Gran Torino, Unforgiven, and the Justice of God

Just a quick note. Both of these movies are rated-R and contain quite a bit of salty language. Unforgiven also has some sexual content.  I will be giving the basic plot of the each movie including the ending. So if haven’t seen them and plan to you may want to come back. 

Gran Torino  is movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. He is an old Korean War vet who lives in Detroit. The movie opens with his wife’s funeral. His neighborhood has been overrun by Asians. He is the last white man left. He spends his days keeping up his yard, drinking at the bar, mocking the local priest, and yelling racial epithets at his Asian neighbors. Through a series of events he becomes friends with the Asian family next door. He takes the teenage son under his wings and mentors him. However, he figures out that the teenage son will never be free of  a local gang. This gang ultimately beats up and rapes (this is not seen on screen) the boy’s sister in retaliation for his refusal to join the gang as well as his friendship with the veteran. No one will give up the men in the gang. The neighborhood is silent. The movie ends with Clint Eastwood, going to the gang’s house unarmed. Eastwood tricks them into shooting and killing him publicly so they will go to jail and the boy and his family can be free. He sacrifices his life so the young man can have a new life. 
Unforgiven is another Clint Eastwood movie. This one is about a washed up old gunfighter in his last days. His wife is dead. He is without strength. The movie begins with him chasing a pig and ultimately falling in the mud.  He agrees to take on one last job with a young, hothead gunfighter who dreams of glory but does not understand the cost of killing men. Eastwood recruits his old partner, Morgan Freeman, to help him. He does the job, which means executing a man who cut up a woman’s face. In the process he comes in conflict with the tyrannical, local sheriff, Gene Hackman. Hackman ultimately kills his partner in brutal fashion. The movie ends with Eastwood coming back to town and executing vengeance on Gene Hackman. Unforgiven is not your typical revenge movie. Killing in the movie takes a toll and is not treated lightly. Yet it still is a revenge flick. Eastwood’s wrath is on full display at the end. 
As Christians we look at these two movies and see one that tells a Christian story of sacrifice for others and one that tells a non-Christian story of revenge. However, this is splitting apart what should not be torn asunder. Our God is a God of vengeance (Romans 12:19). Vengeance and wrath are part of the Christian story. The story of Jehu’s purging of Ahab’s house is a great, bloody example of God’s wrath poured out on man. But wait you say, “Unforgiven is not about God’s wrath. It is about man’s wrath.” To which I say, “That is all a movie can do.” In movies men can be little christs sacrificing for those around them. Or in movies men can be little christs executing vengeance on the wicked. In other words, just as Gran Torino is Christ’s sacrifice put on the small screen so Unforgiven is the wrath of Christ put on the small screen as well. We reap what we sow. Justice will be served. Wrongs will be set right. The wicked will either take the sacrifice of Christ or will pay with eternal damnation. 
This is not a wholehearted defense of revenge movies. Bloodlust is a real problem in our culture, especially among young men. Movies like these can appeal to that lust for blood instead of a longing for justice. Many of these movies exploit and glorify violence in a way that is not good. Many of them are just poorly done. But revenge movies resonate with humans because we all long for justice. When Gene Hackman whips Morgan Freeman to death we know that something has gone terribly wrong. Yes Freeman was not a good man, but Hackman is worse. So we wait for justice and vengeance. A father’s daughter gets kidnapped and killed. The police never find the culprit. So we wait for justice. Men are burned alive in cages and we wait for justice. Sometimes justice comes in the form of  the magistrate’s sword. Sometimes it comes in other forms, such as rival gangs or diseases brought on by wickedness. Sometimes it comes on the Last Day when all will stand before the seat of Christ. Sometimes it comes at the Cross.  But justice will come. Revenge movies remind us of this. Be careful. Don’t spend all your time watching movies devoted to violence and vengeance. But don’t reject them entirely either.  For the character of God is not just seen in the sacrifice at the Cross, but it is also seen in his wrath in Hell. 

On Making Movies

Last week some friends of mine posted some links about Christian movies, such as God is Not Dead, Fireproof, etc. Their comments were good and I wanted to follow up with a few random comments of my own on movie making. These are in no particular order.

First, Christian movie making is in its infancy. Hopefully, in time, the industry will gain maturity and wisdom in how movies are made. We need to give these men time to grow up. We can’t expect a six year old to act 45. By the way, this also means we need older Christians involved in the movie making business.

Second, I am grateful for the men who are making these movies. I do not always agree with everything they do, but they are trying and paving the way for the next generation. Critics should be more humble. It is not easy to make a good movie, just take a peek at all the trash on Netflix that somehow still got made.

