On Oscars, Gimmickry, & “The Artist”

Oscar was good to director Michel Hazanavicius and his (mostly) silent film “The Artist” at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony.  The film left with five awards, including top spots for Picture, Director and Actor.

I think most post-ceremony analyses are nonsense, so far be it from me to make sweeping conclusions based on Oscar distribution.  But there is at least one thing to be said about the particular trophies “The Artist” took home.  Unlike, say, “Crash”, this year’s Best Picture winner was no fluke.  Something about this film resonated with Oscar voters.

Eventually whatever that intangible element was, whatever spell the film put on its vote-casting viewers – all of that will fade.  That’s my prediction.  There will come a moment when the audience who lauded “The Artist” to the stage five times on Sunday night will realize they handed those awards over to a gimmick.

I said it – a gimmick.  “The Artist” walks a precarious line between homage and gimmick, and though it is a film filled with homages, it ends up being about that very thing.  The film knows it’s silent and black-and-white (and this is very different from the filmmakers knowing the same thing).  It knows it’s being watched by a modern audience.  “The Artist” is about as self-aware a movie as has ever been made.  It winks at the audience almost the entire movie.  Sometimes literally.

“The Artist” is charming and there are some praise-worthy moments in it, but it has nothing new to say. Its plot is straight out of “Singin’ in the Rain”.  It’s a people-pleaser to a fault, so much so that it tries to appease both a generation of film-lovers longing for the silent era and movie-goers with modern sensibilities.  So even at its most nostalgic, “The Artist” won’t fully commit to its own aesthetic convictions, evidenced even by its credits.

I have no doubt the makers deeply love the movies.  They didn’t intend to make a gimmick.  And even if they did, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.  Even Hitchcock did it.  But for Hollywood to award its highest honor to a gimmick is concerning.  My hope is that eventually the hubbub surrounding “The Artist” will fade, that it will take a humbler place in movie history as a film that had several good sequences in it, some that reminded us of its bygone setting.

My hope is that Hollywood won’t try to capitalize on the film’s dark horse acclaim.  I can see it now.  “From the makers of ‘Scary Movie’, ‘Epic Movie’, and ‘Disaster Movie’ comes….’SILENT MOVIE’ “.

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Paramount Releases “Hugo” Making-of

No doubt this little making-of doc is a bit of Oscar politicking, but the movie is worthy.  “Hugo” is a Martin Scorsese love letter containing layer upon layer of cinema parallels so organic that one can’t imagine it coming to fruition in a way less perfect.  Screenwriter John Logan explains some of these parallels beautifully at 4:55 in the video.

Scorsese famously lost out during Oscar season year after year for pictures now seen as important and iconic – “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “GoodFellas” to name a few.  The curse lifted when “The Departed” took home Best Picture and he won Best Director in 2007.  That’s certainly a well crafted film, but it still feels like the Academy was compensating for poor choices in the past.  How ironic and wonderful would it be to see Martin Scorsese find victory with a “children’s film”.

Christians Watching Movies with Other Christians

In Part 1 of this series, I advocated for biblical awareness of your conscience.  This means realizing that your conscience, though imperfect, is a gift from God and should be used prayerfully for making Christian decisions in your everyday life.  We applied this to the small topic of watching movies.  What movies can Christians watch?  Answering this question requires an honest and brutal probing of your reasoning for the movies you decide to see.  First ask yourself if the movie is permissible for you.  Secondly, ask if that permission is rooted in your freedom in Christ or your numbness to sin.  If, after prayer, you realize you’ve been making decisions based on numbness, then it wasn’t actually permissible in the first place and repentance should be your quick response.

But that’s mostly an issue of your heart.  The decision-making process takes on a new and important nuance when other people enter the mix.

In this blog post, let’s look at two hypothetical scenarios concerning how our movie choices affect other Christians, and from the Scriptures we’ll see how our poor responses can lead to two terrible consequences.

