Friday, March 31, 2006

Obi-Wan & Lent

"Amen, amen, I say to you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit." John 12: 24

It seemed like a bad plot idea to kill off one of the central characters two-thirds through the first film and less than one-third through the entire triology. But the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi was essential to the Star Wars saga and, more specifically, to the climax of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Before dying under the light saber of Darth Vader, Obi-Wan tells the Sith Lord, "If you strike me down, I will be more powerful than you can possibly imagine." How true that would be.

Because of this, Kenobi's spirit was able to convince Luke Skywalker to use the Force instead of computer instruments to destroy the first Death Star, and then later in the original trilogy, it was Obi-Wan's ghost that guided Luke to Yoda, and then helped to train and counsel the new young Jedi. If it was not for Obi-Wan's presence in these situations, Luke may never have saved the Empire from the Dark Side.

Kenobi's words echo Jesus' words in John's Gospel in the fifth week of Lent in which he says, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit." (John 12:24)

Here Jesus, in another prediction of his passion and crucifixion, reminds the disciples that the physical presence is nothing compared to the power that lies beneath. You can kill the body but you cannot kill the spirit, because it is that which produces "much fruit."

This is also what is called "the paschal mystery," the fact that our lives are filled with crucifixion moments, but that resurrection always lies beyond the worst. Summerized briefly, the "pascal mystery" is, as Tony Campolo said, "It's Friday, but Sunday's comin'."

God created each of us with an inner power that shines brilliantly when we experience the resurrection moments; before we can achieve that, we must die to the concerns of this life and this body. Then and only then will we be more powerful than anyone can possibly imagine (just like Obi-Wan told Vader).

So no matter what struggle we experience now, there is always something greater, more powerful than we can imagine, waiting for us beyond the worst of times. As John Paul II (whose birth into eternal life we remember this weekend on the first anniversary of his death) once said, "Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are an Easter people and 'Hallelujah' is our song!"

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Superman & Lent

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." John 3:16

These days, the high prices of tickets, the endless advertisements, and the many previews keep people away from going to the movies anymore.

But one 'coming attraction' I saw before V for Vendetta was worth the cost of admission by itself: Superman Returns, scheduled for a summer 2006 release date.

In the preview for this new Superman film, the voice of Marlon Brando as Jor-El echoes across the dark theatre: "Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason and above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son."

In the fourth week of Lent, we read of Nicodemus and Jesus' nighttime visit, where Christ declares, "for God so loved the world that he gave his only son" and "the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to the light." (John 3:16, 19).

God did not want send us his son to condemn the world (in fact, he says as much in John 3:17). God does not hate us. God does not want to make us suffer.

It's so easy to think that God is against us. It's so easy to think God has abandoned us when bad things happen to good people.

The Son was not sent as a source of condemnation, as some have made his faith into. The Son was sent to show us the way, to make us realize the great things we are capable of. The Son was the ultimate Superman story: dwelling among us, setting things right, but most of all, allowing us to discover the aspects of our humanity that make us so beloved in God's eyes.

We lack the light, as Jor-El and Christ said, because we refuse to believe in ourselves and because we refuse to see ourselves as God sees us.

Because of that, we live in darkness.

The Gospel this week challenges us to embrace our world as God embraced it. When we see our world as something to be condemned, as something to be fought against, as something evil, then we don't see with God's eyes. When we see our world and one another as capable of wonderful things, then we see as God sees, and in so doing, we live in the light.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

V for Vendetta & Lent

"Jesus said to them, 'Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.'" John 2:9

In January 1941, in his State of the Union address to Congress, Frankin Delano Roosevelt gave an outline of the world beyond times of war: "In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms." The first, a freedom of speech; the second, a freedom to worship; the third, a freedom from want. The fourth freedom, Roosevelt said, was "freedom from fear," where we would have such a reduction in military might that no nation could ever lift up arms against another.

V for Vendetta gives us the story of a masked vigilante "V" (Hugo Weaving) in the year 2020 whose mission is to give the people of his time a chance at this fourth freedom.

One of the film's (and V's) biggest obstacles is the fact that the people don't even realize they are afraid, until someone wakes them up and reminds them of their oppression. In the Scriptures in the third week of Lent, Jesus begins to remind the people of his day of a coming destruction and to release them from their fear.

"Destroy this temple," Jesus declares. Buildings are just buildings, but the idea of real freedom from fear cannot be destroyed. He threw out moneychangers and merchants from the Jerusalem Temple to rid this sanctuary from anything that would seperate the people and their God. On a similar note, V is a hero who believes that the idea of real freedom can never be extinguished, and in his futuristic London, he plans for the destruction of Parliament, a 'temple' of the State which keeps the people from living in real freedom.

