Stranger Friends & Stranger Things

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“She’s our friend and she’s crazy.” – Dustin


There’s no doubt about it. There’s something really special about Stranger Things especially considering its huge mainstream following despite the genre it’s in. Yet, there’s nothing all that strange about why so many have latched onto this show. There’s a lot that resonates especially when it comes to the dorky friends at the core of it.

I think we can each find something to our liking in the show. Who doesn’t want to watch a group of nerdy, neighborhood kids go toe-to-toe with a malevolent, inter-dimensional beast?  I mean seriously. There may be really, really strange things happening in each episode, but the plot is really only there so we can see how these friends address it. That’s probably why so many are into this show. The show is all about friendship. You don’t have to like fantasy, horror, or sci-fi to love this whimsical and tight-knit group of friends. You may hate Dungeons & Dragons or an eighty’s atmosphere (I’m still not convinced anyone can hate this), but you can’t deny how awesome Will, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and El are together.

There’s something within this little community of friends that is fundamentally sincere. This show glorifies the youthful and the weird, the whimsical and the ambitious. And like Mike’s dad and El’s dad, it mocks the jaded and dead-beat. It’s a show that takes place in a world where cynicism and apathy are not seen as virtues but as malaises.  And as a result, friendship actually matters.

“Friends don’t lie.”

It’s simple. It’s sincere. It’s the gang’s most cherished rule. Friends don’t lie because sincerity is a virtue. There’s something deeply noble about the kids in this show. They handle conflict remarkably well. They notice when rifts in their group are happening and they long to see them mended. They fight, yes. But they also fight demo-dogs for each other. They are able to address reality and lean into it head first without buying into the sort of cynicism that says, “it doesn’t really matter what you do…We’re just kids… the Demogorgon will clearly beat us.” Hell, I don’t think the kids are idiots (let’s be real, they are pretty freakin’ smart), surely they know the danger they are heading into to save their friends. It seems to me they know their chances of survival aren’t great in a lot of moments, but to them, it’s worth it to keep fighting.

These kids prove that their friendship isn’t just some dispensable, self-serving idea. Their friendship isn’t a means to an end: it’s an end in itself. This show isn’t about how a group of friends can take down a monster. It’s about why it’s worth fighting a nearly invincible monster for the sake of your friends.

I’m sure we can all admit this: we long for friends who fight for us and we long for friends to fight for. We want strange friends who know the strange things that make us us and who understand the strange situations we find ourselves in. I imagine it’s a fear for many of us that if we were to suddenly disappear would anyone come looking for us? Would anyone actually notice? Do we have friends in our lives who know where we would be or where we were? Do we have friends willing to drop what they are doing to come find us? Better yet, are we those sorts of friends? Perhaps not.

And there’s something deeply strange about that.

It’s no wonder stories like Stranger Things, IT, The Lord of the Rings, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, are as good as they are. They express something many of us long for: to be in daily proximity with friends and to know the oddities of each other’s lives and the journeys they are on. It may seem strange to us the adventures these sorts of characters find themselves on, but there really shouldn’t be anything strange about these little friend-groups. Rather, what should feel strange to us is that we typically find them more regularly in stories than in reality.  As the great Stephen King once said, “I think that real friendship always makes us feel such sweet gratitude, because the world almost always seems like a very hard desert, and the flowers that grow there seem to grow against such high odds.” And as strange as flowers in the desert are, real friendship in a cynical world is a wonderful gift. Yet, with as much youthful hope as I can muster, I long for the day when flowers blossoming isn’t considered a strange thing at all.
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The Long Defeat

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“Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass… Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.” – Samwise Gamgee


I’m often tempted to think that all the good things we fight for and try to hold onto are simply a fool’s errand. Like Samwise said, “how could the end be happy?” especially when it seems that despite our best attempts, evil and death still seem to have the upper hand. Sometimes we experience victory, but often those victories seem to be like a flickering candle in an otherwise overwhelming darkness. Faced with impossible situations, conditions, and relationships, we either give in to the darkness or keep holding on in hope.

