As we have for the previous four awards seasons, my wife and I watched, in local theaters and in our living room, the nine movies nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. This year we were enchanted by a western, a musical, a science fiction thriller, a play adaption, a war epic, a biographical film, a coming-of age story, a historical narrative and a tear jerker. Each film introduced us people facing challenges different (sometime much different) than our own. Each movie gave us something to talk about and wrestle with after we viewed it. And while the process of spending twenty or so hours watching movies may not appeal to everyone, it is a treat and a blessing to my wife and me.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to our project of seeing these Best Picture nominees, I am asked the question: what do you think will win? I have some trouble answering that, in part because artistic expression (and that is ultimately what all these movies are) is so subjective, and in part because every film (well, maybe with one exception) had elements of greatness. What do I think will win? The Academy will likely choose Lalaland. What do I think is overall the best picture for 2016, from among those nominated? This is a much more complicated question.
As I answer this question, I feel that I can eliminate half the nominees from my personal best: Arrival was good, especially in its character development and the deep conversation that followed was profound, but not great; Fences, with its exceptional acting performances, was too dialogue driven for my taste; Lalaland was artistically stunning but slow and lacked a plot for about a third of the film; and I found Moonlight, despite its important story, too confusing. I appreciate all these films and the questions they produced in me: what would life be like if we were not constricted by time? How do our dreams and failures shape our lives? Can love conquer all? Can we truly escape our environment?
The other five (Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Lion and Manchester-by-the-Sea) were better stories more beautifully told with exceptional acting. These five, at any given moment, fluctuate in my mind as best. They represent characters who are each faced with challenges (trying to save lives while others are taking them, fighting foreclosure, battling racial injustice, finding a way back home and overcoming an unfair and tragic past), overcoming them, to a greater or lesser degree. There are images and elements of each of these works of art that will remain with me for quite a while – moments of extreme pain and moments of overwhelming joy. At this moment, I offer my opinion and would recommend you seeing Hacksaw Ridge, my choice for Best Picture.
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 11:36
I do not say this simply because it is the most “faith-based” of the nominees, but because it is the most beautifully shot and compelling story captured on film. All these films, from my personal favorite to my personal worst, have elements which provoke my pastoral side. Each one is worth seeing so that their narratives, whether true or fictitious, can enable us to walk in the shoes of another for 140 minutes or can afford us the opportunity to experience life in a way that we would never experience on our own. We are surrounded by people broken by society and bruised by circumstance, and it is good to be reminded once in a while that we can overcome poverty, tragedy, rejection, oppression, prejudice and even the occasional success. In every story our lives tell, no matter our faith system or lack thereof, God has a marvelous way of breaking in and then shining through the cracks the world inflicts upon us. We all have a story to tell, one worthy of an Academy Award.
As I mentioned in my prior post, my wife and I have attempted to see all the Best Picture nominees for this year’s Oscars©. With the broadcast of the awards on Sunday, I am proud to report that our attempts have been successful. In the four years that we have done this we are constantly amazed at the stories and settings we are able to visit through cinema. This year, the scope of settings – from the late 1800s North American wilderness to the surface of Mars, from East Berlin in the 1950s to Dorchester in the 2000s – we have been places familiar and unfamiliar and introduced to fascinating characters.
This year, unlike others, all the story lines and the characters have been haunting. Each movie, in different ways, has left me with the same question: what can I do, what must I do – as a human being, as a Christian and as a pastor – in light of the needs represented by these films. What do I do for (taking the movies in alphabetical order) those crushed by the housing crisis of 2008, those imprisoned for political reasons around the world, those who immigrate to America looking for a hope they cannot find at home, those trapped through human trafficking, those abandoned and alone, those damaged by the murder of their child, those traumatized by sexual and psychological abuse and those, once abused, who have been silenced or dismissed by ‘the system’? This year’s Best Picture nominees are a hodgepodge of social ills that need to be addressed.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:34-40
My take-away from the cinematic experiences of the last month and my movie-going is that while I cannot do everything, I can do something. One of the movies, Spotlight, was filmed in our neighborhood and depicts the plight of those reporting on the clergy sex abuse scandal in my town; I surely know someone affected and I could do something. The news is rife with reports on immigration, political prisoners, kidnappings and human trafficking; surely I could do something. Then there are people broken by life – those who have lost a home, lost a child, been abandoned by friends; surely I could do something. In fact, surely, I must do something, anything, to offer hope, healing and haven to those in pain.