The film, and Christ's ministry, have a basic message: you may destroy buildings and you may kill prophets, but you never extinguish the truth.

Fear keeps us from God. Freedom from fear brings us closer to God. This is the truth of Christ, and the moral of V's superhero story. Christianity, it is said, was founded on the blood of martyrs; they were persecuted, their image and reputation were destroyed, and they were killed for believing in an idea and truth that God meant for us to live a life free from fear.

But what stands on the other side of destruction and martyrdom is new life. " three days I will raise it up again," Christ said. Not giving anything away about the ending of this movie, I will say that its conclusion, while jarring and somewhat uncomfortable to watch in our post 9-11 world, is a testament to hope in fact that ideas and truth live on beyond destruction.

In the film, the hope of freedom from fear inspires the masses to stand up. Blood was shed, lives lost, but in the end, the idea of freedom rose again and transformed V's world.

In our faith, the hope of freedom from fear is meant to inspire the masses to stand up. Blood was shed, lives lost, but in the end, the idea of real freedom rose again and transformed our world.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Shrek & Lent

"He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white... but then suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them." Mark 9:2-3,8

During the second week of Lent, we read in the Scriptures a preview experience of the resurrection that Peter, James, and John had, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus takes them off alone to show them (and us) what lies ahead of us at the end of Lent. He gives these three disciples a chance to see him as he really is, not as the world sees him.

In the film Shrek, the character Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz) goes through her own transfiguration process between what the world sees and what really lies beneath.

In reality, Fiona is large green ogre. To the world, she puts on the mask of a beautiful petite woman. One evening, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) discovers her dual appearance, and she confides in him, much like Jesus did with the three disciples, her real identity.

We are all like Fiona, and we are all like Christ, in the fact that we live our lives in a tension between our real selves and how the world sees us. We can often get caught up in our public personna, especially if others prefer this side of us in our daily lives.

There is something truly special about each of us, things about us that make us unique.

And like the three disciples with Jesus and like Donkey with Fiona, we invite our loved ones to see this side of ourselves. Our goal, like Christ's goal, was to show this real self to the world; but sometimes the world isn't yet ready for it. But when that real transfiguration happens (for Christ, the resurrection after crucifixion; for Fiona, her revelation to Shrek and all the people in the kingdom), it fuses our real and our public lives. That should be our goal, too.

God made us special, not just so our friends know, but so that we might use this uniqueness to transform our world.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Batman & Lent

"The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John the Baptist had been arrested, Jesus came back to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: "This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." Mark 1:12-15

In the first week of Lent, the Gospel message is simple and direct. Jesus went into the wilderness of the desert to be tested by fire, to prepare himself for the wilderness of the everyday.

The film Batman Begins (2005) gives us a superhero very much like Christ in the Gospel above. Before Bruce Wayne can reform Gotham City, he must go inward and fight his own demons, his own fears. He must go into the wilderness and be tempted himself, to discover what he believes in and to understand his mission in the world.

Jesus (and Batman) give us a great example of how to prepare ourselves, too, for our own mission in the world.

If our mission in this life is to be like Christ, then we must know what that means. This first week of Lent is the opportune time to make this Lent a time of reflection, a time of our own wilderness to discover (or re-discover) our life's mission and vision. This is why we fast in Lent, to be like Christ who fasted in the desert. He cleared his mind and body of attachments, so that he had a clear mind and a strong body to face the temptations.

Batman realized his life's mission must be to serve the citizens of Gotham, to rid his hometown of crime and corruption, but not through pure violence (as he was tempted to do). Jesus realized his life's mission must be to serve the world, to rid it of sin and evil, but never through violence, haughtiness, or pride (but through love, sacrifice, and peace). What will your mission be?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Oscar Recap

Well, if you used the Spiritual Popcorn Oscars as a gauge of predictability, I am sorry to disappoint. Out of eighteen categories, the Spiritual Popcorn slate only lined up with five of the actual Academy Awards winners.

But the one I am most happy about is the one that very few people predicted, which was the biggest prize of all: Crash for Best Picture.

By the end of the telecast Sunday night, I was glad that the Academy looked above and beyond political statements, and awarded a truly spiritually-engaged film the top award. It's not that Brokeback, Munich, Capote, or Good Night were un-spiritual; but in an age and society where America is at war with so many Arab countries, and in a country where we are polarized between red and blue states, we need to remember that our enemies are our neighbors, and we are called to love them all no matter what (cf. Luke 10:37).

Crash reminds us of that message, and for that, I applaud its win.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Spiritual Popcorn Oscars 2006

On Oscar night (this Sunday, March 5th), actors, actresses, cinematographers, directors, producers, composers, costume designers, and many others will gather in Los Angeles for the 78th annual Academy Awards, hosted by Jon Stewart. Many will be nominated, but few will win. Below are my choices for the roles, films, or jobs that, to me, seemed the most spiritually-engaging.

