Black Panther and Living in Perspectives

I saw Black Panther about a week and a half ago, so this review is a long time coming. I was almost going to let it slide, but my brother has been inspiring in the last few days, so I finally mustered my limited after-school energy to put into words what I got out of the movie.

Especially because what I got out of it was, I think, a lesson worth learning.

Before I get into the meat, it’s worth noting that while this is certainly a good Marvel movie, and a successful Marvel movie. It’s still a Marvel movie. The action varies between meh and pretty alright, witty banter does a good job of entertaining while occasionally undercutting the gravity of the scene, we have a love interest that… exists, a dopey sidekick that becomes heroic, a really-bad bad guy and a somewhat-sympathetic bad guy, the trademark shiny Marvel visual aesthetic, the obligatory mid/post-credit scenes, and the equally obligatory sense of being “socially conscious.” It feels like you’ve been here before.

But director Ryan Coogler takes that and makes it better–he takes the obligatory tropes of the MCU and makes you forgot, from time to time, that that’s what they are.

Going into Black Panther, expected something highly politically charged. On the one side, everyone was proclaiming this a great victory for Black America, the first true Black superhero. (Conveniently forgetting about Blade, my favorite Wesley Snipes role and first unwitting introduction to Guillermo del Toro.) Also, his name was “Black Panther” it was about an African country being the best country on the planet. On the other hand were snarky but intriguing memes about Wakanda being a technologically modern monarchist nation that values its cultures and traditions so much that takes on an isolationist foreign policy and tightly controls its borders. So, whether explicitly SJW or a stealth alt-right hit, I was expecting interesting politics.

The politics was the least interesting part. Isolationism vs. colonialism vs. “nice foreign intervention” was definitely a theme, it took a back seat to the intrigue surrounding the throne and T’Chaka’s legacy. Whatever agenda the filmmakers had in that department, that didn’t seem to be where their heart was.

Their heart was in the characters.

In partisan era, in an age where we are exposed to the raw, indelicately stated views of those very different from us, we tend to reduce our understanding of the world to “that which is clearly right” and “that which is clearly wrong.” We rush to treating our neighbors like they are either morons or evil because their perspective is different from our own.

Now, right and wrong clearly exist. Sometimes they’re even fairly straightforward. But human beings are not simple creatures. They’re rarely orcs or idiots.

One question often discussed by certain friends of mine who maintain the secret, nefarious habit of writing stories is just how stories shape us. Many of us were told growing up that stories change the world, that they shape how people think. With stories, we can transform, or even save, our culture. For some of us, this became a slightly more sophisticated version of “every story has to have a moral.” In other words, tell us what to believe, and tell us why the other guys are orcs or idiots.

That was not Ryan Coogler’s goal.

Some folks in my newsfeed were outraged by the way slavery and colonialism played such a big role in the backstory and general milieu of Black Panther. They took it as Black people blaming all their problems on Whites, and demonization of all White folks. Given Black Panther’s place in the Marvel Universe, I highly doubt that’s a good reading.

I also think it’s a bad reading because Coogler did not make a story about White people. He made a story about Black people. Black Panther was an early and important Black superhero, and his coming into the MCU really is in the context of a push for more representation of Black folks both in front of and behind the camera. This was billed as an opportunity for people to speak to the mainstream whose opportunity to do so is usually limited and filtered through a business world that doesn’t quite belong to them.

Granting that context, the place of colonialism and slavery in the background is not a slap in the face to anybody. It’s a fact of African history, and a fact of Black American history. You complain about the uses that history is sometimes put to, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that it’s acknowledged. That is the world these characters live in because it simply is the real world for a lot of people.

If that doesn’t bug you, and it shouldn’t, you get to see something really fantastic. Ryan Coogler and his excellent cast paint the audience a series of portraits, of characters who have radically different points of view. And then we get to live in them.

First off, take a look at T’Challa. T’Challa has inherited a kingdom from his father. He wants to rule it well, and to honor that legacy. That legacy involves long ages of Wakanda concealing itself from the world, hiding in secret while the rest of the planet descends into turmoil. T’Challa exists to protect his people.

His friend W’kabi takes a slightly different view. He guards the borders of Wakanda, and is therefore key in keeping it both safe and secret. But W’kabi sees what goes on in the outside world, and wants to see Wakand take a more active role in righting wrongs.

