RSS Feed

Oppenheimer: Quantum Apocalyptic

The following is about Christopher Nolan’s biopic Oppenheimer and contains spoilers which will impact how you see the film.  I cannot recommend that everyone see the film as—unusual for Nolan’s work—there are extended scenes with nudity.

Court watchers can sometimes wonder if today’s verdict is meaningful or just a single step in a series of appeals. Today’s condemnation may get overturned in months, and potentially overturned again before all is said and done. Which verdicts matter?  This question is at the heart of both Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer and Jewish apocalyptic literature.  Oppenheimer follows the verdicts drawn on two main characters, Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) and Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.).  Biblical apocalypses reveal final verdicts for which there is no appeal.

An Ancient Genre:  Apocalyptic

When teaching on the book of Revelation, I often remark that it is hard for us to understand the genre of Jewish apocalyptic because there are few modern examples.  The old genre was mostly popular the centuries before and after Jesus’ life.  Today, we have plenty of disaster stories, yes, and “post-apocalyptic” wasteland settings. The Bible’s apocalyptic is different from these at its core.  It is not really about earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  The word “apocalypse” means “revelation.”  The ancient genre uses bold imagery to reveal reversals in honor and shame.  A verdict of shame today can be overturned on the last day.  As Oppenheimer shows, having your face on the cover of TIME magazine does not mean you can escape the verdict of your own conscience. The most important verdict any of us will hear remains hidden.  Apocalypses give us a peek at those verdicts.

Why, then, do we think of apocalyptic books as stories filled with plagues, bloodshed, and cataclysm?  Those first apocalypses were written to people suffering through the overturning of nations.  Those first audiences were defeated and disempowered, the authority over them seemingly impossible to dislodge without cataclysm.  Centuries before Jesus, Babylon had triumphed over Jerusalem, delivering a boasted final verdict as Zion was levelled.  Divinely inspired prophets urged the Jews to obey and honor their new Babylonian rulers.  The prophets encouraged believers that this was all temporary, that their plight would be reversed after fifty years.  The prophets were right.  Persia would conquer Babylon, and the Jews would rebuild Zion. 

But imagine how to go about writing such encouragement during those five decades while Babylon was still strong.  Literature openly describing the fall of Babylon could be seen as treasonous propaganda.  This is part of why an apocalypse would be written almost in code.  Apocalyptic writers did not seek to agitate Gentile rulers.  Neither did they want to confuse exiles, as if their hope of freedom could be accomplished through their own political action.  God alone would anoint Persia’s Cyrus; God alone would shake the nations; it was Israel’s faithful God who would save the humble.

After Jesus’ ascension, during Roman persecution, Christians were blessed by the book of Revelation’s apocalyptic encouragement.  Christians did not turn to political action but submitted to Caesar.  At the same time, they believed Jesus was seated on the highest throne, that He truly ruled over Caesar, that God’s people would be revealed triumphant at the end.  Apocalyptic literature found the language to express this reversal in shame and honor without encouraging treason.

A Modern Apocalyptic:  Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer gives us a modern example of apocalyptic.  In Oppenheimer, quantum vision reveals unshakeable guilt.  We watch the main characters reverse the honor and shame they receive.  One verdict arrives thunderously, but does it have the final word?  Cataclysmic imagery suggests that a higher power has the last word. Resonant images require either other Scripture or quantum science to interpret.

For example, the beginning of the film places the Genesis 3 image of forbidden fruit on the table.  An apple on a teacher’s desk proves tempting to a young Robert Oppenheimer.  Wanting vengeance for the shaming verdict the teacher placed on him, Oppenheimer turns the apple into a weapon.  Every theme of Oppenheimer is introduced in these early scenes.  Revenge for public shaming leads to hidden wrath. Intended targets are replaced by the innocent.  Once a weapon is conceived, the desire for revenge rushes that weapon into existence. Only later does a shaking conscience reconsider.

Oppenheimer also uses quantum physics imagery to picture hidden and dual realities.  An early scene explains how light, according to quantum understanding, sometimes acts like a wave and sometimes like a particle. Albert Einstein said, “God does not play dice with the universe,” expressing our desire to have the rules fixed, for one thing to be true and the other false.  But this is not how Robert Oppenheimer sees the world.  He sees open possibilities, that nuclear weapons could bring peace through deterrence and also that they could destroy the world. Similarly, he sees Russia as an ally that should have access to American science as well as seeing how the communists should not have access to nuclear secrets.  At one point, a peer says to Oppenheimer, “No one knows where you stand.” Like much in quantum theory, Oppenheimer does not stand in any single place.  He sees both possibilities simultaneously.

Oppenheimer’s director, Christopher Nolan, pictures this during a rally at Los Alamos after their project succeeds, leveling Hiroshima.  For years, the people working under Oppenheimer had this singular goal of winning the atomic race.  They stamp their feet on risers to cheer their leader, but the stamping is heard by the quantum scientist as a martial threat.  While Oppenheimer joins the cheers of triumph, he is simultaneously seeing the destruction the bomb has wrought.  He cannot help imagining the bomb being used against those in his audience. With political certainty, the crowd knows who is enemy and who is hero.  Oppenheimer, on the other hand, holds two ideas at once:  we won and the war will end, yet war will continue, with our weapon eventually used against us.  At the rally, Oppenheimer crows, “I only wish we had built it fast enough to use against the Germans, too!”  His dual vision suggests that what Germany was spared, someday America will not be spared. He simultaneously relishes success and feels moral judgment.

The Difference in Moral Knowledge

Oppenheimer pictures dual worlds and timelines, showing a story in color about scientific achievement and a parallel story in black and white about political vengeance.  The world in color climaxes with technological honor.  The world in black and white climaxes with political shame.  Both worlds wade through uncertain dual visions.  What grows in both cases, parallel to each other, is the moral numbness lurking among those playing political games and the moral certainty growing among the scientists Einstein and Oppenheimer.

So much of the film, therefore, is about the moral judgment that unravels our self-justifications.  Oppenheimer’s sexual ethics followed his quantum worldview, holding what most would see as exclusive claims simultaneously.  Oppenheimer believed he and his eventual wife, Kitty, could be together while he would also always be there for Jean, his first love. Even as he goes to break off his relationship with Jean, he beds her one more time.  He hadn’t broken off the relationship out of love for Kitty but fear of the American government’s disapproval of his communist connections. Jean is dumped for her communist sympathies (foreshadowing again, yes).  This betrayal leads to her suicide and to deep grief for Oppenheimer.  When he confesses why he feels guilty to Kitty, she rages, “You don’t get to sin and be the victim at the same time.”  Moral judgment rejects the quantum view. 

