Give Thanks


“Thanksgiving was never meant to be shut up in a single day.”
-Robert Caspar Lintner

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, what is one reality in your life for which you are thankful?


The Great Parenthesis

“Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race.”         (Tacitus writing about Christians, ca. 116 AD)

martyrdomWithin the ministry world, many pastors and religious leaders in the United States are thinking today about a recent court decision in the Midwest that may have an impact upon their financial situation.  For almost a century, a provision called the “housing allowance” has allowed ministers to have some income tax advantages unique to their vocation (together with the military, which are allowed a similar benefit).  It is a bit of a complicated arrangement, but in the end can help religious groups and their leaders save some money each year as they ostensibly serve their communities and society.

With a lower court decision claiming such an arrangement is unconstitutional, some feel that this may be the beginning of the end for this vestige of the old days.  Though I suspect it may be some time before the tax benefit is removed on a national level, I would agree that this seems to be the direction in which things are moving.

For some, developments like these are understood to be “signs of the times” in which the Church has lost its rightful influence and place in society. They see it as an attack upon traditional norms and values as well as an active sign of persecution against the faithful.

While I understand where my coreligionists are coming from, I do have some questions about the tone of the such conversations.  To imply that things like this tax War-on-xmas-1discussion are signs of persecution is a bit much.  Considering the situation of many Christians around the globe and throughout history, our troubles are relatively light.

In the case of more stringent challenges–like a pharmacist being sued for refusing to provide abortifacients to customers in violation of their religious convictions–one does see elements of what could be termed lower-level persecution, however.  Still, these things are markedly different from the torture and death faced by others persecuted for faith.

For some Christians, the answer to such problems is to somehow transform our society and return to a golden age of the Church’s influence in the world.  At least this might be what you think listening to some of our rhetoric.  I was reflecting on this while sitting in a lecture discussion last week at my school.  While there, a colleague and I mentioned how from a certain point of view, getting our culture to “get on board” with Christianity seems a bit of a fool’s errand.

After all, the testimony of Jesus himself is that the world will hate His followers (John 15:18ff).  The experience of the early Church was, after all, that of being outsiders.  Until around the year 300, persecution of Christians at the hands of the Romans was the name of the game. This was the age of the martyrs and apologists.  Then came Constantine and the beginning of official government tolerance, sanction, and support for Christianity.  In the West this lasted for somewhere around 1Byzantine_-_The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Timothy_-_Walters_W521203V_-_Obverse_Detail600 years, and only in the past few decades has it really begun to break up.  Arguments over clergy taxes are only one sign of this.

The traditionalist hand-wringing over such changes looks to sixteen centuries of Church ascendance as the norm, I think.  But consider this: what if that era was the exception and not the rule?  What if it was not meant to be the Christian baseline, the first 250 years of the faith was?  What if the real place of Christianity is to be outsiders–as many believers around the globe have always experienced–in a culture that will never love them?

Looking at things this way and seeing the era of Christian establishment in the West as simply a “Great Parenthesis” and exception to the normal place of the Church in the world might make us stop in our tracks a bit.  Sure, facing antagonism, criticism, financial setback, and even persecution for our beliefs is not pleasant.  But it might just be all the Church should expect.

Prohibit This

prohibition-posterThe time has come for everyone’s “favorite” Amendment: the 18th.  After years of efforts by temperance partisans, Prohibition came to the United States.  Ratified in 1919, the most important section reads:

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Standing on the other side of Prohibition and knowing that the movement is largely considered a failure, it is easy to simply dismiss the idea out of hand as puritanical, repressive, and stupid.  A remnant of a less tolerant time, we might be tempted to say.

Understood in its era, however, and as an outflow of a long history of efforts at temperance in the United States, thenationdecreedsomething like the 18th Amendment should garner a bit more respect.  For a group like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), for instance, the change to the Constitution was an important victory.  In a time before women even had the right to vote, they campaigned tirelessly against a saloon culture that seemed to particularly target their sons and husbands.  Working to preserve the dignity of the family, the fabric of society, and in a number of cases their own safety against the attacks of drunken spouses and fathers, some would argue these women ought to be considered heroes to the feminists of today.

Temperance and the Eighteenth Amendment were not about taking the “fun” out of life; they were ostensibly about preserving the dignity and quality of life.  The results of legal Prohibition were mixed, however: there were benefits such as a decline in cirrhosis of the liver together with drawbacks like a rise in alcohol-related crime.

