A few weeks ago I was having lunch at a civic leaders forum, half-listening to the conversation around the table, when I heard someone say, “The kid is six years old, and he earned $7 million last year.”  That made my ears perk up.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“You know, Ryan,” the speaker answered.  I did not know, but I assumed Ryan must be a child actor of some sort, 2019’s Shirley Temple or Macaulay Culkin.  It turns out my assumption was incorrect, and the conversation became one of the weirder ones I’ve had in a while.  Ryan does have his own show, but it’s a YouTube internet series.  And it’s not a sitcom, or even series of music videos.  No, the show “Ryan’s World” is simply Ryan, the six-year-old kid, opening boxes on camera to reveal hidden toys.

It turns out Ryan is not alone.  For the past several years, while I’ve been blithely visiting YouTube to watch country music videos and thirty-year-old clips of Saturday Night Live, other people have been getting online to watch people open boxes, all sorts of boxes, which contain all sorts of things: toys, electronic gadgets, shoes, live reptiles.  CNN reports that “Since 2010, the number of YouTube clips with ‘unboxing’ in the headline has increased 871%. Last year alone, 2,370 days, or 6.5 years, worth of unboxing footage was uploaded to the site.”[i]

I suspect that some of you still aren’t following what I’m talking about.  After that lunchtime conversation during which I was introduced to the world of unboxing, I still didn’t comprehend it, either.  So, let me say it again, in simplest terms: YouTube, by far the internet’s largest video streaming website, has an entire category of videos which consist of nothing other than people on camera opening boxes to see what’s inside.  And hundreds of thousands of people spend hours online everyday doing nothing other than watching these videos, doing nothing other than watching other people open boxes.

Even more bizarrely, the craze surrounding unboxing videos has turned into an industry.  Toy manufacturers have begun creating new toys in inventive boxes designed to be opened on YouTube unboxing channels.[ii]  The industry is leaning into the phenomenon.  And the video makers are cleaning up.  It turns out six-year-old Ryan didn’t earn $7 million last year.  He made $11 million. [iii]

Image result for unboxing

What the heck is going on?  I wish I could now tell you that this is all a prank, but Easter fell on April Fool’s Day last year, not this year. The unboxing craze is real.  My next thought was that it must be some sort of aberrant fetish, so I got on YouTube and checked the videos out for myself.

I watched one episode of Ryan’s World, in which the little boy’s real life mom wakes Ryan up to the surprise of a giant, papier-mache egg sitting in the middle of his room. Ryan excitedly tears open the egg to find a cache of toys from the Pixar “Cars” movie franchise. Ryan spends the next ten minutes playing with the toys, but for the viewer the novelty wears off within a minute or two, and there is an admittedly almost hypnotic impulse to click on the next video and watch Ryan open a new box.

I also watched a video posted by a twenty-something YouTube phenom who goes by the moniker SSSniperWolf.  In the video, SSSniperWolf purchases for $5,000 what is advertised on eBay as a “mystery box.”  That’s right.  She spends $5,000 for the experience of opening a plain cardboard box with unknown contents.  The box arrives, and SSSniperWolf opens it on camera only to find a disappointing array of clothing, pet toys, and junk exercise equipment.  As she peruses the box’s contents in disappointment, SSSniperWokf asks into the camera, “Am I missing something?  Is there…a hint in this?  No, there’s no hint. There’s… nothing, no secret message.  There’s just misery and deceit.”[iv]

And there it is, the key to deciphering the unboxing phenomenon. It is, I’ve come to believe, a digital metaphor and bellwether for the deep alienation of our culture.  We are all seeking something, but we don’t know what.  We crave deep and abiding meaning—meaning that will give a life structure, and purpose, and a horizon toward which to live—but we don’t know where to find it.  We’re not even equipped to go on the search for it.  So we settle for the shallowest possible substitute.  Hundreds of thousands of people now go online to watch other people open up mysterious boxes, wondering what they’ll find; perhaps dimly hoping that it will be something that endures, that fits the shape of the hole in our psyches and souls.  But we know, deep down, that the novelty will wear off quickly and we’ll move on to the next thing, that all such searches will end with SSSniperWolf’s dejection.  Like her, we will end up saying in exasperation, “Am I missing something?  Is there a hint in this?  No, there’s no hint. There’s nothing, no secret message.  There’s just misery and deceit.”

