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Archive for May, 2007

Screaming at the Abyss: A Review of “Garden State” 

This film is rated R for language, nudity, sexual content, and crude sexual humor.

Since Garden State has been compared by some to The Graduate, I felt as though I must see it.  It is always a dangerous thing to compare a new movie to a film that many consider to be the quintessential coming-of-age film of the 1960s.  The opening of Garden State, with Andrew Largeman’s Benjamim Braddock-like deadpan facial expressions and bare environment, remind one of The Graduate.  At one point in the film, we actually hear in the background a Simon and Garfunkel song, “The Only Boy Living in New York.”  As Andrew is trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life, “real estate pyramid schemes” seem to have replaced “plastics.”  While Garden State does not reach the significance of Mike Nichols’ classic film, it does handle some of the same themes.  As a matter fact, while I watched this film I kept thinking that if this is an accurate portrayal of this generation, we have not advanced beyond the 1960s.  I think we are in a time warp in which every post 60s generation is repeating the same mistakes with sex and drugs, still struggling to find some meaning and purpose in life.Garden State is written and directed by Zach Braf of Scrubs fame.  He also plays the main character, Andrew Largeman, a young, twenty-something, so medicated with lithium, Zoloft, Paxil, and other anti-depressants prescribed by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm), he is numb and barely able to function in life.  Having found some work as a TV actor in Los Angeles, he returns to his home in New Jersey when his paraplegic mother drowns in the bathtub.  Because Andrew’s emotional life has been dulled by medication for so long, he cannot weep over the death of his mother.  The spiritual vacuum of his family is parodied by the closing song at the graveside service, Lionel Richie’s “Three Times a Lady.”  At one point, Andrew says that he is Jewish, but he doesn’t “do anything Jewish.”While home, Andrew meets and eventually falls in love with Sam, played by Natalie Portman, who is also receiving medical treatment because she is a compulsive liar.  Having chosen different ways to deal with a world that is dreary and monotonous, these two make an interesting pair to combine their searches for meaning.

Eventually, we learn that Andrew has been depressed since he was nine because he has been held responsible for his mother’s paralysis.  Andrew remarks that it is amazing that his whole life has been determined by a 50 cent piece of plastic.  Rather than spoil things by explaining that last sentence, suffice it to say that Andrew’s depression could have been handled in a more therapeutic manner than the use of prescription drugs.

Toward the end of the film, Andrew and Sam are taken by Andrew’s high school friend, Mark, played by Peter Sarsgaard,  to a deep rock quarry.  On the edge of the quarry is an old houseboat which serves as a home for a man and his wife.  Andrew asks how deep the quarry is, and he is told that no one really knows.  The man who lives in the houseboat likes to think of himself as the guardian of the “infinite abyss.” 

Andrew realizes that his life, also, is an infinite abyss.  Leaving the houseboat, Andrew goes to the edge of the quarry, peers into the abyss and begins to scream.  He is joined by Sam and Mark, and they all begin to shout into this bottomless pit.  The metaphor of the abyss and the primal scream in the face of it is a little over the top, but it does point to the despair felt by many of our young people in this generation.  When trying to find some meaning in life, now that God is no longer an option, there is nothing but the abyss of meaninglessness.

How do the youth of today cope with the abyss, other than by screaming their displeasure in its presence?  The solution for Andrew and Sam is found in one another.  Their solution to the emptiness is in parroting clichés about love, seizing the moment, and embracing the anguish of life.   Andrew finally decides to stop taking his medication, because he believes that to feel the misery and the pain is better than numbness:  “It hurts, but it’s all we have,” Andrew says.

Standing before the abyss of unknowing is a common metaphor to describe our 21st century spiritual void. Life without God is an abyss of despair, and for many, numbness, screaming, and personal relationships are the only possible responses to this feeling of emptiness.  But, as each of the generations since the 1960s is proving, these responses are not very satisfying.  

Just as the soundtrack was so important to The Graduate, with “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Sound of Silence,” providing part of the mystique, the music for this film informs the feeling of depression and despair.  “New Slang” by The Shins sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel tune, while “In the Waiting Line” (“I’ll shout and I’ll scream/But I’d rather not have seen”) by Zero 7 helps provide the right atmosphere for the searching, questioning, and lonely ambiance of this film.

Father Toms (c) 2005

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Maybe an Episcopalian priest shouldn’t enjoy the movies so much, but let’s face it–I do.  On one level, I love movies just because they are entertaining, and I derive a great deal of pleasure from watching them.  On another level, I look at movies at the most important vehicle in our time for the conveying of ideas.  In our era, movies have, by and large, taken the place of books.  Not many people read good books, but people do attend good movies, sometimes without even realizing that they are good movies. 

