Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Les Misérables: Justice and Grace

I wasn't quite prepared for Les Misérables.

I'd never read Victor Hugo's book, never saw a production of the play. Sure, I knew the story was set in France sometime after the revolution but sometime before Francois Mitterrand. I knew the 2012 film was directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech). I knew it had some singing.

I wasn't ready for the level of spirituality found here.

Keep in mind, spirituality's not hard for me to find (or, at least, for me to think I find). I'm a guy who tries to pull spiritual meaning out of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Expendables 2, the guy who wrote a whole book about Christian themes and metaphors in a comic-book hero. But here's the thing: I'm not used to watching films that just sorta drop the big "G" word right in your lap without even blinking

Les Mis does so—and so explicitly that it feels as much like a Christian fable as a Broadway musical. While Hooper's directing is great and the singing is nice and Anne Hathaway should win Best Supporting Actress for her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" alone, I was most struck by the core story—the story of two souls in the hands of God.

Those two souls reside in (respectively) Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a parole-jumping criminal, and Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who vows to capture Valjean and bring him to justice.

Javert thinks he's doing God's work. "He knows his way in the dark," Javert says of his nemesis. "Mine is the way of the Lord/And those who follow the path of the righteous/Shall have their reward." To find God, Javert believes, you must follow the rules. Stray, as Valjean did, and "you fall in flame."

And Valjean might've done just that, the movie tells us. Embittered from years of unjust imprisonment, he had (as he sings) "come to hate this world/This world which had always hated me." He's a bad man—so bad that, when a kindly bishop takes him in, Valjean absconds with the guy's silver. When Valjean is captured, silver still in hand, he lies and claims the priest gave it to him.

Yeah, right. Most Christians—me included—would've let the law drag Valjean off for his lack of courtesy. "That's how you repay my kindness?!" I might've called after him, shaking my fist.

But the bishop tells the constables that he did give Valjean the silver—handing him a pair of candlesticks to take with him as well. "You must use this precious silver/To become an honest man," the bishop tells him. "God has raised you out of darkness: I have bought your soul for God."

And so Valjean is given a second chance he truly did not earn and does not deserve, just as we all have been given.

I guess Les Mis could be characterized as a showdown between religious legalism and God’s grace, and we all know who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, here. Javert, in the end, can’t accept the true nature of God’s grace. Our God is a God of second chances, but the words “second chance” ain’t in Javert’s vocabulary.

But Valjean does some pretty incredible things with his second chance. The bishop exhorted Valjean to become an honest man, and so he does—saving the lives of a handful of people along the way.

It’s a beautiful story beautifully told (though it’s not exactly family friendly). And clearly we’re all supposed to root for and sympathize with the heroic Jean Valjean. But frankly, I don’t think I often measure up to the guy. Often, I make poor use of the second chances I’ve been given to make a difference in the world. And I’m sure that there are times when I’m far more like Javert than I’d care to admit. Get me talking about people cutting in line, and I’m liable to launch into a Les Mis-like soliloquy.

Faith, in one form or another, has been a big part of this year’s Oscar hopefuls—from politicians in Lincoln enlisting the Heavenly Father for their own cause to The Life of Pi’s strange, inspiring spiritual ruminations. But Les Mis may be the closest we’ll get to an overtly “Christian” movie at the Academy Awards this year.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The End of the World Should Involve Bacon

The end of the world, should it come Dec. 21 or a hundred million years from now, won't be pretty.

How do I know? I've seen it--or rather, various Hollywood incarnations of it. From 2012 to Knowing to The Cabin in the Woods, the end invariably involves lots of screaming and explosions and impressive CGI affects. Sure, Danny Glover or Nicholas Cage will put on a brave face and make a nice speech somewhere along the line, but we know they're probably pretty bummed.

And I can understand why. Regardless of where we think we'll wind up after everything's gone, most of us have gotten kind of attached to this place. Even if the streets weren't filled with molten lava or shambling zombies, it'd be hard to say goodbye to it all. I'd be particularly disappointed should the doomsday-ists be right and the earth does fold up shop tomorrow. I mean, the Denver Broncos have been having a great year. If the world has to end, couldn't it just wait until after the playoffs?

