Bill Withers and Biblical Interpretation

This post is less “directly” BibPopCult than normal, but it’ll get there.
Bill Withers, the Grammy-winning singer and song-writer died earlier this week, and that loss is stirring up lots of memories for me. Most poignant is from almost twenty years ago, when Withers was the soundtrack for game nights with family friends. We listened over and over as we played and talked and raised our kids. (I can still see, in my mind’s eye, my three-year-old son breaking it down, dancing to “Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)” in the living room.)

Withers has long been one of my favorites, from the songs everybody knows even if they don’t know that they were by Withers (like “Lean on Me” and “Just the Two of Us”) to the ones that, to me, were definitive of his style (“Grandma’s Hands” and “Harlem”), he was fantastic.

During my time teaching biblical studies at the college level I often used music as a way of introducing students to task of interpretation. Not just when we got to the Psalms, to get into the often daunting (to many) prospect of reading and interpreting poetry (which students often think they can’t do), but to one of the basic traps inherent in interpreting any written text—the desire to get at authorial intent, what it is the original author had in mind, and therefore what the text “really means.”

One of my favorite ways of getting into the problem of that sort of interpretive stance, was to play my favorite song by Withers, “Use Me.” We would listen to the song, and then I would ask the students to talk about Withers intent, asking what he was singing about. If you don’t know the song, listen to it (here) and make your interpretive guess (or see some of the lyrics below).

What is it about? Clearly, it’s about a relationship, and probably with a woman. Right?

Wrong. The song is about the music business, and Withers’ relationship with his record company. Which begs the question, if one hears it and doesn’t know the author’s intent, can the song still be about a woman, if that is what the listener experiences? This in turn gets into the question of polyvalence of how texts can create meaning. This is both wonderful, and troubling, but it is, I think, central to the task of interpretation.
Other songs do this too—like Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song,” or Daryl Hall and John Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That”—but I almost always used Withers, because “Use Me” is just such a great song. And because who wouldn’t want to listen to this…

My friends feel it’s their appointed duty
They keep trying to tell me all you want to do is use me
But my answer yeah to all that use me stuff
Is I want to spread the news that if it feels this good getting used
Oh you just keep on using me until you use me up
Until you use me up
My brother sit me right down and he talked to me
He told me that I ought not to let you just walk on me
And I’m sure he meant well yeah but when our talk was through
I said brother if you only knew you’d wish that you were in my shoes
You just keep on using me until you use me up
Until you use me up

The Bible and Star Trek: First Contact From Jean-Luc Picard to King Jeroboam

Prepare for a deep dive into dorkdom.

Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic (even in these earliest days of Minnesota’s shelter-in-place mandate) I’ve watched a few old-school movies. One such guilty pleasure was Star Trek: First Contact (1996).

(If one can have a spoiler alert for a 24-year old movie, here it is: *spoiler alert*.)

Star Trek: First Contact is the story of the Borg’s (cyborgs, not Swedes) journey to the past in order to defeat and assimilate the human race in the past.

In response, the Enterprise and her crew, following the Borg through a temporal wake, struggle to defeat the Borg, and ensure the safe launch of Earth’s first warp-capable ship and the following “first contact” with an alien, the Vulcans.

It is, classic Star Trek fun, and (believe it or not) an entry to the Old Testament.

For my money, the best scene in the film comes in an exchange between Captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard), a human from Earth’s past.

The Enterprise itself is about to be overrun by the Borg, and the crew has urged Picard to start the ship’s self-destruct. Picard refuses, wanting to stay and fight the Borg, preserving both the Enterprise and the Earth.

The scene goes like this:

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Six years ago, [the Borg] assimilated me into their collective. I had their cybernetic devices implanted throughout my body. I was linked to the hive mind. Every trace of individuality erased. I was one of them. So you can imagine, my dear, I have a somewhat unique perspective on the Borg, and I know how to fight them. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.

Lily Sloane: I am such an idiot. It’s so simple. The Borg HURT you, and now you’re going to HURT them back!

Picard: In my century, we don’t succumb to revenge. We have a more evolved sensibility.

Sloane: BULLSHIT! I saw the look your face when you shot those Borg on the Holodeck. You were almost ENJOYING it!

