Wednesday, June 13, 2012


"When I behold your heavens, the work of your hands, the moons and stars which you have set in place, I ask: What are we, then, that you should be so mindful of us?  Who are we that you should care so much for us?" Psalm 8:4-5

Prometheus is not seeking to be a mindless summer popcorn movie.  This is a film that, instead, asks a lot of deep questions... BIG questions like "what is the origin of life and why were humans created?"  Not something you'd normally expect in the midst of mega-blockbusters in cool air-conditioned multiplexes.

The movie is set almost a century into our future (the year 2093 to be exact) when the spacecraft Prometheus is sent to a distant solar system that our human ancestors painted on cave walls thousands and thousands of years ago.

Finding a link between the future and the past, between planets light years away and our own earth, is what motivates archaeologists like Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the scientific leader of the spacecraft's crew.  It is also what compels business industrialists like Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and their self-motivated android David (Michael Fassbender).

Questions and curiosities like the origins of the universe and the act of creation have been on humanity's mind for as long as we could think and reason.  And when there is some indication that a few of those questions might get answered, like the crew of Prometheus, we are often ready to jump in feet-first.

This is where the movie takes a dramatic turn from being an exploration of deep theories to a story of survival.  Whether planned or accidental, the crew find themselves faced with uneasy answers and certain danger as they land on planet LV-223.

Yet through all the catastrophes, aliens, and infections that result from this interplanetary expedition, Dr. Shaw remains the stalwart force behind the crew, continuing to ask the tough questions and stay true to her beliefs that our origins have purpose and meaning.

Shaw stands as a testament to those who persistently pursue the discovery, knowledge, and understanding of the meaning and relationship of life, the universe, and the divine.

Too often, we live in the here and now, forgetting grand philosophies and theological truth in favor of surviving whatever situation we find ourselves in.  From time to time, this is okay to do so that we don't become aloof and distant from the world in which we live.  However, to push it off the side altogether is foolish and shortsighted.

For the most part, the crew of Prometheus was overly concerned about their survival and protecting their own self-interests - and ultimately paid the price for it (though I would expect no less in a science fiction horror story like this).  In the film, for instance, two characters (a biologist and a geologist who should be excited by the new discoveries in their fields on LV-223) run scared of the dark, get themselves lost (despite one being the mapping expert of the crew, but I digress), and make some fatal mistakes with alien slime, due in large part to their myopic focus on survivalism and their dismissal of the new discoveries that could await them.

Dr. Shaw, on the other hand, clearly shown with her cross necklace around her neck in most scenes in the film, kept her eye on and her faith in something far more important.  

She reminds us of the psalmist whose eyes are fixed on creation and the Creator: "When I behold her heavens, the work of your hands, the moons and stars which you have set into place, I ask: What are we that you should be mindful of us?  Who are we that you should care so much for us?" (Ps. 8:4-5)

As an archaeologist and a person of faith, Dr. Shaw knows how incredible the gift of life and humanity are.  She seeks to know more about the universe and the origins of the life she holds so precious.  She travels across the stars to find answers, and when they offer her more questions, she continues to pursue those, too.

It is this dedication and pursuit that keeps Dr. Shaw alive.  Nothing, even an alien infection, can divert her from the truth.

In our lives, do we act like the disposable crew members and focus all our energy on surviving our daily grind?  Or do we, instead, act like Dr. Shaw, keeping our eye on the ultimate prize?

One can imagine the psalmist in the Scriptures looking up at the night sky above him, breathing in the breadth and majesty of creation and his Creator.  How often do we do the same?  While unpacking the questions of humanity's existence and purpose might seem like a job for philosophers, theologians, scientists, and explorers, God calls us all to go deeper, "to put out into the deep and lower the nets for a catch" (Lk. 5:4).

Even though summer is often a time to rest the mind and body, and relax in an air conditioned movie theater, we cannot stay idle for too long.  It's good that movies like Prometheus want to pose fascinating and challenging questions of us.  It's also good that we don't go through life without really exploring big questions.

Let us take into prayer more than our everyday anxieties and worries.  God has created our lives to be bigger and more important than those fleeting concerns.

God has mapped out an entire universe to explore, yet at the same time, cares for the smallest parts of his creation.  Why is that?  How is it possible?  These are the questions that the psalmist poses, that Dr. Shaw has shot off into space to discover, and that each of us is worthy of exploring in our own way.

