Four Perspectives on Exodus

With the release last week of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: God and Kings generating interest and discussion around one of the Bible’s most epic dramas, I thought I’d invite some qualified and insightful guests to weigh in— not so much on the movie, but on the story behind the movie. What is the meaning and purpose of the Exodus? What can learn from this ancient story? What should viewers look for and question as they see it depicted on the big screen? Bringing insight to those questions are Nyasha Junior, Peter Enns, Rabbi Evan Moffic, and Kelley Nikondeha (who kindly responded to my eleventh-hour invitation to participate by writing a response last night). Hope you learn as much from the conversation as I did….

Nyasha Junior 
"Exodus Again"

The new Exodus: God and Kings film is coming to theaters soon, but I’m not going to see it. Since I am a biblical studies professor, you might think that I would see it and organize a class field trip to see it again, but I’m choosing not to support Hollywood whitewashing

I have fond memories of our family’s annual viewing of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), a classic retelling of the Exodus story. Long ago before DVRs and VCRs, we could only watch the film when it aired which was usually around Easter. The images from the film are forever imprinted on my mind, and I still think of Moses as Charlton Heston and Pharaoh as Yul Brynner. We didn’t call it whitewashing when I was a kid. It was just standard practice for Hollywood. The latest Exodus film continues that tradition. In almost 50 years, little has changed.

Still, all the talk of the film has caused me to reflect on the historic importance of the Exodus story for African-American Christians. We appropriated the story and wove it into our stories, songs, and sermons. Bricks without straw. Burning bush. Cloud by day, fire by night. Drowning Egyptians. Freedom! We have seen ourselves as the ancient Israelites and called our leaders “Moses.” God delivered the Israelites from slavery after hearing their cry and seeing how the Egyptians oppressed them, and we claimed this God of liberation as our own.

As a kid, the Exodus story was a feel-good story of liberation that provided the backdrop for a riveting dramatic film and for my pastor’s equally captivating sermons. As an adult, I now interpret it as a story of oppressed becoming oppressors. God hears the cry of the Israelites but not the Canaanites and other peoples in the what the Israelites regard as their “Promised Land.” As well, I no longer understand the Exodus as a story of liberation for African-Americans. Emancipation did not bring about an end to lynchings, segregation, and racial discrimination. For African Americans, there was no deliverance from their oppressors, and there was no Promised Land. Despite significant gains, for African Americans in the 21st century, in some ways, little has changed.

Nyasha Junior is an Assistant Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Howard University School of Divinity. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @NyashaJunior.


Peter Enns
"Battle of the Gods" 

Those of us raised on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments know all about the exodus story. A burning bush, “Let me people go,” Joshua has a girlfriend, Charlton Heston breaks up with Anne Baxter so he can marry Herman Munster’s wife (Yvonne De Carlo), slaves are delivered from Yul Brenner’s clutches, and Edward G. Robinson (“Where’s your Moses now?”) undermines the whole thing.

But when reading the biblical story of the exodus, it’s best to forget this classic. In fact, it might be best to forget VBS and a few sermons.

The story of the exodus is not about a bunch of random plagues to liberate slaves and then another random, but more awesome, trick about splitting the Red Sea. The story is about Israel’s God—the God who lives on a mountain down south somewhere, whose subject are an enslaved people—marching onto the home field of the superpower of the day and beating up their army and their gods.

Think of how the story begins. The Israelites increase in number, but Pharaoh enslaved them so they might serve him (1:13). Later Yahweh commands Moses to tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go so they might worship me” (7:16).

“Serve” and “worship” are the same word in Hebrew, `avad. THE question in exodus plays off of this double meaning: will Israel `avad (“serve”) Pharaoh and his gods as slaves or will Israel `avad (“worship”) Yahweh as his people on Mt. Sinai. 

Exodus is about who will earn the right to lay claim to the people of Israel: Yahweh or Pharaoh and his gods. What follows is a no-holds-barred battle of the gods. Who will win? Whom will Israel “serve?” 

Pharaoh responds to Moses’s first challenge: “I do not know Yahweh and I will not let my Israel go” (5:2). For the next few chapters, Yahweh will introduce himself to Pharaoh through plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, a cosmic battle where Yahweh takes to task the Egyptian pantheon one by one.

