On the Need For Artists

The world lost an incredible woman this morning when Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. She was a poet leader whose inspiring works were matched only by her inspiring life.

The extraordinary outpouring at Maya Angelou’s passing reminds us that the world is not clamoring for more theologians or more men standing at podiums dispensing answers. No, the deepest desire and yearning of the world is for artists: poets and writers and painters, sculptors and actors and musicians who can cut through the noise of life and make. us. feel. Artists who speak to what it means to be human and inspire us to be better.

It strikes me that Jesus wasn’t a theologian. He never dealt in big words or complex theories, never got bogged down in the minutia of religious argument. He simply told simple stories to simple people, and yet his stories had deep, meaningful impact. He made a habit out of answering questions with questions, inviting people to be curious and explore rather than dispensing answers from on high. Jesus cared more about systemic injustice than systematic theology.

May we follow in Maya Angelou’s footsteps — indeed, the very footsteps of Jesus! — and dream of a better world, then join God as creative artists to make that dream, the Kingdom of God, come true.

Thoughts on The Hunger Games and Catching Fire

I absolutely loved the Hunger Games books, and chose the series to write a final paper on in my Public Administration in Literature and Film class back a year or so ago.

With the second movie, Catching Fire, set to release on Friday, I thought I’d share some of that paper in the interest of sparking discussions about the themes in the story that might sometimes get overlooked.

Enjoy, be challenged, and share your thoughts!

Of T-Shirts, Irony, and Fire

Addie Zierman (who is probably my favorite writer out here on the internets) is celebrating the release of her new book, When We Were on Fire, by inviting other bloggers to link up to a synchroblog and share their stories of being “on fire.” I got really excited when I read that — see, once upon a time I was on fire, too, as many of us were, growing up in the evangelical culture in the ’90s. More than that, I wrote a chapter about it in my manuscript, Torn Wineskins, which will hopefully also become a published book in the near future.

Here is an excerpt from that manuscript, humbly submitted as one of a myriad of stories chronicling a simpler time when the world was black-and-white and we were so sure about everything. When we were on fire.

“Dude, I don’t get that shirt.”

We were standing in the hallway of Central High School, a group of friends chatting between classes or at lunch or sometime when high school students find time to chat about important topics. Topics like girls and music and… okay, pretty much just girls and music.

We were sophomores, and we wanted so badly to be cool. At least I did. I had just recently traded in my coke bottle glasses for contacts and began to exercise some semblance of fashion sense (read: I no longer hiked my pants up past my belly button or wore knee socks with shorts). And, we managed to impress a lot of folks with our empty Mountain Dew can collection inside our locker, arranged with the cans on their sides, stretching from bottom to top in multiple columns. To a high school sophomore boy, it was a thing of beauty.

Outside of the occasional Christmas Eve, I still had yet to attend a church service. I don’t know if I had ever seriously thought about God over the past seven years.

On this particular day, as we were standing by that can-filled locker listening to the latest Bon Jovi CD through mini speakers hooked up to my Discman, I noticed one of my friends had a t-shirt on that read something to the effect of, “Somebody call 911! I’m on fire!”

That’s when I told my friend, “Dude, I don’t get that shirt.”

Turns out the shirt was from a Christian conference he had gone to. He tried to explain to me that a Christian being “on fire” meant they were passionate about God. Really passionate. Like super passionate. I’m sure I must have looked lost, because I was stumped by that metaphor.

I still kind of am, actually. Christians use that phrase “on fire” so much we quickly forget just how strange it is. Ask a young Christian girl what she’s looking for in a future husband and one of her answers is likely to be, “A guy who is on fire for God.” Sermons are written to help people become on fire for God. Entire conferences are staged – and named – around the idea of being on fire for God. But I don’t think there is any other instance where this phraseology works. How weird would I be if I went around talking about being on fire for my wife? Can I be on fire for my favorite sports team? On fire for nacho cheese? As much as I love nacho cheese – and believe me, I love nacho cheese – it just doesn’t work.

At any rate, that conversation was the first time I had really thought about God for any length of time since hitting puberty. And it wasn’t really in any sort of positive way – I remember telling my friend that day that one thing I liked about him was even though he was apparently “on fire,” he didn’t go around talking about God and religion all the time. I appreciated that.

But in that hallway back in tenth grade, I had no idea what my future would hold. I had no idea that one day I would be the one who was on fire for God, wearing the t-shirts and the paraphernalia. That soon, I would be the one listening to only Christian music and smashing that Bon Jovi CD (then buying it again a few years later.) That I would eschew traditional high school life in favor of Bible studies, missions trips, and alternative harvest parties at the end of every October.

But on that day back in tenth grade, we were way more concerned with playing Bon Jovi as loud as we could get away with (it didn’t last too long before a teacher shut down the party) than discussing the finer points of faith in Jesus.

And that was just fine by me.

It was that same period in life, in high school, that I started dating a girl who had about as much interest in church as I did: that is, none. But her best friend was one of those mysterious folks who were “on fire” for God, and she invited us to come with her to church. A lot.

We eventually wore down and finally went, and I was kind of dreading it. Pictures of the Christmas Eve services I used to go to danced through my head – only without getting to hold flaming sticks of wax, which meant one thing: boring. I wanted to hold fire, to play with fire, but not to be on fire.

We finally agreed to go to youth group with her, and when we went, I was shocked. It more or less shook the foundations of what I understood “church” to be — in my admittedly extremely limited contact with the place.

