Sunday, February 23, 2014

Discussional: Dallas Buyers Club

What It's About: Electrician by day, rodeo cowboy by night and Texas-sized jerk most of the time, Ron Woodroof (Oscar-nominated Matthew McConaughey) discovers he's contracted AIDS—back in 1985, when the disease was a swift death sentence and to be thought of as gay was almost as bad. Ron's nearly as horrified to be stigmatized as queer as he is of the disease itself. He's ostracized by his drinking buddies and, at a time when he could most use some moral support, he's left almost alone. In his desperation to conquer AIDS and prolong his life, Ron goes outside the medical establishment to find drugs that actually work. He forms an unlikely business partnership with transgendered Rayon (Oscar-nominated Jared Leto) and begins selling his drugs and vitamins to Dallas' needy AIDS cases—most of whom are the gay men Ron would've shunned before.

Some Thoughts: In addition to AIDS, Dallas Buyers Club gives us two sweeping villains—the medical establishment and homophobia—and many Christians will be deeply discomforted by this film for obvious reasons. For those who believe that homosexuality is a sin, Dallas' activist stance will be deeply problematic. And that’s beside the film's profanity (which is pervasive) and sex (which can be graphic). Plugged In gave the film just one-half “plug,” which isn’t good.

But if we set aside the content and look at the movie's form—particularly the character arc of its prime protagonist—and we see a movie that looks, believe it or not, surprisingly evangelical, even though God’s not mentioned once.

For anyone who's been in the sometimes-strange evangelical subculture for any length of time, they'll recognize Ron's story for what it is: A testimony. We're familiar with the pattern: "I was lost," someone might say while standing on the church stage. "I gambled, drank, and cheated. I cavorted with women of ill-repute. I stole money from my own grandmother. I didn't care for anyone but me." The more horrific the sins, the better. (My own paltry "testimony" stories are so lame that I dread anyone asking me about them. When you get baptized at 7, unfortunately, you find your biggest sins lie ahead.)

Ron did most of that: The smoking, the cheating, the sneaking around—he was a textbook sinner. And while he might not have taken money from his grandmother, he was unquestionably lost.

But then, something happened that changed his life.

In the testimonies I've heard, they only change their ways when they've hit rock-bottom—often a brush with death. And it makes for a better story if that brush is directly connected, somehow, to their sinning. They're painfully confronted with their squandered lives and bankrupt worldview. "I knew right then," they'll say, "I needed to change. I needed to turn my life around. Give it to something better."

Ron's own crisis is contracted directly through his debauched, dead-end lifestyle. He gets AIDS through sex with (as might've been said in a 1920s Methodist pamphlet) "loose women" and, when doctors say he has just a month to live, he knows he has to do something drastic.

"Let me give y'all a little news flash," he says. "There ain't nothin' out there that can kill f---in' Ron Woodroof in 30 days."

That's bravado and he knows it. For a while, he takes stolen drugs without changing his lifestyle—chasing the meds with beer and liquor. When that supply is cut off, he's forced to drive to Mexico—ominously taking a gun for company. And he breaks down in the car, sobbing and screaming.

But shortly thereafter with a kindly doctor in Mexico, he finds new answers. He discovers new solace. He's given, in a way, new life. And he turns the car—and his ways—around and heads toward home.

Like a missionary or inner-city pastor, he begins his work, turning his attention to the shunned and sick—helping them find the life that he found. He cares for society's then-untouchables, giving hope to the hopeless and grace to those who need it most. He serves as an angry prophet, too—cursing (quite literally) the powers that be and imploring one and all that there's a better way.

It's here where the comparisons break down a bit. Woodroof's no saint, and he often charges heavily for his help, the sort of aid that Christian pastors and workers often give for free. This is not, we must re-emphasize, not a Christian mirror any more than it's a Christian movie. Indeed, religion, I don't think, is mentioned at all.

