Saturday, February 11, 2017

Lego Batman and Belonging!

I’ve been absent from the blog-o-sphere for quite a while and can’t wait to share what I’ve been working on in my absence. But for now, I just had to write a quick reaction and reflection on the Lego Batman Movie, which I saw last night with my wife and SIX kids (three of ours and three of their friends).

As anticipated, Lego Batman, is clever, creative and crackles with childlike energy. The creators packed in tons of bad guys, battles, explosions, bombs, weapons, destruction, and general mayhem. I especially loved the endless stream of winks and nods to previous incarnations of DC’s superheroes and literally pumped my first when Robin whipped out a can of Bat-Shark Repellant! Surprisingly, however, the movie also worked in some heart-tugging emotional moments amidst the frenzied, fast-paced fun.

The story centers on Batman’s struggle to belong. Early in the movie he declares, “Batman doesn't do ships. As in, relationships. There is no us... I don't need you. I don't need anyone. You mean nothing to me. No one does.” He repeatedly reminds his fellow crime-fighters, “Batman works alone.” But, inwardly, Batman wrestles with his loneliness. He eats dinner alone in his enormous mansion. He spends time staring forlorn at pictures of his parents, who he lost as a young boy. At one point, he even shows up unannounced at a Justice League Anniversary party to which he wasn’t invited and feels the sting of rejection. Alfred, Batman’s faithful butler, diagnoses Bruce’s problem, saying, “Your greatest fear is being part of a family again.” The tragic loss of his parents prevents Bruce from opening up and allowing others into his life.

I’ve long seen Batman as a bit of a parable; a reminder that you and I aren’t meant to live lonely lives. Rather, God formed us for family. As I write in my book, Holy Heroes: The Gospel According to DC & Marvel:

All of us need a place to belong. All of us need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. All of us need to experience family and fellowship. Going to church is not primarily about worship. You can worship God at home from the comfort of your recliner, or behind the wheel of your car, or while kneeling at your bedside. Church is primarily about family. The Bible uses a lot of metaphors to describe the church, but the most persistent is family. In the New Testament, believers call one another “brother” and “sister.” Scripture describes our “adoption” as children of God (Romans 8:14-15). The church is called the “household” of God. The Bible says, “Now you … are not foreigners or strangers any longer, but are citizens together with God’s holy people. You belong to God’s family” (Ephesians 2:19, NCV).
Over the course of the movie, Batman gives himself a pretty hard look, eventually realizing that he can't do everything by himself and that working with a team and having a family is more fun and fulfilling than going it alone. The same is true for you. Maybe there’s a pew in your home church worn in the shape of your bottom. Maybe you’re as comfortable in your church family as you are in your favorite pajamas. On the other hand, maybe it’s been a while since you darkened a church doorstep. Maybe you’ve never felt the blessing of belonging to something as big as the family of God. Batman may be a Master-Builder with seriously ripped abs, but even he doesn’t do it alone. Likewise, God doesn’t just call us to believe; He calls us to belong. The entire Bible is the story of God building a family that will support, strengthen, and stir one another up to love and good works for all eternity. And He created you to be a part of it!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Dr. Strange: It's Not About You!

This week I returned to Marvel Theater to re-watch Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Doctor Strange, this time with my son. I’m still mentally sorting through all the spiritual life-lessons packed into this film. Last week I wrote about Steven Strange’s lack of faith. But another aspect of this movie stood out to me as well.

Before he started wearing a donning a supernatural cape, Dr. Strange wears surgical scrubs. Blessed with a photographic memory and gifted with a set of amazingly steady hands, Strange fixes all manner of brain and spine ailments better than anyone else in the world. After an emergency procedure where Strange removes a bullet from a man’s brain and simultaneously humiliates a rival surgeon, Strange invites his one-time love interest Christine Palmer to attend one of his upcoming speaking engagements. Christine dismisses the notion, but Strange persists, "You used to love coming to those things. We had fun together." Christine replies, "No, you had fun. They weren't about us, they were about you." Strange answers, "Not only about me." Christine caps the conversation, saying, “Steven, everything is about you.”

Toward the end of the movie, Steven still struggles with this self-seeking mentality. His spiritual tutor, the Ancient One, tells Strange, “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.” Steven asks, “Which is?” And the Ancient One replies, “It's not about you.”

