Primeval – Stories from the beginning

Primeval---Title

Prompted by the soon released film Noah, Echo High School just finished a 4 week conversation on the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis, a section often referred to as the “primeval prologue.” The book of Genesis is well named. Genesis means “origin,” and it is a book about beginnings. It addresses questions about the origins of the universe, life, human culture, evil, pain, and suffering. This section of scripture is a lightning rod for interpretive differences and passionate debate, and I think all the attention might serve to confuse the intended message instead of clarifying it.

The powerful message of Genesis’ early chapters is often obscured by modern debates regarding issues the text does not address and questions the text cannot answer. It is common today to debate what the book has to say about the origin of matter in terms of science, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and so on. People try to make the primeval prologue of Genesis into an alternative theory of origins, and the debate about whether or not to take Genesis literally or whether evolution or creation is behind the complexity and uniqueness of human beings.

We might be guilty here of reading modern questions into an ancient context, and in doing so missing the point. One of the keys to interpreting scripture is to allow the Bible to say what it wants to say, not what we wish it said. We have to avoid the temptation to let questions the Bible cannot answer distract us from the questions it is answering. Genesis is not a book about biology or cosmology. It is a book about theology. The tragic reality for many people is that they will miss the theology of Genesis because they are forcing on the text their questions about origin of species and creation vs. evolution. We can’t afford to miss the point, because the point is too important to miss!

Genesis IS NOT – a science book or a history book in the modern sense. Forcing modern questions and modern categories on this ancient narrative is futile and might actually lead to missing the point. It cannot answer questions that were not being asked (or even imagined) by its original audience.

Genesis IS – a story, or a collection of stories. It is sometimes poetic, sometimes narrative, and sometimes parabolic. Genesis certainly communicates to its ancient audience in the language and style of other such stories from the ancient world, yet it is unique. I think the question of whether or not Genesis is “literal” is the wrong question. The question is whether or not Genesis is true, and that answer is yes. It is beautifully and wonderfully TRUE, in that it is jam-packed full of TRUTH. Yet it does not need to be literal to be true.

I think we obsess in excess over the issue of literal vs. symbolic, as if truth can only be communicated in objective, modern, non-fiction styles. I think the idea of anything being truly “objective” even in the modern world is also silly. Even documentaries and modern journalism betray their bias. This attitude also underestimates how narrative was used to communicate value and truth in the ancient world. God seems to be more concerned with the heart than with the head, and stories and songs are the language of the heart and so they make up much of the language of scripture. Scripture actually gives us an example about how story can communicate truth without being literal. Look at the parable Nathan employs when he confronts King David about his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:1-7.

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!…”

What we have here is a story designed to communicate truth best received by the heart and not the head. Nathan has the unenviable task of confronting and correcting a king that though himself above the law. He doesn’t do this with direct, didactic communication style. Instead, he uses the power of story to communicate the truth of David’s sin in a powerful and disarming way. Is Nathan’s parable TRUE? Yes! It might not be literal, but it is true. The rich man is David, the sheep is Bathsheba, the poor man that was wronged and abused is Uriah. In this case, we have both the parabolic story and the more “historical” story of David’s sin against Bathsheba detailed in the preceding chapters. How would we make sense of the story if we only had the parabole form? Would we be debating what color the fleece of the lamb was, or what town the man was from, or who the guest was that required the meal? All these questions are irrelevant to the point of Nathan’s parable.

For people that cannot wrap their head around the magic fruit and the talking snake and the flaming swords of Genesis’ primeval prologue, at least don’t miss the point of these stories because the details distract you. The fantastic and mythic quality of the stories fits well with the other such stories circulating at the time these were originally told. The question remains: does the primeval prologue of Genesis belong to the genre of parable or theological story or should it be read more literally? I tend to lean toward the side of “parabolic” history for several reasons. The narrative itself seems to suggest it with poetic structures and symbolic names. Adam means something like “humanity.” Eve means something like “mother of all.” The trees seem like symbols. There are parallelisms and chiasmus and other forms of poetic structures throughout the narrative.

Whether you read them literally or not, the theological point doesn’t change. These stories were first told to answer the question: “Why are things the way they are?” Why are we filled with spiritual curiosity? Why do we look into the mysteries of the universe and wonder? Why do we long to be more than we are? Why do we crave to be connected to God? Why have we been cast out of Eden? These questions need to be answered whether you view these stories literally or not. Whether or not they are literal is actually not the most important issue. The most important issue is the theology of these stories, what do they teach us about the nature of humanity and our relation to God? How would the ancient audience have understood these stories? What story does the Primeval Prologue of Genesis tell? It tells a story of something beautifully made and tragically marred. A story of paradise created and paradise lost.

