Wednesday, December 25, 2013


     About three years ago, I sat at my computer determined to start some kind of blog. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to start writing something about how I saw Christian ideas and themes in movies. I had just seen “Inception” again and realized how much about taking a step of faith it really was, and I thought, “Why don’t I look for this more often?” So I did. And “Reel Christianity” was born, the title inspired by a term I heard from Robert K. Johnston’s book “Reel Spirituality”.

     Next week, 2014 begins, and one of the first things I will be doing in the spring semester, my last as a university student, is going to the Sundance Film Festival for a week participating in a forum for Christian university students, and my “textbook” for the course is Johnston’s book. Everything just comes full circle. It’s pretty crazy. And even though I only have like 10 (not even) official followers of this blog, none of whom I’m sure checks this site regularly, I still have dozens and dozens of articles on movies I love, some I don’t love so much but still found Christian themes in, and some which I’ve only seen once ever and had some thoughts about at the time.

     “Reel Christianity” has come to mean a lot to the way that I think and write about movies, and for those of you who have read it, I am so, so thankful that you have kept up with it and found interest in what I have to say, considering that I have basically no credentials to be talking about films this way. But I hope that in the future, I will continue to do so, because I really do love it. And I hope that by exploring my faith portrayed in secular film, I can encourage others around me, even non-believers in Christ, to re-consider their views of the world and of God.

     Because my time as a student is soon coming to a close, and I have a feeling I won’t be able to keep up with this for much longer, I have decided to stop writing (at least regularly) on “Reel Christianity” at the end of 2013. However, instead of checking this site for more of my thoughts on film, I’d like to take the opportunity to point you to another site:

     This website, acting as my online portfolio, not only contains some of my work in film and music at my university, but it also contains a lot of film analyses that I’ve gotten to write for classes. Attached to this website is a link to “Reel Christianity”, which will indeed continue to exist even though I will not be regularly writing in it. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll be able to update this whole site into something beyond just a plain ol’ blog.

     But until I get the opportunity to write more here, I would like to close “Reel Christianity” with a blessing that I have heard recited in church many a time, but I really do mean it for all of you readers, whether you be my friends, family, or total strangers:

     The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

     God bless you, readers. Have a merry Christmas, and keep looking for God in the movies. He’s there if you look for Him.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Tolkien Month Part 5: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

     Well, this is awkward. This article is not only the last part of our “Tolkien Month” series, but it is also (probably) the last article of “Reel Christianity”. And yet, the movie I’m writing about is not that great, in my opinion. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a huge “Hobbit” fan, or even a big “LOTR” fan, but I have been pretty underwhelmed by these “Hobbit” movies. I really hope next year’s “There and Back Again” at least doesn’t end like a suspenseful TV episode like these other two have.

     Anyway, I apologize for the complaining. “The Desolation of Smaug”, which seems to me to be just as bloated as “An Unexpected Journey”, follows Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, Thorin Oakenshield, and the rest of the dwarves on their quest to defeat the Necromancer and restore the dwarves’ land. And again, I’ll cut to the important stuff in this article, because the movie adds an unnecessary subplot with a bunch of Elves (including Orlando Bloom’s Legolas for some reason) and extends their journey to the dragon much more than it needed to be.

     While Gandalf is off doing some other stuff (my assumption is Ian McKellan’s contract limited the amount he had to be in the movies), Bilbo and the dwarves escape an Orc attack, although dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) is wounded in the midst of battle. They encounter Bard (Luke Evans), a man who helps the dwarves escape by hiding them in barrels of fish on a ship he takes to his home in Lake-town, where his son and two daughters are waiting for him. But after suspicions arise and the dwarves are exposed, Thorin has to defend himself, Bard (a descendant of some men responsible for the Necromancer’s attack in the first place), and the rest of the dwarves.

     Eventually, after most of the group has gone further on their quest and a few others stay behind with Kili to look after him, Orcs attack Lake-town, and Bard takes a lead role in defeating them while Legolas and a female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who Kili falls in love with and who was written only for the film, come to help too. But Bilbo, Thorin, and the others (while Gandalf is still away and apparently in a battle with Sauron himself), use a map to find a hidden cave filled with treasure where the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch in the only performance worth remembering) sleeps.

     Bilbo looks in the cave for the Arkenstone, a glowing white jewel that belongs to Thorin’s ancestors, but wakes up Smaug in the process and begins a battle with him. The dwarves come and fight with Bilbo against the Necromancer, and they seem at one point to outwit him by burying him in molten gold, but Smaug seems to easily get up out of it, shake off the gold, and go flying toward Lake-town to destroy it. Believe me, it’s an abrupt ending, and it wouldn’t have had to be if Peter Jackson had just made “The Hobbit” in two parts instead of three.

     I think the thing that really frustrated me about this film, however, was the fact that I planned to identify Christ-like figures within the film and could not find any big ones. “The Lord of the Rings” had better character developments that helped me find them there, but not “The Hobbit”, and that’s why I really enjoy “LOTR” more than these films. However, there are still a couple characters that learn to sacrifice their safety that I’d like to talk about here.

     The first is Bard, who comes from the line of Girion, of the City of Men who ruled during Smaug’s attack years ago (which is driving the dwarves to go and reclaim their homeland… at least I think that’s what’s going on). Bard, whose wife is dead/abandoned/make-believe, leaving him with his three children and seemingly down on his luck. He seems similar to Aragorn from “LOTR” in that his ancestors are known for abandoning their morals during a crisis, and he has fears that he will either be solely remembered for that and/or he will do the same when the time comes. (Now that I think about it, that’s actually a cool character study. Good job, “Desolation of Smaug”.)

