot of weird details), rather than dealing with the thematic elements of the film. This is what I’m going to try and focus on, for the most part.

One more thing before I start. I’m a Christian, and I value the story of Noah. I don’t think it’s literal, but it’s probably based on some very important historical facts. However, this movie is NOT a Christian movie. It’s a Jewish movie. It’s heavily inspired by Jewish Midrash – this is a certain style of reading the Hebrew Scriptures. Essentially (and I might be getting this wrong), midrash is reading the scripture and then interpreting it several different ways, and letting the interpretations sit. It’s not about finding the ‘right’ way to interpret a scripture, but about providing possibilities. Noah is definitely in this vein.

Ok, let’s begin.

The film opens with a quick recap of the story so far. The world began because the Creator began it, and placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. They ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and were cast out. Shortly after, their son Cain killed their other son Abel. Cain was cursed and marked by God, and sent out into the wilderness where he began busily building cities and such (where the other people came from we’re not really told.) This is all true to the Biblical story. In the movie version, there are also certain creatures called The Watchers which descend from Heaven as well. These are taken from a stream of Jewish mythology. The Watchers, we’re told later, came to Earth as Angelic beings to help the humans who were cast out of the Garden. This was against God’s plan though, and so he cursed the Watchers to be coated in rock and stuck on the Earth forever. We’re not told, in the film, WHY God cursed them, but I’m going to take a guess. The Watchers didn’t understand God’s plan. This is a common theme throughout the movie – people THINKING they know what God wants, but getting it wrong.

The Watchers thought that they could help humanity by teaching them technology. God knew that teaching them these skills would be a bad idea, and it was. Humanity used the technology that the Watchers taught them to enslave the earth, killing almost everything. They then enslaved the Watchers themselves. Methuselah eventually shows up and protects The Watchers, freeing them from their captivity with a crazy fire sword. Again, part of Jewish mythology (I think. Or maybe Aronofsky just thought it was cool).

Ok, so we’ve got the lineage of Cain building cities all over the place and generally ravaging the Earth. This is scriptural, by the way – Genesis 6:11-12 read: The earth was ruined in the sight of Godthe earth was filled with violenceGod saw the earthand indeed it was ruinedfor all living creatures on the earth were sinful.
Alongside Cain’s lineage, however, is the lineage of Seth, Adam’s third son. From the lineage of Seth comes Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, and eventually Noah. The film opens with Lamech being killed by Tubal-Cain, the descendent of Cain. Tubal-Cain steals Lamech’s snakeskin, a ‘relic’ that has been passed down from father to son from the time of Adam. It is later revealed that the skin is the skin of the serpent, who shed it upon becoming evil and deceitful. It is a memory of a time when God was with His creation, and so is used to bless every generation.

Noah was noted for being a righteous man in the Biblical story, and in the movie he’s shown as loving his family and desiring to follow the Creator, no matter what the cost. He also doesn’t eat meat, unlike the Cain-ites. They’ve basically eaten everything on the planet.

So now we’ve got Noah and his family, the last ‘righteous’ people on the planet. Aronofsky takes ‘righteous’ to mean that they desire to follow God, not that they’re perfect. I think this is not a bad description of ‘righteous’. The planet has been basically ruined, with barren landscapes and dead stumps everywhere. Noah has a vision of water – water killing everything. Even he’s under water, although he can swim to the surface. From this vision he comes to believe that the world will be destroyed by water, and so he and his family (three sons, all young-ish, and his wife), pack up camp and head for Methuselah’s mountain, hoping the old sage can lend them some wisdom. Along the way they pick up a girl who was wounded badly by the cain-ites, and she becomes an adopted daughter of sorts. She’s barren (apparently they can tell by the wound she has), but you can see she’s going to fall for the oldest son, Shem.

So, this vision. This is the first major theme I want to touch on. In this film, God does not speak verbally. We never hear God’s voice. We get visions, dreams, revelations, signs from nature, and stories, but we never hear the voice of God. This is troubling for some. I admit, I found it a bit disconcerting. But if we’re doing midrash here, it makes some sense. When was the last time YOU heard God speak verbally? I never have. And yet I KNOW he has directed my path at times. I KNOW that He put certain things before me, and gave me the choice of what to do with them. You can read about many of these moments on this very blog. So in a way, Aronofsky is placing Noah into our story – God speaks to him through visions and dreams, but not verbally. God prefers to use the mouths of his servants, rather than a voice from the sky. This seems… right to me.

So they arrive at the mountain, and Noah climbs the mountain with his son to see Methuselah. the old sage helps Noah have another vision, and in this vision Noah sees the Ark. He sees all the animals being preserved. on the Ark, and all the people dying below. When he awakens, Noah knows that he must build the ark. He apparently has knowledge of how to do so as well, which must have been given to him by God, although again, not verbally. Methuselah also gives Noah a seed from Eden, which he plants, growing enough trees to build the ark. Oh yeah, those Watchers decide to help Noah build the ark, in the hopes that they can be forgiven for their sins of pushing humanity along this path to self-destruction.

Are you with me so far? The ark is being built, Noah believes that he’s supposed to save the animals from the coming flood, and there’s a storm a’brewing.

Flash forward ten years. The Ark is almost finished. Ham is mad that he doesn’t have a wife like Shem. Jeph is too young to care still. Tubal-Cain shows up with an army, carrying weapons made of iron (gen 4:22), hoping to storm the ark and take it by force. They kinda-sorta believe there might be a flood coming, but more they just want the fertile land. Noah keeps building, but promises Ham that he’ll find wives for him and Jeph before the flood. Tubal-Cain sets up camp near the ark. Noah is still sure he’s doing the right thing, and that his family is the last righteous family on earth.

