God’s Not Dead

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gods_not_dead_big_2I will admit it: I am not a fan of Christian films. It’s not that I’m the anti-christ and hate anything that Christians try to do…it’s just that I don’t really care for bad acting, poor scripts, and stereotypes. Some people say to me, “but the message is so good!” I can’t always agree with that statement because the means of communicating that message are subpar. The same is true of any film.

So when this movie was released, I had an idea of what it was going to be like. Now sure, I loved Hercules and Lois and Clark as a kid, but even Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain weren’t enough to sell me on this movie. I decided to wait to watch the film until I could be as unbiased as possible. After much thought on it, I decided to see if all the praise for the movie was valid or if it was just the usual, “Christians released a movie in theaters and it rocks!”

After waiting about a week since watching it, I decided to give you some thoughts on it. Hopefully these thoughts can be a jumping off point for how we can converse about Christians in entertainment.

***Spoilers below***

1.) Stereotypes do not make characters.

I think this upset me about as much as anything. Before you say to me, “But Caleb, Hollywood constantly stereotypes Christians and people they don’t like. Why can’t we?” Well, simply put: because it’s inexcusable to use a stereotype as a basis for a character — regardless of whether or not that person is a Christian. I don’t like when Christians are stereotyped in film. Unless you are making a satire where stereotypes are used as a blatant exaggeration of flaws in society, then please don’t use stereotypes. All of the philosophy professors were angry atheists who were trying to destroy Christians. You had the Chinese exchange student who’s father was extremely controlling and hated God. You had the Muslim woman who secretly accepted Christ and was abused by her father for doing so. You had the one black guy in the college classroom who referred to himself as J-something or other. The [expletive] girlfriend who doesn’t want her boyfriend to look like a fool. This problem is not with just Christian films…in fact, it tends to be a problem with a lot of films. But it doesn’t make it right. When looking at characters, we can’t use stereotypes to create the characters. We must begin with the character and move forward from there.

I think much of my problem with the characters in this film was that they sounded like they were straight out of a sermon illustration from a pastor. “A young Chinese student travels to America for an education. His father hates Christians and demands control over his son’s life. The Chinese student finds God because of a Christian’s refusal to step down from what he believes. We’re going to play ‘How Great is Our God,’ and if you no longer want to step down from what you believe, I want to encourage you to come forward and for the first time, truly proclaim that our God is great!” We’ve probably all heard something along those lines. The hardest part in creating a character is to not use stereotypes as the bouncing off point for who that person is.

2.) “God’s Not Dead” text messages really do….nothing.

When this film was released, I was receiving texts left and right telling me God’s Not Dead. I was really confused. I mean, not about whether or not God is dead. I know He isn’t. I was confused about why people would send a mass text message…it wasn’t the typical, “hey I don’t know you, but Merry Christmas,” text. It was a text that had a profound statement but with no follow-up. So to one person, I responded, “prove it.” They never did. My fear is that people who watched this movie became super excited and texted all of their friends but when their friends ask, “how do you know He isn’t dead?” they will probably respond with, “well, there’s this one part in the movie where he is talking about evolution and like it’s…you know…like it…well…it’s hard to explain. You’ll just need to see the movie.” Part of me fears that this text message was part of a free marketing ploy. That doesn’t bother me so much because I’ll text people and tell them if I watched a movie I think they should like. The problem I had with this is that, it was emotionally manipulative. There had been a heart-wrenching scene in the movie and now they were saying, “text all your contacts and proclaim that God is not dead!” It was like the 3rd night of church camp all over again. Would we all be able to truly explain ourselves to someone if they responded back to us? Or would we point them to a movie?

3.) The message is just as important as the means. 

I look back to Scripture to where they would build these beautiful temples with gold, silver, the best of wood, and everything you could ever dream about. I look at pictures of some beautiful cathedrals. And then I see our films. Some of the best architecture, art, and music in history was made by Christians to glorify God. Will this film make AFI’s top 100 movie list? Most likely not. How we communicate the message has to be just as important as the message.


 

I could go on and on about circular reasoning used in the film to combat circular reasoning (although, I don’t think it would ever end). Or I could even talk about how the film used the age-old street preacher saying, “if you were struck by a car right now, where would you go when you died?” Or I could talk about how Jesus was used as a band-aid for unresolved story lines. Or I could even talk about how confused I was at the role of Dean Cain in the movie — like seriously. I’m confused about his character. Maybe I will talk about those things in a later post.

