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The Circle Shows the Need for Genuine Community

Screenshot from Official Trailer
Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

I recently read Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, which was released a couple of weeks ago as a film starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. The story follows 24-year-old graduate Mae Holland who leaves her boring hometown job to get a customer relations position at  the world’s most powerful social media corporation, the Circle, a combination of Google, Facebook, PayPal, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Mae quickly rises through the ranks and things seem wonderful at first, but as the story progresses, Mae’s story takes on a darker tone, allowing Eggers’ tale to confront questions raised by the growth of social media regarding issues such as transparency, the right to privacy, and democracy. Described as this generation’s 1984, Eggers presents a chilling Orwellian view of the possible effects of rampant technology.

One of the ideas I found most interesting in Eggers’ novel is the poor substitute for genuine community that the online world provides, and the insecurity that can result. Connecting mainly by online means, one can detect a real insecurity among the Circle’s members.

A hypersensitive colleague is offended when Mae doesn’t reply to his invitation to come to a brunch he puts on; the situation gets so bad that it requires mediation involving Mae’s supervisor. On another occasion, a friend sends increasingly hostile and paranoid emails, aggrieved that Mae hasn’t replied immediately; they saw each other only 20 minutes ago. Others are offended that she hasn’t taken an interest in their online clubs or posts, or responded immediately to their requests. When a public survey finds that 97 percent of the Circle campus agree that Mae is awesome, she fixates on the three percent who responded with a “frown”. “Likes” and “Smiles” become the dopamine-producing hit that bolsters fragile self-esteem in this digital world that passes for true human communication. As Mae’s ex-boyfriend states, “There’s a new neediness—it pervades everything”.

Mae finds that she acquires a new skill in this brave new technological world: “the ability to look, to the outside world, utterly serene and even cheerful, while in her skull, all was chaos” (p. 322). This desire to appear better than we actually are reflects a lack of true connection and a deep insecurity.

Steven Furtick, the pastor of Elevation Church in North Carolina, says, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Author Simon Sinek says that growing up in a Facebook-Instagram world has made millennials (people born since 1984) “good at showing that life is a-maz-ing even though I’m depressed.” Sinek’s concern is that these young people lack deep meaningful relationships, and when deep stress arises, they turn not to a person, but to a device, to social media.

The pressure to appear “amazing” while we interact with the profiles of others who are also “amazing” takes a toll. A 2016 University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine survey of 1,787 U.S. millennials found that those who used social media frequently had 2.7 times more likelihood of depression than those who used it less regularly. Sadly, it can become hard to be honest about ourselves in such a forum. As one pastor notes about social interaction on Facebook: “Am I interacting with their vulnerable and far more beautiful real self, or their ideal self?”

As Christian psychologist David Benner puts it, revealing my true self means seeking to turn up as who I am in reality and who I am becoming as I seek after God. In contrast, our false self is a type of playacting, pretending, knowingly or unknowingly, to be someone we’re not. It’s a self we craft, package, and present to the world in the hope that it will earn us love based on what we do, what we have, and what others think of us.

We were created for community. As American pastor and missionary Howard Snyder puts it, community in the New Testament sense of koinonia “assumes and requires face-to-face communication” whether in the ancient world or in the age of the Internet. The “one another” life of the New Testament calls us into loving community: accept one another (Rom 15:7), submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21), bear with each other and forgive one another (Col 3:13), encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thes 5:11)

There is no app for deep relationships. Such relationships take time and can be awkward, fun, infuriating, fulfilling, and lasting. It is in such relations that we can know love and experience joy as we are accepted and loved by those who know us as we truly are. As we learn to live honestly before God and one another, knowing ourselves as loved and accepted, we can increasingly step out free to be who God created us to be. As we enjoy technology and all it has to offer, let’s continue to engage in the New Testament “one another” life.

Logan-Theres-no-living-with-killing

Logan: There’s no living with killing

Photo taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Logan is a far cry from the other superhero actioners in the X-Men franchise. Unlike 2000’s original X-Men, rated PG-13 in the US, where the blood-letting was kept to a minimum, this final R-16 instalment is a far darker and more brutal film, gut-wrenching in its visceral violence and profanity.

(Spoiler alert) It is 2029, and the mutant gene has been eradicated. Wolverine is drinking heavily and clearly sickly, working to support an ailing Charles Xavier (Professor X). A woman approaches Logan and asks for his help. Big, nasty corporation Transigen have cloned mutants to be super soldiers, but these mutant kids have escaped. Long story short, Logan ends up reluctant protector to a young girl named Laura, cloned from his DNA. He sets off on the road with Laura and Professor X with heavily armed bad guys in pursuit.

Following in the footsteps of violent anti-violence films like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1994), this is no cartoonish portrayal of violence without consequence: innocent people suffer, and those who deal in violence bear the consequences.

