LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT: A REVIEW

Last Days in the Desert dares to ask the one question every other film made about Jesus Christ has been too afraid to ask: What would Jesus do if someone farted in His presence?

Played by Ewan McGregor, the Jesus in Last Days in the Desert is not overtly divine in any way. He is referred to as a holy man but aside from the near constant presence of the Devil (also played by McGregor), there is nothing in the film that really speaks to, points to, or confirms Jesus as the savior of humanity. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing from a narrative stand point as Last Days is nearly singular in focus unlike other films about Jesus which try to tell the whole story.

Not based on the Gospels, Last Days is a made up story of what happened to Jesus at the very end of his 40 days and nights fasting and praying in the desert. The film begins with Yeshua (as he is called in the film) on his way out of the desert, alone and seemingly confused by the silence of God. He has spent over a month praying and not receiving any answers from above. Jesus is nearing his time out of the desert on his approach to Jerusalem when he encounters a family living in the middle of the desert. A father dedicated to making and living his life in the desert, a sick wife and mother nearing her death, and a son troubled by the distance of his father and dreams of a bigger life outside of the desert. For reasons left unexplained by Yeshua, he decides to delay his trip to Jerusalem to spend time with this family, helping them build a stone house while they provide him water and shelter. While he stays and helps this family, Yeshua is accompanied by the Devil who taunts him and makes a wager: if Yeshua can help each of these family members in a way that benefits all of them, then the Devil will leave him alone. Yeshua never agrees to the wager but does try to help this family, struggling to say the right words and live up to his destiny.

What is most striking about McGregor’s Jesus is how ordinary he is. Some of the faithful might find that offensive but it is a side of Jesus that is too often ignored in cinema. This Jesus is quiet and reserved. His words do not yet carry the weight you find in later chapters in his life. The two natures of Christ – the human and divine – are rarely emphasized together on screen. One nature usually takes priority over the other. Many films err on the side of the divine. Some, like Last Days, try to show the humanity over the divine and often use fictional ideas to get that across. A film like The Passion of The Christ is able to showcase both by virtue of the specific story it is telling: God’s son suffering and dying. I don’t know what the right approach is but I appreciate the many different ideas and interpretations.

Aside from the big question I opened this with (not a joke by the way), Last Days raises important questions about what Jesus was like. Did he really appear to be ordinary to most people? Would you have known, just by spending time with him, that he was the son of God? In the film, he doesn’t declare himself to be God’s son to these people. He doesn’t perform any miracles. He appears to be just like you and me. And that’s what has stuck with me since I saw this over a month ago. A Jesus that is selfless, but in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. A Jesus who genuinely cares about others regardless if they know he is the Christ. A Jesus who is still faithful to God and serving others, even if he experiences the silence of God just like we do.

I’ve become more attracted to these fictional takes on the life of Christ that emphasize his humanity. I don’t think we’ve gotten the definitive take on Christ yet in movies but films like Last Days are essential to further understanding the character of Jesus. The unique take on the Devil is worth the price of admission alone – a Devil who is intrigued by Jesus and the role he is going to play in the story of humanity, a Devil who is curious and fascinated by God’s actions and promises to stick around until the very end to understand it all. Don’t get me wrong, this is a Devil that tempts and tests Jesus but the conversations between Jesus and the Devil are enthralling and distinctive among Jesus movies.

When I left the theater, I wasn’t sure what the whole point of Last Days in the Desert was. It certainly wasn’t the movie I was expecting and I thought it would quickly leave my mind after I saw it. But I’ve been challenged by this film in a great way that has caused me to want to further examine the dual natures of Christ and seek more understanding of his humanity.

I honestly don’t think this film would be received very well by most audiences, Christian and non-Christian alike. Most would probably be bored by it and wonder, like I did initially, what the point of this particular movie about Jesus was. But I appreciated the non-conventional take on Jesus and the Devil and placing Jesus in an invented scenario during one of the most critical periods in his life. The film’s understated nature may be a detriment to it appealing to a wider audience but maybe we need movies like this about Jesus – movies that truly challenge our expectations about who Jesus was and what he was truly like.

STAR WARS IS BACK!

