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I recently watched again “The Book of Eli.” As the title suggests, this movie focuses on a book and a character named Eli. The book, we learn, is the last of its kind and sets Eli off on a special mission. I suspect the name of the primary character was chosen very carefully. Eli, and variations of that name, carries a great deal of significance in the book. The play on Eli’s name could prompt us to think of the coming of “one like Elijah.”

Eli is a walk by faith not by sight guy. Yet, in many ways the movie is about seeing. The movie is dark and not only due to its content. It is set in a sepia tone that works well in a world where not many are able to see what is really going on. Sunglasses are a prominent part of the wardrobe. And sight belongs to the blind, while blindness is prominent among the sighted.

There are parts that are tough to watch due to violence. For instance, do not mess with Eli. He has incredible skills of anticipation, as if he is able to see things before they happen. This is only enhanced by his skills with a machete, a bow, and even with guns. Eli is a hybrid between a prophet and a cowboy. And that is exactly how he rides into town, not looking for trouble but finding it.

But even Eli begins to see more clearly as the movie plays out. For much of the movie he quotes the book and defends it, but in the end he realizes it is more important to live by the book. This is evidenced in a scene where Eli is talking with Solara, a young lady he rescues from this dangerous town and who becomes his traveling companion. He tells her “All the years I’ve been carrying it and reading it every day… I got so caught up with keeping it safe… I forgot to live by what I learned from it.” Perhaps the movie could have been titled “Eli of the Book.”

But Eli is not the only one interested in the book. Every post-apocalyptic town is in need of someone to take charge and Carnegie is happy to do it. This Carnegie wins friends and influences people through manipulation and coercion. He is infatuated by power, which is why he wants the book, so he might further control the people. He talks about the book as if it is a weapon to aim at the hearts and minds of the weak and desperate. Needless to say, a significant portion of the movie includes a battle for the book.

The movie includes a message about things that really matter. Water is a precious commodity. A good pair of boots is rare. Food is so scarce that cannibalism becomes common. A friendly companion is something to be grateful for. Music is enjoyed as something sacred. Shampoo is considered a luxury. Important possessions receive special care. What we take for granted is in stark contrast to what we find in this post-apocalyptic world. This is highlighted in conversation as Eli tells Solara “People had more than they needed. We had no idea what was precious, what wasn’t. We threw away things people kill each other for now.”

One of my favorite scenes comes at the end as Solara prepares to continue the mission. The gates open, she sheaths Eli’s machete, puts his ear buds in her ears, and she steps through the gates. All while we listen to Eli’s voice pray for her protection. Perhaps we should not be surprised to find that, after spending so much time with Eli, we see the fruit of discipleship. Perhaps those of us who need help to see more clearly should make it a point to watch the movie again.

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The Shack has become a religious phenomenon. At the same time it is a lightning rod for claims of heresy. Even before the movie was released there were responses to the book titled Finding God in the Shack and Burning Down the Shack. You can probably tell which is for and which is not. Despite the potential of being burned at the stake, Layne and I attended the movie over the weekend. I had read the book a few years ago and tend to enjoy an imaginative narrative so I suspected that I would enjoy the movie as well. I don’t often say this, but I think I preferred the movie over the book.

The movie presents a theme of invitation that I particularly liked. Jesus invites Mack, the main character, to walk with him. The Spirit invites Mack to join her in the garden. “Papa” invites Mack to join the Trinity for a meal. I especially liked that scene where we see the Trinity at fellowship with one another. A picture of perichoresis. We do not often see good pictures of the Trinity at fellowship but here at least is an attempt. The general theme of the movie is an invitation to forgive.

Some highlights for me include the part where Jesus first arrived at the shack. I enjoyed the garden that was portrayed as a beautiful mess. That is, until we saw the view from above and realized it was actually a work of art. I enjoyed when Papa tells Jesus to show Mack some of his handiwork. I was expecting them to walk to the wood shop where Jesus had been working on something. Instead he took him outside showed him the sky, including a shooting star.

