Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking stars Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet (the guy on death row) and Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean (the nun who reaches out the Matthew).

The main theme of this movie is mercy. Sister Helen's desire to show mercy to Matthew conflicts with the parents of his victims, who would like to see him dead. The parents think that bestowing kindness on Matthew is the same as condoning his actions. But this is wrong. They also think that he does not deserve mercy since "he's an animal, not a person." But this is also wrong.

It occurred to me that, because of situations like this, it is useful to involve third parties such as Christian ministers. A man on death row might have a genuinely repentant heart (though this would not excuse him from his death sentence). If he truly desires forgiveness, then it would be inappropriate to wait for the relatives of his victims to forgive him because this might never happen and it's not necessarily their responsibility to forgive him (if they aren't Christian). Thus, it is necessary that a third party show the man God's mercy and, ideally, really mean it (like Sister Helen).

The parents of Matthew Poncelet's victims are taken aback by the fact that Sister Helen didn't visit them first... after all they are the victims. This sentiment is justified on one hand, but on the other hand it is not. Both parties need help. Practically speaking, Sister Helen is more in the right, since the parents can seek out all the counseling they want while Matthew is only able to see whoever goes out of their way to visit him. Matthew also requested a visitation, which, in God's kingdom, carries a lot of weight in itself. The parents did not request a visitation from Sister Helen.

To her credit, Helen takes it upon herself to visit everyone involved, listening and sympathizing with both sides. This is her much-needed job--to show mercy to both parties regardless of who seems more guilty. She does this with the knowledge that one or both sets of parents might hate her for trying to comfort Matthew.

Mercy has to be unconditional, otherwise it would stop being mercy. The fact that we don't deserve mercy is exactly why we all need it.

As I watched Dead Man Walking, I couldn't help thinking of Jesus' words, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Mark 2:17). This isn't to belittle the sorrow of those who have suffered a great loss, but rather, this is to Jesus' credit, that He came to be the merciful Third Party that we all desperately need. I don't know what it's like to loose a son or a daughter but, even if I did, it would not affect this general truth that we all need God's mercy.

We all are faced with varying degrees of loss. Thus, another practical purpose for Christ visiting earth: To comfort, heal and restore people on both sides, those who take as well as those from whom something was taken. He is the best One to approach on all issues concerning justice, since He is both the Justifier and the one who will eventually carry out God's justice.

The Elephant Man (1980), starring Anthony Hopkins

Oh yeah,
I know I'm not broken
A little cracked
But still I'm not broken
I wanna laugh
But I think that I'm choking on reality

Please listen to me
There is no such thing as human debris...

-- Bad Religion, "Broken"


The Elephant Man stars John Hurt as John Merrick (the Elephant Man), and Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves (the physician who eventually becomes sympathetic with Merrick's situation). I learned after watching this movie that John Merrick's first name was actually Joseph.

Merrick's condition brings to light the best and worst of the people he runs into, from vindictive predators to those who go out of their way to comfort and care for him. For most of his life a greedy circus boss uses him as a lucrative sideshow. This man, as well as those who pay him to gawk, see Merrick not as a human being, but as a spectacle that exists for their entertainment.

Frederick Treves' first impression of Merrick is as Elephant Man, the star of a circus show. Merrick's identity is already established as a public spectacle, so Treves doesn't think twice about subjecting the man to further humiliation, though this time in front of a more scientific audience. But, as Treves continues to investigate Merrick's physical ailments, he can't help looking on his subject with increasing compassion. Eventually Treves becomes Merrick's main advocate. He introduces this former recluse to public life, giving him the chance to win the respect of London's high society. However, even as Merrick gains the respect of some, other predators emerge and expose him to additional public mockery for their entertainment as well as to make a quick buck.

The Elephant Man juxtaposes unbridled cruelty and genuine compassion. This movie reminds me of the fact that the world has a desperate need for morally solid men. Men needn't acquire exceptional strength or intelligence to defend the defenseless; they only need to listen to their consciences. Frederick Treves, for example, isn't outwardly religious or spiritually-inclined, yet he resists the men who try to exploit Merrick's condition.

