Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Walking Dead

Well it is finally here, the last blog post on faith in pop culture! For this week's post I want to look at something that seems to have grabbed many TV viewers attention, zombies. In doing so we will look at the specific show The Walking Dead, but before that we should look at zombies themselves.


If for some reason you are unfamiliar with what a zombie is, it is usually defined as a genre of film, literature, or game where the dead come back to life as a mindless creature preying on living humans. Traditionally they are known to eat the living, though most often leaving some remains behind to become reanimated as a zombie. To kill one of these things, one needs to kill the brain whether through  forced trauma or with a bullet wound. Sounds pretty scary and disgusting doesn't it? 

However, the genre of zombie usually concerns itself less with the horror and more so with social commentary. More recent zombie films have critiqued racism, classism, consumerism, science, and individualism. Writing about each of these realms of critique deserve their own article, but it is enough to say that zombie writers and directors are making us look at the horror our sins and wrongdoings unleash upon the world. 

Theologically speaking, zombies offer us a closer look at our sins and human brokenness. Anthony R. Mills writes, "Most zombie films end up asserting that other living humans are a greater threat than the hordes of cannibalistic walking dead, not only in the metaphorical suggestions and parallels to real-life systemic injustices but also in the power struggles among the survivors, which often lead to them killing each other" (Don't Stop Believin', 205). Mills' argument is unfortunately true. Our sinfulness and brokenness pits us against each other when we need community most. Ending world hunger...good luck. Ending homelessness...yea right. Education for all...forget about it. Our human condition does not generate life, it creates ruin. We need God's grace to heal our wounds and to restore the world. It is only when we work with each other and with God to end these injustices of the world that the impossible becomes possible. 

With all of this said I turn to AMC's The Walking Dead as a prime example of our faith being lived out in zombie film. The setting is typical, a virus has spread across the world turning some into the walking/living dead leaving a small percentage immune to the pandemic. We meet our host of characters in the southern U.S., specifically Georgia. Rick is a former sheriff's deputy who awakens from a coma (he was shot in the line of duty prior to the zombie virus) to find the world he once knew long gone. Eventually he reunites with his family, but he struggles to find the meaning behind all of these terrible things. In the opening episode of season 2, Rick and the group narrowly escape a large group of zombies and take refuge in a church. Rick looks up to the statue of Jesus and asks for a sign that he is doing the right thing:

"I don't know if you're looking at me with what sadness, scorn, pity, love...maybe it's just indifference. I guess you already know I am not that much a believer. I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere, my family mostly. My friends. My job. The thing is we...I could use a little something to help keep us going. Some kind of acknowledgment, indication I am doing the right thing. You don't know how hard that is to know. Well, maybe you do. Hey look, I don't need all the answers just a little nudge, a sign. Any sign will do."

He gets no response, at least in the way he was hoping. Rick is struggling to find his faith a midst the horrors of the world and often times we do as well. With the recent military action in the Holy Land, planes being shot out of the sky, gun violence in Minneapolis, and child abusers being brought before the public we sometimes struggle to see exactly where God is working in the world. But God is here, God is not dead. God is working in those who combat the ills of the world, God is working in the the offenders to make them stop, God is sending those on the sidelines into the fray to be a part of the solution and healing of the world. Rick may not have gotten the answer he wanted, but God was working through his leadership to navigate a dark and frightening world for a small band of survivors. 

Another scene I would  like to mention reflects on what it is to pray. Often times we have a specific prayer we offer up to God, I have opened prayer the same way every night since I was in Sunday School! As a community we all pray the Lord's Prayer. But sometimes those words do not speak from our hearts, sometimes we need different ways to pray. Another character named Herschel, who serves as one of the group's doctors (he was a veterinarian before the zombie take over), has been running around trying to cure everyone of a flu like illness that has infected their now large group who currently resides in an abandoned prison. After a long day of treating people and fighting off a zombie infiltration, he sits down to read the Bible (he was and still remains a Christian), but can't. Instead he weeps. You see, sometimes we can't find the words to pray, sometimes they just don't do us justice. We can learn from Herschel to weep, or maybe to yell, and in some cases laugh. To let our emotion go and lay before God our pains and joys is indeed an honest prayer from the heart. 

