Wednesday, December 28, 2011

End of the Year Recap

     For the end of the year on “Reel Christianity”, I’ve decided to go the lazy—err, simple route and recap all the lessons we’ve covered through this year’s movies. And after reading through all these again, I realized: it’s a lot.

     Through “Inception”, we learned to take a leap of faith even when there are signs pointing against our beliefs. (Matthew 15, Philippians 1)

     Through “Toy Story”, we learned that just as Andy longed to love and play with his toys, our Creator God longs to be with us. (Psalm 139)

     Through “Toy Story 2”, we learned to hold on to the faith that we believe, even when we experience a radical change. (Galatians 1, Jeremiah 29)

     Through “Toy Story 3”, we learned not to be discouraged when it seems that God is abandoning us, because He will always be with us. (Joshua 1)

     Through “Fiddler On the Roof”, we learned to make our faith authentic, sacrificing what we want for what God expects of us. (Luke 14, 2 Corinthians 6)

     Through “Good Night, and Good Luck.”, we learned not to fear death or evil, but to always wait upon the Lord. (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21)

     Through “Star Wars”, we learned about the Holy Spirit and how it can empower us to do anything in Jesus’ name. (Mark 13, Acts 4, Matthew 28)

     Through “The Great Dictator”, we learned that (contrary to what the film says) man is sinful and falls short of God’s glory, but God can still forgive us. (Luke 17, Romans 3, Genesis 3)

     Through “127 Hours”, we learned that God chose us to be His child if only we will follow Him. (Romans 8)

     Through “Gladiator”, we learned to be merciful and hopeful of our future home in Heaven one day. (2 Corinthians 4:18, Matthew 24, Matthew 5)

     Through “The Quiet Man”, we learned that God, not material possessions, should be our guide through life. (1 Timothy 6)

     Through “Casablanca”, we learned that through sacrificing our desires before the Lord, we will find our true purpose. (Matthew 12)

     Through “A Bug’s Life”, we learned that only God can bring us out of oppression and use us for what we were meant to do. (Exodus 1, Exodus 4)

     Through “The Shawshank Redemption”, we learned about how Jesus came to Earth as a man to bring hope to other men, that they might find God. (John 1, Matthew 23, Romans 15)

     Through “Pride & Prejudice”, we learned not to put our assumptions before the truth and love people instead of judge them. (Proverbs 16, Matthew 7, 1 Corinthians 13)

     In “The Passion of the Christ”, we were reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, enduring the pain while dying for our sins.

     Through “Network”, we learned to rely only on the Truth of God and His Word rather than the world. (John 14, John 17, 1 Corinthians 10)

     Through “Doctor Zhivago”, we were reminded that pain and tragedy is temporary, but God will save us one day. (2 Corinthians 5)

     Through “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, we learned that God can forgive our sins and wash them away because of Jesus’ death. (John 8)

     Through “Witness”, we learned that even though different sins have different consequences, we have all sinned, but can still be forgiven. (Matthew 5, James 2)

     Through “Amadeus”, we learned to not covet other people’s talents, but rather worship God with those that He has blessed us with. (Exodus 20, Mark 7, Ephesians 2)

     In our “Defining the Christian Movie” series, we learned that no matter how a medium expresses an idea, we can still find a way to hear it. (Matthew 11)

     Through “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, we learned to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (Matthew 5)

     Through “12 Angry Men”, we learned to put our prejudices aside and focus on loving people. (Matthew 7)

     Through “Batman Begins”, we learned to sacrifice our old ways of living in order to live completely for God. (Luke 9, Romans 12, James 2)

     In “The Tree of Life”, we learned that we might never know why God does what He does sometimes, but because He is God, we need to surrender to Him. (Job 38, Romans 1)

     Through “All the President’s Men”, we learned to speak honestly and truthfully, even when there are risks. (Exodus 20, Proverbs 16, Philippians 4)

     Through “Breaking Away”, we learned that even through tough times, we need to build one another up as brothers and sisters in Christ. (Acts 2, 1 Thessalonians 5)

     Through “The Apartment”, we learned that even in the most heartbreaking of sins, God can still find us and redeem us. (Exodus 20, Proverbs 6, Matthew 5, John 8)

