Night Moves (2014)

night_moves_ver3_xlgDirector Kelly Reichardt delivers an intriguing ecoterrorism thriller with Night Moves. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are done protesting. They are ready to make, not just a statement, but a strong statement. They chose to blow up a dam.

The film’s first movement follows trio pull off elaborate con acts to acquire the materials needed to fulfill the plan. The second movement unfolds the carrying out of the event and the following ramifications. The third, and final, movement of the film chronicles the down fall of Josh.

The portrayal of Josh is not what we typically see from Eisenberg. It is a darker side. He is deliberate in his choices and actions, even when he is not aware of it. He is skittish as he crosses over the line of good and evil. But, in the third movement, the line seems to no longer exist. It does make Eisenberg more appealing as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v. Superman film.

The movements, under Reichardt’s direction, builds the right amount of tension out of seemingly minor and insignificant moments in the plot. Many of these moments are unexpected. Just when you think you have figured out what direction Reichardt is going, you are proven wrong. For example, when Josh and Dena purchase a boat, Josh goes inside the stranger’s house to use the bathroom. You expect Josh, because of the tension that is building, to steal something from the house. But he does not. 

The third movement includes a key scene (I promise, no spoiler). In a series of close-up shots of eyes and feet, Reichardt uses a technique she is known for. Something major (thus important) is happening, and is being done off screen. As the viewer, you only have eyes and feet to gauge that action. This will truly frustrate some movie goers, but it is the kind of direction that leaves the story open-ended for the viewer to fill in the gaps.  Reichardt doesn’t attempt to give a happy ending, nor does she try to tell us what we should think of Josh. She leaves it completely up to us. 

The film is filled with a series of monologues that, at times, are just political rants. Some of these monologues and dialogues at first seem pointless, as if they are just taking up screen time. But, after a second viewing, you come to realize that these seemingly minor conversations are actually plot-moving techniques. While the rants have environmental messages, at times they are just too much. And the action that the three main characters choose is not, as Josh’s dad points out at breakfast the morning after, enough to make a real difference. 

It is the dilemma of young people of every generation. How do we make a difference? From the open square of Cairo to the streets of Ferguson, young people have been gathering trying to make a difference. At times their voices are heard and change is possible. At other times, actions are decided and change seems so very far away. This is the tension of social justice and charity. What will really make a difference? 

We volunteer to make a dent in the social problems we see around us. But we also need to get involved by supporting the organizations that work tirelessly every day to meet these needs; by continuing to volunteer; by making donations; and by writing or emailing elected officials. And these are just a few ways. There are so many more, but the thing to remember is that change is not easy. One bomb, one letter, one day volunteering is not going to be enough. The work of social justice is persistent work. As the prophet Micah says:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

Social change is not easy. We are called to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This takes dedication and persistence. It also means, as John Wesley would teach, that we do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

 

Dolphin Tale 2’s “Brave Souls”

Dolphin Tale was a surprise hit in the theaters in 2011. Enough of a surprise for the film makers to create a sequel to the family-friendly film. Dolphin Tale 2 continues the narrative of Winter, the brave dolphin whose incredible rescue and recovery (complete with a groundbreaking prosthetic tail), made her a symbol of hope and perseverance to many.

The young star of the two films, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, had written a song, “Brave Souls.” In a new video recently released on YouTube, Cozi, who plays Hazel in both films, shares about how the Dolphin Tale movies and the dolphins Winter and Hope, inspired the words she penned.

Dolphin Tale 2 is scheduled to be released in theaters on Tuesday, September 9, 2014.

The Normal Heart (2014)

normalheartposterIn the 1980’s, the first case of what would later be known as AIDS was reported in the United States. The Normal Heart is HBO’s TV movie version of Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play. Mark Ruffalo is Ned Weeks who has had enough. He has been in the closet for most of his adolescence and adult life, as so many of his friends have done. But, when his friends start dying, he becomes angry. This, at the time, unknown disease has to have a voice.

Julia Roberts is Dr. Emma Brookner, who has been submitting research papers to the scientific and medical communities for years. But, because the disease primarily affects gay men, it has been ignored. Emma’s anger is only matched by Ned’s. At times, though, it is a bit too much. Ned seems to alienate everyone, including the gay community. We know, from our side of history, that he is correct. Until the community being affected by the disease finds their voice and starts speaking out, it will be near impossible for change to take place.

In a way, Ned is a prophetic voice. He has a vision of what the world could be like, and that what is (or is not) being done is not working. Though he is not chosen as the president of a group of men, it is his vision that gets it started. It is his vision that pulls these different people together to start an organization that does what other organizations will not do – help gay men who are suffering from a horrible disease.

