Sunday, March 27, 2011
"At present, we know partially, but one day we shall know fully as we are fully known." 1 Corinthians 13:12
Scientists say that, during our lifetimes, we use less than 20% of our brains. The movie Limitless imagines a tiny pill that would enable us to use the other 80%.
The lead character, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), begins this story as a creatively-starved (and economically-starved) writer, desperately looking for anything to survive. One day he stumbles upon an old acquaintance who offers him just that... a tiny pill called NZT-48. After taking the pill, Eddie's eyes are opened - and he is able to finish his book and get his life back in order, literally overnight.
According to the film, using the other 80% of our brains means being more aware of the world around us. This newfound awareness helps Morra better recall past experiences, read people's emotions, tap into his inner creativity, and better understand complex situations.
In a way, such intelligence propels the drug's users to unimaginable heights. Eddie cannot resist the experience - and addictively craves more, ultimately leading to trouble, crisis, and even death for those around him. With great power comes great responsibility - yet with Eddie's selfish motives, he struggles with how to handle such wealth of blessings.
In the real world, we don't need a drug to become limitless. Our faith gives us tools to open our eyes and see more clearly, if we are ready to take on this incredible gift.
St. Paul, in his first letter to the people of Corinth, tells the people there that genuine, selfless love is the key to greater clarity and understanding. "At present, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but one day we will see clearly as if we were face to face. And at present, we know partially, but one day we shall know fully as we are fully known." (1 Cor. 13:12)
God calls on us to be more aware of our world by paying attention to the least among us. God challenges us to listen more attentively and act more compassionately to those around us. God gives us tools to creatively make a difference in the world before us. And God has blessed us with wondrous things and hopes we will remember them and pass those gifts onto one another.
All of these things are only possible by selfless love, rooted in prayer and integrity. No drug, no classwork, and no tricks are necessary to use all of our brains.
Too often, we are so tired and anxiety ridden that we stumble through our lives, giving seemingly unimportant matters (like family, friends, dreams, and faith) less attention than they deserve. But when we live with our eyes and ears open - and a heart full of love - we will be able to accomplish so much more.
With God all things are possible. Or to put it in the context of this film, with God and a reliance on the gifts he blessed us with, there is no limit to what we can do. The Lord be with you in your own quest for a "limitless" life.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
"Even if you don't believe in me, at least believe in my good works..." John 10:38
Paul is a somewhat-crass, somewhat-sweet science fiction comedy about two hapless guys who stumble upon an extraterrestrial in the middle of the desert.
Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) are two British comic book writers who go on a tour of UFO sites across the American Southwest. On their road trip, they have an unexpected close encounter with Paul, voiced by Seth Rogan, an alien who has been "among us" since he crashed his UFO back in 1947. Of course, by picking up a hitchhiking interstellar creature, they expose themselves to the authorities - who are hot on their trail.
In a sense, with all their sci-fi experiences, it would seem Graeme and Clive would be the perfect pair to run off with an extraterrestrial. But at first, the two simply cannot believe their eyes. Is it really true?
Questions of skepticism and belief continuously pop up in this movie - squeezed between the barrage of allusions to other films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Aliens, Back to the Future, Close Encounters, Mac and Me, E.T., Predator, The X-Files, and Star Trek, among others.
Belief in aliens, government cover-ups, evolution, morality, weapons, and a literal approach to Scripture all get tossed into the mix here. Sadly, all Christians are represented by vengeance-minded fundamentalists - allowing the characters to dismiss all aspects of the faith due to the actions of a few extremists. In a sense, it seems it's easier for the filmmakers to believe in UFOs than the power of God.
In a sense, it's a good argument to wrestle with... if an alien were to come to our planet, how would they understand our faith? What would these extraterrestrials see when they surveyed the religious traditions around the world?
Perhaps they would see that terrorists kill innocent people in the name of Allah. Perhaps they would see pastors abusing their authority by scamming congregants out of money or sexually hurting the children in their care. Perhaps they would see angry, hateful emails forwarded around the Internet, sent by those who claim to be church-going Christians. Perhaps they would see synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches being burned by adherents of another religious group. If this is what they saw, how would they understand any concept of faith?
There are a number of inactive Christians who pose these arguments to us. They see these hypocritical public actions of believers - and dismiss the entire faith because of that.
While it might be impossible to completely silence the extremists and abusers, this reaction is a call to the rest of us - to make Jesus' works of compassion, social justice, mercy, forgiveness, love, humility, and selflessness more visible by his followings in our world today. Our challenge is to erase the stereotypical image of a Christian as seen a movie like Paul: vengeful, close-minded, condemning, fundamentalist, violent, and suppressed.
Jesus himself was troubled by misconceptions of his ministry. Herod thought that Jesus could do magic. The Romans thought he could rally an army against the Empire. The Pharisees thought that Jesus was a morally-loose egomaniac.
After one such skirmish in the Gospels, Jesus told his opponents, "If I don't perform good works inspired by God, then don't believe me. And even if you don't believe in me, at least believe in the good works that I do." (John 10:37-38). In other words, let our actions speak to our faith. And in the meantime, even if others still remain unconvinced, let us continue to do good works.
In the movie, even though Paul the alien dismisses religious belief, he still operates out of compassion for others. He comforts his friends in times of uncertainty and doubt. He rescues his companions from a burning building. He uses his powers to cure blindness and to raise a man from the dead (even though such an act might potentially kill him). Sadly, even when another character kindly says "God be with you" (since God's good works are evident in his little green man), he still pushes it aside.
