Somewhere back in the early part of the 20th century, three Jewish brothers from Rhode Island put their heads together and opened a textile company. The Hassenfeld brothers had no idea what their entrepreneurial endeavors would produce, nor would they live to see the global, multi-billion dollar behemoth that their baby company would grow up to become nearly 100 years later. Unbeknownst to them, they had set in motion a chain of events that would re-shape the childhoods of millions of kids in the distant future of 1984. For it was in that year, that the Hassenfeld Brothers’ company, now known by its more popular moniker – Hasbro – would cut a deal with a Japanese toy company known as Takara, and a comic book company in the U.S. known as Marvel, to produce exactly three things aimed directly at the still developing hearts and minds of boys like little Adam Coffman. These three things were a comic book, a cartoon, and a toy line. The purpose of the comic book was to create a mythology, and the purpose of the cartoon was to spin that mythology into 30-minute advertising spots that could be used to market the toy line – a toy line that was comprised of the main characters in the mythology. The result of this inspirational stroke of genius (or diabolical scheme depending on your perspective) was something that the entire globe now knows simply as The Transformers.

What Hasbro hadn’t counted on, was how deeply the mythology of the transforming robots from outer space would burrow into the hearts of its intended target audience. The toys themselves were quite expensive by early 80s standards, and there were many families (like mine) that just couldn’t afford them. But the cartoon, on the other hand, was accessible to everyone, and the stories and characters it introduced into our young lives were so captivating that it ensured a seemingly perpetual longevity to The Transformers mythos, a limitless recycling of products based on them, and a legacy that has now spilled over into the lives of every generation of kids since then.

In the late summer of 1986, just two years after the launch of the brand, The Transformers made their feature film debut in theaters all across America. And within weeks of the film’s premiere, the cries and lamentations of young boys could be heard from sea to shining sea. Hasbro, in an attempt to refresh its line of toy products had introduced plenty of new characters in the $6 million dollar animated film – and it doubled down on its commitment to these new characters by subjecting us all to the on-screen violent murders of the most beloved characters in the franchise, including our hero Optimus Prime. This was the right move from a marketing perspective, I suppose… but for all the 9 and 10 year olds clamoring out of bed extra early on school mornings, and sacrificing our personal hygiene in order to catch a few more glimpses of the Autobots going toe to toe with the Decepticons before the school bus arrived – it was devastating. And we’ve never fully recovered. It left us all with a hollow feeling in the pit of our souls that we’re still trying to fill to this very day.

In 2007, for a brief moment, we gasped a collective sigh of relief as the first live action Transformers movie hit theaters. Nearing our 30s at the time, and sufficiently ready to curate the two decades worth of Transformers material that had sprouted a dense forest of sequels, reboots, and restructured characters – we entered movie theaters with all our hopes and dreams in tow alongside us. And when Peter Cullen, the original voice of our beloved Optimus Prime spoke again after decades of silence… we shed tears. I did anyway. Hearing Prime speak again, after thinking him dead for so long, after hearing only rumors that he had survived the assault on our childhoods, and after having grown into adults with our own battles to fight—it was all too much emotional overload to contain. As Jesus had wept at the tomb of Lazarus before calling him forth into resurrection, so we had wept at the tomb of Optimus Prime before seeing him called back to life by Michael Bay.

Sorry for the crude analogy. I know it’s not as dramatic as all that. And I’m not comparing Michael Bay to Jesus mind you… I’m only calling attention to the sentiment of death and resurrection portrayed for us, even in fictional stories. For our western society which is built on Judeo-Christian ethics and archetypes, this story-telling device is a good way to find traction with our heart-strings.

If we want to get literal, then Michael Bay would be more like the antichrist. Because he brought Prime back, along with the other original generation of Transformers, only to twist them into monstrous parodies of themselves in a series of four sequels that stripped them of any dignity they once held and shackled them within the chains of box office viability for the masses of teenagers today who have no idea what The Transformers are supposed to be.

While the first of Bay’s movies wasn’t too bad (because Steven Spielberg had his hands on the reigns as Executive Producer), and hit pretty close to the mark in terms of conjuring the original mythology, the sequels he made became progressively worse as he was let off the leash by Spielberg and quadrupled down on multi-million dollar special effects, slow motion explosions that last for hours, poop jokes, sex jokes, and close-up shots of boobs, butts, and guns – all at the expense of the only thing that truly matters; the only thing that ever mattered to those of us caught up in this spectacle to begin with: STORY.

Thankfully, and quite unexpectedly, the powers that be – Paramount Pictures, Dreamworks, and Hasbro – came to their collective senses last year, actually listened to all the 40 year olds still looking for our old friends to be given their proper due on the big screen, and pulled Bay out of the Director’s chair – effectively ending his ability to continue dropping steaming piles of manure on the remnants of our childhood imaginations.

In his place, Travis Knight and Christina Hodson have written and directed a sixth Transformers film called Bumblebee, completely rebooting the entire series. And they’ve done a masterful job of it.

This new film is a much smaller, much more humble endeavor. It takes us back to the roots. It’s set in the 1980s, as it should be, and it tells the story of one character – B 127 – the small, loveable, loyal sidekick of Optimus Prime as he crashes on Earth. Pursued by two evil Decepticon lieutenants, alone on an alien world, injured from battle, unable to speak, and without any memory of who he is and where he’s come from, he is forced to go into hiding by taking on the appearance of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Eventually, B-127 is found by a teenage girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) who befriends the beleaguered outcast, renames him Bumblebee, teaches him about human culture, and helps him to recover his memories as their adventures unfold in a way that is unique to the Transformers mythology, and yet also pleasantly reminiscent of something like E.T. the Extraterrestrial.

The story of Bumblebee manages to capture the elements of the original stories that struck so deeply into our hearts as kids in a way that the previous films never have. To us, these stories were never about fast cars, supersonic jets, and sexy paint jobs… they were about heroes; heroes who were the underdogs, driven into exile by unjust oppressors, forced to adapt to a new way of life in a foreign land, befriended by those who saw the good in them, and consumed with a desire to protect, encourage, and inspire their friends.

For a generation of young kids growing up in the 1980s, at the dawn of the digital age, we were the first generation to have a personal relationship with the microchips that were consuming the world around us. Our imaginations were shaped by this, and our minds were mesmerized by it. And they still are. This is the root of our fascination with The Transformers. It’s why they’ve been able to continue appealing to kids (and adults) today. We place so much of our lives into the hands of our technology – we rely on it, and we care for our phones, computers, gaming systems, and cars like they are our friends. At the same time, we’re not naïve about the dangers of technology as well; we know how the things we use for good can also be used to bring about great evil. We’ve walked in both worlds, and The Transformers reflect this same duality.

Fictional stories about technology that can reciprocate our desire for connection and friendship have always made sense to us. Bumblebee succeeds as a film because relationship between human and machine is at the heart of its story – as is the choice between whether we use our connection with technology for good, or for evil.


The Theology of Pulp Fiction

The Theology of Pulp Fiction

One of the good things about getting older is being able to look back and see things from the past with a little more clarity than I did the first time around. I think this is often how we learn things in life. I suppose it’s similar to the difference between walking around in the middle of a city, and then driving away from it and being able to see the whole place from a distance, even as it fades into the rearview. That’s one of the reasons I like to re-watch movies I’ve seen several times before—especially those that I first saw a long time ago. The passage of time seems to create enough distance for me to see the same films with a completely different perspective.

In regards to the movies that I’ve enjoyed the most over the years, this change in my perspective is most notable in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic, Pulp Fiction. It won an Oscar for best screenplay the following year, launched Tarantino out of relative obscurity, and made him one of the best-known directors in Hollywood. I didn’t know any of this at the time, nor did I care in the least bit. I’ve made mention before of all the great movies that came out of 1994—The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Speed, Reality Bites, Dumb and Dumber, and many others—but Pulp Fiction didn’t ping my radar that year. I saw it for the first time a few years later, just around the time I graduated from high school, and even then, I can’t say that I was particularly blown away by it.

That’s not to say it wasn’t mesmerizing in a strange sort of way. The dialogue between the characters in Pulp Fiction was without parallel when it came out. I had never heard anything like it in a movie before, and I don’t believe I have heard conversations done that way in any other film since. Tarantino himself, though landing closer to the mark than any other screenwriter, still hasn’t managed to completely reproduce the same kind of discourse to the same degree in his subsequent films (this is only my opinion of course). It’s the kind of language that is extremely mundane, disgustingly appalling at times, intentionally offensive, and still a masterful work of unparalleled artistic genius—all at the same time. I picked up on this a little bit as a teenager, but I lacked the perspective needed at the time to really appreciate it for what it was.