The Elephant Man also illustrates our inherent inability to see people as they really are. At first glance, people are repulsed by Merrick's appearance. But, when people give the chance, he wins them over with his quality of character.

There also implications here for all of us from a spiritual perspective, though the roles are reversed. Christ can see who (or what) we really are spiritually--twisted, ugly creatures infected with putrefaction and death--but He chooses to look on us with love and compassion, even to the point of healing and restoring us.

Unlike Merrick, getting to know any of us who are distant from God would not lead others to admire us more... though we have learned to art of putting on a good show, we are naturally despicable in the way that counts--in our souls. But Christ goes out of his way to seek us out, give us comfort and eventually save us from ourselves. He is courageous and self-sacrificing for us to offset our fear and pettiness so that we might learn from His example and do likewise.

Midnight Clear -- People Need People

Midnight Clear is a realistic yet hopeful story about a handful of people who are grappling with severe depression and loneliness on Christmas Eve. They feel hopeless and alone in their own particular way until they run into each other and help each other out in their own particular way. The central thing these people do for each other is be there for one another. They squelch their relational neediness by reaching out to one another. Funny how that works, huh?

God built us to need other people, yet we are hesitant to reach out to others. Simply caring for others would benefit everyone, both givers and receivers, so why do we hold back? God gives us ample desire and opportunity to build up mountains of relational wealth, but most of us are too afraid, bitter or selfish to do anything about it.

I have witnessed God working powerfully through relationships for people who are courageous enough to follow Him in this area. He helps us to battle through loneliness and depression, but we also have to maintain a courageous faith. The solutions to all neediness in the world is not far off: All we have to do is step out (with the distinct possibility of failing) and care for others according to Christ's example. If we step out in faith to genuinely care for others and persevere in our efforts, He will lead us along and cause us to bear much fruit. This isn't easy but, like I said, I have seen this work out beautifully.


Luke's Gospel, Chapter 19:

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him because he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. When other saw this, they all grumbled, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."

Luther -- Quick, costly obedience

“Quick, costly obedience”
-- Wolfgang Simson, present-day German theologian

This statement describes a major characteristic of God’s kingdom: If people are under God’s rule, they will do what He says and they will do it quickly.

This is also the best way to get to know God. People who follow Christ’s lead will fellowship with Him on a level that lip-service Christians can’t comprehend. The best way to honor Christ is to do what He says.

So also Luther obeyed Him at every major turn, from the lightning in the road to his lifetime of resisting religious corruption. He grappled with self-condemnation, which was the best thing he could derive from Catholic doctrine. Then he discovered the simple and obvious fact that God must love people and desire their salvation if He sent Jesus Christ to die for them. From there, he put one foot in front of the other to discover a more liberated quality of faith that does not depend on religion tradition. Thus, by the time he re-discovered salvation through grace, not through works, this seemed radical to most people of his time. To Luther, on the other hand, this seemed like common sense.

Though Luther possessed an impressive intellect, his actions were relatively simple: He did whatever he knew best at that time. He had a brain, so he used it. He had a congregation, so he taught them. He knew German, Greek and Latin, so he translated the Bible in to German for everyone to read.

He learned a vast amount of information, which he put to good use, but it was his actions that truly changed the world. His life didn’t alter the course of history and transform the church as people knew it because of his logical arguments, but because He put his life on the line to defend his conscience and the simple truths put forth in Scripture. We can look back on history and see how God honored Luther’s courage by causing his actions to bear much fruit.

Bruce Almighty -- Signs from God

Bruce Almighty illustrates the way that God is ever-present, giving us all kinds of "signs" (literal and otherwise) that clue us in to what's going on around us. Bruce ignored all the signs that crossed his path until his life literally came to a crashing halt. Like most people, he was so distracted by his small expectations for God that he failed to appreciate all the ways God was already interacting with his everyday life.

To his credit, however, at least Bruce acknowledged God's existence... in his own way he asked for God to show up and that's exactly what happened, though this did not work out exactly the way Bruce expected. Thus, Bruce Almighty is a realistic demonstration of how God answers prayer: He shows up in praying people's lives in ways that will grab their attention. Our own stubbornness necessitates drastic action from God, especially when we ask for it.

