Saturday, May 27, 2006

X-Men 3

"To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit." 1 Cor. 12:7

Twice in this movie (in the very first scene and in his most climactic scene), Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) gives a great piece of advice that sums up the spiritual popcorn of this film: "Either control your power, or your power will control you."

In both cases, Xavier is speaking with Jean Grey (as a young child, played by Haley Ramm, and as a resurrected version, reprised by Framke Janssen), whose inner unchecked mutant power is an uncontrollable telekinetic force able to destroy anything. To help her control it, it seems Xavier has taught her to only use it for good.

This is what we are all called to do.

In a sense, we are all 'mutants,' like the X-Men 3 characters. We each have gifts, abilities, and experiences that make us all unique. Perhaps we cannot walk through walls or bend metal with our minds, but every one of us has the ability and the gifts to do things that others cannot. In the Scriptures, St. Paul says, "To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit." (1 Cor. 12:7)

In the third film of the X-Men franchise, the American government has found a 'cure' for mutants intended to make them normal humans again, to rid them of their mutant gene once and for all. The two sides of the mutant world, one led by Xavier and the other by Magneto (wonderfully played by Ian McKellen), oppose this measure. Xavier fights for peace and reconciliation between mutants and humans; Magneto, on the other hand, fights for seperation between them, and reminds his fellow mutants that their abilities make them superior.

Each of us, too, has been given a gift from God to transform our world. But often times, we are tempted to be "normal," to blend in and not make waves.

Xavier's wisdom calls us, too, to use our gifts - but to not let them control us, but to let ourselves control them to better the world around us. But like the mutants in X-Men 3, not all gifts are fun.

Some of us are unique because we are physically different than others - if we follow Xavier's advice, we will not let these differences define who we are. Whatever our gifts or differences may be, we must control them but, at the same time, find how we might use them to help others.

When I was younger, I was different from my classmates (for reasons I won't go into now), and consequently, I was rejected and made to feel like an outsider. I could have allowed this to overwhelm me, to take control over me. But instead, as I grew up, I used this experience to help others who shared in a similar discrimination. Instead of just trying to forget it, to "cure" myself of my gifts to blend in, I chose to use it to make a corner of this world a little better.

That's what we are all called to do. Accept that we have differences, that we are all mutants of one kind or another, but do not accept that we have to change.

God created each of us with our uniqueness for a reason. Instead of running from the differences, He challenges all of us to use what he has given us to build up His Kingdom on earth.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

“Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.” Matt. 10:26

Everyone's talking about The Da Vinci Code. It’s amazing how much is out there about this movie. Some say it’s blasphemous, some say it discourages people from the church, and some even saying it’s heresy. Then again, some are saying this phenomenon has given them a new, more relatable image of Jesus Christ, and others are just captivated by the book and want to see how Ron Howard brings it to the screen.

This past week, I received a great number of mass emails telling me to boycott the film, to put my money elsewhere because the movie is a modern day heresy.

So just why is a film like this so controversial? Why do people get up in arms about this movie? Why are people willing to kneel in protest on the red carpet and create a nationwide boycott? Not since The Last Temptation of Christ has a cinematic event gotten people so revved up that they can’t think of anything else to talk about.

After seeing it this week, I have to say that the movie carefully follows the book, almost religiously (no pun intended). Nearly all the details of the book can be found in the film version, except for a few occasions when the screenwriter inserted doubts into the mouth of the protagonist, Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks), in his conversations with Sir Leigh Teabing (played by Ian McKellen); these doubts are Ron Howard's answer to the criticisms raised by churches and academics in the years since Dan Brown’s book was first published.

The essence of this controversial story is a treasure hunt. Even more so, the book and the film are treasure hunts for the truth about the Holy Grail and a non-stop search for justice in the murder of Louvre curator Jacques Sauniere.

Beyond the Controversy

From the outset, it should be known that contrary to the emails I have received, this movie is not blasphemous. It is not evil. It is not a heretical work of dogma against the Catholic Church or the Christian faith overall. Like X-Men 3, Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, and Superman Returns, The Da Vinci Code is simply a summer popcorn movie. Nothing more, nothing less.

At its core, The Da Vinci Code is a story. It’s a work of fiction. It follows the journey of two fictional characters as they race across Europe in search of the Grail.

