Wednesday, March 31, 2010

King of Kings

"He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock...
he shall be peace." Micah 5:3a,4a

We live in a polarized society today. From the recent debates on health care and immigration to the religious and political ugliness over the past decade, we live in an unbalanced age.

It is this context in which I return to reflect on the 1961 biblical classic, King of Kings. What makes this "Jesus movie" unique is that it spends more time on non-Jesus activities than other films on the life of Christ. King of Kings extensively follows the political scene in Pontius Pilate's court, King Herod's palace, and in the underground politics of the zealot movement. And in the midst of all the politics is Jesus of Nazareth (portrayed here by the late Jeffery Hunter).

King of Kings gives us a mirror for our polarized world. Originally produced within the turmoil and international politics of the early 1960s, this film can have a similar affect for audiences today.

In this film, Jesus stands as the bridge between the government and the revolutionaries - admired by both and hated by both. This is a perfect place for Jesus to be, then and now.

When people get too caught up in their politics, they lose a sense of compassion and love for one another. They demonize the other side and adopt an aura of righteousness. This is not the way of Jesus. In King of Kings, Jesus emphasizes time and again, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Mt. 5:44). It's this compassion and outreach to both sides that brings Jesus to the cross.

In the midst of all this in-fighting in the United States - where disagreements have turned bloody - we need this Jesus. As we approach Good Friday in this year of polarization and hatred, we need this Jesus. Perhaps within our society now, this Jesus might not even recognize the venom of the very people who claim him (and vice versa).

This image of Christ is the one foretold by the prophets Isaiah and Micah when they declared, "For a child is born to us, a son given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him wonder counselor, God hero, father forever, prince of peace..." (Is. 9:5) and " He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock... he shall be peace." (Micah 5:3a,4a)

Let us follow the lead of these prophets, put down our swords and turn them into plowshares, and follow the lead of the shepherd, king, and hero who speaks peace, not division; who brings people together instead of tearing them apart.

And on this Good Friday, let us vow that this image of Christ will not be crucified on the cross of polarization yet again.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Jesus Christ Superstar

"Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone." John 6:15

On the eve of Holy Week, I often make it a point to revisit some of my favorite "Jesus movies," films that explore the life and passion of Jesus of Nazareth. This year, I took time to reflect on Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), based on the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

In some respects, Superstar is not just a commentary on the gospels - but a challenge to all Christians today, especially those in the midst of Holy Week celebration.

The central character narrating the events of the film is a thoughtful, introspective Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson). This Judas sees that Jesus (Ted Neeley) is being made into a "superstar" by the people around him - from Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) to Simon the Zealot (Larry Marshall) - and it disgusts him.

This Judas is a good man who feels that, ironically, Jesus has betrayed his message of simplicity and purity by allowing such fanfare to take place around him.

Holy Week can be dangerous for me, too. In the excitement and fanfare of the liturgies this week leading up to Easter, I can sometimes forget what lies beneath all of these rites and rituals: the dangerous message of the gospel.

While Jesus speaks constantly through most the gospels, he is remarkably quiet during the passion narratives. One might even forget he said much of anything - focusing instead on the dramatic events rather than the reason these events had to take place in the first place.

Judas Iscariot in Superstar challenges me to wonder if my celebration of Holy Week and Easter is empty. Am I simply dancing around like Simon the Zealot without realizing what Jesus is all about?

So I am going to take a cue from Jesus himself. It was said of him, "Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone." (Jn. 6:15). This Holy Week (and hopefully beyond Easter Sunday too), I am going to find some quiet time to reflect and discern on the gospel message - not just the experiences - of Jesus of Nazareth.

What made him so revolutionary? What did he say? What was it about his teachings that were so controversial? Why was this Jesus so dangerous?

I'm going to spend some time with passages like the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), the many parables, his encounters with women and foreigners (i.e. Jn. 4), and his warnings against corruption and injustice (Mt. 23-25). I'm going to explore what Jesus meant by the "Reign of God" and how he interacted with those most in need of mercy, compassion, and healing.

