Mar 25 2014

A Theology of Bricks

**Warning: Major Spoilers for The Lego Movie Follow**

Long before I was old enough to follow even the simplest of pictorial instructions, I fell deeply in love with the plastic building toys manufactured by the Danish toy company, Lego. My father would build towers on the kitchen floor, and I would knock them down, laughing deviously the entire time. Eventually, I was building my own towers in addition to castles and spaceships, and Lego sets became a staple of Christmas morning (in fact, even though I’m 24 and a graduate student, they still are). Needless to say, when I discovered the newly released film The Lego Movie, I was excited to see what one of my favorite companies would do on the big screen. While I was not surprised by the quality of the movie’s animation and story, I was pleasantly surprised to find fertile ground for theological reflection, especially on questions of violence and redemption.

The story follows Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt), an everyday construction worker who is particularly good at following the instructions (right down to purchasing overpriced coffee and returning every compliment). One night, Emmet discovers the “Piece of Resistance,” the key to foiling the plans of the devious Lord Business (Will Ferrel) who plans to Krazy Glue the whole world together to preserve his own particular sense of order. Emmet suddenly finds himself at the center of the resistance group – the highly creative “master builders” – but his instruction-following tendencies leave him feeling alienated. After a botched encounter with Lord Business’ police force, Emmet realizes that, although the master builders are highly creative, they cannot work together. Emmet creates a detailed instruction manual that lays out a plan for invading Lord Business’ fortress. Of course, the whole plan eventually goes sideways and the citizens of Lord Business’ city find themselves wielding their creativity to fight for survival.

At this point in a typical movie, Emmet would discover his hidden talents (in fact, he does) and then wield those powers to enact violence upon Lord Business. He has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including a powerful melting ray, Batman’s batarangs, a gigantic robot constructed from Emmet’s old construction site, and the Krazy Glue weapon itself. It would be a particular stroke of poetic irony to see Lord Business defeated by the very weapon he hopes to harness. This pattern is typically identified as the “myth of redemptive violence.” Put simply, we believe that violence is generally bad unless that same violence is used for positive ends such as the destruction of an enemy who wishes to do others violence. Though he could Lord Business, Emmet instead comes to embrace him.

In a dramatic turn of events, we discover that the setting of the film is actually Will Ferrel’s basement wherein he has constructed a complex Lego universe, albeit one where the models are glued together and the themes (castle, city, etc.) are kept carefully divided. The plot has actually been driven by Ferrel’s son, who mixes and matches characters (ranging from Batman to a kitten/unicorn hybrid) and settings for the purposes of an epic story. When the strait-laced Ferrel realizes what his son has been doing, he is eventually impressed by the amount of creativity exerted on both the story and its characters/vehiciles/locations. Recognizing that creativity and instruction-following can work together, he has a change of heart and invites his son to play with his Legos whenever he wants. In the same way, Emmet (back in the Lego universe) convinces Lord Business that he has a special gift to give the world, in the same way that everyone else does (the people of Emmet’s city had earlier turn objects of their professions into creations only they could build to combat Business’ forces). Like Ferrel, Lord Business has a change of heart, recognizing that his absolute concern for order was damaging, but that it can also be a gift to his fellow citizens. Finally, it is Lord Business who deactivates the Krazy Glue weapon.

As much as I loved the inside jokes, pop culture references (Will Arnett’s Batman paraphrases a line from the Dark Knight to hilarious effect), and homages to Lego’s heritage as a company (a classic 80s spaceman is both integral to the plot and somewhat worse for wear), I appreciated this reversal of redemptive violence all the more. True, there is violence in the film itself, but it is ultimately revealed to be useless and wasteful in light of creativity, cooperation, and reconciliation. By challenging this myth in popular culture, we can go a long way towards realizing what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44).” By understanding those who would propagate violence and offering them compassion instead of the barrel of a loaded gun (or shark, in the case of the film’s resident pirate) we begin undoing systems of violence and start realizing the kingdom of God. May we all have the courage to embrace such stories.

–Aaron Carr

Aaron is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a student ambassador. Originally from Cumming, GA, Aaron was a religion major as an undergraduate at Samford University.


