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Archive for the ‘films’ Category

CATHARSIS

I’m studying catharsis.  I have a play to direct, which is written in the form of Greek tragedy, and I need to understand catharsis.  I know I’ve experienced it. In fact, I experienced it this evening, watching a movie.  I don’t think anyone reads this blog any more, so this is as good a place as any to try to vent a bit of what I felt tonight.

***SPOILER ALERT***

If you haven’t seen The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and you’re actually reading this post, you might want to stop right here.  It’s a film set in Germany during WWII, and revolves around the unlikely (and nearly impossible) friendship between the 8-year-old son of the commandant of an extermination camp, and an 8-year-old Jewish prisoner on the other side of the fence.

We see the seemingly “normal” happy German family begin to disintegrate after the mother learns what kind of a place her husband has charge of.  The horrible smells that waft over their home every few days are puzzling to little Bruno, but to his mother they change her husband from hero to monster.  Meanwhile, Bruno’s older sister is being indoctrinated into belief in the Fatherland and its righteous cause.

But all this is in the background.  It is the story we see through Bruno’s eyes which has the greatest impact, and which the film stays focused on.  His moment of moral cowardice in not sticking up for his ‘friend’ Shmuel leads Bruno to offer to help find the Jewish boy’s father, who has gone missing somewhere in the camp.  Bruno, whose naivete is at the heart of the film, is sure if he just pokes around, the papa will certainly turn up.  Donning a cast-off pair of the funny striped pajamas that Shmuel always wears (there’s a room with hundreds of them, Shmuel tells him), Bruno digs a hole and crawls under the electrified barbed wire.

I begin to squirm.  “This is not going to end well,” I think.

And I’m right.  Through the worst possible bad timing, the boys arrive in Shmuel’s hut at the moment when it is being evacuated to the gas chambers.  Of course Bruno’s absence is noticed at home; of course father, mother, sister, other soldiers all run through the woods, in the pouring rain, to find the hole and the discarded clothes.  And of course they are too late.

All of this, with the superb actors, script, music (James Horner) and camera work, is harrowing.  But what horrified me most was my own reaction.  Because of the power of point of view, I was pulled into the story of this enchanting little blue-eyed boy, and everything in me wanted him to somehow, some way, be spared.   As I watched the huddle of gray-striped prisoners being  herded toward their fate, it was Bruno I was watching.

And then it hit me.  Here was one little boy, beautiful to be sure, but just one of a hundred or more who were going to be executed without any reason.  If none of the rest of them could be saved…why should he be? How would that be right?

We seek to put an individual face on tragedy to help us comprehend it, but at some point we need to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of individuals… each one had a family somewhere who mourned them, each one had promise, gifts, moments of happiness.  And then they were gone.

As I study the Pan Am 103 bombing, which killed 270 people in a fire ball over Lockerbie, Scotland, I think of the reaction to the Hindenberg, the helpless grief of a reporter who simply sobbed, “Oh, the humanity!”

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charlie-brown-xmas1He has a round head and a knobby nose, his dog wins more contests than he ever will, and even his friends all call him a loser. He talks through a megaphone but no one listens to him.  And when he chooses a “sincere” Christmas tree, everybody laughs.

I know I’m not eccentric or even unusual in naming A Charlie Brown Christmas as my all-time favorite televised holiday special.  I was probably six or seven when I saw it for the first time.  Having followed the Sunday Peanuts strip since before I could read, the characters felt to me like old friends.  Watching the annual telecast became one of my most-anticipated Christmas rituals.

Snoopy was hilarious, Lucy was exasperating and Linus both wise and kind. But Charlie Brown’s inept sincerity was painful to watch. He made me weep.  I so wanted him to be taken seriously.  Even at that young age I knew the misery of being misunderstood and the frustration of failure.  If you’d asked me, I’d have told you my favorite superhero was Underdog…really.

I got chills the first time Linus stood in the spotlight and spoke the words of Luke 2 into the empty auditorium.  And when the Peanuts started to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” after beautifying Charlie Brown’s tree, I burst into tears.

As a child, it was the loving gesture of decorating his tree, transforming it, that moved me. As an adult, what speaks to me is the larger act of restoration: a community restoring a brother, reviving a broken life.  I understand now that the tree is a metaphor for the boy himself, awkward, unwanted, unappreciated. When the unlovely is made lovely, Charlie is affirmed.

Jesus came to seek and save the unlovely (that’s all of us).  And He has made us ministers of reconciliation.  We are transformed so that we can take part in His ongoing work of transformation.  Is there a Charlie Brown in your life?  Is there a tiny tree that can be restored and made lovely this Christmas?