This Holy Week, Superstar has challenged me to look deeper at the reasons behind all the pomp and circumstance - and what made Jesus Christ a "superstar" in the first place.

I pray that, you, too, will get a quiet moment this week for a worthwhile experience of prayer and discernment - so you might also re-discover the Christ we celebrate and worship.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


"Consider the lilies of the field..." Mt. 6:28

We're surrounded by a lot of "stuff" these days. As I walk through my house or my office, there are about two dozen brands that shout out to me every where I turn my head.

I type this blog entry on a Blogger website on a Toshiba laptop. Next to me is a box of Kleenex tissues and in front of me is a Comcast remote control that will turn on a Panasonic television set or the Wii game system. You get the point...

Logorama is the obscure Oscar winner for Best Animated Short Movie - and in its sixteen minutes, it reminds us of all the stuff that makes up our lives. The film itself has a basic plot and no deep truths to reveal, but the experience of watching it is where it gets spiritual.

The uncomfortable reality is that you will probably recognize most of the logos as they blow right past you on screen. We recognize them because we use them - over and over and over again. We use them so much that we start to trust them more than anything else. And when we put our trust there - we start to lose trust in ourselves, in others, and in God.

Jesus knew long before the advent of corporatations and product marketing that we have a tendency to put all our trust in "stuff." He told his disciples, "Do not worry so much about what you will eat, what you will drink, or the clothing you wear - because life is more than that... Why are so anxious about these things? Consider the lilies of the field - they don't work or worry... so if God so clothes and feeds the grass, how much more will he provide for you?" (Mt. 6:25,28,30)

There is much to be gained in detaching ourselves from such a logo-centric mindset. Products, food, clothes, and marketable items won't go away - but we can learn to see beyond the logo.

Consider the laborers who work at the corporation, building or creating that product. Consider the other people alongside you in the store or on the street who also use that product. Consider the social injustices that those logos might hide because they veil their unethical behavior with your trust. Consider the home-grown alternative to such corporate products. Consider the people who cannot afford the name brand products with fancy logos - who looks out for them? Consider how much you trust your family, your friends, and your God in a given day compared to the trust you have for your favorite everyday products?

A movie like Logorama should make us a little uneasy for the amount of logos that we can name while watching those sixteen minutes. Consider that uneasiness and what you might be able to do with it. God be with you in that discernment.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Hurt Locker and The Year 2009

Is The Hurt Locker really the movie we want 2009 to be remembered by?

Last night, the 82nd Academy Awards were held - and bestowed the biggest honors of the night on The Hurt Locker. The movie's victory has haunted me all day.

Is this the movie we want to define the past year? In a year when Avatar becomes the largest grossing film ever (not adjusted for inflation, of course) and revolutionizes how technology and cinema go together, an indie war drama that few people ever saw, let alone heard about, steals the show?

But as I reflected on this disappointment, it occured to me: in a year that saw the high point of the Great Recession, the ugly wars on health care and politics, two continuing wars being fought overseas, and the loss of businesses and jobs - perhaps The Hurt Locker fits right in. The film's title itself means "a place of ultimate pain," a term used to describe the act of getting injured in an explosion (which is the type of military work the main characters in the movie are engaged in). The year 2009 - for many - was a place of ultimate pain.

SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) is also an addict (even the movie's opening crawl states, "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug" from War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning). James is addicted to the thrill of the chase - so much so that he has blocked out any concept of family or peace. While the others in his unit (Sanborn and Eldridge) are ready to go home, James is ready for another go-around - to feed his addiction.

In such ugliness of war - and in the pain of the Great Recession - people can turn to the wrong source to find solace. SSG James found his comfort in the rush of battle. Where have the victims of the Great Recession found their comfort?

So perhaps The Hurt Locker is an analogy for the experience of the past year after all. Perhaps this is how we will remember 2009. Maybe we're not ready yet for films like Avatar and Star Trek - which look forward into a hopeful future. Maybe we're still trying to figure out how to get out of the mess we're in - politically, economically, societally, and spiritually. Maybe we're still in the pressure cooker of our own "hurt locker."

