Friday, June 6, 2014

D is for Doohan

Today is June 6th, which makes it the anniversary of "D-Day", the storming of the beaches of Normandy by Allied forces in World War II. There will be a lot of discussion today about the "greatest generation" and some will watch Saving Private Ryan, and many Americans will honor those that day. I thought it would be nice to shine a light not on an American today, but on a Canadian.

In the States, we often fall back on this notion that it was our involvement that won the war, and no matter how true that may be, we mustn't overshadow the contribution of our neighbor to the north. Canadians stormed those beaches, too. I'm going to tell a little bit about one such Canadian. Now, my memory of this is a little fuzzy, as I read it all in his autobiography more than a decade ago. So I hope I don't relate the story wrong.

A young Canadian soldier by the name of James Doohan was there at the beach that day, rushing from the boats and taking cover from fire. Eventually Allied forces took the beach. I don't remember how much of Doohan's story takes place there, or further into the European front. But I do know that shortly after getting there, Doohan was in the midst of battle. He took a bullet to the chest, but just like a scene out of a movie, his life was saved by something in his pocket. It was a cigarette lighter (or cigarette case? I don't remember) that his brother had given him before he left. Stories like that end up in movies because they happen in real life. But as fighting went on, this brave young Canadian was wounded. He was shot in the hand. Bullets riddled his middle finger, shattering the bones inside.

When the fighting had waned, and Doohan had been seen by medics, they told him about his hand. The bones in his finger were such that he was left with a decision. He could opt to have the finger amputated, or keep it knowing it wouldn't heal like it should and he would be unable to bend it properly. Rather than being in a perpetual state of giving a rude gesture, Doohan opted to lose the finger.

And what became of this young nine-fingered man? He went back home, started an acting career and twenty yeras later landed the iconic role of Scotty on Star Trek.

I never knew until I read his book, Beam Me Up, Scotty, that he had served in World War II and had been there on D-Day. I found that fascinating. Usually on the show they kept his right hand out of sight. There are even a couple times when he uses a button on the captain's chair that the producers cut in an insert of a hand double. But there are certain episodes where Doohan's missing finger is visible. Er, invisible. You can see it's not there. The most notable is in "The Trouble With Tribbles".
James Doohan became one of the most beloved characters in what became an enduring franchise. He provided many voices for the animated series, reprised his role in seven feature films and an episode of The Next Generation, and invented the few Klingon phrases spoken in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Doohan died in 2005, but I thought it fitting to honor him today. While many of us are aware of his service to the Enterprise, on this day I remember his service to his country, and to the world.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Questions

I saw the new X-Men prequel/sequel this weekend. This is not a review of the film, nor a discussion about just the film itself. It was a good movie, and nice to see Bryan Singer return to the X-Men movie universe he built, as well as correct some of what went off the rails without him. But as much as I liked the Back to the Future ending of the movie and the things it set right, this movie and more importantly the gaps between movies leave me with lingering questions about the film universe and its timeline that I fear will never be answered. I even took the time to watch all 6 other X-Men movies prior to the new one, so it is fresh in my mind. I thought I'd post about some of the issues that remain and bother me. There will be only mild spoilers for Days of Future Past; I'll try not to ruin it for anyone. However, all other films are fair game. Here we go:

1. First Class totally messed up the timeline. I enjoyed First Class a lot as a movie, and it works on its own. If it were the first X-Men movie, I would have no problem with it. But continuity that was important for the first three films was ignored (and thus the timeline compressed) to make a more dramatic arc for the movie. I'm going to detail a number of these issues below, but suffice to say that for the most part, even including X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the timeline made sense. First Class threw it out whenever it suited it. Did it make for a good movie? Yes. But it makes for TERRIBLE movie series continuity. Why does this matter? Because Days of Future Past is both a sequel to the original trilogy and to First Class. The future versions of Xavier and Magneto have memories of the events of First Class and Days of Future Past. So how is this possible, when it conflicts with the prior canon? One of the only possibilities is that there has been some time travel between The Last Stand and Days of Future Past that messed up events and created the First Class timeline. But if that's the case, who went back in time, how did they change things, and why?

Now let's get to the discrepancies:
2. Xavier and Erik met when Charles was seventeen, according to the first movie. In First Class, they meet after Charles gets his degree. So unless he's insanely bright and really was 17, that was changed.

3. Mutations come at puberty... or do they? Jean Grey says in the first movie that the mutations caused by the "Mutant X" gene manifest at puberty. But in First Class, Charles seems to be just a kid when he meets Mystique. Maybe he's not got his powers yet, but she certainly does and we see her in blue girl form. She definitely appears pre-pubescent (and I wonder a bit how they got away with showing a naked little girl onscreen like that. Sure, the actress is covered in blue and we can't see any of her naughty bits, but the character is still standing there stark naked. If she weren't blue, we'd call that child pornography). This could be new and she could be right on the cusp, but it's curious. I won't delve into all the curiosities about her or the mundane logical questions about mutant personal hygiene in this post, so don't worry. Just the broad issues. In Days of Future Past, we are told Xavier started to get his telepathic powers when he was 9, though it wasn't for another few years that he understood them. Maybe Charles is an early bloomer, but 9 seems pretty early for a boy to enter puberty, especially in the 1940s.

4. Is Mystique's backstory the same? In The Last Stand, she refers to the name Raven as her "slave name", having now fully accepted Mystique as her identity. We see some of this identity forming through her interactions with Erik in First Class. That's all well and good. But we are also told that her family abandoned her when she was young. So how long was she wandering about as a blue mutant girl stealing before Charles invited her to stay? First Class makes no mention at all of her family. So it's possible that is still her past. But I don't know. Also, when Raven is cured in The Last Stand, her hair is black, yet whenever she feigned a normal appearance in all prior movies, both as Rebecca Romijn and Jennifer Lawrence, she is a blonde. So is Raven a blonde, or is her hair actually raven black and she just prefers to be blonde? Meanwhile, Mystique is a redhead!