For example, the Nile—Egypt’s source of life and deified in the Nile god Hapi—is turned to blood. The plague of frogs is a slap in the face to Heqet, the goddess of fertility, who was depicted with the head of a frog. The plague of darkness is a kick in the midsection to the sun god Ra, who is also Pharaoh’s patron god. Exodus 12:12 sums it up nicely: “…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am Yahweh.”

Then we have the parting of the Red Sea—hardly a random act, but a replay of Genesis 1 (Day 3): in both the waters of chaos are separated, revealing habitable dry ground beneath. Genesis 1 is itself an echo of older Mesopotamian and Canaanite creation stories, where chaos/water is tamed and split by the victor god.

The message of the exodus is: Yahweh and Yahweh alone lays claim to his people, and he alone is worthy of worship. He is the creator and the redeemer—and the defeated Egyptian army and Egypt’s subdued gods bear witness to it.

Peter Enns is a biblical scholar, author, and blogger who teaches Old and New Testament courses at Eastern University. You can read more about Exodus in his latest book, The Bible Tells Me So

Rabbi Evan Moffic 
"The Long Walk to Freedom"

The Exodus movie film premiers in mid-December, and with my new book What Every Christian Needs to know about Passover coming out shortly and describing how Jews and Christians can bring the Exodus story to life today, I have lucky timing.

Yet, the stories of the Bible are timeless, and Hollywood seems to recognize that people yearn to experience them. The Exodus story, in particular, has an extraordinary and often overlooked message.

Why We Usually Get the Story Wrong

Usually the story is told as a clash of wills and egos between God and Pharaoh. God, using Moses as His messenger, vanquishes Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. The Israelites go free. Everyone is happy.

Yet, if we read the Bible, we know it takes 40 years before the Israelites are truly free. They have to journey in the wilderness—confused, uncertain and angry—before they enter into the Promised Land.

Why? Simply looking at a map shows us the journey from the Egypt to Israel is not a long one. Scholars estimate it would take about 3 weeks or so to walk it. Why does it take the Jewish people 40 years?

The Real Lesson of the Exodus

Jewish folk wisdom gives us a memorable answer: “It took 4 days to take Israel out of Egypt. It took 40 years to take Egypt out of Israel.” The Israelites had been slaves for 400 years. They could not become a free people overnight.

History is littered with examples of people trying and failing to become free. Look at France after 1789 Revolution. After a few years of chaos, tyranny returned in the form of Napoleon. Look at Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarek. After some confusion and an election, the army reasserted control.

Freedom takes time. Before they had freedom, the Jewish people had to learn responsibility. They had to build community. They had to create new institutions. In other words, they had to undergo what Nelson Mandela would later call “The Long Walk to Freedom.”

Are We Free?

This lesson matters for each of us as well. True freedom is discovered not in the absence of responsibility. It is found when we embrace it. For Jews the symbol of embracing responsibility is accepting the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. That is the most important part of the Exodus: not the plagues, not the splitting of the red sea, not even Moses saying to Pharaoh “Let me people go.” Freedom begins in responsibility.

If this idea seems too abstract, consider a parent and a child. When a young child crosses a street, a parent needs to hold their hand. Over time, parents teach the child to look both ways, to follow the traffic signs, and to be careful. Once the child has internalized those rules--once it becomes part of their normal behavior—they do not need to hold a parent's hand. Through internalizing the rules—through having faith in them—they become able to do more on his own. They gain a measure of freedom.

Praying Our Way to Freedom

Freedom and responsibility truly go hand in hand in our spiritual lives. The greatest spiritual freedom as the capacity to grow and change. We are not stuck where we are. We can continue to grow closer to God throughout our lives. But it takes work. It takes responsibility.

For me the best indicator of this responsibility is prayer. When I am praying regularly—in the morning and the evening—I know I am nurturing my inner life. It does not always happen. Sometimes the day seems to fill with appointments and obligations. But if I go too long without regular prayer, my mind and soul wither. I seem to lack the freedom to grow.

The battle between God and Pharaoh was only the beginning. The challenge of the Exodus remains with each of us today. As individuals and as a community, we walk along the long road to freedom.

Where does freedom and responsibility meet for you? What practices for you ensure the Exodus remains relevant today?

Rabbi Evan is the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel in suburban Chicago. He blogs at www.Rabbi.me and the Huffington Post. Author of Wisdom for People of All Faiths, his next book What Every Christian Needs to Know about Passover, is available February 2015 from Abingdon Press.

