Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

"There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens... For everyone, to eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of all their labor is a gift of God." Eccl. 3:1 & 13

In a recent interview, David Fincher, the director of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, said of his film, "It's a movie about death." But when seen through the lens of faith, this movie is actually more about life.

This is a tale, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) who is born old, but as he ages, he physically gets younger.

What I found most captivating was the great chapters in Benjamin's life. He grew up in the bustling 20s and the challenging 30s. He came of age just before and during the Second World War. He learned about want and loss during the 50s, and finally experienced true love (with his beloved Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett) in the excitement of the 1960s. After the birth of his child, he escaped to India during the 70s, only to return home to say his last goodbye's in the 80s and to finally lose his identity and memory in the 90s.

Each chapter, just like each decade, was unique. Benjamin always seemed ready to take on the next new challenge or take advantage of the next great opportunity - while being completely conscious of the present moment, exemplified by the scenes when he sees a gentle hummingbird buzz around the ocean in the midst of World War II or when he and Daisy take in the launch of an Apollo spacecraft as they drift away in a boat on a quiet Florida lake.

While the director David Fincher did focus a bit much on death and loss, he also knew that his movie went beyond that, saying "It's a grand love story that's steeped in death, in the things that we put so much effort into ignoring on a daily basis."

In our world, our own lives are often lived going forward, but always looking backward - asking ourselves "what might have been" or "what should have happened." Sometimes we focus obsessively on this past, so much so that we ignore the opportunities that lie ahead of us (and once we realize what we have missed in that moment, ironically we spend more time living in the past and regretting that mistake, too).

Benjamin's story is a great lesson for all of us. While he lives going backward, he always looks forward - to the next great chapter in his life. His love story is not just with Daisy, but with his life and everyone he had met along the way.

What if each of us lived our lives that way?

Sure we can't reverse the aging process like Benjamin Button, but we can learn to look forward to our next grand chapter while absorbing and appreciating the present moment. That's not to say we don't look back ever. But what if we looked back on our past with the goal of using that to improve our future.

So what chapter of your life are you living in right now? Are you taking in what it means to be alive in the first decade of the 21st Century? And are you ready to make your mark on the world in the next great chapter of your life?

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the eclectic book of Ecclesiastes is unique. In some aspects, the author Qoheleth sounds like the first quote from David Fincher saying that it's all about death, and all our work is in vain since it does not last. But in other aspects, Qoheleth also realizes that no matter our belief - whether a humistist notion that this is the only world we'll ever know or a Christian belief in eternal life - we need to experience and relish the life we have now.

"There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens," says Qoheleth, "A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to uproot..." (Eccl. 3:1-2). Similarly, every one of us will have great chapters in our lives - times for different occasions in our life. The question is how we will take them in.

After reviewing all the opportunities that life presents us, Qoheleth concludes by saying "I recognize that there is nothing better than to be glad and to do well in this life. For everyone, to eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of their labor is a gift of God." (Eccl. 3:12-13).

Perhaps Benjamin Button lived his life according to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. He knew there was an appointed time for everything and he savored it and excitedly anticipated the next experience, right around the corner. I would like to think that I might live my life this way, and I pray in the New Year, you might also start living your life going forward, never backward.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Yes Man

"So let your 'yes' mean 'yes' and your 'no' mean 'no.' Anything more or less is sinful." (Matt. 5:37)

Around Chicago, December has been quite gloomy. We have had rain, sleet, snow, fog, ice, floods, extreme cold, extreme heat, and yes, even a tornado warning. Most days lately, though, have been overcast - a veil of grey has seeped across the Midwest landscape. Blah.

This melancholy weather is similar to the way that Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) begins the movie Yes Man. He lives a miserable life doing the same, mundane tasks over and over again, with little joy to show for it. In a sense, this gloominess makes Carl draw inward, avoiding people and saying "no" to any invitation and opportunity that comes his way. He just wants to crawl into his December-like hole and coast through the rest of his life.

That is until he learns to say "yes" (thanks to a Tony Robbins-like motivational speaker played by Terrance Stamp).

With the urging of an overzealous friend, he tries saying "yes" just a little more often - and finds that it ends with some good results (such as getting a midnight kiss from a kind stranger named Allison, played by Zooey Deschanel).

He continues his "yes" trend, and finds himself pulling himself out of his overcast rut. He learns to do things he never thought he'd ever do (bungey jumping, reuniting with old friends, helping the homeless, approving wild loans for poor, kindhearted souls at the bank he works for, and so much more), and he starts to love every minute of it.

While the method has its flaws (such as saying "yes" to a mail order Iranian wife or letting his friend trash his car), it teaches Carl an important lesson: make your life colorful.

It made me wonder, and it might make you wonder, if we have fallen into patterns, bad habits, introversion, or a general negative outlook on life. I know I have, and it's those times I find myself asking "Why are things going so bad?" - when the answer is staring me in the mirror.

What if we lived a life where we were more positive? Not a ooey-gooey smile-all-the-time giddiness, but really being positive about the situations presented to us? What if we first looked at the opportunities to any risk rather than the fears and concerns? What if we approached our problems with eagerness rather than anxiety? What if we looked to help others rather than helping only ourselves?

Perhaps every now and then, we need to be "yes men" - when a poor man asks for our help, when a friend asks to talk, or when an risky opportunity comes our way.

Like the parable of the talents in the Scriptures (Matt. 25:14-30), it was the servant who took the risk and said "yes" that reaped the greatest reward. Or like the disciples themselves who risked and sacrificed their livelihoods to follow Jesus - who said "yes" to His "follow me" - that had their lives forever changed.

Saying "yes" to new and bold opportunities, to those in need, and to exciting directions in our lives can make our world a lot more colorful - not bleak and frigid like a Chicago winter.

But saying "yes" isn't some kind of game, as Carl Allen was playing it in the movie. As Zooey Deschanel's character reminds him (not to mention other characters who try to get it into Carl's head), our "yes" must be a thought-out, genuine embrace of the new (even scary) world that awaits us on the other side of the word "yes."

Jesus warned his followers that saying an honest "yes" was a major sign of one's integrity. "So let your 'yes' mean 'yes' and your 'no' mean 'no.' Anything more or less is sinful" (Matt. 5:37) said Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount. Being open and then embracing a positive outlook on life will surely have incredible results in our lives... so much so that Jesus wanted to make sure we were all aware of the power of that word.

We are called to say "yes" to the opportunities God puts before us: the chance to help the poor and suffering, the ability to grow friendships and relationships with all those we meet, the risk of making fools of ourselves for the sake of something greater, the fun and exciting ways that God has made this world colorful for His people, and a life of living the gospel always. It's these "yes" moments that will make us all forever blessed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Quantum of Solace

"No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Reign of God." Luke 9:62

In Quantum of Solace, we see a new James Bond like never before. In most of the previous 007 films, it seems Bond either has recurrring amnesia or is just a cold-hearted man who moves on way too easily after tragedy and loss in each episode. But this Bond is different.

Picking up an hour or so after the last film (Casino Royale), Quantum has James Bond (Daniel Craig) still brooding over the loss of Vesper, whom he loved all too briefly. While he doesn't admit it to anyone, Bond has forgiven neither himself nor the people who trapped Vesper and sent her to her death. This is where this 007 is different - more human, more real.

But real or not, Bond has a hard time forgiving. Not that we would want him to forget what happened, as the earlier Bonds seem to have done (when one Bond girl dies and a few scenes later, the British secret agent is bedding another one). Rather, James Bond needs to forgive and allow that forgiveness to make him a better bearer of justice in the world.

Sadly, throughout the film, Bond becomes, as M (Judi Dench) puts it, "a blunt instrument" whose only thoughts are of vengence, not justice. By thinking back on the hurt he felt, he allows anger and retribution ("an eye for an eye") to fill his head - and becomes a killing machine in the name of the law.

But once he looks ahead rather than behind, he learns that true justice does not require equal punishment, but rather righteous justice where killing criminals is not the answer. By mentoring a young woman Camille (Olga Kurylenko) on her own need for vengence, Bond is able to see the error of his own ways.

Jesus once said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Reign of God." (Luke 9:62) At first, this seems harsh, but what he was getting at was that those who live and brood in the past cannot see clearly for what lies ahead. If we constantly look back, we won't be ready to go forward (and the Reign of God is all about transforming our world today in hope for a better tomorrow).

James Bond is called to be a bearer of justice in the world as a secret spy. He is called to protect the innocent and stand up against those who oppress the defenseless and hurt the weak. He is called to set the captives free and make this world a safer, more peaceful place. There is much responsibility in this, and if he dwells in his anger and hatred, he is no better than the criminals he hunts down.

