Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Running the Race Part 5: Chariots of Fire (1981)

     To conclude this month’s “Running the Race” series on “Reel Christianity”, I wanted to share with you my favorite sports movie ever, and one of my favorite movies in general. “Chariots of Fire” is a British movie from 1981 about two runners, one a Jew and one a Christian, one in England and one in Scotland, who train for and compete in the 1924 Olympics. It’s fascinating how the movie parallels the events of both men, as they train in their own ways based on their own convictions, and makes us root for both of them, even at some times when we should be rooting against one or the other.

     The Jewish runner is Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who we see enter Cambridge University with a new friend, Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell). Almost immediately, Abrahams feels anti-Semitism in the staff and students at Cambridge, but that doesn’t stop him from making a name for himself by breaking a record at the campus by running around a courtyard there in less than the amount of time it takes for the clock to chime 12. He runs there against another student, Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), and beats him by a hair.

     Meanwhile, in Scotland, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), the son of missionary parents to China, is encouraged by his friend Sandy McGrath (Struan Rodger) to pursue running, having proved himself as a great runner at a local competition and elsewhere in the past. Eric’s sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell), however, disapproves, saying that Eric should be on the mission field in China rather than running. Eric, too, is unsure about what to do. But in the meantime, while he is in Scotland, he is able to preach to a local congregation as well as run:

ERIC: I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard; it requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape—especially if you’ve got a bet on it! But how long does that last? You go home; maybe your dinner’s burned. Maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say ‘believe, have faith’ in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. …Jesus said, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts ye truly seek Me, ye shall ever surely find Me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run the straight race.

     Eventually, both Harold and Eric keep competing until they actually run against each other. And in a crushing blow, Harold looks to his side slightly and it costs him the race. His new girlfriend, Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), tries to comfort him, but Harold is hard to satisfy. But when Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), an experienced running coach, comes along and offers to train Harold, he takes the offer and begins rigorous training.

     Eric also continues training with Sandy and others, as Jennie still disapproves. But one day, Eric and Jennie go for a walk, and Eric tells her that he plans to return to the mission field in China, but he has to do some more training first.

ERIC: Jennie, you’ve got to understand. I believe God made me for a purpose—for China. But He also made me fast! And when I run, I feel His pleasure. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt. …It’s not just fun. To win is to honor Him.

     This monologue, by the way, is one of my favorites in any movie, because it means so much to me as a Christian. I have no interest in sports, but even in my passions for filmmaking, music, or whatever they might be, I feel that to succeed in what I do in those areas is to honor the God who gave them to me. To me, doing that is true worship.

     So anyway, both Harold and Eric make it to the Olympics. Harold at first is still trying to get over anti-Semitism that he felt from Cambridge right before he left. And Eric enters the ship to Paris to compete learning that his first heat is on Sunday, and he feels that to compromise his faith and run on the Sabbath would be against God’s law. (This, however, is a very different issue that I would want to go into more detail about some time, but I will not do so today.) He talks to the Olympic committee, and Lord Lindsay actually helps get him into another race.

     But despite the conflicts they go through, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell pull through and run their own races at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, France. And long story short, they both win: Harold for his family, and Eric for his God.

     I remember my parents renting “Chariots of Fire” once many years ago when I was a kid, and it left a small impression on me, but I feel I was too young to really understand the story of Eric Liddell and his commitment to his faith. But after watching it again after I rededicated my life to Christ, I felt it was an incredible movie about serving God with the talents that He has given me. I feel that this is another component of running the race of faith “in such a way as to get the prize”, as we’ve learned in 1 Corinthians 9 this month.

     And in this next month, I have a big chance to serve with the talents God gave me on a mission trip. As you read this, I’m actually not in the United States—I’m on a month-long internship with a missions organization with ministry in Peru and Ecuador. And so for the next few weeks, I’ve decided to use this blog as a way to share with my family and friends what I’m doing there. (I felt too lazy to create a brand-new blog just for that.) So yes, for the month of June, I won’t be talking about movies, but instead I’ll be talking as regularly as I can about what I’m doing in Peru and Ecuador—because I am indeed going to both countries. I can’t wait to share with you what God’s going to do in the next few weeks!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Running the Race Part 4: Rocky (1976)