Picard: How dare you.

Sloane: Oh, come on, Captain. You’re not the first man to get a thrill out of murdering someone! I see it all the time!

Picard: GET OUT!

Sloane: Or what? You’ll kill me, like you killed Ensign Lynch?

Picard: There was no way to save him.

Sloane: You didn’t even try! Where was your evolved sensibility then?

Picard: I don’t have time for this.

Sloane: Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt your little quest. Captain Ahab has to go hunt his whale!

Picard: What?

Sloane: You do have books in the 24th century.

Picard: This is not about revenge.

Sloane: LIAR!

Picard: This is about saving the future of humanity!

Sloane: Jean Luc, blow up the damn ship!

Picard: No! Noooooooooo!

[Turning, he smashes a glass case and the models of the Enterprise kept inside.]

Picard: I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We’ve made too many compromises already; too many retreats. They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further! And I will make them pay for what they’ve done!

Sloane: You broke your little ships. [A long silent pause.]

Sloane: See you around, Ahab.

Picard: “And he piled upon the whale’s white hump, the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.”

Sloane: What?

Picard: Moby Dick.

Sloane: Actually, I never read it.

Picard: Ahab spent years, hunting the white whale that crippled him. A quest for vengeance. But, in the end, it destroyed him, and his ship.

Sloane: I guess he didn’t know when to quit.

Sloane calls Picard “Ahab,” and in so doing, shakes him out of his own blindness to his need for vengeance, a vengeance which will bring destruction not only to Picard himself, but to his ship and to the Earth.

Now to the Bible. Sloane calls Picard Ahab, referencing Moby Dick. Melville named his main character Ahab, after the biblical King Ahab. And the biblical Ahab is, to put it lightly, a troubled and troublesome figure.

Micah 6, which calls the people of Israel to covenant faithfulness, in those well-known terms,

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

In my church, we love those verses. They are almost as beloved as John 3:16. Probably more by certain folks.

But what is often overlooked is that the justice, kindness, and humility that God requires of us is set within a very specific context, in which Israel is condemned. Check out Micah 6:16,

16 For you have kept the statutes of Omri
and all the works of the house of Ahab,
and you have followed their counsels.
Therefore I will make you a desolation, and your inhabitants an object of hissing;
so you shall bear the scorn of my people.

What, you may ask, are the “statutes of Omri,” and “all the works of the house of Ahab”? You probably don’t know off the top of your head, most people won’t. And, most of the time, we don’t bother to chase down those things down.

So, here is what we learn 1 Kings 16

30 Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.

Ahab, did evil, more even than his father. And what do we learn about Omri?

25 Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did more evil than all who were before him. 26 For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam son of Nebat….

Now, who is Jeroboam and what is his “way”? You may remember that little kerfuffle with the Golden Calves. If not, here it is in 1 Kings 12,

25 Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and resided there; he went out from there and built Penuel. 26 Then Jeroboam said to himself, “Now the kingdom may well revert to the house of David. 27 If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn again to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah.” 28 So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 29 He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin, for the people went to worship before the one at Bethel and before the other as far as Dan.

The way of Jeroboam, followed by Omri and Ahab … and Captain Ahab … and Captain Picard. Now there is a tour deforce BibPopCult dorkdom.

I hope you’ve enjoyed.

Now go wash your hands.

The One Who Is to Come…with the Dawn

It is nothing new to observe that The Lord of the Rings trilogy is filled with Christ figures. This is commonplace. Much gets made of how sacrifice, weakness, and death (not to mention compassion, mercy, and love) in many of the characters lead to life, strength, and victory. The primary examples are usually Frodo, Aragorn, and, of course, Gandalf. 

While it may seem a strange connection to some (ok, probably most), when Advent rolls around each year I find myself drawn back to those stories and films. Advent is, it seems to me, the perfect time to read and watch again. I won’t say that I do it every year, but I am drawn there.

Gandalf Helm's Deep

Tolkien acknowledged that Gandalf is Christ-like, and is explicit in the way he characterizes how in his death, his “perishable body put on imperishability” (1 Cor 15:53-54).

