The Great Gatsby, Ecclesiastes, and Hope

In light of The Great Gatsby coming out on DVD tomorrow, I thought I’d offer several-months-old thoughts on the movie.

SPOILER ALERT: This is a discussion of one of the main themes of The Great Gatsby. As such, significant plot points will be revealed. You have been warned.

the-great-gatsby-poster1For those of you who only read SparkNotes in high school, The Great Gatsby (both the movie and the book) follows the wanna-be writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he moves to New York City in 1922, an era of loose morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kingpins, and soaring stocks. Wanting to hit it big in the stock market, Nick moves next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her adulterous, Old Money husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

Jay Gatsby is a mystery. Every weekend he opens up his castle in West Egg to the most powerful and influential—New York politicians, Broadway actors, silent-screen stars, and gangsters. Few have ever seen him. Some theorize he doesn’t even exist. Nick is drawn into this puzzle as he receives an official invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties—the only one ever to have gotten one. The two meet and become friends.

During the course of their friendship, Gatsby reveals to Nick that he’s in love with Daisy and has been for five years. He lost her when he was shipped out to fight in the war. During that time, Daisy got married to Tom. Now, Gatsby has come to win her back. Every move he made for the past five years has been about winning Daisy’s heart. Every party. Every dollar earned. All with a picture of Daisy in his mind.

All Gatsby asks of his new friend is that he invite cousin Daisy to tea. Nick obliges and begins a journey to find out that maybe money really can’t buy everything.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, the jury is split on the movie, almost 50/50. Some think it was a spectacular film in its own way but others believe it falls far short of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original masterpiece.

I did like the movie although I don’t think I would buy the DVD. Going into the theater I placed my expectations on hold because I knew it was impossible to fully capture the essence of the novel and display it on screen. I thought DiCaprio hit his part out of the park. I really can’t imagine anyone else as Gatsby anymore. Content-wise, I could have done with less sexual content in the movie. There’s sexual sin in the book but it’s implied and not displayed for all to see.

All that said, I actually couldn’t stop thinking about the movie for weeks because The Great Gatsby was one of the most honest movies I’ve ever seen. Most movies (and other media) paint this idea or picture of life that’s idealistic, unrealistic, and actually quite delusional. In real life, there are consequences, there aren’t always happy endings, and sin never pays. Regardless of it’s potential downfalls as art, The Great Gatsby echoes the book of Ecclesiastes—that life is meaningless under the curse. Here are some quick takeaways about the meaninglessness displayed.

** In case you didn’t see the first spoiler warning, this is your last chance to turn back! **

THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF WEALTH / EXCESS

613969-the-great-gatsbyLife was plush in New York for the few super-rich. Their parties that would seem over-the-top even today. The movie shows all the glitz and glamor of the age. It’s bright, loud, looks great, and looks fun. Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom have no want in the world.

Fast cars. Massive houses. Dozens of servants. Decadent meals. Parties over-flowing with every luxury. These people are living the life.

And they’re miserable.

No amount of money or possessions brings any of these characters lasting satisfaction. They’re always searching for the next thing. All the parties in the world can’t bring them happiness. In the middle of a party, Nick even asks, “What is this all for then?” The question goes unanswered. It hangs there. Empty.

Throughout the story there’s a general feeling that Gatsby’s wealth is fake—all veneer and no substance. In the book, Nick even discovers that the shelves are filled with empty book covers, designed to give the impression that they are real. Underneath the surface of it all, the money is not truly real—we find out later it’s actually mobster money—and it’s not going to last.

Gatsby has thousands of “friends” who stick around only because they get to partake in his massive celebrations. But after Gatsby dies, no one shows up to his funeral except Nick. All Gatsby’s possessions are seized by his mobster “friends.” Gatsby’s wealth could do nothing for him. It was meaningless.

THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF PLEASURE

carey-mulligan-600Not only was life plush for the characters of The Great Gatsby but it was also full of pleasure. Although it takes place during the Prohibition, Nick comments that it actually made alcohol cheaper. The alcohol definitely flows like the River Jordan in this movie. Nick constantly gets “roaring drunk” every chance he gets. The parties all end with people passed out on the floor.

People also search for pleasure through sex. Burlesque dancers fill the party stages. The drunken party-goers engage in sensual activity. And the most significant is Tom and his notorious penchant for adultery. Gatsby and Daisy also have sex and try to rekindle old love.

Once again, all the pleasure in the world cannot bring these people satisfaction. In fact, most of the pleasure they strove after ended up bringing them pain. By the end of the story, Nick is diagnosed as “morbidly alcoholic,” Tom’s mistress is dead, Gatsby is dead, and all the parties amounted to nothing. It too was meaningless.

THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF LIFE

The tone of life’s meaninglessness in the movie is a lot less than in the book, but you can still see it. Life is not all it’s cracked up to be. Tom lives in the shadow of his past athletic glories. Daisy lives with the burden of lost innocence and lost love. Nick never achieves his goal of hitting it big in the stock market, and this is after already abandoning a dream to be a writer. Gatsby is abandoned because of Daisy’s carelessness and murdered for a crime he didn’t commit.

They all receive great pain. For those who died, the world kept on turning as if nothing happened. There are no heroes in this story. No matter how hard Gatsby tried, he could not repeat the past. He dedicated everything to his dream of Daisy. Instead, he achieved nothing. It too was meaningless.

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HOPE

So now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, I want to let you know that there is hope. The most redeeming thing about Jay Gatsby is his ability to hope at almost delusional levels. Nick says about Gatsby, “He was the most hopeful people I’ve ever met.”

Gatsby’s hope was that he’d be able to recapture the time he had with Daisy five years earlier. This was his dream—his obsession—and he sacrificed everything to reach out for it. In the midst of all the meaninglessness of life, Gatsby found something to hope for.

His dream failed him but it does show something about the human heart. We need to hope for something. We were designed to hope. That’s the only thing that can keep us going when faced with what life throws our way.

Since we were created to hope that means there is something out, or someone, who can satisfy that hope. His name is Jesus. He is the source of everlasting pleasure. He is the only One who can bring our life meaning. He is the only One who can bring real life. He is the hope the human heart longs for.

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Les Miserables and My Hope for Christian Art

The other day, my wife and I had the privilege of watching the film Les Miserables for the first time since seeing it in theaters. When we first saw it, we got stuck watching it from the fourth row of the whole theater. I was so close I could see up Hugh Jackman’s nose, but after holding my neck in a weird position for three hours it wasn’t the greatest experience of my life.

Les-miserables-movie-poster1This time around, I got to watch the film while enjoying the comfort of my couch, and I have to say that it’s an amazing movie. I know it’s not for everyone (Spoiler alert: 99.9% of the dialogue is sung), but it’s such a powerful tale about loss and redemption. The movie is intimately shot with extreme close ups and many times not with the intention to make the actor look attractive. It’s meant to be a raw and visceral experience of injustice, death, poverty, but also hope. And the music, Oh my, so good. I knew the story, had seen the movie before, and it still almost left me in tears.

During the movie’s finale, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this might be the best piece of Christian art I’ve ever seen. To be clear, I personally define “Christian art” as being any sort of art that communicates messages typically exclusive to Christianity. I understand that many people nowadays flip out at the term “Christian art,” denying it’s existence and saying clever things like, “I didn’t know a movie could say the sinners prayer and be baptized.” Hardy, har, har. 

For me, the distinction is helpful because many things can communicate messages that are not exclusive to Christianity. What is exclusive to Christianity is grace and redemption. It’s the Gospel, albeit in an incomplete form. The work of art doesn’t have to be created by a Christian (Gasp!). It doesn’t even have to have a conversion scene in it (although Les Mis does). If that work of art can make me walk away and glory in the Gospel more than before, than yes, I claim the right to dub that art “Christian.”

