Stranger Things and Upside-Down Kingdoms

“These men…have turned the world upside down.” Acts 17:6 My husband and I recently binge-watched […]

Stephanie Phillips / 9.20.16


“These men…have turned the world upside down.” Acts 17:6

My husband and I recently binge-watched Stranger Things on Netflix. And by binge-watched, I mean that we finished the series in about ten days, taking into account my propensity for falling asleep mid-episode and stretching a couple of the chapters over multiple viewings–like the last one, which we viewed on a laptop from a Sydney hotel room over the course of a night (I passed out thirty minutes in) and the next morning at 4:30 (thanks, jet lag). CJ already deftly covered the appeal of the show–themes of nostalgia, redemption, purity, and BARB!–and I felt especially drawn in by Joyce’s (Winona Ryder) no-holds-barred commitment to finding her son. As the mother of two young boys, I can tell you what I wouldn’t have begun to understand before giving birth to them: that an evil science lab, gawkers on the street, unaffordable Christmas lights, and demagorgs would be no match for me either were I to be separated from them. You go, Joyce.

Another theme I couldn’t get away from: the idea of alternate dimensions, specifically the upside-down universe depicted in the series. We’ve talked about the multiverse here before, but the philosophical implications of the idea–not to mention quantum physics, which I’m a bit behind on in my reading–leave me with an anxiety headache. One thing I find compelling in ST’s depiction of the Upside Down is the very name of it, because it reminds me of what many refer to as the upside-down kingdom Jesus introduced during his earthly ministry, a representation of Christ-following at its purest: the last being first, acts of love through service, death bringing life. Not exactly the dark, monster-ridden locale populated by Will, BARB!, and a faceless alien-esque bogeyman.

Or…is it? Because sometimes it feels that way to me.

kangarooStay with me here as I take a detour through some personal stuff. About a year ago, the company my husband works for bought a business in Sydney. He was alerted to the possibility that he might be offered a substantial role there. At the time, I had just found out my sister was expecting her second child; our older son was not speaking and I had just enrolled him in every therapy on the planet; and…oh yeah–I was like, HELL NO.

The likelihood of this monumental life change faded away over the next few months, until it popped back up again earlier this summer. My husband seemed more taken with the idea this time around, which I took as an ultimate betrayal and let him know as much through withering stares and tense silences. After about a week of feeling like the resident demagorg in our home, I prayed a simple prayer for God to show my husband how misled he was. Or change my heart, whatever, amen. RUDELY, God answered my prayer as he often does: in the opposite way from how I’d hoped. I found myself researching therapies in Australia and considering that life on a beach ten thousand miles from here might not actually kill me. I began to relent from my hard-line no.

But I wasn’t thrilled about it. Saying goodbye to our family here, including my brand-new niece, and to the network of therapists we’ve come to rely on and owe so much to, and to a church that’s a home filled with people whose stories and bitmojis we’ve come to love? It’s not only a big ask, it’s one in a long line of rugs that I feel have been pulled out from under me in my adult life, and to be honest, I’m getting a little sick of it. “It” being the way God seems to work: constantly removing sources of my comfort besides himself, asking me to step out in faith when I’m perfectly comfortable on my couch, calling me to a deeper level of trust when I already go to a Bible study (almost) every week. Rather than feeling like love, this form of it often leaves me feeling like I’m stranded along with Nancy in the upside down, hiding behind a tree from the apparent monster who would seek to snatch me away from everything light-giving and warm in my life. The ultimate betrayal.

This wariness of God and his methods, this sideways-glance at the one who has proven time and again to be faithful? It says so much more about me than it does about him. But good luck getting that through my skull this side of eternity, if past precedent serves. These recurring instances of faithfulness and ever-flowing gifts wrapped in packaging I never would have chosen remind me of what Henri Nouwen wrote in Life of the Beloved:

However, precisely the same situations also offer us occasions to be critical, skeptical, even cynical because, when someone is kind to us, we can question his or her motives; when an event turns out well, it could always have turned out better; when a problem is solved, there often emerges another in its place…when a wound is healed, there can still be some leftover pain…Where there is reason for gratitude, there can always be found a reason for bitterness. It is here that we are faced with the freedom to make a decision…We can decide to recognize our chosenness in the moment or we can decide to focus on the shadow side.


I know a little something about the shadow side, about what Pete Holmes, host of one of my favorite podcasts (I’m not the only one), refers to as our “shadow selves”–those dark parts within us that also give us depth and can’t just be written off easily. I know how I can complicate matters, how I can be all “I believe; help my unbelief” about things, how I can look at a #blessed life and see endless potty-training and sleeplessness. I know how dark I can get and how ungrateful I can be…but I also know that this side of me is not beyond redemption–and not without purpose. God is in the dark places too, whether they’re a prison, or the recesses of my own personality, or countries in upside-down hemispheres–and, as PZ says, “in the presence of God, darkness becomes light.”

So while my Ph.D. dissertation on metaphysics remains woefully unwritten, I won’t let that stop me from theorizing on some of the mysteries of our universe(s)–after all, I could’ve stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Because I can’t get away from the notion that my child self who always rued the lack of walking-on-water miracles that abounded during Jesus’ earthbound introduction of his kingdom sticks around in my adult self who in its own way does the same, demanding God show up in the way I envisioned.

Yet the miracles do happen, and he does show up. He shows up in the light pattern bouncing through the trees on an otherwise rote weekday morning filled with school drop-offs and laundry, these pockets of grace that may very well be tears in this universe providing openings to the next. He shows up in the adventures he keeps calling me to despite the fact that I’m not packed and my passport photo looks like a mugshot. He shows up in my little boy who calls me to adventures, too, through surgeries and therapies and finally, one weekend, to sit with him on the outdoor furniture display at Bed, Bath and Beyond so we can play pretend–something he never used to do.

He shows up in the moments of parenting in which I realize I’m the one being parented: my no-longer speechless son who returns from an errand with his dad and tells me, “That car wash is scary! I said for it to let me out!” I ask him if it did, and he shakes his head. “Not until it was done, right?” I say, and am assaulted immediately by the recognition of a grace that will not let us go before it is finished with us–jet lag and discomfort be damned.

In his Stranger Things piece, CJ mentioned the idea of a spiritual addressee: “something external which promises a home.” I’ve confused home with the particularities I can cling to: a house, certain people, a street number. I’m Jonah yelling at God about where his shady tree went. All the while, grace is letting me in on one of its greatest mysteries: a home that transcends hemispheres and physics, that detonates my ideas of comfort and the smallness to which I would reduce it, that locates itself as an address contained by a Holy Spirit, left behind as the marker of kingdoms upside-down and eternal, bearing recognition within me of its realness in every sunset, every fit of laughter from my child, even every moment of darkness that will eventually turn to light.