“Dark Matter” & “Black Lives Matter”

Dark Matter - Season 1

DARK MATTER — Season:1 — Pictured: (l-r) Zoie Palmer as The Adroid, Alex Mallari Jr. as Four, Anthony Lemke as Three, Melissa O’Neil as Two, Mark Bendavid as One, Jodelle Ferland as Five, Roger Cross as Six — (Photo by: Dennys/Ilic/Syfy)

This last month I was able to watch season 1 of the SyFy channel show “Dark Matter” on Netflix (major spoiler follows). The show follows a crew of 6 “Firefly-like” space-frontier troublemakers who were awoken from suspended animation with their memories mysteriously wiped clean. After the first few episodes feature some pretty overused science fiction tropes (even space zombies), the show gets into a pretty good groove. “Dark Matter” really wrestles with the importance of memory. Is it our memory that makes us who we are? If we forgot our pasts, could we really become different or better people? Should you still be passionate about people or things you no longer remember… but know you were once passionate about?

If I have one qualm about the first season it would be the season’s grand reveal. As the episodes progress, it becomes increasingly clear that someone is sabotaging the ship as a traitor. And the traitor ends of being… the one black guy on the crew. For a show whose name shares some close similarities to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the reveal made me cringe a little.

I do believe that Black Lives Matter. But the movement concerns me because of one statistic. I usually don’t take much stock in statistics. As a sociology undergraduate, I remember too many teachers showing how statistics can be stretched and squeezed to prove just about anything. For example, the Washington Post reports that 990 people were killed by police in 2015. 494 were white. 258 were black.

  • Someone could use this statistic to argue that many more white Americans were killed by police than black in 2015. It’s true.
  • However, if you take the same numbers and adjust for overall population proportions (since there are many more white Americans in the U.S. than black), you could make the argument that black Americans were much more likely to be killed by police than white in 2015. Also true.
  • But, it you take the same numbers and compare it to violent crime rates (much higher among black Americans), one could make an argument that more whites were killed in police responses to violent crime than blacks. Maybe true?
  • Finally, you could connect all of this data to the poverty rate (which is unfortunately also much higher for black American households). And since there seems to be a link between poverty and crime, maybe the very challenging multi-layered problem of poverty needs to be factored into this whole debate. Possibly also true…

Statistics are tricky. But I don’t want to make any sweeping judgements using the numbers. I just wanted to focus on the number 258. 258 black Americans killed. It’s tragic. And the number scares me a little. Because this year, no matter what police do, steps they take, or training they receive, the number killed will still be too high. The white number is also too high. Any number is too high, maybe necessary, but still too high. And every year, some of the deaths caused by police will not be clear cut (maybe because of negligence, prejudice, a bad apple, or just unclear circumstances). And every year, “Black Lives Matter,” could use those numbers as ammunition to increase tension between police and citizens…. forever… That worries me.

Over the last year, I have heard over and over again that what is needed is for us all to understand “white privilege.”  But I’m not so sure. As a white person, I don’t know if I need to spend more time understanding how privileged I am. I experience it every day. Maybe the last thing I need to do is spend more time focusing on myself. I think my time might be better spent listening to and learning to empathize with others. I believe empathy is an incredible gift given to us by God. And I believe it is a gift that all of us could get better at using.

Usually, when I watch a TV show, as I learn more about each of the characters, I find myself picking favorites. But I didn’t do that much while watching the first season of “Dark Matter.” Since none of the characters could remember their pasts, it was hard to grab a hold of something  that would lead me to dislike any of them. I found myself blaming their bad character traits on the confusion or challenge of their situations. I found myself quicker to forgive a character’s missteps (since they were still learning how to “be”), and it was easy to forgive their past actions (since they couldn’t remember them anyway). It makes me wonder… if we all got better at letting go of the burdens of our past experiences, all those judgements and prejudices we’ve experienced or “learned” about one another, would we all get a little better at showing empathy? Is this something we could even do if  we tried hard enough?

I don’t have any experience at being anxious when a cop approaches my car and I haven’t done anything wrong. That is probably because of my white privilege.

But I also don’t have any experience as a cop, being anxious while approaching a potentially dangerous car. That is because of my… I guess “blue privilege” (living in a country where police officers deal with dangerous situations so I don’t have to).

But I CAN imagine what BOTH of those situations MIGHT be like. And that is the beauty of empathy. And empathy is something I think we could all do with a little more of.