Except, Kitty does seem to forgive Robert and becomes one of his fiercest defenders.  The film has at least two endings (a dual vision?), and they crystallize the theme of justification.  In one ending, Kitty asks why her husband did not fight for his reputation, if he thinks later generations will reconsider him positively. Quantum Oppenheimer says, “We’ll see.” There is theory and there is the real world, but at least with Kitty, he knows a woman who had once told him he didn’t get to be both a victim and the sinner at the same time has now come completely around to his side.

The other ending, however, is grim.  We finally get to see what Oppenheimer and Einstein were talking about at the lake’s edge. They are talking about the vision of the world where unleashing atomic armament leads to the end of this world. An immediate atmospheric ignition did not occur, but someday, a world leader who is willing to stay quiet for years to get his vengeance will place the weapon in someone else’s hands and start the nuclear war.

Not a Choose-Your-Own-Ending

In a previous movie, Inception, Nolan had ended his movie without taking sides on a central question. Did a father get back to his kids for real or did he get trapped in a dream world?  A spinning top will supposedly tell the tale, if it stays spinning (dream world) or finally falls (real world).  As Inception closes, the top falters, then corrects, and appears to keep spinning, though Nolan shuts off the camera.  We don’t get to know if the top falls.  Nolan could have ended Oppenheimer similarly.  We didn’t blow the world up after all, right?  “We’ll see,” quantum Oppenheimer says.  We won’t know if nuclear devastation has been avoided or only delayed until history’s final chapter is written.  Except that in Oppenheimer, Nolan does end the movie with nuclear destruction.  He takes a side in a way he did not in Inception.

Is Nolan predicting the end of the story or reflecting the growing moral certainty Oppenheimer had:  “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”? The historical Oppenheimer quoted this Hindu passage as what went through his mind when he saw the successful test at Los Alamos.  Nolan first puts that quote on the table in a “love scene” with Jean, another explosive triumph with destructive consequences and moral doom.  Tying Jean’s suicide to the image of the world on fire, cosmic suicide, is a classic apocalypse, a revelation of honor and shame.  “We’ll see.”  We do indeed.  We see destruction and then nothing more.

Usually in an apocalypse, it is the defeated, exiled party who is revealed to be triumphant through their suffering by the light of the world’s end.  But Robert Oppenheimer was on the cover of TIME magazine (as was Lewis Strauss), and America won the war, and they all got medals and cheering crowds. But the timeline in which nuclear war destroys the world ceases to be just one of several possible outcomes. Where everything else seems uncertain, personal guilt eclipses classroom theory.

While in one ending, with Kitty on her husband’s side, moral justification is possible among fickle people, the actual final ending takes our moral justification to a higher court. This is what the Scriptural apocalypses are saying.  If a man who can see both timelines for every other category in life—science, politics, relationships—is finally prohibited by his conscience to play dice with the universe, then Einstein does turn out to have the last word, even if the rest of the scientific world thinks it has passed him by.  Or rather, no single human being gets the last word; in Oppenheimer, the judgment by fire has the last word.

Hope after Cataclysm

For Jewish apocalyptic, however, the last word is not given to destruction.  Yes, crowds may cheer, journalists may write rave reviews, politicians may present medals, and, yes, also, they will reverse themselves in time. But may the final judgment, the fiery end of this world, also turn out unable to have the last word?  If there is a Creator who spoke the first word, from the silence of cataclysm, will He speak to us again?  Not, “I am become death,” but “I am the light of the world,” and a new dawn?

Yes, thank God.  Whether Revelation or Daniel, the Jewish prophets know hope.  The God who justifies, ends the dichotomy of saint and sinner, raising up saints from whom sin and shame are forever stripped away.  Revelation 21:1-4:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” Amen and amen; come, Lord Jesus.

Abortion and the Question "Who Is My Neighbor?"

Abortion is a hard subject, approachable from many different angles.  I have found insight listening to biologists, legal minds, philosophers, journalists, and mothers, each offering important perspectives.  What of a pastor?  We have responsibility to offer moral guidance for wise personal choices; pastors should also give guidance for the church’s posture in the world. 

Those areas of guidance overlap but are separable.  Christian moral guidance includes recommendations like, “If you are slapped on one cheek, turn the other cheek.”  Pastors would not expect or want this guidance to be mandated by law.  Likewise, while all Christians agree that coveting breaks one of the Ten Commandments, only a few of us may take that fact and consider ways we might legislate against advertisers who regularly tempt us to covet. Most of us recognize “Thou shalt not covet” as a personal commitment not mandated in secular law.  In the same vein, Christian crusaders from one hundred years ago once sang hymns entitled “Vote the Booze Away.”  Sadly, they found their efforts for temperance were more effective before Prohibition than afterwards.  Using the fist of the law to mandate love often fails.  History may have echoed in our own time when a decades-long trend of decreasing abortions in America reversed in 2016.  Some boasted that they had elected “the most pro-life president ever,” yet abortions began and now continue to increase. 

Advising Christians on the Morality of Terminating a Healthy Pregnancy

First, let’s lay out what the Christian tradition, based on the Bible, has to say about abortion.  Bible-believing churches have had a consistent voice from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Cherish human life, including life in the womb.

Jesus shows us how to gladly take on the burdens of others’ lives.  Our Lord expresses this in His parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He was asked a question no less relevant in our time:  “Who is my neighbor?”  The man asking that question knew that he should “love his neighbor,” but he wondered if that tax collector, that foreigner, or that prostitute counted as a “neighbor.”  Maybe “neighbor” only counted for people who looked like him?  The question of “Who is my neighbor?” still applies to modern issues, including racism, immigration, and abortion.  Is that unseen fetus a neighbor or a parasite?

Modern Americans are often tempted to answer directly.  Yes, the person with different skin color, different attire, different culture, or different abilities is still your neighbor.  Jesus was canny in how He answered.  He told a parable about a man dying on the side of the road.  Several clergy avoided the dying man.  His neighbors avoided him.  Finally, a Samaritan helped.  Now, the Samaritans were despised by many Jews as immoral traitors. There may have been a few gasps or even boos in Jesus’ original audience, hearing that a Samaritan was more merciful than fellow Jews.  A Samaritan was, after all, one they did not want to consider a “neighbor.”  Jesus tells of the Samaritan taking the dying man up, binding his wounds, and paying his tab at an inn.  Then Jesus wonderfully asks His audience, “Which of these proved to be a neighbor?”  They had to answer, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Jesus concluded, “You go, and do likewise.”

When Christians encourage mothers to rejoice in the gift of children, we know we are encouraging the showing of mercy.  We expect there are burdens involved.  While American legal tradition often speaks in terms of “rights,” Christians are to think in different terms, that of grace and mercy.  We believe each person is enlarged by loving others.  I am more the man I am meant to be when I love than when I pass by on the other side.  We do not see an either/or mother/child situation in most cases where abortion is considered.  We generally expect mothers to find the blessing of mothering to significantly outweigh the burdens (and we expect this for fathers who embrace their role as well).

