God in the Movies: “Signs”

signs blog image

Today, we go back to the early 2000s with director M. Night Shyamalan to explore the heart of one of my favorite extraterrestrial thrillers: “Signs.” In this classic flick, a former priest and farmer named Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and two young children brave an imminent alien assault on earth. From their home in rural America they make their stand, plagued by questions of faith and purpose in the face of fear. Now, I’ve got to be honest – I don’t usually love alien movies, but this one has a certain mystery to it that stirs the soul and peaks your curiosity, leaving you waiting with bated breath to see what happens next, as do most of Shyamalan’s movies. It is this elusive sense of mystery and it’s affect on humanity that I plan to attempt to tackle in today’s metaphysical adventure.

The movie begins with flashbacks of a car accident, blurry memory-edited clips of Graham’s past, and we see the beginnings of a trauma that we won’t fully understand until later in the film. In this way, the audience immediately is captured by a desire to know – WHAT HAPPENED? – but is catapulted back into the present day where we get the picture of a small, isolated family missing one of it’s most important figures: a mother. What’s more, the family clearly lives by farming but Graham keeps getting called “father” by the locals, and the mystery deepens. That on it’s own is worth talking about, as we all have a deep awareness – if not understanding– of the mystery that is the human soul. We work together, talk together, and often even live together like Graham and his family without ever feeling like we ever really know another person, not to mention how little we know ourselves! This theme develops throughout the story as we realize that Graham has some deep hurt in his heart about losing his wife and that he doesn’t talk to anyone about this. He just goes on living, day-to-day, as though nothing has changed when in reality everything has changed: he has changed, and that is affecting the lives of his loved ones no matter what he says or doesn’t say.

With people there always remains a sense of mystery, partly because we cannot truly know ourselves from within ourselves; it takes a view from the outside.  But who can see beyond the surface to tell us what lies beneath? It is this part of us that reaches out for intimacy, for someone closer than we can dream who can see inside of us and tell us what is there, and this is what drives our deep need to find romance and family and belonging in all sorts of places, even though none of these ever quite do it for us the way our soul hopes. The truth is that there is only one who can truly KNOW us. God says in the Bible that “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?”(Jeremiah 17:9) I can resonate with that, can’t you? I know I feel the same way most of the time, though I don’t know how helpful that is! But then, with the next sentence the writer gives us hope. “I, the Lord, search the heart and test the mind, to give to every many according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds,” God says. He is speaking to more than just Jeremiah here, but He actually tells Jeremiah earlier in this same book, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart…”(Jeremiah 1:5).  This God knows us, deep down, our desires, our hopes, our fears, and lest we wonder whether He would want us, He tells us that he sent His son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it – to save us.

This idea of salvation and our need for it takes us even deeper into the story of Signs, as the world comes under an attack from alien invaders that stalk in the shadows. The whole world wants salvation, and no one knows from whence it might come. Shyamalan takes us out of the mystery of the human soul to scan the reaches of the cosmos, and the deepest fears of humanity are realized as a race far superior to their own comes upon them by surprise. Sheer terror takes hold of the populace of the city, and, once Graham stops denying the truth of the situation, his family as well. They make tin-foil hats to protect their brains and scramble to grab whatever they can to bar the doors and windows and protect themselves from a coming onslaught. The trouble is, they don’t have what everyone most needs in times of crisis: hope. At one point in the movie, one of very few deep conversations happens where Merrill and Graham speak candidly about what might become of the family and the world with aliens on the loose, and Graham tells his brother, “There are two kinds of people in the world…those who believe that we are deeply, utterly alone, and that when times are tough, no one is going to be there to help… and those who believe that there is always someone looking out for them, no matter what, and that gives them hope.” Merrill wholeheartedly jumps into the latter camp with a hilarious story, but Graham’s silence is far more sobering, as we understand what it seems he believes on the subject.

