Star Wars Ep. VIII: The Last Jedi: A Review [SPOILERS]

SPOILER ALERT! MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!

First let me say that I am a huge fan of Star Wars. I love Star Wars. I have seen the original movies more times than I could even count. I have seen every movie that has come out in my lifetime on opening weekend. I’ve read the books. I’ve played the games. I’ve spent untold hours talking Star Wars with other fans. I have been looking forward to Last Jedi from the second the credits rolled at the end of Force Awakens.

However… The Last Jedi was a fundamentally unsatisfying Star Wars movie. I actually really enjoyed most of the film while I was watching it, but the end was bad and I left the theater feeling disappointed. I have now spent all day reflecting on it, and I think there were a lot of narrative choices that were either pointless or just outright bad. I feel like this movie was made by someone who has never seen a Star Wars movie before. If TFA devoted a little too much time to fan service, TLJ is a big middle finger to people who have loved Star Wars for decades. They threw most of the interesting new lore introduced in TFA out the window and killed off some main characters in pretty lame ways. This movie is a disservice to Star Wars fans. I wanted to like it. And it was not all bad. It had some really great moments, and a lot of good acting and VFX, but ultimately it fails as a Star Wars movie because Rian Johnson does not understand Star Wars..

Let’s break it down in some detail.

There are three main flaws that really ruin the movie. First is the Admiral Holdo (purple hair) subplot and the way they casually killed off Ackbar off screen and he barely gets a mention. This is the exact sort of terrible decision making that dooms this movie. They callously kill a fan favorite character in the background, and then introduce a new character we know nothing about and give her the most glorious heroic death in the movie. I’m 95% sure Rian Johnson didn’t even know who Ackbar was and when someone asked he inserted a quick line about him being dead after the fact. Holdo should not have been in the movie, and Ackbar should have survived the bridge explosion and sacrificed himself in that epic lightspeed ram into the Star Destroyer like a fan favorite character deserved.

Instead Ackbar gets dusted like a redshirt and we are given Admiral Purple Hair, an obvious red herring because she clearly has no reason to be such an incompetent leader except that she is evil. The cruiser is on the run from the First Order fleet, and they clearly have very few good options. So what does Purple Hair do? She continues flying straight ahead while the crew all know they are doomed and give no indication there is a plan until Poe stages a mutiny out of desperation. Yes maybe there are some lesson for Poe here about chain of command, but this is poor leadership from Purple Hair. When Bill Adama was in this situation, he lied to the crew to give them hope even when he had no plan, but Purple Hair hides the plan from them and let’s them despair for 18 hours while it is clear they have no escape. and then, oh wait, she wasn’t evil, she actually had a secret plan to save them all along. And then after this whole debacle, she gets to go out as the big hero in a blaze of glory. Totally undeserved and unfitting for the character.

Stemming from this lack of leadership. Finn and Poe and newcomer Rose devise a convoluted plan to shut off the beacon. First of all, it’s awfully convenient that the one master codebreaker in the whole galaxy is close enough to their foundering cruiser that they can hope over and get him and get back within their narrow time frame. But putting that aside, this entire escapade was pointless and silly. It really reminded me of the pod-racing episode in Phantom Menance, and that is not good. It was just an excuse to include some new animals and wacky high speed chase. Also there is some melodramatic handwringing over the mistreatment of the racing Luck Dragons by the same people who in the previous movie DESTROYED SIX ENTIRE PLANETS. So last time they callously wiped out about 50 billion people, but when we find out they whip their racing animals, that is what solidifies they are the bad guys. This is a laughable step backwards in scale. Aside from that, this movie was too long and they easily could have shortened it by leaving out this little jaunt. Finn and Rose could have taken a droid to do the hacking and gone directly to the Star Destroyer. The end result is the same and are spared 20 minutes of cheesy Luck Dragon races.

Really though, these two flaws pale in comparison to the slap in the face of Luke’s pointless death. I said previously one of the things that TLJ absolutely had to deliver was an awesome scene for Luke, and they came so close to that. They really set it up beautifully with Luke being hesitant and uncertain for the whole movie. Then when the chips are down and there is clearly no more hope.. BOOM! Here is Luke Skywalker, greatest of all Jedi. He steps out of the cave and faces down an entire First Order army, and it looks like it’s going to be epic. I had goosebumps. It’s go time, baby!

And then it turns out he was just a hologram. While I was watching it, my train of thought was this:

“Aha! Wise old master Luke has tricked you Kylo! He was never in any danger from you, and now he will return in the next movie and kick your… oh wait Luke is just going to die. Luke died. We went through all that and he still just dies.”

No lightsaber battle. He doesn’t take out Kylo. No blaze of glory. I am okay with Luke Skywalker dying in a way that really befits his character and serves the narrative, but this is definitely not it. Now, not only is the most beloved character dead, but fans have been robbed of what should have been a great moment of seeing Luke at the height of his powers. Instead he just gets tired and dies. I can only describe this scene as a huge middle finger to fans by a director who has no respect for the mythology of Star Wars.

I felt the same way about Han’s death in TFA. He deserved better than just getting stabbed on a catwalk. Ackbar deserved better than dying in the background while the focus was on Leia. The Disney writers and directors do not seem to understand the gravity of these characters and what they mean to fans. They are eager to just toss them out and get in some new, younger, hotter people. I knew that the old guys would probably not be around forever, but the deaths Disney has given them have all felt wrong and disrespectful.

Those are the biggest and most damning flaws in the film, but I also have a few more minor complaints that are mostly just very lazy writing. I really expect better from a movie with a budget of hundreds of millions.

So, the Knights of Ren are just gone now. Absolutely no mention of them. It seems like Johnson seriously did not even watch TFA before he made this movie. TFA set up so many interesting questions that were completely ignored here.