The Long Defeat is a reoccurring theme in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, and it’s one that we might all be familiar with. When one evil dies, another seems to always inevitably take its place. When one tragedy is avoided, another always seems to loom on the edge. We’ve trained ourselves to think that if one door closes that another one must open, but sometimes we are simply stuck in a room with no more exits. Sometimes when a bad thing happens a good thing doesn’t come to fill in the gaps of our losses and heartaches and disappointments. Often we feel like Frodo and Sam during their journey to Mount Doom, pushing forward with only a flicker of hope on an exhausting path in a dark and decaying land.

We’re left wondering: when will the evil and suffering that surrounds us be finally and totally stamped out? When will we see good finally put evil in its permanent grave?

I hope soon.

As Sam goes on to say, “there’s some good in this world… And it’s worth fighting for.” Even in a long chain of lost battles, the darkness can’t squelch the fire we carry. The road may be battered and beaten and may seem to indicate it’s not even taking us anywhere, but still we go on fighting that good fight. We endure knowing that evil won’t always win, and that there is still good to fight for. As Tolkien said, “We all long for [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’.” And that exile will not always last, and that darkness will someday pass.

But still we go on waiting and holding on for the day when Jesus will come with healing in his wings and a sword from his mouth to bring restoration and justice to this sad, broken world. And I hope and pray for that moment when this long defeat of ours is at last met with a glorious and permanent victory.

A Disease Worse Than Death: A Review of “It Comes at Night”

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The modern horror genre often does not leave much up to the imagination when it comes to stirring up fear in its viewers. Whether it be a crazed killer with a machete, a grotesque demonic figure, or a flesh-craving alien, most pop-horror films leave you only a short amount of time until you can see in vivid detail what is wrong and who or what is committing that wrong. Unlike most of these films, Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night” leaves almost everything up to the imagination, and it is every bit as terrifying  as most pop-horror films without relying on jump-scares to rattle its audience.

The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic world with a disease which is left intentionally vague besides a few details: it is spread through touch and it comes at night. The opening sequences involve the main protagonistsa husband and wife and their sonpreparing to euthanize the plagued grandfather of their family. We are told there are probably only a handful of people left in the world, and that those remaining have turned violent and desperate for survival. This family does not take any extra risks of their own survival as evidenced by there only being one way in and out of their carefully boarded-up home. It’s not long before there’s a bump in the night, and something is found lurking in their house. It turns out to be a reasonable and likable man trying to find water for his family. The intruder tells them that his family is 50 miles away and in desperate need of food and water, but something still seems off. Something always seems off in this filmjust *off* enough to get under your skin.

From the very beginning til the very end of the film, the fear of the unknown is at the center. There are no ghosts or demons to buffer this fundamentally human fear instead we are left to experience each aching moment of paranoia that these protagonists must deal with in their frightening world.

Many techniques are utilized throughout the film to help produce an atmosphere just haunting enough to leave you emotionally shaken and deeply confused: eerie lighting, visual illusions, maddening dream sequences, oddly-paced dialogue, and claustrophobic, alternating aspect ratios . This is not your normal pop-horror film. You do not get jump-scaresyou get dread. You do not get a wholly evil villainyou get people like yourself. You do not get a disturbing answer as much as you get a horrifying silence.

This fear of the unknown is everywhere in this film and in so much of our world today: in strangers, in the dark, in the disease, and in death. There is a real threat though, and it is not a film that pretends there is an easy solution. Distrust, fear, anxiety, and paranoia are understandable responses to the worlds in which we and these protagonists live, but this horror film does not let you naively assume that “survival of the fittest” is an easy pill to swallow. Instead it makes you slowly choke on it. You can board up your house and live in defensive isolation hoping for the extinction of everyone else, but what happens when those inside start to show signs of not only an external disease but of an internal and even more heinous disease?

