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The guys lean into the rule of threes with this week’s pair of films. First up is Triple Frontier, the first collaboration between director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost), screenwriter Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), and Netflix. Is this film’s story of U.S. Army veterans turned heist thieves in South America successful? Wade and Kevin then take a look at the new film from Iranian master Jafar Panahi, 3 Faces. Panahi’s penchant for metafictional gamesmanship is well established; how does his latest fit into that phase of his career?

Music interlude by Joey Pecoraro, “Novice Juggler.” Used under Creative Commons license 3.0.

Theme music by Alexander Osborn and Lindsey Mysse. Used under Creative Commons license 3.0.

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One of the hottest plays on Broadway right now is Dear Evan Hansen, a story of a teenage boy trying to live through and clean up a web of lies. More than that, Dear Evan Hansen is a story about loneliness. It depicts several people who feel alone and just want to be accepted and loved.

Evan Hansen is struggling high schooler; he isn’t popular and doesn’t have many friends. He has a crush on Zoe, the sister of the school bad boy, Connor.  Connor commits suicide after discovering a note Evan wrote to himself in which he proclaims his love for Zoe. When the note is found on him, it is assumed that he wrote it to Evan and that they were close friends. Evan becomes incredibly popular, gets close to Zoe, starts a foundation in Connor’s memory, and leans deeper and deeper into the lie. Eventually it all comes crashing down, as Evan is discovered to be a fraud.

We all need people to go deep with. We need people we can feel connected to—people we can love and who will love us back.We all can relate to this story. Theologian and pastor Tim Keller has said we all desire to be fully known and fully loved. Marvel character Frank Castle from the Punisher says, “We’re all lonely, all life is, is trying not to be.” Loneliness is innate to the human experience. And in the play, Evan asks the question: “Will anyone notice if I disappear?” This question lies at the heart of some of our greatest fears.

We All Feel Lonely

The relatableness of this is that we have all felt alone at some point. Many people walk through life feeling misunderstood, like they don’t have a place to fit in. Many of us have changed core things about ourselves out of a desire to be accepted. We’ve feigned interest, picked up new hobbies, and frequented new venues, just to belong.

Everyone feels lonely. This is a theme we see throughout Dear Evan Hansen. Evan felt it. Jared felt it. Connor felt it. Alana echoes Evan’s words from the earlier in the show back to him: “I know what it’s like to be alone, to wonder if anyone will notice if you disappeared.” In some form or fashion, we have all been there.

Loneliness can drive us mad and leave us longing for a cure. Evan thought he would find the cure in all of the love he received after Connor’s death, but it didn’t work because this love was built on a lie. People believed something about him that wasn’t true, and he had to jump through hoops to maintain the perception that he was Connor’s best friend and they had a deep, meaningful relationship. Many of us have been there too, pretending to be something we are not to fit in a place we so desperately want to be.

God’s Solution: Community

All of this goes back to our desire for community. In the garden, God said about Adam, it is not good for man to be alone. This wasn’t just about marriage; this was about the need we all have for other people. When we are alone, we get lost in our thoughts, our problems magnify in scope, and we often just miss being with other people.

In an attempt to deal with loneliness many of us will turn to false comforts. When longing for the touch of another person, some turn to porn instead, hoping that will gratify the desires of our hearts. Others try to drink or smoke the pain of loneliness away only to discover it is still there when the high wears off. The most common form of coping in the digital age though, is the hours of endless scrolling we do. Looking at the lives of others wishing we were them or with them.

The desires in themselves are not bad; in fact they are good. They are desires given to us by God. He created us for one another. Community is essential to the human experience. Family, friends, the Church are all meant to be those life affirming, joy bringing, loving places we turn to for the connection we long to have.

When we turn to cheap substitutes, we typically leave feeling empty and worse than before. Evan’s budding relationship with Zoe fell apart the moment she discovered it had all been a lie. Community built on lies is full of insecurity. There is the constant wondering that you will be discovered, the fear that people will find you out. You are ultimately left feeling just as alone as when you started. Evan learned this the hard way.

Our Call: Seek Community

We all need people to go deep with. We need people we can feel connected to—people we can love and who will love us back. Evan wanted that and fell backward into it. The problem is, community built on lies is no community at all. Eventually the house of cards will fall.

Evan didn’t have to live a lonely life. In fact, if he looked around, he would have seen there were people all around just like him. Every character in this story felt the same way he did. They all felt as though they were alone at sea with no one there beside them. Had he just opened his eyes, he would have seen his people were right there.

I know these feelings.  As the only black person in nearly every room I step in, life has become lonely in many places. Thankfully I have made some great friends who feel exactly what I feel. We are able to laugh together, cry together, lament together, and be extra black together. It is what we all long for: to know and be fully known.

Many of us experiencing loneliness must open our eyes. Our people are right there. The problem for many of us is that the community we have and the community we want are not always the same thing. Our desire to fit in and be loved by the cool kids or those we deem the most worthy keeps us from loving the misfits just like us. Evan had a group of perceived misfits: the nerdy girl Alana; the trying-to-be-cool Jared; his single mother. These were all people who could have been there for Evan, fully knowing him and fully loving him.

Undoubtedly we have those people in our lives as well. Don’t ignore them, embrace them. Embrace rich community with people who know and understand you well. And then find some people who aren’t quite your people, because varying perspectives are something we all need. There is a dangerous form of community that is really just tribalism. It’s the echo chamber where we surround ourselves with people who think like us, act like us, move like us. It’s the Twitter timeline where everyone agrees with you and holds your positions and anyone who doesn’t gets muted. It’s the brunch that only features characters who are generally just another version of yourself. It’s the books you read by authors who simply confirm your biases.

Everyone Feels It

No one is immune to this. Our common experience is one that should draw us together. So often we think we are the only ones feeling what we feel, but the truth is, this is more normal than we realize. The human experience is one that is shared. Community is often right in front of us. Sometimes we just need to open our eyes to see it.

Dear Evan Hansen hits home in a way not every musical can. It speaks to the universal human experience. We live in a time where people are more connected than ever and yet feel more alone than at any other point in history. We can see and read stories from around the world and yet feel like no one can see us.

In our time it is easy to live in front of a screen, scrolling endlessly through everyone else’s highlight reel while being disappointed at your behind the scenes footage. True community is going to be found when we look up to see the world around us. Find the people with whom you can love, support, and build with. Dear Evan Hansen teaches us there is no substitute for that.

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On Monday March 4, a Kickstarter went live.

That’s not at all unusual; Kickstarters go live every day. What was unusual about this campaign is that within an hour, the original goal of $750,000 had been blown away and pledges had surpassed a million U.S. dollars… within 24 hours, the total had passed the $4 million mark and was still rising. The most unusual thing, however, is that this Kickstarter was for a 30-minute animated show based on Dungeons and Dragons. You read that correctly, this was a fundraising campaign for a show based on good ol’ D&D, and they raised $4 million dollars in one day.

