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Filtering by Tag: Drew Trotter

Boyhood, Birdman and the Problem of Existence, Part 3

Drew Trotter

20 Lilies In my last two blog posts, I have tried to show how both Boyhood and Birdman seem bent on resurrecting a philosophy popular in the 1960’s: existentialism. While Boyhood seems to give a hopeful spin to its form of it, Birdman presents a much darker picture, linking existentialism to what was commonly thought then was the only truly authentic act in the face of the death of God: suicide. Albert Camus fought this notion, but many under the influence particularly of Friedrich Nietzsche, embraced it thoroughly.

Now, I am a Christian theologian, and I believe that Christianity spends a lot of energy encouraging us to realize that the present is the only moment we have in which to act responsibly. We share this in common with existentialism, this focus on the present in the journey of our own lives. We can do nothing about the past because we cannot alter it, and we can do nothing about the future because we do not know what challenges it will bring. Therefore, following the Good Shepherd in the moment is what we are called to do, and it is enough.

One does not have to look far in Christian teaching for support for this way of living. I think of Jesus’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount about not being anxious for anything: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Mt 6.34 ESV) or the ancient wisdom of Prov. 27.1: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” (ESV).

These two statements are about the future, but, similarly, the regrettable past is forgiven and forgotten in a very real sense for the Christian, and, while the memories of works of beauty and goodness that may have been done to us or by us, are great gifts, we cannot change those gifts, nor would we want to.

But—and it is a very large “but” indeed—all our understanding of both the past and the future takes place in a universe in which God oversees the past, the present and the future from His eternal stance outside of time. He bestows meaning to our existential moments in the framework of both an ethical structure based in the law, which in turn is based on His eternal character, and a metaphysical structure based in His revelation of Himself as creator, redeemer, and sustainer. All meaning flows from Him, and provides us a rich and satisfying philosophy by which to live and in which to believe. He gives meaning to both the past and the future, and so we, His creatures, can rest assured about both the reality of, and the significance of, both the past and the future. We may not be able to change them, but we look at them with very different perspectives than do the existentialists.

I do not see any alternative better than this. Camus’s notion of revolt in the face of the absurdism of a universe without God is purely a decision to go in a direction he wants to go. His attempt in “The Myth of Sisyphus” to answer in the negative the question of whether or not one should commit suicide in the face of an absurd universe is unconvincing. Even worse is his attempt ultimately to justify the embrace—happy embrace, I might add—of the fate of pushing the rock to the top of the mountain each day, only to see it roll back down to the bottom every night. He simply gives us no reason to feel that this is a better alternative than simply to end it all in despair.

But the greatest fault of existentialism is its premise that God does not exist. The much better hypothesis is that He does, and that He has revealed Himself in Christ for the good of the world. The hope of Boyhood is not wrong; it’s just misplaced given its premise. The craving for love in Birdman is not wrong; it’s just misdirected from looking for God’s approval to looking for man’s (John 2:23-25). The Christian can hope and can love because of their faith, the faith that the one true God exists and gives life and meaning to the past, the present and the future.

Boyhood, Birdman and the Problem of Existence, Part 2

Drew Trotter

Michael Keaton as ‚ÄúRiggan‚Äù in BIRDMAN. (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures) In last month’s blog, I mentioned that Birdman and Boyhood shared more than the race for the Best Picture Oscar last year. Though the two movies were as different as can be imagined in tone, form, subject matter, pace and just about every other movie-making category, they were unified in pushing to the forefront a philosophy that goes back some fifty years, but seems to be gaining momentum as a philosophy of life: existentialism. I wrote about Boyhood and its thoroughgoing, but hopeful, existentialism, and accused it of cheating since classic existentialism was anything but hopeful because of one single factor: death.

Birdman doesn’t make that mistake. In the film references abound to death, particularly suicide, as its main character, Riggan Thompson, played superbly by Michael Keaton in an Oscar-nominated performance, struggles with his celebrity, the emptiness of his power, his own hubris, the effect he is having on others, his need for love.

Birdman portrays Thompson as a popular but shallow superhero actor who wants to be taken seriously, so he writes, directs, and stars in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. The film spans the few days between final rehearsals and opening night. Shot in the St. James Theatre in New York, Birdman is distinctive, if not unique, for its very long takes, sometimes as long as twenty minutes or more without a cut. This, and a constantly playing jazz drummer rasping in the background, adds hugely to the fast-pace of the dialogue and action to create a feeling of one long moment for the film. Small wonder, given the existential themes explored particularly in two scenes near the end of the film.

[Spoiler alert!] Riggan, unbeknownst to anyone else associated with the play, decides to commit the meaning-creating act of his life by committing suicide on stage, but messes that up either by accidentally missing his head and blowing off his nose instead, or by changing his mind at the last minute (or possibly, but I think unlikely, planning only to blow off his nose all along). What happens before that in two important scenes tells us what the filmmakers were intending.

