Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Robe

The Robe (1953), like the last film Ben-Hur, is the story of a man who lived in the time of Jesus and was radically changed by his experience with Jesus.  But where Judah Ben-Hur witnessed both Jesus’ life and death, the Roman soldier Marcellus (Richard Burton) in The Robe begins his story with the death of Jesus, which he is assigned to oversee.  He is the soldier who won Jesus’ robe in a dice game after the crucifixion.  Afterwards, the robe appears to have some sort of spiritual power to cause Marcellus great pain or guilt, so he gets rid of it.  When, a year or so later, he sees the loving behavior of those who follower Jesus’ teachings, he is convinced he was wrong to allow the crucifixion and converts to Christianity.  The emperor Caligula fears this Christian sect, and is angered by their refusal to acknowledge the him (and Rome) as the highest authority - Caligula views Christians as traitors.  When Marcellus refuses to abandon Christianity, claiming that he can be loyal to both Rome and Jesus, Caligula apparently sentences Marcellus and his girlfriend Diana to death, which is portrayed as Marcellus and Diana walking out a door into a sea of white fluffy clouds.

There are so many problems with this movie.  Really, like, a lot.  

I’ll begin with the representation of Jesus, which is the purpose of this series.  Jesus is on screen for very little time - we basically only see him entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, then a scene later he is walking to his death and put up on the cross.  The crucifixion here is an important plot point on which Marcellus’ story hinges, but is not the focus of the movie.  As such, Jesus is shown dutifully, but not substantially.  The image of Jesus that is more important is image of him we see in his followers - a loving, peaceful people who are persecuted for apparently no reason.  

It is what this movie does in its portrayal of those influenced by Jesus that I do not like, and the historical details in particular are fairly horrendous.  One man is converted on the spot when looking at Jesus enter Jerusalem, claiming things like, “Only his eyes spoke...”  Something about these moments make me feel like Jesus is more like a magician than the Son of God.  

There was one almost laughable scene after Jesus’ death when Marcellus encounters a man on the street, obviously emotionally distressed, who says he should tell people to believe, before running off.  He says before he goes that his name is Judas (accompanied by loud music and thunderclaps), and exits up stairs leading to a gnarled dead tree.  While I did like the visual cue of the tree implying Judas’ imminent suicide, as soon as I realized that this was Judas, wracked with guilt and claiming people should believe in Jesus, I just thought, “You can’t do that.  You can’t just take a vital character to the Jesus narrative and invent feelings and words that you don’t know he had.”  This was slightly different in Ben-Hur when we see Pontius Pilate a few times because those encounters were not offering much insight into his character - they were more anecdotal coincidences.  This struck me more as a serious mistreatment of history and as just one of many attempts to manipulate the audiences emotions.

Meanwhile, even though the “Christians” in the movie are loving and understanding of the importance of their messiah’s sacrifice, Marcellus is driven for a bit almost entirely by guilt.  When he put on Christ’s robe for the first time, he convulsed in pain, and I could imagine the robe was essentially whispering in his’ ear, “Look what you did to me!  I’m Jesus!  And you killed me!  Don’t you just feel so terrible about yourself now?!”  Richard Burton’s over-the-top, exaggerated pain gestures do not help the case much.  I was able to excuse the style of acting of older films in Ben-Hur, but it is more difficult to hear.  People do not cry, they sob and heave and grit their teeth.  People do not get injured, they writhe in excruciating agony.  Even the more positive emotions struck me as a bit too much - the Christians were not just kind and generous, but grateful to be crippled, and almost simple-minded when trying to understand their persecution and low place in Roman society.  (Perhaps this is what Christians are supposed to act like, but it did not seem like a very organic result of their faith in Jesus, more like a wistful dreamy show of faith.)  

But let’s talk about that persecution of Christians for a minute.  Marcellus encountered these people just a year or so after the crucifixion.  At this time, there were no Christians.  It was not a thing that people could be.  There were some Jews and some Gentiles who knew who Jesus was, and followed his teachings.  But the Gospels had not been written yet.  Paul had not yet begun his ministry.  There was no such thing as a clearly identifiable religion called “Christianity.”  And what’s more, if there was a defined group of these Jesus-followers, Caligula was not the emperor who ordered their deaths.  One scene showed Roman soldiers shooting arrows without cause into a crowd.  This was not the work of Caligula.  That’s more like the behavior of Nero, and even then, the persecution and martyrdom of Christians was the exception, not the rule.  

But these details do not matter so much because in this movie the point is that Rome is bad.  Rome does not want you to be a Christian.  Even the opening shots of the film, showing the slave trade in the middle of Rome itself seem designed to make us think, “This is a bad place because they sell and own people, which we now know is morally wrong.  This is not the side I should be rooting for.”  

There are some nice moments, as when Marcellus gives a young boy a donkey as a gift, and discovers that boy had re-gifted it to his crippled friend for transportation.  But these moments are not plentiful enough to rise above some of the oddities - there is a sword-fight for two that seem too, I think the correct word would be swashbuckling to feel natural in Rome or Nazareth.  Maybe it’s right for Robin Hood or a pirate ship, but not here.  

But ultimately I simply could not get over the fact that this whole story seems to depend on a really severe guilt trip.  The author of the novel says he wrote it to ask what happened to the soldier who won Christ’s robe.  Apparently the answer this film has is that he was wracked with guilt and converted to kindness to assuage that guilt.  I just don’t believe that is how Christianity works.  I don’t think that system of guilt-repentance-guilt-repentance on a seeming loop is the way a relationship with Christ should operate.  Sure we sin, we confess, we repent, we try not to do it again.  But there’s more too it than that, and while Marcellus does seem to reach a point of total change, the way he gets there seemed strange to me - and considering this is a movie to be watched by an audience, that guilt trip extends to them as well.  I don’t think a movie about the role that Jesus plays in our lives should serve to make an audience feel worse about themselves, but better.  And the assurance at the end that if we stick to our guns, we’ll be rewarded in heaven with awesome cloud shoes is ultimately unsatisfying, since we’ve still got to live our lives on earth for a while.  Unless we choose martyrdom like Marcellus and Diana did...but I suppose being executed isn’t all that bad since they skipped that part in the movie and went straight to the part about walking on clouds.

The Robe has flawed theology, seriously inaccurate history, and a disrespect for the secular cultures in which we live.  But hey, look on the bright side, at least we get to feel bad about ourselves for killing Jesus, right?  

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Things We Learned on the Metro

I've been in Boston for a few days now, getting ready to start my graduate program in film production at Boston University.  Somehow, I hadn't expected everything to be different... somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I expected to find UNC's campus transplanted into the Boston infrastructure, and all I'd have to deal with was new people and their accents.  After the initial overwhelming feeling of being in a new place, knowing I'll be living here for at least two years, I've settled in pretty quickly so far.  This past summer I've been living just outside of DC, and I'd like to take a minute to discuss some of the differences between the cities based on observations I've made while riding the T. (Boston's subway system is called the T, instead of the Metro.)

