Category: Movies

“Only Love can truly save the world.”
(“Wonder Woman” 2017)

“God is Love.”
(1 John 4:8, The Holy Bible)

One of the more charming movies I’ve recently seen is last year’s “BFG”, directed by Steven Spielberg. It tells the story of the magical adventure of an orphan girl named Sophie, who befriends a big friendly giant (“B.F.G.”).

A moment that caught my interest occurred midway through the film. Sophie is taken to a mystical tree where dreams are born. These primordial dreams float around like colored fireflies, and can be caught. Most of the dreams are happy, or silly. However, Sophie learns that not all dreams are benign. She catches a glowing red dream and the B.F.G. solemnly warns her to leave that one be, for it is a Trogglehumper. The particular dream that Sophie found was summarized thus:

“Look what you has done. There be no forgiveness.”

Now this is downright biblical. It encapsulates a sense of shame that many individuals feel, and can’t easily shake. On an even deeper level, this Trogglehumper represents the collective nightmare of fallen Humanity.

Who can free us from such a Trogglehumper? The Christian answer is that God can give us a new dream, a better dream, one whose narrative is “Here be forgiveness; here be love.”

To such a wonderful change in the narrative, our response echoes King David’s song of praise (recorded in Psalm 103):

Praise the Lord, O my soul
and all that is within me praise his holy Name.
Praise the Lord, O my soul
and forget not all his benefits;
Who forgiveth all thy sin
and healeth all thine infirmities;
Who saveth thy life from destruction
and crowneth thee with mercy and loving-kindness

Santa Claus, that chubby old chuckler who flies around on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and drops through chimneys delivering gifts, has become the iconic symbol of Christmas. There is an almost perverse cultural overemphasis on “believing in Santa”, even as the incarnation of Jesus the Son of God falls further and further away from our collective consciousness.

The spectacular fantasy film “The Polar Express”, based on the beloved children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, is a good example of the cultural pressure to uphold the Santa myth. The protagonist, a boy who is struggling with doubts about the reality of Santa, is invited to ride on a mysterious train to the North Pole. A creepy hobo he meets on the train asks him, “What’s your take the big guy?” The whole point of the yarn is of course to decry disbelief in Santa. A web page on WikiHow tells you how to “Keep Your Child Believing in Santa.”

Even Christians play along with the Santa myth, as it is passionately defended in an article I ran across entitled “Why I Believe in Santa (And My Kids Will Too)” by Hannah Giselbach:

You get where I’m going with this. The thought of having an intervention every time your children use their imaginations is ill-advised and rather silly. Why, then, are we so afraid to let our children imagine and pretend when it comes to Santa Claus? Pretending isn’t always lying. One very sad and dismal day, your children won’t play with dolls anymore. They won’t run, elated, arms flailing when they see Mickey Mouse at Disney World. One day, your children will grow up and understand that all the things they used to play with and pretend with are not actually real. I beg of you, don’t take away that magic prematurely. It will happen when it happens. And I’ve never once met an adult who felt betrayed by their parents who “lied” to them about Santa when they were children. Not once! I have, however, met adults who feel deprived of a major part of childhood because their parents felt the need to dispel their belief and encourage their questioning doubt at a very young age.

This approach, of winking and saying “it’s a good lie” or “it’s just pretend” makes me a bit squeamish. Also it seems unnecessary. In my own family we have reveled in the imagination of “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” without trying to maintain that they are real and true. I don’t want to be a spoiler of enchanting ideas, or an enemy of imagination, but neither will I tell a bald-faced lie to someone, especially a child. Especially as Christians, the myth of Santa is not the place to stake our flag of truth, lest we lose all credibility on more important things, such as the Resurrection.

