Dolphin Tale 2: Finding a Little Hope

It would’ve been nice to talk with Winter. But she wasn’t doing interviews.
The other stars of Dolphin Tale 2 were more accommodating when I went down to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a set visit last year. Some select Christian media outlets had the opportunity to talk with Harry Connick Jr., Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Bethany Hamilton and several other performers. Winter, the famous aquatic mammal and the  breakout star from the original Dolphin Tale, apparently wasn’t available. But that’s OK. She makes time for the people who matter.
Winter’s story, according to pretty much everyone involved, has mightily impacted thousands of folks. Not just people who come to Clearwater just gawk at a famous bottlenose dolphin, but people—often with disabilities themselves—who’ve been inspired by Winter’s disability. No matter what life throws at you, Winter seems to channel another aquatic star—Dori from Finding Nemo. Just keep swimming.
If you’re not familiar with the original Dolphin Tale, the movie focuses on the true story of Winter, who lost her tail fluke and joint after she got tangled up in a crab trap. As you might imagine, those body parts are absolutely critical for the life of a dolphin. But the good people at Clearwater, along with some outside help, developed an artificial fluke that Winter, after some struggles, learned how to use. And now the animal gets along just (ahem) swimmingly.
A couple days ago, I marveled at how one little boy with autism took inspiration from a Guardians of the Galaxy character. But according to those involved with Dolphin Tale 2, that’s nothing compared to the influence that Winter has had on people.
David Yates, the real CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, knows many of the stories by heart: The tank commander who lost an arm and leg in the middle east—and who found a source of inspiration in this aquatic hero. A nine-year-old girl with a cleft palate whose family drove of miles to just see Winter. Kids who were scared to go to school because of some sort of real or perceived disability, but who saw Winter and found the courage to go after all.
“It’s amazing how God can use a little dolphin like this to change thousands of lives,” Yates says.
The new movie, Dolphin Tale 2, includes real-life footage of some of the people whom Winter has impacted. Yates says he’s received tens of thousands of letters and e-mails regarding Winter.
“Every kid has a life challenge,” he says. “They look at Winter (and say) she’s different, but she’s OK.”
When you’re promoting a feel-good movie, you’re naturally going to emphasize the feel-good elements. But when you hear how much Winter’s story also touched the movie’s cast, you wonder whether there’s something to it. Zuehlsdorff, who plays Hazel in the movie, and Austin Highsmith, who plays dolphin trainer Phoebe, teared up recounting some of the stories they’ve heard and seen. Everyone involved in Dolphin Tale returned for the sequel. Everyone, it seemed, felt the original movie was really special. And they wanted to be part of that feeling again.
“We’re really this Dolphin Tale family,” said Austin Stowell, who plays Kyle Connellan in both movies. And that family extends, in a way, to those who’ve been touched by them—particularly by Winter’s story. “It shows us that I can do anything.”

The first Dolphin Talewas an improbable hit, earning $72.3 million on a relatively shoestring budget. Will the second one—which focuses on Winter’s potential new tank mate—make the same sort of impact? We’ll find out next Monday.

Forrest Gump: He Knows What Love Is

“Stupid is as stupid does.”
That’s Forrest Gump’s snappiest comeback line. Whenever someone asks Forrest if he’s an idiot (which is often), he remembers what his Mamma always told him: Stupid is as stupid does. It’s not a denial. It’s simply a statement of fact, and a bit of a challenge. Don’t judge me by how I think. Judge me by what I do. Oh, and while you’re at it, judge yourself, too.
Forrest Gump, originally released in 1994 and the winner of six Academy Awards (including Best Director Robert Zemeckis, Best Actor Tom Hanks and Best Picture) is returning to theaters today, rolling out on 300 IMAX screens across the country. I’ll be interested to see whether anyone cares.
Forrest Gump hasn’t aged well for some. When you think of the year’s classic movies, you maybe think of Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemptionor The Lion King before this Oscar winner. Forrest Gump can feel a little too milquetoast by comparison. The special effects—cutting edge for the day—feel pretty dated now. Lines like “Run, Forrest, run!” and “life is a box of chocolates” are more likely to trigger eye rolls than smiles. Some positively hate the thing. Writes Amy Nicholson of L.A. Weekly:

“Forrest Gump has persevered, still celebrating 20 years of ignoring the tragedies that lurk beneath our lives like great whites in the dark waters below his shrimping boat. Let us not forget that the Bubba Gump fortunes only came after a hurricane took out all of Forrest\’s competition. Post-Katrina and post-recession, even his seafood riches now have a rotten aftertaste.”

