Category Archives: Culture

Posts about pop culture and the world in which we live.

Lent: Maundy Thursday in Woodbury

Lent

I finally picked back up in season three of The Walking Dead, and as I’ve continued reflections during Lent and now Holy Week, season three is blowing my mind in a ton of ways. Spoiler alert: I’m through the mid-season finale, so if you’re catching up like me and aren’t quite there yet, wait to read on.

As I write this it’s late Maundy Thursday. According to the church calendar, this is the night where the Last Supper takes place, where Jesus, having all authority, lets go of all power, washes his enemy’s feet, and is willingly arrested. Tonight is the beginning of the end.

Knowing this, on top of just how enthralling the show is in it’s own right, I haven’t been able to stop watching tonight. Episodes 5 and 6 were in my opinion the best of the show to this point. And in them, I’ve never seen a clearer portrayal of the two ways of life presented in the Passion narrative: the way of power and the way of suffering.

Two Ways

The Way of Power
On the one hand, there is the man known as simply “The Governor.” He rules his Romanesque town of Woodbury with a cunning tongue and the pretense of civility. Yet behind his silver tongue and civilized town standards lies a tyrant who seeks to gain power over death. The experiments on the dead and dying to understand what makes people turn, the propaganda of honorable deaths that were actually murders, and even the Colossieum in which the Walkers – the embodiment of death – are used as violent entertainment; the way of power, the way of Empire, is to manipulate death to maintain control.

This was seen most clearly in the Gladiator game in Episode 5. Walkers, the image of death itself, are turned into a way of entertainment, of pleasing the masses, and of indoctrinating them into believing that there is nothing to fear. What Andrea, who was formerly in another eay, describes as “barbaric,” the Governor describes the games as simply a “way to blow off steam.” The way of power controls death for its own ends and purposes, a means to manipulate and dominate people into submission.

Yet as the Colossiuem game concludes, we return immediately to the prison, where we are met with Daryl leaving a flower at a grave. There is another way, a way in which death returns us to who we truly are, in the full weight and glory of our humanity.

The Way of Suffering
As we are being introduced to Woodbury, we are also mourning the loss of Lori through the eyes of Rick. This is Rick’s first true experience with the death of a loved one (Shane, while still close, was Rick’s choice). While the way of power laughs and cheers at death, the way of suffering enters into it. Rick literally and figuratively descends into the “tombs” of the prison (as some characters have described the lower cells), his will broken as he finally comes to grips with his own inability to control life. He wrestles with the embodiment of death to the heart of the tomb, where he faces the one responsible, in a way, for taking his wife’s life. Where Lori was pregnant with new life, this Walker is pregnant with death.

In the heart of the tomb, a phone rings; an omniscient outside voice offers hope. Lingering in the room where his greatest suffering took place, with the walker who stole his wife just a few feet away, Rick must confront and embrace his suffering. In voicing the reality of his pain and acknowledging his inability to control and prevent death, Rick finds redemption. He emerges from death to embrace new life in his daughter Judith. (Judith, interestingly enough, is the heroine from the non-canonical Book of Judith, who used her weak position as a widow to gain access to and overthrow the tyrannical leader of Israel’s oppressors).

The Way of Jesus
And then we have Jesus, who this night, in the face of the Empire, willingly lays down his life, embracing death. At the hands of the Romans, and the “governor” Pontius Pilate, he makes no protest, but willingly enters into death. And, in embracing suffering and death, Jesus emerges from the Tomb carrying with Him new life.

The way of power was what people expected, all the way up until His arrest; Peter swings his sword before Jesus reprimands him: “those who use the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

The way of suffering is the way of Jesus. And it is the way we who follow Jesus must take as well. Paul, quoting the earliest of church creeds, would put it this way:

“Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.”

Lent: The Walking Dead II

Lent

In my last post, I made the claim that the underlying question posed by The Walking Dead is this: What does it mean to be human? Over and over again, faced with death at every turn, the main characters (the true “walking dead”) must maintain their humanity when the world has twisted and is twisting the answer to that question.

Near the end of the first season, a group of survivors makes their way to the CDC, assuming that they will find a cure or, at the very least, some answers as to why bodies are coming back to life. The only answers they get come from a solitary scientist and a brain scan of a victim. The scene is oddly spiritual, as the light of human life – “everything that you are, and everything would be” as Jenner puts it – provides the only light for the dark room.

Jenner never says that those neural impulses or firing synapses ARE life, only that “somewhere in them” is life. Rather than defining this in a deterministic, naturalistic kind of way, that which is human is somewhere in all of that light. It is this light which goes dark,  leaving only flesh and instinct to drive the walkers.

Whatever this light is, it separates the humans from the walkers. Those of us who accept the viability of a spiritual dimension of life might even go so far as to call this the soul. But the underlying premise, and the partial answer this episode provides, is that there is something more than flesh and blood to being human. Whether that is called the soul or the “something in the synapses,” whatever it is, it is not physical.