This is not merely a frivolous worry. Philosopher David Kyle Johnson, associate professor at King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an opinion article entitled “Sorry, Virginia” in the Baltimore Sun, in which he stated:

Parents should stop teaching their kids to believe in Santa Claus. Reading stories about Santa is fine, and encouraging generosity and imagination is great. But tricking children into believing that an omniscient fat man, with a red suit and rosy cheeks, will slide down the chimney bestowing presents on Dec. 24 is just flat-out immoral. First of all, it’s lying. It’s one thing to lie to save someone’s life, but stop kidding yourself. “It’s fun to watch the kids get excited” is hardly a noble cause. Nor is it harmless. I’ve amassed recollections of “finding out the truth about Santa,” and many were stories of genuine embarrassment and resentment. The systematic deception makes children feel taken advantage of or like the butt of a joke. In contrast to the opinion of Ms. Giselbach, prof Johnson has collected stories of harm done by the lie, and you can read about this here.

An article published in Lancet Psychiatry also hypothesizes that lying to kids about Santa may be harmful. As reported in The Guardian:

Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author, said: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”

Even more, from a Christian perspective, is this: The more of our time and brain space we give to the “Santa” myth, and by extension to the plastic and commercial “X-mas” of our culture, the more we distract from–nay, rob from–the glory of Christ’s birth. Pastor and author John Piper, of “Desiring God” fame, responded to the question of Santa by first recounting the fact that Christmas celebrates that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, that he came to give his life a ransom for many, and that through his death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.

So the birth of the Son of God, the very God, very man, is simply stunning and glorious and infinitely serious, an overflow of the happy news. The angel called it “good news of great joy” — great joy, not small joy, not a little bit of joy, but great joy (Luke 2:10).

…It is mindboggling to me that any Christian would even contemplate such a trade, that we would divert attention away from the incarnation of the God of the universe into this world to save us and our children. . . . Not only is Santa Claus not true — and Jesus is very truth himself — but compared to Jesus, Santa is simply pitiful, and our kids should be helped to see this.
(Desiringgod.org).

I’ll return to the question posed by that ghostly hobo, “What’s your take on the big guy?”

When this came up for me, when my kids were toddlers, I pondered how to honor Santa, without lying, and without sucking away the magic of the season. I purchased a lovely little book by Julie Stiegemeyer entitled Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, published by Concordia Publishing in 2007. This is a very readable book with charming illustrations, which I found helpful. It links Santa with the historical St. Nicholas, relating him to the real meaning of Christmas at the end of the story.

If asked, “do you believe in Santa?” or “is Santa real?” I will say “yes”. “Santa” is real of course, as he is based on a real person known to us as St. Nicholas, a fourth century Christian bishop in the town of Myra, now part of modern day Turkey. He was recognized as a “saint” by the church. He was remembered for his generosity of spirit, and so giving gifts in his honor is fitting. St. Nicholas now lives, presumably, in heaven. That “Santa” is as real as you and I.

However, if I am pressed and asked whether Santa is literally a fat guy in a red suit from the North Pole who drops down chimneys, then I can’t lie about this. My answer is “no”; that “Santa” is as real as Darth Vader, Princess Bubblegum, and Mickey Mouse. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

Somewhat belatedly I was treated to a viewing of “The Revenant”, last year’s historic drama of a man’s survival against impossible odds in 1800’s Montana. The picture won numerous awards and earned Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar for Best Actor.

The movie retells the story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper who in 1823 was mauled by a grizzly bear. His companions felt that he was on the brink of death, and fearing for their own lives they abandoned him. He managed somehow to survive. The bulk of the film follows him as he struggles through the wilds of Montana, braving the worst of nature and hostile Native warriors, fueled by a lust for vengeance.

First, I will praise some aspects of the film. The acting was superb. More than this, the eerie music and stunning cinematography made this a haunting and atmospheric experience. The cool beauty of Montana in winter could almost be said to crowd out Leonardo DiCaprio as the principle star. Even before I realized that Emmanuel Lubezki was the cinematographer, I was put in mind of the lonely and ethereal visuals from “Gravity”.

