Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Church: A Shining Alternative to Normalcy??

Followers of Christ should bring unique flavor to this world.
Matthew 5:13
The people of God have always been called to be distinctive in the world—and they've always struggled with that calling.  Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, issued that same challenge to those who followed him—and it was not popular.  

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that we should be salt of the Earth and light to the world.  In other words, we’re set apart to fulfill a special purpose in this world.  But he also warns us that once salt loses its saltiness, what good is it?  Likewise, he says that light doesn’t do much good if you hide it from viewMatthew 5:13-16.  

In other words: Once we start blending in, we’re just like everybody else.

The way of Jesus was a different path that led to a radically different way of life from that which the Roman Empire considered normal.  It was not an easy road for those that chose to follow Jesus, so much so that many chose not to walk it, or turned away not long after  they started—John 6:60-71.  Walking that path would soon bring Jesus and his followers into conflict with the powers that ruled world around them—who had a vested interest in preserving the status quo.  Refusing to waiver from that path and submit to those powers ultimately cost Jesus—and many of his early followers—their lives.  Jesus' call to his followers hasn't changed in 2000 years.  We are still called to stand against the grain of the dominant culture of our day.  We are still called to oppose the “empire” when necessary and to model a different way of living—to show the world it's actually possible!  

If it sounds strange to you to think of yourselves or your church this way, it may be a sign of how much we've accepted the normalcy of the world as Christians—often giving it our blessing and walking lockstep with it without even realizing we've done it.  
Followers of Christ must be willing to stand against the flow. 
Romans 12:2

While we are certainly called to be in the world (i.e., we are to engage it as opposed to being withdrawn and hiding away from it) we are also called not to be of the world1 John 2:15-17Romans 12:2.  Unfortunately, I am afraid the second part of that command often gets forgotten.  We want so badly for the world to accept us and our message,  we are so concerned that we don't come across as judgmental or hypocritical, that we end up blending in and losing everything that makes us distinctive.

We can't change the past—nor should we deny it—but we can, and I would argue we must plot a new future for followers of Christ and for Christ's Body—the Church. We have to figure out a way to reclaim what makes us distinctive in the world—and of course that thing is the way of Jesus.  

Sometimes the first step to change is becoming aware of the problem.  As long as we live in denial, and refuse to admit we Christians have often been part of the problem as opposed to being the solution, we won't really be motivated to change.  However, once we become convinced that we are in fact off course and have wandered far from the way of Jesus, then change becomes possible.  We can begin to adjust our heading.  We can take steps to get back on the right path.  We can start taking evil more seriously (without being paranoid and blaming "the Devil" for everything that goes wrong!), and begin to actively plot goodness in our world.  

The Church can once again become a shining alternative to the normalcy of the world.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Taking Evil Seriously—Part IV: Lessons from Batman

In the last three posts, we looked at evil as portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  All well and good, but what can we (followers of Christ) learn from a fictional tale?  Actually, I think, quite a bit...

Real-Life Faith for Real-Life Christians

The people walking the streets of Gotham are real life characters that aren’t easy to pigeonhole as “good” or “evil.”  To some extent, they defy the stereotypical “good buy” and “bad guy” distinctions.  Even the hero of the series himself wrestles with who he is called to be and walks a fine line between hero and vigilante as he lives it out.  We should recognize ourselves in these characters. 

We all wrestle with who we are really called to be and how exactly we go about living this out in daily life.  It’s rarely as clear-cut as we would prefer and there are plot twists in each of our life stories that we could not possibly anticipate ahead of time. (Consider the story of Jacob in Genesis 25:19–33:19.) We may begin our journey seeing the lines clear-cut, but as we spend time actually living our faith and meshing it with our life experiences, those lines quickly blur into many nuances of gray.  Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul seemed to have so much angst within him over trying to do good but having evil right there beside himRomans 7:15-20.

The real world is not black and white; it is composed of a rainbow of vibrant, high-definition colors—and we need to honestly pursue a faith that functions in the world where we actually live.  

“Plotting Goodness”

The villains that oppose Batman are quite good at being bad; they are not comic relief.  (This version is about as far removed from the campy 1960s Batman TV series as you can get!)  I think Nolan captures the essence of evil well in his villains.  The characters are complex and each driven by different motivations.  They deliberately plot against the “good guys” and are ruthless in their pursuit of their goals.   

