White People and Black Art, Part 2: Black Panther, Black Leadership, and White Submission

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

On February 4th, I began the series with a post about Jordan Peele’s Get Out and how the film can encourage white people to confront our microaggressions and other harmful behaviors towards people of color. Today, I will be talking about Marvel’s smash hit Black Panther and how the film can encourage white people to see ourselves as followers and people of color as our leaders.

This post contains mild spoilers for Black Panther.

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Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER L to R: T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

Like most of the American population, I saw Black Panther this weekend.

It was pretty damn great.

The costumes and visuals were stunning. Shuri is my new favorite Disney Princess, and Erik Killmonger is the most well-rounded Marvel villain yet (deal with it, Loki-stanners). Chadwick Boseman played his role perfectly and looked beautiful as ever. And the Dora Milaje kicked major butt.

What made this Marvel film attract so much attention was how it centered the African/black experience, while the white people served as “token characters” who supported the main African and black characters, in a role reversal rarely seen in film. In doing so, this film is not only prophetic for people of color, but for white people, too.

In Black Panther, we are shown a world in which white people are not calling all the shots or even controlling the narrative. Instead, they are following the lead of the people of color.

Black Panther’s Dora Milaje — Photo: Marvel Studios

From its aesthetics to its story, Black Panther is greatly influenced by the genre of “Afrofuturism,” which is a social, political and cultural genre that projects black space voyagers, warriors and their heroic like into a fantasy landscape, one that has long been the province of their mostly white counterparts. Stories which fall under this genre reimagine a world in which colonialism did not occur, and they also project what those affected by the African diaspora can do as active agents in their own futures.

The heroes and heroines in Black Panther, and other Afrofuturist tales, do not wait for a white savior to come to their rescue. Instead, they are their own saviors. They are their own queens and kings, princes and princesses, presidents and generals, warriors and politicians, representatives and resisters. They are not tokens or model citizens. Without the oversight of white supremacy, they have the dignity to embody the whole range of the human experience.

As such, the film features both black excellence and black pain, which results in an empowering form of representation for Africans and the African diaspora (the global communities descended from the movement of African peoples from their homeland).

White people, on the other hand, participate in the “token roles” normally designated for people of color in predominantly white films. They go from the leaders and the storytellers to the followers of black leadership.

CIA Agent Everett Ross is one of the two “token white guys,” and his role as a white person in a superhero franchise is subversive for the genre. Ross is the butt of several jokes in the movie…[and] exists as a kind of corrective to the “white savior” characters that are standard in earlier Western films about Africans. He’s even called a “colonizer” in a semi-joking, semi-serious manner, going for the heart of the long arduous relationship between the two cultures.

But Ross is such an important character for white people to watch, primarily because he is not the main player. He serves as T’Challa’s ally who saves and is saved by Wakandans. During his time in Wakanda, Ross submits to African leadership. When he dares to speak out of turn to a tribe’s leader, he is immediately and hilariously shut down, further confirming the centrality of black leadership in the film.

And despite his nickname, Ross subverts the white trope of colonizer and white savior not only by taking on a less significant role but by following black leadership. He does not demean their leadership or demand that he play a bigger part. Instead, he recognizes and accepts his place in the Wakandan story, and as such he serves as a helpful ally.

For the first time in a Marvel movie, and in one of the few instances in American film period, white people are not the ones in charge of shaping the story. That role and responsibility rests firmly on the shoulders of the black characters. Instead, white people serve as allies who follow their lead and their codes.

This is why Black Panther is an important film, not only for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for our global culture. In a culture that consistently labels white people as the heroes and leaders of this world, it is important for people of color to see a hero who looks like them.

It is also as important for white people to remember they are not the only ones in charge of this world.

We need to be willing and able to humble ourselves before our siblings of color and let them lead us, because they have dreams for a future which requires us to lay our power down.

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White People and Black Art, Part 1: How Jordan Peele Taught White People Voting for Obama Doesn’t Make Them Less Racist (Or: Why White People Need to Watch Get Out)

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. Since I am one of the whitest people to ever be white, I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains major spoilers for Get Out.

