Thursday, July 24, 2014

How The Bachelor Illuminates the Falsehoods In Our Lives

by Emily Joy Allison 

I get a lot of scornful, “I can’t believe YOU watch THE BACHELOR” sort of comments from my friends when they find out about my obsession. Granted, if you know me even a little, it’s a bit surprising. On the surface, someone like me (feminist, relatively moral human being, incurable monogamist) watching a show like The Bachelor requires a level of cognitive dissonance few are capable of. But I promise it all makes sense if you dig a little deeper.

What appeals to me about The Bachelor franchise isn’t the drama, the hot men, the international travel, or the suspense of the rose ceremonies. It’s the completely accidental, unintentional running commentary the show provides on human nature in general, and specifically human relationships.

Hear me out.

We laugh at the people competing for love every Monday night at 8/7c because we intuitively recognize the motions they are going through as false. We see that, by and large, the emotions these men and women purport to be feeling are fabricated products of a completely unnatural situation involving isolation, groupthink, and lots of alcohol. “Nobody could fall in love in eight weeks while dating twenty-four other people!” we scoff. When the last rose is handed out, we see the dejection on the face of the unlucky bachelorette that didn’t get chosen; we wonder how she didn’t see it coming; we know Hunky McHotpants only let her go because she wasn’t as pretty as the other girls and that’s really all he cares about anyway. If we have even a vestige of a conscience, we feel a pang of empathy as we watch the jilted almost-lover riding away in a black limo, crying and talking about how stupid she feels for thinking this time things would be different.

But here’s the thing: each of us has been in the metaphorical black limo. We have all, at one time or another, felt stupid for thinking, this time, it would be different. We have all imagined ourselves in love with someone we didn’t really know, we have all let special circumstances and free booze replace hard work and critical thinking. There is a very thin line that separates each of us from the contestants on The Bachelor, and that line is social shame. Most of us wouldn’t be caught dead baring our souls on national television like that, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t thought those Exact. Same. Things.

Which leads to the question of whether or not those things, those feelings, are fake—as we assume them to be when we see them on television—or whether they’re integral parts of the human experience. Anyone can tell you that much of The Bachelor franchise is heavily manipulated, if not outright scripted. Read interviews with past contestants and they will tell you that the producers will purposely set up situations to cause drama and ask extremely pointed questions just to get the “money quotes” they need to make the series as successful as it is. It is both a science and an art. But it’s not all fake, as the (albeit few) very real and lasting marriages that have resulted from the show will testify. Sometimes it’s real, and sometimes it works.

Which could just as well be said about our relationships in real life.

Sometimes it’s real. And sometimes it works.

I wonder if some part of the scorn and derision people express towards The Bachelor comes from the fact that The Bachelor is, unintentionally but effectively, a mirror of human nature. It shows us what we are really like at our rawest, our most shameless. It shows us just how far we will go to find love (and just how far we will go to get laid).

And that is, well, kind of gross. It’s uncomfortable to see ourselves and our pain in the face of a drunk, white girl in a limousine with mascara smeared all over her cheeks, whose name is probably “Britney S.” and has an occupation like “dog lover” or “free spirit.” We’re more sophisticated than that, aren’t we?

Deep down, we know we aren’t. So it is easier not to look at it. It is easier to watch Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black and Game of Thrones, more serious, sophisticated shows, and pretend that those somehow say more about human nature than a series as shallow and frivolous as The Bachelor.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes of his deceased wife:
“Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable. And how or why did such a reality blossom (or fester) here and there into the terrible phenomenon called consciousness? Why did it produce things like us who can see it and, seeing it, recoil in loathing? Who (stranger still) want to see it and take pains to find it out, even when no need compels them and even though the sight of it makes an incurable ulcer in their hearts? People like H. herself, who would have truth at any price.”
Perhaps that also applies to reality television. 

Emily Joy Allison is a poet and provider of fine burritos in Nashville, Tennessee. Her first album is called Dichotomized and can be found on her website You can follow her on Twitter @softlysoaring. 

