13 Reasons Why Not

13 Reasons Why Not

There is a danger in decrying certain elements of pop culture.

In many cases, the very breath that’s used in criticism serves only to fan the flame you’re trying to extinguish.

Boycotts build bestsellers.

And the best way to ensure the popularity of a book or movie is to try and ban it.

So this is not a move to ban or boycott; but it is a note of quiet resistance to what is now the most controversial show on television: 13 Reasons Why.

THE STORY

The series is an adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel chronicling the tragic life of Hannah Baker, a high schooler who kills herself after leaving behind 13 tapes to explain why she did it.

Each tape is devoted to a different person in Hannah’s life, and together they plot a path of bullying, betrayal, and most horrifically–a brutal rape.

At points, the series is poignant and heartbreaking.

The characters of Hannah and Clay (her love interest) are well cast and well acted. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the buzz around the show proves what has been obvious for some time: network television has long-ceased to tell stories that folks under fifty even remotely care about. (This too was a suicide of sorts – but less lamented.)

At other points, however, the show is badly broken.

And not just for moral reasons.

ONLY THE CLICHÉS EMERGE UNSCATHED 

With all the talk of death in 13 Reasons, one thing that lives eternal are the wooden stereotypes.

Indeed, most episodes could have come with a disclaimer that despite appearances, “No clichés were harmed in the making of this mixtape.”

“The popular kids are always mean,” says Hannah. “That’s how they get popular.” No lack of nuance there.

The assessment is fairly simple:

  • Athletes are dumb and despicable.
  • Rebels are kind, though misunderstood.
  • And if you own a letter jacket, you’re half Nazi, half Neanderthal.

While acknowledging that there is some truth to the Darwinian dictum that “the strong eat the weak” within the wild of high school, these sorts of oversimplified clichés are enough to make Saved by the Bell seem complex by comparison.

The real problem, though, runs deeper.

THE BACKLASH

While the show’s intent is (ostensibly) to shine a light on the terrible effects of bullying behavior, many experts say that it will have another consequence: more suicides, not less.

In the view of Trevin Wax (here):

In trying to fight bullying, this show lifts up suicide. It gives the main character a noble way out, a martyrdom of sorts, a tragic but glamorous finale (displayed in graphic detail) that goes against virtually every best practice for addressing suicide responsibly.

For Hannah, suicide is a weapon to be wielded against a culture of shame and brutal violence.

Yet what may escape the audience is that this selfish act merely perpetuates the problem. It continues the graceless cycle of violent shaming. And it ends up valorizing the very beast that devoured Hannah in the first place.

To be sure, Hannah’s predators deserve to be punished—severely. Yet the road she chooses merely reiterates the rapist’s verdict: Some lives are expendable; some bodies are mere means to a vindictive end.

In Wax’s even harsher judgment:

Most people think that 13 Reasons Why is about a group of teenagers, who in their selfish actions and inaction, are responsible for killing a fragile young girl. No. This is a show about how a girl, beyond the grave, kills her classmates.

And I’d add: her parents.

While suicide is complex—with contributing factors like mental illness, clinical depression, and even chronic brain injury—13 Reasons gives little hint that such forces account for Hannah’s choice. She’s just a happy girl who was driven to this end by bullies. What choice did she have?

And that’s a dangerous depiction.

THE OTHER HANNAHS

If there is a silver lining to the show, it is the conversation that it may spark (in places like this) regarding how we ought to deal with bullying, sexual assault, and suicide prevention.

And we must.

The very title of this post was stolen from a message by my friend Aaron Stroman as he preached hope to the high school students in his own youth group.

Instead of 13 Reasons Why, he gave “13 Reasons Why Not.”

Because the Gospel claims that even the darkest moments can be made new.

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As a ministry professor, one thing I never expected was the number of students—even from Christian families—who would eventually recount for me a tale that sounds a bit like Hannah’s.

“I was bullied terribly.”

“I was raped in high school.”

“I thought no one would believe me.”

Or worse yet: “No one did.”

Yet unlike Hannah, these women did not take the violent way out. They pursued help and hope and healing.

For such reasons, they are the far more interesting case studies.

They are the ones who deserve an audience.