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“Piper” and General Assemblies

Last week I got a chance to see “Finding Dory” with the family. I enjoyed the movie, but in my opinion it was outclassed by the Pixar short that preceded it. “Piper,” directed by Alan Barillaro, tells the story of a baby sandpiper bird on his first day hunting food for himself next to the ocean. The realistic animation was simply breathtaking. But even more than that, I found the story very compelling.

“Piper” tells about a flock of sandpiper birds moving together to avoid incoming waves while finding some breakfast where the tide and sand meet. The baby sandpiper bird can’t get the rhythm right, is deluged by water, and for a while decides to give up on the water thing altogether. But eventually hunger wins out and with the help of a young hermit crab the baby learns a unique way to deal with the incoming waves.

I am sure “Piper” struck me the way it did because I watched it in Portland, while participating as an observer in my denomination’s General Assembly. For much of my childhood as a military brat, Portland was home base. No matter where we were living, Portland was the home away from home where we went to visit family.  Watching the sandpiper mom show her baby how to do “water,” hit close to home on a week I was busy showing my own kids special places from my childhood; like Multnomah Falls, the zoo, and the downtown fountains my Grandfather used to take me to play.

But the connections didn’t end there. As someone who tends to be a moderate evangelical in a fairly progressive denomination, I am often asked how I survive. In fact, when I told people that I was going to General Assembly, I was surprised by the number of raised eyebrows I got. I guess another reason I liked “Piper” so much was because I felt like it told some of my own story. In the short, the baby sandpiper bird learned that if it dug in like a hermit crab when the waves came and then opened its eyes, it not only could be protected from the waves but could see more clearly where breakfast was.

Often times, at the macro level, I feel like my denomination looks a little like a flock of sandpiper birds, running back and forth, following where ever the next “progressive” wave takes them. Right now, many evangelicals are giving up on the denomination because they feel like they have gotten hit by one too many wave while refusing to move with everyone else. Those evangelicals sputter and complain…. But I find myself wishing that more of them would be willing to just open their eyes to see the good that is still happening (Christ-centered mission and evangelism). It is still there, it is just often under the surface of the loud and more noticeable waves.

How does a moderate evangelical pastor get fed in a more progressive denomination? This one gets nourished by seeing those places where God is still at work through his faithful followers (and finding more and more that often God is even at work in spite of us all).

PIPER

PIPER – Concept Art by Jason Deamer (Production Designer). ©2016 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

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The Avengers Franchise & the Christian Worldview

Growing up, my comic of choice was the Avengers. I loved the Avengers. I especially liked the West Coast Avengers. Something about these flawed heroes and their desire to team up, put their differences aside, in order to protect the world against great threats, truly spoke to me as a kid.

Based on this admission, it is probably clear that I am not anywhere impartial when it comes to Marvel Avenger movies. I watch the movies like a giddy child. The movies could be incredibly flawed and I would not care. I would watch them with a giant smile on my face.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the Avengers movies is that it seems like the main thematic message of each movie can be boiled down to one scene… one interaction between two individuals. In Avengers 1, it was the scene between Tony Stark and Loki. In that scene Tony, speaking for the entire team, comes to the precipice of understanding  who “the Avengers” are and what they will ultimately stand for. In Avengers 2, the heart of the movie can be seen in the conversation between Ultron and Vision and their discussion of humanity.

Back to my initial point. In reading blogs and postings it seems many have argued that Avengers 1 is a much better film than Avengers 2. Avengers 2 is kind of clunky, has some odd rabbit holes in it, clearly has more story to tell than the amount of time to tell it. But for me, as someone with a Christian worldview, Avengers 2 was by far the superior of the two films- because I not only got to watch “my Avengers” but could relate to the main theme much better.

The major theme of Avengers 1 seemed off to me. It really comes to that scene between Loki and Tony. Loki is terrorizing world. I think his motivation could best be described as  revenge. Loki wants revenge because of  his dad, his upbringing, his “brother,” being left out of the will, his prior defeat… Because Thor likes Earth, Loki is going to take it and rule it. But in the scene between Tony and Loki, Tony explains that although Loki may win the battle currently raging, although Loki may conquer the world, he’s in trouble anyway- because the Avengers will get him someday. In other words, the Avengers exist to Avenge (a word strikingly similar to revenge). I loved the movie Avengers 1 but had a real hard time reconciling this theme. What made the motivations of the Avengers any different from Loki (other than the Avengers were on “our” side)?  Apparently “we” were against Loki because of his vengeful attitudes, but don’t worry… we were also willing to stoop to his level if we had to? Is that the message?

