Beware the ‘Twilight’ Zone?

Beware the ‘Twilight’ Zone?

Just weeks before Thanksgiving, taking in a film at a movie theater, I saw it.

Intrigued, at that moment, I was sucked into the phenomenon. The it that I saw was the preview for Breaking Dawn, the latest release from The Twilight Saga based on the bestselling series of young-adult novels by Stephenie Meyer.

Though familiar with the hit series, I hadn’t seen the other films or read the novels. Yet after seeing the preview I wanted to see the matrimonial bliss birthed from a forbidden love affair between Edward and Bella. I was even more curious about the fate of Bella and the half-human, half-vampire child she carried inside her womb.

Lured by the preview, there was a part of me that wondered if this movie was something I should even want to see as Christian. Vampires, werewolves, humans marrying vampires, complicated love triangles and a half-human and half-vampire child, it just seemed so dark on the surface. But those concerns were the furthest thing from the minds of the swarms of mostly tween, teen, and female fans who flocked to see The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 when it opened last month. After just four weeks, the film has brought in more than $633 million in global ticket sales.

The day before the movie hit theaters I listened to a Moody Radio program and heard an expert talk about the hidden spiritual themes in the series. Dr. Beth Felker Jones, an associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and author of Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga, talked about the relationship between Bella and Edward and gave insight into their backstories. Bella came from a broken home. She moved to Forks, Washington, to live with her father. She is an outsider trying to fit in. Then comes Edward, who sweeps Bella off her feet. But there was something different about Edward; he was a vampire—albeit a good one. Bella and Edward practice abstinence in their relationship — a direct reflection, no doubt, of author Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon faith.

It all sounds harmless at first. A true coming-of-age love story that promotes celibacy, but there’s another side to look at. Edward is drawn to Bella’s blood and has to fight his own urges to have it—and ultimately her. He even sneaks into her bedroom at night and watches her while she sleeps. Bella is so desperate to become like Edward, she is ready to willingly forgo her humanity. After hearing all of this, I had more questions about The Twilight Saga. Was Edward really controlling? Was Bella insecure? Was she losing herself in a toxic and abusive relationship? Was I reading too deeply into this?

Despite my questions, I admit, I succumbed to the invisible force that so cunningly reeled me in and I saw Breaking Dawn. Later, I watched the third film from the series and quickly realized that many of the points raised in that Moody interview were valid. While many of the messages in the series are subtle, it reminded me about the subtle way in which the enemy works. In Genesis 3:1 we see this played out with the cunningly sly serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent didn’t force feed Eve fruit from the tree. He merely asked Eve a question that caught her attention. Intrigued, a seed of doubt was planted within in her and she ate from the tree—convincing Adam to do the same.

Like Eve, we too are enticed with all types of fruit (in the form of media) that contain both good and bad messages—some subtle and some not so subtle. In Ephesians 6:12 the apostle Paul says, “ … we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world …” This is not to say that you should stick your head in the sand and never read a secular book or see a secular movie. And it’s surely not to pass judgment if you like the Twilight series. However, with all that said, we can certainly be informed and prepared to take a closer look at what we are watching—and reading. After all, what really are werewolves or vampires and are they all that bad?

In European folklore a werewolf is a man who turns into a wolf at night and devours animals, people, or corpses. By definition a vampire is a supernatural being, commonly believed to be a reanimated corpse that sucks the blood of people while they sleep at night. Another description refers to the vampire as a demon that periodically leaves the grave and disturbs the living. In the Twilight series, Edward is portrayed as a good vampire because he only hunts the blood of animals. Jacob is the werewolf friend of Bella who would do anything to protect her and win her love. They sound like really good guys that just happen to have the wrong DNA, right? But wouldn’t that be like saying, if you’re a good demon you’re okay. Which when you think about it would be like saying if you’re a good sinner you don’t need a Savior, your own desire to be good and exercise self-control is enough. And if we could save ourselves we wouldn’t need Jesus. Though you may not be a vampire or werewolf, we’re all born into sin and in need of a Savior.

Maybe movies like these serve as good talking points and avenues to open up conversations about the true Light of the world — Jesus Christ. But what expense does it take on our souls when we open ourselves up to films like Breaking Dawn? These are just  a few things to consider as we navigate through a world where blood-sucking vampires and bare-chested werewolves woo the hearts and minds of fans — both young and old.

Let’s be realistic: There’s no way we’re going to curb the fanaticism of the throngs of young girls — many of them in our own households — who have pledged allegiance to either “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.” But perhaps we can be more discerning about the messages found in these popular books and films.

What do you think? Should we search for light in the darkness of the Twilight series, or is it best for Christians to keep their distance?

