Image result for martin scorsese silence

My husband created the tradition for himself of watching Martin Scorsese’s Silence every Good Friday.

I commend him for that. My Good Friday tradition, aside from church, is putting on the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Our traditions each involve a controversial piece of media, and that’s where the similarities end. But it is his choice I want to discuss today.

Two things make Silence a topic of controversy. The first is that Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Christ. And to that, I say so what. It has literally nothing to do with Portuguese Catholic priests in 17th century Japan.

The second topic is the ultimate outcome of the movie. The two surviving Portuguese priests apostatize (or renounce their faith) when their congregations are tortured in such a way that they remain alive. The old Japanese Inquisitor even says that when they first went after the Portuguese missionaries, they went about it the wrong way by killing the priests and brothers. Keeping them alive was the way to do it.

Critics and audiences fell all over themselves to decry the two padres. Which is really unfair. Nobody knows what they would do in the situation faced by the movie’s priests. People will say anything under torture, and even if they don’t break when it’s their own pain, being forced to watch someone they care about go through it is another matter altogether.

Everyone likes to think that when confronted by a doddering, bloodthirsty Inquisitor, they won’t break. But that’s probably armchair hubris. And armchair hubris is something a lot of American Christians have in excess.

Christianity in the United States is near the top of the social food chain. Depending on where you live, you might experience some form of prejudice for what you practice (being a Lutheran in the heart of the Bible Belt wasn’t easy), but you still enjoy the privileges it entails. And, at some level, people are bored by that. Or they feel inadequate, after hearing about early persecution, and they don’t like to see other religions (or the lack of religion) get rights, too. That’s why you have people who are falling all over themselves to be martyrs, claiming that Christianity is under attack (it isn’t), and throwing themselves at easy, pointless fights, like the color of a coffee cup. Or by watching PureFlix’s endless stream of schlock.

Wanting to be a martyr is not a good thing. And that problem is a prominent theme of Silence. Andrew Lincoln’s character, Rodrigues, wants this very much, and that arrogance and foolhardiness are a large part of why he goes to Japan in the first place. Which makes his mission rather flawed from the start.

And those flaws are what make Silence a genuinely good movie about faith. It’s hard to watch, and not just because the torture scenes are gruesome. If you can watch Casino, you can watch Silence, just based on the amount of blood spilled. Silence is uncomfortable for the audience because it offers no easy answers. The priests are flawed individuals, with arrogance and tempers. The Japanese characters aren’t written off as one-note sheep or monsters. And the movie addresses idolatry, both at the hands of the persecutors and the movie’s Christians, as they both try to flush out and hide from each other. But that’s another topic.

Faith is complicated, messy, and doesn’t come with easy questions or easy answers. It’s not always safe, and it needs a certain amount of flexibility.

And that’s something good to contemplate. When things are easy, and when they’re difficult. We need more movies to illustrate that.


Dreading Easter

eggsI love Easter.  It’s my favorite religious holiday: solemnity, rejoicing and all.  And yet… I also dread its arrival.  I don’t dread it to the point that I sweat blood and beg for the Father to take this cup away from me, but I am unhappy the two weeks leading up to Easter, as much as I enjoy Holy Week.  Why?  Ultimately, the reason is people online.

We all know the Internet exposes the moldiest, most festering corners of humanity and human nature.  Every day there’s another story, making that fact of life all too apparent.  In that context, my complaint is trivial, but that does not lessen the amount of distress it causes.  Right before Easter, the Internet explodes.

People who tend to be very overtly Christian go all out with their hellfire, brimstone, “type ‘Amen’ if you don’t want Satan to win” and all that ranges from obnoxious, to ridiculous, to reprehensible.  Everyone has seen the memes on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media forums.

And everyone has seen the other side—that of the overtly anti-religion.  Out of the woodwork come of the accusations of peddling torture-porn, traumatizing children, along with the usual taunts and demands for proof.  The obnoxious, the ridiculous, the reprehensible… again!

If nothing else, it reminds one how easily a crowd can go from cheering to howling for blood—an admittedly seasonal reminder.  And it conjures up the oft-appropriated words of the late Rodney King; “Can’t we all just get along?”

