Monday, February 25, 2013

Dead Man Walking

*This is a (short) paper I wrote for my Religion and Filmmaking class on the movie Dead Man Walking. This film was a more real portrayal than any of the Christian-produced films I've ever seen, portraying Christianity, redemption and Christ's love incredibly accurately and so beautiful. And I'm not the only one who thinks that (Roger Ebert review and Charles Colson commentary). I cried so many times. Seriously, if you only see one more film for the rest of your life, this should be it. 

“Figures I'd have to die to find love, thank you for loving me,” says Matthew Poncelet, some of the final words of a man facing his imminent death. Dead Man Walking is a film about the death penalty, but even more so it is a film about love. It's not romantic love, dramatized and spiced up for the big screen, it is dirty, difficult, full of tears and more real than anything one could ever fabricate. It addresses Mahatma Gandhi's oft-quoted statement about Christians not acting like Jesus by showing a Christian who truly imitates Christ's love for the, by worldy standards, despicable and unloveable. Whether the makers of Dead Man Walking intended it or not, they created one of the most spiritual and truly religious films that has come out of Hollywood in a long while, possibly ever. 
Poncelet's opinion of religion is made clear from some of his first statements. Rolling his eyes at Sister Helen, he mentions the chaplain is a “very religious man.” Poncelet clearly expects Sister Helen to spend her time attempting to convert him. He tries to tick her off from the get-go, with his racist comments, statements about religion and prying questions about her sexual life, or lack thereof. Sister Helen's response is always seasoned with grace. At one point she tells Poncelet that she is “following the example of Jesus” and that “every person is worth more than their worst act.” These two statements are clear themes playing throughout the film as Sister Helen helps Poncelet with his appeal, and when it is denied, agrees to be his spiritual counselor during his last days. 
At one point she admits to a fellow Sister that she's not sure she “really likes him,” which is possibly one of the greatest understatements of the film. Dead Man Walking does a spectacular job of not creating a martyr or a victim. Matthew Poncelet is not a pitiable soul. He is actually quite despicable. His words are full of racism and hatred, he is a Nazi-wannabe spouting the superiority of the Aryan race. In addition to that, he is in prison for the brutal rape and murder of two teenagers. By every logical right, Poncelet deserves what he's getting. If anyone deserved the death penalty, it would be someone like him. But he can be saved, and this is the theme of the film, this is the theme of Sister Helen's care. Not saved like turned into a Bible-thumping Baptist spouting scripture and singing gospel hymns as the needle goes in, but saved like redeemed, acknowledging his sin and accepting the forgiveness and love that readily awaits. 
Charles Colson put it well in his review of the film, saying “it's through Sister Helen's eyes we are finally able to perceive Poncelet as something other than a monster, and that's what makes Dead Man Walking a profoundly Christian movie. Sister Helen insists on loving the loathsome Poncelet out of her love for Christ.” This is so true. We don't hate Poncelet, because Sister Helen doesn't hate him, and through her love, care and dedication for him we see that Jesus doesn't hate Poncelet either. Dead Man Walking shows Poncelet to still be a human being, with every capability of being saved and redeemed. The movie displays repentance and the unconditional love of Christ more clearly than probably any other film made by a non-religious filmmaker. 
True Christianity is about unconditional love, and that is what Sister Helen portrays. The Bible and Christianity teach that Jesus changed the world with His radical love, that Jesus' love gives people worth, and that is what is shown by Sister Helen. She loves someone who is utterly unloveable, and through that she gives a dead man worth. Popular film commentator, Roger Ebert, said, “Sister Helen is one of the few truly spiritual characters I have seen in the movies. Movies about "religion" are often only that - movies about secular organizations that deal in spirituality. It is so rare to find a movie character who truly does try to live according to the teachings of Jesus (or anyone else, for that matter) that it's a little disorienting: This character will behave according to what she thinks is right, not according to the needs of a plot, the requirements of a formula, or the pieties of those for whom religion, good grooming, polite manners and prosperity are all more or less the same thing.” The fact that Dead Man Walking is based on a true story makes it even more powerful. This is not just a commentary on the death penalty or a portrayal of how Christianity should be, it tells the story of what Christianity really is, what it truly looks like for someone to live and love like Jesus. 
The cinematography in Dead Man Walking is stark and truthful. During the final scene of Poncelet's life the cutting and camera shots are spectacular. As the vials slowly empty their deadly fluids into Poncelet's veins the film flashes back to the night when Poncelet and the other man rape and brutally murder the teenagers. There is no forgetting what he has done. It is horrible, reprehensible, despicable, unforgivable by any human standards. But in the midst of this knowledge of Poncelet's evil actions, Sister Helen whispers that she loves him, hand stretched towards him as she offers silent prayers to Heaven. This is the message of Dead Man Walking, that no matter what a person has done, there is grace and forgiveness for all. Dead Man Walking is one of the most spiritual and religious stories to ever come out of a non-religious film, it is about true love, forgiveness, grace, repentance and redemption, because “every person is worth more than their worst act.”

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Sour Song

gossip |ˈgäsəp| | noun

a) casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true
b) chiefly derogatory a person who likes talking about other people's private lives
c) a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others
d) rumor or report of an intimate nature
e) chatty talk 
Don't lie. You know you've done it. I have. We all have. "I can't believe she wore that." "Did you hear what he said?" "Did so-and-so tell you what they did?" 