On the first day of the week, the women were just as desperate.  They and the disciples had searched for meaning in all sorts of packages, most recently in the ministry and message of Jesus of Nazareth.  But like everything that had come before Jesus, following him had led to disappointment and emptiness.  He was dead, and there was nothing left to do.  Nothing left, that is, except to do what good people do even in their despair and tend to the body of the teacher who’d let them down.

The women go to the tomb—its own kind of opaque box—and when it is opened, their dejection is heightened.  The box is empty.  Not even the remnant of Jesus remains, not even the body that can remind them one last time of the promise in which they briefly held all their hopes.  One cannot almost hear Mary Magdalene whisper to the others, “Is there no hint in this?  No, there is nothing, no secret message.  There is just misery and deceit.”

Rolling stone tomb, Nazareth

But just as hope dies, the world changes.  Suddenly, the mystery box is not empty but filled to overflowing.  Forget subtle hints; the women are surrounded by dazzling light and two messengers with a clarion call.  “Jesus is not dead,” they say.  “Jesus is resurrected!  Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And we should ask, on this Easter morning, why do we?  Why do we seek our meaning, the structure of our lives, the horizon of our hope in dead things, in things destined to pass away?  Whatever avenue, whatever door, whatever box we may open—no matter how much it costs us—so long as we seek ourselves in the finite and the failing we will, eventually, find ourselves mired in misery.  Our alienation from this world is because we seek to find our deepest meaning things that are meaningless.

But it is Easter Day, and again the God of grace and glory reminds us that the superficial novelties and distractions we pursue are the illusion, not the reality.  The reality is that the love and power of God will not be boxed in, even by death.  Jesus is the embodiment of that love and power, and Jesus is alive.  That is the great mystery!  The love and power of him is risen and awake, even here.  That is no idle tale.  If we, like the women at the tomb, will go forth with that living love in our psyches and souls—if we will tell the others what we have come to know—then we will experience resurrection.  The old ways of living, the old places and things in which we’ve furtively sought meaning, will die, but we will not.  We will live newly in the God of love—with meaning, purpose, structure, and a horizon of hope—and our joy will be complete.


[i] https://www.cnn.com/2014/02/13/tech/web/youtube-unboxing-videos/index.html

[ii] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/3/22/18275786/youtube-video-unboxing-toy-industry-lol-surprise-dolls

[iii] https://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/2123939/meet-ryan-six-year-old-who-made-us11-million-year-reviewing-toys-youtube

[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cIOuNMG0ao&t=256s

Gliding an inch off the ground

When I was ordained, I received many useful gifts.  I received a Prayer Book-Hymnal combination embossed with my name.  I received an oil stock, in which to keep holy oil with which to anoint the sick.  I received a stoles of every liturgical color, so I would be appropriately appointed throughout the church year.  But the most memorable gift I received was not a bible, prayer beads, or even a gift card to a restaurant.  It was a Jesus action figure.  (Yes, you heard that correctly.)  The Jesus action figure was 11 inches and 5.6 ounces of glossy, molded plastic salvation.  His posable arms could be raised to heaven in prayer or forward to bless the masses.  Most spectacularly, Jesus action figure was equipped with what the manufacturer emblazoned across the packaging as his “gliding action.”  The figure had at its base tiny casters, so that Jesus rolled from placed to place, hovering, God-like, a millimeter in the air.  Jesus’ feet never touched the ground.