*****

Film Title: Get Out

CDN.Collider

After Get Out received four Academy Award nominations, I took out the Amazon gift card we received for our wedding and finally bought the movie.

I hadn’t seen it since the weekend after it came out, all the way back in late February of 2017. The first time I saw the film, I went in not knowing what to expect. Why were all the white people acting so weird around Chris? Why were all the people of color acting so strangely? What would happen to Chris? What did this family have to do with all of it?

In true white feminist form, I even had the audacity to think Rose would be an innocent in all of this. Watching the film a second time, I wondered why the hell I ever thought this to begin with.

What I remember most from that first movie-going experience was how uncomfortable I felt. I recounted my past interactions with people of color and all of the microaggressions I had committed. I remembered my “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” quips, my awkward attempts at “blackcent,” and even my “I’m a middle class white woman with an Arabic father whose struggles I have never dealt with, but I STILL know and understand oppression!” attitude.

I also left better informed not only as to how people of color feel when I and other white people make those blunders, but how those microaggressions can quickly shift from small to full-scale attempts to whitewash people of color.

Some of the microaggressions we see in the film are pretty obvious once they are displayed to us in all of their awkwardness. When we hear Mr. Armitage say “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” and call Chris “my man,” we see how he demeans Chris’ blackness by acting on stereotypes. When we see the woman feeling up Chris’ arms and the Japanese man asking Chris to speak on behalf of all black people about the African-American experience, we understand how wrong it is to make one person a spokesperson for their race and to remember to respect people’s boundaries.

Jordan Peele also uses this film to show white people how these microaggressions can very easily become something more malevolent.

The whole plot of Get Out revolves around a science that’s meant to create black bodies without blackness, black minds devoid of black consciousness. The Armitages literally round up black people via their daughter Rose, and then auction off their bodies to their white friends and family. They do this with no sense of irony or shame. They do this not caring about the fact that they are ripping black people from their bodies and planting their white friends and family in them. Because of this operation, the white people get all the “benefits” of blackness without living any of the experiences. They get to put it on like it’s the latest fashion accessory and not the lived experiences of another people.

In Get Out, we see not only how we humiliate and discomfort people of color, but how we rob them of control over their bodies and culture.

Let’s look at the guy who “buys” Chris: Jim Hudson. Jim explains how he will control Chris’ body while Chris himself is confined to becoming a passenger in his own body in the Sunken Place. As he explains himself, Jim tells Chris how it was his photography skills that captured the attention of the art dealer who is blind, and he even goes so far as to tell Chris, “I could give a shit what color you are…I want your eye, man.”

In this moment, Jim tells Chris, “I want your physical eye, but I don’t want the embodied experiences that made this eye possible.” After all, physical vision is not the only thing necessary to make thought-provoking and emotion-inducing art. What makes Chris’ photography so fantastic is how it reflects his experiences, joys, sorrows, and whole human story, from the absence of his father and his mother’s loss all the way to where he is when the story starts. To remove Chris from his body is to take away from the story he tells with his photographs.

Therefore, not only is Jim robbing Chris of his body; he is robbing him of his story and his authority to tell it. Even if Jim could see through Chris’ physical eyes, he would not be able to capture images as Chris once did, because he would not feel the beauty and pain Chris experienced. Chris and his stories would be trapped in the Sunken Place, safely out of the way of white people like Jim and their own desires.

This desire to whitewash the black experience causes us to turn a blind eye to the plights of people of color. It’s why we chant “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter.” It’s why we complain about “reverse racism” when people of color call out systemic racism. It’s why white feminists accuse other women of being divisive when they bring up issues women of color, trans and queer women, and women with disabilities encounter. We fear dealing with the experiences of people of color, because we fear dealing with our own racism. As such, in these seemingly insignificant everyday actions, we attempt to confine people of color to our own Sunken Places.

And we need to stop.

White people can understand that black people and other people of color not only have different skin colors but different experiences as well. This is not only allowed but necessary if we are to do the work of dismantling white supremacy. Once we acknowledge that people of color experience America in a very different way than we do, we can actually work on making change happen in our own interactions and in the systems with which we engage daily.

