If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up. Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. (Psalm 27.10-11)
So it’s the Second Sunday of Lent and Oscar night, the one time during the year when my two greatest passions—faith and film—nod at each other in passing. (I should clarify: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t schedule its awards ceremony to coincide with Lent. Still, the two often overlap.) This year I’ve set a new personal best in seeing the nominated films. Other than two Foreign-Language nominees and four Documentary Shorts, I’ve seen everything. And what’s struck me about this year’s slate is the preponderance of movies about survival. It can be said that virtually all of the Best Picture nominees portray individuals dealing with traumatic events that threaten their wellbeing. Not all of them make it out alive. But this theme of facing horrendous odds is even more pronounced in the specialty categories.
- In addition to Beasts of the Southern Wild (my favorite film of 2012), the Live-Action Short Nominees Asad, Buzkashi Boys, Death of Shadow, and Curfew present young people whose lives are irrevocably shaped by trauma, as does War Witch (Foreign Language Film) and Inocente (Documentary Short Subject), which introduces us to a 15-year-old homeless girl whose only hope exists in her extraordinary artistic ability.
- Literally all the Best Documentary nominees tell survival stories. Two (5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers) ponder the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. How to Survive a Plague recounts the genesis of ACT UP, the AIDS activist group that pressured the government and drug firms to develop effective treatments. The Invisible War paints a heartbreaking—and enraging—picture of veterans whose lives are forever scarred by rape while in the military. Searching for Sugar Man is the redemption tale of a 70s pop star presumed dead after his career tanked and he survived poverty as a day laborer in Detroit.
- Chasing Ice (Best Song) is a harrowing documentary that chronicles climate change’s visible impact on the planet’s survival.
The pulse that races through these films beats with the sense of being under siege. There are no easy answers in these movies. Forces beyond their characters’ control raise seemingly insurmountable barriers and we can gauge how we’re feeling about our predicaments by how few of them earn that old “ triumph of the human spirit" cliché. These pictures have been chosen for the industry’s highest honor because they speak to us in urgent, inescapable ways. And what they’re telling us is not overly optimistic.
Souls at Their Extremes
Perhaps the Oscars’ close proximity has filtered my response to this weekend’s texts. But it seems to me that they, too, present vivid portraits of endangered survival. The Old Testament (Genesis 15.1-18) recounts God’s covenant with Abraham, who’s lost all hope of fatherhood. In Psalm 27, David feels beset on all sides, yet he resists the pressure to give up by declaring, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (v1) In Philippians, Paul contrasts the waywardness of those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” with the assurance of believers, whose “citizenship is in heaven.” “Stand firm in the Lord in this way,” he says. Then the Gospel (Luke 13.31-35) gives us the poignant moment when Jesus predicts His imminent death and mourns that, had things gone another way, His story might have ended differently. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” He cries. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Everything in these texts feels in flux and uncertain. The voices we hear are weary and confused. There are deeply struck notes of trepidation, conflict, and loneliness. The cries come from souls at their extremes, hanging on to hope against all hope, belief in spite of all evidence that things are not working out favorably. Abraham is too old to have children. David is a warrior king in retreat. The fledgling congregation at Philippi is in danger of being overtaken by heretics. And Jesus is facing certain death because His own people won’t listen to Him. To a one, these people travel rocky roads. They’re struggling to survive. And the vivid emotions that enfold them require turning to the only help they know: a God Who is personally involved in their lives, Who is a Friend that sticks closer than any sibling, Who will go with them to the end. There is optimism in these stories, but you have to look for it, because the situations they describe are bleak.
God is With Us
Reading the texts—my head swimming with movie images of children, families, nations, and a planet at grave risk—the stubborn faith that David proclaims in Psalm 27.10-11 grabbed my heart and lifted it. “If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up,” he says. “Teach me Your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.” While conflicts and confusion that befall us may not achieve the epic scale of Scripture and movies, they nonetheless bring us to points of crisis when we feel our very survival is at risk. Loved ones come and go, often laying responsibility for their departure at our doors. Unforeseen circumstances threaten our inner sense of self, stability, and strength. Time keeps ticking, stacking up regrets and disappointments that erode our hope for the future. Opposing opinions and false ideologies rob our clarity of purpose. The feeling that no one listens to us creates profound grief.
If we are to survive, we have to know that God is with us. Those nearest to us may walk away, but the Lord will take us up. When we place our lives in God’s hands, we pray David’s prayer: “Teach me Your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path.” God alone is able to carry us over life’s rocky roads. Only God can help us stand firm in the midst of chaos. Only God can provide stability in the time of trouble. If we emulate David’s confidence in his Maker, we will discover the truth at the end of Psalm 27: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” Whatever we face, if we place our patience and trust in God, God will take us up. We will get out alive.
Surviving life’s traumas and terrors is the binding theme in this year’s Academy Awards. And we see a similar array of survivors in Sunday’s texts.