Nerds of the World, Unite!*

This weekend I’ll be indulging my inner nerd. My wife Rachel and I will be attending the “Emerald City Comic-Con,” Seattle’s premier gathering of comic, science fiction, fantasy and genre nerds. I’ve been to the East Coast version of the event, but Rachel has never experienced fandom at this level.

I’m excited.

In addition to the costumed attenders, interesting panel discussions, and merchandise floor, there are going to be some special guests there tomorrow, including:

  • Wil Wheaton: He’ll always be Wesley Crusher to me.
  • Jon Bernthal: Shane from “The Walking Dead”
  • Summer Glau: Sci-fi action star extraordinaire via “Firefly,” “Sarah Connor Chronicles,” and “Dollhouse”

    All her shows get cancelled, though.

  • Christopher Judge: Teal’c!
  • Edward James Olmos: Commander Adama lives on.
  • George Takei: OH MY!

An exciting lineup, to be sure.  As an added bonus, Rachel and I have decided to get into the spirit of things and dress as a set of well-known sci-fi characters.  A special Comic-Con prize to whoever correctly guesses who we’ll portraying!

*CONGRATULATIONS to award winner Amanda Zelazny, who correctly guessed that my wife and I would be going as the 11th Doctor and Amy Pond!

Prodigal-Based Youth Ministry

I’m working through the book Sticky Faith with my Youth Discipleship students right now.  Reading it always draws me back to the story of the “Prodigal Son.”

The central premise of our textbook is this: a large majority of students who embrace Christianity during their teenage years and follow the traditional “youth group” experience walk away from their faith in the early years of college and/or young adulthood.  In an effort to create a faith that is more “sticky,” the authors encourage churches, parents, and youth ministers to build deep and diverse relationships with teens even as they help them ask real, deep, and complex questions about their faith.

I think about the story of the Prodigal Son in this mix because it is about two young men.  One is the stay-at-home do-gooder.  The other lives the wild life.  Yet at the end of the story, the one with the better relationship with his father is the son who left to explore the “far country.”  The faithful, stay-at-home child has, it turns out, a somewhat stunted view of what it means to be a son.

In some ways the story from Luke 15 supports the complexifying of faith that the Sticky Faith people urge.*  For instance, while making us contented youth ministers in the here and now, having a group of students who are seemingly “safe” and apparently obedient at all times (like the elder son) should not be our goal.  Yet the implications of the biblical story are more haunting then that.  The younger son doesn’t just consider tough questions about his relationship with his father.  He actually leaves it behind.  Only after he discovers the bankruptcy of life outside his family does he return.

The implications of this for modern youth ministry are…unsettling.  Amongst the Amish, after all, some young people roam free in the wide world before entry into religious adulthood.  Most of them choose to take their place back home after their time in the world.

Am I suggesting we encourage students to roam free and deny themselves no worldly experience because maybe it will make them holy?  I don’t think so…but there is the possibility that this approach could be more beneficial than operating a youth ministry out of fear just to keep students safe.  As it turns out, staying at home didn’t mean the elder son knew what it was all about.  Being a “good” youth group student doesn’t guarantee lasting faith either.

While the answers are-as usual-probably somewhere more towards the middle, I believe strongly that students and young adults must ultimately make their own decisions.  Hopefully we will have prepared them to think through things with godly wisdom, but the choices they make in their lives must be theirs.  We cannot force them to make the right decision every single time.  To do so is ultimately foolish, for it is both an untenable practice and accomplishes nothing but rigid adherence to a set of external rules.  Authentic personhood and authentic Christianity requires more.

Sticky Faith and approaches like it are pushing us in the right direction.  We just need to have the courage to let students-mentored and guided by loving parents, teachers, friends, and ministers-begin to make decisions on their own.

Even if sometimes they are the wrong ones.

*My good friend and colleague Will Cosnett has offered some helpful exegetical points about the passage in question (see comments section), and I’ve edited the post in response.  I still think there are some ways that it may connect with the main theme here.