I am grateful for Hollywood’s reminder that there are good people and there are terrible circumstances, occasionally meeting and alleviating suffering; may we be those who help those in need.
For what it is worth, I think my favorite picture was Room, the sweetest picture was Brooklyn, the best writing was The Big Short, the most beautiful picture was The Revenant and the Oscar for Best Picture will go to Spotlight (maybe I am biased for Dorchester). Now, for me, there will be no more movies for a while – hopefully I will be too busy helping those whose stories now haunt me.
For the last four years my wife, Jeanine, and I have tried to watch the Academy Awards’© “Best Picture” nominees. So far this year, after seeing half of the nominees, I see a pattern among these films; it is what one of the films (“Bridge of Spies”) calls ‘The Standing Man’. These movies all portray a quality within the human character which refuses to stay down after an attack (physical or otherwise) and continues to contend for what is right. Whether it is a futuristic road warrior fighting human trafficking, a group of reporters fighting a monolithic authority or an insurance attorney fighting for diplomatic freedom, these are stories of people who continue to stand up against adversity.
It may be argued that these storylines resonate with us because we long to have the inner strength to be ‘The Standing Man’. We may long to have the intestinal fortitude to sit at a doctor’s desk and agree to the recommendations of a second opinion, remaining in the fight against stage-four cancer. We may long to have the depth of character to stay in a dysfunctional marriage and love our very human spouse, refusing to acquiesce to the culture’s simple solution of no-fault divorce. We may long to have the benefit of perspective to last in a challenging work environment and build a resume under a terrible boss, knowing that the experience is preparing you for something better in due time. We may even long to place braces on our bottom teeth, enduring a moderate amount of pain for a few days with the promise of a healthy smile for years to come.
There is the spiritual principle of hope at work in the heart of “The Standing Man”. The Holman Bible Dictionary defines hope as,
Biblical hope is the anticipation of a favorable outcome under God’s guidance. More specifically, hope is the confidence that what God has done for us in the past guarantees our participation in what God will do in the future. This contrasts to the world’s definition of hope as “a feeling that what is wanted will happen.
Those that know God know that hope is not simply optimistic wishful thinking, but rather confidence in the consistency of God. Our hope in having the temperament of “The Standing Man” comes from the one who exemplifies this tenacity – Jesus Christ, who ‘for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).’
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” 1 Corinthians 15:19-20
If you would like to know this hope that enables the meekest among us to stand before the mighty, trust in the truth of Easter – the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since God raised the Lord from death, and in so doing has cancelled the punishment and penalty of sin , and enabled hundreds to witness the same, and in so doing gave us tangible proof that He keeps His promises, we can have confidence that what God has done before He can do again. And that enables us to repeatedly rise after the painful blows of circumstance knock us down. Through Christ, we can be “The Standing Man”.
My wife and I were able to see all the Oscar©-nominated films before the telecast. It was fun to sit back on Sunday night and see if the “academy” agreed with our assessment of greatness (we picked a majority of the winners, but disagreed with the voters for the night’s biggest awards). All the movies were different in style and in substance. Some had great storylines, some had great acting and some had great images. Despite their differences, they all had something in common. If I could sum up all eight of these movies in a single word my choice would be ‘passion’.