Since his wife’s death, Graham has blamed God, a fact which comes out in the story. He had faith in this all-powerful creator who claims to love him, and he believes he was betrayed. So, he chooses to think, quite understandably, that there is no such god above and that everything is chance. The problem is that what started his ‘unbelief’ shows just how false a notion it is. He blames God for what happened to his wife, because the truth he tries to deny is that he genuinely believes God does exist, but that God failed him. You don’t blame the Easter Bunny when life falls apart, because he isn’t real. You blame God. It has been said that the fact that everyone needs God to exist is precisely the proof that He does. Everything else a person needs to survive is there, available in a general sense to the human race, but the one thing that we need most in our spirits is to believe in this God that so many of us want to deny and blame. We blame people, and indeed God is the person that we all know, whether we wish to or not, though most of us do not know Him as He truly is, but as we have been taught to think of Him by others. We owe it to Him to let Him show us His true nature Himself, and that nature has been revealed through the man Jesus Christ: God with us.

In the same way that we all wrestle with the unseen God and whether we believe in it, we also all feel a desire to believe in other unseen forces at work in the world, though we may not realize it. Everything in movies that smacks of the supernatural or that deals with aliens is feeding our deep-seated belief that we are not alone, and whatever we might say, I believe we all know this to be true. Yet, contrary to what may be popular opinion, the word of God speaks on this as well. The bible says “…we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12) speaking to people to help them understand that there are very real forces of evil in this world with spirits just like our own but who are beyond our line of sight. They are even spoken of as rulers because they do have authority on the earth, authority that men give to them unknowingly by foolishly believing these enemies to not exist. We would do well to both acknowledge that any ”aliens” among us do not come from space, but from the spirit realm, and find a way to protect ourselves from them. We are assured in the bible that there is only one protection, to come under the rule of the Creator God, whose Son Jesus speaks to demons and rebukes them with a word of command, and they obey Him.

Since Shyamalan and the writers of “Signs” do not appear to share my opinion that any “aliens” among us must be demons, the movie ends on a far more typical note. When the invaders come and the family faces their fears, Graham realizes that he deeply needs the faith that he once had in God to get through this trial, but it just isn’t there. Thankfully, there is someone up there looking out for his family, whoever that may be, and that someone saw fit to plan the moments of his wife’s death as well as Merrill’s entire life and baseball career and his daughter’s obsession with water all to result in the salvation of their family. The enemy is defeated, and, for whatever reason, the aliens leave the planet. In the end, Merrill’s type of people win the day, those who believe there is someone up there watching out for us all. Yet, I want to challenge this notion, even as I support it.

In movies of a certain kind, we often find that things always “work out” in the end. Why is that? Why on earth should anyone believe that everything is going to be okay when we look at the world around us, especially if we believe in evolution and it’s popular worldview conclusion that everything happens by chance? Yet, many of us deeply believe that things can somehow “work out” for anyone – except when we are depressed or just lost something dear to us, naturally! I submit that the notion that everything will work out on its own is utter nonsense. Like anything else in the world, if something needs to happen, something has to cause it to happen. If things are going to work out alright, I would say that we should expect someone should have to make it so. So, I align myself with the Creator God who has the power to raise the dead as He did with His son Jesus, and the power to change my fate, so that I can hold onto that deep-seated belief that things will turn out alright. I suggest you do the same.

God in the Movies: “Wonder Woman”

wonder woman

In keeping with my last post’s decidedly war-like theme, this next installment of “God in the Movies” takes a look into the world of “Wonder Woman”, yet another product of DC Comics’ stellar storytellers. This 2.5 hour-long epic adventure begins in the fictional amazon (no, not the perpetually rainy south american forest, though I used to think so!) where a warrior race of women live in peace far from the outside world – or so they think. There, Princess Diana(Wonder Woman, not the late UK royal) grows up in a decidedly dangerous environment where day to day life among training amazon soldiers inspires her to seek to become a great warrior herself, but her mother denies her that right, declaring that there is no need for such things for a princess. Like all parents, the queen does not wish to see her daughter come to any harm, but, in attempting to control her child’s life, she is getting in the way of destiny. This, perhaps the most intriguing theme in any story, is the golden thread running through practically every scene in “Wonder Woman”. Hers is a story of identity, purpose, and fulfillment.

