Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain America

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Matt. 5:5

When I first saw trailers for Captain America: The First Avenger, I must admit that I was a bit skeptical - from the belligerent militaristic overtones of the gun play to the word "avenger" in the film's title (a word that finds its root in the non-Christian reaction of "vengeance"). But what surprised me was the pure heart that lay at the center of this classic comic-book superhero movie.

During the first third of the film, we see the era of the Second World War through the innocent eyes of a short, often-ignored young adult by the name of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans with a CG-altered body reduction). Poor Steve, meek and mild compared to the fighting boys making their way to the War, is regularly beaten up in Brooklyn alleys and rejected by most of the young women who come in contact with him... yet all the while, he maintains a pure and loving heart. He does not harbor anger, bitterness, or regret. Instead, he desires only to do the right thing and extend compassion to all around him.

It is this scrawny young man with a heart of gold, then, that truly stays with us through the entire movie - even after scientists and military brass inject Rogers with a special serum that amplifies his cellular structure, making him a "super soldier." For underneath the newfound brawn and muscle still beats the heart of someone whom Jesus once extended his love towards: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." (Mt. 5:5).

Rogers' meekness taught him some valuable lessons... principles that would give him a strength beyond the strongest soldier on the battlefield. When asked if he wanted to kill Nazis (an easy question asked in movies many times before to a chorus of "oh yeah!" by many a film character), Rogers responds "I don't want to kill anyone. I just don't like bullies." Even against one of the most vicious enemies our world has ever known, Rogers has learned that killing is no answer. However, at the same time, those who disregard the dignity of life - and oppress and persecute those weaker or different than they are - must be brought to justice and accountability. And when a grenade threatens to kills a platoon of soldiers, it is the meek and mild Rogers that sacrifices himself for the sake of others - proving his understanding of selflessness and love for all God's people (even those who just recently persecuted him).

This is what true heroism is all about. No impenetrable shield or six-pack of stomach muscles comes close to the strength of the gospel if truly lived out in daily life.

Blessed are the meek, says Jesus. This familiar beatitude rolls off the tongue so easily, but what does it really mean? Blessed are those who are ignored, rejected, persecuted, beaten down, overwhelmed, physically or emotionally weak, less-than-perfect, absent-minded, poverty-stricken, shy and quiet. Blessed are the ones that we often forget or the acquaintances that barely register in our memory. Blessed are the people who are laughed at for their mistakes or their appearances. Blessed are those who get picked last on the sports team or those who can't seem to get ahead in their work or their classes. Blessed are those with two left feet or those considered unattractive. Yes, blessed are all those people - believe it or not.

Jesus says that it is these people, from whom the world has taken so much away, that will ultimately be first in God's eyes.

This beatitude, which we often overlook each time we hear it, is perhaps one of the greatest challenges Jesus offers us. Do we contribute to the persecution and frustration of the meek? Do we cause those who are meek to fall into sadness and depression? Do we forget the meek as we go throughout our daily lives? If we have ever done that, and in some respects we may all be guilty of this oversight or neglect from time to time, Jesus challenges us to help the meek inherit the earth.

In the film, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) took a chance on the meek - and lifted them up higher than any special serum could ever do. Perhaps it was because they themselves were once put down (as a woman or as a Jew), but they were able to respond well to Christ's challenge to love and look out for the meek.

This beatitude (and the film) also offers us another challenge: if we find ourselves in the role of the meek person, what are we to do? Take vengeance on our persecutors? Sulk in bitterness and anger? Give up on any hope for a brighter future? No... we are called to turn the other cheek, respond in love, show kindness to our enemies, and above all, be selfless and sacrificial on behalf of one another (even those who put us down). The meek will gain their strength when they live life as if they were the strongest person - because in so doing, they really do inherit the earth. Their strength is what lies beneath the meekness - a strength embodied by Jesus of Nazareth and all the saints from Christ's time to our own.

Blessed are the meek like Steve Rogers. Blessed are the meek who occupy our daily routines - the forgotten ones, the persecuted ones, and the unloved ones - for we are called by Christ to lift them up. And blessed are us when we are meek, for if we live by the tenets of the gospel, we will have an impenetrable shield beyond price: the promise of salvation.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

"No greater love is there than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." John 15:13

It has all led up to this. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, is the culmination of the seven movies that preceded it - wrapping up all the loose ends and giving final meaning behind all the series' storylines and secrets.

In the end, after our central characters have come of age and learned more than classroom studies at Hogwarts, it comes down to three basic kernels of wisdom: 1) there is greater depth to people, if only we take the time to look for it; 2) heroism is forged in courage, goodness, and hope; and 3) evil has no power over selfless, sacrificial love.

(NOTE: this review will contain spoilers, as they are essential to understanding the spiritual connections that this movie makes; if you have not read the book or seen the film, be aware of that spoilers will certainly follow)

There is greater depth...