And I’ve learned far more from them than Hannah Baker.

A year of blogging

A year of blogging

My wife informed me last week that it’s been one year since I started this blog.

Given that, I wanted to take a moment to say thanks to all who’ve read these posts!

It’s been a lot of fun for me and though we’ve now surpassed the one year birthday, I’m still “young, scrappy, and hungry.”

I enjoy academic writing and have slowed my blogging just a bit in order to finish a book-length project, but this site has allowed me to speak to more than just fellow academics, and for that I’m grateful.

Here were the five most popular posts from the past twelve months:

5) The House of Mourning: A piece on grief

  • I wrote this to mark the one year anniversary of the passing of my brother-in-law, Daniel Berg. Yet despite that specific reason, I’ve been touched by how universal are these sentiments. As Nick Wolterstorff writes: “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides.”

4) How Genius Happens: The untold story of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

  • On a daily basis, this post gets more reads than anything I’ve written (probably because it was picked up by a Leonard Cohen fan site). It’s about how good work happens over time, and it attempts to dispel some myths about how easy it is for truly gifted people to make good art.

3) The trouble with millennial bashing (a response to Simon Sinek)

  • This piece weighed in on a favorite punching bag of contemporary culture: the so-called millennials, and it attempted to challenge some (I think) silly assumptions about why we’re all so terrible. It’s about questioning statements that sound smart at first even while they lack solid evidence to back them up. Yes! and Boom!

2) When patriotism goes too far

  • Here I relived my childhood fixation with Lee Greenwood and considered some ways that Christians should and should not be “patriotic.” There was even a saxophone solo.

1) Evangelicals and Trumpism: 

  • My most popular post (by far…) had to do with the biggest item in the news–the 2016 election (surprise, surprise). While I wrote on evangelicals and the election more than once, this piece resonated most and was even picked up by a national news site. Many kind words and some hate mail followed–parts of which even contained punctuation. We all survived.

SOME OTHERS

While the above posts were most popular, I also enjoyed thinking about these issues as well:

  • A post a about Jesus and pagan god of revelry: “Saving Bacchus: How C.S. Lewis redeemed the pagan god of wine and wild parties” (here)
  • A triad of posts on race and policing: (here), (here), and (here).
  • A piece on body image: “The Naked God: The cross and body shame” (here)
  • And a piece on the middle ground between doubt and certainty (that I hope to expand into a book eventually): “Christian, learn to say Perhaps” (here).

Thanks for reading over the past twelve months and I look forward to writing more in the year to come.

~Josh

 

 

Name three books that changed your life

Name three books that changed your life

“Make America read again” might be my catchphrase for this year.

Along those lines, I recently saw a video in which N.T. Wright was asked to share three books that changed his life.

Here it is:

And that got me thinking about what those three books would be for me.

The Bible is too obvious. So I’ve chosen texts from three completely different genres. They’re not necessarily my favorite books, but they did change me in some way.

(Incidentally, I’ve also added new page to the blog (here) to chronicle things I’m currently reading.)

Here they are in no particular order:

  1. Jesus and the Victory of God (N.T. Wright)

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I read Wright’s 741 page monstrosity on Jesus was I was just starting grad school.

It made me want to be a scholar.

I had never encountered a deeply academic work that was so enjoyable to read. No scholar in recent memory has been able to meld the academic, the accessible, and the aesthetic like Wright.

Likewise, one rarely encounters a work that is so orthodox and so innovative at the same time. It showed me that constructive and creative work need not be heterodox.

Wright set forth ideas on Judaism, parables, ancient politics, and Christ’s prophetic identity that I had never heard before. And while I’ve come to disagree with him on certain things, the book provided a preeminent example of what good scholarship should be: deep, readable, faithful, provocative—and never boring.

  1. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (Jared Diamond)

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I was always terrible at math and science.

In fact, I once joked (sarcastically) that I earned a PhD on the Trinity because it was the one discipline in which you could say “3=1” and get away with it.

And while I’m still bad at math, I’ve grown more interested in science.

One reason is that evangelical Christians have sometimes had such an adversarial relationship with the discipline. And this is sad. We need good science. We don’t need pseudo-science. And we badly need to stop treating scientists as if they are enemies.

