What Will Become of the Church?

There was a time in Ancient Israel when the Israelites were worshipping the god Molek. He was one of many pagan gods they were worshipping, but he was distinct in his sacrificial requirements. Molek demanded child sacrifice. The idols of Molek were hollow iron statues with outstretched arms. A fire would be built within the base of the idol, making the entire statue red hot. Then children would be placed in the fiery arms of Molek, sacrificed to grant the desires and prosperity of their parents.

It was this abhorrent practice that contributed greatly to God’s punishment of Israel in the form of the Babylonian Exile.

33 They turned their backs to me and not their faces; though I taught them again and again, they would not listen or respond to discipline. 34 They set up their vile images in the house that bears my Name and defiled it. 35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin. – Jeremiah 32:33-35 (NIV)

After centuries of unheeded warnings from Deuteronomy to the prophets, God acted to put a stop to Israel’s abuses and sinfulness. The global superpower of Babylon swept in and laid siege to Jerusalem. An initial wave of Hebrew captives was taken to Babylon, as chronicled in the books of Daniel and Ezekiel. Daniel and his friends are just teenagers, captives in a foreign land, paying the price of centuries of selfishness and disobedience from their ancestors. They were separated from their faith community and their central expression of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. Their faith was in shambles, their society was in ruins, their reputation on the global stage was in tatters.

And yet at the very same time that the Israelites continued to sacrifice their children in the arms of Molech, a last-ditch effort to save themselves, God was rescuing teenagers from the fires of Babylon. The faithful young people who refused to worship the king of Babylon, who incurred the punishment of the fiery furnace, those young people saw the faithfulness of the Lord. God has always protected the future of His people, even when their elders do not.

I cannot speak for every young Christian today, but I know I have felt very alone in the last four years. The generations that raised me to value character and integrity, to pursue absolute truth rather than moral relativism, to do what is right even when it is difficult and unpopular, so many in those generations have fallen into idolatry. The idolatry of Christian nationalism, of political power and control, of party affiliation over ideology, of selective moralism, of adherence to what one wants to believe rather than what is true. And the future of the Church has been the attempted sacrifice. Young Christians have felt abandoned on the front lines of culture, trying to still proclaim the truth and beauty of the Gospel even as our elders dismantle so much of our collective witness. There have been many times when I have felt despair for the Church since 2016, and I felt it deeper than ever on January 6th, 2021. Who will believe our claim to absolute truth now? Who will view us as compassionate and intelligent people that seek the common good? Who would want to be part of our faith communities when what we are projecting is foolishness, ignorance, violence and blame?

Then I remembered the teenagers in Babylon. All must have seemed lost to them too. And yet God shielded them from death. God gave them unexpected favor with those in power. God visited them with His presence. God honored their risky faithfulness when it seemed like nothing mattered anymore. God fulfilled His promise to give them a future and a hope.

If you are a young Christian who relates to what those young exiles were experiencing, you too have a future and a hope. Jesus has never and will never allow the Church to die. A lot of things are in tatters, maybe including our faith. We are dealing with a fallout that has been many years in the making, much of which was not our direct doing. But we must not give up, for the hope of the Church lies in our generations. God has always called His people back from exile, back from the precipice, back to a place of restoration.

Rest in this truth, that God will be our Defender and make a way forward for us. Because the story of the exiles did not end in Babylon. It culminated in a star rising in the West. Bible scholars believe that the Wise Men who followed the star to Jesus were Babylonians. How and why would they have responded to a star that rose over Israel? Perhaps because God gave a legacy to the exiles. Perhaps because one generation’s faithfulness in the midst of conflict and alienation planted seeds of curiosity, of Biblical scholarship, of wonder. Seeds that lay dormant for several more generations until the time was right to spring forth. If those teenagers had never been carried to Babylon, the Gospel might not have been carried there 400 years later. The Lord can use one generation to transform the Kingdom of God. One generation with a future and a hope.

What will our generation’s legacy be? That will be up to Jesus’ guidance and providence, but there is much reason for hope. So I encourage every young Christian to take your discipleship and growth very seriously. Invest your time and energy into learning the Bible and being deeply rooted in God’s Word. Find faithful mentors who are displaying the Fruits of the Spirit to support you and encourage you. Build up your peers and those younger than you to keep persevering, keep sharing the Gospel, keep seeking the common good, keep connecting with a church. It may be rocky for a while. There may be more fiery furnaces coming our way. There may still be loneliness and conflict, relationships beyond repair. But we know that we are protected by our Eternal God, and we can move in hope that perhaps ours will be a Kingdom-changing legacy. Crazier things have happened before.

Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2020

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but we watched over 220 movies this year. Most of them were older ones I’d never seen because it was a weird year for new releases. A lot of titles got pushed back to 2021, some have been on streaming for months but were just small features without much hype, some are available on VOD but cost $19.99 to rent which feels hefty. So nearly all of my top ten picks are smaller movies that you may or may not have heard of yet, because that’s what came out in 2020.

It was an also a phenomenal year for documentaries! I have a theory that the rise of reality television transformed documentary filmmaking. When I was a kid, docs were seen as pretentious snooze-fests about the migratory patterns of bees and whatnot. Things that most people could not access or find interesting. But the art form has developed by leaps and bounds, encompassing so many more topics and having far more intricate structures. No longer are they something you have to drag yourself through just so you can say you are informed, now they are engrossing and emotional and complex. So my list is heavier on documentaries than usual, but give them a chance. They might be some of the most moving content you’ll see this year.

10. Miss Juneteenth – I heard a lot about this movie during the summer when our country was talking about the holiday of Juneteenth, but we weren’t able to see it until December. This story is a much-needed makeover of the pageant genre. It follows some traditional tropes of a mother and daughter story where the mom won the pageant in the past and is pressuring her daughter to participate and win like she did. But the themes of Miss Juneteenth are far deeper and more nuanced. It is also a story about Black ownership and what it looks like to carve out something for yourself against the odds. It’s about the struggles and pressures that Black women face in trying to hold themselves and the people around them together. And it’s about generational failures and hopes and how we create and keep a legacy alive. The making of the film reflects these very themes with writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples who was given opportunities by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us) created a wonderful show called Queen Sugar and used that platform to give other women entrances into the film/TV industry. Many new and talented creators received a leg-up from directing and writing with DuVernay and what she carved out for herself and others. Miss Juneteenth is the product of what can happen when Women of Color are given the opportunities and support they deserve. Available to rent on demand.

9. Feels Good Man – Everything about this documentary was a mystery to me before watching. In the early 2000s cartoonist/artist Matt Furie created a chill character named Pepe the Frog. Pepe lived a normal existence on MySpace for a while, then became a huge meme on the blogging site 4Chan. Still pretty harmless. Then Pepe morphed into a major symbol for the Alt-right and Trumpism and was registered as an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. How did that happen?? The doc unpacks this progression with terrific detail and insight, exploring online culture and how and why it intersected with Trumpism. It also follows Matt and the impact it had on him personally and professionally, and how Pepe finally reclaimed his froggy identity. Even if you aren’t very interested in politics, this is a fascinating look at how things take on a life of their own online and how the internet shapes our lived reality. Available to rent for a small fee on demand.

8. All In: The Fight for Democracy – Like many of us, I was obsessed with the election this year. There were a couple of particularly good documentaries that unpacked big themes and factors of our political moment. This doc follows Stacy Abrams’ activism in the fall-out of the voter suppression that took place surrounding the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018. It also provides a succinct and helpful overview of the general history of voter suppression in America, specifically of Black and Brown voters. Available on Prime.

7. Mangrove – I really liked The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) this year and for a while it was on my top ten list. Then I saw Mangrove. Part of Steve McQueen’s film anthology on Prime, Small Axe, each tells a story about the context of his childhood which was West Indian-British communities in London in the 1970s-1980s. A very unique and personal project, they’re all free-standing stories, the only thing that connects them is the general context. Mangrove follows a true-life courtroom drama surrounding Black-British protestors who are being unjustly prosecuted over their protest. This story eloquently unpacks what it feels like to know the system is against you and to feel helpless rage in the face of it. Letitia Wright turns in an incredibly good lead performance that I believe should garner her a Best Actress nomination and shows her range outside of Marvel. (Pro tip: Turn on the English subtitles as you watch. The actors are speaking English but with thick accents and use of slang that may be hard to follow for some viewers.)

6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – I was nervous to watch this because Viola Davis’s makeup is so extreme and the pressure of it being Chadwick Boseman’s final performance made me wonder if it could live up to all our high hopes. I need not have worried. Deftly steered by Tony award-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe the film feels like a play but still comes alive in an authentic way on screen. Based on the play by August Wilson (author of Fences), the story follows real-life Blues singer Ma Rainey as she records a few hits, including “Black Bottom.” The setting is a Chicago recording studio where Ma and her all-Black band try to work with each other and navigate the relationship between them and the all-White management. It is a powerful exploration of the power dynamics involved in creating Black art, and the impact it has on Black artists when those power dynamics are heavily unequal. With both Davis and Boseman turning in wonderful performances, I hope this will get significant awards attention. Available to stream on Netflix.

5. Dick Johnson is Dead – No movie has affected me so emotionally this year as this documentary. On the surface it’s a quirky doc made by a daughter whose father is dying and the family is trying to get used to the idea of him being gone by filming dramatic and humorous staged deaths. But more broadly it’s about memory and loss and how to say goodbye. It is also just the most heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a loving and emotionally present father who would do anything for the daughter he loves. If you have lost someone close to you then be warned that this could be extremely emotional to watch. But emotions aren’t always bad. Available on Netflix.

4. Driveways – We almost missed this one, a very indie and small but beautiful film about a mother and her socially anxious 9-year-old son who come to clean out her older sister’s home after she dies. The sister had lived next door to an elderly man living alone after his wife died, played with a kind authenticity by Brian Dennehy in his final performance before his death this year. The synopsis sounds heavy and perhaps boring, but the film has a wonderfully gentle and sweet quality that winsomely draws you in. And the 9-year-old, played heartrendingly by newcomer Lucas Jaye will have you rooting for him every step of the way. Available on demand for a small rental fee.

3. Minari – Maybe it’s because we now live 20 minutes from the border of Arkansas, but this film about a Korean immigrant family living in rural Arkansas in the 1980s was resonant. A quiet and empathic look at family dynamics and the costs of chasing a dream. Ivan wrote more about the film and the themes of manhood and fatherhood. Unfortunately, it’s not slated for wide release until February (we saw it at the Indie Memphis Film Festival at the drive-in) so keep an eye out for it in early 2021.

2. The Assistant – This is one that unfortunately got lost for most people during the summer. Streaming on Hulu and led by the wonderful Julia Garner, this is a subtle story of being a young woman trying to work in an exploitative environment. There are plenty of stories about women being harassed in the workplace, but this was the first I’ve seen about the female bystanders who are co-opted into the oppression by their presence in the organization, and who must wrestle with their role in changing or engaging in the system. Not all abuse is direct, some happens by leveraging and pressuring you to maintain “how things are.” Garner perfectly captures confusion, powerlessness, anger, and tense observation. This is a thorough exploration of the ripple effects of harassment and exploitation without needing to depict the abuse itself.

1.The Sound of Metal – Available on Prime, this is a story of a musician who suddenly loses his hearing. Featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Riz Ahmed, this movie immerses you in what this experience would be like. The sound design is incredibly creative without being dominant and weaves between the world of sound and hearing loss. This story also does a wonderful job of elevating and honoring the deaf community. It depicts the struggle and identity crisis that would accompany such an abrupt loss but does so in a way that highlights the dignity and autonomy of those who are deaf. It is emotional, powerful, compassionate, and informed.

Honorable Mention Documentaries

Athlete A – An incredibly important and well-told doc about USA Gymnastics and the abuses of Larry Nassar. This is essential viewing for anyone who has or works with kids. It is survivor-focused and uncovers his abuse without retraumatizing the viewers. You will be horrified by the system that protected him but inspired by the many women who stood against him to tell the truth together. Available on Netflix.

John Lewis: Good Trouble – We lost some greats this year, and John Lewis tops that list. He was a remarkable man who started out as a teenager but took every opportunity in front of him to advocate for justice and act in the hope that things could be better than they were. He became a giant through consistent acts of faith and bravery and was constantly motivated by his belief in God and the support of the community of faith. This will inspire you with everything that he accomplished and challenge you to see where you can follow his example. Now available on HBOMax.

The Painter and the Thief – A crazy and powerful story about the transforming power of compassion and love and choosing to see someone at their best even when they are at their worst. It has a very poignant and raw exploration of addiction that’s ultimately hopeful but emotional so be aware. See Ivan’s list for more info, available to stream on Hulu.

Boy’s State – At times scary and at times inspiring, this doc follows teenage boys in Texas as they create their own form of government. Ivan wrote about this here, and I also recommend it. Available on Apple+

REVIEW: Boys State

How have you been feeling about politics lately? Fearful? Hopeful? Angry? Energetic? How many times in the last four years have you heard some version of, “America is more divided than it has ever been”? If this very common sentiment is true, and has been for a while, then perhaps the only way to fix it is to do something different. What do we do differently, though, and whose responsibility is it to be different? It’s all too easy to assume that the next generation will bring change, but if Apple’s new documentary Boys State is a signpost of what’s to come, we may want to create a little more urgency in the here and now.

Boys State Rob

Boys State, from filmmakers Amanda McBain and Jesse Moss, won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and documents the 2018 Texas Boys State program. Every year in every state the American Legion runs a leadership development experience for male and female high school juniors. The goal of the program is to educate young people on civic engagement and often includes perks like college credit or valuable college scholarships. The film opens highlighting some of the program’s more infamous alumni like Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh. Each young person is sponsored by their local Legion and are usually the sole representative of their high school. Following the leaders of the youth of our nation, what an incredible opportunity to see what they stand for and how they will engage in the political process! The issue is, once this week at the Texas state capitol begins to unfold, it’s not that different from what we see on our national political stage.

Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the survivors of the Parkland shooting standing behind podiums or Greta Thunberg addressing the world’s leaders, but the displays at this Boys State more resembles the worst comment threads on Facebook. Are abortion and gun control the most pressing concerns on the average 17-year-old conservative Texan? The answer, from the subjects themselves, is no, but it’s what they think they’re supposed to talk about. They may not even be able to tell you why, but they definitely think it will make them successful, popular, and, more importantly, elected. One young man even goes as far to admit that he believes the exact opposite of what he said in a debate because he knows it’s what people want to hear. They’re all getting ready to enter college or the workforce. Many probably do think often about the world they’re inheriting. Some of them probably have challenging family lives rife with relational and economic obstacles. Other’s minds are filled with dreams of tricked-out pickup trucks and queries as to who among them can do the most pushups. But you ask them to talk about politics and the only place their mind can go is the 2nd Amendment.

Boys State Group

In this environment it’s hard not to notice the outliers. In the documentary, it is a young man named Steven who enters the narrative in his Beto t-shirt telling stories of his conversion to the political sphere by Bernie Sanders. Later we find out that Steven helped stage the “March For Our Lives” march in Houston. It’s not his progressivism that makes Steven different, though. He also knows in order to win the coveted highest office of Boys State Governor, he must reach across the aisle. When asked the primary role of a politician, Steven answers “public service.” He says again and again in his speeches, and during his quest to get the signatures needed to be on the ticket, that governing means he represents everyone, not just those who agree with him. The film spends a lot of time watching Steven go conversation to conversation, handshake to handshake, lunch to lunch, asking the same question, “What do you care about?” He’s not interested in changing his convictions to win, he wants to build a representative government.

The doc might look upon Steven with a tinge of partiality, but what if all of the other boys acted this way? What might be different about the platforms they produce or the races they run? The policies and campaigns end up looking all too familiar, though. There are guys who jump to impeachment at the slightest whiff of disagreement while others attempt a full-blown Texas secession just to be cool (the previous year’s Boys State voted to succeed and made headlines). There’s mudslinging, social media smear campaigns, and petty or goofy congressional resolutions.

Boys State Rene

If we are expecting the next generation to be different, then one Steven in a sea of 1,100 future politicians aren’t great odds. We may need to take some responsibility for what this next generation is absorbing. Think about someone like John Lewis who did have the burden of change thrust upon his shoulders at a young age, but he clung to his elders (though many weren’t much older) for an example. Now how many young people will vote for the first time in 2020 because they learned of his legacy as the world eulogized him? Lewis is encouraging more Americans from the grave than many who currently hold office. “My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation,” Lewis said in front of the crowd at the March on Washington in 1963. Boys State helps us see that we simply cannot wait to see what progress the next generation will bring or how they’ll be different. We have to be different right now or they never will be.

Should we stop sharing that “Newsroom” clip?

“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”

Have you seen that video? It was probably shared with a comment like “The most honest piece of television EVER!!!” or “MUST WATCH!!! So true!” As I write, this clip from the HBO show The Newsroom, from the top three versions of it on YouTube, has 13 million views. Odds are, you’ve seen it. Especially since, even though the show has ended its run and the clip is now four years old, it keeps getting shared and shared and shared. This probably happens because it taps into something very real.

Politics are emotional and we are in a season in our country where politics, in its current form, have the center stage. It’s an election year and might be the most televised presidential election we have ever had. How many debates have we had during the primary process? I’ve lost count. What’s intriguing is that this viral clip seems to speak to both sides. Conservatives look at the current state of our country and ring out loud the mic drop moment of this video, that America is not currently the greatest country in the world. Liberals are attracted to this video that was featured in a television program with a rigorous liberal bias that was actually speaking out of frustrations with the current trends in conservative politics. It’s a video for everyone.

Newsroom 1

The problem with this particular clip, however, is that the core message of it isn’t featured in the scene itself. This clip, by itself, is out of the context of the first season of the show which ends revisiting this moment and finishing the thought this clip begins. By itself this clip is angry, intellectual, and, actually, pretty dismissive. It is the perfect social media mic drop. The clip bashes viewers over the head with well thought-out, well-researched rhetoric and is now used to put people in their place.

All this is said not to take a side on political issues, but, instead, is to recognize what the phenomena of this clip says about how we use social media. There is something incredibly satisfying in having the last word, of saying something so smart that no one can answer it. There is something gratifying about verbally putting someone in their place. Trust me, when I come face to face with some of my mortal enemies like Hulk Hogan who beat my hero Macho Man Randy Savage at Wrestlemania V, Vontaze Burfict of the Cincinnati Bengals, or Joel Schumacher the ruiner of the 90’s Batman franchise, I would love nothing more than to give them a piece of my mind! But by treating social media this way are we taking a tool designed to bring us together and using it as a weapon to tear us apart?

Newsroom 4

Unfortunately, using content out of context to drop a mic on someone is not new to the world of Christianity. Words have power and, perhaps, no words have more power than scripture. Taken out of context scripture can do all kinds of things. It can pretty much prove any point you want to prove or correct anyone you think is wrong. We see it on protest signs telling families at military funerals that they’re going to hell. We see it in any of the shows in Shondaland as gracious permission to be whoever you want to be doing anything you want to do. In his “Gospel in Life” series, Tim Keller defines these two extremes as legalism (everything is bad) and license (everything is okay). Keller goes on to define a third option.

The third option, somewhere between legalism and license, is the gospel. The gospel isn’t a tool to make a point, it is the point. True, the gospel is convicting. Also true, the gospel is gracious. However, neither is the whole story. How can we exist somewhere in the middle? How can we create gospel-centered space in our online social communities? It starts with an invitation.

Newsroom 5

Social media mic drops are the opposite of inviting. With the mic on the floor, conversation…community is dead. But, like we talked about a few paragraphs ago, mic drops are fun! It is way more fun to drop a piece of knowledge and assume the online world will click like or retweet affirming that you are the most brilliant thinker of our time and communicate to you that their lives have been changed just for knowing you. Does that ever happen?

If our online conversations fail to be inviting it becomes difficult to do anything but fight. One mic drop leads to another and another, feelings get hurt in a medium without verbal and non-verbal cues, and frustration with our friends and the medium sets in. But if we see all of our communication as an invitation, our conversations can change. Think about the way that Jesus communicated.

First of all, Jesus often communicated points, revealed peoples’ hearts, and created deep community by asking questions. Even trapped between a political rock and hard place when presented with a conundrum about taxes, Jesus’s first response was a question (Mark 12:15). Jesus often invites others to evaluate the heart behind their beliefs. Any modern day Don Draper out there will tell you the first step in successful communication campaigns is research, asking questions. How would your online community change if it was filled with more wonder? Wonder what brings someone to their beliefs. Wonder where others’ hearts are.

Newsroom 3

Jesus didn’t only ask questions. He also answered, but, when he did, his answers were inviting. In that encounter about taxes, his final response was, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The Pharisees thought they gave Jesus two options…affirm paying taxes, siding with the government alienating his followers…deny paying taxes, siding with his rebels becoming a criminal. Affirm the government’s sinful behavior or convict the behavior of his followers. There is always a third way and in his response Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to examine what in their lives belongs to God. It is an invitation to know God and God’s sovereignty on a deeper level.

So what is the invitation in that Newsroom clip? Well it doesn’t come in the clip with 13 million views. It comes in one of the final scenes of season one. The question is asked again, by the same young woman, but the answer changes. What if we stopped dropping mics on each other, but instead invited others into our lives? What would it look like to create space where they also want to invite you into theirs? What if social media was more about people than it is about points? Let’s all keep our mics in hand, ready to contribute, ready to invite, ready to pass it rather than drop it. What makes America the greatest country in the world? You do.