Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Top 4 Christian Movies" #2: Fiddler on the Roof

#2 Fiddler on the Roof

     Fiddler on the Roof is a story about Jews in Russia. How does this relate to a Christian in America? 

     I have enjoyed Fiddler for years without getting anything really “Spiritual” out of it. It has fantastic characters, an epic story, and songs that will stick in your head for days on end. Like “Jesus Christ Superstar” it took an offhand comment from my dad for me to see it in a deeper way.

     My dad once mentioned how he loves that the main character, Tevye, is always having conversations with God. That’s when it struck me “Oh yeah! He does that!” 

     It happens so naturally, both in how the movie presents the idea and how Topol plays the character of Tevye, that it actually took me a moment to realize “Yeah.. people don’t really do that.. especially in movies.”

     Fiddler on the Roof appeared in theaters in 1971- the same year that “Jesus Christ Superstar” hit Broadway. I find it fascinating that the film versions of both these musicals were directed by the same man- Norman Jewison. They are completely different- but they share an interesting similarity. The characters ask God questions.

     But Fiddler goes beyond just asking questions of the Almighty. The way Tevye interacts with an unseen, unheard Lord is very casual. Throughout the narrative, Tevye chats with God about a variety of subjects, his work, his poverty, the politics going around him, his daughters and their prospective husbands, even bringing up such “trivial” things as his horse’s lame foot.

     People always pray in “Christian films” but do they ever talk to God? Tevye doesn’t use flowery words, he converses as though to a friend. A very close friend too, one who he becomes angry with, but always respects and admires. He insinuates that God often teases him, giving him five daughters and making him poor- but he doesn’t ever seem to resent God for these things. He asks God for help, and direction. Spiritually and literally.

     Another pet peeve of mine in “Christian” films, is that once someone is saved- everything goes right for them. They get that job/relationship/thing that they didn’t have before. It really perpetuates the whole “Vending Machine God” misconception. Following God- even a God whom you love, is extremely difficult.

     Now, before I go further, we should go into the blaring fact that neither Tevye or any of the protagonists in Fiddler are Christians. In fact, a huge plot point is the discrimination between the Jewish faith and Protestant religion. How can I admire Tevye’s relationship with God, if we believe different things?

     Tevye is a Jew and does not profess to believe in Jesus like I do. But his God, and my God? I believe they are one and the same.

     This is another thing I respect about Tevye, he gets some things wrong. He misquotes Bible verses and has to be corrected. He truly believes that because his youngest daughter marries a non-Jew, that in order to be faithful to his God he must shun her. And he does.

     Wow. Big stuff. Hard stuff. This is what following God is all about. The entire film can be taken as a series of tests that God allows Tevye to go through. Each of his daughters and their relationships begin to poke at Tevye’s beliefs about what is unchangeable in his world. The first two challenge tradition, but the third pushes the envelope when she decides to marry outside the faith. It makes him really question what is important.

     In the end, he chooses what he believes to be right over his love for his child. Although I do not believe in the rules of the Jewish religion- I know that I might be faced with similar heartbreaking decisions because of what I believe. 

    I find a lot of hope watching Tevye wrestle with those big questions. He is faced with difficult things- he knows God loves him, but he argues with his human feelings. At the same time, he puts those feelings aside and follows God as best he can. Sometimes he screws up, sometimes he doesn’t understand- but he’s going to follow God anyway.

    If ever there were a model of how I want my relationship to be with God- Fiddler on the Roof presents it. If you ever see me driving down the road apparently talking to myself- don’t call the men in the white jackets just yet! Tevye and I have a mutual friend, and I like sharing jokes with Him too.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Top 4 Christian Movies" #3: Lars and the Real Girl

 #3 Lars and the Real Girl

     I love this movie. I loved it so much I watched it several times in a row- which is extremely rare for me. I loved it so much, I went through the awkwardness of recommending it to my family.

     “Hey, Mom, Dad there’s this really cool movie you should see.
“Oh? What’s it about?”
“Um... yes.. well it’s about a guy who buys a sex doll online, but really, it’s not that kind of movie.”

   Awkward? Yes.

   I told them not to read the description on the Netflix cover (which makes it sound like that kind of movie), and to give it at least 10 minutes in before they made any solid judgment. As the credits rolled, they told me it was definitely worth watching.