By the end of the film, 007 starts to learn this gospel lesson. This Bond is on his way to becoming the best Bond of them all. He has much to learn, but give it a few more sequels, and we may see a forgiving, compassionate, and courageous champion of social justice yet. For us, when we stumble, God gives us sequels and second chances to learn to love and forgive so that we, too, might be pillars of justice in our own world.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


"Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, so they may not become discouraged." Eph. 3:21

Politics aside, the movie W. is more the tragic story of a family than a political drama about President George W. Bush.

In this biopic of the president, the events surrounding the decision to go to war with Iraq in 2002 intermix with the memories and emotions of the commander-in-chief (played by Josh Brolin). Here we see how the younger Bush grew from a disobidient frat boy at Yale to a failed businessman and eventually the leader of the free world, all while trying to cope with the demands and expectations of his father, George Bush Sr. (played by James Cromwell).

This movie is, at heart, a father-son story, analyzing both Bushes' strengths and weaknesses, especially in regards to one another. Oliver Stone, who directed W., seems to say that Bush Jr. just wanted to have his dad accept that he was successful and right, and that every decision in his life was colored by this need for his father's approval.

Meanwhile, the elder Bush struggled with being able to show his emotions or express them to his son, except the feeling of "disappointment," which he conveyed to his son quite often.

Even when W. did something successful (such as owning the Texas Rangers or becoming governor of Texas despite the odds), his father never really seemed to care - which further made W. want to try harder to prove he was a success, even to the point of engaging in a war (spurred on, the movie claims, by the advice of people like Dick Cheney, played here by Richard Dreyfuss).

This was a sad story. If only Bush Sr. had shown his son more emotion or respect, would the younger Bush have ever become president or start the Iraq war? If only Bush Jr. would have reacted less aggressively towards pleasing his father, what else could have been different?

Realizing this line of thought leads to politics rather than a movie plot, let us turn our attention to what the Scriptures tell us about family relationships. In Paul's letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, the apostle speaks about families - and their role to love one another and be patient with one another. Fitting to this story, we read: "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, so they may not become discouraged." (Eph. 3:21).

We should read this passage not just as an avoidance of anger or violence, but also as a positive endorsement of love, respect, compassion, and openness in the family system. Today, Paul might tell us: "Fathers, be open with your children and speak with them about your love, so they may not become discouraged..."

How many families don't talk, leading children to an unhealthy sense that they need to prove themselves so they get noticed? How many parents discipline their children without also approving of all the successes and joys of their child? Imagine what good would come out of the family unit without all those roadblocks.

W. shows us one very prominent family's struggle with these issues, but they are just one of millions of people who endure the same things in their homes. And as this film shows us, just because we grow up does not mean these issues go away. Just because a son or daughter moves out of the house (or into the White House for that matter) does not mean these problems do not have be addressed anymore. The pains of our youth stay with us for a very long time.

Let us pray for more openness and dialogue within the family. Let us pray for more families to love one another as Christ loves each of us.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Eagle Eye

What drives you?

In Eagle Eye, Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) is a Stanford University dropout who was always compared to his more successful twin brother Ethan. He really has no motivation or enthusiasm, and goes through life as a corporate drone and oblivious to the infidelity of his friends. That is, until he is drawn into a major drama by an all-seeing, all-knowing computer called ARIA locked away in some government facility deep below the Pentagon.

Jerry is propelled into action only because he will either be killed or detained in prison for life if he does nothing. ARIA calls Jerry (using a very human voice) to tell him that, unlike his brother Ethan, he requires extreme circumstances to do anything.

The action and excitement of the film is great, but what caught me was this understated reason for getting Jerry into this mess in the first place: he cannot be motivated by reason, logic, or passion - but he can be motivated by dire circumstances. He needs that extra "umph" for him to get going. Otherwise, he would sit back and let the world happen to him (and complaining all the time, even though he is the only one responsible for his life's circumstances).

What is it that motivates us? Do we go through life, waiting for someone to entice us into action? Do we wait for events to unfold before we act to do something about them?

There are so many people like Jerry in this world, who wait for the world instead of going out to meet it. Are you one of those people?

So what should we be motivated by? Logic, sure. Reason, definitely. But as Christians, we ought to be motivated by the gospel message of Christ. If we believe Christ is our best hope in the universe, why do we ignore or procrastinate doing what he asks us to do? Why is it that emergencies, tragedy, or major world events are the things that motivate society to do good?

Had Jerry been motivated by other things, how much trouble could he have avoided? If we become motivated by the gospel, how much more can we avoid?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ghost Town

"Just who is my neighbor?" - Luke 10:29

Bertram Pincas (Ricky Gervais), the central character in Ghost Town, really doesn't like people. He avoids conversations with co-workers, neighbors, or anyone he meets throughout his day. Pincas would rather spend life alone than meeting or talking with anyone.

But due to a seven-second brush with death during a routine colonoscopy, he ironically becomes the only living person that dozens of ghosts in New York can actually talk to.

For the rest of the movie, these ghosts (led by a pestering, tuxedo-clad Frank, played by Greg Kinnear) become the first real relationships that Bertram Pincas has had in ages. At first he resists these new people; then he accomodates them just to get them to go away; but eventually he learns to talk to them - and through them, learns to talk to the living (including a budding love interest, played by Tea Leoni).

In a world of six billion people, some of which might annoy or frustrate us, it might be tempting to block out all but a few friends.

Building relationships with people requires work and humility, two sacrifices we may not enjoy making. We might say we're too busy in our lives to concentrate on new friendships or even have the time to develop those networks. Even with the blessings of Facebook and online social networking, many still struggle to deepen the relationships we already have.

But no matter how busy or frustrated we are, humans were created by God for one another. God would not give life to six billion people unless He wanted us to live for each other.

Let us learn the lesson that Bertram Pincas had to die for seven seconds to learn. Let us start smiling, talking to, and building relationships with those around us - from the guy in the elevator to the new person at the office, from the woman behind the counter to our own estranged family members at the holidays.

And added to that, find opportunities to meet new people: join a local sports league, get involved in your church, or become connected to your community.

When Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself," someone once asked him, "And just who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29), Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In other words, your neighbor could be anyone. In the parable of Ghost Town, the same can be said: go and love your neighbor... a friend, an acquaintance, or the next person you meet today.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Henry Poole is Here

"Faith, hope, and love, these three remain. And the greatest of these is love." 1 Cor. 13:13

In the world today, beated down by work, pressure, and stress, many people can lose hope in the future, question their faith in God, and become isolated and individualistic, satisfied simply with a group of Facebook "friends" rather than interpersonal loving relationships.

Henry Poole (played by Luke Wilson), the central character in the film Henry Poole Is Here, is a young adult in that same rut.

And when a major health issue confronts Henry , he crumbles and retreats inward. We aren't sure what kind of health problem that Henry has, but we know that he is told he only has a little bit more to live. He didn't have much of a life before the diagnosis anyway. He went back and forth to work like a drone or a cog in a wheel. What struck me was how sad Henry was about losing his life, even through he seemed equally sad living in it all along. But God is never sad about our lives - God rejoices in our life.

And this film shows us that, no matter how far we run away or try to escape our troubles in life, God is always there, calling out to us, ready to embrace us upon our return, just as in the sotyr of the Prodigal Son in the New Testament.

Henry Poole Is Here is a heart-warming summer movie that gives a new face to Paul's infamous passage from 1st Corinthians: "Faith, hope, and love, these three remain. And the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13). Seeing this film reminds us that all of us, including poor Henry Poole, are called to live in a loving community, called to hope in our future regardless of long we have on this earth, and called to believe more than our eyes can see.

From the previews, one might say that this movie is about miracles and water stains that look like Jesus, and we only need to believe in these signs from God. But I really don't think that is what people will get out of Henry Poole is Here. The catalyst for Henry was not a miracle on the side of his wall, but how that miracle brought people into his life - and those people were the very miracle Henry needed.

Ask yourself - what is it that God has given your life that cause others to take interest? Instead of shooing them away, how can we invite them even deeper into our lives - so that we can experience "faith, hope, and love" with others around us?

And many of us are probably overburdened with life or feel like a cog in a machine with our jobs, our homes, or our problems. We can probably associate with Henry Poole at one point in our lives or several. When we find ourselves in those situations, ask God to pull you out. But don't sit around lonely waiting for the Lord to answer.

Instead, look around you at others - friends and even strangers - and see the face of God. Through them, may you find faith in something profound, hope in your own future laid out before you, and the love of others for who you are.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Swing Vote

"...responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation." - Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 2008 (US Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Swing Vote is a fun and heartwarming little movie that any red-blooded American would enjoy; but sadly, it has not done too well at the box office so far.

