Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dolphin Tale 2: Finding a Little Hope

It would’ve been nice to talk with Winter. But she wasn’t doing interviews.

The other stars of Dolphin Tale 2 were more accommodating when I went down to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a set visit last year. Some select Christian media outlets had the opportunity to talk with Harry Connick Jr., Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Bethany Hamilton and several other performers. Winter, the famous aquatic mammal and the  breakout star from the original Dolphin Tale, apparently wasn’t available. But that’s OK. She makes time for the people who matter.

Winter’s story, according to pretty much everyone involved, has mightily impacted thousands of folks. Not just people who come to Clearwater just gawk at a famous bottlenose dolphin, but people—often with disabilities themselves—who’ve been inspired by Winter’s disability. No matter what life throws at you, Winter seems to channel another aquatic star—Dori from Finding Nemo. Just keep swimming.

If you’re not familiar with the original Dolphin Tale, the movie focuses on the true story of Winter, who lost her tail fluke and joint after she got tangled up in a crab trap. As you might imagine, those body parts are absolutely critical for the life of a dolphin. But the good people at Clearwater, along with some outside help, developed an artificial fluke that Winter, after some struggles, learned how to use. And now the animal gets along just (ahem) swimmingly.

A couple days ago, I marveled at how one little boy with autism took inspiration from a Guardians of the Galaxy character. But according to those involved with Dolphin Tale 2, that’s nothing compared to the influence that Winter has had on people.

David Yates, the real CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, knows many of the stories by heart: The tank commander who lost an arm and leg in the middle east—and who found a source of inspiration in this aquatic hero. A nine-year-old girl with a cleft palate whose family drove of miles to just see Winter. Kids who were scared to go to school because of some sort of real or perceived disability, but who saw Winter and found the courage to go after all.

“It’s amazing how God can use a little dolphin like this to change thousands of lives,” Yates says.

The new movie, Dolphin Tale 2, includes real-life footage of some of the people whom Winter has impacted. Yates says he’s received tens of thousands of letters and e-mails regarding Winter.

“Every kid has a life challenge,” he says. “They look at Winter (and say) she’s different, but she’s OK.”

When you’re promoting a feel-good movie, you’re naturally going to emphasize the feel-good elements. But when you hear how much Winter’s story also touched the movie’s cast, you wonder whether there’s something to it. Zuehlsdorff, who plays Hazel in the movie, and Austin Highsmith, who plays dolphin trainer Phoebe, teared up recounting some of the stories they’ve heard and seen. Everyone involved in Dolphin Tale returned for the sequel. Everyone, it seemed, felt the original movie was really special. And they wanted to be part of that feeling again.

“We’re really this Dolphin Tale family,” said Austin Stowell, who plays Kyle Connellan in both movies. And that family extends, in a way, to those who’ve been touched by them—particularly by Winter’s story. “It shows us that I can do anything.”


The first Dolphin Tale was an improbable hit, earning $72.3 million on a relatively shoestring budget. Will the second one—which focuses on Winter’s potential new tank mate—make the same sort of impact? We’ll find out next Monday.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Forrest Gump: He Knows What Love Is

“Stupid is as stupid does.”

That’s Forrest Gump’s snappiest comeback line. Whenever someone asks Forrest if he’s an idiot (which is often), he remembers what his Mamma always told him: Stupid is as stupid does. It’s not a denial. It’s simply a statement of fact, and a bit of a challenge. Don’t judge me by how I think. Judge me by what I do. Oh, and while you’re at it, judge yourself, too.

Forrest Gump, originally released in 1994 and the winner of six Academy Awards (including Best Director Robert Zemeckis, Best Actor Tom Hanks and Best Picture) is returning to theaters today, rolling out on 300 IMAX screens across the country. I’ll be interested to see whether anyone cares.

Forrest Gump hasn’t aged well for some. When you think of the year’s classic movies, you maybe think of Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption or The Lion King before this Oscar winner. Forrest Gump can feel a little too milquetoast by comparison. The special effects—cutting edge for the day—feel pretty dated now. Lines like “Run, Forrest, run!” and “life is a box of chocolates” are more likely to trigger eye rolls than smiles. Some positively hate the thing. Writes Amy Nicholson of L.A. Weekly:

“Forrest Gump has persevered, still celebrating 20 years of ignoring the tragedies that lurk beneath our lives like great whites in the dark waters below his shrimping boat. Let us not forget that the Bubba Gump fortunes only came after a hurricane took out all of Forrest's competition. Post-Katrina and post-recession, even his seafood riches now have a rotten aftertaste.”

