Law & Gospel at the movies

Anthony Sacramone discusses the movie Black Swan, which is about a ballerina’s tormented pursuit of perfection.  He then draws out the Law/Gospel connections:

The film is not subtle and Nina’s inner life, her delusions and paranoid fantasies, trace the borderline of camp. But what is really missing is a way out of this false dilemma between “perfection” and “failure.” Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and so in order to achieve it one must always subordinate the self to some other authority, which, in this realm, is always, always fallible. It is a self-defeating exercise, because even if you think you’ve achieved it, give it a minute, and the criteria by which that perfection is judged will shift, and you’ll find yourself having to place catch-up. To be perfect is, by definition, to fail. And the ultimate failure is death.

Which is why we Lutherans have placed such emphasis on law/Gospel dichotomies. Every time gospel implies “You must” or “You must not,” it becomes a word of condemnation, of failure, because, with all do apologies to Yoda, “you can’t,” try as you might. The good news is that someone already did, and you can rest in his success as if it were your own. You can put yourself under his authority without fear of collapsing under its weight, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. The price of admission to perfection is faith alone, because the cost of that admission was paid 2,000 years ago. And faith is never a work. Only believe.

But Nina never hears that word, drowned out as it is by the disparate and competing demands of “You must.”

via Black Swan: Law vs. Gospel » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

Frodo & Vocation

The Lord of the Rings is another tale about vocation, as John Ortberg realizes:

My daughter and I were re-watching Lord of the Rings before Christmas. At one point, on the last part of the journey through Mordor, Frodo turns to Sam and tells him how badly he wishes he did not have to be the one to carry the Ring. Being the Ring-Bearer was a difficult and dangerous role. He took it up voluntarily; he knew it was a worthy task; he understood in some dim way that he was suited for it—even his weakness was part of his gifting, and yet the cost of it wore him down. . . .

“But you have been chosen,” Gandalf says to Frodo. “And you must therefore use such strength and hearts and wits as you have.”

You have been chosen. I don’t know if you (or I) am in exactly the perfect fitting job. But that’s not the issue.

You have been chosen.

And this sense of having been called—the worthiness of it, the glorious goodness of a life lived beyond an individual’s agenda—is a precious thing. It is sometimes subverted into grandiosity. It is perhaps more often lost in the ministry of the mundane. It needs to be guarded.

Sometimes, in the quest, we get to visit the House of Elrond; the Fellowship is united and strong, the plans are glorious, hope is fierce, and hearts beat fast.

But you don’t get to spend every day there.

All ministry involves slogging through Mordor.

via Guard Your Calling, Frodo | LeadershipJournal.net.

Rev. Ortberg is discussing specifically the pastoral ministry.  But doesn’t the example of Frodo apply to all vocations (marriage, parenthood, one’s job, citizenship, life in the church,etc.)?

True Grit

We saw True Grit over the weekend, the Coen brothers’ rendition of the  novel by Charles Portis, which had also been made into a movie that earned John Wayne an Oscar.  I’m a fan of the novel and both movies, including this one.

The John Wayne movie is an iconic Western, and I like icons.  This one is darker and, well, grittier, and I like that too.  The Coen version is especially good in bringing to the forefront the novel’s language.  The 19th century was a time of greater formality than our own, with an attention to codes of good manners and the use of a more flowery language than we usually do today, in our hyper-casual culture.  That was also the era of black and white morality, when the Bible was on everyone’s lips.  And yet, at the same time, on the American frontier,  the era was also wild, violent, barbaric, and squalid.  The Coen brothers capture both of those co-existing dimensions perfectly, and it’s a sight to see.

The performances by Jeff Bridges as the drunken U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as the formidable 14-year old Mattie Ross out to avenge her father’s murder are as good and as memorable as anything you will find in the movies.  I also loved the movie’s score, based on 19th century American hymns (e.g.,  “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”).

I urge you to read what Stanley Fish has to say about this movie in his blog post via Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’ – NYTimes.com..  The postmodernist literary critic, who now seems to be going beyond postmodernism in a good way, got his start, like me, as a literary scholar specializing in applying Reformation theology to 17th century literature.  He says this about the movie:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

Fish takes a key line from the movie:  “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” He then offers what I would call a Calvinist interpretation of the film.

A Lutheran interpretation might take the grace bit a little differently, agreeing that everyone is a sinner but showing God’s hand in the vocations being carried out in the story.

