why modernizations matter

I have a lot of fun with modernizations of classic novels or plays; whether it’s experiencing them or dreaming them up, I’m drawn to them exceedingly. There is nothing more entertaining than watching your favorite characters burst onto the scene of modernity – it’s like they’re entering into our world. When my brother, cousin and I watched Clueless, I don’t think anyone enjoyed seeing the updates to Austen’s Emma as much as I did (and I definitely don’t think the two of them liked me screeching out scenes from the original book). When you pitch a novel into the modern world, you lose all the trappings that distance you from its issues; it’s easy to look at costumes and old language and say, “This happened, but it was in the past, so it doesn’t really apply to my life.”

Let me talk about one of the best birthday presents I have ever received: This year, for my 21st, my family got me tickets to the Dallas Theater Center’s modern performance of Les Mis. I do not say this lightly: not only was it the best production of Les Mis that I have ever seen, but it may have been the best performance I’ve attended, period. The musical hasn’t really changed in its staging since its inception, and that tends to remove the audience; this threw us right into the issues Hugo had been trying to bring to light in the 19th century. The preface to Les Mis says it best:

“so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”

With this production, I was slapped in the face with the realization that these miserable things really do still plague our society. The cast was diverse, desperate and honest, conveying emotion that I didn’t realize the play had left. The prisoners wore orange and the plight of the ex-con is palpable and raw; lovely ladies was a shocking jolt. The poor pushed shopping carts and held “ex-veteran” signs, Valjean had prison tattoos, the students sipped lattes and traded their hipster scarves in for bulletproof vests and Che Guevara caps; the Thenardiers ran a seedy dive bar. The police brutality was so painful and palpable; in the final barricade scene, the faceless police officers surrounded the audience, moving in through the crowd and killing the rebels; it was so personal and awful and topical. I questioned the revolutionaries a lot more this time – in today’s world, what would drive someone to lead themselves and their friends into the mouth of death? – but Gavroche’s murder made me realize what they were fighting for.

More than anything, it did exactly what Les Mis was intended to do: it inflamed my sense of justice and my desire to try to right the societally imposed wrongs that I see in the world. In N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (confession, I haven’t finished) and several conversations with my father have helped me realize that trying to make the world better isn’t optional – as Christians, especially, we are called to feed, clothe, shelter, and comfort our fellow man. It’s not a resume-building volunteerism that should propel us, but a desire to see God’s kingdom realized on earth:

“Resurrection, by contrast, has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise not to a meek acquiescence to injustice in the world but to a robust determination to oppose it.”

Moderizations are incredibly fun and entertaining, but the point should always, always be to encourage a deeper understanding of the original text by applying it to our own world. The point of so much literature is to touch on modern issues; although they might seem old-fashioned now, at the time they were written, their authors intended them as a commentary on modern society’s shortcomings.

In another vein, I saw the trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Annie last week and was blown away; I didn’t expect to be as excited as I am, but when I saw that they had made Annie a foster child, I was so struck and so glad that they updated the story. In this version, Annie is black, and although some (racist) people were upset, I could not be more glad. In the original version, Annie’s red hair marks her as belonging to a group that was marginalized (more strongly in the 19th century) – the Irish. Today, Annie’s race also places her in a racial group that is still often shown prejudice and unfair treatment; African-Americans have to fight stereotype every day.

Representation is so important; as vital as it is for everyone that all different types of people are portrayed as real characters in media, it affects children most.  When young girls and boys can see themselves in television, books, and movies, it inspires them and gives them characters to identify with. It makes them believe that they can be the heroes of their own stories: Latina girls watching Brooklyn Nine Nine can aspire to be cops, and Asian-American boys watching Up can hope to be as brave as Russell.  With the modernized Annie, thousands of African-American girls and thousands of children in foster care can see themselves on screen and say, my story is important; hopefully, the rest of us can say the same.

Hugo was right – by nature, people are broken and striving, and time will not change that. People have been the same since the beginning, and we continue to struggle between good and evil. This can seem daunting and hopeless, if we let it, but we have to keep working toward change for God’s kingdom. There will always be a story to tell or to retell; hopefully, we will continue to speak out for those who struggle to be heard.

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lady knights

I have been meaning to write this post for months, and I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to get around to it.  At the start of last term my mother called me long-distance, urgently; when I told her it was probably costing her an obscene amount of money, she said she had something spiritually vital to communicate, something that she’d gotten from others and from God over the past few days.

