Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book Review: "Radical Together" -- the wrong people, the right gospel

Author: David Platt, 2011. (Waterbrook Press)

Even smaller than his first book (this one is just under 150 pages without the study guide), Platt's sequel is no less thought-provoking even if it repeats several of the themes of his earlier book. Where "Radical" focused on the problems with American culture, "Radical Together" focuses on the problems within the American church. His purpose in this book is to unite the church, meaning the lay people, around a gospel-centered vision.

The six short chapters, each with a sub-heading, are as follows:
  1. Tyranny of the Good: the worst enemy of Christians is good things in the church
  2. The Gospel Misunderstood: the gospel that saves us from work save us to work
  3. God is saying something: the Word does the work
  4. The Genius of Wrong: building the right church depends on using all the wrong people
  5. Our Unmistakeable Task: we are living -- and longing -- for the end of the world
  6. The God who exalts God: we are selfless followers of a self-centered God
Like his earlier book, Pastor Platt weaves together compelling stories from his own life and that of his faith-community at Brooks Hill in Birmingham, Alabama, to craft an easy read. And like "Radical" the speed and slimness of the book belies the challenge within its pages.

Two chapters stood out for me. The first focuses on cutting the good to emphasize the greater. He tells of how his church slashed their budget, not because of tough times, but to spend their savings on spiritual needs around the globe instead of staffing needs within their church. Downsizing for the betterment of the world. How often we hear of budget cuts to line the pockets of corporate shareholders. Here Platt tells of budget cuts (of over $1.5 million) to serve impoverished churches in India and elsewhere around the world. These are not shareholders; these are sinners in need of grace, expressed in this case through the generosity of a gospel-driven church in North America.

The other chapter that stood out, chapter four, is centered on the people within the church, the wrong people. Platt argues that we should focus on building our people, not the places, or the programs, or the performances; not even the professionals, who seem to be the right people. Rather, we must "unleash people to maximize the ministry opportunities God has already planned and created for them," refering to Eph. 2:10 ("For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do"). He underscores this idea: "the key in all of this is an intense desire and intentional effort to make every one of our lives count for the multiplication of the gospel in the world." We who sit in the pews are the wrong people according to church marketeers, but as we depend on God's power we can be the right people to bring Jesus to our next-door neighbors, our coworkers or the unwitnessed people groups around the world. Are we ready to be radical together with the other members of our church?

Note: I received a free copy from Waterbrook Publishing but was not influenced to provide a positive review.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Like Dandelion Dust -- wishes and their impact on others

Director: Jon Gunn, 2010. (PG-13)

This compelling drama centers on two families, the Porters and the Campbells, who come from distinctly opposite sides of the tracks. This is made clear from the opening scenes. When we see Jack Campbell (Cole Hauser) sailing off the Florida coast with his little boy Joey (Maxwell Perry Cotton), while his wife Molly (Kate Levering) waits in their million-dollar mansion, they represent the "haves", with luxury and money. Wendy (Mira Sorvino) and Rip (Barry Pepper), on the other hand, live in a beater home in the low-rent district of Ohio. They are the "have nots," blue collar workers at best. But their lives intersect in Joey,

In the movie's only flashback, we see Rip arrested seven years earlier for beating up Wendy. Alcohol and abuse are his twin demons. For his punishment, he was sent away for a seven-year stretch. Unbeknownst to him, Wendy was pregnant and chose to have the baby, and then give him up for adoption. To legalize the transaction, she had Rip's signature forged, knowing that Rip would never give away his son. The Campbells were the fortunate adoptive parents.

When Rip is released from prison, he is a changed man, and returns to Wendy, ready for a new start in life and for a family. But when he finds out from her that he already is a father, together they are determined to find the boy and reclaim him. Ohio law supports this return of the boy to his parents, since the father's signature was fraudulent. This premise sets up the film. The Campbells must give up Joey, who only knows them as his parents, but are not prepared to do so. The Porters want to meet and keep Joey, though they may not be ready for parenthood. Which set of parents will be better for the boy? The rich Campbells, or the poor Porters?

Based on the novel by best-selling Christian author Karen Kingsbury, Like Dandelion Dust offers a realistic portrayal of two families. Though it veers into melodrama once or twice, it refuses to present a clear-cut hero. Both families have something to offer and both families have much to lose. The film exposes the humanity in the characters, leaving us struggling to choose who to cheer for.

When Jack realizes his lawyer cannot help and his senator refuses to do anything, he determines to take matters into his own hands. Visiting Ohio, he confronts Rip at his workplace. As a rich man, he thinks it is all about money. Offering Rip half a million dollars to "buy back" his son, he is surprised when his offer is refused. Joey was not for sale. The law declared he belonged with his birth parents and they were not going to commercialize their blessing.

Here is one theme: money. And the message is reinforced: money can't buy love. Too often, those blessed with financial resources think they can buy anything they want: from cars to homes, from toys to boys; the poor need money and will sell even their children. But such thinking is fallacious and unethical. We cannot buy people. Slavery was condemned after the civil war and remains immoral. Offering money to the poor for a person's son demeans both the father and the son. There is an inherent dignity to life, based on the presence of God's image (Gen. 1:26), even if that life is lived in squalid conditions.

Rip's response to Jack is swift and violent, leaving Jack bloodied physically and Rip bloodied emotionally. Having held his temper through his prison years, the demon is out of the bottle. And to commiserate, he hits the bottle again. With alcohol back in his life, it is not long before domestic abuse reoccurs.

A second theme of the film is self-destruction. Rip's self-destructive tendencies take over his family, but the Campbells, too, choose a path that is destructive to their lifestyles. We all have deeply flawed personalities, due to the sin that is present in us from birth (Psa. 51:5). Under pressure, we can choose to follow the path of the Spirit or the path of the self. Too often the self's way is destructive, to ourselves or to others. We can become the worst versions of ourselves in such choices.

Yet, the film offers a sense of hope and redemption. Wendy chooses to stay with Rip, seeing in him the spark of goodness, the potential to be a father, even if that time is not yet. There is a love buried inside him, and she wants to help him.

The title of the film comes from a scene in the middle when Joey is on one of his arranged trips to the Porters house. Wendy picks up one of the dandelion weeds and tells him that blowing the spore of the dandelion dust is like setting a wish free. The wish is trapped until, like dandelion dust, it is released by the wind of a person's breath. But like life, wishes are not always black and white. One person's wish is another person's nightmare.

Wendy's wish is for her boy to be back with her and Rip in a loving family. Yet her wish realized may hurt Joey even as it benefits her. Our wishes are like this. Sometimes we want things that seem good for us, while forgetting or ignoring that they may impact others negatively. We overlook the bigger picture in our desire to realize our wishes. St. Chrysostom prayed, "Fulfil now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us" recognizing that God alone knows what is optimal for us. Our sight is too poor.

