If you have a spare half-hour, here’s my interview yesterday at Salem’s community radio station KMUZ with Joel Zak:
The Kindle version of my new book of short stories, Catch of the Day, is now available for pre-order at the reduced price of $0.99. It will be published on February 5. Click on the title to go to its page on Amazon.
Maybe I was having a bad day. Maybe we both were. My daughter and I went to see The Shape of Water expecting great things, especially with all the Oscar buzz and ratings of 93% and 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. We were underwhelmed. Instead of coming out of the theater thinking, “That’s on the way to Oscar night,” I looked at my daughter and we both said, “Well, that was a weird movie.” Now don’t get me wrong–I enjoy weird movies, but a love affair between a mute woman and a sea monster (think Creature from the Black Lagoon)? Is it an extreme parable condemning racism and xenophobia in our society? Perhaps. Neither of us are prudes with regard to films, but we weren’t prepared for the graphic nudity/sexuality and violence. Watching a woman masturbate in the bathtub or a man shove his finger into the bullet hole in a man’s face to torture him relegates this film to no more than “B status” in my opinion. But who am I? According to movie news it’s gleaned 7 Golden Globe nominations. Yes, it is entertaining–an exciting story, good actors, excellent monster effects. But for me it was more a guilty pleasure than the stuff of awards.
To cleanse my mental palate, I then went to see Darkest Hour. I liked this film so much more than I thought I was going to. It is far and away one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Gary Oldman gives a virtuoso performance as Winston Churchill, determined to prevent the British people from caving in to Hitler and accepting the terms of a surrender brokered by Mussolini. He is vilified by his opponents and tortured by his conscience, recognizing that a great number of people will die, but also knowing “You can’t negotiate with a tiger when you have your head in its mouth.” Director Joe Wright can be forgiven for having one of his characters paraphrase JFK’s tribute to Churchill at the end of the film, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Darkest Hour is riveting entertainment–an intelligent and thoughtful alternative to the special effects movies that fill our theaters. I am happy to say that this film reminds me why I love cinema.
Dear Family and Friends,
At the Funeral Mass of my father on October 2nd, I read some verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Most of my generation remembers these words, in a slightly different form, as the lyrics of the 60’s pop song Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds:
There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—
A time to give birth and a time to die…
A time to weep and a time to laugh…
A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.
The flag-draped casket, the Honor Guard at the cemetery, the rifle volley, the bugler playing Taps—these were a fitting tribute to conclude the 93-year-long adventure that was my father’s life. I confess that it’s been hard for me to imagine that the old man I knew was once the handsome, cocky 20-year-old posing with his flight crew by the B-24 Liberator they flew on bombing runs over Austria in World War II. Harder still to imagine what it must have been like to get shot down behind enemy lines and have to walk out in winter, ever watchful for German soldiers and sympathizers.
According to C.S. Lewis, we have all been dropped behind enemy lines. In Mere Christianity, he says, “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
To understand what he means by enemy-occupied territory, one only has to watch a single episode of the evening news on any network. Thirty minutes of horror, minus time for drug commercials—supposedly aimed at alleviating some of that terror—and the obligatory two-minute “good news” segment. One wonders if, like cigarettes, the nightly news needs a black box health warning from the Surgeon General.
But we are saboteurs—called by God to undermine this world’s notion that death has the final say, that fear trumps all. Disguised as a helpless baby and later as a poor journeyman and preacher, Jesus orders his troops to demonstrate love and kindness to all, inclusion to the marginalized, healing to the hurt, joy to those who mourn. Rejected by the church of his day, he preferred to dine with the disenfranchised, with paupers rather than princes. He says, “ I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Our Commander-in-Chief goes on to say, “You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
So every good deed, no matter how small, becomes subversive. When you paid for that stranger’s coffee at Starbucks, gave a Subway sandwich to the man asking for food with a scrawled cardboard sign, relinquished your place in line to someone else in a greater hurry, spoke a word of kindness to the waitress or cashier obviously having a bad day, you pushed back the darkness ever so slightly. When you contributed money to relief efforts in Texas and California and Puerto Rico, you put a human face on suffering and scored a victory for the Resistance. Your smile, your hope, your peace are acts of defiance. They plant a virus in the world system.
