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“The Debt” is a solid film that not only was insanely intense but it moved me and got to me a bit. The acting was fantastic – the doctor made me loathe him, Sam Worthington (David) made me empathize with him, Jessica Chastain (Rachel) seemed very tortured internally, and I believed Stephan’s hardness both in the past and the present. The twists were superb. I appreciated seeing the ending first and then being drawn into how the pieces come together. The key theme: every sin has consequences but sometimes the lie about the sin is worse.

Beware: lots of spoilers ahead! I cannot get to the heart of this film without digging into all of it.

The Lie

As is likely with most folks who saw this film, I did not anticipate that the doctor would escape. I thought they would torture and kill him and then lie about that. I thought Stephan would carry out some form of justice and then they would lie about the circumstance. I never had a thought in my head that the doctor would get away and they would be left empty-handed. Once he got away, the choice was obvious: face and accept failure and admit their mistakes, or cling to their reputations and tell a lie. Tell a lie and become heroes, keep their careers and live a sham. They choose what many of us would: to perpetuate the lie. They choose to live a façade and seek the praise of men.

For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:3 ESV)

This hit home with me because I’ve been convicted lately of how much of an idol my own reputation is. After reading “Jesus + Nothiing = Everything” by Tullian Tchividjian, I had to ask myself the question: What do I cling to that I would rather die than have God take away? God likes to answer that question and through an interaction with my wife, I realized that I cling to my reputation. How I am perceived in the eyes of others is vastly important to me. My own name is much more valuable to me than God’s name. This is wrong and will not lead me to freedom and does not lead to joy in Him. But, wow, is it difficult to kill. This is the choice they made and the shame eventually crushes David, breaks Rachel, and Stephan has to sear his conscience for the rest of his life. David knows the path to freedom: speak the truth. But he will come forward without the consent of Rachel and takes another path in killing himself.

The lie is what is at the center of the film but the lie and the escape of the doctor is triggered and set in motion by one seemingly inconsequential act of sin.

One Night Sets it All in Motion

You know what exactly what night that is if you’ve seen it. David and Rachel obviously have affections for each other but David exercises restraint. In one moment, he chooses not to yield to emotion. However, Rachel, initially rejected by David, seeking relief from the pain and intensity of pursuing the war criminal doctor in communist East Berlin, yields to the lust driven seduction of Stephan. That night changes absolutely everything. For one fleeting and regretful night of pleasure, Rachel gets pregnant and truly cuts off the potential for something better with David. This then leads right into the doctor’s hands and gives him an avenue to break David and Rachel with his words, with David eventually giving way to anger and brutalizing the doctor.

David’s anger wasn’t just about the doctor’s killing but, of course, over Rachel. Sometimes, Satan doesn’t need to speak lies to us to bring hurt and further temptation, he merely needs to tell us the truth. We know what happens next. The shards of the plate on the floor. David needing to be calmed by Stephan leaving Rachel vulnerable. The escape. The lie then leads to more shame, more pain, and living a life outside of grace and freedom.

Choose the Cross over Sin, Choose the Cross Again over Shame

We are not very different than David, Rachel, and Stephan. We are faced with the same temptations and daily choices: confess sin or hide it? Run to the cross for relief or trust in the fleeting damaging pleasure of sin?

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:18-21 ESV)

Jesus died and suffered on the cross to bring you to him, to crush the power and temptation of sin, and to bring about your justification. In Christ, we are free! There is now no condemnation! We have nothing to hide! We need not cling to our own façade and reputation – Jesus is our reputation. He is our righteousness. We will fail. We will sin. We will err. He died for it all. Many times, we lie or choose sin simply because of a mistake we made that is not even sin itself! Jesus came to free you from that to walk in the light, to be yourself, to know Him and be satisfied in him. Freedom is not found in the dark but in the light, in Christ.

But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:21-23 ESV)

I’m thankful for the film, “The Debt,” in how it so powerfully illustrates the consequence of sin and the shame and torture that lies lead to. Thank God for sending his son to bring us freedom. May he work in us to give us a deeper understanding of our justification and his deep, deep love for us, that we would not hide but come to him more and more.

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We habitually look to something or someone smaller than Jesus for the things we crave and need. And none of it is ever enough to fill the void. – Tullian Tchividjian, “Jesus + Nothing = Everything”

Jesus + Nothing = Everything

I love Mr. Tchividjian’s blog, I’ve probably read it all over the past year. It’s been a great encouragement to me and God has used it to stir me in the Gospel. He has such a strong grasp of the heart of grace and why understanding grace is crucial to running this race hard for Jesus. His talk from last year’s DG conference still sticks with me. In the message, he essentially expressed the foundation of “Jesus + Nothing = Everything.”