     Through “The African Queen”, we learned about God’s intended relationship for a man and a woman in marriage. (Genesis 2, Ephesians 5)

     Through “White Hunter Black Heart”, we learned not to obsess over the things of this world, but seek first the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 6, James 2)

     Through “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, we learned to come to Jesus as a little child—with simple faith. (Mark 10)

     Through “Dog Day Afternoon”, we learned not to live a contradictory lifestyle, one that claims to know God but has no action to back it up. (Matthew 23)

     Through “Iron Man”, we learned about the Apostle Paul and how we should have as much zeal as he did to spread the Gospel. (Acts 9)

     Through “The Thin Red Line”, we learned to look towards the Heaven that God has prepared for us one day. (Matthew 6)

     Through “The Usual Suspects”, we learned that God can use our weaknesses as strengths if we trust in Him. (2 Corinthians 12)

     Through “Great Expectations”, we learned to live our lives to the fullest so that when we see God in Heaven, we can stand before Him proud that we could serve Him. (John 10, 1 Corinthians 9, 2 Timothy 4)

     Through “Braveheart”, we learned to sacrifice our whole lives for the cause of Christ, even when it means pain. (Luke 23, 2 Corinthians 3)

     Through “The Third Man”, we learned that (contrary to what the film says) God cares about each and every one of us because we are His masterpieces. (Psalm 139)

     Through our “Light in the Darkness” series, we learned that even in the darkest of films (or in the darkest of people), we can still find God’s truth somehow. (Matthew 7, Romans 7, Matthew 11, Proverbs 3, Luke 10, John 9)

     Through “Tender Mercies”, we learned that even through painful times, God still wants the best for us. (Romans 8)

      Through “The Descendants”, we learned that God expects us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. (Luke 12, Matthew 6)

     Through “3 Godfathers”, we learned to take up God’s calling and identify with Jesus’ life and death. (Luke 9)

     And today, I look back on these and realize: God’s always got something in store for His children to learn. My prayer for you is that you will commit this year to the Lord and live for Him in everything you do—and maybe, just maybe, you’ll continue to find Him in the movies. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

3 Godfathers (1948)

     Merry Christmas, ladies and gentlemen! I’ve decided this week to honor the holidays by sharing with you one of my favorite Christmas movies: “3 Godfathers”!

     Now, some of you are probably thinking, What the heck is this movie? I’ve heard of “The Godfather”, but not “3 Godfathers”. Well, a year ago around this time, I hadn’t heard of it either. But last Christmas, I came across a box set of movies starring John Wayne and directed by—you guessed it—John Ford, whose films I’ve referred to several times on “Reel Christianity”. Ford, a Catholic, is best known for directing Westerns with Wayne, including “The Searchers”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and today’s film, “3 Godfathers”. And in my opinion, it qualifies as a Christmas movie, because—get this—it’s a “Western retelling of the Biblical Three Wise Men tale”. Literally, it says that on the back cover of the DVD. So immediately, I wanted to see this movie. And it turned out to be one of my favorite John Wayne/John Ford movies ever.

     Wayne leads once again as Robert, one of three bank robbers. He is joined by young William (Harry Carey, Jr., who would go on to join Wayne and Ford in “The Searchers”) and Hispanic Pedro (Pedro Armendariz). After riding for a while (perhaps on the run), they come across the small, friendly town of Welcome, Arizona, where Sheriff Buck Sweet (played by Ford film regular Ward Bond) immediately has his suspicions about the three men. And sure enough, he’s right, for the three men quickly rob the town bank and get away—but not before William is shot by his shoulder and Sweet shoots the gang’s bag of water. So as Sweet gets a posse together to go after the robbers, Robert, William, and Pedro are forced to find water and shelter, while also caring for William’s bullet wound.

     Eventually, the three robbers lose their horses in a sandstorm, William’s injured arm leaves him barely able to do much, and they find themselves in an abandoned town with a recently destroyed water tower. But they come across something very mysterious: a covered wagon with a woman alone inside who is in the process of delivering a baby. Pedro helps her deliver, and she gives birth to a son, whom she, knowing she is about to die, names Robert William Pedro after her saviors and entrusts to them as their godson. She eventually passes away, and the three men bury her body and start looking after little Robert William Pedro.

