Friday, December 30, 2005

Fun with Dick and Jane

"You shall not steal." Exodus 20:15

Dick and Jane Harper are trying to live the American dream: Work hard, make money, live well. Fun with Dick and Jane reminds us that dreams are not reality.

Dick Harper (played by Jim Carrey) begins this film working hard, following the rules, and climbing slowly (but eventually successfully) up the corporate ladder at Globodyne, a consolidation company of media properties that's about to burst. After following all those rules, Dick is "rewarded" with taking the fall for the CEO (Alec Baldwin) and having his stocks, his finances, and his career plummet with the fall of Globodyne.

The premise of the film is that, after all their assets have been sold off for food and all their utilities shut off, Dick and Jane (played by Tea Leoni) resort to a life of crime to make ends meet. They figure that "playing the rules" and being honest got them poor; perhaps "breaking the rules" and being dishonest will get them some cash again.

As a couple, they resort to Bonnie-and-Clyde antics of stealing from coffee shops, banks, and people's homes. At first, it's for survival, but after they find how profitable this is, they make it their new career and become quite successful at it. Eventaully, the thrill of stealing overwhelms them.

What finally wins the day is taking the high road, and focusing on something other than whether Dick and Jane should or shouldn't steal. Instead, Dick and Jane's life really take off when they GIVE money away (in a pension plan to their former colleagues) rather than worrying about not stealing it.

Fun with Dick and Jane isn't just about not stealing; it about being generous with what we've been given.

When we focus on the commandment of "You shall not steal" (Ex. 20:15), we often forget the opposite command - the one Jesus gave us so eloquently in the New Testament: "When someone asks for your shirt, give him your coat as well" (Matt. 5:40). What Jesus tells us is that stealing may be wrong, but what is more wrong is not being generous.

By making generosity our primary focus, the idea of stealing won't even be an option. When we give, we rely less on taking. So the next time we feel tempted to steal (in big or small ways), perhaps we should more often be reflecting on why we aren't being more generous with what we've been given in life rather than about the ramifications of thievery.

Then and only then can Dick and Jane have real fun.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia

A Christmas beyond our expectations.

According to C.S. Lewis, his book (and now the film), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, is a “supposal,” not an allegory.

Both Lewis and his colleague and friend J.R.R. Tolkein resisted calling their works “allegories.” Allegories, in their opinion, were cheap storytelling because all they did was switch out one set of characters for another set.

And while the media and most movie audiences keep referring to this vision of Narnia as an allegory of the Bible, Lewis would hear none of that.

Narnia is a “supposal,” a term which Lewis coined to say, “Suppose that another world existed where animals – not humans – were the primary inhabitants. Suppose that world also needed redemption from God. What do you suppose that redemption would look like?” The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe was the answer to that question.

In this film, redemption for the kingdom of fauns, talking beavers, and centaurs comes in the form of Aslan the lion. The only issue I have with this supposal is that in the world of Narnia, the animals all know and respect the fearsome creature, whereas the redemption of our world came from a direction no one expected.

Before Christ, people expected the messiah to be either a royal king, a victorious warrior, or a most holy high priest. Jesus of Nazareth was none of these. He was a simple Jewish carpenter from a backwards village in Galilee whose ministerial climax was a bloody death in a manner reserved for common criminals. Aslan, on the other hand, was known as the savior before he even entered Narnia. He led his army into battle and all Narnia trembled at his roar.

What makes our world’s savior so wonderful is it comes from a God who loves the unexpected. Christ defied expectations, and in so doing, he transformed the world.

Perhaps this blog comes out of a growing dissatisfaction I have had throughout the month of December. As I sat in the theatre watching The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe a few weeks ago, I felt somewhat disappointed at the end. All the elements of a “Christ story supposal” were there – the Advent prophecies of a coming savior, the Satan figure of the White Witch, the betrayal from within the inner circle, the Garden of Gethsemane scene on the night before Aslan’s death, the abuse and sacrifice of Aslan on a rocky hill, and his subsequent resurrection from the dead. So what was missing?

What was missing was the heart of the ministry and what made a savior so special.

At Christmas time, the celebration of the birth of our own world’s savior, what keeps me going is that this savior, Jesus of Nazareth, was indeed quite special. In the Scriptures, we read about his powerful deeds, his healing touch, and his wonderful words. We know that even in the things we don’t know about what he said or did, he was so extraordinary that this simple Galilean carpenter transfixed the highest authorities of his time, even causing some so much discomfort as to make them conspire against him to keep him quiet.

Narnia gives us a wonderful reference to the Christ story and a reminder to pay attention to what makes this the greatest story ever told. The best thing about a film like this is that it just might get us to open our Bibles and re-read what makes our faith so special.

But let us also never forget that ours is a God who surpasses our world, giving us miracles beyond our imagination, an an Incarnation beyond our expectations.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck

black and white and red all over...

In my opinion, Good Night, and Good Luck is one of the best films of the year. In stark black-and-white, director George Clooney has given us a response to the black-and-white world we increasingly find ourselves living in.

Today, fundementalist Muslims and Christians are painting our world in stark contrasts where people are either good or evil, and consequently saved or unsaved. This film also points at the political polar extremes that are involving themselves in American politics, historically in the 1950s with the McCarthy red scare and presently in the presidency of George W. Bush.

Political or spiritual, fundemental extremes are dangerous.

CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow (brilliantly played by David Strathairn) took a stand against the red scare tactics of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy live and on the air, a very risky move in his day (and probably a risky move, in some respects, in our day as well).

This marked the first time a major television entity risked it all and spoke out against this witch hunt. No one wanted to touch this, for fear of their own careers and finances. But Murrow did, and in the end, McCarthy was forced to answer for his actions. Had he not spoken up, would another have risen up and speak out? Had he not spoken up, where would we be today?

But history often repeats itself, and Clooney has created this film to remind us of that.

Today we live in another black-and-white world. So what are we challenged to do? Speak up, and speak out. Christ lived in a black-and-white world (either you were submissive to the Romans or you lived as a zealot killing Romans). Christ didn't fit into either camp, and spoke up and spoke out against such fundementalism from both sides. So again we ask, what are we challenged to do in today's black-and-white world? Speak up, and speak out.

Murrow accepted whatever fate befell him (luckily for him, he saved his life, and his job). Good Night, and Good Luck encourages us to accept whatever fate befalls us, if we, too, choose to speak out against what we believe is wrong.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

“Harry, dangerous times are ahead. We must choose between what is right and what is easy.” Professor Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire is a film of transition, where we see our hero Harry Potter go from the observant wide-eyed kid of Sorcerer’s Stone to the proactive, confident young adult we see in the later Harry Potter books.

Transitions, however, are not easy.

More than any of the other books, The Goblet of Fire showcases the trauma of adolescence, the most awkward of transitions. Harry (played by Daniel Radcliffe), along with best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), in this film, have their first serious encounters with dating and inter-school rivalry.

We are uneasy with transition. We are defensive when we’re in transition. We feel helpless when we’re in transition. Just like in the film, people act differently when these emotions rear their ugly heads. Because of this, the Yule Ball at Hogwarts turns into a place where our three heroes turn on each other instead of being a fun winter experience. But we cannot – and the Hogwarts kids cannot – escape transition.

