Star Wars on Christmas

No detailed spoilers about Star Wars below.

I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi on opening day with a group of rowdy teenagers. It was the most entertaining movie experience I’ve had in a while, and I expect to watch it many more times. The movie was just about perfect in technical execution and never lost my attention even for a minute.

I also had some hesitation about how the overarching Star Wars narrative seemed to be mutating into something ‘un-star warsy.’ Much ink has been spilt on how this Star Wars subverts expectation, blazes a new path, is a bold new twist on an old classic etc. I imagine the series would become predictably bland if the new trilogy continued to mimic the beats of the old. If you’d like to hear a critical take on these changes, just google “Star Wars.” I imagine the first 50 hits are people very angered by the new direction. Why?
Actual footage of Star Wars fanboys after seeing The Last Jedi.
Well, all of the aesthetics of Star Wars are there—Stormtroopers, light sabers, space battles—but the core story elements and tone are different. The lines between good and evil are blurred, The Force™ has been ‘democratized’ more or less, old gatekeepers of the story (both actors and directors) are sent off and new figures with new motivations are introduced. To many a Star Wars fanboy who has invested quite a bit of time figuring out how the Star Wars universe works, this film doesn’t so much “subvert” expectations as outright rebel against the previous canon, written or unwritten. It sure did seem like Star Wars, but something was off, something went afoul. But good luck convincing the teeming masses of people who saw and loved The Last Jedi.

Now, here is where I lose you if I haven’t already. This, to me, seems like an great analogy for the quote/unquote War on Christmas.

Still there? Ok.

Some Christians who are familiar with the Christmas story found in Matthew and Luke, yearly find themselves in something of a battle against the rising tide of a cultural Christmas that seems very un-Christmasy. The anxiety behind the “War on Christmas” is the growing concern that Christmas is being replaced with something else. All the aesthetics are there—carols, gifts, and even nativity scenes—but the core story elements and tone are different. This cultural Christmas isn’t about how we were so helpless and sinful that we needed God to write himself into the story. Nope, now it’s about hope and gratitude— the Christmas Spirit! Hope in our own ability and gratitude so that we don’t seem so arrogant, and an impersonal force made up of good vibes/deeds and egg nog. And hey, if “Christmas Spirit” doesn’t ring your bell, how about “Holiday Cheer!” Too much like “Holy Day”? Ok, um, “Season’s Greetings”? Unless you live somewhere without seasons of course.

What was the apex—or nadir—of this cultural confusion about Christmas? This year’s Dancing with the Stars “Little Drummer Boy” number. Bonus points if you guessed that. Go ahead and click on the link, listen and watch—if you can. It’s a Magic Mike-esque male striptease set to Justin Bieber’s version of Little Drummer Boy. Bieber, who converted to Christianity a few years after he recorded this rendition, intones,

Playing for the King, playing for the title
I’m surprised you didn’t hear this in the Bible
I’m so tight I might go psycho
Christmas time so here’s a recital
I’m so bad like Michael I know
I’m still young but I go I go
Stupid, stupid, love like cupid
I’ma drummer boy so do, do

If you can make sense of that, let me know. In either case, a half-dozen, grinding guys with waxed chests is not the first thing I think of when I hear “our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King.” But it fits in perfectly with cultural Christmas. This kind of Christmas can be celebrated by anyone and you can include all the accoutrements like carols, gifts and even nativity scenes. As long as people have the feelings of hope and gratitude, who cares what the overarching narrative is? Ironically, the very popularity of Christmas, which made it a cultural “thing”, is the same popularity that has led to this eerie permutation. ABC isn’t trying to do a new spin on Chanukah. They are not parodying Kwanzaa.

Take that, Kwanzaa!

The “War on Christmas” will probably continue like this for a while, until the USA looks more like the UK, where 53% of the population self-describes as not religious yet 75% of the population likes Christmas. There’s still a deep familiarity with the Christmas story there, and even a good turn out at church around Christmas, and if that’s all Christians in the USA are after, then squelching micro-aggressions like “Happy Holidays” and abstract Starbucks cups will do the trick. Nativity scenes will not disappear, but they’ll evoke a sense of nostalgia, instead of deep need. Gifts will remind us of our childhood, not Jesus’s. Carols will stir up emotions, but no thoughts.

If we want for people to know the core, the ‘why’ of Christmas, it will take more than the aesthetics. It will take more than preserving all the Christmas-things that people already like and agree with. People like Baby Jesus— they’re less amused with “take up your cross and follow me” Jesus. The self-denial at the center of Christianity is not marketable, and, if anything, completely undoes the industry built up around Christmas.

What does Christmas look like when Christians take up their cross throughout? I’m not quite sure. I imagine it would be such a bold new twist on a cultural tradition, that many would complain, but many more would be overjoyed with the great depth and expanse of what Christmas really is.

