Monday, March 23, 2009


"But of that that day and hour (when heaven and earth shall pass away), no one knows." Matt. 24:36

Knowing, starring Nicolas Cage, is a movie rich in biblical imagery and allusion. But you don't realize it until the last act.

The movie begins as a crypic thriller - for no apparent reason, a young girl in 1959 begins franticly writing down a series of unrelated numbers and handing it to her teacher to put in a time capsule to be opened in fifty years. Jump ahead to 2009 when the capsule is unearthed and Nicholas Cage's son happens upon the page of numbers.

Out of curiosity one night, Cage notices that several numbers correspond to the dates and death tolls of major catastrophes over the past fifty years, with only three dates still in the future.

Knowing poses an interesting dialogue with Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, when he says "But of that day and hour (when heaven and earth shall pass away), no one knows." (Matt. 25:36). In Nicolas Cage's experience, he does know the day and the place of these tragic events - but for what good? Cage tries to stop a subway disaster in New York, but is powerless to do much. The film seems to say, even if we did know the day and the hour, what good would it do us anyway?

What Jesus tries to teach us is that we spend a lot of time worrying about tomorrow, without giving much thought to today. Not that future planning isn't good, but we can get wrapped up in anxiety that we miss the world in front of our eyes.

In another passage in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells us, "Can any of you, by worrying, add a single moment to your life?... Seek first the Reign of God today, and all will be given to you anyway." (Matt. 6:27,33)

SPOILER ALERT: In this movie, Cage eventually realizes that the final prediction on the paper of numbers is for the end of the world. However, there is hope - his son and a friend have been selected by angelic beings from another world (which look eerily similar to the beings in the first two chapters of the book of Ezekiel) to escape the earth before it is destroyed in flames (and to re=populate another earth-like planet as a new Adam and Eve). Just like Noah in the flood, hope exists on the other side of disaster.

This is the pascal mystery we must all face. We know that bad days, loss, saddness, and even death await us all one day. We cannot hide from that fact. But just like Jesus, there is always hope beyond the worst circumstances.

Many of us go through life dreading the inevitable - whether it be a horrible final exam, a crucial doctor visit, the end of a job, the passing of a friend, or our own death. Like Nicholas Cage, we might even dread the end of the world as we know it. But life always lies just beyond. And in the meantime, we must make the best of the life we have right now.

In our lives now, we must reconcile with others, give freely to those who ask, be compassionate to those around us, and be honorable in all our actions. We must be hopeful people, with a belief that every dying is just an avenue to new life. Knowing that is good enough.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


Cynicism and Superheroes: What Would Jesus Think?

Watchmen is the anti-superhero superhero movie.

The film is based on a 1986 graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore, which was intended to subvert and parody the comic book superhero genre - posing the question: What if the adventures of Superman and Batman actually happened in history?

The graphic novel, and now the movie, concludes that - while superheroes might have been a blessing in the 1940s and 1950s, fighting crime and Nazis honorably, by the 1960s, they would have become corrupt and selfish. If we had a Superman in the Vietnam War, he would have taken out the Viet Cong in one fell swoop, ended the war early, and given a much-loved Richard Nixon five terms in office - leading to a near-apocalyptic, depressing state of America that we see in the 1984 present day setting of Watchmen.

The superheroes in this movie are just send-ups of previous comic book heroes. Nite Owl II looks like a someone in a knock-off Batman costume (and Ozymandias' costume seems to be stolen from the set of Joel Schumacher's Batman movies with George Clooney and Val Kilmer). The main characters' roles in this movie are to ask whether our society's obsession with superheroes is misguided and silly.

But this is where Watchmen creator Alan Moore and Watchmen director Zach Snyder got it wrong.

The point of superheroes (and thus, superhero movies) is to inspire and guide us... to give us a moral compass and a thirst for social justice. Their stories are allegories of our world, and how each of us is called to be a hero. The problem is that audience sometimes get too wrapped up in the special effects and nuances of the plot rather than the core messages of courage, bravery, compassion, justice, and heroism.

That's how Watchmen misses the mark. It's not the superheroes themselves that need to be criticized for their fictional stories; rather, it's some of the people in the audience of superhero movies and comic books who don't understand the deeper meanings that need to be criticized for just not getting the point.

Watchmen has an obnoxiously cynical view of the world. For instance, the character that gets the most sympathy is Rorschach (wonderfully played by Jackie Earle Haley), and he's the one whose acts of heroism are violent, bloody, and vengeful; conversely, the movie makes the most laughable hero Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), who prefers a more compassionate route to justice. Compassion is silly, but vengence is admired - the movie seems to say. What a horrible message!

The Book of Ecclessiastes took a similar route in the Scriptures. The author Qoheleth even goes as far as saying "Don't be excessively just and good, and don't be too smart, lest you be ruined." (Eccl. 7:16). But cynicism does no one any good, even in the Scriptures.

To counter cynicism in his day, Jesus instructed his disciples to be excessively just and good, to be as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves. Jesus understood the value of heroism, so much so that he lived out the greatest hero story ever told - in his ministry, on the cross, and by the wonder of the empty grave.

Cynicism might get film critics excited about the edgy Watchmen, but it is not the route that I want to take. If you really want to see a movie about the reality of superheroism, go rent The Incredibles (2004), which poses the same initial questions as Watchmen, but ends with a nod to the gospel values that make heroism worth hearing about over and over, in comic books and summer blockbusters and in real life.

So no matter what this movie says, Jesus tells us to be a hero: be compassionate to the marginalized; love those who hate you; serve those who need protection; guide those who need your wisdom; and give yourself completely to one another. That's a story worth telling!