Sunday, February 15, 2015

All the Best Picture Nominees Have Something in Common

Late last year, Ridley Scott unveiled his ambitious, controversial epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, with Christian Bale as Moses. It was the story of a man who had it all, lost it all, found something better and dragged a whole nation to a strange land promised to them by God.
It was not nominated for an Academy Award. Not even for Best Performance by Locusts.
But Exodus: Gods and Kings actually shares a bit in common with most of the year’s Best Picture nominees: The idea of a spiritual journey.

Sure, only one of the year’s nominees includes a literal trip to the Middle East, and what Chris Kyle found in American Sniper was far from a land of milk and honey. Some of our Best Picture protagonists don’t travel much at all, and one—Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything—ends the movie barely able to move. None of our protagonists are explicitly searching for the Promised Land, and few seek God’s guidance.
But in each movie, people leave the comfort of home (or a manifestation thereof) for the promise of something greater. They’re looking for many of the same things that Moses and his people were: Freedom. Truth. Happiness. Redemption. Each feels the tug of something bigger than themselves, pulling them in new, unexpected and sometimes frightening directions.

Each of our Oscar protagonists is on a pilgrimage—a spiritual journey of discovery and meaning. Let me show you what I mean.
selmaThe walk taken by Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers in Selma is not a long one compared to that of the Exodus—just 54 miles to Montgomery. But these Civil Rights protesters, like the Hebrews, believed it was a walk toward freedom—specifically the freedom to vote. King, like Scott’s Moses, left the comfort of home and risked everything because he felt that’s what God wanted him to do. The journey is not without risk: The established powers in Selma don’t want to let their people go, and they’ll beat them to keep them exactly where they are. But those forces are eventually swept away, not by the Red Sea, but by waves of racial progress.

M. Gustave, legendary concierge for The Grand Budapest Hotel, is also on a quest for freedom, and quite literally. Thrown in the clink for a murder he didn’t commit, Gustave busts out and, with the help of his loyal bellboy, Zero, goes on a zany but ultimately successful journey to clear his name and redeem his reputation. You could say he even finds the Promised Land—ownership of a priceless painting and the deed to the hotel itself. But He and Zero find an even greater treasure: A loyal, enduring friendship. Their adventure turned out to be a spiritual journey of discovery as much as a physical one. But as it was for the Hebrews, Gustave’s own postscript fell short of happily ever after.

Mason makes quite the journey in Boyhood, too, but his pilgrimage is not as much through space as time. He, too, seeks freedom—the sort of freedom that all children seek and most eventually claim: The freedom to make his own decisions and to live his own life. Growing up isn’t just a physical and mental trek to maturity. It’s a inherently spiritual one, too—a journey of self-discovery. We, like Mason, begin to wonder who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be. Like Scott’s Moses, none of us really have a choice about leaving the relatively comfortable confines of our immature “home.” We’re kicked out of Egypt. We know the walk toward adulthood will be difficult and sometimes dangerous. No getting around that. But we also have a choice on which directions will go. And while Mason, like Moses, takes some bad turns here and there, there’s still hope that he’ll find a new and hopeful future.

2014, THE IMITATION GAMESometimes, a spiritual trek isn’t a journey through space or time, but through our own brains and souls. In two movies, the Promised Land isn’t a place as much as a goal—a tireless quest for excellence and understanding. In The Imitation Game, Alan Turing isn’t just out to understand Nazi codes, but explore the boundaries of synthetic intelligence—a journey that eventually leads him to create the world’s first computers. The Theory of Everything shows how Stephen Hawking, even has his physical body was slowly imploding, sent his mind on the deepest, most exciting of journeys—through black holes and across the universe and brushing against the boundaries of space and time. These brilliant men are a little like Moses: They have access to insights that the rest of us simply can’t understand—revelations that can feel even preposterous to doubters. And to follow such men (particularly in The Imitation Game) becomes a matter of faith. Turing’s team follows him because they believe in his insights and ideals, even when proof is frustratingly elusive. And eventually that faith pays off.