Mar 18 2014

Women’s History Month: New Narratives

MorrisonThis month is National Women’s History Month, and while it is important to share stories of transformational women, this month is also a time where we think about how we tell the broader stories of humanity. In my studies at Candler and my experience as a woman I am realizing more and more that history is not merely a recitation of facts but an arranging of those facts in a particular order. Writing history also means choosing some facts over others, ignoring facts that don’t make the story sound exceptional and judging which facts of history are most consequential.

There are many amazing women who have brought this predicament of history-telling to our attention: Elizabeth Cady-Stanton, bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Wendy Farley (to name some favorites of mine).  There are scholars who are retelling women’s histories that have been painfully obscured and mutilated by men, such as that of Sarah Baartman.  There are writers who are telling new histories, giving a voice to the women who screamed, laughed, shouted and sang and yet no one wrote it down. The spirits of these women come to us through the work of writers like Toni Morrison.

There is still much work to be done to reconstitute half the world’s history, the history of women. Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed at the U.N. Fourth World Conference in China in 1995 “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” In the same way, women’s history is human history and human history is women’s history.  How do we continue to tell the history of humanity and yet still deny this simple fact?  One example surfaced in chapel last week when the preacher referenced the famous evolutionary mantra “survival of the fittest.” This little phrase contains an entire history of human existence—a history of competition, autonomy, self-interest and an illusion of fit-ness—a history told by certain men in certain circumstances.

ClintonTo tell the history of humanity as one of competition, scarcity, autonomy, fear or an abstract notion of being “fit” is no explanation for the life-giving interdependence of a nursing mother and her baby.  Survival of the fittest is not the history of immigrants who coordinate the care of each other’s children so that they can take English classes and learn to support their refugee community. Survival of the fittest is not the history of my friends in a same-sex partnership where they daily sacrifice the world’s cookie-cutter “fittest” ideals to flourish in a relationship of love and creativity. Survival of the fittest is far from the story of Jesus whose place in history marks a unifying baptism and a common table where mutuality, welcome and love are offered as the defining story of all the children of God, men and women.

Theologian Sarah Coakley is currently working with scientists to examine the implications of cooperation and sacrifice in the history of human survival.  In a Gifford lecture she comments on the “great secret that men rarely discuss…sacrifice is being done all the time physiologically in the tiring and painful human business of pregnancy, birth-giving and lactation.” (See article: “What’s God Got to Do With Evolution?” in Times Higher Education.)

Through the work of women like Sarah Coakley, we can now offer new narratives of history during National Women’s History Month.  How we tell the story of humanity this month includes the values that women have always relied on in order to survive and flourish in this world: cooperation, care, sacrifice, interdependence and mutuality. May our history become a full reckoning with humanity’s life in this world.

–Jenelle Holmes

Jenelle is a second-year in Candler’s MTS program and a student ambassador. She graduated in 2006 with a degree in English from Whitworth University in Spokane, WA.


Mar 11 2014

Snowpocalypse & Table Fellowship

Emory snowBy now I’m sure that all of you have heard of the crazy snow storms we have had down here in Atlanta over the last month. The first storm hit us with a gargantuan amount of snow—a whole two inches! Now, being from Missouri, I know that this amount of snow is tease for most people, but it was a blizzard for people down here. In fact, it was referred to as “Snowpocalypse”. People rushed to the safest place they know— the interstate—and were stuck in their cars for hours. Children were stuck at school and on school buses. It really was an awful situation for those people trying to get home. For those of us who were home, however, it was quite the welcome break. I not only go to Candler for class, but I also work part-time in the Admissions and Financial Aid office there. I also have an internship with Emory Wesley Fellowship, an undergraduate campus ministry. With these three things combined, I am on campus every day for about 45 hours per week. So, the idea of not having to leave my house was extra-appealing. I ended up getting an extra three days off from school and work! I got to spend the day in my pajamas, reading for class, cleaning my apartment, and watching Lord of the Rings marathons. It was amazing.

Less than two weeks later, the weather reports were saying we were going to get more snow, but this time, it would be accompanied by an ice storm. Of course, people started freaking out—some groceries stores literally ran out of bread and milk. My first thought, however, was “This is too good to be true!” I couldn’t believe we would get MORE days off. This gave me more time to finish assignments and catch up on my reading. We ended up being off of school Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I had a great time on Tuesday, but Wednesday, I started getting a little stir crazy. By Thursday, I was beyond ready to go back to school. Even though I was enjoying living life in my pjs and Charlie Brown sweatshirt, it felt like something significant was missing in my life. It wasn’t until the next week at work that I found out what that was.