In our adult lives, it happens when we’re new at a job or amongst a new group of people. It happens when we’re dating, when we move, or when things suddenly change in life. We cannot escape these times.

The question isn’t how do we minimize our awkward life transitions, but how do we handle them when these situations happen to us?

What Goblet of Fire and the Scriptures advise us to do is to find something solid to cling onto as we weather those difficult times. “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matt. 7:24), says Jesus. When Simon Peter tried (and failed) to walk on water in the middle of a storm, it was only by grasping the firm arm of Christ that he did not drown (cf. Matt. 14: 29-31).

Dumbledore gives us similar advice in that, at troubling times like this, we need to choose a side and stick to it: “We must choose between what is right and what is easy.”

When Voldemort appears in this film, Harry must rely on the things he believes that are right, even hard – the sacrificial love of his mother, the loyalty to friends (even when they are rivals), and trust in his mentors and teachers – to escape the curses of his enemy.

Hold your head high. Stick to what you believe in. Be firm in your faith. By this, we shall be saved.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Weather Man

"For I know well the plans I have for you, says the Lord: plans for welfare, not for woe; plans for a future filled with hope." Jeremiah 29:11

Chicago winters are brutal. I know them well.

Since I was a kid growing up just south of Lake Michigan in Northwest Indiana, I know that the chills of the winter season here can make or break you. The Weather Man chronicles the story of David Spritz (Nicholas Cage), the fictional equivilent of Tom Skilling, as the primary weather forcaster for WGN-TV in Chicago.

However, contrary to the title of the film, the movie has very little to do with Spritz's meteorological career. The Weather Man is actually about carving out an identity.

We all have struggles with naming our identity, because that too closely reminds us of "labels." We don't like labels because they limit us. It's why nicknames give us so much trouble - because we are reduced to one adjective, one descriptive element of who we are. This is the struggle that we see David Spritz experience in this movie.

Are we more than our job? Spritz wants to believe so, because being just the weather man of Chicago denies all the other things that makes David the person he was created to be. Being the weather man doesn't say what kind of husband, father, son, friend, or even what kind of weather forcaster that David feels he is beneath the television personality.

Of course we are more than our job, God tells us. In Jeremiah, God tells the prophet, "For I know well the plans I have for you; plans for welfare, not for woe; plans for a future filled with hope." (Jer. 29:11).

God is telling us that our identity is more than a label. In fact, identity may have very little with us, but very much with God. He created us with spiritual gifts to make an impact on the world, and our life's pursuit is to a) find and name those gifts, and b) figure out how to use those gifts to better the world around us. That is the journey of The Weather Man.

Once Spritz identifies those gifts, symbolized very clearly by his archery abilities he never knew he ever had, he is given a peace of mind that doesn't mind whatever label or title the world wants to give him. It's not an easy journey, the movie reminds us, filled with ups and downs and countless uncertainties. But it's the journey we are called to take on in this life.

In this film, the weather itself is a symbol of the inner battle we have in understanding our gifts and their place in our world. The weather is just plain "blah," like a Chicago winter. Weather like this makes us want to give up, to stay indoors and avoid the world. That is the challenge that life gives us in our search for our gifts. More often than not, our biggest obstacle in life isn't a major storm - rather, it's the cold, damp, dark winter of indifference, routine, and inaction.

Only when we can overcome these winters can we achieve the peace we seek.

The Legend of Zorro

"Let me be weighed in an even balance, that God may know my integrity." Job 31:6

It's 9:30 at night, and I am, after an already long day, still sitting at my desk, staring into my computer screen, putting "just one more finishing touch" on the project I am working on. This happens all too frequent for me, and in my experience working with other 20- and 30-somethings, it happens all too frequent for most people I've met.

Balancing life is everyone's issue.

For many, it's the tug-of-war between their work and their home or family. How much time do we spend at the office compared to being away from work? If you're answer puts your work time over play time, then you know what this tug-of-war is all about.

The Legend of Zorro captures this tension in the character of Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Banderas) who is caught between his life as Zorro and his life at home with his wife Elena (Catherine Zeta Jones) and son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso).

Elena begs Alejandro to put aside the mask since he has seemingly missed the first ten years of his son's life and their marriage. Zorro's "job" is not a bad job, let me say. It's a noble task of defending the defenseless and bringing justice to those who do harm to the people of California. The Legend of Zorro is a great superhero sequel with a great superhero dilemma: Now that you're "Superman," what happens to your life outside of saving the world?

But many of us who find our work rewarding share the superhero's dilemma... how do we balance the work we find good and beneficial to others with the home life with our friends, spouse, family, and our own selves?

It's a good question, but the answer to which Job, in the Hebrew Scriptures, claims is the test that God will give us to judge our integrity, our value in the world.

No matter how great and meaningful our career may be, the judgement of our character will be based on how well we balanced everything God blessed us with: family, friends, marriage, and our own selves, our passions, our interests, our enjoyment of creation.

So how do we do it? Live with integrity.

"Integrity" means that every aspect of ourselves is honest with every other aspect. To set down the road to good balance, Alejandro had to be honest with his wife and son, about his identity, concerns, and joys, and had to remember his own role as a husband and father. Elena and Joaquin, likewise, had to be honest about their own concerns and be willing to understand the needs of the people whom Zorro serves in his work. In other words, the relationship must exhibit integrity - on all sides.

Doing good work is very important to us, no doubt about it. Being a good friend, son or daughter, husband or wife is also important to us and our relationships. But balancing our life that we've been given is the most important to God.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Wallace & Gromit Movie

"All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing 'Alleluia! Alleluia!"

In the midst of the simple, 90-minute, fun-loving Wallace & Gromit movie, there's a profound message about the world around us: take good care of it!

Wallace, a cheese-loving inventor, and Gromit, his incredibly intelligent dog, are co-partners in "Anti-Pesto," a local neighborhood pest control enterprise, taking good care of a recent overpopulation of rabbits in their town on the eve of a giant vegetable competition.

And in taking good care of the vegetables in town, Wallace and Gromit show us how to take good care of the pesky, vegetable-eating animals in town, too. There's one fun scene where Gromit (who, it seems, really runs the home and business all by himself) makes extensive efforts to feed carrots to the captured rabbits in the basement of their house. This kind of care and attention is comparible to the care and attention God commands of Adam and Eve in respect to the Garden in the first chapters of Genesis.

In those first chapters, God challenges humankind to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth." (Gen. 1:28)

What does this mean, to have "dominion" over every living thing? Does it mean to rule over all creation as a tyrannical ruler? Does it mean that we can do whatever we feel with whatever is put before us? If we seek to be like Christ, the one who has been given dominion over heaven and earth, then we must lead like Christ.

The dominion of Christ is that of a servant leader, a king who gave himself totally for the people of the world. So when God gives us dominion over creation, what must we do?

Wallace and Gromit show us a fresh, Christ-like definition of "dominion" and use their power to care for the vegetables, the rabbits, and all the people of their neighborhood. Together they seem to be reciting a favorite Christian hymn: "All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing, 'Alleluia, Alleluia!'"