Ultimately, however, banning a substance that has been so ubiquitous and easy to make throughout human history was just a bridge too far.

prohibitionIt is easy in our world of the craft beer and celebrity mixologist to look at Prohibition as a quaint relic of bygone days or embarrassing failure.  Conservatives can deride it for its invasive government intrusion while liberals can lampoon it as fundamentalist religious claptrap at its worst.  My own line of thinking goes like this: while it may at times be a little of both, the heart behinds its goals was something much more positive: the creation of a safer, healthier, and more righteous society.  Few people would disagree with these aims, even if the 18th Amendment and its legacy have placed a question mark in our minds regarding the role of the ballot box in such dreams and efforts.

Things I Would Like To See (Part VII)

022712_1423_RentaTARDIS1Today’s entry rather tersely completes what has become a pop-culturey few days for me.  Just one of those weeks, I suppose.

What I’d like to see?  A television show with stories about swashbuckling adventure, time and space, memorable characters, and even occasional moments of insight.  Stories that began five decades ago and have been continued even today.  Science fiction that has a heart, but doesn’t always take itself too seriously.

I would like to see a main character who changes yet remains the same, silently reminding us of the many unique aspects and eras of our own existence.  Whose journeys are as unique as they are often deeply personal.  A mad, loving, lonely

I’d like to see a television show that is probably even more popular now than it was its former heyday, whose praises are sung not only from the halls of nerd-dom but in mainstream circles as well.  It’d just be a lot of nonsense–I know–but it would be glorious fun all the same.

I’d like to see this and celebrate its 50th anniversary in style.  I think it would be great.  And, for once, I don’t just have to hope.  Because tomorrow?  The thing I’d like to see–exactly 50 years after its original premiere–will finally be here.


Catching Fire as Practical Youth Ministry

the-hunger-games-catching-fire-comic-con-trailerTwo years ago during our classroom discussion of The Hunger Games, we Skyped with one of my colleagues from New Jersey regarding the potential utilization of pop culture in youth ministry setting.  Our conversation and thoughts were helpful.  Making good use of the “low-hanging fruit” that society offers us can make sense in many contexts, especially when such occurrences are so popular and ubiquitous that they become common societal texts.

Our diverse and multicultural world is rarely “on the same page;”  in those moments when it is, it makes sense to make whatever use we can of it.  For a movie like Catching Fire that shows all signs of being a blockbuster (and is currently ranked 95% on Rotten Tomatoes!), I’m all for it.  This said, we should be warned that such flash-in-the-pan phenomena are almost always only temporary and should rarely be utilized for very long.  Making helpful use of The Hunger Games for a special event or teaching series surrounding the film’s premiere might make sense.  Renaming your youth minstry “Katniss’s Kids?”  Not so much.

Understanding this, I’ve had some thoughts about possible points of practical connection in youth ministry.  Some of Catching-Fire-catching-fire-movie-33836550-1280-673this has been covered over the past few days, and much of it should probably only be used illustratively, but there is some good stuff here.

First, and clearly, I think that Catching Fire clearly depicts a world that is “messed up.”  I’ve already talked about this with regard to theology, but its critique is clearly aimed our society.  Sin may be the theological concept, but the ways in which this works itself out–violence, repression, global economic inequality, etc.–deserve attention.  Pairing some of the biting satire of Catching Fire with reminders of the problems in our world would help students to more deeply understand the call of God to love “the least of these” and be agents of justice and righteousness.  Sermonically, an audio-visual illustration combined with real-world facts could have a powerful impact.

Second, all of the books raise the important question of violence and its use.  I think that having an open-ended conversation connected to relevant scriptural texts would give high school students some important scaffolding to 141753344process through the issue in a helpful and nuanced way.  I could see a great small group discussion here.

Third, Katniss herself continues to be a compelling character in Catching Fire, both as she shares the adolescent experience with our teens and provides a positive female role model.  Especially for the young ladies in our ministries, I’m glad that we’ve moved away from the sighing passivity of Bella Swan for the more independent and assertive Katniss Everdeen.  The hero of Catching Fire is not perfect and is still growing as an individual, but helps to provide a much better template with which to affirm young women and help them explore their identity as image-bearers of God equal to men.  For those in your youth ministry that are fans of the books/movies, these themes could make for a strong “girl’s night” event or overnight experience.