Response #1: Diminish the Work of the Cross

Let’s say a Christian friend organizes a casual get-together at his apartment.  For a few hours everyone talks and eats and plays games, but eventually it is suggested the group watches a movie.  After a vote, the winning film happens to be rated R.  Almost everyone agrees the content is permissible.  (For now, we won’t discuss the content; we’ll save that for another blog post.)  Someone in the room – we’ll call her Michelle – gathers her things and says to you, “I can’t believe you’re going to sit here and watch an R-rated movie” as she judgmentally walks out the door.

Let’s also say you didn’t know that Michelle came from a church background of legalism.  Her church required its members to abstain from R-rated movies (which, by the way, is completely fine), but it also encouraged its members to forbid other Christians from watching R-rated movies (which, by the way, is not).  So Michelle had it firmly in her head that in order to be a Christian one must not watch R-rated movies.

Does Michelle have a weak conscience?  No, I highly doubt that.  She is not tempted by R-rated movies.  The issue is deeper than that.

What did the Spirit of Christ say to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 when Paul complained of inadequacy?  Look at the text.  Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you….”  In Ephesians 1:3, Paul says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”  Look also to Paul’s astonishing claim in Colossians 2:10 where he says, “…you have been given fullness in Christ”.  The NKJV translates it like this, “you are complete in Him”.

Michelle’s legalism doesn’t understand what Paul understood, which is this: Jesus Christ is sufficient.  Totally.  Completely.  Absolutely.  Use the most superlative language you can muster to refer to Christ’s sufficiency.  He’s enough all by himself.  That’s why we sing “In Christ Alone”.  Michelle’s legalism leaves no room for this.

D.A. Carson says it this way, “The Word of God will not allow anyone or anything to jeopardize the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus!”

If you had known about Michelle’s legalism, it would’ve been most wise to encourage the group to stay away from R-rated territory and address the issue one-on-one with Michelle later.  This could have circumvented a potentially awkward or embarrassing situation for Michelle.

But since you did not know Michelle’s stance on R-rated films, and she left the get-together with a condemning attitude, then you now have an opportunity to lovingly correct Michelle’s poor understanding of Christ’s sufficiency.  Perhaps you and another mature believer could meet with Michelle and ask her why she left the party in the first place.

What’s important is that the work of the cross is upheld in this situation.  This particular story is hypothetical, but it manifests itself in a variety of ways in real life.  Wisely consider how to respond in such a way that you show abstaining from a certain kind of movie adds nothing to your righteousness.  What a legalist needs is a new and potent dose of simple gospel truth –  namely, that Jesus Christ has given us the fullness of his righteousness.

Response #2: “Destroy” Your Brother in Christ

That last point riles Christians up to speak and act boldly for the sake of the gospel.  Certainly, it’s an important principle to understand and in holding to it, you love your Christian brother or sister.

But here’s a related principle even more often misunderstood, and it also has to do with loving your fellow Christians.

Let’s picture the very same scenario with the get-together, except in this version Michelle leaves quietly halfway through the movie after some of the more textbook R-rated content shows up.  Here, Michelle is not a legalist; she is simply growing in her faith, and that process has not yet given her the same freedom her movie-loving friends have.  (And she may never have the freedom.)

Paul spends several verses in the New Testament magnifying our freedom in Christ.  This is functional freedom.  It means we can actually exercise it.  So if we are convinced the grace of God has given us the freedom to, for instance, watch an R-rated film, then we can watch it.

But consider this passage from the Apostle Paul in Romans 14:15, “If your brother is distressed by what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.  Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.”  (To get a clearer understanding of the issue of food and eating, read Part 1.  The audience to whom Paul was writing was facing a similar dilemma as the Christians in Corinth.)

With this freedom also comes a monumental responsibility.  Many times in the Christian life, we are to give up those freedoms so that a brother or sister won’t fall into sin.  This is what Paul is talking about Romans 14:15.  If your conscience allows you to watch a particular movie that contains what some Christians would consider questionable content, that does not mean you are free to watch and flaunt and praise that movie willy nilly.  Your fellow Christians may have consciences that tell them to stay away from such content.  And you, by your watching and referencing, tempt those Christians to defile their conscience.

Let me paraphrase Paul: “If your brother or sister is distressed by what you watch, then you are no longer acting in love.”  This means in spite of your freedom, you are to strategically set it aside.

