Archives For Film

Thank God for J. K. Rowling

Mark Beuving —  January 27, 2014 — 3 Comments

“Christians should thank God for J. K. Rowling and for her clear presentation of the central values that are at the core of Christian faith and practice.”

That’s not my statement, though as I’ll explain I agree with it enthusiastically. That statement comes from Jerram Barrs, in his excellent book Echoes of Eden. Barrs is not an immature culture junkie. He’s not a hipster twenty-something trying to convince teens that Jesus is cool and so is he. No, Jerram Barrs is an older gentlemen. A scholar. He’s the Resident Scholar at the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he teaches apologetics and outreach. So one might ask how a serious scholar can honestly thank God for books that many Christians have denounced as satanic.

I’ll address the concerns about occultism in a moment. First let me explain why I love these books so much, and why a scholar like Jerram Barrs is equally enthusiastic. I read the whole Harry Potter series twice in 2013. They were good for my soul. They were entertaining, yes, and millions of children and adults lugging these lengthy volumes around and becoming passionate about reading for the first time proves this fact. But these books are deeply touching and inspiring.

I have been asked if I can honestly say that I love Jesus more after having read these books, and I don’t hesitate to answer: absolutely! The books don’t use Jesus’ name, but by living within these stories I am a better person and a greater lover of Jesus Christ.

Jerram Barrs read the last book six times in the six months following its release and says:

“I found myself weeping with joy many, many times as I read and reread this wonderful reflection on the work of Christ.”

Here’s a brief rundown of the storyline that will show why this book is more overtly Christian, in my opinion, than The Lord of the Rings series and more powerfully Christian, in my opinion, than the Narnia series. [And by the way, serious spoiler alert!]

The Dark Lord, Voldemort, rises to power, himself consumed with evil and spreading evil throughout the world, turning the wizarding world from the good use of magic to the evil abuse of it. Intriguingly, Voldemort is connected with the image of a serpent. Then a prophecy is made, declaring that a child would be born who would be Voldemort’s demise. Voldemort tries to kill this child, Harry Potter, in infancy, and in trying to destroy the child he loses his own powers.

Voldemort eventually regains his power and tries repeatedly to kill Harry, only to find that Harry is powerfully protected by the self-sacrificing love of his parents, his friends, and even the lowly and marginalized toward whom Harry directs his own self-sacrifical love.

Harry eventually discovers that the only way to destroy the Dark Lord is to willingly offer himself as a sacrifice for the sake of his friends. When Voldemort kills Harry, Harry finds (in a chapter that is entitled, remarkably, “King’s Cross”) that he can now return to put the nail in Voldemort’s coffin. He returns and defeats Voldemort—not by issuing the deadly killing curse, but with the use of a disarming spell that causes Voldemort’s own killing curse to rebound upon himself and thereby rid the world of his evil presence.

The Christian parallels are unmistakable. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that she is a Christian, and she worships at the Church of Scotland. If Christians could only come to terms with their suspicions regarding the fictional presence of magic, they could find themselves greatly enriched by these wonderful stories.

I am sympathetic towards those who choose not to allow their children to read these books out of concern over the use of magic. But J. K. Rowling insists that she is not interested in the occult and had no intention of promoting it through Harry Potter. I think we should take her seriously, and I do not think these books promote the use of magic in the real world. I encourage you to take a look at my thoughts on the matter.

But here’s the point. Fiction is powerful stuff. Everyone is eating up these powerful stories. Seriously. The last of the Harry Potter books sold 11 million copies within 24 hours of its release, making it the fastest selling book of all time. The books have reportedly sold over 400 million copies. The last of the Harry Potter films also became one of the highest grossing films in box office history.

People can’t get enough of these stories. They may not know why they find Harry Potter so compelling, but we as Christians know a powerful part of the answer: at their core these stories relate integrally to the greatest story ever told. Do not violate your conscience, but if you find yourself compelled, I encourage you warmly to pick up book 1, read it eagerly and with discernment, and see if you find the Christian nature of these books as compelling as Jerram Barrs and I do.

