Beyond Disney Royalty: A review of Queen of Katwe

The slums of Katwe, Uganda, are an unlikely place to find a Disney Princess. They’re an equally surprising setting for a movie about a chess prodigy. Yet, this is home to Phiona Mutesi. And her story—the remarkable journey of a young girl who struggles to survive on the streets with her family and finds chess as a path to a brighter future—creates the brilliant tension and inspiration that is Disney’s recent movie Queen of Katwe. This film follows Phiona as she overcomes impossible odds; its focus on tapping the unrealized potential in all people is a gift to viewers who experience Phiona’s story through the lens of the camera.

One of the strengths of the film lies in its ironic juxtapositions: the dusty, chaotic streets of Katwe, lined by the ramshackle shelters that are home to the poorest of the poor, are set as a backdrop for the strategy and precision often associated with the game of chess. Nakku Harriet (Phiona’s single mother played by Lupita Nyong’o) desperately tries–in a culture in which women have few rights and even fewer opportunities–to provide for Phiona and her siblings. Phiona, her sister, and brothers cannot afford to go to school. They spend each day selling corn, hoping they will have enough to eat and pay rent at the end of the day. The story begins to shift when one afternoon, Phiona finds herself outside a church mission that offers sports for children in the city. Seeing that Phiona is hungry, Coach Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo) invites her inside for porridge. But porridge is not the only remedy for Phiona’s hunger. Inside the mission, Phiona discovers chess.

Katende quickly notices Phiona’s intelligence and innate skill for the game. Once Phiona has won chess matches with all the girls at the mission, she goes on to challenge (and win against) the boys as well. When Katende enrolls the children of Katwe in a chess tournament, Phiona takes the title. Her quick mastery of the game leads her to more tournaments at the local and international level, including the global tournament held in Russia. Plenty of setbacks and moments of conflict arise throughout the film, particularly regarding the clash of Phiona’s own culture with the privilege her success at chess affords. In light of this conflict, Phiona grapples with making difficult decisions. So, too, the viewer must sit with a story that illustrates the paradox that life is neither a magical fairy tale nor a hopeless case. Read more

Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

Healing and Hope: Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Unlike Carol Howard Merritt, I grew up in a small, progressive American Baptist congregation. In my church life, I grew up in a place that invited questions, encouraged me to pursue deeper meaning, and embraced me wholly as I was created.

However, I also attended church camp. I loved camp, and it helped shape my faith and taught me about relationship with Jesus Christ. But the church camp I attended was staffed by Christian counselors who came from more fundamentalist congregations. They came from belief systems that upheld patriarchal roles and were concerned with saving souls before camp ended on Saturday morning, and the best way to do that was to make us feel that we needed to be saved before we returned home. The jagged knife of Scripture was used to create wounds that declared that I was a sinner, in a way that made it seem very shameful, that I had done something purposefully bad to separate myself from God; that because my hormones were going wild as a teenager, I had fallen short of God’s perfection. I wasn’t good enough. I had to be saved by Friday night or I might not go to heaven.

I was healed through good preaching, fellowship, and friends in college. I experienced further healing in seminary as I began to learn about the historical and cultural context of those scriptures, the same verses my camp counselors had used but hadn’t understood themselves.

Healing Spiritual Wounds is a book for all Christians (not only those who have come out of a fundamentalist background) because all of us have been harmed at one time or another by churches or church institutions that failed us. Read more

chalkboard with mathematical equations on it

Bricks Without Straw: Hidden Figures, Young Clergy Women, and Intersectionality

chalkboard with mathematical equations on itI have been excited to see Hidden Figures for months. The trailer gave me deeply satisfied laughter, hope, and inspiration. The poster gave me goosebumps. I knew I was going to love this movie from the moment I learned that it existed. It exceeded my expectations.

Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), one of the finest mathematicians (called “computers”) in the history of NASA. Her parents advocated for her to have appropriate education for her mathematical brilliance. Through hard work and a supportive family, Katherine belonged to a team of black female computers, referred to as the West Computing Group, resourcing the space program.

By Johnson’s side were Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who functioned as the supervisor for the West Computing Group, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a budding NASA engineer. America’s race to space depended largely on the mathematical and scientific work of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson. Not only were these women solving some of the most complex mathematical and scientific problems of their time, but they were doing it while juggling racism, sexism, and classism (all while in high heels).

