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Spiritual Themes in Interstellar

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Interstellar is an entertaining, visually stunning film driven by deeply personal themes. The film is set in the near future after freak dust storms have killed millions of people on Earth and food has become a precious commodity. Cooper, a former NASA pilot, has become a farmer out of necessity. He has two children, Tom and Murph. Cooper’s wife has passed and his father-in-law, Donald, also lives with them.

After a series of unexplained events (spoiler alert), Cooper finds a secret NASA facility. He discovers that NASA has a plan to save the earth from eventual destruction, but it would require him to pilot a spaceship through a wormhole to a different galaxy with potential habitable planets. It also means that he would have to leave his family for an unspecified amount of time.

Cooper accepts the mission and makes the trip with a crew of scientists. The rest of the film focuses on the crew’s attempt to find an acceptable planet.

Intentional or not, many of the film’s themes rest squarely on the shoulders of Humanism. According to the Humanist philosophy, humans define their own existence and they are not dependent upon God for obtaining morality or for answering existential questions.  However, I would suggest that many themes in Interstellar cannot be fully understood without an understanding of God and who He is.

Spiritual Themes in Interstellar

1. We are Created to Love.

The driving force of Interstellar is Cooper’s love for his daughter, Murph, and he makes decisions based on his desire to be reunited with her. For example, he knows that every hour he spends on planets to determine their habitability will age people on Earth seven years, so he feels compelled to finish his mission quickly. Later, when he sees video messages from his children as adults, Cooper breaks down in tears, knowing that he has missed watching them grow up.

Why do we love? Because God first loved us (1 John. 4:19). Not only did God first demonstrate his love for us, but He also gave us the ability to love. The ability to love is partly what it means to be created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).

2. We are Created for Companionship.

The crew of the Endurance land on Dr. Mann’s planet and find him in suspended animation, where he has been for years. When Dr. Mann wakes up and sees another human being, he weeps with joy. He did not think he would ever see another human again. Likewise, when the crew members return to their ship and see their crewmate Romilly again, 23 years have passed. After all that time Romilly assumed they were all dead.

The need for companionship is profound. We were created with his need. God made a companion for Adam because, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Further, we are compelled to be with others because God intended for us to live in community. 1 Corinthians 12:27 says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

3. We are Created to Depend upon God.

Interstellar vividly illustrates the morality, intelligence, and creativity of man. An example of this is when Cooper figured out a way to communicate with his daughter through time. This also illustrates one of the greatest falsehoods in the film—that humans can become gods. Early on, Cooper interprets the settling of dust on Earth as geographic coordinates, and said that “they” gave him the message. “They” are defined as supernatural, even godlike beings. The question of who “they” are is answered when we ultimately understand that Cooper is “them.”

The fact that Cooper is able to achieve god-like status through his own self-sufficiency and ingenuity is the basis of Humanism. We don’t need God (and He doesn’t even exist) because we have the power and ability to do it all ourselves. In reality, we are nothing without God. Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

The film also alludes to the resurrection. NASA’s project is named Lazarus, and when Dr. Mann is revived, he exclaims, “You have literally raised me from the dead.” Unfortunately, this remark is brushed off, and the film never explores the theme of resurrection. Without God, a new life is not possible. Romans 6:4 says, “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” A new life is not something we can achieve by ourselves; it is realized only through God’s intervention in our lives.

Interstellar receives high marks for sheer entertainment value. However, the film contains plot holes that could have been explained through divine intervention, and there are long periods of exposition that could have been whittled down.

 

★★★☆☆

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Noah: Christian Film Review

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Noah, the film, has stirred controversy long before it was released. People complained that the director strayed too far from the biblical narrative and “hollywoodized” it. I intentionally did not read reviews because I wanted to watch the film and judge for myself.

I noticed that many crucial elements of the biblical narrative are included. Some of them are actually surprising considering that Noah is a big-budget film directed by an atheist. For example,

  • God created everything.
  • God hates sin.
  • God decided to obliterate humankind from the earth, except for one family.
  • God told Noah that the earth would be destroyed by water.
  • God told Noah to build a vessel to save himself, his family, and all the animals on the earth.
  • God wiped everyone and everything from the earth but saved Noah’s family and the animals.
  • God showed his love and mercy to the righteous.
  • God promised never again to destroy the earth with water.

The film got these things right. Paramount studio even added a disclaimer:

“While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”

So far so good? The film rates very high if one were watching it solely for pure entertainment value. The special effects and computer graphics of the ark, the storm, and the water are exceptional. The acting is also top-notch.

I did discover extra-biblical additions that are not found in the text. There were also many important facts from the biblical narrative that are not mentioned at all in the film. And, the producers certainly exercised creative license.

However, the film captivated me with its attention to spiritual metaphors. Below are three of the themes that I observed.