I like Rose, but once again we see a character introduced to us as a mechanic and then at the end she is inexplicably also a speeder pilot. What is with these movies and just making random people able to pilot a spaceship? Furthermore, we CLEARLY see a man wearing an X-wing pilot jumpsuit just standing around in the cave during this scene, so it is not because they did not have enough pilots. They just wanted to make Rose more prominent because now she knows Finn, so she’s able to do everything. In fact this would be fine if she had just been introduced as a pilot–just like her sister–but instead she starts off as a tech and then gets a plot-promotion after talking to Finn. This was just lazy writing.

On the positive side Rey is less annoying. She was not portrayed as an ace pilot and master mechanic in this film, but she is still too powerful in the Force for having still basically no training. Even Snoke alludes to this when he dresses down Kylo for losing to a girl who had never touched a lightsaber. Again, I feel this is disrespectful to the lore of how difficult it is to become a Jedi and wield the Force. Rey is able to just do whatever she needs to in the moment, and it is still annoying.

Also, the plan of hiding in this salt mine behind a big blast door was pretty stupid when the First Order had SIX Star Destroyers and a ton of ATATs outside. Giant battering ram cannon notwithstanding, they could have stayed outside blasting on that door all day and they would eventually get in. I realize at that point maybe the Rebels didn’t have many options, but holing up in a cave with no other exits was an utterly stupid plan.

If Luke’s entire plan was to distract the FIrst Order while the Rebels escape, why the heck didn’t he just tell Leia that? If Poe had not realized it, they would all still be standing there when Kylo walks in and kills them all.

I think the balance of power between capital ships and a single small fighter in this movie was weirdly skewed. There’s no way one X-wing could disable all the turrets on a Star Destroyer or a single TIE fighter could reach and take out the bridge (and all senior leadership) of a Resistance cruiser. The Dreadnought was supposed to be a fleet killer but it got taken down by one single bomber. The Star Destroyers are supposed to be massive weapons platforms bristling with guns but they are portrayed as having a few turrets and being extremely vulnerable to a single fighter.

I really liked the decision to have Kylo kill Snoke. That is appropriate for a Sith apprentice to kill the master so that makes sense. But I felt the way it went down, with Snoke unwittingly narrated his own death was kind of corny. Would have preferred a straight up lightsaber battle, which again, this movie sorely lacked. I also would have preferred to learn a little more of Snoke’s backstory before he got iced.

I’ve been pretty negative so far, but this movie was not all bad. It had some really good elements. I said before it need to show us some new ships and something besides X-wings, and they did deliver on that point. I saw a few A-wings and we go the new bombers and the weird salt ski speeders. So that was satisfying. The lightspeed ram attack–even though it definitely should have been Ackbar–was totally sweet. The visuals on that scene were stunning. The score was magnificent, as always. John Williams is a national treasure.

I also enjoyed most of the humor, but I think it was a little too much. The original movies succeeded because the droids provided comic relief in between moments of drama. In this film, they tried to wedge in some one liners in the wrong places and it falls flat. But there were still some great moments. The best by far was Luke trolling Rey with the Force touch leaf. That was hysterical. And Poe trolling Gen. Hux by pretending he couldn’t hear him was totally dumb but I laughed. I enjoyed that part.

More importantly, I think the tension between Rey and Kylo was good, and I did believe for a moment Rey might actually turn to the dark. Actually, in my perfect screen play she would have. I think Rey should have turned, and then Luke would die while killing Kylo (his own monstrous creation) in a huge epic lightsaber battle. This leaves us with Luke dead and Rey turned dark, so things are looking pretty bad for the Resistance. In Ep. IX Finn or Poe would work to turn Rey back. I think this is a more satisfying and dynamic plot than what happened, which feels like a lot of treading water.

Yoda’s scene was fantastic. He was quirky, wise, and funny, just like in Empire. It was great to see him burn down the tree temple before Luke.  The age of the Old Jedi Order is done, and Yoda and Luke both see that.

As a final thought, this movie clearly borrowed a lot from Empire Strikes Back. Jedi master in seclusion, young trainee jumps down a dark hole and has a vision, ATAT battle on Hoth. I think I actually would have preferred if they had just had the battle be back on Hoth. I mean, if you are going to blatantly recreate the Battle of Hoth, then just do it on Hoth. Don’t do it on some other planet that looks exactly like Hoth and try to pretend you are not blatantly ripping off Empire. It could have even been a nice rhyme with the first trilogy, as if to say “here we are again, back on Hoth and the rebels are losing.” Which is basically what they did except they tried really hard to persuade us that isn’t exactly what they were doing. It was a weird choice. To their credit though the red salt flaring up behind the speeders made a pretty awesome visual.

As a stand alone movie, I think this would have been quite good. It was well-made and the production values were great, as they should be. It is so awesome to finally see Star Wars looking as spectacular and gorgeous as we all wanted after the first movie. However, as a Star Wars film I still find it lacking. It does not fit into or advance the narrative. It does not appear to respect the lore or the old characters, and it does not even answer the questions that the previous movie brought up, like Snoke’s origin or the Knights of Ren. It seems like a loose cannon, and even though I enjoyed watching it in the moment, all I see now is wasted potential. It could have been so much better. It could have been great. All the pieces were in place for this to be the best Star Wars movie since Empire, and they just did not pull it off. It is truly disappointing. If I was scoring it, I give it a 7/10. Ep. IX is going to need to be amazing to redeem this mostly mediocre trilogy.

