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Dec 29

From whence come redemptive stories?

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2012 in Pontifications

Having just seen the film version of Les Miserables, with its fantastic depiction of the redemptive nature of grace and the law (described well by by Tullian Tchividjian here), I’ve been thinking about where powerful stories of redemption have come from in the past and from whence they originate today.

The Les Miserables movie, obviously, is a film version of the stage musical which is derived from the novel by Victor Hugo.  Such classic works of literature, many of which were written by deeply religious people living in deeply religious cultures, are often a source of such redemptive story lines.  I think of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (another by Victor Hugo), Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes, and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  More recently I think of the works of such great Christian authors as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Many of these become further popularized in our day when they are turned into movies or musicals.

But what are the “classics” currently being written?  How can we identify them in a day where sudden popularity means instant film treatment?  And which of those carry redemptive themes?

Growing up, it seems like the Newbery Medals were meant to show us which books were destined for greatness and several of my favorites received that distinction — The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, The Grey King by Susan Cooper, Julie of the Wolves by June Craighead George, The High King by Lloyd Alexander, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.  Which of those will truly stand the test of time — and which contain redemptive themes — may be open to debate (although I’d say L’Engle is inarguably redemptive and if you’ve never read her Walking on Water, you need to).

I don’t think one can speak of modern, redemptive stories without talking about Harry Potter.  The books and movies were both wildly successful and are unlikely to simply disappear into oblivion over time.  And as much controversy as they engendered among some Christians, they clearly concluded with Harry serving as a Christ figure.  Author J.K. Rowling, herself a Christian, felt like the religious parallels were always obvious, but refrained from pointing them out because she didn’t want people to realize where the series was heading.

So, what do y’all think?  Got any good examples of modern tales that speak Truth as powerfully as Les Miserables — and do so outside the Christian subculture?

Dec 21

Truth in the Marketplace

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2012 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

“For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.  And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and the kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Handel’s Messiah)

Given that this blog was originally focused almost exclusively on the importance of regenerate art and that I recently saw one such piece and am eagerly anticipating another, I thought another post on the subject was warranted.  (Not to mention that it’s been forever and a day since I last posted, but anyway…)

Tonight Heather and I continued our annual tradition of seeing Handel’s Messiah, which continues to amaze me.  Although I first saw it at National Cathedral, I prefer seeing it in a secular setting, as we’ve done at the Kennedy Center the last several years.  Why?  Because it demonstrates the power of great art to break through barriers and communicate the Gospel to people who might otherwise be unwilling to listen.

Messiah consists of three parts – The Advent of the Messiah, The Passion of Christ, and His Resurrection — and includes many powerful passages, including the following:

“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.  For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep.  Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Handel knew the power of regenerate art.  He told one admirer, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”

Having seen Messiah, I’m now eagerly looking forward to the film version of Les Miserables, which releases Christmas Day.  Assuming it’s faithful to the musical version, which included the strong religious themes of the book, it will communicate a powerful picture of grace to a wide audience.

I once had a coworker who didn’t fully understand why myself and others he knew were so keen on art’s ability to shape the culture and communicate powerful truths.  Then one morning he walked into the office and said, “I get it.”  He’d been to see Les Miserables over the weekend.

Christopher West says it well:

Les Mis sings gloriously of the hope of the Gospel itself.  And that’s one of the things I simply love about this musical: it’s a thoroughly sacred work of art that has been whole-heartedly embraced by the secular world.  For the “miserable ones” of this story, redemption is real, heaven is real, and “to love another person is to see the face of God…”  You “have to tell this story from the point of view that God exists,” says Tom Hooper, the film’s director.  It simply doesn’t work otherwise.

So, how did a musical which portrays Catholic bishops as beacons of love, presents Christian virtue as lighting the way to heaven, and weaves divine mercy throughout ever come to be celebrated by the moguls of London, New York, and now Hollywood?  Maybe because Les Mis is good art that simply unfolds a human story without an agenda.  Honest, artful story telling moves, challenges, and transforms the heart in its own way, and in its own time: overt altar calls aren’t needed; nor desired.  For when the deepest cries of the human heart are given voice and given hope, everyone with ears to “hear the people sing” listens and responds.”