FILM REVIEW: “LBJ”

LBJ

It may not be playing in theaters much longer, but the new film “LBJ” is definitely worth seeing. The story is profane in spots, and actor Jeffrey Donovan doesn’t look anything like John F. Kennedy, but Woody Harrelson (“Cheers” and “Hunger Games”) is entirely believable as JFK’s frustrated Vice President and then abrupt occupant of the Oval Office. The Dallas assassination scenes and depictions of Johnson’s rise to power are colorful and realistic. Interestingly, the villain in the film is Bobby Kennedy, who comes across as a self-serving and grudge-obsessed political little brother.

The hugely stirring plus to this movie is its chilling portrayal of the entrenched racism in the nation during the 1960s. Richard Jenkins plays Senator Russell, a bigoted Democrat determined to block the Civil Rights Bill from ever becoming law. The climactic scene is where he scoots his chair close to the President’s, lowers his voice so the maid and other African-American staff won’t hear, and then says: “Look, Mr. President. We do things a certain way here in the South; it’s always been this way, it always will. I’ll fight for our way of life with the last breath in my body. And don’t anybody tell us there’s one damn thing wrong with how we live our lives.” Johnson, who’s a good old Texas boy himself, and who understands perfectly, puts his face close to the senator’s and says right back in a voice cold with anger: “THEN WHY ARE WE WHISPERING?”

If that great moment doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, then maybe you need to grow a soul or something.

 

 

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The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

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THEOLOGY AT THE MOVIES

This is two weeks late, because “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966) is a classic low-budget fright fest often televised at Halloween. Don Knotts plays his Barney-Fife self: Luther Heggs is a 98-pound wimp who boasts that he’s taking karate lessons by mail. “I’ve made my whole body a weapon.” The film is comically punctuated by an off-screen character who keeps hollering out: “Attaboy, Luther!” His love interest is Alma, a girl much prettier than he could possibly hope to attain. She’s played by Joan Staley, who posed for Playboy in 1958 (oops), but is now active in her church and a prison ministry.

There’s a cute scene where she cooks him dinner and they’re sitting on the porch afterwards. He knows this is his one and only romantic shot, and he’s got to make some progress. But he stumbles through an overture which is quickly disintegrating. Finally he just blurts it out: “Look, Alma, you’re a real attractive girl. Way above average.”

Oh. “Well, thank you, Luther.”

“Um, well, that’s okay. Now me, I’m just your average guy.” No argument there.

Then he says the wistful line I have always cherished. “‘Average’ is just darned lucky to be sitting on the same porch with ‘above average.’”

I confess that for 37 years of marriage, that’s been the signature pitch at my house as well.

But here’s my deeper take on Luther’s confession. We serve a wonderful and infinite God who could bring the entire planet to repentance in one galactic display. He doesn’t need our efforts, our witnessing, our missionary sacrifices. He could commission the angels to reap a harvest of souls.

But for some reason He sent my parents to Thailand for 17 years. He invites me to live as a light for Him on a secular college campus. And I go: “Really? Me? Jesus, You want ME? I don’t get it. Because in the vineyard of evangelism, ‘average’ is just plain lucky to be working side by side with ‘above average,’ with our King of kings.”

I sure don’t get it. But thank You, Jesus. It’s a priceless honor to be on Your team.

P.S. By the way, the story ends with Luther and Alma’s wedding. He scores a chaste kiss off his bride, and the triumphant yodel comes through one final time: “Attaboy, Luther!”

 

 

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THEOLOGY AT THE MOVIES

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BACK TO THE FUTURE

 

In probably the best-ever time-travel movie, Marty McFly rides the DeLorean back to 1955 and happens to make an offhand encouraging remark to his now teenaged and aimless dad. “You know, George, you can do anything you want to if you put your mind to it.” Years later he’s stunned to discover that his father rose to that challenge, not just taking Loraine (Mom) to the Enchantment-Under-the-Sea dance, but is now a successful science-fiction novelist living in a model house.

