RISEN: A Day Without Death

RISEN: A Day Without Death

At the end of Act I in the 2016 film, Risen, a cynical Pilate probes his Tribune, Clavius, “Your ambition is noticed. Where do you hope it will lead?”

“Rome. Position. Power,” says Clavius.

“Which brings?”

“Wealth, a good family, someday a place in the country.”

“Where you will find?”

“An end to travail. A day without death.”

But death reigns in Risen, as an ever-present element in the Roman Tribune’s life. He is either delivering it, mourning it, trying to prove it, or outrun it as the film unfolds. I think that’s what makes it my new favorite Easter movie. It does not shrink from the stark reality of death and the impossibility of escaping it.

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, On Wings of Eagles 2016) 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 excellent. The plot is believable, the film is well-paced, and even though special effects got 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 several historical flaws and anachronisms. Except for the High Priest once a year during the Yom Kippur ceremony in the temple, Jews would never speak the name, Yahweh. Mary Magdalene appears as a redeemed prostitute, another commonly made historical error. And those concerned with fidelity to the biblical text will note a glaring omission in the words of Jesus just before the ascension. But these are minor problems, offset by biblical faithfulness throughout the rest of the script and an excellent supporting cast. Watch especially for the drunken guard’s testimony in the bar.

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. The moment he catches the disciples in the upper room is worth the price of the film. It’s the most compelling portrayal of a cynical man’s encounter with the risen Christ I’ve ever seen. And everyone who watches will struggle with him to reconcile two irreconcilable things: “A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”

CREATED EQUAL Is a Great Story

CREATED EQUAL Is a Great Story

“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?” the sweaty, African American man said as he handed back the glass Mom had given him.

“Whut,”? I asked.

“Eah ya got ‘nud jah?”

“Momma, I cain’t unnerstan this man. Whuts he wont?”

“He wants more water, honey. It’s awfully hot outside. Here, give me the glass.” She refilled it and handed it back to the man who walked into our backyard every week, dumped our garbage cans into his large metal one, slung it on his shoulder, and hauled it back to the county truck at our curb.

I was about eight years old, and the only black men I met were the ones that collected the trash or trimmed the hedge across the street from my grandma’s house. I had no idea of the life these men led or of the events swirling through our country in 1968. But the Civil Rights movement was about to make itself known in powerfully negative terms in my small southern world. By the time I reached eighth grade in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, racial gang fights were regular events. And dodging them was an art form for this pudgy 13-year-old.

I did not understand the roots of the anger in my black classmates. All I knew was I felt like I was paying for something I hadn’t done and over which I had no control, and I was angry. Little did I know that they felt the same way. And as a people, they’d had enough of it.

About the same time that I was waking up to racism, future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was coming to terms with his anger about the injustice. In the new documentary, Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, we learn how this coastal Georgia, Gullah-Geechee speaking boy, grew up from poverty to become one of the youngest men ever appointed to the bench. And how the once-radical leftist became a bastion of conservative jurisprudence.

Schooled by his grandfather’s fierce work-ethic—“Old man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him,”—and Irish Catholic nuns sympathetic to racial oppression, Thomas was bound for the priesthood. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, a white seminary classmate’s comment, “I hope he’s dead,” unleashed a fury in Thomas that drove him from the ministry and into the arms of campus Marxist revolutionaries in Boston. “I’m angry with my grandfather. I’m angry with the Church. If it’s a warm day, I’m angry. If it’s a cold day, I’m angry. I’m just angry. I’m angry. I’m sort of flying, lashing out at every single thing. Nothing is right.”

But a night of violence with campus radicals shook him to his core and drove him back to the Church where he asked God, “If you take anger out of my heart, I’ll never hate again. Anger and hate,” he says, “are just other forms of slavery. Other people are controlling you.”

He would need that resolve when leftist ideologues tried to torpedo his nomination with bogus sexual assault charges during confirmation hearings. “We know exactly what’s going on here. This is the wrong black guy. He has to be destroyed,” he says in the film. Thomas’s humanity, faith, and courage are reminiscent of Jacky Robinson’s in the movie 42 as he withstands without rancor the vicious assault on his character that he termed “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Watching his story unfold helped me better understand mine and strengthened me for the cultural battles we face today.

Black history month has come and gone, and the film is no longer playing in theaters. But it will be air on PBS in May, and no doubt be available soon on DVD and streaming services. In these culturally confusing, racially tense times, it goes down like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day.

The Gospel Streamed

The Gospel Streamed

I sat down expecting to be disappointed. Religious television and movies have dissatisfied my artistic, historical, and theological sensibilities so often over the years that my wife, who had already seen the episode, had to nudge a bit to get me to watch.

