Thursday, January 31, 2013

Eliminating Guilt

An Occasion for Guilt
This past Sunday, I had the privilege of participating in a Sanctity of Life Service at Life Bible Fellowship Church. For a variety of reasons, many churches, even churches that have a pro-life position, do not talk very much about abortion. One of the reasons why there is a lack of talk about abortion in our churches is that we know how painful it can be for those who have experienced abortion. Some people will say that it is insensitive to talk about abortion because it brings fresh guilt and shame to people who have had an abortion.
This sentiment certainly should lead churches to be sensitive and gospel-led as they address abortion, but this argumentation brings up a deeper question: Should the church avoid topics that can bring guilt and shame upon people?

Taking Guilt Seriously
Now, some people would hear this question and dismiss it, saying, "It is impossible for a church to teach God's Word without, at least occasionally, making someone feel guilty or ashamed. If people sin and violate God's Word, it is not the church's job to make sure that they don't feel bad about it. We need to speak the truth."
On the other hand, some people would hear this question and conclude that this is the very problem with Christianity and with all claims concerning moral absolutes. If you say that abortion is wrong, you make others feel guilty for a decision they made. If you say that pre-marital sex or looking at pornography is wrong, you rain down guilt on "violators" of these "sins." If you say that homosexuality is wrong, then you make someone feel guilty simply for trying to live out their own orientation.
A couple of months ago, I watch a video of Mark and Grace Driscoll on the Dr. Drew Show. The Driscolls were talking about their book, Real Marriage. While Dr. Drew and his panel said some nice things about the book, they then proceeded to take Mark and Grace to task for certain things that they said were wrong. Specifically, they pointed out that the Driscolls' had said that fantasizing about other men or women was wrong and sinful. The panel said that this would bring guilt on the people who did this, while they were only doing things that were natural and normal. The clear assumption from the panel was that it is harmful to be responsible for making someone feel guilty.
We may reject this line of thinking. We may know that certain things are wrong and therefore must be proclaimed to be wrong. Still, there is probably something in all of us that doesn't want to bring guilt and shame upon others. That can't be the goal, right? If our goal in a conversation or a sermon or a church service or a blog post is to make people feel bad, then this certainly doesn't seem like a noble or godly goal.

The Inevitability of Guilt
But if we talk about sin, then we will inevitably make people feel guilty.
And, to some extent, we all know that there are appropriate occasions for guilt. When we are correcting our kids, we often tell them to say that they are sorry. And if they say that they are sorry with clenched fists and an angry voice, we tell them that they should not only say that they are sorry; they should feel sorry. When criminals are being sentenced or are up for parole, their remorse (or lack of remorse) is taking into consideration.
Most of would admit that there is a time for guilt. We would even admit that there is an appropriate time for us to feel guilty. But we also instinctively know that guilt is bad. So, we try to get rid of it.

Two Ways to Eliminate Guilt
If guilt is bad (and certainly it is bad in some sense), how do we eliminate it? How do rid ourselves of the nagging guilt and shame that we experience when our wrongdoings are exposed?
The world around us has a strategy. That strategy is to conclude that our guilt is not real. If we feel guilty, it is only because we have mistakenly accepted someone else's invention of morality. Religion or self-righteous people have called something "wrong" and this causes us to have a psychological disorder that we simply need to explain away. You get rid of your guilt by concluding that it is not real and therefore it is not valid.
The Bible teaches another method for eliminating guilt. The Bible teaches that all people are sinners before God (Romans 3:23). We all have real guilt before God and before one another. We can't simply imaging it away or throw it off. Even if we ignore it, it is still present.
But the Bible does not teach that God has left us in the misery of our own guilt and shame. The Bible teaches that someone else came to bear our guilt and shame. When Jesus died for the sins of the world, he bore our guilt on the cross. Our guilt had to go somewhere. It went on him. We don't face any condemnation because he was condemned in our place (Romans 8:1). And now we can be free from guilt not because we have done nothing wrong, but because someone else took it away.

Always See the Gospel
There is a price for talking about abortion, as well as any other sin mentioned in the Bible. The price is that a number of people will be reminded of the guilt and shame that goes along with their sinful actions. The solution is not to avoid the subject. The solution is to preach the gospel. Our guilt is real! Our shame is real! Our sin is real! We should be panicked, wondering what we will do?! And then we are reminded of the cross. And when we remember the cross, we are invited into the great freedom that comes along with the elimination of guilt. This kind of freedom can never be present when our (inferior) solution to guilt is to ignore it, suppress it, or explain it away.
And for those of us who are Christians, the cross is still the solution to out guilt and shame. We still sin and we still feel guilt and shame when we sin. We must always take that sin to the cross and embrace the reality that Jesus died for it. This, and only this, is the path to true freedom and joy.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Beyond the Barricade: A Review of Les Miserables

I am fresh of seeing the film version of Les Miserables. Since it is fresh in my mind, I thought I would jot down some thoughts on the movie, and also on the powerful themes of the story.

What Were You Expecting?
First of all, you need to know what you are getting into if you go to see this movie. It is a film adaptation of the musical based on the book. This means that virtually every line of the movie is sung. I know that this could throw people off. If you have seen the musical, or even heard the songs of the musical, you will not be surprised. My wife and I have seen it and frequently listen to the soundtrack. Because of this, we went in knowing the story, the songs, and even anticipating favorite songs and scenes.

On the whole, the movie succeeds. Tom Hooper directed in such a way that the film adds some good elements that you can't get in a stage production. The sets are great, the musical performances are great, and the themes of the story are upheld. I give the movie an A-. It could have been an A+, but there were some flaws. In fact, almost all the flaws of the movie can be summed up in one word.