 

Some thoughts prior to Star Wars Ep. VIII

The big day is almost upon us, so I wanted to take a moment to gather my thoughts going into Ep. VIII (TLJ). I reread my review from Ep. VII (here), and while I enjoyed that movie I think it suffered from three  main flaws:

  1. Lack of worldbuilding (e.g. new ships, alien races, Jedi lore etc.)
  2. Rey is inexplicably overpowered and good at everything
  3. Kylo Ren is not a sufficiently frightening villain

Yes I purposefully ignored what many consider to be the most fatal flaw of Ep. VII (TFA) which is that it was essentially just Ep. IV all over again, which is completely true. Point 1 touches on it a little. But as I’ve said before I believe that was (for good or ill) an intentional choice by a notoriously conservative Disney studio that wanted a safe bet on their 4 billion dollar investment in the franchise. It was not what a lot of fans hoped TFA would be, but it is what it is. I found TFA to be an enjoyable film that left me excited for the next one. All that being said, if subsequent installments do not take some more narrative risks and move the story along, I will consider this trilogy irredeemable.

I think with the number of new films Disney has planned, we are going to see the story expand in a lot of ways. We did get Rogue One, which I really enjoyed despite the criminally underutilized role of Forest Whitaker. (Seriously, if you cast an actor with an Oscar and a BAFTA, then he should have more screen time and be at least somewhat integral to the plot) I think most of Rogue One’s issue stemmed from the rewrites and reshoots that plagued its production, so I am just happy it turned out as well as it did.

But to address my points about Ep. VII. These are things that I think Ep. VIII must address to be successful.

  1. There must be some more worldbuilding, and that really should include some new ships and weapons. The X-wing and TIE fighter are among the most iconic images in all of film. Even the atrocious prequels tried to forge their own identity with the Naboo starfighter and Darth Maul’s lightstaff. (Shouldn’t he have used a maul, though? Just saying.) However TFA was content to rest on their laurels and did not even bother to mine the whole cannon of ships available to the Rebels. We didn’t even see any Y-wings. And no, I don’t buy into any garbage about the Incom T70 X-wing replacing the T65 X-wing and Y-wing because it has both air-air and air-ground capabilities. Fans do not want to see incrementally upgraded starfighters on screen. We want a fantastic battle filled with beloved X-wings, Y-wings, TIEs, and cool new ships thrown in the mix.
  2.  Much has been said about Rey being a strong female lead in a scifi film (Sometimes I wonder if it escapes people’s notice that Leia was also a female lead in the original.) But she was truthfully an uncompelling character. She lives as an orphan foraging for scraps on a backwater planet, but we are expected to believe she is somehow an ace pilot, crack mechanic, lightsaber-wielding, mindtrick-using almost-Jedi, despite the fact that she didn’t even believe in the Force at the beginning of the movie. I expect that this will be addressed in TLJ, but I am also afraid it will be done in a very retcon sort of way. JJ Abrams wanted the big mystery of the film to be about Rey’s parentage, but honestly I’m not that interested in that question. She is undoubtedly tied into the Skywalker clan somehow. She is probably Luke’s daughter or niece or something. This is not that exciting of a question.How does she have all of these skills and force knowledge that she should not have? That is the real question that must be addressed. They give us some hints, and it seems likely she trained at the Jedi Academy at a very young age before Kylo turned bad and Luke went AWOL. Maybe that explains some of it, but it doesn’t explain why she remains languishing on Jakku living on scraps, or why she does not remember her time with Luke. Some have suggested that her memories were wiped with the Force, but is this really possible? In 6 prior films have we ever heard about someone having false memories implanted with the Force? Also the genesis of her amazing skillset is not presented as a mystery in TFA. We are expected to accept that, and then in TLJ it will be retconned by saying she trained with Luke when she was younger. Even if this was the plan all along, this is just bad writing. We spent the whole first film being annoyed by Rey instead of growing to like an important new character.

    So I say all that to say this: Rey must be more flawed in TLJ. We need to see her struggling with the Force. We need to see her struggle with the paths of Light and Dark, and being afraid to confront the evil before her. This is also related to my complaints about Kylo Ren in Point 3.

  3.  Kylo is a weak villain. TFA revealed early on that he is Han’s son (gasp), and we know he is not really a full Sith. Rey is able to resist his mind probe, and he also loses to her in a lightsaber duel. In fact Finn, who is not even Force sensitive (that we know of), is able to hold his own for a few minutes against Kylo. I am not scared of Kylo Ren in the way that I was scared of Vader. Part of the appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy was the underdog element: a no-name farm boy from Tatooine rises up to defeat a seemingly invulnerable villain. Classic David v. Goliath. The fight between Kylo and Rey is more like a football game where Kylo is a one-touchdown favorite, but you wouldn’t be surprised to see a Rey upset.

    I do not really see a way to salvage Kylo as a villain going forward. I think this is the most grievous (pun?) sin of TFA. It did not set up the rest of the trilogy on a strong foundation of a terrifying and strangely compelling bad guy. I see only two viable options: rely more heavily on Snoke, about whom we know little, or bring in a third player. This is the same mistake that was made by killing Darth Maul in Phantom Menace and then replacing him with a ho-hum Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. It would have been much, much better for Maul to survive and haunt Obi Wan for the remainder of the trilogy. Dooku was entirely dispensable in Clones because we knew he would not be a contender when the Big Bad (Palpatine) came out in Ep. III. TLJ faces the same dilemma: they either have to introduce a new bad guy or bring out the Big Bad too early. If they do introduce a new Sith, they need to survive and remain a relevant part of the story through the next film. Possibly they can use Capt. Phasma (who did not get much screen time in TFA) to fill this role because the audience has at least already been introduced to her. This might be the best option available, but Phasma is not known as a Force user, so it will be difficult to sell her as a worthy foil to Rey and Luke.

