What I Didn’t Expect to See in “The Force Awakens”

Theatrical poster for "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens"

Theatrical poster for “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens”

WARNING: The following contains some major spoilers about the newest Star Wars installment. Read on at your own risk.

3:00 a.m. A moment ago, I was in the land of sleep, but now that bliss is denied me. My muscles are tensed. My mind is churning so hard it’s likely to produce butter. Each effort to relax seems to be in vain.

This isn’t like me. Undisturbed sleep is one area in which I typically excel. I once slept through a fire alarm, after all. So I’m going to attribute this nocturnal interruption to the excitement of the previous evening, when I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

True, I probably shouldn’t have had that Cherry Coke. I try to avoid drinking caffeine in the evening, and these days I avoid soda in general. (Something about all those added sugars being bad for my health, so I figure that abstaining means I can skip that five mile run.) But it’s not every day that I see the opening of a new Star Wars film, and this one promised to be a cut above the rest, so I decided to indulge. Live and learn.

Then again, caffeine has not historically given me fits, so maybe there’s something else to explain this unpleasant wakefulness. Could it be that I’m still a bit in shock from what I just saw on the screen?

I could hardly believe my eyes, yet there it was in front of me. The whole film had been leading up to it. The big baddy in this newest trip to a galaxy far, far away, an evil knight known as Kylo Ren, is revealed early on to be the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, and thus the grandson of whiny teenager turned übervillain Darth Vader. For the Star Wars universe, this isn’t such a big shock. Consider that this is the series that pulled off the greatest bloodline twist of all time in The Empire Strikes Back with that immortal line: “No, I am your father.”

Kylo Ren, who apparently was originally known as “Ben” (presumably after Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi), formerly trained under his uncle, Jedi hero Luke Skywalker, but at some point fell prey to the Dark Side and now takes his orders from a huge CGI hologram who goes by “Snoke”, a name that brings to mind nothing so much as a combination of “sniff” and “coke”. In fact, I’m fairly certain this will become the new slang term in the geek world for that very activity.

Han Solo comforts Princess (now General) Leia Organa in "The Force Awakens"

Han Solo comforts Princess (now General) Leia Organa in “The Force Awakens”

Princess Leia, now a general in the Resistance forces, implores Han Solo to find their offspring and bring him back to the light. “Bring our son home,” she asks. Having already seen their son behave rather dreadfully in earlier scenes (his favorite pastime is mental torture), this seems like a long shot, but despite Han’s own misgivings, his love for his son motivates him to give it one last shot.

That brings us to the climactic moment, when in true Star Wars fashion father and son meet man to man on a bridge hanging over an endless drop-off. It’s The Empire Strikes Back all over again, only this time the father is pleading for his son to return to the light, not join him in a quest for galactic domination.

For just a moment, the filmmakers allow us to think that Kylo Ren might respond positively. The son speaks of the mental anguish he has experienced, torn between his former life and current villainy. His father expresses that he is prepared to do anything it takes to restore his son. Then, even as “Ben” holds out his weapon for his father to take, the scene darkens. Kylo Ren plunges the light saber into his father with utter hatred, then allows him to fall to his death.

What a whopper of a scene! The writers seem to have recaptured the secret to making a great Star Wars film: at the end of the day, it’s not the stunning action sequences that stick with you, but the connection that one builds with the characters in a high drama of Shakespearean proportions. No one cares about a bunch of mindless drones, but a father begging his son to come home and then seeing those hopes dashed – that is something we can relate to and something which will affect us long after we leave the theater.

Yet, there was something else about that moment that seemed to cause me unease as I lay in my bed, struggling to go back to sleep. Finally, I realized what it was. The father-son story bears resemblance to another tale I once heard in our very own galaxy.

A son rebelling against his father and being seduced by the path of evil. A father intent on reconciliation, putting himself in a position of ultimate vulnerability, and pledging to do “anything” to bring that son back to the fold. The son rejecting this gracious offer of restoration and choosing instead to kill the grace giver.

Kylo Ren and his unique light saber in "The Force Awakens"

Kylo Ren and his unique light saber in “The Force Awakens”

I could not escape the idea that Kylo Ren represents humanity and Han Solo represents Jesus Christ. By no means do I think the filmmakers intended to leave that impression. After all, the character of Han Solo is in many ways totally unlike Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the emotions that I experienced while watching the film were very reminiscent of the “Prodigal Son” story, only this time there was no happy ending.

That is exactly what happened when Christ came to earth. We had chosen the way of evil and forsaken any connection with our Heavenly Father. We wanted nothing to do with Him, so much so that we nailed Him to a cross, putting Him to death. In our sinful nature, that is what we all really want: to put God to death, to forsake any loyalty we owe to our Creator, to take complete lordship over our own lives.

But there is something which might make the metaphor even stronger – say, if there was some kind of obvious Christian symbolism that I could latch onto, something which the filmmakers inserted without considering its significance, but which speaks to me on a symbolic level. Happily, I found such a symbol when I considered the weapon with which Han Solo was killed: a light saber unlike any other in the Star Wars universe. It has a laser hilt, giving it the form of the letter “t”, or as many of us know it, a cross. It was with that cross light saber that he killed his father.