Pastor Rick Warren agrees. In the opening line of his best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, Warren writes, “It’s not about you.” He continues, “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”

Many of us fall into the same trap as Steven Strange. We’re me-focused. Self-centered. Self-absorbed. Self-serving. Self-involved. Me. Me. Me. Too many of us feel as though “the world revolves around me.” Scripture warns us, however, “Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall” (Proverbs 16:16 NLT). Or, in the case of Strange, pride goes before a horrific car crash in your Lamborghini.

The truth is—it’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s all about Jesus! God wants us to stop living self-centered, self-focused lives. He wants us to stop making a big deal about ourselves and start making a big deal about Jesus! Tapping the collective shoulder of humanity, God points to Christ and proclaims, “Behold the center of it all.” Life makes so much more sense when Jesus is at the center.

In our search for satisfaction and significance in life, let’s heed the words of the Ancient One and learn the simplest most significant lesson of all: It’s not about you!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Dr. Strange: Seeing is Believing

My wife and I went on an honest-to-goodness date this weekend to see Marvel’s newest movie, Doctor Strange, and it did not disappoint. In addition to being visually stunning, the movie tells a compelling story about a scientist turned sorcerer.

Just as in the comics, Dr. Steven Strange is a renowned neurosurgeon, a man of science and medicine, until a terrible car accident robs him of the use of his hands. When traditional medicine fails him, he desperately searches for healing and hope from a mysterious group of monks in Kathmandu, Nepal. After learning that their methods are more mystical than medicinal, Strange asserts his unbelief. “I don’t believe in fairy tales,” Strange bemoans. “There is no such thing as a spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more! You're just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe. ”

Strange changes his tone, however, when a powerful sorcerer called the Ancient One forces him into the astral dimension —a spiritual realm where the soul exists apart from the body. After seeing the evidence for himself, Strange humbly drops to his knees and pleads, “Teach me.”

If anyone can relate to Doctor Strange’s “conversion” it’s Thomas. History remembers him as “doubting Thomas.” When the rest of Jesus’s followers claimed to have seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion, Thomas refused to believe. “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands—and put my fingers into them—and place my hand into his side” (John 20:25 TLB).

Thomas changes his tone, however, when Jesus appeared again eight days laterl. Turning to Thomas, Jesus invites, “Put your finger into my hands. Put your hand into my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!” (John 20:27 TLB). After seeing the evidence for himself, Thomas humbly drops to his knees and confesses, “My Lord and my God!”

Many of us can relate to Thomas and Steven’s skepticism. Materialists like Strange, believe there is nothing more to the universe than matter—nothing supernatural, nothing spiritual, and certainly no God. They are either unable or unwilling to believe in anything they cannot see. In his infinite grace, Jesus continues to provide the evidence we need.

Christian apologists like Dr. William Lane Craig, Dr. John Lennox and others have aptly demonstrated how cosmology, physics, morality, and the resurrection of Christ, provide powerful evidence for the existence of God and the deity of Jesus Christ. Countless skeptics have become believers after seeing the evidence for themselves.

After offering Thomas the evidence he so desperately needed, though, Jesus offers a bit of wisdom: “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” (John 20:29 NLT). In other words, while there’s nothing wrong with being skeptical or seeking evidence, we don’t always have to see to believe. People often say, “seeing is believing.” But in God’s economy there is a peace and blessedness that comes from having an open mind and a heart of faith. Jesus’s words to Thomas may as well be his words to you and me: “Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”

Monday, October 31, 2016

Supergirl: Powers & Prejudice

Supergirl is quickly becoming my favorite television show. In the first two episodes following her move from CBS to the CW, Supergirl introduced a warm, charming, and inspiring version of the Man of Steel that far outshines his cinematic counterpart. I could easily write a whole essay on why the CW’s Superman is better in every way than Zach Snyder’s interpretation, but this post is about Supergirl not Superman.

The most recent episode of Supergirl, titled Welcome to Earth, touches on some very relevant and relatable themes—specifically, the issue of immigration and personal prejudices. The story centers around the arrival of the President (played by Wonder Woman actress, Linda Carter), who plans to sign an executive order granting America’s extraterrestrial visitors amnesty and even full citizenship. As you might expect, the Alien Amnesty Act is a pretty divisive issue. Kara gets very excited about it, but J’onn J'onzz (The Martian Manhunter) remains pessimistic about the prospect of aliens stepping out the shadows. “People in this world don’t have much tolerance for others who look different,” says J’onn. “I say that as an alien and as someone who wore the face of a black man for 15 years.”