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chaos and Fictional Theology

by Ben Howard

As a writer who occasionally has opinions about Christianity I am required by divine fiat to have a definitive position on the issue of the afterlife. A footnote to this rule hastily added in recent years forces me to write about this topic at least once a year to stay in good standing with the (possibly imaginary) powers that be.

Now, before I dive into my very well thought-out, possibly genius, and definitely correct opinion, let me make one quick note: Almost all discussions about the afterlife are stupid, or at least whatever synonym of that word I need to use to both not insult the participants of the conversation and make it clear that I do not see the value in their thoughts on hell, heaven, or divine realms of puppies/ice cream/Backstreet Boys montages.

Clear? Good.

With that out of the way, I'd like to tell you my useless (but remember, totally correct) opinion. I believe in annihilationism.

If you're unfamiliar with annihilationism, be assured that you're not alone. While it was one of the beliefs about the nature of salvation and eternity that some of the Church Fathers subscribed to, it has been a minority view throughout history. At its essence, it bridges the gap between traditional beliefs in hell and universalism. There is no eternal conscious torment in annihilationism, but neither is eternal life granted to all. Instead of hell, those who are not saved are “annihilated,” which sounds a bit violent until you realize that it essentially means they die (like everybody else) and then stay dead instead of being resurrected.

To explain how I came to hold this position, let me discuss two things I hold as universal givens: sin and death. When I use the word sin, I don't mean sin as an individual’s actions or even habits and inclinations. Instead I use the word sin in a metaphysical sense, as the force that un-creates God's good creation. To my mind, this is the central crisis of the Christian story, creation vs. un-creation, existence vs. non-existence, with sin as the force which pushes us closer and closer towards the non-existent, un-created side of the equation. This act of un-creation ultimately results in death, not just the death of an individual, but the death of all existence, everything and everyone.

And while this may seem bleak, here's the kicker, in this telling of the story Christ's sacrifice doesn't save us from our sin. Instead he overcomes the consequences of our sin by resurrection and new creation. Resurrection and immortality are graciously bestowed on a grateful people rather than prizes earned by good behavior or gifts given to all without their desire or consent. Also, it eliminates the unjust punishment present in spending an eternity in hell for a finite number of crimes. We aren't punished for sin; we simply receive the natural consequences of our existence. We live and we die, just like everyone; there just isn't an infinity-length encore.

This belief is simply logical to me, it's clean and direct. It's a system wherein, if you believe in an afterlife, chances are you're right. If you don't believe in an afterlife, chances are you're right too. It treats everyone equally and we all experience the same fate for our actions. It's clear, it's to the point, and it's just.

It makes so much sense.

Which is why I'm also convinced it's completely wrong.

Think about your favorite book, or your favorite movie, or whatever fictional story happens to resonate with you. Think about how the story progresses, how it moves from point A to point B to point C, always laying down more narrative track following the route the author has laid out in advance. The author may even get a bit creative and jump around, perhaps it starts at point C and works backward, maybe it starts in the middle, exploring backstory as it goes, but it always tells an ordered story. If it's a good story you'll get little bits and pieces that explain the motivation of the characters, quick asides about their pasts, small scenes that further illuminate their personality, all of it building incrementally to the final climactic moments. All of it makes perfect sense.

But that's what fiction does; it makes sense.

In contrast, our own lives, our own stories, present us with a far less cohesive narrative structure. Of course order still holds sway over most areas of our lives, causes have their effects, questions have their answers, and crises have their resolutions, but there also exists something else: chaos. And chaos is what ushers in the unpredictability, it's what keeps things from being neatly arranged, ordered, tidy.

And it's the reason why, despite answering all the questions I may have about death and the afterlife, my own closely held beliefs are just too clean and orderly. They are fiction, not reality. 

Yet I don't know what an accurate theory about the afterlife would look like with it's chaos-inflected jagged lines and logic-averse inner constructs. My mind recoils at the complexity such a theory would require, like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a child who has just mastered the ability to count to three. Reality exists to boggle the mind.

