“Whiplash” & the Worthless

I recently watched the Academy-Award nominated movie “Whiplash”, written by Damien Chazelle, and immediately after its’ ending I had a synthesis of thoughts which have been brewing in my mind for some time. They all center around our ideas of “success”, or “accomplishments”. I warn anyone reading, I spoil the entire movie in what follows, so if you want to watch the film, don’t read on.

The plot of “Whiplash” centers around an aspiring young drummer, “Andrew”, who is pushed to his physical and psychological limits by an obsessive and abusive instructor, “Fletcher”, whose dream it is to give the world the next great Jazz musician. Fletcher literally slaps, throws chairs, and screams at Andrew as his instructor. After Andrew is kicked out of the school, he gives up drums, and anonymously testifies against Fletcher’s abusive methods. Months later, he finds Fletcher playing at a Jazz club and the final scene of the film has Andrew returning to play with Fletcher at a Jazz competition, where he unleashes a spectacular display of his abilities (ironically fulfilling Fletcher’s obsessive dream).

PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL MCFADDEN / SONY PICTURES CLASSICS / EVERETT Click image for source page
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL MCFADDEN / SONY PICTURES CLASSICS / EVERETT
Click image for source page

During the film Andrew loses touch with reality, he becomes prideful, himself obsessive, and loses the friendship of a young woman he is interested in. Yet, despite this, and despite Fletcher’s abusive tactics, something in me was exhilarated at seeing that final scene. I wanted to cheer Andrew on, despite the remaining disdain for Fletcher, and this is where the realizations hit.

A part of me felt motivated, intense, desiring to do something more with my life. In a twisted way, Fletcher & Andrew’s relationship tapped into a part of me which desires to be pushed, disciplined, formed into the best possible person I can be. Seeing Andrew accomplish his goal, in a defiant display, left me wanting to draw up my list of life-goals, the plan of action, and to execute. Then, I remembered something Andrew said in the middle of the movie:

I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was. (source)

When the words come out of Andrew’s mouth, we see they are twisted in some way. Yet, out entire society exalts people who live this way. What matters is that people talk about you, not whether you loved well, or had integriy, or what your family thought of you. What matters is if you invent a technological innovation to “benefit humanity”, not if you were faithful to your wife. So far as Jesus is concerned however, it is worthless to gain the world but lose your soul (Mark 8:34-37). Worthless.

An additional cultural observation is that what prompts Andrew to testify against Fletcher is that a prior student of his had committed suicide, and his testimony was meant to prevent Fletcher from ever doing that again. The irony of this being in a film is that the list of famous actors committing suicide is very long, and while there is no literal instructor yelling at these actors to obsess and lose themselves in their career, it seems as though the reality is uglier: we are “Fletcher”. The multi-billion dollar industry only exists on our indulgences, and the list of casualties to our raving desire to idolize will most likely see no end. The additional irony of my writing this while after watching the film is not lost on me, this is a thought which I only had while writing the post.

So, when I finished the movie, and had a rush of narcissistic motivation to “become something”, I’m incredibly grateful that God slowed down my heartbeat, and the Holy Spirit reminded me of the words of our Lord “the last will be firstand the first last” (Mt. 20:16). I’m not going to live to be remembered, I’m going to live for Jesus, become one with him in his suffering, to love other more than I love myself, to accept insult without retaliating, to speak out against injustice, that by some means I may attain the resurrection of the dead. Christians are not called to be the best at everything we do, rather, we are called to be like Jesus. That this will result in excellence may be, but maybe not. That it will lead us into the Kingdom of God however, is unquestionable. “they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11).

The Worldview of American Sniper

I got around to watching American Sniper yesterday. What struck me most were some words of the main character’s father, Wayne Kyle, speaking to his son Chris after a fight where he was protecting his younger brother in elementary school. Chris would grow up to be the most lethal sniper in US history, and the movie is about his four tours in Iraq. Putting aside the complexities of why any specific person joins the military, the worldview that Wayne Kyle presents his children undergirds the whole movie, it helps us to sympathize with Chris’ efforts, and the film does a good job at that. What I want to highlight is how un-Christianun-Christlike, and unbiblical that worldview really is. While this does address what I would say about Chris’ life and “purpose”, I would have loved to meet Chris, to talk about his experiences, maybe even talk about this worldview and how it goes against things said in the Bible which he carried around with him all four tours. Here are Wayne Kyle’s words:

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. Then you’ve got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog.

The first sentence doesn’t communicate anything off-kilter. It reminds me a bit about this passage from Acts 20:28-29

Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseersto shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock

The next two sentences start to lead us away from a biblical worldview. Wayne states in the film that sheep”prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world”. But, who does Jesus say are the sheep?

I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolvesso be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” -Matthew 10:16

Another relevant passage referring to all Christians as sheep would be Romans 8:35-36

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or dangeror sword? As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

So, really, anyone who is a disciple of Christ is a sheep, and a disciple of Christ has no illusions about evil not existing. The wolves are certainly real. The last portion of Wayne Kyle’s statement is about the “sheepdog”, and how it is blessed with “the gift of aggression”. In the film, it is bluntly obvious that this is not just an attitude but specifically violent aggression that is the key characteristic of the sheepdog. Here again though, we should ask ourselves, how does scripture say Christians are to respond to evil?

Do not avenge yourselvesdear friendsbut give place to God’s wrathfor it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Ratherif your enemy is hungry, feed himif he is thirstygive him a drinkfor in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good – Romans 12:19-21

For this finds God’s favorif because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endurethis finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was malignedhe did not answer backwhen he sufferedhe threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly.” 1 Peter 2:19-23

Christians are called to “follow in his steps”, meaning Jesus’ steps, who did not have the “gift of aggression”, and yet, is the ultimate conqueror over all evil and death. The last thing I will add to this is that in the New Testament there are very strong words about people who harm others within the community of Christians, especially when talking about psychological and social harm. In the first few centuries of Christianity, to be part of “the Church” meant that you most likely shared meals several times a week, shared some possessions, and formed intimate economic and social ties with those people. Thus, instructions such as these were given to leaders if they encountered someone who was wreaking havoc in the community:

Reject divisive person after one or two warnings. You know that such a person is twisted by sin and is conscious of it himself – Titus 3:10-11

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoralor greedyor an idolateror verbally abusive, or a drunkardor a swindlerDo not even eat with such a person. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? But God will judge those outsideRemove the evil person from among you. – 1 Co. 5:11-13

While these instructions may not apply equally to a modern church in the US because of the more isolated and autonomous existence of its’ members, it just goes to show that the sheep are not ignorant of evil. The “removing” is not “exterminating”. All in all, the sheep have a better idea at how to stop evil once and for all! We follow the example of Jesus.

They make a desolation & call it peace

 “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” -Tacitus

I ran across this quote and thought it was a good description of how the leaders of modern nations act (including ours). A quick bit of digging through a wiki article (relax! not writing a research paper here) reminded me of how deceptive the Roman Empire was. It inscribed on its’ military’s medals “peace to the world“. How easy it is to be tricked into thinking that any military can achieve peace!

The irony of the quote is that it was given by another general, Calgacus, who lead a Scottish army into battle against the Roman Empire in the first century. This just highlights the deceptiveness of violence. It is so, so, appealing to us to think that some violence is justified, usually ours. Few stop to see from the bird’s-eye view of history: it all revolves, endlessly, as it has for millennia.

I thought the quote merited its’ own post. I’ll end it with another quote that reminds me of how following Jesus is a challenge to the claim empires make that they are the peacemakers of the world.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Colossians 1:19-20