Don’t Waste Your Lockdown



Almost twenty years ago, pastor John Piper delivered a sermon that “swept over a generation.” Indeed, it was my generation. I matriculated at Auburn University the autumn after Piper preached his famous “seashells” message at Passion’s One Day conference in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 20, 2000. My classmates who had attended the conference were still buzzing about that one sermon. Piper’s message to the 40,000 college students gathered that day was simple but explosive: Don’t waste your life. Don’t buy the American dream of a nice career and a nice retirement, collecting seashells. Instead, give your life away for one thing: boasting only the cross of Jesus Christ that all the nations might glorify him. “Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.”

It ended up being an earth-shattering—and career-changing, vocation-defining—message for many of us. Such a pithy but profound imperative: don’t waste your life. None of us older Millennials and younger Gen-Xers could have predicted the challenges that would attend the next 20 years of our lives: 9/11, the global war on terrorism, and the Great Recession, not to mention our own personal tragedies and professional challenges as we emerged into adulthood and eventually to midlife. But the singularity of the focus that we fostered, not only through Piper’s sermons and writings but also through the world of serious-minded, warm-hearted theology that it opened up to us (Piper, Packer, Stott, and Sproul eventually led us to Edwards, Owen, Calvin, and Augustine), helped to sustain our faith through these challenges.

And now we face a new challenge in coronavirus. And we face it shoulder-to-shoulder with every generation, remembering especially the elderly who are most at risk. We are tempted to be anxious. How could we not be? There is no time-stamp on this virus. We don’t know what the next day or week or month or year will bring. How long will we be in social isolation? Will more places begin enforcing the lockdown? How many more will get sick? How many more will die? Will the healthcare system hold up under the strain? Will the world descend into another Great Depression? How long can we stay cooped up? What strains will the lockdown place on our mental and spiritual health?

It is this last question that I want to address in this post (and to invite others in to offer their own reflections). My counsel for us during this time deliberately echoes Piper’s sermon: don’t waste your lockdown.

The very same big vision of God that has sustained us through the last twenty years can be our fortress during this time as well. A time of crisis can serve as an opportunity to renew our commitment to God’s mysterious and horrible (Latin, horribilis, “making one shudder or tremble”) but wise and benevolent sovereign control over everything, “whatsoever comes to pass” (Westminster Confession). “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). None of these passages mean that we will be spared calamity or even death: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). But we know that nothing in all creation—not even a virus or a financial collapse— “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

So what can we do to leverage our lockdown for maximal spiritual benefit? Here are some things to consider.

  1. Reset your personal and family devotional life. The virus is forcing us all into a kind of monastic lifestyle. Use it well. Try reading the daily and weekly Scripture lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary. Pray the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer. Commemorate the saints. Regardless of your plan: read Scripture, pray, be silent.
  2. Read good books. Don’t feel guilty about watching movies or starting a new show on Netflix, but don’t miss the opportunity to read either. Try reading theology, poetry, and fiction every day.
  3. Learn to love again. For many families, one or both parents will have to adjust to being home with the kids all day long. After just a week at home, I have a renewed respect for my wife, who stays home with our children all the time! Work through the inevitable tensions and conflicts of cloistered life at home. Make the adjustment as quickly as possible and be gracious to each other.
  4. Find a proper balance between work and rest, structure and flexibility. Some will be tempted to be lazy and unproductive during an extended time without structure. Others will be tempted to force a rigid schedule on themselves and their families. Try to strike the right balance.
  5. Stay connected and engaged with your local church. It is perhaps not an accident that during this Lenten season, we are all being forced into a kind of “fast” or abstinence from the benefits of corporate worship. Many churches are finding industrious ways to stay connected through recorded or streaming services or through teleconferencing. But even if you just pick up the phone to call or text your fellow church members, you can continue to fulfill your covenantal commitments to the local body of Christ. This time away should make us long to renew our bonds of embodied, corporate worship through Word and Sacrament.
  6. Serve your neighbors. Find an appropriate circle of influence, based on the recommended guidelines (even if it’s one neighboring family) and find ways to love and serve them.
  7. Be selective in what news you read and how much. If you are like me, you may be tempted to stay glued to the news through Twitter, news websites, cable news, etc. But not all information is equally reliable, responsible, and quite frankly good for your mental health. So be selective both in content and in time spent scouring the news.
  8. Get outside. Go for a walk. Sit on the porch or patio. Lie in the grass. Listen to the birds. Slowing our frenetic pace and our daily commutes may just open our eyes to the glory around us, to the “love smiling through all things.”
  9. Develop healthy habits. Related to the last point, use this time to refocus on healthy habits. Eat well, sleep well, and do some kind of physical activity every day. The gyms are likely closed. So try a bodyweight routine or just a walk through the neighborhood. Think about your health in comprehensive terms: “a sound mind in a sound body and a spirit that is not afraid.”
  10. Give yourself grace. In all likelihood, you will waste this lockdown to one degree or another. So, focus on moving in the right direction, not merely arriving at the right destination. Focus on process, not goals.