What about Christians Who Aren’t Merciful?

A pro-choice person may say, “Pro-life Christians are inconsistent, then, when they do _____.” Their accusations are sometimes true. There are people whose rejection of abortion is inconsistent with their posture towards immigrants, for example. I’d only note that these inconsistencies cut both ways.  “Pro-choice” people who want to use the law to mandate vaccinations, for example, are ready to violate bodily autonomy to save life.  Is that also hypocritical?  While there are inconsistencies on both sides, I’d rather have some inconsistent advocacy for life than purely consistent overlooking of all kinds of neighbors.  I also know many Christians who think carefully about all these issues and seek to apply their principles consistently.

These principles go back to the most ancient Christians.  One of the earliest Christian manuals, the Didache,set the pattern in the first century: “You shall not procure abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (2:2).  The church repeated this teaching down through the centuries.  The Didache did not teach, “You shall outlaw abortion and child abandonment.”  Indeed, Christians did not expect to have political power for the first centuries of the church’s history.  They worked on society’s margins.  When non-Christians legally abandoned and exposed their children, Christian families took those orphans in.  If modern American Christians are more focused on using an imposing federal government to effect good by fiat, is this more a modern Christian problem or a modern American problem?

Legislating Morality

Can federal or state governments do real good in abortion legislation?  And if so, how does Christian moral guidance apply to legal action? There are some specious arguments I will respond to first.  A common view of abortion politics is that it is about men wanting power over women. This view is understandable since human biology places more physical burden on women in reproduction processes. Men can use this biological fact to gain competitive advantage over women in the workplace.  Men have used gender roles to disadvantage women from. The Bible calls this out and condemns it from the very beginning (first in Gen. 3:16 through to Mt 19:3-12).

Yet it strikes me that Roe v. Wade also set up an environment in which men were encouraged to manipulate women through sexual politics.  Abortion rights gave men the impression that they could impregnate women and leave all the choices and responsibility to the mother.  The manipulative argument goes, “If you want this child, you take care of it.”  Similarly, businesses can be motivated to support female workers’ abortions because that circumstance requires of the business much less complication and support than workers who choose life.

In the end, it is often unclear what motivations stand behind arguments that are made.  We are better equipped simply to weigh each argument on its face.

Justice Requires Limiting Certain Choices

Another popular argument runs, “Bodily autonomy is absolute; you can’t force someone to give blood to a dying person, for example, so you can’t force a woman to carry a pregnancy.” While it is true that we do not force blood transfusions, there are other legal transgressions on bodily autonomy. When I became a parent, I lost significant amounts of my bodily autonomy.  I am required by law to feed and care for my children for many years. Did I become a parent when the child was born or when the child was conceived?  The bodily autonomy argument claims it doesn’t matter when a child is a child because the state doesn’t force giving blood.  But the state does force new parents to feed newborns every few hours, a task much more onerous than giving blood.  The question of what is inside the womb remains the primary question for whether parents may be held responsible by the state.

The state also legislates many chemicals which I may or may not put in my body at various quantities, especially if I am intending to operate machinery.  My bodily autonomy is severely limited when I drive.  My blood alcohol level must not transgress a certain point.  I am required to wear a seat belt.  In some states, my hands must be free when I drive.  In some states, my dog may not be in the front seat.  These laws recognize that what I do when driving could impact and destroy another life.  When my responsibility for other lives rises, the law restricts my bodily autonomy.  Consider how much of her bodily autonomy a soldier gives up in direct connection to the responsibility she has taken up for her fellow citizens.

The old saw is that my bodily autonomy ends at the tip of your nose.  If I want to get drunk, I don’t also get to put you in increased danger of having an airbag slam into your nose.  In the case of a woman wanting to terminate a healthy pregnancy, the victim’s nose (and entire body) had no choice which womb to be implanted into (if you’re wondering, the tip of the nose develops in weeks 7-8 of a pregnancy). The body inside the mother-turned-enemy cannot retreat.  The pro-abortion argument is that the creature in the womb has zero bodily autonomy.  In most cases, the mother of that being made a choice to engage in an activity which created that life.  So why does the one who made the choices that led to pregnancy get bodily autonomy rights while the trapped creature, with no choice in the matter, has absolutely no bodily autonomy rights?


Following that question, I expect at least one pro-abortion proponent will want to bring up the instances in which the mother had no choice.  What about rape?  This is why very few people like talking about these topics.  Rape is horrific.  It is hard enough to talk about terminating a pregnancy by itself.  Now add one traumatic situation on top of another.  Before going on, let us stop, take a moment and pray, “Lord, have mercy.  God of the widow and the orphan, preserve all those going through unplanned pregnancies, rape, and abuse.  Rescue them! Give them strength, peace, and hope.”

While some women have carried the product of their rapes to term and felt blessed that something very good came out of something very evil, there are others who feel that kind of pregnancy as an oppressive burden.  I think it would be better for society if pregnancy terminations after rape were not politicized.  If I am counselling a pregnant rape victim, I will encourage embracing the unborn life. The unborn life has also been hurt by the way in which she was conceived.  That child is someone whom the hurting mother can help at just the time she may feel powerless.  That labor of love may come to feel empowering, for the work women do in pregnancy and labor is awesome work.

I think she is less likely to feel empowered if the state has mandated she carries that child no matter how she feels about it.  The act of choosing nurture and love would be healing.  Forced labor of carrying that child may feel just the opposite.  Meanwhile, very few Americans believe abortion should be illegal in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is endangered.  Why politicize those cases, then?  I am certain there are those who will want to advocate for the unborn with no exceptions; there are also those for whom this subject touches personally on what statistically are more exceptional situations.  We should listen respectfully to both.  The political gamesmanship—on either side—should steer away from this ground out of respect, acknowledging these exceptions are politically popular and do not represent a large percentage of abortions performed.

There is also an ugly argument going around that assumes anyone who is pro-life does not know that D&Cs are prescribed in cases of ectopic pregnancies and some miscarriages to save the mother’s life.  The assumption of ignorance is most often false.  Miscarriage is a lot more common than many people recognize.  That slanderous argument is offensive to more people than someone casually reposting it probably realizes.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people on both sides right now saying many things about abortion that lack consideration.  We aren’t changing hearts or minds by assuming only one side doesn’t know things. Having a D&C to clear the womb when miscarriage is occurring is not the same thing meant by most people when they talk about “abortion” as an intentional choice to terminate a healthy pregnancy. If there is poorly crafted legislation on any state books that outlaws removing a lifeless fetus, I am confident pro-life leaders will want to be a part of correcting that.  I expect pro-choice leaders would also want to correct that legislation rather than risking lives to score political points.  Wouldn’t it be good if opposing parties could come together where their goals coincide?  Won’t it be even better if we don’t find any of these poorly crafted laws? 

