Justice League Analysis: The DCEU and Righteous Authority

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As my brother Seth said, “It’s a good movie if you just burn away all the Dross Whedon.” If that pained you, just wait for the dialogue in this movie. | PC: http://www.justiceleaguethemovie.com

This post isn’t primarily a review of Justice League, so I’ll condense my review to a paragraph. If I’m being honest, while it was visually impressive and had compelling moments, Whedon’s needlessly vacuous and quippy dialogue and Elfman’s largely irrelevant score sabotaged most of the film. If you want to watch a good movie when you see Justice League, consider watching it without any of the original audio, as a silent film, while reading a plot synopsis and substituting Elfman’s score for the Batman v. Superman score. I promise you it’ll be a better movie. Maybe we’ll get a director’s cut. This problem was, I believe, primarily because of Snyder having to step out toward the end of making the film and giving the reigns over to Joss Whedon.

But there were some really interesting things going on in the movie regardless. As a quick warning, discussing any art requires a thorough examination of the story structure and content, so as a result, this post may have spoilers. If you care about that kind of thing and haven’t seen Justice League, maybe steer clear of this post until you see it!

In the moral calculus of the DC film universe, we live in a hopeless world of frequently evil humans for whom the only salvation is the surrender of their will and trust to a righteous person. This theme may be the result of Snyder (not as much Jenkins) and his view of the world, or maybe it’s a consequence of any thorough examination of the characters he is dealing with (perhaps a comic book fan could tell me if this is consistent with the more thorough examinations of these characters). For most of the movies, though, particularly the ones Snyder has been involved in, the stories demonstrate a fascinating approach to how power and righteousness works that has, I believe, come to its most explicit incarnation in Justice League.

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In this world, we’re all wearing the G.O.O.N. shirts. | PC: Twitter @BatLabels

In these movies, people can’t be trusted to do the right thing. This theme is deep within just about every installment of the DC universe, but particularly is present in Batman v. Superman and Justice League. Every scene without a superhero becomes a corrupt scene, where the cruelty of humanity overcomes whatever decency is there. This corruption is always hinged on the absence of a superhero, however. In Batman vs. Superman, Superman serves as the figure that holds back the evil of humanity, even to the point of being near-worshiped as the savior of the world. The central question of Batman in the movie is whether or not Superman is righteous enough to hold his absolute power. While everything seems to point to Superman being a perfect exemplar for humanity, Batman, fully believing in the nature of humanity as wicked, cannot trust Superman to hold the absolute power that he does. This is because Batman, who has labored fighting Gotham’s crime, sees justice as a beautiful lie, and an impossibility. Batman is so a part of the status quo that he cannot help but distrust any power stronger than himself. Humanity is so doomed that, to Batman, there can be no moral answer.

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Here’s the photo credit, but the article is really obvious. | PC: http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/817690/Justice-League-director-Zac-Snyder-Superman-DCEU-fan-theory

Batman v. Superman proves that Superman is the morally perfect person, and exists as the sole exception to the nature of the world, perhaps because he both is alien to the world by nature, but at home in the world by nurture, a figure who dwells in both spaces, an incarnational figure. He is the example to humanity of a just figure, and as a result, he becomes the method of redeeming the world of its nature. While superheroes from other* film universes primarily are there to protect the world and maintain the status quo, Superman is there to dramatically alter the world for the better. His death, while it brings about the world’s security, is also seen as a signal that the world’s immorality will continue to go unchecked now that Superman is gone. This is explicitly portrayed at the beginning of Justice League as we are taken through several scenes of human cruelty juxtaposed with Superman’s memorial.

*By this I mean the MARVEL universe, the ultimate conservative cinematic universe, where every villain wants to change the world and every hero wants to keep it the same.

This portrayal of human cruelty extends throughout the entire film, but is unique in that Snyder seems to be setting these actions of depravity directly in the conflicts and anxieties of our present world. The first scene of wickedness is an angry group of people looting and tearing up the shop of a middle-eastern woman and son, a clear portrayal of xenophobia.* Later, there is a blind homeless man, seemingly as blind as humanity, sitting in an apathetic crowd with a sign that reads “I tried,” a perhaps melodramatic representation of human failure. The next threat is a group of suicidal terrorists who, through their racially diverse targets, “ethnic purgation” language, and 40’s Nazi styled attire, are clearly representative of current anxiety over the rise of new white supremacy.**

*Xenophobia is discussed in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, but always in the context of Superman and his foreignness, never as explicitly modern and political as this iteration.
**You could almost see the Tiki Torches

The impending threat of Steppenwolf is compared to anxieties of global warming repeatedly, and when the parademons and Steppenwolf make their outpost on earth, it is in the heart of a decaying nuclear plant. This reflection on the nuclear worries of the world is most explicitly shown in a scene where a helpless family watches as hordes of the parademons pour out of the top of the nuclear plant like a cloud of locusts.

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Apparently another of our political anxieties is “really pointy headgear” | PC: collider.com/justice-league-clips/

Even the new characters introduced (those not previously inspired and reformed by Superman) feature particular problems that reflect modern anxiety. The Flash represents the disconnected youth, a character who cannot be a part of broader society because of how uncomfortable he is with social customs and how difficult he finds connecting with other people. On the other side of the millennial spectrum you have the more grave Cyborg, who is terrified of just how connected he is to the technological systems of his time.

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Here’s how Millennials are DESTROYING traditional cybernetic implants. | PC: Fanpop

He fears being overtaken by the technology that saves his life, reflecting the current social fear of the widespread reach of technology. Finally, Aquaman is the apathetic isolationist who runs away from global problems by contenting himself with a quiet life of indifference. These figures show the current moral failings of our world, no one else’s. The movie Justice League doesn’t seek to answer just any moral faults or depravity, it exclusively is presenting solutions to our moral faults and depravity.

The solution is different than the solutions usually given to our world’s issues. Instead of asking society to band together and defeat evil in a democratic fashion, instead of being given figures who are concerned with the will of the world, we are given figures who adamantly do not care for what people want. Rather they are willing to make decisions that seem to run contrary to the will of humanity in order to save humanity. If humanity is as evil as these films portray, this makes perfect sense.

Batman decides to resurrect Superman against the will of the majority of his peers. He defies their will, saying instead that they just need to do the right thing. Wonder Woman, in Batman’s absence, overrules the will of the league to amend their current plan of attacking Steppenwolf and return to help Batman fight off the parademons. As the Flash puts it, “She didn’t put it up to a vote.” The decision to resurrect Superman alone is a direct removal of agency from the hands of the league and placement of that agency into Kryptonian hands. They resurrect Superman not because he will accomplish their will, but because he is, to their understanding, more righteous than they are, and will make a better decision regardless of their will.  