The major themes of justice and vengeance resonate through the film. The movie was a powerful emotional experience. Still, at the end, I couldn’t help but feel that an opportunity was missed. One comes away from “The Revenant” feeling as though we have witnessed the 18th century version of a fatal car crash, with victims’ entrails spilled across the pavement. I could be more charitable and liken it to a great Shakespearean tragedy, such as Hamlet.

Clearly, though, historical accuracy was sacrificed at many points to make this a full blown revenge movie. In real life, Glass forgave Bridger (as in the film) and did not kill John Fitzgerald. John Fitzgerald may not have been as cartoonishly evil as he was portrayed here. A slightly different spin on history would be to forego the death duel feel of the final scenes and end on a theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. As it stands, “The Revenant” is illuminating but not inspiring. It illuminates the darkness of the human heart, but doesn’t inspire better. Showing humanity rising above bloodlust would have enhanced, not diminished, the emotional power of the film.

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One of the memorable educational moments of my junior high years was reading Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, then watching in class the 1962 movie with Gregory Peck. The powerful portrait of racial division and the intricacies of southern life were fascinating then and remain so today. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been called “The novel of the century” in a poll by The Library Journal.

Her portrait of Atticus Finch resonated through the culture and created an archetypical modern hero. Atticus is an object lesson in integrity, and inspires us to stand up for what is right despite the cost. A great quote has Atticus telling his daughter, Scout, “This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience-Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

After writing her great novel, Harper Lee shunned publicity and lived a life of semi-seclusion. We know little about her private life and thoughts, other than what she chose to share. One of the reasons she gave for not publishing more novels is “I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.” (Interview available here).

She died this week at age 89. She was a lifelong Methodist.

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“The Martian” is the kind of movie I used to love as a kid, full of heroic scientists, and the wonders of space travel, and the best aspects of human achievement. I guess my Christianity has always been sprinkled with a bit of humanism–in the best sense of the term.

This movie will of course be compared to the other “space realism” movies that have come out in the last two years. It is a warmer and less theological movie than “Gravity”, though it does touch on that loneliness of being alone in space (or in this case, on Mars), and it approaches some of the big existential issues. Really, though, this hearkens back more to “Apollo 13.” This is a fairly straightforward saga of one man’s survival in an unforgiving environment, in this case Mars. As with Ron Howard’s movie, teams of NASA engineers and scientists must figure out how to solve seemingly insurmountable problems to get him home safely, while the whole world watches.

At one moment in the film, the main character played by Matt Damon asks a colleague on a nearby space vessel to relay a message to his parents. What he says here is very touching. He wants to reassure them that he loves his work and that his death has meaning. I don’t remember the exact wording, but he says something to the effect of “I died for something that is bigger than me.”

That phrase resonates with my own longing for a meaningful life. Ultimately, for all of God’s children, life does have that kind of meaning. We live for the kingdom of God. We do the tasks God has given to us to do, and can go on to our eternal rest satisfied that we died for something that is bigger than us. As the great apostle Paul stated when contemplating his own death, “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

This is not to belittle human achievement on its own terms. When humanity listens to “the better angels of our nature”, when it ascends the highest peaks, when it produces masterworks of art or sublime music, when it rises above self-destructive appetites in order to do good, and when it reaches into space, we as Christians should appreciate these things. We do not worship humanity, of course, but we worship the God that made us, and who deeply loves us. These achievements are gifts, reflecting the common grace of God. We are seeing in them the spark of divinity, the echo of that image of God that has been given to each of us.

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(Mt Everest seen from the Rongbuk valley, close to base camp at 5,200m; public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons)

I watched the 2015 movie “Everest” with my family, including a preteen son who loves mountains.  You may wish to catch this soon, while it remains in theaters.  The epic film follows the events of the 1996 disaster, when a blizzard imperiled (or ended) the lives of numerous climbers.