The fundraising campaign was launched by the people at Critical Role, an online live-streamed Dungeons and Dragons game played by a number of well-known, and well-loved, voice actors. The show airs every Thursday night on Twitch and has steadily gained a loyal following with each episode getting hundreds of thousands of views. After only four days, the Kickstarter has broken the record for most-funded TV or film campaign ever, and now, with 30 days to go, they are hovering at over $7.5 million dollars raised. The success of their Kickstarter is huge, huge news for the geek community but it is also huge news for everyone else, especially those of us in the church who are seeking to engage with the world, and the culture, around us.

The soaring popularity of Critical Role among the geek world was, and is, rooted in both the beauty of their tale and who they are as people.

To understand how monumental this is, however, it’s probably necessary to take a step back for a moment and look at exactly what is going on. First, it’s important to understand that this is all about Dungeons and Dragons. Yep, the ultra-nerdy D&D that crept onto the scene in the 70s and then made media headlines in the 80s for promoting Satan worship and occult behavior (it didn’t do ether, by the way) is back. The same D&D that was largely shunned by the church and left to be played secretly in basements by only the nerdiest of nerds is making headlines again and skyrocketing in popularity. And some of us, myself included, could not be more excited about that.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game. It involves people sitting around a table to play, rolling dice, and you can, in theory, win. But to be entirely honest, D&D is so much more than that. At its core, D&D is storytelling. When people sit down to play, they are not sitting around a game board and spinning a spinner—in fact, boards and tokens aren’t necessary at all. Instead, players work together to create a story. If you were to buy D&D at the store, what you would be purchasing is a game manual; a book of rules that let you tell a story together with friends. One player is the game master (or GM) who controls the overall flow of the plot and who is responsible for describing each scene as it unfolds. Every other player is responsible for one character that they move throughout the story world. They can explore, fight, and interact with anything in the world, and dice are used to see how successful the character’s actions are. Anything is possible in the story, the only limit is the imagination of the players and the roll of the dice. At its heart, D&D is not about winning or conquering, it’s all about working together to craft a really fun story.

In March of 2015, Matthew Mercer and his group of friends, under the banner of the Geek and Sundry Production Company, began live-streaming the D&D game that they had started playing a few years prior. They called it Critical Role, and the plan was pretty simple, the friends would sit around a table and simply play, exactly like they would at home. It wasn’t animated. There were no costumes or even really a set. It truly was a group of people just sitting around talking, munching on snacks, and playing D&D. What made this show so special was that these people are amazing storytellers and the story they were telling hooked us. It helps, of course, that they are all incredibly talented voice actors who portrayed their characters to perfection. But it was more than that. The soaring popularity of Critical Role among the geek world was, and is, rooted in both the beauty of their tale and who they are as people.

As storytellers, the cast of Critical Role are masters, not because they studied the craft of storytelling or anything like that (though, as actors, they might have), but because they are committed to being honest. Each member of the cast controls one character; characters that have vivid backstories, dynamic personalities, individual goals, and differing abilities. As they play, they are careful to make decisions that are in line with their character and that match the character’s goals, longings, hurts, fears, and so on. In short, they act like real people. This requires a tremendous amount of empathy. In fact, studies have shown that D&D promotes empathy for this very reason, as players are urged to make decisions for their character based on what that character thinks, feels, fears, and more—not how they as a player want things to go. What this means is that things won’t always go well for the group as a whole and the story doesn’t often follow the traditional story arc that we’re used to in books and movies today… which means it is so much better.

The original season of Critical Role aired over 400 hours of content. In that time, the characters experienced triumph and loss, depresion, grief, joy, and love. It was gritty and not altogether PG. But it was honest, and it struck a chord with a part of the population that craves honesty. It took stories seriously, it saw people as they are, and in turn, it made the viewers feel seen as well. What’s more, the cast lived out this empathetic mindset as well. They are humble and gracious to their fans (who call themselves Critters). They reach out, care for, and support members of the community. They promote other geek organizations and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. They work hard to make sure that everyone in their community feels seen and valued. In a very real way, the cast of Critical Role practices what they preach: kindness, honesty, inclusion, and love.

When they launched their Kickstarter on March 4, their plan was to raise money to finally be able to do what Critters have been asking for for years: produce an animated special that would tell a new story of the characters from their first campaign. A prequel, if you will. The response has been far greater than they imagined and they will now be making it an animated series instead.

To the geek community this is huge. It brings widespread positive media attention to a hobby that tons of people today love, a hobby that got many of its original players shunned and mocked. It’s spreading the word about a show they adore and are excited to see grow. It’s giving more people in the geek community a voice in the mainstream public and helping more and more people to feel seen and known. It’s promoting fantasy as good and fun. And it’s promoting storytelling as a real and powerful art form. This is all extremely exciting!

This is also huge news for the church. It may not seem important to the average churchgoer, but what is happening here has much to show us about the world we live in, the importance of stories, and the need for authentic community.

Our World

The success of this campaign is a dramatic example of the growing popularity of geek culture. The term geek used to refer to someone who was eccentric about non-mainstream hobbies or who was socially awkward, but that doesn’t apply anymore. Instead, the term geek today refers to anyone who loves a particular fandom. That includes anything sci-fi, fantasy, magical, or just plain fun. There are Harry Potter geeks, Dr. Who geeks, Disney geeks, board game geeks, just to name a few. What’s interesting to note, however, is that these fandoms, whatever they may be, are practically a part of a geeky person’s identity. Not their whole identity, of course, but a big part of who they are. That’s important to be aware of because when one of their interests is maligned, or made fun of from the pulpit, they feel shunned as well.

This is partly why, historically speaking, geeks have not felt particularly welcomed in the church. The massive outpouring of love for Critical Role and the growing number of people both watching and playing D&D says a lot about how widespread geek culture is. Chances are your neighbors are geeks, or your coworkers, or your delivery person, or even the person sitting next to you on the pew. We need to ask ourselves if we are welcoming to and inclusive of this segment of the population and if not why? This is, as they say, the age of the geek!

Our Need for Stories

This story is also important news for the church because it demonstrates the power of, and the longing for, a well-told story. This shouldn’t surprise us—after all, Jesus was a master storyteller who demonstrated over and over again the power of stories. But we sometimes forget that. We forget that stories don’t need to be formulaic or trite. That they don’t need to be preachy or moralistic to be good. In fact, in most cases, they are more powerful if they’re not. What stories need to be is honest. People around us are longing for stories that show real people, with real struggles, trying to survive real heartache or real love. They are looking for meaning and hope and life; stories show them the universality of the problems of man—and we need that. People are looking for stories that show them who they are and show them they are worthy of love and worth pursuing.

As Francis Schaeffer said, “A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.” Storytelling is an art that is beautiful, which is why this game has so much goodness to offer. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your church should start a D&D ministry (although I think that would be awesome), but it does mean that we should encourage the creators in our midst to create and we should affirm that what they create doesn’t have to be just for ministry. And if you’re not creating art, be excited about those around you who are. Creating, after all, is a way in which we bear the image God to the world around us.