And if that's the case - how can we reach out and comfort, minster, and mentor those who are hurting or who are in pain? How can we help them discover the solace of peace and nonviolence, the comfort of community, and the hope of the gospel? These are the next questions that I will continue to wrestle with as we move forward.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Hurt Locker

"They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks... and they shall not train for war again." Isaiah 2:4

The Hurt Locker is an intense look at the day-to-day experiences of Army bomb disposal units currently serving in wartorn Iraq. More than anything else, this movie shows us the futility of the war - that even when 800+ bombs have been defused, 800+ more are waiting in the wings.

The film itself has no over-arching plot - except the ebb and flow of the everyday lives of one particular Army unit as they await the end of their deployment, yet still risk life and limb to extinquish these countless bombs buried in the sands of the desert.

In the opening scene of the film, after a bomb killed the team leader (Guy Pierce), Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is sent to the company to take the lead of the three-person unit. James proves to be a reckless and impulsive soldier, especially when the situation calls for precision and patience. His teammates Sanborn and Eldridge (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, respectively) feel his motivation is off - that his courage comes from a dark place.

These two other men, Sanborn and Eldridge, captivated me the most. While Renner is the star and his character the central figure, his is not the journey of the gospel. Sanborn and Eldridge, on the other hand, are admirable soldiers - their goal is to convert dangerous bombs to impotent hardware for the sake of peace, to quite literally do as the prophet Isaiah said: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." (Is. 2:4)

Sanborn and Eldridge know that war is pointless - and look forward to a time of peace at home, to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy: "...and they shall not train for war again." (Is. 2:4). James' journey is the opposite - he looks forward to the war and is bored and tired of peace.

The Hurt Locker angered me in that it made the war-loving soldier the hero and the focus of our attention. As James confronts a group of sharp-shooters in the desert, he seems to take pleasure in killing them - while the others despise this part of their job. This is not the type of hero we need. Even though we see his concern for a young Iraqi soccer player, his only answer is vengeance. He is not the example we need to see.

War is ugly and for some, the violence and bloodshed can be a drug. Sanborn and Eldridge understood this. In their struggles of loneliness and fear, they knew that, if they had to be there, their goal was to turn as many swords into plowshares as they could - to turn those destructive bombs into innocent scraps of metal. Though this seems to be an insurmountable task, they do it as best they can to bring a little peace to the vast ugliness around them.

Let us pray for soldiers like Sanborn and Eldridge, that they might bring the peace of God into the evilness of war despite the circumstances. And let us also pray and be present for people like James, that they might turn away from their hatred and vengeance and embrace peace.

And finally, let us pray that all wars and all divisions might end; that dialogue, love, and cooperation be our end goal.

Alice in Wonderland

"Nothing is impossible for God." Luke 1:37

Alice in Wonderland has always been a fascinating, mind-boggling experience - and this newest movie version released by Disney and directed by Tim Burton does not veer far from that tradition.

At the core of the film is Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska), who is now 19 years old and continually plagued by childhood dreams of talking animals, painted roses, and strange riddles. At this point in her life, while she might want to escape into her vision, Alice is overwhelmed by the possibities of a loveless marriage proposal, little room for expression, and a highly constrictive Victorian landscape.

Wanting to escape reality, she runs from the pressure, follows the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), and falls headlong down the rabbit hole - to Underland. There she meets a menagerie of characters including Abosolom the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), Tweedledee & Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), and the infamous Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).

Believing this all to be a dream, she takes control of her destiny, not allowing fear and insecurity to dominate her every move. She bravely faces off against the wild Bandersnatch - inspiring the smallest dormouse (Barbara Windsor) to stop the creature with the poke of her little needle. When the Mad Hatter is apprehended by the authorities, Alice takes another brave turn by embarking on a quest to save him from the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

Episode after episode, Alice shows her very non-Victorian resolve and leadership abilities. When everything around her seems impossible, she finds that anything she does can be quite possible.

