The Day after Tomorrow (Or two years after next?)

There’s been almost a glut of good movies this summer. I really haven’t had time to comment on most of them yet, and probably won’t get to some of them. floodingI was actually going to pass on making any mention of The Day after Tomorrow?it was a fun way to kill a couple of hours, a blend of sci-fi and disaster movie. It suffered from poor marketing and poor timing?being released against major blockbusters like Harry Potter III and Spider-Man 2; as well undeservedly negative criticism, much of which was ranting about possible political motives rather than simple critiques of a Sunday afternoon escape.

It has a suprisingly strong emphasis on the small-scale human perspective?a fairly good story for the disaster genre. Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal play a father and son, separated by a terrifying new kind of storm, unlike anything witnessed by modern humanity. The storm is powered by global warming and wreaks an ice age upon Earth within a couple of weeks, as melting polar ice shifts the warm ocean currents out of the temperate zone. Effects are excellent, and well-worth the price of a ticket. My assessment was that it was pretty good sci-fi. I really didn’t think much more of it.

At least not until last night, when I read this in a interview with Ervin Laszlo:

“Right now, for example, with the melting of the ice deflecting the Gulf Stream, it’s entirely possible that in three years England will have the frigid climate of Labrador,which is at the same latitude. Spring and summer just won’t come. (What is Enlightenment? Issue 26, p.22 “will spring and summer no longer come?” )

Dr. Laszlo is not just any scientist, but the pioneer of systems theory, which has revolutionized all science. He doesn’t know everything, but he’s one of sharpest minds on the planet. Dramatic climate change in northwestern Europe possibly within three years? While the heather turning into tundra does not an ice age make, it sure doesn’t appeal to me. I happen to like spring and summer, and I can well imagine the Brits prefer their four temperate seasons to climatological catastrophe. Laszlo, BTW, is hardly alone in his concern: there seem to be a number of European scientists quite concerned about the declining health of the Gulf Stream.

Let’s pray it’s neither the day after tomorrow nor three years down the road, but that we can still prevent it.

The system works. (Don’t look behind the curtain.)

A week ago a friend of mine was thrown into jail, charged with trespassing. He was innocent, but because his accuser complained loudly enough, he was tossed into jail, without an opportunity to meet with, let alone to be represented by counsel. Furthermore, he wasn’t scheduled for a bond hearing (his first opportunity to have legal representation) for nearly three weeks. Fortunately, his family was able to have his hearing moved up, and at his bond hearing six days after his incarceration began, he was released as there was not a shred of evidence against him.

In school, I was taught that part of what made America “the greatest country in the world” is that you’re always “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” At least in Virginia Beach, there’s a very good chance you’ll be judged guilty until proven innocent. My friend was actually rather lucky. Last night, I learned from a local community leader of the case of a teen-age boy who was incarcarated for six months before having a hearing.

The enormity of this problem goes unnoticed because this problem is invisible to most of us. But the fact is that 1 out of 50 American adults is in jail or prison as you read this. Not does America have the world’s largest prison population, but even our per capita rate of incarceration is the highest in the world?. Thats’ right. Not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Not the Islamic Republic of Iran. Not the People’s Republic of China. But the Land of the Free.

So what do you do when your friend is in jail, a victim of false arrest? You try to visit him, and give him a book to cheer him and help pass the time. But if your friend is in the Virginia Beach Correctional Facility, it doesn’t work like that. This isn’t the friendly cell of Mayberry RFD. An inmate is only allowed vistors for a half-hour, once a week, through the glass. Books can not be delivered to prisoners by visitors. Books can not be shipped to prisoners from local bookstores. An inmate may only receive a book if it arrives directly from a publisher! (Too bad if it’s our of print, as many spiritual classics are.) But of course, since the jail is taking on the role of an unofficial prison, there must be a library, right? Wrong. Daily exercise, like in a state penitentiary? It’s weekly in Virginia Beach. Adequate facilities? Inmates sleep on the floor, 30 men to a 20 X 50-foot room.

Incarceration rates are soaring for minor offenses, when both violent crimes and property crimes are at their lowest rates ever recorded. That’s right. So why do you feel so afraid when the fact is you’ve never been safer from crime, at least not in the last thirty years? Start recognizing cultural lies and marketed fear around you. Open your eyes.

Children have no choice but to accept the stories they are told about the world. But part of adulthood means seeking the truth. Spiritual awakening is not really about seeking bliss. It’s about ending the deception which the mechanisms of our fears, desires, and conditioning feed us in the Matrix. Here are some of them:

The system works.
It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we can do.
If you didn’t deserve it, you wouldn’t be there.
We spend too much trying to rehabilitate people.
Sure we bombed them, but it was for their own good.
If we kill all the bad guys, all the bad guys will be gone.