As uncomfortable as this movie may make us, it is good for white people to realize our racist tendencies, regardless of how “colorblind” we claim to be. When we see other white people acting out our own patterns and feel Chris’ discomfort and witness attempts on his life, we might be inspired to think more before we speak and act when interacting with those of different races.

If you’re a white person who hasn’t seen Get Out, I highly recommend it. Jordan Peele is a master storyteller, the pacing is solid, and the scares can be endured by those adverse to the horror genre.

But more than that, it’s a story about how our good intentions can become harmful actions if left unchecked, and we owe it to our siblings of color to wrestle with and understand our own selves so we can work to dismantle white supremacy forever.

Church of the Gibborm or Church of Christ: Why Christians Need to Start Listening to Their Runaways

Marvels Runaways

Deadline

If you haven’t watched Marvel’s Runaways on Hulu yet, please do yourself a favor and either add it to your Watchlist or subscribe to the week-long free trial now.

Because it is wonderful.

There is only ONE straight, white male character in the teen group. There are more women than men in the main cast. The moms are solid as characters and villainesses in their own right. Among the teens are a Latina and two LGBTQ characters, a black teen boy acts as group leader, and a purple haired Social Justice Warrior crushes hard on the jock with a brain.

Not to mention the parents, evil as they may be, are damn attractive.

Parents

I’m looking at you in particular, Mr. Minoru.

But the diverse casting and hot parents aren’t the only reason to watch this show.

It is a great show for those who have run away from American Christendom, and it offers a challenge to those who would uphold it over Christ’s Church.

The runaways’ parents, also known as PRIDE, support the Church of the Gibborim, a growing, Scientology-esque faith headed by PRIDE member Leslie Dean, who is also Karolina’s mother. The Church espouses a propserity-ish Gospel and claims members who have enough potential can go “Ultra,” although we are not really sure this is an achievement worth pursuing once we learn what it could mean.

Not to mention, once every year, PRIDE performs a literal yearly sacrifice of the most lonely, marginalized, and abandoned person they can find to revive a being who, at the beginning, is seemingly decrepit. In return, PRIDE receives power and wealth.

The teens discover their parents in the middle of a sacrifice, and they turn to each other to figure out what to do next. They know their parents cannot find out what they know, because they could be just as disposable as any of their previous victims, despite being their own children. As a result, the Runaways grow closer to each other, and as the adults suspect their children might be onto something, they get outright manipulative with how they try to get their kids to confess/keep quiet.

Before you accuse me of making links that are way too broad, please consider this:

American Christendom has a history of sacrificing the LGBTQ+ community’s full inclusion into the Church at the altar of so-called “orthodoxy.”

Its abusive leaders go to great lengths to silence and slander their victims when they go public.

It tells us God is a God of freedom and prosperity, but only when we become “holier” or “better” than we are now.

It proclaims harmful theology and covers it up by describing it as “taking a hard stance against sin,” and doing so for the benefit of those who have sinned or are backsliding.

And y’all wonder why people leave in droves.

A majority of Americans, most of whom profess Christianity, enjoy Marvel entertainment. We love seeing the good guys beat evil. A majority of these same Americans would probably have sympathy for the teens in Marvel’s Runaways. The kids do not see this “greater good” for which their parents say they strive. They see only evil and corruption, and they both resist and flee their families with the audience’s support.

So why do these same American Christians devote so much time and energy attacking Christendom’s runaways? Why do they accuse them of doubting too much or being too progressive instead of dealing with the very real evil which has consumed this branch of Christianity?

Have the planks in their eyes permanently blinded them? Has the throne become too comfortable to leave? Do they not realize that they bear poisoned fruit and we are sick from it?

American Christendom, y’all need to be listening to the cries of those who are leaving, especially when what you claim is for their own good is actually killing them.

The Church of Christ does not bear the poisonous fruits of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, ignorance, fear-mongering, or shame. She bears the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When people run away from Christianity, they do so because they do not see good fruit, and because they are starving, they move on to find it elsewhere.

When you’ve become the Church of the Gibborim, or the Church of America, it’s time to tear down the walls and start gardening again. Maybe when we see real fruit growing, us runaways will return.

“It’s Time for the church to End” How The Last Jedi Might Offer Comfort to Western Christianity

Last Jedi

A small segment of fanboys seem to have A LOT of feelings about The Last Jedi. 

