Tag Archives: film

The Shape of Water: Enough already!

The Shape of Water Poster

My one-line review of The Shape of Water for Facebook

I went for the beautiful. Stayed for the overlong, derivative, pig in lipstick movie. Del Toro snoro.

I suppose daring to put out negative reviews on Facebook invites conflict. I did it anyway, since I rarely leave a movie so irritated. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. But probably not, since I usually even like the bad ones (like Downsizing!). But I needed to say something lest everyone run out expectantly when it wins some Academy Award.

A lot of reviewers think this movie is great.

The most welcome and notable thing about The Shape of Water is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple. Full review

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water elegantly blends whimsical fairy tale with a fresh spin on classic monster movies for a delightful experience. Full review

However, the Observer called it

A loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel.

It won two Golden Globes and was nominated for five more.  Like the foreign press noted, it does have a wonderful score and it is a feast for the eyes. I think the acting is a credit to the actors, who were given one-dimensional characters to play. I almost decided to suspend my criticism when [spoiler alert] the souped-up creature from the black lagoon mimicked Fred Astaire in black and white. (I am one of those people who brakes for Fred and Ginger on TCM). But I guess I was already homaged to the breaking point.

Instead, I ended up with two reactions:

Enough already with the magical alternative family!

Del Toro with cast. Watch out for the plaid dude, family.

Once again we have lonely lost souls creating an alternative family. Wasn’t this done to the saturation point with Friends? We’ve had fourteen more years of saturation since that show ended. OK, we get it. There are a lot of brave, lonely souls out there who can’t seem to be accepted for who they are. We are all like that and society stinks. But here we go again anyway.

The family clings together in the middle of a rotting 60’s city, rundown apartments and an overwhelming, secretive, cold war, government installation. The villain is not only a bureaucrat, he’s a suburban lunkhead and a Christian fundamentalist. I share your prejudices, but enough already!

Beauty and the Beast made $1.2 billion dollars last year. Weren’t we saturated with that story when the Disney gave us the first movie in 1991? (I was). But here we go again. Del Toro wants to take it a bit farther so his nonhuman monster becomes the romantic hero. Even they are worthy of love and acceptance. The audience is invited to kiss that beast.

I am down with love, acceptance (and I will add the crucial forgiveness). They are basic to the message of the gospel. And I understand alternative family, I have been living in Christian community since I began to follow Jesus. I never submitted to silly men and the damaging institutions they create, at least not for long. I appreciate artists expanding my vision. You’d think I’d love this thing. But this redundant messaging from filmdom borders on propaganda and us autonomous souls relating to the screen are its victims.

Enough already with the magic of romantic (mainly sexual) love!

Surely everyone interested in this film knows this, so I won’t consider it a spoiler. At the end of the movie there is a violent scene in which the lovers, mute girl and amphibian, are shot. The creature heals, gets up to slice the shooter’s throat, picks up his dying lover and dives into the water with her. In his natural element, he not only revives her, he gives her gills.

To be fair, Del Toro, steeped in religion as he is, says of this ending, “A very Catholic notion is the humble force, or the force of humility, that gets revealed as a god-like figure toward the end. It’s also used in fairy tales,” which he loves. “In fairy tales, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title ‘The Magical Fish.’ And [it’s] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.” That should make me feel better, shouldn’t it?

But I missed that symbolism completely. If you go see the movie, it will probably help to see it in that light. What I got was the final, summarizing voiceover from the narrator.

When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem. Made of just a few truthful words… whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago…:

Unable to perceive the shape of You,
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.

That would be a great prayer, wouldn’t it? Instead, it was pictured as a moment when the male sea creature gives his mate the capacity to become one with him after she saves him to do it. That’s one problem. More generally, it is a moment when love becomes all. It shows us that the magic of our love is beyond us; it is where we find our shape. When it is actualized, we are created. The words could be straight from a Christian mystic, which I appreciate. But the visual container is free of God content. It reinforces the repetitive teaching that we must find a lover who accepts us as we are and magically makes us who we can become. They are god-like. Their presence fills us. Enough already!

I have a good marriage, but as godly as my wife is, I know she is not God. I am glad we know we are not gods and love the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ so we do not kill our relationship with expectation and despair. This movie would be a great reason to never get married.  Because we know the beasts do not always get beautiful enough to look good at the ball. The monsters do not all turn out to be healers. Magic does not begin with or reside in sexual attraction. Life is not really the way the movie taught us AGAIN.

Like the movie, this short post brings up more to talk about than it attempts to answer all the questions. The film tells a story. It is a love story on many levels, which is nice. I have a story of my own in response. And I link my story to Jesus, not hidden in the fine print, not symbolized in the fish, but Jesus right out there for everyone to see, the one who can truly remake us into the shape to love and who is present with us when we can’t or don’t, too.

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What will Wonder Woman do to the children?

Gwen and I went to see Wonder Woman — ALL of it.  I even sat through the credits at the end because they were just so beautifully done. I found it to be a lavishly and lovingly produced piece of art. I’d go see it again just to enjoy the production values. But it also contains a surprisingly compelling story. See what you think.

As you can tell from the trailer, the movie keeps getting bigger,  louder and more frenetic as is moves toward its conclusion. My lingering impression from the experience was, “This thing is HUGE!” As we watched the credits we were in awe. I said, “There must be 1000 names on this list!” There were actually over 1500, I found out, and that does not include the 5600 extras that were hired.