     In my opinion, this film literally has the best portrayal of a Christian church I have ever seen in a movie.

    That doesn’t help the awkwardness of the premise. Yes, it is about a guy who buys a sex doll online. Please hear me out.

     Lars is an extreme introvert. He barely speaks to his own brother and sister-in-law and mostly hides in their garage-turned apartment. 

     Then “Bianca” shows up. Just as you’re afraid this movie is going to be crude and raunchy- Lars knocks on his brother’s door asking if his girlfriend “Bianca” could stay with him and his wife. Right off the bat Lars states it would be improper for Bianca to stay with him as they are both young and unmarried.

     Interesting. So what is this movie really about? The first scene where Lars introduces his family to Bianca is hilarious. They all sit around awkwardly and listen to Lars talk about and to this mannequin as if she were a real girl. The acting is stellar.

     Lars’s family take him to a psychiatrist hoping he can be cured from this odd delusion (the same thought probably occurred to my family after I recommended them this film). Instead of sending him off to the funny farm, the doctor challenges Lars’s passive brother and over-bearing sister-in-law to... play along. It seems that Lars purchased Bianca- not for physical use but as an emotional support. He wants a relationship- but can’t seem to connect to real people.

     This is where the Christians come in. The first place this couple turns to is their church. In this movie, the church seems to make up a large part of the community, and although some are portrayed as a bit ignorant, they are never demeaned or played as stuck up prudes. In the wrong hands, this film would have been a disaster. As it is.. well listen to my favorite scene.

     The church elders gather together with Lars’ family to discuss the whole awkward “Lars thinks this doll is real” thing. It comes up that he might bring her to church. Should they allow it?

     The pastor ends the discussion with this line: “The real question is: What would Jesus do?”

     And they do exactly what I believe Jesus would have done. They open up their arms to Lars and his family. Emotional support for everyone. Bianca is offered flowers in welcome. 

     With the community’s love and support, Lars finally begins to have relationships with real people. His transformation is incredible- and you know it’s because these people love him and want to help him, no matter how weird or awkward his problems appear. 

     When Bianca becomes “sick”, the ladies of the church bring food and sit around with Lars. 

     “This is what we do,” one explains to him.

     Isn’t that what we should do? This movie is a bizarre combination of sweet, silly, awkward and profound. The real church is faced with similar awkwardness every day. How do we treat people who are divorced? Former drug addicts? Homosexuals practicing and not?

      “Lars” doesn’t give a solution to all of those, but to me it shows how a community can band together and show love despite the awkwardness.

     The fact Bianca is a sex doll is not a main theme- it could have been done with a mannequin without changing the core of the story. There are a few awkward conversations about the fact she is a sex doll- but it did not go as far or as raunchy as to repulse me.

     Whether they meant it or not- I find an interesting profundity in Bianca. She was made for a bad purpose- but she is never used in the way she was intended. Lars treats her with respect, dignity and honor. By the end of the movie, he is able to let her go and have real relationships with real people. 

     Christian filmmakers often talk about “Redeeming” or “Reclaiming” the art of film for God. That means taking something that might be used for evil, and using it for good. That is exactly what happens to Bianca in “Lars and the Real Girl”

A bit awkward? Yes.

Worth a watch? Definitely yes.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Top 4 Christian Movies" #4: Jesus Christ: Superstar

     Note: Many of these films have high ratings and deal with controversial subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised for both this review and the movies in question.

#4 Jesus Christ Superstar

     “Superstar” started as a rock opera, opening on Broadway in 1971. It’s creators were Andrew Lloyd Webber (of Phantom of the Opera fame) and Tim Rice (If you’ve ever seen a Disney animated film- you have heard his lyrics). Just two years later the musical was made into a film which was directed by Norman Jewison (who also directed the film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof”). The story is based (and when I say based, I mean loosely and mostly erroneously interpreted) on the last days of Jesus as recorded in the Bible. 

     Basically, they seem to have taken a traditional Passion Play and turned it into a hippie rock ballad. 

     Are you confused yet?
    When I first watched the movie, honestly I was horrified.  They treat the subject matter, and Jesus with such disrespect that it left a sour taste in my mouth.

