Fox Byte 5775 #53: Ha’azinu (Give Ear)

הַאְַזִינוּ

In this scene from Empire of the Sun, Jim (Christian Bale) sings the Welsh lullaby Suo Gân in tribute to Japanese kamikaze pilots. The song of hope and of peace carries him through the tribulation of war. (Video via YouTube)
In this scene from Empire of the Sun, Jim (Christian Bale) sings the Welsh lullaby Suo Gân in tribute to Japanese kamikaze pilots. The song of hope and of peace carries him through the tribulation of war. (Video via YouTube)

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.

BFB150926 Suo GanAll 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)

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Fox Byte 5775 #52: Vayelekh (And He Went)

וַיֵּלֶךְ

Concept art for an upcoming Czech film adaptation of Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts. (Photo: The Fish People Attack! Amazing Concept Art For Czech Creature Feature WAR WITH THE NEWTS (VALKA S MLOKY) on twitch, via Topzine.cz; © 2014 Salamander syndicate)
Concept art for an upcoming film adaptation of Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts. (Photo: “The Fish People Attack!” on twitchfilm.com, via Topzine.cz; © 2014 Salamander syndicate)

Isaac Asimov could have written I, Robot without Karel Čapek’s help, but he would have needed a different word for the artificial life forms featured in his writing.  Asimov’s robot stories shifted the paradigms of science fiction by exploring the unintended consequences of creating something smarter and stronger than a human, but without a human’s ethical configuration.  For over half a century he probed dark and difficult territory, asking questions and spinning scenarios that remain disturbingly applicable to our present reality.  Yet Asimov neither invented the word “robot”, nor initiated the inquiry into the potential nemesis of unbridled technological innovation.

Bad things happen when man plays the role of God, as Mary Shelley demonstrated in 1818 with her first novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.  Shelley brought the question into the modern era, but it was Karel Čapek who mechanized it.  Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossumovi univerzální roboti; Rossum’s Universal Robots) was a success from its first performance in 1920.  The play introduced international audiences to the Czech word robota, meaning hard work, a word rendered into English as robot.  The play is not a comedy; in Čapek’s imaginary world the robots are manufactured life forms designed to assist humans, but eventually they rebel and extinguish all human life.

Čapek revived this scenario in War with the Newts, a novel published in 1936 as satire on the hypocritically self-serving international system which enabled Nazi Germany’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia two years later.  It is a humorously dark tale about a race of sentient amphibian creatures discovered in the waters of Indonesia.  The newts prove to be swift learners and adept at a multitude of tasks, making them ideal candidates for exploitation not only as workers, but also as undersea warriors.  In time the newts, like the robots, rebel, destroying the dry land and turning it into shallow waters suitable for their environmental needs.  The nations of the earth find themselves in a war for survival against a global amphibian army.  It is a war humanity will not win, but Čapek reveals that the victorious newts will turn on themselves and become the instruments of their own destruction, leaving a remnant of mankind to rebuild the planet.

It is frightful to contemplate the end of one’s world, particularly when the end is justly deserved.  Asimov, Shelley, and Čapek relate scenarios of judgment resulting from mankind’s own selfish shortsightedness – playing God, if you will.  The element of terror they invoke lurks in the revelation that the instruments of judgment are the works of our own hands.  As usual, art imitates life.  YHVH renders judgment on those who disregard His standard of righteousness and set up standards of their own – playing God, if you will.  Judgment brings a sentence of destruction and death, which is terrifying enough.  What makes it more chilling is to learn the name of the one who will bring about the anticipated death and destruction.  About 35 centuries ago, the doomed Canaanite civilization experienced that very thing shortly after Moses spoke these words:

It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them.  Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the Lord has spoken.  (Deuteronomy 31:3 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #51: Nitzavim (You Are Standing)

נִצָּבִים

Famous literary figures with identity issues. Top row: Oedipus Rex (Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods), Beauty’s Beast (illustration by Walter Crane), The Frog Prince (illustration by Paul Meyerheim), Rapunzel’s prince (illustration by Johnny Gruelle). Bottom row: Hansel and Gretel (illustration by Arthur Rackham), Sleeping Beauty (illustration from Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories), Snow White (illustration by Alexander Zick), Cinderella (illustration by Anne Anderson).
Famous literary figures with identity issues. Top row: Oedipus RexBeauty’s BeastThe Frog Prince, Rapunzel’s prince. Bottom row: Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella.