“That’s kind of cool,” I thought to myself. “I’ll have to write that up in the morning.” And so I did, and now you are reading it. May the Lord be with us all.

The Worst Christmas Ever

"The Mystic Nativity" by Sandro Botticelli, circa 1500-01

“The Mystic Nativity” by Sandro Botticelli, circa 1500-01

Henry was having a terrible Christmas – possibly the worst Christmas ever.

One might almost say he was experiencing hell on earth, and not just because he was in the midst of producing a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, famous for its fanciful depictions of hell in all its ghoulish glory. He didn’t need Dante to tell him the meaning of suffering and despair. He was all too familiar with both.

Two years earlier, his beloved wife, Frances, accidentally set her dress on fire. He heard her cries from a nearby room and ran to her aid, throwing himself on top of her in an attempt to extinguish the flames. He sustained serious burns in the process, but none so bad as his wife’s. She died the following morning. Henry’s grief was absolute. He stated that he was “inwardly bleeding to death” and resorted to taking drugs in an attempt to dull the pain.

But that was only the beginning of Henry’s troubles. Indeed, his wife’s fate served as an apt metaphor for the world around him, which was in its own way going up in flames. Continue reading

U.S. Politics Got You Down? Brits to the Rescue!

The leaders of Britain's major political parties (including a seventh not pictured) participated in a TV debate last month prior to the 2015 UK general election. Screenshot of ITV's coverage of the debate taken from YouTube channel of Sky News

The leaders of Britain’s major political parties (including a seventh not pictured) participated in a TV debate last month prior to the 2015 UK general election. Screenshot of ITV’s coverage of the debate taken from YouTube channel of Sky News

As I settle in for a year and a half of non-stop coverage of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I find myself bracing for blistering attack ads, billions of dollars in campaign spending, partisanship capable of offending even the Montagues & Capulets, and the inevitability of a conclusion that is unlikely to satisfy me in any tangible way. It’s enough to make me want to avoid watching the news for the next 18 months, but why should that be?

After all, elections used to be fun, or so I thought. I would take to them much as Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock Holmes reacts to news of a gruesome murder with a gleeful, “The game is on!” Political elections are, after all, both the highest and lowest form of competitive sport. If only it were possible to cut down on all the TV commercials, reign in campaign spending, and force leading politicians to debate with many points of view rather than just one other! If only there was a way to enjoy watching all those glorious campaign gaffes and still know that none of my tax dollars would be negatively affected by the incompetence of said politicians!

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a way, but not in America. Instead, we need to go to a far older country – a kingdom, in fact. Yes, I’m talking about the United Kingdom, where the official campaign period is less than two months long, TV advertising is subject to strict regulations, and voters have some legitimate third (or fourth, or fifth) parties to choose from. Politics here plays out like Shakespearean drama about a mile from the location where Shakespearean drama was first performed. Continue reading

The End for Real

Dear Readers,

As you probably sensed, I have been trying for some time to keep up this blogging endeavor without much success. A few weeks ago, I asked for suggestions in the hope of restarting, but I now realize that this is not the correct path for me to take. The truth is that my attention has been captured by the project I alluded to last spring, when I announced what I did intend at that time to be a temporary hiatus. I wanted to be able to do that project and this one at the same time, but I have decided that this is simply not possible. If I am really going to take this other project seriously, I need to give it my full attention. Therefore, I will no longer be posting new material at Church & State, at least not for the forseeable future. I am sorry to those of you who are disappointed, but I think it is really for the best.

As for my new project, I am doing a lot of historical research aimed at completing a book. I was hesitant to reveal this for some time, as I have no expectation of success and I honestly fear disappointing people. I also fear the completely understandable question, “When is it going to be done?” The fact is that books take a long time, even for people who receive the funding to do this sort of thing full-time with their own research assistant and no other job to get in the way. More to the point, this type of writing is completely different from anything I have attempted before, and the subject matter is outside of what I studied in my educational career. However, I can assure you that I am having the most fun working on it and I am growing as both a researcher and writer. For now, that will have to be enough.

I will attempt to reply to any questions or comments you may have. If you wish to make a complaint, please direct your message to Sen. Ted Cruz, 185 Dirksen, Washington, D.C. 20510.

Thank you once again,

Amy Mantravadi


Seeking a Cure for Writer’s Block

Lately, I’ve found it difficult to settle on a topic to which I can devote the energy necessary to create a really good blog post. There is just very little to inspire me at the present time, and nothing so interesting as some of the other things I am working on away from this blog. A few of you have probably been disappointed by the lack of content, and for that I apologize.

I am willing to make a deal with you. If you like my writing enough to miss it, then I am asking you to make a minimal contribution to keep it going. Please reply to this post with your comments regarding what topic you would like to see me address. I’d like to think I’m versatile enough to come up with something halfway decent in response to whatever you might suggest. What I am really lacking is motivation, so if you can demonstrate your interest to me, perhaps that will help to get me going.