“Gandalf the Grey does indeed die in the mortal flesh in the encounter with the Balrog. Gandalf the White, who returns, is the angel in the incorruptible body of resurrection” (Understanding The Lord of The Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, 29).

LOTR is, apparently, all about Advent. And this Advent I stumbled on another, subtler messianic connection in the character of Gandalf. [This may be or have been obvious to others, but I am just getting it.] I got there, not while watching or reading the stories, but when I read an article by my friend Phil Quanbeck on apocalyptic literature. Towards the end of his article Phil makes this observation:

“J. R. R. Tolkien likely owes much to John of Patmos when he creates the world of Middle Earth. The Lord of the Rings trilogy constructs a world and invites the audience into that world. Viewers of the Lord of the Rings films, for example, did not have to parse out the nuances of J. R. R. Tolkien in order to experience some sense of thrill when Gandalf arrives with the rescuers for Helm’s Deep—just at dawn, just when he said he would come, just when hope was all but lost. Revelation is not “just a story,” but it does create a world. In that world wrath is to be feared, death is an enemy, and faithfulness, in the midst of evil, accounts for something.” (“Preaching Apocalyptic Texts,” [Word and World 25/3 (2005): 317-327], 325.)

Phil’s observations here are interesting and helpful. And because of them, what struck me, for the first time, was the dawn language. As Phil points out Gandalf arrives at Helm’s Deep, coming with the dawn.That brought to mind what was, for me, one the most striking scenes from The Hobbit. Bilbo and the company of Thorin Oakenshield have been captured by mountain trolls, who settle down to bickering over how best to eat them. Bilbo stalls for time, and, at jut the right moment, Gandalf appears once again, striking a bolder with his staff and crying out as the new sun appears, “The dawn take you all!” 

Gandalf Dawn Trolls

The trolls are turned to stone, and the company is delivered.

And what does this have to do with Advent?

All of this is, believe it or not, reminiscent of the exhortation and promise spoken in Hosea 6:3,

“Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
    his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”

While in its original context these lines were spoken of the Lord, they were quickly associated with Jesus in the early Christian church, both in seeking to understand what the resurrection meant and in terms of the messianic expectation that Jesus would, one day, come again. Jesus was and is the promised one.

And Tolkien, in his turn, borrowed this Old Testament language to describe the Advent of Gandalf, an image of the One Who Is to Come…with the Dawn.

From Gandalf, through Hosea, to Jesus. Happy Advent!

Good Omens, like the Last Day, it’s coming.

At the end of May, the novel Good Omens: the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, will become a television show, on Amazon Prime.

Running up to the program my friend and colleague Phil Quanbeck and I will be blogging here about the book and, when the series drops, we’ll take that up, episode by episode too, assuming it isn’t just terrible. But, for my part, with David Tennant and Michael Sheen in two of the key roles (not to mention a host [dare we call it a heavenly host] of other big-name players) it cannot help but be totally watchable. I’m all in.

As I am re-reading the book on a snowy Minnesota April–ANOTHER SNOWY MINNESOTA APRIL which feels like it may as well be a sign of the end times–I read a little gem about the disappointment of growing up, and thought that it not only caught my mood tonight, but also shows us why what I would call “apocalyptic imagination” is still alive, vital, and a major player in popular culture.

We need wonder.

We need awe, terror, and the tumult of confusion that comes, still, no matter how much we learn and think we know.

We need perspective.

And hope.

And that is what Good Omens, even if in many ways it probably is bad apocalyptics, is getting at.

Here is what struck me:

“It’s like you said the other day,” said Adam [the mis-placed Antichrist]. “You grow up readin’ about pirates and cowboys and spacemen and stuff, and jus’ when you think the world’s full of amazin’ things, they tell you it’s really all dead whales and chopped-down forests and nuclear waste hangin’ about for millions of years. ‘Snot worth growin’ up for, if you ask my opinion.”

Adam’s disaffection feels right to me, or at least familiar. So much of what I thought I was promised isn’t stacking up. So much of what is going down, these days, is just (as my nephew used to say), “Yuck!” Reality stinks.

All of which points to the need we have for apocalyptic imagination–which is a vision of things being different; of there being, yes, an end, but with that end can come a new beginning.

