“Justice doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid.” ~ Doctor Who, A Town Called Mercy.
I’ve been away on a silent retreat (aka: an introvert’s dream). So these last couple of days I’ve been posting some re-worked posts on Christianity and the Buffyverse. Enjoy!
One of my favourite themes in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that high school is hell. From the cheerleaders who spontaneously combust, to the swim team that is made up of creatures from the black lagoon, to the fact that the high school was literally sitting over a hell-mouth, Whedon explores the common high school experiences through a supernatural lens. Not only does his comment on the high school experience, he also captures the irony of Hollywood and our culture exalting high school as the “golden years” of our lives. Sunnydale High looked like an idyllic California school, but those who attended knew the truth of the darkness and problems that existed in its hallowed walls.
Are there parallels between the “high school is hell” motif in Buffy, and the reality of living as a Christian in the North American evangelical Church?
Like Sunnydale high, there seems to be more focus on the drama of relationships and interpersonal conflict than on the purpose of the institution. For Sunnydale high, the purpose was education; for the community of faith it is worship.
Like Sunnydale high, from the outside the community of faith tries to look like a sunshiney-bright place. In reality, what resides within it is infighting, outgroups, bullying and ostracizing.
Like Sunnydale high, the community of faith is a place that has jocks, beautiful girls, geeks, losers, punks and brainiacs. There are the hyena people who bully and prey on the weak. There are those who are ignored and are basically invisible. There are the jock and popular girls who are the “in-crowd” and who define what is popular and cool.
What both Sunnydale high and the Church in North America have is a slayer who protects and fights against the dark powers of the hellmouth.
At Sunnydale High that slayer is Buffy. In the church, that slayer is grace.
Grace fights against the legalism.
Grace comforts the outcasts.
Grace unites the different cliques and reshapes them as they journey through they come together to worship.
Grace takes on the darkness and wins.
I’m on my way to a silent retreat (aka: an introvert’s dream). So the next couple of days I’m posting some re-worked posts on Christianity and the Buffyverse. Enjoy!
There’s a clip of a sermon by Mark Driscoll making the rounds on the internet. (Both Tim Challies and Marc Cortez have picked it up). Basically, he laments the “top picks for pre-teen girls” at Amazon. They almost all have to do with vampires, werewolves, magic and death.
In many ways he’s right. The majority of the books out there for young girls are spin-offs of Twilight. And he’s right, there is some pretty questionable stuff in Twilight.
But I think here he misses the point. Yes, Twilight is awful on so many levels. First, the writing is dreadful. Second, Bella is a non-character with no personality.
And my biggest pet peeve is that people are pitching the series as an example of chastity and abstinence. This is a load of hock-patooey. In a nutshell, Bella pines and longs for Edward. Edward has the “moral” courage to resist her advances, saying that they need to be married first. What is the message here? Girls, if you long and pine and desire to be with a guy, it’s okay because the (teen-aged, hormone fueled) guy will be strong enough to rebuff your advances! Um. I don’t think so.
Where Driscoll goes wrong is in suggesting that the current vampire trend is indicative of the vampire/werwolf/zombie genre in general. I think when done correctly, vampires et al become a tool to examine humanity, to explore desires and motivations and to present the struggle between good and evil.
Now, I have to be upfront and admit that I am a huge Joss Whedon fan, so I may be a bit biased. But Whedon got it so right in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the first three seasons at least).
The premise of the first three seasons is High School is Hell.
The swim team jocks are actually mutant monsters after being injected with steroids.
The girl who is ignored by the cool kids eventually becomes invisible and goes all “Carrie” on her classmates.
Frat boys are servants of their giant snake monster, and want nothing more than to feed you to it in their basement.
A gang of bullies are possessed by a hyena-spirit and will pick on the weak and outcast in the school, not to mention they will also eat the principal.
And the big one: If you sleep with your boyfriend, he will lose his soul and become a monster! This of course then gets repeated in Season 4, when Buffy goes off to college and ends up with a human (normal) guy who ends up being a jerk as well.
