Monday, May 30, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

"But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, are by no means least among the clans of Judah, for from you shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel... he shall be peace." Micah 5:1,4a

As Kung Fu Panda 2 opens, the dragon warrior Po (voiced by Jack Black) is enjoying success, fame, and camaraderie as a result of the exciting events from the first movie in this series.

Yet underneath the excitement, Po suffers from a lack of inner peace - amplified by growing questions about his childhood and his origins. This oversize panda begins to wonder whether the goose cook Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) is really his biological father - a fact that is obvious to almost everyone else except Po.

And just when our hero begins a journey into the past, another ghost of yesteryear rears his head in the form of the Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) - a royal peacock who once killed all the pandas of the kingdom when he heard a prophecy that stated one of these animals would ultimately destroy him. Now Shen is back - and once again terrorizes the countryside in a play for ultimate power over all creation.

And when trouble arises like this, Po and the Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Seth Rogan, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu) jump into action - but the dragon warrior is weakened when he realizes Shen is somehow connected to his frightening past. And without anything close to inner peace, Po cannot stop this new nemesis and hope seems lost.

The events of this film reminded me of the biblical origin stories of Moses from Exodus and Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. In both these narratives, a royal figure (Pharaoh and Herod the Great, respectively) feels threatened by a prophecy - and resorts to genocide to extinguish any opposition. In Kung Fu Panda 2, Shen joins the ranks of these terrorizing historical figures.

In true biblical fashion, the farther one goes to ignore or stifle a prophecy, the farther one actually fulfills the challenging words of a prophet.

The Scriptures that haunted Herod came from the prophet Micah who foretold, "But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, are by no means least among the clans of Judah, for from you shall come forth one who is to be ruler of Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient times... He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord, by the majestic name of God. His people shall remain for his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. He shall be peace." (Micah 5:1,3-4a)

Like Herod and Pharaoh before him, Lord Shen was jealous of anyone stealing his thunder. And like them, he was worried that someone would surpass him in greatness and power. The prophecy in Scripture (and in the film) said that the most important person would rise up from a people considered the least important members of society. And in many respects, Jesus told us today that the "greatest in the kingdom shall be the least" (Mk. 10:44)

For anyone seeking greatness in this life, such a realization is understandably troubling... yet to what lengths would we go to respond to it?

Moses came from a slave people and Jesus came from Galilee, considered the backwaters of the Jewish countryside. And in this movie, Po comes from the otherwise forgettable panda species, insignificant to the mighty peacocks of ancient China. Greatness truly comes from the least.

In our lives, do we seek greatness - like Pharaoh, Herod, or Lord Shen? Do we get jealous of others who gain so much, who get so much praise and honor - when we feel that we deserve it more? At the office, in our families, and among our friends and neighbors, we can fall victim to envy - and even become tempted to destroy the reputations of those who get ahead, perhaps hoping we can slip into their place of honor one day.

Jesus tells us, and the prophecies of old tell us, that if we want to be great, we must be the servant of all. We must accept God's will with humility and even tap into our weaknesses if we truly want to be great in this life and especially in the next.

Po found "inner peace" when he realized that his humble and frightening origins would not dominate him - but would strengthen him when confronted with trouble.

Can we find inner peace, too? Can we be at peace with knowing that others have pushed ahead in the race of life? If we seek peace, then we must embrace our weaknesses, lead with humility, and be open to the will of God in our daily lives.

Otherwise, we are a resounding gong - hoping that Jesus' words (and a history of great people emerging from humble origins) can be circumvented by our creativity. But God always has the final word - and this is one principle of the universe that has lasting power. The last shall be first. So it's up to us to take upon ourselves the mantle of being last ... when we do that, we shall achieve inner peace and in that, truly become the greatest in the kingdom.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

"Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Luke 23:43

There are varying degrees of moral fortitude amongst the characters in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth installment in this modern Disney franchise. Then again, it's no surprise considering this is a movie saga about...well... pirates.

Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is a lovable criminal - guilty of looting, lying, stealing, and an unquenchable greed for more. We also find out in this film that, a while back, he also snuck into a Spanish convent (thinking it was a brothel by accident) to tempt the young novices to abandon their chaste lives.

One of those women was Angelica (Penelope Cruz), who left the religious life to become a pirate herself and sail as first mate to her father, the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane) - perhaps the most sinful of pirate captains, unforgiving of his crew and cruel to anyone that stands in his way. He stands against Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now an officer in the British Royal Navy - yet still guilty of his own shortcomings: vengeance, trickery, pride, and of course piracy - who sails to prevent Blackbeard from finding the Fountain of Youth.