Yes, some of the characters mix historical fact (facts include that Mary Magdalene was indeed not a prostitute; the Gnostic Gospel of Phillip and Gospel of Mary do in fact exist; and the Emperor Constatine did convene the Council of Nicea) with historical fiction (the aforementioned Gnostic gospels do not really present a human image of Jesus; Magdelene was not married to Jesus, nor was she the mother of his child; and the Priory of Sion is not a one-thousand-year-old secret society, but an organization created by Pierre Plantard in 1956 because he wanted to be descended from French royalty and in the company of the great minds of history including da Vinci, Issac Newton, and Victor Hugo). A good look through a few web sites will clear up what’s fact and what’s fiction, but the movie even more so makes these ‘facts’ of the book into ‘big theories’ of Sir Leigh Teabing (SPOILER: who also happens to be the villain; the sure-fire way to discredit a theory in a film is to put it into the mouth of the bad guy).

This is also a story about family issues, and discovering what the word “heritage” really means. ANOTHER SPOILER: In the film, the character Sophie (played by Audrey Tautou) is discovered to be the last heir of Jesus of Nazareth. What is most important is that to truly be related to somebody, you must not just keep the DNA bloodline, but keep the honor of your family and of those who have gone before.

Much has been made about the fact that it’s scandalous to think that Jesus had children and had a bloodline that ran through the French monarchy beginning with the Merovingians. But even if that were true (which I highly doubt and which has no historical evidence whatsoever), would it even matter if Jesus had children? Would that make him less of a savior? Even more so, what if these fictional children of Jesus did not have the "spirit" of Jesus? Divinity cannot be not passed down through genetics; but the spirit of Christ can be. In the gospels, Jesus declares: “Whoever does the will of my father is my real family.” The true test of family is not DNA, but how you live today – do you honor your family through your actions? That is what's really important. We are called to be sons and daughters of Christ by how we live what he taught us.

In this film, there are also issues of honesty and integrity. Look at the example of the juxtaposition of the Opus Dei bishop Aringarosa (played by Alfred Molina) and the French cop Fache (Jean Reno). At the beginning of the movie, we are led to believe that the French cop was corrupt and sinister. But in the end, it seems the reverse is true. The cop was the one who was out seeking the truth, whereas Bishop Aringarosa was out seeking his own selfish reward. We are all called to be people of integrity, no matter what we do in life - bishop, cop, whatever.

These are the lessons we can learn from The Da Vinci Code. If you get past all the controversy, all the hype, we might be able to uncover, just like Robert Langdon, the secret of the Holy Grail, the secret of what Jesus wants us to hear: “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (Matt. 10:26). This is fictional story with some great lessons imbedded in this two hour treasure hunt.

The Human Jesus?

Some readers and filmgoers have said that The Da Vinci Code presents a more human picture of Jesus than they've ever seen before. Maybe the Church, maybe those of us working in the Church, need to stop and look at that. Maybe we need to stop and say, “Hey, why don’t people like the Jesus that we portray? Why don’t people trust the Church we have built? Why don’t people listen or care about a faith based in this same Jesus?”

Maybe this movie is a wake-up call to Christians and Catholics alike to stop relying on the fact that people will just become Christian or Catholic because there compelled to or out of loyalty. Maybe people are just looking for a reason to embrace a human Jesus... a relatable Jesus to their everyday lives.

Many times, faith leaders present a Jesus that is not actually relevant to the lives of the people. Sometimes we present a Jesus who is aloof and out of touch, one who is distant from us, and a God who doesn’t even know what it’s like to live our lives.

There have been several times in my own life when I have wondered if I could really relate to Jesus as the Church has taught him to me.

Did Jesus ever lose a job? Did Jesus ever feel abandoned? Did Jesus ever feel lost in love? Did anyone ever break up with Jesus? Did anyone break his heart? Did Jesus know the meaning of the word 'downsizing'? Did Jesus know when you couldn’t pay all your bills? In my head, I know the Gospels say he knew struggle; but in what I see in how we preach about him, he is this perfect God-man who knows none of this. His life looks very little like my life.

I am guessing that is what many people go through when they read or watch The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps that's why people are lining up at the movie theater to see this film. That might be why this book has been on the best-seller list for ages.

I don't believe that all these people who have read or watched this really want to tear down the truth or the tear down the Catholic Church. That’s not what people honestly care about. But what they do care about is their own lives. They care about their relationship with God, and the sad reality is that the God the Church has given them has not sufficed.

Maybe this movie is a wake-up call for us to give the world an image of Christ that we can embrace, that can relate to us right where we are.

