Monday, August 23, 2010

Some providential encounters with Christian messages, even in a movie on Netflix -- to strengthen faith.

Yesterday I happened to open the Bible to Matthew 14:28-31:
And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
It caught me in a moment of weak faith personally and I would have liked to believe it was speaking to me personally, as the Word sometimes does, reminding me of the Lord's immense powers and the faith that connects us with Him. Chiding me for my lack of faith would make sense at that point, of course, but for a lack of that wondrous degree of faith -- does He expect that of us? Well, why not, really? Clearly He has it to give. I'd like to believe He could be offering me/us such faith, but I didn't have enough faith to receive it if so.

But then I closed the Bible and turned on the radio, which is always tuned to the local Christian station. I often turn it off immediately because it is usually playing music I don't like -- I don't understand how worldly sounds can be expected to carry a spiritual message and the attempt sets up a dissonance in my head -- but at that moment the Bible was being read.

It was the passage about the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, which -- coincidentally -- immediately precedes the passage I had just read in the Bible myself, though I didn't realize it at first:

Matthew 14:15-29 And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals. But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat. And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes. He said, Bring them hither to me. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.

And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone. But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.

Why this coincidence, this immediate juxtaposition in time of the same passage in the word of God? I don't know, but I've been rather depressed (that's between me and Him, not something for the internet) and any reminder of His presence is encouraging, and a reminder of His wonderful powers and the prodding to faith is also encouraging. [Oh for THAT kind of faith!] And since reading about such coincidences can also encourage others, it seems a good thing to write it down.

[Added later: Had the thought that if we really are right on the edge of plunging into the last of the Last Days and are to survive them, let alone be useful to the Lord during them, we would need this degree of faith as the tepid faith of today's churches won't do.]

Then today, still depressed, I was looking for a movie on Netflix and found an extraordinarily unusual movie to watch, one I don't think has ever come up on my lists there before, though I suppose I might have overlooked it. In any case today it seemed like something I would like to see, and it was: A very odd movie, really, a very unlikely movie, a Russian movie completely about living for Christ -- Russian Orthodox style. This is Ostrov (Island) made in 2006, about a man living in a very remote Russian Orthodox monastery, suffering from intense guilt over a past sin he's unable to shake, yet possessed of miraculous powers which make him a starets or holy man, a traditional figure in Orthodox history.

If you aren't into the spiritual story I'm sure it could be very tedious, and some of the member reviews acknowledge that. The scenes are unrelentingly dreary, and there are parts in the beginning that were tedious for me too. But the frequent quotations from scripture gave it a continuously beckoning glimmer of something miraculous being played out, so that I never gave up on it. Even the questionable theology -- demons hate smoke? -- nevertheless confirmed the overall Christian context for me.

Most of the member reviews at Netflix are highly positive, and even those that aren't have something positive to say. Some acknowledge that it takes being a Christian to enjoy it and I think that's true.

A professional critic probably speaks for many unbelievers, however:
An aggravating combination of piousness, arty self-pity, and knowing silliness meant to speak to higher spiritual truths.
I suppose it could be aggravating to someone with no knowledge of the starets tradition or love of the Bible, or belief in a God who judges sin.

Someone else pointed out something that also amazed me about the film, that such a concentration on Christian themes could even be made after nearly a century of anti-Christian propaganda since the Communist Revolution.

Some suspected it is a put-on. There is enough "knowing silliness" in it to support such a suspicion I suppose, but the overall effect on me was its echoes of the writings of the Eastern Orthodox mystics (plural: startsy) I'd read years ago.

I love the mystics -- at least the best of the Orthodox and Catholic and Protestant -- because of their intense devotion to Christ, but eventually I had to abandon my love of their writings because, well, there is too much questionable theology in them alongside the love of Christ and there are many examples of contemporary movements that go off in completely wrong directions under their influence. Eastern Orthodoxy is like Roman Catholicism in its veneration of Mary and particular saints, for instance, which includes the use of icons, and in its emphasis on works and its slighting of the power of the Cross alone to save. But it is nevertheless in this context that you can find such a moving and exalted devotion to Christ that it can raise your own worship to a new height, and it's hard to find fault with that effect. A W Tozer consistently appreciated the mystics for this effect. Still, it takes much wisdom to keep their theology in perspective, which I can't claim personally, and caution is especially needed in reading them.

