The one element of Steven Spielberg’s movies which has remained just beneath my consciousness for nearly thirty years is not his stunning cinematography or compelling drama. It is a song; a simple Welsh melody which carries us through Empire of the Sun. We first hear Suo Gân (Lullaby) as the movie opens. British choir boys sing it in church in the compound reserved for foreigners living in Shanghai. The soloist is Jamie (Christian Bale), a boy of about 10. He is British by birth, but he has never set foot on his parents’ homeland. Jamie’s family live as privileged foreigners have lived ever since China capitulated in the First Opium War a century before. They take no notice of the Chinese except where their own wants and needs are concerned. Jamie, a son of privilege, knows no other way than to lord it over the natives beneath his station.
Change comes quickly when the Japanese attack. China and Japan have been at war for years, but Shanghai is undisturbed until December 8, 1941. As America’s Pacific Fleet burns in Pearl Harbor, Japan’s legions occupy Shanghai. Jamie’s family flees, but in the confusion he is separated from his parents and left to fend for himself, eventually landing in an internment camp adjacent to a Japanese airfield.
By 1945 he is no longer Jamie, but Jim, a rough lad learning to survive among the mixed multitude in captivity. Jim can hold his own, having grown accustomed to lying, stealing, cheating, and other mischief. His innocence dies bit by bit, not only through the tribulations of war, but through betrayal by men he trusts. Yet Suo Gân remains with him. One morning he awakens to see Japanese aviators participating in the ceremony of the kamikaze. Jim comes to attention, salutes, and sings the lullaby in tribute to these men who will soon die in the service of their Emperor. Their deaths come more quickly than expected. At that instant, American P-51 Mustangs, the “Cadillac of the sky”, attack, rapidly transforming the airfield into a smoking ruin. In their wake Jim pauses to consider the dreadful price he has paid to survive. With despair he confesses, “I can’t remember what my parents look like.”
At war’s end Jim finds himself in an orphanage among children awaiting reunion with their parents. Tears of joy flow, but he stands in shocked silence. His father passes by, not recognizing the hardened youth as the beloved, if rebellious, child he knew. It is his mother who sees him, first as the Jamie she loved, then as the Jim she does not know how to love, and finally as a young man with gaping wounds in his soul who desperately needs the healing that only a parent’s love can bring. He looks into her face and four years of pain and death wash away in peace beyond hope – the peace promised in the strains of Suo Gân.
All Jim can remember is the song, but it is enough to set him on the path of healing and reconciliation. So it is with the exiled, destitute people of YHVH. He also gave a song to them – a song that would carry them through time to peace beyond hope:
Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore. (Deuteronomy 31:21 NASB)
What is this tendency of human minds to discard unpleasant things and cling to what is pleasant, nice, and amusing? This can be useful in remembering loved ones who pass from this earth. Whatever annoyances or difficulties they presented us in life fade from our memories, leaving only the glow of happy moments – of childhood kindnesses, of good smells and kind voices, of triumphant moments when a cooperative effort and patience brings victory over a harsh trial. This is good, but in truth these happy things have no meaning if not set apart by the unhappy things.
This truth of life has its reflection in art. Consider, for example, Of Mice and Men, a tragedy penned in 1937 by John Steinbeck to portray the pain of American society in the midst of the Great Depression. It is the tale of George and Lennie, two migrant farm workers in California with a dream of owning a farm of their own one day. From the opening of the play we see that Lennie labors under mental challenges that make him unable to care for himself. He depends on George to keep him out of trouble and think for both of them. All he knows is that he likes to pet nice, soft things with his fingers, and that one day when he and George have a place of their own, he can tend the rabbits they will raise. Lennie is simple, kind, trusting, and hardworking, but he does not know his own strength. The soft things he pets often end up dead. At first it is a mouse, then a puppy, and finally a flirtatious woman who invites him to stroke her hair. This last “bad thing” is something George cannot fix except by ensuring Lennie will never hurt anyone again. The play ends as George tells Lennie one more time about the rabbits, and then takes his life.
