Monday, January 31, 2011

The Oscar Frontrunners

Head vs. Heart, Good Friday vs. Easter Sunday?

Now that the 2011 Academy Award nominations have been announced, the speculation and predicting games have begun in earnest. Every expert has pegged their favorite movie, actor, or crew member to take home a gold statue later this February - but two films have risen to the top of the pile as the Oscar frontrunners: The Social Network and The King's Speech.

Many critics have said this race is a battle "between the head and the heart." They say that Social Network makes people think about their digital, interconnected reality, while King's Speech is simply a good old-fashioned tale of triumph over struggle and adversity.

Throughout Oscar history, the battle "between the head and the heart" has raged. Just last year, while countless people loved Avatar, the Academy bestowed its highest honors to a movie that made people think hard about the war in the Middle East: The Hurt Locker. And it seems that the timeless struggle will continue again this year.

But perhaps there is another way to look at this tug-of-war from a faith perspective. In the Christian context, this all translates to a tension between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Movies such as Social Network, Hurt Locker, The Departed, Inception, Black Swan, Citizen Kane, and in a very literal sense, Jesus Christ Superstar, all end on a note of uncertainty (sometimes even death). In these films, the credits roll before a satisfying resolution has been reached. They close their story on a "Good Friday" moment, allowing the moviegoer to draw their own conclusions or simply leave them uneasily hanging on a precipice.

On the other hand, movies like King's Speech, Avatar, Slumdog Millionare, Toy Story 3, Forrest Gump, Star Wars, and The Return of the King have what skeptics call "a typical Hollywood ending." These films close on a triumphant note, not unlike the experience of Easter Sunday. They provide hope, joy, and closure to the viewer, confident that good has overcome evil, success has beaten struggle, and happiness has replaced hardship.

It is fascinating that people consider Good Friday films to be movies of the head, while Easter Sunday films are seen as movies of the heart. What does this say about us?

Perhaps we are caught up in the struggle, stress, and uncertainty of life that overwhelms us. Our minds, then, are constantly focused on the painful reality of the moment. Films like The Social Network remind us that no road in life is ever easy, even the journey towards becoming the world's youngest billionaire. The cross is always before us.

This condition prevents us from taking time to rest in hope, never being able to take a moment to celebrate both the big and small wonders of life. Movies like The King's Speech seem like fantasy, but yet when we see them, it tugs on our heartstrings - teasing us with the possibility of victory over our worst days and our most anxiety-ridden struggles.

Our faith teaches us that, in this life, we will experience both - but that we cannot ignore one for the sake of the other. We are people of the cross and the resurrection.

The Oscar frontrunners are reminders of this tension. Like the characters in The Social Network, we do encounter uncertainty, struggle, and betrayal in our lives; but like the characters of The King's Speech, we also have good days, great friendships, and memorable triumphs over frustrations and evils that come our way.

But while we navigate between these two extremes, Christ reminds us that, on the last day, hope and goodness will always win out over negativity, struggle, and uncertainty.

That is not to say that all movies with "Easter Sunday" moments should take home every Oscar... but it does tell us what awaits us in this life and the next. We should, however, be grateful for the Academy Award race each year - to remind us of the "paschal mystery" that we experience throughout our lives.

So on Oscar night, and every night for that matter, may we face our "Good Fridays" with confidence, strength, and courage, and celebrate our "Easter Sunday" moments with boundless joy, gratitude, and prayerfulness.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Not So Golden Globes

A week after the Tucson shooting and the day before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s day, Ricky Gervais truly tarnishes the Golden Globes.

Ricky Gervais was never known for his respectability. Yet, at a time when the world needs civility, compassion, and tolerance, the comedian who hosted the 2011 Golden Globes offered absolutely none of it this January.

The tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson challenged us to tone down our rhetoric, regardless if it is to blame for the gunfire. It woke us up - and reminded us that our snide comments, bitter speeches, pointed fingers, hateful politics, and belligerent language have become far too commonplace. It has caused us to ask: What if our seemingly innocent but subconsciously angry words actually come to pass?

The most important thing that has come from this tragedy is an international conversation about civility, compassion, and tolerance in our everyday speech.

Perhaps that means no more gun targets over congressional representatives. Or it might mean no more posters comparing presidents to Hitler or hurtful language about pedophilia when talking about clergy. Perhaps... we might start to live up to our principles.