Despite her mother’s best intentions, Diana will not be denied her inheritance as a world-renowned warrior, and she undertakes a journey of rigorous physical battle training with the aid of General Antiope, who does not share her queen’s views of the young princess. The general understands that there is a destiny awaiting Diana that is beyond all of them, and none of them have the right to stand in its way. There is a moment towards the end of Diana’s training as she has become a mature fighter where she challenges the general herself, who appears never to have been beaten. At first, she is clearly losing the battle, and the general goads Diana to get her to show her true ability. Then, out of nowhere, Diana swings into action in a flurry of moves culminating in a block where her golden wristbands collide, and, with a blinding flash of light, the general is flung to the ground several yards away. Everyone stares in stunned disbelief. In that moment, they know – this one is special, and not just special, but dangerous.

This is a moment that each and every one of us can connect with in a deep, meaningful way, as we look at our own lives and yearn for a sense of recognition. We applaud the unveiling of Diana’s identity as a unique, valuable asset to her people, because all of us yearn to feel valued for who we are and what we can do. This is a desire that is built into the fabric of our being. It is part of who we are, made in the image of the God of the universe. He, too, is valuable simply by his being. Nothing has to assign Him value for it to be so. He just is. Then, He makes mankind through His own words and breathes His spirit into us, declaring that we are made “in His image”, and that we are “good” by our very nature (Genesis 1). So, we have this innate need to know that we are good and have it recognized by others as God once recognized it in the beginning, because it is right for us to be declared valuable, just as it is right to give God praise for His good nature.

Think of the moments in life where you felt the absolute best about yourself, where you felt happy. I’d hazard a guess that most, if not all of these moments, were directly connected to something that someone said to you or did for you that told you that you were valuable to them. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete, because – unfortunately – people do not always recognize our value. So, we feel the need to prove it so that we can gain that feeling yet again, that sense that we matter.  Thus most of our lives are spent in a fruitless search for value, the result of which is at the mercy of other flawed creatures as miserably uncertain as ourselves. The good news is that there is always value in us, and it cannot be taken from us. It is the value that God Himself placed upon us when He allowed us to enter this world as His image-bearers. Every one of us is inherently valuable because we come from the source of all values, the God of the bible. What’s more, we are not yet all that we will be…and that is yet something else that Wonder Woman can teach us.

As the movie progresses, an american pilot spy stumbles upon the amazon as his plane goes down near them, flying through an invisible forcefield. Behind him are Nazi forces in hot pursuit, because, despite the tranquility of the island, the world outside is caught in the midst of World War II. It is at this point that Diana’s destiny takes a leap forward. Realizing that she is different from the rest of the amazon people, that she is, somehow, special, she jumps at the chance to fulfill her destiny and takes off with the American Pilot to find the god of war, Ares, whom she is convinced is directly responsible for all conflict on the earth. She believes it is her fate to find and defeat this adversary at any cost. Days go by and a team eventually forms around Diana and the young pilot. Together, they embark on a rogue mission that will assure the defeat of the Nazis once and for all.

Shortly after the mission begins, the team stumbles upon “no man’s land,” a battle-front where the situation is impossible. The land is under siege and the people are suffering terribly. Overcome with a deep need to do something, anything to alleviate their suffering, Diana proposes that their team should rescue the populace, defeating the Nazi forces themselves. Distressed at the preposterous notion and anxious to get them moving towards their intended goal, Chris Pine(the pilot) says “This is not our mission. We have to go,” to which Diana responds “It is my mission,” and leaps over the barrier to begin a death-defying single-handed assault on the Nazi forces. It is at this moment that her identity takes a leap forward. Crashing through enemy forces like an avenging angel in the face of a devastating barrage of gunfire, she overwhelms the enemy with the sheer weight of who she is, something that the audience feels tug deep at their souls(or at least I did). It is perhaps at this point that she comes to be called “Wonder Woman”. In this battle and leading up to the final battle where she defeats Ares, she is becoming who she was made to be, fulfilling her destiny.