My guess is that the actual award winners will look different than this list; but if we could hand out our own "Spiritual Popcorn Oscars," this is what that list would look like:

Best Picture
Crash (while spiritual messages are all over this year's roster of Best Picture noms, the fact that a film was able to tackle one of the most popular New Testament parables, the Good Samaritan story, makes this my favorite of the year)

Best Actor
Heath Ledger, Brokback Mountain (the depth at which Ledger took us into this man's inner struggle between honesty and lies, between one love and another, between obligation and desire is what makes his role both the saddest, but most spiritually-compelling for asking all of us how do we handle our inner demons and our shadow side)

Best Actress
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line (Witherspoon's ability to show us unconditional love and compassion towards another is evidence enough to make her performance so noteworthy)

Best Supporting Actor
Matt Dillon, Crash (he represents the Samaritan in the Good Samaritan story: so hated yet so compelled from within to reach out his hand to save another from harm's way)

Best Animated Feature
Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (while Wallace & Gromit's message of caring for all creation is important and the film itself was a fun ride, it pales in comparison to Corpse Bride's message of love beyond death, and the gentle release of a soul into heaven)

Best Adapted Screenplay
A History of Violence (its deep, dark questions of what humanity is capable of, and how we cannot run away from our past, are reasons enough to award this script the top honors)

Best Original Screenplay
Good Night, and Good Luck (for looking the audience in the eye and demanding we pay attention to media as bearers of message and intelligent conversation - instead of seeing media as an escape from our lives - is itself a message for us to look deeper into films, books, music, news, and pop culture for what lies beneath)

Best Director
TIE: George Clooney & Steven Spielberg, Good Night, and Good Luck & Munich (direction is risky, bold, and adventurous, so hats off to two bold films in today's political climate of terrorism and international politics, for saying something that needed to be said about the violence and fear that overwhelms society today)

Best Film Editing
Crash (in a sense, this is not just one Samaritan story, but several; editing all these stories into one coherant piece is what makes this film so compelling; the great editing shows us how our lives are so interconnected with one another, no matter our race or background)

Best Visual Effects
King Kong (actually, Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson both need to be nominated for their work acting and directing in this wonderful movie; but the sheer fact that a digital ape can make an audience realize what unconditional love is all about is an amazing testament to the power of Kong's visual effects)

Best Cinematography
Batman Begins (this film is about dealing with fear, and the fear itself was palpable in the dark landscapes of Gotham City; you could almost feel the dampness of the batcave with the way the screen illuminated Batman's underground home; we were transported into Bruce Wayne's world of fear, violence, and uncertainty just by the way the camera panned this movie)

Best Art Direction
King Kong (the landscapes say it all... when we see New York for the first time, we are taken to a new appreciation of this famous city; when we see Skull Island, fear and angst stirs our souls; when dinosaur and ape go head-to-head, we are on the edge of our seat; when Kong sits atop the Empire State Building and yearns for his old island, we miss it too)

Best Costume Design
Memoirs of a Geisha (for broadening our cultural perceptions, for taking us across the ocean, and for making us feel the inner struggle of the geisha just by the look and feel of the costumes)

Best Makeup
Star Wars Episode III (this film is about the final turn to the dark side, the embrace of the shadow for Anakin Skywalker; the makeup used to transform Anakin from wide-eyed Padawan to bitter Jedi and finally to scarred and beaten Darth Vader is what makes this turn so captivating, so believable, and makes us ponder our own scars that turn us to the dark side)

Best Sound Editing
War of the Worlds (when a film can scare and move you when even you close your eyes is itself a spiritual experience; fear and fright highlight the message of this movie, and when you can do such a good job in the sound department alone to get that across, you clearly deserve the award)

Best Sound Mixing
Walk the Line (music is what made the love story of Johnny and June Carter Cash so endearing; kudos for the mix of music, dialogue, and romance into the score of this movie)

Best Score
Memiors of a Geisha (in all his years of scoring films, John Williams never seems to disappoint; in addition to the costumes, the William's score transports the listener to another culture, another way of life for us to discover anew)

Best Song
"In the Deep" from Crash (it is during this song that the pieces of this wonderful film all start to come together, a song that underscores the deeper meaning behind prejudice, injustice, and hatred and, through its musical score, transform those into a new understanding of love, compassion, and harmony)

As for Best Supporting Actress, Doucumentary Short Subject, Documentary Feature, Animated Short Film, Live Action Short Film, and Foreign Language Film, I have not seen enough of their nominees to make an informed choice.