Cowboys, Aliens, and Systematic Theology

1 08 2011

C.S. Lewis believed that all mythology and all good stories were based in the “one true myth” (as he put it) – the redemption of men in the God-man Christ Jesus. I think that continues to be true about the best stories even in modern times – tales that involve personal redemption, the salvation of men, good overcoming evil against all odds, and all such glorious ideas. That being said, I don’t know that “Cowboys and Aliens” is one of the  best movies of the summer, but it is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking discussions in soteriology (study of salvation), christology (study of person and work of Jesus), ecclesiology (study of the church/people of God)and anthropology (the study of the nature and person of men) that I have seen since the Lord of the Rings. In fact, in many ways, it is a Reader’s Digest 2-hour condensed version of the 10-hour Lord of the Rings.

(Warning: spoiler alerts throughout)

First thing we learn is that this story takes place in the oh-so-old-western-sounding town of “Absolution” – a term defined in the dictionary as the formal release of guilt, obligation, or punishment. That’s a significant and intentional setting (not just a cool name), and it becomes the experience for several characters in the movie – not the least of which is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) who we meet at the beginning lost in the desert outside Absolution and without any ability to remember who he is. We find out over the course of the movie that he is a wanted man with a bounty on his head for a wide array of crimes and felonies such as armed robbery and even murder. We learn right away in the first scene that although we are unsure of who he is, he has extreme violence in his nature.

As Jake stumbles to Absolution, he meets a priest who aids him with his wounds. This priest becomes the vehicle by which the themes of the movie are developed. His lines, though few, outwardly state what we see the movie wanting to say. In this first encounter he says, I’ve seen bad men do good things and good men do bad things,” asking Jake then, “Which one are you?” Jake’s reply is literally (and appropriately) “I don’t know.” The rest of the movie develops this struggle of anthropology – our nature, our actions, our ability to choose against our nature, our ability to experience a redemptive process and transform into a different creature all together from who we were. Later, the priest tells Jake that “God doesn’t care who you were. God only cares who you are.”

There in Absolution we meet another character, “Ella” – played by Olivia Wilde. She is a mysterious character, seeming out of place in this setting. She takes an interest in the story of Jake, and the two will be linked for the rest of the movie. Anyway, it is then we get our first real taste of the aliens as they attack the town and begin snatching folks away from Absolution. the interesting thing is that the town’s people begin referring to the aliens as “demons.” This seems like a plausible thing that folks in the Old West might say if aliens were to invade since they haven’t yet seen episodes of Star Trek, but still I believe it to be an intentional allusion for the audience that plants the idea in the back of the mind to help draw out the bigger ideas. It seems like more than just a general “good versus evil” deal. This is personal, as we find out the demons (oh, I meant “aliens”) are taking humans to study their weaknesses in an effort to eventually take over Earth.

But back to Ella. She is maybe the most obvious and direct Christ-figure in the movies in a long time. She hounds and follows Jake who continuously shoos her away. Eventually, over the course of their quest to find the aliens and rescue the people stolen from “Absolution,” Jake begins to develop feelings for her. At the moment you sense these feelings are the strongest between them, Ella is struck by an alien (was that a wound to the head and a mortal wound to the side I see?).  When Jake is found by the others in his search party, Ella is dead. Soon after, some American Indians find them, are not on friendly terms with them, and take them back to their village with extreme prejudice. They throw Ella’s dead body onto the fire to cremate it and, just as it looks like the Indians are going to kill Jake and the others, Ella gloriously resurrects from the fire. We learn later that she is from another place beyond the stars, that she has taken on an earthly body and has come to earth to help mankind overcome the aliens. As if this imagery was not enough, she later gives herself sacrificially to make sure the aliens are completely destroyed in an “ascension” of sorts.

