Monday, April 6, 2015

The Walking Dead and Holy Week

(written on Good Friday 2015)
I will end my Holy Week preaching on Jesus rising from the dead, but I began my Holy Week with a whole lot of dead people coming to life--or at least a sort of life if you call being a human flesh-eating zombie living.  I along with over 15 million other people tuned in to the TV show The Walking Dead last Sunday night.  It turns out there might be a good reason I as a religious person am attracted to a show about zombies--in addition to being attracted to it because it's a really good (if gory) show.
"In their overturning of our understanding of the world, these classic tropes of horror are what I would call theological terrors. They challenge the sacred order by introducing existential chaos. . . Within the Bible, the natural order is routinely shattered, never more famously than during the Easter narrative.
While Jesus hinted at a reversal of the natural order when he reanimated Lazarus, it is the Easter narrative where Scripture downshifts into full horror-movie mode. . .
The natural, sacred, and accepted orders are turned on their collective heads throughout the final days of Holy Week when, after Jesus breathes his last, the light of day ominously and unnaturally transforms into darkness followed by a rock-splitting earthquake, frightening and supernatural imagery echoed in countless apocalyptic horror narratives in contemporary entertainment. . . 
Following this, the gospel of Matthew, predating the zombie craze in popular culture by several thousand years, reads, "The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many." While we don't know whether these revived corpses were muttering "brains" or "shalom," it's safe to say that the sudden reappearance of the dead amid unnatural darkness is, read literally, nothing short of a terrifying turn of events."
It's true, the Gospels, especially Matthew's Gospel, have a mashup of images that would fit nicely into disaster films and horror movies.  Given that all the tropes are there for a big Hollywood blockbuster, why is it that all the Hollywood depictions of Jesus look like my second grader's art class did the special effects?  The stone rolling away from Jesus' tomb in every Jesus movie I've seen looks like a paper mache leftover from a third rate caveman movie!  (In my book, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ doesn't count.  To me, his movie was less a horror movie and more of a snuff film.)

Whether Hollywood ever plays up the horror of Holy Week or not, the prevalence of zombies, demons, vampires and other scary creatures in our culture reveals something deep that people are looking for.  Peacock goes on to make a significant point re: the place of horror movies, zombie TV shows and comics, novels about vampires, etc.  He says:
"While I offer some of these reflections in an ironic spirit, I do think it's important to acknowledge that religion and the horror genre are dueling narratives revolving around the unknown, of what lies beyond human reason and understanding. I would argue that one of the reasons The Walking Dead consistently draws tremendous ratings is that horror entertainment has emerged as another form of religious language. In some sense, due to the need for palatable religious ritual, the ghastly elements of scripture have been buried, only to arise in the sinister form of vampires, zombies, and malevolent elder gods, symbols that enable us to explore the shadow side of the divine." 
Could it be true that as we sanitize the horrific aspects of Holy Week and Easter and in the Bible in general we leave people in search of narratives--however entertaining--that touch on issues of flesh and bone, life and death, mortality and immortality, existence and nihilism, civilization and societal collapse?  
I won't apologize for turning away from a theological point of view that does not emphasize the blood of Jesus Christ.  I continue to believe a Christianity that stresses the blood of Jesus was necessary to appease an angry God is a religion that justifies violence in the name of God and downplays divine mercy.
Yet, the world is a violent place where bad things happen.  People die, sometimes in terrible ways.  Now more than ever in human history technology allows us to bear witness to the barbarity of humanity.  Just think how often every day you hear news about child sexual abuse, homicides and terrorism.  At the same time, our American culture allows many of us the privilege of denying death's ever present reality.  The industrial complexes of medical care, pharmaceutical conglomerates and the funeral industry sanitize the grim reality of our physical existence.  We don't have to deal with death until we are forced to deal with death--either our own or someone else's.
Yes, The Walking Dead is a really good TV show with really good writing, acting and special effects.  It is also really gory and bloody.  Yet within the gore and blood the characters struggle constantly with what they must do to survive and whether or not survival alone justifies all they must do to remain alive.  Is one really alive when one must do inhumane things?  Often the characters on the show bear a striking similarity to the undead whom they fight--a purposeful decision on the part of the show's writers.  
The show is entertaining--absolutely, but does it speak to a deeper human longing?  In the back of our minds, those of us who are privileged enough to turn our thoughts away from survival toward reflection upon what life means have to wonder about just how fragile our human society actually is.  The chaos of a zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for all the small outbreaks of chaos within our lives--all the things we cannot control--all the ways we are unable to overcome our mortality.  
I will continue to set my DVR to record The Walking Dead when it returns in October (and for the spin-off which airs this summer ), but now I'm wondering about what the appeal of the show says about us at this particular time in our culture.  Now, as much as any time, we need a Christianity that does not offer us simplistic answers about existence and meaning.  We  need a religion that helps us take in the suffering and death that is a part of the human condition--what we see when we look upon Jesus on Good Friday--and helps us to embrace the mystery that is Easter.  We need a reason to do more than survive or else we become the zombies.  Despite the internet meme of "Zombie Jesus," the resurrected Jesus of the Gospels is not the same as the zombies of The Walking Dead.  This walking dead man offers hope of something greater than mere survival, greater even than death. 
Horror movies, books and TV shows are appealing, because they allow us a glimpse of the things we are afraid of and want to avoid.  There is pleasure in facing one's fears of death, pain and powerlessness.  By facing such fears one can overcome them.  Isn't it time for a Christianity that acknowledges the horrific realities of our world in order to reveal a God who is greater than our fears?
The angel's words in the empty tomb were, "Do not be afraid."
 Grace and Peace

Recommended Reading 4.3.15 Edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.

Stuff I've Referenced in Sermons
Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching

Friday, April 3, 2015

Therapeutic Gratitude

I'm not a big fan of self-help books.  From my perspective, the self-help industry tends to over-simplify issues that often defy easy answers.  On the other hand, as a minister, I've known many people who have been helped by books, videos, etc. from the self-help section of the bookstore.  I think I'm humble enough and pragmatic enough to celebrate whatever works to help people with their difficulties.  Yet, I still view self-help books with suspicion.
 All that being said, I have been driving around lately listening to a self-help book on CD.  It's called  The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity and Willpower--and Inspire You to Live Life in Forward Mostion by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels.  I first heard of the book on Marc Maron's podcast which I listen to regularly (the title of the podcast, as I've mentioned before in sermons, is too blue for me to name).  Maron usually interviews comedians, musicians or actors, but this time he was interviewing one of the authors, Phil Stutz.  I was intrigued with what Stutz had to say, because he was so blunt and because his focus of treatment was giving patients tools to deal immediately with the problems that brought them to therapy.  The tools Stutz talked about didn't seem to be quick fixes or over-simplifications but ways to go about changing behavior--changes that could bring a suffering person immediate relief.
 The perspective of the authors runs contrary to many therapists who practice talk therapy and believe in a process of discovering the sources of an individual's current psychological pain in one's past experiences.  Although Stutz and Michel value that approach, what they really wanted to find was a way to give patients immediate relief from unhealthy ways of thinking or acting.  It sounds a lot to me like what I understand to be Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. 
I've benefited greatly from a process-orientated talk therapy approach.  The times I've spent seeing a therapist have given me great benefits in understanding myself and how often my thoughts and behaviors result from unresolved issues in my unconscious.  That being said, I've also benefited from CBT--skipping the discovery process of why a problem exists and focusing on behaviors I can implement to change an unhealthy way of acting or thinking.  In my experience, both approaches yield benefits and I'm suspicious of those who insist on either/or. 
As a minister who often talks with people about their personal struggles, those conversations often involve discussion of spiritual, psychological, emotional and physical problems.  I try to be quick to acknowledge when an issue exceeds my expertise; after all I'm not a medical doctor and I'm not a therapist.  I'm not afraid to make referrals to someone who knows more than I do.  Yet, I often feel the need to make suggestions to people about how to stop unhealthy ways of thinking/acting such as worrying, extreme self-criticism, feelings of guilt and shame, etc. because they are suffering in the present moment.  It's this last need in my work that made me interested in Stutz' and Michel's The Tools.
 When I started listening to the book, I was really surprised about how spiritual the book is.  It's not Christian but it's also not un-Christian.  The authors use language that is overtly spiritual in nature but they also choose to use language that does not match any organized religion.  For example, each of the tools they discuss involves opening oneself to "higher forces of the universe."  In order to overcome self-destructive behavior a person needs to connect with a power above himself or herself.  They state clearly that they don't care whether or not you call these higher forces God, Jesus, the Collective Unconscious or some other religious term; they don't care what you call it just that you make use of it.  Unlike a lot of New Age mumbo jumbo that just involves thinking positive thoughts without any real effort or sacrifice, the tools the authors advocate involve facing one's own mortality, demonstrating love for people one is angry with or even hates, cultivating a pattern of gratitude and other difficult work.  The language they use sounds goofy to me at times-okay a lot of the time--but the tools they describe seem to offer a practical way for someone to change one's unhealthy ways of living--provided that person puts in the effort.  One of the reasons I like the book is that they don't promise any easy or quick fixes, just a way to immediately begin difficult changes.
The fourth tool in the book is called "The Grateful Flow" (I told you the language sounds goofy), and it involves overcoming negative thinking through gratitude.  They state that the trigger for using this tool happens whenever you find yourself thinking negative thoughts--we're not talking about a stray critical thought now and then but the kind of negative thinking that builds upon itself and eventually blocks out all positive ones.  When this occurs, they ask patients to immediately think of five things the person is grateful for--not things one should feel grateful for, but five things one is actually grateful for.  These things can be basic like being alive, having the ability to see or even mundane like having coffee with a friend or a good book.  They promise that this simple act of catching yourself before the negative thoughts take over connects one to a higher force.  That higher force they call "The Source" and they describe it as the force in the universe that is giving and has your best interest at heart.  Rather than viewing the universe as inherently hostile or merely indifferent, this way of thinking involves faith that there is some force out there that gave you life and continues to give you things you can be thankful for--provided you become conscious of them.
The terminology is different, but it sounds awfully Christian to me.  While listening to the audio book, the words to the old hymn "Count Your Blessings" kept running through my mind.  The Bible contains plenty of exhortations to thankfulness.  Psalm 95 says, "Let us come into God's presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!"  The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippian church, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."  I have a number of books on prayer in my office that teach making prayers of thanksgiving an essential part of the spiritual life.  Annie Dillard wrote in  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "I think that the dying pray at the last not 'please,' but 'thank you,' as a guest thanks his host at the door."  Rev. John Claypool says, "Truth be told, whenever we face ambiguous situations with things going for us and things going against us, I would suggest that gratitude is the most creative thing we can possibly do because it puts us in touch with the positive energies that are at work in our lives." 
On the one hand, there's a part of me that thinks about the authors' emphasis upon gratitude as less than a novel idea.  Christians, Jews and other religious people have been offering this advice for centuries.  Yet on the other hand, I see overtly religious calls to thanksgiving mainly offered in terms of what one ought to do.  As a Christian, I would say that we creatures should give our Creator thanks, but I think there is real wisdom in acknowledging the therapeutic quality of gratitude.  Orienting one's life towards gratitude does have a powerful transformative effect upon a person's life.  In addition to being something one ought to do, gratitude is something that improves one's life.  The happiest people I know with the greatest sense of inner peace are people who seem to maintain a posture of gratitude for their blessings rather than choosing to dwell on their misfortunes.
Furthermore, gratitude helps a person let go of worrying, which the authors rightly describe as a vain effort to control what cannot be controlled.  Worry is a superstition that has no real power to make things better--only the power to inhibit one from truly living.  Practicing thanksgiving allows one to live out of joy rather than living out of fear.
 In our increasingly secular age, I continually struggle as a minister to translate traditional Christian language into terms non-religious people or more often in my setting people who are jaded and cynical about religion can resonate with.  I'm not sure if the words used in  The Tools fit that bill or not, but I'm not going to argue with anyone who offers people a way to be thankful, love others and live unafraid of death.
 Grace and Peace

Recommended Reading 3.27.15 Edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.
Stuff I've Referenced in Sermons
Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching