Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thor: We're All a Little Loki

Thor: The Dark World rolled into American theaters this Friday, and it’s pretty much exactly what we’ve come to expect from Marvel superhero movies: big, fun and a little silly. One does not expect a lot of complexity from a film whose main character wins arguments with, quite literally, a big hammer. Nor would one expect to find much Christian faith in a film whose heroes and villains were plucked straight from Norse pagan mythology.

And yet, when we look at the story of Marvel’s odd-couple brothers, Thor and Loki, I’m reminded of a couple of other brothers who had their own problems.

Thor, of course, is our hero: Played by Chris Hemsworth, he’s big and blond and ever-so-heroic. Loki (the scene-stealing Tom Hiddleston) is Thor’s opposite in almost every possible way. Thor’s strong and straightforward, Loki’s smart and sneaky. Thor looks like—well, a god; Loki looks more like an English teacher. Loki is oil to Thor’s water, moon to Thor’s sun, Nicki Minaj to Thor’s Mariah Carey.

It’s hard to imagine two brothers more different, really. But then again, they’re not really brothers.

We learn in the first Thor movie that Loki is actually a frost giant, rescued as a baby from certain death by Thor’s father, Odin, and raised as his own. And when Loki realizes that he’s been adopted, it changes everything for him: He feels like an outsider—separated from the family and Odin’s love (even though in truth he and mother Frigga love him a great deal). From that point on, Loki breaks bad and, for two movies, causes no end of mischief.

If you stripped away the armor and magic, this picture of familial strife would fit comfortably in the Bible, the pages of which are full of quarrelsome siblings: Jacob, who stole the birthright and blessing of his brother, Esau. Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers. And then, of course, you have the first brothers ever—Cain and Abel.

Cain and Abel, like Thor and Loki, both sought their Father’s love. They offered God gifts, hoping to win His favor. The Bible, we’re told, “looked with favor on Abel and his offering,” apparently because Abel gave God the best of what he had. That made Cain very angry, which triggered this response from God Himself.

“Why are you angry?” God said. “Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

Most of us know what happened, though. Sin did master Cain, and he killed his brother.

It seems to me that Loki and Cain have a lot in common. Both felt as though their respective fathers (both heavenly fathers, in a manner of speaking) didn’t love them. Not as much as their blessed brothers, anyway. Both grew jealous and bitter. And when Loki’s anger began to fester, God’s words could’ve been spoken to him, too.

Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.

Both were eventually cast out, as it were. And yet, they are still loved—and still family, in a way. Cain is punished, but God marks him, too, ensuring his survival. And while Loki falls out of Odin’s good graces, he’s offered many opportunities to return to the Asgardian fold.

Loki is both villain and tragic character in the Thor movies. In both films, we see his anger and pain, and we, like Thor, sense the goodness still hiding inside him. Sometimes it comes out: In Thor: The Dark World, Thor and Loki join forces for a time, and Loki earns a measure of redemption. And yet he can’t fully accept the grace held out to him. In movie after movie, Thor has asked Loki to reject his evil ways—to return to the loving arms of his family. But Loki can’t and won’t. His seat at the table is still there, but he refuses to take it.

Perhaps he’s so convinced that he is the frost troll of his birth—that he is, at his core, bad—he can no longer believe that he can be good. He sees what he is, not what he could be.

For all of Thor’s heroic traits, Loki is a far more compelling character for most of us. And I think that might be because we understand his struggle. Like Loki, we’re all fallen creatures—broken and misshapen and not at all what God would like us to be. It’s not all our fault, of course: Sin and brokenness are inescapable in this fallen world. God understands that, and He holds His hand out to us, anyway. All we need do is call Him father, and we become his sons and daughters. He offers us grace and forgiveness for whatever we might’ve done.

And yet, it still can be hard to accept that hand. Often we reject it for all the same reasons that Loki does: Our pride gets in our way. Our anger makes it impossible to reach out to Him. And sometimes, we can convince ourselves that we are unforgiveable—too horrible to ever really be a part of God’s family.

Some theologians might say that we’re all descended from Cain: We have Abel’s blood on our hands. When I realize how stubborn I can be—how petty and bitter and how resistant I am to anyone who might try to help me—the analogy feels frighteningly right.