I like how the movie demonstrates the involvement of God in the lives of people. I suspect this is one reason many are attracted to the story. People want to have an encounter with God. The Shack presents a passionate God who is not without emotion. Here human pain is embraced by a deeply loving Trinity. Yet, I suppose one of the problems people are having with the movie is the way that God is portrayed. The Shack is an attempt to portray a story with imagination. Sometimes we forget that movies are a form of art (and a form of making profit). They are not intended for theological instruction. While theology may show itself in a movie, we should not be going to the theater to get our theology. Having said that, I like that The Shack reminds us that we have not got the Trinity figured out.

Here are some reasons to not see the movie;

  • You are certain you will like the book better
  • You think theaters are always too loud
  • You always wait for the blu ray

In other words, don’t stay away for theological reasons. I hope you never choose to go to the theater for theological reasons. Hollywood stinks at theology. If its theology you are looking for, read Barth’s Dogmatics. Go ahead and try to make a movie about Dogmatics. I doubt anyone would want to see it. But people are going to see The Shack which gives us an opportunity to talk about things we like to talk about with people who may not ordinarily be interested. I do like that The Shack is a catalyst for an important conversation.

The fact is, we want stories that speak to both head and heart. So when evil and forgiveness and the work of God are presented in The Shack it surprises me that some of us are not more interested. The criticism reminds me how much easier it is to criticize something we feel is wrong than it is to demonstrate something we believe is right.

Should The Shack be taken seriously – yes. Should The Shack be taken literally – no. Is it an exaggeration – yes. Will it prompt people to think and talk about God – yes.

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With two Jesus movies at the theater at the same time, we might find ourselves wondering when he became so trendy or entertaining. Is there an increase of interest in Jesus? Or is hollywood aware we like religious films at this time of year? The Young Messiah is a movie based on a book by Anne Rice titled Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. This is a work of fiction that focuses on the life of seven year old Jesus. It is my understanding there are intentional differences between the book and the movie that do not take away from the spirit of Anne Rice’s story.

The movie does its best to tell us it is not easy to grow up as Jesus. Trouble follows him from Egypt to Nazareth to Jerusalem. Much of this trouble comes from Herod Antipas who wants Jesus dead. In order to accomplish this, Antipas assigns Roman centurion Severus the task of killing him. Severus and his men are close for much of the movie but do not catch up with Jesus until the end. I rather enjoyed the scene where they finally meet face to face. At that time we find an uncertain, bewildered Roman centurion and a confident, unafraid seven year old Jewish boy. We have ourselves a showdown in the temple court. I love a search story where the seeker discovers something much different than they were looking for.

If it is difficult to grow up as Jesus then maybe it goes without saying that it is also difficult to be his parents. Any of us may look at our own parenting challenges differently after viewing this movie. Some of the complications faced by Mary and Joseph are summarized at one point by a question, “How do you explain God to His own son?” Mary and Joseph appear to be onto something that the Satan figure in the film is not. Namely, the origins of this child. Jesus is the only one who is able to see this figure, though others hear him and are influenced by him. Nevertheless, the figure introduces cosmic implications into the movie.

The movie uses miracles to help make the story move. While we cannot discount miracles from young Jesus, this is more likely the result of reading of what we know about adult Jesus into his childhood. Yet, in the movie a bird, a youth named Eleazer, an uncle Cleopas, and a blind rabbi are recipients of his healing touch. Miracles from Jesus are common enough that at one point he has to try and convince James (who somehow becomes his older cousin in the movie) he did not make it rain.

While some may complain about historical inaccuracy or the unlikeliness of this account, I find The Young Messiah to be thought provoking and imaginative. It is a work of fiction that allows us to think about potential tensions that may have been felt by the holy family. It is not difficult to picture unusual days in the life of young Jesus.

The movie prompts us to think about questions like “Who is this Jesus?” and “Why did God send this Jesus?” Mary, Joseph, family members, Jewish rabbi’s, Roman soldiers, even Herod Antipas are all exploring these questions. In this way, the movie may cause us to think about the incarnation in ways we had not before. Especially the part where we read “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”

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I like the movie. I like the way it begins with the question “Have you traveled far Tribune?” I like the way the rest of the movie answers that question. The Tribune, Clavius, is a fictional character inserted into the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection. Clavius is given the assignment of finishing the job at Golgotha and finding the missing body of the crucified Jesus. As seen through the eyes of this character, Risen allows us to view the resurrection from a different perspective.