But like folks who met Forrest in the movie, Amy underestimates the guy. Forrest might not have been fully aware of hurricanes or understood the Vietnam War, but he’s no stranger to tragedy. He understands pain maybe better than most of us. He loses his mother. He loses his best friend. He loses—repeatedly—the love of his life. And he’s never allowed to forget how slow he is. When Forrest learns he fathered a child, he’s amazed, then terrified that his son might be slow, too.

And yet, rather than grow angry or bitter or fatalistic, Forrest grieved and moved on. His journey is one of deep, abiding faith.

Forrest Gump is a deeply spiritual movie, one of the most faith-driven stories I’ve ever seen. Echoes of scripture weave through each storyline. It’s most obvious, maybe, in his relationship with Lieutenant Dan (I talk about it a little in the spiritual content section of my Plugged In review), but nowhere is it more poignant and powerful than in his love for Jenny, his wayward “girl.”

Jenny is a troubled woman. Like the song says, she searches for love in all the wrong places—trying to find happiness in parked cars or drug-filled penthouses. She poses for Playboy. She sings folk songs naked in a strip club. She longs for love, but instead she finds a string of abusive boyfriends, made (it’s suggested) in the image of her father.

When she was a kid being chased by her dad, she asked Forrest to pray with her:--begging that God would turn her into a bird so that she could fly away from her horrid life. She never loses her desire for wings, it seems: She climbs bridges and balconies, longing to wing her way into oblivion.

And yet she does fly. Again and again, she flies from her past, remaking herself at every stoplight—as if she could somehow fly away from herself. And in so doing, she flies away from Forrest, too.

“Can I have a ride?” she asks a passing truck driver after Forrest “rescues” her from the strip club.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“I don’t care,” Jenny says.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better depiction of how our own sin and shame impact our relationship with God.

See, Forrest loves Jenny—loves her unconditionally, just as God loves us. He loves with a perfect, undying passion. And Jenny loves Forrest, too … sorta. But she seeks fulfillment elsewhere time after time. And when Forrest asks Jenny to marry him, she realizes that he’s too good for her.

“You don’t want to marry me,” she says, sadly.

 “Why don’t you love me, Jenny?” he asks. “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”

Jenny, after all this time, sees that it’s true. He knows what love is. It’s she that doesn’t.

Now, I’m not calling Forrest a Christ metaphor. Jesus and Forrest are pretty different … except in that image of love. A love that’s undimmed by what we say or do, a love unstained by our own sin and shame. A love that would die for us, and has.

That kind of love can seem a little stupid and simple-minded to our jaded eyes. Na├»ve. Oblivious. Like Forrest himself. Like, Amy Nicholson tells us, the movie is.  

And yet there’s unfathomable beauty there, too. A love we can’t understand, but part of us wants to.

“Stupid is as stupid does,” Forrest says. The Apostle Paul said something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

In Forrest Gump, we’re given a fool—one whose foolish ideas of love can put our own wisdom to shame.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: Bad Childhoods


Life isn’t always kind. It’s not always fair. From time to time, most of us probably feel like we’ve gotten a raw deal, though some of our deals are rawer than others. Some of my closest friends have struggled with all manner of challenges: Physical disability, rocky family life, just plain bad luck. And yet, they’ve overcome and succeeded in spite of them.

They’re a little like Guardians of the Galaxy in that way.

At Plugged In's blog, I talked a little bit about how our five Guardians in Marvel’s newest megahit kinda remind me of Paul’s famous body parts passage in 2 Corinthians 12, which goes in part like this:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

 And so it is with the Guardians. But there’s more to them than that. They don’t just overcome their own selfish natures to become stronger as a team. They overcome their own hard knocks to inch closer to what, I’d argue, God might’ve had in mind for them all along (if, y’know, they actually existed).

Think about these heroes for the moment. Peter Quill had his mother taken from him and was kidnapped by space pirates in the span of 12 hours. That’s not what I’d call a great familial foundation for a hero. Gamora had it worse: She was adopted by one of the worst people in the entire galaxy—the game guy who killed her original family—and trained to be a fearsome assassin. It’s like Hitler plucking a girl from  and turning her into a ninja. Drax watched his whole family die. Rocket the Raccoon is understandably bitter at being the product of a weird genetic experiment. And Groot—well, I don’t know about Groot. Perhaps he had a good home life. But that would explain why he’s so comparatively well-adjusted.

These Guardians didn’t have anything in their backgrounds that would scream “future hero” to you. And yet, they became heroes anyway. This isn’t a Lord of the Rings-like story, where a handful of ordinary hobbits saved the world. This is the story of a handful of extraordinarily scarred, damaged people (or trees or raccoons)  that saved a world. No excuses, no pity parties (well, not many). They just saw what needed to be done and did it.

I’ve talked before, and I’ll talk again, about how God can use our weaknesses for His own nifty purposes. But He can work through and past our pain, too, if we let him. If we look at the Bible, we see that theme at work pretty regularly.