Here’s the problem: during the voting process, the entire group remained silent on the issue of conscience.  So in going forward with the relatively innocuous decision to watch the movie, no one realized they became the source of temptation for Michelle.  She sat back and saw her Christian brothers and sisters freely choose the movie and perhaps she thought, “If they can do it, so can I.”  Of course that thought changed quickly as her conscience felt stung by the needles of a poor decision.

So the preemptive response should have been, at the very least, to remind the group that an R-rated film might go against the conscience of some of the people there with them.  Probably the best decision is to simply resolve to not watch R-rated movies when such a varied group is present.

But no one in the room said anything, so Michelle was forced to leave awkwardly because the group was not willing to lay aside their freedoms.  Now your response must be repentance and, preferably, an apology for Michelle for causing her to stumble.

You say, “This is such a small deal?  Why take it so seriously?”  But what is at stake?  Paul says, “Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.” The faith of your brother and sister in Christ is at stake.  A right understanding of the gospel is at stake.  If you approve of a movie your “weaker” Christian friend cannot, you make that movie of more worth than the gospel itself.

Jesus and Freedom

Don’t forget Christ gave up all his freedoms for us.  Realize the one who spoke the earth into existence had his body nailed to a tree for us.  This is the most radical, self-giving picture we have of laying aside one’s freedom.  Look to him if you’re not sure how to give up your own freedom.

And don’t forget a movie is, after all, only a movie.  We have a tendency to magnify the greatness of the movie experience in ways that are not helpful.  The more we do that, the harder it is to give up our freedom in this particular issue.

So speak more highly of our Triune God than of the latest blockbuster.  He is worth the laying aside of our freedoms, and most certainly, so are our brothers for whom Christ died.

*****

For more on the broader principles of “weak” and “strong” Christians, I recommend the following sermons:

Eric Naus: “Inconvenient Love” – Romans 14:13-23

D.A. Carson: “That By All Means I Might Win Some” – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

*****

This post also appears on the blog for the Crossroads University Ministry at The Moody Church and can be viewed here.

Eyes & Ears 2011: Part 1

The Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday morning.  I thought this was as good a time as any to post the Eyes portion of my annual Eyes & Ears lists.  The following are the ten films I held most dearly from 2011.

Contagion – Steven Soderbergh’s thriller teaches us that a director who cares about craft can play our emotions like a fiddle.  That’s all Soderbergh has ever cared about – craft.  And this expertly crafted pandemic film is effective in all its goals.  From the raw performances to the razor-sharp cinematography, “Contagion” is that rare Hollywood thriller that dares to get under its audience members’ skin.  It’s a compelling portrayal of fear and the lengths humans will go to survive.  Notable here are Jennifer Ehle as a selfless scientist intent on discovering a cure, and Jude Law as a blogger activist.

Terri – This bizarre little gem won me over when I finally realized it had not succumbed to the phoniness of its countless indie counterparts.  “Terri” is filled to the brim with moments of jaw-dropping honesty. The film’s fine performers – most notably its lead, Jacob Wysocki – never spell out how we should feel or think.  We’re left, as in real life, to make judgments on the characters as their behavior unfolds.  I think alumni from rural high schools will watch this movie with warmness, admiring its portrait of outsiders and concluding it all feels real.

Hanna – From Joe Wright, the director of “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice”, comes this unlikely action film, which I have difficulty comparing to any other conventional action films.  There is a smoothness to the on-screen action and camerawork that remind me of “Munich”, as well as moments of bizarre beauty that evoke “A Clockwork Orange”.  Confused?  Good.  Watch the film with open arms and discover a unique and risky genre-bender.

The Descendants – Let’s be honest, sometimes George Clooney plays the same suave, silver fox he’s played in a dozen movies.  But here, director Alexander Payne puts his lead in one impossible situation after another.  “The Descendants” is a surprisingly plot-driven drama-comedy in which Clooney’s Matt King has to reconcile familial transgressions while his wife lies comatose and his ancestors’ priceless land is sized up for sale.  But this all works; the characters are given dimension with each new plot turn.  I admire Payne’s decisions directorially.  What is ultimately a very sad movie is also very funny, often simultaneously, and this is largely because all melodrama is cut off at its zenith.  Watch closely: just as a character is about to spill his soul totally – tears and snot and all – the hand of Payne sweeps in to ruin the moment.  I can see viewers leaving the film feeling unresolved.  I felt free to choose what to feel.

