Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fight Club's Gospel: Hitting Bottom

There's a scene in Fight Club, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, which finds Norton being taught by Pitt to make soap.

Pitt's character, Tyler Durden, embodies everything Norton's unnamed narrator aspires to be. It's Durden who makes speeches about "the things [we] own end up owning [us]" and when confronted with the ugly truth about America's consumer culture simply spouts invective: "[Expletive] Martha Stewart. She's polishing the brass on the's all going down."

Through a series of circumstances too intricate to go into here, Norton comes to live with Pitt, and begins to lose the trappings of Americana: his home, his job, his yin-and-yang coffee table. Pitt though, still thinks Norton is being a poseur, simply acting like he's ready to let it all go, while still being too afraid to really take the plunge.

This is a conversion experience of the first order. This is what we might call "the cross side" of Christianity. Jesus said that if any wanted to become his followers, they had to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Matt 16:24). We think that this means discipleship is a hard road, with a heavy burden to bear. We forget that people who carry crosses always end up in the same place: on them. Brad Pitt says, "First you have to give up. You have to know...not fear...know, that someday, you're gonna die." --> This is the first step to freedom: To know that the road of the cross leads to Calvary. He goes on: "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything."

We resist. "Lose everything? Deny myself?" we protest. "But that'll mean weakness...and death. That'll be the end of me!" The somethings that we hold on to, the things we imagine are keeping us alive, are the very things that are killing us, and killing us for good. The things we own end up owning us. Ed Norton puts our greatest fear into words: "You don't know how this feels!" We cry so to God, "You rip my desires, my hopes, my life!...away from me. You don't know how this feels!" Brad Pitt holds up his hand, showing his scar, proving to the faithless that he's been here before.

Like Thomas, converted by the wounds of the risen Christ, Norton is converted by Brad Pitt's wounds. He has passed this test. He has carried this cross. Jesus Christ has borne his cross so that death can be a beginning, rather than an end, for us. He died so that we might live. He died, and we died with him (Gal 2:20), so that now we can be free. We have to know...not suspect...know, the reality of the cross. It is only then that we can really be.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Robert Duvall and The Apostle

Many (if not all) of you will have heard of Robert Duvall. One of America's greatest actors, he has portrayed everyone from Tom Hagen in The Godfather to Harry Hogge in Days of Thunder, and a host of those in between. Fewer (if any) of you will have heard of Walton Goggins. Probably best known for his role as Detective Shane Vendrell on The Shield, Goggins gives such a wonderful performance in the Duvall-directed and -starring The Apostle that he threatens to overshadow such actors as Duvall, Miranda Richardson, Billy Bob Thornton and even Farrah Fawcett and June Carter Cash!

In the film, Duvall plays a Baptist minister cursed with a violent temper. In an arguably justifiable outrage, Duvall accidentally kills a man, and must go on the run from the law. He ends up in tiny Bayou Boutte, Louisiana, and goes about planting a church. One of his first congregants is Goggins' Sam. This is a story of a flawed but deeply devoted Christian, someone who is honest about his flaws but committed to the proclamation of the Gospel. It's a story about God working, as he promised, through broken vessels and jars of clay. Goggins' tearful conversion, as Duvall is being led away to prison, is one of the most powerful scenes I've ever seen.

There's also a great scene wherein Duvall (and his Bible) stand up to Billy Bob Thornton (and his bulldozer)! Chock full of Southern charm, consider this the companion piece to Black Snake Moan, blogged about here. The real reason to watch this movie though, as a movie buff, is to see Walton Goggins' wonderful performance. It serves as a reminder that we've never heard of many of the greatest actors in the world. For every Brendan Fraser there are twenty Walton Gogginses. I'll take Goggins every time.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Prayer for M. Night Shyamalan: God DOES Exist!

My favorite novel of all time is A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (maybe best known as the author of The Cider House Rules or The World According to Garp, which were both made into better movies than the atrocious Simon Birch, the Meany adaptation. If fact, I can't close this parenthesis without mentioning that Birch was so atrocious that Irving refused to let the filmmakers use the name of his novel). The first words of the first chapter are:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice -- not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

Makes you want to keep reading, right? I recently started reading A Prayer for Owen Meany again, probably for the fifth or sixth time, and I got to thinking about the structure of this wonderful novel. Wonderful as it is, though, I fear that not that many of those reading these words may have read it. However, there is another story that follows a similar structure, with which you may be more familiar: M. Night Shyamalan's film Signs.

