Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Oscar Recap 2007

From a spiritual perspective, I was very pleased with the results of the Academy Awards this year. Since no one movie took home more than four Oscars, it proved to be a truly balanced experience, showing audiences that there are many perspectives and facets to Hollywood.

Balance and diversity is something that has been forgotten in America today. We are either all on one side or all on another. I am grateful that the Academy showed us that balance in our movies and our appreciation of them.

Here is a sampling of what Oscar gave us this year:

Best Picture & Best Director:
The Departed & Martin Scorcese
By awarding two of the top awards to The Departed, the voters were conveying a message of uncertainty. In this phenomenal crime thriller, we aren't sure of who is on who's side. One of the most angry, foul-mouthed characters (played by Mark Wahlburg, who was nominated but did not win for Best Supporting Actor) is one of the film's heroes; on the other hand, one of the most gentle souls of the movie (played by Matt Damon) is actually the worst of the villians. A feeling of uncertainty pervades this film, but it adds to the swirl of emotions around the Christ-figure hero Billy Costigan (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) must endure to save the day; in fact, the lesson we learn from The Departed is that we are called to higher standards and that, to achieve them and to save the day, sometimes we have to sacrifice our own selves.

Best Actress:
Helen Mirren in The Queen
As an actress, I imagine it must be challenging to play a real-life person like Queen Elizabeth II, especially one as prominent and visible as she is. Helen Mirren did a stunning character study in this very private monarch, letting us inside her emotions and her personal experiences. What this role says is that you cannot judge a book by its cover, or a person by their public personna. We are quick to judge what we do not see. The British people quickly passed unfair judgment on Elizabeth II, but if they only knew her inner struggles, they might have re-thought how they treated her. The Queen, and Mirren's portrayal of that title character, is a spiritual lesson to all of us on how we react to each other and to have a more discerning heart when forming our opinions.

Best Documentary & Best Song:
An Inconvinient Truth & "I Need to Wake Up"
Al Gore was more prominent in the Oscar telecast this year than stars like George Clooney or Steven Spielberg. Combined with his two wins for his documentary An Inconvinient Truth, Gore was able to show the world that saving the planet is a very big issue. This film tells us that, spiritually, the care of God's creation is a very critical moral issue. Catholic social teaching has emphasized this fact since Vatican II, and it's a pleasure to see Hollywood finally catching up. It is also nice to see that a melodic call to action was the winner of the Best Song category with Melissa Ethridge's "I Need to Wake Up" taking home the Oscar. (And on a side note, the green movement scored a 3rd win with Happy Feet, an animated movie with an environmental message, as the Best Animated Film for 2006).

Best Screenplay:
Little Miss Sunshine
While the nominees in all the screenplay categories were fine films, none was more hopeful than Little Miss Sunshine. At the end of this heart-warming movie, we are reminded of the incredible value of family and how we are put on this earth to be there for each other. Each of the characters in this fun movie were looking out for someone else's best interests, often before their own. We can learn a valuable spiritual lesson from a family like this, and while I was sad it didn't win Best Picture, I am grateful its story was awarded the best screenplay of the year. A film like this gives us a hope that we can learn to be a better people for each other.

There were other good wins this year, but these are the ones that I particularly liked. They are an overview of the great spiritual messages imbedded in the silver screen in 2006. I pray there will be even more in 2007.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Amazing Grace

“Faith without works is dead.” James 2:26

Amazing Grace follows the incredible career of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffold), the political activist who led Britain’s Parliament to the abolition of slavery in the early nineteenth century.

So what does this historical experience have to do with one of Christianity’s most popular and timeless hymns?

Wilberforce, it turns out, was also a protégée of John Newton, the composer of “Amazing Grace” and a former slave trader himself (before his conversion experience, which led him to compose the infamous song). Earlier in his life, William considered following in his mentor’s footsteps and becoming a contemplative preacher for the rest of his life (instead of continuing on as a Member of Parliament). He wanted to live a life in God’s grace, and figured a life of meditation would be the way to do that.

But Newton (in the movie, played by Albert Finney) wouldn’t hear any of it, nor would his friend, political ally, and future Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch). Newton and Pitt challenged young William that he could live a life in God’s grace and at the same time, live a life in the political world. Thank God for the two of them, as well his wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai); because of their encouragement of William, slavery was finally abolished in Britain, leading the way for other social reforms overseas and the abolition of slavery in the United States a few decades later.

Had William lived out a life of faith without his works, a country might have missed an opportunity to come closer to the Reign of God.

But because one man lived out a life of faith through his works, the world was transformed.

In the New Testament, the epistle writer James tells his audience: “What good is it, my friends, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith alone save him?… For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also a faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14,26). Wilberforce teaches us through his experience in this film that action must be a part of our life of faith.

If we are singing “Amazing Grace” in our churches, but going home and doing nothing with our faith, then our faith is dead.

If we are praying hours on end, but are never ourselves the answer to anyone’s prayer, then our faith is dead.

If we are speaking about the mysteries of faith, but don’t stand for justice, act with compassion, speak out for the poor, actively oppose war and violence, or comfort those in pain, then our faith is dead.

It hit me as I watched this movie: perhaps you and I are not supposed to wait for God’s grace in our lives which will save and set us free; perhaps, instead, you and I are supposed to be that grace for someone else. Wilberforce was the amazing saving grace for the slaves of the early nineteenth century, all because his faith was manifested in his good works. Imagine whose grace you and I might be.

And just as abolition was the issue William Wilberforce and for this movie, what might our issues be today? That is our question to wrestle with: What are you and I called to act upon? In what way will our faith be put into action? What is our passion that will transform the world?

Amazing Grace
challenges us to find our voice, discover our passion, and use our faith to act on that so that we might transform the world in our own day.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ghost Rider

“Come, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Matt. 16:24

In the film Ghost Rider, based on a Marvel comic book of the same name, we get to follow the story Johnny Blaze, a daredevil motorcyclist played by Nicholas Cage.

The story begins when, at a young age, Blaze was cursed for life when he made a selfless deal with a stranger in order to save his father from cancer. That stranger turned out to be Satan, and while his dad was cured, he was quickly taken away from young Johnny in a fatal motorcycle accident the next day.

Even though Johnny’s career took off after that, he was a haunted, cursed man: in fact, when called upon, he turns into the “Ghost Rider,” a frightening specter with a flaming skull for a head and a mean bike that literally burns up the road as he passes by.

Johnny Blaze lived his life with the curse of having made a deal with the devil, but his life was definitely not defined by the devil. Even when he was called upon to do the dark one’s bidding, he acted with justice for the oppressed and a compassion for the innocent: hardly the qualities of the devil’s so-called bounty hunter.

I usually don’t like to give away endings, but I cannot resist with this movie. So if you prefer to remain spoiler-free, jump two paragraphs below.

At the end of Ghost Rider, our hero becomes his most selfless. When given the chance to relinquish his curse and live a normal life, Blaze rejects the devil and selflessly takes upon himself a life of hardship so that he can stand for justice and the innocent of the world. What makes this scene so poignant is that, up to that moment in the film, Blaze begged to live a normal life on his own terms and to be free of the curse once and for all. He just didn’t realize that by enduring the curse for the sake of others he was actually living life on his terms after all.

While most of us don’t have the curse of having our heads turn into flaming skulls by night, we all feel “cursed” in one way or another. We feel that there are things we are made to endure; perhaps it’s an illness, perhaps it’s a low-paying job, perhaps it’s a personal, internal struggle. In a sense, we are cursed with our own sins.

The “Ghost Rider” decided to turn his curse into an opportunity. Are we not called to do the same with our own “curses”? In the gospels, Jesus challenges his disciples, “Come, deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24) We can wallow in our pain and crosses in life, or we can take hold of the cross and use its experience to better the world.

Even if we are sinful, we are called to use the experience of sin to help others out of their sinfulness. Even if we are beaten down, we are called to use the experience of oppression to act for justice for others. Even if we are in pain, we are called to use the experience of that pain to comfort others in their time of need.

Whatever cross we have been given, we are called to use that experience to help others with their crosses. We are called to act for justice and to walk humbly with our God (cf. Micah 6:8). We are called to be a Ghost Rider for others and set this world on fire with the blaze of compassion and justice.

Friday, February 02, 2007


“It was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world. It was from that place that he scattered them all over the earth.” Gen. 11:9

There have been a number of people who have compared Babel (a Best Picture nominee for the 2006 Oscar race) to last year’s Best Picture winner Crash. But I would argue that this film is the anti-Crash.

In that phenomenal film, people from different walks of life came together, they literally crashed together, and found hope in the midst of hopelessness. Babel, in a direct allusion to its Biblical reference, shows how people who have once been together have gone away from each other and in that isolation have found nothing but hopelessness.

This film follows the stories of four families who have not only grown isolated from each other, but also have isolated themselves from others in their part of the world.

The first is Richard and Susan Jones (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), a husband and wife estranged because of a past family tragedy; the second is a Moroccan father whose only connection to his two sons seems to be related to firearms; the third is Amelia (Adrianna Barazza), an illegal Mexican immigrant who is separated from her son and her family by the Mexican-American border; the fourth is Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) a mute and deaf Japanese teenager who is torn apart from her father because of the death of her mother and her own sexual impulses.

At one time, these families might have experienced an inner and outer unity, with fellow family members and with other families of other cultures. But as the movie opens, these people are worlds apart, and their own fear and suspicion keep them from each other and causes even more problems as this film unfolds.

Because of fear and suspicion, Amelia hides the Jones’ children in her care as she illegally crosses the border; because of fear and suspicion, the Moroccan children aim their gun at American tourists; because of fear and suspicion, Richard must be left to fend for himself in a foreign desert wilderness as his wife Susan slowly dies with no medical care available; because of fear and suspicion, Japanese teenagers mistreat and ignore Chieko who is dealing with internal battles about her own sexuality and family history. As the movie progresses, this fear and suspicion only turns worse, landing these estranged people farther from each other.

The story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) was written to show us a deeper truth – namely, that we will be far from God when we are far from each other.

Contrary to popular belief, what separates us from each other in this world is not our languages or cultures, our geography or our technology. Instead, what keeps us apart is the fear and suspicion we hold for one another. In this movie, every family on screen is afraid of the others and within every family, there is also a nagging suspicion.

In Robert Putman’s book, Bowling Alone, the author observes how disconnected we are in our society today. Instead of building communities, we have created isolated vacuums. Not only are we no longer speaking to our neighbors on our front porches, but also we aren’t even speaking to each other in our own homes. Older adults are suspicious of teens and young adults. Young people are suspicious of their elders. We are disconnecting from each other day by day.

Babel shows us how this disconnect can truly harm us. When we watch this film, we are left uncomfortable, uneasy, and unsure about our society and ourselves. Are we really that disengaged from one another? Are we really that isolated? Are we really capable of anger fueled by fear and suspicion? This movie leaves the viewer with these lingering questions.

So what are we going to do about it? What are we called to do?

The New Testament gives us an anti-Babel moment in the experience of the first Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11). Instead of nations separated out of fear and anger towards each other, the Pentecost moment united those same nations through one voice: namely, the voice of the gospel, the voice of love, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and dialogue.

When Peter gets up to speak about these values, the crowd says to each other, “…and we can each hear them in our own language.” (Acts 2:11) There is hope for us, still. We don’t need to resort to the disconnect shown in Babel; we have a new language given to us by Christ. If only we spoke with that language, there would be no more “babbling,” and we could start to see the world as one.