One of the benefits of stretching a story for seven books (or eight feature films) is that we have the benefit of discovering the rich depth that many of the characters possess. From the first movie onward, we have learned and re-learned the lesson that first impressions and assumptions rarely give us the full picture.

In Deathly Hallows, Part 2, the greatest example of this is Severus Snape (played with rich precision by the acclaimed Alan Rickman). Beginning a decade ago with Sorcerer's Stone, Snape has always raised the eyebrows of his students as well as we, the audience, for his sinister tone of voice, his sharp and biting wit, and his dark and suspicious ways. When he killed Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) in Half-Blood Prince, it seemed his reputation was sealed: Snape was indeed an evil man.

But in this final installment, we learn that, beneath his brooding veneer, Snape was perhaps the most heroic of characters, risking everything for the sake of Lily Potter and her son Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). There was truly more depth to Snape than we (or Harry) had ever known. J.K. Rowling's convenient plot device of the "pensieve," which allows its users to glimpse into the past through memory strands or tears, gives us the opportunity to see the complete backstory - and open our eyes to a new appreciation of the people we thought we knew.

Despite what Harry initially thought of his potions teacher, it is through this incredible moment of exposition that he learns that Snape was capable of great love and affection, of helping others when they needed it, and of admirable restraint when he himself was persecuted (by, to Harry's sadness, his own father and mentors). There was more depth there than Harry ever realized, but unfortunately this realization came too late - as it was only made possible by the tears of a dying Snape.

In our social media world, it is all-too-tempting to view people with passing superficiality; and the more "friends" we acquire, the more difficult it is to go in-depth with any one of them. These tangential connections cause us to make assumptions and ignore the rich depth that God gives all people. Harry was blind to see what lay beneath the hard exterior of Professor Snape - and it was too late when he finally learned the truth. Who in our lives are we being superficial with? Who do we know only in passing - and are they worth more than such a weak relationship gives us?

In this last film of the series, we finally get to see the depth of emotions that Slytherin bully Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) possesses. Torn between his allegiance to his parents, his long-held prejudices, and his growing conscience, it is sad that we get to see so little of Draco's struggle (perhaps we'll see them in the deleted scenes?)... but again in his character development, we get to see the depth we all have - if only we take a moment to look a little more closely.

Heroism forged in courage...

Throughout the series, the filmmakers have pushed our focus towards the three central characters: Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint). Through all their adventures, we have seen the heroism of these three friends shine through with admirable radiance. Consider, for instance, how the trio treated the elves and goblins as equals, unheard of in this fantasy universe - and shocking to the recipients of such kindness.

However, in Deathly Hallows, Part 2, we finally get to expand the list of heroic acts - and in some respects, transcend it - by getting a glimpse at the heroism of characters like Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and most especially Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). Their heroism is forged in summoning up the courage to stand against those who would oppress and hurt others.

When Harry reveals his presence in Hogwarts in the middle of the film, McGonagall - who up until now has reluctantly stepped forward to stand up to the school's corrupt administration - is filled with a hope she has yearned for all year... and is able to confront the enemy and defend her students. But even more courageous is Luna and Neville who have led the student body in an active underground resistance. More than the adults, these young students face persecution and beatings for their beliefs - yet continue to stand true to their core values and in the hope that goodness will prevail.

But perhaps the most telling scene comes near the very end when the evil and victorious Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) enters Hogwarts with the dead body of Harry Potter being carried in as the prize trophy of his triumph. Even then, as hope seems all but extinguished, Neville steps forward when absolutely no other person would dare to tread. Courageous to the bitter end, Neville proclaims that what they fight for is even greater than the Chosen One Harry Potter - and witnesses to the fact that love and goodness is more important, more powerful than anger, temptation, worldly power, and evil. Initially seen as the weakest and most vulnerable student in Sorcerer's Stone, Neville has become the most inspiring one of all in the last act.

Are we ready to stand courageously for what we believe in? Are we willing to put everything on the line for our faith and our hope in something greater? Will we risk ridicule, reputation, or even life to make a difference? Heroes are often seen as those with special abilities, popularity, and power - but Neville, like the prophets in the Scriptures, transcend these narrow understandings of heroism. He reminds us what real "heroes" look like... those who go against the grain, stand courageous, and are willing to risk everything for hope and goodness.

Selfless, sacrificial love...

