Here’s a long post. No offense if it’s not your thing. It’s about how a bad movie caused an improbable chain of glad tidings. It was a horrible year for all of us, albeit with some moments of clarity we might be able to reuse, and this is about a few of mine. And obviously, there are many people in the world with bigger problems than these, especially these days.
If you’d like some normal stuff instead of a long post nobody else edited:
New Vacation Bible School fellowships on Christmas and the Ten Commandments
New Shutdown Fullcast stuff, generally these days on weird Europeans
Me and the fellas recorded a fun chat about our sci-fi Western sports book
Blogged again about wistful sports-adjacent stuff at Hazlitt
This newsletter’s previous post was jokes about if the Exodus plagues had sucked
And here is the funniest tweet I saw all year:
Star Wars 9 sucked, and that has made all the difference.
Heading into the theater (facility where people used to watch movies) on December 23, 2019, expectations were low. Even my kid wasn’t that excited.
We focused on the positives. Palpatine’s CorpseCrane! Rey’s lightsaber! C-3PO said his first couple funny things ever!
Buuut … in addition to numerous problems, they’d made the wrong movie. If Prodigal Palpatine must be the sequel to Last Jedi, then Star Wars 9 should’ve been the story barreled over by the title crawl.
They what? Fine, why’d he squander the ambush by alerting Fortnite? How’d they build those huge ships without anybody noticing material exports? Who’s staffing those things? They can’t elevate because do fuckin what? You’re enduring all this just to apologize for the previous movie? If the guy Luke defeated has spent the sequels masterminding a comeback that’s blown up at least five planets’ worth of life, doesn’t that undo far more of Luke’s legacy than Last Jedi anyway?
Two movies by two different crews painted 9 into weird corners. 7 had built up mysteries about basic biographies, mysteries that could be answered with one sentence each. 8 scrapped them for mysteries that can’t: Are we just the results of moments? Of old failures? What if they’re our failures? Can we find joy in failure and mystery anyway?
9 in turn scrapped 8’s timeless mysteries and went back to Wookieepedia Mad Libs. The tension between “let the past die” and “the greatest teacher, failure is” thus yielded to “everything will stay like it was when you were 13.”
A lot of things had worked before — ever-escalating Death Stars, resolute Luke, genealogy updates, Palpatine — and when we’re all out of other ideas, we go back to something like what worked before.
“If that mess can get a $275 million budget,” I thought, “surely somebody would pay lil me a few lil dollars to write a sci-fi story.”
It’d been a while since I’d tried fiction, but I loved writing it as a kid. For at least a decade, though, I’d focused all my creative energy on projects related to my job. After Star Wars 9, I realized I could just … make something? That’s not owned by anyone else? Whether it could move Chartbeat in real time or not?
I decided to write a book, even though I’d backslid as a reader. I don’t remember Christmas night, two days after Star Wars 9, as the night I fired up a doc, but that’s what the card says.
It makes sense. Christmas is a hard time for some people, for lots of reasons. I have the winter SADs, worsened by holiday Universal Compulsory Happiness. I’ve fallen in holes I never want to visit again. So having a distraction from winter? Yes, please.
For two months, I obsessed over my story of ancient beings, fuzzy time, Big Bangs/Bounces, and human history. I also crash-coursed a lot of reading: Brian Greene on how the universe works. American Gods, Contact, Out of the Silent Planet, The Sparrow. Books on Hawaiian, Norse, Greek, and Basically Everywhere myths. I hustled to catch up on sci-fi: N.K. Jemisen, Ursula Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, The Martian. Trying to remember how books and stories work.
Universe Brain was my working title. That changed to Things Unseen (as in, Faith In) as I admitted I wasn’t writing an alien story, but a story of God that would make sense to even an exvangelical with no intention of ever going back.
I have 23,000 words’ worth of decent outlines, random notes, and hare-brained bullshit. I rambled about it to Emily, and she encouraged me, whether it made sense to either of us or not. It was fun, rewarding, and might become something some day, and it would not exist if Star Wars 9 hadn’t sucked.