Midnight in Paris – I think Woody Allen – for all his accolades as a writer – is as skilled a director who has ever lived.  He surely has some clunkers under his belt, but when he succeeds, he seriously succeeds.  “Midnight in Paris” is the latest in his European film collection and it is as romantic about its city as “Manhattan” was to its city, and an even better film altogether.  Here, we see Owen Wilson in one of his finest performances (playing the role of Woody Allen to neurotic perfection) and a cast indulging in the material.  This is a movie filled with charm and beauty, and from it we clearly sense Allen’s love of literature.  For years, his movies have alluded to this (all his characters are astonishingly well-read) but in “Midnight in Paris” we see Allen the Romantic trumping Allen the Cynic in full close-up.  It’s a wonderful experience.

Trust – To watch David Schwimmer on “Friends” with his outlandish facial expression and comic overreactions, it’s hard to believe he could direct such a subtle and devastating film.  “Trust”, Schwimmer’s second feature film as a director, centers on the rape of a teenage girl named Annie (which is not shown in full detail).  Annie and her family struggles to cope with the consequences, and during this process Schwimmer creates a sense of longing that does not find fulfillment by the movie’s end.  And so, with Annie, we also long for acceptance, and fatherly protection, and perfect love.  Those are good things to long for, and the movie rightly concludes they’ll never be fulfilled in this world.

Melancholia – If not for the strange comedic undertones, “Melancholia” would be almost too much to bear.  I’m thinking back on several scenes and laughing about them, which was not my first reaction.  This is a bold and brilliant film about the end of all things, and its director Lars von Trier is wise to fill the palette with impossibly beautiful images.  Surely von Trier is playing with us every step of the way (how else could we laugh at such nihilism?) but none of it is mean-spirited, like his previous film “Antichrist”.  If you leave dumbfounded, don’t fret; even the characters are dumbfounded!  At the heart of the film’s mystery is a career-shaping performance by Kirsten Dunst, whose character Justine suffers from paralyzing depression.  The portrayal is harrowing and funny, depending on the context, and it helps us understand that “Melancholia” is about needing to resolve the irresolvable.  From prematurely ended scenes to a soundtrack littered with Wagner’s un-resolving “Tristan” theme*, von Trier builds and builds to an inevitable finale.

Hugo – An orphan boy lives and works within the walls of a train station in Paris.  His purpose is to keep the clocks running.  All the axles and wheels – they all have a purpose too, but someone has to make them move.  The boy is Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and his hostile relationship with an old toymaker is the centerpiece of this uproariously charming children’s fable from Martin Scorsese.  “Hugo” should be celebrated for its cinematography and score, for its intricate production design, for its blissful editing, even for its 3D.  Yes, all those things are superlative.  But I cherish “Hugo” for its message of purpose.  “If the whole world is a machine,” Hugo says, “there couldn’t be extra parts, which means I have to be here for a reason.”  This is a movie rooted in love – love for the characters and the time period, even love for cinema itself.  Indeed, the night I saw “Hugo” was the night I fell in love too.

Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of “Drive”, showcases a directorial command we usually see in directors 15 years his senior.  “Drive” is a masterpiece of tone and mood.  Even with a lead character that speaks barely a paragraph of dialogue the entire film, “Drive” is a clincher.  It quietly moves at a slow pace most of the time, which only heightens the shock of its more violent sequences.   I’m telling you, Refn is a true talent and this film is one of the finest action thrillers ever made – strange, atmospheric, risky, and filled with one amazing performance after another.

The Tree of Life – For charm and nostalgia, for warmth and beauty, for mystery and profundity, for grace and truth, for frustration and ambiguity, for beginnings and ends, look no further than Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.  This polarizing film from an elusive and legendary director is as ambitious as the most grandiose movies that came before it.  It’s also desperately personal, more so than the most raw of film dramas.  “The Tree of Life” is about the loss of innocence, about guilt and forgiveness.  It’s about suffering needlessly.  It compares the woes and awes of its characters to those of Job, who was tempted to curse God and die.  Indeed Jack (Hunter McCracken), the young central character of the film is also tempted to curse God, and he comes very close to doing it.  “The Tree of Life” attempts to show us what God did before we were ever here and what he’s still doing now even though we can’t see him, and the intense and sometimes cold emotions that follow make the film one of the wonders of modern cinema.

My Own Private Award Ceremony:

Stellar Teenage Performance Award: Jacob Wysocki – “Terri”; Shailene Woodley – “The Descendants”; Liana Liberato – “Trust”

Awkward Wedding Reception Award: “Melancholia” (which was purposely awkward) & “Breaking Dawn Part 1” (which was accidentally awkward)

Award for Slapstick Actors in Dramas with Outcast Teenagers: Will Ferrell – “Everything Must Go” & John C. Reilly – “Terri”

Movies About Movies Award: “Hugo” & “The Artist”

Eschatological Award: “Melancholia”, “The Tree of Life”, “The Future” & “Another Earth”

Did your favorites from 2011 appear on my list?  What did I leave out?

*Thanks to Ricky Hutton for explaining the “Tristan” theme to me.  His insights helped me understand another layer of von Trier’s madness.

Christians Watching Movies

Have you ever had that moment when you are walking out of the movie theatre having just watched one of the funniest movies you’ve ever seen, and all the friends with whom you watched it are quoting the best lines, and you are all laughing and having a blast – but in a small, stinging moment of conviction, a terrible thought crosses your mind:  I shouldn’t have watched that.

Me too.  I feel you.  I smell what you’re stepping in.

What was your response to that twinge of guilt?  If you are like me (especially the high school version of me) you probably shrugged off that guilty conscience and moved on with your life, which included more trips to the Cineplex to see movies your conscience told you not to see.

Let me be clear: this is not innocent behavior.

In the Bible, the conscience is no small thing.  In Romans 2, the Apostle Paul affirms that every person is born with a conscience.  It is an inherent “moral compass”, which gives to its carrier the ability, in some measure, to distinguish good from evil.  Rejecting your conscience is a dangerous path to walk.

With regard to movies the question, then, is should Christians see films because films are not bad in and of themselves?  Or should Christians abstain from films because most of them promote sin?  The answer is yes.  It simply depends on your conscience.

Killing Living Things

When the Apostle Paul came to the city of Corinth, he preached the gospel and established a church.  This was truly a miraculous event because Corinth was a cesspool of pagan idolatry.  Sometime later, he received word that Christians in Corinth were experiencing confusion over the issue of food sacrificed to idols.

Here was the problem:  At pagan temples animals were sacrificed to the gods.  In many cases, only a portion of the animal was “destroyed” during the ritual and often the rest of the body was sold in the marketplace or used in temple banquets.  A Corinthian buying food in the marketplace could easily take home meat that had been used in pagan worship.  To the average Corinthian, this was a non-issue.  But for a recently converted Christian Corinthian, the idea of eating that meat could conjure up all kinds of memories from their life before knowing Jesus.

Think of it this way: perhaps you know a former alcoholic who heard the gospel and was saved.  Not only were they saved objectively from God’s wrath, they were saved subjectively from alcoholism.  Now, let’s say this recently converted former alcoholic is at the grocery store and passes the liquor aisle.  Is it permissible for him to buy and consume alcohol?  That’s an imperfect analogy, but still something of a similar dilemma the Christians in Corinth were facing.

First, let’s do what Paul does.  Paul isolates the object of the problem – meat sacrificed to idols.  He says there is nothing wrong with the act of eating this meat, and his reasoning is that the so-called gods to which the meat was sacrificed are not gods at all.  If a Christian is worried about some kind of supernatural transfer of power from the idol to the meat, he need not be concerned any longer.  “…there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor. 8:6).

And yet, there is some level of knowledge that a Christian can possess that does not penetrate the heart.  It is possible, according to Paul’s reasoning, for a former idol worshiper to know that Jesus is the one true God and yet still have reservations about eating the sacrificed food simply because of its association with the pagan lifestyle.  If that is the case, that worshiper should stay away from the meat.  Why?  Because his conscience confirms it is sin.

