Saturday, March 29, 2014


"…all were wiped out from the earth. Only Noah and those with him in the ark were left…"  Gen. 2:23

Noah may be the first truly biblical epic of the twenty-first century - a cinematic effort that hasn't been seen since Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea in DeMille's 1956 opus, The Ten Commandments.

In this re-telling of the classic Sunday school story, Noah (Russell Crowe) is a gritty, fiercely determined antihero, choosing a nomadic life, isolated from the corruption, violence, and industrial waste brought on by the descendants of Cain.  But most of all, he is faithful follower of the "Creator" - a term that highlights Noah's appreciation for what is good and pure about the natural world.

Noah has such a regard for the work of the Creator that he is horribly offended by the actions of others: their wasteful use of the land and its creatures; their penchant for selfish violence and oppression; and their lack of respect and humility before the Almighty. With such an outlook on life, he is more than willing to help God prepare for the end of the world - to bring about a new Eden with the innocent birds and beasts of creation.

No one can argue with Noah's determination.

He is obedient beyond understanding - but in so doing, he alienates even those closest to him.  He chooses to keep the full details of his biblical task to himself, letting it fester inside his mind and heart as he watches helplessly as his children wrestle with a world without companionship.

Then the great deluge came and "…all were wiped out from the earth.  Only Noah and those with him in the ark were left." (Gen. 2:23)  After the screams of the drowning people subside, Noah has all the time in the world to be left alone with his thoughts, plagued by his own choices. Then and only then does he finally open up - but perhaps it is too late to do any good.

How often are we like Noah?  Perhaps we have moments when we choose to internalize all our anxieties - or take upon ourselves the incredible tasks God has given us, without telling others.  Maybe we don't want to be a burden. Maybe we feel that others will laugh at our insecurities about our weakness, our fears, or our worries.  Maybe we just don't want to bother others with our own issues.

Whatever the reason, how often we walk in the footsteps of Noah (at least Russell Crowe's version of him)!  We tell others "I'm fine" when we're really torn inside.

God may have given Noah a task to complete, but He didn't say "and keep this to yourself…"

In short order, family bonds begin to unravel, no matter how much Noah teaches his clan to humbly obey God and respect the purity of creation. Even when he explains himself in the latter half of the film, he seems too far down his own path to let anything or anyone new in.

True family is about honest, selfless, and open dialogue - and Noah's wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson, in her best performance to date) preach yet even more divine truths than Noah could offer... love, compassion, and mercy for starters.  Unfortunately, such conversations never take place in enough time because Noah internalizes all the struggle for himself.

For humanity to thrive after the Flood, natural purity, isolation, and obedience won't be enough.  Love, mercy, and compassion are also essential to the survival of God's greatest creation, the human race.  And dialogue and engagement are part of that mix, no matter how hard it might seem.

True, in time, humanity will slip back into old patterns - but the hope for the future in ancient times and hope for the future in our time lies in the mix of the virtues espoused by all members of this "first family."  We need nonviolence, natural balance and order, humility and obedience before the Almighty, as Noah preached, but we also need forgiveness, mercy, compassion, dialogue and engagement, and above all, selfless love to make it all come together.

All are necessary for us. Without all of them, we fall just shy of the mark.  Let us pray that we can increase our capacity for all these divine virtues in our daily lives.

On a final note… perhaps this movie is a bit mislabeled, as we need not just Noah's witness of faith, but the witness of his entire family ("those with him in the ark").  Their story together, their dialogue with each other, is truly the stuff of biblical epics.  

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

"He calmed the storm to a whisper, and the waves of the sea were still."  Ps. 107:29

Saving Mr. Banks is the backstage story of how Walt Disney's Mary Poppins came to the silver screen in 1964.  It follows the journey of Pamela "P.L." Travers (Emma Thompson) as she considers selling the rights to her Mary Poppins children's stories to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his team.

What we come to learn, over the course of this film, is that Mrs. Travers - who comes across as brash, irritable, and judgmental to all she meets - has become who she is after a childhood of pain and broken dreams. We learn that she grew up in the wilderness of Australia with a strict and long-suffering mother Margaret (Ruth Wilson) and an alcoholic father Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), whose condition makes him both playful with his daughter and irresponsible in his work.

Mrs. Travers has obviously overcome the difficulties of her childhood to produce some of the most beloved stories featuring an otherworldly nanny, Mary Poppins.  For years, she resisted the advances of movie studios to make her fantastic tales into feature films including Mr. Disney.  But when faced with an uncertain economic future, she finally agrees to visit California to assess whether or not to sell her rights to Walt and the Disney production team.

Throughout our own lives, each of us has - at some point (or several) - experienced a storm brewing up within us like Mrs. Travers. Perhaps we are not unlike the Mary Poppins author - and our own upbringing has caused us some anxiety and affected our outlook on life.  Or perhaps we are just prone to bad days every now and then.  Either way, we can experience days on stormy waters.

On those days, encountering people can be a chore - even more so if they come across as overly happy and cheerful.  Imagine meeting the bright and optimistic Walt or the songwriting Sherman Brothers (played in this film by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) - and one can understand why Mrs. Travers might have rejected such playfulness.

What the folks at Disney headquarters didn't realize was the storm that was stirring in Mrs. Travers' soul. Thanks to hindsight, we (the film's audience) can finally appreciate what was going on in her life. But Walt, the Sherman Brothers, and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) had no clue.

Now in his eighties, Richard Sherman recounts his own memories of P.L. Travers' visit to California, as reported by Chad Jones of the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Nobody ever talked about those weeks for years," Richard Sherman says in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel.  "God, was Mrs. Travers difficult. She was impolite. She was, shall we say, a hard woman to figure out. Very strange.  Enigmatic. Haunted by something."  (for the full article, click here).

Had they only known. But thanks to the magic of movie-making, we now know a little more.  We can see the storms raging within Mrs. Travers.

When we have our own storms raging within us, we wish others would know and understand. And sadly, we all won't have feature films made of our lives for posterity to appreciate.  But Mrs. Travers' experience can help us, whether we find ourselves in her shoes or when we stand in for Walt and Co.

Perhaps as a way to compensate for their misunderstanding, Saving Mr. Banks' filmmakers created a special character to accompany Mrs. Travers in the movie: her Los Angeles chauffeur (Paul Giammati).  This character, while fictional, provides the author with a compassionate and listening companion. He, along with Walt Disney (in the latter half of the film) represent the Psalmist's image of God:

"He calmed the storm to a whisper, and the waves of the sea were still." - Ps. 107:29

Sometimes the storm brews within us.  When it does, let us seek out the Lord in the silence of our faith or in the comfort of a friend, a memory, or the words of a fellow traveler on the journey of life.  Let us be open to others, and pay attention that our storms may be affecting the way we treat those around us.

And sometimes the storm brews in others, while we stand by and watch.  When that happens, let us be the chauffeur, gently listening to and praying with those whose storm is raging.  And let us give others the benefit of the doubt.  Difficult people, as Richard Sherman recalled, might be "haunted by something."  They may have more to their story than we realize - if only we have the courage and the time to discover it (and if not, then God give us the calm assurance that, underneath others' difficult veneer, a child of God is still present in the soul of that person).

Who or what can calm the storm within you?  And how can you calm another's tempest?  Let us pray for each other as we all search for those answers.