Steinbeck lived to see his sublime tragedy dismembered and parodied in superficial popular culture, beginning with animated cartoons. As Of Mice and Men became an Oscar-nominated film in 1940, Warner Brothers gave birth to a new American icon, Bugs Bunny. It did not take long before Lennie’s simpleminded fixation with furry rabbits became a standard feature in Looney Toons shorts, reaching a climax in 1961 with “The Abominable Snow Rabbit”. In the cartoon Lennie becomes an Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas who encounters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Mistaking Daffy for a rabbit, the snowman picks him up and utters these now-famous words:
Just what I always wanted. My own little bunny rabbit. I will name him George, and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him and pat him and pet him and rub him and caress him.
With these lines, this absurd cartoon illustrates how distorted shadows supplant what is unpleasant and tragic, leaving only a form of the truth, but lacking its power. Those who have no knowledge of Steinbeck’s story will laugh at the cartoon, but they remain ignorant of the full context, and are thus robbed of the life lessons Steinbeck sought to impart. The same is true of those who take the Bible in sound bites rather than in its full context, including these words of Moses:
And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flock, in the land of which He swore to your fathers to give you. (Deuteronomy 7:13 NASB)
What would happen if the Vice President of the United States committed murder and got away with it? It is not a rhetorical question; such a thing happened long ago, in the early days of the American Republic. On July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed fellow New Yorker Alexander Hamilton. The two had been adversaries for several years, and eventually their enmity resulted in a duel at a neutral site in Weehawken, New Jersey. It is unclear who fired first, but it is certain that Hamilton fell mortally wounded, dying the next day in New York City. Burr fled, facing charges of murder both in New York and New Jersey, but later returned to the city of Washington to complete his tenure as Vice President. In time the charges of murder were dropped, but Burr’s political career was over. Thoroughly disgraced and out of favor with President Thomas Jefferson, he moved to the West in search of new opportunities.
The American frontier in those days separated the United States from the Empire of Spain in Florida and along a continental-sized line from Louisiana to what would become the Oregon Territory. It did not take long for an enterprising man like Aaron Burr to create opportunities for himself, whether legal or not. It is said that he intrigued with Spanish and American officials on a scheme to separate Mexico from Spain and the western territories from the United States and establish a new empire with himself as its chief. Although the full extent of Burr’s plans will never be known, there was enough truth to the allegations of intrigue to result in his arrest and prosecution by the Jefferson Administration on charges of treason. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, personally presided over the famous trial in August 1807. The Chief Justice had instructed the jury that conviction required testimony by two witnesses to a specific, overt act. When the prosecution could not meet that standard, the jury declared Burr not guilty.
In the election of 1800 Aaron Burr had come within a whisker of winning the presidency. By 1808 he was a political outsider living in exile. By 1812 he had returned to the United State, but he never returned to power. His family, his law practice, and his health deteriorated over the remaining years of his life as he watched his nation grow in size and power without him. Although endowed with considerable gifts and abilities to govern, his grasp for power ensured that his legacy would not be as one of America’s great men, but as a byword, a legal precedent, and a footnote in history. Yet from him, perhaps, we can learn something more about what Yeshua of Nazareth meant by His cryptic observation:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. (Matthew 11:12 NASB)
About the time that Gideon of Manasseh delivered Israel from oppression of the Midianites and Amalekites (Judges 6:1-8:35), a war of (literally) epic proportions took place on the northwest coast of what is now Turkey. The Trojan War really did happen, but the conflict was already wrapped in myth and legend when a Greek poet known only as Homer published The Iliad sometime around 750 BCE, four centuries after the war’s generally accepted dates of 1194-1184 BCE. Homer’s epic inspired a number of classical works telling the tales of the Greeks and Trojans, including a sequel published in Latin seven hundred years later. When the Roman poet Virgil wrote The Aeneid, he probably had a political agenda in mind. His story is that of Aeneas, a Trojan hero of the royal family who escaped the destruction of the city and led a band of refugees in a journey that eventually resulted in their settlement at the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy. There they became part of the story of Rome, a city which began as a colony of Alba Longa, the capital of the new kingdom Aeneas and his descendants founded. Thus Rome could trace its origins at least in part to Troy. More importantly, the family of Julius Caesar traced its genealogy to Aeneas, giving it a claim to royalty that helped Caesar’s nephew Octavian consolidate his power as Caesar Augustus. Whether true or not, Virgil’s epic, written early in Augustus’ long reign, cemented the link of the Caesars with Aeneas and Troy in the minds of Romans, making it one of the most successful pieces of literary propaganda ever published.