     But when the dwarves approach him (well, okay, bribe him) to take them away from the impending Orc invasion to a safe place, Bard has a choice. He can support them in their journey and keep them from harm, or he can take their money, rat them out, and not worry about them. And at one point, it does seem like he is selling them to another man—but it turns out he is making a deal to fill the barrels that they are hiding in with fish to sneak them into Lake-town. Bard’s sacrifice and desire to help the dwarves’ cause could cost him a lot, and when the film ends with Smaug headed towards his home, it seems that Bard did indeed risk his life to save the dwarves.

     But Bard did what he did to save the lives of others—and possibly to redeem his family line—and risking his neck to save others’ is the kind of sacrifice Christ made. And I understand that none of the sacrifices that any of these characters make in any of these movies amounts to that of Christ, but as human beings (or elves, dwarves, and Hobbits in these films), the least we can do to repay Him for it is by offering up our own lives. And as the theme verse of the month says, our sacrifice should be that of Christ: “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2b)

     The other Christ-like example that I’d like to discuss from this film, however, is much less obvious: Thorin Oakenshield. In fact, in a lot of respects, Thorin seems to be the character farthest away from a Christ-like figure. He’s bitter about the taking of his homeland. He’s distrusting towards anyone he crosses paths with. He gives up hope easily. And his motives for reclaiming his homeland in the first place seems to be for selfish motives—and probably is! At the mountain containing Smaug’s lair, as the dwarves hear from outside a battle going on inside between Bilbo and the dragon, Balin (Ken Stott), one of the older dwarves, tries to convince Thorin to lead them all in and help him, but Thorin refuses.

THORIN: I will not risk this quest for the life of one burglar!

BALIN: Bilbo! His name is Bilbo.

     Thorin, to be frank, is kind of a jerk. However, after searching his conscience, he decides to lead the dwarves inside and help Bilbo (not before immediately asking Bilbo if he found the Arkenstone, of course). He tells them before creating the molten gold:

THORIN: If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together!

     My hope is that Thorin Oakenshield becomes a little more humble in “There and Back Again” next year. But until then, I have this to say. Thorin has selfish tendencies, disregard for others, and motives in the wrong places. However, who among us has not? I can even point to figures in Scripture who were selfish and consequently disobeyed God. As written in 2 Samuel 11-12, King David slept with Bathsheba and had her husband killed in battle, and God reprimanded him. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira lied about their offerings to God and were subsequently struck down by Him. And even the Apostle Peter denied knowing Jesus three times after He had been arrested and was immediately convicted. There are so many Biblical figures—and so many of us readers, including myself—who are guilty of being so, so selfish.

     But here’s the shocking news: there is grace for us. Christ died so that we may live, and because of this, we no longer have to let ourselves be enslaved by selfishness, because now we have a Lord who we can constantly turn to for help. Check out what the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:

     For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (6:9-14)

     I have no idea what “There and Back Again” is going to look like (hopefully I won’t hate it), but I am looking forward to the redemption of Thorin Oakenshield, his land, and everyone in the world of “The Hobbit”. But I also pray for us in this world, that we can daily forsake the desires of our flesh and strive for the desires of Christ.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tolkien Month Part 4: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

     Let me just say right off the bat that I love “The Lord of the Rings” much more than “The Hobbit”. The movies, I mean, not the books. The books are all pretty much on the same level, and that’s pretty high. But I found the “LOTR” movies much better than “An Unexpected Journey” (and I presume “The Desolation of Smaug” and “There and Back Again”) because the “LOTR” was constantly moving with story. I didn’t get that feeling with “An Unexpected Journey”. Because of that, this article will be a little shorter, to eliminate some of the unnecessary details.

     In “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, we meet a younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) living comfortably in his Hobbit-home in the Shire. But one day, a strange visitor approaches him: it’s Gandalf the Grey, asking Bilbo to “share in an adventure”. Later, Bilbo learns (after a bunch of dwarves arrive at his doorstep that night) that the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor has been overtaken by a dragon known as Smaug (played by… well, we’ll get to him next week). Gandalf and his team of dwarves are committed to taking the kingdom back, and they need Bilbo’s help to do it.

     Why Bilbo? Um… I forget why they need him, honestly. But whatever, Bilbo is eventually convinced somehow to join the dwarves on their quest. On their way, they encounter many dangers, including three trolls eager to cook and eat them, approaching Orcs, and eventually Gollum in his cave, currently in possession of the Ring of Power. I know I’m skipping several details in-between, but in my opinion, director Peter Jackson should have done that for me.

     Anyway, one of the reasons why I wanted to write about Christ-like examples in films based off of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is because not only did I find them in “The Lord of the Rings”, but I also found them in “The Hobbit”. There are two examples in this film that I found to be particularly interesting.

     The first one is Gandalf the Grey (I know I talked about Gandalf in “The Two Towers”, but that was technically Gandalf the White). When he approaches Bilbo in the beginning of the film about joining him on this “adventure”, it reminded me a ton of how Jesus called his disciples. He literally met them where they were, whether that was in their neighborhoods or workplaces or wherever, and he simply asked them to join him in His “adventure” of sorts.

     In the Gospel of Matthew, one of the first accounts of this is when he calls Simon Peter and Andrew as they are fishing: “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’” (4:19) Jesus met these two men, and the other disciples, where they were, and he invited them along for the “adventure” of a lifetime. When Gandalf approaches Bilbo in “An Unexpected Journey” and does pretty much the same thing, it’s a powerful scene.

