Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tron Legacy


"If you know me, then you also know my Father." John 14:7

This is not your father's Tron. This sequel to the 1982 sci-fi cult classic, Tron Legacy, truly has its feet in the past yet its eyes fixed on the present moment.

The film's story itself is a look at the relationship of one generation and the next - in the persons of Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and his father Kevin (Jeff Bridges, star of the original Tron), who has gone missing from the world for over twenty years. In the two decades since his dad's disappearance, Sam has grown up - financially rich yet unable to truly connect with anything or anyone in his life.

In short order, Sam is transported, like his father before him, into "the Grid," a neon-bright gaming universe within the mainframe of a computer program. Before being captured and destroyed by Clu, the ageless avatar of his dad who controls the digital population, Sam is rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and taken to his real (and aged) father, who reveals that he has been trapped in his own creation all these absent years.

Both movies remind us that our work and our own creations can be overwhelming, trapping us in an endless cycle, never sure when or how we'll be able to crawl out.

The first Tron film showed us that hope comes from our friends - in that instance, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), or "Tron" in the digital landscape, who helps his friend Kevin escape the Grid in 1982.

In Legacy, quite fittingly, that image of hope is literally passed from Kevin's friend Alan to Kevin's son Sam. Now it is family that comes to the rescue.

We can often get buried in our life's work. Our jobs, our studies, our home projects, our hobbies, and our worries can get the best of us, trapping us in our own "grid," endlessly cycling over and over again. Just when we feel we're about to crawl out, something else surfaces and keeps us in that destructive cycle.

We need to maintain good relationships to prevent that from happening too much. We need our friends, neighbors, and co-workers to reach out a helping hand - and save us from being swallowed by all our responsibilities. But Legacy reminds us that our families are also very important to that equation. Our parents, children, siblings, and extended family can be another life preserver when we're drowning in our work.

Jesus taught us these lessons in his relationship with the disciples (his friends) and with his mother Mary, his foster father Joseph, and his heavenly Father above (his family). He spoke often of the need to connect with these ever-important ties (even the Lord's Prayer begins with the word, "Abba," an affectionate title meaning "Daddy!").

His relationship with his earthly and heavenly family was so clear that, when his friends asked Jesus to show them God, Jesus responded with: "If you know me, then you will also know my Father... Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" (John 14:7,10)

Despite the long absence of twenty-plus years, the connection was so strong that Sam embodied the same spirit his dad had back in the early 1980s. Sam was a true reflection of his father's legacy, even more so than Kevin's digital copy Clu. This bond was the key to saving Kevin from once again being overwhelmed by his own work in the Grid - and this bond between family is what can potentially save any of us from our own entrapment.

What is this bond that Jesus had with his Father and his holy family on earth? This is a bond that asks us to spend quality time with our family - playing together, talking with each other, and praying with and for one another. Communication, prayer, and playfulness are essential ingredients in fusing the connections that God has put into place in our families.

As seen in the first frames of the new movie, Kevin and Sam had developed a strong connection as father and son - so strong, in fact, that years apart and generational differences could not break it when it mattered most.

What kind of relationship do we have with our families? How do we maintain those blood ties? How do we integrate our friends and families to be the cohesive support network we may need one day to save us from our own self-destruction (or for any situtation for that matter, postive or negative)? And what will be our legacy?

Let us pray, then, for our families - and for any rifts that might be present in those relationships. Let us pray for reconciliation and healing where necessary - and for laughter and joy, prayer and love, and honest and openness to strengthen the blood ties God gave us.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Black Swan


"Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matt. 5:48

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) wants to be absolutely perfect. From her childhood days, she has dreamed of being the perfect ballerina - and as the film begins, Nina is on the precipice of that dream as she competes for the role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

Trained from an early age by a demanding mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina has always believed that true success comes from perfecting every move, every turn, and every aspect of her on-stage performance; however, the director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) tells her that, in order to play the Queen's duality of the White Swan and the Black Swan, she must let loose and allow her darker side to emerge.

Black Swan, then, is the story of Nina's new obsession - to achieve a new kind of perfection, even if she has to battle and destroy her own self to get there.

Movie audiences may be surprised by the intensity and bitter competition that exists in such a graceful art form like ballet. This film highlights the backstage drama and internal angst that ballerinas can endure - and the lengths to which some dancers might go to get the part, impress the critics, or leave a legacy.

But the quest for perfection is not limited to ballet. More and more people, myself included, are driven (some might say "haunted") by a need to get everything just right - at work, at home, in relationships, or in life in general. These individuals, and again I am speaking from my own personal experience, are never satisfied with mediocrity and constantly strive towards something greater, something better, something truly incredible.

Even Jesus himself supposedly presented us with the challenge to achieve perfection when he declared in the Sermon on the Mount, "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:48).

In Black Swan, Nina sees the tragedy of imperfection in the persona's of her mother, who dropped out of ballet in order to raise her daughter, and the outgoing company lead Beth (Winona Ryder) who attempts suicide in a frustrated sense of humiliation. She also begins to ramp up her drive when another dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) seems to perfectly embody the role of the Black Swan.

With a fear of an imperfect future and the competition from Lily in front of her, Nina decides to go headlong into her quest to perfect the part, to become the best Swan Queen ever.

But again, going back to Jesus' notion of perfection in the Scriptures, we find that we are not actually called to be perfect by the world's standards or for personal glory. Teleioi, the Greek word Jesus uses in Matt. 5:48 (which we translate as "perfect"), can also mean a complete maturity. And in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, it comes at the exact dividing line between Jesus' social and personal instructions. It immediately follows the command to love everyone, including enemies, and immediately precedes the command to selflessly serve and give to others without reward.

So perfection by God's standards means an unmatched maturity of love and selfless giving, just as God is unrivaled in his compassion and generosity.

If there is something to be obsessed with in our lives, it is this. Perfection by the world's standards can never actually be achieved. We may never have the perfect job, bake the perfect cake, golf the perfect game, be a part of the perfect family, or become the perfect ballerina.

Nina thought she was achieving perfection in her life, but in reality, she struggled with a relationship with her mother, was distant and removed from her peers in the ballet company, and physically abused her own self. This is not the perfection God demands. Nina's is a tragic story of a young woman who took her drive for worldly perfection to the extreme.

This is a cautionary tale for all of us who drive ourselves mad in an attempt to make everything just right in certain areas - only to fall short of divine perfection in other areas, namely in our relationships with family, friends, and even our enemies, in our service to and selflessness in the world, in our care for our health and well-being, and in our connection and communication with the God who loves and cares for us, despite all our imperfections.

Let us pray, therefore, to be perfect in love, compassion, and service, and to be more accepting of our own imperfections in the other areas of our lives.


Postscript: In order to play the role of the Black Swan in the ballet, Nina was asked to let loose. Unfortunately she took this to the extreme. She fell quickly into darkness and immorality, The director was asking for balance - not to be engulfed 100% in both sides.

As Christians, we are also challenged to bring balance to our lives, to our world, and to our faith - to be, as Jesus once said, "in the world, but not of the world." It can be difficult to balance these two sides, but a faith founded on the Incarnation demands that we bring the Gospel into everyday life, even in its darkest aspects. And this requires that we step out into the world without being consumed by it.

There have been times when Christians have brought the darkness of the world back to the Church from which they were sent. In a quest for their own perfection and for a cleansing of the Church, they can bring hatred, bigotry, a lack of compassion, and a culture of fear into the sacredness of faith. Instead, like Nina, we are called to balance - to to "in the world, but not of the world." And taking a cue from the perfection Jesus demands in the Scriptures, we are to be the most loving, most compassionate, and most self-giving Christians we can be. Once we work towards that goal, we can truly be members of a faith founded in the Incarnation.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)


"Peace I leave you. My peace I give you, but not as the world gives it do I give it." (John 14:27)

Joyeux Noel (2005) is an Academy-Award-nominated movie (for best foreign language film) that tells the legendary story of the 1914 World War I Christmas Truce.

This is a different kind of Christmas movie - and one of only a few films that reminds us that, at this time of year, we are not just awaiting a child in a manger or Santa Claus, but the advent of the Prince of Peace.

The film chronicles the miracle on the battlefield by telling the story through the eyes of three lieutinants, one French, one German, and one Scottish, a compassionate Scottish priest, and a young couple from the Austrian opera now thrown into battle. In the bloody experience of World War I, these individuals make the bold move to silence their weapons for Christmas night.

