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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Mars Hill Church's Good Friday film: Review

For centuries, churches have used various mediums in attempts to recreate history, to relive the past.

But the crucifixion is most frequently reenacted, with vivid detail. From medieval Passion plays to modern productions like New Life Church's The Thorn to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ...we as the audience revisit and revisit and revisit the torture of Jesus.

I have seen many forms of the story - theater, film, and dramatized radio theater. Although the same story is retold each time, the techniques employed by the scriptwriters, actors, and directors can potentially lend a new perspective and freshness, but breaking into this niche is difficult.

Mars Hill Church, a megachurch based out of Seattle, made their own Good Friday film in 2010, and released it onto the web for download in spring 2011. Curious to see what the filmmakers did with the story, I watched the 30 minute short last week.

The opening is chilling. A small child swings in the dust on a rope, then pauses to look at three empty crosses, embodying lost innocence. Mark Driscoll, senior pastor, gives an introduction, also sobering. He encourages viewers to continue "somberly, as if you were watching a funeral."

Mars Hill produced the film through Universal Studios, with a makeup artist from The Passion and No Country for Old Men, which was evident in some of the film techniques, such as close ups of Christ's hand gripping dirt in Gethsemane and then releasing it, or flashforwards to the impending scourging. The gory detail is unflinching, especially the scene in which Jesus' bloodied body falls into the mud after the beatings.

Yet despite attempts to draw the audience in with detail, the acting falls short, rendering most of the special effects meaningless, particularly with the casting for the main character. The actor portraying Jesus fluctuates between stoicism and bitterness, lacking love. He foretells his death and betrayal at the Last Supper nearly emotionless. He is angry and disappointed with Judas and Peter, defensive with Annas and Caiaphas, enduring torment with strength, but without love, which is the essence of the real Jesus. The gruesome beating in a torch-lit underground dungeon reminds the audience of a sinister horror film, in stark contrast to the scourging scene in The Passion where Jesus whispers to his Father that his "heart is ready" even as the torture begins.

Also, the actor playing Jesus looks like any guy off the street randomly wearing a tunic. Even though I have my own conception of what Jesus looked like, I can accept an actor of any description playing Christ if he is rooted in the role. But this Jesus doesn't have the passion to adopt the part.

Perhaps this lack of love is partly due to the focus of the film. Driscoll says in both the introduction and the church blog that the viewers should realize "the cross is something done by us: we murdered God. Then on Easter Sunday we remember that the cross is something done for us: God died in our place to forgive our sins." While both statements are true, I think we need to not divide what we did to God and what God did for us into separate events - the two are concurrent and inseparable.

The Mars Hill film also attempts to distinguish itself from its predecessors by focusing more on theology than history. According to the Christian Post (Apr. 1, 2010), Nick Borgardus, the media relations director for Mars Hill, said, "Whereas The Passion may have tried to tell the story with chronological and historical accuracy, we’re trying to make the theological weight of the event – the substitutionary death of the Son of God in our place for our sins – as vivid as possible." Yet theology is not a cold, hard exercise. Theology is logic-based, but because of its focus on spirituality, it is inherently emotional. 

When love is removed from sacrifice, the sacrifice becomes a nauseating, guilt-ridden experience . As Paul wrote, "Without love, I am nothing." When the center theme is removed from a central event to a life philosophy, only dead men's bones are left.

The biblical Jesus knew pain in its deepest forms, but he never lost love. The Mars Hill Church Jesus seems to have lost the meaning of his sacrifice. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Once upon a time, a little girl sat in a field releasing the fuzz from seeded dandelions and watching the wind gather the wisps into the sky as it tousled her hair. Sometimes, she danced with the wind, her blue skirt swishing to synchronize with its rhythm.

One day the whimsy of her dance led her to a crater blistered with brambles and dagger-length thorns. She stumbled over the precipice into the midst of them. Her dress tore, and her skin scratched.