The answer to the world’s problems is, in these films, to surrender our will and agency and place it into the hands of the righteous person. The tragic element of this plot point is, however, that there is no such righteous person to be found. Snyder’s heroes are so desperate to see the righteous person rule that they are willing to trespass on all lines of decency, to the point of grave-robbing and using alien destructive technology to bring Superman back to life, a decision that in almost any other movie would have horrible, evil consequences. But here, in order to be under the rule of the righteous Superman, in order to have a ruler over humanity that can save humanity, we need to be willing to do anything.

Instead of seeing humanity band together to save itself, we see the only salvation of the world, which is directly seen as our world, to be found in an impossible figure, a morally perfect, nearly invincible alien. This moral structure runs counter to all of our current cultural narratives and ideas. It runs counter to the ideal of democracy, the progressive narrative of humanity improving over time through knowledge, and the idea of the salt-of-the-earth decent people holding the true salvation for the world. It runs counter to our cultural narratives because it is directly anti-human. As a Christian, this theme resonates with me. After all, the idea of submission to the perfect incarnate figure who will provide me salvation regardless of my own wickedness is shockingly similar to the faith I believe in. That being said, without this comparison, the story is surprisingly hopeless to our society. We don’t have that morally righteous hero, and as scandal after scandal comes out of Hollywood, Washington, and even some churches, the longing for a righteous leader is palpable. The moral structure is self-damning, but it tells a narrative that is shockingly different than what other superhero films have tried (I’m directly, angrily looking at you, MARVEL), and I’m overjoyed it’s out there.

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Rogue One, Fan-Theories, and the Death of Friendship

 

I will discuss some plot-revealing elements about Rogue One. If you care about that kind of thing, save the article until you’ve seen the movie!

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Spoilers ahead!

When I went to the theater to see Rogue One, I was excited to see Donnie Yen play Chirrut Imwe, a staff-wielding blind monk who devoutly trusts in the Force. I’ve liked Yen’s work in other films, and I was interested to see the martial artist/actor star in a Star Wars movie. He didn’t disappoint. His character was engaging, showed a compelling trust in the providence of the Force, and added some good comic relief to an otherwise heavy film.

I’ve always appreciated the monk-type hero. Showcasing discipline, peace, and wisdom, the archetype is an interesting one, and it often runs afoul of our more contemporary virtues of self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction. This conflict alone makes the character interesting. In the film, Chirrut serves as an anchor to the spiritual world of Star Wars and an embodiment of faith and hope, themes that run all throughout the movie.

I was impressed with the character, so I googled what people were saying about Chirrut. Primarily, the discourse centered around whether or not he sleeps with his friend Baze Malbus.

Fan speculation was created so quickly that even before the film was released to wider audiences, an interviewer asked director Gareth Edwards about whether or not there was a sexual subtext between the characters. He responded with a dodge worthy of the blind monk himself, saying “I don’t mind people reading into [Chirrut and Baze’s relationship]. I think that’s all good. Who knows? You’d have to speak to them.”

If you’ve seen the film, this may confuse you. There is, after all, little to no evidence to support a sexual relationship between the characters. It is perplexing why the conversation around Chirrut is so fixated around his suspected sex life.

Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan makes the argument by citing the death scene of Chirrut, where his friend holds his dying body and “stares down at him, devastated, Chirrut raises his hand as if to caress Baze’s cheek. It’s the simplest gesture, but it packs a potent, more-than-platonic current, and as Chirrut expires, it’s clear that Baze does not want to live in a world without this man.” Buchanan then proceeds to cite this as the example of the first gay relationship depicted in Star Wars.

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He gets pretty close to these stormtroopers in this scene. Polyamorous Chirrut, anyone?

A compassionate look and touch of the face is to Buchanan enough to evidence a sexual relationship. I’ll be honest, I don’t buy this at all. It’s a poor thesis, and it reflects a frustrating trend in our approach to art. We have hyper-sexualized relationships to the point that there is no other conceivable close relationship.

The first issue with this idea is that there is no reference to sexuality or even romantic desire in Chirrut. A homosexual, let alone sexual, Chirrut is simply nowhere to be seen in the film.

Perhaps more glaringly, this fan-theory ignores the fact that both characters are monks. Monks are usually celibate, which makes a sexual relationship impossible. And before we speculate that these force-monks are a little more loose with the rules, remember that the Jedi order also demanded celibacy. Both monks live a lifestyle and participate in a religion that forbids any sexual union. To see two monks acting together and to read romance into their companionship is to actively ignore prominent characteristics of Chirrut and Baze’s identities. It would be tempting to see this fan-theory as a way to give representation to sexual minorities, but redefining all affection or tenderness as sexual is shockingly regressive. It reduces all human interaction to sex.

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As Positive K says in “I Got a Man,” “If we can’t be lovers, then we can’t be friends.” Ph: Jonathan Olley ©Lucasfilm LFL 2016.

This idea subjects any affection to a strict sexual reinterpretation. There is no friendship in the eyes of an internet fan-critic. To be tender, to be compassionate, is to show sexual desire exclusively, and the final conclusion of any friendship is for it to develop to romantic love. Look at Marvel’s Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes: as soon as these characters were established as close friends, communities sprung up around the internet reinterpreting them as passionate lovers. This form of thought has eliminated any relationship other than a sexual one.

So let’s say a writer is going to create two close, tender peers who have a platonic friendship. How can he/she convince the audience that they are not romantically involved? In a climate where two likely celibate monks are called lovers because one is sad when the other dies, it is nearly impossible to keep sex out of friendship.

This doesn’t just impact the two force-monks. When I left the theater, I heard many fans discussing Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor as if they were romantic leads, complaining that they faced their death with a hug rather than a romantic kiss. As before, neither of the characters show or profess romantic love for the other. In fact, it isn’t until the last fourth of the movie that they can even trust each other. Their romance would do nothing for the plot, it makes little sense given the context of the characters, and it would be a meaningless distraction. She shared about the same level of friendship and intimacy with the droid K-2SO. Nevertheless, because two attractive leads are roughly the same age, they are, in many viewers minds, destined for romance.

Fan-theorists go into a movie theater with a specific set of items that they want to see. This leads to plot points being forced into unwieldy shapes to service this list of items. Often, viewers will look at a film strictly in how it can service them and their plot hobby-horse, and the list of demands almost always includes romance for the heroes. This approach reduces art down to a series of strategic pairings and plot points, sapping nuance, human interaction, and depth from the work.

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Haven’t we all thought at some point that Hollywood needs more romantic subplots?

Edwards was willing to write a story where there was no love interest, a rare absence for an action film. Unlike Rogue One, in the film Guardians of the Galaxy, a romance is awkwardly forced onto the plot. This movie, already lambasted by my co-writer Eric Marcy, features a male and female lead, both attractive. Even though the film offers little to no reason for romance and the characters have known each other for, maybe, a few days, by the end of the film they are a couple. The romance serves nothing for the movie and exists solely to demonstrate a pairing for the fans, pleasing the fan-theorists. This pattern has beaten itself into the minds of viewers, causing them to be senseless to any exploration of other types of relationships.