Our Desire for Community

Finally, the raging success of this Kickstarter is emphasizing the importance of community. When asked about what draws people to Critical Role, the cast found that people were almost as equally drawn to the friendships of the cast members as they were to the story. It is well known in the Critter community what good friends the cast really are. They hang out regularly, have known each other for years, and their families spend time together. They really are best friends, and that shows as they work together to play D&D. They care for each other, and every single week, they demonstrate what it looks like to live in community. It’s something not many of us have experienced and yet most of us long for. This type of community is something that we in the church, as the body of Christ, should be living out already, but often struggle with. Critical Role gives us an insider’s view to what that might look like.

It’s easy to get caught up in the belief that our churches need to be flashy and fun, that our services should be trendy and relevant. It’s easy to forget that friendship and honest care matters significantly more to most people. The truth is that most people simply want to be seen, to be known. They want honest to goodness community, to know that they matter, to know that someone cares if they even showed up… and misses them when they don’t. People want to know that there is someone else who genuinely wants to be with them. We crave this type of friendship and so does the world. Seeing the huge success of Critical Role reminds me that often times, the best outreach is simply loving well the people already in our midst.

Come 2020 the cast of Critical Role will release their now much-anticipated animated show. I’m ridiculously excited to see it—I loved those characters and loved their stories. But more than being excited about the show, seeing the massive success of their Kickstarter tells us much about how we, as the church, can and should interact with the geeks around us. Geek culture is growing and all evidence points to it only gaining steam. And that’s great; it’s a culture that emphasizes kindness, welcoming attitudes, and seeing people as they are, and we’re called to do all those things as well. We actually have quite a bit in common with the geek community already! We can learn a lot from them about the power of real stories and the importance of caring for the people around us—not as a tool to wield in filling our pews, but as a way of living out the gospel in the world around us.

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The human brain is an astounding organ that coordinates all of our intellectual, sensing, and nervous functions. It also stores our mental frames—the term we’ve been using during this series to summarize the collection of presuppositions and preconceived notions that point our thoughts in a particular direction before we even think of them. Our mental frames can lock us into patterns and ruts of thinking, but that doesn’t mean we are stuck with the same thinking for life. Because of the brain’s plasticity, it’s possible to experience renewed thinking.

In this episode of Persuasion, Erin Straza and Hannah Anderson wrap-up their Ready, Set, Think! series with a conversation about the way our brains can grow and change. And this is good news considering the frustration we can feel about our knee-jerk reactions and negative thought patterns. Because the way we think affects how we engage with our neighbors and cultivate grace in the world, Erin and Hannah passionately argue for Christians to explore the heart-level undercurrents that affect us unaware. Is it possible to experience that renewed mind referred to Romans 12? How does this transformation happen? Is there hope for renewed thinking? Listen in for dialogue on issues like these, and continue the conversation on Twitter @PersuasionCAPC or in the CAPC members-only community on Facebook.

HOSTS

Erin Straza: Web / Twitter
Hannah Anderson: Web / Twitter

PERSUASION PODCAST

PersuasionPodcast.buzz
Twitter: @PersuasionCAPC
Instagram: @PersuasionCAPC
Facebook: /Persuasioncapc

Persuasion 162 Resources & Links

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Your Future Self Will Thank You by Drew Dyck

Did you enjoy this episode of Persuasion? Give these a listen:

Persuasion 156 | Thinking It Through

Persuasion 157 | Thinking Twice, with Jen Pollock Michel

Persuasion 158 | Good Thinking

Persuasion 159 | Thinking Creatively

Persuasion 160 | Thinking Together

Persuasion 161 | Hopeful Thinking, with Laura Turner

Theme music by Maiden Name.

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Letter from the Editor: Consuming Ourselves to Death

John Calvin famously called the human heart an idol factory, due to its seemingly innate ability to crank out countless baubles to adore and worship. Generally speaking, we must consume in order to produce. Just as the production of a tangible good requires massive amounts of input—natural resources, components, labor, and so on—the human heart is also running on a variety of inputs. We take the raw components of all we consume and, unless we are mindful, we become quite efficient in our idol making.

Whether we are consuming food, entertainment, philosophy, wealth, or status—or even religion—these inputs can fuel our basest longings. Anything can become the raw material for shaping something our hearts crave.

The challenge we have is halting the production line to consider the course of our actions. What if our consumerist behaviors are setting negative consequences in motion? What if our food and clothing choices are detrimental to the environment or the laborers involved? What if our biases and prejudices contribute to systemic oppression? What if our entertainment choices reinforce ideals that are contrary to human flourishing?

We take the raw components of all we consume and, unless we are mindful, we become quite efficient in our idol making.

Short answer: yes, they do. What we consume and how we consume it matters because we are interdependent. We are fundamentally connected to one another, which is why our consumption practices—of body, mind, and soul—are not merely personal preferences. In this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, the feature essays and support articles prompt us to think deeply and carefully about the our consumerist behaviors.

In “All the Foods I’ve Failed to Eat,” Abigail Murrish addresses the tragedy of food waste, which

“is deeper than statistics about greenhouse gas emissions and money wasted. The story of most food waste is poor stewardship. The creation mandate of Genesis 1 calls humanity to steward and exercise dominion over the earth, which includes wisely using natural resources for the flourishing of our neighbors and our world.

“Food waste ultimately takes valuable resources—such as land, water, and human labor—that are used in the food chain and discards them. These inputs could have been beneficial for our society. How could we have used the land that grew the wasted food? What other creative, worthwhile work could the woman have done who processed my now-expired canned tomatoes?”

Our grocery stores, with their endless aisles of always-stocked shelves don’t help us in this regard. We can waste food, because there is always more. Trudy Smith picks up this same concern in “Feeding Consumerism: The Hidden Costs of Cheap Food”:

“For millennia, food has been woven into the fabric of every society on earth as an important marker of cultural identity and belonging, a means of building and maintaining relationships, and a way for communities to grieve, celebrate, and worship together. In many parts of the world, gathering, growing, and preparing food makes up a significant portion of daily life: people are intimately involved in the process of bringing it to the table. For most of us in Western cultures however, food has increasingly become a commodity or a consumer experience. We want it cheap, we want variety, and we don’t want to have to do the dishes. Fast food and pre-made meal services abound; we are disconnected from the places our food comes from, detached from the people who grow and prepare it, and ignorant about most of its journey to our plates.”

Smith holds our ideals of cheap and convenient up to the fire, calling us to consider how these values negatively affect the way we view each other and how this ultimately starves our souls. In “God of the Belly: Wasting away in the World of First Reformed,“ Travis Roberts warns of this very thing:

“In the end, we consume ourselves.

“At least, that’s the idea. You eat and drink, and that fuel settles into fat. Your body uses that fat to power your muscles and organs. If you don’t take in enough calories, your body wastes away, and literally devours itself. The same thing happens with the mind: We consume ideas, thoughts, and art, and we convert them into inspiration, and that inspiration becomes action. Cognitive Behavioral Theory frames it this way: we have thoughts, which become feelings, which become actions. That’s why, when our mental intake is comprised of lies or trauma, our psyches turn inward and destroy us through depression or anxiety or OCD or eating disorders.