It resounds with a message not heard much since Jimmy Stewart filibustered his way through the Senate in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939.

In this film, Kevin Costner stars as Ernest "Bud" Johnson, a very simple man living in a trailer home with his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) in a small forgotten town of Texico, New Mexico. We come to learn that Bud doesn't care much about anything: his home is a mess, he neglects his job, he drinks himself silly, he oversleeps every day, and while he seems to love his daughter, he doesn't put much effort into being a decent father.

When Molly asks him to vote on election day, he doesn't even bother. Wanting to make up for her father's loss, she sneaks into the polling place to vote for Bud. Unfortunately, the power goes out at just the right moment and, long story short, Bud is given the opportunity to cast his ballot again - and this vote will decide the entire presidential election.

Who wins or loses, who the candidates are and even what they stand for is secondary to a larger theme in this film: apathy has no place in our culture today.

Swing Vote is the story of an apathetic man's conversion to a life of thinking and caring - about himself, about his family, and about his country.

Apathy infects a lot of people around the world. There are those who don't seem to care much about anything that doesn't affect them personally, and even that isn't a sure thing either. Bud might seem a little extreme, but apathy affects almost everyone. I have been guilty of being apathetic about my health. But apathy doesn't do anyone any good. Just because we don't have an active role in something doesn't exclude us from thinking and caring about it.

In this election year, the Catholic bishops of the United States have released a special document called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. In it, the bishops state "...responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation."

In other words, apathy has no role for anyone, especially a follower of Christ.

We must get active with the world around us, not because it's some sort of American requirement or because the Catholic bishops are making us feel guilty. Rather, we must get active because our Christian faith demands action on the part of any believer. Jesus did not tell his followers "sit back and do nothing," but told them to get active, make a difference, and change the world.

Participation in the political process, action in the local community, and involvement in important issues that affect us and the world around us are all ways we can rid ourselves of apathy. Bud's journey from apathy to action is an example we can all follow.

So what can we do? Check out the Faithful Citizenship website developed by the staff of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.faithfulcitizenship.org/. It's a great first step in a process that can make a real difference in our nation and in our world.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mamma Mia

"Honey, I'm still free... Take a chance on me... Gonna do my very best, baby can't you see? Gotta put me to the test... Take a chance on me!" - Lyrics from Take a Chance on Me by ABBA

Commitment is something many people fear, and often times run away from when life gets rough or uncomfortable.

Mammia Mia is a story about long lasting commitments, and how we all struggle with them.

In this film, young Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to commit to a future together with her fiancee in a picturesqe wedding on a Greek island where she and her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) have lived all their lives. This is one commitment story, but the real drama takes place around the commitment (or lack thereof) of her mom and her three former lovers.

Sophie has invited her mom's three lovers (played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard) to the wedding, in hopes of finding out who her real dad is. Back twenty years ago, Donna and these three men had their own problems with commitment, which ultimately resulted in a confused mess where all rejected it in favor of their own comfortability.

And finally, when the three men find out about the possibility of being a father, another commitment struggle faces them: are they ready to commit to being a parent or being together again with the mother?

All of us can understand their struggles because everyone has faced commitment questions in their lives at one point or another, and in various degrees of seriousness. Whether it's commiting to a job or a task, or commiting to a relationship, marriage, or vowed religious life, we all make these important decisions throughout our lives.

When we are first faced with commitment, we might be foolishly ready to agree, finding out later that we should not have rushed in so willingly. Other times we avoid commitment altogether, but find ourselves miserable because we never took the chance. There isn't a full-proof method on how to handle commitment because it all depends on the circumstances and on our own selves.

Our faith calls us to discernment before making any decision in life. St. Ignatius of Loyola called his followers to spend long hours in prayer, contemplation, and discernment before engaging in any major commitment in their lives.

What if we took a breath before "taking a chance" (as the ABBA song goes)? What if we discerned first before making rash decisions on commitment?

Chances are, we would probably make better choices. And for some, the discernment might need to be longer than for others, but after that period, we can confidently make a decision and accept the consequences of that action (or inaction).

Throughout the movie, young Sophie discerns her own life, seeing the results of her mother's poor choices and lack of commitment, and in the end of the film, makes her own mature choice on her commitment to her fiancee. Let us all pray that we have the courage to make good choices, and that we will discern well beforehand.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

Who do you believe in?

The Dark Knight, one of the most stunning films ever produced, poignantly asks us the question: What kind of people are we?

Do we give in to our carnal and animal instincts of vengeance, survival, and petty jealousy? Are we corrupt men and women who can be easily swayed by charismatic leaders to do right or wrong? Or are we naturally good people by birth who really want to care for and treat others with love, respect, and compassion?

These are the central questions at the core of this movie. The Joker (Heath Ledger, in what may be his finest role) believes people are naturally evil that only need a little push to cave into their animal instincts. Gotham City D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) believes that a misled populace needs a little inspiration to overcome their flaws. And Batman (Christian Bale) hopes that despite setbacks and misguided actions, people are naturally good and benevolent, and look to their leaders as the prime examples of the path they know they should follow.

It is their belief (or lack thereof) in the people of Gotham City that drive the actions of these three central characters of The Dark Knight.

The story here centers around a crime family thrown into the spotlight by Batman after the events of the previous film, Batman Begins (2005), and the emergence of a new kind of sadistic villain known as the Joker. The Joker has no regrets and seems to have no reservations about ensuring his own survival through violence. He begins a crime spree, killing just for the thrill of it, and enjoying watching other suffer by the work of his hands.

Harvey Dent, the city's district attorney, uses the law to bring the crime families to justice, and in so doing, becomes a civic hero. People put their greatest hopes and trust in him, and pray that he will be the real savior that Gotham needs to rid their streets of crime and evil. He is seen as Gotham City's "white knight" in shining armor (even Batman views him as such).

SPOILER ALERT: But this Gotham hero is not the perfect icon. During a tragic turn of events, Dent is horribly disfigured in an explosion, and on the same night, loses the life of his and Bruce Wayne's beloved Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over the role from Katie Holmes in the previous film). The hero crumbles as he falls into hopeless despair and insatiable anger. Dent becomes the villain, takes on the mantle of "Two-Face," and goes on his own killing spree.

The "white knight" of Gotham may have fallen from his horse, so it is left to a "dark knight" to once again carry on the hero's mantle.

Despite his own struggles, Bruce Wayne/Batman believes in the innate goodness of the people, and it is this belief that keeps him grounded. He does not believe men and women are naturally prone to carnal instincts, nor that they are misguided souls looking for a hero to take away their problems as both the Joker and Harvey Dent thought. Instead, he believes that his role is to inspire and guide people; that people would eventually step up, if only the bravest among them would go first into the night.

ANOTHER SPOILER: In a climatic boat ferry scene, the citizens of Gotham are given a chance to prove themselves. They are unfortunately stuck with a critical moral choice: either blow up another boat and save themselves, or sacrifice themselves and hope the other boat followed suit. The Joker staked his victory on the moral depravity of people; the Batman staked his victory on their selflessness and compassion for others. The Dark Knight's belief was rewarded.

If Batman, Joker, and Two-Face came to our city or town, who would be proven right? Do you believe in the genuine goodness of creation, or do you think that we will fall with pressure and weakness? In Genesis, it is said: "God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good." (Gen. 1:31). This includes men and women who are, according to this holy Scripture, good and decent at their core.

The New Testament says that, despite this goodness, human beings struggle and fall - and a savior is necessary to guide and show us the way towards our inner greatness. God sent Christ into our world to show us what we could become, what God created us to be.

As The Dark Knight closes, Commissioner Gorden (Gary Oldman) tells us of the heroism of Batman: "He is not the hero Gotham deserves, but he is the one we truly need. So we will hunt him because he can take it. He is more than a hero. He is our sacred guardian, our trusted sentinel, our dark knight."

A hero who follows Christian love and compassion will always make enemies and will always be opposed, just as Christ was. A hero who guards and protects us might very well be the one hunted down, just as Christ was. A hero with virtue and bravery can take it, but that indeed makes them more than just a hero, just as Christ was.

God created each of us good. God created each of us to become great, to be inspired by selfless guides, guardians, and heroes, and to become the hero ourselves. God sent Christ into the world as an example of perfect love and heroism, to show us the way, and as the model for all of us. Like Batman, Christ was scorned, rejected, and even hated by the very people he came to save. But he kept on saving us, no matter the obstacles.

This is our call. This is our way. If we follow Jesus, there is no other way. We must rise to become the dark knight for others, following the true white knight we call Christ.