My hope through this post and previous entries has been to open eyes to the work of God in the world. The Bible might be a closed book, set in stone if you will, but God's work is not. God is alive and well working throughout time and space to bring about healing, redemption, justice, mercy, and peace to the world. We need to listen to the Spirit calling us by our baptismal vows to be partners with God in this world. May we always find God in the unexpected doing the unbelievable. 

In Christ,

Intern Tom
tomw@stmarks-nsp.org

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Harry Potter


I can recall my Dad ordering my siblings and I a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone from amazon.com when we were youngsters and were enchanted by all things mysterious and magical. I eagerly tore through those pages and could barely wait for the next book to be published. These memories are not all that dissimilar to others who grew up with Harry Potter as the book series of their generation. And so it is to the Harry Potter franchise that we turn to in our examination of the 2000s.


The Harry Potter books (there are seven of them) focus on the life of Harry Potter from his infancy to young adulthood. The newly orphaned Harry is left on is Uncle and Aunt's doorstep and endures years of what I would deem "servitude" to his own family. All until he begins to notice that he has special powers and then on his 11th birthday he is invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry is a wizard. The rest of the books describe his adventures and mishaps while at school and also wrestle with the evil villain, Lord Voldemort. This man wants to control the world and rid it of "muggles" (non-wizard folk) and any wizard who may come from a family without any magical parents of grandparents, or "mudbloods."

The literary series, the movie series, the theme park, the supplemental series have made J.K. Rowling the first author to make over one billion dollars. With over 400 million books sold in 67 languages, plus the movies series being dubbed in other languages, one must say that the Harry Potter enterprise has left an imprint in our global culture.Now some may dismiss the Harry Potter series as whimsical books and movies for children or even worse, as awful works that promote witchcraft and should be avoided and/or destroyed. But such attitudes do not value the implicit elements of faith that present themselves to readers and viewers. Let's look at a few of them.

The Issues of Ethnic and Racial Discrimination
Lord Voldemort's focus and obsession with his cohorts to promote the wizard pure bloods reminds us of racial and ethnic discrimination similar to that of World War II. Both Hitler and Stalin had massive pogroms aimed at killing and/or ridding them of those deemed undesirable. Included were Jews, people with disabilities, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, political dissidents, and more. This issue can bee seen perfectly in the character of Draco Malfoy, Harry's enemy at school, who has blonde hair, blue eyes, and whose parents are Voldemort supporters. Such attitudes of superiority are not supported by Harry and the rest of the "good guys" of the series because they see all people and magical creatures as worthy of having their own voice and should be respected as such.

Economic Inequality
The Malfoy family is of high economic standing with Draco's father working within the government. However the Weasley family, Harry's good friends and pure blood wizards, don't enjoy such economic privilege despite the fact that the Weasley father works for the wizard government as well. Throughout the series the Weasleys are looked down upon by those of greater wealth, but they do not let such attitudes bring them down nor do they give them any credence. What the Malfoys have in money, they lack in values. The Weasleys are the ideal family: they stick up for each other, they make the best whatever situation they are in, and they love each other fiercely.

The Power of Death
It seems safe to say that groups around the world and throughout time have been fascinated with death and all have dealt with it in different ways. So the same reactions are played out in this series. Lord Voldemort seeks to thwart death by becoming immortal. He even goes so far as to split his soul into seven pieces so that he could come back to life if he were to die. Indeed Voldemort wants to control death by conquering it.
Harry and his like minded friends and family take a different route. They focus on death as not something that needs to be fought with every waking breath, instead they focus on the value of relationships here in this world as well as looking past death. Eric Bumpus notes, "Harry reads two scripture passages on the tombstone of his parents and of Dumbledore's mother and sister...The first is from Matthew 6:21 ("Where you treasure is, there will your heart be also") and the second from 1 Corinthians 15:26 ("The last enemy to be destroyed is death")..." (Don't Stop Believin', 181). Such passages note that there is a life after death, not a life without death. And Harry lives these out when he willingly sacrifices himself in Christ like fashion to save others, but ends up returning from the dead to stop Voldemort, the personification of evil, once and for all.

