Sunday, March 29, 2015

Burning Bush 2.0: Two-Hundred Pages of Pop Profundity

I just got a box of books Friday. Not just of any book, but my new book—Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet. Abingdon Press, my publisher, won't be officially releasing it for another few weeks, so I guess that's one advantage of writing the thing. Early copies.

I’d like to think the book is a fun, fascinating, whirlwind trip through the world of popular entertainment, offering lots of quick-hit spiritual observations on everything from The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games to Skyrim and Despicable Me. I cover a lot of ground in Burning Bush: If my first book (God on the Streets of Gotham, Tyndale) was more like a leisurely stroll with Batman, this feels more like a pop-culture roller coaster. (“Hey, was that Epic Mickey?”) You’ll get a chance to see how geeky I can get, but there’s more to it than that. I also talk a little bit about the significance of story and entertainment in my own walk of faith, and I offer a little primer on how you can engage with entertainment with a more spiritual bent. And I even quote Monty Python.

I think you’ll like it. But I’m biased.

I’d like to give away a copy or two through the blog (after all, how many copies of the same book does one guy need?), but have no idea how to go about doing something like that. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

But if you don’t want to take your chances of getting a complimentary, signed copy from me, just order one online here or here. Better yet, order several. Hundreds. The folks over at Abingdon would, I’m sure, be very happy.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

St. Spock: Some Spiritual Thoughts on Leonard Nimoy’s Greatest Character

Leonard Nimoy died earlier today at the age of 83. He was, according to the obituaries I’ve seen, a man of many talents: poet, photographer, musician. But it was as an actor that most of us knew him first and best—an actor who became famous for one role. Mr. Spock of Star Trek.

A few years ago, I wrote a book proposal that probed spirituality from the deck of the Enterprise—a show created by Gene Roddenberry, one of the world’s best-known humanists (and no fan of organized religion). And no one was more compelling from a spiritual angle than Spock.

If anyone would seem prone to atheism, you’d think it would be Star Trek’s favorite vulcan, he of the eminently logical mind and lover of empirical data. The Vulcan culture banished emotion eons ago, and religion is a deeply passionate impulse. Given how often popular culture and modern media pit science against faith, you’d think that spirituality and our scientific Spock would be incompatible.

But Vulcans, according to the exhaustive Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha, have deeply religious roots. Their famous hand signal is said to b e based on the Jewish rabbinic sign for “Shaddai,” a name of God. Their society is steeped in tradition and ceremony, thoughtful reflection and a rejection of unhealthy passion—which echoes James 1:15: “After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.” Any Vulcan could have written this statement from fourth-century Christian recluse (and one of the fathers of monasticism) John of Lycopolis: “Everyone who has not renounced the world fully and completely but chases after its attractions suffers from spiritual instability. His preoccupations, being bodily and earthly, distract his mind through the many enterprises in which he is engaged.” It’s no coincidence that, for a couple of movies, Spock dresses very much like a monk.

Would Spock’s logic keep him from seeing spiritual truth? I don’t think so. In fact, it might be prepare him for it better. In my sadly unsold book, I drew some parallels between Spock and Digory Kirke, the old professor in C.S. Lewis’ classic Narnia tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
“Logic!” exclaims Professor Digory Kirke. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”
Professor Kirke is a man after Spock’s own green heart. He’s quite old, very kind and incredibly smart, and when Peter and Susan Pevensie need help figuring out how to help their younger sister, Lucy—a girl who has suddenly been blathering about some strange, snowy world called Narnia locked behind a wardrobe door—they turn to the white-haired prof for help. How should they handle these incredible lies? Or what if Lucy doesn’t realize she’s lying? What if she’s losing her mind?
After pondering the situation for a while and clearing his throat, Professor Kirke asked a deceptively simple question in return.
“How do you know that your sister’s story is not true?”
Peter and Susan are flabbergasted, but Professor Kirke swiftly—logically—takes them step-by-step through a process wherein it seems as though Narnia might not be so illogical after all.
“There are only three possibilities,” the Professor concludes. “Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume she is telling the truth.”
In 2009’s Star Trek, a young Mr. Spock—a Spock before the whales and Wyatt and all his other adventures—contemplates a seriously pressing problem: How did a Romulan mining ship come to possess a previously unknown doomsday weapon that, just minutes before, destroyed Spock’s home planet of Vulcan? Could such a weapon be hidden? The product of an unknown alien race? Spock quickly discards hypothesis after hypotheses for one that’s merely outlandish: The Romulan craft, somehow and for some unknown reason, must’ve come from the future. And in explaining himself to the crew, the Vulcan does a remarkably cogent impression of Professor Kirke.
“If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains—however improbable—must be the truth,” Spock says.