They are alarmed by the “growing trend” of “warrior women protagonists who save the men” instead of playing their “natural role” of damsels in distress. They seem to fear no longer seeing themselves as the main characters, no longer in control of the narrative at large, seeing their roles “usurped” and “stolen” by those they once deemed “lesser” than them.

Good thing this isn’t a problem in society at large.

All joking aside, these fears and outbursts reflect a fear I see playing out in American Christianity, especially in regards to the so-called “death of the Church.”

Declining numbers, “compromising” (AKA “progressive”) theology, and the calling out of long-present hypocrisies and abuses give a number of church leaders cause for alarm, and they seem to think they are all related.

When congregational leaders embrace theology that welcomes LGBTQ+ people to the Table as they are, or when they say “Black Lives Matter” and take firm stances against racism and Nazis, they are seen as compromising the Gospel for political gain.

When esteemed leaders are accused of abuse, the victims are attacked for “slandering” someone who is obviously “a good man.” 

When people no longer identify as Christians because of the evils done in its name, the leaders attack them for being “wishy-washy,” and millennials are labeled the murderers of the Church, along with killers of styrofoam and the like.

These attacks are born out of fear, a fear of losing relevance in the world, of losing power and control over a nation and a narrative we have corruptly controlled for so long, a fear we call the “death of the Church” when really it is the “death of American Christendom.”

And for a people whose founder literally died and then rose again from the dead, we sure are terrified of death.

(WARNING: If you haven’t seen The Last Jedi yet and want to avoid spoilers, it’s best to stop here.)

I loved The Last Jedi for a number of reasons: the women and people of color in leading roles, seeing Carrie Fisher grace the screen one last time, the humor, the adorable Porgs.

My greatest takeaway, though, is the idea that no one side owns the Force, and whether or not specific orders exist to train people in its use, it will continue with or without them.

When Luke says it’s time for the Jedi to end, he looks at examples of how the Jedi have messed up in the past (with the rises of Palpatine and Vader within their ranks serving as examples). And rightfully so. After all, we need to be honest about the evil committed by and within our own ranks.

However, it is Master Yoda who convinces Luke that just because the Jedi were corrupt and failed countless times, the Force continues to call new people to do its work. And as they watch the Force Tree burn together, Luke realizes that the Jedi and the First Order  are not the end all, be all of the Force. They are only vessels. Some use the Force for more corrupt reasons than others, but they cannot completely extinguish it.

So when our cathedrals crumble, our fog machines fizzle out, our conferences cease, our seminaries close, and our rule books burn, God’s Spirit will continue to move.

And when our leaders fail, corruption consumes, and evil seems to permeate our holy walls, we may have to burn it down with holy, renewing fire.

But even when we must, the Body of Christ will rise anew from those ashes, and she will continue God’s salvation. And we will preach, teach, worship, and pray wherever They lead us, from the chapel to the wilderness.

Western Christianity as we know it may die, but the Church will live on.

It’s called resurrection, y’all. It’s kind of our story.

As Rey realized, death and decay bring forth new life, and underneath it all is a balance. And inside us is the same power to raise the dead.

May this comfort us when our ways inevitably die to make way for a Kin-dom beyond our imagination.

Mind Flayers, Systemic Evil, and Other Demonic Forces

ST2 Will

***SPOILERS AHEAD for Season Two of Stranger Things***

“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.”
Mark 5:1-2 (NRSV)

One of the last classes I took in seminary was “Spirit World, Global Church.” It addressed topics surrounding what we in Christian-speak call spiritual realms, namely dealing with angels, demons, spiritual warfare, and the like.

I entered the class with great fear and trembling. I used to be a Pentecostal who believed demons could possess my soul if I fell into any form of backsliding, from “engaging in witchcraft” (because of my love of Harry Potter) to doubting basic tenants of Christian orthodoxy. Even watching horror movies and doing yoga could open me to demonic possession and cause me to fall out of God’s favor.

