2 Corinthians 1:3-7

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort."
April is the month of every year with the highest number of suicides, so be nice to your neighbors. If you have an encouraging word to spare, say it.

Thank you.


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Jehovah's Witnesses: Using Jesus Against the Watchtower

As I was walking with my friend Mike today, somewhere in the Philips neighborhood near Franklin, we approached a car parked at the curb. An older (greying) woman in the passenger’s seat rolled down her window, got our attention, and waved a magazine at us. “Can I give this to you? This is for your health!” I recognized it from fifteen feet away - it was a copy of Awake!, a witnessing tract used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A longtime cult in the US and now growing in popularity around the world, at first glance the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their theology look strikingly similar to Protestant Christianity. Where the paths split is when the JWs refuse to recognize the divinity of Jesus. So, if you look at it that with that in mind, the two theologies are actually completely different.

The only thing most Christians know about the JWs is that they are a cult with dangerous doctrine (which is true, more on that later). But the JWs are also a very proselytizing religion, going door to door and whatnot, and so Christians find themselves encountering far more JWs than they are usually comfortable with. But they know that they shouldn’t engage them (danger!), so they might mumble a hasty frightened response like “Um, no, yeah, I’m a Christian, so, uh, please go away.” This is sadly one of the most damaging things that one can do, because JWs are taught that Christians are afraid of them because they (the JWs) have the truth. Identifying oneself as a Christian and showing intimidation only reinforces that teaching.

Graciously, God has blessed me with a great relationship with a man who has spent years working with JWs, working to get them out of their organization, the Watchtower. He’s taught me tons of useful tips for use in talking with JWs, and here, on a cold Thursday in Minneapolis, I got a chance to use them.

I’m not much one for arguing theology with strangers, but I am very much into fighting false hope. The opposite of hope isn’t despair (because despair drives you to seek hope), but false hope, because once you find any kind of hope, you tend to rest in it until it is no longer hopeful. In offering God without Jesus, this woman was offering false hope that will leave people in hell. This was suddenly about spiritual warfare, heaven and hell. What followed was basically a spiritual version of a ‘breach and clear’ sequence straight out of a Clancy novel, because I wanted to present the real hope that Jesus has to offer.

I walked up to the car and took the magazine, holding it in my thick winter glove. I looked at the cover and then at the woman. (Set!) Meanwhile she had handed Mike a copy of Watchtower magazine. (Clear!)

“Is this about Jesus?” I asked. (Bam! I blow down the door.)

“This is for your health!” she replied.

“Oh. Because it looks like it’s about Jesus!” ( I gratuitously kick over the coat rack.)

I clumsily turned a few pages until my gloved hands held open a page-long article. The word “Shepherd” was in the headline.

“Is this about Jesus?” I asked, motioning to the headline. (Now I’m in middle of the room, red targeting lasers criss-crossing the smoke.)

She smiled and nodded. “Yes, yes it is.”

“Great! Because I love Jesus.” (I slide belly-first over a table.)

That made her look concerned and cautious.

“You know, a lot of people wouldn’t say that.”

“Well, I do, because Jesus is awesome.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “It is pretty amazing what he did for us on the cross.”

“I know! How he lived a perfect life and died on the cross for our sins, so that we might be reconciled to God.” (Muzzle-flash galore.)

She was nodding, knowingly.

“Man, I’m so thankful for how he changed my life. I pray to him all the time now!” (Bombshell!)

At this point my excitement in talking had taken over my mental preparation and clearheadedness, and instead of following up and asking her about Jesus, other tips that I had received started surfacing in my head.

Take the literature and keep the interaction short.

This actually applies much more to door-to-door interactions than to on-the-street ones, because JWs who are witnessing have a certain quota to meet. If you want to start a relationship with them, the best thing to do is to take the literature (they like that), and schedule a follow-up meeting with that same JW (they sometimes just send elders for follow-ups). The scheduled follow-up allows them to move on to the next house (they like that, too).

So I thanked her for the tract and Mike and I continued on our walk. I was happy with how things went, but I regret to say that I left out one of the most important points of Rapid-Fire Jesus Promotion: Acknowledge that you are sure in your experiences with Him and that you haven’t been lied to.

JWs are taught that people who believe that Jesus is God have been deceived, and when you face them with excitement over what Christ has done and surety that your convictions are genuine, that might find its way through a hole in their defenses. I forgot to do this, and the result is that she might have just left the conversation thinking that I was a babbling crazy person. Nice and enthusiastic, but misguided.

Hopefully God will use the “praying to Jesus” comment that I got in to work in her heart. Since JWs don’t believe that Jesus is divine, they don’t pray to him; praying to Jesus for them is heretical, like telling a Christian to pray to Moses. We’re not going to do it. Jesus’ death and ministry, his divine atonement for sin, is THE axis around which Christianity revolves. It is the central work to which all the of Old Testament points towards, and to which the entire New Testament points back. Without a divine Jesus, Christianity is worthless and going to church becomes a really dumb hobby.

This, the majestic work of a fully-divine-yet-fully human Jesus, is the weapon which we wield against the dangerous doctrine of the JWs. But we have to know how to use it well in order to be effective. There is little use in entrusting a soldier with a powerful rifle if he doesn’t know how to use it correctly. There are people in church who have encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and Jesus, but either don’t believe that is true or are not able to talk about it well. The mission of the Christian should be this - to yearn to know and love and savor and treasure and worship Jesus in order to proclaim Him effectively to neighbors and nations. My interaction this morning was less then ideal, but I hope that God will use it nonetheless. In the meantime, it’s back to my Bible to worship and savor Jesus, and back to looking for ways in which I can share Him with the world.