The first sports movie I ever saw was “Rocky”. I remember whenever it was shown on cable, usually as a marathon with all its (mostly unnecessary) sequels following it, I would always find my dad watching it. At a young age, I didn’t like how it ended—and for those of you who haven’t seen it, stop reading now. Because here’s how it ends: Rocky Balboa, our main contender, fights his opponent for the whole fifteen rounds, but he does not win the fight. Instead, he finds his girlfriend, Adrian, and embraces her. To me, that wasn’t exactly a happy ending. But as I got older, and as I started to understand that great films aren’t just black-and-white, win-or-lose situations, and that movie characters are much deeper than what they seem on the surface, I started to watch “Rocky” in a whole new light.

     “Rocky” is one of at least four great movies from 1976, the others being (in my opinion) “Taxi Driver”, “Network”, and “All the President’s Men”, the latter two being films I’ve actually talked about on “Reel Christianity”. All these films deal with life in the United States, in one way or another, which was a fitting subject for 1976, the country’s bicentennial year. “Rocky” is no exception—this is a true underdog story about a poor boxing hopeful in Philadelphia who gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fight the world heavyweight champion. And surprisingly, our main character doesn’t even care about winning. It would be nice, but just by doing well, he would be able to prove something to himself, which has been a sort of recurring theme in our series this month.

     Our main character, of course, is Rocky—Rocky Balboa, to be exact, played by Sylvester Stallone, who actually also wrote the movie. Rocky lives in an apartment in Philadelphia in late 1975. He fights sometimes in clubs to make a small amount of money, but his main job is as a loan shark for Anthony Gazzo (Joe Spinell). When people owe Gazzo money, Rocky finds them and threatens to break their thumbs unless they pay. Rocky’s supposed to actually break their thumbs, but he doesn’t because he feels bad for the guys in a way.

     Elsewhere, Rocky tries to make a name for himself as a boxer, but he is prevented from even being able to practice in the local gym because the man in charge, trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) doesn’t believe in him. He later even tells Rocky why: because when he was younger, he could have taken a chance to be a great boxer, but he just became Gazzo’s loan shark. But that’s more than Rocky can say for his friend Paulie Pennino (Burt Young), whose sister Adrian (Talia Shire) has sparked an interest in Rocky.

     So we see Rocky’s got a complicated life, with a lot of ups and downs—but mostly downs. But outside of Rocky’s personal life, we meet world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), a character who was apparently modeled after Muhammad Ali. Creed was scheduled to fight a heavyweight contender on January 1, 1976, to celebrate America’s bicentennial, but the contender had to drop out, and now Creed has no one to fight. But Creed gets an idea: find an up-and-coming boxer, ask him to fight Creed, and put on the fight as a giant spectacle of giving a hopeful boxer a chance at the title. …Of course, Creed thinks there’s no chance for anyone to beat him, let alone last a couple rounds with him in the ring.

     But soon, Creed and the people working for him find Rocky Balboa’s name in a directory, along with his nickname: “The Italian Stallion”. The name sounds epic enough for Creed, and soon Rocky is contacted. Rocky, at this point, has started dating Adrian but has also been practically disowned by Mickey. He assumes at first that Creed is looking for sparring partners, but when he is asked to fight him on January 1, he has a hard time taking up the offer. But the promoter, George Jergens (Thayer David) convinces him that taking the offer would be symbolic of taking a chance in the land of opportunity.

     So Rocky accepts, and as he trains, he goes through more ups and downs. He has a final argument with Mickey, but Mickey eventually becomes Rocky’s manager and trainer. Paulie, jealous of Rocky’s success, comes home drunk one night and almost assaults Rocky and Adrian there. And Rocky is tormented by the idea that no one really cares who he is, as he talks to Adrian one night at his apartment:

ADRIAN: You worked so hard.

ROCKY: That don't matter. 'Cause I was nobody before.

ADRIAN: Don't say that.

ROCKY: Oh, come on, Adrian, it's true. I was nobody. But that don't matter either, you know? 'Cause I was thinking, it really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, see, and that bell rings and I'm still standing, I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.

     For those of you who know as little about boxing as I did, “going the distance” means lasting the entire fifteen rounds in a boxing match without being knocked out. And by determination, Rocky fights Apollo Creed in Philadelphia on January 1, 1976, and fights him for the entire fifteen rounds. They are both knocked out a couple times, but they both get back up and keep fighting. And once it’s over, Rocky and Adrian embrace, knowing that Rocky has been able to do something so great and make himself more than “just another bum from the neighborhood”.