Third, but Christian movie makers need to be open to criticism. Many Christians insulate themselves from criticism. Just because you are doing it for Jesus doesn’t mean you get a pass. In fact, it should mean exactly the opposite.

Fourth, men who are rooted in good stories will make better movies. Part of the problem is that our educational system, public and Christian, has gotten rid of many great stories. If we want the next generation of movie makers to make better movies, we need to give them better stories. Here is where a classical education can be helpful. Shakespeare, Beowulf, Faulkner, Dickens, and of course, the Bible all fill our minds with great stories. If we absorb these stories we will make better movies. Here is also the reason Christians need to study great movie directors. They know how to tell a good story.

Fifth, having a good story on paper does not guarantee a good movie. We need Christians who understand what a visual medium is supposed to do. A movie is not a lecture or a novel or even a short story. It may be similar to those things, but it is also different in many ways. Christians need to examine how this particular medium can be used to get people to see the world as God made it. Again studying great movies can be a tremendous help here.

Sixth, movies are not preaching or evangelism. A Christian movie is not a substitute for Sunday morning worship, telling your neighbor about Jesus, or having an evangelist preach at the local college campus. A movie cannot do the work of a minister or an evangelist. I think this is the most helpful thing a Christian movie maker can understand. Your movie cannot do what the preaching of God’s Word does. So don’t shove it into that hole. Let movies do what they are supposed to: tell a story using words and pictures.

Seventh, Christians need to find ways to present sin on the screen in a way that does not cause a sailor to blush but is real. This is a difficult balance, but not impossible. Surprisingly, horror movies can give some guidance here. Often what is implied, but not shown, is most effective. The great directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, were masters of the unseen. Even something as ugly as rape is fit for a Christian movie. But it must be done well, which means it can be neither pornographic, exploitative, nor simplistic. Here, in my opinion, is one of the greatest deficiencies in Christian movie making: sin is one dimensional. Christian movie directors need to watch great secular movies (and TV shows) to get a handle on how to present sin rightly. The Devil with horns or the wicked man who is always converted is not true to Scripture.

Eighth, but Christians should not be afraid of putting a hero on the screen either. In many ways, having a true hero, who is good, but also has faults is more difficult than putting a wicked man on screen. Often the good guy in a story comes across as fake. Antiheroes are all the rage these days. But we have a real hero in Jesus Christ. Somehow that idea needs to be translated to the screen without us having to actually make a movie about Jesus.

Ninth, we need rich Christians to finance the movie making endeavors of other Christians. A good product does not always require money, but it usually does.

Tenth, it is okay for Christians to make movies for a narrow audience. Secular people do that all the time. Many movies that play at places like Cannes are narrow in their audience appeal. So if Christians want to make movies that are primarily apologetic, just for church goers, or a documentary about the evils of public education that is fine. The problem is that we have not yet branched out into what I would call “mainstream” movie making.

Eleventh, we need people who see movie making as a vocation, not a fad.  Movies are all the rage today. Movie stars and directors are the gods of America. They are rich, pampered, and most of all cool. It is easy for a Christian to think he is getting into the movie making business for God when the reality is he is getting into it for his ego. Movie making is just like being an architect, auto mechanic, or business manager. It is a job that needs to be done well and to the glory of God. We don’t need more Christians who want to be hip and reach out to the hip people of the world through movies.

Twelfth, Christian movie makers need to tell Christian stories. The content and structure of a Christian movie should reflect God and the world he has made. However, this does not require every movie to be a visual depiction of evangelism or to wear God on its sleeve. Horror, action, animation, drama, sci-fi, rom-com, comedy, period epics, can all be permeated with a Biblical worldview/perspective without being overt. There is nothing wrong with being overt, by the way. But usually the most effective movies are the ones that are not overt. We don’t go usually go to the movies to be preached at.

Thirteenth, there is nothing wrong with Christians making movies just for fun and entertainment. It is odd that many Christian movie makers and those who love the secular, small budget, indie movies both believe movies must be profound to be worth making. They disdain movies that are just for entertainment. But there is nothing wrong with Guardians of the Galaxy or Jason Bourne. They are McDonalds, instead of the local steak house. They are the Saturday morning t-shirt instead of a three piece suit. They won’t change your life. But they are fun, exciting, and well-made. There is nothing wrong with Christians making these types of movies.

