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!