Kelley Nikondeha
"Exodus Strong" 

Exodus is a liberation song that begins in the brickyards of Egypt where the Hebrews are enslaved to Pharaoh, cruel taskmasters and backbreaking quotas. But it’s a song sung by women and not only the man who seems central to the story.

The truth is that there would be no Moses, no crossing of the Red Sea and no grand tale of liberation if it weren’t for the women woven throughout Exodus. These women on both sides of the Nile River exhibited a subversive strength that pushed back against Pharaoh’s edict of death, saving one boy who went on to save an entire people.

The midwives were clever and courageous in the face of a tyrant. Jochabed, Moses’ mother, practiced wild hope as she placed her baby on a raft of reeds, sending him across the waters of the Nile. An adolescent Miriam showed bravery beyond her years, approaching an Egyptian elite on behalf of her brother. Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter, enacted a bit of restitution with the audacious adoption of a Hebrew boy she drew from the water. These women, separately and in solidarity with one another, made Moses possible. 

A mother who nursed him on lullabies and stories of old, the plaintive laments of bereft mothers, the songs yearning for freedom rising from the brickyards – they all shaped him. Moses followed in the wake of these women as he went toe-to-toe with Pharaoh. Their example and even their songs raised a revolutionary liberator.

Exodus women took risks, harnessed their intelligence and gathered their resources to enact justice in many small ways that overturned an empire. Moses, in the company of such women, liberated and led the Hebrews. Miriam became a prophet and partner to her brother for years to come. They are the unsung heroes, Exodus strong, singing freedom.

Kelley Nikondeha is a lover of God's justice & jubilee.  She is the co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is a practical theologian at heart, weaving story and Scripture together to create fresh insight and cultivate faithful practice among communities who follow Jesus. Find her blog here.

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What would you add about the Exodus epic? Have you seen the movie? What did you think? 

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From the Lectionary, Advent 3: Living Jubilee

I’m blogging through the lectionary this year, with an emphasis on the prophets this Advent season (See Advent 1, Advent 2), and today’s reading comes from Isaiah 61: 

‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory…

…I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

Blogging with the lectionary has given me a new appreciation for pastors, let me tell you.   

If I’m struggling to make sense of the lectionary text, if I get to the end of the week and I’m “just not feeling it,” I can simply skip a post and few people will notice, even fewer care. But a pastor can’t exactly approach the lectern on a Sunday morning, shrug her shoulders, and declare to the congregation, “You know what guys? I’m just not feeling this one.”  (Well, I suppose she could but someone might throw a hymnal in response.) 

...Nor can she wait until the following Tuesday afternoon to share her insights, as I have done here.

So thanks, pastors, for your faithfulness in listening to, learning from, and preaching the Word, even when it’s hard. Those of us sitting in the pews can never really know what that’s like to heed that call and we have no business demanding rapturous rhetoric week to week when, if put in your position, we would likely resort to showing Veggie Tale movies. 

Isaiah 61 threw me for a loop last week, not because of its poverty but because of its riches. There were just too many facets to this diamond, too many dazzling angles. I didn’t know where to start. The poetry (“give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit”), the theology, the call for social justice and the Christological implications—a thousand sermons live in these verses, a million possible reflections. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes Scripture silences me with awe.  Even as my theology, my hermeneutics, and my understanding of the nature of the Bible have shifted and changed, this fact remains.  I am caught in these words as in a current. I may struggle at times, but they will never let me go. 

So I surrender....

***

Jesus preached a sermon on this passage once.  

His listeners responded by trying to shove him off a cliff. 

According to my copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, this was not because the Jews gathered hated the Gentiles Jesus referenced in his sermon, but because they felt left out. “The rejection of Jesus is not prompted by xenophobia,” says the entry on Luke 4:16-30, “it is prompted by Jesus’ refusal to provide his hometown with messianic blessing.” 

Indeed, like the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, this passage reveals God’s special deference toward the poor and marginalized and can make the relatively privileged—the rich and the religious, the free and the full— feel a bit left out when the good news is delivered first to the perceived outsiders. It seems this tendency to equate justice and dignity for the marginalized with persecution of the privileged is an old one. But in this sermon and throughout his ministry, Jesus does not simply advocate for equality. He advocates for a complete reversal of priorities that blesses the poor, the outsiders, and the oppressed first and warns that those most in danger of missing the gospel are those who benefit from the world’s economy. 