In our own lives, we can sometimes fall headfirst into an impossible situation - where hard work, medical issues, family problems, or relationship stress can overwhelm us. We can feel like Alice, lost in our reality - unsure if we'll ever get out of this "rabbit hole" we're in.

This is not possible, we say. This is beyond me, we think. This is too much for me to change, we convince ourselves. We think too much like Alice: "This is impossible," says Alice in this movie - to which the Mad Hatter kindly says, "Only if you think it is."

When the angel came to Mary, she thought much the same thing. But the angel comforted her, saying, "Nothing is impossible for God." (Lk 1:37). And if we allow God into our hearts, nothing is impossible for us.

Work, stress, and anxiety can weigh heavily on us, thinking that changing or affecting the outcome is beyond our capabilities. We feel powerless, constricted like Alice in her Victorian corset. But with our God-given courage and determination, we can stand up to the monsters that haunt us (like the Bandersnatch in Alice) and look him right in the eye. In the movie, Alice did not slay the beast - and in life we won't destroy our problems completely - but we can stand up to them and see that, compared to God, they are really harmless and insignificant.

When we realize our full potential - the gifts and experiences God has given to us - like Alice did in Wonderland, then nothing can get in our way. No jabberwocky dragon, no loveless relationship, no overwhelming workload, and no health issue can be greater than the power of the Holy Spirit that lives and breathes within each one of us.

Nothing is impossible because, in truth, everything is possible.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Spiritual Popcorn Oscars 2010

This year, which of the nominated films will take home the Spiritual Popcorn Oscars?

Each year, the Academy selects films that have achieved artistic excellence in various fields (acting, directing, cinematography, sound design, and so forth), though many times, unfortunately, the choices come down to political decisions.

But regardless of art or politics, I would like to take a moment to honor those films (among the nominated few) which have made significant impact on spirituality. Some of these are not my personal favorites, but they are movies that made a difference. And so... the envelope please.

Best Picture of the Year: Avatar

Now that the Academy has opened up the field to ten choices (yet still did not nominate my personal fav of the year, Star Trek), making a final choice became more difficult. Each time, I approach this race asking myself: What film do I want the world to remember this past year by? Do I think we should be remembered for the senseless war we are fighting in the Middle East (The Hurt Locker)? Or our over-stressed and over-worked culture (Up in the Air)? Or should we be remembered for the prejudice of our past (District 9)?

For me, I want to err on the side of hope and goodness - which brings it down to a two-horse race: The Blind Side and Avatar. And what gives Avatar the edge in my books is that it went beyond good Christian charity (evidenced in Blind Side) and took us deeper into the uncomfortable but incredibly necessary world of social justice for all life and peace for all God's creation. And that is how I would like us to be remembered spiritually.

Best Actor: Morgan Freeman, Invictus

This category comes down to character. Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela at a point in his life when he has put aside his violent past and looks ahead to a future of reconciliation, nonviolence, and lasting peace. This character is spiritually-inspiring to all who watch Invictus, someone we can all follow as well as emulate - and for that reason alone, it deserves the prize.

Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

Once again, this category is about which character is someone we can look up to. While I absolutely loved Meryl Streep's performance in Julie & Julia (and hope she does actually get the Oscar award this year), what saddened me about the character of Julia Child is her negative and hurtful reaction to the young adult blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams). On the other hand, The Blind Side's Leigh Ann Tuohy, as played by Sandra Bullock, was a great model of compassion, colorblindness, and commitment. These are values we can learn from in our relationships with others, especially those most different from us.

Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, & Best Makeup: Star Trek

Here is a chance to award one of the best films of the year, if not the decade. The sights and sounds of Star Trek brought us headlong into a new and captivating future. What made Trek spiritual is its reminder that both young and old, new and old, innovative and reliable must be welcomed in our lives, our society, and yes, even our churches and faith communities (or as Jesus said, "If you pour new wine into fresh wineskins, both can be preserved." Mt. 9:17). The sounds and the visuals used in the newest Trek are a taste of both old favorites and new styles (not to mention a flawless musical score, though sadly not nominated, by Michael Giacchino, meshing the original theme and new sounds and melodies).

