Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Descendants

"To you and to your descendants I give this land..." Gen 15:18

In the Scriptures, there is much written about carving out a place for one's descendants. From the patriarchs like Abraham and Sarah to the royal line of David and Solomon, much is spoken about the promised heritage that is to come.

From ancient times, the concept of family has been integral to one's experiences of faith and spirituality. However, times have changed - and this concept has slowly eroded.

This is the backdrop to the characters in The Descendants, the story of a Honolulu family with a rich Hawaiian heritage that stretches back hundreds of years. The King family, appropriately named for their connection to Hawaiian royalty, is about to make a decision regarding ownership of their land on the island of Kaua'i - and the impact of such a sale would not only affect the Kings, but the citizens of the whole state.

Immediately prior to this deal, the wife of Matt King (George Clooney), sole trustee of the family and its assets, is left comatose after a horrible boating accident. The bulk of the film revolves around how he and his family handle this developing situation in light of the major decisions that must take place.

Several problems begin to unfold: first, Matt must become a full-time parent to his two troublesome daughters who cause havoc in their schools; second, Matt must face the reality that, due to her living will, his wife will need to be pulled from life support; and third, Matt begins to discover that his wife was actually having an affair when she had the accident.

Like Job in the Scriptures, as his world becomes unraveled, Matt begins to doubt everything he thought he knew and held sacred. But also like Job, he has a choice: either wallow in denial and self-pity - or chart a new course and take action in that direction.

Family life is never easy. It is full of pitfalls and craziness. Many people today just accept the reality of dysfunction in their homes, choosing to let the prevailing wind rule the day. That was the path along which Matt King was journeying at the start of the story - and perhaps it was a path that caused his kids to misbehave, his wife to stray, and his priorities to be out of line with what really mattered.

This film also shows us another common misconception about family: that it's a private matter. Many of us feel that marriage, children, and heritage are issues that are deeply personal and involve no one but our blood relatives. But as we see in The Descendants, the family decisions of the Kings impact the lives and fortunes of the other citizens of Hawaii.

This reminds us that no family decision is truly individualistic - and that our family unit are social institutions, affecting circumstances beyond our immediate circles.

In the Scriptures, God spoke to Abraham about the future of his family, saying "To you and to your descendants I give this land..." - knowing full-well that such a gift would impact not only forthcoming generations, but also the other people, families, and nations around those people. This family unit would produce the likes of Joseph and his brothers, Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, and ultimately Jesus of Nazareth. This family unit would find itself in slavery, in their own kingdom, in exile, and eventually be scattered across the globe and become the Jewish People we know today. As history tells us, this family has had a profound impact on the world around them.

As we look to our own situation, we realize that we are the descendants of a family, no matter how mixed or convoluted our heritage might be. How are we carrying on the traditions passed onto us? How are we honoring our past by the actions of the present? How are we, inspired by our heritage, making an impact on our world?

In a similar way, we also realize that there will be descendants to follow us. How are we passing the lessons of our family's past to our children and grandchildren? How are we ensuring a positive and life-giving future for future generations?

And in our global age, is it possible that the definitions of family and heritage are changing? Even Jesus challenged the traditional definition of family: "Jesus asked, 'Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.'" (Mt. 12:48-50)

In a digital era such as ours, the concept of family does not need to be eroded, but expanded. With the realization that family is not a private matter, but a social experience, we can expand our family life to include our friends, our teachers and students, our parish and community, our colleagues and neighbors. And with that new understanding of heritage, we again ask ourselves: what has been passed onto us - and how will we pass this onto others? So whether we speak of blood ties or not, the responsibility falls to us to, as the prophet says, "not make our heritage a reproach." (Joel 2:17)

Like Abraham and Moses after him, Matt King was physically able to look out on his land and upon his descendants - and with that view, make the best decision not just for himself and his personal finances, but for the community beyond himself.

Let us pray that our own decisions are not seen as private matters for the few people closest to us - but instead are carried out with a larger picture in mind and for the benefit of a world greater than ourselves. Then, like the descendants of Abraham, we can truly change the world.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Artist

"Be not hasty in your utterance... let your words be few." Eccl. 5:1

The Artist is a unique movie in that almost all it unfolds on screen without dialogue. This is a story of a silent film star struggling with the advent of sound in the movies - which we get to experience through the lens of a virtually silent film.

Without words or sounds to rely on, it is essential to observe the expressions and actions of the characters to truly understand what's going on in this movie.

