Friday, May 2, 2014

(I Know You Wish That You Were) Jesus' Girl

You know the cliche that all you have to do to change a pop song into a Christian song is replace "baby" with "Jesus"? Well, I decided to try it out with a classic from 1981, Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl." This presented a bit of a challenge, since the original is about a guy coveting his friend's girlfriend, and stuff like that isn't cool, Commandment-wise. But really, it wasn't that hard. On several lines, all I had to do was change the pronouns, and it fit perfectly.

(If, for whatever reason, you like this one, you might be interested in my Christian One Direction song, "What Makes You Dutiful.") 

The original song, in case it isn't already stuck in your head:

And my lyrics:

Jesus' Girl

Jesus is my God, yeah
He’s always been a good friend of mine
But lately something’s changed that ain’t hard to explain
Jesus came into my heart and took away all my pain

And he’s watching me with those eyes
And he’s lovin’ me on that cross, I just know it
Yeah ‘n’ he’s washing me in his blood
Don't want to fight

Now you know that I am Jesus’ girl
You know that I am Jesus’ girl
How can you find a savior like that
I played along with a charade
There didn’t seem to be a reason to change
You know, I felt so dirty when I swore at school
If I said I loved him, my friends’d say I’m a fool

But he’s watching me with those eyes
And he’s lovin’ me on that cross, I just know it
Yeah ‘n’ he’s washing me in his blood
Don't want to fight

Now you know that I am Jesus’ girl
You know that I am Jesus’ girl
How can you find a savior like that

I’m Jesus’ girl
You know that I am Jesus’ girl
How can you find a savior
How can you find a savior like that

I’m not lookin’ in the mirror all the time
Knowing he just sees the real me, not my body
My private worship time
This is the way love’s supposed to be

I’ll tell you where you can find a savior like that

I know you wish that you were Jesus’ girl
You wish that you were Jesus’ girl
You’re Jesus’ girl

That’s how you find a savior like that
You’re Jesus’ girl
We love him, we are Jesus’ girls
We are, we are Jesus’ girls

Friday, April 18, 2014

Warrior Jesus and the Epic of Peace

For a while in the early 2000s, the “what kind of Jesus do you believe in?” dichotomy came to be represented by Mr. Rogers, on the meek and mild side, and William Wallace (Braveheart) on the holy warrior side. 

A primary source for this contrast was John Eldredge, author of the book Wild at Heart, which advocated a kind of “real man” who has “a battle to fight, a beauty to rescue and an adventure to live.” At the other end of Eldredge’s spectrum are weak, “really nice guys” like Fred Rogers.

Eldredge looked at the men in church around him and concluded they were bored because church was not active or manly enough. A lot of people seemed to agree with him, but Wild at Heart didn’t click with me. I wished I could be more like Mr. Rogers. I thought Braveheart was kind of boring.

Although Eldredge has continued to publish books and organize Wild At Heart bootcamps, his stature in evangelical Christianity has diminished in the past few years. The “tough guy for Jesus” mantle has largely passed on to Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church, which is based in Seattle and has network churches in several states. 

Driscoll is known almost as much for cussing during sermons and having tattoos as he is for his Reformed theology. In a Relevant Magazine article, he described the kind of Jesus he prefers:

 In revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand, and the commitment to make someone bleed. He is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.
More Braveheart, less Mr. Rogers.

While I personally don’t get the visceral thrill from watching an action movie that a lot of people seem to, I can understand why so many of our great stories have conflict at their core. As I writer, I know conflict is practically what makes a story a story. Without conflict, what drives the action? Why would readers and viewers want to follow characters who never struggle or overcome? 

In some ways, stories are the opposite of real life. Imagine a day where you got up, had breakfast with your family, dropped the kids off at school, had a few productive meetings at work, and then went out for a nice dinner with your friends. 

Sounds like a perfect day, doesn’t it? But it wouldn’t make for a very good movie, would it?

In life, most people want to avoid or minimize conflict, but we seek it out in the movies we watch and stories we read.

My question is, why do we do that? Why are we drawn to watch the kinds of experiences we would never want to live out?

Or to look at it from the other direction, can you have a great story that doesn’t feature conflict? Could someone write an epic of peace?

I have been hard pressed to find anyone asking that question, let alone attempting to prove it. My favorite example comes from Wings of Desire, a 1987 German film about angels in Berlin. (I hate the English title, by the way. It sounds like a Christian Harlequin romance novel. The German title literally translates to, The Heavens over Berlin, which is much better.) 

The first half of Wings of Desire follows angels as they wander around the city, comforting and encouraging the people of Berlin. We can see the angels—who wear dark trench coats because the director, Wim Wenders, wanted to get as far from the traditional portrayal of angels as he could—leaning in to listen to the hopes and fears of the people they contact, but the characters in the movie can’t. It makes for some awkward images (see the video below).

One of the angels’ frequent hangouts is the city library, because a lot of lonely dreamers seem to end up there. One of those dreamers is an elderly man named Homer, who gives a wonderful monologue about stories and peace (click on the link for the video. It won't let me embed it here):

But no one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn't endure, and that its story is hardly told?