Merry Christmas!!!

The Utter Destruction of Louis CK

I try to make a practice of not gloating when a public figure is embroiled in a sex scandal. I imagine gloating would get me into the weird habit of “hoping” more people have been sexually abused so I can finish building a case of how horrible Person A is compared to B and C. Also every now and then I happen to like one of those public figures embroiled in a sex scandal.

Comedian Louis CK’s long-looming imbroglio has dropped like a bomb. In the echoes of the air raid sirens, multiple women—and surely more soon— have accused him of performing lewd acts in their presence. Lewd acts in this case defined as disrobing and masturbating. The New York Times stopped short of calling it “assault,” preferring the demerit “sexual misconduct.” Whatever the euphemisms, even for a comedian who makes light of his own misery, today is the worst day of Louis CK’s life. It comes years after perhaps the worst day in the lives of his respective victims.

In most of the accounts, Louis didn’t force anyone to watch him masturbate. He didn’t grab anyone anywhere they didn’t want to be grabbed; he didn’t exert his physical strength to pin anyone down; there was never an “or else” in the moment (post-hoc perhaps). Apparently, he asked explicit permission before each in-person occasion, revealing at least a bit of shame. He even followed up with apologies in some instances— perhaps at the behest of his agent; perhaps out of compunction.

None of this is to excuse Louis, because regardless of how you or I or anyone not involved categorize Louis CK or order him in the hall of shame, his victims felt abused, and the victims get to define the severity of the abuse.

Louis behavior reveals an obviously sick and sexually deviant man, but, wait, wait, wait, weren’t we all laughing about his sick behavior during his last comedy special? And the one before that? Hasn’t he been confessing this to us the entire time?

Comedians are our modern day prophets, and Louis CK has been denouncing “proper sexual conduct” since the day he picked up a microphone. His blend of Catholic guilt and atheist absolution led to a style of comedy that is relatable—eating until you hate yourself—and revelatory of the moral incoherence of secular America. His taboo bits, like riffing on child molestation or his belief that abortion is akin to a bowel movement, have baffled secularists who have thus far not had to defend the logical conclusions of their moral assumptions to their own team. Louis wasn’t trying to be a moderator for a great postmodern debate; he was just telling it like it is. And “it” is really dark and miserable.

I think this is why I, and so many other Christians I know, appreciate Louis CK’s insights. Like writer Chuck Palahniuk or late comedian Bill Hicks, men who stare at the abyss and report back truthfully, Louis gets half of the equation correct. Without God, everything is meaningless. And in place of God you can only honestly place anarchy (Palahniuk), anger (Hicks) or absurdity (CK). One of Louis CK’s most biting insights into this hypothetical godless universe:

An optimist is someone who goes, “Hey, maybe something nice will happen!” Why the ____ should anything nice ever happen? What are you, stupid?

He’s right, you know. Nothing in the animal kingdom would lead us to believe that good things should happen to good humans. For every deer rescued by a dog there are millions—literally millions—of weak and vulnerable animals eviscerated by powerful predators who shed not a tear. Cue Elton John’s “Circle of Life.”

Those who see tragedy, and don’t see God, are driven to despair or distraction. I remember reading about how militant atheist Richard Dawkins finds the will to live. He looks forward to lunch. #relatable

In pursuing his dark thoughts on stage, Louis CK was tipping his desperate hand, and he was showing just enough so that no one would ask any follow-up questions. It’s a trick we play every day to avoid difficult conversations— surely someone who can be so honest about himself or herself has little to hide. If you’ve ever been praised for your candidness, you are probably very good at this. I know I am.

For so many jokes about masturbation, Louis was being dead serious: “[Masturbation] keeps me sane. I’m a good citizen, I’m a good father, I recycle, and I masturbate. And I’m proud of it, and God’s happy.” It’s obviously a ‘joke’, but Louis CK is never really joking. What makes Louis CK, an ex-catholic with no moral obligations, act like God is still in the room waiting to bring the hammer down?

Maybe Louis is happy now. Not as miserable. Maybe he doesn’t have to joke about his pain anymore. After all of the apologies and reparations are made, after everything he ever built comes crashing down, maybe he’d prefer being the king of the rubble. Louis has torn himself down, performed vivisections of his psyche for millions of paying customers, this isn’t entirely new to him. But now his reputation will be justifiably ruined, his career stunted, and his behavior set as an example of what is wrong with men, America, the earth, the cosmos. In the olden days we called it sin.

If you think religious terms reduce wrongness or excuse Louis CK, then you misunderstand sin. Louis CK can’t and won’t pay off his emotional debt, much less his spiritual debt, by simply being more candid or apologetic. He’s flush with that kind of currency, we all are. Words are cheap but the wages of sin is death (does anything cost more?). And when the Man comes to collect, there will be hell to pay. It doesn’t matter if you recycled or were a good dad.

Now Louis can finally be honest about himself. Not the fake “stage honest,” but the “this is all I have left” honest. The destruction of his self is out of his hands now. He has been relieved of tearing himself down. And at some point when the smoke clears and he’s sifting through what’s left of himself, I hope he finds something meaningful outside of himself. I hope—I really do!—that he stumbles back into a church and he’s presented with a man who only takes seriously men and women who have been humbled to the dust. The man who pays the debt, whose kingdom is made up of peasants and prostitutes. Who himself was defaced and destroyed and in three days raised up again, so that he could present poor, ignorant perverts as Sons and Daughters of God, draped in garments they don’t deserve. Jesus didn’t die for you on your best day, Louis. It was on your worst day. Same for everyone who calls on his name.

Why should anything nice ever happen? It shouldn’t, and it usually doesn’t, but it did and it does.

Image

Image.

On a Sunday afternoon in June, I confronted one of my biggest idols. Image. How people see me. What they say about me after I leave the room. What people think of my ‘curated self’ that I’d like to think is witty, charming and fun (aren’t we all?). But then real life happens.

I had “this is real life” moment this past Easter, when I learned that my girlfriend and I were pregnant. WHAT? HOLD THE PHONE! DOES HIS CHURCH KNOW?!

Yes, everyone who needed to know, knows. Some knew before that afternoon in June, but my spiritual family was fully informed that day. If you weren’t filled in, my apologies. I’m not sure what I’m apologizing for actually. Apology retracted! But seriously, how would you publicize such an event in your life? When your social sphere has hard boundaries like “don’t have sex before marriage”—an injunction that seemed less relevant the older I got, but quite obviously still has its merits—then you fear for the worst.  Add to this, oh yeah, I’m a pastor. This kind of scandal is on the short list of things for which pastors receive public shaming, tarring, feathering and eventual shooting out of a cannon into a neighborhood dump.

Meanwhile, back in reality: My girlfriend and I decided to get married. We loved each other and I definitely wanted to raise my child alongside my wife—but, there’s always a but— I also wanted to maintain my image. Maybe if we were married quickly enough, there would be ‘plausible deniability’ and all that’d be left would be rumors. Image would take a hit, but remain intact.

I had read about ousted pastors and their ‘fall from grace’ and thought, man, what makes me different than that guy? How do I know I’m not capable of [fill in the blank]? Surely this thought occurs to most pastors, and they do well to raise their awareness of potential pitfalls. It’s fear of this complete tearing down of self that will drive a man of some esteem to any number of greater sins (see 2 Samuel 11 & 12).

Being a pastor is a rich amalgam of father figure, friend, mentor, teacher and guide. All things I’ve failed at least once, and probably will a few more times. That’s not an excuse for incompetence, it’s a declaration of reality that I think most pastors wish to make, but then they would feel the emotional distance dwindle between themselves and the angriest congregant. How can you ‘stay above the fray’ when you yourself are struggling? No one trusts the life guard who admits he’s still learning to swim.

I still have a job and a pastoral role at my church, by the grace of God. In this case it was accompanied by the grace of His church. If you weren’t there, you weren’t there, you don’t know what that meeting was like, when I confessed to my congregation my sin. I don’t know what it was like after I said my piece, I left the room on the verge of tears, after my last word. I was told there were warm hearts and words of forgiveness.

Excuse me for getting all pastorly, but it is only a firm belief in God’s grace through Christ that can grow a soft forgiving heart. If you really believe you’ve been forgiven your debt, why would you place a chokehold on someone who still owes you a debt? (Mt. 18:21–35) Without the gospel, human forgiveness becomes something sinister. You cut someone slack, but remind them that they are on notice. As if forgiveness is only a probationary period where the forgiven must now earn the rest of their own forgiveness. Like being pulled out of icy water and left stranded on thin ice. I think we sometimes think of God’s forgiveness this way. I once had a student tell me Jesus gives us a ‘second chance’ to live a better life. I told him bluntly, “If that’s true, we’re all going to hell.” We need more than second chances; we need a savior.

If you believe in God’s grace, you can forgive. If you believe in God’s grace, you can be honest enough to be forgiven. You can sacrifice the idol of image, which always takes more than it gives, and embrace the One in whose image you were made (see what I did there?).

So I’m saying so long to my image—golden child, know-it-all, spiritual guru—whatever I happened to cultivate amongst my acquaintances and friends. It was nice knowing me, he’s so interesting.

But this isn’t about me any more.

It’s about her.

I want to introduce you to her. I don’t know her name yet, but I’m sure I’ll catch it by mid-December. She is my daughter.