Sunday, February 22, 2015


With only a few hours before the parade of stars down The Red Carpet begins, I'm whipping off a few, very brief comments about the movies nominated for Best Picture.  Enjoy, engage, disagree if you like...

American Sniper 
This movie was not as controversial as I thought it would be based on various Facebook posts.  Some of the criticism revolved around the difference in how Kyle was portrayed in the movie, as opposed to the book, but I can’t speak to that having not read the book.  Simply as a film, if we can believe anything in a film, it did make real the massive amount of stress that some servicemen and women encounter on a daily basis in war. It also illuminated the difficult adjustments a couple must go through, both together and individually, during deployment and upon the veterans return. What the film did not show, which I thought was almost a travesty, is the difficult healing process that must take place. The story fell really flat and inauthentic when his on-screen therapy consisted of one session and a tour of the VA. The film portrayed a man affected only by the stress of protecting himself and his fellow soldiers and not at all by his 160 “confirmed kills.” And that stress was apparently forever alleviated once he began to help his fellow veterans.  If the film had portrayed a man who, though he loved his country, still had at least a few qualms about killing men, women and children, or about war in general or that war specifically, I think his critics might have been more sympathetic.  But unfortunately a stereotype of the “Guns, God & Country cowboy, with little ability to question, be self-reflective, or see another point of view, was also confirmed.

I love Birdman as a film and commentary on our pop culture and give it my Best Picture nod.  I hated listening to the soundtrack but it was perfect for the film...driven and chaotic.  Michael Keaton’s performance was brilliant (Best Actor worth IMO) as a super-hero has-been trying to finally do something artfully significant.  It had a play-within-a-play feel to it; portraying all the drama, ego and insecurities associated with the theater.  For me, it also asked the questions; Who are we as individuals in this high-tech, attention-seeking world?  What should make a person famous or infamous?  Why is society so fickle, demanding and unforgiving?  These cultural complexities centered around Keaton’s character; he possesses huge insecurities around how his play would be perceived, his daughter questions his relevance because he doesn’t possess a Twitter account, he questions whether his past fame as a super hero was worth it in light of what he had to sacrifice.  Birdman was the whole package for me...great performances, great soundtrack, great story, great tension, great cinematography and great messages contained within. 

The scope of Boyhood is something we don’t see in movie-making these days; a two-hour film shot over the course of 12 actors playing the “young version” of the boy or make-up to age the adults.  It had to have been a risk...not knowing if the actors would commit for that long, if they would be available, or even alive for that that aspect was intriguing.  But as unique as the approach was, the storyline itself was rather ordinary, as films go.  I did think it would be a great film to watch and discuss with your own children, as it did portray many of the struggles families endure and how those struggles ultimately affect everyone involved.

The Imitation Game
This was, undoubtedly, the most moving of the all the films. It was convincing, educational, emotional and entertaining.  Cumberbatch made us like this socially unlikeable man during the movie, and love him at the end. I always know the movie is doing its job of engaging me in the story when I am completely lost in it for the duration; when I forget I am in a movie theater. This movie did that for is number two on my list for Best Picture...and the one I would most recommend.  See it.

With all the talk of heroes flying around the internet, sparked by American Sniper, I’m not sure why this film has been left without its share of positive “comments” about MLK.  The movie was educational, as it fleshed out these real events during the civil rights movement.  What struck me was how King changed a nation using only words of truth that inspired peaceful action, beautifully delivered by David Oyelowo (even though the Director could not use the actual speeches due to copyright laws, she claims she re-wrote them with the essence intact.) What wasn’t delivered in the film for me was a full sense of the man, not just the leader, which would have allowed me to connect more emotionally to the film.  But I had to ask myself this question after seeing both Selma and American Sniper...which of these men represents a hero to me?  Is it someone who does what comes naturally in fighting for what they believe in or someone who goes against the human instincts of anger, revenge and aggression to defend themself, or to fight against what they believe is wrong?  

Also, I wished they would have used songs from the time period instead of just spirituals for the soundtrack.  To me that would have made the film a bit more real.

The Theory of Everything
Least favorite of the eight movies, but that may be because of my own pre-conceived ideas.  I thought I was going to see a movie about the scientist that became one of the 20th centuries’ most renowned and controversial.  Instead, I watched a tragic love-story that could have been about anybody with a disability.  I also found it strange that no one seemed to age during this movie, or even dress appropriate to the time period.  It was as if the director either wanted to keep us thinking we were in the ‘60’s (an I’m not sure why that would be) or his costume department was just really bad.