Anyways. I didn’t come to rant about that. I came to rant about how I think more Christian art needs to take a few tips out of the Les Mis playbook in order to better honor the Gospel we hold so dear.

**Some spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, shame on you.**

SHOW THE ABSOLUTE HOPELESSNESS OF LIFE

Life is hard. It’s full of darkness, evil, sin, loss, and injustice. Les Miserables does not shy away from the brokenness life can bring. The title can be translated to “The Miserable Ones,” and these people are truly miserable. For example, Fantine (Anne Hathaway’s performance was worthy of her Oscar) is a poor young mother, abandoned by her lover, and unjustly fired from her job at a factory. To support her daughter, Cosette, Fantine sells her hair and some of her teeth. Eventually Fantine sells her body as a prostitute. Because of her poverty and probably prostitution, she then gets sick and dies. That’s her story.

Is there a place in Christian art for someone so raw, desperate, and empty? It’s scary to think about, but I almost feel like if Fantine would not be welcome in our art, that she also would not be welcome in our churches.

But the tragedy continues. Almost all of the characters, main and supporting, die in the course of the movie. Most die without realizing their dreams, without achieving success. Most injustices are not corrected. Most wrongs are not righted. And then everyone dies.

This is life and we cannot ignore it. This is what people experience everyday. It’s dirty, vulgar, unsettling, and far from proper. Everyone knows that life is broken. Something is terribly wrong and it needs to be fixed. They can feel it in their bones. But how often does our art reflect this reality? Can people relate with what Christians are showing onscreen or putting in our books. This is one of the main critiques of Thomas Kinkade paintings. It whitewashes the reality of life and eliminates the darkness.

The darkness is there. Everyone knows it. We should not be afraid to acknowledge it’s existence or even depict it. The Bible isn’t.

This is the same book that holds stories of apocalyptic destruction, infanticide, and rape. The third human being who ever lived killed the fourth, his own brother. A priest, supposedly a man of God, cut his personal prostitute up and sent her body parts to different corners of the country. Job lost his wealth and his family. The people of God were conquered and ravaged by pagans. The Son of God was betrayed by one of his closest friends, tortured, and then nailed to a cross. The Bible is a brutal book.

Depiction of evil does not constitute approval of it. You’re using darkness for a purpose.

It’s not darkness for darkness’ sake. Nihilism is not the answer. Ultimately, the darkness serves a greater purpose—to display how great the light is. Without great evil we run the risk of watering down whatever salvation is at work. Would Jesus’ death be as powerful if He didn’t die on a cross but peacefully in His sleep?

The purity of the light can only be felt when it’s contrasted with the darkness. The strength and nobility of the hero can only be understood when he’s contrasted with a ruthless, evil villain. People have to know what death tastes like before  they can appreciate life.

SHOW A REDEMPTION THAT RESONATES

Life is dark, but the beautiful thing is that there’s hope. Hope for restoration. Hope for forgiveness. Hope for redemption.

In Les Mis, this reality is best shown through the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). Valjean is first shown as a hardened prisoner, literally a slave of the law, for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release from bondage on parol, Valjean tries to cope with the stigma of his past. Desperate, he tries to steal the silver from a church where he was shown hospitality. But he’s caught by soldiers and brought before the priest. Valjean knows he’s finished. But instead of accusing Valjean, the priest tells the soldiers that he gave Valjean the silver and then proceeds to give him priceless candlesticks. Valjean is speechless and dumbfounded. He did something deplorable, gets caught, and yet walks away from it a wealthy man. What follows is a crisis of faith and the best onscreen portrayal of a conversion I’ve ever seen (I’m actually not sure it’s possible to create a better one). He has a new life, finds a new name, and chooses to live for God and to help others for the rest of his life. Valjean doesn’t live a perfect life, but it’s one that’s forever marked by that day of redemption.