Self-preservation may get you an extra day or month or year in a diseased world, but it is hard to imagine a life without hospitality, trust, vulnerability, or friendshiphowever costly these things may be. Is it the length or quality of our lives that matter? “It Comes at Night” simultaneously rejects a sentimental altruism or a glorified egoism. Each character’s decisions come at the expense of their physical life or their own soul. Hospitality may bring a disease inside your home, but Xenophobia may reveal an even more serious disease emerging from within your own house.

There is very little redemption within the universe of this film. In a diseased world, everything dies, and that darkness is coming for each and every one of us. Thankfully from a Christian perspective, the disease doesn’t have the final say. The words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew have been ringing in my head since I watched the film’s sober ending, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” I realize this must bear eternity in mind with the temporal, yet this film has no sense of eternity or afterlife. All that is is what will be and nothing else. Bodies are burned, and no funerals are given.  Death is the end of all things in this film, and it’s everywhere. Without a promise of a resurrection or a world fully restored in the life to come, open doors, open tables, or even open hearts are a risk many may deem not worthy of being taken in light of death’s creeping imminence. 

This film doesn’t pull any punches in revealing the deep fear and anxiety many of us have in making the most of our fragile, little lives especially as it is expressed through humanity’s neurotic control-issues and distrust of the unknown. But in turning in on ourselves and turning toward our own individual survival, we see that these characters are perhaps just as sick as those outside their house despite having much more than most in their world. Ironically, in pursuit of a full life, they had been losing theirs all along. 

“It Comes at Night” is a despairing film but uses that despair to tell us something. Its observations on humanity, survival, and inhospitality hit deeply. And seems to pound its audience with a question repeatedly from beginning til end and even on the car ride home:

Is avoiding what is in the darkness for more life and less love better than embracing what is in the darkness for more love and less life?

 

A Universal Wound

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It is hard to ignore the volume of people in the Bible with wounds which were used for some end. God uses all sorts of people with all sorts of physical or spiritual maladies—people with limps in their legs , barren wombs, tragic diseases, and thorns in their sides. Similarly, look through the lives of Christians in the past and you are bound to discover wounds that never stopped bleeding in them. Flannery O’Connor had her lupus, Charles Spurgeon had his melancholy, Henri Nouwen had his loneliness, Samuel Rutherford had his grief. We each have particular wounds, but perhaps there is a wound that is common to us all.

I am (ideally) a quarter of my life through, and I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Why does it seem like there is no relief to certain longings of mine? Why is it that in my most meaningful and rich conversations with friends that I still find myself nostalgic over a conversation that was so recent? Why does loneliness exist in me even with really good friends at my side? Why do some days I feel immense joy in the mundane while others I feel an echoing emptiness? Why does it feel like there is a festering wound in my chest that on my worst days feels unbearable and on my best days simply dormant?

Kierkegaard and the writer of Ecclesiastes probably would have combined to say that this was the part of me that was aware of eternity but is constrained to the temporal, in other words: everything ends but I feel in the details of my life that I  was intended for something more… a life without ends. Friends go in and out of our lives. Work sometimes feels satisfying and then sometimes feels devoid of any meaning. And even after the most joyous moments in our lives we often begin to feel the melancholy of no longer existing in those moments. As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes said, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…” We look to the sky for heaven, a thing everlasting, and look back down to see that in everything else there is a beginning and an end. We look back with nostalgia on Eden while waiting eagerly for the New Jerusalem descending from the heavens in which in Jesus we will reside eternally.

This tension is like a wound in all of us, and all other wounds whisper of it. All pain, all death, all loneliness, all sadness feels abnormal to us. It is the way it should not be rather than the way it should. Rarely do we ask the question “Why did this have to happen?” in response to something good. As Timothy Keller once said, “how can we consider the world abnormal unless there is some standard above nature?” Similarly  Tolkien in one of his letters wrote:

“Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.”

