Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ

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The Eggplant – Revising Ragnarok

The Rev. John Adams

*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.*

 

Ragnarok is perhaps the most enduring aspect of Norse mythology. The heroic gods of Asgard and their treacherous foes meet in a final battle that spells doom for both. The Einherjar (who died gloriously in battle) and the legions of Hel (who did not) will slaughter each other. Fenris Wolf, the gigantic son of Loki, will slay Odin, the king of the gods, only to fall at the hands of Odin’s son Vidar. Odin’s son Thor, the god of thunder, and Jormungundr, the Midgard serpent and another spawn of Loki, will end each other, as will the trickster god Loki and Heimdall the watchman. Surtur the fire giant will burn the nine realms, but after the destruction new life will spring from the world tree. (For an introduction to these stories, I would highly recommend Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.)

Early in November, Marvel released Thor: Ragnarok, the third standalone film starring the character based on the Norse god of thunder. Although a movie that was a straight-up retelling of Ragnarok myth could be awesome, this is not that movie (although, as a genuinely funny and consistently entertaining superhero movie, it nonetheless flirts with awesomeness). The relationship between the Thor movies and the mythology that inspired them is tenuous at best: the Marvel characters of Thor, Loki, and Odin are recognizably drawn from their Viking roots, but the plotlines of the movies have little to do with the myths. Ragnarok is most definitely revisionist mythology, appropriating a few elements from the story in service of a radically different plot.

Interestingly, Ragnarok is keenly aware that it is revisionist mythology, and a significant theme in the movie is how we re-imagine our stories for our own ends. Upon his return to Asgard, Thor walks in on a play retelling the conclusion of the previous movie (Thor: The Dark World). The play was apparently written by Loki, who secretly took Odin’s form and position as ruler of Asgard at the end of that movie, and the writing recasts those earlier events so that Loki dies a hero’s death and receives praise from his adoptive father and brother (Odin and Thor). The play’s blatant (and highly amusing) reinterpretation of events that have gone before reminds us that even the treacherous Loki is a hero in his own story, and sets the stage for the movie’s fascinating reinvention of Ragnarok.

The main thrust of Ragnarok entails a wholly new spin on the backstory of Odin and the nine realms. After the events of The Dark World, Odin has been approaching the end of his life exiled in Norway. His death releases the bonds that kept Hela imprisoned, and she appears and quickly proves herself more powerful than Thor or Loki. Instead of being Loki’s daughter and the queen of Hel (the realm of the undistinguished dead), this version of Hela is Odin’s firstborn and served as the leader of Asgard’s armies during the conquest of the nine realms. Afraid of her ambition to expand Asgard’s rule even further and regretting the bloody conquest that had already taken place, Odin had Hela imprisoned and written out of history so effectively that neither Thor (who Odin sired in the hope of handing the throne of Asgard to him instead) nor Loki (who has a tendency to ferret out secrets) had any idea of her existence. When Hela enters the throneroom of Asgard, she tears down the frescoes depicting the nine realms at peace under the benevolent guidance of Odin and Thor, revealing another set of frescoes beneath them showing Odin and Hela as conquerors slaughtering their enemies. Unlike her father, Hela feels no guilt over their past and is proud of her martial exploits and cruelty. Although the film doesn’t draw particular attention to it, this scene serves as a marvelous indictment of the European and American desire to forget the atrocities of the past and pretend that our colonialism was all for the good (because, if our ancestors did it, then we can’t challenge the morality of it).

After an adventure as a gladiator on another planet entirely, Thor returns to Asgard with new allies to fight Hela in the hope of averting Ragnarok and the destruction of Asgard. As it becomes increasingly apparent that Hela is unbeatable as long as she’s drawing power from Asgard (as is her birthright), Thor concludes that instead of canceling the apocalypse he must instigate it, because destroying Asgard is the only way to prevent Hela from conquering other worlds. Loki commences Ragnarok by manifesting Surtur, and his flames bring an end to both Asgard and Hela. In this complete revision of the myth, a few familiar elements of Ragnarok have been appropriated for a sequence of events that is no longer the end of all things but merely the destruction of one realm and the death of a super-villain (and of course the eradication of hordes of civilians and minions, but who’s counting?).

Having passed Thanksgiving, we are now firmly within secular Christmas season, a time of inescapable holiday music, evergreens and lights decorating everything, and ubiquitous reminders to show our relatives and friends that we love them by buying them things. The most common Christmas stories lack even a tangential relationship to the Biblical Christmas story: a bearded stranger in red sends his minions to spy on children before entering their houses with presents, an oppressive curmudgeon is frightened into acting with basic human decency, a reindeer is bullied because of his physical difference until that difference proves useful to the other reindeer.

Sometimes it even feels like we are revising Christmas in the Gospels to something far less world-shattering, as Ragnarok did with Ragnarok. The birth of Jesus is an ugly thing, at least according to Luke: a boy is born to an unwed mother in the ancient equivalent of a garage, surrounded by animal dung, in a town in which she was an unwelcome stranger. Yet in Christmas pageants, crèches, and sometimes even sermons, the birth is reduced to something cute and “aww”-inspiring, and in those same stories, we tend to forget that this child came into the world to end the world as we know it, to overturn imperial orders based on power and inaugurate a new kingdom rooted in love. In almost direct contrast to our secular revision of Christmas, Jesus’ birth calls us to live in a new world in which my wants as an individual and our wants as a group do not come at the expense of another’s needs. Where our revisions of Christmas seek to overturn nothing more dramatic than a child’s ranking of her favorite toys, the Gospel Christmas story seeks nothing less than the end of the world as presently ordered.

So as we enjoy the music, the lights, the piney smells and minty tastes, the presents, and all the other trappings of our current revision of Christmas, let us not forget that, in the Bible, the Christmas story is the beginning of a radically different plot, one that challenges us to live in love for enemies and strangers as much as relatives and friends. Let us heed the warning of Mary, who knew her son would lift up the lowly and fill the hungry but scatter the proud, send the rich away, and bring down kings. Let us remember that, in resurrection as in Ragnarok, the old world must die so that the new may arise.

 

The Rev. John Adams

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Episcopalians Celebrate “Nebraska Liturgy” – January 7th

Episcopalians throughout the diocese will celebrate a unique “Nebraska Liturgy” on Sunday, January 7, 2018 to mark the beginning of the diocesan sesquicentennial. In a letter to the diocese, the Right Reverend J. Scott Barker encouraged Nebraska Episcopalians “to raise their voice in beautiful common prayer to the glory of God in Christ, and in thanksgiving for this special place that we call home.”

 

The liturgy was created by a committee of clergy and laypersons, chaired by the Very Reverend Craig Loya, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Omaha. “The committee’s goal was to create a liturgy that celebrated our unique and rich heritage as Nebraska Episcopalians,” explained Loya.

 

Designed to be flexible enough to meet the needs of congregations of all sizes, worship materials were developed to highlight both the sesquicentennial theme and the lectionary readings for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord. Members of the committee produced a collect, prayers of the people, blessing, and dismissal. Prayers for the day weave evocative historical and geographical images with the words of Nebraska authors and poets, including Willa Cather, Black Elk, John Neihardt, Ted Kooser, Mari Sandoz, Kent Haruf, and Charles Fort.

 

Nebraska hymn poet, Rae E. Whitney, composed a new hymn for the sesquicentennial celebration, “Sing God’s praise, Episcopalians!” Paired with a familiar tune (Stuttgart), the hymn is designed to be accessible for all congregations. An alternative version which can be sung throughout the sesquicentennial year is also available for general use.

 

For parishes with choirs or vocal ensembles, a newly published anthem by the Reverend William Bradley Roberts is available. The anthem, “Christ When for Us You Were Baptized” is downloadable from St. James Music Press (www.sjmp.com) at no cost, and parishes may make as many copies as needed. A downloadable recording is also available. “A common anthem allows us to create a virtual diocesan choral festival, with choirs singing together across Nebraska,” noted Marty Wheeler Burnett, Canon Precentor at Trinity Cathedral. “Although we are separated by vast distances, music draws us together and celebrates our common bond of service as Episcopal church musicians.”

 

All liturgical materials, including music, and detailed information are available online at http://q150.episcopal-ne.org/the-nebraska-liturgy.html. Parishes are encouraged to download these materials now and use them on January 7th. The website also includes all necessary information regarding copyright permissions, including a license to reproduce one recommended hymn from Wonder, Love, and Praise, a supplement to The Hymnal 1982.  Email links are provided for anyone seeking assistance in accessing or using the materials.

 

“We are spread out over a large and beautiful state, and we follow Jesus in vastly different ministry contexts,” stated Loya. “Our hope is that the Nebraska liturgy fosters our sense of common identity and shared mission as we move together into God’s future.”

 

Marty Wheeler Burnett, D.Min.
Canon Precentor
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

 

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The Eggplant – Stuck in the Plotholes

The Rev. John Adams

*Spoiler alert: The following contains extensive discussion of the plot of Blade Runner 2049.*

 

One of the fun things about having friends who watch the same kinds of movies you do is the dialogue that happens when two of you have different responses to the same film. Sometimes I love a movie and my conversational partner had some reservations (as with Wonder Woman, where two different interpretations of the killing of Ares within Diana’s moral arc led to my assertion that the movie had a good argument for best superhero film ever and my friend’s thought that it couldn’t claim much more than best DCEU movie). Sometimes we can argue about the reasons for a movie’s badness (would Suicide Squad have been most improved by more Joker or less?). Most interesting is when one person likes a movie for certain reasons and another dislikes it for a completely different set of reasons.

 

Such was the case in multiple discussions recently about Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the 1982 film about a cop hunting and retiring (killing) rogue replicants (robots who look and mostly act perfectly human). My problems with the film mostly related to the plot, which I found complex to the point of distraction and including a number of points of which I simply could not make sense. (To offer one example of a plothole that still bugs me, at one time a replicant working for an evil tycoon is seen stealing evidence from an LAPD station after having killed the lab technician. Later, the same replicant is in the same station, having a conversation with the officer supervising the investigation to which the stolen evidence was relevant. The replicant murders the officer before using her biometrics to access the case files, and again there’s no sign that anyone is aware of or concerned by the felonies the replicant is committing within a police station. The only somewhat convincing explanation I’ve heard is the implication that the LAPD is entirely in the tycoon’s pocket and thus all his employees have immunity, but if that’s the case, he could get the information without leaving bodies behind.)

 

Three different friends argued that I was looking at the movie the wrong way, that even if I found the plot too confusing and open-ended, I should still be focusing on the film’s virtues. Technically, the film is gorgeous, with every frame’s look crafted to perfection, and any awards it gets for cinematography, production design, and visual effects will be well-deserved. Thematically, Blade Runner 2049 addresses that core human problem of othering: the replicants are not considered people despite being human in both appearance and behavior, and are socially (though not economically) the lowest of the low on earth and used as slave labor on other worlds. The protagonist, K, is a replicant who hunts and retires older model replicants that lack the obedience programmed into newer models, and we see him wrestling with the fact that he is an artificial intelligence who makes a living by destroying other AIs. His relationship with his boss at the LAPD is uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has tried, across a power differential, to cultivate genial personal relations with someone from a completely different background (racial, social, economic, or otherwise); even the best-intentioned question can prove extremely awkward. K has a romantic relationship with an entirely holographic AI; although she cannot physically interact with him, their romance is by far the most human interaction between any of the movie’s characters. A scene in an orphanage that bugged me because it ultimately serves no purpose in the plot and adds to an overlong runtime is, in fact, critical: while this huge warehouse is filled with unwanted human children being worked like slaves, K and the evil tycoon are racing (and the latter killing) to find the child of a replicant. Although believed to impossible, if a replicant bore a child it would upend the understanding that replicants were neither human nor alive but also give the tycoon the technology to allow his slave empire to reproduce and thus expand exponentially; the contrast in value between one non-human child and hundreds of human children is startling. My friends’ point is that, if I stop being so concerned with the trees of the plot and start attending to the thematic forest, I’ll find a whole lot to like in Blade Runner 2049.

 

I hope that those themes suggest many things about how we as Christians might identify and heed the humanity of the dehumanized, interact with our neighbors from radically different backgrounds, and critique the values our society puts on different sorts of human lives. But my purpose in relating these conversations is less about the themes of Blade Runner 2049 and more about the plot-focused way I initially approached it.

