Monthly Archives: September 2011

Moneyball

Moneyball is one of the smartest, most effective sports movies I’ve ever seen. It captures the “love of the game” spiritual gravitas of The Natural and Field of Dreams while also embodying the melancholy of nostalgia for the “glory days” (see Friday Night Lights). But Moneyball‘s most obvious antecedent and kindred spirit isn’t a sports movie at all. It’s The Social Network. 

The Moneyball / Social Network comparisons are numerous: Both are Sony Pictures; both are written or co-written by Aaron Sorkin; Both feature fast-paced chattiness and the negotiating of high dollar deals; Both examine the minutiae of men using technological savvy to “change the game” and make millions; both are about how computers are changing everything. Both films are also exquisitely made and impressively adept at making the mundane (business deals, statistics, programming) absolutely riveting.

But Moneyball isn’t just The Social Network: Part II. It stands on its own two feet as, if not quite a masterpiece, then certainly one of the best ever of its genre. It’s a film that avoids cliches and doesn’t focus on heart-tugging, tear-jerking melodrama as much as it does on the fascinating subtleties on the business side of baseball. It’s also a character study of one man trying to fulfill his calling in baseball but also in fatherhood. It’s a film about ambition–about the intensity in the eyes of someone who wants something badly and will stop at nothing to get it; but it’s also about the disappointment that success brings–because there’s always something more, always a next benchmark just beyond the reach of even the most decorated and successful of men.

Brad Pitt’s performance as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane is the centerpiece of Moneyball and worth the price of admission. But Jonah Hill’s supporting role–perhaps the first serious role for the comedy star?–is also a highlight, and the two play off of each other winningly.

Moneyball is a unique film that in many ways parallels the sport it documents. Like baseball, the movie is sometimes quiet and reflective, sometimes intense and rowdy, sometimes playful and sometimes deadly serious. It’s also a movie that cares about people, heroes, their histories and their reaches for glory.

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Machine Gun Preacher

Machine Gun Preacher tells the fascinating true-life story of Sam Childers, a former drug-dealing gang biker who converted to Christianity and devoted his life to protecting children in Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda from the vicious LRA. Childers (played by Gerard Butler in the film) founded the organization “Angels of East Africa” and opened an orphanage in Southern Sudan to protect the area’s  vulnerable orphans.

The “machine gun” part of this story is that Childers doesn’t just rescue children from the evil clutches of the LRA. He fights back with violence and kills the villains. With machine guns and sniper rifles and other such things.

What the film raises is not a new question, but it’s certainly a timely one: Should we combat violence with more violence? When does the cycle of violence & revenge end?

Preacher adds the further layer of Christianity to the question. Sam Childers is a Christian, a preacher, a representative of Christ. He sleeps in a mosquito tent at the orphanage with a Bible in one hand and an AK47 in the other. Should he be protecting the innocent victims of the LRA by shooting back at the LRA? Is there any other way to do it?

The film doesn’t answer that question. Childers is represented as a very flawed hero and certainly isn’t portrayed as a man with a halo. There are serious questions about his methods, his vigilante persona, his role in the sometimes problematic tradition of “white man comes to save the day in Africa, recklessly and without much context.”

Still, it’s hard to point out his faults when the rest of us aren’t doing much to help the kids who are suffering every day under the brutal violence of the LRA: kids whose lips and noses have been cut off, kids forced to kill one another, 3-year-olds who’ve been raped… Childers argues that unless he and his fellow fighters arm themselves and go after the LRA, they would just continue victimizing the children and terrorizing the region.

Over the end credits of Preacher, the real Sam Childers poses a question: If you had a child who was kidnapped and I said I could bring them home to you, does it matter how I bring them home? It’s a provocative question to end on and one meant to spark discussion as audiences leave the theater.

At a time when the death penalty, the justness of war and other “is killing ever right?” issues are on the forefront of debate (both in Christian circles and beyond), a film like Preacher is helpful addition to the discourse. It’s not a perfect film and perhaps not as subtle as it could have been, but it makes very personal and humane the question of violence as a moral means to justice and liberation.