All facts are friendly if you’re interested in truth.

Along these lines, Diamond offers fascinating scientific explanations for why western European nations ended up with guns, germs, and steel while other cultures (for instance in Africa and the Americas) did not.

Why did western Europeans conquer the Incas and not vice versa?

Why didn’t African nations colonize Great Britain?

His thesis is a rejection of older racist theories, and a detailed look at how our environments shape us.

  1. Till We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis).

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I’ve reread no novel as I have this one.

It might be my favorite work of fiction. And oddly, it is one of Lewis’ least known books. “I’ve never read that one,” people always tell me.

The story is a reworking of the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche, but (as usual) Lewis paints new meaning into a tale that examines beauty, jealously, self-deception, and blood sacrifice.

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

As evidence of how great my wife is, she even bought me a first edition a few years back, complete with a sweet pic on the back cover of Lewis smoking his pipe.

lewis

Now the big question: What three books have deeply influenced you?

For the burning / Unto Us

For the burning / Unto Us

For many, 2016 was a year for the burning.

There were lots of reasons really (see this fantastic post by Steve Holmes), but it was with some of those in mind that I chose to speak this year from Isaiah 9 for our church’s Christmas Eve service.

It is a text that emerges (quite literally) from “utter darkness” (8.22)

Yet it begins with a note of tenacious hope: “Nevertheless” (9.1).

In some ways the gospel is contained in this word. “Nevertheless.” It is a denial of denial and a refusal to paper over the ugly side of life.  Still it also displays a ruthless trust that, in spite of everything, as Sam Cooke sang: “a change is gonna come”

Thus the text goes on:

Every warrior’s boot used in battle

and every garment rolled in blood

will be destined for burning,

will be fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

While I’m not much of a poet, I wanted to translate this promise into the imagery of the 21st century. So here goes:


Unto Us:

Every missile silo, armed and ready

Every bloody sword, oncology ward;

Every shantytown and hospital gown will be fuel for the fire.

 

Every divorce attorney and hospice gurney;

Every crutch, every cane, every bit of pain will be destined for the burning.

Every condolence letter and prisoner’s fetter;

Every funeral home and graveyard stone will be fuel for the fire.

 

Every addict’s craving and politician’s raving

Every surprise pink slip, every medicated IV drip will be destined for the burning

Every lonely dark and bullying remark will be fuel for the fire.

 

Every bombed-out playground in Aleppo

every body-bag, outpost Restrepo

…Boston, Baghdad, Berlin—every percussive echo, will be heard no more.

“For unto us a child is born, and unto us a Son is given

And the Government will be upon his shoulders.”


 

My good friend Josh Wright asked me if he could adapt this for a song and you can hear it here.

 

After Rebuke of Russell Moore, some in SBC move to Censure John the Baptist Next

After Rebuke of Russell Moore, some in SBC move to Censure John the Baptist Next

Nashville, TN: One week after demanding the ouster of Dr. Russell Moore over his campaign-year criticism of Donald Trump (see here), a growing number of Southern Baptist leaders are now lobbying to remove (posthumously) the credentials of John the Baptizer, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.

“Everyone calls him ‘the Baptist’,” said Kentucky pastor Cletus T. Ottweiler, “But I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t represent our values!”

According to reports, the reason for the proposed action stems from a Scriptural paper trail that links Moore’s political statements to those of John and several Old Testament prophets.

“We thought the problem started with Dr. Moore,” said former governor and SBC pastor, Mike Hucklebee. “But after consulting the Bible, we found the trouble goes MUCH deeper! Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah…— All these guys were WAY out of step with the people they were supposed to be representing. At some point ‘the base’ just gets sick of it. I mean, how can you hope to change a culture if you offend the most powerful people!?”

“Thankfully,” said Dallas pastor Mack Graham: “none of those Old Testament guys were officially listed as ‘Baptists’. So we’re focusing on Russell and John right now.”

In defense of John’s ministry, one source went so far as to say that “Among those born of women, there is no one greater!” Yet several high profile SBC pastors have dismissed this as the exaggeration of a close family member.

 

 

 


**The present post is an exercise in satire. For related (and probably funnier) material, see The Babylon Bee**

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

An elegy is a lament for the dead.

