Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Film and Theology: Coco

Coco: Family and Remembering
In the past at our church we have watched a movie and offered a theological review of the story and themes as they contrast or illustrate the gospel. This can be a tricky thing to do well and we haven’t done it for every movie.  On the one hand, movies are fun entertainment. But is it just a movie? Some may be resistant to thinking too deeply about something that really is just an escape, a piece of entertainment to enjoy.  But is it just a movie?  On the other hand, movies tell stories that resonate with people.  Stories can capture how people see the world and the potential to shape how we see things and identify how we make meaning out of our lives.  Every culture uses stories to pass on important life lessons.  The two should be held in tension: movies are not neutral in what they want to communicate but they are also for our enjoyment and not necessarily intended to be taken too seriously.  Christians should approach movies with a recognition of what the movie is trying to do.  Some movies are intentionally more “preachy” than others.  No one takes Michael Bay’s Transformer movies seriously (on any level).  But other movies that are often nominated for an Oscar are drama’s they are very intentional about what they want to say.  In my opinion, Coco is in the middle.  Don’t take it too seriously, but don’t be naive about it either.
Coco praised for its good story telling, accuracy in depicting traditional Mexican culture, the beautiful scenery and music.  The movie’s setting is a rural Mexican town and the land of dead and the mythology of Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead.  It has deeply resonated with Mexican people and those of Mexican heritage.  But it has resonated with lots of people beyond that for its touching tale about family.  It is important to recognize the setting of the movie contains a mix of traditional Mexican ofrendas, the spirit animal guides of Mayan mythology, and mythological beliefs about Day of the Dead, these elements are not the primary point of the movie.  They are not trying to persuade you this elaborate mythology is true.  The primary plot tension of the movie is similar to just about every Disney movie ever made - the tension between honoring family or tradition and the individual pursuing their true self and passions.
The movie is about a family whose trade is making shoes.  They pursued this because the main character’s great great grandmother learned to make shoes after her husband left her to play music.  Since then, no one in the family was permitted to play or enjoy music. But Miguel, the main character, is a little boy who loves to play music. Thus the conflict of the movie revolves around Miguel wanting to pursue his passion of music against his family’s wishes.  This results in him ending up in the land of the dead where he seeks a blessing from his family to return to the land of the living.  But his great great grandmother will only give him the blessing if he does not play music. He then runs away from his family to pursue his deceased great great grandfather who he believes became the most famous musician in Mexico, Ernesto de la Cruz.  Along they way he gains a friend, Hector, who has no family to remember him and cannot go and visit them on the annual Day of the Dead.
Many people in other online reviews have focused on the tension of honoring family and Miguel pursuing his passion for music.  This is certainly an important point.  Family almost serves as a path to immortality in Coco where if one is forgotten in the living world, they fade away presumably forever, what the characters refer to as “the final death.”  But from a Christian point of view, it is our spiritual family in Christ that is more important than our blood.  Indeed Jesus challenged the notion that we should place anyone before him, even our own family.  At the same time, Jesus said that life is not finding ourselves and gaining the world, but gaining life but losing it for Christ’s sake.
This leads to what I think is the most significant theological point to make about Coco.  It has do with being remembered. Being remembered is a path to salvation in a sense, to immorality in the land of the dead (there is no resurrection). Salvation is found in being remembered by others, especially your family.  One needs their family to place their picture on their family’s ofrenda (a kind of altar to remember deceased ancestors) in order to return visit on the Day of the Dead and not vanish into oblivion. We learn one character gained the whole world, but lost his soul (I will not give you spoilers about how this works out).  But it also depicts a family holding grudges and withholding forgiveness until the truth is learned.  In reality, families are by no means perfect and may be as much of a curse as they are a blessing.  The movie ends with a very moving and touching ending as the family and Miguel experience a kind of redemption and reconciliation.  Given the mixed message on the blessing and curse of family in the movie, it reveals how family cannot ultimately be our source of redemption.
The reason I wanted to focus on being remembered is that this is a very significant theme in scripture. The word remember is a rich word in the Bible, especially Deuteronomy.  Genesis 8:1 says, “God remembered Noah… and the waters subsided.”  He says to Noah in Gen. 9:16, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  God remembers Abraham (Gen. 19:29). He remembers Rachel and opens her womb (Gen. 30:22).  Samson prays the Lord would remember him in his death (Judg. 16:28). Hannahs prays the Lord would remember her.  He does opens her womb (1 Sam. 1:11-19).  the Lord calls his people to remember what he did for them in Egypt (Dt. 5:15; 7:18; 8:2, 18; et. al).  The thief on the cross asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, to which Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk. 23:43).  Indeed it is not family who is our source of redemption, by it is Christ through whom we are adopted by the Father and sealed by the Spirit through faith in Christ.  It is him who calls us by name and gives us salvation.  It is He who remembers us.
Whether you think it is wise for you and your children to see this movie may ultimately come down to a decision of wisdom. The instructions Paul gives to Greek and Jewish Christians in 1 Cor. 8-10 and Romans 14 is very instructive on these matters.  Just like food sacrificed to idols, some may feel themes of the Day of the Dead and ancestral worship is a sin for them.  Paul says not to look down on them or insist that they should. But he also says for those whose conscience is weak, they should not judge the one whose conscience does not bother them (Rom. 14:3). These are matters of Christian conscience. It is up to each family to determine if their child will be too scared by the skeletons and themes of death, or will take the depictions of the after life too seriously.  Others may not have an issue and their children will simply see it as a fun movie.
All Christians should be prepared to give an answer for the hope that they have (1 Pet. 3:15).  We need to think theologically about the stories we tell and disciple our children to think like missionaries, and not be passive consumers of culture, or naively sheltered and unable to adequately engage the concerns of our friends and neighbors who don’t know Jesus.
As an anecdote, I offer the brief conversation we had with our six year old.
“Calvin, did you think anything in Coco was real or scary?”
“No, it was funny and silly.”
“But what do you think about the Day of Dead stuff in it?  Is that true?” 
“No, but it is a real holiday in other cultures.”
“Yes, but is that what we believe happens when you die?”
“No, you go to heaven or hell.”
I then really pressed by asking him how it may relate to Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones which he just happen to have read about last week.  But he got that too, for he said it is God who raised them up and it is God who made them alive.  I reminded him that we are resurrected and not raised up as skeletons.  Not every child will have the same reaction; you know your child and your conscience best.  Sometimes we just watch a movie for fun and don’t analyze it.  Sometimes we talk about it.  It just depends on what is the wise thing to do and what demonstrates grace.
Personally, I recommend Coco and yes, I totally ugly cried at the end.