Black Swan: A Lesson in Broken Feminism

(Picture from MoviePosters.com)

ALERT: This movie features scenes that the main character hallucinates, which I reference; therefore, movie spoilers are present.

Time and time again Darren Aronofsky succeeds in producing films that I can’t watch twice. Try as I might, I just cannot rustle up the will to re-watch any of his movies. Pi bored me almost to tears, Hugh “wolverine forever” Jackman ruined The Fountain, and Requiem for a Dream, despite all of its brilliance, left me with such psychological scars that I cringe just passing it on the shelf at the movie store. Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan, continues the trend, though this time its ideological bias is what ultimately renders it best left as a one-time experience.

Which is too bad, because as a movie, it is really well done. I’m a sucker for films featuring mental illness and this one not only capture that angle well, but soared as high as I think Aronofsky’s vision for it would allow. The levels of psychology explored in the mind of the main character, Nina (Natalie Portman) are intriguing without being overblowingly psychotic. On the surface, the storyline is an obvious tragedy: a young woman goes insane while trying to prepare herself for (and ultimately achieving) the so-called “perfect” performance of her career. A technically gifted ballerina, she is given a role where she must embody two characters: the technically perfect and reserved White Swan, and the mysterious, dark, sensual, passionate Black Swan; a literal Jekyll and Hyde of the ballet world.

All this time, her understudy, a girl named Lily, is a “free spirit” who, while lacking technical discipline, embodies the black swan almost perfectly. Nina must then fight not only her own lack of confidence in forgetting all that she has trained for up until this moment (in order to capture the spirit of the black swan), but also the lingering feeling that she may soon be replaced. The key that allows her to finally harmonize that black/white dichotomy in her final performance is an endorphin high brought about by a self-inflicted stab wound to the abdomen - a true Phyrric victory if there ever was one.

Underneath this tragedy, however, feminist themes run strong. The movie draws out scenes that emphasize the degrees to which Nina must go to be perfect: grapefruit-and-egg-white diets (followed by bingeing), weight-watching, a mother who constantly fusses, daily stretching and exercises, early nights filled with restless sleep, and long make-up application sessions. She is a doll in a dollhouse, marched from room to room, from home to rehearsal to stage to back home. "This is not freedom," the film seems to scream, "This is not normal!" The message is conveyed primarily in the scenes in which Nina hallucinates: a hang-nail removal having drastic consequences, a toenail cracking to uselessness, webbed feet, legs bending at odd angles. Her body is falling apart right before her eyes despite all of her attempts at control. Again the message here is clear: This is not worth it and everything will probably not be ok.

(Picture from the official webpage of Black Swan)

If Nina’s control won’t get her to the top, then what will? The answer seeps into nearly every sceme - her sexuality. Black Swan is rife with nods to the third wave of feminism, the lie that full knowledge and experience of feminine sexuality is not only the swiss-army knife of the modern woman, but even that it is the key to ultimate self-realization. While the viewer is told that Nina has has some sexual experiences in the past, for the most part she comes off rather priggish, naive, and sexually self-repressed. Her creepy ballet troupe director believes that breaking that repression will ultimately allow her to embody the sensual black swan, and takes it upon himself to facilitate the transition. He forces himself on her twice, once with a kiss to find out if she is good for the part (she bites him, somehow proving that she is), and another time gropes her and calls it “seduction.” (“See how easy it was for me to seduce you? Now I need you to be able to do that on queue!,” is the “life lesson” there.) I was at once horrified and impressed with the brazen misuse of such a loaded feminine term.

Perhaps most controversial about the movie is that he assigns Nina the “homework” of going home and touching herself, as if “self-discovery” and orgasm apart from relationship is a integral component of well-rounded femininity. To turn some feminist lingo on itself for a moment, it almost seems that the goal is for Nina, as an “animus”, to be a sort of “celibate priest incarnating God as she plays the role of a creator” of the rest of her self. Yet as she writhes on her bed in private, on the screen she remains no more than an object of scopic consumption. There is no power there - only weakness. This preoccupation with her myopic sexual release culminates in a lesbian sex hallucination completely devoid of intimacy. Not only is the act itself over far to soon for any meaningful climax to have been achieved (contributing to the pornographic and therefore exploitive nature of the scene), but its ultimate result is that Nina, thanks to vendrous mental delusions, stole her sense of sexual liberation from her understudy (her fantastical partner) instead of searching it out on her own. But hey, whatever helps fulfill her dream role, right? Don’t let consistency get in the way.

Despite criticisms some leniency may be required - this is, after all, a story about mental illness brought upon by eating disorders and a high-stress lifestyle in a fragile girl. But wait, no. The options that those in authority give Nina as ways to achieve her ultimate goal are ludicrous. Barbie-doll physique? Manipulative authority figures? Selfish sexual empowerment? This kind of ideology is ultimately what makes Black Swan difficult, if not impossible, to watch twice. Even if Nina hadn’t been mentally ill, the pathways that lead to her success are ultimately vapid and devoid of any true character development. That doesn’t make for a rewarding viewing experience. I don’t want to be entertained by being lied to. It’s sad, because the movie was so well done, but this is yet another Aronofsky film that will become but a memory of my twenties.

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