 

Like many folks who were raised in the church, my early exposure to the Bible was mostly through Sunday School stories, some of which get regularly addressed in adult church (Jesus walking on water or feeding five thousand) and some of which don’t, at least in my experience (Samson or David and Goliath). As you might imagine, I was the sort of child who poked at the holes in the story (if Adam and Eve had no daughters, how did their sons have children?), but I was also the sort of child who struggled to reconcile some of these stories with what my parents and priest told me was the main idea of the Bible: God loves us and wants us to love God and each other. How does wiping out almost all life on earth in a flood or slaughtering the inhabitants of Jericho fit into God’s love?

 

As I got older, such discrepancies became more evident in the behavior of Jesus’ followers. Just as I got so hung up on the murders in the LAPD that I missed the deeper themes of the film, in college I realized that, with regard to homosexuality, I was so focused on a few Bible verses (whose meaning is more ambiguous than I thought) that I was completely neglecting the ways that loving neighbors, strangers, and enemies might apply. In history classes, it became obvious that, although genocide does not fit with the command to love that weaves throughout the canon, crusaders, conquistadores, and cowboys had nonetheless seized on the plot point of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land to justify slaughtering the native populations of territory they coveted. Because loving God, one another, and oneself is very difficult in practice, we who give the Bible authority in our lives often find it easier to seize on plot details that might offer us exceptions to the commandment, and many reject Christianity entirely because they focus on such hateful stories rather than the overarching theme of love.

 

So as we read Holy Scripture, I wonder what we’re taking away from it. Are we modeling our lives around recurring themes like mercy, justice, and love? Are we taking our cue from a few plot points that make us feel most comfortable, at the risk of being distracted from the larger themes? Or are we rejecting the whole thing because we’re stuck in the plotholes?

 

The Rev. John Adams

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The Eggplant – Distance does NOT lend enchantment

The Rev. John Adams

 

*Spoiler alert: The following contains spoilers of Game of Thrones Season 7, used for illustrative purposes.*

As a priest, and someone who believes in the importance of confessing one’s sins, I should confess that, for the past couple of months, I have been actively cheering for a romance that undeniably violates the Biblical rules of proscribed sexual relations. Specifically, I have been rooting for two characters in Game of Thrones who are aunt and nephew to fall in love and begin a relationship, in direct contravention of Leviticus 18:12 (“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister”).

In my defense, there are mitigating circumstances. Because I read George R. R. Martin’s books, on which Game of Thrones is based, long before the show was even in development, I’ve known Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen for many years, and they’ve been favorites of mine just as they’ve been favorites of many fans of both the books and the show. In addition to being interesting, likeable, and mostly competent as leaders, Jon and Daenerys are two of the few characters who’ve survived to this point that fans can imagine in something resembling a healthy romantic relationship with another character, though to this point in the books the two have never been in anything approaching geographical proximity.

Season 7, however, is the second season in which the show has advanced beyond the books, treating fans to some long-anticipated moments, a few big surprises, and the confirmation of a very popular theory about Jon’s parentage. Up until the end of Season 6, Jon was believed to be the bastard son of Ned Stark, the series’ first protagonist, but based on careful study of the books, fans had theorized that Jon was actually the son of Rhaegar, Daenerys’ much older brother, and Ned’s sister. The Season 7 finale not only confirmed the theory but established that Jon’s parents had gotten married in secret.

Over the course of July and August’s episodes, Jon and Daenerys met as potentially rival monarchs, considered the possible shape of an alliance between them, and brought out the best in each other as leaders (and as actors). As we watched the obvious physical attraction growing between them, Daenerys risked her life to save Jon, he pledged fealty to her, and we saw him enter her cabin by night while we listened to voiceover from two other characters putting together the pieces that revealed Jon as Daenerys’ nephew.

For me, and many other fans if the internet is any indication, this raised all kinds of mixed feelings. On the one hand, we love these characters, they fell for each other while ignorant of their familial relationship (how they react when they find out is a mystery awaiting us in Season 8), and we’ve seen how good they are together and for each other. On the other hand, nobody likes cheering on incest, especially when so many of the show’s tragic events are consequences of the ongoing affair between the queen of the realm and her twin brother. In the balance, I’ve concluded that, for Daenerys and Jon, I’m okay with it, even though it does violate my Biblical understanding of acceptable sexual relations.

My purpose in making this confession is not to justify my enjoyment of entertainment featuring plenty of morally reprehensible behaviors, but to wrestle with a deeper issue. In cheering for the incestuous romance between Jon and Daenerys, am I offering grace to familiar, beloved fictional characters that I wouldn’t extend to strangers in real life? Do I condemn a behavior in the abstract only to offer absolution when I know and like the practitioners?

This is a not insignificant problem. The less well we know a person, the easier it is for us to denounce their sin; the better we know someone’s story, the more likely we are to forgive the errors they commit. Although the Gospels don’t explicitly state this, the Pharisees and Jesus embody this tension: the former named tax collectors and prostitutes as irredeemable sinners and avoided them like the plague, while the latter ate with them and loved them as children of God. Once you’ve heard the story of a woman forced into prostitution by her boyfriend or kidnapped and trafficked halfway across the globe, you cannot consider prostitutes a bunch of hopeless, wanton temptresses.

Or look at King David, who abuses his power to commit adulterous rape and has a loyal soldier betrayed to his death to cover it up. Such behavior is really difficult to excuse, and yet, in Judaism and Christianity, David’s story is often told and his egregious sins are absolved. Like Daenerys and Jon, we know and like David enough to continue rooting for him even after what he did to Bathsheba and Uriah, and he remains a central and revered figure in the history of our forebears in faith.

As followers of Jesus, we must navigate between an ethical Scylla and Charybdis here. There is the danger that, with our friends and loved ones, we know them so well that we will readily excuse their sinful behaviors without considering the real harm they might be doing to themselves or others. But there is an at least equal danger that we will condemn people over a behavior viewed from a distance, without asking for their story or considering the possibility that they made the most moral decision they could in the circumstances.

