Friday, October 29, 2010
Director: Gary Winick, 2010. (PG)
"O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" So uttered Juliet while standing on her balcony in Verona, in Shakespeare's classic love tragedy, "Romeo and Juliet" in the 14th century. Seven hundred years later, Winick's film focuses on true love with Verona as the backdrop and Juliet as a key plot element.
The movie opens with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact checker but wannabe-writer for a New York magazine, pursuing one of the bystanders in Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic photo of "The Kiss". Many have seen this picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on world war two's V-J Day (August 14, 1945). When Sophie finds the person and notifies her boss that this was a picture of true love between strangers, he questions her. In doing so, he raises the first thematic question: does true love at first sight really happen? We'll come back to this.
Sophie is a thoroughly modern New Yorker engaged to Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal, The Science of Sleep), a budding chef who is about to open a new Italian restaurant. Because of the restaurant, this pair of star-crossed lovers takes a pre-honeymoon vacation to Verona. But in Italy Victor leaves her alone while he goes on restaurant-business. By accident, she discovers the letters to Juliet stuck to a wall in Verona and the "Secretaries of Juliet" club that answers them. These volunteer secretaries really do exist, and are actually called the Juliet Club.
Being mistaken for the volunteer replying to letters written in English, Sophie is given her chance to write. When she finds an unanswered letter that dates back 60 years, she is compelled to respond to Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), the author. Then, as the letter actually finds Claire, despite the passing of decades, Claire and her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) show up in Verona. Claire wants to find her lost love, Lorenzo (Franco Nero). (As an interesting tidbit, Redgrave and Nero are a couple in real life.) Charlie, though, is a young skeptic and constantly poo-poos the idea. In contrast, Sophie finds this quest romantic and story-worthy and tags along with them for the few days they are in Italy. With Victor gone, she has nothing better to do.
The premise for this romantic comedy is indeed promising but the film falls flat due to three factors: execution, pacing and chemistry. The execution is utterly predictable. That in itself would have not been too bad, but the pacing is too fast. How Sophie can go from offended stranger to besotted friend in less than a week is far-fetched. It might be believable if Charlie were a charmer, but he's not. The biggest obstacle, though, is the chemistry between the two leads, Sophie and Charlie. They have none. Period. He is obnoxious, coming across as an arrogant and pompous twit, a sort of Hugh Grant with no charm: in a word, unlikeable.
But it leads us back to the original question, does love at first sight happen? In Sophie's case, no. And that is likely true in most cases. Love is more than a feeling, an emotion. There can undoubtedly be animal attraction between two good-looking strangers. But that is not love. True love involves action, a self-giving to another. Biblically, this is agape love, the highest kind of love. As God gave Jesus as a sacrifice of love for the world (Jn. 3:16), so we can and should emulate this kind of love. It usually requires relationship, a mutual knowing of one another. As we know a person we may come to like and then even to love them. But until we know them, how can we love them?
If love at first sight is unlikely, a second thematic question emerges. Charlie thinks the quest is pointless given the length of time that has passed since Claire was in Verona, but Sophie disagrees: "I'm sorry, I didn't know love had an expiration date." Likewise, she added to Claire, "I don't know how your story ended but if what you felt then was true love, then it's never too late. If it was true then, why wouldn't it be true now?" The question: does true love last?
Once again, love embraces different spheres. There is the physical, the eros love that is sexual. This desire may flame, blaze, and dwindle. But there is also the phileo love of affection and tenderness. This connotes the concept of ongoing and deepening concern for the other. And of course there is the self-giving agape love that puts the other first. This is sacrificial, and usually strengthens over time.
True love, indeed, can last. But, like the pretty rose that it is, it requires nurturing and grooming. Love cannot last in the absence of nourishment. It needs attention, demands strokes. If we focus on our love, speaking her love language and letting her know in ways that communicate clearly that true love binds us, then that love will grow and it will last. But if we leave it untended, love can grow cold, and the wedding bonds of love may fray and even break. It is not a given.
