Living in the Upside Down

Isaiah 64:4-6; 8, 9b   
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Go.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Yet you, Yahweh, are our Parent.

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Most likely you have at least heard the Netflix series Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers. Or, if you are like me, you cannot WAIT for season three…

Stranger Things takes place in a small town in Indiana [full disclosure, I spent part of my childhood in a town in Indiana], and the story begins with the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy named Will Byers. Over time, we learn that a group of scientists has been experimenting on a girl with telekinetic abilities [she is called “11” because that is the number tattooed on her wrist], and Eleven eventually makes contact with a monster-creature that inhabits an alternate dimension, ripping open a gate between that world and ours. The creature crosses over and is able to take the aforementioned Will and another character, Barbara. I won’t go into any great detail, because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.

What I do wish to focus on are the characters of Stranger Things and the two worlds that exist side-by-side and simultaneously: our dimension, and the alternative dimension, called the Upside-Down. First, let’s focus on a few of the characters, all of them friends: Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, and the missing Will. Eventually, a fifth member of their party is added, Eleven. These young friends are the main focal point for the narrative and end up acting as our eyes and ears throughout the series. For example, they give a name to the creature-monster from the Upside-Down—the Demogorgon—based on a creature in their Dungeons and Dragons gaming. They figure out with the help of their science teacher that the alternative dimension is an upside-down version of their world. Eleven, their new friend, becomes “El,” as Mike deems it the best way for her to blend in. These friends interpret the story for us as they assign meaning to all the that happening.

And what is happening is definitely strange and sinister. Not only is their friend Will missing; not only have they encountered El who is gifted in ways they could not have imagined; but also, there is not just one Demogorgon monster loose in their town—for the secret government facility on the outskirts is up to no good and holds the gate to the Upside-Down.

upsidedownSpeaking of the Upside-Down, it is a mirror image of our everyday world, but corrupted, toxic, gothic, and heavy. Thus, Stranger Things presents to us a reality in which the natural and supernatural coexist; a seemingly idyllic world of a small Midwestern town in the 1980’s contrasted with the death and danger of the Upside-Down.

SPOILER ALERT: as the story unfolds, we are presented with the mind-blowing and unsettling fact that the Upside-Down is not separated from our world. In fact, the Upside-Down can even be in us, around us—and if we look closely enough, we can spot the toxicity of the Upside-Down creeping into the roots and foundations of our lives.

Clearly, Stranger Things draws from a variety of mythological, spiritual, and religious traditions. The dualistic idea of two worlds coexisting is nothing new in many traditions around the world. Likewise, the contrast between a beautifully-imagined divine creation and a terrifying, fallen world may sound familiar to many of us. In Judaism and then the Christian religion that came out of it, these ideas were commonplace, that Elohim/God created the whole earth, universe, waters, creatures, etc., as beautiful and good. And yet, creation was capable of falling into a state of isolation and death, called Sheol or sometimes Hades.

During the season of Advent [four weeks leading up to Christ-mas], Western Christians read the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah with the recurring theme: though Elohim made the world good, people aren’t seeing this good and aren’t seeing God, for that matter. People wonder if God is absent or missing. The beauty of the world and of humanity has faded and crumpled up like fallen leaves.

The Upside-Down has become reality.

Yes, it’s true that the season of Advent is really not supposed to be candy canes, mistletoe, sleigh bells, and so-awful-that-they’re-good Hallmark holiday specials. Advent is a bit Debbie Downer; it’s gloomy; it’s too honest about the world; it does really feel Upside-Down!

But that’s the point, really. And that’s why I’m grateful for the great storytelling and wisdom of Stranger Things. We ought to be more honest about the state of our world and the state of us. We shouldn’t ignore the completely Upside-Down ways we follow in society and how we let people we don’t even know tell us how to live, who to love, what to eat, what to believe, how to express ourselves, how to think.

What is more upside-down than that?

No, if we learn anything from this upside-down season we are all living in, it is that we must let our curiosity doors be flung wide open, re-imagining a world in which all people are valued as they are and where violence is not the answer to anything. And indeed, that we are living in the balance of at least two realities—the one being the world we are conditioned to see and the rules we are told to follow. This world can of course trick us into thinking that everything is “normal” and “okay” when in fact it is just the opposite. For under the surface there are people crying out for justice; right inside our walls are voices begging for acceptance; lurking in the shadows are true monsters who only seek to control, manipulate, and destroy; our bucolic, nostalgic worlds are only surface worlds.

For behind every wreath, Christmas tree, and stocking is an Upside-Down reality.

And waking up to this is to embrace the Upside-Down hope of Advent. For the story of Advent isn’t some religious hocus-pocus or some doctrinal creed to swallow down your throat. This is a season of actively waiting—waiting and working for a better world, a kinder humanity, a peaceful existence. This season invites us to embrace the dark and the light as one reality in the world and in us all. For all the Demogorgons out there, there are just as many Els. And for any moment when we feel like Will, trapped in a toxic, lonely place all by ourselves, there are people who still can hear us. They are listening. They are looking for us. We are not alone. Peace to you this season in the Upside Down.

 

 

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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