Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Great Dictator (1940)

     Maybe you’ve heard of an actor/filmmaker named Charlie Chaplin. One of the great pioneers of cinema, Chaplin was a silent film star and directed such classics as “The Gold Rush”, “City Lights”, and “Modern Times”. But one of my favorites of Chaplin’s films is his first film with audible dialogue—a 1940 comedy set on the eve of World War II called “The Great Dictator”.

     In the movie, Chaplin has two main roles. His funnier role is Adenoid Hynkel, the mustache-sporting dictator of Tomania. And yes, this is a complete parody of Adolf Hitler in Germany… and it is hilarious. The scenes where Hynkel is giving speeches are obviously supposed to be in German, but when Chaplin heard Hitler in the newsreels, he sounded like he was speaking gibberish. So when Hynkel speaks, it’s gibberish that sounds like German.

     Anyway, Hynkel is indeed persecuting the Jews in the ghettos of Tomania, among them an unnamed Jewish barber, Chaplin’s other main role. The barber is injured in World War One when he saves a commander’s life, flies him away in a plane that runs out of gas, and lands somewhere in Tomania (we see this at the beginning of the film). So he is sent to a (mental?) hospital for years, in which time Hynkel takes power. When the barber returns, the ghetto is guarded by Stormtroopers, who steal from local merchants, vandalize property, and ultimately abuse the Jews who live there. However, their commander happens to be Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner)—the man whose life the barber saved in the war.

     When Schultz finds out that the barber lives in the ghetto, he commands his troops to resist abusing the Jews. So the barber, Hannah (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s wife) the girl next door, and the other Jews in the ghetto can live in peace. But when political matters go bad for Hynkel, he ends up firing Schultz, sending him to a concentration camp, and bringing terror back to the Jewish ghettos. However, Schultz escapes, and in a series of events too complicated to put in this blog (yeah, just watch the movie), Schultz dresses the barber up as Hynkel (hey, when you got one actor playing two characters, those characters are going to look alike) and takes him to where Hynkel is supposed to deliver a speech that declares the invasion of a free Jewish country and ultimately sending Jews in all of Europe into concentration camps. But the barber, “Hynkel”, goes up to the podium and tells his troops, and the world:

BARBER: I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor. That's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible: Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another—human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another.

     And “Hynkel” proclaims a message to the world to unite, to put away hatred towards religions and races, and to use the technology we have to help one another. And the troops, free of their hatred, celebrate, Jews everywhere feel free, and Hannah and her family have hope for the first time in a long time. It really is one of the most uplifting endings I’ve ever seen on film.

     However, Chaplin got one little thing wrong. Well, two things. One: in his last monologue—even though I really should be praising this, I’m not—the barber cites Luke 17:21: “…the Kingdom of God is in your midst”, or “is within you”. I think Chaplin forgot his character was a Jew, because I don’t think most Jews would cite the Gospels. But what do I know. Two: the barber’s monologue seems to convey the idea that all men are essentially good. Well, I’m sorry to say, that’s not entirely true. See, Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because Adam and Eve fell to temptation in Genesis 3, we are all born with sinful hearts. Essentially, the idea that man is essentially good is not theological. If Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned, that would be true, but unfortunately, we are all sinful people in a sinful world, and we are all sinful at heart.

     However, Romans 3:24 goes on to say, “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Praise God! Because Jesus died on the cross for our sins, God gives us an opportunity to accept His word and be perfect one day in Heaven with him! To become a Christian, all you have to do is confess your sins to Jesus, ask for forgiveness, and make a lifelong commitment to follow Him. And my prayer for you, the reader, is that if you haven’t done that yet, you will. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Star Wars (1977)

     Yes, today, we’re looking at “Star Wars”, otherwise known as “Episode IV: A New Hope”. However, I won’t be calling it that—I’ll be calling it “Star Wars”. The other five movies (especially the newer three) are irrelevant to me since I’m not that big of a “Star Wars” fan, so don’t expect me to review the whole saga here like I did with the “Toy Story” trilogy. But there are several parts of “Star Wars” that I think really relate to Christianity, especially pertaining to the Holy Spirit. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

     Mark Hamill plays Luke Skywalker, a young boy living on the planet of Tattooine with his aunt and uncle, since his parents have long been dead. One day he buys two robots (excuse me, droids) to help him with the… yard work on his… farm. Which is in the middle of a desert or something, so it doesn’t make much sense to me. Anyway, the two droids are known as C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). The two of them happen to have escaped from a spaceship (or something) being attacked by the evil Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), where Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) was leading a rebellion against the Senate… It’s a long story. But before Vader came aboard the enemy ship, Leia recorded a hologram message inside R2 to deliver to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), along with the plans of the makings of Vader’s ship, the Death Star, so that Obi-Wan can get to Alderaan, deliver the plans, and the Death Star and the Imperial Senate can be destroyed.