To that, the answer seems, at least superficially, to be no.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. At Easter, or at any other time. I offer no great words of wisdom for everyone to throw down the knives and let peace begin (although I have opinions). I offer no defense of the people who call themselves “Christian” and cause very real harm to innocent people because they think they are right (again, seasonal… the Pharisees and Scribes thought they were right. Pilate just wanted to go back to bed), and everyone probably knows who I’m talking about. Their exploits are plastered all over that self-same Internet.

Still, it is worth remembering that there are plenty of people not causing harm with their observance of the most important holiday in the calendar, and that the observance of Easter is nowhere near as obnoxious as Christmas tends to get. And even though I’ve probably already fallen into the #notall pit already, it’s important for bleeding everyone to step back, determine whether there is a clear and present danger, and when there’s not, to shut up and let live (especially when you’re at the top of the social food chain). For Christians, it means letting practitioners of other religions or people with no religion go about their business without trying to convert them, or announcing their damnation. No matter what you think… it’s not helping, and yes, just up and telling someone that they’re going to burn in hell is in fact aggressive/bullying/uncalled-for and just generally not copasheshy.

The evangelism problem isn’t as big outside of Christianity, but the sentiment goes for the other groups, including the not and/or anti-religious.

Now I change focus to directly address my extended family by religion (aka fellow Christians). Today is the second day of Lent. There’s over a month now until the Resurrection. Let us Christians especially make it our priority not to be obnoxious, ridiculous, and certainly not reprehensible this and all seasons. We should and often do know better than that.

The Internet will thank you (in secret), and all our hearts will be softened by the lack of confrontation and annoyance. Thus we can appreciate the miracle better when the time comes. Isn’t that better than another electronic chain letter?


Mysterious Religion, Mysterious Solutions

Awesome religious artwork whose history eludes me.

Awesome religious artwork whose history eludes me.

For the past few weeks at church the gospel readings have come from the “Bread Chapter” of the gospel according to St. John.  It’s the sixth chapter, incidentally.

Oh, I have fond memories of this chapter!  Particularly of my rather squeamish brother turning pale when we first read about Jesus telling the disciples how they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.  It all sounds rather cannibalistic, doesn’t it?  Maybe vampiric.  That might be one of the more mysterious aspects of an already deeply mysterious religion.  Right before communion, after all, we even proclaim “the mystery of faith” which is that Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.


But I’m not here to preach a sermon.  Actually, my purpose is a little more vague.  But I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a Christian today.  I’ve laughed heartily at John Oliver and Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, while hoping that the churches he’s spoofing get audited (hey, the IRS got Al Capone).  I’ve rolled my eyes at headlines like “Another Professional Christian Caught in Cheating Scandal” and flinched at Facebook comments such as, “Exactly why I’m better off without that religion.”  And in fairness, that person may be better off without organized Christianity.  I am not… I thrive on communities of faith.  Without my brothers and sisters at St. Giles in Oxford, my time in England would have been quite unpleasant.

But far be it from me to deny that Christianity has serious problems.  In fact, pointing out serious problems is more or less how my brand of faith came to be (Thank you, Dr. Luther!).  In my political science today, my fellow students were pretty eager to dump all Christians into bed with the religious right, which is by no means the case.  Or forgetting that state religions favoring one denomination don’t just hurt non-Christians.  There’s so many divisions that just saying “Christian” doesn’t give one much information, and tends to arouse suspicion.

This is a problem.  And it needs to be solved.  First of all, I think, fire-eaters need to shut up.  Jesus had rather harsh words for James and John (whom he called the thunderbolts) after they asked to smite someone who refused to give them shelter for the night.  And if the fire-eaters aren’t talking, the media might actually pick a more reasonable perspective when asking for the Christian response to whatever just happened…. Anyway, once everyone has shut up, shutting up, there should be civil discussion, debate, learning, and understanding.

A house divided cannot stand against itself, and there is a lot of division.  And I’m guilty of that as much as anyone else.  There are denominations I just don’t get and tend to regard with apprehension.  Oops.  But once we admit our problems and start talking instead of shouting, we might strengthen the house and not see the bride of Christ sore oppressed.  Because as Christ was resurrected, we know anything is possible.