I believe in God and Christianity not because it makes me feel good, but because I believe it to be true. I believe it to make sense. I believe it’s logical. I don’t know if I learned that from Spock … but his example sure didn’t hurt.

I could go on. Spock’s near inability to lie. His rejection of excess. His selfless act of sacrifice in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which he becomes nearly a Christ-like avatar. Spock is not a Christian. But as embodied by Leonard Nimoy, he embodied Christian values better than most of us.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

All the Best Picture Nominees Have Something in Common

Late last year, Ridley Scott unveiled his ambitious, controversial epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, with Christian Bale as Moses. It was the story of a man who had it all, lost it all, found something better and dragged a whole nation to a strange land promised to them by God.
It was not nominated for an Academy Award. Not even for Best Performance by Locusts.
But Exodus: Gods and Kings actually shares a bit in common with most of the year’s Best Picture nominees: The idea of a spiritual journey.

Sure, only one of the year’s nominees includes a literal trip to the Middle East, and what Chris Kyle found in American Sniper was far from a land of milk and honey. Some of our Best Picture protagonists don’t travel much at all, and one—Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything—ends the movie barely able to move. None of our protagonists are explicitly searching for the Promised Land, and few seek God’s guidance.
But in each movie, people leave the comfort of home (or a manifestation thereof) for the promise of something greater. They’re looking for many of the same things that Moses and his people were: Freedom. Truth. Happiness. Redemption. Each feels the tug of something bigger than themselves, pulling them in new, unexpected and sometimes frightening directions.

Each of our Oscar protagonists is on a pilgrimage—a spiritual journey of discovery and meaning. Let me show you what I mean.
selmaThe walk taken by Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers in Selma is not a long one compared to that of the Exodus—just 54 miles to Montgomery. But these Civil Rights protesters, like the Hebrews, believed it was a walk toward freedom—specifically the freedom to vote. King, like Scott’s Moses, left the comfort of home and risked everything because he felt that’s what God wanted him to do. The journey is not without risk: The established powers in Selma don’t want to let their people go, and they’ll beat them to keep them exactly where they are. But those forces are eventually swept away, not by the Red Sea, but by waves of racial progress.

M. Gustave, legendary concierge for The Grand Budapest Hotel, is also on a quest for freedom, and quite literally. Thrown in the clink for a murder he didn’t commit, Gustave busts out and, with the help of his loyal bellboy, Zero, goes on a zany but ultimately successful journey to clear his name and redeem his reputation. You could say he even finds the Promised Land—ownership of a priceless painting and the deed to the hotel itself. But He and Zero find an even greater treasure: A loyal, enduring friendship. Their adventure turned out to be a spiritual journey of discovery as much as a physical one. But as it was for the Hebrews, Gustave’s own postscript fell short of happily ever after.

Mason makes quite the journey in Boyhood, too, but his pilgrimage is not as much through space as time. He, too, seeks freedom—the sort of freedom that all children seek and most eventually claim: The freedom to make his own decisions and to live his own life. Growing up isn’t just a physical and mental trek to maturity. It’s a inherently spiritual one, too—a journey of self-discovery. We, like Mason, begin to wonder who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be. Like Scott’s Moses, none of us really have a choice about leaving the relatively comfortable confines of our immature “home.” We’re kicked out of Egypt. We know the walk toward adulthood will be difficult and sometimes dangerous. No getting around that. But we also have a choice on which directions will go. And while Mason, like Moses, takes some bad turns here and there, there’s still hope that he’ll find a new and hopeful future.