And as J.D. Vance describes it, his is a memoir of a family and a culture that is (at best) on life support.

Hillbilly Elegy chronicles the plight of America’s working class whites through the saga of his own family, which was transplanted from Appalachia to a dying factory town in the Ohio Rust Belt.

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P: Naomi Mcculloch

The book skyrocketed to #1 on bestseller lists as it became apparent that Donald Trump had somehow swept these so-called Blue states. And while there are many reasons for this unexpected victory, much credit (or blame) went to the demographic Vance describes.

His memoir shines a light on Rust Belt poverty from the inside—and from the perspective of one who has both deep affection and scathing criticism for the culture of his youth.

I encourage you to buy it here.

FROM THE “HOLLER” TO THE FACTORY 

Like many hill people, Vance’s family left the “holler” to take well-paid factory work up north. Yet as times changed, the steel communities like Middletown, Ohio began hemorrhaging both jobs and hope. And with the addition now of rampant opioid addiction, the hemorrhaging continues.

As a boy, Vance never knew his father, and his mother was a prescription drug addict who rotated boyfriends and husbands more frequently than others rotate tires.

He was raised by “Mamaw”—a foul-mouthed, pistol-packing grandmother who got pregnant at age thirteen, and who had a soft spot for F-bombs and Jesus Christ (both the Savior and the curse word).

Despite her faults, Mamaw saved J.D., and he eventually went on to the Marine Corps, to college, and then to Yale Law School.

AN INDIGTMENT OF ENTITLEMENT

What I expected from the work was more an indictment of the Rust Belt’s failed economy: factories shuttered, jobs outsourced, pensions lost.

I anticipated stories about hard-working men and women who fell afoul of a changing world.

And there was some of this.

But more frequently, Vance pulled no punches in acknowledging the crippling laziness and entitlement that has besieged his friends and family. As he states:

This book is about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it (p. 7).

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness … the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground (pp. 57–58).

To many analysts, terms like “welfare queen” conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole. Readers of this book will realize quickly that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument: I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white (p.8).

We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach (p. 147).

FAMILY MATTERS

At the root of this problem were not just economic forces, but the wholesale breakdown of the family.

Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world. … Virtuous fathers are in short supply in Jackson [KY], but they are equally scarce in the lives of my grandparents’ grandchildren.

When it came to motherly influence, Vance says things were not much better:

“I was nine months old the first time Mamah saw my mother put Pepsi in my bottle.”

As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”

In this environment, Vance claims that a stigma is often attached to those who try to better themselves. Thus they are “too big for their britches” and are ridiculed by friends and relatives.

HILLBILLY CHRISTIANITY

Another takeaway was the role that religion plays within this culture.

As Vance describes it: “[Here] in the middle of the Bible Belt, active church attendance is actually quite low.” And in the steel mill town that he grew up in, it was “about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco.”

Most folks are nominally “Christian,” yet the faith is full of contradictions:

Mamah always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew (p. 189).

For Vance personally, his own faith was ignited (momentarily) when he went to live briefly with his adopted father. This man had been divorced by Vance’s mother, and had now found God with a new family.

I devoured books about young-earth creationism, and joined online chat rooms to challenge scientists on the theory of evolution. I learned about millennialist prophecy and convinced myself that the world would end in 2007. I even threw away my Black Sabbath CDs (p. 95).

In my new church … I heard more about he gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any character trait that a Christian should aspire to have. … Dad’s church required so little of me (p. 98).

As Vance describes it, this was “evangelical” theology. Yet for those of us who study such things, it is frustrating to note the way in which mindless fundamentalism has become synonymous with “evangelical.” Perhaps, as many now argue, the label is beyond repair.

Likewise, the result is easily predictable:

[I didn’t] realize that the religious views I developed during my early years with Dad were sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith (p. 99).

CONCLUSION

In the end, Hillbilly Elegy is an eye-opening look into a culture that (till recently) had gone mostly unseen by those of use who don’t live in it.

It is both love song and lament, both thank-you and Dear John.

Yet for those who want to understand what’s happening across the Rust Belt of this country, it is a required read.

Buy here.

See also, Strangers in Their Own Land (here)