Instead of hymns and organs, they had drums and guitars. Nobody dressed up (except me, nerd that I was and filled with religious assumptions). The youth pastor made fart jokes and burped into his microphone. They played games. They had a snack bar. They had basketball hoops.

I had fun.

I kept going back because I enjoyed it so much. Then we kept getting invited to go to “big church” on Sunday mornings. And so I went there, too. It wasn’t nearly as fun, but it was better than I remember church being and all the kids in the youth group sat together in the front row. It was fun hanging out with new friends. Belonging. That was a feeling that had eluded me for most of my short little life, and so I kept going back.

And one morning, I got saved in that Southern Baptist church.

In other words, it’s where I started following Jesus. At the time, I understood “salvation” as a one-time event — something that reserved my seat in Heaven and separated me from the unclean world I lived in. Something that set me at odds with unbelievers and created clearly demarcated lines between “us” and “them.”

Today, I understand salvation in a remarkably different way: as the beginning of a lifelong journey, something that is occurring over and over again in me every day.

Despite all of their flaws, I owe a lot to that church- especially its pastor. I will always have fond memories of that youth gym and the big church sanctuary, because it is where my crazy journey with Jesus all began. The ministry of that conservative church reached me. God used them.

That part of the story is beautiful.

What happened next was not quite so beautiful.

The story continues in my manuscript, Torn Wineskins. I’m praying for the opportunity to share it with you all soon!

Where The Hunger Games Fails – And Why it Doesn’t Matter

Before making the Star Wars movies, it is said that George Lucas sat down and wrote out a character sketch of every single character that would appear in the movies – whether that character spoke or not; regardless of if they were on screen for one second or for six hours. Every character in the Star Wars universe has a name, a history, a backstory, and a personality. We, the viewers, will never know a vast majority of that information, but George Lucas didn’t care. He did it to make the world he created more real – to give it more depth.

Much space in the Lord of the Rings books is taken up by the history, culture, customs, language, and geography of Middle Earth. Intricate maps grace the first pages of each book. Chapters are devoted to things that happened centuries prior to the main storyline. What could be seen as superfluous J.R.R. Tolkien saw as adding rich texture to the world he created. The history and detail, again, gave the story depth.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins spared no ink for such details. Rarely are we told how things came to be, or even how they look. Action rather than description guides the narrative. Only the main characters are given names. Twenty-four tributes entered the arena for the 74th Annual Hunger Games in the first book of the series; only nine of them received names from their author/creator. The number of different maps attempting to sketch the very basic geography of Panem must be climbing into the hundreds if not thousands, because incredibly few details are given on this matter as well. We are left to our own imaginations to figure out how a complex and incredibly segmented post-apocalyptic economy such as the one in Panem would even begin to operate. (Or, for that matter, why the Capitol would set up their new economy in such a fashion in the first place.)

And we know next to nothing about the two most pivotal events in the history of the Hunger Games’ universe: the disaster(s) that destroyed North America and the rebellion of the Dark Days which led to the creation of the Hunger Games. Were the disasters that necessitated the creation of Panem natural? Man-made? War? Disease? Famine? All of the above? We are never told. And what was the rebellion of the Dark Days about? Why did District 13 rise up against the Capitol? Why did every other District follow them? Why couldn’t they defeat the Capitol? What was the Capitol doing to incur such wrath from the Districts?

There are so many things about the Hunger Games universe that we will never know. It will never have the depth of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or other science fiction creations.

But perhaps surprisingly, that’s okay. Because despite those shortcomings, The Hunger Games succeeds wildly because of its greatest strength: its ability to tell a story people can relate to.

I once lamented to a group of friends that I wished J.R.R. Tolkien had written the Hunger Games. One of my friends responded, “Yes, but then I wouldn’t have read it!” There is something to be said for making the themes of dystopian literature accessible.

But the Hunger Games not only does that, it goes one step further and makes them relatable. The Hunger Games, at its heart, is a parable – and like any good parable, it allows us to see ourselves in its midst… to enter into the story. It invites us to not only cheer for the main characters, but to see a piece of ourselves as we watch them triumph; it invites us also to not only despise the antagonists, but to face the uncomfortable truth that there is a bit of them in us as well.

The Hunger Games speaks to different people in different ways. I’ve read several headlines and articles over the past week that purport to know what the real message of the series is. Are the books a riff on our modern obsession with reality television and how watching “reality” unfold on TV actually removes pieces of our humanness? Are they an exploration of teenagers’ modern lives and emotional issues? Are they a warning against right-wing oligarchical government? Or perhaps a warning against left-wing centralized federal power? Are they a warning about what our society could become if we don’t change our ways? Or an observation of what our society already is?

In a word, yes.

At least according to all those media stories they are. But that is the beauty of telling a good story — it connects with different people in different places in different ways. Parables are reflections, invitations to see ourselves and our world anew.

So we may never know what the geography of Panem looks like, or the histories of all the tributes who enter the arena. We will never know what instigated the original rebellion that led to the Dark Days, or how the Capitol was able to keep such a segmented economic system churning for 74 years.

But we do understand, at a very deep, human level, themes of oppression and injustice. It is by tapping into that reservoir of human experience, and allowing us to come to our own conclusions about those themes, where the Hunger Games finds its immense power. It’s what makes the books, along with the first movie, so good.