Monday, January 29, 2007

The Devil Wears Prada

“…he was driven into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” Luke 4:1b-2a

As one would expect with a title like this, temptation runs rampant in The Devil Wears Prada. Unfortunately, we don’t realize we saw the temptations until it’s too late.

The movie follows the journey of young Andrea “Andy” Sachs (Anne Hathaway) as she begins her career as journalist by working as the second assistant for the cold, impersonal Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep, in one of her best roles to date), the matriarch of “Runway,” considered by those in the movie as one of the most influential fashion magazines around the world.

Initially, Andy guards herself against this “devil” of a boss. She says she won’t succumb to her impossible standards and petty lifestyle; because she won’t give in, she is sadly mistreated by Miranda (as well as fellow executive assistant Emily, played by Emily Blunt) to the point of wanting to quit altogether.

Andy’s first real temptation, we later see, was the temptation to stay on staff at “Runway” because it will be good for her resume; despite a humiliation at the hands of Miranda and others, she gives into this temptation, and in the process takes on a brand new persona so that she can survive the daily grind in this cruel fashion business. Miranda eventually notices this transformation and gives her some modest praise, which Andy has craved for months. One task after another and one success after another, Andy slips deeper into this warped and cold world until she is faced with the reality: she has finally become as manipulative and underhanded as the boss she swore she’d never become.

It was a slippery slope full of good intentions that led her there.

This is the way for most of us. The need for acceptance and credibility in this world motivates us in many of our actions. In a world of six billion people, how are we to make our mark? But what we fail to see is how these small acts to survive and thrive could possibly lead to our own undoing. The small acts to get ahead in this world may seem insignificant, but when they pile on top of another, we fall farther from God.

But there is always a way out. No matter how deep down the rabbit hole we may go, we can still make the choice to turn ourselves around. We can still take a look at our journey and see whether or not we’ve made good choices, and if we have not, God always gives us a way home. In the end, Andy chose to reject this way of life, even though it meant a lower-paying job, a botched resume, and friendships she needed to repair.

The path out of the devil’s grasp is never easy, but it’s always possible.

The small choices get us into a mess with the “devil,” but one firm choice the other way will get us closer to our God. Ours is a God of second chances, and we are called, like the prodigal son of the Scriptures, to turn our lives around the come home to God.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

“War is hell.”

What will it take for us to learn that war is ridiculous? Humanity’s greatest teachers, including Jesus Christ himself, have told us as much; but generation after generation, we continue to fight, hate, and make war on each other.

When will we ever learn?

Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima gives us one more chance to learn this lesson. This film chronicles the World War II battle (memorable to most of us as the time when the infamous ‘raising of the flag’ photograph was taken) from the Japanese point of view.

Telling it from Japan’s perspective gives us a chance to see war through the “enemy’s eyes.” In most World War II dramas, the Germans and Japanese are usually portrayed as faceless bad guys; but in this movie, we see the humanity of these soldiers including their struggles, their homesickness, and their compassion.

Our challenge in any conflict, from war to simple disagreements, is seeing the argument from the other side. Putting ourselves in another’s shoes can be hard to do, but even harder when that other person is someone you’re angry at (or in global affairs, someone you’re at war with). Regardless of difficulty, this is the gospel challenge we are given.

The Letters from Iwo Jima gives us a chance to do just that.

Upon leaving the movie theatre, will we get the point? Will we see that war is never an option for those who truly seek the Reign of God?

When we see World War II from the other side (as God sees all things: from all sides), we see just how ridiculous it is to fight. There is one scene in the film when the Japanese soldiers holed up on the island encounter a wounded American G.I. They see he’s not a savage, that the letter he holds in his pocket is a note from his mother (reminding them of their own mothers and families), and that his charge is simply “to do what is right.” In this scene, the Japanese fighters realize how futile and silly this war is, that the Americans on the beach of Iwo Jima aren’t all that different than them.

The film goes over this battle through the words of the letters that the soldiers write home, which are very much like the American’s letter from mom. It gives us a sense of humanity in an inhuman act of killing one another.

It is also revealing that, sixty years later, Americans and Japanese are good friends and international allies. Looking back, it really seems silly that we spent all that time trying to murder each other.

After a long military career, even belligerent U.S. General Patton had to confess, “War is hell.” War is truly the opposite experience of heaven and the Reign of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Today we are engaged in yet another senseless war. Americans are being told once again that our enemies overseas are savage and evil. We are being told that the lives of their former leaders (including Saddam Hussein) are worthless, ones which we can easily dispose of in routine hangings and executions. But how might God see this war and how might he see the other side?

I have a feeling that God sees each one of them as his beloved creation, and every time one of them dies at our hands (or at their own), his heart breaks, just as it would break at the death of one of our own American soldiers.

If only our political leaders would see them as God sees them.

If only the American public would see them as God sees them.

I pray that we will stop this senseless, ridiculous war, that we will work for peace and understanding, diplomacy and dialogue with all God's people. I pray that I will have the strength to stand up for the gospel, that others will join me, and that war is no more. I pray that we can elect leaders who will work for peace and that we might even become those leaders.

This movie will make us uncomfortable with war and all the death that comes from it. This movie will show us war through another’s eyes and that those eyes are just as human are our own. This movie will give us a golden opportunity to learn one more time the lesson of peace proclaimed by Christ and echoed by the greatest religious leaders of human history.

Will we ever learn? Will this movie help us learn? It helped me. I hope it helps you, too.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine

Do you have a perfect family?

Around the holiday season, I hear from a number of people who complain about their families, thinking theirs is dysfunctional, imperfect, or just plain messed up.

What I have yet to find, though, is this so-called idyllic family that is completely functional, flawlessly perfect, and neatly put together.

Little Miss Sunshine, then, is a movie for the rest of us.

This movie chronicles a New Mexico family on a road trip in their old, beat-up Volkswagen van to California for the “Little Miss Sunshine Pageant,” a children’s beauty contest in which the youngest daughter has been invited to participate.

The family consists of Richard (Greg Kinnear), a father who is overly enthusiastic about his own (but imaginary) success story; Sheryl (Toni Collette), a mother who loathes her husband for his imaginary money schemes; Dwayne (Paul Dano), the Nietzke-reading rebellious son who has taken a vow of silence because he hates his family; Olive (Abigail Breslin), the seven-year-old daughter who wants to compete in beauty pageants despite overeating and a bad fashion sense; Frank (Steve Carell), the self-professed “greatest Proust scholar” uncle who comes to live with the family after a suicide attempt due to a homosexual relationship gone bad; and Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a drug-addict whose foul language has gotten him kicked out of several nursing homes.

Despite these major imperfections, though, Little Miss Sunshine shows us that this is actually the perfect family.

Why? Because they love each other.

Even though Richard fails at his business plans, his wife Sheryl begrudgingly keeps forgiving him; even though Dwayne wants to abandon his family on the side of the road on their journey, he knows that doing so will cause his sister to miss her beauty pageant and changes his mind for her sake; and when Olive is nearly embarrassed in the pageant, the whole team comes to her rescue despite being thrown out of California for doing so (giving away why would ruin the fun of the final scene of the movie, so I won’t).

The world defines “perfection” as having things all figured out. The film shows plenty of supposedly “perfect” families at the beauty pageant… daughters with “perfect” skin, mothers with “perfect” fashion, and families who act “perfectly” genteel around everyone else (they probably live in white-picket fenced houses and have 2.5 kids, too).

On the other hand, God defines “perfection” as having perfect love for one another. The imperfect crew of Little Miss Sunshine is an example of God’s kind of perfect family.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul challenges the families of that early Christian community, “Be imitators of God as beloved children, and live in love with one another, just as Christ loved and sacrificed himself for us… Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ… Husbands, love and serve your wife as yourself. Wives, love and respect your husbands… Children, love and obey your parents.” (Eph. 5:1, 21, 33, 6:1). The perfect family, according to Paul, is one that exists for love and service to each other.

Through the wisdom of the Scripture, Paul continues to challenge the families of today. In other words, we don’t have to have everything figured out to be perfect (heck, we don’t even have to like each other). But we are challenged to look out for each other, to comfort each other, and to serve and sacrifice for each other, putting others before ourselves. That, as Paul says, makes us “imitators of Christ” (Eph. 5:1).

I believe God would be proud of the family from this fun movie. Even though their supposed and wacky “imperfections” get them exiled from the state of California, I am sure they would be welcome in the state of heaven.

Do you have a perfect family? You might initially say, “no.” But if you love your family and they love you, if you would do anything for your parents, your children, and even your strangest uncle or that obnoxious cousin, then I think you should say, “yes.”

Why? Because that’s probably what God would say, too.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Rocky Balboa

new years resolutions and second chances...

Throughout all December, knowing that 2007 was slowing approaching day by day, I was mulling over some New Years resolutions that I wanted to make. I don’t usually make New Years resolutions, but this year I made a pre-New Years resolution to start making resolutions.

Why? Because not making resolutions wasn’t getting me anywhere either.

Earlier in 2006, I had made a mid-year resolution to get healthy, lose weight, eat right, exercise more often, and improve my quality of life in my spare time (and not work so long and hard so I could have more “spare time”).

With the colder weather, though, I stopped exercising outside; and since I’m in the process of moving, we packed away all the exercise equipment, so I stopped exercising inside too. Then with the holidays and hectic Christmas schedules, I found that my eating habits were getting less than stellar.

But the New Year was a second chance to start over.

And on New Years Eve this year, I happened to catch the new movie Rocky Balboa in the theatres, and how appropriate it would be for me.

In this, the sixth Rocky movie to date, the Italian Stallion (Sylvester Stallone) is an old, tired man who pines for one more chance to get into the ring. He longs for the days when he was young and naïve, when he took on Apollo Creed, Mr. T., and that guy from the former Soviet Union. One can even feel Stallone himself is begging us, his audience, to give him one more chance to show what Rocky can do on the silver screen.

On New Years Eve, how appropriate it was that we should give Rocky and Stallone one more chance. This movie spoke to me about second chances. At various points in our lives, we have all wanted one more chance to make right what once went wrong, or to prove to someone else we had it in ourselves all along.

For Rocky, everyone doubted him because of his age. They doubted that an old guy like Balboa could go toe to toe with Mason Dixon, today’s world champion boxer. But Rocky says, “I got a feeling in my gut that I can do it.” We’ve all been there, too. No one else believes we can do it, but we know in our gut that we can.

So many people doubt that we can keep our New Years resolutions, but in our gut we feel each year we can. And when we do succeed, it’s usually because there are others around us cheering us on (conversely, when we don’t succeed, it’s because we’re all alone). God gave us friends to cheer us on.

One of the most pivotal scenes of the movie is the moment that infamous Rocky theme song, “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti comes trumpeting into the theatre. Don’t we all want to have that soundtrack playing in the background as we make our New Years resolutions, with our friends and mentors cheering us on, standing right beside us? (this song actually does do that to people; case in point: stay for the closing credits as images of everyone people make their own journey up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the sounds of the Rocky theme music).

Ours is a God of second chances. Jesus keeps challenging his listeners to repent, to start over, to make a resolution for a second chance on life. I can imagine Jesus with the boom box over his head, blasting “Gonna Fly Now” on the speakers, cheering us on as we take a new turn in life, chart a new course, make a new resolution.

“Repent, for the Reign of God is at hand,” Jesus said. (Mark 1:15) In other words, God is always open to second chances. The question is, will we make them, and then, will we keep them?

With God and our friends cheering us on, like Rocky, I have a good feeling we just might. Happy New Year!