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Epic Theology

Finding God through the lens of an artist

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Faith and Film

Exploring the connections between blockbusters and faith

Drawn into a Story: Boyhood and Jupiter Ascending

Once upon a time…

It was a dark and stormy night…

The sun was just beginning to creep over the horizon of a new day…

Magical, isn’t it? The beginning of a story. You never know what’s coming next, or who will show up first. But you do know that you are about to embark on something new and exciting: a story.

Today, I want to ask what draws us in and keeps us connected to a story? Over the weekend, I was able to watch two VERY different films that relied on VERY different means to keep its audience spellbound.

The first, Boyhood.

The second, Jupiter Ascending.

This afternoon, we will look at these two movies and see how they use character and plot to hook their audience and keep them to the end.I@049431_L

Boyhood is a marvel of modern filmmaking. Shooting over 12 years, we watch a young boy grow up before our eyes without the use of special aging effects or recasting. It was this premise that caught my attention, and I finally sat down to watch it.

Full disclosure: I am a plot person. I love thick, multi-layered storytelling where politics and personal lives come crashing together. I love characters with well-defined goals and antagonists who are opposed to those goals. I like rising action, building tension, a thrilling climax, and a satisfying resolution.

Boyhood is not that film.

Boyhood is about growing up. And if you are like me, your childhood was not a carefully scripted series of obstacles to overcome on the way to a climactic graduation. It was more like a series of mundane bowls of cereal, high moments of passion and hormones, low moments of despair and hormones, with a peppering of fun and adventure.

Boyhood is THAT film.

It’s easy to get lost in these characters because we’ve been there, for at least some of the story moments that Boyhood tells. I’ve gone camping, been excited when my dad comes to pick me up, agonized over the fruitlessness of the world, and gone off to college. I’ve watched my parents divorce and remarry, been passionately absorbed in my art, and mumbled incoherently because I was trying to be cool. Watching Boyhood is a little like going through a photo album of my life. I see myself in the characters, and continue watching because I’m invested in what happens to them (even if it’s nothing).4liSXBZZdURI0c1Id1zLJo6Z3Gu

Jupiter Ascending, on the other hand, is all about its plot. The characters are fairly shallow and generally only have one desire throughout the film. Jupiter (our protagonist) just wants to go home and spends most of the movie being dragged from one end of the solar system to the other.

What we get, in the place of deep character development, is fast-paced action scenes that grip the audience, pull us into the fantasy world of Jupiter Ascending, and drive relentlessly towards the climatic battle sequence. We continue to watch because each scene is either gorgeously painted with CGI or unravels a little more of the mystery of the story. We, like our protagonist want to know more of what’s going on. So we keep watching.

In my opinion, the best films are laden with both deep character development and high stakes plotting. We care about the characters and keep watching because they want something so badly and will go to any lengths to get it. That, my friends, is compelling storytelling.

Think Captain Miller and his platoon in Saving Private Ryan. They are all deeply real people with flaws and heroics. They want to go home, but must first march across Hell to find one lone soldier before they can.

Frodo is an everyman with likes and dislikes (perhaps not as many as his uncle Bilbo), who also must do the right thing (destroy the Ring) before he is allowed to go home.

Maximus must come to terms with his betrayal and the death of his family before he can defy the emperor and ultimately avenge the deaths of his wife and son.

Compelling.

So, how about you? Are you drawn to one of these more than the other? My wife is far more character oriented, balancing out my plot obsession. Or, are you drawn to something else entirely, like beautiful cinematography or hilarious comedic situations.

As we learn what draws people into stories, we can better craft the stories we want, or need, to tell. Well-told stories will always reach more people, and get your message across clearer, than poorly-told ones.

So go, write, or paint, or dance. Speak or play. Tell stories of love and death and heroics and the mundane. But tell them well.

The world will thank you for it.

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Staring into the Deep

Throughout much the Bible, the sea is considered a symbol of chaos and the enemy of God’s people. The Leviathan is a beast that God conquered. Rahab is the name of both a mythical sea-beast and a euphemism for Egypt. This all makes sense when we consider that the Israelites were land-dwelling folk with little experience in shipbuilding and ocean-voyaging. For them, the sea was full of danger and uncertainty, the complete opposite of the loving Father figure of God.

Yet, in Genesis 1, we see God creating the seas and calling them good. They cannot be evil if God considers them good. Scary and untamed? Of course. But not evil.

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I watched the film In the Heart of the Sea a few days ago, which recounts the trials of the whaling ship Essex, which was attacked by a sperm whale and would eventually inspire the story of Moby Dick. Throughout the film, I could not help but wonder at the majesty of the ocean. After thousands of years of human civilization on the Earth, we still do not have mastery over its depths. It is full of wondrous creatures and fearsome monsters (for those who think there aren’t sea monsters, just try denying that you wouldn’t scream like a child if you came upon a giant squid while out swimming one day…monster). And we have no control over it.

I was born on the West Coast, and perhaps my bias is showing, but I feel like the ocean can show me much of God. Just as C. S. Lewis said of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia (his allegorical Christ, for those who haven’t read the books…or seen the movies…) the ocean is not safe, but it is good. We are reminded of just how small we are when we are faced by the endless expanse of water. We are reminded of how powerless we are when we come up against the giant swells of ocean storms. We are reminded that, no matter how much we build ourselves up as masters of this world, we have not conquered the sea. Just as we have not conquered God.

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The ocean forces us to face our hubris, and for that, I love it.

We may someday map the ocean and catalogue all of its denizens, but until then, it will stand as a symbol of what we have no control over. And no matter how powerful we become as a species, we will never have power over God.

For those keeping track, I enjoyed the film. It also speaks to some of these themes of human pride in the face of nature’s incredible force (and sometimes wrath). I suggest you go see it, if you haven’t. It’s worth the couple of hours you’d spend. Unless you’re easily seasick. Then don’t.

Also, Thor with a harpoon. Who doesn’t want to see that?

For my non-land-locked brothers and sisters, what do you think of the ocean? Scary or beautiful? Enemy of God or symbol of the divine? Chime in and let me know what you think.

Blessings

Lessons From Tragedy?

I am a sucker for a happy ending. I like when boy gets girl, when the world is saved, when a lesson is learned and everyone comes out the richer (emotionally and spiritually, not necessarily monetarily) for the experience. I believe that there is something deep in the souls of humankind that longs for the “happily ever after” offered by our fairy tales, even if we don’t think it actually happens in real life. This “something,” mirrors the end of the Bible, when God finally vanquishes evil and everything turns out all right.

Yet, most of my favourite films are tragedies. Braveheart, Gladiator, and my newest favourite, The Prestige (which has been out for ten years, but I finally got around to seeing just this past weekend) all see the downfall of their protagonists by the end of the story. The heroes come up against forces they cannot overcome, whether a foreign oppressor, an corrupt leader, or selfish ambition, and eventually succumb. Not the happy ending we hope for. So, what makes them so compelling?

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In the first two, we find heroes who seek revenge and justice (coincidentally, for the murder of their wives) against a powerful foe. Even though both could probably have turned from their path and avoided their fateful end, their passions keep them on course. We cheer because they are on the side of justice. The heroes have been wronged, people have been hurt, and we want to see the bad guys get their comeuppance. In the end, they succeed in their quest, but it costs them their lives.

On the other side, we also get to see the tragic fall of the antagonists.Claudius’ obsession with being loved (stemming from a lack of love from his father), drives him to horrendous acts of evil, and ultimately, his own downfall. He dies unloved and alone. Edward Longshanks’ pride and ambition leads him to the dissolution of his bloodline, with everything he has fought for at an end.

The Prestige, on the other hand, pits two “protagonists” against each other. We watch as their competition and rivalry (also started by the death of a wife…I’m seeing a trend) consumes the two of them. With several opportunities to walk away, neither chooses to stop the fight, and the battle reaches show-stopping heights and heart-wrenching lows.

In the end, these tragedies teach us something about life, and ultimately, God. Our first two, heroes fighting for justice, teach us that the cause of Good is not an easy, or cheap path to follow. We must be ready to sacrifice everything in our walk with God, or else we will not finish the journey. We must be ready to give our very lives if we want to see change.

They also serve as warnings against our pride. If not for ego, The Prestige would be a much shorter, albeit duller, story. We get to learn the lessons of those pushed too far by their thirst for glory or revenge without the horrific consequences.

I think I like tragedies because they show us people pushed to the very boundaries of the self. Some, when pushed, show the glory of God as sacrificial Lamb. Others, the pain and misery that accompany a fall from grace. From both, we learn the cost of living in a fallen world, the cost of being human.

But what do you think? Are you drawn to tragedies, or avoid them like the plague? Can we learn more from the “tales of woe,” or have I stretched beyond what the allegory can hold? Chime in!

Blessings

Are You A Red Pill Kind of Person?

Want to feel a little bit older? The Matrix is seventeen years old this year. That’s crazy! I just re-watched the movie last night and am stunned by how well it has held up over the years. Beyond the aged cellphones, this sci-fi classic looks like it could have come out in the past couple years rather than almost two decades ago. Quite a feat for the Wachowski siblings.

Now, the philosophical and religious themes are not hidden very deep, but I today I want to talk about how we can use some of the themes from The Matrix to question how we go about our lives today.

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The basic premise of the film, that the world we consider “real” is just a constructed universe, a prison for the minds of enslaved humanity, is taken right out of the early Gnostic worldview. These mystics believed that the creator of the universe was a malevolent divine being, the Demiurge, who usurped power from the true Supreme Being before creating a fundamentally flawed reality. Freedom from this evil, material world came through learning secret truths that would ultimately set you free upon death.

