Sunday, March 30, 2014

Noah: Lots of Baggage, But It Floats Somewhere Special

I just received a letter from a reader who, very politely, said my Plugged In review of Noah “missed the mark.”

“This film is a mocking, blasphemous, butchering, occultic, science fiction affront to the God of Genesis on every conceivable level,” the writer said. “This movie should have received the lowest recommendation possible. Seeing this movie will not benefit ANYONE.”

And you thought the Flood was bad.

The storm around Darren Aronofsky's film has been pretty crazy. I don't think I've ever reviewed a movie so polarizing. And I get the Christian backlash against the film. The source story is, after all, quite literally sacred. So when Aronofsky turned the story into a Tolkienesque fantasy epic for his own storytelling ends, well, many folks were bound to be upset. I think they have the right to be.

But I’d disagree with my critic saying that the movie won’t benefit anyone. I actually found the movie pretty interesting—sometimes even inspiring. And I think perhaps where Aronofsky went most “wrong” is where the movie is at its most intriguing. An example: The issue of discerning God’s will.

In the Bible, of course, Noah had pretty direct marching orders from God. Our old sailor was not only told to build the ark, but how big to build it and out of what. Sure, Noah’s neighbors may have thought it was a crazy thing to do, but Noah trusted God. And I think most of us, if we heard a booming voice from on high a la Bill Cosby, we’d be inclined to listen and trust, too.

But in Aronofsky’s vision, God does not communicate so clearly. The Creator (as God is called here) speaks to Noah through dreams and visions, and rarely even those. And for everyone else, the Creator is silent. Even the Watchers—semi-fallen angels—are left to wonder what God would have them do.

Tubal-cain (who I hope to write about more fully later on this week) is the movie’s clear antagonist. But for all his bluster, the villain is surprisingly complex: Tubal-cain would tell you that it’s not that he’s turned his back on God, but that God has turned away from him.

“No one’s heard from the Creator since He marked Cain,” Tubal-cain says. “We are orphan children.” At one point, he even seems to beg for God to speak to him. And so he feels like, if God’s not going to take care of them, it’s up to these “orphans” to take care of themselves.

(Of course, Tubal-cain ignores the fact that God, clearly, is talking with someone. Noah. Why else would the villain be so sure the rains were going to come, and why he made such an effort to build an army to take over the ark?)

But even for Noah, God’s wishes are not always clear. And once the floods hit, Noah’s interpretation of the Creator’s will takes center stage. He comes to believe that all men have evil in them. As such, humanity does not and should not have a place in the new world God’s preparing. He believes that God wants them all to die—if not in the flood, then afterward. And the Creator chose Noah because he was the only one with the strength to see this terrible task through.

Now this, of course, is horrifically unlike the Noah we read about in the Bible, and if the guy had managed to live a few millennia longer, he’d have a heckuva libel case.

But narratively, this controversial choice works for me because it illustrates a frustrating problem we modern-day believers struggle with all the time. What does God want us to do?

We hear this question in news stories every day. Would Jesus bake a wedding cake for a gay couple? Would He go see Noah? These questions are predicated on a deep uncertainty that many people of faith deal with every day. We pray and talk and parse Bible verses in the hopes of getting some insight on what’s the “right” thing to do. But sometimes, even when we search most fervently and pray most sincerely, we come to different conclusions.

And sometimes the folks who are most convinced they’re in the right are the ones that, in my eyes, seem to be the most wrong. The late Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church never seemed to have any doubt about what he was doing.

I’m not suggesting that certainty is necessarily wrong or bad. But knowing God’s will can be tricky. Moses’ wife, Naameh, and daughter-in-law, Ila, also felt that they knew what God would want. They pointed to certain signs. They pointed to what they knew of God’s character. Noah would not be swayed, barreling forward in his single-minded understanding. He had no Bible at the time to guide his actions, no kindly pastors to talk with. He was alone. And the Creator, unlike God in Genesis, did not choose to speak so definitively.

In the end, Noah makes the right decision—even though, in the moment, he feels as though it’s wrong. He looks at his own progeny and finds that he has nothing but love for them. Sure, he knows that they still have evil inside, that they might make another wreck of creation. And yet he loves them and saves them.

He kicked himself mightily for that lack of “obedience.” And yet, knowing what we do of God’s loving character through Jesus, Noah was being deeply obedient. For God sees us the same way. He sees our sins. He sees our imperfections. He sees the evil inside us all and knows that we can mess up His creation mightily. And yet, he looks down on us with love. He saves us.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength,” we read in 1 Corinthians 1:25. Never is that foolishness more obvious, or beautiful, than in His reckless love for us.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sacred Space

I was kicked out of a theater the other day.

I’d settled in to review Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel somewhere in downtown Denver. It wasn’t a private screening for reviewers, but that was no biggie: I’ve reviewed lots of movies without the benefit of a formal screening—including movies at that very theater. I always take great care not to bother anyone with my little light-up pen. I go to the earliest screenings possible and sit as far away from everyone else as I can. I cover up my penlight with a sheet of paper to minimize any hint of illumination. I’d imagine that you’d have to be as light sensitive as the kids in The Others to even notice it.

Which might explain why the manager who caught me was so pale. Despite much pleading, and despite the fact that no one had complained or even (as far as I could tell) noticed my pen, the manager refused to budge on his no-light policy—even in the case of super-courteous but dutiful note-taking movie reviewers. (He was kind enough to give me a refund, though.)

I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. It’d be fruitless—like Kim Kardashian arguing that rhinestone and spandex makers should give her a special discount. “You brought a light into a movie theater?!” you’d gasp. And if I didn’t know how eensy-weensy my light was, I’d be right there with you. I’m appalled when I see people text in movie theaters. I get irritated when I hear people whisper asides to each other. And parents who bring their six-month-olds to the movies? That should be a felony.

 The theater is hallowed ground, in a way. And I think for many people, it’s the only sacred space they know.

I don’t want to be flip or sacrilegious about this: Obviously, the theater is not a church. We do not worship there, not in any traditional sense.

But in our increasingly secular society, fewer people go to church anymore. They have little regard for the rites and hymns of worship and little time for God. And yet I think that we all have an innate need to connect with something greater than ourselves—something that puts us in touch with the transcendent. Nature may be the best such conduit. But the movies, with its emphasis on transcendent storytelling, may be next in line. There, in a darkened theater, we encounter things literally larger than life: People, ideas, emotions. Movies tap into our emotions like worship can do and challenge our intellect like a good conversation or sermon. We file into this sacred space with a certain sense of reverence and anticipation. We come hoping, and expecting, to be moved—just as believers who go to church do.

And it’s a very ritualized environment, where we’re expected to act and react a certain way—most unique . When we go to a football game, we can sit on our hands or dance in the aisles. When we stand on the top of a 14er, we might be expected to do most anything: Hold up our hands in triumph, sit on our haunches in contemplation, or ask around for some oxygen. But in a movie theater, most of us follow predictable rituals, and we’re expected to behave with uniform respect, even reverence.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the characters in Gravity found themselves in a “thin place,” a place closer to God. But a few folks who watched Gravity might’ve also found themselves in sort of a thin place, too: They encountered something special there while watching. I think it might’ve potentially brought them closer, in a way, to God (at least if they were in their thinking along the same lines that I was).

Going to the movies is, and should be, a special experience. And I think that, sometimes, it can lead us to places even more special: These stories can influence thought, trigger emotion and bring voice to something deep in our core. It is not a religion, of course, and it cannot replace faith. But maybe sometimes, in that quiet, dark space, we may encounter something truly special—a thought, or feeling—that points us somehow to the Author of us all.

Sometimes, there is another light besides that in the projector. Sometimes, another light shines in our movies—one way bigger than any ol’ penlight, that’s for sure.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Discussional: Gravity

What It’s About: Dr. Ryan Stone (Oscar nominee Sandra Bullock), Matt Kowalski and a handful of other astronauts are doing some work on the Hubble telescope when a freak accident sends a lethal shower of debris their way. The disaster destroys their space shuttle, kills their co-workers and leaves them stranded in space without a clear way home. Their chances of survival seem slim, and yet they cling to a thread of hope—as thin as the tether that binds the both of them together.

Some Thoughts: Hundreds of years ago, Celtic Christians sought out places on their green, windswept island where God seemed nearer to them, where the membrane between heaven and earth was slight and small, where mere mortals could seemingly almost touch the divine. These early Christians called them “thin places.”

