We are not things!

Is it possible the 2-hour high-speed spectacle Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most spiritually profound films I’ve seen in years?

Yes, yes it is.

Much has been said regarding the film’s ground-breaking treatment of women. Honestly, the only reason I had any inclination in using one of my rare post-baby movie-going opportunities on an action film (linked to a franchise with which I have no exposure) is because men’s activist groups called for a boycott of it — how DARE the film feature a dominant female protagonist who renders the titular male little more than a glorified side-kick? Unfortunately for the MRAs, their outrage had the undesired impact of compelling me and, if the demographic sampling of my own screening is representative, a lot of other young women out in enthusiastic droves.

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is indeed a rare specimen — a butt-kicking woman in no way defined by her sexuality. Indeed, not only is she NOT made into a sexual object, but her body is even mutilated (a fact which itself does not define her). Her actions drive the narrative, a narrative into which Max passively gets caught up. The central conflict concerns five “breeders” (i.e., sex slaves) on the run from the warlord/cult leader “Immortan Joe.” As numerous commenters have noted–we never see the sexual exploitation of these women. And they are active agents in their own stories, not merely passive victims.

There is, however, so much more to Mad Max: Fury Road, than a ground-breaking approach to female characters. The entire film is a journey of spiritual renewal — a journey from death into life. This central theme emerges in the question, what are people? Are people things? Or are people … humans, individuals, beings capable of love, courage, and self-sacrifice? (Note: spoilers follow)

Our story begins, quite literally, in hell. In the citadel ruled by Immortan Joe. All the imagery is imagery of death–skulls, bones. Water, crops and other means of life are cruelly hoarded. Joe’s “war boys” all suffer from mutagenic disease, aware that they will only ever live “half-lives.”  People–men, women, and children–are things. Women are hooked up to nursing machines to provide “mother’s milk” to those Joe deems worthy. Members of Joe’s cult “chrome” themselves in a kind of chrismation, evoking their desire to become reborn as … machines, effectively. Max himself begins the film as a captive “blood bag”, his whole worth reduced to his “universal doner” blood type. Then, there are Joe’s wives. Beautiful, capable women reduced to sexual objects and vehicles for Joe to breed successors to his dominion. They have been so conditioned to see themselves as objects that they even speak of themselves in personless terms. When Max, early on, shoots one of the wives in her leg, another responds: “Of all the legs you could have shot, that one was attached to his favourite.”

Even Max himself begins the movie devoid of his own humanity. He is no longer a person. He is, in his own words, a being reduced to a single instinct: survival. He cannot even acknowledge his own name when Furiosa asks what to call him.

There is one spiritual truth that breaks through this initial darkness. A defiant mantra repeated by Immortan Joe’s wives: “We are not things! We are not things!”

The trajectory of Fury Road is the story of individuals coming to claim that truth — People are not things. Other are not things. And, most importantly, they themselves are not things. Through the film, we watch these characters coming to see one another. We see them learning to trust and learning to love. In so doing, they find their sought-after redemption. They find life. In what is perhaps the emotional climax of the film, Max gives his name to Furiosa, confirming their connection to one another as people, not as objects.

That may not sound like a particularly “Christian” statement. And I am not arguing that Mad Max is an explicitly “Christian” film. On the other hand, claiming that truth “We are not things. People are not things” is a pretty profound way of living out our baptismal covenant. What do we promise in baptism? “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”  Our deepest calling as followers of Christ is to see in each of our fellow human beings the very image of God. To view other people as things — as objects for our own use — is the way of spiritual death. Indeed, this is why as Christians we are compelled to affirm and advocate for the full humanity of all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Mad Max takes this spiritual truth to a deeper level through the theme of self-sacrifice. In the materialistic, spiritually dead world of Joe’s citadel self-sacrifice is impossible, for there is no life to be given. Ironically, it is only when the characters come to a place of redemption, to a place of life and healing, that they become able to give of themselves to one another. Max has been used as a renewable source of blood for Joe’s “war boys” from the first moments of the film. But there is something profoundly moving when he willingly gives his blood to Furiosa to restore her life in the climactic battle. Though the action is the same, the gift, the sacrifice of his blood does not make him an object. It is an act that defies the earlier attempt to rob him of his humanity. And it is at this moment he finally reclaims his name: “Max, my name is Max.”