With the aid of some Indian “substances” Jake is given back his memory of the man he once was, a violent hardened criminal gang-leader. However, this memory is given him while in the arms of a resurrected Ella (and her “spirit” of sorts in the embodiment of a hummingbird). This memory, however, does not serve to lead him back to that life, as it seems the love of Ella has changed him. Instead, it serves to lead him to his memory of the aliens’ location from where he had escaped. In other words, coming to terms with his past in the light and love of Ella has not moved him back to his old nature, but forward in his transformation. He now can finally FREELY choose his actions to be defined by what he was or by what he is and can be now. This is the key to his choice to fight to bring salvation to men and restore them to “Absolution.” (“God is not concerned with who you were…”)

One last thing the priest said that I found poignantly thematic. The bartender in the town of Absolution is a man whose life hasn’t worked out for him like he thought – worse his wife has been taken by the aliens – and he simply has no faith that God even exists. He tells the priest, “Either God isn’t up there or He doesn’t like me very much.” The priest replies, “Do you expect God to everything for you?… Y0u have to earn His presence, recognize His presence, and then do something about it.” This I think is the heart of the movie’s discussion about God’s role in overcoming evil in the world and the role of God’s people in overcoming evil. Ironically, Ella (Christ-figure) is walking with them on this journey, yet they are oblivious to who she really is. She performs the role she is designed to play, ultimately sacrificing herself to bring an end to evil. However, mankind had a role to play also. The journey of redemption involved choices to do what was necessary to complete the work of Ella in defeating the aliens (demons). Interestingly, in a great picture of the church, the final battle is fought with an amalgamation of “good people,” “bad people,” cowboys, Indians – a crew of folks that were united in one goal of helping save the lives of men and redeem the earth from the evil.

This is essentially the same kind of amalgamation and the same message as Tolkien in Lord of the Rings – God has played a part in the redemption of men and the world, but there is a part for men as well. While some committed protestants and evangelicals may balk at this movie’s phrasing “earn His presence,” steeped as we are in our anti-nomian doctrine. However, the man who was being addressed was a man with no “eyes to see” God , and so no faith to act. Perhaps that is what the priest was simply saying instead of trying to deliver a “works salvation.” “Without faith it is impossible to please God,” the Bible tells us – impossible to see Him working even in difficult times, and impossible to commit ourselves to acting as the people of God He has called us to be in the world. We are not called to crawl in a hole and hold on “’til jesus comes; ” we are called to be the church triumphant in the world. Maybe our laziness and comfort and prosperity has led to us no longer “earning” or even “needing” His presence.

In the end, even with Ella gone, the movie leaves Jake with the promise of hope and the promise of Ella’s presence, as the hummingbird returns to show itself, reminding us also that Jesus has left His Spirit (dove?) with us to be our guide, our strength, our comfort as we continue to path of transformation and our duty to stand guard over the mission he has given us.

I am not saying I know anything about the writers and their intentions. In fact, I would be shocked if Hollywood was so overtly intentional with Christian thought. Maybe they meant the whole thing to be a “United Nations” will conquer the evils of materialism and greed and capitalism (after all, the aliens were after gold). Therefore, I agree that I may be completely seeing things that were not intended. But again,in the thoughts of C.S. Lewis,  the themes of the great stories always reveal God’s meta-narrative as embodied in Christ. This one stuck out to me more than usual. It at least makes for good discussion.

(Cowboys and Aliens is rated PG-13 for violence, language, scary images, and some adult situations)


Robin Hood and Ayn Rand

14 05 2010

Checked out the new Robin Hood movie starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott for a couple of reasons. One, because I love Gladiator, which involved both men in the exact same roles. But even more so, because I have always loved the Robin Hood stories and have tried to partake of them in every form imaginable – even the whole Kevin Costner Robin Hood: Cardboard American Midwestern Prince of Thieves.

Recently, I have read a couple of Steven Lawhead’s King Raven Trilogy books, which is a re-imagining of the base legend elements of the story, unsterilized by the glorification of time, re-telling, and blond men with chin dimples and perfectly groomed mustaches in emerald green tights. (Speaking of … yes, I of course have seen the Mel Brooks movie as well).