I may have been a bit harsh in this post. Here’s why: because I really do want to see Christians succeed. I want to see our message proclaimed as loudly as possible. And when I see it handled like this, it saddens me. All of those resources could’ve went into something greater. All of that time could’ve been spent for something else. Obviously, God can move through anything. He spoke through a donkey once…so I’m sure He can move through anything.

I long for the day when phrases like, “the message is really good,” or “but they love Jesus,” or “their heart was in it,” no longer describe films made by Christians (I also long for the day when Christian film is no longer a genre). Can we work to make something that has a beautiful message and is delivered beautifully? With characters that are so relatable that it almost feels like it is us? With story lines that don’t feel the need to use Jesus as a band-aid because the unresolved issues add the right amount of discomfort? I hope we can.

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Noah & God’s Justice

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NoahThis week, I was able to get to see Noah. I had high expectations going into the film because I am a huge Aronofsky fan. His ability to delve into the psyche of a character is fascinating. That’s what drew me to the film.

Before watching it, I had read a majority of the “controversy” surrounding it. I say it like that because I am pretty certain that at any given time, we, as the church, will pick a wrong battle to fight. We tend to make mountains out of molehills. Since Aronofsky is an atheist, we began preparing our rebuttal for whatever film we saw from him. Even if the film was 100% accurate, we were ready to make our case as to why the film was not 100% accurate. Most had their minds made up before the film was even released.

And then we wonder why people claim Christians are full of hate?

I’m not going to dive into a piece by piece dissection of the film. To do that to any kind of film does a disservice to the work of art. So I tend to steer clear of those kind of reviews of films. Most people who write those kinds of reviews are usually the kind of people who do not appreciate art or culture as much as they want to be right and want to make sure that everyone knows that they are right.

Instead, I want to highlight what I think this film displays beautifully: the justice of God. After Noah receives the vision from God as to what He is going to do to the world, you begin to sense in him a disturbance. But wouldn’t you be disturbed if you knew what was going to happen to the entire world?

As a child, I think I misread Noah. I read it as this wonderful story of happiness and singing animals. There was even a rainbow at the end. In reality, it is this horribly destructive story that shows the justice of God. That should disturb us. That should shake us to our foundations. That should cause us a sense of uneasiness. Because God’s justice will never be comfortable to us. We will never fully comprehend His justice because we will never fully comprehend Him.

In my mind, I could never understand why a mass genocide would be necessary. No matter what kind of evil takes place. Try as you may to put it in your own words, but it will never sound right. And we need to be okay with that. We need to understand that there are parts of the Bible that will cause us uneasiness and disturbance. If we read through the Bible and do not have those feelings, I don’t think that means that we’ve finally understood the justice of God as much as it means that we have tried to justify it in our minds (and that is never a good idea).

God demanded justice be served for the way people treated one another, nature, the animals, and ultimately Him. If you’ve heard anything about the film it is probably that Aronofsky works from a position that Noah was the first environmentalist. People were immediately upset because obviously God never said to look after the earth…well except that was His first command to man. What I loved about this element was that it showed that God’s justice demanded a verdict for all of creation. Not just mankind. Everything.

God’s justice is much larger than we can ever comprehend. In the film, it drove Noah to insanity. He was disturbed by everything that had just taken place. And he should have been. God’s justice is not an easy pill to swallow.

So why have we made it that way?

Christ is ultimately the fulfillment of God’s justice. But I fear that doesn’t disturb us as much as it should. A living man, the son of God, had to be killed in order for the justice of God to be fulfilled. I can give you answers as to why this makes sense. I can show you in the Bible why it is the way it is. But in my heart, it is harder for me to comprehend. Maybe that’s a lack of faith. Maybe that’s a lack of understanding. Or maybe that is the difference between mankind and God. We can say the words that make perfect sense but that doesn’t necessarily mean we truly understand and comprehend. And for that, there are no words.

This film helped me see that. It helped me see a glimpse of God’s justice. Is it hard to watch? Yes. Is it disturbing? Yes. And it should be. The more it disturbs and upsets us, the sweeter His mercy and grace is to us. The harder it is for us to explain why things had to happen like that, the more powerful Christ’s sacrifice is to us. We will not fully understand it, but that does not mean that it is meaningless. Far from it. I think the things that we cannot fully understand are the things that are more meaningful.

So yes. Go and watch Noah. It is an incredible film with a powerful story. I mean…it’s not as funny as Evan Almighty, but Russell Crowe is no Steve Carell. Wrestle with God’s justice and wrestle with God’s mercy. Be uncomfortable and at a loss for words. Not everything will be able to be explained. And even if it can be explained, that doesn’t mean we will understand it.