The first of these takes place in Riggan’s dressing room on opening night near the end of the play, when his ex-wife, Sylvia, played by Amy Ryan, visits him to tell him how well she thinks he’s doing in the play. Riggan declares his love for her and for Samantha, their daughter, and their exchange brings together the themes of family, responsibility and what is actually real:

Riggan: I love you. …And I love Sam. Sylvia: I know. Riggan: I really wish I wouldn’t have videotaped her birth, though. Sylvia: Why? Riggan: ‘Cause… (sighs) I just missed the moment, really. I don’t have it. I should have just been there with the two of you. You know … just the three of us. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t even present in my own life, and now I don’t have it… and I’m never going to have it. Sylvia: You have Sam. Riggan: Not really, I don’t. I mean, she’s… Sylvia: Oh, no, no, no, listen, she’s just going through … Riggan: No, I get it, I understand. She needed a dad; instead she got this guy who was a …three day viral sensation. It is so pathetic, I can’t… Sylvia: No, come on. There are things more pathetic than that. Riggan: Yeah, like? Sylvia: That moustache. (Both laugh.) They kiss. He tells her to get back to her seat. He pulls down a real gun from a shelf, not the toy one he’s been using in rehearsals. He checks and makes sure it’s loaded.

Riggan regrets not actually living the moment of his daughter’s birth instead of trying to do so vicariously through a videotape. Note how he says, “I wasn’t even present in my own life,” a telling admission that he doesn’t really believe he exists because he did not act authentically. He doesn’t have that moment and he’s never going to. So much more could be said about the idea of cynically dismissing the medium of videotape in a movie about a play, but the key for us is this: Riggan does not exist because he has not acted authentically and with passion.

Even more important is the penultimate scene in the film, when Riggan is on stage. In the play, he is Eddie, who has just broken into a motel room where he discovers his wife (Naomi Watts) with her lover (Edward Norton). He brandishes a gun at both of them. She admits she doesn’t love him, and his answer forms the heart of the struggle of the “real” Riggan Thompson within the story of the movie: “Why? I just want you to tell me: why? …What’s the matter with me? Tell me what’s the matter. Why do I always have to beg people to love me? …I just wanted to be what you wanted. What you wanted. Now I spend every fucking minute trying to be something else. Something I’m not. …I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I’m not even here.”

Riggan points the gun at the Norton character and goes “Bang!”, like a very dangerous child playing with a real gun. Then he points the gun at the audience and does the same thing: “Bang!” The terror for the movie viewer is palpable; it looks like a real gun. It is a real gun! Riggan then shoots himself, blowing his nose off, but we don’t know that until later. It looks like he has committed some existentialists’ one authentic act: suicide. The audience stays silent for the slightest of moments, then they wildly applaud—a thumping, rousing standing ovation for the apparently dead actor on the stage floor.

What do we as Christians think of this? Riggan, not finding the love he so craves, a love that takes the form for him of gaining from the audience respect for himself and for his art, chooses to kill himself in order to win that respect. Albert Camus fought this conclusion in his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” opting instead for an acknowledgment of the absurdity of life and a life lived in revolt against that absurdity.

But why? Stay tuned for part three next month.

Boyhood, Birdman and the Problem of Existence, Part 1

Drew Trotter

20 Boyhood:existentialism Birdman and Boyhood shared more than the race for the Best Picture Oscar last year. Though the two movies were as different as can be imagined in tone, form, subject matter, pace, and just about every other movie-making category, they were unified in pushing to the forefront a philosophy that goes back some fifty years, but seems to be gaining momentum as a philosophy of life: existentialism.

Existentialism is known best at the popular level as the theory that the only meaning one can find in life is by living authentically, i.e. passionately and sincerely, in the moment. The “now,” not the “then” on either side of it on the timeline of existence, is the only part of reality that is relevant, and an existentialist is responsible for creating meaning in that “now.” That meaning, however, does not transcend the “now,” but rather requires the doer to live in a series of disconnected moments as authentically as possible to achieve significance. All of this is predicated on the universe being meaningless, there being no God, and therefore no revelation of where meaning for the human being is to be found.

The conversation that shows how serious Boyhood is about its existentialism comprises the last scene in the film. Mason, Boyhood’s main character, is on a hike on his first day of university. He has typically skipped orientation and has met a new girl, Nicole; they are hitting it off. At a beautiful moment of sunset with the rocks glowing that soft red they do in the Texas desert, Mason and Nicole are sitting together, enjoying a brief rest, awkwardly trying to continue the conversation they’ve been having during the walk. Suddenly Mason’s roommate, a crazy extrovert, yells out from down below: “This moment’s having a falsieful whoregasm! It’s like as if all of time has unfolded before us so we could stand here and look out and scream, ‘Fuck yeah!’ Wooo!”

This juvenile moment prompts the much more thoughtful, yet still feeling-her-way Nicole to turn to Mason tentatively and volunteer, “You know how everyone is always saying, ‘Seize the moment!’? I don’t know. I’m kinda thinkin’ it’s the other way around, you know, like, the moment seizes us.” Mason responds, “Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant. The moments. It’s just, it’s like it’s always right now, you know?” She agrees. They look at each other, again in only that way two young people can, who aren’t sure of the future, but are thinking, “I really like this girl/guy; do you think he/she is the one?” They look away, then look back, and the movie cuts to black, ending.

As if this weren’t enough, as the credits roll, a lone voice begins singing, “Here, at my place in time, and here in my own skin, I can finally begin. Let the century pass me by. Standing under my sky, tomorrow is nothin’.”

