Category Archives: Literary/Cinematic Connection

God’s Patience and Bird Box

woman wearing black blindfold facing sidewaysThe popular Netflix movie Bird Box explores what happens when people are exposed to the absolutely worst thing they can imagine. In each scenario, the characters’ response is suicide (unless they were mentally ill).  To protect themselves, the surviving characters walk around with blindfolds on.

The movie made me consider what would be horrible for me. Maybe it would be seeing a true reflection of my heart or witnessing the pure evil in the world. Even now, I am easily overwhelmed by the horrors that happen in our world–a few minutes of the news, and I am ready to blindfold myself. What if we couldn’t walk away though? What if we were subjected to not just a segment of the worlds’ sin, but all of it, all the time?

We Can Walk Away

I am blessed that, for the most part, I can walk away from the ugly reflection of our sin. God, however, cannot. He endures every act of violence, every injury to a child, every misalignment of his character for all time. God could end it too. He could stop the sin and suffering by bringing His mighty judgment.  However, it would have to be one that wipes out the earth though since none of us is innocent. 

Ironically, this seems to be a theme in Bird Box. Those who are insane deliberately try to get others to open their eyes and call it a cleansing.  But this is a cleansing without mercy and without hope. 

God’s response is neither to blindfold himself or to destroy us. Instead, He makes a way out that both respects the grievous effects of sin and the suffering it causes.  

Read the rest here.

Grumpy Old Men and Hallmark Christmas Movies: Exhausted by Change

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When I was a kid, I used to be perplexed by what I considered the stodginess of elderly people. They seemed desperate to maintain their routines, angry even. This type of character is captured comically in Disney’s Up and beautifully in Frederick Bachman’s A Man Called Ove. In both stories, the main character, a man, follows a strict routine every day. Bachman describes Ove :

Every morning for the almost four decades they had lived in this house, Ove had put on the coffee percolator, using exactly the same amount of coffee as on any other morning, and then drank a cup with his wife.

After this routine would come his daily inspection of his neighborhood and the general maintenance of his home. He was diligent and hard-working, but he was also bitter. What is introduced initially as a grumpy old man, the likes of which we’ve all encountered, is then slowly revealed to us to be a man who has suffered greatly and who uses the routine to bring comfort into his life. Backman reveals the man he used to be  and why he changed, and we are left loving him instead of hating him. To be sure, like Disney’s Carl, both men have an encounter with love that helps them place their hope in something else, but learning their backstory immediately gives us sympathy for these characters.

Hallmark Christmas Movies Value Tradition

Hallmark Christmas movies also play with the same theme–tradition brings comfort. A base storyline for many Hallmark Christmas movies is a woman or man leaving the city to return to their hometown for Christmas. They are drawn in by the familiar traditions of small-town Christmas and see that this is the answer to the longing they feel within. It is in the familiar routines of home that they find themselves and find peace. I can think of three or four movies already with this theme.

I’ve asked myself why these movies appeal to me–I’m an English teacher after all. I used to make fun of people who watched these movies. Despite this, about two or three years ago, I felt an urge to start watching them, and now I’m hooked. The truth is I was going through a difficult time, and I felt comfort in watching these predictable storylines.

I reveled in beautiful Christmas scenes, a quickly resolved romantic crisis, and the sense of belonging somewhere that the characters experienced. As I age, I see this need articulated more clearly. I look back over my life and see a blur of experience, and I feel bewildered. I’ve never lived anywhere longer than five years, and this rootlessness haunts me. I long, like Ove, who lives in one house for forty years, to know a place. Though Backman is talking metaphorically about a relationship, his comparison haunts me:

Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there,and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfections, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it’s cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home.

As I feel my mortality, I need there to be places that I know intimately and where my imprint has been worn into it. My pushback from the realization that I am here so temporarily is to connect. Tradition and routine seem to be an easy way to do this.

Tradition Is An Invitation

Tradition invites me into a history that reaches further back than me and will extend beyond me. Participating in tradition invites me into an inner circle, giving me a connection to those around me. It is also a protection from the excessive change around me.

When I ponder the characters of Ove and Carl, and even many in my Hallmark Christmas movies, they all seek peace in the midst of change. We sympathize with them because we too are victims of the capriciousness of time. I keep waiting to finally “arrive” in my life the way it’s supposed to be, but I am cruelly tricked by the continued change. My body changes, my children change, my job changes–all the while I want to yell for it to stop for a minute, so I can catch my breath.

My response is to dig in and hold on, find a place to nail me down, so I won’t be swept away with the tide. However, we all know this won’t work. My heart cries out for comfort though and promises bitterness if I don’t deliver.

I don’t think this longing for routine is wrong–I think in many ways it is the necessity of life. There are many routines I cannot avoid–I must eat every day, breathe every moment, drink and sleep. The danger comes when I decide what these routines must be in order for me to feel safe.