     So in typical Western-film style, poor farm boy Luke finds himself in an opportunity to go with Obi-Wan to the planet of Alderaan and be part of a rebellion against the enemy. But before he starts on his journey, Obi-Wan explains to him what being a Jedi (aka a good guy) demands: being able to fight a lightsaber and use the Force. What’s the Force, Luke asks?

OBI-WAN: The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.

     However, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is a little skeptical. Luke and Obi-Wan meet Han and his Wookie friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) at a bar, where Obi-Wan requests them to take them to Alderaan in their spaceship, the Millennium Falcon. And on the way there, Han reveals what he believes:

HAN: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side.

LUKE: You don’t believe in the Force, do you?

HAN: Kid, I’ve flowed from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff. But I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny!

     I have no idea if it was really George Lucas’ intention, but to me, there’s a clear metaphor here for the existence of God—even the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is what gives the disciple of Jesus the ability to perform miracles and testify to the Gospel. Jesus tells his disciples in Mark 13:11, “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” And when Peter heals a crippled man in Acts, he is called “filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:8). And if Christians today have the same faith that the disciples did, we will be able to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

     And with his ability to feel the Force, Luke Skywalker is able to destroy the Death Star and bring peace to the galaxy. My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will have that kind of faith by the Holy Spirit to be able to do anything for the cause of Christ, even perform miracles.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

     In the last week or so, I’ve been reading a lot on the news about the protests going on in Egypt. And I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help but be reminded that the end of the world is really close. Who knows when (more than likely it won’t be in December 2012, unless God has a sense of humor), but it’s coming. Then days later, I was reading in my devotions what Jesus says about the signs of the end of the world. Matthew 24:6 says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”

     What a reassuring verse in a time like this. So for today’s blog, I wanted to pick a movie that deals with fear, and being reassured that it’s not the end. And this was a tough pick—but I’ve decided on a movie that came out a few years ago that deals with the threat of Communism in 1950’s United States: “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

     The movie centers on Edward R. Murrow, the famous newsperson from CBS whose programs “See It Now” and “Person to Person” paved the way for modern journalism. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his fellow producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney, who also co-wrote and directed the film) decide in 1954 to do a program addressing Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin, who is on a roll of accusing politicians, generals, and many other authority figures of being associated with the Communist party. And this was a dangerous decision. Many Americans, let alone CBS employees, were in fear of getting fired because somehow they may be accused of being a Communist. They have to sign loyalty oaths, report a story equally on both sides (even stories about Sen. McCarthy), and make sure that they have no familial or personal ties to the party.

     But when Murrow reports on Milo Radulovich, a lieutenant in the United States Air Force who is forced to resign after it is revealed that his father was associated with Communism (he was reading a Russian newspaper, no less), Murrow decides that he has to do something about this threat. He tells one of his producers, Sig Mickelson (Jeff Daniels):

MURROW: I’ve searched my conscience, and I can’t find for the life of me any justification for this. And I simply cannot accept that there are two equal and logical sides to an argument.

     So he reports on Radulovich, then weeks later he does a segment on the methods of McCarthy himself. And he ends his show with a monologue:

MURROW: We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. …But we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his; he didn't create this situation of fear—he merely exploited it, and rather successfully.

     In the end, Radulovich is reinstated into the Air Force, the ratings of “See It Now” force it into cancellation, and McCarthy even (unsuccessfully) attacks Murrow as being a Communist himself—even though none of McCarthy’s attacks are actually true. But for Murrow to take a stand against the Communist threat when nobody else would is something to be said. He not only criticized McCarthy for his exploitation of Americans’ fear, but he also reassured the nation that this doesn’t have to be a problem for them anymore. And for him to even use this new medium of television to communicate this set a standard for journalism and also helped to unify the nation.

     Matthew 24:6, Mark 13:7, and Luke 21:9 all say the same thing: When we hear of wars and rumors of war, do not be frightened. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. And whether our parents or grandparents were threatened by Communism, or our generation is threatened by terrorism, protests, and shootings, we need to wait upon the Lord, because these things must happen, but the end is coming. My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will not consume yourself with the fears of this world, but will rely on God to give you peace. And personally, I need this prayer too.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fiddler On the Roof (1971)

     I know it might be a little ironic to write about “Fiddler On the Roof” in a blog analyzing Christianity in movies. But what may be more ironic to you if you don’t know me personally is that “Fiddler On the Roof” happens to be my favorite movie. I saw this in seventh grade, two years after I started playing the cello, and it was not only the greatest musical movie I’d ever seen, but it is also still my favorite movie of all time. And even to a Christian, “Fiddler On the Roof” conveys a ton of spiritual themes that I (and hopefully more people) will be able to see.

     Tevye (Topol) is a Jewish milkman living in Anatevka, a small, poor Jewish village somewhere in Russia, and he is the father of five daughters with his wife Golde (Norma Crane). And if you’re a preteen like I was watching this movie, you’re probably wondering: Where the heck is the fiddler on the roof? Well, Tevye narrates at the very beginning that the fiddler is a metaphor for the life of a Jew in Anatevka:

TEVYE: Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof: trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune… without breaking his neck! It isn’t easy.

     And Anatevka is full of people whose lives aren’t easy, Tevye included. And how does Tevye deal with the stresses in his life? He talks to God… aloud. As he walks down the road with his horse to deliver milk, he looks to the sky and talks to God.

TEVYE: Oh dear Lord, you’ve made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor—but it’s no great honor either! …So what would be so terrible if I had a small fortune?

     Yes, this is the musical number “If I Were a Rich Man”, where Tevye asks God, “Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan / If I were a wealthy man?” Well, it would definitely help, but apparently God’s plan is much different than Tevye imagined—and money’s got nothing to do with it. By the end of the film, the three eldest of Tevye’s daughters are married off: one to a tailor, one to a college graduate who wants to revolutionize Russia (yep, I think the right word is revolutionize), and one to a non-Jew. This last marriage brings the most stress to the family—Chava, the middle child, wants to marry Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock), but Tevye won’t let her. Marrying outside the faith would ultimately be a disgrace. But Chava elopes, and the family’s lives are shaken.

     The most compelling scene in the film (and one of the most compelling scenes that I’ve ever seen in a movie, for that matter) is when Tevye finds out Chava has left. Golde runs to him as he is walking down the path, and she tells him that she and Fyedka have married, and Tevye almost pushes her away, telling her, “Chava is dead to us! We’ll forget her.” And after one of the most beautiful musical numbers ever, Chava suddenly appears. She has been looking for her father, and begs him to accept Fyedka and her. Then Tevye has the last of many moments where he thinks to himself about his situation, measuring the pros and cons.

TEVYE: Accept them? How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? …On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? …On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith? My people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break. …On the other hand… No. This is no other hand!

     And essentially right then and there, Tevye disowns Chava and leaves her, as she stands in the middle of the path, weeping.

     Jesus says in Luke 14:26-27 that being a Christian isn’t as easy as it sounds—in fact, it can be as difficult as playing a fiddle on a rooftop. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The thing about following Christianity is that it has to be authentic—if you call yourself a Christian but don’t follow Christ in your heart, you’re not a real Christian. True faith comes from believing, trusting, and following God in everything you do. And if you aren’t willing to give up the things that you have to follow Christ, your faith won’t be authentic.

     For Tevye, he has to leave Chava behind in order to follow what he believes. One of the questions that I struggled with for years was, did Tevye do the right thing? Was it really the best thing to, in a way, disown your daughter because she married a non-Jew? According to Luke 14:26 and 2 Corinthians 6:14, the answer is yes. Paul writes to the Corinthians and says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” Now, I know it’s a little different because Tevye is Jewish, but if I were in his situation, I may have to do what he did. A Christian marrying a non-Christian wouldn’t work out—that Christian would more than likely fall away from the faith. So I suppose the same would apply to a Jew marrying a non-Jew.

     Please understand, I’m not trying to offend any other faiths. Heck, “Fiddler On the Roof” is my favorite movie! Why would I want to? But I think we can all agree that true faith requires you to lay down the things that you hold dear to you and surrendering. And my prayer for you, the reader, is that whatever you believe (and I strongly encourage you to walk with Christ), you will have the faith enough to leave behind the things you hold dear to you.