      I’ve always been inspired by this story, but I think also that there’s a spiritual truth beyond what “Rocky” says. Rocky is able to prove something to himself by going the entire match with Apollo—by doing something, he makes a name for himself. But the mystery is what God provides is that we don’t have to do anything to receive God’s grace—we just have to believe and have faith.

     Ephesians 2:8-10 is a great passage that describes the balance of faith and deeds that Christians need to have in our lives: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Praise God that we don’t need to do anything by our own will in order to prove something to ourselves—God loves us already, and all we have to do is trust Him! That, to me, is one of the most important things we can do to “run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24b).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Running the Race Part 3: Invictus (2009)

     Before we get into today’s movie in our “Running the Race” series, I want to emphasize my view on what makes sports movies work. In my opinion, some of the best sports films are not sports films at all—and by that, I mean that the main conflict in the film is not whether or not a team or athlete wins or loses. The main conflict is usually something bigger than that, an internal conflict within several different characters. And in a good sports movie, that conflict is resolved not only by just showing a team winning or losing, but through good character studies that show us something beyond just a team victory.

     And thankfully, most sports movies know this. Let’s look even at the films we’ve talked about already in “Running the Race”: “Facing the Giants” was not just about a team victory, but also about how a team learns to praise and trust God no matter whether they win or lose. In “Remember the Titans”, the fact that the team won revealed an even deeper victory of integration of race that was overcome through the football team. And today’s film, “Invictus”, focuses not just on a team victory but also on what it means for a whole country.

     “Invictus” focuses on how Nelson Mandela (played brilliantly by Morgan Freeman) used rugby to help unite South Africa in the 1990’s, after he was elected president of the country. The film opens with him being released from prison, where he was held for almost thirty years for his opposition against apartheid. As he is released and then comes to rise as president, people all over the country are divided about it. But because of this, Mandela knows that there has to be a way to unite the country and bring about something that perhaps South Africa has not seen in a while: forgiveness.

     In an early scene, where Mandela’s staff of both blacks and whites is getting together to work, one of his bodyguards, Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge), comes to complain. Mandela tries to comfort him.

MANDELA: When people see me in public, they see my bodyguards. You represent me directly. The Rainbow Nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here.

JASON: Reconciliation, sir?

MANDELA: Yes, reconciliation, Jason.

JASON: Comrade President, not long ago, these guys tried to kill us. Maybe even these four guys in my office tried, and often succeeded!

MANDELA: Yes, I know. Forgiveness starts here, too. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon. Please, Jason, try.

     And soon, Mandela finds something that he thinks will unite the country, with the whole country watching in support of the same people: rugby. And he meets with Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the South Africa rugby team, and encourages him to bring his team, which is struggling, to win the World Cup, not just to bring victory for the team itself, but to lift up the entire nation.

     And Pienaar and the team start to grow. They not only work better together, but they find opportunities to serve outside their rugby games, such as volunteering with poor children in South Africa and teaching them how to play. Pienaar even goes with his wife one day to the prison where Mandela was kept, where he thinks to himself the words of a poem that Mandela gave him when they met together for the first time. The poem is called “Invictus” (of course), where the words say “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul”.

     That poem, by the way, is not exactly theological according to Christianity, but what follows is. One night, Pienaar looks out his hotel window before a game, thinking about what he has learned through Mandela:

PIENAAR: I was thinking… about how you spend thirty years in a tiny cell… and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.

     With the encouragement he has found, Pienaar is ready to lead the team to victory at the World Cup, which they do win. When interviewed after the match, Pienaar is asked about the support he and his team had from the sixty-three thousand people in the stadium. “We didn’t need the support of sixty thousand South Africans”, he replies. “We had the support of forty-three million South Africans”.

     This isn’t a perfect movie, but I was definitely moved by the idea of forgiveness in “Invictus”. I don’t remember any of the struggles that South Africa had in the 1990’s that this movie talks about, but I feel like this movie probably portrayed it well. It’s amazing how something like rugby can be used to help unite a country—just like God can use any one of us to accomplish His mission, and especially to forgive.

