A Dark Knight? Or A Bright Hope?

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In light of recent events, I hesitate to write about Christopher Nolan’s final chapter in the Dark Knight Trilogy. I by no means desire to trivialize the tragic loss of life that took place in Aurora. Nor do I wish to politicize something for my own ends. There is a better way to approach this whole thing, and its not being kept a secret. But I’m not interested in rehashing something someone else said (better than I could have, at that). Rather, I’d like to briefly explain why The Dark Knight Rises is easily my favorite movie now, and why that matters.

I’ll avoid serious spoilers of this latest film, but I have to revisit Nolan’s previous installments to show you the bigger picture. Read with caution though, minor spoilers will be necessary throughout.

Each of Nolan’s films has a theme. In Batman Begins, the theme is fear. In The Dark Knight, the theme is chaos. What both films thematically have in common is their treatment of truth, which is arguably the underlying theme of the entire trilogy.

To summarize, Batman Begins treats truth as malleable, especially in light of the positive and negative effects of fear upon the human condition. Think of Batman’s use of theatricality and deception. He deceives to help, and in the process alienates those closest to him (starting with Rachel Dawes, and slowly doing the same to Lucius Fox and Alfred Pennyworth by the end of everything). His deception is seen as a necessity by all, but understood to be temporary. Of course, this changes dramatically with the entrance of the Joker in The Dark Knight, as chaos turns this deception on its head and exposes the ugliness inside of people. It would seem, at the close of the second film, that for every time trust and hope are rewarded, they are also overwhelmed by the continued need for deception instead of truth. Nolan paints this ominous picture so well that the closing lines of film sound so true that we forget what is happening:

Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.

Despite knowing that something is wrong with this idea, you buy into it because the fear and the chaos have simply overwhelmed you. What other recourse is there?

But in reality, this is a setup. Every bit of it. Because, the truth is this: fear and chaos cannot rule. Humanity, as Nolan demonstrates, needs to have hope. Which is where the third film turns everything around. Hope is the theme of The Dark Knight Rises, and for the first time in Gotham City, truth is the vehicle of that hope.

For whatever short comings you may find in the film, like Batman not being enough of a “detective,” or whatever, I urge you not to miss the point of this film. What sets this movie apart from every superhero film before it (and probably after it) is its message. Even in the face of tragedy, there must be hope. While Bane would use that to destroy, turning ordinary individuals’ hope into a weapon of violence and selfishness, Batman and his friends will have no part of it.

Why does this matter? What difference does it make? “Its just a movie,” you might say. “It doesn’t change the real life tragedy that is overshadowing this weekend.” I disagree. And so does Paul:

Since we have been acquitted and made right through faith, we are able to experience true and lasting peace with God through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, the Liberating King. Jesus leads us into a place of radical grace where we are able to celebrate the hope of experiencing God’s glory. And that’s not all. We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness. And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love. – Romans 5:1-5

I’m not saying Nolan intentionally represented the Christian concept of hope in his comic book movie (he may have, I ultimately don’t know). But accidentally or not, its there. I cannot think of the movie from last night without hearing Paul’s words echo in my ears, reminding me that all Truth is God’s Truth, and as such it is not malleable nor deceptive. It is pure and righteous, as I believe the actions of the heroes in this film are as well. The Gospel is imbedded in this movie. For what greater hope is there than the resurrection of Christ?

You’re welcome to take issue with my interpretation. It doesn’t bother me. I simply ask that you think about it. Consider what I’ve suggested as the foundation of this film and ask yourself, “could this be true?” Then you too might find yourself on the path to rise out of the darkness.

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Seasonal Woes

Today, I read this fascinating article that analyzed which cities in America were the “saddest.” The most interesting aspect of the study was this: some of the most idyllic locations were the most depressed. Despite lots of good weather and sunshine, not to mention the occasional party locale, certain places boasted high rates of suicide, unemployment, and use of antidepressants.

What does all this have to do with Advent? It’s simple really: we long for paradise. We move places that seem to promise happiness because there are jobs or beaches or mountains or beer or whatever. And yet, when the casino lights fade, we find ourselves alone. Broken. Empty.

And then Christmas comes. And for many, this only accentuates the woes. The loneliness seems lonelier. The brokenness seems even more broken.