Then I set it aside, because there arose a more pressing story.
“Every attempt on my behalf has failed to bring this sickness under control.”
In February, I was telling Emily a story from Wednesday night church youth group in middle school, one or two or three dead lifetimes ago. She wasn’t raised Southern Baptist, so she couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen her more astounded, and she’s been through a lot in her life.
So I decided to start another book. Slightly different setting than the history of the multiverse; let’s work with just a few years of high school.
Time to crash-course coming-of-age lit for the first time since college! Blankets, Rainbow Rowell, Ready Player One (woof), Angie Thomas, Siddhartha. Again, trying to study how stories work.
This was my thing during the first few months of quarantine. Again, I had to admit what I was doing — I’d set out to exorcise demons (church term) by describing a world that had taught me fear and anger and guilt, but I kept finding it’d also been the world that’d taught me how to love people.
In those years as a teenager, when what I thought to be the fear of God was keeping me up at night, praying until I was sweating, I was as happy as I’ve ever been. Those kids were my brethren and sistren. Never made any sense. Joy in mystery.
WORD COUNT CHECK: About 65,000 (wtf) on this. It made me reassess half my life, and it would not exist if I hadn’t been on a book frenzy, which wouldn’t have happened if Star Wars 9 hadn’t sucked.
I set this aside too, because there was again something more pressing.
“I lost myself.”
Lost my job in May. These things happen. Whole industry was on lockdown anyway. Still far luckier than a ton of people were. We figured we’d be ok, and we have been.
Losing a decade-old community of colleagues, though? That hurt. The big group had three Goodbye Zooms with dozens of shining faces, some popping up after leaving SB Nation years earlier.
Clumps of exiles banded together in a few different ways. Also, by May, starting a book felt routine! My fellow furloughees Spencer, Alex, Richard, and Tyson agreed to help combine ornery portals, Wild West shamans, and college football scandals into a story. My reading binge continued: A Payroll to Meet, Junction Boys, Cormac McCarthy, autobiographies of Bear Bryant and Walter Byers. And every page of our thing at least a dozen times each, a book task that has to be done.
We declared we’d finish it in three months. We knew that was an insane thing to declare. But we had fun, purpose, and camaraderie through what would’ve been aimless days. My friends each made the best stuff they’ve ever made. (So yes, if you’ve read The Sinful Seven, it’s true that it would not exist if Star Wars 9 hadn’t sucked. We probably would’ve instead done a sports history podcast, I’d wager.)
Also started yet another project right before that book.
“‘Til I understand or go blind.”
I didn’t want to lose podcast community fun just because I no longer worked at some company. With God already lodged in my head, thanks to spending four months on a sci-fi book (actually about religion) and a religion book (actually about friendship), I decided on a Pop Culture Rewatchable-type podcast about the Bible, making jokes and powering thru all 66 books of the Protestant canon in 66 weeks.
Well, 11 episodes in, VBS hasn’t finished the second of those 66 books.
I began to realize how much of the Bible I’d never known about, despite growing up life-or-death obsessed with it, and how there’s infinitely more to work with than most people would guess.
Most of this I knew, but didn’t really know: It’s not a book; it’s a millennium-plus of overlapping anthologies. It’s not a moral fable; sometimes the authors just trust you to sniff out the bad ideas, and sometimes the authors are wrong. It’s not all real or all fake; its authors displayed as much literary sophistication as anybody in world history at the time. It’s not either outdated or timeless; historical context can reveal light within its most barbaric books. It’s not a blueprint to one correct theology; “correct theology” is the funniest pair of words any mammal brain can venture.
More books. I dusted off my NRSV and made my way to Robert Alter, Cheryl Anderson, Rob Bell, Marcus Borg, James Cone, Bart Ehrman, Rachel Held Evans, Wilda Gafney, Wes Howard-Brock, James Kugel, Carol Meyers, Elaine Pagels, and a bunch of others. I did not start the year seeking opinions about the Ebionites, but again: Star Wars 9 sucked.