     However, none of the men have a clue how to raise a newborn. And this leads to some antics that make “3 Godfathers” one of the funniest Westerns I’ve ever seen. Inside a chest in the wagon that contains the baby’s clothes and other supplies is a booklet on how to take care of a baby. It says that when the baby is too young to bathe, rub grease on him. So Pedro, not knowing any better, takes some tire grease from under the wagon, and Robert begins rubbing him down. When figuring out how to feed him, Williams reads in the booklet that, “The best and surest method [for feeding] is the one which nature has provided.” Knowing what he means, Robert responds: “Well, that’s out.”

     And eventually, stress gets to the three men, as they try to figure out what to do. Robert and Pedro get into an argument about heading back to town, and Pedro humbly suggests that a Bible that was also found in the chest may provide them with an answer. In anger, Robert knocks the Bible out of Pedro’s hands, and it lands on the ground, the pages opening to Luke 2:22. William picks it up and tells the other two:

WILLIAM: It says right here where we’re to go, just like it’s told everything about all this! You fellas don’t understand; you think this was all just chance? Just accidental-like, us coming here this way? Finding the mother… helping her… the infant in the manger… the star, so bright last night… I ain’t talking outta no fever sweat, Bob, honest I ain’t. You think we had anything to do with what’s happened? No, sir, we didn’t—no more than you had anything to do with throwing the book. …It says Jerusalem right here in the book.

PEDRO: Look, Bob, maybe our Lord doesn’t care very much what happens to a simple cattle thief, but if I was in a gambling house, I would play the kid’s number.

     And the three of them decide to sacrifice their health and their safety in order to get their godson to the nearby town of New Jerusalem. And this scene is what really impacted me the most when I first saw “3 Godfathers”. This isn’t just a retelling of the Three Wise Men—it’s a story about sacrifice and keeping an oath, even when the circumstances are tough.

     This sacrifice is a small example of what Jesus commands of us in Luke 9:23: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Robert, William, and Pedro are beginning a journey that was beyond just escaping the law and getting themselves water—they are keeping a promise to a woman to take care of her baby, a promise that hits home to the faith they believe in. And Robert himself eventually carries his cross in his own way: when he finds himself at the end of the journey, carrying Robert William Pedro alone, after William and Pedro have eventually died on the way.

     As he carries his godson, Robert’s strength—and his faith—begin to fade. At one point, Robert sits down to regain his strength, and that Bible happens to turn to Matthew 21, where Jesus asks his disciples to find the donkey for him to ride on what we now know as Palm Sunday. But Robert ignores the sign and moves on, but it isn’t long before he falls again. And that’s when he hears voices in his head:

PEDRO: So, you break your promise to a dying woman?

ROBERT: I… I can’t go any further.

WILLIAM: Of course you can, Bob! What does the Book say? Follow the Book!

     As Robert finally gets up and starts walking, the images of William and Pedro appear walking behind him, joining him again in his journey. And as he becomes stronger, he sees a figure in the distance: a donkey, complete with bags and a blanket on his saddle. And when Robert eventually gets to New Jerusalem with Robert William Pedro safe, into a saloon where the pianist begins playing “Silent Night” in honor of that Christmas Eve, Robert doesn’t even care that Buck Sweet walks in and arrests him, sentencing him to what ends up being a year in prison. All Robert does is surrender and fall in exhaustion on his face in front of Sweet. He’s completed his journey and sacrificed his life for his godson—his purpose, as far as he is concerned, is complete.

     My prayer for you this Christmas is that beyond the parties, presents, and busyness that come with the holiday, you would remember Jesus and his sacrifice for us by coming to this Earth as a humble infant and then dying on the cross thirty-three years later for our sins. He truly is the Reason for the Season. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Descendants (2011)

     Today on “Reel Christianity”, we’re going to look at a movie that just arrived in theaters a few weeks ago. I usually don’t do this, but this movie impacted me enough that I thought it was important to share it with you all. This time of the year, Oscar buzz is starting up—and, if you don’t know what that means, that’s the hype for the Academy Awards to see which movies were the best of the year. “The Descendants” is one of the movies that have gotten the most hype. The script is very well-written, George Clooney gives the greatest performance I’ve ever seen him give, and the end of the movie made me tear up a little. It’s definitely one of the best films I’ve seen in 2011—second only to “The Tree of Life”, which came out back in July.