“Does something similar happen with the spirit? If we ask Paul Schrader, director of First Reformed, I think we’d get a yes.”

Most of us would agree, it’s the spirit deep inside us that is starving for nourishment, starving to be made whole. But it cannot be made well by mindless feeding. We are what we eat, even in a spiritual sense. Preston Byrd points out a more mindful approach to our usual pop culture fare in his feature titled “Choosing Our Cultural Cakes and Eating Every Last Crumb”:

“One year I ate an entire cake in a single day. Slice by slice it disappeared throughout the course of the day until I realized what I had done. I was sick for days, a tangible reminder that too much of something, even a very good thing, could have disastrous results. Frequently, it seems our approach to consuming culture and faith operates in a similar fashion; we pick what we like and gorge ourselves on ideas which only serve to reinforce them, but without the benefit of sickness to serve as a limitation until it’s too late.”

Without the benefit of an immediate physical reaction to our poor cultural choices, we do keep on with our usual menu. But the effect of our choices compound over time, whether we see it in the moment or not. So we need as many eyes and ears as possible to help us become aware of the long-term place our consumerist tendencies will lead us. If human flourishing is our aim, then we need to get ourselves pointed in that direction. We hope this issue gets you there, one step at a time.

To read this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine in full today, become a member for as little as $5 per month. Members also get full access to all back issues, free stuff each month, and entrance to our exclusive members-only group on Facebook—and you’ll help us keep the lights on. Join now.
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Seeing & Believing is back from its break with a big, bombastic episode. They offer their review of the much-anticipated Captain Marvel, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-led superhero movie and an integral building block in the upcoming Infinity War sequel in May. To stay in the blockbuster spirit, Wade and Kevin also look ahead to the warmer months, which are brimming over with cinematic offerings. Which ones have gotten the guys most excited to see?

Music interlude by mell-ø, “Musing.” Used under Creative Commons license 3.0.

Theme music by Alexander Osborn and Lindsey Mysse. Used under Creative Commons license 3.0.

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The 2018-2019 season will probably be the final year NBA superstar and elder statesmen Dirk Nowitzki dons his Dallas Mavericks jersey, as retirement seems imminent. Over his time in the league he racked up an impressive career, ingratiating himself to the city of Dallas after delivering a championship 13 years in the making, slaying an unstoppable juggernaut in the process. His reputation as a beloved and hilarious player is only superseded by one fact: he played his entire career for a single team. In a world where we find ourselves relentlessly bombarded with distractions, where we are restless and rootless, his decision to stay in one place is a model for us all.

Context

To clarify how impressive this is, consider the NBA, a league which has been around since 1946, which currently has an average career lasting only 4.5 years, has witnessed Nowitzki in his 21st season do this longer than anyone else. He is beloved. However, his relationship with and in the city of Dallas has not always been illustrious.

Rootedness takes time to build.From the beginning of his career, Nowitzki faced various challenges and criticisms, which grew over time. Detractors were especially noticeable after losing in the 2006 NBA Finals. Then, after being upset from the first round of the 2007 playoffs by the eighth-seeded Warriors, the noise remained even amidst his winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award. The challenges grew. It would have been easy for him to forfeit his ethic during this portion of his career or find a new team—because we’ve seen many players leave for greener pastures or better opportunities, but he chose to remain. Even following his team’s 2011 thrilling victory run over the Miami Heat, others wondered how the franchise’s centerpiece would fit into the future. And through it all—the criticism, the unheralded victories, and everything in between—he chose to stay, repeatedly.

This feat is admirable, but our social milieu accentuates how special it is, with many reasons contributing to it. Unplugging from technology is nearly impossible, making it easier for matters worldwide constantly to vie for our attention while we remain ignorant of happenings in our own backyard. Endless distractions abound. David Foster Wallace focused on this concept, the relentless battery of unending pleasure in entertainment. Add the compounding effects of being everywhere, physically and mentally, and it is easy to be nowhere at any given moment.

Loneliness too, plays a part, and suddenly the desire for what’s next coalesces around insecurities, desires, and exhaustion, ensuring we can always go quickly enough never to confront these things. There is also the fact that travel, whether for jobs or school, renders it possible to explore new endeavors often enough to keep from growing roots.

Presence

Though the Christian faith addresses life’s concerns, it is easy to flatten wisdom to platitudes, insight to banality. The example set forth by Nowitzki paints an array of enviable qualities, but the Bible is prescient with respect to explaining the importance and benefits of manifest presence.

A prominent theme in the Bible is God’s presence with his people, starting in the garden of Eden and seen in the Tabernacle, the incarnation of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit’s anointing of his people, all the way through to the new city of Revelation. He is known as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, attendant to those whom he protects.

Some believe Daniel 10 intimates certain spiritual beings are connected to a specific parcel of land. But God, being transcendent over the whole earth bears an authority over every square inch, giving the land and taking Israel away from it in their exile. The land would continue to be important throughout the remainder of the Old Testament.

However, God’s timeline is not always the one we want, as the mismatch between one for whom “one day is as a thousand years” and us, who love Amazon’s two-day shipping is apparent. After all, Joseph spent time in prison before being given his shot, and Moses too was in Midian for roughly 40 years before his story picks up.

Not every story highlights this in the same way: for example, Jesus heals a man who was paralyzed and who had been lowered from the roof by four men. There are things the text does not give us and exist in realm of speculation, but it is hard to imagine friends willing to do this for a total stranger instead of someone they lived their life with. It seems much more likely they had a rich history together.

Even the established networks we see in Acts hint at how essential these staples of the community are: after Peter is released from prison he makes his way to the home of Mary, the mother of John, where people are gathered; Lydia  has a business and social capital which ultimately serve the church. The correlation between presence and place is so important, we even see the bones of Joseph returned to his homeland after Israel left Egypt.

Present

The theme of being present is littered throughout the Bible and offers several points of application. However, this list is not exhaustive.

Rootedness takes time to build. Even though are presented with boundless opportunities to travel, to learn, to be distracted, we must not forget that their toll is the cost of being here. To be present requires sacrifice. Nowitzki, for example, when he chose to remain in Dallas for his whole career, gave up close to an estimated $200 million dollars and potentially countless other opportunities to join championship-ready teams. It is nearly impossible to calculate everything he conceded. For us to build these ties may require surrendering a dream, but the dividends it pays out may be worth it to slow down and take the arduous work of commitment seriously. It is also important to remember patience is essential, since we know our timeline is simply different from God’s. But sacrificing constructs bonds not easily broken, whether it be for people or a place. While reading stories it is easy to gloss over the reminders that people waited for years or decades before they saw what God was doing. When considering what it looks like to stay put, it is necessary first to consider the cost.

If we hope to fight back against restlessness we remember—our faith itself was implanted and embodied in a time and place, among a selected people.Second, choosing to remain grounded prepares us in a unique way, forging character and growth. It is easy to run away when things are hard, to want to be somewhere we want instead of where we should be. Characters who do this in history are plentiful. But fortitude of heart and strength of faith are not forged in temperate conditions, nor do they run from the hammer which shapes them. Such resolve allows us to approach challenges with the kind of virtue necessary to endure them, but also gives way to the conditions and community which allow us to face them together. Thankfully, the Christian tradition has much to say about self-denial.