She sent me an illustration that she’d found of a female knight kneeling down in the armor of God – she said it struck her because she had never seen this passage illustrated with a woman, and she felt like it was supposed to be me.  “Satan is trying to attack you with untruths about yourself,” Mom said.  “You’ve got the rest of your armor on.  You’re in basic training right now, but you can slay the beast.  All you need to do is pick up your sword.” She urged me to fight with the word of God, to arm myself, and I began to cry as she spoke.

Of course, she was talking about the passage in Ephesians 6:10-20.  It’s long, but I’ll include the whole thing here, because it’s important, and because my offensive weapon is the word of God:

Exhortations for Spiritual Warfare:  Finally, be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.  For this reason, take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand. Stand firm therefore, by fastening the belt of truth around your waist, by putting on the breastplate of righteousness, by fitting your feet with the preparation that comes from the good news of peace, and in all of this, by taking up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. With every prayer and petition, pray at all times in the Spirit, and to this end be alert, with all perseverance and requests for all the saints. Pray for me also, that I may be given the message when I begin to speak – that I may confidently make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may be able to speak boldly as I ought to speak.”

I do struggle with so many other bits of this armor, but it’s how we stay defended.  We have to be fully equipped; each piece of the armor secures us against another of Satan’s traps.  When he tells us lies about ourselves, we can counter with the sword, backing up our worth with God’s words.  This isn’t just for us; I later stumbled upon Isaiah 59:15-17, where God himself, seeing that there is no justice in the world, takes it upon himself to work salvation:

He wears his desire for justice [or, ‘righteousness’] like body armor, [a breastplate]
and his desire to deliver is like a helmet on his head.
He puts on the garments of vengeance
and wears zeal like a robe.”

This is not the armor of God because he’s given it to us for comfort; it is His armor.  When we wear his righteousness and are crowned by his salvation, we act as his soldiers – we wear the armor of God, the armor that he himself wears.

Ever since then, I have been building up a tumblr tag, “lady knights”.  While several of them are actual women warriors, knights, or revolutionaries, many are also pioneers in science, technology, journalism, and other areas.  I am beginning to realize that this, too, is part of the fight; we are knights when we act honorably but refuse to be pushed aside, in doing the work of God and in furthering society.  There are few illustrations of women wearing the armor of God, but this fight does not depend on physical strength; I am allowed to be a warrior in it, called to be a warrior for it.

I have wondered so often about my own gender and the restrictions placed upon it in the Bible.  A deep part of me wants to chalk it up to cultural bias, wants to say that it doesn’t matter anymore, but then I see things tied in with Eve and don’t know how to feel.  My first response, of course, is to feel less, somehow incomplete and farther from God because he has made me a woman.  I think this too is a lie from the devil; I do not think God could see me as less just because of the way I have been created, because in Him there is no male or female, and he has used many women in the Bible to further his purpose.  But the insecurity is still there.

I cannot begin to express how deeply I have struggled with 1 Timothy 2:11-15.  I don’t want to remain quiet.  I want to be like Joan of Arc; if God gives me a vision I do not want to keep it to myself.  I mentioned to my father that I could never be a pastor, and he laughed, saying I’d hate the everyday detail-work of keeping everyone happy.  When I mentioned being a theologian, he said that thinking and reading and learning other languages seemed more up my alley (then sent me a chunk of N.T. Wright).  Who knows where I’ll end up; however, if the pen is mightier than the sword, this is another way for me to fight – the biggest way that I know how to fight.

I became a little obsessed with the concept, as my friends can attest.  My friend told me I was like Artemis and I grinned, and when she mentioned there needed to be a patron saint helping girls away from unwanted attention, I volunteered as fast as I could get the words out; when we brought up Joan of Arc my feelings grew.  These feelings are so tied into my prophecy feelings, and I still think it’s such a cool story, regardless of whether it’s true or not and regardless of the discomfort of making war religious; I cannot say if God did or did not use this girl.  In any case, she got an audience with the king, strategically led an army as a teenager, and died when she was nineteen, a year younger than I am now.  She was young, and she was a girl, and she did not let that stop her; she followed God’s voice to death.

Although Joan was tried for heresy, her trial was political; they labelled her cross-dressing as heresy even though she wore her male military clothing – her armor – to prevent the guards from raping her.  This brings me to the next section of this, regarding lady knights: the culture that has tried to objectify and take advantage of women.  All of it is tied up together.

