People of the Books: Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Hullo, Reader!  Thanks for your patience with me in my not warning you I’d be dropping off the radar last week; I had a conference last weekend (and also confirmation at church), so I wasn’t able to get to this.  But I’m back now (albeit a day late)—happy Saturday!  Have a book review!

Quo Vadis (which has apparently been made into a movie that I’m going to have to see now) is another of those books that somehow magically made it into my library when I wasn’t paying attention.  I have no memory of buying this or being given it, but I know I’ve moved it from at least one place to another with me.  In my great I Have to Read All These Books Before I Move Them Again project (yeah, it’s not going well; Reader, I own a lot of books) I finally decided to sit down with this one.

I must say, it was slow going at first.  Sienkiewicz doesn’t pull punches in how he sets up the story; he expects you to keep up as he throws you into 60s A.D. Rome under the craziness of Nero’s rule.  But stick with it; once you get situated in the overwhelming city (fortunately, my version had a map at the back so I could follow Sienkiewicz’s characters talking about where things were), you realize this is a pretty epic story.

The basic premise is that Marcus Vinicius, a nobleman of one of the ancient families and a decorated soldier now hanging about in Rome, falls in love with a gal named Ligia.  Add in the complication—Ligia is a Christian.  This is a time when Christianity was kept on the downlow because it wasn’t outright illegal but it definitely wasn’t liked, so Ligia’s faith is already questionable but also it’s a totally foreign idea to Vinicius.  He has all the power and wealth he could want; why on earth would someone want to follow a faith that tells you to give up stuff like that?  Foolishness.

So with this very simple plot, off we go.  Of course it gets more complicated; it’s set against the backdrop of Nero, who was batshit crazy and a half.  Petronius, Vinicius’s uncle, is one of Nero’s advisors (of a sort) and through his eyes we get to see the court falling apart as Nero loses touch with reality more and more.  The main punch of the book is when Rome gets set on fire, which Sienkiewicz described brilliantly, hauntingly, and horrifyingly.  For a city that large and that flammable to catch fire would indeed have been a sight for the ages, but the amount of people it displaced for the whims of a mad emperor is just staggering.

And then Nero blames it on the Christians—cue lions, torture, gore, and all of the awful debauchery that Rome could offer.  We of the 21st century are scary good at causing pain, but we have nothing on Rome.  They were terrifying in the amounts of ways they concocted to kill people; it’s even reflected in the language.  There are over thirty different verbs for “to kill” in ancient Latin.

I do try to correct folks when they think everything from Jesus to Constantine was lions eating Christians because that isn’t true.  Wide-scale persecution was relatively rare; most of the time Christians were mistrusted and ignored or simply thrown in jail for a while.  But sometimes they became scapegoats of epic proportions, and Sienkiewicz does a fantastic job of capturing how frightening and overwhelming that would be.  And one of the best parts about this book is that it makes you look at Christianity itself all over again.

Christianity is so completely embedded in modern Western culture we simply can’t look around without seeing it.  But when it was new and weird and secretive and still being ironed out—I don’t want to romanticize that at all, but I do love reading stories that make me remember it.  This is a time where there aren’t written stories but instead you would hear the Gospel from Peter himself (yeah, Peter and Paul have bit parts in this; it’s pretty awesome because I’m always ready to have them be ornery humans with their own doubts and fears, not knowing how much they would become pillars of the Church).  This is a time when there are the earliest of hymns, when people were still using the fish (ichthus) to identify each other, when books like Revelation make sense because people really did think Jesus was coming back any day because surely the world was tearing itself apart at the seams.

Sienkiewicz definitely has an angle—Nero bad, Christians good—but this isn’t at all a religion pitch.  He returns over and over again to how hard it is to be part of this faith and how different the early version of it was compared to what we know.  And the remarkable thing is that he was writing at the turn of the 20th century yet you can tell his heart is in the history of this rather than any attempts to convert the reader (of course, he would likely have assumed all of his readers would have been Christian already anyway).  Some of the characters don’t get Christianity and end the book still not getting it and yet being fully themselves, and five million points to an author who respects his/her characters enough not to try and force them into conversion moments.  My only real problem with characterization is in how Sienkiewicz talks about Ursus, Ligia’s bodyguard; a lot of the language there is very much about how this barbarian (they’re political hostages from a northern kingdom) is so very slow and more brawn than brains.  That caught me up several times because it’s so bald, but Ursus was still a real and marvelous character who actually stands in for the reader sometimes when we’re trying to understand what’s going on.  He also becomes a paradigm of loyalty and an example to be followed.