1. God’s Providence. Noah believes that the Creator has clearly revealed his will to him. He says, “The Creator chose me because he knew that I would complete the task.” And he unfalteringly accomplishes many things. However, Noah’s faith is based on his limited understanding of God’s providence. In the climax of the film he is faced with a paradox: he can follow God’s will but lose his loved ones or he can disobey God and save his family. At first, Noah’s faith convinces him that there is only one choice, but inwardly he struggles. After resolving the problem, Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter, tells him, “The choice was put in your hands for a reason.” Noah realizes that there is more than one way to discern God’s will.

This is a lesson for us today. Our initial assessment of God’s will for us may be incorrect. After listening we may realize that there is another choice. Who can fathom his providence with certainty? The apostle Paul said in Romans 11:33, “How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!”

2. God’s Mercy. The film naively suggests that created beings know what is best for themselves and that their decisions lead to personal fulfillment. For example, Noah’s choices bring about his redemption and The Watchers are restored by their decisions. But depending only on ourselves negates the power of God’s mercy. He was as active in Noah’s time as he is in modern times. God could have justly wiped out humankind from the face of the earth, but he didn’t. He chose to be merciful with a remnant of people. God is just; but he is also merciful.

Rather than viewing God as some ogre in the sky who delights in our misfortune, we need to recognize that he wants the best for us. He created us in his image and desires to bless us—not through our own volition—but voluntarily because of his great love for us.

3. God’s Sovereignty. The film accurately conveys that God sees the big picture but human beings do not possess this ability. Noah makes immature decisions; Ila resigns herself to be barren, and Ham is devastated that he cannot take a wife. At the time, these problems can seem insurmountable, but God is bigger than our human frailties. He is like an enormous weaver who is weaving an intricate rug. The colors, fabrics, and patterns represent our actions and lives. When we make a mistake, God does not give up on us, he simply weaves it into the pattern. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

The Good News is that God is sovereign over all creation but he cares intimately for each person on the earth. He heals our hurts, restores our hearts, and repairs our broken spirits.

 

Noah is far from a perfect film; but, it compelled me to revisit the biblical account. All the believers I have spoken with that have seen the film echoed this. Anything that drives us back to the Word is a good thing. My main regret is that I wished I had taken an unbelieving friend with me to get their reaction. It would be excellent fodder for spiritual engagement with unbelievers. Perhaps if I see it again…

If you are seeking a film based on a literal rendering of the Bible, you will not enjoy this film. However, if you are open to alternative interpretations of the text that initiate spiritual dialogue with your family and friends, you may benefit greatly from Noah.

 

Fair warning: the PG-13 rating is accurate. It is not a movie for young children.

★★★☆☆

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Spiritual Lessons From Disney’s Frozen

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Summary

The primary plot of Frozen surrounds two sisters, Anna and Elsa, who are best friends. Their parents are king and queen of Arendelle. Elsa, the older sister, has powers to create ice and snow out of nothing, and she uses her gift to entertain Anna. When the girls are children, Elsa accidentally injures Anna. Anna is healed, but loses her memory of the event and any recollection of her sister’s power. Elsa isolates herself from Anna to protect her sister from further physical harm.

(spoiler alert) The film fast forwards to Elsa’s coronation day as queen (Their parents are now deceased). Elsa all but ignores Anna which ignites an argument between the two girls. In the heat of the moment Elsa’s powers are unleashed causing their entire town to be covered in snow and ice. Embarrassed and disgraced, Elsa leaves Arendelle in self-imposed exile.

Anna decides to search for Elsa, with the help of Kristoff, a mountain man, and Olaf, a talking snowman. The sisters reunite, but then Elsa accidentally injures Anna again. This time, the ice penetrates her heart, leaving Anna cold and sick. Feeling bad again, Elsa chases them away. Kristoff takes Anna to a troll named Pabbie for advice on how she can be made well. Pabbie tells them that only an act of true love can melt her frozen heart. Anna decides to return to Arendelle so that her fiancée, Hans can heal her.

Meanwhile, a gang of men from Arendelle, led by Hans, track down Elsa and put her in prison back in town. Both sisters end up back in Arendelle. Anna finds Hans, but Hans refuses to help her. He tells Anna that he was only using her to become king, and then he locks her up.

Elsa escapes. Hans finds her and lunges toward her with a knife, but Anna, who has also escaped, blocks Hans. She succeeds, but at that point her heart completely freezes and turns her body into solid ice. Elsa hugs her sister, and her act of true love thaws Anna, restoring her back to health.

Spiritual Themes

Frozen is replete with spiritual themes, intentional or not. Following are three of the dominant ones.

