Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Movie "The Star" Shines Brightly

Bill and I were delighted to see The Star in DVD finally last week. It was released November 2017. The film is sweet-spirited, paced and aimed for children, but fun for adults, too. It is the story of the animals who came to be by the manger in the barn at Jesus’s birth: a donkey (Bo), dove (Dave), sheep (Ruth), three camels, and other charming animals. The story begins with the angelic visitation to Mary and ends with the Nativity of Jesus. Some of the themes highlighted by producer DeVon Franklin were God’s plan, faith, serving God and others: “Christmas is about what we give to others.” The producers (Sony’s Affirm films, Walden Media, Columbia Pictures, Jim Henson C., Franklin Entertainment) close the story with the explanation: “While having fun and taking some adventurous artistic license to tell the story, the filmmakers strive to remain true to the values and essence of the greatest story ever told.” Thus, for example, listeners will see the Magi arrive in Bethlehem at the same time as the shepherds. Instead of having Herod massacre the infants in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-18), that event is symbolized by an executioner and two snarling dogs who pursue Mary, Joseph, and the donkey. Nevertheless, and most important, Jesus is called the Messiah and Son of God by the wise camel.
We were pleased to see a film with some humor, not aimed at the story of Jesus, but presented by the meek and humble animals. For example, one camel confused “the King of the Jews” with “the King of the Shoes”! Especially powerful was the transformation of the assault dogs, reminding us that as Christians we should be ambassadors for Christ entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17-20).
The music is excellent, especially renditions of “Can You See,” “the Star,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “We Three Kings,” and “O Holy Night.” The songs were well placed to further the narrative. The cartoon characters are olive-skinned and thus more likely to be racially like Joseph and Mary. The actors are multicultural as well.
Indeed we have found that The Star’s filmmakers promoted the Christian values: what is noble, right, pure, pleasing, commendable, and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8). The animals around Jesus may not have been a silly group of characters, but these animals portray some of the silly things that we simple humans do.

Image by https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=CG9YgKPr&id=37CCEB431ECABB7098107D6CCD9B5D2A8D6A0F57&thid=OIP.CG9YgKPrfsJMcVXK-fzHAgHaK_&mediaurl=https%3a%2f%2fi0.wp.com%2fteaser-trailer.com%2fwp-content%2fuploads%2fThe-Star-Australian-Poster.jpg%3fssl%3d1&exph=1485&expw=1000&q=the+movie+the+star&simid=608010295870294273&selectedIndex=0&ajaxhist=0

Friday, April 13, 2018

“All Heaven Broke Loose” Breaks Loose!