No matter how dark (or at least colorful) their past might be, each of these characters can be redeemed. In a way, we - the audience - are rooting for them. We cannot help but smile at the exploits of Capt. Jack, the wittiness of Barbossa, the spunk of Angelica, or the stylish confidence of Blackbeard, no matter their flaws.

Aboard Blackbeard's feared ship, The Queen Anne's Revenge, a Christian missionary Philip Swift (Sam Clafin) is held captive - but believes and prays for the redemption of his vicious captor. Even the worst pirate that ever sailed is worthy of God's forgiveness and grace, he says.

Swift is a wonderful addition to the Pirates franchise, giving these light-hearted Caribbean romps a good moral center. The missionary acts out of love for all God's creatures, from the mutinous crew of the Revenge to the animalistic mermaids that swim in the deep. In one particular case, he treats a young mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) with compassion and respect even though she is capable and willing to attack his crew mates.

Swift's unconditional hope and love for Syrena points to the same unconditional hope and love God has for all people, no matter how good or evil they have been up until now.

One only needs to look at the story of Jesus' crucifixion to see this play out. As he was being nailed to the cross, Jesus looks upon the belligerent soldiers and says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Lk. 23:34) And as he hangs upon the cross, he tells one of the guilty criminals hanging next to him, "Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Lk. 23:43) God offers grace to everyone, even the worst of the worst.

But this unconditional love does not mean we just lay back, do nothing, and accept God's forgiveness. While the Lord offers it freely, it is up to us to receive it - through repentance or by extending that same love to one another.

Consider Angelica who, despite her sordid past, acts out of love, pity, and hope for Blackbeard's soul - and (spoiler alert) is willing to give up her life so that her father might live. Or consider Syrena who re-examines her mermaid tendency to tempt and kill wayward sailors when one of those offers her air to breathe or protection from the sword.

It seems, though, the journey for Capt. Jack and Barbossa is still unfolding. Though both have their kinder sides and moments of grace (Sparrow begins to feel emotion in this film, perhaps the start of something greater), they both still operate out of a playful selfishness.

So thanks to a Hollywood that loves its sequels, the book isn't closed just yet on these characters - just as our Lord is a God of second chances (or fourth or fifth chances in the case of the Pirates movies). We live in hope for these pirate captains (and will await the next installment of the series) just as God looks forward, with giddy and divine anticipation, for our own redemption. Let us pray, then, that our story is one worth the wait.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


"I neither have silver or gold, but I do have something even better to give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, get up and walk!" Acts 3:6

Underneath the surface of the movie Bridesmaids, which positions itself as a gross-out comedy for women, there is actually more than the bathroom humor and sex jokes seen in the previews.

This film gives us a peek at the world through the eyes of Annie, a down-on-her-luck Midwestern young adult (Kristin Wiig) who is tapped to be the maid of honor at the wedding of her longtime best friend Lilian (Maya Rudolph), who might also be her only friend.

This invitation couldn't come at a better time for poor Annie. She has been stumbling through life - miserably working behind the counter of a jewelry store since her start-up business (a homemade cake shop) didn't survive the economic recession. She herself has little money to pay the rent on an apartment she shares with a roommate who makes excuses not to pay her half of the bill. The only "romance" in her life comes from a man (Jon Hamm) who uses her for sex - and she drives a run-down car with a missing tail light.

Unfortunately, being a bridesmaid only compounds the problems. At the engagement party, Annie runs into Lilian's new best friend Helen Harris (Rose Byrne), a rich mother who seems to have it all, reminding Annie of how little she has and how unlucky she has been.

Throughout the wedding preparations and in a variety of ways, Annie and Helen continue to spar for the affections of the bride - and in the end, Annie comes out even worse than before. In short order, Lilian makes a stunning change by replacing Annie with Helen for her maid of honor (and soon after, dis-invites her childhood friend from the wedding altogether).

When it can't get any worse, Annie gets fired from her job, kicked out of her apartment, and ends up in a traffic accident thanks to that burnt out tail light. She has truly hit rock bottom.

So underneath all the comedy lies a very real situation. How many of us have been where Annie now sits, alone on the couch, under the covers, and on the precipice of depression and despair? How many of us have hit that "rock bottom" place in our lives when nothing seems to go right and everyone seems out to get us?