I noticed this in myself as Hurricane Irma approached Florida. Although I assumed without asking that a friend who chose not to leave was making the right decision, I found myself judging the masses who didn’t evacuate as foolish. It took reading an article that spelled out the reasons interviewees weren’t leaving (such as being unable to afford gas, lacking transportation options at all, and having no place to go beyond the hurricane’s path) for me to understand that failure to evacuate is not just a product of unthinking stubbornness. And as I waited for the predictable headlines about looting, I realized that I had already read the looters’ stories: the same constraints that prevent people from evacuating can also result in a closed store being the only available source of food.

I could go on with examples: I was a homophobe before befriending a couple of gay men in the Episcopal campus ministry, I didn’t really understand the need for feminism until I dated a woman who told me about the discrimination and dismissal she faced, I avoided the post-9/11 Islamophobia only because one of my quiz bowl teammates was Muslim. My point is that, when all we see is a forest defined by a common behavior or trait, it’s easy to judge the whole forest sinful and worthy of burning; when we see even one individual tree in that forest and know their story, we must confront the fact that every tree has their own story, and on hearing that story, we might find ourselves identifying their sin as an expression of love and not a sin at all, or might forgive that particular sinner as doing their best under the circumstances, or might just be willing to leave judgment to God and love the person anyway.

So while I continue to believe that incest is sinful behavior and I would have a much harder time cheering for a marriage between real practitioners thereof than I do the fictional Jon and Daenerys, I do wonder if there are groups of people who I perceive as sinners in the abstract to whom I would extend grace if I knew one of them individually. And that, in turn, reminds me that my first duty is to love my neighbors, which I cannot do without knowing them, which I cannot do if I’ve already judged them in the abstract, before listening to their story.

The Rev. John Adams

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The Eggplant – What’s Your Story?

The Rev. John Adams

Last month, our Diocesan summer camp, Camp Canterbury, gathered with a storytelling theme; through our worship, discipleship groups, and workshops, we practiced telling our own stories, listening to the stories of others, and connecting our stories with the great story of God’s relationship with creation. Of particular interest to me was the slam poetry workshop; the campers were invited to take a story (Biblical or otherwise) and write a poem imagining that story from the perspective of a non-speaking animal or object (the birth of Jesus from the donkey’s perspective, for example). I was struck when a couple of campers shared poems from the perspective of weapons in pop culture (a villain’s baseball bat and a hero’s lightsaber) and they instinctively observed that the inanimate object, not having to buy into its wielder’s story of good and evil, could question the morality of the killings it was executing.

Since then, I’ve often found myself reflecting on the degree to which our ethics are framed by the story we imagine ourselves living, and how a problem that seems to be a difficult ethical dilemma if you’re telling yourself one story becomes totally obvious if you think you’re in a different story. A good example of this is depicted in American Fable, a genre-defying 2016 film that recently showed up on Netflix. Set during the Reagan era in a depressed rural community, we enter the story from the perspective of Gitty, a farmer’s daughter with a fantastic imagination. While exploring the officially-off-limits silo at the edge of their property, she finds that it is occupied by a mysterious man. Based on a story he tells her, Gitty imagines the man as a wish-granting spirit, like a leprechaun or genie, and brings him food and books while he teaches her to play chess.

The viewer slowly discovers that, in her father’s story, the farm is failing, he is deep in debt, and he is working with a mysterious woman (who his daughter sees as a demonic figure riding around) in a desperate attempt to hold onto his property. At the woman’s behest, the farmer has imprisoned the man whose company is buying up farms in the region; when the man is ransomed, the woman will give the farmer the money he needs to keep going. As a viewer, it makes for an interesting ethical statement: in the abstract, hopefully all of us would consider holding another person against his will an immoral act, but the farmer clearly believes that he is doing right in causing the man minimal harm in order to protect his own property and family, and when we watch his story, we find ourselves sympathizing if not agreeing with the decision he made.

The movie then takes a turn when it comes out that Gitty has been talking to the captive, shattering the illusions that only the farmer and the mysterious woman know there’s someone in the silo and that the captive is ignorant of his captor’s identity. As the farmer agonizes over what to do, Martin (Gitty’s older brother) decides to take matters into his own hands: having been told by the mysterious woman that the world is divided into warriors and the weak whom the warriors defend, Martin decides that he must be a warrior, doing anything necessary to protect his family. In his story, all ethical dilemmas are framed and solved by determining which course of action best helps or least harms the family, without weighing other considerations.

American Fable truly impressed me as a film that allows the viewer to see how a complicated ethical challenge looks different when seen as part of three different stories: Gitty’s childish fantasy, the farmer’s desperate fight against economic problems, and Martin’s story of himself as a warrior. Within the children’s stories, the solution to the problem of the man in the silo is completely obvious even as each child is certain the other is wrong. For the farmer, the children’s black-and-white perspectives force him to consider his actions as told through stories other than his own.

Without delving too deep into the political weeds, I hope the implications for our national and religious lives are obvious: the story you imagine yourself in will dictate what you consider ethical responses to the problems we face. For example, if the story of America is the story of European Christians who left in order to freely practice their brand of Christianity, then it is ethical to suppress Islam in America. If the story of America is the story of enterprising Europeans who left in order to establish their own economic hegemony, then the preservation of that order becomes the highest good. If the story of America is the story of folks who truly believed in contrast to Europe that “all men are created equal,” then the moral thing to do is whatever opposes extant inequalities and expands the definition of men to cover all people living here.

The same thinking applies to Christianity. How do you understand the story of Jesus? Is it the story of an exemplary moral teacher? The story of the prophet of the end times? The story of a substitutionary sacrifice for human sin? The story of a movement that offers the only way for people to join God? The story of God telling us through Word and example that God is love and we are to love God and one another? The story of Jesus as you understand it will determine what you think the moral responses are to religious plurality, diversity of sexuality and gender, wars and rumors of wars, poverty, climate change, and other great issues of our times. And the different ways we understand the story of Jesus help explain the intractable differences between Christians over such issues.

I believe that the story of Jesus is the story of God’s love, and that of other ways to understand the story some are less wrong than others. But I’m not trying to make a polemical point as much as I am trying to encourage you to be aware of the stories you imagine yourself in as an individual, as an American, as a Christian, as a rancher, as a gunowner, as middle-class, as whatever. If you are conscious of the stories you tell yourself, and aware how your stories frame your ethical perspectives, then you can be more attentive to the stories of others, and thus see how the different stories suggest different moral actions. Maybe in doing so we will start to identify problems in our stories that lead us to take actions others find immoral, but at a minimum, God willing, all of us will be better able to exchange stories while acknowledging the full humanity of each storyteller.

