Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fire and Remember

Another June 23, another day of checking for fire updates.

Last year, it was the Waldo Canyon fire. Some friends had come down for the day and we were all planning to see a minor league Sky Sox game. Instead, they helped us pack when our house was put on a pre-evacuation notice. A couple of days later, as the fire rushed down a hillside and toward our house, we were forced out—unable to return for six days.

And we were the lucky ones. We had something to come back to.

The cabin, near South Fork
This year, the fires are burning a little farther from our front door, but I’m still following their progress with worry and concern. The West Fork Complex, a phalanx of four separate fires burning out of control in the southwestern part of the state, don’t threaten my immediate home, but they are near my heart and history.

Sometime before I was born, my grandparents bought a little cabin in the woods around South Fork. It’s a tiny place—scarcely 800 square feet, I’d imagine. Probably built in the 1910s, it’s essentially one big room with two lofts, a built-on bathroom and a covered porch to sleep on. A big deer head hangs in the main room, and it’s probably nearly as old as the cabin itself: Our family doesn’t have a lot of hunters.

I probably named that deer head decades ago, though I don’t remember what I would’ve named it. The very earliest memory I have—ever—is my dad holding me up to touch the deer’s coarse, stiff hair. The cabin’s been a part of my consciousness from the very beginning. I learned how to climb stairs there. I might’ve learned how to walk there, too.

Each crevice and cranny holds a memory. In the loft above the front door, there’s a knothole through which you can watch people come and go. Pull part of the staircase out, and you’ll find a toybox, loaded with army men and tiny cows. On the porch we keep a set of plastic poker chips: I’d build with them when I was little, pretend they were money when I was a wee bit older. Grampa taught me how to play blackjack with those chips later on, shuffling cards like a Vegas pro, cigarette in his mouth.  

My son, Colin, and Wendy on the cabin swing,
about 20 years ago
I’ve spent Thanksgivings and Christmases and countless summer weeks at the cabin, watching the chipmunks outside and catching spiders in the tub. My cousin and I would produce elaborate puppet shows from one of the lofts. We’d play baseball by the outdoor grill, using a walking stick for the bat and a pinecone for the ball. When I was 9, I built a miniature golf course in the woods, using old tin cans stuck in the ground as holes. Every time I’m up there, I still find a new hole, it seems—filled with needles perhaps, but ready to use if someone would just come by with a club and ball. 

The cabin’s been a part of our family longer than I have. My grandparents are gone now, but the cabin’s there still, a piece of them there in real estate: Their names still hang above the door, their character still lingering in every corner. After Grampa died, I dreamed of him sitting on the tattered cabin couch, assuring me that he was just fine.

The cabin is a precious place for me—perhaps the most special place in the world. And whenever I walk through the door, I become a little kid again.

Eleven years ago, we almost lost the cabin to another fire—a tiny 3,000-acre scorcher that came a quarter-mile from us. We were lucky. It looks like we might get lucky again. The West Fork Complex, though it’s devoured 70,000 acres down there and probably torn through some of our favorite hikes, looks as though it’ll go by us—maybe all of us in the South Fork area. We know we owe a great deal to the firefighters down there, and the direction of the wind. But it still feels, for now, like a bit of a miracle—as if we had painted lamb’s blood on the door jamb and watched the fearsome angel pass by.

Me on the same swing, about 2008. Colin's in the back and
my daughter, Emily, is to the right
But the fire’s still raging down there, and anything can happen. And even if our cabin is saved this time, I’m learning to hold these things, no matter how precious they might feel, a little more loosely. It would be incredibly hard to see this cabin full of memories go. But maybe the important thing is that the memories themselves remain. No fire can wipe those away.

Sometimes, I have a hard time remembering that God’s blessings to us were never meant to be eternal. They are transient, just as we are. They are to be embraced and treasured, but we can’t hold onto them forever. Even if they last 200 years, we don’t. We fade. We move on. Ashes to ashes, as they say.