This plot abuse exists only to tantalize the viewer. It gives the fans a jolt of satisfaction but offers little else. It’s the cotton candy of plot points—it’s flashy, sticky, and ultimately disappointing. We must stop forcing our “theories” or imagined pairings onto our stories when they have little grounding in the plot—it isn’t just distracting, it actively contributes to the destruction of potentially helpful plot points. If I sound like a disgruntled curmudgeon, spitting on wide-eyed fans “ships” and “headcanons,” then so be it. Somebody’s got to.

“Captain America: Civil War” Review

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That’s 10 Superheroes just on the poster (don’t worry, there are more)

This post is part review, part confession. I don’t have the best relationship with the Marvel franchise. Enamored by the first Thor film, my enthusiasm gradually wore off until it was dealt a painful blow by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film that dashed my expectations, turning a story billed as a discussion of power and centralization into a story that taught me the ever-relevant lesson “don’t trust Nazis.” My Marvel cynicism grew deeper, hitting its lowest point with Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel films were white noise— always present in the box office, but unremarkable.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by Captain America: Civil War.

The film had its flaws. It carried the usual Marvel burden of having too many superheroes with too many clever retorts and witticisms. The massive 6 on 6 battle in the airport was almost entirely unneeded and exhausting.

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That’s just half of them, and I’m already worn out.

Nevertheless, the movie wasn’t just good— it challenged and even redeemed many of the problems in previous Marvel films. There were three main points of improvement: the introduction of a compelling moral conflict and resolution, moral weight, and the testing of Tony Stark’s character.

One of the most frustrating things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that the conflicts held little moral consequence. So often the conflict was set up as an unreasonable (often pseudo-religious) villain who threatened to destroy the world, galaxy, or in some cases, universe. This tension leaves little to consider. After all, when considering a sacrifice of, well, nearly anything, next to the entire universe, there is not really much of a decision to make. You save all of reality every time. The movie has no room for failure, because if they fail, everything, including the franchise, is gone.

What I mean to say is that the destruction of the world is a boring concept. It’s too easy to think about.

In Civil War, however, the conflict isn’t the universe, or even the world, ending. The conflict is a relational one. Every other Marvel film served to unite and bring people together. This one dealt with what would tear people apart.

A moral discussion set in a framework that could possibly fail creates the ability to have both sides of the conflict make sense. Stark’s camp is right: oversight is needed and innocent bodies have been piling up from Avengers actions. Captain America’s camp is right as well: Bucky needs to stand fair trial, and UN oversight would destroy the active ability of the superheroes, rendering them useless. This kind of conflict is a real one, one similar to those that we face in our current political discussions. By placing real issues at the heart of the film, Civil War inherits moral weight, making the film more profound, more engaging, and more serious than its MCU predecessors.

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While predictable, T’Challa added considerable moral weight to the film.

Another firm moral discussion the film probes is the justifiable nature of revenge. The film not only operates as a wholesale condemnation of vengeance, but the theme is carried far enough to subvert traditional tropes about ironic justice. As Baron Zemo, no longer able to continue his vengeful course, places a gun to his head to take his own life, conventional film wisdom would have him pull the trigger, allowing the story to take its vengeful course so that the protagonist wouldn’t have to. T’Challa, however, intervenes to save the life of Zemo, not even allowing the viewer the catharsis of vengeance.

Secondly, the film finally gives emotional weight to the Marvel universe. The MCU has always had strong characters. The people who inhabit the Hydra, SHIELD, and Asgard are colorful and interesting. Regrettably, however, the Marvel story writers seem to have their hands tied behind their backs when figuring out what to do with these characters.

Making good plot decisions with characters requires sacrifice, vulnerability, and often destruction. When entire movie series are based off of people involved in your story line, you don’t have the artistic freedom to make wise character decisions. For example: if Thor makes a horrible, disgusting decision, the blot on his character could mar future films, potentially harming the productivity of an entire franchise. As a result, character decisions become stale, stagnate, and predictable.

Civil War, however, breaks this pattern. Because it is set in a fleshed out conflict, the characters make fleshed out decisions. The final, snowy fight scene between Captain America, Bucky, and Iron Man (thanks in part to Henry Jackman’s score) achieves am emotional power that was previously unreachable by the Marvel Universe. The splitting of the Avengers, the near-death (it would have been a much better complete death) of War Machine, and the irreconcilable hatred between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers leaves the film in a place that is far, far different than where it started. It comes to a conclusion.

A particularly compelling theme in the film is the testing of Tony Stark’s character. Previously, Stark, an arrogant jerk, always evaded the consequences of his actions. His defiance to authority, his devil-may-care attitude, and his irresponsible decisions (like creating an apocalyptic world-ending AI, a fault that he gets little if any condemnation for) always work out for the best, or at least have negligible harm. This kept Stark’s character in a stasis. He remained static, and I expected no change. After all, his arrogance was part of his appeal: he appealed to our love of a powerful figure who defies the big wigs and profits nonetheless.

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He totally should have died, but I’m not salty.

But in an unexpected turn, Marvel decided to finally bring Stark face to face with the consequences of his decisions, including a scene where he is berated and condemned by the mother of a dead bystander to one of the Avenger’s world-saving operations. Stark makes definitive, character-altering decisions that impact his relationship to himself and to others. These decisions are finally not decisions he can science his way out of or teamwork his way around. He has to live with the consequences of his decisions.

For these reasons (and others) I am admitting that I was wrong. Marvel made a good movie that wasn’t Thor. Marvel fleshed out characters that I thought commercial markets had deemed to remain skeletal, blockbuster pushing devices, and I am grateful. Sadly, most likely the next few films will destroy the conclusions reached in this film by bringing the characters back together, back into the comfortable status quo. But then again, I was wrong once, maybe I’ll be wrong again.

I “sad” this

Here at Pulling on the Push Door, we try and get a variety of perspectives, and we love having guest authors. This post is written by friend of the blog, Sarah Troxel! Please comment with your own perspective and thoughts.

***

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Such a sad jellyfish.

We don’t get to choose our operating systems. When we were born we didn’t design Facebook as our primary means of social networking. Our technology’s designers have control over our lives. You can say you are exempt because you choose to opt out. Maybe you have a boycott against Apple or have deleted your Facebook. But that doesn’t mean you are exempt from its control over the world around you. Technology impacts our social environment and consequently, the way we operate in the world.

On the 24th of February, Facebook added a feature to its “like” button. Now, users can choose: “like,” “love,” “haha”, “wow,” “sad,” or “angry.” While there is nothing I can do to reverse this, I want to bring awareness about the changes that will occur in our lives by sharing several reasons why I am frustrated. They all link back to a loss of autonomy.  

