Friday, January 25, 2008


"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." Exodus 20:16

In Atonement, one young girl's false accusation changes the course of so many lives. 13-year old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) begins this film with a childhood crush on her English estate's hired hand Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), and when she suspects something sensual with Robbie and her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly), her imagination kicks into high gear.

This rapid-fire series of events leads to Briony getting even with her sister by falsely accusing Robbie of child molestation and rape, which leads him to a choice between prison or conscription into the British army (he choses military service). Cecilia, who has fallen in love with Robbie, decides to become a British army nurse, and they live unsatisfied lives - coming together only on brief occasions - and eventually this seperation and misery leads to their untimely deaths. Meanwhile, the actual perpetrator of the molestation and rape goes free and eventually marries the young girl whom he once abused.

One false accusion and lives are forever changed. Like another film this season, Sweeney Todd, this movie shows us how one action or choice can lead to so much more than anticipated.

The commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Ex. 20:16) is often one of the most glossed-over amongst the ten commandments of Scripture. We often sideline this particular command to a "by the way" status compared to murder and adultery. But Atonement shows us the pain that one simple act of false witness can cause not just for the one who commits the sin, but upon all that surround that person.

The film's title, Atonement, refers to the journey that Brioney takes for the rest of her life. She realized - perhaps too late - that her one selfish action caused so much pain and death, and she desperately wants to atone - to undo or at the very least, make up - for that sin.

And she tries, but dedicating the final novel of her life (revealed by the 85-year old Brioney, played by Vanessa Redgrave) to Robbie and Cecilia as a way to atone for what she did to them.

We are left to wonder: is this atonement too little, too late? That is not for us to judge. But what we can do is be more conscious of our actions and our words. Have we ever lied or given false witness against someone else for selfish reasons? Have we ever done something out of vengence or spite? Have we ever made a wrong decision that affected other people negatively?

Have we atoned for our actions? Have we asked forgiveness for those we've wronged? Or do we let it fester in our minds and let nothing be said to reconcile?

These are questions we are left with as the credits roll. Regardless of whether or not it was right or wrong what Brioney did, it causes us to think about what we have done - and if we have lied or hurt another out of spite, it causes us to think about how we have sought redemption and atonement.

Let us always remember to be truthful, to hold spite and vengence in check, and if we do sin, may we seek forgiveness and make right what once went wrong.

Friday, January 18, 2008


"I have come not just to live, but to give life - life to the fullest extent and with great abundance." (John 10:10)

Juno MacGruff (Ellen Page) is an offbeat, quirky young woman living a very grown-up life as a pregnant teenager in Juno, the Oscar-nominated movie titled after her.

What's even more quirky is that this is actually a heart-warming comedy that revolves around a very serious moral issue (teenage pregnancy). But that is why this movie succeeds so well. No matter how it's said, Juno loudly proclaims: choose life, choose love, and choose one another.

Consider one crucial scene in the journey of young Juno. Having abruptly decided to have an abortion, she wanders over to the clinic in town and runs into a friend of hers keeping vigil for life. Once this friend shouts to her, as she heads into the clinic doors, that the baby inside her "has fingernails," a new light dawns on Juno. In a few moments, she runs out the door, committed to having the baby no matter the consequences.

While teenage pregnancy is no laughing matter, it is wonderful to see this girl make the right choice for life. She chooses adoption as the course of action she needs to take, since she nor her family can afford to raise a child. This is a hard choice, and as the pregnancy continues, it gets even harder; but young Juno truly grows up by making them.

Another scene was incredibly touching: near the end of her term, she has a heart-to-heart with her father Mac (J.K. Simmons) about life and love. This is a dad who might disagree with what Juno has done (that is, getting pregnant, etc.), but loves his daughter unconditionally. In that heart-to-heart, the dad tells her what true love is all about. He tells her it's not a fairy tale, but it's honest-to-goodness hard work and that we love each other no matter what the odds.

This is an incredible message. When we talk about pro-life, often it comes down to abortion or anti-abortion. But Jesus did not just come just to live a life, but "so that you might have life - life to the fullest extent and with great abundance" (John 10:10). Life in abundance doesn't just mean not killing; life in abundance means that we must take care of life - in relationships, in mutality, in support for one another, in compassion and forgiveness for one another, and helping each other live life even when times are hard and things get really rough.

