Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reflecting on another birthday

Today I am 56 years old.

I remember when my parents were in their mid-50s. I thought they were so OLD! Now that I'm that age, I think I'm 32 or so. I don't mean physically, just ... metaphysically. In fact, physically I know I'm aging fast. I have a little arthritic feeling in my finger joints, and when I bang up against the racquetball court wall I feel the effects for days.

Still, I don't feel like I'm 56. I'm still trying to figure life out. When young bucks call me "sir" I stiffen up and want to correct them. I don't know what being 56 should feel like. I think it will take turning 60 to shock me into reality. Gee, that's only four years from now. AAGGHH!

But I like being in my mid-50s. I'm doing what I really enjoy. My wife and I are healthy and active. Three of our four children are happily married and independent. We're able to travel and see them often. I'm able to devote time to God's people and Kingdom expansion. I have great friends. God could take any or all of these privileges away in a heartbeat and still be God, but he has blessed me far more than I deserve.

In a letter to William Farel in 1541, John Calvin wrote: "When I consider that I am not my own, I offer my heart a slain victim for a sacrifice to the Lord . . . I yield my soul chained and bound unto obedience to God."

Lord, that's my prayer to you on this, my 56th birthday.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Many of my friends and church members have asked for my opinion about Avatar, the new James Cameron epic movie about the planet Pandora and the US military-industrial complex plot to destroy its happy culture.

I didn't like it so much.

What?! What's not to like?

For starters, I just don't get all that impressed anymore with whiz-bang special effects that cost billions of dollars to create. And I saw the movie in 3-D on one of the biggest IMAX screens in central Florida. Sure, the computer-generated effects were dazzling. But I'll take a simple story with believable, human characters over this expensive spectacle any day.

As many others have pointed out, the story just isn't all that great. I've seen the same thing many times. Greedy, hateful power-mongers armed to the hilt try to destroy a peaceful, nature-loving people and get chased away with bows and arrows. And I really didn't care all that much for any of the characters. (And the bad guys are after unobtainium? Give me a break!)

And here's another thing... I'm offended by the caricatured portrait of evil, capitalist, imperialistic America that (in my opinion anyway) is the sub-plot of Avatar. Movies have amazing power to reconstruct history. That's not Hollywood's fault, but there's little doubt that Hollywood is populated by influential people who don't care for this country or its story. I wonder which view of America is the predominant one among young people today: America as the friend of countries like earthquake-ravaged Haiti, oppressed Iraq and Afghanistan, and Holocaust-decimated Israel; or America as the evil empire that exterminated the Native Americans and bombed North Vietnam? It bothers me that people who have no problem enjoying the vast benefits of capitalism and military security turn around and lob a hateful critique at capitalism and the military. And that's what Avatar is, it seems to me.

I didn't say anything about the religion that permeates Avatar. Actually, this is the one thing I did appreciate about the movie: once again, we see that even pagan filmmakers cannot help it that their slip is showing. That is, the image of God in human beings is inescapable. It shows up in movies, art, and stories of all kinds. We instinctively know there is a God who is the source of all life and to whom we are ultimately accountable. Romans 1 says that we resist this knowledge. We try to suppress that still, small voice that whispers, "There's Something (or Someone) out there." We try to silence our conscience that tells us we are sinful. But every so often that image of God leaks out. James Cameron has invented a world in which all creation is somehow connected to a Source. It's a world in which people pray to a Being that actually intervenes in time and space. It's a world in which people die and come back to life, a world of breathtaking beauty, of loving community, of peace and justice.

Followers of Jesus know that what Avatar promises, Christianity provides.

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. My friends know how much I like movies, and that I'm always looking for redemptive themes and reasons to like a movie. Not so this time.

I echo what Roger Ebert had to say about this movie: "The Lovely Bones is a deplorable film with this message: If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to."

Here's what happens: Fourteen-year old Susie gets murdered by a neighbor (played well by Stanley Tucci), her spirit goes to "the in-between place" - a beautiful world that director Peter Jackson (yes, of Lord of the Rings fame) spends WAY too much time showing us - while her parents try to figure out who killed her. Of course, it's no mystery to the audience; there's no one else in the cast that could have possibly murdered the girl. So there's no suspense on that point. The only mildly suspenseful moment occurs when Susie's sister breaks into the murderer's home and discovers (implausibly, I might add) something that gives him away.

So many stupid things happen in this movie that people in the audience were actually laughing by the end. Which is tragic, because the film revolves around an utterly unbearable, disgusting, evil event. There are several strange comedic moments, including - believe it or not - a soap suds fight between Grandma (played by Susan Sarandon) and Susie's little brother - a scene that had no business being in a film about a serial killer. It's always fun to see another soap suds fight in a movie, right?

If the film reflects Peter Jackson's view of the afterlife, it's especially sad. The "gospel" according to Jackson is that if you're a good person (meaning you love your family, develop your talents, and stay out of trouble) you get to go to an impersonal, lonely place and look on as people on earth reel hopelessly from grief and injustice. There's no God on earth nor in the "in-between place" - nor, presumably, in heaven (which doesn't ever come into view here). Tragic events on earth have no purpose; there is no sovereign God, not even a Force, that helps things make sense.

Christianity, on the other hand, does not cover up the unthinkable horror of rape and murder by inviting us to a psychedelic afterlife. It says instead that there is a loving, personal God who was himself brutally murdered and who daily steps into our pain and provides real hope through the cross. Meanwhile the saints in heaven cry, "How long?" But when Jesus Christ is revealed and the creation's groaning ceases, we will experience a renewed earth where righteousness prevails.