But in all the reviews and commentaries I have read of this film, the most overlooked character is the “war boy” Nux. When we first meet Nux, he is the walking dead. His life is being claimed by two tumours on his neck. He wants nothing more than to die in glory on the fury road, so that he can live and ride forever in Valhala with Immortan Joe. He has no humanity to lose, and to he has nothing to give. Gradually he, like Max, has his humanity restored through connection with Furiosa and Joe’s escaping wives. He learns to grant these women humanity and, in so doing, he finds his own redemption. Such grace ultimately gives Nux strength to sacrifice himself for those he has grown to respect and even love.

What better illustration of the Gospel truth: “Whoever finds their life will lose it. And whoever loses their life will find it.”

Mad Max: Fury Road is intense. It is spiritually profound. It is a feminist triumph. All that and a flame-throwing guitar. Who could ask for anything more?

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On Pentecost, Crux Books, and the Pan-Am Games

This Sunday, the church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the first followers of Jesus 50 days after the resurrection. Historically, Pentecost was one of the principle celebrations in the Christian year. Rejoicing in the gift of the Holy Spirit to all those baptized in the name of the Trinity marks the birthday of the church as we know it. The church which manifests itself not just in the beautiful sacred spaces in which we worship or the ministry of our clergy — but in the ministry and calling of all the body of Christ. The presence of God’s spirit within us means that each one of us has special gifts and callings within the broader ministry of the church.

One excellent example of this within our own Diocese is the ministry of Crux Books. Although the founder tragically died several years ago, the current owner and staff are committed to carrying on the ministry which he started. To create a rich theological resource in Toronto, where students and all those interested in exploring questions of faith can find affordable (!) resources. They are an assent to our church, and have been a wonderful resource for our own ministry at Grace Church.

Unfortunately, it seems Crux is running into problems with the Pan Am games taking place in Toronto this summer. They will be forced to close, with no compensation, for nearly two months this summer. We know that we live in a highly consumer-oriented world. One where big business and big corporations readily expand at the expense of ordinary people and smaller businesses. What we do not often see is tangible evidence of such economic disparity. Now, I have nothing against the Pan Am games themselves. I know several people volunteering with them, and I am sure they will be an exciting time for our city. But let us not fool ourselves — the games are a big business. And I am sure this is not the only small local business they will be negatively impacting. Offering some compensation to impacted businesses and individuals will make little difference to the bottom line of the games. But it will possibly mean the difference between life and death to small businesses.

I am dedicating the space on my blog this week to supporting Crux Books. And to encourage those in Toronto to do the same. Crux themselves have asked for a few simple means of support. To quote their own communication, this is what you can do in the coming weeks/months:

  1. Please keep us in your prayers;
  2. Through purchases of books for your summer reading;
  3. Contacting/writing local and provincial politicians; and
  4. Contacting/writing local media in an effort to bring awareness to the injustice of our situation.

Crux provides a vital source of theological depth in our city. Perhaps even more importantly — it is staffed by committed people of faith who believe that what they do is a ministry to our spiritual community (several of them are personal friends). If you’ve alway thought about investing in your spiritual library, now is the time to do it! Take a walk down Hoskin Avenue and check out some titles and authors you’ve always wanted to explore. Support this wonderful independent store, and keep them going through the summer months. Let us be the body of Christ we celebrate in the coming of the Holy Spirit and minister to one another.

Stripped

Last week, I may have had some strong, and perhaps uncharitable words towards comic book-derived media franchises and the superheroes on which they are based.

Let it not be said, however, that I am no fan of comic artists in general. Indeed, much of my superhero fatigue is due to the fact that there is so much untapped potential in the wide variety of comics and graphic novels. Unfortunately, Leeman and I did not make it to this year’s Toronto Comics Arts Festival. Such is being the parents of a toddler. But TCAF is always a good time to check out new quirky artists. Some series. Some, well … comic. But it is nothing if not a celebration of how diverse the art form of using pictures to tell all sorts of stories has become in recent years.

