Sunday, October 30, 2011

Spiritual Popcorn, Halloween Style

What can scary movies teach us?

Around Halloween, we often pull out our favorite scary movies (or those not-so-scary ones that still remind us of this dark and autumnal time of year).

We might think about familiar classics like the original Dracula and Frankenstein (both released in 1931) or silent movie icons like Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Or maybe we prefer the screamers of the 70s and 80s like Jaws (1975), Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), Friday the 13th (1980), The Shining (1980), or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Even today, we might enjoy watching modern scare-fests like Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Blair Witch Project (1999), the Saw franchise (beginning with the first in 2004), and the most recent, the Paranormal Activity series (released in 2009, 2010, and 2011).

What drives these films (and their box office success stories) is that all of them center around the concept of fear. Filmmakers love to scare us - and audiences love to be scared. As distinct as The Mummy (1932), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Hostel (2005) might be, they all come down to fear.

These movies tap into a primal notion that we are all afraid of something or someone. Whether it's as simple as a fear of heights or spiders - or larger things like terrorism, crime, or losing one's job, fear can paralyze us and control our actions.

Seeing these movies might help us put aside our real fears for a few hours and enjoy an imaginary fright on the silver screen (or watching other people run in terror might distract us from our own situation). Perhaps these films allow us to laugh at the silliness that fear can bring - giving us strength to laugh at our own bogeymen. Or just maybe we want to test our strength - and show ourselves that we can withstand any horror.

But aside from a little escapism, what do these Halloween favorites teach us spiritually? Here are a few things that we might glean from this harvest crop of films:

1) "Fear not, beloved, you are safe. Take courage and be strong" (Dan. 10:19). These are God's comforting and encouraging words to the prophet Daniel - who spent his life in the frightening company of lions and really strange visions. But they might also be words that inspire heroes like Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien franchise (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997), Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) in the Terminator movies (1984, 1991, etc.), or Fr. Damien (Jason Miller) in The Exorcist (1973).

With a firm hope in God and using the gifts God gave them, these heroes prove that fear has no control over them in their quest to save the day and come face to face with their monsters. Not to say that these characters weren't frightened, but they overcame that fear and received the courage they needed.

The same might be said of us. We are called to pray to God for the courage to face our worst fears, to use the gifts and resources that God has placed before us, and move forward with confidence. We know God's love is the absence of fear - and we are armed with that at all times. We are challenged to take a step into the darkness of night and, like our movie heroes, stand courageously and be assured of God's constant protection.

2) Another thing that our favorite Halloween movies teach us is to stand together. While films where the monster knocks off characters one by one can be fun to watch, it is even more impressive when all the characters come together in the face of danger and fear.

In Ghostbusters (1984), Independence Day (1996), and the Harry Potter franchise (2001, continuing through 2011), an outside threat is defeated when characters work together. "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them," proclaims Jesus (Mt. 18:20) - and God gives great strength to those who sacrifice individual glory for mutual partnership in the journey towards victory.

In our age of polarization, now more than ever we are challenged to put aside our differences, reconcile with those who have hurt or wronged us, and love those outside our comfort zones - in order to truly be united against greater evil. Together we can often accomplish more than when we are on our own, but in order to get to that point, we must forgive, love, and show humility with one another.

Perhaps our favorite scary movies would have been a lot shorter if only the characters worked together from the beginning (instead of the creature dividing its victims and devouring them one by one); but that's the movies. In reality, coming together as one people is much more exciting to watch - and defeating our fears with mutual support is much easier than being stranded alone to face those demons.

3) In some, though not all, scary movies, the crowds misjudge the monster. In Frankenstein, and especially in its Mel Brooks' spoof Young Frankenstein (1974), we learn that the creature is not an empty horror in need of extinguishing - but rather a living, breathing person who is just afraid of fire (and has a short temper). Similarly, the Phantom under the Paris opera house is a lonely, rejected, disfigured man with incredible talent and a simple need to be loved.

In The Sixth Sense (1999), nine-year old Cole (Haley Joel Osment) is considered a "freak" by his classmates and family, but in all actually he is the heart of the movie, full of love and unconditional sympathy for those in pain. But so few people want to learn more about this misunderstood boy that he becomes a "ghost" himself - detached from a cold, dark world.

Sometimes the monsters aren't monsters after all. Once we get past the fear, we see something to pity or, more importantly, to love as another child of God. Perhaps the reason that Scripture tells us to avoid fear is because we're fearing the wrong things. The disciples were afraid of the Romans and the tax collectors, but as Jesus approached with love the Centurion and Zaccheus, he showed them that these men weren't the monsters they were made out to be.

We fear the unknown and who/what we don't understand. Are there people in our lives that we fear or avoid - who God might be calling us to love and embrace instead? As we learn in Night of the Living Dead (1968), even zombies are people too.