It is my intention in these movie reviews and criticisms to write about films on a number of different levels.  Sometimes, I will give plot summaries of films.  At other times, I will write about various artistic techniques and performances.  Most of all, as some of you know, I love to interact with the ideas and philosophies that are often presented in movies.  Some of my comments will center around those kinds of discussions.

In these comments, I will not address the issue of whether the movies are good or bad, or moral or immoral.  I will make no mention of whether people, Christians included, should watch the movies or not.  I will leave that to the individuals’ consciences.  I will give no ratings, such as *, **, ***, or ****.   My primary intent will be to evaluate how successfully the movies present their ideas and images.  Some of the movies may convey messages with which I disagree.  Most of the books I read and the movies I watch convey messages of which I do not approve.   Nevertheless, I think it is important for people, especially Christians, to examine these various ideas and philosophies.  Some of my reviews, perhaps, will not even sound like a “Christian” review.  That is, I may not make any direct link between the movie and the Christian faith. 

Some of the reviews will concern movies that are “now showing.”  Some will be older ones that are out on DVD.  Other classic films, may be reviewed with much longer comments based on more extensive research.  I hope you will find these reviews enjoyable.  Perhaps they will also help to generate some interesting discussions.  Most of all, I hope that it helps you to appreciate and enjoy this very important medium of communication. To read a review, simply choose a movie from the list below.

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Why Should We Fast and Weep?

A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Baton Rouge, LA

Published in our Journal “The Anglican Tradition”, 2006

Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:  And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.  Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the LORD your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly: Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet.  Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O LORD, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God? Then will the LORD be jealous for his land, and pity his people. Yea, the LORD will answer and say unto his people, Behold, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, and ye shall be satisfied therewith: and I will no more make you a reproach among the heathen:

One of the dangers of having been in the ministry for over 30 years is that one develops a kind of pessimism that sees the dark side of things.  What I am about to say may seem bleak, but we often need such solemn thoughts and reminders during the season of Lent.  Our Anglican forefathers deemed that a passage from Joel 2 would be an appropriate Scripture reading for Ash Wednesday throughout our history.  In this chapter, the people of God are told to turn to God with fasting, weeping, and mourning.  The people are admonished to rend their hearts, sanctify a fast, and call a solemn assembly.  Even the priests are commanded to weep between the porch and the altar.  Is it appropriate for the Church to perform these actions every Ash Wednesday throughout its history?   Our forefathers believed that this would be an appropriate Scripture for the Church during this season, because there will always be need for desperate repentance.  Certainly, there has never been a time when it has been more appropriate than this hour. For what reasons should we weep, mourn, and fast during this season of Lent?

As we look at our nation and the whole world, we find abundant matters for weeping, mourning, and fasting, but in Joel 2, the Lord is calling upon the people of God to repent.  Though our nation and world compel our tears, we should begin our weeping and fasting because of the current condition of the Church.

God’s Judgments

In the prophet Joel’s time, God had judged his people by sending upon them a plague of locusts.  God was warning his people that this judgment was just a prelude to more serious judgment to come in the days ahead.  Thus, the people were to mourn for what they had lost.  As we contemplate those things that should cause us to weep, mourn, and fast, chief on our list should be the loss of many of God’s blessings.  Also, the Church should weep that it has been given over as a reproach.  In the book of Joel, the priests are to wail, “Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach.”  In my lifetime, there has never been a period when the world had more reason, and I would say, good reason, to hold the Church in contempt.  It is not surprising that the world looks at the Church and says, “Where is thy God?” It does seem obvious to me, that God has, in many respects, withdrawn the glory of his presence from among us.  In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet describes how the glory of God gradually rose up from the holy place, and then, out of the temple.  Has God’s glory been removed from the Church in
America?  Is he threatening to remove our candlestick?  The only people who cannot see that this danger hovers over us are the poor Christians in the pew who delude themselves into believing that we are actually experiencing some kind of spiritual revival.

But as we look around us, we see the Church has been given over to be a reproach.  The Church, in many parts, has been given over to liberalism.  So much of the Church that bears the name of Jesus Christ no longer believes that the Bible, all of it, is the inspired, infallible, word of God.  So much of the Church no longer believes in the deity of Jesus Christ, his sinless life, the necessity of the atonement, and his bodily resurrection from the grave.  The Church is a reproach because it no longer believes the gospel that it was commissioned to proclaim.

Ignorance and Frivolity

Where the Church has not been given over to liberalism, it has been given over to a mindless conservatism.  It is sad to say, but most of the learning and scholarship takes place in the liberal wing of the Church by academicians.  We desperately need the equivalents of
St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas—giant intellects who genuinely believe that the Bible is the word of God.  In many conservative branches of the Church, ignorance reigns supreme, and is considered a virtue.   We often hear statements such as, “Our preacher don’t have none of that there book learning, he just preaches the Bible.”  Sadly, the scholar/pastor is almost a thing of the past, and the Church’s ministers and people are held up as a reproach because of their ignorance.

