Not a Religion, a Relationship: Thoughts on the “Personal Savior” term

On Facebook, I was asked by my old college/seminary friend Jonathan Erdman (who blogs at Beginner’s Pen) for my thoughts on an article he posted on his wall “The Novelty of the Personal Relationship with Jesus”.  The piece was written by James F McGrath on the Patheos blog that references work done by Joel Miller who developed a relevant chart on the usage of “personal relationship with Jesus” and “personal savior”.  The research shows that the usage of these terms really did not happen at all before the 1970s when the phrases began to skyrocket.  They are, explicitly, nowhere to be found in Scripture.

I have used the terms “personal savior” and “personal relationship with Jesus” before myself.  In fact, back in the 1990s, I probably could have been found guilty using the bumper-sticker phrase “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” referring to a commitment to Jesus.  Admittedly, these cheap slogans induce in me a bit of an eye-roll as I recall them.

Miller writes in his blog, “To begin with, whenever we speak about faith being personal, we run aground on the modern misunderstanding of the word. We tend to think of personal as meaning ‘applies primarily—or even only—to me,’ like personal taste…But when we speak of personal faith, or resort to labeling our faith as such in the face of a disagreement over what is or is not true, we run the risk of reducing our creed to caprice, opinion, and fancy. Well, that’s what it means to me. This is particularly a problem today in our consumeristic, me-centered, self-indulgent culture.”  And to that, I give an affirmative “hear, hear!”

If “personal Savior” means we adopt Jesus only for ourselves, in our own American individualist way while excluding community or the historical testimony of those believers who have went before, we will miss a full encounter with the Christian faith. Our spirituality should not be like the old Burger King commercial:  “Have it Your way”.  My faith would not amount to much without my wife Michelle, my family, church leadership, my church congregation and other friends speaking into my life with counsel, advice, encouragement, or interventions.

Yet, I still have more nuance and sophistication in my view of the term “personal relationship with Jesus”.  When I hear the term, I immediately recall the worst of Evangelical mass marketing.  In my own head I envision mega churches with massive parking lots, food courts in the building, super sized auditoriums, state-of-the-art rock star lighting and a charismatic leader sprinkling a few Bible verses in a monologue focused on cliche self-help platitudes.

However, that is just my reaction to the term.  The concept espoused by most Christians who use the term is well-meaning.  What is trying to be conveyed is that God can be very near.  The Creator of the universe via His Son and by the impartation of His Spirit can be connected with, yes, in a very personal way.  The Apostle Paul, in Acts, proclaim at the Areopagus:  “And He (God) made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:26-27, ESV)  God being not far from any of us makes God personal.

Language obviously evolves and changes.  Evangelicals and other Christians in the late 60s and 70s began describing their experiences with Jesus as a “personal relationship” and forget the term, the concept was the vital truth of their faith.  It may be true that “personal Savior” has become a term hijacked by subculture marketing efforts and this may mean we may need to come up with other or newer combinations of words to describe the concept of a connection with Jesus.

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Movie Watching (June 2016)

Busy schedule, usual excuses, cause me to fall behind in my cinematic journal. Here are June’s offerings:

Rating Scale:  * to *****

Trumbo- Truly great to see the star of “Breaking Bad”, Bryan Cranston, coming into his own as a solid Hollywood actor and “Trumbo” is a film that showcases his considerable ability.  At the center of the movie, is Dalton Trumbo who became a jailed and blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter in the late 1940s and 1950s when the US Congress was hot on the trail communists via McCarthyism.  The last third of the film tends to drag a little bit and become muddled but overall, this is a recommend for movie lovers and history buffs.  *** 1/2

Larry Crowne- A thundering disappointment of a movie especially with Tom Hanks in the director’s chair and as the lead role.  Hanks plays a middle-aged man who gets fired from his job at a Walmart-type department store and decides to go back to college.  His teacher, Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), becomes an unlikely flame.  Cliches abound and various eye-rolling sequences.  While there are some funny moments, the film is entirely predictable.  **

Joy- Generally, I enjoy the movies of David O Russell but “Joy” seems like a lesser effort in his canon.  The lead character, played by Jennifer Lawrence, holds her quirky and needy family together while becoming a powerful matriarchal-type figure.  Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) is the executive that gives her the big break with a self-wringing mop.  The performers are all good (Robert DeNiro is also in this) but the main story isn’t compelling enough to draw us in.  ***

Anomalisa- The animation in “Anomalisa” from directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman (the creative virtuoso) is astounding.  An author, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who specializes in customer service, finds himself alienated in a hotel preparing for a conference and with a bleak view of life in general due to the mundaneness.  He meets a stranger at the hotel, Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) which causes him to reconsider his perspective on his life.  The movie captures loneliness and alienation mightily well.  With all of this, there isn’t a considerable amount to the overall plot.  *** 1/2