Here’s the important part – a part that I think many reviewers miss. Noah goes into the Cain-ite camp in an attempt to find a couple women for his sons. I guess he assumes that he might be able to rescue some slave girls or something. Upon entering the camp, he realizes that it is chaos. Pure evil. But it’s not an evil that he expected – it’s an evil of survival of the fittest. Men killing other men for food, men dragging away women to have their way with them, men fighting over and eating raw meat in desperation. In the midst of the chaos, Noah sees a man, the man looks at him, and Noah sees himself in the man. The man’s face is bloody from the meat he’s been eating, and there’s anger and fear in his eyes. He runs off, and Noah, shaken, leaves the camp alone.

When Noah returns to the ark, he has changed. Seeing his doppelganger in the camp has made him realize that there are none who are righteous – no, not one. Even he and his family is corrupt. He says so to his wife – either of them would kill for their family. They’re no better than those out in the camp. From this revelation, Noah begins a new course of action. He believes that all humans must die. Illa, the girl, is barren, and his wife is too old to conceive. They will all board the ark, and they will be the last humans on the planet. This, Noah believes, is the will of God – that all should die due to their sin and corruption. He doesn’t see anything good in himself.

His wife disagrees, and so asks the sage Methuselah to provide a way for humanity to survive. She sees good in her sons and in her husband. The sage agrees, although he warns that it will hurt. He heals the girl, Illa, so that she may bear children once again. Ham, not knowing what his mother has done, goes to the camp himself to try and find a bride. He finds a woman, but she is killed as they flee to the ark. Ham blames Noah for her death, because he didn’t try hard enough to save her.

The floods and the rains come, and the army tries to board the ark. There’s a horrific fight scene, with the stone Watchers fighting off the horde of unrighteous men. In the process they are killed, but forgiven by God – their Angelic selves are seen returning to Heaven.

Some commentators on the film have said that the forgiveness of the Watchers was salvation by works – they did something good, so they got forgiven. I don’t see it that way. They helped Noah not because they hoped for redemption, but because they realized their folly. It was through this realization that they were allowed to go home.

Anyhow, the ark leaves with all its passengers, plus one – Tubal-Cain has hacked his way through a wall, and is hiding in the bowels of the ship. We’ll return to this in a moment. First, I want to mention the story that Noah tells his family while they sit on the ark. He tells them the story of creation, and it is shown in a way that I’ve never seen before on film. It nearly moved me to tears. Now, if you’re a literal seven-day creationist, you’ll probably hate it. I thought it was incredible. Watch it and judge for yourself.

Back to Tubal-Cain hiding in the bowels of the ark (with the snakes, I might add). Now, this is not Biblical, at all. But it is useful for the midrashic style of the movie. Noah, Tubal-Cain, and the women provide three distinct and separate interpretations of God, the Creator.

First, Tubal-Cain sees himself as equal to God. Before the flood he cries out to God, saying something along the lines of ‘I give life, and I take it, just as you do! Why won’t you answer me?’ He thinks God has given him the ability and the right to ‘subdue’ the planet. He quotes Genesis 1:28b to Ham, in the belly of the ark: ‘Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it!’ – It sounds an AWFUL lot like the serpent in the garden – ‘Did God REALLY say that you would die?’ or like the tempter Satan with Jesus in the wilderness – ‘Doesn’t the scripture say…?’ For Tubal-Cain, God doesn’t care what happens to the Earth. He abandoned his people, gave them the tools they needed, and they just have to do as they see fit. Echoes of Judges ring here as well.

Second, Noah simply wants to obey God. He wants Justice. He sees God as just, and that justice MUST be satisfied, even if it means the extermination of all human life. Humans are all sinful, and so all must die to satisfy the justice of God.

Third, the women, Naamah and Illa, feel and see God’s mercy. They see him as merciful, as having saved them from the flood for a purpose, and appeal to that mercy. All three of these voices appeal to the same facts, the same revelation of God, but not all see the same thing.

Things come to a head when Noah realizes that Illa is pregnant. He swears that if the child is male then it will live to be the last person on Earth, but if it is female and able to bear children eventually, that he will kill it. He firmly and completely believes that God’s Justice must be satisfied, and that the only way it can be satisfied is with the end of the corrupting force of humanity.

Illa gives birth – to twin girls. After fighting off Tubal-cain (and Ham killing him), Noah climbs to the top of the ark, knife in hand, ready to kill the children. The scene echoes Abraham – one almost expected a ram to come wandering over. With the knife poised, Noah’s resolve falters. He feels only love towards the children, not the righteous justice he believes is necessary. he drops the knife, defeated.

Fast forward. The ark has made landfall, and Naamah, the boys, and Illa have started a small farm. Noah spends his days at the shore, cultivating grapes and turning them into wine. Many commentators have been confused at this point – why is it that Noah is drinking? Is it survivor’s guilt? No, actually – it’s the opposite. Noah drinks because he believes he has failed God. He still believes that the right thing, the just thing, would have been to kill the children and to let the human race die out. He drinks because he sees himself as having failed God. After all he did, after all he suffered, he still failed.