First off, simply from a linguistic perspective, the feature is inconsistent and clunky. We currently use “like” as both a verb and a noun. Saying, “I’m going to go like that status,” and “I got 54 likes on this photo” are equally appropriate. Now, the set of six options includes two verbs (“like” and “love”) two exclamations (“haha” and “wow”) and two adjectives (“sad” and “angry”). We will need to decide as a linguistic community how we will use our new terms. Will we say, “I got two angries on my status,” or “I haha-ed that picture yesterday”? That is for us to decide; but mind you, we did not choose the material we are working with.

In the past few years, the use of comment feature has begun to dwindle. When I first got a Facebook, people routinely commented one or two word reactions to my pictures and statuses. Today, I am thrilled (I confess) if I simply get a high quantity of likes. I am not saying that commenting has entirely gone by the wayside or even that traditional “words” are inherently better. A well-chosen emoji can communicate more meaning than a sentence and qualifies as a “word” in that sense. But the new six-faceted feature makes it easier for people to limit themselves in communication. Essentially what we are getting is an efficated six-emoji feature. But the catch is that by choosing the new feature, the autonomy goes out of the emoji. If I see a “haha” (with the creepy squinty face) on my picture, I will not think “wow, this person really thought about what they wanted to express and which emoji best communicates that.” No, now I know you simply chose the only suitable option that the function gave you.

The strangest thing about all of this social reordering is that it goes against what the designers intended. The idea is to make social interaction safer. As in the previous example, the autonomy of choosing your own emoji, let alone crafting sentences (gasp!), carries some social risk. Your comment can be left to interpretation, and you bear the responsibility for your choice. Designers simplify interaction in an effort to make it safe; in the simplified system, the designer carries the responsibility for the interaction. Yet despite all strivings for safety, the huge irony is that it does not make us safer; it makes us more vulnerable. When we don’t take responsibility for our communication, we subject ourselves to the third party of the operating system and further hinder our efforts to be understood. It’s like playing an electronic game of telephone, where our communications may at any time be misunderstood. Now, when you “angry” my status, I will spend days stressing out about whether you are somehow sympathizing with me, or whether you carry resentful feelings toward me. This interaction is not “safer”; it has only exponentially increased social anxiety. We have lost control of the communication.  

The other irony is that this was an effort to increase choice. We want options. Facebook users were frustrated that the only (quick-and-easy) option was a “like.” For a few years, people discussed the potential for a “dislike” button. Now, Facebook has not only given us a dichotomy, it has graciously given us six choices! We will no longer be limited to a simplistic, positive reaction! But the tragedy is that we are more limited than ever. Human emotion in communication has been boiled down to a six-outlet system. While we may not begin to lose our distinction between “wonderstruck” and “dismayed” in our simple “wow,” we will be limited in regards to how we receive the emotions of others.

I “sad” this. Maybe two months from now I will forget that I was so frustrated. Adaption comes quickly. Maybe I will learn I was wrong, and this new feature will actually give me a better understanding of my friends’ emotions. But I do know it will influence the way we operate with each other, and I know we will have had no control over it.

I apologize if I have made you more anxious. Now that we have the feature, elaborated protests will help nothing. We must make ourselves aware of what happened and do our best to use the system to communicate in an accurate and compassionate manner.

So before you leave feeling like a helpless victim of the system, I want to provide seven suggestions to help give us back our autonomy as we move forward:

  • Don’t freak out about the linguistic change. This kind of thing happens all the time. Soon we’ll be saying “I totally wow-ed what I learned in Physics today” like it’s old news.
  • Continue to use the old-fashioned emoji. The recent “sticker” feature also provides a great opportunity to use your autonomy and express unique reactions.
  • Actively comment. The risk you take by putting a name to your words is worth the richness of human interaction. If someone shares about their grandpa’s funeral, don’t leave your response to a simple “sad,” but comment in consolation or tell them you care.
  • Do not use the “angry” button in any context where it will be perceived as hostile. This is irresponsible and a cheap way of avoiding constructive conflict. If you want to disagree with someone, do so with a thoughtful argument in the comment section. The only reason to use “angry” is to sympathize with someone else’s anger at injustice or unrighteousness.
  • Give charity in your interpretation. Don’t over-analyze the six different reactions. If your future mother-in-law clicks “sad” on your engagement announcement, assume she means that she is crying happy tears.
  • Engage in face-to-face conversation. In the end, I am not proposing a boycott of the new system. But if we don’t want to be limited by it, we must go beyond it. It is okay to compassionately “angry” someone’s post about systematic racism, but take the initiative and ask them to elaborate on their thoughts when you see them in person. Let us not allow ourselves to live in a simplified online world that can’t bleed into our physical relationships.
  • Tell me what you think. I will enjoy three comments on this article more than three-hundred “sads.”

Deadpool and Moral Perversion

We watch a movie or read a book because we think it is worth engaging with. While “Transformers 4: Age of Extinction” may have its merits, I don’t think it would demonstrate a great deal of worth to me, so I don’t watch it. As a result, art reflects what we find to be valuable. Art also changes our understanding of what has value. Consciously or unconsciously, we are changed by our art.

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Louie, I think this is the beginning of a horrible habit.

The way some people will be shaped by certain art will be different, and it is important to be cautious about critiquing art too broadly. It is unwise for a compulsive smoker to watch “Casablanca,” and it is unwise for a particularly violent person to watch “Gladiator,” but that doesn’t make these films particularly evil, it makes them unwise viewing material for some people.

If films can contain content wicked enough to exclude some audiences, can there be films that have content wicked enough to exclude all audiences? Can we ever say with confidence that “No one should see that movie”?

Operating under the assumption that we can make this claim, I will declare (with China, apparently) that no one should see 20th Century Fox’s “Deadpool.”

PRODUCT PLACEMENT
This film was made totally independent from corporate interests, just like how Suburbans are the most reliable and efficient Sports Utility Vehicles on the market that will keep you independent from automotive trouble on the road.

This film, based off of the beloved comic book mercenary Deadpool, has been given an extensive marketing campaign, all trying to reassure comic book fans that this Deadpool will be the character they know from Marvel comics, not the confusedly mute and stoic character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”

All of my observations have been based off of the handful of trailers that have come out for this film. The fact that the trailers themselves have thoroughly condemned the film to my moral sensibility shows that I am either a fuddy-duddy (possible) or the film is deeply wicked.

Deadpool is a character based on perversion and irreverence, a comic hero in a tragic setting. In the trailers alone the character strips away meaning and value from important things, leaving only cynical humor and gore.

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Don’t worry, at least he can do cool tricks.