In the end, what ultimately defeats the evil embodied by Voldemort is love. Not the typically-shown image of romantic love of fleeting emotions and heightened sensuality, but the kind of love that St. Paul writes about to the Corinthians: "love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous. It is not pompous. It is not inflated. It is not rude. It does not seek its own interests. It is not quick tempered. It does not brood over injury. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things." (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

This love is the one shown by the valiant and brave characters of this series, who offer compassion to all creatures - from Muggle to magician, from dwarf to elf to goblin, from giants to dragons, and from the smartest to the struggling students. This love is the one shown by a mother to her son - so much so that it saves the life of the infant Harry the night when Voldemort came to kill the Potter family. This love is shown by millions and millions of fans around the world who waited patiently through seven books and eight movies and who were inspired to treat others in the non-magical world as Harry treated all he met.

But in a special way in Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Harry Potter realizes that the only way to truly vanquish evil was to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the wizarding world. Like Christ, he was frightened but willing to walk towards certain death so that others might live. He embodied the Lord's words, "No greater love is there than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13). And it wasn't just Hermione and Ron that Harry was doing this for - because for Harry, his "friends" included all people, even those he didn't know and even those he didn't much like. No greater love had Harry than to lie down his life for Luna and Neville, for McGonagall and the Hogwarts staff, for the Weasleys and for his girlfriend Ginny (Bonnie Wright), for the Muggles unaware of this hidden world, and yes, even for the Dursleys, the Malfoys, and all the Death Eaters. To give one's self completely for others was perfect love... and this above all else is what destroyed Voldemort and his evil.

It is also telling that, no matter how dire the situation ever was, Harry never used an unforgivable curse. His was always a defensive spell, never an offensive one that would hurt another. Even towards Voldemort, the seventh book recounts, Harry chose not to use a killing curse to win the day... but a simple "expelliarmus" - the most nonviolent spell possible. Because of this selfless act, Harry is able to retrieve Voldemort's weapon and put an end to the destruction.

For Harry, this love needed seven years to fully develop. He needed seven years to fully understand the meaning of selfless sacrifice, which ultimately wins the day. He needed seven years of good mentors like Dumbledore, Sirius Black, McGonagall, Remus Lupin & Tonks, Mad-Eye Moody, the Weasley family, Dobby the house elf, and Hagrid to show him the way of maturity, sacrifice, righteousness. He needed seven years of experiences with fellow students like Neville, Luna, Ginny, Fred & George, and of course Hermione and Ron to give him the tools for the end. He needed to forgive and be forgiven by Snape, Draco, Peter Pettigrew, and the Dursleys to fully grasp the meaning of unconditional love.

In our own lives, all that God has given us - our experiences, our friends, and even our struggles - are there to prepare us for perfect love and redemption. Harry needed his adventures with sorcerer's stones, the Chamber of Secrets, the innocent prisoner of Azkaban, the trials of the Goblet of Fire, the protective Order of the Phoenix, the secrets of the half-blood prince, and the journey to uncover the Deathly Hallows to prepare him for the final battle of good and evil. So in our lives, what have our adventures at school, at work, with our families, and in all that we have seen and done thus far - taught us? Have we learned anything from the past - so that we are equipped for the future? Have we learned the true meaning of love? Have we grasped the significance of selfless sacrifice? Have we received the hope that goodness, justice, and mercy always wins out over vengeance, violence, and death?

If not, then God still has hope in us - that all the previous chapters of our lives have not been in vain - and that we, like Harry, will be ready to stand up when the time comes.

One final note... It is inspiring, to say the least, that even though Harry has defeated evil, he relinquishes power in victory just as selflessly as he approached certain death. He drops the resurrection stone in the forest, stops using the invisibility cloak for protection, and breaks the elder wand - to show that true power actually found in the human heart. So even if we have done what God calls us to do - and we find victory over evil - we are not to boast, brag, or lord our righteousness over anyone.

This serves as a valuable epilogue as we look ahead to the future. The ultimate victory is not just in defeating the forces of evil, but in bolstering and living out the forces of goodness, compassion, selflessness, and love every day of our life. May all of us have such a wondrous journey as this.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Larry Crowne & Transformers 3

"Live simply that others may simply live"

During this year's Independence Day weekend, two very different movies arrived in theatres: Larry Crowne, staring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, featuring Shia LaBeouf and a lot of CGI alien robots. I had the opportunity to see both in a short span of time, so the two have weaved their way together in my prayers this week.

Both films were set in present day with the reality of today's economic recession as the baseline for their stories. For example, compare the circumstances that face the movies' central characters: Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) cannot seem to find a job, despite saving the earth in two previous films; Larry Crowne (Hanks) loses his job due to downsizing and the need for college-educated management, despite being a model employee and dedicated workhorse.

Yet this is where these two movies part ways - both in storyline and in the approach the filmmakers took to their production.

In Transformers, Sam longs for the high that accompanies the thrill of fighting alongside autobots in order to save the planet. It seems he spends his life avoiding anything close to normalcy, choosing a new girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) for her model figure, good looks, and money - and complaining an awful lot about being left out of the military-industrial complex. His attitude is a mixture of cockiness, apathy, and frustration - which means he fails at almost every job interview and causes his eccentric parents to perpetually roll their eyes at him.