I see a lot of Loki in me—more Loki than Thor, that’s for sure. I’m a disappointment in so many ways. And I pray that I always have the sense to hold onto God’s hand in spite of it.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Exorcist and Frightening Faith

In honor of its 40th anniversary, The Exorcist was recently re-released on Blu-ray, complete with a director's cut and a special little book that has who-knows-what sorts of horrors in it. Grace Hill Media—an organization that helps market largely secular movies to Christian audiences—sent me a copy. It's sitting at home now, and I honestly don't know when—or if—I'll be able to watch it.

See, The Exorcist is the scariest movie I've ever/never seen.

When I was about 16 or 17, I "watched" the film with my best friend. He and I would often watch horror flicks together, and the moment felt right (to my friend, at least) for us to watch of the most horrific, notorious flicks of all time. We popped in the tape at about 2 a.m. and, about 20 minutes into it, I decided the story of Regan's diabolical bodymate was going to be waaay too intense for me. I feigned sleep for the rest of the flick.

But it proved to be impossible to sleep—what with the sounds of retching and cursing and my friend saying, "Dude! Did you see that?!"

"I'm asleep!" I kept saying. But I kept peeking, too. And while I didn't see all of The Exorcist, I saw enough to know that the other horror flicks I'd seen before were mere child's play. And I've never quite had the courage (even though I review horror flicks all the time) to re-screen it.

Some may wonder why Grace Hill was involved in marketing The Exorcist—an R-rated movie about a possessed, profane, upchucking pre-adolescent—in the first place. It's not the sort of film that most Christian audiences gravitate toward.

And yet, the film—as scary and as profane and as disturbing as it is—has some deeply faithful elements.

The Exorcist book, published in 1971, was based on the real-life exorcism of Roland Doe in 1949, and the book's author William Peter Blatty is a committed Catholic. In 2011, he wrote (for Fox News) that the book wasn't even supposed to be all that scary. He writes:

That I am regularly hauled out of my burrow every Halloween like some furless and demonic “Punxsatawney Phil” always brings a rueful smile of bemusement to my lips as I lower my gaze and shake my head, for the humiliating God’s-honest truth of the matter is that while I was working on "The Exorcist," what I thought I was writing was a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story – in other words, a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through -- and to this day I haven’t the faintest recollection of any intention to frighten the reader, which many will take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying, scale.

The Exorcist (like this year's The Conjuring) isn't just a goosebump generator: It's a film that insists to its skeptical audience that good and evil are real and tangible. That there is both a God and a devil. That there are powers beyond our comprehension, just as the Apostle Paul told us. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood," he writes to the Ephesians, "but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

These things are not often dealt with in your average romcom or Oscar-bait dramedy. Of the typical movie genre, only horror allows such an in-your-face examination of these sorts of themes and almost begs for spiritual soul-searching.

In a 2005 interview with Christianity Today, Scott Derrickson (director for the well-regarded The Exorcism of Emily Rose) said this:

To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It's about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we're not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I'm talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don't do these things. It is a genre that's full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.

But many Christians, particularly in Evangelical circles, don't see horror as redemptive at all. In fact, many believe it's a bit of a black hole—leading viewers toward dark and demonic themes. And while Derrickson admits that a little bit of balance is in order, he's a little bit surprised that Christians don't cotton to horror more.

"To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it's unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that's something that a lot of Christians don't want to do."

Let me be honest: I agree more with Derrickson than some. And honestly, I like a good scare now and then. I'm not nearly as apt to watch horror as I was in my younger days, but I still appreciate a well-crafted, creepy movie. I might even watch one tonight while handing out candy.

But The Exorcist? Sorry. Not tonight. There are some fears I'm not quite ready to face.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Gravity, Grace Unplugged and God

I got a call from a reporter from a Christian media outlet yesterday who wanted to talk a little about the movie Gravity and some of the spiritual themes I found there (which I wrote about for The Washington Post). Toward the end of the interview, he asked me a simple but very ticklish question: Is Gravity more effective in drawing people to Christianity than Grace Unplugged?

Gravity, released last weekend, is the best movie I've seen so far this year—a technical and artistic achievement that'll probably be in contention for an Oscar or two or 10. Grace Unplugged, also released last weekend on about 500 screens, is an explicitly Christian movie whose makers will likely watch the Academy Awards on TV, just like the rest of us.

