Remembering Mandela

It’s been obvious for a few days that Nelson Mandela’s time has been drawing to a close, and I’ve struggled to find words to express to those of you who are not South African what the man means in his own land.  At the end of his life, Mandela became – at least in the United States – more of an icon than a man; his lack of public spirituality making his good deeds available for appropriation by/for any optimistic worldview or undertaking.  Need a symbol for racial harmony?  Mandela.  For global peace?  Mandela.  For the progress of mankind and the triumph of human spirit?  Mandela.  In becoming such an all-purpose figurehead of all that fits with humanism, the man himself has been lost for years if not decades in American consciousness, and as a result, I worry that his passing will not get its due.  The symbol will live on, and since he’s nothing but a symbol to much of America, he can never die and his absence can never be regretted.

As someone who lived briefly in South Africa (6 months in college), that thought numbs me.


Most of Mandela’s – intermittently and respectfully called by his clan name, Madiba, for the sake of variety in this post – days in prison were spent on Robben Island, South Africa’s Alcatraz.  I was able to visit in 2002, joining a tour led by a former prisoner of the now-closed penitentiary.  It was anticlimactic; at the end of the day, it’s a prison tour.  The only romance or glamor present was smuggled in by the minds of us tourists, and the cell in which Madiba stayed is a tiny room with bars.  The only thing unique about it is the speed with which tourists are forced to file past it – lots of people come to Robben Island, and seeing that cell is why they do, so accommodating everyone requires haste.

I’ve thought about that visit frequently over the intervening decade.  I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t find it there.  What I did find was an empty room, the glory of which was an inhabitant who had departed (for other prisons) twenty years prior.  Somehow, the idea of NELSON MANDELA, PRISONER was undermined by seeing his main prison; realizing that this tiny room had constrained Nelson Mandela for two full decades made Madiba more man than myth, and I resented it.  I liked the indomitable legend, and I didn’t like standing in a nondescript and generic prison and realizing that it had been enough to contain that legend for a period nearly as long as I had been alive.

The thing is, I don’t resent it anymore.  Madiba is man and he is myth, and after a decade, I like him better that way, because I like knowing that he was real.

The facts of Madiba’s life will be repeated ad nauseum in his news obituaries.  He was a freedom fighter, a prisoner, a president, and an elder statesman.  This is a little like saying Jesus was a carpenter, a teacher, and a beloved mentor.  It’s true, but the sum of the man is so much more than the parts that it beggars belief.  And don’t get distracted by the fact that I just implicitly compared Mandela to Jesus.  Jesus was no simple carpenter, he was the one son of God.  If it’s a contest, Jesus wins, but don’t lose sight of the fact that Mandela was no prisoner, he was the suffering of millions personified.  Mandela was no president, he was dignity with brown eyes.  He was no man, he was aspiration with a pulse.


There are but a handful of people each century called to suffer life as an icon for an entire people.  To know that your every word or deed will be scrutinized, to know that your every flaw risks shaming millions, to know that you must – in your person – manufacture dignity from the ether in the midst of unspeakable humiliations is a life no sane person would ever choose.  Because it’s so hard, such a life is rare, and those who manage it with even moderate success become legends.  Gandhi.  Arafat.  Mandela.  We don’t even need two names for such people, and I imagine few things in life could possibly be harder than navigating such a life.

At least one thing that is harder than such a life, however, is navigating life as a symbol-become-leader.  Arafat basically failed at it.  Gandhi never had to try.  Mugabe failed so horribly that some now view him as worse than colonialism, and right now, Aun San Suu Kyi is going down in flames as a symbol-become-political laughingstock in Burma.  Being a symbol for an entire people is nearly impossible, following that act up with a successful turn as leader is almost unheard of, and it happens only a few times per millennium.  Nelson Mandela navigated this so gracefully and flawlessly that it looked easy.  Don’t be fooled: he may be the first person to do so since George Washington, and he will definitely be the only one in your lifetime or mine.