The second teaser trailer to The Force Awakens was released last week and I’m pretty sure everyone on the planet has seen it by now. It’s a fantastic trailer that tells us one main thing: Star Wars is back! It’s a very special trailer too since the music accompanying it was newly recorded by composer John Williams, who to me is one of the main reasons why Star Wars works. There are already some truly iconic shots we’ve seen just from this trailer, like the opening shot of the crashed Star Destroyer and the remains of Darth Vader’s mask, as well as some glimpses at new and old friends. I know there’s a lot of leaked information out there about this movie but it is great that the official marketing isn’t giving away the secrets and just giving us a glimpse at what to expect at the end of this year. We are just under eight months away from the release of The Force Awakens and I am very much looking forward to revisiting that wonderful universe. If I have a favorite film series, it’s Star Wars, and over the next several months I’ll be taking a look back and sharing my thoughts on each installment.

THE INTERSECTION OF FAITH AND POLITICS OR LIVING IN A PLURALISTIC SOCIETY

The intersection of faith and politics is one fraught with difficulty in a pluralistic society such as ours. On the one hand, I have no wish to enforce my beliefs on others. On the other, my faith can’t help but influence my political thinking in many ways. And the thing is, this is true of people of all faiths, including those who are atheists. Everyone’s faith, to one extent or another, influences their politics and policy positions. The nature of the situation is that people of different faiths, can hold similar positions on the issues, even as they approach it from different perspectives. The same situation can also lead people of differing faiths to also have starkly different policy applications.

We have all heard the tired refrain, “I don’t want to push my morality on others,” or “don’t make me comply with your moral positions.” Usually this is in the context of controversial moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage. What’s interesting though is that the same person’s moral compass that suggests that abortion is wrong, could also lead them to want policies ending the death penalty, or policies that discourage or end human sex trafficking. Many democrats have said that climate change is a moral issue, as a reason to implement policies to fight global warming. Morality, in the context of justice, is often invoked for the war on terror. So, for instance, John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign, stated that he was personally opposed to abortion, but didn’t want to force his moral beliefs on others. Agree or disagree, fair enough for now. But then, in the next breath, he would say that global warming is the moral issue of our time. Arguably, that would be an example of him forcing his moral beliefs in legislation.

I want to make this point. Morality is being used in two different instances here. In the first instance, Mr. Kerry is saying that his own religious beliefs compel him to be personally opposed to abortion, but that he does not wish to push that on others. In the second, he is trying to use moral language to argue that we should pursue this given policy. Moral arguments can be very effective in trying to convince your audience of any given policy prescription. In other words, “If we don’t do x, then y is going to happen, which would be very bad, therefore, we should do x because it is the right thing to do.” This form of argument is used all the time. We could also use a familiar argument today to frame this.

a) Bigotry is wrong.
b) A baker that refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding, because he objects to gay marriage, is displaying bigotry.
d) We use legislation to protect people from bigotry.
c) Therefore, we should have a law that compels the baker to bake the cake so that the gay man or woman doesn’t have to suffer from the bakers bigotry.

This is entirely a moral argument on display here, and one that is typically used to advocate for certain legislation. (For the record, I think the second premise is questionable, but that is the argument made by many liberals.) This should show us that we all make arguments for policy from our own personal values. So the question of whether or not we should allow our faith and values to influence our political positions is a moot point.

There are some issues that more overtly spring from religious perspectives than others, though, such as abortion and gay marriage, and these are notable for their controversy. However, any of these other issues can spring from religious perspectives as well. It feels like we are back to square one, but not necessarily. I think the best way, in a pluralistic society, is to respect the convictions of others, and allow each other the freedom to have these convictions and live them out, especially when we ourselves don’t understand why people have the beliefs they do. A pluralistic society is the perfect place to allow ideas to compete in the marketplace and allow reason to have its way.

CHRIST IN FILM

Throughout our faith journey, we encounter Christ in many ways. Through church, through prayer, through family, friends, even strangers. One place I’ve encountered Christ that’s had a huge impact on my life is the movies. I really don’t think I’d be where I’m at today without it. That might sound a little odd but I think the visual and aural medium that is film can speak to us and perhaps enrich our lives in a way that is truly surprising and unique.

These cinematic encounters I’m talking about don’t necessarily come from movies centered on Christ either. Christ-figures are prominent in films, whether it is in the superhero genre or in more dramatic pictures like The Shawshank Redemption or Braveheart. There is something about Christ and what He represents that even in a medium mostly associated with worldly affairs, His example can shine through.

For this first part, I’d like to start off by focusing on some films that have Christ figures or symbolism. I believe it gives a nice picture of how Christ influences story and imagery in the movies.