I know we are all familiar with the story so stop me if you’ve heard this one before. (actually, keep reading if you have … that’s really just a figure of speech for emphasis of the point). There is a ruler fighting a war against the Muslims which he desires to believe is justified by God. He strays from that original war to begin warring in another country – one that would have no affiliation to the original Crusade but just an old rival that apparently needs to be conquered for the good of his kingdom. His successor is not a “war-maker” and is actually interested in decreasing the military strength of his country and raising the already exorbitant tax burden on his citizenry so that he can increase his own status and tyranny in the land. After all, he will know better what to do with  the money than will the “honest, brave, but naive” unwashed masses who are trying to live their lives by the sweat of their brow and hard work. “A kingdom,” he reminds us is after all, “expensive to run.”

This causes great unrest among the people who have now been pushed beyond what they can handle in order to feed the whims of the king. They decide to begin a revolution against the king, and there is a spirit of division which the country’s enemy is attempting to use to conquer it. Upon realizing his throne is in danger – not only from the outside – but even more so from within his own kingdom, he steps in and “promises on his mother’s life” sweeping reforms based on the ideas of democracy and personal “liberty by law”. He is assured by Robin and the revolutionaries this will bring not only a forced loyalty to the throne but actually admiration and love from the governed. The country unites under these promises and fights against their external foe, beating them back once again. But, of course, once the threat from outside is defeated the king rescinds his commitment to the ideas of liberty for the people, claiming a divine right to rule.

Sound familiar? Even a little bit?

I don’t know that Ridley Scott intended on reflecting the recent events of American history in this movie, even a little bit. I don’t know what his political leanings are. However, if nothing else, it reminds us that whatever the form of government in whatever time period you may view it is a self-propagating, self-promoting, personal freedom-squashing entity by nature. No matter what good intentions it may boast or believe it has, freedom shrinks as government grows, changing a strong independence for an abusive dependency. What is also evident is that no matter the form of government or whatever time period you are examining, the human spirit  and the quest for freedom and liberty is always in conflict with it. It can be repressed, warred against, beaten-down, over-taxed, insulted for its “naivety,” berated for its lack of education or understanding, or decried for its lack of compassion; yet it still beats under the surface, rising from time to time to flex its muscle over those who would rule it or claim a divine right to hold it down, a God-given or human-achieved superiority by which to rule. Interestingly, our American Constitution acknowledges divine rights to the citizenry and not to the governors. Ironically, our government continues to struggle understanding this.

I have always felt a little strange (sometimes even duped) that we have “hero-ized” Robin Hood, a guy known primarily for the re-distribution of wealth. But this Robin Hood story doesn’t emphasize that aspect of the tale, being more of a back-story on his pre-outlaw days. Sure, you can see Robin has a very egalitarian point of view and a sense of what seems fair for all people; but, in this movie, it is more along the lines of letting a man be a man, letting him live according to his work, letting him accept the responsibility given to him by the enjoyment of liberty. “Fairness” to Ridley’s Robin is not in an equally- divided outcome, but in the equally available opportunity to work and reap the benefits of it, which may include sharing it willingly with others.

I left the movie thinking about Ayn Rand and her libertarian philosophies, focusing on individual rights and limited government. From her book, Atlas Shrugged, she would say, “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” That statement seems to be the entire basis of the new Robin Hood movie, and, to be honest, we could use a fresh dose of it in our approach to government and society. We hear much today about the evils of capitalism and the need for governement to expand in order to provide an endless array of things for its people , but Rand found “laissez-faire capitalism” to be the only compassionate economic system. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “That government governs best which governs least” (and most Americans – even Congress – say they like Jefferson).

Rand was deeply humanist, and I certainly don’t agree whole-heartedly with all her philosophy. However, I found much of her ideas in this new Robin Hood movie set in the context of what seems to be a recurring theme in history – the pull of tyranny and the push for freedom. Go see it and keep pushing.

