Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

"Act not without thought, and then you will have no regrets." Sirach 32:19

The newest movie version of Sherlock Holmes, staring Robert Downey Jr. in the title role (with Jude Law as his sidekick Dr. Watson), certainly ups the adreneline more than previous incarnations. But there is still one thing that hasn't changed in the reboot: Holmes' incredible ability to think before he acts.

There are two major times in this movie when the titular character is seen thinking before he acts (and my only major complaint about the movie is that I wish there were more): the first is during a rescue operation in the opening scenes of the film when Sherlock thinks about how he is going to get past a guard; the second is during a boxing match when Sherlock is trying to figure out how to defeat a much larger opponent in the boxing ring.

These may not be the best examples (since they involve violence), but they showcase the ability to think before taking action - a nice antidote for a reactionary world (inspired, ironically, by the action movie genre this film sits within).

The biblical sage Sirach tells readers of Hebrew Scriptures: "Act not without thought, and then you will have no regrets. Walk not down a path where you might be trapped, and don't let the same thing trip you twice... Pepare your words before you speak them and you will be listened to. Draw upon your training and then give your answer." (Sir. 32:19-20, 33:4)

When people get into arguments, it escalates when one side speaks before they think, often blurting out something with little evidence or support. A salesperson relies on these impulses, hoping the buyer won't give too much thought to the financial concerns. And still others rush headlong into major life choices without thinking thoroughly about the consequences.

The character of Sherlock Holmes is a great example of the thoughtful action hero, especially in this cinematic incarnation. Yes, he is a man of action and quick wit, but this is based on a lifetime of extensive thinking.

Few are immune to an impulsive nature - and sometimes it serves us well. When we know what we want, it's important to proactively pursue it. However, good decisions are rarely made in haste.

Consider the parable of the ten virgins (cf. Mt. 25:1-13). Five women acted impulsively and forgot the oil for their lamps, while other five thought ahead and prepared their oils for the long night ahead. When the time came for the guest of honor to arrive, the five without any oil left were out making up for their mistake and missed the wedding feast. Here Jesus tells us that even the smallest details must be thought out first before acting impulsively - otherwise we might miss something as important as the Reign of God in our midst.

In whatever we do, the sage Sirach and Jesus both challenge us to think first (or as the old carpenter's adage goes, "Measure twice, cut once").

So before making that next decision, whether big (career, house, relationships) or small (what to eat tonight, what to wear today, etc.), think first - for the consequences of any action might be more than we realized.

Elementary, my dear Watson...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


"Which of these characters, in your opinion, was the hero?"
Luke 10: 3:36

When you watch a movie like Avatar, with whom do you most identify?

More often than not, I have found that people connect with the character of the hero. In this particular case, it's Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic retired Marine in the year 2154 who embarks on a special mission to the alien world of Pandora (probably a moon of the planet Jupiter).

His is the story we follow from start to finish. Sully's mission is to telepathically control his "avatar" - a ten-foot tall blue-colored alien/human hybrid that has no brain activity unless it is given by the human controller - so that he can infiltrate and negotiate with the Na'vi aliens. On his first mission out into the Pandoran wilderness, however, Sully gets lost in the jungle.

This development in the story leads the hero to meet and connect with a local tribe of the Na'vi through a chance encounter with the beautiful tribal princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

Unfortunately, as we follow Sully's adventures in wonderland so intensely, very few would identify with the corporate and military leaders back at home base. Why unfortunately? Because unless we clothe ourselves with each of the major characters, we won't know which one really fits us at this particular moment.

The risk of always identifying with the hero is that a person can become self-righteous and justified in everything they do, without discerning or reflecting on the possibility of their own sinfulness, shortcomings, or misguided motives.

When speaking in parables, Jesus did much the same thing as the movies do for us. He laid out several characters - but didn't always let his audience identify with the hero.

For instance, in the familiar Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus challenged his listeners to see themselves as each of the characters - the victim, the robbers, the priest, the Temple assistant, and the Samaritan ("Which of these characters, in your opinion," Jesus asks, "was the hero?" Lk. 10:36). Of course he ends the lesson by imploring his disciples to be the Good Samaritan, but before doing so, it's good to see which character reflects us right now.

So using the movie Avatar, which character are you most like at this moment in your life?

Are you Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the compassionate yet stubborn teacher who longs for earlier days when she was able to make a difference without much interference?

Are you Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the efficient profit-seeking businessman whose primary objective is meeting his objective, regardless of personal cost?

Are you Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), the soldier who thinks twice about the inhumane and unethical acts she is asked to carry out.

Are you Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the brash and brazen military commander with an overly aggressive personality and a penchant for vengeance?

Are you Norm Spellman (Joel Moore), the dedicated worker who spent his life training and studying, only to be passed over by a co-worker like Sully with much less experience?

Are you Eytukan (Laz Alonso), the Na'vi tribal warrior who doesn't like outsiders like Sully, but over time begrudgingly accepts them into his inner circle?

As I looked at this list, I have been several of these characters at different times in my life. Yes, at first, I gravitated towards identifying with the hero character Sully - but I caught myself and wondered who else I might connect with, for better or worse. Seeing this bigger picture helped me to grow beyond my comfort zone and self-righteousness.

The character Sully had to ask himself the same thing. Who was he going to be? He could have been any of the people in the story (Col. Quaritch, Norm, Dr. Grace, Trudy, etc.), but he chose to follow the path of his hero, Neytiri. It wasn't an easy decision, just as the Good Samaritan is not necessarily the easiest character to identify with in Jesus' parable.

But before we can jump into the hero's shoes, we must first see where we are right now (even if it means putting ourselves into the role of the bad guy) - and how we can move to the greater calling that the character of the hero gives us.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Blind Side

The Difference Between Charity and Justice

When watching The Blind Side, the unlikely story of Michael Oher and the kindliness of Leigh Ann Tuohy (played respectively by Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock), it was heartwarming to see such Christian charity played out on the silver screen.

However, it saddened me that I couldn't emulate the charity since I am not rich and do not live in a big enough house like Leigh Ann Tuohy. I couldn't really do what she did since I don't have the means to carry out such charity.

And it might be easy for me to disassociate myself from the lead characters and their generosity had it all just been an act of Christian charity.

But The Blind Side is about so much more than charity. It's about social justice. What's the difference? Charity is when you impact another's life... justice is about letting othes impact you for life. Charity means giving to those in need, but justice means working hard so that those needs no longer exist.

At first, the Tuohy family acted out of good charity, perhaps to ease their own personal struggles with racism in the South (as Michael Oher is one of the only African Americans in his school). But over time, Michael has an impact on Leigh Ann that changes her life. Not only does she let the homeless kid stay longer than expected in her house, she goes deeper - visiting his old neighborhood "on the other side of town" and seeking out Michael's mother to see how she can help him and his plight.

At first it was charity, and then it grew into a march towards social justice.

It might be hard to identify with the rich Tuohy family and their charity (or it might suffice to look upon their actions from afar and admire their benevolence), but everyone - regardless of how rich or poor they are - can act with justice.

What issue or cause will impact you? What injustice will you stand against? What means so much to you that it will change your life - so that justice might be done for others?

Going to a soup kitchen or donating clothing to GoodWill are great charitable works - but justice asks us to go further. How do we work at eradicating poverty in our local area so that soup kitchens and GoodWill thrift stores are no longer necessary? To make that happen, it will require that our own lives will be changed, uprooted, and impacted.

Perhaps there are other issues that you feel passionately about. Whatever the cause might be, we are challenged to do more than charity. We are called to act with justice.

It might seem impossible - to affect so much change in the world. It can seem overwhelming, but The Blind Side shows us that one act of justice can go a long way (and that's all that God asks us to do). The Jewish Talmud offers this bit of advice:

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justice now. Love mercy now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you fee to abandon it."

Have a charitable heart, but have hands and feet ready to move for justice. Like Leigh Ann Tuohy, it will transform you and change you - and that's when God is at work.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Lk. 23:34

Invictus is an incredible story of reconciliation and the triumph of forgiveness.

The events of the story are based in real life: anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), freed from 27 years in prison, becomes the first democratically elected president of South Africa and in his first term in office, charts a new course for reconciliation between the white and black populations of his country - using rugby as the lynch pin.