“All Heaven Broke Loose” by Still Small Theatre Troupe (http://stillsmalltheatre.com ) is an ambitious tour de force that explodes with intense power as it depicts the last hours of Christ’s ministry from the betrayal and arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane through the resurrection and on to the day of Pentecost that birthed the Christian church. Written by founder, playwright, actress—in short, all around creative go-to—Jasmine Myers, Still Small actually fields ten actors playing multiple roles, so the name might seem like a misnomer, but it alludes not solely to the size of the troupe, but as well to the still small voice of God after the tumultuous natural spectacle Elijah encountered on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19). As this theatre troupe’s goal is to share the truth through quality dramatic performances, its voice grows louder with every play it creates and presents. “The Diary of Perpetua” and “How I Met Our Father” are in repertory, and “All Heaven Broke Loose” promises to become a major contribution to current drama and may find itself a fan favorite. A fully staged version is forthcoming.
Assiduously researched and compellingly performed, “All Heaven Broke Loose” breaks open new perspectives on traditional puzzles readers encounter when working through the biblical accounts, like why did Jesus give his mother Mary into the care of his young disciple John when she had her own other children to care for her? what was the logical motivation for the betrayal of Jesus by Judas? Why didn’t his disciples search for Jesus when Mary Magdalene reported she had seen him alive? and on and on.
But this play is not a thinly veiled lecture or sermon. It is a fast-paced, suspenseful, booming two and a half hour dramatic epic. Particularly striking is Max Sklar’s Jesus, gasping on the cross and shouting to God. To us veteran Jesus film and drama aficionados, his Jesus is among the most convincing we’ve seen on stage or screen. The dialogue is richly written with memories of Jesus’s kind acts, provocative words, Old Testament prophecies woven in as vignettes in the center of a ruthless spiral toward inevitable destruction that is the passion story. All the actors are well cast with insightful and convincing portrayals in their different parts, under the able direction of Amelia Haas, so singling out one from another is difficult, they were so coordinated and dedicated to their several parts. And what we saw was only the premier staged reading…
Doug MacDougal, who passionately handles Peter, Cleopas, and other characters, explained to us the driving idea that motivates him: “Being in Peter’s skin, I realize I have been here before in his failures, so I am trying to practice the presence of Jesus. I’m trying to live the paradigm shift that happened to the disciples—what changed them.”[1] This perspective is similar to the director of the original silent King of Kings. It melds both an unforgettable portrayal of Jesus by H.B. Warner (e.g., where else can you see Jesus implored by a group of children to heal a doll’s broken limb as he heals humans and Jesus, a good carpenter, making a makeshift dowel and healing the limb?) and uproarious entertainment (where else can you find Mary Magdalene, who sports a pet leopard, charging onto her opening scene in a chariot pulled by zebras?). In the liner notes to The Criterion Collection presentation of the film, British film studies professor Peter Matthews reports, “The story is often told against [Director] DeMille that he arranged for Mass to be said each morning during the production of King of Kings and obliged cast members to sign an affidavit swearing their Christian rectitude. The point is usually to mock the Pharisaical piety of a slick operator, but in truth, no filmmaker was more sincere.”[2] Cecil B. DeMille himself in an article in the June, 1927 issue of Theatre magazine explained the impact of his insistence on piety on the set, “When we were filming Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer to the assembled multitude on the Temple steps, there followed a moment’s silence, after which the set orchestra played softly the Doxology. Moved…one of the players began to sing the words and immediately the entire group, numbering a thousand, spontaneously chorused the soul-stirring song in unison.”  In fact, he recalled, “even the children on the set for the six or eight months of our picture taking received a religious education.”[3] As a result, Daniel Lord, SJ, the official advisor observed a singular phenomenon during filming, “a strange thing had begun to happen…Christ began to take over. It was a motion picture Christ. It was a Christ of synthetic whiskers and greasepaint. H. B. Warner was a good actor, but by no means a great one. He moved about in his public life, quietly, effectively, miraculously without too much emphasis on the divine nature (this was not eliminated but never underlined), and yet compellingly, Christ was doing to the film what Christ does to all life, once He has been given a chance. He was so dominating that no one else mattered.”[4] One thinks of the advice of James, Jesus’s earthly brother, “Draw near (or approach or come) to God and [God] will draw near to you” (James 4:8a). What James recommends we do is what Cecil B. DeMille and his actors did and what Doug is doing during this time of presentation, since “for me this play is about how to abide, how to remain in the Spirit, a paradigm shift of living in the Spirit.” Doug believes that their “cognitive testimony” will draw their viewers together as a “corporate being.” This is the point they are trying “to get across to the audience, to try to get across to everybody.  We are trying to abide, get into the Spirit, for his peace is always with us.” This is the gift that Christ in his great sacrifice gave us at Easter and Still Small Theatre Troupe continues to announce and demonstrate in Easter’s aftermath. And what is the impact on the Troupe?  Doug reports, “I love it.  It is the ultimate in love stories.” And, indeed, it is the gift most worth receiving.

[1] Interview by telephone, April 11, 2018.
[2] Peter Matthews, “Showman of Piety,” The King of Kings Booklet (The Criterion Collection, 2004), p.9
[3] Cecil B. Demille, “The Screen as a Religious Teacher: How the Much-Discussed Filming of The King of Kings, the New Religious Drama, Was Produced with Reverence and Accuracy,” p. 32
[4] Robert S. Birchard, “The King of Kings,” p. 18

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Movie Paul: Apostle of Christ: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).