But we must believe something, and in the end I believe what I believe, all the while uncertain and almost entirely convinced that what I believe is wholly incorrect. And with this uncertainty come the seeds of humility, not fully developed, but growing, slowly. The ability to listen to others, who I'm convinced are just as wrong as I, and respond with a modicum of grace. 

Universalism? No, but maybe.
Hell? No, but maybe.
Aliens? No...but maybe? 

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHowardOPT.  

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On Metaphors and Summer Breaks

by Lyndsey Graves

It has been ten weeks since I last attended church. I didn’t plan it this way, and there are a hundred reasons why this is a terrible state of affairs, but it is how the summer has turned out.  A long, green stretch and not a church in sight. In between a lot of beautifully life-giving visits with friends and with family, life has mostly been “just me and God.” It’s a phrase I normally abhor, but I find it surprisingly fitting for these weeks of long workdays interspersed with lots of time alone.

Meanwhile, I have read my Bible and talked to my friends and prayed, but I’ve refused to Do Theology. By the end of last semester, I was utterly burned out on analyzing God and having opinions about everything and telling people how to save the world. So I turned in my last paper and I decided to quit thinking. I stopped trying to puzzle out The Big Questions of Christianity in some theory-realm beyond the space and time that I actually occupy. I started cooking instead, and traveling, and crafting, and generally living the life of the average twenty-something whose vocation is not to Think Big Thoughts but just to try, and mostly fail, at making money.

Life, therefore, has been strangely devoid of words about God. Oh, there have been prayers - questions and hopes and thanks offered for me and my little circle of people. But for the last ten weeks, I have pursued no answers and formulated no abstractions, merely the simple stuff of life in summer. Cherries, cucumbers, peppers, popsicles. Long walks at long sunsets. Weddings, homecomings, tangled emotions. Bicycling sticky-hot through the stifling city, and gratitude for an icy shower. Being Christian, in these weeks, has been simply life, prayed through - not in a particularly serious or reflective way, either, only a wandering, companionable one: sharing, asking, thankfulness.

Theology is often spoken of as a quest for metaphors, for word-pictures that will do to describe God. Of course, nothing can describe God; it is only that God has revealed God’s self to us, and we feel ourselves compelled to try. I think it’s worthwhile, or I wouldn’t be making a career of it, but my summer sojourn in Regular Life has taught me about metaphors: metaphors are meant to bring the ineffable closer to us wee humans, yet we can also use it to push the infinite away. We theologians run the risk of idolizing our words, our pet thoughts, and our interpretive methods. Sometimes for it is for the very reason that they once brought us closer to God, or sometimes out of self-righteousness, or sometimes out of an unhealthy, sublimated fear of God. Whatever the reasons, we cling to our words or to our philosophies, and we forget that there was ever anything beyond them but our own belief that we are right.

I love words. They make me grateful to be human. A perfectly-turned phrase is not only beguilingly lovely, but also has such power to shape everything about our perceptions of reality and our ways of living life. Yet I believe that, as people of a Book, we are too prone to allow the mind and its babblings - and yes, even our abstractions like Justice or Truth - to overshadow the humbly sacred things of everyday body and urgent, inexpressible spirit. We fear these or we scorn them; perhaps we grow irritated that they remind us of our finitude. And we miss the point of it all entirely, becoming ever more removed from those unlike us, those who don’t live in their heads or share our oh-so-precise vocabulary. But that’s why we have summer. We have breaks to cease, to rest, and to remember.

Several of my favorite bloggers are taking a break right now as well; it’s fitting and necessary for life. Summer this year feels precious somehow; and I hope for you that you are able to rest in it as well. I hope that on your break, you don’t abandon your own piece of space and time to chase words and formulas and fashions. I hope you are relieved of the need to believe that you are particularly right. I pray only that your summer is full of food that reminds you to love the soil and sun and rain. Of moments when you are overflowing and content. Of new discoveries that bring you joy and old photos whose nostalgia points you toward heaven. May no one explain your frustrations and sorrows away - just for a moment, sit with pain and know how wrong death is. May you encounter a God who cannot be described, and may you simply rest there for a while. There will be another time to reach for your pen and fashion your theories, but right now, there is ever only this present moment to love and be loved by Mystery who defies them all. 