Think of your small groups and fellowships and Bible Studies as gatherings of partisans, meeting to bandage wounds, to debrief victories and defeats, to strengthen each other for the battles yet to come.
We know our faith does not give us a free pass—sickness and death are common to all. But we know that in our pain and suffering we are held. Our God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, sharing our burdens, comforting our sorrows. He is not an abstract First Principle or a Higher Power, but a Man-God here in the trenches with us. He says simply, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.” When we do that, we get our marching orders from the King: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”
Of all the billions of people on this Pale Blue Dot, we have the most reason to be joyful this holiday season and throughout the year. We are Resurrection People, Children of the Light, followers of the one true King. We know how the story ends, and it ends far better than we could have possibly imagined.
So in the coming New Year, if you find yourself succumbing to the evening news, please call to mind Paul’s words:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus tells us to be at peace because He has overcome the world. This Christmas-tide, may His peace take roots deep within you. May His joy be your ever-present companion on your journey to the light.
Long live the Resistance!
Bill and Sharon
Netflix has given us a Christmas present, and it just might be better than a tax break. Set in an alternative L.A., populated with orcs, elves, fairies, and human beings, Bright is a fresh take on the buddy-cop movie: Ward (Will Smith) is paired with Jakoby, an orc (played brilliantly by Joel Edgerton). Despite the nods to diversity training and racial profiling, all is not well. Scars from a 2,000 year old war have left a very uneasy truce between men and orcs, and all of Ward’s fellow patrolmen want Jakoby dead. Into that heady mix falls Tikka, a young elf bearing a magic wand she is desperately trying to keep from those who would bring back the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, everyone and his brother wants the wand, which one character describes as “like a nuclear weapon with a wish list.” Foremost among those are the elves in the group known as the Inferni, led by a deliciously evil and unstoppable Noomi Rapace. No, Dorothy, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore!
With all the production values of a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza, the film moves like gangbusters. The action is fast, funny, violent and at times, even John Wickian. (Can I say that?) So if you like your entertainment loud and lurid, put another piece of holiday roast on your plate, freshen your drink, sit back and enjoy. I give Bright an enthusiastic five stars.
Have you wondered why 93% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes liked Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but only 57% of the general audience did? I have my own hypothesis. Do you remember what Daniel Craig as the new James Bond said to the bartender who asked him if he preferred his martini shaken or stirred? He replied, “Do I look like someone who gives a damn?” That iconoclastic moment defined his take on the role. So, too, the new Star Wars film is filled with iconoclastic moments that have jarred dyed-in-the-wool fans. Those who go in to the movie with preconceived notions as to how things should turn out would best follow the warning Luke gives to Rey toward the end of the film: “This isn’t going to turn out as you expect.” The new director, Rian Johnson, takes a much freer approach to the mythos, and I’m afraid this disappoints some viewers. I was not one of them. I feel The Last Jedi delivers on all levels: compelling characters, engaging story, eye-popping action, and a very satisfying conclusion. Not to be crude, but I was tempted to light up a cigarette as I walked out of the theater.
On a different spectrum entirely, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a visceral, gut-wrenching tour de force for veteran actors Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. Borrowing from the Coen brothers playbook, Martin McDonagh has crafted a sometimes darkly comic and always ferocious film about a mother’s grief for her murdered daughter. I confess that I was afraid the film would end with a graphic depiction of that grisly rape and murder, but it does not–thankfully that remains off-screen. That’s not to say the film isn’t violent, but it’s the violence of savage fist-fights between men. What is unique about this film is the attention to character: even the most minor character is nuanced, complex, more than what is immediately visible. Because of that, a gesture as small as offering someone a cup of orange juice with the straw pointed in the right direction can be redemptive. I do recommend you see it with a friend so you can discuss it afterward. I found I enjoyed it more as I got some distance from it and had a chance to process it with a friend. I will be very surprised if McDormand and Rockwell don’t get Oscar nods for their performances.