There is violence and sex and this is not for the faint of heart, Reader, but it is well worth the time, especially in this more modern translation (mad props to W. S. Kuniczak).  It’s a great story as well as a really well-written imagining of the early days of Christianity. I’ll definitely be keeping this on hand.

 

Rating:  4.5/5 stars  People of the Books:  Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills

 

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Lent, Week Six: Confirmation

I love that this fell in for this week because I’m heading off on a retreat with my confirmands once I leave work—mixed feelings about that because I’m tired as all get out from not having slept well and having a lot on my mind and in my life and Lord, but I don’t want to deal with kids who can’t be bothered to actually, you know, care.  But I also know that these things present amazing possibilities for the kids (and us adults, to be sure!) to think about things in new ways, to see new things, to grow and change and discover.

And that’s what confirmation is.  In the Catholic Church, this is one of the three Sacraments of Initiation (along with baptism and the Eucharist); it didn’t make it into the Holy Pair for us non-Catholics because it doesn’t explicitly show up anywhere in the Bible (sola scriptura, you know) but it’s still important in a lot of the mainstream denominations who do infant (rather than adult) baptisms.  It’s sort of baptism’s sequel, The Return of the Spirit.

Confirmation is the cognizant commitment to the Christian life.  For the denominations who only do adult baptism it’s part of that rite and so doesn’t merit its own consideration, but for the paedobaptists (didn’t know you’d be getting your Greek in today, did you?) there’s no way that the baptizee can make these kinds of promises.  The parents (grandparents/godparents/foster parents/whatever) make the promises on behalf of the kid:  we promise that we believe in one God and will raise the kid to know Who God is, we reject the temptations of Satan and will teach him/her to do the same, we will remain loyal to Christ and His Church and will nuture this kid in this family of faith, etc.  Whether the parentals actually follow through on these promises is kind of their problem (well, and that of the whole church, because in most denominations there’s a line in the baptismal rite for the congregation to bind themselves to this new creation), but confirmation is when that kid gets to say these things for him/herself.

So baptism has to come first (which is really fun when a kid hasn’t been baptized before so we do that and then about five minutes later have to say as part of the confirmation liturgy “remember your baptism”), but baptism isn’t the end of the story.  Neither is confirmation, for that matter, which is hard to get both kids and their parents to understand.  Confirmation isn’t the finish line of faith—it’s the start, it’s the moment when you step into your own as an adult (in the sense that no one is living this for you now).  It’s a pretty intense thing, especially when it’s presented as a true choice.

My church goes to some lengths to ensure that the kids going through the two-year-long process (7th and 8th grade) of confirmation understand that it is totally acceptable for them to say, at the end, “No thanks, this isn’t for me” and not become a member of the church or get confirmed.  I have been part of churches that did not make that effort, continuing to push kids forward through the ceremony as though it were just another graduation that you had to do where you memorize some stuff and suddenly you’re a church member.  That cheapens this sacrament, I think, even though most wouldn’t consider it a sacrament.  But it is; it is a sacred thing for a person to say either “I want to know more about this faith and will myself claim God as my God even though I don’t completely understand that” or “I don’t see these beliefs in myself and do not wish to swear to stuff with which I don’t agree.”  Both of these are holy things because both of these are autonomous moments of choice.

One of the really big Theological Things in Christianity is this idea of Free Will (well, unless you’re a Calvinist).  This can get a bit tetchy because of the whole omniscient-and-all-powerful-God thing, but for me I really love that there is this moment built right into the Christian life that says our choice matters.  We are not only encouraged but mandated to make a choice about where we stand with God—and that’s not to say that we can’t change our minds either direction later (trust me, our understanding of God has to be mutable or it would never work), but it is to say that we have to make a public stand.  For all the noise of 21st-century America, we don’t actually like to take public stands all that often.  And trying to do so when you’re 13?  Yeah, right!  You don’t even want to take a public stand on whether or not you like your own hair at that age, let alone how you understand a faith connected to organized religion.  So surely this is a special kind of torture that we enact on poor kids.