A History of Violence

"This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel!" Mark 1:15

In this rather dark film, Viggo Mortensen plays "Tom Stall," an everyman who lives the quiet midwestern life as a father, husband, faithful citizen, and coffee shop owner. The other people in his small town look up to him as a moral leader even. However, as we come to find out as the movie progresses, his past is anything but quiet and simple. Tom Stall, it seems, has "a history of violence," a checkered past as Joey Cusack where he was a mob hitman who was very good at killing people.

But during three years that he spent in the desert (a desert experience is a common Biblical way of purging the demons from the soul), he repented of his old ways and sought a new life as "Tom Stall," who would go on to meet a wife, have a family, and settle in quiet Millbrook, Indiana.

One might say Joey was "born again" as Tom Stall, but a conversion experience of repentance does not just mean we can simply forget about our past and move on. Every action has consequences, and running from those actions, no matter how sincere our repentence is, cannot be the only answer. In Mark's Gospel, Jesus gives us a two-part exhortation: "Repent AND believe in the gospel." (1:15).

Repenting of the past is only the first part of our journey towards a true life of peace.

When Tom created a life with his wife, he neglected to share his deepest secrets. As Ed Harris notes in the film, "You believe your own lies." This denial of the truth, more than the violence of his past life, is what led to the sudden fissure in the family and life of Tom Stall.

The uncovering of the secrecy and deceit paves the way for violence to re-emerge in sleepy little Millbrook. Violence begets violence, and as Tom's secret comes out, Tom's wife and son start to crumble under the weight of the struggle: hers in the form of suspicion and developing her own lies, his in the form of physical violence at school. The town itself is at a loss, too, since Tom was once seen as a moral leader in the community.

When all is said and done in this film, in the final reels, Tom Stall ambles home to face the beginnings of a "real" redeemed life, one where all the cards are on the table and honest healing of the past can occur. At this point in the movie, we (the audience) are led to create our own sequel in our minds - what will the Stall's new life look like? how will the innate violent tendancies in Tom, his wife, and his son be reconciled? how will Millbrook change in light of this sudden turn of events? What a story that would make!

Jesus teaches us "Repent AND believe in the gospel." To turn our heart towards God is half the battle, to ground our heart in God is the harder journey of faith.

After seeing this film, I was convinced Tom was a villian who had gotten away with murder... but now after some reflection, I see Tom as one of us, perhaps to a more severe degree, sinful and broken before our Maker. We all desire to repent of our checkered pasts - but real penance means confronting those demons instead of just burying them. Then and only then will we have the ability to "believe in the gospel" and live it out each day forward.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Wedding Crashers

"When perfect love comes, the partial will pass away. Just as when I was child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, act like a child. But when I became a man, I put away such childish things." 1 Corinithians 13:10-11

It is ironic that the Scriptural theme of a movie like Wedding Crashers is actually referenced in the film itself: During a church wedding, the two main characters John and Jeremy (Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn) take bets on which Scripture reading will be read at the Mass, and sure enough, it's First Corinthians.

The wedding crashers of this film are two lifelong best friends who have played the summer game of going to weddings, crashing the receptions, and working on getting one-night-stands with as many women as they can. These are truly the acts of two adult "children," two guys who have never really grown out of adolescence. In fact, the two engage in an annual birthday ritual of an overnight sleepover on John's birthday each spring.

John and Jeremy may be adult lawyers in Washington DC, but Wedding Crashers is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story.

(a side note: I was impressed with the fact that the wedding crashers not only attend the receptions, but also the religious marriage ceremony for each wedding they crash; in an age like today, it is a good reminder of the religiosity of marriage).

After seasons of crashing, the film shows that John is finally tired of the experience. He agrees to one last crash, this time at the wedding for the daughter of Treasury Secretary Cleary (Christopher Walken). It is here where John "puts away such childish things" (as 1 Corinithians 14 goes), and falls in love with another of Cleary's daughters, Claire (Rachel McAdams), whom he pursues throughout the rest of the film despite the pleas of Jeremy to move on (and who has his own infatuated girl problems to worry about).

In the midst of exploiting the sacrament of love, here is a boy who has become a man because he found a "perfect love." When St. Paul talks about finding perfect love, he may have not had this movie in mind, but he does extol its virtues in a passage that has almost become cliche: "Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous. It is not pompous. It is not inflated. It is not rude. It does not seek its own interests. It is not quick-tempered or brood over injury. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices always with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things." (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

In this film, Claire's boyfriend (and eventually fiancee) represents all those attributes that St. Paul said love is not: jealous, pompous, inflated, rude, brooding over injury, quick-tempered.

On the other hand, John is the antithesis of all of these traits (and even his "wrongdoing" is something he has come to reconcile, beg forgiveness for, and leave behind). Though it takes some time (remember that true love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things"), John's example of this "perfect love" eventually wins the day.

While Wedding Crashers may offend some sensibilities, it is truly a story of growth and repentance. The story of St. Augustine would need to cover the early excesses and exploits of Augustine's youth. The story of St. Paul would need to cover the killing sprees of Christians that defined his life before finding Christ.

In fact, there is one scene in the film where Jeremy feels the need to confess his sins to the family priest (albiet over a few drinks, but the sacramental concept is still there). Reconciliation awaits all those who seek God's mercy and forgiveness.

We, like the wedding crashers, are sinners and in need of growth. We must pray that we, like John and Jeremy, are open to positive change in our lives so that we, like St. Paul, can one day boast: "I have put away such childish things!"

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Just Like Heaven

"For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. And it is in dying that we born to eternal life."
- St. Francis of Assisi

With a film with a title like Just Like Heaven, there is bound to be a lot of gospel messages imbedded into the reels.

Here is the story of two individuals: Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon), a busy, perky doctor who lives life at the office and hardly anywhere else; and David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo), a loney, depressed widower who now lives life like his last name: cloistered, removed, and interior. While one may be filled with energy and the other is devoid of any, they are connected by the fact that they both are dead to the world.

We are led to believe that Elizabeth dies in a car crash, and her "ghost" comes to haunt David, who now resides in Elizabeth's old apartment. I guess this is how two seemingly dead people can ever find each other: as specter and recluse (The Ghost & Mr. Chicken, perhaps?).

When they do find each other, both David and Elizabeth begin to live again. Since it is her "subconscience" that visits the apartment, David must help her remember who she was in life. And in so doing, Elizabeth helps David remember who he really is inside before his wife passed away and he cloistered himself up on a couch.

As I posted in a previous blog, we are made for each other. God created us to live for each other. And here is the story of two people who are truly made for each other - they need each other to bring life back into their lives. Remembering Christ's declaration, "I have come so that you might have life and have it abundantly." (John 10:10), we can see that real life, abundant life, was missing from the existances of David and Elizabeth until they really lived.

This movie promotes what I would call "pro-abundant-life." Just because we breathe doesn't always mean we're alive. David and Elizabeth are non unlike many young adults out there - either overworked or sadly depressed - who are not truly "alive."

When David and Elizabeth work together on reviving an accident victim in a restaurant, they both received a sense of purpose and meaning to their lives. Through their actions, they were able to make a positive, life-giving difference. They got a glimpse of the abundant life. The challenge to us in this film is to ask ourselves what are we living for, what our purpose and meaning is in this world, and how we can make a difference beyond working ourselves silly or making a permanent indent on our couch.