Let me tell you how this struck close to home in a wonderful way. My daughter was just bumping along in high school when one of her teachers, a Mrs. Adams, quietly confided to her, “You’ve got amazing aptitude in math, Karli, and I think you could go all the way.” Inspired, Karli began signing up for AP classes; at the age of 25 she received her doctorate in mathematics. Now a decade later, her teaching skills have blessed literally hundreds of university students. All because of that one life-changing remark.

In the Christian book, The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis solemnly observes that every single day we are nudging those around us either toward heaven or hell. Every kind, hopeful, inspiring word we say may reverberate throughout eternity, blessing and lifting others higher. “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself,” he writes, “your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

 

 

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Theology at the Movies: Jerry Maguire

 

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HARBORING RESENTMENT

 

In his book, “A Man Named Dave,” Dave Pelzar points out this interesting reality: “When we forgive, we free ourselves from the bitter ties that bind us to the one who hurt us.” Have you ever pondered the irony of that? Here’s a person who has hurt you, wounded you. In terms of the scales and balancing and all the rest, they owe you big-time. Which is why you spend so many hours thinking about revenge and curses and flat tires for them. You’d like to get even.

But now pile on the double irony. When they’ve already hurt you once, and now they’re permitted to occupy your brain and steal from you maybe hours a day–and perhaps they get to do that for fifteen years–they’re ripping you off twice! For the original sin, and now again because they essentially own you. If a person owns your brain, they own you.

The late film critic Roger Ebert commented about a scene in “Jerry Maguire” where Renee Zellweger and Bonnie Hunt and a whole group of women were in a kind of twelve-step pro­gram. They would sit around and complain and dialogue and role-play about how terrible their ex-husbands had been to them. And there might be therapeutic value in some such dialogues, but Ebert mentioned in his review; “Someone should tell them that resentment is simply letting someone else occupy your mind rent-free.”

When you lose hours plotting and scheming and fantasizing about what that person did to you–and especially if your fantasizing and plotting is of the type which never fixes anything, which is generally the case–all you’re doing is permitting that person to spin your engine. They’ve essentially got their hands on the steering wheel of your life.

In the book “Pain and Pretending,” there’s an interesting twist on the New Testament teaching where Jesus told His followers how, if an enemy like those hated Roman soldiers commanded you to carry their pack for one mile, you should carry it for two. And for any person struggling with a Javert complex, a burning resentment, it sounds like the stupidest proposal in the world. Why in the world would you do that?

Ah, but notice. Ac­cording to Roman law, that soldier had a right to order any Jew to carry his load for a mile. And for that mile–man, he OWNED you. You were at his beck and call; he had the proverbial ring in your nose.

But now what happens if you voluntarily keep right on go­ing and carry his pack and his water bottle for a second mile? He can’t make you do that! And Buhler writes: “What Jesus was essentially saying was, ‘For the first mile, the soldier has you under his control; you are trapped. For the second mile, you are under your own control and are walking in complete freedom from the law. In other words, for the first mile he has you. But for the second mile, you have him. It is an act of power, respon­sibility, and choice, and the result is freedom.’”1

I don’t know how far we want to explore the metaphor of POWER through forgiveness. Although even the Bible teaches, in that famous chapter, Proverbs 24, that when you’re good to your enemies, you’re actually “heaping coals of fire on their heads.” But it is true that whenever we seek God for the purpose of moving our minds away from our hurts and away from our resentment, freedom is the promised result.

I remember an old anecdote, which I couldn’t track down regarding where it came from, though it reminds me of the late Dale Carnegie. But a certain person was maneuvering through heavy traffic, and everyone around him was driving like an idiot. People cut him off. People stalled their cars at red lights. Moron pedestrians dropped their grocery bags right in front of his car, etc. And a passenger in the front seat was about to have a coronary over it all. He was ready to pop a blood vessel. But the driver just calmly continued on his journey. When the apo­plectic passenger finally exploded: “How can you stand it? I’m going nuts!” the man driving said very quietly: “Why should I allow all these people to dictate how I live?” In other words, why should their behaviors and actions rule me?