Since "talkies" became the primary cinematic form in the late 1920s, audiences for decades have been able to sit back and listen - but The Artist takes us back in time, challenging the very way we experience the movies. We are forced, then, to pay close attention to the looks on characters' faces, the way that they move and the emotion that they convey. And in these observations, we learn a valuable lesson: it's not our words, but our actions that matter most.

Whether in the movie theatre or in our everyday life, we too often lean on our words. We say a lot and talk endlessly with each other about a multitude of things - but what do we actually do?

As we step into the world of The Artist, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the top of his game. His vivid expressions, winning smile, and playful interactions with his loyal dog make him popular with audiences, even though no one hears him utter a single word. And while the "talkies" begin to cut into Valentin's share of the market, he remains committed to letting his actions speak for themselves.

But no matter how firmly Valentin stands his ground, the new era of movie-making is here to stay when dialogue and words will be the foundation upon which films are now made.

Regardless of whether or not the viewer sees this stubbornness as the right course of action, the fact that we, the audience, must still take this journey without sound reminds us how important a person's actions really are.

As the author of Ecclesiastes says, "Be not hasty in your utterance... let your words be few." (Eccl. 5:1) Fools, the biblical author says, rely on their empty words - but the wise don't necessarily jump into every conversation that comes their way. How often do we follow sage advice like this?

Take one look at blogs and social media - and we see how much talking is going on out there. Take another look at the 24-hour news cycle - and we hear how much endless babble takes place. On a more personal note, we also take a look at the discussions at the office and the conversations with our friends and family - and start to realize how, sometimes, we talk in circles without much being done.

On a global level, especially in an election year, public officials promise a whole lot, debate over the most trivial topics, and give too many long speeches - but when the going gets tough (and especially if no one is looking), inaction rules the day. Keeping the status quo is easier than taking risks and following through with real action.

And as each year moves onto the next, we make promises and resolutions to ourselves. We plan for it, we script it out, and we talk to others about it... but temptation and distractions can quickly overwhelm us and the actions that could have affected change in our lives slowly get tossed to the side.

Our world is littered with words. We sometimes fool ourselves by putting all our hopes and dreams on those words. Even in our faith lives, words rule the day. The epistle writer James saw how dangerous this trend could be, even in his own day. He exhorted his readers to put aside his letter and get up off their seats, saying, "What good is it, my friends, if someone SAYS he has faith but does not DO good works?... Faith of itself, if it is not active through works, is simply dead." (James 2:14,17)

Watching The Artist reminds us that we need to go back to how we act and less on what we say. This film will go on to grab awards from Hollywood for the simple reason that it gave us a chance to see what actions, expressions, and body language can do to tell a story.

In our own lives, we will be rewarded by God and those we serve for our own actions - for they tell our story more loudly than a mountain of words could ever do.

When we find ourselves saying, writing, or debating more than taking solid action towards the Gospel, it is time to refocus. When we spend more time discussing our faith and less time serving the less fortunate and marginalized, it is time to refocus. When we tell everyone how much we've been hurt, but spend little time forgiving those who hurt us, it is time to refocus.

As Jesus said, "by your fruits, you will be known" (Mt. 7:16) It is not the speeches we gave, the conversations we had, or the righteousness we felt as we penned a blog entry or facebook post that will define us. In fact, sometimes they can bring us down. Instead, it is the things we do for one another, the actions we take to back up our words, and the impact we made on this world that will ultimately be the epithet that we can courageously claim.

And if we are to use words, let them be words that empower, inspire, encourage, and showcase our Christlike compassion - and never to belittle, hate, insult, or spiral into an endless cycle of nonsense. Let our words be few - and let them be the best words we can use - and furthermore, let them be words that will find a response in the actions we take to fulfill them.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Red Tails

"Make justice your aim, stand up against evil, listen for the cry of the lost, and defend the forsaken." Isaiah 1:17

Movie theatres have been long overdue for a movie like Red Tails, the heroic story of the Tuskegee Airman, the African-American pilots of the 332nd fighter group and the 477th bombardment units of the US Army in World War II.

The Tuskegee Airman stand out for two reasons: first because of the fact that, before the civil rights era, these men were able to overcame racial prejudice and unjust laws in the service of their country; and secondly, because they fulfilled their duties with incredible precision and success, above and beyond that of many other squadrons and fighting units during WWII.

Red Tails gives audiences a glimpse into this oft-forgotten piece of history by following the stories of a few of those pilots during 1944 and 1945. It is also a tale of what it means to live up to the call to "...make justice your aim, stand up against evil, listen for the cry of the lost, and defend the forsaken" (Isa. 1:17).