Jesus, invoking the words of Isaiah and sharing God’s dreams for the world, announces the inauguration of a new Kingdom in which the Year of Jubilee—when debts are forgiven, slaves set free, land and its abundance shared—is celebrated perpetually. 

“At the center of biblical faith,” says Walter Brueggemann in a sermon on this passage, “is a command from God that curbs economic transactions by an act of communal sanity that restores everyone to proper place in the economy, because life in the community of faith does not consist of getting more but in sharing well.” 

This is good news for those in desperate need of a fresh start.   It’s bad news for those who kinda like things the way they are, those who buy the lie that all that extra stuff and power and prestige they won in the rat race make them more important, more worthy, more good. 

…Which, let’s face it, is most of us. 

***

Jesus reads Isaiah 61 from a scroll, rolls it up with dramatic flare, and declares that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

It’s an exciting moment in the text. 

But here’s the thing that tripped me up more than any other: I don’t see this Scripture fulfilled. I don’t see any Year of Jubilee. 

Jesus purportedly rose from the dead more than 2,000 years ago and yet inequities still persist. Injustice remains.  Slavery, in the words of songwriter Brett Dennen, is “stitched into fabric of my clothes” and more than 140 Pakistani children were gunned down for going to school today.  Eric Garner is still dead, our prisons are still overcrowded, and I can’t seem to let go of that stupid grudge or my excess stuff or my idolatrous conviction that the most important thing in the whole world is to be right, to stay on top.  The Empire economy doesn’t seem to be budging one bit...in the world or in my heart.  

I suppose this is all part of the here-but-not-yet, inaugurated-but-not-consummated nature of the Kingdom, which we talk about a lot during Advent but which, let’s face it, doesn’t seem like enough for Ferguson right now, or for Sandy Hook and Peshawar. 

Here’s Brueggeman’s take on things: 

“What [Jesus] meant was, ‘I am Jubilee. Isaiah wrote about it. I am going to enact it.’ And he set about giving social power and social access and social goods to the poor and excluded. And says Luke, ‘They were filled with rage.’…They did not want to hear about the Jubilee that would curb their accumulation, not even for Jesus. It is a hard command…

….The only reason one might obey such a hard command that is concrete material, and economic divestment is that we have a different, larger vision of the future. We know what is promised and what will be, by the power of God. The command is to serve the great social vision of the Gospel, because that vision of God will only become reality when there is enough human obedience. This vision of God is not a vision of accumulation and monopoly so that those who have the most when they die win. This vision of God’s future is not about angels who have gone to heaven floating around in the sky with their loved ones. This vision, rather, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it already is in heaven. God’s rule where the practices of justice and mercy and kindness and peaceableness are every day the order of the day. It is a vision of the world as a peaceable neighborliness in which no one is under threat, no one is at risk, no one is in danger, because all are safe, all are valued, all are honored, all are cared for. And this community of peaceableness will come only when the vicious cycles of violent accumulation are broken.”*

“…That vision of God will only become reality when there is enough human obedience.” 

Obedience. 

As Liz Lemon might say, “Oh, that word bums me out.” 

Obedience sounds hard. It sounds like work. It sounds like sacrifice. 

The words we like best for Advent are words like wait and prepare.  But paying attention to the prophets in this season reminds us that the sort of waiting and preparing that God calls us to as citizens of this upside-down Kingdom is the active kind that demolishes obstructions and levels the playing field, that binds the brokenhearted and liberates the imprisoned, that beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and bets it all by going all in on this irrational and seemingly impossible vision of peace on earth. 

“From the outset of the Bible, certainly in God’s command of Sinai and surely in the ministry of Jesus,” writes Brueggemann, “signals of neighborliness are endlessly enacted. That finally is what is odd and true and demanding and glorious about the Gospel, that God wills and acts toward a neighborliness that curbs greed, vetoes fear, and removes the causes of violence. We baptized people are the ones who have singed on for this vision and act toward it.” 

To listen to the prophets is to share God’s dreams for the world and to live into those dreams, to bet it all on that vision for the future.  Jesus is our example for exactly how to do this. That’s what he meant when he said Scripture had been fulfilled with his presence among us. He was saying: Watch me; this is how it’s done. This is what Jubilee—God’s Kingdom— looks like in action. 

