Cleo – a Hero for Our Times

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Alfonso Cauron’s latest movie has received a limited theatrical release, which sounds like a tragedy given the quality of his past output. Yet it has also been streaming on Netflix since December, so it’s available pretty much everywhere. Cauron is telling a fictional story through a period of history he himself knows. He grew up in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and he chooses to set his story here in painstaking historical detail. His vivid  backdrop is a period of great Mexican societal unrest following government atrocities of the 1960s and early 70s.

The themes of racism and inequality bubble beneath the surface of this story. Cleo is from an indigenous family who comes to the city to work as a maid for a wealthy white family. As her story unfolds we see that, even though she serves this family, she is the same as them. Even though she is financially poor, the problems in her life mirror those in their wealthy life.

As you let Roma wash over you…I think the movie is saying that life in all its vividness and grounded-ness is a real leveller. Everyone goes through similar experiences. Loss and suffering is no respecter of persons. We all hit it at some point. Including the experience of regret, of guilt.

A lot has been written about Cauron’s technical prowess that’s visible in Roma. But what struck me (I’m not a filmmaker) was the honesty displayed in his movie. He is taking a long hard look at human nature in all of its depth, and unflinchingly showing it on the screen. From the selfishness of Cleo’s partner to the selflessness of Cleo herself, I was left feeling that I’d really experienced life as the credits finally rolled. Cauron had almost given me the unique experience of actually living someone else’s life…and feeling what she felt and learning what she learned. What a gift!!

There is something about Cleo’s character that draws you. I think it might show some important aspects of humanity…of living as we are supposed to live. Imperfect yes…but yet it comes through her life and choices. Thru Cleo’s eyes, we are a person of humility, who values those around us and persists in thinking the best of them…even when they mistreat us. Of doggedly carrying on, even when the odds are stacked against us and we’ve got many reasons to give up and try something else. And – even though society around her is collapsing into violence – Cleo continues prioritising the important people in her life. She isn’t distracted from knowing what the right thing is…and continuing to do it.

I think the feel and the smell of Roma stays with you afterwards…because in many ways we’re struck by Cleo as an inspiring role model…a hero for our troubled times. She isn’t presented with all the flash and pizzazz served up by the next Marvel superhero film. She’s not Captain America. But – in a sense – she’s a real hero. The person we would want to be if we faced those sorts of troubles.

The thing is…we are facing these sorts of troubles today. Culture is under attack right now. In Britain…Brexit is threatening to drag us down into a whirlpool of dread and uncertainty. And across the pond…the horror of US Government shutdown and the resulting economic deprivation…all for the sake of a questionable (un) Presidential project…leaves you wondering whether anyone really cares selflessly about anyone anymore? It leaves you feeling like everyone is just on a short fuse…ready and willing to explode in exasperated outrage any minute.

Our world needs people who nevertheless… prioritise the feelings and needs of others. Even though they are in the minority as they do so.

In Roma, this is what Cleo is doing. I think she consciously or unconsciously tries to live out the call of Jesus Christ to “do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.”[1] We see it in her patience with her abusers, and her loyalty to her suffering family.  There’s a clear attractiveness to living life this way. It’s a principle and philosophy which underpins God’s idea of what positive and healthy relationships could be like. Cleo shows us that…living this is not a soft option. Its not easy to live this way in the midst of a society that is embattled, angry and just doesn’t value you that way.

And yet…the results of persisting in living this way are so valuable. It results in a life of belonging, of family, and of facing the future together with those who love you. If our society is going to survive…it will do so in this way. So…we need to start living this way. Doing the right thing anyway, even though so many don’t. Live like Cleo, do to others as you’d like them to do to you.

 

[1] Matthew 7:12, NLT.

Replicants and Life Without God

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It didn’t make much dollar at the box office. And neither did its predecessor. There are complaints that its too long. But then people complained the original was too slow.

Blade Runner 2049 is not short of critics…and plain old-fashioned apathy amongst the movie going public.

 

Full disclosure – I went to see this movie FOUR times at the cinema. Why? Because box office and buzz are not always good measures of an important movie. Sometimes the important movies come and go unnoticed…because their significance isn’t generally recognised. (e.g. Blade Runner…The Shawshank Redemption…etc)

 

So – why do I think the sequel to the original Blade Runner movie is significant? There are many reasons. I’m going to put my finger on one. And I will give some PLOT SPOILERS in the process.

 

Spoiler-Alert

 

 

Still here? Good.