He drinks himself into a naked stupor. Ham, seeing him, scoffs, and throws back the snakeskin he took from Tubal-Cain. There is no curse like there is in scripture, but the emphasis is there – Ham is disgusted with his father, angry at him for allowing his bride to die, and upset with how everything turned out. He packs his bag and leaves, ‘cursed’ to wander. The other sons cover Noah, and allow him to sober up.

Once sober, Illa speaks to Noah. Once again, it is through the female voice that Noah hears of mercy. Illa believes that God gave Noah the ability to choose – here we hear echoes of Deuteronomy 30:19 – Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! Noah was given the choice of saving humanity, of giving it a second chance, or of ending it all. Through the love he felt (finally) towards his grandchildren, he chose life.

The film ends with a dedication ceremony of the twins, and a rainbow pulsing through the sky. God, it seems, is pleased with the choice of Noah. He truly has become a righteous man.

 

I loved this film. It humanized the characters of the story for me, and placed them in a world of real choices and real consequences. The various ‘voices’ speaking about God were delightful – it was if the characters were having a conversation, debating who God really was. We still do this today, don’t we? I also loved the theme of misunderstanding God. Tubal-Cain, even quoting scripture, missed the point of our relationship with the earth. We’re not called to destroy the Earth, but to use it wisely. This is a lesson we desperately need to hear today. Noah, likewise, misunderstood God. Even though he was given revelations directly from God, and signs from the Heavens, he was still able to misunderstand God – because he only understood God in terms of justice, rather than in terms of justice AND mercy.

Now, are there some weird things about this movie? Yeah. The rock monster/angel things are weird. I kind of like their redemption moment, but it’s weird. Also, the snakeskin took me a while to figure out, but I think it does make sense – as a symbol. I don’t think it’s magic. Also, Methuselah the sage with a flaming sword, a seed from Eden, and a drink that helps with visions? Weird. Finally, Adam and Eve are shown in one shot as glowing beings. While this is weird, and seems to lean towards a spiritual/carnal divide that I don’t like, there is some evidence in Scripture which connects glowing light to God – the pillar of fire in the desert, for example, or the glowing of the face of Moses coming off the mountain of Ararat, or the glowing of Jesus coming off the mount of transfiguration. I would have preferred to see more fleshly Adam and Eve, though. It would have fit better with the larger themes of the movie as well.

I think far too often we dehumanize the characters found in Scripture. We don’t think about their emotions, their thought patterns, their doubts and insecurities. We don’t imagine Joseph as actually wrestling with lust towards Potiphar’s wife, or imagine Moses wrestling with his anger and disappointment towards God and towards the Hebrew people. We don’t think about David as his power and love of power begins to corrupt him. We don’t think about Noah wrestling with doubt. If we really believe that the Bible has something to say to real people, It’s important that we engage in these stories in a real way. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the midrashic style of teaching.

the next chapter

Today I began the next chapter of my academic career. After graduating from Columbia Bible College, the goal was always to go on for further study – I love the classroom experience, and the wrestling-out of God’s truth through and with His people. It’s strange, you know – it’s only been just over a year since I graduated from CBC, and already it feels like a lifetime ago. I felt rusty sitting in the orientation classroom. It was almost as if I didn’t belong. The old nervous anxiety began to grow in the pit of my stomach, that feeling I get when I think I’m alone in a crowd full of people. It gnaws at you. It’s subtle, but there. I know this will pass in time, and that in time I will slip back into those comfortable academic shoes once again… but for now, it feels strange.

I love my bus ride. I take the #14 all the way from East Hastings to UBC, passing through downtown, up Granville, along Broadway, and through Kits before arriving at my destination. I don’t know if any bus carries such a wide variety of people. I wonder what that upper-middle-class student in a 300$ track suit would say if she knew her seat had been occupied by a heroin addict just twenty minutes earlier. Life is strange, sometimes.

We create these bubbles, and rarely move outside of them. Such is true even in the DTES. I love traveling through bubbles – maybe because I don’t feel really comfortable in any of them. I often feel like an Observer, slightly different from everyone else, watching as if I were an alien or some far-future version of humanity. Not more intelligent, just different. I have no idea if that’s normal or completely bizarre.

Next week classes start for real, and then we’ll see if this madness is actually going to work or not. Hopefully God’s got a plan in all this, because I’m not sure if I do anymore!

Patriotism to Yahweh: The Shema – Deuteronomy 6:4-15

This is a sermon I gave this morning at Emmanuel Mennonite Church. I had a lot of requests from people that wanted to read it, so here it is, slightly edited for ease of reading. I should have an audio recording up in the next week as well!

 

update: the sermon can be listened to here: http://www.emmanuelmennonite.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/July-14_2013-message.mp3

Don’t Forget: Patriotism, Table worship, and the Shema

This morning I’m speaking on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and a little bit past that as well. To be honest, I wasn’t that excited about this passage when I first began to look at it. I thought that it was obvious – Love God. Great, thanks. Well, that’s the shortest sermon ever. But as I read it over and over, and as I spoke about it with others, new depths were revealed.

 

One note before we get started. We all come to the text with biases and baseline observations. One of the biases that I have is that I see the entire story of Scripture as being a story of redemption, of God drawing His people into a relationship with Himself. I see this everywhere I look, from Genesis to Revelation. God desires to be known by us, to be father and friend and king. And this passage that we’re looking at today, the very heart of Old Testament theology, is a prime example of this. ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, The Lord is One.’

 

First, we’re going to start with a look at the passage itself. If you have your Bibles, you can turn to Deuteronomy 6, and we’re starting in verse 4. I’ll also have the passage up on the screen.