     But enough babble. Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii who’s got a lot on his plate. His wife Elizabeth has just been in a boating accident that’s put her in a coma, completely unresponsive. On top of that, in seven years, the trust will run out of a huge amount of Hawaiian land that Matt owns, land that has been passed down through generations of his family. Matt and his cousins have decided to sell the land, and the deal is to officially be made very soon. But Matt’s more concerned about his family, and he’s still very upset about the accident. When he and his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) are out to eat one day, they see the man who was driving Elizabeth in the boat when she had her accident, and even though the driver is very sorry for what he did, Matt (and Scottie, for that matter) aren’t willing to forgive him.

     When he learns that Elizabeth will not be waking up and will soon be taken off life support, he takes his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and goes to a boarding school on another island where his oldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) is attending—and where he finds her drunk with a friend. It’s revealed that Alex and Elizabeth were fighting about something before she left for school, but Matt has no idea what it is. So eventually, still upset about it, Alex tells her father that his wife was cheating on him. Matt finds out the man’s name is Brian Speer, a local realtor. And after Matt tells a few close friends and family about Elizabeth’s condition, he decides to take his daughters and try to find Brian Speer.

     Well, sort of. He takes them (and Alex’s possible boyfriend Sid [Nick Krause]) to their grandparents’ house, where Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster) bitterly tells Matt and Alex that they were bad family to Elizabeth. He doesn’t even indicate he knows anything about Elizabeth’s affair. On their way home, they pass a sign for a house for sale with a realtor’s picture and name on it: Brian Speer. They find out that Brian and his family (he has a wife and two sons) are on vacation, and Matt and Alex decide to track him down somehow.

     Eventually, they do find him, and as Sid distracts Scottie, Matt and Alex go to the Speers’ cottage that they are currently staying in, and Matt confronts Brian (Matthew Lilliard). Matt, even though he is still unwilling to forgive, does not tell Brian’s wife, Julie (Judy Greer). And after asking him a few questions, Matt decides to leave. Soon, however, he finds out that Brian happens to work for the man who is considering buying the land that Matt and his cousins are selling. So Matt is faced with an interesting dilemma.

     In the end, Matt decides not to sell the land. He believes that since he and his cousins have been entrusted this land by their ancestors, and it would be wrong to just give it up. His cousins hate him for it, of course, and soon after, Elizabeth finally passes away. But not before people come to say their last goodbyes, including Elizabeth’s parents, her daughters, and… Julie Speer. Having found out about the affair, she now comes to see Matt and Elizabeth and tell Elizabeth, even though she is comatose, that she forgives her. Matt, in turn, finds strength to forgive Elizabeth:

MATT: Goodbye, my love… My friend… My pain… My joy… Goodbye.

     And Elizabeth passes away, her ashes poured into the shores of Hawaii, and Matt, Alex, and Scottie are left without a mother but bonded better than they ever have been before.

     There are two ideas in this film that struck me. One of them isn’t as obvious as the other, and that is the idea of Matt not selling the land because it has been entrusted to them. That is where “The Descendants” gets its title: that part of Hawaii was inherited by natives long ago, who then passed down to their descendants, who passed it down to their descendants, and so on down to Matt King. And because it’s been passed down to him, he feels guilty about just selling it away.

     It’s almost like what Jesus said in Luke 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” If God gives us certain situations, people, or even abilities that we must confront, we must serve God in the best ways we can in all of those situations, even if not doing so may seem beneficial.

     But the most powerful idea in “The Descendants” for me is the idea of forgiveness. We see Matt at the beginning of the film unwilling to forgive the driver of the boat, then Elizabeth for her unfaithfulness, then Brian for the affair. But after he sees Julie able to forgive Elizabeth, it seems that this gives him the strength to forgive as well. And this reminded me of something I remember learning about in Sunday school a while back. While studying the Lord’s Prayer, we noted how Jesus says we should pray: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, found in Matthew 6:12. In verses 14-15, he adds, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

     If we do not forgive others, why should we be forgiven ourselves? My prayer for you is that whatever situation you find yourself in today, you would serve God to the best of your ability, even if that means forgiving others even when it is hard.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tender Mercies (1983)

     I had the opportunity last week to watch a movie for one of my media classes in college for credit and do an analysis on it. The movie was today's "Tender Mercies", a character study starring Robert Duvall in his Oscar-winning role alongside Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, and Ellen Barkin. The film was written by Horton Foote, the screenwriter of "To Kill a Mockingbird", and directed by Bruce Beresford, an Australian filmmaker who would direct "Driving Miss Daisy" six years after this. And one of the things that my class discussed about "Tender Mercies" was the fact that it's a very quiet film, and a lot of the conflict is internal. And in my opinion, given the questions that this film poses, it makes a lot of sense for the characters--and the audience--to answer those questions internally.