Congratulations, You’ve Been Pre-Approved for a Supreme Court Ruling

Today is the third and final day of Supreme Court argumentation about the new health care law.  Central to the entire debate is whether or not it is constitutional for the federal government to mandate that every citizen buy health insurance.  A host of arguments moral, philosophical, legal, and practical have been marshaled on either side of the law, and Americans wait with baited breath to see what the justices will decide.

Though the actual ruling will not be released until June, various comments made by the justices during yesterday’s proceedings indicated to most analysts that the new “mandate” portion of the new law is in serious jeopardy of being overturned.  Though it looks like a good deal of the law may remain, the removing of the mandate portion would be a setback for the Obama administration.

I’m not a constitutional or legal expert, so I will not be offering any comment on whether or not I think the mandate is constitutional.  What I will say is this: I am happy to know that all branches of our government are spending time considering this potentially massive change to American society and that our democracy continues to consider these questions closely.  I know that politics gets mixed up in all of this far too much, but at least operationally, this legal challenge is a sign that the system is working.

This said, I must admit I am a little confused at the procedure here.  The Obama administration is full of some smart people.  If the mandate was so potentially controversial, wouldn’t it have made sense to consider a possible Supreme Court challenge before passing the bill?  Is there no procedure for walking down the block to the Supreme Court and asking for a straw poll on constitutionality?  Doing so might have saved everyone a lot of time, energy, and money.  Otherwise, all Congress is doing is passing potentially controversial laws and crossing their fingers that the Supreme Court will leave it alone.  This seems a little inefficient, to say the least.

Legal friends and others, tell me: how do the Executive or Legislative branches prepare for possible constitutional challenges BEFORE passage of laws, and what happened in this case?

Making Change

I posted some thoughts yesterday about the idea of conversion and change.  As I did, I made the following comment:

“That’s why I think I admire most those individuals who have had the boldness and courage to convert to Christianity as adults and/or radically revise their understanding of Christianity after years in the faith.  Because of the baggage they carry with them and the radical revision of established life and relationships these changes require, theirs is many times the hardest decision of all.”

A friend on Facebook offered some thoughtful rejoinder to my statement, noting that this kind of stance runs the risk of elevating the “extreme” conversion over those who remain obedient their entire lives.  Implying, somehow, that those who face great difficulties in converting may somehow be better than us “normal” Christians.

The Conversion of Saint Paul

I realized that I was running a risk by writing what I did.  While I by no means feel that an adult conversion or drastic life change makes anyone a super-believer, I must reiterate that I really do admire their courage.  Consider the contrast: a eleven-year old homeschooled student deciding to accept what his Christian parents have shared with him about God’s love OR a 40-year old Muslim woman who decides that the claims of Christ mean that she must reject her culture, upbringing, religious traditions and potentially face the wrath of her family, government, and society.  For her, conversion may lead to death.

Theologically, both conversions are legitimate, honest, and infused with God’s grace…but the decisions made by the latter convert are much more fraught with peril.  Her decisions are harder to make because of what they will cost her.  The courage she has to choose anyway–despite the price–is why I admire her so much.  It is just a reality, I think.

I suppose I’ve been considering such matters because of class I’m teaching this month entitled “Modern World Christianity.”  Global encounters of different faiths and the growth of Christianity are all a part of the course.  One of the books we are reading is entitled: Following Jesus in the Hindu Context: The Intriguing Implications of N.V. Tilak’s Life and Thought.  As an upper caste (Brahmin) Hindu believer in India in the late 1800s, Tilak had no necessary–or easy–reasons to choose to follow the Christian faith.  As a matter of fact, his decision to follow Christ created no small amount of problems for his marriage and place in society.

Tilak was not a perfect man, and the full effects of his conversion had to work themselves over a number of years.  Yet as they did he was able to speak powerfully to his countrymen in their own cultural terms about his newfound faith in the love of God in Christ.

