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Finding God through the lens of an artist

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Faith and Film

Exploring the connections between blockbusters and faith

Faith and Film: Star Wars – The Last Jedi

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Being a dad with young kids, my wife and I rarely get out to the theatre to see movies anymore. The planning needed and cost of babysitters has just made it easier to wait for the movies we want to see to come out on DVD or Blu-ray. But, for the last couple years, we have made a point of seeing the new Star Wars films in theatre because we believe that is how those films are meant to be enjoyed.

Last night, we were invited to Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. I have been excited about this film since the first trailers showed up, and my excitement has only grown. This film franchise played a big part of my childhood (like many nerdy folks who have grown up since the 70’s). I was young enough when Episode I came out that Jar Jar Binks didn’t bother me. I played with the toys, watched the movies, played through the video games. I built LEGO starships and rocked a lightsaber like no one else. So, when the first brass blast played and the yellow STAR WARS started to scroll up the screen, I was instantly a child again. It was magnificent.

Now, as an adult, I think my appreciation for the movies has deepened. While they are, at their heart, stories of good vs evil, I can now see the deeper wrestling that goes on in many of the main characters. While the Light/Dark side battle plays out on a grand scale in the battle between the Rebels/Resistance and the Empire/First Order, we also see that same battle happen in the hearts of Luke, Anakin, Ben, and Rey. And it’s THIS battle, the internal, that I find so fascinating.

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I understand that there are a lot of people who are upset about the new direction that Rian Johnson took the Star Wars saga in, but I, for one, loved it. The Last Jedi, in contrast to many of its predecessors (especially the prequel trilogy), is very light on plot. The Resistance spends most of the movie running away in a straight line from the bafflingly large First Order Mega-Class Star Dreadnaught. The entire story takes only a few days. Instead, we get to dig deep into our characters and find out what they are really made of.

And this, my friends, is compelling. I’m sorry to break this to you, but we are all flawed. Though made in the image of God, we are fallen people with a disposition towards selfishness. And when others challenge that self-obsession, we can turn quite nasty. Inside, we have both the Light and the Dark. Each of us is capable of turning to good or evil.

But what The Last Jedi asks is this: can we really turn from our current situation? If we are stuck deep in things we shouldn’t be (addictions, harmful habits, crime, etc), can we actually turn to a different life and find redemption? If we are dedicated to helping others and serving God, are we able to fall into temptation and allow our “goodness” to become self-righteousness?

The answer to both is a resounding YES. 

No one is beyond redemption. Just as Darth Vader turns against the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, so too can we turn from our old ways of life to follow God’s intended plan for our lives. I’ve seen this in my own life. I was not in a good place when God found me again. But through His grace, I’ve been able to change who I am and become closer to the man I would like to be.

In the same vein, I also know that I am not totally free from the siren call of the Dark Side. Selfishness rears its head. Apathy sets in. I begin to care more about my own wants and desires than those of others. Compassion and altruism become just too hard. I fall.

But I get up again. 

It’s not an easy life. We are training for eternity. We have to run around with a metaphorical little green Jedi master on our backs through the swamps of life if we are going to grow. We need discipline and compassion. We need to know what God wants of us and how to rebel against the evils that threaten to take hold of our world.

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There are Christians who don’t like the idea of the rebels being the good guys because Adam and Eve were the first rebels and they rebelled against God. But I look at things differently. I see a world that is increasingly sympathetic to evil. A world that ignores horrific working conditions or class divides. A world that closes its eyes to sexual exploitation and dirty business practices. A world that encourages us to shut ourselves off from the mess that is other people and instead turn inward to our own happiness, propagating the idea that we can find happiness on our own.

This is what I rebel against. I rebel against hate, against injustice, and against apathy. It’s hard. It sometimes feels like I’m part of a tiny group who actually care. It feels like there is a giant dreadnought of consumerism that threatens everything I hold dear.

But I hold on to one idea, one theme that Star Wars hits over and over: Hope. 

Ultimately, God is bigger than the Empire or the First Order. He is bigger than hyper-individualism or rampant consumerism. And in the end, He wins. 

The Light wins.

This is one place where my beliefs contrast with that of the Star Wars universe. Balance between Light and Dark is not ideal. At the end of the day, Darkness will be defeated, not balanced. There will be a time where death and suffering and purposeless and conflict will be no more.

Until then, we keep up the fight.