Eye Candy, Girl Fights, and the Death of Motherhood

Pastor Doug Wilson describes movies as a catechism class for our age. They tell us what to believe and they define reality for us. They tell who our gods are and what the major sins of our age are. That is why it is good for Christians to evaluate what movies are saying.  Americans spent 10.8 billion dollars at the movie theater last year. That does not include Redbox, Netflix, Amazon, etc. What are we being taught as we enter these catechism classes? I came across one lesson this week as I read about the new movie Fast and Furious 6. 

I have never seen any of “Fast and Furious” (or The Fast and The Furious) movies. I was reading an article about what Hollywood can learn from one of the  most surprising film franchises in history.  The article lists six things that Hollywood can learn from this movie franchise, which has earned over 1.6 billion dollars worldwide. The fourth reason on the list is that it appeals to women. Here is what the article says:

Casting women as more than scantily clad helpmates and arm candy has further broadened “The Fast & The Furious” franchise’s appeal.
Women represent 51 percent of the U.S. population and 52 percent of the moviegoing public, but according to a 2012 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, only 11 percent of the protagonists in top grossing films are female.
Yes, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are the top-billed stars in the series, but what’s refreshing about “Fast & Furious 6” is that Rodriguez and co-star Gina Carano have roles that are integral to the action. In fact, Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, Universal Pictures co-president of production, told TheWrap that the most recent “Fast” film is the highest testing among women.
He added that the on-screen throw down between Rodriguez and Carano is a key selling point of the film and “trumps” the fight between Diesel and Dwayne Johnson that was a heavily promoted part of “Fast Five.

Notice the first and last paragraph. Apparently the moviegoing public wants more than women in bikinis. Eye candy, by itself, is no longer acceptable. (If you watch the trailer you will see very quickly that it is still there.) Now we need women who beat each other up. Here is another article declaring that the girl fight in the movie is the most intense girl fight ever. And the director and the women involved are of course proud. It is “refreshing” that women are now central to the action. They don’t have to sit on the sidelines anymore wearing next to nothing. Now they can get into the action and pulverize one another.

Iron Man 3 is also praised for its portrayal of woman. Again, I have not seen that movie either, though at some point I probably will. But this article in the magazine “Wired” says, 

Consider that the genius in Iron Man 3 who creates a powerful—indeed, perhaps too powerful—form of technology capable of changing the world isn’t Tony Stark; it’s Maya. And the hero who ultimately saves the day by taking out the bad guy in smash-em-up physical confrontation isn’t Tony Stark; it’s Pepper Potts. Sure, Tony Stark and the Mandarin are ostensibly the hero and the villain, but if you look at the things that people actually do rather than where the camera happens to focus, the female characters are the ones who truly begin to shine.

So in Iron Man 3 we have a female scientist who creates some form of powerful technology and we have the eye candy, Pepper Potts, who beats up the bad guy. 

The catechism question these movies are asking is: What can a woman be? The answer is: be a sex toy or be a man. Wear a bikini, wear a gun, wear a business suit, but most certainly do not wear an apron. You were made to be used by a man or to act like a man. Where are the mothers, I mean real mothers with children, in modern movies? Where are the faithful wives who love their husbands?  They are conspicuous by their absence. When is the last time you watched a major movie where motherhood is a virtue?  When was the last time you watched a movie with a husband and wife who love each other and love their children. I know there may be little movies that do have faithful mother characters. But let’s not be naive. A vast majority of movies that come out today do not even have a mother in them. The women are either professionals or someone to be bedded or fighters. Hollywood has effectively killed motherhood as a vocation for women. 

Our wives and daughters need to be aware that their fundamental calling has been completely rejected by the media. Fathers, pastors, and husbands need to encourage the women in their care to be faithful to God in that calling and not buy the lie that motherhood is a waste. 

Questions to Ask

Chris Brauns posted a blog on some questions not to ask before allowing something to shape one’s worldview. He was talking primarily about inspirational Christian books. But I think his point applies to books, movies, video games, magazines, radio shows and music. Here are the three questions to ask:

The question is not:

•Can the author construct a hypothetical scenario that seems compelling to me? For instance, if an author says, “If God sends x number of people to hell, then we have problems,” the author is not appealing to any biblical authority. Rather, he is appealing to what resonates with people’s culturally conditioned sensibilities.

•Do I like how the story makes me feel? All kinds of fiction make people feel good during the duration of a movie or a book. Audiences felt good when they watched the movie Pretty Woman. But do we really think that the way to redemption for a prostitute and a selfish materialist would be an extended business relationship?

•Does the story involve me? There are all sorts of stories that draw an audience in so that they want to know the outcome or resolution of the plot. However, this doesn’t mean that we should allow them to shape our worldview.

What question should we ask? “To what source of authority does this book appeal.”