‘Hear oh Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’

This is a fascinating passage. So simple, but with so many layers. It can also be read a number of different ways – for example, an alternating reading is ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone!’ or ‘Hear, Oh Israel, The Lord our God is the Only Lord, or even Hear oh Israel, The Lord our God is One Lord.’ This declaration, called the Shema, which is the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ or ‘listen’, is, as I have said, the very center of Old Testament theology. Here, Moses is claiming not only that Yahweh is the God of Israel, but also that he is the ONLY God. In saying this, Moses is simultaneously elevating Yahweh and claiming that faith in any other gods, such as Baal or Molech, is incompatible with worship of Yahweh. This makes a lot of sense, really – At this point in time, the Hebrew people are still wandering the wilderness, a landless people amongst foreign tribes. And soon, they will be entering Canaan, and the temptation will be to intermarry with the locals, taking on their customs and even their gods. Through cementing this declaration at the very heart of Hebrew theology, God, working through Moses, is attempting to prevent his people from being led astray by their neighbours.

But love for Yahweh is not simply about ceremony, or about an emotional experience, but rather about orienting the entire being towards Yahweh. This can be seen in verse 5, which is probably rendered in your Bible as You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. While this is textually correct, we miss some of the nuance here from a straight reading. Let’s start with ‘Love the Lord your God with your whole heart.’ In ancient Israel, the intellect, what we would think of as the brain, was thought to reside in the chest, in the heart. And so talking about the heart was not about an emotional response to Yahweh, but rather an intellectual one. You could say ‘let every thought you think be oriented towards Yahweh.’

The second clause, ‘love the lord your God with all your soul’ is again, about much more than a spiritual experience. The Hebrew people had no concept of a separation between the soul and the body – they were one and the same. And so the best way to understand ‘love with all your soul’ is to think ‘love God with your whole being, with everything that makes you you.’ We could say ‘with your entire consciousness’ or ‘love God with everything that you are.’

The third clause is a little more straight-forward. Loving God with all your might could be understood as ‘Love God in everything that you do, with all the works of your hands’.

So we have ‘Love God with every thought in your head, every fibre of your being, and with every movement you make.’ So, in full, I think this paraphrase helps us capture the meaning of the Shema: ‘Listen, you people, God, your God, is the Only God, the One True God – Love him with every thought, love him with every breath, love him with every movement. Orient your whole life towards Him!’

Not only were the Hebrew people to love god with everything that they were, but they were also to teach others to do the same. ‘Teach [these words I command you] to your children, and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fasten them as symbols to your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’

This reinforces the teaching of orienting your entire life towards Yahweh. At every moment God needs to be present – in all your actions, remember him and do what he asks! And there was good reason for this teaching – Israel was about to face challenges unlike anything they had seen before.

‘Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you – a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery. You must revere the Lord your God, serve him, and take oaths using only his name. You must not go after other gods, those of the surrounding peoples, for the Lord your God, who is present among you, is a jealous God and his anger will erupt against you and remove you from the land.’

God knew what the people of Israel would face when they entered Canaan. He knew that they were going to be installed into a place of power, into a kingdom they did not build, and that power so easily corrupts an unwitting population. It was going to be so easy for Israel to become just like any other nation, to give up the distinctive whole-body worship of Yahweh and to replace it with a ceremonial practice, disengaged from real life. And so God is saying here, again, ‘Remember! Remember the story! Remember how I saved you! Remember how I brought you out of Egypt! Don’t leave anything out! Tell the whole story!’ Unfortunately, It doesn’t appear that Israel paid much attention to the words of Yahweh, as their devotion to lavish temples and a pagan-styled monarchy eventually show. They claimed that Yahweh is the one true God, but all too often they did not act like it. They did not understand that the rule of Yahweh is different than that of any other God. Only after the Temple was destroyed and they were scattered into exile did they begin to tell the story again, and that story kept them rooted in Yahweh. Even today you can find this story being told over and over again every Passover. It’s a story that Jesus would have heard: ‘Remember, we were once slaves in Egypt, and God, the only God, saved us. He is with us, and we must remember him in all we do!’

Why should we care about any of this today? What does it have to do with us, living in the 21st century?

First, the Shema is more than a prayer, and more than a statement. It is a pledge of allegiance. Here in Canada we’re not particularly patriotic, at least compared to our neighbors to our south. But I think the point still stands. When I walked through downtown Vancouver on Canada day, I saw a lot of red and white. Like most things, love of country is not necessarily a bad thing, but it must be kept in perspective. We must remember – there’s that word again, remember – that we are members, first and foremost, of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have no king but Jesus, no Father but Yahweh. Do I love the fact that I can speak my mind and that I have free healthcare? Absolutely. But my love of Canada must come a distant second to my love of Christ and his Kingdom. Anything else is idolatry. Canada will pass away, kingdoms will rise and crumble, but the Kingdom of Heaven will remain, and will thrive, and will restore the world into something incredible and beautiful.

I am patriotic about the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Shema is my pledge of Allegiance – ‘Hear, oh Emmanuel Mennonite Church, The Lord our God, the Lord is One! We will love the Lord Our God with all of our intellect, with all of our being, with all of our strength!’ And, to paraphrase Jesus – ‘We will show our devotion by loving our neighbors – our poor neighbors, our rich neighbors, our homeless neighbors, our addicted neighbors, our Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and Baptist and Calvinist and Charismatic neighbors, our homosexual and bisexual and transgendered neighbors, our black and white and brown and every other skin color neighbors – we will show our devotion to God by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, as we love our own flesh and blood. I pledge allegiance to the Cross, to the Stone rolled-away, to the empty tomb, and to the Saviour for which it stands! Amen? Amen.