The Rev. John Adams

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Regenerating in the Body of Christ – The Eggplant

 

The Rev. John Adams

At the beginning of July, Series 10 of the revived Doctor Who concluded its two-and-a-half-month regular run (with a Christmas Special still to come). Doctor Who is a long-running BBC science fiction show that follows the adventures of the Doctor, an alien Time Lord who freely travels through space and time, usually with one or more human companions from contemporary Britain. At least once per season, the Doctor saves the earth and/or humankind from an existential threat, acting out his self-appointed role as our defender from alien menaces. Since its 2005 revival (after an extended hiatus), Doctor Who has established itself as a favorite of fans and critics (at least those for whom this sort of fantastic television isn’t a bridge too far).

One could write a long series of essays discussing Christian themes and ideas in Doctor Who, but a couple are of particular interest to me right now. The one that preaches is the salvific power of love, which succeeds in saving people where other efforts fail. To give just two of many examples from the show, in the first series episode “The Doctor Dances,” it looks as though alien medical nanogenes are going to turn all of humankind into broken, gas-mask-wearing creatures with a hive mind (it’s a long, but extremely good, story) when, at the Doctor’s prompting, the mother of the boy who was the first to encounter the nanogenes finally approaches and hugs her now-inhuman son instead of fleeing from him. The net result is that the nanogenes start healing people rather than turning them into copies of a dead boy; the mother’s love has saved humankind from annihilation. Similarly, in “The Lie of the Land” from the most recent season, alien invaders are broadcasting a psychic signal which convinces the people of earth that the aliens have always been our rulers. Bill, the Doctor’s companion, retains her memories of real history by imagining conversations with her long-dead mother; in the end, while attempting to sacrifice herself to break the signal, the love in Bill’s memories proves stronger than the alien lies and, with their hold on people’s minds broken, the aliens retreat rather than fight. Again, love has saved humankind where violent solutions could not; I cannot watch such episodes without thinking that they resonate with the example of Jesus, whose love saves us where our own efforts to save ourselves cannot.

The other theme which presently interests me offers more of a challenge. After the first three seasons of Doctor Who in the 1960s, it became apparent that the actor playing the Doctor was in need of replacement, so the writers devised a concept that would eventually be known as regeneration: when a Time Lord’s body is dying, a biological process releases a burst of energy that heals and reforms said body. In addition to transforming the Doctor’s physical appearance, allowing a new actor to inherit the role, the regeneration also affects memory and personality, allowing the new actor to put his own spin on the role rather than impersonating his predecessor. The idea of regeneration poses interesting questions for Christians. In the person of Jesus, we believe in someone whose self remained even as his body was transformed; like Doctor Who fans who spend the first few episodes of a new Doctor struggling to recognize the familiar character in a new body, the disciples tended not to recognize the resurrected Jesus when he first appeared to them. For ourselves, we believe in a bodily resurrection (articulated from the earliest centuries in the Apostles’ Creed), but most of us also believe in the immortality of our souls independent of our bodies (and thus enduring even through changes in our bodies). So it is very interesting for us to contemplate someone like the Doctor, where the self remains even though the body and the personality of that self change dramatically, and consider how the same might happen to us as members of the body of Christ.

This past week, the BBC announced the actor who will inherit the role of the Doctor from Peter Capaldi during the forthcoming Christmas episode. The Doctor Who lovers of the internet exploded in a predictable mix of fury and jubilation when it was revealed that Jodie Whittaker will play the first female regeneration of the Doctor. Although the announcement of every new Doctor is greeted with dismay from at least some portion of the fandom, I still find it depressing that, in a show limited only by the imaginations of the writers, a female incarnation of the protagonist should evoke such rage, as though the Doctor’s bodily gender would prevent her from saving the earth where Daleks or Cybermen could not.

But then, we in the Judeo-Christian tradition have long had the same problem. Our Scriptures often implicitly deny that the humanity of women is equal to men; just in this summer’s Sunday readings from Genesis (for those following Track 1 of the Revised Common Lectionary), women are assumed to want children without being consulted, cast out into the desert for no reason, and bought and sold as brides. The idea that God calls women as well as men to administer the sacraments and otherwise lead the body of Christ remains controversial in most corners of the Church and unfathomable in many. Among far too many men, and at least some women, the idea of a female conveying God’s salvation is as inconceivable as the notion of a female saving humanity is for some Doctor Who fans.

However, the love of God is indeed limitless, and it is the height of hubris to imagine that God does not fully love women or cannot share God’s love through a woman as easily as a man. So here’s an interesting thought experiment: a woman claims to be the Second Coming, the Word of God incarnate. Do you automatically reject her, assuming that God would not save us through a female messiah, or are you open to the possibility that she could be the one for whom we wait, testing her as you would any man making the same claim? If we cannot conceive of a female Christ, then perhaps we need to spend more time coming to grips with the reality of women as equal humans; perhaps we need to pray that, in the body of Christ, we will be regenerated into that version of ourselves most capable of recognizing God’s image in all our neighbors and sharing God’s love with everyone.

 

The Rev. John Adams

 

 

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Wonder Woman and Redemptive Violence – The Eggplant

*Spoiler alert: The following contains extensive discussion of the plot and characters of Wonder Woman (2017). If you haven’t seen it yet, why not? Straying into movie criticism for a bit, and setting aside the argument advanced below, Wonder Woman is about as good as superhero movies get, particularly origin stories. The acting (and the chemistry among the actors) is compelling, the action sequences are strong and (for the most part) don’t feel familiar from other action movies, the plot is straightforward and coherent, and it manages to balance a fun spirit with the consideration of serious issues (more on which below) better than most movies in any genre. So go see it; this essay will still be here tomorrow.*

 

In contemporary theological discussions of war, the so-called “myth of redemptive violence” is never far in the background. Coined by the Methodist theologian Walter Wink, the myth of redemptive violence is the term for a plot archetype that reinforces the ideology of a violent status quo. In the archetype, a violent, evil power rules and oppresses the world until a hero rises to oppose them. Through actions that may be similar to or even worse than those of the oppressor (particularly violence), the hero defeats the oppressor, inaugurating a new era that could only come about through the violent destruction of the old. Such stories (which occur in ancient mythology, religion, the interpretation of history, and various forms of entertaining fiction) encourage the readers and hearers to identify themselves with the new order and recognize that violence is sometimes necessary to defend that order. To quote Monte Python and the Holy Grail, a myth of redemptive violence invites folks to “come and see the violence inherent in the system” and understand that violence as a good thing.

