2016 Oscars: Bonus post

It’s interesting how things work out sometimes. There were calls from black celebrities to boycott the Oscars this year, and I understood why. I don’t have time to go deeply into the pros or cons. But I felt the need to say this year’s Oscar ceremony may have been the best ever.

There is this elephant in the room: For the second year in a row, none of the major nominees are black or people of color. Examples, Straight Out of Compton and Concussion could and should have been nominated for Best Picture. Will Smith could and should have been nominated for Best Male Actor in a Leading Role. Some black celebrities are boycotting the Oscars in protest.

I think everyone knew Rock was going to take on that elephant, not because he was black but because he has made a career out of taking on the elephant of racism – not just in Hollywood but anywhere – making us think about it, and making us laugh at the same time. If you missed the ceremony, I highly recommend you watch his opening monologue.

DISCLAIMER: I have not seen any of these movies. I cannot comment on who deserved to be nominated or not. Any comments along those lines are simply what I have heard or read from other people. However I did see the awards ceremony, and Chris Rock was the perfect host.

Best Picture nominees – why 8?

I kept wondering, “Why eight nominees for Best Picture when you can have as many as ten?” The number of nominees for other categories: Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, etc. is fixed at five. But best picture can have anywhere from 5 to 10 nominees. If you can have ten, why not? It seems like you could fit Straight Out of Compton or Concussion in there. Heck, you could have fit Star Wars: The Force Awakens in there. I know they wouldn’t have won, but you could have at least nominated Star Wars and one other. It turns out those movies did not get the minimum number of votes in the first round to qualify for a nomination.

Musical performances

Dave Grohl, “Blackbird.” I’m already a huge fan of Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters. This year, Dave performed the Beatles “Blackbird” solo during the In Memoriam section. Again, perfect choice. As if I needed another reason to love Dave Grohl, who should have won a Grammy by the way. Dave, what do I have to do to get you to bring the boys to Greenville or Simpsonville?

Lady Gaga, “Till It Happens to You.” Vice President Joe Biden introduced Lady Gaga after saying a few words about sexual assault. He urged men to go to the It’s On Us website and sign a pledge promising to intervene if we think a sexual assault is about to happen. Gaga then performed “Till It Happens To You” and was joined by several survivors of sexual assault. You forget sometimes she really can sing. She knows how to entertain, and she knows how to draw attention to a cause she’s passionate about.

Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall.” Part of the soundtrack for Spectre, Sam Smith received this award with Jimmy Napes, who co-wrote the song with Smith. In his acceptance speech, Smith said he thought he might be the first openly gay person to win an Oscar. Not true actually. There were at least seven openly gay/lesbian winners before. To be fair, he cited this from an unidentified interview with Sir Ian McKellen and qualified it with “If this is the case….” Well Sam, it’s not, but with a voice like that, I can forgive you. I even forgave you for stealing that song from Tom Petty.

Should there be separate male and female actor categories?

Rock brought this up during the monologue. “Think about it. There’s no real reason for there to be a men and women category in acting. Come on!…You know, Robert Deniro’s never said, ‘I’d better slow this acting down so Meryl Streep can catch up.’ No!”

Seriously, why not have 10 nominees for Best Actor and 10 for Best Supporting Actor. Same total number of nominees, just make them open to both men and women.

Other notable moments

Leo finally won. It’s about freaking time. He broke the record for retweets on Twitter.

Statement from Academy president Chery Boone Isaacs, promising greater diversity in the future. She said the Academy had taken concrete action but did not say what.

Could black actors have played these same roles? Tracy Morgan as the Danish Girl was hilarious.

The Trial (Mat 26:57-68; Mar 14:53-65; Luk 22:63-71; Jn 18:12-14, 19-24)

I think I’ve mentioned our church is offering the Kerygma Bible study course. It’s 30 weeks total, and we have about 8 or 10 sessions left. After our study on the crucifixion, I’ve decided I want to do a series on the events of Holy Week. If I were normal, I would start with the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But when I’m writing a series or novel, I don’t write linearly. I jump from one chapter to another in an order that only makes sense to me. And my sense says to start with the Thursday night trial, so here goes:

Have you heard Jesus was black? Three reasons we know that:

  1. He loved Gospel music
  2. He called all his closest friends Brother
  3. He couldn’t get a fair trial.

Seriously, though, this trial was rigged from the start. They started the trial around midnight. They did not let him have an advocate. They didn’t give him a chance to call in his own witnesses. And in spite of that, Jesus almost beat the system.

