Monday, July 26, 2010


"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


"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


"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?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Last Airbender

Finding God amidst all the bad press...

The reviews for M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, The Last Airbender, have been horrible - to say the least. It scores a whooping 7% amongst film critics on Rotten Tomatoes (which means that only 7% of all major reviewers thought the film was better than average).

After seeing the movie (and agreeing with most of the critics that this was, in fact, a poorly acted and directed film), I was tempted to ignore this film on my blog. I thought: If few people liked the movie, why even bother writing about it?

But this thought process reminded me of a story in the Book of Genesis, where Abraham walks with God and asks him to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction if there are at least ten good people within the city (see Gen. 18:20-33). And since there are indeed people out there who did like the movie (including someone who went with me), I will not destroy this movie in this Spiritual Popcorn review.

At its core, The Last Airbender tells a captivating mythological story of a time when the earth is divided into four groups of people, each connected to one of the four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. With the guidance of an "avatar," these four nations are balanced and at peace with one another. But when the most recent "avatar," Aang (Noah Ringer), runs from his newfound responsibility - the earth comes off-balance, peace is eradicated, and nations rise up against each other in war. For 100 years, Aang disappears - and in that time, the Fire Nation destroys the peaceful monks of the air, subjugates the simple people of the earth, and goes head to head with the arctic tribes of the water.

The movie picks up the story when Aang reappears after a century of absence. His journey is to reconcile people together by gaining mastery over all the elements (since he was raised by the airbenders before he ran away, his only tool at this point is controlling the wind). Meanwhile, the Fire Nation seeks to destroy any hope of reconciliation - for this will mean a surrender of their power and a retreat to equality with the other nations.

So, despite some bad acting, poorly executed CGI and 3D effects, and an unfortunate script, the core of The Last Airbender is one of peace and reconciliation, of balance and equality. In our own world torn by war between the West and the Middle East, this story needs to be told.

This movie reminds us to pay attention to prophets of peace in our own time and place. Throughout history, the world has had a hard time accepting prophetic voices - from the prophets of Israel and Judah in the Hebrew Scriptures to nonviolent revolutionaries in modern times such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. In many cases, like the Fire Nation in the movie, people have tried to kill and silence those voices, fearing what might happen if people actually listened to their words and followed their actions.

So beneath the bad press and underwelming reaction among fans for this movie - there lies a message of peace and harmony.

It is like the analogy Jesus made in the Gospels: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of seeds but when fully grown, it becomes the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush and the birds of the sky come and rest in its branches." (Mt. 13:31-32).

At its core, The Last Airbender possesses a profound truth, but without looking deeper, beyond the critics and the naysayers, one might miss this mustard seed. God speaks to us at all times - in both good movies and bad ones, in both good life experiences and even in the worst of days.

This movie reminds us not to disregard any opportunity for God to share his word with us. Let us pray that we will always seek to find him - no matter how bad the reviews are or how dark our worst day might be... for God is always there.