Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, reviewed.

My girlfriend is going to have some words for me. Mostly kind ones I'm sure. But if she slipped in a knowing "I told you so" I'd have no right to hold it against her. Just the other day I upset her by panning the latest Narnia film sight unseen. The first one disappointed, I said. The second one reportedly murdered the book, I said. This one apparently added some mystical macguffin to spruce up the adventure with a chase, I said. Humbug, I said. And so she gave me the third degree about how they were decent movies and can't you just go along with the big budget adventure movie and darnit Mike you haven't even seen the thing. The conversation was long distance, but I imagined her face at the time to be scrunched in a cute twist of pouty insistence.

I went with my mom this evening to see Voyage of the Dawn Treader, begrudgingly but not wanting to stay in the house any longer. I came out of the theater pestering my mom because she didn't seem to enjoy it quite as much as I did. VotDT is no triumphant success of thrilling movie excitement, but it is an excellent kids' movie and fun enough to win over a skeptic.

If you don't already know, VotDT recounts a sea-faring adventure involving three British schoolchildren magically whisked away from wartime Britain into a parallel universe filled with mythical creatures and gallantry and adventure. It's adapted from one of a series of seven books by the wildly popular mid-century evangelical writer C.S. Lewis, a Cambridge professor of medieval literature turned lay theologian. The Chronicles of Narnia, as these seven books are known collectively, detail the adventures of English schoolchildren mostly from the same family and decade who live full lives in this alternate universe before returning to the same age in the "real" world. The disjunction in the passage of time might these days cause one to wonder whether someone wasn't trying to convince Leonardo DiCaprio he was a magical king. But enough of that.

Edmund & Lucy have spent decades in Narnia previously and are thrilled when the seascape in their bedroom begins to gush saltwater and hurtle them back into adventure. Their boorish young cousin Eustace, however, is not. The film wrings some laughs from the brat's fussy adjustment to a life of excitement and danger, some pathos from his growing up through the experience.

VotDT does mostly well by their story as known from the book, fleshing details here and there, twisting bits of one adventure and another together. But the book VotDT already suffered from having too episodic a structure, so I actually found (to my surprise) that the plot alterations served both the movie and the spirit of the text. Fancy that! Seen in the right cinematic light, the Dawn Treader's various adventurous episodes start pushing towards the delirious "why not?" fun I remember from moments like Up's dogfighting dogs and King Kong's thrice tyrannosaurus-laden throwdown. Well, it's not that exciting, but the point is I had fun when I didn't expect to.

The acting is serviceable, though Edgar Wright's Reepicheep is fantastic and Georgie Henley still rocks as Lucy, even if she's not the same intensely adorable waif of five years ago. Liam Neeson (or the sound engineer digitally modifying his voice) sounds better as Aslan, and the character is used to better effect. Personally, I would have liked Eustace's deliverance scene* to have been put together differently, but what's on screen works and they managed to retain the meaning. The FX are also serviceable, but nothing so refined as what has been put to work in most blockbusters the past several years. It doesn't look bad, but it also doesn't look good next to something like Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter--it takes little imagination to think that the franchise's loss of Disney backing had something to do with this. But, in the end, it all holds together.

So Rachel, you were right. The movie doesn't suck. It's pretty good, actually. And I think most of the people who bother enough to casually skim my writings would enjoy it, though probably not for top dollar.

*Not to be mistaken with Eustace's Deliverance scene, although several creatures do refer to him as a pig.

He Is Able

From the office readings for the first Sunday after Christmas, year one.

"Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.  Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested." 

~ Hebrews 2:14-18

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Love that Moves the Sun

Just so was I on seeing this new vision
I wanted to see how our image fuses
Into the circle and finds its place in it,

Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

~conclusion to Dante's Paradiso

God Loves Naked People

The following is a transcript of my wedding sermon written as my final Homiletics assignment. The psalm referred to here is Psalm 139. I used the names Paul and Thekla as my fictional married couple--props to you if you get my church history joke.

God loves naked people. God created us naked. We’re not born with suit and tie (or skirt and heels), right? Most of us remember from Sunday school that Adam and Eve went about those primordial years au naturale, blissfully unconcerned about it. Adam never looked at Eve in those days to say, “Eden feel a bit drafty today?” Rather, Genesis tells us that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”[1]   Our creational account is packed with so many firsts and prototypes, and one of them is the first marriage. We see in the unfallen Adam and Eve an effortless vulnerability and self-exposure, doubtless a powerful context for incredibly deep interpersonal knowledge. For the kind of fellowship God intended humans to have, even as he said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”[2]   Imagine what friendship and romance would be like without selfishness, without distrust, without lies and violations. That’s the holy peace, the blessing God desires for all the families of the earth.

Of course we know that it didn’t stay that way. Our lives are deeply complicated by the problem of sin and human failure; our relationships so often broken and hurting. We long for peace and deep sharing with others, but we’re our own worst enemies. And just as sin originally drove Adam and Eve to cover their nether-regions, the brokenness, pain and transgressions in our lives cause us to cover ourselves. I am not, this afternoon, advocating public nudity or anything so crass. I am merely pointing out what most of us at least intuitively know—we just don’t share our deepest selves, our figurative nether regions, with everyone. Sometimes with anyone. We’re afraid to be fully known, because in our nakedness we are ashamed.

In our psalm today, the composer says to God, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”[3]   That’s some intense x-ray vision. Sort of like a cosmic full-body scanner like they have at airport security. As uncomfortable as those contraptions make us, the God of heaven and earth sees way more than the TSA.

But the psalmist isn’t boycotting this divine invasion of privacy! He sings, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.” And rather than squirm uncomfortably at the thought of exposure, he invites God’s penetrating gaze: “Search me, O God, and know my heart… See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” This should surprise us because it’s not normal human behavior to want our wickedness exposed. We hide. We run for cover. Just as the first husband and wife did all those millenia ago. But the psalmist understands God in a way Adam and Eve didn’t grasp, or were deceived into doubting. If God knows everything, why not let him deal with you? And if God is good, holy, just, merciful and omnipotent, who wouldn’t want his involvement?

So what does this have to do with marriage? Believe it or not, marriage involves nudity. Shocking, I know. The way our secularized culture treats marriage, however, dilutes the point I’m about to make. Through pre-marital sex, people expose themselves physically to one another without the concordant psychological, emotional and spiritual exposure that a lifelong commitment to another person entails. Its sinful precisely because it divorces body from mind, separates our beings in ways never meant to happen. Sexual “liberation” is sexual slavery. My point here now is that Christian marriage in a very sober sense means a lifelong commitment to someone before seeing them naked, figuratively and literally. Marital faithfulness means not running away when you begin to encounter the depths of the person you love—when they begin to encounter yours. It’s an intentionally intrusive set up—listen to this Paul and Thekla—designed by God to refine and sanctify you. It will not always be fun, but, with the Lord’s help, it will ultimately be good.

The liturgy we hear today tells us that marriage “signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.”[4]   The marriage covenant speaks of a higher covenant, a commitment made by God to humans without the stipulation that they take off their clothes. In other words, God doesn’t commit to us based liking what he sees when he looks at our true selves. If he did, we’d never make the cut.

Paul and Thekla marry today knowing some things about each other. They know that they both enjoy backpacking in the mountains. They know that they both enjoy old movies and good wine. They know that they both love serving and loving others as part of God’s people. And we, as their community at Church of the Resurrection, can attest to the good things they share as well. We have witnessed their love and commitment grow and mature this last year, and it is because of this that we have gathered together with them today.

However, just as we witnesses do not share in the closest and most personal parts of Paul and Thekla’s romance, so also Paul and Thekla have yet to share the deepest and most intimate parts of their selves. Marriage will mean exposure, both figuratively and literally, for our dear friends. I am here to declare today to you, Paul, and to you, Thekla that the dark corners of your souls will be unearthed by your life together. Places of darkness, pain, fear and sadness will inevitably surface. Not because either of you are particularly bad human beings, but precisely because you are normal human beings. Even Christians cannot escape this fate, as being new creations in Christ is a lifelong process of sanctification and not a one-stop, instantaneous transformation. Marriage will be a crucial part of your pilgrimage toward heaven, a process of love and refinement lasting decades.

So don’t be surprised when you find yourselves in your first fight! It’s going to happen! One day you’re going to look at the other person and say, “Surely this isn’t the beautiful creature or the godly adonis that I married!” Watch yourself when those thoughts and feelings come to the fore. Because those are the moments that a strong marriage is made of; because it’s how you respond when your loved ones fail you that determines the strength of your closest relationships.

Let’s turn our thoughts back to God for a moment. Unlike the way Thekla can know Paul or vice versa, God knows our best and brightest attributes as well as our deepest depravities as a matter of fact. So when God makes an offer of commitment and love to you—and he has—it’s demonstrably more astounding than the one you made or may one day make on your wedding day. More astounding than what Paul and Thekla are about to do today. Though we know they are doing a beautiful thing. That’s the marvel and the offense of the gospel, the loving and faithful commitment of God to people who by no means merit such a gift.

How is it that then Christ is the bridegroom, and we are the bride? Women take to this analogy naturally, but men tend to struggle with it. It seems flowery and girly. But when the Bible speaks this way about Christ and the church, we need not picture an iconic and kissy romantic embrace a la The Princess Bride or somesuch. Though it is a profound encouragement that, when asked what he had to live for, Jesus did not mutter “to blave.” True love, he says! For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. And yes, when he returns, he will shame the metaphorical Prince Humperdinck of this world.

But we can think of Christ as the true bridegroom today because we know that he knows us deeply and intimately, yet he has chosen us. That is the gospel. Christ sees us naked, yet he offers redemption to us. God loves naked people. And so I charge you both today—you Paul, and you Thekla—“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[5]   Go thou, and do likewise. Amen.

[1] Genesis 2:25.
[2] Genesis 2:18.
[3] Psalm 139.
[4] BCP, 423.
[5] I Corinthians 13:4-8

Monday, December 13, 2010

2010: 8 Good Movies

2010 was not a good year for movies. I could probably only name one or two films released this year that I regretted missing (Winter's Bone, Let Me In... and that's it).* We had a weak summer for blockbusters--Iron Man 2 was flat, Robin Hood needlessly historicized and overblown (from what I understand), The Sorcerer's Apprentice tepid (also word of mouth). At the end of the summer, one critic had actually proclaimed 2010 the worst year ever for movies. I'm not informed enough to agree or disagree with him, except to say that I usually enjoy a wealth of movies each year and in 2010 I'm unable to put together a round list of 10 favorites.** So here are the eight fun/favorite movies, ranging in quality from "not a waste of your time or money" to "surprisingly good."

8) Unstoppable

This movie is hammily acted, visually overwrought and light on meaning. It's also a "white-knuckle thrill ride" that will have you on the edge of your seat the whole time. Despite its B-movie elements spun from real-life events, I really enjoyed it. A true popcorn movie. Although, unfortunately, this SNL parody is not inaccurate.

7) Tangled

Tangled manages to be a non-irritating, mostly exciting Disney princess movie about Rapunzel, her magical hair and leaving the confines of an over-protective childhood for the world of men. The love interest is given more characterization here, and feels less like an arbitrary stand-in for romantic wish fulfillment (i.e. Prince Charming). Plus, there is a surprisingly dark psychology at work in the film as the heroine must become self-aware of her reclusiveness and own up to her own life rather than being enslaved by the adult expectations of her childhood.

6) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt. 1

A road trip movie into dark woods, dark histories, and dark corners of the soul. Some have complained that it drags, but I was sufficiently invested in the characters to care deeply for the risks and sacrifices they make. I was riveted the whole time. I remembered enough of the book to know when danger was coming, but not always to whom and with what consequence. The movie does have murder, torture and mutilation (mostly off-screen), so I'd say definitely not for kids.

5) How to Train Your Dragon

Perhaps the most exciting and entertaining kids' movie since The Incredibles. It's a rousing and funny adventure involving vikings, dragons and self-actualization. What's not to love?

4) Inception

An exciting and brainy action movie that falls all the way down the rabbit hole. Recent interviews with director Chris Nolan and freeze-frame comparisons from the Blu-Ray now mitigate this take, but I was fairly sure after watching it that the film offered no objective frame of reference. But when the visuals and ideas are flying this fast, one can be forgiven for trying to get a grasp on its reality and just giving in to the fun.

3) Toy Story 3

A fantastic threequel. The film has energy, wit, visual creativity in spades and heart--all hallmarks of the Pixar brand. It's also surprisingly dark--think toys being forced to face the stark dread of existential annihilation. Ingmar Bergman with a rainbow palette, if that makes sense to anyone but me. And it's refreshingly poignant in a way that doesn't feel contrived within the Toy Story universe but also avoids asking you to care too much about possessed action figures.

2) The Social Network

Mike Radcliffe likes this. With enough rapid-fire dialogue to tire Bogart's tongue, a splash of chilled-heart cynicism and the color scheme of an autumnal sweater-wearing English Lit major whose favorite movies are Dead Poets Society and Rushmore, TSN is a dark American fable of careerist techno-prowess and Harvard campus social climbing. The "real" Mark Zuckerberg has derided it as tabloid journalism because it basically says he invented Facebook to get girls (and Jesse Eisenberg brilliantly portrays him as unlikeable dweeb). Everyone knows he's BSing because the site never would have made it off the ground if it weren't for its streamlining of digital connections between oppositely-sexed coeds. Just before the film's release he donated a zillion dollars to a failing New Jersey school system, a PR move that seems just as fake as the Facebook avatars composed of "Likes" and snapshots which his program facilitated and wrings billions of dollars of profit from.

1) Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

SPvtW captures the outsized feeling of personal romantic drama by scrawling the main character's inner world across the screen via the overblown visual signatures of video games and comic books. Michael Cera plays an even more restrained version of himself as Scott Pilgrim, a 22-yr old Canadian layabout and bassist who is caught between the too-young fangirl he's dating (a bubbly sprite of a teenager named "Knives Chau") and the mysterious and alluring girl of his dreams (a dyed-hair, alluring cool girl named "Ramona Flowers"). Pilgrim has to fight Flowers's emotional baggage one-by-one, Dragonball Z-style, in order to be with her and eventually has to own up to his own mistakes and fight as a matter of self-actualization and self-respect rather than trying to earn the respect of the women around him. I'll be the first to admit that romantic twenty-somethings weaned on Super Mario Bros./Duckhunt like myself are the target audience here and those not submerged in our rareified geek culture may not care. But for those of our digitally infused cerebra, SPvtW will have us selecting "Play Again" many times over.

*By contrast, in 2009 I loved Avatar, A Serious Man, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Up and maybe some others I can't remember right now.

**Sadly, the Coen brothers' True Grit doesn't come out until the 22nd. I will be talking someone in Jacksonville into seeing it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Shouting Through Pain

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Friday morning, 12/3/2010, at Shepherd's Heart Fellowship in Pittsburgh, PA. The lectionary readings were as follows: Psalms 16, 17 & 22; Isaiah 3:8-15; I Thessalonians 4:1-12; Luke 20:27-40.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried these words on the cross right before he died. They are the pained cry of a man who has known great suffering. But even on the cross, Jesus had scripture in mind. He understood that his death has meaning, that even at his most forsaken, the Father is working to bring redemption to mankind.

Psalm 22 begins with that same cry we hear on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God, why? Why did you let this happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? The psalmist felt that question. Jesus felt that question. “I cry by day,” he says, “but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” This is no brief spell of depression. The psalmist is in major crisis—otherwise, his song would not have been appropriate for history’s greatest crisis, the cross of Jesus Christ.

We see the tension between suffering and faith right away, because the psalmist turns around and says, “Yet you are holy… In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them…” He’s remembering the stories he’s heard, the scripture preached to him, the faith he received from those who came before him. We do and we ought to do the same when hard times are upon us. As the great Christian author C.S. Lewis once said, “God shouts through our pain.”

But then the psalmist takes another right turn. He complains, “But I am a worm, and not human.” “Surely these stories, these truths don’t apply to me!” he seems to be thinking. We wonder the same. How can mere words measure up against the reality of starvation or betrayal or the unforgiving bitter cold of a Pittsburgh winter? It’s all fine and well to talk about what God did with those people back then—a long time ago and far, far away—but what about where I live? What about the boundary line between my life and death? What about my pain? We’re aching for God to answer us.

“But,” he says, turning again, “it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.” He remembers. He says, this God wasn’t just around in these old stories. He’s creator God. He saw me through my youth. Now I face hardship, suffering, death—but I remember when God got me through.

I’m going to tell you a story about God getting a family through tough times. Years ago, a young couple in their thirties had one child, a four year old boy. One day the mom walked into the room only to find her one and only son writhing on the floor, his muscles spasming and body contorted in the frightening throes of a full on seizure. He’s rushed to the doctor. The parents are waiting, terrified of what the news might be. The word comes in: your son has a bacterial brain disease, and he’s in a coma. “My God,” they must have thought, “why have you forsaken us?” How could this have happened to our son? How could you take him from us?

Imagine them, sitting up late at night by the hospital bed, worried and grieved to the point of nausea. Then the doctor, a Christian, comes into to talk to them. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but there’s nothing more I can do for your son. We’ve exhausted what medicine has to offer him.” End of story—except, he quickly adds, “But there is one thing I can do—pray.” And they pray fervently in the name of Jesus for the health of this child, and then the doctor leaves. My mom fell asleep by the bed that night, not knowing whether she would ever see her son alive again. The next morning I woke up, healed, unaware anything had gone wrong.

God got me through. I praise him and thank him because if it weren’t for the resurrection power of Jesus, I wouldn’t be standing before you this morning. My parents knew the sharp pang of fear and terror that their son would probably die, knew what forsaken felt like. But God turned it around. The psalmist knew what forsaken felt like, yet he concludes his song proclaiming, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” And Jesus knew what forsaken felt like, yet God raised him from the dead on the third day.

My good news for you today is that you may know what forsaken feels like, but we worship the true God who raises men from the dead. You may know what the long and hard journey feels like, but Jesus is walking that road with you. You may know that place of pain and bitterness, of isolation and danger, but Jesus knew that place, too. He’s all we’ve got--all any of us have.

Have mercy on us, Lord! We need you! We’re nothing without you! We can’t make it down this road on our own! We’re tired—help! Lord Jesus, have mercy on your people. Protect us from all our adversaries, spiritual or physical, and keep us safe in this life and the next. Fill us with hope and joy, with the light of life, with the peace the passes all understanding, because we’re utterly dependent on you and we’ve nowhere else to go. Thank you, Jesus, for the breath you give us, for the death you died, for the salvation you bring. Amen.