To fully appreciate abundant life, David and Elizabeth had to die to their mundane lives, just as St. Francis prayed centuries earlier: "it is in dying that we are born to eternal life." If we find ourselves in a dead life, let us pray for our own resurrection into abundance, too.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

"'Be prepared, watch, and pray, that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." Matt. 26: 41

This exorcism movie is not necessarily about the theology of exorcisms.

When finding the struggle between God and the devil in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the temptation is to look at the "big stuff"... the exorcism rituals, the six demons inside the possessed girl, or the scenes of blood dripping from statues, crosses, or stain glass windows.

But in Emily Rose, the devil is truly in the details.

We are just as likely to see evil rear its ugly head in the unphotogenic courtroom scenes just as much as the supernatural, special-effects-laden flashbacks of this film. The craftiness of evil is that it's most disturbing where and when we least expect it.

In our own everyday lives, we don't encounter evil whenever scary music is playing or every time there's a violent thunderstorm. We live in the real world where evil can exist in the unlikeliest of situations, and often does.

In his ministry, Jesus scolded the devil in his many exorcisms as well as when Simon Peter was pushing him in a wrong direction ("Get behind me, Satan!" he tells Peter in Matt. 16:23).

Yes, evil is real. And that evil comes in many forms.

Sometimes it can be loud, messy, speak in ancient languages, and eat bugs off the floor. The six demons possessing Emily Rose in this movie reminds us of the Gerasene demonic who said to Christ, "Legion is my name, for there are many of us in here." (Mark 5:9). Possessed people are indeed real and that cannot be denied.

But at other times, though, evil can wear suits and ties, and attack a simple country priest for his beliefs or a defense attorney for sticking to her conscience. The lawyers reminded me of the lawyers of the law in the Gospels whom Jesus called "whitewashed coffins that appear beautiful on the outside but that are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth." (Matt. 23:27).

Both images of evil show up in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but unfortunately only one of those images will get all the press.

In the Catholic Church, since the time of the early Christians, we believe in the power of exorcisms to draw out demons from the possessed. Catholics also believe in the power of people to overcome the evil that exists in the everyday through actions of compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.

We may very well encounter both in our lives, and we must pray that we are prepared to "undergo the test" - either with prayers and rituals or with love and action.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Transporter 2

"The Lord is my strength. He makes my feet swift as those of the antelope, and he gives me the power to climb mountains." Habakkuk 3:19

About a month ago, I blogged about a car chase movie (Dukes of Hazzard) and likened the Dukes family to Amos and the prophets of Israel. After a few weeks without seeing the August films, I am writing about another car chase movie (Transporter 2) and comparing its hero to the minor prophet Habbakuk and the prophets of Judah. Perhaps it has something to do with those fast cars and adreneline-pumping chases...

Before going on, I must admit that I did not see Transporter 1. I saw this film based on the action-packed trailer and Roger Ebert's enticing review. I like what I saw.

In this movie, Frank (the titular transporter, played by Jason Statham) is a well-dressed 'chauffeur' for a rich Miami couple's six-year old son, who eventually gets abducted by a group of bounty hunter kidnappers in order to infect the boy with a virus that will spread to his father, and then all the politicians he knows. The real story, however, is Frank and his Audi.

Frank is Habbakuk, who finds his strength in his honesty, gentlemenly manners, and right judgement. In Transporter 2, he is tempted, pushed, and threatened, but his moral center never wavers. He is a model hero that saves the day while staying true to his heart values and the promises to others. He never betrays another's trust, and the protection of the innocent is always the first of his priorities.

"Rules are made to be broken," is what one of the villians tells Frank, and this is also what our world tells us. But this film's postmodern hero sticks firmly to his convictions and values in the face of temptation, adversity, and struggle. Here, finally, is a character who makes following rules look cool.

Like Frank, we too must find our real strength comes out when we allow ourselves to be swept up by our God. On the surface, submission to the Lord looks like something a weak person would do. But on a week when we celebrate the feast of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, no one would ever doubt that this diminutive sister was probably one of the most powerful figures in the history of the world.

If we really want power, we'll only find it in humble submission to God and his Word.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Harry Potter, Open Water, and Pope Benedict

What I did on my summer vacation...

It has always been my pet peeve with Hollywood that August is typically devoid of any good movies. From the end of July to a few weeks after Labor Day, the blockbusters fizzle, the Oscar potentials are a no-show, and a movie theatre is only as good as the chill of an air conditioner and the smell of freshly-popped popcorn.

All of which is why I have not blogged for several weeks.

So what does a movie blogger do in the meantime? Read books, rent DVDs, and make an overseas visit with the Pope (just your typical summer stuff, right?).

This summer, I read the new tome from J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I watched several movies on the small screen including Constantine (with Keanu Reeves), The Interpreter (with Nicole Kidman), and Open Water (with two unknowns and a sea of sharks). Then I took a British Airways flight to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day with Pope Benedict XVI.

From all that and from the lessons we have learned from Hurricane Katrina, one theme has emerged loud and clear: We have not been made to be alone.

Into a society that treasures individualism have come hints (perhaps shouts) from we are created for one another. Even in the first pages of the Scriptures, God reminds us, "It is not good for man to be alone." (Gen. 2:18) This summer, Rowling, a pool of sharks, and the Vatican are reminding us of this central theme of creation, too.

In Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter cannot confront Voldemort without the aid of Professor Dumbledore... and Dumbledore cannot do it without Harry. In Open Water, it goes without saying that a young couple's refusal to stay with the pack (and a boat driver's reluctance to really take a good look at his divers) leaves them all in hot water (pun intended).

While being packed like sardines in cable cars in Cologne and being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other people in the middle of an ancient German city, I couldn't help but be reminded that we were never truly alone in that pilgrimage.

And here we are, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and with all the outpouring of generosity from all over the country to aid the victims and survivors, we find again that we are not alone. We are made for each other: to help each other, to encourage each other, to love each other. Tonight at my church we packed up a large van with clothes, bedding, toiletries, diapers, and food that had been donated by parishioners and young adults from our area. God was truly present in the hands that loaded the van and in the extreme generosity of the people who selflessly gave of their possessions.

We are not made to be alone. God made us to lift each other up, whether it be the people of New Orleans or simply the people we run into every day.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Dukes of Hazzard

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, you who oppress the weak and abuse the needy… Truly the days are coming upon you when they shall drag you away.” Amos 4:1,2

In The Dukes of Hazzard, the spirit of the prophets lie in the fun-loving Southern cousins Luke and Bo Duke (playfully played by Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott).

But these prophets don’t live in the deserts of Israel or Judah, but in the Appalachian countryside of Hazzard County, Georgia; and while their goals in life aren’t the most noble, they do have a mission to stand up for a higher cause, which for the Dukes is the honor of family, friends, and fellow neighbors in the county.

Against this backdrop is the story of a corrupt county commissioner, Bogg Hogg (Burt Reynolds), who has plans to tear the unspoiled land away from the residents of Hazzard to make way for a coal mining operation. What makes Hogg so dangerous is that, to most people, he is an upstanding public official, when in reality he plots against the very citizens who trusted him with their votes. Perhaps by an accident of cinematic fate, it is the Dukes who see him for who he really is, and for the rest of the film, it is their goal to make a stand against his deception, corruption, and abuse of power.