Wanted: Nerds for Christ

Wanted: Nerds for Christ

If you’re an African American parent and you haven’t already done so, put this article on pause, and check out LZ Granderson’s take on why he is raising his son to be a nerd.

No, really. Do it now.  I’ll wait.

Done?

Okay, good.

Because here’s the thing. This sentiment is good and true, and if it’s true for African Americans in general, it’s ESPECIALLY true for believers in Christ, especially when it comes to the church.

We need more nerds in the church.

Let me explain. 

More Mathletes, Fewer Athletes

Granderson’s thesis is that children these days, especially Black children, need more positive reinforcement when it comes to pursuing academic achievement compared to athletic achievement, because our society’s broader American culture does a better job of celebrating sports than it does celebrating academics.

And if it’s true today, it was way more true in New Testament times. After all, there is a reason why the apostle Paul tended to use athletic competition as a metaphor for spiritual living.

On one level, this is good for us — and by us, I mean the average, churchgoing Black person who, let’s be honest, probably needs more physical activity than just doin’ a little shoutin’ dance one a week during church.

Since the obesity epidemic has a stronghold deep inside the church, and considering the fact that children have been affected so deeply, and considering for some young folks, sports programs are the best thing keeping them off the street and out of trouble (it’s cliché, but it’s true), I heartily affirm the need for kids — and adults — to participate in sports. Sports are a good thing for people of all ages, because keeping active is an important part of overall wellness.

(*cue my Stephen A. Smith voice*)

Howevah!

The pendulum needs to start swinging the other way.

In 1 Timothy 4:8, the apostle Paul points out the obvious — physical training has a measure of value, but godliness is valuable across every facet of life. So the whole reason why Paul used the example of physical training is because, in the time and culture of his day (influenced by the Aristotelian values of ancient Greece), athletic competition was assumed to be the dominant form of celebrated excellence. Paul made his appeal in the context of those values and was challenging his people to turn their attention to something of greater value.

This cultural preoccupation with athletics continues today, and if you’re not sure if that’s true or not, consider the global influence of one of the most dominant sports brands today, named after the Greek goddess of victory.

This is why Granderson wrote what he did. 

Musicians: Icons of the Black Church

For Black folks in the church, the officially sanctioned sacred pursuit is not athletic, but musical. For a variety of reasons, music — specifically, gospel music — has been the lifeblood of the African American church experience. And on balance, this is a good thing.

But just like athletes in the broader popular culture, it’s gotten out of balance. In many church communities, musicianship is more of a valued commodity than biblical literacy.

So what we need are more Bible nerds, so to speak. We need people who get excited about textual exegesis just as much as rhythms and chords. We need people whose commentary collections are broader and more balanced than their music collections.

After all, there’s a reason why Paul told Timothy to “study and show yourself approved;” the flock needs to be protected from false teaching. And unfortunately, false teaching is a common side effect when we elevate gifted musicians to the status of spiritual leaders, as tends to be the case with high-profile musicians in the church. That’s not to say that there are no gifted musicians who are worthy of spiritual leadership — indeed, there are many, and we ought to thank God for them and honor them. But we can’t turn a blind eye to character issues or lack of training when it comes to handling the word of God just because a person is blessed with the ability to sing or play an instrument.

People are watching, y’all.

Granderson pointed out the fact that kids can tell what we really value by the way we revere athletes and make fun of spelling-bee contestants.

This dynamic is so, so true in the church. And if you’re a church leader and you doubt what I’m saying, then hold an intensive Bible training conference on the same day as a big time gospel music concert, and see how many of your people you get to show up.

We have to get it together in this area and fast, because our ability to do God’s work is at least partially dependent upon what we believe about Him, and when we prioritize high production values and strong musicality over solid biblical teaching, either as leaders or as followers, we give our watching neighbors the unintended message that music is what saves people, and not God.

No wonder so many musicians have left the church … if music is what saves, then who needs God?

Ministry: Theology in Action

Christian ministry is simply Christian theology in action. So if we don’t pay attention to our theology, then our ministry will miss the mark, no matter how good it sounds coming through our speakers.

I stress this point only because I also don’t want to give the impression that the nerd path is, itself, a path to salvation. Being a nerd is no more intrinsically holy than being an athlete or a singer. The point is not to simply acquire a wealth of knowledge and expertise, because sometimes the only thing knowledge does is make your head bigger. The point is to live out one’s calling as effectively and wholeheartedly as possible.

That’s why you have voices like Efrem Smith, challenging the role of Reformed theology in holy hip-hop. Not because he doesn’t like holy hip-hop or Reformed theologians, but because, in his estimation, that particular theological strain is insufficient in providing a complete foundation from which to make a long-term impact. And Christian emcees like Lecrae and Flame wouldn’t do what they do if they weren’t interested in making an impact.