Like Dandelion Dust is carried on the shoulders of Miro Sorvino, the Oscar-winning actress. As the fragile yet brave woman whose choices define two families, she is the heart and soul of the film. And it is appropriate that she gets to demonstrate her love in a final act of sacrifice. If the two fathers have offered different views of the depravity of humanity, the two mothers provide a peek at the redemptive aspects of humanity. Redemption and hope become entwined in a bittersweet ending, that leaves tears in our eyes and perhaps a glimpse into the heart of self-giving love. Isn't that just like Jesus.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review: One Month to Live -- nice quotes, cheesy chapters

Authors: Kerry and Chris Shook, 2008. (Waterbrook Press)

I really wanted to like this book. The authors' premise is intriguing: "Most of us, if we knew we only had one month to live, would live differently. We would be more authentic about who we are and more deliberate about how we spend our time. . . .Why can't we all of us live more like we're dying?" In other words, if we had one month to live wouldn't we likely change how we live to resolve conflict, minimize regret and cement relationships?

But there's the catch. We don't have 30 days to live. And we can't drop everything to suddenly change our lives. We have jobs to work, children to raise, lives to lead.

After the first couple of chapters I found the book to too choppy, changing metaphor with each chapter as if disconnected from the previous one. And it was too shallow. In six or seven pages, just enough to digest in five minutes, the Shooks give us a capsule summary with three or four main points, some Scripture and a story. It was, in a word, cheesy.

The book has four main sections, each with 7 chapters, addressing the no-regrets lifestyle need to a) live passionately, b) love completely, c) learn humbly, and d) leave boldly. I don't disagree with the content, and there are enough "sound-bites" in each chapter for reflection. But the delivery, even with the "Make it Count" side-bars and the closing "Make it last for life" questions, was tedious and boring. The book just did not capture my attention. I found myself wanting to set it aside unfinished without regret.

The best thing about the book are the quotes that open each chapter. Carefully chosen, they are apt and appropriate. I wanted to copy these down and think on them, rather than read the chapters. I can't honestly recommend the book. For me this was thirty days of regretting I had started this book!

Note: I received a free copy from Waterbrook Publishing but was not influenced to provide a positive review.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Heat -- hunters, hunted and hindered relationships

Director: Michael Mann, 1995. (R)

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Two of America's greatest living actors. They have been in over 130 films between them, with 14 Oscar nominations combined (three wins: one for Pacino, two for De Niro). But Heat was the first film in which they shared screen time. Of course, both starred in The Godfather Part 2, but De Niro was the Don as a young man before Pacino's character was even a twinkle in his eye, so never appeared together. Here, they play nemeses, having two key scenes together, one in the middle and the other at the climax. Despite its marketing as the first film that pitted them together, their shared screen time is a small portion of this three-hour film. Yet, this classic purrs because of them primarily, as well as because of the other stars in the cast. And the script gives these actors terrific dialog and the latitude to ad lib.

De Niro plays Neil McCauley, a mastermind robber who is as cool as a cucumber and whose love-life is as cold. Pacino is Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, a detective in LA's Robbery-Homicide division. He is loud and passionate, married with a stepdaughter. But in reality, these two are more alike than they appear and they are destined to cross paths. Heat moves inexorably forward to a final confrontation between the two great actors.

Mann (Public Enemies) certainly knows to grab the attention and direct action. Shot entirely on location in LA without a single sound stage, he builds an almost symmetrical film, with a slam-bang opening, an armored car robbery, mirrored by the closing chase and showdown. In the middle is the other major set-piece, a bank robbery that degenerates into a full-on gun-battle in the streets of Los Angeles. In between, Mann takes time to develop the key characters as well as several supporting foils, both on the police team and on Neil's criminal crew. And it is because of this that the film has depth. Through these characters we understand the issues Mann is exploring, issues of how relationships are impacted by work and career, and how an obsession with a vocation can be all-consuming. Along the way, we gain a glimpse into the underlying psyches, a glimpse that may reveal something about ourselves.

The sizzling opening sequence of the armored car robbery highlights Neil's meticulous and methodical nature. He has planned the operation well, and knows exactly what to steal and what to leave. He has his timing down pat. But the robbery is botched when new team member Waingro (Kevin Gage), a vicious criminal, ruthlessly shoots one of the three guards in cold blood. This leaves Neil, Chris (Val Kilmer) and Michael (Tom Sizemore) facing murder charges, not just armed robbery. The pace, once started, never lets up.

With murder and robbery, Hanna shows up on the scene with his police team, Bosko (Ted Levine, from TV's Monk) and Drucker (Mykelti Williamson). Evidence is minimal but it is clear that the crooks are pros.

As the film develops, we see Vincent at home with his third wife Justine (Diane Venora) and her daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman, her second role after The Professional). Vincent enjoys the marital sex but not the marital sharing. His family lives in a "dead-tech, post-modernistic" house that says more about their relationship than about their taste in art. This is a postmodern family that has no real warmth and whose soul is shriveled and dying.

A pivotal scene occurs in the middle of the film. After blowing a trace on all four key criminals, Vincent is following Neil's car from a helicopter above the twinkling lights of the LA night. When he orders the helicopter to set him down and he takes over a detective's car, he is able to pull Neil over on the freeway. As the tension mounts, the hunter and hunted come face-to-face. We expect violence but we get urbanity instead. Vincent invites Neil to coffee in a diner. It is here, sitting opposite one another and on-screen for their first extended dialog together, that we learn about these two loners.

This scene was shot with no rehearsals. The actors faced each other as the two characters would, with a little anxiety and wonder. Mann allowed two cameras to shoot continuously and let the two greats verbally spar with each other.

Neil tells Vincent his life philosophy: "A guy told me one time, 'Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.' " (Here is the meaning of the film's title.) This is his loose-grip philosophy. He has no relationships because he is not prepared to invest anything of himself in them.  As he says later, "I'm alone but I am not lonely," but he is merely fooling himself.

We can see even more clearly his approach to women in a conversation with Chris in Neil's beautiful but spartan condo overlooking the expansive Pacific Ocean. "When are you gonna get some furniture," Chris asks. "When I get around to it," Neil replies. Chris asks a second question: "When are you gonna get a lady?" Neil responds, "When I get around to it." Women mean as little to him as the furniture in his apartment. Something to buy, use, enjoy and walk away from.

Human beings were not made to live like this. We were meant to live in community, in relationships. Even from the beginning God's creation was sad and lonely without a companion (Gen. 2:18). God chose to make Eve for Adam (Gen. 2:22). And he desires that we enjoy the relationships we find ourselves in. This requires commitment, a willingness to stay put, even when the heat is on, rather than splitting thirty seconds after the heat is felt.

Vincent is not much better than Neil. He tells Neil, "My life's a disaster zone . . . . I got a wife, we're passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage -- my third -- because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block."  Neil comments, "Now, if you're on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?" Vincent's real problem, though, is summed up later by his wife, in one-short sentence, "You never told me I'd be excluded."

In trying to protect her from the ugliness of his job, Vincent is pushing her away. He is not letting her in, not allowing her to share his inner person. A marriage cannot be built on great sex, though it might be fun for a short while. It requires commitment and conversation. It demands openness and sharing. It cannot survive when one person shuts out the other. Such marriages, like Vincent's, suffocate and die.

More than this, though, Vincent's commitment to his work drives a wedges between him and his family leaving a terrible toll on his wife and stepdaughter. Justine has become a doped-out woman, feeling nothing, and Lauren feels too much, overly anxious about everything, strung out with suicidal tendencies. How sad for a man to be so successful in his career yet such a failure at home. As Jesus commented, "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Matt. 16:26) Where are his priorities? Where are ours?