One of the things that was so striking about Piper’s call not to waste your life was just how sober-minded it was. For many of us in college at the time, it was like a punch in the gut, a wakeup call. This was no kitschy, sentimental youth group rally. It was a blood-earnest, prophetic plea to think and act in light of eternity, life and death, heaven and hell. This virus affords us another opportunity for sober thinking. The point of these reflections on how to leverage the lockdown for maximal spiritual benefit is not to belittle the crisis by turning it into just another opportunity for self-help and self-improvement. People are dying. It’s not just about us. The point is to order our lives as if they will end. Because they will. If not during this pandemic, then soon enough. Sooner than we realize. So, don’t waste your lockdown. Don’t waste it.

Did God Die on the Cross?

This episode is a little different than usual. We’re trying something new over the coming weeks with a few short talks on theology. Today, Brandon talks about a question raised around Easter time: if Jesus is fully God, did God die on the cross?

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Episode sponsor: Lexham Press. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. Speaking of Cedarville, you should check out our Master of Divinity and Master of Ministry programs.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Ched Spellman on Canon-Consciousness, Biblical Theology, and Puns as Pedagogy

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Ched Spellman of Cedarville University. We discuss reading the Bible canonically (3:00), biblical authors’ compositional strategy and intention (12:58), Revelation as a canonical bookend (23:00), canon-covenant-Christology as biblical theology (32:30), puns and memes (45:00), and more. Buy Ched’s books. Also, checkout his world-famous YouTube channel.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. Speaking of Cedarville, you should check out our Master of Divinity and Master of Ministry programs.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Daniel Treier on Evangelical Theology, Christian Formation, and Sports Heroes

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Daniel Treier of Wheaton College. We discuss sports heroes (3:29), defining evangelical theology (6:16), the Nicene Creed and theological method (9:10); the Ten Commandments as moral formation (12:00), the Lord’s Prayer as spiritual formation (14:16), the Trinitarian shape of theology (19:00), and more. Buy Dan’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Episode sponsor: Speak for the Unborn. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. Speaking of Cedarville, you should check out our Master of Divinity and Master of Ministry programs.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Thomas Kidd on the Great Awakening, the Founding Fathers, and Defining Evangelicalism

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Thomas Kidd of Baylor University. We discuss becoming a scholar (2:50), the Great Awakening (9:50), the faith(?) of America’s founding fathers (14:40), how to define “evangelical” (27:17), and more. Buy Tommy’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Episode sponsor: Speak for the Unborn. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. Speaking of Cedarville, you should check out our Master of Divinity and Master of Ministry programs.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Comfort on the Far Side of Sorrow

innocents chora

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Today marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the commemoration of the children killed by the rage of King Herod as he was seeking the Christ-child (Matt. 2:16-18). It is always jarring to read about the death of the Holy Innocents right there in the gospel’s infancy narrative and to celebrate their feast three short days after Christmas. But Christ was born into a world of acute suffering (what is worse than the loss of a child?) precisely in order to bring relief to those who are mourning. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

Without this dark backdrop, we might be tempted to believe the sanitized, sentimentalized picture of the Nativity that a culture with a thin (and thinning) veneer of Christianity offers up to us: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But Jesus wept. And Rachel wept for her children and refused to be comforted through half-measures. Comfort only comes on the far side of sorrow. No one is exempt from this. Not even innocent children. Not even the Holy Family.

