Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek: The Wrath of My Lawn

I saw Star Trek Into Darkness recently, and I liked it: Probably my favorite movie of the summer so far. And ordinarily, I’d write a lot more about it. The ending was, in its own way, kinda nice and spiritual-y.

But to get into that here  I’d have to get all nice and spoilery, and there’s no need for that. Plus—and let’s just be honest—I’m tired. A couple of freelance projects have been kicking my keester. I’ve got to run a marathon this weekend and still need to find time to mow the lawn (curse that rain!)

So with that in mind, let me offer up something a little different this weekend: An excerpt from a book I was cobbling together at one time (and may yet finish, if anyone wants to publish it) about the spirituality of Star Trek. "Cause even though its creator Gene Roddenberry was pretty close to an atheist, there’s actually a lot to explore.

But for this post, we’ll keep it simple and personal and, hopefully, a bit less geeky than I tend to get. It’s long. But all my posts are long. Anyone who’s stuck with me and this blog this far knows I’m not the briefest of writers. But I plan to change that in the weeks ahead. Shorter posts, but maybe more of them? We'll see.

Anyway, about that excerpt. Here it is.

To Seek Out New Life
God and I go way back. I was baptized when I was 7, went to Sunday school almost every week (“religiously,” you might say) and on Wednesdays, a few hours after Star Trek, I’d be chauffeured over to youth group. I was a pretty churchy kid at 13.
And I kinda hated it.
Having a faith like a child is a great thing. Jesus said it. Your pastor’s probably said it. Jars of Clay sang it. But no one ever encourages us to have a “faith like an adolescent,” and I think I know why. Adolescence is when our spirituality leaves the straight-and-narrow path and starts tromping through the bogs. Our hormones explode. Our insecurities rage. Our parents turn dumb and the kid in detention turns into a mysterious, disaffected sage. We start blasting all sorts of lovelorn or angry or angst-filled songs through our earbuds, and let’s face it: It’s hard to hear God and His still small voice over all that noise.
And almost without warning, the faith of our childhood—a religion full of flannelboard Bible stories and VeggieTales cartoons—turns into something else entirely. If you're lucky, you can navigate this time of life with a faith that seemlessly transitions from the flannelboard to your soul. But for some, the transition is harder: We doubt. We ask hard questions of God, maybe for the first time. And sometimes, we start saddling God with our own baggage.

For me, it wasn’t that I grew angry with God or felt like His morality cramped my style. I didn’t doubt that He was out there, somewhere. But I did doubt that He cared much for me.
Remember, I was 13. I had braces and glasses and a smattering of pimples and looked like a prime subject for a documentary on junior high geekery. I never told anyone (other than my best friend, Bret, who sometimes watched with me) that I watched Star Trek. I mean, I looked like a geek and acted like a geek … I didn’t need to tell the world that I even watched television like a geek, too.

The other kids in my youth group, they weren’t like me. They were popular and pretty and almost completely free of pimples. They were smart. They dated each other. Their parents were unashamed of them when they walked through the mall. And worst of all, many of them were horribly, horribly nice.
And the most terrible thing was this: I knew they were just being nice. What did I have to offer them? Was I being fair? Probably not, but that doesn't help how I thought at the time. I was a curiosity at best, and more likely an object of pity—a project through whom the popular kids might earn points with the Guy Upstairs.
And because most of the Christians I saw were so obviously blessed with good grades and athletic talent and pimple-free skin, I started making some crazy (and mostly subconscious) assumptions about the nature of God and how He works in our lives: Maybe these youth-group peers of mine are how Christians are supposed to look, I thought. Maybe, because I'm not like them, I'm not really a Christian. Maybe I can't be one. Maybe God doesn’t want me to be one.
Maybe, when He says He loves everyone, He's just being nice. Just like the church kids.
And I wasn't the sort of guy who's going to bother someone who doesn't really want me around—particularly someone as busy and popular as God.
Now, no one taught me this. This wasn't bad parenting or Sunday school teaching at play here, but rather my own addled, adolescent mind messing with me. If anyone knew I was thinking stuff like this, they would’ve given me hugs and enrolled me into biweekly counseling sessions.  And if that had happened, I'm sure I'd be better adjusted and more secure today.
But it didn't. And as much as I liked my youth leaders and looked up to my peers and wanted to act and be the sort of cool, self-assured Christian they were, I couldn't. Every time I went to youth group, I felt ... alien. I was a carbon-based life form on a silicon planet. And no matter how much I wanted to belong, I knew I never could.
“Believing in God is as much like falling in love as it is making a decision,” Don Miller writes in Blue Like Jazz. And he’s right. But in the teeth of my insecure adolescence, falling in love wasn’t an option. If I loved God, I might be rejected.
But to understand God? Or, at least understand Him better? That's a goal I could get my head around. It was easier then to engage God as a puzzle than a person.
The strategy seemed as viable as any and more realistic than some. After all, they did it on Star Trek all the time.

If there is a God, how can we fathom Him? If there is a soul, what can it be?
These are questions that seem to weigh heavy in the Star Trek universe—the questions that escape the tricorder. For all the show's scientific worldview, it embraces mystery: the mystery of love, of intuition, of instinct. It suggests there are things we might never understand but are worth exploring anyway. And even as false gods come and go in Star Trek—debunked and defeated at every turn—we're left with the tantalizing possibility that in a universe as unfathomable as this, the greatest mystery lies beyond space and time. Even the Enterprise cannot plumb the mind of God, and it doesn't even try. But indirectly, it seeks and finds evidence of a truth too massive to comprehend.
We're seekers. From the time we're children, we long to explore. What's behind the door? What's at the end of the street? What's outside? What's beyond? We search for things, we think—new vistas, new opportunities. But I think the instinct taps deeper waters, because each set of discoveries sparks new investigations, each answer forms a new question. It's like we're playing with Russian nesting dolls, but each inside is larger than the last. When the universe is mapped, would our own searching cease? Our questions finally sated? No. Deep down, we know there is more. We feel it. We hear it.
Curiosity is God's call.

This call is how my relationship with God began in earnest—or, more fairly, how my relationship with God began its renewal: Not as a love story, but as Star Trek. Without even really understanding what I was doing, I began looking for God—the real God, not just one that I've been told about, but one I could "see" and "hear" and "feel" for myself. Not the God of my fathers or my childhood church or my youth group, but the Spark that made them—the Alpha and Omega, the "I am that I am," the LORD, writ in caps. I couldn't fathom having a "relationship" with something that mighty. I couldn't imagine falling in love. So I began my search for something paradoxically more in my limited reach: A concept. A theory. A Creator.
It wasn't the easiest way to get to God. I made it far harder than it needed to be.
Some people come to God as if they were dogs rescued from the pound—all tail wags and slobbery tongues and boundless energy, thrilled at the prospect of having a home. I was more like a mangy stray cat, alone and cold and so very scared, slinking around God's house for reasons unguessed. And night after night, God would leave some water on the step and the back door open a crack.
Because God—all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing—knew me. He knew how weird and insecure I was. He knew how stupid and stubborn, too. And He wanted me to get to know Him anyway. To draw close to Him. To fall in love.
And yet, the search continues—not because I haven't found God, but because there's still so much to find. And that, too, feels very much like the world of Star Trek. The universe, like God, is filled with new adventures, new revelations. The more we know, the more we long to know. In a way, that’s what relationships are—voyages of discovery, where we learn more and more about the ones we love with each passing day. We too are like Russian nesting dolls, with another surprise under every lid. And when our relationship is with God, how could we expect to "know" him, even in a thousand lifetimes?

Mystery, as the folks on Star Trek will tell you, can be a beautiful thing.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Sin, Secrets and the Valley of Ashes

“God sees everything.”

So George Wilson cries in The Great Gatsby—both in the book and the movie. But here, God’s unblinking gaze is embodied, with a somewhat ironic tone, in the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, three-foot-tall spectacled orbs set eerily in an old billboard that presides over the Valley of Ashes.

The Great Gatsby is a fantastic book and just an OK movie. It’s not Moulin Rouge (Director Baz Luhrmann’s best film to date) and while it stays pretty faithful to the book, it strips away a lot of the nuance and ambiguity and irony that makes F. Scott Fitzgerald classic so, well, great.

But the Luhrmann film does do a few things really well.

