Thursday, November 29, 2012

Half a Man? Hardly.

You’ve probably heard now that Angus T. Jones called Two and a Half Men—the show that made him a star—“filth” and pleaded that fans should never, ever watch the thing again. Now that he’s a committed Christian (he attends the Valley Crossroads Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Pacoima, Calif.), the sleezy humor that’s made Two and a Half Men so successful doesn’t really jibe with his newfound faith. 

You’ve also probably heard that Jones quickly issued an apology to the folks at the show: “Without qualification, I am grateful to and have the highest regard and respect for all of the wonderful people on Two and Half Men with whom I have worked and over the past ten years who have become an extension of my family,” he said, adding, “I apologize if my remarks reflect me showing indifference to and disrespect of my colleagues and a lack of appreciation of the extraordinary opportunity of which I have been blessed. I never intended that.”

All that caused some confusion: Does Angus (which has got to be one of the best first names ever) think the show’s filth or not? Is he trying to save his job (which pays him around $300,000 an episode)? Did he (as some have suggested) go off his rocker, just like another notable Two and a Half Men star?

So it was nice to read Christianity Today’s interview with Jones, which really did a great job of aligning both his rejection of the content in Two and a Half Men while still calling the show’s cast his “television family.” The interview (by Maria Cowell)  doesn’t showcase a guy who, thanks to his newfound religious convictions, has jumped off the deep end. Nor does it present us someone who has sacrificed his faith at the altar of his lucrative profession. In the interview, Jones comes across as someone who’s struggling with how to best follow Jesus in an imperfect world that, quite honestly, sometimes seems to demand compromises.

When he’s asked how his conversion is impacting his work, he says: 

It's a really interesting experience. I know I am there for a reason, but at the same time I have this strange twist of being a hypocrite: a paid hypocrite. That's the way I have been looking at it lately.... Even though it's my job to be an actor, I have given my life to God. I am very comfortable and firm in that, but I still have to be on this show. It's the number one comedy, but it's very inappropriate and the themes are very inappropriate. I have to be this person I am not.

Angus tells CT loads more during his interview: It’s worth the read, and you can find it here. But let’s face it: It’s not easy being an outspoken Christian in the entertainment industry. Just ask Stephen Baldwin, who had his own literal “come to Jesus” moment and who’s been fairly marginalized ever since.

“It just sounds like Angus is having an authentic experience with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Baldwin said during a Good Morning America interview.  “It’s a serious thing. A real, true walk of Christianity is very difficult, quite radical. … He didn’t want to offend [show creator] Chuck Lorre or any of the people from the show or be disrespectful, but I think he authentically means what he says where he finds now if you hold up the content of his show to the Bible, what he’s saying is, ‘Now there’s a conflict for me.’”

Baldwin’s right. Christianity, if you take it seriously, is pretty radical. And it’s not just actors on a hit sitcom that feel the tension. I work at a Christian ministry, write about Christianity all the time and I still feel that tension every day. It’s inescapable. What should I be doing as a Christian? What should I be staying away from? Should I buy Powerball tickets or not? We know that our faith isn’t wrapped up in works or deeds, of course. But still, we want to please God. We want to set good examples for folks around us. We want to show that Christianity is more than just a dunk in a baptismal: It’s a game-changer.

I don’t know what’ll happen with Angus and his career on Two and a Half Men. But I’m rooting for the guy. Clearly, Angus T. Jones isn’t half a man anymore. He’s dealing with some pretty grown-up issues.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Character Counts. Really.

Jon Embree, who had been head coach for the University of Colorado football team, was officially let go after two terrible, horrible, no-good very-bad years. In two seasons, the Colorado Buffaloes won four games, and their 1-11 campaign last year was the worst in the school’s 123-year history.

But during a tearful news conference, Embree indicated that his teams had a lot to be proud of.

"You had the highest GPA the last three semesters that this school has ever had in the football program,” he told them. “You stayed out of trouble. You guys represented yourselves well. You set a legacy and a standard, and as I told you guys when we're going through tough times, you're not judged by the scoreboard at the end of the day.

"I was,” he concluded. “But you won't be."