In the media frenzy prior to the opening this supposedly ‘un-Christian’ movie, we must recognize the difference between what is precarious and what is truly evil or wrong. The Dukes are not evil, just a little mischievous. In the face of a greater wrong, Bo and Luke perform a little civil disobedience of their own in the form of high-speed chases, prison breaks, stealing Hogg’s large metal safe, and a little backroom moonshine business.

But Boss Hogg is truly a “cow of Bashan,” a term Amos used to describe those idolatrous Israelites who abused the power and trust given them by the people.

Amos saw it when others did not. Likewise, a few centuries later, John the Baptist saw it in the Temple priests of Jerusalem. In our time, Mahatma Gandhi saw it in the British colonial governors and Martin Luther King Jr. saw it in the high society of the 1960s.

Each generation has its prophets, and each generation has its critics. And more often than not, the critics win. As Christ said, “You are sent prophets and wise men, and some you kill, others you scourge, and still others you run out of your synagogues and towns.” (Mt. 23:34). What side do we stand on? The prophets or the critics?

In today’s world, we must seek out the prophets and listen to them. They are not the most popular, but more often than not, they are right. Conversely, we must open our eyes to corruption no matter how nice it appears on the surface or how many others are going in that direction. We are called to be prophets, too, to defend the marginalized, to take action for justice, and to point out corruption, abuse, and injustice in all its forms.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Island

"I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10)

What does "abundant life" mean? What makes a life "abundant"?

Does it mean living longer or more healthy? The Island is a movie that supposes that people in the near future will want to live an "abundant" life by harvesting clones to supply us with new organs if we get sick or injured or need something new in our lives.

The premise in this film is that these harvested clones live their lives in a controlled environment with all their meals, clothes, education, medicine, and housing provided for them. Is this "abundant" life since it is the dream of all of us to live this way?

In the end, we see that neither the original humans nor the clones are truly living "abundant" life in this futuristic world.

Enter Lincoln Echo Six, who serves as the Moses character in this Exodus story. Lincoln is a clone who thinks beyond his programming, who develops, for lack of a better word, a "soul." He sees the truth of his captivity, escapes from his "Egypt," and makes his way into a new world. He becomes a Moses character by returning into this oppressed world to free his people from their captivity as well. He has seen what real "abundant" life looks like, and wants to share this with others.

Today, we need more Moses characters in our world. We live in a society where we all walk in one direction, where personal safety and individual concerns are worth more than anything else, and where we fear going against the grain or bringing unwanted attention to ourselves. Yet we fool ourselves into thinking this is "abundant" life.

But Christ calls us to live his kind of "abundance." Beyond our health, beyond our safety, beyond our very selves, we are called to live "abundantly."

Christ called us to live the Reign of God, to live for one another instead of just for ourselves, to forgive as we want to be forgiven, to stand for justice and against oppression. That, to me, is what He meant by life in abundance. We are called to find that for ourselves, and when we do, to be like Moses and share it with the world, no matter what the odds may be.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Tim Burton’s re-imagining of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of the most quintessential modern parables. In general, movies are, in a sense, stories that tell a deeper truth, but Charlie is so much so that it sounds very similar to another parable:

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came to eat it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold! (Matt. 13:1-8)

Likewise, this film (which, before the 2005 movie, was originally a 1964 book by Roald Dahl, and then a 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder) is the story of a couple of “bad seeds” and one “good seed,” namely the title character of Charlie Bucket, and their quest for a grand tour of the chocolate factory by the eccentric and excessively private Willy Wonka.

In a sense, the factory can be likened to the kingdom of heaven, the one that Jesus speaks about so often in the Gospels; the golden tickets are the invitation of God to that kingdom just as the seeds were an invitation to the ground in this parable.

There were four seeds that landed on four types of soil in Christ’s story. Similarly, there are five golden tickets that were discovered by five different kids in Willy Wonka’s story:

Veruca Salt
The rich girl who bought her way into the factory fit perfectly in our world today, when we are led to believe that we are able to buy everything (even happiness). Ironically, we are never truly satisfied with anything either, and want even more. Let us pray to recognize that God and God alone can give us all our heart desires.

Augustus Gloop
The boy who over-indulged himself on chocolate to get into the factory is an example of the one who spiritually over-indulge themselves to get into heaven, who hole themselves up in churches instead of living in the world God gave us. Let us pray not to become so self-absorbed so we can see the wonders of creation.

Violet Beauregarde
The champion girl who competed her way to the factory sees the world, as many young adults in the working world do, as a “rat race.” If we see one another as competitors in the world, will we ever see one another as equals as God sees us? Let us pray that we might live life for each other instead of against all others.

Mike Teavee
The smartest of the kids was the one who engineered his way into the factory. He is emblematic of those who want to interpret or engineer the word of God to fit their wants, or who worry more about ‘knowing’ God than ‘experiencing’ God. Let us pray that we might surrender our need to control to the will of God’s Spirit.

Then there’s Charlie Bucket, the boy who wanted so much to get into the chocolate kingdom, but not enough to get in by deceptive, greedy, or over-indulgent means. He allowed the Spirit to blow where it may, and in so doing, God was able to grace him with the keys (in this case, the last golden ticket) to the kingdom.

Charlie is the cinematic embodiment of the beatitudes, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of heaven is yours, and blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.” (Luke 6:20-21) The kingdom was given him without him even asking.

At the same time, we must also be willing to accept the gifts that God gives us. When he found his invitation, his golden ticket, Charlie wanted to give it away so that his family could have money to survive. While this is a noble and selfless act, his grandfather reminded him that sometimes we have to accept what we are given, and to use it wisely. Money is everywhere and the world is full of possessions, he says, but not everyone has an invitation to the kingdom. This dialogue is more profound than I think Tim Burton realized, for it gives us a better understanding of this difficult story from Scripture:

When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head. There were some who were indignant. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages and the money given to the poor.” They were infuriated with her. Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me.” (Mark 14:3-7)

Sometimes God wants us to experience his gifts and, in so doing, his presence. We must be open to accept them and to use them for others, even if we find ourselves unworthy. When Charlie did this in the film, a new world unfolded before him. Just imagine where we can go when we allow God to grace us with his plans for us.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Fantastic Four

"A leper came to him, kneeled down, and begged him, saying 'If you wish, you can make me clean.' Moved with pity, he stretched forth his hand, touched him, and said to him, 'I do will it. Be made clean.'" Mark 1:40-41

Throughout the movie, Fantastic Four, my heart went out to the character of Ben Grimm (a.k.a. The Thing), the guy who is caught up in a solar wind and whose DNA subsequently makes his skin and internal organs turn to rock. When he transforms, his fiancee immediately rejects him, his friends are shocked at the sight of him, and the general public is terrified of him.

Ben is truly an 'untouchable.' True, the three other members of the Fantastic Four (Mr. Fantastic, The Human Tourch, and The Invisible Woman) are affected and changed, but not nearly to the sad degree of The Thing.

In another scene, Ben is sitting on a bridge, sadly contemplating his new, shocking appearance. This could easily be his own suicide scene, but in the midst of his sorrow, he becomes a hero; he saves the life of someone who is also contemplating suicide, he saves a truck driver from being blown up in his truck, and he pulls a fire truck from dropping off a bridge. In this scene, Ben finds that his deficiency is actually something that can help others.