Jacob was tricked out of the wife he wanted. Joseph’s own home life was pretty horrible—or at least it was when his brothers sold him into slavery. Moses, a bigwig in Egypt, had to say goodbye to his home and family and life of luxury when he accidentally killed somebody. David was forced to run away from the palace, too. They were all cast out—just as these Marvel vagabonds were. And yet, God had some pretty amazing plans in store for each of them.

There are some preachers who teach that, if we have faith in God, we’ll be safeguarded from sorrow. And there are lots of ordinary believers who seem to believe that God is like a magic shield. I’m guilty of that sometimes. I’ve been very blessed, and when I hit a season of life that seems … well, less-than-blessed … I find myself wondering if there’s been some sort of cosmic mistake. Did I forget to fill out some sort of good-person form or something? Did I land on the naughty list accidentally? What’s with this crud?

The Bible reminds us that God-as-good-luck-charm isn’t really good theology. Yes, the Bible talks about blessings and rewards, too, but we’re explicitly told we will have trouble. We’re shown that we have to persevere and work through difficulty. We can’t give up when life tosses us a couple of curveballs. God still has plans for us. Big plans.

Guardians of the Galaxy shows that concept at work. I see echoes of Jacob and Joseph and Moses in this quirky little adventure. And that even if we’ve been saddled with a whole bushel of lemons in our lives, we can take those lemons and turn them into really eco-friendly air fresheners. Or something.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Have a Little Faith In Our Kids

I’ve been reading a lot about how children raised in religious households have a harder time discerning fantasy from fiction. That’s the word, at least, from scientists involved in a study published by Cognitive Science magazine this month.

The 66 5- and 6-year-olds in the study were told a series of stories. Some were realistic, like this:

This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard. A nearby whale opened its mouth to bite him, but Jonah swam away just in time. Jonah then climbed back onto the boat with the help of his fellow sailors.

Some were religious:

This is Jonah. After disobeying God’s orders, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. Jonah prayed to God for three days, and was spit out by the whale safe and sound. As a result, Jonah promises to obey God’s orders in the future.

And some were fantastical:

This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. But Jonah had magical powers, and he was able to jump out of the whale’s mouth and swim all the way to the shore.

The children all thought that the realistic story was, well, real. But once it came to the other two, kids raised in homes without religion were quick to dismiss both the religious and the fantastical story as fiction. The religious children were far more apt to accept the religious story as fact, and some accepted the fantastical one, too.

According to said scientists, young religious kids have a “broader conception” of what reality can encompass, and also have a more difficult time separating fantasy from reality. Some religious critics have naturally used the study as proof that religion is ludicrous and that religious parents are perhaps stunting their children’s grasp of reality. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern writes, “When you’ve been told that a woman was created from a man’s rib, or that a man reawakened three days postmortem little worse for wear, your grasp on reality is bound to take a hit.”

But there’s a bit of an irony, here. Setting aside the Biblical story of Jonah for a moment, the “realistic” story is, technically, just as made up as the fantastical one. Researchers made it up. It feels more likely that it could happen, but that doesn’t mean it did happen. It’s just as much of a lie, and not nearly as good a story.

So technically, the study doesn’t suggest as much that non-religious kids have a better grasp of reality as much as it seems they’re being taught that reality is boring.

Whether you’re religious or not, reality is not boring. Inexplicable, even miraculous, things happen every day. Astronomers tell us that there’s a planet made entirely of diamond. Meteorologists pretty much admit that there’s a rare form of lightning that can go about as fast as a good-paced mosey. Sometimes fish fall from the sky. Sometimes rivers turn the color of blood. These things would be rejected out of hand by more serious-minded kids, I'm sure--and yet, there they are. This universe of ours is a fantastical place. The fact that we’re here at all is a breathtaking miracle.

I’m not arguing to scrap realism or science for the fantastic or religious. I have a deep appreciation for science, and it makes me sad when Christians reject it for religious or political reasons without any critical thought. I’m with Augustine when he said:

“If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

But Augustine, one of the deepest thinkers of his day, obviously still believed in miracles. I think one can embrace scientific reason and also believe in the possibility of a God who can do miracles. I think most of us can have a firm grasp on reason while still keeping the door slightly ajar for the completely unexpected. 

G.K. Chesterton, the great British author, journalist and lay theologian, had the truth of it in his book Orthodoxy, I think:

“Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him to extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion …. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

I loved it when my children asked some deep, even cynical questions about the world around them and the faith I was trying to pass on to them. It’s important to have an active, inquisitive mind. But I’d also like our 5- and 6-year-olds be poets. To be dreamers. To look around the world and feel its full of wonder. Of possibility. Of miraculous beauty.


Because it can be if we let it.