When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, it seemed likely that the expiration of the apartheid government was imminent.  Likely.  Not certain.  People forget that now; hindsight renders everything obvious.  But there’s another thing people forget about that time.  When he was released, Nelson Mandela – imprisoned for terrorism – was asked whether or not he renounced terrorism.  He did not.  Nelson Mandela emerged from prison an icon of suffering, but he was an unbroken and triumphant icon.  Some of the news coverage will use his prison time to make Madiba a martyr, whereas he was anything but.  The apartheid government didn’t release a martyr; they released a victor.

That victor could have started a war, and would have been totally justified.  He didn’t.  That victor could have seized power violently and vanquished his enemies.  He didn’t.  That victor could have jailed everyone responsible for South Africa’s predicament, using courts for a vengeance that would have rent South African society.  He didn’t do that either.  Instead, from his position of strength and while carrying a burden unlike that borne by any man of our times, he bound a country together and healed its wounds (including his eventual renunciation of terrorism, made on his terms and at the time of his choosing).  He didn’t do it alone, of course, but to say so misses the point.  Only Madiba could have done that; without him, South Africa probably would have had the nastiest civil war of the last century.

There are many places that have avoided wars.  Merely avoiding a war is often less of a triumph than a tragic state of being; tensions simmer and violence is always present, but because war never breaks out, the rest of the world views such stressful living as a victory for humanity.  That’s the way South Africa should be, because that’s the way the world normally works.  Since the races never fought a war, the tension should simmer for decades, with malice always a pin-drop away.  If you learned anything about South Africa during the World Cup, however, you know that South Africa is nothing like that.  South Africans – despite the many real problems of South Africa – are a people of infectious joy and hope, proud of their country and proud of each other.  South Africa, simply put, is a miracle.  And for all the hands involved, that miracle is covered in two particular sets of fingerprints: God’s and Nelson Mandela’s.


South Africa is a religious country, and most South Africans are in church on a given Sunday morning.  As with evangelicals anywhere else, they love God, and they want to know Him and please Him.  God matters to South Africa in a way He matters to few other countries, because God matters to so many South Africans.

I tell you this because if this post or his other obituaries seem a tad hagiographic, remember that Nelson Mandela is no god, and anybody who says he is god-like to South Africans fails to grasp the faith so prevalent in that country.  At the same time, don’t ever doubt that there are probably millions of South Africans who think Madiba’s had more impact on their lives and on South Africa than God has, and take it from me that while that notion is flawed, it isn’t crazy.  He’s done more for that country than any person has for any country in our lifetimes, and the joy of many South Africans originates in thankfulness to Madiba in a way that can almost seem religious at times.

Madiba is the better angel of South Africa’s nature incarnate.  His smile is proof that good can triumph over evil, and his life encapsulates the vicissitudes of South Africa’s growth over the years.  He’s truly larger-than-life, and yet he’s simultaneously every South African’s grandfather, a kindly and kingly old man (in a culture that values the elderly, for what it’s worth) who sacrificed his bitterness and vengeance so that everyone else could have peace and hope.  No American can remotely compare; Madiba is Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Obama rolled into one, only that legendary pioneering presidential composite might as well be at every family reunion, telling you he believes in you.

Nelson Mandela, in short, is a hero that will never be repeated, and he has no equal in our era.

Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #9

Stories Like This One

Earlier this month, an evangelical kerfuffle exploded when the Presbyterian Church (USA) – a mainline denomination that isn’t even necessarily evangelical – elected not to include the recent hymn In Christ Alone in their upcoming hymnal.  Since this is old news, I won’t recount the entire saga here, but please believe me that this uproar has exposed the most insipid, disingenuous, and moronic side of evangelicalism, mainly because of Timothy George and (for an entirely separate disgrace) an interdenominational group of Baptists.  Because explaining the idiocy of the various parties can get somewhat complicated, permit me to break this down via pertinent questions:

 1) Why would the PCUSA exclude such a popular hymn?