5. Who built Cerebro? Xavier states quite clearly in the first movie that he built Cerebro and Magneto helped him. This is an important plot point in X2 when Magneto knows how to alter it and gives the plans for how to build it to Stryker from memory, since he had built it. But in First Class, Cerebro was built by Hank McCoy. Again, this might not seem like a big deal, but as it becomes instrumental to the plot of X2, it certainly is. Did Xavier and Magneto just add finishing touches? Or was Hank's a prototype and then Xavier and Magneto built a new one at the school?

6. Helmets that block telepaths. In X-Men, Xavier finds that he cannot reach out to Magneto's mind because he has somehow found a way to block him. We later learn that it's because Magneto wears a fancy helmet that somehow blocks out telepaths. This is new information to Xavier. And yet in First Class, Sebastian Shaw does this exact thing and Xavier and the kids have to craft their plan around finding him without touching his mind and then getting the helmet off. So it's already a stretch to suggest that Xavier wouldn't wonder if something like that were responsible. But then Erik takes that helmet for himself when he becomes Magneto. And as is evident in Days of Future Past, Xavier is fully aware that when Magneto wears it, he is blocked. So even though Magneto wears a different helmet in the other movies, there's no reason for Charles not to think "Hmm, I wonder if he's got a new helmet or something" instead of "I have no idea why I can't contact Erik".

7. Who is Quicksilver's father? This is a minor spoiler for the new movie. We meet a new character, Quicksilver, and it is heavily implied that Magneto is his father (just like in the comics). In the movie he's at least 15 years old, possibly older, and it's set in 1973. So when would Erik have met his mother and produced this kid? Erik was in a German concentration camp and then under the thumb of Sebastian Shaw for the duration of the 1940s. First Class is set in 1962. So what was Erik doing in the early '50s?

8. Just who is Emma Frost? Emma Frost is a mutant girl who has diamond-hard skin. In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, there is a young girl who escapes with Cyclops from Alkali Lake. She is said to be Kayla's sister (Kayla is Logan's girlfriend) and she has diamond skin. She is even listed in the credits as "Kayla's Sister/Emma". This is sometime in the 1980s (or is it? I'll get to that). But then First Class came out, and it had an Emma Frost played by January Jones. There is no way this is the same girl. Especially because in DOFP, she's dead. So why are there two Emma Frosts? Now, I know that three different actresses have played Kitty Pryde, but she was always the same character. This is different. Why even include Emma in First Class when her role could have been filled by any mutant? The diamond effect was better in Wolverine anyway.

9. Bryan Singer wants to pretend Origins: Wolverine never happened. Yes, there are some visual conflicts between the Weapon X stuff that Singer shot for X-Men and X2 and the way it happened in Wolverine. But it's still basically the same event; Stryker gives Logan adamantium bones. But as the Emma Frost point illustrates, Singer is basically pretending the movie never happened. Watching DOFP, it's clear he wants to act like that movie doesn't exist. The problem is, we see flashbacks to The Wolverine, the recent film, in DOFP. And in that movie, Logan was haunted in his dreams by his past including Kayla, the girl from Origins. So if The Wolverine is canon, then at least Kayla is canon too.

10. When was Logan in 'Nam? Or was he? This leads to a major issue of timelines for me. In the opening credits of Origins, Logan and Victor Creed (Sabertooth) fight together in war after war, from the Civil War to two World Wars and finally what seems to be Vietnam. At the end of the sequence, they are captured in Vietnam, put before a firing squad (but cannot die), and then holed up in prison until Stryker pulls them out. This is roughly six years before Logan gets his adamantium (or at least, six years before he meets Kayla). So Logan has to have been in Vietnam toward the later side of the war. Days of Future Past is set in 1973 and the end of the war is an important plot point. But Logan isn't there in a prison; he's in New York for some reason. Why is he there? Why didn't he go back to Canada? Anyway, I guess it could be that he was let out and the mutant gang did their big mission together in the early '70s before the end of the war and then he went back to the States. But it's curious. Especially because of...

11. Stryker. We see a young Stryker in 'Nam in Days of Future Past. The Stryker we meet in Origins is definitely older-looking than this one. So if the events seen in Origins took place before these events, Stryker seems to have de-aged. I mean, I get having different actors and all and I can pretend to a point,  but it's like Singer was consciously picking a younger guy to fit in with his X2 Stryker and ignore Origins.

12. The teaser of The Last Stand. This is a biggie. The third movie opens with a flashback to "twenty years ago" when Xavier first recruited a young Jean Grey for his school. He arrives at her house with Erik, who he's still on good terms with at this time and they recruit her together. The implication is that Erik is working at the school, or at least helping Charles with admissions. This flatly contradicts that they have been at odds since 1962. But when this movie was made, there was no prior canon to violate. They had built the school and Cerebro together and then had a falling out, but we didn't know when. First Class messed that up. But secondly, Xavier can walk in this opening, and has his powers. We don't know why he's in a wheelchair later, but at least he could walk as of 20 years ago (somewhere around the 1980s). But he had a debilitating spinal injury in First Class that put him in a wheelchair. Days of Future Past partially tries to ret-con this by giving him a serum that temporarily eases the pain on his spine allowing him to walk, but which takes away his powers (why the two should be related is never properly explained). So for Xavier to walk in the DOFP chronology, he can't use his powers. But he has both in The Last Stand, as well as in Origins. Even pretending Origins never happened, The Last Stand is canon. We know this because it's referred to in both The Wolverine and DOFP. So how in the heck de we reconcile this discrepancy with the First Class timeline unless that past was overwritten at some point?

13. Hank's cure. It's interesting that we were first introduced to Beast in The Last Stand, a movie that was about a cure for the mutants. Beast said this wouldn't go over well in the mutant community. Then in First Class, we find Hank had been working on a cure of his own to give himself a more normal appearance. It backfired and caused the blue monster side of him. In Days of Future Past, he's altered a new formula to keep this monster side at bay, but it still comes out every now and again. Why? And why does Kelsey Grammer Hank later on not use this formula to look normal?