     And on the other side of that, the other example of a Christ-like figure that I see in this movie is Bilbo himself. I’ve talked before in the blog and in this series about how Christ was both fully God and fully man. That means he had to constantly make choices to forsake the temptation of sin and follow God’s will. Making that decision daily and ultimately living without sin for thirty-three years was certainly hard—but thank God that He did!

     Similarly, Bilbo Baggins ultimately has a choice. He can continue to live comfortably in his Hobbit-home in the Shire, free from danger and fear, and possibly miss out on a life-changing opportunity. Or he can choose to step out of his comfort zone and do his part to save an entire population, while learning a lot more about himself and others in the process. If I were given that choice, it would be hard to turn down the comfortable life. But getting out of my comfort zone is the only way that I grow—and ultimately, Bilbo realizes this.

     At the end of the movie, when Bilbo has briefly been separated from the rest as he finds Gollum and the Ring, Bilbo returns, and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the leader of the dwarves (I guess I should have mentioned him earlier…) asks why he came back. Bilbo responds:

BILBO: I know you doubt me. I know you always have. And you're right. I often think of Bag-End. I miss my books, and my armchair, and my garden. See, that's where I belong, that's home. That's why I came back—because you don't have one, a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can.

     When Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying before his arrest, he pleads to God and asks that if there is any other way to save humanity other than His death on the cross, make it so. But ultimately, he surrenders: “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42b) And my prayer is that like Bilbo Baggins, we would be willing to leave our comfort zone and surrender to our Father’s will, that he may use us in ways which we cannot even imagine.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Tolkien Month Part 3: The Return of the King (2003)

     We may be in the middle of “Tolkien Month”, but today’s film is the conclusion to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and it’s up there with “The Two Towers” as one of my favorites. It’s a well-earned conclusion to an amazing film saga, and in my opinion, it continues this idea of different characters becoming more like Christ in their own ways. Let’s take a look at “The Return of the King”.

    As Saruman has been defeated at the end of “The Two Towers”, Frodo, Sam, and Sméagol are closer on their journey to Mordor (although tensions are about to rise), and Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli finally come across Merry and Pippin in the safe keeping of Treebeard. Through a long series of events, the two groups work in their own ways to destroy the Ring of Power and defeat Sauron and his army of Orcs. But, as we saw in “The Two Towers”, Sméagol has once again been overtaken by Gollum, and he is about to lead Frodo and Sam to a place where they should not go.

     Meanwhile, Pippin sees in a vision that Sauron’s army is about to attack Minas Tirith, a city under the rule of Denethor (John Noble), father of Boromir and Faramir. Now that Boromir is dead, Denethor is too busy mourning to care about protecting the city—or Faramir’s service. But that doesn’t stop Gandalf and Pippin from lighting beacons from around the land, calling for aid from Rohan, which Théoden responds to. An attack is about to take place, and Frodo and Sam are still being led to Mordor.

     Or are they? Gollum takes them up an incredibly steep staircase apparently leading to Mordor (but in reality leading to the lair of Shelob, a huge spider… thing), and all this time has been leading Frodo to mistrust Sam, making him think that Sam wants the Ring of Power for himself. Because the burden of carrying the Ring is so heavy, Frodo cannot think straight, and he eventually trusts Gollum more than Sam. One night, when Gollum tricks Frodo into thinking that Sam ate the rest of their food, Frodo sends Sam back, and he continues on with Gollum while Sam weeps alone.

     Meanwhile, in battles against the Orcs, Faramir is wounded and believed to be dead, and Denethor, overcome by the loss of both his sons, decides to burn Faramir and himself alive. Pippin realizes that Faramir is regaining consciousness, and he brings Gandalf in to rescue Faramir before Denethor lights himself up. When he realizes what he is doing and that Faramir, having just been saved by Gandalf, is in fact alive, Denethor jumps off a cliff to his death into the battle below. Later, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Théoden’s niece, and Merry hide amongst the men fighting, and Théoden is mortally wounded by a head Orc known as Gothmog the Witchking (Lawrence Makoare). Eowyn ends up defeating him (in a pretty awesome scene, if you ask me), but she is unable to save her uncle before he dies in her arms.

     Frodo, in Shelob’s lair, fights the spider off for a while and then finally is attacked by Gollum. Frodo throws Gollum off the side of the lair, and continues on his way until he is finally poisoned by Shelob. Sam, knowing that Gollum had lied to Frodo, goes to rescue Frodo but believes him to be dead. He hides as some Orcs come and get Frodo’s limp but still living body. Sam follows them and eventually rescues Frodo from their clutches, and the two continue on their way.

     They finally approach Mount Doom, and Frodo’s strength is starting to lessen and lessen. In a powerful scene, as Frodo, wide-eyed and hardly conscious, is burdened by the Ring, Sam asks him if he remembers the sights, smells, and memories of the Shire.

FRODO: No, Sam. I can't recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I'm naked in the dark, with nothing, no veil between me... and the wheel of fire! I can see him... with my waking eyes!

SAM: Then let us be rid of it, once and for all! Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you! Come on!

     And as he indeed carries Frodo slowly up the mountain, the character of Samwise Gamgee is an excellent example in “The Return of the King” acting like Christ. Even though Sam cannot carry Frodo’s burden, he is committed enough to his friend and to the task at hand to physically carry him—which in a literal sense is powerful enough, but to think of Sam’s support through this entire journey is absolutely incredible. And just as Sam tries to make Frodo’s burden lighter, Jesus does the same for us: He tells us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

     Long story short, Gollum shows up again, fights Frodo above the fires of Mount Doom, bites off Frodo’s ring finger, and falls with the Ring into the fire, and Sam rescues Frodo from Mount Doom as it collapses and Sauron is destroyed. Gandalf sends eagles to rescue the two Hobbits, the Fellowship of the Ring sans Boromir is reunited, and Aragorn, heir of king Isildur (a detail which I probably should have mentioned at the beginning of this series), is crowned king.

This day does not belong to one man but to all. Let us together rebuild this world that we may share in the days of peace.

     He reunites with Arwen, who I guess becomes queen, and when Aragorn approaches Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, the four Hobbits bow to him. Aragorn responds humbly.

ARAGORN: My friends. You bow to no one.

     And he bows before them, as does the enormous crowd around them. Aragorn, heir of the king who originally defeated Sauron but was later overtaken by the Ring and was killed for it, is the second example in this film of a Christ-like figure. Aragorn is not only from a poorer family, but he is also Isildur’s heir, and he admits in “The Fellowship of the Ring” that he is scared of becoming king because Isildur’s blood runs through his veins.

     Jesus lived not only as fully God, but fully man. This is incomprehensible to me, but that’s how it is. And I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to live a sinless life, with all the temptations and fears that a man faces every day. I fall to those struggles all the time, but Jesus never did? It’s truly mind-blowing! And when Aragorn decides to continue on his path to help destroy Sauron and redeem Middle-Earth, he is taking on the same kind of task (in my opinion) that Jesus took on when he decided to go through with his sacrifice for our sins. And in the end, Aragorn was crowned king, and so is Jesus—as it is written, He is “the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 6:15b-16)

     Amen indeed. I pray that as we continue to be reminded of Christ’s example, that we would all discover what it means to forsake the desires of the flesh and follow the will of God.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tolkien Month Part 2: The Two Towers (2002)

     For the next few weeks, we’ll be continuing on “Reel Christianity” to look at movies based on the books of J.R.R. Tolkien and how some of these characters resemble Christ in their actions. Today, I’m looking at the second “Lord of the Rings” film, and in a lot of ways, it’s my favorite of the trilogy. Even though the groups of characters are on different paths and never meet up, there’s still an incredible character arc that happens, and there are a ton of really cool scenes—a couple of which we’ll look at today!

     In “The Two Towers”, Frodo and Sam are alone on their journey to Mordor, while Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli look for Merry and Pippin after Boromir and Gandalf has sacrificed themselves. The film begins with the flashback to Gandalf’s death as he battles a monster underground (that’s basically what happens, I don’t have time to explain the whole situation), and then we follow Frodo and Sam as they walk through the middle of nowhere. But one night, they are snuck up on by a stranger: Gollum (Andy Serkis), a sort-of person who long ago was consumed by greed for the Ring and now lives as a CGI skeleton basically. When Frodo and Sam find him, they decide (Sam being more reluctant) to bring him along and have him show them the way to the Black Gate into Mordor.

     Meanwhile, the three others find that the Hobbits have been taken to Isengard, where Saruman is working with Sauron to attack the villages of Middle-Earth. One of these is Rohan, where King Théoden (Bernard Hill) is pretty much decrepit because Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), who is secretly working with Saruman, has put Théoden under a spell. Aragorn and company go to rescue him, but not before they get help from a certain someone: Gandalf.

     As you might have guessed, Gandalf is the first example I’d like to talk about today that relates to Christ. For one thing, yeah, he basically rose from the dead. When fighting with the Belrog in the cave and elsewhere, Gandalf “died” but found new life in his sacrifice, and has now transformed from Gandalf the Grey into Gandalf the White. But in addition to all that, the timing of his return and its purpose is incredibly similar to that of Jesus. And I’m not necessarily talking about Jesus’ return at the end of the world.

     Here’s what Christ promises in Acts 1, as he is about to ascend into Heaven:

     He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

     After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

     They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (1:7-11)

     Jesus promised his followers that one day, once His work was done on this earth, He would return and save the world finally. That is a promise not too different from what Gandalf tells Aragorn when he finally reveals himself, and it is a powerful revelation.

GANDALF: I have been sent back until my task is done. …I am Gandalf the White. And I come back to you now at the turn of the tide.

     So they go to Rohan, Gandalf performs an exorcism on Théoden basically, and turns him back into his normal self, who casts Grima out of the kingdom. Grima eventually goes back to Saruman, but meanwhile, Gandalf and the others work with Théoden to help him get ready for an impending battle. (By the way, through all of this, Merry and Pippin have escaped from the Orcs and found shelter in the Ents, talking trees in a forest, one of which is named Treebeard [John Rhys-Davies]. So the two Hobbits are pretty safe at this point.)

     And while all that is going on, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are still making their way to the Black Gate. There’s danger, but they stay alive (obviously), leading up to a pivotal scene where Gollum battles with himself. Gollum, it turns out, has a split personality—he used to be known as Sméagol, a Hobbit-like being, but Gollum is his new self after the Ring has possessed him. And in one scene, he literally talks to himself, and Gollum and Sméagol fight it out.

GOLLUM: Where would you be without me? (coughing) Gollum! Gollum! (normal) I saved us! It was me. We survived because of me!

SMÉAGOL: Not anymore.

GOLLUM: What did you say?

SMÉAGOL: Master [Frodo] looks after us now. We don’t need you. …Leave now and never come back!