A herdsman from the village nearby heard a child crying. He looked down and saw her caught in the briars. He leaped down into it, wincing as the thorns tore at him, but he struggled toward the girl.

When he reached her, he half-smiled and reached out to pull her up. But she was crying so much that his face was blurred, and all she could see was the blood covering his clothes and hands. Shrieking, she drew back from him, wounding herself further.

Finally, she let herself be carried out of the thicket. The herdsman tried to soothe her, singing her a lullaby. All she could hear was the painful undertone in the song.

By the time they returned to the dandelion field, the girl had cried herself to sleep. The herdsman laid her down under a tree, cleaned her scratches with a damp cloth, and kissed her forehead. And he went back to tend his flock.

The girl awakened the next morning. Glancing at her scabs, she sobbed again, remembering the herdsman’s wounds. She sat in the field all day staring at the dandelions. She had lost the dance.

In the evening, she crept back to the edge of the valley, grasping at the brambles.

She separated out the thorns from the stems of the plants, clenching them in her fist.

If she hadn't fallen into the crater yesterday, she wouldn't have cried out, and if she hadn't cried out, the herdsman wouldn't have come, and if the herdsman hadn't come, he wouldn't have bled. It was all her fault.

She used the thorns like claws across her arms. Surely she must hurt, because she hurt him. Only her own blood could satisfy this.

Every night for years, she returned to the crater. The bleeding was never enough. The craving to satiate the guilt was as fresh each night as the one before. Sometimes the coyotes came out to follow, nipping at her heels, licking up the warm blood dripping from her wounds.

She thought she must be an outcast, even though the villagers never mentioned it to her. A word or sharp look made her tremble, thinking they blamed her. Surely everyone knew what she had done to the beloved herdsman.

She sometimes would see him or other men leading their flocks over the distant misty hills. He tried to approach her on a street corner a few times, but she shuddered and turned away, lest she see his blood. The blood. She could never forget the blood.

But the coyotes never left. They became the girl’s companions when she felt like the village hermit. They walked with her when no one else would.

The girl grew into a maiden. A lonely maiden, wearing a ragged blue gown that barely covered the dried clotted mess covering her arms and legs.

One night at the crater, she returned to the top with her fist full of brambles. A coyote was waiting for her. She could smell him. He would lick her wounds before he'd let her pass by. She wondered when he'd just lunge for her throat and the pain would end. Coming over the edge, lantern light fell across her form and she shrank back into the shadows.

"Little girl."

The voice.

"Little girl. Don't be afraid. You aren't lost, are you?"

She trembled and clenched her teeth. Of all the villagers, he especially she could never face. Not with her scars.

He reached down for her hand.

"Come on. It's all right."

The coyote snarled in the brush nearby.

"Wait here." She heard his sandals crackle against the dry grass, and the swish of his club.

His footsteps returned, and he peered over the ledge down at her. "It's safe now." He smiled.

She dared herself to glance into his eyes. "Thank you." A girlish whimper.

She let him pull her up into the lamplight. They both sat down, each looking off into the distance. Her gaze wandered to the herdsman sitting beside her, to his rough cotton robe, to his ragged sleeves.

His arms. So many white echoes of pain. But just echoes. No blood.

Without thinking, she traced one of them lightly with her finger, then drew back. "I'm sorry."

He turned to her. His eyes twinkled in the dim light. "No need to apologize."

Pulling her arm closer to his, he drew it into the light. "Those look painful," he said as he traced the dark crimson lines on her arms.

One wet drop fell onto the lap of the blue gown.

"You know," he said, "If a little girl fell into the crater tomorrow, I would pull her out.”

The sob couldn't be stifled. She looked down, eyes memorizing every hole and rip in her dress. His arm wrapped around her shoulder like a winter's cloak, warm and safe.

“I carry my own lambs high above the thorns when I pull them out of the crater. I can handle being scratched, but I don’t want them to bleed,” he said.

Tears trickled, refusing to be shoved back. At last, she relaxed and lay against his shoulder.