In the quiet of the Western Front, though, a sound is heard that rivals all others - the gentle melodies of "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night") and "Adeste Fideles" ("O Come All Ye Faithful"), two familar Christmas songs known by the French, the Scottish, and the Germans alike. This musical exchange leads the troops out of their trenches - and into No Man's Land, that barren wasteland that seperates the soldiers.

The men, once enemies, now see each other face to face - and realize that all the hatred, prejudice, and divisiveness is foolish in the face of the "heavenly peace" sung about in song, written about in Scripture, and proclaimed by all who call themselves Christian.

The story of Joyeux Noel is so very necessary for the world today, still at war, still locked in bitterness, and still gravely polarized (perhaps even more so in this age than in any other). We are sharply divided on issues, politics, religion, and lifestyle more than on European nationalities, but the same challenge awaits us this Christmas as it did a century ago in World War I.

When Christ spoke of peace, he said "Peace I leave you. My peace I give you, but not as the world gives it do I give it." (John 14:27). The world gives peace many other names: tolerance at its best and segregation and dismissal at its worst. For some, like Jesus' own Jewish followers, it would be peace enough if those who disagreed with us would just go away.

Leave my country. Leave my church. Leave me alone. (or if not, convert to my way of seeing things. period.) That is the peace as the world gives it. But that is not the peace Jesus promises. That is not "a peace beyond all understanding," as St. Paul puts it (Phillipians 4:7).

The peace of Joyeux Noel, and of that 1914 Christmas Truce, is looking one's opponent in the eye and seeing them as a human being, not the sum total of their beliefs, traits, or sins. It is loving one's enemy more than one's self. That is a glimpse of the peace Christ promises us.

Sadly, the peace showcased in this movie was quickly snuffed out. Those preoccupied by their own shortsightedness are swift in their dismissal of this peace. Righteousness, nationalism, and victory are more important than the "peace beyond all understanding."

When Christ comes to us this Christmas, where will he find our hearts and minds? Will we be prophets of true peace and unconditional love of others, including those with whom we disagree? Or will we be consummed by the violence, bitterness, and anger that marks our world today? Let us pray that we may be like those soldiers in Joyeux Noel and work towards lasting peace, no matter the consequences.

Merry Christmas and a Blessed, Peaceful New Year!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The School Girl Strikes Back: A Heart-Warming Story

"Blessed are those who are persecuted..." Matt. 5:10

The following article ran in the Chicago Tribune this past week - and I thought it was good to repost it. As a Star Wars devotee and a movie lover, this story warms the heart - and hopefully gives strength to the "dark side" of bullying and marginalization, even among children:



The School Girl Strikes Back
November 19, 2010 Chicago Tribune Newspaper
By Duaa Eldeib, Tribune reporter

Even when she dressed up as a princess for Halloween, Katie opted for the one from Star Wars.

The force is definitely with this 7-year-old.

So when the first-grader told her mother she no longer wanted to take her beloved Star Wars water bottle — which incidentally matches her Star Wars backpack — to school, and instead asked to take a pink bottle, Carrie Goldman's mommy radar went off.

"It didn't make sense," the Evanston mom said.

After some coaxing, Katie told her mom what a few boys had said to her at lunch last week.

"They were saying that only boys like Star Wars. Girls don't," Katie said.

Then the bright-eyed, chess-playing, ballet-bowing little girl cried. It was enough to make any parent's heart break.

Her mother reminded her it was a OK to be different, to which Katie, who is adopted and the only one in her class who wears glasses, responded, "But it's not OK to be too different."

Goldman, an artist who blogs for ChicagoNow, posted the story online this week with the title "Anti-Bullying Starts in First Grade." It went viral. More than 8,000 people commented, Tweeted and Facebooked the story.

"It touched an innate goodness in people," said Goldman, 36. "A lot of people are reaching out because they see their kid in Katie."

Each night, Katie read a few of the encouraging comments (prescreened by her mother) aloud.

"You are awesome and cool for loving Star Wars!" one wrote. "Be true to who you are," said another. And a few shared variations of "I am totally jealous of your water bottle."

The PTA president sent out the post on the school's e-mail list, Goldman said, and the father of another first-grader sent his daughter to school clad in a Star Wars shirt. The girls sat together at lunch, and Katie squealed as she shared the news with her parents. It was her dad, Andrew, a high school math teacher, who got her hooked in the first place.

The next day, Katie swapped out the pink bottle for her trusted Star Wars one.

By Friday she was back to her Katie self, triumphantly declaring, "I'm wearing a Star Wars shirt right now."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part 1



"My soul is sorrowful, even unto death. Stay here and keep watch." Mark 14:34

When filmmakers decided to break J. K. Rowling’s seventh tome, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two parts – there was much uproar amongst fans and Potter purists who felt this was a very poor decision. Even outsiders were skeptical that the fissure of the book’s storyline was simply a case of financial greed on the part of filmmakers and would ultimately tarnish the experience.

Now after seeing the first installment of this two-part experience, I am starting to agree with those naysayers.

The end of Deathly Hallows, Part 1 leaves you hanging. It’s not the cleanest cut in a story I’ve ever seen - and perhaps it will make more sense next summer when the second part is finally released. But at this moment, the inconclusive nature of the movie leaves me uneasy.

By cleaving the story in half, this film is able to focus on one thing very well. In this case, it’s a survival travelogue of our three central characters, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint).

Having distanced themselves from their classmates at Hogwarts and suspicious of the government, the trio hide in whatever ways they can: by disguising themselves (as seven Harry Potters to confuse Death Eaters), by escaping to the Weasley’s homestead, and after those are foiled, by apparating into forests, towns, and even downtown Muggle London – wherever they can feel safe… for a little while.

On this perilous journey, Harry, Hermione, and Ron try to figure out how to find and destroy “horcruxes,” items of special significance in which are held pieces of the soul of the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). But as they get closer to figuring things out, they also become more visible to the enemy.

Not only does this hiding and seeking wear down the trio, it also causes tension between them. As they get closer to defeating darkness, they are also led deeper into temptation, jealousy, and anger. The tight friendship they share begins to unravel just when they need each other the most.

Good relationships in life run that risk. The closer people get, the more vulnerable and exposed they are to each other. As we grow closer to love and holiness, the stronger the darkness wants to creep in.

In the New Testament, Jesus has his own close-knit group of friends: Peter, James, and John – who witnessed the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mk. 5:37) and the Transfiguration on the mountain (Mk. 9:2). As the movement began to unravel in the final days, Jesus drew them close to his side again in the Garden of Gethsemane, confessing privately to this trio: “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death. Remain here and keep watch.” (Mk. 14:34) Then only a stone’s throw away, Jesus experiences the pain of temptation (Mk. 14:35-36) and anger at the drowsiness of the disciples (Mk. 14:37-38,40).

Our own closest friendships and our most intimate relationships can be wonderful and joyous, but like Harry, Ron, and Hermione – and Jesus, Peter, James, and John – they can also be closest to our biggest struggles. Because of that, we must take great care of those people and be ever mindful of our experiences, conversations, and reactions to them.

In Deathly Hallows, as in previous Potter films, the greatest “magic” is the love, support, and sacrifice of friends. In a way, Harry never defeats his foes due to any spells or incantations, just like our own troubles won’t go away so easily. Instead, in each movie, it’s the people and their relationships with Harry that ultimately save the day.

In our own Muggle world, the keys to our survival and success are the connections of the people we have around us. Our own future depends on the health and fulfillment of the bonds we have with our friends, family, and loved ones. When those connections are weak, so are we.

Perhaps the abrupt ending to Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is a mirror to our own lives. Unlike half-hour sitcoms or many two-hour movies, life’s problems don’t get solved so quickly. And just when we close the door to one situation, another seems to open. Most of life is lived in the in-between phase, just like audiences will be from winter to summer between Parts 1 and 2 of this seventh Potter film.

So what are we to do? Taking a cue from the movie itself, it is best to survive the great in-between with the company of other people, especially those most dear to us. Alone, we get caught in our thoughts and temptations – but with others, we grow stronger and better.

In his own great in-between phase in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus needed to be surrounded by his cherished companions, Peter, James, and John. While they may irritate him at times (look to Simon Peter’s encounters with the Lord for a few examples of this), they were the ones he loved so much – and they were the ones who continued the movement beyond the cross to come.

With months to go before the final installment – and with the finality of our life’s challenges somewhere in the distance – why not experience this in-between time with those God has given to journey with us? It’s what Jesus would do.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Unstoppable


"The invaders charge. They climb barricades. Nothing stops them... undaunted and fearless, unswerving, unstoppable." Joel 2:7

In Unstoppable, the people of rural Pennslyvania come face to face with a runaway train carrying toxic chemicals, speeding along an uncertain track towards certain disaster. And like the train itself, with each successive frame of film, the movie rumbles on faster and faster.

The circumstances of why the train gets on its way are secondary to the fact that no one seems to be able to stop it.

Engineer Dewey (Ethan Suplee) can't catch up to it on foot. Allegheny & West Virginia Railroad (AWVR) executive Michael Galvin (Kevin Dunn) cannot solve the situation with orders barked far away on a conference call. And yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) is buried under the tension and frustration that her options are running out quickly.

And while veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and rookie Will Colson (Chris Pine) are going about their daily transport on the rail line, some of the craziest ideas come to them - and they make the conscious decision to race after the runaway and put a stop to the mess once and for all.

In a sense, then, Frank and Will become the unstoppable force of the movie - undeterred by bosses trying to fire them and the odds stacked up against their efforts.

While we are not chasing 75 mile/hour locamotives in our lives, it certainly feels like we are constantly chasing life's struggles, trying to catch up and take control of whatever situation we're dealing with. But the question that remains for us is: who are we most like at those times?

Do we give up like Dewey, not confident we have what we need to take control at the very beginning? Or are we the person who doesn't like to get their hands dirty, preferring to sweep troubles under the rug and blame others? Perhaps we're like Connie, overwhelmed and feeling helpless, looking for an answer - any answer - that might put things back to normal?

These are common experiences when we face our problems, like the swarms of locusts and empires spoken of by the prophet Joel: "The invaders charge. They climb barricades. Nothing stops them... Undaunted and fearless, unswerving, unstoppable." (2:7, Message translation) The prophets warned the people that their enemies would come at them without reservation - and that God would judge them not on their defenses but on who they would become in reaction to the dangers lurking in the distance.

Our troubles often feel "undaunted and fearless, unswerving, unstoppable," but we are called to be more like Frank and Will than the others in this story.

These two are examples of coming together despite their generational and cultural differences. They are people who trust in their experience, passions, and giftedness - and believe in themselves despite conventional wisdom. They put their sights on one singular and selfless goal: to save those they may not even know and, if necessary, lay down their lives so that these others might live.

We, too, are called to emulate their spirit - to be unstoppable agents of the gospel, to reconcile with those different from us, to trust in God and our own blessedness, and to set our eyes fixed on the selfless goal of laying down our lives for another. This is what the prophets like Joel called his audiences to be in the face of the oncoming storm - and this is what Jesus challenges each of us if we claim to follow him.

Then, we pray, we may all be truly unstoppable too.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Hereafter


"I loathe my life. I give myself to complaint. I speak from the bitterness of my soul... So leave me alone that I may recover awhile before I go to that place from which we will never return: the land of darkness and shadow, the black, distorted land where darkness is the only light." Job 10:1,20-22

How often do you think about death and the afterlife? For some, it's forgettable compared to the problems of this life. For others, it's a passing curiosity. For a few, it's an unhealthy obsession. And for people like Hereafter's George Lonegan (Matt Damon), thoughts of life beyond death are an albotross around the neck.

George Lonegan desperately wants to rid himself of his psychic "gift" to communicate with the dead - for it rarely ends well for others and it constantly kicks up the dust of death for him. In Hereafter, George tries to live a "normal" life as best he can, but the economy and others' curiosity cause him to revisit his melancholy existance over and over again.

On the other side of the pond, a London schoolboy Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren) loses his brother in a horrible traffic accident - and goes into a morbid obsession with finding answers to this disaster. He rejects his family and society in order to find someone who can show him a way to understand what happened.

The concept of the "hereafter" is one that almost all major religions have spoken about - and serves as the common link between every creature that ever lived on the planet. One day, we will each get a firsthand experience of a life beyond this one.

Hereafter begs the question: Just how much time should we really spend thinking about it?

George is surrounded by its implications - but wants nothing more than to escape its grasp. Marcus was once blissfully unaware of such questions - but now wants nothing more than answers. But perhaps the real course is somewhere in the middle.

In the Scriptures, the character Job is overcome by experiences of death - his children are killed, his health is failing, and his property and livelihood are destroyed. He bemoans: "I loathe my life. I give myself to complaint. I speak from the bitterness of my soul..." (Job 10:1) Like George, he wants these somber thoughts to pass him by: "So leave me alone that I might recover awhile before I go to that place from which we will never return: the land of darkness and shadow, the black distorted land where darkness is the only light." (Job 10:20-22)

There are times in our own lives when death surrounds us. Sometimes after a funeral, we cannot stop but think of death and darkness. When we watch the war, terror, and devestation on the news, thoughts of emptiness and shadow creep into our subconscious. And when our lives seem routine, boring, or sluggish, we wonder if this is all life is meant to be.

Our faith in the hereafter is a simple one, yet our questions and curiosities complicate it. Jesus didn't spend countless passages talking about the afterlife with the disciples; instead, we have a few passages about "many dwelling places" and that Jesus would "prepare a place for us" (John 14:1-2) or a final judgment in the next world based on our compassion and social justice in this one (Matt. 25:31-46).

So what are we to do? To blissfully ignore it or to whole-heartedly obsess over it? Neither. We are called to take a middle road like Jesus.

Spending our daily hours with thoughts of the afterlife, good or bad, means we don't get a chance to appreciate and live our lives to the fullest right now. If we're constantly worried about if we're going to get to heaven, we just might miss the chance to do something in this life that would guarentee our entry there (see that Mat. 25:31-46 passage for details).

On the other hand, if we never acknowledge an existance bigger than this one, how small our world will be! If we alone are the sum total of everything in our lives, how do we explain the magnificence of creation?

So instead we are called to a middle path - like the one taken by French journalist Marie (Cecile de France) who - once caught in a tsunami and momentarily killed before being awoken by villagers trying to save her life - now seeks to live in both worlds. The book she writes on her encounter with the hereafter is a source of comfort to both Marcus and George - and reminds them of the middle path.

Perhaps God gave us two eyes for this simple reason: to keep one looking to the present life - its everyday experiences and relationships - and to keep the other fixed on the next life - and its promises of eternal joy and happiness.

Let us pray to walk the middle road until the time when that road reaches the heavens.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Red


"Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions." Joel 3:1

Despite the heavy violence in this film, what was most captivating on my trip to the movies to see Red, staring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren, was the audience sitting around me that evening.

Unlike the predominantly young crowds filing into Jackass 3D next door, the people who occupied these seats were an intergenerational collage. There were teens and young adults, as well as middle aged adults and elderly couples. And as the movie ended and we spilled out into the lobby, it was a welcome sight to see groups of folks in their 50s and 60s laughing and carrying on while 17 year olds were racing past them, late for Johnny Knoxville's Jackass film.

What brought these otherwise disparate generations together? It was an 100+ minute spy caper and action adventure romp. But instead of young guns stealing the show, Red featured a group of retired CIA black ops agents (deemed code "RED" - meaning "retired, extremely dangerous") defending their lives and their country once again.

In this exciting story, Willis plays the aptly named leader of the group, Frank Moses - who can escape death miraculously (and with great wit and planning too). Hoping for a quiet retirement in the arms of the youthful, 46-year old Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), Moses and his former teammates (and anyone connected to him, including a bewildered Sarah) is unexpectedly targeted for extermination. Moses must use all his old tricks to defend his life and save those closest to him.

What follows is the enjoyable reunion with a fun cast of characters: the terminally ill yet still randy Joe (Freeman), the paranoid yet often accurate eccentric Marvin (John Malkovich), the lovesick former Soviet operative Ivan (Brian Cox), the now rich and powerful mastermind Alexander (Richard Dreyfuss), and the classy gun-shootin' dame Victoria (Mirren).

Together, these retirees outsmart and outmaneuver those who are decades younger. With their wisdom, experience, and skills, they make youthful CIA agents pale in comparison.

In an era today that not only respects youth, but sometimes worships it at the expense of older generations, Red is an excellent counterweight. It causes us to reconsider the values of earlier ages when years of wisdom were the highest value. It leads us to the Scriptures, written in a time when the elders were given great authority - and respect was demanded for parents, family, and the mentors who traveled the road before us.

Seeing Red, and most especially seeing the mix of people who came to see Red, I am reminded of the prophets Isaiah and Joel whose visions of the future were intergenerational.

When looking ahead at the end of the Babylonian exile, Isaiah proclaims God's hope "to create new heavens and a new earth... No longer shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not round out his full lifetime; he dies a mere youth who reaches but a hundred years and he who fails of a hundred shall be accursed." (Isaiah 65:17a,20)

And the prophet Joel foresees a time when "your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions." (Joel 3:1,2a)

The brightest future, according to these prophets, is one where the young and the old are regarded equally, where both are given their due credit, and where both are honored and respected. Sociologists tell us that generations are widely different from each other - and sometimes one age group develops its habits out of a violent reaction to the previous one. These innate trends and our penchant for being divisive can lead to generational isolation or even conflict. In the 20th and 21st centuries, we are in danger of obsessing too much over youth that we forget about the greatness of our elders.

So, from time to time, we need to course-correct - to be more in line with the visions of Isaiah and Joel and the Reign of God ushered in by Jesus, where old and young alike stand side-by-side before God and all creation. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that being younger does not mean being better (or vice versa).

And a film like Red is a chance for us to realize that action heroes aren't always teen or 20-something heartthrobs (and aren't always men either... thank you very much Ms. Mirren).

Let us pray to be open to generations other than our own - and to work in partnership with those older and younger than us for the building up of God's kingdom on earth.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Social Network


"A man of many companions may come to ruin, but a true friend is more loyal than a brother." Prov. 18:24

The Social Network is to the 2000s what Casablanca was to the 1940s, Rebel Without a Cause was to the 1950s, and Wall Street was to the 1980s. It is a film that tells a specific story while defining the very context of the age in which it sits.

This movie is a critical look at the founding of Facebook through the lens of the various lawsuits filed against entrepreneur Mark Zucherberg (played here by Jesse Eisenberg) during this rise to become the youngest billionaire ever. On that quick journey to the top, the film shows us the other men and women he rankled and angered to get to where he is today.

The irony here is that, for a guy who created the world's foremost social networking site, he certainly had a way of de-friending a lot of people.

Just as Casablanca challenged viewers to choose a side in World War II and Wall Street opened our eyes to the excess of lavish 80s lifestyles and unchecked greed, The Social Network warns us about the incredible responsibility of being instantly globally connected - all the while re-discovering the real meaning of our relationships in life.

Of all the treads laid out in this movie, the one that really struck me was the relationship between Zucherberg and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). It was a friendship that viewers are left to wonder: was it ever real, at least from Zucherberg's perspective? Or did the facebook founder just use Saverin for his grand scheme to make it to the top? Was it a long con stemming from jealousy - or was Saverin just gullible to the reality unfolding around him?

Regardless of the 500 million+ "friends" that are now connected to facebook, it is the story of one friendship that really fascinates me about the origins of a global phenomenon.

In Proverbs, it is prophetically written: "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but a true friend is more loyal than a brother." (Prov. 18:24) The fact that their relationship comes to a lawsuit is the great tragedy of this story. It is also a warning for all of us engaged in a socially networked world.

God have given us many relationships in our lives - family, friends, neighbors, teammates, classmates, and co-workers. With sites like facebook, we can connect with all them at any hour of the day. We can share news, comment on others' lives, post our own photos and videos, follow up with a chance encounter, and catch up with lost friends. These are wonderful ways to build and maintain a sense of community in a busy, time-strapped, and increasingly global landscape.

However, with all these new possibilities, we can easily lose sight of the wonderful joy of true friendship. If a friend's struggle or excitement today become just one of hundreds of wall posts that we scroll past on the way to the next task, what does that mean for our relationship? And does this casual, nonchalant connection spill over into our in-person encounters, making our conversations as stale and distant as a wall posting?

To borrow a line from SpiderMan, "with great power comes great responsibility." Facebook is a wonderful tool, but are we still practicing compassion, concern, and investment for our friendships that exist there? Or have we become lazy and disconnected?

Pope Benedict XVI has recently commented and applauded the opportunities afforded to us through the internet and social networking, saying "It is in and through our friendships that we grow and develop as humans. For this reason, true friendship has always been seen as one of the greatest goods any human person can experience." His message notes that these technologies should be put at the service of human rights, solidarity, and respect for the dignity of each other.

If the thrill of being connected to so many people were the end goal of our time online, that would truly be a sad existence. Instead, the possibilities that now emerge from facebook and other social networking sites should challenge us to deepen rather than shallow our relationships.

Facebook can allow us to go more in-depth into our friends' lives, giving us greater insight into the joys and sorrows that our friends and family are facing. Knowing this gives us an opportunity to get to know those people better - and to be there for one another in both good times and bad.

This was the challenge that faced Zucherberg in this film. He was so caught up on the possibilities of global networking that he lost sight of the genuine need for thoughtful, compassionate, and loving connectivity that his very creation now allowed.

Let us pray not to be caught in that same trap. If we have friends online, instead of ditching them because they're just online connections, why not deeper those relationships? If we have a habit of scrolling through status updates like items in a grocery store, why not stop and be the face of Christ to another person, even if just for a moment?

In that instant, we are able to truly live out the command of Jesus to "love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12) in an incredibly new and digital way.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Going the Distance


"Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?... You hypocrite!" Matt. 7:3,5a

Going the Distance is a very modern romantic comedy staring Drew Barrymore and Justin Long as Erin and Garrett, two young thirty-somethings who fall for each other and then struggle to maintain a long-distance relationship between San Francisco and New York. Almost too modern.

After seeing the film, I struggled with how messy it was: the excessive drinking, some unnecessary drug use, the frequency of sex and sexual references, the bad and selfish decisions made by the characters, and an ending that left me unsettled. This was not the cute romantic comedy that the previews had advertised - and this disconnect irked me.

But life is messy. While some movies might whisk us away to a more idealized world, there are others like Going the Distance that paint a more down-to-earth picture of society today.

What occurred to me in my reflection on the film was that these are the people and the lives that I have been called to minister and pastorally care for. The story of Erin and Garrett is one which exemplifies the situation of many young adults in the twenty-first century: the difficulty of finding a job, the economic crunch that prevents high spending, the unchecked use of alcohol and drugs, sex as the first step of a relationship (not the last), and the prominence of social networking as a way to build relationships.

Much of the research that has been done on emerging adult culture points to the rise of these situations (see Christian Smith's book, Souls in Transition, or Robert Wuthnow's study, After the Baby Boomers, or check out the essays at http://www.changingsea.org/).

This movie challenged me to see the people beyond the messiness - and perhaps it might be a chance for all of us to look into the eyes of our fellow human beings instead of being blinded by their life choices and our reaction to them.

Jesus made this point when he declared, "Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove that splinter from your eye' while the wooden beam is still in your own? You hypocrite! Remove the beam from your eye first - and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from someone else." (Matt. 7:3-5)

Instead of judging Erin and Garrett (or for that matter, any real life young adults going through similar circumstances), I need to ask myself: How can I care for and love these men and women instead of quickly condemning them? What unhealthy patterns do I need to realign before I am able to minister to them with humility and love?

And looking outward towards these young adults, what can I do to help those suffering from job loss and economic hardship? Studies are showing that those in their 20s and 30s are being hardest hit from the current recession, more than any other age group. What are we, as Christian disciples, doing to reach out to them? If we are doing nothing, is it any wonder, then, that they resort to the bad habits shown in this film? Is it any surprise that bad decisions are made without any support and guidance that spiritual leaders can otherwise provide?

While some might condemn the rise of technology, this movie showed how social networking helped to keep alive a relationship built on a weak foundation. Online communication allowed Erin and Garrett to go beyond the superficial. Sometimes things got messy (phone sex or misinterpreted conversations), but the dialogue from coast to coast also helped them to discover a real person instead of just a convenient sexual liaison.

Be warned: Going the Distance is not for everyone and it might upset some sensibilities. It is not necessarily the clean, cute comedy one might hope to get from a movie staring Barrymore and Long. But for me, it was a reminder of the reality to which I have been called to serve - and a wake-up call to put aside hypocrisy and look into the struggles and issues that lie deeper than the vices that upset my worldview.

Pray for me that I may continue to be aware of my rush to judgment - and pray for all of us that we may work first on the wooden beam in our own eyes so we can see more clearly the messy yet wonderful world God has placed before us.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Eat Pray Love


"Give us this day our daily bread..." Matt. 6:111

Eat Pray Love is a two-hour-plus travelogue of the real-life author of the book that inspired the film, Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts), a frustrated New York author experiencing a mid-life crisis.

At the beginning of the film, Liz decides, almost on a whim, that she no longer wants to be married to her husband Steven (Billy Crudup); after quickly jumping into the arms of a young actor (James Franco), she grows frustrated with that experience and makes plans to take a year-long retreat around the world. The rest of the movie is a three-part pilgrimage as she explores and then indulges in Rome, India, and Bali, respectively, to eat, pray, and love.

While I have some serious issues with some of Liz's actions (especially her selfish divorce - and the quick extramartial affair she immediately clings to), what is incredibly telling is her desire for a sabbatical - the need to get away from it all.

Liz seems to humbly realize that the problems in her life might just be her own fault. She also knows that continuing along the same path in New York will only add to her angst and slow her progress towards achieving illumination. So, with this in mind, she plunges into an international retreat experience.

In Rome, she learns what family and friendship really means. In India, she learns to face her fears and her failings head on. And in Bali, she learns the value of simple living and good work.

Unfortunately, her on-screen journey is not one that leaves audiences with much hope. Few, if any, moviegoers can abandon their lives for a whole year while they spend excessive amounts of cash on gelato and spaghetti in Rome or a picturesque villa in the beautiful gardens of Bali. In fact, in today's economic climate, even a week-long retreat within their own country can nearly bankrupt a person.

But the fact remains for Liz and for each one of us: we need to humbly admit that we need to take the time to re-center, to re-connect, and to re-treat. So how do we do it - and not have to take twelve months overseas to make it happen?

One suggestion is to find a quiet moment each and every day. In the gospels, we read: "Rising very early before dawn, Jesus left and went of to deserted place, where he prayed." (Mark 1:35) Even the Lord, who seemed to have little time for a sabbatical like Liz, found a few moments each day to re-charge his batteries. Those quite moments, though, are usually short-lived, even for Jesus (see the next verse, 1:36 in Mark's Gospel: "Simon and those who were with him pursued him and finally on finding him said, 'Everyone is looking for you.'")

Another suggestion would be to connect with a spiritual director or coach - who can walk with us on our life's journey. Just as Liz sought out a guru in India and a medicine man in Bali, we might also consider finding someone with whom we can share our story and seek guidance. One of the most frustrating things that Liz and many of us experience is the concern that we will have to solve all of life's problems alone. Having a spiritual guide and coach, however, reminds us that we walk together on the paths God sets out for us.

Still another way to "reboot" ourselves is by making plans to participate in a retreat. This sabbatical can be for a day, a weekend, a week, or more - and should be carefully planned so that it fits into a budget or can be done in concordance with one's job, vacation time, and family. For some, this will be an organized retreat sponsored by a religious organization; for others, a self-guided silent retreat may be just the thing. Regardless, a retreat experience can give us an opportunity to take God up on his offer, "Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord... That is why the Lord has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy" (Ex. 20:8-10, 11) Find the time to create a sabbath - to pray, to honor, and to reconnect with the God who made us.

Even though Liz's journey may not be the best path to take, it does remind us of three of the things we need to constantly continue to work on in our lives: eat, pray, and love.

We must eat healthy and be grateful for "our daily bread" (Mt. 6:11) and all that God provides us. Too often, we devour our food without thanking God or others for providing it to us - and without remembering the poor and hungry who go without that food in a regular basis.

We must pray without ceasing, as St. Paul puts it. Whether to praise God or to ask his favor, prayer is an essential element to life - and it reminds us to be humble before our creator and to trust in the power of God to save us from our pain and sin.

We must love one another as we love ourselves. We must look beyond our selfish ways and be a servant to all. Love is not just an emotional high, but a way of life. Love means forgiveness, patience, compassion, and generosity towards each and every person we meet.

To remind us to eat, pray, and love to the fullest, Jesus gave us a simple prayer which incorporates these themes: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil."

And if all we have time for in a given day is to silently pray this beautiful prayer, it will be a step along the right path.

Let us pray to the Lord of the Sabbath that we might have even more time to revitalize our souls in the hectic, self-centered, and angst-ridden landscape in which we sit. Let us pray for the rest we so desperately need. And let us pray for one another, that we might all find a way to connect to the God who gives us this life we live.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World


"Don't look back or stop anywhere!" Gen. 19:17

As this movie begins, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) lives a comfortable, albeit routine, life in Toronto as a bassist with his garage band, Sex Bob-omb, as a boyfriend to a high school sweetheart named Knives (Ellen Wong), and as a roommate in a cramped studio apartment with his friend Wallace (Kieren Culkin) . It's not the perfect life, but it suffices.

All that monotony goes out the window when he suddenly meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a purple-haired beauty for whom Scott immediately falls head over heels. But veering off-course in an otherwise static life has its consequences.

The crux of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a journey that the titular character must take to disrupt his otherwise uneventful existence and date Ramona, who is surprisingly won over by his normalcy after one awkward date. In fact, it is Scott's kind and laid-back attitude that Ramona desperately needs in her love life - after the experience of seven intense ex's.

Like most relationships, the past quickly unveils itself - and Scott must literally face off against those ex's to win the heart of his newfound love. While the action sequences and drama are more akin to a video game, they point to a real situation that any relationship must face: a confrontation with the ghosts of one's past.

In our lives, we are constantly comparing the present reality with the past. Since we have no way of predicting the future, the past and the present are the only realities that we know - and they often go head to head. We compare this job to our last job, this relationship to past ones, this house to the last one we lived in, or this season to last season (though as a Cubs fan, I have learned long ago that comparing baseball seasons is just futile).

That is what Ramona is doing throughout the action of the film: she is wondering how Scott compares to Matthew, Chris, the Superman-esqe Todd, Roxy, Kyle & Ken, and Gideon. To her, Scott's gentle spirit wins out over the negativity and roughness of most of those from her past; however, the deep emotional ties to her most recent ex, Gideon, are a real competition for a love that is slowly building. Risky hope vs. tried-and-tested? This is what Ramona must decide.

Comparing ourselves and others to the events of the past can be dangerous. They evolve out of a feeling of fear and uncertainty, an unwillingness to take risks with the reality that God has given us right here and now.

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the people complained, "Would that we had died at the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!" (Ex. 16:3) They were comparing their past and present - and were more comfortable with an unhappy former life to an uncertain world before them. It brings to mind the phrase: "better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

Instead, God wants us to look ahead. The past is behind us and does no one any good to spend inordinate amounts of time comparing that with the experiences of the here-and-now.

In Genesis, the angels tell Lot and his wife to flee their past in Sodom and Gomorrah: "Don't look back or stop anywhere!" (Gen. 19:17), to which Lot's wife unfortunately disobeys and turns into a pillar of salt (19:26). And in the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, "No one who set a hand to the plow and looks back to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).

How often do we keep looking back like Lot's wife? Or set our hand to the plow yet wonder what we left behind? While we cannot ignore the past, we can't live our lives constantly comparing ourselves, our relationships, or our situations with what we did before. Instead, we must trust.

We must trust that God has led us to where we need to be right here and right now. We must trust that the people God has brought into our lives are the people we need the most. We must trust that whatever ended in the past was meant to end, so that new life could grow from that loss or that conclusion.

Ramona kept looking back at those "seven evil ex's," but she had a wonderful new guy who was anything but evil right in front of her. What is it that is right in front of us that we fail to recognize, choosing instead to focus attention on what's behind? And how can we turn our heads around to what surrounds us today?

Scott Pilgrim didn't need to fight off the totality of Ramona's world. Neither should our friends, loved ones, or our own hearts have to fight the world we once knew, lest we go the way of Lot's wife and turn to an immobile pillar of salt. Let us pray that we have the strength to keep our eyes focused and our hearts grateful for the world we have right before us.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Expendables


"Woe to the bloody city, all lies, full of plunder, whose looting never stops! The flame of the sword, the flash of the spear, the many slain, the heaping corpses, the endless bodies to stumble upon." Nahum 3:1,3

From a religious perspective, watching The Expendables is like listening to darkest warnings from the Hebrew prophets like Nahum, Joel, and Zephaniah or the Book of Revelation: the blood, the bodies, and the warfare are incredibly intense and truly harrowing.

This film, directed by and staring in the lead role Sylvester Stallone (as Barney Ross), is an ensemble of Hollywood's most infamous action heroes: Jason Statham (as Lee Christmas) with Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Steve Austin, and camero appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most of these characters are members of The Expendables, a covert team of operatives hired by government agencies to do their "dirty work" so that those same agencies can claim plausible deniability for such actions.

From the outset, realizing such a set-up, audiences should realize how bloody things can get. If a job is too much for the CIA, the Navy Seals, or the Green Beret, then anything we see is not going to be pretty.

The primary mission in the film is to overthrow the military dictator (David Zayas) of Vilena, a small island country, and free its people from death and destruction. On a reconnaissance mission there, Ross and Christmas discover that a rogue CIA agent (Eric Roberts) and his henchman (Austin) are behind all the mayhem, hence the reason for the secrecy of their mission.

But while there, the two meet Sandra (Giselle Itie), the leader of the resistance and also the daughter of the murderous general controlling the island. When given an opportunity to escape with the Expendables, she decides to stay and continue to fight for her people. This selfless act is a wake-up call to Ross, who has - up until now - never really understood what he was fighting for on all his crazy missions.

He begins to realize that his job should not be about killing the bad guys, but saving the innocent and helpless. The end result may be the same, but Ross understands that one is the route to emptiness while the other can give him purpose and direction in his life. By acknowledging this, he also becomes more determined to set the captives free.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God was not just angry with the rich and powerful for their actions but also incredibly concerned for the plight of the poor, oppressed, and the downtrodden. For God's love of people - not for the anger against their enemies - were the prophets inspired to speak out in such strong language:

"Woe to the bloody city, all lies, full of plunder, whose looting never stops! The flame of the sword, the flash of the spear, the many slain, the heaping corpses, the endless bodies to stumple upon. For all this... I will come against you." Nahum 3:1,3,5

"Because you have trampled upon the weak... oppressing the just, accepting bribes, repelling the needy at the gate... there shall be lamentation in every square and every street... when I pass through your midst, says the Lord." Amos 5:11,12,16

"Because of you who abhor what is just and pervert what is right, who built up Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with wickedness... Zion shall be plowed like a field and Jerusalem shall be reduced to rubble." Micah 3:9-10,12

So, with an increased sense of purpose in the mission, Stallone's character and his crew are a force to be reckoned with. To save a persecuted people, embodied by their selfless leader Sandra, is the new and improved reason for their actions. Like the Babylonians, Persians, or Assyrians, the Expendables rush in to punish those who rule with corruption and hatred.

While the body count in the movie might be quite high (and sometimes unnecessary), so too were the battles and the destruction in the Bible. And when studying the Scriptures, one might question why God allowed the Babylonians and others to crush the Jewish nation - doesn't that seem a little overboard?

But such violence was not done out of a joy of destruction, but a severe concern for the poor and the persecuted. God is ultiumately the good shepherd, doing everything in His power to save the lost sheep from harm. "I have heard my people's cry," God announces to Moses (Ex. 3:7) before he sends him forth to set the people free from slavery.

So when we feel abandoned, hurt, or mistreated by others, let us trust in God - for He will do everything to save us and set us free. God sends prophets and leaders to work on our behalf; let us be open to seeing those messangers when they arrive to take us home. Perhaps those God sends will be a loving friend, an inspiring mentor, or - just maybe - Sylvester Stallone.

No matter who or what the Lord sends, let us always be thankful for God's love of us.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

It's time to go to the movies!



"No man is an island..." (John Donne)

Is individualism undermining society today? With mobile gadgets and a sedentary work culture, there is less opportunities for people to interact and meet one another - at least in person.

But might movies be our saving grace?

The following article, while focusing on the business models of movie theatres today, does have some great points about what makes going out to the movies more important today than private mobile devices or home theatre systems:

Can movies' business model survive? islandpacket.com

The line that really sticks out: "As it turns out, Hollywood has something special going for it: Moviegoing is an irresistable social experience. People love communal events..." While it might be profitable for theatre chains, it may also be good for us spiritually.

John Donne once quipped, "No man is an island," reminding us that we are not supposed to live isolated, solitary lives. But as personal conviniences have grown, the less necessary (so we think) it is to interact with others. Why go out to the supermarket when you can shop for food online? Why go to church when you can find spiritual websites? Why talk to someone else when you can text or instant message them?

Movies, however, have bucked the trend - and helped us keep us in touch with one another. So it's time to go out to the movies... meet someone, smile at another theatre-goer, or just spend a few moments talking to the person behind the popcorn counter.

No one is an island... and besides, you can't get electricity or good cell reception on islands. So we might as well go to the movies!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Other Guys


Fanfare for the Common Man...?

When Aaron Copland wrote his 1942 masterpiece, "Fanfare for the Common Man," he probably wasn't thinking about Will Ferrell or Mark Wahlburg, the stars of The Other Guys. But this offbeat buddy-cop comedy, regardless of its sexual innuendos and gunplay, may just be a film that celebrates what Copland was going for.

The premise of The Other Guys is that, while movies are usually made about hot shot police heroes like the ones played by Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson, there is a more interesting story to be told about the people behind the scenes.

In this case, it's Dectectives Allen Gambell (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Wahlburg) - both stuck behind their desks doing paperwork for the "heroes" instead of being out in the field.

Hoitz remains there out of punishment for accidentally firing his weapon at New York Yankee Derek Jeter (and costing the city the World Series). Gambell is there because no one trusts that a bumbling fool like him should be running around New York with a loaded gun (and because his wife, played by Eva Mendes, tells him he should remain safe when he goes off to work each day).

But (spoiler alert) when the hot shot cops (Johnson and Jackson's characters) die in the line of duty, it falls to the other guys in the office to pick up the pieces. This means that Gambell and Hoitz start down a hilarious path toward finding the white collar criminals that have recently caused so much havoc across town.

Behind its comedic premise, though, is a fanfare for everyday people.

Too often, the world concerns itself with the goings-on of the rich and famous. From sports icons to celebrities and from politicians to newsmakers, we seem to care less about our neighbor next door or our colleagues at the office than about the seemingly "important" people out there.

Some might say that everyday people are just not that interesting. The Other Guys begs to differ - especially when we learn the backstory of Gambell and Hoitz (and get a chance to meet Gambell's lovely wife). This shows us that the lives of average, ordinary people just might be more interesting than those of presidents and popes.

This is how God sees us. And this is how we are called to see one another.

In the Scriptures, Jesus does not befriend Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and an important person to know during Jesus' ministry on earth. Instead, Jesus befriends Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza (see Lk. 8:3)... in other words, an average person (a woman no less) in the Galilean world who was married to a court servant.

Jesus also reminded his disciples that "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich and famous to enter the kingdom of God" (Mk. 10:25). He extolled their worthiness (despite their lot in life) by proclaiming to them, "Blessed are you who are poor... hungry... when people hate you" (Lk. 6:20,21,22). He was reminding them that "the other guys" are so incredibly loved by God.

He also reminded them, "You are the salt of the earth, but if salt should lose its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything..." (Mt. 5:13) This is a critical point for average, ordinary folks like us. Yes, we are probably "the other guys," but we shouldn't try all our lives to strive to become the rich and famous... for us we do, we might lose our taste and then we're no longer good for anything.

When Gambell and Hoitz tried to be just like the hot shot "heroes," things went out of control. But when they remained true to who they were - and when they were proud of the simplicity God had given them, they became true heroes.

This movie (especially in the closing credit sequence) also reminds us that it was the rich and famous and the high and powerful in society that caused our economic crisis - while "the other guys" suffered. From the recession to the oil spill to political scandals, the worst things that are happening in our world are mostly brought on by those "important" people.

Sadly, this is a theme that has echoed and been repeated through the ages (think the Crusades, Napoleon, the First World War, to name a few) - and even into our own faith tradition. While Julius Caesar and the emperors of Rome were thought to be the saviors of the European world in the first century, it was actually a simple Mediterranean Jewish peasant from Nazareth who actually saved the world.

Unfortunately, this theme continues into today. But the recognition that "the other guys" are just as important as the high and mighty starts with us.

It is up to the average, ordinary people reading this blog to start concerning ourselves with the other average, ordinary people in our lives. It is up to us to care more about our neighbors, our colleagues, and the other people we meet at the store, at the restaurant, at the movie theatre, at the repair shop, while walking around the city or driving along the highway. It is up to us to focus our attention more towards those kinds of people in our lives rathan than the latest updates about whatever celebrity or newsmaker we're following on Twitter or television.