Wonder Woman came out on June 2 and has already grossed over $300 million dollars worldwide. That’s BIG. It may make way over $100 million dollars in profit.  Isn’t it amazing how we have gotten used to such large numbers attached to comic book movies? This one took about 12 years to write and 4 years to make. What does a ten year old do with all that hugeness that keeps beating down on him or her? What am I going to do with it? But, more important, what will Wonder Woman do to the children?

The movie is such a big idea crammed into a couple of hours. What does a child do with it all? Here are just a few of the themes: ancient myths,  being a god, problems with mom, leaving home, first love, losing your virginity, experiencing a new world, finding your power, sensing your destiny, losing your mate, confronting evil, being an alien. When a giant story beats down on you, what do you do with it?

Is this a good response to Wonder Woman?

I kind of wish we all screamed, especially the children. Instead, I think the kids are swallowed. They adapt. They conform. They become acclimated and develop traits that allow them to survive in the presence of the machine.

The experience of Wonder Woman was such an overpowering noise! — part of the anti-silence in which we live.  We saw it on a very big screen and were surrounded by sound: thundering hooves, whizzing WW1 bullets, titanic explosions — by the end, too many explosions.  Maybe we are all used to such things by now. But we should probably notice that watching these movies could be another little dose of the PTSD that soldiers get in battle that dulls their senses and makes them anxious the rest of their lives (this has been studied). Some of these movies may be like taking your kid to work — in Afghanistan.

I look over my precious collection of grandchildren and wonder what the machines will make them. We considered our plan for children as a church last Saturday. I watched Wonder Woman on Friday. It was quite a juxtaposition. I wonder if we will have enough community in Christ to counteract the 1500 people who rammed Wonder Woman into our consciousness and threaten to trample it into submission.


Where is a trust system when you need one?

Photo: Newton Knight leading his strange new trust system.

The world is drowning in an ocean of mistrust—as usual. As we watched Free State of Jones the other day it was even more obvious that the disturbing storms that are stirring up the globe right now are not that unusual. Reflecting on Brexit, a British journalist says,

“When leaders choose the facts that suit them, ignore the facts that don’t and, in the absence of suitable facts, simply make things up, people don’t stop believing in facts—they stop believing in leaders. They do so not because they are over-emotional, under-educated, bigoted or hard-headed, but because trust has been eroded to such a point that the message has been so tainted by the messenger as to render it worthless.” — Gary Younge

Are we filled with that mistrust, too? In the 2016 Map we affirmed in Council on June 25, we included a proverb that says, “We are called to develop a trust system.” But do we mean that? Do we really think that is even possible? Do all of us even embrace the Map? Are we so mistrusting that we didn’t even participate or consider being part of the Council? Those seem to be relevant questions in a day like today, when the airwaves are filled with fear.

There was enough mistrust at the Council meeting to make some people start talking about trust. Some people did not think the meaning of the words were clear enough to be trusted or to show to others. We had to convince them that nothing we do is designed like law; it is designed to be personally delivered. But can the persons delivering it be trusted? It seems like there should be easy answers for those questions, but trust is not that easy. Nevertheless, we are still going for the atmosphere John teaches us to pursue: “We know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” — 1 John 4:16

Can we make a trust system? Even though we communicate a lot about our process and invite everyone into it, some people do not read the mail. Even though we work hard to listen, some people don’t care to speak. They are among us, but they can’t be with us; their trust is broken. Without trust we survive instead of create; we withdraw instead of include; we suspect instead of hope; we avoid instead of transform. We unlearn love. We demonstrate how we do not rely on God.

Our newest pastors have already experienced a few pinpricks of mistrust. Most people make their leaders prove they are trustworthy. We say the opposite, that it is our love that makes a leader. Our support can make a weak-kneed leader learn to walk confidently in the shoes of responsibility. Yet someone can still hold themselves off to the side and question the process. When I sent a report about the Council to the covenant members I “brazenly” included a list of the Leadership Team with all its new members. They might not like to have their names out there in an age of mistrust. Leaders are thought of as likely liars. But we have to build a trust system.

Building a trust system begins with trusting the Lord, of course. When we trust the Lord we have the confidence to trust others. They have to prove their untrustworthiness rather than the other way around. Our confidence embraces others and gives them a place to recover from the constant trauma of living in the world without God and his people.

But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit. — Jeremiah 17:7-8

Whenever the domination system lies (which is nothing new) we have somewhere to go.

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me? — Psalm 56:4

When my lack of trust is growing, I always end up back in 1 John, where John is struggling with churches threatened by liars and full of people who are not too adept at discerning among all the spirits wandering the world. Our trust system heeds his call: “We know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” — 1 John 4:16.  A trust system is built from the ground up, not the top down. Jesus followers who live in love build it. The leaders can deter them, but not defeat them because God lives in them.

The Golden Globes stoke my hope

The embarrassing Ricky Gervais usually convinces me to skip the Golden Globes award show that aired last night. This time, Viola Davis looked so spectacular she was a good reason to tune in. As it turns out, there was another reason, as well. Did you notice a theme running through the nominated dramas?

1950s married women find unexpected love and complications.

Furiosa frees sex slaves.

Vengeance in the frozen north. Hugh Glass frees a native sex slave.

Sex slave and her son escape.

Sexual abuse in the Catholic church is finally exposed.

I am not sure what is going on. But if the movies reflect our reality at all, we appear to be very angry and sex is not working out for us. We have been abused and our imaginations run to the most heinous of situations. Our master movie makers are creating stories that focus on the horrible. We are desperate for connection, but not that hopeful.