After he was arrested he was brought before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, consisting of 71 chief priests, scribes, and elders. The Torah says no one can be sentenced to death on the basis of one witness (Deut 19:15).

So they brought in several witnesses. Now Jesus had been teaching in the Temple all week. People who had heard him as he toured Galilee would have been there for the Passover festival. The Gospels all provide examples of things he had said that could be construed as blasphemous. All they need is two people to agree on one thing he said. But they couldn’t.

For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree (Mar 14:56 NRS).

This shows how savvy Jesus was: Innocent as a dove but wise as a snake. He kept moving from town to town, no fixed place to lay his head, to stay one step ahead of the authorities. He stayed in Capernaum, which was next to the border of Galilee and had bases across the border, so he could easily get away from Herod if he had to. And why did all of the witnesses get it wrong? Because he spoke in parables but only explained what he meant to his friends.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard more people comment on what a brilliant strategy this was. How do you get your message out when you know the powers that be want to silence you? Speak in code and only entrust the key to that code to those you trust.

So for a while, it looked like he might walk. They want to convict him, but they don’t have the evidence. Their own witnesses can’t agree. The high priest got so frustrated he said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” (Mar 14:60 NRS).

Why should he answer? He knows your case is falling apart.

Then the high priest asked him directly, “Are you the Messiah,
the Son of the Blessed One?”
(Mar 14:61 NRS).

At this point, Jesus had the case won. He said, “Messiah? Son of the Blessed One? Come on! I’m just a carpenter from Nazareth. These crowds have been following me. They get a little crazy. I can’t control everything they say. I mean, you saw here. Everyone’s saying something different, things that I never said. Tell you what. Just let me go. I’ll run off to Egypt, and you can say anything you want about me. Tell them I was just another phony Messiah like everyone’s seen before. They’ll believe that, and I won’t be here to refute it. You’ll never see or hear from me again. That’s really what you want, right?”

Oh wait, that’s what I would have said. What he said was…

“I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven'” (Mar 14:62 NRS).

Jesus, what are you doing??? They would never have been able to pin anything on you if you hadn’t confessed! I thought you knew that because you were exercising your right to remain silent! Earlier, he told Peter if he wanted, he could call on his Father, and He would send 10,000 angels to rescue him. Forget the angels.
All he had to do was not confess, and they would have had to let him go. A lawyer’s worst nightmare of a client. Even after I got him off, he just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

What happened next is really remarkable. The high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death (Mar 14:63-64 NRS).

Why did the high priest tear his clothes? In Biblical times, this was a sign of great emotional distress, especially associated with grieving for the dead. And the high priest was forbidden from tearing his clothes! He was actually forbidden from showing any signs of mourning, even for his immediate family (Lev 21:10; also 10:1-7). And yet he broke the law he claimed to be upholding.

It may seem like a small thing, tearing his clothes. But was it any smaller than what Jesus had done? The high priest and the Sanhedrin plotted to kill him for healing on the Sabbath, for making a snack on the Sabbath, for eating without washing his hands, for eating with tax collectors and sinners, and perhaps most of all, for calling the whole crew out on their hypocrisy (Mat 23): Tithing even their herbs and ignoring justice, mercy, and faith (Mat 23:23; Luk 11:42). So concerned about purity they strain a gnat but swallow a camel (Mat 23:24).

I used to be a fundamentalist. There are many reasons I am not now, but one of the biggies is the hypocrisy. Fundamentalism focuses in on one or a few rules, watches everyone with a critical eye and points fingers at people who don’t follow their laws. But it misses the big picture.

The high priest tore his clothes while condemning Jesus for breaking the Law. The Sanhedrin beat him and trumped up charges to get him executed, breaking the sixth and ninth commandments. Evangelicals rant and rave about gay marriage, yet surveys have shown a majority of them favor torture. They also tend to vote for candidates who say “Greed is good” when the Bible says greed is the root of all evil (1Tim 6:10).

To all of this, I hear Jesus saying, [I]f you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless (Mat 12:7 NRS).

Condemn the guiltless they did. I just hope we can learn from their mistakes.

Grace and peace to you.

Game of Thrones and the Bible

I love Game of Thrones. It’s got political and sexual intrigue, dysfunctional family relationships, shocking violence, and you know what? It’s got nothing on the Bible. It’s still a couple of months before the beginning of Season 6, but I thought I’d go ahead and post this. Warning, if you haven’t seen the episodes mentioned, there are some plot spoilers.


Genesis 34:1-31: Dinah and Shechem’s Red Wedding

All the fans freaked out over the Red Wedding in Season 3, Episode 9.