The death of the Holy Innocents paints in striking colors the sharp contrast between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of heaven inaugurated by Christ. The one is marked by self-preserving power. The other by self-sacrificial weakness. The one is ensconced in the halls of worldly power. The other is on the run, on the pilgrim trail to Egypt and back again through the wilderness and only then to the Promised Land.

The Old Testament text that St Matthew cites as a kind of prophetic advance of this bloody scene is Jeremiah 31:15:

Thus says the LORD:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”

Ramah was the site of a shrine to the matriarch Rachel. The Israelites in Babylonian captivity saw in Rachel’s weeping for her children a fitting picture of their own sorrow in  exile. But the Lord doesn’t leave them comfortless. His response to their weeping is a promise: “they shall come back from the land of the enemy” (Jer. 31:16). And just a few short verses later, we learn the source of this great comfort in the Mount Everest of all Old Testament promises: the promise of a New Covenant.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31-34).

The only time the gospels use this precise phrase, “new covenant,” is set in another bloody context: at the Last Supper, when Jesus, facing his impeding passion and death, passes the cup to his disciples and declares, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Comfort for the weeping doesn’t come cheap in some hackneyed platitude that “this too shall pass.” No, comfort is purchased at the price of blood.

Another Herod would eventually catch up to Jesus. Indeed, Jesus willingly gave himself over to him (John 10:18). Herod laughed on that day and Jesus mourned (Luke 23:11). But the rulers of this world did not know that the one whom they mocked was the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). They didn’t see the great reversal of the last day that would be proleptically brought into this present age on the third day, the eighth day, the first day of a new creation. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25).

Comfort is coming for those who weep, even for those who weep over lost children. Or lost fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, spouses and friends. Or lost jobs or lost dreams or lost innocence. In Christ, all that is lost will be found, all that is taken will be restored. That’s the lesson the Holy Innocents leave to us, these “buds, killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves” (Augustine). We all, like Rachel, will find ourselves in moments where we “refuse to be comforted.” But comfort doesn’t depend upon us. We, like the Holy Innocents, find ourselves in the crosshairs of a cosmic battle of kingdoms. But the decisive victory has already been won. Comfort comes not in the form of cheap sentimentality. The New Covenant promises–forgiveness, internal transformation, the knowledge of God, union with God–come sealed in blood, and the Holy Innocents foreshadow this.

The Last Jedi Is Good

This is for all the haters. Specifically, it’s for all of you who hate The Last Jedi.



This isn’t blind fandom; I was ambivalent toward the movie the first time I saw it. I hated it the second time. Yeah, the fight scene with Rey and Ben in Snoke’s throne room is awesome, but Leia Poppins, Bitter Luke, and the Casino are not. But the third time around a few things clicked, and the more I watch it and pay attention, the more I love it. In fact, I’m to the point where I (cheekily) tweeted the other day, “If you hate The Last Jedi then you hate Star Wars.” Obviously, everyone from hardcore fans to casual viewers can think what they want about the movie.[1] But here I want to try to argue that the hate for TLJ is unfounded.


From best I can tell, there are four main objections (in no particular order):

1. Vice Admiral Holdo – This objection actually consists of at least three subsets. Some fans object to Holdo’s general demeanor. I definitely felt this the first time around. It was weird seeing Jurassic Park lady in Star Wars, and something felt off about her acting. Another objection to Holdo is part of a broader objection to the movie’s supposed “feminist” streak. It goes something like this: “the men in the movie are all stupid and need to be rescued by women.” And the third Holdo objection is the infamous Holdo maneuver, which somehow is problematic for science or whatever (see also: bomb drops in space). This one comes up most often from the hardcore Star Wars fans.