This brings me to a final point that I hope to see in TLJ: for the love of all that is Star Wars we had better FINALLY see Jedi Master Luke at the height of his powers! Luke is supposed to be the greatest Jedi Master of all time, and he was sitting on the sidelines for all of TFA. I know that ultimately this trilogy is about Rey, Finn, and Poe, so probably the final showdown will be between Rey and Snoke. That is why this film is the perfect opportunity to see Luke go full Rambo and decimate an entire regiment of stormtroopers or something. They should save Rey’s big moment for the last film and make the climax of this one about Luke. We have been waiting forty years to see Luke kick butt and take names, and now is the time.

Final thoughts: I am completely stoked to see the new film. I do think the last one had some serious but not fatal flaws, and I think they can potentially be resolved in this episode to set up Ep. IX to conclude an excellent trilogy. On the flip side, if they don’t address these issues now, the whole thing may still go south. I am optimistic that this one will be good.

Are prayers enough?

Our nation has been ravaged by a number of tragedies lately, including three hurricanes and now the worst mass shooting in living memory. Obviously millions of people are suffering, and there has been an outpouring of support on Twitter and Facebook with people offering condolences and prayers for the victims. This has also come along with a typical response from secular skeptics who feel the need to denigrate a heartfelt gesture in the midst of tragedy. Twitter is full of condescending progressives sneering at the notion of praying for the victims and demanding that real action be taken. (For the record, the North American Mission Board and other Christian organizations have contributed millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers to disaster relief.)

But weirdly I have also seen a few similar posts from people confessing to be Christians. Purported followers of Christ stating on Facebook that prayer is not effective and demanding that the government intervene. I find it deeply disturbing to see believers turning away from belief in the power of prayer and toward the government to protect them. This is the heart of secularism and is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. Have Christians really given up on the power of praying?

Psalm 118: 8-9 (CSB) : “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humanity. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in nobles.”

Now, I am not saying that it is wrong to petition to government to help people in need. We live in a democracy, and people certainly have that right. And the government has vast resources which can be used to do a lot of good in the world. That is all true. However, it is extremely dangerous for Christians to insinuate that petitions to the government are somehow more “real” and more valuable than petitions to the Lord. Just as David numbered his fighting men, American Christians place their faith in a human institution for protection. This sin is seen repeatedly in ancient Israel leading up to their destruction at the hands of Assyria and Babylon, and now it is happening in America.

Isaiah 31:1 (CSB)

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
and who depend on horses!
They trust in the abundance of chariots
and in the large number of horsemen.
They do not look to the Holy One of Israel
and they do not seek the Lord.

I suspect that part of the reason for this trend among American Christians stems from a deep desire for approval and affirmation from society. A person who tweets “Praying for the victims of this tragedy” also feels the need to clarify they did something “real” so strangers on the internet will validate their contribution. As if to say, “Oh I said a prayer. That’s just a silly thing I do, but don’t worry, I also helped in a way that actually matters.” But we are not called to be validated or even liked by society. Jesus even said “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (Luke 4:24) 

To be clear, as the book of James makes plain, real genuine faith should lead to tangible acts of kindness to those in need. Christians should definitely offer support to people who are suffering.

James 2:15-16 (CSB): If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?  In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.

Jesus also modeled this by feeding the poor and healing the sick of their physical afflictions. He did not simply preach at them, but he cared for their physical needs as well. We should absolutely do the same. But there is a question of priorities. We cannot present to the world a belief that earthly salvation is more important than spiritual salvation. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again.  But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again.” (John 4:13-14). As we see here and in other cases, Jesus cared for people physically, but in doing so he pointed them toward the Lord. This is the model for how we should respond to suffering, by directing lost and desperate people to the only Savior that can offer them real hope. When Christians act as if a prayer is a meaningless platitude in order to fit in with society, it undermines this witness. Christians are called to spread the Gospel and further the Kingdom, not to win popularity contests and ingratiate ourselves to the whims of a sinful, fallen world.

John 15:19 (CSB): “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you.”

Would Jesus authorize a drone strike?

Years ago it became very popular for people to wear bracelets bearing the acronym WWJD, which stands for “What would Jesus do” to remind us to consider how Jesus would respond to situations we come across in daily life. It’s a good idea, and I think it is certainly helpful to think about if our behavior is Christlike. However, sometimes the answer to that simple question is not easy.

In the last few days the US military has executed some high-profile strikes against targets in Syria and Afghanistan. These particularly strikes did not use drones, but we have use drones in countless others. And before the drones we had cruise missiles which can be launched from a ship a thousand miles away. The immense power of these weapons comes at a cost that sometimes they miss their intended targets, and sometimes innocent civilians are killed. To be fair, I am sure our military makes efforts to minimize these casualties, but it still happens. And maybe we focus too narrowly on the morality of killing civilians, while condoning using bombs and missiles to blow away our enemies. Didn’t Jesus say something about loving our enemies?

It would be easy to say “Jesus requires us to be pacifists. There is never a time to use violence.” But I think the truth is more nuanced than that. There are definitely examples from the Old Testament of God using military force through Israel to punish evildoers or bless his people by saving them from their enemies. Protection from those who would do us harm is a form of love and is reflected in much of the language used to describe the Father. There definitely people in Syria and Afghanistan who are experiencing horrible, unthinkable oppression. Assad is a monster, as are the various terrorist groups killing people in the region. So if we have the power to stop them, or at least stand up to them, do we also have the obligation to do that? The USA has, by far, the most advanced and powerful military in the world. With great power comes great responsibility. (Book of Spiderman)

I find it very difficult to navigate this sort of situation and determine the most appropriate Christian response. War-mongering does not seem very Christlike, but neither does inaction in the face of evil and tyranny. I think the primary response is to seek all possible peaceful or diplomatic solutions. We can urge our government to continue to pursue peace through diplomatic channels. But sometimes that simply will not work, or will take years while people are suffering. it is a difficult decision, but I think sometimes military intervention is necessary. We cannot stand aside and let people be slaughtered while attempting to justify our pacifism as an expression of Christ’s love.