The Tuskegee Airman knew a thing or two about injustice and facing evil. Not only did they see the destruction and horrible acts of cruelty by the Nazis, but they also faced an unjust system of racial segregation and sinful racism from the very people they fought alongside from their own country.

Yet they continued to soldier on, despite the obstacles. Even though they were given an opportunity to travel overseas with the Army during WWII, they were reduced to insignificant roles and leftover missions, far behind enemy lines.

But thanks to the prophetic leadership of Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) in Washington DC - facing off against racist military brass, the Tuskegee Airman are finally given an opportunity to step up on the battlefield. They are tasked with the job of defending bomber planes as they fly into Axis territory. In some respects, it represents another challenge: to dutifully defend by air the very soldiers who discriminate against them on the ground.

Yet despite this, they passed with flying colors (red, to be exact, as their P-51 Mustang aircraft bear the color on their tails). Through their aerial skills, they are able to truly "...stand up against evil, listen for the cry of the lost, and defend the forsaken," and that's just in the skies.

These brave men teach us a valuable lesson: that, to make justice our aim for all people, we must always stand against evil, listen for the cry of the lost, and defend the forsaken, even if those cries and forgotten souls are the people we dislike most. Their role in the war is simply to defend life. The movie shows us that it was tempting to be a hot shot hero (and some of the pilots on screen do succumb to that temptation) - but being a skilled wingman is what wins the war.

In our lives, it can be tempting to look for power and glory for ourselves. But in the end, sometimes the best thing we can do is be good wingmen.

Yes, there may be battles that we can easily win by ourselves. In the movie, the hot-headed Joe 'Lightning' Little (David Oyelowo) wants to single-handedly face off against the Nazis as well as the white racist airmen stationed near his unit in Italy. And while he is a skilled fighter (in the air and on the ground), he cannot truly claim victory on his own. He needs the other Tuskegee pilots, and he needs the other soldiers (white, black, or otherwise) in the route towards victory on any front.

We need one another. And even if we see injustice and evil, and hear the cries of the lost and forsaken, we can do more in concert with others than we can do on our own. It's tempting to be the brazen hero, but if we do it, we can crash and burn - which doesn't help anyone.

Instead, we must work together. The Tuskegee Airmen worked together to defend the WWII bombers they were assigned to, no matter how simple that task was in the grand scheme of the war. The white soldiers needed the Tuskegee pilots - and the Tuskegees needed each other - to win the day. And looking further ahead, the civil rights activists needed the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen in their own march towards freedom.

And while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose holiday we celebrate this month, was a heroic figure of social justice, he needed thousands of men and women, white and black, to stand with him as his wingmen as he marched on Washington and declared "I have a dream..."

No matter how great we are, we all need wingmen. And we all need to be wingmen. Working together as a human race is our ultimate goal, so in whatever small ways we can, we must move in that direction by supporting, loving, and fighting alongside one another. And as one united community, we can truly accomplish the greatest things.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

"Purge the evil person from your midst and God will make His judgement." 1 Cor. 5:13

The new American movie version of Stieg Larsson's novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, can be just as harrowing to watch as the book is to read. It is not for the faint of heart.

This film, along with the other two movies in the trilogy that is expected to follow, is about how one reacts to the incredible violence thrust upon women by powerful men. To take us through this journey, the movies must show us the ugly actions and effects that such violence breeds.

In this particular story, we follow Swedish journalist-crusader Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he tracks down the forty-year-old case of a missing girl from a violent-prone family with a Nazi heritage that may or may not be part of the case. Alongside this case is the story of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an impoverished computer hacker who must survive by enduring sexual violence from her legal guardian. Their stories intertwine and once they work together, the fog clears and both begin to see things more clearly.

It's a complicated tale of intrigue wrapped up in solving another tale of intrigue - but at its core, Dragon Tattoo is a fascinating exploration into the human urge for sex and violence.

But the movie's tagline, "evil shall with evil be expelled," is taken from a Swedish proverb not unlike the Old Testament adage, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21:24). It plays with the notion that evil is best confronted by vengeful reactions. During the movie itself, we find that the serial killer that Blomkvist and Salander are tracking used vengeance-themed passages from the Book of Leviticus to justify his or her own crimes - as a sick use of Scripture to varnish their evil.