Far from implying that Tilak is a super-Christian, ought we not ask ourselves if his sacrifices are perhaps not the more “normal” way?  If so, our own lack of spiritual radicality (however you might like to quantify that) in the here and now might mark us as failing to meet even baseline for a Lord who calls us to “take up our cross” and follow Him.  Food for thought, at least.

People Don’t Change; They Just Get Mad Men

AMC’s brilliant period drama Mad Men returned to television last night, reuniting fans with the inner workings of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce after a 17-month hiatus.  I won’t spend time summarizing the plot here, but suffice it to say that the 1960s were in full swing.

The complicated Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the main character of the series, and he continues to intrigue.  For the past four years, viewers have observed him in all his stoic and secretive ways.  Branded very early on as a liar and serial adulterer, he is the anti-hero if ever there was one.  Surprising, then, that good ol’ Don made it through two hours of screen time last night without cheating on his new wife once.

Has Don changed?  That’s the question of the day.  Unfortunately, the answer is “probably not.”  In the run-up to the Season 5 premiere, Slate.com had an interview with the show’s creator, who said the following:

“What I like is that on our show the characters are really trying to change. I look at Don and I say he really wants to change. And events have happened. I’ve committed to change in a way that TV shows usually don’t…But one of the premises of my show is that people don’t change. Don Draper is certainly a creature of external change. He’s an imposter.”

While this certainly doesn’t bode well for Don, it also opens up the bigger philosophical question of how change really works on a personal, psychological, or spiritual level.  Do people really change?

On the one hand, I believe they do.  The whole Christian message is predicated on the fact that God can bring about some amazing changes in the live of individuals.  Why else would Jesus use the evocative metaphor of being “born again” if not to imply that entrance into the Kingdom of God couldn’t be a more drastic shift?  The Scripture–and history–is replete with stories of great change, and it is something I believe.

Yet at the same time we know that change is not easy.  I know it isn’t for me.  For some it really does seem impossible…and not just at the moment of religious conversion.  In becoming Christians, for instance, some do change their belief systems but seem incapable of moving beyond inherited worldviews or family patterns or patterns of thought.  Conversion happens on a formal level, but the effects of that change do not always work their way into the soul.  Sometimes this inability to change has minor repercussions; other times it runs the risks of upending the whole enterprise.

Further, just as the Scripture relates the stories of those who do change and answer the call, so too we meet others who do not: innumerable Pharisees, a rich young ruler, and–indeed–most of humanity that would rather end Christ’s life than consider his radical life and message.  Harder than going through the eye of needle indeed.

That’s why I think I admire most those individuals who have had the boldness and courage to convert as adults and/or radically revise their understanding of Christianity after years in the faith.  Because of the baggage they carry with them and the radical revision of established life and relationships these changes require, theirs is many times the hardest decision of all.

What do you think?  Is change really that hard?  Is it impossible?  How much to do most people really change?  How much do we?

Review: “The Hunger Games”

After months of waiting, I was finally able to see The Hunger Games last night.  As a fan of the books, it was rewarding to see characters and settings I had heretofore only imagined in my mind come suddenly to life.  The costumes, makeup, and set design were superb.  The world of Panem–and especially its ostentatious Capitol–came to life in brilliant high definition.

The actors selected for the various roles were uniformly quite good, with Jennifer Lawrence a real standout as the lead character Katniss Everdeen.  Lawrence has already proved her acting chops elsewhere, and she is more than capable to carry this franchise

Stenberg as Rue.

on her shoulders.  Amandla Stenberg was also brilliant as the  actress who plays the young Tribute Rue.  Additional kudos to the often hilarious yet nuanced performances of Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy and an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket.  I was impressed not only by the casting decisions made here, but also the many great performances in the film.  Twilight should stand up and take notice!

Crazy ol' Effie.

For a fan of the novel, no movie adaptation could ever do The Hunger Games justice.  The pacing of the film was, for whatever reason, too quick for me.  I missed the psychological depth of the books and at times felt that we were forced too quickly through the various dramatic setpieces of the drama.  Much like the early Harry Potter film adaptations, too much attention may have been given to faithfully replicating scenes from the book and not enough to artistically interpreting the source material.  For instance, I felt the film could have done more to establish the depressed state of District 12, build up the Katniss/Rue relationship a bit more, and make the “berry” scene as powerful as it could have been.