Accents are almost directly correlated with class.  The more blue-collar, working class a person is (or seems), the thicker that Southie-sounding accent.  You know, the one from Good Will Hunting and The Town and The Departed.  It's honestly not different in that way than the South, where you tend to find the heavier twangs in more rural, less buit-up areas, or in people who have not (for whatever reason) risen to a position in the more affluent business world.

There are far fewer earbuds on the T than on the Metro.  People are more social.  In DC, you're not really supposed to look at anyone on the metro.  You keep your head down, read your newspaper, don't talk too loudly.  Here in Boston I've witnessed total strangers spark up a conversation - given, it's small talk usually - "Oh, is that so-and-so book?  I've heard it's good." "Yeah it is, you should check it out," and so on.  But still, they talk to each other.  They apologize when they're in your way - in DC, you are expected to apologize to someone who is in your way instead...especially if that person in your way is wearing a suit, meaning they are surely very important to national security.

A man reached over my dad's and my heads to grab a rail, and apologized for basically putting his armpit in our faces.  In DC, you would receive a glare for having dared to allow your face to be in the way of this stranger's musk.  (Fortunately, neither of these systems is like the Paris metro, where musk is commonplace and pungent, sometimes curry, sometimes with a smack of ham.)

But there are somethings which are annoying no matter what train system you are riding.  I am simply calling it how I see it.

- If you bring a stroller onto the subway, and you do not have a baby in that stroller, you make life harder for other people.  You are wasting space with your stupid contraption.

- If you bring a stroller onto the subway, and you keep your child in it, well, you're wasting less space, but you're still taking up a lot, so don't expect people to be very pleased about it.

- If you bring four giant stuffed Bed, Bath, and Beyond shopping bags onto the subway, you will be that person that everyone hates.  Just be aware - keep your head down, and have a look of contrition on your face, and perhaps we'll forgive you.

- If you are medically obese on the subway, whether or not you can help it, you will be in other people's way.  We'll forgive you out of sympathy, but you'll still be in our way.

- If you need to brace yourself, please, dear God, please do not do it by leaning back against a pole, allowing that pole to find its way between your buttocks, and then clenching.  It is as disturbing as it is, I suspect, unsanitary.  And rest assured, we will notice it and swap knowing glances with the other riders, asking with our eyes, "What is this guy doing?!"

So that sums up some of what I have witnessed in my first few days in Boston.  There's more, of course, and maybe I'll get to that later.  Maybe not.

Stay tuned, though, for my next piece on Jesus in film, where I'll be looking at a movie I did not like, 1953's The Robe.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A few long-winded thoughts on this whole deal.

(For the background on this post, check out this article: 

Okay, someone asked me for my thoughts on this Psalm-100-kicked-out-a-gay-member situation.  And even though none of the rest of you asked, I’m putting my two cents in anyway.  Magnanimously and with great self-aggrandizement, I cannot help but feel that I am in a particularly good position to comment.  I am a straight Christian who does not believe homosexuality necessarily conflicts with Christianity.  And as a former Achordant, I have 3 years experience in the UNC a cappella community (whatever that means), and have some insight into what it looks like to take people into - and cast people out of - your singing group.  Yet as a recent graduate, I also feel fairly objective.  I have no personal investment in these groups institutionally, only an interest in my friends and a hope that they are doing well and doing good.

First off, let me be clear that I cannot speak for Psalm 100, its members, or Will (who in the years I’ve known him, has never needed anyone to speak up for him).  I can say that Will is one of the most outgoing and loving people I’ve ever met, and he has an intense respect for other people’s feelings, opinions, and basic human dignity - I have always admired him for that, even if I did not express it.  For an organization whose primary goal is to bless its campus with the love of Christ through music to expel someone like Will, who I’ve seen act out that love on a daily basis, it is truly their loss.  

Second, I want to say that the responses to Psalm 100 and its members that I’ve seen on the DTH article page, as well as on facebook and twitter have been unnecessarily vicious and mean-spirited.  If you believe that other people should be more tolerant, and you won’t tolerate them if they’re not, then you become the very hypocrite you’re decrying.  I believe that Psalm was misguided in their decision, but I do not believe they were acting out of malice or hatred, and the same cannot be said of all of you who are currently insulting them, comparing them to Westboro Baptist Church, and questioning their sexuality in open forum.  When you act like that, you forfeit the moral high ground, and shame on you for lowering yourself to that level.

So, now the good stuff.

To all my non-Christian friends who might be confused about the difference between discrimination based on sexual orientation, and disagreeing on the scripture in question, well there is a difference.  One says, “You can’t be here because you’re gay.”  The other says, “You can’t be here because you disagree with us on a fundamental issue to our faith and the faith we’re trying to spread.”  Psalm is claiming the latter as their cause for voting out a member.  Which would be fine.... except for a few things:

  • By this logic, straight allies must also be expelled from Christian communities.  By this logic, I should have been expelled from the leadership team of InterVarsity during my junior year.  I was not.  This is the problem - straight people who affirm homosexuality in Christian communities are seldom if ever targeted in these situations.  It’s only the gay people who are okay with gay people that ever get voted out... So the claim that this is the result of a theological disagreement does not seem totally valid or objective.  I know one of Psalm 100’s former presidents (and several past members) have in fact been allies, yet they were never voted out for their position.
  • This argument presumes that the issue of homosexuality is a fundamental and necessary focal point of the Christian faith.  I personally do not believe it is.  Many Christians I know do not believe it is.  They’re more inclined to cite the teachings of Jesus and the Gospel narrative as fundamental beliefs.  One’s opinion on homosexuality is secondary (or even...thirdary?).  In fact, this is why Psalm 100’s constitution, to the best of my knowledge, is fairly broad and interdenominational when it comes to doctrinal issues... so broad, in fact, that it says nothing specific about sex or sexual orientation at all.  (If I’m right about that, and there’s a chance I am not, it would completely invalidate Psalm 100’s claim that Will was voted out due to disagreements with the organization’s constitution.)  To quote Rupertus Meldenius, “Unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in both.”  Funnily enough, I think that same principle is a part of Psalm’s constitution, so I think they got their essentials mixed up.
  • This is not consistent with Psalm 100’s history.  A few years ago, a very talented (gay) male auditioned for several groups at UNC, and all of them were prepared to offer him a spot, including Psalm 100.  Members of Psalm 100 at the time told me they suspected he was probably gay, but were prepared to overlook that because he had such a good voice.  I wonder if Will was a better soloist, he’d still be in the group?  


Perhaps there is flat-out homophobia in the group - I suppose it’s possible that the men are uncomfortable with the idea of gay men other than worship leaders in such close contact with them, and the women are disappointed by having one fewer option to fill in the blank man-shaped hole in their dream weddings... but that seems unlikely.  After all, if the idea of flirting or attraction is such a threat, then having a co-ed group where everyone has to be straight seems kind of a bad idea.  From my memory, I’m pretty sure Psalm has spurred at least as many in-group relationships as the Clef Hangers.  