Continue reading The Golden Globes stoke my hope

The different, weird, strange, confusing, mysterious church

Why did I miss diving into the Divergent series until now? It is totally my kind of thing: anxious twentysomethings/teens forced by the government and their colluding parents to choose an identity that doesn’t fit them. Watching Kate Winslet (symbolizing the authorities) have her hand nailed to a computer screen by a well-thrown knife — what could be more interesting?

There is just so much to talk about here! So much of what the movie’s (and books’) characters face is exactly what people are thinking and feeling in the church all the time.

For instance, in Divergent-world, people are assumed to be pre-programmed. So far, it looks like Tris just isn’t. And it looks like Four/Tobias doesn’t want to be. Isn’t that just what we are all talking about — am I just who I am, or can I be someone more? “Can I choose? Do I have to choose? What if I choose wrong? Who decides the choices? Can they make me choose?”

In that kind of atmosphere, people have a lot of questions about the church, too — which is all about choosing, after all, and all about taking on a new identity. For instance: “Are the pastors a bunch of Kate Winslets with secret plots to use us for their own purposes?” That’s a good question. But, more likely, the question is about choices. “Should someone else choose what I choose (like Jesus)? Are they just programmed differently? Can I say what the choices are? I like choosing more than I like what I choose — what about that?” There is a lot to think about.

Continue reading The different, weird, strange, confusing, mysterious church

We need spiritual resources

What will you do when you get to the end of yourself? In Frozen, the main character goes a typical route. First, she withdraws in order to save everyone from having to deal with her and then enjoys the perverse freedom of being alone to be fully herself without any responsibilities.

Her sister goes another route. She teams up with bad people and good, but their combined strength saves the day.

What will you do when you get to the end of yourself? Do you typically go for autonomy? Or do you react by turning to the community? Most of us try both. Sadly, they both supply about equally dissatisfying results.

There is a third, spiritual way

We need what seems like a “third” way to us. We need spiritual resources, not just personal or communal resources. Think of the pursuit of spiritual resources as “paradigm shift.” If you think you have to solve it yourself, or if you think you have to solve it with all these people because, in either case, those options are all you’ve got, then think again.

In Jesus, you have God coming alongside to give you resources beyond what you have inside or at your fingertips. Beyond your ordinary awareness or even your spiritual awareness, is strength from the living God. When we have become a wound or we are being wounded and we can’t stop it, where do we go? Dig deeper? Connect closer? Those are not the worst ideas unless that’s all you think there is to do. Because there is more.

Jesus shows the way


In the famous scene of Jesus praying in the garden the night before his crucifixion, Jesus came back from praying alone to find his community. It says in Luke: “When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’”

Luke is generous to say that the disciples are “exhausted from sorrow.” It is also likely that they had not learned to turn to prayer when they are exhausted or exasperated or confronted with their typical temptations. They came to the end of themselves and conked out.

Many of us have a habit of falling asleep right when we need to pray. Many of us come to the end of ourselves and purposely put ourselves to sleep with some drug or media. Frozen has anesthetized millions, for instance. When Jesus is crucified the next day he demonstrates how he has accessed resources beyond his personal strength or the power of his community. When he receives the wounds of the world, he cries out, “Father forgive them.”

Prayer is our access point to life

What do you cry out? The other day when I was praying, I again realized I have a few places in my daily life that provide regular temptations. I have unhealed wounds that are easily injured, typical exasperation points, and things that make me want to take a long nap somehow. I have some things I often cry out, but I need to follow Jesus and access resources beyond myself rather than just sitting at the end of my meager capacity feeling alone and resenting my meager community. What are those places for you? A few of mine are:

  • Leaders who are out for themselves and do not listen, do not serve, do not know.
  • Cars parked in bike lanes.
  • Parents abusing their children because they are at the end of themselves.
  • Being falsely accused by customer service people.
  • When the power of my convictions is eroded by the apathy of my colleagues.

Like Jesus, we are also dealing with the wounds of the world. We are exhausted and exasperated. I think Jesus is sometimes frustrated with us, too, because we prefer sleep to prayer.

But I also think Jesus looks on us fondly even when he is frustrated because he knows we are mostly dust in our own eyes. He is calling attention to that place deep within us that we can access by prayer. We have access to spiritual resources beyond ourselves and our communities. Our perverted instincts might tell us otherwise, so it is going to be a battle to get healed — some things will have to die. But in the midst of that battle, amazing capacity is gained and we give birth to the wonders of God with us.

The end of the world 2013 — and why you matter.

Next Sunday night I will once again enjoy a guilty pleasure as I indulge in my tivo’d copy of the 86th Academy Awards show. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is 94% white, 77% male, 14% under the age of 50, with a median age of 62, which explains why only one of the movies I am about to talk about received a nomination (Star Trek for best visual effects). But in honor of of our society’s inventive and stimulating visual literature, I want to point out how the movies in 2013 had a very interesting theme that Christians have a lot to say about: the end.

I suppose that Christians should take some of the blame for how moveimakers were a bit obsessed about the end of the world last year. We Jesus followers have a great capacity to receive the goodness of each moment, but we also have an eye on the end of time when Jesus completes the graces of this age and returns to inaugurate the age to come. As we will see in a minute, Paul teaches us to assess each action for how it will endure the fire that is coming to test it! Over the years, the church has contributed in good ways and bad to how our culture views the end of the world. But if the moviemakers are channeling the zeitgeist well (and that is what makes them money!), then the general population must be very interested in the end — and afraid! The following six end-of-the-world, post-life-as-we-know-it movies grossed $739 million domestically and $1.75 billion worldwide in just 2013 – and there were more of their ilk.

