Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Surrender First: War Room & Smelly Feet

War Room follows a family going through the kind of spiritual crisis any of us might face in our daily lives but shows how we probably don't go about solving it. One of the characteristics of Tony in the film is his ability to do a back flip; why? It shows that he's able to do a "complete turn-around." His back-flipping is a metaphor, but it demonstrates how powerful and dramatic conversion is, even though we don't usually see those results in our day-to-day lives. Late in the film, Tony is driving his family to the double-Dutch competition and he sees his old boss on the side of the road; his car has a flat tire. The car is and symbolizes a "vehicle," and the boss' vehicle for conversion and faith is debilitated, he can't move. Tony making that selfless and forgiving act towards him literally changes the flat tire of the vehicle of grace, so he can get moving again in his own journey of faith. Little things such as these might slip beyond our attention in daily live, but they carry powerful effects in the invisible world of faith and conversion.
Let's be perfectly honest: Christina spiritual films rarely live up to the high standards of Hollywood blockbusters that we are used to seeing. Either because the Christian film can't get the financial backing of a big film to get the talent and equipment, the executives aren't interested in making "faith-based" films or the people making them love God, but don't have a deep wisdom for narrating a truly compelling story (or, all of the above), but when it comes to Christian films, too often they just aren't good, and sadly, because of this reputation, audiences to whom the films are directed don't won't to waste time and money on seeing films that aren't going to deliver.
This is Ms. Clara and her story is very simple: her husband, Leo, was a strategist during the Vietnam War, so he would analyze what the Viet Cong were doing, what they were trying to accomplish, and then create a response strategy to stop them. Ms. Clara narrates her story that she didn't do what Leo had been doing: she was fighting Leo instead of fighting the one using Leo against her, Satan. Again, this is one of the strengths of the film: it calls the devil by his name, it's not whitewashing in political correctness, or trying to blanket over concepts to make people feel more comfortable watching the film: it shows people failing, and doubting, and uses such instances to make its point: we all need a strategy to defeat the devil. Another strength of the film is that it doesn't try to make it look easier than what it is, and that will be discussed further when we discuss Elizabeth's feet. In the meantime, we see Ms. Clara in "her favorite room" of her house, her closet that she has cleared out and goes into when she prays. She has written a prayer for every part of her life, every person she holds up, and keeps a list of all the prayers God has answered so she doesn't get discouraged. This "inner-room" wherein God calls us to go so that we may pray is the inner-room of our hearts; why? Because our heart is where we hold our fears and pain, our dreams and our hopes, this makes it The Wilderness, as in, "the wilderness" the Israelite children wandered for forty years, waiting to be taken to the Promised Land. It is in the wilderness that the devil and his servants are best found, because when you are fasting from the world (in what ever manner: social media, food, comfort, talking, etc.) you are taking away the places of hiding where they can safely live, free from exposure. When you go "into the wilderness," or into the war room, you are making an act of fasting, doing what God wants of you instead of what you want to do, and this act of discipline makes the demons scream in pain. In the wilderness, too, however, you find God. In this inner-room of your heart, which was made by God for God, you find the Holy Spirit leading you in life by your dreams and your hopes, instead of being led by the devil by your fears and your scars. 
Case in point: Darren Aronofsky's Noah (Russell Crowe) was so bad on a number of levels, people didn't want to experience that with Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings even though that was a first-class Christian film (not to mention some very damning and false reviews that got around to the conservatives about the film). So, when it happens that a film like Exodus doesn't do well, executives point to that and say, "See? They don't do well," and invest elsewhere. Fortunately, War Room has the quality, the talent and the story to make for a truly compelling narrative that never tries to out-do itself or convert people via guilt trips; the film speaks on its own terms, and it's moving audience members to greater faith and participation in their spiritual lives. There are a couple of key symbols the film utilizes and this develops the characters and their struggles, which also properly categorizing what the struggle ahead of them is: death.