The second thing I think we can pull out of this passage is the difference between what can be called Temple worship and Table worship. I wish I came up with this, but I didn’t – There is a wonderful pastor in the states named Brian Zahnd who inspired these thoughts. See, at Temple worship, the ceremony becomes the thing, and it falls on just a few men to perform the ceremony. Temple worship isn’t about daily living oriented towards God; it’s about atoning for sins and participating in the system. Now, I’m not saying that atonement doesn’t matter – Jesus has absolutely done that work. But what I am saying is that when worship becomes a system through which we attempt to get holy, I think we’ve missed the point.

The Shema teaches Table Worship. Table worship is about orienting every moment of our lives towards the love of God. Table worship means inviting everyone to the table – it’s family dinner, keep one foot on the floor! There’s always room for more. My family is famous for this – I remember multiple times my dad picking up hitch hikers and bringing them home to dinner – having 15 or 20 people crowded around our old dining room table was a common occurrence. This is what I see God saying: ‘Come to the table! Eat! There’s always room. Of course there’s room. We’ll bring in some more chairs, don’t worry! This is what you were made for!’ And Jesus is there, with us, passing the potatoes. We show our love to God by loving others, by giving them a seat at the table, by not requiring more of them than what Jesus required. Remember, Jesus was constantly getting in trouble for eating with tax collectors and sinners. A prostitute washed his feet! And Christ, being God on Earth, by definition perfectly embodied the Shema. His entire life was oriented towards Love of Yahweh, and so He is the perfect example of what this kind of life looks like.

 

Finally, how do we practically connect this with loving the poor and marginalized? I have three suggestions.

First, we need to reclaim the sacred act of hospitality. I want to be honest: It’s really easy to exclude people. It’s really easy to say that we don’t have time or energy to include others, and I am totally complicit in this. My wife and I are huge homebodies. An ideal evening for us is a nice home-cooked meal and an evening of movies or video games. It’s so easy to close the curtains and turn inwards, and pretend like the world doesn’t exist. But what I realized is that when we invite others into our space, and when we accept the invitations that others extend, our lives become so much more incredibly rich. Eating and cooking with friends and neighbors is awesome. When we open our doors, amazing things can happen. Yes, there is risk – relationships and community are always risky – but there is so much joy to be found as well. Let’s engage in hospitality again. The Kingdom of God includes the poor and the marginalized, and not just off in some ministry to the poor, but front and centre. We need to be giving them a place at the table.

Second, we need to embrace the poor by killing the idol of security. Christ brought a new kind of Kingdom, one based on faith and mercy rather than on security and wealth. We need to be saying, ‘yes, in our backyard. If anywhere, we want the poor in our backyard!’ We need to stand up against dehumanizing tactics such as the kind used by this city very recently, from spreading manure on campsites to petitioning safe and affordable supportive housing. I work in a supportive housing building, and I can tell you that they work. They really do. There are some cases where silence makes us complicit in the actions of others, and this is one of those cases. Is Abbotsford going to be a place of refuge for those that have been abused and traumatized throughout their lives, or is it going to be one more place where they are simply not welcome?

And finally, we need to teach our children vigorously what it means to live a life oriented towards Yahweh. We need to show our children what radical hospitality looks like. One of the reasons I was able to move into the Downtown East Side was because my parents prepared the way for me. I spent my childhood with fishermen and loggers, hippies and rednecks, and all were welcome at the table. All were treated with respect. And because my father respected them, they respected him. Everyone was treated as a human, and this taught me to look for the humanity in everyone I meet, no matter what they look like on the surface. I watched this, and learned. We need to be showing our children how to love – otherwise they are going to learn from the world how to hate and discriminate.

So, listen, Oh Emmanuel Mennonite Church, listen, Oh Abbotsford, the Lord Your God, the Lord is One! Love the Lord your God with every thought in your head, every fibre of your being, and with every movement you make. Remember the stories, and tell them constantly – when you eat, and when you sleep, and when you wake and when you walk! Don’t forget! Thank you.

Djesus Uncrossed: What do others see?

A couple of weeks ago Saturday Night Live included a fake movie trailer as part of their program. This was shortly after the Oscar-nominated Django Unchained came out. For those of you who don’t know, Django is a bloody revenge pic by Quentin Tarantino. It follows the journey of a former black slave on his quest to exterminate his former slave owners.

The SNL bit portrays Jesus as a revenge-seeking toughguy and Paul as a commander of a revenge squad a la Inglorious Basterds. Roman blood is spattered everywhere. Of course, reactions to this clip have been… extreme. Here’s a video that can be found on Youtube. The first half shows the clip in question, while the second half is a narration by an Angry Christian.

Now, while the clip itself is a little tasteless, it’s not really being critical of Jesus at all. As others have pointed out, the clip is mocking Tarantino and his ability to add blood and revenge to nearly anything. the premise is this: That if Tarantino made a movie about the most pacifist guy ever, he’d still find a way to make it bloody!

Of course, the narrator of the above video didn’t get that. He saw this as a direct attack on Christ himself, and believes that Christians should be up in arms about this video. Many others think the same thing; here’s a clip of the Sean Hannity show on Fox News debating Djesus.

Hannity and his compatriot seem to think that Christians should get as mad as Muslims at this clip.  Christians should be standing up for their rights! we should get mad!