ATL snowjamThe Admissions and Financial Aid Office was in an uproar when I arrived at work the next Monday. There were red files all over the place and the phone was ringing off the hook with panicked students wondering if we received all their materials before the priority deadline. (Okay, I may be exaggerating a little bit, but it was much busier than usual.) The entire morning I longed to be back at home in my pajamas, watching movies and pretending to read. We were all stressed and behind because of the snow. Around lunchtime, some of us congregated at the little round table near the office reception area to eat a quick lunch. Our conversation quickly turned to laughter as we caught up with each other and shared our experiences of the snow days. The stress and chaos was left behind as we communed together. Soon almost the entire office had congregated around the table. As we were eating, it hit me: this is what I had been missing. I hadn’t gotten to experience the wonderful fellowship with my Candler community in two weeks. I missed them and the experiences we shared.

All of this was made known to me around the table. By sharing a meal together, we were building up our little community and strengthening each one of us. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the significance of table fellowship as a way to strengthen our bond with each other and our bond with Christ. He writes, “The Scriptures speak of three kinds of table fellowship that Jesus keeps with his own: daily fellowship at the table, the table fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, and the final table fellowship in the Kingdom of God. But in all three the one thing that counts is that ‘their eyes were opened, and they knew him.’” Thus, when we commune with each other, Christ is also present in the breaking of the bread. It took Snowpocalypse (parts I & II) to make me see the importance of my Candler community. The life we share together, no matter how hectic or stressful, is a life centered around Christ. We are a community that is bound to Christ, and because of this, bound to each other. The many birthday parties that take place in our office is a testament to this communal practice. We become closer to one another and with God in the breaking of the bread (or mostly, cake). So, instead of eating your dinner in front of the TV in your pajamas all the time, sit around a table and eat with the people in your community. The fellowship you share around the table will not only enrich your relationships with each other, but also your relationship with God.

–Jessica Beverstein

Jessica is a second-year MDiv and student ambassador at Candler. She graduated from Winthrop University in South Carolina with a BS in elementary education. She served as a volunteer missionary in Costa Rica and taught second grade in Atlanta before coming to Candler.


Mar 4 2014

If I Had Known Then…

Eric JI have a confession to make. When I made my decision to apply to and attend Candler School of Theology, it was based on the work of one professor.  I read her book, saw where she taught, and decided to apply to that school. I am lucky to have stumbled into one of the most prestigious Hebrew Bible programs in the country, but if I had known then what I know now, I would have chosen the Master of Theological Studies (MTS) program at Candler one-thousand times over. Here’s why:

The Faculty

As you already know, I made my decision to attend based on a single member of the faculty, but I am leaving Candler in complete awe of the constellation of faculty and staff at Candler School of Theology. I have had unprecedented access to the world’s foremost scholars across every discipline I have worked in. They are available, helpful, encouraging, and supportive.

The Community

Because I am an introvert by nature, the Candler community was not even on my radar when I made my decision. What I had grossly underestimated in my calculations was the effect that moving so far away from my family would have on me. The students at Candler have supported me and challenged me in ways that have made me at least a better scholar, and I like to think a better person. From a friendly face on the first day of orientation, to celebrating admissions decisions over margaritas at noisy restaurants in my last weeks of my degree, my experience at Candler has been bookended by people who have changed my life.

The Opportunities

When people ask me why I chose Candler, I largely recount what I have discussed above. I caveat this by saying that if I had known how important that scholar was in her field, or what Candler’s reputation was in the scholarly community, I would have talked myself out of applying. The reputation of Emory University and Candler School of Theology are well earned and far-reaching. Whatever one’s goals happen to be for his or her degree, the outstanding reputation of Candler will help you along your journey.

The Program

The flexibility of the MTS program is such that it allows its students the freedom to explore and shape their research interests. I was allowed to pursue a highly specified course load consisting mainly of languages and biblical studies. At the same time, the program is designed to provide the structure and faculty support to make that exploration focused and productive. The fortunate outcome of this dichotomy is a well-rounded training that prepared me thoroughly for doctoral studies.

–Eric Jarrard

Eric Jarrard is a second-year Master of Theological Studies student in Hebrew Bible. He will be pursuing a doctorate at Harvard Divinity School this fall.