The movie could be divided into two segments, both vivid and compelling.  The first is the introduction to the characters and a depiction of their arduous ascent to the top of Everest. The audience learns of the motivations of the climbers. We are treated to the most breathtaking scenery, interspersed with studies of the grim realities of the trek above the “death zone”, the region above which human life is unsustainable. The movie shows us instances of high altitude pulmonary edema, loss of limb due to frostbite, and the madness that can accompany hypoxia. One is literally on the edge of eternity as an avalanche or wrong step can send a climber plummeting into oblivion.

But treacherous terrain isn’t the worst threat. Linger a few hours too long and even the most acclimatized mountaineer will succumb. Instead of the “valley of the shadow of death”, this is the sun-washed summit of death. Perhaps the grizzliest of sights one must pass on the way to the top are the corpses of those who have not made it. You may read about this in much more detail at this Gizmodo blog post. Bodies can linger in a state of mummification due to the intense cold and dry air. The hazards involved in extracting bodies means that some 150 corpses have been left where they lie. (In fact, some of the deaths on Everest reflect Ill-fated efforts to recover other bodies). A worthy movie could be made simply by lingering on the difficulties of journeying up to the peak. I might pause and note that the movie might have been ultimately more uplifting and inspiring if a different expedition were picked as the subject, such as the climb of the blind man Erik Weihenmeyer in 2001.

Part two of “Everest” gives us the details of the tragedy of 1996, and serves up a great deal of suspense. Several parties of climbers became delayed getting to the summit because of ropes that had not been previously set, and possibly because of too many people trying to make the summit on one day. As the last safe moment to turn around came, people who had invested tens of thousands of dollars and weeks of time were faced with the prospect of turning around with the summit in view. Some of them made bad choices based on emotion rather than yielding to the cold logic of better judgement.

I won’t give away the details of who lived or died, though this belongs to history. I will instead narrow my discussion to one of the fascinating survival stories. An American client, Dr. Beck Weathers, a pathologist from Texas, was a member of the expedition. A brash and arrogant man, he admitted in a later scene that the adrenaline rush of mountain climbing was his way of dealing with a black depression that threatened to consume him.

He was unable to make it to the top due to sudden onset of blindness. He ultimately became lost in a blizzard with others. When a fellow climber named Anatoly came upon him he was unconscious and appeared to be dead, and was left where he was. The next morning, against all odds, he awoke from his stupor, and staggered to camp. He eventually was extracted by helicopter. Though he lost his hands and nose to frostbite, he survived to resume his career as a pathologist. He has written a book about his brush with death and also became a motivational speaker.

Recently, he has spoken of his reaction to “Everest” and the aftermath of his experience. Watching it was “difficult”. However, “If I knew exactly what was going to happen — every bit of the struggle and heartbreak — I would do it again in a heartbeat. I gave up a couple of parts. But what I got back was my marriage, my relationship with my kids and a forced reevaluation of how I wanted to live the rest of my life. I got so much more out of it than I gave up.”

The full details are at L.A. Times.

imageI saw the movie “Interstellar” again recently, this time via On Demand. Let me just say that I really like this movie. Also, before you read much further, be aware that if you haven’t seen this movie already, there are spoilers below.

I’ll start with what makes this a highly watchable and interesting movie. The first half of the movie does a great job of creating an air of mystery. There are creepy events that lend a sense of a ghost story–an unseen entity is manipulating gravity inside the bedroom of the girl Murph, making books move and creating patterns in the dust. Furthermore, this is set against a bleak and melancholic backdrop, as humans are struggling to survive on a dying earth. The acting of Matthew McConaughey and little Mackenzie Foy, in setting up the theme of father-daughter love, was superb. Their relationship is an emotional glue that holds together the entire movie. I thought the scene in which Cooper is launched into space, juxtaposed with images of Murph shrieking in agonized grief at the loss of her father, is one of the most heart-wrenching portrayals in all of cinema.

The rest of the movie kicks into the realm of suspenseful science fiction featuring an epic quest through space and time. The movie has been compared to 2001, and the attempts at “space realism” and Cooper’s psychedelic voyage into the black hole certainly evoked this prior classic. In “Interstellar” there is an inverse of the Hal incident: the superintelligent robot remains loyal and heroic, while a murderous human madman nearly kills them all. Over all, I felt that this movie has more heart than Stanley Kubrick’s nearly wordless and vaguely misanthropic film.

The movie explores the existential dread that humans naturally feel when approaching death. This is what drives Dr. Mann mad. This is the theme echoed in Professor Brand’s mantra, the poem by Dylan Thomas that says, “Do not go gentle into that good night…”

Now I have to mention some downsides. First, while this movie is in many ways a warm and relationship-affirming movie, it is a godless movie. There is no depiction of religion, church-going, or anything smacking of faith in a higher being. Even the small town and farm life that is featured in the opening and closing scenes, while thoughtfully portrayed, seems incomplete: The movie shows some authentic charm–baseball games, school conferences, a main street, and a kindly small town grandpa swilling beer on his Victorian porch–but nary a steeple is to be seen. It’s not anti-God, per se, but merely agnostic. Of course, that’s about the best one can hope for from mainstream movies these days.

Then there is the silly and the illogical. First I give the silly: Love is a force of nature, affirms the teary eyed younger Dr. Brand, played by Anne Hathaway. I felt that this weakened things a bit. Now I don’t want to slander love, which is a great and wondrous thing–within the domain of relationships. God is Love, after all. So I won’t say that it was bad. “Silly” may be too harsh; “cheesy” might be more accurate. Sometimes cheesy is good, but here it made my eyes roll a bit.

Now for the illogical: One major subplot of the movie is that an evolved humanity of the future reaches back through time to help present day humanity avoid extinction. While handily sidestepping the supernatural, this is inherently illogical.

This reminds me of something. C.S. Lewis once opined with characteristic wit, “Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God” (C.S Lewis, The Problem of Pain). A corollary to this might be, “nonsense is nonsense, even when dressed in science and inserted into a gripping movie.”

 

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The movie directed by Angelina Jolie tells of the remarkable experiences of Louis Zamperini during WWII. Apparently something remarkable happened after the war, as well.

His marriage on the rocks, his life in shambles, he went to a meeting by the evangelist Billy Graham:

“The moment the invitation began, he grabbed his wife’s hand and headed toward the exit. But in the aisle, overwhelmed by the realization of how broken his life had become, he turned around and gave his life to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith. He left the tent with God’s complete forgiveness.

“From that day forward, everything changed. He started reading the Bible. His nightmares disappeared, he gave up drinking, his hatred and violent anger melted away, and he began to live for Christ.”

Read it all: http://billygraham.org/story/franklin-graham-the-rest-of-the-unbroken-story/?SOURCE=BL151YEBL&utm_source=prayer+letter+email&utm_medium=bgemail&utm_campaign=bgemailnewsletter&content=12.30.14

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While trapped on an airplane, my youngest son happened to start watching the History channel’s take on the book of Revelation, called “Revelation: The End of Days”. Once again, it amazes me how one particular view of eschatology, and a minority one at that, seems to get all the press.

Here again, we have the pre-tribulation rapture, followed by a rise of an anti- Christ in government (a FEMA- like entity, no less). There are some clever takes on the nature of the first beast (a seven headed bacteria, unleashed by the FEMA- like entity to aid its rise to power).

The show was respectful of Christians, which is always welcome. Although, on the other hand, I have to say that the Christians portrayed here are not typical clean cut churchgoers, but rather your scruffy “Doomsday prepper”
cults. The production quality was what you would expect of a made-for-TV disaster movie or mockumentary. There was a bit too much jerky handheld camera footage for my taste. Still, for airplane entertainment, one could do worse. “Pass the pretzels, son.”