Iron Man 2: Technology, Humanity, and Legacy

7 05 2010

I got out at midnight Thursday to watch the premiere of “Iron Man 2.” Yeah, I know … crazy. But, even though I don’t wear the superhero t-shirts or still buy the comic books, I am at heart quite a fan of the superhero genre. Perhaps it’s the escapism or the imagination or the psychological need to vicariously live a life that is adventurous and meaningful in all the idyllic ways.  Or perhaps it’s just that I’m a guy and  these movies more often than not are just simply cool. One thing I know, superheroes make for great summer movies. Relentless action, cutting-edge effects, reality escape, and  – for me, at least – there are always some pretty important perspectives on life. Iron Man 2 is no different; and it carries a message with it that our world, our culture, and our churches need to ponder.

The movie sets up almost immediately the idea of “legacy” – of what someone leaves behind after they’re gone. But it sets it up in parallel and contrasting ways (both of which we discover later are not necessarily positive). The movie starts with Ivan Vanko – a physicist and son-of-a-physicist who worked with Tony Stark’s father on the same “ark-reactor” technology that now powers Tony’s (Iron Man’s) heart and armored suit. The elder Vanko had been deported back to his mother Russia through the influence of the elder Stark when it was decided his motivations and intentions for the technology were less than ideal. The movie opens with Ivan Vanko watching his father die after referencing the now famous and wealthy Tony Stark with a “that should be you” and the final words of “all I can pass on to you is my knowledge.” The knowledge he is referring to is a copy of the plans for the ark-reactor power, which he now leaves his son to use. His son – we will soon find out – does use that technology, not to benefit mankind, but to exact revenge on Tony Stark. One man’s legacy passed on revealed as solely “knowledge” in a moral vacuum of how such knowledge should be used.

Tony Stark appears next on the scene in the midst of the “Stark Expo” – an international show of technology for Stark industries, in and of itself a “legacy” left for Tony by his father. In his opening remarks, Tony says several times “it’s not about me” and refers to the ideas of “legacy” and “what we leave for the next generation.” Still, one cannot get around the obvious – that while, unlike Vanko, the technology is being used for good and not for evil, it is still in a bit of a moral vacuum of self-interest and narcisscism. This is especially reinforced by Tony’s interaction with a senate committee in the following scene. While we side with Tony by nature, something in us tells us that his pride will lead to some pretty serious issues during the ensuing couple of hours. Here is a second legacy of knowledge left without much moral guidance as to how that should be used. His “good” use of technical knowledge did not come from what was given him so much as his near-death experience in the first Iron Man movie.

That just lays the foundation for the story to unfold. Attempting to not betray too much of the movie, what we find along the way is that Vanko never really escapes the trap of his legacy of bitterness and revenge, while Tony discovers that his legacy may be a bit more than what he had perceived and finds a way to grow beyond himself into a new legacy that perhaps may actually be worth leaving for another generation. This legacy that he discovers – and Vanko does not – is larger than knowledge and extends to the areas of what truly makes us human – something played out dually in the story and in the symbolism of his superhero personality.

I found this thread in a couple of fairly non-descript statements in the film. First of all, anyone familiar with Tony Stark’s character should be able to see that the name “Iron Man” works on more than one level, accurately describing both Stark’s supersuit and his less-than-super ability to have authentic, truly intimate, and vulnerable relationships with those around him. He is famously the consummate playboy, the inimitable hedonist, the person who attempts to fill voids in his heart with the false intimacy of casual sexual relationships and the false acceptance of party friends and the false vulnerability of keeping people around you call friends while refusing to disclose to them your truest and deepest concerns, weaknesses, and fears. In this movie, however, we begin to understand that many of these issues may be a result of Tony’s relationship with his father – a father he describes as detached and  distant, not ever saying “I love you” or even “I like you.”

This helps bring some context and meaning to one statement in the film early on. We find out that the element (palladium?) that Tony is using to power his heart is toxic to his blood and – simply stated – is killing him at an increasing pace (especially of interest for us “symbol-seekers” is that it is mentioned that this is increased by his wearing of the Iron Man suit – his invulnerable armor and protection). Anyway, the scripted line says something to the effect of “the very thing that’s keeping you alive (a palladium-powered heart) is killing you.” This seems to be true of Tony’s heart in another way as well – his heart, literally keeping him alive, is also figuratively killing him, broken as it is from a non-relationship with his father and a life of non-intimacy with people.

This leads to a moment when Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) brings to him some materials from Tony’s father, who – unknown to Tony – is a founding contributor to S.H.I.E.L.D (just wtch the movie or read some comic books). Anyway, it is in these materials that Fury tells Stark that he will find the answer to his “heart problem.” Yes, he eventually discovers the literal fulfillment of this statement  in the discovery of a “new element” which is more powerful and non-toxic that his dad knew of but could not reproduce in his technological time. But it is in these materials that Tony also discovers things about what his dad felt for him (“my greatest creation”) that helped him solve his other “heart problem.” He immediately began to take steps to make himself vulnerable to others (especially Pepper Potts) with whom he had long avoided the true nature of his feelings. At the time, he felt he was still dying, but this caused him to realize that legacies are not about what you leave behind so much as who you leave behind.  As great as technological advances may be, as many advantages as they may create, humanity is affected more by relationship than by scientific knowledge. Real legacies are not left in what we build, but in who we build into.

The projected technological world devoid of true humanity is a common theme in science fiction, always driving us back (hopefully) to the realization that technology without humanity and without relationship is an existence that our souls simply cannot afford. Tony Stark may have finally realized that in this movie. For one generation that wants to leave a legacy that means something for the next, we cannot forget that. This is true for our world where gadgets get more unbelievable everyday. This is true for our American culture of prosperity where – even when “good” is done with technology – it is often driven by self-interest and personal agendas. This is true for our churches where knowledge may be emphasized over relationship or where modern advancement in technique and strategy is substituted for authenticity and vulnerability. I wonder – in all of these cases – if what’s keeping us alive is also killing us. If so, we need to drop the armor and develop a legacy that is invulnerable instead.

“Where the Wild Things Are” Is All Grown Up

12 11 2009

images-2Like everyone else in the known universe,  I read as a child (or had read to me) “Where the Wild Things Are” – Maurice Sendak’s award-winning, critically-acclaimed, 10ish-sentence story about … uh … well … something. Like every other child in the known universe, I listened, looked at the illustrations (which are really cool for a young boy), and moved on without much fanfare. But it seemed like an ideal enough book to me. Pictures good. Story short. Monsters involved. Me Tarzan.

It was not until we purchased the book for our boys in advance of the movie release that I read it again. Only now being the mature, thinking adult that I am did I realize that the book – for its genre – carries an important message. It may be the first children’s book that dealt with the reality of childhood anger and the cathartic escape of fantasy that children use to cope.

For those of you who have come from an alien planet in the last few decades, the story of “Wild Things” is that of Max – a young boy kicking up quite a “rumpus” at home. When his wild play is stifled by his mother,  Max’s temper gets the best of him and he lashes out, resulting in him being sent to his bedroom without dinner. During his incarceration, his room turns into a forest and he travels off to a faraway land where (you guessed it) the “wild things” are. imagesIn Max’s fantasy, these fierce creatures become intimidated and enthralled by his ability to stare and not blink and they elect him king (no… no matter how you beg, I will not draw any correlation to our political process). He leads them in a wild rumpus and other “wild thing” activities, but soon realizes that he is lonely and decides he wants to return home where he is loved “most of all.” So, it is within this fantasy of where he is king and gets to act out however he wants that he finally realizes the greater need for connection to his family. His “escape” helps him – even as a child – gain perspective on his anger and his need for that kind of love.

So along comes the movie, and like everyone else in the known universe I wonder how you effectively turn 10 sentences into a full-length feature film. But … wow. Spike Jonze’s adaption of the story is an all grown-up powerful exposition of the original intent. It is informed by the current state of family decay, the plague of repressed rage, and the tendency to blame that is so prevalent in our society; but the movie is not controlled by these so much as these simply set the stage for a modern understanding of Sendak’s story. Still, the movie goes beyond the book in driving home the point that life doesn’t work out for any of us the way we envisioned it as a child, especially in regard to our families and the people closest to us. There are hurts, there are scars, there is real pain involved, and we (yes, adults, we too) are often ill-equipped in our understanding of how to handle it. We lose perspective in the moment, we lose control of ourselves, we lash out, we run away.

In the movie, the little society of wild things that Max finds becomes a microcosm of his life. One monster predominantly represents Max himself, and other creatures symbolize in part or whole other people and aspects of his struggle. Max, elected king, because of his special talent to tell fantastical tales of his adventures, assures the wild things that he can bring them happiness and “keep the sadness out” with his magical powers. They attempt to build an ideal world, a home for them that will keep out all unwanteds and help them live in happiness together. All these things and more that Max enacts as king gradually fall apart, and his lack of actual magical powers becomes exposed. He finds he cannot completely control and solve all the difficulties and hurts and hardships that life brings to throw down our utopian hope that we have as children (and – despite our jadedness – still cling to as adults). He gains perspective on his behavior and on his life here in this fantasy world as it is acted out in front of him. The movie brings us to one line in particular that he shares with “KW” – a wild thing symbolic of Max’s sister:

“It’s hard being a family.”images-1

That it is. Ultimately, however, it seems the point of the movie and the book is that the fight is worth it. We need it. Maybe kids understand that part of the story better than we do.

G I Joe-mangous!

8 08 2009

G I JoeOkay. I know I’m going to take some flack for this. Lack of intellectualism and such. I could’ve gone this weekend to see such movies as “Julie and Julia” and talk about the need to develop passions for success in life. Maybe I could’ve gone to see “Funny People” and bloggged about finding life’s true priorities in the face of our mortality. I guess I could have even have gone to see “Aliens in the Attic” and opined about the glories of pulling together against the odds or even made some over-spiritualized reference to the removal of evil, outside influences from your “attic, ” that place that is hidden away in your life, oft-neglected, but still influential on your monthly power bill.

No, instead, I went to see G I Joe. I couldn’t help myself. After all, did I mention it was G I Joe? In my childhood, I had the action figures, for Pete’s sake.

Needless to say, I can NOT be objective here. Sure, the plot line was atrocious. Of course, the acting was bad. Some of the effects were bordering “Land of the Lost” quality.  I’m pretty sure there was nothing there I could stretch into a spiritual metaphor or even one of Aesop’s moralisms. Still, I admit I didn’t go for plot or Oscar-level acting. I did go for effects and action, and, despite the few times when the effects were leaving me longing for Christopher Reeve’s “man-on-string” Superman flight scenes, I came away fairly pleased with that. After all, when you have to spend all your dough on CGI’ing the collapse of the Eiffel tower, something’s going to suffer. And, given my feelings toward the French, I would rather have the big bucks making that fantasy as real as it possibly could be. The rest I can forgive.

The thing I was most disappointed in was my “great American hero” was turned into a “great international coalition of heroes.” Again, forgive my over-ripe Americanism, but it just felt all so forced and politically correct. “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” became “We are the World (with highly developed weapons).”I didn’t go to see G I Jacques. Lesson # 1 learned for the sequel.

Still, the action scenes were over-the-top and non-stop, thoroughly unrealistic and highly imaginative – exactly the kind of stuff that I imagined as a child and acted out with my action figures (which is why the ones that still survive in the old toy box at my mom’s house are missing arms and legs (and maybe even a head or two). That’s what this movie did for me. It brought all my days of G I Joe-ing to life on the screen. All the days of playing army and saving the world with impossible feats were justified. I discovered my old “I shot you, you’re dead” response of “Uh-uh – I was wearing my special bulletproof metallic suit that gives me extra speed, agility, and pretty much everything short of heat vision and freeze breath, so I’m still alive” was not cheating after all. I hope the guys from the old neighborhood were watching, because I think they’ve always held a grudge about that.

Many will see this movie. Many will hate it. But I have a feeling they never played G I Joe. For those of us who did, the movie has all the stuff we needed , plus some backstory that we probably didn’t. All that did was shorten the destruction of Paris scenes. Lesson #2 learned for the sequel.

Lesson # 3? Make a sequel.

See the movie? What did you think?