The Good Dinosaur- Every Pixar film I have seen is worth watching (even the weakest link in their catalog Cars 2) and “The Good Dinosaur” is not different.  The mis en scene animation, regarding the backdrops and setting in the movie, is jaw-dropping and there are some incredible sequences.  The dinosaur animation is intentionally cartoon-y.  A question sets up the foundational premise:  what if the asteroid that allegedly hit earth and caused the dinosaurs to go extinct missed altogether?  Humans and dinosaurs may have ended up living together.  Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is an Apatosaurus who is separated from his family and comes across an unlikely human friend.  Animal and human consciousness is completely flipped in the story.  This isn’t the greatest Pixar movie ever but there is a sweetness to it and those backgrounds, top-notch animation.  *** 1/2

Deadpool- Bound to happen sooner or later, the Fox X-Men universe series has released one of the first major rated R comic book films.  As expected, the movie is very violent, contains much innuendo and off-the-wall sexual situations.  With all of that, there is a certain amount of entertainment to be had.  Ryan Reynolds plays the title character Deadpool (Wade) as a former special operative who goes about a rogue experiment (the typical comic book origin account) and ends up with accelerated healing powers.  The mood is irreverent and Reynolds plays Deadpool with a mouthy sass.  Not as exceptional as people made the film out to be but certainly not bad, Deadpool carries the famous Rob Liefeld comic book character onto the big screen successfully with many sequels to follow.  Points for a pretty funny marketing campaign too.  *** 1/2

Rock the Kasbah- Bill Murray and Bruce Willis in a movie set in Afghanistan and revolving around an Afghani show that is similar to American Idol?  Intrigued?  I kind of was too but then I watched the film.  “Rock the Kasbah”, directed by Barry Levinson, is not very good, is thematically uneven and is boring in places.  Murray plays Richie Lanz, a down-on-his-luck music manager who travels to Afghanistan (!) when the war effort is going on.  He discovers Leem Lubany (playing Salima) who has an incredible voice and may end up inspiring this war torn country on the show Afghan star.  Cue eye roll.  **

Where to Invade Next- I have seen most of Michael Moore’s documentaries (or is that opinionated films or propaganda?) and this is his very best one.  Moore, showcasing his comedy chops, sets off showing groups of personalities from our defense department and setting up the premise of him invading other countries….in order to learn from them.  He discovers Italy’s generous vacation time for workers, France’s nutritious school meals for students, Iceland’s strong presence with female leadership and many other ideas.  I still get the sense that if we dived deeper into some of the ideas that Moore is persuasively bantering on about, we would find some complexities and societal challenges to implement them.  However, I can safely say that this is Moore’s most patriotic film.  A case that America can do better by learning from others.  “Where to Invade Next” is thought-provoking and funny.  *** 1/2

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck- The life of Kurt Cobain, the frontman of the grunge rock group Nirvana, plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy.  This documentary, directed by Brett Morgen, chronicles his rough home life growing up, interviews with ex-girlfriends/friends/ family members and gives us a up close vantage point to his unlikely ascent to rock star superstardom.  Cobain seemed to genuinely struggle with fame and fought to not have his music cheapened and to not sell out.  In a short time, he had gained the whole world (at least in many people’s eyes) but he never seemed satisfied or even excited about the prospect.  His suicide on April 5th, 1994 was a terrible tragedy.  At only 27, there is no doubt he had more musical creativity inside of him.  He could not conquer his own personal demons.  ****

Zootopia- Walt Disney Animation Studios is definitely taking cues from the other division (Pixar) in making quality and engaging animated films.  “Zootopia” directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush is a prime example of that.  The city of “Zootopia” is quite the spectacle to see.  There are different climate zones (neighborhoods) for the varying animals who live together in the greater metropolis.  A rookie bunny cop Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), from the suburbs, comes to the big city and teams up with a sly con artist fox named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) in order to uncover a conspiracy.  This is a solid film that is engaging, funny and thoughtful with its themes of diversity and multi-culturalism.  ****

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Movie Watching (May 2016)

Mad Max- A down under classic which effectively launched the career of Mel Gibson in 1979.  George Miller’s “Mad Max” is a post-apocalyptic, low budget thriller that struck a chord with audiences across the world.  The plot is simple enough:  a vengeful Australian policeman, Max, takes on a ruthless motorcycle gang who toward the end of the experience, threaten his family.  The movie is not spectacular but did launch a franchise that has culminated in the critically-acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road which is a far superior film.  One has to start somewhere.  ***

Captain America: Civil War (Theater)- Further proof that the Captain America movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are superior to the rest. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have outplayed DC Comics by delivering the ultimate superhero at-each-others-throats smackdown.  The Russo brothers effortlessly juggle multiple characters both old and new in order to give us an unrelenting thrill ride that, in a world overstuffed with comic book films, makes us yearn for more.  The dispute between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man’s (Robert Downey, Jr) is well-written and developed effectively that we understand the motivations for each in their course of action.  One of the better comic book films ever made.  **** 1/2