So please, do not dismiss Harry Potter as pure fiction or heresy, there are some excellent nuggets that pertain to our faith. It is in looking for God in unexpected places that we may be the most surprised! Next week is the final week of the faith in pop culture series. Any suggestions for a new series or something of the sort?

In Christ,
Tom
tomw@stmarks-nsp.org

"It is my belief...that the truth is generally preferable to lies." - Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Goblit of Fire, 2000



Thursday, July 10, 2014

The 1990s: Ellen

We are coming close to finishing up the series of faith in pop culture! After this entry we will have only two more, so if you have any suggestions feel free to comment. With that said, I noticed that I have only discussed men in the prior blog posts. If you know me I do not pretend to be a chauvinist or anything of the sort. The reason for me only writing about men these past few weeks is because I have gravitated towards what I like, so it is time to break the cycle and write about someone who deserves and needs to be written about. For the decade of the 1990s we will look at Ellen DeGeneres.


Ellen started her career as a stand up comic working her way through clubs and coffeehouses eventually performing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1986. She also has had a few unsuccessful sitcoms, has been in a few movies (most notably Finding Nemo), but has had the most success with her own daytime talk show. She currently captures roughly 2.74 million viewers per episode! The Ellen show is quirky and fun with a lot of audience participation, dancing, hilarious sketches, and heart warming acts of generous giving.

And yet, this does not capture who Ellen DeGeneres is for most people. Many need to qualify her as a lesbian celebrity. And she makes no efforts to hide her sexual orientation because she is not ashamed of who she is. Robert Putnam describes her as an "Aunt Susan." Barry Taylor describes this as, "...someone who holds different views than we might but is someone who we know and love" (Don't Stop Believin', 136). We all know an Aunt Susan don't we? It seems to me that as a church community we all have different opinions and views on how things should be done, different views of God, different views of social and political issues, yet we come together as a community of faith.

Ellen could be considered the Aunt Susan of America. She is showing many people that the LGBT community is not scary, they are not weird, they should not be avoided, they are normal people! They are part of God's good creation, no different than any other person! Ellen's big personality in various TV and movie mediums make her a household name and a celebrity that everyone can relate to. And it is her ability to be herself that connects us to a woman who identifies as a lesbian and makes many others embrace her for who she is simply because we care about her and not just her sexual orientation.

I foresee this post being a hot topic for quite a few people, but I invite you all to meditate and pray over whatever may bother you. If it brings you any solace, look to the sacrament of Holy Communion. Everyone is invited to the table to share in the rich feast of God's blessing and grace, no one is left out. That's the God we believe in, a radical God who showers mercy and grace upon all! So why can't we welcome those of all sexual orientations? Perhaps we need to let go of our own personal prejudices and simply do what God asked us to do and displayed for us on the cross...love.

In Christ,
Tom
tomw@stmarks-nsp.org

Monday, June 30, 2014

1980s: The King of Horror

Growing up I was fascinated with the supernatural and the unknown. I remember many times as a small boy going to the local library to get books discussing the topics of the Loch Ness monster, ghosts, Bigfoot, the Yeti, Aliens, and more. I also recall begging my parents for books containing a dozen or so ghost stories each year my school had a book fair. There was, and still is, for me something disturbingly attractive about what we do not know for fact, but have only heard through myth and lore. We are drawn to the unknown. When you hear a bump in the night you may cower in fear at first, but curiosity more than likely draws you from the comforts of your bed to investigate. We all know it is almost always nothing, but author Stephen King has tapped into that curiosity of the possibly horrific through his gift of writing.

King has had a successful career selling over 350 million copies of his works with many being transformed into movies or TV mini-series. He is the king of horror.