*Oh — and the Nephilites are awesome. Believable? Unlikely. But still, they are awesome.*

Nebraska & Reconciliation

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Image“Have a drink with your old man. Be somebody!” — Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern)

I’m a huge fan of Alexander Payne. I could talk for hours on his ability to craft a humorous and yet painful look at serious subject matter. Nebraska wasn’t any different. Although it still isn’t my favorite Payne film (The Descendants definitely stands at number 1, still), it is still highly ranked.

[Some of you may view what follows as spoilers]

The film is shot in black and white and has this sort of faded grittiness to it. It centers around a son and his father going on a road trip from Montana to Nebraska so the father can claim his million dollars that a Publisher’s Clearing House type company told him he won. The father, who is either senile or suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, has not had an ideal relationship with his family. Alcoholism has consumed him for a majority of his life. But family is family. And the sons still love and care for their father no matter how mean he can get. Even though they don’t know much about his life, they empathize with him and stick up for him as a good man who provided for his family. He was a man that was always willing to help out when someone needed help.

But I don’t want to focus on the details of the film. Instead, I want to focus on the beauty of seeing relationships reconciled.

Nebraska pulls on the heart because we all long to see relationships mended. Brokenness was never in God’s plan for humanity. And yet, it rears its ugly head in every single relationship. There are several things we can blame the brokenness on: alcohol, addictions, self-harm, disagreements, finances, etc. But here’s the point: it all comes back to us.

We’ve all been hurt by people. It’s inevitable. Unless you live your life as a hermit and don’t talk to anyone, you will undoubtedly walk around with scars from what someone has done to you. Likewise, someone is probably walking around with scars from what you’ve done to them. We all hurt each other. But how do we move toward reconciliation when the deepest cuts are ones that will never heal?

The easy (and extraordinarily difficult) answer is that we must learn how to forgive even if they will never ask for forgiveness. That’s a difficult process. It’s one that I still am trying to navigate how to do in my own life. As a person who wants justice, I feel like my grudges are forgiven because of how much the person wronged me. That’s not true. I know it isn’t. But most of us walk around our entire lives believing things we know aren’t true but refuse to admit it because of our self-righteous attitudes.

But Nebraska reminded me of the urgency to reconcile relationships. If you asked me right now of a name of a relationship I needed to reconcile, I could probably give you 10 names. If you asked me what I’m doing to reconcile those relationships, I would probably mumble something along the lines of, “but they are the ones who hurt me…” It’s almost like we forget what it is like for someone to come up to us and say, “I forgive you,” and we refuse to allow someone who has wronged us to experience that same grace.

I understand that there needs to be healing. I am not trying to diminish the pain that you are going through. Believe me, I wouldn’t do that. Work through the pain…but work toward reconciliation, as well. The problem with working through pain is that many times we work through something to find ourselves…when we really need to work through things to find Jesus. Christ will always point us toward reconciliation because Christ was all about reconciliation.

And He gave us the ministry of reconciliation.

Are we doing anything to work toward reconciliation? Are we asking ourselves questions each day about what we are doing to reconcile broken relationships? Has the sun gone down on our anger one too many nights?

I think too often we convince ourselves that we are in a healthy place because we only have a few broken relationships. And since we aren’t around those people anymore, we are fine. But do not be deceived: a shred of leftover bitterness is enough to destroy every single relationship you will ever have. We would be naive to think otherwise.

Nebraska looks at a broken relationship between a father and son. It’s humorous as much as it is heartbreaking. The truth is, is that the film will be true of many relationships in our lives. The truth is, is that God never intended it to be that way…nor does He want us to be content with things being that way.

Reconciliation will hurt. But so does most of life. What hurts even worse is seeing, at the end of your life, all of the relationships that you will never be able to reconcile because you waited too long or allowed your heart to become too hard. Let’s begin being the church and seeking reconciliation before we begin justifying our actions because of our scars. We all have scars. And we all cause scars. Let’s move beyond that and to something greater. Something that resembles the Kingdom.

Dallas Buyers Club & Our Sin

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With the Oscars quickly approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to talk more about some of the films that have been nominated. Dallas Buyers Club was one of the few films this year that completely exceeded any expectations I had. I am not too familiar with the story behind the film but I was saddened to see some of the truths that were discussed in the film. One of those truths, I want to talk about briefly.

Sin.

The film deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80s. I remember studying about it in school and just how much it took us off guard. Evangelical Christians, for the most part, separated themselves from those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. What we knew about the disease was that it was spread amongst homosexuals and drug addicts. Some evangelical Christians went so far as to say that it was punishment from God for the actions of the immoral. I won’t enter into that conversation.