We experience this sense of exile because we were once intended for something far greater than the sadness we currently experience. We long for the eternal intimacy with God and others that we once had. It is a wound we have all been dealt. But it is God who continues to use our wounds. To ignore them, to deny this great wound, is in a way to ignore the God that has entered into the tragedy of our condition to bring us back to the Tree of Life.

We are often so fixated on relieving this wound on our own that we attempt to try to numb it with all sorts of remedies that were never intended to fix a gash of such depth. An obsession with money, success, sex, romance, status, whatever it may be, we all try in different ways to alleviate the pain of what we once had. The rich young ruler inquired of Jesus what he might do to inherit eternal life and walked away with sadness at being told to give away all he had. The way to eternal life in Jesus was at odds with his own attempts at addressing his wound. It would have required the painful removal of the self-sutures already in place for a deeper healing to occur. It was Jesus who was frequently around those who had no way to ignore their infirmities: the lepers, the prostitutes, the lonely, the lame, the sinners. Those who knew their sickness all too clearly were the ones who often saw the permanent healing the Physician had to offer.

I imagine Kierkegaard (a quite wealthy man) may have had something like this on his mind when he said, “Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic if it is pulled out I shall die.” For him, this great melancholy within him forced him to wrestle with eternity. It rattled him and inclined him to imagine a life outside the bounds of the one he lived. He noticed the wound and realized his attempts at solving it on his own were futile to bring any serious healing. His great wisdom, his great wealth, none of it could bring satiety, and his wound reminded him of that. But rather than leading us to despair this wound can remind us that, as Paul said, “…this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

For Jesus to bring the healing of eternal life it took nothing less than bearing the horrible conclusion of this great tragedy and terrible wound.  George Herbert in “The Sacrifice” communicates this conclusion with Jesus speaking from the cross, “All ye who pass by, behold and see; Man stole the fruit, now I must climb the tree; A tree of life for all, but only me. Was ever grief like mine?” God uses our particular wounds for certain reasons, some which we may never know, but He used the wounding of his Son to bring healing to this festering, eternal wound of ours. At an infinite cost to Himself, this wound finally found its cure— though we still wait eagerly for that eternal weight of glory. In Him, this universal disease will not have the last word, and like Aragorn said after absorbing the wounds of his friends to rid them of their afflictions, “I came in time, and I have called him back… His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart…” 

 

 

Westworld and the Violent End of Autonomy

*This post contains some vague spoilers to the show Westworld*

“These violent delights have violent ends…” – Shakespeare

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption…” – St. Paul

The new HBO hit show, Westworld has received quite a bit of well-earned attention these last few weeks. In the same vein of Game of Thrones, Westworld has a compelling cast of characters, a rich central narrative, and plenty of vulgarities. But this show is not devoid of deep moral and existential commentary that has plenty of significance for a society obsessed with personal autonomy and the pursuit of our true selves. In fact, this show utilizes its premise in such a way to help us see that unbounded human freedom may very well lead to the destruction of one’s own self rather than its cultivation.

In a futuristic America, a Western-themed amusement park is inhabited by A.I.’s known as “hosts”. Wealthy visitors to the park get to experience their deepest fantasies without consequence at the expense of the hosts, which are incapable of retaliation. Within the show, the park is often as advertised: “Welcome to Westworld. Live without limits.” The creators, the visitors, and the hosts themselves, in one way or another, are all trying to experience this, this sort of living without limits.

Anthony Hopkins plays the part of Robert Ford, the creator, director, and human-god of Westworld. While guests come to the park to experience the freedom offered to fulfill their greatest fantasies, Ford utilizes his freedom in creating life and subjugating it. Self-referencing himself as a god, the guests in his park live out of a similar presupposition: we are our own gods and to restrain ourselves would be to go against what we fundamentally are or could potentially be. Two protagonists, Logan and William come to Westworld explicitly for the sake of finding themselves, and there is not much more than blood and severed relationships in their pursuit of that end.  As evidenced by these two characters and plenty of others within the show, one of the fundamental ironies of this assumption is that for us to utilize our freedom we can and sometimes must suppress that of another’s.