No, I think what’s happened is an ideological shift.  Over the past 4 years, I witnessed Psalm 100 transition from a more moderate-liberal group (several members even voted for Obama - gasp!), to a more moderate-conservative group.  At least a few (I think more) are affiliated with Cornerstone, which I believe to be UNC’s most conservative Christian ministry.  It’s chapter leader, Miles O’Neill, has taught in the past on the incompatibility of homosexuality and Christianity - yet by his own admission to me, he has never actually read any scholarship or opinions supporting their compatibility.  Not Mel White, not Jack Rogers, not even Andrew Marin.  If I had to guess, I would say this same limited-worldview, limited-scholarship mindset has led Psalm 100 to its current predicament.

It appears to me that what has happened here is that there is a majority opinion amongst Psalm members about homosexuality and that as a result of that majority, alternative interpretations of scripture became unacceptable.  The members of Psalm 100 have made a few unfortunate mistakes here, though perhaps not realizing it.  

  • Despite being a non-denominational group, they have collectively spoken for all Christians everywhere.  This small group of college students has essentially claimed that they know better about the Bible than all the Christians in the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Metropolitan Community Church, several congregations of the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Quakers, and to an extent even the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the National Baptist Convention, the Pentecostal Church and the American Baptist Church.  And that is quite a claim to make.  Alas, if only those massive congregations of Christian men and women had the wisdom apparently possessed by the members of Psalm 100. (INSERT RETROSPECTIVE SNARK ALERT HERE)
  • The decision to vote out a gay member unfortunately does not speak only to the image and reputation of Psalm 100.  It has a direct effect on the way people on UNC’s campus perceive all the Christian ministries on campus, making it more difficult for those ministries to go about their outreach without tacking on this additional barrier to people’s willingness to hear a Gospel they are growing more and more convinced is intolerant and discriminatory.  I’m sure the members of Psalm that are still left are happy to quote scripture to themselves, the stuff about taking joy in persecution for Christ etc.  The funny thing is, I suspect Will is in a position to do the same...

Christians must allow themselves the room to disagree on how to interpret the Bible, which is shockingly unclear on many issues, and this issue in particular.  We have different ideas about what is fundamental to the Gospel, and different ideas about how to interpret even those, and different ideas further about how to apply those ideas to a modern culture so different from the one in which the books of the Bible were originally written.  I wonder, if most of the members of Psalm 100 adhered to reformed Calvinist theology, and firmly believed in predestination as a fundamental tenant of Christian theology, would they have cast out an Arminian?  If most of the members of Psalm 100 felt the historical existence of a real Adam and Eve was necessary to the Gospel narrative, would they cast out someone who believed the evidence for evolution was too overwhelming to accept that Adam and Eve existed, even if that person still believed in the teachings, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ?  I doubt it very much.  

However, I have not yet gotten to Psalm 100’s biggest misstep.  They have opened themselves to a complete retraction of their student organization status.  They claim they are discriminating based on ideology and not sexuality, but I suspect few people buy that and if pressure mounts enough, the university might not buy it either.  And according to the Supreme Court’s decision in CLS vs. Martinez last summer, UNC would be constitutionally justified in casting Psalm 100 out from its groups.  (The irony of that sentence is pretty thick.)  The SCOTUS decided that the effect of discrimination against gay individuals outweighed the intellectual argument for freedom of religion in this case.  While they respect the right of religious groups to discriminate against gay people, they do not respect the right of them to do it while receiving federal and state money and while utilizing federal and state facilities.  So I just hope the current members Psalm 100 are prepared for what would be a completely justified and legally acceptable sanction from UNC, and I hope they have a good answer for what I’m sure would be their very disappointed alumni and founders as to how they let it happen. 

That’s where I stand, that’s what I think, at least right now.  Don’t mean to offend, but I’m not surprised if I did.  Feel free to disagree.  I’m not one of the Christians that minds if you do.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Ben-Hur" - A Tale of the Christ?

When Ben-Hur was released in 1959, it was receieved with almost universal critical acclaim, won a record-setting 11 Academy Awards, and was a box-office smash, grossing more than any other film that year.  Film historians and critics frequently regard Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) as the original "blockbuster," so imagine my surprise to read New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther refer to this film as a "blockbuster spectacle" sixteen years earlier, and on top of that, a "remarkably intelligent and engrossing human drama."

(NOTE: I have more thoughts and insights that I've written here, but in an effort to give these things some structure, I have limited the content.  If I could write a full essay or research paper on each film I see, I would, but it would be exhausting, and these are meant to be recreational.  Perhaps I'll get better as we go along, but for now if you'd like to hear more about the movie, quotes I thought were interesting, more ideas about the representations of Jesus or other characters, or anything else I do not elaborate on enough for you, let me know and I'll try to accomodate.)


Today it seems there are two schools of thought on this Ben-Hur: those who feel it is a stirring epic that puts strong human emotion on display, and those who feel it is bloated, poorly written, overlong, and terribly acted.  It is almost universally recognized, though, that the chariot race near the end of the film is one of the most exciting and technically impressive action sequences ever filmed.  

After watching Ben-Hur for the second time (about six years since the first viewing), I put myself squarely in the first camp.  The subgenre of filmmaking generally known as "biblical epics" flourished in the 1950s and 60s, and they can be campy, sometimes hitting or sometimes missing the mark, but I truly believe this is a great movie, and you should go and watch it soon if you haven't already.  It is long, yes, but it works hard for that length, it earns it.  The film as a whole is a technical masterpiece, and director William Wyler works wonders in keeping the whole thing from falling apart.  It was interesting to think of just how many movies owe a debt to this one - Gladiator, certainly, but also Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (the pod-racing scene), and I noticed one shot in particular of hands reaching out of a grate on a sinking boat that I am sure is the reference point for a few images in Pearl Harbor.  

There are, of course, some problems with the film now which were not problems at the time of its production.  For instance, a horse-loving Arab sheik is played by Hugh Griffith (white and British), in what might as well have been blackface makeup.  His performance was widely praised and he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  This obviously would have not been the case today.  And yet in the world of this film it is acceptable and we must manage to see past it.  There is also the question of a gay subtext in the relationship of Ben-Hur and Messala, which I will generally ignore, as I find it distracting and unsubstantial in the larger themes of the story.  

Furthermore, I'd like to address the criticism of the performances, particularly those that might claim that Charlton Heston's acting is weak, while Stephen Boyd's is over the top.  Firstly, this time period and genre demanded a certain style of acting which is seldom utilized today.  Heston is a limited actor (just as Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck, or Nicholas Cage are limited actors who turn out remarkable work with the right role), but this role suits him very well.  Ben-Hur is a strong man with strong emotions, and Heston feels them exactly as much as he should.  Russell Crowe won an Academy Award for his work in Gladiator for what is a similarly stylized performance.  Crowe has shown greater depth and nuance elsewhere (particularly in The Insider) and yet the broader strokes of emotion suit the swords-and-sandals genre of Gladiator, just as a simpler, more intense performance from Heston suits the grandiose style of Ben-Hur.  Boyd as Messala, on the other hand, brings a mild obsession with Rome, and a peculiar mischievousness that makes me seriously wonder about his motivations in his friendship with Ben-Hur - he also performs strong, bold emotions, but makes one wonder if Messala himself is the one performing, while Boyd maintains some ulterior motives beneath the surface of the character.