What Is in a Pregnant Womb?

Hopefully, answering a few hard exceptions will allow us to focus on the question central to the majority of cases.  When a pregnancy is proceeding healthily, it is undebatable that a unique human life is developing.  Embryology texts affirm human life begins at fertilization.  The fertilized egg is “alive,” growing, developing in an orderly manner, cells reproducing, etc.  The life is “human” because its DNA literally names it so.

Heart activity is detectable by ten weeks.  Internal organs like kidneys begin to work (yes, processing the fetus’s own urine) by twelve weeks.  By four months the body senses itself in space and makes intricate maneuvers. Should one of these capabilities define a “person”?  We are tempted to say that brain activity, or thinking, may be the answer, but the human brain does not stop developing until we are over twenty years old. Brain development does not wait long to begin; we can see the cerebral cortex by week six.  How much thinking makes us human?  Am I less human before my first cup of coffee?

For many people, the preference is to be like the Levite in Jesus’ parable who crosses the road, avoiding the body on the other side.  Not knowing the details makes it easier to ignore responsibility.  We want to be able to say “clump of cells” without actually seeing the development of a child in the womb.  Before birth, that child will be able to distinguish the various voices of family members outside the womb.  Human relationships crossing the barrier of the womb start before birth.  “Clump of cells” is an accurate description for so short a time that hardly anyone knows they are pregnant before that description has passed being appropriate. 

As a Christian pastor, I could cite additional Scriptural evidence.  Luke describes John the Baptist leaping in the womb at the voice of pregnant Mary (Luke 1:41-44).  Having spent years reading Scripture, I am not surprised that the groups whom societies tend to marginalize are regularly uplifted and humanized in the Bible.  Behind the social movements that worked for universal education and abolition of slavery and equal rights, you will find people motivated by the Bible.  While we are motivated by the Bible to see the image of God in every human being, we are also happy to let legal questions be decided by scientific evidence.

Who Is Degraded?

In the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, the Christian believer and former slave shows how the institution of slavery not only degraded the slave but also the slaveowner. Becoming “the master” meant treating people in ways they would never consider treating people who looked like themselves.  It meant closing your eyes to human dignity.  Douglass’ point was that a free republic composed of diverse tribes has an interest in upholding the dignity of every human being.  When the state allows one group of human beings to degrade another group, the degradation spreads like gangrene.

Whether a society acts like black lives do not matter and/or unborn lives do not matter, that callousness has an impact on all relationships.  This state interest is the reverse image of what we discussed above about Christian morality.  Where I see another’s human dignity and treat them with respect, we are both enlarged. Where I am turned in on myself against another human being, that inversion is as slow as a turtle coming out of its shell, affecting other human beings beyond just the unprotected class. Pro-abortion protesters holding signs that say, for example, “Abort Kavanagh” (one of the Supreme Court justices who voted to strike down Roe) illustrate Douglass’ point.  How does the pro-abortion protester not recognize the sign calls for the execution of a life, showing what “abort” really means? 

Equal and Opposite Reactions

While that is true, Christian preachers also recognize one effect of the law which does not bring about the result it calls for.  In Romans 7:8, the Apostle Paul describes how commandments and laws can actually cause the very behavior they try to restrict.  “Sin,” Paul described from personal experience, “seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”  In other words, if I tell you, “Don’t turn the news on right now, you don’t want to see what’s happening,” you will be awfully tempted to turn on the news.  Theologians call our natural rebelliousness “original sin.”  The musical Hamilton applies this politically in a Cabinet Battle line: “Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky / Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky.”

The musical reference is to a years-running rebellion against George Washington’s government (see Whisky Rebellion).  Laws only curb injustice when the punishment is sufficiently strong and unavoidable as to change behavior by fear or pride.  When a law lacks teeth, and/or a law’s subjects do not believe the law is just, it may end up having the opposite effect of spurring on bad behavior (see Prohibition).

In the case of the unborn human being, the best result is for both the child’s mother and father to recognize her humanity and love her.  States and voters must ask, “Are there laws we can pass which will aid in accomplishing this goal?”  Some Christians will determine that in the case of human life, prohibition is just and necessary.  Some may wish for more moderate restrictions on abortion, perhaps similar to what is seen in Europe, where abortion is regularly restricted in the same timeframe Mississippi attempted in the Dobbs case.  A depoliticization of abortion could give churches more space for working family by family to foster love.  Others think we won’t be able to depoliticize abortion at this point.  Still others hold Libertarian perspectives that keeping the church out of legislation frees the church to preach a higher ethic on all sexual matters without nearly so much entrenched political pushback.  Another perspective would hope for the government to answer much of the misleading propaganda on the subject with surgeon general style warnings.  Some of those perspectives are wrong, but as a pastor, I am less qualified to see and say which is wrong.

Do Pro-Life Laws Establish Religion?

Polls note that Christians are more likely to be pro-life.  Does that mean that pro-life laws are religious laws?

The case for recognizing a fetus as a human life is not exclusively Christian or religious.  While the Bible also speaks of the unborn as loved and valued by God, widespread pro-life recognition bloomed when ultrasounds and embryology gave us more understanding of what happens in the womb during pregnancy.  Christians were convinced by the science.

Recognition is different from evaluation.  It is specifically Christian to value human lives who are seen as economically or socially burdensome.  “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” Paul wrote (Gal. 6:2).

Also, the Christian practice of repentance for forgiveness aids open-minded confession of past sins, believing we can and are released from guilt.  If you are a father who pressured a woman you once loved to end the life of your and her child, I expect this is a moral weight hard to bear.  Wouldn’t such fathers-turned-enemy be motivated to deny the possibility of human life being hidden in the womb?  For each of the nearly one million abortions per year, how many multiples of people were part of that chorus who told the mother, “You can’t raise a child right now”?

Christians, on the other hand, believe each life is planned by God.  It is part of our fundamental view of the world that where life has been given, we are also given the ability to bless and be blessed by that life. That encourages us to be divergent voices saying, “You can do this.”

Again, I know Christians have not and do not follow through consistently on these beliefs.  I confess I fail to follow through on beliefs I preach. When I preach, I preach also to myself. These beliefs, nevertheless, encourage self-reflection, repentance, and restitution.

Along these lines, I can understand why pro-life laws can be seen as Christian.  I know some non-Christian pro-life voices who are likely motivated to answer more strongly than I am.  For my part, I’d rather say what every Christian pastor should say. If you regret choices you’ve made in regard to unborn life, I don’t want you to live in guilt or shame for that or anything else.  Your mistakes and missteps are forgiven in Christ Jesus.  We believe Jesus took one of the ultimate moments of dehumanization—Roman crucifixion—and made it a life-affirming, forgiving event for all the world (John 3:16).  All things can be turned to good in your life.  I’d like to say so much more along these lines, so if you have any questions, please follow up with me.


