Watching The Americans

SPOILER ALERT: this post contains plot points of “The Americans” series finale.

They actively undermined the United States government. They killed dozens of people, some of them just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They used sex to manipulate those with power or access. They spat upon faith, calling it “the opiate of the masses.” And yet, I cared about “The Americans” characters Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, longtime Russian spies posing as upwardly-mobile travel agents and parents of two in 1980s DC.

Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields made these enemies of the state relatable through masterful storytelling. We saw Philip and Elizabeth’s struggles with ideology and morality. With raising kids born into a culture they were taught to despise. With growing together and apart multiple times, ultimately trusting their partnership despite their diverging outlooks on the state of the world. They were three-dimensional characters. So too was Stan, the FBI counterintelligence agent who moved in across the street in the pilot. Stan was a true patriot and an unfaithful husband, bedding a KGB officer he (thought he) had turned.

So when the series finale aired last month, I was invested. Philip and Elizabeth had been exposed. Would they be able to escape? Stan had realized the truth about the neighbors he regularly shared meals with. How would the inevitable confrontation go? And what about the kids – college student Paige, who had been recruited into the spy business, and high school junior Henry, who had nary a clue about his parents’ true identities?

Stan’s ambush – and ultimate release – of Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige was anxious and heartfelt. For me the real gut punch, though, was the severing of the parent-child bonds. Philip decided Henry’s best shot at a normal life was to abandon him in the only country he’s ever known. In a surprise move, Paige hopped off the train she and her parents are traveling on just before it crosses the U.S.-Canadian border. All of these decisions, so permanent, yet made so quickly out of necessity. I haven’t been able to view the finale again yet. It’s too raw – and this for someone who thinks her feelings.

But maybe my re-watch hesitation has nothing to do with the show. I wonder if it’s actually about the real-time crisis happening on our southern border. Sure, Philip and Elizabeth might never see their kids again. But their children were more or less grown and able to get along on their own. They remained in places familiar to them, where they spoke the same language as most everyone else. They were untethered from their parents’ uncertain destinies by the sacrifice. One of kids was able to choose her own fate. And, of course, they were fictional characters.

None of this is the case for Central American families moving north into the U.S., seeking better, safer lives, many of them engaging the proper channels for asylum. Instead, children – even infants – were being whisked away with no guarantee of when or whether they will see their parents again. (While the executive order means newly-entering families are being detained together, it does nothing to help the children who have already been separated and farmed out to various “welfare” agencies.) Even if you’re not a parent, we were all once small children. Imagine being separated from your mom and dad, held in a cage or an abandoned Wal-mart, put on a plane to another state while no one is really keeping tabs on your location, supervised by people who are forbidden to hold and comfort you in your confusion and distress. It’s traumatizing. It’s inhumane. And if faith doesn’t compel us to action, maybe we are just taking in “the opiate of the masses.”

If I can care about Russian spies on tv, then surely I – we – can have compassion for the flesh-and-blood children of God, coming to our country with hopes of contributing to it, of raising their intact families in it. God help me if I don’t advocate for them exponentially more fervently than I love a tv show that was, at its root, about humanizing the other. May we all be watching – and calling and protesting – the real-life Americans who are causing irreparable harm.

Image courtesy of FX.

Retconning

When I was in seminary, I became moderately obsessed with re-runs of the 80s tv show St. Elsewhere, a medical drama set in a run-down Boston hospital. My devotion made sense. It was fun to see current celebrities in their earlier iterations. I was fascinated by the ways medical and social issues, such as the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, were handled by the writers. And since an episode aired every day, the show was my nightly reward for plowing through my class assignments.

The series finale of St. Elsewhere is still – 28 years later! – one of the most polarizing in tv history. In it viewers find out that the entire run of the show has taken place in the head of one of the characters, a boy with autism. (For the record, I’m in the camp that thinks this is a genius wrap-up.) This is what folks in the comic book world call retroactive continuity, or retconning for short. It’s re-visioning the whole arc of the story in light of previously unknown facts. Via retconning writers can:

  • add details, filling in important tidbits that explain how the characters got where they are,
  • alter details, often through a narrative device (as in St. Elsewhere’s finale),
  • or subtract details, basically ignoring elements that no longer work with the current direction of the story.

Does this kind of literary math strike you as familiar? While I’ve never heard the term “reconning” used in the church world, we do it all the time. Congregations are masters of revisionist history. Retconning can be a means of improving collective health. Dragging long-buried secrets into the light of day can allow churches to trace reactive patterns and to have honest dialogue about what’s keeping them from living toward God’s call. Re-interpreting tightly-held narratives can open up possibilities for growth where progress had previously been stunted. Retconning can also be a means of denial and disease. Ignoring unpleasant truths causes them to simmer, making them highly combustible.

As you consider the arc of your congregation’s story, where might a bit of retcon work move your people toward more authentic community and deeper discipleship? What retcons are holding your church back and need to be named and revised?

Creative Commons image “Fork in the road” by Jordan Richmond is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

Happy Back to the Future Day!

As the Colbert Report-version of Stephen Colbert would ask, “Back to the Future”: great movie franchise, or The Greatest movie franchise?

I was eight years old when the first installment of the trilogy was released, warning us all of the dangers of interrupting the space-time continuum. In many ways, though, I think the second film has had the most impact on cultural conversation. It gave us a glimpse of what life might be like WAY in the future – today! I can hardly toggle between websites this morning without seeing an article or video outlining what Back to the Future II got right about 2015 (such as video calls, hoverboards, and holograms) and how it missed the mark (we don’t have flying cars or use faxes for important messages anymore, for example). The movies are giving us a fun way to remember former assumptions, revisit priorities, and envision the next few years, at least in a tech sense.

Benchmarks that prompt us to re-evaluate are just as valuable in church life. Where is God calling our congregation to go? How will we keep our flux capacitors powered up for the mission? What will it look like if we attain the vision? And when we reach the date of our future story, what expectations do we need to shift and what plans do we need to alter so that we stay faithful to God and available for service? Questions like these keep our churches moving forward instead of operating like they have been deposited back in 1955.

Creative Commons "Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine" by AdamL212 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine” by AdamL212 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The “Back to the Future” series may well be The Greatest movie franchise, and it provides us great fodder for thought. But unlike the DeLorean, until kingdom come, our churches will need roads paved with careful discernment. May your congregation have the courage to hit the gas and power into the future, sparking hope and imagination as it does so.

Fleshing out underwritten characters

My newest pop culture obsession is the Gilmore Guys podcast, which features two men in their 20s discussing each episode of the now-defunct series Gilmore Girls. It is by turns hilarious (though I do need to slap a language warning on this endorsement) and deep with discussions about gender and race, entitlement and selflessness. The hosts, Kevin and Demi, are employed behind the scenes in the entertainment business, so they use some writing and production jargon.

At times Kevin and Demi have noted that some of the minor-but-recurring characters are “underwritten,” meaning the show’s creators missed an opportunity to give them a lot more dimension. That term caught my attention, and I began to wonder where the underwritten characters are in church life. Maybe they’re the folks we call on to help with one particular ministry, even though they have other gifts to share. Maybe they are our antagonists, the people we have trouble empathizing with because we haven’t grasped their deeper motives and backstory. Or maybe we as ministers seem underwritten to our parishioners because they can’t imagine us “out in the wild” (e.g., at a concert, or even in the grocery store).

How then do we flesh out our perceptions of underwritten characters, and how do we let the people in our care see our complexity?