In the last Advent reflection, I fretted that when it came to making a way for God and leveling the uneven ground, I wasn’t sure where to start.  But that’s not true. I know exactly where to start. I start with Jesus. 

If Jesus embodies God’s dreams for the world, then citizens of the Kingdom start by imitating him—by eating with the people he ate with, by telling the sort of stories he told, by healing and forgiving, by serving and praying, by resisting the temptations of power and money and violence, by breaking down religious barriers, by loving enemies, by showing humility and grace, by overturning some tables and dining at others, by being obedient to the point of death. 

The good news we declare at Advent is that, in Jesus, God has given us everything we need for peace on earth. God has shown us the way. The question is: will we believe enough to obey, to live Jubilee? 

...Lord, help me in my unbelief. 

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The Brueggemann quotes come from Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, which I cannot recommend enough. 

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From the Lectionary, Advent 2: Leveling Uneven Ground

I’m blogging through the lectionary this year, with an emphasis on the prophets this Advent season (See Advent 1), and today’s reading comes from Isaiah 40:1-11: 

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” 

During Advent, we talk a lot about preparing for Jesus. 

We talk about preparing our hearts with prayer and contemplation, preparing our homes with tinsel and trees, preparing our churches with pageants and carols and candles. 

But what does it mean to prepare our world for the Incarnation? What does it mean to pave a way for God through a planet groaning from exploitation, through societies plagued by inequity, through religious and political systems corrupted by power and privilege? What does it mean to make a path for God through the streets of Ferguson, down the halls of power, across the bridges of New York City, down the aisles of our great cathedrals, through he slums of Mumbai? 

If paying attention to the prophets aligns our dreams with the dreams of God and drives us to prophetic action, then the cries of Isaiah today are a reminder that sometimes this means getting in the demolition business. Sometimes this means flattening the mountains of privilege and power, clearing away the obstructions of legalism, and leveling the uneven ground of racial, economic, and religious inequity.  After all, the sages have long told us that there is a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to mend and a time to rend, a time to build and a time to tear down.  

Maybe this Advent season should be a season of rending and uprooting, of tearing down and leveling the ground. Maybe this year we prepare for Jesus not simply by hanging up wreaths but by pulling down the broken, unjust systems that tend to obscure God’s presence among us by obscuring God’s image in our brothers and sisters. Maybe we prepare for God-with-us by marching with the protestors rather than watching TV, by “shutting it down” rather than lightning it up. 

The prophets sparked the imaginations and directed the actions of Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, and the John the Baptist who spoke of a God who topples rulers from their thrones and lifts up the poor, who scatters the proud and unites the humble.  For John, the call of the prophets had practical implications, implications that cost him his reputation, his comforts, and eventually his life. 

The miracle child of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John was probably expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a Temple priest—a position of some power and prestige.  But John didn’t stay at the Temple among the ceremonial baths. John went out to the rivers, to the desert, to the people.  Calling them to a single, dramatic baptism to symbolize a reoriented heart, he declared that “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” 

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” he told the people, “make his paths straight.” 

In other words:  God’s on the move. No mountain or hill, no ideology or ritual or requirement or law, can obstruct Him any longer. Temples cannot contain a God who flattens mountains, ceremonial baths a God who flows through rivers. A mighty and unjust Empire cannot withstand a God who levels the hills of inequity, who regards the powerful elite as withering grass, who raises up the humble and puts the powerful in their place. 

Repentance, then, means reorienting around God's priorities. It means leaving the old ways of obstruction and supremacy behind and joining in the great paving-of-the-path, the making-of-the-way, the demolishing of every man-made impediment between God and God’s people so the whole earth can celebrate God’ uninhibited presence within it and welcome the arrival of the Messiah. 

We cannot see Immanuel, God with us, if we cannot see God's image in our black brothers or our lesbian sisters. We cannot make way for baby Jesus in the manger if we cannot make way in our lives and our churches for the poor, the uneducated, the immigrants, and the marginalized. We cannot grasp God's eternal, everywhere Word so long as we believe that political power and religious prestige are anything but temporal blades of grass that wither in the winter. We cannot hear the voice crying from the wilderness if we stay shut up in our castles, hidden in our temples. 

If you want to be a part of God’s work in the world, then help prepare the way. Level the uneven ground.

The promise of Advent is God is on the move. 

The challenge of Advent is to move with Him. 

I wish I knew where to start. 

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