I, for one, am looking forward to this series. Though it was written a long time ago, it was clearly written for times such as the ones we are living in (and through). Huh. I wonder if there are other such ancient writings, such old stories and old imaginations, that can speak to a new time?

 

 

Avril is back…with theological vengeance.

 

 

avril 6

Confession: when I heard that Avril Lavigne was set to release her first single in five years at the end of September, my inner “tween” secretly started to jump for joy.

Yes. Avril. What can I say? Her punk rock anthems were the beat to my straight-laced, adolescent, wannabe rebel heart.

What I didn’t expect from Avril’s latest release was a powerful encounter with the theology of the cross.

We’re not in Sk8ter Boi Kansas anymore.

“Head Above Water” begins with a sense of preparation…a storm is coming, but not one formed by Mother Nature. This storm stems straight from the mind, from the place where suffering sticks itself to every thought, every movement, every breath.

I’ve gotta keep the calm before the storm
I don’t want less, I don’t want more
Must bar the windows and the doors
To keep me safe, to keep me warm

There is a darkness here that is familiar. A darkness that threatens to choke out any force that once was the down beat of life. A darkness that shape shifts depending on who you are and what you’re going through. A darkness that is often too predictable, too frequent a visitor, too persistent in its calling.

Disease. Addiction. Anxiety. Depression. Death. Anger. Guilt. Shame. Fear. Doubt.

[Insert your own darkness here] and the lyrics below become your anthem, too.

Yeah, my life is what I’m fighting for
Can’t part the sea, can’t reach the shore
And my voice becomes the driving force
I won’t let this pull me overboard

Avril hints, already, in stanza 2 at the God of the Old Testament who was present in the midst of the Israelites’ suffering; the God who parted the sea of slavery so they could reach the shores of freedom.

We launch into the first chorus with an echo of the Psalmists who beg for God’s intervention in their suffering and dare to believe that they are not alone in the battle.

God, keep my head above water
Don’t let me drown, it gets harder
I’ll meet you there at the altar
As I fall down to my knees
Don’t let me drown, drown, drown
Don’t let me, don’t let me, don’t let me drown

The beauty in the pain is the presence of a God who hung on a cross; a God who knows suffering, for the sake of us. Avril speaks to the knowledge that God isn’t removed from the sea but is instead in the water, suffering with her. And it is there that God keeps her from drowning.

So pull me up from down below
‘Cause I’m underneath the undertow
Come dry me off and hold me close
I need you now, I need you most

Sometimes, the darkness starts to win. Sometimes, the shadows are too thick. Sometimes, the light is too dim to recognize. Whatever form the darkness takes for us, there are always moments when hope fades from view and we start to doubt that we were ever strong enough to swim in the first place.

And so we cry out. We scream. We cling to the strength of a God who hears us and saves us and reminds us that we are worthy and loved and have a shot at being whole again.

And I can’t see in the stormy weather
I can’t seem to keep it all together
And I, I can’t swim the ocean like this forever
And I can’t breathe

When the death of a loved one sends us swirling into the woes of grief, or when the fear of failing threatens to convince us we won’t ever succeed, or when the constant cloud of depression makes it impossible to face a new day, God is there.

When anxiety keeps us from getting enough oxygen, or when the shame of a mistake imprisons us, or when bitterness and resentment take up a permanent residence in our hearts, God is there.

When the spiraling cycle of addiction has us in a vice grip, or when someone violates and strips us of safety and decency and security, or when God seems too good to be true and too invisible to be real, God is there.

God, keep my head above water
I lose my breath at the bottom
Come rescue me, I’ll be waiting
I’m too young to fall asleep

Strength is found in the storm because God treads water with us.

Peace is possible because darkness isn’t impenetrable.

Hope is worth betting on because the journey to the cross ends with an empty tomb.

And so we sing…

God, keep my head above water
Don’t let me drown, it gets harder
I’ll meet you there at the altar
As I fall down to my knees
Don’t let me drown 

Keep my head above water, above water

 

Norm Macdonald has a Show, and some theological game.

So, Norm Macdonald has a show (it’s on Netflix). I know there has been some controversy around things he’s said recently, and that I have to start there before getting to the reason I am posting after such along hiatus.