But the question wasn't which movie is better. It was which movie was more effective as an evangelical tool. It's a variation of a question that Christians—at least Christians who think about movies a lot—have been asking for a long time. Should movie-making or, more importantly, movie-watching, Christians be more concerned with art or message? Is it better to tell a great story, like Gravity? Or a GREAT story, like Grace Unplugged?

My answer, in essence, was this: Do we have to make a choice?

Now, let's rewind a bit and scrub clear a potential misunderstanding—that Gravity is a good movie and Grace Unplugged isn't. Grace is quite good by Christian movie standards. The filmmakers should be proud of their product.

But it ain't Gravity. It doesn't pretend to be. And I think that's just fine.

Christians tend to split off into two camps when it comes to movies.

On one side, you have the movie idealists: They're the ones who believe that Christians should support clean, often explicitly Christian movies to send Hollywood a message. This is not to say that artistry is not important: Every Christian moviemaker wants to make a good one, and every Christian movie-goer wants to see a good one. But they're not going to compromise the message for the sake of the art. And for many, a great message is indistinguishable from great art. I've heard from many folks who believe Fireproof was robbed of a Best Picture Oscar.

On the other side, you have the more artsy Christian moviegoers. This is not to say they paint all the time. Rather, they'd argue that the greatest story ever—the story of our faith—should be told with the very best craft, and anything less is selling our faith short. Top-notch talent and artistry are essential, not optional. They tend to be more comfortable with what we'd call at Plugged In "questionable content"—sex and violence and cursing and whatnot—if it effectively furthers the story. A story worth telling is a story worth telling well, they'd say. And if you tell it badly, it may do more harm than good.

Personally, I lean a little toward the latter philosophy, even though the organization I work for tips toward the former. But in my six years working for Plugged In, I think I can see the value in both.

We all mean well. But we sometimes, I think, run the danger of forcing God into a box. We can think that there's a "right" way to spread our story and that, in itself, assumes that God prefers to show himself only under certain conditions. But to me, saying there's only one right way of telling God's story is like believing that there's just one right tree, or one right season. If God made them all, doesn't that imply that all are equally valued and, in their own ways, beautiful?

In the same manner, God made us all different, too. We love different foods. We like to play different games. We're moved by different things. It's in our God-given design. And I think that God shows Himself to us in ways that we can best see Him—even if the view looks a little differently for each of us.

That's not to say that I believe God is OK with cinematic beheadings. Or that he doesn't want His love conveyed in the most persuasive, most beautiful way possible. I'm just saying that He's remarkably adept at showing Himself to us in unexpected ways. God, I believe, can work His way into almost every story—even when the storytellers are as imperfect as we.

What is more effective—Gravity or Grace Unplugged?

The answer, I think, is yes.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Butler: Fathers and Sons

Lee Daniels’ The Butler was the No. 1 movie this past weekend, and it was nice to see. The film is a nicely crafted, uplifting tale with some pretty great performances. I thought John Cusack made a surprisingly effective Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda were a surprisingly effective Mr. and Mrs. Reagan. Oh, and Oprah Winfrey hasn’t lost her acting chops since The Color Purple, either.

It also had a strong spiritual undercurrent about it—not overt or preachy at all, but meaty enough for the Weinstein Company to apparently commission a “faith companion,” outlining some of the themes in play (under such broad headings of “Prudence” and “Justice” and “Temperance.”

The guide is pretty good, and for those interested, they can read it here

But not wanting to duplicate their efforts, I wanted to concentrate a bit more on one of the main themes of the movie: The relationship between the butler, Cecil Gaines, and his son, Louis.

Cecil, who grew up in a time and place where African Americans were killed for little more reason than the color of their skin, was forced to be subservient. For him, progress is slow, steady and personal: He believed that hard work would help him rise above—and it did. He served seven Presidential administrations well and, in so doing, gave his wife and kids a life he’d never have dreamed.

Louis was raised in an environment much different than the one in which Cecil grew up, and he went to college just as the civil rights movement was beginning. Louis became a Freedom Rider and was regularly beaten, abused and thrown in jail.

For years, the two clash: Cecil thinks that Louis is a troublemaker. “Every gray hair I have is because of that boy,” he says. Louis is ashamed of his father’s servitude, believing him to be an Uncle Tom.

But both, in their own ways, were heroes—and after decades of friction, the two come to realize it. Their reunion is perhaps the most touching part of the movie.

“I lost you,” Cecil tells his boy. “I’m sorry.”