High school is hell. And Whedon uses vampires, werewolves, snake monsters, Frankenstein and more to explore this theme. It works. It is brilliant. And then, he continues using the genre to explore the theme of redemption with the spinoff “Angel.”
My point: We need discernment. Which Driscoll does talk about. But that discernment also means not just throwing something away because it has vampires and werewolves or young wizards and witches. What do these fictional and fantastical creatures say about humanity? If they don’t say anything, then we need the discernment to see that they are nothing more than fluff marketing by publishers and movie studios to make a quick buck.
I’m on my way to a silent retreat (aka: an introvert’s dream). So the next couple of days I’m posting some re-worked posts on Christianity and the Buffyverse. Enjoy!
Halfway through the fifth season of Angel, Whedon kills off one of the main characters (surprise, surprise). Fred is killed so that an ‘old one’ or ancient god can assume her body and conquer the world. Angel and his team are devastated and vow to find a way to bring Fred back. Angel says, “it’s the soul that matters.” If they can find where Fred’s soul has gone, they can re-soul her and then live happily ever after. Unfortunately, they learn that Fred’s soul was destroyed when the god Illyria assumed her body.
Watching the episode made me think about the understanding of body and soul in the Buffy-verse. Overall, it presents a platonic understanding of the soul: soul is good, body is meh.
Take Angel, for example. In season 2 of Buffy, Buffy sleeps with Angel and quickly learns the moral lesson that if you sleep with your boyfriend he’ll turn into a monster. In this case, Angel loses his soul and becomes ‘Angelus’ the most vicious vampire ever. Buffy and her friends try to find ways to re-soul Angel, which eventually happens, just at the same moment that Buffy must kill him to save the world from total destruction.
In Angel season 4, the team is trying to find out information about a big bad meanie, and figure that if they can bring back ‘Angelus’ they will find out the info they need to defeat the big bad. Angel’s soul is mystically removed and put into a special jar, safe and sound (for a little while anyway). Plot twist, plot twist, plot twist, and the jar that houses Angel’s soul disappears. Not to worry though, Willow saves the day and magically breaks the jar, thereby releasing the soul, which allows her to re-soul Angel.
Over and over again, it is demonstrated that the soul is what matters. It is the soul that makes someone human rather than demon.
15 years ago, had you asked me what I thought about body and soul, I would have agreed with this basic understanding of the soul: it is the soul that matters; the body is just ‘meh’ or even unnecessary. In fact, part of my testimony of how I became a Christian includes being confronted with the question, “where will your soul go when you die?”
Of course, I’ve had lots of time to learn and think and reflect and have my assumptions challenged. Thanks, in large part, to N.T. Wright I have come to see the value and importance of the body. We will be resurrected, body and soul. The body is not unnecessary, nor is it inherently evil. It will be redeemed and recreated and we will dwell in the temple of God as embodied persons not just wispy non-corporeal souls.
What I’m not sure what to do with is the non-reductive physicalism of scholars like Nancey Murphy, Malcolm Jeeves etc. Basically, they argue that there is no dichtomy. Humans are entirely physical beings and that biblical references to soul or spirit refer to the qualities of being alive and in relation to God. Is this position an over-correction against platonic understandings of the soul?
What would the Buffy-verse look like if we adopted a non-reductive physicalist position? From what I’ve seen, non-reductive physicalists interpret demons as oppressive social structures, and allow only God to be Spirit. So a person could not become a vampire due to a demon setting up shop in their body. Indeed, using a non-reductive physicalist position requires that Angel, Spike and all the other vampires in the Buffy-verse be re-written as zombies!
Wahoo! Zombies! Of course they’re not nearly as sexy and broody and mysterious as vampires. But, maybe it would mean the “Master” might have ended up looking a little prettier if he had been a zombie.
…or, this is what happens when my brain is fried.
I sometimes dream about doing something very physical, very practical, and something very not academic. It’s my escape, a way to give my brain a break, a way to cultivate my imagination.
I want to open a pizza shop in Caronport. Can you believe that there is no pizza shop in this college town? How great would a pizza shop be?