My friend Victoria and I meeting Dave Kellett at TCAF in 2011. We both wear comfortable shoes.

My friend Victoria and I meeting Dave Kellett at TCAF in 2011. We both wear comfortable shoes.

Though we didn’t get a chance to get to TCAF, we did at least try to make up for it by watching the documentary Stripped by Dave Kellett, one of my favourite web cartoonists. (I’m not sure what it says about me that according to Leeman Dave Kellett once [endearingly?] described the key attribute defining readers of his web comic “Sheldon” as an affinity for comfortable shoes.)  It was a fascinating exploration of how the world of daily comic strips has transformed and continues to be transforming from the days when “comic strips” meant syndicated strips appearing in newspapers. The film spoke with many of the often unseen creators behind popular syndicated strips like “Cathy”, “Foxtrot”, “Pearls before Swine”, even getting a rare audio-recorded interview with “Calvin and Hobbes” creator (and fellow Kenyon alumnus) Bill Watterson. But perhaps more importantly, the film featured in depth interviews with the creators of many recent web comics, like PVP, Unshelved, and Hark a Vagrant (just to name some of my favourites).

There is much to be explored an discussed in the changing landscape of comic strips, as print media loses its monopoly on information distribution and more and more people look to digital sources for news and entertainment. But what struck me in listening to the traditionally successful syndicated artists vs. the emerging online content creators is an attitude of fear vs. openness. Sure, letting go of traditional models of content distribution is stepping into a world of uncertainty for these artists. And it puts a lot more burden on artists to “drum up” business for themselves. On the other hand, it also gives them direct control over their content and allows them to have direct access to their audiences, without having to go through mediators, like agents and syndicates. If you ask me, that’s good news for both artists and consumers alike. Honestly, the documentary reminded me that I have barely looked at a syndicated comic strip (aside from maybe “Calvin and Hobbes”) for years. It’s not that they aren’t good. They are just very … safe. You always know the sort of jokes that you’re going to get when you pick up Garfield or Peanuts, or even something as fun as Fox Trot. Web comics, on the other hand, are bound by no rules other than those they create for themselves. Even more important, direct access to potential readers leads to a truly democratic outlook on which artists might succeed or fail. This means more opportunities for women, minorities, or any other “non-traditional” artist to have opportunities for success, and they get it! It’s a wide, risky, wonderful new world out there for creative types. Just ask my husband. Literally, ask him … that’s what he does.

I get hesitant when we start making sweeping connections between some avenue of secular life and what that means for life in the church. So I shall refrain from doing so here. All I will say is that it is no secret to any of us in any avenue of life that we live in a period of great cultural shifts. How we consume media, how we relate to each other online, and how we think about our spirituality. It is worth considering whether we look at such transition with fear because it might not look exactly like what came before, or if we look at transition with a sense of wonder at what untapped potential might be found if we let go of a “business as usual” model.

The most fascinating aspect of Stripped for me was in how much the web cartoonist still identified themselves as … cartoonists. As in the same vocation as their syndicated predecessors. Many of them set up their online strips in attempt to become syndicated artists. In other words, they are not iconoclasts, with no respect for the foundations of their creative work. They do not see themselves as doing something radically new or different. They just refuse to be limited by the same set of arbitrary rules in a new technological world that opens up unforeseen and as yet limitless opportunities. That is absolutely fascinating to me. And it speaks to a willingness to see the changing world around us with hope and openness, but also with humility. That is powerful, challenging … and perhaps even spiritual.

Take me to a galaxy far, far away!

Dear friends. Let it be said now — I am done with Superheroes and all comic book-inspired pop culture offerings. Behold, a recent scene from the Kessler household:

Me: Have Superhero shows become basically CSI for geeks?
Leeman: There aren’t that many Superhero shows … just Arrow and Daredevil.
Me: And Gotham, and the Flash, and Agents of Shield
Leeman: …and Agent Carter.
Me: Ok, yes, Superheroes really have become CSI for geeks.