And so on his way out the door, Embree pointed to one of the prickly dichotomies of our time—perhaps of most times: The tension between the ends and the means, between “just do your best” and “just win, baby.”

I’ve raised two athletic kids, and from the very beginning, I told them that sports were about friendships and teamwork and dedication. I don’t know if I ever explicitly ladled on the old, “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose” cliché: I hope not. I have standards, after all. But I always hoped that the meat of that message got through.

Except it never really got through to me.

See, while my kids were pretty sportsy, I never was. The only game I liked in gym was dodgeball, because I was sure to get pegged in the game’s first 30 seconds and be able to sit down for the rest of the period. But even though I never could do sports, I’ve always loved them, and I loved watching my kids play.

Correction: I loved watching my kids win.

My son played on a competitive soccer team that won a lot. My daughter was in a park-and-rec league where most of the girls rarely knew the score—and a few didn’t know their goal.

My son was a defensive dervish, flying through the air to thwack soccer balls with his noggin … and if he sometimes crashed into an opposing player hard enough to rattle the guy’s teeth a little, well, that’s all part of the game.

My daughter was both an offensive and defensive force, jitterbugging through the opposition like—well, a jitterbug, I suppose—earning oohs and ahhs from the parents on the sideline and making her father smile with a sort of geekish intensity … until about the third game in the season (each season), when my daughter always mysteriously throttled back. My mid-season, she talked as much as she kicked, sometimes (gasp) complimenting members of the opposition.

I love both of my children with equal fervor.

Alas, I couldn’t say the same about their soccer games.

We like to win. We like our winners. Let’s face it: Much of our American culture, from our economy to our politics, from our GPA-obsessed educational system to our winner-take-all sporting competitions—reflect a preoccupation with winning.

And yet, you don’t see a lot of winners in the Bible. Oh, sure, many of our favorite characters wound up on top (and we would concentrate on those stories, wouldn’t we?), but often not before they had some devastating setbacks and heartbreaking losses. God, I believe, is a little like a diehard Cubs fan: He has a soft spot for loveable losers.

See, losing doesn’t just reveal our character: It builds it. Winning can be pretty distracting when you think about it: Knowledgeable jocks say all the time that “winning covers a multitude of sins:” And while they may mean that teams don’t bicker as much if they’re seeing success on the field and don’t necessarily notice that their punter’s horrible, I think the cliché has a deeper meaning: When we’re on top of the world, we can lose touch with our real priorities—what we’re really supposed to be doing and how we should be living. Who knows? If Joseph hadn’t been thrown into that well and just spent his whole life relishing his father’s special coat, he might’ve been a big jerk. If King David hadn’t needed to deal with Saul in his early days and his wayward son Absolom in his old age, he might not have gone down in biblical history quite so favorably.

When I first published my book, I think I got a little too caught up in the “win” of the moment: I imagined that it’d sell well and I’d earn royalties and, instead of thinking about what the book might do in people’s lives, I started thinking about all the remodeling products my book might help me buy.

Well, God on the Streets of Gotham has, to this point, not helped me do any hefty remodeling projects. It’s not sold well enough. But maybe that’s a blessing—if not for my fantastic publishers at Tyndale, at least for me. It helped me see the book better not as a tool for my own enrichment—a tool to help me “win” in the publishing world (whatever winning there looks like)—but as maybe something that’ll help a few people who read it, whoever and however many they may be.

My son’s team won a couple of championships, and those were great: But looking back, seeing him hoist a trophy isn’t that memorable. No, what I remember is the afternoon when Colin got thwacked in the face with someone else’s head. He got up, blood streaming from his nose and mouth, and never flinched—ready to defend the goal as he always had. And Emily, I don’t remember her soccer career as much as a cross-country meet held on a 40-degree night and in a heavy, freezing drizzle. She was never the fastest runner on the team; it wasn’t really a priority for her. But that evening, she ran for three miles, her glasses covered in ice and rain so she could barely see. She slipped twice, fell, and still crossed the finish line. She walked to the stands, water dripping from her hair and nose and chin, her teeth chattering.