On the other hand, if no one replies, then I will assume that there is no reason for me to be worried about not posting since it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. So come one and give me your ideas! I retain my right to veto, but I have enough faith in my readers to believe that I won’t need to use it. Here’s hoping this works out!

Who is to Blame for the Rise of ISIS?

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

There are a lot of lessons that we can take from the alarming expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Surely it is a parable, but what is the lesson to be learned? Never end a war without leaving a substantial American footprint behind? Never funnel weapons to a rag-tag coalition of revolutionaries whose motivations may well be dubious? Never trust an Arab government to be able to handle things on its own? Never elect a pussy to be president of the United States?

I can think of nothing more fundamentally human than the desire to cast blame when something goes wrong, to reach for the simple explanation to a complex problem, or to ignore the long view in favor of the emotions of the moment. Beyond that, we prefer to direct our focus inward rather than outward; in other words, we are far more adept at analyzing something according to our understanding of the world than we are at comprehending how another person’s understanding might cause them to act. Because we live our lives at an increasingly rapid pace, we fail to appreciate how deeply rooted humanity remains, both from a historical and cultural standpoint. Continue reading

A Day in the Life of a Professional Mourner

A dance company reenacts a funeral right based on professional mourners in Italy. Flickr photo by Dave Bledsoe

A dance company reenacts a funeral right based on professional mourners in Italy. Flickr photo by Dave Bledsoe

The author was a professional mourner living in Palestine in the first century A.D./C.E.

No one aspires to become a mourner. Even I entered the profession not by choice, but rather out of necessity, for my husband died and left me with such meager wealth that I would have been without bread in a few weeks, but for the kindness of friends. For a time, I accepted that kindness, but I soon found my sense of shame too great to allow for such dependence.

I had often seen the mourners following the funeral trains, their black outer garments torn in an outward display of grief, their voices raised in a kind of rhythmic wailing, their faces red with tears. I had observed them entering the homes of the bereaved to sit with them and provide them whatever small comfort was required. After seven days, they seemed to vanish, only to appear again when another member of the village made his way to Abraham’s bosom.

I approached my new profession with much trepidation. The idea of being constantly surrounded by death was unappealing to me. I could not fathom how I would maintain the continual state of heightened emotions or how I could force my eyes to spring forth with a river of tears. Yet, in time, I found it just as natural as breathing. Both the body and the spirit must be made to obey the demands of the moment, and so they do for me each time I set out in my dark apparel. Continue reading

Scotland’s Referendum in Perspective

If I type the word “Scotland”, what pops into your mind? Kilted men playing bagpipes? “They may take our lives, but they can never take our freedom!”? A blurry image of something claimed to be the Loch Ness monster? Beautiful hills covered in thistles? A Scottie dog? Epic tales of Rob Roy? A style of golf that involves howling winds, bunkers capable of swallowing a man, and grass that can hide a ball from even the eyes of an eagle? Sean Connery or Andy Murray? The lovable accent for which Scots are famous? Shortbread cookies?

All of these things form part of the public image of Scotland, but if you look up the word “Scotland” on Wikipedia, this is the first sentence you will read (as of this writing): “Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom.”

This is actually a good sentence with which to begin the article, as it addresses some of the primary questions I receive regarding Scotland. “Is Scotland a country?” “Is Scotland part of Britain?” “Are Scottish people British?” “What all makes up the United Kingdom?” Continue reading

Educating the U.S. Senate

Official government photograph of the 111th U.S. Senate

Official government photograph of the 111th U.S. Senate

What, if anything, can we learn from examining the colleges attended by the 100 men and women of the U.S. Senate? Quite a lot, actually.

Last week, I decided to start an interesting experiment in which I would research which institutions of higher learning the current members of the U.S. Senate attended, which degrees they earned, and what  (if any) difference exists between members of the two major parties. No long introduction is needed here, so I’ll just jump right in to the numbers and analysis. Continue reading

I Love Mark Driscoll

Pastor and author Mark Driscoll speaks at the opening of a new location of Mars Hill Church in the Seattle area in 2011. Flickr photo by Mars Hill Church Seattle

Pastor and author Mark Driscoll speaks at the opening of a new location of Mars Hill Church in the Seattle area in 2011. Flickr photo by Mars Hill Church Seattle

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

These famous words from the book of Ecclesiastes (1:9b) are so universally relevant that they tend to pop into my head whenever I find human behavior once again failing to provide any real element of surprise, despite the apparent contextual differences. Over the last couple days, I have been thinking about them once again.

It all started when I made a visit to that website that everyone seems to use even though no one appears to like it: Facebook. I was scrolling through my “news feed”, which in actuality is a concoction of approximately 20% advertisements, 20% baby and/or pet pictures, 20% people posting quotes or verses that they want their friends to read, 20% people saying “X number of years ago today…” someone got married or was born, and 20% people complaining about something. (No judgment here – I’m pretty sure I’ve done all of those things on Facebook.)

In due course, a headline jumped out at me from a website I had “liked” once upon a time, saying something along the lines of “Acts 29 Network Kicks out Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church”. Continue reading