But like folks who met Forrest in the movie, Amy underestimates the guy. Forrest might not have been fully aware of hurricanes or understood the Vietnam War, but he’s no stranger to tragedy. He understands pain maybe better than most of us. He loses his mother. He loses his best friend. He loses—repeatedly—the love of his life. And he’s never allowed to forget how slow he is. When Forrest learns he fathered a child, he’s amazed, then terrified that his son might be slow, too.
And yet, rather than grow angry or bitter or fatalistic, Forrest grieved and moved on. His journey is one of deep, abiding faith.
Forrest Gump is a deeply spiritual movie, one of the most faith-driven stories I’ve ever seen. Echoes of scripture weave through each storyline. It’s most obvious, maybe, in his relationship with Lieutenant Dan (I talk about it a little in the spiritual content section of my Plugged In review), but nowhere is it more poignant and powerful than in his love for Jenny, his wayward “girl.”
Jenny is a troubled woman. Like the song says, she searches for love in all the wrong places—trying to find happiness in parked cars or drug-filled penthouses. She poses for Playboy. She sings folk songs naked in a strip club. She longs for love, but instead she finds a string of abusive boyfriends, made (it’s suggested) in the image of her father.
When she was a kid being chased by her dad, she asked Forrest to pray with her:–begging that God would turn her into a bird so that she could fly away from her horrid life. She never loses her desire for wings, it seems: She climbs bridges and balconies, longing to wing her way into oblivion.
And yet she doesfly. Again and again, she flies from her past, remaking herself at every stoplight—as if she could somehow fly away from herself. And in so doing, she flies away from Forrest, too.
“Can I have a ride?” she asks a passing truck driver after Forrest “rescues” her from the strip club.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“I don’t care,” Jenny says.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better depiction of how our own sin and shame impact our relationship with God.
See, Forrest loves Jenny—loves her unconditionally, just as God loves us. He loves with a perfect, undying passion. And Jenny loves Forrest, too … sorta. But she seeks fulfillment elsewhere time after time. And when Forrest asks Jenny to marry him, she realizes that he’s too good for her.
“You don’t want to marry me,” she says, sadly.
 “Why don’t you love me, Jenny?” he asks. “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”
Jenny, after all this time, sees that it’s true. He knows what love is. It’s she that doesn’t.
Now, I’m not calling Forrest a Christ metaphor. Jesus and Forrest are pretty different … except in that image of love. A love that’s undimmed by what we say or do, a love unstained by our own sin and shame. A love that would die for us, and has.
That kind of love can seem a little stupid and simple-minded to our jaded eyes. Naïve. Oblivious. Like Forrest himself. Like, Amy Nicholson tells us, the movie is.  
And yet there’s unfathomable beauty there, too. A love we can’t understand, but part of us wants to.
“Stupid is as stupid does,” Forrest says. The Apostle Paul said something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
In Forrest Gump, we’re given a fool—one whose foolish ideas of love can put our own wisdom to shame.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Bad Childhoods

Life isn’t always kind. It’s not always fair. From time to time, most of us probably feel like we’ve gotten a raw deal, though some of our deals are rawer than others. Some of my closest friends have struggled with all manner of challenges: Physical disability, rocky family life, just plain bad luck. And yet, they’ve overcome and succeeded in spite of them.
They’re a little like Guardians of the Galaxy in that way.
At Plugged In\’s blog, I talked a little bit about how our five Guardians in Marvel’s newest megahit kinda remind me of Paul’s famous body parts passage in 2 Corinthians 12, which goes in part like this:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
 And so it is with the Guardians. But there’s more to them than that. They don’t just overcome their own selfish natures to become stronger as a team. They overcome their own hard knocks to inch closer to what, I’d argue, God might’ve had in mind for them all along (if, y’know, they actually existed).
Think about these heroes for the moment. Peter Quill had his mother taken from him and was kidnapped by space pirates in the span of 12 hours. That’s not what I’d call a great familial foundation for a hero. Gamora had it worse: She was adopted by one of the worst people in the entire galaxy—the game guy who killed her original family—and trained to be a fearsome assassin. It’s like Hitler plucking a girl from  and turning her into a ninja. Drax watched his whole family die. Rocket the Raccoon is understandably bitter at being the product of a weird genetic experiment. And Groot—well, I don’t know about Groot. Perhaps he had a good home life. But that would explain why he’s so comparatively well-adjusted.
These Guardians didn’t have anything in their backgrounds that would scream “future hero” to you. And yet, they became heroes anyway. This isn’t a Lord of the Rings-like story, where a handful of ordinary hobbits saved the world. This is the story of a handful of extraordinarily scarred, damaged people (or trees or raccoons)  that saved a world. No excuses, no pity parties (well, not many). They just saw what needed to be done and did it.
I’ve talked before, and I’ll talk again, about how God can use our weaknesses for His own nifty purposes. But He can work through and past our pain, too, if we let him. If we look at the Bible, we see that theme at work pretty regularly.
Jacob was tricked out of the wife he wanted. Joseph’s own home life was pretty horrible—or at least it was when his brothers sold him into slavery. Moses, a bigwig in Egypt, had to say goodbye to his home and family and life of luxury when he accidentally killed somebody. David was forced to run away from the palace, too. They were all cast out—just as these Marvel vagabonds were. And yet, God had some pretty amazing plans in store for each of them.
There are some preachers who teach that, if we have faith in God, we’ll be safeguarded from sorrow. And there are lots of ordinary believers who seem to believe that God is like a magic shield. I’m guilty of that sometimes. I’ve been very blessed, and when I hit a season of life that seems … well, less-than-blessed … I find myself wondering if there’s been some sort of cosmic mistake. Did I forget to fill out some sort of good-person form or something? Did I land on the naughty list accidentally? What’s with this crud?
The Bible reminds us that God-as-good-luck-charm isn’t really good theology. Yes, the Bible talks about blessings and rewards, too, but we’re explicitly told we will have trouble. We’re shown that we have to persevere and work through difficulty. We can’t give up when life tosses us a couple of curveballs. God still has plans for us. Big plans.
Guardians of the Galaxy shows that concept at work. I see echoes of Jacob and Joseph and Moses in this quirky little adventure. And that even if we’ve been saddled with a whole bushel of lemons in our lives, we can take those lemons and turn them into really eco-friendly air fresheners. Or something.

