Faith and Film (prt. 3): Rocky

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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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Following God’s will is difficult as we face inner turmoil

I had a lovely childhood, except when I had to sit at the designated children’s table.

You know what I’m talking about: the adults sat in the dining room with fine wine and great food while the kids were relegated to the kitchen on old, vinyl chairs and one small square of lasagna. I always protested; I wanted to sit with the adults.

For as long as I could remember, I was always rushing to grow up. This is common among young people. The students whom I teach at Victory Christian School have expressed in various settings their desire to grow up and take on responsibilities reserved for adults.

Little do they know that when they turn 40, this desire will likely reverse.

In many ways we are all trying to grow up or, in other words, discover our identity and our place in this world. We make decisions, form values, and even choose our politics based on allegiances and labels to which we gravitate. We search for some sense of self-identification that provides a sense of stability.

What we fail to realize is that we wrestle with certain tensions in our never-ending desire to define who we are as individuals. These tensions play tug-of-war in our very soul.

One tension pertains to a question of conformity. We are torn between being conformed by God’s Spirit and conforming ourselves to the trends of this world.

This is really a matter of surrender: Are we willing to surrender ourselves to God, allowing the person and lordship of Christ to form us into new creations based on his love and mercy, or are we simply reaching for pinnacles of power and prestige that offer us memberships into the popular social cliques of our time?

Another tension is between defining our personhood by who we are rather than by what we do. The world constantly judges us by what we do, what we have accomplished, and what we can afford. Our first question when meeting another person is predictable: “So what do you do for a living?” And judgment ensues. Our first impressions are based on matters very shallow indeed.

God judges us on who we are, and the true measure of a person is in his or her depth of character. It was the wise elder, Polonius, who offered this wisdom in Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet”: “Above all else, to thine own self be true.”

Is Christ forming us in a way that we become who Christ wants us to be, even if it means sacrificing something that we think we need for immediate pleasure?

It seems that everywhere we look in our society, people are staking out their territory and drawing lines regarding where they stand on issues and how they think. God is concerned much less about our stakes in the ground than He is about our passion and desire to be formed by His very Son’s lordship.

Just putting this in black and white does not make these tensions in us wane. The Christian journey is a constant struggle to overcome ego and self-gratification at the cost of our very souls. In writing of his short stay at a Trappist monastery, late spiritual author and priest, Henri Nouwen, expressed this struggle well:

“It is this type of … total surrender, of unconditional ‘yes’ (to God), of unwavering obedience to God’s will, that frightens me and makes me such a wishy-washy soul, wanting to keep a foot in both worlds. But that is how one stumbles.”

But did Christ not say that following Him was a difficult task? As we all find our way in the world, I would contend that it certainly is.