But when do we decide to do that? Where is the line that must be cross before intervention is justified? And what do we do about the inevitable loss of innocent life on all sides? These are difficult questions, and no answer to them is perfect. We are truly damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Now this might seem like an odd topic to address on Good Friday, but I think there is something valuable to learn here. We live in a fallen, broken world. A world full of sin, which is messy and imperfect. There is evil in this world, and innocent people will die no matter how we choose to respond. We all do the best that we can, but there is no escaping the brokenness of this world. Except for today. Good Friday, when Jesus came to die in order to restore us from our sinful nature. He offers us hope to escape the futility of living in a world cursed by our sin.

So I have not gotten around to answering my own provocative question in the title, but I don’t think there is an easy answer. All we can do is pray for wisdom and cling to our eternal hope that we have salvation from the wickedness of the world and in ourselves.

Happy Easter, everyone.

Luke 24:5-7: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.

Decision 2016: The Aftermath

Well, the election is over. Donald Trump has won. Some people who are particularly upset by this outcome are protesting, but it won’t change anything. The votes have been tallied and he won, so there’s nothing left to do but move forward. This election has been confusing, divisive, emotional, and in the end surprising. So I thought I’d try to collect a few thoughts and make some sense of it.

It’s disheartening that things have come to this. After 8 years of a sluggish economy and the electorate being tired of Obama, the GOP always had a good shot at winning this election, but most of us thought the chances of that went out the window with the nomination of Trump. There were many better, more qualified candidates in the primary (ie, all of them), but somehow it came down to Trump . And yet, astoundingly he managed to win the nomination and the general election without the support of a significant portion of his own party. Several prominent party leaders, including George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and John Kasich, flatly refused to support Trump, and those that did support him, like Paul Ryan, gave the most tepid endorsements possible.

After Romney lost in 2012, the party performed a postmortem and determined the GOP needed to make more efforts to appeal to minority voters (Romney got 57% of the white vote) and younger voters. That is what is necessary for the party to survive. The 2016 election was a good opportunity to pursue that goal, but instead they went in exactly the opposite direction and nominated an old white man with a history of saying racist things. It seems clear at this point that the party leadership has chose not to evolve, but to bury their head in the sand and ignore the changing demographics of the country. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the election is that this strategy worked, and will only encourage them to continue using it. If this trend is not reversed very soon, I daresay the party of Lincoln is doomed.

On the other side, the Democrats certainly played a sizable role in their own defeat. They insisted on nominating the second (only to Trump) most unpopular candidate in American history. An uncharismatic, uninspiring choice with a long history of scandal and duplicity. Yet, the DNC was caught coordinating against the Sanders campaign to ensure Clinton got the nomination. Clinton’s campaign went on to be plagued with unforced errors, like needlessly concealing her bout of pneumonia and saying she wanted to put coal miners out of business, while at a town hall in the coal-producing swing state of Ohio. Then there was the endless email saga.

Suffice it to say, the state of American politics lately has been pretty sad and frustrating. However, we have gotten through the election and arrived at a victor to be our next president. God help us. Despite my severe reservations about a Trump presidency (which I’ve written about before), it appears that it’s going to happen. So I am trying to choose to be open-minded and optimistic, and to give Trump a fair chance. Furthermore, 1 Tim. 2:2 says to “pray for kings and all those in authority that we may live peaceful lives.” So, despite my own doubts, I pray that Trump will prove to be a wise and effective leader for our country. I hope is is receptive to good advice and proves to be a better president than I have expected.

My reservations about Trump have not changed. He’s still racist, sexist, vindictive, and a pathological liar and narcissist. None of that has changed. What has changed is that he won an election, and he’s going to be president. There is nothing else to be done but move forward, deal with problems as they arise (they definitely will) and hope for the best. After all, we are all on the same ship here, and we will sink or float together. Thankfully, our founding fathers were wise enough to put in multiple layers of checks and balances on presidential power, so the damage a single president can do is limited.

Politics is a fickle business. The tide of public opinion will sway back and forth. There will be other elections. Eventually Trump will be gone, and someone else will take his place. So we will get through it and life will go on. However, more distressing to me than that outcome of one election is the inexplicable support of Trump from the Christian (mostly “Evangelical,” whatever that means) community.  Trump won Protestants 58-39% and white evangelicals by a whopping 81-16%. More than 4 in 5.

This is appalling. I cannot begin to describe the incalculable damage this election has done to the Christian witness in this country. A handful of Christian leaders have denounced Trump and called on the church to distance ourselves from him (Thanks to Jesus for leadership from Russell Moore and others here) but sadly most of these voices went ignored. I have seen such tortured efforts to twist Scripture into a justification for supporting Trump from the likes of James Dobson and Wayne Grudem that it’s sickening. These false teachers could pursue careers as contortionists at the circus.

It is deeply upsetting to see Christians throwing out any moral clarity or principles of decency to support a man who is a lying, avaricious libertine. And for what? What have we gained for sacrificing our integrity? We get to say “our guy” won an election, rather than letting a Methodist Democrat into the White House. Plus maybe a few more seats in Congress. This is such fleeting success. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but forfeit his soul? It seems to me that particular bit of wisdom has been forgotten.