When the movie Noah comes out, maybe you should watch it with your teen and have a lively discussion on parable, truth, history, and ultimate origins.

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Video Games as Culture Creators

Echo’s Parent Summit was held last week, where we had an interesting conversation about the cultural impact of the rise of the video game. Our ministry is strong in helping young people to interact with their culture with a critical and redemptive eye, teaching them to discern the worldview behind their media and other cultural voices and then decide how to respond in light of the claims of Christ. We often go through the exercise of discovering the worldview of a commercial, song, film, or video. One thing I have not done is to do the same with video games, because until recently I have underestimated the culture shaping potential therein.

While watching TED talks (which coincidently come to my living room via an internet stream through a gaming console) I recently saw a short film by a 20 something about the influence of video games on his worldview. You can watch this very interesting video here. This is a perspective from someone immersed in the digital world to the point that it greatly shapes his worldview. He noted, for instance, that he and many of his friends have logged more hours driving cars in video games than they have behind the wheel of an actual automobile. This is just one example of a seismic shift in our culture, where people actually find their home in the digital world and sometimes prefer it to the actual world. This is true of MMORPG games like World of Warcraft or Second Life, and it is true of console games like Call of Duty and others.

This is not just a “time out” from real life for them, they are beginning to form actual friendships and identify with virtual communities as much or more as they do with physical (real-life) communities. The cultural impact of such habits cannot be overstated. Youth culture watchdogs used to point to the Oscars and the Video Music Awards to take the temperature of youth culture and identify upcoming trends. Now, the video game industry is greatly and reliably outperforming both the movie industry and the music industry! If you follow the money, you will find out who has the most interest in shaping the hearts and minds of a generation. Look at this website for some surprising data about the dollars and cents of video games. This is what is capturing their wallets, and if it captures their wallets it captures their attention.

David Perry, a game developer delivering the talk at TED said this: “What game developers are talking about at gaming conferences are emotion, purpose, meaning, understanding, and feeling. Can a video game make you cry?” So, because I take seriously the charge to shepherd the hearts of teens, I want to thoroughly investigate anything that has their attention. With this excuse so easily available, this busy husband/father/pastor/seminarian bought a gaming console (for research, I swear!). Here are my initial thoughts (from a non-native to the current gaming world):

1. The games are surprisingly cinematic. They are telling stories: grand, immersive, sophisticated stories. Gone are the days of Mario searching for the princess in carbon-copy side scroll dungeons. The graphics are so lifelike, the sound is ultra-realistic, and the artificial intelligence is getting better all the time. These games tell stories that are full of depth and moral complexity. They are anything but childish. Teens and young adults will spend HOURS immersed in these stories. Story is one of the most powerful forces in our culture. Stories matter because stories are the language of the heart. They instruct very effectively, as any teacher knows. Jesus himself knew the power of a well-told story to change the human heart. I am not saying that these stories are sinister (some of them might be inspiring!), only that they will certainly prove to be influential. Gaming provides a way for me to enter into the story, making it even more powerful. Even the controls eventually fade into “autopilot.” After playing them very a short amount of time, you reflexively and automatically interact with the story without realizing you are cuing this button or that.

2. These games are addicting. I remember living through the release of Halo, the first big hit from Microsoft in console gaming. I had friends who struggled with flunking out of school because the game was so seductive. Gaming gives the player a level of immersive escape, taking them to another world and allowing them to perform deeds they could only fantasize about in real life. They are very powerful. One could easily understand how millions of adults spend hours playing them every week. The temptation to escape the problems of this world by going to a world you can dominate or control shouldn’t be ignored. Gaming is a great place to turn when trying to escape real world problems or real world suffering. The problem is that these problems will still be there when you log off. This is an important part of our evolving culture, and it is easy to forecast game addiction becoming something requiring clinical treatment. What is it that makes them so addicting? A researcher studying the impact of gaming on our culture gives these 4 realities that the gaming world supplies:

a. Urgent Optimism – Extreme self-motivation. The desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope for success. Gamers always believe an epic win is possible and worth trying.

