Archive for July, 2008


July 21, 2008

How mature were you in high school?  How’s that for a loaded question.  Were you invincible?  Were you destined for greatness (or are you still)?  How smart were you? How clever?  How secure?  Were the adults in your life good role models, or did you have to figure out maturity and adulthood for yourself?  How far along are you in that process?

Despite this film featuring another preternaturally wise and mature kid (a 16-year old this time), Ellen Page in the title role of Juno pulls this off and makes me believe.  She’s the only one that seems to be able to handle things like an adult, despite the fact that she’s only 16.  The blending of worldly sarcasm with the emotional angst and confusion of adolescence was powerfully portrayed through Juno’s experiences.

I could have done without the foul language.  I am dismayed at how casually sexual conduct among minors is displayed.  Yet I’m also well aware that, probably more than we like to think, this is what’s happening in high schools all over the country.  The running gag on the term ‘sexually active’ is an interesting one.  And I find it kind of disturbing when the last scene of a movie is somebody (anybody) flipping the camera the bird. 

Overall the lesson seems to be that life is not perfect, no matter how well you plan it out.  The perfectly planned evening of passion can wind up in an unexpected pregnancy.  The perfect couple with everything our culture dictates as indicators of success – a house, wealth, good looks, etc. – is not necessarily perfectly happy.  The perfect solution to an unexpected problem can have monkey wrenches thrown into it that nobody could have foreseen.

So you make the best of it.  And over and over again throughout the film, that’s what the characters do.  They make the best of it.  And no, it’s not perfect, but they get through it.  Juno’s parents have to do this.  The adoptive couple has to do this.  Juno herself has to do this.  Since nothing in the world is perfect, you just have to do the best you can.  And sometimes, even when you’re 16, that might be enough.

Except, of course, it isn’t.  And while the movie’s ending may be charming and romantic to a 16-year old, some of us who have been around the block a few more times recognize it for the hopelessly naive fantasy it is – or at least we should.  The writer directs derision at a variety of targets throughout the film – materialism, parents who seem less than helpful and parental, and adults who act like children, to name a few.  However, she ends up with the same problem of anyone who has nothing more to pin hope on than ourselves.  She has no substitute.  No alternative except for ‘making the best of what you’ve got’.  Failing, in the process, to realize that this is *exactly* what everyone else around Juno is doing, even those whom she derides and makes fun of.  The movie once again reinforces that, as much as we may detest the way some people live (or fail to live) their lives, without something greater and deeper than us giving us insights about a better alternative, there is no real basis to detest these behaviors and choices. 

I’d love to find a movie as compelling as this that offers more hope than the hope of a 16-year old in a high school romance.  A film that can admit that if all we have to hope for and in is ourselves, we’re pretty screwed.  A film that’s unafraid to assert that we *aren’t* in this alone.  Because then there would be a basis for the criticism and the derision.  As it is, we just get to watch what the writer doesn’t care for, acknowledging that she has no more right to feel that way than we do – or is it every bit as much right?  Without something greater than ourselves to guarantee rights, both options end up looking frighteningly similar before long. 

The performances are very good – and none better than Ellen Page.  It’s personally freaky to see Jason Bateman as an adult, and ironic that he’s playing an adult who can’t seem to grow up.  The movie is outright hilarious in parts, and entertaining and humorous throughout.  My personal fav is one of the ads for adoptive parents that Juno and her friend run across in the Pennysaver.  Basically an ad advertising a perfect couple that have everything they need “except for your bastard”.  Hilarious!  Jennifer Garner was pretty two-dimensional in her role, but that was intentional so she can hardly be faulted.  Too much of a range of emotions and issues to sort through in the limited time the film allocates for it. 

Finally, I think the film did a good job of dealing with the whole issue of abortion vs. adoption.  Quirky, sure.  But sometimes, that’s how it works.  The movie does not place a strong judgment on the issue (Juno originally plans to have an abortion).  However, it makes an eloquent appeal to selflessness in the midst of a thoroughly selfish culture.  Juno’s decision seems hardly heroic, and more of a random thing.  But a random comment can make all the difference in the choices we end up making.  I’m pleased to see a movie that deals well with demonstrating the joy that can be had in choosing to go through with an unexpected pregnancy.  While it could undoubtedly focus more on the difficulty of such a choice, that would make the movie less of a comedy.

Being John Malkovich

July 21, 2008

I think that we need to establish some ground rules. Just because a movie has a few funny lines in it, it is not necessarily a comedy. Likewise, just because a movie has John Cusack in it does not make it a comedy. I think these simple rules could avoid a lot of confusion in approaching this movie, because it’s clearly not a comedy, despite some humor, and despite the wonderfully talented John Cusack (who I had no idea was even in this movie when I rented it!).