Can we find love? Yes, but probably not with a stranger at first sight. Will it be true love? Yes, if we both commit to it and work at it. Will it last, having no expiration date? Only if we make it a priority. We can follow the example of Jesus who loved his bride, the church, so much that he literally poured out his life for her (Eph. 5:25). Is our love for our bride that precious? Would we be willing to set aside all other relationships (except our love for God) and our recreations to make true love happen? If so, then true love will have no expiration date!
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
at 5:00 AM
Monday, October 25, 2010
Director: Randall Wallace, 2010. (PG)
Secretariat was a winning horse and is a winning film from the Disney stable. Like many Disney movies, this one is saccharine sweet and a little over the top. But for all that, it is a family friendly engaging tale. Based on true events, it tells the story of a racehorse and its owner. Those old enough to remember already know the gist of the plot, but younger viewers, such as my daughter, it is will find new and fresh. However, given its predictability, Mike Rich's screenplay focuses on Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane), the horse's owner.
In the late 60s women were still second-class citizens in a male-dominated world, especially in the south. Penny's father (Scott Glenn) is a stable owner whose declining health prevents him from running the farm. Her brother and husband want to sell. But this is her father's legacy, and Penny is torn. She stays on to look into things and ends up with a new foal, "Big Red," later named Secretariat befrore his first race. She knows, this is the one. Along with her team of new, eccentric trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), stable-hand Eddy Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) and personal secretary Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), she expects greatness from this horse. If not, the farm and her personal finances are history.
This all comes at a price, though. To run a horse farm requires a firm hand and an active presence. While Penny takes over this horse business in Virginia she leaves her husband and four kids in Denver. Without cell phones, she has to rely on corded phones in hotel bedrooms to keep up with the events in the lives of her children.
Secretariat highlights how much things have changed for women in the last 40 years. Where Penny had to fight to be respected as a housewife taking control of a business, this is a common situation today. One scene shows her walking into a gentleman's club to talk to her father's friend to find a trainer, evading the waitress who wants her to leave. She had to create her own opportunities despite a lack of racing knowledge and little support from her husband.
Yet Penny struggled to maintain balance. The stables needed more attention and her family lost out. Even today this is an issue that mothers struggle with. The job opportunities are more plentiful and there is less gender discrimination than Penny faced, but women still have to sacrifice time with their children. The "model wife" of Proverbs 31 is an industrious woman who works and cares for her family, but there is little biblical mandate one way or the other. More than ever, it is the question of career commitment or necessity. Some family situations force both parents to work to survive; others have a single mother having to support her children. But if it is a matter of desire for more things or money, then the price is too high. No amount of money can make up for the loss of time spent with children and the consequent loss of influence over them.
Diane Lane as Penny comes across as an ordinary housewife. She looks older than her 45 years and less elegant. But it is her film, and she is center-stage. Although some of the dialog is cheesy, most of the film and the acting rises above this and provides an inspirational and motivational story. As the wins mount up, Secretariat draws attention for the possibility of winning the Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. Underdog horse is matched by underdog owner. It is enough to bring goosebumps during the races even if you know the result.
Against the backdrop of horse racing, Secretariat offers several lessons on life and leadership. As Penny's father tells her and then she yells later, "Let him run his race." Sometimes we want to control others and want them to do things our way. We need to trust in them and their instincts. Secretariat was a horse unlike any around him and he ran his race his way. We need to run our race our way, the way God has designed us. And we need to trust others in the same manner.
Moreover, Penny gives us a Disney-esque piece of advice: "You never know how far you can go unless you run." We can train all we want. We can strategize. But until we go out there and run it is all moot. We prepare so we can perform. It is on the stage of real life that we show who we are and what we can do. Secretariat did just that and surprised most. We may surprise others, we may even surprise ourselves, but we will never surprise God. At the end of his life, the apostle Paul wrote, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (1 Tim. 4:7). He ran his race.