How’s this for a red wedding? Jacob’s large family of shepherds wanders into a city. The prince of the city (Shechem) encounters the one daughter (Dinah) of the patriarch. They have sex. The prince wants to marry the girl, but the family is offended because 1) he had sex with her before asking her parents to marry her, and 2) his people are not considered proper for marriage to one of their young girls. Shechem, however, is persistent. He really wants to marry her. He loves her.

Jacob’s family will agree on one condition: he and every male in the city must be circumcised, because as they say, they cannot allow her to marry from among the uncircumcised. He agrees. And since he is the prince, he is able to order the other men to follow suit. While the men of the city are still sore and recovering, two of her brothers sneak into the city at night, kill all the men, and take her back to her family.

So let’s see: There’s a prince who falls in love with the wrong woman. Agreements are made and then broken. Man in love apologizes sincerely to the offended party and tries to make amends. Offended party pretends to accept the apology then kills the offenders. I can almost hear The Rains of Castamere playing in the background.

2 Kings 9:30-37: Jezebel’s gruesome death

The Game of Thrones writers have given us some of the most ghastly tortures and deaths ever seen on television. However, even they have not given us a death more grisly than the infamous Jezebel.

[Jehu] looked up to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out at him. He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down; some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, which trampled on her. Then he went in and ate and drank; he said, “See to that cursed woman and bury her; for she is a king’s daughter.” But when they went to bury her, they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. (2Ki 9:32-35 NRS)

And I thought Catelyn Stark’s corpse was treated roughly.

Judges 11:1-40: Jephthe “Snow-Baratheon”

Prostitution is an integral part of Westeros, and there are a few notable prostitutes in the Bible. Of course one inevitable result of prostitution is illegitimate children, like Jephthe. He was the son of a prostitute who was rejected by his family and tribe, and yet had enough leadership skills to rise to prominence in spite of it. In the days before Israel had a king, Jephthe became one of the Judges and the head of his tribe. I wonder if Jon Snow was based on him.

Unfortunately, there is one other reason Jephthe is remembered. His greatest victory came at a dire cost. Just before a battle against a powerful enemy, Jephthe’s army was supposed to meet with a troop of Ephraimite soldiers, a neighboring tribe with whom he had formed an alliance. On their own, Jephthe’s men did not believe they were strong enough to defeat this enemy. Jephthe made a solemn vow to God that convinced them to follow their commander with the boldness of Viking Berserkers.

Jephthe’s army won and returned home in triumph, but now Jephthe has to fulfill his vow to the LORD [of Light?]:

“If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever  comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (Jdg 11:30-31 ESV)

The word in Hebrew translated “whatever” is ‘asher. It could mean whatever or whoever. Jephthe may have had an animal in mind (whatever) or a slave (whoever). Instead, the first to come out to meet him is his one and only daughter. It’s obvious from his response she was not what Jephthe expected.

When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” (Jdg 11:35 NRS)

When Abraham was offering Isaac, an angel stopped him before he brought down the knife. Unfortunately for Jephthe’s daughter, no angel appeared.

Shades of Stannis Baratheon, wouldn’t you say?


There is a lot more I could say, and I will return to this topic, probably to coincide with the opening of Season 6 on April 24. Reading the history of the Israelites and surrounding empires is not much different from the Seven Kingdoms. So when you see George R. R. Martin’s stories of violence between family members, incest, mayhem, conniving, deceit, sexual deviancy, and ruthless power grabs, remember it was in the Bible first.

Between Two Flags

What does it mean to be a Christian nation?

In our church, as in many, there is the church flag on one side and an American flag on the other. I would prefer there not be an American flag in church. I think it’s easy to turn the flag into an idol, especially when it is in a space of worship. Conflating American heritage with Christianity I think is dangerous. I feel it in many ways but perhaps most acutely when I hear the phrase “Christian nation” thrown around with little or no resemblance to the teachings of Christ. Is that the meaning of the two flags in church? We are a Christian nation, and if you don’t believe it “get the hell out”?

My pastor once asked whether it was possible to speak of a Christian nation when Jesus said so little about politics. Let’s say it is possible. If we want to be a Christian nation, he thought that would mean we do not go to war, we forgive the wrongs done to us, and we marshal the vast resources that God has blessed us with toward helping the poor. This includes helping provide for their everyday needs – food, clothing, water, shelter, health care, education – and empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty, both in this country and around the world.