But it’s not.  “Tweens,” as they’re now called, have no voice anywhere.  They are just old enough to realize that they have thoughts that may not match the adults around them or even their friends, but no one wants to hear them.  They have no rights anywhere and are constantly told how whiny, ungrateful, lazy, and moody they are—I know this because I have said these things to my confirmands who most certainly have been all four of those.

And yet.

The Church—that monolithic scary thing that everyone says is dying because apparently no one has ever met a caterpillar—takes this time to give kids the space to say what they believe about God, which is kind of the most important thing.  We adults have done what we can to bring them this far; now it’s their turn to own who they are as children of the Spirit or own that God won’t smite them if they walk away.

Yeah, that’s pretty sacred.

 

Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faithfulness, and purity.  (1 Timothy 4:12, ISV)

Lent, Week Three: Reconciliation

The image quality isn’t very good, I know; I thieved it from a PBS article and am working on an older computer that doesn’t do image capture all that well.  But you get the idea—each red balloon is a mass shooting in the United States.

In 2016.

Reader, it’s not even March yet.  I come to you on this Saturday in Lent because my Friday was thrown off, my whole week was thrown off by the fact that my town is now on this map.  My town now has a little red balloon saying that some are dead, some are injured, all are now on statistics lists of this country’s numerous dead born out of an unnatural love of violence.  My town now has made the national news, the international news, as another place holding vigils and wondering why; as another name that scrolls across the screen while talking heads say maybe this time, maybe this action will be the one that causes us to unfurl our fingers from our guns and step away from the fear that drives us to this mortal embrace.  My town now is another in a chain that will not be that time.

And Reader, I am so, so angry.

The sacrament this week is that of reconciliation, formerly known as penance.  Reconciliation has three aspects:  conversion, confession, and celebration.  Conversion is the recognition of being in the wrong, of turning back toward Christ and the life and choices He would have us lead and make.  Confession is the telling of what went wrong to another—for Catholics, this is a priest; for many Protestants, this is God Herself; for some, this is a pastor or deeply trusted friend.  (You can ask your pastor to do this; it’s not an official sacrament, but many clergy will hear confession as part of spiritual growth.)  Celebration is the recognition that a new way is forged, that the wounded are healed, and that the freshly forgiven are charged to go out into our lives and forgive others in the courage and love of the Spirit.

I find this a somewhat perfect sacrament this week because it is so easy to demand that the shooter be brought to justice.  It is so easy to demand that he be the one to confess, to be crushed by the full force of the law even as he senselessly crushed the lives of so many others.  It is so easy to call for celebration that the wicked shall be judged by a righteous God Who cries with us at the rising death toll.  It is, in fact, too easy.

Reader, I confess that I have harbored anger against a brother, a fellow creation of God.  I confess that I have numbed myself to the suffering of others because I cannot stand the spineless promise of prayers from politicians anymore.  I confess that I have not done as much as I could to petition those same politicians and everyone I can find to change this, to see the way our culture is killing itself one bullet at a time.  I confess that I have walked away from important conversations because I felt too empty to argue any further.  I confess that I have not returned to the spring of living water to fill that emptiness because I am filling it instead with wrathful frustration and scathing cynicism.  I confess that I no longer try to bear the sorrow.

The shooter was wrong.  He was wrong to take life that was not his, he was wrong to drive a community into shock and fear, he was wrong to be so careless about his fellow humans.  I am not in the least advocating for any judicial lessening of this understanding.  But Reader, we cannot continue to demand the reconciliation of the violent without acknowledging our own places of turning away from God.  I cannot rage at the empty speeches of those far away and far removed without acknowledging that I don’t continually write their offices to tell them to fix this.  I cannot despair at the American love of weaponry without acknowledging the many ways I glorify the rough-and-tumble violence that promotes it.  And I cannot call this man evil without seeing that I am not perfectly good.