The setting of Gravity seems, both physically and spiritually, such a place. Ryan and Matt float literally in the heavens, where the air is not just thin but gone, and God might be anywhere. Everywhere.

I don’t think that thin places are geographical, really. Someone may look down from a mountain or up toward a church steeple and have, what feels like, a profound moment with God, while others are unmoved. Faith isn’t like geocaching—that we’ll dig up spiritual fulfillment if we go to such-and-such a place. I think God makes those thin places for us as individuals, often when we expect them the least but need them the most.

If anyone needed a divine helping hand—or better yet, a working spaceship—it was Ryan. Stranded hundreds of miles above the earth, she was as far away from mortal help as a human being can be. And for a time, it’s not clear she even wants help. Mourning the death of her daughter, part of her seems to want to join her (though she doesn’t know where, exactly, such a reunion would take place). She’s not really living as much as existing through habit. Her real life died with her daughter, we’re led to believe, and this horrific space accident might just be the coup de grace.

In the dark of space, the darkest of spaces, her mind—oddly—turns to prayer.

“Nobody will pray for my soul,” she says, floating in a dying space capsule. “I’ve never said a prayer in my life. Nobody ever taught me how.” And she sadly turns down the oxygen and waits to slowly suffocate and freeze.

But then—spoiler warning, for those few of you who still haven’t seen this flick—Matt Kowalski knocks on the outside of the capsule. The same Matt Kowalski that Ryan watched float away from her.

“It's nice up here,” he admits to Ryan. “You can just shut down all the systems, turn out all the lights, and just close your eyes and tune out everyone. There's nobody up here that can hurt you. It's safe. I mean, what's the point of going on? What's the point of living? Your kid died. Doesn't get any rougher than that.”

But then Matt turns a corner.  “If you decide to go, then you gotta just get on with it. Sit back, enjoy the ride. [Or] You gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start living life. Hey, Ryan? It's time to go home.”

The movie doesn’t tell us that Matt came back from the dead to chat. It might’ve been a product of a lack of oxygen, of stress, of a million other factors. Those who are determined to explain away the unexplainable will invariably do so.

But Ryan—a woman who went to space without hope or faith—believes it to be something other. She speaks to Ryan—asking him to give her daughter a hug and a kiss. And when her feet find the ground again, she looks up and says “thank you.”

In those thinnest of thin places, something touched Ryan and pushed her home.

We find those thin places when we need them most, I think. Several years ago, I found one driving home from work—one afternoon when I was struggling with stress and guilt and a deep sense of unworth. I hadn’t been to church for several years then. My relationship with God was strained, as thin as a tether.

And then, as drove and listened to some tunes and thought about the wreckage that seemed to be my life in that moment, the skies almost seemed to open. I gasped and felt God—the certainty of Him, the joy and terror of Him, the glory. It was if I had been given a glimpse of the true meaning of the strangest, prettiest word in Christendom: Hallelujah.

That one moment didn’t change my life. I didn’t become a new man. Change is slow and faith is hard. And yet in that moment, it was if I had seen (if only for a time) a glimpse of Life, capital L. Life as God intended it to be. And I saw a glimpse of God Himself behind it all.

It all sounds rather silly, I suppose. I’m a rationalist by training, a skeptic, in some ways, by nature. I’m a Christian, largely, because it makes so much sense to me. It’s reasonable. It works. And yet, behind all that, there is this moment, and fleeting moments like it: Moments that I can’t explain and don’t want to.

Perhaps it was an odd blip of brain chemistry, brought on by stress and sadness—a shot of spiritual endorphins to help me crest a difficult personal hill. Perhaps it was a trick of psychology, a mental placebo to fool me into feeling better. Perhaps. And yet that moment, whatever it was, helped me see with new eyes, feel with new hope. I found what feels like firmer footing in that moment. And in that day and every day thereafter, part of me says thank you.

Some More Thoughts: Feel free to check out what I wrote about Gravity for The Washington Post.


1. Have you ever found a thin place? Where? When?

2. What would have become of Ryan had Matt not come along when he did? Would she have found her way home anyway?

3. Would you call Matt’s seemingly post-mortem visit a miracle? Why or why not?

What the Bible Says:

 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Philippians 4:13

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Isaiah 41:10

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Romans 8:18