This is the moral of the story of Fantastic Four: Like the lepers in the Scriptures, our God loves us and reaches out to us, no matter what we look like or what quirks we have, physically or personally. To God, our human appearance means nothing, for we are all beautiful in His eyes.

And we need to look at our quirks as gifts, rather than curses, from God. Ben Grimm may have sacrificed his human look in this movie, but his new form is a blessing to the lives he saved on that bridge in the movie. We need to use what we have, like The Thing who finds he would rather live life as a rock-covered man helping others than anything else.

Furthermore, if we want to be like Christ in the world, we must see others as God sees others. We must reach out to the 'untouchables' in our world every day, just as Christ reached out to those lepers on the streets of Galilee. Reaching out to them means talking with them, inviting them into our lives, and loving them as God loves them. The hero of Fantastic Four in this aspect is a blind woman who takes a chance on The Thing. This, I believe, is a challenge to all of us who do see: accept all God's people as God accepts all His people.

Monday, July 04, 2005

War of the Worlds

"For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will save it. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?" Matthew 8:35-36

In 1898, H.G. Wells, master science fiction author, wrote The War of the Worlds, to illuminate the issues of British colonization and the class division between rich and poor. In 1938, Orson Welles, regarded by many as the best actor, director, and speaker of the first half of the 20th Century, broadcast his update of War of the Worlds on CBS radio to highlight the country's fears on the eve of the Second World War. In 1953, George Pal produced the first film version of War in a culture of Cold War fears of nuclear war with the Soviets. Now, in 2005, Steven Spielberg has directed the newest War of the Worlds as a self-portrait of post 9/11 America.

The movie reminded me of the terrorists who lived and trained within our own borders, were hiding within our citizenship, and terrorized using our own planes. Similarly, War of the Worlds shows us aliens who hid underneath our very own streets for millions of years, just waiting for the right moment to attack. Chillingly, the tagline of the movie, "They're already here" walks narrowly close to our own reality of four years ago.

In the face of terrorism over the past four years, we are told to run for our lives. Even in small ways, we have been running from fear since 9/11.

In this movie, too, everyone is running. The film follows the story of a blue-collar everyman, Ray Ferrier (played by Tom Cruise), and his family. And like everyone else, he also runs. But running here only seems to lead to more disasters. One of these disasters got my attention: When an angry mob breaks the windows of Ray's minivan, and one person commandeers his vehicle by gunpoint (and then subsequently is killed by the others in the unruly mob). Running has made these people focus more on self survival than self sacrifice, and through this misguided focus, it has made them inhuman, just like the aliens they're running from.

As Ray continues to run, even worse things happen to him. He is even driven to choose between the life of his son and his daughter and barely escapes death at every turn. So he decides to stop running. For the next half hour of the movie, he hides in a farmhouse basement and watches as the outside world is destroyed by the tripods. Worse things continue to happen and Ray is even driven to murder. Sure he's stopped running, but now he's hiding. He has lost almost everything he cared for, perhaps because "everyone who wants to save his life will lose it."

Eventually Ray learns his lesson, and shows us, too, how to save the day. Near the end of the film, Ray comes out of hiding in the farmhouse and confronts the danger. Upon seeing his daughter (played by Dakota Fanning) being attacked by aliens, he makes a stand and confronts the massive tripod terrorizing her. He sacrifices his life to save her and in so doing, saves himself, "for anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it."

Christ challenges us, too, in our terror-striken world: Stop running! When we stop running, we can stand up for what it right. When we stop running, we can finally look beyond our own selves to see the world around us. When we stop running, we can truly break free from terror.

Christ is also challenging our country and our leaders today to stop looking so inward and start looking out for the best for all nations, "for what do we profit if we gain the whole world, but lose our own soul?"

War of the Worlds, from the original H.G. Wells book to this newest blockbuster movie, has always asked us what we do, individually and collectively, in the face of tragedy. Will we live the Gospel message and love one another, or will we be more like the film's angry mob that wants to survive so much that they'll kill to live?

God created us to rise above this animal (or alien) instinct.

At the conclusion of the film, Morgan Freeman narrates, "They were undone, destroyed, after all of man's weapons and devises had failed, by the tinest creatures that God in his wisdom put upon this earth." It was bacteria, the most simple form of life God created, that won the day in War of the Worlds. So, too, will be the end of terrorism, our modern war of worlds. The simplicity of our compassion for one another is our greatest weapon against fear and terror... more than any color code, any security check, or any nuclear defence shield.

Are we prepared to lose our lives for the sake of another?

In our ratrace world, we are running so much we often fail to do this. So Christ challenges us once again through this story to lose everything in our world to gain everything in His.

Monday, June 27, 2005


God is in control.

In Bewitched, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) is the new version of Samantha (from the orginal television series) and an actual witch who is cast to play the new version of Samantha (as a revival of the original television series)... wrap your head around that one!

What this allows the movie to do is have Isabel/Samantha have anything she wants at the snap of a finger (or, in the movie, at the pulling of her ear). As we see throughout the film, what she wants is a normal, non-warlock actor named Jack Wyatt (the Darrin character played by Will Ferrell). So she tries every trick in her book (of spells, that is). The dream house, the love spell, the tricks with the dog on the set... none of these truly accomplishes what she dreams of.

But when Samantha discovers that she must let go of her powers, tricks, and spells, and allow love to work "naturally" (or as I see it, to let God be in control), dreams come true.

Too often in our lives, while we don't have magic spells, we do try every trick up our sleeve to make things work our way. More often than not, the more we try, the less things work out for the best.

Letting go and letting God. It sounds so simple, but it is so difficult for many of us to grasp. I find myself wanting to control every moment of every day, every situation, and especially every dream I have. I find myself living too often by the phrase "If you want it done right, do it yourself." But Bewitched reminds us that letting go is letting God take control, and when that happens, great things do start to happen.

It's a risk, letting go. We need reminders every now and then to do that, even when we're sitting in an air-conditioned movie theatre this summer watching a remake like Bewitched.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Batman Begins

"Fear nothing. For nothing is concealed that will be revealed, nor secret what will be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in light. What you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops." Matthew 10:26-27

There is a scene in Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) is walking around in a cave below his mansion and hears the sounds of bats all about him, echoing on the walls in the darkness. Bruce Wayne, we learn, is very afraid of bats (originating in a childhood experience which scarred him for life). When the bats in this cave start flying over his head, he ducks in fear. But then he remembers, "Fear nothing," and slowly stands while hundreds of bats fly around him, circling him and screaching.

In this scene, Bruce Wayne not only faces his fear, he embraces it. After a life running from his fears, he now lives the command of Christ in the Gospels: "Fear nothing."

The real story of Batman Begins is the confrontation and conquering of our inner fears.

On a simple, surface level, Bruce Wayne has a fear of bats. However, on a deeper level, he is afraid of deeper things. He fears his own inner guilt, his violent temper, and his family's reputation in the city. When the story begins, he is also haunted by the night when he lost his parents so much so that he has fled from Gotham half-way across the world to China.