Based on the novel by Civil War General Lew Wallace, the movie centers on Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) a Jewish prince who is falsely imprisoned along with his mother and sister by his best friend, the Roman Messala (Stephen Boyd).  After serving three years rowing in the galleys, he gains the attention of a Roman consul who adopts him and makes him a Roman citizen.  With this new wealth and respect, Judah returns to Jerusalem to find his family, and seek vengeance on Messala. (Cue: chariot race.) He defeats Messala, finds his mother and sister and discovers they contracted leprosy while in prison, and is at a loss for what to do.  

But I'm leaving something out.  The film is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ."  Indeed, the opening sequence is the Nativity story.  The second scene features Joseph explaining that his adoptive son is doing "his Father's work."  When Judah Ben-Hur is enslaved, in chains on the way to the galleys, he falls down thirsty.  Although the guard demands that no one give him water, a man (who we in the audience understand to be Jesus) gives him water regardless, and when the guard challenges him, the guard is silenced simply by looking into Jesus' face.  When Judah returns to his home he finds his former slave Esther (with whom he has always been in love), and discovers she is enamored by the words of a new teacher - she quotes the beatitudes to him.  And at the end of the story, when Judah does not know what to do about his leprous family, he learns there is a trial taking place in the center of Jerusalem, and discovers an innocent man being punished, much like he once was.  He recognizes the man as the same one who gave him water, and he kneels to return the favor.  And yet Judah remains a skeptic.  He does not understand this persecuted man or the power he possesses. Upon Jesus' crucifixion, though, Judah's mother and sister are miraculously healed and Judah has learned to get past his contempt and bitterness for his old enemy Messala.

Depiction of Jesus

So what, then, is Jesus' role in this movie?  He's hardly even a supporting character, yet all of Judah Ben-Hur's story hinges on the story of Jesus.  By opening the film with the Nativity, the stage is set for a narrative that depends on the story of Christ - they are linked, paralleled, dependent.  Wyler uses great tact in never actually showing us Jesus' face - perhaps an attempt to avoid iconography, or maybe to remind us that this is not Jesus' story, I'm not sure.  But as one reviewer put it, "The Ascent of Calvary and The Crucifixion are pictured, without breathless reverence, in a matter-of-fact manner, as contemporary political events." What this accomplishes, then, is a focus on the other characters, the normal everyday Romans or Hebrews who encounter Jesus.  Instead of seeing Jesus' face, we see other peoples' faces, their reactions to him.  

I realized that the power of Jesus' presence in this film is shown in the transformations of those who encounter him.  More impressive is that this is accomplished without Jesus ever having to perform a miracle or a healing (until the final minutes, that is).  When Ben-Hur is given water by a stranger, I suspect he is changed slightly - after having his family falsely accused by his best friend of murdering a Roman official, this encounter reminds him that people can be good instead of selfish.  (I wonder if he would have saved the Roman consul from the sinking slave ship three years later if not for this inciting act of kindness.)  And when the guard tries to tell Jesus to stop giving Ben-Hur water, the look on his face also tells us that there is power in this stranger, and that what is right will be accomplished in spite of the supposed power of the Roman authority.  (Do not forget that in this culture, Emperor Augustus Caesar is the only acknowledged god.)  

What Ben-Hur might tell us modern day viewers about Jesus is this: that his story is deeply intertwined with our own, that he has a power greater than those with earthly command, and that even the simplest meeting with him can transform people into something better than they had imagined they would ever be.  I suspect a possible consequence of not knowing Jesus is shown on Messala's deathbed.  (He was critically injured after being trampled by horses during the chariot race.)  I can't recall seeing a character die with more contempt and malice still in him than I saw in Messala - he tells Ben-Hur that his family are not dead as he though, but that they have leprosy and are now exiled to a leper colony.  Messala concludes with the challenge, "The race is not over," essentially revealing that he will die with a heart filled with hate for Ben-Hur.  It seems to me that the movie wants us to know this is the consequence of injustice, hate, and vengeance.  I felt sad for Messala during that moment; villainous though he is, I pitied him.

What is particularly impressive to me is that Wyler manages to get this message across without ever preaching at us.  Wyler was Jewish, but I am unaware if he was a practicing Jew and I'm not under the impression that he ever converted to Christianity, so I feel fairly sure that he would not have been intentionally proselytizing here, though the original story by Gen. Wallace is almost certainly meant as a positive portrayal of the necessity of Christ.    Regardless of intent, the representation of Jesus in Ben-Hur is a reflection not on Jesus' life, but on what our lives might be when Jesus' is a part of them - not necessarily front and center 100% of the time, but always, undeniably, there.     

Jesus Always Wins the Oscar Pool

I've still not quite gotten the hang of this blogging thing back yet.  I'm not quite consistent in my theme or subjects, not yet regular in my posting schedule.  So I decided to try and give myself some direction, some constant to keep me posting on related topics.  I know I love writing and talking about movies, and I love writing and talking about religion (esp. Christianity).  And I seldom find organic ways to blend the two topics.  Until I realized there's a perfect way to blend them.

I'm going to do a series on representations of Jesus in movies.  I've selected about 16 movies on or related to the narrative of Jesus' life, in several different genres and styles, from classic biblical epics to musicals, from respectful Christian approaches to more artistic portraits from secular filmmakers, plus maybe something irreverent, a few foreign interpretations (including an Iranian film featuring a Muslim perspective on Christ's life - that is, if I can get a hold of a copy).  If anyone has additional suggestions or ideas, let me know.

I'll start writing on the first movie (Ben-Hur) very soon, and hopefully another (The Robe) by the end of the week.  Neither are typical Jesus narratives - rather, Jesus is a supporting or even tangential role.  I hope that by looking at films with main characters who are ordinary people who interact with Christ, these will allow for a good rubric to consider the effect of Jesus' presence on the other characters and viewers.

So, this is gonna be an adventure - I hope a bunch of you stick around and maybe get to expand your ideas about what it looks like and means to represent Jesus in film, fact, and fiction.  There might be The Greatest Story Ever Told, but that does not mean it is The Greatest Movie Ever Made.  And there might be The Passion of the Christ, but what happens when people get too passionate about the Passion?  These are important questions for us as Christians, as non-Christians, as agents in modern culture and subjects of an enormous media industry, and I'm excited about what possible answers there might be.

(I will, of course, try to keep up some regular posts on current events and whatever is bugging me on a given day.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

in da (comedy) club?

this morning when i was throwing out the coffee filter, some of the grounds spilled onto my wrist, and started dripping down my hand. i immediately started making stigmata jokes in my head....
  • "Since the Romans are doing this, does that mean it's an Italian roast?"
  • "I wish Pilate were around because I need to wash my hands of this..."
  • "I guess the mormons were wrong about coffee being the devil's drink?"
  • "Coffee really does get the blood pumping!"
okay i'm done now.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Existence of Injustice does not Justify Its Existence: A Lesson in Blog Commenting

I've done a bad thing.  I commented on a blog.  Actually, that's not true.  I replied to someone else's comment.  I confess, and I am ashamed.  And now I'm just gonna talk through a bunch of my somewhat unfiltered thoughts about the situation.  Deal with it.  If you have any questions or thoughts at the end, please bring them to light - this is all kinda messy, and I'm sure there's room both to call me out and shore me up.