Anyway, those are the main timeline discrepancies that I can think of. Near as I can follow, events seen in the films follow like this until the ending of the recent film:
1845: Young Logan has bone claws and flees Canada with Victor Creed (Origins: Wolverine)
1860s: Logan and Victor fight in American Civil War (Origins: Wolverine)
1910s: Logan and Victor fight in World War I (Origins: Wolverine)
1944: Logan and Victor storm the beach in World War II (Origins: Wolverine)
          Erik moves a metal gate in a concentration camp trying to save his mother (X-Men, First Class)
1945: Logan is POW in Japan when the bomb is dropped (The Wolverine)
1940s: Charles meets Raven, Shaw starts working with Erik (First Class)
1962: The main events of X-Men: First Class
1970s: Logan and Victor serve in Vietnam, captured and "executed" by firing squad (Origins: Wolverine)
           Logan and Victor are freed from Vietnamese prison by Stryker, and go on mission with several other mutants (Origins: Wolverine)
1973: After Vietnam War, Mystique kills Bolivar Trask but is captured. Her DNA is taken and used to create the Sentinels years later. Logan is living in New York, having just slept with some guy's girl. (Days of Future Past)
1980-something: "six years" after what we last saw in the Origins movie, Logan is living in Canada with Kayla.
"20 years" before The Last Stand: Xavier and Magneto recruit Jean Gray for the school
1980-something: Logan gets adamantium claws. Xavier recruits Scott Summers for his school (Origins: Wolverine)
               Logan drinks in a bar in Japan (one of several end teasers for Origins: Wolverine)
1990-something: Angel trying to hide his wings from his dad (The Last Stand)
"not too distant future": original X-Men trilogy
2000-something: The Wolverine
Two years later: Logan approached by Xavier and Magneto at airport (The Wolverine)
2023: Sentinels attack everyone (Days of Future Past)

Now back to some other random questions:
14. Sabertooth. Are there two Sabertooths (Saberteeth?)? Sabertooth was in the very first X-Men movie. He didn't say much. He was a hairy henchman of Magneto who attacks Logan on the road. But later on we meet Victor Creed in Origins and he and Wolverine have a whole history together. He's meant to be Sabertooth, though never called that by name in the film. So are there two separate Sabertooth characters and Victor is not meant to be Sabertooth? Or did he change over the years, and it is the same character? If so, why does he not recognize Logan... or does he? He does take Wolverine's dog tags as if they mean something to him. Some might ask why Logan doesn't remember him, but he has amnesia about his past, so that's fine. But even given that, where is Victor Creed during Days of Future Past, or The Wolverine? Why is Logan alone in Japan in the latter?

15. Regarding species and evolution. All the movies, especially the original trilogy, talk about mutants in terms of human evolution, as if they are a new species. All mutation is said to be the cause of one mutant gene, and we learn it is passed on by the father. But for all Magneto's talk, this is bad science and they are NOT a new species, at least not yet. Their mutations only manifest at puberty; I don't think we can say that of a mutation that denotes a separate species. These mutations seem to have endless varieties. So there is no one "mutant species". When we classify a different species, I doubt we would put things that fly, things that swim, things that shoot fire, things that are metamorphs, etc all under one same "species" umbrella. There do seem to be certain types of traits (telepathy, teleportation, weather control, strength) that whole groups of mutants have. So maybe there are several different mutant species developing, but certainly not just one, as if all mutants are the same. Furthermore, as I understand it, doesn't a species have to be reproductively isolated to be classified as a separate species? Can mutants not breed with normal humans? This seems untrue because Quicksilver would seem to be a human/mutant product. Does that make him sterile? It just seems to early and to pat to just call it evolution. And doesn't natural selection and Darwinian evolution generally require geographic isolation and environmental factors to foster these changes? There's no explanation for the sheer number and variety of the different mutations.

16. How recent is this phenomenon? Jean Gray makes it seem like a relatively new thing in the first movie. Indeed, it's become a real political problem. We know there are older mutants, and that it goes back at least a century. But Days of Future Past makes an issue of it in 1973. So maybe the government just tried to keep it hush hush for decades until some "mutants rights" activism sprang up in the not too distant future. But that doesn't explain Apocalypse. The final teaser at the end of Days of Future Past is a tease for the next X-Men movie, which seems to suggest there may have been ancient mutants. How long has this been going on?

17. What happened in Dealey Plaza? SPOILER ALERT! In Days of Future Past, Magneto has been confined for assassinating JFK (cleverly suggesting the "magic bullet" was because of him). But that still suggest Oswald was the shooter. If Erik was involved, how did they catch him? He claims he wasn't trying to kill JFK but to save him. So what led them to take him into custody? How did they link him to the event, especially after arresting Oswald? And how were they able to get him in custody without him escaping? It's also curious that back in the 1970s they were smart enough to use plastic guns and such, when it took three movies for them to figure this out in the original trilogy. Oh, and he was saving JFK because he was a mutant? What was his mutation?

18. What year did Wolverine get his claws? The difficult thing about placing the timeline of the series is that the first trilogy is set in "the not too distant future", but we don't know what that means. We know that Days of Future Past is further into the future and is roughly 50 years after 1973. So that means the original trilogy has to be before 2023, and likely after or around 2000, when the first film was released. So far so good. Xavier says that Logan lost his memory "15 years ago". So when is that? is it 15 years prior to 2000, putting it around 1985? In Origins, an onscreen legend reads "six years later" between the events with Stryker in the '70s and living with Kayla in Canada. The later events all seem to take place around the same time. So if Logan was in Vietnam and then got his claws six years later, that could only really be very early '80s (or as early as 1979). It could be later if he were a prisoner of war for awhile before Stryker freed him, but Days of Future Past throws that out. Even if we go with 1985, is that correct? Or should it be later? We don't know when the "not too distant future" is, so we don't know how far back to count. Then the Last Stand teaser is "twenty years" before those events, but we don't know how much time has passed from the first movie to the third. So was Jean recruited before Logan got metal claws, or around the same time?