     And again, as you might have guessed, this is the other example of a character in the film becoming more like Christ. Sméagol, like all of us, battles with a darker part of himself (or, honestly, the Enemy inside him), that tells him that he is not good enough or not worthy. This scene with Sméagol/Gollum battling in the darkness reminded me a little of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (a scene that I referenced last week), where Jesus is anguished about being crucified but prays: “Yet not my will, but yours.”

     Sméagol, after finding a new and better master in Frodo, tells his old self to leave and never bother him again, and Gollum does in fact leave him. (He’s not gone for long, however, but when you see this scene for the first time, it’s pretty victorious.) And a scene like that should inspire us as followers of Christ to put aside our sinful natures, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus.

     Soon after this scene happens, however, Sméagol and the two Hobbits are captured and brought to Gondor, a former ally of Rohan. There, they meet Faramir (David Wenham), Boromir’s brother who wants the Ring for himself to take to his father the king (he learns that Frodo has it after ambushing Sméagol, causing Gollum to slowly return into Sméagol’s spirit). Long story short, Gondor is attacked by Orcs, and at the same time, Rohan is being invaded by another Orc army. (There’s just a lot of fighting going on.) And at one point, a Ringwraith approaches Frodo and tempts him to give up the Ring. However, at the last moment, Sam overtakes him and saves him. And because of Sam’s bravery, the Hobbits are able to continue on their quest, once again with Gollum, who once again tries to figure out a way to take the Ring for himself.

     I apologize that I’m not able to explain these movies in full detail because they’re so long, but I pray that these articles will help open doors for you as readers to discover other ways that these characters represent Christ. I’ll close once again with the theme verse for the series, Ephesians 5:1-2: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tolkien Month Part 1: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

     Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the final five-week series of “Reel Christianity” which I am calling “Tolkien Month”. We’ll be looking at five movies based on the works on J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”. Originally, I planned to do this series because “The Hobbit” was supposed to be in two parts, not three, and so I could cover both sagas in five weeks. But then Peter Jackson had to go make his new saga a trilogy, so that didn’t really work. But hey, when the third “Hobbit” movie comes out next year, maybe this will encourage you to think for yourself what character is most like Christ.

     That’s the whole point of “Tolkien Month”: I’ve noticed in the films based on “LOTR” and “The Hobbit” that there are many characters who have to face challenges, withstand temptations, or sacrifice themselves in the way that Christ did during his time on Earth. So as we close “Reel Christianity” with this series, I hope that you will be encouraged as we look into these films more closely and see how these films (and Tolkien’s books, for that matter) relate to our faith.

     In “The Fellowship of the Ring”, we hear the back-story of this ring of power that has been lost and found throughout the centuries, eventually landing in the hands of a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). His nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his friends Samwise (or Sam) Gamgee (Sean Astin), Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan), and Peregrin “Pippin” Took (Billy Boyd) are all very content in their lovely home in the Shire, and they are even happier at the arrival of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), a wizard who has led Bilbo on many journeys in the past.

     One night, as Bilbo celebrates his 111th birthday, he uses the ring of power to disappear, fooling his guests and leaving the Shire secretly to embark on a new life. He reluctantly leaves the ring for Frodo, and Gandalf does some investigating. When he realizes that this is the ring of power, and its creator Sauron is looking for it and willing to kill anyone and everyone in his path to get it back, Gandalf tells Frodo that the ring must leave the Shire and go back to the elves of Rivendell who can further decide how to destroy the ring.

     Sam, Merry, and Pippin end up joining Frodo on his journey, as Gandalf meanwhile goes to talk with his wizard friend Saruman (Christopher Lee) who has been bewitched by Sauron’s power, and the two men fight. Gandalf ends up getting away, but not before Frodo and his friends are attacked by large Orcs, or servants of Sauron. They are saved by a mysterious man in black known as Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who takes them to Rivendell with the help of his beloved Arwen (Liv Tyler).

     The Hobbits eventually get to Rivendell, not without injury, and the Elvish Council led by Arwen’s father Elrond (Hugo Weaving) determines that the ring can only be destroyed if it is taken to the fire from which it was created, to the land of Mordor on Mount Doom. Frodo ends up being the first one to volunteer to take the ring to Mount Doom, and he is followed by Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Aragorn, an elf named Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and a man named Boromir (Sean Bean).

     In my opinion, this is where the comparisons to Christ really start happening. Frodo, through this whole journey, has been taking so many risks and getting out of his comfort zone. This is the pinnacle of those decisions. He has come this far, but now he has so much farther to go in order to destroy this ring, which is no easy task but needs to be done. After all, Boromir says, “One does not simply walk into Mordor. There is evil there that does not sleep.” But as the council argues about what should be done, Frodo simply says: “I will take it! I will take the ring to Mordor.”

     It’s like how Christ had to decide to finally take up his cross at the end of his life. As he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he cried earnestly to God to “let this cup pass” from him—“yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). And he lets himself go through the crucifixion, death, and resurrection. It hurts, but it’s worth it. That’s the kind of decision that Frodo makes here, and it’s awesome.

     However, Frodo’s not the only one I see in this film that is dealing with these decisions. There is another character that, though he struggles a little more, ends up surrendering to something bigger than his desires. That is Boromir, who near the end of the film (after Gandalf has sacrificed himself—I’ll get into that in the next article), approaches Frodo and offers to take the Ring himself. Frodo, who himself is struggling with his reasoning for keeping the Ring, is very hesitant to offer it to Boromir, and Boromir ends up nearly killing Frodo over it. Almost immediately, he feels remorse, but he is too late—the battle over the Ring has let Orcs know where the Fellowship is.

