In ‘The Keepers,’ Harrowing Crimes Awaken Our Longing for Justice

Netflix’s troubling true-crime docuseries wrestles with what happens when murder and abuse go unpunished.

If you’ve eyed some of Netflix’s recent additions, you’ve probably spotted a picture of a young nun accompanied by the mildly ominous title, The Keepers. Or maybe you’ve heard about it: The series is currently making waves, with more than one critic comparing it to David Simon’s The Wire.

Those who know a bit about the show’s background might find this to be an odd comparison, since The Keepers is a documentary, and The Wire, for all its gritty realism, is still a work of fiction. The comparison makes a bit more sense, though, when we press into the details: Like Simon’s show, The Keepers takes place in Baltimore, Maryland, and, like The Wire, it offers a near-comprehensive exposé of institutional corruption.

But here’s an honest question: Do we really need another crime documentary in our queues? The recent proliferation of these titles is dizzying: HBO’s The Jinx, Netflix’s Making a Murderer, This American Life’s Serial podcasts. Isn’t The Keepers just more grist for the true crime mill at this point?

I’m compelled to warn you that Netflix’s The Keepers is one of the more horrifying entries in this recent spate of true crime documentaries, both because of the nature of its subject matter, which concerns murder and sexual abuse, as well as its unflinching depiction of the long-term consequences suffered by the victims of these crimes. In many ways, however, it’s this stark depiction of profound injustice that makes The Keepers a valuable, albeit challenging, watch.

The series revolves around the unsolved murder of Catherine Cesnik, which took place in Baltimore in 1969. By all accounts, Cesnik was one of the most revered teachers …

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Tragic Church Bus Crash Ends Student Mission Trip Before It Can Start

Accident kills teen girl from Alabama megachurch who felt God’s call to Botswana.

On the way to the Atlanta airport for a student mission trip to Africa, an Alabama church bus flipped in a crash with two other vehicles, killing a teen girl and injuring dozens more.

The bus carried 38 passengers, mostly 11th and 12th-grade students, from Mount Zion Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama, about three and a half hours away. The group, including a second bus from the church, was on their way to a flight bound for Botswana. The cause of the accident is still under investigation.

The Alabama Baptistidentified the victim as Sarah Harmening, 17. Her parents described her as having a tangible love for the Lord and being “so excited” for the trip. “She earned all the money to go and share Christ with children of Botswana,” said her mother, Karen Harmening.

The Harmenings shared their daughter’s final journal entry from the trip, where she reflects on God’s call on her life:

I was just sitting here on the bus feeling a little sad. I guess because I’m going to be gone so long, and I was a little uncomfortable. But I decided to read my Bible. I prayed, and opened up to 1 Peter 5 and 2 Peter 1 … I was just reminded of why I am here, and that God has called me here and has done this for a reason. I know he is going to do incredible things.

Sarah had texted her sister the day before another Bible verse from 1 Peter, adding, “Life is not about us, it’s about God who is eternal, and I want to dedicate the one moment I’m here completely and entirely to him.”

In total, 24 passengers were hospitalized for their injuries, including a few in critical condition, according to local media reports.

Mount Zion posted requests for prayer for the students in the accident …

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Cambodians Usher in a Miraculous Moment for Christianity

How the Southeast Asian country went from an underground church to a church-planting boom.

Dozens of pastors crowded around Hun Sen with smartphones extended, snapping selfies to commemorate the Cambodian prime minister’s first-ever meeting with local Christians.

The government session with 2,500 church leaders last summer was a significant gesture in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation where Christians were martyred and forced underground only a few decades ago.

Hun’s meeting “was a historic event that never happened before,” said Tep Samnang, executive director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia (EFC), an interdenominational network representing most of the country’s believers. “It’s a sign that [the government] accepts the Christian community more publicly.”

While persecution still percolates in other Southeast Asian countries, Cambodian Christians enjoy a promising sense of openness from leaders and neighbors.

“You are at peace, and I appeal to all religions in Cambodia not to harass you or your sects,” Hun told the pastors gathered in a luxe city hall in Koh Pich, the fast-developing “Diamond Island” in the center of the capital, Phnom Penh. Though Christians were not allowed to pray or share remarks during the meeting, Tep said, “at least it’s a spark to keep the fire burning.”

Christians remain a small-but-growing 2.5 percent of the 16 million people living in the former communist nation, where gold-trimmed temple rooftops twirl over both city skylines and rural landscapes. The temples serve as gathering places for dozens of nationally observed Buddhist festivals throughout the year.

But Cambodia finally has a generation of church leaders with the training and freedom to evangelize on a nationwide scale—and these …

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Flying Solo in a Family-Centered Church

Gina Dalfonzo shares an insider’s perspective on the frustrations of long-term singleness

I recently received four blush bridesmaid dresses in the mail. The first was a floor-length formal with a corset so tight I almost blacked out trying to wriggle my way out of it. One was strapless and too plain. Another I refused to even try on after seeing the jewel accents. And the last was a halter number that looked far better on the hanger than it did on me. As the summer wedding creeps ever closer, I choose to distract myself from my lack of a plus-one with the hunt for the perfect bridesmaid dress. With this being my eighth time as a member of the wedding party and my eighth time going solo, I’ve resolved to do it in style.