A really interesting and entertaining story...good plot, acting, conflict, etc.  J.K Simmons is unlikeable from beginning to end, and I suspect not that unique in some highly competitive art and music schools (I once had a guy in college tell me and another girl he couldn’t hang out with us anymore because he wanted to focus on his art...and we were just friends).  This is a story about how far people will go for art, or fame, or to prove themselves.  And sometimes it doesn’t always end happily.

Friday, February 20, 2015


There is maybe nothing more magically beautiful than going outside just after or during a hearty snowfall, especially if the sun or moon illuminates it or if ice forms a mirror coating on everything.  There is just something about the "sparkle" of nature that touches us in more than just our brains. For me, it is a deep down desire to be part of that beauty somehow. I believe it is from wherever that place is, in our spirits or souls, that our fantastical stories come...shimmering vampires, glass slippers and emerald cities.

Right now I am looking out my window at a five-day old snowfall on the front yard. It hasn't yet turned brown and slushy from the imminent melt, but it isn't quite a winter fairyland, either. Yet, what I know to be true is that there are trillions of snowflakes just within this window view with designs as unique and intricate as any artist could imagine...trillions upon trillions of them. This glorious architectural tracery surround us. We are driving on it.  Shoveling it.  Cursing it. Yet no human ever saw this microscopic, Artistic work up-close, not until aided by a 20th century invention. Why is that?

In December we went to Sanibel Island, Florida to vacation with family. I'm a minority...I like winter...and would have preferred to be snowflaked-in on a mountain in Tennessee or North Carolina, but that's OK, some folks are "equator people" and some are not. However, scouring barefoot on the beach for seashells is always a highlight for me. After picking up a few pen shells, I began knocking off the brown outer layer, revealing bright, iridescent colors of the rainbow. This bi-valve creature lives blended-in to the dark rocks of shallow ocean water. No one ever sees them, unless they die and a storm current washes them up on a beach and someone takes the time to peel it. Yet they are adorned as with extravagant jewels. Why is that? 

There is so much beauty in nature that most people, through the ages, have never seen. Only now are we beginning to see the glory of what is in outer space.  In fact, few people know that some of our most rare and expensive gemstones come from meteors that hit the earth. Within the last decade a NASA telescope recorded a green crystalline Peridot rain falling on a star in the Orion constellation. Maybe a handful of people will ever see that phenomenon, and no one before 2003 ever did.  Why is that?

And don't even get me started on Geodes

So where am I going with this and all these questions? I am asking those who are suspicious of anything "environmental" or "scientific" to take a second look at our role in Creation care. And here is why.

One of the biggest 21st century criticisms of Western Christianity is its anthropocentric view of the universe by the majority of its followers, and how that view has affected American culture over the last few centuries. Anthropocentric is defined as; "regarding the human being as the central fact and final aim of the universe...viewing and interpreting everything in terms of human experience and values."  

Scriptural support for this interpretation has come mainly from the book of Genesis...being created in the "image of God," having been given "dominion" over nature, and told to "fill the earth," etc. And of course the more recent theological belief from The Revelation that God, at some point in the future, will destroy this Earth and create a new one. 

This idea has permeated culture over the last centuries, leading to the devaluation of this earth as something temporal and to be used it up, while waiting for the other one to arrive, which of course every generation sees as imminent.  This was evident, looking back, during the Industrial Revolution and beyond, when profits were put before both workers and the earth. More recently it continues to permeate the sectors of politics, industry and agriculture, not to mention being at odds with science. I actually had a Christian farmer ask me once, "What good is a tree if you can't cut it down and do something with it?"  Maybe he should have directed that question to God instead of me...or maybe I should have held his nose to see how long he could go without the oxygen trees produce.

Here is where I have always differed in my thinking about where humans stand in the great Creation. Let's suppose all the above theology is true...we are inherently special as God's children, we have been given the responsibility to rule the earth, we are to populate it with our species.  But what about that other great theological tenet of the faith called, Humility?  The dictionary describes Humility as, 

 "a modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank, etc."

I think this is an important point to reflect upon. Perhaps we should revisit the question in our churches and seminaries, "What is our rank in the universe and how should we behave in that ranking?"  

When David in Psalm 8 is pondering the big questions of "who is God?" and "who am I?," he writes this:
"LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens...  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?  You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.”  
So humanity falls somewhere below the angels in the hierarchy, as did Jesus temporarily after incarnation. Yet, thanks be to God, the angels' attitudes toward us are not like that of my friend the farmer. 