I hope that the church comes to its senses about Trump. While I do hope Trump turns out to be a decent president, it is imperative that the church and Christian community be willing to rebuke him and speak out for the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized. It will be difficult to undo the damage done by supporting him during the election, but that painful healing process must start sooner rather than later. We must stop compromising our message of Christ’s love and redemption when it is convenient to score a few political points. God is always in control, and he does not need our help to maintain a majority in Congress for two more years. The funny thing about elections is that there is always another one just around the corner. Political success is so temporary; it really should not be of much importance to us as Christians. We should be much more concerned with eternal matters for the eternal kingdom.

Psalm 146:3-5.

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
 Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

Psalm 118:8-9

It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in princes.

How our Faith Comes to Us

The bible is fairly clear about how our faith comes to us.

And so right out of the gate, many hear this above scripture and think, “I grow my faith by reading my bible.” At it’s core, this is well and true but…I believe, seriously lacks nuance… It simply isn’t doing it for most of us…and I think it’s because there’s more to it.

Allow me to explain…

Faith comes by hearing

The Hebrew idea for hearing wasn’t just listening. It was a listening with an intent to understand, and then act on that understanding. Hebrew people collapsed “hear” and “obey” into their concept of hearing. A close analogy could be when a parent asks their child if they “heard” the command to, say, clean up their toys. When the parent says “Did you hear what I said ?” They are not asking if the child physically heard their instruction, rather they are asking if the child has sought to understand…and are thus participating with the parent in their reasoning and action.

And hearing by the Word of God

I’m going to *carefully* attempt to navigate through this idea that the Bible is not the only form of the Word of God. (Clearly it’s one of the most primary forms…I’m not denying that.) But the Bible itself with all of its authority, doesn’t refer to the phrase ‘Word of God’ always as the scriptures.

First off, creation speaks forth the Word of God to a very real and thorough degree, so that people without law could still be held accountable to knowing God.

Second, Jesus in relation to the Trinity, is referred to as the Word of God. So His whole person and character, timeless throughout the ages…functions as what God is always saying to us.

Third, the Body of Christ and its speaking ministries is referred to as the Word of God. Our lives of love and our testimonies speak a form of the word of God, powerful enough as to overcome end times/enemies when paired with the blood of the Lamb.

Fourth, the Gospel is referred to as the Word of God which, I think is most important. The gospel gives us the proper context for hearing God. We always hear God within a context of our calling as His image bearers. We are to express His character and divine nature in and through us – so that everything we touch, is touched with His glory and love. Namely the self sacrificial love of Christ on the Cross. Jesus showed His sacrificial love as the Way of Salvation and the Way of Life. So it’s in this gospel context, that we are in dialogue with Him. Without this gospel context, we revert to hearing God not in love, but in the flesh…which ends up looking like this:

Fleshly attempts at hearing God will cause us to shove off personal responsibility for our lives…(Since if God tells us what to do, then we don’t have to own up to our decisions, which are to be endeavored with Him, rather than caused by Him.) Also, fleshly attempts at hearing God will cause us to go after our own selfish desires…for our own individual lives…(rather than surrendering our lives to find the greater good which is found in the communal Kingdom of God/ follower’s of Christ’s Way.) Maybe the most deadly, yet common way we attempt to hear God from the flesh, is in that we really do not believe He is good. In the flesh, we find Him mean and tricky, and so we have to compulsively hear from Him about everything in order to feel safe and vindicated. This is difficult, since in the flesh, the underlying obsession is how righteous we look (to our own peril)..rather than peacefully content in being about the good of God and others, simply for their own sake…thus putting to rest the spiritual narcissism which masquerades as zeal, which often drives our Christian life.

And so, the land is full of well meaning Christians who constantly swear by the ‘still small voice’ as the main way they hear God…(maybe outside of a some scripture reading.) Perhaps, they reduce things down a little too much, by stating that “It’s simple, you just become Spirit lead about everything.” But one can attempt to hear God from the flesh, outside of a Gospel context, and they risk shipwrecking their life and faith. (Not to mention causing tension to those around them.) (I honestly think God honors this view the best He can, speaking to them in this limited capacity the best He can…but I believe He’s hopeful that they may hear Him in a more rich and manifold way…having more forms of the Word of God come together for a clearer safeguard against fleshly mis-hearing.)

Interestingly, the same Hebrew word for ‘still small voice’ which is used in the Elijah story…is also used when the scriptures say Cain’s murdered brother’s blood cries out from the ground. And so the idea here again, similar to that of Hebrew “hearing,” is that the ‘still small voice’ is this profound and reverent reasoning to action, that comes to us, always in a context of a receiver/sharer of the kindness of the Lord, for the whole of life.

To conclude, maybe the idea of increasing our faith through hearing the word of God, isn’t a matter of how God is speaking to us…but rather asking “How is He not speaking to us?”

The Spirit is using every means He can to reach us. And the mature know this. They don’t merely walk around being lead command after command, like a toddler, at least not for long. God is not their moral text messenger service, merely telling them what to do all the time. They converse, as if with a Spouse, in a deep sense of understanding. Often through a sheer sharing of presence. They share presence with Him in the created order of things, in the community of believers and in the scriptures. They are experienced in the life of Christ, His person, and the Gospel, so that all forms of the Word of God come together, in this profound and reverent reasoning…the fruit of which is a mindset that’s of life and peace, tasting good the soul, like that of walking with a friend in the coolness of the evening.

So remember…God’s word to you is in the bible, (with all its precious and rightfully Holy authority) and we are absolutely lead by the Spirit, but these may point you to a Word of God beyond that which you may realize as God speaking to you. For there is yet another who’s blood cries out from the ground.

Politics of Faith Pt. 4: We are going to lose the culture war

We are going to lose the culture war. And that is okay.

In fact, as I alluded to in my previous post some months ago, we never should have gotten involved (politically) in the first place and now we are dealing with the consequences of that misguided effort.

Why do I say that we are going to lose the culture war? Mostly because Jesus said it.

Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.  At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other,  and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.  Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” Matt. 24: 9-12

This does not sound like the idyllic Christian Republican America Jerry Falwell hoped to usher in with the Moral Majority. The world will continue to reject Christ and his followers and descend into wickedness, which Jesus told us would happen, so why do we always act surprised? And more to the point, why does a large segment of the church feel that there is a Christian mandate to combat this trend through the power of the ballot?

For several decades right-wing politicians have pandered to the powerful “evangelical” (whatever that means) voting bloc on issues of Christian morality, such that “Republican” and “evangelical Christian” are practically synonymous in a political context. And yet our culture continues to shift away from traditional Christian morals. Homosexual marriage is legal, prayer is forbidden in the public forum, and Roe v. Wade remains untouched for forty years. The pipe dream of the Moral Majority is slipping away, and the progenitors of this doomed movement are desperately trying to cling to any remaining shred of political hegemony. Now, in a turn of events so remarkably cynical it almost defies belief, we are presented with a lying, misogynist, racist, litigious, power-hungry, habitual philanderer and told by our so-called faith leaders that we must vote for Donald Trump because he is “God’s man to leader our nation.” (Jerry Falwell Jr)

This disturbing circumstance is the inevitable consequence of conservative Christians for decades acquiescing to being characterized as single-issue voters, especially on the issue of abortion. Perhaps the most strikingly misanthropic message of the Trump candidacy is the belief of the party leaders that Christians will vote for anyone so long as they pay lip-service to pro-lifers, even if that candidate has a long history of donating to pro-abortion candidates and is widely viewed as a racist adulterer with a troubling admiration for fascism. Yet the Trump apologists tell us (and not wholly incorrectly) that the other party is no better. The church struck a Faustian bargain with the Republican party years ago, and now we find ourselves scorned by the left and taken for fools by the right.

The false prophets urge us to cling to this arrangement. They tell us that our very culture is at stake, and if we just persevere a bit longer, we can put “our people” in office and take our country back. But does that sound like sound like something Jesus would say? Would Jesus advocate lending our support to an unrepentant, rapacious egotist just for so our party can hold on to some vestige of political power? Or would he say “What good does do a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?”

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that the sanctity of life is not important. It is an important issue, and Christians should continue to speak out on it. But we cannot let that single issue define us to the extent that the world thinks that we will tolerate any amount of corruption and avarice in order to get pro-life candidates into office. That is damaging to our witness. Decency matters. Integrity matters. Compassion for the poor and the outcast matter. We cannot let the political elite play us for such rubes that we forsake the core tenets of our faith to chase the dangling carrot of pro-life legislation.

As I said earlier, the culture war has always been a losing battle. Now we are dealing with the repercussions of our improvident participation, which came from a desire for political power and had nothing to do with the real Gospel of Christ. The true Gospel has always spread through love for our neighbors, not through power in Congress. The world will continue to sink into sin, but Christians are called to live our lives in such a way that we are a beacon of hope to the world. The most effective evangelism, as demonstrated by Jesus, is simple acts of loving one’s neighbor and sharing the good news that there is redemption in Christ. Paul, the greatest missionary in church history, lived in the Roman Empire, one of the richest and most degenerate, hedonistic cultures the world has ever known. Paul had little money and no political power, yet his churches flourished because they were founded on the Gospel of love and not the quest for wordly influence.

With the election coming up this fall, I urge the Christian community to be less concerned with our strength as a voting bloc and more concerned with the image of the Gospel we are presenting to the world. The candidate you vote for may or may not win, and if they do win, they may or may not deliver on the promises made during the campaign. Politics is politics, and political success is fleeting. We should be more focused on matters that are eternal.

 

 

The Definition of Sin

Often when people ask what is sin, a common answer is to give the direct translation of the Hebrew “to miss the mark.” An archer missing a target is a common example, and the logic goes that God is perfect and sets an example for us. And when we miss the mark of living up to that example, it is sin.

Now, there is not anything truly wrong about this definition but it has always grated me on me a little bit. It seems to carry a subtle implication that God’s perfect standard is a list of rules of things we should do and not do and some we should definitely never do. And so long as we follow that list we are golden.

So there you have it, in order to avoid sin and get into heaven, all you have to do is be perfect and follow the rules. Please refer to Leviticus and Deuteronomy for more detailed instructions.

Except, that we know that Jesus abolished (read: fulfilled) the necessity of the old law, and we are not bound to it anymore. (I’m writing this from Baltimore and I’m probably going to go eat some Leviticus 11 defying crab cakes after I’m done here.)

How then are we to know what is and is not a sin without our stone tablets that have all the rules etched into them? (And more importantly, how will we know when our neighbors are sinning so that we can feel superior and judge them?)

This line of reasoning leads to a lot of problems when trying to answer more complex moral questions, such as is the accumulation of wealth immoral in a world where poverty exists? Is homosexuality a sin, as described in the Old Testament, or are we free from that aspect of the law under the new covenant? Should a Christian vote for a liberal politician who advocates strong welfare for the poor but also is in favor of allowing abortions?

These are hard questions. This is why I think the “miss the mark” definition of sin is too rudimentary. We don’t have lists of specific rules anymore. We do have God’s example to try to live up to, but we don’t have a parable for every situation that we might encounter in the modern world. It’s often difficult to discern “what would Jesus do?” in a number of situations.

But we DO have a very powerful tool for helping us decide these things called the Holy Spirit. I’ve written before about reliance on the Spirit for discerning God’s will for you. When we have read the Bible and studied all the commentaries and concordances and blog posts, and we still don’t know what we should do, we fall back on the intercession of the Spirit.

