Danny is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and so he spent the last couple of months viewing all of the nominated movies and actors for the awards that were presented last night. As a member of the Guild he got to vote, and he has been filling me in on what he thought of the movies that he was seeing and the performances that was evaluating after seeing each one. The night last week when his votes had to be in, Danny called to tell me how he had voted, and why, after he had submitted them. It’s been a fascinating process to watch from a distance and reflect on. And to do my part, to be an informed conversation partner with my son, I too have been going to the nominated movies. Of course, I don’t go with Danny’s eye or perspective. He is an artist; he watches movies and evaluates the performances of actors and actresses from the vantage point of his training and passions. I am a minister – a practical theologian – and it is from that vantage point with its training and passions that I form opinions about all the movies that I have seen this year.
In their book Lectio Divina: Contemplative Awakening and Awareness (Paulist Press – 2008) Christine Valters Painter and Lucy Wynkoop include a section on “Praying with Movies,” something they call “Film Divina.” They explain –
Movies have become the storytellers of our time. They offer us images of the human journey that we share across culture and religious tradition, images that capture important truths. If we believe that God is in all of life, films can provide something that speaks to us and our lives about our own sacred story. God’s glory within us, God’s healing, and God’s compassion can become more apparent when we reflect on how God speaks to us through “film Divina.” (133)
And then, in order to help their readers use films in their spiritual formation, Painter and Wynkoop have created a six step process for “film Divina” –
1. Preparation – consciously taking steps to make yourself “fully present” for the viewing;
2. Viewing the Film – paying attention to where you connect with the film;
3. Reflecting on the Film – attending to what has captured your attention in the film;
4. Responding to the Film – listening to you heart for the invitation or conversion God is offering you through the film;
5. Resting with God – rest with what has happened to you because of the film;
6. Closing – allow God ‘s invitation to you from the film be extended into your everyday life.
Years ago (1965) in his book of prayers “Are You Running with me Jesus?” the controversial Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd included a section he called “Meditations on Films” in which he modeled this spiritual discipline without having a name for it. This was one of those books that had a profound impact on my spiritual development, and it opened the door for me to go to movies – something I have always loved to do – with more than just an expectation for a couple of hours of escape and entertainment. Malcolm Boyd’s “Meditations on Film” – the same spiritual discipline that Painter and Wynkoop describe as “film Divina” – helped me to see how movies could be approached spiritually, as ways of seeing who God is and what God is doing in the lives of people in the world. And it has been with this kind of seeing that I have been watching this year’s movies, and I have some thoughts about them.
For the sheer pleasure of a movie experience, “Argo” was my favorite movie this year. It was not the most important movie I saw this year, or the one that had the greatest impact on me, but it was the one that I enjoyed the most. Emotionally it took me back to the days of the Iranian hostage crisis and the feelings of national impotence that it created in me. Raised in the home of a WW 2 veteran, a card carrying member of the greatest generation, I believed in the rightness and invincibility of the American way. The hostage crisis in Iran was the icing on the cake of Watergate and Vietnam that disabused me of the notion that America was always going to get its way, that everything we do as a nation is noble and that everybody is going to like us. The feelings of triumph and relief that you feel in this film when the airplane finally takes off and you know that the mission to get our people out has been successful were matched in me by the feelings of frustration and fear that come from the recognition that the forces that created that situation have not changed, and if anything have only intensified. Yesterday in church we talked about ”the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2) in worship, and “Argo” poses the question of how and when this will happen with particular force.
“Lincoln” was the most important movie I saw this year. I believe that it is going to be a classic, and that every American ought to see it (I get sick to my stomach when I think that more people have seen “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer” than have seen “Lincoln”). A few years ago I made the resolution to read a biography on every President of the United States, and I kept it. I made some new favorites along the way – John Quincy Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland – but even after that process, nobody still comes close to Lincoln. This film captures his humanity powerfully, memorably. It honors the painful process of our political system by which epochal decisions are made. And it speaks to the power of one who chooses to give his all to the truth that has seized him no matter what it costs him. “Lincoln” made me proud to be an American, and left me wondering where the leaders like him have gone?
Silver Linings Playbook
In the summer of 1972, as part of a church internship, I spent a week with the chaplain of a mental health facility. What I saw and heard there that week changed my perspective forever on mental illness. Growing up I had a friend whose mother “went away” from time to time because she suffered from clinical depression, and I can remember how I was forbidden to go over there to play with my friend, and how nobody ever talked about it. This taught me to associate fear and shame with mental illness. In contrast, when the parent of another friend of mine had a massive heart attack, the whole neighborhood mobilized in response and I was told to pay special attention to my friend in his time of need. And this taught me about compassion and community for the physically ill. My week with the chaplain at that mental health facility in 1972 helped me to start to come to terms with the fact that sick people are just sick people regardless of whether their sickness is physical or mental, and that they all deserve compassion and community. And I believe that this wonderful little film with its truly amazing cast has the power to effect this same kind of perspectival shift in us all.
Natural catastrophes are a crisis of faith for people who believe that God is all-good and that God is all-powerful. If these things are true of God, then why do things like earthquakes and tsunamis happen? It’s a good question, and one that people of faith need to wrestle with, and this movie is an excellent way to step into the conversation. Visually stunning – I think that it deserves all of the special effects awards that can be given – “The Impossible” personalizes the anguish and despair that people who are the victims of disasters experience, as well as pointing to the nobility and tenacity of the human spirit. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 and 4:7-12 played through my head and heart while watching this film, and the sequence when the mother insists that she and her frightened son stop and help someone else even at the risk of their own safety is as powerful and spiritually satisfying a scene as I saw in any movie this year.
Zero Dark Thirty
I don’t know what to do with “Zero Dark Thirty.” I grew up watching and loving war movies. They were uncomplicated and unambiguous. We were the good guys and we won because what we were doing was right. War movies aren’t like that anymore, and that’s probably a good thing. I am not a pacifist. Instead I subscribe to the position that is known as “the just war theory,” a position that insists there are specific conditions that must be met if the initiation, prosecution and completion of an armed conflict is to be judged moral. And this film is a gut-wrenching examination of just how complicated this all can become. I came out of the theater after watching this movie unsure of what I thought about it and the story it told. The closing scene where the main character sits in the back of a transport plane with the question of the flight crew hanging in the air – “where do you want to go?” – is the exactly the right question. If you are looking for easy answers and a happy ending, “Zero Dark Thirty” is not the right movie for you. But if you want to struggle with the questions, “Zero Dark Thirty” poses them powerfully.
I saw “Les Miserables” on Christmas Day and it was a religious experience for me. I had gone to worship that morning at a church in my neighborhood that had a service, and then that afternoon, in the movie theater, I felt like I was in another worship service. I love this movie, this cast, and their take on the story. I know that it has its critics, but I don’t care. “Les Miserables” is a presentation of the Gospel. Some of its emphases may be a little off doctrinally, but emotionally – at the level of the heart – it hits all of the right notes. After seeing it on Christmas Day, I thought about the people I had been in church with that morning, and the people I had been in the theater with that afternoon, and I wondered how many of them overlapped; how many had been in both places? And it reminded me that while most people are not in church that they are still deeply moved by the message of sin and redemption, personal transformation and self-sacrifice. And I am left wondering how the church can do the “follow-up” on secular presentations of the Gospel like “Les Miserables”? We’ve got to figure this out.