Lyndsey lives in Boston, MA where she is pursuing her Master's in Theological Studies at Boston University. She enjoys Community, Mad Men and Beauty and the Beast and her spirit animal is a sloth. She would like to know if this is some kind of interactive theater art piece. You can follow her on Twitter @lyndseygraves and you can find more of her writing at her blog To Be Honest. 

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Monday, July 21, 2014

On Pop Theology Podcast: Episode 58 - Arts & Entertainments w/ Christopher Beha

by Ben Howard 

This week on the show Ben talks with author Christopher Beha about his new novel Arts & Entertainments, his Catholic faith, and the nature of the novel of ultimate concern. They’ll also discuss his previous book What Happened to Sophie Wilder, the cultural place of celebrities and why Beha live-tweeted The Bachelorette. We hope you enjoy the interview and please check out Christopher’s books at Amazon, or preferably at your local bookstore.

Also, you can find Christopher's book recommendation, The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, here.

You can download the podcast by clicking here. Or you can subscribe to the podcast by searching "On Pop Theology" in the iTunes music store. If you like the show, please rate and review us on iTunes. It's the only way to prove to my mom that I have friends.

Finally, if you'd like to stream the podcast, you can do that here:



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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hardcore Asthmatics and the Best Things You'll Read All Week

by Ben Howard and Sebastian Faust

Reads of the Week

1) The Evil at Our Borders: Migrants, Refugees, and the Spiritual Crisis of Immigration by David R. Henson

"For conservatives, it is an immigration crisis, demonstrating the failures of the U.S. immigration policy and the need for militarized borders. For liberals, it is a humanitarian crisis, demonstrating the failures of U.S. economic policy, the immediate need for aid, and the necessity of immigration reform. For me, while I agree with progressives here, it is also a profoundly spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of faith, and right now, we are not the bearers of liberty, hope, democracy, or good news. Rather, we are the bearers of evil."

2) Re-thinking Communion by Christena Cleveland

"It seems that the way we do communion in many churches is too easy, too convenient, too painless, too safe, too inorganic, too separate from actual reconciliation work, and too individualistic. I’m starting to think that the way we do communion is not scandalous enough to represent the cross."

3) Hebel, Grace and the Art of Andy Goldsworthy: Part 2, Living as a Sacrament by Richard Beck

"Here's what I mean. Today each of us will wander out into the world. And around us we'll find all sorts people and all sorts of situations. It's a fractal, messy, and chaotic world out there. And it's not all bad. There are beautiful things, like flowers, out there. But there is also sadness and brokenness, conflict and deadness. And what we'll try to do today (or what we should be doing today) is very similar to what Goldsworthy does. We will try, given what we find out there, to bring grace and beauty into the world."

4) Authentic Modesty: Compassion Over Shame by Saskia Wishart

"Imagine if we, as women who love, started talking about how we deal with harassment from men on the street instead of slut-shaming women for drawing the harassment. My hope is that we learn to look with compassion, not lust. That we can place value, rather than casting shame. My hope is that we understand that body parts are only the start of the story, and there is so much more to be known about an individual."

5) "Why I Use Birth Control": 11 Women Speak Up by Rachel Held Evans

"Opinions about the ruling aside, I’ve been stunned by some of the misinformation circulating around social media about contraception, the most unhelpful of which characterizes women who use contraception as 'entitled,' 'sluts,' 'moochers,' and 'whores.'  I’ve shared my own thoughts on contraception in a post entitled 'Privilege and the Pill,' but today I wanted to yield the floor to ten women whose stories challenge these unfair caricatures. I am incredibly grateful for their bravery and honesty in stepping forward to tell the truth of their experiences. Please, listen."

Honorable Mention

The Saddest - and Classiest - Soccer Fan by Jason Morehead

How Secrets Made Me Sick by J.