These same sorts of divisions, I think, litter our world—misunderstandings and superficial differences that tear us apart when we could and should be binding ourselves ever closer with one another. The Christian subset is no better and may be worse: Jesus wasn’t gone very long before Christians started squabbling with each other, even though they likely numbered in the hundreds. There’s 2 billion of us now, and it seems sometimes there are just as many things dividing us: denominational differences, style differences, differences in tone and tenor.

I know that many of those differences matter, but still. It’s a shame that we can’t all get along a little better, given that we worship the same God and pay homage to the same Savior. We could do so much more good in the world, I think, if we could unite our resources occasionally and focus on a cause we can all agree on. Maybe we should all be a little sorry about that.  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Elysium: Heaven on Earth

Much has been made about the politics in Neill Blomkamp’s bloody sci-fi romp Elysium. “Matt Damon plays an angry and well-armed member of the 99 percent in ‘Elysium,’ the most blatantly political sci-fi movie of the summer, if not of all time,” Newsday says. “The film's premise feels engineered to get Maureen Dowd to write an op-ed about it,” according to Deadspin.

And Elysium does feel pretty political, no question.

But the thing I was struck by the most was how strangely, quirkily spiritual it was.

It’s not overtly spiritual, mind you. Probably not even intentionally so—though the fact the elitist space station hovering above a grim and polluted earth is named Elysium in the first place is, perhaps, vaguely suggestive. And yet, the story’s central premise does feel quite Christian.

Warning: We’re going to get into some spoilers, here, so if you haven’t seen Elysium and would like to, you might want to check in here a bit later.

Elysium’s plot centers around Max (Damon), a one-time criminal who’s trying to live on the straight-and-narrow these days, working at a grimy and dangerous factory. But when he gets thumped by a dose of lethal radiation, Max realizes he only has one chance to survive: Get to Elysium and use one of their nifty healing cots—devices that heal anyone who still has a pulse instantly and are so pervasive that pretty much every Elysium manse has one.

But as he does what he has to in order to earn a ticket up to Elysium, he runs across an old friend of his, Frey, and her cut-but-very-sick daughter, Matilda (Emma Tremblay).

The meeting is a critical moment for Max, who eventually begins to think not just of saving herself, but Matilda, too. And in the end, he does save her. With a battery of important information stored unnaturally in his noggin, Max decides to download some critical codes that make everyone in the world—not just the rich—citizens of the space station, and thus give everyone access to Elysium’s nifty healing machines. But the downloading process, apparently, means certain death for Max. Max knows it. But he still does it—giving up his own life for Matilda’s future. 

It’s pretty obvious why so many observers have called Elysium blatantly political. But for me, there was more at work here.

It’s apparent that Max, for all his failings, is meant to be seen as a sort of sacrificial Messiah. One of the nuns who raises Max believes he might even be an answer to a long-whispered prayer. “You will do something very special one day,” she tells him. “Something you were born for.” Max’s sacrifice plays on a deep, time-honored theme that’s been in play for thousands of years. Perhaps Blomkamp would call Max a dystopian Prometheus, giving earth a life-changing tool.

But for me, the allusion takes on a distinctly Christian tint when we consider the paradox of Max’s sacrifice.

He sacrificed himself for one little girl. And yet in saving Matilda, he literally saved the entire world. We Christians are told very much the same thing about Jesus’ death on the cross: He came to save you and me, individually. He knows you. He loves you. He sacrificed Himself for you. It was a very personal thing, just as it was for Max. And yet in saving us, He also saved the whole world. It’s interesting that the exoskeleton Max has fused to his body seems to echo, in a way, a metallic, moving cross: an instrument of both torture and liberation.

And so, when you look at Elysium as not an economic symbol dividing the haves and have-nots but as a metaphor for heaven (where people never get sick and may, in fact, live forever—or at least for a very long time), this imperfect analogy becomes ever more resonant.

You see, before Max came around, people really had to earn their way into Elysium: They had to be, frankly, stinking rich. But Max opened the gates of Elysium to everyone—through an act of grace and of sacrifice. It didn’t matter how much money you had or what terrible secrets were in your past. Heaven was open to you in a way that it had never been before. 

Elysium, I don’t think, is a great movie. The story’s not as emotionally resonant as Blomkamp’s previous work in District 9, and it does come off as a little preachy at times. But still, it has something interesting to say.