And this is why the gore and violence of the walkers is so important to the show. The antagonists of the show’s plot, the walkers are all body, to a greatly exaggerated extent. Some may see this as just a grab at the shock value for the sake of ratings, but I’m of the persuasion that writers do things with more intention than we usually give them credit for. Where nearly every walker is killed in some bloody, ridiculous way, the deaths of the human protagonists are (with a few exceptions) almost understated in their violence and gore. Throughout the show, the walkers serve as a foil to the humans, their presence serving to reveal the true nature of the main characters.

In their extreme gore, they draw us to consider that the death of a human character is somehow different than the “death” of a walker. Their intense physicality contrasts with the spirituality of the relationships and life of the main characters. In hyping the gore, the writers have actually shown us that we are more than our bodies and more than our instincts. We are spiritual. And what becomes of our souls when faced with the pursuit of death becomes the central driving question for the main characters of the show.

And for us. As we consider Lent, and embrace our mortality, what will we allow our souls to become? As we embrace the bodily nature of our spirituality through fasting and penitence, we are reminded that we are more than flesh and blood, and that we are in need of a spiritual resurrection just as much as we are in need of a physical resurrection.

Lent: The Walking Dead

LentI’m mildly obsessed with The Walking Dead lately.

I’ve never been one for scary movies or suspense thrillers, but after a group of friends coerced me into watching Night of the Living Dead last Halloween I haven’t found zombies to be quite as terrifying. So I tuned into a random episode of The Walking Dead back in November out of curiosity. Hooked, I’ve since gone back and watched it from the beginning, and have gotten as far as Netflix will allow me. If you know where I can catch old episodes of Season 3, please let me know.

Working my way through The Walking Dead during Lent has been a fascinating experience. The thematic push of the show and the reflective focus of Lent run parallel  While I wouldn’t go so far as to call watching The Walking Dead a Lenten discipline, it has served to highlight the universal need for the serious reflection on mortality that Lent is designed to inspire.

What does it mean to be human? This seems to be the central and underlying question of the show. When the lines between life and death are blurred, and dead bodies get up and walk, what is it that separates these animated bodies from the essential human character that was known and loved by friends and family? The answer it seems is surprisingly spiritual for a show known for its blood and guts.

The characters in the show are in a very literal way being chased by death. The walkers in the show are not the main characters, nor are they the “walking dead” of the show’s title; they only serve to act as a foil, highlighting the remaining humanity in those who still live. The focus is on those few remaining humans who have, so far, escaped death at the hands of death embodied, and who are wrestling with their impending demise, their belief in God, and their need for one another. They are always dodging death, frequently losing loved ones, questioning the meaning of life with death so certain. And, as it was revealed late in the second season, the problem is not only death out there, but also death within each of us.

Daily reminders of mortality, facing questions of life and death and God, needing a community for meaning and safety, dealing with death around us and within us? Sounds a lot like Lent. More thoughts to come…

Theology in a Wikipedia World: Part II

The Challenge of a Collaborative Generation

I’m currently working through David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me, in which he presents his research on why the younger generation of Christians disappear from the church. He sees three key challenges that are contributing to the loss of this generation: unprecedented access to information, alienation from meaningful relationships, and suspicion of traditional authority structures. His research on the impact of unprecedented access to information translates into this observation made by Kinnaman:

“Young people expect to participate as well as consume.”

If I think back hard enough, I can remember the first time I voted in an American Idol competition. For students younger than me, they can’t remember a time when they didn’t have some participation in the media they consume. Now, advertising companies tap into the appeal of this participatory model with competitions for making their next ad, giveaways for retweets on Twitter or likes on Facebook. The ultimate model of this collaborative, participatory way of thinking is Wikipedia itself, the majority of which was written and compiled by Millennials, Kinnaman notes, challenging us with the collaborative reality of this generation:

“Who would have guessed that one of the largest, most influential and well-funded technology companies (Microsoft) would mothball Encarta, losing the race with Wikipedia to create a comprehensive online encyclopedia to thousands of unpaid volunteer contributors, many of whom are Mosaics? It’s not a one-to-one comparison, but think about which model the church most resembles – the established monolith or the grassroots network – and what that mean for its relevance in the lives of a collaborative, can-do generation that feels alienated from hierarchical institutions.” 

How much of the meaningful stuff of our youth ministry is participatory? Between games and singing and a lesson and maybe small groups, the traditional paradigm has students playing the passive observers to us as we do ministry. Sure, we may have students leading the music and maybe have a drama team or a student speak the occasional week, but as a whole, are we giving space and permission to our students to participate in truly meaningful, ministry-shaping ways every week? Or do I just stand up there every week, say what I want to say, and hope that something gets through their iPod headphones into their brains, and then, if I’m lucky, their hearts?