Have a Little Faith In Our Kids

I’ve been reading a lot about how children raised in religious households have a harder time discerning fantasy from fiction. That’s the word, at least, from scientists involved in a study published by Cognitive Science magazine this month.
The 66 5- and 6-year-olds in the study were told a series of stories. Some were realistic, like this:

This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard. A nearby whale opened its mouth to bite him, but Jonah swam away just in time. Jonah then climbed back onto the boat with the help of his fellow sailors.

Some were religious:

This is Jonah. After disobeying God’s orders, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. Jonah prayed to God for three days, and was spit out by the whale safe and sound. As a result, Jonah promises to obey God’s orders in the future.

And some were fantastical:

This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. But Jonah had magical powers, and he was able to jump out of the whale’s mouth and swim all the way to the shore.

The children all thought that the realistic story was, well, real. But once it came to the other two, kids raised in homes without religion were quick to dismiss both the religious and the fantastical story as fiction. The religious children were far more apt to accept the religious story as fact, and some accepted the fantastical one, too.
According to said scientists, young religious kids have a “broader conception” of what reality can encompass, and also have a more difficult time separating fantasy from reality. Some religious critics have naturally used the study as proof that religion is ludicrous and that religious parents are perhaps stunting their children’s grasp of reality. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern writes, “When you’ve been told that a woman was created from a man’s rib, or that a man reawakened three days postmortem little worse for wear, your grasp on reality is bound to take a hit.”
But there’s a bit of an irony, here. Setting aside the Biblical story of Jonah for a moment, the “realistic” story is, technically, just as made up as the fantastical one. Researchers made it up. It feels more likely that it could happen, but that doesn’t mean it did happen. It’s just as much of a lie, and not nearly as good a story.
So technically, the study doesn’t suggest as much that non-religious kids have a better grasp of reality as much as it seems they’re being taught that reality is boring.
Whether you’re religious or not, reality is not boring. Inexplicable, even miraculous, things happen every day. Astronomers tell us that there’s a planet made entirely of diamond. Meteorologists pretty much admit that there’s a rare form of lightning that can go about as fast as a good-paced mosey. Sometimes fish fall from the sky. Sometimes rivers turn the color of blood. These things would be rejected out of hand by more serious-minded kids, I\’m sure–and yet, there they are. This universe of ours is a fantastical place. The fact that we’re here at all is a breathtaking miracle.
I’m not arguing to scrap realism or science for the fantastic or religious. I have a deep appreciation for science, and it makes me sad when Christians reject it for religious or political reasons without any critical thought. I’m with Augustine when he said:

“If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

But Augustine, one of the deepest thinkers of his day, obviously still believed in miracles. I think one can embrace scientific reason and also believe in the possibility of a God who can do miracles. I think most of us can have a firm grasp on reason while still keeping the door slightly ajar for the completely unexpected. 
G.K. Chesterton, the great British author, journalist and lay theologian, had the truth of it in his book Orthodoxy, I think:

“Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him to extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion …. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

I loved it when my children asked some deep, even cynical questions about the world around them and the faith I was trying to pass on to them. It’s important to have an active, inquisitive mind. But I’d also like our 5- and 6-year-olds be poets. To be dreamers. To look around the world and feel its full of wonder. Of possibility. Of miraculous beauty.

Because it can be if we let it.

