Faith and Film (prt. 3): Rocky

Image result for rocky

By Joe LaGuardia

Watching Rocky was a family affair growing up in the LaGuardia household. Not only did we watch every Rocky movie as a family, we literally saw our family in the series reflected back to us.

There was Rocky, a metaphoric character for my father. He, like Rocky, lacked certain social graces and came from a middle class neighborhood not too different from Philadelphia (he was from Brooklyn).

He came from a family of boxers, and he managed to woo my mother with the gift of gab: Legend has it that he walked up to my mother in a club and said, “See this place? I own this place! Wanna’ dance?”

Adrian is very much like my mother. Shy and mild-mannered, my mother worked hard to get beyond my father’s big personality and shadow.

Micky is my grandfather. I don’t say, “Like my grandfather,” because he practically is my grandfather. Micky (Burgess Meredith) and my grandfather talk the same, sound the same, have the same mannerisms, share the same punch-drunk broken-flat nose, and echo similar “boxer” colloquials: Grandpa’s favorite line of advice was (in Burgess Meredith brough), “Hit ’em low! Sweet and low!”

My grandfather taught self-defense and boxing in the Navy in World War 2, and he went on to train boxers in the Brooklyn neighborhood he lived all his life. He was a part of the Police Athletic League (PAL) and helped keep kids off the streets by focusing on family and fitness (sound familiar?).

I would say that Paulie resembles one of my sisters (Gina), but that wouldn’t be fair. Or nice, although she and Paulie do share a certain restless energy. (And I think both my sisters would make intimidating and frightening loan sharks, or assassins like Alicia Keys and Tereji Hensen in Smokin’ Aces.)

Where am I in all this? I’m Butkiss the dog, merely observing all the action swirling around me…

I write all of this for the fact that I am not quite sure how the Rocky franchise has shaped my faith. It’s like trying to ask whether my faith is a product of nature or nurture–it just is so intertwined in my life as a cult film that I have no doubt it contributed to my upbringing in a major, albeit subtle way.

Perhaps the greatest contribution comes from the first Rocky installment. There, Rocky has a coming of age journey in which he meets Adrian, realizes he is not cut out for life in the mob, and gains prestige not by winning the “big fight”, but by staying on his feet.

That is a mirror of my life in so many ways! I’ve never been a winner in big things: I never held a job that made lots of money, and I was never the popular kid in school. I’ve never gone against big shots, but I like to think that I have been able to stay on my feet to the fifteenth round. I believe that dedication, determination, and faithfulness—not some flashy pitch or manipulative marketing–is what gets you through the next round.

I have come of age facing a fork in the road: One road, the wide road was that of living into an Italian stereotype of being a tough guy, muscling my way to destruction. The second road was the narrow way of giving up my familial identity and surrendering everything to the non-violent Christ, including the tough guy vibe.

I must admit that my wife was a little upset when I turned in the sleeveless shirt and Camaro for Oxford shirts and a Honda, something she reminds me of every wedding anniversary (“You remember, when I met you, you were…”).

Thanks to Netflix streaming service, my son and I began to watch the Rocky series–his first time through it. I wondered what things he might pick up from the series. My father passed away when my son was young, but my son wears my father’s boxing trousers and glittering boxing shirt around the house sometimes in his honor.

My son never knew his great-grandfather, so Micky doesn’t hold the same hypnotic sway over him, and he wasn’t raised to be a tough guy, so that is not one of the “coming of age” conflicts that confronts him.

He left me half-way through the first film because he was bored.

Tonight we started watching Rocky II, and my son is giving another go at it. As we sat together, however, I felt myself falling into some of the attitudes I haven’t faced in a long time, including that dastardly fork.

I am finding it hard to stop the film and move into the real world of my life now. Nostalgia works that way sometimes, threatening to hold us down to the point of drowning us in the past.