Continue reading The end of the world 2013 — and why you matter.

America Bashing in the Movies for the Fourth

I was treated to two America-bashing movies over the Fourth of July.

The first one I viewed was by invitation of Shalom House. I was not surprised that a movie they liked went after our war-fueling government! Watching a truth-telling movie with the peacemakers ended up feeling like an extremely appropriate way to observe the Fourth of July in 2013.

dirthy warsDirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield [NPR review] chronicles the quickly-expanding role of the secret wars the White House wages out of our scrutiny — even scrutiny by Congress, it appears. Jeremy Scahill is the investigative reporter/star who is extremely cool and extremely helpful — we need some reporting beyond the usual Kanye updates and courtroom dramas we usually see masquerading as news. Scahill is the National Security Correspondent for The Nation magazine and author of the international bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

As soon as I mentioned Scahill (who had been previously unknown to me, which might disturb him), Joshua popped up on my FB and said, “Jeremy Scahill and I were together for about a month in Iraq back in ’02. Good guy and his work has really blossomed. The film looks good, too.” Then Sarah Grey said, “Saw him speak and chatted with him a bit at Socialism 2013 last weekend– he introduced Glenn Greenwald. Two of the best journalists working.” So if you need him stereotyped, my very with-it friends can give you a feel for him. But even if he skews the facts and you are tempted to stand up and shout “You lie!” I just want to say — if only half of what he says about JSOC is correct, then everything you think about the Fourth of July might be in jeopardy — unless you think “freedom day” means that the “secret president,” Obama, has the freedom to fight a world-wide war on “terrorism” without any public knowledge, much less accountability. If that’s your idea of freedom, you are living in your preferred future.

The second movie was Gwen’s pick. I did not expect any America bashing from Disney. I just had gift card and nothing to lose. (I discovered we had used up the card at Tandoor, but we went anyway).

lone rangerI was surprised. The Lone Ranger: Ride for Justice (or more likely, The Lone Ranger: Jonny Depp Looking for a Franchise) [multiple reviews] is a pretty dumb, long movie — but that does not usually stop people from seeing what Jerry Bruckheimer is up to [personal fav]. This film has all the usual superhero formulas in it accomplished with trains and horses. But it also takes surprising swipes at all sorts of American conventions, pointedly noting how the Asians and Native Americans were mercilessly exploited in settling the Southwest (Monument Valley inexplicably standing in for Texas).

What surprised me most was one of the main themes of the engorged, lumbering plot. You will not likely see this film (and shouldn’t), so I will tell you. They keep asking the Lone Ranger, “What’s with the mask?” and Tonto, less frequently, “What’s with the bird?” Their answers have to do with their complicity with railroad barons killing and exploiting their way into silver country in order to buy the United States. That is a good theme to ponder while singing God Bless America!

It turns out that Tonto helped them find the silver and the dead bird he wears on his head is a sign of his grief and guilt. This makes him an outcast. Also, the Lone Ranger thought the rule of law would save the land and his mask is his recognition that the only appropriate response to the lying powers-that-be is to be an obvious outlaw. This makes him lone.

At one point the railroad man/silver magnate (also with a secret army) plummets off a destroyed bridge with his trainload of silver. The audience is treated to the vicarious satisfaction of the rich being destroyed. Wow! Happy July Fourth! Being complicit, grief-stricken, guilty, cast out and a bit lone are all appropriate ways to spend the national holiday, at least if Jesus is  any example. And He is.

I see no evidence that any of the prophecy being crammed into the media these days has any impact on the rulers or the general population. It is possible that presenting the truth by film blunts any actual human response. Movies artificially stimulate the brain and leave people doused with natural opiates [Bonus: Ted talk warning about kids and media]. Perhaps we all watched so many Power Ranger episodes as kids that we can’t keep our mind on the problems the prophets are noting — I did think both films kind of dragged, I must admit.

Maybe we can’t focus on what God says either. Too bad. Even the movies are echoing the Lord. As far as both these American-bashing movies go, this is what we should be listening to, over and over:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
 They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm. Psalm 20:7-8

Can’t you just hear Jesus saying that? You can certainly see him doing it.

Sojourn at the Movies

The U.S. embassy in Germany has a nice page on film. On it, they say, “Moving pictures were not an American invention; however, they have nonetheless been the preeminent American contribution to world entertainment.” Do you think that movies are what Americans do best? They are also good at drone warfare, but let’s stay thankful.

I am thankful for the stimulation the movies gave me over the holiday. Gwen and I often see one of the big movies when the distributors begin their winter releases. This time we decided to do it big and we saw four! Each one had some inspiration to offer in one way or another. If you can go to the movies as “play” they can be good for you. When a very young child is first playing with their parents, he or she is learning to discern between imagination and actuality, what is in my mind and what is in an other’s. When we go to the movies, an author, director and crew are telling an artful story. Experiencing the story, imagining what is behind it, and discerning what it all means is a rich experience of mental activity. Of course, if one just experiences the violence, language, sex, and noise in the film, it might be better to skip the sensory oppression. If one just consumes movies and does not relate to them, I’d avoid them.