     As this final battle is happening, Frodo and Sam escape on their own, and Aragorn and the others lead an attack on the Orcs, which results in Boromir sacrificing his own life. The Orcs are driven away (capturing Merry and Pippin), but as Boromir is dying, he and Aragorn exchange final words.

ARAGORN: I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you I will not let the White City fall, nor our people fail.

BOROMIR: Our people, our people. I would have would have followed you, my brother... my captain... my king.

ARAGORN: Be at peace, Son of Gondor.

     And Boromir dies, having redeemed himself for this great cause. It almost reminds me of when Peter disowns Jesus in the Gospels, but then after Jesus’ resurrection, he “reinstates” Peter. In John 21, Peter tells Jesus: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” (21:17b) Jesus responds by telling Peter that in the future, he will die for the cause of Christ. Again, it’s a tough thing to face, but Peter and all of us as Christ’s followers have to remember that it’s all worth it in the end.

     I’ll continue looking at these Tolkien films next week, but I would like to leave you with this verse that sums up this idea of becoming more like Christ: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2) Have a great week, friends!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

End of Year Recap

     In this final year of “Reel Christianity”, I’m ending the year a little differently. Instead of having a five-week series during October like I should have, I’m pushing the series back several weeks so we can end the blog with that, because trust me, it’ll be cool. In the meantime, though, let’s take time now to look back at the things God has taught us this year through the movies:

     Through “The Godfather”, we were reminded of Jesus’ teaching that contrasts to the world’s idea of success: that in order to save one’s life, one must lose it. (Matthew 16)

     Through “The Last Temptation of Christ”, we took a closer look at the part of Jesus’ life that is most often neglected: his human nature. (1 Peter 1)

     Through “Les Misérables”, we learned the power of loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. (Matthew 5)

     Through “Cool Hand Luke”, we learned that true rebellion is that which denies the world and follows the Lord wholeheartedly. (Matthew 23)

     Through “Paradise Now”, we saw the idea of losing one’s life to save it through the eyes of two Arab terrorists fighting for another image of God. (Mark 8)

     Through “Lincoln”, we were reminded of how God created all men in his image, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. (Galatians 3)

     Through “Argo”, we were challenged with the idea of believing God’s truth above anything that the world tells us. (1 John 3)

     Through “Silver Linings Playbook”, we learned how love (beyond a worldly sense of it) is able to cover a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4)

     Through “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, we were reminded that though trials, temptations, or even beasts can come in and destroy our world, Jesus has truly overcome the world. (John 16)

     Through “No Country For Old Men”, we were assured that even though the world may be dark, God will always prepare a place for us. (John 14)

     In “Ordet”, we got to see for ourselves how faith in the Lord can truly raise people from the dead. (John 11)

     Through “American Beauty”, we were reminded that the things of this world will never truly satisfy more than the love of God. (Ecclesiastes 2)

     In “The King of Kings”, we saw the portrayal of Jesus as a man who never sinned, was crucified for our sin, and rose again. (Matthew-John)

     In “Blue Like Jazz”, we saw a young man who learned that being a Christian doesn’t mean following a bunch of dumb rules—it means loving people no matter what. (John 13)

     Through “Bonnie and Clyde”, we saw (albeit through a bad example) what it looks like to reach out to the poor in spirit. (Luke 23)

     In “Ben-Hur”, we witnessed what it looks like to go through a life of torment and finally reach a point of forgiveness. (Matthew 5)

     In our “Leaving the Ninety-Nine” series, we saw several examples of people risking it all to find one lost person, just as Christ does constantly for his children. (Matthew 18)

     Through “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, we were reminded of how greed and longing for our own control can lead us to ruin. (Mark 8)

     Through “M”, we saw a powerful metaphor for how we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. (Romans 3-7)

     Through “Life of Pi”, we learned about overcoming unbelief in God, no matter how absurd it may seem at times. (Mark 9)

     Through “The Lion King”, we compared Simba to Moses, a man who had to overcome his fears in order to do great work for God. (Exodus 4)

     Through “Days of Heaven”, we were reminded of the promise God made to Abraham even after huge desolation. (Genesis 22)

     Through “The Bridge On the River Kwai”, we learned how to love the people in authority over us even when it is hard. (Matthew 22)

     Through “Babette’s Feast”, we were reminded that perhaps making our work pleasing to others, it can also be pleasing to God. (Psalm 119)

     In “The Master”, we witnessed what false religion can do to us spiritually and how we can overcome that. (John 14)

     Through “Barry Lyndon”, we saw yet another example of a man who may have said he believed in God but did not truly follow him, and in the end was ruined because of it. (1 Corinthians 15)

     In “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”, we saw a man and woman who fell back in love after falling out of it because they let forgiveness happen. (Psalm 51)

     In “To the Wonder”, we saw another example of a married couple twisting the idea of love into something that is not in fact honoring to God. (Ephesians 5)

     Through “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, we saw another couple who decided to keep falling in love with each other no matter how many faults they find in each other. (Ephesians 5)

     Through the “Harry Potter” movies, we saw in action the idea of spiritual warfare and how even the weakest of us can be victorious over it. (Ephesians 6)

     Through “To Kill a Mockingbird”, we were reminded of loving even the least of these, though the world says otherwise. (John 8)

     In “The Apostle”, we saw a sinful man who was nevertheless used by God because he was open to His will. (Isaiah 6)

     In “There Will Be Blood”, we saw the actions, repercussions, and eventual downfall of those of us who don’t practice what we preach. (2 John 1)

     “On the Waterfront” showed to us what it looks like to stand up for the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves. (Proverbs 31)

     Through “The Best Years of Our Lives”, we were reminded that no matter how much time goes by, God will never leave or forsake us. (Ephesians 3)

     In “The Magnificent Ambersons”, we saw yet more people learning the hard way that the things of this world will not satisfy. (Ecclesiastes 1)

     Through “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, we were reminded that no amount of work should make us neglect investing in other people’s lives. (Luke 10)

     “The Iron Giant” was a great metaphor for Jesus coming to Earth and saving us even when we sentenced him to die. (John 1)

     Contrary to “The Wizard of Oz”, we learned that apart from the salvation of Jesus Christ, we really don’t have the power to go home. (Romans 3)

     Through “2001: A Space Odyssey”, we saw the magnificence of God’s creation and how it truly is unfathomable to our understanding.

     And in our next series, we’ll be looking at what it means to take on the identity of Christ. Our theme verse will be Ephesians 5:1-2: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Join me as we explore this idea by watching several characters do this in a specific film saga.

     Namely, “The Lord of the Rings”. See you next week, friends!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

     I know it’s weird to say this… but this is the last normal article of “Reel Christianity”. You know how I usually have a series during a month with five Wednesdays? And how I didn’t do that last month? That’s because I was saving it for the last month of the year—and you’ll see what that series is in a couple weeks! But anyway, today we take a look at a fitting conclusion to what has been nearly three years of discovering the mystery of faith through film. And what better film to conclude with than one of the most thought-provoking films ever made, and possibly Stanley Kubrick’s greatest achievement.

     Since “2001: A Space Odyssey” has such a unique structure, it’s going to be hard describing the “plot” in this article, so I’m just going to go ahead and break the film down into large sequences. So here we go:

     The Dawn of Man: this movie begins under the assumption that humans did indeed evolve from apes (which I don’t really agree with, but whatever), and we witness a group of apes discovering weapons (using the bones of dead animals), using said weapons to defend themselves against predators and other apes, and even coming across a great big chocolate bar—excuse me, monolith in the dirt. This monolith, literally a black rectangle of sorts stuck in the ground, is a recurring symbol in the film, and we’ll get to that in a little bit.

     An ape throws a bone victoriously into the air after killing another ape, and we suddenly cut to the next sequence, which I’ll simply call 2001: the bone becomes a spaceship, and for a few minutes we see what humans have created for themselves—a smorgasbord of spaceships and interplanetary travel. One of these travelers is Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), on his way to a base on the moon to make a report on secret goings-on at the base. That secret turns out to be a monolith on the moon, a monolith identical to the one we saw before.

     Prompting a search for extraterrestrial life, we begin the Jupiter Mission sequence: Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) are the leaders of a trip to the planet, accompanied by a speaking auto-pilot known as the HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). Think if Siri was a male and wanted to rule the world, and you’ve got a good idea of what HAL is like. HAL has enough of a mind to wonder aloud to Bowman about the mystery surrounding the mission. Suddenly, HAL detects a fault in the ship’s antenna, and the astronauts investigate it to find that there is actually nothing wrong. So as they decide that HAL made a mistake in detecting the fault, HAL claims that there was a mistake made that can be attributed to “human error”, prompting Bowman and Poole to discuss disconnecting HAL.

     In part two of the Jupiter Mission sequence, HAL, who has detected the discussion about disconnecting him, begins preventing any means of that happening—even going so far as to let Poole die in space and suffocate the other astronauts in hyper-sleep. Bowman realizes what’s going on and has to risk being sucked into space in order to reach HAL’s processor core and turn him off. He does so, and as he starts disconnecting HAL’s parts one at a time, he comes across a pre-recorded video message from Dr. Floyd, explaining the existence of the monolith.

FLOYD: Eighteen months ago, the first evidence of intelligent life off the Earth was discovered. It was buried forty feet below the lunar surface near the crater Tycho. Except for a single very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four-million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert. Its origin and purpose are still a total mystery.

     The final sequence of the film is Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite: Dr. Bowman travels to Jupiter and consequently goes into what many in 1968 called “the ultimate trip”, a series of film images that cannot be described in words. As the sequence finishes, Bowman finds himself in a Neoclassical-style bedroom, transforming via editing cuts from an astronaut to a middle-aged man to a very old man lying in bed. And suddenly, in front of him in bed is a black monolith. He reaches for it, and suddenly, he is transformed into a star of sorts staring at the earth. But not just a star: it is as if he has become a fetus the size of a planet. Again, it’s hard to describe in words, but that’s the way it is. And with that, the film ends.

     So… what the heck does it all mean? I know I didn’t know the meaning of a lot of these things for a very long time, and I still don’t. But I think that was Kubrick’s point: through history, and into the future, there are going to be symbols and events around us that don’t make sense. But maybe that’s because we are only human. The only way we can make sense of anything in this universe is if we transcend the human world—which Bowman does at the end of 2001, but I also believe the followers of Christ will do at the end of time.

     It’s difficult to find a Bible verse that closely relates to “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but the Bible does say a lot about the creation of the universe and who made it all. A cool one I found comes in Isaiah 40, where the prophet cries out about the coming Messiah (“Comfort, comfort my people”) and describes the power of God to create all things. “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.” (40:26)

     We as humans can never understand creation, let alone “2001: A Space Odyssey”. But all we need to know is that there is indeed a Creator in control of everything, and I pray that we would all remember Him today and this week, no matter what happens around us.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

     For a long time while I wrote “Reel Christianity”, I thought to myself: “At some point, I want to write about ‘The Wizard of Oz’… but I have no idea what exactly to write about.” Well, last semester, as I took a class in college about the integration of faith and media, the instructor pointed out an idea in “The Wizard of Oz” that I hadn’t thought about before. We’ll get to that in a minute, but to address what most of you already know, “The Wizard of Oz” is one of those cinematic staples that everyone needs to see before the age of six. Many have identified the film’s moral as “there’s no place like home”, but I’d like to propose another theme that many of us seem to forget sometimes.