This brings us to my preferred definition of sin, which is “purposefully living outside of God’s will for us.” This comes from a place of pride and egotism. When we have access to the Spirit’s guidance, and we know God’s will for our lives, but we choose to ignore it because we want to go our own way, that is sin.

I’ll point out that I am not the only person who uses this definition. Billy Graham himself said the following: “A sin is any thought or action that falls short of God’s will.”  So I’m not totally out in left field with this thinking.

In a very real sense, this definition implies that there is actually only ONE fundamental sin, and that is refusing to submit to God’s will.

Another implication is that the notion of what things could be sinful is vary with different circumstances. Perhaps the Spirit tells you to give five bucks to the panhandler on your side of the street, but tells me not to engage with the guy on my side of the street. If we both follow the Spirit’s guidance, there is no sin.

THIS IS NOT MORAL RELATIVISM.

This does not mean that we each get to decide for ourselves what is right for us and what is wrong. In fact, it is just the opposite of that. We are submitting to the will of an omniscient Lord who we believe sees more of the consequences of our actions and has divine plans for our lives. He knows best, and we should follow His advice. If we choose not to, because of our stubbornness or pride or our own desires to fulfill our plans, that leads down the road to sin.

We shouldn’t judge our neighbors who struggle with issues that we deem sinful because we don’t know what aspects of their lives the Spirit is working on in that moment. I might think my friend Bill is not generous enough with giving to charity, but perhaps God is working on his heart with some anger issues or working on his marriage at the time. My lectures about what I in my limited, prideful mind think Bill should be doing differently, will do nothing to sway Bill if the Spirit has not prepared him to hear it. In fact, it will almost certainly lead to resentment and division. The best thing to do is love Bill and support him as God transforms his life according to his own plans.

Remember, Christ’s love is meant to be transformative and we are all works in progress. So God has his own agenda for each of us.

Now, this is not to say there are not appropriate moments for brothers to approach and rebuke another brother from a place of love. Sometimes that is necessary and constructive, and Jesus and Paul give clear instructions for how these situations. Again, also, there will be clear guidance from the Spirit here and it should come from a place of love, not judgment.

This has become my universal answer for any questions of “Is this a sin? Is this okay? Should I do this?” The question we should be asking first is always “What is God’s will for me in this situation?” Read the Scripture, pray, meditate, and wait for the Spirit’s guidance, and then you will have your answer.

(Hint: it will probably involve furthering the kingdom through a Christlike display of sacrificial love.)

Guidelines For Share Time Based On 1 Corinthians 14

Whenever you gather together, each and every one of you, be prepared to share something that will be useful to all, that will build up the body of Christ.

It could something creative and art-like, a song or lyric etc.
A testimony, or story, or praise report.
A prayer.
A lesson, or even a small proclamation, something very brief but true.

If you pray in tongues please consider praying off site ahead of time as part of your prep. Pray for interpretation so that you can proclaim in English your word to the group.
Only 2-3 people should share – so that what is shared has time to be developed and explored, after being weighed by the group. (So please get comfortable with prepping something to share but not actually getting to share it. If it’s really burning on your heart and you do not get to share, the Lord probably has another time or people to share it with.)
If you choose to speak up, you need to own what you say. That means taking on the light burden to prepare so that is lucid, coherent and succinct in the theme of building everyone up.
What all ends up being shared should have a complimentary tone to it… it should all be in harmony, rather than conflicting, contradictory or confusing.
Interrupting or grinding the group to a halt with questions that challenge, or hijack the current topic, need to be asked later off site to a person you can trust to help you. If we do need clarification, the Spirit can and will give someone a more spontaneous word or comment, so there needs to be a light allowance for whoever is sharing to yield to such an appropriate interruption. There is also the slight burden and responsibility on the one who feels lead to interrupt accordingly.
No one person should dominate through sharing too much. For it’s together and that we have the mind of Christ. Just share what you have in the realest, most earnest, dressed down way possible. Avoid adding to what you have with excessive language, just try to share no more and no less of what’s dearest to your heart (that you sought during your prep time.)
These guidelines can seem constrictive, they are not, quite the contrary, they free us up for poised worship and calm, balanced discernment of God’s word.
Lastly, keep in mind, that which builds up the Body of Christ most is her center; the Gospel. That Jesus died for our sins on the cross, that God’s Love has saved us, is our life, and is making all things new.
So let’s love one another by sharing in this regard.

Big Tent Survival

“How do you read it ?” Jesus in Luke 10:26

I’ve taken several posts to lead up to this final testimony. Hopefully, if you’ve followed along, you can appreciate the build up of me stating things how I see them. There is something both strong and weak about testimony. Strong, in that hearing things personalized and actualized, can give more power than the mere postulating of theory. Weak, in that the knowledge rests  more in the person, their limited experience and opinion, rather than in vetted institutions. Hopefully, by now, it’s more obvious that collapsing these two has been the aim of much of these posts. Perhaps collapse is inevitable. Either we collapse in the manner aforementioned, or we succumb to the proverbial prophecy found in a perishing people who have no real vision. That would be a downer. Nothing like a testimony as a pick me up.

I identify with, and find solidarity in, Christ revealing God’s Love on the cross, dying for my sins. I derive a great sense of Life from perceiving that God is kind. Christ’s kindness does not get overcome by the world, rather it overcomes the world. In my mind and heart, the powers (both satanic and secular) that assert merciless dominance have been utterly shamed and exposed to the point of being defeated. And so, I live in a way that heralds this victory of Christ as effecting everything.  I find the self sacrificial love of Christ as simple and communicable revelation; one which can be stewarded both as the way of salvation, and the way of life…or put even more simply…altruism is how to live and how God is saving the world. I believe in persistent covenant-like commitment to this as conversion, and immersion into this school happens only through an open, shared life community.

I do not know, nor care about much else.