Category Archives: Literary/Cinematic Connection

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.

Life will survive. Love will redeem.

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When Jurassic Park debuted about twenty-five years ago, Jeff Goldbum’s character, Ian Malcolm, a chaos theory aficionado, uttered the ominous statement, “Life will find a way.” The movie then proves his statement correct revealing that the female dinosaur species found a way to create new life. This latest Jurassic movie, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, takes this theme a step further to communicate that not only is life resilient, it has value.

Spoiler alert.

Saving Lives

In a critical moment, one of the main characters, Claire, has to decide whether to release the eleven species of dinosaurs out into suburban America or allow them to die and become extinct once again. She decides not to let them go, possibly thinking of the human lives that would be lost. Claire is distraught about this decision—the entire film centered on her desire to save these animals from destruction on the island. However, when confronted with choosing life for the dinosaurs or life for the humans, she chooses to protect people.

As Claire and Owen look out the window, though, they suddenly see the dinosaurs running out of the building. They turn to see that the third character in the room, Mr. Lockwood’s granddaughter Maisie, has released them. As they stare at her, she states defiantly, “They are alive. Like me.” She too has been a result of genetic manipulation, as her “grandfather” cloned his daughter who had died in a car accident, of which Maisie is the result.

The final scene of the movie reverts back to Ian Malcolm, now sitting before a group of politicians and onlookers, explaining that since dinosaurs are now living amongst them, they are living in a new era, a new world—a Jurassic world.

As the film cuts to scenes of the dinosaurs in the wild, we know that this new world is not going to be a safe world for humans. According to Jurassic philosophy, though, the only lives that seem valuable are the lives of the animals. While the scene of the brachiosaurus left behind to die in the eruption is upsetting and drawn out, human life is extinguished with flare and a sense of vengeful justice. This is, unfortunately, not a surprising trend.

Read the rest here at Fathom Mag.

Loving Those with Mental Illness: A Lesson from Vincent Van Gogh’s Life

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I was on the receiving end of mental illness during my formative years. My beautiful, brilliant mother was also bipolar and paranoid. She thought people were chasing her which resulted in us living in hotels and her buying a gun. I woke up one morning to the sound of her shooting a hole in the hotel wall because the people in the next room wouldn’t turn the TV down. Life after that got simpler in a way–she was arrested and later institutionalized and my sister and I put in foster care and then under the guardianship of my grandparents.

They loved us, but they had their own disorders, namely an undercurrent of bitterness from a failed marriage and a son who was an alcoholic. These experiences shaped me as a child, making me fear mental illness. I’m not afraid of having it–I’m afraid of being at the mercy of a person who does have it. This fear has moved me to be highly cautious in my social interactions.  Any hint of weirdness, and I run. I find the possibility of out-of-control responses terrifying.

I’ve lived my whole life like this, and it has protected me well.  However, the love of Christ pushes against this self-preservation. Jesus reminds me that love is for everyone and not just the ones who have it all together. The Gospel is for the addict, the depressed, the emotionally needy person, and the mentally ill.

A New Perspective

Recently I read an ALA award-winning book about Vincent Van Gogh called Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman. Many of us are familiar with his artistic genius in well-known paintings such as The Starry Night and Sunflowers (a print of which I had in my college dorm room). Even more infamous is his self-mutilation of his ear and suicide. When I picked up this book in order to write a review for a Christian journal, I was not prepared for the emotional connection I would make. More than likely, Vincent had bipolar disorder from the descriptions of his mania and severe depression. What many don’t know about him, though, was that his brother was the one steady person in his life, enabling him to create the masterpieces that he did.

In fact, the narrative radiates from the hub of one moment in their lives. Two young brothers becoming men go on a walk and make promises to one another. Heiligman describes it like this:

But now, on the walk, it’s only Vincent and Theo. The brothers arrive at a polder windmill in Rijiswijk just as the rain stops. They see a sign in the window of the mill: milk for sale, one cent a glass, and also fried eels. Vincent and Theo each buy a glass of milk. No eels. They drink their milk and make a pledge to each other. They promise to always be close, to keep the bond between them strong and intimate. They will always walk together. They will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art. Together they will achieve lives filed with a purpose. And they will, when needed, carry each other’s parcels.

Vincent paints this scene and later sends it to Theo as a reminder of this eventful day.

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Heiligman describes the two men in the painting:

The men are in workers’ clothes, not fancy establishment garb. One of the men is thinner than the other, of a slighter stature. He stands straight and neat. The other man is bigger and maybe taller, but he is slouching, so he looks shorter. He’s messier, and he is leaning into the other man, his right knee bent toward the other man’s leg, his right foot forward, touching, or almost touching, the other man’s left foot. It makes sense to see the men as Vincent and Theo. Vincent leaning into Theo.

Vincent does lean into Theo, but Vincent repays with love and commitment. Though Vincent is passionate and sporadic, he pours himself into his art and his genius emerges. This genius would have never been possible except for the patient love and understanding of his younger brother, Theo. When Vincent shoots himself, he does not die immediately. There is time for Theo to come to him. Then, laying side by side like they did as children, Vincent dies in Theo’s arms. A year later, Theo himself dies from advanced stages of syphilis.

A Reciprocal Love

It would be easy to say that Theo was the one who gave to Vincent, but the author of this biography makes it clear that the respect and connection were mutual. Theo needed Vincent as much as Vincent needed Theo. I was not prepared for how emotional I would feel upon the conclusion of this book. For one, the author helps you see, through his letters, Vincent’s heart. He knew that there was something wrong, and he couldn’t fix it.  He could only do his best and pour his energy into loving his family and doing what he was gifted to do.

Not Solutions, Love

This relationship humbled me because I see so much of God’s love in this.  This fierce commitment to the beloved, not because they perform well, but because they are family.

In a New York Times article titled “The Problem with How We Treat Bipolar Disorder”, the author Linda Logan describes her own bout with mental illness. She is institutionalized several times and even experiences hallucinations and loss of identity. Her story sounds much like Vincent’s ups and downs. When discussing this with her father who also struggles with bipolar disorder, he helped her see things differently.

One day, about eight years ago, it struck me that bipolar disorder was the hand I was dealt. I remembered what my father said to me when I moved from Boston: “Don’t look at what your disorder has taken away from you, try to find what it has given you.”

We want solutions to problems while some things, like mental illness, cannot be completely solved. We have to live in the midst of brokenness that cannot be healed on this side. The hope though is that our God who is good and gives good gifts has not arbitrarily allowed us to struggle. There is a gift within the struggle if we can hold on long enough to receive it. For Vincent and Theo, it was a rare genius that impacted culture for decades. For Logan, it was the ability to reach out to others in the same situation and help them process the grief caused by losing yourself in mental illness. For those who struggle with these things, they need to know that they still have something valuable to give the world.  The church can help those who struggle to find their gift to give.

In this way, it is not the needy leaning into the church, but it will be a mutual bond where the church grows and learns from those who are weakest. When we do this, we will finally be operating in the philosophy of the kingdom of God where the first shall be last and the parts that seem most dishonored will be the ones most needed. This is the power of the Gospel that our world so riddled with fear and isolation so desperately needs to hear.