And so, in my imagination, I open a pizza shop. It’s a one-counter store. No tables, for people to sit it at, it would mostly be a “take away” concept.
I call it Theo Pizza. And the pizzas are named after theology topics and theologians.
The basic pepperoni and cheese is called The Apostolic – the original, basic pizza that becomes the foundation for all other pizzas.
Pizza flavours that I don’t like get to be named after heretics. So the Hawaiian pizza (by far the worst pizza in the world), would be named The Arius.
The meat-intensive pizza, sometimes called the Meat Pizza or the Mega Meat would be called The Karl Barth, because we all know that his Dogmatics are awfully meaty.
A basic super-cheesy pizza could be called The Joel Osteen.
And of course, there would have to be a pizza named after Caronport. So in honour of the long winter, I would create The Caronport — a white pizza with alfredo sauce, cheese, chicken, potatoes, feta and white onions.
Come and join me in the land of imagination. I invite you to imagine yourself at Theo Pizza. What pizzas do you envision on the menu and what would they be called?
The life of worship, then, is itself a corporate form of virtue. It expresses and in turn reinforces the faith, hope, and love which are themselves the key Christian virtues. From this activity there flow all kinds of other things in terms of Christian life and witness. But worship is central, basic, and in the best sense habit-forming. Every serious Christian should work at having worship become second nature. Expressing the love of God in this way will then flow ‘naturally’ across from the first conjoined twin to the second, reinforcing the life of mission. The temple is there because God’s filling of the house with his presence is to be a means, as well as a sign, that God intends to fill the whole world with his glory. Worship must lead to mission.
~ N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, 225.
It’s not uncommon for friends in the “real world” to ask my opinion of the online Christian community.
“Can you have real relationship with Christians who are disembodied words on a computer screen?”
“Can you develop friendships with people you have never met in person?”
“Is the online Christian community a church?”
“Can true Christian community be built through online encounters?”
I have been immensely blessed by the Christian blogosphere, and yes, I have developed friendships with people I have never met. These friendships have different levels of intimacy, but that is true of “real” friendships as well.
It was the online Christian community that helped me through the first year in Caronport. It’s not uncommon for the first year in Caronport to be rough. It’s hard to make friends, especially as an introvert. It can be a culture shock, especially if you’ve come from a more metropolitan neighbourhood. It can be difficult to navigate the social expectations and morays. And let’s face it, for 6 months of the year it’s freezing cold and the entire community hibernates for the winter (who can blame them). It was the online community that kept me sane. It was the online community that kept me hungry for Christian community. And while it might be a bit hyperbolic, it was the online community that kept me Christian.
And yet, that was a season. The online community could not and did not replace “real” community. In fact, if anything else, it helped me to appreciate and to actively seek out “real” community. Today, I live in both worlds. They both serve a purpose and they both edify me.
One of the common themes that I find in the Christian blogosphere is this idea that the “real” church has let people down, and so the online community has become a place for disenfranchised Christians to gather together. And I think that that can be an excellent thing. My concern, though, is when the online community substitutes for the “real” community. Can an online community be the church? Can the online church be an acceptable and encouraged alternative to the “real” church? Can we claim to be Christian online if we’re not plugged into and under the accountability of a “real” church community?
Sometimes it feels like the online community fosters a platonistic, dualistic understanding of the body. It is very easy for the Christian and the Christian community online to become disembodied . We can hide behind words on a screen, and behind avatars that show us in the best possible light. We can hide behind relative anonymity. We can choose to disengage when things get too hot, too challenging or too prophetic. We can live without real accountability. We can choose to listen to only people who agree with us, or who only praise us and never exhort us. We can choose to continue to pretend that those with whom we disagree are “other” that they are most definitely wrong, and we are most definitely right. And we can run from the question, “what if it turns out that they are the ones who are right and we are the ones who are wrong?”