However, orthodox Christianity also believes that our current world, though created perfectly by a perfect God, is in a fallen and miserable state. We, citizens of Heaven, do not truly belong here, but are freed by our hero, the Christ. Once we become aware of the difference between the fallenness of “the world,” and the reality of “Heaven,” we start to see our existence in a very different light. We even believe it is our duty to help free others from the lies of this world and bring them into the real Kingdom.

The question I pose to you today may seem simple at first, but I want to spend some time unpacking it. I want you to think about the question long and hard, because your answer may truly change your life.

Would you take the red pill?

If you haven’t seen the film, the hero, Neo, when faced with questions about the nature of reality, is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The blue pill would set him back in blissful ignorance, and the red would pull him further down in his search for Truth.

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When we begin to see the world in its true, fallen state, coming to grips with the extent of the enemy’s lies can be overwhelming. Our first questions are met with answers that only lead to more questions. If we follow these questions, we are forced to face more and more questions, and often are given fewer and fewer answers. It is frustrating and terrifying.

If we decide to search for Truth, we must be willing to accept that things we believe are true may not be. We have to hold what we know lightly, or be crushed when we learn that our knowledge is false. Morpheus, Neo’s mentor, claims that they do not free a mind after a certain age for fear of mental rejection. We don’t always have that option.

Digging into the Truth means finding good and evil inside ourselves, our loved ones, and our society. We can praise our heroism one day, then be faced with the reality of deeply ingrained and deeply evil social structures the next. The values we grew up with may turn out to be, at best, morally neutral, and at worst, downright harmful. Do you risk that?

It’s hard to live a red pill life. You have to be willing to live in a grey zone. Competing goods do not always allow us to make the best decision, or to even know what the best decision is.

It’s far easier to live a blue pill life. You can continue on as you are, comfortable, determined, pleasant. We have a deep aversion to suffering, and would rather opiate ourselves into a comfortable, blind oblivion than swallow the truth that we may need to change. The blue pill makes us feel good about ourselves, our lives, and our choices.

The red pill does not.

The red pill takes us down Alice’s rabbit hole to places unknown, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. But it will lead to the Truth, and the truth, as Jesus told us, will set us free.

Because, in the end, the blue pill is a prison. Like the Matrix, we are slaves to our own self-indulgence and self-worth. We are not free to live the life that God would have us live if we are afraid of chasing down the Truth. We may be comfortable, safe, and even happy, but we are not free.

So, this week, I ask you: Do you DARE to take the red pill? Do you have the courage to ask questions about what you believe? About what really is real? About why you are here?

In the end, the choice is yours. Choose wisely.

 

Faith and Film: Exodus: Gods and Kings

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

More than six months after it’s release, I finally got to watch Ridley Scott’s newest big-budget film. I had been excited to see Exodus, but this past semester had proven too busy to fit in a trip to the movies. So, last week, I sat down with my wife and a good friend to see what it was all about. As always, if you haven’t seen the film and plan to do so, this discussion will probably involve some spoilers. You’ve been warned.

To begin, I had high hopes. Gladiator, also directed by Ridley Scott, is my favourite film of all time. I was hoping his return to the classical era would be another hit. I blatantly ignored the criticism from both sides of the secular/Christian divide and wanted to see the film for myself.

And, for a film created by a self-described agnostic, I was pleased. Not overwhelmed, not blown away, but pleased. Scott took an epic story from the Bible and made it accessible for a secular audience while not exorcising God out of the picture. Sure, the child playing God seems to toe the line of blasphemy all along the way, but He is in it. And He is shown to be involved in the story.

I was really expecting a far more “naturalist” approach to the acts of God in Exodus. Yet, when Moses proves incapable of rescuing the people on his own, God steps in to force the Egyptians into freeing His people. Even with a cause-and-effect take on the plagues (blood in the Nile sends the frogs out, which attract flies after they die, which cause boils, etc), it is clear that God is the initiator of the events.

However, this seems to be in opposition to a running question throughout the film: did Moses actually speak with God, or was he delusional? A question that is to be expected, (especially with Christian Bale referring to Moses as schizophrenic and barbaric), but the plagues came from somewhere, and Moses did not seem to be having any other signs of insanity. An interesting question, but it seems the film answered it fairly early on.

Perhaps my favourite theme throughout is the need for humility. Bale’s Moses begins as a proud, confident warrior and leader (not the shy, speech-impeded Biblical figure) whose journey leads him up against insurmountable obstacles. It is only when he humbles himself before God that he is finally able to complete his task and lead the Israelite people to safety.

I have to admit that the film was not the powerhouse that I wanted it to be. There is some solid acting and incredible visual effects, but the movie overall seems to be lacking that magical quality of a classic film. Yet, even in this adequate movie made by a secular filmmaker, we can draw themes of humility and God’s sovereignty out into the open for discussion. As you all know, any time we can get people to talk about God, faith, and humanity, I’m happy.

So, if you haven’t seen the film, go check it out. If you have, what did you think? Chime in!

Blessings,

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