This seminary class seemed tailor-made to bring me face-to-face with this upbringing from which I had run so far away. And as such, I feared being in the class would force me back into the mold of the person I had been years ago: narrow-minded with a black-and-white view of the world and the supernatural. I feared I would abandon my interests and loved ones in an effort to stay “pure” and “untainted,” something I had done in the past.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
Mark 5:6-9 (NRSV)

Despite abandoning most of my old Pentecostal beliefs, possession still scares the shit out of me.

I have never seen an exorcism movie. If I see a picture of Reagan from The Exorcist or see a clip from The Conjuring, I struggle to sleep. When things go bump in the night, I wait for a shadowy demon to jump out from behind a door and take me over.

I am 27 years old and have not set foot in a Pentecostal church in over 5 years, yet I am still held captive by the theology of demonic possession.

I don’t mess with this stuff. Even though I do not 100% believe in it, I give it enough respect in the hope that it won’t happen to me.

I am fully aware that this isn’t a foolproof plan.

But when I took the class, I began to think about ways our spirits and our bodies, the so-called “spirit realm” and the “physical realm,” are connected, how there are times when it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

A couple of months after I completed the class, I binge-watched Stranger Things.

Last month, my husband and I finished the second season, and once again, I can’t help but think of possession and the blurred lines between the two realms.

Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
Mark 5:11-13 (NRSV)

Stranger Things tackles possession in Season Two. There is the “Mind Flayer,” a monster made of shadows and tendrils, who invades Will’s body, mind, and soul, forcing itself into its human host and causing Will to lose agency over himself.

It’s a parasitic relationship. There is neither camaraderie nor mutuality; the one uses the other for its own gain. In the process, the demonic force separates its host from his loved ones. It steals memories from and inflicts bodily harm upon Will. Under the Mind Flayer’s possession, Will unwittingly leads the soldiers who wish to close the Upside Down to their grotesque demise, and he is only able to communicate with his loved ones by tapping out Morse code with his fingers.

Fortunately, Season Two ends with the Mind Flayer fleeing for its life after a confrontation with some space heaters and Will dancing with a girl at the Snow Ball. But before we get our hopes up that all is well, we see a shot of the monster watching over Hawkins in the Upside Down while Sting’s creepy ass song fades out.

And as the music and monster fade, we are left wondering if everything really will be OK.

Stories about possession usually end on a happy note. Once the evil is gone, life seemingly goes “back to normal,” whatever that means. The possessed person has little to no memory of the horrifying experience, and they skip through life happier for having survived.

But how do we move forward after evil has touched and consumed us?

Some, like Will, go to the dance, hang out with their friends and family, and try to recover. Some, like the demoniac, work within their own communities to spread the good news of new life, new beginnings, and new hope.

But what about people touched by the physical evils of this world?

My church taught me it takes great trust in Jesus to cast out a demon, and where Jesus is, evil cannot dwell. But as the years went by, and I continued to see people possessed by real-world demons, I wondered if this meant not a lot of people trusted Jesus, or if Jesus is absent more often than he says.

I wondered how I’m supposed to look at evil and possession, not only through the lens of the supernatural, but as the very real and physical evils that nip at our heels every day.

Now, I believe we are possessed when we are separated from God, ourselves, and each other.

Systemic racism makes evil puppets out of us as much, if not more so, than a demonic entity can. There is demonic activity in our obsession with power and wealth at the expense of our human siblings and our very planet. Evil wins when we look at others, from our closest loved ones to strangers on the street, from avatars in cyberspace to our own reflections, and see anything less than the image of God worthy of honor and dignity.

I also continue to believe that good art turns our own reality upside down to show us how to confront and shape it. It creates monsters so we know they can be slain. It creates heroes and villains so we know how, as humans, we can rise and fall.

So while there may not be a physical Mind Flayer beneath our feet, there are powers that seek to do harm, first to the individual and then on a global scale. And we have the power to either destroy these powers or be drawn into doing their bidding.

We have the power to buy into white supremacy or break its stranglehold over us and over people of color. We have the power to buy into a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality or help those who are drowning under systemic oppression. We can go with the mob mentality of ignoring abuse and brutality when it happens in front of us, or we can call it out when it happens and prevent it from happening in the first place.

We have all received the holy calling to live in camaraderie and mutuality with each other, and we have all, at one time or another, answered that call by exploiting each other.