On top of this, Nowitzki is a prime example of how rootedness and commitment to one location produces moments to lead and disciple. The NBA’s best leaders are often those synonymous with their franchises, for whom the chance to leave is rarely more than the cull of empty threats. Kobe Bryant spent 20 seasons with the Lakers, Tim Duncan had 19 with the Spurs, and Dirk Nowitzki is finishing his 21st season with the Mavericks. His sacrifice allowed others to come in and grow, to receive opportunities that they may have otherwise missed, and to learn. He did not walk away when things got hard and stayed long enough to witness a turnaround. The apostle Paul spent time traveling, but after he continued his journey and left a city, it fell to those residents to build that church up. It is an eye for the future which allows hardship to be endured.

If we want to witness a parallel to discipleship in action, we need look no further than the Tall Baller from the G to see how it modeled. His knowledge of the team, of the league, of work ethic all bred an incredible culture. He even changed the world around him by the nature of his character. When a story broke alleging that a prominent Mavs executive had been sexually harassing women and other issues came to light, the locker room was revealed to be a safe space for female employees—a testimony to the culture of its leader and a radical inverse of what others consider acceptable “locker room” talk.

Finally, an established presence helps create a rich community we would otherwise miss. Dirk did not win a championship alone; it took the combined effort of a sharp head coach, a brilliant general manager, and a charismatic owner, not to mention a team ready to sacrifice for each other to achieve that goal. Likewise, our community is not simply composed of our closest and immediate friends, though they are essential. Rather, it is built by co-workers we have seen daily for years, baristas we interact with, and friends from churches. It is built upon the overlap of spheres of people with varying degrees of closeness, all of whom help us to thrive and stay put. It’s part of why leaving is so difficult—we are not simply uprooting our own life, but parts of others too.

Even a physical church testifies to our embeddedness. It offers a firm, immovable place where we can go and simply be—a home away from home, an enclave and refuge among the tumultuous waves of everyday life. For this reason, even though we claim that the church is not a building but a people, it is still helpful to have a space where we can be present. Churches, people, cemeteries—the things that we take for granted or that we miss when we are always on the go serve to remind us our roots are not easily packaged up and moved around. These are real locales which exist outside of the digital sphere and tether us to a place and a people, that slow us down and recalibrate our focus.

If we hope to fight back against restlessness we remember—our faith itself was implanted and embodied in a time and place, among a selected people. While we are constantly pulled in every direction and gripped with loneliness, we might start to think the quick fix is always just a move, a friend, a city away. But our efforts at racing to find contentment elsewhere may be Sisyphean—the harder we struggle against slowing down, the harder it is to build roots; the more we fight against being in one place, the more we need it. High levels of commitment and longevity in one spot seem to be becoming a rarity, but we are not without examples, nor precedent. There is a reason biblical imagery highlights trees with deep roots, and if we are apt to look and listen, we too can develop roots in our faith, communities, and personal lives as well.

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Spend any time in the evangelical sphere and you’re bound to come across Dave Ramsey and his faith-based financial self-help products. Ramsey’s bestselling books The Total Money Makeover and Financial Peace line the shelves of Christian bookstores. Thousands of churches teach his nine-week Financial Peace University curriculum. For $129.99, the course promises nothing short of life transformation in the form of good money habits.

For decades now, Dave Ramsey has unfurled his financial advice through a Tennessean drawl dripping with folksy truisms lined with a heavy dose of Bible verses. Ramsey refers to his method as “God and grandma’s way to manage money” and caps it all with an inspiring personal narrative about clawing his way from bankruptcy to millions by using the financial principles he teaches.

This week, Ramsey captured the attention (and scorn) of thousands on social media with a simple tweet: “If you do rich people stuff, eventually you will be rich. If you do poor people stuff, you will eventually be poor.” By my count, the average Dave Ramsey tweet may provoke 50 replies on a good day. This one garnered over 3,300 with almost 1,000 retweets.

Watching the commentary unfold—some of it angry, much of it hilarious—it’s clear something hit a nerve here. But what was it? Of all the tweets, why did this one blow up the way it did?

Do what rich people do” is as classic a Ramsey-ism as they come. In fact, anyone who counts themselves among the scores of church folk who attend Ramsey’s classes (or go to his live events, or read his books, or tune in daily to The Dave Ramsey Show) probably observed this ordeal with confusion and bewilderment. This is, after all, the kind of thing Dave Ramsey says all the time.

“I have found that if you look into the lives of the kind of people you want to be like, you will find common themes,” Ramsey wrote in his book The Total Money Makeover. “If you want to be skinny, study skinny people, and if you want to be rich, do what lots of rich people do.”

Some (but not all) of this social media storm can be explained as the nature of online discourse in 2019. Tweets land with a punch that makes communicating with nuance or charity practically impossible. As a medium, Twitter thrives on hot takes and snark. The thrill of dunking on a low hoop is too tempting. “Do rich people stuff,” you say? You mean cheat my way into college, Dave? Or commit tax fraud? Nice one, Dave.

But certainly there’s a more charitable way of looking at the world, one which presumes the most reasonable intention in a person’s words. All of us could say a version of what Ramsey said in a way most people would agree with. If your bad habits got you into financial ruin, those bad habits won’t get you out.

The problem is, even with the best of intentions, Ramsey’s sentiments about wealth disparity is an a oversimplification bordering on cruelty. When someone spends years responding to life’s complications with platitudes and proverbs, they tend to think of these teachings as absolutes over time. Particularly when someone has climbed from a state of poverty to one of financial wellness, it’s simple to tell the narrative of the struggles and personal achievement that got us to where we are. By extension, it’s easy to render judgment on those who didn’t do the same.

Hiding behind Ramsey’s statement is a subtle, unspoken moral declaration that wealth comes from good behavior and poverty comes from bad, and both financial conditions are the result of one’s character.

Boiled down to its most basic form, this is karma by another name. It’s the bad advice of Job’s friends personified in 21st century American terms. Good people get good things. Bad people get bad.

During the roaring Bush years of variable rates and McMansions, Dave Ramsey was a lone voice among financial celebrities who took a hard line against debt. Then, in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Recession, as the country was still reeling from financial ruin, Ramsey appeared as something of a prophet. It was common sense then to look around and conclude debt is indeed very bad.

Now here we are, a decade later, and avoiding debt is still good advice. Debt accrual—especially in America—is often rooted in covetousness and jealousy. Scripture tells us such things are bad for one’s psyche, soul, and well-being. In more explicit terms, they’re sinful.

But there’s a component of the Dave Ramsey wisdom which hasn’t aged so well in our  post-Recession world, where the gap between rich and poor grows with each passing year. Unemployment steadily declines yet wages remain stagnant. College and healthcare costs have reached insane, unsustainable proportions. Housing prices are skyrocketing. In metro areas particularly, gentrification and rent increases have pushed the most vulnerable out of their neighborhoods into poor housing conditions. In extreme cases, it’s led to outright homelessness.