Valjean’s story shows that in the middle of all this hopelessness, there is hope, even if it’s just a glimpse of the sun over the horizon. People deep down want to know there is hope, they long for redemption. But they don’t want a fake salvation—one that can’t confront the darkness. They want something strong enough to deliver them from the Valley of the Shadow of death. They want a power that can resurrect. They want to know that self-sacrificing love is worth it. They want to know that virtue can stand in the face of opposition. They want to know redemption is possible.

This is why the Gospel is so powerful. It doesn’t cower away from death, sin, and evil. It confronts those enemies head on and defeats them all. The Gospel then invites for us to partake in that victory. There is no greater message we can portray with our art.

I’m not saying this will be easy. Good art takes time effort, and failure. But it’s worth the effort. Art, particularly stories, has a way of impacting people that straight lectures on systematic theology cannot. It infuses truth into their hearts when they don’t even realize it. It’s able to infiltrate past all the skeptic and nihilistic guards and bring a little light. This is why C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia. This is why I think Christians should keep making art.

I’m definitely not the guy for the job. But after seeing Les Miserables, I know it’s possible and that gives me hope.

 

Blockbuster Sermons

anchorman-2-sequel-image-will-ferrellMovies and sermons have always had an awkward marriage. Preachers want to look cool, but they also want to help people—and they also want to look cool.

What’s cooler and more helpful than a movie? I’ll tell you: a preacher who knows about movies.

Back in the day, “Braveheart” was co-opted by many a preacher as a picture of heroism, masculinity, and sacrifice. “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” are heralded as a parable of the cosmic battle between good and evil. And recently “Man of Steel,” starring Superman as the Christ-figure, garnered its own sermon notes from Warner Bros, aptly titled, “Jesus: The Original Superhero.” Some churches have even created multiple sermon series based off popular Hollywood films.

With a slew of big blockbusters heading our way this year, I thought I’d get a jump on it and help all the preachers gain relevancy capital by lending them a few mind-blowing sermon ideas for upcoming movies.

The Wolverine
Plot*: Wolverine makes a voyage to modern-day Japan, where he encounters an enemy from his past that will impact on his future.
Sermon: Samson, Wolverine without claws and better hair.

jOBS
Plot: The story of Steve Jobs’ ascension from college dropout into one of the most revered creative entrepreneurs of the 20th century.
Sermon: iAM: How the existence of Apple is proof God loves us.

One Direction: This Is Us
Plot (Can you call it that?): Niall, Zayn, Liam, Harry and Louis’ meteoric rise to fame, from their humble hometown beginnings and competing on the X-Factor, to world domination, and performing at London’s famed O2 Arena.
Sermon: Don’t let anyone look down on you because you’re young, undiscovered, and in a boy-band.

Paranormal Activity V
Plot: Some crazy “paranormal activity” gets caught on camera and everyone freaks out, again (these movies are legion).
Sermon: Exorcism 101. Special song by Demon Hunter.

Thor: The Dark World
Plot: When Jane Foster (Thor’s human lady-love) is targeted by the denizens of the dark world of Svartalfheim (don’t ask me to pronounce it for you), Thor sets out on a quest to protect her at all costs.
Sermon: The Hammer of God. Note to the preacher: The “hammer” can be customized to what your church needs to hear (hell, purity, vegan food—whatever you like).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Plot: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.
Sermon: Deborah, the original Mockingjay.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Plot: The Dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf have successfully escaped the Misty Mountains, and Bilbo has gained the One Ring. They all continue their journey to get their gold back from the Dragon, Smaug.
Sermon: How to slay the dragons of life and take all the plunder for yourself (A 12 part series).

Anchorman: The Legend Continues
Plot: The continuing on-set adventures of San Diego’s top-rated newsman.
Sermon: As a dog returns to its vomit, so do producers with sequels.

This idea could make millions, not that it’s about the money. Don’t worry. It’ll all go towards a good cause: my petition to block Nicholas Cage’s “Left Behind” re-make.

*Plot summaries are somewhat from IMDB, peppered with my flair.