Batteries Not Included- A long time ago, maybe circa 1989 or 1990, I watched this film as a kid but I didn’t remember much of it.  Being that the movie started streaming on Netflix, Michelle and I thought that we would give it another go.  An elderly couple runs a greasy spoon restaurant in an old apartment building in New York City that will soon be demolished- a victim of the urban renewal wasteland in the Big Apple.  The couple, Faye (Jessica Tandy) and Frank (Hume Cronyn) as well as other residents in the building are visited by small, alien flying saucers who work to repair the building.  This is a typical, friendly alien visitation movie which seemed to be a big theme in the 1980s.  A predictable plot and way too much sentimentality.  ** 1/2

Bone Tomahawk- Now, here is a crazy ass crossbred genre movie that gives way to considerable shocks at the conclusion.  The movie is mostly a western that centers around a group of men, led by Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) as they venture out to rescue a doctor, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), who has been kidnapped by savages.  In the final act, the film veers wildly into horror giving the entire viewing experience a uniqueness.  This movie is the debut of S. Craig Zahler and he has made a pretty good film.  *** 1/2

The Machinist- Starring Christian Bale, “The Machinist” is a character study of Trevor Reznik who is an industrial worker struggling with sleep.  What is real and what is all in his head are the questions the audience will ask itself?  By the end, most of it will make sense and we experience the powerful theme of a man needing to act in repentance and confession to begin a journey toward peace.  Solid film that packs quite a punch.  ****

Sisters- With the joint talent of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, one would have high hopes of a devastatingly funny comedy with an engaging story.  Not so here.  “Sisters”, directed with wild mediocrity by Jason Moore, is a third-rate Judd Apatow rip-off.  Two sisters (Fey and Poehler) return to their childhood home to throw one last party before the house is sold.  There are some funny moments but that is about it.  **

Saul Fia (Son of Saul)- Another holocaust film, “Saul Fia” strives to be different by being one of the most personal journey’s through hellish evil perpetuated by the Third Reich.  The movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  Many things about the plot are not substantially clear.  The camera follows Saul Aslander (Geza Rohrig) almost literally as if the audience is tagging along right behind him as he witnesses mass atrocities and worse.  There are close encounters with death.  Saul’s job is burning corpses.  At one point, he takes a corpse of a young boy that he takes as a son.  Is this actually his son or is Saul trying to grab a hold of any piece of morality or humanity that he can?  The movie is never really clear here.  Saul hardly speaks even when unspeakable horror and chaos is all around him.  As I hinted at, there isn’t really much of a plot here. This is more an experience as if the audience is an invisible witness to genocide.  Raw power emanates from the screen but there isn’t much of a story to pull us fully in.  ***

Mad Max: Fury Road- The 4th installment of the Mad Max series is a white-knuckle chase film from beginning to end.  Max (Tom Hardy) almost becomes a supporting character in this film as Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads a group of women fugitives in rebellion against a tyrannical leader in postapocalyptic Australia.  I guarantee that anyone seeking to watch this movie will have seen nothing like it.  “Fury Road” is a relentless action picture with a good deal of social commentary and stunning visuals.  A triumph for aging director George Miller.  ****

The Hateful Eight- Quentin Tarantino is an undisputed master of cinema and his passion for making movies can be experienced in just about every frame he has ever shot.  His latest, a 3 hour western “The Hateful Eight”, is sadly one of his lesser works along with “Death Proof”.  That is not to say the movie is bad and it is certainly better then a lot of other stuff Hollywood puts out.  The story centers around a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) who is looking to bring a prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into the town of Red Rock to collect his reward.  They meet up with Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) and come upon a cabin/bar.  Other nefarious characters are at this cabin/bar (Minnie’s Haberdashery) and the film slowing unravels their histories and intentions.  Beautifully filmed in the Wyoming winter and becoming more compelling as the running time moves forward, “The Hateful Eight” is still recommended while not being one of Tarantino’s best. *** 1/2

Risen- Christian films try so hard.  “Risen” is actually better than most of what gets produced from faith-based decisions of movie studios these days (those which I have seen).  That is not to say that it is anything more than mediocre but at least the subject that is tackled is different then in other Jesus movies we have seen.  Joseph Fiennes stars as Clavius, a Roman Tribune, who is tasked with finding the body of Jesus of Nazareth after it vanishes from the tomb where He was laid.  Fiennes does give a fairly good performance here as he interviews eyewitnesses and tracks down Christ’s disciples who claim they have seen their Lord risen from the grave.  There are moments which are done well and others that fall strictly into an irritating sentimentality.  ***

11.22.63- The Amazon mini-series, based upon the Stephen King novel, will be a hard one for me to review as I thought the book was near masterpiece status.  The mini-series of “11.22.63” treads the major plot points of the book but, of course, has to cut out compelling parts of the story to fit this into an 8 episode arc.  I mean, why not make this longer since this is a mini-series?  Anyway, the huge error in the cinematic version is how criminally underwritten Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon) is and how her character plays such a more central (and stronger) role in the book.  An excellent James Franco plays Jake Epping who discovers that a local Maine diner has a time portal back to October 21, 1960.  He plots with the dying diner owner to stop the assassination of John F Kennedy as they convince themselves that the world would be a better place.  The morality and ethical considerations with this plot is more engagingly explored in King’s work.  Overall though, it was enjoyable seeing this story on the screen.  *** 1/2


