Faith and Film (prt. 2): The Mission

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By Joe LaGuardia

When I was in high school, my sister Gina and brother-in-law Frank invited me to join them for dinner in Manhattan with one of Frank’s clients. Frank was a personal trainer and this client had meant a great deal to him; the client, a Jesuit priest whose name I’ve since lost, had become a sort of mentor and father figure to Frank.

I don’t remember the fine details of our conversation over dinner, but I do remember enjoying the priest’s explanation of Catholicism and the Society of Brothers, commonly known as the Jesuits. I, an evangelical mostly reared in the south, had certain assumptions of Catholics that this particular Brother sought to correct. He did a good job, and I’ve respected Catholics in general and Jesuits specifically ever since.

One other thing I remember clearly is that the priest recommended I watch the 1986 movie The Mission, staring Robert DeNiro. He thought it might be a good historical primer on the work that Jesuits had accomplished over the centuries.

In The Mission DeNiro, a Portuguese conquistador and slave trader, warred with the Jesuits and their work in converting South American Guarani natives. DeNiro ends up killing his brother over a love triangle and runs away to the Jesuits. Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, takes him in as a sort of disciple.

Much of the movie focuses on DeNiro’s transformation from warrior to wounded servant. The journey he takes is one of redemption, and–as any good epic goes–a discovery that his biggest enemy is himself. God forgives him, but he cannot receive it because he cannot forgive himself.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, DeNiro made a long climb up a waterfall to reach the mission with a band of priests and natives. He is hauling his armor in a sort of net knapsack, and after climbing all the way he falls in exhaustion and pain. A native grabs a knife and cuts the chords to the knapsack, and the armor plummets down the mountain. DeNiro finds liberation. His past, now behind him, no longer enslaves him. The natives accept him as one of their own.

For years and years, I have spent much of my Christian walk trying to figure out what baggage I keep bringing along with me in my ascension towards Christ. What is it that I am holding onto? Where do I need the fresh waters of the mountains and the salty tears of my soul to bless and baptize me? Where do I need Christ’s liberation and permission to forgive myself for all of the stupid things I’ve done and continue to do?

These questions haunt me, and the images of The Mission still ring in my imagination. Its amazing how one Manhattan dinner with a stranger who happened to be a priest made such an impact on my life. I can see–as I realized back then–why this man was so important to Frank’s life.

The last I checked, Frank lost contact with the priest, so I am unable to contact the priest and tell him how much that conversation meant to me. I am unable to convey (on this side of heaven, at least) how his wisdom, grace, and movie recommendation changed my life.

I was a born again evangelical when I met with Gina, Frank, and that priest over dinner so long ago; and I feel I was born again a second time after I walked away from that dinner.

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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?

Approach movie season with Christian lens

By the looks of recent television commercials, we are in for a summer full of movies funny and sad, bombastic and thoughtful.  With blockbuster season right around the corner, perhaps we should take note now–and discuss with our families–how to watch movies from a Christian point-of-view.

On set of Transformers 3: Director Michael Bay with actors Shia LaBeouf (foreground) and Josh Duhamel

Watching a movie through a Christian “lens” is decidedly different than, say, watching a movie for watching sake.   We assume that since Christ is Lord and that we are to take every thought captive, we should ask questions about a film’s lessons for faith and for society.

Our Christian lens allows us to engage the underlying moral and ethical themes in the movies we watch, as well as analyze them with an eye towards God’s redemptive work in the midst of artistic expression.

It is important to approach movies cautiously.  Families with small children can peruse websites that “grade” movies based on violence, language, and sexual content.  Those with older children or teens can watch a movie together, and then discuss how the movie makes an audiences come to conclusions related to faith and morality.

Check out some of these thematic elements that can inform a family discussion as it relates to faith:

We have a whole new line of hero-based movies hitting the big screen, from Thor to Captain America.  Many of these movies help us recognize that honor and courage are important attributes in life.  Yet, they usually glorify violence and revenge, so-called virtues that conflict with God’s word.

It will help families to recall that Jesus explicitly opposed violence as a means of revenge.  Violent content in comic-book movies are usually entertaining, but not very redeeming.

Another unfortunate thematic element found in most movies is sexual exploitation.  I’m looking forward to watching the third installment of the Transformers franchise next month, but I know that director, Michael Bay, has a shallow approach to how he portrays his female characters in his films.

Bay’s movies often degrade women to the status of sex objects or “boy toys.”   Morphing cars are cool, but we may need to discuss how this movie among others mistreat women in general.

Other, more nuanced movies will reach for Academy Award status by portraying humanity in all its candor.  These movies usually have deeper messages than do action flicks, but they too can become important conversation pieces in Christian circles.  Many times these films explore the tensions between faith and science, fate and destiny, hope and grief, and lostness and redemption.

These films can actually become resources to point others to Christ.  Remember last year’s Academy contender, “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney?  The film’s theme centered around an executive who had no real relational connections and very little meaning in his life.  The movie ends on a depressing note.  The movie made me wonder: What if Christ were to take all of the Clooneys of the world and show them that an abundant life is possible only when one relates to God?

Company Men has a star-studded cast, including Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck

I’m looking forward to “Company Men,” which explores the lives of a half-dozen executives who lose jobs during the recession.  It is timely, but it is an important film that echoes “Up in the Air” because it reminds us that family and relationships are more important than prestige and social status.

Despite the downturn of the economy, we can be sure that movies are still cash cows.  As Christians, however, we are called to engage movies with a critical eye towards faith and art from a uniquely Christian perspective.