Toward the end of Bruce Almighty we discover that the homeless man holding up the cardboard signs was God all along. This unassuming man shows up a few times to add some much needed explanation during some of Bruce's most confounding situations. Nice touch.

Changeling -- True Manliness

Changeling illustrates the world's desperate need for godly men.

Morally wishy-washy men sabotage the lives of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) and her son, Walter. Her husband leaves her as soon as Walter was born because he feared responsibility. Then a man kidnaps and killed Walter. Then the men of the LAPD compound her problem by refusing to do their jobs, practically guaranteeing that no one will ever find him. But Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich) dares to stand up for her. Then a single detective investigates a homicide that his superiors told him to forget about. Finally a well-known lawyer represents her for free, thus helping her win those ground-breaking, legal battles.

Changeling demonstrates the way that women and children tend to be victimized in the absence of morally sound men. It is a dependable phenomenon that men, especially father figures, dictate the world's standards of moral integrity. When women and children are forced to resist injustice on their own, as was the case for Christine Collins and a few little boys in the movie, this inevitably means that men are failing to be moral strongholds that they should be.

The most fundamental thing a man can do to be truly "manly" is maintain his moral integrity. If, for example, every father fulfills his most basic job as a father by caring for his family, then children will grow up in healthier environments and eventually become healthy adults. But fathers who fail to exemplify a decent moral standard for their families not only betray their loved ones, they set a negative precedent for their children, who then pass spiritual dilapidation on to their children.

Another movie, Catch Me If You Can, also demonstrates the effect morally defunct fathers have on their sons. In addition to divorcing his wife, Frank Abagnale (Christopher Walkin) teaches his son, Frank Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) to avoid paying taxes whenever possible. Thus, Frank goes off into the world with little or no idea about financial or social responsibility. He follows his father's example to the Nth degree by not only avoiding the government, but by becoming an international con-artist. At one point in the movie, Frank even asks his father to "ask him to stop" and he will. But his father wouldn't, so he doesn't. Ultimately it was Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the uncompromising FBI agent (representing the law/justice) who emerges as the father-figure Frank never had, but desperately needed.


The man said, "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it."
-- Genesis 3:12. (Sin's emasculating effects become evident as Adam tries to blame Eve for his deliberate disobedience to God.)

Bruce Almighty -- Effective Prayer

Bruce Almighty stars Jim Carrey as Bruce Nolan, Jennifer Aniston as Grace Connelly (Bruce's girlfriend) and Morgan Freeman as God.

Bruce Almighty makes some surprisingly poignant statements about the God's interaction with human beings. In particular, the movie goes to great lengths to demonstrate how much better the world is when people surrender to His divine know-how. By the film's end we learn that God is infinitely smart and capable; therefore we should trust Him.

It turns out that Jennifer Aniston is a dedicated woman of prayer... who woulda thunk? After Bruce assumes (many of) God's responsibilities, he finds out that most of her extensive prayer life was dedicated to interceding on his behalf. She prayed a lot for Bruce, which led to God showing up in Bruce's life in a way that would transform his perspective and renew his sense of purpose forever.

Thus, something else this movie demonstrates: God answers persistent prayer. This is a bold statement coming from a Jim Carrey movie.

"Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart..."
--Luke 1:8

Bad Religion -- "Sorrow" (caused by our own evil)

What if every living soul could be upward and strong?
Well, then, I do imagine

There will be... sorrow
Yeah, there will be... sorrow
There will be... sorrow
No More.


As of now, our evil desires are causing us all kinds of trouble. If the world was totally devoid of spiritual perversity, we could live without sorrow.

We have economic problems, for example, not because money is evil, but because we (all human beings) are greedy. To offset our greed and work toward an economic solution, the government will probably have to impose stricter regulation on real estate and money market transactions.

Apparently, we can't trust ourselves to resist unreasonable avarice. This is all of us, borrowers and lenders alike. Greedy borrowers who lied on their loan applications to get excessively huge loans coupled with greedy lenders who wanted to make a few extra (billion) dollars by approving these applications has caused widespread bankruptcy and an economic chain reaction that is now bringing down the whole world. All this takes root in the fact that we (all human beings in general) are evil.