2014, THE IMITATION GAMESometimes, a spiritual trek isn’t a journey through space or time, but through our own brains and souls. In two movies, the Promised Land isn’t a place as much as a goal—a tireless quest for excellence and understanding. In The Imitation Game, Alan Turing isn’t just out to understand Nazi codes, but explore the boundaries of synthetic intelligence—a journey that eventually leads him to create the world’s first computers. The Theory of Everything shows how Stephen Hawking, even has his physical body was slowly imploding, sent his mind on the deepest, most exciting of journeys—through black holes and across the universe and brushing against the boundaries of space and time. These brilliant men are a little like Moses: They have access to insights that the rest of us simply can’t understand—revelations that can feel even preposterous to doubters. And to follow such men (particularly in The Imitation Game) becomes a matter of faith. Turing’s team follows him because they believe in his insights and ideals, even when proof is frustratingly elusive. And eventually that faith pays off.

But sometimes, faith—blind faith—can lead us astray.

Whiplash gives us Andrew, another protagonist diving deep inside himself to find truth and understanding—in his case, to grasp the ethereal, near spiritual elements of music and become a truly great jazz drummer. It gives us another enigmatic leader in Fletcher, who drives his followers with sadistic verve. But even though Andrew definitely meets the criteria of going on a spiritual quest, Whiplash is a tricky film to view through this particular lens we’re using. Just who is Fletcher? Is he a Moses, who drags his people through pain and misery because he knows it’s the only way to reach the promised land? Or is he more like a false prophet or Pharaoh, more liable to lead his followers to destruction? Or is he a bit of both?
birdmanIn Birdman, Riggan makes both a physical journey—from the West to the East Coast—and a deeply spiritual one when he tries to find success and redemption on Broadway. Riggan’s a lot like Moses. He found a home and comfort in Hollywood. And yet something led him to return to the Great White Way—to dive into the spiritual essence of acting and, somehow, find the key to his own professional and personal salvation. He, like Moses, risked everything on this journey. (And he, like at least Scott’s Moses, had a strange spirit visible to only him, giving him whispered advice.) It’s hard to know whether Riggan’s pilgrimage was successful, but I’d like to think so: He realized that salvation doesn’t lie in on-stage success, but through love and relationship.

The same could be said of Chris Kyle in American Sniper.  His physical journey led him into the sand of Iraq, but his spiritual journey pointed the opposite way—and it, if anything, was a harder one to take. He, like Moses, wandered in the wilderness for years. Even as the SEAL did his military duty, he knew that eventually he had to find his way home. But as time went on, it became more and more difficult to stop his wanderings. It’s telling, I think, that right before he decides to return, Kyle’s caught in a wicked sandstorm—where it’s almost impossible to see or hear or have any sense of direction. In that moment, Kyle’s lost—physically and spiritually. And while it doesn’t take him 40 years to find his way back to his wife and family, it’s a frustratingly long journey. But eventually he finds his promised land—a place that he knew once before but had lost along the way. He found his way not just to a land of milk and honey, but home.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kids

I haven’t seen Exodus: Gods and Kings yet. I’m going to see it tonight, actually, and you can see my full review at Plugged In the day the film officially releases (Dec. 12). I still hope that I’ll have some good things to say about it.

But I have to admit, I’m a little worried. Much of the early buzz doesn’t center on Christian Bale’s turn as Moses or the plague of locusts, but director Ridley Scott’s decision to cast God as an 11-year-old boy.

IMDB lists Isaac Andrews (pictured) as playing “Malak,” a Semitic word for “angel.” According to The New York Times, the boy plays the Guy Upstairs Himself. Writes the Times’ Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, Andrews is “stern-eyed, impatient, at times vaguely angelic and at times ‘Children of the Corn’ terrifying.”

