Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Wolverine: Finding Purpose

What gets you out of the bed in the morning?

For Logan in The Wolverine, that's a hard question. The one-time X-Man has seen better days. He's still riddled with guilt and despair over the events of X3: The Last Stand, when he was forced to kill his love, Jean Grey. His immortality has become a wearisome burden. Now the guy lives in a cave, away from everything he could love or hate or feel anything about at all.

What gets Logan out of bed? Maybe his nightmares are the only thing.

But one evening, he meets Yukio, a bright-haired girl from Japan who wants Logan to renew acquaintances with Yashida, a man Logan saved in Nagasaki during World War II. Logan agrees to see the dying man, but when he walks into Yashida's high-tech sick room, it almost feels as though the old man is sorry for Logan. Yashida calls him a "Ronin," a samurai without a master. His life is empty, without meaning, Yashida suggests. He has, perhaps, literally outlived his usefulness.

I've always appreciated, but never loved, the X-Men movies. In some ways, they feel the most comic-booky of all the major superhero franchises out there, and I'm not familiar enough with the source materials to unreservedly embrace these Marvel-ous mutants.

But I liked The Wolverine (albeit not without reservation). It's one of the best movies in the extended franchise. And while part of that may be because of the storyline (Wolverine stops healing!) or cool bullet train fight scene, I think I'm also attracted to the flick because of the question at the core of it: What gets you out of bed?

It's a question I've asked myself at times. I suspect all of us have. There are days where life just feels a little rote and even pointless—like an old-school videogame where you can't save and, whenever you die, you wind up at the very beginning. You wind up trudging through levels you’ve already done to earn rewards that don’t much matter and, eventually, you ask yourself, what’s the point?  

I don't have those moments often. but I do have them.

And while Logan and I couldn't be less alike (though someday I may try to grow wicked-cool sideburns), we did find the same answer to this bothersome question—or, perhaps more fairly, two: People and purpose. And both neatly intertwine.

After his strange encounter with Yashida, Logan meets his beautiful granddaughter, Mariko. And it’s not long before he realizes that lots of folks want her dead. Now, Logan may not be the warmest guy you’ll meet, but he’s always had a thing for protecting people. And so he swings into action, protecting Mariko as best as he can.

But here’s the thing: Logan has been infected with mortality. His wounds don’t heal instantly like they used to. And after one bloody shootout, Logan faints—and Mariko has to whisk him off to get him patched up.

“I never needed this before,” he says to someone after he’s been neatly bandaged.

“What,” the woman responds. “Help?”

We all could use a little help, even in those moments we pretend to be immortal or invulnerable. We need people around us. It’s funny—when I’m in a blue or foul mood, I don’t often search out people. But when I find them in spite of myself, or when they find me, they very often make my day. They ratchet down my loose thoughts and give me a better perspective on everything.

Through Mariko, Logan rediscovers his purpose. It’s not that he’s just touched by Mariko’s care. It’s not just that he winds up caring for her, too, and shows that he would do pert near anything to save her. It’s that, through his service and care for her, Logan realizes that he’s at his happiest when he’s doing that for other people, too. His mutated genetics didn’t just create a fearsome freak of nature. Something in his soul was branded with the policeman’s motto: To protect and serve. And before the credits roll, he leaves to protect and serve some other folks, as well.

He is a Ronin no more. He has a master: his purpose. And he is happier for it.

The Wolverine touches on a lot of themes that I talked about in God on the Streets of Gotham. Logan, Bruce Wayne, you and me are at our happiest when we’re doing what we’re meant to do. We’re all built for something. We’re made to work. By extension, we’re made to serve. Ultimately, of course, we serve God—but that often manifests itself here on earth by doing what we can for others.

When I ask myself that question, Why should I get out of bed today, the answer is deceptively simple: people and purpose. I have work to do. I have friends and family to support—and who very often support me when I need it.

And sometimes, even when I’m in a funk, I find that if I concentrate on people and purpose my heavy mood slips off my shoulders like a satin cloth. And I feel God’s joy running through my veins again. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Conjuring: Good Exorcise

Demons are not very subtle.

