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By Ed McNulty
Special Film Capsule: Amish Grace
(Urgent, as this film premieres on cable this Sunday—see details below)
Everyone knows about the killing of five Amish girls in Lancaster County and of the incredible act of forgiveness on the part of the Amish community. This Lifetime Movie Channel film, based on the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy,
fills in the details, focusing in on the struggle of the mother of one of the murdered girls to accept her church’s decision to love rather than to hate. In the episode leading up to the tragic day we see that Ida Graber already harbors a grudge against hr church because of the shunning of her sister. She had been a widow who fell in love with and married “an English” (as the Amish call outsiders). Now the two can communicate only by letter, the sister having left the community and moved to Philadelphia. When the deranged Charlie Roberts shoots the ten girls, Ida and her husband Gideon rush to the school but are kept at a distance by the police. Slowly, the names of the dead and the wounded are made known. Meanwhile Charlie’s wife, now a widow due to his suicide, struggles with an intense sense of guilt because she had seen nothing to warn her that his unrequited grief over the infant death of their youngest child was driving him to such a terrible outcome. That very afternoon she and her father-in-law are surprised by the visit of the three leaders of the Amish community who pay a visit. Gideon is one of them. She is astonished that they offer forgiveness to Charlie and extend condolences for her own loss, offering to stand by her and help in any way that they can. The TV reporter watching outside is also amazed by the unfolding story of the unbelievable response of the Amish. Her boss, skeptical of the sincerity of the Amish, assigns her and her cameraman to stay on the story in the days ahead. The film does a marvelous job of showing grieving people struggling with their emotions, in Ida’s case, with hatred. This story of faith, hope and love also stresses the importance of the faith community in nurturing the heart and soul and supporting the individual struggling to choose between forgiveness and hatred. The climax of the film will remind one of the wonderful one in the other film set in an Amish community, Witness. Because the actual killings themselves are not shown this is a film suitable for families to watch, though young children should not see it alone. This is a film, filled with enough material for a dozen sermons, not to be missed, and when it is released on DVD, will become a treasured resource for the church.
Premieres this Sunday, March 28, at 8 PM ET/5PM PT, on the Lifetime Movie Channel.
Gran Torino: "Extra Ecclesiam, Salus"
By Rev. Paul G. Janssen
“Extra Ecclesiam, Salus"Those who see the church as instituted by God take comfort in the ancient latin dictum, 'Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus.' (Outside the church, there is no salvation) Indeed, prior to Vatican II (as I understand it), this was the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church, and continues to obtain for those who have a high doctrine of the church.In his latest movie, Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood proclaims a kind of salvation that is decidedly outside the church -- a salvation that is meant for the 'here,' however, more than for the 'hereafter.'
The movie begins with the funeral of Walt Kowalski's (Eastwood's character) wife. A young priest offers pap sayings about the meaning of life and death. Walt can barely keep from sneering at the priest's too-easy, too-close-to-seminary-textbook words of comfort. But the priest has an ace in the hole: it was the dying wish of Walt’s wife that the priest should get him to come to confession.
Which seems very, very unlikely to happen. Walter Kowalski is openly hostile to the priest, and to the religion the priest embodies. He lives in a gritty neighborhood in Detroit, a once-homogenous enclave of children of northern European immigrants, now washed over with a wave of African-American, Hispanic, and Hmong residents. Walt’s language is peppered with racist epithets. His soul has been ossifying since his service to Uncle Sam in the Korean war, during which he killed more than a dozen men (some of them, apparently, not under orders). He’s got a lot to confess, and the movie works its way toward that moment as his relationship with the priest slowly softens. It arcs its way toward a salvation of sorts, perhaps a form of salvation for his own soul, but most certainly salvation for his neighborhood.
That neighborhood has come under the shadow of thugs protecting Hmong turf. As the gang attempts to initiate Walt’s neighbor into its violent practices, it spills over onto Walt’s lawn. Kowalski responds by taking out his service rifle and threatening the gang. He has no interest in saving anyone; he just wants them off his lawn. Unwittingly, he becomes a hero to the neighborhood, and before long, his daily sacrament of beef jerky and Pabst Blue Ribbon gives way to bok choy and rice wine. He strikes up a paternal relationship with a teenage neighbor boy, Thao (which means ‘respectful of the father’), and schools him on how to talk and work and think like an American man.
