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.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Friendly Response to a Friendly Atheist

I read an interesting little essay from Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist,” on CNN this morning, outlining some reasons why Millennials are leaving the Christian Church. He suggests that Christianity’s “sloppy defense” (“they’re anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex-education and anti-doubt, to name a few of the most common criticisms,” he writes) is partly to blame. But he also points to the inroads that the atheist movement has made in the culture—the atheists’ large, vocal presence on the Internet perhaps being the most obvious. Of this “impressive offense,” he writes:

Christians can no longer hide in a bubble, sheltered from opposing perspectives, and church leaders can’t protect young people from finding information that contradicts traditional beliefs.

An Agape feast from an early Christian catacomb
I believe Mehta’s right on that score. There is no safe place to hide from ideas in the 21st century. The Internet has made even traditional notions of privacy feel rather quaint, and certainly we cannot expect our most cherished beliefs to be held without scrutiny.

That said, “hiding” has never been exactly high on a list of Christian virtues, anyway. While keeping a low profile has sometimes been necessary for Christians during the faith’s long and bumpy history, Christianity has always thrived best out in the open, facing the future—whatever it might hold—with a certain boldness.

And well we should be bold.

I’ve seen a great many stories over the last several days that track Christianity’s declining influence in the culture. According to the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, nearly 20 percent of all adults claim no religious affiliation, with nearly a third of people under 30 being unaffiliated. Author Nigel Barber claims in an e-book that atheism will replace religion by 2041.

Numbers like that can fuel a lot of angst among the faithful. We see church attendance dip year by year and congregations grow older. Folks who feel that the country should reflect traditional Christian values lament the tide of secularism. Mehta, with his “offense/defense” imagery, suggests we’re locked in a battle, and Christians can often feel that way, too—a battle in which the best, most persuasive ideology will eventually prevail. We feel like we have to fight.

But Christians must remember that this “battle” is, in the end, almost completely moot. We are not championing an ideal as much as we—both Christians and atheists—are searching for truth. And the truth is not dependent on how many people convert to one side or the other.

Man Reading by Candlelight by Matthias Stom
Religion and atheism aren’t warring over the merits of a political ideology or a plot of disputed land. We are simply asking the same question, but answering it in different ways: Is there a God? The answer, while unknowable, isn’t decided through debate. Either He’s out there or He isn’t. Whether religion or atheism wins this 21st century war of words is beside the point. It’s like fighting over a vacant lot—but ownership has already been decreed by deed, locked away in a mysterious safe somewhere.

Now, if you believe in a God like I do—one who’s in control—that should give some comfort in these uncertain times. That doesn’t mean we should be passive to challenges to our faith. But we shouldn’t get defensive, sloppy or no. This isn’t a war. We’re simply telling the world the truth as we see it—conveying that truth as best we can all its beauty and mystery and paradoxical rationality. Yes, we may be wrong. Then again, so may they.

If we focus in on those big questions instead of getting tangled up in smaller ones, I think we’ll be better positioned to show people God’s love and grace.

There’s no guarantee that the trends we see will reverse anytime soon, of course. I’d expect that the religious “nones” will continue to rise in influence in the United States. But we must not confuse trends with truth. Christianity has often been threatened. It’s often been beaten, quite frankly. And yet, the faith never seems to lose. It’s remarkable. It’s outlandish historical resilience would be enough to give, you would think, some atheists pause.

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave. But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top. The Faith is always converting the age, not as an old religion but as a new religion.

I think if Chesterton was alive today, he’d be pretty amused by the Christian hand-wringing over the rise of the “nones.” Yes, Europe is growing more secular—and yet there are more Christians on the planet than ever before. Even as the numbers of the “nones” grow as a percentage of the population, another Pew study tells us that “the unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another.”    

Christianity is Cool Hand Luke. It is Rocky. It’s a stubborn cuss. For at least three centuries, atheists have claimed that the end of faith is just around the corner. But we faithful are still here, proclaiming our truth with cheerful boldness.