Superman (1978), Superman Returns (2006), Man of Steel (2013)

There’s no subtlety in the Superman films when it comes to portraying Superman as a Christ figure. Right at the beginning of the 1978 film, this symbolism is made clear. Jor-El’s (Superman’s father) goodbye to his son was intended to be as if this was God sending Christ to Earth. The Christian belief that God the Father and God the Son are one is heard in this scene. The parallels continue throughout the movie with Superman being raised by ideal earthly parents, leaving his home in Kansas to spend time in the arctic wilderness reasoning with his father before beginning his heroics, just as Jesus was raised by Mary and Joseph and spent time in the wilderness in prayer with His Father before beginning His public ministry.

The 2006 release of Superman Returns further cemented these parallels, an intentional choice on the part of the director. In Superman Returns, we learn that Lois Lane, Superman’s love interest (no Jesus parallels there conspiracy theorists), wrote an article titled “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman.” She tells him that the world doesn’t need a savior. In a beautiful scene, Superman takes Lois high above the world and tells her, “I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.” We see this earlier in the film when Superman flies above the Earth to hear the cries of the world, remembering the words of his father about humanity: “They can be a great people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…my only son.” Think of Jesus saying “I am the light of the world” and the numerous references in the New Testament of God sending Jesus, referring to Him as His “only Son.” There are even more parallels to Jesus’ earthly ministry in Superman Returns, such as Superman being stabbed in the side, falling to the Earth in the form of the cross after making the ultimate sacrifice, and disappearing from his hospital room in a reference to the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection.

In 2013, the Superman film series was rebooted and a new origin story was told in Man of Steel. If there was a time to make a clean break from the Superman as Jesus motif, this was it, but to my surprise the parallels were drawn again, some in familiar ways to the 1978 film. In one of the early scenes set on Superman’s home world of Krypton, Jor-El says that Kal-El will be a god to humanity. When Superman is learning how to fly, we hear Jor-El telling him: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” As it was in the 1978 Superman, he is once again the light we will follow. Also reflected here is something Paul writes numerous times in the New Testament, that the human pursuit to be more like Jesus will not be perfect. In a very not-so-subtle moment (but in a good way), Superman goes to a church to talk to a priest about what he should do since the villain, General Zod, demands the Earth give up Superman or face destruction. Superman’s remark to the priest that “If there’s a chance I can save Earth by turning myself in…shouldn’t I take it?” is made all the more symbolic due to the stained glass window behind him depicting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where He made the decision to willingly be arrested and go to the cross.

The last parallel I want to discuss from Man of Steel is when Jor-El tells Superman that he is to be the bridge between two peoples, think of Christ reconciling humanity with God. Furthermore, when Jor-El tells Superman he can save all of humanity, Superman flies away in the shape of the cross. In a twist on typical cross imagery though, Superman strikes the cross pose not in a moment of sacrifice. It is used to suggest a promise instead, that Superman is willing to suffer and die to save the Earth.

The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003)

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf the Grey sacrifices himself to save his friends, falls, and dies. As he falls, his body forms like the cross. You could also make an argument that Gandalf is struck in the heel by the Balrog, which would be, if intentional, an incredible reference to Genesis 3:15.

In The Two Towers, Gandalf returns as Gandalf the White after having been resurrected. It is worth noting that the author of the Lord of the Rings books, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a devout Catholic, so it isn’t surprising to find this type of symbolism in his great work of fantasy.

The Matrix Trilogy (1999 – 2003)

The Matrix films have a good amount of Christian (and non-Christian) symbolism. In the first film of the trilogy, the main character Neo (also known as The One) dies and comes back to life. In the second film, Neo brings his love interest, Trinity, back from the dead. In the third film, Neo gives his life to bring peace to a world at war with machines. He is in the shape of the cross when he dies and the words spoken by the machines at that moment, “It is done,” obviously reference one of the last words of Jesus on the cross.

Gran Torino (2008)

In Gran Torino, the main character Walt Kowalski, after spending most of the movie as a racist and downright nasty person, makes his peace with God and gives his life to save his neighbors. The blood trickling down his hand adds to the symbolism of his death in the cross pose.

Braveheart (1995)

The winner of the 1995 Oscar for Best Picture, Braveheart, has many moments of symbolism drawn from the life of Christ. Everyone knows the symbolism at the end when William Wallace is executed on a cross, but other parallels can be found, including how Wallace is betrayed three times in a moment when he needed those who betrayed him. Robert the Bruce is like Peter in that he repents after his betrayal of Wallace and takes up his sword in the end, just as Peter repented after denying Jesus and led the early church after the ascension.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. He shows others a different way of living in an imprisoned world and escapes, literally taking on the waste and filth of the Shawshank prison population, and is washed clean in cross-like imagery. The prison guards discover Andy’s cell empty – a reference to the empty tomb. For further commentary, I highly recommend reading Father Robert Barron’s reflections on this incredible film.