The Blog Revealed the Book

Saying all that, I struggled with the book. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fire hose of the Gospel. He bleeds grace and does everything he can to communicate it. The problem is that I felt like I had already read the book through his blog. Chapter 12 is a profound close to the book, easily my favorite chapter. But I had already read most of it through Mr. Tchividjian’s blog! I even wrote a blog highlighting the key illustration about the daughter who is given an A by the professor.

We All Need the Fire Hose

All idolatry heads us down this path to no-nameness. And Jesus’s story reminds us that far from being some vague, painless, amorphous existence, that ultimate condition of nothingness is acutely painful in every way. Inwardly and outwardly, it brings us anguish and torment. That’s the tragic destiny Jesus wants us to connect with idolatry in our understanding of it.

Because I’ve read his blog religiously, don’t mistake my thoughts for saying this book is not worth reading. We need this fire hose. We need to swim in everything he expresses. Though I was dying for a few more illustrations, he hammered me with the Word. It would be hard to read Colossians and not see what he sees after reading “Jesus + Nothing = Everything.”

The gospel liberates us to be okay with not being okay. We know we’re not – though we try very hard to convince other people we are. But the gospel tells us, “Relax, it is finished.”

My greatest need and yours is to look at Christ more than we look at ourselves. The gospel empowers us to escape our predicament of being curved in on ourselves. In the gospel, God comes after us because we need him, not because he needs us.

His key point is this: Our problem is not that we take advantage of grace but that we don’t understand the grace of God in the Gospel well enough. In fact, most of us just don’t get it. We express a mild form of grace while clinging to our own efforts and façade. Mr. Tchividjian simply destroys the Pharisee and the sulker. There are many idols, but self-righteousness is what he guns for and continually moves to crush.

Summary

"Jesus + Nothing = Everything” is a continual tour of the equation in the name and I promise that it will be worth your time. I struggled only because I had seen much of the material in his blog so it was not as fresh as I wanted it to be. But that reveals our problem – we want something complex and new but what we need is the gospel. What I need is grace. Over and over and over again until it stirs me to look more at Christ and less of myself.

Real slavery is self-reliance, self-dependence. Real slavery is a life spent trying to become someone. But the gospel comes in and says we already have in Christ all that we crave, so we’re free to live a life of sacrifice, courageously and boldly.

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Update (9/28/11): September and October DVD releases offer a plethora of film goodness between X-Men, Thor, Tree of Life, and Captain America. Be sure to read my full reviews of each. Remember: don’t simply veg out but watch to be stirred to worship the One whose story is the only one that ultimately matters.

X-Men: First Class (September 9)

X-Men-First-Class-Quad-Poster

Apart from Tree of Life, this was easily my favorite movie of the summer. James McAvoy is tremendous as Charles and Michael Fassbender plays a very good Erik. This movie works because of those two and the man that Charles is and becomes. Read the rest of my thoughts here. This was definitely the X-Men movie I’ve thought this series could be. It’s not a perfect movie but the character of Charles is worth the watch.

Thor (September 13)

MANHATTAN

Cheesy at times and predictable, this movie actually works because of the charisma and humor of Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and the genuineness of Tim Hiddleston as Loki. By the way, while writing this I just realized that Hemsworth also played Captain Kirk’s dad in that powerful scene at the beginning of the latest Star Trek. Read more of my thoughts on Loki here.

Update (9/17/11)

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (September 30)

This film was a complete waste other than the incredible special effects. The slow motion transformation sequences, the destruction of the skyscraper, and the battle sequences were phenomenal. That’s about all the good I can say. The flaws are comical. Megatron gets seduced by the token girlfriend. The Decepticons lay siege to Chicago and lock down the city. Then they somehow forget what cars the Autobots are, who very easily sneak into the city. The film attempts to make the humans more important and is laughable. You can only threaten to destroy the whole world so many times and be taken seriously. Would we really believe that the Autobots would leave? That Bumblebee would die? Also, if less than 10 or so Autobots can take on over 200 Decepticons, how did they lose the battle of Cybertron? Seriously, Optimus Prime probably waxes 50 Decepticons by himself! On top of all that comedy, the movie is absurdly long.

