Sunday, August 16, 2009

GRAN TORINO

(or, as described by some: “Dirty Harry, the Golden Years”)

I loved this movie! Though I’m not a Clint Eastwood fan, I had wanted to see the movie since it first came out (but never got around to it). The previews showed Clint Eastwood as an angry, hate-filled racist bigot – an old white guy, the only one of his race left in a neighborhood turned brown.

A few weeks ago while we were visiting our son and his family, he asked us if we’d ever seen the movie. I told him I’d like to and mentioned what little I knew of it. He said, “You’ll be surprised – it’s not what you’d think.” So we watched it. I was surprised – pleasantly! So Uni and I went out, purchased it and watched it again and intend to watch it a few more times.

Two warnings are in order here:
 First, if profanity and crude talk offends you or would keep you from paying attention to the movement of the story, don’t bother to watch it.
 Second, if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to, don’t read further. I’m going to give away the story and ruin the ending for you.

A brief synopsis:
Clint Eastwood plays a really unlikable guy, Walt Kowalski, a widower and retired Ford autoworker living in a Detroit suburb. He hates his kids. (I know this guy! I think I talked to him at my 50 year high school class reunion.) He is apparently, the last white man in a neighborhood that has seen better days and is now populated by Hmong immigrants (he calls them Ha-mong, as well as other things). It is clear that he hates these people, along with those of other races. His speech is peppered with racial (as well as other) epithets. He is the proud owner of a 1972 Ford Gran Torino in mint condition, which he guards carefully. He owns an M-1 rifle which he claims to have used in the war, as well as what looks like a government issue Colt 45 automatic pistol.

When his deceased wife’s youthful priest attempts to get him to come to confession, Walt spurns him with salty language. He feels no need for confession.

Walt, however, soon finds himself entangled in the lives of his Hmong neighbors. He rescues Sue, the teenage daughter from the advances of some black thugs and Thao, the teenage son (whom he names Toad) from a gang of Hmong thugs. It isn’t long before they befriend him.

Next Thao attempts to steal the Gran Torino as an initiation rite into the gang. As an act of contrition, Thao is assigned to do work for Walt. This leads to a mentoring relationship. Through all this we find that much of Walt’s meanness is simply a persona, a fa├žade to cover up deep-seated feelings.

The movie then seems to take on the character of some of Clint’s old Westerns and Dirty Harry movies. There is a buildup toward what we all know is a showdown with the bad guys – the Hmong gang who have been harassing Sue and Thao’s family. Walt makes preparations for what he (as well as we) seems to perceive as the possibility of his death: he gets a haircut, a professional shave and a new suit. He finally goes to confession.

The twist is that Walt heads for this showdown unarmed. This is very un-Clintish! Rather than a two-way shootout, Walt eggs the gangsters into blowing him away in front of witnesses. The bad guys are then hauled off to jail, the family is safe and the movie ends happily ever after, with Thao inheriting the Gran Torino and driving off into the sunset with Walt’s dog Daisy.

Good movie – great ending! Good illustration of the crossing of racial and ethnic lines. Good illustration of the mentoring process – kind of like one of my other favorite movies: “Finding Forrester.”

But there seem to be some heavier undercurrents, theological and otherwise. Walt is dying. He coughs up blood, apparently experiencing the effects of his hard drinking and hard smoking.

Walt is also carrying around a load of guilt. He has killed men in battle – 13, as I recall. But those killings don’t bother him. It’s just one – a young North Korean soldier who was trying to surrender. When Walt finally goes to confession, he confesses some seemingly minor sins, but makes no mention of this one young man who has been haunting him.

When I saw Walt getting blown away by the bad guys, my first thought was that here was what has been known as a “Christ-figure,” one who gives himself for his new friends. John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this -- that one should lay down his life for his friends.” This element is certainly present. Though Walt was definitely not Christlike in his demeanor, when the chips were down he did what Jesus did.

But was Walt also trying to make atonement for his own sin? That one that he did not confess? It seems that way. He did not confess to the priest the one great sin that had been haunting him for over 50 years. He did not take advantage of the forgiveness that was offered him in Christ.

There are, of course, many other possible motives. He was dying anyway; this could give him an instant death. He wanted to get these gangsters; he wanted to get even with his own kids. We’ll never know and after all, this is fiction. Clint Eastwood probably had all of them in his mind and none of them in his plot.

I like to think that it is my first interpretation that is correct.

Clint Eastwood as a Christ-figure! Who would have thought it?

Bill Ball
8/14/2009

Saturday, August 15, 2009

THINKING THEOLOGICALLY

When I used to teach Theology at the College of Biblical Studies, I would challenge my students to “think theologically.” Every area of our thinking is to have a theological aspect, a grid through which all thoughts are to be filtered. This idea was not original with me, but it was something that gradually crystallized in my mind over many years. It was already there when I was challenged to do so by one of my profs at seminary – Dr. Hook (no kin to the rock singer of the same name, who was popular around that time).

But Dr. Hook pushed us – forcing us to confront popular culture by reading popular books and analyzing the theology of the author. We were assigned to read 3 books of our own choice: a non-Christian fiction, a non-Christian non-fiction and an evangelical non-fiction – and write a paper on each.

The little exercise was life-changing. Since then, I have not been able to avoid doing this sort of analysis, not only on books, but also movies and popular music, as well as in every exposure to the culture: news media, commentary, etc. Though I’ve seldom done it systematically or even consciously, the process usually goes on in the back of my mind.

There are, however, at least 2 ways to go about this process, as I have found out by assigning such papers to my students. The first is to search out the book or movie for the author’s comments on God, reality, good and evil, etc., attempt to arrange them into a coherent system, then finally to critique them from a biblical/theological viewpoint. Though this doesn’t give us the whole picture, or get us completely inside an author’s brain, it will at least help us to understand what theology the author holds and where he is coming from.

