“12 Years a Slave”: Thoughts on America’s Darkest Chapter

An examination of some of the issues raised by director Steve McQueen’s newest film, including its historical, cultural, and spiritual implications.

I did not go to see 12 Years a Slave intending to write about it, but as much for myself as for others, I feel a need to do so now.  What I saw was not an ordinary film.  I knew before I went in that it would prompt a great deal of philosophical pondering, but perhaps even this expectation has proved to be too small.

The film tells the story of Solomon Northrup according to his 1853 autobiography.  A free black man living in New York state, he was deceived and abducted into slavery while on a trip to Washington, D.C.  For the next twelve years, he witnessed the horrors of slavery on multiple plantations in Louisiana, until finally a chance encounter allowed him to press his legal case and earn back his freedom.  It’s the kind of amazing true story that screenwriters would normally dream about, but the darkness of the subject matter is likely part of the reason that no filmmaker has attempted the feat until now. Continue reading

Happy Reformation Day!

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The “Theses Doors” at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther purportedly nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” on October 31, 1517. Photo by Wikipedia user AlterVista

It is October 31st, a day which in the United States is associated with Halloween, a celebration that mostly involves dressing up, pigging out on candy, and covering the neighbor’s yard with toilet paper and smashed pumpkins.  However, did you also know that October 31st is Reformation Day?  What is Reformation Day?  Allow me to explain…

Nearly half a millennium ago, on October 31, 1517, a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany drafted an announcement of an upcoming university debate and posted it to the door of the local church, which in those days served as a kind of town message board. This is the kind of everyday occurrence that normally gets ignored by historians, except that the man’s name was Martin Luther and his announcement contained a list of “Ninety-Five Theses” that laid out what he believed were necessary reforms in the Catholic Church. As it turns out, the typical story of Luther authoritatively attaching his list of demands to the church door is likely apocryphal and based mostly on the account of his friend Philip Melanchthon, who may or may not have actually been in town at the time the event was supposed to have occurred. Continue reading

Two Overlooked Biblical Heroes

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“Martha and Mary Magdalene”, circa 1598, by Michelangelo da Carvaggio

 

Both Martha and Thomas are often viewed negatively by Christians, but when we look at their lives more comprehensively, there is a lot to be admired.

For those of us who have grown up in a Christian family, Bible stories have been drilled into us from birth.   Children’s Sunday school classes are often filled with a colorful cast of biblical characters who become examples of virtue and vice.  These stories, brought to us in full-color flannelgraph (the prime storytelling medium for evangelical Christian children prior to the advent of Veggie Tales), introduced us to heroes such as Joseph, Moses, David, Esther (her story doesn’t mention God by name but is still much beloved for its entertainment value, practical lessons, and female protagonist), and Daniel.  They also brought us a wide array of villains: Pharaoh, Goliath, Ahab, Judas, etc.

These Bible stories can be a double-edged sword for the people included in the narrative.  Only a small portion of a person’s life is actually recorded in scripture, with the majority happening “off stage”.  However, since we are talking about the Word of God, whatever details show up in the text are sure to be highly valued and endlessly repeated.  It could be that your best day gets immortalized, but it is also possible that the biggest mistake of your life will be the thing for which you are forever remembered. Continue reading

Thank God Heaven Is Not Like America

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The Statue of Liberty welcomes immigrants to New York City and the United States.

Right now, you are probably attempting to guess just how I am going to favorably compare Heaven to America.  Which aspect of American society am I going to say is too sinful, too unfair, or too degraded to measure up?  Or could I perhaps be going a more ironic route, venting my frustration about the current trends of reality television, blood-constricting pants, or “twerking” that I happen to believe will not be present in the great beyond?

Well, let me first say that this is not a plea for my life to be free of Miley Cyrus: a Google Chrome extension has already been created that will go a long way toward achieving that goal.  Neither am I going to be complaining about the uptick in gay marriages, the inability of any of our politicians to get along with the other children in the sandbox, or the state of the roads in Michigan (which are paved with anything but gold).  No, what I intend to talk about is immigration. Continue reading

Why Did Jesus Live?

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A stained glass window depicting Christ calming the storm at St. Giles’ High Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland.