We have the capacity to be Mind Flayers, and we have the ability to slay them.

Which path will we choose?

*****

By the grace of God, may we realize when the demonic entities of evil are possessing us, as oppressors and as victims of oppression.

May those possessed and used as tools of oppression find ways to break free from our destructive cycles. May those possessed by oppression find freedom, identity, comfort, and love in themselves and their communities.

And when we break free from our yokes of possession and oppression, may we exorcise the demon-possessed systems, that their evil work may die for good, and new life may be born.

Fangirl Theology: Nostalgia as Deception and Comfort in Stranger Things, American History, and the Bible

ST1 Poster

***POTENTIAL MILD SPOILERS FOR STRANGER THINGS SEASON ONE AHEAD***

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

In Greek, it roughly translates to “homesickness.”

This would explain the feelings we experience when we find an old toy, flip through an album of sepia-toned Polaroids, pick up a vinyl record, or binge-watch a season of Stranger Things in less than 24 hours.

In the act of remembering, we experience a type of homesickness, a woebegone sense of longing for the beloved and familiar. While our memories can be positive and negative, nostalgia holds us in those idyllic moments with all its might. It give us glimpses of home and tastes of (more) carefree days.

We are nostalgic, because we can’t help but yearn for the past when our future seems so uncertain, unsafe, and unknown.

My generation gets a lot of flack for our “early-onset nostalgia,” but I think our critics often forget the context of the world in which we came of age. Some contributing factors included a huge economic recession, job and financial instability, and disenfranchisement with the crippling War in Iraq. It only makes sense that we would cling to relics from our past for comfort, especially from a time that, to us, epitomized financial and global security.

Yet we remember so selectively.

Nostalgia insists on the existence of the “good ole days,” a magical time in which “life was easier.”

But does it dare to ask for whom those days were good, and for whom life was easy?

Does it prompt us to wonder who was invisible in our lives then and shed some light on who is absent now?

ST2 Boys

Stranger Things tells a story with multiple perspectives through a retro, Stephens Spielburg- and King-esque lens. Three boys search for their missing best friend and discover a strange girl with superpowers, a la E.T. and Firestarter. A teenage girl is caught in a cliche example of a love triangle right out of a John Hughes flick. The boy’s mother and the local police chief work together to find this missing child only to uncover an even darker secret that could have set John Carpenter’s hair on end.

From the clothes the characters wear to the posters on their bedroom walls and the iconic scenes they mimic, the whole show is cut and tailored to pull our nostalgic heartstrings by reminding us of a past time. And yet, with its retro style comes a freshness our generation craves. It is a nostalgic tale, but it is also a tight, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat story. The acting and writing are phenomenal, and the themes of conquering evil are both comfortingly cliche and organically original.

Many of us need some nostalgic comfort in our country’s chaotic heydays. At the same time, we need to be cautious with it.

ST1 Eleven

Nostalgia influences our memories, and it can deceive them. There’s always someone or something missing from our strolls down memory lane, and if we take the time to find out why they are gone, we can infuse our fond recollections with a strong dose of reality.

Let’s look at the 1980s themselves. While the decade saw significant economic gains, they came as a result of slashed funding to government assistance programs for the poor and marginalized. While the US kept the USSR at bay, we also sent millions of dollars to corrupt Central American leaders, who spent it on weapons to murder their citizens. In return, we slammed our nation’s borders shut on these refugees when they sought to escape the war zones we had enabled. While the white population believed the country had moved on from racial inequality, the race-fueled “War on Drugs” and prison industrial complex picked up steam.

But these stories are not evident on the surface of this 80s-inspired show.

There is only one person of color in the first season (Lucas, one of Will’s friends), and not only is he relegated to a supporting role, but he gets a lot of flack for being rather reasonable with his concerns about Eleven.

None of the characters are people whose parents are not from the US, or who came to the US as children, and there are no people with disabilities.

This is not to say these characters’ traits and the complete absence of others is completely intentional. But then again, very little about anything systemic is.

And as such, we often chalk it all up to the fact that “things were different back then.”

But here’s the truth, y’all: the people who are absent from this and other stories existed then. They were the heroes of their own stories. At the same time, their stories were unacknowledged, ignored, and even silenced by a majority of Americans.