19. What's up with Storm? In the first movie she has an African accent, but that disappears in all subsequent movies. What happened there? And with each movie her hair gets shorter. Is she going to be bald in Apocalypse?

20. Rogue and the cure. Rogue gets the mutant cure in The Last Stand. At the end of the movie, she seems to be normal now, so she can finally touch Bobby. This was something that they actually shot two ways, so that they could end with her having not gone through with it. But they did. At the end of the movie, we see Magneto, who had been injected with the cure by Wolverine, has started to get his power back. So was the cure only temporary? If this is so, does that mean Rogue is no longer cured? SPOILER ALERT: Rogue appears at the end of Days of Future Past and we see her hold hands with Bobby, but I couldn't tell if she was wearing gloves or not. If she cured? Wasn't that whole part of the timeline changed? Speaking of which, she had the white stripe in her hair and she only got that from the events of the first movie. So those events still happen, even in the altered timeline?

21. What happened between Last Stand and The Wolverine? Phoenix blasts Charles Xavier into a million pieces in The Last Stand. But at the end of the movie we find out he has transferred his consciousness into the body of a vegetable in the hospital. This man was born without any brain function; just a living mindless hulk. Is this supposed to be a mutation, or just a convenient plot device? Now leaving aside the logistic questions of how Xavier managed to perform this transfer, why does he look like himself again when he appears at the end of The Wolverine? He's basically back to his old body, wheelchair and all. How the heck did that come about? Logan even asks, "How is this possible?" and Charles says something cryptic before it cuts to black. We never get an answer to that question. I hoped we would, but we still don't know what the heck happened in that time. And this is at least two years later.

22. The Wolverine teaser. Speaking of that teaser at the end of The Wolverine, which seemed to be set-up for Days of Future Past, what with the ads for Trask Industries and such, what was the point of it? Xavier and Magneto meet Wolverine at the airport to ask for his help. But help with what? Fighting the Sentinels? The war doesn't seem to have started yet. And when we see him in Days of Future Past, Logan has a bit of white hair, suggesting at least some time has passed from this point (or has it?). So what was that teaser all about?

23. Why does he have adamantium claws? In The Wolverine, Logan's adamantium claws are chopped off by the Silver Samurai and when he regenerates, he is back to bone claws (which makes some sense). Even in the airport scene (which is "two years later"), he still has bone claws. But in the future scenes of Days of Future Past, which are in continuity with that movie and set after it, Logan has adamantium claws again. Now, I know it makes for a good image and a way to track past Logan from future Logan for him to have bone claws in the past and metal claws in the future. But since he was back to bone claws when last we saw him, why the heck does he have metal claws again now? Does his adamantium just eventually regenerate too (which I suppose is possible if we assume he were to sustain some sort of major skeletal injury or something)? If so, then how? And why now when it hadn't in two years? If this is not the case, then where did the adamantium claws come from this time? I can't imagine he would tell them to give him metal claws again.

24. White hair? If Wolverine regenerates and thus is essentially ageless, why is his hair just now going gray? He's been roughly the same appearance for the past 150 years, so why is his hair aging? Unless it's not due to age at all, but to shock or something like Rogue. But even then, you'd think his body would heal. Hair of course is dead once it's left the body, so maybe it can go white and then it falls out and grows back brown? It's just weird.

25. How old is Toad? Along with Sabertooth, Magneto had a henchman named Toad in the first movie. We see the Toad character again, with a somewhat different appearance, in Days of Future Past and he's a Vietnam War vet. He certainly doesn't look that old in X-Men. Is Toad another long-lived mutant? Curious that Bryan Singer chose to use this character again in this way.

26. The general unpreparedness of the authorities. If Mystique was well-known for killing Trask in 1972, and if Trask has had her DNA for decades working secretly to make the Sentinels, why is everyone so shockinly unprepared for her in the first three X-Men films. Yes, she can be anyone, but why is that paranoia not a bigger selling point for the mutant registration bill? And if they had her in custody in the 1970s, how was she able to get out and pal around with Magneto later on? Did he break her out? How and when? And I've already mentioned the whole plastic guns issue.

27. Are both Wolverine teasers canon? When X-Men Origins: Wolverine was released, there were two different end-credits teasers, depending on the print. One of them is the Deadpool ending, with Weapon XI's arm finding its severed head which then says "Shh..." This is the ending on the DVD. But there was another ending, which showed Logan in Japan at a bar. He is asked if he's drinking to forget, and he says "No, I'm drinking to remember." This ending appeared on some prints in the theater, as well as the OnDemand version of the movie. This has to be shortly after his amnesia, which means it cannot be set during The Wolverine. Originally, the plan was to do the Japan movie with Wolverine, but then the studio wanted to do an origin movie first. So the teaser was then meant to set up the second Wolverine solo movie, which would be the Japan story. But after years in development, the Japan movie finally came out set after The Last Stand, leaving this scene lingering as a curiosity. So if we don't wipe out Origins completely, did this scene happen, or do we just pretend it never existed? Why was Logan in Japan again, and how long was he there? What led him there?

28. So what caused the changes in the timeline that we see at the end? This is going to be major SPOILER ALERT territory. At the end of Days of Future Past, they succeed in changing history, and the terrible Sentinel future is wiped out. This makes sense. But when Logan awakes in the new present,  much more has been altered. The events of The Last Stand (or at least some of them) have been erased. Jean Gray and Cyclops are alive and well. Beast is still working at the school. Logan teaches history. What happened in the middle years for these things to change? Rogue is still at the school and still has her gray streak so it's not all different. It's an ending very much like Back to the Future, and like that movie has great things that happen for no reason. It's nice that George is an author and Lorraine's not a drunk, but how does that mean Marty gets the fancy new truck he wanted? Maybe they'll deal with this in a following movie, but I don't yet see how saving Nixon's life means Jean Gray doesn't go crazy and kill everyone.