Not Something to Cheer

A few weeks ago at the GOP presidential debate, some in the crowd cheered as Rick Perry defended his record on the death penalty. It was a horrifying thing to watch. Why is anyone cheering for the death penalty? Regardless of one’s political stance on capital punishment, it seems to me that at best it is a necessary evil–but certainly not something to be celebrated.

Perhaps sparked by the Rick Perry / audience cheering debate, the Washington Post has featured an array of columns on the issue of capital punishment in its “On Faith” column in recent weeks. Among other things, the columns have illustrated just how diverse the opinions are on this issue, even among Christians.

Richard Land’s post, “The death penalty can be pro-life,” argued that it is not inconsistent to be pro-life on abortion but also in favor of the death penalty. Citing Romans 13:4 and just war theory to defend his position, Land was also careful to note that “If one is going to support the death penalty, one also has to support its just and equitable application.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, and in a seemingly direct response to Land’s position, N.T. Wright began his rather curt post (“American Christians and the death penalty“) with an assertive statement: “You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty.”

Somewhere in the middle–refreshingly–is John Mark Reynolds, director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, who wrote a column with the title, “Death penalty an imperfect solution.” Reynolds touches on the abortion/death penalty comparison by noting that “There is an obvious moral distinction between the taking of the life of a criminal and killing the innocent… One could support the death penalty for criminals as a necessity while supporting the right to life for the unborn and be morally consistent.”

Later in the piece Reynolds gets it right when he says:

Poor cultures cannot protect themselves from murderers without taking the life of a killer. The death penalty, administered by the state after due process of law, was a Christian solution to this problem. It never was a perfect solution and many Christian nations, such as the Orthodox East, imposed more limits on it over time.

As a society rich enough to imprison wrong-doers the death penalty should be rare in the United States. The Lord Jesus Himself called us to love our enemies, so even in the cases where the state must execute justice no Christian would rejoice in the death of the wicked…

The death penalty is, I think, justified in some circumstances, such as when prisoners kill in prison, but it [is] always regrettable. When the audience bursts into applause at the mention of executions at a Republican debate, they had more common with the mob in the Roman arena, than with the martyrs in it.

Reynolds also points out some of the problems that must be addressed in the discussion of capital punishment, such as the disproportionate number of minorities executed, and the overcrowding of our prisons.

I probably fall somewhere near Reynolds’ position, though I’m not necessarily going to cheer on or even actively support the death penalty. Is it sometimes necessary or appropriate? Probably. I think it was right and just for Osama bin Laden to have been killed, even though I was horrified by the cheers and street parties that event elicited, just as I’m horrified by the Tea Partiers who cheered for Texas’ death penalty record. The death of any person is not something to rejoice in.

I believe the death penalty should be rarely used, and then only as a last resort. In cases where there is any ambiguity, any questions whatsoever about guilt, the death penalty should be completely off the table.

Case in point: Troy Davis, a death row inmate in Georgia. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in 1989 and is scheduled to die tonight at 7pm. Thing is, his case has been cast into a lot of doubt, since seven of nine original trial witnesses have since recanted their testimony. Many have started wondering if David might actually be innocent, and it seems to me that even the suggestion of that should cause the execution to be postponed or called off until certainty can be gained. Sadly, Georgia’s pardon and parole board Tuesday denied clemency to Davis, ending perhaps his last ditch hope for avoiding execution.

People should not be executed amidst ambiguity and lingering questions about their guilt. If that’s how the death penalty is in the United States, then I cannot support it. I think it’s ok to have the death penalty as an option in our justice system, but it must be in the rarest, most unambiguous cases. And it should always be something we approach soberly, quietly,  something we treat solemnly and not as a political football. It’s not something we should ever cheer on.