Here are a couple other resources:
You can also always check commonsensemedia.org and pluggedin.com.
This is a pretty good review that actually explains in more detail how Day of the Dead works in Mexican culture and the ofrendas.

There is also a podcast I listened to that focused on the artistic elements and the themes of family in the movie.  It was accesible but long (1.5 hrs with about 20min dedicated to the short film shown before Coco).

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Book discussion, NT Wright's "Simply Christian"

Discussing NT Wright's Simply Christian.
I hope people jump on to this discussion. We will take it one week at a time. This is really opened ended. But just a chance to react to the book and offer some reflections. What you liked or didn't like but I hope he gives you a fresh way to understand Christianity in a winsome way today.
The first chapter was about Justice, or as he likes to put it, "Putting the World to Rights." It looks like he will uses this "Echoes of a voice" metaphor throughout. He asks the question on page 6, how is that we all have this sense of the world is not the way it ought to be, that it needs to be made right, and yet after millenia of debate and attempted solutions humanity seems no closer than it was 2000 years ago?
He quotes a Dr. Johnson who says everyone just wants "to be happy at home," and asks if this is a dream or a reality that we can persue. Is the dream of a just world a childish fantasy, or a world we hope to one day escape to with little we can do about it now, or is it a voice calling us to, to put things right and make us right? (pp. 8-9)
He goes on to argue that the Christian faith is among three great religious traditions that takes the third option. But of course people object that Christians have done a lot of nasty things and he responds saying yes and no. There are great stories of Christians doing great things and that these stories are not told enough. Christianity is relevant and something about it drives it to do something about whats wrong with the world. (pp. 12, 15)
I'll get us started with three basic questions:
1) Do you resonate with this sense of the world not being the way it should be?What do you think about how Wright describes it as echoes of a voice?
2) Do you agree that the aim of human endeavors "is to be happy at home"? Which way do you tend to view the dream of a better world: a childish fantasy, a place to escape to one day, or not a dream but a voice calling us to "being put to rights?"
3) What stories have you heard that have encouraged you about Christians doing great things that really make a difference?
Feel free to share anything else you liked so far.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

My favorite reads in 2015

It is the time of year when every pumps there favorite books of the year.

Scot McKnight's list

Kevin DeYoung's list

Christianity Today has numerous books that I have marked as things I would like to read maybe someday. Especially anything by Lauren Winner

But here is my list of books I read this year. That are not in any particular order. I wish I would have read more but alas there is always next year and I still have two weeks left.

1) Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer
This was a book I used as the basis/inspiration for the "Summer Study" class we did in partnership Awakening. I actually got to meet Vanhoozer and talked to him about the class and he asked, "would you do it again?" He expressed the difficulty for even himself to teach to congregations about his theater metaphor for theology lived. This was a challenging read and it was an attempt by him to distill his larger works and move beyond theory to practice.