2. Leia Poppins – This objection is self-explanatory. What’s up with Leia floating through space holding an invisible nanny umbrella? Besides just the fact that some viewers think it looks dumb, many also ask, “What’s the point?”

3. The Casino Sequence – The same main objection to Leia Poppins – “What’s the point?” – also occurs here, but this part of the movie also receives criticism regarding pacing and leftist propaganda re: American war mongering.

4. Luke – Lots of fans hate what the movie does with Luke’s story. This is probably the most important objection, as it has to do with a broader objection to the movie’s supposed treatment of the previous films and the franchise’s fans. Many viewers believe that Luke throwing his lightsaber when Rey hands it to him, Yoda’s dialogue with Luke before calling down lightning to burn the Jedi Temple / Tree, Rey being “no one” and Snoke dying without revealing his origin, and, most famously, Ben’s mantra to Rey about the past (“Let the past die; kill it, if you have to”) is somehow a collective middle finger to the entirety of the Star Wars franchise and its fans. Nothing is more infamous in this regard than the film’s treatment of Luke, which many interpret as making him nothing more than a bitter old man who dies alone.

So, what do I say to these objections?


First, I think it’s important to understand the film’s themes in order to answer these objections.

1. Deceit – The first theme that helped me appreciate the movie more than I did the first two times is deceit. Nearly every person in the movie lies or attempts to deceive someone else. This starts with Poe fooling Hux to take out the cannons and initiate the bomb drop on the Star Destroyer. Then Hux deceives the rebels by tracking them, Luke and Ben both lie (or at least twist the truth) to Rey regarding their confrontation at Luke’s temple, the thief double crosses Fin and Rose, and, climatically, Luke tricks Ben in the film’s final fight sequence. There are also attempts to hide the truth, even if it’s not lying, like Leia and Holdo hiding intel from Poe regarding the abandoned rebel base (which is itself an attempt to deceive the First Order). Another example is Yoda’s conversation with Luke after he lights the Jedi Temple on fire; his words are a double entendre. Luke thinks the texts are gone, and the way Yoda phrases it could confirm that. But the texts are actually with Rey, which Yoda may even be gesturing toward: “everything in them is now with her.” Literally everyone in this movie is lying!


Which is why, in the apex of the film, we shouldn’t believe anything that’s said in the throne room. Snoke wasn’t bringing Ben and Rey’s minds together; he’s lying just like everyone else. I know this not only because of the deceit theme but also because their minds are brought together again at the end of the film, as Rey is boarding the Falcon, after Snoke is cut in half. There are therefore only two explanations as to how this keeps happening to Ben and Rey: either someone else (Palpatine, presumably) is doing it, or Ben and Rey are really related. The Palpatine theory is possible but no one (maybe not even Rian Johnson) knew EP was slated for Episode IX. The more likely explanation is already there in TLJ – Ben and Rey are blood, just like the other pairs that mind melds in the movie, Luke and Leia and Leia and Ben. All of these are supposed to remind us of the OT melds between Luke and Vader and Luke and Leia. It should be obvious from that list that only Skywalkers mind meld (at least in films!).

