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.