2) Prayer by Timothy Keller
I think I started this book in late 2014 and read it in January. There were many gems in this book but his advice for recovering a devotional practice was very helpful. He just released a devotional book going through all the Psalms in a year called, The Songs of Jesus.

3) Pastoral Theology by Thomas Oden
I read a lot of books about pastoral ministry this year. Many of them were either highly critical of modern excesses in large churches or more popular level leadership type books. There are always nuggets to take away but they often lack the sense of things that transcend our day. Oden specializes in the early church and aims in a lot of his writings to immerse in the wisdom of the church throughout the centuries. This is why I found his book so helpful, especially on topics like pastoral care, visitations for the sick and care for the poor. It is theological rich and practical and spoke to things a pastor ought to do regardless of the times. I don't share several of Oden's theological commitments but there was little in this book to dispute.

4) Soul Keeping by John Ortberg
This book kind of felt like Ortberg's tribute to Dallas Willard. It was easy to read and filled with a lot insight in caring for our neglected souls.

5) Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann
Books on the Psalms fall into two categories: sentimental and fluffy devotional reading that ignores the insights of scholarship or overly technical scholarship that robs the Psalms of their heart. Breuggemann's aim in this book was to wed the two through a basic categorization of the Psalms as orientation (creation focused and innocent in outlook), disorientation (wrestling with sin, suffering, and evil), and reorientation (moving beyond the previous to a deeper view of God and life with him). He also included some wonderful reflections on the difficult parts of the Psalms dealing with suffering and calling on God to destroy one's enemies.

6) Shrink by Tim Shuttle and Deep Church by Jim Belcher
These two books were from people of contrasting church traditions (Anabaptist and Reformed respectively) but both had good insights into what the church should look like today.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent Reading Plan

This year for Advent, I am going to follow the reading plan from a new book call The First Days of Jesus by Kรถstenberger and Alexander Stewart. It is a follow up to their previous book, The Final Days of Jesus which is a unique blend of theology, background and devotional reading of the final week leading up to Jesus' crucifixion. This book is similar but starts at the beginning with Jesus' birth and early life. You can pick up the book on Amazon and follow the reading plan they provide below. If you don't pick up the book, you can still follow the scripture reading plan that is only a few verses each day leading up to Christmas.

December 1   - Luke 1:1-4, Introduction in First Days of Jesus
December 2   - Genesis 49:8-12, Chap. 1
December 3   - Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:1-5, Chap. 1
December 4   - Micah 5:2-4, Chap. 1
December 5   - Matthew 1:1-17, Chap. 1
December 6   - Matthew 1:18-25, Chap. 2
December 7   - Matthew 2:1-12, Chap. 3
December 8   - Matthew 2:13-15, Chap. 4
December 9   - Matthew 2:16-18, Chap. 4
December 10 - Matthew 2:19-23, Chap. 4
December 11 - Luke 1:5-25, Chap. 5
December 12 - Luke 1:26-38, Chap. 5
December 13 - Luke 1:39-45, Chap. 6
December 14 - Luke 1:46-56, Chap. 6
December 15 - Luke 1:57-66, Chap. 7
December 16 - Luke 1:67-80, Chap. 7
December 17 - Luke 2:1-7, Chap. 8
December 18 - Luke 2:8-21, Chap. 9
December 19 - Luke 2:22-40, Chap. 10
December 20 - John 1:1-5, 18, Chap. 11
December 21 - John 1:6-8, 15, Chap. 12
December 22 - John 1:9-14, Chap. 13
December 23 - John 1:16-17, Chap. 14
December 24 - Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Chap. 15
December 25 - Revelation 21:1-8, Epilogue

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Who Wrote 2 Peter?