Update (8/31/11)

Tree of Life (October 11)

This is without question my favorite movie of the summer and 2011 [update: Warrior beats it out slightly…], for that matter. It’s such a profound movie experience that you have to just immerse yourself in and then engage with the world and imagery Terrence Malick presents. Grace versus the Law. Our deeply flawed sinful nature. Our loneliness. Eternity. Beauty. Many people have hated this film because it’s so different and non-escapist but I hope this type of film is the direction of movies, it’s a work of art that will move you if you let it. You can check out more of my thoughts here: the experience and sin & family.

Update (9/28/11)

Captain America: The First Avenger (October 25)

captain-america-movie-bucky

This movie was better than I expected, especially the first half of the film. The set up to the transformation and then to the initial battle is simply fantastic. I love how Steve Rogers emulates Jonathan of 1Samuel in his humility and friendship. Read my original thoughts here: Captain America: Steve Rogers is the Jonathan of the OT

A few other intriguing movies coming out:

Hanna (September 6): The dangers of homeschool? Training children to be assassins!

Fast Five (October 5): The dangers of 1000 foot cliff diving? None!

Update (9/28/11)

Winnie the Pooh (October 25): The dangers of honey? Obesity!

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You’ve heard it all before: the movies are never as good as the book they are based on. But here’s the rub: reading is a very solitary experience. It’s just you and the author engaging in the story. When I finished the very last book in the Harry Potter series (the Deathly Hallows), it was pretty anticlimactic. It was a tremendous finish with certain secrets revealed and a very stirring end in the choices Harry makes. But I read it alone. Even when my wife read it shortly after I finished, it was different. Sure, we discussed it, but it didn’t feel like a shared experience. There’s something about closing out a series on the big screen. Maybe I’m too real time now with the advent of Twitter and the internet. It’s likely me being a product of my culture, but seeing a film with the anticipation that this one brought on with my wife on the opening Friday in a packed theater was a blast that was a fitting end to the series.

I don’t want to spoil it too much but the ending sequence starting with Snape’s argument with Voldemort and leading to the last crucial horcrux was everything I imagined it and better. Yes, they changed the ending a little and added to the drama, but I appreciate how the writers knew the significance of the ending and did not rush through it on screen. I was very impatient watching this film, I kept wanting it to speed up, but director built and built and built with solid precision.

The epilogue was too much though. If you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I mean.

I want to say more about Harry Potter and the story and the gospel within but I’ll save that for another time. Let’s just say that I’m a big fan. For now, check out some excellent articles below on Harry and the stories within…

From the Rabbit Room:

Harry Potter, Jesus, and Me by Andrew Peterson

What We’ve Learned From Harry, Part 1 by Travis Prinzi

What We’ve Learned From Harry, Part 2 by Travis Prinzi

From Mockingbird

The Seven Sacraments of Harry Potter:

Part 1: The Scar

Part 2: The Mirror of Erised

Part 3: The Dementor

Part 4: The Pensieve

Part 5: The Mudblood

Part 6: The Horcrux

Part 7: The Deathly Hallows

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It’s slim pickings for new release DVDs over the summer. As always, if there’s a movie release I missed, I likely felt it not worth seeing…

Rango (July 15)

An 88% on the Tomatometer? Seriously? I thought this was a supremely boring movie. I kept expecting it go somewhere and then it ended. I was embarrassed that I wasted an evening with my wife watching this. I’m still not sure what the point of the movie was. It may sound good – high ratings, clean, animated, Johnny Depp voicing Rango, but don’t be fooled. Don’t rent this film unless you’re struggling with insomnia.

Source Code (July 26)

Now this movie pleasantly surprised me. I almost wrote an entire blog on it but it’s too difficult to do without giving away the entire movie. Jake G and Monaghan are solid with really good chemistry and the story just worked for me. People seem mixed on the ending but I liked it. I think it betrays just how much we want a happy ending and to know that death is not the end. We don’t think about death very much but we’re very afraid of it when we do. This film exposes all of that.

Rio also comes out on August 2 and it looks like a decent fun kids movie but we have not seen it yet.

Are there any films that I missed that are worth watching (July – August releases)? Leave a comment!

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Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4 ESV)

In my first post on The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, I discussed the film experience, the creation sequence, and the overall worldview. Now, let’s look at sin and the family.  Tree of Life is a tour de force of a glimpse of sin and the impact of a father.