Meanwhile the nation’s wealth is concentrated into a smaller percentage of people than at any other point in our lifetimes.

We’re talking here of forces beyond most of our control. It’s here where the Dave Ramsey directive to “do rich people stuff,” is not just difficult for many. It’s borderline impossible.

Worse still, hiding behind Ramsey’s statement is a subtle, unspoken moral declaration that wealth comes from good behavior and poverty comes from bad, and both financial conditions are the result of one’s character, regardless of the external structures at work against them.

Interestingly, and much to Dave Ramsey’s credit, his worldview holds a somewhat healthy category for bad actors in the American economy. He rails against debt collectors. “You know they are lying if their mouths are moving,” he frequently says. He holds similar contempt for certain lenders, insurance agents, and merchants, with much of his advice hinging on how to avoid being scammed by such people.

Yet the Ramsey plan does little more than acknowledge that such forces exist without giving much consideration to the sinful nature of man and why these forces exist: to pursue riches. Riches breed exploitation birthed from the unique temptations of wealthy: greed, jealousy, and pride. Being rich doesn’t preclude these sins, but it’s certainly a hindrance to avoiding them.

The Lord tells us that money is not a morally neutral construct. “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven,” he said. And knowing that many would try to explain away the conundrum of this teaching, Christ repeated himself more emphatically: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Elsewhere Jesus tells us, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

The calculus of the Kingdom warns the rich. It blesses the poor.

Dave Ramsey’s teachings aren’t all bad. In fact, they’re not even mostly bad. The program has a lot of good, solid advice to dish out, particularly about taking financial responsibility insofar as it’s within our ability to be responsible. It may even be true that “If you do poor people stuff, you will eventually be poor.”

But when it comes to the way of Christ, there are worse things than being poor.

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March 14, 2019, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Algernon Blackwood. If his is hardly a household name today, Blackwood’s memory is nonetheless kept alive by devotees of supernatural and weird horror fiction. Across a writing career spanning almost the entire first half of the twentieth century, Blackwood penned over a dozen novels and several plays. But it is his tales and novellas for which he is best known, including such revered works as “Ancient Sorceries,” “The Wendigo,” and above all “The Willows” (which H. P. Lovecraft seems to have regarded as the all-time best supernatural horror story).

Algernon BlackwoodSource

The son of a solemnly religious post office employee, Blackwood’s upbringing in south-east London belies the varied and at times exotic turn his life and writings would take. Apparently unpersuaded by his father’s dogmatic approach to life, Blackwood dabbled early in eastern religions and later joined the notorious fin-de-siècle occult group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Though not an atheist in any formal sense, he eschewed doctrinal approaches to spirituality. His own philosophy seems to have been in part reverse-engineered from the great love of his life: traveling through and immersing himself in the natural world.

For Blackwood, the natural world is not just natural: it is animated, enchanted, redolent with presences most often detectable only apart from our five senses. Nothing interested him more—in life or in fiction—than meditating on human insignificance in the midst of an overwhelmingly vast environment. For writers like his admirer H. P. Lovecraft, such meditations can lead only to cosmic horror; and indeed, many of Blackwood’s tales do evoke such horror. On the other hand, as S. T. Joshi has observed, in his other writings the emotional range slides almost imperceptibly into a sublime awe that only looks like horror to those observing from the outside. So subtle is the difference between the two that readers might not even be certain what kind of story they have in their hands.

Such an ambiguity is part of Blackwood’s charm much more than it is any kind of detriment. In reading his fiction, we encounter our world from a singularly oblique angle. Whether harsh stark nihilist or glossy pop pantheist or pious rosy-tinted Christian, Blackwood’s readers could learn from him a thing or two about the humbling mystery of their universe.

Like many writers of the weird tale golden age, Algernon Blackwood had a paranormal detective appear in some of his Edwardian-era stories. The character of John Silence is part of a proud tradition that includes J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Martin Hesselius, Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, and Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin. Silence appears in some of Blackwood’s best-known horror tales, most notably “Ancient Sorceries,” with its coven of cat people in rural France. The jury is still out among genre critics as to whether the character of Silence, with his intuitive methods of detection, is intriguing or ludicrous. But whichever way one swings, his name can tip readers off to one of Blackwood’s most significant effects.

His stories are often pervaded by silence, or at least an absence of noises with which humans have experience. In his travels, Blackwood preferred destinations far removed from civilization, places that are increasingly scarce in our technological age of light and sound pollution but which could still be visited at the turn of the century. The germ for many of his most effective stories began with a real excursion he had taken, and while plenty of writers have gotten along just fine violating the maxim “Write about what you know,” Blackwood’s fiction often derives its power from natural details of particular places that would be wholly unavailable to any who had not seen them. Such description occurs throughout his masterpiece “The Willows,” as in this early personification of the Danube River upon which the narrator is boating:

We had made many similar journeys together, but the Danube, more than any other river I knew, impressed us from the very beginning with its aliveness. From its tiny bubbling entry into the world among the pinewood gardens of Donaueschingen, until this moment when it began to play the great river-game of losing itself among the deserted swamps, unobserved, unrestrained, it had seemed to us like following the grown of some living creature. Sleepy at first, but later developing violent desires as it became conscious of its deep soul, it rolled, like some huge fluid being, through all the countries we had passed, holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders, playing roughly with us sometimes, yet always friendly and well-meaning, till at length we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.

How, indeed, could it be otherwise, since it told us so much of its secret life? At night we heard it singing to the moon as we lay in our tent, uttering that odd sibilant note peculiar to itself and said to be caused by the rapid tearing of the pebbles along its bed, so great is its hurrying speed. We knew, too, the voice of its gurgling whirlpools, suddenly bubbling up on a surface previously quite calm; the roar of its shallows and swift rapids; its constant steady thundering below all mere surface sounds; and that ceaseless tearing of its icy waters at the banks. How it stood up and shouted when the rains fell flat upon its face! And how its laughter roared out when the wind blew up-stream and tried to stop its growing speed! We knew all its sounds and voices, its tumblings and foamings, its unnecessary splashing against the bridges; that self-conscious chatter when there were hills to look on; the affected dignity of its speech when it passed through the little towns, far too important to laugh; and all these faint, sweet whisperings when the sun caught it fairly in some slow curve and poured down upon it till the steam rose.

The depiction here of the Danube “as a Great Personage” is typical of Blackwood. Quite frequently his stories feature, if not a personified description of the landscape, then at least an embodiment of it (as in, say, “The Wendigo”), or perhaps a character who becomes absorbed into the landscape (like “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”); indeed, it is often both.

I myself am hesitant to go out into the kind of wilds though which Blackwood rambled, precisely because, like him, I can see that if those wilds woke up for a moment, they could crush me with nary a care.In “The Willows” itself, however, the overall menace is slightly different, not, as the title may suggest, the willows themselves. The narrator and his companion, known only as the Swede, are making a return excursion along their favorite haunts of the Danube, but as they move farther east and the river grows wilder, they find themselves trapped in a region populated by the eponymous willow trees. Here they encounter signs (but only brief sights) of mysterious extradimensional beings that appear connected to the willows and that may demand some form of sacrifice if they become fully aware of the human presences.