     The film opens with a man named Mac Sledge (Duvall) waking up to find himself in a motel in Texas with his wallet stolen by his friend. He goes to Rosa Lee (Harper), the woman in charge of the motel, and asks to work for her so he can eventually get back on the road. But he doesn't end up getting back on the road—he befriends Rosa Lee and her child Sonny (Allan Hubbard), left without a man of the house after Rosa Lee's husband was killed in the Vietnam War, attends church with them, and eventually marries Rosa Lee. But there’s more to Mac than Rosa Lee knows, and soon, his past starts to unravel before us.

     After a reporter tracks him down, we start finding out more about who Mac really is—or, as he likes to put it, was. Mac was a former country singer/songwriter married to country star Dixie Scott, until his drinking habits got the better of him and his wife left him and took their daughter with her. And when Mac finds Dixie singing at a local bar, we see the first instance of Mac trying to find forgiveness, as he goes to her concert and attempts to see their daughter before Dixie throws him out. But Dixie isn’t the least bit excited to let Mac back into her family’s life after his past alcoholic rages and even his attempts to kill her, even though Mac tries to present himself as a new, clean man.

     In what may be an attempt to ask for forgiveness again, Mac gives Dixie's manager Harry (Wilford Brimley) a song that he wrote that Dixie may want to record. She and Harry refuse, but eventually, a local group of part-time, up-and-coming country musicians find Mac and befriend him. Mac eventually gives them the song, and the band gets a deal to record the song—but only if Mac sings it with them. And so, Mac starts his career up again for a time, and life seems good for a while. He's able to start singing again; he and Sonny are baptized in the church; and even his daughter, now eighteen-year-old Sue Anne (Barkin), stops by to visit him. And for the first time, since Mac hasn't seen Sue Anne since she was a baby, the two of them are able to have a healthy conversation, as she tells him about her life and her new boyfriend. By the end of act two, with his latest song a radio hit, Mac has practically reached the highest peak of his life.

     But soon after, Mac gets word that Sue Anne has been killed in a car crash after she eloped with her boyfriend, who also struggled with drinking. And Mac's life is turned around again. He goes to see Dixie, grief-stricken and unable to leave her bed, and the two of them begin reconciliation. But when Mac goes to her, Dixie asks him: "Why did God do this to me?" And that question of "why" stays with Mac for a long time.

     Later, in what may be the film's climax, Mac is gardening when Rosa Lee comes out to talk to him, and Mac tells her a secret: earlier in his life, when he was driving drunk once, his car wreck, flipped four times, and almost killed him. But somehow, Mac survived, and he can't understand why God would let him live and let Sue Anne die. He can't understand why God did a lot of things in his life:

MAC: I don't know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk, and you took me in and pitied me and helped me to straighten out, marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny's daddy died in the war, my daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? 

     Dixie asks why. Mac asks why. Sonny even asks why. But then as he talks to Rosa Lee about his father's death, Rosa Lee tells him that she never knew how her husband was really killed--the army couldn't tell her for sure. And that brings us to the final scene: Mac and Sonny tossing a football together in the yard. They no longer ask why--they just go through life, all the ups and downs, together as a family.

     Sometimes, that's all we can do. There are a lot of things I can think of off the top of my head that I would like to ask God why he did them. But many times, we just will never know unless we go on with life, with the realization of Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." As long as we are kept in God's will, we don't need to ask why--we'll be on the right track anyway.