A few other runners bailed that night, but not her. Not my daughter. She didn’t win, but she finished. She finished strong. And when I saw her in all her bedraggled misery, I was so proud I almost cried.

Embree’s right: At the end of the day, we’re not judged by what the scoreboard says. Winning, in real life, is much different. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Life of Pi: Being Thankful, Even for Tigers

From the very beginning, The Life of Pi (which opened yesterday) promises to be a story about God. But God, in the ethos of this beautiful movie directed by Ang Lee, is difficult to pin down.  

Pi is an equal opportunity believer. He grew up in the Hindu faith, so he considers himself as a Hindu. He’s wowed by Christ and Christianity after encountering a kindly priest, and shortly thereafter asked his cynical father if he could be baptized. But he loves Islam, too—or, at least, the sound of Islam as its prayers fall from his lips as he bows toward Mecca. And throughout the film, we get a sense that God—for Pi at least—is found less in one religion than in all of them. Or perhaps none of them. And if we read the end of the movie as cynically as possible (no spoilers here) God is who we want or need Him to be.

I’m not such a cynic, but it’s clear that The Life of Pi features some spiritual themes that are simply non-starters for Christians. Pi tells us that Hindus believe in a pantheon of 33 million gods, so one more maybe isn’t that big of a deal. But we Christians are told pretty explicitly that there’s just one way to reach God, and that’s through Jesus. If we try any other path, we’re just kidding ourselves.

But while I don’t think The Life of Pi gets the theology quite right, the way faith feels here is, I think, pretty beautiful.

The core story’s simple: After his ship crashes, Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a giant Bengal tiger named Richard Parker—not an ideal survival scenario. But survive he does for more than eight months (according to the book; I don’t think the movie’s so specific), fighting hunger and thirst and storms and Richard Parker’s fearsome teeth until his boat comes to rest on the coast of Mexico.

But here’s the thing: Pi’s improbable survival story is just the merest shell of the real tale here. To say that The Life of Pi is about surviving for eight months with a tiger is like saying the meaning of marriage can be conveyed through a wedding album, or the birth of a son could be fully communicated through a Facebook post.

Pi isn’t just floating toward Mexico: He’s on a spiritual odyssey. In Pi’s mind, it’s not just he and Richard Parker in the boat. God’s with them, too—in the wind, the water, the world around them.

Throughout the film, we see Pi show his gratitude toward God for everything he’s been given—even in this horrific situation. He thanks God for the fish that flop in the boat and for the bit of pencil that allows him to keep a diary. He even expresses his gratitude for Richard Parker (even though the tiger would be unlikely to return the favor). "My fear of him keeps me alert," Pi says. "Tending to his needs gives me purpose." Without Richard Parker, Pi believes he would’ve died long ago.

It’s a beautiful reminder for us (particularly as we head into Thanksgiving tomorrow) that we have much to be thankful for, even if we feel like we’re stuck in a lifeboat ourselves, tigers breathing down our necks.

But Pi’s God is no comforting deity-in-a-box, a talisman for tough times. As C.S. Lewis’ Mr. Beaver might say, he’s not a tame lion, anymore than Richard Parker’s a tame tiger. As Pi’s voyage goes on, everything that Pi depended on—the boat’s store of food, his water collection devices, even that stubby old pencil—are swept away, leaving Pi seemingly with nothing: Nothing but the boat, Richard Parker and God Himself.

There’s something troubling but deeply profound in this—the idea of Pi being stripped of everything. The movie doesn’t tell us explicitly that God is the cause. But I think in some ways, it makes sense.

See, if there is an antagonist in The Life of Pi, it’s not the tiger: It’s man—or rather, man’s pride that, in the end, he can save himself.

Pi’s father is a man of reason. He calls all religion “darkness” and rolls his eyes at his son’s sincere religiosity. And while reason and science have its place (Pi says later he would not have survived his ordeal without his father’s instructive grounding) it can’t save you. Not really.

It’s telling that all his father’s plans (and his ship) sink above the Marianas Trench—the deepest, darkest part of the world. Despite the fact that the freighter cruises with (as we hear) the quiet confidence of a continent, its technology and bulk cannot withstand the spiritual storm. It goes down and Pi’s small lifeboat—perhaps representing the faith that Pi’s father mocked—is the only thing that stays afloat.

But in that boat, Pi still has tools that are, metaphorically at least, of his father. The life vests. The instructional book full of survival advice. The foodstuffs and cannisters of water. All Pi needed for survival appears to come from the muscle and ingenuity of man. Perhaps, had Pi survived with the aid of all that stuff, there might’ve been some doubt as to who Pi owed his life to: the authors of his survival book? Or the Author of all?

And so, in this merciless, metaphorical world, Pi needed to have everything stripped away. He was Noah in the ark, Joseph in the well, Lazarus in his tomb. As Pi’s strength failed and even Richard Parker grew feeble, it was clear whose hands they were in, whose mercy they depended on. And, when Pi thought he was as good as dead, he once again gave thanks.

Pi survived, of course: It’s no spoiler to say so. And in the end, we all heave a sigh of relief, knowing that Pi made it through such a horrific ordeal.

And yet, maybe we feel a little envious, too. Or, at least, I do. Not that I ever want to be stuck in a boat with a Bengal tiger, mind you … but in the midst of Pi’s terrible trials, he was surrounded by God’s power, His beauty, His love.

Celtic Christians used to talk about the thin places—spots in their world where the membrane between heaven and earth was thinner, where God’s presence could be more easily felt. I think that, perhaps, most of us have felt a “thin place” in our walks—moments where we could feel the very presence of the Almighty, and it took our breath away. Perhaps it was in a moment of prayer or tumult. Maybe it took you by surprise. I’ve been surprised like that a time or two.

In my own Christian walk, I sometimes feel a bit like Pi’s father. Yes, I have faith—but sometimes it’s a reasonable faith, a measured faith, one that doesn’t make too many demands. I fit that faith snugly with the rest of my life, like a can of crackers on a lifeboat. My faith becomes a tool, one of many.

And then, in the heart of a storm or in the glow of the dawn, I’m overwhelmed. Awed. And I remember that faith isn’t found in a box or in a building or even in a boat. It is not a thing to be used by me. No, it uses me. It is power and light and meaning. It is—He is—everything. And in that moment I, like Pi, find myself resting, helpless and loved, in the cup of His hand. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Faith and Film: Lincoln

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, along with Argo and The Life of Pi, is one of my favorite Oscar-type movies of 2012. Daniel Day-Lewis is predictably incredible. Sally Field shows the same talent that earned her two Academy Awards. My review for Plugged In can be found here, so I won't probably say too much more about it. The movie speaks eloquently enough.

But I did want to point you to a pretty interesting, related article I ran across on the Christianity Today website this morning, written by Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White Jr. White discusses President Lincoln’s mighty second inaugural address, parsing his frequent mentions of God and quotations of Scripture to show how he tried to use faith as a conduit for national healing.

“In a total of 701 words, Lincoln mentioned God 14 times, quoted Scripture 4 times, and invoked prayer 3 times,” White writes. “Lincoln's address provides a model for how Christians can speak of faith and politics together.”

I’d agree. Lincoln used language as well as any president, and the address shows Lincoln at his best, I think: Thoughtful, forgiving, wise. It’s fitting that Spielberg’s movie actually concludes with Lincoln reciting part of his address. There’s a weariness about it; an admission that the country, north and south, have been through a terrible trial unequaled in its annals. It stressed the commonality of the combatants, not their differences, and suggested the whole country was being judged by God (the sort of admission that would get a politician roundly mocked today). And yet, for all its sometimes gloomy realism, it offers a thread of hope—of redemption and healing.  Take a look:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. … Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
   With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

We owe Lincoln a lot and we know it. His kindness and wisdom have become so inculcated in our national heritage that it’s easy to forget or ignore the flip side of Lincoln—the consummate, cagey politician that we see in Spielberg’s Lincoln. I think some people might be surprised, even shocked. Christians who demand their heroes be as pure as a newborn unicorn may, perhaps, think of Lincoln a little less fondly. But it’s good to remember, I think.

Jesus told his disciples to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” And that bit of advice is worth remembering in any age.