What’s more, she understands that because she is able to change these people’s lives, it is very much her mission. It is her destiny to be there at that moment to rescue the innocent. I believe all of us, however selfish or hard our exterior, have buried within us a deep, unquenchable urge to help those in great need when we find ourselves able to do so. This is part of the image of God in us, a fragment of good in a broken, stained mosaic fraught with all sorts of misguided passions and flaws. These broken things in us all stem from one place, what the bible would call “the flesh”, though it is not a reference to God hating the physical realm. He made us physical, spiritual, emotional beings and there is good in all of it! Yet, there is this “flesh” where the sin nature resides, that part of us that strives to protect ourselves and our sense of security at any cost – even murder, slander, theft, and a thousand other less-sinful-sounding issues that all stem from selfishness(self-worship). This is what drove the Apostle Paul, arguably one of the greatest men of all time, to say “… I do not understand my own actions.  I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out…Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:15-25)

This idea of the deep flaw of humanity is the same theme that the movie drives in hard at the end of the film as Wonder Woman is having to choose whether people are worth saving.  She sees how the violence doesn’t stop even though she accomplished her mission, and she struggles with the violent tendencies of mankind, shouting “Why don’t the people stop fighting?” The pilot character responds “maybe it’s them! Maybe, maybe people aren’t always “good”” struggling to communicate his sense of people to this god-like character. She, still unable to forgive humanity’s foolishness, says “They do not deserve our help,” and the pilot answers “Maybe we don’t. But it’s not about that. It’s about what you believe,” implying that if Wonder Woman decides to give people mercy despite not deserving it, that is what matters. I, too, agree with Chris Pine, that when it comes down to it, it matters what we believe, but we have to throw aside the foolish notion that simply believing something to be true makes it true. This is not the case, no matter who may wish it. But what we believe does matter – because when it involves putting our faith in Jesus it can actually change our world. Jesus offers Himself as a sacrifice, the perfect man in the place of flawed humanity, to make it possible for all who believe in Him to become everything that they were originally created to be. He makes a bridge to get us from a self-condemned, irreparably selfish life to a place of renewed identity and hope, where we can know why we are on this earth and be a part of God’s mission to further transform this world, fulfilling our own destinies as Wonder Woman fulfilled her own. Through Jesus, people are “born again” into the identity that we all yearn to own, that of God’s children.

Back to the movie: In the final battle with Ares, Wonder Woman is struggling to defeat her archenemy, and her weapon that she calls ‘the god killer’ breaks. For a moment, she is desperate, but she then comes to a realization: her belief is what is holding her back. She doesn’t realize just who she is. She discovers that in this story she is a god, and is more than enough to defeat this challenge and any other. She was made for just this moment, and she will succeed in her quest. So, in a blaze of glory, she overwhelms her enemy, destroying him once and for all, winning the war for the entire world. I submit to you that this moment is the one that we all are waiting for, the moment where we discover who we are, and go forth in triumph towards a new life as overcomers. This is the hope of the true, biblical Christian faith, the hope that because of Jesus, all of us are not yet what we will be. “Dear children, we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet appeared…”(1 John 3:2)…”All creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons(&daughters) of God” (Romans 8:19). Through His resurrection that brings new life to all who believe, we can all find glory and fulfill our destiny. “We all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

God in the Movies: “Justice League”


justice league

Stories speak to our souls.  But what do they say? Each is unique, but every story told by our bedsides as children, written in the pages of our favorite books, or shown on a screen appeals to us as humans at the level of our desires, capturing something of the hidden needs of our nature. I believe this is because there is a God above, One True God of love, justice, and creativity, who made us in His image and is writing us into His own story, one which we get to help shape and form as primary actors. Naturally, He then speaks to us through story.