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Radically Inclusive

I’m often amazed at the way things that I’m reading, hearing and discussing clarify each other, as if each idea is a single candle but as I connect the ideas a 100 watt bulb switches on in my brain.  Yesterday morning I mused over the strange mental bedfellows which had just lit up my mind:  a postmodern theologian’s work, a bestselling novel I read ten years ago, an independent film I just saw–about an introvert and a sex doll, and a history of a cholera epidemic in London.   Just typing that list makes me giggle.

Here’s the book I’m reading…(and the fact that I figured out how to upload the image and put it in the right place may not impress you, but it impresses me!)  Brian McLaren has been quietly rocking my world for a couple of weeks now, and this book–which, trust me, has nothing to do with any gnostic gospel–is continuing to challenge me.  As usual, it’s not so much that the ideas are radically new but that they are expressed in fresh, provocative language which grabs me by the shoulders and compels my attention.

This book is worth getting and reading carefully, prayerfully, sifting the ways it makes intuitive sense to you and the ways in which it rings quite foreign to your own experience.  McLaren, a frontrunner in the emergent church movement, wants simply to let Jesus’ good news be what He said it was:  “The Kingdom of God is among you.”  He likens each believer to a secret agent infiltrating enemy territory to tell someone, anyone, the good news of reconciliation with the King, of liberation from the oppressor, here, now, through a vital interactive relationship with the King Himself.

“The secret message of Jesus is meant not just to be heard or read but to be seen in human lives, in radically inclusive reconciling communities, written not on pages in a book but in the lives and hearts of friends…”

A radically inclusive community. What might that look like?  That’s when I sensed the lightbulb humming, warming up.  Wait a minute…a community that loves one another…willing to take risks, to look foolish, to accept things as they are at the moment in order to express loyalty, faith, enduring affection.  You may laugh when I tell you the title of the film that I’ve just described, especially if you’ve heard of it but not seen it.

Lars and the Real Girl is one of the sweetest movies I’ve seen in a long time.  A deft screenplay which is neither maudlin nor raunchy, brilliant acting, and a powerful message which doesn’t try to bludgeon the audience make this a must-see for anyone interested in what a radically inclusive, loving, healing community looks like.  It deals intelligently, sensitively and humorously with mental illness–quite a feat!

Which reminded me–there is a lovely scene in Jan Karon’s second Mitford book, A Light in the Window, where Father Tim takes Cynthia with him when he visits Miss Patty, the dementia-plagued mother of one of his parishioners.  Miss Patty thinks it’s Thanksgiving and keeps passing imaginery food to her visitors.  While Father Tim is paralyzed by embarrassment, Cynthia quietly plays along.  Later Tim tells her, “I think that was one of the most gracious things I’ve ever seen, to eat the drumstick.”  I wonder how often we imagine that to make an impact on our sphere of influence will mean doing something heroic and drastically sacrificial, when in fact we may only be called to eat the drumstick, or dance with a doll.

Sometimes, of course, heroics are called for.

The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson tells the story of two men in mid-nineteenth century London who traced the origins of a cholera epidemic, one with scientific research and the other by simply visiting every family in the community.  At a time when most people believed that a “miasma” (foul air) caused the disease, these men swam upstream, so to speak, against conventional wisdom to propose that cholera was somehow being contracted through the water supply.  A fearless doctor/research scientist and a local pastor joined forces to track and stop the fatal illness which raced through the Soho neighborhood.  Johnson’s account, which reads like a suspense novel, illustrates the power of knowing one’s neighbors, of being quite literally one’s brother’s keeper.  Without the work of two brave and compassionate men, unspoken prejudices against the destitute residents of the plagued community–the poor are less resilient or have inherently weak constitutions, the poor are depraved and are under judgment–would have meant an even more deadly outbreak. Discovery of cholera’s causation and cure  would have been delayed even longer.

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  This quote (attributed dubiously to Edmund Burke) has become familiar to the point of seeming trite.  But think of the impact of every good man, woman and child, every Christ-follower, every secret agent for His kingdom, doing something.  Not necessarily deeds of heroism which rate an AP news headline, not sacrifice of life and limb or a king’s ransom–but something. “Whatever your hand finds to do (for your neighbor), do it with all your might, as serving the Lord…”   Do those three words in parentheses make the command harder to obey?  Or easier?  Or simply more sensible? After all, there really are only two commandments.

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