Every demon I've ever seen—restricted, thankfully, to movies—have been about as restrained as Lady Gaga after chugging a few Red Bulls. They stomp around and scare people and spit pea soup. They scream profanities and chant in Latin and sometimes twist the folks they're possessing into pretzels.

If I was a demon, I think I'd try to play it a little cooler. Because as soon as your host starts to weep blood or levitate out of bed, it's sure to bring the exorcists around, and before you know it, poof! You're being cast out and forced to endure interminable lectures from your higher-ups.

Of course, subtle demons would hardly be the subject of wide-release movies, either. Maybe demons just like the attention. Or maybe there's something in the very character of a demon that makes it impossible to be demure. After all, isn't self-restraint some sort of a … virtue?

The demon from The Conjuring certainly could use some counseling on how to control one's impulses.

She wasn't always a demon: Back in the 1800s, she was simply a witch named Bathsheeba who, shortly after her son was born, sacrificed the child to Satan. As soon as the deed was discovered, she ran out of her lovely Rhode Island home and hung herself on a tree outside—using her final breath to curse whoever might dare to buy the property forever after.

But unless you put these sorts of things in writing, people tend to forget. And so a century or so later, the Perron family (hubbie Roger, wife Carolyn and their five girls) move into the house and live quite peacefully for, oh, five minutes. And then things start to unravel.

The very first night, they find mysterious boarded-up cellar—something you'd think would've been spotted by an inspector. The next morning, the family dog is dead. Before long, the girls are screaming and sleepwalking and playing with strange, invisible playmates—and it's clearly about time to bring the professionals in—Ed and Lorraine Warren, two demonologists who'd go on to earn a measure of fame dealing with a certain house (and its undesirable inhabitants) in Amityville, New York.

The Conjuring, like The Amityville Horror, is allegedly based on a true story straight from the real case files of the Warrens. While I’m sure the makers took a few liberties (and frankly, I hope they did), the real Lorraine Warren said they got the crux of the story right. Moreover, the Warrents are fervent Catholics who believe very sincerely in both demons and the power of God to dispel them. At the end of the movie, we see a quote from Ed Warren:

"The fairy tale is true. The devil does exist. God indeed exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow."

As such, The Conjuring is a pretty interesting feature for a Christian movie reviewer such as myself. The movie takes its faith seriously—so much so that faith-based marketers Grace Hill were involved in the publicity push. It's the sort of movie that embraces not just a generic sort of supernatural happening, but a real devil poking at a real, Christian God.

It's not the first horror flick to tackle spirituality so sincerely, of course. The original The Exorcist—the scariest movie I've ever seen—was based on a book written by a Christian (William Peter Blatty), who intended it as a "sermon that no one can sleep through." Scott Derrickson, who directed the well-regarded The Exorcism of Emily Rose, told Christianity Today that "horror is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with."

I know of people who've felt the first real tug of faith through movies such as this.

But many Christians, particularly conservative Evangelical Christians, don’t typically like horror. It’s dark stuff, after all. Disturbing. They're certainly never very "nice" movies. Rarely are they uplifting.

Derrickson again:

To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it's unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that's something that a lot of Christians don't want to do.

I have a complex reaction to horror movies—too muddled with personal baggage, perhaps, to be completely fair. I understand the unease that many Christians feel, but I'm sympathetic to Derrickson's point of view.

Horror movies are designed to move us away from a place of comfort, and I wonder sometimes whether we Christians can sometimes be a little too consumed with making ourselves comfortable. We sometimes tune out ideas that threaten our worldview, shun people who might challenge us. Sometimes, it seems the evangelical subculture goes to some pretty great lengths to keep us from encountering anything that might discomfort us: We can spend our childhood in Christian schools, go to Christian colleges, do all our business at Christian establishments (helpfully noted by Christian business directories). Yes, the Apostle Paul did tell us to "not conform to the pattern of this world," but I don't know if he would've advocated building a whole new world so we wouldn't have to deal with the other one at all.