At any rate, True Grit is  great fun, and it will also stay with you.

If you’ve seen it, weigh in.

My thoughts on Dawn Treader

I understand why some filmmakers make changes when they make a movie out of a novel.  The two art forms are different.  The movie version of Voyage of the Dawn Treader added some plot elements–the green mist, the seven swords–but, as my wife said, they sort of served the larger story, tying together an episodic plot that works better in print than on the screen.  The movie nailed the characters, though, especially Lucy, along with a Reepicheep wonderfully voiced by Simon Pegg.

The Christian elements were there, with lots of talk and examples about not giving in to temptation, something you don’t hear about in most movies.  In the book, Aslan scratched out Eustace’s dragon-nature, supplemented with some great baptismal imagery.  In the movie, once Eustace turns into a dragon, he does all kinds of heroic deeds, and then Aslan changes him back (without touching him, though).  One could construe that as implying that a person does good works, which then merit God’s grace.  Whereas the book has the grace coming first, and then the good works.  But I think the theology was unintentional.  In a movie, if you go to the trouble of devising a good special effects dragon, you need to have it do as much as possible.  The movie did include one of the Narnia series’ most important lines from Aslan, where he tells the children that when they go back to our world they will have to know him by a different name, and that the reason he brought them into Narnia was so that they could know him better in their world.

So I thought the movie was good.  I enjoyed it.  I recommend it.

And yet why do I feel so lukewarm about it?  I realize that a novel has characters, setting, plot, and theme.  The movie did an OK job of approximating those.  But a novel also has language.  It also conveys a feeling. I guess it was the feeling of the Narnia books that I was missing.

Because the story in a novel is happening in your mind, as  you picture the events in your imagination, the effect is deeper and, by definition, more imaginative, than just watching images on a screen.  Reading entails an inner experience.  In movies, we are more detached from the images we are watching.

There is another problem, though.  Movies today have a hard time rendering fantasy.  Yes, they can now create the most fantastical special effects.  But because they are so realistic, so hard-edged, the elements that make fantasy–namely, mystery and wonder–are dispelled.  Fantasy needs to have softer edges to work.  I had the same problem with Inception, an interesting movie about the relationship between dreams and reality, but there was nothing dreamlike about any of the dreams!   Movies and special effects today are just too literal! (Come to think of it, I recall Lewis making this same point, about how fantasy doesn’t work well on the stage or in film.  Does anybody have that reference?)

I do think a movie maker will one day figure out how to use special effects to create truly special effects in the imagination of the viewers.

I can think of one example, though, of a fantasy movie based on a novel that worked in its own terms and in capturing the feel and the imaginative rush of the original.  That would be the Lord of the Rings.

Why do you think the movie version of Tolkien’s trilogy worked so much better than any of the movies of the Narnia series?

Dawn Treader launches

I was greatly disappointed with the movie version of Prince Caspian, and I feared the treatment of Voyage of the Dawn Treader would be more of the same, playing down the Christian themes in favor of Hollywood blockbuster cliches.  I had heard from people who might know that Dawn Treader would go in that direction, despite the disappointing box office performance of Prince Caspian.  That movie caused Disney to dump the franchise, but Dawn Treader was picked up by Fox.  (The first Narnia movie, by contrast, was both faithful to the original, in its story and its themes, and extremely successful.)

But now the word is that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which opens this weekend, is good!  That it keeps the Christianity!  Also that it works as fantasy, with spectacular special effects in 3-D no less.  So I’m excited.

Here is the positive review from WORLD:

WORLD Magazine | Treading carefully | Megan Basham | Dec 18, 10.

If you see it this weekend, please post your verdict here.

from Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Megamind

We went to the movies over Thanksgiving weekend and saw Megamind.   The animated parody of the superhero genre featured a supervillain who finds himself turning good.  It’s actually kind of Augustinian (existence is good, so evil is a privation of being).  It was also quite humorous.  But see it, if at all possible, in the 3-D version.  That technology works remarkably well with these modeled computer animations.  The visuals were spectacular, making better use of the new 3-D possibilities than Avatar, in my opinion.  It’s a movie that will please both children and adults and will corrupt neither.

This makes me want to start going to  movie theaters again, after a rather long hiatus.  Does anyone have any recommendations about the current offerings?


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