However, what impact does he have on faith? It seems to me that his greatest contribution is in asking questions. R.W. Bonn lifts up some of these from four of his novels (Don't Stop Believin', 104):

  1. "Jesus watches from the wall, but his face is cold as stone. And if he loves me - why do I feel so alone?" (Carrie, 1976)
  2. "I don't want Church to be like all those dead pets! I don't want Church to ever be dead. He's my cat! He's not God's cat! Let God have his own cat!" (Pet Cemetery, 1983)
  3. "Do you know how cruel your God can be, David? How fantastically cruel?...Sometimes he makes us live." (Desperation, 1996)
  4. "If it happens, God lets it happen, and when we say 'I don't understand,' God replies, 'I don't care.' " (The Green Mile, 1996)
Indeed these quotes and his overall focus on the macabre and mysterious leads one to believe that he has some form of belief system. In fact King was raised in the Methodist church, focusing a lot of his formative years of  youth on doctrine. However, it seems as though such intensity burned King out. He currently admits to reading the Bible and believing in God, but has no interest in organized religion. He likes to look at questions more than anything else when it comes to faith.  Bonn writes, "Is Stephen King a Christian? In portraying the religious teachings of his childhood and confronting a suspenseful, horror-filled world where God often seems absent and cruel and the behavior of his followers puzzling if not down right evil, what if Stephen King is asking the same of us?" (105) The answer seems to be yes. 

King addresses the view of a doctrinal God he was given from the perspective of a young child, a scary God with sometimes worse followers, in most of his work. And with such an understanding of the divine, he forces us to answer for our beliefs. What God do you believe in? How do you follow God? What horrors have you released onto creation? As a Lutheran I am the first to admit that I am both a sinner and a saint, a flawed human being, but still called as a disciple and a child of God in baptism. It is living in the messiness of the world where I can let God's love shine forth in the darkness. 

As I am writing this, a friend of mine just texted me voicing frustration over ministering to a difficult pastoral care situation. I will not go into details, but it is a hellish situation that no person should experience. However, as a pastor-to-be I know that God has called me by name, sends me into the s**t of life, and equips me to be the divine peace, hope, and comfort in any given situation. News flash everyone...so are you. Discipleship calls us in all of our imperfections to minister to each other, even if that situation is as frightening as a Stephen King novel. Despite what life throws at you, despite the questions without clear cut answers if any at all, despite living in the gray not so black and white world, take consolation that we are a resurrection people who will overcome the scary, the horrific, and the macabre. We will not come out unscathed, we will be beaten and bruised. But we will come out...and that is worth living for.

Peace,
Tom
tomw@stmarks-nsp.org

P.S. Here is a list of my favorites from Stephen King
  • Dreamcatcher
  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
  • The Green Mile Series
  • The Shining




Monday, June 23, 2014

Go ahead, make my day

Per a request that came in via email, I am going to look at an actor from the 1970s that has helped define the genre of action film in this decade...Clint Eastwood.


Clint Eastwood helped to make horror the acceptable way to do business in many of his films such as Dirty Harry where he plays a homicide detective who deals out his brutal form of justice as he sees fit. He is an antihero in a sense, but we root for his success none the less. We cheer him on in his murderous deeds because he kills "for the greater good," to stop the criminals before they can incur further damage on innocent people.

Many of us have experienced such ethical and moral dilemmas where we want and encourage the Dirty Harry in our lives to step forth and take care of the justice that no one is willing to do. But at what cost do we make this move? Do we lose a bit our our life and faith each time we go to such lengths? Or are we strengthened in our resolve and beliefs? It seems to me that we tread a slippery slope when we deify such action and people. Sure there are times when bold action is needed to help save the world (such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer), but do we need to mindlessly kill all criminals without due process?