He plucked a dandelion head and handed it to her. They blew it out together.  And dandelion seeds floated past in the moonlit breeze, the wind gathering the fluff up into the stars.

He spoke again, his hand held out towards her. “Would you like to dance?”

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Self-injury: A Worldview

“Told I talked too much
made too much noise
I took up a silent hobby—

― S. Marie

Self harm. When the darkness inside at last leaks out and mars your body.

The reasons most people give for hurting themselves are complicated and diverse. Verbalizing the pain, punishing and satiating guilt, desiring control, a grasping to keep out the numbness.

My years of personal self-injury were mostly guilt-driven. As a preschooler, I saw an Easter play and believed that I needed to hurt myself for hurting Jesus. Every year, the repeat of the same drama I desired and dreaded so much drove deeper into my heart this need to crucify myself.

Little girl me thought that Jesus had to obey His father in the Garden of Gethsemane and die for me because she was a child and had to obey her parents. Surely it would be wrong not to, and Jesus couldn’t sin. Therefore, little girl me believed Jesus was like this abused child that was forced to sacrifice Himself for her. She couldn’t understand free will. That Gethsemane was not about “I must” but “I choose.” That His love could never be forced.

So self injury was more than just cutting. The bruises in hidden places and perpetual scabs all around my fingernails were just a symptom of an underlying issue. The proverbial iceberg that sunk the Titanic. An entire worldview lay under the icy waves.

When you believe that you are worthless, that you deserve to be punished and denied love, this perspective seeps mercilessly into every area of your life.

Self harm can be subtle. Some of my closest friends have said that they don’t deserve friendship or to even simply enjoy life.

“Aren’t we supposed to be focused on the next life and not enjoying this one? I don’t have to have friends. I’ll just be alone.”

“Why I am so stupid?”

“I don’t want to inconvenience the waiters at IHOP because I’m in a wheelchair. I don’t have to have pancakes.”

“Wouldn't you eventually get over it [my suicide]?”

The words from our conversations drip like blood. Emotional wounds seeping silent tears. They don’t see that every person’s unique genetic composition and personality combination makes them irreplaceable.  John Powell explained it like this: “You have a unique message to deliver, a unique song to sing, a unique act of love to bestow. This message, this song, and this act of love have been entrusted exclusively to the one and only you.”

The voices in our heads telling us that we are worthless are lies. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Abundant life. Abundant even in the little things. Enjoying hot, syrupy pancakes with friends. Late night laughter. Life contains hardships, but we don't have to seek them out. My friend Cynthia Jeub recently wrote that we don't need to live like we were born to be martyrs.

I can live free, and be “free indeed.” I have not been denied love. I am (and YOU are) so loved.

P.S. Me and Pastor Mark Adams from First Baptist Church of Beaumont who used to play Jesus in the Passion Play. I went back to visit last month.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Defending God...and loving God

Last spring, my friend Luke from the group of awesome online writers I hang out with shared a quote on Facebook that has haunted me, floating in and out of my daily conversations.

"Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly. Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them. And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character." - St. Isaac the Syrian

I don't usually have a problem with forgiving people who hurt me - but I can't stand people hurting those whom I love.

Not long ago, I learned that a classmate had hurt two of my good friends. A vinegar-like disgust consumed me. The act was pre-meditated, calculated to deal as much pain as possible. My stomach sickened.

But the question remained. Could I take the fall for that hatred? Would I accept the consequences for it with silence and surrender?  Did I dare answer?

Another question, almost as difficult. Does the church today focus more on loving God and people...or on theological and political issues? What if the church was less concerned with how the world is offending God and more focused on loving the people they believe He died for? Now wait. I'm not advocating that ethics and morality be abandoned. But I do argue that priorities need to be shifted.

At the Palm Sunday service I attended, the pastor posed a similar question and then said that the world has already thrown its very worst at Jesus, but He won anyway. So, should we be "defending God" against offenses? Does He actually need our defending? Somehow, this approach rings hollow, lacking, and actually drives people away from the God we claim to defend.