So who are the "misunderstood monsters" in our day and in our daily lives? Who are the misjudged "bogeymen" that we so easily shun, dismiss, ridicule, hate, or rally against - and should we reconsider our actions? For not all monsters in our favorite Halloween stories are actually monsters - and they have much to teach us about the way we judge and view one another. Let us pray that we might see them as God sees them before we end up like the mob with pitchforks, clubs, and torches.

Scary movies are all around us this time of year, but after we get a jolt on Halloween, let us pause on the Feasts of All Saints (November 1st) and All Souls (November 2nd) to look back at the spiritual lessons we can take from the horror, the silliness, and the truly frightening.

Consider this story, told in retrospect by the gospel writers, found in Scripture: "During the fourth watch of that stormy night, Jesus came to the disciples, walking on the water. When they saw him walking across the sea, they were terrified. 'It is a ghost,' they said, and cried out in fear. At once, Jesus spoke to them, "Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid..." (Mt. 14:25-27)

Ghosts, storms, and terror... yet in the midst of all that, Jesus appears to comfort and save the frightened disciples. The same is true for us - for no matter how scary things get in our lives (from the little phobias that give us the chills, the spooky movies that we love to watch, or our fears related to work, home, health, money, and personal insecurities), we just need to know that God is there for us - to walk alongside us as we summon our gifts and courage, as we learn to forgive and love one another, and as we reach out to the misunderstood monsters. In all these, God is there, telling us every day: "Take courage... Do not be afraid."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Real Steel

"You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I cam against you in the name of the Lord of hosts...!" 1 Sam. 17:45

Real Steel imagines a world in the not-too-distant future where people demand so much violence from their boxing and wrestling matches that robots have taken over in the ring (since mechanical athletes can take a lot of physical punishment and quench the appetite for intense violence without the loss of human life).

This particular story, however, is told from the perspective of Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a tired ex-boxer who now makes his living behind the controls of low-end robots. Moving from county fair to illegal underworld boxing matches, Charlie can never seem to reach the big leagues - mostly due to his impulsive spirit and brazen overconfidence. He is stuck in a seemingly endless cycle where he ends up destroying his work and then begs for money to start over again, only to lose yet another robot in the process.

Against this backdrop, we come to learn that Charlie's son Max (Dakota Goyo) is now an orphan. It seems that Charlie has been battling these bad habits for awhile, as this is the first encounter with his son since he was born (as Charlie abandoned mother and child when things didn't go so well 11 years prior).

In a crude effort to cut his losses and make a few dollars, Charlie agrees to temporarily watch over Max for the summer in exchange for $100,000.

But once father and son are reunited, the story takes a new turn. Max becomes the most unexpected partner in Charlie's boxing business, offering advice and creative ideas that actually seem to work. Max also brings into Charlie's life a new robot: Atom, a beaten-up, near-obsolete, junkyard sparring machine.

Max sees himself in Atom... abandoned, overlooked, and sold for scraps... and because of this, makes it his mission to bring Atom up-to-speed and become the best fighter in the ring. His first test is to convince Charlie that he and Atom are worth taking a risk on. It's an important hurdle that, once overcome, yields an adventure where Atom actually moves up the ranks and, surprising to everyone, goes steel toe-to-toe with the international grand champion robot behemoth, Zeus.

Max's story and Atom's story are not unlike many of the stories from the Scriptures, where the heroes emerge from the least likely places and to everyone's surprise. The message God seems to send is: don't underestimate the least, the powerless, or the forgotten ones.

Consider David, the lowly shepherd boy from the backwater country, unnoticed even by his own family. It was David, small and diminutive, who stood up against the mighty Goliath when no one else stepped forward. "You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts," said the young David (1 Sam. 17:45). When no one else thought he had a chance, it was David who proved everyone wrong.

Throughout history, God seems to favor the poor, rejected, and underestimated while others forget they're even there. Max and Atom fit well in that incredible tradition.

Do we ever feel like Max or Atom, underestimated by others? Or do we ever act like Charlie or Zeus, passing over the poor and rejected in favor of the strong and successful? Most likely, we have been on both sides of the ring at different points in our lives. Either way, it's never too late to learn this lesson again.

In his ministry, Christ reminded us of this when he befriended the lepers, the sick, and the blind; when he reached out to the short and forgotten Zaccheus up in the tree; and when he raised up a possessed woman to become the first witness to the Resurrection. It was Christ who taught us, "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" (Mt. 20:16), and through his death on a cross, fulfilled the wisdom of Scripture: "...the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." (Ps. 118:22)

Whenever we feel that we are up against impossible odds, we must always remember that those are the places where God shines the brightest. God favors the lowly, and lifts up the least among us. And because of that, we also need to be conscious that we do not reject the least in front of us each day - for if we do that, we reject those whom God empowers.