It all begins with the PCUSA bizarrely concluding that one of the most popular hymns of the past few years should be excluded because they felt that the line, “Till on that cross, as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied,” was an explicit endorsement of Anselm’s ‘satisfaction theory’ of the atonement.  Anselm taught that God was like a feudal lord who needed to avenge an infraction against his honor, and that’s why Jesus died.  In many ways, essentially, Anselm’s view equates God with an Islamist father who restores the family honor by beheading his own promiscuous daughter.  For some reason, the PCUSA felt that it was within their prerogative to omit a hymn which can be (mis)interpreted thusly from their hymnal while neither condemning the song nor forbidding individual presbyteries/congregations from singing it.


1A) Why is this embarrassing?

For one thing, unless you’ve studied theology at the advanced undergraduate or graduate level, you haven’t heard of Anselm, so I’m pretty comfortable saying that the PCUSA hymn committee (um, not their formal title, so we’re clear) are among the first 100 humans to make that philosophical leap.  Which would seem to make their rationale for omitting the hymn as ivory-tower elitist and out-of-touch as a rationale could possibly be.  It would also seem to make their assumption that including the hymn would be endorsing Anselm more or less crazy.  With the emphasis on the more side, which is embarrassing.

Additionally, it’s also worth at least a cursory mention that Anselm’s idea – as unsettling as Jesus receiving an honor killing may be – is not generally regarded as heretical.  Commonly endorsed?  Not really.  Heretical?  Nope.  It fits with much of scripture, so while the PCUSA are surely within their rights to omit perfectly valid songs from their own hymnal, it’s not really clear what the problem with Anselm’s view would be, even if we assume that the authors of In Christ Alone were actively smuggling obscure medieval theology into their work.  [And if you’re making that assumption, well, be embarrassed.  Really.]


2) What does this have to do with Timothy George?

Nothing.  Or at least it didn’t, until Dr. George used ESP to determine that the real problem was the PCUSA’s discomfort with God’s wrath, after which he wrote about it and started an internet riot of PCUSA-bashing amongst evangelicals.  Google it yourself; a veritable host of apoplectic evangelical joined him in denouncing mainline cowardice on the matter of God’s wrath, which they further assume is an implicit rejection of substitutionary atonement (to be clear, this is not an argument George himself makes.  He sticks to wrath).  Which means that to the extent that this is a kerfuffle at all, it’s George’s baby.  Which means it now has everything to do with Timothy George.


2A) Why is Timothy George such an embarrassment?

That’s not a very nice question!  Shame on you!


2B) What’s embarrassing about Timothy George’s (and other evangelicals’) role in this instance?

Well, there are a few problems with Timothy George’s take on the PCUSA.  For one thing, the hymnal – as the PCUSA has since pointed out – will have myriad songs involving or even centering on God’s wrath.  So they’re not hiding from God’s wrath, and to the extent that they are rejecting a theory of the atonement, the evangelical take is totally wrong: the PCUSA is not implicitly rejecting substitutionary atonement; they’re explicitly rejecting satisfaction atonement.  George’s ESP appears to have failed him, and it’s always embarrassing when that happens.

For another thing, George is the dean of a major evangelical seminary (Beeson), and he appears to have missed the obvious (to the PCUSA, I guess) connection to Anselm, and well, that has to be professionally embarrassing.  Clearly, the PCUSA ivory tower is vastly more elite than Tim George and Beeson.

A third problem, of course, is that George & co.  – filled as they are with the fruit of the spirit, such as love, peace, and forbearance(!), to name three – appear to want to be offended.  Why else would they jump to conclusions about the PCUSA and wrath?  Why else, when the PCUSA clarified that it was really all about Anselm, would their response be to assume – even with some open accusations – that the PCUSA is lying?  The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that they must want to sow division amongst Christians, perhaps in the assumption that they’re doing someone a favor (I’m sure someone will suggest they’re “taking a stand on a vital matter!”).  This dogged determination to think and see the worst in the PCUSA is an embarrassing disgrace.


