Sunday, May 08, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott’s latest epic will attract the crowds who are lured by the thrill of a historical action flick or, in the case of some, the presence of heart throb Orlando Bloom. Those seeking an action picture will not be disappointed, and I gladly confess I am not an expert on Orlando Bloom’s “hotness quotient” so you will have to figure that out for yourself. There is much more to this film than star power and epic special effects, for which I am very grateful. It is a clear example of the spiritual conversation taking place in our culture.

In my first entry on this blog, I stated that I would not “endorse” movies and I still stand by my assertion that you must use your own discretion in deciding whether or not to see a film, but this is a film that I urge people to watch if they can because it raises important questions on many levels that we need to be discussing. Please be aware that the movie is rated R for graphic depictions of brutal warfare, but even the violence has a message in the way it has been artistically portrayed. The folly of war is conveyed when the war-mongering Guy de Lusignan, recently defeated in battle, is paraded shamefully on a donkey by his enemy. Even more moving is the aerial scene of the final assault on Jerusalem at the Christopher Gate in which the combatants are reduced to a mass of humanity pressing against each other violently but without progress on either side.

The main character of the story, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), is a builder before he is a warrior. He is a blacksmith who lives by the question “What man is a man who does not make the world better?” This question is introduced early in the film and from there Balian is thrust into circumstances that require him to answer this question in more ways than shoeing horses and fixing garden tools.

This is one of the spiritual themes, and there are many, running through the story. Balian is made a knight and his oath demands that he safeguard the helpless and speak the truth even if it costs him his life. His spiritual advisor, the Hospitaler (David Thewlis), reduces the charge to an even simpler statement: “Do what is right!” Balian’s struggle to do this is played out ironically in the story. In the midst of those who claim to speak for God and who are certain that it is God’s will to go to war, Balian, who believes himself cut off from God’s grace, is the one who truly understands what God requires, yet he is simply trying to do what is right. As I watched this theme develop during the story, I reflected on texts such as Micah 6:8 - “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Balian believes that he is outside of God’s grace because of his misfortunes. The characters that struggle with misfortune, such as the leprous King Baldwin and his sister Princess Sybilla, are those who struggle the most with forgiveness. Baldwin believes that his physical deformity is God’s curse and his efforts to bring peace to Jerusalem are an attempt at penance. Sybilla makes choices during the story that cause her to condemn herself as she carries the burden for the misfortune of others. The film doesn’t offer easy resolution for the guilt that these characters feel. I respect that and I appreciate the way the story poignantly portrays the reality of guilt and forgiveness. In one such scene Godfrey of Ibelin is asked if he renounces his sins. He replies, “All but one,” referring to his actions that made him Balian’s father.

As the title suggests, the central discussion in the film is about the idea of kingdom. As the tale begins, Jerusalem is described as the center of the spiritual universe and all religions have access to God through Jerusalem. However, the peace in Jerusalem is fragile and religious extremists on all sides want to claim exclusive access to the center of the universe. This concept of heavenly kingdom is intertwined with geopolitical dominance. However, the developing story challenges that view of kingdom. Balian voices this new concept of kingdom more clearly than any other character. He contends, almost blasphemously, that the most sacred part of Jerusalem is not the bricks and stones that make up the holy shrines, but the people that live there. Balian is willing to fight on his honor to protect these people but he will not defend stones and mortar. In another scene, Balian describes the "Kingdom of Heaven" as a kingdom of conscience. He tries to assuage the guilt of Sybilla, who holds herself responsible for the collapse of her brother’s rule in Jerusalem, by explaining to her that Baldwin’s kingdom is a kingdom of heart and mind that cannot ever be surrendered.

This theme is so reminiscent of Christ’s teaching about the kingdom of heaven. It is not a geopolitical or religious kingdom (John 18:36). Christ’s kingdom is indeed a kingdom of conscience, heart, and mind (Luke 17:21). It is convicting to watch this film and realize that throughout history those of us who claim to know God’s will and word have failed to take this teaching to heart. Instead we have invested ourselves in the institutions and empires of this age and have excused our actions by claiming that we are doing God's will. The movie is a post-Christendom examination of the failure of institutional and political religion. Believers would do well to accept this examination without mourning the loss of our political capital, but at the same time proclaim that we believe that the kingdom of Christ is a kingdom of heart and mind that cannot be surrendered.

One cannot watch this film and avoid its compelling commentary on the political realities of our day and age. I could not help but think of terrorism in Iraq when the results of the Saracen’s decapitation of prisoners was shown. Also, Balian’s speech before the final defense of Jerusalem would be appropriate for peace summits in Palestine.

The film also comments on the spiritual and ecclesiastical realities of our day and age, although this message is subtler. The church in the 21st century is realizing that Christendom (the political/institutional/territorial structuring of the church) is an obsolete concept of kingdom. Instead, a missional concept of kingdom, not unlike the movie’s description of a kingdom of conscience, is emerging as a better way to understand God’s rule that is breaking into our world. It is a kingdom rule over heart and mind, but it should be one that goes beyond private experience and translates into right action. I am inspired by this movie to imagine that Christ’s church can be a people who will do what is right and be willing to die for, but not kill for, the Kingdom of Heaven.

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