Macdonald said some (I think) foolish things recently, first about the #MeToo Movement (comments with which I disagree), and then about Downs Syndrome (which is I think, a classic example of someone trying to be funny when they shouldn’t, and their mouth moving faster than their brain). He has apologized for both remarks, and as far as I am concerned, he shouldn’t be categorically written off because of all of this.  As others have noted, Macdonald does have something to say about how forgiveness ought to work in our culture. I hope that Norm can be forgiven.

OK. That said, here is what caught the attention of this BibPopCult-er. On his new show, Norm interviewed Jane Fonda. I almost skipped that episode, because I’m not a huge Jane Fonda fan, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Maybe halfway through the interview, after talking about mortality, there was the following exchange:

Norm: Are you a religious person?

Jane Fonda: I have faith.

Norm: In Jesus Christ?

Jane Fonda: Nnnn. I’m still a work in progress. I believe in the historical Jesus, and I’ve studied it, and um…

Norm: But do you believe in the hypostatic Jesus?

Jane Fonda: No.

Norm: So, you’re not a Christian. … But, you believe. You believe in something. … I think it shows remarkable humility that you still have not made up your mind.

Jane Fonda: Or stupidity, I’m not sure. But I’ve studied….

Two things leapt out at me. First, was Macdonald’s follow-up question, “But do you believe in the hypostatic Jesus?” Norm Macdonald has a show, but he also has some serious theological game. The key word here is “hypostatic,” a complex theological term that has to do with Jesus’ nature– as both fully divine and fully human.

(See below for a little more of an entre into the concept of the hypostatic union.)

That Norm would follow up a reference to the “historical Jesus” with a deeply theological term was not only a bit surprising (no offense Norm) it was also deeply cool. Norm has done his theological homework. Norm knows, it would seem, Christology, at not just at a simplistic or surface level.

The second thing that caught me was Fonda’s response. Her “no” was quick, and it was made with a clear understanding of Norm was talking about. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t ask what he was talking about or what in the world “hypostatic” meant, she simply said, “No.” Fonda then went on to say that when she lived in Atlanta she studied at the International Theological Center for awhile because, “I wanted to try to understand.”

What we have here–in addition to a show that I was going to watch all of anyway–is a great example of the Bible/theology at work in the public square. And, perhaps, an example of what Anselm called fides quarens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.”

Like Fonda I am a work in progress, as are many. And that is a beautiful thing.

Hypostatic Union

 

 

 

Peaky Blinders: Every man craves certainty

Peaky Blinders (Netflix) 3:5 [14:50-16:30]

Not for the faint of heart, or for the sensitive of ear, Peaky Blinders is “A gangster family epic set in 1919 Birmingham, England and centered on a gang who sew razor blades in the peaks of their caps, and their fierce boss Tommy Shelby, who means to move up in the world” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2442560/).

In anticipation of the Stateside release of Peaky Blinders Season 4 (21 December 2017), I’ve re-watched a few of my favorite episodes. Episode 5 of season 3 is at the top of my list. In part, I love it because of the central role played in this particular episode by Alfie Solomons (played brilliantly by Tom Hardy), a Jewish gangster, who has been at odds with the Peaky Blinders. There is a fantastic scene in which Solomons comes to apologize to the brother of the Peaky Blinder’s leader, Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson).

 

Alfie begins by apologizing for past wrongs (those wrongs being getting Arthur arrested and tortured, or “klinked up and battered” as Alfie puts it). The following exchange then takes place:

Alfie:     I hear, that you have allowed Jesus to come into your life, yes?

Arthur:  Oh, you heard that?

Alfie:     Yeah, that’s beautiful, that’s wonderful, now that’s lovely, isn’t it? that’s…that’s lovely. And I was wondering, how does that work for you, on a day-to-day, considering your line of work, mate?

Arthur:  Your apology is accepted.

Alfie:     ‘Cause I hear you’re a right fucking nuisance with it…. Hello. (As Arthur clutches a crystal ashtray) You see, all I’m saying is that, every man he craves certainty, doesn’t he? he craves a certainty, even if that certainty of yours, right, well, I mean, it’s fucking fanciful mate, isn’t it? Eh?