Nearly every trailer for this film is a comedy trailer. Comedic trailers have patterns, beats and pauses, that demonstrate when the content is telling a joke. When this trailer pauses, once even with the stereotypical comedic record scratch, it is during scenes of brutal violence. We are to laugh as a bullet crashes through several brains, spilling a bloody mess. We are to laugh when Deadpool hoists up a human being with his two swords, crowing that he has turned him into “a f***ing kabob.” Violence is a joke to Deadpool, but we are not asked to be disgusted at him, we are asked to laugh with him as he dances in scenes strewn with carnage of his own making, laughing at human dignity, laughing at the value of life.  

After graphic scenes of death, Deadpool declares that he is “so turned on right now” and “definitely touching myself tonight,” as if violent disposal of human life is a matter of sexual titillation.

Deadpool also perverts sexuality, sexualizing nearly everything with juvenile efficiency. The trailers, complete with strippers, feature the protagonist making every possible reference to sex. As he stuffs an enemy’s mouth, he taunts “I never say this, but don’t swallow,” after a female villain punches someone he quips “I so pity the dude who pressures her into prom sex.” Sexuality is a joke, and the only women not strippers or his love interest seem to be immediately sexualized.

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Freud would have a lot of uncomfortable things to say about this movie.

This film is set in the context of the most generic plot imaginable. “When your worst enemy is after your best girl” seems to be the extent of this film’s conflict. This basic plot is a vehicle to portray the hero’s perversion. The film seems to act out a Freudian adolescent daydream where the hero is invincible, dominates everyone, and rejoices in objectification and lechery.

But why have I bothered to write this article? Obviously this film is trashy, it bills itself as such. But humans have been making horrible art forever, and we have to expect evil at the box office.

I am writing this article because I have seen many of my friends, Christians even, expressing overwhelming excitement at this film. Given that the film is unabashedly advertising itself as perverse (one advertisement consists of Deadpool cursing and making sexually charged comments to children), I cannot reason why anyone should watch, much less be excited for, “Deadpool.” What virtue or value can come out of this film?

Some may say the film has merit as an exploration of a wicked character, but Deadpool is not a character as much as a combination of internal desires, a bundle of lusts that is clearly made to be rejoiced in.

Some may answer that the film will be a fun action film purely seen for base enjoyment. But when a film intentionally uses graphic and wicked means to portray “fun,” the very act of watching the film is demeaning.

I may be missing something. Perhaps my frustration at what I have seen has blinded me to real merit and value, and I would welcome correction in the comments, but I can see no reason or acceptable excuse for watching the bloody, carnal circus “Deadpool.”

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Maybe the totally interesting and original jokes about chimichangas justify the horrific violence and sexual objectification.

“It’s Treason, Then:” A Response to Eric’s Review of TFA

Warning: This post is spoiler-ridden.

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Bombad spoilers!

Eric and I agree on many things. His imaginative and well-thought-out approach to matters of art is not only inspiring, but worth emulating. While I rarely have any substantive disagreement with Eric on matters of art, particularly on Star Wars, when it comes to Eric’s review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I firmly disagree. While J.J. Abrams is not George Lucas, Episode VII is a worthy and significant addition to the heart and power of the Star Wars myth.

Defending Star Wars: The Force Awakens is probably the safest thing to do on the internet (besides mocking Donald Trump). After all, the film has received uniformly good reviews and is exploding box office records. The main complaint against the film, voiced by Eric, has been that it seems too much of a rehash, as if Abrams and his team were trying to recreate the original trilogy, as opposed to further moving and developing the galaxy far, far, away. Where Lucas created new ideas and worlds rich with imagination and complexity, Abrams seems to be reminding us of how great the original trilogy was (perhaps, even, with a cruel and undeserved hatred of the prequels). Instead of creating a Star Wars movie, he has created a graceful and colorful homage.

It is certainly accurate to say that The Force Awakens adopts many plot points from previous Star Wars films. There is a droid with a secret stranded on a desert planet, a scary villain with a mask and fearful dark side powers, a complex father-son relationship, a huge planet-destroying superweapon, a trench run, and even a Yoda-like mentor.

 

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It’s bigger, better, faster, stronger

If adopting previous plot points is a reason to be dissatisfied with a film, however, there can be no Star Wars. Star Wars nearly always re-establishes plot points. There is always a looming Dark Side villain, there is often a superweapon or at least a massive space-ship. There is not one, but two Death Stars in the original trilogy, and the second is bigger, tougher, and scarier. Even the spherical shape of this superweapon is modeled in the Trade Federation Lucrehulk-class battleship, which is visually most distinct from the Death Star because it has a built-in, more impressive trench circling it. General Grievous and Count Dooku are fascinating shadows of the conflicts of Darth Vader. There is a long and abundant series of similarities and echoes in the Saga that I won’t list here. It is vital to understand, however, that repetition is not a sufficient indictment against the new Star Wars. Repetition can do wonderful, fascinating things to a plot. Shakespeare himself was aggressively fond of repeating the same conflicts and concepts in new and interesting ways.

 

More complex complaints, like Eric’s, will acknowledge this point, but argue that VII fails to use those repetitions to “serve greater narrative purposes.” I would argue, however, that the narrative echoes in VII serve significant narrative purpose to the development of the Star Wars saga.

One of the central conflicts of Star Wars is what it means to bring balance to the Force. In the Phantom Menace and the Attack of the Clones, Anakin is raised in the Jedi Order believing that in order to be bring balance to the force, he must overcome the Sith. The Jedi are training him as a corrective who will destroy what they see to be the remnants of evil in the galaxy. To properly bring peace, you must wipe out the wicked. They are “too dangerous to be kept alive.” Anakin’s desire to end evil by destroying the wicked is ironically turned with great force on the Jedi as Palpatine identifies the Jedi as those who are spreading evil. Through love for his wife and future family, Anakin wipes out who he sees as the obstacles to love: the Jedi. In a climactic moment, Anakin allows Palpatine to throw Mace Windu off of a building, presumablymace-windu-palpatine killing him. Palpatine assures Anakin and the Senate that now they will have peace. There is not peace, however, for evil dwells in Palpatine and Anakin and the cast down Mace
Windu’s influence still lives in Anakin’s heart and the remaining Jedi.

At the end of the Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker  is faced with a similar problem. Palpatine tells him that he must strike down either Palpatine or Anakin. He must end wickedness through violent action. In perhaps the most compelling scene of the saga, Luke recognizes the good and evil in his father, seeing that both righteousness and wickedness are in conflict in the human heart. He chooses to spare his father and suffer cruelty from Palpatine. Then Anakin, again acting through love for his family, throws Palpatine down a shaft in the Death Star.  As The Return of the Jedi closes, we see a happy, peaceful galaxy where Han and Leia are together, Luke is becoming a Jedi, and the evil reign of the Sith is over. We are promised peace.