This said, I may be asking the film to do too much.  The basic story is compelling enough by itself, and the movie tells it quite directly.  Further, nestled within the cinematic narrative are some deeply powerful moments: 1) Katniss calling out her mother on behalf of her sister and telling her to never again slip into the debilitating depression that almost destroyed their family in the past, 2) the wordless scene where a painfully oblivious Capitol family allows their ignorant children to play at “Hunger Games” with fake swords, and 3) the scenes regarding Katniss, Rue, floral arrangements, and District 11 (you’ll have to read the books or watch the movie to understand this one).  The extra screen time for President Snow was also a plus, as was the ever-present and magnificent beard of Seneca Crane.

All in all the film is a good one, and by most accounts will do very well for itself.  I look forward to the sequels continuing this powerful story of emerging adulthood, oppression, and freedom, and loss.  Hopefully in the midst of this now multimillion dollar enterprise, the deeper questions at the heart of the story will continue to resonate with teens and adults for some time to come.

I highly recommend the Hunger Games and encourage you to see it soon!

Grade: B+ (great performances, excellent design, and compelling story; marked down only for its pacing and the fact that nothing could ever live up to the book!)

Let The Games Begin

After a long absence combining spring break, out of town visitors, and a rather nasty bout of the flu, I am back…and just in the nick of time: The Hunger Games is released today!*

As some longtime readers are aware, I blogged on the books back in November as a part of a class exercise for my “Foundations of Youth Ministry” course at Northwest University.  The following are the links to those discussions:

1.  “The Hunger Games and Adolescence”

2.  “The Hunger Games Meets God”

3.  The Hunger Games as Practical Youth Ministry”

Today, I’ve also guest blogged with youth ministry organization Interlinc about the new film.

My wife and I will be seeing the movie tonight, and I look forward to offering a full review tomorrow.

In the meantime, a brief word about the place of pop culture in youth ministry.  One of my students offered a little pushback in class yesterday, asking why things like The Hunger Games should be a part of youth ministry conversations or youth group lessons in the first place.  Moreover, he wondered, what are the bounds of culture and ministry?  Are there appropriate limits we should follow as we pursue these ends?

A few thoughts:

  1. Pop culture should make an appearance in youth ministry when not talking about it would make no sense.  Twilight or the The Hunger Games are BIG teen phenomena.  To never speak of them seems a little silly.  They are some of the (increasingly few) stories that most teens share, and as such they provide a platform for drawing out important points of conversation.
  2. The use of pop culture in youth ministry should be limited and precise.  Having a little fun with The Hunger Games or doing a series this month makes sense; renaming your ministry “Katniss’s Kids” is just sad.
  3. Along the same lines, remember that pop culture is just that: POP.  It makes a loud noise for an instant, but then fades quickly.  Use, therefore, what you can for the time…but don’t hold on to it too tightly.
  4. Remember that some cultural items are richer sources of teaching and reflection than others.  Transformers, probably not so much.  The Hunger Games, as I have argued passionately, has a panoply of issues tailor-made for discussion and theological reflection with students.
  5. Concerning the appropriateness of material, remember to take into account things like ratings (an “R” rating, for instance, legally excludes 5/6 of your students), parents (with whom potential controversial material should be discussed), and your church/ministry environment.
  6. In all of these matters, remember to keep in mind the matrix of cost/benefit that should be in play here.  Pop culture should not be utilized in ministry just because one can or in order to prove a personal point. Rather, in all cases the benefit of such integration should always outweigh whatever costs or negatives may be incurred in the process.

There are just a few thoughts, and not all of them unique to me.  Feel free to comment and add your own thoughts in these areas.

*Speaking of “the nick of time,” I look forward to weekly updates and thoughts on AMC’s Mad Men, finally returning to television for its fifth season this Sunday!