The child-God may be particularly terrifying for believers who don’t picture their Divine Creator as an enfant terrible.

“The portrayal of God as a willful, angry and petulant child in Exodus will be a deal breaker for most people of faith around the world,” says Chris Stone, founder of the activist group Faith Driven Consumer. “Christians, Jews and Muslims alike see this story as foundational and will find this false portrayal and image of God to be deeply incompatible both with scripture and their deeply-held beliefs.”

Scott offers a different spin on the casting. “Sacred texts give no specific depiction of God, so for centuries artists and filmmakers have had to choose their own visual depiction,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “Malak exudes innocence and purity, and those two qualities are extremely powerful.”

Now, I don’t have an inherent revulsion to casting an 11-year-old boy as God. After all, God made a pretty significant impact as an infant, and whether he shows up as a burning bush or a still small voice, He does seem to like to surprise us. I’m not inclined to judge Scott’s God solely by how He looks.

But I am concerned with what He says and does. And frankly, when I hear God described by some as “willful, angry and petulant,” it worries me. And a small part of me wonders whether the film may be giving a nod to the Gnostic concept of the demiurge.

Now, I’m no expert in Gnosticism, of course. But from what I understand, this heretical offshoot (or rather, a whole bunch of offshoots) of Christianity holds that the Bible is really the story of two gods—one the essentially unknowable and most-high God of the New Testament, and the other a lesser, more vindictive god of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament god, who became known as the demiurge, was the offspring of Sophia (an aspect of the true God whose name means “wisdom”), who birthed the babe in secret and wrapped him in a cloud. Because the child was hidden inside this cloud, he couldn’t see anyone or anything else, and thus assumed that he was the only being in the universe. But, being the only being, he got lonely. And so, according to many Gnostics, he made the world and everything in it, including us. While some Gnostic branches portrayed this demiurge as a lion-headed god, he acted more like a child—treating the whole of creation like it was his own toy, to make or break or horde or mistreat as he wished … as an 11-year-old boy might.

Gnosticism has seen an uptick of interest in recent years, what with secular society’s growing discomfort of a God who sometimes gets angry and even jealous. The idea of a God who truly cares about what we do isn’t much in vogue these days. The philosophy might appeal to Scott, who in an interview with Esquire called religion “the biggest source of evil.”

All this is pure “what if” speculation at this point, of course—kinda fun to discuss, but perhaps not relevant to how the movie actually plays out. Whether Scott is familiar or interested in Gnosticism at all, I’m not sure. His 11-year-old God might come across as (in spite of Scott’s own leaning) as surprisingly pious and faithful. It might doom the story, but for reasons that have nothing to do with Gnosticism. Whatever the case might be, I’m anxious to tell you all about it … after I see the flick.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Little Mermaid: Like the Garden of Eden, Only Wetter