This brings up the second big “non-reveal” in the throne room, what Ben manipulates Rey to say about her parents and then “confirm” with a bit of flourish. Again, there’s no reason to believe anything anyone says in this movie – especially not the guy who’s constantly trying to prove his commitment to the Dark Side and simultaneously convince Rey to join him. He’s already lied manipulatively once before in TLJ, when he tells Rey his version of what happened at Luke’s Jedi Temple. After I realized EVERYONE is lying, it took away what many consider the #1 reason they hate TLJ: Rian Johnson supposedly cutting all the threads JJ Abrams tried to set up in TFA, and especially through making Rey no one. It’s certainly still possible that Rey really *is* just a child of junk traders. One way to interpret Rey’s cave scene is that she doesn’t have parents who are important. That’s possible. But another way to interpret it is that Rey defines who she is, not anyone else. Who cares who her parents are? Her identity is rooted in her own actions, her own choices, not someone else’s. We should also note here that Rey, like Luke in ESB, may have left too early to try and turn her nemesis. And like Luke, that premature confrontation leads to a relational epiphany, but in reverse: whereas Vader tells the truth, Ben (in all likelihood) is lying. All of this took away most of my initial irritation and allowed me to watch the movie with fresh eyes. Doing so helped me see a number of other themes.

2. The Past – The second prominent theme I noticed is that TLJ is about how to relate to the past. This theme was brought to my attention by a post I read right after seeing the movie; unfortunately I can’t find it anymore. Here I’ll try to explain it in my own words. This theme intersects with all of the others, and so some of what I say here will have to be repeated elsewhere. How to relate to the past is primarily relayed through Ben’s and Luke’s storylines, and particularly their conception of what happened at Luke’s Jedi Temple. Both of them have a distorted view of reality at the beginning of the movie. On the one hand, Ben sees his uncle only in the worst light, refusing to acknowledge why Luke may have been scared of his growing inner darkness, an inner darkness which Ben only continues to confirm with every subsequent action (and especially his and the Knights’ massacre of the other padawans in the Temple; Vader, anyone?). Ben’s anger clearly has deep roots in this one event, as we see in his treatment of Luke’s hologram at the end of the movie. This anger toward his past is summed up in one of the most well known lines in the movie: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”

Luke, on the other hand, responds to this event with bitterness and isolation. Whereas Ben wants to destroy everyone and everything because of his shared past, Luke wants to isolate himself from everyone and everything – even the Force. All of what he says and does to Rey prior to her leaving, including throwing the light saber over his shoulder and the “lessons” he gives her, should be seen in this light. He’s speaking as someone who hasn’t yet confronted himself and his biggest mistake, and instead has chosen to isolate himself and drink his own bitterness for fuel. Luke swigging the blue milk is a visual of his heart – he’d rather remain alone and stew than confront the past truthfully and honestly.


One of the primary motifs of the movie is Ben vs. Luke, and in this case their juxtaposition is related not only to how they respond to the past but also how they respond to being confronted about the truth of the past. Neither Ben nor Luke sees the past appropriately at the beginning of the movie. Neither are willing to admit failure (more on this below). Rey confronts both of them with the truth. She is the only one among the trio to see clearly, at least prior to Luke coming to his senses. Ben responds by turning further into himself and to the Dark Side, giving in to his rage. This is no more clearly seen than when he fires “every gun” on Luke’s hologram in front of the abandoned rebel base. Luke, on the other hand, lays down the burdens of pride and bitterness and instead finally admits his mistake to Rey. He also is guided to see the truth about the past in his conversation with Yoda. Both of these confrontations, and really his confrontation of himself, free him from bitterness and allow him to become what he is at the end of the movie – The Last (and Greatest) Jedi. He is at “at peace” with himself and the world, free to do what’s right for the sake of others.

3. Failure – Ben and Luke’s relation to their past is predicated on avoiding and, only in Luke’s case, finally confronting their failures. Luke admits his failure to deal with Ben appropriately and finds freedom. Ben, on the other hand, refuses to admit that he was seduced by the Dark Side, by those who only wish to use him, by those who turned him against his family. And so he remains trapped in a prison of rage. But the seminal moment of failure for these two is not the only moment of failure in the film. Just like everyone lies in the movie, most everyone also fails. And to combine these two themes, sometimes those who fail try to spin it as success. Poe is the prime example of this at the beginning of the movie, failing to lead appropriately his mission. He still thinks it’s a success, but according to what measure? Hux also fails in the beginning, called out dramatically and forcefully in front of his crew by Snoke’s hologram. Snoke also throws Ben’s failure to capture or kill Rey at the end of TFA in Ben’s face at the beginning of TLJ. Poe fails again to understand the bigger picture in his confrontations with Holdo. Holdo probably should be charged with failure to lead well, since she simply dismisses Poe and doesn’t attempt to lead him to understanding, even if that doesn’t include passing on all the information she has. Poe fails again in his mutinous attempt to wrest command from Holdo. Rey fails to convince Luke to return with her. Snoke fails to understand his pupil’s motives and actions in the throne room. Ben fails to turn Rey in the throne room. Finn fails to destroy the battering ram. Hux fails to destroy the rebels and Ben fails to defeat Luke at the end of the movie.