The second method, which I have found that many of my students used, is simply to search the book or movie for biblical or Christian analogies and paste them together into some coherent whole. This may tell us little of what the author is thinking, and more of what theology is taken away by the reader or viewer. Though at first I frowned on this method, I concluded that it is as honest as the first. After all, authors write many books and don’t tell all in one book. It took God 66 books to give us a complete theology!

So now, when I read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, I look for what’s there on the surface, the message that’s being communicated. If I know more about the author, of course, that will color my analysis.

See: DOING THEOLOGY.

More later.

Bill Ball
8/13/2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

COFFEE AND THE CONGREGATION

I very seldom go to Starbucks – though I do love their coffee! However, the other day Uni and I received a gift card as a gift. So I went in and purchased a pound of espresso beans (I still had to cough up some money over and above the $10 gift card.).

The line was very long, so I amused myself by observing the various customers and their purchases. I’ve done this before.

As I’ve pondered on my observations, I’ve come to the (unscientific) conclusion that most people that frequent Starbucks really don’t like coffee! Now, of course, this has not been a scientific, statistical study. My observations were of a very small sampling, with undoubtedly a substantial margin of error. Still …

My observations, for what they’re worth:
 Many customers don’t even buy coffee – they buy some sort of tea or other beverage!
 Many who do purchase coffee buy it decaffeinated – with its stimulant removed. They like coffee, but they like it without that which (to my mind) makes it coffee.
 Many purchase it with various flavor enhancers – hazelnut, amaretto, French vanilla and others I’m not familiar with.
 Cream, sugar, Lattes, Cappuccinos, iced – anything but a plain cup of coffee.
 Then, of course, there are those who don’t care for any of the products. They just come in to hang around and meet their friends.

Please don’t take those observations as those of a judgmental old curmudgeon. I like my coffee with a little bit of creamer and the coffee that Uni and I brew at home is half-decaf. (Of course, when you drink 3 pots a day between two people …) And I do like an occasional Cappuccino.

So, where am I going with this? Well, I think church is a lot like Starbucks and folks who attend church are a lot like those who “attend” Starbucks.

There are those who like the church’s main “product” to be diluted, flavored up, sweetened, cooled down. Some like it without anything that would stimulate. Some want a substitute that they can carry out that looks like the real thing. And there are those who just want to hang around and meet their friends.

And then, of course, there are those who like their Christianity to be robust, rich and strong.

Bill Ball
8/12/2009

Thursday, August 6, 2009

EMPATHY

The word “empathy” came up a while back. President Obama said something about empathy as a requirement for a Supreme Court Justice. Of course, the talking heads jumped all over that one. Impartiality is a requirement for doing justice. The Republicans in Congress railed against the word and it was quietly dropped. We were apparently to be assured that the new appointee is not empathetic. It is, I assume, not considered a legitimate requirement for a judge.

But politics aside, is it? Are empathy and impartiality incompatible qualities? Doesn’t impartiality itself require empathy with both sides of an issue? If empathy is not a desired quality for a judge, what about the rest of us? Especially those who are followers of Jesus Christ?

Well, the word is not found in our English Bibles (at least in the NASB and KJV, the only ones I have a concordance for), though its synonym “compassion” is. Each of the two words is a combination of the words “in” and the word “passion.” One is of Greek origin, the other of Latin origin. Problem is, the word tanslated “compassion” has a completely different origin and meaning.

So then are we off the hook?

Maybe a definition is in order here. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives one definition of empathy as: 2. The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.

Yet we find empathy throughout the New Testament. It’s just not called that.

 Matthew 7:12: “All things whatever you want people to do to you, so also, you do to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
 Luke 6:31: “And even as you want people to do to you, do to them likewise.”
 Romans 12:10: “… taking the lead in honoring each other.”
 Romans 12:13: “… sharing the needs of the saints.”
 Romans 12:17: “… taking forethought for good in the presence of all people.”

Isn’t empathy just an aspect of Christian love, that particular ability to place oneself in another’s mind and emotions? The ability to not only ask “What would Jesus do?”, but “What would this person expect Jesus to do?”

It’s the attempt to think like one of another race, another religious persuasion, a different political viewpoint. It’s to see others not as what we think they should be (just like us) but as what they are.

It’s a desire to point people to Jesus Christ, whatever they look like or whatever their political party, or whatever their preferences in food, drink or entertainment. It’s to resist the urge to make people over into our image.

It’s love in action!

When the College of Biblical Studies, where I taught, was only Houston Bible Institute, and before the electronic age, mailings had to go out by hand. Volunteers would fold, lick and stick stamps on stick-on mailing labels.

On one of my off-days, I went in to help with the work. I sat across the table from a very sweet, middle-class white lady. Sticking on names was kind of fun. I would see the names of donors, students, former students and fellow church folks, many of whom I was acquainted with.

All of a sudden the lady across from me blurted, out a name on one of the stickers, ______! What’s this man doing on our mailing list?

The man was an African-American activist in the city, as well as a Texas Legislator. He was known for raising many issues and for advocating black causes, both in Houston and in Austin, the state capital.

“He’s a student of mine and a good friend,” I replied. “He makes sure he’s back in town for his evening class, even when the Legislature is in session.”

The lady began her tirade. “Do you know all the things he’s been doing?” And she began listing for me all his activities.

I simply looked at her, interrupted and said, “All God’s chillun’ ain’t white Republicans.”

I don’t know if she caught on, but she was silent.

Empathy is to be able to see other people from their context, not our own.

Bill Ball
8/6/2009