Some have even used the words of Jesus, when he gently admonished his listeners not to worry about their basic needs, to claim an arrogant brand of superiority.  But the last sentence does not negate the first.
"Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?"
God has developed a system (or allowed one to develop) that we call ecology. This system is filled with wonderful timings, symbiotic relationships, dependencies, seasons, currents, movements, etc. that keep things healthy and in balance; that keeps the birds fed. Unless of course, we mess with it.

When Job is going through his trials and has exhausted all his and his friend's answers, he beseeches God. And God, in great wisdom, does not answer him directly...God questions him...pointing out in each query how marvelous nature is, and who it is that made it. I think that is significant, because as one reads down the list, humanity seems rather puny and incapable, and God seems to be making that point.

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
    Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?
Do you count the months till they bear?

    Do you know the time they give birth?
They crouch down and bring forth their young;

    their labor pains are ended."
"Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds;
    they leave and do not return."
Can human young "thrive and grow strong in the wild?"  No, in fact we are the only species on the planet that has to clothe ourselves to survive...we must take the lives of other creatures and alter the earth...the others were created to survive on their own.
"Who gives the ibis wisdom
 or gives the rooster understanding?"
Pretty high praise from God for some waterfowl and a rooster. Attributes God does not readily ascribe to humans most of the time. Wisdom and Understanding are things we are always told in scripture to get, find, and search for.

"Do you give the horse its strength
    or clothe its neck with a flowing mane?
Do you make it leap like a locust,

    striking terror with its proud snorting?
It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength,

    and charges into the fray."
Our strength cannot compare to the strength possessed by wild horses, or elephants or bears...we are at their mercy in every encounter. We even measure the strength of our inventions by "horsepower."  And the only way we can tame them is through our inventions of violence. But without those...we're kind of low on the food chain, really.

"Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom
    and spread its wings toward the south?
Does the eagle soar at your command

    and build its nest on high?
It dwells on a cliff and stays there at night;

    a rocky crag is its stronghold.
From there it looks for food;

    its eyes detect it from afar.
Can we fly?  Are our eyes like binoculars...seeing both close up and far away?  Would we even know instinctively how to build a structure on our own for survival?  No, no, and not likely.

And what about all that beauty...the sea shells, the snowflakes, the scarlet ibis and the wild mustang?  Since the beginning of time, most of the marvelous creatures and dazzling events have gone unnoticed by anyone... except for God.  Why is that? 

Maybe it's because God delights in the "sparkle" of nature as much as we do, and why the glory of nature is elucidated so specifically in Job.  Maybe God has put nature just "a little lower than the humans," yet highly values the very things we take for granted, dismiss and often destroy, thinking we are superior. If you've ever heard a movie director, a musician, or any artist answer the question of which creative work was their favorite, they cannot give an answer.  For God so loved the Kosmos...

Yes, God loves us and has crowned us with glory and honor. That belief should give our souls wings.  It should give us the desire to be the most compassionate, the most wise and the most understanding of all the creatures...not the most destructive and arrogant.

Yes, Genesis says we are created in the image of God...but "male and female" are the only illustrations given as to what that means...the rest is open to interpretation, causing some in power to believe they have rights and privileges never really given to them. 

But if that "God image" does not reflect humility (about the gifts we do and don't possess), or compassion (towards humans and animals), or an understanding of the need for true community (learning to live graciously and sustainably on this earth together), or the understanding of a rooster, then we have lost our way like Job, and every other flawed human recorded in scripture.  Most of the time in Scripture God is rerouting, rehabilitating, redeeming, reeducating and rebuking humanity (I'd put the Aurora Borealis light show way up in the middle of nowhere, too, if I was God, just to take a break from us). 

In today's world, these ancient stories of faith are increasingly seen as "Hocum," as Sheldon Cooper would say.  And if the effects of these stories, when interpreted anthropomorphically, are also seen as hurting the world on which we depend, then the faith is poised for criticism and dismissal. I think E.O. Wilson had it right. Wilson, a renowned Harvard entomologist and Pulitzer-prize winning author, once said,
  "Science and religion are the two most powerful forces in the world.  Having them at not productive."

I think he may be merely stating, in a more direct way, the artful words of the poet, John Keats,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Knowing the truth about the "sparkle of nature," that it is just light refracting from or reflecting off of a surface, doesn't take away its beauty...or even its mystery...we still long to be part of it. But though science has sincerely asked and conclusively answered the question "How is that?," perhaps the faithful have yet to sincerely ask and convincingly answer the "Why is that"...that so much of nature is breathtakingly beautiful...even when no one sees it?