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Yub-yub

 

Like before, it didn’t work. There was a snake in the galactic garden. Kylo Ren dominates opposition with aggression reminiscent of Vader. The cruelties of the Empire have come again in full force. Han Solo and Chewbacca are smuggling again, and Leia is again waiting for a droid. The audience members are left to scratch their heads:

Why is Han not with Leia? Why is the Empire back? Where is Luke? Where is the peace we were promised?

The influence of the cast down Palpatine still lives in the heart of Ben Solo, the First Order, and perhaps even Luke. The shockingly “Star Wars” setting of VII is a reminder that the evil that Anakin has tried to erase is still living and breathing. Anakin, and maybe Luke, has made a miscalculation. Evil does not lurk in the teachings of the Sith, it lurks in the human heart. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said,“the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”

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Spoiler Alert

 

When Abrams underplays the new trench run and seems to cut out all of the galactic dread out of the new superweapon (except for a stunning planetary destruction scene), he isn’t poorly trying to copy A New Hope, he is broadcasting to the audience that the same conflicts that span across all six episodes are present in this film. He doesn’t need to rehash the dread and tension of the end of A New Hope because Lucas already brilliantly accomplished this. He merely is reminding the audience of the universe we are in. The film is not about Poe and the Resistance, they are the setting. The film is about Rey and Ben.

While the same conflicts of all previous episodes seem to be present and unchanged, the conflicts of the past are not invalidated. Han begins in A New Hope as an irresponsible scoundrel. He runs from responsibility and is selfish. As the films go on, he becomes noble, even self-sacrificial. In The Return of the Jedi, he is established as a righteous character, and his union with Leia seems to solidify this transition.

Those who idealize the original trilogy place a peculiar heroic emphasis on the scoundrel Han. They urged Abrams to give them characters that resembled the morally shaky Corellian. Those, like Eric, who were more story-conscious, mourned Han’s return to smuggling in The Force Awakens as an ignoring and erasing of Han’s moral development. What prequel and Abrams haters don’t understand is that that Han’s return to smuggling is not a return to the scoundrel, but the desperate mourning of a broken man. Understandably devastated by his son becoming a vengeful mass-murderer, Han cannot remain with Leia. As he tells her, he knows that every time she sees him, she sees her son Ben. Implied is that he also sees young Ben in the face of his wife. 

07_20162515_3d0dbd_2531196aHan himself describes his action as running from his grief. Han isn’t returning to smuggling, he is regressing to smuggling as a coping mechanism. He is running from his son’s betrayal.

This daring and mature development of Han’s character is not only surprising on the part of Abrams, but is breaking new and interesting ground in the audience’s understanding of Han. When Han leaves for the Starkiller base, he sets out with a goal nearly identical to the goal of Han Solo in VI. He is going to disable a shield vital to preserving a superweapon. But Abrams, using the old material of VI to bring new depth to Han, has Han sent out with a new mission. He is going to bring his son home, or die trying. When he sacrifices himself to demonstrate his love for his son, he is not scoundrel Han or general Han, he is father Han, an old man who loves his son. Han sacrifices himself, calling back to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s deaths in I and IV, but he sacrifices himself for love, like his father-in-law.

As Han falls down the chasm of Starkiller Base, his death is reminiscent of the death of Mace Windu and Palpatine. Ben Solo believes his struggle against the light is over now that he has slain his father, but like Windu and Palpatine, Han will still live on in Ben, and the conflict between the light and the dark is only beginning.

Han’s story illustrates how Abrams uses his host of references to the original trilogy and the prequels to powerfully develop the themes and characters of his story. While Abrams is not Lucas, he has brought out significant emotional themes to play in the new Star Wars films that should have all fans not only excited, but thinking.

Eric probably agrees with my thematic praise, but believes that these themes were not brought out enough by Abrams, and that is a discussion of filmmaking and taste, but these themes are present and vibrant in this film.

Now that I have discussed Eric’s main complaint against the film, responding to him as a storylover, I will now respond to Eric as a Star Wars fan.

Eric said that Abrams seemed to have jettisoned the “titanic visuals, new planets, and a mastery of mythological metanarrative” of Lucas.

To titanic visuals, I point you to the awesome Starkiller Base scene, the wide-angle and beautiful shots of Jakku, and the wide shots of the First Order Army (something we never got of Stormtroopers under Lucas).

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“titanic visuals, new planets, and mastery of mythological metanarrative” ~Eric Marcy

To new planets, I will admit that Takadona, and D’Qar look a lot like Yavin 4. Jakku, however, is a lot more than a Tatooine desert. Jakku’s economy, based on looting the broken hulls of crashed spacecraft, is a peculiar and interesting consequence of galactic war that is largely unexplored by Star Wars in the past. Starkiller Base even gives us a snowy forested planet, something unseen by the warm moon of Endor and the nearly lifeless Hoth. This environment is further explored as massive amounts of heat are fired from an edge, incinerating snowy forests in a harrowing display of power.

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“titanic visuals, new planets, and mastery of mythological metanarrative” ~Eric Marcy

 

Mythological metanarrative is a more complicated matter, but the sins of the Skywalker family following their progeny into cyclical conflict is a mythological pattern worthy of Campbell.

Eric later praised the prequels for “the revelation that good and evil do not always align with the light and dark sides of the Force,” a description that also aptly describes the moral complexity of Ben Solo.

Finally, Eric stated that “The entire construction of the Starkiller Base makes very little sense: how could the First Order, a remnant of the defeated Galactic Empire, mount the resources to construct a destructive weapon multiple times larger and more destructive than the most powerful weapons the Empire mounted in its heyday?”

Because Starkiller Base is built into a planet, it requires both less metal (which could be taken from the planet itself) and less coordination to construct. While hollowing out a planet is impressive, it is not nearly as impressive as the construction of a Death Star, which, while smaller than the planet Starkiller Base is built on, is about as large as the actual constructed material on the planet. The Empire, even a remnant First Order, has massive industrial power at its disposal. We don’t know how many planets the First Order controls, but it necessarily has an unimaginable amount of manpower. Finally, Starkiller Base was likely already started by the Empire, which was obsessed with the creation of superweapons.

No matter where you fall in this discussion, there has been nearly universal praise of the well constructed and exciting characters of Ben, Rey, Finn, and Poe. Even if you disagree with my broader point, we can all agree that Star Wars is in fresh, new, and good hands.

And to Eric, who mourns the loss of George Lucas, I say this:

“Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”

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Q.E.D.

A Brief Reflection On Sunset Beach

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Sunset Beach, North Carolina.

If you gave me the choice between a hike in the mountains or a trip to the beach, I would probably take the hike every time. I enjoy the beach: swimming can be fun for a while, and reading to the crash of the waves is always a pleasure, but a hike seems, to this writer at least, a far more interesting and peaceful journey. There is far less of the devilishly omnipresent sand, the general climate is often cooler, and one only has to deal with the stickiness of their own sweat, rather than compound the discomfort with that of salt water. But when it comes to dusk, most any beach can hold its own against the mountains.