With that in mind, I begin this, the first of a practically endless blog series, in an attempt to decode for all of us the divine messages buried in the most popular stories of our day:  Movies. First up on the list: The Justice League!

This newest installment in the DC Universe takes its audience on a roller-coaster ride of action like most other films in this genre, following Batman’s mission to create a league of heroes with the power to stop an all-consuming evil soon descending upon the earth, namely Steppenwolf, a demi-god-esque entity seeking the power to rule the universe. This, perhaps, is one of the first things worth mentioning. Why do we love action? Why is conflict, inner-turmoil, and even war, a necessary component to so many of the stories we enjoy? If these things show up in our own lives in too high a degree, we fear and even hate it. So what gives?

I submit to you that we crave action and conflict because we know, deep in our souls, that what the bible says is true, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rulers and authorities, the cosmic powers over this present darkness.”(Ephesians 6:12 ESV). There is an all-out war going on against spiritual forces that we cannot see, and we are born into it, even, in a sense, born for it, but are unaware of our role, and so we live in ignorance, much like the characters of the 1990’s film The Matrix, many of whom choose to live unaware of deeper realities because they fear it so deeply.

The trouble is, we do run into these forces that wage war against us, and we do, like them, all have special characteristics built into who we are that will help us to achieve victory together, but unlike the members of the Justice League, we do not put a face to our enemies and face them head on, and so we lose – miserably and often. Imagine, for a moment, if Batman had seen the alien enemies entering his city and had simply turned around and gone home to his mansion, sipping a drink to forget his troubles, denying that there was an attack. If, instead of seeing the servants of darkness descending on his city and responding with a plan of defense, he had done something so cowardly, then not only his own personal world but also the world around him would have fallen to ruin.

Now, you might say to yourself that the individuals in the movie are different: they have the ability to respond to the threats against them and win. However, even in that thought there are hidden assumptions that somehow they will be enough and that they know this about themselves. The movie itself denies this idea, as the characters often debate their inability to rise to the challenges before them, with Aquaman even engaging in a vulnerable monologue later in the movie about how he expects them all to die before they ever reach their main objective. These “heroes” are just like all of us, made in our image, and, therefore, completely uncertain as to whether they are ever enough for the tasks before them. And yet, its OK.

In stories like these, somehow, against all odds and their own doubts, the heroes achieve victory.  The thing is, God knows our weaknesses, and that is why faith in Jesus is so unique among the faiths of the world. Jesus does not propose that somehow we can overcome all that stands against us by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and trying. No, He admits our inability to change, and comes to earth to live in a way none of us could live, to be the person we all wish we could be, to gain the victory none of us could win. He then offers that to all of us as a free gift, to be received by faith in who He is. If we can trust Jesus with our lives, He will win the victory for us, and in His power that made the universe, He will transform us into new creations that can overcome the world around us.

That is the hope for which we all strive in our own lives. We hope that, despite all appearances to the contrary, we will one day have a good ending to our own stories. We hope this because, “God has set eternity in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He has a plan, and it’s end is victory. At the end of the Bible’s story, it tells us “Behold, I saw a new heavens and a new earth…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.'” (Revelation 21:1-4). God wins, He wants people to win with Him. We all desire this, though we may not be willing to put our faith in Him to bring it about. 

Regardless of whether we believe it, however, God has made a way for every person on earth to become a part of that time of everlasting victory. His plan was revealed finally 2000 years ago, as the word says “God has now revealed his mysterious plan regarding Christ… And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9-10 NLT) Like the story of the Justice League, victory is guaranteed despite what we see, and like their team, we achieve victory together. God intends to unite all people together through belief in Jesus, so that they can become one in Spirit, united to save the world in His name. This is the true, biblical meaning of the word “church”, and is one of the deepest desires of our hearts that resonates with movies like these filled with fellowship, valor, and hope. We, too, can be a league of justice, each of us a valuable, diverse member of the body of Christ, carrying out God’s work on the earth under His authority and with His power, saving lives from darkness as part of His plan to redeem all things!