Avengers 2 is a whole different ball of wax thematically. In an amazing scene between Vision and Ultron, both “robots” agree that humanity is flawed and headed for ruin. But unlike Ultron (the more human of the 2), Vision (the more robotic) see’s beauty in them anyway. Now here’s a theme I “get.” In Avengers 2 you see the clearly ridiculous motivations of some of our heroes. The biggest ridiculous move, Tony Stark builds a robot who in the end tries to bring the annihilation (or near annihilation) of all humanity. You could call building this robot a small failure on Tony’s part. So what is his solution… lets build a second one and see how that one turns out! Tony Stark’s head is stuck in the sand. Life circumstances have shaped a warped worldview for him and he is stuck in it. We get that same sort of “stuck” flawed feel from many of the Avengers. The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver serve as the foil in this movie to allow us a small glimpse into how some might view these flawed “heroes” from the outside. And yet, as the Avengers come together and put their differences aside, trying to save civilians during the movie, we also get this taste of the beauty of humanity as well.

As a Christian who shares a worldview that acknowledges both the reality and insidious nature of sin, but also a belief that humanity was created in the image of God, it was fun to watch a movie that played with some very rich theological themes (while also seeing “my” Hulk smash, Hawkeye seem out of place, Captain America shout orders, etc…). It only takes a minute of catching up on the news to see both the beauty and sin of the world. Avengers 2 does a good job wrestling with the nature of being a flawed hero in a flawed world. To see what happens when “well meaning” worldviews collide. There were some good things to think about in Avengers 2  that made any of the flaws of the film seem pretty insignificant in comparison.

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Planet of the Apes and the Danger of “Issues”

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Yesterday, I went and saw “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” I thought the movie was put together really well. The film starts by looking at what life was like for a group of apes who had been genetically modified to be more human-like and had escaped from San Francisco. The apes had created a society for themselves in the forest and after 10 years of hard work they had carved out a good life. After watching their lives (raising families, hunting, and building), you couldn’t not root for them. When the humans finally come into the picture and you see the suffering they had experienced while surviving a potentially civilization ending plague, you can’t help but root for them as well. The humans and apes end up on opposite sides of a dispute (as we all knew they would) and it was interesting to watch a movie where you were left rooting for “people” (including some apes) rather than taking a side in the conflict.

I am part of the PCUSA denomination and we have just recently had one of our big nationwide conferences. One of the big debates at the assembly was whether our denomination should divest in several companies that makes equipment that Israel uses with their military. This debate has tuned my attention more on the issues between Israel and Palestine… and there has been a lot to tune into this last week.

In the back of my head, I’ve been thinking back to a conversation I had with other PCUSA pastors about our assembly. One major point we discussed was that maybe it was good that at least the PCUSA was taking sides on issues (even if you didn’t always agree with which side was chosen). The Christian Church has sometimes been criticized for staying on the fence on important issues rather than taking a stand when necessary. The issue of slavery in the U.S. is one example. Isn’t taking a side better than sitting on the fence? For some reason, I left that conversation uneasy. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way.

On the way to “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” I was listening to radio coverage of the conflict in Israel and Palestine. A woman in Palestine went to work (in between blackouts and explosions) because she needed the money, only to find the building she worked at left as rubble. I listened to an Israeli man who feels an invasion of the Gaza Strip is necessary because the warning sirens of missiles from Palestine come all the time now. Only an invasion will “quiet” things down for at least a couple years. I could not get these real stories out of my head as I watched monkeys and humans fight for no reason on the big screen.

I admit to not being an expert on the conflict in Israel (or anywhere else for that matter). So maybe what I am about to write sounds “idealistic” or too simple. But I do know some things about Scripture. And “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” reminded me of a simple principle I hear when I read Scripture. As Christians aren’t we called to root for people rather than issues? I realize now that the problem I had with that discussion a few months back was not whether of not Christians should take a stand… we should! But rather, I believe it is rarely wise to take a stand on one side of most issues. We should be much more often taking stands with people.