Violence escalates throughout the film until it reaches a head and it seems inevitable that a final confrontation is near. Along the way Walt seems to give in to his wife’s wish for confession. He does own up to the priest a few fairly common transgressions. But that is not the locus of his confession. True confession comes for Walt after he has locked Thao in his basement (to keep him from exercising his desire for revenge), and, through the metal screen that separates the basement of his house from its main floor, opens his heart about the killing he’d had to do 50 years before. Is he given absolution? Or does he devise his own?
Gran Torino bends toward the latter, as Walt Kowalski ultimately finds a way to restore his neighborhood to a place that is fit for human habitation. I can not say too much here without spoiling too much of the plot. The movie closes with virtually the only “open” shot of the entire film, with Thao driving alongside the shore of Lake Erie in Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino.
Notable to those of a religious bent are the alternative images offered in the film. The eucharist is not blessed wafers and wine offered by an authorized representative of the Church, but the homely and sustaining food of Walt’s Hmong neighbors. Baptism is figured via Kowalski’s initiation of Thao into an American way of life. Genuine confession is not offered to a priest, but to Thao. And peace comes through great sacrifice, but not through anything like what the Church would offer in the way of substitutionary atonement. The final scene is a type of resurrection: the world opened up, new life coursing through Thao in a way that perhaps only a young man can feel when his tank is full of gas and he’s speeding along the highway in a muscle car. Salvation of a sort comes to Walt’s neighborhood, then, not through the church, and not through a western understanding of atonement, but rather through a truncated form of what Aulen years ago called the ‘classic,’ “Christus Victor” model more familiar to eastern Christians.
Thus, while Gran Torino is a fine film and deserves to be seen widely (though its language will be upsetting to many), it could rightly be classified in terms that have increasing currency these days, “spiritual, but not religious.” Those looking for a Church-affirming picture will be disappointed. Those who hope for redemption, however, will find much to appreciate, and even more to discuss, in Gran Torino. It is one of those movies whose scenes one can play over and over to mine for deeper significance. And it is well worth the cost of admission.
By Tom Steagald
“It is hard to evoke the year 1940 for people who were not alive then,” writes Frederick Buechner, “the great excitement of it, the extraordinary sense of aliveness. It was the war that did it, of course. I doubt if there has ever been a war that seemed so much a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness… For people born since, it must be hard to imagine a time when this country seemed so much on the side of the angels, or a cause so just…with rich and poor alike caught up in a sense of common urpose and destiny…and in a way more alive to the issues of light and darkness than it has been ever since” (The Sacred Journey, pp. 66-75).
This insight may help to explain both the success of Ken Burns’ new documentary, The War—whose rating have topped even commercial programming and especially among veteran demographics—and the way in which, for all its realism and horror, the series feels almost like an epic fairy tale, a “once upon a time” kind of story. It was then, and perhaps for the last time, when all-out war took on the mantle of holiness and purpose (Eisenhower, for instance, prepped D-Day troops for the coming invasion with the language of “crusade;” if the soldiers themselves did not at first believe it, when they liberated the death camps they many of them came to see that what they had done was in fact a kind of redemptive work.)
The massive casualties (even “deaths per square foot of land taken,” as in the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill in Okinawa) tended only to confirmed the war’s stakes. Soon to be imprisoned at the hands of the Nazis, Bohnoeffer in 1937 suggested that when Jesus calls to his disciples, he “bids them come and die.” This particular call to arms could well have seemed a kind of divine summons in the world, this selfless service a kind of sacred vocation, and the inestimable sacrifices of blood a healing flood. At least we can say that the obedience and sacrifice of the soldiers ultimately vanquished the evil of the Axis and redeemed its remaining victims—in short, the world was cleansed of its most obvious evils.
Burns’ film stands in stark contrast to the new movie from director Paul Haggis (Crash), In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. This film is inspired by actual events—which might mean almost anything—but it gradually comes to feel like a documentary. We follow in painful detail the complete unraveling of a long-frayed family, along with the undoing of past certainties and the exposure of a nation whose flag is raised (mistakenly at first but then intentionally) upside down.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a career soldier and former Military Policeman—one who has believed in and lived his life by the rules. The death of his first son in previous combat has wounded but not dissuaded him. In that sense he has fared better by half than his wife Joan, played by Sarandon, who is not only deeply aggrieved but irretrievably cynical. Hank, now retired and driving a gravel truck, still polishes his shoes each night and situates them at the foot of the bed, presses his pants on the bedside to maintain the crease and later, makes his own hotel bed with military corners.
Deerfield receives a call from the base where his younger son, Mike, is stationed after a tour in Iraq. The caller says that Mike is AWOL and has 24 hours to report or be charged. Hank drives to the base-town to find him, and the search becomes a kind of tragic-heroic quest. Neither the military nor the local constabulary demonstrates any real interest in the mystery, whether from actual indifference or, as it turns out, stonewalling.