Even if the Caesar’s claims were falsified, and even if Aeneas never existed outside of classical literature, his tale is an illustration of the remnant: those who remain. Whether it is Ishmael surviving to tell the story of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, or Job’s servants fleeing disaster to report to him (Job 1:13-22), fact and fiction throughout the human experience have featured a fortunate few who escape. The remnant has the task of carrying the memory of those who went before, of rebuilding what they lost, and of achieving their ultimate destiny. These remnant tales would have little impact on us if they were not a common feature in reality. The remnant is a continuous reminder in Scripture that God’s judgment is tempered with mercy in the expectation that a people will at last be able to step into the fullness of the promises YHVH has spoken from beginning of time.
The problem with great satire is that it can be so irreverent. Then again, that is the strength of satire: using humor and ridicule to point out something (usually a shortcoming, hypocrisy, or vice) often overlooked in the routine of living. Satire can be cruel, and thus must be used with great caution. If employed properly, it moves the audience to laugh loudly in genuine humor at their own or their society’s expense, and plants seeds for reflection that hopefully will bloom into motivation for positive change.
Or perhaps not. Sometimes humor exists only for humor. That is one way to consider the works of Douglas Adams, the late English author best known for his satirical science fiction works, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is quite possible that Adams and I could have been good friends, although our worldviews would have generated a continuous wrestling match between us. To the end of his life he remained utterly convinced in the nonexistence of a Creator, even as I am utterly convinced that there is no god but YHVH. And yet I can appreciate his masterful use of the English language, his clever story lines, and his penetrating wit, all of which he employed to point out things worthy of our consideration. Here is one example from the first Hitchhiker’s Guide novel:
The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?.
This is Adams at his best, using seemingly trivial questions with simple answers to provoke a deeper level of inquiry on the very nature and meaning of human existence. Perhaps he would be surprised to learn that the Lord God does the very same thing. The small, simple, seemingly insignificant things are what He uses to test our hearts, to discipline us, and to mature us so we can exercise greater responsibility, and all the time He magnifies His glory through us and through these processes. Thus, when it comes to distinctions between believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the differences usually are much smaller than we may think. Consider, for example, the attitudes of believers in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus Christ) regarding the Law, or Torah, of God. To define this difference, we can use the same pattern Douglas Adams used by asking three simple questions:
When are we to worship God?
How are we to worship God?
What does God say is food?
The “Jewish” High Holy Days begin at sundown on September 24, 2014, with Yom Teruah, the Feast of Trumpets. It is also called Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year. Many people call it the “Jewish New Year”. But what exactly is this festive day? And should Christians even care about this “Jewish” holiday?
According to Hebrew understanding, Yom Teruah is the day God completed His work of creation by making human beings, the crowning achievement of His work. In the agricultural cycle of the Ancient Near East, where the Bible was written, this day points toward completion of the growing season when the long-expected “latter rains” come. It is the completion of the civil year, a tradition even the United States government has adopted. These are all good reasons for God to command His people to set this day apart by blowing trumpets and observing a special Sabbath day of rest.
Yet there are some confusing things about Yom Teruah. This “Head of the Year” happens on the first day of the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar. One would expect that the New Year would be in the first month, but God Himself directed that the first month would be in the spring (Exodus 12:1-2). That month, called Nisan or Abib in Hebrew, is the month of three great feasts of the Lord: Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstfruits. In that time long ago God delivered His people Israel from bondage in Egypt. Yet the First Month is not the same as the Head of the Year in the Seventh Month, Tishrei. Both months have prophetic significance according to God’s plan for the redemption and restoration of His creation. Through the Feasts celebrated in these months the Lord tells a prophetic story. In the First Month He redeems and delivers His people, and in the Seventh He restores them. One might say He is pressing the reset button to get things back to the way they were before sin caused all this trouble. But why is this “Jewish” feast of Yom Teruah, or any of these “Jewish” feasts, important to Christians?
The answer to that is quite simple: These are not Jewish feasts.