And a community began to bloom. At times, it’s the Sunday morning after the Fullcast’s Saturday night. At times, it’s its own thing. Also, Emily got drafted as a co-host. It’s sad that she keeps getting mixed up in these things.
There were dark days, deep into pandemic shit and societal fear and family hardships and personal worries, when VBS was one of the lights — including my kid, the funniest person in the world and one of the toughest — that kept me going.
“I can’t see how you’re leading me, unless you’ve led me here, to where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.”
Too often this year, I felt like I was wasting time and letting down some unseen account-keeper. In addition to everything bad about everything, I felt pressure to reclaim … something?
Working with nice people outside of digital news, maybe out of any public eye, has sounded appealing. But the idea has also felt like cheating something? Like selling something short? I’ve felt obligated to believe the only good moves are ever-upward.
I’d had a cool job with a nice title. I’d outperformed it for years, but that hadn’t bothered me. Toward the end, though, while seeing how transient it’d been?
I resented myself, not for the obvious flaw — banking on job performance as my only redeeming characteristic — but for failing to capitalize. I concluded I should’ve insisted on more credit all along; it was my own fault I’d failed for years to claim a more impressive title, landing me one step on the wrong side of a company’s 38th Parallel of expendability. As everything about 2020 got uglier and sicker, I hated myself more and more, and not just for the familiar reasons. I’d lost all input over my trajectory, all calculation.
Add that onto lack of steady income and whatever else. A lot going on, man.
“Faith is what you make it. That’s the hardest shit.”
Most of those Sinful Seven Boys slapped together a lil company, not a Burgeoning Media Conglomerate With A Complex Vision or even a thing we expect to generate part-time jobs, just a place to hurriedly house some projects while apocalypse football bore down. None of us had ever started a business before. I contributed choices that ranged from workable to goofy. We were otherwise busy hustling together freelance work amid all manner of life challenges.
Somehow, cool stuff emerged. There’s a Discord that became my favorite social network since at least MySpace. We’ll try to untangle the rest. Please be patient, God is not finished with Moon Crew yet.
My favorite part is the VBS room, where Lutherans and Catholics and Episcopalians and Muslims and polytheists and agnostics and so forth come together, lapsed or not, to chat about stuff. It’s my first church community since my youth group bros and lady bros went separate ways.
[Pretend there’s some transition here. There is no other editor at this outlet, so nobody can make me actually write it!!]
A few reasons I left the church:
Around age 22, I couldn’t ignore it: Hell is too bad to be true. And if fear of Hell is the stated/implicit motive for half the things we do, but Hell seems so deeply implausible, why do any of it?
Before then, the world didn’t match the world described at church. By sophomore year of high school, I knew LGBTQ people, atheists, Muslims, Catholics, Wiccans, socialists, and Mormons who were normal people. (Yes, I was taught to beware of Mormons. There was a seminar at camp, followed by a rap battle.) And if we’re this wrong about people, how can we be right about God?
The church’s priority, racking up visits —> baptisms —> memberships —> tithes, did not clearly line up with Jesus’ vocation: helping specific people with immediate problems and saying stuff they needed to hear in real time.
Nobody managed to make me understand faith.
As a teenager, I wholeheartedly affirmed the recommended statements about God, defending them in school cafeteria debates. I signed on to every available (slightly contradictory) version of The Salvation Plan. I prayed my ass off and looked at verses every few hours, night and day. I was baptized twice.
And then what? Other people experienced something. I was doing it wrong. How do you convert affirmation, devotion, and effort into faith? “That is faith,” replied the smiling youth pastor at O’Charley’s. Answer the actual question, sir: how can you tell if it’s working? Is this fake-it-‘til-you-make-it? How do you purge whatever is blocking faith? How do you know if it will ever work? Where is the receipt? When does it finally click? What if it doesn’t? Oh shit, what if the Calvinists, who seem way fucking scarier than the Mormons, are right?
“You know what to do,” the youth pastor replied amid chicken tenders. “All that’s left is to do it.”