The Little Mermaid opened in theaters 25 years ago Monday (Nov. 17). It proved to be a pretty significant day in the annals of animated filmdom, marking not just the beginning of Disney’s fabled renaissance (Beauty and the BestAladdin and The Lion King followed hot on the Mermaid’s scaly heels) but also an unrivaled run of animated excellence across the industry. Mermaid’s artistic and commercial success helped lead to Toy Story and How to Train Your DragonDespicable Me and Frozen. Before The Little Mermaid, animated films were, really, cartoons—meant for kids and tolerated by adults. Mermaid reminded us that these things could be art, and contain a pretty powerful story, too.
Some don’t see it that way. Willa Paskin, writing for Vulture in 2011, said, “What’s most striking about The Little Mermaid now is that it’s a kids’ movie, but from a time before studios were even aware that parents would have to watch these things too.”
But truth is, The Little Mermaid was, and is, a story with crossover appeal: I was in college when it was released, and the thing was huge—so much so that many of my friends went en masse to see the thing. It’s a love story, a musical, and sometimes a campy delight. And it’s got some spiritual heft to it, too; perhaps unintentional, but still there.
Think of Ariel’s underwater world as a soggy sort of Garden of Eden.
It’s portrayed as a paradise—so much so that Triton’s head crab, Sebastian, can’t quite figure out why Ariel’s not completely satisfied with the place. In the deep theological treatise known as “Under the Sea,” he stresses that this underwater realm is completely free of worry and anxiety, pointing out that outside these watery walls things are much different: “Up on the shore they work all day/Out in the sun they slave away/While we devotin’/Full time to floatin’/Under the sea.”
He makes the whole of dry land sound a little cursed—almost like the curse that God laid on Adam back in Genesis 3:17-20: (“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground,” it reads in part.)
tritonBut Ariel is driven with a craving for forbidden knowledge—the knowledge of what’s outside this watery Eden. She collects terrestrial artifacts and eventually falls in love with someone who’s more comfortable topside, the handsome Prince Eric. Ariel’s father, King Triton (looking remarkably like Michelangelo’s version of God, if Michelangelo stuck a tail on Him) is, naturally, furious: The outside world is not for her, Triton insists. In fact, he forbids her from having anything to do with Eric or the drier world above.
So who comes along? Two very snake-like eels named Flotsam and Jetsam. They tell her that their boss, the Sea Witch Ursula can give Ariel what she wants: Access to the land above and, of course, Eric. Ariel can have that forbidden fruit she so desperately wants … if she only takes the bait—I mean, bite.
(Now, this takes on an deeper resonance when you consider Ursula’s origins. We don’t know much about her backstory, but she does mention that she used to “live at the palace” but has since been banished—”practically starving,” she complains. Her admission suggests a backstory that mirrors Lucifer’s own banishment from heaven. And let us not lose sight of the fact that Ursula, like Lucifer, collects poor, unfortunate souls.)
ursulaHere, the movie shifts slightly fromParadise Lost to Faust: Ursula promises to give Ariel everything she longs for in return for her voice. If Ariel can make Eric fall in love with her, then she gets to keep her legs. And if she can’t get that to happen in three days (another little biblical echo there), Ariel’s soul belongs to the sea witch.
Ariel gets her legs. Unable to stay underwater, she essentially casts herself out of the garden—and must go to a much drier, harsher world filled with (as Sebastian has warned us) pain, labor and fish-eaters.
Now, Disney doesn’t make this topside look all bad, of course. Eric’s palace isn’t exactly a sweat shop. But the fact remains that Ariel has been exiled from paradise to … somewhere else; another home that isn’t really her home. She’s a fallen mermaid, if you will. And when mermaids fall, they fall up—to an equally fallen world.
Ursula will make sure that Ariel will stay fallen. She plots and schemes and directly interferes with Ariel’s own designs until the third day’s up. There’s only one way, it seems, for Ariel to escape her fate as another soul in Ursula’s collection of them. Someone will have to take her place. And in a very New Testament twist, that someone is Ariel’s own godlike father, Triton. He gives his own life for that of his child … even though she got herself in trouble through her own disobedience.
Now, it’s here where this vaguely spiritual string of metaphors kinda breaks apart, what with Eric spearing Ursula’s midsection with a ship and all. But that doesn’t change the fact that The Little Mermaid is a story of redemption: Ariel doesn’t return to her watery paradise, but through grace and sacrifice, she’s no longer a completely fallen creature, either. She was saved, quite literally, and in the end finds happiness even in her fallen state, and as apart of a fallen world, because she knows her Daddy loves her—loves her enough to sacrifice everything for her.
I think it holds a little bit of water … don’t you?

Friday, November 7, 2014

It's Alive! It's Alive!

For those of you who've been dutifully checking in here for the last two months, wondering when the heck I was going to get off my duff and say something new, I've actually been prattling quite a bit ... in a different locale. I'm now doing most of my entertainment-related blogging over at Patheos.com for my new Watching God blog. It's a good forum and a fun blog to write. And if you visit there, I'm sure my Patheos editors would appreciate it and perhaps send healthy bonuses my way.