One couldn’t find in modern film a more existentialist way of viewing life. “It’s like always right now, you know?” But Boyhood cheats because it ends hopefully. The viewer feels Mason has his whole life ahead of him and sees it as an adventure, filled with moments, some of joy, some of sadness, some of reward, some of punishment, but all to be embraced and simply lived until the next one comes. Classic existentialists, on the other hand, could not get over the loss they felt at the knowledge that we create our own meaning in every moment. It made life absurd, random, without any ultimate significance. This newer popular form of the philosophy simply chooses to ignore the consequences of the future, particularly the looming specter that so terrified Sartre, Camus, Becket and others: death.

That specter dominates, in some ways, the other movie, the one which won the big prize: Birdman. Stay tuned.

Boyhood and the American Family

Drew Trotter

20 boyhood While thinking about the movie Boyhood recently, an image appeared in my head of a bleak landscape, but not a realistic one. Dotting the landscape were a number of brightly colored objects, malleable, some standing at angles, some flopping over edges of rocks or ledges, like the clocks in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. But the objects weren’t clocks. They were all teenagers—all heights, all ages but all thin, visionless, falling. Maybe the image was more like the orgy scene in the desert of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point—flat, detached, choreographed sexual movement. Love in the desert of meaninglessness.

In both ways of seeing what I imagined, the edge of the knife was the teenagers, robotic, spineless kids with vacant eyes and joyless lives.

I am sure this picture was spawned by the sadness I felt for the American family, as I watched Richard Linklater’s autobiographical Oscar nominee again for a talk I was preparing. In an extra on the DVD, Linklater says, “The film’s called Boyhood, but it could have been called Motherhood, Fatherhood, Bumbling-Into-Adulthood. It was an opportunity to see adults evolve as well as kids.”

The mother in Boyhood in fact evolves very little. Played by Patricia Arquette, in an Oscar-winning performance, Olivia is from the beginning the neediest person in the movie. In one of the earliest scenes, we see her break up an argument between her two small children by simply yelling at them to quit, followed by an argument with a potential boyfriend about how she’d like to go out to a movie, but she’s got to take care of the kids. She doesn’t even know what it’s like to be free to go out, she says. “I was someone’s daughter, and then I was someone’s f**kin’ mother. Okay? I don’t even know what that’s like.” It’s so early in the movie, you pity her, but it doesn’t take long for that to change.

Granted she does take responsibility for her children: she feeds them, gets them to school, clothes them, puts a roof over their heads. But along the way, Olivia—already a divorcee—marries two more times, and divorces two more times. She moves three times, uprooting the children’s lives each time. In fact, there is only one scene in the entire movie, where we see her approach expressing tender love for them; when the children are small, she reads Harry Potter novels to them in bed. Even her graduation toast near the end of the movie is comprised of her telling her son how much fun he’s going to have in college. Admittedly, she does say she loves him and is so proud of him, but she has already spoiled the moment by telling everyone he didn’t want to have the party, yet they had it for him anyway.

In every other scene she appears, she is either flirting with her next husband or suffering from his abuse, fighting with her daughter, commanding Mason, Jr. to do something or talking about how bad her life is. As Mason, Jr. says to a girlfriend when he’s gone on a trip to UT-Austin: “I don’t think [college] is the key to my future. ‘Cause, I mean, look at my mom. She got her degree and got a pretty good job. She can pay her bills.” Girlfriend: “I like your mom.” Mason: “Well, I like my mom, too, I just mean… Basically, she’s still just as fuckin’ confused as I am.”

In her last scene of the movie, Olivia’s narcissism is really put on display. Angry at Mason, Jr. for not being sad because he is leaving home to go off to college, she says, “This is the worst day of my life.… You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, [snaps fingers] like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fuckin’ funeral!… I just thought there would be more.” The scene would be funny, if it weren’t so pitiable.

I could go on about Olivia, or about the father, Mason, Sr., played by Ethan Hawke, who gets dealt a much better hand in the script, and does evolve positively in the movie, or about the main character, Mason, Jr., who wanders aimlessly the entire film from age six to age eighteen. The whole film is filled with little moments, some happy, some sad, but none that give Mason any clarity, any vision for his life because his parents don’t have any vision to give him.

One of Boyhood’s stories is of the single mom, who try as she might, simply can’t give her children a vision for what could be because she is so consumed with her own needs. If we stretch this story into a narrative of the state of the American family, we are confronted with the slow-death-by-internal-decay narrative that we have heard so often about our country: parents without vision and foundation, and so kids without hope. It turns into a painting in which the kids are all soft and floppy, visionless and vacant. It saddens me so much because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Calvary and the Virtue of Self–Sacrifice

Drew Trotter


“Self–sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed.” —Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

My favorite film from last year was an independent movie, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh entitled Calvary. If you are not yet familiar with it, shame on you because Tom Sturch wrote a wonderful piece on it just a few days ago on this website, linking the eight-day structure of the movie to the “Octave of Christmas”, which many in the ancient church celebrated. They did so because one day, i.e. Christmas day, cannot really contain the significance of what actually happened in the incarnation two thousand years ago. Something that big we should celebrate for eight days!

Anyway, the number eight is just about all that the traditional Octave and Calvary share in common because the film moves about as far from celebration and joy as is possible. Calvary is a slice-of-life drama set in a town in which almost every citizen is despicable. I say almost because—in a counter-cultural twist that is mind-boggling for me—one of the two decent characters in the film is Father James Lavelle, a priest played brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson. (The other, a French woman who is a heart-breakingly endearing character, is from out of town.)