Still, I'd hope that I'd not waste those last few hours feeling sorry for myself. If I knew that Dec. 21--just a couple of hours from when I'm writing this--was the last good day we'd have with this ol' earth, here's what I'd do:

I'd wake up early and cook a pound of bacon. And then I'd eat it all myself. I know that sounds selfish, but listen, I really like bacon. And if my family wants some, they're more than welcome to cook their own pound.

I might pick up some chocolate donuts, too.

I'm scheduled to see and review a movie tomorrow, but I think I'd blow it off. I don't really want to spend a couple of my last precious hours watching Jack Reacher.

Instead, I think I'd take a nice walk around town with my wife. Maybe we'd take our dog. We don't walk him enough. He's pretty annoying to walk, to be honest: He's like that Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas--making a big show of how tough he is by barking at everything, from squirrels to mountain lions to passing SUVs. But, with it being the end of the world, I figure he might as well spend the day enjoying it, too. Plus, he just might frighten away an invading alien or two.

I'd try to call family and friends, of course. I'd visit with my parents, who live in town. I might touch base with my friend Clay Morgan, particularly if we see any zombies shambling around the neighborhood. Clay wrote an awesome, off-kilter Christian book about the undead (called, strangely enough, Undead), and he might be able to give me a tip or two on how to deal with the decaying army.

I might watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again, giving that gigantic floating fetus one more chance to make some sense. Or maybe my kids and I would just soak in a few episodes of The Tick (greatest cartoon ever), particularly the one with the Breadmaster.

If the roads aren't too overloaded with abandoned cars and such, I might try to talk the fam into heading up to the mountains to sled. I can't think of anything more fun than sledding, really, and even though my kids are grown and I'm--well, grown too, does anyone really ever outgrow sledding?

I might do some other things, too, if we have time. My daughter's always wanted to order a pie at Village Inn while all of us wear fake mustaches. I'd listen to some of that music my son's been bugging me to hear. Maybe I'll finish off the day by taking my wife dancing. We haven't been dancing in ages.

Funny. The last day on earth, and what would I spend it doing? Simple things. Things I could do any ol' time but often don't. It wouldn't be filled with maxed-out credit cards or drunken revelries: It'd be spent sledding. Dancing. Walking. Hopefully, laughing. It makes me wonder ... if those are the sorts of activities that I truly love--love enough to spend my last day on earth doing--why don't I do them more often? Why do I spend an inordinate amount of my time doing things that I don't necessarily enjoy and, in the grand scheme of things, don't necessarily matter?

Jesus wanted us to live in the moment. Matthew 6 practically exhorts us to wear fake mustaches to order pies whenever we want. "Do not worry about tomorrow," He says, "for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

Maybe on Saturday, Dec. 22, my daughter and I can order pies. My son and I can listen to some music. Who knows? Maybe my wife and I will even go dancing.

But not tomorrow. My editor would kill me if I didn't see Jack Reacher.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Is it the End? Or a New Beginning?

When I was a kid, I loved The Dark Crystal, a movie made by Jim Henson and filled with some pretty fabulous puppets. It’s a story about two elf-like creatures (called gelflings, if you must know) who must evade creepy buzzard-like creatures and battle gigantic beetles and, eventually, save their entire land. These gentle creatures turn out to be big players, cosmically speaking, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve made their presence known during something called the Great Conjunction.

“The Great Conjunction is the end of the world!” proclaims a weird womanish creature named Aughra. “Or the beginning.”

There are those who think we’re on the brink of the end of the world around here, and we we’re without a single gelfling. The long-count Mayan calendar is set to end Dec. 21, which has sent loads of New Age-y true believers running for the hills—in some cases literally. Some wanted to head to the French village of Bugarach, believing that the tiny town might be spared because of the cool mountain nearby. (The town said thanks, but commemorate the end of the world elsewhere.) Another mountain, Mt. Rtanj in Serbia, is also rumored to be a safe apocalyptic harbor. Living in Colorado Springs, I’m surprised we haven’t seen a surge of folks setting up shop on the slopes of Pikes Peak.