On January 24, 2012, the noted British theologian N.T. Wright spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan as part of the “January Series”.  The title of his lecture was “How God Became King: Why We’ve All Misunderstood the Gospels”.  It was almost a year later that I finally heard a podcast of this talk, which captured my attention almost immediately with a simple question: “Why did Jesus live?”

The point that Wright was trying to make by asking his audience this question was that when most of us consider the purpose of Christ’s incarnation, we tend to focus on his death.  Christmas songs are filled with lyrics declaring that the baby Jesus would one day become the savior of the world by dying for us all.  Indeed, the final days of Christ’s life and his execution are the main focus of all four biblical Gospels, and Church teaching has mirrored this approach throughout history.

This raises the question, if the whole purpose of Jesus’ life was to die, then why did it take around thirty years to get to that point? (Scripture never gives an exact number, but estimates tend to be around this mark.) What was all of that in between time intended to accomplish?  This question made me curious, and I proceeded to create the list you are about to read. Continue reading

Gluttons for Punishment?

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An illustration by Albrecht Dürer depicting gluttony, circa 1498

What comes to mind when you hear the word “gluttony”?  My immediate mental image is of a rotund man sitting at a banquet table, turkey leg in one hand and wine goblet in the other, stuffing his face past the point of normal endurance.  My imagination then expands to the Independence Day hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s on Coney Island, sumo wrestlers gorging themselves on trays full of sushi, and frat boys trying to best each other in a drinking contest.  Perhaps I even see a cruise ship drifting through the Caribbean, its eager occupants devouring food and drink 24/7.

These scenarios range from silly to serious, and all of them have to do with the rapid devouring (I use this same word again because no verb in English seems to capture the meaning of gluttony as well as “devour”) of some kind of food or beverage, all of which usually leads to or is a part of bad behavior. But in our culture, such consumption is not considered to be especially bad.  Continue reading

Ain’t it Swell to Finish Well

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This photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. is part of a Library of Congress collection.

What can we learn from Martin Luther King Jr., George Costanza, Barack Obama, and King Jehoshaphat?

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.  It was an appropriate moment to remember a man who gave so much and inspired so many.   He is rightly regarded as one of the greatest Americans who ever lived.  Yet, even as we praise him, it is also worth noting that King had one advantage that is denied to most of us, and an odd kind of advantage it was: he died young.

Now, before I cause serious offense to anyone, let me make clear that I am in no way happy that King’s life was shortened.  This was a major setback for the civil rights movement and a great tragedy for America.  What I am referring to is not the fact that King was murdered, but rather that his early death has preserved him in our memory at the height of his success. Continue reading

The Endangered Female Bible Major

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Photo by Wikipedia user Trounce

Today, we turn our attention to that rarest of species, the female Bible major at an evangelical or otherwise conservative Christian university.  While male Bible majors have always been plentiful, very few females are ever spotted in the wild.  This is why most Bible majors have to be put through a captive breeding program, a.k.a. seminary.

You may be thinking that the reason we have such a lack of females in Bible departments is that they simply lack interest or initiative, and there is some truth to that.  However, they also face certain predators, namely cultural expectations and the fact that few of them would ever have a chance to actually teach scripture in their preferred evangelical church.  While more opportunities for females to teach are opening up, there is still a lack of plentiful resources to nourish a thriving population. Continue reading

Ironic Prophets

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Tourists inspecting the interior of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Sometimes the wrong person says the right thing – and humanity is better for it.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  These words are familiar to most Americans, despite the fact that they may fail to remember whether they come from a) the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, b) the Bill of Rights, or c) the Declaration of Independence. (If you guessed “c”, you’re right.) Whenever an American feels their rights are being violated, they’re likely to make some mention of this universal claim to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, the holy trilogy that tends to define our sense of individual dignity.

Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was a true believer in the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment.  Historians debate the primary inspirations for Jefferson’s text, but one person commonly mentioned is the English writer John Locke.  In his classic work, Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued that government exists to protect the individual’s “life, liberty and estate”, or more generally “property”.

Similar language also existed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason, which was adopted a few weeks before the Declaration of Independence and seems to draw heavily on Locke’s themes.  It spoke of a person’s “inherent right”, which it specified as “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”.  It seems likely that one or both of these documents influenced Jefferson, though we may never know for sure why he chose not to emphasize “property” or “estate”, opting instead for the “pursuit of happiness”. Continue reading