Archive for June, 2013

Kung Fu Panda

I missed Kung Fu Panda when it first came out in 2008.  I’m not a big fan of Jack Black or Kung Fu or films that try to instill a bit of Eastern mysticism into my kids.  When the movie became a children’s TV show, I watched it a few times with my boys and found the writing to be quite funny and engaging.  So I finally watched Kung Fu Panda a year or so ago, and just viewed it again recently.  Yes, I still don’t care for all the false religious references couched in cute animal characters, but it does provide a wonderful platform for talking about why we need the work of God’s Spirit in our lives.

Po the rotund panda is just a cook in his father’s noodle store.  Through a series of events (some would say accidents), Po fulfills the prophecy of the Dragon Warrior.  He will be the mightiest of all of the Kung Fu fighters in the land, and will defeat the mightiest of enemies–Tai Lung.  You can probably guess most of the rest of the story.  Po is horrible at Kung Fu.  The other warriors think that he couldn’t be the chosen one.  The master doesn’t believe in him.  Even Po doesn’t have faith.  But Tai Lung escapes from prison, so it’s time for Po to step up as the Dragon Warrior.  Motivated by his love for food (nice fat guy stereotype), he eventually trains in a remarkably short amount of time to be an excellent Kung Fu fighter!

Then the whole point of the movie bubbles forth.  Po receives the much coveted “Dragon Scroll” since the master now believes he is the chosen one.  He opens the scroll to reveal the much-needed words of wisdom, and (gasp) it’s empty!  What?  Has this all been a joke?  Po loses all faith and returns home to his noodle-making father.  This wise duck (yes, Po’s adopted) says these words: “Po, do you know my secret ingredient noodle soup that everyone loves?  Do you know what makes it so good?  Nothing!  There is no secret ingredient!  It’s just chicken noodle soup!”  Profound, right?  This duck has been manipulating people in his restaurant for years!  Seriously, his point (typical of most children’s movies) is that just as people believed his noodles were the best in town, you have to believe in yourself.  The “empty” scroll was communicating that there is nothing special about the Dragon Warrior–Po was just supposed to be himself, and believe in himself.

So, when Po has to face the great Tai Lung in battle, he also ends up sharing this amazingly profound worldly pagan truth with him.  In the midst of the fight, Tai Lung grabs the scroll, looks inside of it and is extremely disappointed.  He too thought the scroll had given Po great power.  Po says to him: “I didn’t get it at first either.  The power of the dragon scroll is NOTHING.  There is no secret ingredient.  It’s just you!”  Thus our children are fed a sickening combination of self-esteem philosophy and Eastern mystic “reach your true destiny and potential” ideology in a cute film about a fat panda.  Thanks again Hollywood!

The truth is that there is a “secret” or “missing” ingredient in all of us.  It’s the Holy Spirit!  As fallen, sinful creatures we can only be transformed into mighty spiritual warriors by the amazing work of the Spirit of God.  It is not about believing in ourselves.  It is not about loving and accepting ourselves.  When we are chosen by God, He also gives us His mighty Spirit to change us and equip us to do battle against Satan in this dark world.  We are only victors in this war because Jesus Christ won the battle for us!

Oh, and one more thing.  Our children need to know that we don’t have a Dragon Scroll that is empty, just reflecting what we want to believe about ourselves.  We have the Holy Scriptures that perfectly instruct us in the way of God and His wisdom!  And when we gaze into the Word of God, we come to see our Savior and learn who God is and who we are and why we need a Redeemer.  It is the perfect Word of God combined with the Holy Spirit that sanctifies God’s people to fight until Christ returns!

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Now-You-See-Me-Official-Movie-TrailerWhat do you get when you cross Ocean’s Eleven with David Copperfield? Now You See Me. Except for the fact that Ocean’s Eleven had an excellent cast and was created as Steven Soderbergh was hitting his peak. Don’t get me wrong, NYSM had an ensemble cast and had a certain style to it, but it was 46% good. I say that because that is the rating according to rotten tomatoes and, I must say, it is pretty accurate.

