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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What you believe

What you believe matters.

That is, if it causes you to do something about it.1

My old pastor used to say, “it’s easy to say I believe in the resurrection, because I’m not tested on it today.” This is a lesson I’ve taken to heart over the last few years, and I’m always glad for the opportunity to revisit it.

This past Wednesday, our college group was talking about why Christians should care about the environment (we used global warming as our starting point) and it brought about some good discussion. And I think the best thought that came out of the night was this: it doesn’t matter what you believe about climate change, do you believe your actions affect other people? Even in third world countries?

A friend came up to me afterwards and told me he had spent most of the talk trying to poke holes in my argument, and in my opinion, he found a couple of good ones that he should have brought up in the general discussion. It was a good moment because it reminded me that sometimes what I say is not necessarily how to live (or appear to be living). In fact, sometimes I say “we should be like this because Jesus said this,” and then I turn around and don’t do it. Paul deals with this very thing in his letter to the Roman Church, which means I’m in good company.

And this is one of the many reasons why we need good company and solid relationships in our lives. We all have blind spots. Acting like we don’t won’t change the fact. No matter how self-reflecting you may be, you still don’t see everything. That’s not something to be ashamed of. But it is something we must admit. After all, we’re designed to be relational.

I need someone to tell me where my blind spots are. We all do. Which is why I’m part of a community. One might say, I believe it will make a difference.

What community are you a part of?


1I am aware that there is often an argument about knowing versus believing (and many variations of the like). This post is less worried about being semantic, and more concerned about day-to-day living. Frame the discussion however you like from there.

Am I liberated?

Jesus liberated us from mind games. If we are into philosophy we might have a hard time with Jesus. He does not lend himself to our games. Jesus preferred solitude and silence over study. He did study the scriptures, but whenever He wanted clarification He went away, alone and apart from the crowd. – Richard Rohr, Jesus as Liberator

Brother Rohr is not my favorite author. I enjoyed Wild Man to Wise Man, but his blogs, articles, and daily meditations often leave me frustrated (the same can be said of Jim Wallis’ writings, but that’s for different reasons). My most common thought is this: “if that’s true, why don’t you back it up with Scripture?” I know that this isn’t the Spirit of Discernment at work, but rather the spirit of division. And so, I continue to read those I don’t agree with (as well as thosethat I do) believing that I don’t have everything figured out. And every now and then, this kind of thing pays off.

In Rohr’s meditation for today, he touched on a subject that I have given a lot of thought to recently. When Jesus needed clarification or rejuvenation, He went off alone (i.e. Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:47, John 6:15). I’ve been mulling this over in my head quite a bit. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it the need for “Scripture meditation, prayer, and intercession.” The idea is a simple one: we need time away from everything. Not vacation. Not time off. Rather, time to renew our mindsand strengthen our resolve.

This isn’t something I’m particularly good at accomplishing. But I’m working on it. Simple steps, like riding in the car without music (and without constant planning going on in my head), are a start. Refusing to constantly have Netflix playing in the background is another beginner’s move.

We all need solitude. Mainly because, in truth, we’re never completely alone. However, when it’s really just me and God, that’s when I can really listen.

Free me, Lord, to hear Your truth. Teach me to relinquish the day’s cares. Your grace and mercy are so magnificent, Lord. As Your truth permeates my spirit, may the rivers of life that You so graciously provide spring forth from the innermost parts of my soul. Free me, Lord, that I may in turn help free others.

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.

Can we bridle Greed?

How is that Christians believe that we can work Capitalism to our own ends? I realize that many within the Christian community believe that Capitalism is a good thing. The idea breaks down into something like this:

1) The best kind of society is one where freedom, in particular religious freedom, is the norm.
2) Politics and economics follow the same outline in that freedom is what is best.

2) Capitalism promotes freedom through competition, therefore it is the best economic system available.

Of course, the Industrial Revolution taught us a thing or two about the abuses of freedom (as if we had not been taught this lesson throughout history already), and so began regulations. Two World Wars, and three substantial economic crises later (‘20s, ‘80s, 2000s), the regulation continues. In fact we could add to the above outline:

4) Complete freedom, particularly in Capitalism, is dangerous so we must learn to control and direct the path of our economy.