My girls loved Frozen. I loved Frozen. It was a great story that carried great lessons. It was also funny and entertaining. Ultimately, I loved it because it conveys a powerful message about personal growth and fighting for love. And perhaps the best part is that the type of love most exalted in the movie was that between two sisters, rather than romantic love, which triumphs in most Disney movies but actually gets ridiculed a bit in this film.

But Frozen also carries a warning about the importance of stories. Of whole stories. Of individual pieces of stories being set in their proper context.

My daughters love the song “Let It Go,” which is the most compelling song in the film. So we downloaded the song and have been listening to it. On repeat.

Here’s the trouble. The song features these words:

“It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrongNo rules for me
I’m free!”

Before you stress out too much, let me assure you that Disney is not denying absolute truth here. Nor are they trying to teach our kids to disregard rules. But this song illustrates the need for stories and context.

In the context of the overall story, this song fits in perfectly. The character (Elsa) has been repressed, she’s had to live a lie, and at this point in the film, she “lets go” and finally owns up to who she is. It’s actually a freeing point in the story, and in some ways a truly healthy development. But as the phrase “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” illustrates, she carries her authenticity too far and her desire to stop restraining herself ends up hurting herself and many others.

So in the movie, the naïve folly in these lyrics gets exposed, and she learns to be herself within the context of right and wrong. The film sorts all of this out in a powerful way.

The problem is created by the fact that this song is too good. It’s the standout single. So people (like my family) are going to buy this one song and listen to it apart from its story, apart from its context. And as a stand alone single, it’s implying that freedom comes from shirking rules and denying the distinction between right and wrong.

To be clear, Disney isn’t implying this, because they created that song for its context in the story. But listeners will infer it because they’ll be listening to the song without regard to its context.

There’s no villain here. It doesn’t upset me at all. But it struck me as a good reminder. Now, my oldest daughter is 4 years old, so we’ve haven’t been able to have a deep talk about relativism and how one might mistakenly infer this worldview from the song she loves. If you have older kids, you may want to have a conversation like that. But for me, it stood as a reminder of how important stories are.

It’s not the individual elements that make a story good or bad, it’s the relation of the characters and events to the overall plot. This is as true of stories in the Bible (like David and Bathsheba) as it is of Disney films. So go ahead and enjoy your favorite scenes and singles, but make sure you pay attention to the whole story.

The Little MermaidIn honor of the recent re-release of The Little Mermaid, I’m going to explore this beloved Disney movie from a theological perspective (because everything is ultimately theological).

There are three primary ways you can take The Little Mermaid. The first is the most common. You can view it as “just a movie,” as a simple and entertaining cartoon. This would mean enjoying the songs, laughing at the humor, and feeling the glow of a good happily-ever-after.

Or you could think theologically about the film, and take it as a horrifying lesson for our young women. This was my view of The Little Mermaid over the past few years. Think about it. Ariel falls in love with a man she knows almost nothing about, disobeys and ultimately runs away from her father, changes herself (her physical appearance as well as her essential being) in an effort to get this man, and although trouble ensues, she ends up getting exactly what she wants. The father is a pushover, who simply gives his spoiled daughter whatever she wants so she can be “happy.” Leave it to Disney to give us this kind of happily ever after, right?

But there is a third way of taking The Little Mermaid, one that thinks about the movie theologically but less cynically, and one that has stood out to me since watching the film with my daughter recently. Ariel is a rebellious you woman. A perfect example of humanity on this side of the fall. Rebellious, willful, assuming that she knows what is best for her life. Against the wise counsel and commands of her loving father, she attempts to take her future into her own hands, determined to secure her own definition of happiness by her own means. This leads Ariel to utter ruin. Her life is destroyed. Like the prodigal son, she sold her soul for a fleeting chance at happiness.

But her father intervenes. He is not content to let his daughter suffer the just consequences of her rebellion. Instead, he takes her punishment upon himself in order to allow her to live.[1] She then uses her newly re-gifted life to fight against evil, and she is joined by her would-be lover in the battle. Their love is no longer a “Disney romance,” but now each risks his and her life for the other. In the end, the battle with evil is won, and the rebellious little mermaid has come to a place of contentment with who she is and her mermish lot in life (this, of course, is debatable), though she still loves Eric. And her father, who loves her deeply, makes a way for her to be with the one she loves—not because she has demanded it or taken it through her own terms, but he offers it as a gift.[2]

Not only does the film end with a loving relationship between father and daughter, but the merpeople and humans are now living at peace with one another (there was mutual fear and hatred at the beginning).

My point in exploring The Little Mermaid theologically is not to say that everyone should view it as an allegory of the faith or to suggest that Disney was trying to preach elements of the gospel through this cartoon. Not at all. But I am saying that everything bears theologically reflection. Everything needs to be considered beyond its entertainment value. Either Disney is saying something deplorable through this movie, or it is hinting at something profound and inspiring. Either way, these are themes we need to consider, and conversations we need to have with our daughters.



[1] King Triton’s actions here are worth comparing with what’s called the “ransom theory” of the atonement. This view was held by some early church fathers, including Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. In this view, Jesus’ crucifixion was a payment that God made to Satan in order to ransom humanity from Satan’s grasp.

[2] I should also be clear that King Triton often appears to act more as a Greek god (which, in fact, Triton is) than as the benevolent, omnipotent God of the Bible.

SupermanMy all time favorite superhero is Superman. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He can shoot lasers from his eyes, blow tornados from his teeth, and who knows what would happen if he ever got indigestion.

Superman fights the unending battle for truth, justice and the American way. The Man of Steel never seemed to fly as high as when I was a boy. I wanted to be like him. I knew I could never fly or pick up a car; all I could really do was wear my underwear outside my clothes. So I did… (well, at least until Jr. High). When I was a child, I put on my Superman underoos and stood on the couch as I waited for those famous words to blast from our television. “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” Although I never really understood why these first two guys were so excited about seeing a bird or a plane, I waited for my cue. “IT’S SUPERMAN!” Hearing those words, I would jump from the top of the couch and zoom around the room.

Superman JoeySuperman served as my paragon for living a selfless life, of being in the world but not of it, of doing the right thing even when it stirred resentment and criticism from others (cough, cough—Batman!). It is not a surprise, then, that as I grew up and begin to read the Gospels, Superman reminded me a lot of Jesus. Now I know I’m behind the curve when it comes to writing about Superman as a type of Christ; so I want to go the other direction. I want to write about how Matthew presents Jesus as a type of one of Israel’s veritable superheroes: King Solomon.

Typologies of Christ abound in the New Testament. The authors present Jesus as a new Moses, a second Adam, a modern Elisha, a contemporary Melchizedek and so on. You likely know most of these, but you may not be as familiar with the depiction of Christ as a new Solomon.

King Solomon, of course, was the son of David and Bathsheba. He was known as the wisest man that ever lived. His sapience was so remarkable that the Queen of the South traveled to visit and admire this king of the Jews. The Queen did not, however, come empty handed: she brought the son of David precious spices and abundant gold (1 Ki 10.10). And she was not Solomon’s only visitor; rather people from “all the nations” came from every part of the world to hear his wisdom (1 Ki 4.34—5.14).[1]

SolomonDespite his obvious blemishes in the rest of 1 Kings, Jewish wisdom literature and certain intertestamental works often exalt Solomon as their venerable champion. He even develops into a predecessor of Green Lantern. Seriously! In the legendary Jewish work written sometime between the First and Third Century called the Testament of Solomon, God gives the wise king a magic ring by which he subjugates all the demons in and under the world. (You can read it here,[2] I promise it is much better than the movie.)

With this general ennoblement of Solomon in mind, let’s fast forward to the First Gospel. Matthew begins with a genealogy in which he records five women. First, there’s Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. Then there is Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon—the wise heir to Israel’s throne. The woman who follows Bathsheba on the list is Mary, the mother of Christ—the everlasting King of the Jews. Matthew situates the next hint of the typology in the story of the wise men. These royal visitors come from afar; and—similar to the Queen’s gifts to Solomon— they bring Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In case we missed the typology before, Matthew makes it clear in 12:38-42. There, as Jesus castigates the scribes and Pharisees, he reminds them of Solomon and the queen. “She came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom:” and now…drum roll please…”one greater than Solomon is here!” Jesus goes on to place the religious leaders in juxtaposition to the foreigners who, like the queen, will come from the ends of the Earth to pay homage to one greater than their superman. Over against Solomon, Jesus is Wisdom incarnate (11.19), the preeminent philosopher king.

A few years ago, one of my toddlers climbed into my lap, put his head under my chin, and “cuddled.” After a few sweet moments, he broke the silence and said: “Dad, you’re the ‘bestest.’” Similarly—although the debate still rages as to whether Superman or Batman is better (despite the obvious answer!)—this typology of Christ as well as others in the New Testament demonstrate conclusively that above all the champions in history (real or imagined, DC or Marvel) Jesus is the “bestest.” Yesterday, Today, and Forever.

 


[1] (πάντες οἱ λαοὶ /מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים )

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie Now You See Me and plan to, you probably don’t want to read this until you’ve seen the movie.

_____

 

Now You See MeI recently watched Now You See Me, and I loved it. It’s clever, funny, features a fair amount of action, and comes with an unexpected twist at the end. It’s a winning formula. If you liked Ocean’s 11/12/13 or The Italian Job, you’ll probably be into Now You See Me.

The movie features four talented magicians, who are collected into a single act by an unknown ringleader. Though each magician has been accustomed to working alone, they work perfectly together in extremely complicated and dangerous tasks as they perform magic tricks on stage. These tricks, however, involve robbing a bank during a show and distributing the money to the crowd, hacking into a wealthy sponsor’s bank account and forwarding the funds to audience members’ accounts, and stealing a safe and showering the money upon a large outdoor crowd.

It’s Robin Hood with a deck of cards rather than a bow and arrows. And no tights. These magicians steal from the wealthy and pass out the funds to their theoretically poor audiences. And they do it with style. I really enjoyed watching this movie.

But here’s the thing. Even though the movie is really cool, relatively clean, and very entertaining (did I mention I loved it?), it teaches something. All movies teach us. We think of movies as entertainment, but they give us a two hour view of the world through the eyes of one or more character, through the eyes of a director, a writer, a film studio, etc.

In the case of Now You See Me, the movie teaches something unchristian. While there is much to praise and enjoy about the movie, when the plot comes together, you find that the all of the spectacular events in the movie were motivated by revenge.

Now You See Me 2It’s subtle. Like a magic trick. The mysterious ringleader (unidentified until the last scenes), lost his magician father when his attempt to escape from a safe dropped into a river went bad. So the events of the film enact this son’s revenge. He doesn’t kill anyone, but he steals money from the insurance company and bank that didn’t pay out on his father’s life insurance policy, as well as the manufacturing company that built the sub-standard safe that malfunctioned and therefore entombed his father. He also gets the man who prodded his father into the daring trick imprisoned.

The potential upside to all of this is that these four individualistic magicians learn to work together—a dynamic that the film calls attention to. But in reality, they are working together in order to become famous. That’s their entire motivation, and there’s no hint that any of them acted altruistically. The film also tries to soften the revenge theme by having the main character fall unexpectedly in love. But when his newfound love finds out the truth about what he’s done, she merely smiles and vows to lock the secret away forever.

Don’t get me wrong. I really liked this movie. I’m sure I’ll watch it again. And there’s a sense in which this movie tells the truth. People are highly motivated by fame and revenge. The problem I’m having is, these terrible motivations are rewarded in the film. There’s no hint that this is not the best way to live. In fact, I found myself liking the way the main character took his revenge. Whoops.

The fact of the matter is, good movies can teach bad things. And bad movies can teach good things. The point is not to avoid a great movie like Now You See Me. The point is to think critically about what our movies are telling us and how they are moving us.

The goal is first to enjoy the movie as a movie, be moved in the ways the filmmakers wanted you to be moved, and then to contemplate how your biblical worldview ought to come to bear on that film. What is good and true and can be affirmed? What is false and ugly and must be rejected? And how can we live in this world more effectively in light of what we’ve just seen?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...