But we’re told that, even if our mortal selves will falter and fail, the core of our being will not. Even as we crumble to dust, the essential part of us rises to the sky, to meet with the Maker of memory itself. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Zombies: The Undead Among Us

Contemplative Chef Zombie by Andrew Braithwaite 

Alas, I didn't review World War Z for my day (and sometimes night) gig at Plugged In. Thus, I cannot tell you whether humanity fended off the zombie plague, whether Brad Pitt was zombified or, if he was, how his hair looked post-mortem.

Which might be a good thing, given that I'd be forced to write about the actual movie instead of discussing the walking dead on a wider scale. Because really, in a faithy-like forum such as this, there's quite a bit to say about zombies. After all, people are coming back to life in the Bible all the time.

Sometimes, these resurrections get a little help from a pious man of God: The prophet Elijah brought a boy back to life with heartfelt prayer and some strange calisthenics (“he stretched himself out on the boy three times,” we’re told in 1 Kings 17:20). Elisha, Elijah’s understudy, resurrected two people—including one after the prophet was just a pile of bones himself. (“When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet,” according to 2 Kings 13:21). Peter and Paul both successfully brought people back to life. Jesus, of course, returned no less than three folks to the land of the living—and, as an encore, He engineered His own resurrection for good measure.

Of course, none of those people qualify as "zombies," as we understand the word. These folks actually lived again: They weren't just pretending, as the walking dead do. And they certainly weren't chewing on people's brains.
But the Bible talks about things that sound an awful lot like real zombies, too.

In Revelation—as an apocalyptic book as there is in the Bible—a couple of hombres are killed and are left in the middle of town, presumably to feed the local magpies. But then, after three-and-a-half days of lying in the sun or rain or what-have-you, they get up and scare the stuffing out of passers-by (Rev. 11:1-14). The Bible doesn’t say they ate anyone’s brains or grunted a lot, but neither does it say they were “normal,” either. And given the fact they had a good few days to decay before they rose again and were snatched up into heaven, I can't imagine they looked too pretty by then.
Or then there’s this charming vision of the future, courtesy that hip prophet of yore, Zechariah:
"This is the plague with which the Lord will strike all the nations that fought against Jerusalem (when Jesus comes for a second time): Their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths."  (Zechariah 14:12-13)
If you didn’t remember Zechariah lived a good 3,000 years ago, you might’ve thought Zechariah just finished watching Day of the Dead or something. And these shambling, decaying mounds of flesh arrive just in time for the second coming. A true zombie apocalypse, if you will.

There's a third sort of "living dead" the Bible talks about, too: Us.

Jesus was pretty adamant that life without Him wasn't much of a life at all. "Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life," he says in John 5:24. And as my pastor tells it, Jesus isn't just talking about eternal life, but life in the here and now—"life with a capital L," as my pastor tells it.  

Paul and other New Testament authors bought all that, and repeated it to anyone who might read one of their letters. "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,  in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world …" wrote Paul to the Ephesians. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved."

But these biblical authors sometimes flipped the whole death-and-life metaphor around, too. Forget shambling around in our living death of sin. Sometimes we need to die and then be animated by another, more mysterious power—but instead of the weird virus in World War Z, it's Jesus. " I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me," Paul writes in Galatians 2:20.

So, if you shuffle off to a local theater this weekend to check out this $200 million epic zombie movie, think about some of these more theological zombies while you're there. Personally, I think they're worth (ahem) chewing on.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Man of Steel: Did It End Well?

Man of Steel did just (ahem) super at the box office this weekend, cashing $116.6 million over the weekend and, including some special Thursday screenings, $128.7 million overall. That's great—mostly. It's great for Warner Brothers, which now has an honest-to-goodness franchise in play again the year after The Dark Knight series concluded last year. It's great for Henry Cavill, who plays Superman and will have a chance to flash his chin cleft for years to come. It's great for pop-culture-centric Christian writers like me, who'll have more opportunity to write about the themes in play.

But I am bothered by the ending. Not horrified, necessarily, but bothered.

WARNING: The rest of this post will get very spoilery.