This movie shows us how that is possible. Because this film didn't end with Juno's decision not to have an abortion, it shows us that being pro-life means everything that happens from that moment onward too. Being pro-life means loving our families and supporting them (as her dad showed us). Being pro-life means loving another person no matter what they look like, how they treat us, or no matter what mistakes they may or we may have made (as her boyfriend Paulie Bleeker, played by Michael Cera, showed us). Being pro-life means being patient with each other and being a friend no matter what age or life situations might seperate us (as her stepmom Bren, played by Allison Janey, showed us).

So many characters show us what being pro-life is all about, and it wasn't all just about Juno's fantastic decision not to have an abortion. Once again, that is why Juno succeeds so well.

On another level, Juno is a movie about real people. Juno and Bleeker talk and act like typical teenagers often do, and it isn't always pleasant. Mac and Bren talk and act like many typical parents do, and it's not always fun to see (especially if you're a teenager). But they also take it up a notch. Not only is Juno and her parents and her friends real, they give us hope that teens and moms and dads can really, honestly love and support one another.

This world may be very real, but it needs films like Juno to give us something to aim towards in our defense and love of life.

Let it inspire us to support one another, love one another, and defend the life of one another.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

"The poor you will always have with you." Mt. 26:11

The film Charlie Wilson's War, which revolves around American covert operations into Afghanistan in the 1980s, presents us with a moral dilemma:

Either the United States could intervene in the bloody Afghan-Soviet war, which has caused countless deaths and injuries, by supplying the Afghans with weapons, or the United States could have avoided the weapons trade and remained on the sidelines. Either way, people will die. Is there a peaceful option? Is there a nonviolent option? To be honest, it seems hard to find a pacifist stance that would actually save lives.

So looking back at our recent history, did congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) do the right thing in orchestrating this secret war?

Because of it, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and stopped senseless killings there. But also because of it, the Afghans used the very weapons the United States gave them to train Al Quaeda and plan the attacks of September 11th (and the terrorism that has followed).

As I looked at this movie, I also wondered about the motives of Charlie Wilson in all this. Was he truly concerned about the plight of the Afghan locals, or was he trying to create a better legacy or divert attention from his shaddy life of drugs, prostitution, drinking, sexism, and abuse of power? And following up from that, in the end, did it really matter what his motives were?

Through all these murky waters of history and politics, a movie like Charlie Wilson's War reminds us that life's important decisions are never cut-and-dry, black-and-white scenarios. There are hardly ever two simple options, one labeled "right" and the other labeled "wrong."

In the Scriptures, Jesus and the disciples have their own debate with no clear or right answer. In responding to the woman with the alabaster jar who anoints Jesus' head at a home in Bethany, the disciples complain about the cost of the perfume and the plight of the poor. "The poor you will always have with you," Jesus responds to the moral dilemma (Mt. 26:11).

In other words, the woman with the alabaster jar could have sold it can given the money to the poor, but would that one act really eradicate poverty?

Taking that message to the film and to the moral dilemmas in our own lives, it seems that life is about navigating through the waters to exhaust all options and never to settle on the easiest, the quickest, or whatever plucks our heartstrings.

Perhaps Charlie Wilson didn't seek out all options, but rather did whatever would get him out of trouble quickest; perhaps when he visited Afghanistan and saw the suffering, he acted too rashly and without thought to all the consequences; perhaps he should have taken the case for ongoing recovery for the Afghans to the American people in the late 1980s and 1990s instead of keeping this covert operation secretive for so long.

In our lives, we are constantly faced with decisions. Realizing that all choices have good and bad points to them, we can't just throw up our hands and give up. But we do need to take a step back every now and then and think through what we are doing. Acting rashly, acting too quickly could end up destroying us in the end.

Above all of God's creation, the human race has the unique capacity to think. God has given us a brain to work through the tough choices in our lives. We could operate on instinct or the path of least resistance, but how does that make us any different than the animals?

At the end of the film, the CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells Wilson about an old Buddhist proverb where no decision is ever truly final, and that what works well one day could destroy you the next. Perhaps Charlie Wilson made a good choice. Perhaps not. Good and bad choices are not defined by the first outcome, for victory is fleeting.

Good choices are not defined by whether the outcome made everyone happy or whether we achieved some sort of victory.

What defines a "good choice" is whether we thought it through or not.

No matter what the immediate outcome - good or bad, if it was done without thought, without compassion, without a weighing of gospel values, then it was a bad choice.

God made us better than that, so let us pray that our choices in life will be made with thought, with compassion, and with an eye towards the Reign of God.