Arthur:  I’m…Old…Testament. (Puts down the ashtray…glaring.)Alfie and Arthur

Alfie:     (Pointing at Arthur’s glaring eye and veins bulging in his forehead) Fucking hell, look at that, now that…that scares me more, yeah. (turning to Arthur’s brother Tommy Shelby [Cillian Murphy]) Congratulations Tommy, you now have the finished article right here, isn’t ya’? See, that man, right, he will murder and maim for you with God on his side; yeah. You don’t want to let him go.

[Here is a video of that scene, starting at 15:25 (retrieved 12/16/2017)]

There is a great deal of tension in the scene: the tension between Solomons and Shelby, the tension addressed by Solomons of balancing a certain kind of life with a life with Christ in it, as well as the tension hinted at in the Shelby family (which comes to full fruition in the final episode of the season).

 

What is, to me at least, most striking is tension of the “life of faith” that is central to the scene. What kind of life can one live, with Christ in it (even if he is not at the center of it)?

As a gangster—and a remorseless one at that—Arthur Shelby is asked “how does that work for you”? He shakes, struggling to resist the urge to lash out, claim his revenge, and “batter” right back Alfie Solomons for what he has done. That physically visible struggle is what every believer or seeker or wonderer faces. Or, as Solomons puts it, that struggle is with uncertainty, when certainty is what one craves.

Shelby’s resolution is to spit out, “I’m Old Testament,” which apparently makes it all o.k. (The problem of dismissing the O.T. in such a way is more than we have time for here, but it is a problem.)

Solomons puts it more explicitly, calling the Old-Testament-Jesus-loving Shelby “the finished article” someone who will “murder and maim” with Christ on his side. Solomons rightly calls this out as “fanciful.”

I would argue that this is a tension that we (“we” who strive to follow Jesus) share today, and share in spades. Will we live out our old lives, justifying whatever is in us that might appear to be contrary to a Christ-centered life? Or will we choose the harder–the less certain but less fanciful–path?

Luke (4:18) Cage: Marvel’s most important work yet.

Marvel television and Netflix have collaborated once again, this time on Luke Cage. And once again, they have scored.

The music is breathtaking (from D-Nice to the Delfonics and beyond; stunning).

The acting is passionate and heartfelt (they give us Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, and more and more; all excellent).

The social commentary is beyond timely (the state[s] of black lives in America; telling).

And Bible-references are all over, and they are not only fun, but essential to the story-telling, and critical to understanding Luke Cage’s stories.

 

*SPOILERS*

 

The conflict in Luke Cage boils down to the conflict between Cage and the (primary) villain of the piece, Willis “Diamondback” Stryker. The two are half-brothers, set against one another in wholesale strife.

Cage and Diamondback share a father, a preacher who fathered one son (Cage, born as Carl Lucas) with his wife, and the other (Willis Stryker) with his secretary; and the sins of the father (© Exodus 20:5) pursue his sons throughout their lives. As does the knowledge of scripture.

 

There is a great deal of violence in Luke Cage, something which will not surprise fans of Marvel storytelling. What is striking is that there is such a barrage of scripture quotation, allusion, and reference, as to almost beggar the bullets fired.

Here is a taste of what we find:

Cage quotes Luke 4:18* as he talks about his identity crisis, which is also a vocational crisis:

“My father’s a preacher. He used to say one way or the other, I would regret the life that I led. He used to say, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because I have been anointed to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.’” Which, as it turns out, is what Luke Cage sets his mind to as the series unfolds.

Diamondback quotes or alludes to scripture frequently:

As he confronts Det. Misty Knight he quotes 1 Peter 5:8, which uses the metaphor of a lion to describe the devil’s prowling after the faithful, and so compares himself to the devil, prowling after Misty.

He calls Cage the “false idol” of Harlem, calling him a “golden calf,” alluding to Exodus 32. (Diamondback then tells Cage, “But I’ve got some commandments for your ass!”)

He also explicitly quotes Proverbs 18:24, “Some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.” And Proverbs 21:15, “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.”

Diamondback also makes unspecified references to scripture, pointing to Matthew 19:24, “rich men, camels, and needles,” Matthew 24:10, “and then many will fall away,” and Revelation 6:8, “behold a pal horse….”