The Purge: Anarchy, Eggplants and the Will of God

We can invoke God\’s name for the worst of reasons.
It\’s not a new thing. In the New Testament, you read about lots of folks who claimed to be speaking for God. \”Watch out for false prophets,\” Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew. \”They come to you in sheep\’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.\” Throughout history, people have done some pretty horrific things in God\’s name—atrocities that have turned people away from God altogether. It\’s like a variation on that old Bon Jovi song. Sometimes we give God a bad name.
I was thinking about this a little after I left The Purge: Anarchy, a R-rated horror-thriller that shows just how badly God\’s name can be abused.
In the movie, the Purge is an annual abandonment to society’s darkest urges—a 12-hour period in which most crime (including and especially murder) is legalized. The Purge is pushed as a societal good (the crime rate has plummeted since its introduction) and a patriotic duty. And most critically here, it\’s also seen as something sacred.
In the first movie, a dying man is kissed on the forehead by his murderer, almost like a priest would kiss a confessor. \”Your soul has been cleansed,\” he says. Participants even seem to pray together: \”Blessed be the Purge,\” they say.
In The Purge: Anarchy, that sense of the Purge being a divine rite only grows. Killers sometimes sport religious symbols: One has a cross marked on his forehead. Another wears a mask with the word \”God\” scrawled on it. A woman roams the roof of a building, looking for people to gun down for the grievous sin of, I guess, walking down the street. Hollering into a megaphone, she talks about how often God in the Bible brings torment down on His creation: floods and famine and all manner of terrible things. The woman says she\’s simply doing God\’s holy work: She\’s a \”one-woman mother—ing plague,\” worthy of a spot at God\’s left hand.
It seems like the filmmakers are critiquing how religion can be misused, and they may be swinging a few punches at the Religious Right here: The country\’s \”New Founding Fathers\” manipulate both the language of patriotism and religion for their own ends, as some believe happens today.
Now on one hand, I\’d argue that faith is inherently politically active. Both church and state, after all, are built on a sense of shared morality and values. Religion can\’t help but enter into the conversation.
But the movie does hint at a real danger of religious activism: Nothing kills dialogue as quickly as to declare that \”God wills\” something. As soon as someone stands on those two words, the conversation has nowhere left to go.
Now, I do believe that God does want us to do certain things. I believe that our lives are, on some level, a learning exercise—where we\’re educated all the time about how to align ourselves more closely with God\’s will. When I had kids in the house, most of our household rules aligned with what I believed was the will of God—what to value, how to act and how to treat people. Even most of our secular laws are predicated on the idea of a broadly accepted sense of what\’s \”right\” and \”wrong,\” which to me at least partly presupposes a greater power that defines what \”right\” and \”wrong\” are.
But I do think we\’ve got to be really careful when we throw around that phrase.
It\’s like this: Say you\’ve got a friend who loves, I dunno, eggplants. \”I think eggplants are God\’s favorite vegetable,\” he might say. Or, \”I\’d imagine that, every day in heaven, we\’ll be eating eggplants.\” Now, I\’m none too fond of eggplants. And if I was talking with this someone, I\’d argue that eggplants were really just a joke of God\’s—a not-so-subtle spoof on the otherwise sublime world of veggies. I\’d declare that, if God wanted us to eat eggplant, he would not have colored it purple. To which he might respond that purple is the color of royalty, and on it would go.
But if this friend said, seriously, that it\’s God\’s will that we all eat eggplants—that it\’s a sin if we don\’teat them—we find ourselves in a very different conversation. Suddenly, my distaste of eggplants becomes a moral failing. My dislike of the vegetable puts me, in the view of my friend, in opposition to the Almighty. And by extension, I\’m in opposition to my friend. We\’re on the verge of a holy war over eggplants.
Some true-to-life holy wars have been started over issues just about as consequential.
When you declare something to be God\’s will, you draw up sides. Either you\’re on God\’s side or you\’re not. Well-meaning people who want to be on God\’s side may be drawn into something that might not be God\’s will at all. Others might turn their backs on God: If that really is God\’s will, I want no part of it, they might say. And when you tie the words \”God\’s will\” with the words \”the Purge,\” you\’ve got yourself a real problem.  
When Jesus talked about false prophets, He told us that we would know them by their fruits. \”Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?\” He said.
The Purge seems like a no-brainer: That\’s a thistle all the way. As an activist in The Purge: Anarchy argues, it\’s pretty clear killing innocent people isn\’t something that God would condone. \”We no longer worship at the altar of Christ, of Mohammed, of Yahweh,\” he says, covering his bases. \”We worship at the altar of Smith & Wesson.\” It\’s also, I think, easier to see God\’s will after the fact, and through the lens of history.
But sometimes in the moment, before the figs and thistles have a chance to grow, it can be more difficult.
I\’m a skeptical person by nature, and I think whenever someone says they speak for God or know definitively what He wants or wills, I find myself going into heightened alert status. And I try to weigh what they say is “God\’s will” with what I know and have been taught about God: His love for us. His desire to see us all drawn closer to Him. I believe that God wills us to always hone our character, to be more the people He designed us to be. But, at least in how we saw in Jesus, He does so with kindness and grace and love.

