Saturday, March 24, 2007
The way of the Spartans vs. the way of the Cross: Some Lenten reflections on the movie “300”
“300” is an action-packed stylized rendition of Frank Miller’s graphic comic book of the same name. While the movie is getting all kinds of acclaim for the “cool” way it is shot (which does bring to life the graphic comic book character, I will admit), I am going to be a contrary voice on this aspect of it. For me, it felt like I was watching a video game which created an unhelpful distance between me and the story. The plethora of violence was easy to step back from because it was so obviously computerized and unrealistic (which is part of the point of the way it is shot, I know). The question that I wondered about regarding this aspect of the movie was, “is this a good thing that I am able to view violence in this distant of a manner?” I was struck by the contrast between the manner in which I “watched” (as an outsider unaffected by the acts of violence) “300” and the manner in which I felt like I participated in and was horrified by the violence in “Saving Private Ryan” where the cinematography did not allow the viewer to escape to any safe distance.
This led me to reflect about the moral worldviews that are perhaps behind the two films. Both films, in many ways, seem to lead the viewer to ponder the question of what is worth fighting for and the manner in which freedom and liberty have been won through the lives of warriors who were willing to die. For me, “300” left me with a sense of the inevitability of violence and that it is just the way things are, thus the distance created through the manner it was shot helped to only reinforce this notion (in existential terms, it did not face us with the reality of the abyss). On the other hand, “Saving Private Ryan” opened up questions about the horror and awfulness of violence, as well as a more authentic empathy and respect for the experiences of those who fought in WWII. The “in your face” cinematography of Spielberg allowed for a questioning of whether this is the kind of world we wanted and truly forced us to stare into the abyss of violence.
In the midst of this, the Church is currently observing the Lenten season and while I admire the way that Spielberg attempt’s to display the sacredness of life in the middle of violence, I cannot help but think about the ways that violence and power are often presented as the only solution to the problems of life, evil, and oppression and the manner in which the Cross stands as a radical, and hardly followed, alternative. The finest and most profound moment of “300” for me was when Xerxes meets King Leonidas for the first time. During their conversation there is a creepy moment where Leonidas has his back turned to Xerxes and Xerxes puts his hand on Leonidas’ shoulder and in a soft, seductive voice begins to list all of the things he will provide for Leonidas in terms of wealth and power if only Leonidas will bow down to him. My thoughts immediately went to Satan’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness and how this was a beautiful symbolization of the creepy and seductive way in which temptation occurs. While both Leonidas and Christ say “NO” in no uncertain terms to this temptation, the manner in which they go about resisting and fighting oppressive power is totally opposite. (As a side note: I am not one to cite Wikepedia, but I find it interesting that in the entry for Leonidas, a descendant of Hercules, it is mentioned that as part of the story of Sparta an oracle had prophesied that Sparta would be saved through the death of one of her kings…a descendant of Hercules. This brings even more of a strong oppositional viewpoint between the manner in which Leonidas “saves” Sparta through fighting with violence to his death and Christ’s fighting with love to his death). Leonidas and his soldiers meet violence with violence and die in gallant and honorable fashion in the face of overwhelming odds. Christ, alone, meets violence with love and forgiveness and dies a humiliating death on a cross reserved for thieves and the dregs of society. Which worldview are we most convinced of? When I look around at the evangelical church (my context) I’m not sure that we reflect the way of the Cross as much as we do the way of the Spartans. And I’m not sure we can have it both ways like many in the evangelical church desire…there is something that seems really out of whack when we can read in “Wild at Heart” about the fatherly advice for a young boy to push another boy down when they are being picked on and view that as a good, Christian, male response. While I thought the whole WWJD? phenomenon was quickly turned into a commercial enterprise, it does seems like it is a question we might want to occasionally ask ourselves, particularly when I want to place my boot up alongside someone’s grill.
When I’m honest, I’d rather go down like Leonidas (and Peter) with a sword in my hand, but my conviction that love does overcome evil leads me to now see this as another way that I am in need of transformation. Actively loving and suffering is much more difficult and it forces me to fall back into the absolutely terrifying experience of trusting that God really is the One who overcomes evil with love, death with life, and the closed past with the open future.