Gettin' on the Mat by Diana Trautwein

Tweets of the Week

"An exclamation point is like a tiny little crutch for your joke." - @bazecraze

"God was dead. But the show had to go on. His doppelgänger Göd stepped in, executed the Apocalypse to rapturous applause." - @VikramParalkar

"Crossfitters are the Boy Scouts of the adult world." - @chettarcheese

On Pop Theology Week in Review

Because I Know You: Friendship and Tom Cruise by Charity Erickson

"The other day, I went to see Edge of Tomorrow, the newest addition to Tom Cruise’s rather extensive sci-fi repertoire."

Elephants in the Room: Israel, Palestine, and the Nature of Oppression by David Creech

"My natural disposition is to side with those who are oppressed. I also prefer to hear people tell their own story rather than insert my opinions from the outside. Enter the Israel-Palestine conflict."

Song of the Week

"Lanterns" by Birds of Tokyo


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Friday, July 18, 2014

Elephants in the Room: Israel, Palestine, and the Nature of Oppression

by David Creech

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Bishop Desmond Tutu

My natural disposition is to side with those who are oppressed. I also prefer to hear people tell their own story rather than insert my opinions from the outside. Enter the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This longstanding (Western-created) conflict reentered my thinking in late June when the Presbyterian Church (USA) very narrowly voted to divest from U.S. companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. This decision was given much more attention than their equally significant (and overwhelmingly supported) decision to allow a process for gay marriage. (Quick aside: the relative silence about this decision in popular media suggests to me that, as a society, we are done with this conversation. Support of gay marriage remains an issue only in certain conservative communities. Move along, people.) The resolution was criticized by many Jewish and pro-Israel groups as tone deaf at best and anti-Semitic at worst.

*pause for deep breath*

And yet, the recent events leading up to and culminating in Israel’s so-called “Operation Protective Edge” demonstrate why the Presbyterian decision may be warranted. At the time of this writing (a running tally of the deaths is available here), Israel has launched more than 1,300 rockets into the Palestinian territories, killing at least 222 Palestinians (approximately 77% of whom are civilians) and injuring nearly 1,700 more. This in response to three Israeli teens who were (quite wrongfully) killed by Palestinian extremists. As one Palestinian advocate on Twitter put it, if a toddler bites the neighborhood bully and the bully retaliates with an axe, one is justifiably angrier about the axe.

To choose neutrality in this conflict is to side with the elephant.

Except… this is where it gets tricky. Historically, Jews have been oppressed by Christians. This previously referenced article gives a helpful history. And though the oppression spans centuries, one needn’t look far beyond Christianity’s primary documents to see the horror of anti-Semitism in its very foundations. (Quick qualifying statement: perceived anti-Semitism in the New Testament is in some ways anachronistic—the authors were members of a Jewish sect engaged in an intramural conflict.) Paul calls Jews children of a slave woman. The Gospel of Matthew unequivocally blames the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. The Gospel of John calls the Jews children of Satan. Statements such as these (and many more could be adduced) led to a horrible history of disenfranchisement, ghettoization, pogroms, and ultimately the Holocaust.

Jews are right to feel like the mouse whose tail is being crushed by an elephant.

In this context, it is fair to ask why the state of Israel was singled out by the PC(USA) for sanctions. There are a host of unjust regimes around the world, many of whom are far more vicious and cruel (Egypt, anyone?). It is also fair to ask why this conflict captures my attention and elicits more rage than those far more devastating wars in Syria and Iraq. What latent anti-Semitism may be operative in this focus on Israel?

Perhaps the PC(USA) had no holdings to divest themselves of with regard to first-tier actors in the other brutal conflicts that are unfolding.  And perhaps it was some rhetorical break with the odd pairing of American Christianity and the state of Israel that grew from a peculiar eschatology. And certainly Israel’s actions rightly cause outrage and anger. But how do we speak to this injustice when we are part of a much larger and longer history of discrimination and violence, when that history is still fresh, still continues even in many forms today?

What do you do when you realize that you are the elephant? 