It seems, however, at the Golden Globes this year, Ricky Gervais didn't get the memo (and neither did Cecil B. DeMille honoree Robert DeNiro).

What seemed to pass for humor was a bitter roast for anyone in the room, from the rich and famous actors to the Hispanic wait staff at the hotel. The language used by Gervais, DeNiro, and some others was effective at cutting people down at their most vulnerable, hoping that it might get a laugh from the audience. Thank God much of it fell flat.

Each year this month, we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for standing up to such anger and hostility through the powerful act of nonviolence.

"Hatred paralyzes life, love releases it," Dr. King once said. "Hatred confuses life, love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life, while love illuminates it." Sadly, in 1968, this message caused Martin Luther King's assassination. But acts like the shooting in Tuscon and the language used by Gervais and DeNiro show we still have much to learn.

Don't get me wrong. I am under no illusion that the Golden Globes are some sort of national prayer event. However, they are meant to be a celebration of art and the creativity of filmmakers - not an opportunity to get a laugh at the expense of others' weaknesses.

It was very appropriate, for instance, for Glee supporting actor winner Chris Colfer to dedicate his Golden Globe to the young people "who are constantly told 'no' by people and environments and bullies at school, that they can't be who they are..." He used his few seconds in front of the microphone to lift people up, not bring them down.

This is what is called for in this age of intolerance and hatred. This is what is called for by prophetic voices like Dr. Martin Luther King. And this is what is called for Jesus, who begs his followers, "judge not, lest you be judged" (Mt. 7:1) and "love one another as I have loved you." (John 13:34)

So let us dedicate ourselves to the continued task to bring more compassion and love to our conversations and rid our world of gossip, rudeness, ugly politics, and intolerance. Tucson was yet another wake-up call, one Dr. King told us about decades ago, and one that Christ always points us towards each and every day. Are we ready to wake up?

Monday, January 03, 2011

The King's Speech

"Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great - some achieve greatness - and others have greatness thrust upon them." William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene V)

To be the King of England (and Emperor of the British Empire) would be, for some, one of the greatest jobs one could ever aspire towards. With its rich history, lavish palace life, and receiving the respect and admiration of people around the world, who wouldn't want it?

In The King's Speech, we meet such a man in "Bertie" (Colin Firth).

Bertie was a family nickname, short for his public persona: His Majesty, the Duke of York, Albert Frederick Arthur George. He was the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon) and a seeming afterthought to his big brother, the handsome heir presumptive Edward "David" (Guy Pearce). Instead, Bertie grew up with a crippling and embarassing stammer, never able to get out a thought without stuttering and stumbling over his words.

After trying to find a cure, he was resigned to the fact that he would never recover - and still remain locked in the shadow of his brother, who had assumed the throne as Edward VIII.

But then he met Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist, who took a different tactic - he decided to become the royal prince's only true friend aside from his strong-willed wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Lionel knew that overcoming his stammer would not happen through any therapy tricks, but through digging through the past and the prince's emotional state - a brave move for a common subject of the British realm.

Through this grueling process, not only was Bertie able to speak better - but he learned how to become a better man... a great man, in fact.

In Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare once wrote one of the most famous lines in English literature: "Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great - some achieve greatness - and some have greatness thrust upon them." (Act II, Scene V). This summarizes the life of the prince: he was born to royalty, he achieved confidence over his speech impediment, and due to the abdication of Edward VIII, he was unexpectedly thrust into power as George VI.

He didn't crave the greatness of power - and with the onslaught of World War II at hand, he wished he could avoid it at all costs. We can learn much from his humility.

Humility is a Christ-like virtue - a trait that means we do not seek our own reward. We perform our duties without much complaint. We do for others first before ourselves. And ironically, or perhaps Providentially, it is in this humility where we become truly great.

Greatness has its origins in trusted friendships (like that between Lionel and Bertie). Greatness means overcoming our fears and frustrations (such as a crippling stutter). Greatness involves still loving others despite their persecution (as Bertie did for his brother, even when he discovered that his stammer was due partially to his insults and teasing). And greatness is perfected when we use it for the sake of comforting, serving, and giving of ourselves for others (just as George VI used his imperfect speech to give comfort to the British people on radio during the Second World War).

The King's Speech shows us that God can make great things happen through us, even if it means using our most embarrassing traits in the process. Through friends like Lionel, God is able to lift us up out of our misery - and use those harrowing moments as the saving grace for others... if only we are humble enough to get out of the way.