Enter “Killmonger,” AKA Eric Stevens—AKA N’Jadaka. Killmonger grew up in Oakland, in poverty and violence, in antagonism with the police and with the White America they seem to represent, in the world criss-crossed with scars of America’s rough racial past and its tense and uncertain present. But Killmonger is actually T’Challa’s cousin. He returns to Wakanda to claim the throne and implement something far more radical than W’kabi’s vision of increased intervention–he wants to reverse the colonization narrative, to lead an uprising and conquer that colonizing nations, to use violence liberate the oppressed everywhere, and to oppress their oppressors.

This opens a gap between T’Challa’s understanding of the world, and the way it actually is. This gap is represented by Zuri and by the spirit of T’Challa’s departed father, T’Chaka. T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu was sent as a secret agent to the United States. Seeing the plight of Black Americans at the time, he conspired with a black market arms dealer to steal Wakandan vibranium, and began to plot what sounds like a terrorist attack. When T’Chaka confronts him, begins to arrest him, and then N’Jobu attacks Zuri, forcing T’Chaka to kill him. T’Chaka and Zuri flee, leaving  behind N’Jobu’s body, as well his son–young N’Jadaka/Killmonger.

T’Chaka acted in the best interests of his country. He did his job, but it left his brother dead. Worst of all, he left behind an orphan. T’Challa has to struggle with this legacy–his father’s way of defending Wakanda came at a terrible cost, the cost of making a child fatherless, and of that child, now grown, coming back for revenge.

T’Challa and T’Chaka’s perspectives are painted very sympathetically, but so is Killmonger’s. He is responding to a very real grievance, and he is doing so in a way that he hopes will prevent others from enduring what he did. Killmonger is trying to save the world, every bit as much as all the other Marvel characters–except T’Challa.

In the background, we have been informed of the Jabari tribe, a group of Wakandans who refused to adopt the new technology and retreated into the mountains to maintain older, more traditional ways. T’Challa is almost killed, but his exiled friends find him deep in these mountains, being tended by the Jabari tribe and their leader, M’Baku. M’Baku, previously quite menacing, turns out to be friendly and helpful. After a few scenes, we begin to like the guy. He even shows up in the end in a classic here-comes-Han style unexpected rescue scene.

This odd for a group that is basically something between the Benedict Option and the Amish of the MCU. So, brief recap, the anti-technology, ultra-traditionalists are sympathetic, the conquer-the-world-to-save-it villain is sympathetic, and fabulously wealthy and advanced isolationists are sympathetic. Also, good buddy W’kabi, who strikes something of a balance–though a lopsided one–between Killmonger and T’Chaka/Zuri.

Caught between them all is T’Challa. By the end of the movie, Killmonger’s death scene leads us to sympathize with him more, not less. Yet the fact that Killmonger had to be defeated says a lot. T’Challa decidedly rejected his father’s path, but his love for both Zuri and his father remains clear. W’kabi looks like he might be descending into villainy, but there is a last-minute restraint which indicates that he has not so far gone that he is beyond redemption. M’Baku and the Jabari end up heroes.

There is obviously a clear good guy/bad guy divide in the conflict itself, but nobody (well, except the arms dealer) is completely unsympathetic. And that’s the value of what Coogler did.

One of the great virtues of storytelling, one of the most powerful things it can do to shape us, is not to highlight who the orcs and the idiots are, or to tell us exactly what to believe. It’s that it can make us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes–it can make us live life from someone else’s perspective.

I noted at the beginning that Black Panther is definitely a Marvel movie, but in a very real way it is a notch above most of the rest. Rarely in the MCU have I felt like the hero has, by the end, not just become stronger, but also wiser. I have often felt that they have become what I can only call “more socially conscious,” but I rarely come away with the impression that they are more compassionate. Here, I did.

If there’s a moral to the story of Black Panther, it’s not really about isolation or race in America or colonialism. It’s about the value of actually considering another perspective. Like T’Challa, we don’t have to come away in the end having adopted the views of our enemy, just to prove how understanding we are. But we should understand where they’re coming from, what good may be found in their view of the world, and we should acknowledge it.

Of course, that sort of charity and compassion is exactly what you would expect from a reactionary, monarchist paradise. 😉

Go see Black Panther.