There are probably other issues that I've forgotten, but that highlights some of the many questions I have trying to make sense of what happened between the movies. And some might say, "Why does it matter? Just enjoy the movie!" To which I answer, if a movie is ABOUT time travel, I don't think it's ridiculous to wonder about the timeline! I doubt many of these questions will ever be answered, but I'd like to know if the creators have any explanations in mind, especially regarding the events from The Last Stand to The Wolverine to Days of Future Past.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


It is now Easter Sunday.

For many of us that means church in the morning. For some, it means brunch. For other it means egg hunts and candy. And for others, it doesn't mean anything, it's just a Sunday. What does Sunday mean to people? Again, for some it's the Lord's Day. For some, it's the night the tune in AMC to watch The Walking Dead.

Walking Dead is not on tonight; AMC is running the final season of Mad Men right now, but since it is Easter Sunday I thought that was a good time to talk about zombies.

The origin of the word zombie is not as much related to the current idea of them in pop culture. The term comes from voodoo, and applies to someone under some enchantment that makes him a mindless, soulless automaton, or a re-animated corpse. The notion of a re-animated corpse is the one that stuck, but you'll see the other sort of zombification in movies like I Walked With a Zombie or The Serpent and the Rainbow. In modern understanding, a zombie is the living dead, a body that cannot die, usually hungry for others. Often now this "zombie" state is seen as infectious, and a bite from a zombie will make you a zombie too.

Among some skeptics and atheists, Jesus is sometimes mocked as being a kind of King of Zombies, because of his resurrection. But I say, in a way, he is; not a king of soulless bodies under voodoo curses, but a king of those who once were dead and yet shall live.

Easter is the day that Christians celebrate that Jesus was risen to life again from death. He left his tomb empty and appeared to those who followed him. For 40 days, he continued living and being seen by many, including a large crowd of people, until vanishing into the sky. I understand why it may be hard for skeptics to believe, and seems like foolishness. But while you may not believe it happened, it is undeniable that Jesus' followers DID believe it happened. They claimed to have seen him. They told others they had seen him. The spread of Christianity is due to the resurrection belief. Peter and Paul make a point of saying that they weren't following "carefully designed fables" but that they had seen him with their own eyes. Now, you may also discount the gospels as written decades after Jesus lived and died, and therefore fabrications after the fact. But the letters of Paul are authentic and some pre-date the gospels as we have them. They attest to early Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection. Paul himself claims to have seen him; it was the moment of his conversion. I cannot doubt that Paul saw something that changed his life. We date the earliest of Paul's writings at around 50 A.D. (or C.E.) Assuming Jesus died somewhere around 30 A.D., that's only twenty years later. And the earlier gospels come only a few decades after that. Which means that if people did see Jesus after his resurrection, some of these witnesses would still be living. There are people today who continue to deny there was a Holocaust in Nazi Germany, but the living witnesses have been attesting to it for decades. And that was only about 70 years ago. There's still controversy about the JFK assassination, and that occurred just fifty years ago. You are free to disagree with the position of believers, but you can't write it off as fairy tales written long after the fact. It wasn't all that long, when you think about it, and certainly not late enough that any witnesses couldn't corroborate it. I choose to believe it. There's a moment in an early X-Files episode where Mulder is asked, "Why do people like you continue to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary?" and Mulder replies, "Because all the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive."

So I want to call attention to one point put in Matthew's account. It says that when Jesus died, there was an earthquake, and this earthquake opened up graves. He then says that some who had died rose out of their graves after Jesus' resurrection and appeared to many (Matthew 27: 51-53). So not only was Jesus himself risen that day, but others were brought to life as well, testifying Jesus' resurrecting power over death. His resurrection was the firstfruits of our eventual resurrection, and the dead who rose in Matthew are a small reminder of that; that his life brings others to life. I don't know how long these zombie Jews were walking around. They must have died again at some point. But we can have hope that if the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in us, he will raise us as well.

I used the word "zombie" somewhat jokingly above, but the people in Matthew were likely not mindless hulks looking for brains. But in Christ, we live forever. Death does not finish us. Modern zombies generally are unstoppable (unless you shoot them in the head or something), and so are we in a way in Christ. But we aren't under some evil enchantment robbing us of our will. In water baptism, we picture ourselves dying to ourselves and our old flesh, buried with Christ and raised again with him. So we are in a way a kind of walking dead, dead to the things of this world and single-minded in purpose: to follow Christ. Like zombies, we are not overcome by death, but we shall overcome the world. We seek to penetrate the minds and hearts of the lost in Christ, those dead in their sins, that we might give them the life that we have. Christianity was designed to be infectious.

So the song I chose for this final essay of Easter is Audio Adrenaline's "Some Kind of Zombie." We are dead to sin, walking in the life of Christ. We have hope because of Christ's resurrection. It is the proof that resurrection will come. As Paul wrote (and I'm paraphrasing, but it's in 1 Corinthians 15), if Christ is not risen, then this whole thing is pointless, we are still in our sins, and we should be pitied! But I believe he is risen, and it's not pointless. We can overcome the death of this world. The day is coming when all death shall be destroyed for good. Until then, we walk on as former dead men revived by the Spirit of God to make all the followers we can. But we are not decrepit, decaying bodies slowly wearing away. And we cannot be taken out by the enemy's killshots, because Christ is our head, and he is powerful and indestructible. In a way, we are like some kind of zombie, but of a kind never encountered in some movie. It's Easter, and there is life in Jesus.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Awaken the Dawn

I didn't know at first what the theme or the song for today was going to be. There's very little in scripture about the Saturday before Easter. It does say that was the day that those who had Jesus crucified were concerned about his statement about rising in three days. So on the Sabbath, they stationed soldiers at the tomb in case some of the zealous followers of Jesus attempted to steal the body or something. Meanwhile all the Jews were resting and observing the Sabbath as far as we know. I did find it interesting that it was Jesus' enemies rather than his followers who were thinking about Jesus' predicted resurrection and taking action. So I thought there could be something in there to write about. Then I thought about a day between occurrences, where your God is dead and nothing is happening. I considered using the U2 song "Wake Up, Dead Man." But this felt like repeating themes I'd already dealt with.