To recap (and I really hope you took that warning right above this sentence seriously), Superman and his nemesis General Zod have it out on Planet Earth—right in the heart of Metropolis. Much of the city is destroyed during their melee. And in the end, a furious and still defiant Zod turns his newly discovered heat-ray peepers to an innocent family, obviously intending to fry them. Superman does his best to stop Zod, but Zod's just as strong as he is and Superman knows that Zod will never stop and— and—

Well, Superman kills the guy.

Repeat: Superman kills.

Now, if we get all theological and say that Superman is a straight-up Christ figure and Zod is the devil or the epitome of evil or something, we can navigate this. As much as Jesus wants us to be good to one another, He doesn't have a problem crushing evil. And Zod certainly feels about as evil as it gets (in his own strangely principled way).

And sure, he seems broken up about it at the end. The movie suggests Superman didn't have a choice: It was either Zod or the innocent family. Given that either-or scenario, you gotta go with Zod.

But Superman doesn't kill people. He just doesn’t. That's not part of his character. And that bothers me. In fact, he didn’t just kill Zod. He fought the guy in the heart of Metropolis, destroying half the city it seemed. The Superman I grew up with, I think, would’ve led Zod out of town—never mind director Zac Snyder’s need for crashing buildings and explosions.

One of the things that I respected so much about Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy was how true he stayed to Batman's long-held mythos. Yes, they were dark stories. But he never fired a gun. He never killed anyone. Yes, he was a flawed, complex character. But he held firm to the central tenants of his own internal morality.

Superman is a better person (albeit alien person) than Batman. Everyone says so—even Batman. He's an optimistic, glass-half-full kind of guy compared to Batman's dour skeptic. While Batman slinks in the shadows, Superman's a hero of light. The movie even suggests that Superman's super powers are fueled by the sun (its youth and vitality mixing with Supes' genetic makeup with impressive results). He's powered, literally, from a light from above.

Moreover, Superman's supposed to be an example—a guy who, in father Jor-El's words, "give the people an ideal to strive towards." Batman doesn't consider himself to be a great example to anyone.

And yet Superman's the one who's killing people?

Maybe I’m off base. And perhaps it’s a little quibble in a pretty positive movie. Still, that quibble keeps me from embracing Man of Steel as much as I’d like.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Man of Steel: Longing for Superman

When I was a kid, my best friend Terry and I were obsessed with superheroes. Every day we were together, we'd strap on our capes, hope for some wind to make them flap dramatically and run around the back yard, saving imaginary citizens from disaster.

But I didn't imagine that superheroes were things that really walked (or flew) among us … until one afternoon when Terry told me that Superman was real.

"Is not," I said.

"Is too," Terry retorted. "He has a statue." Normally, that'd clinch it. After all, he was 6. I was 5. Terry knew far more about the world than I did.

But, my innate cynicism already beginning to surface, I refused to believe him. We argued for a good 10 minutes before Terry decided he was going to prove Superman’s existence to me once and for all: He was going to stand out in his front yard and call the Man of Steel in for a visit.

And so we tromped out, and we both shouted as loud as we could. Even in my skepticism, I was hopeful. Wouldn't it be great if the guy was real?

Superman, alas, never came.

That disappointing afternoon has been bouncing around in my brain ever since I saw Man of Steel, the latest Superman reboot (landing in theaters on Friday). Because, as even as I evaluated the movie and mulled the spiritual parallels and wondered just how much they spent on explosives or whether it was all just CGI, another thought—the same thought I had when I was 5—was percolating through my noggin.

Wouldn't it be kinda cool if Superman were real?

All due respect to Batman and Iron Man and Spider-Man and all those other Men-Mans, Superman's been the guy—the ultimate superhero—for 75 years now. And while perhaps he takes a backseat in terms of popularity, to more flawed heroes, he's still as recognizable and, in his own way, revered, as ever. He is a true hero: charismatic, polite, sacrificial. It's as if someone took everyone you liked and respected, rolled them up into one buff bod and gave him the ability to fly and weld with his eyes. I mean, what’s not to like about the guy?