Come sunset, the ocean’s shore may be the closest thing to what I imagine Eden to have been like.

The comforting rhythm of the waves and the coolness of the breeze as one walks barefoot along the water. The sun slowly sets, depending on your location, over the ocean itself or the dunes behind. An orange hue that never fails to enchant overtakes everything. There are far less squawking seagulls, though a sandpiper strolls along the waterline, awkwardly yet endearingly searching for a meal. The crowds of the afternoon have faded away, and the raucous, boisterous noise has fled.

But though the crowds have thinned, people still remain. And most interestingly of all, the people have changed.

It’s a phenomenon I haven’t quite been able to figure out, but one that I’ve observed time and time again. There is a decided difference between tourists on the beach during the day and visitors to the shore at night. A chaotic, stressed, anxious group in daylight is transformed into a cheerful, happy and contented group by night. Children run and splash in waste-deep water, a father stares out at the ocean with his son, a group of friends pose happily for a picture to commemorate their trip, a granddaughter supports her grandmother as she walks down the steps, a woman and her dog patrol the shore removing trash and debris, and an unknown stranger erects a mailbox for anonymous visitors, “kindred spirits,” to leave notes and recollections. Recollections of life. Recollections of nature. Recollections of death, hurt, love and loss. All given voice on the shores that seem to stretch eternally in either direction.

This. This is what the Creator intended life to be. Humanity in harmonious unity with both itself and nature. There is a different look in a person’s eye when they take an evening walk on the shore, there is a light there not often present. Communion is present. The sunset beach changes people, and I find it hard to believe that there isn’t some hint of the spiritual in its power.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

A good friend of mine, Seth Brake, made the observation on social media that the tragic murder of three Muslims in the Chapel Hill area might have failed to initially make media waves because it “just doesn’t fit anyone’s narratives.” The horrific execution of innocent, peaceful Muslims defies the Right’s convictions that practitioners of the Middle Eastern faith are to be viewed with inherent and war-like suspicion. The militant atheism of the attacker, on the other hand, defies the oft-repeated argument of the Left that religion is primarily responsible for horrific violence and reveals that extremism of even that “rational” stripe can lead to hate and evil.

The events of February 10, 2015 in Meadowmont, North Carolina defy the narratives polarizing Americans, gleefully fed by hyper-sensationalized media and political ideologies. The lack of concern from mainstream media outlets, at least initially, should not surprise us. This is a tragedy that does not fit neatly into our political and ideological presuppositions (as most of life does not, when we truly and fairly examine it) and thus cannot be used by either side to advance an agenda. The deaths of these innocents, therefore, do little to profit these propagators of controversy. Their deaths do not matter, and the silence of news networks so faithfully committed to pumping 24/7 coverage of murders that fit narratives of racism, terrorism, gun control or lack thereof (depending on your political standing) speaks loudly to the tragic lack of empathy rampant in our country.

Silence often damns, and the silence on this incident damns authoritatively. But lest I devolve into the unhelpful mudslinging and finger-pointing that these newscasters too often make their livings on, I want to turn our thoughts inward, to examine ourselves. How should we respond? How ought we make use of Seth’s observation? How can we fight the force-fed narratives to rediscover our neighbors so often hidden behind artificial political divides?

I do not claim to have all the answers, but I do know we can act rightly first by mourning. Let us mourn for the deaths of these innocents. Let us remember that lives matter, regardless of race, religion, ideology, or any other chosen or unchosen identity. Human life has inherent worth and value, and all deaths ought to be mourned. If ever we begin to measure out our mourning depending on how conveniently the tragedy fits our preconceived notions of reality, we have lost what it means to be human.

As a Christian, I draw all this from the teachings of Jesus, who taught that “those who mourn are blessed, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4 HCSB). I also believe that Paul spoke wisely when he advised believers to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15 HCSB). These are not principles exclusive to my own religious creed, I hope we can agree, but human principles. I believe that when, as a society, we can recover the empathy that both Christ and Paul speak of we will have taken the first steps to rediscovering the human beings at the heart of tragedy.

For these reasons, I stand in solidarity with the Muslim community, the community of Chapel Hill, and all the other communities of which these three were a part, to say: “I am sorry. I cannot know your pain. But I want to. I want to weep with you, for that may be the only way to send my love and prayer in this dark time.” I do this regardless of the ideology of the killer, I do this regardless of his motive, I do this regardless of the faith or race of the victims, and I do this regardless of my own political beliefs or presupposed narratives.Li4lM.AuSt.156

I do this because their names were Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha. And their lives mattered.

The Dangers of a Christian Commercial Culture

lifeway-wont-stop-selling-controversial-bible-8k10rkfr-x-largeThe unfortunate, but sadly predictable news broke in recent days that the “heavenly tourism” book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, which has reportedly sold over one million copies, is in fact a fraud. Alex Malarkey, the young boy whose supposed heavenly experience was recorded in the book co-written by his father, Kevin Malarkey, has put out a letter to LifeWay and other Christian book distributors and publishers declaring that: “I did not die. I did not go to heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to.”

Scandal is now swirling around the Baptist-run publishing and retail organization, as questions are being raised regarding whether LifeWay knew whether or not Malarkey’s book was a fraud before this public revelation. In this post I do not wish to pin blame for, as I see it, this incident is a symptom of a far greater and more concerning problem with American Christianity as a whole. The blatant deception exercised in the conception of this book and the manipulative financial profiting from gimmicky literature is a logical end-point of the Christian commercial culture which American Christians far too eagerly embrace.

What do I mean by a Christian commercial culture? Broadly speaking, it consists of the evangelical Christian subculture, made up of media, books, music, and film produced by exclusively “Christian” companies and distributors designed with explicitly Christian target audiences in mind. The Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry is possibly the best example of this subculture. Artists produce “Christian” music for a specifically Christian audience. Played for mainstream audiences through “inspiring” Christian stations like KLove, it provides a supposedly safe market for Christians to invest in without having to worry about degrading secular music. Christians, then, are reduced to a marketing demographic, a simple commercial target whose tastes, likes and dislikes are catered to for economic success. (I’d encourage anyone who doubts this assessment to read this interesting article detailing WRCM, which is now part of KLove, and their target audience member “Becky”)

Of course, this applies to Christian literature as well, and creates an environment where Christian audiences are pandered to for their business, but when monetary success is the primary goal, morality falls to the wayside. Manipulation is the key to marketing. Thus, a feel-good story about a young boy who died, went to heaven, and came back is pushed through as a beautiful “true story” not necessarily because the publishers believe it, or see its view of the after-life as consistent with their Scriptural doctrine, but because it sells. Hence, a false story is sold as true in Christian bookstores (bookstores who claim a Messiah who declared Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life) to unwitting and unsuspecting consumers.