When an alien assassin makes an attempt on the President’s life, Kara’s own prejudices rise to the surface. Her first suspect is an alien named Mon-El (Lar Gand actually, but that’s a long story). When Supergirl discovers that Mon-El hails from the planet Daxam, she explains that Krypton and Daxam used to clash because of their differing ways of life. While Krypton was a democracy, Daxam was a monarchy that “ruled a population of hoodlums.” Thus, she immediately assumes he attacked the president. Only after wrongfully imprisoning Mon-El does Supergirl discover and defeat the actual attacker—a fire-manipulating villain named Scorcher.

This episode serves as a social commentary, highlighting real problems and prejudices in our own culture. Of course, America isn’t the first nation to struggle with racial tension. Prejudice and discrimination, in varying forms and to various degrees, has plagued humanity for thousands of years.

Racism and oppression littered the world of the New Testament. In the mind of a first-century Jew, Gentiles (Africans, Romans, Greeks, Syrians, Asians, etc.) were created to fuel the fires of hell. When a Jew called a Gentile “uncircumcised,” he spit it. It was a name of profound contempt. If a Jewish person married a Gentile, the Jewish parents held a funeral service for their child. In their eyes, their child was dead.

On the flip side, Gentiles regarded Jews to be sub-human. Historically, the Jews have been an oppressed people, living under the thumb of one Gentile nation after another (e.g., Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome). In all of human history, there has never been so much animosity, hatred, and violence between two groups of people as there has been between the Jew and the Gentile.

Yet, here’s what the Bible says about this division: “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us… He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups” (Ephesians 2:14-15 NLT).

In other words, Jesus intended the church to be a community free of discrimination, prejudice and hostility where we are called to “accept each other just as Christ has accepted” us (Romans 15:7 NLT). Again, the Bible says, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NLT).

All forms of racism, prejudice, and discrimination are affronts to the work of Christ on the cross. The church ought to be a place of acceptance for people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. And Christians ought to work to eliminate bigotry and bias in our communities and country.

After defeating Scorcher, Supergirl releases Mon-El from his cell, confessing, “I don’t know you at all and it was a mistake of me to misjudge you just because you’re from Daxam. You didn’t try to kill the President and I apologize for assuming you did.” She then extends her hand in friendship. We all ought to follow in Supergirl’s footsteps, admitting and apologizing for our prejudices then trying our best (with the help of Christ) to overcome them.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Green with Evil

I just watched the teaser trailer for the new Power Rangers movie and I can barely contain my excitement. I was twelve years old when the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television series first aired and immediately became a life-long fan. I loved all of the original cast: Jason—the Red Ranger, Kimberly—the Pink Ranger, Billy—the Blue Ranger, Zack—the Black Ranger, and Trini—the Yellow Ranger. My favorite character, however, didn’t join the cast until part way through the first season. In a five-episode story arc title Green with Evil, fans were introduced to Tommy Oliver—the Green Ranger.

At first, Tommy isn’t a Power Ranger. In fact, he’s neither a hero nor a villain. He’s simply an ordinary teenager attending Angel Grove High School. However, thanks to his remarkable martial arts skills, Tommy catches the eye of the evil empress Rita Repulsa, the Power Rangers’ arch villainess. Rita kidnaps Tommy, puts him under her spell, and transforms him into the Evil Green Ranger dedicated to the destruction of the Power Rangers.

After infiltrating and ransacking the team’s Command Center, the Green Ranger bests the other Rangers in battle, sending them in retreat back to their damaged headquarters. Once the Power Rangers discover the Green Ranger’s secret identity, however, they reach out to Tommy as a friend and fellow student, helping him to overcome Rita’s evil influence. Finally coming to his senses, Tommy penitently wonders aloud, “What have I done?”

“What you did, you did under Rita’s influence,” Jason responds. “You own the power now. Fight by our side and we can defeat Rita.”

“After everything that’s happened?” Tommy doubts.