It’d be nice if it was always as easy to see the fruits of a false prophet, as we see in The Purge. But it’s not always so simple.

Begin Again, Born Again

It was a lazy weekend at the Cineplex. The biggest movie was Transformers: Age of Extinction, but it hasn’t been nearly the profit juggernaut of its predecessors. Melissa McCarthy’s R-rated Tammy did OK. The faith-flavored frightflick Deliver Us From Evil kinda bombed. Historically, the Fourth of July holiday has meant some seriously big business for Hollywood, but this Independence Day, most folks didn’t see much that interested in what was playing.
Maybe if they’d heard about Begin Again—a tiny indie movie playing in just 175 theaters—they might’ve had a change of heart.
Part of me would like to think so, anyway. Weird of me, a Plugged In reviewer, to say that about an R-rated romantic dramedy, I suppose. But outside the f-words and whatnot, this flick was pretty sweet—a moving, well-told story about the beauty of family and friendship and music.
And it even had a hint of faith, too. Let me explain.
Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a down-on-his-luck music producer—a one-time Grammy-winning dynamo who’s about two bars away from his coda. His marriage has crumbled. He barely knows his teenage daughter. He spends his time and cash on booze, and he’s rapidly running out of all three. And one dark night, after losing his job in the record company he helped create, he’s ready to get drunk and die. 
On what might be his last subway ride, smashed out of his pumpkin, he sees and hears an annoying evangelist, handing out pamphlets and encouraging wary riders to seek God. \”God may not be on our time,\” he tells the passengers in that sincere, clueless way you’d expect, \”but He\’s always on time.\” Dan takes a pamphlet and grins a drunken grin, mostly in mockery. \”I\’m gonna have a little talk with God,  tonight, all right,\” Dan says, sloshing off the train. He turns back to the closing doors. \”But what if He doesn\’t answer? What if He doesn’t answer?” The train speeds away, not acknowledging Dan’s question.
He staggers into a bar and slumps down, just as a woman named Greta (Kiera Knightley) begins to sing. She’s suffered her own miserable day: She just learned her long-time boyfriend has been cheating on her, with both another woman and the mistress called fame. She’s ready to go home to England and put her life back together, but a friend of hers dragged her to the bar. Now, he called her up on stage to sing—the last thing she wants to do. But sing she does. And her song includes the words, “Don’t pray to God ‘cause He won’t talk back.”
There, in the lowest of lows, the two bemoan, in startlingly similar ways, how God has forsaken them. It reminds me of one of the most famous angry laments in all the Bible, Psalm 22, verses 1 and 2:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
And yet, maybe God does answer. For in that moment of anguish, these two lost souls find each other.
“I was ready to kill myself until I heard your song,” Dan admits. He admits to her how washed up he is, but Dan … a little miraculously, still wants to sign her to a music contract. And Greta, perhaps even more miraculously, decides that she wants to be signed.
The Psalm goes on, of course. The lament turns into a cry of faith. Check out verses 23 and 24:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
We don’t hear about God for the rest of the movie. Both Dan and Greta do some things that aren’t all that pious. And yet, you can’t tell me that these cries to the Almighty were accidents. There’s intentionality on the part of the moviemakers, here. A nod to God. Two lost souls are found again through amazing grace, and through a sweet sound to boot.