That said, this space will not die. No siree. While Cairns Along the Way has been, admittedly, in suspended animation for the last two months (much like a character from Interstellar), I hope to expand the use of this space a bit. I'll republish some of my Patheos work here. If I write something that I feel might interest you on one of the other blogs to which I contributesay, over at Plugged In or Dad MattersI'll let you know about that here. I'll keep you up to date on any new book projects, too. And, of course, if I have a yen to talk about something that's not so pegged to entertainment or pop culture, this'll be where I'll post it. Cairns Along the Way has always been, in my mind, about finding the fingerprints of God along our sometimes halting walks of faith. And, of course, you don't need to be in a movie theater to find them.

Thanks, as always, for checking in. Look forward to walking along with you for some time to come.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dolphin Tale 2: Finding a Little Hope

It would’ve been nice to talk with Winter. But she wasn’t doing interviews.

The other stars of Dolphin Tale 2 were more accommodating when I went down to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a set visit last year. Some select Christian media outlets had the opportunity to talk with Harry Connick Jr., Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Bethany Hamilton and several other performers. Winter, the famous aquatic mammal and the  breakout star from the original Dolphin Tale, apparently wasn’t available. But that’s OK. She makes time for the people who matter.

Winter’s story, according to pretty much everyone involved, has mightily impacted thousands of folks. Not just people who come to Clearwater just gawk at a famous bottlenose dolphin, but people—often with disabilities themselves—who’ve been inspired by Winter’s disability. No matter what life throws at you, Winter seems to channel another aquatic star—Dori from Finding Nemo. Just keep swimming.

If you’re not familiar with the original Dolphin Tale, the movie focuses on the true story of Winter, who lost her tail fluke and joint after she got tangled up in a crab trap. As you might imagine, those body parts are absolutely critical for the life of a dolphin. But the good people at Clearwater, along with some outside help, developed an artificial fluke that Winter, after some struggles, learned how to use. And now the animal gets along just (ahem) swimmingly.

A couple days ago, I marveled at how one little boy with autism took inspiration from a Guardians of the Galaxy character. But according to those involved with Dolphin Tale 2, that’s nothing compared to the influence that Winter has had on people.

David Yates, the real CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, knows many of the stories by heart: The tank commander who lost an arm and leg in the middle east—and who found a source of inspiration in this aquatic hero. A nine-year-old girl with a cleft palate whose family drove of miles to just see Winter. Kids who were scared to go to school because of some sort of real or perceived disability, but who saw Winter and found the courage to go after all.

“It’s amazing how God can use a little dolphin like this to change thousands of lives,” Yates says.

The new movie, Dolphin Tale 2, includes real-life footage of some of the people whom Winter has impacted. Yates says he’s received tens of thousands of letters and e-mails regarding Winter.

“Every kid has a life challenge,” he says. “They look at Winter (and say) she’s different, but she’s OK.”

When you’re promoting a feel-good movie, you’re naturally going to emphasize the feel-good elements. But when you hear how much Winter’s story also touched the movie’s cast, you wonder whether there’s something to it. Zuehlsdorff, who plays Hazel in the movie, and Austin Highsmith, who plays dolphin trainer Phoebe, teared up recounting some of the stories they’ve heard and seen. Everyone involved in Dolphin Tale returned for the sequel. Everyone, it seemed, felt the original movie was really special. And they wanted to be part of that feeling again.

“We’re really this Dolphin Tale family,” said Austin Stowell, who plays Kyle Connellan in both movies. And that family extends, in a way, to those who’ve been touched by them—particularly by Winter’s story. “It shows us that I can do anything.”


The first Dolphin Tale was an improbable hit, earning $72.3 million on a relatively shoestring budget. Will the second one—which focuses on Winter’s potential new tank mate—make the same sort of impact? We’ll find out next Monday.