If we were all morally flawless right now, all sorrow, injustice and oppression would immediately cease. All we have to do to save ourselves from self destruction is be perfect.

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
--Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:48)

Bad Religion -- "Epiphany"

"Epiphany" comes from Bad Religion's album, The Process of Belief
A new age of reason
Brain treason to trick the mind
What good is searching

If nothing's there to find
We arrive at this place

Of no return my brothers
Only to discover that our minds have led us away

So far from the painful truth

Of who we are


What's right is wrong

What's come has gone

What's clear and pure is not so sure

It came to me
All promises become a lie

All that's benign corrupts in time

The fallacy
of epiphany

Come forth bear witness
See the profit from your loss

Beg for forgiveness

Only after you tally the cost

We arrive at this place
Of no return my sisters

Only to discover that our values ran us aground
On the shoal in the sea

Of what we could be



Jesus, our rabbi, will teach us how to function in God's kingdom while we're still here on earth.

Step one: Unlearn everything. Before we can accept Christ as he is, we have to give up everything we think we know about God. Once we surrender our right to define him, he will invade our consciences and expand our limited imaginations.

Apart from Christ, we will never escape the lies we learn to accept about ourselves, the world and God. The fact that we invent religion to replace God demonstrates our natural cluelessness about unhindered spirituality.

Over time our convictions shift, many times imperceptibly. Apart from God, who remains untouched by all forms of corruption, we become distracted. Our good intentions turn into zealous dedication to "alternatives," or forms of godliness that have nothing to do with God.

This is why continuous dedication to Christ is so vital. We are either growing in Him, or we are sliding back into old habits and old lies.

As a church especially, we must keep our spiritual lines of communication open. This is why, prophetic and apostolic ministries are vital to the church's health.

For a while now, the American church has been rejecting prophetic and apostolic movement in favor of feeling safe. We might acknowledge that obedience to God is a good thing, but we would rather feel comfortable. As a church we have chosen tradition over obedience, lies over life and self-indulgence over fellowship with God.

Thus the need for unlearning. Whether we are institutionalized Christians or outspoken non-Christians, we all must unlearn the "alternative" brands of spirituality that we have grown accustomed to before we can learn how to function in God's kingdom. This is a sometimes long and painful process, but it's worth it.

"I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."
--Jesus re-teaching Nicodemus (John 3:5-6)

The Apostle (starring Robert Duvall) -- The Good

The one good thing about The Apostle (also written and directed by Robert Duvall) is the way Sonny prays to God when he is in trouble. He does a lot more than what many people would consider "praying"--he goes up by himself to his second story bedroom and rants and raves at God about his troubles. He reasons with God using all the energy he can muster, frequently bringing up the relationship he has to the Almighty. He is respectful, but he also is admittedly angry.

This is a great way to pray. Like any relationship with a regular person, openness is beneficial for our relationship with God.

Tragically, though Sonny is on the right track, he doesn't wait long enough for God to put him all the way on the right track. I imagine, if God had his way the man, he would not have gone off and clubbed a man in the face for sleeping with his wife. I also suspect that, had he done as much listening as he did yelling, he would have developed a more vivacious, genuine quality of faith. Had Sonny waited for God, he would have been able to move forward with his life as a thoroughly reconciled worker in God's kingdom, not a man who uses religion to run from his responsibilities and his past.

The Apostle (starring Robert Duvall) -- The Bad

The Apostle demonstrates most if not all of the detriments being dedicated to man-made religion. According to this movie (and man-made religion in general) it's OK to be in denial of your crimes against humanity and against God as long as you can put on a good enough religious show.

Sonny (Robert Duvall) is a dedicated Evangelist of the "Holiness" persuasion (a derivation of the Charismatic movement). He is so dedicated to his job that he neglects his wife and kids. After a few years, his wife turns to another man for affection--the local youth pastor. When Sonny finds out about this, he clubs the youth pastor in the head with a baseball bat. This lands the youth pastor in a coma until he eventually dies.