The townspeople are portrayed through superb performances, each actor playing an oddball with serious moral deficiencies. There is a police chief, who has a gay lover and points guns at people for fun; a suicidal daughter with attitude; a wealthy retired investment banker, who cynically pees on a priceless painting he owns; a butcher, who is perfectly happy to let his wife’s adultery continue because he is glad to be rid of her; and on and on and on. If there is one thing all of these characters share in common, it is a personal and social nastiness that makes them sardonically dig at the priest over and over again in every interaction in the film.

All of these characters are in need of forgiveness, and none of them seek it. The police chief mocks the priest with his lifestyle and his belief in power. The daughter, who is his own, loves him but resists his attempts to get her to talk about her suicide attempt and, in a remarkable scene when he is sitting in the confessional and she in the place of the penitent, mocks Christ by calling him suicidal. The cynical investment banker cannot let go of spitting on the church for being so greedy, and derides the priest for being part of such a corrupt institution. The butcher, his wife, and her lover all tell the priest to get lost when he tries to help all three of them, because the love-making has turned violent (she’s been beaten up, but it is never quite clear by which man).

What does the priest do in all these situations? Like Jesus, it seems to me, he simply continues to love and seek to serve the people of the town, regardless. The only one for whom he ever really has harsh, condemnatory words is his fellow priest, again like Jesus with the Pharisees. The movie is a study in the responsibility of all of us to treat those who despise us with love and prayer (Matthew 5:43-46), and Father Lavelle does this consistently. He takes the pain and the suffering each of these broken souls experiences, and he internalizes it, not without some suffering of his own, since he is human after all.

But when his church is burned down, when his dog is slaughtered mercilessly, and when his own life is threatened, he simply remains faithful to his tasks of tending the flock, whether it be in the church, at their places of work, in their homes or in the pub. He pays dearly for his love; though he has been personally self-sacrificial throughout the film, he is willing to die—if it takes that—to help his wounded sheep.

Calvary may not be a perfect film, especially in its theology, but it is at worst, a study of a character so worth emulating that the movie ought to be high on everyone’s list to watch. Too much of the meaning of the film seems to be lodged in a thinly veiled religious humanism, though I could be argued out of that, since the priest is often seen praying before a crucifix, and the chief element in the marketing of the film is an empty cross. I’ll leave you to see it, evaluate the striking image at the very end of the movie, and meditate on what it means to forgive.

Locke and the Benefit of Patience

Drew Trotter


The strongest of all warriors are these two: Time and Patience.  - Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)

 I have never had much patience. When a deadline looms, even an unimportant one, I grow even more impatient than usual, stalking about, snapping at those I love. When I feel that someone is wasting my time, I am driven to distraction. Being an equal opportunity employer, I sometimes get thoroughly angry with myself, when I forget where I’ve left my keys, for example (not my phone; at least I can call it), or where I put down that item I just had in my hands a few moments ago.

I admit it’s usually about insignificant things that I lose my temper—interruptions, repetitious questions, stumbling over something left on the floor. When the circumstance is important and the pressure is on, when the stakes are high—then I focus and try to bend all my energy to solving the problem at hand. But if impatience of another kind—that born of nervousness or fear—enters in during the crisis, then the mind becomes cloudy, and I lose the ability to think clearly and well. In those times, all can easily be lost.

One of my favorite movies of this year has a lot to say about patience and the benefit it brings to making good decisions. Steven Knight’s Locke is radically different from most movies, especially in its essential formal premise: almost the entire “action” of the movie takes place inside an automobile going from Birmingham, England to London. And further: there is only one person in the car, the rapidly rising star, Tom Hardy, playing the only visible character in the film, Ivan Locke. The film’s story is revealed completely from Locke’s phone conversations with a variety of people over the course of his journey.

Many of Locke’s conversations reveal his dependence on reason and his extraordinary patience, as he tries to solve problems at work and at home, but one of them, early on, particularly sticks out as an example of how he has been able to heed the advice of Kipling to “keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs”. Locke is on the motorway at night, driving to London from Birmingham because a woman named Bethan with whom he has had a liaison is now about to give birth to their child. (We learn this very early, so this is not really a spoiler.) The classic case of a true one–night stand: Locke did not know the woman before, and he has had very little contact since the tryst. But now she is on the phone, wailing about the pain, complaining about the windows being open, not understanding his simple question of whether or not there is some sort of mechanism by which she can summon the nurses. As her questions become more and more personal (“Does your wife even know that I’m having your baby?”), Bethan becomes more and more distraught, but Ivan remains calm, cool, and collected. Repeatedly he tells her the traffic is OK, that he will be there.

Then she asks the question: “Do you love me?” Locke doesn’t get angry with her. Gently, but firmly he says, “That’s a question you are asking probably because of the pain or something. How could I love you?” Her response is to hang up.

Locke appears to have lost that round, but in fact he hasn’t. His calm, reasoned answer may have hurt Bethan initially, but by the end of the film, the truth has been able to have its place in the relationship and brings them both to a better understanding of each other. Later, Locke reaffirms his answer to her question: “How could I love you? I hardly know you. We’ve not spent any real time together. How could I love you?”