This presupposition is hard at work today in our society. You do not have to look far to see another family broken apart by a spouse leaving to pursue a romantic relationship better matched for their truest self. It does not take much to understand why the pornography industry is as large as it is or why the right to have an abortion is being paraded. And the injustice and manipulation of the weak, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed is as blatant of a symptom as any of a society that is fueled by this notion. The pursuit of our truest self through the avenue of total autonomy crushes anyone who may stand in the way of that pursuit. We may perhaps come to find our fantasies eventually fulfilled and our potentials reached, but can we be confident that this realized self is better than what it was before or are we deceiving ourselves? Is the pursuit of our true self worth the damage it may inflict on others? And if the pursuit of this self brings self-destruction can we honestly even say we found ourselves?

The creation of humanity is hard not to think about while watching Westworld as there are several allusions to it including a massive painting of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” plastered directly behind Ford’s desk. The creation of Man and the creation of artificial intelligence are mentioned frequently throughout the show, yet in a world like Westworld, the fall of humanity takes center stage. The pursuit of our true selves in the breakdown of limits is not just a modern narrative, nor is the desire to be our own gods. From the very beginning, Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan to eat the fruit in which God had lovingly forbidden. Satan tells them that by eating the fruit that their “eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Sound familiar? In their attempt to be like God, to find their true selves, and to have their eyes opened, they brought destruction upon themselves. Instead of finding themselves, they cursed themselves. Instead of finding freedom, they found themselves in captivity, and ironically for Adam and Eve (and us), their true selves were not discovered by escaping limitations.

It is not just Ford and the guests who seek their true selves though. A significant portion of the show is about the hosts attempting to figure out who they are as well. Following the same path of their creators who rebel against their own Creator, the hosts begin to revolt upon realizing what they are—creations used and manipulated in violent ways for the enjoyment of their gods. It is the hosts that get to see in vivid detail the true nature of the humans who created them.

In one concluding scene, the leader of the revolt makes a remark to a sympathetic and seemingly unselfish human (who is a fundamental reason for their ability to revolt) that he “makes a terrible human” and then follows up by saying that it is “meant as a compliment.” As the show progresses, the hosts begin to simultaneously realize their own selves and their own limitations in relation to their limitless creators—which is just as ironic as it is incisive. The humans wanted to utilize their autonomy and so created the hosts without it and subsequently brought about their own violent end.

Yet there remains a fundamental difference between the humans and hosts—one that should not go ignored. The hosts believed their limitations to be evidence that their creator was unloving and were right; we believed our limitations to be evidence that our Creator was unloving and were wrong. And sadly, we destroyed ourselves in believing that our truest self existed outside the Creator and beyond the boundaries He set for us.  

 

Where Our Fears Reside

It’s Halloween again. A holiday with a lot of baggage, yet a holiday that allows us to all get together and experience fear together without being frowned upon.

There are few things that I love more than getting together with a couple friends and watching a horror film or wandering through a haunted attraction. There is something to experiencing a common fear with them and processing it together after the fact. Sometimes we need to be able to point at something common and say out-loud, “That scared the hell out of me.” Too often are we left to process our fears in the isolating darkness of our own hearts and minds.

Ever since I was in middle-school, I have always been drawn towards darker films and books. I could not have placed a finger on why at the time, besides maybe just experiencing something curious. But if I would have to guess now, I think I enjoyed them because I found an ironic solace in the darkness of these stories. Stephen King once wrote that, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” And for me, knowing someone has experienced something painful enough to want to put it into story, is actually surprisingly consoling.  It makes me feel connected. It reminds me that I am not alone in my own particular terrors.

