Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Tower of Confusion (Genesis 11:1-9)

Sandwiched between two genealogical interludes, we find the shortest of episodes in Genesis: The Tower of Babel.

After the flood, all of mankind was together and they began to build a culture. They all (obviously) had the same language; they had the same culture. When they developed the ability to build bricks, they set out to build a great city (Babel) with a giant tower. They wanted to make a reputation for themselves. (A reputation amongst whom? They were all together.)

Genesis tells us that God visits the tower and puts a halt to the prideful project of mankind by confusing their language. After this we see mankind scattered as the previous genealogy indicated. We now see a planet populated by a variety of nations with a variety of cultures.

Even though this is the shortest of stories, it is an important moment in God’s plan. A popular story for children, we tend to look at this event in a folkloric sense. It is an origin story. Where did all the languages come from? God confused the people’s speech to prevent them from building a tower to heaven.

However, I think there is something much more profound in the story of Babel. God was certainly not threatened by a tower. We see much larger buildings being built today and we know that there is no danger of anyone reaching “heaven” in this way. Also, God is not threatened by mankind attempting to make a reputation. People have been doing that throughout history. Certainly God wants to glorify Himself and will give people a reputation to that end (see Abraham), but God hasn’t gone to great effort to prevent people achieving fame.

I think the thing God is working to prevent here is a universal culture amongst men. It is best for God’s plan of salvation that there be many competing cultures. As we know today, according to the work of Ernest Becker and the developers of “Terror Management Theory”, cultures exist to deny death. As long as all of mankind was allowed to develop a single culture—a single mythology denying death, there would be no serious reflection about death. We need for there to be many competing “lies” about life and death to compete for dominance so that the questions and explorations on the subject of death would continue. That way, when God reveals truth there are people looking for answers who will be reached.

As we saw back in chapter 3, death is a merciful gift from God. It prevents people from living eternally in sin without any hope of reconciliation with God. However, death is also an enemy. All of our efforts at culture, religion, science, and even the development of a reputation that will live on after our death is a way that we try to defeat death. And if our cultural answers never encounter competing views, we can conceivably live out our lives and face our deaths lulled into the comfort of denial.

Now, however, when we hold God’s revealed truth up to any other competing view, objective consideration shows us that it is the single consistent and logical answer to life and death. In Babel the way is paved for God’s truth to defeat the variety of inconsistent competing alternatives.

(The picture above is "The Tower of Babel" from Marten van Valckenborch the Elder, hanging in the Old Master's Art Gallery in Dresden, Germany)

Monday, December 5, 2016

"Krampus" (2015)

My favorite film of all time is a Christmas movie. And I have several other Christmas films in a steady rotation each holiday season. Then there are the non-Christmas flics that make it onto a lot of people’s annual traditions. Movies like “While You Were Sleeping” or “Die Hard.” Well, I may have stumbled onto a genuine Christmas gem that will be out of bounds for some because it is a horror movie. (Albeit a horror comedy.) The movie in question is last year’s “Krampus.”

For those who don’t know, Krampus is a traditional Christmas creature in the Alpine areas of Europe. Even people in Germany who don’t live near the Alps don’t generally know who he is. On December 6th, when St. Nicholas goes around rewarding good children for their good behavior, in the Alpine areas he is accompanied by one or more devil-looking creatures. These Krampus snatch the bad kids in a sack or a basket, or in more forgiving areas they simply beat the bad kids with a stick.

“Krampus” takes this concept, mixes it with healthy doses of Christmas family comedy a la “Christmas Vacation,” eighties lighthearted horror a la “Gremlins,” and a strong hint of the preachiness of “A Christmas Carol.”

Things open with a shot that could have started any number of zombie movies from the past several years. A crowd storms a building, knocking over guards and trampling anyone in their way. People are fighting and yelling at each other. But this is not a zombie apocalypse or even a riot. It is simply people doing their Christmas shopping. Scenes are interspersed with parents coaching kids into the perfect smile for perfect Santa pictures, and money being methodically paid out for all amounts of material junk. All the while “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” plays on the soundtrack.

After this we see the Engel family arriving home from this chaos. The Austrian grandmother, Omi, makes cookies with “A Christmas Carol” on the television in the corner. Max, the son, has been in a fight with a classmate who was telling younger ids that Santa isn’t real. He tries to get the family to join him in traditional holiday fun, but they are all self-involved and anyway… the cousins are about to show up.

When the cousins do arrive, they discover Max’s letter to Santa and embarrass him by reading it aloud at the dinner table. His wish list is simply for things to be like they used to be, when the family loved each other and everyone enjoyed the special holiday traditions. Later in his room, he tears up the letter and tosses it out the window. That night a blizzard rolls in and renders the entire town powerless.

It seems that Max was the last person in town holding on to the true meaning of Christmas. When he gave up, that opened the door to Krampus. Omi will later explain that Krampus is Santa’s darker side, and when people forget the true message of Christmas, LOVE and SACRIFICE, Krampus shows up not to reward and give, but to punish and take. The first evidences of the change (aside from the power outage) are a creepy snowman in the yard and a bag of unaddressed presents on the stoop.