For some reason (and maybe its all the movies we watch), I think many of us mistakenly believe that there are always “good guys” and “bad guys.” There is always a right side and a wrong side. Maybe this is true sometimes. But as I get older, I find myself seeing more and more issues as being complicated. For example, conflicts between individuals and people groups are usually built upon years and years of prejudice and revenge based on revenge based on revenge. There are rarely good guys and bad guys. There are just people, who are sometimes saints and sometimes sinners, often thrust into difficult circumstances not of their own making.

I’m not sure if the PCUSA should be spending so much time considering what side of every current issue they should come down on. Because maybe the decision is often easier than we think. Maybe the church should usually just come down on the side of people. Maybe whether the PCUSA has some investments with Caterpillar, who has some products that make it to Israel is the wrong concern. Maybe we should have been spending much more of our time not thinking about divestment but investment. Instead of worrying about what “side” of this issue we are on, we should be thinking about the people on both sides. It wouldn’t be hard to find PEOPLE in Israel and Palestine. People who are helping people. People who are promoting peace. And then find more ways to invest in them. Isn’t that what we do with missionaries?

Maybe my denomination is already doing this sort of investment in Israel/Palestine… and if we are that’s great! I need to find a way to do this more myself!! However, even if we are “investing” well as a denomination, it seems like our current action of divestment- taking a “side” in this conflict, has hurt the “people work” we’ve done. If “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is prophetic at all, it seems like it is possible to come to a point when taking “one side” may force you to only be on one side… unable to do any more Kingdom building work.

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No Longer “Frozen”

I will always remember the movie “How to Train a Dragon.” My son was 3ish and although I brought him to a couple other movies, this was the first one where he “got” it. Those of you with young kids may best understand what I am talking about here. Maybe you remember that first moment when your child stopped just enjoying eating popcorn and watching the silly images and songs, but actually “got” a movie… understood the plot, followed along, got excited.

The same thing happened recently with my daughter (now 3 1/2) and the movie “Frozen.” My daughter sat on the edge of her seat, utterly engrossed, whispering question after question to me. She “got” the movie in a way she never had before. It made the movie many more times enjoyable for me, being able to watch her enjoy it so much.

And I couldn’t help but be so thrilled at which movie my daughter first “got.” Because in “Frozen” you see how Disney is continuing to thaw out in it’s understanding of love. Over recent years, Disney has been moving steadily away from it’s original romantic stereotypes of love expressed in cartoon features. Like all successful Disney movies, “love” is still the most important ingredient to the story- love is what holds the movie together and connects us to that “something bigger” we all know is inherently most important in life. Yet, Disney continues to push away from needing that love to be displayed primarily through a boy/girl relationship, in which the boy at some point proves his love with a heroic deed. Although these thematic conventions still exist in movies like “Tarzan,” “Mulan,” “The Princess and the Frog,” and “Tangled,” there is a definitely an eroding of that theme. In “The Princess and the Frog” and “Tangled,” the female characters are much stronger and the men aren’t “princes” (they are in need of a lot of redemption). The real love stories in “Tarzan” and “Mulan” are about family (the romantic story lines are sidelined).

Enter the movie “Frozen”… where the conventions of love are stretched further than ever. In the story you have 2 well meaning parents ostracize their 2 daughters and make one afraid to “feel” anything. Then the story seems to follow a predictable “romantic love” line: Anna gets hurt and needs to meet up with her prince. But in an incredible twist it turns out that her prince is actually our villain. Then out of nowhere an incredible message of love is given to us. While this theme is present in other Disney movies it has never been so blatantly shared and utterly removed from “romantic love.” We learn that an act of true love isn’t necessarily what is done for you- it’s about what you do for another. True love is a selfless act that YOU do for ANOTHER (and possibly to someone you don’t even like).

Love is a selfless act for another- What an incredible message! We live in a selfish culture. We imagine love as that thing that comes when a person sweeps US off OUR feet. We wait for someone else to prove their love to us. We break up with that boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn’t treat US special. In “Frozen,” Anna sacrifices herself for a sister who has (a) ignored her for years, (b) fought with her in front of everyone at a party and told her to leave the kingdom, and (c) froze her heart while unthinkingly having her own pitty party (Ilse does not get a big sister award of the year in this movie). But with the potential of salvation on the horizon and given a tough choice, Anna doesn’t choose love… she chooses TO love her messed up sister.

1 Corinthians 13.4-8b: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” 

I am so glad that “Frozen”  was the first movie my daughter “got.” I hope she also “gets” the notion of love expressed in “Frozen” as well.