Throughout history, religious people have struggled with coming to terms with their past and their sacred texts - which preach peace in one place but showcase violence in another. This story introduces this struggle yet again... and asks whether or not it takes evil to stamp out evil (as some biblical passages might might indicate) or if there is another route.

The specific evil in question in this film is violence done to women: abuse, marginalization, discrimination, and rape. Lisbeth herself is well-aware of this situation, and because of these horrible experiences, becomes a hard-edged, sadistic, and mentally-troubled young woman - which in turn, leads to even more problems. That is, of course, until she meets Blomkvist.

Mikael Blomkvist is not a saint. But he crusades for those who have no voice, even to the point of persecution in the courtroom and in the media. While he may not like Lisbeth's style, he accepts her and treats her as she ought to be treated. Together the two of them work on the missing-girl case - and the edge starts to drip off of Lisbeth with each passing day.

Lisbeth originally thought that the Swedish proverb ("evil shall with evil be expelled") was Gospel truth (as evidenced in one difficult scene where she vengefully confronts her rapist) - until she met someone who showered kindness and respect upon her. Then another Gospel truth started to emerge for her, summed up in St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians: "Purge the evil person from your midst, and God will make His judgement." (1 Cor. 5:13).

In other words, it's not for us to exact violence upon those who are evil - but instead, it's for God to make the final judgement. All we can do is purge them from our lives, distancing ourselves from evil but never allowing evil to overcome us in revenge.

It was Blomkvist's compassion that started Lisbeth down this path. All it took was for one person to extend that blind love towards another without question.

Imagine what good we can accomplish if we offered kindness and respect to all that we meet, whether we know them or not, whether we like them or not, whether we are disgusted with them or not? Imagine what kind of world that would be.

Violence breeds violence - and the law of the ancients ("an eye for an eye") seems pervasive many centuries later, showing up in silly Swedish proverbs and movie posters. Sure... it can be tempting to respond to rape and sexual assault with torture and murder. When the government uses the death penalty or other means of torture to punish its criminals (regardless of their crimes), is it not just perpetuating violence for violence? We must, and we can, be better than this.

Jesus, instead, calls us to respond in love. When Blomkvist responds to Lisbeth's harsh demeanor with respectful love, the cycle of violence gets derailed. Not that Lisbeth becomes a saint, but she certainly starts down a better path - while still being able to exact justice upon those who cause evil.

Of course nothing is ever as clear as day. Lisbeth confuses Blomkvist's kindness with romantic love, which leads to other messes that will need to be cleaned up in future movies. But for a moment, a ray of hope has lit up Lisbeth's life. For all the violence she has suffered throughout her life, the road to recovery will be long and winding (which makes for more films to explore those developments), but it's a start.

In our lives, can we offer a ray of hope to another? And if we ourselves are caught in an endless cycle of violence, can we stop for a moment and re-analyze our situation?

Purge evil from our midst if we must, but never mirror that which is destructive, no matter how righteous we might feel in doing so. Instead, let us be beacons of hope, love, kindness, and compassion in a world that experiences so little of this. Then, and only then, will the world start to turn towards the Gospel.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

"You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved." Mark 13:13

Poor Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). In almost every Mission Impossible movie, he is forced to save the world while running underground, apart from his superiors in the United States intelligence agencies, due to some internal department mess-up or conspiracy. And once again in Ghost Protocol, he's still on the fringe. Poor guy.

From the outset, he needs to be broken out of a Russian prison where he has been sitting and waiting for his release. But just as soon as he tastes freedom, the entire Impossible Missions Force (IMF) gets disavowed due to a bombing at the Kremlin.

So Hunt, along with his new team of Carter (Paula Patton), Benji (Simon Pegg), and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), must figure out a way to avert nuclear war while not only being undercover, but being considered "criminals" by their own government. Yet they do their duty no matter the odds stacked up against them.

Would any of us do the same? Or when we're beaten down and disregarded by friend and foe alike, do we just want to crawl into some corner until it all passes?

Jesus knew this would happen to his disciples, too. He knew that, when the Romans came to imprison them, beat them, torture them, and seek to kill them, the temptation would be so strong to crawl into some corner until it all passed. He knew this is what could happen to anyone who is frightened or persecuted. It's natural and it's human.

So he looked at them and said, "Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child. Children will rise up against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved." (Mk. 13:12-13)

Jesus was saying: persecution will come, but you cannot cower. People will dislike you, get angry with you, and disavow you, but you must persevere and keep going. He was telling his disciples, and he tells us, to be like Ethan Hunt on the run.