It’s time to determine to discard lies and seek the truth. That’s Jedi life in the Real World.

It’s dry here

Almost everyone I know has periods of spiritual dryness. I certainly am not past that; I’m in such a period right now. There’s a lot of doubt underneath the surface—”Is any of this helping? Am I stupid for seeking enlightenment? Isn’t meditation just a waste?”

I know these voices—and I think every mystic is familiar with them. Sometimes they seem more convincing than others. I think it’s strange we don’t talk more about our doubts and fears in the spiritual life. Instead, it’s much easier to keep up the mask of certainty. Almost all of our spiritual leaders do; uncertainty cannot be countenanced. “The Bible says . . .” “You must believe . . . ” I distrust such degrees of certainty now—too often a past certainty can lead to a present spiritual blindness. “God is on our side, we must destroy the evildoers, etc.”

And I’m not really distressed by the blankness of my spirit, or God’s silence right now. I’m trying to make it a part of my practice, to listen to the doubts, and fears “little Jon” has, and smile at them and let them pass. It isn’t always easy. In December last year, for a few weeks, it became a pretty rough time, with some feelings of despair. Many mystics, such as St. John of the Cross and Eckhart Tolle, have described “the dark night of the soul,” a period (often long) of despair and depression before God breaks through upon their consciousness and instills a never-ending awareness of infinite grace.

Fortunately (I think it’s fortunate), I’ve never had to deal with that, although a close friend of mine has. But last December for me was more like a shadowed nap-time of the soul. And this is nothing compared to that. Everything is practice, every emotion, even the fears and doubts.

Waking Life

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

An exploration of the meaning of life

Waking Life poster

Waking Life is one of those rare movies which you tend to appreciate more as time goes by. It’s an indie film, well outside of the mainstream audience since there’s not a single car chase, explosion, or space ship. Waking Life is a completely different kind of movie—a beautiful, imaginative, exploration of the meaning of the nature of reality, seen as a real-time dream in the mind of a nameless protagonist played by Wiley Wiggins. This is an indie film by the director of the cult hit, Slacker, and it follows the same stream-of-consciousness style, though with a tone of earnestness markedly different from Slacker.

Waking Life has a visual style unlike any other animated film ever produced. For the most part, faces and shapes are painted without outlines, which makes almost every frame look like an impressionistic painting. There’s a persistent, fluid unsettledness in every scene; rooms bob and ripple, like coaches on a train, or a group of houseboats packed together. Lines, shapes, colors and shadows are in constant motion, sometimes slight, giving a faint feeling of relative stability before they morph into things completely different. Characters turn into clouds or machinery according to their thoughts, and our hero finds himself flying away helplessly to other scenes. All of this accentuates the dreamlike feeling of the story.

The young man’s dream is a meandering stream-of-consciousness through dozens of conversations, speculations, diatribes and dialogues on the meaning of life, and the nature of reality as expounded by a vast array of characters expressing nearly every philosophy conceivable. Even though I sometimes wish the world was a bit more like Waking Life, and that breakrooms were filled with conversations of this sort, hearing every person (no matter how ignorant) proclaim him/herself an expert on the nature of the universe sometimes became tiresome.

And yet, the film is compelling. There simply has never been a movie made like this before, one which asks, relentlessly, with the earnestness of a true seeker, what is it all about? What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of reality?

Awakening from the dream-world

Wiley in the station

Over the course of the movie, the young man gradually realizes he’s in a dream. Although he seems to wake up and go to sleep, he realizes that he is only dreaming that he does so. and tries to wake up. Unfortunately, he can’t, and he continues to wander from one philosophical conversation to another, occasionally meeting someone who’s interested in something more than spouting off their views.

For millennia, mystics around the world have said that life is a dream, and that our spiritual goal is to awaken. (See sidebar.)

The reward of virtue is to see Your face,
and on waking, to gaze my fill on Your likeness.—Psalm 17:5

Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
—St. Paul, Eph. 5:14, NIV

When asked if he was a man, an angel, or a god, the Buddha answered no to all of these, and then said, “I am awake.”—Anguttara Nikaya 4:36

From the unreal, lead me to the Real,
from darkness, lead me to light,
from death, lead me to immortality.
—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The saying that “life is a dream” doesn’t mean the physical universe is an illusion, but that spiritual reality, Ultimate Reality, is much more substantial, although it seems less so here in “Dreamland.” The dream is that we are completely separate beings, mortal and detached from God, and in our inability to realize we are dreaming, we are unable to see that God is in all things, and all things are in God. Our true nature is spirit and our true source is God, and until we find him we are lost in an unconscious, unreal state. God—Ultimate Reality—is far deeper, truer, and more “real” than our experiential reality—just as waking life is from dreams. So in our sleepwalking, we take the world we see to be the way things are, and, even though we “believe” in God as the Ultimate Reality, the dream of this world keeps us from union with Him.

The young man in Waking Life who has learned that he is dreaming has become somewhat unnerved by the realization that the world he knows is not real; waking up is now his quest. This is a very accurate depiction of the frustration most mystics encounter at the beginning of spiritual awakening. It is unsettling and frustrating to find that one no longer “believes” in the world, and that everyone seems to be sleepwalking. Jesus is recorded as saying:

The one who seeks should not cease seeking until he finds. And when he finds, he will be dismayed. And when he is dismayed, he will be astonished. And he will be king over the All.

—Gospel of Thomas, 2

The young man does follow this path—he keeps seeking until he finds. Now and then he catches a conversation where someone actually has some insight into what’s going on, and a few people who can actually see him and talk to him directly. In the same way, in our lives, generally very few people can recognize and speak to our beings, seeing us for who we truly are. His final encounter sets him free. At an arcade, another young man suggests to him that every moment is presented by God as an invitation to join him, to become part of infinity and eternity,and we say “Whoa, not yet!”

The young man’s spirit is taken up to heaven, symbolizing the soul’s union with God, although most will probably understand this as death. Yet divine union is a kind of death, it is the death of “the self”. St. Paul said, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) It is the death that brings us into eternal life, the Kingdom of heaven, here and now.

Waking Life is both a beautiful objet d’art and a brilliant mystical essay. For anyone interested in the big questions at all, it’s a must-see.

Movie stills © 2001 Twentieth-Century Fox.

The Matrix Saga

Spi-Fi masterpiece


Okay, I’ll be honest. I really didn’t like the Matrix movies that much. I tend to prefer my science-fiction a tad more coherent, and I really like to see more colors than just black, gray and brown, and more than three hours’ worth of plot and character in seven hours of screen time. But here I’m not concerned with whether it’s good sci-fi, but if it’s good spi-fi, and yes, the Matrix trilogy is very good spiritual fiction.

The Matrix story stands apart from the mass of other virtual-reality movies like The Thirteenth FloorExistenzVanilla Sky, and others by consciously making spiritual connections. Its spiritual symbolism is so evident in fact, that even a pubescent vid-kid entranced by the techno-dazzle might give a few thoughts to what it means.

The Matrix of delusion

This saga, whatever its weaknesses may be, is a profound analogy for spiritual awakening. Enlightenment teachers such as Vernon Kitabu Turner and David Oshana sometimes use it in their teachings. “The Matrix” is the world that all but a few humans are experiencing—the world that we all know, with its ups, downs, distractions and rewards. It’s not perfect, but that’s life—the world simply is the way it is, right?

Not quite. Neo Anderson, our hero, learns that this world he’s known and accepted all of his life is a façade, a massive virtual reality program designed to control humanity. The deception of the Matrix shelters people from the terrible truth of their real existence, which is horrible beyond words. People are kept caged from birth in pods, grown by machines for the purpose of powering the machines that really rule the world—an unending hell in which there simply is no human intelligence in control at all.

Good thing it’s just fiction. Right?

Or could it be that we do live in a façade? That we are not in control, but from birth, we’ve been programmed relentlessly by our culture to do what the culture wants, to be persons not in God’s image, but in society’s? Could it be that our defense mechanisms, mechanical reactions, and institutional machinery is what really runs our lives? Is the product of our personal fears and collective ego a machine-mind which powers itself by keeping us ignorant throughout our lives? Is the human condition simply powering the mechanisms that keep us bound in darkness? Is there help?

How can we wake up? This is the ultimate question. The Matrix portrays the desperateness and misery of our ignorance with a punch. We’re not awake. We’re living in dream-world, fueling the mechanisms of our own delusions. We need to wake up. Who will show us the way?

The hero-savior

Zion is the only city of free people remaining. However, the “Real World” is not very pleasant. The hundred thousand or so people who have been taken out of the illusions of the Matrix are losing a desperate war against the machines (the spiritual battle against the forces of delusion). Morpheus (named after the god of dreams) rescues Neo from the Matrix and brings him into the Real World, believing him to be “The One,” the savior who can end the war and save mankind. Neo also meets Trinity, whose love symbolizes the love of God. Together, the three work on freeing mankind by going into the illusory world to wake up others and find the machines’ weakness.

