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.