So for that former alcoholic: if he has any inkling that his purchasing of alcohol could possibly lead to sin, then purchasing the alcohol is a sin.  He shouldn’t do it.

What happens to the former pagan idolater who does eat the meat and the alcoholic who does buy the alcohol?  Each one, in his own way, pricks his conscience.  And not realizing his conscience is like a living thing, he continues to prick it.  Easier and easier it becomes until he no longer feels even a twinge of pain.  He has desensitized himself.  He’s killed his conscience.

Friends, that’s what happens when we sacrifice innocent behavior in the name of entertainment.  We slowly kill our consciences (some more quickly than others).

Numbness ≠ Freedom

Two Christians walk into a movie theatre to see an R-rated action film.  The MPAA rating says, “Rated R for violence and language”.  Both walk out thoroughly entertained.  It’s possible they saw the exact same movie under the exact same circumstances – and yet one of them sinned.

There are Christians that can watch movies that many of us would deem unwatchable, and they can do it without sinning.  Is it because they’ve “seen enough so it doesn’t affect” them anymore?  No, it’s because they know in their hearts there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, and they are in love with him to the extent that they can freely enjoy a movie.  A movie, like the meat sacrificed to idols, is morally neutral.  It neither brings a person closer to or further from God (1 Cor. 8:8).  If a Christian’s conscience allows it, then it is indeed permissible.

Desensitization is a different matter.  There are Christians (probably more in this category) who do not feel all that bad about the content they take in at the movies.  This isn’t freedom in Christ; it is numbness to sin, and it will lead to a killing of your conscience.

Two Christians walk into a movie theatre.  Which one sinned?  The one who saw it out of numbness to his sin.  If this is you, you’re called to repent.  Acknowledge that your numbness is not freedom and resolve to listen to the gasping voice of your conscience.

Christ-Exalting Conscience

Feeling guilty yet?  Unfortunately that guilt won’t keep you in tune with your conscience forever.  Might I suggest that, in this comparatively trivial issue of “what movies should I see?”, you fix your eyes on the One who was obedient unto death for you.  If you’re weak in your conscience, remember Christ became weak for you.  When you find yourself more captivated by a vision of the cross and resurrection than by a 90-minute action flick, it suddenly won’t be so difficult to hear and obey your conscience.  In doing so you will fall more deeply in love with Jesus and, consequently, your freedom will increase.

*****

This post also appears on the blog for the Crossroads University Ministry at The Moody Church and can be viewed here.

Unlikely Thankfulness for Kevin Smith’s “Red State”

Kevin Smith is the writer/director behind the raunch-coms of the “Clerks” universe.  His mixture of toilet humor and sophisticated verbiage created a strange fan base, dominated by mouth-breather man-boys and ivy league types.  Even the rom-com crowd likes his stuff.

But Smith turned a whole different set of heads last winter when he screened his independent horror thriller “Red State” and announced his sole ownership and distribution rights to the film.  His purpose was to distribute the movie based on the merits of the film itself, and Smith was optimistic that the film’s content and message would find its audience.

Since then, Smith has campaigned the film all over the country, having never maintained a full theatrical run.  It’s available on DVD and BluRay now.

Surprising Reaction

I finally saw “Red State” after anticipating it since 2007 (when Smith teased his blog subscribers with a picture of the script’s title page).  I’m still surprised by my reaction.

Mainly I was disgusted, and I presume that was the desired reaction.  “Red State” is a nasty little movie, in plot and in content.  There are no characters to redeem it.  There are several strange and violent sequences in it.  It’s conclusions about humans are borderline despairing.

There’s not much to boast about in the film’s technical achievement’s either.  “Red State” features some of Smith’s least successful dialogue and exposition.  It’s shot by director of photography David Klein with a kind of film-school visual tactlessness.  This undermines some of the performances; some of the melodrama plays false because the photography is not meeting the same standard as the performances.

There is a lot to dislike about this movie.

Yet, about 24 hours after watching it, I’m filled with thankfulness, and I’ll tell you why:  The plot centers on three teenage boys who are taken captive by the members of an extreme right wing church and subjected to humiliation and torture.   The church, herein called Five Points Trinity Church, finds its inspiration in Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation dead set on protesting as many funerals of homosexuals and KIA’d soldiers as possible.  Surely you’ve seen this church on the news.  Its members are a pack of bible charlatans.  They are only as powerful as they are loud, and the louder they are the more coverage and attention they get.

The film actually calls Fred Phelps and his church by name.  Five Points Trinity goes a step further.  Westboro Baptist’s behavior is damnable, but they remain non-violent.  In the film, Five Points is not just a church, but a barracks.  They are extremely violent, and the hatred they spew is nauseating.

Religion – it’s for the birds

I know many people will watch “Red State” and say, “Well, that’s what religion does…it turns people into maniacs.”  A lot of people will watch the movie and be disturbed, not just by the content, but by the notion that perhaps all Christians are really just closet Five Point Trinity members.  Maybe even a few nominal Christians will be shaken in their faith after watching it (and I emphasize nominal; the movie will not shake a solid believer).

The reason I am thankful for “Red State” is that it shows us the functional outcome of gospel-less religion: oppression, vitriol, and potentially violence.  Religion without the gospel is some nasty business.  And I’m thankful “Red State” reminded me of the cost of totally misunderstanding the Bible.  The members of Five Points Trinity Church (and the real-life Westboro cronies) make the fatal and tragic mistake of overemphasizing one of God’s attributes over all the rest.  God is vengeful and hateful – that’s actually true.  God hates sin (and yes, even sinners) and will take revenge for the cost of those sins.

But God is patient and merciful and gracious.  God is loving and kind and faithful beyond our wildest dreams.  We know all these things by looking at Jesus Christ on his cross.  Onto Jesus, God’s hate for sinners was unleashed in full.  Onto us, believers, God’s grace was unleashed in full.  It’s at the cross we finally see the folly of hate-filled theology.

Added to this, I’m thankful “Red State” ended badly for pretty much all the characters involved.  There’s no redemption in the gospel according to Fred Phelps, no assurance that all the things of this world will pass away, no promise that all will be made new.  A happy ending to this movie would have suggested otherwise.  But in the Gospel of the Scriptures, I am promised an inheritance beyond the riches and pleasures of this world, such that even if I were taken captive by a group of psychopathic “Christians” and all I have was taken away from me, I could count my fading losses all worth it for the sake of something better and unshakable.

So yes, I’m thankful.

I’m Glad You’re Doing What You Love

I grew up in Small Town, USA – otherwise known as Madison, Indiana.  It’s a town I love.  It’s the town where I went to high school, and during my time there I took several Advanced Placement classes in various subjects, which challenged me to think analytically.  I also took a handful of art classes, and in a addition to that, I was in the Drama Club where I appeared in a number of plays and musicals.  That environment was a crucible for inspiration and goal-setting, and I look back on those days as the days that equipped me for the much less glamorous work I do from day-to-day in the film/TV world.

Both of those strands – the AP and art courses – were under some sort of threat of extinction at one point during the last school year.  Thankfully, they survived several budget cuts.

So I find it ironic that my former art teacher and theatre director, Mr. Aaron Kelsey, will teach an AP Art History course this coming school year.  I consider that poetic justice.

Mr. Kelsey – or MK as his pupils call him – is here in Chicago this week for AP training in order to teach this upcoming course.  I was fortunate enough to join him for dinner tonight and we caught up and reminisced and pondered the future, and at the end of the encounter we shook hands and he said, “I’m glad you’re doing what you love.”

…which reminds me – all the unglamorous, frustrating, illegal, oftentimes thankless work I do “in the industry” – it’s all a part of doing what I love.  I definitely don’t love parts of it.  But I love the big picture, the possible trajectory, the suspense.  And I’m thankful MK reminded me of that with a simple gesture.  After all, he’s one of the reasons why I’m doing it in the first place.

*****

Aaron Kelsey recently received a Teacher Creativity Grant from the Eli Lilly Foundation.  He used the grant to travel around the country researching the life and work of his hero, Walt Disney.  His trip was chronicled and can be viewed at his blog.  I invite you to subscribe to the blog and continue his journey through Life Lessons Learned from Walt Disney.

Lessons from Walt