Welp. I bailed and expected to never look back. Gone. Dead. Nothing to speak of.
So as an adult, realizing I’d stumbled into the role of Weird College Football Twitter’s Podcast Pastor despite being some semi-agnostic deist? That was pretty funny. Still, I figured that’s as far as I’d ever get, talking around faith without understanding anything about it.
I am finding value in focusing not on what I can believe, but what I am convinced of. If Einstein, Sagan, and Hawking can look in awe toward the edges of math and see outlines of something like God, surely my dumb Georgia ass can be talked into anything!
So after all that time paring it down to nothing, let’s see what we can build.
I’m convinced there is something beyond or around our universe, possibly through it, possibly everywhere, possibly somewhere our minds could only understand as nowhere. This is a lot to imagine, but easier to imagine than, say, a formless void letting there be light without any assistance.
I’m convinced it’s biased in favor of creation, renewal, and survival, all with established costs, which it is willing to pay. Everything from atoms to galaxies was created from pieces of other stuff and will pay that forward some day. Where’d we get that tradition?
I’m convinced many, maybe most, maybe all humans have vibed with this thing in ways they’ve understood, misunderstood, ignored, or forgotten. I learned this year that “fear of God” is better translated as “awe toward God,” but you already knew that, if you’ve ever looked into the Grand Canyon.
I’m convinced consciousness is not a secret manifestation of God, but a blatant one. Has anyone ever really managed a better explanation for consciousness than the Breath of the Spirit?
As far as we know, we are the only physical mind of the universe. That does not bode well for the universe, but please be patient, God is not finished with the universe yet.
As far as we know, we’re all we got. But as in Contact and (VBS guest) Richard Elliott Friedman’s Disappearance of God and the awed words of scientists who think about space for too long, we might find We’re all We need.
“He is the only God,” said William Blake, “and so am I and so are you.”
A lot of religions point with awe toward this mystery, one way or the other. Sometimes they hide it in plain sight. Stand still before this statement: “So God created humans in the image of God.” Right there on page one, y’all.
“Awe is at the root of faith … Wisdom comes from awe rather than shrewdness. It is evoked not in moments of calculation but in moments of rapport with the mystery.”
[From God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel. NASA photo of the “Star of Bethlehem.” Soundtrack with this Australian band that yells about, allegedly, space.]
Christmas is a hard time for a lot of people, especially this year. This Christmas, the one during the worst year of our collective lives, changed some things for me, maybe.
I read three books we talked about during VBS’ Christmas episode. In different ways, each connects Christmas to ancient parties about death and renewal, darkness and joy, bittersweetness, supposedly opposite things we are not just allowed to feel at the same time, but empowered to and even supposed to feel at the same time.
And I read N.T. Wright: “The Christian is called to love the world as God loves the world, joyfully celebrating its beauty, its majesty, its curious detail, its flashes of divine glory — and bitterly grieving over its wounds.”
And Dietrich Bonhoeffer interrupting his pleasant Advent lessons to gawk at absurdity: “In the Jesus child of Mary lives the almighty God. Wait a minute! Don't speak; stop thinking! Stand still before this statement! God became a child!”
And Luke’s Christmas for the hundredth time, but also the first time, finally seeing Mary’s declaration of war against poverty and what it means that God chose a night wind in front of little lambs and shepherd boys, rather than a mighty king within palace walls.
I thought about the Kingdom sought by grownup Jesus. We were taught “Kingdom” meant “Heaven,” a horrifying cloud town where ghosts moan a lot of hymns, albeit a town less horrifying than the other option.
But Jesus said nothing about hymns, harps, winged zombies, books of life, gold streets, Fishing Buddy Peter Becoming Pearly Gates Sentry Peter, pearly gates in general, space travel to uncharted utopia planets, cloudy staircases with/without Macho Man Randy Savage, or just about any other sweets by-and-by, and maybe little about saints, eternity, or Hell. Even some of his afterlife stories that seem literal, even the one where the dead speak, could just be parables.
(Elsewhere in the Bible, the afterlife evolves from N/A (zzzz) to unexplained ghostworld (zzz) to hopes of physical resurrection (zz?) to the Paul Club’s versions of The Christian Salvation Plan (??) to Revelation’s stoner metal spectacle (KABOOOOOOMMMM). The latter has the most explosions, so for most people, its Heaven-vs.-Hell slaughterhouse has outweighed the bulk of the Bible being ambivalent about the afterlife.)
What did Jesus say? That the Kingdom belongs here. Here. Much of the rest is mystery.
But you can find reason to go further. Not just here, but when? The future, the end of the world? Why not sooner, maybe even imminent, maybe even a constant opt-in? Why isn’t every day a chance to make our world either more or less like the Kingdom, whether trumpets are blowing or not?
The opposite of the Kingdom isn’t some netherworldly shithole like Dante’s horror carnival; the opposite of the Kingdom is humanity on autopilot (which, yeah, can resemble a subdued Hell).
Visualizing the Kingdom doesn’t mean painting caucasian angels. It means seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus, a peasant who, like his revolutionary mom (and ecoterrorist Dad), despised injustice, inequality, and letter-of-the-law piety.
“You can see it with your eyes, even in the dark.”
The Kingdom does not wisp through a vague dreamcloud, but is built, here, now, tangible, confirmable, brick by brick, choice by choice. In words like Jesus’, it is built every time we clothe, feed, shelter, and ensure health care for a poor person. If we’re waiting for God to fix everything, we should instead try to get it done before God does. What a prank on the Big Guy.
“How do we relate the gospel to people whose daily existence is one of despair? Or do we simply refer them to the next world?” said James Cone.
“The messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary,” said Kafka.
“When you see a stranger in need, it is on you to make sure they get help,” says the paraphrased Torah, far more frequently and clearly than it says a lot of the things Republicans think it says.
A lesson relayed by Martin Buber, according to the internet (I can’t find the quote in the book): “You should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”
But after that moment, is God real or not?
Well maybe, depending on definitions, I don’t know, I don’t know whether it matters, I’m confused by anybody more confident than this, yes definitely, don’t ask me I’m just a glorified monkey, a monkey glorified by the Breath of the Spirit, if any of this can transform us into better parts of the world then does it matter whether we resolve the mystery, and isn’t the most minimally flawed theology one that works whether God fits any mere four-dimensional definition of “real” or not?
That’s my incorrect theology, pending tomorrow’s revisions. (That’s also the new working title for that sci-fi thing I started because I saw Star Wars 9, which sucked. Theology. I promise it will be deeply incorrect.)
“Goodness and light.”
As a kid, I read a lot and wrote for fun. Then I stopped both for a long time. Now I’ve gone back.
And I spent the first half of my life trying to grasp someone else’s idea of God. Then I stopped. Now I’ve gone back to find hints of my own.
I loved to stare at stars. I’ve gone back to that, too. Sometimes one of the kids joins in.
Obviously, I loved Christmas as a kid. But during this span when I wasn’t reading or writing on my own or open to the awe of the universe, I dreaded winter. Again, this year, I’ve found my own way back. One day of Christmas? Pathetic. Only twelve days? Nice try. The demon-warding tree of light is staying up. Odin Claus said so.
I don’t know what these things have to do with each other or why this amounted to something that’s unearthed me from beneath a decade or two of pileup. Mysteries.
I also don’t know what my next job will be (Big Job, if you’re seeing this, hello again), if I’ll finish these books lmao, where I might do blogs in 2021, when my daughter will finally get back to her normal world, what “normal world” might ever mean again, if everyone’s family hardships can really resolve, or anything else.
But for the first time in a long time, due in part to Star Wars 9 sucking, I feel like a person who was worth making.
Joy in winter.
Joy in failure.
Joy in patience.
Joy in mystery.
“You know what to do. All that’s left is to do it.”
Joy in going back to something like what worked before.
This is spectacularly good.
Incredible piece, JK.