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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: Frozen

Frozen_(2013_film)_posterThis post probably should have been written forever ago. As big Disney people, my wife and I were excited for the newest fairy tale movie from one of the greatest animation studios of all time. We weren’t able to see it in theatres right away because our son was born around the time it came out, but it was the first movie we went to as soon as our boy was old enough to stay a couple hours with Grandma and Grandpa.

Were we disappointed? No. Did we jump on the Frozen bandwagon, proclaiming its virtues for all to hear? Nope. While I enjoyed much about the movie, there are some issues that we had with it. Today, I want to discuss some of the themes we found in Frozen and start a discussion around their significance for those of faith.

First, I would like to say that I’m not really sure who the protagonist of this film is. The story generally follows Anna, but Elsa has the more complete character arc. Let’s take a look at both of these ladies and see what connections we can make from them to the eternal story.

Anna is a very relatable princess. She is likeable, dorky, and completely devoted to her sister. She has to deal with the hurt of her sister’s rejection, the loneliness after her parents’ death, and her bumpy search for romance. Anna sounds like many young women I know. And throughout, she maintains an optimism that we can learn from in an age of apathetic pessimism. As far as young heroines go, Anna is one of my favourites.

Elsa, on the other hand, has a very different set of problems to deal with. Her near-fatal encounter with her sister as a child created a deep-seated fear of herself that her parents were never able to help her with. She grows up fearing emotion and connection, much like other people I’ve known.

Elsa_(Frozen_2013)However, once Elsa’s powers are made known to the public and the people, just as expected, reject her as a monster, she flees to the mountains where she sings “Let It Go,” which currently has over 200 million views on YouTube (just the one video of it. There are several with views in the tens of millions). This is where we find my main issue with the movie. Elsa is different from others. Her difference alienates her from everyone she knows and loves. Her answer is to let go of everything holding her back, including her family, her people, and her responsibilities. She plans to cut everyone out and live by her own rules: “No right, no wrong, no rules for me.” I’ve spoken before about my distaste for such relativistic individualism, and this song epitomizes what I think is wrong with society right now.

To be fair, I don’t think the movie agrees with the message of the song. Elsa is shown that she can’t run from her fears, she can’t create her own little world safe from everyone else. She must learn that love is the way to conquer all her fears. However, since “Let it Go,” is such a beautiful, catchy, and self-affirming song, it has been adopted by the general public completely unattached to its context in-story.

On the other side, Frozen has one of my favourite definitions of love that I’ve found in any movie. Olaf, the magical snowman, tells Anna that love is about putting someone else’s needs before your own wants and needs. It is, by its very nature, sacrificial. While this may be hinted at in other fairy-tale movies, this is the first time (at least, that I remember) of love being given such an excellent treatment. Our culture currently tells us that love is an emotion, the bubbly, heady feeling you get when you are around “the one.” But the Bible tells us that love is action, not emotion. It is the choice to put others before yourself. Jesus, in John 15:13, tells us that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Love is the choice to sacrifice for others.

I believe that this is the major theme of the entire film: love as sacrifice. The shallow, instant “love” that Anna feels for Hans at the beginning is shown to be false, and it cost neither of them anything, (however, “Love is an Open Door,” is an amazing song…). The true love that breaks the curse is a sister choosing to die for her beloved sibling: Anna lays down her life in order to save Elsa’s. Even the comedic relief, Olaf, is willing to melt for those he loves.

Frozen promotes many things I can get behind. Courage to fight for those we care for. Love as a far more powerful force than fear. The importance of family and friends. Despite some of the storytelling flaws that I think it could have ironed out, the overall thrust of the story is one that I would love my children to adopt. However, despite the popularity of ‘Let it Go” and Queen Elsa in general, I think it is the Princess Anna who really shines as the heroine worth emulating in this story.

We could all do with a little more courage, love, and optimism, I think.

Blessings

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5 Reasons to See (and Not See) Noah

Well, you all knew it was coming. My post defending the movie Noah being made is one of my most read articles, and now that I’ve finally seen the film, I figured I should share some of my thoughts.

I liked the movie. I really did. I probably won’t buy it, but my initial reaction is that it is well done, and it stays true to the biblical story as well as it could. Is it exactly the story from the Bible? No. And I, for one, am glad it wasn’t. As I said before, the original story would have made for a really short and rather boring film, so I’m glad they added things to make it more exciting. I’m going to give five awesome things about this film, and five reasons someone may want to steer clear, just to be fair. Warning: there are spoilers below.