Along with the aforementioned dialogue, I should probably say something as well about the unusual sequencing of the film. Pulp Fiction has four separate stories that are interwoven with one another, and yet it’s cut and edited in a way that presents these stories to the viewer out of chronological order. What’s more, is that there is nothing overtly obvious within the film itself to let us know that the chronology has been doctored in such a way. Each section of the movie presents a title card before it commences, but there is nothing on any of them to denote what order we’re watching them in. You have to pick up on this entirely from the context of the story itself. The first time I saw it I wasn’t even aware of this cinematic jigsaw puzzle until halfway through the movie, and even then, it took a few more viewings until I was able to piece all of it together properly.

Anyway, I suppose I’m not writing about Pulp Fiction now because of the intriguing dialogue and unusual sequencing… those were obvious innovations in filmmaking that I noticed back in the day. Even then, I appreciated the conversations about the serious nature of foot massages, McDonalds restaurants in Europe, and captured American pilots in Vietnamese prison camps hiding precious family heirlooms inside their anal cavities to avoid confiscation. Nope… I’m writing about Pulp Fiction now, because somehow, in the middle of all that other stuff, I managed to miss the central message of the film entirely.

Pulp Fiction is one of the most theologically engaging spectacles I have ever seen. It took me 20 years (and a MA degree in Theology) to realize this, mostly because it’s not anywhere near the type of movie in which you might remotely expect to find an intense examination of theological concepts—but there it is: a glaring discourse about God—sitting squarely at its center, amidst a maze of vignettes, characters, and language that would turn away anyone who might naturally be looking for this type of thing in a Hollywood film. I’ve been in the Church my whole life, and I can say with an unrestrained amount of certainty, that most of the Church folks I’ve known would never watch this film all the way through. Which is perfectly ok… it’s just a movie after all and I completely understand that sentiment. I think many Christians, even after making it past the R-rating, would be immediately turned off by the first exchange of dialogue and the dozen or so F-bombs that would be waiting eagerly to greet them within the first 10 minutes. But this is the great paradox of Pulp Fiction—that in the middle of all the nastiness and human depravity on full, unapologetic display—it has something to say about God, forgiveness, redemption, and divine judgment, that is profoundly Christian to its very core.

Among the four separate stories being portrayed in Pulp Fiction, there is one situated at the theological center of the movie—this is the story about the two hitmen—Vincent played by John Travolta, and Jules played by Samuel L. Jackson. These two guys are brutal, violent, loathsome individuals. It’s obvious from the opening sequence of the movie that they have been murdering people for a living long enough to be completely numb to what they’re doing, and that they perhaps even enjoy it. None-the-less, these guys are professionals through and through. They have business to conduct, and they do it ruthlessly, without the slightest bit of hesitation or remorse.

Near the beginning of the film Jules and Vincent experience something that sets up the theological debate that we see them engaging in as the story progresses. We’re not supposed to like these kinds of people at all, and yet, this experience they share, and their conflicting interpretations of what it means, makes us extremely interested in what happens to them afterwards.

The dialogue between Jules and Vincent, from that point forward, is a debate about the significance of what they’ve experienced together. Jules interprets the experience as a miraculous, direct intervention from God himself. Vincent, on the other hand, interprets it as a random freak occurrence. The two of them eventually part ways over the incident, because Jules decides that he has experienced God’s grace so thoroughly that it demands a response from him. And his response is to leave behind his life as a vile hitman and follow a different path. At the end of the film we see actual proof that Jules has decided to lead a different kind of life—that his encounter with God is genuine. He knows that God has given him a way out of the path of destruction he’s been on for so long. And he proves that he has accepted God’s grace by, in turn, extending grace to the couple in the diner who try to rob him. After successfully disarming the man and getting the woman to surrender, he gives them all the money he has anyway. Then he lets them go in peace. This is the beginning of his life lived in a state of redemption. His story goes on to places and people we don’t see. We don’t know what exactly happens to him after that.

Vincent, however, is a completely different story. We know exactly what happens to Vincent, because the film, in its out-of-sequence order has already shown us his fate. He concludes that nothing about his life needs to change. He sees no evidence of God, and thus, no need to repent of his life of murder and drug addiction. He goes right on living the same life as if nothing happened. Moreover, and in perfect harmony with the overall theme of grace, after he makes this decision he goes on to witness a similar thing happen to someone else in the character of Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman)—who is miraculously delivered from the jaws of certain death when Vincent plunges a syringe full of adrenaline into her heart to save her from a drug overdose. Yet even this second experience is not enough to wake him up. He will go on being a hitman, and this fateful decision will eventually lead him directly to his own death. Sorry for the spoilers.