Now, before you think this is simply going to be a post bashing a certain movie, just hang on a minute. NYSM is a unique film. It’s unique from the standpoint that you can’t simply dismiss it. People often want to say a movie was good or bad, but remember, this movie was 46% good, so we can’t simply label it as bad or good.

The cheese factor was pretty high in this movie. It had many cheesy parts and for some reason those scenes were consigned to Henley Reeves [Isla Fisher] – flying around in a bubble is always cheesy, even if you are a magician.  However, simply casting Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman make the film a bit more reputable, not to mention, Mark Ruffalo playing detective Dylan Rhodes. Even Jesse Eisenberg playing the same role he always plays didn’t bother me all that much.

As you can guess from the trailers and tagline – Come in close, because the more you think you see, the easier it’ll be to fool you – there is a twist at the end of the film. And, even though you know one is coming, it is a pretty good twist. Far-fetched but somewhat believable, as far as movies containing magician-thieves are concerned.

Therefore, exiting this movie with some youth, I was a bit cautioned about giving my final verdict. Was it good or bad? My somewhat vague answer was, It was fun. In many ways it possessed your typical action/thriller/caper levity, but it still engaged the audience and kept you wanting to see the end. It’s a film I probably won’t see again, but one that is enjoyable to discuss with a group (which is exactly what we did) if nothing else, simply discussing all the loopholes in the plot.

All of that to say, “46% good” is a pretty accurate assessment of the movie. It’s not good and it’s not bad, it’s fun.

As far as the theological discussion goes, there are always topics and parallels to discuss. We could discuss our culture’s desire to always have a scene of sensuality present. We could also discuss the film’s themes like the depravity of man. There is some room to ponder “The Eye” as the all-seeing God and the magicians aspiring to fellowship with the Master Magician.

But, the theme that resonated with me the most, was the theme of revenge. Ultimately, this was the foundational theme of the entire film. [spoilers ahead] Dylan Rhodes ends up being the mastermind behind the entire scheme. It was his father that drowned in failed magic trick, which was due in part to Thaddeus Bradley’s [Morgan Freeman] work of exposing magician’s tricks. Since Rhodes was orphaned at the age of 12, he spent his entire life trying to get revenge on Bradley and indeed does exactly that some decades later. For Rhodes, his entire life was devoted to this. It took years of planning and involved many players, and it was ultimately successful. This made me think about God’s master plan.

One could easily say that the Bible is about revenge. God created a people, made a promise to commit himself to those people, they rebelled, and we are waiting for this revenge to finally take place. He is bringing justice on the Devil and all those who have not bowed the knee to him. His plan is one that has taken years to unfold, but a thousand years is like a day to him [2 Peter 3:8]. His plan involves many players, but he is not dependent on them. Revenge is such a theme in movies, because it is such a theme that resonates with us. We all long for justice to come and God promises us that it will. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says The Lord.””

Rhodes was a son that brought revenge on his enemy. God, too, has a Son who’s bringing revenge on the last great enemy.

epicI’m assuming the creators behind the movie, Epic, thought the alternate title, Mediocre, wouldn’t sound as catchy, even though it more accurately describes what I saw. I don’t want to come across as being too harsh on the film. As I have mentioned before, there is a certain amount of creativity that goes into every film, and Epic certainly possessed some creative elements. However, there was a lot of “old hat” to be viewed.

We took the junior high of Pear Orchard to the film and a PG animated film is always a safe bet when taking teens and pre-teens to the movies. Many of the youth enjoyed it and there were elements of the film I enjoyed. Aziz Ansari playing a slug named Mub was hilarious. I laughed almost every time he had a scene.

One element I appreciated came from a line that was repeated throughout the film – “Many leaves, one tree.” Ronin explains that this means their people are all individuals, but connected and because of this, “No one is ever alone.”