Image result for jesus action figure

In case you’re thinking that a Jesus action figure is unconnected to reality, we might ought to look again at today’s Liturgy of the Palms Gospel.  This is the year we read from Luke, and Luke’s palms narrative is different from that of the other Gospels in one very important respect: In it there are no palms!  Did you notice that?  In Luke, we have no mention at all of the people waving palms fronds before Jesus.  Instead, in Luke the people take off their cloaks and cover the road in front of Jesus.  And so, it turns out the Jesus action figure is, at least in this instance, biblically accurate.  In Luke’s Palm Sunday narrative Jesus’ feet never touch the ground.

There are, of course, innumerable instances in literature where a cloak is placed on the ground to prevent earthly contact with someone’s feet.  The most pronounced examples are from the Age of Chivalry, when dashing knights protected the feet of lovely maidens by laying their cloaks across muddy paths.  Those maidens are always surrounded by a heavenly aura, as chivalry insisted that they are something more than merely human, that the knight must protect them from being sullied by the world.

That is exactly what’s going on in Luke.  The Evangelist even adds that the people laid their cloaks on the road and praised Jesus “for all the deeds of power that they had seen.”  In other words, the people want Jesus to be God-like, something powerful and other.  They don’t want Jesus to be like them, and they create a pretense to the contrary, so that Jesus is not sullied by the dirt and grime of the world.

Christians today very often might as well be those gathered on the downslope of the Mount of Olives in Luke.  Too often, the Jesus described by churches and yearned for by people is the one who glides a half inch off the ground; the one who performs deeds of power on request; the one who, though he looks like us, isn’t quite the same thing.  Indeed, such a Jesus has been desired throughout Christian history.  Two huge movements in the early Church, Docetism and Apollinarianism, each in its own way claimed that Jesus wasn’t really like us, that he wasn’t of the mud and muck of this world.  Jesus was God pretending to be a person, akin to the Greek god Zeus taking on human form.  Jesus glided above us, so to speak, full of power and never quite human.

But it turns out that Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and will not perform deeds of power.  Instead, he gets angry, and then sorrowful, and then anxious, “sweating tears like blood,” as Luke describes him in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The people see this, and suddenly the illusion they’ve constructed is dispelled.  Jesus doesn’t exist above the fray; he charges into it.  Jesus doesn’t stand apart from the things that vex us, and weaken us, and bring us to the ground on our knees; he opens himself to the full range of human joy and pain.  Jesus doesn’t glide above the dirt; he lives in it.

I think that’s why, later in Passion Week, the crowd so quickly turns on Jesus.  That’s why the joyous hosannas so easily become enraged cries of “Crucify him!”  The crowd is looking for a particular kind of messiah, and once Jesus gets down off that colt, he just looks and acts human.  In their disappointment, disillusionment, and disgust, the crowd encourages Pontius Pilate to treat Jesus like the dirt in which he plants his feet.  And as Jesus succumbs to being humiliated, scourged, and hung on a cross, the crowd feels justified in abandoning an all-too-human messiah.

Image result for palm sunday in luke cloaks on ground

But here’s the thing: Docetism and Apollinarianism were both declared heretical by the Church, and the Jesus action figure is, too.  Rightly, the Church can have nothing to do with a Jesus whose feet don’t touch the ground.  Such a Jesus is good for the occasional parlor trick, but not for real life.  We don’t need the Jesus of Southern Sunday school portraits, with doe-y, upcast eyes and a gauzy glow.  We don’t need the Jesus who glides around in, but is not of, the world.  We need the Jesus who shows up in the ambulance bay, and after the hurricane, and when we feel abandoned as the world around us is crashing.  We need the Jesus who embraces us because he has known our joy, our sorrow, and our loss.  We need a fully human Jesus, who steps, deliberately and repeatedly, into the muck and mud.

That Jesus is not one who hurls a lightning bolt or wrenches us out of the world, but he is the one who will walk through the world with us, from the hosannas of the Mount of Olives to the agony of the Mount of Calvary.  He himself makes that trip this week.  I hope we will walk with him.