A particularly important conversation occurs later once things have come to light. One of the cousins asks if they can fix things by being good and honoring some traditions. Omi tells her: “It isn’t about what you do, but rather about what you believe; about what you’ve given up in [your heart.]”

One by one the family is picked off by Krampus or one of his toy-minions, until Max is the only one left. When his grandmother experienced this tragedy as a child, she was left as a lone survivor and reminder of what forgetting the meaning of Christmas will do to a community. Max refuses to face the same tragic fate. He chases Krampus down and demands that things be set right. He offers himself in trade for his family; to be a sacrifice.

Krampus seems to consider this, and then laughs. He tosses Max into the underworld along with his family, but then Max wakes up and it is Christmas morning! He goes downstairs and finds the entire family waiting on him to open presents. Things are different, and better. As the presents are passed out, Max opens one and it is a Krampus bell. As everyone sees it, they pause and remember. It wasn’t a dream at all. They have been given a second chance. The camera pans out the window and then out from a snow globe where we see Krampus is keeping watch on the family. Credits roll as “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” begins to play…

You better watch out.
You better not cry.
You better not pout.
I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus is coming to town.

It doesn’t quite get the real meaning of Christmas, for sure. But it does a good job of indicting what we currently celebrate for the many shortcomings that have crept into its place.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Resurrection, part 1 (John 20:1-18)

When Jesus uttered “It is finished!” things were thankfully not quite done. The cross without a resurrection would hardly be a solution. Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb for the sins of His people, but a dead savior is not a solution to the curse of death. He had to rise victorious over death after sins had been covered in order for there to be any hope or future for creation.

In the resurrection of Jesus, though, we also find more. We see the foundation for faith. We see the end to sorrow and grief. We see victory over fear. We see the silencing of all doubt.

Belief (1-10)

After the Sabbath, on the first day of the new week, Mary heads out to the tomb where Jesus had been quickly buried. When she finds it disturbed and opened. She runs to inform the disciples. Peter and John rush to the tomb to see what has happened. Finding the empty tomb, John tells us that it was in that moment that he believed. This is a huge statement about our faith. Notice than John did not yet understand exactly what had happened. Much less did he understand why what had happened had happened. And yet he believed. All he needed to see was the empty tomb and the possible resurrection.

It is important for us today to grasp this aspect of faith. We need not understand completely. What we need is to trust completely.

Grief (11-18)

Mary had returned to the tomb as well. We can fill in the scant details and assume that she took longer than Peter and John and arrived after they had left. Alone at the tomb we see that she is overcome with grief. It is bad enough that the man she had followed and trusted was dead, now his body has been robbed or lost. In her grief, she encounters two angels at the tomb. They almost reprimand her for her grief. Why is she crying? Doesn’t she understand what has occurred?

When Jesus arrives, Mary does not recognize Him. She asks him, as she had the angels, where is the body of her Lord? All it takes is Jesus saying her name for her eyes to be opened and she goes from sorrow to joy. In a moment, she is transformed from despair to rapture. But Jesus commands her to stop clinging to Him. He is not yet about to leave. He needs her to go and tell the disciples what she has seen.

When the sorrow of despair is transformed in the joy of hope, we are given the mission to share it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

"Black Brown White" (2011)

Certainly a thematic cousin to 2009’s “Sin Nombre,” “Black Brown White explores the challenging issues surrounding immigration, the refugee crisis, and the desperation that causes people to break laws with no real hope for an improvement to their situation.

The beautiful cinematography and slow pacing of this story invite the viewer to absorb all the questions and implications at play. This is a movie with a message, but unlike the director’s other films—which tend to be documentaries—this one avoids providing easy answers.

I don’t know if there is an English dub of this film out there, but unlike most movies that mix English, German and Spanish, I really struggled to understand all of the heavy accents. I felt better that most of the Germans I watched it with only got about half of the Austrian accent being spoken. Then again, I would only have understood half of the English had it not been for the German subtitles!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Nations (Genesis 10)

Just a quick few notes about the structure of Genesis as it pertains to chapter 10. As we have already seen, Genesis alternates between story sections and genealogy sections. Each of these sections begin with a formulaic, introductory sentence. Thus we have, following the preamble of chapter 1 through 2:4, ten clear sections:

The story of Adam
The descendants of Adam
The story of Noah
The descendants of Noah
The descendants of Shem
The story of Abraham
The descendants of Ishmael
The story of Jacob
The descendants of Esau
The story of Joseph

The only place where we seemingly break the pattern is here in chapter 10. We seem to get two genealogical interludes back-to-back. What does divide them is uncharacteristically short, and doesn’t start with the formulaic statement.

However, the story of the tower of Babel is hugely important to the “primordial” history in Genesis. More on that next week.

For now, it is important to see that the genealogy of chapter 10 is different from those that proceed and follow it. It does not give ages nor does it always seem to refer to individuals. This is a look past Babel to the resulting nations—the various and diverse cultures that emerge following the flood. Once again, we will see the importance of this more when we look at the narrative of Babel…

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