 

The original Blade Runner focussed its narrative on REPLICANTS, artificial humans. Blade Runner 2049 continues this narrative. Only more so. In fact, the film’s protagonist – Agent K – is himself a replicant – there’s no mystery here…its revealed within the opening minutes of the movie. The story does this…partly because the healthy humans in this universe live in the off-world colonies…and this story is set on earth. But the deeper reason is because replicants help us – the viewing audience – understand ourselves.

What are replicants? They are sophisticated androids that are virtually indistinguishable from human beings. You’ve got to know what you’re looking for to spot a replicant. That’s why skilled Blade Runner units are required to track down the replicants of interest in society. It’s also why we in the audience can find ourselves empathising with these characters and their experiences.

I’ll go further than that. We don’t just empathise with the replicants. We recognize ourselves in them – not just in the choices they make, but in their ontology – what makes them “them”.

Replicants are material constructs…sophisticated biological mechanisms that serve a purpose amongst other sophisticated biological mechanisms. Yet they long to be more. Some long to live longer. Others long for their “lives” to be filled with deeper significance in fulfilling relationships.

Is this any different from the way so many people live their lives today?

People’s world view often has no place for God. Their naturalistic assumption is they are only physical, complex biological computers lacking an essence or soul. There were constructed in line with the physical laws laid down in our Universe. But they don’t transcend them in any way. This life is all there is. There’s no purpose or significance beyond it. Craig puts his finger on the inevitable consequences of such a world view:

“There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.”[1]

That’s why I find Blade Runner 2049 such a profoundly moving experience to watch. Because it shows “people” coming to terms with the reality of a meaningless, absurd life. And I think so many of us in the real world today are facing that same dark and hopeless discovery.

 

Longing for Meaningful Relationships:

Agent K’s treasures his girlfriend, Joi. She too is an artificial person. Yet she’s not physical – just a portable hologram that speaks encouraging and loving words to him. Perhaps there’s more to Joi because we see her devotion to K in her desire to experience a physical relationship with him. And also – to name K. There’s nothing so intimate with another person – than to share a special name. She names him Joe.

K tragically loses his precious Joi, that meaningful relationship comes to an abrupt end. In one truly heart-breaking moment, while reflecting on his loss, K watches an advert selling the Joi hologram product to prospective customers. And he suddenly realises that Joi’s special name for him – Joe – is just simply part of the standard package. All the Joi’s do it. There’s nothing special or unique after all about his Joi, and also his time with her because in reality he was simply using a mass produced product.

Here’s the reality for us today – if we view people as biological products – then I don’t think there’s any ultimate meaning to our existence. No ultimate meaning in relationships with other products. We just exist – interact. Anything that does occur – might seem important at the time. But because reality has no meaning – these experiences will therefore also have no ultimate meaning.

Yet there’s a drama in Blade Runner 2049…that mirrors the real world. K intuitively knows there’s more to it than that. K gives voice to the inner sense within us – the audience – that human beings are MORE than just biological products. We are people with potential – our lives have meaning – and that’s why we spend our lives looking for meaning. Outrage builds within us…no, there is more than this. I am more valuable than that!

 

Longing for a Purpose Greater than Ourselves:

The movie presents some grand and overarching concepts. Yet its final act suddenly narrows in and focusses down on a very personal mission.

Agent K tracks down Rick Deckard, who had been in exile since the events of the original movie. K finds an opportunity to achieve a bigger more important purpose with the rest of his “life”. Deckard has a child that he’s never met and known. Agent K decides he’s going to allow Deckard to finally meet and know his child…to build the real and meaningful relationship with them that he’s been longing for himself.

K essentially sacrifices his life – to allow Deckard to know his child. In a scene poignantly reminiscent of Rutger Hauer’s “Tears in Rain,” K saves and lifts Deckard to safety. But not just safety…to meaning and a future with the child he’s never met.

The significance of this task is unquestioned by K. That’s probably one reason why he’s willing to die to achieve it. In his last moments…do we see him praying in the snow? Or are his lips just moving as his system breaks down?

As an audience – we’re left reflecting on K’s selfless, heroic act. And we know that the outcome is worth the sacrifice. We intuitively know that there are some things in the world that are truly noble, some purposes that are greater than us. Reuniting families, restoring broken relationships is one of them.

 

Meaning and Purpose Because there’s a God:

In his press tour, I heard Harrison Ford describe the Blade Runner 2049 story as, “the triumph of the human spirit.” Personally, I’m more struck by its rage against the meaningless…the sense that ultimate value and meaning does exist in the universe, even though life seems to try and convince us otherwise.