Changing our world's focus is actually up to us. We are the ones guilty of making the celebrities so powerful. Let us start focusing our eyes on the people right around us because getting to know those people will be more a hundred times more rewarding than anything we see on TMZ.

Two thousand years ago, a group of twelve apostles starting doing just that - caring more about the "other guys" than about Caesar, Pilate, or Herod. And when that happened, look at the great things that followed. Now imagine if twelve hundred, twelve thousand, or twelve million people today starting doing that same exact thing.

That's where miracles can happen.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Inception Reaction: Young Adults vs. Older Adults?

Below is an interesting article on the generational divide between young adults and older generations of moviegoers regarding the new movie Inception. The article's author, Patrick Goldstein, seems to conclude that the film is beloved by younger generations who grew up on gaming and the internet, while it might be too complicated for older moviegoers.

Why is it that the older you are the more you can't stand 'Inception'?

I am not 100% sure I agree with Goldstein, but his article makes a fascinating grounding for discussion on how younger and older audiences react to movies today.

The more I have reflected on this column, I have thought that while Inception may be enjoyed by all ages, it may be a defining movie for some young adults, just as The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Rebel Without a Cause, Star Wars, and The Matrix were themselves generationally-defining films.

But what does that say about younger people? What does Inception say about the Gen Xers and Millennials that have flocked to this piece of cinema (just like those aforementioned films said a lot about their audiences)?

Perhaps Inception speaks to younger generations' internal struggles that they bury deep inside their subconscious because they're too busy to worry about that now. Or perhaps young adults are tired of old ideas of previous eras - but yearn to conceive of a new idea (an "inception") of their own, hoping it might change the world. Or maybe the whole concept of sleeping and dreaming just seems like a welcome experience for an over-stressed age?

Whatever it is, people may be talking about Inception for years to come. I look forward to that conversation...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Salt


"Who do you say that I am?" Mark 8:29

Who is Salt? The movie posters for Salt have been teasing this question all summer - promoting a film whose super-spy main character (played by Angelina Jolie), unlike James Bond or Jason Bourne, gets her cinematic debut this year.

That question is toyed with throughout the course of the film, making us wonder about the final answer up until (and even past) the closing credits. Here's what we do know: Evelyn Salt is a C.I.A. agent living and working in Washington, DC, whose past has included a childhood in Russia and several years in harrowing captivity in North Korea. As the movie opens, she is accused of being a Russian double agent seeking to infiltrate the highest levels of world power.

As Evelyn runs from this accusation, we are left to wonder if she is really guilty of the charge or just scared for her life and her husband. While she pulls off some exciting chase sequences, no one (including all the characters on screen and those us in the audience) is really quite sure.

In a way, this quesion of identity goes beyond the characters and plot... the very film itself has to wrestle with it. It is reported around Hollywood that this movie was originally written for a male lead instead of the fiesty Angelina Jolie. The actress has to dance with the question of who and what makes up a female Bond? What kind of woman would do what is normally reserved for the roughest guys in the movie industry?

On screen, Salt must ask herself: Who am I? Am I a wife to a loving husband? Am I a covert government operative? Am I a Russian sleeper agent waiting to strike at just the right moment? Am I who you think I am?

In our own lives, who are we? Who do people say that we are? If someone were to define or label you, what words would they use?

Are we defined by our work or our relationships, by our religious affiliation or our country of origin or nationality, by our age or gender, by our political preferences or stances on certain issues, by our skin color or appearance, by our economic status or by where we live? Of all these things, which of them might be written on our tombstone?

It might be a fun exercise to ask our friends who they say that we are - to see which things come out of their mouth first or what things are common to all the people asked. And then it might be even more interesting to compare that feedback to who we thought we were in our own minds.

In the New Testament, Jesus asked his disciples who the crowds thought he was - and they told him that others claimed he was a teacher or a prophet or a reincarnation of John the Baptist. Then he looked them in their eyes and asked, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29) For those closest to him, according to Simon Peter, the answer was simple: Jesus was the Messiah, the holiest person that God ever created, more than just any old teacher or prophet.

Evelyn Salt was seen by some as a traitor and by her husband as a precious, wonderful wife. She was seen by her colleagues as a friend and by others as a mysterious but damaged soul. The government knew her as someone who survived torture at the hands of the North Koreans and the Russians thought she was defined by her childhood in their country. Because of all these mulitple perspectives, chaos erupted when those identities came into conflict.

What about us? Is our identity consistant or do we present ourselves one way at work, another way at home, and yet another way online? Or do we live a life of integrity - keeping our multiple aspects together, presenting the world with an honest image of who God created us to be?

These are questions that we constantly wrestle with as we go through life - but let us learn a lesson from Evelyn Salt and keep the multiple personalities to a minimum, lest we undergo the struggles she went through when those identities smashed together.

And as we are made in the image and identity of God, we can be assured that living a Christ-like life will give us an identity we won't ever have to be ashamed of or run from.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Inception



"I had a terrifying dream as I lay in bed and the images and visions of my mind frightened me..." Daniel 4:2

We all dream - and what lies inside those imaginations can captivate, inspire, or frighten us as we wake again. This fascination with the world within our mind is why a film like Inception captures movie-goers.

At its core, Inception is a heist movie; however, the landscape is not a Vegas casino or a New York bank - but rather, the deepest layers of the subconsciousness.

The film follows as dream-heist thief Dom Cobb (Leonardi DiCaprio) embarks on what he believes to be his final mission: instead of stealing thoughts or secrets, Cobb and his crew will do the impossible: put an original idea into the mind of another person - and do this so covertly that the target will never know anyone was ever inside his head.

To do this, Cobb's team will have to go very deep - to create a dream within a dream within a dream, for a process called "inception." But Cobb, a troubled man who is dealing with the loss of his wife and family, is also taking his own injured memories and dreamscape onto the journey - causing even more havoc for the heist.

Inception reminds us that our minds our complex places - and to pay attention to our dreams, which are our unedited, unrehearsed stream of consciousness.

In our lives, we often mask our true feelings and thoughts in the presence of others. We do not let others see our fear or insecurities. We do not share with others our deepest secrets or sins. We do not allow others to get close enough to see our pain or anger. Instead, we project a confident, unflappable version of ourselves into our reality - hoping that these projections might keep us safe from others' reactions or judgment.

Our dreams, however, do not have such sheen and polish. They are raw collections of our most real thoughts. As Nebuchadnezzar, king of Bablylon, reported to the prophet Daniel in the Scriptures: "I had a terrifying dream as I lay in bed, and the images and the visions of my mind frightened me." (Dan. 4:2)

Dreams can indeed frighten us, especially if the person God created us to be is far from the illusion that we have created in reality. We can hide all we want from our fears and secrets, but God knows our innermost thoughts when we do not confront and work through them.

On the other hand, as Inception shows us, our most creative and wonderful ideas can emerge from the mind God has given us. Without dreamers, we might still be living in the dark ages. Without dreamers, we would have no art, music, science, or technology. As much as our minds are places of raw emotion, they are also factories of great inspiration.

In the Scriptures, the patriarch Jacob and the king Solomon are moved to action through their dreams and young men like Joseph and Daniel use their dreams to help others deal with their nightmares. In the New Testament, Mary's husband Joseph also has dreams - that inspire him to protect his family and make a home for his son Jesus. In our own age, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a nation where all people are treated equal and shared that notion with us all when he declared, "I have a dream..."

But just as we mask what lies within our minds, we can also stiffle inspiration and vision - and cut off the dreams of what could be. We can make a thousand excuses for closing the door to our dreams - choosing the status quo of reality over the possibilities of something wonderful.

And when we look to confront those raw emotions or open ourselves to visionary possibilities, we don't have to do it alone. In the movie, Cobb is joined in the dreamscape by a right-hand man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an actor/communicator (Tom Hardy), an architect/designer (Ellen Page), a sleep-inducer (Dileep Rao), and a financier (Ken Wantanabe). The architect, whose name Adriadne evokes the story of a woman of the same name from Greek mytholology who led the hero Theseus out of a dangerous labyrinth, does the same thing for Cobb here: she accompanies him on his own dark journey and encourages him to release the guilt and anguish which he masks for everyone else. This reminds us that God gives us others in our lives to help us through those difficult tasks of unpacking our mind and allowing ourselves to be who God intended us to be.