Knight has made clear that the name of his chief character is a nod to the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Locke is sometimes called the “Father of Classical Liberalism”. His An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is still a staple of philosophical studies, and his view that human beings develop by experience from the tabula rasa of birth until the grave is the rock upon which much Enlightenment philosophy is built. Reason plays such an important role in Locke’s view of experience, that he could even say it leads us to the knowledge of “a certain and evident truth:” the existence of God.

But we don’t have to buy all of John Locke’s philosophy in order to believe that patient, reasonable thought is the surest way to benefit others and ourselves. Perhaps I’m stating a truism that is so obvious it is uninteresting, but in this age where speed, “passion,” and bluff are so much a part of life, I’m not so sure. Even those of us who believe in composed reflection, sometimes stray from it because of our anger. We shouldn’t. We’re not helping anyone when we do.

Hope: Small and Large

Drew Trotter

True-Detective-Recap-Video-and-Review-Season-Finale-Form-and-Void If you have not seen the Emmy-winning HBO series True Detective, it would be impossible to bring you up to speed on who the characters are who engage in a final dialogue as they are leaving the hospital at the end of the series. Suffice it to say that the principal character, Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, has articulated a dark view of the world throughout the eight episodes. He and his foil, Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, regularly engage in discussions in their car (they begin as police detectives and eventually end as PIs), which invariably end in a despairing take on whatever the subject might be.

All this changes in the last scene, when Cohle is fleeing the hospital in his patient’s gown. After a moving discussion of a vision Cohle had while he was in a coma, he returns to a theme the series often centers on—the theme of story. Cohle says he now believes all stories are just one story: Light versus Dark. Hart looks up at the sky and says, “…it appears to me ‘dark’ has a lot more territory.” Cohle agrees with him.

After a moment’s reflection, though, Cohle changes his mind:

Cohle: “You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.”

Hart: “How’s that?”

Cohle: “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”

The camera then tilts up to a pitch-black sky in which stars begin to appear as the music comes up and the series ends.

There are many appeals to Genesis 1 in this dialogue; the episode is even entitled “Form and Void”. But one doesn’t have to look far to find the most important thing about this final statement. It is the sea-change in Rust Cohle from despair to hope, and it is as encouraging an ending to a story as I have seen in film or television in a long time. Cohle’s statement of hope is a big one. One feels a strength and an optimism about life, when this man who has endured so much and has been so self-destructive ends his story so optimistically. I didn’t know whether to shout or cry when I watched the episode the first time.

Contrast that with the way Marilynne Robinson ends her quiet novel, Gilead. The novel consists of its main character, John Ames, writing a memoir for his young son to read when he grows up and Ames is gone. Ames is a pastor in the small and dying town of Gilead, Iowa, and the portrait drawn by Robinson is of a man who is both scholarly and caring, but often despairing of the worth of his life and ministry.

Bleak as Ames’s vision is at times, Robinson includes this in his last ruminations: “This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope.” Ames then affirms his love for the town and thinks of his own burial as a “last wild gesture of love,” promising to pray for his son that he will grow up “a brave man in a brave country” and, in his characteristically understated way, that he will “find a way to be useful.” Ames closes his memoir (and Robinson her novel) with the poignant, “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”

Rust Cohle’s hope is a large one, that in all the universe, the light is winning. John Ames’s hope is a small, localized hope—a desire that his son will “find a way to be useful.” Don’t we need both in our lives? Doesn’t God provide both?

On Laughter

Drew Trotter

Robin WilliamsI was saddened like most of the world, when I heard of Robin Williams's death. I was sad not only because he was gone, and I would never be delighted anew by his acting or his comedy or even his smile, but also because of the way he died. To take one’s own life is such an admission of hopelessness. It was hard to take.

Since I write and speak a lot about films, I often think about the various participants in the filmmaking process, and beyond film to the entertainment business in general. It always bothers me when someone from that industry dies. Like their lives, their deaths are so public. They sought fame by being in the film business; I get that, but the point is that their particular job meant that they became a part of our lives, too.

They came into our living rooms and made us laugh or made us weep or entertained us in another of the thousand ways they were so skilled to do, but we chose to see and hear what they did. We are the ones who let them into our lives, often paying money to get them there. And now they are gone.

The week Robin Williams died, Lauren Bacall died, too. That week, Robin Williams was on the cover of every entertainment magazine in the country, and Lauren Bacall wasn’t on any of them. He was even on TIME magazine’s vaunted cover and probably a lot of other covers I didn’t see. Why Williams and not Bacall?

The answer is not obvious. Of course she died a “natural” death, while he died with years left, and that is a tragedy we all mourn more fully for one who still “has something to contribute.” But Williams wasn’t that young; other, much younger, entertainers who have died by their own hand have not been mourned as widely.

While Bacall was a great actress and appeared in many great films, her time with us was largely past, but so was his. He had not been the lead in a successful movie in years, and who knows when he was last on a late night TV show. It was rumored that he was doing another stint as Teddy Roosevelt in the next Night at the Museum sequel because he needed the money.

I think the answer is that he was a comedian, perhaps the best that ever lived, and he made us laugh. Lauren Bacall enthralled us, but everyone knows that happiness is what we live for, and Robin Williams could make us happy. No matter the circumstances, no matter how sad we were, no matter how bored, no matter how despondent, we only had to put on Mrs. Doubtfire or catch a glimpse of an old Mork and Mindy episode, and we were howling in minutes. Yeah, Robin Williams could make us laugh, and nothing could be more important than that, could it?