As Christians, we must question and challenge myths of redemptive violence. In part, this is because we follow Jesus, who told his followers to put away their swords even when their leader was physically threatened (Matthew 26:51-52); his teachings compel us to seriously consider the possibility that no act of violence may be considered good. In part, this is because myths of redemptive violence train us to see those who oppose us and/or differ from us as less than us, deserving of violent oppression in a way we are not, which runs counter to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, 5:44). The danger in questioning myths of redemptive violence lies in the temptation to despair: if my religion, country, and worldview are predicated on such myths, I may stop trying to find anything good in them and give up on them entirely.

At least in my opinion, Wonder Woman does an outstanding job of presenting and challenging a myth of redemptive violence without succumbing to despair. The Amazon Princess Diana is raised on a magically isolated island in an ongoing myth of redemptive violence. After Zeus created mankind as good, his son Ares corrupted them with thoughts of war. Ares turned on his fellow gods and Zeus, able to temporarily neutralize but not kill his son, charged the Amazons with killing Ares when he resurfaced. Growing up in a community of warrior women, Diana was enamored with the martial arts that would be required to fulfill their mission.

When Diana leaves her home to seek and destroy Ares on the Western Front of World War I, she envisions completing the myth: using the Godkiller sword that Zeus gave to the Amazons for that purpose, she will slay Ares and, by doing so, redeem humankind from the violent tendencies that have so long enslaved them. In her understanding, following the contours of the myth, the death of Ares will remove his dark influence on the Germans (the aggressors and bad guys, who have already made war on the Amazons) and bring immediate peace. But she quickly becomes disillusioned, first with her inability to save the many non-combatants who are suffering during the war, then with her human allies, who, although fighting for the British, seem just as enamored of war as their German opponents.

After killing the German general she believes to be Ares, Diana becomes despondent that his death has made no difference, that the myth she believed is invalidated because the violence she committed failed to redeem the men who are fighting. At which point Ares shows up and further dismantles the myth: he tells her that, as god of war, he did not create violent human tendencies but only encourages those tendencies that are already present. On top of that, the Godkiller is not the sword, a single weapon to kill a single source of violence, but the person of Diana, a daughter of Zeus; while she can, and does, slay the god of war, she cannot so easily destroy the violence that lurks in the hearts of men.

In the modern-set frame at the beginning and end of the movie, Diana announces her conclusion: human nature is a mix of the good and the bad. While her own Amazonian violence can defeat other expressions of violence, human and divine, no violent action she could take would root the violence out of human hearts; as she says at the very end, “only love will truly save the world.” Admitting that my only knowledge of the character of Wonder Woman is from this movie and last year’s Batman V Superman, I find this frame particularly satisfying. Having involved herself in the wars of men, she understands that, while her violence can offer a significant advantage to one side, by fighting she cannot stop the human tendency to fight or even save those she loves. But rather than despairing and withdrawing from mankind entirely, she begins to work in antiquities (presumably because in doing so she can devote her energy toward saving good and beautiful things made by humans), again taking up her weapons only when Doomsday, a non-human monster, starts rampaging in her vicinity. She has rejected the myth that her violence will redeem mankind and instead sought a way to cultivate love and beauty; as Sia sings during the movie’s credits, “to be human is to love even when it gets too much. I’m not ready to give up.”

So as a Christian who enjoys movies that often depict violence as redemptive, living in a country that tends to frame its wars as necessary violence against irredeemably evil men, I find Wonder Woman a refreshing and rousing challenge, inviting us to question our leaders and lobbies that see violence as inevitable and, rather than despairing, imagine a future in which love, not war, is the defining feature of human interaction.

The Rev. John Adams

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The Divine Economy – The Eggplant

One of my favorite series of books right now is the Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, in which he has built an intriguing world around the insight that, at some level, religion is transactional. From this perspective, humans praise and worship gods, offer them sacrifices, and donate their time and wealth to the gods’ institutions, all of which increase the gods’ power and influence; the gods in turn use their power to bless their worshipers, offering tangible and intangible benefits both generally and to specific worshipers (in response to prayers or other petitions). With this insight, Gladstone then builds a world in which humans have identified and quantified the soulstuff that serves as the means of religious transactions, which in turn allows for the union of the religious economy and the purely human monetary economy.

The books take place in the aftermath of the God Wars, cataclysmic battles between the old regional divinities and Craftsmen and Craftswomen, humans who, having attained the power of gods through their study and accumulation of soulstuff, sought to replace divine authority with human power. Most of the surviving gods are in hiding or bound to humankind and the human economy by contracts far more quantified and detailed than the old covenants between gods and their worshipers. The post-war world is ruled by Craftsmen and Craftswomen who are simultaneously wizards and lawyers of the most careful sort.

The five novels of the Craft Sequence are thus an unusual but compelling mix of urban fantasy and legal thriller. In Three Parts Dead, the first published, a junior Craftswoman and a grieving acolyte team up to investigate the death of a god whose demise was engineered through manipulation of his contractual obligations. Another, Full Fathom Five, deals with strange happenings on an island where new idols with no native worshipers are used like offshore bank accounts.

Beyond being thoroughly enjoyable reads (where else are you going to find an amusing and plausible answer to the question of what happens when a caffeine addict is turned into a vampire?*), Gladstone’s novels are particularly thought-provoking for us as Christians. They force us to confront the possibility that we are treating religion as transactional rather than relational. Do I pray in the hope that God will do something for me or because I hope to deepen my relationship with God? Am I giving of my resources to help ‘the least of these’ in an attempt to love them as Jesus loves me, or to “score points for the afterlife” (as Weird Al phrased it in “Amish Paradise”)? Do I think of storing up treasure in heaven as the less tangible equivalent of saving money for retirement? And how might we be misunderstanding God if we treat worship in this way?