I came away profoundly moved and ready to buy the first season of The Chosen, a new streaming television series on the life of Jesus as experienced by his followers. It is billed as the largest crowd-funded production in television history and it doesn’t disappoint.

Artistically, The Chosen is very satisfying. The scenery, the videography, the acting, plot lines and story structure draw you in and keep you engaged. Often, in Bible-based films, one or more of those elements is so bad it’s like hearing a soloist mangle the Star-Spangled Banner. You just wish they’d left it alone. Not here. Only a few of the actors were recognizable. Eric Avari (The Mummy, Independence Day, The Brink) plays a nuanced Nicodemus. Jonathon Roumie (The Good Wife, Fallout 4) plays a kind and believable Jesus. But none hit a flat note.

Historically, The Chosen hits its marks with credibility. The interplay between Matthew the tax collector and his Roman body guard and between Nicodemus and a Roman Centurion rings true to what we know of the relationships between oppressed and oppressor. Andrew and Peter’s fishing boat and business and their interaction with tax collector Matthew are also believable.

I’ve only seen the first episode, available here for free, but so far, The Chosen doesn’t disappoint in the spiritual or theological arena either. In fact, just the opposite. Director Dallas Jenkins, son of well-known evangelical author Jerry Jenkins, is a Bible-believing evangelical who has “zero desire to mess with Scripture or make some sort of new theological point. This is about telling these stories in a way that makes the moments in Scripture even more impactful.”[1] Justin Tolley, a producer on the project, agrees. “We don’t want to roll one frame that’s contrary to the Word of God. We want to do it with excellence, to give God our best.”[2] Show consultants include a New Testament scholar and a Messianic Jewish rabbi.

The storytellers of a culture shape the values of the culture. This is the greatest story ever and in The Chosen it is being well told. So far so good, but there is one fly in the ointment. VidAngel, the streaming service they’ve partnered with just lost a big legal battle with the Hollywood movie industry that has the potential to kill the service. That would force the producers to go with another platform that may not be as friendly to The Chosen’s production values. That would be a shame.

If you’re looking for something edifying to watch with excellent production values, I encourage you to try The Chosen, or look up their Facebook page for trailers and background videos. You won’t be disappointed.

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/interview-dallas-jenkins-first-multi-season-drama-life-christ/

[2] From The Chosen Facebook page.

LAST WORDS OF PAUL THE APOSTLE

LAST WORDS OF PAUL THE APOSTLE

The last few years have been some of the bloodiest ever for Christians the world over. ISIS is in hiding, but their atrocities against believers remain fresh in memory. After thirty years of relative freedom, China’s new president-for-life is ramping up pressure against Churches. Iran arrests Christians and jails them without charges, North Korea routinely murders believers, and Boko Haram continues its rampages in Africa.

American believers aren’t as attuned to these realities as we should be, but the new film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, will help us connect not only with fellow believers around the world, but also with some of our own struggles with the faith.

If you are accustomed to being disappointed by Bible-themed films prepare to be encouraged. Paul, starring Jim Caviezel (Luke) and James Faulkner (Paul), is an excellent film that shows the gritty reality early Christianity. Though it is not a sweeping epic on the lines of Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments, as Paul’s life no doubt deserves, it is a compelling story simply told.

The film alternates between two locales’, Rome’s Mamertine prison, the stinking hell-hole where Paul spent his last days, and a large villa, home of Aquilla and Priscilla and a community of refugees from Nero’s persecution. The danger to believers is punctuated by the cries of human torches, Christians the emperor scapegoated for the fire that consumed half the city, and constant fear of arrest followed by death by wild beasts in Nero’s circuses.

World Radio’s movie critic Meghan Basham found fault with the film for weaving too many themes into one script, arguing instead for a long-running TV mini-series format. She has a point. I counted fourteen possible themes that would make—in the hands of the right producers and writers—good storytelling on the small screen. And I found a few petty problems, like Mamertine prison not being as nasty as we know it was, along with some costuming issues. But, the complexity of the plot kept me engaged. And the gritty realities of persecution, suffering for Christ, loving one’s enemies, and conflicting convictions between husbands and wives as each follows Christ’s call grip the viewer.

Further, we expect great acting from Caviezel and Faulkner, and we get it, as each man struggles under intense pressure to live in love and grace. But all the acting was excellent, not always a feature of Bible-themed films.

The storytellers of a culture shape the values of a culture. Jim Caviezel understands that. In an interview some years ago he said, “I want to make films that make a difference.” Paul, Apostle of Christ is just that. It’s a great way to introduce someone who doesn’t understand the history of the faith to the founding of the Church. And seeing it in theaters is the best way to make sure more stories like this make it to the large and small screen.

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.