The unborn being is a human child.  Jesus’ church ought to consistently discourage abortion and look to the blessings of taking on one another’s burdens.  Advocacy for the unborn should remind us to remove logs in our own eyes in regard to others whom we are tempted to overlook.  At the same time, members of Christian churches may disagree on the place of a nation’s or state’s laws in restricting abortion.  While we foster agreement that the being in the womb is a child loved by God, we may disagree on the best way to protect the large numbers of at-risk children.  The disagreement will center on perspectives about the limitations of what states can accomplish and how great is the impact of codifying discrimination.  Christians should not expect religious or secular perspectives that value commerce over human life to share our advocacy, but that does not mean the logic of our advocacy is inherently religious.  We are motivated to advocate for life because we believe Jesus advocates for us, for our neighbors, for you, for all He created and has redeemed.

Further Reading


Michael Salemink A Biblical Response to Abortion

Diane E. Shroeder The Soul Wound of Abortion

Francis Beckwith Defending Life:  A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Rights

Abby Johnson Unplanned

Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen Embryo:  A Defense of Human Life

Jesus Never Said?

I’ve been asked to respond to a viral video claiming that Jesus never says anything about homosexuality. We have discussed this in the past and I generally do not want to let politicians set the church’s agenda for how we preach and teach.  So, I am not linking to something that is already viral and misrepresents Jesus.  I also recognize that there have been a lot of politicians saying false things on all sorts of topics.  Why respond to this one and not all of them?  In addition to members asking me about this specific case, I believe the claim that Jesus hasn’t said anything on a topic gets at a larger question.

So, here are a list of all the things Jesus says about bullying:

And here are a list of all the things Jesus says about racism:

Once more, with feeling, here are all the things Jesus says about cannibalism:

In each of these cases, I am misleading if you think I have represented what we understand Jesus commanded His disciples to be taught.  Regarding bullying, the Old Testament Law taught: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:18). Additionally, Jesus’ apostle taught, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7).  I could continue to list many passages that apply to bullying.

Similarly, on the subject of racism, I believe the Bible itself makes the first and foundational case against discrimination based on tribe, tongue, and race.  This case starts in the first verses with Genesis, depicting all of humanity as having a common ancestor, all being made with dignity in God’s image.  This continues through a book like Jonah, which satirizes Jewish prejudice against Gentiles.  Jesus’ apostle explained that in the Baptized community, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (Gal 3:28).  This carries through to the end with John’s Revelation hoping for a restored and perfect community that will contain every tribe and nation.  The Bible, page after page, combats racism.

Why, then, don’t we have a nice pull quote from Jesus Himself saying in bright red letters, “Thou shalt not be a racist”?  Jesus lived among people who regularly expressed prejudice against outsiders, and who also felt that discrimination from their conquerors.  His undercutting of racism is canny and requires explanation in our context.  If you read His encounter with a Gentile woman in Mt 15:21-28, the passage as a whole makes clear that Jesus is uplifting the outsider as an example of faith.  To get there, though, we pass through some ugly words expressed unashamedly.  Jesus’ actions show how short-sighted His disciples’ prejudices were.  But like a good teacher, He brings them along so that the truth dawns fully.  There’s a reason, after all, that one of those disciples faithfully and self-critically records those events.  Jesus taught His disciples so that they would be ready for the second stage of His ministry when He sends them to all nations (Mt 28).

We know from ancient writings that the Jewish community Jesus lived among was very much opposed to homosexual activity.  Jesus’ contemporaries were disgusted by the practices they saw in the Gentile cultures around them.  If Jesus agreed with the underlying moral case, He didn’t need to preach it while among Jews, just like He didn’t need to preach against cannibalism.  It was not a live issue among first century Jews.  On the other hand, if Jesus believed there was no moral case against some forms of sexual immorality, if He believed that the Jewish perspective was prejudicial, we might expect Him to undercut those tendencies as He undercuts cultural prejudice in Mt 15:21-28.  He knew He was sending apostles out among Gentiles and prepared them for that cross-cultural ministry.  When those apostles encountered Gentile sexual immorality, they declared homosexual acts sinful (e.g. Rom 1:24-32).  They also overcame their culture’s disgust and were glad to share complete fellowship with Christians who had once practiced those sins and repented (1 Cor 6:9-20).

Jesus was careful to prepare those apostles because of the known authority anyone’s apostle carried.  The office of apostle was not just religious.  In a world without the communication technology we have, authorized messengers were necessary to carry out business.  An “apostle” was more than just a messenger; rather, an apostle is more like an ambassador.  When an apostle spoke, his words counted as the words of the one sending him.  This concept is present in Jn 5:23 when Jesus says, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”  Later, Jesus expands this in Jn 17:18 and 20:21 when He tells the apostles He is sending them as the Father sent Him.  Not only will John and Peter speak for Jesus, but the apostles of Christ speak for the Father, too.  The Apostle Paul- a previous enemy of the church forgiven and restored- is also recognized as sent by Jesus (Acts 9:15).

Ignoring that Jesus chose and authorized and sent the apostles who wrote the New Testament would be like saying I don’t know what the President believes about an issue his press secretary has been covering again and again in official briefings.  The official teachings of Jesus’ apostles are Jesus’ words.

Now, all this has been taking people at their word when they claim Jesus doesn’t say anything about homosexuality.  I have no doubt that several of the people who repeat that claim do not know any better. Still, it is not true.

Jesus, for example, defines marriage very clearly in Mt 19.  “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”  This passage is an equal opportunity offender, teaching against plenty of heterosexual sin commonly overlooked in some churches.  We should take the log out of our own eyes first as we apply these verses (see Mt 19:10-12).  Still, those wondering what Jesus teaches about possible homosexual unions can find Jesus’ teaching here.

Similarly in Mark 7:21-23, Jesus says, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery… all these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  Jesus does not specify particular forms of sexual immorality, but the word used is broad and can include homosexuality.  As Jesus uses the word, He clearly intends “sexual immorality” to include more than just “adultery.”

Finally, Jesus explicitly endorses the moral teaching of the Law of Moses.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them… whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:17-20).  The Old Testament is God’s Word fulfilled in Christ (John 5:46-47).

Claiming Jesus says nothing about homosexuality makes for a cute and misleading soundbite; disciples serious about following Jesus will beware those who relax even the least of these commandments. At the same time, none of us will think we have kept all the commandments.  The commandments teach us how far Jesus has come to forgive and restore us. Flowing out of His perfect life, the commandments also guide how we should try to love our neighbors.  After all, very few of us do not have to learn the hard way that not everything which claims to be loving proves to benefit our neighbors, ourselves, and society. So, we keep listening to God’s Word- all of it-  seeking to correct our own hearts before anyone else’s, confident God forgives the sins of all the world in Christ Jesus.