And if that’s true – and I think it is – it’s only because there’s a transcendent person who is responsible for everything, who gives it meaning. A loving God who crafted us, who chooses to give the ultimate purpose and meaning that transcends our seemingly absurd lives.

I’d suggest that – if there are resonances within us that question, and rage against the seeming meaningless and absurdities of life…its because actually life isn’t absurd. There is a God with a purpose and plan for our own good. We aren’t biological products. We’re much loved children.

 

[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, (), 72.

RESPONDblog: Why Does God Hide?

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“If God’s there, doesn’t he want me to follow him?”

I know many people who just do not understand why my life features a God element to it. “Why do you spend so much time in churches, Stuart? I just don’t see the point…I just don’t see any evidence that God’s there.”

 

But sometimes they will go a step further. Not only doesn’t there seem to be any evidence for God…it seems to them that if He is there…God hides himself. And that just doesn’t make any sense. That’s just stupid.

“If God’s there, doesn’t he want me to follow him? To do the right thing? To worship Him?” Why would God hide himself from us? Unless the hiddenness of God is yet another reason to say that…actually God’s not hidden…he’s just not there at all?

 

What is interesting is that in the Bible, we see evidence that God does consciously hide himself. He doesn’t make his appearance too obvious to us.

 

“Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”[1]

 

In his book, “Why Does God Allow Evil”, Clay Jones makes an important observation about this seemingly counter intuitive truth about the Christian God. He’s not hidden because He’s not there…He’s hidden because He chooses to be.

 

Why?

 

Clay offers three reasons:

 

1 – Because if He was too obvious, then everyone would be compelled to call themselves Christians.

Often the sceptic thinks this is what Christians want. Well – it shouldn’t be – because it’s not what God wants. God honours our free will.

He doesn’t want to compel anyone to follow Jesus. Why? Because God intends each of us to exercise our God given freedom to choose.

Another way of putting this is – “if God’s existence were at every moment absolutely unmistakeable, then many people would abstain from desires that they might otherwise indulge.”[2] If we are compelled to do the right thing because we are under constant supervision, then what does this mean? It means we aren’t free to do what we want to do. If there’s a fiery sword in the sky that comes down on anyone who breaks the rules – what will happen? We will have a human population that works hard NOT to get cut in half! People will feign loyalty to God as a survival strategy.

This isn’t what God wants. He wants people to choose willingly to follow Him.

 

2 – Because He gives enough evidence for those who want to know Him.

There are various instances in the Gospels where Jesus could have done more miracles to compel the people in a town to follow him. In one particular town, it was the religious people who demanded more of his credentials. Yet he refused. Why? Didn’t Jesus want to build up a crowd of followers…like the other rabble rousers in first century Jerusalem? No.

Jesus didn’t want to compel anyone. Rather, He gave enough to justify the belief of those who willingly chose to follow. But he didn’t give too much, and so force everyone else to feign loyalty….to pretend to follow on the outside, while growing in resentment on the inside.

Have you ever gone to a party unwillingly? Perhaps you didn’t know the host, or you knew them and were too polite…or dishonest…to say no to the invitation! How does that feel? Well – probably along the lines of, “When will this ordeal end?”

God gives enough evidence to nurture obedience and relationship…and nothing more. He doesn’t want anyone to miss out, but in the end he only wants people at the party who actually want to be there.

 

3 – Because if He was too obvious, people would be rendered spectators rather than obedient followers.

If God constantly intervened in the affairs of life, this would disempower us…not empower us.

Imagine you start a new job, and the boss is there to welcome you into your new position. But then – after your induction – he sits across the office and stares at you. Every email you write, every meeting you attend, every visit to the bathroom has to go through him…and he has to be there while you are doing it. What would you do?

I know what I would do – I wouldn’t stay in that job very long. Why? Because I’d start to second guess every email, every meeting…and possibly every toilet break! I’d start to say – tell you what – why don’t you write this email and run this meeting for me? Then you will get what you clearly want. If I’m employed to do something then I need to have the freedom to do it. I am accountable to the management – absolutely. But I can’t be micromanaged every step. If I am…I am disempowered. And that just doesn’t make sense.

God is not like that micromanager. He wishes to empower, not disempower. He’s wise enough to know how much is enough to get us started and moving in the right direction. But he does not smother us on the journey.

