Posts Tagged Christmas
Ok, so last night I watched this year’s Superman movie by Zack Snyder. I recognised the high-contrast desaturated look of the movie from 300, and it was mostly a big techno-romp, with a little bit of classy acting. Henry Cavill did ok in a title role that required some angst as well as a lot of heavy hitting. I liked him better when he was wearing the beard. Russell Crowe was pretty impassive as superman’s father, Jor-el; I felt he could have been played by a computer simulacrum – which is what he was supposed to be playing a lot of the time, so was that good acting or not? Michael Shannon as the supervillain was sufficiently nasty, while actually managing to look like a man with integrity according to his own lights. It was great to see Laurence Fishburn doing a sterling job – even in such a cramped role. Amy Adams as Lois Lane was competent in a forgettable role. For my money the big awards should go to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Superman’s adoptive parents. Decent script-writing and understated acting made for some touching scenes as they worked out their relationships with a distressed child. And it was those relationships that gave the action movie a beating heart.
*Spoiler Alert* Don’t read the following if you don’t want to find out what happens in the movie:
Driving the big fisti-cuff/ let’s knock each other through buildings/ throw bombs at one another/ rip planets apart conflict is the decision facing superman as he has to choose between two futures; that offered by his fellow Kryptonians (the exiled leaders of a failed military coup on their now-destroyed home planet) to use the earth (and Superman’s own genetic material) as the foundation for renewing the Kryptonian race – at the expense of our entire planetary ecology. Or to fight against his own kind in defence of the technologically and physically overmatched humans. The flash-backs through his childhood and emergence into adulthood through his adoptive father’s death provide a coherent and believable set of motivations for Superman to reject the cruelty of the Kryptonians in favour of those who have given him shelter, understanding, wisdom, and love. Cool. There is very little drama in this decision-making. We know from the outset that he’s on our side; that one of his major motivations is to protect others. That character development almost manages to make up for the absurdities of superman’s powers (it looks like they tried to give his flying some basis in physics – but utterly failed, sorry) and the continued referencing of 9/11, a bit of LotR (Gandalf leaping from Saruman’s tower onto an eagle), a MASSIVE borrowing from the matrix as machines pluck pods of babies grown in an artificial environment, and even some Harry Potter (a blogger as the combination of Rita Skeeter and the Quibbler). As my eldest son said, “Don’t pick at it, it makes it worse!” Let it pass – those are minor issues.
The big issue for me is the central conflict for Superman; which isn’t actually a choice between Kryptonian planetary destruction over defending the helpless little humans, but rather the question does he positively accept his super-powers and use them to make a difference, or does he stay in hiding and lay low, so that humans won’t reject him out of fear of his differences? Essentially, it’s the reluctant messiah complex. And it’s framed as such. In the early moments of the movie, Jor-el predicts that humans would see his infant son ‘as a god’. At the turning point of the movie, immediately before he offers himself to the invaders as a ransom for the people of earth, Clark Kent seeks counsel from a young priest in a church. As they talk, you can see over his shoulder a stained glass image of Christ kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane, praying “If it is possible let this cup pass me by – but not my will, yours be done.” The obvious happens; Clark Kent puts on the cape, becomes Superman, and gives himself up to the evil General Zod. He even submits to a sort of death; losing his superpowers on their spacecraft, and then hallucinating sinking into a landscape of skulls. But he inevitably recovers, and (with some help from his ghostly Father) knocks the baddies out of existence (eventually).
So what we have here is a clearly contrived Superman-as-Jesus parallel. I guess it helped the movie to sell well in an America where Jesus is supposed to be something of a military crusader and his anti-violence message is derided and underplayed. This is the key discontinuity at the heart of this movie – and perhaps at the heart of modern culture. We want a messiah; someone to protect us from the evils that we have brought upon ourselves (no matter how much we protest that they are ‘aliens’ from ‘out there’ – we created our own enemies!) But we want that messiah to be just like us. Mark Driscoll, in the article linked above, has a point; the Bible is not a comfortable document for modern peace-makers. But nor is it a comfortable document for modern war-mongers. And at the heart of the Christian scriptures is a Jesus who most emphatically did not use violence or force against his enemies; instead he prayed for their forgiveness. He sought their reconciliation. He gave himself up to death (real death, not just some hallucination of it) on their behalf. Driscoll reads the pages of Revelation as if he were one of the oppressed minority churches of Asia to whom that book was written, and who were being assured – through powerful visual metaphors – that they are on the winning side, that they will overcome evil “by the word of their testimony and by the blood of the lamb“!!! Not by boxing their enemies through buildings and then breaking their necks. For someone living comfortably within the most militaristic society in history, that’s just got to be a bad idea. Driscoll is acting as an apologist for the modern incarnation of Revelation’s Beast.
Superman is the messiah as we want him; a messiah who conforms to our violence-fetish culture. He overcomes evil through bravery, yes. But mostly, just because he’s stronger and smarter than the other guy. And actually, that’s just a little bit unbelievable. What Christmas was all about was God becoming flesh, not steel. God joining us in our suffering, so that we can join him in his perfection. If I had to choose between messiahs, I know I’d be tempted to pick superman, oh yes! But I hope I would choose Jesus, instead. Because beating ourselves up all the time doesn’t actually work. We need grace and forgiveness, not pyrotechnics. Jesus Christ, not Clark Kent.