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The Invention of Religion in Japan

Against Christianity

 

The Bible never mentions Christianity. It does not preach Christianity, nor does it encourage us to preach Christianity. Paul did not preach Christianity, nor did any of the other apostles. During centuries when the church was strong and vibrant, she did not preach Christianity either. Christianity, like Judaism and “Yahwism,” is an invention of biblical scholars, theologians, and politicians, and one of its chief effects is to keep Christians and the church in their proper, marginal, place. The Bible speaks of Christians and of the church, but Christianity is gnostic, and the church firmly rejected gnosticism from her earliest days.

 

These are the provocative opening lines of Against Christianity, a book by pastor and theologian, Dr. Peter Leithart. (A larger chunk of the first chapter can be found here.) The thrust of the book is that the idea that Christianity is merely a system of doctrine we hold in our heads, or a set of stories that comfort us, or a private hobby we indulge in on the weekends in discreet sanctuaries out of the public eye—the sort of “Christianity” that is separate from the rest of life in more or less a modern heresy.

When I came across this slim booklet in high school, it had a profound effect on how I saw the world. I had grown up thinking of myself as a committed Christian, deeply opposed to the increasing secularization I saw in society. Then along comes a book that says the very categories by which I understand my faith are a product of secularism.

Leithart emphasized that the Bible did not teach an ideology, but preached an event and a person. It was not our beliefs which set His followers apart from the world, but a set of practices that He had instituted. The world would not be changed by a system of doctrine, but by a community. And this community was not a weekend club, but a fiercely political assembly, a rival to the various empires and coalitions and world orders proposed throughout history. The Gospel did not just overthrow the worldview of (presumably atheistic) Democrats, it challenged God-fearing, conservative, American evangelicals.

In some ways, most of my spiritual development since then has been struggling with the new categories Leithart introduced. It fit with certain things I had been taught, but often in odd ways.

For example, if by “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship” you mean that we are defined by our loyalty to and identification with Christ, then that old evangelical commonplace was exactly what Leithart preached. But in another sense, he made that “relationship” seem far more profoundly “religious”—that is, mired in ritual and worship and the sort of devotion and obedience which allows for no competing loyalties.

Ultimately, his book asked me to consider what “Christianity” was, and whether that was even a good term for this thing I was involved in.

Against Religion

If Leithart’s Against Christianity was a paradigm shift, Jason A. Josephson-Storm’s The Invention of Religion in Japan was a far bigger one. Taken by itself, Leithart might almost seem to be saying that Christianity is just a really special religion, one that is so different from all the others that using the usual language is a bad idea. Josephson-Storm exploded the idea of “religion” entirely.

Now don’t take that the wrong way. Josephson-Storm does not disprove the existence of God, or deny that worship is meaningful, or anything like that. It’s not the thing itself that he explodes, but the concept.

“Religion” is a relatively new idea. If you said you were “religious” to a medieval, he would assume you were a monk. If you clarified that by saying you believed in God and went to church and all that business, he might shrug and say “Who doesn’t?” There was no “irreligion” as we think of it, and so specifying that you were “religious” as opposed to “irreligious” was hardly meaningful.

But what about the other “religions” Christians ran into in that era? Well, they didn’t think of them as alternative “religions,” but either placed them in the category of “heresy” or “idolatry.” We have to be careful here, because we can just read the idea “religion I think is false” into idolatry, but that isn’t how they understood it. For medievals, there was simply truth and falsehood—orthodoxy and heresy or superstition—and right worship and wrong worship. Wrong worship was idolatry, and you could accuse an Eastern Orthodox Christian of it as easily as a foreigner with foreign gods.

The closest thing medieval Christians encountered to an alternative Christianity was Islam. It was monotheistic, had a distinct founder, included divine revelation in the form of a holy book, and supported an intellectual world a scholastic would find familiar. But Islam was not regarded as a separate religion, but as a Christian heresy, or as idolatry and superstition, depending on who you asked.

All this is the haphazard explanation of an amateur. Josephson-Storm does a much better job of explaining how, as Christian nations formed in the wake of the Reformation, and as they expanded into new colonial empires, they carved out the category of “religion” as separate from “science” and “superstition” and even “magic.” Of course, The Invention of Religion in Japan does not focus on the European side of that story.