Logan draws on the classic 1953 western Shane (watched by Professor X and Laura in the hotel, and quoted by Laura over Logan’s grave). In Shane, a gunslinger tries to live a peaceful life, but in the end has to don his guns once again to protect the peaceful folk against the bullies. In the film’s finale, he says to the young farmer’s son who idolizes him: “There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks.” For Logan director James Mangold, the film reflects the philosophy of Shane’s final words, in that Shane/Logan can never have a life, because they have taken life.

In one particular scene, where Laura explains that she has nightmares in which people hurt her, Logan says of his nightmares, “Mine are different. I hurt people.” Laura admits that she has hurt others, but they were bad people. Logan retorts, “All the same . . . ” His hanging, unfinished reply speaks volumes. The justification that “they deserve it” doesn’t mean much for Logan. It’s still killing, and it leaves its mark on the soul, a “brand that sticks”.

In the end, Logan chooses to care and sacrifices himself to save Laura and her friends. With his final words he says to Laura, “Don’t be what they made you.” Laura has the ability to make choices; she doesn’t need to be a feral killing machine.

Jesus taught, “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matt 5:39). American Baptist minister and leader in the civil rights movement Martin Luther King said, “Violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.” As American priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor points out, the main purpose of turning the other cheek is “to disarm the violence in us”. In following Christ’s example, rather than taking life, we seek to lay down our lives for others in loving service.

Logan also highlights the importance of hope and forgiveness. The film hints that Xavier’s dementia led to a telepathic seizure that caused the death of a number of mutants in the past. One night while on the run, Xavier, Laura and Logan spend the evening with a family. That night, lying in bed, Professor X says, “This was, without a doubt, the most perfect night I’ve had in a long time.” Then, remembering the tragedy he caused, he says, “I don’t deserve it, do I?”

Xavier’s words reveal his deep sense of shame and regret, and his need for something this world cannot offer. Alongside Logan’s guilt and struggle to connect, it shows these previously heroic figures to be all too flawed and human.

This is a wonderful thing about the gospel: we don’t deserve it. We don’t earn God’s love and forgiveness by working hard or being good, but rather, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith . . . not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8a-9). Philip Yancey describes grace in in the following way:

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more . . . And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less . . . Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.

This human longing for forgiveness and peace is universal, and as one reviewer writes, Logan is a parable of “the hope that can be found in what we do not deserve.” We are loved and accepted. No matter what path we have walked, no matter what darkness we have encountered, grace and love, forgiveness and hope are available to us because of what God has done through Jesus Christ.

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What Silence Has To Say

Photo taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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Written By Caleb Young, Australia

If you’re into movies that encourage, inspire, or even provoke, Silence may be the answer—if you hang in there and wait for the best parts to emerge.

Silence, a movie that Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese had reportedly worked on for over two decades, revolves around two Jesuit priests who were smuggled into 17th-century Japan just when it started its isolationist foreign policy. The priests, Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), and Father Garupe, played by Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), were subjected to physical, emotional, and psychological torture alongside the “Kakure Kirishitans” (the underground Japanese Christians) over their faith—in scenes that take up much of the film’s 161 minutes.

The drawn-out, slow-paced narrative can be a turn-off for some, and was likely one of the reasons why the film did poorly at the box office. However, I would contend that the film is far from a bad one.

Garfield does a fantastic job expressing the emotional distress that Rodrigues goes through when the foundation of everything he believes in seems to slowly crumble. The character of Kichijiro (played by Yōsuke Kubozuka) is wonderfully written and complex. Kichijiro can be described as a strange blend between Judas and Peter who constantly challenges Rodrigues’ concepts of grace and forgiveness in the face of betrayal. The film has a lot of depth and is not afraid to ask tough questions that promise to keep viewers thinking (as it did to me).

As a Christian, I found myself pondering many of the theological questions that arose from the film. And I believe that is a good thing. Although I won’t attempt to answer many of these questions, several aspects of the movie encouraged me in my understanding of my own faith and belief.

 

Putting a Mentor on a Pedestal

We have a very human tendency to place a person on a pedestal. This seems especially true when it comes to spiritual mentors such as a pastor or church leader. The danger comes when we unwittingly equate this person with God; when that person fails—as humans tend to do—their actions can cause a crisis of faith.

This is exactly what happens to Rodrigues when he hears stories that his spiritual mentor, played by Liam Neeson, has publically rejected God in Japan and is working with the Japanese inquisitors to root out Christians. As a result, the Jesuit priest is left struggling with his faith in God.

Although it is a good thing to respect our leaders, we must be careful not to place them on par with, or even above God. We must make Him and His Word—and not the teachings or character of a fallible human being—the foundation of our faith.

