Heaven and Earth Bear Witness

As usual, the political divisions over various issues do not match the division between a Scriptural understanding and an idolatrous one. In this case, it’s the division between “conservatives” and “liberals”–or, better, between the rabid Republican and the rabid Democrat–on climate change (what an anodyne, meaningless phrase) and other, related environmental issues. You know it’s a disease because any response is immediately knee-jerking, fist-pumping, and unthinking.

But Christians ought not to be caught up in the extreme partisanship of what seems to be America’s twilight years. There is enough foolishness on either side to make any so-called “discussion” an exercise in engaging a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4, not 26:5). When it comes to human responsibility for the volatility of the climate (and similar issues), too many Christians have been sucked into either viewing extreme weather as the moral challenge of our time, an issue of Biblical proportions; or into an involuntary muscle spasm of  mockery and denial.

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St. Coraline the Mundane

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on November 2.]

Coraline (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) might be the perfect movie for All Saints or All Souls (not that I’m praying for the dead in Purgatory, understand). What a great, semi-frightening children’s movie that gets to the heart of what matters in a family. I don’t know how closely it follows the story by Neil Gaiman, but the film is profound in ways I didn’t expect.

Coraline moves to a new place in Oregon, brown and barren, far away from her friends, with parents who seem to ignore her or want her to go somewhere else and leave them alone. They’re in the middle of their work, and since it’s raining, Coraline is forced to explore the old house in which they live. She discovers a pathway to an alternate world, where her Other Mother and Other Father are everything that she wants from her own parents. But be careful what you long for. You might get it.

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The Devil and Father Amorth

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 21.]

This isn’t a great documentary. In some ways (down to the design of the credits and titles) it is simply playing on the success and popularity of The Exorcist—though there’s no pea soup, no unnaturally turning heads, and no priests die. (And my wife thinks William Friedkin sounds like Donald Trump. Narrator: he does.)

So while there are a few and minor interesting things in this film, the questions it raises are more interesting to me. What is it that continues to fascinate about exorcism? Why do people continue to make movies dealing with exorcism? I count at least 25 films focusing on possession or exorcism since 2000 (most of which—to placate my critics—I have never seen). Why so many, and why is this a recurring theme?

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Memory is Treachery

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 7.]

Memory is a strange thing. Last week I wrote that I had seen The Machinist during my second summer at college, the first that I did not return home between classes. In one of my periods of sleeplessness last night, I realized that couldn’t be true. As clearly as I seemed to remember picking up that movie at a video place and watching it then, it couldn’t have happened then because I was in college from 1998-2002. The Machinist came out in 2004, which means that if I saw it soon after it came out, I couldn’t have seen it before my third year at the seminary (my vicarage, or internship).

Huh. Who knows when I actually watched it? Who knows where I got it from? Maybe the little video rental place in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas during my vicarage. Maybe the Blockbuster in Grand Forks, North Dakota after I had already become a pastor in Northern Minnesota. Once I realized that my original thought was clearly wrong, I couldn’t place the memory in a particular place or time.

And I’ve had this experience more than once, where I think I remember something and there is irrefutable evidence that I’m remembering incorrectly. Memory is a slippery thing. One of my favorite films ever, Memento—not to mention one of the most original films I’ve ever seen—completely messes with the idea of what memory is and what it does.

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Guilt and Rest

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on August 31.]

If Hitchcock remade Fight Club, it would probably look a lot like The Machinist (2004). If you haven’t seen it, but you’ve seen Fight Club, then I probably gave away the major plot twist. But even if you know the major twist, this is a devastating film about the destructive power of buried guilt. I had seen The Machinist before, but I honestly didn’t remember much except that he works in a machine shop and is struggling with something. I probably watched it on a VHS rented from a Blockbuster (RIP) in Washougal, Washington during a summer when I worked the night shift at a Safeway and then in a hot, dusty, stifling concrete plant in Portland. Not much else to do during my first summer not returning home from college.

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Faith Deformed

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 29.]

I knew this was going to happen. I knew that if a movie was hyped over and over, time and again, as being an incredible, profound meditation on faith and doubt, that it was unlikely to be anything of the sort. If someone has left or been scarred by Christianity, or an American Fundamentalist version of it; if someone is quick to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”; or if someone is fully convinced that what the Church should do is take up the apocalyptic cause du jour, then that person is the perfect candidate to be over-impressed with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.