“Tommy we need you. It’s where you belong,” Jason assures his fellow Ranger. Then, extending a friendly hand, Jason invites, “Will you join us, Tommy?” With a nod and a handshake Tommy’s life changed course. Together, the Power Rangers foiled Rita Repulsa’s evil plans and saved the citizens of Angel Grove.

I can’t help but notice some spiritual parallels in Tommy’s tale.

Just as Rita’s evil influence clouded Tommy’s mind and corrupted his morals, sin has a similar effect on us. The Bible describes sin’s influence, saying, “Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:18-19 NLT). Sin closes our minds and corrupts our morals. It leads us down a destructive path away from God’s goodness and grace. We all wrestle with sin and sometimes surrender to its seductive influence. Thankfully, however, we are not alone in our battle.

Just as the Power Rangers reached out to Tommy, confronting him and helping him to overcome Rita’s grasp, close Christian friends can do the same for us. The Bible says, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20 NIV). It’s our responsibility as brothers and sisters in Christ to watch out for each other, to keep one another accountable, and help each other conquer the sins that so easily beset us. Through the encouragement and help of close Christian friends, we can foil Satan’s evil schemes and experience true victory in Jesus!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Gods of Metal

While piddling around on YouTube the other day, I came across a video titled Everything Great About Avengers: Age of Ultron which prompted me to rewatch the movie. As the video points out, there is lots to love about this movie—so many great moments both laugh-out-loud and stand-up-and-cheer. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the movie, though, is the titular villain—Ultron.
Since his first appearance in Avengers #54 (1968), Ultron has evolved into one of the greatest villains in the Marvel Universe. Originally created by Hank Pym (aka Ant-Man) as an artificial intelligence programmed to achieve peace and order in the world, Ultron concludes, “Humanity is inherently flawed. Observation and analysis suggest humanity is encoded with chaotic and violent tendencies that cannot be overcome” (Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes; Season 1, Episode 22). Thus, Ultron sets out to usher in peace and oder by ridding the world of humanity.
In the film version, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner team up to create Ultron for similar purposes. But, just as in previous incarnations, Ultron redefines his programming and seeks to remake the world in his image. Rarely have I seen a villain with such a penchant for biblical allusions.
When he comes face to face with the Avengers, Ultron greets only one of our heroes with sarcastic disdain: “Captain America-God’s righteous man.” Ultron means this as an insult, but he’s actually correct (remember Cap’s memorable line: “There’s only one God ma’am. And I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.”).
In another scene, when Ultron lays claim to a chunk of precious, indestructible vibranium, he quotes Jesus, saying, “Upon this rock, I will build my church.”
Later, Ultron assures Wanda and Pietro, “The human race will have every opportunity to improve.” Doubtful, Pietro questions, “And if they don’t?” Ultron answers, “Ask Noah… When the earth starts to settle God throws a stone at it. And believe me—he’s winding up.” Ultron sees humanity as wayward, self-destructive and in need of a good cleansing. The mechanical monster seems to frame himself as a wrathful deity—a creative being who wants to work with a blank slate.
To me, this latest incarnation of Ultron (and perhaps all previous ones as well) represents the dangers of making for ourselves “gods cast of metal” (Leviticus 19:4). Wittingly or not, Tony Stark created for himself a false god—a god in whom he placed his trust. Obviously, that trust was misplaced. All too often, we make the same mistake. False gods come in many forms—money, power, fame, possessions, sex, drugs, whiskey, even the god of self. Anything that takes the place of the One True God in our hearts and lives becomes a god of our own making. And it always ends badly.
Fortunately, we have a couple resources for dethroning these lesser gods.
The first is Scripture. In Avengers #68 (1969), Ultron experiences one of his greatest defeats. When Ultron tries to pry a pivotal piece of information from Ant-Man’s mind, the hero crashes Ultron’s positronic brain by focusing his thoughts on a single phrase, repeated over and over in his mind. Ultron cries, “My mind… filling with thoughts I cannot bear! No! I was prepared to receive any scientific formula… any arcane knowledge… but not this… not this!” When his fellow Avengers ask Ant-Man what phrase caused the mechanical menace to overload, Hank Pym replies, “A simple phrase, Avengers… and an ancient one… ‘thou shalt not kill.’” That’s right! The words of Scripture (the Ten Commandment to be exact) enabled Ant-Man to vanquish this “god cast of metal.” And, like Ant-Man, we always have the Word of God at our disposal. By focusing our thoughts on Scripture, we can avoid settling for lesser gods.
Furthermore, we have the church. Early in the film, Ultron visits a church. “This church is in the exact center of the city,” he explains. “The elders decreed it so that everyone could be equally close to God.” Fittingly, it’s in this same church where the Avengers battle Ultron’s minions in the movie’s climactic conclusion. But remember, the church isn’t a place… it’s people. When Ultron asks, “How do you hope to stop me?” Iron Man nods to Captain America and replies, “Like the old man said—together!” The same is true for us. The church is the center of it all. Together—working side by side, hand in hand—we can keep each other accountable and overthrow the gods of this world.