So what we see here is not just imagery but also story showing the example of Christ. There are other films as well that do this like The Chronicles of Narnia films with the Christ-figure of Aslan, a lion, who sacrifices himself and is resurrected. There’s also E.T. which features a friendly alien that miraculously heals people, who dies and comes back to life in white robes and ascends to the heavens. The Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, also features obvious cross imagery in one of its last scenes, equating the main characters sacrifice with Christ’s.

Obviously with this imagery, we are encountering Christ on some level while watching a movie. But for many of these examples, there’s nothing else in the characters or stories that point to Christ, other than the momentary imagery of the cross. So that then raises the question, why use that imagery to begin with?

I think the answer to that is because society equates the cross with the ultimate sacrifice, of putting others ahead of one’s own interests. This is universally recognized symbolism that even non-believers would recognize and even appreciate on some level. But most of these examples don’t really lead us towards Jesus – it’s just neat imagery. It doesn’t cause us to examine our own faith or make us want to dig deeper into the scriptures. I’m not saying they should and I don’t think that’s the point of these movies, but it really is incredible when you experience a movie that changes you, that impacts your faith, that leads you to God’s Word, and results in an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Amistad (1997)

One film I want to delve more deeply into relating to a cinematic encounter is the 1997 historical drama Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg. For those of you unfamiliar with Amistad, it tells the story of the intense legal battle that followed the capture by the United States of African slaves who had taken control of the slave ship they were imprisoned on, La Amistad, in 1839.

I’m going to focus on one scene in particular from the film, but first, a little bit of background for what has happened leading up to this scene. The Africans are in prison waiting for the verdict on whether they will be recognized as free. The question before the court and for the judge to decide is “Were they born in Africa?” If they were, then they are free since the international slave trade was prohibited at that time. But there are other parties involved in the case who claimed otherwise – that the slaves were born in Cuba, and should remain as slaves. Earlier in the movie, while on their way to the court house, one of the Africans, who is called Yamba, takes a Bible from a Christian man who wants to pray for him. It’s not necessarily the most amicable encounter between two cultures, but Yamba keeps the Bible and looks through it. In the scene we are about to watch, we witness Yamba and Cinque, who is the main character, looking through the Bible. This is intercut with the Catholic judge, who is presiding over the case, praying over the decision he has to make. Click here for the scene

What I love most about this scene is that it is essentially a gospel presentation in the middle of a movie about a legal battle. It speaks to the universality of the gospel message and how the story of Jesus has spoken and continues to speak to all people and cultures. These slaves do not understand English but they witness the gospel through images and encounter Jesus through it.

Another thing I love is the first question Cinque asks Yamba about the story – “Who is he?” That’s the question we are all faced with when we encounter Christ and it is a question Jesus asked those who encountered him – “Who do you say that I am?” Yamba obviously doesn’t know Jesus’ name but as we see, Yamba identifies with Christ. Cinque tells Yamba that Jesus had to have done something wrong to merit punishment and Yamba replies, “Why? What did we do?” Yamba sees his own suffering in Christ and is drawn to the Jesus story because of it. After showing Cinque the crucifixion, Cinque says to Yamba that it’s just a story. Yamba tells Cinque, “But look,that’s not the end of it!” Yamba sees the hope that is in Christ, in the one who did nothing wrong dying and ascending into heaven. Yamba believes in this story and in the hope that comes from the suffering Christ on the cross, the resurrection, and eternity in heaven. He believes he will go to the place Jesus went to after ascending. That all may sound like a stretch, but I don’t think it is. Look at the point being made at the end of that scene with the Bible. Yamba returns to the page with the crucifixion and then flips to the page with the empty cross. What if the story just ended at the crucifixion? What is the cross without the resurrection? There is no hope in that. It is simply the end – you die and that’s it. “But look! That’s not the end of it!” Yes we die, but that’s not the end of our story. The cross is empty – symbolizing the hope that comes from the resurrection. This is the hope that Yamba recognizes.