It seems as though Eastwood himself struggled with such the violent ethics of Dirty Harry. Writer Garreth Higgins notes Eastwood's transition from movies where violence was strictly the underlying motive of his characters, to the point of his characters (Don't Stop Believin', 73). In 1992's Unforgiven Eastwood is a mercenary cowboy who's soul diminishes each time he kills. In 2003 he directed Mystic River that tells the adage that the sins of the father always continue, but he adds that it does so in horrific and community destroying ways. Higgins further comments on this development, "By this stage, Eastwood was clearly saying that he knew bullets did not stop anything: they merely perpetuated the cycle of violence" (73).

However, Clint Eastwood further atoned for his sinful characters of the past by his direction of Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Gran Torino In each of these films he plumbs the depths of humanity: fear, pride, lust for power, racism, and stubbornness. Eastwood's later films have expressed a sort of regret for his earlier works, but have none the less used violence as a way to teach the world  that violence does not always solve the case as Dirty Harry may have argued.

Which Eastwood resonates with you better, the younger or older?

Taking requests for next week...the 1980s!
Intern Tom
tomw@stmarks-nsp.org

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Stan Lee and Marvel Comics


I apologize that it has been so long since my last post! It seems as though a vacation and trying to catch up with the speed of a church is a lot more time consuming than I had planned. Anyways, back to our series on faith in U.S. pop culture.

Admittedly I was never much of a comic book kid. I was much more interested in playing outdoors and collecting sports trading cards. Whatever reading I did was from a traditional book as opposed to comics. However, there has been a huge resurgence in the interest of comic book heroes. Look at all the movies that have been made recently: a new Batman series, two Spiderman series, the Hulk, Thor, the Avengers, Ironman, X-Men, Superman, and I am sure there are others I am forgetting. It seems as though that as the baby boomer generation has aged,  Hollywood is playing back to the nostalgic past for many of the men by bringing their childhood heroes to the silver screen. Not to mention they are simultaneously introducing these heroes to a new generation of fans.

But let's go back to the actual comics of the 1960s. DC comics had been producing comics with heroes that were stoic and not easily related to. And so Stan Lee and Marvel comics arrived on the scene wanting to change that. Lee focused on creating characters that fans could empathize with and know their experiences. This included taking on the difficult hot topics of his time such as war, racism, and sexism. The end result was an ethic of a superhero, fighting evil wherever it rears its ugly head. Anthony R. Mills writes, "Lee's ethics, moreover, are anything but passive. He is a firm believer that all of us have a duty to fight evil and injustice wherever we find it, and to whatever extent we are able" (Don't Stop Believin', 49). 


So how in the world does this relate to faith? First I would like to note that Lee's humanistic approach can aid us in our views on the person of Jesus Christ. So often we think of Jesus as the risen Lord and untouchable. But what about when Jesus is so angry that he flips over tables in the temple? What about when he sweats blood in the garden? And what about his lament from the cross, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" Indeed these few instances show us that Jesus was most certainly human and not just a holographic image of the divine on earth. As Christians we confess in the paradox that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. By focusing too much on the holy, we relegate the human side of Jesus to the profane at the expense of ourselves. Much like Lee's attempts to create heroes that readers can relate to, the gospels show us a savior who experiences things just like us! The divine coming to live as one of us is a bold move by God indeed. But it was a move that showed the radical extremes to which God goes to know creation and to save creation from the powers of sin. 

Another way in which Lee's ethic of the superhero helps us in our faith today is to model a way of life. Lee shows us that these heroes are flawed and go through the same struggle we do, so why can't we be superheroes too? To review the above quote from Mills, we have the duty to fight evil wherever it arises. We are charged by God with the gift of an ability to act in the face of such troubling issues. We need to live into that vocation and be the superheros we were made to be! Can you imagine what a world would look like if we donated some money  or food to food shelves or if we ate only what our bodies needed? I am guessing hunger would no longer be an issue. Can you imagine if we stood up against environmental violence? I assume that global warming would begin to web away. No matter where you find yourself, try and be a superhero today. You just might change and save the world!

That's all for now. Next post will be on the 1970s...any requests?

