SUNDANCE 07: THE GREATEST OF THESE

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People experience Sundance Film Festival in various ways; for me the films have been a test of my love. I feel my heart breaking and I think it is God’s spirit pushing me to embody Jesus.

“Padre Nuesto” tells the story of two ” illegal immigrants” looking for a father, and of a Mexican Father in New York who comes to realize how much he needs a son. Initially each character seems to occupy a clear place on the spectrum of good and evil, but by the end each turns out to be a maddening mix, proving Alexander Solzhenitsyn right when he observed, ” If it were only so simple! If onlythere were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” This film helped me get more realistic about the evil in my own heart.

“Longford” spans 32 years in the life of Lord Longford, a Christian and member of Parliament, whose adherence to Jesus commandment to “love one another” meant he extended unconditional forgiveness, even to Britain’s most despised serial killer, Myra Henley. The film explores religion and the nature of forgiveness, which are, according to screenwriter Peter Morgan (nominated for an academy award for The Queen), both unfashionable these days.

I viewed a press screening of “Hothouse,” an extraordinary bit of footage introducing us to an Israeli prison where, in a classic case of the law of unintended consequences, imprisoned Palestinian “terrorists” (or freedom fighters from their standpoint) are turning the prison into an educational and motivational seminar on becoming more effective when released. It occurred to me that Longford would have visited Palestinians in prison, while most American Christians simply demonize Fatah and Hamas, sometimes dismissing all Palestinian concerns through the lens of America’s pro-Israel Christian lobby. Can I love and seek to forgive a terrorist? Does Jesus still call his followers to love even their enemies?

“Trade” is a gritty disturbing film set in a sinister global enterprise that consists of kidnapping young, virginal children around the world, then selling them into sexual slavery to the highest bidder, usually wealthy westerners, often Americans. (The girl in this story is sold in New Jersey for $32,000). The CIA estimates that somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 are kidnapped every year. Craig Detweiler’s interview (click here to listen to the podcast) with Producer Rosilyn Heller(at the Windrider Forum at Sundance) tells how after reading one story in the newspaper she was compelled to take action–this film is the result. You’ll see this film in theatres April 13th. Do we love enough to take action?

“Low and Behold” was a stunning docudrama about the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the after effects still being felt. At once comedic and heart-breaking, the film was birthed from the passion of New Orleans actor Barlow Jacobs who after being made homeless by Katrina, took a job as a claim adjuster for 90 days and then used the money to jump start the telling of this story, which he co-wrote and then performs the lead role in. Coming two days after the President’s State of the Union Address, the silence on the slow restoration of New Orleans seemed unconscionable. Have I been guilty of looking the other way on this issue?

In my next book, The Culturally Savvy Christian, I make the point that American popular culture is superficial, diversionary, mindless and driven by celebrity, marketing and money. I am not talking about the kinds of independent films you’ll see at Sundance. These films are usually labors of love, self-funded and will seldom see widespread distribution or the recovery of the time and money the filmmakers and actors have invested in them. At Sundance in film after film you’ll meet people who care enough to love and take action–such people deserve a hearing. Am I such a person?

“For the Bible Tells Me So” is a sobering look at what the Bible says about homosexuality articulated by various pastors and scholars, then interspersed with the story of families whose children have come out of the closet. One couple, Bob and Mary Lou Wellner, who once attended mega-church Willow Creek Community Church, tells the sad story of the hard edged approach they took with daughter Anna’s revelation that she was gay, which was followed a few months later by Anna’s suicide. The Wellner’s now regret allowing their response to Anna’s coming out to be shaped by people like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. Since their daughter’s death they’ve met those who believe understanding biblical teaching about homosexuality (and everything else) in historical context does not lead to a contemporary rejection of homosexuality, but rather paves the way to loving gays as we would any other human being.

Of all the films and guests explored by Fuller Seminary & Biola University students at Windrider, (click here to listen to Craig Detweiler’s interview with Mel White and the Wellners) this one obviously caused the most angst. Having just seen an icon of Jesus in which one side of his face reflects grace and the other side law, many Windrider participants seemed caught in the tension of their desire to extend love to gays, while at the same time staying true to the biblical admonitions they believe condemn homosexuality.

