Friday, April 20, 2012

Dead Mockingjay's Society

This blog contains spoilers, both of the 80s movie "Dead Poets Society" and the recent publishing fad Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven't seen the movie, and want to, and/or if you have not read all three books in the series, and want to, you probably don't want to read the rest of this.

I am in the minority of people my age, especially those who graduated from my high school, which was also attended by the author of the screenplay for "Dead Poets Society" and which ostensibly is the basis for the school that serves as the setting for that movie. I am in the minority because I do not like the movie. I think it serves up a lot of potential and sets the stage for something great and then falls flat. I feel exactly the same way about The Hunger Games trilogy. My 15-year-old daughter got me involved in the first book, called The Hunger Games, and I read the last two, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, on my own. They have a great potential and set the stage for something great. And then the bottom falls out.

So here are the spoilers. In the movie, after all its talk about individuality and standing up for what is right even against great odds, the students all chicken out when it matters. When Robin Williams's character Mr. Keating is fired, the students can do nothing more than a semi-dramatic stand in an attempted protest. They cannot muster any sort of real defiance, much less any action. In short, they have not learned anything. They have quoted a few famous lines of poetry when it was cool among their little "society" to do so, but when the chips are down, they have nothing in the tank. One student even famously commits suicide rather than actually challenging authority. They are all, in short, pitiful.

The trilogy is much the same. Through the first two books, we follow with care several characters, most notably Katniss, through struggles with totalitarianism, hatred, slavery, and manipulation. There is some really good writing here, and we no doubt care deeply about Katniss and her closest friends. As the third novel, Mockingjay, progresses, it is clearly the best of the three, not only being the most engrossing but also leading the reader to what we expect will be an important point of view. And then, without explanation, something happens. The last fifty pages are not only out of character, they invalidate everything that came before. At the climax, after the death of her innocent sister, Katniss becomes everything that she has hated for 2 and 4/5 novels. She kills a minor character, Coin, essentially because she can. She retreats from reality to a place of despondency. She gives up caring. She intentionally chooses not to look for either reason or goodness. She just quits.

Let me give both works their due. Perhaps their respective endings are not failures. Perhaps the writers really do believe that there is nothing to all of the great values that their characters examine through most of the stories. Maybe they really are sending us the message that all is worthless, that virtue is pointless, and that fighting for those difficult-to-fathom values is meaningless. Nihilism is, in some circles, a respected philosophy (although I expect a true nihilist would laugh at the idea of its being a "philosophy").  Shulman, the screenwriter of "Poets," and Collins, the author of the Games trilogy, may be clever perveyors of nihilism.

I don't think so. I think they are trying for something great and just do not know how to finish. I think they swing and miss. Badly. And that's a real problem.

If you endeavor to portray truly heroic qualities like civil disobedience, noble resistence to evil, and fighting for truth and love, you better know what you are talking about. You better be able to show a solution when the going gets tough. And neither the movie nor the novels are able to do that. In both, despite some high-sounding rhetoric, the characters demonstrate when the chips are down that they have learned nothing. And that is worse than not starting.

In comparison to these kinds of failures, the struggles of Scout Fitch, Huckleberry Finn, Samwise Gamgee, Anne of Green Gables, and other great characters of literature - and even movie characters like Luke Skywalker and Rick Blaine and Oskar Shindler - shine. These are characters who learn - truly learn - ideas and virtues that in fact enable them to face seemingly insurmountable odds and to triumph. Learning some lines of poetry and talking about individualism mean nothing when you knuckle under at the first challenge. Winning some games and learning to rely on your innate abilities, finding your friends, and challenging tyranny are nice; but when you become what you despise, losing all sense of love and reason in the process, and ultimately settle for a life of mediocrity and defeat, your struggles mock you and all who follow you.

The ending we want from these stories is, of course, the story of the gospel. There is no promise that all will work out, and there is certainly no assurance that the nice words you have learned will pave the way to easy defeat of the challenges that face you. In fact, we are promised a walk through the valley of the shadow. We are told that we will be hard pressed. The One who is the center of our story cried out "My God, why have you forsaken me?" But the story does not end there. There is the power to overcome. There is understanding. There is victory. There is resurrection.

I am not asking every movie or novel to reflect the gospel. I enjoy a good adventure story as much as everyone else. But I do expect a writer who dares to take on issues like these to follow through. Don't promise transformation and deliver conformity. Don't offer transcendence and then present nothing beyond the expected, the ordinary. Don't advertise victory only to write about defeat.

Nihilism is, by definition, empty. Life promises more.

The gospel guarantees more. Learn something. Move forward. Follow the One who delivers.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

One Crowd or Two?

Today is Palm Sunday, the day we Christians commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as he rode among a crowd of disciples and well-wishers who cried out "Hosanna," a word meaning "God saves." They continued, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Of course, today is also the beginning of Holy Week. Our observation turns to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We remember not only foot-washing and the Last Supper but also betrayal and denial. There is another crowd, this one outside a supposed trial in the court of Pilate, calling for Jesus' crucifixion.

Was it one crowd or two? In a city the size of Jerusalem, it is of course easily conceivable that there were several different "crowds" around. The descriptions of the people in the crowds seem different; the gospels describe the Palm Sunday crowd as "disciples" while focusing on the "religious leaders" as the impetus for the Thursday night gathering. Maybe more to the point, just in exercising some emotionless analysis, the motives and goals of the two crowds seem so different.

On the other hand, we know of at least two - Judas and Peter - who were in both, and it does not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that there were many others with one foot in each crowd. Maybe some were there on Sunday because they thought that Jesus, who had finally decided to come to Jerusalem, was there to overthrow the Romans; when it was clear by midweek that such was not His goal, they may have easily turned. Maybe some had no real idea what a "messiah" would be, and by Thursday, they knew that Jesus was not what they were looking for.

The trial of Jesus was where he clearly said - for the first time in most of their hearing - that He in fact claimed to be God; that was not what they were expecting to hear or what they wanted to hear. Perhaps the response of many of them is shown in the words of Judas' characterization of this claim of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, embodied in the song, "Heaven on Their Minds": essentially, the idea is that Jesus and the disciples had a good thing going, but as Jesus starts "all this talk of God," things have gone too far.

Maybe others were just misled by the charismatic demagoguery of the Sanhedrin and the high priest and found themselves caught in a mob mentality.

The haunting question is not really about the individuals in each gathering so much as it is about where we would have found ourselves. If we look in the gospels for descriptions of the crowd at the trial, we will find ourselves identifying words like disgruntled, angry, self-righteous, irrational, and bloodthirsty. And in our twenty-first century religion, like the Sunday palm-wavers, we can engage in public and loud worship; but when we find ourselves confronted with the true spiritual nature of the Christ who is not what we expected, we can be confused. When self-appointed "religious leaders" begin to point out how Jesus is not what they think we need - or worse, telling us that they really understand Jesus, and we should accept their characterization of what He is "really" like - we can become disgruntled. When our chains are not immediately thrown off, we can be angry. When we really never took the time in the first place to understand what "messiah" is, we can, like Peter, deny that we know Him at all.

My point is not to answer the question of whether it was one crowd or two, whether every person's "Hosanna!" turned into a "Crucify!" in four short days. My point is rather to address us, here and now. In which crowd are we? Many of us would be described as "discples," and yet, when the crowd around is is singing a different tune, where is our voice? What is our choice? Whether the mob is "religious" or not, when the catcalls of the many evince the irrationality that would rather release Barabbas than see Jesus enthroned, how do we bahave?

That we were in church this morning, singing hymns and remembering children with palms, is no guarantee of where we will be or what we will be doing on Thursday night.