And even when Sam gets his wish to land in the middle of an alien battle, he pushes even harder for an intensity to stave off the boredom of life and the fact that he isn't always front and center. It seems, though, that Sam's only advocate is the movie's director Michael Bay, who provides our hero with enough noise and complex action sequences to permanently damage any movie theatre's sound system - including an excessively long and explosive battle tearing up the streets of Chicago.

On the other end of the theatre this weekend was a much more quiet film, Larry Crowne. It's not a depressing movie by any means... quite the contrary: it's a lighthearted comedy with characters to care about and a great emotional payoff.

While Sam Witwicky took his career rejection with smug disdain, Larry takes his downsizing more graciously. After a few tears, he picks himself up and begins looking at new possibilities - not because he is bored with his current life but because he feels he is being offered a new opportunity to impact his world.

Humbly realizing that he can't obtain the jobs he wants without a college degree, Larry enrolls at the local community college. His life begins to chart a new course almost the moment he rides into campus (on a scooter he purchased at a neighbor's yard sale - a more economical transportation than his gas-guzzling SUV).

On his first day, three things propel him into a new future: he makes friends with Talia, a fellow scooter student (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who wants to help Larry (whom she affectionately calls "Lance") find his less-anxious inner self; he begins public speaking classes taught by the overwhelmed Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who helps Larry to understand and appreciate the spontaneity of life; and he takes a basic economics class taught by an enthusiastic, if perhaps a bit self-absorbed, professor (played here with witty charm by Star Trek's George Takai), who helps him to better grasp the economic possibilities of the world today.

Larry Crowne is a story of renewing oneself in a positive light even when confronted with the worst situation. And what is even more enlightening about this film is how many characters respond out of goodness and love for another - not to get ahead, not out of obligation, and not expecting anything in return.

Talia has no agenda when she invites "Lance" to her scooter gang, or when she helps Larry learn the art of feng shui. Larry and Mercedes don't need to give big tips to the pizza delivery people, but they do because it's the right thing to do. When Mercedes is a little drunk, even though she invites Larry into her house for some foolin' around, he calmly declines and encourages her to sleep it off (even though he has a secret crush on her), simply because it's the right thing to do.

"Live simply so that others might simply live." This quote, which has been attributed to a variety of people like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, is what Larry Crowne gets and Transformers ignores.

In the reality of an economic downturn, when things start slipping from our fingers, it is tempting to cling to unnecessary luxuries, hoping they'll never go away. This is the path Sam Witwicky took, leading to more and more destruction. But Larry Crowne took the road less traveled, and it really did make all the difference.

One would think that when Larry abandoned his SUV and a flat screen television in exchange for a beat-up blue scooter, he was crazy. Then again, the same was said about Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Mahatma Gandhi (except the part about the blue scooter).

What Larry lost physically he gained in so many other ways. He found friendship, confidence, his culinary skill set, and a budding love interest played by Julia Roberts.

This week's trip to the movies was akin to Elijah's experience in the mountains of Horeb (1 Kings 19): he looked for God in the noise of thunder, the reverberating feel of an earthquake, and the spectacle of fire - but could not find him there. But when he stopped for a moment to listen to the small simple breeze, he discovered the true power of the Almighty.

Transformers was a spectacular exercise in cinematic excess, but God is not always in the complexities, especially when life has taken a turn for the worse. Larry Crowne, which barely registered at the box office (like a still small breeze in the corridors of the multiplex), was a hopeful (and quite a fun) tale of simple living, fertile soil for God's presence.

This is not to say that the third installment of Transformers was devoid of spiritual meaning (quite the contrary - as it paints a wonderful analogy of God's protection that never abandons us). However, when put side by side, this weekend's two opening films provide a great juxtaposition of approaches to a people stuck in a struggling economic climate.

The hope that Larry Crowne provides is refreshing and grounded in great spiritual and Scriptural tradition - from Elijah to Jesus, from Benedict of Nursia to Francis of Assisi, from Elizabeth Seton to Gandhi. It reminds us that even when faced with rejection, we are called to lift our heads in hope in God and in other people. It offers us some great examples of people doing what is right and just, not out of a selfish hope that "karma" might reward us for our efforts, but out of a genuine care and concern for the welfare of another. It opens our eyes to seeing that living without excess is nothing to fear or be ashamed - in fact, it's quite enjoyable when we surrender to God's will and the possibilities he has in store for us.

Live simply, so that others might live... Live without desire, personal grudges, selfishness, and anger. Live without clinging to our property or jealously exploiting situations as to hedge our bets. In all these things, we not only save ourselves, but we do a favor for all creation.

Live simply. Live life to the fullest. Live for others and for the glory of God above.