The early church father, Augustine of Hippo, has said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” This is Ned. He has anger with the way things are, and has courage to do something about it. All led by hope that dwells deep within him.

It is an issue of justice, and Ned reminds us that social justice is more than just offering a hand out. Social justice requires us to get involved and to use our voice. And to be persistent, as the persistent widow in Luke 13 was. Ned also reminds us that it is not easy work. Ned takes to his typewriter, he takes to local TV stations, he attempts to advocate with the Mayor’s office and beyond. He also cares for Felix (Matt Bomer) as the disease takes his life. For Ned this fight for justice is personal.

Filming was put on a whole for a while to give Matt Bomer a chance to lose up to forty pounds to play the AIDS-stricken Felix. The break in filming was worth the effect. Bomer’s performance is heart-wrenchting. Felix is the only character we see dying, and perhaps that is a good thing. It is so powerful and so disturbing at the same time, I don’t think we could handle seeing more than one.

Bomer is not the only one who gives an amazing performance. Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) plays Tommy Boatwright, who works with the organization manning the phones, among other things. Parsons played this role on stage. His monologues are by far the best in the whole film. Parsons is able to take you into Tommy’s feelings and emotions, which at first only seem to be on the surface, but actually run deep and even theological.

Tommy starts a tradition of storing Rolodex cards. When he learns that another man has died from AIDS, he takes their contact card out of his Rolodex and adds it to a stack of others who have died. He is not going to throw them away, because “that seems too final.” Instead, he stores them in his desk drawer. He stores their memory.

The film is telling a historical narrative about the AIDS breakout. It is a history that needs to be remembered. Just as we need to remember the struggle of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, we need to remember the struggle of the gay community in the 1980’s. The Normal Heart helps us remember how some, like Ned, discovered voices and used them when others could not.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good-Will-Hunting-movie-posterWill Hunting (Matt Damon) is a young man who is living on the edges headed toward total self-destruction. During the day he is a janitor at MIT, at night he is partying at bars with his buddies, picking and getting into fights. While he reads everything and anything he can get his hands on, he hides that intelligence. He may not be a student at MIT or Harvard, but he has a brilliance that baffles the smartest MIT professors.

Mostly, Will Hunting is in pain. His childhood has been filled with abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He hides from that pain, while acting out in that pain. It leads him to being jailed after hitting a police officer during a fight on a black top basketball court. In the meantime, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) has been searching for Will because Will is the only person on campus who has solved an  unsolvable math problem.

Lambeau manages to work things out so that Will is released into his custody, under two conditions: 1. Will meets with Lambeau on a regular basis; and 2. Will meets with a counselor. Lambeau is unable to find a counselor that would be willing to work with Will, until Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). Sean, a former college roommate of Lambeau’s, is one of the people in Will’s life who works towards bringing him back from the edge of self-destruction.

Sean is a community college professor who has pain in his own life centering around the death of his wife. In a sense Will and Sean become an odd couple. They both have experienced great pain in their lives, and they both hide from that pain in their own ways. In a way, by bringing Will to Sean, Lambeau is an agent of healing for them both.

Robin Williams would win his only Oscar through his performance as Sean McGuire. While it is a dramatic role, one that most audiences were not used to seeing Williams in, there was still space for Williams to do his best improv. In the scene in Sean’s office where he is talking to Will about his dead wife, Williams ad-libs the whole monologue about his wife farting in her sleep.

In addition to Lambeau and Sean, there are others who are working to bring Will back from the edge. His best friend from his childhood, Chuckie (Ben Affleck), tells Will, “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket. It would be an insult to us if you’re still around here in twenty years.” Chuckie is telling Will to move on with his life, not to let the old neighborhood pull him back. Will has a chance to move on, a chance to grow, a chance to change. Chuckie sees that in him, and is encouraging Will to take the chance.

Skylar (Minnie Driver), who ironically was named after a girlfriend of Matt Damon’s when he co-wrote the script with Ben Affleck (for which they won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar), only to breakup with her and start dating Minnie Driver, is another character who sees potential in Will. Skylar is a British student attending Harvard who wants Will to go with her to California. She knows that he is hiding behind his past and the pain it holds. Leaving home will bring Will liberation.

Boston BenchEven though Will has these prophetic voices urging him to move forward, to change, and to embrace his future, Will is reluctant. Perhaps it is class pride, he does not want to leave his kind behind. Perhaps it is a lack of confidence. While Will seems to swim in his confidence, he is still hiding behind the pain, suggesting that he is not as confident in his God-given gifts and abilities, especially when he hides mosts of those gifts.

At an emotionally high point of the film, Sean tells Will, “You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.” The message of this statement echoes throughout the film. When Will lets his walls down and welcomes new relationships with Sean and Skylar, he welcomes the possibility of change. It was extremely difficult for Will to believe in himself when he went a lifetime of having no one believe in him.

Many of us may not have experienced the pain and abuse that Will has, or live with the levels of anger he does. But we all have walls up, hiding us from things we don’t want to face about ourselves and our relationships. If we let the walls down, and welcome a relationship with the One who gives new life, change is possible.

Sean was the first person to really believe in Will. Believe in who Will is, and to give him the permission to have the courage and the strength to be who he is on his own terms. We all need a prophetic mentor like Sean McGuire.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

source: imdb.com
source: imdb.com

On the outskirts of New Orleans lies a narrow piece of land known as Isle de Jean Charles. It is slowly disappearing into the Terrebonne Bay. It lies just outside the levees that protect New Orleans. This is the inspiration of the fictional Bathtub in Benh Zeitlin’s film Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The Bathtub is a Louisiana wilderness of poverty. The community struggles to survive the incoming storms, and just survive period. The Bathtub looks and feels post-apoloypatic. At first, as the film begins, it is hard to tell when and where the film is. Eventually we know that we are outside of New Orleans, with drilling rigs and oil refineries in the background.

Despite its rough appearance, Hushpuppy, the six-year-old heroine of the film, thinks the Bathtub is the “prettiest place on Earth.” Hushpuppy has a connection to the natural world. She picks up every animal she can, lifts it up to her ear, and listens to it. This is just one of the glimpses into Hushpuppy’s soul. A tender soul that is connected to more than just the natural, but to the spiritual as well.  Hushpuppy has been described as a mystic, a person who seeks unity with the Holy. Hushpuppy does this through her connection through the natural world around her.

The Bathtub is her sanctuary.

Quvenzhané Wallis is the first-time actress who plays Hushpuppy and is beyond incredible. She was five when she was cast for the movie, and seven when filming was completed. So much of her is in the character of Hushpuppy to the point that Hushpuppy would not be Hushpuppy without Wallis. It is hard to believe this is her first time acting.

An unwanted storm is on the way to the Bathtub. Which is hard to believe, as it appears that the residents of the Bathtub already live in a post-storm world. Hushpuppy narrates much of the film with her six-year-old philosophy about the world. It is just one of the ways in which we get a glimpse at the world through the wide eyes of Hushpuppy. She knows just how big and powerful she is in this world, which is evident when she comes face-to-face with the mythical, giant, wild boars who escape from the melting glaciers. The boars, of course, are not real. They are a part of Hushpuppy’s imagination based on the climate change theory of her teacher’s: “Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled . . . Y’all better learn to survive.”

source: imdb.com
source: imdb.com

When the hurricane force winds and rain arrive, Hushpuppy and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, another first-time actor who is a baker in the Third Ward of New Orleans), do not leave the Bathtub despite the mandatory evacuation. (“Daddy says brave men don’t run from their place.”) Rescue workers come in and take them, and the other storm survivors, to a shelter on the other side of the levees. The levees become a symbol of the barrier between these two worlds.

While at the shelter, doctors discover that Wink has a terminal illness and is dying. It is another way in which Hushpuppy’s world is coming unraveled. The father-daughter relationship here is unique to their situation and environment. At times, they are more like partners, codependent upon one another. At other times, Wink is the disciplinarian, smacking Hushpuppy on the head when she does wrong. Most of the time Wink calls her, “Man,” suggesting an equality between them.

Despite all that Hushpuppy goes through – surviving a house fire, living without her mother, leading a group of orphaned children, and seeing her father ill – Hushpuppy takes up the challenge to repair the world.

Hushpuppy: I see that I’m a little piece of a big universe, and that makes things right.

Hushpuppy comes to understand that she is one part of the larger puzzle of what repairs the world. It doesn’t take much to convince us that the world is unraveling around us. We each are a part of the universe, and we each play a roll in making things right. This is what is means to be a part of the Body of Christ.

Just as Hushpuppy is a mystic, living in the mysteries of the Holy doing her part to make things right, the film carries the viewer into the mysteries of an unfolding world. One where suffering is a reality and answers to life’s problems are not as black and white as we would like them to be. One where, as Hushpuppy says, “depends on everything fitting together just right.”

The Perfect Wave (2014)

The Perfect Wave At a time when movies like God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real have motivated movie goers – both evangelical and progressive – comes a film from South Africa: The Perfect Wave. It is billed as “more than a love story.” The film is based on the real life events of Ian McCormack, who is well known as an atheists turned born again Christian. In fact, the story that the film portrays is a story he has told to millions of people around the world.

Scott Eastwood (son of Clint) plays Ian as he skips around the world including Australia, Indonesia, and Africa, in search for the perfect wave. Ian is portrayed as a somewhat selfish 24-year-old not concerned with his mother’s charity work or anything to do with the church. His family, on the other hand, are devout in their spiritual life and in their care for others.

Out of the blue one day, Ian decides to sell his car and tells his mother (Cheryl Ladd) that his going on his dream trip in search of big waves. He keeps a journal of the different waves he surfs on along the trip. Even though she cannot convince him to stay home, the mother has a bad feeling – a sixth sense, if you will, that something is going to happen to Ian. She makes no bones in telling people that she has heard the voice of God – there is a scene or two where she describes the occasion – as such, her Holy Spirit sense may have some weight to it.

Ian and his best friend set on this journey. As he searches for the next best wave to ride, he realizes that he is searching for something more. “I’m chasing something,” he narrates, “that’s more real than this.”

What Ian is in search for is love. It is the story of a young man’s love for surfing. It is the story of a faithful mother’s love for her son. It is the story of young men and women falling in love. And it is the story of persistent love of God. For the most part, the film is about Ian’s desire to find the perfect wave. Everything else in life seems to not matter as much as that perfect wave does. Then, after a relationship breaks up, the film takes a turn toward the deeply spiritual. Ian has a near death experience. After being pronounced dead, Ian experiences not only the love of God, but the voice of God. Who knew a jelly fish sting would have such an effect?

While the film has a few rough edges in its writing and occasionally in its acting, it is a solid family film. It is not, however, a film that will be attractive to the “unbeliever.” But perhaps, that is not the point. Perhaps the filmmakers want the mostly Christian audience to experience Ian’s story in a new way and then feel compelled to share it with others.

Perhaps.

The film gets points for not beating the audience over the end with Biblical “truth.” It is open just enough for people to come to their own conclusions – meeting them where they are in their relationship with Jesus Christ. The film, for a brief moment, suggests that a person can be spiritual without being religious. Were not for the relationship Ian developed with a spiritual woman, he may not have had the Paul-like blinding light Jesus experience that he did.

For a complete listing of cities where the film is playing, you can click here.

 

 

The Redemption of Henry Myers (2014)

Redemption of Henry MyersThe Redemption of Henry Myers first aired on the Hallmark Channel in March 2014. It will be available on DVD Tuesday, June 10, 2014. The film is one from new, Christian-based studio EchoLight Studies, founded by former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who was an executive producer on this film. The studio has stated that it strives to not “create sermons wrapped in a movie but to create content that inspires, fascinates and incorporates a strong Christian worldview.”

The film is the story of Henry Myers (Drew Waters, Breaking Bad) who has lived a hard life. This Western opens as so many classic Westerns do, with a bank robbery. The symbolism in the opening scene is remarkable for the direction the rest of the film will go. A man on a horse-pulled cart carrying two pine coffin boxes, opens the boxes to reveal two of the most wanted men in the area. Afterwards, they rob a bank. In the midst of struggle, Henry’s gun goes off and kills a preacher.

Riddled with bad dreams, Henry finally finds himself at the home of the widow Marilyn (Erin Bethea) and her two children, Will and Laura. The family is a faith-filled family, they pray together and read from the Bible each evening. Henry stays away from most of it. But he listens and he ponders.

Jaden Roberts is excellent as the young daughter Laura. In many ways, Roberts carries the scenes she is in. She is the innocent, yet wise girl. She sees beyond the rough exterior of Henry to see his warm heart. And in moments when Marilyn is ready to let him go, it is Laura who reminds her that their Christian duty to care for the stranger.

The images of the Good Samaritan from the gospel of Luke are obvious. Henry is the man beaten and wounded, and Marilyn is the Samaritan who cares for Henry when no one else will. It is obvious because it is one of the Bible passages the family reads together. As Marilyn says to Henry at one point, “Everyone deserves kindness.”

And Henry is not used to that. As he starts to feel better, he helps out around the ranch with an arm in a sling. As he helps Will (Ezra Proch) put up a fence, the two have a conversation about doubt and faith. Will, who has been listening to the Bible being read since birth, doubts that there is much truth to it all. But Henry, who has only been listening to it for a few days, isn’t quite ready to say that it’s all unbelievable.