For myself, I would have found Risen even more entertaining if the search for the missing Jesus would have lasted even longer. What would it have been like for Clavius to find himself just one step behind the disciples for a few more scenes?

The movie did leave me with some questions. For one, I am wondering why Tiberius is visiting Jerusalem. Perhaps the movie makers felt this helps make sense of Pilate’s desire to keep peace in the city. I am also wondering why the grave clothes were not folded. Perhaps this occurs so the shroud of Turin could make an appearance. And I wonder if sixth century preacher Pope Gregory the Great knew he would be so influential when he decided to turn Mary Magdalene into a prostitute.

I like the early statement by Clavius when summoned by Pilate “I am sticky with filth.” At the time he says this it is literally the case as he has just led his soldiers in battle against insurrectionists. But as the movie moves along I wonder if it is intended in theological fashion as well.

I really liked the way the sky darkens and the earth quakes as Clavius is on his way to Golgotha. I like the way he stops soldiers from breaking the bones of dead Jesus when he arrives at the scene of the crucifixion. I like the way the centurion declares him innocent. Those familiar with the text will understand why I like these things.

Although I wish the chase for the disappearing body of Jesus would have lasted a little longer, I do like the words of Clavius at the turning point of the movie. “I have seen two things which cannot reconcile: A man dead without question, and that same man alive again. I pursue Him, the Nazarene, to ferret the truth.”

The portrayal of Pontius Pilate is convincing. So are the portrayal of Caiaphas and the portrayal of Joseph. I also like the portrayal of Peter. My favorite scene involving Peter is during conversation with Clavius when he says “I haven’t every answer. We’re astonished too.” He then adds “We are followers. We follow to find out.”

I am not sure why Bartholomew is presented as such a giddy disciple. When the others climbed onto a fishing boat at the Sea of Galilee, I expected him to pull out a surf board. This prompted one writer to title his review “Dude, Where’s My Christ?” I also have a favorite scene involving Bartholomew. While in Galilee, Clavius asks Bartholomew if he expected resurrection. Bartholomew tells him he had doubts. Clavius then asks why he decided to follow. This conversation is interrupted as a leper enters the scene. Of course, Jesus heals the leper. At this point, Bartholomew turns to Clavius and says “That’s why.”

Perhaps my favorite line is the movie is the final line spoken by Pontius Pilate. Upon discovering that the whereabouts of the disciples are unknown he replies “I doubt we’ll ever hear from them again.” The movie then returns back to the place where Tribune Clavius was asked if he had traveled far. When we met Clavius he was praying to a pagan god Mars and he is now following a crucified Nazarene. Clavius answers “I can never be the same again.” Clavius has indeed traveled far.

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The movie begins with a ceremony where a priestess reads a prophecy from the entrails of a goose.  Moses doesn’t seem to be convinced, in fact doesn’t appear interested in religion at all.  At one point he even says, “Is it bad to grow up believing in yourself?”  Moses doesn’t want anything to do with gods – that is, until the Hebrew God wants something to do with Moses.

A significant part of the plot revolves around the relationship between Moses and Ramses, but there is still plenty of emphasis on the relationship between Moses and God.  Both of these relationships stir emotion.  The relationship with God is best described by the definition given an Israelite “One who wrestles with God.”  Moses grapples with God from his initial reluctance until the movie’s end at which point it is noted that though they often disagree they are still talking.

Like others, I was surprised to find the messenger (or was it the Lord Himself) continually appeared as a young boy.  Perhaps the greatest surprise was that the young lad had an attitude that seemed something other than divine.  Maybe surprise is what the movie wanted to evoke.  For that matter how should one present the Creator of the universe on the big screen?  Is there a best way to portray God in a movie?  Nevertheless, my favorite of these appearances comes at the end of the movie as He is walking among the people of Israel.

This movie attempts to make sense of things, tries to leave room for natural causes for things like the plagues.  But it also presents Pharaoh’s scientific advisor as fumbling through an explanation for the plagues.  At this point it becomes clear that God is in control of things like weather, the sea, wildlife, even human life.

This Moses is a warrior.  This works in the movie because that is what God claims to be looking for.  So Moses, still trusting himself, develops a warrior’s strategy.  Eventually however, he watches as the plan of God becomes visible.  I don’t mind a warrior-like Moses, but I miss the shepherd’s staff.  I kept waiting for Moses to exchange his sword for a staff, but it never happened.

I was also surprised that a Moses “slow of speech” in Exodus couldn’t seem to stop talking in the movie.  Yet the words I wanted to hear from him, a bold proclamation to Pharaoh “Let my people go” never happened.

There is no lack of action in the movie, yet I found myself wanting more.  The movie seemed to go more for artistry than accuracy.  As we have come to expect, there are many additions to the story to fill in the gaps.  Still, with all the action in the Exodus narrative, even more wow could have been added.  Instead of a priestess reading from goose entrails, did anyone else miss clever midwives to start the story?  Or a scene where baby Moses dangerously floats in the Nile while the Egyptian princess walks to the riverbank?  Or how about a showdown where the staff of Moses swallows the Egyptian staffs?  Whether you liked the additions to them or not, at least the plagues and crossing of the sea are portrayed with some of the severity they undoubtedly brought with them.  Yet, when honest, we will never be satisfied with Hollywood as tellers of our stories.

As the movie Noah did for Genesis, I am grateful that this movie has helped Exodus to become a larger part of public discussion.  And for all who have watched these movies – we are again reminded that the biblical storyline sets us on an adventure.

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Over the weekend, Bill invited John, Dave and I over to think about our spiritual journey.  We were joined by Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete Hogwallop, and Delmar O’Donnell.  OK, so we were getting together to watch the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”

Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, the story sometimes looks more like a cross between The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Wizard of Oz.  But, make no mistake, this is a spiritual pilgrimage disguised as a journey through the Deep South during the depression era.  Everett, Pete, and Delmar are sinners.  This is emphasized by the fact that they are prisoners who have escaped from the chain gang.  For me, this is part of the greatness of the story – they begin literally chained together.  I enjoy this so much because none of us set out on this adventure alone.

After their escape, they meet a blind Seer who tells us all we need to know about this journey.  “You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains.  You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek.  But first… first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril.  Mm-hmm.  You shall see things, wonderful to tell.  You shall see a … a cow… on the roof of a cotton house, ha.  And, oh, so many startlements.  I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward.  Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto your salvation.”

It doesn’t take long to realize the Seer is right.  This is a quest for treasure, where obstacles abound, along with narrow escape.  Among the twists and turns, there are plenty of laughs, yet, no scene is entirely comical or entirely tragic.  Our three pilgrims are betrayed by kin, participate in a bank robbery, are seduced by sirens, and deceived by a rather refined Cyclops.  They stumble upon a baptism where Delmar and Pete are baptized, meet a new friend Tommy who has sold his soul to the devil, stop a Ku Klux Klan rally, and are surrounded by old timey music from start to finish.

The music is fitting, even at unexpected moments, and pulls us along throughout the adventure.  You will recognize Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch among the voices.  Even our travelers join in the chorus.  They record “Man of Constant Sorrow” as the Soggy Bottom Boys (Everett came up with this name in mockery of Delmar and Pete’s baptism).

Delmar and Pete submit themselves to baptism in the early scene but not Everett.  He tries to be more rational “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.  Baptism!  You two are just dumber than a bag of hammers!”  Rational, that is, until the end of the story when he realizes that he is about to die and unable to talk his way out of trouble.  Then he kneels to pray “Lord, please look down and recognize us poor sinners… I know I’ve been guilty of pride and sharp dealing.  I’m sorry that I turned my back on you.  Forgive me.  Help us Lord, for the sake of my family.  For Tommy’s sake, for Delmar’s and Pete’s.  Let me see my daughters again, Lord, help us please.”  In another surprising turn of the story they are rescued by a flood.  Shall we say that Everett also was baptized in miraculous waters?

The movie, to some degree, is about seeing.  Or not seeing.  So we meet a blind disc jockey and a one-eyed giant.  We also meet a man who lives by the law who sees only through dark sunglasses and is unable to see who has been forgiven of transgressions. Interestingly, it is only the blind Seer who is able to see what is really happening here.  This is evidenced most clearly when the miraculously saved Everett sees a cow on the roof of a cotton house.  Just as the blind Seer said he would.  Perhaps it is only after he experiences salvation that he finally has eyes to see.

My favorite scene comes late in the movie when the Soggy Bottom Boys perform at a political rally and are finally discovered as the artists who recorded the smash hit “Man of Constant Sorrow.”  Some will disagree but I am fairly certain this is the best dance scene in any movie ever.  Admittedly, this reveals more about me than about dancing.

As with anything else, there is a risk of over thinking this movie.  We all have a little bit of Everett in us.  Instead, I recommend that you sit back, laugh, sing and enjoy it.  And if you have seen it before, it is probably a good time to see it again.

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I admit that I am late to the party, but have finally watched the movie Noah.  I have heard a great deal of criticism about the film, usually about details that contradict with the Genesis account.  The critics are right; there is much that does not agree with Genesis. For myself, I could have done without a stowaway on the ark and a Noah who borders on insanity as he misinterprets the intent of the Creator. I haven’t decided whether the “watchers” bring a comical or a supernatural element.

I can’t help but think about another version of the Noah story that contradicts with Genesis.  For years, we have painted animals two by two on nursery walls and blankets and children’s toys.  We seem to be ok with trying to convince our children that this is a feel good story.  The fact is, we can decorate the nursery with a Noah theme but that does not eliminate the disaster of the flood.  If I have to choose, I think the film is closer to what Genesis is talking about.

I am glad that it was released and that I had the opportunity to watch it.  Most of us who watch movies enjoy strong acting and this one has Anthony Hopkins who plays a strong, imaginative Methuselah.  Bravo Hopkins!  I also was glad that the movie portrayed a Creator who refuses to be domesticated.  It allows us to bring Genesis and more importantly the God of Genesis into conversation with people who otherwise may not have been interested in such talk.

Perhaps a thank you is in order to Hollywood for providing opportunities we otherwise would not have had. Should we be shocked that Hollywood grabbed a story from the Old Testament?  Can we fault them?  After all, the Old Testament is far more interesting than the stuff we usually see on the big screen.  For that matter, it is far more interesting than nearly anything labeled as entertainment.  Seriously, have you seen what the industry has been trying to pass off as entertaining?

It is sometimes easy to forget why Hollywood makes movies.  They are entertainers, even more, they want to make money.  They probably choose a story like Noah because it is familiar to many who they think might be interested in buying a ticket to the theater.  They do not mind when we protest our disagreement with the way Genesis or God is portrayed.  They probably enjoy it, thinking of our protests as free publicity for the movie.

I enjoyed the creative portrayal of the way that the Creator works.  I was fascinated by the miraculous way that a flower grows, a forest grows, animals arrive at the ark, and the rains come.  I enjoyed the oral presentation of the creation story as told by Noah.

As I mentioned above, there are a number of things that I wish were portrayed differently in the movie.  But, even more, I wish that we would respond differently to mainstream attempts to tell our stories.  Why do we get so worked up when Hollywood doesn’t tell our stories correctly?  Do we seriously expect them to?  What are our expectations?  That Hollywood should tell our stories for us?  When did we pass off this responsibility?  Talk about abdicating our calling.  Instead of criticizing the movie industry would it make more sense to be participating in the conversation in more faithful ways?

I wonder if our frustration in these situations isn’t actually a self-indictment.  Are we frustrated that we have not been effective at telling our own stories? Here is one guy hoping that Hollywood continues to put out movies featuring the biblical stories.  I hear that a movie about Exodus is on the way.  I am anxious to engage in the conversation.

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