Expect Calamity, Believe in Hope

At breakfast in the cafeteria at Wheaton College on that Tuesday morning, someone I knew—I don’t even remember who—mentioned something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. In my mind I envisioned a tiny Cessna accidentally clipping the building. Didn’t think much of it. If this had happened in later years my phone would have been buzzing with texts and tweets telling me of the event’s magnitude. But this was 2001.

By lunch, I had seen it all on TV. Horrors my 18-year-old college freshman suburban self had no prior paradigm for. Planes full of people crashing into buildings full of people, collapsing them onto even more people. People on fire jumping to their deaths from heights unimaginable. The Pentagon attacked. Another plane down in Pennsylvania. Reports of a fire on the National Mall. Rumors that the Sears Tower was also targeted. In that moment, the worst was possible, even expected. What other disaster movie fictions would become reality before the day was done?

Anything seemed possible. And indeed, in the days and years that followed, we’ve come to expect more 9/11s. We became jumpy, addicted to “breaking news” alerts, ready for the craziest of crazy things to happen. Everything was interpreted through the lens of 9/11 and terrorism. The D.C. snipers, the Anthrax scare, Iraq. And even if 9/11 part two didn’t happen, there were plenty of reminders that the world was as unsteady and calamity-prone as that had day proved. A terrorist trying to blow a plane up with a shoe? Happened. Coordinated bomb attacks on public transportation in major European cities like London and Madrid? Check. Dirty bomb or biological warfare attack on a major American city? It only seemed to be a matter of when.

Beyond terrorism, we watched as natural disasters unfolded in unprecedented ways: Katrina’s destruction and its accompanying politics, the Asian tsunamis, the Haiti earthquake, etc. We watched the stock market collapse in a week. We watched wars unfold in the Middle East. We watched unemployment rise and the recession linger.

Am I a member of the “9/11 Generation?” I don’t know. But the day certainly altered my view of the world. 9/11 happened two weeks into my college career, two weeks into my life as an independent adult. The post-9/11 world has been my paradigm of adult life. And what does that mean for me?

I think it means that no calamitous event really surprises me anymore. It’s expected. The Norway shooter from a few months ago? Egregious. Evil. But entirely expected. Countries like Iceland going completely broke? Of course. A freak virus unleashed on the globe that turns us all into zombies? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Where does this attitude leave us? With a healthy recognition of our smallness and of the fragility of life. I think it humbles us and, at least for me, leaves me praising God for his bigness and thanking him for every breath, recognizing that it’s only by the grace of God that I survived another day in a world so ever-armed with death and destruction. Maybe 9/11 and its attendant “I’m small and a big God is what I need” reality check had something to do with the revival of Calvinism. Who knows.

But expecting calamity is only half of the story. The other half is hope. Since 9/11, I think there’s been a revival of interest in eschatological hope… not necessarily hope to escape this troubled world, but hope to renew the brokenness of the present age in whatever way we can.

The daily possibility of 9/11 style disaster could easily cause us to say “the End is Near!” and certainly many have jumped to those “we must be in the end times” conclusions. But 10 years after 9/11, the world is still coping, still hoping, still working, still here. Just as 10 years after Rome fell, the world pressed on, and a generation after the Plague wiped out half of Europe, people still laughed.

I think it’s possible to simultaneously expect the worst and hope for the best. Maybe this is what the Christian life is about, actually. Between the calamity of the cross—so visceral, so always in memory—on one side, and the conquering hope of resurrection on the other, we exist as believers. We deal with the worst of times, grieve, suffer, but know that better is coming. Sometimes better is close; sometimes it’s far.

In the meantime, we live by grace.

Rebirth

Rebirth is a powerful new documentary about 9/11, released last week in advance of the 10-year anniversary of that infamous day in history. The documentary, directed by Jim Whitaker, is part of a larger “Project Rebirth,” which is interested in the process of renewal and growth–both physically, emotionally, psycholigically–in the wake of the traumas of 9/11.