Even in Scripture, we have plenty of examples of those who hit rock bottom. Consider Job after his family died, his property was stolen, and his body was plagued with disease. Consider Jeremiah at the bottom of the cistern, thrown in by his own friends. Consider Jonah in the belly of the fish or the Psalmist who declares, "Out the depths, I cry to you, O Lord!" (Ps. 130:1).

So what do we do when we find that low place? What did those biblical heroes do to change their lot in life? What did Annie do when that moment came crashing down upon her?

In the movie, a new friend slapped some sense into our girl. Megan (Melissa McCarthy, who steals every scene and serves as both the comedic and moral compass of the film) visits Annie in her depression and tells her to make an intentional move towards reconciliation. Wallowing in self pity won't do her any good, Megan says. Instead, she needs to look at the good within her and the good that can be done for others.

Annie needed to look at her own sins and shortcomings before she could start to improve things with Lilian. She needed to reconcile with Nathan (Chris O'Dowd), a budding relationship she sabotaged out of frustration. She needed to fix that broken tail light and get back into baking, her true passion. But most importantly, she needed to mend the fractures in her relationship with the bride and even the new maid of honor.

Jesus once said, "If you come to the altar and realize that someone has something against you, leave your gift there and immediately go be be reconciled with that person." (Mt. 5:24)

It's not easy to do, but sometimes we need to shoved. Megan did that for Annie, proving her worth as a true friend. In the Scriptures, Peter does that for a crippled beggar saying, "I have neither silver or gold, but I have something even better to give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, get up and walk!" (Acts 3:6).

When we're at our lowest, it might seem like money or easy solutions will erase the problems we face - but what we really need is a shove and someone to tell us "Get up and walk!" At our lowest, we feel paralyzed and frightened, insecure and uncertain of the future. That is the time our ears need to be attuned the most to the kind words of friends and the comforting passages of the Scriptures. "Get up and walk!" Depending on the circumstances, we might need to do some interior soul-searching like Annie did in this movie - or we might need to swallow our fear or our pride and confront whatever or whoever is up against us.

In a way, Bridesmaids is a sad movie about a sad person, abused and neglected, financially poor and relationally challenged (and as the film shows, sometimes weddings, a event of great joy and hope, can further amplify the depression of others). But thankfully, the hope that Megan shoves Annie towards doesn't lie too far under the surface of the comedy here.

"Get up and walk!" No matter how low we get, let us attune our ears to the voice of God, the voice of the prophets, and the voice of our friends to hear those hopeful words of grace.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


"The Lord said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' And so I boast most gladly of my weakness in order that the strength of Christ may dwell within me." 2 Cor. 12:9

How is strength measured? In most cases, with brute force. Looking at the movie posters for Thor, we anticipate that we'll see much of the same: strength through muscle, power, prestige, and weapons (just look at that hammer!). Perhaps that's the image the marketing department at Marvel wants to get across - to lure audiences into the theatre... only to have their preconceptions about strength pulled out from under them.

The movie's story follows Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the son of the king of an alien super-race at the center of our galaxy, whose power is purely physical: with his trusty hammer in hand, he can defeat any army and destroy any civilization.

Thor thinks with his muscles, but not his head or his heart. When his coronation ceremony is interrupted by the "frost giants," he exacts revenge on them by visiting their homeworld in an attempt to punish them violently. But his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) will have none of this - and after rescuing Thor and his friends, banishes his son to earth and strips him of his power.

When Thor lands here, his strength leaves him - and he is as weak as any other man (unfortunately, the filmmakers decided not to strip him of his good looks, a form of great strength on this planet, making this character slightly less believable in his weakness). Nonetheless, Thor must learn other ways to become strong.

Luckily, he has landed right into the hands of a good teacher, the astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) - who shows Thor that kindness to strangers, compassion for others, hard work, and earned intelligence are the source of her strength.

Despite the film's flaws, audiences expecting a festival of vengeful strength are treated to the story of a god who learned the greatest power was in the human heart.

In addition, these audiences might not expect that this message is one rooted in Scripture and put so well by a self-described weak man, St. Paul, who writes, "The Lord said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' And so I boast most gladly of my weakness in order that the strength of Christ may dwell within me." (2 Cor. 12:9).