After the mutilated and burned body of his murdered son Mike is discovered, Hank begins to oversleep. His bed goes unmade. His increasingly silent grief drives him further from his already estranged wife while the gruesome death becomes a metaphor for the ways in which not only his own marriage but even the nation is sundered and seared with anger and sadness. Against Hank’s stern counsel, Joan still insists on seeing what is left of her son’s body. “Is that all?” she whispers through the window (movie viewers are on the body-side of a protective glass and read her lips.) “Is that all that is left of him?” She walks away in silence, Hank’s arm tight around her shoulder. She seems ready to collapse but turns and hugs Hank for a long moment. It is their only intimacy. Soon, he has taken her back to the airport where with a cool kiss to his cheek she departs again. She does not speak, does not look back.
Hank is left to discover the truth, which he does, all the while trying to maintain belief both in his son and the ideals by which he has lived his life. An overworked detective and single mom, Emily Sanders (Theron) becomes an increasingly sympathetic ally against her own employers and, especially, the military base’s commanders. While Mike’s murder is at first blamed on the usual suspects—drugs, ethnic hostility—together Hank and Emily discover that the war itself is the murderer, and not only of Mike and the other soldiers of his unit but of others on the base and their families. This war has destroyed any mythic sense of holy warring (despite whatever “crusade” language might be invoked by the Powers that Be), as surely as it has obliterated the conscience of its participants.
Which is harder for Deerfield to bear? The disintegration of the principles by which he has ordered his days—he had resolutely believed that “we” are the good guys (and his son, too, by experience and implication) and the enemy are bad guys; the world, in sum, was cast not just in absolute terms, if not black and white then in red, white and blue—or his son, as we discover with Hank, gone so horribly wrong?
Early in Mike’s deployment he is so sensitive as to break general orders and even record with his camera phone the death of an Iraqi child who had been playing in the street till Mike runs him over as his convoy races by. He weeps to his dad to “get me out of here.” Soon enough, however, that tender-heartedness is itself dead and in its place has risen a sadism so fierce as to allow him again and again to brutally finger the deep wounds of Iraqi prisoners with the question, “does that hurt?” His protracted cruelty earns Mike the nickname “Doc.”
At one point, a soldier’s anger boils over in invective and curses toward Sanders as she approaches the truth of Mike’s death. The soldier’s commander restrains him, ushers him down a hallway and says, “Walk away. Just walk away.” The truth, however, is that none of them can. “You have no idea what we went through over there…” the soldier says, whether by way of rebuke or apology, and in one way that is true. But soon everyone knows that the chaos has overtaken them all. Evil is no longer shocking; it is merely the font in which they have all been immersed. The horror is banal, boring—and when the truth is finally reported—Mike’s buddies have in fact killed him—it is with a kind of matter-of-factness that is numb and numbing: “We had to hurry because we were hungry,” says the confessing soldier. “Hungry?” asks Sanders. “Starved,” says the soldier. The detective she shuts off her tape recorder. Everything has been said.
So does Hank Deerfield discover that what was once true, if ever, is true no longer. One night he tells the story of David and Goliath to Sanders’ son, tries to school the boy that that there are rules to be honored even in combat. In the case of Israel and the Philistines, one did not shoot with arrows even a giant who had offered challenge with the sword. In the case of the current conflict—as he also had assured the boy’s mother—those who have fought side-by-side against the enemy would never turn on each other. Even this last certainty crumbles around him.
Deerfield takes his place in a kind of cinematic prophetic succession with Russell Crowe’s Maximus (Gladiator) and Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, in the Bourne series of films. Especially in the trilogy’s last installment, Bourne—who was labeled a “rogue agent” after he abandoned his original “programming” and mission to “protect American citizens”—reveals that the recruiters and programmers are themselves the rogues and as willing to kill American citizens as anyone else. It is the CIA, and by extension, the entire government that has gone rogue from its identity and best purpose. Bourne, alone but for one late convert (Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen) is left to bring down the corrupt leaders of the agency and does so.
Likewise, Maximus—victimized into the gladiatorial games by the cruel machinations of the insane and patricidal Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) proclaims as he enters to Coliseum, “Marcus Aurelius had a vision of Rome and this is not it, this is not it.” The sad benediction might well have come, with variation, from Hank Deerfield.
