Category Archives: Media

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.

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/

Apple, Evangelism, and why I wouldn’t make a good pastor.

Today Apple hosted one of their (seemingly) increasingly common Special Events in California. This time the announcement was a slightly smaller iPad, a slightly thinner iMac desktop, and a slightly higher resolution for their 13-inch macbook pro.

This post is not about any of that. I really don’t care that much about it. A few years ago I would have cared a great deal. I have always loved technology, and to this day Gizmodo.com is one of my most-visited sites. The latest trend became a big deal to me, but over time I have lost a great deal of interest, especially with Apple. They haven’t really been innovative for some time, and in the end, I just want a computer that works. If that’s a mac, fine. If it’s not, it’s not going to break my heart.

This is not what Apple wants. Apple wants me to love my mac, to cherish my phone – it’s even in the name: iPhone. mine. my precious. Not only does Apple want me to cherish their products, they want me to tell other people to cherish their products. In short, Apple would be overjoyed if I (along with everyone else who owns an Apple product) became an evangelist for them, spreading the good news of Mac.

While the content of the Apple Special Event did not interest me, the delivery did. As I watched, something strange stirred within me. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, came to the stage wearing a collared shirt and black slacks.. There was a small cheer, which he quickly quieted. He then began to talk about how amazing the launch of the iPhone 5 was last month. The inflection was on amazing. He gestured with his hands, and gave a very precise and practiced monologue on the virtues of the iPhone 5. As I watched, I began to have deja vu. I had seen this before, somewhere, but could not put my finger on it.

Mr. Cook then introduced a video with some highlights of the iPhone 5 launch weekend, set to a catchy song – Run Run, by The Rival. My jaw dropped. I got it. I knew where I had seen this before. I turned to my wife.

“It’s a sermon.” I said. She nodded in agreement.

Watch it for yourself (you’ll need to download Quicktime if you’re on a PC). Watch the hand movements. Listen to the cadence of Mr. Cook’s voice. Then watch the video he introduces a couple minutes in. Is this not just like any high-powered summer camp promo you’ve seen? Here’s one I found on the web, a promo for a summer camp in the UK. This is just one example, but there are many, many, many more. Watch it here.

Here’s a couple sample sermons, in case you don’t get what I’m talking about. Here’s one by Mark Driscoll, at Mars Hill Church. And here’s one by Greg Boyd and Bruxy Cavey, two very experienced pastors as well. And finally, here’s one by Jeff Bucknam at Northview Community Church in Abbotsford. Coincidentally, and completely by accident, Mr. Bucknam’s random sermon that I linked to is about preaching, or proclaiming the gospel. Listen to the cadence, watch the body language. I’m not talking about the content here, but the delivery. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery… but who is imitating whom here? What’s going on?

Maybe there is simply a good way to speak in public and a bad way. Good speakers, regardless of content, speak using an open body posture, by talking with their hands (just a little, not too much), by placing inflection on important words and terms. They talk about past successes (300 baptisms! 200 million iPhones sold!) and future plans. Bad public speakers do none of these things. Perhaps that’s all that’s going on here. They’re all using the same medium (public speaking), and so the message (Jesus, or iPhones) is a moot point – it isn’t affected by the medium.

Prior to moving to the Downtown East Side, and prior to going to Bible School, I went to school and received a two-year certificate in Applied Communications. During those two years I studied video and radio production, desktop publishing and photography. While many of those skills are non-transferrable into my current line of work, they did help me develop a critical eye towards media, and introduced me to a very, very important phrase: The Medium Is The Message.

This phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media critic and philosopher (and devout Catholic, incidentally). McLuhan was alive during a fascinating time for media, the mid-20th century. He watched radio and TV take hold, and predicted how media would impact the future (there is a fascinating clip of him predicting the fundamentals of the Internet in the documentary ‘McLuhan’s Wake – worth seeing if you can find it). His most famous phrase was the one I just mentioned: The Medium Is The Message. What this means is that the method of broadcasting information actively changes the information being broadcast. The two, the method and the information itself, become intertwined, inseparable. It’s easiest to explain this using an example.