This is not to equate a dislike of horror movies with our sometime impulse to protect and even isolate ourselves. But still, it’s interesting. At times, I think we long to make earth a little more like heaven. Horror flicks, and often even the world around us, remind us that heaven is a long way off. We live in a dark, uncomfortable and sometimes frightening place. And movies like The Conjuringin their own rather unsubtle wayhint at how frightening, without God, it might be.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Running on Faith: Forced Rest

This year for me will go down as the year of stitches. Not the year in stitches, mind you—which would imply that I’ve had a very funny year. Though I must admit, I did get my last set of stitches in a rather funny (that is, odd) way.

Last Saturday, my wife and I had just come back from an evening walk and our little pooch, Hoover, was ecstatic—as he always is—that we returned yet again. He was so thrilled, in fact, that he started running around the living room, smacked into my leg … and sort of screeched to a sudden stop. And at the same time, he seemed to pull my leg toward him, as if with some mysterious canine magnet.

At first, I thought that perhaps some of my leg hair had gotten tangled up in his collar. And then I realized that if Hoover was pulling on my hair, it’d probably hurt a lot more than it did. And I quickly came to a rather disturbing conclusion: Somehow, his collar had hooked itself into my shin.

And that is exactly what happened.

The good news is that is sounds way worse than it felt. The pain was minimal, really.

But the bad news was that the wound necessitated seven stitches. Worse, the nurse on call said that the stitches were in an awkward place. Too much activity around the area, and there’d be a threat the things would pop. I’d be unable to run until someone yanked ‘em out … in 10-14 days.

Now, if you’ve read my running blogs, you know that I’m not exactly a runner runner—a guy who can’t wait to lace up his running shoes and dive into the cold, rainy, sleety morning for a jog, singing as cheerfully as Snow White does when she’s polishing furniture.

I don’t like to run. I like to eat, and running allows me to eat and still fit into my work pants. I like to say that I’m a runner, because I’ve never been athletic and it’s nice to pretend every once in a while. The running itself? Yeah, I could do without it.

Or so I thought. But as it turns out, I’ve been running regularly for so long that to not run feels very, very strange.    

At first, the forced break was nice—like a little vacation for my calves. There were many, many benefits. I got home earlier, for one thing. Cut down my showering to once a day without offending anyone (that I’m aware of).

But after about four days, I was missing my runs. My body felt like it was growing ever-more gelatinous. My brain was getting a little sluggish, too, not having a nice, steady regimen to latch onto. I felt like I was grumpier and not sleeping as well. I was turning into Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde without the fun of his scintillating night life.

Yesterday was the worst. I was on deadline for a couple of freelance writing projects and, moreover, had a devotional to give the next morning at work (I work for a Christian ministry, and we have a dizzying number of devotionals).

As I was sitting at my desk, wondering whether I could bum some Maalox off of someone, I thought to myself, “man, I could really use a run right now.”

That might’ve been the first time I’ve ever consciously had that specific thought. But in the moment, it was absolutely true. An hour-long run would give me time to plan my devotional. It’d burn off a little of the stress I felt over my deadlines. A run, I realized, would give me a sense of peace that I, at that moment, sorely lacked.

For me, running has always felt so much like my own experience and struggles with faith. Yes, I appreciate the discipline that faith requires of me. I like the benefits that I gather. I love the relationship inherent in faith—the privilege of communing with God (as imperfectly as that communion may look at times). But for me, the Christian walk can be work, and hard work. It’s hard to be ever mindful of God and faith (even when you work at a ministry). It’s trying to push forward sometimes. There are times, frankly, when it’d be cool to take a break.

And let me be completely honest: Sometimes I do. I know I fall short on what I should be doing to keep my faith up to snuff. I can forget. I can grow lazy. I can shove thoughts of God into the back of my mind and find myself far more mindful of other things: Work. Kids. Fantasy football.