In Signs, Mel Gibson plays a (probably Episcopal) minister who has lost his faith after the tragic death of his wife. He lives with his idiosyncratic family on a farm. His brother is a failed baseball player, his son has terrible asthma, and his daughter leaves half-drunk glasses of water all over the house, claiming it "tastes funny." When aliens with evil intentions invade earth and besiege Gibson's family in their farmhouse, the foibles of his family (the baseball playing, the asthma, and the drinking water) turn out to be the exact set of circumstances that are required for the family to survive the attack. This leads Gibson to recover his faith.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is like that. The seeming random and tragic events of two boys' lives conspire to prepare them perfectly for their most pivotal moment, and this leads to the narrator's belief in God.

What do you think of this? In these two stories, we get the classic "things work together for good" argument of Romans 8:28, even things that don't appear, at the time, to be good. A boy's asthma, and the death of another boy's mother, are eventually shown to be for some "greater" good. It seems, though, that as pleasant as this seems, that in actual life (that is, life outside of movies and novels) we don't get to see the allegedly greater good. Sometimes, it's awfully hard to see any greater good at all.

It seems, to me at least, that Christianity comes from a different place. The narrator of A Prayer for Owen Meany even alludes to it by specifying: "...he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." "A Christian" is much more specific than "a believer in God." Christians, fundamentally, believe in a God who saves. And this, finally, differentiates the God of Christianity from the God of Irving and Shyamalan. Their God saves, to be sure, but faith is only restored when the saving happens in a visible and obvious way. Their God saves temporally...ours saves eternally. It's a trade-off I'm willing to make. How 'bout you?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Forgiveness: Down and Dirty

In The Mission, Robert De Niro plays the New World slave trader Rodrigo Mendoza. Mendoza returns from a trip slave-gathering (among the native Gaurani Indian tribe) to find that the woman he loves has fallen in love with his brother. In a fit of rage, and being a violent man, Medoza, his honor challenged, duels with and kills his brother.

He is immediately wracked with overwhelming guilt, and imprisons himself. It is there that he is visited by a priest, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), who broaches the subject of forgiveness. Being Catholic (Jesuit, to be precise) expiation takes the form of penance, and Gabriel asks Mendoza to choose his penance. "There is no penance hard enough for me!" growls Mendoza. But, as those of you who've seen the movie know, Mendoza comes up with something.

In one of the more profound scenes every burned to celluloid, Mendoza carries all of his armor (his identity as a slave trader and mercenary) on his back up a mountainous waterfall toward the Guarani settlement. He is punishing himself for his sins. His statement that there is "no penance hard enough" for him is a common, though oft-suppressed, human sentiment. We feel that we are beyond the reach of grace. We are too far gone. With all our heart, we work for righteousness, all the while cultivating a certainty that we can never be good enough. Mendoza attempts to cleanse his soul through work. When one of the priests (an absurdly young Liam Neeson) considers his struggle too desperate and cuts the armor loose from his body, Mendoza climbs all the way back down the mountain to retrieve his Sisyphian burden, starting over again.

When he finally gets to the summit, hours later and covered in mud, one of the Guarani runs up to him and holds a knife to his vulnerable throat. Mendoza has made a life of selling these Indians into slavery, and he is now without the strength necessary to protect himself. In an act of amazing forgiveness, the Indian, rather than cutting Mendoza's throat, cuts the armor from his body, freeing him.

Now, there are obvious flaws in the theology of this sequence: he only accepts forgiveness after he feels he has "worked" hard enough to earn it. However, there are powerful themes at play here, even if the Devil is in the details. The Guarani has no reason to forgive Mendoza, but does. This inspires in Mendoza a life of righteousness, at least in movie terms. The forgiveness comes in a moment of blood, sweat, and tears, not in one of worthy supplication. In fact, Mendoza's tears after the armor is cut away from him betray his feeling that the forgiveness is still unmerited. Indeed, how has his "work," the penance for his brother's murder, benefited the Guarani? It hasn't. Yet Mendoza is forgiven anyway.

This scene from The Mission illustrates several things about us humans: 1) we are unwilling to accept unconditional forgiveness. We always try to earn it. 2) when unconditional forgiveness comes, it breaks us completely, and changes us forever.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

We SWEAR We're the Champions

A common human endeavor is to self-justify. It is our business to puff ourselves up, to apologize (in the apologetics sense) for our behavior, for our accomplishments, for ourselves. Here are some amazing (and hilarious) examples from the world of sports banners. Enjoy!
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