And finally, Penny says: "It's not whether they think we won. It's whether we think we won." We will not win if we do not run, if we don't participate. Life and ministry is not a spectator sport. We need to get in the game. Once in the game, we don't need to be defined by others and their opinions of us. Our value is not determined by them. We need to derive assurance and confidence from within, thinking like winners. Ultimately, though, our value comes from God. True success is found in him. Does God think we won? If he does, then it matters little what others think. We can be champions, like Secretariat, despite all that others may say, as we run our race and rely on our God.
Friday, October 22, 2010
Director: Michael Haneke, 2009. (R)
With each accident or crime, there is a foreshadowing of dread, which is exacerbated by the starkness of the cinematography. Shot in color but converted to black and white in post-production, the film closely resembles photographs from the era. This choice distances us from the characters while keeping us focused on the events. Furthermore, the camera always seems to be just a little too late to catch the action and the culprit leaving us hanging and ignorant. There is a growing sense of unease and a palpable tension.
Most of the adults in the film are never named, simply being referred to by their titles: Baron, Pastor, Doctor. Whereas, all the children are named: Martin, Klara, Sigi. etc. This forces us to look closely at the children while seeing the adults as representatives of the Germans of that time. We realize, too, that these children are the generation that will grow up to become nazis or passive supporters of the Hitler regime of the 1930s and 1940s, a mere two decades later.
This gives us a clue as to the heart and point of the film. Haneke said that his focus is on why people follow an ideology, in this case German fascism, a delusional ideology. He portrays these children as following an idealogical Pied Piper, and seeks to explore the psychological preconditions that would cause them to later surrender their responsibilities to nazism.
In this village there is an oppressive spirit of fascism manifested by strong leadership, a collective identity, and an air of violence. The parents rule with an iron hand and strict and severe punishment. Most of the parents have secret sins, such as sexual abuse of their children, humiliating and cruel verbal abuse of their employees, or harsh corporal punishment.
One scene shows the Pastor telling his two eldest children he will beat them with a cane the following day. He gives them a day to reflect on their "sins." When he is ready to punish them, he tells them it will hurt him more than them. The Bible tells us, "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die" (Prov. 23:13). But the ritual punishment here seems overbearing. Certainly, discipline of our children will hurt us mentally and emoitionally as it hurts them physically. And the example of Jesus sacrificed by the Father for the sins of his human children (Matt. 1:21) makes that clear. Both the son and the father experienced the pain of a separation that should not have happened but was made necessary by the presence of sin.
Haneke, though, highlights in harsh monochrome the darkness and cruelty that resides in the human heart (Jer. 17:9). The abuses of the parents show that adults are culpable. But the behavior of the children also demonstrate that they are equally accountable. When asked if children were innocent, the director commented, "Children are people. They are no better or worse than any adult. They are merely more helpless. The psychological wounds inflicted on them can be repressed for a time, but everything that sleeps reawakens one day." The oppressed will one day become the oppressor or the passive observer who silently endorses the actions of the Holocaust. None are guiltless; "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23).
The Church itself comes under attack by Haneke. He sees in the institutional church yet another expression of group-think, where a powerful leader influences the masses by offering salvation to those who would follow. Here the Pastor is as bad as the rest, abusing, threatening and cajoling. The compassion and mercy of Christ, the founder of the church is missing in the "Church" itself. Those who would think differently become enemies of the church.
Of course, this is a caricature of the church. Certainly an indictment can be made of the German institutional church for vocally following Hitler. But there were pastors, like Dietrich Bonhoefer, who saw the error that the church was making and stood up for Jesus and paid the ultimate price: his life.
The true church is made up of the followers of Jesus indwelt by his Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:26). Because these followers are all broken and tainted by sin, we bear the scars and are imperfect. Jesus was perfect; we are not. There will always be a risk of charismatic leaders leading believers away into oppressive or fascist ways of thinking and living. But love and compassion demand a different lifestyle.