Mom Appreciation

It's not the famous portrait, but I like this one just as much.

It’s not the famous portrait, but I like this one just as much.

It’s the first day of break for me (praise the Lord!), and tomorrow is Mother’s Day.  Parent Days are tricky holidays… that being said, I’m an alum of Mary Baldwin College, which graduated Anna Jarvis, who founded Mother’s Day years and years ago.  (Carnations were her thing.)  So I feel it necessary to make Mother’s Day good out of Fighting Squirrels pride, and because I do appreciate my mother, rocky though our relationship can be at times.

Interestingly, Anna Jarvis came to dislike the way the day to honor mothers was handled by the public.   Her criticism pointed specifically at “meaningless cards” and “a box of candy you’ll eat half of, anyway.”  And she’s right.  A lot of the Mother’s Day whoop-dee-doo is just an excuse to sell things.

Well, the comic Zits puts it nicely… “Mother’s Day is the day we have to smile politely while they ram good intentions under our fingernails.”

I found another article on Facebook about Proverbs 31– my dad, to his credit, has never based  a sermon around it, but apparently a lot of other well-meaning ministers do the good-intentions shoving with their sermons on this Biblical poem.  Apparently (I’m still stuck in Psalms, by the way), it praises the work of a wife (weaving, keeping the books and the house and so on), which many Christians mistakenly use as a prescription for what all women should be.  Jewish people interpret it differently.

The question of interpretation goes back to a mother’s identity, or rather her not having one.  Once a woman has children, in society’s eyes, she can really only be “Mom” ever after.  She can’t be pretty.  She can’t like her job or her social life, too much.  The kids must always come first.  She produced the children and now must consume nearly every product in the economy to make sure the parenting is done right.  And Mother’s Day is, unfortunately, caught in this web of consumerism.

Yes, I still give my mother gifts.  Some of them I buy, some of them I make, but I always try to make sure it’s something she actually needs/wants.  And even when we’re not getting along, I try to say Happy Mother’s Day and mean it.  I can’t have been an easy kid to raise– just saying.

And that’s what Mother’s Day should be about.  Acknowledging what your mother had to work with, be that your own shortcomings, or a lack of good options from other routes (my grandmother sometimes had to leave her sick kids at home because she’d lose her job if she asked for the day off), and what a good job they did anyway.  If you want to give her a gift, do it.  But don’t imply that to be a woman of valor that she needs to take up spinning.   Write a little note in the card.  She is your mother, after all.

PS: Thanks Mom.


Let Them Eat… Oh, Screw It

Hot from the oven.

Hot from the oven.

I admit it.  I’ve been dying to comment on the Indiana debacle, but I didn’t want to interrupt my regularly scheduled programming.  Such as it is.  And then I injured myself and had a really bad 36-hour headache.  Don’t do that.

Like a lot of people, I railed against the different state governments, my jaw hit the floor when Wal-Mart spoke up against the “religious freedom” debacle, and I’m still shaking my head over all the insanity.  But on the bright side, I’ve read some really good analyses of the situation.  But it all basically comes down to how you view religion.  Christianity in particular.

Last week was Easter– the most important holiday in the church year.  It’s also an incredibly unpleasant time for Christianity on Social Media.  Anti-religious groups go all out.  The religious right goes all out.  Liberal Christians trying to salvage the situation go all out.  It’s probably a miracle that no one does get killed by mob rule and ineffective government… well, no one but the reason for the season.

So what does this all mean?  Well, me being an ELCA Lutheran, I’ll start by looking at the original reformer.  Martin Luther, pre-Tower Experience, perceived God as a merciless judge, always marking down his sins.  After the Tower Experience, Luther realized that God was merciful and loving– however, a lot of people still have the other image.  The merciless image is so powerful that those who see it don’t want anyone to see the merciful one, and they probably think they’re being helpful by so doing it.

And this is what it boils down to, no matter what kind of intentions they begin with.  “I’m free to play God and act like a corrupt judge.  I’m free to deny justice, even when the widow keeps knocking on my office door, asking for her case to be fairly decided.”  The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions.

After all, the disciples had good intentions when they drove off a different follower of Jesus, who was healing and performing other miraculous deeds.  They expected a gold star, but got one of the harshest rebukes from Christ.  Jesus, you recall, made a point to hang out with people the rest of society didn’t like, and he caught plenty of flak for it from the authorities and general populace.

The disciples sometimes really are the “duh-sciples.”  And we’re not talking about the twelve who had no mass communication.  We are all disciples, and we stick our feet in our mouths, are myopic to our own privilege and can be holier-than-thou, just like Peter, James, John and the rest.  Easter illustrates their foibles better than any other Biblical incident.

When these foibles are all the cynical general populace sees, religion (be it Christianity, Islam, or Buddism) becomes the mustachio-twirling villain.  Or whatever the appropriate stereotype is, because based on my knowledge of anti-Islam stereotypes, they aren’t allowed enough class to twirl their mustaches.

So… the law is horrible.  The pizza thing is ridiculous.  The Internet is a mess.  But if there’s a mustachio-twirling villain in this, they’re not found within the pages of my toasty Lutheran Study Bible.  They’re found among us.  Or even worse, they’re minions cowering before an imaginary harsh judge, mustachioed villain.  And that makes them more sad than sinister.  They should read Romans 1:17.


You Are What They Say You Are



A full 75% of my household loves the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.  It was a tradition to play the record, and later the CD of the original Broadway cast several times during Holy Week, and sometimes even on Easter, as well.  My mom, brother, and I know the words to all the songs included on the soundtrack, and our favorite is without a doubt “King Herod’s Song.”  (Who doesn’t like a bit of levity before the torture starts?)  But my dad doesn’t like the musical.  He doesn’t mind the fact that they’re mixing rock with the New Testament, or the Mary Magdalene subplot, or the fact that when the show premiered Pilate’s costume included a silver jock strap… his problem with the musical is that he thinks it’s “too agnostic.”  Because the highlight of the musical is “who are you/do you think you’re what they say you are?”

Fair enough, I guess, except he’s the only person who’s brought that up.  Most people I know who don’t like JCS got their underwear in a bunch over the Magdalene subplot.  But that’s a different argument.

The musical takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life, more or less.  It begins right before the events of Palm Sunday and ends after 3 PM on Good Friday.  This past Good Friday, the pastor offered this thought after station 7… on that first Good Friday, probably no one present at the Crucifixion be they Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, or Joseph of Arimethea were thinking about the theological implications of the days’ events.

They were scared.  They were confused.  They were horrified.  They were devastated.  The last we see of Peter on Good Friday, he was weeping bitterly after the cock crowed twice.  Mary the mother of Jesus had to witness her son being tortured and subjected to the humiliating and excruciatingly painful death that kept the Pax Romana going.  That he rallied to tell the Beloved Disciple to look after her like he would his own mother (that was huge– a widow without a son was screwed) must have been like a knife through the heart.

And Judas was going through the mental turmoil that led to his suicide.

With all that in mind, the question “do you think you are what they say you are?” Makes that much more sense.  In a traumatic situation confusion and doubt happen.  That’s how Peter came to screw up.  That’s why the other disciples ran away when Jesus was arrested.  And that’s why poor St. Thomas was slow to believe after the Resurrection.

But after Jesus rose from the dead (and first appeared to the women– who very notably did not run away), he forgave them all.  He would have forgiven Judas, but because the former disciple gave into despair, that encounter went unrecorded by the authors of the New Testament.

The journey to faith is not smooth-sailing.  There are many stops and starts, and bumps in the road.  That Jesus Christ Superstar spends so much time on the biggest, and arguably most important bump in the journey of Christianity does not make it agnostic.  It makes an otherwise incredibly stylistic musical realistic.  What would any of us done had we been with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or standing outside Pilate’s balcony while he offered to release either Jesus or Barabbas?  Would we have been hiding with the disciples?  Would we have shouted “Crucify him!”  “Would we have been with the Marys?”  We’d all like to be in the latter category, but it’s statistically unlikely, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that.  For God’s sake.

We spend our whole lives asking that question, “Jesus– who are you?”  Or “God– who are you?”  And we are dealt with patiently and lovingly… every time.  It makes Jesus’ sacrifice all that much greater… we humans are still stiff-necked a millennium later.  Such love is truly beyond our comprehension.  Awesome music helps remind us of that… and we should say “Hallelujah.”