The movies I saw each had something to say that is very relevant to where I live and to what is happening around me in the quickly-changing social landscape of the United States! It was like going on retreat! Let me tell you about them in the order experienced.

Needs a big screen

I went to see The Life of Pi when Wreck it Ralph was not an option. I was glad I did. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, as Ang Lee no doubt hoped I would. It is a stunningly beautiful film I would watch again without the sound on. I wish I had a more extravagant word than stunning to describe how beautiful. It also has a lot to say — layers and layers to say. But the main thing I took away was about the power of story in the face of the facts. It is a nice piece of rebellion against the rationalists who dominate so much of what is proper and legal in the United States. We all want to love, feel, and forgive, but we are forced to fight over facts, policies and definitions. One’s identity is more than the definition, one’s life is more than what happens.

Put DD Lewis on the penny

Lincoln was a revelation in so many ways. I am not a big critic of movies, generally, since I want to relate to them, not critique them. But I know a better one from a worse one, I think. I have to say that I don’t think there is anything wrong with Spielberg’s loving portrayal of St. Abraham. And Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens! One of my friends ran to Amazon immediately to find out about this unknown abolitionist from PA. Some critic said Sally Field was miscast as Lincoln’s troubled wife – poppycock. What I took away was all about leadership. Lincoln had his eye on “true north” and got there in whatever way he could. He seems to have been a master of doing the best with what was available. He learned while others were just defending themselves. And the 13th Amendment is a good thing. Democracy won’t save us, but let’s celebrate when the righteous last long enough in it to get something good accomplished.

The movie in a nutshell, I think

I like costume dramas and set direction, so I was looking forward to Anna Karenina. I was not disappointed by the art (although sometimes the artifice was disctactingly artifical). “All the world’s a stage” and much of the movie is set on the literal set of an old theatre. And Kiera Knightly wears some amazing stuff, when she is clothed. But they just told the story of Anna’s affair without much of the backstory Tolstoy was really talking about! It put me to sleep, literally (but then, so did the book, I admit). It reminded me of some experiences I have had when I am listening to someone and I am quite bored with what they are saying. Most of the time I need to pinch myself and get engaged because they aren’t really doing any inner work. I might need to pinch whatever they are doing so they can wake up. Lord knows that many people I know are totally led around by their lust and unprocessed obsessions, miserable and making other feel the same.

Llanerch Diner!

I did not really want to go see Silver Linings Playbook. I’d only heard about it from Gwen. Once again, I find out how trustworthy Gwen is! If you love Philly and the people of Philly, this is worth the price of admission. I did not realize it was a great reflection of our fair city. A main scene happens in the Wanamaker building ballroom where I attended a Habitat fundraiser earlier in the year! But what I loved even more, with all my psychotherapy studies this year, was seeing troubled people doing good work and feeling better, plus troubled families managing not to be messed up by the system too much and finding their way home. Even the police are not too bad in this movie! What I took away was some encouragement to go with my best inspiration and let my positive attempts bear fruit. Good things can happen.

My sojourn in the movies turned out to be a good pre-Advent retreat. The incarnation is a great story. Teaching about it and leading through it requires being inventive in the face of an era of change in which people seem to be light on meaning and not so happy with that. I want to hold on to the surprising hope that does not disappoint. We are built for joy and Jesus is the continual spark that allows it to flame.

Us Cowboys and Alien Technology

To begin with, smart people expressing the zeitgeist:

“You’re playing God.”
“Somebody has to!”
Steve Martin, The Man with Two Brains.

And life itself confided this secret to me: “Behold,” it said, “I am that which must always overcome itself. Indeed, you call it a will to procreate or a drive to an end, to something higher, farther, more manifold” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra II 12

I watched the best movie I never heard of in 2011 on pay-per-view in the Poconos Saturday. Did you know that Cowboys and Aliens cost $163 million dollars to make? As we watched it, the women in the room laughed out loud when one came to the realization that, “This movie is an extended study of Daniel Craig’s behind!” I had missed that feature, but they were essentially right.

What I was not missing was the thinking behind the comic book. We have an ongoing ambivalence about technology and an ongoing hope that “us cowboys” can save humanity from being taken over by it. In case you haven’t seen the movie, Daniel Craig is a cowboy. (He plays the part straight, but Harrison Ford is winking conspiratorially at us through most of the picture). Craig is abducted by aliens but escapes with one of their powerful devices on his left arm. He is a cowboy who learns quickly how to fight like an alien. I’d say it was a hoot to watch this, but that would not be enough. It elicited many hoots on many levels. Netflix it for sure — watch the cowboys save humanity.

Thank God some Jesus-followers are also considering what becoming posthuman might mean (not just Steven Spielberg and Steve Martin)! Circle of Hope leaders have been trying to come up with our own “theology of technology” for the past couple of years and we can’t do it. Nevertheless, we sort of have alien devices attached to us. We need to answer the ultimate questions attached to the attachments, “Why not renounce our human limits and accept transcendence? Why talk about God when we are as good as gods?”

The questionable activities that demand answers are proliferating. The Enlightenment and the humanist perspective convinced everyone that progress was inevitable, that life is a grand adventure, and that reason, science, and good will would free us from the confines of the past. People are taking that logic to its predictable extreme and saying that we can attain higher peaks by applying our intelligence, determination, and optimism to break out of the human chrysalis. They argue that evolution, despite our efforts, has channeled our behavior in particular directions built into our neurology. Our bodies and brains restrain our capacities. Supposedly, our creativity is struggling within the boundaries of human intelligence, imagination, and concentration. People think we can beat that.

It is easy to see that brilliant people are certainly trying hard to break out of the chrysalis. The technology they are creating is the dominant force shaping the emerging postmodern world. I know I am dependent on various information, communication, and transportation technologies. With advances in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics, that dependence will increase. But my dependence (and the movie-maker’s dependence) is accompanied by a deep ambivalence. For many, technology symbolizes the faith of the postmodern world, but it is an ambivalent faith encapsulating both hopes for and fears of the future.

I don’t underestimate people who call themselves extropist or transhumanist. I appreciate that they are being philosophical rather than advancing the cause of chrysalis-breaking under the banner of improving technology. I had an argument last week about whether our church should adopt a technology merely because it was faster, when I thought the adoption had a lot of other ramifications that were unexplored. I met with a few blank stares. At least the philosophers are having an argument rather than just buying an ap.

The philosophers are justifying how we have already taken our first steps along the road to posthumanity. We have begun to directly alter our genetic structure to remedy “nature’s failures.” We use drugs to modify our psychology, enhance our concentration, and slow brain aging. Research into more specific and powerful neurochemical modifiers is going to speed up  how we apply new tools from molecular biology, computer-assisted molecular design, and brain imaging.

The merging of human and machine is advancing. Machines are becoming more organic, self-modifying, and intelligent. At the same time, we are beginning to incorporate our technology into our selves. We began with pacemakers, artificial joints, and contact lenses. We’re far beyond that, now. The government is developing artificial retinas. Microelectrodes can be electrochemically coupled to our brains. Computers and their interfaces rapidly evolve to fit us: from mainframes and text-based interfaces to PCs, hand-held devices and voice-recognition. Even I played Fruit Ninja on voice-recognition Kinect last Friday! (Big weekend, people!) Surely we’ll be called to implant a computer in the name of buying a new product, soon.

Things are advancing rapidly. People hold off on medical treatment because a new technology will save them better, next month. We will use engineered viruses to alter the genetic structure of any cell, even adult, differentiated cells. Molecular nanotechnology may give us control over the structure of matter, allowing us to build things atom-by-atom — we might be able to program the construction of physical objects (including our bodies) just as we now do with software. This has already played out in other movies, but people are honestly working on the ability to “upload” ourselves (our psychology, memories, emotional responses, values, feelings) from our biological brains into synthetic brains that run a million times faster and allow more extensive modification than allowed by our natural brains.

There are certainly no simple answers in response to all the questions that are being raised. I am excited when technology does such good things for my friends (like the robot that managed Dave’s surgery!).

But I can’t help thinking that wanting to break out of the chrysalis of humanity is a human-hating aspiration. I am working out what it all means. Today’s bullet points:

  • Transcendence is not a new desire, even if it has new technology to back it up. Revisit the apple again.
  • The desire to break out of humanity it surely fundamental to the reason God broke into humanity in Jesus. How we save ourselves never works right, Spielburg notwithstanding.
  • Being human is good. Being connected to God forever as our true selves in our own bodies is a gift that is even better. Thank you, Jesus.

Go See Of Gods and Men

Dear friends, please go see Of God’s and Men. If you are in Philadelphia, it will be at the Ritz Five for about five more seconds, I imagine. It is the most Christian movie I have ever seen. It is as slow as life in a Cistercian monastery, so don’t go sleepy. It is in French with subtitles, so don’t go irritable. It is about being a real Christian, so go discouraged, or questioning, or ignorant. Go to meditate on what it means to live by faith in a tumultuous, violent world.

Here’s the trailer: A monastery perched in the mountains of North Africa in the 1990s. Eight French Christian monks live in harmony with their Muslim brothers. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps though the region. The army offers them protection, but the monks refuse. Should they leave? Despite the growing menace in their midst, they slowly realize that they have no choice but to stay… come what may. This film is loosely based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, from 1993 until their kidnapping in 1996.

Gwen and I both felt, after we left the theater, “I have been WAY over-concerned with my problems.” It is easy to forget how wrapped up we get in small things and make them big, because they are the only things we’ve got. The movie was about big things and how to find the faith to face them. Watching it made me understand that I could also be faithful in relation to my small sufferings.

I have been praying ever since, “Thank you, Lord, that there are still people who do something as radical as plant their Cistercian monastery in the Atlas Mountains to pray for Algeria and love its people!” The story of these monks opened my eyes to realize that I am living among such a people, who are inspired enough to be a circle of hope and plant themselves in the middle of the megalopolis with a very similar intention and practice. We aren’t Cistercians, but we are strange enough when we aren’t too afraid to be so. Plus, we have Compassion Teams and intentional households that keep us on the edge. “Thank you, Lord!”

Circle of Hope has a strange connection with the monks, you know. They were kidnapped on the exact weekend we had our first public meeting. It was Palm Sunday. Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

A Bit on Dawn Treader Lite

It is the most wonderful time of the year for movies. I enjoyed “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” last night. It was very beautiful. Reepicheep was the best actor among all the stilted children wielding swords. The voice of Liam Neeson was nice to hear, speaking as Aslan, who Edmund names as “the son of the Emperor over the Sea, who saved me and saved Narnia.” At least Edmund named Aslan that in the book.

My JRF Review of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader | Jason Staples
Eustace and Reepicheep

Lite Religion

For marketing reasons, I guess, producers find it necessary to go light on the religious nature of the Chronicles of Narnia when they film them. I was just complaining last week in our public meeting about how Disney feeds us watered-down, Disneyfied myths to compete with the story of Jesus, as if Santa were not bad enough. This installment of the Narnia series was distributed by 20th Century Fox, Disney’s twin, owned by NewsCorp, which is lead by possibly the devil incarnate, Rupert Murdoch.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader  plainly says it is based on the Chronicles of Narnia, so as not to offend the heaven-based C.S. Lewis, no doubt. It is not totally denuded of Christianity, but it is striking what they choose to water down and reinterpret. The freeing of Eustace from his dragon skin was the most disappointing moment of all. It was so disappointing I have actually typed out the passage in the book for you, so you can remember what really happened. The account in the book is one of the most pleasant renditions of how God frees us from sin and draws us through baptism into the healing process of our new life. It bears repeating. Read this to you children, don’t just let them see the movie version. If you just take them to the movie, they’ll get too much Murdoch, not enough Lewis, and very little Jesus.

             “Then the lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke—You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty near  desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt more than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.’
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I had done  myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker and darker and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. …
After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me—
“Dressed you. With his paws?”
“Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes—the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”
“No it wasn’t a dream,” said Edmund. “I think you’ve seen Aslan.”…
“But who is Aslan. Do you know him?”
“Well—he knows me,” said Edmund.

Carrie, how could you?

The second most disappointing thing about Voyage of the Dawn Treader was Carrie Underwood. She wrote the song that will probably be competing for the Academy Award for best song. I was watching the credits for once because I wanted to see where they filmed the movie (New Zealand, of course). So I could not miss Carrie singing one of those songs that is religious without any Jesus in it. I think it is probably exactly the kind of song Lewis would have had Wormwood producing in the Screwtape Letters to make sure humans are fed light faith that doesn’t even need to be tempted.

Here is the most delusion-inducing stanza:

We can be the kings and queens of anything if we believe.
It’s written in the stars that shine above,
a world where you and I belong, where faith and love will keep us strong,
exactly who we are is just enough
there’s a place for us, there’s a place for us.

I’m sure Carrie means well. And if one listens to the whole lyric with Jesus in mind, it is easy to supply the truth that is not stated. But she could have least said, “If Aslan rips your skin off you have a chance to live.” She might have said, like the movie even said, “If you meet the Aslan of our world, who goes by another name you can enter that place for you.” Instead, she ended the watered-down tale by watering it down even more. I tuned to Gwen and said, “What is this b.s. song doing here?” (That’s my problem, of course.) Love you Carrie, but shame on you. You should have let Jesus take the wheel on that one.

I hope you enjoy The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is fun. There are moments that are moving and mysterious. It does not miss all the Christian underpinning it should have. It is a good tale. If you unmuzzle Jesus while you are there, it will actually be a growth experience, too: receiving what is given and lamenting what is not.

“Best Practices” Aren’t, Necessarily

I suppose today’s thoughts could go in the category “things Americans never tire of doing.” The newest business preoccupation to creep into the mainstream (like into your poor child’s school) is “best practices.” Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about “best practices” because my wife, the professor, and my son, the teacher, have been invaded by the fear of not performing according to these practices by their colleagues.

early best practices

A world of efficiency experts

The whole discussion reminds me of the 1950 movie (even more the book that spawned it) called Cheaper by the Dozen. It is a humorous look at the family of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy) who are time/motion study and efficiency experts. The comedy comes from watching them try to run their children according to their theories, and the drama comes when father’s body proves to be all-too inefficient. The title comes from one of Dad’s favorite jokes. In the movie, the family is out in the car, stopped at a red light. A pedestrian asks, “Hey, Mister! How come you got so many kids?” Dad pretends to ponder the question carefully, and then, just as the light turns green, he says, “Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know.”

Now they want to produce our children cheaper by the dozen. What was most useful in developing software has leaked into developing people and we are just foolish enough to go with that as if it makes sense. “Best practices” are techniques that are believed to be more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer complications. For years we have been tormented with “outcome-based” everything. God save us from the people who believe that data is law and then decide the outcomes accordingly!

Slaves to the data

It seems to me that Americans (maybe humans) repeatedly have the same arguments. I don’t want to use the most hysterical example just for show, but it comes to mind that slaveowners made the argument in the 1850s that the most efficient way of farming for them included slavery. It had shown itself to be the most profitable way of accomplishing the production of cotton, in particular, with repeatable procedures that had proven effective for a large number of planters over generations. It took brave Christians, in particular, to demand an end to that “best practice.”

But Christians don’t seem to be as vocal as they used to be. They seem to be as subject as anybody else to the tyranny of “best practices.” The Bible repeatedly says (in the face of former outbreaks of human-reliance) that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But these days we seem to be in step with everyone else in fear of the taliban of “scientists” overwhelming us with inscrutable data about the best way to do everything (until they change their mind again). “Best practices” should be suggestions from well-meaning people. Instead they become rules from “science” ayatollahs who make it plain that not following the practices is, essentially, immoral if they can’t make it illegal. And many Christians go with that.

Courage to cure the headache

For educators, therapists and social workers (for many of my family and friends!) this outcomes-based mentality is a real headache. The data is not so bad if it is suggestive (since figures lie and liars figure); but life becomes untenable when you end up “teaching to the test” and lobbyists get regulations passed that force you to conform to their interpretation of the “best practices.” For a Christian, who has little faith in hyper-rational world views, it is a particularly oppressive moment when fellow believers have bent the knee to the baal of “best practices” and one’s tenuous grip on viability within the system is stretched to a breaking point. For instance,  CACREP (the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) has a line in their core values statement  that says the board of directors believes in “creating and strengthening standards that … encourage program improvement and best practices.” So when these wannabe accreditors get your legislature to adopt their standards of accreditation, pretty soon you’re subject to their idea of “best practices” for your counseling. It is a surprisingly small degree of separation between efficiently producing mother boards and thinking one could mother children with mothering “best practices.”

I hope in that by 2050 (when I will only be 96, after all) I will get to see the fruit of brave Christians showing up the ludicrous nature of wisdom that does not begin with the fear of the Lord. One does not need to be anti-science to see its limitations. One does not need to be very loving to see that people are often driven by fear, not wisdom. One does not need to be very observant to notice that movies keep prophesying the horrendous effects of the rational-extension machines. But one does need to be faithful and courageous to work, plot and persevere in the institutions that can be devoured by the latest version of the same old arguments. Even more, one must be downright creative to live in an alternative to the latest attempt to enslave us to what the antichrist powers deem best.

Summer 2010 flicks reactions: Hang on to your hope

The literature of the age is film, and a believer needs to study. It is a pleasurable study, especially when the actors or the material are as well-tuned as recent offerings have been. I give you three films today, because the tsunami of the thoughts they are channeling will likely lap at your threshold whether you watch them or not.


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In Salt (undoubtedly so-named so there can be Salt II, as in the arms treaty) the force-of-nature who is Angelina Jolie carries a chase movie through sheer force of will. She is a Russian mole who was planted in the U.S. as a child, awaiting activation by her evil “creator.” Needless to say, she kills all the bad guys in a fit of redemptive violence – which is still a false myth, no matter how many times it gets filmed.

I walked out of the theatre (in the blazing heat) and said, “Note to Angelina. Do not let your however-many-you-have-now children EVER see what Mommy does for a living.” A couple of her murderous looks scared me, and she is not my mommy. Even more, the depth of American paranoia scared me. We can see a terrorist behind every bush and we are sure the government is crawling with ineptitude and corruption. If one is not as lithe as Angelina and in shape enough to sprint through an entire movie, they are doomed. It is all up to you, you brilliant individual. You are the master of your fate and you may need to kill them all for everything to work out all right (or to at least get to the sequel).


In Inception Leonardo di Caprio wants to get back to his kids. But first he has to implant a thought in a billionaire’s brain and let go of his wife who is living in the depths of his unconscious where he condemned her to exist when he implanted the notion in her deepest unconscious that reality was not as real as the subconscious worlds they traveled together. (Oh, it is much more convoluted than that!) It is the Matrix, meets the Wizard of Oz meets some movie with Barbra Streisand as a therapist.

I walked out of the theatre (in the blazing heat) and said, “THAT, was awesome, I don’t care if I understood it or not.” Apart from the amazing visuals, people will love this movie because they are so in love with their own psychological process. There is a definite parallel with Salt, in that Angelina had what amounted to an “inception” as a child. Plus, the movie Inception is questioning whether the technology might exist in some place less-regulated like Mombasa or Japan  that can invade our minds. We’re paranoid about the technology and lack of security (and I think we should be), but we are also so fascinated by our own unknowable selves that we might sign up for Leonardo to explore our dreams and make his exploration into a reality show. We don’t want to “go there” but we are still self-absorbed.

The Kids Are All Right

In The Kids Are All Right five great performances illuminate the ultra-postchristian family for us. Nice lesbian mothers are dealing with the fissures in their long relationship — like sex and unrealized dreams. They meet up with the sperm donor after the teenage kids find him. Painful hijinks ensue. Hollywood is going to tear down any notion of what is now called the “traditional” family if they have to spend every cent they have to do it. Again we see the struggle we are all having with technology – this time the results of lab-produced children. Plus we are again thinking about our dreams, and the limits of our capacity to realize them. One of the teenagers in the film resents being the pawn in the “perfect lesbian marriage.”

I walked out of the theatre and said, “That was cute. I am amazed how good Annette Bening looks without make-up.” Propaganda comes in pretty packages these days — we do love our pills candy-coated. One of the things I noticed, and appreciated, was the way the filmmaker focused on each of the five characters and showed how they were dealing with the moral implications of what was happening in the family. The relational disaster happens and everyone changes for the batter. I enjoyed the hope.

Hang on to your hope

Hang on to your hope if you go to the movies — because someone is out to get you! You may end up as a player in the battles of the unseen forces. They may invade your mind. A technological glitch from your past may rise up to wreck the present. Everything is definitely out of control. I think most Christians I know are being swept along with these same reactions to our era as everyone else. The story-telling technology is the main force that sweeps them, even if the realities they portray exist or not (and I am not even talking about Glenn Beck channeling the realities of his Mormonism).

The only real hope we have of standing against the flow, or at least of surfing it to the end instead of drowning in it, is to get up every morning and secure our connection with the Reality who grounds us in eternity, who won’t leave us alone to stand against the forces washing up on our doorsteps. Jesus saved us and will save us, no matter how big those faces and stories on the screen appear to be. We are that reality in our body; we express that reality in what we say and do. And I believe, in the end, all the other fantasies that try to undermine Jesus will fade into nothingness in his light, just like a door to the sunlight opening up in a dark theater.