But whenever I forget to pray, or contemplate God, or even when I purposefully shove aside my questions about spirituality, I find that it’s not long before I feel empty. I find that I miss it. I need it. I’m not whole without faith. I’m lost without my sense of God.

I just got my stitches out a few hours ago. All is, alas, not well with my little wound. It may be a little infected, which means another 10 days of antibiotics for me. And it’s not closed yet, which means the stitches have been replaced with some super-sticky tape.

But the doctor gave me the thumbs up to start running again. It can only help at this point, he says. Running will spark better circulation, and the more blood the cut gets, the better it’ll heal.

So after work, I ran. It was a short run. It’s amazing how out of shape you get after just a 10-day break. It was hot, sweaty, exhausting work.

And it felt really, really good. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Could America Use More Secularism?

In 1971, John Lennon asked us to Imagine a world without religion. Turns out, a good chunk of us would rather not.

American pollsters have been seeing an increase in the country's "nones" for years now: About one-fifth of Americans say they have no religious preference, up from about 15% who said the same just five years ago. But according to a recent study by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, many Americans see the decline of religion as a bad thing. And that includes a surprising chunk of nones.

Odd, huh?

Actually, all of Pew's numbers are pretty interesting—even if some of them make perfect sense. I, for one, am not too surprised that about half of Americans (48%) believe that the country's rise in secularism is a "bad thing." We're still a very religious country: Even with the rise of the nones, 80% of us are at least nominally affiliated with a religion of some kind. And it stands to reason that most of those affiliated would see some sort of tangible benefit to having faith.

But drill down to how the "unaffiliated" answered, and things grow more curious. While 24 percent believe that the erosion of religion is good (perhaps agreeing with the late Christopher Hitchens that "religion poisons everything"), nearly as many—19 percent—say it's bad.

The numbers are almost as surprising for my own demographic block—that of "white evangelical protestants.” While a gigantic 78 percent of them say that they're bummed by the country's growing secularization, 4 percent say they're kinda happy about it. Granted, that's not a huge number, but still. Why would evangelical Christians—a demographic prone to handing out Bibles and shouting from street corners and, sometimes, baptizing children against their parents will—be happy about our country's growing secularization? Do we just want there to always be a steady supply of people to heed our Baptist church altar calls? Do we love our Luis Palau crusades that much?

The whole study left Hemant Mehta of Patheos' Friendly Atheist blog a little perplexed. "I don’t know what’s weirder," he writes. "That there are evangelical Christians out there who are happy that more people are becoming non-religious… or that there are a lot of unaffiliated people who are upset by it."

But on further reflection, maybe those numbers aren't so weird after all.

First, the "nones." These are people who don't have a religious affiliation, but that doesn't mean they're happy about it. Maybe there are lots of people who'd like to believe in something but can't. They'd like to have faith, but they haven't found a compelling reason to go there. I know folks like this. I also know atheists or agnostics who reject religion, but they appreciate all the good that religion can do. Faith-based groups are behind some of the world's most beneficial charitable efforts. Religion can foster a tremendous sense of responsibility to the poor and needy. And even when we leave altruism out of it, churches can be great places to meet people and find community. Even if God's not in the picture, the Church (with all due respect to Mr. Hitchens) is responsible for a great deal of good in the world.

As far as those 4 percent of evangelical Christians who think a more secular culture is a good thing, maybe I can help answer. In a way, I think I might be in that 4 percent.

Don't misunderstand me. I think religion is a really, really good force in the world. I'd like for everyone to see not just how beneficial, but how beautiful and how real it can be.

But at the same time, I think that when Christianity goes unchallenged, it can get soft and even a little mean. We can take the beauty of the faith for granted. And then when we are challenged, we sometimes lose the knack to express our own views with kindness and thoughtfulness. "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another," the biblical proverb says, and I think there's some truth to that when it comes to faith, as well. I like to talk about this stuff. I like to be challenged some. I think it's healthy. Whether we're Christian or atheists or Muslims or Buddhists, we should know what we believe and why. We should know why it matters to us. Why it's important. Do you agree?