In the Old Testament, whenever Israel repented and returned to the Lord, they would destroy all of their carved statues and metal idols and tear down all of their altars. Maybe it’s time for us to do the same. What “gods cast of metal” do you need to tear down?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Ghost Rider's Adversary & Advocate

I’ve recently taken an interest in Marvel’s Ghost Rider. I’m in the planning stages for a Ghost Rider costume, I picked up a stack of Ghost Rider comic books at a local comic show yesterday, and I got super excited when I heard that Ghost Rider will be a major character in Agents of SHIELD season 4. I even re-watched the 2008 Ghost Rider movie the other night… it was still terrible. Nonetheless, Ghost Rider’s character has really piqued my interest.

For those unfamiliar with Ghost Rider, John Blaze was born into a world of motorcycle grease and cheering crowds. The adopted son of a motorcycle stuntman, Craig “Crash” Simpson, Johnny always dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps… or tread marks. This dream came to a fiery end when Crash revealed he was dying of cancer. Distraught and lacking any sort of spiritual foundation, Johnny turned to the occult in search of answers. His studies ultimately led to a spell that could summon Satan himself and Johnny literally made a deal with the devil. Satan promised to cure Crash’s cancer in return for Johnny's promise of servitude. Soon afterward, Crash died in a tragic motorcycle accident during a stunt show, but Satan held Johnny to their deal transforming him into a leather-clad skeleton with a flaming skull and fiery chopper. Of course, Johnny refuses to do Satan’s bidding and instead uses his power as Ghost Rider to punish evildoers and wage war against Satan’s demons.

I think what first attracted me to the character was my discovery that Jesus loves Ghost Rider. In Ghost Rider #9, a story written by Tony Isabella in 1973, the “hell-bound hero” rides into his first fearful showdown with Satan. As the battle reaches its climactic conclusion, Ghost Rider finds himself completely outmatched and at the mercy of Satan. But just before Satan can deliver a devastating blow, a mysterious stranger (who bears a striking resemblance to Jesus) comes to Ghost Rider’s defense. “Let me help you up, Johnny,” the stranger says extending a kind hand. “No! No!” Satan cries. Turning to Satan, the stranger declares, “Johnny Blaze’s soul is beyond you, Satan! He has earned his second chance!” Without throwing a single punch or energy blast, the stranger saves that day as the devil tucks his pointed tail between his legs and runs away.

While the stranger is nameless, the imagery is certainly biblical—Jesus helping a sinner to his feet and standing up to Satan on his behalf. Something else this “Jesus” says seems deeply true: “No man lives his life without contending with you several times, Satan.”

While he may not have red skin, horns and a cape, Satan is a very real enemy. This means, like Johnny Blaze, you are engaged in a spiritual battle whether you want to be or not. It’s a battle between good and evil, and you are the prize! Satan’s target is your spirit. Scripture describes Satan as an angelic being who fell from heaven due to pride and sin and is now completely opposed to God, doing all in his power to thwart God's purposes and tempt God’s people. The devil will do everything he can to undermine your relationship with God. He’ll attack your reputation in order to corrupt your witness. He’ll target your marriage. He’ll steal your peace, your passion, and your sense of purpose. He will do whatever it takes to destroy your faith and your future. The Bible warns, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8 NLT).

Thankfully, as illustrated by Ghost Rider’s encounter with Christ, Satan may be our adversary but Jesus is our advocate. Any time Satan knocks us down, Jesus will be there to help us up. When we put our faith and future in the hands of Jesus, all Satan can do is tuck tail and run away (James 4:7).