OF JEOPARDY AND BIBLICAL EPICS

 

The game show Jeopardy is an occasional evening indulgence. Answering correctly, before the contestants, is the big draw, and fun when it happens, but let’s just say that I’m never tempted to audition, except when the Bible is the category. Alex Trebek became the host of the hit game show the year we got married, and since that time it seems the contestants’ biblical knowledge has decreased with each decade.

We have become a visual media culture, learning more from television, film, and streaming sources than any civilization in history. Fewer Americans, it seems, are reading the Bible, but more are watching movies.

That’s why I’m recommending my top five biblical movies just before Easter. I’m not suggesting that anyone can build a solid foundation of biblical literacy, still less doctrine by watching, but we can get the big picture, and some of the major themes. And movies contribute to cultural conversation. It’s always easier to begin a discussion with, “Have you seen …?” than with “Have you read the book of Matthew lately?”

The Passion of the Christ – Mel Gibson’s R-rated (for violence) 2004 blockbuster is not for children, or the faint of heart. It was controversial, but brutally accurate in its portrayal of the final twelve hours before Jesus’s death. The expressions on Jesus’s (Jim Caviezel) face at the beginning and the end capture the conflict with evil, and the hope of resurrection, like nothing else available on screen.

Ben Hur – The 1959 classic with Charlton Heston in the title role was remade last year by husband and wife team Mark Burnette and Roma Downey (The Bible). The new film is shorter, by an hour, and faster paced. But the mid-twentieth century version is truer to the best-selling, 1880, Lew Wallace novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The story of revenge and redemption between two adoptive brothers, Roman Messala, and Jewish Ben Hur, plays out in and around the crucifixion and resurrection. The climactic chariot race benefits from better special effects in the newer film, but the 1959 classic won eleven Academy Awards.

Risen –The 2016 film follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics, it is a good story well told.

Prince of Egypt – The 1998 animated epic remains one of the most powerful and accessible retellings of the Exodus ever produced. Watch it with your children and grandchildren. It is visually compelling and musically breathtaking.

The Jesus Film – This 1979 film hasn’t won many awards–on earth. Neither has it made much money, but the two-hour long, faithful rendering of the Gospel of Luke has been shown on more screens, to more audiences, in more diverse places than any other biblical film in history. From Bible-less peoples in the Amazon jungle, to Aborigines in the Outback, this film has probably changed more lives, and will win more awards in heaven, than any other. If you want a literal rendering of the most historically detailed Gospel, this is it.

These are just my favorites, included because I’ve seen them. What are yours?

 

 

 

BEATING SEVEN YEAR BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

Well, you may want to file this under “for what it’s worth,” or just hit delete, but I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. Take your pick, but knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, baby, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat the seven year burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan ahead to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. I was never very good at it, and when my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiables and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally I think, every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

DON’T MISS HIDDEN FIGURES

Aviation is my hobby, and I grew up in the middle of the grand quest to “put a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade, bequeathed to us by John F. Kennedy. I thought I knew about everything there was to know about the space race. Then I saw Hidden Figures, (Rated PG for mild language) and learned a beautiful back story to the Mercury space program that no one should miss.

The film centers around three gifted mathematicians who overcame racial and sexual discrimination to make significant contributions to America’s ultimate aerospace achievement. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is a spunky math whiz who, “would already be an engineer,” if she were a white man. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is just as smart, but also a wise and wily leader, as she positions her cadre of “colored computers,” a whole division of black female number crunchers working for NASA in segregated space at Langley, Virginia, to become indispensable programmers of the new IBM machines that will soon take their place. But Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the real Brainiac of the bunch, and the central figure in the film. Her skills in analytical geometry get her assigned to the Space Task Group led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) where she soon becomes invaluable. It’s her relationship with Harrison, and her conflict with direct supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), as well as “the system” of segregation, that make this story so compelling.

The real strength of Hidden Figures is that it humanizes the story of segregation in America without overplaying its hand. It does that because it is the true tale of the way three brilliant women experienced and overcame racism in the most mundane of matters. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the bathroom and the coffee pot are more compelling in this film than the rockets and IBM machines.

More important than all of those things, however, is that the biblical worldview is on clear display. Although we are all created equal in the image of God, inequality is real in more ways than one. We are differentiated not only by skin color and sex, but also by brains and character. Katherine’s mathematical skills, the depth of Dorothy’s wisdom, and Mary’s tenacity make them stand out above the rest, black or white, male or female. But their needs for dignity, respect, and opportunity are shared by all.

The Fall is also present: our capacity for hypocrisy and rationalization on full display–but so is Redemption. The mission, the grand quest not only to beat the Russians, but also to explore the great beyond, reveals the foolishness of discrimination better than any sermon. Everyone is needed to accomplish the goal, and things like segregation just get in the way.

Finally, the world is changed, not just because man made it to the moon, but because three black women helped him get there.

HIGH OCTANE ANGELS

I have a problem with angels. But maybe that’s because the angels I’m talking about are on the take from Hollywood.

You’ve seen them. They show up in film and television with names like “Al,” played by the always nutty Christopher Lloyd in Angels in the Outfield; or “Seth,” (Nicolas Cage) in City of Angels, who falls in love with a human; “Dudley,” (Denzel Washington) in The Preacher’s Wife, who nearly seduces her; and the ever popular “Clarence” in It’s a Wonderful Life. Then there was the television hit, Touched by an Angel some years ago. Often suave, sometimes nutty, and usually cheerful if somewhat mystical, these angels are far too human for me. Yes, they do good things in the movies, and I’m not saying the films are particularly bad, just that their angels are low octane.

The angels I’m used to, the ones I expect to see one day, aren’t anything like the human-ish versions on screen. They aren’t cute, suave, falling in love, or trying to earn their wings. Neither are they funny, except possibly for the episode with Balaam’s donkey, but I bet he wasn’t laughing.

The angels scripture reveals are high octane representatives of heaven.

Angels are, when they appear in human form, on a clear mission to deliver God’s message, protect God’s people, and/or accomplish God’s purpose. Either way, they are not to be trifled with. When they appear in, shall we say, extra-human form they are terrifying: Ezekiel’s angels, technically known as Cherubim, had four faces, four wings, and feet like burnished bronze. Fearsome power is the idea. Other Old Testament angels kill hundreds of thousands of God’s enemies, swoop down in chariots of fire to gather up Elijah, and surround foreign armies to protect Elisha (2 Kings).  We also find them quenching the fiery furnace and closing the mouths of lions (Daniel), or, as in the New Testament, tossing tomb stones, springing apostolic prisoners, and standing, rank upon magnificent, military rank roaring glory to God.

When angels show up, humans fall down — either dead or just frightened out of their wits.

That’s what happened to the prophet Daniel (See 8:15-17) as well as Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. Both men, hundreds of years apart, were stunned by the presence of Gabriel, the being who seems to be heaven’s press secretary in all things related to Christ. Daniel fainted and Zechariah, who though terrified managed to show a little disrespect, was struck dumb by Gabriel until the Baptizer was born.

Real angels are high octane.

So this year, whether you’re watching your favorite Christmas movie, or just having a cup of hot chocolate while gazing at the little angel ornaments on the tree, remember, the beings that announced the birth of Christ shimmer with power and glory. And when he returns, they’re coming with him.

RISEN: Something Good Out of Hollywood

Based on Bible stories made into movies of late, the Nathaniel’s among us would be justified in paraphrasing the dubious disciple’s first question about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Hollywood?”

Noah, in spite of my initial enthusiasm about it, turned out to be a theological mish-mash and a box office disappointment. The trailers for Exodus: God’s and Kings, revealed such an obvious hack job on the original story that I, along with many others, didn’t waste my time or money on it. Roma Downey and Mark Burnette’s 2015 television hit, AD, also left me disappointed by the middle of the series.

Not so with Risen, the Sony Pictures release now playing in local theaters. Instead of trying to make something more or something different than the original Easter story, Risen follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics it is a good story well told.

Joseph Fiennes (Luther 2003) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, the Roman Tribune charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) with insuring that Jesus stays dead, the Sanhedrin remains mollified, the mob remains pacified, and Caesar stays in the dark about all of it. The cinematography is good. The plot is believable, the film is well paced, and even though it’s obvious that special effects were relegated to the shallow end of the budget pool, the script and the acting more than made up for it. Pilate’s cynicism is palpable, but not overdone, as he and Clavius play a high-stakes game of political chess with the equally cynical High Priest. We come away reminded of how quickly truth goes by the boards as the players manipulate the message in a never-ending battle to shape public opinion.