b. Social Fabric – More than an escape, Millenials are finding these gaming communities as a surrogate for a community that is harder and harder to find in the real world. The gaming communities are the places where “everyone knows your name.” This is a positive thing as much as it is a negative thing. These are environments of collaboration, knowledge refinement, ideation, dispute adjudication, and even accountability. This social fabric is a place where people of different ages and backgrounds mix based on virtual achievement and expertise. There are few other environments like it. Gaming takes a lot of trust to play with others. Think about all kinds of people coming together, getting organized into complex systems and specific roles to creatively solve a problem. Gamers create very tight social networks. Look at how simple games like “words with friends” and “Farmville” have smashed the gender stereotypes of gamers.

c. Blissful Productivity – A lot of gamers have the feeling that they are not as good in reality as they are in the game. In the game, they can be the best at something. Because they are the best, they are valued, needed, and respected. They can attain the admiration of others when they dominate them or help them. The average player of WoW plays for 22.5 hours per week. That is a half time job! The reason for this is the moving finish line. Gaming has a way of dangling the carrot a little bit further each time you achieve something. It rewards your win, but then it makes you anxious to race to the next achievement or level or item. Real life is full of failure. In gaming, this feeling is rare. Most of the time, the game tests you and challenges you but it does make sure you can succeed. Your missions are perfectly matched with your progress in the game. There is no unemployment in games; there is never a lack for something to do. It is SO satisfying to be on the verge of an “epic win” all the time. Parents need to recognize how powerfully seductive this reality is, especially to young men. Gaming can answer a deep longing of the male heart.

d. Epic Meaning – Gamers love to be connected to awe inspiring missions and huge world changing stories. Jane McGonigal notes that the largest single topic wiki, only rivaled by Wikipedia, is the WoWwiki. They are building an epic story! The COO of Blizzard Media, the company that makes WoW, when asked why people play WoW said this: “How often in your everyday world do you get to feel heroic? How often do you get to step into a world and do something big and meaningful? People need an escape from ordinary life, it’s just something people need.” What is implied in this statement is that our normal lives just aren’t good enough.

3. Their interactivity is culturally significant. Think about the passive forms of media that have dominated the broadcast era: books, music, television, movies. Although they offer multi-sensory experiences and awaken the imagination, they don’t ask for my input. Video games offer a chance to enter the story and make choices, to input and interact on a new level. They offer you the chance to dunk like your favorite basketball player, commanding an avatar that captures not only his likeness but his voice and attitude. They offer you the chance to journey to worlds that have never been explored because they only exist in the digital world. Taken online, they are very competitive. I have talked with many teens about the frustrations and temptations of the live and online video game experience– trash talk, bullying, cliques, and peer pressure all thrive in this subculture. What does this mean for classrooms that employ an outdated learning style? What does this mean for ministries that are still dominated by the “sit and listen” worship event? The question we need to be asking is how are teens (and adults) experiencing meaning through games? I heard one person argue that they would rather hire someone with a high level achievement in World of Warcraft than a Harvard MBA.

Why Does this matter, and what should we do? This matters because teens are VERY impressionable. This influence WILL shape them. The quote from the film I linked earlier that haunts me is this: “I’m not sure what the implications of my experience are…video games are fun, engaging, and leave your brain complexly vulnerable to reprogramming.” That is just it! No one knows exactly what the implications are of such a significant cultural shift. I know that I want to have the conversation as we figure this out with our teens! We always teach this strategy, something we borrowed from Walt Mueller: DISCOVER, DISCERN, and DECIDE. Don’t let them sort this out on their own. It requires that we listen to the stories that games are telling, and we discern how they are influencing our hearts and minds, and then we decided what to do. This might mean using gaming as a way to connect with our students, giving us a chance to critique or guide or rewrite “the map” for them. As parents, we can’t allow our teens to consume all of this in a vacuum. I know there are game age-ratings, but those ratings are very superficial when you consider the culture shaping power of gaming. It is not just the violence or the profanity that will have an effect on shaping their heart. It is the story. The ultimate medicine for the gamer is a real-life story worth living!