On the left is Tony, Elizabeth's husband who has not been doing a good job lately; on the right is his friend, a paramedic. Michael, who realizes Tony is having problems but gets shut out by Tony. Something Michael realizes is how much effort Tony has put into getting ripped, and correctly deduces that Tony is doing it for someone other than his wife. The differences between Tony's mind and body is a simple, but effective metaphor for what we are willing to do in life: we put all our efforts into the world, but not the next world, into keeping physically healthy, but not spiritually healthy. The out fits the two men wear reveal their spiritual priorities. Gray is the color of the pilgrim or novice and usually denotes penance. Tony's gray shirt means he is a novice at prayer (the torso, which houses the vital organs, most importantly symbolizes the heart and our ability to live) and making priorities; Michael, however, because of how he speaks of marriage in the film, could be said to be doing penance by his gray shorts, which covers his sexual organs, suggesting that he has control over himself and his desires. This is emphasized by his gray tennis shoes: the shoes symbolize the will, because our feet take us in life where we want to go the way our will decides where it is we want to go and then directs our actions. But Michael's gray shoes, that of being a pilgrim and doing penance, have bright orange shoelaces; orange is the color of life and of vibrancy, so even though Michael is sacrificing and abstaining from things in life, this is exactly what helps him enjoy life (the orange shoelaces). Tony, on the other hand, wears red shorts, and red symbolizes the appetites, because we either have an appetite for love, or an appetite for wrath, and we can argue that Tony isn't really attracted to other women, however, he is made at Elizabeth and that anger is what is driving him to set himself up to cheat on her. Black is the color of death, and Tony's black shoes mean that his will is dead, and he's not leading a purposeful life, just getting by, which is why he started stealing the drugs from his company and selling them on the side. Michael's blue T-shirt means wisdom: he has suffered in life, and he knows sadness, but he has learned form his experiences and church and he is a better man for it. Later, when Tony reveals that Elizabeth cleaned out her closet and has been praying for him, Michael says, "I wish I had someone praying for me like that," because he realizes that Tony's bonuses and the affair he's passively starting isn't what life is about, rather, love is, and God is love, so those who truly love someone put them before God. Tony's arms are exposed in this shirt, meaning that Tony sees his strength in his own body, his own arms and personal strength, not in the strength that comes from a strong heart that has been cleansed of its sins and counts on God.
One of the first of these symbols we encounter is that of Elizabeth's smelly feet: her feet smell so bad, everyone comments upon them, and her shoes smell so bad, she has to take them outside. Feet, as we know, symbolize the will, and that Elizabeth's feet smell so bad means that her will is dead, like Lazarus rising from his tomb and stinking because he had been dead for three days. This would be a typical symbol and characterization which we could expect in a Christian film, however, the film makers let us know that, at the end of the film, in spite of God's help and Elizabeth's personal rejuvenation of her prayer and spiritual life, Elizabeth has only just begun and her will is still dead. This isn't a soft, warm and fuzzy kind of Christian film, this is reality.
So, Elizabeth clears out her closet and begins a "campaign of prayer." Elizabeth goes through a number of chairs so she can be comfortable in her room, and at one point, her daughter opens the door to find her sitting in there eating from a bag of chips. Why? That's exactly what we so in our spiritual lives, we want easy and fast food. Towards the end of the film, after Elizabeth has sold Ms. Clara's house, she goes to tell her and Ms. Clara says, "Wait, don't tell me, it's been bought by a preacher and his wife from Texas," and Elizabeth replies, "That's how I wish the Lord would talk to me!" and Ms. Clara responds, "The Lord didn't tell me, your daughter sent me a text message." That's what we want from God, a clear, easy-to-understand text message about what it is we want to know. But if that is what God did, we wouldn't grow. God does have a text message sent to Elizabeth, and we could say it does come from Him, but it's not what she wants to hear. While she's in her war room, a friend texts her that she sees Tony in Atlanta having lunch with a woman she doesn't recognize; Elizabeth has been afraid that Tony has been cheating on her, and this message is what Elizabeth needs to now get serious about prayer and trusting God. If you will notice, in this image, Elizabeth wears a purple shirt: purple is the color of suffering, and the color of royalty. At Lent, we often see the Cross draped in a purple cloth, because it denotes how Jesus' willingness suffer for us means that we should be willing to make Him our king and lord because of His love for us. Elizabeth is suffering for Tony and her family, and this begins the process of making her more like Christ so she can radiate His love to all.