Russell Crowe
When I heard that Russell Crowe was cast as Javert, I thought that it sounded like a bad case of miscasting. I was right. Crowe was terrible. He can't really sing, so he almost barked his lines. I kept waiting for him to grow on me. He didn't.
Now, sometimes in a movie a performance is not good. This was worse than "not good." It was outright bad. In my opinion, it reached the point of distraction. He was so wooden during his two major songs that I had to concentrate on the words just to get the theme. I think the movie suffered and the law-grace juxtaposition was not as strong as it could have been. And this was all because Russell Crowe was so, so bad.
It baffles me that in an otherwise well-cast movie, they missed this badly on Javert.
And, on a sidenote, what happened to Russell Crowe?! He started out with L.A. Confidential, The Insider, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and Master and Commander. All of these are fantastic movies. Since then, other than a great performance in 3:10 to Yuma, he has starred in a series of stinkers. He has really fallen off. I think the only solution to his career collapse is for him to do a movie together with M. Night Shyamalan. Maybe the movie can start off great, and then progressively get worse. The big question, though, is whether the trick ending will save the movie (and their careers) or just flush the whole thing down the drain.
Rant over.

Other Miss-Fires
This one may not have been Russell Crowe's fault, but it does involve him. After the barricade battle, Javert walks past the bodies and sees the corpse of the child Gavroche. He is moved by the brave child's death, so he bends down and pins a medal on him.
Who's idea was this?! Did someone think that Javert needed to be more sympathetic?! He is not a sympathetic character! He is the law. The idea that he would pin a medal on a rebel is unthinkable. Just to assuage myself, I like to think that Russell Crowe demanded that the scene be included, complaining that his character was not likable enough.
Pretty much any bad elements of the movie I just blame on Russell Crowe.
The only other thing that I disliked ended up being resolved. They moved the order of some songs, which made me think that they had edited out my favorite song of the musical: Do You Hear the People Sing? For about ten minutes I was squirming in my seat, really upset. Then they did the song, and its placement was glorious. In retrospect it was a great move. It was the worst and then the best thing in the movie. The next time I see it, it will be exclusively a positive thing.

The Great Elements
The fact that I just ranted about Javert may make you think that the movie was a disappointment. Far from it. The rest of the casting was great. Hugh Jackman really pulled off the part. I was a little nervous because I didn't think he was big and imposing enough. I think they did some creative camera work to make him look bigger than he is. And  Jackman has some pipes. He pulled it off and deserves his Oscar nom.
Anne Hathaway was the standout of the entire movie. Every time she was on camera she owned the scene.
Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were perfectly cast as the Thenardiers. As an aside, this is likely to be the only Sasha Baron Cohen movie that I ever see. He is obviously a very talented man. It is a shame that he typically uses his talents for over-the-top crass movies.
Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras were stand-outs as minor characters. If you have ever seen the musical, you know that Eponine usually steals a couple of scenes. I was surprised, though, that Enjolras was such a memorable character to me. Really well done.

The Best Scenes
5. The Priest and Valjean. The scene when the priest bestows dignity and brotherhood upon Valjean was powerful. Then Hugh Jackman's response and decision to start a new life was beautiful. It was the first scene in the movie to capture my heart.
4. Who Am I? This is the song that Valjean sings when he realizes that someone else is about to go to prison for his crime. He knows that this is his way out, but he finds himself conscience-bound to turn himself in. I thought this was Hugh Jackman's best scene.
3. Do You Hear the People Sing? I already talked about this, but I loved the scene. This is my favorite song of the musical because it captures the longing for a new life when all the wrongs are made right. Tom Hooper placed it at the funeral of Lemarque. It was just spectacular!
2. I Dreamed a Dream. If you have seen any preview of the movie, it probably featured Anne Hathaway/Fantine singing this song, so it may seem overdone. That said, it was a captivating scene that captures the disappointment and disillusion of this poor woman (and of anyone who has experienced a similar plight). Hathaway deserves the Oscar for the emotion and humanity that she brought to the role, and especially to this scene.
1. The Ending. Any nit-pickings that you may have with the film are washed away in the breathtaking finale. It is everything that it should have been. It captures the victory of grace and stirs out hearts with longing for the world "beyond the barricade." Karina and I had to sit and recover for a few minutes before leaving the theater.

The Themes
I was really glad that Tom Hooper did not shy away from the distinctively Christian themes in the book. The scene with the priest was prominent and he frequently displayed crosses during significant scenes.
No movie and no musical can fully bring out Victor Hugo's powerful theme of law and grace. The book is deeply layered. Still, in the film we get exposed to the unrelenting pursuit of the law. Valjean cannot escape Javert. No matter what he does, he is still on the run. No matter how many good deeds he does, the law is still after him. Valjean, on the other hand, constantly gives grace to others (Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Javert) in response to the grace that he has been given. Javert's suicide shows the destiny of someone who absolutely refuses to accept grace. He would rather die than be in anyone else's debt. In contrast, Valjean accepts the priest's grace and ends up being a transformed man.
While the film can't fully display the law-grace theme, it does profoundly display the longing for the world "beyond the barricade." The poor keep longing for better days, and the young men fight for the new world for which they long. Despair seems to set in when they fail, and yet the ending allows us a powerful glimpse into the gracious God ushering his people in to the world for which they long.

So, go and see the movie. And read the book. But most of all, take in the reality that God has not asked you to live up to his holiness. Instead he sacrificed his one and only Son in order to give us grace. While we might feel that the law continues to pursue us, God has provided his grace as an end to the law. We can choose to die in our own inferior righteousness, or we can bow the knee and receive the grace that God has given.
 And when we receive God's grace, we are transformed into people who are set free to give that grace to others.