This leads me to my primary complaint with the Christian commercial culture. While I understand the appeal of having specifically Christian stores and distributors, which provide a convenient place for purchasing tools and materials relating to the faith, the unfortunate reality is that anything sold or produced with a “Christian” label at a “Christian” store attempts to claim the full endorsement of Christianity. In LifeWay’s instance, all items sold bear the endorsement of the Baptist denomination as being in accordance with Baptist theology, which holds Scripture and the person of Christ as the highest authorities. Thus, the materials LifeWay sells should be put under close and careful scrutiny as to both their theological and factual merit. But are these books/albums/films truly representative of Christianity as Christ conceived it? Clearly, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven did not meet the most basic and fundamental of Christian principles: that of truth (John instructs, in 1 John 3:18 HCSB, that “we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action”). Obviously, LifeWay either made an egregious human error and failed to discern the falsehood inherent in the book, thus unintentionally deceiving those purchasing the book in good faith, or they willfully and knowingly allowed such deceit to happen because they knew such deception would sell. Either way, it is shameful and concerning behavior.

Christians often deride secular society’s “escapist” tendencies in entertainment, failing to realize that the Christian commercial culture provides them with the very same thing. Christians can go into a Christian bookstore, they assume, and not have to worry about discernment. They can turn on the Christian radio station in comfortable knowledge that the lyrics are Christ-honoring and truthful. They can go to a Christian movie and let the positive affirmation wash over them, knowing full well they can easily agree with whatever the story puts before them to believe because it’s “Christian”. Why do they feel this comfort? Because they are given what they want, and they trust a company whose vision is “providing Biblical solutions for Life”. But those running the Christian commercial culture are business-minded, and they know that in order to succeed they must give customers what they want, but what they want (here, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven) and what they need (the truth, here being the fact that Malarkey’s book is a lie) are diametrically opposed.

American Christians must realize the extent to which their faith has been hijacked by corporate thinking, and The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven may be just the type of warning call to wake us up. Simply because the Christian subculture claims something is Christian does not mean that it is consistent with truth. This business mentality applied to the Church is a toxic mixture, turning believers to unthinking self-gratification. It is this mentality that leads our churches to measure their success by attendance and branding rather than by how well they are caring for orphans and widows, leads the flock to buy songs like Building 429’s “Where I Belong” (a most likely unintentional but still subversive denial of God’s Creation) and prompts Christians to loudly denounce a challenging Hollywood exploration of Gospel themes (Darren Aronofsky’s Noah) in favor of a poorly made but smoothly Christian commercial culture affirming apologetics film (God’s Not Dead).

When considering how to react to the news of LifeWay’s witting or unwitting deception, we would be wise to heed Paul’s words to Timothy: “Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according their own desires will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:2-5 HCSB)

Let us indeed pray for discernment, that we can examine ourselves and see how often our own selfish desires pervert how we perceive and, more importantly, what we accept as truth.

Card Playing: A Powerful Heritage

ShuffleThe English language is indebted to card-playing. We have extracted an overwhelming number of terms from this noble pastime. From phrases like “follow suit” and “luck of the draw,” to simple, everyday words like “trump” and “ace,” cards saturate how I speak. It is an understandable influence, after all, a wide range of human experience exists in card-playing. Victory, loss, cunning, and bravery are all present in the game.

Card-playing runs in my family. Not a holiday visit passes without the familiar rip of a shuffling deck, or the soft, sleek sound of cards sliding across the table. The summons “let’s play some cards,” is enough to stir all to action. We pull out the deck, clear the table, and take our seats to play what is implicitly understood to be a game of Norwegian Whist, a game passed down by Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest. I sneer with calm resolve as I utter trash talk that would offend anyone else but my family. The table descends into joyful ritual as the dealer picks up the deck and begins to portion out cards.

I’ve never understood these cyclists. Where are they going? Where are their clothes? Why do they pedal when they have wings?

There is a mystery to a shuffled deck of cards. Each plastic slip, imprinted with some elaborate design– a leftover from British taxing stamps–, holds a value unique to itself. Mathematics assures me that the order of cards in a well shuffled deck is one that has never happened before in all of history. The dealer holds in his hand a pattern individual and foreign to this world– a powerful mystery. The cards jealously protect a question mark, burning under images of Poseidon or oddly nude bicyclists. The dealer holds a mystery. The dealer also holds my fate for the next fifteen minutes. As the cards are dealt in threes, which I am assured by my family is “the Norwegian way,” the cards exit their curious mystery, and the game begins.

My eyes scan the line of hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds before me with cold judgment. In Norwegian Whist, low and high cards are valuable, but cards in the middle– sixes, sevens, eights, are lukewarm, and a frustrating problem. Whist loves characters, valuing the first and the last but not the placidly in-between.

I send my cards out to do battle, each armed with their number value and my best wishes. A small drama is played out on the table, as each player mourns, gloats, and crows with every card. The table’s risks, banter, and strategies collide with raucous ferocity. This drama is acted out with an underlying joy, a righteous merriment at good sport. Even the hapless loser, forced to slough off valuable cards, has the fire of laughter behind his or her eyes.

I watch my cousin’s, grandparent’s, uncle’s, aunt’s, or any other member’s faces fall, rise, or remain in stoic secrecy at the contents of their hands. Their personalities, however, careen through the cards they hold in front of their faces and onto the battlefield, now littered with kings, queens, and jacks. They cast down royalty and sweep up tricks with firm individual distinction.

Trick TakingSome play like Achilles, brashly and with bravado, but with small, crippling weaknesses. Others are like Odysseus, spinning webs of tricks and wile. My late Grandfather was a Nietzschean superman at cards, winning through his sheer force of will. Grandpa looms over us as we play. While he passed away in 2012, his genius remains with the deck, grinning and guffawing with each hand. His indomitable card-playing will echoes throughout the room and around the table. His style is most present in the tense moments before the first card of a trick. As the player with the lead stares at his or her deck, the table is caught in almost reverent silence. Which card to start with is vitally important– a decision which could cost the player the entire game. This decision was always decided with aggressive ease by my Grandpa, as if he knew intimately the contents of everyone’s hand. When others would lead, he would lean forward, his eyebrows issuing forth challenges with an arch, as his fingers drummed the card he preemptively chose to play. He was rarely wrong, predicting the play and suit with astonishing regularity. He employed either some willful prophesy or card-counting genius– I still don’t know which it was.

As the game comes to a close, the cards are reshuffled into the great mystery in an all too obvious metaphor for death, where they await the next battle in their Valhalla.

When I stare in dismay at my paltry hand, or look excitedly at my partner, biting my tongue from divulging my good fortune, I am participating in a ritual older and bigger than I am, a traditional drama. Card-playing runs wildly in my blood, coursing through my veins with every card thrown down. When I play cards, I am joining masses of my relatives and ancestors, huddled around tables, locked in the riotous joy of competition.