We so worship feeling good, we simply don’t know how to handle it, when one who brings so much laughter departs this life the way Robin Williams did.


Drew Trotter

4795472_20130118024635 "Joe"? "Just call me Joe"? As if you were one of those stupid 22-year old girls with no last name? "Hi, I'm Kimberly!" "Hi, I'm Janice!" Don't they know you're supposed to have a last name? It's like they're an entire generation of cocktail waitresses.    ~ You've Got Mail by Nora Ephron

I consider myself a practical man, and I know that God knows everyone’s name and that I don’t. I even know that I have forgotten, and will forget, the vast majority of names of the people to whom I have been, and will be, introduced in my life.

That does not change the fact that I am saddened, and even a little offended, every time I meet someone who only gives me their first name. I know they are trying to be nice to me. In my old age especially, they are trying not to load me down with too much information, wanting to help me remember their name so I won’t be embarrassed later in the conversation, when I can’t remember it. I know all that. I get it.

What is lost in that bargain, though, is something of what an “introduction” is supposed to be. The word comes from two Latin words, which, etymologically mean “to lead one inside”, i.e. to bring someone into a place from outside the place they presently occupy. If we pursue that idea to its fullest, an introduction takes the person to whom we are “introducing” ourselves by the hand, leading them into our life, into our house.

When you tell me you are “Clem” and don’t tell me you are “Clem Kadiddlehopper,” you are telling me one of several possible things. The kindest is that you really are open to me as a person, and you are opening yourself up to me as one, too. We are immediately on a “first-name basis”. You are not putting any boundaries on our conversation; you have not pre-judged me or what friendship we might develop. You actually are “introducing” me into your life.

I am sure in the vast majority of cases, this is what is meant by Christian-name-only introductions. But lurking in every introduction of that type, I believe, is a certain distancing, rather than embracing. Perhaps a quick, first-name introduction is part of our modern penchant to get to the point as rapidly as possible. Perhaps it has something to do with our distaste for formality, and the perception that stating the last name is to distance oneself from the other.

I believe a first-name-only introduction performs just the opposite. I believe it says to the other: “I don’t want you to know me too well, to know my history, my family. I just want you to put me in a nice, safe, generic group of Georges or Marys, all undifferentiated, all combined in one great human soup. Please stand back; I don’t want you to get to know me too ‘up close and personal.’”

Or it’s saying something worse. It’s saying, “I am nothing more than a generic, existential George or Mary. I have no past, no future. I am simply me, and I am nothing. Pay no attention to me, and, please, forget me as soon as we separate from one another.” None of us wish to go down that path with anyone.

Please, at least when you meet me for the first time, let me know your full name. We’ll get to a real first-name basis a lot more easily if you do.

The Voice: Faith is by Hearing, Not Seeing

Drew Trotter

The-Voice2 I have never watched the music competition The Voice, though my favorite would always be whoever Usher coaches, since I had the privilege of knowing his grandmother, a dear Christian friend whom we all miss. Such is the extent of my musical knowledge and my interest in musical competitions. The only way I would root for anyone other than Usher’s protege on the show would be if Bob Dylan was one of the other coach’s contestants. I don’t think that likely.

But I am intrigued by the title of the show and of its original set-up. Apparently, the coaches are all seated with their backs to the contestants and vote to take on one of the acts purely on the basis of hearing them sing. Interesting.

“Seeing is believing”has become an oft repeated idiom derived apparently from the story near the end of the Gospel of John in which the Apostle Thomas, not present when Jesus first appeared to the disciples in the upper room, declared that he would never believe unless he saw the nail print in Jesus’ hand and could thrust his own hand into Jesus’ side (where the Roman soldier had pierced Him with a spear while He was being crucified). Jesus graciously accommodated Thomas later, but mildly rebuked him, too, by stating that he believed because he saw, but blessed are those, who, not seeing, still believe (John 20:29).

I don’t think the apologetic concerns behind the phrase “seeing is believing”are generally legitimate. Yes, Mary encouraged Peter and John to come see the empty tomb for themselves, and they came, saw and believed. But they went right back and locked the doors for fear of the Jews. It wasn’t until He spoke Mary’s name in the garden and declared“Peace be unto you”to the disciples in the upper room that they were changed forever.

Gather together all the evidence you can, marshal all the arguments for and against, study them, analyze them. We need such things to understand what it is we have already believed. But faith only comes by hearing the Voice sing. And when you have heard the Voice sing your name, there is no turning back.

Seeing into the Life of Things, Perspective and "The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper"

Drew Trotter

Untitled While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.                                              -  William Wordsworth

I’ll never forget the feelings I had the first time I saw Salvador Dali’s “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper”in the stair well of the West Wing of the National Gallery. Replete with my advanced degrees in theology and clear in my worked out apologetics, I, like many others, castigated it for its arrogant docetism, its sarcastic orderliness, its in-your-face anti-intellectualism. There was Jesus with a see-through body, the groveling disciples all bowed in perfect symmetry, the Father with no head. What a horror. What a travesty of the true beauty of the incarnation.