So instead, the song for today is actually the song that inspired this whole week's project. I was walking home from the library and was reminded of this song. It called to mind the idea of "rising" and what that means in the context of Easter. So today's song is "Let it Rise".

I decided that for today's theme, we would look at some of the pagan origin of Easter. The word "Easter" comes from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon Eastre or Eostre. It's related to the Germanic Ostara. From what little research I did, Eastre was a Teutonic goddess of spring, celebrated by pagan peoples in pre-Christian Western Europe. There's very little surviving documentation of some of these things in pre-Christian Europe. In fact, there's exactly one source that mentions anything at all about Eostre, and that's a 7th Century source, after these lands had been converted. However, etymologists and philologists have examined early European language and have come to some general deductions.

From what we can tell, Eastre was a goddess of spring, in so far as there was a month dedicated to her. Much as our days of the week are named after Norse gods or veneration of heavenly bodies, so too our month of April was once Eosturmonath, that is, Eostre-month. It has been theorized that Eastre was a goddess of the dawn. The root whence comes her name means "dawn", and our present English word "east" likely also derives from the direction of the sunrise. I'll try not to get too heavy into words and things, which I find fascinating, but which can be dry or confusing to others. But it seems likely that she was some sort of bringer of the dawn for these European pagans.

It's worthwhile to think about Jesus and our modern Easter celebration in connection to the rising of the dawn. For while there are Christians who balk at the name Easter (preferring, for example, Resurrection Day for their church services), the name has stuck and there are interesting parallels to be made. Jesus rises from the dead very early in the morning, much like the sun itself. In fact, he rises on the day pagans chose to honor the sun: Sunday. I want to be clear: I am not promoting some kind of Christian paganism saying we should worship the sun. Nor am I saying it to write off Christianity as just another silly belief structure with the same basic ideas as superstitious paganism. But metaphorically, Jesus rises like the sun on Easter morning and I find that compelling.

This connection continues in scripture with Messianic prophecies in Malachi. Malachi speaks of the coming Day of the Lord and says that to those who fear the Lord, God will send the "Sun of Righteousness" who shall "arise with healing in his wings". Some translations are on the side of it just being the sun itself, and mention healing in its rays or beams, while other translations personify this Sun of Righteousness and speak of it with male pronouns. If we take the personified Sun as the truer reading, than it may be referring to Jesus. This is the reading that Charles Wesley took when he wrote the popular Christmas carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." The third verse begins, "Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in His wings." If this reading is correct, then the Bible pictures Jesus as being like the sun, rising with healing for God's people. Doesn't this fit nicely with Easter, on which Jesus rises early in the morning? In fact, Wesley's whole song reflects an idea of the sky ringing with God's glory. He didn't write the lyric "Hark, the herald angels sing". After all, the Bible never says the angels sang, and later the lyric says "with angelic hosts proclaim". What Wesley wrote was "Hark how all the welkin ring," welkin being an old-style word for the skies. It's a song about how at Christ's coming, the heavens ring with glory, and then Wesley invites us to join in with the "triumph of the skies."

While we don't want to begin actually worshipping the heavenly bodies, the Bible does say that the heavens declare the glory of God. We don't worship the creation itself, but it does point to the Creator. Every morning when that sun rises brings new mercies. In several psalms, David writes of how he will sing praise to the Lord. He writes "I will awaken the dawn!" At the rising of the day he will praise the Lord and perhaps his very praise begins the day. It's a strong verbal image. What I find really cool is that David writes this from a cave, after being delivered from Saul. David was in hiding in a cave, and his life was uncertain. But he was able to emerge and say "Awake, my glory!" Jesus, the Son of David, was entombed in a cave, and awoke to glory with the dawn on Easter Sunday.

Other random secular symbols and traditions of Easter have unknown origins. We don't know that Eastre was a fertility goddess, but may have had some connection to life and spring. But we maintain eggs and rabbits for this season, natural reminders of the propagation of life. For Christians, Easter is also about the newness of life. It is about a second birth. The Christian message is also one of propogation, not of literal reproduction, but of making disciples, and thus spiritually creating more sons and daughters of God.

There are neopagans today who have reverted to acknowledging Ostara or Eastre in their practice. I pray they come to serve the true Sun of Righteousness. "The heavens declare the glory of God" say the Scriptures, so this Easter season let's allow that glory to rise among us. Not every "rising" this season need to be a physical getting up or reviving from death. There's also the simple rising of a light in the darkness, of songs that rise to heaven. We don't have to venerate some Teutonic goddess this holiday season, but I encourage you to look at the sunrise on Easter morning as a reminder of the Light of the World that we worship. I'm reminded of an old Sunday School song that says, "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam." We can spread that light like a city on a hill, and spread life abundantly throughout our land. THAT's a fertility message I can get behind. On the Sabbath, all is at rest. But the next week brings a new start, and joy comes in the morning. May the literal sunrise remind you of the Son-rise, and inspire songs of praise. Join the triumph of the skies! Oh, let it rise!

With These Hands

This is my post for Thursday and Friday, and it will deal with events that lead up to and include the crucifixion.