Torn – A Series on the story of Esther

The book of Esther is one of the most dramatic and beautifully told stories in the Bible. It tells the story of a young woman named Esther and her cousin Mordecai as they try to survive and thrive as Hebrews in the land of Persia. Mordecai and Esther find themselves in a very important position, possessing very powerful knowledge, at a very critical time. The story has quite a few unexpected twists and turns, and is loaded with drama, intrigue, irony, and comedy. It is also one of the most puzzling books in the Bible. First of all, there is no mention of God. The book nowhere acknowledges God’s activity on the stage of history. It doesn’t record anyone praying to God or asking for His favor (even though it does record a fast, which might be assumed to be prayerful). On top of that, the characters do not always behave as you would expect Biblical heroes and heroines to behave. There is a lot of moral ambiguity that can be difficult to sort out. Besides being a very entertaining read, it also has a lot to teach us about the tension we sometimes feel between God’s Kingdom and our culture. Esther and Mordecai are in a very tough spot to be a Hebrew.


Lessons from a woman caught between two worlds – This book raises all kinds of questions about how we are to deal with our culture. Many of us feel like Esther did – torn between two worlds. We love Jesus and His Kingdom, but our culture where we live is seductive and has its own allure. The power of Esther’s story is the tension she must have felt being stuck between two very different cultures. She was a Hebrew, and that gave her a sacred obligation to the will of the God of her people. At the same time, she found herself thoroughly entrenched in the Persian culture, a culture that was drawing her deeper and deeper into itself. She embodies the struggle to be in the world but not of it. This is one of the hardest things for followers of Jesus to do. What do you do when the culture you are in threatens to swallow your faith, rewrite it, or erase it? I have watched so many people struggle with how to interact with their culture as a follower of Jesus. This is the tension I want to explore in this series. Echo has people all over this continuum. Some are just holding on, barely surviving. Some have already been swallowed up by the culture. Some are doing their best to be the influence and not the influenced. People take three stances when it comes to the surrounding culture:

1. Isolation – No contact, no impact. Sometimes the church has gotten this wrong. Sometimes the church has been tricked into isolating itself from people far from God in the name of protecting the holy ones from corruption. I have met many people that really do love God, but they look at the world and our culture like it is full of potential sources of “infection.” Their strategy to survive is to create a separate culture, walled off from negative influence and protected from corruption. They end up living like bubble boy, afraid of what is out there that might corrupt them. The irony of this is that whenever we do this, we have been tricked. According to Jesus, His disciples are the ones that are contagious! The danger is not to us, but to the kingdom of darkness. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The light is more powerful than the darkness, and when you shut up all the carriers of light inside of little cloisters and holy communities and churches and concerts, there is no chance for anyone bound in darkness to discover the light. Jesus warned his followers against this: he said a “You are the light of the world; city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Look at John 17:13-19. Jesus prayed for his disciples, not that they would be taken from the world, but that they could be a force of influence and change in the world. Without contact, you can’t have any impact on your culture. You might get a little messy if you try this. Can you imagine a Jesus that avoided what He found impure? For this reason, Echo cannot be allowed to be a shelter from culture, a group of people separated from the world that needs them. I love that we have a pastor that models this. Our pastor, Brad Russell, created the Washington West Film Festival to interface with and engage our culture.

The story of Esther could be very different. At multiple points in the story of Israel, the Jews struggled with influence and took the path of isolation. You can imagine Esther and Mordecai being so offended by the suggestion that they be complicit in this corrupt and perverse culture! The story would be one where Esther was killed and Mordecai as well, dying to persevere her “honor” or virginity. This isn’t easy stuff by any means, but this is how the story goes. What I am saying is that it is possible to limit your influence because you limit the exposure other people have to the hope and life that is in you. Now of course, this works both ways.

2. Assimilation – You can’t stand fast without contrast. The other thing I see happen when it comes to culture is that people are just swept away by its current. The force of culture just swallows them whole and assimilates them, they become just like everyone else in culture and any distinctiveness about them is lost. If you are not strong enough to be the influence and you are always being swept away in the current of your culture and negatively influenced, you might need to limit your contact with negative influences. You cannot be a rescue swimmer until you stop drowning and learn how to swim. It is not what is the similar to everyone around you that will grant you influence, it is what is different. I am not talking about something weird, strange, or bizarre, but something distinct. If you lose your distinctiveness, you lost your ability to influence and attract others. If you are just like everyone else, just one more follower in the crowd of sheeple, why would anyone bother to follow you? The right kind of difference is contagious. Here me on this: if Esther was just another pretty face in the crowd of hundreds, this story would look so differently. Something made her different, something more than superficial made her stand out from among the others. The key to influence is to discover life on a level that few others ever find. Then you have found something that will make you stand out! The Jesus movement, the Kingdom of God – it is a counter-cultural revolution. It is not the popular thing but the right thing. It is not what everyone does, it is only what the remarkable can do. If you want to impact the world, you will have to do it living differently that everyone else. We are called to be aliens in this world, living “in it but not of it.” There is supposed to be a quality about us that is “otherworldly,” like we have been somewhere else and we are from somewhere else.