Batman & Robin on the run in pursuit of evil in the old
Batman TV series [1966–1968]
If real evil actively plots against good, it needs a counterbalance in this world. Our churches should consider part of their mission to restore balance back to our world, tipping the scales back toward God’s original vision for creation.

We could say that our Christian communities should be places that actively plot goodness[1]. Evil can be very seductive; it can seem harmless at first and before we know it, and without always being consciously aware of it, we are sucked in.  Once enough individuals fall under evil’s influence, it begins to infect our communities and our world systemically.  Evil begins to become normative as it spreads its tendrils, enticing more and more people away from good, corrupting the infrastructure of entire communities (e.g., Gotham City)—even entire cultures. 

Our churches, the beloved community of Christ, need to be places that stand against the advance of evil.  We need to articulate and practice publicly an alternative way of living, one that definitively says “No” to the normalcy of evil. 

Church should be a place where we plot goodness together, where we come together regularly to remind each other that the world’s way is not the only way, and encourage each other to stand against the normalcy of evil in our world,—wherever we find ourselves. Jesus showed the world that it was possible for a human being to live this alternative way.  In fact, he believed so passionately that it God’s way was a better way, that he was willing to die for it.  Jesus challenged all who would follow after him to practice living the same way—and dying the same way, if that's what it took. 

After the resurrection, when Jesus was preparing to leave them, he commanded his followers to live as if what we believe the future will be (i.e., the vision of God’s kingdom coming in it’s fullness, which we sometimes call heaven) has already come to pass.  We don’t hide away from the world while we wait for Jesus to return and take us to heaven with him.  No, we actively engage the world now while we wait and begin to transform it bit-by-bit.  We construct little outposts of God’s Kingdom here on Earth—as we believe it will someday be, in full.  We practice doing the things that Jesus and his followers did on a regular basis and train others to do the same[2].  We live out the Great Commission—making disciples… and teaching them to obey…Matthew 28:18-20. 

Standing Against the “Normalcy of Evil”

In Dark Knight Rises, the plot rests on the fact that Gotham City let its guard down. This allowed evil to creep in, lurking in the shadows, consolidating its power, and waiting until the time was right to strike again. (Similar plots unfold in other epic stories and movies—e.g., The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars.)  On the surface, peace seemed to reign in the city streets, but all the while, in the sewers below a new evil (Bane) was taking root, filling the void left after the last evil (the Joker) was eradicated. 

This illustration reminds us that evil never gives up; it is creative and resourceful, always looking for new ways to spread, new victims to infect. 

Capain Hook always seems to be a "step behind" 
Jake and the Neverland Pirates .
I am afraid that too often Christians are not nearly as vigilant and dedicated.  We function as if evil is not a serious threat—a defeated foe. We claim peace when there is no peace.  A fundamental piece of our theology that Christ defeated evil and death on the cross once and for all, so we assume we’re all safe and sound.  The devil is reduced to a comical looking character with pitchforks and horns, placed on par with Captain Hook from Jake and the Neverland Pirates, a pathetic figure always running a “step” behind Jesus, without a chance of ever doing him—or his  followers—serious harm.

But, of course, bad things happen in our world—even to dedicated followers of Jesus.  Sometimes evil does win and sometimes we find ourselves in the pit of despair, struggling to escape—which Nolan symbolizes as Batman struggles to escape the Lazarus Pit in Dark Knight Rises. To suggest otherwise is to deny reality.  If Jesus is going to make a difference, he must matter in the pit and in the messy reality of our real world.    

While I do believe Christ has won ultimate victory for us, I also believe the struggle is far from over.  As followers of Christ, we live in the tension between the now and not yet; what will be in the future is not yet so…

But the problem is that we act like it’s all done.  Since our eternal future is determined, we assume that how we actually live our daily lives doesn’t really matter.  We let our guard down, and start down a slippery slope toward blending into the world around us.  From there, it’s only a matter of time before we become desensitized and accept the normalcy of evil. Rather than stand apart from the world as we are called, we form alliances with them, and often depend on them for our continued existence. (We can point to some unfortunate chapters in Church history where these alliances have led to horrible abuses of power, crimes against humanity, etc.)  Under those circumstances, to choose to stand out from the world is really hard—to do so could put you at risk. 

