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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Gosnell and the Hypocrisy of Everything

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 26.]

Halloween is almost upon us, and some people like to watch scary movies. But don’t see the new Halloween or Predator or The Nun. If you want a real horror show—because it’s true—go see Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer.

I saw it a couple Fridays ago and, while it’s not going to win any acting or cinematography awards, none of the cinematic shortcomings distract significantly from the story being told. This is one case where the story is so unbelievable, so horrific, so heart-rending, that everything else comes in second.

That’s not to say the acting is bad. Some scenes might seem more television’s Law and Order than award-winning film, but there are definite highlights. In particular, Sarah Jane Morris (as ADA Lexy McGuire) and Earl Billings (as Kermit Gosnell) are compelling and believable. Billings, especially, is convincing in his half-naive, half-psychopath portrayal. Nick Searcy does his thing (one of my favorites in every scene of Justified in which he appeared), though he goes a little over-the-top, big-time defense attorney at moments. But the best actors in this film are those who play the employees and patients of Gosnell’s clinic. These women are impressive in every sense. If they gave out awards for such short appearances on screen, they would deserve to win.

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Listening for the Past

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 13.]

At one point in the documentary Karl Marx City (streaming on Netflix), the narrator (Matilda Tucker) translates two German words for dealing with memories. The first is Erinnerungskultur, or the “culture of remembrance,” and the second is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “the process of coming to terms with the past.” These are fitting terms for a country that seems to have more than its share of recent past with which to come to terms. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to watch this film so soon after seeing Hitler’s Children (which I wrote about here).

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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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A (Not So) Wild Story

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 8.]

On the one hand, Wild Wild Country (six parts, on Netflix) is about as strange a religious story as there is in the United States. On the other hand, it’s not very strange at all. The divisive nature of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a name I would be okay never hearing again), the completely opposite stories told by the Rajneeshees and everyone else, and the weird, magnetic pull of the Bhagwan’s personality make this a compelling story. It’s salacious, with the (accurate) rumors of a sort of sex cult, but it doesn’t seem that the Bhagwan was all that involved in the sexual aspect of his commune, as you might expect a sex cult leader to be!

But even though the free-love aspect of the Rajneeshees seems to attract the attention, that’s only a side story to this documentary. The people interviewed are limited to four major people on either side of the controversy in Antelope, Oregon, in addition to law enforcement and legal participants. While normally I might want more breadth and more input from various people, the limited number of main players actually works well in a six-part series. You actually begin to get a pretty good feel for where they’re coming from and their individual personalities.

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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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Competing Visions

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 9.]

From February 2-9, the Spokane International Film Festival celebrated its twentieth year, holding screenings of documentary and narrative features, as well as shorts blocks from around the world, including a Best of the Northwest program featuring local filmmakers. The festival opened with Benny and Joon, a 1993 film that was set and made in Spokane and which—I’m somewhat ashamed to admit—I had never seen.

I also saw The Fencer, a Golden Globe winner from 2016, about an Estonian man who is trying to avoid the Soviet secret police because they are hunting down all who had been conscripted by the Nazis to fight against the Soviets in World War II. It’s family-friendly and worth watching if you can find it.

My favorite narrative was The Endless, which is sort of a supernatural, psychological thriller involving two brothers who return to a compound where they used to live in shadowy, cult-like community.

But the film I keep thinking about is No Man’s Land (set to premier on PBS on May 7, but available now on Amazon Prime), a documentary about the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, south of Burns, Oregon. First, it’s simply a great documentary. It’s well-filmed, it allows the principals to speak for themselves, and it tells a compelling story. And second, it does what my favorite documentaries always do: it gives me understanding of something of which I was only vaguely aware.

Of course, I had heard of Ammon Bundy, and I knew something was happening in 2016 at an Oregon wildlife refuge where there didn’t seem to be much else going on. But I couldn’t quite understand what it was all about. Anti-government protest? Okay. Ranchers? Right. But why did they choose to do things this way and what did they expect the federal government to do or not do? The striking thing about this film initially is how close it is to the events. This is not a film shot years removed from what it documents, involving interviews of people who were present a long time before. The filmmakers are in and among, embedded right in the middle of everything.

There are also later interviews with others, including the county sheriff, and at least three members of the press. But that is analysis of what we watch unfold in real time on the screen. And what unfolds is a fascinating story with fascinating characters, and enough drama (ratcheted up by some of the players themselves) to keep the story moving.

As you might expect, and as other, recent protests have demonstrated, the overarching concern of a given protest puts out a wide umbrella. So the Bundys at Malheur draw to themselves anti-government activists of every stripe, nearly every one of them armed with rifles and handguns. For the first part of the story, those differences are drawn together by Ammon Bundy, LaVoy Finicum, and others. They seem to concentrate on over-reach of the federal government in claiming land in Oregon, the government not allowing ranchers to use the land as they wish for grazing, and a distaste for federalism in general.

If the viewer watches without already formed conclusions and biases, as I did, the Bundys and many of their concerns seem reasonable and considered. (What the film doesn’t say is that the Bundys are not from Oregon, and that they arrived there to protest the sentences of two ranchers who set fires on what the federal government said was federal land. But the film does show that apparently very few of those occupying the Malheur refuge were actually from Oregon.)

Because this protest (fed by social media) draws so many different people, with different complaints, it becomes harder and harder to hold it together. And, in fact, the lack of direction and the lack of any plan beyond the original protest causes it to fall apart. There do seem to be reasonable people with serious concerns (to me, Jason Patrick—not to be confused with Jason Patric—is one of the most thoughtful and reasonable, to the extent that he tries to calm some of the protesters when their rhetoric starts to incline toward inevitable violence).

But there are also unstable people with guns, the naive and inexperienced, and those simply spoiling for a violent confrontation. There are people motivated by racial concerns (although I wonder if the number of times an anti-Black-Lives-Matter sign is shown matches the percentage of the participants whose motivation is racial). What is clear is that very few of the protesters are concerned about Oregon or Harney County in particular. The location seems to have provided a convenient place to stage the Bundys’ protest against the federal government.

One aspect of the occupation that is shown, but not in its specificity, is the religious aspect. More than once, people at Malheur are shown praying, confident that what they are doing is God’s will. There is also one shot of a copy of The American Patriot’s Bible with a copy of the U.S. Constitution next to it. One is led to assume that the protesters are the “typical” American, “God and Country” Evangelicals. But, in fact, the Bundy brothers, as well as LaVoy Finicum, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that distinctly American religion. Apparently, the Bundys have claimed to have received divine messages directing them to undertake things like the occupation of the refuge. That is, at least for most Christians, a step beyond simply “God’s on our side.”

Not only does it highlight some of the problems with a mystically inclined enthusiasm that claims private messages related to God’s will, it also shows a virtual interchangeability of “God” and “Country.” Further, this goes beyond the idea articulated in the film that the Bundys have a vision for America that is competing with the contrary vision of the residents of Burns—not to mention much of the U.S. citizenry. It is also a vision of the relationship of Church and State that is far distant from many Christians in general, and Lutherans in particular.

Whereas the Bundys and their fellow travelers (of whatever type) are absolutely certain about the rightness of their cause and their actions, Christians who belong to the Kingdom of God first will always be ambivalent about any political cause, process, or government. But what the protesters (or many of them) view as their constitutional stance, contrary to the anti-constitutional actions that they oppose, has become (I don’t think it’s too much to say) their de facto religion. It has ceremony, rituals, order, and martyrs.

While a Christian might, as a citizen of the United States, agree with some of the opinions and interpretations of what this country is supposed to be and be like, that same Christian cannot be whole-heartedly for “the cause.” No one can serve two masters. As concerned as I might be about what looks like an unjustified shooting, about the curtailing of freedom, about the way the federal government (and all government, really) always advances and extends its powers and never recedes in its authority, about the surveillance that seems to grow with technological ability, and about the complete lack of what the Roman Catholics call subsidiarity, none of that will ever lead me to put all my time, money, and energy into defending one or another competing vision of the Constitution, or of liberty, or of the American founders’ conceptions of the limits of the federal government.