But wait. What if the SNL bit actually has a point?

As a Christian, I believe that the primary way that someone will view Christ is by viewing me. I am told by the Bible and by my community that we are to emulate Christ. as the anonymous quote (often attributed to St. Francis) says: ‘Preach the Gospel to all people, and if necessary, use words’. we’re also told the ‘Actions speak louder than words’. What we do matters, very much. Paul, throughout his letters, calls us to become more and more like Christ, casting off our old ways for a new way of living. We are told that people will know that we are Christians by our love for one another. We’re told to be kind to our enemies, and to love those who harm us. When we do these things, we are a powerful witness in the world to a different way of life – the Kingdom way.

Remember all the media attention that the Amish community got when they forgave the man who killed five children, before taking his own life? The world took notice because they behaved in the way that Christ taught us to behave. When we act like Christ, people notice.

Is this what the world thinks about when they think about western Christianity? Or do they imagine a faith more in line with Djesus, a faith married to revenge rather than forgiveness (Iraq? Afghanistan?), more in line with individualism than community (it’s called the iPhone, for crying out loud), more in line with dysfunction than unity (greater than 50% divorce rate among western Christians?). Here’s one more clip, and this one is a hard one to watch. This is a propaganda clip created in North Korea, and translated into English. It’s about 12 minutes long.

 

Is this what people see? This looks like Djesus to me. We get so offended at a video clip showing Jesus as a murderer, and yet that’s who we present him as every day when we continue to buy into a culture which is so self-obsessed and narcissistic that we have no clue how we’re hurting others. By being Djesus with our purchasing habits and our way of life and our media, we spit in the face of the message of peace that Christ died for. Maybe we were offended by Djesus Because it hit just a little too close to home. Maybe we saw a little bit of ourselves. Maybe it forces us to realize how truly counter-cultural the message of Christ really is. And maybe, just maybe, that’s a good thing.

Ruby Sparks

A couple of nights ago my wife and I watched an indie movie called Ruby Sparks. It was one of those movies that you could tell would be so indie that it hurts. One of those movies where you expect weird and quirky characters full of too-much emotion and neurotic energy, as if everyone were channeling Audrey Hepburn and Woody Allen at the same time. I expected it to be a light, funny, and poignant romantic comedy. I was incorrect. This movie made me think, and when I think I like to write. I will be completely spoiling the movie here, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

The film is what I would call ‘magical realism’. Calvin is an author, a child prodigy who published the quintessential Great American Novel before he turned 19. Ten years, one broken relationship, several hundred trips to the therapist, and one dog later, Calvin lives alone in his expensive house, unable to write a word. Calvin definitely reminds one of Woody Allen – neurotic, self-obsessed, narcissistic. He believes that he used to be a genius, and so does everyone around him. In fact, they still believe that.

The film sets Calvin up as a sympathetic character. I wanted to identify with him, and I hurt for his loneliness. Anyone who has felt alone in a crowd full of people will wince at an early scene where Calvin is expected to schmooze with readers of his novel. The despair written on his face is absolutely apparent to the viewer, if not to his crowd of adoring fans.

In the midst of his melancholy, Calvin is visited by the girl of his dreams. Literally. She first actually appears in his dreams. She inspires him, and he begins to write about her. Suddenly, and without warning, the film becomes magical realism and Ruby Sparks appears in Calvin’s house. Apparently completely real (other people can see her too), Ruby is convinced that she and Cal have been in a relationship for months already. After a little convincing, he decides to go along with it. She is his dream girl, after all – again, quite literally.

With red hair, a spunky personality, and a troubled past, I resonated with Calvin’s affection for this imaginary woman. I think many guys who struggle with self-esteem (and I would count myself among them) subconsciously seek out a girl that will make us feel like a hero. We look for the girl who has never had what we would consider to be a ‘healthy’ relationship, so that we can be that beacon of light in their life. We will be the gentleman, the knight in shining armour, the guy who is most definitely ‘not her type’ (as Ruby herself actually says early in the film) but whom she will find hopelessly enduring nonetheless.

Calvin believes this relationship will be perfect. He wrote her, after all – she embodies everything that he could want in a girl. She cooks, she’s adventurous and daring, she’s spontaneous – everything that he wishes he could be. His projection of the ideal has become manifest in reality, and he has fallen head over heels. He learns that he has the power to change her whenever he wants by adding to her story, but promises himself that he will never use that power. He locks her story away like a good hero, and falls into his supposed paradise.

While the early stages of their relationship seem perfect, there is something disconcerting about it. Ruby lacks character – although she has a history (written by Calvin) and a personality (written by Calvin), she doesn’t seem to have her own voice. At first I chalked this up to poor writing on the part of the script, but soon realized there was something more going on. Ruby hardly leaves the house – she can’t drive, has no occupation, and no professional training. Calvin pays for everything, and has no friends of his own. They spend their days talking with one another, making love, swimming in the pool… but it’s empty. Ruby becomes increasingly dissatisfied with this sterile existence, much to the consternation of Calvin. He is discovering that she is a real person with her own voice, her own dreams and desires. And the viewer is discovering just how withdrawn and introverted Calvin is. He makes no attempts to satisfy her dreams, or even to acknowledge them. He withdraws further into his books, just as Ruby is beginning to discover the real world outside of his house.