Blessings

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Faith and Film: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman has been out for a few weeks now and has been smashing box office records all over the place. My wife and I were blessed to have an impromptu babysitter a couple weeks ago and decided to see what all the hype was about. We were not disappointed. Although I think our culture is saturated with superhero films, Wonder Woman was able to bring enough fresh ideas (and impressive fight scenes) to make the movie a lot of fun to watch. Not to mention the crazy woman-power of a pregnant lady (with a CGI stomach) kicking some serious butt. Look that up, it’s nuts!

Yet, what I was most impressed with wasn’t the storming of No-Man’s Land or the battle on the beach. It was the ultimate message (Spoiler Alert!):

It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe.

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When we first meet Diana Prince (Wonder Woman), she is a child who believes that humanity is an inherently good group that only kills when under the influence of the evil (and uncharacteristically powerful) Ares, god of war. Diana believes it is her duty to destroy the wayward god and allow humanity to return to its peaceful ways. Her calling is to protect people from anything that would get in the way of their innocent state. Everything goes according to plan…until she reaches the real world.

Because, unfortunately, Wonder Woman gives an accurate portrayal of humanity: a mess of beautiful selflessness and horrific destructiveness. Diana comes across the depths of human evil and is, for a time, able to overcome the evil through violence and destruction of her own. However, as the story continues, she realizes that even the “good guys” are not paragons of virtue and are capable of cowardly and unheroic behaviours.

In short, she realizes that humanity does not, in fact, deserve her protection. 

But this is where the true beauty of Wonder Woman comes in: Diana realizes that humanity is not worthy of her protection. WE are not worthy of God’s grace. WE have fallen below God’s standard through our own selfishness. Though we are capable of good acts, thoughts, and intentions, we are also capable, each one of us, of unspeakable evil. Put together, we are, as a race, beyond justification.

Yet, we are not beyond salvation. God, in His grace, has given us a way back: belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins opened up the door for us to be saved. All we need to access this salvation is to believe in the Son of God.

Now, this isn’t exactly what the creators of Wonder Woman are talking about in their film. BUT, if we tease out our Christian understanding of the Father’s grace further, we see that Wonder Woman’s message bears an even closer resemblance to our faith.

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Every day, we are confronted by people who let us down, by people who wrong us, by people who embrace selfishness at the expense of others. When our family frustrates us or our coworkers embarrass us, it can be difficult to offer forgiveness. Worse, when we see especially brutal acts of violence against children or the heinous atrocities of war, we can believe that the perpetrators are WAY beyond redemption. We convince ourselves that those who commit evil (that we believe ourselves to incapable of) have given up their fundamental humanity. Our inner longing for justice does not want to see the murderers and rapists and tyrants receive mercy. We want to see them punished for their crimes, because THEY DON’T DESERVE GRACE. Which is true.

The only problem is: neither do we.

And here’s where Wonder Woman can teach us. When we deal with those who have wronged us or others, we need to believe that we have all fallen short of God’s standard and are deserving of death. We have all taken the path of self-seeking narcissism to one extent or another. If we truly believe that we are all fallen, then we can settle on the truth that it’s not about what we (or they) deserve. It’s about grace. And it’s about God.

So, as you go out this week, you will be disappointed in people. Someone will hurt you or embarrass you, or fail to come up to your standards. And you will do the same to someone else. But instead of withholding forgiveness or berating them for their sins, remember: It’s not about what they (or we) deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in the power of grace.

Blessings,

Faith and Film: The 100

Well, everyone, this was supposed to be our 100th post here at EpicTheology, but as the weeks turned out, Mother’s Day happened right at the 100 mark, and I figured our moms are more important than other things I was going to say. So, in honour of our 101st post, I thought we would take a look at one of my favourite Young Adult Post-Apocalyptic TV shows: The 100. (Full disclosure, this may be the only YA Post-Apoc TV show I’ve watched…)

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Essentially, The 100 is LOST for teenagers, in the future. I found the first few episodes to be hard to watch, the writing was so bad. But as the series continued, it picked up in quality and my wife and I were hooked.

The basic premise of the show is as follows: humanity has nearly destroyed itself with nuclear war. The surviving humans live on a space station where any crime is dealt with by pushing the criminal out an airlock and into space (known as floating). UNLESS that criminal is under 18, in which case they are kept in prison until they are old enough to stand trial (and then get floated).

When the space station begins to run out of air, 100 of these teenage delinquents are sent down to earth to see if the planet is hospitable again. If they live, they are pardoned for their crimes. If they die, well, they were going to die anyways, and they saved the space station from sending down everyone.

Once these teenagers are on the ground, the situation turns into a fraternity party-meets-Lord of the Flies. With no strong emotional connection to the adults who sent them to the ground, the teens rebel and begin building a new society that suits whatever their whims may be. It’s everyone for him/herself, with pleasure-chasing and power-wrestling the top concern for many of the survivors.

Sound at all familiar?

Who, as a teenager, didn’t rail against the oppression of adults in our lives? Whether our parents, or teachers, or coaches, we had adults telling us what to do and when to do it. When I got to college, it was like all the controls had been taken off and I could do whatever I wanted.

To be fair, I didn’t build a wooden fortress and become a warlord on campus, but I still flexed in my newfound freedom. I also know many who went through a similar process. No matter how well our parents raised us, curiosity or inner rebelliousness urges us to push against what we’ve been taught.

Which isn’t always a bad thing. A big part of the draw of The 100 is the exploration of the post-apocalyptic world that the teens find themselves in. They world is full of mysteries that the following seasons slowly unravel, and many of the misconceptions (or downright lies) of the space-faring adults are brought to light by the curiosity of the protagonists.

But sometimes, rebellion is just rebellion.

It’s in all of us. Since Adam and Eve listened to the snake, we’ve had a tendency to believe that those in authority over us are holding out on us. That God himself is holding out on us. That if WE were in charge, WE would be happier. But happiness does not usually follow a life of narcissism and hedonism. Only a deep relationship with Jesus and a loving community can do that.

And The 100 shows us the importance of community. When facing the terrors that still inhabit the earth, the heroes have to put aside their differences, their pasts, and their pains in order to stay alive. They have to squash their prejudices and swallow their pride in order to see another day.

Perhaps we could learn a thing or two.

So yes, the heroes can be incredibly whiny (being more concerned with your girlfriend than the survival of your tribe…really now…), but I remember being a teenager. Love and popularity and purpose were the biggest of questions for me. It’s only through the lens of an adult nearing 30 that I can see how much bigger life gets.

If you haven’t seen the show, I suggest it. Push on through the first few chapters and really dig into how The 100 depicts human selfishness and selflessness. See if you can find anything that applies to you. That’s how art changes us.

Blessings,

Faith and Film: Zootopia

My wife was away at a retreat this past weekend, which gave me the opportunity to spend some time with my boys. We had a lot of fun running around, playing Pokemon Go, and getting some new Lego. On Saturday night, we decided to have a movie night, and my eldest wanted to watch Disney’s Zootopia.

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Now, we had watched this movie before, but I had thoroughly enjoyed it and so agreed. Watching it again in light of recent events gave the film a completely new layer of meaning. I want to discuss that today.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, Zootopia follows a young, optimistic bunny named Judy Hopps as she becomes the city’s first bunny cop. She has to overcome others’ prejudices (and her own) to solve a series of missing mammal cases. In the end, we find out the main villain has been causing division amongst the population of Zootopia and using fear to take and maintain power.

Sound familiar?

A lot of people I know are scared right now. Those of the fringes, the marginalized and vulnerable, don’t see the future as particularly positive. Even as Canadians, many of us are waiting anxiously to see how the actions of our southern neighbours will turn out. With a dual-citizen wife, the events are closer to home than I would like.

But perhaps we can find hope and instruction in a children’s movie about talking animals.

The first issue that Zootopia addresses is the prejudices we carry around with us and the judgements we make against people who were born differently from us. In the film, the predator and prey animals live together peacefully, but tensions are high. Bunnies are too soft to be police officers, foxes can’t be trusted, and predators can “turn savage” at any moment, threatening the safety of smaller, more vulnerable species.
Except, they don’t. There is nothing inherently savage about the predator mammals, foxes can be trustworthy, and a bunny makes an excellent cop.

The tragedy of these stereotypes plays out in the life of Nick Wilde, Judy’s unwilling Fox partner. After being treated as untrustworthy throughout his childhood (despite a sincere desire to be friendly, honest, and worthy of his friends’ trust), he eventually accepts the role that his society thrusts upon him. Although he eventually finds redemption, he goes through much of his life living out the role given to him by his peers.