"Luke" and "Priscilla": http://www.paulmovie.com/site/videophotos
Paul: Apostle of Christ is a powerful depiction of the central biblical themes: “where sin abounds…grace abounds more” (Romans 5:20) and “love is the way” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:14).   
The story, set in A.D. 67, works out the conflict between peace and violence on both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels.  As it pits the murderous excesses of Nero’s government against the commitment to follow Jesus’s command to love our enemies (Matt 5:44) by the small and terrified Roman Christian community, James Faulkner’s Paul, suffering in Mamertine Prison,[1] seeks to atone for his own violent past against the very thing he has become: a pacifist Christian.
The go-between is Luke (see 2 Timothy 4:11: ”Luke alone is with me”), Paul’s chronicler and a gifted doctor, ably played by Jim Caviezel, who also co-produced and is renowned for his portrayal of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. On this note, Paul: Apostle of Christ is a serious adult treatment of persecution, appropriate today when “There are more persecution victims living on almost every continent in the world today than ever before,”[2] and this film is not too far from The Passion of the Christ, so it is not for small children. (It is rated PG 13.) There are no miracles here, just forgiven people trying to live out Christ’s love ethic in an oppressive world gone mad under the homicidal maniac Nero. This film is well-researched and pulses with authenticity.  It captures the humanity of the early church in exemplary fashion.  Even the idol worshipers are sincere people, struggling to be good within their understanding, but the film leaves no doubt that they are sincerely wrong and part of the problem, not the solution.  This is not a syncretistic film.  The Christian community is committed to love (one of the best scenes is Paul’s reflection on 1 Corinthians 13), and that is its struggle.  Women are portrayed well, praying and speaking in public, and Prisca and Aquila share leadership (though Aquila longs to take the Christians to safety under Timothy’s church in Ephesus, rather than to their traditional real-life villa, under which is a catacomb, outside of Rome).  Under pressure, the Christians can shout at each other and blame themselves for blunders, but their commitment not to return violence with violence, sorely tested, vindicates their faith in the film’s stirring ending. 
Andrew Hyatt, Sony, Affirm Films, Giving Films, OOB Films, Mandalay Pictures have together produced a thoughtful and responsible movie that is well worth watching, pondering, and taking to heart.   
Bill and Aída

[1] See our blog: “What to See in Rome for Bible Students.”
[2] Godfrey Yogarajah and Roshini Wickremesinhe, “Evangelicals and Religious Liberty” in Evangelicals around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century edited by Brian Stiller, Todd Johnson, Karen Stiller, and Mark Hutchinson ((Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 120.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