“Religion” in Japan

When Commodore Matthew Perry parked his ships off the coast of Japan in 1853, he forced Japan to begin interacting with the outside—and particularly Western—world. For about two centuries under the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan had shut itself off from the outside world, allowing only very limited interactions with China, Korea, and the Netherlands under very carefully prescribed conditions. For the next twenty years, they would spend their time drafting treaties with new foreign powers and opening themselves up to trade and modernization.

One curious feature of these treaties was that the Westerners were always demanding “the freedom to practice their religion” while in Japan. After the Meiji Restoration, when Japan began trying to craft a modern constitution in imitation of these same Westerners, they kept running into clauses about “freedom of religion.” Whatever it was, Westerners seemed to believe it was very important.

Japan had no word for “religion.” At first they thought it was just another word for Christianity, but that was clearly not the case. The foreigners kept asking the Japanese about their religions. The Japanese thought maybe the word might refer to systems of teaching, but Confucian teachings had little to do with gods or worship, and Westerners seemed focused on that. Japan certainly had gods and worship, but multiple theologies existed to explain any given god, or most popular rituals.

Suffice it to say intellectuals and diplomatic translators in Japan had a rough time trying to define religion. In the process, they may even have invented a few.

The Shinto Secular

As Japan underwent rapid modernization, they worked hard to relate modern science to their ancient beliefs about the world. One particular branch of science was called “kokugaku,” which Josephson-Storm translates “National Science.” It was partly concerned with philology and partly with classic Japanese literature. Experts in kokugaku claimed to peel away the layers of Buddhist theology that had come in from China and uncover the original Japanese gods.

As the state looked for something around which to consolidate national pride, they began to disentangle Buddhist doctrine, Buddhist language, Buddhist-style priests, and more obviously Buddhist rituals from the gods the Japanese had worshipped for centuries. This purified, original national religion became what we call “Shinto.”

“Shinto” literally means “the way of the gods.” It is not a system of doctrine, and there is no single prophet and no holy book associated with it. It is not particularly concerned with what we might think of as moral precepts. It is, first and foremost, a set of rituals for honoring the gods.

Our first impulse might be to call this a religion, but the Japanese state did not see it that way. As they developed their constitution, they determined that there would, indeed, be religious freedom. Buddhists and Christians and other sectarians would be free to keep their own beliefs, and even to worship. But the nation worshiped the gods, and any reasonable person would have no problem in participating. For the Japanese state, Shinto was not a religion. Shinto was secular. Shinto was even consistent with modern science.

Science, Religion, and Superstition

Again, Josephson-Storm has done a much better job of explaining these things than I can. I will probably spend years puzzling out the implications of what he suggests. It is truly unsettling for a mind used to modern categories.

As far as I understand at the moment, here is the idea he proposes: the modern, scientific state needed its citizen to put their faith in a system which could be used to uncover objective reality. This system was called “science.” Science was different than the purely personal and private phenomenon of “religion.” Religion might be indulged in to give life meaning, or to promote morality, but science was simply objective fact. It was the marvelous technique that gave the modern state its power. Everyone had to accept it.

Of course, there were dangerous beliefs as well, things that might have been thought to be religion or science at one time. But because they were clearly wrong, according to science, and clearly dangerous, according to the state, they had to be given some other name. These false beliefs were “superstition.” The state would allow for freedom of religion, but by and large attempted to stamp out superstition.

In other words, religion as a category was invented as part of the project of building modern nation-states. “Religion” was what you were allowed to believe in your head or do on your own time, but the secular—that which was scientifically, objectively true, and that which was backed by the state—was what all reasonable people must agree upon.

If Josephson-Storm is right, and if I have understood him, this has profound implications for what it means to be a Christian in modern society. Leithart’s point is right, but his insight has much more far-reaching implications than he suggests in Against Christianity. The division of some rituals into secular—pledging allegiance, the national anthem—and others as religious—baptism, the Lord’s Supper—is not a reflection of reality. It’s a political act. The division of some beliefs into secular—politics, science—and others as religious—theology, hermeneutics—is also more of a trick being pulled than a true division of things into their proper places.

For a Christian living in the modern world, both these books are worth reading and worth chewing on. At the very least, they ask us to take the categories we use far more seriously than we often do.