Christian community is embodied. It is messy. It is painful. It is human. Jesus was “The Word became Flesh.” He entered into the mess. He entered into the sin. He entered into the pain, and strife and conflict. He entered into the physicality of human existence not to eliminate it, but to redeem it; to resurrect it. The body does not pass away like chaff. The body is resurrected. There is new creation. The new heavens and a new earth does not mean disembodiment; it means better embodiment.
And if the church, the community of Christians is the body of Christ, then there is a physicality to it as well. Yes the communion of saints includes those who have gone before and those who are still with us, but come judgment day, the communion of saints will be reunited, will be given a new bodies, and will physically, corporately, come together in the resurrected flesh, and will be the glorified, sanctified embodied community of Christ who gather around the throne of the lamb in worship and song.
Inspired and guided by the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’d like to offer four thoughts about the nature and need for “real” community.
When I have felt disenfranchised by “real” community and have wanted to hold out and wait for a true “real” community, I give myself a shake and read this ouch-worthy, convicting point by Bonhoeffer:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
And so, even when I don’t feel like it, even when “real” Christians have let me down, or I feel like it would be easier to just pop in a worship CD and watch a sermon online from some celebrity pastor thousands of miles away, I force myself to go to church. I sit and listen to the Word proclaimed. I join my voice with those Christians who have offended me and recite the Apostles’ Creed. I stand and confess my sins in unison with those who irritate me. I hear the words of confession and absolution, and I extend the peace I have received from Christ to those who have disappointed me. We gather together at the table of the Lamb and serve each other communion, knowing that “real” community is founded not on us, but on the grace of Jesus Christ, who lived, died and was resurrected to reconcile the world to himself.
And then I go home and blog about it, adding my voice to the online community, making friends with people from around the world. But, the “real” community keeps me grounded, keeps me focused and keeps me a part of the Body of Christ. It allows me to participate in the online community while not letting the online community consume me, depress me or distort my perception of what is “real.”
Here a few links to some of her blog posts:
Why I believe the Bible encourages Women in Ministry
In my congregation, we work hard at having a mix of men and women in ministry–in leadership and behind the scenes, on Council, as deacons, as Committee members, as visible leadership on Sunday morning. The participation of both men and women is not just tokenism. It’s not some kind of artificial quota system. Instead, it’s a recognition that it takes all of us to be the church, it takes all of us to build the church, and God has given each of us something we can use for the common good of our life together.
Ministry is not about fancy titles or about whose name comes first. It’s not about whether men are better than women, or women better than men. Instead we are to serve God and to serve one another.
There is mutuality in ministry, where the church is not only about women submitting to men or about men submitting to women. It’s not only about the church listening to its leaders, or about church leaders listening to their people. But church ministry is about all of that–where we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) and we submit to God (James 4:7) as we work together as the body of Christ, who is the head of the church.
I have to admit that the nay-sayers have a point. Lectio divina as it’s practiced today can be overly subjective–how do I know that it’s God and not last night’s black bean garlic chicken that is speaking to me? How do I distinguish between the voice of God and my own imagination? That’s one reason to practice lectio divina in community–as it has been practiced in the monastic tradition–and to practice it also along with other disciplines of Scripture study that take seriously the historical, social, literary, and other aspects of the text as well as our own context today. As a check on my own wayward heart, the subjectivity of lectio divina is wisely also subject to community discernment and other study.
The ever-growing list of Canadian Christian Blogs can be found here.
“Liturgy is boring.”
“Liturgy is repetitive.”
“Liturgy stifles the Holy Spirit.”
These are some of the reactions I’ve had when people hear that I’m currently attending an Anglican church. And yet, even before I began attending an Anglican church I knew that liturgy was an important and necessary part of my Christian faith. Even in more low-church, non-liturgical settings, the routine and familiarity of the order of service, of the rhythm of taking communion once a month, the routine of 3 praise songs, the offering, the sermon, the altar call and time of prayer, and the dismissal shaped and discipled my Christian walk.