 

 

The thing about God as we find him in the Bible – is that he wants to know us. He wants a relationship based on choice and honesty. It’s not his plan to compel anyone in this. Instead, He draws us toward him. And maybe for us today…we’re not fully there yet. But know that – He is there, and He does long for you to be close with Him.

 

“I led them with chords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.”[3]

 

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

[1] Isaiah 45:15.

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers), 111.

[3] Hosea 11:4.

RESPONDblogs: Is the Jehovah’s Witness “Jesus” the Genuine Article?

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I was getting ready to go out on Saturday morning when our front doorbell rang. I opened the door to a young lady who greeted me and began to talk to me about “religious” issues. My heart sank – I was just on my way out to a friend’s wedding! But – she seemed very earnest. And I felt a tug to stay and talk for a while. I let her speak…and then she asked whether these religious issues interested me.

 

I scratched my head a bit. “I’m a Christian”, I responded, “so God is very much at the centre of life…I’m not so keen on religion tho. However – let me ask you something.”

 

She nodded expectantly.

 

I asked, “Who do you say that Jesus is?”

 

Without a blink she responded, “Well he is God’s son.” I nodded – “Yes…but what does that mean?” She began to look a bit puzzled now. “Well I guess it means…” She stopped. I volunteered an ending to her sentence. “You reckon it means that God created Jesus? He is created BY God?” She nodded. “Yes – that’s it”, she said.

 

“Okay – that’s interesting because my view of Jesus is completely different from yours. He’s God. He’s not created BY God.”

 

She nodded and without a thought she shot back, “Let me ask you then. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray…who did he teach them to pray to?” It was my turn to look puzzled now. However many times I engage with a Jehovah’s Witness…this bit always strikes me as incredible. I carried on.

 

“You are right. The Bible records that Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God the Father. But you know what else the Bible shows us? That Jesus himself RECEIVED worship…personally. More than that, the Bible’s overall presentation of God has always been that three persons exist. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” She looked at me incredulous. This bit in the conversation that always hits me hard. I’m gutted that the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach their poor people to ignore and deny such a central biblical doctrine as the Trinity.

 

I really felt for this young lady. I was glad I’d stopped to chat with her. My heart so wanted her to get who Jesus really is! I decided to leave her with a statement and a question.

 

“You know, based on what we read in scripture the early church wrestled with but ultimately agreed on Jesus identity. The Jesus I am describing to you – the one who points to the other members of the Trinity and receives worship also for himself – is the prevailing view. Yes it’s tough to wrap our heads around. It looks like what I am saying has mystified you. Let me ask you. If there was no mystery to God…if we understood everything there is to know about God…it wouldn’t make him much of a God. Would it?” She smiled and nodded. And as my time had gone – we said goodbye.

 

As I closed the door – my heart ached. It matters who we understand Jesus to be. Why? If Jesus is NOT God – then we are completely lost! Why do I say that?

The Bible explains what humanity’s main problem is. Actually it’s not poverty or petrol prices or religious terrorism. It is sin. We underestimate the extent of our problem.

“all people…are under the power of sin.  For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:9 – 23, NLT

Why is sin a problem? Because it ruins any connection we could have with God, it messes up our relationships with other people and it ultimately leads to our demise…physically, spiritually, completely.

“For the wages of sin is death…” Romans 6:23, ESV

“It’s your sins that have cut you off from God. Because of your sins, he has turned away and will not listen anymore.” Isaiah 59:2, NLT

We all limp along carrying this crippling sin problem. It leads to our demise and our isolation from the God who made us.

Only God himself can sort out this problem. It is too big an issue for anyone else to fix! And so the Bible tells the tale of God preparing the nation of Israel and then coming in person…Jesus Christ…to give all people…you and me a way out of our sinful rebellion against God. He came to Earth to forgive sins. Only God can do that job. Because at heart, sin is mankind’s direct rejection of God.

“Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.””, Luke 7:48, NLT 

“For this is how God loved the world; He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16, NLT

 

That’s not me disagreeing with my friend at my front door. It’s the Bible I share with my Jehovah’s Witness friend (although her New World Translation has been slightly modified by un-scholarly people to trip her up in her understanding – outrageous!). It’s also the Church Fathers who studied under Jesus Disciples and led the first Christian Churches.

 

And then it struck me. It’s only valuable items that are counterfeited. People only go to the effort of creating fake 50 pound notes…because the real ones are so valuable. There’s no one in human history more valuable than the God-man Jesus Christ. Not to me…not to the writers of the Bible…not to all true Christians down thru history. No wonder there are counterfeit versions available to anyone who is unfortunate enough to accept them.