A Few Films for the Forth

To commemorate Independence Day for Plugged In, I talked a little about how important movies have been to the American story. They’re about as American as you can get, really: The United States was a big player in its invention and development, and now they pretty much dominate if not the art of movie-making, at least the business. Right alongside food and technology, movies are one of our biggest exports. So it’s a big deal.
I suggested that, if you wanted to do something quintessentially American today, you could do worse than watch a movie.
But what movie?
Well, let me make a few suggestions and give you an old movie from each decade in the 20th century, between 1930 and 2000—a movie that, while perhaps lacking literal fireworks, say something about who we Americans are, who we’d like to be and why we kinda make a big deal about every July 4. Not all these movies are family-friendly, by the way … some are pretty harsh. but I still think they\’re worth seeing.
Stagecoach (1939): Doesn’t seem you could go wrong picking a Fourth of July movie from 1939, what with Gone With the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington released the same year. But if you’re going to talk about quintessentially American movies, you gotta stick a John Wayne flick in there, and his performance here as Ringo Kid made the tough-talking cowboy a star. The flick is about a stagecoach rumbling through Apache territory and carrying a cadre of wildly divergent passengers (sort of like MTV’s The Real World under Indian attack) and is considered one of the best Westerns ever.
Casablanca (1942): Given that the United States was fighting World War II for nearly half of the decade, no surprise that patriotic movies would’ve been in their heyday here. 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biographical musical starring James Cagney, has rightly  landed on other patriotic lists, as has 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives—the bittersweet story of American G.I.’s coming home. But for me, you can’t beat the sappy but incredibly effective story of Rick and Ilsa, caught up in a world where their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans.
High Noon (1952): Another Western, this one stars Gary Cooper as a marshal facing certain death as he gets set to square off against a slew of criminals determined to kill him. My kids couldn’t stand the song that constantly nattered away in the background (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’”), but besides that, this is almost the perfect Western. When I think about what a true hero looks like, I think of Gary Cooper’s Will Kane.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Or maybe a true American hero looks more like attorney Atticus Finch.  Played by Gregory Peck (who won an Academy Award for his work here), Finch really does believe that all men are created equal—something that runs counter to the thinking of most of his neighbors in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. When he’s asked to defend an African-American who’s been unjustly accused of raping a white teen, he takes the case and defends the man eloquently—only to have the verdict snatched away by circumstance. This is a beautiful, poignant story that lauds America’s ideals while acknowledging how far we fall short of them at times.
All the President’s Men (1976): Speaking of ideals gone awry, this movie delves into Watergate—specifically the two journalists who broke the story wide open. With reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played by two of America’s coolest actors, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively, All the President’s Men is a riveting piece of cinema. And if you don’t think that the exposure of a massive political scandal feels particularly patriotic … well, I, as a journalist, would disagree. There’s nothing more American than the Fourth Estate doing its job.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Harrison Ford in his fedora and carrying his bullwhip? Dude, movie heroes don’t feel more American than that. A callback to the days of the Saturday afternoon serial, Raiders is pure movie magic, from the minute that boulder starts rolling to when people’s faces start to melt.

Saving Private Ryan (1998): Ranking as one of the best war movies ever, Saving Private Ryan tells the story of Captain John Miller and a squad of soldiers who are tasked with finding Private James Francis Ryan so he can go back home. The movie is full of heroism and heartache, with soldiers making tremendous sacrifices along the way. In the end, the dying captain tells Ryan, “James … earn this. Earn it.” It’s a great reminder of how precious life, and by extension freedom, are. How much has been sacrificed for it. And we should never take it for granted.

There’s an Alien On My Church

Exploring links between pop culture and spirituality has been my thing for a few years now. And most of the time, it’s sort of a one-way street. I look at a piece of entertainment and try to find a little hint of God or faith at work in them. But it can go the other way, too. Pop culture can sneak into church—sometimes quite literally.
Take the Bethlehem Chapel (Chapelle de Bethleem), a church built in Brittany in the Middle Ages and declared a historical monument in 1911.
Looks like a pretty typical, pretty old church, right? But despite the chapel’s antiquity, it boasts some rather unusual, eye-catching gargoyles on its corners. For example, this one.
And this.
And this.
What, were the original builders time travelers with an affection for 1980s American cinema? If only. No, the explanation is a little more pedestrian (but still pretty interesting). When the chapel was being restored in 1993, there was some question as to how to replace the missing pinnacles at the corners. So sculpture Jean-Louis Boistel proposed to craft gargoyles (or, more correctly, the chimeras) that blended mythological, Christian and contemporary references into a solid whole.
So, in addition to Adam and Eve and symbols of the Four Evangelists, Boistel incorporated the alien from Alien (representing the biblical Leviathan), the gremlins from Gremlins (symbolizing the good and evil in ourselves) and Goldorak—a manga knight that was apparently super-popular in France back in the mid 1990s (representing righteousness). You can see the Boistel’s Goldorak here.
But the Bethlehem Chapel isn’t the only place you can find pop culture iconography on the outside of a church. Take a look at this picture from the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and you might see a certain Sith Lord staring down at you.
Maybe to some, these entertainment figurines seem like a strange fit with the eternal truth held inside the church. The idea of Gizmo gracing a centuries-old sanctuary might feel a little too flip.

But I don’t think so. Throughout its history, the Christian Church has shown a remarkable ability to adapt what’s popular and translate it into something holy. It co-opted pagan holidays and made them sacred. It adopted popular drinking songs and made them hymns. To me, these carvings are simply another example of the Christian ability to sanctify the less-than-pure stuff in our culture. Which, when you think about it, is really core to the faith itself. After all, we less-than-perfect Christians also believe we’ve been redeemed. Kinda nifty, that.  