Resurrection and New Life in Encanto

The animated movie Encanto slipped through theaters in the last weeks of 2021 with little fanfare. Since becoming available on streaming, the songs have gone viral.  The soundtrack is in its third week at #1; “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” has become only the second song from a Disney animated film to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  This reflects how the movie and songs can be hard to take in on the first pass but reward repeat attention.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, famous for his Broadway smash Hamilton, wrote the songs for Encanto.  His style is often fast paced, requiring a third or fourth listen to take in all the lyrics.  The song at the heart of Encanto, “Dos Oruguitas,” is entirely in Spanish.  English-speaking viewers and listeners may miss how Encanto resonates deeply with the Bible’s invitation to baptism.

In the Bible, baptism “goes viral” with the ministry of a first-century prophet named John.  That’s not precisely when the theme of baptism began, however. John the Baptist pointed to those earlier origins by locating his ministry at the Jordan River.  The Jordan was the eastern border of the Promised Land conquered fourteen centuries earlier by Joshua.  Joshua crossed the Jordan River with a miraculous parting of waters (Joshua 3:14-17).  John’s baptism, then, took the Jews back to their national origin, like an American pilgrim visiting where Washington crossed the Delaware.

Joshua’s miracle crossing itself resonated with prior waterworks.  At the Jordan River, Joshua took the mantle of leadership from the Old Testament’s greatest hero, Moses.  Moses’ signature miracle was at the Red Sea.  Pinned on the sea’s banks by Egyptian enslavers, God saved His people with a miracle, parting the waters to allow Israel’s safe passage (Exodus 14). By taking Israel back to their border so many centuries later, John the Baptist was illustrating how repentance could allow us to start fresh, leaving behind the sinful self and beginning again (Luke 3:1-14).

Encanto also places its heroes’ origins at a river.  Much like for Israel, hostile foes chase refugees to the banks of the water.  Crossing over the water gives entrance to a land of bounty and blessing.  At that water, there is a miracle birthed from self-sacrifice.

We only find this out at the climax of the movie.  The movie begins with the heroes at a time of growing crisis.  The miracle upon which their refuge is built has stopped working consistently.  What is “the miracle”?  That is, in some ways, the mystery of the movie.  Our primary heroine, Mirabel, was the first to be disappointed by the miracle. Everyone else in her family received an evident gift, or superpower, during a rite of passage.  If Mirabel received a gift, no one could tell what it was.  On the one hand, Mirabel appreciates all her family has been given by “the miracle.”  On the other hand, she feels passed over.

As the movie continues, more cracks appear in the miracle’s works.  Some gifts appear to falter or change.  The house, their promised land, looks to be crumbling.  Mirabel seeks out her uncle Bruno, whom the family doesn’t talk about (though they do sing about not talking about him).  Bruno’s “gift” is to see the future.

Mirabel finds that the last prophecy Bruno experienced before disappearing was inscribed as an icon. It is a picture of their home with Mirabel in front of it.  The image shifts, however, back and forth from the house breaking and the home being whole.

That image—both sides of it—turns out to be a picture of the miracle.  Mirabel’s dogged commitment to truth-telling (is that her miracle gift or just who she is?) requires being honest about the hidden cracks in the family. Her uncovering of those cracks seems like it may be a curse.  The family members individually hope to paper over the cracks and pretend they are just a step away from everything being fine.

But the miracle requires breaking the old to uncover the new.  “Dos Oruguitas” explains this.  A caterpillar builds the instrument of its undoing, a cocoon, but becomes a reborn butterfly.  The English version of the song says, 

Ay, oruguitas
Don’t you hold on too tight
Both of you know
It’s your time to grow
To fall apart, to reunite
Wonders await you
Just on the other side
Trust they’ll be there
And start to prepare
The way for tomorrow

Without Mirabel revealing the cracks, the family would not be able to grow, reunite, and restore.  When Mirabel confronts Abuela, her grandmother who had received their foundational miracle at the river, they have to go back to that river.  Abuela says she had not been able to get back there until Mirabel revealed the cracks.

For Christians, baptism functions in the same way.  Baptism is foundational, our entrance rite to the church.  At the same time, we are called to return to repentance again and again. Repentance is a process of dying to self, turning towards others.  We acknowledge our sin and seek forgiveness and restitution.  Jesus’ apostle, Paul, wrote to the Romans,

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

Christians learn to expect that God’s Word will reveal cracks in our lives, sins with which we continue to struggle.  But we return to the forgiveness and new life Jesus pours out in the family He builds. Baptism seals the Word’s work of breaking down to rebuild whole.  On the one hand, “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” one prophet explained (Jeremiah 23:29).  On the other hand, another prophet understood his work in these words: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2).  These are not contradictory but complementary.  Just as Bruno’s prophecy about Mirabel required the breaking to make whole, so God’s Word leads us to brokenness before wholeness.

Sherlock and the Mystery of Baptism

The BBC Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Strange) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) is not a straightforward TV show.  Things you thought you might have seen happen, may not have happened.  That’s why I hesitate to share what I thought I saw happen in the season four premiere, “The Sixth Thatcher.”  If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to wait to read on—for my sake, too, as I’d be glad to hear your take from watching without having heard my take first.

It all starts with a baptism.  John and Mary Watson ask Sherlock Holmes to stand as godfather for their daughter.  It’s a funny scene, in which the priest is hardly heard as Sherlock can’t stop texting, his words playing on the screen.  We don’t see the actual baptism of the child, instead seeing Sherlock, in a moment of comparative solemnity, text on his phone behind his back.

And yet, what I saw through the rest of the show was a picture of Baptism drawn in a remarkably traditional Christian way.  What we don’t see in the comedic scene we end up seeing through all the rest of the drama.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).  The mystery of dying under the water to be made new actually fits "The Sixth Thatcher" to a T.

A lot happens in this episode, and to order our thoughts, we should first step back to look at the big picture.  Both Watson and Sherlock are moving on parallel character arcs.  Because of pride, they are blindly pushing forward on paths that betray those they love.  In the climactic scene, their pride is crushed.  They were both wrong, and they can’t deny it or take it back.

Throughout the episode, this has all been foreshadowed by the recurring image of a smashed bust.  One of six busts of Margaret Thatcher contains a secret.  Someone is tracking down the busts and smashing them to find the secret.  That’s the plot, but the image is important as a picture.  The TV show depicts the bust being destroyed in great detail, not once but several times throughout the episode. 

The shattered bust foreshadows the shattering of the self-image both John Watson and Sherlock Holmes have of themselves.  When we’re first introduced to the shattering of the bust, Mycroft Holmes remarks about meeting Margaret Thatcher and finding her proud.  The proud will be crushed by episode’s end to find out what’s inside.  That’s not just about the mystery; it’s about the characters.