Experts say the only real “end” the Mayans were fortelling is the end of the calendar: Time to go to Hallmark and pick up another one.

But let me admit something to you. While I don’t believe the world will stop turning Dec. 21, there have been times when it’s felt like the end of the world.

The Newtown massacre hit lots of us pretty hard, and I think we might be excused for feeling, in the wake of the tragedy, that our culture was going a little wrong. There have been seven mass killings in 2012: Seven too many. It can feel as though we’re unsafe no matter where we go or what we do. A sick, unstable person has the power to take what’s most precious to us and tear our worlds apart.

We’re struggling with other issues, too. The Fiscal Cliff. Climate change. Uprisings in the Middle East. Economic strife in Europe. It’s hard to be a glass-half-full sort of person when the glass seems full of holes.

There’s a reason why the Mayans pegged Dec. 21 as the day their calendar ended. It’s the winter solstice—a natural completion of a year and the shortest, darkest day of the year. It was a time when the land was at its bleakest and gloomiest. Perhaps those not familiar with the cyclical nature of the seasons might wonder whether things would ever get better. The solstice was, in many cultures, a time of celebration—a seasonal understanding that, yeah, things may look pretty black now, but they’re bound to get brighter; bound to get better.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the Christian Church chose to celebrate Christ’s birth on Dec 25, so very close to the solstice (most scholars seem to think Jesus was probably born in the spring or fall), and why lights—from advent candles to LED displays—are such integral parts of celebrating Christmas.

Really, what better time is there to celebrate the arrival of the world’s only true light, only true hope, but in the darkest part of the year?

Things may look pretty bleak right now. The world feels dark and cold. I feel the chill everywhere. But as Christmas itself tells us, sometimes the darkest of times can bring life to the brightest of hopes. And though it may feel like the end of the world, it might be just a new beginning.  

Friday, December 14, 2012


No more.

This is my primal, belly-deep cry as we reel from the news of another mass killing—this one perpetrated against the youngest, the most innocent. My brain races with a thousand thoughts; my heart hurts for the parents and kids; my soul asks the same questions yours does.

But my gut, it hollers. It begs. No more. No more.

Another gunman, shrouded in a bulletproof vest and armed with multiple guns, made news this morning. He walked into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and opened fire. By the time he took his own life, at least 27 others were either dead or dying—20 of them children. A tragedy, we say.

But we’ve used that word so often in the last few years that it doesn’t seem to be enough. It can’t convey the anguish and desolation felt in Newtown tonight. Tragedy is too weak a word now. 

And I wonder … what were these children thinking about, talking about, five minutes before? Were they counting down the minutes ‘til Christmas vacation? Were they debating what to do at recess? Were they contemplating a mystery gift—a wrapped box underneath the tree—that they couldn’t wait to find out what it was?

Yesterday, I wrote of the infinite, that sense of promise and potential that youth feel so mightily at times. This evening, those words haunt me: For 20 children, that promise and potential was silenced. Twenty children found true infinite too soon.

We grieve now. As parents and children ourselves—no matter how distant we are from Connecticut, we grieve. We pray for the survivors, for the hurting parents, maybe the whole country. Perhaps, we try to console … if not those in Newtown, then at least ourselves. As Christians, perhaps, we try to offer what comfort we can. We remind (ourselves?) that God is with us in even these moments. That He feels our pain more sharply than we can imagine. That, even now, even in this, God is in control. That, perhaps even now, He embraces these little children and walks them into His eternal country.

I believe it. I believe it all. I believe that God can work through even the worst of moments. I’ve written so in the past—back when Aurora was the tragedy.

Less than five months ago.

It’s comforting to know, I suppose, that the Psalmists walked through moments and months like this, where the world seemed sick to the soul and the poets begged for relief.