Ruby begins to drift away, taking art classes, spending time at her own apartment, finding less and less time for Calvin. Convinced that she is going to leave him (through no fault of his own, of course), he breaks out the script and rewrites her, making her desperately in love with him. Instantly, she becomes incredibly needy, unwilling to allow him to EVER leave her sight, crying if he so much as answers the phone instead of holding her hand. And so he rewrites her again, making her a permanently happy, bubbly person, who cannot help being cheerful. No matter what he says or does, she is stuck in perky mode.

And so he goes back to the drawing board again, changing her back to ‘normal’, even though he knows this threatens the relationship. After she ‘acts out’ again, he reveals to her the secret of the story in a powerful and disturbing sequence. He controls her while she’s standing in front of him, against her will. Although nothing sexual happens in this scene, it feels like rape. He twists her will to prove that he can, and hates himself for doing so. Through quick cuts and a pounding score, the sequence leaves the viewer feeling emotionally exhausted.

In the end, Calvin writes Ruby an exit, allowing her to leave. He then writes a proper novel about the experience, which of course becomes a best seller. The film ends with him meeting a girl in a park, who, Surprise! happens to be Ruby, although she remembers nothing of the experience. Personally the epilogue of the film was the weakest part for me, and felt very tacked on. I would have preferred the film to end leaving a question mark hanging in the air. Regardless, the film says some very powerful things about the idols we create and the selfish lives we live.

Calvin isn’t actually interested in a relationship – He’s interested in an ideal. He believes himself to be a stalled genius, and if only the rest of the world would get their act together, life would be perfect. He is of two minds – self-deprecating and narcissistic. Again I have to draw parallels to Woody Allen here – I watched Annie Hall last night and saw a lot of Alvy in Calvin.

Ruby likewise isn’t a real person, at least at first – she is simply a projection of Calvin’s reality. It is clear that he doesn’t even want her to be real – he clearly doesn’t even know what to do with a real relationship, a real person. He has no concept of give and take, sees no need to change or adapt himself in any way. In his mind (and in ours, often), a relationship ‘works’ when serendipity provides two people perfectly suited for each other. We often fall into this same trap. We see the Other as our Ideal. In the early stages of the relationship we ignore the faults and human-ness of the other. We don’t actually love them – we love our projection of who we think they are. We dehumanize the other person by denying their humanity and replacing it with our projection of perfection.

The problem is that no two people are ever ‘perfectly’ suited for each other, because there is no perfect person on the face of the Earth. When we love someone for their ‘perfection’ we don’t actually love them – we love an idol that we’ve created in their image. Ruby Sparks reveals the self-deception and lies that we must all overcome if we actually want to be involved in a healthy relationship. We must accept the other person for who they are, rather than who we want them to be. We must realize that love is choice and an action, not purely a result of a serendipitous meeting of kindred spirits. We must realize that change is part of the process of relationship, that healthy relationship comes from give and take, from the relinquishing of self-interest in favor of interest in the other person. Our society is not geared that way right now. Our society is geared towards infatuation, lust, and emotional highs. We’ve been trained by society to jump from one emotional high to another, and when those highs disappear, we plummet into the depths of emptiness. We’re bipolar, and we create ideals in an attempt to stabilize our fractured minds.

I believe this stability can only truly be found in Christ – that he is the ideal that we seek. I’ll be talking more about this in the future.

Hurt.

It angers and frightens me how blind we can be. How we consistently and constantly turn our backs on the weakest members of our society, and then blame them for the troubles we have.

Over the past day and a half, I have seen news articles calling Adam Lanza-the young man  who took 28 lives at Sand Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, yesterday, after killing his mother in his own home-a monster. People are calling him evil, are blaming this ‘random, rare occurrence’ on a bad apple. Of course it’s not the fault of gun laws in the country. Of course it’s not the fault of the school system, or the health care system, or the obsession with fear and sensationalism in the media. None of those things affect anyone – this was just an evil man doing what evil men do – killing people!

Except that it’s not. Adam was a normal kid. He had learning difficulties, and quite possibly mental illness. And he grew up in a society in which if you are not NORMAL, you are ABNORMAL. He grew up in a society that medicates first, and asks questions second. He grew up in a society that values the Almighty Dollar over personal relationship and community. Do evil men exist? Yes. But they do not exist independent of the rest of the world. They exist as a part of a system which does not value human dignity, only human performance.

I worry about the USA, but I don’t have much ability to talk about it, as I don’t live there. It is obvious to me that there is something deeply broken in a culture that puts more money into its military than into its education or healthcare. Something broken in a culture that worships gun ownership as a basic human right. But I’m not alone with these thoughts – most people observing the US from outside would probably say something along the same lines.

I can talk about Canada, though. I have always valued the fact that Canada cares for the weaker members of society. Public health care, available to anyone, means more to our culture than we sometimes realize. Welfare, as well, saves many people from dying every year, as does our shelters and subsidized housing. Military has traditionally been a lower priority, and relegated to peacekeeping. We were the negotiators of the world. I am terrified that all this seems to be in the process of changing. Over the past couple years, we’ve cut funds to social housing, had to go to court to keep our proven-effective harm reduction policies, increased military spending, and advertised the military more heavily on TV than I can ever remember.

If we want to keep our children alive and healthy, we must put our money where our mouth is. We must put money into our schools and teachers, into our mental healthcare facilities and workers, and into our social safety nets. More than money though, we need to come together as a community. We need to care about our neighbours. We need to be engaged in a life-giving manner in our communities. Isolation kills.