At the end, Tony gives Elizabeth the ice cream sundae she has been craving, and a foot massage, but not until he first puts on a surgical mask before getting close to her feet. Her feet still smell bad, because all the trials that they have encountered and overcome, are a drop in the bucket to the spiritual exercises still required to make Tony, Elizabeth and Danielle fully alive in Christ; the surgical mask Tony wears invokes Christ as the Divine Physician who knows what the soul needs in order to remove the deadly sins, and that is still ahead in their future. The ice cream, however, serves as a metaphor of the consolation of the moment: when we need a rest, especially in the early days of our trials and struggles, God sends us consolations, ice cream, so to speak, and something to comfort our soul, but He removes those and sends us on more and more difficult trials so we continue in our progress, and the consolations (tend to) become fewer and fewer.
What about the jump rope?
The purpose of withdrawing consolations from us, and still sending us trials and struggles is so our will (symbolized by our feet) will become strong and automatically chose God in all things, not just easy ones. After her first meeting with Ms. Clara, Elizabeth sits on her couch, rubbing her stinking feet and looking at her Bible, but she doesn't pick her Bible up, she allows herself to become distracted by something else instead; this is a sign of a weak will. A sign that Elizabeth's will is getting stronger is when Tony tells her that he has been fired and instead of questioning him, nagging or worrying, she offers her help and reassurance to him; this is the first sign to Tony that something has changed with Elizabeth, and it has: she has begun strengthening her will so that she chooses God, not the world (in this case, worrying about the loss of income). The time she has spent exercising her will in prayer has paid off and she is able to will herself to turn to God, rather than indulge in the fears the rest of the world would plunge themselves into and get angry at Tony the way he expects her to. 
Jumping rope might not seem like a particularly strong metaphor of the spiritual life to use, however, it requires a plan, it requires team work, there is an element of timing, there's a rhythm and each jumper has to share; they are each being pushed to try something new and different. Above all, there is an element of trust, and all of these elements are virtues we can see being developed in our spiritual lives, individually and collectively. We mess up, others mess up, and then we just start again, and that's how life in Christ is: we forgive, we are forgiven, we sin, they sin, and we forgive again, then we ask for forgiveness again, and each time, it's on a deeper level, a level closer to the genuine mystery of our individuality and belonging to Christ.
I think this is the most moving scene in the film: Tony realizes Elizabeth and Danielle have both been praying for him and he's been willing to cheat on them. Tony is in Danielle's room, meaning, he has entered into the part of him that can still be a child before the Heavenly Father, and his heart is filled with shame and remorse over how he has acted. Earlier in the film, Tony had a nightmare that he heard Elizabeth crying out to him to help her and when he confronted the assailant threatening her, he turned around and it was Tony himself. In the spiritual life, we are often fighting ourselves, but it's our false self, the self the devil has created in world terms, an idol for others to talk to and go have fun with, not the real person God created us to be. The destruction of this idol is slow and has to be deliberate because we often can't tell the difference between the idol of ourselves and our real self. An example of this would be Bruce Jenner. He claims to be a Christian but has created this false idol of himself he, and everyone else, is calling, Caitlyn, but that's not who Bruce Jenner was created to become; instead of worshiping his creator, Bruce Jenner has sought to make himself a creator, and those around him who are playing into his lie are dragging him further and further away from God, but he's doing that to others as well by suggesting that he has made a "legitimate choice" in "becoming" a woman. But let me not be self-righteous: I do the same thing in my own life: when I don't tell my loved ones when I hurt so they can help me, when I don't chose to spread love, and I get angry at rude drivers and I let myself hold a grudge, I am also building a false idol; I tear down the devil's work when I ask for forgiveness and do penance, but I also have to actively work at revealing and understanding the mystery that is my own self which God created for His purpose, and you do, too.  
Elizabeth thanks Ms. Clara for helping her through her tough times, and then Ms. Clara tells Elizabeth that she was an answer to Ms. Clara's own prayers that God would send Ms. Clara someone she could teach her "war room" tactics to; this is an important point, because it shows how Grace--God's very own Life--flows through the most mundane parts of our lives, and how God's economy of salvation is always working; we can choose to be a part of it, or not, but that choice is ours and we will reap the rewards or suffer the consequences depending upon how we use our free will or abuse it.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner