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.

The Green Mile (1999)

“You can’t hide what’s in your heart.”  -John Coffey

the-green-mile-originalJohn Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in eighteenth century England, believed in the doctrine of original sin. He believed that the image of God in each of us is lost because we have been marred by sin. This corruption by sin was often described by Wesley as an “infection.” Professor Ted Campbell writes that “we not only live in a world ‘infected’ by sin, but that infection touches each of us.”

Frank Darabont’s film version of Stephen King’s novel, The Green Mile, makes good use of the word infection. It is the first film that Darabont made since 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, also based on a Stephen King novel.

The film is a story that Paul Edgecomb tells from a retirement home that he lives in. Younger Paul is played by Tom Hanks. He is in charge of the Death Row unit at a Louisiana penitentiary. Paul and his fellow guards do their best to treat each inmate in their charge with kindness. They see their vocation as including these men in preparing for their deaths.

John Coffey (“like the drink, only not spelled the same”) is convicted of raping and killing two white girls. To say that John Coffey, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, is a gigantic man, is to grossly state the obvious.  Coffey, as Paul discovers, is not as dangerous as he looks. He is gentle, kindhearted, respectful, and well meaning.

Paul is in a great deal of pain because of a gallbladder infection. Despite his wife’s urging of him to go to the doctor, Paul goes to work in horrible pain. He goes because a new prisoner is coming in, and “Wild Billy” (Sam Rockwell) is a bit too much. The struggle with the Wild Billy proves to be too painful for Paul.

John Coffey calls out to Paul to come see him for a minute. Paul puts it off, until he can’t bear hearing John Coffey calling anymore. When Paul stands before John Coffey, in dire pain, John Coffey reaches through the bars and touches Paul in his infected area. In a few moments all of Paul’s pain is gone.

A miraculous healing occurred.

Later in the film when Percy (Doug Hutchison), who is a bit of an infection on the Green Mile, stomps on Mr. Jingles, the pet mouse of inmate Delacroix (Michael Jeter). John Coffey, filled with compassion, asked the guards to bring to the dead mouse to him. John Coffey takes the dead mouse into his hands, and in a scene that recalls images from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where the child Jesus heals a dead bird, John Coffey brings the mouse back to life.

Paul explains to the other guards that John Coffey had done the same thing to his gall bladder infection. It is not long before they come up with a plan to sneak John Coffey out of the prison one night and take him to the home of the Warden (James Cromwell). The Warden’s wife, played by Patricia Clarkson, is dying from cancer. In a powerful scene John Coffey leans in a sucks out the infection inside her, and swallows it.

It all seems supernatural, all very Stephen King like. But it also very theological. John Coffey takes the infection away. While John Wesley described sin as an “infection,” he preached that the remedy was grace.

In the film, “infection” is used beyond death and disease. John Coffey, when he touches Wild Billy, sees what Wild Billy has done. “He’s a bad man, Boss,” John Coffey tells Paul. He is able to share the vision with Paul, and Paul is able to see that Wild Billy was working for the father of the dead girls, and he is the one who raped and killed them. As John Coffey says, “You can’t hide what’s in your heart.” John Coffey was trying to use is powers to give them life. But he was not able to do so.

Percy, the newest guard on the Green Mile, got the job because his aunt is married to the Governor. Percy may not be a murderer and rapists like Wild Billy, but he is not kind, he is not generous, and he is not humble. John Coffey sees Percy as an infection. When John Coffey takes the cancer away from the Warden’s wife, he swallowed it, and later breathes it into Percy. Moments later, Percy shoots Wild Billy. Paul and the other guards are dumbfounded. “They were bad mens,” John Coffey says.

When given the opportunity to have Paul and the Warden stand up for John Coffey and explain that it was Wild Billy who killed the girls, John Coffey declines. He willing goes to the electric chair. This humble act of sacrifice is the final act of John Coffey’s that make us think of Jesus Christ. I have no idea if Stephen King did all of that on purpose or not. But it is there.

As we return to present day Paul telling the story, we learn that “the math doesn’t quite work out.” Paul is 108 years old. He and Mr. Jingles have been living for a long time. Paul says that John Coffey gave a bit of himself to Paul. “A part of his power is in me,” Paul says. John Coffey infected Paul with life.

Is there a better Easter message? Jesus Christ comes into our lives, bearing the remedy for the infection we suffer from. Jesus Christ gives us a little bit of himself when we welcome the gift of grace. And Jesus Christ infects us with life.

The Color Purple (1985)

The_Color_Purple_posterSteven Spielberg’s film is based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same title. It is the heart-wrenching story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg). Celie is raped by her father, gives birth to two children who are immediately taken from her and sold. When a neighboring widower comes by to request marrying Celie’s younger sister Nettie.  Celie’s father offers Celie to him instead, along with a cow.

The man is Albert Johnson (Danny Glover), but throughout most of the film, Celie calls him “Mister.” Living in rural Georgia in the early 20th century, Celie’s journey is one of self-discovery through discrimination and violence, mostly from the hands of those who are to love her. That summer, Nettie shows up at the Johnson’s home. She has escaped her father, who will not keep his hands to himself. Mister is okay with Nettie coming to live with them, because he has had his eyes on her for a long time.

The move is good for Celie. The sisters have always had a deep, spiritual connection. Nettie, who goes to school, teaches Celie how to read, including Charles Dickson’s Oliver Twist. Celie seems to find solace in Oliver Twist, for she too feels orphaned.

On her way to school one day, Mister makes an attempt to rape Nettie. She, however, refuses to become a victim. Furious that she refused him and furious that she kicked him, he violently throws her out of his house. It is one of the most intense scenes of the film. Mister is yelling and screaming, all while throwing Nettie’s belongings. Nettie and Celie cling to each other, and Mister violently pries them apart. Nettie shouts over and over, “Why!” Nettie, played so well by Akosua Busia, carries this scene. She represents Celie salvation. Her relationship with her sister, is the only thing that soothes Celie’s soul. With her gone, that sense of calmness and salvation is gone. And along with it, all hope.

Nettie cries out to Celie as Mister continues to force her off his property, “Nothing but death can keep me from you!”

Nothing Will Keep Me

From then on, the Johnson mailbox becomes a focal point. The sober shots of the empty mailbox represent the emptiness in Celie’s heart. Celie longs for a letter from Nettie to show up in that mailbox. “She said she would write,” Celie narrates, “but she never does.” Mister threatens her to open that mailbox, so Celie never really knows.

Mister gets a letter from Shug Avery (Margaret Avery). Shug is a pivotal character in this film. We first meet her as she comes into to town to sing. Celie sees in Shug who she wants to be. If she only has the courage.

One night Mister brings Shug Avery to the house, drunk and sick. Mister tries to care for her, but he can’t. He doesn’t know how. Celie, meanwhile, cooks, baths, and brushes Shug’s hair. A relationship between the two women begins to form, one that is more intense and sexual in Walker’s novel than in Spielberg’s film. It is this relationship, like Celie’s relationship with her sister that is Celie’s salvation. When Shug is around, Mister does not beat Celie. When Shug is around, Celie can be herself.

Shug offers more than just salvation to Celie, she empowers her to the point of transformation. But more on that later.

Credit: Photo by Moviestore Collection / Rex Features
Credit: Photo by Moviestore Collection / Rex Features

Shug is the main entertainment at Harpo’s bar. There is drinking, singing and laughing, and all kinds of carrying on. A fight breaks out, with Sofia at the start of it. In the midst of this bar scene, the camera takes us across the swamps and fields to the nearby church. It is only seconds long, but it has a significant impact on the story. With directors like Steven Spielberg, scenes like that may seem out of place, but are actually very intentional.

The inclusion of the church and the preacher giving a sermon against such sinful behavior as the bar scene illustrates the tension between sinfulness and righteousness. Or, more accurately, perceived sinfulness and perceived righteousness. There is a perceived understanding that treating your wife as another piece of property is acceptable. While singing jazz and the blues at a bar is not.

Shug goes to the church to see the preacher. She stands in the back of the church talking to the preacher who is sitting on the front pew facing forward. He refuses to turn and face Shug, no matter how much she pleads with him. He gets up from the pew, walks into another room and closes the door, all without saying a word. Shug backs out of the church, closing the church doors, symbolizing her relationship with the Church and with her father, the preacher. Her father will not look at her for he will look at sinfulness.

With the doors closed on the relationship with her father, Shug leaves town again, this time for Memphis. Celie dreams of going with her, escaping “Mister Jail,” and finally breaking free. But she doesn’t quite have the courage yet to stand up to him.

In the spring of 1936, Shug returns to the Johnson’s home, this time with a husband, Grady. While the men are drinking, Shug checks the mailbox and sees a letter for Celie. It is from Nettie.

While the two men are out of the house, Shug and Celie go through the whole house until they find the other letters from Nettie.. She learns that Nettie has been a nanny for African-American missionaries who were serving in Africa. The missionaries’ children are Adam and Olivia, Celie’s children that her father sold to the missionaries.

This connection to her sister begins a change in Celie. When finally see – and hear – the change when the family is gathered at the dinner table. Shug announces that she and Grady are going to be leaving soon. She also announces that they are taking Celie with them. Mister does not like this idea. Celie, standing up from the table, speaks her own voice for the first time:

You’re a low-down dirty dog! It’s time to get away from you . . . You took my sister Nettie away from me. You knew she was the only somebody in the world who loved me  . . She’s coming home . . we’ll all get together and we’ll whip your ass! She’s got my children and they know other languages.

As they leave the house, Mister shouts to Celie, “You’re black, you’re ugly, you’re a woman, you’re nothing at all!”, which sums up how Celie thought of herself for her whole life at the oppressive hands of men who were suppose to love her.  As the car drives away, Celie shouts back, “I may be black,  poor. I may even be ugly. But I’m here!”

In the fall of 1937 and Mister’s life has gone down hill. The house and property are neglected, just as his own life. Celie comes home for her father’s funeral, only to learn that he was her stepfather. Celie, though still disgusted that he rapped her, has a sense of relief that her children are not her half-siblings. Celie inherits her birth father’s property. Celie moves into the house and starts a seamstress shop in town.

One afternoon as Celie and Shug walk through the fields of purple flowers that she and Nettie did as children. Shug compares people’s indifference to the flowers with their indifference to God. It is a theological statement that brings to mind the scene where Shug closes the doors of the church.

Celie & ShugShug: You just walk past the color purple and don’t notice it.

Celie: You mean that God just wants to be loved.

Shug: Everything wants to be loved.

We go back to Harpo’s bar where Shug is singing. Across the water, just as before, the camera takes us to the church where the preacher is preaching. The song Shug sings includes these words, “God is trying to tell you something.” Someone in the congregation interrupts the preacher to tell him, “God is trying to tell you something.”

The choir starts to sing, and it at first overpowers Shug and her band. It’s not long before Shug starts singing with the choir, and makes her way to the church. The crowd from Harpo’s follows her. When the crowd gets to the church, Shug flies open the church doors singing with the choir, “God is trying to tell you something.”

Shug and the preacher meet in front of the altar and embrace. Shug whispers to him, “See, Daddy, sinners have a soul too!”

This is such an amazing scene! Where previously these two worlds – the righteous and the sinful – were separate now they collide in a powerful way. Shug is the prodigal daughter coming home, opening the doors that she closed on her relationship with the church and her father. It is also a transforming moment for her father, the preacher. The moment is a reminder of the powerful transformation that can occur through reconciliation.

Mister, Albert, has been sitting on his front porch this whole time, listening to all the singing. With the choir singing as the backdrop, Albert checks the mail and there is something from the immigration office for Celie. He gets a handful of cash out of the hiding place. He goes downtown to the immigration office and the next thing we see is a car pulling up to Celie’s place.

It is Nettie and the children back from Africa. Celie and Nettie are finally reunited in the fields of purple flowers at their home place. Albert watches the reunion from a distance. The only person who sees him is Shug, who smiles to herself, knowing that Mister has finally grown up.

The women in The Color Purple, including Sopia (Oprah Winfrey), display for us what the journey through Lent results in: Transformation.

Babel (2006)

BabelBabel is the third film in a trilogy from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. The other two films, Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003), both have connectedness in their story lines, just as Babel does. The term “hyperlink film” has been used to describe these kinds of films, as the feature film is made up of short films.

In these kinds of films, the stories unfolding before us are interlocking stories. There is a connection – visible or invisible – between the short stories and the broader story of the film. A well-known example of this would be 2004’s Crash, which won Best Picture Oscar. Babel is a better version of this interlocking than Inarritu’s earlier films. And, I think, better than Crash.

I will try to avoid spoilers, because I think you should see this film. Even if you’ve seen it before, you should see it again. Chronologically I will piece it together. A wealthy Japanese businessman-single father goes to Morocco on a hunting trip. He tips his guide with the rifle he used. The guide’s neighbor has a problem with jackals. The guide sells the rifle to the neighbor to protect his sheep. The man’s sons take turns learning to fire the rifle. One of the sons shoots the gun, aiming at what he thinks is just a car. It is more than that, it is a tour bus, and an American woman is wounded. The American’s Mexican nanny is in San Diego taking care of the two children. The nanny’s son’s wedding is that weekend in Mexico. Unable to find someone else to watch the children, she takes them with her. The police investigation into the Japanese businessman’s connection to the rifle unveils just how disturbed his teenage daughter is.

As connected as we say we are in the 21st century with things like Twitter, Facebook, and Skype, there is still the possibility of a case of misperceptions. Culture does not easily translate across the internet. Until we are living side-by-side those of different cultures, do we begin to understand what the “other” may be experiencing.

The film is a reminder that there is a connection across all of humanity. One action in Morocco has consequences in Japan. Roger Ebert wrote, “When we are strangers in a strange land, we can bring trouble upon ourselves and our hosts.”

The tourist on the tour bus and strangers in a strange land. The two American children at a Mexican wedding are strangers in a strange land. The Japanese teenager, who is deaf, is a stranger in her own land.

Differences are seen too often as a curse instead of a blessing. In a film like Babel, we search and search for the villain. In the scenes where the Mexican nanny is lost in the desert on the US side of the border, we want the Border Patrol officer to be the villain. But we have to except that he is just doing his job. Does that make the nanny the villain? She was striving to do what was best for the children in her care as well as for her own son. Unfortunate for her, each attempt to do what was best for the other leads to something going wrong.

How true is that for us?

One boy in Morocco made one decision in one moment. In that moment everything called for four different families, in Morocco, United States, Mexico, and Japan. That is all it takes. A moment. How many moments have we had where we have made split second decisions without any thought to the consequences they may have on others around us?

Yet, we search and search for the villain in our situations, when in many cases, our own decisions and actions have caused the chain of events that have gotten us here. No villain in sight, just life. That is why starting with Ash Wednesday, Christians enter into the season of Lent.

Lent is a season of remembering. While confessing our sins and remembering the grace of God in our lives, we remember those who are suffering around the world.  A film like Babel, challenges us to remember our own roles in the suffering of those around the world. It encourages us to wander in the desert, searching our hearts, and confessing those things that have caused separation between us and God and us and the rest of humanity. We confess the things that break the connection we have with the world.

While interlocking our stories is a major theme of this film, another theme is love. There is a reason why all the world’s major religions have a focus on love. There a few touching scenes of vulnerability and love. Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are the American tourist. They do not see eye-to-eye on things. When Susan is shot and awaiting help in a village near by, she needs help going to the bathroom. Richard gets a pan, and lifts her just enough for her to go. For the first time in the film we see this married couple kiss. The Japanese teenage girl exposes herself to other men, seeking for affection. Finally, when her father comes home, he finds her on the balcony, nude after attempting to seduce a detective. She holds her father’s hand, and then hugs him.

We all need love.

The director leaves us with this final message as the film concludes: “To my children . . . .brightest light in darkest night.”

Kill Your Darlings (2013)

Kill_Your_Darlings_posterIt is a bio flick, centering around the college years of some of American literature’s greatest minds: Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. Their story is framed around a little-known murder that took place in 1944. As the film opens, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is carrying a body into a river. The film tells you where it is going.

But to get there, we have to go to New Jeresy and get a glimpse at Allen Ginsberg’s home life. Brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, it is a performance that reminds us that Radcliffe is not Harry Potter anymore – and does not want to be. Ginsberg is ready to get away from his family, his poet father Louis (David Cross) and mentally wary mother Naomi (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their dysfunction has gotten the best of him. He needs to escape and live his own life. His escape comes when he goes to Columbia University.

As a freshman Ginsberg meets Lucien “Lu” Carr. Carr is at the center of this story. His background and his story is just as dysfunctional as the family Ginsberg left behind. It is through Carr that Ginsberg meets the jock Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and the always dapper William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster). The four form a friendship and seek to transform the literary word around through a new movement that would be called the New Vision. The movement will tear down the stuffiness of what was, and give new life to American literature.

Ginsberg is escorted into a world of sex, drugs, and jazz, by exploring parts of New York that his straight-lace roommate from Danville, Virginia tells him to avoid. It does not take long before Ginsberg is missing classes and failing to complete assignments. Nor does it take long before he finds himself in an awkward love triangle with Carr and his older partner David Kammerer (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall). Kammerer worships Carr. In exchange for companionship and sex Kammerer writes Carr’s papers and other assignments, sometimes going over the required page limits. Kammerer sees Carr’s relationship with Ginsberg and with Kerouac as a potential rivalry.

Ginsberg finds himself falling for Carr in the same way that Kammerer did. However, Ginsberg wants to liberate Carr from the awkward and oppressive relationship he is in with Kammerer. What Ginsberg does not realize is that Carr is playing everyone off of each other. It is only after Carr kills Kammerer, that Ginsberg realizes he has to liberate himself from Carr’s tangled web.

How often do we want to help our friends out to point of taking ourselves down too? It was difficult for Ginsberg to leave Carr behind bars, but in order for Ginsberg to be free himself, he had to let Carr go. There are relationships that come and go, they come for a season and we grow and learn a lot about ourselves in that season. But that season ends, and another season arrives. As hard and difficult as it is, sometimes it is best.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Best Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender, Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, Best Director: Steve McQueen, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.

Update: Won Best Support Actress: Lupita Nyong’o; Won Best Adapted Screenplay; Won Best Picture

twelve_years_a_slave_xlg12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose 1853 memoir is what the film is based. After a series of unfortunate events, Solomon, a free black man, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He is purchased by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and placed to work on a plantation in New Orleans. Solomon will have a second owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), after Ford sells him to save his life. It will be twelve years before a Canadian carpenter (Brad Pitt, one of the producers) shares Solomon’s story with those in the North, and Solomon is rescued from slavery. He is taken back to his home, where he is reunited with his family.

There are a number of major themes in this film. One is the role of scripture. Both of Solomon’s Southern owners quote scripture. Ford seems to lean towards striving for perfection. The scripture he reads from is about loving others. Epps, on the other hand, uses scripture as another tool of power and control, like the bullwhip. Slavery appears to be a complex mess.

Another theme is that of sin and injustice. The fact that a free man can be sold into slavery is a sin and an injustice. Epps is abusive to his slaves and rapes one (Lupita Nyong’o) over and over again. Even after his wife insists that he get of the slave, he cannot function without raping her. On top of that he is an alcoholic. But, according to him, owning slaves is not a sin. Yet, when the cotton goes come in one year, Epps blames it on the soulless slaves. They do not have faith in God, so God is punishing him.

Brad Pitt’s Canadian carpenter challenges Epps on that view. He tries to remind Epps that while he may own them as slaves, they are still human beings. The carpenter understands what so many others do not. That corporate, systemic sin is still sin.

Solomon, for the most part, does not express faith much throughout the film. But when he and the other slaves are burying a fellow slave, Solomon has a moment. Before Solomon shovels dirt over the body, the other slaves start singing a spiritual. Slowly, Solomon starts singing too. The camera settles just right on his face for us to see that the more Solomon sings the spiritual, the more he believes what he is singing. As horrible as the experience has been, it has its effect on Solomon. Suffering has a way of doing that; transforming the suffer in ways unthought of.

The film could easily be the Best Picture of the year. It is (as are the other nominations) a truly great film.