The film follows five individuals of various backgrounds who were each affected in some tragic way on 9/11… Either by losing a spouse, or friend, or parent, or sibling, or just being severely injured. These subjects are interviewed once a year for each of the years following 9/11, and by reflecting on camera about how their lives have changed and how they’ve dealt with the grief over the years, we see the gradual process of rebirth in each of their lives.The human component of this film is juxtaposed with stunning timelapse photography from Ground Zero, which captures the gradual cleaning up of the site and the construction of the memorial and the new Freedom Tower, currently in the middle of construction.

Rebirth is one of the best films about dealing with grief that I’ve ever seen. Among the film’s many observant truths is the fact that processing and moving through grief can happen in a variety of ways. Each of the five stories is different. One person hurts deepest for the first few years, then remarries, then has kids and gradually accepts a happy new life. Another has a delayed reaction of grief… being stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder a few years after 9/11. Another channels his grief into action, joining the Dept. of Homeland Security and then as a bodyguard for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Rebirth is about growth–how each of us, given enough time, can start to heal. I can see this film being amazingly helpful, and hopeful, for people who have recently dealt with tragedy in their lives. In the moment, grief attacks us with the seeming impossibility that life will get better. But as this film so beautifully displays, even the most horrific of traumas–though it never fully leaves us–becomes a smaller, less invasive horror in our lives as time passes.

Interestingly, no one in Rebirth mentions anything about spirituality or the role of faith in their life (aside from one character who says he’s not at all religious). And yet the film feels quite spiritual, even transcendent. It’s all about reconciliation, renewal, regained trust, hope. It’s about death giving way to life. It’s about an act of terrorism giving rise to eventual redemption. It’s a Resurrection film.

The Media and “Meh” Candidates

As a resident of California, my involvement in the upcoming 2012 presidential election will mostly be meaningless. But I will still do my best to seek out a candidate worth voting for, and I will vote. My initial thoughts as I observe the election drama unfold, however, concern the way that widespread and constant media in our lives might make it hard for us to get excited about any candidate.

Is it possible to be truly sold on a candidate in this world of wall-to-wall political coverage (on TV, in print, on blogs, on social media, etc)? For any given candidate, we’re liable to see hundreds of tweets, blog posts, soundbites and snarky late-night TV jokes that deconstruct their every faux-pas and spin them in a variety of conflicting directions. For any given candidate, about every perspective known to man will be broadcast, tweeted about and linked to by someone in our social network. How can we help but not become hopelessly confused, cynical, and unenthusiastic about all of our options, when each of them has a million vocal enemies crowding our thoughts with perspectives of every sort on a daily basis?

Now, one could argue that the cumulative effect of this is just that we are wiser, more informed consumers–that we know every ounce of anything there is to know about a candidate and thus are better judgers of who is fit for the job. But the likelier result is that we are more reserved in our support of anyone. When every candidate is demonized by some corner of the media and proclaimed to be a zealot or communist or warmonger or fascist or something else egregious, we can’t help but temper our enthusiasm for voting for any of them. The media’s cumulative onslaught just makes me feel “meh” indifference for the whole field.

Even if we dismiss the most extreme rhetoric against our preferred candidate, the ubiquity of talking heads and garrulous commentators ensures that we’ll at some point hear more measured, calculated, believable deconstructions of our candidate, their policies and their past. Which is fine… but over time it kind of wears on you. Are there no heroic, solid, exciting candidates out there? Does every candidate necessarily please only half of the public, and terrify/annoy the other half?

2012 will likely be the most contentious, mud-slinging, feverishly partisan election we’ve ever seen. And though I’m loathe to blame it all on media/technology, I think we can safely blame some of it on the media.  And yet what is the solution? Turn off or ignore all media during election season? No. If we do that we’ll have no information at all with which to make our voting decisions. We need the media. But we also must be critical consumers of it, and independent enough to not be convinced by one particular perspective or media channel.

My hope is that, even though every candidate I might get excited about will certainly be torn to shreds by some opposing corner of the media, I will nevertheless be able to collect enough information to make a choice that I can be happy about. Even if my vote won’t matter at all anyway.