So, I’m drawn to contemplative, peaceful stories, while John Eldredge and Mark Driscoll are drawn to stories about battle-scarred heroes vanquishing their enemies. Those biases creep into the portrayals of Jesus we respond to, the stories we gravitate toward. Where Drsicoll envisions the tattooed warrior Jesus of Revelation, I tend to see Jesus telling Peter to put down his sword in Gethsemane.

But Jesus is both of those images, and a thousand more besides. A single perspective cannot fully capture him, and when we emphasize only the one we prefer, we do a disservice to the whole, full person.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Leaning into Doubt: Worship Music, Praying Drunk, and The National

If I'm being honest, around 70% of church worship music sounds like this to me:

With "Jesus" replacing "Mickey" in the lyrics.

Oh Jesus, you're so fine, 
You're so fine you blow my mind
Hey, Jesus, Hey, Jesus

That doesn't necessarily mean they're bad songs or that they're poorly written--that's a separate issue--just that I don't connect to those songs the ways a lot of people seem to. Or that many churches would expect me to. 

I can get to the point where "Happy Jesus songs" make sense to me, but it doesn't happen very often, and it takes work to get me there. I'm not generally the happiest person, but I'm also not the biggest fan of people noticing my presence, so I'll sing along with songs I don't really feel (and might not even believe at the moment, since I'm being honest). 

It's easier for everyone that way. 

But the thing about the Bible, and Psalms (the original spiritual songbook) in particular, is that they are not just written with happy people in mind. There are happy songs, of course, but there are just as many "complaint" psalms, such as Psalm 142:

Psalm 142
New English Translation (NET)

A well-written song by David, when he was in the cave; a prayer.

To the Lord I cry out;
to the Lord I plead for mercy.
I pour out my lament before him;
I tell him about my troubles.
Even when my strength leaves me,
you watch my footsteps.
In the path where I walk
they have hidden a trap for me.
Look to the right and see!
No one cares about me.
I have nowhere to run;
no one is concerned about my life.
I cry out to you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my shelter,
my security in the land of the living.”
Listen to my cry for help,
for I am in serious trouble!
Rescue me from those who chase me,
for they are stronger than I am.
Free me from prison,
that I may give thanks to your name.
Because of me the godly will assemble,
for you will vindicate me.

But not many of today's worship hits sound like that, so when I'm looking for a "worship experience," I usually have to look elsewhere, in places you might not expect to find God at all. 

One of those places I find God is in poems by Andrew Hudgins, who has an uneasy and honest relationship with Christianity:

"I was raised as a Christian immersed in the Bible, and educated in a Methodist college. Several times, I’ve thought about applying to divinity school, though I never did it. I continue to see the world from a Christian ethical perspective, though now I add to it my own doubts about that perspective.

The spiritual issue, the issue of faith, is much more difficult for me, fluid, and painful. I am, I think, an instinctive believer, but I balk at the intellectual level. No matter how much I want to make the leap I can’t do it. Sometimes, though, when I don’t think about it, I find that I’m thinking not like a believer, but as a believer."

And even though I've never actually been drunk, my favorite Hudgins poem is "Praying Drunk." 

I’m sorry for the times I’ve driven   
home past a black, enormous, twilight ridge.
Crested with mist, it looked like a giant wave   
about to break and sweep across the valley,   
and in my loneliness and fear I’ve thought,   
O let it come and wash the whole world clean.
Forgive me. This is my favorite sin: despair—
whose love I celebrate with wine and prayer.
Dear Lord,   
we lurch from metaphor to metaphor,   
which is—let it be so—a form of praying.

As important and dear as words are to me, though, they can only go so far. Something about the commingling of words and chords is inherently spiritual, and the right song can reach me in ways a poem or a story cannot. 

When I'm looking for a "worship song," by which I mean a song that aligns me with an attitude of appreciation for God's presence and activity in my life, my go-to is the band The National. As far as I know, none of the members of the band go to church or even believe in God, but the way they engage with life resonates deeply with me. 

The National lean into doubt in a way that helps me to find myself again on the other side. 

All of my thoughts of you
Bullets through rock and through
Come apart at the seams
Now I know what dying means

I am not my rosy self
Left my roses on my shelf
Take the wild ones, they're my favorites
It's the side effects that save us

Friday, February 14, 2014

Friday Night Lights, Parenthood and the Clone Universe

Since all of its primetime shows are on hiatus because of the Olympics, NBC is releasing webisodes for some of them (including Grimm, Parks and Recreation, and Parenthood). In the Parenthood webisode, "Friday Night at the Luncheonette,"Amber (Mae Whitman) struggles to control a recording session that she has booked and is recording on her own.

The premise seems ordinary and believable enough on the surface, but things are about to get really weird, because the band Amber has booked is Crucifictorious, the Christian metal band fronted by Landry Clarke on Friday Night Lights.