To many in the world, a poor scientist living in the middle of the desert with homemade equipment, seems weak and insignificant. But like St. Paul, she is actually the strongest one of all because she is filled with the strength of Christ - compassion, love, selflessness, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, dedication, and hope. By comparison, a demigod filled with with vengeance, selfishness, narcissism, rage, and violence is the weakest one of all.

Thor must learn the values of Christ to regain any of his strength. Then he will truly be worthy of the hammer and the heroic status that comes with it.

So, too, must we if we really want to be strong. Despite the commercials for Bowflex or the body-building actors like Chris Hemsworth or Natalie Portman, there is a deeper strength that Christ calls us to aspire towards. That strength comes in our humility, our love for others, our respect for life, our forgiveness of our enemies, our daily work, and our hope for the future.

Even the core of our Christian faith is the weak body of a Jewish carpenter dead upon a cross. Yet this simple, crucified man vanquished the power of the gods in human history, replacing the values of vengeance and selfishness with the the gospel of compassion and peace. (it is also worth noting that a world impacted by Christ's message has re-written the tale of the Norse god Thor so that it conforms to the values of Jesus).

May all of us, no matter how weak we are and no matter how insecure, frightened, or flawed we feel, put on the strength of the gospel by living the nonviolent, selfless, and generous lives that Christ invites us to live. Then we will truly wield a hammer more powerful than Thor's and occupy a superhero story more exciting than anything we'll see at the movies.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Conspirator

"Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you..." Matt. 5:11

Amidst the blockbusters and animated films that occupy the top spots at the box office this spring is a lesser-known film that deserves some attention: Robert Redford's The Conspirator, an historical drama about the trial of the conspirators of Abraham Lincoln's 1865 assassination.

But the film is not titled in the plural, but rather focuses much of its gaze on one singular figure, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) - and whether or not she was truly guilty of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth (played here by Toby Kebbell) and his accomplices to murder the President.

The question of guilt or innocence is embodied by her lawyer, Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy), who at first believes she was just as responsible for Lincoln's death as Booth. He accepts the case more as a favor to his mentor, U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), but hopes that the evidence will convince him of the futility of defending such a woman.

Through Aiken, the audience begins to see how corrupt the case against her really was. Using coercion, trickery, populism, and intimidation, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) tries Mary Surratt and the other surviving defendants in a military tribunal - further sealing their fate. Like Aiken, we move from assuming Surratt was probably guilty to feeling that any possible connection to the assassination plot is overshadowed by the corruption of the proceedings.

But unlike Aiken, most of us might have acquiesced to the government's case. It seems like a losing battle, fixed from the very start. However, Aiken sticks with Mary Surratt as his hatred moves to compassion and his suspicion moves to a desire to defend the defenseless.

Because of this, he is destroyed - by the American public who views him as a traitor, by his fiancee who thinks he has chosen a Confederate sympathizer over her, and by the military lawyers who exclude him (a decorated and wounded Civil War veteran) from any further honors or acceptance in their community. Despite the onslaught of criticism and rejection, and perhaps fueled by it, he stands even more aggressively for Mary Surratt.

Jesus spoke of people like Aiken when he declared in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you" (Mt. 5:11). The Lord is speaking about those who maintain integrity and righteousness even when the pressure mounts and common sense compels us to veer from that path.

Even more, it might be understandable if the person who Aiken was defending was someone he loved and honored all his life. But Surratt has no prior relationship with her lawyer - and as someone who sacrificed so much in the fight against her cause, Aiken begins his connection with his defendant with seething animosity. She is the enemy - but his love of the law of the land he nearly gave his life for in the Civil War pushes him to stay the course.

Whether he knows it or not, he lived up to Jesus' command to "love your enemies" (Mt. 5:44) - and does so despite the greatest odds.

Most of us would defend our families and friends, our loved ones and the people to whom we admire and cherish, without much hesitation. But would we do the same, would we risk everything we have built up in our life, for the people we cannot stand? Would we lay down our lives for our childhood bullies, for the boss who humiliates you in public, or for the terrorist who conspires against us?

This is the radical call of Jesus - to give everything for others, even those we cannot stand. For Fredrick Aiken, this was Mary Surratt. Who is that person or persons for us? This film reminds us that, to conform to the gospel of Christ, our love must extend all the way to the person that disgusts us the most. Only at that moment, as Jesus promised those who are persecuted and spat upon for such great love, can we truly "rejoice and be glad... for our rewards in heaven will be great beyond measure." (cf. Mt. 5:12).