    Jesus is portrayed as a man- not the Son of Man- not the Son of God, just a man who has got it into his head that he’s something special. The disciples get drunk at the last supper, it’s insinuated that Mary Magdaleine and Jesus have some romance going on, and Judas is actually treated like the protagonist because he is the only one who questions Jesus’s deluded ideas about being the Messiah.

You are probably wondering why on earth I have placed it on this list.

     I’m going to take a moment and explain. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is not a prime example of a good “Christian Movie”. However, I decided to put it on this list, for two reasons. 

  1: I actually really like certain aspects of this film. (Which I will explain)
  2: I want to address the fact that there are movies out there that really really offend me as a Christian, and I want to discuss how Christians might deal with such films.

     My dad was the one who introduced me to this 70’s weirdness, and I was definitely weirded out and offended by the content- so I asked him about it. 

     He told me he heard the music first- disconnected from the visuals of the movie- and not only liked the tunes (cause’ boy, they are unbelievably catchy) but heard a different story based on the music. Dad pointed out a few songs and said “If Peter sang these, it would be so powerful.”

    I thought about what my dad had said, and decided to watch “Superstar” again, this time listening for a different story.

     I got more than I thought I would.

     In my opinion “Jesus Christ Superstar” has the elements of three separate stories, and like one of those “Choose your own Ending” books, what you get out of it really depends on you, and how you choose to see it.

    From my first viewing I got the “Let’s bash Jesus and horrify Christians” story. 

    My guess is that this is what most Christians see. It offends us because it turns people and ideals that are precious to us into drunken morons and deluded, wimpy martyrs. It ends with the crucifixion- never even hints at resurrection, and not so subtly suggests that Christ, and those who follow him have “Too Much Heaven on their Minds” and are oblivious to reality.

    Stay with me here...

    On viewing number two, I got more than one story, which I will separate into:

     “What Superstar Could Have Been”

     Jesus Christ Superstar could have been the coolest Passion Play ever! Oddly enough, every time I see one at my local church I always find myself thinking, “If they’d only added songs from Jesus Christ Superstar...”

The flick is bold and unique. This is 70‘s style through and through. It’s set in ancient middle east, but the Roman guards wear German helmets and purple tank tops, merchants at the Temple sell everything from chickens to semiautomatic rifles, and the Saducees chase Judas down in a tank. How many times do you get to see tanks in a movie about the Bible? Yeah it’s weird, but I think it’s kinda cool too. It’s like watching a steampunk version of Pride and Prejudice. 

    Remember my rant about the portrayal of Jesus in film? How I’d rather explore the people surrounding our Savior and their reactions to the Devine?
     This is where “Superstar” is genius. It delves into the people around Jesus. It lets us into their world- and this is a world I understand. 

    We hear how the Pharisees and Saducees don’t like Jesus- not because they are evil and want him killed, but because his actions might bring negative attention from the Romans. Judas sees this as well and wants Jesus to tone it down in his song “Heaven on their Minds”. Political unrest, and people worried about their own skins? I can totally relate to that! 

     Personally, I would like to see Superstar remade with Peter as the protagonist. 

     In the real version, he has little to no screen time, and basically comes off as a coward when he denies Jesus. Give him some key songs like “Heaven on their Minds” and “Gesemene” and suddenly we have a deeply compelling character who loves Jesus, but has a difficult time understanding goals and ideals that don’t match up with his earthly expectations. 

    This is the story my Dad saw. This is what Jesus Christ Superstar could have been. And it would’ve been awesome! Basically a power packed Fiddler on the Roof-type epic with rock. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

     Finally, as I listened to the songs- the last one, “Superstar”, stood out to me. In it the ghost of Judas asks Jesus why He did what He did. On a theological base, it was difficult to get past the fact Judas appears to be in Heaven, singing with the angels... However, the lyrics sparked yet another impression of this strange musical film.

“The Writers Question God”

     As I have mentioned before, the end of Superstar is pretty much a downer. No hope in the resurrection, and we get a song that asks Jesus “Why did you do that? What was the Point?” 

     I get the idea that the producers of this piece were very confused about Jesus and this whole Christian thing. They seem pretty bitter- and irreverent, but at the same time, they ask a lot of deep questions. 

     Many of those questions, I have struggled with myself. So on that level, I relate- not necessarily to the characters in the film, but the people behind the scenes. I have sung my own versions of these songs, asking God, “Why are you doing this? I don’t understand!” 