The very beginning of the film presents two ways of living: the way of nature and the way of grace. For the way of nature, you can pretty substitute “law” in place of nature. These ways are represented in the parents: the way of grace in the mom (Jessica Chastain) and the way of nature/law in the father (Brad Pitt). Malick also does a tremendous job of painting the nature the sin in young Jack’s struggles and temptations.

The Mother

Mrs. O’Brien is clearly pictured as the way of grace. She delights in her children, runs and plays with them, and seems to enjoy nature. She is full of life and hope, and genuinely loves her three sons. As a mother, she is sensitive to her children but does not simply let the boys run without boundaries. Mrs. O’Brien is not perfect but endures 3 boys and her husband, which begins to sap the life from her. My wife caught the progression in her life: from joy to squashed. Why squashed? Because Mr. O’Brien is the way of nature and the law and he eats the life out of his family.

The Father

Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, the classic overbearing, semi-hypocritical, controlling father. Mr. O’Brien demands respect, and expects perfect manners at all times. He works hard and thinks respect (& love) should be earned. His love feels very conditional and yet very genuine at the same time. He reminded me a lot of my dad, and, unfortunately, myself. He hammers young Jack on taking care of the grass. The 3 sons detest dinner time. They feel like they walking on eggshells around him all the time, worried about the one little mistake that will unleash dad. He is affectionate but tempered and always guarded. He has to be. It’s not like he doesn’t have similar expectations on himself! Mr. O’Brien is a picture of the law: unforgiving, man-powered, and life-sucking.

There are 3 keys scenes: teaching his sons to box, when he explodes on his family at the dinner table, and he confession to young Jack near the end. When he is teaching them to box, his intent is good but he is crushing them. He is frustrated with them, not giving them any grace or any room to breath, only pressing them to hit his jaw. Hit your unsafe and unstable father in the face even though he’s asking? I’d pass too. The dinner table scene is intense but perfect. I felt their fear but I also say way too much of myself in how he responds to the disrespect shown him. A grace driven father could have laughed at himself, laughed at the middle brother’s statement, but not the law driven father. He confession to young Jack near the end practically brought me to tears. It takes something to break him, and he still is himself, but he knows his sin.

I resonate with Mr. O’Brien. I confess I can tend to be overbearing at times and nagging my kids too much about little things. I struggle with an internal flesh desire for control and respect. It’s a very ugly thing. I appreciated Malick’s portrayal because he so clearly paints the effect of it: a squashed wife, kids who are angry, scared, and boxed in, and the older brother lashing out, clearly seeing his dad’s hypocrisy and sin. Other films paint the depth of sin but wash it away easily. Not in the Tree of Life. You see the impact of the law driven father. I certainly want to keep trusting God to grow me to not be that way, to keep pressing to live by grace, not by the guilt, control, and suffocation of the law.

Young Jack & Sin

Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is a fascinating character. You feel what he feels under the crushing effect of his father. You feel what he feels also when he confronted with some of his emerging darker desires. The growing temptations of sexual desire. The anger he feels and the temptation to hurt his brothers and simply unleash his destructivity. The way he starts to treat his mother. As a man, I can remember that time and it resonated with me. Malick paints it so well. That struggle is relevant just as much now as when I was that young. Why do I do what I don’t want to do? Why does choosing sin once not appease it but drive it? What will bring me back from being given over to it? The scene when he enters the woman’s house and steals the nightgown and the effect on him afterwards was so, so good. I felt the darkness but I felt the allure of sin to him and the loss that came to him emotionally when he succumbed to it. It was very powerful. McCracken does a great job with very few words in how he played young Jack.

Final Thoughts

This film is worth seeing. We need more films like this: big picture thought provoking, the effect of sin, and a unique and challenging experience. This is not a film where you can check your brain at the door and be entertained for 150 minutes. Malick calls you to engage, to think, to ask questions, to empathize, and to wonder. I am thankful for such a film. Don’t be afraid of it, endure the beginning, and read a few reviews (see below) to get your brain cranked up prior to seeing it.