But as I walked out of the film, tears were streaming down my face. Why? Not because it ended sadly. But because I realized, for the most part, not all sin carries the same consequences.

Think of it like this: What if a person tried drugs once? He/she uses a used needle and ends up contracting HIV/AIDS. One mistake leads to a shortened life. One mistake leads to a death sentence. It brought tears to my eyes. One person + one mistake = a death sentence. Compare that to a person who is addicted to drugs and never contract HIV/AIDS and you realize just how unfair life is.

Our sin doesn’t always carry such egregious consequences. A lie here and a lie there doesn’t necessarily mean we will die at a young age. A man can cheat on his wife for years and the affair can remain hidden until his deathbed. Guys can sleep around with as many girls as they want and never contract an STI. It’s just not fair.

The evangelical church has been notoriously known for stamping a red A on those guilty of certain sins. We ostracize and alienate them. We see the curve on their stomach and we talk behind their back. We hear of a medical condition and we keep our distance. We hear of an addiction and we “pray for them” in our small groups.

And then we wonder why women get abortions.

And then we wonder why people continue to sleep around with various partners.

And then we wonder why people continue to fall back into old addictions.

Could it be that we have responded in the exact opposite way as Christ would have? Is God’s heart breaking while our hearts are being hardened? Is God trying to speak life into their lives while we are speaking condemnation? Are we robbing them of the grace that God is giving?

Every day, I see countless sins in my life. Pride, lust, envy, worry, laziness, anger, jealousy, lies, and more. None of those sins have caused me to go to jail. None of those sins have caused me to be considered an outcast of the church. In fact, those sins are pathways for me to show others Jesus. I talk constantly about how God uses brokenness to show His Kingdom.

But for someone who has HIV/AIDS, it’s quite different. For a woman who got pregnant and had an abortion, it’s quite different. For someone who has track marks on his/her arms, it’s quite different. They are not worthy to receive the grace of God.

I ask forgiveness from those who have been alienated from the church for how we have ridiculed you. In reality, our sins are just as egregious as yours. We may deny leading a broken life, but we are liars.

How can we reconcile with those who we have outcast? How can we look at someone with HIV/AIDS because of a mistake with the same eyes as someone who lies to us constantly? How can we remove the log from our eyes before we remove the speck from someone else’s eyes?

The easy way would be for us to all have the same consequence for sin…which we do…it’s called death. Perhaps we can begin seeing how our “little white lie” is just as deadly as shooting up. Perhaps we can begin seeing how our arrogance is just as deadly as sleeping around with as many people as possible.

Where are you in this? Have you lived life thinking you were better because your sin didn’t carry with it the consequences as someone else? Have you thought that God loves you more because you never contracted HIV/AIDS?

We are all in need of the same grace from God. No matter what. Perhaps it’s time that we step down from the pedestal that we built and realize that truth. Perhaps it’s time that we stopped ostracizing people based upon consequences of their actions. Perhaps it’s time that we swallow the hard truth that our sin is just as egregious as someone else’s.

Perhaps it’s time that we see things as God sees them.

That’s what I got from Dallas Buyers Club. It was humbling. It was upsetting. It was revealing. And ultimately, it was used by God to show me the honest state of my life.

Wolf of Wall Street

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ImageI’ve been debating writing a review of Scorsese’s recent film, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It is a film that is filled with f-words, nudity, and drugs. That’s usually how Christians categorize it. Unfortunately, we neglect one of the most heinous of sins that it portrays…consumerism and greed. I love movies and I love Scorsese films. He never disappoints. This film, in my opinion, is a genius portrayal of what consumerism and greed does to our lives.

[Contains spoilers]

When I watch films like this, I try to base my judgment on character development. This film far exceeded my expectation (which is bizarre considering I’ve never been disappointed with a Scorsese/DiCaprio combination). The film is based upon the life of Jordan Belfort. He was a self-made man who ran penny stocks, one of the largest scams in the financial market. As a man driven to succeed, relationships and ethics were quickly thrown out the window in order to make as much money as possible.

The entire film centers around excess. There is excessive language (over 500 f-words), nudity, sex, drugs, and money. The movie is excessively long (clocking in at about 3 hours). And through the excess, we see a genuine portrayal of the contemporary consumeristic mindset. We learn the hard truth that money truly can buy you almost everything in this country. It can even buy your way out of prison. And where we want to say “that shouldn’t happen,” we are left with the depraving fact that it is, unfortunately, the truth. 

Belfort is not painted as an individual we should aspire to be. He is obscene. He is vulgar. He is over the top. The film acts as a personification of those characteristics. Audience members are subjected to that lifestyle and they should know that going in to the film. It is far more than a biopic. It goes deeper than that. Scorsese appreciates art and that is seen, albeit obscenely, in this film.

I am by no means advocating the use of extensive sex, drugs, and language. Just like I don’t advocate the use of extensive violence (as seen in films like Saving Private Ryan, The Departed, Inglorious Basterds, or Django Unchained), a false view of romance (as seen in every single romantic film released to date), or consumerism (as seen in Wall Street, Hunger Games, or The Dark Knight trilogy). I don’t advocate much of what I see in contemporary film; but then again, just because something is portrayed in a film doesn’t mean it is acceptable. Too often, I fear Christians have the tendency to “christianize” sin so that it can be portrayed in film. We see this in many contemporary “Christian” films. What happens is we subject people to a false sense of sin. That’s the biggest complaint I have with Christian film (well, that and the fact that they have no idea how to develop characters). 

Christians long to see justice. I long to see justice. I want to see good characters thrive and evil characters suffer consequences for their actions. Of course, explored further, this is an errant thought of humanity. When we don’t see that in a film that has already subjected us to so much inappropriate material, we get upset. The same is true for The Wolf of Wall Street. We are subjected for 3 hours to Belfort’s and see no resolution, really. There is no payment for his wrongdoings. The closest thing we get for remorse is the scene when Belfort, who was extremely inebriated, tries to take his daughter away from his wife. He backs the car into a wall and we see a glimpse look in Belfort’s eyes that portrays remorse for what his life had become. That thought doesn’t last long This is frustrating to the viewer because he/she wants to see some form of redemption in his life.

Unfortunately, there was no redemption in his life. Belfort still lives promoting an agenda of greed and loose morals and ethics. His life is a representation of consumerism and Scorsese captures that beautifully in his film. The film begs a poignant question: is the pursuit of success worth all of this? Belfort loses family, friends, innocence, possessions, control, and much more for his pursuit of being on top. He is a man that regrets nothing because it is hard to regret things when your primary pursuit is something that is selfish. He buys into the mantra from Gordon Gecko that “greed is good.” And he doesn’t regret that thought. No matter what the loss, he considers his life successful because of all the temporary fame he achieved. 

The film led me to question my own stance on consumerism. Had I bought into that line of thought? It’s appealing at times. You can have your own helicopter, boat, lovers, vices, and anything that you could ever dream of. You can have it all. As long as you are willing to sacrifice it all for that dream. 

My problem with consumerism (outside of it being against Scripture) is that it blends in all too easily with American evangelicalism. From the days of the health and wealth gospel to the multi-million dollar church buildings to the church services that give most concerts a run for their money, consumerism blends in all too easily with American evangelicalism. Many have bought into the idea that bigger is better. Our services, sometimes, even echo that. And we justify it by saying that we will do whatever possible to bring people to Christ. But is that a good justification? Is that a right justification? Is that a Biblical justification? 

Do I condone the content in The Wolf of Wall Street? No, of course not. After watching the film, I immediately thought, “oh my gosh, I can’t believe that all of that was in an R-rated film.” Would I recommend the film to everyone? Of course not. There are several films that I think beautifully capture the state of humanity but shouldn’t be viewed by everyone. I see the artistic ability in being able to tell the story of a person not only inhis/her life and relationships with people but also in content and aspects of the film. It doesn’t mean I support that way of thinking. I wish that things were different…but they aren’t. Consumerism is still a problem that we are battling every day. And before we casta stone, we must first analyze our own lives.

Because the truth is:

I am Jordan Belfort. I want so much more. I have been tempted to sacrifice ethics for my own success. I have given up relationships if they stood in the way of my goals. I have done things I told myself I would never do. At times, I am no different than Jordan Belfort. Seeing The Wolf of Wall Street showed me that. Consumerism is something I struggle with every day. I constantly battle with the thoughts of “what do I need” versus “what do I want.” 

Most of us are Jordan Belfort. Seeing it portrayed in a film showed me that ugly truth. Being subjected to everything showed me the nature of evil and how it slowly hardens your heart to where you need more to operate. Not seeing resolution showed me the unfortunate truth of humanity. Not seeing justice made me long for the day when justice will come to fruition. I pray in that day, however, that God shows me grace for being such a worthless schmuck at times.

My review? Albeit an obscene film, it might be one of the best films when it comes to capturing how many of us operate…even those of us who proclaim Christ. I want to make myself clear: I do not condone the behavior in the film. But I also don’t condone that behavior anywhere and yet I see it all the time…in my life as well as in many other lives.