Again, these are just some quick ideas.  I suspect that many out there are coming up with better ones.  One last word of warning, though: remember that something like The Hunger Games trilogy is satire.  It is critiquing our the_hunger_games__catching_fire_wallpaper_by_seia5018-d6oqzh1world.  Even while it gives us lots of violence and celebrity and glamour, it is telling us that these things are not so good.  If you’re going to make use of something like Catching Fire, make sure you are utilizing its deep message and not celebrating the symptoms that it seeks to deride.  Having a Hunger Games themed summer camp that uses the series to pump up the intense competitions/games student teams will be facing?  It might seem thematically sound on paper, but it completely misses (and defeats) the point of what these books are all about.

Catching Fire Meets God

the-hunger-games-catching-fire-poster-header**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Catching Fire.**

Today’s entry in the Catching Fire discussion reflects on what the book “has to do with God.”  We’re going to think about it theologically, in other words.  While this may seem a strange undertaking for a piece of popular young adult fiction, I think it is worthwhile.  For as much as the trilogy is a shiny piece of pop culture replete with teenage angst and not a little violence, it is also one which is rarely short on ideas.  Though I suspect it was not written with theology in mind, the themes upon which it does reflect have theological implications all the same (see, for instance, my previous thoughts on The Hunger Games).

Having re-read Catching Fire in preparation for classroom discussion and this week’s premiere, my biggest takeaway was a broad theological concept that manifests itself a number of different ways.  To put it briefly, the book made me think about sin.  Not the popular idea of “angering God,” but the notion of sin as degradation/depravity/fallenness.  Its effects upon individuals and societies make ours a broken world.  Katniss’s is no different.  As such, many of the reflections that follow revolve around this central theme.

  • In the first book, we see Katniss and other adolescents forced to fight for their lives.  They do so, I think, as a symbol and symptom of their broken world.  At the end of The Hunger Games, they have won.  That is, until we find out in Catching Fire that their fallen society is not done with them yet.  The twisted net of sin–one that all e06bb81dfe8fc93806caa232c3824809Hunger Games tributes are caught up in–will not let them go.  It keeps going.  It never ends.  Whether it be as popular entertainment or back in the arena, their sinful world is eating them alive.
  • Speaking of their broken world, one of the interesting things about Catching Fire is how we begin to see the layers of artifice in the society of Panem slowly start to be peeled back.  The first book presents us a society that works to maintain the outward appearance of at least political stability, even if it is predicated upon yearly violence.  As sick as it is, the Hunger Games system is just how it works.  Districts go along with it for the most part.  The Capitol is happy.  Things move on.  In this second book, though, the hidden and deeply broken elements of their monstrous society are laid bare more and more.  Rebellion brewing.  Violent repression.  Warnings from the President.  This was never a world in equilibrium and we always knew that; we’re just seeing that more clearly now.  Understood in light of the Scriptural message, is ours any different?
  • One of Christ’s appellations is the “Prince of Peace.”  Looking at the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, not to mention the way in which His work was accomplished–not by the sword but through suffering and humility–many have looked to Christ’s model as one of nonviolence.  In some ways, I think that there is a sense that nonviolence is what Katniss hunger-games-catching-fire-pictures-38deeply desires in this trilogy. Sadly, though, this option is just not open to her.  In neither of the first two books is she a bloodthirsty killer, but all the same she is forced into violence in order to survive.  This presents an open question, theologically and philosophically: can violence ever be the ultimate solution to our problems?  Will it make things better or will it simply beget more violence?  Is this any way to solve things, or is this just the way our world tries to solve things?  The effects of using violence to achieved change and freedom in the society of Panem will be explored more in the book Mockingjay, but they are worth considering here.
  • As Catching Fire progresses, we the readers come to understand that Katniss Everdeen is becoming a powerful symbol of Panem’s resistance to its capital.  A symbol by which they will fight.  Her actions in standing up to the Capitol in The Hunger Games inspired many.  While her little trick with the berries was, I would submit, a kind of non-violence or passive resistance, the spirit of said resistance is being co-opted, even as she is, for something much more severe.  In the same way, there was always the danger that Christ’s mission–in his own lifetime and ours–might be co-opted towards much more nefarious purposes.  That the gospel (literally “good news”) of Katniss is being used in such a violent way is haunting indeed.catching-fire-character-poster-mags
  • One of the “holiest” moments in the first book was Katniss’s funeral for her fallen friend Rue.  Here, though, I would say that the two moments provided by an 80-year old participant in the arena serve this function.  The first is one we only hear about: on the day of the reaping, a younger woman is chosen to return to the Games.  On that day old Mags steps up to take her place.  Second, during the Games themselves there is a scene when the old lady is slowing down her companions and decreasing their chances for survival.  Rather than do so, she walks headlong into death to set them free.  Sacrifice, surely.
  • Lastly, a bit of a “reach.”  In my discussion of The Hunger Games, I posited Katniss as a type of Christ.  Fair enough.  Here, though, she is almost a kind of Mary, we might say.  Called to serve a cause greater than herself at a young age, she is the sign of a new state of affairs.  The metaphor breaks down, though: she unlike Mary is not particularly willing, and the stakes are not exactly the same.  She does, nevertheless, like the Virgin become an icon for devotion and fervor.