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15 ESV)

More Reviews Worth Reading

A Visual Prayer (by Rebecca Cusey, World Magazine)

Review of “The Tree of Life” (by Michael Horton, White Horse Inn Blog)

The Tree of Life (by Brett McCracken, Christianity Today)

A prayer beneath the Tree of Life (by Roger Ebert)

A Tale of a Father and a Son (by Makoto Fujimura, The Curator Blog)

The Tree of Life (A.V. Club)

Malick’s Film Adds a Dose of Sincerity to the Festivities (by Manohla Dargis, NY Times)

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I have seen Tree of Life (from Terrence Malick) called “a prayer,” “a symphony,” and  “a magnum opus.” It is all of those and it is a meditation. It is a journey through memories and heartache, through the questions of life, and the question of who I am. The Tree of Life is a movie experience that I’ve never had before, a film that plays out like a painting or maybe even a devotional. I’ve never seen a movie that presents the questions and truths that Malick does, and actually give you the space and time to contemplate and think about it. This movie is a contemplation as crazy as that sounds. Critics have raved while filmgoers have been mixed. When my wife and I saw it in downtown Reno last night, there were at least 3 people that walked out right in the middle of the film. It’s not linear, it’s not a simple story and plot, and the creation sequence can seem bizarre if you’re not looking for it. This is a movie that should be read about and thought about before even seen, I don’t think I can actually spoil it for you no matter how much I share. It would be as if I was describing a song or painting – you ultimately just have to see it and experience it.

Malick gives you a lot to think about and wrestle with in his masterpiece. In this post, I want to touch on the film experience and style, the creation sequence, and the big questions. In another post, I want to discuss the aspects of sin and family that Malick so brilliantly gives us. My desire is that this discussion will help you not only digest the film but be prepared to view it as well.

The Film Experience & Style

This is no simple story or plot. You find out about the death of a character before you even meet him. You hear voice overs of characters intermixed with other characters through sequences of the big bang and the ocean. This film was genius. I realized at the end as my wife and I discussed it that it truly is a walking through of the memories of the older brother. Malick goes beyond that to give you meditations and memories of the parents and the vision of creation, but it is mostly through the eyes of the oldest brother and thereby has some of the limitations of his knowledge and vision. There is still significant progression through the middle part of the film from the birth of the older brother to the significant moment that starts to bring the movie to a close, but even that progression jumps and melds together like a collection of memories and thoughts.

The acting was powerful. There are so little words that the film depends upon the unspoken interactions of the characters, the facial expressions at the dinner table, the look of their own wrestling with life, the way these characters express physical affection and how that is affected by their struggles and sin. Pitt is amazing, Jessica Chastain is brilliant, Penn is perfect, and Hunter McCracken as the oldest son is really good. This film is made or broken by how well you empathize & understand these individuals and I was sold. But what will turn off and turn away most of you is the creation sequence that seems to come out of nowhere early in the movie.

The Creation Sequence

The parents are introduced, as well as the older brother, and a reason for grief. Then, the creation sequence hits you. This is where one couple simply got up and walked out. It’s not a simple 2-3 minute part but it felt at least 15-20 minutes long. Malick takes you from the big bang to the dinosaurs all with the overarching questions of “Where is God?” and “Why?” You know this is creation though presented more with the slant of millions of years. It was very jarring to my wife. She even leaned over to me, saying, “This is weird!” So why is this story here? A dinosaur interaction sequence, really? Couldn’t the film have been fine without it?

I think the creation sequence is crucial to the film, as strange and jarring as it can feel. Malick presents a world where God is real and where God created, where we look for him and listen for him. This creation is part of who God is to Malick, who God is to these characters, it’s the main way Malick presents God and introduces us to him. This part of the film, along with the beginning scenes leading up to it, made me think of Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl by ND Wilson. If you’ve read Wilson’s book, I think it helps you appreciate Malick’s focus on creation, nature, and the wonder of the world we live in. However, the problem with the world of the Tree of Life is what my wife quickly discerned: God is creator but distant, impersonal, and seemingly absent.

The Big Questions

Who is God? Why is their pain and suffering? Who am I? Malick presents a world where God exists, where he creates, but a world that I would question where the hope is. In Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, Wilson ponders creation and suffering but brings his thoughts to single point on which it all relies in order to know God is good and that he is personal and loves us: the Cross. Without the cross, without God coming to us in the form of a man in Jesus, we are lacking. Tree of Life presents the weight of sin with no atonement, God with no face, and us with no grounded identity. Think about Jack in the future: nostalgic, pondering, praying, and… very alone. God apart from Jesus Christ is distant, impersonal, and simply who we make him. This is the fatal flaw in the powerful vision presented by Malick. Don’t get me wrong though. Tree of Life is a tremendous movie and an experience that worth the ride. I appreciated the creation sequence, it was very gutsy and amazing. I appreciated the prayers of these characters. I appreciated that God was even invited to this experience of a film. The film simply evoked a desire for more than just nostalgia and meditation. I wanted God himself.

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. (John 14:9-11 ESV)

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