I wanna be Super-Christian!
I want to get up before dawn every morning without fail
and spend three hours in prayer and meditation!
I want to fast twice a week
without thinking once about my waist-line.
I want to be able to perform miracles of healing
and cast out demons,
and diagnose short legs and roots of bitterness
with a single glance of my compassionate eyes,
and then, with a mere gesture or a whispered word,
set people free from whatever it is that binds them.
I want to be so filled with faith that I never have a single doubt
and I never have to work again,
because all my needs are meet by God.
I want to be so free from materialism that I own nothing,
but can still give away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
I want people to immediately think of me
when they’re asked what a great Christian looks like.
And I want to be so immensely humble
that I’m never aware of this mass adulation.
I want to be so good at evangelism
that I just have to walk into a room for everyone to be instantly converted.
I want to be able to read and remember a book of the Bible a day
and actually understand everything I read.
And everything I write
(or at least, everything my researchers write in my name)
becomes an instant best-seller.
And not just in Christian bookshops either.
I want this direct line to God,
so that I always know exactly what He wants me to do
and he always knows exactly what I want Him to do.
And he does it.
Because I’m such a fantastic Christian.
I wanna be Super Christian.
What a pity I’m just me.
And the Bible says this:
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
2 And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.
3 If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5 or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love. 
According to the Bible, nothing else really matters apart from love.
Only love is eternal.
Hope and faith are right up there,
but hope is all about the future
and one day that future will arrive and we will need hope no more.
And faith is our trust in the one who we do not now see,
but one day we will see him face to face
and our faith will be taken up into adoration.
Faith and hope will one day be redundant,
love is eternal.
When Paul wrote those words to the Corinthians,
he was writing to a church where people saw themselves as super-Christians.
Earlier in this letter he said he was writing to them,
“so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.
7 For who sees anything different in you?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?
8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!
Quite apart from us you have become kings!
Indeed, I wish that you had become kings,
so that we might be kings with you!
Paul can be really sarcastic when he wants to be.
To this church full of puffed-up people
who thought that the goal of Christianity is to become super-spiritual
he prescribes a radical change of direction.
It’s not about you, he writes, it’s about other people.
It doesn’t matter if you can speak in tongues or prophecy or move mountains;
what matters is how much you love.
It’s important to anchor Sunday morning sermon thoughts in reality,
so having your own personal examples of what Godly love looks like
is far better than having a few vague words from the pulpit.
So can we just pause for a few minutes
and talk amongst yourselves at your tables.
Ask each other this question:
“Who do I know
or what have I seen
that has shown me what real love is?
1 Corinthians 13 type love?”
Anybody want to share the example of Love they thought of?
Of course, Jesus is the greatest single example of love that we know of.
Paul points us towards him when he wrote to the Philippians:
2 If then there is any encouragement in Christ,
any consolation from love,
any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
2 make my joy complete:
be of the same mind, having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
(and here’s where he really begins to warm up…)
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
4 Let each of you look not to your own interests,
but to the interests of others.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
This passage is one of the most important Christmas passages in the Bible,
because it talks about Jesus’ birth in the same breath as Jesus’ death,
and it shows us that the birth, no less than the death,
was an act of humility and obedience and love on Jesus’ part.
By entering into creation with us;
by becoming one with the world he made
Jesus healed the division between creator and creation.
In his body He is the bridge between heaven and earth.
And in his embrace of creation,
his holding and enfolding of sinful humanity into the inner life of the Trinity,
he didn’t stop at the manger
but continued to the cross and the grave.
Manger scenes tend to be prettily painted and very sweet.
I’ve done that myself.
The danger is that we miss the amazing indecency of what actually happened!
There was the out-of-wedlock conception,
There was the long journey in the final days of pregnancy,
There was the inability to find a decent room,
and the agony of birth – amongst animals!
There was the use of a feed-trough as a cradle.
There was a frightened and jealous king
who slaughtered an entire village of baby boys,
and there was a frantic flight by night from the danger zone
and being a refugee in a foreign land.
Jesus birth wasn’t especially pretty or lovely.
It wasn’t even a standard first century birth;
It was awful.
It was a pointer to the death that was to follow.
When God chose to close the gap between us,
he didn’t just come to the good things and the good people;
he came to the lowest of the low – shepherds and tax-gatherers.
Foreign astrologers and village no-bodies.
And in becoming human, Jesus embraced sin, and pain, and sickness
– and death.
Even death on a cross.
It is because God has entered into the very worst of human evil
and has destroyed it from the inside
that we have hope today.
Jesus has kicked down the doors of death
and thrown open the gates of the grave.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Christmas is the beginning of Easter
and Easter is the completion of Christmas.
The two holidays cannot be understood apart from one another.
This has obvious implications for us:
This means that Christmas is not all about getting stuff
but is all about giving to people.
Giving hope and forgiveness.
Giving respect, and care and attention and compassion;
those things that mean so much more than stocking-fillers
and make such an amazing difference in the lives of lost individuals.
Please turn again to those around you, or simply sit and ponder,
and ask yourselves:
“what can I do this Christmas that will make a difference for someone else?”
(Close in prayer)