And, most famously of all (at least for the TLJ haters), Finn and Rose fail in every possible way in their Canto Bight mission. “What’s the point of that sequence?” the haters crow. The point is pretty simple: every attempt to escape, defeat, or otherwise thwart the First Order in TLJ fails, and typically fails miserably. The casino sequence is yet another, and perhaps the most desperate and therefore outlandish, attempt to give the rebels a fighting chance. All the little sparks that are supposed to light the fire that will fuel the Rebellion are snuffed out, one by one. The casino sequence isn’t the very last spark (remember the dialogue in the cave) but it is nearly that.

There’s more to say about snuffing out sparks, but for now it’s important to realize that this theme of failure serves to again juxtapose the First Order and the rebels, and especially Ben and Luke. The First Order’s response to failure is denial coupled with violence. The rebels’ response to failure – once they own up to it – is hope (or belief?) and resilience.


We’ve already seen how Ben and Luke, when confronted with the truth about their failure, exhibit this juxtaposed set of responses. But others in the film do the same. Hux retreats further into fear and its symptom, projected strength, whereas Poe admits his mistake, gives up his hubris, and grows into the commander he should have been from the beginning. But in addition to these individual juxtapositions, this theme of failure serves to tell us something about goodness and hope and faith. Despite failure after failure, despite the fact that no one ever comes to their aid, the rebels literally never give up. In spite of overwhelming odds against them, and in spite of the literal and proverbial darkness that surrounds them, they refuse to let their spark be snuffed out.

4. Surprise – This brings us to the fourth theme, what I’ll call surprise. You might even call it eucatastrophe. Every time the rebels are between a rock and a hard place (again, think of the final sequence), something completely unexpected happens that saves them. Luke showing up to the abandoned rebel base is the obvious one here, but there are other surprises. Aside from the fact that many viewers hated them conceptually, I think this is one of the main reasons for both “Leia Poppins” and the Holdo Maneuver. Both are surprising saves in the midst of what seem like impossible circumstances. Leia’s use of the Force also adds an element of mysticism to it, while the Holdo Maneuver saves both the transports and Finn and Rose and, in some ways (psychologically), Rey as well.


5. Love – What distinguishes the rebels from the First Order, ultimately, is love. The rebels can confront the past and their failures and respond with repentance and faith and hope because they love each other. The First Order, on the other hand, only feels hate, for the rebels, for their fellow First Order members, for themselves. This theme of love v. hate is seen in reunions between characters (BB8 and Poe, Poe and Finn, Finn and Rey, Luke and Leia, etc.), relationships that develop (the infamous – but again, important once you recognize what it’s doing – relationship between Finn and Rose), and sacrifice (the Holdo Maneuver, Roses’s sister, Luke). Whereas the rebels exhibit abiding joy in reuniting with one another, deepen relationships with one another, and sacrifice themselves for one another, Hux, Ben, and Snoke turn on each other in hatred and violence. Once again this juxtaposition is seen in one rebel and one member of the First Order, this time Rey and Ben. Their mind meld connection is an opportunity to respond relationally to one another. Ben responds with attempts to manipulate Rey, whereas Rey responds with compassion and attempts to save Ben.