Solomon observes that our re­sentments often swallow us up instead of the other person. “A man who digs a pit for others will end up falling in himself. A man who tries to roll a stone on someone ends up with the stone rolled over him” (26:27, The Clear Word).

            The same principle is enunciated in the New Testament, where Jesus taught so powerfully about forgiveness and loving your enemy. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul actually writes about sla­very . . . and this was real slavery! Men and women were inden­tured, sold for life because of their own poverty sometimes. And Paul basically says, “Don’t worry about it. If you’re a slave be content–although if you can buy your freedom, certainly, go for it.”

But then he tells his readers this: “If you accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior while you were a slave, the moment you did this, your spirit was set free! . . . Christ paid the price for each of you to be free. Don’t think of yourself as a slave” (vs. 22, 23, The Clear Word).

The Message paraphrase puts it this way: “Under your new Master [Jesus] you’re going to experience a marvelous freedom you would never have dreamed of.”

If the apostle Paul–and of course, Jesus was inspiring these wonderful words–wanted real slaves, slaves in chains, to feel free inside because the grace of Calvary was in their hearts, how much more should we feel free, be set free from our grudges about someone nicking our fender in the parking lot? The Bible tells us: You have Jesus! So you’re free! Don’t think of yourself as a slave, and certainly not as a mental slave to that certain someone. Jesus says it in these words: “So if the Son sets you free, you are free through and through.” “Ye shall be free indeed,” is how you might remember the King James.

You and I might have to tell our minds many, many times: “Move away from there! Move away from that swamp of sinful resentment! Jesus has rescued us from there!” And now we can add this extra motivation: We just plain and simple don’t want that particular person out there to own us any longer. Jesus owns us, not them! Our minds belong to Him, not them! In fact, in that 1 Corinthians chapter where Paul talks about us being free, even if we have chains, he then adds: “You’ll experi­ence a delightful ‘enslavement to God’ you would never have dreamed of.”

I think with real regret about hours and even days and weeks and months that I’ve lost to the enslavement of a grudge. I let someone else run my mind, occupy it, fill it up . . . and without giving me a dime’s worth of rent. And all for what? Malachy McCourt once observed: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

That is such a stinger! And the sobering, wonderful reality is that Jesus Christ wants to release us from that death sentence. “I want you to have freedom,” He tells us. “I want to give you rest, give you respite from that huge, poisonous burden of the grudge you bear.”

 

http://www.amazon.com/Overcoming-Barrier-Anger-David-Smith-ebook/dp/B004DERGU6

 

 

 

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MICHAEL AND KAY

THEOLOGY AT THE MOVIES

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The sprawling crime stories, “The Godfather” and “The Godfather II” are undeniably sordid tales about the infection of evil. But I recall one line at the close that actually speaks hope to the suffering in our world. Is wickedness and rebellion going to continue forever, with God’s people simply escaping the pain by way of the cemetery and then  the Bible’s promise of the soul escaping to paradise? Or is Satan’s reign going to be finally and galactically defeated?

At the very beginning, a naïve Kay Adams attends a family wedding with her boyfriend, war hero Michael Corleone. She’s startled when he tells her the infamous “band-leader story” describing the Don’s role as head of a crime syndicate. “That’s my family, Kay,” he insists. “That’s not me.” But later, when Vito Corleone is shot by thugs, Michael offers to assassinate Sollozzo and a corrupt police captain. Still, though, he’s the innocent family lamb reluctantly forced to defend his dad.

Toward the end of Part One, when he returns from hiding out in Sicily and reconnects with Kay, it’s clear that now he’s head of the family, and orchestrating the Corleone empire’s vast criminal enterprise. He insists to her, though, that “in five years we’ll be completely legitimate.” The messy unfolding in the sequel, however, makes it clear that Michael’s developed a lust for power. Also, his bloodthirst for revenge will keep him locked forever in a state of lawlessness. He’s never going to change. In the movie’s tragic close, Connie begs him to forgive the pathetic Fredo. “He’s so sweet, Michael; he’s so helpless. Please!” Michael feigns a reconciliation, but has already ordered a hit on his own older brother.