At the end of a lonely night out with police friends, during which Vincent runs out to attend a 911 call about a prostitute's murder, Justine cuts through Vincent's persona to nail his identity when he returns: "You don't live with me, you live among the remains of the dead people. You sift through the detritus, you read the terrain, you search for signs of passing, for the scent of your prey, and then you hunt them down. That's the only thing you're committed to. The rest is the mess you leave as you pass through."

She's right. He is a hunter, aroused by the scent of his prey. He lives for the chase, to catch criminals like Neil. His vocation is his obsession, not his family. One wins, the other loses.

But Neil and Vincent are more alike than they seem, even if they are on opposite sides of the law. Neither is prepared to hold down a relationship. Both are consummate professionals. Vincent tells Neil, "I don't know how to do anything else," to which Neil replies, "Neither do I." Vincent says, "I don't much want to either." Neil: "Neither do I." Vincent realizes that "All I am is what I'm going after." In a sense, he is Neil, but the positive flip-side of the coin. Though he is the loud, brash, passionate one of the two, he is still just like Neil.

As the movie steadily drives towards its ending and Vincent's marriage is drifting apart, Neil finds a woman. Eady (Amy Brenneman) is a lonely heart like him. She thinks he is a salesman but they are drawn to one another. Once she finds out who he really is, he gives her a challenge, to make a snap decision to leave with him or leave him: "I don't even know what I'm doing anymore. I know life is short, whatever time you get is luck. You want to walk? You walk right now. Or on your own . . .  on your own you choose to come with me. And all I know is . . . all I know is there's no point in me going anywhere anymore if it's going to be alone . . . without you." But when the chips are down at the end, Neil follows his life philosophy not his heart. He is not so different from Vincent. He cannot hold down a relationship; he is too caught up in his loose-grip lifestyle.

Action and great characters aside, Mann's Heat certainly reminds us that relationships take work. And when work takes priority over these relationships we risk hurting the very ones we say we love. Are we hunters, like Vincent, leaving a pretty woman at home abused and afflicted, pining for us not our pay or our promotions? Are we like Neil, cold and aloof, not letting anyone in close enough to care? If we have even an iota of these tendencies, now is the time to turn the heat up and burn them away, rekindling the flames of passion and partnership that may have dwindled and almost died. It is not too late.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, March 21, 2011

Stalker -- dignity, hope faith and loss of belief in the Zone

Director: Andrey Tarkovsky, 1979. (NR)

While many consider Stalker Tarkovsky's magnum opus, this low-tech science fiction movie is certainly seminal in the genre. A Russian film, it is a monumental movie, full of mesmerizing images and sounds, but demanding of its viewers. It is long and slow, deep and dense, complex and contemplative, even cryptic and contradictory. It eschews easy interpretation, and warrants repeat viewing, if you can appreciate allegorical art of this form, for its richness of spiritual and philosophical exploration. Abounding in biblical references and allusions, there is enough material here for a dozen blogs, so this review will merely scratch the surface.

The plot is simple and sparse, the cast is few. A gray and unnamed city exists beside the Zone. Ten years earlier an asteroid crashed here, and alien contact may have been made. Now, this Zone is cordoned off, guarded by soldiers to prevent anyone from entering. Somewhere inside this Zone is a room that confers upon a person his or her secret hopes, their innermost dreams. Being illegal to enter, it takes guides, stalkers, to help people discern a path to this room. Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) will help two men, Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and Scientist (Nikolai Grinko) to come to this room. He leaves his wife (Alisha Frejndlikh) behind in their barren apartment, with their daughter Monkey (Natashe Abramova), despite her pleadings. The story is linear in flow, though with illogical twists and turns.

As Stalker meets his two fellow travellers in a cafe-bar, their early interaction gives insight into their motivations, and perhaps through the use of appellations rather than names we see Tarkovsky's intention. Stalker is a man who guides, not one who furtively hunts. Scientist is a professor who is searching for truth wanting to make the discovery that will win him a Nobel Prize. He is the rational member of the trio. Writer is the artist, the non-logical, imaginative and emotional one. Being nameless they are everyman, representatives of all of us. With faith (or the loss of it) in a secular and rational world as a central theme, Tarkovsky is asking if science or art can lead us to faith, especially with a guide to turn to, and particularly in a modern era of materialism.

All three are looking for truth and meaning, even faith, but are caught between desire and despair. Scientist denies miracles, belittling Stalker's claims of supernatural intelligence in the Zone. Scientist cannot believe what he cannot see. He is a materialist and rationalist. Many are like this today. They will not accept the unseen by faith. They cannot trust a God they cannot see. But the writer of the book of Hebrews defined faith well: "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1). Faith in God is beyond the material, since "God is Spirit" (Jn. 4:24).

Scientist's denial of miracles is simply a refusal to see beyond the laws of physics. Miracles have occurred, and still do. We cannot explain them away. Neither can we predict them. But God has made it clear that he is above this world and all things were made by him (Jn. 1:3) and hold together in him (Rom. 11:36). He himself is not contained within the natural laws and so can operate outside of them -- miracles, like the floating of the metal ax (2 Kings 6:6), the healing of the blind (Jn. 9:7), the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11:43), and the resurrection and ascension of Jesus (Jn. 20:17, Acts 1:9).

Writer, on the other hand, should be more accepting of faith. Yet he is looking for a muse, a way to regain his genius. He tells Stalker, "A man writes because he's tormented, because he doubts." Like the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, he wants heart, inspiration, even real faith. But he is burned out and cynical. He has no faith. He is not willing to believe in something outside himself; he is too selfish. He simply wants to be renewed for his own glory. In contrast, biblical faith is first and foremost centered on someone outside of ourselves -- Jesus Christ, the God-man who offers us salvation (1 Thess. 5:9).

When they enter the Zone, Stalker makes it clear that it is a place where the laws of physics no longer apply. The Zone has a mystery and a menace, being almost sentient and filled with deadly traps. Stalker fears its capricious nature, saying its paths change moment by moment, so earlier knowledge may no longer be relevant. He guides them irrationally by tossing a metal nut tied to a long piece of cloth. The easy, direct path is avoided. They must walk the narrow and twisted path to get to their destination, even when the room is within sight! And a path that is dry one minute may be underwater the next.

Stalker, unlike the other two, is a man of faith. He believes in the power of the room to offer hope. During their journey his interactions with them is often preachy. Then we see him dreaming a biblical dream, with direct references to the Emmaus Road interaction between Jesus and his two disciples (Lk. 24:13-35) as well as some indirect references to the book of Revelation.

In one of the static dialog sections, Stalker tells the story of Porcupine: "He was my teacher. He opened my eyes." Later, Porcupine caused the death of his brother, then became rich from the room. The Zone fulfilled his deepest desire and showed him his true nature. And a week later he hanged himself from grief, or perhaps as a form of atonement. Porcupine, though not appearing in the film, is a type of Jesus, leading others to hope (1 Tim. 1:1), yet ultimately being a type of Judas (Matt. 27:5), who sold his Savior for a sum of money (Matt. 26:15).