Neo is the most-discussed savior character to appear in recent cinematic fiction. Neo is both Greek for new as well as an anagram for one which underscores his Messianic title: The One. Anderson literally means “Son of Man,” the title Jesus used in the Gospels. Neo not only typifies Christ as the Savior, but also the Buddha as the Awakened One.

in training

Like the Buddha, when Neo becomes aware of the enormity of human suffering, he devotes himself to training so that he will have the power to go into the Matrix without succumbing to the illusion. When he becomes truly aware of the falseness of the Matrix, he can see the “agent programs” who seek to destroy him simply as the machine code they really are.

However, like Christ, he manifests superhuman powers as he realizes his own true nature in both the Matrix and the Real World (spiritual reality). It’s interesting that the story actually shows two Resurrection scenes. The first one, which takes place at the climax of the first film shows the divine point-of-view; when Neo dies within the Matrix (our world), Trinity (in the Real World) brings him back to life with a kiss, symbolizing Christ being raised by God. The climax of the third movie is another Resurrection scene focussing on the human point-of-view of the Resurrection. In the Matrix, he voluntarily allows the satanic Agent Smith to kill him, and his sacrifice floods the false world with a glorious, purifying light. The result is that everyone still captive in the Matrix now has the choice to either enjoy a beautiful illusion (free from the agents) or to awaken and live in true freedom. Simultaneously, conscious people in the Real World enjoy divine peace, and the machines can no longer threaten them.

The Matrix’s myriad religious images are mostly Christian and Buddhist, but there are other elements in the mix. Although Zion is a city of about a hundred thousand people, its worship is tribal—a wild, sensual dance galvanizes the people as they prepare to face the battle that may destroy them. It’s one of the most interesting scenes in the trilogy, and a sad reminder that our modern religions have lost almost all traces of primal earthiness. Neo and Trinity’s lovemaking in the background pictures a restored human innocence as well as the spiritual lovemaking of God and the soul in Christian mysticism.

Neo and Trinity

Chris Seay points out in The Gospel Reloaded that The Matrix is particularly consistent with the Gnostic movement in early Christianity, which emphasized the inadequacy and falseness of this world, with the need for enlightenment or awakening, (which they called gnosis. “knowledge”). Other Gnostic elements are the Oracle (Sophia, divine Wisdom) constantly urging those who call on her to look within for the Truth, and the Architect (the Demiurge), the deceptive spiritual force which keeps the massive illusion in place.

What The Matrix doesn’t show is the Reality beyond the “Real World”: the hidden splendor and unity of all things in God. Instead, it offers an original and powerful lesson on the urgency and challenge of living in true freedom: You are in the Matrix. It’s time to wake up.

images ©1999, 2003 Warner Bros.

40 Days and 40 Nights

A Christian sex comedy

A different kind of sex comedy

receiving a blessing

Hollywood often receives criticism for the morality (or lack thereof) it portrays in movies, and few are more notorious than that odd creation of the past few years, the teen-oriented sex comedy. However, 40 Days and 40 Nights is an interesting and unexpected twist on the sex comedy genre. It’s not about teens and it has abstinence (temporary, at least) as its theme. (It’s been done before; Aristophanes’ Lysistrata comes to mind, but that was 2500 years ago!)

Not surprisingly, 40 Days and 40 Nights is a far different story from Lysistrata. The concerns are modern, the issues more serious, and the setting is-somewhat, at least, Christian. Christian?! A Christian sex comedy? I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I’m joking, but 40 Days is about the sexual angst of a young man in San Francisco, Matt Sullivan, played by Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down), who happens to be a Christian, although his faith is far from control of his life. Matt has suffered a devastating breakup, and like many people (Christians included), does not know how to regain his grip on life. An early scene shows Matt in a confessional, describing that he feels he’s falling into “a black hole.”

Matt longs for love, but like many people, he settles for sex. His breakup with Nicole has left him floundering, and he covers his pain with sex, using weekly sexual flings as a drug. After six months, the meaninglessness is beginning to take its toll, and the “black hole” of his addictive behavior is leading to a crisis.

Matt visits his brother (a Catholic seminarian) at church on the first day of Lent and has a revelation: Since this is the start of Lent, the season of repentance, self-examination, and sacrifice to identify with Jesus’ temptations in the desert, he will give up sex for Lent. Not just “sex” alone, but all sexual activity, period: hugging, kissing, pornography, self-gratification. (This actually is the course of treatment used by sex-addiction 12-step groups.)

Having made a sacred vow, Matt steps out of the church feeling peace for the first time in months. A heavenly light shines on him, Jesus smiles at him, and Mary gives him an approving wink. And Matt is going to need all of this grace, because his vow is suddenly going to become very tough to fulfill: he is about to meet the woman of his dreams, Erica, (Shannon Sossamon, A Knight’s Tale). Furthermore, it’s quite an understatement to say he does not get any help from his friends: in fact, they begin betting that he’ll fail, which leads to some hilarious scenes.

An honest portrayal of religion and sexuality


Although this isn’t a “religious” movie per se, it has some of the most natural religious conversations I’ve ever seen in a theater, including talking about Jesus. There once was a time when the name of Jesus couldn’t even be mentioned even in “religious” movies. (Remember Bing Crosby as a priest in The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way? There was little mention of God, and Jesus was completely unmentionable. In fact, in the latter movie, the priest actually had to say “Santa Claus believes in you” as a euphemism for God!) In 40 Days, Matt, his parents, his brother, and even his roommate talk freely and comfortably about their personal lives, from God and Jesus, to romance and sexuality.

This willingness (at least at the beginning) to treat the spiritual and sexual sides of life together is the most original aspect of 40 Days. We are all simultaneously spiritual and sexual beings, and many of us live in some degree of tension between the two. Due to the relentless “sexual evangelization” of society, young people (like Matt) are increasingly choosing to consider their bodies’ urges before moral teachings, and often (like Matt), experience severe and needless suffering because of it.

Another difference of this movie is a willingness to treat the light and dark sides of sexuality simultaneously. Matt’s parents describe their satisfaction with their sex lives and consider it a gift of God. On the other hand, there is an illustration of the danger of confusing sex and love. When Erica, who can’t conceive of love without sex, tries to seduce Josh, who prefers to abstain, it causes him great anguish, and touches on the selfishness inherent in creating that pressure. Other scenes show the entirely selfish attitudes of seduction without love, and the violation of sex without consent. The difficulty of celibacy within the Church also comes up.

. . . with a formulaic ending

Yet in the end, 40 Days not only shies away from its initial challenges to a sex-obsessed culture, but gives in with a vengeance. I would’ve loved for it to end with Matt taking Erica to church on Easter Sunday, but our friends in Hollywood weren’t feeling that adventurous, and unfortunately the actual ending undercuts almost all the potential which came before. That said, it still is one very funny movie. (One technical oversight: the director doesn’t seem to know that Lent is the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The festive decorations in the church for “the first day of Lent” weren’t appropriate to Ash Wednesday. And though Lent is called the “forty days,” it actually is forty-six days long.)

(A slightly different version of this review is mirrored on the Hollywood Jesus website.)

Movie stills © 2002 Universal Pictures.

My first maritime rescue mission!

A friend of mine invited me along for some boating this morning. We took out a 23-foot fishing yacht, and enjoyed the waters of Hampton Roads between Norfolk and Hampton. It was choppy on the east side of the Hampton Roads bridge, but quite a bit calmer on the west side. I even had a shot at piloting, which was a thrill, because I had never done it before (and my friend is not much more experienced than I am!)

After a while, clouds began rolling in, and we decided to head back. I was just beginning to hoist up the anchor when my friend saw a flare go up from a small boat about a quarter-mile to starboard. (God, I love talking like a sailor!) It turns out, though, that the Fourth of July is the worst day possible for a Roman candle red signal flare to get any notice. It took me several minutes to pull up the anchor through the mud (there’s got to be an easier way, and no, this boat didn’t have any kind of wench at all). Honestly, we were hoping that another boat might answer the call, but none did, so as soon as we were free, we sped off to help.

A man, woman and boy were on the boat—they couldn’t start their engine due to a dead battery. They had called a friend to come and get them, but we offered a tow, and they accepted. (Good thing, too. A thunderstorm had opened up, and visibility was down to about 200 yards. They would’ve been stuck for a long time.) It’s hard to understand directions being shouted from another boat over the roar of a 200-horsepower outboard motor in a heavy downpour, but we soon reached their boat ramp in Portsmouth. They were grateful for our help, and we felt grateful to be able to give it. It was a wet, long ride back to Hampton through the rain, but it felt like such a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. No, my first “rescue mission” didn’t involve CPR or any heroics, just a neighborly tow, but hey, that’s Jedi life in the real world.