My heart aches with my anger at this, Reader.  It aches with my sorrow and the pain and my ever-dimming hope that we might one day say we have had enough.  But the only way to soothe that ache is is to turn from my part in creating it, however small; to confess that I have had that part in creating it, that I have left undone various aspects of the Kingdom building God asks of me; and to celebrate that I have been set on a new way that will never be easy and will require more and ever more reconciliation but that will continually bring me closer to my Lord.

Psalm 13 begins, “How long, o Lord?  Will You forget me forever?…How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”  How long shall we stand vigil for the lost and pray for the fallen?  How long, o Lord, will You leave us to this violence?  Yet verse five is the psalmist’s hope:  “But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.”

I do not have the answer to this violence, Reader.  I do not have the shooter’s confession.  I cannot say when we as a nation will turn away from this path.  But I can seek reconciliation for myself; I can ask forgiveness of my God and His people that I might go out into this fallen world and forgive.  And in that, I might celebrate the Spirit that breathes within me to allow forgiveness even of the enablers, even of the silent, even of the shooter.  For God’s love manifests in unconditional forgiveness, drawing us ever and again to Himself that we might never be lost or left behind; in gratitude, may we strive to do the same.

 

I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.  (Psalm 13:6)

Advent, Week Four/Christmas, Day One: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

Merry Christmas, Reader!  It’s technically Christmas even though I haven’t slept yet, and I’m super excited and running off of the energy of how awesome my church is at Christmas and incredibly much I love Christmas and yes, you can throw all of the Elf references at me you want (although my excitement skews in a much different direction).

So what better hymn to bridge Advent and Christmas?  Why, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, of course!  It has the added bonus of lyrics by Charles Wesley, one of the founding brothers of my denomination (United Methodist) and author of literally over 6,000 hymns.  Of course, he originally wanted it slow and stately, which isn’t my cup of tea for this song.  It’s a whole song of joy that Christ is finally born—get your party on, y’all.

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, Christmas is my favorite holiday.  It always has been, actually, though for different reasons throughout my life.  But nowadays, I love Christmas to pieces because it is overflowing with joy and hope and starlight.  This song has it:  these angels are singing that “God and sinners [are] reconciled.”  Reconciled!  We are no longer set apart from God!

Not super into atonement theory?  Okay; how about “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity”?  I love that one of the things people found super weird about Christianity in the early days was that a god would be stupid enough to trap himself in a human body—especially when he then got killed for it.  That’s not to say that there aren’t sacrifice narratives in other early religions (there’re a lot of them, actually), but it is to say that God became human, from the squalling infant who couldn’t even focus on images in the cradle to the bleeding Man who refused to step outside of the mortal process until He broke it in half.

Still not seeing the joy?  Then try this on:  “Light and life to all He brings / Ris’n with healing in His wings.”

Reader, you can’t possibly tell me with a straight face that you aren’t excited about the possibility of light, life, and healing.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me; this isn’t my attempting to convert you to Christianity (although if you want to have that conversation, please know that I AM SO TOTALLY DOWN FOR IT and would welcome your questions and conversation most heartily).  It is, however, my attempting to show you why I danced my way across the chancel (stage) at one service tonight in front of God and everybody, and why I went to two services after having worked a full day, and why I’m still not in bed even though it’s half-past one in the morning and I have to get up in a few hours to drive to a family Christmas, and why I want you to see that joy can include happiness even if happiness is not the same as joy.

BECAUSE HOLY CROW CHRIST IS BORN.  Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!  Hail the hope of an end to strife!  Hail the One Who was born a king even though His cradle was a manger!  Hark—listen!  Hwæt!  (That one’s Old English, because I may as well get all my nerdery on.)  The angels are singing, challenging the nations to rise joyful in triumph that God broke His own differentiations to chase after Her confused and beloved children.  God tucked all of God’s Self into the form of a human baby boy; hell, God suffered puberty on our behalf.  That’s some love, right there.

God came to earth and understands fully what it is to live as we live—not to drive cars as we drive or to to fear gun violence as we fear or to eat McDonald’s as we eat McDonald’s, but to love as we love and cry as we cry and hurt as we hurt and laugh as we laugh.  He came to tell us that She was willing to do whatever it took to get our attention and return us to the relationship He had wanted from the very beginning when She breathed life into us and called us, called us good.

Hark, the herald (messenger) angels are singing!  Do not be afraid, for they bring you tidings of great, deep, and abiding joy.  Merry, merry Christmas.