Underneath the vigor and violence we see in him, Bruce Wayne is the walking embodiment of fear. Like in the Star Wars saga, this film employs the philosophy that fear leads to anger, anger to hate, and hate to suffering. With all his fear and supressed feelings, Bruce Wayne lets his life's goal become a search for revenge against those who made him feel this way.

The Scriptures speak about this foolish desire for vengence: "Do not look for revenge...for it is written, 'Vengence is mine, says the Lord.'" (Romans 12:19)

About a quarter through this movie, Bruce is put to the test by Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his mentor Ducard (Liam Neeson) to enact justice of a common criminal through capital punishment. He refuses to put him to death, citing that, above all, we must have compassion for one another. This is the first glimer of hope that Bruce Wayne is clearing his mind of fear, vengence, and hatred, and that he knows the Gospel call to love one another.

Slowly (but surely), as Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, he rids himself of fear, guilt, and anger. By no means is Batman the purest, most moral superhero; he is truly a dark knight and is very human underneath that pointy-eared mask. Revenge, fear, and anger continue to haunt him, but as he learns what true justice is all about (i.e., protecting the weak and vulnerable rather than fighting only for ourselves), those human shadows are cleansed away.

In the Gospels, Christ challenges us to rid ourselves of fear, guilt, and vengence. These are emotions of our dark side. They are not of God. Therefore, to give into them is to push ourselves further from God. When we find ourselves overwhelmed with guilt and fear, we must confront them, even embrace them like bats in a batcave. Batman Begins reminds us of the Biblical answer to facing our fears: that is to see goodness in all things, to act justly for love of others, and to walk humbly and selflessly with our God (cf. Micah 16:8).

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

"Have you not read from the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must seperate." Matthew 19:4-6

It's been awhile since I've seen a movie that honored the sacramentality of marriage like Mr. & Mrs. Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

I hate to give away the ending, but that's what made the movie for me. (skip this review if you don't want it all spoiled for you). In the end, marriage wins out. In the end, what God joined together, no one seperated (and, quite unbelievably in the final battle scene, neither did any handguns, rifles, shotguns, or bazookas).

The Smiths begin this movie like many married couples whose careers have eclipsed their intimacy. They seem to have buried themselves in secrecy and mostly from each other. One of the major plot holes is also one of the most telling signs of a marriage in trouble: It seems John Smith has never visited his wife at work in five or six years of marriage, nor does either spouse seem even curious about the details of each other's job.

Secrecy and a lack of concern all add up to a marriage without real intimacy. But as the Scriptures say, "the truth shall set you free." Once the two become aware of their secrets and once they fully concern themselves with each other's life in the movie, the truth sets them free to discover they not only have a career in common (albiet a very non-Christian job) but also a passion and intensity for their work and for their outlook on life.

One thing leads to another, and this discovery eventually (a few gunshots later) leads to a rekindling of intimacy and a reminder of the sacrament of married life.

What does this have to do with us, non-contract killers? While we may not share the Smiths' job choices, God has graced us with relationships that need nurturing and attention. With trust, there can be no secrecy. With love, there can be no lie. In this world where God made us for each other, we cannot afford to ruin that gift by ignoring the problem signs. When God calls us to marriage, it is our duty to give it all we have with all the passion He has created within us.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith reminds us of that gift. A must-see for all couples.

Friday, June 03, 2005


"Some friends bring ruin on us, but a true friend is more loyal than a brother." Proverbs 18:24

Although there is nothing too special about Madagascar that hasn't been seen in animated and children's movies before, it does bring back the theme of friendship in the best and the worst of times.

See if you can follow this: Alex the Lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) and Marty the Zebra (voiced by Chris Rock) begin this film as good friends at the zoo; then become estranged when they land on Madagascar; then come back together when a tribe of lemurs bring them to their home; then become predator-and-prey when Alex sees all his friends as food; then finally become friends again when Marty won't give up on a ten-year friendship. It's back and forth and back and forth, but the basic theme comes out in the end: friendship knows no limits or boundaries when it's really real.

Perhaps there might be a bright spot to the fact that this theme has been tried so many times on the silver screen: true friendship is a real gift of God. In such an individualistic age, I believe God wants us to rediscover the priceless value of community and friendship.

The hero of Madagascar? It's Marty, who choose to rekindle friendship despite the odds. He shows us it may be easy to be a friend in the good times, but it's much harder to keep it intact when the going gets rough (and when you might be "eaten" if you get to close).

In John 15, Jesus speaks a lot about real friendship. To Christ, friendship is "to lay down one's life for another." (v. 13). Marty the Zebra is a friend in the spirit of Christ in this film, and an example for all of us to follow.

The friendship theme might be an old movie formula, but it's a theme worth the repeat.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

It's Friday, but Sunday's coming.

With apologies to Tony Campolo, who coined that phrase, this is the matra to say to yourself when searching for God in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. This remarkable third film can truly be called the "Good Friday" of the Star Wars saga.

(Spoiler alert! If you don't want to know what happens, go ahead and skip the next three paragraphs)

Beginning with a frantic space battle in the orbit above Coruscant, Revenge starts the action on a hyperdrive-level intensity which never seems to let up until the closing credits. Through the
course of this roller coaster, we see the horrors of a Star Wars universe:
  • The horror of Jedi Knights being killed in cold blood by the very clones they have fought alongside in the Clone Wars.
  • The horror of democracy thrown away by the members of the Galatic Senate for the supposed security of imperial control.
  • The horror of innocent Jedi children being massacred by Anakin Skywalker because of the potential they represent.
  • The horror of seeing the face of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine being horribly deformed by his own Sith lightning.
  • The horror of seeing the great and powerful Yoda crawl away in shame and fear (!) from his battle with Darth Sidious, sadly saying, "I have failed."
  • The horror of Padme dying in childbirth.
  • The horror of Anakin Skywalker, the chosen one who Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan placed all their hopes on, turning to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader because it's simply the easiest, most seductive answer to his fears and ambitions.
  • The horror of the armless, legless Darth Vader burning to cinders on the hardened lava islands on Mustafar, left to die in pain by his former master and friend Obi-Wan.
These are the horrors of the Galatic Republic's Good Friday. That is what George Lucas has given us in Revenge: a series of horrible, Good Friday events strung together in a nearly two and a half-hour movie ...but Sunday's coming.

(the spoilers end here...)

In the final moments of Revenge, there lies a promise. In those final moments, there lies an echo of what the prophet Isaiah said in the midst of the horror of exile: "Once more a remnant of the house of Judah will take root below and bear fruit above. For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors" (Isiaiah 37:31-32).

Lucas has given us a remnant, a band of survivors, on which we can redirect our hope after this Good Friday: Yoda, Obi-Wan, Luke, and Leia, who will together give us that exciting Easter Sunday experience on the Forest Moon of Endor.

We have all had our Good Fridays. We have all had those days when it all falls apart. We have all had those days when we feel like we are misunderstood by our bosses, our teachers, our parents, our superiors, the Jedi masters of our life. We have all had those days when we are face-to-face (lightsaber to lightsaber) with a friend or colleague. We have all had those days when we feel ashamed, defeated, saying, "I have failed."