Where the conservative Church has not been given over to ignorance, it has been given over to silliness and emotionalism.  In the last part of the 20th century, a wave of emotionalism, tinctured with revivalism swept through the Church, and many people thought that this was a movement of the Holy Spirit.  Suddenly, we were told that the day of miracles had returned, but the only ones who believed that announcement were Christians with an incredible gift of self-deception who desperately wanted to believe that God had visited his people.  I wanted to believe it as well, but the people of the world, and most rational people knew that many of these so-called miracles bore little resemblance to those performed by Christ and his apostles.  Worship in many conservative, evangelical churches is characterized by a frivolity that can only be described as embarrassing by anyone who has any idea of how people in the Scriptures behaved when they rea
lized that they were in the presence of the Holy God.  The frivolity and gullibility of the Church has made it a reproach.

Lack of Leaders

One of the sure signs that God has withdrawn many of his blessings from us is the absence of great spiritual leaders.  I suppose that I read too many biographies, but as I look at the great pastors and theologians of the past, I have to conclude that God has judged his Church by taking away the true shepherds from among us.  Listen to this description of John Henry Newman as he preached at
Oxford:

The sermon began in a calm musical voice, the key slightly rising as it went on; by and by the preacher warmed with his subject, till it seemed as if his very soul and body glowed with suppressed emotion. The very tones of his voice seemed as if they were not his own.  There are those who to this day, in reading many of his sermons, have the whole scene brought back before them.  The great church, the congregation all breathless with expectant attention, the gaslight just at the left hand of the pulpit, lowered that the preacher might not be dazzled:  themselves, perhaps, standing in the half-darkness under the gallery, and the pause before those words in The Ventures of Faith thrilled through them, “They say unto Him, We are able.”

Very rarely, if at all, do we hear modern preachers and their preaching described in such terms.  Where now is that man of God who holds the congregation in breathless expectation of his next sentence?  It is to be feared that God has taken those men from us.

In the biography of an Orthodox priest, Father Arseny, 1893-1973:  Priest, Prisoner, and Spiritual Father, there is this description of this man who spent so many years in a Russian prison camp:

Father Arseny opened up a new life for me, he brought me to God, and he recreated my inner self.  This is why now I want to say what is essential in him.  One can talk about him endlessly, because his deeds have no limits, and these deeds boil down to God and love—the love he feels for people in the name of the Lord….  He gave away what was precious to him: the warmth of his soul, his faith, and his experience in living his faith.  He taught us how to pray and transformed into fire the spark of God in each of us (pg. 132).

That portrayal depicts what the man of God should be.  Many of us have never met anyone like that, and most of us will die without doing so. Instead of that glowing description of a holy man of God, what impression do people now have of the minister, the priest?  He’s immoral, a sexual predator, just one of the guys, a swindler, a good old boy.” He’s everything except a holy man of God.  Surely, the condition of the Christian ministry should cause all ministers and parishioners to weep before God, admit that even the ministry is a reproach, and beg God to restore the true man of God to His Church.

Few Conversions

Another sign that God has withdrawn his blessing from the Church is that we see so few conversions.  The churches in
America swap members, but by and large, we do not reach that section of the population called “the unchurched.”  Even most of Billy Graham’s “converts” in
America were already members of churches.    Why is it that we see so few conversions?  Is it that we don’t have enough churches?  No, we have plenty of churches.  We have enough churches to evange
lize this entire nation.  Do we need to get the word out more?  Actually, most people in this country hear the word at some point.  Do we need more para-church organizations?   There is no para-church organization that is doing something that the local church shouldn’t be doing if the church was doing her duty.  Then why do we see so few conversions?    The problem is that the Holy Spirit is not attending with power the preaching of the word, because the sins of the Church have grieved the Holy Spirit of God.  We should weep because the sins of the Church have defiled the temple of the Lord, and he has withdrawn his glory.

Failed Movements

I saw so many movements in the last part of the 20th century.  I’ve seen a revival of the 1930’s style fundamentalism.  I’ve seen a revival of the Deeper Life movement.  I’ve seen a revival of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement.   I’ve seen a revival of Reformed, Calvinistic theology.  I’ve seen a growing interest in ancient liturgies.  But, after having seen it all, been around it all, and even having been a part of most of these movements, I would have to say that they have not restored the godly, righteous, and sober life that God demands of his people.  In some ways these movements have only brought more reproach on the church. By and large, these movements have not brought with them conviction of sin, humility, holiness of life, prayerfulness, or an overwhelming sense of the majestic holiness of God.  These movements have failed to restore the most basic of all Christian virtues—love.  When we look over that list of the characteristics of love in I Corinthians 13, we must ask ourselves, “Where does that kind of love exist?”  Too often it seems that the last place you would find this kind of love is the only place where it could be found–the Church.  Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”  Think of all the things we look for as signs that we are true followers of Jesus.  Yet, we have not even begun to flesh out this cardinal virtue of the Christian life.  As the Church continues to fight, split, and divide, no wonder the world looks upon us with reproach.