Of Measles, Clowns, and Creation

Because I couldn't find the one of two-year-old me showing off my bandages.

Because I couldn’t find the one of two-year-old me showing off my bandages.

The recent measles outbreak in the US made me recall a story from my parents’ courtship– when my dad got measles.  They were in graduate school, and often studied together at my mom’s apartment.  One night my dad came over and complained about this horrible headache (note, my dad is one of those men, who, when he voluntarily takes aspirin, you practically have to have the coffin ready); Mom took his temperature and sent him home.  The next morning he called and said he thought he had measles.  She went to his place, took one look, and said “yep.”  She had had them as a kid.  Thinking about it now, I realized that if Dad had measles in grad school, other people must have.  So I Googled it.  “Measles Outbreak Ohio Colleges 1989-91” came up so fast it was scary.

Like the current epidemic, this one was caused by a lack of vaccines, or I think, failure to take the booster, so immunities among children weren’t as strong.  And people my dad’s age, who had just missed the advent of the vaccine as kids and not caught in the meantime, were collateral damage.

My dad was horribly sick.  He ran a pretty high fever, had a constant headache, not to mention the rash.  When he started talking about the movie Killer Clowns from Outer Space, Mom almost called 911.  Later, when they bought their first VCR, one of the first tapes he bought was that movie– just to prove he hadn’t been delirious.  I don’t know whether measles is one of those diseases where it gets worse as you age, but apparently he had it pretty badly.  My mother, for her part, doesn’t even remember the period of time where she was sick with it as a kid.  And that’s saying something, given that my grandmother poured her into a bathtub full of cold water and ice to bring her fever down, and fed her nothing but ice-cream in order to keep weight on her (it was only partially successful, too).

Why the hell would anyone want to see their kids go through that?  Why would anyone be against preventing that?

I know the arguments.  “Vaccines cause autism.”  That’s bullshit.  That doctor was a fraud, and has a lot to answer for.  You can read up on that pretty much anywhere.

Also, if you’re so ableist that you’d rather risk the life of your child, other people’s children, and potential children (measles is often catastrophic for fetuses), instead of raising a child with a developmental disability then you probably should rethink some of your priorities.

Another argument I hear a lot is “it’s unnatural.”  Well, to quote The Lion in Winter, “What is natural?  Where poison toadstools grow, and babies are born with crooked backs, who are you to say what is natural!”  Indeed.  There’s a bit of speck and log there, but beyond that, we humans have been practicing immunization for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  The ancient Chinese came up with the earliest form of smallpox vaccine, and it was a variation of the nasal sprays sometimes used today.  If it wasn’t natural, very few of us would be here today.

“But something could go wrong!”  Yes.  Something could go wrong.  You could find out the hard way that your child is allergic to eggs when they go for a shot.  But they could just as easily find that out after gobbling down your scrambled eggs at breakfast.  They could have some other reaction to the vaccine, yes, but that can happen with any medical procedure.  One of my uncles almost died from a root canal.  I had a very nasty reaction to augmentin when I was a kid.  But he still goes to the dentist, and I still take antibiotics when necessary– just not in that family.  There’s risk attached to everything– you have to weigh it, but considering what our ancestors went through with measles, whooping cough, polio, and the like, vaccines are worth it.

And then there’s religious objections.  I’ll stick to Christianity for my criticism, since that’s where I’ve encountered this resistance.

God gave us brains!  We’re supposed to use them!  It’s part of taking care of creation– if we’re all dead from preventable diseases, we can’t be good stewards.  Though, I suppose, if we had used our brains as God intended, we’d still be in Eden.  Anyway… we’re supposed to pray and ask for divine help, yes, but we’re also supposed to take initiative and do what we can.  St. Paul issued a very harsh rebuke to one of his churches that just stopped working and started waiting for the end of the world.  That’s pretty close to not trying to solve any of our own problems and expecting the Trinity to do it all.

In other words… get your shots.  Get your children vaccinated.  Get your pets vaccinated.  We’ll all be happier and healthier for it, and Creation will be better tended.  Everyone wins.