We are starting a new series this week leading up to Christmas, 2 Peter: The Promise of His Coming. 2 Peter is a neglected book that speaks to a church fending off attacks that Christ is not coming so the ethical demands of the faith are not binding. Not exactly a "Christmas cheer" message. The coming of Christ is often associated with hope and the good news of Jesus making the world right. What is sometimes glossed over is that to make the world right, judgment must come.
The letter is short and attributed to Simon Peter (cf. Acts. 15:14), a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:1). He writes that he is going to die soon (1:14), witnessed Jesus' baptism and transfiguration (1:18-19), and that this is the second letter he wrote (3:1). He also has read some of Paul's letters and affirms them as scripture (3:15-16). But there are significant stylistic differences to 1 Peter and its apparent dependence on the book of Jude (cf. 2 Pet. 2:1-17) make it difficult for many to accept a date prior to Peter's martyrdom in the mid- to late 60s AD. For these and other reasons, the authorship of 2 Peter has been heavily disputed, more so than any other book in the New Testament. This was true even in the early church and part of the reason it was among the few books that faced an uphill battle to be included in the NT canon.
The significance is whether 2 Peter is a reliable testimony from an eye witness and apostle of Jesus Christ – the infamous Simon Peter, the "rock," who ministered in Rome. It also matters based on how we read the letter and its circumstances. While it cannot be definitively proven, Richard Bauckham has demonstrated 2 Peter has the qualities of being a "last testament," a Jewish genre often written shortly after the death of a notable hero and accepted as consistent with their teaching. Bauckham therefore argues for a mediating view between traditional authorship and outright rejection that Peter was behind it at all. He contends that it was written by a close associate of Peter, perhaps Linus who was Clement's predecessor in Rome, published after his death in the 70's to 90's AD. He also argues this does not infringe on the letter's integrity or its acceptance as divinely inspired scripture for inclusion in the canon.
But Michael Green and others have argued that we can accept the letter as written by Peter. It still received far greater support than apocryphal works attributed to Peter. 1 Peter's more refined style can be due to the help of Silvanus (1 Pet. 5:12). There is little reason to think just because Peter felt free to use Jude's arguments he could not have penned it or that it would have been too early for that to be possible. The theological concern about the delay of Christ's coming is seen in early Christian writings that are widely accepted so it is not a later development (cf. 1 & 2 Thessalonians). Peter Davids makes an excellent point that both Green and Bauckham offer a reasonable defense for their conclusions but based on historical grounds alone; we simply do not know enough about Peter's life or have a large enough sample of his work to definitely say he did or did not write 2 Peter. The tie then goes to internal testimony of the letter itself combined with church tradition. The best evidence we have is the letter itself.
Accepting that Peter wrote it, late in his life but before his death which Jesus' foreshadowed (John 21), we have his final words to the church. He was pleading with them to remember his testimony to who Jesus was and how we should live in light of his coming. He sharply warns them against those who would lead them astray and again pleads they remain faithful. The coming of the Lord compels us to live by kingdom ethics and his delay is so that as many people as possible may have an opportunity to respond to him in faith (2 Pet. 3:8-10).
Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter. Word Biblical Commentary, Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983.
Peter Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.
Craig Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Center For Pastor Theologians Conference

Last week I went to a conference in Chicago for the Center for Pastor Theologians. The basic vision of this group is to bring about theological renewal for the church and by the church through the "pastor theologian." Some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the church have been pastors: Augustine, Gregory the Great, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Bonhoeffer, etc. A pastor theologian is uniquely positioned to fill the gap that exists in the modern world between the academic sphere and the life of the church.

The problem is many today look to scholars or professional theologians for leadership and not to their local pastor. There is a vast amount of research that is done by these professionals, much of it good, but it is inaccessible or of little benefit to the church. On the other hand, Christian bookstores are filled with much devotional literature that is superficial and theologically suspect. There are few works that serve the church with deep reflection on scripture and the gospel that gives rise to greater worship. Historically examples include works like Augustine's Confessions or Bonhoeffer's Life Together.

There were numerous highlights from the conference. Gerald Heistand articulated different kinds of pastoral theologians. Peter Leithart taught how a pastoral theologian can fill the gap while illustrating it with Revelation 14 (an amazing feet). Jamie Smith spoke on the pastor theologian as "political theologian" (political in the sense of the life of the people). Kevin Vanhoozer spoke on how the pastor theologian ministers the reality of being in Christ to the people and what that means. Lastly, Todd Wilson spoke on the role of suffering as being one of the primary places God shapes the theology of the pastor for the good of the church. What was clear throughout is the importance of the sermon and the life of the church to form and shape one's theology. There was a push against the idea that the best place to do theology is in the library divorced from real life. Yet, at the same time serious academic study does equip a pastor for greater clarity of thought and rigorous research skills. There was a lot of encouragement that more of the church's best minds should seek pastoral ministry rather than the academy.

The benefit for me was the encouragement to continue to be serious about theology and at the same time to keep it grounded and accessible to people. Each speaker stressed to not underestimate people's appetite for challenging works of Christian theology or the ability for people to think theologically. It was also helpful to see how some maintain the worshipful nature of deep Christian reflection without getting bogged down in endless technical debates and speculation. It is possible to be both deep and appeal broadly.

I was very encouraged by the conference and was thankful for the opportunity to go. It gave me further clarity for my own passions and calling and what it may look like for me to strive to be a pastor who is a local theologian for the glory of God and in service to the church.

You can learn more about the conference at their website: http://www.pastortheologians.com/

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

An anonymous prayer

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for help that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy my life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked  for, but everything I had hoped for.
I am among men, most richly blessed.

*Taken from Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983), 248.