Students expect and want to participate in meaningful ways in our ministries. I know that might be hard to believe, considering that it’s a hard enough struggle to get them to put down Angry Birds in small group, but perhaps that’s not because they don’t want to participate, but because we haven’t given them permission to. In general, they are not used to being treated as co-creators, as individuals with worth and with worthwhile things to say. Talking heads are everywhere – the news, the classroom, the internet. Students don’t need another person talking to them about them. They need individuals who will care enough about them to listen and to seriously consider the things they say and the emotions they feel, and to give them power and permission to truly make a difference. It’s a daunting task, and one which doesn’t seem to have clear solutions, but perhaps the solution is in the process: ask your students how we can minister to them, give them the power and the permission to speak into our own ministries to them, to shape what we do and how we do it. That’s certainly an easy solution to write, but a hard reality to make happen. But it starts in the context of the relationships and conversations we have with our students.

Theology in a Wikipedia World

Last year, I attended a benefit dinner for World Vision’s End Malaria campaign, put on by a student org on campus at Cedarville. The event was packed, probably at the offer of homemade soup and bread from several faculty and staff families. If you want to get a big turnout of college students, offer homemade food.

As the ladles were scraping the bottom of the crockpots in the back of the room, several members of the org stepped up to the microphone to share about the End Malaria campaign and to make an appeal for our awareness and support of this important issue. I happened to be sitting at a table with several friends of mine who are communication arts majors, which was quite a fascinating experience as the keynote speaker stood up and gave her presentation. A minute into her presentation, a large, highly detailed diagram of the path the malaria virus makes from a mosquito’s body into the bloodsteam and into the human system was projected across the screen, and we all squinted to see the details as she all too quickly walked us through the process. After that, we were audience to another highly detailed diagram of the scientific process by which pharmaceutical drugs are able to combat the spread of the malaria virus. It was all quite a dizzying and eye-straining experience, one which my com arts friends couldn’t wait to finish.

I came away from that experience with this one thought: we don’t need more information, we need meaning. We had all come to the benefit dinner because we wanted to make a difference, not because we wanted to know the exact anatomy of a mosquito, but because we saw suffering and wanted to take action. We didn’t need a diagram; any of us could have found those diagrams in a simple web search. We came because we needed a direction in which to point our passions and sacrifice.

We live in an age where we have more information than we know what to do with. Ten years ago, when I would be doing a research project, I’d have to go to the library, check out some books, read journal articles. Today, I can find all the information I need to make an informed decision in three clicks: Click google, type word, click Wikipedia.

What difference does this make to how we approach education, ministry, teaching? How are we to go about teaching students about the essence of the Christian life when they can Google the names of every theologian and theological position in the time it takes us to explain why its important?

What our students need from us is not lengthy discussions and explanations of theological systems, or Venn diagrams on the differences and similarities between Peter and Paul. Surrounded by a whirlwind of information and messages, our students need someone to come alongside them and provide meaning, context, and motivation to action. Our students will find the information on their own, probably on their phones while you’re making your opening announcements or your final plea to sign up for the upcoming missions trip. Students have all the information they need at their fingers. We can best serve them and point them to the life-change Jesus offers by teaching them how to think, where to move, how to sacrifice. Information is everywhere. Our students don’t need us to lecture to them. What they need is someone to help them process, someone to teach them how to think and how to ask penetrating questions that point to deeper meaning behind the latest statistic or argument or cultural movement.

How do you incorporate teaching theology into your ministry to students? What kind of theological questions are your students asking?

Review: Chand’s “Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code”

Overall, a good resource for bringing cultural change.

In this book, Dr. Chand lays out a very practical and useful roadmap for any leader within a church organization who wishes to bring about positive change. Chand writes from the perspective that culture is the most important factor in determining an organization’s success, and thus the key to breaking out of a lack of inspiration or growth is to change the culture of institution. Cultural change can occur at any level, Chand frequently states, but he also consistently writes as if he is speaking to those with the highest levels of authority in the organization. So while the book is certainly a valuable resource for anyone within the offices and leadership of a church, senior pastors, elders, and department heads will find Chand’s book most helpful.

The strength of the book is in Chand’s experience and the practicality of his advice to leaders at how to best go about changing the culture of a church organization. Chand has spent years in leadership positions, and he balances stories of his personal experience with lessons learned throughout the book. If you are looking for a practical, in-the-trenches guide to navigating your ministry through major change, this book is a great resource. Chand thoroughly covers every step along the way of changing a culture, giving leaders a helpful resource to navigate the often-treacherous waters of change.

This is certainly not a theological work on the nature of the church, nor is it a book on church growth (although church growth is discussed). Chand does not give much room for the spiritual aspects of church culture and leadership. In many ways, by merely replacing every instance of the word “church” with “company” in the book, the principles and advice Chand provides would be just as applicable. With how much emphasis Chand places on the leader as impetus for cultural change, I would have hoped to see more discussion and application of biblical models of leadership and culture.

Overall, this book would be a helpful resource for any church leader or pastor seeking a practical guide to bringing about change at the leadership level of the church.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book to read with the intent to publish a review on this blog. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”