In a particularly resonant scene from Four Roads Cross, the leaders of a church confront this issue. Kos’ beloved consort Seril (the moon goddess to his sun god, as it were) was thought killed in the God Wars but has recently emerged from hiding, alive but greatly weakened. Kos has been covertly strengthening her with gifts of his soulstuff, but the human concerns to which he is contractually obligated have noticed something amiss and are threatening Craft action that will essentially lobotomize Kos if he doesn’t desist. During deliberations, Kos’ cardinals invite the novice who communicates directly with Kos to testify as to why he advised the god to continue aiding Seril despite the possible consequences. He says:

Last night, he led me to understand himself: Lord Kos loves, and he must fight to defend those he loves. He would not be himself if he let Seril fall, any more than I would be myself if I abandoned my friends, or my church. To turn from that truth is to turn from him – to deny our living god and satisfy ourselves with the worship of his dead image, of a picture on a wall that does not change or ask us to change. We must accept that he needs her, that he was less in her absence. You say I have endangered our god. I say I have grown to know him, and the greater danger lies in deafening ourselves to his purpose, in abandoning his truth for a version of him that may seem comfortable. Faith is a state of constant examination and openness. In faith we must be vulnerable. Only in this seeming weakness do we live with god.

We run a similar risk: it is too easy for us to follow a dead image of the divine that demands church attendance, tithes, or certain behaviors in exchange for wealth, health, and power. But the nature of our living God is to love, to give love freely in the hope that we will be similarly free in loving one another; the economy of divine love operates very differently from the monetary economy. That creates potentially scary uncertainty: there’s no price sheet telling us that a certain gift to the church will result in us getting a raise, handing this many sandwiches to the poor will bring victory to our football team, or saying so many Our Fathers will shave a year off our time in heaven’s waiting room. We can do everything right and still suffer bad things.

In that vulnerability and uncertainty, we must treat God as something more than an ATM which cannot help us if our account is empty. We cannot act as though Gladstone’s insight is true for us, that our religion is transactional, if we hope to deepen our faith during our journey through life. It is only in relating to God as a friend rather than a store clerk that we truly grow to know God.

 

*According to Four Roads Cross, it isn’t pleasant. Unlike those addicted to recreational drugs, who can drink the blood of human users to get their fix, coffee-loving vampires have to put up with the headaches and muscle cramps because “by the time I wake up, most of you have metabolized your caffeine.”

 

The Rev. John Adams

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The Eggplant – The Fast and the Fictive

The Rev. John Adams

The Eggplant: April 27, 2017
The Fast and the Fictive

When I was in Seminary, one of my classmates would joke that, if she were not called to be a priest, she would spend her time painting supper scenes from the Fast and the Furious movies, under the name Dom Tintoretto. Most of the time, people didn’t get the joke: Tintoretto was a Venetian Renaissance painter perhaps best known today for a Last Supper that contrasts dramatically with Da Vinci’s famous depiction thereof in its use of shadow and showing the table from a diagonal. Dom Toretto, played by Vin Diesel, is the protagonist of the Fast and the Furious series, now at eight films and counting.

The Fast and the Furious movies are one of Hollywood’s more curious franchises. After a modestly successful 2001 film about street racing and two less successful sequels featuring mostly new casts, in 2009 the franchise began pivoting by assembling a team of the most popular characters from the previous movies, led by Dom Toretto, and telling stories of heists and vehicular warfare among the criminal underworld. The result is a juggernaut that has become one of the most financially lucrative movie franchises and is still going strong.

Even moreso than Kong: Skull Island, these are movies that you watch not for the plot and dialogue but for the ridiculous action: a chase with a bank vault attached to the cars, a tank fighting on a highway, a car chase on ice featuring the unexpected appearance of a submarine. But beneath all the fun mayhem beats a surprisingly strong heart: Dom’s version of ‘honor among thieves’ is his code about family. More often than not, his team winds up in these crazy schemes because “you don’t turn your back on family” even when doing so would be the only way to avoid a world of trouble. A common feature of the franchise, in its quieter moments, is a scene where Dom and his team sit down to a meal together and, in a prayer before eating, Dom or another character thanks God for their family.

Setting aside the curiosity that movies with such a high quotient of violence and death are among the only blockbusters to include such explicitly Christian scenes, it’s fascinating that Dom’s family, for whom he willingly enters all manner of dire straits, is almost entirely fictive. With the exception of his sister, who eventually marries another member of the team, none of Dom’s ‘family’ is related to him by blood. The team is a group of friends who, between common interests and shared experiences, have become as close as family and chosen to treat one another as such.

This sort of chosen family is a very Christian idea: St. Paul, in his references to his disciples as his sons and other Christian leaders as his sisters and brothers, frequently uses the language of this fictive kinship, that we who are not related by blood from our birth are related even more surely in the blood of Christ. Today, we most commonly see this in addressing priests as ‘Father’ or ‘Mother,’ but beginning with Paul saying that he has become father to the runaway slave Onesimus (Philemon 10), this notion of fictive kinship has often guided Jesus’ followers in our efforts to relieve the suffering of others as though they were our children or stand with the oppressed as our siblings.

And Dom Toretto’s family features several traits that ought to define our own fictive kinship with our fellow humans. Dom’s family is, at least by the usual standards of Hollywood casts, incredibly diverse. Men and women are equal members of the team, and a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds are present. Too often, our Christian families lack such diversity, with most or all of our fictive kin sharing our race and ethnicity and women being reduced to inferior members.

Dom’s team also features a constantly rotating cast of characters, as old family members are killed or retire from the criminal life and new members join the team. The ease with which new members are assimilated is sometimes startling, perhaps because Dom has a curiously optimistic view of human nature: he seems to be positively inclined toward almost anyone he encounters who doesn’t threaten his family, and even when he himself is endangered, he sometimes retains that positive view. *Spoiler alert: spoilers for The Fate of the Furious follow.* For example, in the Havana-set opening scene of the most recent movie, Dom engages in a street race during which his opponent uses several tricks that nearly get Dom killed and spectacularly total his car. After Dom wins anyway, the opponent admits that Dom has earned his respect and Dom chooses to neither take his prize for winning nor otherwise punish this cheating foe. Said foe later shows up playing a small but crucial role in Dom’s plan for getting out of the pickle he finds himself in, suggesting that this is a potential future member of Dom’s family.