That doesn’t mean I won’t exercise my rights as a citizen to promote the vision of the nation that best seems to serve the common good (which, in my case, would mean a governmental power far more limited than what we see today). But it means that, finally, my life is bound to the cross of Jesus and not to the Constitution or to any form of patriotism. There are, indeed, enemies of the American self-understanding—some of which have been and continue to be within this nation itself. (Read, for one example, Whittaker Chambers’ description of them in Witness.) It is right and good to oppose such enemies.

But that can never be an unconditionally certain enterprise, as it is for most of the people in No Man’s Land. As far as Christianity goes, since we are strangers and exiles within whatever land we find ourselves, it is always and everywhere a serious mistake to assume any kind of direct overlap between American and Christian understandings of citizenship. One is temporary and conditional, the other is eternal and absolute. As fascinating as this documentary is in terms of our current political and societal divisions, the division between a Christian’s finite loyalty and his infinite loyalty is the more interesting and the more fundamental.

War Machine

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on November 17.]

The war machine will take what you have to give and when you’re used up, it will discard you. At least if you’re General Glen McMahon, or any of the other fictional generals who head up the combined allied troops in Afghanistan. War Machine (streaming on Netflix) is comedic, but its underlying themes are deadly serious and maybe even tragic. A veteran (or someone else who knows more than I do about inner workings of the military) could probably point out the moments at which this film touches reality, in the political machinations or the stupidity of how some military operations are decided and carried out.

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The Cost of Changing a Mind

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 11]

How do minds change? We tend to assume that if only we can present our opinions in the right way, and if the other person would simply be reasonable, then our rational opinions would surely change their rational minds. Those assumptions lead us to the conclusion that if I present my opinion and the other person doesn’t change his or her mind, then that person must be unreasonable or something worse. Who wouldn’t be willing to change his or her mind when confronted with the excellent and reasonable arguments I present, about which I am already convinced? So disagreement has become not a sign of a rational, contingent opinion held in good faith, but a sign of a disease or poison that must be eradicated in order for reason and justice to prevail. That’s not a good recipe for civil discussion.

On the other hand, maybe changing one’s mind—about anything—is more of a miracle than we usually take it to be. Think about it: you see some particular issue one way. The way you see that issue, with your assumptions and conclusions, determines not only how you see but what you see. What do you count as evidence for your way of thinking? You count certain things as evidence because of the way you see while, at the same time, you see things in that way because of what you consider evidence for your point of view. In a place and time where very little is shared in the way of bedrock assumptions, we should be clear just how little is simply “there” for “rational people” to see and understand.

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In Praise of Escapism

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 14.]

It is endlessly tiresome to consider all the Christian think-pieces that come out after any significant secular film, trying to find a metaphor or an allegory under every narrative. There are certainly films outside of “Christian movies” that contain Christian themes and tell stories that intersect or are parallel to the Story. But we can try too hard. Consider all the nonsense straining to connect the Force to a possible conception of the Christian God. Or as The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions proved, whatever intimations of Christianity the first film might have had, it was really just a gumbo of spiritual eclecticism. Sometimes a film is just a film.

And I think that might be okay. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake. The problem comes not when entertainment is not taken seriously enough but when it’s taken too seriously. In our culture, entertainment, politics, sports (and everything else) are elevated to pedestals far too high for them to remain without tottering and falling. They are our cultural idols which have their own temples, rituals, iconography, and gnostic lingo. People who do not worship God in Christ do not worship nothing. Rather, since creatures must worship, they will worship anything and everything. And personal gods are always jealous gods, before whom their adherents will force everything else to bow—like a college student taking a single class in cultural criticism and being unable to think in any other terms. To someone whose only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail.

To 21st century North Americans, with our particular modern hammers, everything is Political. Everything is a Game. Everything is (or must be translated into) Entertainment (cf. Neil Postman). That’s too much weight for any of those things to bear. We must not take them so seriously. When it happens in cinema, every film, actor, and director has to “make a statement.” But in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, it’s when a film tries to “say something” that it fails, both commercially and as good film. People know when they’re being propagandized, and unless they’re totally on board already, they don’t like it—not to mention that it usually creates bad art.

So, instead of being “meaningful” and “profound,” just give me a good story. Interestingly, good stories are usually meaningful, even profound. But even if they’re not—even if they’re just fun—that’s good enough. For example, Baby Driver is a fun little flick that flirts with delving into deep, childhood grief. It’s a romance and a comedy and an action movie. But it doesn’t try to be too much, and I’m okay with that. It shifts effortlessly (pun semi-intended) between serious crime-and-car-chase and witty dialogue and humor (“he puts the Asian in home invasion” or Mike Myers/Austin Powers Halloween masks instead of Michael Myers Halloween masks). There are a lot of heist movie character clichés, but Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx are good enough actors to play those clichés as they should be played: all the way to 11.

I’ve also been enjoying the Department Q films on Netflix. Based on books by Jussi Adler-Olsen, these Danish films are excellent detective/crime movies. They are, like Bosch and True Detective (Season One, at least; I didn’t hear good words about Season Two), more character studies of the detectives than they are narrative-focused (although the stories keep moving).

The most recent one, Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith, does have an underlying discussion about what any kind of religious faith is for, since one of the detectives, Assad, is a Muslim, and they are investigating a small religious cult’s connections to the abductions and murders of children. The final scene in particular surprised me as I was moved emotionally more than I expected to be.

But finally, they’re simply good stories. And a little entertainment and distraction and escapism is all the more needed when everything is being co-opted politically and culturally. If it’s good, it’s good, even if it doesn’t check all the right political and social boxes. Yes, a fictional world that is constructed to tell a good story can turn our eyes more critically back on the real world. Yes, films and other entertainment can help us see things more clearly. But that’s not their primary purpose (or it shouldn’t be).

For example, Get Out is a pretty good picture of a horrifying alternate reality. But people want it to say too much. And I suspect it’s a much better description of the sorts of people who take every opportunity to prove they’re “woke” than of the veiled racism that may or may not exist in every social interaction. I think both the people who see it, on the one hand. as a necessary and fundamentally important exploration of racist social structures or, on the other hand, as a shallow, typical, and unreal progressive social statement are missing the point that it’s a tense and fun ride while it lasts.

Simply stated, let me have my escapism. When politics is taken too seriously, the president is either destroying everything or saving everything, and this is the Most Important Election in our lifetime. When sports are taken too seriously, people get far too angry and bitter about wins and losses and teams and rivals. When films are taken too seriously, we have to find profundity in everything, even if it’s not there. Not everything affects everyone. Not everything is political. Not everything is a game. Not everything is entertainment.

But such things can be ordered correctly only if one has the true God. Idolatry inverts the right order of everything. Only when the crucified and resurrected Jesus has made His Father our true God again by faith is everything put back into its proper place. The true God, the Creator, subverts all our attempts to make created things bear too much weight. The true God subordinates truly subordinate things. Then we can actually worship the only One who should be worshiped, while the penultimate things remain penultimate; politics becomes a way of ordering our civil life together in this creation, sport remains play, and entertainment remains escapism that is freed to hint at the true Story of things by its narrower sub-reality. And that is as it should be.

In the new creation, there will be no politics (as we commonly understand it) because its full and only polis will be the eternal, visible reign of God. There will be then no entertainment that subverts the good, true, and beautiful, nor will there be entertainment that points us beyond that eternal moment. And while there may be play in its truest sense, it will never be subjected to our corrupted hero-worship and tendency to make created things the measure of reality. So, for now, while we wait in this distorted and corrupted creation for that new and restored creation, a place for everything, and everything in its place—even movies.