And let's face it: We could all use someone who we could embrace without reservation—someone who'd never let us down. Someone who'd rescue us from the disasters and terror and misery that sometimes seems to stalk us. We could all use not just a hero, but a superhero.

As I write this, much of Colorado is on fire. My house isn't threatened this time, as it was last summer. But plenty of others are—and their owners are nervously watching news reports, perhaps gathering up precious belongings to evacuate, perhaps unsure of whether their home is still standing. It's terrifying, but it's more than that. Disasters like this leave you feeling powerless. And feeling powerless is one of the worst feelings there is.

Superman's never powerless—or, at least, hardly ever. Superman will always find a way to do something. Make things better. Save us.


From the very beginning of his career, Superman has always had some Messiah-like attributes. His Kryptonian name (Kal-El) has been translated to mean "Voice of God." He was of another world, yet became a "human" under the care of good but fairly nondescript mortals. He was meant to be a “savior.” In Man of Steel, those subtle nods become explicitly religious and Christ-like: This movie is as Christian a mainstream movie as maybe I’ve ever seen: Almost a Bible study in a cape. He revealed himself at age 33, asks advice from a priest in a church (as a stained-glass image of Jesus looks over his shoulder). He is, his adoptive human father tells him, “The answer. The answer to whether we are alone in the universe.”

And yet this Superman is very much human, too. He struggles with his nature, and seems a little appalled that God would’ve made him so freakishly, alarmingly different than everyone else. After his father dies, Clark becomes a vagabond—stopping to work in a far corner of the world for a while, then moving on when he fears his nature might be discovered.

But in the end he realizes he must take on a greater mantel to save humanity. And to do so, it seems, he must turn himself in. He allows himself to be handcuffed and led, presumably, to his fate. It’s a nifty little echo of Jesus’ own trip to the cross—a symbolic surrender to authorities that, really, had no authority or power over them.

Part of me would like to ramble on. There’s a lot of spiritual niftiness at play here.

But I want to go back to the anecdote that started this whole narrative … the day my friend Terry and I learned that Superman wasn’t real. And we must ask the inevitable question: If Superman and Jesus are so much alike, is Jesus real? Plenty of us call on Him in our darkest times. And sometimes, it doesn’t feel like we get an answer. Are we calling in vain? Are we just longing for someone to save us—someone who’s not there?

Superman, the original comic-book character, was the work of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both Jewish immigrants. And maybe Superman, if he was intended to be a Messiah, perhaps originally reflected more of what the Jewish people always expected a Messiah to be: A superhuman warrior, righting wrongs and rescuing us all from evil.

But as Christians, we interpret the concept of Messiah quite differently. God seems to love working with paradox, and Christianity is based on the greatest paradox of them all: A “Savior” who, it appeared, couldn’t even save himself. And yet in that act of apparent weakness—in a moment of apparent cataclysmic defeat—Jesus was both strong and eternally victorious. Weird.

Two thousand years ago, we were looking for Superman. We got something even better, even if it was hard to recognize at the time. Jesus didn’t just save our lives or homes or society: He saved us—the soul of us, the core of us.

We get that. And yet (paradoxically) we don’t. And maybe, in a way, we’re incapable of getting it. We’re human, after all—very much attached to our lives and livelihoods and stuff. We hurt. We suffer. We cry out for help.

Sometimes that help comes obviously and unmistakably. Every once in a while, miracles, or things that can seem like miracles, swoop out of the sky and give us exactly what we need. It comes like Superman, full of might and muscle and X-ray vision.

Sometimes it comes more quietly. We’re given a sense of peace. We’re given new determination to tackle our troubles, or perseverance to push through our trials.

And sometimes, it feels as though help doesn’t come at all. That’s hard to write and it’s hard to admit, but sometimes it’s true. There are times we shout for a Savior at the top of our lungs. We plead for help. And in the midst of our hurt and grief, it can feel as though no one came.

I don’t think, when we feel like that, it’s because (as sometimes happens with Superman) God’s too busy saving other people to tend to us at the moment. I certainly don’t think it’s because we’re calling on someone who’s not even there.