Today, I want to just explore some reasons why liturgy, especially formal liturgy, can be beneficial:
It creates space to hear the Holy Spirit. There is something about saying the same words over and over again, where they seep into your very core, and you reach the place where you no longer have to follow along with the bulletin or the liturgical text. You’re no longer thinking, “okay, what comes next? What do I have to do?” In that comfortable space, the words that are so familiar become new as you can focus on hearing the meaning behind the words instead of trying to play catch up and follow along. The comfortable words (to use a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer) become enhanced with new meaning as the Holy Spirit draws your attention to some new detail that you hadn’t previously considered, or as the Holy Spirit uses the words to heal your soul and give you rest.
It guards against accidental heresy. We’ve all seen it happen. An elder, or a worship leader gets up and prays. And in the “moment” of spontaneous prayer ends up saying something Arian, or something Docetic, or something gnostic. Words matter, and the fact that the authors of liturgical texts have prayed and thought through the precise use of each word and what they are conveying, demonstrates that the words we say as a Church are deep, rich, meaningful and purposeful.
It connects us with 2,000 years of Christian worship. As I read the Patristic Fathers, in particular, I am struck by those aspects of early Christian worship that are still affirmed today. Take an early worship manual like Hippolytus’: Here is a liturgy that was written in the 3rd century that continues to be used even if just in snippets nearly 2,000 years later. Through liturgy, be it word or practice, we enter into something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our generation. Sure we may find ways to make it contemporary or “relevant”, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel each and every time we do church.
Liturgy happens even when it’s not explicitly called liturgy. Let’s face it, even the most charismatic, free-flowing churches have some kind of liturgy. It may not be written down, but it’s done pretty much the same way every week. Heck, even “extemporaneous” prayers are often repetitive and follow a liturgical pattern each time: You pray for the needs of those who are sick; you pray for the missions fields; you pray for outreach; you pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the church board as they make decisions regarding the church; you pray for the Holy Spirit to bless the congregation and to make his presence known. Rinse and repeat every week, even if the details are a little bit different each time.
Liturgy is not just a religious thing. Liturgy happens all around us. How we orient our lives, our years, our weeks, happens in a fairly standard pattern. Since it is now September, take the academic school year. September is the “start of the year”. There is anticipation in August for it as school supplies and new clothes are bought. And then, the day after Labour Day, the parents walk the kids to their first day of school. It’s a rite of passage. And each year for the next 13 (or more) yearsthe students participate in the liturgy of the first day of school. They meet their teachers. They find their desks. They make new friends. They reconnect with old friends. Their days become structured around the school schedule 9-3. Fridays become an important day that anticipates the weekend. We don’t say that this liturgy is boring because we’ve done it every year. Instead, each new year it is approached with both the comfort of the structure, and the newness that the student is another year older and the liturgy of the school year will not so much be the same old, same old, as it will be a deeper experience of a ritual that takes on new meaning and new life each time it happens. And even if there are those of us who dislike school and shed the liturgy of the school year as soon as we can, we still come back to it and put our children in it, so that it can shape and mold them as it shaped and molded us.
Liturgy, be it Christian or secular, profoundly shapes us. It demonstrates a telos or goal of the good life that we aim to achieve. Because we are embodied creatures, what we do affects what we believe. It shapes how we think, how we feel, how we look at the world. James Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, argues that liturgy is important because humans are primarily desiring creatures, over against thinking creatures (Rene Descartes “I think therefore I am”) or believing creatures (the Reformed worldview emphasis). Liturgies, he writes, “are ritual practices that function as pedagogies of ultimate desire.” (87). Liturgy, and particularly liturgy as found in the practice of Christian worship, is “embodied and material.” (152)
And so, even those who chafe at the thought of liturgy in Church, who balk at the use of liturgical texts on a weekly basis, are being profoundly shaped by the liturgy of being anti-liturgy. Smith asks a brilliant question that every Christian congregation, liturgical or not, should ask itself: What does worship say about Christian faith? (134) If you were to sit in on a service at another Christian denomination what would their service say about what they believe? If a stranger were to come into your church and sit in on a worship service, what would he take away from the service about what your church believes and what it means to be Christian?
(While I am deeply indebted to James Smith’s book, stay tuned for an upcoming post where I strongly disagree with some of the assertions he makes).