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.

Job’s 4 Lessons for Redeemed Living

By Matt Sapp

Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, estimated that as many as 10,000 American churches would close their doors in 2013, a number that is forecasted to grow each year for the foreseeable future. The church in America is facing unprecedented pressure as culture shifts and church attendance and giving decline.

Bill Wilson, at the Center for Healthy Churches, writes insightfully about the particular struggles Baptists are facing in a blog post this week.

Families are under pressure, too.  Stagnant wages, credit card debt, a tough job market, rising healthcare and education costs, and widening income inequality all leave families in increasingly stressful and precarious situations.

It’s enough to leave our churches and families and individuals feeling broken, betrayed even.  We used to believe that if we played by the rules and were individually responsible, morally upright, industrious and faithful, then God would take care of us.  It’s a worldview as old as the oldest books of the Bible; God will bless people who are good and curse people who are bad.

It’s a view that continues to dominate, so much so that the exception to the rule — when bad things happen to good people — is one we can’t seem to account for.

At HERITAGE, we’re working our way through the Book of Job on Wednesdays in preparation for an October worship series we’re calling “Broken: learning to be OK again.”

The story of Job is challenging and compelling. It asks real questions based on experience and challenges real assumptions and pervasive worldviews. The story starts as Job, a man who has everything, loses everything—his family, his wealth, and his health.  Fire and tornado and rivals from across the border steal or destroy everything he has. And just when it seems things can’t get any worse, he’s afflicted with a terrible disease that leaves him with no rest or comfort.

Job’s loss is total.  And it’s apparently senseless.  There’s no easy answer to explain it.

The Book of Job then becomes a penetrating exploration of who we are and who God is.  It all starts from a place of brokenness.

But it also explores how God speaks healing and wholeness and hope into individual, human brokenness.

Job cuts through the clutter and the bad advice and the fingers of accusation that always seem to come with challenging circumstances.  It moves beyond speaking in anger and fear OUT OF our brokenness and instead lets God speak INTO our brokenness.

When we experience loss and hurt–or even just change–our natural inclination is to start asking, “Why?”

Job experienced many of the things that churches and families are experiencing now—the loss of comfort, position, security, financial stability. And just like Job and his friends, we have to get beyond the natural human impulse to come up with a reason why. We have to move beyond the stage of finger pointing and assigning blame.

If we can get there—as individual Christians, as churches, even as the universal Church—then scripture teaches that we have an opportunity to grow in four distinct ways.

We can gain a greater understanding of who we are. Challenge and loss and struggle can give life a whole new perspective.

We can gain a Greater understanding of who God is. The self-revelation of God to man is the only way we have any idea who and what God is. Many times God is revealed most powerfully in the midst of struggle.

We can gain a greater understanding of what it means to be faithful. Are we faithful to God because of the blessings God provides or are we faithful simply because of who God is?  Are we people whose faith is tied to the gift or the giver?

And finally, as broken people learning to be OK again, we have an opportunity to challenge prevailing worldviews. Is there a truth beyond the adage that God blesses good people and curses bad people?  Can brokenness provide us a fresh opportunity to claim forgiveness and grace and mercy and hope in Jesus Christ?  I think it can.

As my church and I explore these lessons at Heritage Baptist, you’re invited to join us either by listening to our messages online (through our website or iTunes) or by joining us in person.

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.