6. Balance – All of these play into, in one way or another, what I think is the major theme of the movie: balance. Themes of understanding the past, confronting our failures, hope, and love all serve to juxtapose the First Order and the rebels, and ultimately they serve to juxtapose those who are internally conflicted and those who are at peace with themselves and with others. Conflict leads to splits, while peace leads to balance. This is portrayed visually a number of ways, perhaps most memorably in the split lightsaber between Rey and Ben in the throne room. But Ben’s facial scar also reminds us every time we look at him that he’s internally conflicted (as Snoke loves to remind him). Snoke’s body is split in half. The Holdo Maneuver splits the First Order, who is already internally conflicted both as a group and as individuals. Ben tries to split Luke’s hologram in half. Rey and Luke, on the other hand, are at peace. Rey visually demonstrates this through balancing the rocks blocking the cave entrance at the end. But it is again Luke who is the focal point of this theme. He is so at peace with himself, so in tune with the Force, that he literally balances in midair over a rock at the end of the film. His assumption into the Force afterward is supposed to remind us of his first Master, Obi-Wan. Like Obi-Wan, Luke warns his wayward to disciple that to strike him down in anger will only make him stronger. And like both Obi-Wan and Yoda, Luke is so at peace that he is caught up into the Force. Luke at the end of the film is the Last and Greatest Jedi.



In light of these themes, here are some theses about TLJ and about the sequel trilogy (ST).

1. Luke Skywalker – This movie/trilogy is, in large part, about Luke. In The Force Awakens, the question is “Where is Luke?” The Last Jedi is clearly about Luke, and he’s the hero of the film. At the end, though, the question is “Where did he go?” In The Rise of Skywalker, I imagine one of the questions will be, “Where is he now?” This is still the Skywalker saga, and not just because Ben is a Skywalker.

2. The Future – FA pushes us past ANH/ESB/ROTJ recapitulation to expect something new (see my post on this from a few years ago). Of course, parts of TLJ recapitulate ESB, too (Hoth à abandoned rebel moon base). At least parts of TLJ recapitulate ROTJ (e.g. Ben killing Snoke to save Rey). If this is what’s going on, the PT is about how the context of the OT came about (the past), while the ST is about what how to understand the past in order to see what happens next (the future).

3. Balance – The fact that Snoke, Ben, and now Palpatine are still around after ROTJ means that Luke’s role to bring balance to the Force wasn’t actually complete at the end of ROTJ. Maybe Luke didn’t balance out the force because he didn’t kill Palpatine. The same thing happened in TLJ; Luke or Rey didn’t kill Snoke, Snoke’s disciple did. This just continues the cycle of violence endemic to the Dark Side. Even though Darth Vader turns back to the light at the end of ROTJ, maybe there’s something lacking in how he dealt with Palpatine, how Luke wasn’t involved, and what that means for bringing balance to the Force.

4. Continuity – I think TLJ is in continuity with the ST and with the entirety of the SW franchise. I mean, first of all, do we really think Disney would let Rian Johnson just wing it? Second, regarding killing off characters suddenly and the like, have y’all ever watched The Force Awakens? Han Solo, maybe the most beloved character in all of Star Wars besides Chewie, gets treated as a plot device. Luke Skywalker, hero of all Star Wars heroes, isn’t even in The Force Awakens.

5. Preaching – The last issue I want to deal with is the accusation that TLJ is just a progressive sermonic diatribe. Some of the crowing about TLJ and its preachiness isn’t reality. For instance, some people think Johnson took the opportunity to preach some kind of anti-male ideology via the film’s treatment of its male protagonists and their relation to women. Rey is better than Luke for most of the film, Finn is a bumbling idiot, and Poe is bossed around by Holdo and Leia. Well, for one thing, we’ve already seen that Luke’s, Finn’s, and Poe’s failures are all foils for their character development. Each of them respond heroically, not by might but by repentance. But there’s also the fact that at the end of the movie Leia turns to the rebel remnant and says “Follow him!” She literally turns over command to Poe. The issue at the beginning of the movie wasn’t that he is a man, it was that he hadn’t learned how to be a leader.