Awesome Things:

1. Stellar First Half

My wife disagrees with me, but I thought the first half of the film was miles better than the second. Aronofsky was able to take a classic Bible story, add in some cool new additions, and make the whole thing fresh for a new generation of seekers.

2. Portrayal of God

This is going to earn me a lot of backlash, but I loved how God, referred to throughout as “The Creator,” is portrayed. The creators of the film were not hesitant to show God’s beauty in creating the universe and his wrath towards humans for falling so far into sin. This God seems very true to his portrayal in throughout the Old Testament, but his glaring silence at key moments in the film can resonate with those yearning for God’s voice today.

3. Solid Filmmaking

There is very little about this production that isn’t well done. The writing, the acting, and the special effects all come together to create a movie-going experience that is definitely worth your $15. Each character’s arc (not ark) was compelling, and the inter-personal conflicts that arise keep everything tense. It’s really cool to see Hollywood using it’s impressive creative prowess to make the stories from the Bible come alive.

4. Interesting Questions

It seems that no one can agree on this film’s themes, and whether they accurately depict what is in the Bible. This doesn’t bother me. In fact, it made for some great conversation as we left the theatre. Some imagery is a little confusing (I still don’t understand the snake-skin armband, but I’m not ready to jump onto the Satan bandwagon yet), but some is really, really cool (the destructive power of industry, for example). I know many hated how progress was portrayed, but I think it is worth our time to ask if we are really stewarding the planet as we strip it of all its resources.

5. Rock Angels

The Watchers are cool, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Fallen angels who are encased in stone as punishment for their rejection of God’s commands may not be in the Bible, but the Fall of the Watchers comes from other non-canonical books, such as the books of Enoch and Jubilees. I loved their six arms harkening back to the six wings of the seraphim in Isaiah 6. Even their return to Heaven, signifying God’s forgiveness, while not biblical, is a reminder of the forgiveness we receive when we turn to follow Jesus.

The Not-So-Awesome

1. Noah Goes Crazy

At one of the key turning points in the film, Noah believes God does not want to start over using Noah’s family. He believes humanity had its chance and blew it, so God is only saving the animals. While this is clearly not in accord with the biblical account, some may find this section of the movie confusing. Does God actually want to abolish humanity, or is Noah just going crazy because of the hard choices he has already had to make. Hard to know, and the movie does little to clear it up.

2. Dark, dark, dark.

This is pretty self-explanitory, but if you’ve seen any of Darren Aronofsky’s movies, you know he’s not too big into sunlight and nice things. He delves into the dark recesses of the human mind, and pulls up some distrubing stuff. I had to look away as a CGI animal was torn apart alive by the wicked who were about to perish. However, if we really look at the source material for the story, the narrative is pretty dark to begin with. Humanity is so far gone that God needs to kill almost every person on the planet. I’m sure their dying screams would have been horrific, and the poor family on the boat would not have been singing joyous songs while others drown. But it is a little oppressive, so this movie is not for the faint of heart.

3. Creation

If you are a hard-core young earth creationist, you aren’t going to like the portrayal of Creation. Noah tells the rest of the family on the ark the story of God creating the universe, and a rapid visual showcase accompanies the tale. Each line is partnered with the corresponding section of the evolutionary, old earth take on how God created everything. It is not a literal seven day telling. The creation of humanity, however, is left up in the air. We see life begin as single celled creatures and evolve all the way to tree-dwelling apes, but the camera pans away and comes back to find humanity fully formed (and glowing…). I appreciated this portrayal of Creation, but I know others don’t. You’ve been warned.

4. Climaxes

This film has too many of them. A huge climax at the introduction of the flood and the battle for the ark. A final showdown between Noah and Tubal-Cain, the main antagonist. Noah’s conflict over the fate of his grandchildren. Noah’s choice to rejoin his family at the end. Perhaps this was meant to mimic the wave-like pattern of being on the ark, but so many ups and downs had me a little disappointed in the plot structure. If you don’t care about such things, you probably won’t even notice.

5. Setting

I’m aware that this choice was on purpose, but I did not like how ambiguous the film was about when it was set. The wicked people seem to have advanced to near-modern industrial practices, yet still use swords, spears, and axes (as well as weird glowing-gunpowder-rock “guns”). It seemed to be a cross between ancient humanity and post-apocalyptic survivors. It’s not a big thing, but I wasn’t a fan.