3. Transformation – Look at 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, and listen to this charge by the Apostle Paul. He describes the followers of Jesus as the ambassadors of Christ, as if God were making his appeal for reconciliation with the world through us. He is imagining a force of positive change unleashed on the world with transforming results. Esther’s initial struggle is this: how to I prevent being swallowed by the culture even as I am surrounded by it and immersed in it? That is where many of us are, barely surviving. In that case, you may need to find some sources of strength and change some habits and reroute some patterns. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that living for God’s Kingdom means staying “pure” somehow. It doesn’t mean anything that small! Esther eventually discovers this. It isn’t just about surviving. Not only does she want to survive, but she wants to influence her culture of the Kingdom of God. I know in Echo we have people that are struggling with both of these challenges. The secret lies in protecting the fire of God in your heart, so even when you are immersed in your culture without, you heart is captured by God within.

**Food for thought, seeds for discussion with your teenager:

*What do you find tempting or alluring about your culture?
*Why do you think “Isolation” isn’t an effective strategy for dealing with culture? Can you think of reasons why you should be isolated from some things in culture?
*What exactly should make a follower of Jesus distinct from others? What are some superficial ways that people sometimes look to distinguish themselves?
*What do you think Jesus meant when he prayed that his disciples would be “in the world” but not “of the world?”

Echo Middle School’s Cinema Series

Echo Middle School just wrapped up its cinema series, where we explore theological themes in movies from the previous year. Jesus was the master storyteller, using parables with unexpected twists and surprise endings to help his audience imagine and feel the impact of God’s Kingdom. Jesus framed these stories with material common to the lives of his audience: struggling first century peasants from Palestine. His stories had such impact partly because he observed and listened to the world around him, truly understanding where people were coming from before he set out to take them somewhere new. When he awoke their imaginations about the possibilities and realities of God’s Kingdom, it was like pulling back the curtain of another world. He was always careful to describe this higher reality in terms and symbols that were accessible to the people of this world. Jesus told stories that were familiar parts of the fabric of everyday life: fathers and sons, farming, lost sheep, and the plight of the poor.

We value the ways of Jesus above everything at Echo, so one of the skills we try to coach our students in is the ability to look at their culture with critical and redemptive eyes. We want them to discover what their culture is saying, dreaming, and feeling – then we want them to discern how what they discover would be re-framed, redeemed, or rejected by the Kingdom of God. We often show music videos, play popular songs, and examine movie clips or other media to coach our teens how to rightly interact with the voices of their culture.

During this series, we looked at several films as cultural parables of spiritual truth. These would all be great movies to pick up and watch together as a family. Your Echo student should have some good thoughts about discerning God’s truth in these films if they came to our cinema series.

We Bought a Zoo – This movie is heartwarming and innocent, but it also addresses some deep themes about loss, family tension, and courage.

Hugo – This is one of the best movies I have seen in years. It is a story masterfully told about an orphan boy discovering his purpose, and helping others rediscover their own in the process. This one is a “must see.”

Real Steel
– This is a popcorn flick, but behind the rock-em-sock-em robots is a powerful story about endurance and getting back up when we are knocked down. We compared this story to the story of Paul’s journey to Rome in the book of Acts.

The Adjustment Bureau – This is a science fiction love story, but it is laced with philosophical questions about destiny and free will. We had a conversation about divine providence, fate, and choice with scenes from this film as the backdrop.

How to say “Friend”

In Greece they say: philos; in Spain: amigo, in Germany: freund; in Russia: prijátel; in Italy: amico; in France: am; Japan: 私の友 (tomodachi), in Israel: חבר (chaver); in the Arabic world they would say: صديق (Sadeeq). “Friend” is a beautiful word in any language, because a friend is a priceless treasure. I don’t think we appreciate how wonderful it is to have friends. Life without friends would be an utterly miserable experience.