The beings remain elusive and ill-defined, but they are all the more terrifying for their obscurity. Their nature and motives are learned almost entirely through intuitions, intuitions which the narrator desperately tries to rationalize away but which the Swede immediately recognizes as accurate. (You know you’re in trouble in a genre story when your imperturbable Scandinavian starts getting nervous.)  “The best thing you can do,” the Swede warns the narrator, “is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as possible.”

Many of Blackwood’s narratives are punctuated by the juxtaposition of eerie silences with ominous premonitions. That is because for Blackwood, we best apprehend the world in which we are embedded when we stop trying to classify it. To affix scientific terms to the environment, to name and codify life, is a human attempt to control it. But nature will not be so easily controlled. His horrors often derive from characters who would attempt such mastery; his mystic fantasies more often feature protagonists who hold their tongues in mystery and reverence.

This intuitive, non-dogmatic approach to nature offers up a discomfiting challenge to the totalizing interpretations of most worldviews. Needless to say, the orthodox Christian cannot fully accept all the ambiguities Blackwood readily admits into the cosmos; we worship a God who created and transcends all nature and who, to a certain degree anyway, did grant humanity dominion. But Blackwood’s perspective is likewise inimical to a hard materialistic philosophy, since he rejects scientific categorization as a significant means of truly understanding a universe that extends to extra-sensory dimensions. Nor is his love of nature entirely compatible with the shibboleths of New Age pantheism or popular neo-paganism, because it is a love tinged with dread (or a dread tinged with love)—being “at one” with the world in Blackwood’s fiction might mean being consumed in a painful and terrifying fashion.

I highly suspect that the great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton was familiar with Blackwood’s work.  Blackwood, for instance, is known to have been a member of the Square Club, which was co-founded by Chesterton, and his collection The Listener and Other Stories (which includes “The Willows”) was published in 1907, a year prior to two of Chesterton’s own signature works, his theological text Orthodoxy and his novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

The latter text may indeed be interacting with Blackwood’s thought. A comical, twisty spy adventure, The Man Who Was Thursday in many ways hinges on our interpretation of its mysterious central figure, Sunday. Near the end, we realize that each major character’s understanding of Sunday mirrors his philosophical perspective of the universe itself. One of these characters, Inspector Ratcliffe, articulates his fear of Sunday in this way:

[H]e’s absent-minded. . . . [H]ow will you bear an absent-minded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went through wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay. How would you like to pass ten mortal hours in a parlour with an absent-minded tiger?

This innocence and pitilessness suggests the universe according to Blackwood, especially as his thought manifested in The Listener (which, with a couple exceptions, skews closer to the side of horror than awe). The beings in “The Willows” are far more frightening than any tiger but just as “absent-minded” in their initial semi-awareness of the narrator and the Swede.

In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton doesn’t facilely dismiss Ratcliffe’s interpretation, but he does find it inadequate. The book concludes by acknowledging that nature is indeed, from the human angle, brutal and terrifying, if also at times joyous and lovely. Nature, Chesterton contends, is not God but a mask behind which we might find God’s true face—a mask that reveals his power but conceals his love. The true face of God is, of course, found in Christ, the basis for an “impossible good news” which the novel’s protagonist realizes at the end.

As Chesterton suggests, then, the Christian conception of God is that he stands apart from his creation yet loves it and governs it providentially. The creation narrative in Genesis 1 emphasizes above all things God’s role as a maker, as one who has taken great care in his construction of the cosmos. It’s counterpoint in John 1 adds that the Son, God’s creative Word, entered creation by becoming flesh.

That orthodoxy, that dogma, doesn’t mean that Blackwood is entirely wrong, however. In their rush to affirm God’s goodness in creation, far too many Christians rush to create a cozy nature that is more a product of their wishes and fantasies than their experience or reality. Blackwood’s fictional natural world, drawn from his lived encounters in remote regions, is far closer to the vast, raw, terrifying reality of the universe than the glossy selfies and Instagram Nature images that evangelicals so quickly want to post as evidence of the beauty of their Creator. The Christian who looks around at the natural world and tritely sighs, “I don’t know how anyone could not believe in God” is looking at nature just as selectively as the atheist is. I myself am hesitant to go out into the kind of wilds though which Blackwood rambled, precisely because, like him, I can see that if those wilds woke up for a moment, they could crush me with nary a care.

It is the fallacy of the contented Christian to ignore too readily the vastness and awfulness of the cosmos. It is the fallacy of the atheist to dismiss all signs of any Presence in the cosmos because such signs cannot be quantified. Algernon Blackwood’s fiction takes both sides of the coin and never stops flipping it. That is his warning and his promise: to unsettle the believer and unbeliever alike, if we would just pause in the silence. And listen.

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When Nina Simone debuted her controversial single “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964 in front of a majority white audience at Carnegie Hall, it was in direct response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four little girls. Simone’s lyrics, “And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam!” was a true declaration that everybody indeed knew about unjust happenings in the South. But personalizing those atrocities seemed to confound appreciators of Simone’s music, which motivated her to craft the jazzy show-tune.

Like Simone, Reach Records artist WHATUPRG also aims to personalize the struggle of his people with his recent EP Raul. Most know about the highly politicized debate involving the cruelties of family separation and the immigration crises that’s sparked exaggerated claims of “bad hombres,” “animals…rapists…[and] criminals” trying to invade our country. But I wonder how many of us actually know how this debacle is affecting our immigrant neighbors.

WHATUPRG uses Raul—his birth name, J. Raul Garcia—to give outsiders an opportunity to understand the struggle and collateral damage caused when we objectify and break apart families. Raul offers a unique and in-depth look of how the crippling weight of deportation can create emotional trauma for hard-working, law-abiding families. Throughout the EP, WHATUPRG (RG) exposes his struggle with faith, the emotions of missing his deported father, and the oxymoronic religiosity he observes from most Christian leaders who’d insist all people worship Jesus, but just not with them, in “their” country.

Many listeners quickly pointed out the laws and regulations regarding legal immigration. Even worse, some evangelicals took to social media to “educate” and confront RG on the legality of citizenship. But before the rift of what is legal or should be legal permeates the conversation, we’d all do well to consider RG’s humility in the face of hostility.

Unfortunately, the only facet some people hear when they listen to Raul is a critique of “MAGA hats” and Christian conservatives; but, if we listen closer, we’ll find it’s much more than that.

When confronted with a lack of empathy via social media from some critics, RG humbly replied, “I have love for… anybody who [doesn’t] understand or sympathize [with] our struggle. It’s ok. I’m grateful they took the time to listen. Regardless, I got hundreds of messages from people who get it. People being challenged and changed. It’s all love. My heart is at peace.” In a cultural climate marked by bitter exchanges, RG’s response is a graceful alternative for the way believers can interact with indignant dissenters.