It is through an encounter with Christ through suffering that this truth is revealed. After that scene with the Bible, Yamba and the others approach the courthouse and there are many people holding crosses and making the sign of the cross. Yamba especially focuses on 3 ship masts which remind him of the 3 crosses on Calvary. He is holding the Bible, which I believe symbolizes the faith he his holding onto. The judge, who heard of the horrors the slaves endured while crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the scene before this, prays before the suffering Christ. The judge too sees that truth and identifies the plight of these Africans with that of Christ. He draws a parallel between their trial and Jesus’ trial. In his meditations before the cross, the judge decides the innocent cannot die this time. He declares them free and Yamba celebrates and holds up his Bible, seemingly giving thanks to God for saving them.

More of course happens in the movie and the Africans’ case ultimately goes before the Supreme Court of the United States where they are declared free. But what we see here shown in his brief scene from Amistad is the story of the Christian faith – the truth and reality of it. That Jesus Christ came down to us, not to take away suffering or magically make our lives perfect, but to fill suffering and all things with His presence. That we have hope and confidence because of His resurrection.

MOVIE REVIEWS

Photo by Creatas/Creatas / Getty Images
Photo by Creatas/Creatas / Getty Images

Starting in the next couple of days we will have recurring movie reviews from Paradoxical contributor David Willard. Here is is bio:

David Willard is the film critic for Paradoxical. Mr. Willard developed a love for movies growing up through watching the films of Steven Spielberg, and today enjoys writing about movies and the impact they can have on our lives. Mr. Willard’s writing interests also include the impact of music in film, as well as the intersection of faith and film. Mr. Willard is married, a proud father, and currently resides in the Mid-Atlantic.

David is an excellent writer, and I am really glad to have him on board. Look for his first post here soon!

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Friday my wife and I saw the move “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”  One strand that ran through the movie had me thinking about issues of war and peace, especially as related to Christianity, and Jesus particular beatitude that reads, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  When Jesus made this statement, it was before a large crowd, more than likely consisting of quite a few of those who believed that when Israel’s God did return, as the Messiah, or however else they envision it, Israel would overthrow the Roman’s, defeat the pagans, and return to national greatness.  This was the way of violence and war.
Before continuing, I want to lay out the movie for us, so I can put that in its frame as well.  Humanity has almost wiped itself out due both to a plague and infighting.  Meanwhile, a community of apes has formed under the leadership of Caesar, living just outside San Francisco in the redwood forest.  These apes come into contact with a group of humans that have picked up residence in San Francisco and are trying to restart the power from a dam near the Ape’s home.  From the beginning there is clear hostility.  Except for those born since, all the apes came from being imprisoned by humans, in some instances being tortured.  The apes make a show of force and tell the humans to stay in their home and the apes will stay in their home.  While the majority of humans prepare for war, a man, along with a few others (including a misfit who hates the apes), decides to go to the ape village in order to attempt a peaceful resolution, and Caesar reluctantly goes along with the plans, but ready at a moments notice to end this deal.

Not all the apes are on board with this.  Koba wants to fight off the humans, but Caesar knows that a war could cost too many ape lives.  With great effort and determination, peace between the two sides is within sight.  The power is back on, and it looks like everything might turn out the for the best.  However, the hotheads, led by Koba, do not care and are only motivated by hatred.  Within a few minutes, all the hard won peace, goes down the drain and at the end, even though Koba is defeated, war between humans and apes is imminent.

War and conflict is so easy to get into.  Peace is hard work.  It takes effort, because you need to be willing to trust those who are your enemies.  War is truly the cowards way out.  Peace is for the courageous.  It seems in our day though that it is always the hotheads that prevail.  Whether it be those in Hamas who are determined to wipe Israel off the map, or those in Ukraine and Russia who hold grudges, or in Iraq.  The past few days have visibly demonstrated how difficult peace is.

“Blessed are the peacemakers.”  In Jesus day, this would have greatly offended those who wanted war with the Romans.  They wanted conflict to establish Israel’s greatness.  They hated their enemies, but Jesus called them to love their enemies and pray for those who hurt you.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for Jesus name.  Today, this greatly offends those who want war, who hate their enemies and long for revenge rather than righteousness.  As a church we need to take stock.  We often say that war is only for last resort, but do we really live by that?  How do we go about doing the courageous work of making peace, both individually, corporately, and internationally?  War may solve a few problems, but even in wars considered “just”, more problems are always created.  I am not a pacifist, and I think the movie actually does a good job at the end showing that sometimes, war is indeed necessary.  But it is an unfortunate necessity.  May we always choose to do the hard work of peacemaking, rather than the cowards way of war making.