There are other references, both explicit and implicit, to the biblical text and to biblical traditions.

But for me the most striking use of the Bible is in the repeated attention given to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” taken from the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.

 

Diamondback and Cage go back and forth around this question.

In episode 10 Cage states the position categorically: “I am my brother’s keeper,” meaning, presumably, that he must see to his brother Willis Diamondback Stryker, in an effort (eventually) to reconcile with him.

In episode 11 Diamondback takes up his father’s Bible, the one thing his mother had to give him from his father, and says:

“God had me at hello with Genesis; the story of Cain and Abel. When God asked Cain where Abel was after he killed him, Cain asked, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ See, I thought that was some cool shit Wesley Snipes made up in New Jack City. Turns out, it’s real. So after I kill Luke Cage, I’m going to stand over him and say, ‘Yes, I am.’”

Lastly, in episode 13 Cage again turns to this reference asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” answering his question, “No I’m not.” It is then that he commits fully to fighting his half-brother.

This back and forth is a sort of conversation—or shared interpretation—of Genesis 4:9, which seeks to apply the text through the super-hero story to our daily lives.

Will we care for one another?

Will we fight against “evil,” and sin for one another?

Will we do what is hard, and painful, for the sake of one another?

 

What is finally at stake in this back and forth is, I believe, the very heart and soul of our racially divided nation. Luke Cage explores how lives of action are shaped by faith in one’s life, and how the day-to-day world we live in in America is in vital need of women and men who (even if they aren’t bullet-proof and incredibly strong) will stand up for, and do what is right.

Luke Cage is calling on us all to be our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.

This is why Luke Cage is Marvel’s most important series yet.

And we would do well to listen.

 

*Actually, Luke 4:18 is quoting Isaiah 61:1—as an Old Testament snob I just have to point that out.

Jessica Jones & Theodicy

My friend Elise Tweten (erstwhile intern at the church where I serve) blogs under one of the greatest blog-names ever: https://buttheadladypastor.wordpress.com.

Awhile back we were talking about the Netflix series Jessica Jones, and she shared the following blog which she had written about it. I loved it, and thought the BibPopCult types might love it too. Enjoy!


Jessica Jones is a thrilling new addition to Netflix based off of a Marvel character of the same name. The show itself has a glorious, classic film noir character to it – dark alleyways and bad guys and mystery and all that. Jessica Jones is a private investigator who specializes in cheaters. She’s got super-human strength and can lift cars and has super sassy comebacks. She’s my kind of woman.

The first season so far is a little hit-or-miss for me as it contains about one million sex scenes (sex is fine and beautiful, but can we just do cool superhero things –although it is exciting that her lover has unbreakable skin?) and the plot line so far is driven by the fact that she was in a wildly dangerous and abusive relationship with a mind-controlling madman, Kilgrave, played by the ever-charming David Tennant, known especially for his role in Doctor Who. However, this has set the stage for some of my friends to have conversations about the justice system, rape, and domestic violence. Much like Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, it’s a little wild and chaotic, but worth watching because of the issues and questions it raises about theology.

The show features a lot of female characters, which is exciting, but none of them are especially great. Many internet critics are claiming that it’s a triumph for women everywhere, but I would push back on that a little bit. There’s a powerful attorney, but she’s currently cheating on her wife with her secretary. There’s a neighbor lady, but she has a weird relationship with her brother. There’s Jessica’s best friend, Trish, who has her own radio show, but doesn’t heed the warnings from Jessica that perhaps an evil, mind-controlling jerk might be dangerous. But at least there are many female characters! What would be really nice is to have a female superhero who isn’t constantly being controlled (literally) by a male character. Like, make a character with mind control blockers so she can just rampage around tossing bad guys (and girls – let’s be inclusive for chucking) into the abyss.

But I digress.