I believe that He’s there and He hears us. He loves us dearly. But at the same time, He understands—and wants us to understand—that in the deepest of ways, we don’t need saving: We’ve already been saved. It’s not that He’s not coming for us. It’s that He already has. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Purge: Legislating Morality

Rod Serling would’ve been disappointed, I think.

While trailers for The Purge make it look like a depressing splatterfest, the sci-fi/horror flick is, in some ways, more like a frenetically violent, 85-minute episode of The Twilight Zone. Its central premise is something straight out of Serling’s imagination: What if society decided to make crime—assault, murder, the whole works—legal for a night?

It’s a great idea (the story concept, not actually legalizing crime), but one (as I said in my Plugged In review) that probably would’ve worked better on the old 1960s show. While the flick generously ladles out violence, it was pretty stingy on any actual suspense or scares. Your heroes can be improbably saved from imminent death so many times before you, as a viewer, start looking at your watch.

But while The Purge as a movie wasn’t that great, its central question sparked another, even more interesting question for me: What makes something right?

The whole friction between what’s legal and what’s right is really compelling to me, maybe because I had to wrestle with the concept so mightily while writing my Batman-focused book, God on the Streets of Gotham. On one hand, Batman’s a vigilante, breaking the law almost every night. On the other, he’s a stickler for rules: He never kills and often drops criminals off right on the police’s front doorstep. That weird dichotomy helps make Batman the compelling basketcase that he is, I think. And maybe we struggle with that own dichotomy in ourselves. Most of us really respect the law—unless, of course, 65 mph feels a little slow for a stretch of open road in the middle of Kansas.

Laws are supposed to reflect what a society says is “right.” And I think in a just society, they largely do. Remember the old adage, “You can’t legislate morality”? Legislation, I think, is an explicit reflection of morality. Everything, from traffic statutes to the tax code, represents (often imperfectly) our cultural moral priorities. And when we push to change a law or pass a new one, we always trot out oodles of ethical rationales for doing so.

But whenever we support or oppose a law, we make a very important assumption: Right and wrong transcend whatever’s on the books. There’s a higher morality at stake. And we want our human-authored bills and rules and laws to better reflect that higher sense of morality. So in another way, the idea we “can’t legislate morality” is right on. Morality’s already there, somewhere. We’re just trying to codify it.

Somewhere along the line in the world of The Purge, America’s “new founding fathers” had a whale of a discussion of morality. And for them, it all came down to what would make the country run better.

How they came to the Purge as a solution, I have no idea. But I’d like to imagine that, after hours and hours of discussion, they all decided to watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And when they heard Spock talk about how “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (all sugared up from way too many donuts) they made a fairly horrific ethical leap.

“Hey!” one of them might’ve said. “Why not allow society’s many to kill off a few folks? It’ll really solve a lot of problems!”

And, oddly, the movie tells us, it does. We’re told that unemployment is rock-bottom and productivity is sky-high. Why? It’s all due to the Purge, and the flick suggests it could be one of two reasons: Either the Purge A) allows folks to blow off a little evolutionary steam, or B) culls society’s weaker, less productive members.

The movie’s new founding fathers made what is, essentially, a moral argument—but one that assumes that society itself is the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, the higher authority. If society works better because of a given law, that given law must be, by definition, “right.”

Except it’s not. We get this. The movie gets this. And the main characters in the film grow to understand just how wrong the Purge is after its uncomfortable realities come literally barging through the door.

The movie suggests that right and wrong is bigger than us. We don’t make it up as we go.

I think most of us understand this deep in our hearts. But we don’t necessarily realize where that understanding inexorably leads us. That sense of overarching right and wrong has to come from somewhere—God, a divine intelligence, a strange, moral compunction in the universe. We can’t be merely chance products of an unfeeling universe and have a sense of universal morality.

The morality of the Purge—that is, the fictional law—predicates there is no such overarching morality. The universe doesn’t care what we do, so right and wrong is really a matter of practicality.