Perhaps we tell ourselves it is because we love Him. It is only natural to defend what you love. The mockery of a beloved is a kick in the gut. My roommate Ducky and I both had a reflexive reaction at this year's production of the Thorn. During the scene in which Jesus is being scourged, we shared an anger for the Roman soldiers, still aware that they were just actors. My little girl heart always wants to run to Jesus, wrap my arms around his bare back, protect him from the lash. To stop the bleeding.

But I can't. As Ducky says, the worst pain is in "knowing that you couldn't stop it."  In the same way, I can't actually defend God.

Another thought. I wonder if the church is more offended for Christ than He is, since He has forgiven the offense before it happens.

As John the Beloved, one of the disciples narrating the Thorn, says, "He doesn't ask you to be perfect. He just asks you to be yourself and to love Him." The essence of following Christ, because in loving Him, we will love like Him.

P.S. My friend MOTS also expressed this idea in a vlog of hers last year. 

Image from The Thorn copyright © 2009 Jonathan Betz Photography.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Purity Rings

I was one of those pre-teens longingly looking through the True Love Waits catalog back in the early 2000s. Wondering. Waiting.

Somehow, I wanted to believe that wearing one of these rings and promising to keep my thoughts pure and my body untouched would magically cause the man God had prepared for me to appear, just like Prince Charming of the fairy tales. I composed letters in my head to my future husband. I dreamed of the day when he would remove my purity ring from my finger and replace it with our engagement ring. I would save myself for him, and we would live happily ever after in the enjoyment of each other's company.

My parents didn't buy me a True Love Waits ring. Instead, on the Christmas I was 13, my dad gave me a simple tanzanite ring. I wore it until last year, when the gold band finally snapped.

I didn't put it back on. And I haven't repaired it yet. Someday, I probably will. But I was already questioning the thinking behind the purity movement of my teen years. Now don't get me wrong. I still want to remain a virgin until marriage, and I think there is something to be said for seeking to live well. But now I have a different definition of purity.

Many Christian girls of my generation - including some of my closest friends - committed themselves to the "pure girls" movement, yet ended up wounded by it.

A blogger who posts under the pseudonym gracefortheroad explains it in a post called, "I don't wait anymore."  She says, "A lot of girls were sold on a deal and not on a Savior" and ends with this thought, "I just didn’t want to wait anymore – didn’t want to live like I was waiting on anyone to get here. I already have Him … and He is everything."

The Recovering Grace website has an article regarding the pitfalls of the emotional purity teaching prevalent ten years ago, which argues that if you have a crush, you are sinning and giving a piece of your heart away to someone or losing your emotional virginity. Believing these ideas caused me to become paranoid of hugging a guy friend or allowing myself to become attracted to a man.

Last year, my friend Anna G. shared a story with me called "The girl and the glass heart." It confronts the lie that if I freely love, I am left with less to love other people with in the future. The lies that tell me that if I love and I am left heartbroken, I am tarnished and used up, unfit for another relationship. The Heart-Healer in the tale tells the girl, "Only in brokenness can [your heart] truly be whole. .... Wholeness does not come from perfection. Wholeness comes from purpose. There is no purpose in a perfect heart. There is purpose in a broken one."

I had forgotten about my old purity ring until a few weeks ago. Last December, over Christmas break, I finally told someone about my history of self-harm throughout my childhood and my youth. For the first time, the darkest lies I believed and deepest wounds I carried flowed out of my heart in a 3 am chat powered by Mountain Dew. Later, I bought two rings engraved with the words "Forgiven" and "Jesus" to remind myself of why I never need to punish myself.  But when my friend Cynthia B. first saw them, she said, "Congratulations on your first real purity rings."

I drew back and paused, then smiled. "Yes. They are my purity rings." The rings I wear now are not to symbolize something I do or don't do. They don't have much to do with me at all. Instead, these rings point to what He did. For me.