So let’s get out there and make our God known. Let’s put him on display by giving him our minds as well as our bodies. And if, in the process of doing so, we risk being labeled as nerds or geeks or whatever, then so be it. When Paul said he would be all things to all people, I’m sure nerds would’ve been included in that list, if, y’know, that terminology would’ve been popular then.

But since it wasn’t then, I’m saying it now.

We need more nerds for the gospel.

 

I Killed Borders

I Killed Borders

BYE-BYE BORDERS: The erstwhile retail giant announced last week that it's closing its book covers for good. Stores like this one in Augusta, Ga., began liquidating inventory last Friday. Photo: Newscom.

Last week, I learned that Borders Books and Music is about to leave this earth forever. While I was truly saddened to learn of its demise, there is something I have to get off my chest. So let this serve as an admission of my guilt and an official confession.

I am a murderer. I killed Borders.

First of all, I suppose I should come clean. Borders was not my first “brick and mortar” bookstore experience; I remember spending hours in B. Dalton and Waldenbooks in my youth, as well as Barnes and Noble. And of course there was the Beloit Public Library. But for the last half-decade plus, there has been something special about Borders. Whether it was the proximity to our house, or the convenience of being able to hang out there before and after seeing a movie at the mall, I’m not sure.  But my heart has held a special place for Borders, which by definition makes this a crime of passion.

Borders was where I saw my wife for the first time. We shared a coffee and smiles, and I bought her a copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife there. We kissed in the parking lot. Over the years our daughters have enjoyed numerous story-time sessions and have come to view Borders as a shopping destination second only to Target in sheer awesomeness.

We have parted with much coin at our local Borders. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is blood on my hands. I may not have pulled the trigger, but my hands were on the grip. I killed Borders. 

Can I be blamed for falling victim to the seductive wiles of free shipping, unlimited selection, and low price guarantees? I love the indescribable pleasure that my finger feels after I’ve clicked my mouse and made a purchase …

My mistress — let’s not be coy; her name is Amazon — first courted me years ago by offering me half-price DVDs on Tuesdays. Now I consult her for everything; she has replaced Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, eBay, and, yes, Borders as my preferred shopping destination for the cool stuff that I think I need. I’ve even used my phone to take pictures of books I’ve leafed through at Borders in order to check the price on Amazon.

It’s embarrassing to admit that, but confession is good for the soul, I guess.

When I explained to my 6-year-old about online shopping and Borders’ demise, she asked, “Why would anyone get in their car and drive to the bookstore?” Why indeed.

I mourn the loss of Borders. And as the guilty party, I can only offer my sincere condolences to the victim’s family. I feel, however, that I must also share this troubling fact.

I can’t stop.

While I’m not sure who my next victim will be, I do know that this isn’t over.

Henrietta Everlasting

 

Henrietta Everlasting for Urban Faith

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks uncovers the heartbreaking story of the woman behind one of the most important discoveries in modern medicine. But it’s also a book about the intersection of race, science, and a family’s faith.

On a basic human level, most people desire to leave a legacy. I’ve found myself wondering what kind of impact my life will make on generations to follow. In our families and in our work, we spend a large portion of our lives trying to leave some sort of legacy, often in the form of monetary or material inheritance. But that seems so limiting, like life has been reduced down to money and things. Most of us would agree that we want to leave something far more meaningful than just stuff. But what if your legacy spurred some of the greatest medical discoveries? Most of us would be pleased with this. But what if this legacy had been left completely without your knowledge? How would your descendants approach such a gift? This is the scenario found in the bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Skloot, a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Discover, gives the reader an intimate look into the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman born in 1920 who, without knowing it, helped transform medical history. In February 1951, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During a medical visit, her doctor took a biopsy of the tumor growing on the outside of her cervix without informing her. Henrietta died later that year, but by that time scientists had discovered that her cells had a very important trait: they didn’t die. The HeLa cells (pronounced hee-lah) reproduced at an astounding rate and had already started yielding scientific data before Henrietta’s death. Her life had ended, but the tissue she left behind soon earned designation as the first strand of immortal cells.

Skloot’s fascinating book is not only the story of Henrietta’s life, but the life of her immortal cells and their journey through the medical community. And an incredible journey it was.

HeLa cells are directly responsible for the development of multiple medical breakthroughs, from the Polio vaccination to in-vitro fertilization. Despite all that her cells have done, many people, including the medical and scientific community, had no idea who she was. Skloot does an impressive job of relaying complex medical truths in a way that doesn’t stall the reading. Told in an alternating-chapter format that shifts between the story of the HeLa cells and the lives of Henrietta Lacks and her family, the book is as gripping as it is informative.