    Here’s my point: asking questions is good. Struggling is good. If Jesus is who He said He is- then I believe it is right and fair to ask Him the tough questions. He should be big enough to handle them. 

    So I respect the creators of Superstar in that sense. They don’t placidly decide to follow Jesus for no good reason.

     At the same time, I believe that when you ask those hard questions, you should be prepared for some hard answers. 

     I would like to believe that the people involved in Superstar didn’t just stop there. We will never know what their relationship with God was  like back in the 70’s, or now in the 2000’s, but I can honestly say that their struggle has impacted me. I’m glad I’m not the only one looking for answers.

   So this is quite the mixed bag. On one hand, “Superstar” has a ton of potential. But that’s all- the execution falls flat on it’s face when it comes to theology and historical accuracy.

   Obviously it is a broken piece of art created by broken people.

   So, should you watch “Jesus Christ Superstar”?

   This review is not necessarily intended to recommend it. While I do want to acknowledge that it has some very cool aspects, my main purpose for writing about it is to simply bring it to your attention.  

     The fact is, there have always been movies, books, and other works of art that- intentionally or not- put Jesus and Christianity down. Either they misrepresent important facts, or they openly mock God’s Word. At first brush, we can be so hurt by the faulty representations onscreen that we can’t see the hurt behind the screen. When those of us who are Christians are faced with those movies, I think we need to react very carefully. We need to remember that the Bible is the Truth, and no movie can ever topple that. 

   If we do decide to watch a film that rubs our Christianity the wrong way, I think we should listen to the questions the filmmakers might be asking. Then if we ever meet someone who has the same questions, we can answer them with the Truth.

   Plus, we might pick up some cool ideas- like putting a couple rock songs in a Passion Play. 

(Note: Next week I will be posting about a movie I definitely recommend watching!)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"Top 4 Christian Movies"- A rant

Jesus and Jaws
A rant about the Portrayal of God in Film

     Oddly enough, I don’t actually enjoy Passion Plays very much. Like “Christian movies” I find them a bit preachy- but there’s a bit more to it. After some consideration I have narrowed down my main pet peeve about any story- movie or theatrical production involving Jesus. That problem is... Jesus.

    You are probably questioning every statement I have said about me being a devout Christian. Let me clarify, my problem with Jesus in a media form is that He has to be played by an actor. 

     I love historical movies, I love watching Queen Elizabeth come to life on screen, or Long John Silver- characters fictional and real. One thing Queen Elizabeth and Long John Silver have in common that Jesus does not- they are good old regular humans. 

     It’s easy for humans to act like humans! It’s natural. However, it is not natural for an imperfect human to play the part of the perfect son of the Creator of the Universe. How would you even start? I doubt they have a class in acting school called “How to play Supernatural entities”. 

     Because of this.. I’m always slightly disappointed in the character of Jesus. Most Passion Plays tend to center on him as the main character- and I have a really hard time sympathizing with him as my main emotional link to the plot.
 He’s just some guy with perfect hair (have you ever noticed how Jesus always has amazing hair?) and he spends most of the screen time emoting about how he is the Savior. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time relating relating to that particular issue...

     What made the real Jesus guy so special? 

     What made Jaws so terrifying?

     When the movie Jaws splashed onto the screen- something groundbreaking appeared on film. Or actually.. it didn’t. Because the filmmakers had extreme difficulty getting the animatronic shark to work, they covered it up. They showcased the monster by... not showing it. Audiences were terrified, not by what they had seen, but because they filled in the blanks with their own fears. 

     I think the power and unearthliness of Jesus could be conveyed in the same way. Imagine a Passion Play where we relate to characters who are compelled and confused by this Savior they can’t quite grasp. He’s so big and so much more than any of us can imagine. We hear about him, we want to know him, we want to know more about him- but we can never quite get enough.

    For that reason, there is only one movie on my list that portrays Jesus as a character (and I don’t like that representation either). 

    I will end this rant with a plea towards all the creative storytellers out there. Can’t there be a better way to insinuate the awesomeness of an almighty Lord without dressing Him in bleachy white bedsheets and hair that came out of a L ‘Oreal shampoo commercial?

Next week I will finally get to the actual reviews! Stay tuned for Top Christian Movie #4!