Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Choose Life Part 1: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

     The book of Deuteronomy finds God speaking through Moses to the Israelites after leaving Egypt. This is where, in addition to the last part of Exodus, we find a lot of commands and laws that God gave the Israelites as He led them into the Promised Land, including the Ten Commandments. At the end of the longest set of commands, the Lord said this:

     “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (30:19-20)

     This is where the title for this month’s series comes from. God gave the Israelites a bunch of commands, but He said that ultimately, it would be their choice whether or not they would follow those commands. And wouldn’t you know it: a lot of them didn’t “choose life”, which resulted in a forty-year wait to get into the Promised Land. But it’s still fascinating that God didn’t force them to go—he gave them a choice! And that’s what I want to explore this month in “Reel Christianity”: what it looks like to choose to serve God rather than it seeming forced.

     And what better way to start this series by exploring a movie that chronicles the life of a man who liked to choose his own way! “Lawrence of Arabia” is director David Lean’s most famous and most praised film, regarded now as one of the great motion picture epics ever made. Peter O’Toole (who recently retired from acting at almost eighty years old) plays the title character, T.E. Lawrence, a young intelligence officer in Cairo in World War One who was assigned to the Arabian desert, where he eventually leads the Arabs in a revolt against the Turks. (By the way, in order to get through this article in enough time, I’m going to have to skip some plot points. But that will give you all the more reason to see the movie yourself, right?)

     Lawrence starts out as a smart (or smart-aleck) young officer, but as he gets acquainted with Arabs like Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) and Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), he becomes a stronger leader, if a controversial one. In one scene, as his Arab army moves forward through the desert, they realize a man, Gasim, has been left behind, struggling to move along and eventually passing out in the hot desert. Lawrence decides to go back to get him, though Ali protests, saying that it was “written” for Gasim to be left behind. Lawrence’s response: “Nothing is written, except in here”, pointing to his head. And after several days, Lawrence and Gasim return, exhausted. But Lawrence just returns to Ali, stares at him, takes some water, and repeats: “Nothing is written.”

     Later on, however, when the Arabs are camped out in another part of the desert, a gunshot goes off. An Arab has been killed by another Arab, and the murderer must die. But for tribal reasons, they cannot decide who will execute him. Because he has no real Arab royalties, Lawrence decides to do it. And then he sees who the murderer is: Gasim. But he has no choice: he shoots Gasim six times and kills him. Auda sees Lawrence distressed after the execution and wonders why, and Ali tells him the man he killed was the man he rescued. Auda replies: “Oh! It was written then!”

     This first instance of Lawrence executing a man begins a violent urge in him that leads to a Turkish onslaught, where Lawrence famously screams: “No prisoners!” And later on, when the revolt is through, Lawrence returns to Britain and eventually passes away. How? We see it at the beginning of the movie: he crashes his motorcycle on the street. That’s all. Ironic death for a man who led an Arab revolt in the desert.

     I apologize for leaving a lot of things out, but I recommend you see the movie to really see what I’m talking about. T.E. Lawrence constantly lived with a state of mind that said he was the author of his journey. Overall, it may have helped end the rule of the Ottoman Empire, but we see in “Lawrence of Arabia” that his independence played a huge part in changing his humanity for the worst. Perhaps his path was written after all.

     Or was it? As a Christian, should I believe that God purposely made it happen that Lawrence killed Gasim? Or that He made it so that when Lawrence went into a city held by the enemy, he was captured and beaten by Turks? Or were they just mistakes made on Lawrence’s part because he chose to rescue Gasim or go into the city? I’m glad I’m able to think about these things this month, and I hope you’ll continue to join me as we discover what it means to “Choose Life”.

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