But sometimes, faith—blind faith—can lead us astray.

Whiplash gives us Andrew, another protagonist diving deep inside himself to find truth and understanding—in his case, to grasp the ethereal, near spiritual elements of music and become a truly great jazz drummer. It gives us another enigmatic leader in Fletcher, who drives his followers with sadistic verve. But even though Andrew definitely meets the criteria of going on a spiritual quest, Whiplash is a tricky film to view through this particular lens we’re using. Just who is Fletcher? Is he a Moses, who drags his people through pain and misery because he knows it’s the only way to reach the promised land? Or is he more like a false prophet or Pharaoh, more liable to lead his followers to destruction? Or is he a bit of both?
birdmanIn Birdman, Riggan makes both a physical journey—from the West to the East Coast—and a deeply spiritual one when he tries to find success and redemption on Broadway. Riggan’s a lot like Moses. He found a home and comfort in Hollywood. And yet something led him to return to the Great White Way—to dive into the spiritual essence of acting and, somehow, find the key to his own professional and personal salvation. He, like Moses, risked everything on this journey. (And he, like at least Scott’s Moses, had a strange spirit visible to only him, giving him whispered advice.) It’s hard to know whether Riggan’s pilgrimage was successful, but I’d like to think so: He realized that salvation doesn’t lie in on-stage success, but through love and relationship.

The same could be said of Chris Kyle in American Sniper.  His physical journey led him into the sand of Iraq, but his spiritual journey pointed the opposite way—and it, if anything, was a harder one to take. He, like Moses, wandered in the wilderness for years. Even as the SEAL did his military duty, he knew that eventually he had to find his way home. But as time went on, it became more and more difficult to stop his wanderings. It’s telling, I think, that right before he decides to return, Kyle’s caught in a wicked sandstorm—where it’s almost impossible to see or hear or have any sense of direction. In that moment, Kyle’s lost—physically and spiritually. And while it doesn’t take him 40 years to find his way back to his wife and family, it’s a frustratingly long journey. But eventually he finds his promised land—a place that he knew once before but had lost along the way. He found his way not just to a land of milk and honey, but home.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kids

I haven’t seen Exodus: Gods and Kings yet. I’m going to see it tonight, actually, and you can see my full review at Plugged In the day the film officially releases (Dec. 12). I still hope that I’ll have some good things to say about it.

But I have to admit, I’m a little worried. Much of the early buzz doesn’t center on Christian Bale’s turn as Moses or the plague of locusts, but director Ridley Scott’s decision to cast God as an 11-year-old boy.

IMDB lists Isaac Andrews (pictured) as playing “Malak,” a Semitic word for “angel.” According to The New York Times, the boy plays the Guy Upstairs Himself. Writes the Times’ Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, Andrews is “stern-eyed, impatient, at times vaguely angelic and at times ‘Children of the Corn’ terrifying.”

The child-God may be particularly terrifying for believers who don’t picture their Divine Creator as an enfant terrible.

“The portrayal of God as a willful, angry and petulant child in Exodus will be a deal breaker for most people of faith around the world,” says Chris Stone, founder of the activist group Faith Driven Consumer. “Christians, Jews and Muslims alike see this story as foundational and will find this false portrayal and image of God to be deeply incompatible both with scripture and their deeply-held beliefs.”

Scott offers a different spin on the casting. “Sacred texts give no specific depiction of God, so for centuries artists and filmmakers have had to choose their own visual depiction,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “Malak exudes innocence and purity, and those two qualities are extremely powerful.”

Now, I don’t have an inherent revulsion to casting an 11-year-old boy as God. After all, God made a pretty significant impact as an infant, and whether he shows up as a burning bush or a still small voice, He does seem to like to surprise us. I’m not inclined to judge Scott’s God solely by how He looks.