Where do we see the crushing of the image of the proud?  We see it underwater.  Water is also a recurring image through the episode.  The scene’s climax happens at an aquarium.  To get to that scene, we watch Sherlock pass through the water.  The climax echoes an earlier scene, also showcased in water.

An indoor pool, in scenery that evokes steamy claustrophobia, is the setting for the first visible smashing of a Thatcher bust.  Sherlock is certain he knows what game is afoot.  He is certain he knows what is inside the bust.  He is wrong and wrong.

From the beginning of the episode, Sherlock assumes that his great foe, Moriarty, is plotting his course.  Perhaps by the end of the season he will become right.  After one episode, however, there is no evidence that Moriarty is pulling the strings.  Sherlock appears to be wrong.

This is also a theme in play throughout “The Sixth Thatcher.”  The episode recounts the ancient tale of the appointment in Samarra several times.  That Mesopotomian tale proclaims the inevitability of death with a strong fatalistic overtone.  We hear that Sherlock as a child tried to rewrite the story with the hero travelling to Sumatra and outwitting death.  Sherlock insists he can keep Mary Watson safe, but he cannot.  He is wrong and nearly dies for his wrongness.

In both underwater scenes, Sherlock is powerless to save himself.  In both scenes, he misunderstands the person who has power over him.  In both scenes, he could not escape death on his own, except that someone had mercy on him.

In the first underwater scene, Sherlock is warned that he doesn’t understand.  He fights a villain that turns out not to be a villain.  He smashes a bust and finds that what is inside is not what he proclaimed it would be.  He escapes death only by water and by the non-villain choosing to leave Sherlock alive.

In the second underwater scene, Sherlock still doesn’t understand.  He taunts the true villain until she chooses to do something he doesn’t expect, shooting at him.  Sherlock only escapes death because Mary Watson trades places with him, taking the bullet that was meant for him.

In traditional Christian theology, Baptism is a holy washing, a removal of sin as Jesus takes the place of the sinner, giving His life in our place.  “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).  Baptism, then, is not just a onetime event the Christian leaves in the past.  Rather, it is a stamping of a pattern onto one’s life, a promise that as the Christian humbles himself in repentance, his saving God will lift him up through faith.  That pattern holds to the ultimate humbling—actual death—and beyond, as the Father raises up those who bear His name.

So, underwater, Mary Watson gives her life for Sherlock, and he is changed.  He admits he is wrong.  He even goes to therapy.  Baptism is the place for the destruction of the idol of self.

John Watson has a similar experience.  The show reveals he had been cheating on Mary, texting and meeting with another woman.  When Watson finds Mary dying in the aquarium, she tells him he was the best of husbands.  Martin Freeman’s acting reveals Watson is not only hurt by her dying, but undone by her faith in him.  As he grieves in this scene, his face is hidden.  The mask is shattered. 

An alternative view of Baptism appeared in the sixteenth century among the Anabaptists.  For them, the washing in water with the Word was not about what God did, sealing His promises with the Holy Spirit.  Rather, they taught, Baptism was about the vow the Baptized made to God to be faithful.  That’s why, if the Baptized was thought not to have kept the vow, Anabaptists advocated rebaptism.

Throughout “The Sixth Thatcher,” the show’s protagonists are shown to be unable to keep their vows.  Sherlock’s vow to keep Mary safe was not only wrong, but he led her into danger twice.  The vows Mary made with the compatriots from her former life also failed to save them.  John breaks his marriage vows to Mary through his relationship with another woman.  When these human vows come undone, the hurting people turn against each other.

That is why it is important that Christians crush their idols in the waters of baptism.  The only escape route from death is through the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, through the leading and guiding of the One who truly is ordering the stories of our lives.

At the beginning of “The Sixth Thatcher,” we laugh at a man full of himself ignoring the baptismal pattern that will explain everything that follows.  By the end of the show, however, the empty vows made by the human beings are shattered.  The enduring power comes from the sacrifice made in love.

A Season of Reconciliation at Downton Abbey

Beware, spoilers afoot! Don’t read on if you haven’t yet watched the conclusion of Downton Abbey and want to remain unspoiled.


Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey concluded its PBS run this past weekend.  It was a “happy ending,” too happy for some.  More specifically, I’d say, Downton Abbey concluded with many happy endings, each a repetition of the same theme.  


Again and again, the theme of 1 John 1 was repeated for the characters of Downton.  


5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.


John teaches us that trying to hide secrets from one another, especially our sins, only gives those sins continuing power over us.  Confession allows us to reconcile and move towards walking in the light, freed from our past.  This theme was played out in storyline after storyline of Downton Abbey’s final season.


Most powerfully, the finale saw the reconciliation of two of the strongest rivalries in the series.  In the midst of season one, who would expect the reconciliation of either sisters Edith and Mary or downstairs mainstays Thomas the footman and Bates the valet?  Those two pairs each tried to ruin each other.


Edith’s story moved to center stage for the finale.  She was tempted to keep covered up her out-of-wedlock child, Marigold.  Instead, she was honest with her potential judges.  It was only through such honesty that she found full and stable reconciliation.


It was not just on the main stage this theme played out.  Butler Spratt found he had nothing to fear from having his secret brought into the light.  Isobel found open and vulnerable confrontation was the only path to restoration with her love interest.  Mary’s realizations about why she feared a relationship humbled her, enabling her happy ending.


The pattern was repeated again and again.  Characters had darkness in their past they were tempted to keep hidden.  While they tried to keep it hidden, that darkness directed them away from their happiness.  Only by owning that past were they able to move towards a happier future, reconciled with the people who were important to them.


This theme was at its most potent in the story of Thomas.  Thomas was a conniving villain much of the show.  Though he secretly cherished the friends and family of the abbey, his aloof manner and penchant for insults kept him separated from the others.  Only through honestly revealing his sadness and longing was his reconciliation and final exaltation possible.

There is a great deal of irony in the New York Times criticizing British lord of the manor and Downton creator/writer Fellowes for penning an “American” ending.  One is tempted to say that it is very “American” for the New York Times to think it knows English writing better than one of the premier English screenwriters.  But it’s not a matter of the Atlantic divide here.  Fellowes is a practicing Roman Catholic.  He believes coming into the light can change the path of a person’s life.  It’s heartening to see that faith portrayed on the screen in such vibrancy.

A Post-"Apocalyptic" Novel about Vocation?

Emily St. John Mandel has written a wonderful book, Station Eleven, recognized with several award nominations, including being a finalist for the National Book Award.  She has taken a topic much dwelled upon in modern fiction—an end-of-civilization “apocalypse”—but approached it from a fresh perspective.

Much end-of-the-world fiction celebrates a new world where the expectation is that a simpler, survival-based existence strips the falsity of modernity away.  In those tales, zombie hordes are a metaphor for how we feel about the masses of people we live among; we hope not to gain their attention, for if we do, surely they will harry us.