It is no secret among my general acquaintance that I have become quite weary of Superheroes and their exploits. Despite my unconditional love of all things Joss Whedon, I couldn’t even bring myself to get excited about the new Avengers: Age of Ultron movie that opened this weekend. I happily stayed home watching the baby while Leeman took in this latest geeky offering with some of our friends.

I have nothing against Superheroes, per se. At their best, they can be wonderful explorations of what happens when ordinary people are given extraordinary abilities–as is the case with Peter Parker’s Spiderman. Or they can explore the darker elements of vigilante justice, as happens in most versions of Batman. Even Joss Whedon’s fantastic take on the Avengers becomes yet another avenue for him to play out the challenging and delightful dynamics of pseudo-family groups.

But at the end of the day, my point still stands that superheroes have kind of become far too much like the over-used crime procedurals of geek entertainment. There are bad guys in the world. They do bad things. We have a select group of heroes who can “fix” bad guy problems, usually by means of excessive force. It’s easy to see why such stories have been so completely embraced by audiences over the past 5-10 years. We live in a complicated world that is besieged by any number of evil forces: systemic racism and sexism, religious fundamentalism, global climate change. There’s something just plain refreshing about seeing the good guys (most of whom start out as just ordinary people) take down the bad guys, even if they do it while battling their own internal demons. Perhaps especially if they do it while battling their own internal demons. There is, in other words, an inevitable simplicity to these stories, much as with mainstream crime procedurals. Problem (bad guys) meets Solution (good guys) and then we all get to hang out and eat shwarma.

There’s nothing wrong with this. As I have said, these films and TV shows are incredibly entertaining and often ask perceptive psychological questions of their protagonists. But there is something called to much of a good thing. I’m calling it now — I’m done with superheroes. As good as the Netflix series Daredevil promises to be, I just can’t bring myself to get excited about it. I hear all the projections coming from the Marvel cinematic universe for the next several years. And I just find myself saying … meh.

Star Wars. Star Trek. It doesn't matter. We're just trying to give Amanda a good start in life.

Star Wars. Star Trek. It doesn’t matter. We’re just trying to give Amanda a good start in life.

Earlier this week, we (by which I mean the geeky community of the interwebs) celebrated “May the Fourth Be With You” day — celebrating all the fun of Star Wars fandom. Indeed, Star Wars has been making its way back into the collective mainstream consciousness in recent weeks as a second trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens was released, with full John Williams musical fanfare. All this Star Wars buzz has gotten me pondering how much I always have and always will be a Star Wars fan through and through. It was my first geeky love. I once won a game of Star Wars trivia pursuit all in one turn.Sure, I guess one could argue that something like Star Wars is the ultimate archetypal story for “good guys beat the bad guys.” But in the process, the saga presents evocative images, like the mysterious Force (let us not speak of midichlorians), galactic politics, and the redemption of Annakin Skywalker.

More importantly, Star Wars was also a foundation for my love of Space Opera in general, which is without doubt my favourite fictional genre. I relish stories of diverse, dynamic characters exploring exotic, otherworldly locations, often posing difficult questions about what it means to be human and pushing the limits of the imagination. I long for a return not just of Star Wars, but of TV shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, and, yes, my one true love Farscape. I crave a geek culture that once again strives after other worlds, wonder, creativity. Stories that occasionally leave questions open-ended. That allow us to ask probing questions, rather than always resolving the looming threat in an epic CGI-laden battle.

There is a spiritual component to these thoughts as well. This blog, after all, would not exist if I did not see a connection between my geeky interests and my spirituality. Our faith does push us beyond easy answers and solvable problems. Our faith should compel us to wonder at the beauty and complexity of God’s creation. Our faith should inspire us to look beyond human possibilities and challenge us to wrestle with mystery. Comic book movies and TV series, fun and provocative as they may be, just don’t fulfill that creative need in me.

So, pardon me as I pass on Age of Ultron (at least for the moment) and just continue rewatching old episodes of Farscape until that long-rumoured Captain Worf Star Trek series actually happens.