The movie presents a more conflicted soul than is usually found among the mystics, though, a man beset with guilt that he can never quite exorcise, a man who "plays pranks" that have a spiritual message in them at the same time they may reflect his own conflictedness. Perhaps this portrait of unresolved guilt is simply honest rather than merely a dramatic pivot, since without a clear theology of forgiveness of sin through Christ's death the burden of guilt never can be definitively relieved, and this characterizes both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology.

Intriguingly, the actor who portrays the prankster/holy man, Pyotr Mamonov, is described as perhaps not so much acting as simply playing himself, as he himself converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the 90s, after having been a well-known Russian rock star.

Looking for more information about him I found this blog, which starts out:
In the summer of 2006, actor Pyotr Mamonov gave a speech in Sotsi, on the Black Sea. It was immediately after the premiere of the film Ostrov. The transcript below shows that he, being a tremendous actor and musician, understands very well the spiritual life and his role in the film was not accidental. His sermon was as follows:
How entirely perverse is our time! The critics discussed recently Pavel Lunghin’s film Ostrov and they spoke of the Church as if it is something mythical, as if it is Ilya Muromets [a Russian mythical hero].

How will you live if you do not believe in something? I am surrounded by the bewildered on the right and on the left.

But when you have faith, even though you might be tired, you will give your place on the bus to an old lady. This also is Christianity. You go to wash the dishes without them asking it of you. Is this a Christian act? It is.
Yes, he has the strong Christian sensibility that deplores the need of the secular culture of the world to treat God's truth as mere myth. His love of Christ's teachings can reflect a merely cultural Christianity, however, and since it is not always easy to tell when that is the case I'll just say I hope it's deeper than that with him since I have no way of knowing.

Later in the same "sermon" he is saying:
Love is to walk with someone and to support them. If we see someone fallen with their face in the snow [something more common in Russia], we quickly assume that they are drunk. What if they suffered a heart attack? Even if someone is drunk, help lift them up, and provide him protection so he will not freeze. But no, we continue along on our way. We escape even from ourselves. We should live not saying “give me”, but “take from me”. Many do not understand what it is to give their shirt they are wearing. We have become accustomed to living backwards.
To my mind this certainly gives authenticity to the role he played in answer to all those who suspect some kind of put-on, no matter what flaws there may be in his theology. I don't know the mind of the director but at least the actor is sincere. His love of the teachings of Christ is lovable in itself.

This is Russian-style Christianity, this emphasis on Christian good deeds. The movie and the actor's words remind me of many other Russian Christians, from Dostoevsky to Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn. As usual, in some cases there is reason to lament that they probably aren't saved, because they have such a strong works-righteousness concept of Christianity, sometimes a merely philosophical or cultural concept of it -- at least toward the character in the movie one wants to emphasize that forgiveness of sin is the preeminent work of the Cross and that to continue to bear the burden of sin raises questions about its saving work in a life -- but again one WANTS to think them saved, and if they aren't, to get the full truth to them as fast as possible.

The theology I find in these Russians is often powerfully Christian in spirit because of its deep love of the Sermon on the Mount and scripture in general, as is true for Mamonov in this "sermon" -- he clearly aims to live it. So did Tolstoy, though Tolstoy's theology left a lot to be desired too, bordering on a social gospel as it did -- still, it was a PERSONAL social gospel, the kind that moves the individual heart to good deeds, imposing it only on oneself and not on society at large, a gospel preached to all of course but never imposed, in contrast with the outrage of imposing the precepts on others that is today's version, including the perversion that underlies all socialism and the likes of Liberation Theology, making a tyranny out of the freedom brought by Christ.

So although I can't fully embrace the theology of this film, there is nevertheless such a power in the voice of the word of God that moves the protagonist -- and so much of the basis of true Christian culture that shines in the actor's "sermon" as well -- there is something peculiarly poignant in it simply because we in the West are on the verge of losing our Christian culture these days, and perhaps have in fact already lost it.

[Aug 25 note: I hadn't been following End Times themes for a while, but recently updated my blog on that subject and just discovered that Jesus' walking on the water is the illustration for the website Endtime Prophecy dot Net. This discovery of course emphasizes to my mind the relation between faith in His miraculous powers and the likely soon unfolding of events in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. I'm hesitant to affirm these coincidences as God's speaking, but then really, why not? Let's take it that way and seek that degree of faith in His miraculous workings. In any period of history such faith should never be rejected anyway, but how much more it should be sought if the church is indeed looking at trials of faith never before faced in this world.]