David Creech is Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Before taking his teaching post up on the frozen tundra he worked for four years doing anti-hunger education and mobilization with ELCA World Hunger. When he is not herding cats (i.e., spending quality time with his three kids) he posts profound thoughts on Twitter @dyingsparrows.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Because I Know You: Friendship and Tom Cruise

by Charity Erickson

The other day, I went to see Edge of Tomorrow, the newest addition to Tom Cruise’s rather extensive sci-fi repertoire. I entered the theater not knowing much about the film, and to my amusement, I found it follows the same basic plot of Groundhog Day--with an alien invasion as the backdrop. (Google confirms that I am approximately the 416,000th person to make this observation.)

The similarities are uncanny: in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s Phil Connors relives the same day over and over until he figures out how to love selflessly. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s William Cage is a military propagandist who finds himself able to reset the same day over and over as he attempts to defeat the time-manipulating collective consciousness of an alien horde that besets humanity. Also, there is a woman!

Each day that Cage resets--which he does by dying--he must find this woman, a soldier wunderkind named Rita, and together they try (and fail) each time to defeat their indomitable foe. Upon failing, Cage kills himself. And then, *respawn*. However, Cage is the only one able to remember and learn from all of their failed attempts to save the world; for Rita, each day she meets Cage is the first.

While the film is pretty meh in the inventiveness of its hero’s arc (even with the whole time travel thing, the film’s action unfolds in a staid and predictable fashion,) the relationship between Rita and Cage saves this piece of science fiction. Really good science fiction, in the end, is not simply speculation about other worlds, realities, futures and pasts; it uses that which is fictive and far away to talk about things that are close: love, war, fear, family. In the case of Edge of Tomorrow, amidst exploding aircraft and vicious aliens, we find a rather poignant statement on what makes a friendship.

Toward the end of the film, Rita expresses frustration with Cage that he is unwilling to sacrifice her life in order to complete their mission and end the war. In her reality, they’ve only just met; yet in Cage’s reality, they have spent the equivalent of years together. She asks him why he cares whether she lives or dies, and he answers, as though it should be self-evident: “Because I know you.” Not “Because I love you,” or “Because I need you,” but simply because he knows her. There is something terribly beautiful about the simplicity of his statement: all it takes to deeply care about another person is to take the time to know her.*

Through the vast majority of the film, the relationship between Rita and Cage reads as a completely platonic, even one-sided friendship, and I find this fascinating as it is not a topic often explored in “serious” film; it is a topic most often relegated to comedy and chick flicks. (The only opposite-gender friendships I can think of in popular media are found in sitcoms--Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy being the most touching example, obvs.) The “bromance” has made the topic of male friendship more common in film, but somewhat-problematically so. Not only does the term whiff of giggling, “no homo” douchebaggery, but it also demonstrates that we are still so ill at ease when speaking about deep friendship, we can’t even figure out a word to call it that doesn’t confusingly conflate it with eros.

That said, I am happy that films exploring the importance of friendship are being made. Anything that acknowledges and normalizes the role deep friendships play in our lives is a boon to the emotional life of our culture, a guide to better and healthier relationships. When we don’t take friendship seriously in art and media, when we leave it unacknowledged as a source both of joy and pain in life, we do a disservice to the richness to be found in meaningful relationships that are founded neither on kinship nor sexual attraction.

For just as we are interdependent with other people, we are interdependent with our media--we trust it to hold a mirror to humanity, and we inform it, just as it informs us. When media portrays the love among friends as trivial compared to, say, romantic love, that attitude leaches into our lived lives, and we find ourselves either confused by the powerful emotions of friendship or we deprive ourselves of those relationships from the start. Like Edge of Tomorrow, perhaps more films will think deeply about the sanctity of friendship and usher in a future where our definitions of love are bigger. Tom-Cruise-summer-blockbuster-sized, even. Amen.

*Spoiler/Caveat: the film hinted at romance at the VERY end, but I chose to ignore it. BECAUSE IT MADE NO SENSE. And apparently, no such romantic relationship exists in the graphic novel upon which the film is based--which must be why the intimation here seemed so out-of-place. 

Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @ecumystic.

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