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Now to the moment in question. Kay, heartbroken at how her husband is locked into this amoral pattern, has divorced him. In a dramatic showdown over custody of the kids, she informs him that her recent miscarriage wasn’t that at all. With tears in her voice she declares: “It was an abortion, Michael. An abortion. It was a little boy, and I had him killed because THIS MUST ALL END!!”

It’s an awful moment, and the final credits roll as Michael sits alone and brooding on the porch of his highly guarded Tahoe mansion, looking out over the preternaturally calm waters. Out on the lake, crumpled in the bottom of a fishing boat, is Freddy’s corpse.

The Bible guarantees that evil will be overcome, not eternally borne in an endless stalemate between light and darkness. “This Must All End!”

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

 

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THE GREEN MILE

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This is easily my favorite film of all time; it’s a surprisingly spiritual Stephen King story. John Coffey faces execution for murdering the two little Detterick girls, Cora and Kathe. In reality, he’s not only innocent, but had tried to use his God-given healing power to rescue the twins. But a horrible miscarriage of justice is about to occur and they seem powerless to intervene; all the guards on Death Row know John is a sweet and guilt-free mystery from the Lord. In a chilling scene, a guard named Brutal Howell confides to his boss, Paul Edgecombe (Tom Hanks), his emotional misgivings about strapping this gentle giant into “Old Sparky” and flipping the switch.

 

“I done a few things in my life that I’m not proud of, but this is the first time I ever felt really actually in danger of hell.”

 

I [Paul] looked at him to make sure he wasn’t joking. I didn’t think he was. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean we’re fixing to kill a gift of God,” he said. “One that never did ary harm to us, or to anyone else. What am I going to say if I end up standing in front of God the Father Almighty and He asks me to explain why I did it? That it was my job? MY JOB?”

 

I’m thankful to believe that when we face God our Father on Judgment Day, our sins and our cowardice are covered over by the spilled blood of Jesus. Still, we have to answer for our moments of betrayal and self-serving weakness, and this story inspires me to stand up for the weak and helpless all around me.

 

 

 

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Statues? Where Are the Statues?

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Sorry to say, but our summer vacation to historical sites has been a complete bust. We drove our Avis rental car to West Point, where we were eager to see statues and memorials of some of the great characters in the AMC miniseries “Turn.” We must have hiked around that place for two hours trying to locate the statue of Benedict Arnold. In the whole place . . . nothing! I realize he was a notorious traitor, but still, his attempt to sell out the American Revolution is a signature moment in our history. People should be able to see this infamous general, perhaps mounted on a horse or wielding a sword against his former soldiers and fellow officers.

I finally tracked down the curator, and he seemed nonplussed by my search. “There’s no statute of a scoundrel like Arnold,” he told me. “You put a man’s sculpted image up high on a pedestal, it signifies honor and adulation.” He eyed me with trepidation, then added: “Regular folks get that.”

“But it’s history,” I insisted. “Part of our national story.” He turned away with a humph.

Well, okay. So it took us a while to motor over to the legendary Sing Sing Prison, which is still operating here in 2017. I’d once written a radio script on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and was dying to see the memorial statue illustrating this scandal-ridden couple who sold United States atomic secrets to the Russians during the Cold War. “There’s got to be a statue of THEM,” I told my wife as we traipsed around the place, camera in hand. “I mean, a husband and wife getting the electric chair on the same night? That’s history of the most dramatic sort.”

To my surprise, again there was absolutely nothing marking their impact on American foreign policy. No statue, no larger-than-life color paintings. I did find a nondescript pamphlet telling how Judge Kaufman condemned them to death while observing that their betrayal and cooperation with the KGB hastened the Communist aggression in Korea and likely caused the deaths of 50,000 people. But no statue.

So like I say, we’re oh for two. We’ve got to get back to L.A. by Tuesday but I definitely want to get to Ground Zero tomorrow and take some pictures of the Osama bin Laden statue there . . .

 

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