Let us pray that, with faith in a God who loves the least, we might be lifted up when we feel the lowest. Let us also pray that we may never put down, ignore, reject, or diminish anyone in our path, most especially those whom we least expect to save the day.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Way

"Follow me..." Mark 2:14

The Way is a movie that took its own path to your local movie theatre. Refusing to let major Hollywood studios declare this independent film unfit for major theatrical release, director Emilio Estevez took the promotion of The Way to the people by way of a father/son road trip through America (see this article for a peek into that journey).

Except for Estevez and his father Martin Sheen, The Way doesn't feature any blockbuster stars or include mountains of special effects. Rather, it's the story of a simple journey - and in that simplicity, it shatters all expectations.

Sheen stars as Tom Avery, an American eye doctor whose only son Daniel (played in flashbacks by Estevez) has recently died while on pilgrimage through the Pyrenees mountains on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Tom immediately heads overseas to identify and collect Daniel's body - but while in France, he is inspired to continue his son's journey to Santiago.

We come to learn that this decision was a father's way to repair a broken relationship and come to understood who his son really was and what Daniel was trying to tell him in the last conversation they ever had together: "Dad, you don't choose a life. You live it."

With Daniel's equipment, guides, and backpack, Tom sets out on the very long journey across northern Spain just as his son would have done. This is an ancient pilgrim route (called the "Camino" or "Way") towards the shrine of St. James the Apostle, whose remains are found at the Cathedral in Santiago. However, this pilgrimage journey has actually very little to do with venerating the bones of a saint, but savoring the experiences one has along the road to get there.

Along Tom's path, he has his own unique experiences of pain, struggle, and faith - and has chance encounters with an assorted cast of characters including: Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a kind-hearted, playful Dutchman who says he walks the Camino to loose weight; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an embittered Canadian who claims to make the journey to quit smoking; and Jack (James Nesbit), an Irish writer who tells passers-by that he is researching a book about the pilgrims along the road.

Like the travelers in The Wizard of Oz, Tom and these three companions learn that, while they started the journey alone, they want nothing more than to walk together (though not without inevitable complications and disagreements that come from the fusion of very distinct personalities as these).

The movie, like the pilgrimage, gets more interesting the farther along the path they go. With each passing kilometer, the pilgrim group has entertaining adventures, meet an eclectic collection of locals and fellow travelers, and discover more depth about one another than they ever hoped to learn. The destination, then, is not the culmination but rather the capstone to the journey: an affirmation of the beauty that was seen and a blessing to the redemption that had come.

The Way reminds us of the fact that pilgrimage is a lost art. Begun in an era before minute-by-minute busyness and the art of multi-tasking, people would go on pilgrimage as we today would step onto a plane for a much-needed vacation (not that we have much time for that today, either). The pilgrim way was a chance to cleanse oneself from the pressures of the world, to renew oneself during the inevitable periods of silence and routine that go into a very long walk, and to open oneself to the new experiences and new people that we may encounter along the way.

Perhaps now more than ever, we need more pilgrimage moments in our lives. Like the first apostles who left their work and anxieties behind and started down their pilgrim road with Jesus with a simple invitation ("Follow me..." Mk. 2:14), we, too, might need a gentle push to get us going along the way.

We each have a starting point (for Tom, it was a penance for the distance he created with his son; for Joost, it was the need to feel accepted despite his weight problems; for Sarah, it was an addiction; for Jack, it was writers' block)... but as we walk onward on our pilgrimage, we peel back the layers to discover an even-greater reason to make the effort. What might your starting point be? What pains, struggles, or rationale would you have to taking time for a pilgrimage? What might be your goal?

Taking time away might seem like a luxury we don't have, but the fact remains that there will never be a perfect time to set it all aside and set out on pilgrimage. Jesus' disciples had work still unfinished with they followed him; in this movie, Tom had appointments waiting back home and Jack had deadlines he had to meet. If we make the excuse that now is just not the right time, we may never walk the pilgrimage we are called to make. Imagine what might have been missed if the apostles refused Jesus' offer... or imagine how bad a movie this would have been if Tom just went back to America after identifying his son's body. Imagine how dull or crazy your life may be if you don't take your first step towards pilgrimage - whatever that may be for you.

And then imagine what possibilities there may be on your own road ahead. Imagine what your Camino would look like. Imagine the adventures, the people, and the personal growth that may be just around the corner for you.

The producers of The Way took their own pilgrim route to make a meaningful film, despite objections and doubts from big studio executives. The result is a simple and yet profound invitation to all those who watch to take their own journey. The Way may very well be the cinematic equivalent of Jesus' invitation to the first disciples, "Follow me..." The film may be challenging us to move ahead, to take that first step.

The questions remain, then: What will your first step be? What's stopping you? and Where will you go?

Blessings on the way.