So, I think TLJ is a good movie. I think you can argue whether or not the particular ways Johnson executed some of these themes and theses isn’t the best (e.g. couldn’t Leia have used the Force to save herself in some other unexpected way?) But this movie isn’t dumping on Star Wars. It doesn’t mistreat Luke. And it doesn’t cut itself off from what TFA was doing. It’s a good movie.



[1] I make this caveat because some folks got weirdly defensive about fan culture on Twitter the other day, soooo.

My 5 Favorite Books of 2019

It’s become an annual tradition for me and many others to write a post like this. There are a few reasons why I continue to compile this list. First, I love reading and I love to share what I’m reading. Second, I’m also always encouraged by others’ thoughts and their lists often help me pick out a few last books for my Christmas wish list. Third, I get a lot of books from publishers, and while I don’t review or share books I don’t end up liking, I’m always willing to recommend a good book if it is, in fact, good. Fourth, I’m regularly asked by folks what books I’m reading or “what’s a good book to read for X topic?” I think this is primarily because I sometimes share book photos on Facebook.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my five favorite books that I read in 2019. Check out my 2015 list and 2016 list at my old Patheos blog, and my 2017 list and 2018 list posted here at Biblical Reasoning.

Works on the Spirit by Athanasius the Great and Didymus the Blind

I intentionally read several primary texts every year, always with at least a couple of patristic-era works included. This year I read this one for the first time. While Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit is a must-read classic, this work shows in particular the development of Athanasius’s Trinitarian theology as he defends the divinity of the Holy Spirit after Nicaea, while also revealing some of the distinctions in language between Athanasius and Basil. If you want an excellent introduction to patristic exegesis, definitely pick up Craig Carter’s latest, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Judging by the title, you might not want your boss to be aware that you’re reading this. But this isn’t a book about anarchy or revolution or antiauthoritarianism — it’s a book about nurturing creativity and elevating good ideas, using examples from business, sports, parenting, and more. This book helped me to feel more at-home in my own personality, as well as helped me better understand my peers.

Introducing Evangelical Theology by Daniel J. Treier

Perhaps the most underrated evangelical theologian publishing right now, Treier has written a fantastic introduction to theology that is built around the structure of the Nicene Creed. The first part of the book, which surveys the Creed as method, the Ten Commandments as moral formation, and the Lord’s Prayer as spiritual formation is worth the price of the book by itself. I hope to use this as a textbook sometime in the near future. I interviewed Dan at ETS for Church Grammar, so lookout for his return to the podcast soon.

The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations edited by Michael W. Holmes

At the urging of my Doktorvater, I read through this slowly over the last year. These writings reflect a sort of bridge between the New Testament writings and some of our earliest church fathers, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. My particular favorite is the collection of Ignatius’s letters.

Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus by Patrick Schreiner

Among the biblical studies books I read this year, Schreiner’s had me the most interested in returning to its pages (with an honorable mention to Carmen Joy Imes’s Bearing God’s Name). In short, Schreiner is a clear writer who tells a compelling story (with robust biblical-theological insights) about Matthew’s role in writing his Gospel for the sake of advancing the story of Jesus.

In Memoriam: Larry Hurtado Repost

A new season of Church Grammar is on the docket, so stay tuned!

Today, however, we are reposting our conversation with Dr. Larry Hurtado in honor of his recent passing. Larry was known by many as an eminent scholar, but some may not know that he was equally a devoted follower of Jesus and churchman. He will be missed. Make sure to buy some of Larry’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Timothy George on Historical Theology, Ecumenism, and Christian Higher Education

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School. We discuss being a Baptist and appreciating the Great Tradition (2:00), ecumenism and catholicity (7:35), the future of Christian higher education (22:35), and more. Buy Timothy’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. Speaking of Cedarville, you should check out our Master of Divinity and Master of Ministry programs.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.