There will always be tragedy, because we are a broken people. We glorify broken agendas, and we walk broken lives. Even we in the church mask our love of money, power, and prestige by telling ourselves that we build bigger buildings and purchase better sound equipment ‘for the glory of God’. That’s a lie. What brings glory to God is not empty songs and ‘worship’ – glory is brought to God when we lower ourselves to the level of the broken, the hurting, the poor, and the marginalized, and walk with them in their struggle. When tragedy does strike, as it did yesterday, our first act as Christians must be to comfort and to help in any way we can. Our second act must be to work to understand how the Christian community can be a positive and God-filled source to stop this from ever happening again. What if Christians were known to be THE people you go to if there is trouble? What if we recreated the idea of sanctuary, turning our churches from a once-a-week gathering into a always-open home for those who are hurting?

What if we worked to equip young Christian men and women with the skills needed to effect change in these hurting areas? What if we focused on raising up community builders, psychiatrists and psychologists, mental and physical health workers? What if we paid more attention to the needs of those outside of the church, rather focusing solely inward?

We live in the midst of a broken world, and we claim we have the answer. Why aren’t we showing it? We are the hands and feet of God. We have no right to ask why He isn’t showing up if we are not willing to show up ourselves.

PS, read this article – it may change the way you feel about the massacre: http://thebluereview.org/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother/

December 6

It’s my birthday today – I turn 29. Writing this, it’s a little shocking, even for me. 29, really? am I REALLY that old? Am I sure I haven’t missed a couple years somewhere?

Wow.

I have never known what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’ – which I guess I have done, now.  twenty years ago, when I was turning nine, I had absolutely no clue. I don’t remember much about being nine, but I do remember that I never wanted to be a fireman or a policeman or astronaut or any of those normal things that kids want to be when they grow up. I was too busy pretending to be a ninja turtle and creating ‘time machine gas’ in an old oil drum behind my best friends’ house. It would have worked, too. Too bad his mom caught us before we could put it in the car.

Fifteen years ago I turned fourteen. I didn’t like myself very much. I was a little overweight, very self-conscious, and a bit withdrawn.  I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I still didn’t have any idea what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’. Around this time I played with the idea of being a chef, but lost interest fairly quickly. I enjoyed using the computer, but wasn’t confident about my writing (or anything else, really). This is why whenever I talk with a teen ager, one of the first things I try and tell them is that ‘it gets better’. It does. I think the early teens are a lonely time for a lot of people.

Ten years ago I turned nineteen. I had just finished a being away from home for the first time, having spent nine months traveling across Canada and back with a bunch of strangers while doing a now-defunct volunteer exchange program called Katimavik. I grew a lot during that year. During that year I finally started feeling like I was finding myself, and was happy with what I found. I was sure of my faith (perhaps a little too sure), happy-ish with the way I looked, and made friends from a radically diverse group of people. I also, for the first time, had an inkling of something I would like to do for a career – photography. While that plan would never come to fruition in quite the way I expected, it was exciting to finally realize that there was something out there that I was competent at. This is why, when I sometimes hear parents worrying about the directionless nature of their teenage children, I try and tell some of my story. Teens need to be nurtured, they need to be encouraged, and they need to be given options – but they do not need to be pushed. sometimes it takes time. I was almost out of my teens before I had any idea what I was going to do with myself.

 

five years ago I turned twenty-four. I can’t believe that was five years ago. A lot changed between turning nineteen and turning twenty four. No longer heading towards photography, I had completed a two-year certificate in Applied Communications (a program which is also now defunct, and included some photography, among other things) fished for three seasons (two tuna, one herring), traveled to Europe for three months, had my life completely turned upside down over the course of a couple weeks, worked two summers at a summer camp, and started Bible school. Whew. That was a busy, and eventful five years. It was if all the growth and change that most people expect to happen in their teens happened to me, all at once, in my early twenties. I went from a young man just starting to come out of his shell to someone willing to take chances, to dive into something without having any idea where it would lead.

Somewhere over the course of those five years I developed a strong passion for the marginalized as well. My mom would tell you that I have always had a protective instinct, but it was in those five years that I started to find an outlet for that. I think it started while I was living in Victoria, where I somehow gravitated towards the homeless community. Maybe I just thought it was an interesting story at the time, I don’t know. But over the course of several months I would spend time speaking with the homeless guys in Victoria and just hanging out with them. I learned a lot, and developed a great deal of compassion for them.

I also refound my position in the church. When I was nineteen, while I was sure of my faith, I was done with organized church. I thought it was completely dysfunctional, and I never wanted to be a pastor because I ‘didn’t want my kids to hate me’. That was my view of the church. In my early twenties, however, I was brought to The Place Community Church in Victoria, and found a church that seemed to actually attempt to live what it preached. Through the people I met there my faith was rekindled, and I started on a road towards where I am now.

And now, I am twenty nine. These past five years have been incredibly busy as well. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans, graduate from college, meet my wife, get married, find a real trajectory, move into one of the poorest communities in Canada, and…. what? we’ll see!

What a ride it’s been. The past five years were dominated by a radical shift in direction for me. My beliefs and faith have been centered and strengthened by my introduction to Anabaptist Theology and by my introduction to the Downtown East Side of Vancouver. I’m stronger in my faith now than I have ever been. This new journey in Vancouver is just starting, and I have no idea where it’s heading – in a very real way, I still ‘don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up.’ But strangely, I’m completely ok with that now. If there is anything that my life has taught me so far, it is that I need to enjoy the adventure in the moment, and let God take care of the future.

What an adventure!