The painting was criticized by as widely disparate authors as Francis Schaeffer and Paul Tillich. Schaeffer accused it of providing a “mystical meaning for life…, a vault into”—in classic Schaefferian language—“an area of nonreason to give [Dali] the hope of meaning”. Tillich, more prosaically, called it “simply junk” in part because of its portrayal of Jesus as a “sentimental but very good athlete on an American baseball team” and a technique that was “a beautifying naturalism of the worst kind” (Michael Novak, “Misunderstood Masterpiece", America).

Dali himself, having embraced Catholicism in 1949 and broken completely philosophically with the Surrealists, apparently felt that he was simply portraying the Lord’s supper—emphatically not the Last Supper—as the miraculous thing that it is: a sacrament, a mysterious meeting of the transcendent God with every day mortals. The transparent Christ demonstrates the “real presence”, though unseen, of the Son of God. The headless Father fulfills the Scripture “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20, ESV).

So now I view the painting differently, but not really. I’m afraid most who see this painting will not have any idea of the painter’s intention. They will simply see a headless God, and think, “Yep. This is a pretty good portrayal of the Christianity I know—ignorant and slavishly medieval.”They will see the blue sky where the Father’s “heart”would be and think, “Just like I think. The church is just a bunch of cold-hearted creeps with no compassion for anyone not like them.” And they’ll see an irrelevant Christ, blond-haired and blue eyed, hand cocked like a faux pistol, and think, “This surfer dude is pretty cool but, man, is he out of touch.”

The painting now has its own life, and that life has a hard time depicting the reality of the suffering, magisterial, triune God to those without eyes to see.

The Eye Made Quiet: Symmetry, Uniqueness and "The Last Supper"

Drew Trotter


While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.

~ William Wordsworth

I love the symmetry I find in life, and I love its representations. The jangled, disordered musings of Jackson Pollock for all their beauty and interesting “patterns” have never been mine. Give me Leonardo da Vinci and “The Last Supper” every time.

And yet, and yet. My love for symmetry cries out for verification. In a world where uniqueness dominates, how can I so highly value the conformity of symmetry? Even God in His majestic creative power has built a diversity into the world that regularly surprises us, breaks our molds, our patterns. Am I opposing our King to hold balance and reflection in such high regard?

Of course the question is silly. God has built beautiful, orderly patterns into everything around us without violating the principle of the uniqueness of beauty. The sun comes up with such regularity we can time and explain the sunrise in staggering detail. And of course such regularities are, like Heraclitus noted long ago about the river, always the same and always changing. One gets both the diversity of unique beauty and the unity of regular science in every sunrise.

And so Leonardo’s masterpiece. Of course Jesus is dead center with six apostles to his left and six to his right. Despite what Dan Brown says, he points with the upturned left hand to the bread and with the downturned right to the cup. Even the apostles are grouped in threes, with Peter, Judas and John—the central characters perhaps in the apostles’ side of the drama, which is drawn from John 13:21ff.—forming the threesome to Jesus’ right. Of course the four panels to the left and right of the group, the three windows in the back, the paneled ceiling, the table with its pairs of legs intersecting the lines on the floor with perfect harmony, give the picture an atmosphere that is remarkably stable and symmetrical in every detail.

And yet, there is Peter’s knife—presumably the one with which he cuts off Malchus’s ear (John 18:10)—clearly in his hand, but being held at an awkward angle, an instrument of disorder. For its use, he will be rebuked by the Master. And there is Judas’s bag of money, clutched tightly in his right hand, while with his left he reaches for the bread of life, however tentatively. Woe to the world for stumbling blocks!

How these details, so small and insignificant in the painting as a whole, give color and life to it! But how meaningless they would be, if not in the context of the order Leonardo has given us, where things do not fall apart and the center does hold.

Gnostic Noah

Drew Trotter

noah Should we care that Darren Aronofsky depended on gnostic texts for much of his story?

I loved Noah the first time I saw it. I still love Noah, even after reading, and agreeing with, the in-depth analysis by several writers, showing that much of the detail of the film comes from the Kabbalah and other ancient gnostic and pre-gnostic sources.

Perhaps the most complete, and certainly the most sarcastic, compilation of elements in the movie that demonstrate its Gnosticism is by a blogger named Brian Mattson. Check out his screed here, if you’re interested. Mattson draws attention to the luminescent Adam and Eve, the prominence of the snake, the names of the fallen angels and many other details that come out of sources like 1 Enoch, but he and some of his followers go on to blast “Christian leaders” for the “scandal” of endorsing the film, proclaiming “shame on everyone who bought it”.

With my background in Biblical studies, I recognized many of those references, when I saw the movie, but here’s why I don’t particularly care that Aronofsky has given us a largely gnostic Noah: almost everyone watching the film, who could be hurt by buying into an heretical, gnostic vision of the flood narrative, is going to interpret the movie through their own, orthodox grid and for the most part not be affected by his slant on the story.

Don’t get me wrong. Gnosticism is as much a heresy today as it was in the 2nd century, and it is a lie. But Gnosticism doesn’t present a danger unless it is explained in detail and persuasively advocated as a system of belief in contrast to the teaching of Scripture. Showing people a movie with gnostic elements hardly accomplishes that.