Catching Fire and Adolescence

index**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Catching Fire.**

Two years after my initial classroom discussion of youth ministry and the popular young adult novel/movie The Hunger Games, the series is back with its second installment.  Having triumphed over the dangers of her dystopian world in the first book, Catching Fire forces teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen back to the arena to fight for her life.  While the novels have been around for a few years, this week marks the premiere of the sequel to the 2012 movie.

As I did two years ago, I’ll be thinking through relevant themes from the book in my course Foundations for Youth and Family Ministries.  My students and I will also be going to attend the film this coming weekend.  Before all that though, I wanted to begin commenting here about Catching Fire‘s connection to adolescence, God, and youth ministry.

As a story about adolescents that is also popular with adolescents, Catching Fire stands as a signpost and driver of aspects of teenage culture.  While many themes and ideas inherent to the whole trilogy may already have been discussed in my first treatment, some of the unique themes I see inherent in this book are as follows:

  • Lack of Agency:  One of the things that is very clear in Catching Fire is that the adult world is not yet done using Katniss.  Having manipulated her to fight its battles once before, it is now forcing her to do so again.  While there are some facets of her life that remain her own, a significant part of her existence is being dictated to her, thus limiting her “agency” or ability to act.  She doesn’t want to do any of this and yet she has no choice.  This boundedness is often felt by adolescents who feel they have grown to their own place of perceived adulthood yet find themselves chafing at the restraints placed by school, parents, and/or society.  Katniss’s ability to work against the machinations of these outside forces even as she plays the game is almost then an adolescent fantasy of sorts, if not an actual descriptor of the way many teens think they operate.katniss-peeta-catching-fire
  • Emotional Awakening: Katniss Everdeen may very well be one of the prototypical female adolescent protagonists of our time.  In addition to her strength and determination, she is also in a stage of life where she’s discovering a lot about herself.  One of these things is her potential for romantic love.  Here I think author Suzanne Collin’s portrayal of the confused yet honest feelings Katniss processes are helpful in gaining a window into a process that is neither uniform nor sure, even if it is deeply felt.  Sorting through such intense emotions while feeling like your life is on the line is not foreign to many in this stage of life, whether male or female.
  • Survival: If sacrifice is one of these key themes of The Hunger Games, the idea of survival cannot be ignored here.  Indeed, without Katniss’s survival there would be no more story.  The world of Panem–like the teenage world today–is a frightening place that constantly seeks to destroy identity, autonomy, and existence itself.  So many die in the arena of the Hunger Games.  So many lives are on the brink of being simply snuffed out.  Metaphorical or not, this is how the teenage years can feel at times.  Whatever else is going on, the questions that swirl around surviving this maelstrom of pain, despair, and chaos is not far from the being of many in their teenage years.  Today’s adolescents may not face the Hunger Games, but they do go to high school.
  • Idealism/Cynicism: As the very title of Catching Fire suggests, one of the themes of the trilogy’s second novel is the growing political resistance to the autocratic ways of the oppressive government of Panem.  As this movement “catches fire,” it drew and draws its strength from the actions of Katniss in the-hunger-games-catching-fire-trailerfighting the system in the first film and beyond.  Her small acts of defiance inspire a mass movement that wants to change everything.  This is all fine and good, and this kind of idealistic crusade is indeed part and parcel of what adolescence can sometimes feel like.  Think of the youth culture of the 1960s, for instance.  What is interesting here, though, is that Katniss herself is not particularly caught up in the exciting dream of a free society; she just sees a lot of bloodshed and wants her family and friends to be safe.  The revolution might work, but is it worth fighting at the risk of life itself?  This realism–perhaps even cynicism–at the possibilities for change may also be a sign of our times.  The way in which teens are not so hopeful that things will change or worried about disrupting whatever equilibrium (healthy or not) they might have right now. Holding themselves and their worlds together may be enough for them.

Obviously, there is more at work here than just these brief reflections.  I look forward to hearing about your thoughts and more.  Come back tomorrow for a discussion of “Catching Fire and God!”