I found myself heartbroken over the struggles of Henrietta’s husband and her children, who paint a stark picture of a dysfunctional family. They endure a string of health and financial challenges after Henrietta’s death. None of her children developed cancer, but they were riddled with a number of other health problems. Unfortunately, they lived most of their adult lives without the benefit of health care. Their mother’s contribution impacted millions but never fully trickled down to her own family.

Though Skloot’s primary goal was to tell the story of Henrietta and her cells, she also accomplishes another feat. She offers a glimpse into how medicine has been practiced throughout history. Like me, readers of this book will gain a greater appreciation of the blessings of modern medicine. Skloot not only exposes what we would consider barbaric medical practices, she also reveals how African Americans perceived doctors and medical treatment over the years. In the past, most went to doctors but did not question the diagnosis or opinions that medical professionals gave them, in part because of the legacy of slavery that spawned a passive and compliant demeanor toward authority figures. Several times in the book it becomes clear that Henrietta’s children never outgrew this mindset, as they repeatedly stated that they simply accepted whatever the doctor said because they felt they couldn’t ask questions.

There are some who might hear Henrietta’s story and cry injustice. Most of the procurement of Henrietta’s specimens happened without her or her family’s permission. Skloot takes a neutral stance on the issue of medical consent, but she does raise some thought-provoking issues. As of right now, it is completely legal for doctors to use anyone’s biological material for whatever research they desire. Scientists and even former President Bill Clinton have pushed for some kind of consent form that notifies patients that doctors will be using their specimens, but the idea hasn’t taken hold.

As I read this book, I found myself torn regarding the issue of consent. On the one hand, it is disturbing to think that the biological materials we leave behind at a hospital could be harvested and exploited by a biotech company that goes on to make untold millions off of our cells, as was the scenario in the Henrietta Lacks case. On the other hand, if our specimens can contribute to advancements in medical research that will benefit the greater society, then shouldn’t we embrace that — as long as no one unfairly profits from it financially?

As of this date, Henrietta’s children have received no financial benefits from anything her cells did. How much money biotech companies have made from her cells over the years is still a mystery.

I wanted to believe that I was reading a page from the distant past when I picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Unfortunately, as the book progressed, I realized the subject is still very relevant to us today. Race and consent are ongoing issues in the medical community when it comes to scientific research. But perhaps with Skloot’s book these issues will come to the forefront of our discussions in the African American community. Then maybe Henrietta Lacks’ story will do as much for the cause of justice as her cells have done for science.
______________________________________________________________________

‘I Read the Bible for the First Time’

How Henrietta Lacks’ story changed Rebecca Skloot.

Author Rebecca Skloot (right) recently talked to the Atlanta weekly Creative Loafing about the making of her bestselling book. In the interview, she explained how the religious beliefs of Henrietta Lacks’ family affected her personally.

SKLOOT: [Writing the book] was an 11-year process and it has changed me and affected me in ways I’ll be trying to figure out for years. I came from a non-religious background, a completely different culture than [Henrietta’s daughter] Deborah. The religion was so surprising to me. It was such an important part of their story and their lives and their understanding of the self. I just knew nothing about it and in the process of learning I read the Bible for the first time. I went to the church with [the Lacks family] and I saw faith healings; things I had never been exposed to. I spent a lot of time learning about what their religion and spirituality meant for them and how that interacted with the science.

I think I learned a lot about religion just in general and about lots of different ones and the roles they play in people’s lives and the ways they can be incredibly positive and helpful. With the family that’s a lot of how they came to terms with what happened with the cells: They believe she was chosen and came back as an angel in these cells to cure diseases. In terms of the family, it’s still happening. They are still responding to the book and there are now generations of Lackses that have read the book. Several of them have read it many times. The grandchildren have been reading the book out loud to their parents cause they don’t read so much so that’s been a great thing for them. Now they’re able to see the full story — what are these cells and how are they used. To see how people are responding to the story serves as some kind of validation to what they’ve been through that they’ve never gotten before.

Source: CreativeLoafing.com; photo by Manda Townsend.

Giving Back

To thank the Lacks family for their trust and help in the writing of her book, and as a way to thank Henrietta Lacks for the cells that have done so much to further science, author Rebecca Skloot has set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide financial assistance in the form of scholarships to the descendants of Lacks. Skloot is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to the foundation. You can read more about it or donate at henriettalacksfoundation.org.

An African Lent

An African Lent

Here’s an idea for Lent that will do more good than giving up desserts: Read a book about contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not a penance, though it can hurt. And seeing how much of the rest of the world lives sure does put a lot of our minor irritations, and even major problems, in perspective.

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