This was never the life I imagined. My friends and I often sit around wondering how we got here. What boys did we pass up? What mistakes did we make? What routines did we neglect, leaving us sleeping alone while the ticking of our biological clocks lulls us into fitful dreams? I don’t feel equipped for singleness. All the youth group dating advice was predicated on the idea that marriage was in my future, that if I made all the right choices, kept myself pure, and sought after God, he would reward me with a husband. I’ve only recently gotten to a place where I can ask myself, But what if he doesn’t?

Somehow, despite many friends getting married, the single among us are still here, clinging to a community that seems to view us as more of a nuisance than a necessity. And we long for a place in the church—besides standing up at the altar while other people’s vows are being exchanged.

Gina Dalfonzo has lived this storyline as well, but a bit longer and with more grace than I have. As a lifelong single, she’s endured passive-aggressive advice, negligent married …

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The World’s Biggest Trafficking Problem Remains in the Background

How Christians in Cambodia are drawing attention to labor trafficking and the quiet power of prevention.

At a shelter in Cambodia, 16-year-old girl points to the scar where she tried to slit her wrist with a broken plate.

Two years before, she left her province when offered a job as a cleaning lady in South Korea. Instead, she was sold into marriage in Beijing, where her new husband kept her locked up and demanded she give him a child.

“It was like hell,” she tells CT through a translator. “I just wanted to die.”

When she got pregnant soon after, the teen bride escaped at her first doctor’s appointment and contacted her friends 2,000 miles away, who called a hotline to arrange her rescue and repatriation. She and her 11-month-old daughter live in a home operated by Agape International Missions (AIM), among dorm-style bunk beds with about 50 other girls.

In 2015, consulate officials brought 85 trafficked brides back from China, as cross-border labor trafficking of all kinds surged throughout the region. Recent economic partnerships have opened up connections between Cambodia and its neighbors—Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar—making it the easiest time in decades to get in and out. “There were new opportunities,” said Helen Sworn, founder of the anti-trafficking coalition Chab Dai, “but new risks for exploitation.”

Child brides, domestic servitude, and other employment scams fall into the broad category of labor trafficking. It happens on a massive scale around Cambodia; some recent studies estimate a quarter million Cambodians are victims of modern-day slavery.

Yet, “it’s one of the quieter human trafficking problems,” said Barry Jessen, manager for Samaritan’s Purse’s safe migration program in Cambodia. “Sex trafficking is much …

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Our Spiritual Gifts Have an Expiration Date

Let’s rejoice in them—while looking forward to a time when they’re no longer needed.

Spiritual gifts can cause confusion. As a pastor in a charismatic church, I encounter it all the time. Some are worried whenever they hear talk of the gifts of the Holy Spirit—languages, prophecy, healing, miracles, and so forth—and others are worried whenever they hear talk of anything else. The second group risks turning a good thing into an ultimate thing; the first risks dismissing a good thing because it might frighten the horses.

God’s miraculous gifts have often been met with mixed responses. Some pour scorn over them, and some fawn over them. For a better way to think about the place of gifts in the contemporary church, it’s helpful to think back to an Old Testament example: Spiritual gifts are like manna.

There are all sorts of reasons for the comparison. Both are miraculous gifts that come down from heaven daily to sustain people. Not for nothing does Paul describe manna, and the water from the rock, as “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” (1 Cor. 10:3–4), before moving on to talk about “spiritual gifts” (1 Cor. 12–14). Both are easily misunderstood. When the Israelites first encountered manna, they asked each other, “What is it?” When the church first encountered spiritual gifts, some muttered that those using them were drunk.

Both gifts bear witness to the miracle-working power of God. Both are given specifically to his covenant people. Both can be overemphasized by enthusiasts, like the Israelites who kept their manna until the next morning only to find it had gone rotten, or the hyper-charismatics who get more excited about speaking in tongues than the gospel. At the same time, both prompt grumbling from others, who complain …

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Cambodia’s Child Sex Industry Is Dwindling—And They Have Christians to Thank

From rescues to legal reform, a faithful minority changed the country’s criminal landscape.

Sek Saroeun first read the Bible at a Phnom Penh bar where young girls were illegally sold for sex. Hamburgers were $1.00, draft beers were $1.50, and bigger bills could get you a companion for the night.

The Buddhist law student worked as a DJ at Martini Pub and had recently begun serving as an undercover informant for the Christian human rights group International Justice Mission (IJM). He scanned the room to scope out suspects as Michael Jackson boomed over the speakers. He cracked open a loaned copy of the Bible—a curiosity introduced to him through IJM—and began to make his way through it in the DJ booth.