     1 Corinthians 9:24-27: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Running the Race Part 2: Remember the Titans (2000)

     Continuing our “Running the Race” series this month on “Reel Christianity”, I’m writing today about “Remember the Titans”. I’ll be honest, this is a good movie, but after all my high school history teachers started showing it in class every year during our unit on racism in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I got a little tired of it. But I’ll admit, this is one of the best sports movies I’ve seen in recent years, and part of that (in my opinion) is due in part to a great performance by Denzel Washington.

     Washington plays Coach Herman Boone, the newly hired African-American football coach at T.C. Williams High School in Virginia. He’s taking the place of Coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton), who has just been nominated for the Virginia High School Hall of Fame. He and his daughter Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere, who, I might add, seemed to be in a lot of other Disney movies around the time this movie was made) are planning to look into other coaching opportunities, but the people of Alexandria, Virginia, don’t want him to leave their high school football team with a black coach. Boone, however, tries to ease this tension by offering Yoast the position of assistant coach. Yoast refuses at first, but he eventually accepts the position as defensive coordinator, and the team starts to form.

     That team is segregated basically from the start. On one side, you have the white students, led by team captain Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst). On the other side, you have the black students, led by defensive end Julius Campbell (Wood Harris). And somewhere in the middle, you have guys like Louie Lastik (Ethan Suplee), who really don’t care about race. So when Boone begins to coach the team and lead everyone to football camp, there is immediately division. However, through people like Louie and others who try to ignore the factor of race within the team, the Alexandria Titans begin to unite. One day during camp, Boone takes the team to a field where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought, asking his team to put the idea of race and racism out of their minds:

BOONE: …You take a lesson from the dead. If we don't come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don't care if you like each other of not, but you will respect each other. And maybe... I don't know, maybe we'll learn to play this game like men.

     And sure enough, the players start building relationships regardless of the color of their skin. They come back from football camp singing together and laughing together, to the shock of most of their parents. And when they start playing other teams, they win. And they keep winning—but unfortunately, part of the reason why perfection is demanded of them is because of Coach Boone’s situation. He is told that if the Titans lose even one game, he will be fired. So Boone and Yoast do their best to lead the team to victory every time.

     That victory, however, comes with a price for Yoast. At one of the semi-finals games, the referees are being unfair to Boone, and Yoast calls them out on it. Because of this, he is told that his chances of being inducted into the Hall of Fame are gone. And later that night, after the game is won, Bertier is in a car accident and paralyzed from the waist down. But because of this, the team becomes more united than ever. And they go into their final game for the championship, they play (and win) in a way that will make everyone, as Yoast puts it, “remember the Titans”.

     Even though I’ve seen (or, rather, had to see) this movie several times in school, I’m still moved by the story of unity in this team and how they (or most of them) were able to put racial prejudices aside and not just play well, but live well together. And I think that’s what Jesus calls us to: he tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and as he states in his parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, our neighbors even include those who we might have prejudices against. I believe that if we love in this way, we will be able to say at the end of our lives what Timothy writes in 2 Timothy 4: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (4:7)

     My prayer for you continues to be 1 Corinthians 9:24b: “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Running the Race Part 1: Facing the Giants (2006)

     “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

     This passage, 2 Corinthians 9:24-27, is going to be the theme verse for the new series this month. Now that I’m done with school (literally, my last final exam was this morning), summer has begun for me, and summer 2012 means one important thing: the London Olympics. Many classmates of mine are part of a program at our school that lets students studying media and journalism go to the Olympics and work internship opportunities there in different fields, and so I’ve been hearing a lot about that at school as students prepare to go. I’m not a huge sports person, but I’m really looking forward to watching the games on television.

     So in honor of the Olympics this summer, I’ve decided this month of five Wednesdays to talk about five sports movies that really stick out to me. In all five of them, the athletes or coaches in them are striving to be the best athletes and coaches they can be not just in order to win, but also to prove something to themselves and to the world: something beyond themselves—even, in two of these films, something spiritual. And I hope that in the same way that the characters in these movies strive to “run in such a way as to get the prize”, as the Apostle Paul writes, we as followers of Jesus may strive to live our lives in order “to get a crown that will last forever”.

     First up: “Facing the Giants”. Some of you may have seen this movie and not thought very highly of it—I’ll be honest, the production values aren’t as high as I’d like them to be. But I’m still glad that movies like this exist, because I really believe they’re providing more opportunities for people like me to go out into the world and make a difference in the media for Christ. “Facing the Giants” was the second film made by Sherwood Pictures, founded out of Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia, the same church that would later produce “Fireproof” and “Courageous”. This movie was made on a $10,000 budget and went on to make $10 million in the box office. That’s still a small amount, but not compared to their budget. I think this might be the reason why Sherwood Pictures is still making movies.

     Anyway, “Facing the Giants” starts out with Grant Taylor (played by writer/director Alex Kendrick), a football coach at a Christian high school, sitting in the bleachers of the school football field pondering his life. His team, the Shiloh Eagles, is doing poorly this season. The school is considering replacing him as the head coach. And his problems aren’t just at school—at home, his car won’t work, the house needs to be fixed, and worst of all, he and his wife Brooke (Shannen Fields) aren’t able to have children. Everything seems to be going wrong in Grant’s life.

     But one day, after a local townsperson comes by his office at school with a Scripture verse that motivates him, Grant starts to put his trust back in the Lord. There are a few scenes where we see him alone, in a meadow, praying to God in solitude and in need:

GRANT: Lord, I feel that there are giants of fear and failure staring down at me, waiting to crush me. And I don't know how to beat 'em, Lord. I'm tired of being afraid. Lord, if you want me to do something else, show me. If you don't want me to have children, so be it. But You're my God. You're on the throne. You can have my hopes and my dreams. Lord, give me something. Show me something.

     From then on, Grant starts incorporating faith more into the football team. He tells them that their focus has collectively been solely on winning and not giving glory to God. “If we win, we praise Him,” Grant tells them. “And if we lose, we praise Him.” So the team starts practicing, now with the mindset that they need to be glorifying God in everything they do. And because of this, things start improving for them. Their players not only start getting stronger, but some of their hearts start to change. Several players whose faith had been slipping rededicate their lives to Christ, some right there on the football field. One player gets to even reconnect with his dad, with whom he’d been having a lot of disagreements.

     And because of his new commitment to glorify God, Grant starts being blessed himself. He is given a new truck (one that works) by an anonymous giver. He starts becoming a better coach and a better leader at his school. And his team starts winning. And they keep winning, and keep winning, and keep winning. They get to the playoffs in their division, and they only lose one game. That game happens to be the last playoff before the championship, but even after their loss, they go back to their locker room and pray, praising God for what they’ve been able to accomplish.

     And call it divine intervention or contrived writing, but Grant finds out that the team they faced in that playoff game used illegitimate players and has been disqualified, which means that the Shiloh Eagles are going to their football championship. And I don’t know how many of you I surprise when I say: they win! Not only that, but Grant goes home that night to find that his wife has good news: they’re pregnant with a child. And with that, the film ends with a final shot revealing the Taylor family with two young children, two football championship trophies, and a plague that reads: “With God, all things are possible.”

     Now, here’s the one little problem (well, okay, the biggest of a small handful of problems) I have with this movie: this movie, whether it intended to or not, makes it look like surrendering yourself to God and praising Him in what we do means that we will start having success after success after success. That may be the case for some people, but personally, I don’t see that too often. And I feel that many non-Christians who see this movie may find this very misleading. Because a lot of people may start to follow Christ, and it’s very possible that more bad can happen than good. (Speaking of which, a good Christian movie that portrays this situation is “To Save a Life”, which I wrote about last year.) I hate to write this part, but I feel that with a “controversial” movie like this, I might give my say as a current film student. Take it or leave it.

     But aside from that, and a few other times in the movie where some jokes are made that could very well have been taken out of the final cut and not done any harm to it (a characteristic also prevalent in “Fireproof”), this is a great example of a sports movie where the characters aren’t just aiming to win—they’re aiming to represent something bigger than themselves. In “Facing the Giants”, the characters are indeed specifically aiming to glorify God, which is something that all Christians need to do in whatever their talents are. For me, that’s media and music, and I’m thrilled to see a movie that inspires me in that sense. (By the way, at the end of this month, I’ll be talking about another movie that inspires me in that sense too. But just wait for it.)

     Again, I say to you the words of 2 Corinthians 9:24: “Run in such a way to get the prize.”