 

The Struggles of Persecuted Christians

The film contains several horrific, heartbreaking scenes of martyrdom—along with inspiring scenes of believers showing steadfast faith even in their final moments, which moved me to tears. I was also struck by the complex, difficult decisions the Japanese Christians had to make under severe persecution.

A common tactic used by the inquisitors during those times was forcing Christians to step on a picture of Jesus. If they refused, the people in their village would be persecuted. Some decided to comply, but most stopped short when they were ordered to spit on the image.

As the leader of the persecuted Christians, Rodrigues’ dilemma was even more complex. Though he was prepared to die for his faith, the Japanese inquisitors threatened to kill members of his congregation if he refused to denounce his faith.

Those scenes were a stark reminder to me that even today, many of God’s followers continue to be forced to make such difficult decisions. Silence challenged me to pray more for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world, and to pray for strength, faith, and wisdom when faced with such adversity.

 

When God is Silent

The struggle that Rodrigues ultimately faced was the distance he felt from God in the midst of his terrible situation. He pleaded with God for guidance but was mostly met with silence. At the height of his psychological torture, Rodrigues cried out, “Christ is here. I just can’t hear him.”

Although we may not necessarily have to face the difficult circumstances portrayed in the movie, it is likely that many of us will go through a season of feeling distant from God. How we react to those challenges can have a strong impact on the rest of our lives. Will we lose heart thinking that God does not care for us in our plight? Will we be led astray by false teaching? Or will we, with God’s help, go through the trial and allow Him to mold us into the person He wants us to be?

I’m not saying this is easy to do, and the film shows how difficult those trials can be. But James 1:12 encourages us, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”

The film’s unexpected, open ending left me with more questions than answers. And yet, Silence served to strengthen my theology and beliefs, as well as give me insight into the struggles faced by persecuted Christians.

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Career Advice from Hidden Figures

Photo taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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Written By Chia Poh Fang, Singapore

Have you ever felt angry for your lack of opportunities? Perhaps, due to the color of your skin, your looks, your gender, or your not so well-connected family background.

We’d all like to believe that career success is strictly a result of talent, drive, and skill set, but experience may tell us otherwise. In reality, it seems as though hiring managers favor those who are better looking. And we know all too well that prejudice against a certain skin color and gender is still prevalent in this day and age. In environments where supply exceeds demand, we may even need people in high places to help us land any job—not just our dream job. I’ve heard that in China, many university undergraduates are fretting about their job prospects because of a lack of connections.

That’s probably why Hidden Figures’ message is especially poignant and relevant for us today. Based on the true life stories of three African-American female mathematicians, the inspirational movie portrays how these three women crossed gender, racial, and societal barriers, to help America chart a new frontier—send an astronaut into outer space and return safely.

In one of the noteworthy scenes in the movie, one of the key characters, Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe), was challenged by a fellow colleague, Karl Zielinski (played by Olek Krupa) to dream big and not allow societal prejudice against females and colored people to hinder or deter her from achieving the “impossible”, i.e. becoming an engineer.

Karl: Mary, a person with an engineer’s mind should be an engineer. You can’t be a computer the rest of your life.

Mary: Mr. Zielinski, I’m a negro woman. I’m not gonna entertain the impossible.

Karl: And I’m a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now I’m standing beneath a spaceship that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars. I think we can say we are living the impossible. Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?

Mary: I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.

That conversation awakened Jackson to realize one thing: she didn’t have to be a victim of low expectations. She later went on to win a court appeal to study in an all-white high school and became NASA’s first black female engineer.

That’s inspiring, you may say, but that’s not me. I’m no trailblazer. I’d rather take the path of least resistance and be resigned to my fate, than go against the grain. You’re probably not alone in that thinking.

However, let’s consider this possibility: we may never reach our God-given potential if we don’t try and give our very best. One author puts it this way: “If we never attempt things that would stretch, grow, and strengthen us, we may end up weak and unprepared for the amazing future that could have been.”

It’s the same message the Apostle James wrote in his letter to encourage the believers who were undergoing immense persecution: “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing” (James 1:2-4, NLT, emphasis mine).

If not for anything, this should encourage us that difficulties and hardships can be for our good if we respond rightly. On top of that, we as believers have good reason to not let society define us. In the words of missionary William Carrey, we can “expect great things, attempt great things” for we serve a great God, who not only holds the universe in His hands, but also holds us close to His heart!

So what does it mean for those of us in a seemingly unending job search or for those of us stuck in a rut in our current job? Consider how God has made you. Use whatever He has bestowed on you—skills, intellect or disposition—to overcome all obstacles, by His strength, to reach your fullest potential! You are God’s wonderful and unique creation (Psalm 139:14), and He has prepared a good work for you to do (Ephesians 2:10).