Early in the movie, Deerfield stops his truck in front of the local elementary school and berates a Latino janitor for inadvertently running the flag upside down up the pole. “That is an international distress call,” he barks. He explains that flying the flag in that way means that the nation is in terrible trouble, under attack and with no ability to defend itself. It is a plea for intervention, “please come help us,” because we cannot help ourselves. He rights the flag with snap and pride.
Later, he curses a Latino member of his son’s squad, sure as he is that the man is a drug dealer and responsible for his son’s murder. Deerfield has already beaten the man as he was being arrested. When the truth is at last revealed—the man had nothing to do with the murder—Deerfield invites the badly bruised soldier to share with him a drink. They sit together, share a small bottle of whiskey and, almost Eucharistically, there comes truth-telling and reconciliation. A bit of it anyway.
And the end of the movie Deerfield returns to the flagpole. He takes a faded and torn American flag—one that has done “hard duty,” Deerfield tells the same janitor, and a gift from Mike to his Dad, shipped home “with love” just hours before the murder—and while the janitor looks on raises the colors, again upside down and this time on purpose. “You leave it just like that,” Hank says.
And so the movie ends with a kind of prayer, duct-taped in place till an answer should come. This flagpole, it seems, is where Americans will increasingly meet, this prayer the one they increasingly will pray: please help us, for we can no longer help ourselves.
Burn’s film, The War, is dedicated to “all those who fought and won that necessary war on our behalf.” Whether or not WWII finally rises to the level of a just war is a debate for theologians and ethicists; still almost all would agree that it was in fact “necessary.” The final episode’s tour through the death camps, just one cursory glance at bodies stacked like wood, one look into the startled eyes of survivors, are confirmation enough of that penultimate benediction.
It would help many of us, I think, to be certain that the planners of the present conflict at least aimed toward such liberation and redemption—I recall that no less that Elie Wiesel supported the “preemption” on this basis alone: that Saddam was a murderer of his own people. As time goes by, however, if we are less and less certain of our first best motives, we are increasingly convinced that it is our own nation now in the darkness, upside down, in need of liberation and deliverance from an unraveling self-image and a war that seems neither just, nor necessary…nor in the least wise energizing.
By Dan R. Dick
...Ali Selem’s beautiful and understated 2005 film, Sweet Land, tells both the story of the power of love and the power of finding something wonderful that satisfies the deepest hungers and thirsts of life. The film tells the story of a young German mail-order bride, Inge, (played by the stunning Elizabeth Reaser) promised to a struggling farmer, Olaf, (Tim Guinee) arriving in Minnesota in the wake of World War One. The local minister and town judge both refuse to perform the marriage ceremony... (continued in Lectionary Homiletics/GoodPreacher.com)
By Dan R. Dick
SCRIPTURE & SCREEN: John 3:1-17
There is a misconception in our culture that real men don’t cry. Machismo dictates that “real” men suck it up, knuckle down, and deal with anything and everything that comes their way. I defy any “real” man to watch McG’s 2006 sportspic, We Are Marshall—a heartbreaking and triumphant fictionalization of the November 14, 1970 plane crash that killed 37 players and 12 coaches from Marshall University—and not shed a tear or three. The film tells the story of the worst tragedy in college sports history, the amazing way the student body pulled together to deal with their grief, the march toward honoring the memory of the football team by resurrecting the football program, and the rough and rocky road back to normalcy, and ultimately victory. This story is an amazing allegory for the power and possibility of resurrection.
Matthew McConaughey plays Jack Lengvel, the replacement coach who faces the formidable tasks of replacing a popular coach, recruiting new (and grossly inadequate) players, coping with the pain, grief, and sorrow of an entire community, and seeing past the immediate problems to a brighter, grace-filled future where winning and achievement will once more be reasonable. He has to whip a rag-tag group of replacements into a team worthy of their predecessors. His warmth, humanness, and sensitivity carry a powerful message—life is hard, and resurrection is even harder, but together anything is possible.
The Thundering Herd (Marshall’s team name) died. Real players—real young men and their coaches—died in a horrible plane crash. A university, and indeed the surrounding community, suffered a kind of death as they mourned so much loss. And yet, something survived—a spirit, a name, and a hope. A new team, a new Marshall, rose from the ashes of ultimate defeat to live on—not just for itself, but for the team that died. They created a future, not just for themselves, but for the families and friends of everyone who lost a loved one.
The passage from John’s gospel that relates Nicodemus’ covert nighttime meeting with Jesus is among the most recognizable in scripture, if for no other reason than it contains John 3:16. But beyond that, it predicts and defines the heart of the Christian gospel... (continued in Lectionary Homiletics/GoodPreacher.com)
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