The song I've chosen for today is "My City of Ruins" by Bruce Springsteen. In keeping with my overall theme of rising for this Easter, I chose something from his album, The Rising. Springsteen put out this album in the wake of September 11, 2001. "My City of Ruins" is very much a response to those events, and he performed it live on television as part of the benefit concert America: A Tribute to Heroes. I remember I didn't much like the song at the time, mainly because everything was wall-to-wall 9/11 and I grew tired of it. And the song started being used too often on television and such. But a few years later, I came to really like it. The point is, the song was born from a time of confusion, loss and despair. And that's the sort of place we find Jesus' disciples on Good Friday.

Springsteen gives us an image of a church with music playing and open doors, but there's no one inside. Similarly, the disciples who began the night together having seder were soon scattered, and their mission forgotten. Without Jesus, they didn't know what to do next. Some followed after and watched him die, others ran home. How do you go on when things fall apart? It's easy to say "I'll die with you!" but when the moment comes, fear takes over.

Jesus himself had his moments in Gethsemane of prayer to at least ask if there was some other way. He had to pray for the strength to follow through just as any of us do, and his task was a lot harder.

My favorite part of the song is the final repetition of the chorus. "With these hands, I pray for the faith, I pray for the strength, I pray for your love." The hands of Jesus did a lot over that day. With those hands, Jesus washed his disciples' feet and taught them humility. With those hands he served them supper, and instituted a memorial for himself. With those hands he confronted his betrayer, when they both dipped the bread. With those hands he healed the servant's ear which Peter cut off. With those hands he prayed for his disciples even before praying for himself. And with those hands he hung and bled for the redemption of sins.

It was a dark time for Jesus as well as for his disciples, and it's important not to make light of that or forget it. He cried out "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Now, scholarship and opinion on whether God actually forsook him that day differs and I'm not going to get into that debate here. But Jesus certainly had to be feeling much of what the Psalmist did for him to quote Psalm 22 (and he was well-versed enough in Scripture to know he was quoting it). And yet despite all of that, he still said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." He prayed for the people. That's the faith, and the strength, and the love of God.

One thing I like about the live version of "My City of Ruins" is that there's a minor lyrical difference from the album version. On the album, it's "I pray for the faith, for the strength, for your love" and then they repeat. But on the live version he also sings, "I pray for the lost, Lord." And that encapsulates Christ on the cross.

Times of ruin are scary and it can be hard to focus on what to do next. The disciples were chosen by Jesus to do his work. But it was hard to remember that mission that day, when they were in fear for their own lives. "Tell me how do I begin again?" It was literally a dark time, with the sky being unnaturally dark in the middle of the day. But Springsteen reminds us, do some praying and rise up. We all grow weary of watching and praying, but the time comes to rise up. Easter isn't about sinking into darkness; it's about rising up. "You do not have to go down in defeat for one split second," said healing evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman. The church was designed to be the hands of Christ on earth. So with these hands, we can pray, and build, and heal, and serve, and meet, and save. If you need strength today, ask for it.

Paul writes about all these themes in Romans 8, and I would encourage you to read that whole chapter, but in his concluding points he reminds us, "Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us." How does one become more than a conqueror? Perhaps because we don't just confront our enemy and overcome him; we then go out and heal. We aren't just taking, we are taking back and restoring. We cast down the evil overlords, and we work to free the people who were enslaved. We conquer not only our own oppressors, but are empowered to help others.

It's important in moments of despair that feel like Good Friday to remember it is not the end. Good Friday was an end, but it was not a bad end. It was God besting the devil at his own game. Things don't just stop when Jesus was laid in the tomb, not matter what the Jefferson Bible says. Jesus said, "It is finished", but he didn't mean, "Oh well, I guess that's all over now." The word "finished" there is more about a sense of completion. Some versions may read "accomplished". There are Jewish translators that use the Hebrew word "nishlam" which means to bring to completion. Interestingly, from the same root you get a verb for paying back a debt. (You can read more about fascinating insight into these roots here.) The crucifixion was the culmination of Jesus' work, not his destruction. I like the final lines of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, where he writes (and this is probably not the exact quote, but very close): "Jesus said, 'It is accomplished!' and it was as if he had said, 'It has just begun.'" Think whatever you want about the rest of that work, but that's a killer last line, and it's true. It began the work of new life that would be fulfilled on Sunday, and it began the new age of redemption for all men.

So don't be despairing in your city of ruins. Rise up! I'll conclude this piece with a song I used to use for closing Good Friday services. Remember that when it seems like Friday night, Sunday is on the way!

(This one's a cute animated version.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

This Blood's For You

Time got away from me today because I had to do laundry. My theme for Thursday really bleeds into Friday, so I planned to write one piece for both days. I still will, though it probably won't go up until tomorrow. But in the meantime, here's a song for Good Friday that needs no further commentary.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What's Your Mind Set On?

This was supposed to go up yesterday, but the day got away from me.

The subject for today is Judas Iscariot, the man whose name has become synonymous with betrayal. In some circles, the Wednesday of Holy Week is known as "Spy Wednesday", named for Judas and the Pharisees he sold Jesus out to, who sought an opportunity to catch him. So I thought we would look at Judas for a little bit and contrast him with someone else.

I'm sure Judas began as a good guy. He was one of many people who came and followed Jesus in the early days. When Jesus selected twelve to be his main guys, Judas was one of them. To be in the inner circle was a big deal! We also learn from John's gospel that Judas was given treasury responsibilities. He handled the money box for Jesus' ministry. The gospels rarely discuss the finances of Jesus and his disciples, perhaps because that's less interesting than miracles. But we know they had to buy food and things of that nature. Probably they did other charity work of giving to the poor, since Judas mentions this sort of thing at one point. But however they raised funds and whatever they did with them, we know Judas was in charge of it.