I have come to realize that girls are so strong.  Girls are strong because we have to be; you don’t have to be physically strong to show that power, for there are many ways to exhibit strength.  When I started this post, I hadn’t thought about how it would or should link to current events, but I will now, after studies have shown that professors still favor men, that women are drastically underrepresented in media, and that six people, men and women, have been killed this week off the back of unhinged misogynistic rage.

I, like most of my female friends, am so deeply drawn to lady knights, badass girls, and women who know how to defend themselves because that is what we aspire to in the reality of our current society.  We live in a world where “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”; our desire is to be able to defend ourselves so completely that we do not have to fear, because we cannot guarantee that others will defend us.  We are learning to stand up for ourselves in word and deed, to demand respect and fair treatment; however, I know that this must be done out of love, keeping in mind our true opponent – Satan.  I want to be like Joan of Arc; I want to listen to the voice of God in order to bring about the justice of his will, and I want to be able to protect myself and my friends.  I want to put on the full armor of God to take my stand against the devil; I want to fight for God’s truth and justice, for I am called to a bigger battle, not against individuals but against evil.  And I want you – men and women – to fight with me.

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calvinism, Christianity, and the weight of the gospel

I’m studying 14th-17th century literature right now at Keble– I can hear you all groaning.  I was wary, but it’s actually been incredibly interesting.  I’ve learned a whole lot (I hope).  Of course, you can’t talk about this time period without breaching the subject of the different Christian sects of each time.  I, honestly, have loved this: I have been able to write my essays on God’s grace and mercy.  I have been able to commune with John Donne (my love) and attend lectures on religion in the Elizabethan era.  I was assigned Augustine for reading.  But a few weeks ago, our class on Calvinism hit me like a load of bricks.

Let me first clarify.  The class was on 17th century Calvinism, and it brought up a lot of uncomfortable things.  Calvin believed that man’s free will would cheapen God’s sovereignty, and so God controls everyone; he also chooses his elect and rejects the reprobate on seemingly arbitrary whim.  Because of this, you can never really know if you’ve been saved or not, and you can never know if you’re going to heaven or to hell.  According to Calvin, God even causes the rejected to feel like they have experienced God’s grace and Spirit.

This mentality wreaked havoc on the people of the time period.  They assumed God was punishing them for sins or for their own reprobate status; people even convinced themselves that, although they believed in Christ, they were still going to hell.  I’m not saying this was Calvin’s intention; I’m just saying that regardless, this is how it was taken by people of the 17th century.

Can God fairly and justly punish someone who He controls completely? This is when I realized that my greatest fear is not a nonexistent God; my greatest fear is that the universe is ruled by a cruel and arbitrary tyrant.

Do I believe this? I don’t think so.  If God were not good then our idea of order and justice and morality would be a sham, and the fabric of the universe would unravel.  Do I wrestle with questions I will never be able to answer on this earth? Yes, constantly.

The reactions of my classmates were telling.  They responded to the cruelty of Calvinism in a way that triggered their moral outrage, their sense of right and wrong.  And perhaps we can cite this same sense as evidence of a loving and justice-seeking God.  God, of course, does not have to follow the rules we make up for him.  But my heart sank as they spoke of these concepts as nonsense and rubbish, as they conflated this with Christianity and with Christ himself.

I cannot believe they are the same thing.

The constant fear of hell that Calvin expresses is not Biblical. Romans 10:13 tells us that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”; 1 John 3:19-20 that “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” We have assurance in Christ – John has even written: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  We are confident and assured – we know.

But I still came out of that class with a realization: regardless of Calvin, and regardless of what others believe, people will still go to hell.

It haunted me for days. It still is, honestly.  That day I sent frustrated messages to my parents as I tried to reconcile these concepts of agency and sovereignty.  I sat on my bed at the thought that my classmates, the strangers I pass on the street, the homeless man on the corner, the musicians behind each song I listen to, the friends I share my life with – that they could all be barred from heaven.  And I wept.

I think this is the proper response.  A friend told me that when we draw close to the heart of God, we become grieved for the same things He grieves for.

I don’t know how all of this works.  I hate that people have to go to hell.  I don’t understand how, if God can harden people’s hearts to keep the Israelites in slavery or soften them to accept the Holy Spirit, he can’t just do this for every human being on earth.  I have heard of dream-vision conversions, and I can’t understand why God will not send them to every living person on this earth.

But I trust him, and I think that this deep, heaving grief is also God’s response when we refuse him.  I think that free will has to exist, because without it, love cannot.  Without it, we have no choice to accept or reject.  But I trust God because I believe these things about him: that He is sovereign, and that He is good.