So Sonny runs away to another small town. From the get-go, he keeps as busy as possible to escape his unreconciled conscience. Then he starts calling himself an "apostle." As "Apostle E.F." he does the only thing he knows how to do, which is put on an energetic pulpit song-and-dance routine. He is so accomplished in his "Holiness" act that he inspires the local community to help him restore a church building, a church bus and hold church potlucks.

At the end of the movie, the police finally catch up with him. But don't worry... he won't be stopped from putting on one more show. He tells the police to wait until he's done and so, for some reason, they wait. They stand by while he fires up his fledgling congregation for one last time. Then the police take him off to prison for murder. One man from the congregation, Sam, is especially sad because Apostle E.F. inspired him to accept Jesus into his heart.

The Apostle a shameful display of spiritual misguidedness.

In the DVD's extra features Duvall discusses how he observed and the religious shows that his character would later emulate. This is fitting since religious acts can be imitated to the point of inspiring religious people. Such activity might impress the casual onlooker but, from God's point of view, this is egregiously wrong.

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."
--Jesus (Matthew 7:21)

Hoobastank -- "Crawling in the Dark"

I will dedicate
And sacrifice my everything for just a second's worth
Of how my story's ending
And I wish I could know if the directions that I take
And all the choices that I make won't end up all for nothing

Show me what it's for
Make me understand it
I've been crawling in the dark looking for the answer
Is there something more than what i've been handed?
I've been crawling in the dark looking for the answer

Help me carry on
Assure me it's ok to use my heart and not my eyes
To navigate the darkness
Will the ending be ever coming suddenly?
Will I ever get to see the ending to my story?


So when and how will I know?
How much further do I have to go?
How much longer until I finally know?
Because I'm looking and I just can't see what's in front of me
In front of me
In front of me


"Crawling in the Dark" expresses the mindset of a sincere, spiritual seeker, which is ideal. Even after we meet with Jesus for the first time, we should never stop seeking Him.

Christ honors sincere seekers by allowing them to find Him. Even after we find him (or he finds us), we will not be able to help desiring to know him more.

Spiritual seekers are in touch with one of the most basic characteristics of being human, which is that we all desire God. This is true regardless of whether we realize that we desire Him specifically. If we seek out the "something that's missing" long enough, we will eventually find Him.

God wants us to ask questions, exactly the kind that Hoobastank asks here: "When and how will I know? How much further do I have to go?" The Psalms are a collection of prayers and songs, some of which beseech God with such insistence that they sound almost cheeky. Take Psalm 30:9 for example,

" What gain is there in my destruction,
in my going down into the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it proclaim your faithfulness? "

As Jesus said:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."
-- (Matthew 7:7)

Pay It Forward

"The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time."
--Genesis 6:5

"but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more..."
--Romans 5:20


Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) devises a plan to change the world. He calls it "paying it forward." The plan is simple: Bestow a major act of kindness on three separate people on the condition that each of these people go and bestow a major act of kindness on three other people. Each one of these acts has to be "something huge," as Trevor puts it, or something these people could not have done for themselves.

Pay It Forward is a brilliant illustration of grace in action. Grace is deliberate, active, infectious goodness. In a similar way as Trevor, Christ set off a chain reaction by making a few men into agents of God's kingdom. Jesus' condition for receiving His Spirit is also similar to Trevor's condition: Christ-followers must go out and love others extravagantly, with the same fervency that He loved them.

As was stated several times in Pay It Forward, the world is (poo). Or more specifically, humans left to themselves are evil. But heavy doses God's grace, which Christ injects into the hearts of a few unsuspecting subjects, keeps us from annihilating ourselves. If Jesus didn't continually flood the world with his refreshing mercy, we would swim around in our own hopeless puss-pools of evil. Apart from Him, everyone would be dedicated to inventing new forms of evil.

But there is something that offsets our passion for evil... that is Christ's overwhelming passion for God's glory. His grace empowers us to understand that goodness is, in fact, good. As we follow Christ we can learn to yearn after what is good, godly, healthy, praiseworthy and beautiful.


Pay It Forward stars Kevin Spacey as Eugene Simonet (Trevor's teacher), Helen Hunt as Arlene McKinney (Trevor's mother) and James Caviezel as Jerry (Trevor's first test subject for paying it forward).