Now if I may add, while Jesus said very little about politics, he had a lot to say about how we treat the poor, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, and anyone who is a victim of injustice. If you’ve forgotten, read Matthew 25:34-46. He had a lot to say about violence, and he led a nonviolent movement long before Gandhi and MLK. Before the Anabaptists and Amish. Remember the Sermon on the Mount? Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? Forgive your brother and sister seventy times seven? He even forgave the people who crucified him.

What does all that mean in regard to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone attacks, torture of prisoners, indefinite detention, deporting children, spying without warrants, women’s health, mass incarceration of African-Americans, and shutting the doors on refugees? What does it mean when candidates talk about bringing back waterboarding and worse? They tell us we have to do this to protect the American way of life. Maybe so, but is it consistent with the Christian way of life?

The American flag on one side, the church flag on the other. They may represent unity of purpose. Or they may represent divided loyalties. Are we serving Jesus Christ or what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex? If we follow Jesus Christ, we should feel at least some tension between the two flags. If we ever stop feeling that tension, we have most likely turned our nation and its flag into a golden calf.

Addendum – Matthew 25:34-46

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,1 you did it to me.’

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


Stand with the Nine

This weekend I finally got to sing with the choir – or actually choirs, 20 of them – at the Festival by the Sea in Charleston. I have a few friends at Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church, so I joined with the choir for the Sunday service as well. I did not know about this going in, but they were participating in Stand-Up Sunday. I was glad to be there with them as they joined 1300 congregations in South Carolina who agreed to stand for:

  • The 9 killed at Emanuel AME in Charleston.
  • The 9 in our state who are killed by guns every five days.
  • The 9 out of every ten South Carolinians who want background checks on all gun purchases, according to the most recent statewide poll.

Gun Sense South Carolina organized the event. It’s not about trying to outlaw guns. Pastor Spike said they affirm Second Amendment rights for lawful citizens to own guns. And they want mandatory background checks for all gun sales in South Carolina. The one does not have to exclude the other.

What stood out most for me was when he said 90% of South Carolinians want mandatory background checks. In such a conservative state, where most people probably own at least one gun of some kind, 90% of people favor background checks, including 85% of gun owners. That cuts across Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, and liberals. Not many proposals you can say that about these days.

Now I imagine some people would have some questions, like:

Is it appropriate to talk about a political issue in church? Sometimes. In this case, Pastor Spike said he was grateful to belong to a reasonable congregation. He was probably nervous about presenting this idea to the church, knowing that some of the members owned and loved guns. He had to present the idea to the worship committee, Session, and then to the whole congregation for approval, and every step of the way they were on board. The sentiment most commonly expressed was this is about loving your neighbor, and that is absolutely appropriate for a worship service.

Is this some anti-2nd Amendment stunt? Well, this pastor said he supports 2nd Amendment rights to gun ownership for lawful citizens, and 85% of gun owners support this move—people who would be the first to object if they thought any proposal would infringe on their rights—so I’m gonna say no.

Will one more law really make any difference? In this case, yes. Mandatory background checks that include closing the gun show and online loopholes have worked.

  • From 1984 to 1993, gun murders increased by 55% in the U.S. After background checks were required on the federal level, gun murders decreased by 32% from 1993 to 2006 (Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2008).

But we still have to deal with a loophole where in many states, background checks are not required for sales at gun shows or over the Internet. I call this the gun show/online loophole. One estimate places the number of these sales at 40% (U.S. DOJ, National Institute of Justice Research, 1997).

  • California closed this loophole in 1990, requiring background checks for all gun purchases. By 2013, California experienced a 57% decrease in its firearm mortality rate (Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Griffin Dix, 2015).
  • Missouri, on the other hand, repealed a state requirement for background checks for gun purchases in 2007, and subsequently experienced a 23% increase in its gun murder rate
    (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research, 2014).

As one of my friends who proudly says she owns guns told me, this isn’t about creating another law. This is about enforcing the laws on the books, which is what gun rights advocates keep saying we need to do. Why? Because by closing the gun show/online loophole, we will force all gun dealers to follow the same laws. Because if you are a gun seller, how are you supposed to know if your customer is a convicted felon or deemed mentally ill and a threat to others if you don’t run a background check? “I have no problem going through a background check if it keeps guns out of the hands of the wrong people,” she said.

Mandatory background checks for all gun sellers. Closing the gun show/online loophole. It’s supported by the vast majority of people, even gun owners. It’s statistically shown to reduce the number of gun deaths. It’s necessary to enforce the laws on the books. It does not infringe on the right of citizens to bear arms. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.