I don’t really feel like going into as much detail concerning Bruce Willis’s character Butch, but the vignette involving him is an additional example of how grace is a powerful antidote to hatred and contempt, even among bitter enemies. When faced with the opportunity to leave the man trying to kill him in the midst of torture and death, he instead chooses to go back and save him. This act of grace provides him with the chance at a completely new life, just as it did with Jules.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this old classic from Tarantino. The director has never, to my knowledge, made mention of any personal faith that he may or may not have, and in the 25 years since its release, I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this aspect of Pulp Fiction, but it’s obvious that this was the intended message of the film. Grace, when experienced, demands a response, and our choice of response, whether to extend grace to others, or to recoil further into our natural state of moral filthiness, determines the kind of life we will live, and what we leave behind us as we go.

This, my friends, is an echo of the message that Jesus left us. Christ has provided and demonstrated a stunning act of divine forgiveness and grace for all human beings. The only question is how we respond to it.

Hammering this theme home is the final (chronologically last) shot of the film which literally spells it out for us:


A Star was Born

A Star was Born

This past December wasn’t a very good month for me. I’ll spare you the details, and just say that, generally speaking, I spent the Christmas season cultivating a pretty good forest of melancholy, depression, and uncertainty about the future. However, I’ve learned over the years that it’s normal to feel these things sometimes; it’s a natural part of life. You can’t feel the ups of life, if you don’t feel the downs. It’s not natural to always be walking around in a perpetual state of bliss and contentment. And it’s so easy to forget this when you plug into the matrix every day and are greeted by hundreds of smiling happy faces that are always on vacation, or falling in love, or having babies, or eating in the best restaurants on earth. I’m all for those things, and maybe these are, after all, the best things to share with each other in the public square type of environment that we have online. But, we all know of course, that in reality there’s just as many moments full of sadness and loss and failure and heartbreak. And sometimes the only real medicine is just feeling the pain, letting it wash over you, and giving it some time to pass. Anyway that’s what my December was like. It seems like ages ago now, but somewhere, back in the middle of it, I watched A Star Is Born.

I didn’t feel like writing about it at the time. It’s pretty heavy subject matter. And of course I’ve seen a handful of other movies since then, but this one has stuck to my insides in a way the others have not. I didn’t know what this movie was about beforehand. I was drawn to it mainly because I think Bradley Cooper is a great actor and I wanted to see how he did with his directorial debut. If I had read a plot synopsis ahead of time I might have avoided it. I’m not sure it’s the best kind of movie to watch if you’re feeling down.

It’s good storytelling though — dramatic, intense, cathartic, tragic — all the stuff you need for a film to be entertaining, emotionally engaging, and still relatable to those of us who aren’t out saving the world with Steve Rogers, Peter Parker, and Will Smith. I like those kinds of movies too, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that this film made me FEEL something in the midst of its realness and grittiness.

I think stories that portray self sacrifice (even in such a brutally heartbreaking way as this one) tend to generally have this effect. But when the sacrifice is unexpected, painfully explored, and woven together with love, it hits the heart strings with a hammer. That’s what this movie did to me anyway. That’s why I’m still thinking about it three months later. Correction: That’s why I’m still feeling it.

A Star Is Born is not a new story. It’s been done before. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have retold a story that Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson retold back in ‘76, which was a story that Judy Garland and James Mason starred in before them in ‘54, which was one that was previously portrayed by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in 1937… I haven’t seen any of those, and I don’t know how well they all line up with each other, or how much they reflect this most recent iteration. But none of these are the original story anyway. There’s a much older one…

The one where God descends from Heaven to mingle among the common folks here on Earth. Then he claims a Church for himself, gives her a new life, makes her his Bride, shows her that she is loved, tells her to speak the truth, tells her to be real, and then gives himself up for her—because it was the only way—the only way for her to shine as brightly as possible.

A Star Is Born is proof that the best stories are still the oldest ones – even when they’re wrapped inside new garments.

Even when they reveal themselves inside the unlikely framework of a Hollywood film in 2019.

The music is good too.