3) How did the Baptists get involved in this one?

As the PCUSA actively sought ways to include In Christ Alone in their hymnal, they realized that the line to which they object had been rendered in a Baptist hymnal as, “Till on that cross, as Jesus died/ the love of God was magnified.”  The PCUSA thought that was an admirable dodge of Anselm, and asked the song’s right-holders if they could do the same.  Which is when it came to light that the Baptists never bothered to get permission for that change, and would not have received it if they tried.  They apparently just ignored the copyright on the song, changed what they wanted to change, and started selling it everywhere they could.  So much for intellectual property, I guess.


3A) Obviously, that’s embarrassing.  Did they really do that?

Yes indeed.  They altered the artists’ work to suit their own sensibilities.  Which is definitely vandalism.  Also, it’s a little bit like theft, since they’ve taken someone else’s work and altered it – they may have paid for the rights to use the song, but in changing the song, they stole the artists’ control over their vision, which in this case was a song to Jesus.  So they stole two men’s gift to Jesus, changed it, and acted like they had permission to do so.  Illegal, wrong, and ohmygoodness embarrassing for them, us, and bipeds everywhere.


4) Can you put those pieces back together for me?

Sure!  To recap: the PCUSA is/was in the process of choosing what songs they want to pay their own money to publish in their own hymnal for use in their own churches, but Tim George and a bunch of evangelicals who have nothing to do with this process have decided to use the PCUSA’s autonomous choices as a reason to cast accusations and aspersions upon them.  In the name of Christ.  Without even considering that the PCUSA might be telling the truth, and might also be permitted to spend their own money however they see fit.  They just assume the Presbyterians are heretics and liars, and go from there.  Better yet, this divisive engagement is supposed to demonstrate the superiority of the faith of George et al., fruit of the spirit apparently notwithstanding.

Also, it turns out that the Baptists don’t respect intellectual property, which basically makes them thieves, vandals, or both.  The good news, however, is that they appear to be better at medieval theology than Tim George.


5) Anything else to add?

Yup.  Since this is my blog and my angry screed, permit me to add what should be relatively clear at this point.  Incidents like this one make me embarrassed to be identified with the label ‘evangelical.’  The PCUSA should be free to omit whatever they choose to omit, without needing to justify it to the evangelical peanut gallery (and even if their justifications are odd and involve medieval theology).  Evangelicals – particularly leaders who have the influence and platform Timothy George does – should try to manifest at least some of the fruit of the spirit in their public ministry, and actively looking for affronts against the kingdom is childish, churlish, and arguably disqualifying for church office, even when they’re not flagrantly misrepresenting the viewpoints of others (which they are here).  The entire conflict should never have happened, and it only goes to reinforce the common notion that evangelicals are insufferable hypocrites when a story like this ends up in the Washington Post, USA Today, or the Huffington Post (and this one ended up in all three).  So we all end up looking like idiots, even before it emerges that the Baptists defile intellectual property.  Yet another reason why evangelicalism makes me uncomfortable.

2013 Summer Movies, Part II: The Sequel

If this summer’s blockbuster movies have been overwhelming disappointments, there have been a few quiet successes among the smaller movies, at least from the perspective of the studios and their bottom lines.  One such success has been The Heat, in which Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock team up for a buddy-cop movie, with McCarthy playing the unhinged, Mel Gibson-in-Lethal Weapon character, and Bullock playing the straight gal to both her antics and some truly obnoxious (but possibly accurate) Boston accents.

This summer’s runaway hit, however, has been the horror flick The Conjuring, which has nearly septupled its budget (and is still going).  While that’s certainly not as profitable as some of the summer’s ‘big’ movies (Despicable Me 2 and Iron Man 3 each made significantly more money), the rate of return on the studio’s investment is pretty impressive (7x and counting!).  So while it appears that much of America may view this as the summer in which Despicable Me 2 was the biggest hit and Johnny Depp’s career hit the skids, the studios may remember this as the summer in which horror trumped action movies.


I seldom go to see horror movies, but I watched The Conjuring last weekend, and it reminded me of something I learned in seminary.  Not a theological truth, mind you, but rather a sociological curiosity.  You see, although I attended a conservative evangelical seminary, I still convinced one of my professors to let me write a major research paper that hinged on an evaluation of 1970s Blaxploitaion cinema.  I won’t bore you with the details of the paper (it had to do with Black Theology, the 1970s cultural milieu, and the limitations of Marxist Analysis, which I admit made it rather out of place in an evangelical context), but for those of you unfamiliar with the Blaxploitation films, there was a 5 or 6 year window covering the late 1960s and early 1970s in which Hollywood discovered that if they made grindhouse films starring African Americans and explicitly incorporated the racial anxieties of the moment into those (typically) violent films, African Americans would hand over stacks of mammon to watch them.  And so the world was given Shaft, Foxy Brown, Superfly, Blacula, and a host of other films with influence that has lived on in American culture, even among many who’ve never seen them.

[Also – and this is a bit of a digression, but I feel like it needs to be said – these films are controversial for several reasons, most of which are predictable (they’re violent, they’re often racy, the language is filthy), but one of which is far more uncomfortable.  Life in America is always complicated by race, and films that deal as explicitly with race as these do raise questions, particularly when they’re funded and/or directed by white people, as many of these were.  Grindhouse films are exploitational by definition, but the idea that one could/should exploit race for profit should make you squirm a little bit, and that’s before we ask whether these films were offering an outlet for simmering anger or playing to animalistic stereotypes in that quest for money from one particular race.  Like I said, it’s a digression, but it needs to be said.]

At any rate, I bring this up to say that one lesson I learned in the course of researching that paper was the fact that many people attribute the death of Blaxploitation cinema to the release of another surprise horror hit: The Exorcist.  Even though the brief Blaxploitation moment made studios a fair amount of money, and even though the movies made have lived on in American cultural memory, the whole movement trickled to a halt within a year or two of The Exorcist’s release, and many people see a connection.  The argument goes something like this: studios made Blaxploitation films so they could make money from African Americans, but African Americans showed up in droves to see The Exorcist, just like everybody else.  So studios learned they didn’t have to make movies a certain way to reach certain races, which meant they didn’t have to cast non-white actors at all anymore.  Instead, Hollywood just started making horror films and ceased production of the Blaxploitation niche films altogether.  So The Exorcist killed Blaxploitation.


The Exorcist was released 40 years ago this December.  As such an important film (it not only killed Blaxploitation, but it was the first ‘modern’ horror film), I assume most of you have seen it, so I’ll limit my summary to noting that it tells the story of the demon possession of a child and the subsequent (and difficult) exorcism of that demon by a pair of Catholic priests.  Grounded as it is in the realm of the possible – the Catholic church really does perform exorcisms, and many people (including me) really do believe in demons and demonic possession – The Exorcist resists the unreality of later horror flicks (Freddy Krueger may be a terrifying character, but dreams don’t kill, amiright?) and never becomes so farcical as to be funny rather than scary.  Simply put, it’s not frightening so much for what it is (a movie about disturbing stuff) as for what it could be (an experience you could conceivably witness in person) and what it says about you (there are invisible, terrifying, and malevolent forces in the world that are vastly more powerful than you).

Without spoiling the plot, almost all of this is also true of The Conjuring, a fact that I assume correlates to The Conjuring’s Exorcist-like box office surprise.  Alike in their emphasis on the spiritual (The Conjuring even ends with a quote from the man whose story it tells that is essentially a call to faith in God), these two movies demonstrate that while virtually everything else about the movie business has changed in the last 40 years, people will still pay to be frightened by a depiction of spiritual warfare.

That being the case, The Conjuring made me wonder (and remember, I’m not expert on horror flicks).  Would The Conjuring or The Exorcist have been remotely as successful if evil triumphed in the end?  There’s a certain ambiguity involved in the endings to both movies, for what it’s worth (so I don’t think I’ve spoiled anything), but ultimately, both stories end with wins for God (or at least, for a sensationalized Hollywood take on God), and I think that matters.  After all, a scary story rooted in unreality is simply a scary story, and the final outcome probably doesn’t matter too much.  But if a scary story is rooted in reality and evil wins, isn’t it essentially a celebration of the demonic?  And doesn’t that celebration come pretty close to a form of worship?

It’s a moot point, I suppose, in the case of The Conjuring or the Exorcist, because of how they end.  But now I’m curious.  How much of the success of either depends on their respective endings?  Does the American movie-going public care about the ending?  What does it say about them/us if they do not?  Would most people be just as happy to get a scare from a movie celebrating a triumph of evil forces that actually exist?  I’m not sure I want to know, but it’s definitely been on my mind.

2013 Summer Movies Part I: The End of the World

This summer’s movies have sucked.  I realize that’s a subjective statement, and of course not every movie has been awful, but if you’ve been paying attention, you probably know what I mean.  The big movies – the ones on which movie studios rely to make their budgets for the entire year work – have been uninspiring, uninteresting, and in many cases, unwatched.  Which means that this summer could potentially remake the movie business altogether.

The recent evolution of the movie business has led studios to make films with bigger and bigger budgets that are supposed to offer larger and larger returns.  The idea is that a movie with a budget of perhaps $150 Million can sometimes earn hundreds of millions in profits – and conceivably into the very low billions, although Hollywood studios are notorious obfuscators about their actual profits – but only if it has certain ingredients.

So what’s the key?  International box office.  Success still almost always begins in the United States, but bigger movies make higher profits from overseas, and the highest earning movies make the most from international markets.  So profits depend on movies that people in Japan, India, and Sweden will pay to watch, hopefully over and over.  Problematically, however, people in Japan, India, and Sweden have different cultural histories, value different historical heroes, and live very different lives.  A smaller film – one made for ‘only’ $35M, for example – probably has more talking and less ‘blowing things up,’ which means it requires more understanding and enjoyment of one particular culture.  A bigger film, as we know, probably has a movie star whose name everyone on earth knows (Will Smith, Tom Cruise, etc.), and a lot of explosions in the process of a larger struggle that doesn’t take too many words – which is to say, too much cross-cultural understanding – to explain.  So blockbusters appeal to more of humanity, and generate more profit.

Which brings us to this summer.  This summer, Hollywood has offered blockbuster (blockbusteds?  Blockbustereds?  I think we’re going with blockbustereds.) after blockbustered about the destruction of earth.  Which makes sense; if you want a movie plot that should appeal to the maximum slice of humanity, the near-destruction of all of humanity seems like a safe bet.  Apart from a few unhinged Muslim extremists and Buddhists who no longer want anything (including, I imagine, the survival of humanity), who objects to saving the world?  So we have Oblivion, World War Z, Pacific Rim, and a host of other films in which humanity’s survival is threatened, which hypothetically appeals to everyone, and should therefore lead to mountains of Southern-California based lucre.  Should.  Are not.

The problem, by the way, is not that the movies are terrible.  I affirm again that I think they are, but so are all of Michael Bay’s Transformer movies or most of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and terrible still sells if you get the formula right.  So while there is a problem threatening to remake the movie business, it appears to be completely divorced from film quality.

The problem, surprisingly (or not), is that Americans don’t care about the destruction of humanity.


Remember, profitable films more or less always start those profits in the USA.  And while it is possible for a film to lose money domestically but make money internationally and be profitable overall, it’s not possible (yet) for such a film to be profitable at a rate of return that justifies the risk to the studio.  So Americans have to buy a blockbuster’s premise, and one thing that appears clear at the moment is that Americans are not interested in watching the world narrowly avert destruction this summer.  Maybe on Netflix this winter, perhaps.  But not now.  We just don’t care about that plot, no matter how many movies offer it.  If humanity’s going down, America doesn’t care.

The question is, why not?


It’s possible that America is just tired of watching the same movie over and over again, so we’re not expressing contempt for all of creation by expressing our ambivalence about its filmed destruction.  But our friends overseas would probably object to this justification.  For one thing, there’s the question of American intransigence on climate change.  This may be (bizarrely) controversial in the U.S., but most foreign countries take human agency in climate change as an article of faith and live greener than we do.  We don’t, and that looks to them like we don’t care that humanity’s going down.  So our disinterest in the movies reflects our geopolitical disposition, at least from their perspective.

There’s more, too.  In this post-Cold War era, we don’t worry too much about planet-wide nuclear warfare.  Many other countries, however, lack our ambivalence about the dangers of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and the citizens of such countries are very aware of who developed such weapons first.  They’re also very aware of which is the only country to ever actually visit that horror on another people in warfare, and which country maintains the largest functional arsenal of such weapons today (Look, I’m not going to bother researching whether we or the Russians have more weapons, because I don’t believe for a second that theirs – or the Chinese for that matter – are as likely to work as ours, and if the weapons don’t work, they don’t count).   In this case, it’s not necessarily that the world sees America as not caring about what happens to humanity; it’s just that the world doesn’t find much persuasive evidence in all of this that we do.

We could also mention the frequency with which the American military gets sent overseas for one reason or another, and regardless of whether or not such missions are justified (and to be clear, I often think they are), we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that fighting at least one conflict every decade is completely alien to the life experiences of nearly every other people on earth.

Add it all up, and I think it’s safe to assume that much of non-American humanity will see our disinterest in this summer’s “earth goes down” movies as America being America.


My reflections on this summer’s movies have me wondering.  If Christians are supposed to be salt and light, and if America is a country filled with Christians, should the larger world that we’re supposedly salting and lighting see us as more than jerks who don’t care if they live or die?  Still worse, of course, is that this summer’s movies also leave me to wonder whether or not Americans really do care if all of creation crashes and burns.

It’s not a strictly evangelical – or even religious, for that matter – issue, but it is one that I find particularly troubling.  The evidence presented by this year’s movies may be entirely circumstantial, but that doesn’t disprove its veracity, which should lead to some evaluative pondering with respect to the efficacy of the American Church’s collective salting and lighting.  Do Americans care about the rest of humanity?  And does the presence of millions upon millions of Christians in the United States influence the answer to that question in any way?  This summer’s movies may suck, but they still make me think.

The Life of Grandma Phyllis

My beloved Grandma Phyllis died last week.  There are many stories I could tell about her, but perhaps the most important to me is an exchange she had with my uncle Jim a night or two before she died.  Her body ravaged with cancer (missed by her physicians until it was too late to help), Phyllis had moved to a hospice facility where she was growing progressively weaker.  Although I am assured her blue eyes burned as clearly and forcefully as ever when she was awake in these final hours, breathing – let alone speaking – was an increasingly difficult endeavor, so when Jim asked her, “How do you feel?” he had to lean in close to hear her feeble voice.

When he had drawn near enough to render her audible, Phyllis whispered her answer: “With my fingers.”

That was my grandma.  Witty and cheeky until the very end, cancer broke her body, but never her spirit.


As Christians, it can be easy to lose track of what the result of our faith should be.  We become so concerned with what to do about issue X or personal struggle Y that we fail to bear fruit as we obsess over ourselves rather than others.  This is unfortunate, but it’s also life.  The struggle to rise above our own weaknesses and fulfill our potential through usefulness to God is never as linear as we would hope, and even those I would regard as saints have had their moments of fruitless distraction.