As a child, I myself was bullied and picked upon for my own idiosyncrasies. It hurt. It pained me. It nearly crippled me. But God has called me to use those embarrassing moments so that I might help others. Now I am able to look out for those who are alone, isolated, and afraid - and welcome the newcomer, the stranger, and the outsider whenever I can. This is the greatness that I continually strive towards - and hopefully not for my glory, but for the sake of others.

How might God be calling you to greatness? What in your past might God use to bring about greatness in your life? And how can you humbly put your gifts at the service of another?

We may not be kings or royal princes. We may not be the world's leading expert on speech therapy. But we are each called to a greatness beyond human understanding. The next move, it seems, is ours. In that journey, God be with us all.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

True Grit

"The wicked flee when none pursueth." Proverbs 28:1

This Scriptural quote, taken from the Book of Proverbs, is among the first images seen in this newest version of the classic Western True Grit. It stands, then, as the directors' challenge - to the characters, to the story, and to the audience in the theatre - for what is to come.

The direction of this film is relatively simple: in the year 1877, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage girl from Arkansas, sets out to bring her father's killer, a renegade named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), to justice.

To accomplish this, she hires a merciless federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to track down the murderer. A Texas ranger by the name of La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who is also on Chaney's trail, also accompanies Mattie and Rooster on their manhunt through the wilderness. Neither man likes the idea of traveling with a teenage girl, but after showing her determination and intelligence, Rooster and La Boeuf reluctantly agree to her companionship.

What Mattie believes about this journey is summed up in that basic proverb: "The wicked flee when none pursueth." (Prov. 28:1)

She is disgusted with the prospect that someone who hurt her and her family might never face justice - simply because no one bothered to pursue the case. Mattie's family is not considered special and her father's death is just one of many in the Old West. And even if Chaney is caught for other crimes, will anyone remember her family and the horrible loss they endured?

And so Mattie must conjure up true grit and find others who possess true grit - in other words, a firm resolve to push forward despite fear, retribution, inability, or the dangers that await.

In our own day, in some respects, things haven't changed much since the Old West.

The wicked still run free, especially when they hurt the marginalized members of our society: the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the young, the old, the underemployed, the uneducated, the citizens of second and third world nations, the handicapped, and so many other people who are easily forgotten.

Who has the true grit to stand for them?

At the start of the film, Rooster and La Boeuf are willing to stand up for those with money and power (in the form of paying customers and state senators), but are reluctant to stand for the plight of a poor Arkansas family. In our day, who stands for people like Mattie's family?

From large social groups like the unemployed and victims of bigotry to people in our own lives (our families, our workplaces, our classrooms, and our neighborhoods) who go ignored, there are many opportunities that God gives us to show our true grit. From a person stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire to the children suffering abuse and pedophilia, we are confronted with great opportuities to exhibit our true grit.

So do we show it? Do we take a stand? Do we make a difference and build up our resolve to help the victimized, bring about social justice, and defend those who are beaten down?

Or do we ignore the problems? Do we hope that someone else might do it for us? Do we turn our faces away from social problems - and never even admit or confess these sins - and then never make a resolution to do better?

The characters of True Grit, and the lack thereof, are also a challenge for us:

It is understandable that little Mattie had true grit to stand for justice - for it was her own family that suffered most. Likewise, those who are hurt are called to work to bring about justice for their situtation and those in similar circumstances.

The two officers, Rooster and La Boeuf, were also called upon to stand up for justice - it is, in a sense, their job to provide for public safety and stand up against crime. Likewise, public officials and society's teachers and leaders (including those in religious contexts like the Church) are called on to use their authority to bring about social justice for those in their care.

But who was missing in this mix? Which characters are absent from the crusade? It is those average, ordinary people in the background who shy away from such an adventure. In the Old West, the wicked were allowed to run free because the general population was afraid or preferred to stay clear of the fray. In our own times, the wicked are still allowed to run free because of the inactivity of regular folks like us.

Our faith compels us to move away from the sidelines and conjure up true grit. Our faith implores us to stand firm with one another in the fight for the defenseless and the persecuted. Our faith demands of us to take action for the sake of justice.

Let us ask ourselves: where are the wicked running free in our lives? Is it in the political and cultural landscape - or closer to home - in our offices, in our churches, in our schools, in our very own backyards? And then let us pray that God might give us the courage and the true grit to do something about it, lest the wicked continue to run free while we do nothing to stop it.