We Christians would do well to emulate Dom’s willingness to forego revenge despite the harm he endured, but even that pales in comparison to Dom’s willingness to forgive. After a cyberterrorist kidnaps Dom’s infant son so he will betray his family and work for her, he seeks help by reaching out to the Shaws, a literal family who opposed Dom’s team in previous movies and were responsible for deaths among Dom’s family members. At the end of the movie, Deckard Shaw delivers the baby to Dom, who forgives Deckard for killing Dom’s ‘brother’ Han and welcomes this former enemy to the family table. Given how well many Christians bear a grudge, even against our fictive kin, Dom’s forgiveness and welcome of someone who killed his family into his family is remarkable.

So weirdly enough, those Dom Tintoretto paintings would be an entirely appropriate hobby for a Christian. For a culture that looks upon the Last Supper (both the Da Vinci painting and, often, the event itself) as stuffy, old, and irrelevant, the suppers in the Fast and the Furious movies offer a more contemporary vision of Christian fellowship, where gender and race do not divide, where radical forgiveness is extended, and where everyone is family.

 

The Rev. John Adams

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The Eggplant: March 23, 2017 – Spoiler Alert

 

The Rev. John Adams

*Spoiler Alert: The following Eggplant contains spoilers for Kong: Skull Island (2017), Godzilla (2014), the Revelation to John of Patmos (~95), the good movies of M. Night Shyamalan (1999 and 2000), and Holy Week (~33).

For those who don’t spend time in the geekier corners of the internet, a spoiler alert indicates that plot details will be discussed, so if you have not yet seen or read the above and wish to do so without advance knowledge of their stories, read no further. If you have already experienced the above, have no interest in experiencing the above, or believe that knowing plot details will not detract from your enjoyment of the above, proceed.*

 

Earlier this month, Warner Bros. released Kong: Skull Island, an action-heavy monster movie that joins Godzilla (2014) in establishing the MonsterVerse (a shared cinematic universe analogous to the Marvel Universe in which fourteen superhero movies and six shows since 2008 have taken place). Immediately following the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Kong follows a team of scientists who are taken by military helicopters to a newly discovered, skull-shaped Pacific island. After the helicopters are destroyed by the gigantic gorilla of the title, the scattered survivors encounter further monsters and learn more of the island’s history during their struggle, inspired by Apocalypse Now (1979), to reach their extraction point before the appointed time. Among their discoveries is an isolated human tribe that, according to an American pilot stranded there during World War II, identifies Kong as their god.

Like Godzilla before it, much of the conflict in the film derives from the problem that, upon discovering that such monsters exist, some of the human characters want to destroy them all while other characters recognize that the titular monsters are beneficial to people, at least insofar as Godzilla can fight other monsters far more effectively than human weapons can and Kong defends all the island’s inhabitants, including the people, from the predatory, reptilian Skullcrawlers. In one scene in Kong, the surviving soldiers, who are hungry for revenge against Kong for killing their compatriots, almost come to blows with the civilians who only want to escape with their lives, while in another the civilians, having recognized Kong’s nobility, initiate a Mexican standoff in an attempt to defend the gorilla from the soldiers who are attempting to burn him.

Given that the natives identify Kong as god, I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a potential sliver of real world religious metaphor in that conflict. Two groups of people who ostensibly have the important things in common (they all come from the world outside of Skull Island and all want to get back there) part ways and almost kill each other over their different interpretations of god’s intentions: the soldiers see Kong as an oversized Vietcong, an enemy combatant who killed Americans and thus must be killed in turn, while the civilians see him as a king justifiably defending his home and dependents from potential threat. Like the people in Kong who struggle to come together to join the island’s god in fighting the Skullcrawlers, we in the real world fight one another, even Christian against Christian, over different understandings of God’s character, instead of joining with God to combat the real monsters of the world: violence, injustice, hunger, oppression, disease, climate change, etc.

Our inability to come together in the face of such ills is especially frustrating because, in Scripture, we have already read the ultimate spoiler: the monsters that would divide us from the love of God and one another have already lost. The God who defeated death also beats everything else that separates us from God. We spoil the ending every time we recite the Creed, celebrate with a Eucharistic Prayer, or otherwise remember Christ’s death, resurrection, and future second coming. Satan and Death and all those forces that sow hate and fear to prevent people from loving and serving each other as Jesus commands will be thrown into the lake of fire. Our failure as humans to unite against these monsters does no more than delay God’s final victory over them; one would hope that these spoilers in Scripture would galvanize us to join with God instead of feeding each other to the monsters.

But as those who at least occasionally visit the geekier corners of the internet are aware, not everyone responds to spoilers the same way. There are those who deliberately seek out spoilers as a way to whet their appetite; some folks happily go to the movies to witness the visual spectacle even after reading and dissecting a bootleg copy of the script (if you’ve enjoyed a movie that you saw after reading and rereading the book on which it was based, you’ve experienced something similar). But there are also folks who simply cannot find pleasure in the movie if they’ve already been told that, for example, Samuel L. Jackson is the villain or Bruce Willis is already dead.

As a story, Holy Week has been spoiled to the point that even folks who’ve never set foot in a church (and never intend to) know that the sequence of events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday ends with Jesus’ resurrection. And with regard to Holy Week, many Christians react to those spoilers in the second way, having no interest in watching the story unfold but wanting only to join in the Easter celebration at the end. Perhaps these are the same sort who, knowing God will win, find more pleasure in conflict with other people than in joining God to fight monsters.

But for me, and I hope for you as well, when it comes to Holy Week I have the first kind of response to the spoilers. We don’t attend the services of the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil) for the plot (just as I didn’t see Kong: Skull Island because I was interested in the story). We go to bear witness to what we already know we will see, in this case not the fun mayhem of a giant gorilla taking down a squad of helicopters, but what Jesus gave out of love for us. We take the time each Holy Week to bear witness to Christ’s love as expressed in washing his disciples’ feet and serving them his body and blood, in facing betrayal by his friend and whipping by his foes, in dying on a cross and rising from the grave. And by doing so, we can then bear witness of that love to others.

So I encourage you to spend extra time at church on April 13, 14, and 15, experiencing the story of Jesus’ Passion even though it has been spoiled for you many times over, because it is through reliving that familiar story for ourselves that we can share it in loving and serving our neighbors.

 

The Rev. John Adams

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