Just to give a more personal example, we went to a National Night Out gathering in our neighborhood recently.  It was a fun event for the kids in our community, with games and a train around the lake; our kids enjoyed themselves.  There was just one problem.  The music played was just plain inappropriate for young ears.  The lyrics were of a violent and/or sexual nature—I heard some profanity laced throughout.  My wife and I both agreed the lyrics were bad but we stayed at the event, and we didn’t really voice our concerns to the person playing the music. We just endured the noise pollution for as long as we were there—as did everyone else there that evening.

This incident reminded me of how hard it can be to stand out for good, especially in a culture that seems to increasingly accept the normalcy of evil.  Soemtimes it's just "easier" to blend into the crowd and not "cause a scene". 

Now obviously, we have to choose our “battles” as it were; not every fight is for us and we must discern when we need to take action and the most effective way to go about it once we choose to act. (Ultimately we decided our best recourse in this case would probably be to complain to our homeowners association—since the dues we pay are used to fund these kinds of activities.)   

The problem is that each time I choose the "easier" way, each time I "look the other way" in the face of something I know is wrong, I lose an opportunity to demonstrate a different way to the world and I give away a little more of what should make me distinctive in the world—in other words, Christ living in me.

I will have more to say on this issue of being distinctive in my next post.  Stay tuned...

[1] Thanks to Brian McLaren for this term.
[2] Thanks to N.T. Wright for these ideas. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Taking Evil Seriously—Part III: Systemic Evil

WARNING: This installment definitely contains some Dark Knight Rises spoilers. If you’ve not seen the film yet, continue at your own risk.

Not only is each of the individual villains in  Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy competent and dangerous foes for Batman, the films also do a good job portraying the insidious nature of systemic evil. 

When evil is allowed to infiltrate a system long enough and goes unchecked, it can have devastating consequences for society.  Before we know it, the entire infrastructure becomes corrupt and corroded, and vulnerable to attack. If someone provides a “spark,” the system may collapse on itself.

In Dark Knight Rises, Bane provided just that “spark.” His League of Shadows managed to mix explosives into concrete.  For months, even years, every public works project intended to “build up” the city was unwittingly laying the trap that would tear it apart—when the time was right.

Propped up by the false martyrdom of Harvey Dent, Gotham City was lulled into a false sense of security.  They thought good had won once and for all and they let their guard down; they became complacent and stopped taking evil seriously.  Evil counts on that complacency inevitably creeping in.  Evil is patient, willing to lurk in the shadows for years, if that’s what it takes—but sooner or later, it rises again, stronger than ever.  In Dark Knight Rises, the new evil in Gotham literally rises from the sewers. 

When Bane finally “goes public” and people realize that there’s a problem, it’s already too late to stop his sinister plot.  The trap is already loaded and ready to be sprung; the infrastructure is already “compromised” and “contaminated” with evil. With a single push of a button, Bane literally crumbles the city’s entire physical infrastructure, imprisoning most of the city’s police officers underground, and throwing the people into panic. 

And of course, people who are afraid can easily be emotionally and psychologically manipulated. To further fan the flames, Bane lets them know that their peace has been built on a lie.  Harvey Dent is not the man they thought he was.  Prisoners, many of whom were arrested as a result of Dent’s legacy, were set free to roam the streets and class warfare raged in the streets.  A reign of terror followed with Jonathon Crane (a.k.a., Scarecrow from Batman Begins) presiding over a “kangaroo court” and dispensing “justice” on Gotham’s rich and powerful.   Evil was running rampant in Gotham.  Could anyone stop this?!

Of course, in the end Batman does stop Bane—with a few surprises along the way that I won’t disclose J.  But my point here is this:

Gotham didn’t take evil seriously and they paid a terrible price.

Next: Lessons for Christ-followers

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Taking Evil Seriously—Part II: Competent Villains

Beyond the honest portrayal that the line between good and evil is at blurred at best and difficult to straddle, the villains in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are worthy foes for the Dark Knight.  These aren’t the bumbling, incompetent “bad guys” that we so often see portrayed on many TV shows that seem more like comic relief than credible foes.  I particularly notice this on the cartoons that my children watch.  The “good guys” are always a step ahead of them and never seriously threatened.  In fact, in many cases, the “bad guys” become “good guys” by the end of the episode!  

While I realize these are shows aimed at children and not adults, I’m always a little troubled by this, because I think it gives children a somewhat skewed view of the reality of evil in our world.  