Even so, our natural tendency to focus on self-need and self-improvement isn’t always directly opposed to achieving results.  One such case is found in Jesus’ instructions to be salt and light.  Found in the fifth chapter of Matthew, the metaphor is a simple one: the world has a natural tendency – in these two metaphors, a tendency towards either spoiling or darkness, respectively – that is to be reversed by followers of Jesus.  We are to be agents of reversal, and it’s a case where simply worrying about myself – doing what I should be doing by going against the flow wherever I happen to be at the moment – should bear fruit for others too.

Which is easy to say, but hard to do.  There’s a prayer, however, that articulates just how faith should look when it’s operating in an agent of reversal like you or me, and it’s a prayer that tradition ascribes to St. Francis of Assisi.  (Wikipedia disputes its provenance, but has several versions here)


Grandma asked my dad to read that prayer at her funeral.  He did.  And as he read it, it occurred to me that while I hadn’t always understood Phyllis’ faith, part of the reason was because my grandmother was always more interested in using her faith as an agent of reversal than she was in saying the right things.  Which isn’t to say that she didn’t say the right things if asked; rather, unless she was asked, she focused more on action than on words.


Last summer I visited Grandma, and during my visit, she gave my wife and me a driving tour of her hometown of Rapid City.  She was always proud of Rapid, and as she grabbed an unopened box of Cheez-its from the cupboard on her way to the car, she actually swaggered a bit.  As we drove, with Phyllis occasionally stopping in the middle of the road to point at things and tell stories (with the cars behind us growing increasingly frustrated), she talked a bit about her church.  Grandpa had grown up Episcopalian, but Grandma had no particular love for that denomination when they moved to Rapid City, so they tried a few churches.  The Episcopal church, however, had a women’s group and a bridge club, and that sealed the deal.  As she said this, she slowed in her consumption of Cheez-its, the memory of finding community in a strange city 60 years ago satiating her briefly.

Turning to today’s generation at the church, however, she grew frustrated, and the Cheez-its began disappearing faster than most people would be able to chew.  “Now nobody wants to go to church, and churches don’t bother to give young people activities that will draw them in.  I suppose a bridge club wouldn’t work anymore, but there must be something people can do together!”

At the time, I just interpreted it as Grandma wanting more programs at church to get people interested in worship.  Now, however, after hearing her tell more of her life story as her illness progressed, I think I misunderstood.  This wasn’t an old Episcopalian’s complaint about a lack of church programming.  It was a woman who had spent her life trying to be an agent of reversal bemoaning that the community designed to promote that reversal was wasting away.

It makes sense.  We’re supposed to be salt and light, but what good is one match against a dark mansion, or one grain of salt against a leg of lamb?  Obviously, it works better with a community.


We had Grandma’s funeral on a Saturday, and the next day four of us were at Grandma’s church, attending her usual service, and sitting in her usual pew.  I looked around the room at that early morning service, and realized that – except for the absence of Grandma – the room looked basically identical to the last Sunday I had been there, 13 months before.  The same people were seated in the same pews and saying the same liturgy.  Except that there were fewer of them.  One woman whom I had met last summer even thanked us for sitting in Phyllis’s spot, since Grandma’s death now meant this lady would have that entire 1/3 of the sanctuary to herself every week.  She had become an island, essentially, as others – now including Phyllis – had passed away around her.

We could talk all day about dying mainline churches, but that misses the point.  Grandma’s community of salt and light was dying, but you’d never have known it from Grandma.  She just kept working on lighting and seasoning the world in all the ways she knew, working as an agent of reversal until the very end.  She missed those who had helped her in that project for most of the last 60 years, but she didn’t let their absence stop her.  She wished her church was growing, but she didn’t let that become her obsession or distraction.  She just kept giving her time, her money, and especially her wit to those who would benefit from a little salt or light.  She did it for people at her church, she did it for her five sons, she did it for her nieces and nephews, and she definitely did it for me.

Cancer or no cancer, my Grandma was salty till the end, with her blue eyes lighting up every room she entered.  Phyllis Frankenfeld was an agent of reversal for as long as she had breath.