     My prayer for you is that whatever you may be going through in your life, good or bad, you would follow God through it all, knowing that He is always faithful.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Light in the Darkness Part 5: Raging Bull (1980)

     I’ll say right now, this finish to our “Light in the Darkness” series is going to be a little lame. Because the movie we’re looking at today is a very different kind of movie in many ways. The biggest way it’s different is in its screenplay: there’s plot, and there’s dialogue, and there’s a huge character study, but a lot of the main character’s struggle is internal. And so there isn’t a whole lot of material from the movie I’ll be able to share with you. That’s why I encourage you to go watch today’s movie, “Raging Bull”, even though in my opinion it’s the darkest of the films I’ve looked at this month. But when you watch it, be ready to think about what you’ve seen, because you might be thinking for a while.

     Director Martin Scorsese, whose film “The Departed” we looked at earlier this month, teamed up with Robert DeNiro again after working with him in films such as “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” in the 1970’s to make “Raging Bull”, a biopic on boxer Jake LaMotta, a middleweight champion in the 1940’s living in the Bronx. The film starts (sort of… just watch the movie) in 1941, when LaMotta (DeNiro) has won a fight, and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) is figuring out a match between him and a connection of his, Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent). Around that time, LaMotta meets a fifteen-year-old girl named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) who he starts to pursue—even though he’s married. Eventually, in 1947, Jake and Vickie are married with a couple children, and Jake continues to fight, even fighting against Sugar Ray Robinson, losing to him at one point even though in the fight Jake pummeled Robinson.

     Then things start to go downhill for Jake. Joey accuses Salvy of having an affair with Vickie and fights him outside a club. Jake wins the middleweight championship title in 1949. Jake starts getting suspicious of Joey after he fought Salvy over Vickie, or so Jake thinks. Eventually, his anger gets the better of him, and he ends up beating Vickie and then walking down the street and beating up Joey because he thinks the two of them had an affair. Jake and Joey’s relationship starts to separate, and eventually Jake’s emotions lead to him losing his title to Robinson in 1951 in a brutal fight. (For the record, “Raging Bull” was shot in black-and-white, not only to correspond with the time period but also because if it had been in color, it probably wouldn’t have gotten an “R” rating because there would have been so much blood.)

     Five years later, the LaMotta family has moved to Miami, where Jake runs a nightclub. And he works so much there that at one point, Vickie leaves him and takes the kids. Some time after that, Jake is arrested for letting underage girls into his club, and that leads to one of the most painful breakdowns ever filmed, with Jake punching and hitting his head against a stone wall, weeping. But after he is released, he goes back to doing ill-received stand-up comedy at his nightclub, when one night he runs into Joey. He tries to make amends, and Joey says he forgives him, but he isn’t very vocal. And the film closes with Jake getting ready to do a comedy routine, reciting a monologue from another movie about a boxer: Marlon Brando’s “I coulda’ been a contender” speech from “On the Waterfront”. And as he leaves to go perform, the film cuts to black, and a title starts fading in:

“So, for the second time, [the Pharisees]

summoned the man who had been blind and said:

‘Speak the truth before God.

We know this fellow is a sinner.’

‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,’ the man replied.

‘All I know is this: Once I was blind and now I can see.’

John IX, 24-26

the New English Bible

     …WHAT?! Where did that come from? Not only does the Scripture almost come out of nowhere, but it also follows a two-hour movie full of harsh obscenities, bloody violence, and adulterous relationships. Why would you want to associate John 9 with “Raging Bull”? It seriously took me a long time to understand why in the world this was the close of the movie. Is it because Jake LaMotta eventually became a Christian? Well, if he did, I haven’t found any information about it.

     But then I started learning what a personal film this was for Martin Scorsese, perhaps one of the most personal films ever made. Scorsese grew up Catholic and at one point considered becoming a priest before he decided to go into the film industry, but somewhere along the way he stumbled. Before he made “Raging Bull”, he was struggling with a cocaine addiction, and he credits DeNiro and the film with saving his life, since he eventually quit his addiction while making “Raging Bull”. Perhaps the ending of the film with this title (which includes, by the way, an explicit dedication to one of “Marty’s” former film school teachers) reflects the redemption of Martin Scorsese as well as the possible (although never really expressed) redemption of Jake LaMotta.

     But there have been others who have interpreted this passage as applying to their own lives, and one of the stories about this that impacted me the most was how “Raging Bull” influenced Craig Detwiler. Detwiler, a Christian screenwriter with a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, writes about this in his book Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century:

      I watched the perils of self-immolation, as Jake destroyed his relationships with his brother, his wife, and his fans. Jake ends up alone, in jail, literally banging his head against the wall crying, “Why? Why? Why?” As a high school jock with an equally independent streak, I recognized far too much of myself in Jake. As the film ended, director Martin Scorsese offered a curious counterpoint. The credits read, “All I know is this, once I was blind, but now I can see.” I recognized the blindness in Jake and me, but I wondered, “What does it mean to see?” A violent, profane, R-rated movie had provided the spark to a spiritual search—film forged theology.
     …Only years later, as a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, did I hear a theological term that approximated my experience of cinema and salvation: “general revelation.” Something was revealed to me through “Raging Bull”—a sense of longing, need, and desperation. It was available to any viewer willing to endure two hours of pain for one final challenging dollop of grace. Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay, Martin Scorsese directed the movie, and Robert DeNiro gave the performance, but the Holy Spirit convicted me of sin.

     To sum up, ladies and gentlemen, I believe that Craig Detwiler would say this: Whether or not Jake LaMotta is a follower of Jesus, I do not know. All I know is this: once I was blind, and now I can see. It’s interesting how we can learn lessons about our faith in things we don’t expect. Personally, I can identify spiritually through some mainstream songs I hear on the radio, or secular books I read that deal with those kinds of themes. But I can see it the most in movies. There have been very few films where I’ve walked away and haven’t eventually thought of something from that movie that dealt with Christianity, even if the filmmakers might have been complete pagans.

     Can I do the same for the people around me? If I’m interacting with someone who is not a Christian, or is not very strong about his or her faith, can I still see a characteristic about them that he or she could use to serve God with? If I can do that, I am learning to do what God was teaching Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7: “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” My prayer for you is that in your world, wherever God has placed you, you would look past differences in people and look at the good in them—and even look for the good in your media.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Light in the Darkness Part 4: Pulp Fiction (1994)

     Yes, indeed, today on our fourth part of “Light in the Darkness” on “Reel Christianity”, we’re looking at Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. I never thought this day would come. …Actually, yes, I did. But I have to be honest; I’ve never actually seen the actual cut of “Pulp Fiction” before. I’ve only seen it on television. And if you’ve seen the movie, you know that there’s a lot of material they’d have to cut out before they show it on television. But either way, there’s still something to be said about the spirituality of “Pulp Fiction”. Recently I heard a story from a missionary who visited my college who had a friend who was watching “Pulp Fiction” once and came to accept Christ in the middle of the movie. I’m not really sure how that works. But if you haven’t seen “Pulp Fiction”, there’s a theme of redemption that reveals itself through the film, no matter what the intentions of the filmmakers were.

     And in order to get to that point of redemption, writer/director Quentin Tarantino decided to start the film in the middle of the actual story and jump back and forth for the next two hours or so. The film starts with a man and a woman (Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer) robbing a restaurant in Los Angeles. After that and the main credits, we see two hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), going to an apartment to execute a man who stole a briefcase from their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). We’re not shown what’s in the briefcase, but we don’t get a chance to see, because after Vincent and Jules kill the men who stole it, we transition to a bar, where Marsellus is doing a deal with boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), paying him money to lose an upcoming match. Vincent and Jules arrive and give Marsellus the briefcase.

     The next day, Vincent is assigned to take care of Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman) while Marsellus is out of town. Vincent takes some drugs from his friend Lance (Eric Stoltz), and then takes Mia out to dinner, where they win a dancing contest. But upon returning to the Wallace house, Mia finds Vincent’s drugs and accidentally overdoses on them, which prompts one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie: Vincent plunging a needle of adrenaline into Mia’s chest at Lance’s house, waking her up, so to speak. Vincent returns Mia to her home, and the two promise to never bring it up again.

     Then we transition to a flashback of Butch as a child, learning from Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), a Vietnam veteran who was in a POW camp with Butch’s father, that he had died of dysentery in the POW camp, and Koons was given his gold watch to return to Butch. The flashback ends, and Butch, now as Bruce Willis again, has just double-crossed Marsellus by winning the fight and even killing his opponent. He flees to the apartment he and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medieros) are staying at, and they start packing to head out—until Butch realizes that Fabienne forgot to pack his gold watch. So he has to go back to his house, where Marsellus’ men are already looking. Butch ends up killing Vincent there, and on his way out, he gets into a bloody fight with Marsellus, ending with them in a pawnshop, where the owner kidnaps them both and ties them up in the basement, where the owner and another man take Marsellus and begin… beating him. Yeah. And then, in one of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen in a film, Butch escapes, gets a knife from upstairs, goes into the room where a man is attacking Marsellus, and kills the pawnshop owner. Marsellus, recovering, shoots the other man and tells Butch that they’re on good terms as long as Butch leaves Los Angeles. So he does.

     And THEN we come back to the execution from the beginning, where Vincent and Jules get the briefcase and then take another man from that apartment named Marvin (Phil LaMarr). But before they leave, another man comes out of the bathroom and unloads at Vincent and Jules—missing them completely and subsequently getting shot. Jules is convinced, as a man of faith (and by that I mean, he quotes Ezekiel 25:17 to his victims before killing them), that this was divine intervention. He and Vincent talk about it on the way to Marsellus’ location, but on the way, Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the face, and so the two of them take their car to a friend’s house, where they clean their car, get rid of the corpse, and change clothes. And the two of them end up at a restaurant, where a man and a woman commence a robbery.

     See? Everything ties together. Yeah, if you haven’t seen this movie before, you might be reading this and thinking, This is really, really dark. Well, you’re right. And even after reading my little summary, it’s even darker with all the blood, drugs, and cuss words that I didn’t mention. But the movie isn’t over. The ending of “Pulp Fiction” is not only where the story ties together, but also where the message ties together. The robber, Ringo, threatens Jules at gunpoint to give him his wallet and the briefcase. Jules eventually gets Ringo at gunpoint while the woman, known to Ringo affectionately as Honey Bunny, stands on top of a table, gun pointed at Jules, and Vincent has his gun pointed at Honey Bunny. Confusing, I know. Go along with it.

     But then Jules starts talking to Ringo. He tells him that since he is in a “transitional period” after God saving his life, he doesn’t want to kill Ringo and Honey Bunny. But he gets back his wallet and talks to him, gun still pointed at Ringo’s face. Jules tells him about the passage in Ezekiel that he reads every time he kills, and confesses (for lack of a better word) that he didn’t really think about what it meant.

JULES: I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to a guy before I popped a cap in his behind. But I saw something this morning made me think twice. See, now I'm thinking: maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And mister nine-millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting me in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd, and it's the world that's evil and selfish. And I'd like that. But that ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd.

     And Jules lets Ringo and Honey Bunny go, and Jules and Vincent leave the restaurant, Jules having declared that he is done working for Marsellus. What a way to end this movie about violence and violent people—the bad guys, who have throughout the film been portrayed as the good guys, realizing that they are indeed the bad guys and want to be better. And it all starts because they see God at work. I feel like that missionary’s friend who came to Christ while watching “Pulp Fiction” may have done so because of that divine intervention.

     It’s interesting how sometimes God chooses to reveal Himself in strange ways. But many times, it’s in the ways we don’t expect. When Jesus taught, the Pharisees were not the ones that understood all the time—it were those who followed with a simple faith, like many of Jesus’ disciples. In Luke 10:21, Jesus prays to God, rejoicing in this fact: “‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’” In verse 22, he goes on to say to those around him, “‘All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’”
     And that’s what Jules and Vincent debate about near the end of “Pulp Fiction”, how God reveal Himself:

JULES: What is a miracle, Vincent?

VINCENT: An act of God.

JULES: And what’s an act of God?

VINCENT: When, uh… God makes the impossible possible. BUT, this morning I don’t think qualifies.

JULES: Hey, Vincent, don’t you see? That don’t matter! You’re judging this the wrong way. I mean, it could be God stopped the bullets, or He changed Coke to Pepsi, or He found my car keys. You don’t judge things like this based on merit. Now, whether or not what we experienced was a miracle is insignificant. But what is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.

     And maybe I’m twisting this message a little, but I think what Jules is saying applies to the film itself: it doesn’t matter whether or not the filmmakers meant to make this movie this spiritually resonant. But what is significant is that someone found God in “Pulp Fiction”. And my prayer for you is that in your moments of strength and of weakness, God will reveal Himself to you and give you the peace that only comes from Him.