Was this movie perfect? Not at all. Does it raise some interesting questions about humanity, our relationship with our Creator, and our respect for the rest of his Creation? Definitely. If you are looking for the Bible story, I would suggest the first episode of Mark Burnett’s The Bible mini-series, because this is not that story. It instead uses the story as a jumping off point for a great movie that blends drama and action and explores our faith in a God who is beyond our comprehension. If that is something you are up for, I highly suggest seeing the film. And be ready to talk about it with those you see it with.

Blessings

A Defense of Noah

For everyone unaware, Hollywood’s next big biblical epic is coming out next year. Darren Aronofsky (director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream) is set to release Noah in March 2014. With a star-studded cast, including Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly, and Emma Watson, this marks a return of the serious, big-budget films that explore the biblical stories for a new generation. I have loved the epic biblical movies of yesteryear, such as The Ten Commandments or Samson and Delilah, and more modern retellings, like The Bible miniseries, so this new film makes me very excited. If you haven’t checked out the trailer, you can see it here.

Noah-2014-Movie-Poster

 

However, not everyone is excited for this film. I started my day this morning with an article by a fellow Christian railing against the danger of Noah. As the rest of my post is going to be refuting this article, you should probably go read it first:

http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2013/11/19/dont-be-taken-in-by-the-noah-movies-promotion/

Now, I have several issues with this writer’s challenge right from the start. The author claims that he has “various sources” who have given evidence that the film is not biblical. I am skeptical of such vague claims about the source of the plot points he attacks later. Without knowing who these people are, I have no way of knowing their intentions, or even their qualifications for judging the biblicalness of a film. Are they film critics, biblical scholars, or just a couple of crew from the film who are harbouring because Aronofsky took the last cucumber sandwich from craft services? I have no idea. Yet, for the sake of argument, we will continue as if the following claims are true.

I have no idea what the inter-personal relationships are going to be like in the film, but I would bet quite a lot of money (if I was the gambling sort) that much of the dialogue is not going to be taken from the Bible. Before my conservative friends get upset, let’s have a look as to why. In the entire Flood story, from Genesis 6 – 9, only one person says anything at all: God. After Noah is told to build the ark, the Bible tells us “Noah did everything just as God commanded him.” (Gen. 6:22) God then gives Noah directions about which animals to bring on the Ark, and we are again told, “And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him. (Gen. 7:5)  Not exactly riveting cinematic material.

If Noah adds characters and interpersonal issues for dramatic reasons, we should not jump to the accusations of “unbiblical.” The artists are merely telling the story in a different way than the Bible has. We will return to this idea in my conclusion.

The issue of Noah’s character, again founded on vague details like “Noah said essentially…” is also hard to build a strong case for. In Genesis, we are told that Noah was the only righteous man of his generation, but we are also told that he passes out, drunk and naked. The first words recorded of Noah’s are curses against his son. Definitely a person of complicated spiritual and emotional well-being. The author of this article seems to balk at the idea of a mentally strained Noah, but I believe there is evidence that the patriarch may have been affected by the ordeal.

After a staggering list of unsupported claims about the plot and trivial detail differences, the author attacks the editors for the “con-job” they have pulled by stringing together enough of the film to make Christians and Jewish people willing to see the movie. This theory makes the filmmakers seem far more sinister than I think we can accuse them of being. Even if it turns out that this movie has very little in common with the biblical story, every trailer editor has the job of making the movie seem exciting and worthy of our fifteen or twenty bucks at the theatre. Of course they want us to be excited to see the film, because Noah needs to make money or else Aronofsky will have to stop making movies.

Finally, our friend asks if we want our children and families to watch a movie that inaccurately portrays such a pivotal part of the Bible’s narrative. My answer is yes. I want my kids to know what the world is saying about our faith. Am I worried that they will be lured away from the true account into believing what Hollywood tells them about the Flood? No, because I am not leaving the spiritual education of my children to Hollywood. It is my job to instruct my kids in the truth of the faith. When they see this film, they will know how the Bible tells the story.

This should be true for all Christians and Jewish people. If you are leaving your spiritual formation to big screen movies, you may need to start afresh. I don’t think a retelling of the Flood story is going to lead any away from God.

As for those who do not know the story, I believe that this movie could be a huge blessing. After watching what appears to be an epic film with an incredible story, perhaps people will go “read the book.” I did that with The Hunger Games, so there is no reason to expect this situation to be any different. And anything that gets more people reading the Bible is good in my books.

In the end, this is a question of the place of an artist in telling God’s story. Are we allowed to change details for dramatic effect? How important is the number of Noah’s sons for the Flood story? In the context of the Bible, you can argue that it is very important, for each son’s lineage is traced further in the book. Yet, in the Flood story, the important detail is that Noah and his family were saved by God for His purpose. The number of animals, the size of the boat, the opposition that the family faced are all secondary to the main idea: that God saves. If this is captured, then the story is told.

Actually, my only qualm about this film so far is to be found on IMDB. Under genre, Noah is labeled as a fantasy. I understand that to a secular person this may be considered true, but to the faithful, this is a little insulting.

But people are making good art about God. Perhaps this should be celebrated and not condemned. If we do that, maybe we will see more good art about the Creator in the future. Maybe.

Blessings

A Monster Mash

It may a couple of days after Hallowe’en, but it’s still the holiday weekend for many. I’m sure several Hallowe’en celebrations are going on as I write this post, with costumed party-goers stalking around as vampires and pirates. To finish off the conversation, I want to give my quick thoughts on a few monsters and what they can mean for our faith.

Vampires

They’re everywhere these days. At least as popular as zombies, the cold-blooded predators of the night have caught the imagination of our generation with stories like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Twilight series, Underworld, True Blood, and the Anne Rice novels. But why have these blood-sucking monsters become so fascinating to our culture?

I believe that the largest appeal of vampires lies in our love of hedonism in the West. We seek pleasure, and we want it now. We are told that we deserve the good life with everything we could ever want, and dream of the day we have these things. Vampires live that dream. As immortals, they are able to live long enough to obtain all the worldly wealth anyone could want. They are physically strong enough to take whatever they desire, and their predatory nature gives them the will to do so. There is also an inherent sensuality to the fanged night-dwellers: they live at night, while others are partying, relaxing, or sleeping; they are often graceful and fit; and the act of sucking blood from someone’s neck is very intimate.

Are vampires inherently evil? We seem to be asking that question lately. The original vampires were wicked monsters, but recent authors have started to question that idea. Louis, from Interview with the Vampire, struggles with the vampiric life he did not choose. The Twilight series features good vampires that do not feed on humans. Even I’m writing a story that involves a vampire having to choose what kind of immortal she wants to be. It seems to me that vampires, like humans, are “born” into a life that tends away from goodness. They are hungry for that which they should not take. In their struggle, we see ourselves and our addictions. Are they overdone right now? Definitely. Can they be redeemed? I hope so.

Werewolves

Almost any time we find vampires in the media, we find werewolves somewhere nearby. They make for an excellent foil to the aristocratic undead: while they both are monstrous predators of the night, werewolves are often everything vampires are not. They are wild and savage while vampires are refined and sophisticated. They tend to be a rural, not urban terror. They are not usually immortal. Yet, they have haunted our stories for a very long time.

Like vampires, werewolves are powerful. In a world that seems to show us daily how little power we actually have, the idea of gaining supernatural strength is appealing. We also live so tightly wound, trying to maintain control over our lives, and the prospect of having to lose control may be liberating for some. Yet, there is still something incredibly terrifying about a monster that can live among regular people without being known. We never know who the werewolf is, feeding any fears we might have about those around us. I’ve said many times that our society has become hyper-individualized, and this has led to a strong aversion to people who aren’t in our circles. The idea that the mailman, or your teacher, or even your spouse could be a murderous monster strikes something deep within: how well do we really know those around us?

There is a cure to this fear: get to know some people. Neighbours become far less intimidating after you’ve had them over for dinner. Even something as small as getting to know the name of someone you see daily can allow the first seeds of real community to start to sprout. Just as wolves only survive in packs, we thrive best in community. Maybe we can learn from the furry fiends.

Aliens

Aliens are not as hot today as the other big three of horror, but they have been staples of Hallowe’en for much of the past 60 years or so. Unlike zombies, vampires, and werewolves, however, aliens are the enemy from without. The other three were all once human and have turned into the enemy (part of their scariness), but aliens are completely unlike us. They are the enemy we do not know.

Aliens really became popular during the cold war. Western society became less afraid of the known enemies, like criminals and soldiers, and more afraid of spies and the forces behind the “Iron Curtain.” (It’s actually quite fascinating to look at war’s effect on cinema, but that’s another post). The Cold War may be over, but there is still a fear of the “other” that resides within us all.