Jersey Boys: Gone Daddy Gone

I can check one more box on my career bucket list. I’ve been on the Storymen podcast.
The weekly hour-long podcast features the musings of Clay Morgan, J.R. Forasteros and Matt Mikalatos—smart, spiritual and entertaining blokes who fuse theology with pop culture (and a little bit o’ history on occasion, too), which makes them my kind of guys. Their discussions are often fascinating and always fun, and I listen to them regularly on my weekly runs. They make the miles go by faster. So when they asked me to come on, I was thrilled. You can listen to the podcast here, or download it on iTunes or Stitcher.
They had me on to chat about The Good Dad, the book on which I collaborated with Jim Daly, but naturally the conversation drifted into movie dads: The good ones (Marlin from Finding Nemo is just the tops), the bad ones (King Stefan from Maleficent: Ugh) and ones in between.
And then there’s Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, who never was much of a dad at all. (Warning: Spoilers ahead)
In The Good Dad, Jim Daly talks a lot about how important fathers are in the lives of their kids—and how important it is for them, particularly, to be there. To get involved. To make memories with their kids and be that stabilizing influence—an old oak tree, in Jim’s metaphor—that kids need so much.
Not all fathers do this, of course. Some won’t, through fear or disinterest. And some feel like they can’t. Valli, the falsetto-blessed frontman for the 1960s hit machine The Four Seasons, was among the latter (according to Jersey Boys).
Music was job No. 1 for Valli—his profession, his passion. For more than a decade, Valli and his fellow Four Seasons work to make it big. And when they finally do, the Seasons are on the road constantly to stay there. Even when the band falls apart, Valli continues to tour relentlessly, hitting stop after thankless stop to pay off a wicked debt (courtesy the band’s irresponsible driving force, Tommy DeVito).
And according to Jersey Boys, he never really quits. At the end of the movie, he compares himself to the Energizer Bunny. “I just keep going and going and going, chasing the music, trying to get home.”
It’s admirable, in a way. Anything worth doing takes work. And after watching this flick, no one can doubt Valli’s work ethic.
But as I said in my Plugged In Review, every decision has a cost. And Valli’s decision to put the music first, while it enriched the lives of many a listener, deeply impacted his family. Valli may be trying to get home at the end of Jersey Boys, but he didn’t really have a home to go to.
We see how his non-stop touring (and what he does while on the road) impacts his marriage. But we feel it more poignantly in his relationship with daughter, Francine. Audiences see her first as a trusting-but-fragile 7-year-old, confused and frightened by her parents’ fighting and not completely sure whether her father even really loves her. Valli does, of course, and sings her to sleep. If good intentions made the father, Valli would’ve done all right.
But it’s not long before he goes on the road again, leaving Francine and some other daughters that could really use a dad.
The next time we see Francine, she’s a 17-year-old runaway, hanging out with a rough-looking boyfriend, smoking cigarettes and hurting a voice that, according to Valli, could rival his own. Valli manages to reel her back for a time, encouraging her to drop the cigs and start singing. “I believe in you,” he tells her. And Valli does. But he’s still on the road constantly. And one day he gets a call: His little girl is dead—claimed, apparently, by a drug overdose.
It’s a sobering coda for this toe-tapping movie. And when a friend tells Valli that he shouldn’t blame himself, Valli asks, essentially, “who else is there to blame?” If not his fault, whose?
In The Good Dad, Jim stresses that, eventually, kids make their own decisions. Parents can’t hold themselves solely responsible for the bad choices that children might make down the road. But we’d be kidding ourselves to say that how we raise our kids doesn’t impact them mightily as adults. We might not be to blame … but we are at least partly responsible. We can’t know how Francine might’ve benefitted if Valli had been home more. But I’m pretty sure she would’ve been better off.
Valli says that he’s just “trying to get home.” But in truth, the only way you get there is by doing it. You turn the car around and head home. And if “home” isn’t all that you’d like it to be, you stick around and try to make it better.

Our choices matter. And every choice we make comes with a cost. Jersey Boys is, on one level, a buoyant story of four guys who overcame a lot of obstacles to make some beautiful music together. But to its credit, it doesn’t overlook the price that was paid to make it happen.