I’ve lived with this tension all my life. Immediately out of seminary I went to work in a S.F. firm in which 8 of the 24 business partners were gay. Whatever theoretical constructs I embraced were immediately exposed to the light of day. How do you balance what you’ve been taught the Bible teaches about the “abomination” of homosexuality and the demonization of the “gay lifestyle” when your closest friends are gay? The issue gets even more complex when your gay friends articulate a desire to pursue God fully and advance their case on biblical grounds.

The range and merits of conflicting interpretations of biblcal texts on homosexuality are worth exploring, but even if one ends up with more traditional interpretations it seems to me our calling to love and humility should be extended to all people. I’ve learned that Jesus always knew what to do in every situation because he was the full embodiment of an exquisite, holistic expression of grace and truth, but I am not. Jesus seemed to understand that his followers would need a way to balance grace and truth, because he told his disciples that the greatest commandment was to love one another.

I’ve heard conservative Christians argue that Jesus intended that we should love other Christians, but that his commandment does not require us to love people outside the faith. Since they interpret gays to be actively invlved in abominable acts they feel no responsibility to love them. Limiting the arena of our love only to those WE deem Christian is inconsistent with Jesus example and with the teaching of the apostle John, who goes so far as to say–God IS love. If the extension of love to all is the example and teaching of Jesus and if the essence of God is to love, it seems at the very least our intellectual approach to difficult issues should start with love and whatever actions we take should flow from love.

Paul actually placed “knowledge” in a subservient place to love when he said, “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith enough to move mountains, and if I give away all my possessions, but DO NOT HAVE LOVE–I AM NOTHING.” “Now faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”

Combining love with the awareness of our own sin can ease the shrill tone of fundamentalist Christians and the angst of evangelicals at the intersection of grace and truth. It has been my observation that the “hate the sin love the sinner” phrase rolls off of the lips of people blind to their own fallenness. We’re back to Solzhenitsyn, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

As a broadcaster I’ve taken many unpopular positions–does it seem odd to you that the commitment to love is one of them? I recall being attacked by a conservative Christian for the conciliatory tone I took in an interview with Mel White, who appears in the film “The Bible Tells Me So,” and who left Fuller Seminary after he came out of the closet. He now leads a movement called “Soul Force.”) His literal words were, “What’s this I hear about you being one of those love guys?” It struck me odd that what might be conceived as a compliment was actually beings delivered as a criticism. How have we arrived at the place where being “right” is more important than being “loving?” This is so obviously the Pharisaical problem it is difficult to understand how “people of the book,” “fundamentalists and evangelicals” could read the book and not see it.

I am heartened by the spirit of another Sundance film, “Save Me.” “Mark (Chad Allen), a lost, young, gay man, leads a wild life of drugs and meaningless sex, searching desperately to fill the emptiness in his soul. When Mark finally hits bottom, his brother checks him into Genesis House, a 12-step, Christian, “ex-gay” ministry specializing in healing sexual brokenness.” The nuanced script was intentionally designed to create a space for conversation. I am heartened to report that while at sundance nine individuals involved in the film sat down for 2 hours over dinner with three evangelicals attending Sundance through the Windrider Forum. This spirit of humility and commitment to hospitable dialogue was initiated by the gay community when they sensed the sincerity of these young evangelicals. While this may make some people nervous, for this aging guy it is a wonderful development.

Last night I saw “The Island,” a Russian film celebrating the “holy fool.” Anatoly is radically different from the other monks in whose community he lives. His daily quest is to follow Jesus, but a sin earlier in his life haunts him and keeps him mindful of sin’s present role in what other’s perceive to be a holy life. Classic orthodoxy teaches that the holier you become, the more you’ll be of aware of your personal sin. This is why the orthodox prayer is repeated throughout this film, “Lord Jesus have mercy on me for I am a sinner.” This brings us back to Sundance; there is not one film here that could pass muster with a viewer whose critical eye is trained to spot error, but I have not seen one film at Sundance that did not challenge me to love more deeply. These films make me want to cry out, “Lord Jesus have mercy on me for I am a sinner.”

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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