According to the June 2006 issue of the journal American Sociological Review, Americans are thought to be suffering a loss in the quality and quantity of close friendships since at least 1985. The study states 25% of Americans have no close confidants. 1 in 4 people have no true friends. This makes me so sad. In a world with so many ways to connect, you would think this would be different. I wonder if we have replaced real friendship with something different – a shallow substitute. I have over 1,000 “friends” on facebook, but is using the word “friend” to describe all of these people cheapening the word? Are all of them true friends? I guess “friend” can mean a few different things, and that people can be different kinds of friends. Jesus taught the best kind of friend is one that would lay down their life for you. The Bible talks about a friend that sticks closer than a brother, and gives us several examples of friendship worth celebrating and emulating.

This month, Echo High School is going to be working through some of these stories of friendship, asking questions about how we can become better friends and surround ourselves with better friends as well.

*Questions to ponder:
-A recent study reveals that 1 in 4 Americans have no true friends. Why do you think this?
-With 6.5 billion people on the planet, why do think some people still feel alone? How can we change this reality?
-What do you think makes someone a true friend?
-What are some ways friendships grow stronger? How can we grow to be better friends ourselves?

MTV’s Bully Beatdown – Jesus and Violence

In our current high school series, our students have been engaging MTV’s shows in a redemptive conversation. One of the shows we tackled is called Bully Beatdown. Our Middle Schoolers had a similar conversation around the release of the new film The Karate Kid.

The show’s promo statement says this: Ever wanted help getting a bully to back off? When it’s time to even the odds, it’s time for Bully Beatdown. In each episode of Bully Beatdown, victims reach out to the host, professional mixed martial arts fighter Jason “Mayhem” Miller, to enlist his help. After learning why this guy needs a beatdown, Mayhem will “ambush” the bully. Calling him out in front of others, Mayhem will give him a choice: accept the challenge of fighting a MMA fighter or look like a coward.

What seems to be the case here is that bullies are corrected by being bullied themselves. This sounds okay, almost like “giving them a taste of their own medicine.” However, I wonder if Jesus would provide another way. This is a slippery slope and is dangerous. This is the question – Does might make right?

The problem of bullying is getting a lot of attention right now. 2 girls in Minnesota just hung themselves at a sleepover in response to bullying. Millions of people have seen the viral video of a 15 year old named Casey body slamming his bully. George St. Pierre, the UFC fighter, talks openly about how badly he was bullied as a kid. This isn’t just a physical issue; it is a social issue as well. The psychological torment we inflict on each other is a serious thing.

Bullying is a complex problem without an easy solution. The standard answer from youth workers and school officials is that a bullied person should “go get help” or “tell someone.” Certainly safety is an issue and school officials and other adults want to protect kids and teens. At the same time, this approach oversimplifies the problem. This is a complex issue, because sometimes what you need back is not just your safety but also your dignity. Sometimes “telling” just makes the problem so much worse. If your mom ends up trying to fight the battle for you, it doesn’t help you get back your dignity. Bullies know this and it gives them power. It is also not always realistic solution to just stand up to some bullies. There is always a bigger dog on the block, but you might not be that dog. In the movies, you stand up to the bully and they back down or you gloriously win because you get trained by an old Japanese handy man/karate expert. In real life, sometimes standing up means you end up getting pounded.

This issue becomes especially volatile because of the mixed messages teens here from people in authority. Some argue that Jesus was a pacifist, and that the only God-honoring response to bullying would be passive submission. Others advocate fighting back, an action that can lead to more violence and serious consequences (like being expelled from school). Is there such a thing as “redemptive violence,” or is any act of violence abhorrent?

Many people have heard the famous teaching of Jesus about “turning the other cheek.” This is found in Matthew 5:38-48. Some people argue that Jesus was a pacifist, and to follow Jesus means that you have no right to self-defense or resistance. The troubling phrase is: “Do not resist an evil person.” Does following Jesus mean a person cannot or should not engage in self-defense? A better translation of this phrase, one more faithful to the common use of the Greek words would be: “Do not react violently against the one who is evil.” We certainly are to resist evil. Jesus is not saying we should lie down and do nothing. A passive response would not accomplish anything but to embolden the bully and maintain the power imbalance. Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run contrary to everything he did and said. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition. I do not think Jesus is teaching people to do nothing. To do nothing when you see someone else getting bullied or mistreated is also far from the heart of Jesus. This is the root of the problem with a lot of bullying. Bullies have power not just because they are big or strong, but often because they have been given social power by the crowd. Unchecked and unrestrained evil just leads to more evil. We understand this when it comes to governments, police forces, authority figures and so on, but what about the average person? What responsibility do the powerful have to protect the weak? Jesus’ goal here is introducing a different way of handling violence, offense, and mistreatment. He is talking to Jews in occupied Roman territory, people that were very familiar with being bullied by someone much more powerful than them. He uses three examples that illustrate his point, all of which would have been understood and maybe even experienced by his audience. Jesus is introducing a different perspective on the problem.