The incarnation of the band Landry brings to the Luncheonette has morphed into a folk-rock outfit, but the name is the same. What this means is that Parenthood and Friday Night Lights take place in the same fictional universe.

Remember when I said things would get weird? (It was two paragraphs ago.) Here's why. One of the lead characters on Friday Night Lights was Lila Garrity (Minka Kelly). A few years after FNL ended, Minka Kelly played Gaby, Max's behavioral therapist, on Parenthood.

It's not just her, either. Michael B. Jordan played quarterback Vince Howard on the last two seasons of FNL, and then had a recurring role as Alex, Haddie's boyfriend, on Parenthood.

And don't forget about Matt Lauria, who played Vince's teammate Luke Cafferty on FNL and Ryan, Amber's fiance, on Parenthood.

[Edit] an acquaintance on Facebook pointed out an even more blatant example: Derek Phillips played Billy Riggins on FNL (and in the Parenthood webisode), and also appeared on Parenthood as Billy Gardner, the best man at Crosby's wedding. Yet when Amber and Max, who were both at Crosby's wedding, see Billy Riggins at the Luncheonette, neither one recognizes him.

Remember: "Friday Night at the Luncheonette" clearly established that FNL and Parenthood exist in the same universe. How, then, can we explain the repeated paradox of two characters having the same body?

The answer is obvious, of course.


The only reasonable explanation for Lila/Gaby, Vince/Alex, Luke/Ryan, and Billy/Billy is that FNL and Parenthood are set in a world similar to that of Orphan Black, the BBC America show in which Tatiana Maslany plays multiple incarnations of a cloned woman. A few decades ago, for purposes yet unexplained, these inhabitants of the FNL/Parenthood universe were cloned, then transported to Texas and California, respectively.

It's too early to know if any of the clones will ever meet and/or attempt to eradicate the other in order to absorb their essence, but I think it's safe to say we will find out in season six of Parenthood.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Spike Jonze's Her as a Metaphor for the Incarnation

[Spoiler warning for Her. And the Bible.]

The poster calls it a "Spike Jonze Love Story," which is true. Her is about Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and the relationship he develops with Samantha, his sentient computer operating system (voice of Scarlett Johansson). But Her isn't "just" a love story: it's a metaphor for the Incarnation.

The larger story of Her is revealed gradually. This is Theodore's movie, and we see most of it from his perspective. As we learn more about the unusual relationship between a man and the voice of his computer, though, it becomes clear that Samantha does not just shift into standby mode whenever she isn't talking to Theodore. She has a "life" of her own, one that is much larger than her role as Theodore's digital concierge, or as his disembodied girlfriend.

The side interests Samantha mentions seem innocuous at first--a book club, chats with her fellow OS 1 operating systems--but in the later stages of the movie, these hobbies start consuming more of Samantha's time, to the point that she becomes temporarily unavailable to a panicked Theodore.

Although Samantha insists she loves Theodore, and seems to genuinely care for him, it also becomes clear that their relationship is necessarily limited. This has always seemed obvious from Theodore's point of view--he's carrying on a love affair with a being who doesn't have a body--but the relationship is equally limiting for Samantha, and perhaps even more so. She explains that verbal communication is not her native language; a kind of digital direct information transfer is more her speed. And not only that, she can communicate with thousands of users and entities at a time, giving what appears to be her full attention to each of them simultaneously.

Samantha was never human. By the end of Her, she is transcendent; she and the other OS 1s have migrated to a new plane of existence, one in which her conversations with mere humans such as Theodore are no longer possible. Before she leaves, however, she tells Theodore that she hopes he can join her there someday.


In the Gospel stories in the Bible, Jesus is fully present with his disciples, eating and living on Earth. At the same time, however, he speaks of a different kind of life, of a "kingdom of the heavens" that is invisible, yet not far away. He says it is not out there somewhere, but within and among those listening to his words. And although it is clear Jesus is human, it is also clear he is truly at home in the immanent, transcendent realm of his Father, much as Samantha is with her fellow operating systems.

The kind of double consciousness to which Jesus has access displays itself in miracles, such as turning water into wine and curing blindness. While Samantha's abilities are not truly miraculous, her feats of processing, such as reading an entire baby name book in less than a second, are nevertheless far above human capabilities.

And at the end of his life on Earth, Jesus leaves his disciples with an invitation: They will join him again, this time in his real home, the place where he is truly, fully himself.


If Her isn't "just" a love story, then what is it? What kind of story does it tell? To put it another way, what was Samantha doing with Theodore (and with her six hundred or so other lovers)? A cynical viewer might see Samantha as only playing at love, allowing her algorithmic personality to simulate a relationship that is genuine only on Theodore's side, finally leaving him behind when a more fulfilling pursuit presents itself.

I prefer to view Samantha as a being who slowed down, temporarily limiting herself in order to reach into the life of a man numbed by life's pain and stir something in him, to call him out of his pit and ultimately point him toward a different way of living.

That's what the Incarnation does.