The worst fate a person can endure?  That would be loss of self.  It is not the same as selflessness, a desirable state of humility which YHVH honors.  Loss of self means removal of what defines a person as a person.  We see this in loved ones who slip slowly away through the ravages of progressive dementia.  Little by little they forget who they are until in the end there is nothing left of them but the memory carried in the hearts of those who once knew them.  It is a tragedy as old as humanity. 

Some of our best stories spring from this loss of identity.  Nearly 2,500 years ago Sophocles dramatized this phenomenon in Oedipus the King, a tale of a man whose birth was accompanied by a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother.  The parents attempt to circumvent the prophecy by ordering the infant slain, but to no avail.  Oedipus is saved and brought up by foster parents, completely ignorant of his identity.  Eventually he fulfills the prophecy.  When at last the secret of his identity is revealed, his mother commits suicide and Oedipus puts out his own eyes.

This motif of hidden identity and forgotten knowledge manifests not merely in classic Greek drama, but in every literary form.  It appears even in fairy tales, where protagonists like Beauty’s Beast and the Frog Prince lose their humanity.  Rapunzel’s prince retains his identity, but he wanders in blindness.  Similarly, Hansel and Gretel lose their way in the forest despite their best efforts.  Princesses also succumb to identity loss, as we learn from Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  Even Cinderella’s true station in life is a mystery to her prince.

The fairy tales generally have happy endings, or at least the Disney renditions make them so, but that is not the case in every tale of this sort.  One might say this identity issue is a perpetual human condition.  We make it worse by ignoring our history, severing the connection with our fathers and mothers of ages past.  This ignorance, whether self-inflicted or imposed by other forces, is the foundation of George Santayana’s famous warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  It is also a reflection of prophetic truth uttered by two men of God in the 8th century BCE:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.  Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest.  Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.  (Hosea 4:6 NASB)

Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude is parched with thirst.  (Isaiah 5:13 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #50: Ki Tavo (When You Enter In)

כִּי־תָבִוֹא

Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkens) offers water to Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) in the 1959 epic, Ben Hur. (Photo: Warner Home Video, featured in "A Day at the Chariot Races: The Digital Liberation of ‘Ben-Hur’", by Bill Desowitz, Motion Picture Editors Guild, November 21, 2011)
Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) offers water to Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) in the 1959 epic, Ben Hur. (Photo: Warner Home Video, featured in “A Day at the Chariot Races: The Digital Liberation of ‘Ben-Hur’”, by Bill Desowitz, Motion Picture Editors Guild, November 21, 2011)

When General Lew Wallace published Ben Hur in 1880, he had no idea that his tale of a wrongfully condemned Jewish prince would have such an impact on modern audiences.  It is a tale of redemption, being the product of Wallace’s own investigation into the validity of the Christian faith.  The epic scale of the story lends itself to the big screen, but Hollywood’s first effort at bringing Wallace’s characters to life in 1925 fell short of the mark.  It took another generation of filmmakers, capitalizing on improved technology and cinematic techniques, to do justice to the tale.  The result was William Wyler’s 1959 production of Ben Hur, a film that surpassed the achievements of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, released just three years previously.  Wyler and DeMille both worked with the same leading man:  Charlton Heston, a handsome actor known for his portrayals of tough men of action.  Heston’s depiction of Moses remains the standard for cinematic portrayals of Israel’s Lawgiver, but it was his role as Judah Ben Hur which won him an Oscar as Best Actor.