A man and a woman, let’s call them Bob and Jane, walk into a bar and sit down. The bar is crowded and noisy, so the two sit close to one another. Bob says to Jane, ‘I’ve had a busy day, but I’m glad I get to talk to you now. How was your day?’ Bob looks into Jane’s eyes with care and attention; Jane smiles back. Jane replies, ‘My day was fine, but I’m tired.’

Let’s try this again, but different.

Bob is in his car, Jane is at home. Traffic is bad. Bob calls Jane on his Cell, and she answers. ‘Jane, I’ve had a busy day, but I’m glad I get to talk to you now. How was your day?’ Bob is looking ahead, watching the road, talking on his hands-free device. Jane is sitting on the couch, phone to her ear. ‘My day was fine, but I’m tired.’ He can hear a smile on her lips through the inflection of her tone. This makes him happy.

And again. Bob is in his office, Jane is walking home from the grocery store. Bob opens up his email and types.

From: Bob
To: Jane
Subject: Long day

Jane, I’ve had a busy day, but I’m glad I’ve got a few seconds to write. How was your day?
<3, Bob.

Jane, walking home from the grocery store, gets the message on her phone. With one hand, while walking, she replies.

From: Jane
To: Bob
Subject: re: Long day

Fine, Tired now. 🙂
As you can see, the perceived information being sent and received (both had a long day, both were glad to hear from each other) was the same in all three cases. However, due to the change in medium (a crowded bar, a cell phone, an Email message) the message is changed and distorted. In the email response, not knowing Jane’s context, Bob could assume that she is being short with him for some reason. Hopefully you get the idea. The change in medium actively changes the message – in fact, the medium is the message – the message could not exist without the medium.

The same is true here. The medium actively alters the message. We adopt certain media because we believe that they help us convey our message, or because they give us power, or reach a wider audience, or have more convenience, or because it’s the way things have always been done and we just haven’t thought about it. Personally, I think the last statement is the most true when it comes to sermons and presenting the Gospel through a sermon.

Which brings me to my point. I don’t want to be a Christian who spreads the Good News of Jesus Christ through a medium developed and perfected by corporate America. The single-presenter-plus-powerpoint may work perfectly for hyping iPhones or selling computers, but Jesus Is not a product to be sold or hyped. I am not about to go onstage and tell the world how great my wife is… but if you asked me, or if you and I were talking together, I would surely tell you that she’s incredible. I think the same is true about my relationship with Jesus.

This makes me  think about a post my friend Chris Lenshyn posted the other day (Chris is an associate pastor, by the way). I commented on his post about Mennonite Megachurches that we must decide what church is for: Is it information distribution, or is it relationship development? For a long, long time, we have treated church as an information-delivery mechanism, simply an effective medium for transmitting the message of Christ to as many people as possible.

If that is what church is for, how is the church different from Apple? Are we not simply hawking different wares? The question I must ask myself is this: is there something fundamentally different between my relationship with an object (a phone or computer) and my relationship with a living person? If there is a difference, why would I advertise and talk about both in the same manner? Why would I use the same tools to ‘sell’ Jesus as I would to sell an iPhone?

This is especially relevant for me as I am speaking my first sermon at my church in Abbotsford in November. I am going to stand behind a pulpit or a music stand with a microphone, and transmit a message to a roomful of people waiting to receive my transmission. But I’m going to be talking about people! About my friend and saviour Jesus! How do I turn that into a 20 minute information transmission? I could do it by watching Driscoll or Tim Cook – both are masters at information transmission.

If that is what it takes – if being an effective pastor takes being an effective salesman – I’m out. I will not sell Jesus as if He were simply a set of information. I will not trivialize my relationship with him in that way. My relationship with Jesus is not about information transmission – it is about friendship, about trust, about comfort. It is about looking into the eyes of another person and seeing dignity and worth. It is about drinking coffee with a drunk man; it is about playing scrabble with someone who has no home. It is about joy, and peace, love and hope. Is there information involved? Sure. But that information quickly becomes meaningless when removed from the context of relationship. If I introduce you to Jesus, I want to at least know your name first.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense. Let me know what you think – Should there be a distinct difference between the way we communicate our relationship with Jesus, and the way that iPhones are sold? Should we, as Christians, care about the media that we use to communicate? Or am I making a mountain out of a molehill?