There are many points of genius in the movie, and its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture is well-deserved. One of the most significant is its subtle pedagogy. The movie appeals to a wide demographic of viewers: fans of its actors, space enthusiasts, nostalgists, movie lovers, music lovers, women, audiences of color, teachers, etc. Whatever brings you to the theater will not begin to scratch the surface of what you’ll gain from this movie.

Hidden Figures demonstrates the complexity of racism and racial reconciliation. The movie opens with potential police brutality and the delicate balance between good citizenship and accepting oppression. Though religion is not a major theme of the movie, the characters attend the same church, which is the center of their community. Mr. Johnson’s military career success points to the anticipated double victory of freedom abroad and at home for black soldiers during the world wars, and the importance of affirming black male leadership in integrated public arenas. Segregation looms large in signage, work accommodations, and access to public places like libraries and court houses.

As a former engineer, I appreciated the way the movie depicted women’s second class citizenship. Leaders referred to mixed groups of staff as “gentlemen” or “you guys,” and told them to call their wives. Though they are among the leading minds in the country, the women of NASA are often assumed to be clerical staff or housekeepers, treated as expendable workers. In spite of putting in long hours doing demanding intellectual work, dress codes stipulated that they should wear dresses and heels. While some of the women had supportive helpers at home (largely other women), others began a second shift of domestic responsibilities even while defending their right to work. Many women in the movie, white and black, performed duties beyond the scope of their job responsibilities, without additional recognition or compensation, and without avenues for requesting advancement.

The movie honestly depicts the third and fourth class citizenship of black women. Read more

The Crown and the Collar

The Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom

The Imperial State Crown

“Elizabeth Mountbatten has been replaced by Elizabeth Regina, and the two Elizabeths will often be in conflict,” Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) tells the new sovereign in a remarkably un-comforting letter of condolence, “But the fact is, the Crown must win. The Crown must always win.”

“The Crown,” Netflix’ big-budget series examining the life and reign of Elizabeth the Second (Claire Foy), is a lavish production. The choice of title is significant: it’s a work about Elizabeth as she grows into – or kicks against – the weight of “the Crown.” For me, the series comes most alive in the moments where Elizabeth is struggling to work out how to be herself, and what that self is becoming, under the influence of her new role. There’s a striking moment in episode five, as Elizabeth prepares for her delayed coronation, where she tries the crown on for the first time, and looks at herself in the mirror. Foy’s expression reminded me strongly of my own, the first time I tried a clerical collar on. The director’s shot choices keep us conscious of the fact that Elizabeth is a slight young woman – wearing the crown, keeping the orb and sceptre steady during her coronation, is a physical effort for her, and that too may resonate for clergywomen serving churches with a tradition of vesting. At least Elizabeth doesn’t have to contend with a chasuble that’s long enough to trip her!

The central conflict, between one’s integrity as an individual, and the demands of the role one is placed in, is relevant to all of us in ministry. Read more

Harnessing Courage: A Review

harnessing-courage nov 2016Over the years, I have often wished that “regular” people better understood life with a significant disability. As an Episcopal priest who is completely deaf, I’ve struggled with the writing of authors who were able-bodied and exploring disability as a theological construct or something which needed to be overcome. As a hospital chaplain and a parish priest focused on pastoral care, I need something written from the inside, which described both the highlights and the lowlights of life with a significant disability, and which asked the reader to engage the author as an intellectual equal.

Laura Bratton’s book, Harnessing Courage: Overcoming Adversity with Grit and Gratitude, is an excellent entry into this category. The story of one young pastor’s journey into blindness and the world of disability resonated strongly with me, and it has the potential to fill that niche of dialogue with those who have no disability and who seek to understand. It will also be a useful tool to those who are beginning to work through a new diagnosis which may result in disability. Read more

United States flag, backlit

Of Streaming and Spies

United States flag, backlit

I’ll admit it. I’m late to binge-watching TV. Six months ago I didn’t understand why people would view all the episodes of a newly-dropped season over the course of a weekend. If you like the show so much, why don’t you stretch it out, savor it? I wondered.

That was before I had access to streaming television services. Now I have a couple of them, and I get it. By watching every installment during a compressed timeframe, you can really enter into the world constructed by the show. And right now my favorite world to inhabit is the one created by Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, showrunners for FX’s The Americans. (Fair warning, there are minor spoilers below.)

The Americans, now on hiatus after its fourth season, is the tale of two KGB spies in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell (in a dramatic departure from her eponymous role in Felicity) play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, travel agents and parents to a pair of teenaged kids. But when they’re not booking hotel reservations or helping with homework, they’re blackmailing visiting dignitaries, seducing contractors with high security clearance, shepherding new KGB recruits, and killing anyone who interferes with the missions they undertake on behalf of Mother Russia.

Part of the show’s appeal for me is the chronologically-appropriate soundtrack and clothing, plus the occasional quick glimpse of a vintage toy or an authentic news clip in the background. I am, after all, a child of the 80s. I’m also glad for the chance to bone up on aspects of history that were red-white-and-blue-washed for my textbooks.

More importantly, though, I love the show because of three story strands that relate to my life as a minister. Read more

tall pulpit with lighted, round sound board above it

Living, Breathing Woman Minister: A Review of Karoline Lewis’s She

tall pulpit with lighted, round sound board above it

Empty Pulpit

Five minutes into the ice cream social at my first ministry call, an older woman walked up to me, smiled, and introduced herself. Shaking my hand, she said: “You seem like a really nice woman, and I loved your sermon. I just wanted to let you know that I won’t be coming back, because I don’t believe in woman ministers.”

It happened so fast I almost didn’t register what was going on. My first instinct (thankfully, an instinct I swallowed) was a snarky reply: “Who knew that woman ministers belonged in the same category as ghosts, Santa Claus, and the monster hiding under my daughter’s bed?” Was I somehow optional, such that people could choose to believe in me or not, even though I was standing right there in front of her, smiling and holding her hand and saying, “It’s nice to meet you, too!”

Of course, that isn’t what she meant at all. This woman stood in a long line of individuals who, maliciously or otherwise, and often with a smile on their face, have diminished and denied women’s ministry and leadership. She was right there behind the Bible study leader who teaches that women should be silent; faith traditions that have ignored women’s contributions; pastors who steered women away from service to the Board of Trustees and towards the Christian Education committee because they are “better with children;” and parents who have taught their daughters that good little girls are quiet and sweet.

What I didn’t realize until I was a living, breathing Woman Minister, was just how much my gender would impact my ministry. Knowing what I know now, I wish that I had had the opportunity to read a book like Karoline Lewis’s She: Five Keys to Unlocking the Power of Women in Ministry back when I was still piecing together my pastoral identity. Read more

My Sisters, the Ghostbusters

345487149_9a3d3e1b2a_zWhen the Ghostbusters reboot was announced, I was pretty sure I’d want to see it, at least when it came out on streaming: I love the first movie. But when the hullaballoo over an all-female cast hit social media, I knew I’d be there with bells on. Even if the stars had been women other than Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, and Kristen Wiig, all of whom I find incredibly funny, I was ready to support my sisters in this movie.

I say “sisters” deliberately, because for about a decade now, I’ve been convinced that comedy has become the dominant secular prophetic voice in North America. Depending on which sociologist you consult, I’m either a very young Gen Xer or a very old Millennial, and for people in my age bracket, the desk of a comedy host (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, SNL “Weekend Update”) has become the closest thing there is to a pulpit. And I feel a special kinship with the current generation of female comedians who, if they’re not my sisters, are at least my cousins.

And if a group of men were going to get cranky about the Ghostbusters cast as women? Well, you’ve got to support family. Count me in for opening night! Read more

Good Christian Sex cover

Good (Progressive) Christian Sex (Resources): A review of Good Christian Sex

Good Christian Sex cover

Good Christian Sex

I have an entire shelf of books about sex in my office at church: historical critical analyses of sexuality in ancient Israel and first century Rome, dense volumes of theology and ethics, some psychology, and a distressing number of books about clerical abuse and safe spaces in church. One of my seminary professors instilled in me the practice of “the ministry of the well-placed book,” (thank you, Dr. Dykstra!) and I keep this shelf front and center in my office, hoping the message will be literally seen and figuratively heard: I am not afraid to talk about all aspects of being human, including (but not limited to) sexuality. It’s a bummer that we in the church have such a garbage history of dealing with sexuality that I have to think of creative ways to make this point well with my parishioners.

I’ve consulted this shelf many times over the years as I offer pastoral care, but I’ve never had a book I feel like I can just pull off the shelf and hand to church members to read on their own. The wisdom I’ve found is spread between them, never in one place. Far too many of these books are tomes of theological jargon written for seminary educated “experts.”

But the minute I’m done writing this review, Bromleigh McCleneghan’s book Good Christian Sex (http://www.bromleighm.com/book/) will be sliding into its well-earned place on my sex book shelf. This short read is theologically thoughtful, ethically coherent, narratively interesting, and accessible to an audience who has never set foot in a Systematic Theology 101 classroom. I can’t wait to hand it to members of my church. Read more