And that itself makes me wonder … where was the Church in those days, in the late 1980s when gays and lesbians had little clout and when a mysterious disease was killing so many? How many people of faith were helping those in such great need? How many stood on the sidelines, afraid? How many called AIDS a moral judgment? It's a serious question, because I simply don't know. I'm sure there were some Christians who helped. I know there are some who didn't. But maybe we didn't do all that we should've.

And I wonder … if more Christians had shown more of God's grace and love in that time to people sorely in need of both, would today's conversations over gay rights sound different today? Even in the midst of the strong and real disagreements between these two communities, could we have found a little more space to discuss these disagreements more rationally, more gently? As friends? As God's holy creations?

What the Bible Says:

"‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’"
Matthew 25:35-40

"For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’"
Deuteronomy 15:11

"Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you."
Luke 6:38

Monday, February 10, 2014

Discussional: Captain Phillips

What It's About: Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) takes command of a massive shipping vessel and tries to get his crew to take his pirate-prevention drills seriously. His pleas are heeded more when actual Somali pirates show up, but Capt. Phillips has no time to gloat: The pirates take control of the vessel and, when that plan falls through, kidnap the captain as a sort of consolation prize. "Just business," pirate captain Muse (Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi) tells Phillips. But with the American navy bearing down on Muse's tiny lifeboat and frazzled crew, business could prove to be very, very bad.

Some Thoughts: Captain Phillips, based on a true story, is a taut thriller that doesn't have much (any?) spiritual subtext. And yet there's still something to talk about here—lessons on how we Christians, on the sloshy boat of life, can deal with metaphorical pirates when they come aboard. But be warned: Dangerous and slightly controversial waters ahead. Beware the screaming eels.

I know of Christians who get really angry with those "Jesus is my co-pilot" bumper stickers. Jesus, they say, should be the pilot—taking you wherever His flight plan says. (And if you're a strict Calvinist, of course, the whole craft is on autopilot besides.) There's a lot of theological truth in that: We should, I think, be conscious of serving God and sublimating our own selfishness to His greater purposes. Right?

But that doesn't mean that you should just sit in coach and wait for the beverage tray to come by. Even when God plans your path, you gotta sometimes work to follow it.

Take Captain Phillips. His own largish craft, the Maersk Alabama, has its course already set, its destination determined by (as it were) a higher power. But plenty can go wrong on the voyage to the promised land (in this case, Mombasa, Kenya) in these unpredictable seas. And while Phillips' crew seems willing to trust providence that the ship won't encounter anything unexpectedly nasty, the captain wants to take every precaution and prepare for the worst.

It's good advice, I think. While Scripture sometimes encourages us to not fret about the future—"It will have its own worries" (Matthew 6:34)—I think it's probably wise and prudent to plan ahead a little. There's a difference between worrying about the future and preparing for it.

'Course, sometimes trouble comes to visit no matter how well you prepare. So it is with the Maersk Alabama, when four pirates clamor over the side and take over the ship. By then, it's too late to conduct anti-pirate drills or order a set of much-needed laser cannons. You have to deal with the mess you've been handed.  And while the situation was certainly serious, Captain Phillips didn't panic. Instead, he stayed calm, gave secret orders to his terrified crew while the pirates were right there and eventually convinced the Somalis to split. (The fact that the crew captured Muse didn't hurt, either.)

Other guys might've given up and let the events run their course. But Phillips knew he and his crew still had a job to do. They had to still get to their Kenyan promised land, and the captain and crew used their smarts, guts and guile—all abilities and traits given by God—to help that happen.

But all of Phillips' preparation and resourcefulness couldn't prevent him from being captured by the pirates himself. He sacrificed his own well-being for the sake of his ship and its crew, and as such spent a great deal of time at the mercy of his captors. He was stripped of power and surrounded by danger. And all he could really do was listen for guidance and wait for help.

The help he sought, of course, was the American Navy in all its awesome splendor. The voice he longed to hear was manifested in a megaphone, not a booming voice from the clouds. Yet there's something of Noah in Phillips: Trapped in an endless sea with nothing to do but wait for salvation.

There are times when I think all of us find ourselves in a place like that—a place where we can no longer rely on our own strength or cunning. We're forced into a place of weakness. Or maybe more fairly, a place where we're forced to acknowledge our weakness. When we realize that we must give up our own agenda and truly say, "Thy will be done." Life of Pi—when Pi is adrift on the open ocean with only a hungry tiger for company—is my favorite film example of this principle, but Captain Phillips (with its strange similarities to Pi) is pretty good, too. There comes a time when we must let go and allow ourselves to rest in God's hands, come whatever may.

It's interesting that Muse and his crew don't reach this point, and it's arguably their undoing. It grew increasingly clear that powers far greater than they (again, the U.S. Navy, but a nice, if somewhat strained, metaphor for God) were in charge. They were given ample warning that, if they continued on the path they chose—and not allow the ship to get to its promised destination—that things would turn out very, very badly. But they continued to press forward, relying on only their own strength and will. And it wound up costing them everything.

It's another good lesson for us: When a voice from above tells us to reject the selfish path we're on, it's a good idea to listen.


1. I was pretty struck by how similar, in some ways, the two captains—Muse and Phillips—were to each other. How were they similar? Different? What sorts of challenges did each face?

2. What would you have done in Captain Phillips' shoes?

3. I felt a little bad for Muse's situation—pressed into piracy, it would seem, by Somali warlords. But none of that excuses what he and his crew did. How do you think the American judicial system should've treated Muse?

What the Bible Says:  

"The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty."
Proverbs 21:5

"Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand."
Proverbs 19:21

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Philippians 4:6-7

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Praying for Religious Freedom

When President Barack Obama talked with faith leaders Thursday morning at the National PrayerBreakfast, he spent most of his time discussing not the religious freedom we enjoy in this country, but the lack of freedom in other parts of the world. He quoted from Psalms and Isaiah and pointed to instance after instance where religious rights are being trampled. He suggested that as people of faith, we are commissioned to stand up for the inalienable rights of others—including their right to worship how they want. He said:

"We believe that each of us is 'wonderfully made' in the image of God.  We, therefore, believe in the inherent dignity of every human being—dignity that no earthly power can take away.  And central to that dignity is freedom of religion—the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear."

Obama's speech came on the heels of a new study by the Pew Research Center, which found that religious restrictions had hit a six-year high in 2012. A full third of the world's 198 countries were described as having "high religious hostilities," and researchers noted that "religious hostilities increased in every major region of the world except the Americas." Egypt is the harshest country on the planet when it comes to governmental restrictions of religion, while Pakistan was considered by Pew to have the highest social hostility—that is, where religious minorities are actively intimidated, ostracized or attacked.

Some instances have gotten lots of press. In his address, Obama mentioned Kenneth Bae, the Christian missionary sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, and Saeed Abedini, a pastor in Iran who's been imprisoned for 18 months because he's Christian. Some, not so much. The Pew report noted the case of the 2012 Nigerian riots, where Muslim youth burned Christian businesses and churches and eventually killed four Christians. Two more Christians were killed by a Muslim mob in Kenya. In Somalia, the Islamic militant group al-Shabab beheaded a man in November of 2012, believing he had converted to Christianity.

Naturally, people of other faiths were targeted, as well. Muslim women were assaulted for wearing veils or headscarves and called "terrorists"—sometimes, presumably, by Christians. A rabbi and three Jewish children were killed in France by an Islamic extremist. And, of course, six Sikhs were killed in the United States—shot to death by a white supremacist.

While most Christians believe that their faith is the "right" faith and are encouraged to bring others into its holy fold, I believe that what Obama says in this matter is true. God did not use divine coercion to force us to love and worship him. It is our choice: It must be if it is to be real love and worship at all. And as such, we must preserve that choice for others wherever and whenever we can.