That is the difficulty of the thing. Dad and Grandpa are gone. Mom has found her voice in a second marriage upon living independently (and doing an amazing job of it) in the last six years. I can’t afford a Camaro because I have big-boy bills to pay. And my wife complains more of my eating habits than the shirts I wear (or don’t wear, rather). The last time I went to Brooklyn was for my grandpa’s funeral over a decade ago. When I preach, I keep the tough-guy, New York lingo to a minimum–only when I’m cracking a joke (a “wise crack!”) now and then.

Rocky presents for me a conundrum whereby I am introducing my son to a life he’ll never know and saying goodbye once and for all to a life that has slipped out of my fingers and no longer exists. Perhaps the movie moves me to grief more than anything else. It is a letting go…and a letting God.

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Faith and Film (prt. 1): House

House (1985)

By Joe LaGuardia

I took a course on faith and film years ago in college. The conundrum is this: does film reflect society, or does film shape society? Same can be said of faith: How much does media, whether film or otherwise, shape or inform our faith?

This series intends to reflect on the films that may have contributed to my faith. I can’t cover all of them, of course; but there are enough movies that stand out to create a fun blog for now.

The film that’s been on my mind is an unlikely one for a pastor: House, the 1985 horror comedy directed by Steve Miner.

I remember the first time I watched it–at my uncle’s house in Homestead, around 1988, on HBO. It made an impression because it was both scary and quirky; I found myself covering my eyes, but laughing too. No wonder the director once mentioned that if parents wanted to introduce their children to horror, House was a good place to start.

House follows horror author Roger Cobb, played by William Katt, who moves into his late grandmother’s house. His grandmother, recently deceased, was said to have been playing with an alternative world beyond the grave. In a turn of events, Cobb’s newest novel, about his experiences in the Vietnam War, comes to life.

Although I was too young to appreciate all of the nuances that House had to offer–the subtext of post-traumatic stress and the unfolding of trauma in the Vietnam War generation– I caught the significance and fear of living in a house that had more to it than just a bunch of cold, empty rooms.

One scene, for instance, finds Cobb wrestling with monsters erupting from a bathroom vanity. The vanity, he later discovers, is a corridor to the netherworld.

In other scenes, we are not sure what is real and what is a figment of Cobb’s imagination. The movie plays with the idea of the house as a metaphor of the mind, especially those who suffer from trauma and the “demons” in the shadows of life.

House metaphors are familiar to Christians. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that disciples who obey his teachings are like wise people who build houses on firm foundations. After healing a demoniac, he warned that a demon once expelled might return to the clean home of the soul with additional evil friends. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses a building as a metaphor for the church: Though ministers and parishioners build the house, it is Christ who is the unifying foundation. In later church history, St. Teresa of Avila wrote of faith as a journey into an “interior castle.”

After I watched House, I was afraid to go to bed alone. It wasn’t because the images of monsters kept flashing through my imagination, but because I was afraid that if I closed my eyes, I would lose myself in the dark corridors of the uncertainty and anxiety of my heart and body.

I wasn’t afraid of the dark, but of where the darkness might lead–and whether there was ever an end to it. To this day, the most frightening metaphor I have for hell is not of a fiery furnace, but from writer Jack London: Hell is being wrapped up in eternal darkness.

Darkness–especially the darkness of a corridor that descends into an abyss–is not scary because of its length or breadth, but because of the claustrophobia of the darkness itself. It is being “wrapped up” that gives me chills. (I’m severely claustrophobic, and I also have a fear of heights–which is probably why that bathroom vanity scene in House left such an impression!)

If the adage of “home is where you make it” is true, than a large part of our journey of faith is being able to call your life–your body, mind, and soul–home. It is about being comfortable with yourself and content with the life God has given you. Of course, as a Christian, I have the assurance that when I invite Jesus into my life (otherwise, he “stands at the door and knocks…”), Jesus will take up residency in my very being.

Christ becomes the sure foundation, a foundation which provides a boundary to the abyss and confines the darkness to God’s ever-mysterious presence. Jesus pierces darkness, and darkness cannot prevail.

To this day, I remain enamored by House, and I have yet to revisit the movie in my adulthood. I’m afraid to watch it, not because of the horror of the movie, but because I don’t want to lose the childlike innocence I had when I watched it long ago. If it holds a special place in my life, then let it be so. Who knew a horror film would make such an impact?