Mandela looks to the Springboks, South Africa's national rugby team, to rally the nation together across racial lines. For years, while the team was loved by the white people, it was despised by the black population because it symbolized apartheid. But Mandela, who once hated the team, believes that mutual support of this sport might help build bridges towards national peace.

To do that, he takes time out of governing a country to inspire and motivate the team's captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), who in turn rallys his teammates to victory.

While the sports story is exciting to follow as the Springboks make their way to the 1995 World Cup, the more inspiring tale is the one between a president and his country After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela could have governed in anger and vengence; but instead, he looked at the white people of South Africa and said again the words of Christ on the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." (Lk. 23:24)

Mandela charted a course towards bold forgiveness, the kind Jesus spoke about in Scripture. For instance, scholars tells us that "when someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and give him the other" (Mt. 5:39) means that a blow to the right cheek is an ancient sign of agression against a lesser person; however when you offer the left cheek (causing the aggressor to fight you with an open hand, not the back of the hand) levels the playing field.

Mandela was doing just that. By rooting for a team that the white people of South Africa loved was a way to level the playing field - and a route to bold forgiveness. He then asked his fellow black countrymen to do the same: forgive the aggressor by loving what they love.

Invictus is a story of inspiration to anyone beaten down by oppression - personally and societally. "Forgiveness is good for the soul," says Morgan Freeman's Mandela. Forgiveness levels the playing field and takes the wind out of the sails of the oppressor.

Who in your life angers you? Who frustrates you at every opportunity? Do they make you feel insignificant or belittled by their words or actions?

The people who come to mind for you are the people that Mandela, in the spirit of Christ, are asking us to forgive, for they know not what they are doing. These are the people whom Jesus commands us to boldly turn the other cheek, level the playing field, and love unconditionally. This is a hard road, but that's why we have inspiring role models like Mandela to urge us on.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Twilight: New Moon

"A man had two sons..." Mt. 21:28

Above and beyond the teen craze and the unfolding vampire saga, at its core, the new movie Twilight: New Moon is simply a story of the struggle between two forces - and a young woman's journey navigating between them.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is the girl in the middle of all this drama (or one could also say she is the cause of all the drama). Bella is a high school student dating a vampire, one Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) - who then becomes a high school student dumped by a vampire. In her misery, she falls into a deeper relationship with an old friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner).

Without Edward around, Bella and Jacob grow closer - that is, until Jacob becomes a werewolf. This is defnitely not your typical teenage romance to be sure.

At this point, Bella is caught between her never-extinquished feelings for Edward and her growing affection for Jacob. Sadly for Jacob, when news arrives that Edward is about to kill himself because of misinformation about Bella's fate, the young girl races off to Italy to save her vampire lover... leaving her werewolf friend in the dust.

Aside from the unique details, this movie boils down to a competition between two forces: Edward and Jacob, the vampire and the werewolf. These two guys are comparable to the two sons that Jesus references in his parables throughout the New Testament. In one of those stories (cf. Mt. 21:28), a father asks his two sons to work in the vineyard - one says "yes" but abandons the work; the other says "no" but decides to do it anyway.

In my opinion, Jacob is the son that initially stays away, but decides to step up to the plate in the end. Edward is the one that abandons the work when times get tough (no matter what Edward's excuse is for leaving later in the film). Sadly, Bella's heart goes to the one who probably doesn't deserve it, while the good son, Jacob, gets left behind.

Which of the two sons in Jesus' parable are you? or which of the two guys in New Moon are you most like: Edward or Jacob? When we are asked to take a stand, do we give an empty show of support or do we reluctantly step in when it's the right thing to do?

There is much talk about this movie amongst fans - half are "Team Edward," rooting for Bella to stay with the vampire; half are "Team Jacob," hoping that Bella goes back to the werewolf. I suppose I would be "Team Jacob," but not for the reasons most of the young girls have for supporting this charater. My reason is that Jacob is the better of the two sons - a trusted friend and someone who will protect and defend the ones he loves.

I guess I will have to wait until the third movie to see where things go from here.