Others argue that the true meaning of Jesus’ teaching has been lost because of historical distance. The original audience would have understood Jesus differently than we do now. To them, all of Jesus’ examples are not examples of passive submission, but of resistance. Jesus gives an alternative to passivity and violence. For example: Jesus instruction to “turn the other cheek” might actually be a creative way to turn the tables on your attacker. Think about the physics of striking someone on the left cheek. Most people, now and then, are right handed. The only way to strike the left cheek would be with a back-handed slap. In the ancient world, this act was less about inflicting injury and more about insult. It was the way a man slapped a woman, or a slave (prejudice that betrays the backwards thinking of the ancient world, not of this author!). It was a way that social inequality was communicated and enforced. The goal of such a slap is to humiliate and degrade. If a Roman punched another Roman, the fine was equivalent to about $40. If a Roman back-handed another Roman, the fine was $4000. The backhand slap was that offensive. (There is no fine for a Roman to backhand a non-Roman, like a Jew, which is the point.) Of course, you could always slap someone with your left hand on the left cheek, but that would be an insult as well because the left hand was used for toilet purposes. By turning the other cheek, you are taking away the ability of the other person to insult you. Yes, they could punch you – but a punch has a different meaning. If they do punch, the oppressor has been forced against his will to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The act of turning the other cheek denies the aggressor the power to humiliate. It is an act of defiance, one that says: “I will not cower in the face of evil, but I will not accept your insult. I refuse to let you demeans me.”

This all goes beyond fight or flight. It is about meeting force with ridicule or humor, asserting humanity, and exposing injustice. Responding in this way, you are forcing the oppressor to see you in a new light and to think about their actions. The goal here is to defeat a bully not by destroying him or her. Your true enemy is not the person; it is the evil present in their actions and attitudes. To seek the destruction of your true enemy is to seek the transformation of the person. Remember that this teaching of Jesus is delivered in the context of the command to love your enemies.

That being said, the hard reality is that we live in a world filled with evil, where people can dominate, exploit, and take advantage of one another. It is a world where the strong deprive the weak of dignity and justice, where the powerful rule over the powerless with violence and oppression. The problem with violence is when only the evil or unrestrained people are capable of it. I am not convinced that Jesus would never support or recommend any kind of violence. Should you not restrain a violent person from harming others because you are afraid of violence yourself? If everyone took that attitude, evil would run unrestrained. In my opinion, there is a certain kind of evil that you cannot reason with. It needs to be brought to heel, even if this means some show of force. Again, the goal is always the disarming end of violence, the restoration of dignity, and the transformation of the other. Could this ever require violent resistance to achieve?

*Questions for discussion:
-Do you think bullying is a serious problem? Why or why not?
-What do you think about Casey, the 15 year old that body-slammed his bully to the ground? Do you think he should have reacted differently? What would you do if you witnessed this event in the hallway of your school? What do you think your parents woudl expect you to do?
-When, if ever, is violence justified?

What I learned watching MTV

MTV and I were both born in 1981. I was born with little fanfare in a Detroit hospital: a baby too big for a momma too small that required an emergency c-section. MTV on the other hand, was born when they prophetically aired “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Back then, all you could see on MTV were music videos. The concept of a channel devoted to showing commercials 24/7 was brilliant. A music video is basically a commercial for the song and artist, and they interrupt these commercials with other commercials on their commercial breaks. We are suckers! Now, MTV rarely if ever shows music videos; it is in the business of creating culture.

Our high school students are engaged in a series right now that I like to repeat every few years called MTV and the Truth. The idea is to confront the worldview behind some of the shows on MTV with a critical and redemptive eye. We have engaged classic shows like Pimp my Ride, Room Raiders, Punked, The Real World, Made, My Super Sweet 16, and many more. This year, we are tackling Bully Beatdown, The Buried Life, Skins, and 16 and Pregnant. This year is by far my favorite!

I will put up some thoughts from the series in the coming week.