 

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  (Luke 2:13-14, KJV)

 

People of the Books: Testimony by Thomas G. Long

There are a handful of things that are really pushing my buttons today in the arctic tundra of the Land of Pilgrims today, Reader, so I’m sorry if this review gets wander-y.  I’m very frustrated about the place I work and the expectations of some people, and also I’m pretty wound up about upcoming medical messes (speaking of which, there won’t be an entry next week because I will be off my head on meds.  Prayer most certainly welcome.  Take the opportunity to go back and read favorite posts, or something).

But I wanted to tell you about this fantastic book.  That makes it sound like a terrible sales pitch in which you only have to pay for shipping and handling, I know, but it really is a fantastic book.  The full thing is Testimony:  Talking Ourselves into Being Christian.  What a tagline!  And what a great hook for a gal like me who is still really nervous, sometimes, about identifying herself as a Christian because Christians are, well, weird.  And what a deceptive title, as it wasn’t at all about what I thought it was going to be about.

Quelle surprise, this was a loan from Interpreter’s book horde.  He handed it to me a long time ago, but I get around to his stuff in a very strange fullness of time.  I don’t know why I decided this needed to get read this week, but I’m very glad I finally found the time for it.  The book itself walks you through a day of talking and how the speech of a Christian should/could sound through each part of it. There are a lot of stories and people-based illustrations without this getting too folksy, and there are a lot of somewhat obvious things that are gently but insistently pointed out.

The title itself—at least, the “Testimony” part—is intimidating.  I come from a background where “testimony” meant “how Jesus rescued me from the screwed-up shit I was involved in,” and that’s not a story I’m ever eager to tell.  Who I was is God’s and my business, not yours—not even you, Reader, who has patiently read much about who I am currently.  So to give testimony, or more correctly to evangelize, has never been an exciting prospect for me.  I think part of it (beyond the zomg sharing bit) is that that kind of testimony is a heart thing, and I don’t do heart things.  I do head things, and I do them well.

But Long wonderfully draws boundaries around what testimony is and isn’t.  It can be telling about how Jesus rescued me, for sure, and sometimes that account needs to be told.  But only sometimes, and only when that is the God speech needed in a situation.  Testimony is the telling of the story of why we follow this God, of Who this God is, of why it matters that other people know.  Testimony is, as Long brilliantly says, the place where we “see the hand of God at work in life, and we don’t want other people to miss it.”  (p. 120)

Long also has some fantastic things to say about what place worship holds for us as people of faith and how we talk about that, and what our talking within church has to be in order for us to be able to talk outside of church about the experiences we have.  I am, in case you hadn’t noticed, a words person, so a book about the impact and shape of words is absolutely going to earn top points from me.  It’s also well noted (endnotes, sadly, rather than footnotes) without being overwhelmingly scholastic or dry.  Long’s writing voice is easy and smooth; I could have kept reading just for the prose structure.

I got a lot out of this as a layperson in a secular job and really appreciated Long’s remonstrance to get our faith into the rest of our lives (i.e., beyond church) without allowing ourselves to be either cowed or cowing.  It’s hard, especially on days like today when everything about the place where I work and the work that I do just sets my teeth on edge and my soul spiraling, to remember that this is also part of the Kingdom.  God is here in my office, and for me to acknowledge that means I have to be able to speak of it if asked.  This is not to say that I’m going to become the corner office Bible thumper, nor should I.  But it is to remind me that faith and the way it shapes me and my conversation, internally and externally, doesn’t stop after the services on Sunday.  I have to both have and be the faith through the week, which Magister has been trying to illustrate since before I knew him and yet I still struggle so mightily with it.

So now, at the top of my computer screen here in the office, I have taped a piece of paper that says, “This is a child of God, as are you.  Do you speak in a way that honors this?”

I’ll get back to you on how I answer that.

 

Rating:  5/5 stars   Five out of five stars

I’ve Just Had an Apostrophe

If you’ve never seen the Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman awesomeness that is Hook, track it down and watch it.  Laugh uproariously when the truly wonderful Bob Hoskins says the above line.