Who are you? Really, who are you? The Who had it right all those years ago in their classic rock song. This is the question that has plagued Western civilization for the last 300 years. If we aren’t, as had been firmly asserted and fairly universally accepted – at least nominally- creatures of an almighty God, then who exactly are we? What defines us, both as a species and as individuals? If God is not in control, then who *is* in control? Are we? Are we really?

The fact that the protagonist is a puppeteer is not simply a quirky choice of professions to assign a character. Here is a man who’s life exists in controlling characters – mostly inanimate. All of the control he seems to lack in his own life, he can play out – or counteract – through his creations. He feels as though he has no control over his own life – he can’t get hired because nobody has a need for a puppeteer. He gets beat up for performing excerpts from classical literature on a street corner where nobody is going to understand it beyond the hey-that-guy-with-the-puppets-is-a-perv! level.

He plays out some level of control with his wife, in dragging his feet on the issue of having a baby. But that’s about it. So no wonder he falls for the strong, confident, assertive, and thoroughly in-control Maxine.  Maxine has her own control issues, and enjoys toying with Craig (Cusack) the way he toys with his creations. The web of power begins extending to Craig’s wife, Lotte, and ultimately, of course, to John Malkovich.  Lotte decides that she’s really a man trapped in a woman’s body.  The pet monkey Elijah remembers being unable to free his own parents from captivity and comes to Lotte’s aid when Craig goes off the deep end in his efforts to keep Lotte and Maxine apart, and keep Maxine for himself.

So who are you? Are you really yourself? Have you been hijacked by someone else? would you know? What if you’re the hijacker? The presence of Dr. Lester’s crew seems almost representative of history as well as parental figures. Who are you? Are you really you? Are you just the creation of your parents? Are they in your head, telling you what to do, and do you find yourself doing it, even if it’s not really what *you* would like to do?

Are we all preprogrammed by the generations before us? Do we have any real freedom, if these generations are in our heads from history texts and psychology texts and religious texts and whatever other manner of texts – and now TV, radio, the Internet?

This is a dark but fascinating film, a curious examination of the role of identity, of the nature of power and control and the addictiveness of these elements. I’d encourage people to watch this, but don’t rent it because you think it’s going to be a comedy. And don’t think it’s a comedy because there are a few quirky or funny concepts (like the 1/2 floor that Cusack’s character ends up working in – seems like a great manifestation of our egos and demands for control that our oversized for our surroundings, just as the employees on that floor are oversized for their environs).

Watch it, and keep on wondering – if you don’t already have an answer – Who are you?

The Shack

July 18, 2008

So I read The Shack

I’m apparently not alone in that fact, though a substantial part of me fails to understand why.  It’s not great literature.  The dialogue is stiff and stilted and basically aimed at allowing God to explain things in a variety of ways. 

Theologically, it’s not exactly groundbreaking.  Young does a good job of remaining fairly orthodox to the traditional Christian description of the Trinity.  You can’t really explain the Trinity, since God has not revealed any explanation.  He’s simply stated in a variety of situations, that our concepts of oneness are somewhat limited.  Young doesn’t waste time trying to come up with explanations of the Trinity, he simply poses it as a fact to be gotten used to and moves on from there.  He does a relatively good job of honoring the Biblical description and traditional Christian explication of the primary roles of the three persons of God – Father/Creator, Son/Redeemer, Spirit/Sanctifier.  Considering all the weirdness in Christian circles today, and Young’s own apparently inclinations away from traditional understandings of at least church, this was a pleasant surprise.

Of course, any time you talk about the Trinity you’re liable to misstep in some way.  But Young’s seem relatively minor.  God the Father is portrayed as having nail marks in His wrists, as a result of the incarnation of the Logos, and the subsequent death of Jesus.  Theologically, Christians have always attempted to make it clear that the suffering of God was limited to the incarnation of Jesus, so far as his fleshly nature allowed.  In other words, Jesus as the Logos made man actually lived and died and was resurrected.  However God the Father & Spirit did not also die or suffer in the manner specific to the incarnate Logos.  I tend to be willing to defend Young though, in that he’s taking the step (theologically questionable, but not crucial) of having God the Father appear in human form to the protagonist.  And if God the Father were to have a corporeal nature, perhaps the idea of shared scars – if not shared death – is within the realm of possible.  To me it’s not a make-or-break sort of issue.

I don’t care for the Eastern overtones of the Holy Spirit’s name in the book (Sarayu – Google it).  And overall the personifications of each person of the Trinity seemed awkward at best.  However, they’re workable for Young’s purpose – which is not an explanation of the Trinity, but a defense of God.