My heart is in anguish within me
The terrors of death assail me.
Fear and trembling have beset me;
Horror has overwhelmed me.
I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest—I would flee far away and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
Far from the tempest and storm.
Psalm 55:4-6

And at the end of these anguished cries, the concluding lines are often the same. In Psalm 55, the last line is very simple: “But as for me, I trust in you.”

We hurt. We cry out. We long for the world to be made well—or, barring that, just better. Just saner. Just keep the killers from our children. Just keep the wolves from our door.

But God makes no promises. And so we walk on in the pit of tragedy, under the shadow of death. And in the end, all we can do is trust. That God will walk with us. That God, no matter what comes, is with us and cares for us and is, in his sometimes inexplicable way, leading us Home.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Perks of Being a Wallflower: Infinite

I belong to a local movie critic society and, with awards season already in full swing, I’m trying to catch up on some movies I haven’t reviewed for my day job. Tonight’s screening: The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age drama (he wrote the book, the screenplay and directed the movie for good measure) has started showing up on some critics’ “best of” lists. And, even though I would’ve scribbled about 80 pages worth of “problematic content” notes had reviewed this for Plugged In, it’s pretty deserving.

The story focuses on Charlie (Logan Lerman), a quietly troubled high school freshman longing for connection. No, scratch that: He’s longing for a savior—someone to rescue him from his past, his imagined friendless future and his own anxious mind. And he finds it, after a fashion, in an eclectic group of compatriots, particularly gay senior Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his beautiful step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson).

Perks is littered with talking points and, on a personal level, I was swept away by the story. The movie captured the feel of high school as well as any John Hughes movie ever did—the highs and lows, the sense of high tragedy and wacky farce sometimes lumped into the same passing period. Sure, I stayed a lot cleaner in high school than the main characters here (a wild night for us was a soda-filled murder party), but the sense of possibility—that heart-in-the-throat feeling that all the horrors and raptures of life might somehow be condensed into one weekend—felt true. (And it didn’t hurt that the characters were listening to the same music I did in high school and college, either.)

As Charlie says in the end, “You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you're listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.”

Infinite. For a pretty non-religious movie, its themes—and that word in particular—pack an almost spiritual punch.

In high school, I remember there were nights when I felt infinite, nights when I felt so in love—not with anything or anyone, but with life itself—that I’d almost want to cry. It was if the film on my eyes had thinned and I saw the world’s true possibility. Beauty coated every atom, every breath of breeze.

There are times when I still feel that way. But not like I did when I was younger.

I think that, in those moments—even if we’re not doing anything particularly holy—we see the world more as God intended us to see it, as God intended it to be. In the twinkling of the streetlights or the hum of the tires or the smile of the person sitting beside you, we see a glimpse of Eden. And it’s so beautiful that it hurts.

As time goes on, those moments of seeing Eden, fade. We grow up and get jobs and raise families and get older and creakier. And as we age, we learn we’re not infinite. Not in these bodies, anyway.

And as we do, we wistfully remember what we felt like when we were in high school or college or just starting out. We imagine we’re missing our youth (whatever that means to us), but in the end, I wonder if that’s really true. I wonder if what we really miss is that sense of the infinite.

I wonder, sometimes, whether that’s one of the reasons why people fall into temptations or addictions as they get older: They still long for that beauty, hunger for that infinite. They haven’t forgotten. They want it back. And so they turn to other things—alcohol or drugs or mistresses or money—to somehow reclaim that feeling.

But maybe that sense of infinite isn’t something we lose in our youth: Maybe we are infinite in Christ, which means we can’t lose it—not really. And those moments when we felt so wonderful and right with the world, those were just the before-movie trailers—teasers of what’s to come.

I’ve shared before that I have a hard time imagining heaven. The harps and eternal singing just doesn’t do it for me. But The Perks of Being a Wallflower reminded me that I have tasted the infinite; I have felt the glorious sense of the universe humming in me when the night is clear and my friends are laughing and everything is right. If that’s what heaven feels like, I can’t wait.