What he means is “epiphany,” which is “a moment of sudden revelation or insight.”  It’s also a Christian holiday that falls on this coming Tuesday and officially ends the Christmas season.  (That’s right, technically we’re still in Christmas—that’s where the 12 Days of Christmas concept comes in, because Epiphany falls 12 days after the holiday proper.  Take that argument to your altar guild when they want to take down the poinsettias before the first of the year, hah.)

Epiphany is definitely one of the secondary holidays of the Church year with some murky beginnings (you can look them over at the Catholic Encyclopedia, where the answer “we don’t really know” is given in some of the best scholastic jargon around).  This may be because the Eastern and Western churches have had, shall we say, a rocky relationship and Rome wasn’t all that keen on borrowing “Eastern” holidays, or it may be because it took so long for anyone to figure out exactly what the point of the holiday was.  (Man, I love church history.)  The long and short of it, though, is that this is now considered the day when the Magi get to reach the nativities in living rooms all over the world (except mine, because I never got around to setting mine up this year—for shame, I know) and Jesus and the Gentiles (represented by the terribly not-Jewish Magi) hang out and introduce themselves.

I don’t know how “sudden” 12 days is, but this is the revelation:  hey everybody, this Kid’s for you.

As a Gentile, I’m pretty happy about that.  (I think there may actually be some Jewish blood several generations back, but once we got to the States, the families pretty much agreed never to speak of Ye Olde Eurasia Land.)  So this holiday, beyond allowing me to switch the altar cloth from blue/purple to white/gold, gives me an entrance ticket to the possibilities of this Kingdom ushered in by this Baby we just spent four weeks preparing for.

I’m relatively new to this holiday, despite having grown up with Catholicism in the mix of denominations around the house(s), but I like the idea.  I like that we have Christmas, on which the outrageous scandal of a God born as a human baby happens, and then we have this next holiday on which we get to focus on the outrageous scandal of that baby God having been born for everybody.  The nativity, once the Magi have arrived with their mostly useless but fancy presents, represents the fact that this new Kingdom ushered in by this crazy God is for all—Joseph of David’s line for the hardcore Jews, Mary for the womenfolk, the Magi for the non-Jewish humans, the shepherds for the lower classes, the animals for the whole of creation, all gather to marvel at this new mewling boy that will somehow change the world.

Talk about faith.

But we, in the 21st century, get to know that He did change the world.  Whether you believe all the things people say about Jesus or not, you have to admit He did pretty much shake things up; the West would not be the West without the general concept of Him.  (And in some ways that might be better, to be honest, but that’s because we’re human and we suck at interpretation and kindness sometimes.)

So Epiphany falls on a Tuesday this year, which is a pretty unremarkable day in my life.  I know friends of mine will be having choir rehearsal, and maybe some other friends will be gathering for games, and we’ll all of us be going to work, and hopefully I will bully myself into doing the dishes that are probably soon going to gain sentience in my kitchen.  Mundane—but then, this thing of which we’re mindful was a baby born in a stable; perhaps not mundane, but most definitely unremarkable.

Except that God makes even the most unremarkable things remarkable, if He has a mind to.  So, on Tuesday, take a minute to find the amazing parts of your life.  If you’re into the God-thing, find the God in your life, or in yourself.  If you’re not so much down with that, just find the moments where you can stop and say, “Damn.  This life thing is kind of incredible.”  Let me know about it; I’d love to hear where that happens for you.  I’d love to hear your epiphanies, Reader.

And your apostrophes.

 

And [the wise men], having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.  And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.  And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshiped him; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.  (Matthew 2:9-11, ASV)

God’s on Film

I know, it’s not every day you get a strange 80s metal reference, especially about a song as risque as Girls on Film.

So, Christian films are usually not that great in terms of cinema.  I’ve seen the Left Behind films, The Omega Code, Fireproof, and others.  So I count myself qualified in saying that, at least when they’re blatantly faith-driven, Christian films kinda suck.

So seeing the film God’s Not Dead surprised me because, well, it doesn’t suck.  It’s not Dr. Zhivago, for sure, but it has actors who I believe might be human, a script that doesn’t sound like it was written in ten minutes for the children’s sermon, and mostly decent cinematic understandings of camera placement and direction.  (Mostly.)