It's a problem in every circle of life, lies and exaggerations consuming and destroying a person's reputation. And even if the words never reach their ears, your perception of them is marred for eternity. 

Gossiping is so bad it's listed right up there with murder, malice, and God hating in Romans 1:28-32. In Proverbs 6:16-19, there are, "six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up conflict in the community."

There are a lot of things the Lord hates in there - pride, lying, murder - but the very last thing on the list is gossip. Why does God hate gossip and slander so much? 

Of course, it isn't nice to talk badly about people. But what's the root of that? Why is it so harmful, so detestable? Especially if the person never even knows you were talking about them behind their back...what's the harm? 

It isn't loving. 

Gossiping isn't loving. 

In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus tells us the greatest commandments are to, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'"
We are called to love one another, and gossiping, quite frankly, is the antithesis of loving. 
Ephesians 4:15-16 tells us we are to speak the truth in love and respect one another. Love builds up the body of Christ, of which we are all a part. Gossip tears it down, infiltrating the bonds of love and community with poisonous vapors of malice and contempt. 

We watched a lot of Veggie Tales when I was growing up. One particularly epic and relevant tale was LarryBoy and the Rumor Weed. The years have blurred my exact memories of the story, but I remember the basics pretty well. Someone tells a rumor (gossips), and what starts as a small, seemingly innocent, little plant becomes a giant monstrous weed that begins to take over the city with lies and deceit. 

That's how gossip is. It grows and grows, and ultimately there is nothing innocent, and definitely not loving or caring, that comes out of such action. 

Gossip hurts others, it isn't loving or kind. But even if gossiping didn't hurt another soul, it would still be wrong. Philippians 4:8 says, "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Gossiping isn't noble, lovely, praiseworthy. It doesn't honor God, respect others, or further the Kingdom. 

But it is oh-so-tempting. I know, I fall prey to the temptation to gossip far more often than I'd like to admit. There are so many times I have to go back to my friends later and say, "I'm sorry. I was gossiping with you." "I drew you into talking badly about that person." "I shouldn't have told you that, that wasn't my business." 

It's not just detrimental to the person I'm talking about. By the grace of God I don't think much of my gossip has gotten back to people. My words change how I see people, and it changes how the people I'm talking to see people as well. 

Last year I had an experience that really showed me the true harm of gossiping. I was actually on the receiving end of the gossip, my friends didn't realize I was in the room, and their words and judgements were incredibly hurtful. I have to say, however, that despite this being an experience that brought many tears and great pain, I am so glad it happened. 
I had a moment where I thought to myself, "this is what it feels like." And then a massive realization, that's what I do to people. When I'm talking about people behind their backs, that's what I'm doing. I know what it feels like. I know the pain gossip causes, how can I do that to another person? 

But deeper than this realization is a question, why do we gossip? Why do I gossip?

Gossiping stems from so many things. 

One is not valuing people the way we should, not seeing them as image bearers of Christ. Everyone is made in the image of God, everyone is deeply, passionately loved by the Heavenly Father. It's a beautiful realization that completely changes one's perspective. If everyone is important, worthy, and loved, then how can we think and speak so poorly of people? 

I am no better, and no worse, than anyone else in the eyes of God. He loves everyone the same today, yesterday, and forever. My interaction with other humans should reflect this, I should love everyone because Christ loves me and loves them. 

Another cause of gossiping is jealousy. We put people down because we are insecure around them, jealous of them, their abilities or qualities make us feel inadequate. An example of this, particularly common in girls, I think, is judging and comparing to other girls' appearances, or putting down other girls based on their physical attributes. We do this to make ourselves feel better. If someone else has a bigger butt, worse hair, a bad sense of style, it makes us feel better about our own qualities we're insecure about. 

How silly of us! Does putting Jane Doe down really make me feel better? Maybe for a few, shallow seconds. And even if, on a surface level, it makes us feel better...there are deeper issues. 

This insecurity that plagues our thoughts and actions has a darker root. This insecurity lies in not trusting God, in God not being enough. 

I say this because it is a common theme of my own life. Constantly I find myself seeking to be enough, striving to be big and strong. I know God is enough. 
I trust God. But sometimes believing is different than knowing, and while I know factually that God is greater than any other, stronger and more loving and powerful than I can even begin to fathom, my heart doesn't believe it, my actions don't reflect my head knowledge. 

We gossip because we aren't letting God be bigger, stronger, or enough. It makes us feel better in a small, in-the-moment sort of way. Not trusting God is the root of our sins, and even deeper than that is the sin of trying to be our own God, because we don't believe God is enough. 

But as Christians we are called to find our strength and our salvation in Someone greater than ourselves. God is our strength, He is our song. 

When we are filled with Jesus, focusing all our attention on Him, the other things in life don't matter as much, until finally they don't matter at all. Romans 8:31 is the perfect reminder that God is for us. And if God is for us, who can be against us? We don't need to gossip when God is enough, when He is our strength. 

Recently, Psalms has been a huge encouragement to me. There are so many verses speaking the truth of God's strength, reminding us we are not alone and our refuge is in Him. He is our help, our comfort, our friend. When God is for us, who can be against us, "what can mortal man do to me?" Psalms 56:4 asks. Psalm 34 encourages us to pursue peace, and reminds us that the Lord will deliver us from all our troubles and fears as we rest in Him. 

Psalm 46:1-3 reads:

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

When our security is found in Him and we can see other people as He sees them, the way we interact with people changes from needing to prove and fulfill ourselves, to simply loving others.