Only God Provides What We Need

Like Ove and Carl, we all need to release the tight-fisted hold we have on the routines of life in order to allow God to step in and do His redeeming work. Love alone is powerful enough to unclench my fist. I cannot stop the tide that flows ever onward pushing me towards my end; however, I can choose to trust the One who controls the tide. When I realize that there are things and people that are more important than my comfort, I can allow traditions and routine to take their proper place in my life, as a stabilizer but not my foundation.

There is no proper defense against the rush of life, except to lose ourselves in the eternal God. He is the one who goes before us, providing a home that cannot be taken from us (John 14:3). Then, we will be able to fully enjoy the peace Christ offers when He says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Our decaying world gives and takes back–with God it is not so. We are growing into his peace and into our new homes that await us. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cheating Audiences with Fake Sacrifices

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In Stephen King’s novel Misery, Paul Sheldon, a famous author, is held hostage by his number one fan after a horrible accident. She demands that he write her favorite character back to life. His first attempt brings the main character back but without a plausible story. Annie, his captor, launches into a tirade about watching movies as a kid:

Anyway, my favourite was Rocketman, and once it was a no breaks chapter. The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCK – A – DOODIE CAR!

She then makes him rewrite it without cheating his audience. He is able to do this and realizes as he is writing that this is the best writing he has ever done. Just like Annie, moviegoers, particularly those of the sci-fi genre, also do not want to be cheated by pretend sacrifices.

We’ve Been Cheated Before

In 2014, the X-Men franchise released X-Men: Days of Future Past which made the preceding X-Men movies pointless with its time-traveling antics. Deaths, catastrophic events, and important plot developments were reversed. This left the viewer with a vague sense that they had wasted money on movies that no longer “happened” and emotions on events and characters that no longer existed in the way they previously understood them. Even more frustrating was the unexplained resurrection of Xavier, leaving the viewers to speculate online how he miraculously shows up without a single reference.

Even in the very popular Black Panther, we see this reversal of fates. When T’Challa fights Killmonger and loses, he is thrown off the waterfall to certain death. The audience is left to believe he is dead, while Killmonger asserts his kingship with calculated and horrific steps. However, the audience cannot really believe he is dead. They just wait to see how it will be undone. In the case of this movie, unlike X-Men, there is a sense of cost. He is not immediately restored, and they must depend on the generosity of a rival tribe. Though it is expected, his resurrection is at least not easy.

Will It Be Believable?

This precedent or resurrections, however, makes Marvel Universe fans wary of the next plot development in the Avengers series. Since the Infinity War ends with the death of a large number of iconic superheroes (many with upcoming movies to be released), the viewer is once again wondering what kind of trick the Marvel Universe franchise has up their sleeves that will bring their heroes back but with little cost.

There are many speculations about how these events may be undone. These fan theories touch on revelations from the comic books series, as well as hints in the films. Some believe that Dr. Strange’s vision of the one possible scenario in which they win is still in effect. Others argue that the soul stone may exact a different price from Thanos from what he expected. While a dramatic ending like the one in Infinity War sparks much online discussion, it does challenge the viewers’ needed suspension of disbelief. If the characters cannot truly suffer harm, can we really care about them? Don’t most of the conversations just focus on the various possible plot twists and less on what this means to each character?

Read the rest here.

True Superheroes Should be Replaceable

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The final cuts from Marvel’s Infinity War reveal devastating losses. Thanos has gained control of all six Infinity stones and enacts his horrific plan to randomly disintegrate half of the world’s population. This random number includes superheroes such as Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, all of the Guardians of the Galaxy and more. Despite the anticipation of most of the fans that Marvel will surely reverse some, if not all, of these deaths (due to previously released movie titles), the audience is left wondering what is next. With most of the superhero family gone, there aren’t many heroes left to whom the world can turn to for help. This leads us to ask–why did the Avengers leave the world so dependent on them?

Obviously, most superheroes are super in every way, like Thor or Captain America who seem downright indestructible. But others, like Iron Man, Black Widow, and Hulk, are just human beings with exceptional talents. We assume that like every other mortal they could die of natural causes leaving not much behind except a world that has become used to their abilities to save the day. Wouldn’t true heroes be thinking ahead, planning on how to both replicate themselves or find others with giftings to train?

Preparing for the Future

The idea of preparing for the future can be seen to some extent in the Marvel universe. Both Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and Shield take an intentional approach to finding new recruits and training them. However, in the case of the X-Men their focus is more on the protection of their gifted students, rather than training them to be protectors of the world. The school is eventually destroyed, and the students go into hiding. Shield fares no better. Their issues revolve around political bureaucracy and corruption which eventually leads to its downfall and the conflict between Captain America and Ironman (Captain America: Civil War). People are left not knowing whom they can trust and without clear leadership. The fact that both of these organizations ultimately fail at their goals leads the viewers to wonder how important it was to the overall Marvel theme in the first place. In both of these situations, people became dependent on something bigger than themselves, making them weaker as a result.

Read the rest here on The Artifice.

Photo by TK Hammonds on Unsplash

A Little Education

In Louisa May Alcott’s famous book Little Women, we follow the March family of four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The March family has a rigorous philosophy of life that includes an emphasis on education and self-improvement. At Christmastime, the girls are grieving because their father is away serving during the Civil War. To help them, their mother proposes a guiding idea. They are to imitate the journey of Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress:

Mrs. March broke the silence that followed Jo’s words, by saying in her cheery voice, “Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrim’s Progress when you were little things? Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie my piece bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks and rolls of paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City.”

“What fun it was, especially going by the lions, fighting Apollyon, and passing through the valley where the hob-goblins were,” said Jo.

“I liked the place where the bundles fell off and tumbled downstairs,” said Meg.

“I don’t remember much about it, except that I was afraid of the cellar and the dark entry, and always liked the cake and milk we had up at the top. If I wasn’t too old for such things, I’d rather like to play it over again,” said Amy, who began to talk of renouncing childish things at the mature age of twelve.

“We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.”

This classic tale becomes the structure of the book as we follow each sister’s journey and attempt to learn wisdom and seek goodness. Education should do for us what Mrs. March’s idea does for her daughters—provide a framework by which we interpret our lives. Education is not only about facts and skills. It is about learning how to think about the world. Though I am primarily an English teacher, I believe each of the academic disciplines has much to teach us.

Wonderful Science

Though we’ve forgotten the classes and phylum of the animal kingdom, we learned that there is an order to life on this planet. In animals and plants, we observe similar and dissimilar characteristics from color to food preference that denote belonging. These details are revealed only to the patient, for science teaches us to really see—the iridescent artwork on the beetle’s exoskeleton, the thin veins mapped throughout a leaf or the events in a process that bring water tumbling from the sky. Science awakens wonder in us. The faithful pupil observes a universe of marvels from the tiny quarks to the supergiant stars that can be 1500 times larger than the sun. The extravagance of this world is a gift given to us every day; however, it is not one that is always enjoyed. Giglio quotes in his book Indescribable “As Paul Hawken keenly observed, Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course.… We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.” Science reminds us what we have been given.

Math, Precisely

Math, the dreaded subject, teaches us about consequences, logic, and balance. This is best demonstrated in the often-infuriating equation. Often dubbed the universal language, math communicates facts in the most succinct manner possible. Andy Walsh, the author of Faith Across the Multiverse, compares equations to information-dense poems. He explains that “seeing an equation as a poem helps us appreciate the true genius behind it. It’s not the ability to do complex calculations or knowing the Greek alphabet. It is seeing the relationships between two quantities (or more) in a way that no one else has seen them before and expressing that relationship clearly and precisely.” This ability has real-world implications. Walsh then explains how the movie The Martian showcases how equations enable the main character to survive his time stranded on Mars and make possible his eventful rescue. Math is the language of precision and opportunity.

Making History

More than likely, we have already forgotten 90% of the dates and names we memorized in history. Learning it all may seem like a waste of time. However, history’s value is its ability to humble us. It reminds us that we are one tiny story among millions. So many have come before us who are smarter and more talented than we are and are yet forgotten. Still, history can also puff us up when we observe how individuals did change the course of history. We have no idea the real effect our lives will have. Most importantly, history helps us understand our own times. The actions and philosophies of those before us have helped create the world we live in now. As Martin Luther King Jr. wisely observed, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

Meaningful Literature

Finally, no education is complete without literature. Literature is the first place where we take those tools and build meaning. Stories of courage, loyalty, love and even bad decisions take the facts and give them wheels and roots and wings. Stories teach us how to live.

It is here that we develop the skills for evaluating ourselves and others. Setting teaches us how the time and place affects the moment. Character development reminds us how we can or should change. Conflict and its resolution are the drive behind every story and a reminder of the larger problem of life with which we contend. Karen Swallow Prior, professor of literature, notes in Booked that “the more I thought about it, the more I realized that reading—that is, really reading, interpreting—literature is practice for reading and interpreting life. The more one practices, the better one gets.”

Stories provide an overarching theme for life. For the March sisters, the idea of a difficult journey leading to a beautiful destination fortified them and helped them press onward through the difficulties of life. The knowledge of the world through math and science can help us function, but the story of life and those behind us tells us how and why which is needed to survive the challenges in life.

Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning explains that “as a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions. But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps – concentration camps, that is – and as such, I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.” How are men able to survive the horrid conditions of concentration camps? He states an important truth: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” In other words, man needs meaning in order to live. This is a gift that good literature gives us.

An Educational Journey

A true education teaches us the facts but also helps us develop a framework to interpret the facts. And, as Mrs. March so helpfully points out,

“We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City.”

This path of education does not cease with proffered diplomas or degrees but lasts the whole journey home. A life filled with observing wonder, succinct mathematical communication, and soul-inspiring meaning is a life of true success that will prepare us for the Father’s return and our homecoming.