     Again, we’ll get to that in a second. But let’s look at the film itself first. Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is a young girl living in a very dark, gloomy, sepia-colored Kansas with her Aunt Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) on their farm. They have three helpers, Hunk (Ray Bolger), Hickory (Jack Haley), and Zeke (Bert Lahr), and they each persuade Dorothy to cheer up in their own ways. After the mean Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) scares Dorothy and her dog Toto away, Hunk tells Dorothy to use common sense to avoid Miss Gulch; Zeke tells her not to be scared when he suddenly gets scared of the farm pigs; and Hickory… uh, he wants to be a statue. Watch the movie and it’ll make sense.

     So anyway, Miss Gulch takes possession of Toto before Toto escapes and goes back to Dorothy, who decides to run away from home. On her way, she runs into a half-baked fortuneteller known as Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) who tells her that her Aunt Em is brokenhearted now that Dorothy has run away. Dorothy decides to return home, but she is caught in a storm on her way back, and before she can join her family in the cellar, she finds herself in her bedroom caught in a tornado, landing her eventually in a mysterious place.

     This place is known as the land of Oz, a Technicolor wonderland with midgets—err, Munchkins, a fairy godmother—err, a good witch named Glinda (Billie Burke), and a man behind a curtain—err, a wizard known simply as the Wizard of Oz (Morgan), whom Glinda says can help Dorothy return home. Before she sets off on her journey, however, a bad witch shows up: the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton). See, what happened was, Dorothy’s house landed on the witch’s evil sister, and the ruby slippers that she wore magically transported onto Dorothy’s feet. So now the Witch wants those slippers and threatens to get them from Dorothy at any cost. She disappears, and Dorothy has to follow the Yellow Brick Road to find the Wizard and go home.

     So now I’ll cut to the chase. On her way, she meets a scarecrow (Bolger) without brains, a metal man (Haley) without a heart, and a lion (Lahr) without courage, all of who join Dorothy on her journey to see the wizard in the hopes of getting what they need. They eventually get to Emerald City, the wizard’s place of residence, and the Great and Powerful Oz (who seems to be a large head surrounded by fire) tells them that in order for him to help them, they need to perform a small task: bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.

     This, of course, is not easy, but through a series of hijinks and threatening situations, they pour water on the Witch, melting her, and return to the Wizard with her broomstick. When the Wizard tells them to come back tomorrow, however, they get angry, and Toto (who at times seems to be the smartest one of the bunch) goes behind a nearby curtain and reveals the Wizard’s true identity: Oscar Diggs! …Just kidding, that name is just from “Oz the Great and Powerful”. But still, the Wizard really isn’t a wizard at all, and the group of friends ask him (or interrogate him) about how to get the things that he promised them.

     And here’s where the moral gets a little weird. Oz proceeds to tell the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion that they each had a brain, a heart, and courage, respectively, in the first place—they just had to discover it through their journey. So in commemoration of their new discoveries, Oz gives them a small token: a half-baked diploma, a clock shaped like a heart, and a gold medal labeled “courage”, respectively.

     Gee, when you think of it that way, the movie does sound a little weird in terms of its lessons. But that all culminates when Dorothy, who was ready to go back to Kansas with Oz, is left behind on accident. However, Glinda shows up and reveals to her a stunning realization:

DOROTHY: Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?

GLINDA: You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.

DOROTHY: I have?

SCARECROW: Then why didn’t you tell her before?

GLINDA: Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.

     Dorothy explains what she’s learned, which is basically “there’s no place like home”.

SCARECROW: But that’s so easy! I should have thought of it for you!

TIN MAN: I should have felt it in my heart.

GLINDA: No, she had to find it out for herself. Now, those magic slippers will take you home in two seconds!

     So yeah, Dorothy says her goodbyes, clicks her heels three times, and repeats “there’s no place like home,” and in a minute, she’s back in her bed in Kansas, surrounded by Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, Hunk, Hickory, Zeke, and Professor Marvel (for some reason), awaiting for her to regain consciousness. And she tells them how happy she is to be back in her home, and how she never wants to leave home ever again, and—

     Okay, let me just say. When I realized the weight of this moral of having power inside you all along, it was a little frustrating. And I’ve addressed this theme in a few articles on “Reel Christianity” before, but I don’t think I’ve talked about it in a film that was as well-received as “The Wizard of Oz”. But there it is, and I need to say something about it. There are a lot of people out there, Christians even, that say that man is inherently good and that if we follow Christ, we will have nothing but happiness in our lives. At its core, that’s what this message in “The Wizard of Oz” is saying.

     Friends, I’m sorry to say that this is not true. The apostle Paul addresses this head on in the book of Romans, explaining that Jews and Gentiles alike are sinful. “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (3:22b-24) We were born into sin because we are human, but we can be redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Praise the Lord for that!

     So yeah, as great and as influential as “The Wizard of Oz” was and is, this idea of having the power to “go home” all along is a little wrong. We may be capable of it, but it doesn’t come from within ourselves—and thank the Lord that He loves us so much that He wants to do that for us. My prayer for us all this week is that we would allow His Spirit to fill our every being so that we might be His witnesses on this earth.