When we think about it, “otherness” is quite daunting, even when it isn’t armed with lasers and bent on the destruction of humanity. Aliens are scary because they cannot be communicated with (often), do not have common ground to seek empathy on, and have completely different motives from what we consider normal. We don’t know how to fight them or reason with them, or even run from them. And their technology often places them in a far more superior place than we are, which kicks us from the top of the evolutionary chain (if you subscribe to evolution).

However, aliens often bring people together. Having a common enemy draws humanity to a common cause: our survival. While the unification of homo sapiens is an admirable goal, one which I would love to see one day, I hope that it does not take an otherworldly foe to do the job. If we can find other causes, perhaps creative and productive rather than destructive, we can pull together and find peace. There are so many qualities that we share, we really just need to find enough to empathize with each other.

There are many other monsters that I haven’t touched upon today, but I have to save something for next year. I hope you all stayed safe this Hallowe’en, and that your sugar-induced coma doesn’t last too long. Until next week.

Blessings

March of the Dead

Hallowe’en is quickly approaching, which means we are about to be inundated with ghouls, goblins, and all manner of the walking dead. For many Christians, this holiday is full of images and icons that are incompatible with their faith. I pass no judgement because I’ve wrestled with the place of Hallowe’en in my faith. However, I find that there is a lot of gold we can mine from the tales and themes of the holiday. Today, I’m going to talk about one of the most popular (even throughout the year) genres of horror: Zombies!

220px-Night_of_the_Living_Dead
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The zombie genre as we know it began in 1968 with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The undead had been explored before, but this film really introduced us to the shambling horde of cannibalistic dead returning to terrify the living. It is often said that the film was a commentary of the rampant consumerism that was (and still is) taking over our society. Our willingness to become complete consumers turns us into something sub-human, a mindless horde with only one goal: to feast on more. 

After this film, George A. Romero (and his ex-partner John Russo) created several more films that explored the genre. Other filmmakers, game designers, and authors have joined the cause and our western media is now saturated with zombies. The Evil Dead, 28 Days Later, Warm Bodies, Sean of the Dead, World War Z, The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, Plants vs. Zombies, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are but a taste of those who have explored the corners of the undead story. We have serious horror tropes that invade the otherwise calm suburbs and farcical parodies that show how ridiculous our obsession with zombies is getting. It seems like everyone these days is writing about the walking dead.

Yet, for the Christian, I can think of very few genres that fit so well as an analogy for the Christian world-view. We who have eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (a different death and resurrection than the zombie kind) are surrounded by “the dead.” As we live in this world, we must face temptations that can draw us away from the source of all life, perhaps turning us into a part of the horde of the dead.

424px-Stay_Alive_and_Avoid_Zombies
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Several passages in the Bible sound like they could have come right out of a zombie movie script:

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world…Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” Ephesians 2:1-3

Walking according to the course of the world, desires of the flesh, children of wrath. Definitely good zombie material.

“He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of god does not have life.” 1 John 5:12

This sounds like a vaccine or cure to me…

Which brings me to my next point: the cure. In the Christian faith, God has entrusted His disciples with the mission of spreading His Good News, the Gospel. Through this Gospel, God gives new life to those who were “dead in their sins.” He returns them to life by the blood of Jesus Christ. And we, Christians, are the stewards of this saving message.

Unfortunately, most zombie movies focus on the living as they struggle to survive against the onslaught of the dead. Few stories focus on a cure, a way to save those who are currently murderous corpses. The only hope they showcase is to escape the city and pray that the government has something set up. The survivors must flee from the horror of their situation to a place that is safe. Christians do not have this luxury.

We are in the thick of the rehabilitation of the dead. We must be on the front line, seeking a way to administer the cure to the greatest number of the living dead. If we flee the perils of this world to seek safety by ourselves, we will not be faithful stewards of the Gospel. Yes, we risk getting “bitten,” failing against temptation and feeling the pain of the broken world. I often wish we could just hole ourselves up until Christ returns. But the cause is worth the risk. There are several of my friends that I long to spend eternity with in Heaven, but if the Bible is true, this won’t be the case unless they accept the cure to their “death.”

If you are not a Christian and you take offense to being called “dead,” I apologize, but it is the language of the Bible, our Holy Scripture. Chime in below and let me know what you think? I’m sure there are people out there who think the exact opposite, that Christians are the walking dead who need to be cured by intelligent enlightenment. Let’s talk about it!

Come back later this week and I will talk more about other things that go bump in the night!

Blessings

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