Sek took part in the organization’s earliest sex trafficking investigations in Cambodia. The Southeast Asian country had turned into a cheap, shabby hotbed for sex tourism in the decades after its notorious genocide and resulting civil unrest. In 2003, IJM launched the first large-scale attempt to fix the Khmer kingdom’s public justice system that allowed pimps and pedophiles to go free.

Excited, disgusted, and afraid of being found out during his capital city spying, Sek repeated Romans 12:12 to himself: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Over time, “fear led to longing; longing led to transformation that is unimaginable,” he told colleagues at an IJM conference a decade later, explaining how he became a Christian and the group’s top lawyer in Cambodia.

“God didn’t just change me,” said Sek. “He also changed a family, a community, a nation.”

Between 2004 and 2015, Sek and his team watched the prevalence of underage girls in busy brothels, roadside massage parlors, and neon-lit karaoke bars steadily drop as they partnered …

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Why We Need Wonder Woman

Even when it falters, the new female-led film brings freshness to the superhero flick.

It took Hollywood 76 years to make a big screen version of Wonder Woman. Multiple directors tried and failed, partly because Wonder Woman is a difficult character to bring to life and partly because of fear of something new. “The [superhero] genre became synonymous with young men, and so I think there was a concern that they wouldn’t be as interested in a female lead, and it’s taken years for that to sort itself out,” director Patty Jenkins told Cinemablend.

Now, she’s finally here—and in theaters today.

Although the film’s release is groundbreaking, the story itself is still informed by a male-led genre. Wonder Woman is for fans of Captain America, because that’s what this film is, essentially: Captain America in female form. The story is light and idealistic and takes place in the past—World War I, in this case. The good guys are rewarded and the bad guys have simple motives. Like Captain America’s alter ego Steve Rogers, Wonder Woman’s Diana—played by Gal Gadot—is a hero who believes in black and white but is thrust into a world of grey. She defines herself more by her ideals than her invulnerable powers. And she meets another true believer (Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor) who, though a mere mortal, fights the same fight for similar reasons.

The simple plot is made more interesting by “pretty” fight scenes (Diana looks like an Herbal Essences ad in the middle of a battlefield), by the funny moments of Diana’s confusion about the “real world,” and by Diana Prince herself (never actually referred to as Wonder Woman), who manages to be both stately and emotive, powerful and innocent.

Although the film follows a somewhat traditional …

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Weekend Edition – June 3, 2017—Most Read Posts and Church Signs!

Most Read Posts from January 1 to May 31 (Plus Church Signs!)

10. Searching for Gorsuch: For Many Evangelicals “It’s the Supreme Court, Stupid”

9. Exposing the Truth about Honor and Shame

8. Marriage, Divorce, and the Church: What do the stats say, and can marriage be happy?

7. What is the Gospel? A Look at 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

6. The Resurrection of Gavin Stone: My Review

5. Differences in the Gospels, A Closer Look

4. What Does it Mean to Have an Abundant Life? Some Thoughts on Prosperity

3. Hank Hanegraaff’s Switch to Eastern Orthodoxy, Why People Make Such Changes, and Four Ways Evangelicals Might Respond

2. Facts Are Our Friends: Why Sharing Fake News Makes Us Look Stupid and Harms Our Witness

1. Dear Fellow Christians: It’s Time to Speak Up for Refugees

Thanks to friends of the blog for this week’s church signs. As always, you can tweet your church signs to @EdStetzer (and/or @stetzerblog).

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A Local Preacher and a Jailhouse Jesus Freak Brought Me to Faith in Prison

I was sentenced to life for a murder I didn’t commit. But God didn’t forget me.

It happened in a blur. One minute we were enjoying a night out, shooting pool. The next thing I knew, we were running from the law—wanted for murder.

I’d always looked up to my out-of-town cousin, Bobby. I was thrilled when he invited me to come along that night. The Marine Room was well known in my circle of friends as a place that didn’t card minors. At 17, a high school sophomore, I was confident they’d serve me.

Alcohol abuse was prevalent in my rural Pennsylvania home. My biological dad drank himself to death. My mom couldn’t tell me not to drink, since she did—excessively—every day. She did try to keep me home that night. “It’s too late,” she said, when we started out the door at 11 p.m. I begged Bobby to talk Mom into it. He did. We were off, along with my stepbrother Sid.

A few games of pool and several drinks in, Bobby told us he was going to rob the place. While surprised at his sudden intentions, the alcohol seemed to dull any impulse for protest. Sid and I would leave—as locals, we’d be recognized—and Bobby would commit the robbery alone.

We waited outside. It was taking too long. After several minutes, we poked our heads in the door—Bobby had brutally murdered the bar owner. He shouted, “Don’t just stand there! Help me find the money!” Before long, we were on the run.

I followed Bobby to New York City. We visited drug dens and stayed in roach-infested motel rooms. But I couldn’t escape the reality of what had happened. I decided to return to Pennsylvania and turn myself in. Bobby said, “Tell them the truth, Gene. It was all me.”

I told the detectives everything I knew—and as I did, I realized …

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