There is a scene that caught my attention. Since this is a blog about religion/popular culture/church stuff and I’m training to be a Lutheran pastor, I am always listening and waiting for scenes that mention God or the Bible and of course, Jessica Jones didn’t let me down! In the scene, she’s talking to a young man who was involved in a horrible crash and was on all kinds of life support in his mother’s home. His mother is tragically evangelical-ish or something (or a composite of American Christianity) and believes that this was God’s plan for her son to return to her as he had been drifting over time.  Jessica sits with the man and asks him who was involved in his accident. He starts to write, “K-i-l” so Jessica immediately assumes he’s writing “Kilgrave”, our beloved, evil David Tennant character that we love to hate. He writes, “Kill me.” Jessica Jones is taken aback. She says that this is not the work of God, but the devil. I applaud any television show that takes evil seriously, because as a modern woman living in a confusing world, I often wonder what I can rightly call evil and it at least sparks conversation. In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, he writes, “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” (Although the young athlete, Hope, who kills who family at the command of Kilgrave might disagree!)

 Evil flourishes when we minimize or dismiss its existence. I think Jessica Jones helps us to think about what evil looks like in our world today and acknowledges that it’s real and it’s active and we will encounter it. What do we think and say when something terrible happens? I’m not really into spiritual warfare, but I can’t say that I rule it out completely because there’s just a lot I don’t know. Do I act like the fictional character’s mother and decide that everything is an act (even horrible accidents) of God for my instruction? (No, thank you.) But I often praise God for any good thing, large or small, that happens to me because of my faith. So am I really that different? Jessica Jones gives us an excellent starting point for talking about evil and not being shy about it.

Outcast: Jesus Likes the Buddy System

The official Cinemax page for Outcast (2016) describes the storyline as following “Kyle Barnes, a young man who has been plagued by possession since he was a child. Now an adult, he embarks on a journey to find answers but what he uncovers could mean the end of life on Earth as we know it.”

 

Outcast pairs Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit), the one-time possessee, with would-be exorcist Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister).

In the first two episodes we learn that there is something special about Barnes: his tears and his blood have the power to harm, and even drive out the spirit that is possessing a person. (No idea yet, three episodes in [which is as far as I’ve gotten], as to whether his other bodily fluids work the same way—he hasn’t slung a loogey at, sneezed upon, or peed in the general direction of a possessed person. Yet. Probably not long, though, before he licks one; after all, there was healing power in Jesus’ saliva! Cf. John 9:6.)

Anderson is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, and even harder-talking Baptist preacher, bent on preparing his congregation and town for the struggle against the forces of darkness.

In several places, in each episode, biblical motifs and texts are employed. Anderson preaches from Ecclesiastes, and talks about how the Bible is full of stories … but what is the use if people don’t believe in them?

 

Episode 3, “All Alone Now,” finds Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) and Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister) driving to the site of another possession.

Barnes says, “I’m not sure where I fit in to all of this.”

Reverend Anderson replies, “Mark chapter 6, verse 7: ‘And he called unto him the Twelve, and sent them forth two-and-two, and gave them power over the unclean spirits.’”

Barnes, looking skeptical and confused, shakes his head.

Anderson then quips, “Jesus likes the buddy-system.”

A glib interpretation, which masks the vocational promise—the “calling”—which Anderson is naming for Kyle Barnes; Barnes has a gift, a gift that he can use to help others. But it is a gift that has cost him almost everything, most importantly his family.

At about the halfway point of “All Alone Now,” Barnes and Anderson interrogate a demon-possessed police detective, Blake Morrow (Lee Tergesen). When asked how these possessions can be stopped, it is Morrow’s turn to look skeptical and confused, “Why,” he asks, “would you want to stop it? You’re special; didn’t your momma tell you not to keep your light under a bushel?” implying a different kind of calling for Barnes.

Barnes then attacks Morrow, but Anderson stops him. Kyle lashes out at Anderson, seeming to reject this gift and calling:

“You chose this, alright? I didn’t. You want to throw your family away for some f**ing crusade, that’s fine. I want mine back.”

 

Outcast is dark, gruesome, and often vulgar. I wouldn’t recommend it for my parents’ generation, or allow my own kids to watch it. Yet there is something captivating about the tension between gift and calling, between seeking after one’s own needs or desires (however desperate or sincere) and seeking to face the darkness.

Outcast may be dark, but it may also be timely in its story-telling in which the Bible, pop-culture, and the trials of the culture at large are thoroughly mixed.