It seems that, out of the void we have created, Dan Brown was more than happy to fill it. Maybe Dan Brown had intentions to challenge the Church, but the people who read it don’t really have such intentions. After seeing this movie, I don't think Tom Hanks or Ron Howard do either. They all just want to find a Jesus they can relate to. More than just wanting it, that’s also what all these people so desperately need.

While this is certainly not a historically true image (i.e. marriage to Magdalene, having a kid, etc.) and while the evidence that Dan Brown presents is incredibly weak (the source material was declared a forgery several years back), this is the Jesus that people are clamoring to see and experience: a human, relatable, relevant, real Savior.

The image of Jesus as father and husband (and consequently having quite human experiences) is something that people are craving. Let's put aside for a moment the fact that church dogma and church teaching declare that God is equally divine and equally human. Let's put that aside for a moment, and see that what matters to people is a God that can feel their pain, share in their joy, understand their everyday.

If we have to put aside Jesus’ divine nature in our teachings just a little bit so that he might appear more human to the general public, so be it. If we have to put aside the miracles, the wonders, the angels, and the hymns to get a Jesus that, once again, means something to people, so be it.

The Search for Truth and Justice

As I mentioned, at its core, this film is the story of two characters who search high and low for truth and justice. Their journey is so fast-paced, we have to hold onto our seats as we watch them race across the screen.

Watching them, I wondered what would charge me up to go on such a journey? What kind of truth and justice do I seek that I'd go across the world just to find them? Why do am I sitting on my rear and watch other people search for truth? Isn’t truth and justice something important to me, too?

In a world with so many mixed messages coming at us constantly, we are called to find truth. In a world where war, poverty, and social injustice are so prevalent, we are called to seek justice for those who suffer and are in need. The state of this world is calling us to act and to not let take anything for granted. We are called to action and a conversion of heart in our lives and in the lives of the greater world around us.

God might very well be using The Da Vinci Code to speak to us to challenge each one of us to seek out truth and justice in our world. Perhaps God is talking to us through this film, asking us to find his Son relevant to our lives. If we cannot find it in the Church we go to, if we cannot find it wherever we are in our lives, then perhaps God is calling us to get up and search him out. If something challenges us, we are not to defend our previous way of living, but ask why we feel challenged, so we can more fully know God and experience his presence in our lives.

The Da Vinci Code is a challenge, a calling, and a chance for us to seek truth, justice, and an image of Christ that makes sense in our everyday. And that's no blasphemy or heresy to me.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Mission: Impossible III

“Do you trust me?”

Despite the hype about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, their baby and Scientology, I still ventured out and saw Mission: Impossible III It was the first ‘popcorn’ movie of the summer, and it had all the thrills and excitement that I expected from a Tom Cruise film.

Ethan Hunt, the IMF (impossible mission force) agent played by Tom Cruise and who has been the central character of all of the Mission: Impossible movies, and finally, in this third installment, he is a man in search of a better life.

As a secret agent, Hunt’s job and lifestyle is to build up a wall of distrust around him so he can more effectively save the world from the criminals and evil masterminds bent on destroying all that is good and decent. If people really knew him, they might be able to destroy all his work as a government spy. Quite understandable, but also understandable is the movie’s need to begin and end the film with Hunt craving a life where we can finally trust someone.

In the middle of this movie is one scene when Ethan Hunt says to his fiancĂ©e, “Can you trust me?” It takes a lot of guts to trust a secret agent whose life it is to keep all these secrets to protect the country and the ones they love.

But she said “yes.”

By the end of the movie, Ethan has to trust his then-wife, and she has to trust him. And that is what are called to do as Christians. We are called to trust what another because God made the world good. He made the world perfect, and in our innermost selves, we are all trustworthy people.

But we break down the relationships that God has given to us when we don’t trust each other and we aren’t trustworthy. If this movie shows that a wife can trust a secret agent of the government, how much more can we in our non-secret-agent lives be trusted? If Katie Holmes can trust someone like Tom Cruise, how much more can we be trusted and trust each other?

On our money, we say “in God we trust,” but do we really put our trust in God? St. Paul says, “No trial has come to you except what is enough for humans. God is faithful to you and will not let you be tried beyond your strength. Furthermore, with any trial that faces you, he will provide you a way out, so that you may be able to bear it all.” (1 Cor. 10:13). We are reminded here that God won’t give us more than we can handle, and even if it seems overwhelming, there is always a God-given way out. Do you trust God enough to be true to that?

So again, I ask if a woman can trust a secret agent (especially one like Tom Cruise), how much more can we trust God, and by the same token, how much more can we trust those whom God has given us in our lives.