For example, take Captain Hook as depicted on Jake and the Neverland Pirates.  We are supposed believe he is an “evil pirate”, but the problem is that he comes across more like a circus clown.  His henchmen often seem more competent and self-aware than he is!  I dare say any resemblance between Hook and a real pirate would be coincidental.  Real pirates are nasty individuals that you probably don’t want to tangle with—cunning, smart, evil.  If they seek to do you harm, a wooden sword and magical pixie dust won’t solve your problem.  

Captain Hook Jake & the Neverland Pirates
At the risk of saying something obvious:  Real life isn’t like children’s television.  Evil usually isn’t bumbling and incompetent; it’s competent and dangerous. I think Nolan’s Batman trilogy does a good job depicting evil as it really is.

In each of these three movies, intricately layered evil schemes unfold. The “good guys” foil one plot only to realize the “real” evil was far more insidious than they realized.  They stop one villain only to find out that villain works for another more powerful villain.   

Far from being incompetent buffoons who chase after the “good guys” in vain, Batman's opponents are very good at being bad, and extremely smart—and that combination makes them extremely dangerous.  It takes every ounce of strength and courage the heroes can muster to defeat these foes. The victories don’t come without sacrifice on the part of the heroes.

Ra's al Ghul
Batman Begins
Ra’s al Ghul (featured in Batman Begins) is evil—but he’s also brilliant and cunning!  His acts of evil aren’t random; they are painstakingly planned and executed with precision.  In fact, the purpose behind his plots might, at first glance, seem noble—restoring ecological balance.  He’s just willing to use any means necessary to achieve that purpose—even if it means destroying a city and harming millions of people.  
The Joker
Dark Knight

The Joker (in Dark Knight) is different kind of evil; he’s a psychopath.  But just because he’s crazy, doesn’t mean he’s not smart.  Smart and insane is a really dangerous combination!  

Dark Knight Rises

Bane (in Dark Knight Rises) relies a bit more on brute force, fear, and intimidation than the other two villains, but still possesses intelligence, having been trained by the same organization that trained Batman.  Strong, smart, and evil is also quite lethal!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Taking Evil Seriously—Part I: "The Thin Gray Line"

WARNING: Trying not to divulge too many plot details, but there are some minor spoilers here. If you’ve not seen the film yet, continue at your own risk.

I saw Batman: The Dark Knight Rises recently. How was it?  In a word: good!  It’s obviously not appropriate for young audiences, and it’s quite violent in places, but I think director, Christopher Nolan, captured the essence of the genre—and of the complicated characters that inhabit Gotham City.  I have to wonder if we’ve seen the last of the “caped crusader” on the big screen; the ending certainly leaves the door open wide for Nolan or someone else to pick up the story at some point.

I enjoyed this three-film adaptation of the rise and fall of Batman—the previous two being Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight. There are lots of things that I could discuss.  But as I thought about it recently, one thing in particular stood out.

These movies took evil seriously.

To begin with, the films are honest that the division between good and evil often blurs.  Rather than white and black, we find a variety of shades of gray in Gotham. Even the film’s “hero”—Batman—blurs the line between good and evil, hero and vigilante—certainly much more than a hero like Superman.  Bruce Wayne receives his initial training from an organization called the League of Shadows, which he betrays when he discovers their sinister plot to destroy Gotham.  (In Nolan’s adaptation, his former mentor becomes Batman’s greatest foe—Ra’s al Ghul.) Throughout the trilogy, Wayne wrestles with his identity and what purpose the “symbol of the bat” really should serve.  This is an especially important plot thread in Dark Knight Rises.

As the third movie begins, Bruce Wayne is in hiding.  His alter-ego—Batman—is now a wanted criminal for his alleged role in the murder of Harvey Dent—former Gotham district attorney.  Wayne convinced Police Commissioner Gordon to sacrifice Batman’s reputation in order to protect Dent’s—and the current peace in Gotham City rests on that deception.

The character of Catwoman (appearing in Dark Knight Rises) definitely embodies someone who walks that “thin gray line” between good and evil.  She has her own agenda and pursues it pretty effectively.  At times, when it serves her purpose, she is Batman’s ally, but at other times she works against him, even betraying him at one point.  Eventually, however, there came a moment where Catwoman had to choose what “side” she was on—and her choice is critical in the outcome of the movie. 

While it’s hard to distinguish “good” and “evil” sometimes, it’s also hard to stay neutral very long in real life.  Sooner or later you have to pick a side.  And the choice you make is one of the most important one’s you’ll ever make...

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