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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The Gospel according to Lil’ Wayne

By Todd Thomason.

The latest issue of Rolling Stone arrived in the mail this week with Lil’ Wayne gracing the cover.  As someone who has not been swept up in the rap revolution, I must confess I don’t know much about Lil’ Wayne or his music other than (contrary to his moniker) he’s one of the biggest stars in hip-hop, he sports an impressive array of tattoos, he recently spent time in jail for criminal possession of a weapon, and the headlines he makes outside of venues like Rolling Stone usually reference drugs or lawsuits.  He’s not the kind of guy likely to win any upstanding citizen or man-of-the-year awards anytime soon.  Even still, Rolling Stone’s February 3rd feature reveals a much more complex human being than the gangsta typically portrayed in the media and by music industry PR–even one capable of prophesying to the religious establishment.

Knowing what I know of Jesus, I really shouldn’t have been surprised to read prophetic words coming from the lips of Lil’ Wayne.  But they caught me off guard nonetheless when I stumbled across them in his conversation with Josh Eells about his time in Rikers, sandwiched between what he ate and what he listened to on the radio while he was behind bars.  As Wayne outlines the extensive reading list he worked through during the eight months of his sentence, he mentions the Bible, which he says he read cover to cover for the first time.

So what did you think [of the Bible]?, Eells asks. “It was deep!  I liked the parts where some character was once this, but he ended up being that. Like he’d be dissing Jesus, and then he ends up being a saint.  That was cool.”

In other words, Jesus made a difference in people’s lives.  He changed them, transformed them, turned them around; He led them to greener pastures and set their feet on firmer ground.

Perhaps if I had sat down to read this article at a different time, Lil’ Wayne’s words wouldn’t have struck me as forcefully as they did.  But in a month filled with church discussions, debates, even arguments about such things as employee regulations and whether or not it’s appropriate to clap in worship, they jolted me–much in the same way I snap to attention when I realize I’m dozing off at the wheel.  It was as if Jesus Himself were confronting me.  What ministries and activities at your church, Rev. Thomason–or any church, for that matter–are really grounded in and invested in the “cool” parts of the Gospel: helping people who were once this become that?  Lots of Christians like to talk about it, and even more like to nod their heads when others talk about it.  But do you actually facilitate it?  Do you actually get your hands dirty with it? Or do you prefer (or even insist upon) people already being turned around before they step through the doors to join the propriety of the sanctuary?  And are you more interested in proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven or maintaining that propriety?  Who’s really dissing who, here?

The honest answers to these questions are short and simple; the solutions for changing the institutional realities behind them are not.  But as I put down Rolling Stone and reach for my Bible to begin preparing for church, one thing is clear: we Christians need to rediscover the “cool” parts of the Gospel–even if we have to journey to Rikers to find them.  And perhaps we do.  In Matthew 25, Christ strongly encourages us to visit those in prison. Moreover, the New Testament isn’t just something that’s read a lot in prison; portions of it were written in prison. It would seem there is something about incarceration we need to see, if not experience, if we’re to understand what the Kingdom is all about.  Maybe prison is the place where we come to understand what it truly means to be this and become that.  Maybe that’s how we gain the perspective we need to deal with Jesus’ questions–a perspective we cannot find in the well-groomed, well-ordered propriety of our sanctuaries.

Todd Thomason is pastor of First Baptist Church of Hyattsville, Maryland.  This article was originally published on his blog at Via Ex Machina.