As a general rule, I do not comment on blogs or articles.  If I agree with the post, well the author has made the point and does not necessarily need my support.  If I disagree, well, the author likely wouldn't have written the post if he/she wasn't somewhat convinced of the opinion, and my little comment will not make any difference.  The one exception I may make is when I find a post or argument (or sometimes even a particular phrase or sentence) actually offensive.  If a remark or argument rises above mere opinion and into something I feel is perpetuating some sort of offense, be it evidence of a systemic injustice or unfair stereotype, I might feel compelled to chime in.

That was not the case this time.  I was simply reading a post from a blog I find agreeable and thought-provoking, and very rarely contains content I find actually offensive.  But then I read some comments...

This post was on a Christian blog, and dealt with the issue of gender roles, and I saw a comment that I felt had rather missed the point.  But what's more, I recognized the commenter.  I've seen his comments before, almost always on posts dealing with gender, and almost always contrary to the author's point of view.  Being a fairly progressive Christian blog, the gender posts lean towards egalitarian ideas, and this commenter is fervently complementarian.  (Please bear in mind, while I am no strict complentarian, I also do not imagine myself some champion of the feminist or egalitarian cause.  I am what I am and that's all that I am, and I prefer not to box myself into movements or labeled ideologies.  Interpret my stance beyond that as you will.)

Anyway, this guy comments frequently, almost any chance he can get to assert his complementarian ideas (and I've got no beef with the views per se).  This particular commenter's tone, though, is particularly condescending.  Particularly holier-than-thou.  Particularly arrogant in the way it comes across.  This is maybe not the way he intends it, but the tone is there nevertheless.  Eventually, the frequency and smug nature of his posts finally reached my limit.  

He seemed to believe that certain institutions have been in place for several millennia, and that this is not to be questioned, for their persistence itself is enough evidence that they are right, so we should accept them.  He wrote, "For centuries, male leadership both in the church and house have never been criticized or questioned until woman's suffrage and the rise of feminism in the 19th and 20th centuries."  Well damn that women's suffrage.  According to this logic, the very existence of injustice justifies its very existence.  And I could not hold my tongue.  Needless to say, he read my reply, but I doubt he actually heard me.  I fought the urge to reply to his reply and failed again.  I thought, "If only I can clarify, maybe he'll see my point this time!"  I should have known better.  No one is really commenting on blogs because they want to be persuaded of anything other than their already entrenched position.  Myself included - I knew that I was right, or I wouldn't have bothered.  

At one point he also wrote about hermeneutics:

"Honest and objective interpretation of Scripture should remain void of personal bias, notion, belief, socio-political stand, and culture. In fact, it should be read and understood within the context of the time and culture at which the author wrote the respective book. Then, rather than dismissing the context it should instead be applied universally to our time and culture as much as feasibly possible."

Is it just me, or is he not basically saying, "We must read the Bible ignoring cultural influences.  Except we must know the cultural influences of the time in which the Bible was written.  Then, we must read the Bible taking into account its original context, and then apply it as though we live in the same context, ignoring any changes that have taken place in the last 2,000 years."  Seriously.  That's a terrible way to do hermeneutics.  

Well, this all happened, and I can't take it back.  Neither of us walks away with any different opinion than we had going in.  I'll still see his smug attitude toward any blog post suggesting that maybe women actually do have something worthwhile to teach us, and should not be prohibited from teaching us simply because their boobs are screwed on a bit too tight.  It is not enough to have a heart and mind devoted to Christ and his ways - one must have the balls and masculine jawline of Christ as well.   

At some point I realized I needed to just stop, look at this blog and these comments, and ask what I've learned from this whole situation.  I've learned that we, as a Church, as the Body of Christ, do a terrible job at teaching any coherent ideas about what hermeneutics are and how we should discuss them.  I think we also do not teach history well - church history, or the history of the world surrounding the church - as many people seem to have awfully diverse ideas about what was going on 2,000 years ago.  (Recent hullabaloo concerning the existence of Adam and Eve offers further evidence of this chasm.)  

We must be able to have respectful, yet frank discussion.  I think one of the most insulting things Christians can do at the end of a debate is to offer their prayers for the other party.  It's like one more shot across the bow saying, "I'm right, and I'll pray blessings upon you so that one day you might be right like me."  I rarely believe that these offerings are sincere.  I sure know I wouldn't mean it.  We should also not assume that other people are stupid just because we disagree with them.  At one point, while noting some key differences between Paul's culture and our own, I suggested that the concept of homosexuality did not exist when Paul was writing.  I was told that the Bible talks about homosexuality several times, and was then told, "Read your Bible :)"  Apparently, after a lengthy discussion about history, hermeneutics, and the Bible, my Bible literacy itself was still in question.  How did all this happen?  And why do I keep going back to check for updates?

Ever since my last post, a little over a week ago, I've found myself very opinionated.  I'll comment on facebook statuses, I'll write my own facebook statuses about articles that I read, I'll reply to tweets about this or that or the other thing.  Maybe it's the recent surge of news coverage of the Republican primary campaigns and I'm all riled up.  Plus, I'm home for the summer and not involved in a very active Christian fellowship to allow for the discussion of these sorts of issues.  And I'm away from the good old UNC campus where I always had both liberal and conservative groups of friends where I could bring up whatever was happening in politics or social issues at the time. Am I just antsy to get back around more people where ideas can flow more freely? 

Whatever the case, I have to also admit that the whole ordeal was still great fun.  Perhaps I should just stay out of it next time.  Isn't that why I have this thing?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Addendum to the last post.

I saw this in an article for Relevant Magazine, and I thought it contributed to my last post about our call to creativity.

"The first person to be filled with the Holy Spirit for a task in the Bible was not commissioned to lead a battle or to prophesy over Israel. Bezalel (ever heard of him?) was filled with the Spirit to build stuff. To make art. To carve, mold and weave. He was the guy God commissioned to build the tabernacle and its accoutrements (Exodus 31.1-5)."

Just wanted to add it on.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

God the Creator

I’ve had several things on my mind lately, all of which are kind of connected.  I tried to write them out in some sort of essay form, making one coherent argument, and I just couldn’t find a flow.  So I’m doing this post good ole John Piper style, where I’ll just list a bunch of points, and let you put them together.  

1. I’ve been watching the BBC’s Planet Earth this week, and it is blowing my mind.  Literally, it’s actively rejuvenating my faith in God the Creator.  Seeing the beauty of nature untouched by man (aided by some of the more spectacular documentary cinematography I’ve seen) is surprisingly moving.  From sweeping over mountains, to see herds of African animals on the move, to BABY POLAR BEARS.  Even seeing predators go in for a kill is a tremendous reminder of the balance that has been struck in nature, emphasizing (at least in my mind) the idea that there simply must have been a Designer at some point in its development.

2. A video I saw recently showcased several scientist-types giving their thoughts on God and the divine, including David Attenborough who narrates many of the BBC nature shows.  He explained that the reason they do not credit God or any divine creative force in their shows is that he feels if you credit God for those things, we would also have to credit God for the state of children in in third world countries suffering ailments like worms burrowing through their eyeballs, etc.  My initial response is that the scenes displayed in Planet Earth are of the type of nature that has not been interfered with by humankind.  It seems to me that there would be some way to trace back the situation of those suffering children through skewed globalization efforts, colonialization, or other injustices helped along by the influence of Man.  Not to say those situations aren’t awful and heartbreaking and deserving of our attention, but rather perhaps they were deserving of our attention a long time ago.  I think Attenborough is simply wrong to say that if we credit God for nature, we must credit him for all of our suffering as well.

3. This led me to think of a larger imbalance in the way we relate creation to God.  We are grateful for all the beautiful things in nature that God has created.  However, when we look at global warming, deforestation, and other devastating effects on the environment, we can frequently following the cause back to humans.  On the other hand, whenever Man builds something newer and bigger, or invents something shinier and smaller, we congratulate ourselves shamelessly, crediting only our intellect and ambition, paying no heed to a God who created us in the first place.  Yet, when technology fails us, or warfare destroys us, we rip our clothes and wail, “God, why would you do this to us?”  It seems to me that Attenborough’s way of thinking, that it must be all God or all Man, is rampant and problematic.  Apparently the story of the Tower of Babel is not only lost in translation, but falling on deaf ears altogether.

4. Returning to a faith in God the Creator, I prefer this title for God over any other.  More than Lord, more than Father.  Oh sure, I know there’s plenty of scriptural precedent for calling God “Father.”  I don’t think it’s wrong or anything - I say Father when I feel it’s appropriate, I do refer to God as “him” simply because its easier, and I think there are many wonderful fatherly attributes of God that really should be acknowledged. But it’s just not complete, I don’t think.  I don’t quite understand how we conceptualize God as genderless yet insist that we must refer to God in exclusively male terminology and that any reference to “Goddess” is suddenly blasphemy even though it’s just as anatomically incorrect as “God,” but whatever.  Here’s the thing though - if we’re talking about scriptural precedent, let’s look at Genesis and God’s very first act - Creation.  This was God’s primary (and for a while there, only) role.  And if our goal as followers of God is to be more like him, then shouldn’t one of our highest priorities then be creation?  Biologically speaking, procreation is our most basic form of creation, and that requires both Father and Mother (at least as far as the DNA is concerned).  It seems to me that in creating a balance of sexed humans, God divided his creative capacity evenly.  So to call God only “Father” is basically to ignore a full half of humankind’s creative process, unless we are willing to also call God “Mother” on occasion.

Men, imagine telling your wives, “Well, you did a great job carrying my seed and all, but now that you’ve popped this sucker out, make sure you never tell him that you had anything to do with his birth - I’d really like to take credit for this one because really, the Father is the only part of this whole nurturing parent thing that matters to kids.”  Women, do you want to have children only to have them ignore your part in their creation, birth, protection, and nurturing?  Imagine telling your mother that’s what you think of her, and that really, just haven’t a relationship with your dad from here on out is all you need.  (I’m suddenly remembering Mark Driscoll explaining that there can be no innovation in the Church without young men...because I suppose women are incapable of having innovative ideas or something.)  That all sounds horrifying to me, yet this is exactly what we do to God every day by calling him Father and never Mother.  That’s part of why I generally like to stick with the more holistic “Creator.”  

5. Of course, I believe that our call to create is not limited to making babies, but speaks to creativity itself. I was watching a fairly remarkable TED conference video from Ted Robinson, who spoke about our natural human creativity, particularly in children, and how our education system stifles that creativity.  He explains that by the time the current generation of young students retires, it will be around 2065.  But we have no idea what 2015 will even look like, so how can we possibly prepare children for their future unless we can allow them to know and express themselves?  We’re taught to conform, to take tests, to regurgitate, and rarely to actually emote or express our personalities or uniqueness.  My own take on this is that we have developed both education and Christianity into culture of competition, which leads to goals of winning (paired with another’s defeat), and is essentially just small scale destruction of something else.  In so doing, we are actively teaching ourselves and our children to do the opposite of what God designed us to do.  And everyone’s okay with this?  Why do we emphasize sports and not dance?  Or reading and writing, but not drama?  School is a sort of citizen-factory, instead of a system to healthily develop self-actualized human beings.  (I cannot tell you how disturbed I was to see that Rick Perry’s education ideas involve treating students like “customers,” which I suppose means that knowledge is some sort of commodity to be purchased.  That type of attitude is venomous, insulting to students and children, and frankly showing a profound lack of respect for all of knowledge itself.  And this is likely to be the great evangelical Christian candidate for president?  Oh, please.)  This is not what God created us to be, I’m convinced of it.

6.  So in what I guess is the closest thing I've got to conclusion, I say this.  C.S. Lewis once said, “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects--with their Christianity latent.”  We are called to creativity not because we are Christians, but because we are humans, created by a Creator. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Famous for Nothing; or, I really hope Daniel Frankel and Jennifer Sizemore google themselves a lot and find this.

I made the mistake of reading an article the other day on, one of the most frustrating news sources imaginable, in my opinion.  (For unknown reasons I haven’t been able to make myself switch to something different.)  Apparently, Clark Gable’s 22-year-old grandson is an aspiring actor, and he was arrested for messing around with a laser-pointer.  Then his sister arranged for his bail and got his release covered by media as a publicity stunt.  

(Disclaimer: MSNBC is not the original source of this article, it's just where I read it.  Its copyright is listed as Reuters, and I believe the writer Daniel Frankel works for The Wrap, so it's a bit confusing and when I target, it's just just because they're the news source I first saw that allowed this article to be relayed.)

I don’t know where to begin with this.  

No wait, yes I do.
  1. This is not newsworthy information, and should never have been written or published.  Maybe that sounds harsh, but it’s just the truth.  I cannot imagine anyone actually being curious about this news, but the simple act of publishing it turns a stupid story about a nobody who is 2 generations removed from greatness into something that we think we’re supposed to care about.  Shame on Daniel Frankel for writing this crap, and shame on editor-in-chief Jennifer Sizemore for allowing it to go ahead.
  2. But what am I doing, blaming MSNBC for this article, when the original source of the information is the referenced-4-times CNN?  Well in that case, I still say shame on you MSNBC for thinking that you should report a stupid story just because someone else did. 
  3. Frankel fails to even remain objective in this piece, noting that while Gable did not authorize the stunt to have him released in front of cameras, he “was -- understandably -- OK with the outcome.”  Why is it understandable?  Would Mr. Frankel care to elaborate on that editorialization?  No, apparently not.  And wait, what is the “outcome” of it anyway?  Is the outcome having his little story reported across the country by journalists who really should know better?  Because if that’s the case, then Mr. Frankel, you’re just part of the problem.
  4. What stuck out most to me, though, was the description of Gable’s sister Kayley, “herself an aspiring celebrity.”  An aspiring celebrity.  What the hell does that even mean?  She wants to be famous for nothing?  A celebrity is by definition someone who is widely known, though it is usually used to be accompanied by some sort of skill, action, or otherwise reasonable claim to fame.  All that Daniel Frankel, MSNBC, and CNN have done with this little puff piece is actively contribute to the advancement of Kayley’s career as a no-talent, no-skill, attention whore with a famous grandpa.
I’m sad that even by clicking the link and reading the article, I contributed to the rampant problem of celebrity without cause, more commonly perpetuated by reality television.  I’m just a little bit ashamed of my own curiosity that made me read the piece.  Not as ashamed as Mr. Frankel should feel for writing it, but nonetheless.