Animated Feature: Up

Animation has come a long way. No longer is this a children's category - and the movie Up is a clear example that animated films speak to the whole family (and perhaps more to adults than to the kids). Up reminds us that most of us don't live on alien planets like Pandora, work in the middle of an Iraqi warzone, have ten million airline miles, or are plotting to kill Hitler. Most of us live like Carl (Ed Asner) - shooting for our dreams, but never quite making it to tropical beaches. And the lessons Carl learns about relationships are more applicable to us, living in relationship with family, spouses, friends, co-workers, and strangers every day of our lives. Up is a film that reminds us what's so special about every day God gives us - truly animating our lives towards the Reign of God - and for that reason alone it deserves it prize.

Best Score: Avatar

While one song in Up is near-perfect ("Married Life") and while the fun strings of Sherlock Holmes whisk one away to the excitement of slouthing, the score for Avatar by James Horner takes us away to another world. It reminds us of the thrill of flying through the natural wonders of Pandora and the bond that builds between Sully and the Na'vi people. It reminds us about building bridges across cultures, about discovering our God-given gifts and purpose in life, and about the devestation the war, ignorance, and greed can bring to all creation. Music can do that: remind us once again of the lessons on screen - and hopefully spur us on to action.

Film Editing: District 9

In a sense, two movies in this category (District 9 and Inglourious Basterds) are ironically about editing history. Basterds is about re-writing the experience of World War II, wondering what would have happened if a band of Jewish rebels had overthrown the Third Reich; District is about a re-examination of the South African experience of apartheid, this time with aliens instead of humans. What gives District 9 the edge here is that it edits with compassion, not vengeance. This movie is about facing our demons: we must walk a mile in our enemy's shoes before we can oppose them. The editing in this film reminds us of that invaluable lesson.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air

In Up in the Air, writers Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner have adapted a story about a workaholic - and is able to give us a nuanced picture of the joys and struggles we all face when we have been stretched beyond our limits. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) goes through a roller coaster journey from numb-ness to emotionally attached - and then through emotional turmoil and back again to reality. While we are left to wonder if Bingham learned anything, the re-telling of his journey captures our paschal experiences - life, death, and resurrection, even in the smallest, most insignificant moments of our busy everyday lives.

Best Cinematography: Avatar

Good cinematography makes us forget we're in a movie theatre - transporting us to wherever the movie is set. In this category, many of the nominees did just that: we were literally apperated into Hogwarts and into the memories of Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Price; we were brought into the bloody thick of the action, whether we liked it or not, in The Hurt Locker; we were standing alongside the Jews and Nazis of the Second World War in Inglourious Basterds. But this year, no one came close to giving us a new world - millions of miles away on Pandora - than James Cameron's Avatar.

The 3-D aspect of Avatar allowed audiences to walk through the lush landscapes of this alien planet, feel the breeze in the nightime air, and be mezmorized by the mountain landscape. We see the glow of the trees and the sounds of the forest creatures. And when you are brought into this world, you are devestated when it is destroyed.

One of the lessons of Avatar was reminding us of our ecological resonsibility ("Be fertile and multiply. Fill the earth and tend to it. Take care of the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move upon the earth." Gen. 1:28) - and without the phenomenal cinematograhy, we might have missed that point. But being transported like Adam and Eve walking in Eden, we are able to see the spiritual value of preserving all creation - on this world or any other - that God has made.


I did not comment on all the races since I did not see all of the nominated films through all the categories. My prayers are with all the nominees: that those who win might be gracious and humble, and that those who lose might still feel the love and appreciation of their peers.

As as the Oscar winners thank everyone they know in their acceptance speech, let us all be thankful to God who gives us the ability to create and appreciate art - so that we might teach others about the gospel values through the medium of the movies.