Christian film is a tough thing because it’s usually fairly low budget without much star power, but also because it sits at the uncomfortable intersection of entertainment and information.  Trying to do both is incredibly hard, which is why summer blockbusters rarely cause introspective journeys and focused documentaries rarely sell out worldwide ticket counters.  But this film manages to be somewhat entertaining and also gets its message across without too much of the AND THEN YOU REPENT BECAUSE JESUS DIRECTED THIS FILM Gospel stuffings faith films tend to have.

The premise is a little irksome—arrogant philosophy prof challenges wee baby Christian freshman to prove God exists.  I say “irksome” because I’m tired of the dichotomy of faith and academics—trust me, not all professors are atheists, and definitely not all atheists are professors.  But as the film goes on, it does start to address the fact that Christians don’t have to check their brains at the door—in point of fact, some of the most beloved theologians were brilliant scholars in their own right (C.S. Lewis and the entire cast of the Middle Ages, for starters).

So I liked the film, but there were 4 main things that made this film just that short of really good:

1)  Villains:  The thing that drives me totally nuts about Christian films is that the characters are horribly flat.  The good guys are always a little rough around the edges but basically nice at the core, while the adversaries are freaking Satan (until they learn to love Jesus).  “God’s Not Dead” gives a little more dimension than usual, but it still draws a giant black line of division in case you missed that the atheists were The Bad Guys.  While it does make script-writing easier, that’s crap.  I know a lot of good, funny, moral atheists (and Jews, Muslims, pagans, agnostics, etc.).  I also know rather a lot of asshole Christians.  People are grey like that, and it’s so frustrating to me when Christian films flatten out those complexities as if saying “Yay Jesus!” flips some kind of personality switch.  It doesn’t.  Trust me.  I still have my fair share of bitchy days and really great days, and so does everyone else.

2)  Other faiths:  The presence of other faith systems in Christian film is rare.  Usually it’s the general non-believers and the Christians, which is again totally not how the world works.  This film introduced an Islamic family—yay!—and proceeded to make them intolerant, harsh, and—well, I won’t spoil it, but the outcome of that subplot isn’t good.  Which is such a foolish move on the filmmakers’ part, because it’s not like Christianity and Islam are BFFs to begin with, so slamming their faith onscreen when they would be crucified (!) for doing the same to yours is just mean.  And unnecessary.  We’re not getting anywhere as a global culture if we continue to caricature each other.  It has to do with respect, not agreement.

3)  Believers:  Seriously, not every Christian has memorized the Bible.  Or has the perfect words as a gift from God at exactly the right time.  We’re not that smooth.  Trust me.  Sometimes, it happens, and this film tried to have a believer who wasn’t totally “on”—but she was so obviously “off” that I couldn’t take her seriously.  Again, grey areas, y’all.

4)  Conversions:  It’s just not a Christian film until some unbeliever comes to the light.  I get that, and that’s fine, but conversions are hard to film because staging them inherently ruins the authenticity and impact.  I get the point of the conversion in this film (I’d say spoiler alert, but really, you know it has to be there).  But that scene was AWFUL.  SRSLY, EVEN I CAN’T SUSPEND MY DISBELIEF THAT FAR.   I would definitely spoil things if I explained why the big climax scene was stupid and fake, but I will say that there is no universe in which I could buy that particular exchange actually happening (well, actually there is one, but no one wants to be around that universe.  It’s annoying).

All of that being said, I reiterate that I liked the film.  It was well done, and entertaining, and I have a particular love in my heart for the main Newsboys song because I first heard it at camp and it was intense.  The biggest thing that stuck with me, though, is that at the end of the film the audience is asked to text “God’s not dead” to everyone they know.  And, as the credits rolled, the couple in front of me actually started doing so.  I was blown away; no way could I even think about doing that, not because I’m afraid of the repercussions but because I can’t do random, out-of-context texts (they irk me) and also because I can’t do bumper sticker theology like that anymore (thanks, Interpreter).  But man, it was both utterly dismaying and super cool that this pair was systematically going through their contacts informing them that God has not, in fact, kicked the celestial bucket.

What a fascinating conversation starter that would be if you had a contact who didn’t know that already.

So go see it, if you get a chance.  Then come tell me about it; I’d love to hear your reaction, Reader.