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.


John said...

interesting comparison between Saving Private Ryan and 300. i don't know that i've realized all the implications of the comparison, but i appreciate it.

i've never really understood the "stylized violence" of the movies that have been made out of Miller's graphic novels or Quentin T.'s movies. it just seems self indulging.

i can appreciate the interesting ways Tarrantino tells a story, but stylized violence is beyond me. if someone can explain it to me, i would much appreciate it.

ronwright said...

Thanks for giving this blog a look see and for the comments John. I wish I had a good answer for your question about "stylized violence". My intuition, and it is only that, as I watch Tarantino films is that by going totally overboard on violence and using a "stylized violence" he is in fact mocking violence and our obsession with it.

Perhaps 300 is also doing the same...but I didn't have that same sort of intuition about it...but I also know that is really vague and merely reflects my initial gut reaction to the movie.

Clint said...

I thought I should probably go see the movie before I make judgments on it, but since I am such a judgmental guy, I'll forgo my own better judgment and try to add to the conversation anyway.

Stylistically, the film looks very interesting. The type of effects used open up new areas of exploration in terms of portraying ancient landscapes, but from what I understand, that is the extent of this film's "revolutionary" status. The storyline seems to suggest that the Spartans, for heroically attempting defend their homeland against insurmountable odds and dying in the process, are worthy of honor. This message comes despite the fact that the Spartans were an inherently militarisitc people, and brutal also, in the sense that they often left "unfit" male infants out to die of exposure if they didn't seem up to snuff for the kind of warring maleness required of the people. By many standards, these are not the kind of people I see as an example for us today.

Also, the film suggests, in a WWE kind of way, that war is a valiant, manly endeavor, and that is in part what makes the story so mediocre. Can we really be convinced by such posturing, especially in the shadow of Clint Eastwood's "Flags of our Fathers," which exposes our tendencies for creating heroes out of normal guys who fight in a war oftentimes only to defned the guy next to him in the trenches? Indeed, what is heroism? "300" would answer that it is valiant war-making; "Flags of our Fathers" would suggest that heroism does not exist in war, but is rather a fabrication created in order to prop up someone's schemes.

Anonymous said...

I must agree with John and say that is an interesting comparison between 300 and Private Ryan.

However, I guess I am struggling with the whole concept of war. Would you concider it a necessary evil? There will always be tyranny in the world and with tyranny always comes violence of some kind. Is wrong for nations to use physical force in order to uphold the freedoms they have?

Sure violence on the indivdual level should be avoided at all costs, but nations operate differently than people. I'm not justifying war in any sense here, but I guess I struggle with the fact that many tyrannical people understand nothing else but violence. Maybe I'm just rambling, but those are some of my thoughts.

This is Ethan by the way. I also have a blog, I'm not sure if what I write is good or makes sense, but it helps me get through some of the stuff I'm going through right now. Anyway here's the link if you want to check it out sometime.

ronwright said...

Hey Ethan! I have a couple of different reactions to your thoughts. The first is that I'm not sure I expect nations to be nonviolent because I don't expect "nations" to be Christian. I wish they were nonviolent, but I don't expect them to be.

As to your point about tyranny, I think it comes down to convictions about self-emptying love defeating evil. Perhaps Christ's greatest temptation was to pick up the sword and become the "new David" the people were looking for...but he didn't. I think part of the problem at the national level is that our imagination is closed off. We assume violence is the only way to deal with tyrannts and thus entertain no other ideas. I understand the argument about the Hitler's of the world needing to be violently put down and in some ways I am sympathetic to them (although I find it interesting how many times we use this to justify violence of some nature...look there's a Hitler, he must be stopped), however, I also am not sure that nonviolence has ever been given a chance in a situation like that at the national level...perhaps because it is so stinkin' terrifying. But, for me, while I hope that nations can someday respond differently my first hope is that Church will be the Church and be able to live up to her convictions.

samlcarr said...

It's not any wonder that the nations would find nonviolence to be a silly idea. The cross is always seen as foolishness by the world.

I would agree with you that the hope is that the church will indeed find itself by again putting into practice that very gospel and teaching of God's kingdom that the world rejects.

Those who follow Jesus are promised only opposition and ridicule. We are to follow in spite of that.

:::: Travis Keller :::: said...

when i read of xerxes tempting i immediately thought the word "trust" - where all that may seem attractive and/or easy is meaningless. i'm glad you brought that idea full circle at the end of your post.
yes. maybe we should OCCASSIONALLY ask ourselves, "is this the way of jesus?"

:::: Travis Keller :::: said...

how about braveheart? maybe this could get you back into the blogging world.

Joe said...

I agree with you Dr. Wright,

many times I hear the argument "what about Hitler?" and the "what about the Old Testament?"

after some long discussions I repeatedly want to ask "What about Jesus?" What about the Cross?" and "What about the early church?"

I am continually frustrated to see Christians forget about people like Christ and Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. to bring it to recent times. People filled with the Love of Christ, trying to fight evil with pure Love.

It's amazing to see that all of these people have, through the Power of God, conquered fear of death, and daily took on shame, mockery, and death to see Love prevail. Did Martin Luther King Jr. do more to start change worldwide than killing Hitler? I might like to look into that more. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Daniel Coutz said...

It amazes me how people talk about how inspiring people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gahndi etc. are and then later talk about how the only alternative is violence or war.