That sounds like a tall order, and it is.  And theodicy is generally a no-no.  However, Young’s theodicy is well in keeping with other writings that attempt to understand the presence of suffering in the light of an all powerful and all loving God – most notably the book of Job.  Ultimately, for Job as well as in Young’s work, we are reminded that we are in no position to question God.  We can only decide whether or not we are willing to trust God. 

It’s this which I think is probably the appealing part of the book to many people.  And it reveals a shortcoming in the Church that is dangerous – that the Church is not doing a good job of reminding people that God is trustworthy.  Suffering is so painfully obvious everywhere we look.  Flip on the TV or the radio.  Pick up the newspaper or a news magazine.  Listen to any number of the people that you pass by each day, or work or live with.  Suffering is rampant.  People are hurting.  Some hurt is obvious.  Some is not.  Yet regardless of whether you’re living in fear of being raped and killed for voting against Mugabe in Zimbabwe, or whether you’re dealing with the suffering brought on by broken relationships with family and loved ones, suffering is all around us.

If God is indeed all powerful and all present and all loving, then the existence of all this suffering seems hugely problematic.  Many people take the step of saying that God’s doing a pretty crappy job of running things, and thus either He doesn’t exist, or He isn’t worthy of the worship and respect which He commands from us.  It’s an ancient theological conundrum, and anytime we address it, we ultimately have to end up saying we don’t know why God allows such suffering to continue.  Or more criminal yet, why God apparently steps in for certain people – delivering them from the death of cancer, or the assasin’s bullet – but not others. 

The Bible calls us not simply to acknowledge and worship and respect God, but also to trust Him.  To trust that, despite our broken selves and broken world, God is acting on our behalf.  God is truly for us.  He has held nothing back to offer us reconciliation that we could never have created or brought about on our own.  We tend to focus and obsess about God’s judgement, without remembering God’s mercy.  And we tend to let the overwhelming nature of the here-and-now eclipse the reality of God there-and-then – both in the past as well as already in the future. 

Young’s book posits real and devestating loss and suffering, and brings it into the presence of the Triune God to be examined, explored, and ultimately healed.  The answers Young throws out are not original, and they aren’t completely satisfying to someone who already distrusts or disbelieves God.  But they are very true to the Bible’s depiction of a God that acts mercifully and with love and grace far more often than not.  A God who has promised us that the suffering of this world and time is not the final Word.  That there will come a day of reckoning, a day when all will be made right.  And the fact that we can’t imagine how God can make right the murder of your child or the death of your spouse or war or hatred – does not in and of itself strip God of His power and ability to do so. 

The question every Christian needs to be able to examine and answer is whether or not we trust God.  Not just when things are good, but when things are very, very bad.  Is our God only a God of the good times and the pleasant memories, or is our God the God who is present and sustaining in the midst of tragic loss and horrifying evil? 

The answer for that, our assurance of God’s trustworthiness, is the cross.  The fact that God held nothing back, was willing to send His Son to take on our limitations and our infirmities and to dwell in the midst of our suffering and pettiness.  The fact that Son was willing to begin the difficult task of attempting to clarify – to open our eyes a bit more to the presence of God not only in the there-and-then, but in the here-and-now.  To assure us that God is good beyond our wildest imaginations, and is able to supply so much more than we could ever imagine needing, whether that’s more wine at a wedding, or eyesight for the blind, or working limbs for the lame, or life for the dead.  The fact that God demonstrates on the cross that He can take on our suffering.  The worst we can dish out to one another, we have dished out to God.  And the empty tomb demonstrates that God is bigger than our worst.  He’s bigger than injustice, bigger than hatred, bigger than the designs of evil itself – bigger than death. 

That’s a trustworthy God.  A God who created something beautiful, sustains it when it becomes broken and belligerent, and offers to restore it completely – in God’s time, not ours. 

Can you trust God?  In your suffering?  In your joy?  In your loss?  In life?  In death?  The witness of the Bible – and of thousands of years and millions and billions of the faithful – is that yes, you can trust God.  You can trust Him always and forever. 

This is the message the Church needs to be proclaiming.  Hope.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  All from a God who can be trusted – a God who alone
can be trusted to truly love, truly care.  And the Church needs to be firm in proclaiming that in light of this, rejection of God is seen for what it truly is – ungratefulness.  Arrogance.  Pride.  Dangerous, dangerous, untrustworthy emotions and thoughts and actions.  The Church needs to be bold beyond pointing fingers at those hurting people.  Young never has God berate the protagonist in the book.  But in promising them that if they will allow Him, if they will trust Him, God can free them from their pain and their anger and their distrust.  That He desires to do so, and is more elated when that happens than when scores of folks who already believe and trust gather to praise His name. 

That’s what a trustworthy God ought to do and be.