It’s an absence that, if you’re privileged enough, you have to hunt down. But for the forgotten ones, it is visible and painful.

ST1 Barb

Nostalgia’s comfort and trickery is in the biblical text, too. After its devastating collapse, the psalmists celebrated Jerusalem in its glory as if it wasn’t also a place of greed, oppression, and corruption. The prophetic writers were the ones reminding the people of both their triumphant past and the reasons for their tragic downfall.

King David is idealized as the perfect king, and he was a rapist who feuded with his own son to the point of death. Again, a prophet had to bring the man to his senses so he could see the error of his ways.

The writers of the conquest narratives talk about God’s blessing of their successful missions to destroy the Canaanites, but we never hear the Canaanites’ perspective. Unfortunately, they did not receive any prophets, and their stories of pain and loss went unheard.

This is not to say pursuing feelings of nostalgia is a corrupt quest. It is comforting and necessary to remember where we’ve been and who we are, and we should be thankful when we can do so with joy and thankfulness in our hearts.

But it can also blind us. It can hold us back and keep us apathetic. It can make us dwell on what was instead of moving forward into what could be, and it can make us focus on a false narrative instead of digging deeper into the dark Upside Down beneath its facade.

We can allow nostalgia to comfort us and remove us from our own reality. Doing so can encourage us to play again, and when we remember how to play, we can change the world. After all, the kids in Stranger Things saved the world because of the wisdom they accumulated while playing Dungeons & Dragons, reading X-Men comics, and watching Star Wars. They were victorious, because they knew the value of play and imagination. Nostalgia can help us recover those traits after we bury them under adulthood’s reason and seriousness.

So go ahead and be nostalgic when you watch Stranger Things, and be comforted and emboldened by it. It’s only natural in a world like this.

And also remember to be honest. Remember that the privilege to look back on a time with nostalgia often comes at the price of someone else’s comfort, and you did nothing to earn it, nor did they.

And remember to do what you can to make this a world in which every person can have a home for which to be homesick as we journey through life.

Fangirl Theology Series: Stranger Things

ST2 Poster

Stranger Things has become one of my all-time favorite shows.

It’s a delightful and frightening coming of age tale in which the weird kids, the preppy teens, and the messed-up adults save the day.

It’s a tale of parallel planes and nostalgia trips that allows us to ask the “What if” questions of life:

What if an evil force invaded, and the little ones and the broken ones, saved the world?

What if there is a world within a world, a place that is here and not here, and it’s threatening to break through?

How do we deal with the repercussions of confronting the darkness in the world?

After looking at the evil in this story, what do we learn about the evils that plague our own reality, and how do we confront it?

There are evil forces at play in the land of Hawkins, Indiana, in the form Demagorgons and warring governments who care more about beating each other than the lives of their citizens. There are the loveable “losers,” the girl with no name but fantastic powers, the single mother barely hanging on, the cop still grieving his daughter’s death, and the dysfunctional step-siblings.

And beneath it all lies the Upside Down, an alternate dimension of death, decay, and darkness, with a creature (and, in the second season, creatures), who seek to infiltrate our realm and destroy us.

In short, it’s a biblical story.

The Bible contains stories of the looming threats of the otherworldly powers of darkness and the present power of Empire, not to mention actual monsters (Job 40:15-24 and 41). Its list of heroes includes infertile nomads, foreigners who glean the fields, a shepherd boy overloooked by his own father, and a refugee born in a manger.

And beneath is all is the Kin-dom of God, God’s Dream for the world, the New Heaven and New Earth, the here but elsewhere, the now but not yet, a space of interdimensional, thin-planed existence.

*****

Storytelling is a formative experience. Sci-fi and fantasy are some of my favorite storytelling mediums, because they remind us of the world’s enchantment. We remember that magic is real, we are not alone, and there are things more beautiful and great than we can comprehend, yet are within our reach.

It’s been a while since I’ve dug into the theology of a good story, and I want to begin again with the dark enchantment of Stranger Things. 

On the blog, I will be spending the next two weeks digging into the theology in Stranger Things through a few themes. I hope you will join me on this and other journeys through the lens of Fangirl Theology!