I typically approach Christian films with some caution. Frankly, deliberately Christian films tend to be bad films. Redemption, however, is not one of those films. It’s a good, clean, family friendly film. And it doesn’t go in the direction you might think it will. At least, I didn’t. I was pleasantly surprised at the twist, and think that it is a better movie because of it. I only have two wishes. I wish that the scene where Henry has his break-down of yelling to God was done a little differently. It was too predictable. The other is that I wish director Clayton Miller used more of Erin Bethea’s acting chops. Bethea is an incredible actress. I did not feel like Miller tapped into all that Bethea could  have offered this film.

Overall, the film is a good film. It portrays the struggle between revenge and redemption. It portrays, not just in dialogue, but through small details that change is possible, reminding us of the promise of new birth.

The DVD is available in stores and on Amazon.com. 

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel RwandaRwanda is a tiny country in central Africa. In 1994 millions of people who belonged to the Tutsi tribe were killed by those who belonged to the Hutu tribe in a massive massacre. The film is not a story about the massacre or the genocide. It is, instead, the story of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), a hotel manager who risked his own life for 1,200 people by being a good hotel manager. During this genocide, the rest of the world turned its head, looking away, exposing the corporate and systemic sin of so many.

Paul is a quiet man, who is steady in the midst of chaos. He has developed over the years his skills in bribery, flattery, apology, and deception. And these skills come in handy as he cares for a hotel full of strangers.

When the film premiered at Toronto 2004, it was criticized for not being a film about the genocide, an act that in 2004 people were outraged about. Yet, under the direction of Terry George, using the script he co-wrote with Keir Pearson, the film is just right. The film has very potent moments where the reality of genocide moves us. There is the moment when Paul’s wife, a Tutsi, along with other refugees are attacked while in a UN truck. Or the moment when the Hutu army shows up at the hotel’s door demanding the names of all its guests, and Paul is able to distract them long enough to call in a favor. Or the moment when Paul is driving back to the hotel with supplies, and the hotel van drives over bumpy roads. Paul, thinking the driver has gone off the road, makes him stop the van and gets out. The whole road is filled with dead bodies.

The film is Paul’s story about being a hotel manager in midst of genocide, is based on a real story, which is a powerful story of a man who cannot leave behind those who are suffering. Paul, along with his family, are awarded (because that is what it feels like) VISAs to leave the country. As he climbs into the UN truck, he is filled with compassion and in a split second decides to stay at the hotel. And it is a good that he did.

hotel-rwanda-02

Everything about Paul is Christ-like. He is compassionate, never thinking twice about taking in refugees. Every action and decision he makes is focused on fulfilling this calling in his life – to care for those whom no one cares for.

Paul: You do not believe you can kill them all?

Colonel: Why not? Why not? We are halfway there already.

The hate seems to be a way of life. It seems so natural. And yet, for Paul, the opposite is true. Love, justice, and compassion is what comes natural. A cameraman, Jack Daglish (Joaquin Phoenix), who is staying at the hotel, meets two young women. One is Hutu and the other is Tutsi. He cannot tell them apart. Neither can Paul. The differences are not a curse, the differences are blessings.

During this season of Lent, let us remember to interrogate our hearts in order to examine how we participate in systemic sin, and strive to be like the hotel manager, welcoming those who are not.

Philadelphia (1993)

philadelphia_xlgIn the 1980s, AIDS emerged as the leading killer of young adults. By the mid-1980s, it was the leading cause of death in men ages 25-44. In 1990, over 100,000 deaths were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today we know that AIDS cannot be transmitted by a handshake or a hug, or by breathing the same air as someone who is HIV positive. But in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, those things were not known. When someone came into contact with AIDS or HIV, they were cautious, as if they were in a leper colony.  This is why Philadelphia is so important. A decade after the disease was identified, Hollywood took a risk in making a big-budget film about the disease.

It is the story of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) who is a rising lawyer in a major and high profile law firm. The audience is given the privilege of knowing that Beckett is being treated for AIDS. The law firm, however, does not know. The senior partner of the law firm gives Beckett a case that involves the firm’s most important client.

A lesion on his forehead, however, seems to give him away. Though he claims it is a bruise from playing racket ball, it is not long before he is terminated. Beckett is pretty certain that he is being fired because of his sickness.

Beckett is not wrong in his suspicion, and he decides to take a stand. No attorney in town is willing to go up against Wheeler and his law firm. Until Beckett goes to Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). Miller is “the guy from TV” as people throughout the film say as they recognize him from his TV commercials.

The only thing is Miller does not like homosexuals. He admits it his wife. He shows it when he awkwardly reacts to Beckett when he finds out that Beckett has AIDS. But after watching a librarian in the law library strongly suggest that Beckett use one of the private rooms, Miller is filled with compassion. Prejudice is prejudice.

After a costume party at Beckett’s flat, Miller sits down with him to go over questioning for the courtroom drama. In the midst of this, Beckett asks Miller, “Do you ever pray?” Beckett is somewhat taken off guard. He answers that he does, and Beckett asks him what he prays for. Miller replies back that he prayers for his wife, his daughter, for the Phillys to win.

Beckett has opera music playing during this conversation. It is one that Beckett is able to identify with his dying state, which he opening talks about over the music. Miller is visibly uncomfortable. Opera is not his thing. Beckett explains what the opera means to him.

Do you feel the pain, Joe? . . . . . . It’s filled with hope.

There is a change in Miller. He sees Beckett as any other man who loves life and fears death. The film swiftly moves to Miller’s home where he is sitting in the darkness. Miller comes out of that darkness fighting stronger for Beckett, and seeing Beckett more as a friend than a client.

Some have described AIDS as the modern-day leprosy. That may be the chance. In Jesus’ day, people with leprosy had to yell out “Unclean! Unclean!” to announce that they were coming through. It was so that others would avoid them. Yet, Jesus touched the lepers, repeatedly throughout the Gospels, Jesus touches the untouchable.

Philadelphia reminds us that there are untouchables with us still. There are those whom society has deemed unclean. Andrew Beckett was deemed unclean by his law firm and fired for it. Wheeler tells his fellow partners, “He brought AIDS into our offices – into our men’s rooms!” However, Jesus’ actions towards the untouchables of his day was a moment of radical love! As Christians – “little Christs” – we are called to face the prejudices we hold and transform those thoughts into actions of radical love.

Guest Post: God’s Not Dead (2014)

by Dr. David Baggett

gods_not_dead_xlgThe latest Christian film God’s Not Dead—inspired by the famous Nietzschean line “God is dead”—has its zealous and enthusiastic defenders along with its ardent critics. With the supporters, as a Christian I’m heartened by the central idea in the film that there are good reasons for our faith, that we need not check our brains at the door of the church. As a Christian philosopher, I’m convinced that the evidence for a generally theistic and specifically Christian worldview is strong, and, although the apologetics in the movie is cursory and quick, it gestures in promising directions. I have little doubt that the hearts of the film-makers here were in the eminently right place.

With the detractors of the film, though, I have my grave reservations. Perhaps the most serious problem the film manifests is a lack of honesty, as manifested in the various ways in which, as a movie, it is rather shoddy art. The characters tend to be one-dimensional; the movie indulges stereotypes of various sorts; much of the dialogue is laughably unrealistic. The premise of a secular college campus where there’s a conflict of ideological convictions and warring worldviews provided great fodder for a very good movie, a most engaging storyline, and believable characters. But the movie’s penchant for caricature, superficial analysis, pop psychological reduction of atheist convictions, and one spiritual sledge hammer to the head after the next resulted in an embarrassingly cheesy movie that quite failed to reach even a fraction of its potential.

Again, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the film-makers, but as someone who studied philosophy in a state university for both my undergraduate degree and doctorate, and did so as a Christian, I found the execution of the central premise to be sadly deficient. There are all sorts of Christians in academic programs—in philosophy and otherwise—in various and sundry state universities, not to mention immersed in secular contexts of other sorts, and attempting to conduct themselves with integrity and thoughtfulness. Each day brings new challenges to their faith, their reputation, their success in their chosen field, to their intelligence and ingenuity and creativity and faithfulness—and many look for and find new and innovative ways to think Christianly and be salt and light in a thousand ways on a regular basis, sometimes in big and dramatic fashion, but usually in quiet, understated ways. They do their work, share their testimony, value excellence, model the love of Christ, and in the process build bridges, encourage dialogue, rely on God’s direction and empowerment, and in the process showcase reasons for the hope they have within. Most of us in this country, however much we may be challenged for our faith, don’t experience anything like real persecution; to think otherwise trivializes the real persecution endured by many Christians in other parts of the world—not usually at the hands of secular humanists, incidentally.

God’s Not Dead is no doubt meant as an encouragement to Christians, and especially Christian young people whose faith gets assailed at public universities and elsewhere all too often. I am a strong believer in the importance of offering such encouragement and doing the hard work of equipping young people to know not just what they believe, but why they believe it.

But I don’t think a movie that depicts atheists as universally smug, arrogant, irrational, unreasonable, and obnoxious—all in patent contrast with brilliant, squeaky clean-cut, hand-raising Newsboys concert-goers—is the way to do it. The atheistic philosophy professor in the movie is so unbelievably harsh and dogmatic that it’s unlikely that what he was doing in his class is even legal; it’s certainly not in the spirit of philosophy rightly understood. However much some Christians might like to cast themselves as victims of such intellectual snobbery and atheistic animus, real-life philosophy professors anywhere near the vicinity of this fictional portrayal are, in my experience in this field anyway, exceedingly rare, if not nonexistent. Sure there are dogmatic atheists, and even fundamentalist-type obnoxious atheists, just as there are obnoxious Christian fundamentalists. Painting either group as a whole with such a broad and uncharitable brush is intellectually dishonest. If we don’t like to be stereotyped, pigeon-holed, and summarily dismissed in this fashion, we should refrain doing it with our interlocutors, whom we’ve been called to love and for whom Jesus died.

Rather than congratulating ourselves for not being counted among the unbelievers, and laud bad films just because we like their conclusions or resolutions, we need to learn how to listen to our secular friends, build relationships with them, reach out to them, and meet them where they are. As the opportunity arises, we need to share with them the good news of the Gospel and the reasons for the hope within us, and, yes, the reasons to believe that Christianity is true. But such preparation takes serious work; loving God with all of our minds isn’t something we’re able to do by reading a few books and immediately dazzling crowds and winning them over. It takes due diligence, study, work, preparation, and it’s a process that, for those called to do it, will involve gradual growth and development, occasional missteps and stumbles, but a steadily growing repertoire of apologetic resources at one’s disposal to use for God’s glory.

The idea that a college freshman, after reading a few books, can reduce a trained secular philosophy professor nearly to tears and systematically dismantle his worldview is an insult to thoughtful atheists and a trivialization of Christian apologetics. It’s not that easy, but it’s vitally important work. We need to pat ourselves less on the back and get busy doing the real work of preparation, and to do so with the intention of winning people, not just arguments.

Dr. David Baggett is Professor of Philosophy at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is the co-editor of the book “Hitchcock and Philosophy.” 

 

Doubt (2008)

DoubtTo some Doubt is about the sex scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church. But a close watching of the film will relieve that it is actually about doubt. John Patrick Shanley based on his Pulitzer and Tony-winning play of the same title directs the film.

The setting is St. Nicholas catholic grade school in the Bronx in 1964. The school is ruled by its principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Under her supervision is Sister James (Amy Adams). Sister James is more naïve and innocent than Sister Aloysius. As a result, Sister Aloysius is more harsh and, well, scary. When Donald Miller, the only African-American student at the school, is called down to the rectory alone, Sister James can’t help but be suspicious.

After the boy returns to class, there is something different about him. Sister James reports the event to Sister Aloysius, who seems to think she knows what happened. The implication is clear  – Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) took advantage of the boy sexually. Father Flynn eventually leaves the parish to avoid any controversy.

The main issue is not sexual morality, the main issue is doubt. Vacation II, and the changes it brought, was underway in the Roman Catholic church at this time. Father Flynn is a more progressive priest, while Sister Aloysius is a rule follower. And as the principal, that makes sense. She is in charge of the nuns and the children. Without the rules, chaos will break through.

But sometimes the rules do not allow change to occur. Change feels like chaos. Change happens. It is a way of life. It is built into the very fiber of creation. But, change is hard. But even those of us who have claimed being “born again,” must be “born again.” John Wesley understood that the Christian is going on to perfection. What he meant by that is that, even though we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are still on a journey of faith. And on that journey will be little conversions, moments of transformation and change.

Father Flynn preaches on doubt in the first sermon we hear. Sister Aloysius clearly feels like talking about doubt has no place in the church. While Sister James, much younger, thinks it was a good thing for Father Flynn to talk about.  And, let’s face, doubt gets a bad rap. Poor Thomas missed out on the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, questions what the disciples are telling him, and he is forever dubbed “Doubting Thomas.”

Is there anything wrong with asking questions of our faith? Father Flynn would say no. We need to be in conversation with our theology and the changing world we live. Sister Aloysius on the other name, would say yes, there is something wrong with it. The rules are there for a reason.

When we doubt, we raise questions. Questions demand answers. Doubt has the potential to send the Christian on a journey seeking answers. This journey moves the Christian beyond the way things have always been to the new possibilities in Christ.

The closing scene of the film is, honestly, an odd way to end a film. For those who like movies with a happy ending that provides closure, this is not the film. The two nuns are sitting outside on a bench. Sister Aloysius finally confesses that she doubts. And she falls into the arms of young Sister James and cries. The organ music swells playing “The First Noel.” And then the credits begin scrolling while a choir sings, “Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth.”

Even Sister Aloysius, with all of her rules, needs the Redeemer to come to her.

Noah: The Bible vs. The Film

noah-poster2I saw the new film, Noah this weekend. There has been a lot said and written about the film. Why you should go see it or why you shouldn’t go see it. For generations of filmmakers, the Bible has been a primary source of creativity. And for generations, there have been critics who are disappointed that the film does not follow the Bible to a tee.

I am planning to write a review of the film, but in the meantime, I put together a chart comparing the Biblical narrative of Noah as found in Genesis chapters 6-9 to the film. Yes, there is a lot more in the film than in the Bible. The Biblical story is only 4 chapters long, which is not a three hour movie.

The purpose of this post and the chart below is simply a comparison. That is all. There will be more later.

Verses

Bible

Film

Gen. 6:1-4 Nephilim are introduced. Walter Brueggemann calls them “strange giants.” The Watchers
 Gen. 6:3 Mankind has 120 years left on earth Time frame is not given, but the idea is there
Gen. 6:5-7 Earth is filled with wickedness; God decides to wipe it clean. God speaks, but to whom? We see the wickedness as depicted by the barrenness of the earth. God reveals the plan to Noah in a dream.
Gen. 6:8-10 Noah finds favor with God. Noah and his family are the only ones caring for God’s creation.
Gen. 6:11-17 God tells Noah the plan and what to do. This is all done through a dream and then visions from berries from Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah the son of Enoch.
Gen. 6:18 Noah, his wife, and their sons, and their sons’ wives will enter the ark. Noah, his wife, his sons, and one wife enter the ark.
Gen. 6:19-21 God instructs Noah to bring animals onto the ark and food for the humans and the animals. God sends the animals to the ark. Noah’s family puts them to sleep for the log voyage.
Gen. 6:22 Noah did as God commanded.
Gen. 7:1-5 Another account of God instructing Noah to bring animals into the ark. God sends animals to the ark.
Gen. 7:6-16 The flood begins. “springs from the great deep burst forth” and “rain fell.” Ditto. And its very dramatic.
Gen. 7:15 The animals “came to Noah” The animals come to Noah.
Gen. 7:17-20 It rained for 40 days. We aren’t told how long it rained, but it rained.
Gen. 7:21-24 Everything outside the ark, died. True. Except for one man who sneaked on the ark, which was mostly a plot mover.
Gen. 8:1-2 The rain stops. Ditto. The sun comes out.
Gen. 8:3-5 Ark rest on Mt. Ararat The mountain looks like “grandfather’s mountain” where they built the ark.
Gen. 8:6-9 Noah sends out a raven. Then sends a dove, but finds no earth. Noah’s wife and youngest son send raven, finds nothing. Then sends a dove.
Gen. 8:10-12 After seven days, Noah sends the dove again. Dove comes back with olive leaf. The dove mentioned above comes back with olive leaf.
Gen. 8:13-14 The earth is completely dry. Dryness happens.
Gen. 8:15-19 Come out of the ark, be fruitful and mulpity. Noah says this at the very end of the movie.
Gen. 8:20 Noah builds an altar. There is something altar like in the last scene when the family gives thanks.
Gen.8:21-22 God promises never to destroy the earth because of mankind. God never speaks in the film.
Gen. 9:1-7 God gives blessing to the men to be fruitful and increase in number.God says, “for in the image of God has God made man.” Noah speaks this blessing in the last scene.The theme of being created in the “image of God” runs throughout the whole film.
Gen. 9:8-11 God establishes covenant with Noah. Again, God does not speak.
Gen. 9:12-17 God sets a rainbow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant. The very, very last bit of screen time is the rainbow.
Gen. 9:18-23 Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk from the wine, and lays uncovered in his tent.Ham sees his father’s nakedness and tells his brothers.

Shem and Japheth walk backwards to cover up their father, no not to see his nakedness.

After the family gets off the boat, Noah drinks wine, gets drunk, and lays uncovered on the beach.Ham sees his father’s nakedness.

Shem and Japheth walk backwards to cover up their father, no not to see his nakedness.

Gen. 9:24-28 Noah wakes from his wine and finds out what Ham had done and curses Ham’s son, Canaan. Noah blesses Shem and Japheth.Noah dies. Ham leaves the family on his own.Noah and family are still alive as movie ends.