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Movie Watching (April 2016)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two- One of the better young adult dystopian series, “The Hunger Games” (and thereby the adventures of Katniss Everdeen) come to an end with a solid installment in the franchise.  The previous movie, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One”, was the weakest in the series and felt like a giant filler.  “Part Two” gives us a full on revolution against President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) Panem government.  There are satisfying action sequences and thrilling moments all anchored on the feminine hero created by Jennifer Lawrence.  As the story evolves toward the ending, the audience will be surprised at some of the complex political maneuverings.  Who can be trusted?  ****

Concussion- The latest Will Smith offering (he reportedly hasn’t watched a game of NFL football since filming this one) is undoubtedly a message movie.  The plot focuses on Dr. Bennett Omalu who made the first discovery of CTE in professional football players.  He goes up against the multi-billion dollar (non-profit) NFL to publish and make known his findings.  Smith is excellent in his role as Dr. Omalu but some of the other acting is suspect.  While this issue is important, the film’s plot does suffer from such a heavy handed message.  ***

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Theater)- A direct sequel to DC’s “Man of Steel” and an undeniable setup for future Justice League movies, I enjoyed “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice more than many critics. My review is here.   ***

Brooklyn- The Academy Award 2015 best picture nominee is a sweet natured meditation on immigration into the United States.   Eilis (portrayed by a wonderful Saoirse Ronan) lands in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s as an immigrant from Ireland.  The film realistically shows the hardship and homesickness that most immigrants must have felt.  A romance soon blossoms with a local, Tony (Emory Cohen) but Eilis is called away back to Ireland where more life complexities arise.  Thematically, this is fairly straightforward.  Eilis love interests in both the US and Ireland serve as metaphors of her torn heart between her homeland and the new world.  The writing is realistic and effective and overall, this is a beautiful film.  ****

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst- Over the course of my life, I have seen many thrillers and horror movies.  I feel pretty desensitized most of the time when encountering this specific genre.  That is why I was surprised by the legit creep factor of HBO’s 6 part documentary series on accused killer Robert Durst.  Durst’s family is one of the richest and most powerful in New York as they own a lot of real estate in Manhatten and around the city.  Headlines were made in 1982 when Durst’s wife, Kathleen, mysteriously disappeared.  Amazingly enough, Durst wasn’t really investigated all that heavily but a mild cloud of suspicion followed him after the event.  On December 24, 2000, Durst’s friend Susan Berman was shot in the back of the head in her Benedict Canyon house in California.  On October 9, 2001, Morris Black was found murdered and dismembered in Galveston Bay in Texas.  Durst was living down in Texas and this was his neighbor.  Durst was arrested and later acquitted of this crime even though, incredibly, he admitted to dismembering Black’s body while stating the killing was self-defense.  Andrew Jarecki is the filmmaker who put together this series and he has crafted a considerable work.  Jarecki scored an interview with Durst after directing “All Good Things” (a fictional film on Durst) and the revelations that he scored while making this documentary are mind-blowing.  Highly recommended and particularly for those interested in the true crime genre.  ****1/2

In the Heart of the Sea- Many were probably surprised that this movie was not more of a blockbuster as the story involved the retelling of the tale of a New England whaling ship’s sinking by a gigantic whale in 1820.  The sequence of the sinking, featuring a barrage of special effects, is fairly well-crafted by director Ron Howard.  Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth aka Thor) and his crew watch helplessly as their vessel, the Essex, is torn apart by the mammoth beast.  Later, this account would inspire Herman Melville to write “Moby Dick”.  Given how poorly this did in the theaters, I think it deserves a wider audience.  The film is not on par with some of Howard’s best work but is engaging in its own right.  *** 1/2

Legend- With a lackluster and meandering gangster plot, “Legend” basically is a showcase for how good of an actor Tom Hardy is as he plays to gangster brothers, Reggie Kray and Ron Kray.  One brother is a little more psycho then the other.  Ronnie especially takes aim at advancing the family business as the brothers, over the course of the film move up in the criminal underworld.  We have all seen this before but again, worth seeing for Hardy’s wild performance.  ***

Spotlight- Comparisons have been made between this movie and “All the President’s Men” and they are deserved.  “Spotlight”, the best picture Oscar winner, is a brilliant film about how Boston Globe reporters uncovered a massive conspiratorial cover-up of child sexual abuse in Boston and beyond.  This is a no-nonsense film that restrains against melodrama while trying to keep the audience into the mindset of a investigative reporter.  Still, the anger is palpable.  The cast is very solid featuring:  Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber.  *****

The Peanuts Movie- One of the greatest comics in American history gets a computer-animated upgrade and the result captures a lot of the spirit on what makes Charlie Brown and his gang so fun.  The story centers around Charlie meeting a new, red-haired girl classmate while Snoopy takes to the skies to pursue his arch-nemesis.  When there is a mistake on a standardized test and Charlie gets a perfect score, he has to wrestle with whether to tell the truth and if this will hurt his chances with the new red-haired girl.  The plot is appropriately simple and the movie was enjoyable to watch.  *** 1/2

Amy- I wasn’t terribly familiar with the music of Amy Winehouse before watching this tragically sad documentary on her way-to-short life but everyone (as in 100%) always raved about how talented she was.  Amy was a teen sensation where she really started to showcase her considerable singing ability.  With passion and drive, she reached superstardom while doing records (mostly) her way.  There was not to be a happy ending as this Oscar-winning documentary chronicles her spiral down into drug abuse and alcoholism.  *** 1/2

The Wind Rises- A considerable masterpiece, “The Wind Rises” is a telling of the life of Jiro Horikoshi.  The director, Hayao Miyazaki, while telling a biopic grapples with weighty and sophisticated ideals.  Would we accept a world without the pyramids while knowing the timeless structures were erected under conditions of slavery, violence and oppression?  Horikoshi designed the Japanese fighter planes for World War II.  As Japan lost the war, a lot of these planes (if not all) would be complete destroyed.  Tragedy is all around us in life but we must get on with the business of living.  What else can we do?  **** 1/2

Captain America: The Winter Soldier- Marvel Studios (owned by Disney) is firing on all cylinders and the best of the expanding franchise are the Captain America movies.  “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is an engaging action movie that happens to be based on a comic book.  While battling his old nemesis Hydra and the tentacles of the organization that have crept into our own government, Cap (Chris Evans) finds corruption at all levels.  He criticizes the military build up being orchestrated by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).  There are mysterious ties to a lethal assassin (Bucky Barnes portrayed by Sebastian Stan).  Epic, comic book action with engaging themes and relentless action.  **** 1/2

The Jungle Book (Theater)- Another Disney animated classic gets the live-action treatment and the results are a thoroughly entertaining family adventure.  The story of Mowgli being raised by wolves and then threatened by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a tiger, is familiary but director Jon Favreau, with some glorious CGI capture the old Rudyard Kipling tale.  The outstanding voice cast features Ben Kingsley as the overprotective panther, Baheera and Bill Murray (a perfect casting choice) as the free-spirited bear, Baloo.  ****

The Count of Monte Cristo- For “Film & Theology night” with Seed Church, we had a viewing of “The Count of Monte Cristo” with a discussion to follow.  The swashbuckling action movie gives way to deeper themes of revenge, the cost of revenge, loyalty with friendship and of course, betrayal.  This is a very good film with legit performances from Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes and Guy Pearce as Fernand Mondego.  Never read the book which I’m sure is more enlightening on the important themes and experiencing the classic work by Alexandre Dumas is certainly on my list.  ****

Pawn Sacrifice- Tobey Maguire’s cinematic career may always be overshadowed by his portrayal of Spiderman/ Peter Parker in the Sam Raimi trilogy but that doesn’t mean that he cannot be a considerable actor when given the material.  His performance in “Pawn Sacrifice” directed by Edward Zwick is the best thing about the film.  He plays Bobby Fischer during the historical period of the Cold War who often is caught between his country and desire to compete, in chess, with the best players in the world.  In this case, a great player he builds competition with is Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).  Fischer is portrayed obviously as eccentric but also kind of an ass.  Even with Maguire’s key performance, the screenplay never seems to allow a deeper digging into the enigma that was Bobby Fischer.  *** 1/2

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Grappling with “Leaving Conservatism Behind” by Matthew Sitman

A few of my friends refer to Twitter as “Twit-verse” however, if I was not on the popular social media site, I may have missed out on a challenging and compelling article I stumbled across on Alissa Wilkinson’s (the chief film critic at “Christianity Today”) feed.

The blog in “Dissent Magazine”, written by Matthew Sitman, was entitled “Leaving Conservatism Behind”.  Wilkinson introduced this piece by stating, “This is beautifully written, and thought-provoking. Worth reading no matter your politics” and this is true although I imagine Sitman and I would disagree on some political and perhaps religious matters here or there.

The power of this blog post lies in Sitman’s discussion of his personal life experience which emanates from his blue-collar upbringing.  The question that arises and, indeed, is at the edges of every word of the article he writes is:  does conservative economic policy help people who live in these conditions and with these circumstances?  Also, more hauntingly, how statistically likely is it for citizens who live in blue-collar or impoverished circumstances to escape them?  Certainly, this is a well-explored topic and I would not be able to cite all the studies done on this particular question.  Sitman’s experience through writing brings these questions back fresh and, no matter our political perspective, helps us to profoundly confront this age-old inquiry.

Some excerpts (but really, you need to read the entire piece here):

“It wasn’t just growing up amidst factories and farms that made me a conservative. Even more important was faith—an apocalyptic strain of Christianity that stringently upheld ‘traditional values.’ The term ‘fundamentalist’ gets used haphazardly in our debates about religion and politics, a catchall pejorative for Christians deemed to be on the wrong side of history. But we embraced the label. My family’s church described itself as ‘independent, fundamental, Bible-believing.’ It belonged to no denomination, though the label Baptist would have been accepted, with a modifier or two, by most who worshipped there. We used only the King James Bible, and preached a version of the faith that emphasized personal conversion and the impending end of the world. That strange and foreboding text that closes the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, was our guide to the late, great planet earth’s fate. Drinking was forbidden, book-learning viewed with suspicion, and the Bible treated as a literal handbook for life.”

“That deeper affinity our faith had for American-style conservatism came from the spirit of voluntarism and individualism that defined this version of Christianity. It held out the prospect that a person could transform their life by ‘asking Jesus into his heart.’ The past could be put away, sins could be forgiven in an instant, and a new life begun with just a simple prayer. Religious experience was direct and unmediated. We had no sacraments that served as the means of grace: tradition was scorned and rituals were condemned as merely human inventions. Even the church was viewed as a kind of local, democratic association. We were ‘members’ of one particular church, not incorporated into the mystical body of Christ.

This vision of the spiritual life was based on an exalted understanding of human freedom. Our wills were not bound and our ultimate fate was dependent on nothing but our own decisions. Sanctification came through individual effort and personal reform. It should be no surprise that this Christianity of the altar call proved a ready ally of all the fantasies and political and economic pieties we nurture about America: our belief in our capacity for self-invention and our trust that nearly limitless rewards could be gained through toil and travail. Suffering was ultimately the result of bad choices. You were, in the most profound sense, on your own.”

“Most political and intellectual movements understand themselves to be more pristine and virtuous than they are; that sin is not exclusive to conservatives. The sweep and scale of conservative self-understanding does stand out, however. What it offers is not just a hymn of praise to a few magazines and politicians, but a master theory of twentieth-century political history: how America lost its way, and how we found our way back.

This deductive quality of the conservative mind is its most distinctive feature. Certain axioms are true—about the Constitution, about morality, about economics, about our aspirations as human beings—therefore particular policies and courses of action should be pursued. Despite their vaunted claims to grappling with the world as it is, of being mugged by reality, conservatives in America practice a determined anti-empiricism. This is what holds together all the myriad failures of conservative politics: a devotion to first principles that simply must be true, whatever the consequences, and whatever the human suffering left in their aftermath.”

“The failure of conservatives to attend to the world as it actually exists, the world in its suffering and hardship, drove me from their ranks. And awareness of how suffering and hardship are so often unchosen and undeserved by those who endure it—and prolonged and deepened by a political system that assumes they are due to failures of ‘personal responsibility’—moved me to the left. But even more, all this convinced me that turning to class remains the most powerful way to understand and respond to these realities.”

“…you could read studies showing that death rates for working-class whites were rising, driven by suicide and addiction to painkillers and alcoholism. Or how, almost a decade after the financial crash of 2008, those responsible for the economic devastation are thriving, bailed out with taxpayer money, all while working-class Americans, saddled with debt, try to make do with stagnating wages. Or why, casting a glance at those who depend on government assistance, our politicians blame the morals of the poor for their plight, even as those with power ask our forgiveness for their indiscretions and corruption. Our trade policies, our political priorities, our passion for sending soldiers into the deserts of the Middle East, are best grasped by turning to class: they all serve the interests of those not dependent on wages, or hemmed in by want.”

Days after reading this article, I’m still thinking about it.  These ideas deserve grappling with and listening too.

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Dear James Dobson: Please Retire

For those who are still actually engaged with the political opinions of James Dobson, the former head of “Focus on the Family“, his statement to Pennsylvania pastor, Michael Anthony, about Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump becoming a born-again Christian has drawn a mild amount of curiosity and, in some quarters, ridicule.

Michael Anthony interviewed James Dobson where the assertion that Donald Trump converted to Christianity made its way into the public conversation.  The New York Times picked up the story.  Politico also followed suit reporting: “However, Dobson, a Christian psychologist and founder of the Focus on the Family group, said he knows ‘the person who led [Trump] to Christ. And that’s fairly recent…I don’t know when it was, but it has not been long,’ Dobson… ‘I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian.'”

Everyone should note the incredibly vague assertions:  “don’t know when it was, but it has not been long.”  There was no name given of the person who led the Donald to Christ. (After I wrote this, news came out that allegedly Paula White led Trump to Christ.)  Does this smack of Dobson being profoundly naïve (another duped by a TV reality show host) or politically-driven cynical pandering?  Perhaps next on the campaign trail, we will have the media-saturated Donald getting baptized in the Potomac by Eric Metaxes (an Evangelical and vocal Trump supporter) live on cable news in an attempt to influence more Evangelical voters to cast their lots for alleged billionaire.

Being a Christian, I hope that all people would come to know Christ (of course, by their own free volition to do so).  This applies to the Donald as well.  However, with a long history of so-called Evangelical leaders trying to deliver the votes of our community for the GOP, there is reason to be skeptical of Dobson’s claims regarding a Trumpian salvation.

Dobson is a part of the old-time religious right who arose to significant political power in the 1970s under the banner of “The Moral Majority”.  Widely, they are credited with helping elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.  One of the wedge issues that was used to persuade Evangelicals (and Christians who are generally described as more conservative) was the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision in 1972 on abortion.  Over the ensuing decades in various ways, the political bandwidth grew from a few social issues to allying the gospel of Christ with the invisible hands of free-market capitalism and other GOP orthodox political platforms.

In the minds of Dobson and other remaining remnants of the religious right, a person would either not be a true Christian or perhaps would be immature in their faith for holding positions other than those espoused by Republican politicians.  Indeed, Christianity became to these “Moral Majority” leaders a political wedge itself or a tool of manipulation to coarse sincere believers in Christ into voting exclusively in the wings of a major American political party.  The gospel became a power religion at the service of people with money and influence who can tell specific politicians that they can deliver a “voting bloc” for them if those candidates agree with their political hobby horses. Frankly, this is disgusting.

On a macro level, regarding immediate political issues in the context of my community or nation, I keep in mind the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John.  While standing in front of a politician, Pontius Pilate, who was about to wash his hands of the torture and death that Jesus would suffer: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.'” (John 18:36, ESV) By the teachings of Christ, believers trust in a spiritual kingdom that is transcendent to this world.  Future Hope for Christ followers is in a coming, perfect King.

Religious Right ideology has centered around often trying to pass legislation to force/ coerce others to act Christianly.  Surely, Christians should know though that an external law will not change heart behavior.  Jesus famously addressed this in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7).

Dobson, and some of his like-minded peers, would like us to embrace Trump as a born again Christian in order to vote for the “R” on the ballot.  Embrace anyone instead of voting for a Democrat or a third party.  Even desiring for us to cast a ballot for a candidate who has long been on the opposite side of one of Dobson’s preeminent issues:  abortion.  Trump has famously been pro-choice most of his life and described himself as “very pro-choice” in 1999.  The Donald claims he has converted to the pro-life cause just in time to run for president on the GOP ticket.  Months ago, he changed his position on abortion 5 times in 3 days.  This week, when the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the Whole Woman’s Health vs Hellerstedt that struck down key provisions of a Texas law, Trump was silent on the decision and he has pro-life advocates worried.

Yet, the evaporating religious right keeps on marching and twisting themselves in the knots of cognitive dissonance in support of a casino magnate and strip club owner.  In other words, a man who has engaged in activity for years that the religious right has condemned.  This will be the final, closing act of the decaying “Moral Majority”.

My hope for the Church in America is that it will not be a voting bloc for the political machinations of powerful leaders but a wellspring of critical and independent thought in regard to politics.  Less association with a specific political party and more coalescing around important issues including:  helping the poor and disenfranchised, making war an extremely rare response, pro-life matters, helping single mothers or fathers, advocating for reconciliation, and standing strong against racial/ cultural bigotry.

Those categories are broad enough that people in the church (and beyond) will disagree on the details.  That is fine.  The Christian Church has existed for nearly two thousand years under all kinds of different political systems.  In my small church of about 200 people, one will find committed Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and everything in between.  We gather under the common banner of the gospel of Christ (as the church has for millennia) that we seek to not defile by adding to this sacred and foremost doctrine the platforms or goals of an American political party.

As for Dobson, I’m sure he lives a good life in his likely mansion with all manners of servants catering to him and his family.  Confidently, we can assume he has a very comfortable life.  With the end of the religious right and its slide into irrelevance, now might be as good a time as any for the former head of Focus on the Family to…retire.


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Clash of the Cultural Titans: A Review of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Imagine American culture without Batman and Superman.  Can we even conceive of such a society?  Predating Indiana Jones, Star Wars, The Simpsons and other cultural behemoths, the comic book legends trace their debuts back to the 1930s prior to America’s entrance into World War II.  Superman debuted in “Actions Comics # 1” (widely considered to be the most valuable comic book of all time) on April 18, 1938.  Batman would follow with a first appearance in “Detective Comics #27” in May 1939.  What came after is a rich, storied history of two classic Americana characters.

The latest cinematic treatment pits them against each other in “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice”.  The film is a direct sequel to 2013’s “Man of Steel” which featured actor Henry Cavill wearing the cape.  Both of these movies are testaments of Warner Bros and DC Comics zeal to setup a movie empire that their rivals, Marvel Comics and Disney, have successfully done.

Even if one was proverbially living under a rock, they have still probably heard that Batman V. Superman has been run through the critical gauntlet and emerged battered and bruised.  Lindy West of “The Guardian” slammed the film under a headline that read, “Batman V. Superman is 153 minutes of a grown man whacking two dolls together”.  Christianity Today film critic Alissa Wilkinson called the movie a “confusing slog.”  NY Times film critic A.O Scott lambasted the film stating: “A diverting entertainment might have been made about the rivalry between these two muscle-bound paladins — a bromance or a buddy comedy, an album of duets. “Batman v Superman,” directed by Zack Snyder (‘300,’ ‘Watchmen,’ ‘Sucker Punch,’ ‘Man of Steel’), is none of those things. It is about as diverting as having a porcelain sink broken over your head (one of the more amusing things that happens onscreen). In keeping with current business imperatives, what Mr. Snyder has concocted is less a free-standing film than the opening argument in a very long trial. Its two-and-a-half-hour running time — not so much a ‘dawn’ as an entire morning spent watching the clock in anticipation of lunchtime — is peppered with teasers for coming sequels.”  As of the writing of this blog review, “Batman V Superman” sits at a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Well, I saw the movie with two friends and all three of us walked out of the Bellevue theater liking the movie more than we thought we would.  I came to the conclusion that critics have gone scorched earth overkill in their opinions of “Batman V. Superman”.  There are certainly problems with the film and first on the list would be script issues.  However, there is a visual flair to the movie, it contains compelling themes (even if some of them may be half-baked) and yes, there is a degree of enjoyment to be had.

“Dawn of Justice” follows the epic mayhem of “Man of Steel” where Superman had an overlong throw down with General Zod and leveled most of a city.  We find out in “Dawn of Justice” that one of those buildings had Bruce Wayne’s employees inside and in the beginning few scenes, we find Wayne looking up helplessly to find his building destroyed.  The scene feels eerily inspired from the 9-11 terrorist attack.   Hence, the beginning of Batman’s animosity toward Superman.

There is a Senator concerned about Superman’s powers as well.  June Finch (Holly Hunter) mutters something about the world “marveling at what Superman can do but forgot to ask what should he do.” (my paraphrase).  Meanwhile, a corporate mogul, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is lobbying Senator Finch to obtain Kryptonite as a deterrent against Kryptonians.  He also wants access to the alien ship and Zod’s body.  His request is denied but do you think that will stop him?

The central fight, that the title of the movie advertises, is effective enough in its execution even if I did not buy why the pummeling necessarily came about or the abrupt end to the fight which seemed too convenient and entirely sentimental.  I can understand Batman/Bruce Wayne’s animosity toward Superman (as I mentioned before) for the destruction of the city but the events leading up to the actual fisticuffs makes one wonder how an intelligent person (Batman/Wayne) and a powerful alien being (Superman) could not just talk things out.  What fun would that be though in a comic book film?

Standing out entirely in this film is the performance of Ben Affleck.  Once reviled by fanboys who thought this was an awful choice, Affleck has proven them all wrong.  His treatment of Batman is surely one of the best ever put on the silver screen.  He portrays Wayne appropriately as haunted and there are times when we look at his eyes and overall demeanor and see a specific deadness.  This is a man who very much probably is an addict in what he is doing and cannot stop his own sense of crusading justice.  Borrowing inspiration from the legendary Frank Miller’s take on Batman in “The Dark Knight Returns” comic book, there is a reference made that Batman has been fighting crime in Gotham for 20 years.  Affleck shows a side of Wayne as tired but resolute in his continued mission.

Even though Batman is more seasoned in this movie than in other film franchises that have dealt with the Caped Crusader’s origins, we are still treated to little Bruce Wayne witnessing his parent’s murdered outside the theater in the opening moments.  Critics have complained about seeing, again, the murder of Wayne’s family which we have seen in Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.  In one sense, I can understand the annoyance of doing this scene again and again and again.  Here though, Snyder has a purpose for it.  There is a distinguished focus on this movie on Batman’s nightmares or visions of gloom.  To establish this mindset, which certainly does add to the Affleck performance, we become witnesses another time to the tragic murder of Martha and Thomas Wayne.

Finally, after about two and a half hours, we end up at the showdown between Doomsday and Batman/Superman plus guest Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot who in the few scenes that she is in has a powerful presence setting up future franchise installments).  SPOILER: this sequence borrows heavily from this early 1990s comic by Jerry Ordway and Dan Jurgens.

The theme of Superman as a Messianic figure is continued and given more complexity based on people questioning his strong powers.  What if Superman went bad is a completely understandable question given his nature?  Lex Luthor mutters philosophical points (which are not incredibly well-thought out) about the problem of there being an all-powerful God who is fully-good presiding over a world like this one and other ramblings.  Eisenberg (a talented actor for sure) seems to revel in making Luthor a Joker-type of character.  Luthor is very different from the Joker and this is the only performance in the movie that I found lacking.

Another weakness follows from the first “Man of Steel”, the script writers and Snyder cannot seem to find much for Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to do and one wishes they would based upon Lane’s importance in the Superman canon and Adams superior acting skills.

I have been a fan of the Marvel universe movies but there is something about the DC Comics’ characters (especially Superman and Batman) that I grew up with where I really wish that DC would get their cinematic universe successfully off the ground.  “Batman V Superman” has script issues and I’m not convinced Snyder is an effective cinematic storyteller as much as a one note conductor who has a panache for visual flair.  The franchise may do better by moving on from him as a director.  Still, I would categorize the movie as mildly enjoyable and this may be better to view with lowered expectations.

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