I don’t mean that those aren’t authentic responses to a real emotional and intellectual experience of viewing this film. But if you don’t find yourself resonating with one or more of those categories, you might well wonder if you’ve completely missed the point of the film. Is there an additional scene after the credits? Did I miss the profundity? Am I too stupid to understand the basic elements of serious film and thereby misunderstand Schrader’s intentions? The last two might, of course, be true. But the simpler answer is probably more accurate: It’s an attempt to be profound about religion, faith, and doubt, without actually achieving it.

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Not Quite Holy

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 1.]

I can’t believe that I’ve been writing these for a year! Thanks to The Jagged Word for the opportunity to watch more movies and write down whatever I think about when I watch them. I don’t know if any of it is worth anything but, at the very least, I hope you’ve discovered some good movies.

In spite of some controversy stirred up by this film, I had never heard of Holy Air until I came across it randomly on Amazon (free for Prime users). The synopsis begins, “Adam and Lamia are a Christian Arab couple from Nazareth – members of a vanishing minority in the Holy Land.” and I was in. But if you go by the synopsis, you might, like me, start to wonder after 15 minutes or so what you’re actually watching. Adam and Lamia are not what you’d call observant Christians. In this, they parallel many (most?) American Christians who are in their 20s or 30s and children of observant Christians. Adam’s discussion with his parents at the Christmas dinner table probably sounds a lot like many conversations around holiday dinner tables in the United States.

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Moral Conundrums

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 11.]

What a tangled web we weave when we really, really want something. It’s a web that is woven inside a small Italian cafe called The Place, which is also the name of an engrossing film.

There were at least two Newport Beach Film Festival movies that revolved around moral or ethical conundrums, the ways we get ourselves into them, and the ways we try to get out. The Korean film A Day forces its three central characters to try to make right their past sins by re-living the same day over and over—a much more intense Groundhog Day.

But The Place (a film adaptation of a 2011-12 American television show, which I cannot find online anywhere) is a fascinating examination of free will, compulsion, desire, and what we’re willing to do to get what we want. There is a man who sits always at the same table in the same cafe. If you want something to happen (a happy marriage, a healthy child, to be more beautiful, or to feel close to God again), you visit this man. To nearly everything, he says, “It’s doable.” Then he looks in his notebook, and tells you to do something. If you do it, you get what you want.

The man neither tries to convince you to do the thing or not to do it. He simply tells you what the price of your desire is. And the price is often deeply immoral or criminal. You want your husband’s dementia to be reversed? Plant a bomb and detonate it where a large number of people will die. You want a happy marriage? Break up someone else’s. You want beauty? Steal this amount of money.

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Passion and Temptation

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 30.]

It’s Holy Week, so what else would I be doing but watching two films about Jesus’ last few days? Two long movies. Two movies that inspired controversy and discussion and debate. Two movies that present two different Jesuses. And, frankly, I don’t care if movies want to use different devices to try to understand the most divisive, explained, written-about person in history, Jesus of Nazareth. I have trouble understanding people who protest religious movies (or any movies for that matter). The only thing such protesting serves to do is draw attention and publicity to movies that might otherwise (and sometimes rightly) fade away into the oblivion of thrift-store DVDs. It is exactly for these sorts of protests that the phrase “all publicity is good publicity” was coined. Roger Ebert’s 4-star(!) review barely even touches the film itself, acknowledging “that this entire review has been preoccupied with replying to the attacks of the film’s critics, with discussing the issues, rather than with reviewing ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ as a motion picture.” (That, for Ebert, is a confirmation of the film’s greatness.)

So I re-watched The Passion of the Christ and watched for the first time The Last Temptation of Christ. Since I found a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel at the library, I decided to read it first, to get an idea of what Scorsese was working with. I was only nine when The Last Temptation came out in theaters, so I didn’t see it then, but I do remember going to a little theater in St. Louis to watch The Passion, sometime during Lent, 2004.

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Godless

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 16.]

I’ve never been a huge fan of westerns, although there are some notable exceptions. I probably need to fill out my viewing of classic westerns, including some Clint Eastwood films I keep meaning to get around to. But Godless (on Netflix) is a limited series I wouldn’t mind watching more than once.

There are classic western tropes, like the duel, the gun-slinging sheriff standing up for his town against a gang of bad guys, the (in this case, former) whorehouse, the saloon, cowboys and Indians. But in Godless, they are definitely not ends in themselves, but utilized to push a classic story in new directions. It doesn’t feel like it’s a simple retread, even with all the familiar characters.

Although there are multiple story lines, including how La Belle came to be made up almost entirely of women, the seven episodes of Godless orbit around the relationship between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) and Frank Griffin (an excellently evil Jeff Daniels). What allows this main lode to be mined successfully is the father-son dynamic, explored between the orphaned Roy and the childless Frank, who says to the young Roy, “You’ve got a family now, son. These are your brothers, and I aim to be your pappy. And a good one, too. I won’t mistreat you. I won’t beat you. And I won’t ever lie to you. Ever. Welcome home, son.” The show plays on this theme by having Roy wear his own dead father’s clothes, as well as become a father figure to Alice Fletcher’s son, Truckee. Episodes 5 and 6 are particularly compelling in this regard.

Godless is not the sort of subversive western that becomes a political statement about the bad old days. It doesn’t play on the stereotypes of the oldest westerns in order to show that the “good guys” were really the “bad guys.” There are indeed cowboys and Indians. There are blacks and whites. There are men and women. But what Godless does so effectively is refrain from demonizing a group of people. There are good guys and bad guys, to be sure, but they are never good or bad simply because they have or claim some identity. They are good or bad because of how they live, how they act, how they treat people or horses.

As far as Lutherans are concerned, this refers to a civil righteousness, not justification before God. But it is a real righteousness and, in Godless, it doesn’t come from class, color, sex, or job. There are good and bad lawmen. There are good and bad women, good and bad men. There are good and bad cowboys and good and bad Indians. They all have different motivations and perspectives, and in this it echoes real life with real people. There are exploitative opportunists (like the journalist, A.T. Grigg). There are oily and smiling mercenaries pretending to be protectors (like Kim Coates’ Ed Logan). There are the women who resent being left alone, and those who simply get on with it.

There is a hardness to the characters that make them seem as if they inhabit a real, difficult world. Godless simply feels like how it must have been.

Obviously, the title implies the religious connection. Frank wears a preacher’s collar (while, in La Belle, Sadie Rose keeps waiting for the new preacher) and is continually quoting the “Good Book.” When someone asks which “good book,” Frank doesn’t answer. But none of his quotes are from the actual Scriptures. It seems that his good book is actually just a collection of his favorite sayings (which probably isn’t too different from how many people treat the Bible anyway).

When one of the Norwegians whom Frank terrorizes says that Frank is not a man of God, Frank responds, “God? What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are. Look around. There ain’t no higher-up around here to watch over you and your young’ns. This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the blade and the rifle. It’s godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live.”

It would be easy to attempt some sort of theodicy, some defense of God, in this case. But when Frank’s holding the pistol, perhaps not so wise. He is, in a very real sense, the “enthusiast” of the show: literally, his god is within him (en-thuo). Theodicies always go wrong in the face of actual circumstances. They might hold up in one case, but not in another. If there is a God, then He’s a God far stranger, far more inexplicable than any god we could construct or imagine.

And while Godless doesn’t dwell on this theme in the dialogue, it is the over-arching narrative: look at what happens out here in this “godless country.” Look at what happens to your Creede in such a place. The preacher shows up only when the people are dead. (Although, this preacher doesn’t quote the Bible any more than Frank Griffin does. He quotes, instead, a medieval Jewish poet!)

But, it turns out, the criticism of religion is precisely the Christian point: “the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live.” The preacher shows up to preach to the dead and the dying, because that’s the only sort of person there is. And this is what is so foreign to most understandings of God: His death is the only life in the midst of the violence and death of this world. It is not what God does or doesn’t do in a given moment, whether He prevents this or that disease or physical death. It is what God did in the given moment of the crucifixion, the eternal Son dying, rather than simply preserving a dying world.

And now I need to watch it again.