But I am concerned with what He says and does. And frankly, when I hear God described by some as “willful, angry and petulant,” it worries me. And a small part of me wonders whether the film may be giving a nod to the Gnostic concept of the demiurge.

Now, I’m no expert in Gnosticism, of course. But from what I understand, this heretical offshoot (or rather, a whole bunch of offshoots) of Christianity holds that the Bible is really the story of two gods—one the essentially unknowable and most-high God of the New Testament, and the other a lesser, more vindictive god of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament god, who became known as the demiurge, was the offspring of Sophia (an aspect of the true God whose name means “wisdom”), who birthed the babe in secret and wrapped him in a cloud. Because the child was hidden inside this cloud, he couldn’t see anyone or anything else, and thus assumed that he was the only being in the universe. But, being the only being, he got lonely. And so, according to many Gnostics, he made the world and everything in it, including us. While some Gnostic branches portrayed this demiurge as a lion-headed god, he acted more like a child—treating the whole of creation like it was his own toy, to make or break or horde or mistreat as he wished … as an 11-year-old boy might.

Gnosticism has seen an uptick of interest in recent years, what with secular society’s growing discomfort of a God who sometimes gets angry and even jealous. The idea of a God who truly cares about what we do isn’t much in vogue these days. The philosophy might appeal to Scott, who in an interview with Esquire called religion “the biggest source of evil.”

All this is pure “what if” speculation at this point, of course—kinda fun to discuss, but perhaps not relevant to how the movie actually plays out. Whether Scott is familiar or interested in Gnosticism at all, I’m not sure. His 11-year-old God might come across as (in spite of Scott’s own leaning) as surprisingly pious and faithful. It might doom the story, but for reasons that have nothing to do with Gnosticism. Whatever the case might be, I’m anxious to tell you all about it … after I see the flick.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Little Mermaid: Like the Garden of Eden, Only Wetter