Risen does have a few weaknesses. One actor is glaringly amateurish in the two short scenes he inhabits. It wouldn’t matter if they weren’t so strategically placed. And those of us concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just prior to the ascension. But these things are minor and offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an otherwise excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar. That actor should win an Oscar.

Far more important however and ultimately more moving than any of these things is Fiennes’ Clavius. He is utterly convincing as a man’s man intimately acquainted with the brutal parts of life on a fallen planet. Every man who feels the cynicism of Pilate creeping up on him in mid-life will identify with Clavius’ quest for truth. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”

What THE BUTLER Did For Me

Not long ago my neighbor, Ralph, an African American man for whom I have deep respect, and I were chatting in our back yard. We usually talk about our kids or joke with each other about our geriatric joints and other ailments with him always having the last laugh. “Just wait till you’re seventy. You ain’t seen nuthin yet!” But that day I had more on my mind. Something in the news, or in my reading, made me want to understand more about his life as a black man in America. At seventy-odd, his is a longer experience than mine.

“Ralph, one day I want you to tell me what it was like for you as a black man in the American south in the twentieth century,” I said.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Atlanta.”

Ralph’s face clouded a bit, something I’d never seen before, and he said, “Well then, you know … you know.” And that’s all he would say.

But I didn’t know, not from the inside, the way I wanted to know.

I was four years old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated the schools, passed. I grew up in the turmoil it precipitated among the races; especially in the schools I attended in the Atlanta suburbs. I’m sure my family would have been considered racist by the standards of today, but we didn’t consider ourselves so. We didn’t march with Dr. King or anything like that. But my father had stood up for the right of a black man to join his Southern Baptist Church in 1957, and my mother was always kind to the black people we met.

Desegregation didn’t affect me until I reached middle-school age, in 1973. From then until I graduated high school my experience of desegregation was one of upheaval, disorder, disruption, and danger. Knowing what I do now, I can’t say I blame the black kids of that generation for the anger and aggression they displayed toward us white kids, but it wasn’t conducive to the development of a sympathetic attitude either.

Time moved on and so did I. I became a follower of Christ and became committed to racial reconciliation. But I still couldn’t say that I understood the African-American experience with any depth. I knew my story, but I didn’t know theirs, not with empathy.

Then, via Netflix, I watched the bio-picture LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER (2013), starring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a man who rose from the cotton fields of Georgia to become butler to eight presidents in the White House. THE BUTLER is loosely based on real-life White House butler, Eugene Allen, who retired in 1986 after thirty-four years of service. It is to the racial turmoil of the time what FOREST GUMP was to the Viet Nam War, a comprehensive narrative of one powerless man’s journey through a world fraught with legalized oppression, naked cruelty, and blind hypocrisy. I saw through Cecil’s eyes, the bitter brutality of racist southern farmers and the lordly arrogance of hypocritical politicians and business men. I’ve known men like that, I thought. I winced too at the quiet carnage of condescension, remembering women with saccharine smiles, as dismissive of black personhood as they would be a soiled napkin.

I’ve also known men and women like Gaines, servants with such self-mastery that they could be “invisible in the room,” even when the people they were serving tossed off thoughtless insults that would have enraged me. That was the films greatest impact, Gaines’ ability to rise above the bigotry of his employers with a dignity that revealed his inner nobility, and their shabbiness. His commitment, even his joy, in performing with excellence the most menial tasks brought honor to everything he did. (1 Peter 2:12).

Through his relationship with his oldest son, who became a freedom rider and later a congressman, I also learned the inner conflict many older black men and women had with the civil rights movement. They knew in their bones that the cause was just, but they hated the disorder it brought and feared the predictable backlash.

Finally, the film helped me understand on a visceral level, why the majority of African-American men and women felt obligated, if not compelled, to vote for Barak Obama to serve as president. It just makes me wish Ben Carson had been running against him instead of McCain or Romney.

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, is not a bio-pic in the strict definition of the word. “While the movie The Butler is set against historical events, the title character and his family are fictionalized,” states director Lee Daniels. “We were able to borrow some extraordinary moments from Eugene’s real life to weave into the movie.” I hope everyone, black and white, who did not live in that era, will watch the film and share what they learned. It will go a long way toward building reconciliation.

If you want to know the real history of Eugene’s life, visit http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/the-butler.php.