What happened to us?  Why do we reward nothing with everything?  The nature of the news media’s relationship with its audience is that we take for granted that the people giving us the news have some sort of authority.  I fear that time is growing close when we will have to stop giving them that credit, when we’ll have to open up the newspaper (or news website) and close it right away for its being so thoroughly un-enriching to our lives.  Someday soon, we’re gonna have to look the news providers in the eye, tell them, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and walk out the door.  Otherwise we let the terrorists celebrities win.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What's in a name.

My given name is Lewis Adam Lawrence. Lewis is a family name, one that I like a lot and plan to pass on to one of my son, should I have that opportunity. Adam is the name by which my parents intended me to go.

In the second week of my freshman year at UNC, I auditioned for a play called Mere Mortals with Lab! Theater. I performed a monologue about a man disappointed by his box of animal crackers. I was very nervous, and ended up improvising a line or two, but I felt it went over well enough. The director and stage manager, Abby Manekin and Geoff Bridges, respectively, decided it was easier to remember me by calling me “Animal Crackers,” which they then shortened to “A.C.” It took no time at all for them to recall A.C. Slater from the show Saved by the Bell, and by the time I got to the end of my callback, I had a new nickname. When I was cast in the play the very first group of friends I had in college knew me as Slater. They were all I knew, and all they knew was Slater. So I let it stick and went by Slater for the rest of undergrad. (On facebook I remained “Adam Slater Lawrence” to accommodate both my college and high school friends.)

But now I’m about to go somewhere new, where no one knows me by any name. I’ve prematurely introduced myself as Slater to a few Boston people, much to my parents disappointment. One day my dad rather pointedly told me that “‘Slater’ is what the people down at Carolina called you, but that doesn’t mean it’s what people in Boston have to call you.” Of course, given how little I keep in touch with friends from high school, my dad might have well as said, “Just because 95% of the people you love and care about know you by a certain name, that doesn’t mean that you should put any stock in it.”

So I’m at an impasse, a sort of identity crisis. Sure, Juliet famously asked, “What’s in a name?” but it turns out that when you’re faced with the idea of being called something that you’ve grown largely unaccustomed to for several years...well, quite a lot can be in that name.

I discovered, though, that being called “Slater” by people who were not from Carolina seemed suddenly inorganic. Maybe that’s just because I’m home for the summer and have become “Adam” again for a few months, but it is nonetheless strange to hear. So I’ve decided that yes, I’ll go back to being called Adam in graduate school. The rest of you can call me whatever you know me by - I’ll always place great value on the name Slater, as it became a fairly substantial part of my identity and who I am today since I grew so much in the years that I was known by it.

Maybe this all seems odd or unsubstantial to whomever’s reading this, but I recently learned that it actually means a lot to me, what I’m called, so I thought I’d talk it out. Plus, now you know where “Slater” comes from. As I’ve always said, it’s a much less interesting story once you’ve heard it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hearts and Minds

I read a fun blog the other day discussing some common cliches in current Christian language.  Things like calling wives “brides,” and saying you’re gonna “love on” people.  I especially liked the one where we praise people by saying they have a “real heart for God.”  The author pointed out that people rarely talk about people who have “a real mind for God.”  After all, isn’t our command to love God with all our hearts and all our minds?  What place is there for intellectualism in modern Christianity?  

Sure, there are divinity schools and seminaries for a higher education approach, but divinity schools do not train pastors in the same way as seminaries, and seminaries run the risk of being hopelessly subjective and biased.  I remember looking around The Ehrman Project website, where several seminary professors refute the opinions of a university professor on various questions surrounding the New Testament and early Christianity.  But I wonder if there isn’t some middle ground, a more reasoned form of faith that can objectively embrace some factual arguments about our texts and history, while not compromising a faith that hold fast to those texts and history nonetheless? 

I remember Donald Miller, in his book Searching for God Knows What, making some really excellent arguments about the way we reduce faith and teaching to elementary formulae, and then talking about Moses and what he wrote in Genesis (or maybe some other book from the pentateuch).  Which was really frustrating because I think it’s generally acknowledged now by many scholars and laymen alike that Moses almost definitely did not write the first five books of the Bible, and even if there is a small outlier of a chance that he did, it’s kinda lazy for a renowned Christian author to casually slip it in like it’s an irrefutable fact.  It’s particularly a shame because it clouds some otherwise excellent points with questionable scholarship.  (I felt the same problem of shoddy scholarship pervading Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis, and I suspect some of his other writings as well.)  

This is approached poorly from the “other side” as well.  In a brief article advertising a new book, Bart Ehrman lists several non-canonical texts from the time the New Testament was being compiled, arguing that they were texts once considered legitimate teaching by real life actual Christians.  He is correct, as he frequently is.  However, he did not address the process by which the New Testament was compiled, any individuals like Eusebius and Athanasius who offered canon lists, or the fact that the books included were considered at the time to be legitimate in their authorship, and representative of a consensus among Christian leaders as to the appropriateness of their content and teachings.  So even though this article is meant as a teaser and advertisement for a book which would surely address these issues more fully, the presentation remains misleading and incomplete, almost certainly intended to make us casual Bible-readers feel bad for not knowing more about these additional sources.  If the Christians at the time of these non-canonical writings knew even then that their authorship was the result of pseudonyms and forgeries and fiction, then surely we should not be made to feel guilty for disregarding them 1700 years later.  

I know these are fairly basic examples, but still I wonder why is it so difficult to find middle ground here?  For people of faith to acknowledge or at least consider realities and facts about the history of their own sacred texts and for scholars to more readily acknowledge that they do not (and cannot) have all the answers?  Why do faith and intellectualism seem at odds with each other so consistently, and how can we create spaces where we can make them compatible?  Is it so much to ask that we love God with all our hearts and minds?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Interpretive Dance

So I was reading My Utmost for His Highest, catching up on a few missed days, and one of Oswald Chambers' writings addressed Matthew 5:39 - the verse that says to turn the other cheek.  Chambers' message was one of exhibiting the Son of God in us, and is well taken.  But seeing that verse considered in a way that did not attempt to assess whether we are to take it literally or metaphorically was refreshing.

You see, it is common to hear Christians (and non-Christians) debating this verse at length - some say it means we should be always be pacifists and never support war, while others argue this is Jesus exaggerating, just kind of joking around, and his point is really more one of our willingness to be pacifists than that we should actually practice the words spoken.  But the rhetorical devices of this specific verse aren't what I want to talk about.

I get confused sometimes by the way we endlessly interpret or resist the interpretation of certain passages and verses, applying hermeneutics here and there to get a message that applies to modern culture, while insisting that some words in the Bible must be taken literally, and to read them any other way is an affront to God.  Some progressive or liberal Bible-readers who might insist that Matthew 5:39 is literal, and cause for us to protest modern warfare might also insist that Romans 1:26-27 or 1 Timothy 2 cannot be taken literally because they show outdated cultural thinking, the evidence of extreme patriarchy - after all, it was nothing but power hungry men who actually wrote these words down - so given the massive strides we've made culturally to establish equality in the eyes of God, women and gay people should be permitted places of authority in churches.

Literal here, hermeneutics there.

Or on the other hand, let's say a more conservative, traditional Bible-reader might see that Romans 1 and 1 Timothy 2 are plain and simple examples of God giving us direct instructions on how our communities should operate.  But when Jesus tells someone he must go sell all of his belongings and that it is easier to fit a camel through a needle than for rich people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven...well, that conservative, traditional Bible-reader can also see how obvious it is that Jesus is just making a joke!  Of course, it's some sort of cultural joke that we don't really understand anymore, but clearly we don't have to sell all of our belongings because isn't that such a funny image Jesus drew?  A camel squeezing through a needle, hahaha!  He was just messing with our heads a bit, making a lesson about how we all have to make sacrifices to follow Him.

So again, literal here, hermeneutics there.

At what point does the inconsistency of our approaches to Scriptural interpretation become hypocrisy?  I'm not making accusations here - I'm sincerely asking.  How do we avoid crossing that line and making ourselves look like Biblically illiterate individualists making the Bible say only what we want it to?  I suggest we start by acknowledging that inconsistency.  I'm sure some would read this and dismiss it, fully confident that when they read the Bible, they always approach it faithfully and prayerfully and that guides them to the right answers.  But when it comes to evangelism, it's not hard for attentive seekers and questioners to poke holes through your arguments if you're not even on the same page as yourself.  So let's take a minute, figure out how we want to read the Bible, and try to stick with it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hogwarts Forever

It has recently come to my attention that there are some party-poopers and spoil-sports who would have us all feel ashamed or even idiotic for our fervor concerning the release of the final Harry Potter movie. They say how sad it is that we consider Harry Potter to be such an enormous part of our whole childhood, or that the movies aren’t all that great anyway, so we should not get so excited. Not only are these types of dismissive comments incredibly inconsiderate to the very real feelings of excitement and sadness shared by a great many people, but they are also rather foolish.

To begin with, brushing aside an eight-film franchise that has garnered consistent critical praise by calling them average is a display of ignorance. One comment I read claimed that the last 2 films have been the only above-average entries in the series. But surely when we consider the first two films, featuring the misadventures of 11 and 12 year-olds, along the parameters of the family-friendly ventures they were intended to be, we can see that they are enormously successful.  You wouldn't criticize other family films for not behaving like The Godfather, would you?

The 3rd movie, Prisoner of Azkaban remains the most intellectually stimulating entry given they way if deftly maneuvers through a time-traveling plot. Add to the complicated narrative the way the director chose to insert images and symbols related to time passing throughout the film (e.g. the many shots of clocks, a ticking sound used as part of the music score, the camera actually passing through a clock’s cogs when Harry and Hermione travel back in time, and the use of the Whomping Willow to move through the seasons), and we see a grand collage of transformation, featuring a werewolf and pubescent lead characters (take another look at the opening scene, featuring a 13-year-old boy shaking his magic wand under the bedsheets and tell me the director isn’t trying to subliminally show us the changes in question). The entire film, every element of it, is grounded in the themes of time and change and the necessity of forward motion, visually and artistically representing the themes of the book’s narrative. 

The 4th was primarily a transference from page to screen, but a visually stunning one, one must admit, despite the apparently drunk Dumbledore stumbling and slurring through the whole movie. And while I do not care for the 5th as a film, it did have the difficult job of adapting the book with the most material, and the director, fresh from TV, was still trying to figure out what he wanted from the films. He has since figured it out, and the series as a whole has remained since the start technically and artistically impeccable, visually and emotionally satisfying in nearly every way.

So are the books better? Well yes, in many ways, just as nearly every book that is ever adapted into a movie will be better in many ways.  But please, do not dismiss so many films in one fail swoop by calling them all average or “mediocre at best.”  Tread lightly if you’re prepared to call the most economically successful franchise in movie history, a series that has the respect and love of audiences and critics alike (unlike, say, Twilight and Transformers, both generally considered to be just plain terrible), just not all that special. Because that’s a fight you’ll have a hell of time trying to win.

As to the many comments about our “childhoods ending” with this last film: of course, you’re right, many of us are in fact of legal age to perform magic outside of school, and therefore are adults already. Our childhoods are behind us in many ways. Very few of us believe that our lives are actually ending with the release of this final movie. It’s an exaggeration to say so and we know that.  And yet...

Some people feel that their lives are suddenly empty when they’ve been performing in a play, the play closes, and there are suddenly no more rehearsals to go to.

Some people feel that their lives are suddenly empty when they’ve spent all summer watching World Cup games or Tour de France races, when before they know it, there’s a winner, and there are no more games and races to keep them occupied during their otherwise dull afternoons.

Some people tune in to that extra special episode when Jim and Pam get married, or when the cast is going to try to sing their way through a musical episode, or when it's the series finale and we simply must know if Tony is going to get whacked, or just what the hell that island was... and then that episode passes, and while some are elated and others disappointed, everyone who tuned in suddenly feels a little more empty knowing that they’ll never get to have that feeling of anticipation, the result of a many years long commitment, again.

Was Harry Potter the only part of my childhood? Absolutely not. I also had the piano and the saxophone, and plenty of other books and friends, and I lived in Germany for a few years so Europe became a big part of my childhood. But as an Army brat I moved around a lot, and starting in 5th grade when I read Sorcerer's Stone Harry became one friend who I knew I wouldn’t have to leave behind when I moved and one person I wouldn’t have to make friends with when I arrived somewhere new. I was 10 when I first read the first book, the same age as Harry when he started out. And I was 17 when the final book came out, also Harry's age. So was Harry Potter my whole childhood? Of course not, but he was one of the most consistent, trustworthy parts of it.

And then there are the movies. My dad took me to see the first movie during Christmas break of 7th grade, and we’ve gone to see each one together since. He started reading the books, but never did finish them. (I think he stopped reading when he started getting strange looks in the office from the soldiers he commanded...) So the tradition now is every year or so, a new movie comes out and I get to fill him in on the stuff he missed by not reading the book, and it’s great and it’s fun. So when my dad and I go to the theater tonight and I say goodbye to Harry, I’m also saying goodbye to that tradition and that specific part of my relationship with my father.

Was it the only part of my childhood? No. But it was right there along with everything else, so don’t you dare tell me it’s sad that I’m sad. It’s insulting, and it’s ignorant. You have things that you wish you could do or see again for the first time, and all this legion of fans is trying to do is make sure that when we get to experience Harry Potter in a new way for the last first time, that it’s memorable, that we savor it.

So much of the series focuses on loss and how to deal with it. Tonight (or last night, as the case might have been), Harry Potter fans are just trying to deal with this particular loss by acknowledging it, feeling it, and celebrating what it has all meant to us. We’re not crazy, we’re not pathetic, we’re just fans. And we don’t need you to feel the same way we do, we just want you to not be mean about it. Didn’t Harry teach you anything?