Now let's pick up the story several days before Passover. John's gospel implies this event occurs before the "triumphal entry", others do not. But they generally agree it was several days before Passover. Most gospels say two days before. John says he was in Bethany six days before, but that doesn't mean that he didn't stay there awhile and this event couldn't have been two days before. Anyway, Jesus and friends were in Bethany where Martha, Mary and the now very much alive Lazarus live. And this group was all at the house of Simon for dinner. At one point in the evening, Mary takes a bottle of very expensive perfume, brings it to Jesus and anoints him with it. You may be familiar with this story, as it appears in films and stage productions (often with erroneous details). Judas gets indignant about it, saying it was a waste of such expensive stuff and telling Jesus, "We could have sold it and given that money to the poor!" Others there apparently agree and echo the sentiment (Matthew and Mark say it was "some of the disciples", while John specifically mentions Judas. I don't doubt it was his idea). Jesus tells them they will always have opportunity to give to the poor, but that he wouldn't be around very long. He blesses Mary, who has anointed his body for burial. Shortly after this, Judas begins plotting how he can betray Jesus, and goes to the Pharisees who offer him thirty pieces of silver to turn him in.

As you may have noticed above, the song I've chosen for today is that classic George Harrison ear worm, "Got My Mind Set On You". What was it each of these people had their minds on?

Well, the Pharisees had their minds on maintaining political power, and on eliminating Jesus as soon as possible. And so they finally were able to hire Judas as an inside man to betray him. But what was Judas' mind set on?

Well, to quote the song, Judas was thinking about "a whole lot of spending money". Now, I'm sure it seems reasonable to you to sell goods and give them to the poor. And generally, that may be a good thing. The early Christians in the first century did just that, selling their goods and distributing to the needy. But John's gospel tells us that even though Judas said that, he didn't really mean it. Judas was actually secretly embezzling from Jesus' ministry. So when he saw that oil of spikenard, he wasn't thinking so much of the poor they could help; he was thinking when they sold it, he could skim a healthy chunk off the top for himself. It's easy to paint Judas as a mustache-twirling villain, but again I'd say he started out good as far as we know. But somehow temptation started to get the better of him and he became a thief.  His mind, which started on Jesus, began to stray to his own selfishness.

There's a story about a rather obscure miracle in the Bible. It says one day Jesus and Peter went up to the Temple and found they had no money for the temple tax. So Jesus tells Peter to go catch a fish, and that fish he catches will have happened to swallow some money. Peter catches a fish, and there's a coin in its mouth, just enough for Jesus and Peter's temple tax. Now, this is a fun bizarre little story in itself. But I have often wondered if the reason Jesus and Peter were caught short that day is because of Judas' theft. Jesus doesn't strike me as the kind of guy to just show up unprepared like that. So I like to think that this is a teeny bit of foreshadowing Judas' embezzling.

Luke's gospel adds another tantalizing detail, telling us "at that time, Satan entered Judas". It seems then that the betrayal of Jesus wasn't fully Judas' idea, but put in his mind by Satan, the Adversary. Judas' mind was now set on the things below, confused by the devil. I have issues with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, but if you know the show you'll recall that it opens with Judas singing a monologue about his concern for Jesus' growing following as Messiah. The very first line is "my mind is clearer now". This is probably not what Tim Rice had in mind when he wrote it, but when I hear the line, I like to picture that his mind is clearer now because Satan has just distorted it. And everything he sings after this is colored by Satan. If I were ever to stage the show, I'd probably even start it off with Satan whispering in his ear before the song or something like that. But Judas' mind was no longer clear; it was muddied by sin and Satan. Perhaps by giving in to his own desires, Judas had opened the door to be used of the enemy. It may be that he comes to realize this in the end, which is why he ultimately kills himself. But under Satan's influence, he was quick to agree to betraying Jesus. But he told the Pharisees, "It's gonna take money. A whole lot of spending money."

Let's contrast Judas with Mary. Matthew and Mark just say it was "a woman" who brought the oil for Jesus. But John names her as Mary. Contrary to what you have heard, this woman was NOT a prostitute, nor was she Mary Magdalene. She was Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Now this same Mary is the one who is mentioned as sitting at Jesus feet listening to him while her sister Martha fretted about getting things ready. Martha said, "Jesus, tell Mary to get over here and help me!" but Jesus says, "Why are you worrying so much, Martha? Mary chose the better part." Side note: Jesus is not saying don't work, or don't treat your guests well when they come over. In another story where a different woman similarly blesses him, he calls out the host for providing no water to wash his feet. But Jesus was friends with these women, and he was pointing out Martha was getting TOO concerned with appearances and the work. She was only getting stressed, instead of enjoying the visit from Jesus.

Jesus blesses Mary again here for having a righteous perspective. Her mind was set on the moment right there, and on Jesus. Sometimes we allow ourselves to get worked up over "what if" scenarios. Or sometimes we talk ourselves out of something good. Some Christians can cause pastors grief over what they consider wasted resources. It's a good thing to help the needy; but sometimes these Christians are missing the bigger picture of what God wants for the church right then. And probably some of them, like Judas, are thinking from their own selfishness. But Mary's focus was always on Jesus. She just wanted to be close to him, and do for him. And sometimes that takes time.

So what have you got your mind set on? Is it set on selfish desires, like Judas the thief? Or at the very least, is it distorted by the voice of people who sound reasonable but are not thinking with righteous insight? There were those who were swayed by Judas' vocal objections.

Is your mind set on what Satan is desiring for you? Judas gave in to this manipulation. Jesus said a little later that Satan was also after Peter, wanting to "sift him as wheat", but Jesus prayed that his faith would be strong. Satan wanted to shake Peter apart, shatter his faith and scatter him from Jesus. And this is Satan's desire for all those who would live godly in Christ Jesus. Don't allow your mind to be confused, or believe the lie that you are thinking "clearer now".

Or is your mind set on Jesus like Mary's was? She only appears a few times in the gospel, but each time she remains a role model for her simple devotion to Jesus. She was willing to give at great expense for him. She wanted to spend time with him. She was tuned in to what God was doing.

I know the George Harrison song can get annoying and stuck in your head, but that's part of my intent here. When you find it going through your head in the middle of the day, think about what you've got your mind set on. I hope you can think on God and say, "I got my mind set on You."