Like The Wizard of Oz, Tarkovsky opens his film in a sepia-toned monochrome, gritty and descriptive of life outside the Zone. When the men arrive in the Zone, the film switches to color, the lush greens of organic vegetation, the hues of life. The message is clear. Life only occurs in its fullest form inside the Zone, where hopes and dreams may be fulfilled. However, the Zone is also full of burnt out husks of cars and tanks, a witness to the dark and ugly desires that often reside in the depraved hearts of men (Jer. 17:9)

Ironically and tragically, the "Zone" itself was actually the source of Tarkovsky's demise. The areas in Estonia where the Zone was filmed were laid waste and polluted with heavy toxins. Some of the crew, including Tarkovsky, became victims to these poisons. The director developed cancer from the exposure and died in 1986.

Tarkovsky chooses to shoot the film to preserve the three unities of place, time and action. He divides the film into three clear acts, the first and third occurring in Stalker's apartment, with the middle taking place in the Zone. He also avoids editing as a selector and organizer of time. He shoots long, slow takes, with minimal zoom and slow subtle camera movement; many shots last more than four minutes, an eternity by modern fast-cut standards!

There is even more symmetry in the simple form of the film. The opening scene has Stalker in bed while we hear a train pass by outside. After he gets up and creeps into the kitchen, his wife emerges from the bedroom to dissuade him from going into the Zone. When she fails, she falls onto the floor, lying on her back crying in despair. At the end when he returns, he falls onto the floor, crying out in despair. She, now, comforts him and leads him back to the bedroom, putting him back in bed. As the film ends, we hear a train passing by outside. But it is in the ending that we find the hope and grace that he has been searching for.

Early on Stalker comments on who can enter the Zone: "I think it lets those pass who have lost all hope. Not good or bad, but wretched people." This is a parallel, in a sense, to Jesus' comments about those who can enter the Kingdom of heaven, in the Beatitudes. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:3, 5). When we are wretched, meek, poor in spirit, we come looking for hope. And when we look with real motivation we will find it. Our deepest desire, our innermost hope, is for reconciliation and relationship with God (2 Cor. 5:19), forgivenss from our sins (Acts 10:43). We find that in the room in our Zone, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Each of the men face a crisis of faith. Writer and Scientist have theirs in the Zone, in the shadow of the room. Stalker has his when he returns, on the floor of his apartment. "Haven't you seen them? They've got empty eyes. The only thing they can think about is how to sell themselves not too cheap! How to get as much as possible for their every emotional movement! They know they were 'born for a purpose', 'called upon'! After all, they live 'only once'! Can people like that believe in anything?" His faith was in the hope he could bring to the ones he brought to the Zone. But they have lost faith, they are hopeless. And he is losing faith as a result.

These themes continue to resonate in today's world. Full of single-mindedness, people sell themselves too cheap. Sensing there is meaning in their lives, as they should since God has placed eternity in their hearts (Ecc. 3:11), yet they live for the present. They look not for the life after this life, the life born of God in Christ (Jn. 1:12-13). It is easy to fall prey to Stalker's despair seeing the unbelieving hordes around us, especially in the unchurched Pacific Northwest. Yet, this is to lose faith in an all-powerful God, who is the sovereign ruler over all things (Col. 1:16), master of life and death. To give up on unbelievers is to become an unbeliever oneself.

Tarkovsky's film is not devoid of grace and hope, but they arrive in the final moments, and not in the Zone or in the men. Rather, they appear in the wife and the daughter. Tarkovosky has commented on the film's themes: "it's the theme of human dignity and the theme of suffering through the lack of his own dignity". We find this in Stalker's wife. As she comforts him, after leading him to his bed, she looks directly into the camera and gives an extended monologue, speaking of her love for him, even in the midst of sufferings. She says, pointedly, "it's better to have a bitter happiness than a gray, dull life." She found happiness without having to go to the Zone, even if it was bittersweet. She still loves Stalker with the same devotion she felt from her youth. This is the surprising grace-filled "miracle of faith"; it evidences her dignity and love in a world lacking in hope. With the closing scene, we hear Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" playing in the background, underscoring implicitly the joy that Stalker's wife and daughter have discovered to go with this dignity.
Love is fundamental to humanity. It is the key nature of God (1 Jn. 4:16), and we can rarely find true happiness apart from love. Indeed, if we experience the love God has for us in Jesus we will find deep joy (Neh. 8:10, Gal. 5:22), a close cousin of happiness.

In the closing scenes of the third act we finally see Monkey, Stalker's young daughter. She is disabled and unable to walk, apparently a result of the effects of Stalker's time in the Zone. She is a "mutant" of sorts. In this third act the film has reverted to monochrome. Yet, when we see Monkey she is in color, referring implicitly to her inherent life, like the life in the Zone. She is a child yet she has real life. Indeed, the very last scene gives an indication that she may even have some form of super-ordinary, or supernatural life.

Stalker points toward this during a monologue to himself about Writer and Scientist, while creeping through the Zone:
And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it's tender and pliant. But when it's dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death's companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.
Life is centered in youth. Jesus reiterated this, also: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3-4). Even as an old man, we can be born again, as Nicodemus was (Jn. 3:4). Our literal age is secondary to our spiritual age. If we maintain a child-like faith, spiritually young at heart, with a wonder at who God is and what he is doing, we will remain tender and pliant, and growing in our faith and Christ-likeness. When we start to think we know it all, we harden our hearts and stop growing, and become Pharisee-like.

In an interview about the film, Tarkovsky commented, "Art embodies yearning for the ideal. It ought to awaken hope and faith in man." About the symbolism of the film, he added, "I am more interested in revealing life itself than in playing games with primitive symbolism." At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if Stalker has realized Tarkovsky's goal and awakened in us faith? Has the film moved us somehow toward Jesus, the one who can reveal life itself (Jn. 10:10)?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Kids are All Right -- morals, marriages, and marathons

Director: Lisa Cholodenko, 2010. (R)

"The kids are all right" is usually a sentence spoken in the midst of divorce. Two spouses break up due to their own issues, leaving the children to deal with the aftermath but they are usually said to be "all right." The issue here, though,is not divorce, but marriage, albeit an unconventional one!
Cholodneko's film is one that could not have been made a generation ago, even a decade ago. The content focuses on a same-sex marriage with two children created via artificial insemination. These are topics dear to the director's heart as she herself is a lesbian with a child via insemination.

Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are the lesbians who are in a long-term relationship. Nic works as a doctor while Jules stays at home as the mom, periodically trying to get a business going. Both have given birth using the same sperm donor, Nic to Joni (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) who is about to graduate high school and move onto college, and Jules to Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a sensitive teen who hangs with the wrong crowd. Theirs is a nice, 21st century two-kid family.

When Joni contacts the sperm donor clinic to find the identity of the original donor, she is pointed to Paul (Mark Ruffalo, Zodiac). Her contact triggers the event that eventually throws the whole family out of balance and into turmoil. Paul is a laid-back Californian, who owns a restaraunt, keeps an organic farm, and rides a motorcycle. In short, he seems a perfect guy. Well, except for the fact that he is over-sexed and commitment-scared.

The film journals his entry into this family. His easy charm and carefree banter wins Joni and Jules at once, and more slowly gains Laser's and Nic's trust. But as he builds bridges with the latter pair, he unwittingly breaks bridges with the others.

The Kids are All Right was nominated for an Oscar for best film, but it is really not that good. As a drama, it has some very funny moments, mostly centered around Mark Ruffalo and his expressions or reactions. Its storyline is mostly linear with few surprises. It feels like its nomination was more a nod to the gay-lesbian community. The acting itself was good. Ruffalo is fine as Paul, conveying his man-childness credibly. Annette Benning picked up an Oscar nomination for her role, but I felt Julianne Moore was stronger and should have been the one honored here.

A pivotal and especially poignant scene occurs toward the end, one which precedes Nic's tearful self-realization that has been shown at awards gatherings. Jules walks in on the rest of the family, positions herself in front of the TV and then gives an emotional monologue:
Marriage is hard . . . Just two people slogging through the ****, year after year, getting older, changing. It's a bleeping marathon, okay? So, sometimes, you know, you're together for so long, that you just. . . You stop seeing the other person. You just see weird projections of your own junk. Instead of talking to each other, you go off the rails and act grubby and make stupid choices.
Then she dabs her eyes with a tissue and walks out of the room, leaving Nic and the kids to ponder this thought.

She has it right. Marriage is tough, a marathon. When we are young and in love, we see stars and dream dreams. Our betrothed can do no wrong. We want nothing more than to be married and spend our years enjoying one another. We expect to live an idyllic life together. With such rosy expectations, it is no wonder than many marriages falter and dissolve in divorce. The actual honeymoon lasts two weeks and the honeymoon year quickly fades into normal living.The glitter is gone and the glitz fades away. Life can become mundane and grubby.

Marathons are hard. I ran the very first London Marathon in 4 hours and 20 minutes. It was a long hard slog. After a while it is simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, seemingly forever. But with each step we move closer to the goal and the trophy. Along the way we can enjoy the journey, seeing the crowds, even taking on some refreshment. But if we take our eye off the goal, when we hit the wall at the 20 mile point we are tempted to stop, to ease the pain and relax. That is when determination and grit are required. We must push onto the finish, running the race to the end.

Heterosexual marriage requires such grit. Our love grows deeper as the years go by if we make concerted effort to push away the weird projections of our own junk. We cannot change our spouse, even if we wished we could. We can only change ourselves, and then only with God's help. By keeping the romance alive, the communications open, and recognizing that all things will pass, we can focus on the end goal, and keep the marriage alive and thriving.

Marriage and parenthood require responsibility and commitment. Nic and Jules had this. Paul did not. As he was introduced to this family, warts and all, he realized he was missing out on this aspect of life. Yet, he was not prepared to do what is needed to be part of a family. He wanted a custom-made, drive-through-ready, instant family. He did not understand the years of work needed to get there.

Today's American culture exploits the sexuality of the human person. We are seen as highly sexualized beings, just like Paul. But sex is only a part of the makeup. When we are driven by this base nature we are little more than animals and can easily focus on ourself at the cost of others. As Paul was freely giving himself to many women, he was causing pain to those he abandoned. Yet he did not see this as irresponsible, just part of living. As Christians, we see this approach to a sexualized lifestyle as destructive to all involved.

I cannot leave this film without commenting on the alternative and unconventional nature of the "marriage." Lesbian relationships are addressed in the Bible. God established the institution of marriage from the very beginning when he formed Eve for Adam (Gen. 2:22). He recognized the loneliness of the man he created. With woman, together they formed one new union, a partnership of soul-mates (Gen. 2:24). He blessed Adam and Eve; he did not bless Adam and Steve. Later, after the fall and entry of sin into the world (Gen. 3), God had clear words to say about same sex relationships: "Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error" (Rom. 1:26-27). God created woman for man and vice versa. He still loves the sinner but hates the sin.

Lest someone call me narrow-minded and fundamentalist, God is as opposed to hetersexual sin, like sleeping around, commiting adultery and fornication as Paul did in the film, as he is to homosexual sin. He desires what is best for us, and that is to live in a nuclear family, one founded on heterosexual marriage.

The Kids are All Right got a lot of press for its topical content. But it could have been based on a traditional marriage of Nick and Jules, with a working dad and stay-at-home mom, and the storyline would have worked. If the dad was sterile, the donor angle would have played out. And it would still have communicated a powerful message about marriage. But then it would have focused on God's plan in marriage, not society's plan.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, March 14, 2011

127 Hours -- forced reflections on life and survival

Director: Danny Boyle, 2010. (R)

127 hours is just over five days, that's a Monday through Friday work-week. Most of us go through this much time week in, week out without giving much thought to the deeper impact or value of our lives. We are too busy with the mundane. But if we were set down in one place for this long on our own, forced to focus on our mortality it could be a cathartic experience. Such was the case for Aron Ralston.

Based on the true story of outdoor adventurer Aron Ralston, most going into this film will know the gist of the story, or at least how it ends. Indeed, the ending is what makes this story so strong and so gory. The real Aron commented on the authenticity of the film: "the movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama." And what a drama it is!

Boyle opens the film with a triple view split-screen, showing images full of people, crowds throbbing and milling about. Ralston is in some of these, and the frames explain his desire and need to get out of town, to be away by himself. He want solitude. He also wants adventure and a challenge.

On Saturday April 26, 2003, Aron (James Franco) left his apartment and drove through the night to the canyonlands of Utah. His goal: to reach a certain peak faster than the guidebook specified. Setting out on his mountain bike, video taping himself as he goes, he is full of life, ready for anything. But when he leaves his bike to continue through the tight Blue John Canyon on foot, he runs into trouble. Slipping, he falls down a crevice and finds his right arm pinned to the crevice wall by a boulder that fell with him. He is truly caught "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," the title of the book he wrote based on this experience.

Once this true-life premise is established, the film settles down to navigate the 127 hours that Aron spent trapped. With one nalgene bottle of water, little in the way of food, a cheap pocket knife, and his trusty video camera, Aron journals his emotional changes as he grapples with life, death and survival.

The root cause of his predicament is clear: he is alone and no one knows where he is. Early on, he promotes his "I can do it all on my own" attitude. He needs no one. He is young and strong and self-sufficient. Even in the cave-like crevice, he never calls upon God for help. In contrast, Jesus told his disciples, "apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5). In Jesus we find strength for life. The apostle Paul reiterated this to the Philippian church: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13).

Water becomes a major issue for Aron. We may survive for weeks without food, but we cannot last long with water. He packed for a day-trip not a week. Once more we are reminded of our dependence on something outside of ourselves. Jesus said, "To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life" (Rev. 21:6) and further, "whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (Rev. 22:17). But this free water requires us to come to Christ, accepting our insufficiency. Aron was not willing to do this.

127 Hours is almost a one-man show, much like Buried. However, whereas Ryan Reynolds' film was dark and ultra-claustrophobic, being trapped in a coffin underground with little illumination, James Franco at least can see the sky, the sun, and the raven that flies above. Also, Boyle films the movie with saturated color, giving the wide-open Utah landscape a gorgeous beauty that underscores Aron's natural wonderlust. Both Franco and Reynolds, though, have to convey their changing understanding of their predicament and gradual desperation mostly through facial expressions, having no one to play off against.

Boyle skillfully uses flashback sequences to fill in Aron's backstory. We do see other characters, such as the two female hikers he meets briefly during his hike, his former girlfriend who he could not connect with, and his family when he was younger. Interspersed with his current situation, this works well to round out the story. Moreover, Boyle adds a hyper-kinetic editing during both present and flashback to convey Aron's 100mph, live-on-the-edge, eat up life philosophy. It gives pace to a film that never really stops to take a breath.

Aron tries to get free by working on the rock. As his chipping and cutting have no effect, his spirit descends. And as his water supply runs out, his rationality comes into question. His self-revelations to the video camera offer a glimpse into his self-awareness. His captivity caused him to reflect on his young life, what he had and what he was to lose. He came face to face with his own mortality. At the zenith of his journaling, he dialogs with himself telling him this was his own fault. "Oops," he declares, realizing perhaps for the first time his need to rely on others, or at least to inform them of his plans.

The whole film moves inexorably to "the scene". Eventually reality sets in and Aron accepts help is not coming. The rock will not be ground down. It is his arm or his life. He must choose. And we know his choice. This scene is not for the squeamish. Shot in one take over 20 minutes, using a single prosthetic arm, Aron's self-amputation is gory and gut-wrenching, but when it is over, liberating . . . in more ways than one! His freedom, indeed his life, cost him his arm.

Aron's loss draws parallels with that of Bethany Hamilton, the teen aged surfer who lost an arm in a shark-attack in 2004. (Her story is chronicled in the upcoming film, Soul Surfer, opening on April 8th, 2011.) Both endured harrowing experiences but emerged with a new perspective on life. However, a contrast is evident. Bethany rested on Jesus both before and after, finding in Him the reason for her loss and the purpose for her continuing existence. Aron, though, remained unbelieving, seeing fate as the reason for his loss. Though he discovered a deep appreciation for life, he sees no divine action in this experience.

When we are faced with tough situations, even tough decisions, we are often give the opportunity to reflect on our own lives. We can avoid such reflection through busyness, but an experience like Aron's grabs us by the scruff of the neck and makes us aware. In doing so, we see both our past and face our present, having to choose how we will move on. Many times we look back on such circumstances and see them as character- or self-defining. Survivors are known to be thankful even for their loss because they carry a deeper understanding of themselves and the preciousness of our life.

Aron symbolizes the hope of life. His courage and determination in the face of adversity are a testament to what we can do if we do not give up hope. If he could do this without looking up to Jesus, imagine what we can do when we allow God to be there for us.                         

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Other Guys -- uncredited heroes

Director: Adam McKay, 2010. (PG-13) 

The latest Will Ferrell movie is crass, rude, offensive at times, and downright hilarious at others. But it is certainly not family friendly. Though rated PG-13, I have seen far less offensive R-rated films (The King's Speech is one immediate example). This is not one to watch with your kiddies, at least not without squirming at several of the scenes.

Here Ferrell plays Allen Gamble, a "forensic accountant", which is a kind way of saying a pencil pushing detective in New York City. Along with Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter), another disgraced detective, these two form an unlikely pairing.

The two heroes of the force are detectives Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). They ride hard, shoot hard, and capture the bad guys . . . even if they are merely weed smokers. The opening scene shows them in action -- chasing bad guys through the city, shooting, crashing and more or less demolishing buildings. Their macho actions generate reams of paperwork that Gamble is happy to fill in for them. He desires only to work a desk job, risking nothing, staying safe. When the two main guys tragically die in a moronic act of heroism, they leave a void that must be filled by the other guys, Gamble and Hoitz.

Ferrell's humor here comes from his low-key character as a bean-counter. He is quick with words and numbers, not with guns. He prefers his iPhone apps and his Prius to handcuffs and a car chase. He even downplays the "hotness" of his sexy wife, Sheila (Eva Mendes). Indeed, when Hoitz comes over for dinner, he simply cannot believe she is Gamble's wife. But Gamble has an unexplained attraction for hot women, another quirk of this film.

Michael Keaton has a role as their police Captain and has a running joke with TLC song lyrics spoken unwittingly. His character amuses as a low-key cop who cannot make enough money in his job and so moonlights as a manager at "Bed, Bath and Beyond."

Money is at the core of the film. The two mis-teamed cops find themselves with a billion-dollar case when Gamble stumbles onto a money laundering scheme involving crooked investor David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Seen early on proclaiming a "gospel of excess," this sophisticated criminal has various gangs after him for misusing their money.

This gospel stands, of course, in stark contrast to the real gospel of Jesus. A man poor in worldly goods, Jesus' message resonated with the poor not the rich. When a rich man came to him seeking the secret to entering the kingdom, Jesus told him to sell all he had and give his money to the poor (Matt. 19:16-23). Not the kind of advice that Ershon would give.

The Other Guys lampoons the high-profile ponzi-schemes conducted by the likes of Bernie Madoff, and the other "too big to fail" collapses of recent banks and other industries. Ershon is dealing in quantities of money most people cannot even imagine. And with these kinds of deals, they cannot be allowed to fail. The closing credits give an entertaining but educational animated review of these real-life failures, putting them in terms that us ordinary folks can grasp. And it is not pretty.

The main theme of the film, though, is "the other guys" themselves, not the other guys' money. They are the uncredited heroes. From the start, Gamble does the "behind-the-scenes" work to keep the real heroes out on the street. Together, these two unlikely buddies set out to solve this biggest crime in New York City history, one that would go unnoticed except for the eagle eyes of an accountant catching a scaffolding permit misdemenour.

As we consider this superficial film, we can reflect on the uncredited heroes in our own lives. Friends, pastors, teachers, coaches, managers, there are many people who could fit this mold. But the ones that stand above the rest are our parents. Theirs is an often thankless task. While the kids are growing up, the parents are seen as restrictive, rusty relics of a bygone era with outdated ideas. For those of us who are parents we can resonate with this. But with time, we come to see that our parents were usually wiser than we thought, wishing our best, nurturing us to become the best we could be. Truly, they are the other guys, our uncredited heroes. While we may wish to be the center of attention, the heroes in the spotlight, we should stop and give thanks to the other guys who make our success possible.

Of course, we can look above, too, and reflect on the "Other Guy" who stands behind us and behind everything that is (Acts 17:28). God may not be visibly on the scene, but he is surely the one who is generally uncredited. If we follow Jesus, we would do well to reflect all honor we receive to him (Phil. 2:10). We are the mirror (Matt. 5:16), he is the light (Jn. 8:12). We can do nothing apart from him (Jn. 15:5). He is certainly more courageous than Gamble and more intelligent than Hoitz, but like them he works silently behind the scenes. He is my hero.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Monday, March 7, 2011

As it is in Heaven (Så som i himmelen) -- loving others, living life

Director: Kay Pollak, 2004. (PG-13) 

As it is in Heaven is a slow and sensitive movie that explores the power of music to change lives. Nominated for Best Foreign Picture (it lost to The Sea Inside), writer-director Pollack's film also has marvellous cinematography, of the cold and forlorn Swedish countryside, and a wonderful score.

It opens with a scene showing wheat billowing in the wind. In the fields a seven-year-old plays classical music on his violin. This serene setting is interrupted by a group of boys descending on the violinist and beating him up. The boy is Daniel Dareus (Michael Nyqvist, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), a prodigy who grows up to be a successful international conductor.

We cut ahead to see Daniel grown-up, a man whose life is chock full of musical commitments for the next 10 years. He has no time to enjoy life, and his soul is filled with anger not love. When he collapses in the middle of a concert, his doctor diagnoses a worn-out heart. He needs rest. Finally, he puts his career aside and returns to his childhood village where he buys the old schoolhouse.

An early shot captures his renewed joy at finding liberty now that his restrictive schedule has been removed. Shoeless, he walks out into the snow, throws his arms up and allows the flakes to fall onto his face. This is a picture of the freedom we find in heaven, where we won't be controlled by fiercesome calendars that suck the life out of us. Further, when he sees a white rabbit in the snow, he takes a Polaroid picture. Here is the sheer wonder of being alive. Like stopping and smelling the roses, such small delights are more precious than a treasure-chest full of jewels.

When the local pastor, Stig (Niklas Falk), drops by to give him a Bible and welcome him, we think Stig is offering a gracious gift. But his motives are mixed. He wants Daniel to help with the choir. And we later discover Stig's inner nature. Daniel, though, wants nothing to do with him or his music. He desires isolation and separation. He simply wants to be left alone to listen . . . to his own music and his own thoughts.

It doesn't take long, however, before Daniel meets other villagers, like the pretty Lena (Frida Hallgren), the pushy business man Arne, and the abused Gabriella (Helen Sjoholm). And he does stop by to listen to the church choir. Eventually, he agrees to become the choir director. His unconventional approach draws some to him while pushing others away. But his love of music slowly becomes embraced by the choir.

As the choir members find their tone and their voice, under Daniel's direction, he begins to make friends and enemies. Music moves the people in the direction of positive change. It also acts as a vehicle to open their hearts to innate sin.

Bullying is one that emerges. Gabriella has been bullied and physically abused by her husband. Daniel was bullied as a child. And Arne continues to verbally abuse and bully Fatso, one of the other choir members. This bullying has a dramatic effect on each victim, isolating them from others and diminishing their self-esteem. It comes to a head in a powerful scene where Fatso has had enough. In tears, he lets decades of inner anger out, shocking the choir, but forcing them to see their tacit participation in this bullying by refusing to do anything about it.

This scene in particular forces us to question our tacit acceptance of abuse and bullying. When we see such sin and do nothing to stop it we are allowing it to happen. James the brother of Jesus put it this way, "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them" (Jas. 4:17). We cannot stand around when we see others being picked on or bullied. We have an obligation to speak out and help the victim. We may, ourselves, be victims of this behavior, and we know the crushing effects it has first-hand. If so, we can find grace and strength in the person of Jesus to escape the grip of the bullier and experience freedom (Gal. 2:4).

Another sin that music exposes is that of hypocrisy (Lk. 12:1). As the pastor's wife, Ingrid, grows in her musical appreciation she finds years of repression falling away. Confronting her husband, they find consummation for a brief moment before his mask returns.

Pastor Stig is contrasted with Daniel. Despite being a "man of God", Stig is really a present-day Pharisee, being more concerned with the outward aspects of religiosity than with true inner conversion. That is clear in his interaction with liberated Ingrid. He does not embrace music or the music-giver. Daniel, on the other hand, is a Christ-like figure, despite his aversion to the faith. It is his sacrificial work and even suffering that provides the mechanism for the character growth of his choir.

Although this is a beautiful film with a heart-moving story, the theology is erroneous. Ingrid says to Stig that there is no such thing as sin and turns her back on the church as a "bully" of the people. This clearly contradicts Christian teaching. Sin is evident in the first book of the bible, Genesis chapter 3), and forms the undercurrent for the entire story, highlighting the very need for Jesus (Gen. 3:15). If there is no sin, there is no need for a Savior. In this case, we could ascend to God with our own effort. In effect, we could find positive change through music or our own particular method. But it is not true. Sin surrounds us, is in us (Rom. 7:23), even the best of us. "There is no one who does good, not even one." (Rom. 3:12)

Pastor Stig may be sinful. That is to be expected. But his self-righteousness and hypocrisy are an attack on most church leaders who toil away serving God in their parishes. Most know their innate sinfulness and depend on the grace of God to sustain them. Pollak's caricature does nothing to elevate the place of a much-needed grace-giving body. We must turn away from this portrayal, knowing it is wrong, even if some church leaders do live like this. It is not the norm.

Ultimately, the message of the movie centers on love and life. Daniel's childhood had caused him to become hard-hearted and loveless. The members of his choir taught him to love again. And in loving, he discovered a joy for living. Gabriella, in a stirring solo at a choir concert, sings lines composed by Daniel: "I want to feel that I have lived my life." These are both his words and hers.

Our lives are short and we desperately want them to count for something. By living to love -- others, God and ourselves (Lk. 10:27) -- we will make a difference. And in making a difference in this world, we will have a lived a life worthwhile.

From his youth Daniel wanted to write and play music that would open the hearts of others, and in losing himself and his successful career he found his life's goal completed. How about you? If you have not achieved your lifelong ambition, perhaps in losing your life you can find it afresh (Matt. 10:39) and learn to live and love. and make a positive difference.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Friday, March 4, 2011

Buried -- frustration, isolation and hell

Director: Rodrigo Cortes, 2010. (R)

In his first full-length English-language feature, writer-director Cortes chooses to create a one-man movie. Ryan Reynolds is the only actor we see and is in every scene.  It could almost be a theatrical play given the close confines and constancy of location.

The film opens with a miute-long frame of darkness until Paul Conroy (Reynolds, The Proposal) opens his eyes. We realize we are seeing what he sees; but it is still dark. We hear his rapid shallow breathing as he panics. Then he finds a zippo lighter and there is light. He looks around and finds himself in a wooden coffin, buried alive. Along with the lighter he discovers a cell phone and a few things left in his pockets.

As he uses the cell phone to call friends, relatives, coworkers and even 911 operators we hear his backstory. He is an American truck driver working a contract job in Iraq. Someone has captured him and he has no idea who, or why, or even where he has been buried.

Working from his own tight script, Cortes draws a fine performance out of Reynolds. He must convey his emotions in his face and his voice, as there is little he can do with his confined body. Cortes uses interesting lighting effects to illuminate the situation; in much of the movie we can barely see Reynolds, his face being visible in the glow of the phone or the lighter. This gives it a tight Hitchcockian feel (think Rope), and creates a tension that is palpable. The minimalism results in a claustrophobic thriller that feels encasing.

With each phone call, though, Conroy discovers the irritations of voice mail and the frustrations of bureaucracy. We can live with being placed on hold in a normal day-to-day situation, but when each minute means a dwindling oxygen supply and a draining cell phone battery, it is literally a matter of life and death.

Buried caused to me think on a biblical parallel and a spiritual analogy. Biblically, this film reminded me of the story of Jonah and the whale. In that Old Testament tale, Jonah was running from the mission God had given him to bring a warning to the Assyrians in Ninevah (Jon. 1:2-3). Fleeing westwards on a ship, God sent a storm to assail the ship (Jon. 1:4) and the sailors figured out that Jonah was the reason (Jon. 1:7). When they tossed him overboard, the storm abated and a great fish ate Jonah (Jon. 1:15-17). For three days, Jonah was buried alive in the belly of the big fish (Jon. 1:17). Like Conroy, he had little room to move and had little hope of help. Unlike Conroy, however, Jonah cried out to God (Jon. 2). Conroy used a phone to call to humans but never prayed to God for deliverance. Jonah did this. He threw himself at the mercy of God. And God delivered, causing the fish to throw Jonah up onto the shore (Jon. 2:10).

A thousand years later, we find Jonah being referenced as a type of Christ (Matt. 12:39-41). As Jonah spent three days and nights buried, likewise Jesus spent portions of three days (Friday through Sunday) buried after he was crucified. Like Jonah, Jesus was raised from his burial. Unlike Jonah, though, Jesus came up from a literal grave, from a literal death to a new resurection life.

As a spiritual analogy, Buried forced me to think about the eternal state of hell. Hell is often depicted humorously as a place of wild partying where the "bad boys" of this world go to live it up. Heaven, in contrast, is caricatured as a boring place where we sit on clouds playing harps. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hell is a place of separation: ultimately from God, but also from others (Lk. 16:23). We will be left alone, with no one to relate to, no one to help us. In a sense, Conroy was left all alone, with no one really helping him. When his zippo was out and his cell phone was not being used, he was left in darkness. Although not complete, Conroy's darkness points to the outer darkness that Jesus refers to as the situation in hell (Matt. 8:12).

None of us want to be buried alive like Conroy was. For most of us, this will never happen. None of us want to be left in darkness alone forever with no hope of rescue. For many, this will actually happen. If we don't accept the rescue from the dominion of darkness that Jesus holds out to us (Col. 1:13), the redemption that was effected in his life, death and resurrection (Eph. 1:7), we turn our back on the only one who can deliver. Our choice in this life to accept or reject Jesus will determine our eternal destiny.

If you don't want to be buried alive for eternity, now is the time to choose Jesus. With him, there is no need for a cell phone or zippo; he is the light of the world (Jn. 9:5) and heaven "does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp" (Rev. 21:23). Without him, no cell phone or zippo will illuminate and save you. It's your choice.
Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How to Train Your Dragon -- fitting in, being yourself

Directors: Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, 2010. (PG) 

The latest animated film from Dreamworks, the creators of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda continues to improve their resume. Based on the first book in a series by Cressida Cowell, a graduate of Keble College, Oxford University (my alma mater), they have condensed the story into one that entertains even if the story is familiar.

The movie begins with an introductory narration from Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) setting the scene:
This is Berk. It's twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It's located solidly on the Meridian of Misery. My village. In a word? Sturdy, and it's been here for seven generations, but every single building is new. We have fishing, hunting, and a charming view of the sunset. The only problems are the pests. You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have. . .  dragons!
There follows a furious prologue as the fire-breathing dragons attack the village, carrying off sheep and other animals. While the burly Vikings hurry off to battle with these creatures, Hiccup is confined to the blacksmith's shop, working alongside the one-armed and one-legged Gobber (voice of Craig Ferguson).

Hiccup, you see, is a scrawny lad, barely a twig compared to these highly muscled brawn. Of course his father Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler), is a man-mountain and leader of the tribe. He has killed many a dragon, but his son can barely lift a helmet, let alone a sword or an axe. In this Viking life, to kill a dragon is the entry-price into manhood.

After the frenetic pace and frenzy of this opening battle, the camerawork settles down and the story starts to move forward. The village warriors set sail with Stoick to find the dragons' lair leaving Hiccup and the other teens to begin dragon school, an academy to learn "on-the-job" how to kill dragons.

An early scene highlights one of the key themes of the film. Gobber looks at Hiccup and criticizes him, all of him. There is nothing about him that he sees as meritorious. And so Hiccup wants desperately to be allowed to go to dragon school, despite his obvious limitations. Ultimately, he wants to be able to kill a dragon so that he can fit in. A misfit, his skills include machine making but not sword-wielding. Even his accent, an American dialect, is in stark contrast to the Scottish-accented Vikings (why they have this accent is never explained).

How often do we try to fit in with those around us? Even if it is clear we don't really belong, there is often an irresistible draw that compels us. When we don't fit in, when we are like Hiccup, the world looks at us as different. And too often the world mocks us and belittles us, making us wish the spotlight were turned onto someone else, or turned off altogether.

Stoick's parental approach to Hiccup is illuminating. While his boy is a misfit, he is embarrassed. When his boy seemingly proves superior to others in dragon-taming, he is proud. When Hiccup challenges his preconceived notions, he cannot accept this clear attack on this values and worldview and disowns him. His expectations are based on performance.

Performance-based love and acceptance is anathema to positive parenting. If God were to adopt this approach, none of us would be recipients of his love. When we set overly high expectations for our children, as Stoick did for Hiccup, we set them up for failure and disappointment. But, we can learn from our heavenly father. He offers us unconditional love, a love not based on our performance, which is never good enough, but that is based on the perfect performance of his son, Jesus (1 Cor. 1:30). Thoughwe can never meet God's expectations of a perfect life, Jesus did. He lived a holy life, he walked a perfect path in his earthly life (Matt. 5:17). Then he went to the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, not his own (2 Cor. 5:21). In him we find redemption (Eph. 1:7) and strength for living. In him we find acceptance and true love.

Misfit notwithstanding, Hiccup's mechanistic moxie bags him a dragon. And not just any dragon, a never-before-seen "Night Fury". When he finds it, both are scared of the other. And, despite his apparent desire to kill a dragon and become one with the other Vikings, he cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, they form a symbiotic relationship and Hiccup discovers truths that turn his world upside down.

This is still a kid's movie, and somewhat formulaic. There is the requisite love interest, in the form of Astrid (voice of America Ferrera), a female warrior-wannabe. There are the other teenage students, a mix of nerds and jocks. And there is the requisite "kids save the day" finale.

Yet the animation is delightful, with attention to detail, and the two main characters captivating. "Toothless", the Night Fury dragon, is well-drawn and his eyes convey a depth of emotion without a word being spoken. He clearly has intelligence and power, but can bring it under control. Hiccup has intelligence and creativity, if not power, and together they can be better than alone.

The main theme, though, focuses on being yourself. When Hiccup tries to be like his father and the rest of the tribe, he fails badly. When he finally accepts who he is, with all his strengths and foibles, he is finally able to prove himself and earn his mettle.

God has made each of us unique. No two of us are exactly alike. We need not try hard to be someone or something we are not. That is simply a recipe for frustration and failure. Rather, we must accept the gifts and talents that God has graced us with (1 Cor. 12:4). Our limitations offer the liberating freedom to focus elsewhere. If we are not tall, powerful and athletic, then it is foolish to try to be a successful and professional sportsman. If we are not musically adept, look elsewhere. Maybe we are like Hiccup, endowed with a heart of mercy and compassion and can touch others. Maybe we are mechanically handy like him, and can forge a career in engineering. The point is to find out what differentiates us from others and celebrate this rather than ignoring it. We must hone our strengths rather than improve our weaknesses.

Our society applauds dragon-slayers. If we find a dragon in our vocation, perhaps we need to embrace and train it, making it a teacher to us, instead of trying to kill it. The apostle Paul had a dragon, a thorn that pained and wounded him. He called out to God to kill this dragon (2 Cor. 12:7-9) but was denied. Instead, God used this to teach Paul a lesson about grace. In our weakness, he is made strong. What is your dragon? And how will you respond to it? Kill it or train it? Perhaps it is worth humbly letting it teach you to be yourself in dependence on our God.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs