Finding Jesus in Joker

joker 5

Warner Brothers

SPOILERS Included

Hidden in the darkness of themes, setting, and characters, Joker is a film that is both dense and nuanced in symbolism, message and its reflection of our times. Although it can be a challenge at times to watch, (it is a hard R ) for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Joker has something to say to and about us and presents Christ’s Gospel in a unique way.

The aim of the film, set in 1981 Gotham City, is to “pre-boot” the Joker character and part of the Batman franchise by providing background and insight into how Arthur Fleck became Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur is one of both power and jokersubtlety. Fleck is a down on his luck clown for hire and wannabe comedian struggling against poverty, crime, the cruelty of others, as well as his and his mother’s mental illnesses. Arthur is just on the edge of functioning and his mother (Francis Conroy) is just over the edge.  For Arthur and his mother, if past and present are prologues, their future is utterly void of light and hope. As the story develops it is evident the majority of the Gotham’s citizens are “have-nots” also succumbing to the downward pull of the city.

In the face of so many challenges and afflictions, one is tempted to compare Arthur to Job of the Old Testament. But even in this comparison, Arthur loses out as Job, prior to his afflictions, had a fulfilled and happy life, something Arthur has never enjoyed. The only respite Arthur has from his struggles is his fantasy of being a successful comedian and being on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) Show, Gotham’s version of Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show. Because Arthur is in almost every scene of Joker the audience has little respite from the increasing struggles and decline Arthur experiences as he slowly transforms into Joker.

There are two cultural references in Joker that have the effect of characters “breaking the fourth wall” and addressing the audience, the Sinatra song “That’s Life” and Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. It’s hard to imagine a viewer not leaving the theater without having “That’s Life” as an earworm.  Given its repeated use and prominent placement, it is hard not to interpret it as writer/director Todd Phillips’s comment on life both within and beyond the film. This form of social commentary also includes Phillips’s inclusion of Modern Times. Like Arthur Fleck, and many of Gotham’s struggling class who are on the verge of rioting against “the Rich,” Chaplin’s “Tramp” struggled in Modern Times to adapt to life in the machine age. Life in modern times for the “Tramp” saw the loss of his purpose as a laborer and identity as a human being and resulted in a downward social and mental spiral.

joker 13In Joker, Chaplin’s Modern Times is shown as part of a High Society, Gala. The irony is hard to miss as “The Rich” of Gotham City gather in an exquisite theater, their laughter at the “Tramp” literally skating on the verge of disaster is set against the shouting of protestors whose anger is on the verge of boiling over into rage. Through these two references, Todd Phillips is stating “that’s life” in Gotham, as well as our modern time and place.

A major byproduct of our modern times, as well as Gotham, is garbage. Part of the setting for Joker is a garbage strike that has ratcheted up the misery for most of Gotham’s residents. Gotham’s garbage strike symbolizes the refusal of much of society to attend to the emotional refuse that is a consequence of our life in the modern time. Rather than do the necessary work to remove our emotional baggage, it is easier to ignore it by wrapping it up and putting it on the curb outside our consciousness. In Joker, the consequences of garbage piling up in the streets are super-rats. For us, the consequence of internalizing fear, anger, and discontent is dysfunction, whether in the forms of opiate and other drug use, mass shootings, or increasing tribal segregation.

One of the more controversial elements of the film is the depiction of mental illness. Some believe Joker depicts those with mental illness in stereotypical negative lights. While there is a long history of films depicting mental illness in false, harmful lights, Phillip’s portrayal is not of mental illness, but rather a reflection of the shameful way much of society views and treats persons with mental illness. Arthur voices this point when he observes in his journal “the worst part of having a mental illness is the world expects you to act as if you don’t have it.”

joker 2Through Arthur, Todd Phillips is lifting up the tendency in our modern time to blame individuals for their mental illness. Such culpability often results in individuals not seeking treatment, living under the stress of acting as if they do not have their illness and then being judged when their illness is manifest. This stress often magnifies the symptoms and maladaptive behavior resulting in a cycle of stress, flair-ups, judgment, and more stress.

Perhaps the darkest element of Joker is the lack of a hero and suggestion of hope. While it is easy to see Joker as the villain, Arthur’s accountability is more ambiguous, as is that of Gotham society. Arthur did not set out to be Joker, he wanted to be a clown and comedian, but he could not overcome the obstacles of poverty and abuse, physical and emotional, that caused or contributed to his mental illness.

Though he believed himself to be the only person who could save Gotham, Thomas Wayne, (Brett Cullen) the uber-wealthy industrialist and father of Bruce Wayne repeatedly failed Arthur when given the opportunity to intervene. Gotham society joker 10likewise failed to protect Arthur as a child or provide effective care and therapy for him as an adult. During one of his social work meetings Arthur tells his caseworker, “you don’t listen to me” to which his caseworker acknowledges such and then tells him their program has been cut and he is on his own to negotiate his plan of care.

In Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches the actions or inactions of people lead to blessings or woes. Those who seek to live in, by, and for Christ and the Kingdom of God will receive blessings after their woes. Those who live in, by, and for worldly success will receive woes after their earthly blessings collapse. By offering woes of laughter and joker 15condemnation rather than blessings of concern and care to Arthur and others who are vulnerable and suffering, Wayne and all of Gotham experience the woes of their indifference through the rise of Joker and his disciples. Phillips concludes the film by punctuating this reality of woe with the reprise of “That’s Life.”

Ironically, it is in the presentation of the utterly woeful reality of life in Gotham and modern times where one finds Jesus in Joker. Joker depicts a taste of life without the hope and grace of God offered in Christ. Each year the Christian Faith imagines such a world in the interim between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Without the resurrection and re-entrance of Christ and God into the world, society would face the same existence as those in Gotham.

What all the money, power, and professed good intentions of the Thomas Waynes and other features of Gotham society cannot do, the humble love, grace, and power of Jesus can do.  The Good News in Joker is that in Christ we are not destined for Gotham; rather in Christ we are children of God assured of a place in God’s Kingdom where there are no woes, but only blessings upon blessings.

Joker is rated R for Language, and  Violence

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Up + 10

The signature moment of Up is the “Married Life” sequence where Ellie’s and Carl’s lives together are presented, from their exchanging “I do” to their saying “goodbye.” Functionally the montage establishes the narrative foundation and insight into Carl’s character and motivation that the rest of the film is built on. If this sequence does not work, the film does not work nor connect with the audience.

Echoing the feel and poignancy of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid and City Lights, “Married Life” is as effective a sequence as has ever been put on film. Cinematically the life stage vignettes connect seamlessly and the music signals, symbolizes, and connects Ellie’s and Carl’s emotions with those of the audience.

To add greater depth, “Married Life” shows the entire arc of a marriage beginning with the joy and excitement that comes with the possibilities of new beginnings as well as the joy that should be experienced in life’s routines and setbacks. The sequence also shares the sadness and grief experienced when life sojourns through the valleys of loss.

Obviously, there are limits to what can be depicted in 4:00 minutes, but “Married Life” shows the healthy way to journey through grief. First, it depicts the acceptance and grieving of loss. The sequence then shows continuing life’s journey and finding happiness and meaning in different, perhaps older purposes and goals in life.

As with any character-driven film, it is the connection between characters and between the characters and audience that determines the immediate success and any lasting impact of the film. “Married Life” cements the bond between Ellie and Carl and between them and the audience. As often happens in life, such bonds continue after death. With Ellie, it is her “spirit of adventure” that is felt by Carl and the audience throughout the rest of the film.

The “Married Life” sequence in Up enhances the film’s theme that “adventure is out there” and should be pursued, but it also reminds the viewer that the spirit of love is found within and should be nurtured and shared.

Click the link to view the “Married Life” sequence.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9yjAFMNkCDo

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Rocketman Is a Sub-orbital Flight of Fantasy

via Rocketman Is a Sub-orbital Flight of Fantasy

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Rocketman Is a Sub-orbital Flight of Fantasy

As Elton John struggled with his identity through his early adult through middle age years, “Rocketman” wrestles with its genre and purpose. Is the film a celebration of the music of an iconic artist and pop-culture figure, or is it a story that offers greater insight into the man behind the costumes and eyeglasses. In trying to be both, each part, and the film as w whole is diminished.

Some people would prefer the former while others the latter. Perhaps a predictor of who would like which is those who enjoy Greatest Hits albums will likely leave Rocketman more satisfied than those who prefer the style concepts and story construction of individual albums.

Those desiring a celebration of music will likely respond to the film’s creative use of the music to reflect many of the emotions and struggles of the music icon’s celebrated and challenging life. However, impressive as the music and choreography are during these sequences, some will experience a disconnect. The songs and life situation they are connected to make it seem as if the songs were written about Elton’s life, when, as Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, they are more reflective of his life and experiences than his writing partner, friend and artistic brother.

Additionally, one of the film’s central performance pieces is the wonderfully choreographed and edited montage of Elton performing Pinball Wizard. While a hit and movie role for Elton I’m sure Pete Townsand hopes everyone remembers it is his and The Who’s mega-hit.

Those who are looking for experiential insight into the music, and men whose partnership created one of pop music’s preeminent catalogues, will likely be more disappointed in the film. Viewers will leave with only a cursory awareness that Reggie Dwight was considered a musical prodigy, that he came from a dysfunctional home where he was emotionally neglected save for love given to him by his grandmother, and he spent much of his life trying to fill that void. For fans and those familiar with Elton’s biography, this is not news.

Again the primary consequence of trying to be both a celebration of music and a biopic film, Rocketman is only able to cover the highlights of Elton’s life and music. Left out were the deeper cuts of music and nuanced insight into his life struggles and especially his recovery.

Most disappointing was the lack of any mention of Elton’s relationship with Ryan White, a teen from Indiana with hemophilia who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in 1984

After being diagnosed and treated for AIDS, Ryan and his family were shunned by the School district, their church and many residents and businesses in the community. Upon hearing of their struggles Elton reached out to the family and developed a relationship with Ryan and his mother Jeanne. Elton was with Ryan when he died and sung one of his and Taupin’s earliest songs, Skyline Pigeon at Ryan’s 1990 funeral. Elton credits Ryan and Jeanne for helping inspire him to finally achieve and maintain sobriety.

At one point in the film, Elton seeks and receives solace from his younger self, Reggie Dwight. It is disappointing that film did not depict the actual comfort and strength Elton received from a child who experienced and overcame similar rejection and isolation that had such a traumatic impact on so much of Elton’s adult life. Also in a time when fear fueled anger toward “others” and those “different” is again on the rise, a reminder of the transformative courage and grace of Ryan White could perhaps have spoken to many.

From a technical standpoint the film stands out with treasure trove of exceptional cinematography, production design, editing, and hair & makeup. It goes without saying that costume design, much of which was modeled after Elton’s one of a kind costumes and sense of style was dynamic. Lastly the musical score, based on Elton’s songs, is naturally a tremendous strength.

Taron Egerton (Kingsmen: The Secret Service) resembles John in both look and singing without coming across as trying and for an exact imitation.

Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Fantastic Four) a bit more artificial in his presentation of the famously more reserve partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin.

Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) offers a convincing performance as seductively smooth and manipulating John Reid, Elton’s lover and business manager. As the One time manager for Queen, Reid was portrayed in both Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody (Aiden Gillen.)

Director Dexter Fletcher’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) direction is ambitious and at times audacious, but it’s hard to imagine subtlety in a biopic or musical celebration of Elton John and or his music.

In spite not reaching its intended orbit, watching Rocketman is an enjoyable experience, especially for those who experienced the music, the times, and the celebrated life of the former Reginald Kenneth Dwight.

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Review: Losers

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Photos Courtesy of Netflix

NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi regretted his gospelizing the statement, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Had he the power he would have rather been known more for saying something along the lines of, “the commitment and dedication to winning is the only thing.” If he regretted the winning is the only thing quote, I suspect he would also amend his other famous quote, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”

Losers is a Netflix original series about “people who were good in the midst of losing. It is also a series that speaks truth to the power that is the winner OR loser mentality that has been woven into the tapestry of society.  The very title of the series is indicative of the way most of society labels those who fail to win. Depending on the nature of the loss, they are not people who lost, but they are losers. Such castigation of those who lose and the opposing adoration of those who win and are thus winners is evidence of the idolization of winning.  The eight stories in Losers state unequivocally that losing does not make one a loser, and indeed losing can help one win what is truly important, the peace that comes with a true understanding of what is winning and losing.

Each of the 25-40 minute episodes shines a light on people known best for losing, or as many would say, famous for being losers. The shining light, however, is not how they have merely coped with losing, being a loser, but how in losing they found redemption, meaning, and an appreciation for what is truly important in life.

losers 3To people of the Christian faith, each episode speaks to the nature and differences of the worldly life we were born in to and the Kingdom life to which we are called and into which we are baptized. As is repeated throughout Scripture, those who are considered losers, or that which is considered losing in the judgment of the world, are often winners in God’s criteria and Kingdom. This reality is repeated again and again in the teaching, life, and ministry of Jesus as well as Paul and others.

As Jesus teaches in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s sermon on the Plain, those who are blessed in God’s kingdom are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who suffer for righteousness, ie losers in the estimation of worldly standards and standard bearers.  Likewise, Jesus warns against acquiring and storing earthly riches, the notoriety, and fame that comes with winning, because they are all susceptible to degradation and loss, versus Kingdom blessings that are not at risk of loss or decline.

Jesus warns against the love of and devotion to winning in worldly terms such that one loses that which is truly desirable and meaning filled. The devotion and sole focus to win and the prize of notoriety that comes with it can instead lead to loss of that which is truly important, namely, life, and the peace and joy of love for and of others. Running through each episode is the teaching of Paul that in losing, as in all things, God seeks to work for good.

Jean Van de VeldeFor each of the subjects, losing was not what they desired or thought to be good. But in each, losing opened them to experiences ultimately more meaningful and satisfying than the temporary enjoyment and notoriety that winning would have brought them. One example of such is the story of French Golfer Jean van de Velde, who after losing a three-shot lead on the final hole of the 1999 Open Championship (British Open) and along with that the honor of having his name inscribed on the famous Claret Jug. Instead, he ended up having his name inscribed on the hearts of many of the young French golfers he later inspired and coached, as well as the lives of children he impacted through his work with UNICEF. Had he won the Open, it is less likely he would have been able to devote attention and time to these causes.

Many of these teachings in scripture, especially Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Plain, are met with a, “yes that would be nice, but“ mentality.  Losers answers worldly skepticism regarding the application of Kingdom teaching and ways in our time and place.

While all eight episodes are compelling and reflect redemption and character that can be experienced and developed in loss and struggle.  The five episodes listed below may most easily resonate for sermons or small group discussions.

The Miscast Champion:  Heavyweight boxer Michael Bentt unexpectedly wins the championship, but a knockout loss in his first title defense changes his life and helps him find his passion and purpose. (24 Mins)  Biblical Connection: Peter and failures and Redemption, The impossibility of serving two masters,  Matthew 6: 24

Judgment: French skater Surya Bonaly’s struggles with winning an Olympic medal and World Championship as well as acceptance because of her color and skating style. 37mins  Biblical Connection: Blessings and Woes Luke 6:22-26, Matthew 5:1-11

Aliy: Sled dog musher Aliy Zirkle spent years attempting to win the Iditarod Championship, yet after several close finishes, she has yet to win. Her determination and fortitude are also tested after a harrowing experience in one race.  33 mins    Biblical Connection:  Forgive Enemies Luke 6:27-36, Matthew 5:43-48,  Forgetting what lies behind or ahead and pressing on to the goal  Philippians 3, Perseverance in running the race, Hebrews 12,

Black Jack: Jack Ryan was a legendary basketball player on the street courts throughout New York City. He was also someone who sabotaged repeated opportunities for college and pro careers. Through perseverance and a final opportunity, he is able to make a life in basketball and impact the lives of many children.  33 mins   Biblical Connection:  Prodigal Son Parable, Luke 15:11

The 72nd Hole:  The heartbreak and peace for Jean van de Velde following an epic loss on the final hole of the 1999 Open Championship.   28 mins    Biblical Connection:  Teachings concerning treasure  Matthew 6:19-21

Losers Rating: TV-MA for language.

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Ike’s Farewell Resonates Powerfully Now

img_3401This 16-minute speech is President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation. As supreme allied commander in Europe during World War 2, Dwight Eisenhower bore as heavy a responsibility as anyone in the 20th Century. This, one of his final acts after 50 years of service to the nation is very much worth the time to watch.

With the 1960 election, much of the nation desired to pass the torch of leadership to the rising generation. Many at the time considered Eisenhower a sleepy, out of touch grandfather, whose time had passed. Though far from a great communicator, what he lacked as an orator, Dwight Eisenhower more than made up for with his vision.

img_3400Known as the “Military Industrial Complex” speech, President Eisenhower’s farewell address goes far beyond that issue in addressing the challenges the nation would, and we now face. Central to his call is the place of statesmanship and the need for balanced cooperation between the private and public sphears. He also challenged the nation to resist the temptation to use fear as a tool of governing and put the needs of the nation above personal and partisan benefit.  Perhaps he was not in touch with the time of Camelot, but this speech shows Eisenhower was very much in touch with the challenges facing our nation through the ages.

 

 

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Won’t You See, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Please?

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Photos by Focus Features

I hate that I was late in seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor.  I hate when life intrudes on my movie “to see list,” but better late than never.  I have one thing to say to anyone who has not seen the latest film by Academy Award-winning documentarian Morgan Neville, go out and see this film.

I was a bit old for watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.   By the time it was available on PBS I was on to other programs, but I grew to respect Rev. Rogers later in life.  Of course, as an adult and pastor who appreciates someone who loves and genuinely cares for children and their healthy development, I am grateful for all the lives Fred Rogers impacted.

From the film critic point of view, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is an engaging and entertaining film that offers something to those very familiar and those unfamiliar with Mr. Rogers and his program. As a documentary film, it provides both a 30,000-foot view as well as an intimate portrait into the life of Fred Rogers and those in his personal and production family.  The film has entertaining interviews with family and others connected to the program, thus offering insight into the man and his message.  As with any film that addresses periods in time, one cannot help compare eras. Produced in the last year (2017-2018), fred rogers 3Won’t You Be My Neighbor offers a contrasting voice and message to what fills the air today. The film is not obvious in pointing out the differences; it doesn’t have to be.  There was an audible murmur when they showed tape from the first week of the program in 1968.  The video showed the puppet character King Friday the XIII fearing the “Changers” and requiring reluctant subjects to build a wall to keep out people who wanted to bring change to his Kingdom.  The clip ended with the human Lady Aberlin sending balloons with “signs” calling for peace and acceptance of others over the wall to the King.

fred rogers 4Even though Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he never mentioned it on the air and rarely in public. Rather than talking about credentials and ministry, Fred presented the face of Christ to children and families throughout the country and ages.

Mr.Rogers’s genuine love of children led him to take time to be with and listen to children as he offered them a non-anxious, calming presence. He respected children, and he fearlessly addressed topics that all others avoided. 

When RFK was assassinated in 1968, Mr. Rogers addressed the issue, explaining what assassination was and the fear and sadness that the nation was feeling. Fred understood children would know something had happened and wonder why parents and others were sad and scared. To avoid talking about the issue would only make the children’s fear more pronounced.  He loved children too much to allow this. Loving and engaging children like this are exactly what Jesus intended when he called for his disciples to allow children to come to him.

fred rogers 5Fred Rogers also addresses the issue of race. A week after there were news reports and film of a hotel owner chasing African Americans out of the hotel pool by pouring bleach into the water to “clean” it, the neighborhood of Mr. Rogers saw him sharing a footbath with Officer Clemmons, portrayed by Francois Clemmons, an African American member of the cast. There was no mention of the hotel incident. there did not have to be.

As a part of one’s baptism, every disciple has a duty to present the person of Jesus to others. I cannot think of anyone who has reflected the face of Christ more genuinely than Fred Rogers. Because Won’t You Be My Neighbor models this call to all disciples of Jesus Christ, and indeed the call of all faiths to show God’s love to others, it is the most impactful faith film I have seen.

Beyond the realm of faith films, when considering  the struggle and brokenness so prevalent in our time,  Fred Rogers’s faith-driven desire to build or repair genuine community by caring and loving others,  Won’t You Be My Neighbor is one of the most important films in my memory

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is rated PG-13 and is available to stream on Amazon Prime, VUDU, and Apple TV

Also plan to see

Based on a true story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood depicts Mr. Rogers relationship with, and ministry to a Vanity Fair writer assigned to write an article on him. Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in the film which opens on November 22.

Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows the impact of living the life and offering the love of Christ to others.

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The Shape of Water

The shape of water 7I thought I would review The Shape of Water, the winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Picture in a different way, a text log between me and my niece.
Niece: Have you seen The Shape of Water?

Me: Yes, you?

Niece: Just saw it. What did you think of it?

Me: I like it… Had it a little bit above 3 Billboards at Oscars…

Niece: It was interesting.

Me: You like it?

Niece: I can’t decide. It was filmed beautifully, but I don’t get what the point of the story is. What is the point?

the shape of water 5Me: People/govt. afraid of difference in others…other people united, by what makes them different…Allowing what unites them to overcome their difference.

Niece: Ohhhh okay, now that makes sense

Me: Something the United Methodist Church could learn

Niece: You are right about that

The shape of water 4Me: I thought Sally Hawkins’s performance was extraordinary…

Me: The creature was a Christ figure…different, beyond understanding and therefore a    threat to the Government/General, yet he offered a new life, a transformed life to the mute woman who had been marginalized by many,,,

Niece: Sally Hawkins did do a great Job!

Me: Yes she did. I’ve never seen her before…or don’t remember her…

Niece: I didn’t even see him as the Christ figure, but it does make sense and I could see how you could pull that from it.

Niece: I don’t remember her either. She isn’t normal Hollywood beautiful, but she gave a great performance with no words!

Me: Yes she did. I thought she has a look that is very expressive…

Niece: Very true and I love the use of the sign language…

the shape of water 9In addition to the Best Picture Oscar, Guillermo del Toro won the Oscar for Best Direction. The Shape of Water is a beautifully photographed film where the acting is just as impressive, and as with most fantasy films, The Shape of Water allows, if not demands for continued contemplation and application to one’s life and circumstance. It’s not a film everyone will relate to or enjoy, but it was worthy of winning the Best Picture award.

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Living Biblically

Pilot

Photos Courtesy of CBS

CBS and producer and writer Patrick Walsh have gone where angels fear to tread, producing a religious sitcom. No other subject matter is as open to criticism as religion. While there are enough persons of faith to support a show built around living one’s life Biblically, given the increasingly fractured and antagonistic nature of “the faith community” one has to thread an ultra-small needle with an ultra-thin thread in order to appeal to a healthy-sized audience. For many persons of faith, that narrowness is the difference between laughing with and laughing at faith and persons of faith.

In addition to the issue of the faith presentation tightrope, not too deep so as to be boring, not too simplistic so as to be vapid, there was for me the issue of being a film/television snob.  Too accessible and it is painted by numbers. Too subtle and it is, well, too subtle.

Not having read the Book, The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs, I viewed the three-episode preview package of Living Biblically with no context of what kind of program it was.  Needless to say, I was a bit surprised, and initially put off when in the opening seconds it was evident that it was an overly, LOL, track driven situation comedy. (After mentioning the laugh-track was way too loud and noticeable for my taste, I was told the program used a live audience.  I can only imagine that a shocking device is connected to the Laugh sign that is flashed almost continually during the show.)  Aware of the real possibility, make that probability, of my theological and film critic double bias, I asked some others to preview the episodes on my laptop.

Their response was more generous than my initial reaction. These “civilians” also acknowledged the challenges of doing a sitcom about a “None” one of those who profess “none” when asked about religious preference. But, they came away with a favorable impression.  Yes, it is simplistic in many ways. Yes, there are the prerequisite stereotype jokes about faith and clergy, but it does have a place and voice to speak to those who have either drifted away or were never in a faith orbit.

living biblically 3The program stars Dallas native Jay R. Ferguson (Mad Men) as Chip Curry, a film critic who experiences two life-changing events that led him to reconsider his life trajectory.  Chip decides he will attempt to live his life as prescribed by the Bible. To help him in this endeavor he develops relationships with a Roman Catholic Priest and a Jewish Rabbi, who meet regularly in a restaurant/bar for interfaith support.  This God-Squad helps guide Chip in applying ancient teachings and practices in a modern context.

As anyone who has attempted a significant lifestyle change knows, the change impacts others in the orbit of the individual.  In Chip’s case, it includes his non-believing wife as well as nominal or non-believing co-workers.  When anyone changes and begins living differently, the one who is changing, as well as the friends and family have to re-orient their relationship. Those who have done this know it is easier said than done. For the sake of retaining characters in the show, this aspect of adjusting their friendship, and making changes in their life, is portrayed much easier than it is in real life.

living biblically 4Based on the preview shows, it seems each episode will explore an issue of life and faith such as loving thy neighbor and the allure and challenge of modern idols, i.e., cell phones.  As with all TV, resolutions come much quicker and easier than real life. Crimes are rarely solved so fast, and trials are never completed in such a timely manner as they are on TV. So it is that theological awareness and discipline are rarely established and accepted so readily as they are on Living Biblically. But the show does address issues of life and faith that may be a first step for persons.

In an interview with producer and writer Patrick Walsh, (2 Broke Girls, and Crashing) I asked about his decision to make the show a situation comedy. Patrick believed, in spite the risks of being perceived as making fun of the Bible or faith, that comedy would be the best vehicle for allowing the ideas and concepts to be presented in a way that would be approachable to most viewers. He was appreciative when I told him of the reactions of those I had asked to view the episodes.  I also asked Patrick what type of character and narrative arc he envisioned in subsequent seasons. Did he see the show evolving as M*A*S* H and other situation comedies?  He responded that once the show is established, he believes the characters and storyline would change as both the characters and audience grow.

After watching the three preview episodes I was reminded of a sermon I heard Bishop Will Willimon, then Dean at Duke Chapel, preach when I was in seminary.  He was taking a road trip and stopped at a service station. The person working at the station found out that Willimon was a “preacher,” and asked if him if he knew the radio evangelist.  Willimon admitted to having some unflattering thoughts about that evangelist until the attendant said that the evangelist had changed his life. Because of that preacher, he was a better man, husband, and father. Dr. Willimon doubted he could have had a similar impact on the man.

Living Biblically may or may not be one’s cup of tea. But it likely will be someone’s first sip of thinking theologically that leads to something more substantial and filling.

Living Biblically premieres tonight, 2/26 on CBS at 8:30 CST

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Film Review: 12 Strong

12 strong 2

12 Strong photos courtesy of Warner Brothers

12 Strong is a conundrum of a film. For what is presented on the screen, it accomplishes what is expected from a film about military combat. After setting the scene by introducing major characters and the nature and complexity of the conflict, there follows adrenalin-inducing, sensory assaulting sights, and sounds that seem to put the viewer in the combat zone. The film’s significance is enhanced by the fact that the film is based on a true story that until recently was known only vaguely by the public.

12 Strong is depicts the first response of the United States to the 9/11 attacks. The film tells or reminds viewers that only 2 months following the infamous terror attack, the United States struck back against those who planned, protected or condoned the strike that changed this nation. On the tip of the spear that struck into the heart of Afghanistan and the Taliban who had terrorized and murdered Afghans, as well as provided protection for al-Qaeda terrorists, were the Green Berets of the United States Army.

 

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Chris Hemsworth             Michael Shannon

Chris Hemsworth stars as Capt. Mitch Nelson, leader of the elite, 12 man Special Forces unit and Michael Shannon as Warrant Officer and Hal Spencer. Now declassified, the story of the mission is one of extreme bravery on the part of every member of the unit as well as the other units who vied to be the first American soldiers to enter the Taliban controlled area of Afghanistan. The mission before the unit was to be dropped into the remote mountains of Afghanistan, join up with members of the Northern Alliance of Afghans fighting against the Taliban and assist them by calling in airstrikes against Taliban forces.  Due to the lack planning time and the limited intelligence from the region, the unit was sent on the mission blind, knowing very little details about who they were joining up with or how the mission would be conducted.  One such element was that they would be the first American Servicemen in 80 years to ride horses into combat.

 

Shot in New Mexico, the film offers a hint at the rugged terrain, brutal weather conditions, and isolation of the team. The film also offers a glimpse into the initial challenges of serving with the Northern Alliance, which seemed at times to be an alliance in name only. It is here where the film’s action orientation fell short in conveying perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the actual mission.

12 strong 4The film would have benefitted from detailing and presenting more of the relationships established between the unit and their allied Afghan forces. After the screening I attended, there was a Q&A with the men Hemsworth’s and Shannon’s characters were based on, Captain, now Major Mark Nutsch and Chief Warrant Officer Bob Pennington. While covered in the film, the full story of the relationship between the members of the unit and the leaders and members of the Alliance group was stirring and added much to the film’s impact. Also, the cultural and political differences that Nutsch, Pennington, and all members of the team had to address and overcome were as vital to the success as any of the weaponry and tactics brought to the mission. As dauntingly impossible as the scope of the mission was, and as dangerous as the combat was as depicted, more details given to these relational and cultural requirements and accomplishments, at the expense of some of the combat sequences, would have reflected better the true and amazingly successful outcome of the mission.

In the Q&A Nutsch and Pennington talked about how they hoped the film conveyed the spirit and dedication of the Green Berets. This dedication includes care and concern not only for each other, or even American citizens, but also those with whom they fought and the Afghan people who were, and continue to be terrorized by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations in the country.

In addition to hearing from Major Nutsch and Chief Warrant Officer Pennington during the Q&A, I was also able to speak to them by phone.  In our conversation, they discussed many of the elements they would address at the screening.  Part of our discussion was the make-up and spirit of the unit. Given Special Forces units are smaller and stay together longer, the members grow to know each other better.  The age of the members also is older so 10 of the 12 were married and had families. The families also grow close and care for one another. Hearing the two Green Berets describe the closeness and reliance members of the unit, and the extended unit of the families, had for one another, I thought of the reliance and care members of faith communities offer, or are called to one another, and others.

12 strong 7At their best, faith communities are devoted to one another and care for each other, at times more than they care for themselves. Members of faith communities draw strength from one another, teach and when necessary offer accountability to one another. Another commonality between armed forces units and faith communities is the devotion to the mission. Once given an assignment, the successful completion of the mission becomes the primary if not singular focus for members of a military unit or squad. Such should be the case for faith communities. In units, there is neither room nor patience for thoughts, opinions, habits or other things that distract from completing the mission as assigned. Christian faith communities would do better to follow this example and put the mission of loving and serving Christ by making disciples, above all things.

12 Strong is in wide release and is rated R for violence and language

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