What happens, then, when we start to tell every young Arabic or Muslim person that everyone like them is a terrorist? How do they feel, knowing that society at large believes them to be terrifying, regardless of how they actually act? We keep hearing more and more about radicalization, but when are we actually going to do something about it? When are we going to start trusting people?

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The second issue, that we really only get to see near the end, is how those in power can utilize fear to maintain their position and control. In Zootopia, Mayweather convinces the prey animals that predators, including their mayor, cannot be trusted. The prey band together against their perceived threat and begin to marginalize the predators. What they are left with is a fractured society on the brink of disaster. A far cry from the utopia that Judy Hopps hoped Zootopia would be.

Fear is not a path to peace.

Let that sink in. Hope, faith, trust, sacrifice, love, teamwork, and selfless abandon are all pathways to peace, but fear never will be. We cannot build a society worthy of our calling on the foundation of fear and marginalization. If others are not allowed to join us, if we can’t learn to live with each other, if we force some to live on the outside, we will never have peace. Humankind is not our enemy. We are all beloved bearers of the image of God and we need to treat each other as such.

We are called to peace. We follow the Prince of Peace.

This post has been a little long, but I just want to wrap up with a challenge for you this week:

What fears are you allowing to turn you against your fellow image-bearers? Are you allowing the media to shape how you view other people and steep your days in fear of the “other?” If so, spend some time thinking about how that must feel from the other side. Pray, meditate, and try to live a life of trust.

Blessings

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrowland

When I was growing up, the future was always bright and full of potential. The year 2000 was going to bring Virtual Reality, completely customizable cars, and video games the likes of which we had never dreamed of. Two of those have come true by 2017.

Maybe it was just childish naiveté, but things seem to have changed. When I watch TV or movies about the future now, it seems we’ve lost the dream that tomorrow can be better than today. We are obsessed with apocalypses. Zombie, nuclear, genetic, viral. It seems that the only future we in North America can see is one with abandoned sky-scrapers crumbling onto vine-choked streets or desert wastelands spanning across once fertile country. Gone are the dreams of flying cars, the eradication of disease, and the human potential.

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On Saturday, I watched Disney’s Tomorrowland, which ponderously addresses this very issue. While the pace may have been slow through the first and second acts, the final questions that the movie asks more than make up for it. For those who haven’t seen the film, there are spoilers ahead. Go, watch the movie, and come back when you’re done.

Alright, here’s the good stuff. Near the end of the film, we find out that the machine that has been “predicting” the violent end of humanity has been projecting that message to everyone on earth for over twenty years. Instead of opening our eyes to the potential for disaster, humanity becomes obsessed with the impending doom, forgetting about the possibility of a better tomorrow.

And then Nix drops the biggest bomb I’ve heard from a Disney film in a long time: people accept a bleak and hopeless future because it asks nothing of them today.

Think that over for a second.

Hope for a better tomorrow asks something of us. It asks us to work for the future. It tells us to work hard, think fast, and overcome obstacles, because in doing so, we build toward the shining world we want. If we pull together and think of someone or something other than ourselves, we can defeat the world-destroying problems that threaten to overcome us.

Doom, however, does not ask us to work hard. It doesn’t ask us for anything. It asks us, instead, “What is the point? You’re just going to die anyway.” It tells us we can’t fix anything, so why try? Just enjoy the here and now before it’s too late.

Perhaps this is part of the millennial apathy problem. Raised with the horrors of war, injustice, and the failing of the American Dream, we find it much easier to just accept the brokenness of the world instead of fighting for a different future. It allows us to focus on ourselves, spouting YOLO whenever we are challenged on our decisions. We accept the inevitability of death and have forgotten Dylan Thomas’ urge to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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But, as Christians, we know that the world does not end in doom. We know, in the end, Good wins. And that should inspire us each and every day.

The Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, contains the words: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” What would happen if we actually lived that way. If we started to believe that tomorrow does not have to be dark and hopeless and instead began to work for the kingdom? What would God do through us if we took a stand against evil and injustice, even if it cost us dearly? What if we looked despair straight in the eyes and said, “No. Not today. And not tomorrow either.”

Evil is overwhelming. But God is more so.

This week, ask yourself if you have, consciously or unconsciously, accepted a bleak future and have turned inward in response. Spend a little time meditating on your thoughts of the future, and your responsibility in its formation.

Are you going to accept the dying of the light? Or rage against it.

In this case, I choose to rage.

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