Mattson’s confusion is with the nature of communication through film. Film does not teach doctrine per se. Yes, a movie can demonstrate the views of a filmmaker, if he or she is trying to propound those views through the movie’s narrative (which Aronofsky has explicitly denied any desire of doing in Noah,by the way). But those views will of necessity be general and vague; art does not have the capacity to carry on detailed conversation, much less instruction in the subtleties of theology.

That’s why the propositions of theological reflection are a good thing. Movies might illustrate some of those propositions, but cannot argue for or against them, and so can’t persuade us for or against them either.

There is another, perhaps unique, reason why the Gnosticism of Noah simply won’t have any real negative effect on Christian viewers, while it can have a very positive effect of entertaining them and making them think. The reason is that unless viewers are coming from a gnostic belief already, they are not going to recognize the Gnosticism anyway, and therefore it can’t have any ill effect on them.

An illustration of this principle is the use of the name “The Creator” for God in the movie. Mattson makes much of the lower, gnostic demi-urge, called “The Creator” in the literature, who is an evil god for creating matter in the first place. Certainly, Aronofsky picked this name up from his sources and thought it was a great name to get around the vague and uninteresting word “God”, so he used it.

But what are Christians going to hear, when they hear the words “The Creator”? Will images of angry, ignorant, gnostic gods leap into their minds, as they do when actual Gnostics hear them?

No. “The Creator” merely refers to the God they know from Genesis and their tradition’s interpretation of it. Now, that may be bad enough, but it’s not gnostic indoctrination.

Why Didn't I See It the First Time?

Drew Trotter


The first time—in fact the first two times—I watched 12 Years a Slave in preparation for my annual lecture on the Academy award nominees for best picture, I really saw nothing about the faith of the slaves in the picture. But in fact, in one crucial scene near the end of the movie, Solomon Northup, the main character in the movie, has a “conversion” of sorts, when he is at the funeral of a fellow slave. While the slaves are singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll”, Northup is so despondent and has faced so many disappointments in his attempts to get free that he at first is silent, clearly refusing to sing. But the words seem to work on him, and eventually he joins in, tentatively at first but in the end with great gusto. In addition, at several other times in the film, the slaves sing spirituals while working in the fields.

How could I have not seen this? Why, in the first version of my lecture, did I accuse the filmmakers of an historical revisionism, which completely avoided the faith of the slaves in the antebellum South?

The answer of course lies to some degree in my inattentiveness, but I do not believe that tells the full picture. The tenor of the movie so strongly depicts the Christian faith being used as an oppressive tool in the hands of the Masters, that it was impossible for me to see any positive reference to the faith. Three times in the film, there are extended Sunday morning “services” in which the slave owners preach sermons to their combined household of family and slaves. The sermons are biblically-based, and in one case directly related to using the Scriptures out of context to justify their oppression. The most evil character in the film, Master Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender is the greatest offender.

A second problem in my estimation is this: the filmmakers don’t seem to consider the faith carefully or have much time for it. This comes out clearly in a comparison of the film with Northup’s memoir on which the film is based. A number of times in the memoir, Northup says kind things about some of the slaveholders he knew, but none of these comments are found in the film. Even more important, in the film his journey is one that is portrayed humanistically emphasizing his own perseverance and courage and never his dependence upon, and gratitude for, the providence of God, a theme that is clear in the memoir. Even in the film’s version of Northup’s resurrection from despair by joining in the singing of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (a scene that is not in his memoir at all), the slave looks to be simply gathering up his courage for action, not acknowledging his Source for help in a time of trouble.

The point is this: the actual content of a message is a mixture of philosophical, linguistic and historical data set into a particular context and portrayed a certain way. That context and portrayal are crucial to how a message will be perceived, and this is particularly true in a medium like film, which uses such powerful musical, visual, and verbal tools. The bravery of the slaves in the actual 1840’s was due in large part to their dependence on a living and true God; when that bravery is portrayed in terms of self-reliance, the message becomes clouded and confused.

And the Oscar goes to...

Drew Trotter

20 oscars

Every year I say I’m not going to watch the Oscars. The show goes on too long, the speeches are often sadly inarticulate, and the music, jokes, and “other” that swirls around the presentations range from the insipid to the downright stupid. Nevertheless, on March 2nd there I was again, parked in front of my TV, settling in for the evening.

This year I was interested in one award. I wasn’t hoping my favorite actor would win, nor was I watching to see who would win best director. Almost all the awards seemed a lock before the proceedings began. But the biggie, the Oscar for best picture, seemed undetermined. Who would win that one was anyone’s guess, so I wanted to see the action. I wanted to feel the tension. Like a football game between evenly matched teams, I knew that last play was going to be the most exciting of the evening. I was going to be there for it.

But then, when my favorite, Gravity, lost, I wondered why I had cared so much. In fact why do I (and you) care so much who wins anything? If your team loses, aren’t they going to play next week? If your movie loses, isn’t it still going to be watched, discussed, enjoyed? And we all know that after the victory or defeat of our favorite there’s always next season, and the next, and we will go through it all over again.

In the superb final episode of HBO’s True Detective, the generally disconsolate Rust says, “Look, as sentient meat, however illusory our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgments; everybody judges all the time. Now, you got a problem with that, you're living wrong.”

So I’ll go on judging which movie I believe should win the Academy Award for best picture, and I’ll enjoy it. I’ll even hope that from time to time the Academy will agree with me.