In a way, Paul had Christ within him - but closed himself off to such a possibility because of his impression of Christians. Even though it was a fictional comedy, this dismissal saddened me.
It saddened me because there are so many people in the world today who have Christ within their hearts and act out of gospel-centered values, yet still regard religion and spirituality as empty, hypocritical, or evil.
What can we do to change that? How can aliens, inactive churchgoers, and the rest of the world see what faith is really all about? How can we share the faith that compels us to live as Christ lived, to act as Christ acted, to speak as Christ spoke, and to die as Christ died?
Going forward, it is my goal that, should I have a close encounter on the side of the road with a stranded alien, that extraterrestrial would understand the faith that drives me to hope, to redemption, and through my actions, make the world (or any world, in this galaxy or the next) a better place for all God's creatures.
Monday, March 07, 2011
"For behold I know the plans I have for you..." Jeremiah 29:11
What is our destiny? And perhaps more importantly... is there such a thing as "destiny"? These are the questions we wrestle with in The Adjustment Bureau, a political thriller with elements of romance, fantasy, theology, and science fiction thrown in for good measure.
Matt Damon stars as David Norris, a young congressman who begins his rise through the political system but is quickly distracted by Elise (Emily Blunt), a mysterious woman he unexpectedly meets in the men's bathroom on election night. She so captivates Norris that, despite losing a Senate race, he actually becomes a new brand of politician - blunt, honest, and authentic - rare qualities that are destined to propel him to the Oval Office.
But the original "plan" was that Elise was only supposed to be a temporary distraction on the way to Washington, not the woman of Norris' dreams. When another chance encounter pushes the two together again (and the "plan" goes completely off-course), the Adjustment Bureau steps in.
We aren't exactly certain who the Bureau is, but if taken theologically, it seems that the film's writers believe that God (referred to as "The Chairman" throughout the movie) has position of predestination set for all people - and the Bureau's agents are messengers sent to assure that nothing deviates from the "plan." David Norris, it seems, has set his own course - not letting fate, predestination, or plans get in the way of his love.
Christians have long argued about whether God has a grand plan for us - or if we are completely on our own, making it all up as we go forward. In Jeremiah, God tells the prophet, "Behold I know the plans I have for you" (Jer. 29:11), indicating that there is predestined script which has been hidden to us but completely known to God.
Do we truly have free will or is it an illusion to make us appear that we have the power to control our lives? At one point in the film, one of the Bureau agents says that God has gone back and forth over the history of humanity - and whenever the divine powers let go, bad things happen (the Dark Ages, two World Wars, nuclear proliferation, etc.).
Even when told this, Norris still refuses to go along. Even the temptation of knowing that he could become the President of the United States if he just consented (akin to the story of Jesus' temptation in the desert, as told in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) - is not enough for Norris to divert from his path towards love.
The emotional captivation and the growing feelings between David and Elise seem to be greater than all the power in the world and the direction of the fate of the universe. This speaks to the ultimate theology that love is the greatest power of all.
In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he adamantly declares, "If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or clashing cymbal... If I give away everything I own and have over my life so that I can boast, but do not have love, I am nothing." (1 Cor. 13:1,3) David Norris seems to believe this. No matter how much power he could potentially have and no matter how close he could come to achieving his dreams, it is all for nothing if he cannot experience love.
Questions about free will and destiny - whether they exist for us and if so, what our future holds and who can know it - are fascinating and theologically-stimulating. Some of us long for someone to lay out a script for us, pointing us in the right direction; others want to live on chance, trusting in their own power to make the best decisions in life.
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle - where we cooperate with God, making our own choices, based on our free will, but listening attentively to the Lord's voice through prayer, teachers, conversations with others, and in the depths of our hearts and minds, grounded in morals, ethics, and unconditional love.
So again, it comes back to love. When we wonder whether we are making the best choice for our lives, we need to ask ourselves, is this choice the most loving, kind, compassionate, forgiving, selfless, and generous one? If the answer is yes, then we are moving according to the best plan possible. If the answer is no, then we really are moving off-plan - and we might need to adjust our thinking, not by succumbing to a mysterious script policed by emotionless enforcers, but by humbly opening ourselves up to Christ-like love.
We have been given free will, but films like The Adjustment Bureau challenge us to ask whether we are using it in the best possible way. The fantastic idea that God has to step in and control the universe when we abuse our gifts is theologically troubling, but it does cause us to do a little self-examination.
God gives us free will not for our own desires, but so that we can be freed up to be the best versions of humanity that we can be. He gives this gift to us so that we can, in turn, give of ourselves to one another. Have the choices we have made this week been for the benefit of others or have they been for our gain alone? Have the decisions that have been made this week hurt others or helped others? Have they pushed the world closer to the Kingdom of God or farther from it? Questions like these are surely worth pondering.
Theologians, philosophers, and academics can debate predestination and fate all they want. But for you and me, our concern for everyday life is how we make our daily choices and how much love and selflessness enters into that mix.
These are the things that really matter - and if we live in a manner worthy of the Gospel, we won't ever have to worry about any adjustment bureaus or shadowy figures waiting to course-correct us. Let us pray we will all live in such a way, starting right now.