-Intern Tom
tomw@stmarks-nsp.org

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Man in Black

For the past two years or so I have been intrigued and interested in where people find faith or God in pop culture. Previous posts of mine have gotten at this when I have discussed film or music. However, pop culture is so much bigger than those two genres. Pop culture includes fashion, fads, art, and so much more. To help feed my interest in these areas of life I recently started reading a book, Don’t Stop Believin’: Pop Culture and Religion from Ben-Hur to Zombies, edited by Robert K. Johnston, Craig Detweiler, and Barry Taylor. In this work these editors, along with a multitude of authors, attempt to find theological words for 101 of the most influential pop culture happenings by tracing them through recent decades (starting in the 50s and progressing through today). So far it is a stimulating read because each entry is not terribly long and provides excellent food for thought. In order to further engage this work and the cultural items addressed I thought it might be appropriate to lift up one of the entries each week starting in the 50s. While this will take a bit of time to complete, it will not restrict other entries that may come to mind! So let’s look at the 50s with the legendary Johnny Cash.

The 1950s: Johnny Cash


Johnny Cash is heralded as one of the best musicians in country music by many people, though his musical talents also expanded to the genres of rock and roll, blues, gospel, and folk. Despite his musical prowess and success he faced a serious addiction to drugs, alcohol, and even attempted to commit suicide in 1968. However, from that experience he was able to articulate that he felt God’s presence with him in the darkest moments of his life. But does it take such extremes to find God? Maybe, maybe not. God’s presence is everywhere, we just sometimes turn blind eyes and deaf ears to that still small voice calling out to us. Sometimes it takes extremes to wake us from the stupor that can be the mundane of everyday life to realize that life is in fact full of the divine. And yet maybe we need to simply take hold of those ears God gives us to hear the divine’s melody in the everyday.

After his suicide attempt Johnny Cash tried to turn his life around by resisting alcohol and drugs, however it was a battle he waged for the rest of his life. But by the early 1970s Cash had become “the man in black,” which was in stark contrast to the flashy rhinestone suits and boots of many of his contemporaries. Barry Taylor reports on this distinct way of dressing as having deep meaning:

He wrote a song, “The Man in Black,” to explain his dress, saying, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back / up front there ought to be a man in black” He went on to sing that he wore black on behalf of the poor and hungry, the imprisoned, the elderly, and those betrayed by addictions and the “lives that could have been” (6).

One could say that Cash lived his faith and values on his sleeve in a clear and tangible manner. Do we dare do the same? And if so how do we it? I can think of two very visible ways in which some do this: tattoos and clerical collars. Tattoos, especially of the religious type, seem to communicate a Christian leaning in faith life. However, we all know that humanity lives in the paradox of being both saints and sinners and such tattoos may not accurately describe our faith or how we live it. Many reality TV stars have crosses on their arms or backs, but they can be seen doing some rather, well, stupid things. Wandering around drunk, engaging in meaningless casual sex, and fighting other people. It seems that in such situation the cross is relegated to an accessory. But there are other who do commit to a religious tattoo and live a less extreme life, but a life of the saint/sinner paradox none the less.

Yet, in my experience the clerical collar is the most tangible way people can see my faith, although it is a mixed bag. Some people have called me “father” or “padre,” others look at me and smile, some just look at me and scoff, and worse some look at me with suspicion. The clerical collar communicates different things for different people. But I like to think of myself in tune with Johnny Cash’s song for wearing black. I want my black shirt with a white tab to be a symbol of a God who stands up and acts on behalf of the poor, oppressed, sick, and suffering. A God who lifts up the lowly, scatters the proud, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty (see Luke 1). If such a faith can be communicated by a man in black, I hope it can be communicated by me in a clerical collar.


Wearing our faith is a difficult subject to discuss because we all have our good days and our bad. And yet we are continually drawn back into conversation with God. My prayer is that God inspires us all to be so bold to wear our faith for the world to see as well as ears and eyes to witness God’s work in the world. But if we find ourselves struggling to find these instances of God’s presence, I hope we have the patience and imagination to awaken to that still, small voice calling us by name. 


Peace, 
Intern Tom
tomw@stmarks-nsp.org