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 Reading Life (prt. 18): Ditching Books

Image result for used book store

I wish this was my library, but it is not. It is a generic picture of a used book store. I love books–but ditching them is sometimes the only necessary thing to do…

By Joe LaGuardia

This is the final article of an 18-part series exploring the life of reading, writing, and vocational ministry.

We Christians just finished the season of Lent. Although Lent means different things to different people, it boils down to practicing the spirituality of subtraction. We remove something from our life — either by abstaining or fasting — in order to free entanglements or idolatries that ensnare us.

I gave up sweets, but just before Lent I considered giving up reading (I hear that gasp!). Since I read all of the time (when I’m not with my family, that is), I thought, surely, this is an entanglement I could go without.

Thing is, I can’t go without it–its an important catalyst in my relationship with God, and it helps with sermon preparation. The only way I can give up reading for a time is to give up preaching for a time. The two “events” go hand in hand.

Instead, I decided to go through my library and clean out books that I no longer wanted…or, rather, no longer needed (I can’t say, “no longer wanted” because I want all of my books…).

This was harder than I thought because when I looked at individual books rather than the whole library, I realized that each book has meaning. It is difficult to let go, especially when books are, according to Groucho Marx, “man’s best friend” (…outside of a dog).

I read two articles pertaining to the hardships of getting rid of books this past winter. One, by Christian Century editor Peter Marty, had been lost to me since (can’t find it), but the other was by Martin Copenhaver when he was downsizing offices. In the article, entitled “Time to cull my library,” he wrote:

Deciding which books to keep and which to give away is not a simple task. It is not like giving away clothes that no longer fit or sports equipment you are sure you will never use again. My relationship with books is considerably more complex than with other objects, and so is the process of deciding which books will remain with me and which will be cut loose…every [book] you pick up requires a decision.”

When I went through my library ready to donate as many as possible to the used book store, I quickly resonated with Copenhaver’s words. I picked books off the shelves easy enough, but once I had to go through them to make sure I removed any personal notes, I found that getting rid of them resulted in a sort of grieving process.

I grieved that my time on this earth is running short, and therefore do not have all the time I need to read said books–even the good ones I want to re-read (I just had a birthday in March, so don’t blame me!). I grieved that the books would no longer equip me for the ministry in which I currently reside. I grieved that some of the books–gifts along the way–needed to go even when the person who gave me the book means a great deal to me.

But that’s how these things go sometimes, and my journey of sorting books was a microcosm of the spirituality of subtraction after all. We cannot replace books for the relationships they may conjure. They are mere tokens, not the experience and relationship itself. When Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days, he refused to turn stones into bread because he knew that the bread was an object of desire, not the Subject who created or gifted us with the object in the first place.

A part of the reason I started the “Reading Life” series was because I hoped that other people were as intimately bound with their books as I. We have a story to tell for all our paper treasures, but sometimes we have to let some of those stories go free.

By donating books, we gift someone else who may need those stories now more than ever. And letting go–and grieving–is part of the way that God takes our loss and weaves together something meaningful for the sake of others.

I will continue to weed out books I can give away as this year unfolds. It gets easier over time and contemplation; but, the reading life is like that–it is a journey of words for the sake of words. When you love words, it turns out that parting is that much harder, filled with sweet sorrow. But, as they say, better to love and have lost…