It might be tempting to lay low until things get better - but that is not what Jesus calls us to do. We must hone our inner Ethan Hunt and still fight for justice, defend the defenseless, and save the world even when things aren't going our way. We cannot wait for the rain to pass to step out into the street. If we are truly a disciple of Christ, we must take a risk even when life hasn't settled down and even when we're on the run ourselves.

Too many people procrastinate today. Too many people want to wait - or at least they say they're waiting, but in the end don't do anything. One of the reasons Jesus instructed the disciples to persevere was because inaction breeds more inaction. If we don't do anything now, we may not do anything later - even if the rain passes, the persecution ends, and the days get better. If we persevere in the worst days, we will overcome on the best days. But if we sit back and cower in hard times, we may not able to get back up in the good times.

That is why we love to watch the Mission Impossible movies. It's not just about the exciting action and adventure scenes like the ones where Ethan Hunt is clinging to a skyscraper in Dubai over a hundred stories in the air, though those are certainly fun. We love these movies because Hunt and his crew take action when the odds are against them - and if and when they come out on top, the victory tastes even sweeter.

So if we find ourselves saying, I'll get to that when things slow down or when things are going our way or when we get a bit more financially stable, let us remember Ethan Hunt... or more importantly, Jesus of Nazareth. Let us remember that they were able to save our world when things weren't going so well. And if we seek to follow in those footsteps, the same must be said of us.

Sure... it's an impossible mission, but God has faith in us that we're up to the task. Let's not let God down and accept our mission. Ready?

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

War Horse

"They shall beat their swords into plowshares..." Isaiah 2:4

War Horse offers a unique perspective on the First World War: seeing the bloody trench battles, the harrowing impact on the local population, and the tragedy of nations torn apart by violence, all through the lens of a simple country horse.

Joey, as the horse is called by its first owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine), is a gifted animal who is stronger and wiser than most everyone gives the creature credit for being. And due to this exceptionalism, Joey soon becomes a wanted horse - and is drafted into military service once the war breaks out in 1914.

What is remarkable is the impact this simple horse has on all the various owners it has throughout the war: it brings an air of peace, selflessness, confidence, and compassion in the midst of such bitter violence and hatred.

Could it be because so many people have a soft spot for horses? Or is there some internal urge for peace that this animal brings forth?

Consider that the first major task of this horse was a peaceful act: to plow a field so that people can eat and a family could survive their poverty. In some respects, this simple action defined what this horse was about - not being a lowly beast of war but a gallant horse of peace. Perhaps all the owners of this horse, whether they be English captains, French families, or German soldiers, heard in Joey the words of the Prophet Isaiah: "In the days to come...They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks" (Is. 2:4)

Could it be that the horse reminded them that violence and anger is nothing compared to the promise of peace?

What is it, for us, that reminds us of Christ's call to nonviolence and love? Is it a loving family member, or a special token from our childhood, or is it a prayer we say to ourselves or a piece of art that calls out to us? Is it a Scripture passage or a song? Or do we have such things in our life?

War Horse reminds us to keep around us items, people, and experiences that call to mind the Gospel. For the various characters of the movie, the horse was that token. What will that be for us?

For when we surround ourselves with items that remind us of Christ, the Gospel, and his message of nonviolence, peace, and unconditional love, we become infused with that same energy. (conversely, when we surround ourselves with objects that speak of hatred, violence, and war, we are affected by them as well). This is why we fill our churches with images that call to mind the Gospel. This is why we fill our homes with items that remind us of love. This is why we fill our lives with people that make us disciples of the Lord.

Joey was able to bring a ray of peace into one of the darkest chapters in human history - so what is it that will carry us through our own darkest hours? Hold close to whatever that might be - and you'll be able to make it through your own war.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Silence in the Balcony

A Moment of Silence at the Movies

Since mid-November 2011, I haven't had much time to blog about the movies. In effect, it's been like a silent retreat. Not that I haven't seen any films lately. And not that there hasn't been any spiritual messages in those films. Quite the contrary.

However, due to time and work and the holidays, I haven't had much time to myself to pause, reflect, and then write out my theological reflections on the movies I've been seeing.

But as Oscar season is shaping up and as the award-worthy year-end movies have yielded some great spiritual lessons, I feel called to return to the balcony (also known as this blog) and take some time to engage us in conversations about the spiritual themes that run through all these films.

So thank you for your patience during this silent period. It's time, though, to let the pictures roll. See you around soon...