We Saw Trees Walking: Our Stories of Eye Healings

“I see people like I’m looking at trees walking around” (Mark 8:24). This is what the man at the lakeside town of Bethsaida said to Jesus, after Jesus spit on his eyes, laid his hands on them, and asked him, “Do you see anything?”  Doug and I know a bit about what he means.  Here’s my story:
Two years ago (October 2015) I began to see flashes in the corners of my eyes at night and ended up being diagnosed with two kinds of macular degeneration: the dry kind that begins by eroding one’s peripheral vision (which was what I was beginning to see, though I caught it early and with good care from Gurley Eye Associates of Manchester, MA, I still have mine) and wet macular degeneration that builds up a bubble of debris around the retina and threatens to bleed.  This one can be treated with laser surgery.  I was still in the watching stages, taking Preservision Vitamins and getting periodic checks with x-rays of my eyes to see how they were faring.  
For a year they seemed to stay steady and then by March of 2017, it became obvious to me that things were changing.  The autumn before I had taken Doug (whose story follows) and his wife to a thrift shop they wanted to visit near the Boston (Roxbury) campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I teach and where they were trying out classes. Standing in the checkout line with them, as they were about to make their purchases, I remarked that the CDs on distant shelves looked like they’d been soaked with water.  I figured that they were warped and didn’t bother to go check them out.   But then, in March of the next year, I suddenly noticed the clapboards on my neighbors’ homes were becoming wavy.   Cars had begun to look like they’d careened on our road from a cartoon.   And a trip through my email was now a voyage on a tossing sea.  Especially wavy were the address lines of emails and the URLs of an article I was attempting to download for an up-to-date example for my upcoming “Contemporary Theology and Theologians” class.  Something was definitely going wrong. My attentive eye doctors called me right in, the nurse practitioners took x-rays, the doctors examined these x-rays minutely, and then shown their airport light on the telephone pole (or so it seems) into all the crevices of my eyes.  The diagnosis was not what we expected.
I had been getting powerful prayer at our storefront church, Pilgrim Church in Beverly, MA, from powerful pray-ers involved in our ministry in Haiti and in New England Concerts of Prayer, from our prayer leaders, and elders and pastors (including my wife) and anybody else who happened to be nearby and wanted to join in.  Lengthy, fervent, powerful prayer!   And, as is the practice we recommend, some prayed for me all the week after the Sunday prayer and others had my eyes on their regular prayer list.
Dr. Gurley himself examined my x-rays carefully, and we looked them over together for quite a long time.  He recalled the earlier x-rays and positioned them side by side.  We went back and forth.  Then he sent me over to the retina specialist who did the same thing—back and forth.  They both reached the same conclusion.
The distortion, they agreed, was my brain trying to adjust my vision to a new development—the bubble of debris that had built up was now disappearing.  The brain had been compensating by “draping over the bubble” so that my vision would equalize.  But now the bubble was leaving, hence a distortion from the compensation.
Dr. Gurley is a fine Christian (a Gordon College grad) and when I told him, “It must have been the prayer,” he replied, “It must have been the prayer.” 
Two visits later (on December 15, 2017), the distortion has basically straightened out.  Everything is pretty much back to normal and the elimination of most of the debris is steady in my x-rays.  Cars are back to normal, clapboards are also back in line in the shade and pretty much leveled out in the sun as well.  Wavy lines are confined to a bit of the smallest size letters on my computer.  The tops of the tables and sink and cabinets are back where they should be. 
Francis MacNutt, in his book The Power to Heal, likens prayer to a medicine taken in doses.   I myself like to parallel prayer to sanctification.  These are healing processes of the body and the spirit that take place out of sight. 
In the case of my eyes, prayer and good medical care have been working hand in hand, as God created both our spirits and our bodies and they interrelate.  Praying through diagnoses and working along with the doctors in my experience is the wise approach.  God does the healing.  The doctor is like the skilled news commentator who checks in and interprets what’s happening and then sets up the conditions for more healing to take place, as God works through the natural means, but, in some cases, as with my eyes, with some supra-natural miracle treatments as well (though to God there are no miracles, since God established all the laws and works as Providence in nature).
While we all must die at some point and this is a fallen world in which accident, illness, and age-related incapacitation beset us all, in the midst of them, we should not neglect our physical and spiritual well-being, but apply prayer and good health care daily to steward the gifts of body and spirit that God has given us.  It’s just another wise way to live successfully “beyond the curse,” as my wife calls it.   
       Now, here’s Doug’s own story in his words (sent to me on September 24, 2017):
This January my eye doctor told me that I was losing my peripheral vision fast and once lost could not be regained and so my Pilgrim family has been praying for me all year.  This week I went to the eye doctor for a checkup and he said, “I know I told you that the optic nerve damage is never regained so I can’t account for these results.  Look at this analysis.”  It showed my decline over time and then it suddenly jumped back about 25% last Tuesday.  I told him Pilgrim Church has been praying.  He said, “This is clearly divine intervention!”
Even as Jesus’s healing of the blind man was gradual, so too Jesus has been healing both our eyes in a gradual but definitive manner through the prayers of our fellow Christians. But now we can see!
  Bill (and Doug MacDougal)