The entire film is about the Leafmen, and their community, fighting against the “rot”. Mandrake is the evil villain, bringing about decay and making the statement that, “The forest belongs to the darkness.” Mandrake and his rioters of the rot make a clear distinction between good and evil and leave us with a similar truth we find in Scripture. There are those forces of evil that are warring against creation, bringing about darkness and decay to this creation.

Creation is currently wasting away, and, to put it bluntly, we are all rotting. Every human is wasting away because of this darkness that has effected creation. But, as is affirmed in the movie, we are not alone. While the decay and rot of sin is apparent in our hearts and minds, we have brothers and sisters in Christ to guide us along the treacherous journey. We too can say, because of Christ, that we are many leaves connected to the same tree.

In many ways the tree and leaves metaphor is another way of saying, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many are one body, so it is with Christ.” [1 Cor. 12:12]. And this section goes on to say, that each member of the body has distinctly different gifts and are to be appreciated. There is a distinct unity that takes place in this body. “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” [1 Cor. 12:24b-26]

The uniqueness of this body, lies in the fact that the Head is Jesus Christ. The parts are all unique because God has bestowed unique gifts on each one, and if this body lacked a head, it would be lifeless. However, Christ unites the body and brings life and honor to the members.

While this life does continue to experience the rot, just as in Epic, we can have great assurance that we are not alone. When one member of the body suffers from depression, loss of a loved-one, cancer, or any other saddening result of the fall, the rest of the body suffers with them. God is so gracious to give us others to carry us along. But, his ultimate testimony of love came from the gift of his Son, who took the rejection of the Father so each of us could be part of this family. And that is an epic story that has no end.

great_gatsby_ver7_xlg

I’m one of those nerds who tend to read the book before going to see the movie and compare the film side-by-side to its original book.  This can often ruin how I appreciate a movie, but last week was an exception.  I thoroughly enjoyed Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, starring DiCaprio, Spiderman, and Carey Mulligan.  It’s been almost two years since I read Fitzgerald’s novel, but after whispering questions to my fellow nerd in the theater, I was able to remember enough of the book to realize that Lurhman stayed true to the plot and many of the novel’s main themes.

If you haven’t had a chance to read the book or see the movie yet, it centers on the mysterious figure of Gatsby, his indescribable wealth, and his unending love for Daisy.  A depressed alcoholic Nick Carraway narrates the story, emphasizing his great admiration for Gatsby’s incredible hope and integrity amidst the careless and amoral upper class of New York in the 1920s.  From a young age, Gatsby decides to change both himself and his impoverished surroundings and assume an idealized image of himself; this self-manufactured image is dependent on Daisy’s acceptance of his love and their (hopefully) subsequent marriage.

As the majority of the plot centers on the unveiling of Gatsby’s mysterious past and source of wealth (hint: it wasn’t legal in the 20’s), Gatsby’s gradual unveiling of his character beneath his carefully manufactured façade is an incredibly important moment both for viewers (or readers!) and Nick.  What strikes Nick about Gatsby is that, despite Gatsby’s economic and social ‘inadequacies’ as well as Daisy’s marriage to another man, Gatsby never forsakes his love for her.  He continues to plan his life in the wholehearted belief that his love for her (as well as his gargantuan, beautiful mansion and extensive wealth) will win Daisy away from husband.  He is convinced—not without reason, as the movie trailer insinuates—that Daisy has also loved him since they met, and that she will leave her husband for Gatsby.  I love this image of Gatsby’s faithfulness because, though his goals and desires and ultimate faith in himself above all are less-than-godly, he adheres to his faith wholeheartedly.  He puts his entire life and energy into creating the ideal man and lifestyle into which Daisy will, presumably, fit perfectly and ultimately complete.  In this way, he provides a compelling example of the biblical definition for faith; “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  Faith, even misdirected, is incredibly powerful.  Gatsby’s very real and constant, undeterred faith that Daisy will marry him, despite all the odds, never fails, even when it becomes to clear to viewers (and readers) that she cannot leave her current husband.  Faith empowers humans to enact change and to hold tenaciously to our ideals and values with more strength than we thought possible and against all odds; yet a godless faith ultimately cannot save us.