Regardless of his deferential response to disdainful detractors, some persist in over-looking RG and his family’s pain. Most of the pushback has come from his song “4AM”—the title referring to the time of day immigration agents came to his house to deport his father. The song is an honest acknowledgement of his shaky faith in light of his father’s absence and an open assessment of what he’s experienced from politically conservative-leaning evangelicals. “I don’t see Christ,” he raps, “Cause half the pastors in America/Don’t want my family in America/And even Jesus was an immigrant/But don’t nobody seem to give a…”

But a line in his second verse seems to rouse his critics most: “I had trouble believing the pastor say, ‘God’s got a plan in all of this’/As he smiled in a MAGA hat, I had to question his common sense/I mean can’t you see that we strugglin’/And you gon’ hit me with Bible scripts?/Forget religion and politics, man I just wanna have my dad back.” Some overlook the obvious pain in his words and instead focus on the “MAGA hats” line. For that reason, it’s worth briefly analyzing what those hats have come to mean in and for our society.

The “Make America Great Again” hats have become their own cultural symbol. Fashion critic Robin Givhan observes that the baseball caps are no longer statements of policy as much as they are “an inflammatory declaration of identity.” For her, and many others, like RG, they signify a set of cultural standards associated with the sitting President of the United States, white supremacist hate groups, and, unfortunately, unconcerned evangelical associations. So for WHATUPRG—a Christian hip hop artist—to highlight the MAGA hats is courageous and risky.

Rebuttals to the Raul EP and families grappling with separation have become a harmonious soliloquy: “Laws are laws.” But before we uphold all laws as sustainably moral, it’s safe to assume most of the same critics would not dismissively say the same as it relates to the legality of abortion. Most evangelicals uphold that those laws are unjust to the unborn—and they are. In the same light, it’s fair to say that some laws are unjust and some are indeed just. Nobody is immune to bringing their sociopolitical experiences and cultural influences to the table when determining which laws fall into what category—even if we’re trying to walk in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

So when dissecting the devastating psychological consequences of dividing families like RG’s, it might be worth considering how just, or unjust, America’s deportation practices are. The American Journal of Community Psychology’s policy statement on “The Effects of Deportation on Families and Communities” provides an informative and comprehensive perspective on the psychological effects the current deportation practices have on people—people made in the image of God. Those effects include, but aren’t limited to: fearful mistrust of public institutions, like churches; “associated anxiety and psychological stress… linked to cardiovascular risk factors”; anxiety; anger; depression; sadness; and shame. In light of these discoveries, the Society for Community Research and Action recommends that “the US should make policy and practice changes,” which include “[keeping] families together through comprehensive immigration reform that ends the threat of deportation and bolsters hardship ex-emptions for all family members.”

WHATUPRG exhibits all of the emotional stresses outlined in the Association’s publication. From the beginning of his EP, he transparently grieves, “I was just a kid when my dad got deported,” and cleverly interlaces innuendo regarding the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency: “Ever since then everything I.C.E. cold.” He continues the lyrical acrobatics, fusing wordplay with reality on “SWISH.” “Papa was an alien, the flow illegal” is a brilliant way of acknowledging his God-given lyrical skills, while unashamedly declaring his familial ties with his, at one-time, “illegal,” or undocumented, father.

Since the release of Raul, some young, conservative evangelicals have identified with the central father-son theme highlighted throughout the EP. Some even admitted they downplayed or ignored the effects deportation and immigration have on some of their Christian brothers and sisters. Micah Hampton tweeted, “As a conservative, all I want to say is, [RAUL] broke through the white privilege I didn’t know I had… [“4AM”] hit me so hard. I BELIEVED [RG]. All I heard was a kid wanting his dad back. Take away the politics, and that’s what it is. Like, if I was where he is, I would be wanting my dad back just like him. I couldn’t help to ignore that pain. I believe it. It’s. Real.”

Even those who have trouble believing race or ethnicity is tied to a particular cultural pain still find reason to empathize with Raul. Another user tweeted, “I think it’s more of a privilege of being born in America more than skin color. I can empathize with the feeling of his father being taken, very sad. It’s a solid album he put out, and shines light on something others like us most likely will never experience.”

Whether we’ve experienced the pain associated with family separation or not, Christians can at least identify with RG’s tension of believing God is good in the face of adversity. But to understand his specific conflict, it is important to contextualize his story. Fortunately, there isn’t much to decipher; RG’s transparency on Raul allows us to understand the details of his faith struggle.

Throughout the EP, RG isn’t shy about voicing the trouble he has reconciling his faith with what he sees from his Christian brothers and sisters—specifically the legalities they buttress and who they support politically. “Why daddy got handcuffs on em’?” he questions on the track “4AM.” “He ain’t never did nothin’… All he ever did was work for his children, pay the rent, little income.” In this open assessment of his faith, RG exposes the back and forth struggle all Christians wrestle with at various moments of their life. Except his struggle is in believing God to be good with the image seared in his memory of his dad being whisked from their home in handcuffs at 4 a.m. I can only imagine trying to reconcile that God is good if my loving father was taken from me at an influential age. It’s even harder for RG to reason when the only illegal activity he watched his father participate in was driving the church bus without a license. But even then, RG reasons, “At least he was helping people get to church.”

The wordplay WHATUPRG demonstrates throughout the album is both a testament to the type of ironic beauty pain can produce and an auditory gut-punch that should awaken us to the brokenness in and around us. Thankfully, there are EPs like Raul which serve as beneficial reminders that there is a world beyond what we now know; a place we all can call home, where there will be no more weeping, pain, nor separation (Revelation 21). But for now, these pains remain, and we must deal with it. But even with this knowledge, RG lifts his eyes to remind himself that “God is still present through our most loneliest nights” and that we can sometimes get so caught up in all our problems that we forget to live.

Nina Simone’s relationship with her fanbase was drastically transformed when she changed her delightful show tunes to empowering revelations of injustice. The same happened to Reach Records owner and hip hop artist Lecrae when he began speaking for the oppressed and marginalized. RG revealed that Lecrae told him to “get ready for the long nights and anxiety attacks,” to which RG replied, “I’ve been dealing with that for years.” Like Simone and Lecrae, WHATUPRG too is refining his fanbase simply by sharing his experiences of family separation due to the current injurious practices of deportation.

Unfortunately, the only facet some people hear when they listen to Raul is a critique of “MAGA hats” and Christian conservatives; but, if we listen closer, we’ll find it’s much more than that. Raul is about family, compassion, and patience. It’s about looking across the broken landscape of our world and considering how we may use the cross of Christ to bridge the prejudicial gaps of humanity. It’s about the greatest, surest, and only hope mankind has in the face of biases, unjust laws, and walls of hostility. It is an explicit and intimate display of the glory of God in the midst of dreadful circumstances.

Despite the painful process of being misunderstood, fan refinement, and family separation, RG’s dad imparts useful wisdom to WHATUPRG. Likewise, RG shares it with listeners on the interlude track titled “SR.” We hear RG’s dad tell him (translated from Spanish to English): “No son, we can’t give up. I know it’s not easy but we have to learn that our plans aren’t always God’s and God’s plans are perfect. Son, give it your all and don’t ever doubt God’s plans.”

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