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.