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Jesus Christ is not White

I don’t have cable. I am apparently one of the few that missed Megyn Kelly’s discussion on Fox News recently in which she claimed “Jesus was a white man.” and that this is a “verifiable fact.” Now let me start this by saying that Megyn Kelly is wrong. There are no pictures of Jesus. Most historical scholars would argue that Jewish people in the time of Jesus’ birth were not white.

And yet it is not Megyn Kelly’s lack of understanding on this that has got me reflecting today but rather the response many have had to it. I have been considering the many links I have seen today of “modern sketches of Jesus” that are trying to capture what he “really” looked like historically or the article in the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/12/insisting-jesus-was-white-is-bad-history-and-bad-theology/282310/) which cautions that we should not trust popular images of Christ and quotes Martin Luther King Jr. arguing that “the color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence.”

And while I don’t agree with Kelly I am not sure I agree with some of the reaction either. I actually think the color of Jesus’ skin is of INCREDIBLE consequence- but not whatever it’s color was historically.

Here at Christmas time, Christians all over the world take time reflecting on the amazing miracle of the incarnation. The incarnation reminds us of the greatness of the love and kindness of a God who was willing to put on human skin for us. The fact that God would make himself more like us, would want to join us in this world, would want to become more relate-able to us is frankly awe-inspiring.

We live in a world that is not color blind. Our skin color and where we come from is an important part of our identities. Rather than spend an enormous amount of time searching for the “historical” Jesus and his true skin tone, Christmas is the time of the year to embrace a God who is willing to look like us and be with us. Let Jesus be white for white people. Let Jesus be black for black people. And let him be all the colors in between too. Doesn’t this way of thinking follow the notion of a God who “emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, and being born in human likeness.”

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The Woderful World of Mr. Rogers

If you asked me what my favorite show was growing up, I would have said Sesame Street (and when I got older I would have said the Muppet Show). I loved the muppets. In fact the first thing I remember telling people I wanted to be when I grew up was a muppeteer. I was fascinated. So it probably wouldn’t be surprising to find out that if you asked me what my least favorite show was growing up, my answer would have been Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The puppets were terrible, they all sounded the same (since most were voiced by Fred Rogers), and the show moved so slowly. My mom had me watch it often right before “rest” or “nap” time because Mr. Rogers would undoubtedly lull me into the appropriate mood.

But here’s the thing… today, I remember more episodes of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood than Sesame Street. I remember him teaching us how to make and blow giant bubbles, watching a video on how coins or robots are made, of Mr. Rogers showing different kinds of bicycles, and much more. In fact, one of the episodes I best remember was getting to see how marionettes work. For a kid fascinated with puppets, seeing how they work was much more interesting than just seeing them work.

Although I did not like Mr. Roger as a child, Mr. Roger had a great impact on me. The whole thing makes me wonder… how often are we forgetting as a society that just because we are entertained by something that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. This is especially true for what our children hear and see. A ton of children’s movies that come out these days go to great lengths to be entertaining for both kids and the parents who bring them… the same is true with kid’s TV shows. And on the one hand I appreciate this trend (since I am not bored to death in the theater with my child). But maybe I shouldn’t appreciate it as much as I do. Because ultimately, if I am “entertained” by the same thing my child is… it either says something about my maturity level or that my kids are watching something beyond theirs. I wonder how many of us in society are making the “entertainment factor” too high a value when determining what we watch, read, or listen to. I always hear people talk about what is wrong about society… It just might be us.

I’ve been watching a TV show with 3 year daughter the last couple week’s before taking her to daycare. She has been watching “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” the first spinoff from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood since his passing. It’s a cartoon, with cute animals, and more “action” than Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, yet something has remained the same. It’s still sweet and simple. The story lines aren’t complex. There is little conflict and the conflict that does happen is dealt with quickly and easily. And let me tell you… this an incredibly boring show for an adult to watch with their child!! In fact, even my daughter would tell you that she prefers the shows with fast action and glittery princesses and fairies. But when she has trouble being dropped off at daycare or sharing or getting angry… it is Daniel Tiger that has had the most impact. And I will also admit that whenever Daniel Tiger sings, “It’s you I like,”I find myself tearing up a little as well.

Behind all the cuteness and songs, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is teaching my daughter something. And I appreciate that it is not also simultaneously teaching her other “not so good things” as well. But Daniel Tiger seems to have taught me something too. I need to rethink what I am choosing to have my children watch. And maybe I need to rethink some of the things I watch I well.Image

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