Maleficent: Broken Hearted

It\’s hard to watch good guys turn bad. We don\’t want our heroes to fall.
But sometimes, it can be hard to watch our villains turn good, too.
Take Maleficent, Disney\’s re-introduction of one of its all-time best/worst evildoers. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is as bad as bad can be—the self-proclaimed \”Mistress of all Evil\” who calls upon the powers of hell to help her do her nasty work.
Let me be honest: I kinda like that in a villain. It\’s nice to see someone who knows who they are and really owns it, y\’know? Forget the moral complexity, the makers of Sleeping Beauty said in 1959. Give us a woman with green skin and horns.
So much to my shame, I was ever-so-slightly disappointed in the positive moral trajectory in Maleficent. In the 2014 film, Angelina Jolie\’s Queen of Mean isn\’t so much as a dastardly diva as someone who\’s been really, really hurt—in more ways than one. The result, we see, is a pretty interesting examination of what hurt and bitterness can do to the human soul—and a hint of what is the only recourse out of it.
Be aware: There be spoilers ahead.
Maleficent wasn\’t always the towering figure of darkness we came to know in Sleeping Beauty. Once upon a time, she was a little fairy girl with horns and wings, full of hope and promise. When a boy named Stefan stumbles into her magical land and tries to swipe something (a pretty little gem), Maleficent gently tells him that stealing\’s wrong and winds up befriending the kid. The two become the best of buds (an unlikely relationship, given that Maleficent\’s magic land and Stefan\’s kingdom are constantly at war) and, eventually, even a bit more than that. In fact, Maleficent falls in love with the lad.
But the two grow apart and don\’t see each other for years. In that time, Maleficent becomes a powerful defender of her realm. Stefan becomes a steward for the mortal king. But when the dying king tells his court that he\’ll give the crown to whoever kills Maleficent, Stefan sees his chance for rapid career advancement. He takes off to the moors to rekindle his relationship with the fairy, planning to drug her and kill her while she sleeps.
But he can\’t: He still feels some affection for the girl (now a beautiful, winged woman). But he really covets the kingdom, too. So he slices off Maleficent\’s beautiful wings instead, taking them back to the king (misleading him in the process). Maleficent wakes up and is, understandably, devastated. Stefan mutilated the two things that made the fairy who she was: her wings and her soul.
Now, the potential spirituality of all this is interesting. When you look at a whole Malificent, your eyes are naturally drawn to the two things that make her so different from you and me—her wings and her horns. Both are, for Christians, instantly recognizable: When we think of humanoid-like beings with wings, most of us think of angels. Horns, on the other hand, are shorthand for the devil and demons. Neither horns nor wings are good or evil in themselves, of course, but they do represent—and have for centuries—the good and evil in the universe and, perhaps, the good and evil in ourselves (think about those angels and demons that appear on someone\’s shoulders in the old cartoons).
Stefan takes from Maleficent something angelic in her—something good. He steals what allowed her to fly closer to heaven. And, now earthbound—even dragging around at first as if the earth\’s gravity was pulling her closer to itself—she allows anger and bitterness and her more evil, horned nature to seep into the cracks of her soul.
She retreats to a dilapidated castle for a while to prood. And when she leaves it, Maleficent is a different person: Powerful in her anger, gorgeous in her hatred. She\’s a true villain in look and deed. She curses Stefan\’s little baby, Aurora. She and the king are now irrevocably at odds now, literally warring against each other. It reminds me of a really bitter divorce.
And that, I think, is at least partly intentional. We see here the horrors of a relationship gone horribly bad—how an act of betrayal can lead to an act of vengeance, a spiral of anger and hatred that can spin out of control. Each word and deed becomes more ammunition in this battle of … what? Wills? Control? Utter annihilation? Perhaps they don\’t know. When this sort of hatred spills over, there are no real goals, it would seem. Only the desire to hurt. We can get the same way, too. Many of us may know friends or couples who\’ve fallen to this level—where they can no longer stand the sight of each other. In our hurt, we wall ourselves away. And when we emerge, we sometimes come out different: Our hate can make us strong (just like Darth Vader warned us), but it twists us, too. It turns us into something we weren\’t before and were never meant to be.
In Maleficent and Stefan, we see the corrupting power of hurt. The bitterness of loss. After Maleficent lays the curse on Aurora, Stefan turns into a full-time brooder, so obsessed with destroying Maleficent that he doesn’t even attend his own wife’s deathbed.
Maleficent is much the same … until she grows close to the very thing she cursed. Throughout Aurora’s childhood, Maleficent is never far away—watching, sometimes even caring for the child. So close she is that Aurora recognizes her shadow, a constant presence in her childhood. And she dubs Maleficent her fairy godmother. In the space of who knows how long, the two become close. And somewhere along the line, Maleficent realizes that she has room for something other than hate in her heart. Aurora—a name which references a strange dance of light in the cold, winter dark—has illuminated something of Maleficent’s black soul. Our villainess discovers a capacity for love.
I think that Disney missed a chance here to take this story of redemption and make it extra-special. Stefan could’ve been redeemed too, it seems: He wasn’t always bad. I’d like to think that he cared for Maleficent and loved his daughter. But here, Stefan takes the mantel of the true villain—incapable of accepting love through the iron hatred inside him.
But this, too, is a powerful reflection of how love, particularly God’s love, works. We may be offered love, even forgiveness. But we’re under no obligation to accept it. So often, we refuse. Our pain and anger won’t allow us to. We’d rather nurse a righteous bitterness than accept a little grace.
Toward the end of the movie, Aurora finds Maleficent’s wings and, magically still flapping, they find their way back to their mistress. She’s again whole, and powerful—a symbolic healing reflecting what Aurora had already done in the fairy’s soul. No longer the pure, horned evildoer, Maleficent spreads her wings, looking for all her past faults and sins, a little more angelic. She’s been restored. Redeemed. Maleficent, through grace, can fly again.