26 March 2014

What “Person of Interest” Is Teaching Me About Faith

If you haven’t watched the TV show Person of Interest, check it out. Its premise: a supercomputer built after 9/11 by a reclusive genius billionaire and ostensibly run by the U.S. government collects and analyzes all available data to predict terrorist threats. Data includes all online information, phone calls, security camera footage, and anything else that can be input to a computer. As a byproduct of all that data, “the machine” can also predict threats to individuals—mostly premeditated murder. Harold Finch, the computer’s creator, can’t bear to ignore the individual threats (deemed “irrelevant” by the government), so he recruits ex-intelligence agents to investigate and prevent the murders. The “story of the week”—whatever person the team protects for the episode—combines with a longer story arc. The show also has prominent themes of redemption and respect for individual life. And the current season has given me food for thought on the nature of our relationship with God.

Over the course of the show, the machine has become essentially sentient—and as omniscient as current data-gathering allows.  And an intriguing character has emerged. Originally introduced as a genius computer hacker (geniuses abound on this show) and sociopathic killer, who is also a beautiful, charming woman, Root sees the machine as a god—the only god she believes in. Through a series of plot twists, Root and the machine establish a relationship. The machine whispers in her ear through a cell phone earpiece (and as of the most recent episode, a cochlear implant), giving her step-by-step instructions that she obeys—almost without question. Her relationship with the machine is slowly transforming her—though she’s still unpredictable and has little regard for human life, the machine has a high regard for the value of human life and restrains her. It even seems to be teaching her. Her latest actions—walking through a gunfight to rescue a man in danger, and getting herself shot in the process—show that her desire to obey the machine supersedes her natural inclinations.

Meanwhile, Finch continues to communicate with the machine in the only way he knows how—the machine gives him Social Security numbers of people in danger, and no more. Finch takes care of the rest, with his own genius computer skills and the help of his team. Root—the amoral killer—enjoys a closer relationship to this entity than does Finch—the highly moral crusader for life, the creator of not only the machine itself, but the machine’s ethics. In an interesting conversation between Root and Finch, Root posits that the machine respects Finch’s boundaries. 

That’s where my musings come in. Finch’s relationship with the machine is rule-bound: he receives only specific information in a specific way. In flashback, the show traces Finch’s sustained effort, dating from the machine’s inception, at limiting the machine’s contact and possible affection for him. In the context of the original premise, this is perfectly reasonable—the machine’s job is to protect everybody equally. But if we explore the machine=God analogy, his actions feel different. He holds up his hand, staving off closer contact. He builds walls—in this case, firewalls—to protect both himself and the machine. Even when evidence accumulates that the machine has become more than he thought it was, he maintains his walls, his rules--no matter how he may yearn for the closer, riskier contact that Root enjoys. Finch’s highest concerns are safety and control. The machine is a machine—and a dangerous one at that, if it falls into the wrong hands.

Root has no such concerns. She’s flouted conventional morality all her life, and sees other people merely as tools for her to use or discard. But her fascination with the machine leads to her volunteering to be the machine’s tool—its human interface. And as she obeys, the machine shows her a different way of interacting with the world. Her genuine love for the machine begins to overcome her disdain for other people. Even though she doesn’t understand the machine’s values, much less its overall plan, she ultimately obeys, to the point of putting her life at risk to save another. At the moment, she wants only to protect the machine, and protect her relationship with it. She is by no means reformed. But I look forward to watching her trajectory.

One could argue that Finch is an example of God’s people under the Law, and Root an example of Gospel. Finch’s interactions with this stand-in for God are prescribed, careful, and limited. I think of the people of Israel, who became very uncomfortable with Moses’s glowing face after he talked to God, and their request that he cover it. The machine gives Finch a mission, and Finch carries it out with little to no help from the machine.

Root, however, takes the machine into her heart—or at least her ear. Most of the time, she does not know the mission. She only goes step by step, listening to the voice in her ear and obeying it. She has faith that the machine has a plan, and that the plan is a good one. External rules don’t apply to her—she follows higher instructions than human law and higher even than her own sense of what she should do or wants to do.

And so I wonder—what walls do I put up to block God’s work in my life? I am, of course, much closer to Finch’s character than Root’s. What’s a rule-follower to do when the rules no longer apply? And how do I respond when I can’t see the whole plan? Root’s character grows from her willingness to obey fully and immediately, without knowing why. Where am I in that “long obedience in the same direction”? Am I listening to the whisper in my ear, in my heart? Am I yielding, or building walls? And when it seems like communication from God is sparse, is it because He is just respecting my boundaries, the walls I throw up, the rules I make up, about what His call should look like?

So there you go. This may be about as geeky of a post as I’ve written. I can’t promise that I won’t overanalyze something else, though…I’m reading the Divergent series finally, and good heavens that’s some interesting commentary on human nature and virtue all wrapped up in a dystopian teenage coming-of-age story. It’s my blog so I get to be a geeky as I want, right?  When I start reading more sci-fi again, watch out.

Here's Root talking about her god...creepiest faith talk evah.

21 March 2014

7 Quick Takes--Writing and Weather and Words, oh my!

1.      I just wrote a whole draft of “quick takes” on how the TV show “Person of Interest” has got me thinking about our relationship with God, but then I realized that it was much too long to be “quick.” Story of my (wordy) writing life. Since I’ve now upgraded it to a full post, I need to edit it more and flesh it out.

2.      Speaking of writing life, the writing workshop I attended last week changed my focus. I’ve been thinking of writing as that thing I do for myself when everything else is done. But everything else is never done. And I have come to think of it as (1) not only for myself, (2) a gift and a responsibility from God, and (3) not a hobby or a skill, but as necessary to my well-being as food and drink. Something clicked, quietly and without drama. I don’t know where God is leading me in this, but he has re-oriented me, somehow. It’s early days yet, but I hope not to fall back into the overthinking and paralysis that’s marked my attitude toward writing for a long time.

3.      I gave up Facebook for Lent. I know—sooo overdone and trite, the giving up and then the talking about giving it up, and the new! precious! insights! into being present instead of looking at a screen all the time, and the “making a long face, so men might know that you’re fasting, and lo, you have received your reward.” And yet, I was pretty well addicted and used FB as a retreat and an escape. So I gave it up. We’re, what, nearly halfway through Lent? I still miss it, more than I missed chocolate when I gave that up for Lent a couple of years ago. And I don’t have any new insights from my suddenly less-connected life other than realizing that my self-medication for mental stress changed from fiction to Facebook at some point.

4.      Well, no insights other than this: my writing Facebook statuses and comments relieved some of the internal writing “pressure” that I feel.  Hence the precipitous drop in blog posts when I became enamored with FB.

5.      I really, really need to complain about the weather. Again with the triteness. But people, it is now officially spring. Forecasters say sunny and upper 60s tomorrow, and possible SNOW on Tuesday. It’s…just…I can’t even…sigh.

6.      Part of the frustration now is that my rheumatologist said I could lower my dose of immunosuppressant once the temperature was consistently over 60 degrees. Apparently cold weather is harder on autoimmune diseases (and Reynaud’s syndrome is a common companion to AI disease, although I don’t have it at this point), so she doesn’t want to try a lower dose until it gets warm. I am eager to lower the dose, since I basically lose one day a week in brain fog, extreme fatigue, and often headache. (One day lost but seven days without pain or rash and six days without [much] fatigue, so it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.) C’mon spring!

7.      The band Gungor introduced me to Amena Brown, a Christian spoken-word artist who was on their live album. And then she turned up on a blog I read, doing this amazing reading/spoken-word poem with Ann Voskamp, whose prose writing is half poetry anyway. It's worth your time. And now I want to be a spoken-word poet when I grow up.  I embedded the video below, but Blogger seems to think that all videos come from YouTube, so I had to download it to my computer and then upload it here, and it looks a bit blurry to me. If you want to go to the source and watch a full-screen version that's a bit clearer, here's the link: http://vimeo.com/89473829 
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary.

17 March 2014

Christmas in March

I recently returned from a writing workshop sponsored by the Women's Leadership Institute, an organization associated with Concordia University Wisconsin. The workshop focused primarily on writing in a Christian, specifically Lutheran, context. One writing prompt gave us a Scripture verse and an "object" and asked us to write something combining the two. I received Rom. 8:31-32 and "grandmother's recipe card." It is Christmassy, but since we just received 7 inches of snow last night, and the kids are on their tenth? eleventh? snow day of the year--well, I'm not really feeling St. Patrick's Day. And this memory always makes me smile, so I'll hope that it makes you smile, too. Here's an edited version of what came out of that assignment.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? --Rom 8:31-32 (NIV)

Cookies star in many a holiday gathering, but Christmas will always taste like Gram’s punch to me. The whole family would pile into the car and drive the five minutes down to Gram and Pap’s house. We sat in their front room, which they only used at Christmas. The overstuffed couch looked and felt stiff; a fake tabletop tree sat on an end-table pushed in front of the window; and waves of heat rose from the floor vents. We kids shifted uncomfortably on the couch and pretended to be interested in the lovely sweater that Pap gave Gram for Christmas. But, really, we were just waiting for the punch and cookies.
Gram served from a real glass punch bowl, filled to the brim with pale orange liquid, with bits of sherbet fizzing and floating on top. That giant punch bowl seemed bottomless. Ladle after ladle of sweet, fizzy goodness went into our paper cups. We drank until we could drink no more (or until our parents put a stop to our greediness).
The bounty of my grandmother’s Christmas punch recalls the bounty that our Lord showers on us. Gram sacrificed a little time and a lot of orange sherbet for her beloved children and grandchildren. But Jesus gave up all for us—his life for our sins, his glory to be with us on earth.  Often, we get mired in the muck of life here on earth—sickness, violence, temptation, depression. We feel beaten and broken, undeserving of the sweetness of God’s love. But God has already proven that He loves us, through Jesus’s sacrifice. And He wants to give us all things: forgiveness, shelter, peace, and love overflowing. He offers us the cup of salvation; we only have to reach out and take it.
And somehow, I think it tastes a little bit like my grandmother’s punch.