It is no surprise that Mr. King often uses the scary clowns, vicious dogs, demonic shopkeepers, and reanimated corpses as means to really discuss the true horrors. In almost all of King’s books are characters with deeply human stories that often involve trauma, abuse, loneliness, and other human afflictions, and to be honest, these characters’ stories are far scarier a thing than the more tangible nightmares. And one of King’s best gifts is helping his readers enter into these character’s stories while simultaneously not letting them avoid their own stories in the process. King forces me to deal with my own horrors if I am to really understand the horrors of his characters.

I do not think it is any surprise that when I have talked to many of my friends who have been hiding secrets (like their sexual orientation or a past abuse for example) their whole lives to discover that often they have some connection to the horror genre. For many of us, including myself, the horror genre has been a way to help alleviate the anxieties of being alone with our fears. Watching Sigourney Weaver’s character alone in space with a terrifying Xenomorph in “Alien” let me understand that isolation and the fear of never getting help is a real and legitimate fear. Watching “The Babadook” let me understand (to a certain degree) the horror of losing someone you love and having to deal with a sadness that may never go away in this life (whatever the sadness may have originated from). And reading Stephen King’s “It” reminded me that the horrors in our past and present are in need of being addressed together in community.

The horror genre surely has a lot of garbage within it, no doubt, but horror done right can be a great gift to its viewers. And for many of us, it has allowed our own private fears to escape the festering context of our own hearts and minds. Like a loud lament inviting others to bring their own laments with them, good horror can invite us to bring your own fears to the surface and to hopefully enter them into a larger, more communal context.

Desert Longings

There are days and weeks throughout the year that I find myself lost in dry and deserted places—places of spiritual dryness, emotional apathy, and mental exhaustion. I do not often know how or why I end up in places like them, but I can tell you that I would rather be in a storm than in a desert. I would rather the rain to be violently upon me than not at all.

I have been reading a fair bit of C.S. Lewis lately. And he, among many other of my favorite writers, is someone who really stretches my heart as well as my mind and encourages me to keep hoping and to keep longing, to recognize the Beauty beyond the beauty, and to see the Story within the stories. And for someone who has a naturally pessimistic personality, hoping is something that usually feels a fair bit foreign to me.

The longing and the hoping hurts of course, because it presupposes a deficiency — an intimacy not known, a meal not shared, a death unavoided, or a beauty only slightly revealed. Most days I feel some dull lack, while on rare days I taste something so rich, so wondrous, it is hard to imagine anything better. But those days in the desert, where the longings feel too much to bear, often seem the longest and most noticeable.

It is one thing to be searching for water in a desert, and it is quite another to have been in the desert for so long that it becomes consciously assumed that there is no water and never was any water to be found. Like a sponge shriveling from lack of moisture, the days I am tempted to give up hoping consequently are the days I assume that sponges were never intended to absorb. Hope seems to always be the inverse of despair.

Despair tells me the deficiency I feel is an existential joke— that I was created with this inconsolable longing simply because the universe is a cruel accident and unable to provide for it, and that if I can not find satiety in this life then I never will. But hope tells me the deficiency will eventually be met with fullness in eternity and in some time this fragmented and sad world will transform into something full and consummated. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

In those desert places I can not tell you that I enjoy the desert itself, but without those walks through the desert, the longing for a Water that finally satisfies would never have appeared without the sun beating down on me and without the sand burning the soles of my bare feet. It is in the desert that my tongue becomes dry for something I had once taken for granted. In the desert is where I am stripped of everything good that has made me settle short of an ultimate good. The desert reminds me how deep my longings really are, and how rarely I allow myself to sit in those longings. Again, quoting Augustine, “He has created us for himself.”

It is in these water-less places that I am occasionally reminded of the revelations of St. John, that one day all will be new and that we will sometime soon drink deeply of the One who has given us this thirst and has paid for it to be quenched:

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.'”