First, it really brings to life what I’d imagine to be the frenetic pace and surging decadence of the 1920s: Today, if you’d see a bunch of women in flapper outfits sipping champagne and dancing to jazz, the scene would look pretty quaint—not outrageously daring as it probably seemed at the time. Infusing these scenes with some well-placed rap music gives these scenes a harder edge.

Second, it really emphasizes the story’s spiritual themes. Because even though The Great Gatsby takes place at a time when many folks—including its main characters—were jettisoning Victorian morality with a hearty Cheerio, good fellow, we see that we still are beholden (at least in the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg) to an eternal, unshakeable standard of right and wrong. No matter how times change, no matter how rich you may be, you still will be held, in the very end, responsible for your actions.

It’s only in the Valley of Ashes that we truly see this. It’s not a pretty place, as Fitzgerald makes clear:

This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.

But it is a “real” place—something that perhaps can’t be said for the manicured, moneyed perfection of East and (to a lesser extent) West Egg. It’s spawned by the residue of New York City itself. And one must pass through the Valley—under the watchful eyes of Dr. Eckleburg—to leave the Eggs and get to the city.

That’s pretty interesting because, for the most part, New York is where everything really exciting happens. That’s where Nick attends his first party with Tom and his mistress. It’s where he goes to the speakeasy with Nick and meets Meyer Wolfsheim. It’s where Tom and Gatsby have their climactic showdown over Daisy: Indeed, Fitzgerald painfully shoved them out of their digs in East Egg and into New York because that showdown seemed more appropriate there.

Why? I think it’s because New York is, in Gatsby, synonymous with energy and Freudian Id and sin. East Egg feels, in Gatsby’s world, a little like a cynic’s view of church: Neat and pretty and a bit false, brushing over sin and desire and temptation with a high gloss. The sin of the city rarely makes inroads into East Egg, and then only rarely, by phone (when Tom’s mistress Myrtle calls the house, for instance). Sure, Gatsby’s parties in West Egg are lively and hedonistic—a beachhead for the city’s glamour and sin. But that serves to emphasize just how much Gatsby is a man of two worlds—at home in New York, but trying desperately to fit into Daisy’s prim existence in the ‘burbs. Gatsby takes on a gleam of celebrity in part because, in some ways, he doesn’t belong in the Eggs. He stands out.

But even Gatsby’s parties don’t have that queasy, drunken energy that New York seems to exude. The Seven Deadly Sins—all of them—flourish here in both the book and the movie. Seriously: You can make a checklist and tick ‘em off.

I think the Eggs and the City serve as a macrocosm of the lives many of us live. At church, at work, even with our families sometimes, we try to put on a pleasing, proper face. And yet so many of us, to varying degrees, find temptation and sin roiling underneath the veneer, and we look for every opportunity to cast aside our pretty pretentions and embrace our baser desires.

But (back to Gatsby) to get from one to the other, we must pass through the Valley of Ashes—a place just filthy with not just ash, but biblical allusions. We’re reminded of the Pslamist’s Valley of the Shadow of Death. We may recall Jeremiah 31:40: “The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown …” It’s interesting to note that the word Gehenna, sometimes used synonymously with hell in the Bible, was also a valley outside Jerusalem where people burned trash—and was filled with ashes, naturally. Check out this verse from Matthew:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matt. 10:28)

Those who’ve read the book or seen the movie know that a pretty awful thing happens in the Valley of Ashes—Gatsby’s own Gehenna. Moreover, everyone who passes from the respectable Eggs to the sordid, sinful City must pass through the valley, to be seen by the blue eyes of God/Dr. Eckleburg. And while temporal justice falls unevenly in The Great Gatsby, both the book and the movie suggest that eternal judgment is still to come.  

Friday, May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3: Stripped Down and Saved

Iron Man 3 does not pretend to be profound.

Oh, it's a fine movie—fun and funny and thrilling and full of Robert Downey Jr. cracking wise and all that. Moreover, it allowed me a pretty cool pair of 3-D glasses. A fellow reviewer said that he was going to use his for his next welding project.

My Iron Man 3 glasses, as modeled by my daughter's stuffed dog, Mr. Reeces

But while the original Iron Man and its (admittedly disappointing) sequel had some reasonably obvious messages of purpose and redemption, this chapter felt a little depth-challenged—a pure popcorn muncher on the surface. Sure, I understand that superhero movies aren't necessarily (ahem) suited to Russian novel-level musings about life and death and whatnot. But Christopher Nolan's Batman movies spoiled me—and the Iron Man 3 trailers got me primed for something grittier and deeper than we've seen lately from the Marvel movie universe.

(An aside: Can you imagine what sort of movie this would've been had Terrence Malick directed it? I imagine Iron Man walking through wheat fields. The armor surrounds me, binds me, imprisons me, he'd say, staring at a sky smeared with irredescent clouds. Please, restart my faulty ARC reactor. Make me whole again.)

But there's an element here worth, I think, a bit of space. And it centers on the fact that Tony Stark spends so much time outside his suit.

Now, I touched on that topic in my Plugged In review (you can read it here, if you like), but to recap a bit: The bad 'un du jour here is The Mandarin, a nefarious Bin Laden-like bully who promises to engulf the United States in a storm of terror. And when Tony Stark (Iron Man) calls The Mandarin out on national media, the villain blows Stark's Malibu casa into tiny cornflakes-size pieces.

Now, this is critical, because Stark's power is mostly derived from all his metal suits, all of which he builds in his state-of-the-art workshop. The attack sends his favorite suits, his workshop and most of the rest of his worldly possessions down to the briny deep—and Iron Man himself, for that matter. Stark survives, but just barely. And his suit is much the worse for wear. It gets him to Tennessee but conks out right after. Even Jarvis, Stark’s ever-present computerized helpmate, goes silent. And while Stark thinks the suit can be fixed and recharged, he's largely suitless and gadgetless for a good chunk of the movie. The guy goes from having everything to having nothing in one quick helicopter attack.

We're all familiar with the whole "rags to riches" narrative—something like you'd find in Victorian-era books by Charles Dickens or whatnot, where a slave or street urchin or down-and-outer reverses his luck through talent and gumption to success, fame and fortune. But Christianity (a faith that’s positively revels in paradox) features far more in riches to rags stories (that often still have, again paradoxically, happy endings). Take a look at Joseph, who started out rich, then was sold into slavery, got rich again, then was thrown in jail, then finally rose to political power where he saved his whole formerly estranged family. Or there's King David, who after a pretty good run as king of Israel, was usurped by his own son and forced to flee. He eventually reclaimed the throne, but learned a lesson or two from his experience. Everyone from Adam to Paul experienced a material fall of some sort. And indeed, you could cast Judea's Babylonian exile as a riches-to-rags honing. God often seems to be a proponent of the whole "no pain, no gain" school of thought: When we get too comfortable and self-assured, we find ourselves in a period of sometimes extreme discomfort, where we rediscover meaning and realign our priorities.

Dickens wrote a riches-to-rags-to-salvation story of his own, by the way: A Christmas Carol. In it, Ebenezer Scrooge begins the story rich and bitter. But through a night full of scourging, suffering and self-revelation—when he's shown his past impoverished state and comes to grips with his own present moral bankruptcy—he awakes to find himself a reformed man, rich in every sense of the word.

This is particularly interesting, considering that Iron Man 3's makers had A Christmas Carol in mind when they produced the thing, which explain why the summer's first blockbuster was set at Christmastime. Stark must deal with the "demons of his past," as he calls them, struggle with today's trials and recast the future in a more positive light.

But there's more at work here that feels even more spiritual. See, Stark isn't just stripped of his metal wonder suit as a sort of psychological boot camp: He must humble himself in order to be saved.

We all know that Stark, as Iron Man, is a superhero. Superheroes save people. And he does his share of saving here, too. But without his bulletproof suit, Stark is vulnerable. He's in the need of saving—and in this movie, he is saved, repeatedly. By his girlfriend. By his best friend. By some kid he meets in Tennessee.

And that, in a roundabout way, is a deeply Christian message as well. The faith tells us that we can't rely on our own powers (supercharged armor or no) for salvation. We can't save ourselves. We are in need of saving.

Now, I’m pretty sure the movie’s makers didn’t intend to slap in a spiritual metaphor. It doesn’t really feel like that kind of movie. Still, it is interesting. And a little profound, whatever the movie’s actual intentions might’ve been.