Station Eleven, however, prefers to celebrate the wonder of modern civilization.  Mandel writes, “Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is.  We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all.  There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt” (loc 2626).  Station Eleven’s chosen protagonists fit this theme.  The book does not follow former-housewives-turned-battle-proven-warriors, but a caravan of performers, musicians and actors, bringing Shakespeare to the towns surviving along the Great Lakes. 

At first glance, the Traveling Symphony’s Star Trek inspired-motto, “Because survival is insufficient,” seems like it may be the theme of the book.  Yet the characters in the Symphony themselves find their motto insufficient.  The beauty of this world calls for celebration in poetry, art, the joining of human souls.

And so, in a “post-apocalyptic” setting, Mandel can wax eloquent about something we might be tempted to see as kitsch. 

“Clark had always been fond of beautiful objects, and in his present state of mind, all objects were beautiful.  He stood by the case and found himself moved by every object he saw there, by the human enterprise each object had required.  Consider the snow globe.  Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China.  Consider the white gloves on the hands of the woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes….”

Mandel continues to fill an entire page.  It is thematic:  “survival is insufficient,” so we band together to appreciate what we can make together.

What of the fear that the people around us might be hostile, or, at least, just sleepwalkers who only get in the way?  Before Clark (cited in the musing above) begins a museum of civilization in an airport sky-miles lounge, he had been a management consultant whose work consisted of determining if a struggling executive could be fixed or simply needed to be replaced.  While working on one report, a secretary seems to provide wisdom for more than just the report.

“He had been sleepwalking, Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for a while now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work?  When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything?  When had he last felt awe or inspiration?  He wished he could somehow go back and find the iPhone people whom he’d jostled on the sidewalk earlier, apologize to them—I’m sorry, I’ve just realized that I’m as minimally present in this world as you are, I had no right to judge—and also he wanted to call every target of every 360Á report and apologize to them too, because it’s an awful thing to appear in someone else’s report, he saw that now, it’s an awful thing to be the target” (loc 2444).

This significant passage highlights two important themes: being minimally present in the actual world and the awfulness of being a target. The first theme is highlighted in the life of Miranda, in-world author of the comic book Dr. Eleven.  Miranda is drawn as an isolated figure in nearly every scene in which she appears, not coincidentally, a character utterly opposed to having children herself.

Dr. Eleven is her life’s joy, though she does not care to share her creation.  She gives two copies of the first two volumes of Dr. Eleven (Did she only, in the end, write just two volumes?  We do not know.) to her ex-husband, Arthur.  Without reading them, because Arthur is “simplifying” his life by removing “stuff,” he passes them off, one to his son, and one to a child actress who is working with him in the theater.

These same two characters keep the comics through the “apocalypse” of the novel.  Now here comes the SPOILER.  When those two characters finally meet, they are opposed, one ready to kill the other.  Yet the aggressor says something which evokes the comic.  So the potential victim tries to draw a connection from that work.  But no connection is drawn.  Art born of isolation, even if beautiful, fails because it does not wake the sleepwalker.  We are left minimally present in the real world.

The importance of being present in the world that is raises questions about the second theme, that of the awfulness of being the target.  Towards the end of the novel, Arthur, Miranda’s ex-husband, is playing King Lear.  He is sent on stage before the official start time, as the audience files in, to stare at his crown.  The first night, he broods, “regrets crowding in around him like moths to a light.”  He barely makes it through this unrelenting self-reflection.  The second night, remembering Miranda to once have said, “I repent nothing,” he decides, instead, to think of everything good.

This turn, similar to Clark’s awakening from sleepwalking, reminds of a theme fundamental to Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther:  incurvatus in se, being curved in on oneself.  The great theologians saw sin as a wretched turning in on oneself.  This inward posture keeps us from appreciating both Creator and creation as goods in themselves, twisting them to be our means for self-justification or self-adulation.

In classic Augustinian/Lutheran theology, then, preaching to repentance is meant to do what the secretary does to Clark, wake you up, get you to see you are a sleepwalker, not only wasting the breath given you, but harming those given to love you.

And in classic Augustinian/Lutheran theology, it is an awful thing to be a target of that preaching because it reveals you to be “dead in your trespasses.”  That awful diagnosis is meant to be followed with the good news of the Gospel, that Jesus, the Author of Life, died in your place, rose again, and pours out new life on all who believe.  It is that message which “makes alive.”  It is that message which is not present in Station Eleven.

So the religion that is present in Station Eleven is all isolating.  No historic religion is portrayed.  We might consider that the artifacts of the church are as gloriously connected as the snow globe, with a hymnal populated by voices across the globe and across time, with the church structures inspired similarly, built ages ago, and repaired and embellished generation after generation.

But in Station Eleven there is only “the Prophet,” a lonely voice with a message of his own making, who does not preach to the living but to the literal dead.  The Prophet does not preach repentance and reconciliation to his own flock.  He preaches division, that they are better than outsiders.

Mandel’s book is elegant as it is.  She may have chosen not to grapple with actual historical religions simply because they would have been too large for her theme and scope.  As I, a Lutheran pastor, read Station Eleven, however, I find her work crying out to be addressed by the Gospel handed over to me by generations past, the Gospel which seeks to unite people of all tribes and languages.  Lutheran theology sings along on several of her verses and adds a chorus to replace the discord of the lonely prophet.

The theme, for example, of the marvel of the snow globe has long been meditated upon in the Lutheran doctrine of vocation.  “Vocation” indicates our stations in life.  I am a husband.  I am a father.  I am a pastor.  I am a writer.  I am a son.  I am a brother.  I am a customer.  I am a patron of the arts.  I could go on.  God has placed me in these vocations, offering me opportunities to connect with other human beings.  These bridges from one to another can sometimes feel like duty-bound burdens, tempting me to be minimally present.  But when I embrace these duties through humble service, I find myself caught up in endeavors that transcend my lonely self, even as they remain mundane.  The baker goes about his daily grind, even as he is part of the answer to so many prayers, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  For more on vocation, a reader does well to turn to Gene Veith’s book God at Work.

Finally, the theme of repentance is, of course, central in Christian theology.  Luther himself had to learn the point of repentance.  Luther once spent the better part of a day in confession, listing everything he did wrong.  The purpose of repentance is not to wallow in what can’t be changed.  The purpose of repentance is to humble yourself so that you can become more present, not just to your fellow men around you, but to the God who renews you.  Repentance prepares you for a message which always cuts against isolation, the Gospel of Emmanuel.  The Son of God was born into this mundane world to live among us to show grace in this fallen world.  He’s promised an eternal restoration, He remains with us in grace.

Station Eleven is well worth a read.  It presents a disappointing picture of religion, but, after all, there are plenty of misleading religions.  Besides, the wisdom it does present is not only harmonious with traditional Christianity, it is the kind of book to open ears to hear that wisdom.