Like Cobb, we need people around us who will help us. Whether that be family or friends, colleagues or fellow believers, let us surround ourselves with good people. Without them, just as in the movie, we might be lost forever in "limbo" - unable to make it through reality or simply living life without action, inspiration, or joy.

What lies in our minds can frighten us, as it frightened Nebuchadnezzar, but it can also remind us who we truly are and who God hopes for us to be. And when we wake from this slumber, let us be open to accepting ourselves and taking hold of our dreams to build the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice


"So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, your body clothed in righteousness, and your feet fitted with a readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one." Eph. 6:14-16

Are you ready? The Sorcerer's Apprentice asks that question of its young titular hero, Dave (Jay Baruchel), and we, the audience, are left to wonder: is this apprentice truly ready for what lies ahead?

Based on the Mickey Mouse animated short film in Fantasia (1940), this new live-action version once again explores the discovery and training of a young, inexperienced student to take on the mantle of defending the world against the powers of darkness.

Mentored by the millennium-old sorcerer Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), Dave must step into his role as the Prime Merliner - a distant descendent of King Arthur's wizard Merlin who has the potential of vanquishing evil.

However, when we find Dave, he is just a college student studying physics in New York City, not quite ready to be on his own in the world in his academic career, let alone any magical one. Balthazar encourages this young man to step up to his destiny, but Dave maintains he is far from ready to take on such a role.

At one time or another, we have all been in Dave's shoes. Whether with our relationships, our career, our prayer life and church participation, or even with the smallest tasks, we often claim we're just not ready to go there yet. Perhaps we feel unprepared or unworthy of whatever we're called to step into, but no matter - we often use "readiness" as the excuse for inaction.

But when we rely on the notion (sometimes true, often false) that we are unready for the next step in life too much, dangerous things can happen. In society, there is a growing fear of commitment - and this rears its ugly head in marriages and within families. Men and women put off the sacrament of marriage, citing readiness as the reason. Or even worse, they take the leap into marriage but then aren't ready for the hard work that relationships require to succeed.

In the Scriptures, notable figures such as Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jonah claimed they weren't ready for God's call. But to each of them, God encouraged them and challenged them to put aside any fear of readiness - and charge ahead.

In The Sorcerer's Apprentice, is Dave ready for the challenges that await him? Perhaps he requires more discipline and confidence, but Balthazar believes in him and his readiness. The same goes for us: God believes we are ready. When will we believe God's judgment?

St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, challenges the community to be ready for a nonviolent battle - not with people, as Roman soldiers might do, but with the powers of evil in the world: corruption, selfishness, lies, persecution, hatred, violence, and apathy. He tells them, "So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, your body clothed in righteousness, and your feet fitted with a readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one." (Eph. 6:14-16)

This last point St. Paul makes, about faith, is important is bolstering our readiness. We fool ourselves when we believe we must face the world alone - and for that, yes, we will never be ready. By ourselves, we are powerless against the struggles of the world. But what seperates a believer from others is their faith that God will never leave them alone.

When we take a stand against the powers of evil in the world, we do it with a community of faith. We do it with our friends, our family, our colleagues, and our church - and through that unity, we are doing it with God and the powers of heaven.

On his own, Dave could not vanquish evil. But with Balthazar by his side and the support of his friends and loved ones, he was more than ready to take on the coming storm.

So whatever task or new adventure lies before us, will we be ready? If we have faith in God and believe in the power of community, nothing will ever be impossible for us.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Despicable Me


"My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me."
John 10:27

While many animated movies follow the life of a hero or heroine, Despicable Me takes another route by showcasing the adventures of the villain.

Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) is the world's #2 supervillain, frustrated that he is no longer on top thanks to the criminal acts of an up-and-coming young mastermind named Vector (Jason Segal), who has stolen the Great Pyramid of Giza. Of course these acts of villainy are more mischievous than morally evil - and with that thought in mind, we can move on with the movie.

But the competition between Gru and Vector is not the real story, just as our competitive experiences in life (at work, at school, in society) aren't really that important to God. This plotline, while amusing, distracts from the real issues at hand: leadership and discipleship.

Gru is the leader of an army of yellow minions, whose relationship with their master is one of servitude. And when he encounters three young girls selling cookies at the door, he suddenly decides to adopt them - but not out of concern for their well-being or a genuine appreciation of children, but because he needs them for his nefarious master plan.

This type of leadership gets Gru absolutely no where. To lead by force, coercion, or dependency only amounts to more frustration since no one is really contributing out of choice or love.

When Jesus spoke about leadership, he used the example of a sheep-herder: "I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd is one who lies down his life for his sheep. A hired man, who is not really a shepherd and whose sheep is not his own, sees a wolf coming and runs away from the sheep, allowing the wolf to catch and scatter them." (John 10:11-12) Here Jesus points out a comparison between good and bad leadership... a leader must not only invest in his disciples, but he must also love them and, if necessary, lay down his life for their sake.

In order to do this, Jesus says, we must get beyond ourselves. We must get to know and connect with others, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable before those who might follow us. "My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me." (John 10:27) True leadership, according to Jesus, is about a genuine relationship.

Throughout our lives, we are thrust (sometimes unwillingly) into leadership roles. Whether we are a teacher, a supervisor, a project leader, a corporate executive, a chair or member of a committee, an elected official, or someone who leads their friends on a night to the movies, God gives us leadership opportunities at some point. What kind of leader will we be when the time comes?

We may not have a multitude of minions at our beckon call, but when people follow us in one way or another, we are given a great responsibility - like the good shepherd. Will we be so shocked that people are following us that we take advantage of their trust and selfishly charge ahead? or will we be open to vulnerability and engage people in mutual collaboration?

Let us all pray that we might find the strength to emulate Jesus and take on the mantle of the good shepherd when the time comes.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Predators


"For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea, and the flood enveloped me..." Jonah 2:4

Predators is basically a cinematic cage match - between a team of extraterrestrial creatures and a collection of the most dangerous humans on earth. For fans of this science fiction franchise (myself included), it is a welcome return to a great monster movie experience.

At the heart of all monster movies is the feeling of being cast deep into a frightening world. "This has got to be hell," remarks one of the characters in Predators as he looks around at the alien landscape in which he and the other humans have been literally dropped.

Of course this sentiment seems fitting, considering who these people are. The leader of the group, Royce (Adrian Brody), is a mercenary killing for money and sport, while the rest of the crew include an American serial killer, a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, a Sierra Leone death squad officer, a Yakuza assassin, a Russian commando, as well as the black ops sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga). Deep down, many of them feel that this alien situation is just punishment for their crimes on earth. It might as well be hell.

In a way, if this is indeed punishment, it is quite fitting for this band of killers: for a group of people who preyed upon the fears of their own people and who felt no remorse over murder at their own hands, they must now face what it is like to be hunted down by something even more menacing than they could ever imagine.

Making us, the audience, connect with these criminals reminds us that we are all sinful people. To varying degrees, we stumble and fall in our lives, causing us to fall deeper into sin. But what matters most to God is how we crawl out of our sinfulness, how we reconcile with those we have hurt, and how we resolve to do better in the future.

In Predators, most of the band of killers are not interested in penance. Their focus is on survival in an alien wilderness. In a way, when we, too, fall into sin, we can make hundreds of excuses to avoid true reconciliation - claiming that surviving the day-to-day grind is our first priority.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Jonah thought much the same way. He wanted to hide from his sinfulness and prejudices - and in the process was cast into the deep to be swallowed by a large fish. Finally, in the belly of the monster, he understood - and in the worst situation imaginable, cried out to God for forgiveness: "For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea, and the flood enveloped me. All your breakers and your billows passed over me... But I, with resounding praise, will make a sacrifice to you. What I have vowed, I will pay, for deliverance is from the Lord." (Jonah 2:4,10)

When we find ourselves in the midst of sin, what do we do? Do we wallow in our misfortune? Do we avoid facing our victims? Do we forget it, hoping others might forget, too? Do we focus on surviving, regardless of who we hurt along the way?

Or do we seek out goodness, compassion, and humility, vowing to put right our wrongs?

In Predators, each of the characters (including one of the alien creatures) has an opportunity to made amends for their crimes. Some take that gift, while others squander the moment. In our own lives, God gives us plenty of opportunities - from sacraments to chance encounters - to ask for forgiveness and to do good towards those we might have hurt. When the time comes, what will we choose to do?