We witnessed the passion of a soldier defending his men. We witnessed the passion of an actor honing his craft. We witnessed the passion of a young man surviving adolescence. We witnessed the exploits of a man passionate for the finer things in life. We witnessed the passion of a mathematician absorbed in creating a ‘thinking machine’. We witnessed the passion of a cosmologist pursuing a single equation that explains everything. We witnessed the passion of a leader bringing dignity to every human being. We witnessed the passion of a conservatory student longing to be as good as Buddy Rich.
After spending sixteen hours in darkened theaters with these masterful stories, I am questioning myself: what am I passionate about? What would I be willing to sacrifice my life for in order to secure? What would I be willing to sacrifice my reputation for in order to gain? What would I be willing to sacrifice my wellbeing for in order to achieve? What can I learn from the real life depictions of Chris Kyle, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking or Martin Luther King, Jr.? What can I see in myself through the fictional accounts of a washed up actor, a kid, a lobby boy or an aspiring jazz musician? Am I passionate about anything?
While I cannot imagine playing the drums until my hands bleed or risking death by practicing civil disobedience, I can see that there are hills in my life that I am willing to die for. Just off the top of my head, I am passionate about protecting my family, about providing hope to the hopeless and about proclaiming my faith. I want to live in such a way that I would be known for my love for my family, my neighbors and my God. It probably will never be caught on film, but we all ought to live lives full of passion for something.
Those of us within the Christian faith have the supreme model of passion. As the writer of Hebrews tells us, we ought to be…
“…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
There is one who so passionately loves us and seeks to save us from sin, death and Satan that he willingly laid down his life and his reputation to secure the joy of our reunion with the Father in heaven.
I think there might have even been a movie about the passion of the Christ.
As a member of the clergy, I am often tasked with teaching what the Bible says and then explaining what the Bible means. This is, at times, a difficult undertaking; the languages of the scriptures are not our own and the culture of the Bible is different from our present experience. There are verses, however, that are not hard to explain or apply. One of those ‘easy to understand and apply’ passages was included in my sermon on Sunday:
“Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” 1 Thessalonians 5:15 (NIV)
Easy to read: two wrongs don’t make a right; do good whenever you can for whoever you can.
On Sunday night the Oscars® will be handed out. Having seen all of the Best Film nominations, my prediction is that Philomena should win and 12 Years a Slave will win. These two films, although extremely different in subject matter, both demonstrate the virtue of the above verse that we ought not repay wrong for wrong. Philomena Lee was judged and degraded for the sins of her past, and when she was confronted over 50 years later by those who remained unforgiving she chose to respond with grace. Solomon Northup was kidnapped, enslaved and abused for 12 years, and when freedom was afforded him and retaliation was available to him he chose to show restraint. These films serve as supreme examples for what we know is true, that we must make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.
Late Wednesday evening, Jan Brewer, the Governor of Arizona, vetoed SB 1062. According to the supporters of this legislation, it would have secured religious freedom by allowing service providers the right to deny their services for religious reasons; according to the critics, it would have specifically codified discrimination against the LGBT community by anyone who claimed to be a person of religious conviction. The legislation, which was silent regarding sexual orientation, was a response to a same-sex marriage court decision in bordering New Mexico. Governor Brewer made a biblical decision. The scriptures declare that we must strive to do what is good…for everyone. That includes doing good for those with whom we disagree. We ought to remain professional, so professional that we disclose that our best is offered to everyone even while disclosing that our creative passions may not be equal in every situation. Those who have religious convictions ought to be doing what is good for everyone.
In this world we are faced with opportunity to live biblically at every turn. We need to determine that we won’t repay wrong for wrong – not exchanging insults so that we feel superior, furthering gossip to injure our enemy, breaking the law because everyone else is doing it or refusing grace because it has been denied us. We need to determine that we will do good for everyone – act in healthy, helpful and wholesome ways in every situation in which we are placed.
Sometimes my job is easy – encouraging people to live out the truth of the Bible that we can understand. After all, it’s like Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” May we all be bothered enough to make good decisions.