In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent campaigned on the slogan, "I believe in Harvey Dent." However, God campaigns on another slogan, evidenced in the goodness he spoke of in Genesis: "I believe in my creation... I believe in you." Is that a campaign slogan you can believe in, too?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Six Movies in Three Weeks

Great movies, busy summer

This June and July have been quite busy for me in my ministry work, but the one thing that I know I can count on in these hot summer months is a nice respite at the local air-conditioned movie theatre.

I haven't had much time to write about them, but they sure have helped guide my thoughts and prayers as life has gotten incredibly busy for me (isn't that true of so many of us???). Below are a few thoughts about the six movies I have seen in the past three weeks - some of them I enjoyed, and others not so much. Regardless, here's a snapshot of what God has been bugging me about this summer.

Get Smart

In a fun, but not-so-great remake of the Get Smart television series, I learned that the hero is often the ones we notice the least (in the case of Maxwell Smart played by Steve Carrell, not to mention the enjoyable comedy crew of gadget guys Bruce and Lloyd played by Masi Oka and Nate Torrence). Furthermore, we shouldn't always assume the one we notice the most (such as the chiseled superstar Agent 23, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) isn't necessarily the shining hero either.

All in all, Get Smart is a great lesson in being careful in how we judge appearances, remembering to put our hope in good and decent people, not just the most popular or handsome people.


This film is basically two movies in one - with one basic lesson uniting it altogether. This story reminds us that sloth and laziness is no way to go through life. Here is a superhero named Hancock (Will Smith) who learns that even though he has the power to do anything he wants, he also has a responsibilty to treat that power with respect. Too often in life, we squander our God-given gifts and don't use them all that often. We blame busy-ness or distractions, but the truth is that God has given us each a purpose and we should not waste it in any way.

Hancock is a film that shows even the most powerful among us can experience a redemption moment. No one, it seems, is so powerful that they don't need to be redeemed.


Set many centuries in the future, WALL*E is a film that shows us that love transcends time and space. WALL*E, a trash compacting robot left on earth, is smitten by the arrival of EVE, a vegetation-seeking probe droid from outer space. WALL*E is taken by EVE's beauty and majesty in a world full of garbage. After some coaxing, EVE warms up to the little robot and starts to fall for the quirks, nuances, and uniqueness that WALL*E has grown into over the centuries.

EVE may be beautiful and WALL*E may be quirky, but these are the very reasons they love each other. They complement each other and compensate for what the other lacks. Timeless love is the connection of two individuals, complementing one another like no one else can.

It is important to realize that God created us all different not to confuse matters or to pit us against each other, but to complement each other. Whether we're talking cultures, nations, political ideologies, friendships, or soul mates, we are called to reach out to those who are the most different from our own experience. In a world where we talk about compatibility and finding whether someone thinks just like us, let us re-introduce the example of WALL*E and EVE, where opposites not only attract, but truly need and complement one another.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

In this roller coaster ride of a movie, we are called to go deep. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, Trevor (Brendan Frasier) literally takes that advice and searches out the deep, where others doubt and fear to go. That depth takes him all the way down to the "center of the earth," where a whole other world awaits - filled with overgrown mushrooms, magnetic rocks, and hungry dinosaurs - just like in Jules Verne's masterpiece by the same name.

Jesus invited his fishermen disciples to "put out into deep waters, and lower your nets for a catch" where they are sure to find more fish. (Luke 5:4) In a similar way, Jesus calls each of us to go deeper. We live in a "surface world" where so much of life is superficial. Even when we greet each other, we do it half-heartedly saying "How you doing?" to which the cliche answer today is just a one-word "fine." (as if anyone in this world could actually sum up their lived experience at that one moment in time as just "fine").

Journey invites us to explore and to go deeper, to educate ourselves, and to go beyond the norm. Whether it's political discussions or learning more about our friends, Jesus challenges us to "put out into deep waters and lower our nets for a catch." Just imagine what you'll discover when you decide to go a little deeper.


"So what have you done lately?" is the question asked in the final frame of Wanted, and is the underpinning of what this film is all about. The movie is the journey of Wesley (James McAvoy), who is recruited by a super-secret band of assassins, led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) and Fox (Angelina Jolie) to be their next superstar hero. Up until this recruitment, Wesley was a number-crunching cubicle drone who let his boss, his girlfriend, his best friend, and just about anyone else walk all over him - because he wanted to avoid confrontation throughout his life.

But once he becomes trained in the assassin ways, he discovers that he does not love the killing (in fact, he hates this destructive act), but that he is more than the man he thought. He also learned that healthy confrontation is a good thing. Wesley takes his newfound confidence and purpose to turn around to do what he can to end the endless cycle of destruction.

"All who live by the sword shall die by the sword," said Jesus in the face of violent, unhealthy confrontation in the New Testament (Matt. 26:52). And that seems to be the case in this non-stop action film. And judgment does come to those who choose this life. But in the end, this is a story of someone who looked at their life and wondered "what have I been doing with this life?" God gave us each a life to live abundantly, but are we wasting it or are we using it to make a real difference in the world?

The Incredible Hulk

Anger is a powerful emotion. We can use it as a weapon to strike those with whom we are upset, or we can use it in healthy, powerful ways - to defend and to protect. How do you use your anger?

The Incredible Hulk is the story of gamma-infused Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) who has decided to hide his anger. He takes medicine to keep his emotions in check and he runs away to a distant Central American country to avoid contact with anyone in his home country and risk disaster. But this method ultimately defeats him, and he is forced to come out of hiding. The rest of the movie is the journey towards controlling or destroying the anger. At first, in an attempt to be peaceful, Banner chooses to destroy his inner beast. But that is not the answer.

Just like Jesus in the Gospels, who overturns the money changers' tables in a fit of healthy anger, Bruce Banner ultimately learns that destroying anger isn't the final answer... controlling it and using it for good is. Furthermore, it is through the love of another (in this case, Liv Tyler) that Banner finds purpose and meaning - and why he must use his anger in the cause of good - to protect, defend, and save others. Let us all find ways to calm the beast inside and use our anger for good and never for destruction.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

"There are no accidents."

Kung Fu Panda is the unlikely story of an overweight, clumsy panda bear who aspires to be the most powerful, graceful kung fu master in ancient China. It may seem outrageous, perhaps even a mistake, but according to the wise old turtle Oogway in the movie, "There are no accidents."

The clumsy panda bear in question is Po (voiced by Jack Black), whose everyday is quite normal. He is not a matrial arts expert, but a lazy assistant cook for his father's noodle shop in the Valley of Peace. But despite his flaws, he dreams big, and by accident, Po ends up literally blasting himself into the middle of the Jade Temple and ends up as the appointed Dragon Warrior destined to save the kingdom.

This swirling twist of fate even surprises Po. For all his dreaming, he realizes how much of a mistake it is for him to be in this incredible role.

Even more, he is overwhelmed with guilt for displacing the rightful heirs to the dragon title, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogan), and Monkey (Jackie Chan). These five were his lifelong heroes, but now he has stepped into a role he never thought he would ever have.

But what very few animals in this movie's ancient kingdom realize what defines greatness. I would venture to say that very few people in our world today realize it as well.

Greatness is not brute strength, creative manuevering, or witty language. Greatness is not inherited, nor is it the equivelent of "perfection."

Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked that "Jesus gave us a new definition of greatness." Jesus, King said, told us that greatness has its roots in what others consider weakness. When Jesus tells his disciples that to be great, they must actually strive to be the least.

What made Po great was that he was aware of his weakness, and used it to his advantage. SPOILER ALERT: In the climatic battle in Kung Fu Panda, Po uses his overweight belly, his insatiable appetite, and his basic skills in the kitchen to single-handedly defeat the most powerful and most evil creature in ancient China, the snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane)... something that the Furious Five could not do altogether.

Should we ever feel inadequete like Po, let's never forget that we are no accident. God does not create accidents. Instead, let us find strength in our humility and even in our weaknesses. And in that, we will find Jesus' new definition of greatness.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

"As they age, good men will become temperate, dignified, self-controlled role models, sound in faith, love, and endurance." Titus 2:2

Indiana Jones has aged well. When I was a kid growing up, Indiana was my hero, so much so that I took up Biblical theology in college and throughout my graduate studies thanks to Dr. Jones' inspiration on the silver screen.

It was a risk bringing Indiana out of "retirement" for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but thanks to an incredibly fun performance by Harrison Ford, the adventurer-hero looks great 19 years after his last Crusade.

Set in 1957 in the height of the Cold War, this adventure follows Indiana and new sidekick "Mutt" (Shia LaBeouf) from Marshall College in Connecticut to South America in search for Mutt's mentor Harold Oxley (John Hurt) and mother Marianne Williams (Karen Allen).