A Reader’s Life (prt. 16): Words that Defy

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By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

The greatness of writing–and the power of a word–is measured by how well that word (and, when I say “word,” I mean it metaphorically as a body of work or writing) defies other words.  A meaningful word lingers and lasts; it pierces or inspires.  A powerful word bears fruit, sometimes violently or without regard to our sensibilities.  The Bible says that God’s word, which has the power to create and destroy and shape, does not come back void.  It defies competing narratives.

My favorite writers have accomplished this feat in their writing.  Among them is Barbara Brown Taylor, the Episcopal priest turned writer and spiritual guide.  Her books, namely Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, have impacted me with a word that lasts, that refuses to come back void.   Her writing resonates.  It spelunks in the heart.  It is like a sonar that sends signals to map an unknown landscape, that penetrates the soul to lay out a geography of the spiritual life.

Other authors have had this powerful sway over me–Annie Dillard and Henri Nouwen stand out.  They write in a way in which the writing itself is a spiritual exercise.  They do not write about something so much as write from within that experience of the thing itself.  Like mystics of old, their writing–that slow, often time painful process of putting one word in front of another, and one sentence upon the other– is the spiritual experience itself.

I have reflected on my preaching as a result of this lesson.  When I preach, do I merely talk about God, or do I express my experience of God?

Some say you can do both, but I am not so sure.  I hear many sermons about God; but few have the courage or prophetic power to preach from within the experience.  This morning I read Ezekiel 4.  God asked Ezekiel to act out a prophetic word of judgment against Israel and Judah by making a clay tablet picture of the city under siege.  God told him to lie on his side every day for over a year.

When God told Ezekiel to eat a scroll the chapter before, it wasn’t just to regurgitate it, it was to feast on it, find nourishment, embody it, and take on its physical presence.  No wonder that John says that when God visited us in the person of Jesus, it was God’s creative Word taking on flesh.

I think this is why Taylor’s writing is so poignant.  It comes from two avenues of experience–the author as artist, and the preacher as homiletician.  Taylor has taught both subjects — from her full-time work at Piedmont College in the north Georgia foothills, to her adjunct work teaching preaching at Emory University and elsewhere in the urban milieu of Atlanta.  I am going to a conference next week to see her give a presentation on “How I Have Changed my Mind About Preaching” at Mercer University.  I am bringing her latest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark to get her signature.  I look forward to receiving God’s word from her yet again.

We writers have a bad habit of trying to mimic our favorite authors.  Rarely does this work out; it comes off as phony or insincere.  I did this once.  I wanted to write like Taylor–pen and paper in hand, I wanted to hand-write my next book like she does her own.  And I wanted to write like Dillard–not merely talk about something, but write poetic prose that penetrates the very thing in my experiences of it.

I tried this (spiritual) practice–mainly at the beach.  I brought my spiral notebook and my mechanical pencil.  I sat for long periods of time watching the waves and my children looking for seashells, trying to craft each sentence with love, care, and wonder.  I paused, watched the hasty activity and listened to the conversation of the sandpipers so ubiquitous on our coast.  And I wrote.

I wrote for about a dozen or so pages on different topics over the course of a month– on fatherhood, spirituality, vocation, ministry.   Then, I fizzled out.  It didn’t sound right, it didn’t feel right, and it was not even worth transferring the material into my journal.  I buried the notebook in one of my desk drawers at home.  I pull it out sometimes if I need paper to write a sermon, otherwise it remains hidden.

Powerful words are such because they do defy other words.  Writers know the hardships of having so many words–too many, in fact–fall to the ground, shrivel and die.  Yet, there are those beautiful moments–in an article or a sermon that sounds just right, when the word goes out and never returns.  It spreads its wings and leaves the nest, and finds its way into someone else’s heart to build a nest there and give birth to something new.  It is beautiful, like Taylor’s and Dillard’s writing; but it is a rare word indeed.  Most of the time, our words remain hidden in our desk.