Blessings on your own exploration, and we all look forward to whatever new frontiers you may yet unlock.

(though do be careful in the very unlikely event that you do run into any creepy aliens... but as this movie shows, even then, you can still make it through if you're truly focused :-)  

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

"I am not afraid... I was born to do this."  St. Joan of Arc

Snow White has come a long way.  No longer a soft cartoon character, this reinterpretation of the timeless classic shows us a new kind of woman: unafraid in the face of danger, unwavering in her single-hearted perseverance, and unwilling to let evil have the find word.

Snow White and the Huntsman surprises us not only in its revisionist storytelling, but also in the way it connects its two titular characters.   One might imagine that our heroine (Kristin Stewart) would spend a movie with a title like that pining over the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) sent to kill her; instead, right from the beginning, the two becomes comrades in arms - with Snow White in the lead.

It's a refreshing take on the action adventure genre, typically dominated by men in the hero's role.  Even more impressive is that the other major person of interest in this tale is the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who takes the prize as one of the most villainous characters to be seen on screen.

In a sense, the huntsman, despite his name on the movie poster, becomes a minor player in this drama - as do most of the other male figures in this film.  This one, then, is all about the women.

In this retelling, the height of Snow White's journey is her evolution into a Joan of Arc-like soldier, leading her troops into battle against all that is evil in an outfit that resembles most of the statues, paintings, and movie costumes we've seen of the popular French saint.  She rides upon her horse at the front of the charge towards the castle, inspiring the dwarves and townspeople alike to take back their kingdom and undo the injustices of a tyrannical regent.  And just like St. Joan in her own trial, this Snow White pauses for a moment in her prison cell to recite The Lord's Prayer in an appeal to her Creator.

Another group of female characters shine brightly in Huntsman:  these are the women of the village in the woods we meet halfway through the film who have taken it upon themselves to disfigure their faces so that Queen Ravenna cannot grow more powerful (backstory: she drains the age and beauty of young women to keep herself young with each passing year).

And despite escaping from the queen's grasp and hiding out in the wilderness, these refugees are anything but weak. They possess a wisdom and strength that the visiting huntsman can only hope to attain.  They also realize that the value of a woman goes far beyond their appearance, standing up to and fighting the evils of vanity and narcissism (embodied in a witch who stares endlessly into a mirror) through the values of self-sacrificial action and self-giving community.

For a pleasant change, it's great to see a film where women truly steal every scene.  They aren't dependent upon the men to save the day, which seems to be the case in many other films, especially in this genre.

So for me, this movie called to mind all the strong women in my life.  I thought about those women who serve as role models not just to other women, but to all people, who defend and protect those in their care, and who take on the mantle of leadership with both humility and confidence.

It also stands as a testament against the objectification of women.  Too often in my own moviegoing experiences, women are relegated to being the "damsel in distress," the "temptress," or the "arm jewel" to the male protagonists.  Not that all these depictions are trying to objectify women, but they don't leave a lot of room for women to be seen above and beyond these supporting roles.

In a fairy tale originally focused around the "fairest of them all," it seemed of all the characters on screen, the fairest were actually the ones who disfigured themselves.  They remind us that true beauty is found in those who stand against the evils of selfishness, corruption, and belligerence.

Who are those women in your life who possess the strength, conviction, and leadership that inspire you?

Who are the women who look into the face of conflict and evil today, and say, "I am not afraid... I was born to do this," like St. Joan of Arc?

Who are the people who embody the spirit of strong women of faith like Mary Magdalene, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta?   Who act like historical female leaders and role models like Empress Theodora, Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, Catherine the Great, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Keller?

In my life, I think of my wife and mother, strong women who have inspired me by their words and actions throughout my life.  I think of several teachers in high school, college, and graduate school who have not just opened my mind to new frontiers, but taught me life's most important lessons.  I think of my colleagues in ministry and in the church who have stepped forward despite the obstacles and out of a deep love of God and others.  And I think of my friends, family members, classmates, and others whom I have encountered over the years who have made an impact on the world that I can only hope to emulate.

Let us pray for all those wonderful women in our lives who stand out in their own right, dependent only upon the grace of God in all they do.  Through the intercession of strong saints like Joan and others, we look forward to all that they continue to do to illuminate our universe.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Men in Black III

"Let your patience be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."  James 1:4

In our instant access culture today, we want everything at our fingertips - and we want it now.  The "Google phenomenon" allows us to know all we ever wanted to know about just about anything, and with our various devices and technology, we can connect to that information anytime, anywhere.

At first glance, the story and the experience of watching Men in Black III fits perfectly into that world.  Like its predecessors, MIB3 is fast-paced, quick-witted, and is set in a secret government installation that, because of its work with locating and monitoring extraterrestrial life on earth, can get access to just about anything, anyone, and any place its agents need to find.

First glances, though, can be deceiving... and more often than not, because a "glance" goes by so quickly, those initial impressions lack the depth that lies within.  What's called for, then, is patience.

For fans of this film series, it has taken a lot of patience since the first movie was released in 1997, the second five years later in 2002, and the third ten years after that in 2012.  

In the story of the film itself, the passage of time is acknowledged as Agent J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) talk about the fact that they've been tracking aliens and intergalactic threats as MIB partners for the past 14 years.  In our seemingly disposable and easily bored culture we live in, it's refreshing for a film (albeit a comedy) to feature people who have been consistently working in their field for as long as that.

But the real test of patience in the arc of these three films, it turns out, rests on Agent K.

Quick backstory of the movie:  the latest alien bent on destroying earth, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), has decided to go back in time from 2012 to 1969, so that he can stop a young Agent K from stopping him in his plans to invade the planet.  In a singular moment in the present day, Boris' time travel plot seems to have worked, as the Animal's Boglodite species begins its destruction of the earth and there is no protection since Agent K supposedly died over forty years ago.  It is up to Agent J to save the day.

In short order, Agent J travels back in time and meets up with the younger incarnation of his partner K (played here by Josh Brolin).  Together they work at stopping Boris before he can alter history.

Under all this quick-witted action, though, is the relationship between Agents J and K.  In present day, J has always been annoyed by K's reluctance to engage with him on a personal or even conversational level.  Above and beyond the extraterrestrial menace they must stop, J is most interested in discovering why his partner is so closed-off to him.

"I promised the secrets of the universe, nothing more," Agent K tells J in the present day, indicating (we eventually come to find out) that his silence is based on not revealing secrets that go beyond the facts and intricacies of space and time... or what we of faith might call the secrets of the Kingdom of God.

Because of this (and I won't reveal more for fear of spoiling the movie), Agent K has had to patiently wait over 40 years to reveal those other secrets, and Agent J has come to learn the patience he has rarely had in his work at MIB.  Good things come to those to wait.

Patience can be difficult for all of us, especially in our postmodern culture where, even though we are living longer and have more time available to us due to the conveniences of technology than previous generations had, we want to know everything - and we want to know it all right now.  Because we can quickly access when Men in Black III will be playing at our local theatre on our mobile devices, we think every aspect of our lives should be so accessible and quick.

It would do us well to learn the art of patience.  As St. James says in his letter, "Let your patience be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:4), indicating that the more we learn to wait, the more we will ultimately know - quite opposite of conventional wisdom today.

Agent K could have revealed his inner secrets to J over 14 years ago when they first started working together, but it wouldn't have had the impact necessary when the time was right for J to know those secrets.  We, too, must trust that God knows the plans he has for us (cf. Jeremiah 29:11).

The journey is just as critical as the destination, and if we rush down the road towards the end of the line, we miss all the opportunities along the way.  "See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.  You, too, must be patient.  Make your hearts firm, because of the coming of the Lord is at hand." (James 5:7-8)

What is it that we are anxious about?  Which of God's secrets do we want to know right now?  Perhaps where we will go next?  Who we will meet?  What our purpose or direction in life might be?  When we try to rush those answers, we can find ourselves in a situation later when we wish we could go back in time like Agent J and change things.  More often than not, we might tell our younger selves to be patient and to put aside our anxieties, because good things will come to those who wait.

We need a bit more patience in our lives.  The next Men in Black movie might not come out for another 20 years or more. Maybe never.  We may never know, but what is required is patience and trust.

Let us trust in God that the road upon which we walk is worth the destination.  Let us not pester God and others in our lives, as J pestered K all those years, to reveal the secrets of the universe (and beyond) to us right here and now.  Let us, instead, be patient - and in our patience, as St. James says, we will truly be perfect and complete.