Our Hope

Is there any hope for the Church in
America?  I’m not sure.  It may be that God has said to the Church in
America, “Enough is enough.  Nothing awaits you now but final judgment.” Sometimes God says, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my mind could not be toward this people:  cast them out of my sight and let them go forth” (Jer. 15:1)” But there may be hope.  In this prophecy, Joel says, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness and repenteth him of the evil.  Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him?”  Joel doesn’t say that God is going to take back his sentence of judgment.  He just says, “God is merciful. Who knows?  Perhaps if we turn to the Lord by rending our hearts, weeping, and fasting, he will return and leave a blessing behind Him”.  If there is a possibility that God will change his people and make them holy, humble, and reverent; if there is even a remote possibility that God will return and begin to convert even the hardest sinners and bitter opponents of the gospel; if there is even the slightest possibility that God will give us godly, holy, and powerful ministers of his word, then it is worth all the fasting, weeping, mourning, and praying.

When Jonah went to
Nineveh his message was not much more than, “You’ve got 40 days, and God is going to judge you.”  But the king of
Nineveh said, “Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth and cry mightily unto God:  yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.  Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?”  There it is again.  “Who can tell?”  But this story ends in a wonderful way, for the Scripture tells us, “And God saw their works that they turned from the evil way; and God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”  God turned his wrath away from
Nineveh.  Who can tell, perhaps he will turn his judgments away from us.  But whether he will or not, just the possibility gives us good reason to bow before him.  This “who can tell” reminds that we may not presume on the grace of God.  When we come before him, we must be aware of our unworthiness of his mercy. Nevertheless, we do have his word, “If my people, which are called by name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (II Chron. 7:14).  We must never forget those words in the Prayer of Humble Access, “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”  There is far more hope in those words “Who can tell?” than we can ever imagine.  If the Church repents, then God will turn his judgments away from us.  This Lenten season is a time that we should pray earnestly that God would grant the Church “true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit.”

It seems that as a nation, and as a Church, we are under the blasting decree of God’s judgment.  If we are, then each of us will have to decide whether we care enough to do anything. If I have exaggerated the plight of the Church, then ignore me.  But if I am correct in my assessment, we should employ this Lent as our Church fathers intended.  Therefore, it is a good thing that during this Lent, we would follow the instruction contained in the book of Joel.  There is much reason to fast, weep, mourn, and pray.  This Ash Wednesday, let us begin to pray in earnest, “Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach.”

Amen.

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Welcome to our Lenten Issue

of “The Anglican Tradition” Journal

Welcome to the first issue of The Anglican Tradition. This journal is devoted to advancing a distinctively Episcopal approach to the study of Scripture, Church history, theology, worship, and cultural issues.  The editors of this journal are committed to a conservative, Anglican interpretation of Scripture and approach to Church teaching as summarized in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.  We especially hope to emphasize the importance and necessity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

One of the primary goals of this journal will be to revive an interest in true churchmanship.

We hope this edition will help you to observe a Holy Lent, and that you find good resources within our journal. As you think about the observation of Lent, remember the words of the Prayer Book on page li that Lent is one of those times classified as

“Other days of fasting, on which the church requires such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion.”

It is important to realize that throughout the Church year, throughout our very lives, we are called upon to exercise abstinence.  The Christian is to abstain from every appearance of evil.  The Christian is called upon daily to deny himself, take up the cross and follow Christ.  Lent is not the only time that we deny ourselves.  The very mark of the disciple of Jesus Christ is that he denies himself.

But during Lent, we practice extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion.  Our typical acts of devotion seem a little trifling when we think of the word “extraordinary.”  We give up something like chocolate or soft drinks, and while such sacrifices may be extraordinary acts of devotion for some of us, I doubt that form of self-denial is what our forefathers had in mind for this season of the year.  All of the Christian life is to be characterized by self-denial, but during Lent, we make the extra effort to go above and beyond the call of duty.

The kind of Christianity that we live now is a stranger to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion, because our lives are not characterized by even ordinary acts of abstinence and devotion.  Maybe during this Lent, we should spend the 40 days repenting of our lack of the normal, every day discipline of the Christian life.  This year, when you make a minor sacrifice in order that you might focus your mind on repentance and the sufferings of Jesus Christ, remember, that these actions are just a small token of the total, self-denying discipline required of the disciple of Jesus Christ.

It is our prayer that this journal may help you in that quest for a disciplined Christian life.

– end –



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