What sets Indiana apart from other action heroes is that he doesn't just search for the priceless artifacts or the fortune and glory (as he boldly said, but hardly meant), but he goes on a journey to save others first and foremost, like Oxley and Marianne. On the way, of course, he discovers incredible treasures (like the Ark of the Covenant, the Shankara Stones, the Holy Grail, or in this case, the Crystal Skulls), but even when he finds these, he selflessly puts them back in their rightful place instead of hoarding them in his own private collection.

That's not to say that Crystal Skull, like previous films, aren't a lot of fun. In fact, this movie is two great hours I highly recommend to anyone this summer. From the action-packed opening in Area 51 in Nevada to the motorcycle whirl through academia to the jungle race sequence in the rainforests and waterfalls of Peru, this movie is a non-stop rollar coaster ride.

What makes the movie even more enjoyable is that Indiana Jones is not just exciting to watch with his bullwhip and fedora hat, but he is someone worth looking up to.

In this year's outing, Indy exemplifies Paul's description of the older Christian community on Crete in the New Testament: "As they age, good men will become temperate, dignified, self-controlled role models, sound in faith, love, and endurance." (Titus 2:2)

Crystal Skull shows us a mature, honorable (and incredibly active and fun) Indy that a young adult like Mutt (and any of us of any age in the audience) can aspire to be. Let us pray that we may all grow up to be our own version of Indiana Jones.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Prince Caspian

"Not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." Mt. 7:21

Prince Caspian, as part of The Chronicles of Narnia series, has been billed as a "Christian" movie, since the novels upon which these films are based were written as a Christian allegory by C.S. Lewis.

But as I watched the movie, I wondered where in the Gospels Jesus told his disciples to make war on their enemies, murder innocent soldiers, or pray to Him so that other human beings will die a gruesome, water-drenched death.

But in Prince Caspian, that's exactly what happens.

In this movie, we see our "heroes" (the Pevensie children and the titular Caspian played by Ben Barnes) wage a pre-emptive strike on the castle of King Miraz, murdering soldiers in the middle of the night, and then declare war on the very people they are trying to set free. This is hardly "Christian" behavior.

At the Last Supper, when the soldiers were about to arrest and eventually kill Jesus, the disciples had a similar reaction: "Lord, let's strike first. Here are two swords!" to which Jesus dismissed them with a quick response: "That's enough." (cf. Luke 22:38). So what "Christian" behavior is exemplified by such violence?

According to a faithful reading of the pacifist image of Christ, the Narnia characters are hardly being "Christian" in a movie like this.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis was more inspired by the vengeful, smiteful image of God from the Book of Exodus than the radical message of peace of Jesus in the Gospels. Near the end of this film, in fact, King Miraz's soldiers are drowned in a river flood, calling to mind the Exodus story of the Egyptians being destroyed in the Red Sea as they chased down Moses and the Israelites.

Is this image of God healthy for Christians to see in the 21st Century? Perhaps in the 10th Century B.C., but hardly the image we should see today.

In the New Testament, Jesus explains: "Not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Mt. 7:21) In other words, even if we bill something "Christian" does that mean that it is actually "Christian."

Further on in the seventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus explains that even if we declare that we fight in the name of Christ, Jesus will reject any such action in His name. His is not a gospel of hatred or aggression. His is a gospel of peace. This is the "will of my Father in heaven" that Jesus speaks about.

There is, however, one glimmer of hope in this crusader-esqe movie. Little Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) makes a wise choice, by heading away from battle when all others run to fight. In a way, she is seeking an alternative to violence, pettiness, and aggression. She pursues another option - longing for answers from her mentor and guide Aslan (the C.S. Lewis stand-in for the image of Jesus Christ, voiced here by Liam Neeson).

Her example should be a model for all of us. In the face of violence and aggression, let us run into the arms of Christ, reading His words in the Scriptures and listening to His words in our heart about what we should do.

When we go there, we will be faced with the Prince of Peace who rejects violence in all its forms.

So as we leave the movie theatre, pray that we follow the lead of little Lucy instead of the tempting path of Caspian and most the other characters in this bloody movie.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Iron Man

"We cannot remain silent in the face of such danger. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith."
- The Challenge of Peace (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)

In the midst of the two major wars our nation is currently engaged in, we seem to forget the fact that behind the military personnel are weapons manufacturers supplying the ammunition to the troops to both sides of the battle.

It's this profound awareness that fuels the first summer superhero blockbuster of 2008, Iron Man.

The central character of the film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), is the incredibly wealthy industrialist behind the advance weapons systems corporation, Stark International. During a mission to Afghanistan to sell the military there his new "Jericho" missle system (a Biblical reference to the annihilation and invasion of Jericho by Moses' successor Joshua), Stark is himself captured by Afghan terrorists who also happen to own Stark International weapons and plan to use them on the Afghan locals and American soldiers.

It is this humbling experience that transforms Tony Stark from an industrialist to a humanitarian. After escaping his captivity with an indestructable iron suit, Stark returns to America a literal "superhero" determined to end his company's involvement in the arms business.

Through a conversion experience, Stark was able to see how his own ingenuity turned against him and his conscience. He saw firsthand the horrors that military weapons can cause, and resolves that it will never happen again under his watch.

"We are the first generation since Genesis with the power to virtually destroy God's creation." This sad reality was put forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1983 in their statement to the American people entitled The Challenge of Peace. They reminded us: "We cannot remain silent in the face of such danger. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith."

It took a traumatic event in the deserts of Afghanistan to convince the fictional billionare Tony Stark of this. What will it take to convince our elected officials? And perhaps even more importantly, what it will take to convince the American voter?

In an age of nuclear weapons, suicide bombers, and terrorism, it seems the more we fight for the sake of "peace," the farther we move away from that ideal of peace. Does it not seem contrary to the gospel of Jesus that, to secure peace, we must kill and destroy? Does it not seem oxymoranic to fight those who kill out of vengence with a equal sense of vengence?

Living in his own age of terror and oppression in the First Century, Jesus told his disciples to put down their weapons, for "all who live by the sword shall die by the sword." (Matt. 26:52) In his time and in our time, weapons and warfare are the worst parts of our human nature. While our military technology has evolved over the centuries, the basic premise of war is still as barbaric as ever. When we kill each other for oil, land, or vengence, we show the universe that the human race in 2008 is really no different than the human race who emerged from the caves thousands of years ago. Jesus tried to tell us this in the gospels, but did we ever really listen to him?

But we can be "superheroes" like Iron Man if we reject war and weapons, turning our swords into ploughshares, as Isaiah envisioned the future. At the ballot box, in our local communities, or through our faith communities, we can make a difference.

As the bishops said in The Challenge of Peace: "We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus... Respecting our freedom, He does not solve our problems, but sustains us as we take responsibility for His work of creation and try to shape it in the ways of the Kingdom."

SIDE NOTE: I find it an inspired coincidence of the Holy Spirit that Iron Man, a movie that challenges its audience to become peacemakers, was released one day prior to the 25th anniversary of The Challenge of Peace, which was approved by the American Catholic bishops in Chicago, Illinois, on May 3, 1983.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

"You need to empty your cup. Then you can refill it." - Lu Yan (Jackie Chan)

Day after day, we cram a lot of "stuff" into our lives. We cram our overblown schedules, countless reminders, and small tidbits of knowledge into our brains, so much so that by the time we can rest for a night or for a weekend, we feel emotionally and mentally bloated. It was in the midst of a busy week of my own that I took a break and saw The Forbidden Kingdom, a kung-ku movie which marks the first on-screen collaboration between martial arts actors Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

At its core, this is a film about a Boston teenager named Jason (Michael Angarano) who loves kung-fu classic movies so much that, during a life-or-death encounter with street thugs, he is whisked away to the ancient China of his dreams where he teams up with three martial arts masters, Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), The Silent Monk (Jet Li), and the Golden Sparrow (newcomer Yifei Liu), to deliver a legendary stick weapon to its rightful owner, the imprisoned Monkey King (playfully portrayed by Jet Li).

What prevents young Jason from accomplishing his mission, according to Lu Yan, is that his head is filled with so much stuff that he does not have the power to learn more. "You need to empty your cup," Lu Yan says. "Then you can refill it." Jason must unlearn what he has taken in - to truly be proficient in kung-fu and save the day.

In my daily life, I find I fill up my world with a lot of "stuff," and when the day is done, I hardly have room for anything more. Like Jason, I must empty my cup so that God can refill it for me.

Otherwise, if I do not go through this emptying, there is so much that can go right past me. Have you ever experienced that, when you are so overwhelmed that you miss something incredibly important? Sometimes I need to be more aware of my surroundings, so that I can learn the truly valuable lessons in life.

Let us pray that we can look at our own lives and see if our cup is too full of useless "stuff," and have the wisdom to empty it and refill with something more, something deeper.

SIDE NOTE: One thing that haunted me about the film was the fact that one of the bully characters, the one who tries to kill our heroes in Boston, prominently wears a golden cross around his neck. It reminds me that so many people wear Christian jewelry or display Christian symbols, but some do not let that symbol or image seep into their souls. Like a driver with violent road rage who has a fish decal on the back of their car, we must ask ourselves if we are true to the images of faith we carry around with us. This bully was hardly Christian, yet wore his cross for all to see. Let us pray never to wind up in a similar situation when we betray the very faith we wear on our sleeves.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nim's Island

"Go forth from the comfort of your home and from the security of your father's house to a distant, faraway land that I will show you... there I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing to others." Genesis 12:1-2

Nim's Island is a classic story of adventure, challenging both its characters and its viewers to uproot themselves from their comfort zone and to chart a new course into a great unknown.

The story revolves around three major characters who must embark on their own journey, even if it means being alone and afraid of what comes next. Nim Rusoe (Abigail Breslin) is an eleven-year old girl raised by her father and scientist Jack (Gerard Butler) on a volcanic tropical island in the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific. The journey begins as father and daughter seperate for the longest they have ever been apart (a few days and nights) when Jack goes out into the deep blue sea in search of microscopic marine organisms. But when communication is cut off and a storm ravages Jack's boat, the adventure really begins.

Meanwhile on the other end of the Pacific, when Nim calls for help over email to her favorite author and literary hero "Alex" Rover (who is actually the incredibly agoraphobic Alexandria Rover, played by Jodie Foster), the author feels the call to adventure for the first time as well.

As the three try to find each other across thousands of miles of ocean, they learn what adventure truly means. Nim had always thought "adventure" was a fearless hero. Jack had always thought adventure was just being on a volcanic island with his daughter. Alexandria had always relegated adventure to her books instead of to herself.

To "ad venture" means, in Latin, to "go forth..." to go forth from our comfort zones into unchartered waters. I am reminded of Abram's call by God in the Scriptures: "Go forth from the comfort of your home and from the security of your father's house to a distant, faraway land that I will show you... there I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing to others." (Genesis 12:1-2)

Staying in our comfort zone may be comfortable, but it won't get us through the tough times in life that lay ahead. Christ called his disciples out of their comfort zones, out of their familiar surroundings, out of their own traditions and deep-rooted preferences into exciting, thrilling, but scary new worlds.

He called Peter out of the boat to walk with him on the water. He called his Twelve to walk with him through the Roman garrisons of Jerusalem. And he continues to call out to us to go out into where others will not walk.

Nim had to leave the comfort of her father to discover her own bravery. Jack had to leave the comfort of his island and research to discover his own ingenuity. And Alexandria had to leave her San Francisco home to discover she was actually the hero all along. If none of these characters had left their comfort zones, they may have never found their life's purpose.

Just the same, Abram left the security of his home country and discovered that he would be the father of three world religions. The disciples left the comfort of their fishing nets and families to discover that they would be the companions of the Son of God.

And what will happen and what will we discover when you and I leave our own comfort zones and step up to the call of adventure? Just imagine the possibilites that lie ahead of us...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


"For the love of money is the root of all evil." 1 Timothy 6:10

The movie 21 is the true story of several MIT students who use their expert math skills to beat the odds at blackjack tables in Las Vegas, based on the book Bringing Down the House.

While some of the names of characters have been changed, the premise is still the same: Ben Campbell, an unsuspecting and incredibly smart college student (Jim Sturgess) gets in over his head but learns his lesson soon enough to turn the tables on his teacher and mentor Miky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who has long before gotten over his head in this gambling scheme.

Ben is at first reluctant to try this, with his eyes focused on the prize of getting into Harvard and winning a robotics competition with his best friends. But boredom of his Boston lifestyle convinces Ben that a little gamble couldn't hurt too much.

At first, he succeeds at this tightrope walk. He keeps his cool, making just enough money to pay his $300,000 tuition to Harvard (a side note: this is a sad state of affairs that to be well educated is only the opportunity for the super rich or the super lucky with this astronomical cost of higher education dangling in front of us).

But the downfall happens when he loves the money more than his love of math or his dreams of higher education. Not only this, but he starts to love his rich self more than his previous life as an average, ordinary college kid. This sends him into a spiral that causes him to lose his cool, and eventually, lose all his money, his dreams, his friends, and his respectability.

It isn't money itself that St. Paul called the "root of all evil," but rather the "love of money" that gets this undistinguished honor. (cf. 1 Timothy 6:10)

Money is the means to an end: paying the bills, getting an education, feeding yourself, having a roof over your hear, enjoying life's little pleasures, donating to the poor and to charity, taking care of those you love... and moving closer toward your dreams. While I would love to live in a society like Star Trek where money doesn't exist anymore, we aren't quite there yet. So in the meantime, money helps us get to where we need to be.

But when we love money and the acquisition of money more than our life goals, dreams, and hopes, we ourselves can fall into a similar downward spiral. When our goals, dreams, and hopes become the acquisition of wealth, we also need to be careful.

Instead, when I find myself thinking like this and slipping into this trap, I like to spend some time refocusing on what's truly important to my life. I spend time thinking of and praying about my family, my friends, my work, my faith, and my dreams for myself and for the world. I also find it helpful to call up old friends and family, who care and love me for who I am inside, and talk with them. They keep me grounded, and I find any love of money starts to slip away.

That's not to say that we aren't encouraged to be professionally ambitious. We should work hard for a well-earned wage, and be responsible for how we spend it. But when the pursuit becomes more important than anything else, we need that time of refocus and renewal.

This is what young Ben Campbell did in the movie. He became truly rich when he reconnected with friends, family, his dreams, and his talents and gifts. His "love of money" was overcome by a love of people, a hope for the future, and a faith in genuine goodness of others.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Horton Hears a Who

"Blessed are those who do not see, yet still believe." John 20:29

The elephant Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) believes there is a whole world on a grain of sand, but his whole world doesn't seem to believe him.

Where do you find yourself in this story?

Are you like Horton who believes despite not being able to see what he believes to be there? Are you like the Mayor of Whoville (voiced by Steve Carrell) who prophetically challenges his peers who blindly believe what they cannot prove? Or are you like the majority of the animals of the forest or the Who's of Whoville, most of whom go about their daily routine without a care in the world (big or small) and who have lost their passions whatsoever?

Whether you are the ardent believer or the prophetic challenger, the movie Horton Hears a Who seems to be asking us to do one thing: be passionate and enthusiastic, and even dare to be different... and don't be like the forest or Whoville crowds, who are neither passionate or enthusiasitc.

The world needs believers and prophets. Sometimes they might sit on different sides of an argument, but they are both passionate about their world. And this film shows us that the story is complete when we can all work together (as the Mayor and Horton do).

When I was in college, I belonged to a student political group. I found myself having more fun debating and having conversations with students on the other end of the political spectrum or on the opposite side of an issue on campus. The students on campus who didn't care one way or another, who sat on the sidelines or who showed no passion, were the ones who I had a more difficult time working with.

In a sense, both passionate groups are strong believers.

Both believe that faith can move mountains and both are dedicated to making that faith a reality. And both might be guilty of having "blind faith" because they follow in the footsteps of the disciples that Jesus spoke of when speaking with "doubting" Thomas in the New Testament: "Blessed are those who do not see, yet still believe." (John 20:29)

When I find myself getting lukewarm in my faith life, I pray that God may infuse in me a passion and zeal for the gospel and the wisdom to know what to do with that enthusiasm.

Horton did not back down from his faith. The Mayor did not back down from his challenge to Whoville. And because they had this incredible enthusiasm, they remained true believers that their world would be saved and transformed.

In my work with young adults, I often tell people that belief is great, but passion and energy for that faith is even better. Don't be a lukewarm believer. Don't be a Who, but strive always to be Horton or the Mayor.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Other Bolyn Girl

Have far have we come since then?

On the way out of the movie, The Other Bolyn Girl, my wife and I had an interesting discussion.

I initially commented that I was glad that we had progressed as a society and no longer lived in a medieval mindset where women were bought and sold, used and abused like they were in this movie, set in Tudor England of the 1500s.

But my wife responded that we may not have come as far as I thought. She brought up the fact that, while it may not happen in the exact same way, many still look at marriage as a way to move ahead in society, that divorces are a dime a dozen, that people are still treated like objects, that it's not so much what you know but who you know, and that people are still tortured and even killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I have to confess. She was right.

Perhaps we fool ourselves into thinking that, as a human race, we have evolved, grown, and learned our lessons since the Dark Ages. And while some parts of our world have developed, are we committing the same silly sins as Henry VIII was guilty of five centuries ago.

In this film (as in history), Henry (Eric Bana) goes through love affairs and wives so he can either have his lustful passions fulfilled or produce a male heir to the throne of England. Into this mess step two young girls Mary and Anne Boylyn (played by Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, respectively) - both of whom are forced into the king's court by a father (Mark Rylance) who just wants more power and prestige for his family name.

Sadly, while centuries seperate us from these events, we still haven't learned much. In fact, there are so many issues that are brought up in The Other Bolyn Girl, from the horror of capital punishment to nasty sibling rivalty (and everything in between), that to blog about every one of them would be excessively long-winded.

For me, this movie spoke most loudly about our view of marriage.

Marriage is sacred, and love is central to its success. It should not be arranged, nor should we even hope that our sons or daughters might "marry up" and find a nice doctor or lawyer. Marriage should not be entered into lightly, and because of its permanence, there should be no thought to the concept of a "starter marriage," an increasingly popular term these days. And while children are very important, marriage of a man and a woman is - at its core - about a husband and wife and their bond of friendship, intimacy, and love.

Henry Tudor and Anne Bolyn, in this movie, did not understand this, and because of that, they spiraled into a miserable existance, torturing themselves and ultimately dying too early.

Even if we find ourselves stuck in this pattern, we can move ahead and learn our lessons. That is the power of grace. Mary Bolyn seems to have understood that, and by the movie's end, she has come around to a better image of marriage, love, and responsibility.

Through the centuries, marriage has been used and abused, and in many cases, still happens to this day. I believe God still has hope for us yet, though. God hopes that we might be the generations that turn the tide and make marriage meaningful as a society. Then we can be proud to say that we truly have evolved as a human race.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Vantage Point

What is your vantage point?

Technically speaking, there are only 23 minutes of action in the movie Vantage Point. But what makes this film unique is that it replays those 23 minutes over and over again from different perpectives, so we can better understand what happened.

Here is what we know from the start: the President of the United States (William Hurt) is shot while giving a major address on terrorism in Spain, after which a bomb explodes, injuring and killing many bystanders in the same plaza as the shooting.

After seeing it through the lens of a CNN camera and a news production crew (led by Sigourney Weaver), we see it again and again through the eyes of a secret service agent (Dennis Quaid), an American tourist with a video camera (Forest Whitaker), a Spanish cop (Eduardo Noriega), a rogue secret service agent (Matthew Fox), the terrorists (Said Taghmaoui, Edgar Ramirez, and Ayelet Zurer), and the President himself in a bizzare twist of fate.

By telling the story from the perspective of different characters, Vantage Point gives us the whole picture. If we just saw the movie from one vantage point, we would only get one side of this complicated story.

Life is like that. God blessed us with eyes to see, but if we are blind to other points of view, we might as well be blind altogether.

We live in a polarized world today, more so than ever before. As a people, we have also grown more fundementalist and immobile in our perspective. There are more and more people saying "We're right and they're wrong" with a cocksure attitude, with no room for discussion. Whether it's our politics, religion, sports, style, sexuality, nationality, or business decisions, it's a fatal flaw that is spreading rapidly.

At the end of each 23-minute vantage point in this movie, I was so certain of what happened, only to have my presumptions challenged and overturn in the next go-around.

Do we find ourselves doing that in our lives? Are we open to seeing more points of view other than our own? Do we see the world through another's eyes, just so we know where they are coming from? Are we willing and humble enough to admit that we don't have all the vantage points in this world (and only God truly knows it all)? Would we have the courage to say to someone else, "I might be wrong about this"?

These are the questions that I ask myself before I get too proud of the decisions or the beliefs I have in this world. These are good questions to keep asking myself. It is a goal I like to set for myself, so that I do not become immobile and fundementalist in my life.

God gave us each a vantage point to see the world. The question is what we will do with it. Will we use it to work with others to complete the puzzle of this world, or will we hoard it like a diamond or a million dollars, never sharing it with anyone and even become enslaved to it? Let us pray that we will each use our vantage point wisely and responsibily.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Spiritual Popcorn Oscars

Deep and dark... with glimmers of hope.

Yes, "deep and dark." Those are the spiritual themes of many of the Oscar nominees this year. With No Country for Old Men's death-incarnate Anton Chigrugh (Javier Bardem) and There Will Be Blood's incredibly sinister oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), plus the depressing nature of both of those movies and others, I am starting to wonder if anyone in Hollywood is happy anymore. Perhaps those writers who striked needed more than a good contract. Perhaps they just need a hug.

That said, my picks for The Spiritual Popcorn Oscars this year (meaning my choice for the most spiritually uplifting, inspiring, and moving movies) are NOT the ones that will probably win. Then again, Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock never won any Academy Awards, so even if the Spiritual Popcorn Oscars aren't chosen, at least they're in good company.

Best Picture & Best Direction: Juno
This wonderful film is probably among my top five for the whole year, and as for spiritually-powerful, this movie packs a great punch. This is a story of the sacredness of all life, from conception through every twist and turn of our teenage and adult lives. And on top of the great message, this is a fun film to watch (kudos to the director for balancing a very serious subject with lighthearted comedy). You can't help but smile, and for that reason alone it deserves a prize. Among the five Best Picture nominees, there is none better than Juno.

Best Actor: Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd)
In this dark movie, Johnny Depp plays the vengeful killer with such passion and energy. His performance convinces you, as you leave the theatre, that vengence is always the wrong choice. While the Sweeney Todd character is not an admirable chap, Depp gives us a good look at how sin and avoiding forgiveness can eat away at someone's soul until there's nothing left.

Best Actress: Ellen Page (Juno)
Ellen Page could have played Juno like any other typical teenager in the movies, but she honors real teens everywhere by playing her like a real person - a mix of pride, anger, temptation, fear, sadness, and love. She never overplays any of these but lets them all shine. For giving us such a wonderful glimpse into a pregnant teenager's soul, she deserves all the Oscars she wants.

Best Supporting Actor: Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)
In this film, Wilkinson plays a redeemed prophet, a rare character in the movies today. Here is a man who has walked the path of greed and corruption, but who has finally seen the light. He comes off like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or John the Baptist as a raving lunatic, but the truth has set him free. For this creative performance as a prophet of the modern age, he's my pick.

Art Direction: Sweeney Todd
This prize, to me, is how far a film has taken me into the soul of the movie through the set, camera work, artistic style, and overall ambiance. In no other film this year other than Sweeney Todd did I feel the scarred emotion and bleak soul of the titular character through the very "look" of the film. Even if Johnny Depp never said a word (or note), I would have known the sadness and angst of Sweeney Todd just by the feel of this dark film.

Visual Effects, Sound Editing & Sound Mixing: Transformers
In Transformers, I was overwhelmed by the rich sounds and sights that made me realize that we needed protection from some robots and that help had come through other electronic aliens. This is a movie about experiencing the power of one young man's journey as he becomes more than meets the eye, and the special effects, cool sounds, and overall sensory package here made that experience so much more powerful.

Cinematography & Original Score: Atonement
Atonement is a creative movie in which the plot, confusing at times because of the flashbacks and flash forwards, is able to move ahead thanks to the crisp cinematography and camera angles mixed with the punchy score with the undertone of a typewriter. The movie is about the atonement of one woman through her writing, and by mixing the typewriter sound into the score, we know that this is the direction we must all go for the final scenes. Image and sound is what makes this movie go from being a confusing romantic mystery to a lush Oscar-worthy film.

Best Adapted Screenplay: There Will Be Blood
Back when Upton Sinclair originally wrote Oil! (around the time of the turn of the century when he was also writing his more famous book, The Jungle), he was warning the people of the day to watch out for the rich and greedy oil tycoons who will capitalize this country to death. It was a fine social justice message then, and it is something we still haven't learned after a century of steamrolling by the corrupt oil and business leaders. For the sheer brilliance of unearthing a social justice work like this, it deserves an award for its prophetic call to action.

Best Original Screenplay: Michael Clayton
If it's not our oil and business dealings that need fixing (as in There Will Be Blood), then it's our legal system that needs a serious retooling. Michael Clayton is an original work that not only points out the problems (like Blood did), but it takes it up a notch - a far better outcome than most of the other films this year - by showing us how to fix it. Through a prophet and a reluctant honest lawyer, this film ends on a good note but still shows us that winning against evil is not a pretty business, and that it comes at great sacrifice for the few who take a stand. With such allusions to the themes of Scripture, it's a wonder Michael Clayton isn't in the adapted screenplay column. No matter, because it deserves the Oscar for its ethics and guts alone.

There are other races, but since I have not seen the majority of the films in these races, I chose not to make my selection there (or, as in the Best Supporting Actress race, I decided not to pick one because none of the nominees I saw were, in my opinion, really all that good). But there you have it. I am sure most of my choices will not be the actual winners, but I always have hope.

See you on the red carpet.

Monday, February 18, 2008

No Country for Old Men

Loving the Villian?

The most compelling thing about No Country for Old Men is its psychopathic serial killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who happens to be one of the scariest villians ever on the silver screen.

He is even scarier than Hannibal Lector, Darth Vader, and Norman Bates because this one has no redeeming value (whereas Lector had a wicked sense of humor; Vader had a sliver of a soul; and Bates ran an affordable hotel and had an good taxidermist operation going). Chigurh is not a James Bond villian, because he doesn't waste time talking his victims to death. No, this guy is mean and takes no prisoners in his neverending quest for God knows what.

That's the thing. We never really know what Chigruh's motives are. Does he want the money at the heart of this plot, or does he just enjoy killing for the thrill of it? After 122 minutes of film, I couldn't tell you much about this maniac. All I know, all anyone knows, is that he is a very scary man who kills without a second thought.

Perhaps we aren't supposed to know his motives, his past, or his future for that matter. If we knew more about him, the movie might try to get us to sympathize with this guy. He might appear human if they gave us more expostion. Instead, all we know is that he is a cold-hearted murderer with a really bad haircut.

This year, Javier Bardem has won countless awards for playing him. And there is a certain lesson in the acolades he has received for playing such a dark soul.

After seeing the blood and destruction caused by this psychopath, we wonder if anyone could stand being around him. I know I would run the other way if I came into the room with him.

But then I got to thinking about those awards.

I started to think that these awards are just like the grace and love God bestows on all of us. No matter how inhuman people may seem, God has the freedom to love whomever He pleases, like handing out celestial Oscars and Golden Globes to all people.

If we can believe that God loves even this most unlovable person, then we can never doubt that God loves us too, despite our inperfections and our mistakes.

Near the end of the film, Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tells his father that he feels God has pretty much given up on him - and he doesn't blame the Almighty all that much for doing so. His father dismisses this, and for good reason. Here the one good soul of the film doubts God cares about him.

If only Sherriff Bell could read this blog: If God can love the villian Anton Chigurh, he can love you, too. And he does.

PS: Even though God does love the least worthy, it does not excuse the actions committed by this character or any person who harms another human being. Love is a two-way street, and unless a person like Chigurh repents and seeks redemption, that love will forever be one way - which is not the best kind of love to go into the afterlife with. Up to that point, however, there's always an opportunity to repent and embrace the Gospel. The question is whether he, or any of us, will take that redeeming opportunity.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

Every relationship teaches us something.

In the delightful romantic comedy, Definitely, Maybe, we journey with young ten-year old Maya Hayes (Abigail Breslin) as she discovers the sordid love life of her father Will (Ryan Reynolds). It isn't the typical bedtime story, but it's all young Maya wants to talk about, thanks to a sex-ed class at her local elementary school.

Added to this mix is the fact that Will has just been served divorce papers from Maya's mother that same day, making the reminescence somewhat bittersweet for the two of them.

So Will tells Maya (and us) about his many relationships in life.

He begins with his college sweetheart "Emily" (Elizabeth Banks) and how they were quite the item until Will moved to New York to work on Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign and Emily cheated on him back in Madison, Wisconsin. The two eventually reunite seven years later.

Then he tells her about "Summer" (Rachel Weisz), a journalist with a adoration for older men (including Kevin Kline playing her thesis director and lover). Summer toys with Will and the two have their own relationship until she ruins his career and all his friendships by writing a tell-all piece about Will's boss, who is running for political office and then drops out of the race.

Finally, he shares his longtime affection (but never a real relationship) for "April" (Isla Fisher) who has kept in touch will Will since her days as a copy girl for Clinton's campaign office. The two share a deep friendship, but each holds a special place in their heart for each other even when they are in the midst of other relationships.

Through each relationship, Will learns something new - about life, about love, and about himself. With each passing affair and with every new person he meets, he grows and matures.

This is how life really is. We may think we have learned it all, but God gives us other people in our lives - from love affairs and family members to good friends and colleagues - to keep teaching us about life and about ourselves. I can think back to all the relationships I have had in life (in one form or another). Thanks to every one of those people that God placed before me (or continues to bless me with on my life's journey), I have grown and matured and become more of who God intended me to be.

Whether they know it or not, the people in our lives - past and present - have been teaching us something. The question remains: did we learn anything or did we let the lesson pass us by?

Every relationship is rich with meaning and purpose. Sometimes we need be like Will Hayes in this movie and take a night to reflect on how far we've come, and where we need to go next. It worked for him in this movie, and I think it just might work for us, too.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


Untraceable has got to be one of the scariest movies out today. Not because of any blood or violence (although there is some), but because our society today might easily allow the events of this movie to really happen.

This is a story of the hunt for an internet serial killer who kills his victims by allowing online visitors to do his "killing" for him. The more people who log onto his untraceable website to view a video of a person getting tortured to death, the quicker the victim dies. The movie shows us how FBI agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) seeks out this horrible viral perpatrator, even when the killer tries to fight back and makes it personal for her.

What is most disturbing strangely isn't the serial killer, but rather the thousands of voyeuristic web users who allowed it to happen.

Do you think that people wouldn't allow that to happen?

Sadly, it already does happen. Because the general public is addicted to reality television and celebrity gossip, so many lives are ruined. If the public wasn't willing to buy tabloid photos or log onto all-access websites, the paparazzi would have nothing to do. But it's because people are so obsessed with seeing every angle of the rich and famous that they are allowed to flourish.

The unfortunate underbelly to the internet age is our lazy ability to sit at our computers or television sets and watch the world go by in front of us. Are we that bored with our lives that we need to invade others? How responsible have we, as a society, been with the blessings of the virtual world?

As we sit and watch people getting humiliated on reality television or actors and actresses getting chased by obnoxious photographers, or even as we sit and watch YouTube videos of the strangest things, are we using the gift of the internet as we ought to? And does the laziness, lethargy, and voyeurism actually hurt people? It probably does.

In the 21st Century, we are called not only to be compassionate, loving, and aware of one another in person, but also in the virtual universe as well. We must ask ourselves how we can extend gospel values in how we deal with people through email, websites, and what we watch on our television. Let us pray that we will not be culprits in a crime in one way or another, and let us help others to avoid that fate as well.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Everything in moderation.

In the Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood, we follow two main characters, the nineteenth-century oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his nemesis, an Old West fire-and-brimstone preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), and their intertwined journey through life.

Plainview is the ultimate corrupt, yet powerful, businessman of his day. After discovering oil on a silver-prospecting venture in California, he builds an oil empire and thinks of nothing except grabbing more oil and more profits.

Sunday is a most fanatical, angst-driven, and judgemental evangelist. After his family strikes a less-than-fair deal with Plainview to sell their land, he uses the money to build a church for the community that works for the oil tycoon.

Plainview is annoyed by Sunday, and Sunday is equally angered by Plainview. Throughout the film, the two fuel each other's rage in their quest for temporal or spiritual victory. One might conclude that a blogger like myself - with an investment in faith and spirituality - would side with Eli Sunday in this battle, but this movie makes neither character worth a second thought.

What this film showed me was, no matter how successful a businessman might be or how inspired a clergyman might be, if they go to extremes, they betray their very cause.

Plainview was so focused on building himself up and defeating a simple country preacher that he lost all connection to those around him, especially his own son. Likewise, Sunday was so focused on building up his church and proclaiming victory over his secular rival that he, too, lost all connection with real people, including his own father. By caring more about their secular or spiritual ambitions, they lost sight of what really matters - their own families, friends, and anyone around them.

Extreme secularism (represented by Plainview) is no good. Extreme religiosity (represented by Sunday) is also no good. As in health, nutrition, and drinking habits, "everything in moderation."

If we are driven by success and career, sometimes we sacrifice what's truly valuable to us to achieve a promotion, a raise, or a pat on the back from our boss. As Christ said, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?" (Matt. 16:26). What really matters in life - no matter how great our career might be - is our relationships with one another.

In the same respect, if we are driven to be the holiest person imaginable, sometimes we end up shutting out others because we're too busy praying, doing the "religion thing," or because we have passed judgement upon those around us. Once again, even if we are focused on God, but ignore all of those God gave us in the process, are we really getting anywhere?

The middle path - where we walk with one foot in the secular experience and one foot in the spiritual experience - is the best path. The middle path is the path that allows us to tend to and nurture our relationships with others instead of shutting them out of our lives in favor of our temporal or divine ambitions.

There Will Be Blood is a warning about life's excess. Let us pray that we will avoid the extremes on both sides, and instead, walk the middle path.