I trust that I cannot fathom the idea of hell as he can. I trust that he, as the ruler of the universe, knows better than I do.

I’m sorry if this feels like a cop-out.  I know it must.  But the simple truth is that I do not understand, I will not understand, and I will mourn.  And as we follow these truths out to their logical conclusions – as we struggle with these things – we act on where they take us.

We cannot simply weep over the non-Christians in our life and in our world.  We cannot mourn them as though they have already been damned.  There is hope for every human being in Christ, and we are mandated to share it: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16)

This is the scariest part.  There is a piece of me that does not want to post this, because if I do, I become a hypocrite if I don’t tell others of the grace and glory and beauty of Jesus Christ.  So that’s probably a good reason to put it up here.

I will confess that I feel uncomfortable telling other people about Jesus.  I’m scared they will avoid me, and I’m scared they will shy away from preaching and proselytizing.  I’m terrified.  But I can’t hold my own discomfort as more valuable than the lives of my brothers and sisters.  If you love someone – really love someone – you are compelled to show them the cure for eternal death.  Penn Jillette, an atheist, says this:

“If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

I know this is really heavy.  It’s been weighing me down.  But to forget would be folly.

My fellow Christians: hold me accountable.

My non-Christian friends:  I love you so dearly.  I do not want you to die.  I love you deeply, and that is why I tell you this:

We’re sinful.  When God gave us everything, including our very lives, we rebelled against him.  We chose death.  But God does not want us dead.  God is love itself, and God enacted this plan – he saw us in our suffering and sent us a remedy.  Jesus came to earth as God in human-skin so that he could take the penalty that we deserved.  He died – God took on the pain and death of humanity – for love of us.  We’re humans, we’re nothing compared to an eternal God – and yet he loved us.

He rose again from death, he defeated death itself.  For you.  And here’s the deal, now – we are offered grace.  We are offered redemption and future perfection and life with a wonderful and life-giving God.  If we take him up on the offer, we have to give up some of our idols and sins.  We have to serve God instead of our friends or careers or desire for money or fame or pleasure.

But it’s worth it.  I can’t express how much it is worth it, how content you can be when your worth is derived from the love God has for you instead of from your own accomplishments.

Ask me about this.  Tell me how weird this sounds, how improbable it is, tell me honestly what you think and why you cannot consider it.  I’ll tell you how much it’s worth it.

Peace, my friends.  Thanks for sticking this one out.

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good friday

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, wehave peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And weboast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!  Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”  Romans 5:1-11

God’s love is absolutely unfathomable.

We are terrible.  Fallen.  Rebellious and turned away from God, refusing him and choosing our own sin.  We think we can live without him, we blame him for things, we fall.

And yet.

God loves us.

We’re absolutely awful, and He still loves us enough to take the punishment that we deserved.  I talked to someone yesterday about this, why we need faith at all, or why God can’t just forgive people.  And I didn’t have a fantastic answer to that, because it’s a very tough question.

But I thought through it a little bit.  God must be both just and loving.  If God wasn’t a God of justice who punished wrongdoing, then He wouldn’t be a good God.  And we wouldn’t want to follow a God that’s not good.  That’s just… crazy.  A just God must rule the universe, and so we must be punished.  We deserve to be punished.

But God is also loving.  He wants to share that perfect love with us, and bring us to Him forever.

The sin, however, still stands.  The damage has been done (by us), and somebody must pay for it.  Somebody has to take the blame.  Forgiveness always comes at a cost… and He took that on Himself.  He absorbed our blame when He died on the cross and took the weight of sin upon himself on our behalf.  And as He took that sin upon himself, God turned away from Him in that moment.  Can you imagine? It’s like being ripped apart from yourself.  And he did this all freely– John says that He gave up his spirit.  It was a conscious choice, for you and me.

It’s the most beautiful story I’ve ever heard.  I think this is part of the reason that stories of sacrificial love resonate so strongly with us– because it’s an eternal truth, one that we find beautiful. A Tale of Two Cities is still one of my favorite books because of the profound sacrifice of Sydney Carton (sorry if I spoiled it…).  Sacrifice is beautiful because it’s true and it’s happened for us.

The story gets even more beautiful with the resurrection from the dead, the craziest, awesomest, and most pivotal event in history.  It gives us eternal life and reconciliation.

Death for life.

Happy Good Friday, and, (if I don’t come back soon), Happy Easter!

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