Yet, hope remains.

Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, “We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth. And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm. – Revelation 11:14-19

If we believe that Christ came in the flesh; that He was born in Bethlehem; that He lived and fellowshipped with others; that He died on the Cross and ultimately rose again… well, then a passage like the one above is very good news.

We won’t ever find paradise in a place here on earth. We have to seek God, and then an amazing thing happens: every place has the potential to be a little piece of paradise. Here. Now.

That’s good news indeed. And a welcome thought from someone who lives in the most depressed, and yet most sunshine-filled state, in the country.

CPR

My life group had an interesting discussion this past Sunday. We’ve been going through John, and we were looking at the Bread of Life discourse during this particular meeting. We observed how simple the message of Christ is: “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the One He has sent.” In the course of talking about the different ways we add to this Gospel, we began discussing the whole “works versus faith” issue that often arises in Christian circles. Theologians have been dealing with this for  a long time (St. James, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Francis Schaeffer, James W. Sire, N.T. Wright, to name a few) and there are still a variety of opinions.

In my life group, there seemed to be two main thoughts (well, two were voiced anyways): 1) When you’re saved, you desire to have the character of Christ, and this desire produces the works James wrote about. 2) Works that are forced are bad, because works should come naturally from our salvation.

This sums up the perspective of many Christians that I have met over the years. They often cite amazing transformations (like those of Paul, or the brother of Jesus, or even Constantine) as examples of how the power of the Holy Spirit comes down and just changes a person overnight. While there is some truth to these examples, this kind of thought offers an incomplete picture for a few reasons.

1) Powerful transformation does not happen overnight. The few (and I stress the word, few) examples of this kind of thing that we find in Scripture should serve as a stark warning. For most people in the New Testament, change is difficult and slow. The Disciples are perhaps one of the most prime examples of this, and Christians should keep in mind that while the Spirit does indeed give us a new nature, that does not mean we will be sinless from that point on.

2) The Christ-like character of people like Paul came with effort. Immediately, people will want to point out errors in this thought. So perhaps an example will help. As a Christian, it is our business to help point people to God, in effect saving their life. A person trained in CPR is very similar. Both desire the best for those in need, and have a sincere desire in their heart to help people. However, if I am choking, I would rather have the CPR-trained individual nearby than the Christian with well-meaning intentions. In order to be of any use in the business of saving lives, we must practice the habits that will be used in this process. This leads into the next point.

3) Being kind by nature is not the same as being transformed. The person who was gentle before they were saved will continue being gentle. So when this individual reads that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, they think to themselves, “look at how easy this comes!” This is a deception though. Some people will have gentle natures, while others have the nature of a thief. And yet, no one is exempt from needing God. We have to understand that in some aspect, we will fall short of God’s standards. If kindness comes natural, perhaps honesty does not. Of maybe we fail in our sexual ethics, but stand strong in our generosity. Regardless, in order to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, we will have to practice some of them.

C.S. Lewis often spoke of the importance of doing something in order to really feel a certain way (he touches on this in Mere Christianity, The Four Loves, and The Weight of Glory, which are all books I recommend). The idea is this: if we treat someone like we love them, because we desire to love them as Christ does, our hearts will be transformed. Eventually we will find ourselves loving this person without effort. It becomes natural because we made it a habit.

In the end, the Christian who does not live the Christ-like life is not fulfilling their purpose. And that, sadly, seems to be the case in much of the American Church. Perhaps, we are just out of practice.

Lord, as we seek to really be Your body here on this earth, soften our hearts to the wounds around us. Open our minds to the truth found in Your Word. And give us the hands to carry out Your will, just as You would have it done. May Grace and Peace characterize Your people. Amen.

Advent Season, Part III: Hoping for…

Know Hope

I’m not sure where this picture came from (I think it’s connected to the “Know Hope” vandal in Tel Aviv), but I love it. It’s a beautiful image.

This past week of the Advent Season, I’ve given hope a lot of thought. Hope permeates the Bible, and is included in Paul’s big three. He mentions hope often, as a matter of fact. Yet, my hope has been lacking of late.

Reading the Psalmists, the Prophets, and even portions of Paul seem to turn hope into something other-worldly, unattainable till Jesus’ returns. Or it brings it down to a level I thought petty (particularly the Psalms).

I’ve written previously about the future of Christ’s return, and how it is indeed something to look forward to. But I, personally, have never had much to do with this second kind of hope. I encountered it throughout my readings, and though my initial understanding saw it as something selfish, the Holy Spirit has been revealing this other hope as something else entirely.

When Job, or David wrote about being persecuted, and wanting the Lord to even the score, were they being selfish? Was it just a petty grudge? Paul quotes them, as a means of reassuring the Roman Church, and he doesn’t seem to think it’s all that petty. When I think of justice, I think on a social scale, but I’m coming to see that such a view is an extreme.

The more I read the Bible, the more I become convinced that God cares very much about individual justice.

But not just some kind of future “set everything to rights” justice. The Bible indicates that God cares about justice today. Here. For me.

Let’s think of it in a term other than justice: rest. Justice, after all, will bring rest, and rest will bring restoration. Genuine restoration. Being less tired. Being less cranky. Being less… not like Christ. It seems so silly, so simple. But as Christmas comes closer, it’s important to remember what it is we’re looking forward to.

The family who doesn’t know if they’ll get to spend Christmas in their house because they can’t pay their mortgage? God cares for them (even if the fault is their own). The family who worries that they won’t be able to put Christmas dinner on the table? God cares for them (regardless of their social standing). When we take this idea and lump it in with social justice, we do a disservice to God and His Children. We make the individual less than God intends. But read Psalm 71 or 85. God cares very much for the individual, and all that seems wrong in their life.

This is a personal thing, as unemployment has drained my wife & I’s savings account, and we are closely approaching not knowing how we will live day to day. Despite what mistakes we have made, God cares about our situation. And asks nothing less from us than faith and hope that He will provide.

Rather than getting into “well you should do this” or “you should have done that” this Christmas, let’s try something else. Let’s simply say, “we hope.” After all, hope is a gift, and it will outlast everything else.

Father, as Christmas comes, and we turn to worship You, give me the hope that does not disappoint. Remind me that Your promises are not only of eternal importance, but matter to each of us in the here and now. I have come to a place of doubt, because things have not worked out as I had planned. But Your ways are above mine, and Your purposes far more holy than my own. Bring me into Your will, and grow in me a hope that touches everyone around me. I thank you so much for Your blessings in my life. Never let me forget what You have done. And keep me ever mindful. In Your Son’s precious name. Amen.

Airplanes and Shooting Stars

I want to preface this post: I do not care for rap music.

With that being said, I know little about music pop culture. Feuds and the like are not high on my news reading list. So while I’m sure this song has some back story going on, but I’m not too interested in that. In truth, that might lessen my adoration for the song.

The first time I heard this song, I thought to myself it was surprisingly esoteric. Something about the song cries out to something that seems out of the singer’s reach. “Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars?” It’s such a culturally cliché kind of thing. And yet, it touches on something genuine. So many people “could use a wish right now.” Broken homes. Abusive relationships. Feelings of inadequacy. Fear. Sorrow. It’s everywhere. It’s not new. It’s always been part of the human condition. And I reckon that for as long as people have needed a wish, they’ve looked to the sky for the answers. And maybe they’re looking in the right direction.

Paul wrote about this kind of thing in some of his Epistles. I don’t think he had all the answers. He certainly didn’t lead people to believe that God was a cure-all for chronic trouble. But Paul thought that there was something important for everyone to understand: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:6-8). And I think songs like this show that people haven’t quit searching for this.

Rap tends to be very egocentric, and this song isn’t any different in that regard. However, every time I hear Hayley Williams sing that chorus, I believe that even Bobby Ray knows this can’t only be about him. Something, someone else is out there. Perhaps in that Person, we can find that wish that we need. Right now.

Well deserved.

Dear God, I do not ask for health or wealth. People ask you so often that you can’t have any left. Give me, God, what else you have. Give me what no-one else asks for. Amen. – Dakota Fanning, Man on Fire

St. Jude: St. Mary's, Fredericksburg, VA St. Jude is known as the patron saint of lost causes and you can read about him here. While the controversy about him is often forefront, the thing he represents is by far more important. The “desperate case,” the down-trodden, those who feel as though there is no hope left.

I’m moved right now, as I think about those who feel lost. I have been lost at times in my life, but never have I felt as though there were no end, no light. Even in my darkest moments, I felt as though God would never leave me alone. I don’t know how such an assurance came to be mine, and I shudder to think of how ungrateful I have been towards it.

But it is truly amazing to believe that there is always a hope. That when all seems to fall into despair and ruin, when those you love destroy themselves, that God is still in our midst and He is willing and able to rescue us. We need only ask.

A Genuine Hope

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. – Vaclav Havel

know Hope  Ever since I read this quote, it has stuck to the inside of my mind like a burnt piece of popcorn stuck to the bottom of the bag. I like the quote, don’t get me wrong, but I really don’t know what it means. I have theories. But I don’t have any practical life experience to back it up. It’s a concept to me.

My mom, on the other hand, has a firm grasp on this idea. I don’t very often feel like I learn things. Not so much because people don’t have anything to often, but because I am so entrenched in my own stubbornness that it’s difficult for me to really learn from someone else’s experiences. But recently, my mom has shown me what it means to hope like Mr. Havel.

Her hope is the stuff of dreams, and I believe that it is the kind of thing that causes God to smile and say, “this is My servant, in whom I am well-pleased.”

Spilling Hope

Even though I don’t attend Richard’s church, and my own home church has some cool things going on for Easter, I thought I’d share this video that Bethany Community Church put together about using Easter as a time to raise money for providing water for those without. Think Advent Conspiracy, but at Easter. Which is really how it should be right? I mean, instead of just helping people at Christmas, shouldn’t we help people year round?

Recombobulation

I think its important to approach people as though they’re giving it their best shot. By "it," I mean life, living, breathing, the works. I’ve often been in a position to help people get things in order, and too many times I’ve only made them feel as though they weren’t doing enough. That’s completely backwards.

Tommy used to say that Christianity was easy. "It’s life that’s difficult." I never understood what he meant, until recently. I don’t think he was saying the life of Christ in us is simple. Christ’s life brings suffering, just as a lump of coal must first feel extreme pressure to become a diamond. I’ve heard said, "Surely God didn’t make that awful thing happen. He doesn’t want you to experience pain. God brings peace. God gives healing. He wants us to enjoy life." While its true that God is a healer and He gives us peace, it’s ludicrous to believe that as Christians we won’t suffer. God sent His Son to this world to die on a Cross in a horrible fashion. Why do we think we won’t feel any pain in this world?

I think there’s a serious lack of courage when it comes to reminding our Christian brethren to keep Christ central to their daily existence, but I don’t think we should be eager to tell people they’re falling short, because "all fall short of the glory of God."

It’s important for me to remember that no one has got it all figured out. I forget that sometimes, which is usually a sign that my spiritual pride had raised its ugly head and needs to be dealt with. I’m reminded of a moment in the journey of Jake Barnes:

Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.

Jake was a man who felt like he couldn’t get anything right, as though he was without hope. Yet in the end, he found the only Hope he needed. Its a book I recommend. The how of living is so much more important than the million other things that we try and set up as our focus.

As Christmas closes in, a time that for some is wonderful and simultaneously horrid for many others, I pray that I will remember that God applies pressure in order to make us into something more, and that I will be tempered by God’s Spirit so that I know when to lift people up and when to tell them to stand.

Seasoned With Grace

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person. – Colossians 4:2-6

I could try and unpack some deep theological thought about salt and purification, but I don’t feel the need at present. I heard this passage read during a sermon (dating from 2007) and it touched me. It convicted me, and at the same time filled me with hope.

It is my earnest desire to be seasoned with grace, to know how to respond to each individual that I encounter.

As each day unfolds, I am more and more amazed at exactly what God is doing. Its not as though I’ve been given clear footpath in which to follow, but I have been given an overwhelming peace. And even still, this peace wanes in moments. But I have recognized those moments for what they are: the temptation to doubt the work that God has promised to fulfill in me.

I walk forward and ask God to continue to guide, not just me but those around me that we shall all be sharing a common vision. I pray that we will all be "seasoned with salt," able to "conduct [ourselves] with wisdom."