When the film has run its course, the mystery has not been solved. There are no easy answers. As in his earlier films, like Cache, Haneke gives us clues throughout but leaves it to our imagination to connect them and figure out who committed the acts. If you like clean-cut films with crisp endings, this is not for you. It leaves us in ambiguity, gazing into the depths of our existence like a Greek tragedy. That is not for the faint of heart.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Coco's story starts in poor and obscure beginnings. We first see her at the back of a farmer's horse-drawn cart with her older sister, Adrienne, en route to an orphanage. It is the late 19th century and her father is depositing these two girls with the nuns. He never returns. Each week Gabrielle will go with the nuns at visiting time, hoping to see her father again, but to no avail. Surrounded by other orphans and the black-garbed nuns, she is isolated from love, lost and lonely.
When Adrienne connects with a baron from Paris, he woos her and promises to wed her. She departs with him, leaving Coco alone. For a young woman in France in that era, this was frightening. But unlike most women of that time, she took matters into her own hands and determined to carve out her own future.
Having won the attention of an older race horse owner and socialite, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), she turns up at his country home outside of Paris. She concocts a story about visiting her sister, and he accepts it and her, and lets her stay for two days. But when the time is up, she agrees to become live-in mistress.
It is access to his home and friends that gives her the opportunities she needs. She is a capable seamstress, and has an eye for fashion. She is willing to break traditions and norms, and carve out new paradigms.
She begins by making simple straw hats for a female actress friend of Balsan's. Then she starts making clothes for herself using whatever she can find, including some of Balsan's shirts. Her clothing shows a marked simplicity and dampened masculinity compared to the frilly dresses of the Parisian ladies.
Love is a gift we all desire. Coco wanted it but found it only later in life. Her relationship with Balsan is a complicated tension of mixed motivations. Ethically, she is not much more than the common prostitutes she sewed for. Their relationship begins as a commercial enterprise, yet there is a love that lies below, even though Balsan will not take her as wife. Both find the relationship beneficial. Coco gains financial security as well as a form of love and acceptance. Balsan, too, gets more than just a fling; he becomes emotionally engaged with his young mistress. This becomes clear when Boy enters the picture and jealousy arises. Boy's relationship with Coco also becomes convoluted, but for other reasons.
Friday, October 15, 2010
At home, Jenny pines for more culture. She listens to French record albums until her father tells her to turn it off. She wants to go to concerts, but he sees no value in this. She wants to read the books she wants, rather than the books she is told to read. She feels imprisoned in his goal of giving her an education that will allow her to rise above his circumstances.
David has been described as "devilishly charming" and this hits home exactly. He is a snake with an oily exterior, most certainly creepy. He does indeed present an impression of Satan. When the devil turns up at our doorstep undoubtedly he appears like David, smooth and suave, telling us exactly what we want to hear so he can win us to his cause. We then compromise our convictions and beliefs, until we have slipped down the slippery slope towards destruction (Prov. 5:5). The apostle Paul says he appears as an angel of light masquerading as someone good, when he is ultimately deceptive with self-seeking intentions (2 Cor. 11:14).
The real crux of the film focuses on two things: 1) the value of an education and 2) the types of education. If she is to marry David and live the life of a wealthy wife, what is the point of pursuing a higher eduction, even if it is at Oxford, the finest university in England? Why not give up her dreams to live her new dreams of the renaissance life? But this is to adopt a short-sighted perspective. It ignores the red warning flags and avoids considering the risks.
When it comes to types of education, the film offers three options. David presents the school of life. He learned the hard way, working his way up from the bottom. This has its merits, especially for those not gifted or aptitudinally persuaded to book studies. A legitimate option, yet without starter funds, this path is the path of hard work climbing up the employment ladder.
The second alternative presented is that of false education. This is a kind of deceitful school of life. David promises this to Jenny and it seems so attractive. No need for start up cash; no need to start at the bottom. Join the post-education world half-way up the ladder and learn from those already educated in this school. But Jenny discovers the easy way is not usually the legitimate way. And when that happens the rungs are removed and we, as she does, fall to the ground. At that point we are worse off than in either of the other two schooling options. There is no free lunch here.
The final option is the classical education. Jenny's school taught the classic syllabus, including Latin. Such classes are invaluable. Though Latin is not popular today, it still provides benefit to the person seeking a time honored education. In her day, it was a requirement to enter Oxford. By the time I entered Oxford a decade later, it was no longer a requirement (and I took German instead of Latin). Nevertheless a classical education focused on the academic disciplines is a tremendous preparation for a liberal arts schooling. Most occupations then as now require a university degree as admission qualifications. The degree itself is more a sign of the ability to learn and to conform. It is worth the price. And the time spent away from home, learning to live as an independent person having to take care of oneself, is itself a keen part of this classical education.
As sparkling and delightful as An Education is, it falls a little flat at the end. We don't really see what she has learned from her false education. Perhaps we are left thinking about our education and that of our kids. What do we want for them? What will we do to help them achieve it? And will we be on guard against the subtle and insidious lies of the enemy who wants to deter them and us?
Monday, October 11, 2010
Director: Wes Anderson, 2009. (PG)
Fantastic Mr. Fox is, well, pretty fantastic. It may not be the best animated movie of 2009 (that honor goes to Up), but it is certainly one of the best. And it is Wes Anderson's (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) first foray into animation with this adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's classic. Here he uses a stop-motion approach, with real-life models painstakingly photographed frame by frame. What helps the beauty of this film is that he kits these models out with real fur, which gives them a sense of reality as this fur is moved between frames.
As an Anderson film, it carries with it many of this auteur's trademarks: wry humor; rock and roll songs as the back-beat to many of the key scenes, including the eponymous Rolling Stones; montage scenes; and common themes of identity crisis and family dysfunction. And he uses several of his "regulars": Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, etc.
As the film opens Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney) is talking to his wife Mrs. Fox (voice of Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia). He persuades her to take the "scenic walk" home which brings them by a farm, where he proceeds to do what comes naturally: steal chickens. When the trap is sprung and they are caught inside, she reveals a secret: they are expecting a cub! His excitement is curbed. Potential family responsibility dampens his enthusiasm.
We cut ahead a couple of years. The Foxes have a cub, Ash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) and are living underground . . . in a fox-hole. The wild Mr. Fox has settled down to his fatherly responsibilities, having giving up chicken-stealing for newspaper-writing.Yet he pines for two things: danger, and an above-ground tree home. Like many humans, he wants to improve himself and his family. But when he gets his new home, he still wants his old hobby. He wants to fall off the wagon with just one more raid. Like the alcoholic craving another drink, Mr.Fox feels the itch of an obsession he cannot scratch.
Added to this plot is the presence of Kristofferson (voice of Eric Anderson), the Fox's nephew who arrives to stay with them while his father is ill. Kristofferson is a tall and naturally gifted athlete, something that Ash is not. Given that Mr. Fox was a champion athlete, Ash wants to walk in his father's footsteps, but everyone, including his parents, recognize and verbalize that he is different: smaller and uncoordinated.
One of the main themes, then, is the identity crisis of Ash and Mr. Fox. Ash wants to be an athlete, but he will never be one. Mr. Fox wants to be wild and dangerous. He was once but has had to put this aside. Isn't this so anthropomorphic? We often want to be what we are not, or what we once were. We have trouble accepting who we are. Yet God has made us unique, different from others. We are what he wants us to be. We simply need to accept this and then pursue realizing our fullest potential in him.
Mr. Fox struggles with existentialism. At the start he says to Mrs. Fox, "Honey, I am seven fox years old. My father died at seven and a half. I don't want to live in a hole any more, and I'm going to do something about it." Later, in an interchange with Kylie, he says: "Who am I, Kylie? Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I'm saying this more as, like existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?" These might be questions we raise with our friends if we dip into philosophy, if we substitute professions for the animals.
Mr. Fox also struggles with his family responsibilities. He loves his family but wants what he was before fatherhood changed him. We sometimes feel this way, too. When we are single or married without children there are freedoms we enjoy that are removed when children come along. The blessing of babies brings with it the burden of providing and protecting. We simply cannot return to the days when we could do anything we wanted. There are others depending on us.
The final themes deal with leadership and differences. Mr.Fox is a charismatic fox and a leader in his family and among the animals. At first he uses his leadership for his own personal goals, to return to his former ways. When he does this he hurts his family and friends, bringing on conflict. But when he decides, at the end, to use it unite the animals around their common need for survival against the farmers, he brings success and empowerment.
We often want to be like someone else. But God has made us different, gifting us in unique ways. Our responsibility is to find our differences and utilize them for the good of our community. This is pictured in Scripture with the community of the local church (1 Cor. 12:12. The apostle Paul describes it metaphorically as a body, comprised of eyes, ears, arms, legs, feet and a head (1 Cor. 12:14-20). We all form a part, albeit a different one. If one part is missing the whole suffers (1 Cor. 12:26). We should not want to be someone else. If we are an arm, let us be one and use the arm wisely. Let us not seek to be a leg or an eye. And we need to realize there is only one head, and that is Christ (Col. 1:18).
The next time we look back on what we were with nostalgia and a desire to return, or we think about using our leadership responsibility for selfish ends, let's remember Mr. Fox. When he accepted who he was and took on the mantle of responsibility that the other animals demanded of him, he truly rose above ground and became "Fantastic Mr. Fox"!
Friday, October 8, 2010
Leigh Anne first runs into Michael almost literally when her family is driving home from a school event. Seeing him walking "home" in a cold evening wearing just a tee shirt, she takes pity on him and orders her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) to stop the car and then take him to their home, a sprawling mansion of a house that Michael would not have dreamed of entering let alone living in.
The first half of the film focuses on the changes that Leigh Anne brings to Michael's life as he slowly becomes part of the Tuohy family. She is willing to cross into his territory to make him feel welcome. Slowly, he warms up to his new family. It helps that they are super rich and could afford to buy him what he needs and wants. Yet, when one of Leigh Anne's girlfriends tells her, "You're changing that boy's life," she replies, "No. He's changing mine." And this highlights one of the themes of the film. When we help others we are helping ourselves, too.
The second half of The Blind Side focuses on the football. When his grades improve enough he is able to try out for the team. With his size, it is a slam-dunk that he will be a big impact player. Yet, in his first tryout in Spring practice, he wilts like limp lettuce. The coach is confused. But when Leigh Anne, watching from the sidelines, calls a timeout in the action, she walks onto the field and speaks to Michael, then to the team. After that Michael becomes fierce. "What did you say to him?" asks the coach. She looks at the coach and slowly replies, "You should really get to know your players. Michael scored in the 98th percentile in protective instincts."
Motivation is a second theme of the film. The coach did not know how to motivate Michael. He simply didn't know Michael. When Michael plays his first game for the school, the same thing happens. It is not until Michael sees that the coach has his back that he is prepared to trust him and literally has the coach's back.
Those of us in positions of leadership need to take this lesson to heart. This includes parents. We need to get to know our kids, our employees, our volunteers. What drives them? What gets them juiced? What do they need to be able to trust us? Until we do this, we won't know what to say to them to get the best out of them, to coax them to realize their fullest potential.
Doctrines aside, this does underscore the fact that our motives may not always be clear or clean. We may hide them from others, even from ourselves. Michael points out, "Sometimes you might not even know why you're doing something." Yet God knows our inner secrets and our inner motivations (Psa. 139:1). The best we can do is deep introspection and then cry out to God like the psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts" (Psa. 139:23).
Monday, October 4, 2010
Director: Derrick Borte, 2009. (R)
Who hasn't heard of the concept of "keeping up with the Joneses"? If truth be told, haven't we sometimes thought about keeping up with our neighbors, in one way or another? This is part of the concept in this not quite perfect satire when the not quite perfect family moves in next door.
The Joneses are seemingly picture perfect: beautiful wife Kate (Demi Moore), handsome salesman husband Steve (David Duchovny) and teen aged kids Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) and Jenn (Amber Heard). Their arrival in their $1M home in the rich suburban neighborhood is preceded by a team of movers who make their new house entry-ready. No moving boxes for them. Their new home is kitted out from the get-go with beautiful furniture and expensive electronics.
Indeed, when the neighbors, Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer Symonds (Glenne Headly) come over in a neighborly way to offer a housewarming gift (not cookies and milk but a cosmetics basket of samples Summer sells), they are invited in to see the enviable stuff the Joneses have. Surely the Symonds will want to keep up with the Joneses.
Within weeks, the Jones family unit has developed friends everywhere and garnered a reputation for throwing the finest parties. The Jones kids are the coolest teens at school, experiencing none of the usual traumas associated with moving into new high schools and penetrating cliques. It appears their new toys and accessories are the required visas of entry into this society.
What surfaces very quickly is that this family unit is more unit and less family. Actually they are a professional selling unit masquerading as a family. Their job is to develop a social network amongst the different demographics (middle aged men/women, teens) and sell them on the designer label clothes, the branded foods, the newest high-tech electronics, even the cars that they "own".
Envy, and its second cousin greed, are sins that are acceptable, even assumed, in this materialistic society. Those who refuse to play the game, who turn their backs on such trappings of success, are considered abnormal, confused or even weird. Yet the Scriptures are clear on this topic. One of the ten commandments says unambiguously, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exod. 20:17). Jesus pointed to the internal nature and gravity of this sin: "For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly" (Mark. 7:21-22). And the apostle Peter commanded, "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind" (1 Pet. 2:1).
There is a two-fold selling point of envy. First is the outward appearance of possession. We can flaunt our new stuff in front of other neighbors, thereby declaring we are the people to keep up with. We have become the Joneses. Second is the idea that our new things will actually make us happy.
But do things and toys really make us happy? Sure they do. For a very brief while. The new iPod is great till it becomes old and yesterday's toy. The new car may be shiny and sweet with that new car smell today. Yet, tomorrow when it gets dirty or scratched it becomes just another car. Even the smell disappears quickly. No, things cannot sustain their perceived ability to bring happiness.
Perhaps the biggest parallel with biblical Christianity is that of the lifestyle of the Jones. They vocally state that their career is lifestyle selling. They are selling their lifestyle to those around them. If they win a convert, that person will sell their goods for them unknowingly, so caught up in the excitement and passion of the thing they have bought. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be evangelists, sharing the good news of the gospel of Christ to those around us (Matt. 28:19-20). Authors, such as Joseph Aldrich, have coined the term "lifestyle evangelism" whereby we live in such a way as to evoke desire in those around us to want what we have. This is lifestyle selling. We are selling Jesus. Though this might sound callously commercial, it is conceptually similar to the desire of the Joneses. Yet we have something that will truly make the recipient happy, satisfied and ultimately alive (Jn. 10:10).
So, the next time you have that feeling of wanting to keep up with the Joneses, stop and consider. Think twice about that toy you think you need. And then think once about the lifestyle you are selling to others. If you follow Jesus, is it attractive, desirable and honest? Don't make the mistake of the Joneses!
Friday, October 1, 2010
Director: Clint Eastwood, 2009. (PG-13)
Morgan Freeman has played numerous roles, from Red in The Shawshank Redemption to God in Evan Almighty. But he seems born to play Nelson Mandela, that charismatic inspiring figure who spent three decades in prison before being released. This is Mandela's story but Freeman's film.
No movie can capture a man's life story completely, and this is no exception. Instead, Eastwood's film focuses on the true story of events surrounding the South African Rugby Team and the World Cup of 1995. This team encapsulated the hopes of the whites, the fears of the blacks and the inspirational motivation of the President. Their achievement somehow miraculously birthed national reconciliation and forgiveness. This is the tale of inspirational leadership that comes along so rarely.
The movie opens with a stark contrast. On one side of the street white boys are playing rugby kitted out perfectly. On the other, the poor blacks are kicking a makeshift soccer ball behind a broken fence. When a motorcade passes by, the white high school rugby coach comments to his kids, "It's the terrorist Mandela, they let him out. Remember this day boys, this is the day our country went to the dogs." From the white's perspective, this was a sad day. From the black's perspective it was a day of hope. Between the two was a chasm never bridged, and a hatred that threatened to plunge the country into violence and possibly civil war.
Mandela realizes the nation has been torn apart by apartheid. Division has damaged and almost destroyed his nation. It must be brought back together as this rainbow nation. That requires reconciliation at a national level. But any reconciliation starts at the personal level. And he will be the role model.
Reconciliation is a biblical concept. It speaks to a breach of relationship. In particular, it points to the broken relationship between a person and his God. Through our sinful nature and our sinful choices, we have become separated from the God who formed us in the womb (Jer. 1:5). No longer are we friends, as he was with Adam in the garden (Gen. 2:15). Now we have become enemies, alienated from him (Col. 1:21). Reconciliation was needed and was provided in the person of Jesus. Now we have been "reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20). Reconciliation is personal, and starts with our own choice to set aside our enmity and turn back to face our enemy. Mandela did that, despite their initial hatred.
Reconciliation is not cheap or easy. It comes with a cost: forgiveness. Mandela goes on, "Forgiveness starts here, too." Forgiveness is the fuel that allows us to let go of past wounds and hurts.Mandela understands this. Having spent most of his adult years behind bars for "political crimes", he has every reason to bear a grudge and use his new position of power to take revenge. But instead he says, "Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon." Mandela understood that forgiveness mandated him to give up the right to get even and instead to respond to the evil with good (Rom. 5:19-21).
Like reconciliation, forgiveness cuts to the core of the message of Jesus. God has every right to hold us accountable for our sins. We have become his enemies and he could punish us. Instead, he provided for our forgiveness (Eph. 1:7). He took our penalty on himself in the person of Jesus on the cross (Rom. 3:25). Now the offer of forgiveness is held out for us to appropriate. Will we do so?
All this is the introduction to the main story.
Well, that is right/ That is exactly right. But how do we get them to be better than they think they can be? That is very difficult I find. Inspiration, perhaps. How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us? I sometimes think it is by using the work of others.
There are some standout scenes. The way Mandela brings four white policemen into his all-black security team, despite their resistance underscores the value he places on walking his beliefs. He cannot afford to be seen behind a black-only security wall. That message will be clearly seen by the white constituents in his country. The mutual animosity between these two groups of men melts over the movie beneath the warmth evoked by the winning national team until the final match shows two of these, one black one white, grinning and hugging each other. Sports can unify a people.
Another inspiring scene has the rugby team going out to the rural villages. Sitting inside the luxury coach, the players look out on the shanty towns and, for the first time, realize there is another part of South Africa. They are still opposed to this "waste of their time" as they are supposed to be offering clinics to poor kids. But when they start their clinic, the passion of their sport lifts them above their prejudice and their feeling. By the end of the clinic the kids have overcome their ignorance of rugby and the team have overcome some of their prejudices. Sports can inspire and improve a people.
This is Mandela's film, though. His character displays the charisma that has a team and a nation following him despite their earlier feelings. He moves people for the better. He has the "Madiba magic" that alone brought reconciliation. His was the inspirational leadership, a leadership that understood service and putting the country and others first.
Jesus was like that. He was both an inspirational figure and a servant leader. He challenged his followers and disciples to do things they had never done before, and to set aside their prejudices. He called them to love their enemies (Matt. 5:44), to reach out to the poor, to associate with sinners (Matt. 9:10), to minister to the sick not the healthy (Matt. 9:12). Like Mandela, he walked and lived the message he preached.
That brings us back to Mandela's message and encouragement to Pienaar to use others' works. Mandela used the poem "Invictus" as his source of encouragement and hope during his imprisonment, and he shared this with Pienaar. Written by William Ernest Henley, the British poet in 1875 when he was about to have his foot amputated, invictus comes from the Latin, meaning "unconquered". Mandela recites this poem:
Out of the night that covers me.We can look to the works of others, in poetry or prose, to inspire and motivate us. Best of all, perhaps, is the work of Jesus. He offers true hope through his act of sacrifice. More than that, he is the master of my fate. If I choose to follow him, I can let him be the captain of my soul. And he will not disappoint (Isa. 49:23).
Black as the pit from pole to pole.
I thanks whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears,
Looms but the horror of the shade.
And yet, the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate.
How charged with punishment the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs