Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

(Warner Brothers)

(Warner Brothers)

We got a GPS this past Christmas. We call it Mildred. If we’re going somewhere and we need directions, we just type our destination and hit “Go.” And Mildred sets to work, bouncing signals off a satellite and back, calculating the perfect route (usually) and then – the best part – speaking that route to us, turn by turn.

My friend Lincoln and I took Mildred to Southern California a few weeks ago, where she performed like a champ, guiding us through the freeway system. A few times when we couldn’t get to the exit ramp because of heavy traffic, we’d miss a turn. And Mildred would simply gather herself, recalibrate and tell us the new directions. Once in a while, she would get confused momentarily – especially on cloverleafs, where one road was directly above another – but we could always count on her to figure things out.

Sometimes I wish my life had a GPS, where I could plug in a destination and receive turn-by-turn instructions from Mildred’s firm, confident computer voice. Instead, life usually seems like I’m stuck in a tunnel and Mildred can’t find the satellite. I’m left to take my best guess about the next turn. Sometimes that proves to be the right path. Sometimes I have to recalibrate.

That can be frustrating when all I want is clarity. But then I remember: No great adventure was ever a sure thing. What makes it an adventure is risk – risk of getting lost, risk of failure, risk of letting a lot of people down, even risk of death. The bad thing about a GPS is, it can turn a journey into a boring list of instructions. Sure, you don’t get lost. But in the process, the adventure gets lost with it.

I tend to wander, and I tend not to follow instructions (just ask my wife). I’ve been lost many times, without a map or GPS: In a forest preserve two miles from our house. On a remote national park trail as the sun was setting. In a ridiculously bad neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, where I could only think of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold character. Even in Beirut, Lebanon, where we’d wandered much too close to a Hezbollah rally.

Each of those situations became a good story we still talk about – usually in the context of how dumb I was for not carrying a map or GPS. Point taken, if we’re talking about a hike or a drive.

But when we’re talking about life decisions, then I’m back to that adventure thing – how it requires an ever-growing trust in someone I can’t see. Brennan Manning writes in “Ruthless Trust” that he believes that trusting God is, in fact, what it means to love him.

“Why does our trust offer such immense pleasure to God?” Manning writes. “Because trust is the pre-eminent expression of love. Thus, it may mean more to Jesus when we say, ‘I trust you,’ than when we say, ‘I love you.’”

Those words help. I wrestle with doubts about my faith all the time. The bottom line, though, is that my wife and I have loved God enough to trust him, and to take a big risk, not knowing where the road leads. We’ve sold our nice home and I’ve left a comfortable career – certainties in life – in order to pursue something crazy, something great. We have no idea how this story will turn out.

I watched “Argo” last night, the Oscar-winning film about the rescue of six American diplomats from Iran in 1979. Ben Affleck’s character, CIA agent Tony Mendez, is laying out his crazy-sounding plan to the diplomats: They’ll pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie. The six are less than convinced. Mendez tells them it’s their best hope.

That’s why I’m here,” he says. “I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. I get people out and I’ve never left anyone behind. I’m asking you to trust me.”

Sometimes, a film that has nothing to do with God can bowl me over with a God moment. Right now, if our lives were a movie, we’d be at that critical point where the audience isn’t sure whether the heroes are going to make it.

And I can sense God saying to me the exact words Mendez used.

I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. … I’m asking you to trust me.

We want an airtight plan with guarantees. Or at least we think we do. God says, “Trust me.”

Do I love him enough to do that? I want to.

Manning writes:

The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.”


I’m reading a profound little book right now, called “Chaos and Grace” by Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today magazine.  Galli proposes that the American evangelical church is addicted to safety and control, and thus has a terrible time getting about the business of following Jesus.

Which reminds me of a scene in the 1997 sci-fi film, “Contact.” Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is chosen as the lone passenger for a sphere-shaped spacecraft that humanity had been instructed by extraterrestrials to build. The plans did not include a seat or a harness, so human engineers added those to keep the occupant from flying around inside the capsule. In flight through interstellar wormholes, Ellie is strapped into the seat, but the turbulence is so great it nearly knocks her unconscious. Finally, she does something counterintuitive. She releases the harness and floats gently into the air, while the seat finally breaks free and slams into a wall.

By releasing control and trusting in the greater intelligence that devised the ship and its method of travel, Ellie floated freely and safely as the capsule arrived at its destination. Had she trusted in her own concept of safety, she’d have been crushed.

Sometimes, it’s only in giving up the safety devices we know and cling to that we find true safety in the care of God who knows what’s best for us.

Galli writes (p. 154):

It’s not hard to see how quickly stewardship of our time becomes a means to control and order our lives, rather than an opportunity to begin each day asking, “Spirit of God, to where will you carry me today?” Most likely it will be to the usual places, where we’ll meet the usual assortment of people. Once in a while, he’ll call us to forsake the golden opportunity in order to send us to the desert. Other times he’ll magically transport us to a place or calling we never would have imagined possible. But even when he again carries us back to the same office and classroom, to the same people we meet every day, we will know this: that our lives are not our own, and that the Spirit has given us these people and this place to do God’s work.

“If that is not liberating, I don’t know what is. Scary, to be sure. Requiring more faith than we seem to have on most days. But imagine how freeing it would be to release the death grip we have on our lives and just let the gracious and loving Spirit of Jesus carries us where he would each day.”

Legalism. We hate the word and all it conjures. Jesus hated it, saving some of his harshest criticism for the Pharisees and their fanatical attention to the law while ignoring the heart.

I grew up knowing Christians who would burn records, condemn certain books and never be seen at R-rated movies, yet who were horribly racist, or gluttonous, or indifferent to the poor. The church is experiencing a backlash against this sort of selective legalism, and that’s been a good and God-honoring thing.

I wonder sometimes, though, if disillusioned Christians (me included) have become so resistant to legalism that we also shun the ideas of personal holiness and intentional living.

If, for instance, I park myself in front of the TV some evening, scroll through a hundred channels and eventually land on some mindless reality show and veg for an hour, I’m probably not honoring God with my use of that time.

On the other hand, if I intentionally engage the same show, with an eye toward the spiritual state of our culture, and pop culture, then I probably am honoring God with that time. I’m engaging my brain and I’m letting the Holy Spirit, in effect, sit there next to me and have a conversation that I later can share with someone else.

In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul writes:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

T.J. Addington, in his book and blog, “Leading From the Sandbox,” writes about intentional living — which he boils down to mean, “Does my schedule reflect my personal priorities?”

Take that thought further: Do my entertainment choices – even when no one else is looking — reflect my personal priorities? Or, more precisely, do they reflect what I would like for my priorities to be?

Maybe the more-common question is: Is it worthwhile for Christians just to spend time being entertained, with no higher purpose? Just a little time to rest and recharge?

I think it depends on whether that entertainment moves me closer to God, or further away from God. As Paul would ask: Where am I fixing my thoughts?

If I watch a movie or TV show with a lot of extra-marital sex, or drunken debauchery, I notice something about my spiritual condition. It has sunk. Not because I want to emulate the people on the screen, but because I’m letting myself be entertained by watching depictions of sin. And then if I’m going to keep watching, I have to shut the door on God’s voice – like the end of the “Godfather” movies where Michael Corleone shuts the door in his wife’s face so the men can discuss the evil business they do.

And even in that little example I open the door to a “What’s appropriate for Christians?” conversation that makes people uncomfortable. I can watch the Godfather movies as a profound commentary on America, family and hypocrisy … or I can watch them as brutally violent gangster movies. I can watch “American Beauty” and be struck by its message about the spiritual emptiness of affluent suburbia, or I can watch it because it has a lot of sex and nudity. Where am I fixing my thoughts?

Can entertainment be spiritually neutral? Sure. If I watch a few innings of a Cubs game, my relationship with God doesn’t change much. Then again, I may get either angry or depressed about the sorry state of my team. Being a Cub fan does make one very cynical.

If I watch “30 Rock,” or reruns of “Seinfeld,” can I appreciate those shows’ great writing and wit, and get past their very unbiblical worldview and content? Again, I think it depends on my spiritual state of engagement and where my thoughts are fixed.

And can I watch “Caddyshack” and appreciate the … oh never mind.

The bottom line is, this conversation leaves more than one spiritually solid place to land. That makes legalists uncomfortable.  At the other end of the spectrum, it touches nerves. But our entertainment choices do affect our spiritual condition. Let’s not avoid the conversation because we’re afraid of lapsing into legalism.

I am concerned about the drummer at church. I’m not sure he’s getting any air.

A few years back, when the church first went to a semi-contemporary service on Sunday mornings, the drum kit was set up nonchalantly near the back of the stage. As far as I could tell, everything sounded fine.

Then, one Sunday, we walked into the auditorium to see the drummer behind a set of three Plexiglas walls. It looked a little like one of those old privacy screens people changed clothes behind in 1960s movies … but minus the privacy. I wondered what sort of international incident had occurred to bring orange-level security around this one man with sticks.

Church services proceeded without incident, with the drums sounding a bit muffled. This setup endured for a year or two.  I was never sure if the drummer was being protected from snipers, or it the congregation was being protected from hearing the drummer. And I suppose those sticks could have shattered during some crazed rendition of “I Can Only Imagine,” sending shards flying into the front row and causing untold splinters.

But apparently this was not nearly enough protection, or drum muffling, because now they’ve completely encased the drummer in Plexiglas – roof and all. He wears noise-blocking headphones, which is a good thing because it must be so loud inside that box that his teeth are coming loose. And I don’t even want to think about what it smells like in there.

Meanwhile, all I can think about when the band plays during church is the “Rock and Roll Creation” scene in “This is Spinal Tap” when Derek Smalls gets stuck inside the plastic pod and keeps playing bass while the roadies try to open it with a hammer and a blow torch.

I’ve since learned that this veritable Cone of Silence is supposedly about sound isolation. You don’t want drum noise bleeding into everyone else’s mics. But before the Plexiglas house I don’t remember this ever being a noticeable concern. I’m not convinced this whole thing wasn’t just about throwing a bone to the people who think drums are Satan’s noisemakers and, along with saxophones and ukuleles, never should be allowed in church.

So the next logical step, for the good of all involved, is moving the drummer completely offsite, to a secure location fortified by 12-inch-thick lead walls. The sound feed from the stage could be piped in, and he could play along without causing danger to anyone.

Also the church wouldn’t have to keep a blowtorch at the ready.

So the original goal for this blog was to do four or five posts a week. And for several months, we did it. Then, in January, and for no particular reason, we just stopped. Sort of like Forest Gump.

We restart this week with a more realistic goal: one, maybe two regular posts a week. Plus the return of Idiot Friday. We’ll try to be topical and journalistic with most posts. It’s easy, and sometimes fun, to sit at a keyboard and ruminate. But, as a journalist friend of mine said last week, the real stories require real reporting. We’ll try to do that whenever possible.

Speaking of which: The people of tornado-ravaged Alabama and Georgia need your prayers and, if you are available, your help. Lincoln is accompanying a TouchGlobal team to Madison, Ala., where he’ll be reporting this week on relief efforts.

The church is often maligned – sometimes deservedly so – for being out of touch. But it’s interesting how after a major disaster it’s the churches who are among those rushing to the scene. And then they keep going there, long after the public’s attention has turned elsewhere. I’ve had the unbelievable privilege of helping with relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Ask people in those places what they think of Christians, and you’ll get a very different response than if you asked the question in too-comfortable suburbia.

More to come this week.

Fort Apache

Posted: December 1, 2010 by Jim Killam in church culture, fortress, movies, pop culture
Tags: , , , ,

In the early 1970s, my brother and I owned a Marx Carry-All Action Playset. It looked like a painted steel briefcase, but opened into Fort Apache, loosely modeled after the 1948 movie starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda which, according to the trailer, celebrated “the courage and daring of a nation’s pioneer spirit.”

Inside, you got a dozen blue plastic cavalrymen and a dozen orange plastic Indians, plus all of their weaponry and luggage. My brother and I would take turns being the cavalry or the Indians. The cavalry occupied the fort and had cannons, rifles, horses and corner watchtowers. The leader looked suspiciously like General George Custer, walrus mustache and all. The Indians had bows and arrows, hatchets, a stray horse, a couple of tired-looking ladders and, inexplicably, a totem pole.

We’d set up elaborate formations of plastic figures, someone would yell, “Go!” and then … nothing happened. We quickly realized that, if you were the cavalry, your safest option was simply to station all of your men inside the fort and never open the steel gates. If you were the Indians, you were pretty much out of luck. The ladders always fell over before Cochise and his men could climb the fort walls and swing their limp plastic hatchets at a cannon.

This scenario hardly displayed “the courage and daring of a nation’s pioneer spirit.” It was simply about waiting for the other guy to get bored and do something stupid like, oh, opening the fort gates. If this didn’t happen, we’d sometimes allow the Indians to call in an airstrike … from the G.I. Joe Adventure Team Helicopter, which was almost as large as Fort Apache itself (these were the days of 12-inch G.I. Joes with Lifelike Hair, not their Lilliputian descendants). From the big yellow helicopter, Joe could drop Lego bombs – sometimes 30 or 40 blocks clustered together – and quickly wipe out General NotCuster and his confused comrades. One time we even bent the fort.

We didn’t know it at the time, but my brother and I were playing out the end of two eras. One was the era of playing cowboys and Indians — which has mostly vanished in a generational wave of good taste. The second was the era of the military fort. Throughout most of world history, the people with the best forts had tended to wield the most power and control. Any city-state with any hope of not being overrun by marauders was fortified with walls – depending on the time period, some combination of dirt, stone, wood, concrete, steel or briefcase sides – and ditches. You wanted your fort to be on the highest ground in the area, so the enemy couldn’t take up positions above you.

If a fort got large enough, or if multiple forts were combined, it was called a fortress. Somehow, the extra syllable made it sound more impenetrable.

Forts and fortresses didn’t work so well as technology advanced in the early 20th century. Back when adversaries wielded hatchets, bows and arrows, a solidly built, well-located fort was still golden. But now armies had gained more firepower – enough to destroy practically any stationary object and everything inside by lobbing bombs over the walls. Concentrating all of your side’s strength inside a fort made you more vulnerable to an overpowering attack.

As warfare became more mobile, the utility of frontier forts faded. Advancing armies simply could run around the fort and keep going. Then came the airplane, and everything changed. Someone quickly realized you could drop bombs right into a fort, and render its high walls useless. (Think: The G.I. Joe Helicopter.) Armies began to spread out along a long and mobile line, with offensive armaments just behind that line.

Today’s war zones have few working forts. Most forts are either military bases far from the front lines, or they are historical relics. What we do have, however, are underground bunkers. Terrorists use them. The United States and other countries have them in the event of nuclear war. They’re places to hide until perceived danger has passed. You can’t offensively engage the enemy from a bunker. You can plan an attack, defend against an attack, even order an attack … but you can’t launch one.

The American evangelical church seems to be growing out of a period marked by two ends of a spectrum: a heartfelt concern for the spiritual needs of the world, and an insular, protect-my-family-at-all-cost fear of that same world. A fortress, if you will. These work directly against each other, and for generations we failed to recognize that.

A friend and disillusioned Christian remarked to me once: “The evangelical church seems to be about building and provisioning a bunker.”

Much has been said and written about the Christian buzzword “missional.” And I suppose any term, once it begins to be overused, becomes more a brand name than a mindset. To me, it’s a hopeful opposite to the fortress culture: Christ followers genuinely living out their faith amidst the culture instead of waiting for the culture to come to church.   

It’s time we throw open the gates and get moving. Too many are losing their faith before they ever leave the fortress.

In 1995, as a free-lance writer, I accepted a free trip to a media event at Walt Disney World (this was before I had learned enough about journalistic ethics to realize this was probably a bad idea). Free airfare, three nights free Disney hotel, free admission to all the parks, even vouchers for free food.

For three days during the parks’ least-busy season, I was treated like a Disney princess. I could ride any ride I wanted, see any show, eat at any restaurant … all on Mickey Mouse’s dime. The catch was, I was by myself. We journalists would attend a morning press conference about new rides and attractions, and then the rest of the day was our own.

There is a definite place in life for solitude. That place is a long way from Disney World. I have never had so little fun at such a fun place. As I watched Indiana Jones blow up an airplane, got dropped from the Tower of Terror and nearly refunded my lunch on a simulator ride called “Body Wars,” I’d never felt more uncomfortably isolated in my entire life. I’d get off the ride and there would be no one to talk with, laugh with … even barf with.

I’d just had exactly the same experience as all of those happy, laughing people getting off the ride at the same time, but all I felt was alone and very self-conscious … and that I shouldn’t walk anywhere near small kids, lest their parents think I was some pervert on holiday.

The experience was just … empty. I couldn’t wait to go home, and to come back later with my family.

In the true 1996 book and 2007 movie, “Into the Wild” — for my money one of the best films of the past decade — Christopher McCandless graduates from college disillusioned with materialistic society. So, he leaves home without telling anyone where he’s going, gives away everything he has, and embarks on a solo quest to find meaning and purpose. That led to random stops around the country, but all with an eventual goal: Alaska. The ultimate wilderness.

Before embarking on the last leg of his journey north, Chris tells his friend Ron Franz: “You are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God’s place is all around us. It is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things.”

Near the end of the film, though, Chris realizes that finding himself, alone, has been no answer. Facing starvation in the wilderness, McCandless writes in the margin of the book, “Doctor Zhivago”: “Happiness only real when shared.”

The prevailing thought in our culture about what someone should do when they’ve been hurt or disappointed by the church is to abandon the church, if not one’s faith altogether. Go it alone for a while. Or, at very least, find a new church.

Timothy Keller, in “The Prodigal God” writes: “Many people who are spiritually searching have had bad experiences with churches. So they want nothing further to do with them. They are interested in a relationship with God, but not if they have to be part of an organization.” Churches are often so unpleasant, he writes, because “they are filled with elder brothers (he’s referencing Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son). Yet staying away from them simply because they have elder brothers is just another form of self-righteousness. Besides that, there is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t find the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.”

Christianity is a belief system, a personal faith. But at its core, it’s a one-to-one relationship with Jesus. You can’t begin to understand a relationship like that unless you also experience the closest thing we have to it: imperfect human relationships.

Next time: The flip side. The value of wilderness solitude, for a season.