The story follows Judah in his quest for revenge after his family is unjustly accused and sentenced for allegedly attempting to kill the new Roman governor of Judea.  His mother and sister are taken to prison, but Judah is condemned to a hellish existence rowing the galleys of Rome’s navy.  After three years his ship receives a new commander, Consul Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins), who leads the fleet against pirates who have menaced the sea lanes.  On inspecting the rowers, Arrius takes notice of Judah as a man full of hate, but able to control it, a trait the Consul finds useful.  Upon concluding his inspection Arrius offers this advice:

Now listen to me, all of you.  You are all condemned men.  We keep you alive to serve this ship.  So row well, and live.

Judah finds opportunity to do more than that.  In battle his ship is rammed and sinks, but he is able to escape and save the life of Consul Arrius.  Later they learn the Roman fleet has won the day and Arrius is a hero.  He returns to Rome, bringing Judah with him in hope of repaying the debt of his life.  Judah becomes a famous chariot racer, trusted with some of his master’s most prized possessions.  In time, Arrius rewards Judah with the greatest gift he can bestow:  adoption as his son and heir. 

Eventually Judah returns home, finds his mother and sister, and avenges the wrong done to his house.  Yet it is not until he encounters Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth that he finds true peace.  Lew Wallace’s story is, after all, a tale of the Christ, and would be incomplete without the redemption the Messiah offers.  The roots of the story, however, go back to the time of Moses, when he spoke these words to the people of Israel:

The Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments; and that He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken.  (Deuteronomy 26:18-19 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #49: Ki Tetze (When You Go Out)

כִּי־תֵצֵא

Ernest Borgnine as Boris Vaslov, the Russian double agent in the Cold War espionage drama Ice Station Zebra. (Photo: The Movie Scene)
Ernest Borgnine as Boris Vaslov, the Russian double agent in the Cold War espionage drama Ice Station Zebra. (Photo: The Movie Scene)

As with all good spy stories, the 1968 movie adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra does not reveal the full truth until near the end.  All we know at the beginning is that a US Navy submarine is on a mission to rescue British scientists trapped at a weather station on the Arctic ice pack.  We realize something unusual is afoot since the boat’s captain, James Ferraday (played by Rock Hudson), has been ordered to take aboard not only a platoon of Marines, but also a British Intelligence officer who goes by the name Jones (Patrick McGoohan).  At sea they are joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), a Russian defector.  After an act of sabotage nearly destroys the submarine, Captain Ferraday confronts Vaslov, asking why he should not believe him to be the saboteur.  Vaslov responds, “That should be obvious, Captain.  I was born a Russian, but I chose my side out of conviction, not by accident of birth.”  Jones vouches for him, and the mission continues.

In time the submarine reaches the destination and breaks through the Arctic ice near Ice Station Zebra.  As the Navy crewmen rescue the surviving scientists, Jones and Vaslov go about the real business of the mission.  Ferraday finds opportunity to speak with Jones alone as the British agent searches for what we learn is a canister of highly sensitive photographic film created in the United States for use in a British camera of extraordinary technical capabilities.  Soviet agents had stolen the film and the camera, and the Soviet Union adapted both for use in a spy satellite.  Jones explains this in one of the movie’s most famous lines:

The Russians put our camera made by “our” German scientists and your film made by “your” German scientists into their satellite made by “their” German scientists, and up it went, round and round, whizzing by the United States of America seven times a day.

Just as the film canister is discovered, a force of Soviet paratroopers lands near the ice station.  Their mission, of course, is also to recover the film canister.  It is at that point that we learn Vaslov’s convictions are not as strong as he would have others believe.  He assaults Jones and reveals himself as a double agent whose real intent is to assist the Soviets in recovering the film.  As the American and Soviet forces engage in a firefight, Jones kills Vaslov.  The fighting ends when the hopelessly outnumbered Americans agree to surrender the canister, but then succeed in destroying it by a final act of intrigue.  Having no further reason to remain in conflict, both sides withdraw, leaving the body of the treacherous Vaslov on the ice.

Boris Vaslov teaches us an eternal truth.  Unable to choose between two identities, in the end he loses them both.  So it is with everyone who halts between allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world.  It is best to choose wisely since Scripture provides an unambiguous statement on the conclusion of this matter:

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”  (Revelation 11:15 NRSV)

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