1. Love. This is a strong theme in Frozen, but not in your typical, fairy tale fashion. Love is explored from various angles. Hans is portrayed as falling in love with Anna and they even announce their engagement. But we learn that Hans is only faking his love. We discover that his real motive is to marry Anna as a shortcut to become king. This twist teaches that love can be confusing, even hurtful at times.

Love is also presented as being sacrificial. Olaf, the perennial comedic relief in the story, gives Anna wise advice when he says of love, “It’s putting the needs of somebody else above your own.” Indeed, Anna sacrifices herself to save her sister in the climax of the film. This is even more meaningful since Elsa has ignored Anna for most of her life. The lesson is that true love does not depend on how others treat us.

Jesus demonstrated his love for us in the same manner. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). His love is not based on what others do for him, but his love is personified through personal sacrifice. Putting the needs of others above our own demonstrates true love. 

2.  Redemption. After hurting her sister as a child, Elsa struggles with feelings of shame and doubt. Her last shred of self-worth disappears when she accidentally almost destroys Arendelle with ice. Elsa leaves town vowing never to return. In the ultimate expression of identity loss, she sings, “My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around…the past is in the past…that perfect girl is gone.” Although she attempts to feel nothing, Elsa cannot help but break down in tears after Anna is frozen solid. Her decision to love at once delivers her own frozen heart and frees her to wholeheartedly love again. She is redeemed.

The lesson is that we must never give up. No matter how much we have been hurt in our lives or how badly we mess up we can love again, because we have redemption through Jesus. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Eph. 1:7). When we consciously allow Jesus to actively work in our lives, we will be freed from our past and our lives will be forever changed.

3. Reconciliation. After being estranged for at least half of their lives, Elsa and Anna are reconciled at the end of the film. It is worth noting that this reconciliation has a ripple effect—it thaws Arendelle from its frozen state and returns it to its intended, former splendor.

The film suggests at least two spiritual lessons concerning reconciliation. When we reconcile with our loved ones it has a contagious, beautifying effect on those around us. And, we were created to reconcile others to their intended glory.  “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Since we have been reconciled with God, our job is to share the Good News with others so that they can be restored from their “frozen” state to their former beauty.

Visually stunning, catchy songs and a compelling story.

★★★★★

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Christian Allegory in Man of Steel

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The Man of Steel is a reboot of the Superman story, albeit with innovative origin embellishments. The story opens with Lara, wife of Jor-El, giving birth to Kal-El on planet Krypton. The planet is on the verge of collapsing due to mining in its core, so Jor-El and Lara make the decision to jettison their child to safety before Krypton explodes. Meanwhile, General Zod is leading an insurgency against the government for allowing the planet to become unstable. He is apprehended and banished with his soldiers in the Phantom Zone before Krypton explodes. Kal-El lands safely on earth and is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent who name him Clark and raise him as their own son. Since the atmosphere and gravity on earth are vastly different than on Krypton, Clark develops extraordinary physical abilities and powers. As a man, he becomes a sojourner working from job to job in search of himself, all the while keeping his powers a secret. General Zod escapes from the Phantom Zone and tracks Clark to earth. He is convinced that Clark possesses the Codex, which contains the DNA of the Krypton people. So he issues an ultimatum to the inhabitants of earth: give him Clark or be killed. Clark responds by turning himself into the authorities. Ultimately, Clark, as Superman, and Zod fight to the finish. And, of course, Superman saves earth from extinction.

By now, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Man of Steel contains many Christian references. The trailers for the film alone make this abundantly clear. The Christian messages are explicit and intentional. In fact, Warner Brothers is marketing the film to faith-based groups—as they did with The Blind Side, The Notebook and The Book of Eli. Additionally, Warner Brothers hired a professor at Pepperdine University to write materials for Bible study groups on the Man of Steel Resource Site.  Free tickets for the film are even being sent to some church leaders.

Some of the Christian references in Man of Steel:

  • As Kal-El’s parents are preparing to send him to earth, Jor-El remarks, “He’ll be a god to them.”
  • When a young Clark rescues children from drowning in a bus accident, one mother exclaims, “This was an act of God!”
  • Jonathan Kent, Clark’s earthly father, tells Clark that when people find out about him everything will change—even their beliefs. This is a clear reference to people changing their beliefs when they hear about Jesus.
  • Before Clark decides to turn himself in he consults with a priest. The priest tells him, “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.”
  • Jor-El tells Clark that humans need “the light to show the way…For this reason I have sent you, my only son.” This is obviously a reference to Jesus in John 3:16.
  • Jor-El says that Clark is a bridge between humans and Krypton, which is an allegory for Christ being the mediator between humans and God (see 1 Timothy 2:5).
  • Before Clark becomes Superman, he works in harsh, arctic conditions, just as Jesus suffered in the wilderness before he began his ministry.
  • Clark is 33 when he sacrifices himself for the people of earth, the same age as Jesus when he sacrificed himself to save others.
  • Clark has two natures: son of Krypton and adopted son of earth, just as Jesus has two natures, son of God and son of man.
  • Clark heals Lois Lane; Jesus healed people.
  • When Clark becomes weak he becomes injured on his side, just as Jesus was pierced on his side.
  • As a child, Clark is rejected and bullied by his peers, just as Jesus was rejected by mankind (Isaiah 53:3).
  • Jor-El tells Clark that he can “save them all”, and immediately Clark flies away with his arms outstretched in the shape of a crucifix.
  • Clark came to earth to save humanity even though people did not deserve it, just as Jesus died for people while they were still sinners (Romans 5:8).

There are several Christian themes in Man of Steel:

  1. Sacrifice. Superman was willing to give his life as a ransom for many, just as Jesus did.
  2. Hope. The symbol on Superman’s outfit means hope, which he was sent to offer to people. Jesus is our hope (1 Peter 1:3).
  3. Redemption. Superman saves the world from destruction, just as Jesus saved us from self-destruction (Ephesians 1:7).
  4. Free will. Humans have the choice to accept or reject Superman, just as we have been given free will to accept or reject Jesus.

Man of Steel may or may not be an intentional allegory of Jesus. And as we know, all allegories break down at some point. Superman is not perfect nor is he the son of God. But he may serve as a testimony to the hope, power, and love of our Savior. And what is wrong with that?

Les Miserables: Film Review

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Les Miserables is a complex, transformative story of Jean Valjean and the people that intersect with him during his life. The film opens with Valjean in prison after stealing a loaf of bread for his poor sister’s children. After 19 years of hard labor he is released but must carry papers with him at all times indicating his prison record. The papers brand Valjean as a criminal and make it difficult for him to find work or dignity. He becomes increasingly bitter, hopeless and hungry. One night a bishop finds Valjean shivering in the cold and takes him to his parsonage, where he feeds him and gives him a place to sleep. In the night, Valjean steals some silver from the bishop and leaves. He is caught and the police take him to confront the bishop. The bishop denies that Valjean stole anything. In fact, the bishop gives him even more silver before sending him on his way. This incident incites Valjean to turn his life around. He tears up his prison papers, and creates a new life for himself, eventually becoming a wealthy businessman and mayor of a town.

An employee in one of Valjean’s factories is a young woman named Fantine. She works to provide for her child since the father abandoned them. Fantine is fired after refusing the advances of her supervisor and ultimately resorts to prostitution to care for her daughter. After an officer accuses Fantine of attacking him, Valjean intercedes and promises to care for Fantine’s child, Cosette.

Javert, an inspector who knew Valjean when he was in prison, discovers that he has assumed a fake identity and is determined to hunt Valjean and return him to prison. Valjean finds a job as a gardener in a convent and raises Cosette there.

An uprising against the government brings Javert to Paris where he is caught by young revolutionaries. Valjean finds him; but instead of killing him, Valjean frees Javert.

Meanwhile, Cosette falls in love with Marius, one of the revolutionaries. After being shot and nearly killed, Valjean rescues Marius by hiding him in the sewers. Marius and Cosette get married. Valjean becomes sick and eventually dies, but not before first revealing his past to Cosette and Marius.

The story of Les Miserables is interwoven with obvious spiritual themes. Following are some of the significant themes that resonated with me:

1. Redemption. Valjean is redeemed several times, most notably by the bishop and Fauchelevent, who was rescued from death by Valjean earlier in the story. Cosette is saved from the cruel Thénardier family by Valjean. After growing up poor and in hiding, she is again redeemed through her marriage to Marius, who comes from a wealthy family.

2. Sacrifice. Valjean sacrifices himself in many ways in the story. For example, he gives up his freedom, position and wealth by revealing his identity to Javert. Valjean risks his health and life to save Marius from death. He also sacrificially gives away Cosette to Marius in marriage, despite his paternal feelings for Cosette.

3. Mercy. This is arguably the overarching theme in Les Miserables. Valjean shows mercy to Fantine and her daughter, Cosette, by paying to adopt her as his child. It is through mercy that Cosette and Marius forgive Valjean for his troubled past. However, not everyone in Les Miserables fathoms the idea of love and mercy. In a supreme act of mercy, Valjean frees Javert when he could have just as easily killed him. Javert is perplexed and, as an act of rebellion, commits suicide. The story concludes with people singing, “To love another person is to see the face of God”, which is Les Miserables in a nutshell.

The story of Les Miserables transcends time. Its messages are as relevant and compelling today as they were in the 19th century.

We have all struggled with failure and hopelessness. We have faced persecution and injustice. But all is not lost. When we are weak and helpless like Valjean, God shows us a way out. Through God’s mercy and love, he redeems us and gives us a new hope.

★★★★★

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