While not a detailed economic blueprint, the above sketch is how many people (not least American Christians) think about the current economic system. This video serves as a prime example:

While it would be most prudent to go into a complete explanation of how our global economy currently functions, we cannot. My own knowledge is too limited for such an endeavor (without merely resorting to parroting someone else). But, I would like to challenge Dr. Deimer’s thought all the same.

There is no way in which Capitalism can ever truly be “bridled.” The recent economic crises around the world, not to mention in Greece and Ireland specifically, should have taught us that (this video was made in 2009 so apparently not all have come to the same conclusions as I have). Competition, whether we like to admit it or not, is in contrast to the character of God. Look at Paul’s writings to the Colossians, the Galatians, or the Romans. When he describes Christian virtue, does he list competitiveness? Does he mention anything closely resembling it?

No, he does not.

Why? Because it is not in Christ’s nature to compete, and His nature is what should govern God’s children (one could argue that God the Father is jealous, but that would be remiss…after all, God does not compete for our affections).

It brings me back to Matthew, and the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ teachings on money are not vague.We either love money, or we love God. There is no in-between.

Of course, I’m stating the obvious, and no Christian, Capitalist or otherwise, would argue. In fact, they would say in my understanding of Matthew 6, I’m right.

The issue, then, comes from something else. After studying Scripture (in particular Exodus, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and the Gospels), I cannot fathom how any self-professing Christian can think that the economic system we have in the United States is anything other than a love of mammon. I understand that money is a useful tool, but that is not the limit of Capitalistic greed. Think of the housing collapse. Money, in the form of credit, was not being used as a tool. It was more a child’s plaything. We didn’t use it to end poverty, or better our communities. We used to get what we wanted. We manipulated numbers until the lifestyle we desired was achieved. There are, of course, exceptions to this (particularly people who suffered even though they did all the right things), but they are by far the tiny minority.

I don’t blame the people who took out home loans they could not afford. I don’t blame the banks who lent to people they should not have. Both of those  goats have been faulted enough.

I blame our habits, our hearts, our process of thinking. We believe that money can be tamed; that greed can be bridled. Regulation, deregulation, taxation, financial reform, and on, and on, and on. The truth is, no matter how you try to, you cannot accommodate greed. And what is Capitalism but greed put into practice?

Forgive the humor...We can do the math in way we want to, but the answer will never change. What is needed is not more of what we have, nor less of it for that matter. What we need is transformation.

 

 

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. (Romans 12:1-3, NASB)

It is only by this that things will change. And it is my continual prayer that things will indeed change. That’s what Jesus told us to do.

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.

Oh wait! There's more!

Who would have thought that after 24 hours I would have more to say about communication? Well, I do. I started asking myself about ways that I communicate poorly, and I started remembering things from the Bible. Imagine that? For starters, Jesus talked about relationships quite a bit. Jesus did this whole bit on what the Law said concerning how we treat each other, and how He calls us to live at a standard even higher than simply obeying the Law.

If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.

Do I do this? Do I make sure that there is no one on this earth who can hold a legitimate claim against me before I come before the throne of God? Hell no. I don’t even come remotely close to doing that. I justify keeping to myself. I convince myself and others that I’ve done all I can, when that is so rarely the case.

As if that wasn’t enough for me to see my own faults, I saw this little note in the margin of my Bible that pointed me to the letter to the Romans. Paul talked about relationships too, apparently.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

Bless those who persecute me? Be of the same mind? Respect what is right in the sight of all men?! Seriously? How on earth am I supposed to do all of that? I can’t even agree with some people on the color of the sky and I have to do all of this?

And there it is again: me. I’m the problem. I hide in my hole and surround myself with activities so that I can avoid admitting to someone I may have been wrong. Why is it so hard to say sorry? Or to even ask why someone is upset? Am I that selfish that I won’t make sure something isn’t my fault?

I am becoming more and more aware that there are habits and perspectives in my life that have to change. And as I stand and stare out, looking at these changes like a small child staring down an elephant, I pray that God will not allow me fall short of the life that He has given me.

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.