If we let the saga end there, and often times in our own lives we do, we are left without God. Unless we put our hope in the remnant, the silver lining of our Good Fridays, we are left without God. In the midst of our worst days, we are always given a remnant, a silver lining on which to hang our newfound hope.

Between Episodes III and IV, George Lucas gave the Star Wars universe the hope of Yoda, Obi-Wan, Luke, and Leia. In your worst days, ask yourself... What does God give you?

May the force be with you.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

"What does the Kingdom of Heaven resemble? To what shall I liken it? It is the mustard seed which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and because the largest shrub..." (Luke 13:18-19)

Near the end of the movie Kingdom of Heaven, Saladin tells Orlando Bloom's character Balian that Jerusalem is both "nothing" and "everything." Poor Jerusalem.

It is "everything" for so many people: For Balian it means a chance at atonement for his sins. For Saladin and the Crusaders, it is defending or reclaiming the holy sites. For King Baldwin (the leper king, played by Edward Norton) and Godfrey (Balian's father, played by Liam Neeson), it is a hope for a "New Jerusalem," a Kingdom of Heaven.

How sad, though, that after battles and battles, it becomes a heap of stones signifying "nothing." No one really won Jerusalem then. No one really wins Jerusalem now, as seen on CNN.

The "New Jerusalem" dream of Godfrey and the King is something we can still dream of today. The Kingdom of Heaven is a reference to the many passages of Scripture where Jesus teaches about the "Reign of God." Many parables illustrate the beauty of this once and future kingdom. And this kingdom is not set by our rules, but by God's rules. There is one line in the movie where two people dialogue about the execution of a Muslim; one person reminds the other that it is our rules that demand his death for being an infidel; the other person wonders aloud if these are really the rules that Christ forsaw for the Kingdom of Heaven.

There is much in this film about Muslim-Christian relations that would do us some real good at this moment in our history. Perhaps this is a necessary, cinematic wake-up call for greater interreligious dialogue between our two great Abrahamic faiths instead of all this constant fighting and crusading.

"Let peace begin with me," says St. Francis of Assisi. So if our governments and leaders cannot do it, then it is our own duty to begin the peace process.

In our communities, let us pray for and pray alongside with our Muslim neighbors. Let us sit down and begin an honest dialogue on faith. Let us work side by side in social justice projects and serving the poor.

In our own way, let us build a Kingdom of Heaven here. Let us be that mustard seed of which Jesus spoke.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

"Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So, too, you must also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." (Matt. 24:43-44)

After watching the wild ride that is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the thought crossed my mind: what if the world really ends like that?

More questions followed: Do I have any alien friends who might save me from the earth's eventual destruction? Am I prepared for such an event? Would I be comfortable wearing just my bathrobe and a towel as I catch a ride on a passing spaceship? Should I be more compassionate next time I'm watching dolphins at the zoo?

What Hitchhiker's Guide does is pose a lot of questions. I've never read the book, and perhaps if I did, I might not have had so many questions like those above. Martin Freeman (as the main character of the story, Arthur Dent) is truly a great "everyman," more so than most actors because no matter how hard Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, or Kevin Costner tries to be an "everyman," they are still the ultra-famous Tom, Harrison, or Kevin up on the screen. This "everyman," however, plays it perfectly.

Arthur is just like us, caught up in the everyday issues of life - relationship worries, morning breakfast, and zoning regulations.

How often do we, like Arthur Dent, get caught up in that everyday routine? How often have we taken a look at our life and asked, "what's the meaning?" (and "what have I done with mine?"). Jesus tells us, in true Boy Scout fashion, to always "be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." (or in this movie's case, when the Vogon ship comes).

But do we really take Jesus seriously? Scientists say the end of the world could be millions of years in the future, and prophets of doom say it's coming any day now. Either way, the question remains: are we prepared and ready?

Beyond this question, Hitchhiker's Guide is full of theological pretzels dealing with creation, the meaning of life, life beyond our planet, the value of human reason and thought, artificial intelligence, the nature of religion and of religious institutions and churches, and the role that God plays in this giant universe. But what the movie ends on, what it seems to be all about, is that the one truth of the universe is "love."

Above and beyond the wild adventures of space travel, the focus of Arthur (and of love interest Tricia McMillan played wonderfully by Zooey Deschanel) is the search for love. This is quite a statement about love because Arthur is shown some amazing things about the ends of the galaxy and creation, but it all seems subpar compared to the search for true love.

This puts it in line with the passage from the first letter of John: "Let us love one another because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love." (1 John 4:7-8).

Perhaps as we take stock of our life in light of Jesus' "be prepared" message to us, we should take stock of how much we really see love of all God's people, our friends as well as those we do not like or those we do not know, as a part of our life. If this were the last moment and the Vogons were about to demolish earth, would I be able to say that I truly loved this world?

What a great question to ponder. Thank you, Hitchhiker's Guide!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

In Preparation for Episode III

"Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering."
In preparation for the release of Revenge of the Sith on May 19th, this quote by Yoda in Episode I keeps coming back to me. It speaks very clearly to the slippery slope to the Dark Side that each one of us is capable of, and it might help us understand why Anakin Skywalker will eventually choose the dark path in this new movie.

While fear and anger are natural human emotions, Star Wars tells us that unchecked, these feelings can become inner "shadows" (this is Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's description of the unchecked, hidden, unresolved parts of ourselves that, if left unattended, will become the dark side of our personality).

Anakin Skywalker let his fears of being left alone were never truly addressed in his Jedi training, and when he had the power to do something about it (i.e. Jedi skills, lightsaber abilities), he let his "shadow" develop as an act of hatred (as seen in Episode II when he murdered the sand people). He later tells Padme that he should have been able to "fix things," and if he had even more power, he would be able to control who lives and who dies. His fear and anger have become hatred, and in Episode III, this inner suffering and conflict will leave him vunerable to the "easier, more seductive" ways of Darth Sidious and the Dark Side to "fix things."

Does this have anything to do with us? Yes! In our everyday lives, the Dark Side is far from obvious. As Yoda notes, the Dark Side is shrouded and deceptive, and as Jung writes, it "thrwarts our most well-meant intentions." Temptations to give into our "shadow," our Dark Side, are lined with great intentions to "fix things," as Anakin wanted to do. "How will I know the good from the bad?" asks Luke Skywalker in Episode V, to which Yoda quickly responds, "You will know... when you are calm."

Where is God in the midst of all this? God is trying to call out to each one of us, through our friends, role models, mentors, and loved ones (for Anakin, it's Yoda, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Padme, the Droids, and the Jedi; for Luke, it's Yoda, Obi-Wan, the Droids, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca). We must be calm, pray, and be open to hear God's word through them and through our faith. When we hear Him, God gives us the choice of redemption at any stage on our journey, as the Star Wars films point out and as the Scriptures and tradition tell us. In Episode VI, Anakin is finally redeemed at the last moment by rekindling the love of his son.

We are all loved by God, even a Dark Lord of the Sith like Vader.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Spiritual Popcorn for the Soul

When we're at the movies, nothing satisfies us like a bucket of popcorn. This blog is like "spiritual popcorn," some refreshment for those interested in the intersection of faith and popular films. This blog will feature reviews, references, and ruminations on how God speaks to us through the lens of the film projector. So sit back and have some spiritual popcorn for your soul.