The author of Hebrews goes on to clarify their definition of faith with the following verses: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen is not made out of things that are visible… Without faith, it is impossible to please him [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11: 3, 6).  The author continues by saying that faith has the power to commend one, or is counted to followers as righteousness, thus pleasing God.  The rest of the chapter describes familiar Old Testament heroes and later unnamed victims of persecution whose faithfulness and obedience to God’s truth empowered them to obey Him and gave them the strength to survive hardships and persecution, because they “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (16).  What a beautiful image of godly faithfulness!  Our Spirit-inspired faith as believers in God’s goodness and fulfillment of His promises to us honors God; by His grace, we can have confidence that He has saved us a place in His heavenly kingdom to come.  In this faith, we have the strength to endure any hardship with hope and the potential to change, becoming more like God as He sustains and and fulfills us. With such faith and hope given directly from our Savior, what CAN’T we do in His name? Forget bootlegging, vast parties, and the self-created ‘ideal’ versions of ourselves we attempt to become. With God-based and Spirit-given faith, we as Christians are filled with the ‘God-power’ to change from the inside out in all authenticity: God’s life-changing grace is not façade, but has the power to alter us at the core and transform us into His image, thus allowing us to be His ideal for us.

Everything Must Go: To Gain Everything

Posted: June 10, 2013 by John C. Kwasny, Ph.D. in Comedy, Drama
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everything must goFrom Saturday Night Live to Anchorman to Talladega Nights  to a lot of pretty silly movies in between, I have always been a big fan of Will Ferrell.  If you are used to just his dim-witted comedic side, you may be surprised at how well he pulls off a dramatic role (like in Stranger than Fiction).    As you can probably guess from the movie poster, Everything Must Go takes on a pretty serious issue, even if he makes you laugh once in a while.

Everything Must Go tells the story of Nick, a long-time alcoholic, who loses his job and his marriage on the same day.  Actually, on the way home after he’s just been fired, he drives up to see absolutely all of his belongings on his front lawn.  His wife has moved out and changed the locks so that he can’t even get in his house.  So, in a fog, Nick just takes residence on his front lawn, spending his day drinking and looking through his stuff.  His friend and AA sponsor, who is also a cop, tells him to at least pretend he’s having a lawn sale which will buy him three days before he has to leave the premises.

Even though Nick loses  his job, his company car, his home, and his marriage, he won’t let go of two things: His drinking and his earthly possessions.  Through a series of events including an old high school friend, a new neighbor, and a boy down the street (I won’t spoil it for you), Nick finally gives up those things that have controlled him.  His worldly possessions are really just a symbol of his old, useless, self-indulgent alcoholic life.  So to give up these things in a yard sale would really mean a changed life.  No treatment center or psychotherapy has helped in the past.  Nick was now truly “at bottom”–but even then it was extremely difficult to admit that EVERYTHING had to go!

While a lot of very typical things are said about alcoholism and its consequences in Everything Must Go, the film really made me think of the story of the rich young ruler.  Here’s an excerpt from Mark 10.

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Instead of being some sort of monastic charge for all Christians to get rid of their worldly possessions, Jesus is really teaching that the idols of our hearts stand between us and eternal life with Him.  The rich young ruler wrongly believed that salvation was found in obeying the commandments rather than in a relationship with Christ.  He didn’t recognize that his own possessions were what he worshiped the most, so that’s why EVERYTHING MUST GO, according to Jesus.  This man would only follow Jesus if he put to death the worship of his great wealth.

The reality for all human beings is that everything that stands between us and Jesus must go.  Our sins stand between us, so we need Jesus to die for our sins.  Our idols stand between us, so we the Holy Spirit to enable us to let go of those too.  Ultimately, our entire SELVES stand in the way of a true relationship with Christ so WE must go too (deny self, take up the cross, and follow Him!).  Everything must go so we may gain everything that matters.

Consider the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:8…

8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

You may never have a yard sale to get rid of all your worldly possessions or need to lose it all in order to turn from severe alcohol or drug addiction.  But you and I do need to count everything as LOSS in order to GAIN Jesus Christ.  He is worth far more than everything that we have!

The Village - Movie Wallpaper - 01M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film, After Earth, isn’t really “wowing” people at the local theater, but it’s moved people to discuss his body of work. I, for one, have really enjoyed his films. I didn’t care for Lady in the Water or The Happening, but I thought The Sixth Sense and the three films that followed were excellent (I didn’t see The Last Airbender and I don’t care to).

Some people gave up on Shyamalan after The Village, but not this movie-goer. Not only is The Village one of my favorite Shyamalan films, it is one of my favorite all-time movies (probably in my top 15 if you were wondering). There is much to discuss about this movie, but one of the aspects of the film I wanted to zoom in on today was the character of Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix).

I specifically wanted to discuss the masculinity Hunt’s character possesses. Since there is so much redefining of marriage and gender roles currently taking place, I thought his character could bring some helpful clarity in a culture of confusion. At the outset, I would like to assert that this character is one of the best examples of a man we have had in recent history at the cinema. And, quite possibly, one of the greatest examples from film history, putting him right up there with Atticus Finch.

Even though Ivy Walker is a great female lead of strength, and possibly performs the most selfless act in the film, Lucius Hunt possesses a certain level of servitude that’s an example to the entire village. He serves Finton by sitting in the watchtower through the night, he brings wood to August Nicholson after the death of his child, and he always holds the hand of Ivy when danger is present.

There is also a certain level of humility and gentleness he possesses, two attributes that seem to be absent from current trends in “manhood”. When he sneaks into the woods, resulting in danger being brought to the village, he quickly and boldly confesses his wrong. This act moves the strongest elder of the village to say, “You are courageous in ways I will never know.” This courage continues as he fights to know the truth of his mother’s black box and the origins of the beasts in the woods. Ivy even asks him how he can remain so calm in the midst of danger, to which he replies, “I don’t worry about what may happen, only what needs to be done.”

His gentleness and timidity gives me a picture of Paul’s true son in the faith, Timothy. Gentleness, it seems, is something that is opposed to the culture’s definition of manhood, as well as, notions of “biblical macho-ism”. Timothy was a strong man who stood up for the truth, but was on an opposite end of the spectrum from Paul and even Titus. However, Paul includes gentleness as a quality overseers and deacons should possess (1 Tim. 3:3). Lucius was one who didn’t “bounce about” like the other boys, and spoke with a gentleness and respect to others. And, the portrayal of his gentle character in the film actually comes across as strength, which the macho-men might disagree with. Many may view gentleness as passivity, but that is not the case with Hunt. The one scene that best shows this is the dialogue he shares with Ivy Walker, as she persistently presses him in order to discern his feelings for her.

Ivy Walker: When we are married, will you dance with me? I find dancing very agreeable. [pause] Why can you not say what is in your head?

Lucius Hunt: Why can you not stop saying what is in yours? Why must you lead, when I want to lead? If I want to dance I will ask you to dance. If I want to speak I will open my mouth and speak. Everyone is forever plaguing me to speak further. Why? What good is it to tell you that you are in my every thought from the time I wake? What good can come from my saying that I sometimes cannot think clearly or do my work properly? What gain can rise of my telling you the only time I feel fear as others do is when I think of you in harm? That is why I am on this porch, Ivy Walker. I fear for your safety before all others. And yes, I will dance with you on our wedding night.

In our age of confusion over males and females, characters like Lucius Hunt are quite refreshing. It’s sad to say that the cultural shifts which are taking place may bring a certain scarcity to portrayals of men like Lucius Hunt. It is a challenge not to feel some level of discouragement with our current state of things. However, there is great security and comfort in the fact that one Man has come and is coming back to bring full redemption. Not only a redemption that turns enemies into children, but a redemption that brings true beauty and distinction to the design of men and women. In all of our examples of biblical manhood, let us not forget the purest example we have, Jesus Christ.