The morality of The Purge—that is, the movie—tells us that’s a fallacy. Something out there does care. And deep down inside, we all know it. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Running on Faith: The Marathon

When you train for a marathon, there's a lot of stuff you need to account for. You've got to train like crazy to get your body ready for the thing. You have to mentally prepare yourself for being on the road for several hours. You have to plan what to wear, given the fact that marathons here in Colorado might have huge changes in temperature and weather. You need to make sure your running bib's just right, you've got enough food in your pockets and you've put Vaseline on anything that could conceivably chafe.

Oh, and it helps to bring your running shoes.

Emily, my daughter, forgot hers. We were staying overnight in Denver for the Colfax Marathon--her first--and she brought everything else she might ever need for this or any other marathon: hats, gloves, shorts, sweatpants, Ibuprofen, Pepto-Bismol and safety pins. But she left her running shoes at home. She discovered it at 4:30 a.m., just 5 minutes before we were to drive to the starting line.

When you're running for 26 miles, shoes are a big deal. Sure, I've heard of folks who run marathons barefoot and say it's the best. But let's face it: Those people are crazy. When you've trained six months for one running event, you know how cantankerous your feet can get. The least you can do is give them some expensive shoes in which to cantanker.

She must've felt sick when she figured out her mistake. I know I did. Months of training, I thought. Her first marathon, down the tubes, I thought. There's no way she's going to be able to finish. No way.

What I actually said was, "Oh." And then, "That's kind of a bummer."

Because really, at that point, what can you do? You've either got to race or go home, and we weren't about to go home. The last thing Emily needed was her father to freak out.

Fortunately, my wife had a pair of old sneakers with her (pictured above, at the starting line) --just a size-and-a-half smaller than Emily typically wears. Sure, they weren't the most comfortable things. Sure, they were five years old and had the tread of a 1953 inner tube. But they were a better alternative than Emily's flip-flops.

For the last few months, I've talked about how training for a marathon reminds me sometimes of our journey of faith. It requires discipline. Patience. We might suffer aches and pains along the way. And we get to experience a lot of joy, too: The gentle thrill of running, the fun of spending concentrated hours with someone where all you can do is talk, the wonderful feeling you get when a long training run is over.

Most importantly, you have the thrill of knowing, in the end, you've done something pretty worthwhile. You've been a part of something pretty special.

And when you're training for a marathon, the actual marathon is, you know, kind of a big deal: The proverbial carrot at the end of the stick, the fresh-baked donut after a six-hour hike on Pikes Peak. In my little catalog of running/faith metaphors, finishing a marathon would be, I suppose, akin to getting to heaven--the shiny medal being the equivalent of God telling you, "Well done, good and faithful servant."(Only when we reach heaven, I hope we won't be quite as sweaty and achey.)

I was not really prepared to figure out a metaphor for forgetting one's shoes. But maybe I should've. After all, I'm sure she's not the first. Unexpected things happen to lots of runners. I know one runner who tripped during a marathon and knocked out a couple of teeth--and still managed to finish. I knew another who started bleeding from his nipples. (Yeah, remember that Vaseline? Important stuff.)

Maybe the lesson here is that, sometimes when things go a little crazy--either through your fault or just by happenstance--we've got to lean on God. There's nothing more we can do. We've put in the time and effort and energy. But in the end, success or failure is out of our hands. We must sit back, enjoy the experience and let God do His thing.

Those moments can be liberating, in a way. We cling so tightly to our own agendas and place so much trust in our own plans. it's a strangely great feeling to unclench our hands and open them to the heavens, ready to catch what we may.

When I heard Emily left her shoes, what I said was, "Oh." Perhaps that translates to, "Thy will be done."

The story has a happy ending, by the way. Emily's substitute shoes carried her through all 26.2 miles. She ran almost the entire way. And while her feet were hurting by the end, they didn't hurt nearly as much as I feared. Be it by God's grace or the wonderful resiliency of 19-year-old feet or a combination of both, Em made it to the finish line and accepted her well-earned medal. If I hadn't been so tired myself, I would've hoisted her over my head in celebration.

The finish line didn't look anything like heaven for either of us. But for her, two words seemed quite appropriate: Well done.