The Little Mermaid opened in theaters 25 years ago Monday (Nov. 17). It proved to be a pretty significant day in the annals of animated filmdom, marking not just the beginning of Disney’s fabled renaissance (Beauty and the BestAladdin and The Lion King followed hot on the Mermaid’s scaly heels) but also an unrivaled run of animated excellence across the industry. Mermaid’s artistic and commercial success helped lead to Toy Story and How to Train Your DragonDespicable Me and Frozen. Before The Little Mermaid, animated films were, really, cartoons—meant for kids and tolerated by adults. Mermaid reminded us that these things could be art, and contain a pretty powerful story, too.
Some don’t see it that way. Willa Paskin, writing for Vulture in 2011, said, “What’s most striking about The Little Mermaid now is that it’s a kids’ movie, but from a time before studios were even aware that parents would have to watch these things too.”
But truth is, The Little Mermaid was, and is, a story with crossover appeal: I was in college when it was released, and the thing was huge—so much so that many of my friends went en masse to see the thing. It’s a love story, a musical, and sometimes a campy delight. And it’s got some spiritual heft to it, too; perhaps unintentional, but still there.
Think of Ariel’s underwater world as a soggy sort of Garden of Eden.
It’s portrayed as a paradise—so much so that Triton’s head crab, Sebastian, can’t quite figure out why Ariel’s not completely satisfied with the place. In the deep theological treatise known as “Under the Sea,” he stresses that this underwater realm is completely free of worry and anxiety, pointing out that outside these watery walls things are much different: “Up on the shore they work all day/Out in the sun they slave away/While we devotin’/Full time to floatin’/Under the sea.”
He makes the whole of dry land sound a little cursed—almost like the curse that God laid on Adam back in Genesis 3:17-20: (“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground,” it reads in part.)
tritonBut Ariel is driven with a craving for forbidden knowledge—the knowledge of what’s outside this watery Eden. She collects terrestrial artifacts and eventually falls in love with someone who’s more comfortable topside, the handsome Prince Eric. Ariel’s father, King Triton (looking remarkably like Michelangelo’s version of God, if Michelangelo stuck a tail on Him) is, naturally, furious: The outside world is not for her, Triton insists. In fact, he forbids her from having anything to do with Eric or the drier world above.
So who comes along? Two very snake-like eels named Flotsam and Jetsam. They tell her that their boss, the Sea Witch Ursula can give Ariel what she wants: Access to the land above and, of course, Eric. Ariel can have that forbidden fruit she so desperately wants … if she only takes the bait—I mean, bite.
(Now, this takes on an deeper resonance when you consider Ursula’s origins. We don’t know much about her backstory, but she does mention that she used to “live at the palace” but has since been banished—”practically starving,” she complains. Her admission suggests a backstory that mirrors Lucifer’s own banishment from heaven. And let us not lose sight of the fact that Ursula, like Lucifer, collects poor, unfortunate souls.)
ursulaHere, the movie shifts slightly fromParadise Lost to Faust: Ursula promises to give Ariel everything she longs for in return for her voice. If Ariel can make Eric fall in love with her, then she gets to keep her legs. And if she can’t get that to happen in three days (another little biblical echo there), Ariel’s soul belongs to the sea witch.
Ariel gets her legs. Unable to stay underwater, she essentially casts herself out of the garden—and must go to a much drier, harsher world filled with (as Sebastian has warned us) pain, labor and fish-eaters.
Now, Disney doesn’t make this topside look all bad, of course. Eric’s palace isn’t exactly a sweat shop. But the fact remains that Ariel has been exiled from paradise to … somewhere else; another home that isn’t really her home. She’s a fallen mermaid, if you will. And when mermaids fall, they fall up—to an equally fallen world.
Ursula will make sure that Ariel will stay fallen. She plots and schemes and directly interferes with Ariel’s own designs until the third day’s up. There’s only one way, it seems, for Ariel to escape her fate as another soul in Ursula’s collection of them. Someone will have to take her place. And in a very New Testament twist, that someone is Ariel’s own godlike father, Triton. He gives his own life for that of his child … even though she got herself in trouble through her own disobedience.
Now, it’s here where this vaguely spiritual string of metaphors kinda breaks apart, what with Eric spearing Ursula’s midsection with a ship and all. But that doesn’t change the fact that The Little Mermaid is a story of redemption: Ariel doesn’t return to her watery paradise, but through grace and sacrifice, she’s no longer a completely fallen creature, either. She was saved, quite literally, and in the end finds happiness even in her fallen state, and as apart of a fallen world, because she knows her Daddy loves her—loves her enough to sacrifice everything for her.
I think it holds a little bit of water … don’t you?

Friday, November 7, 2014

It's Alive! It's Alive!

For those of you who've been dutifully checking in here for the last two months, wondering when the heck I was going to get off my duff and say something new, I've actually been prattling quite a bit ... in a different locale. I'm now doing most of my entertainment-related blogging over at for my new Watching God blog. It's a good forum and a fun blog to write. And if you visit there, I'm sure my Patheos editors would appreciate it and perhaps send healthy bonuses my way.

That said, this space will not die. No siree. While Cairns Along the Way has been, admittedly, in suspended animation for the last two months (much like a character from Interstellar), I hope to expand the use of this space a bit. I'll republish some of my Patheos work here. If I write something that I feel might interest you on one of the other blogs to which I contributesay, over at Plugged In or Dad MattersI'll let you know about that here. I'll keep you up to date on any new book projects, too. And, of course, if I have a yen to talk about something that's not so pegged to entertainment or pop culture, this'll be where I'll post it. Cairns Along the Way has always been, in my mind, about finding the fingerprints of God along our sometimes halting walks of faith. And, of course, you don't need to be in a movie theater to find them.

Thanks, as always, for checking in. Look forward to walking along with you for some time to come.

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.