Archive for June, 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

The preview got me.  The scene was pure apocalypse.  Stylized tones, not quite sepia, more a copper-toned beige.  The landscape – barren; desert wasteland, but not really.  The absence of shrubs or trees or gardens was not because this is an arid sand dune.  Rather, some shocking sort of massive incineration scorched the land as far as the eye can see.

A sole pedestrian moves across the screen, wearing sunglasses and layered, tattered clothing.  He is reminiscent of a homeless wanderer roaming the mean streets of the city; but here, any trace of the city was gone.  His path is not random.  This man is on a mission.  A close up on the face brings recognition – it is Denzel Washington behind those shades in the role of a lone man heading west.  Why and where remain a mystery that will unfold as the story is told.

The trailer got me interested and curious.  So I rented the DVD.  The Book of Eli intrigued me and held my attention from the opening scenes.  Be forewarned: the film earns its rating (“R”) for language and violence.  Be also forewarned that I’ll be giving away some of the key elements of the story in the next few paragraphs.  So there are two reasons to stop reading now.  Well… come to think of it, I want you to read at least this one more sentence:  Strange as it may seem, the Book of Eli delivers a highly biblical message.

In Eli’s foreboding world, Planet Earth has been the victim of a (in Bill Murray’s unforgettable phrase from Ghostbusters) “disaster of biblical proportions.”  As the camera pans the horizon, following Eli down a deserted highway or over a ridge, you see the wreckage.  There are immense craters that indicate meteor hits, random and catastrophic.  There are rotting jumbo jets in the sand, broken into pieces in attempted crash landings long ago.  The countryside is littered with the wreckage of burned out vehicles, cars and trucks, all abandoned and not a human being in sight.  If you let yourself connect the dots, you’ll think of “Left Behind” or “2012” but this movie doesn’t feel cornball or mainstream epic blockbuster.  The Hughes brothers (co-directors) are more in the mode of those Cohen brothers and their Fargo or No Country for Old Men.  It is highly stylized with graphic violence and intensity.  And you can’t help but wonder – who is Eli?  What happened?  Where is he going?  And what’s this about “the Book”?

Eli established himself as a fearless warrior who will not initiate violence, but will defend himself against all aggression.  His ferocity in battle is unmatched.  In the grim aftermath of global disaster, he gets the attention of a local warlord named Carnegie who is searching the territory for one particular book.  Carnegie learns through his girlfriend’s daughter, Solara, that Eli is in possession of a mysterious volume.  Eli is secretive and protective.  The two survivors are matched antagonists – the aggressor versus the defender.

But what is the Book?  And why is it so consequential?  And where is Eli going, anyway?

Well, here it comes: the Book is the Bible.  The New King James Version of the Bible, to be precise.  Eli quotes it to Solara.  “That’s beautiful,” she says.  She’s never heard of it, much less familiar with its contents.  When Carnegie figures out that Eli has a copy of the Bible, he sets everything else aside and races in hot, violent pursuit to wrest the leather-bound, latched book away from Eli.  We soon learn that Carnegie is convinced that possession of the Bible will secure his position as high priest of the territory he rules by brute force.

Eli is ready.

The premise of this mainstream film is that the massive cataclysm that impacted the globe thirty years before had something to do with predictions that were made in the Bible.  All of the Bibles worldwide where destroyed in the disaster; Eli’s copy is the only one remaining.  He has been entrusted with the volume and called to deliver the Book somewhere west.

A good friend of mine, John Frye, has written his own work of fiction that raises a similar point.  In his narrative, he imagines a day when the Scriptures disappear from the scene entirely and conjectures just how it might impact our society, culture and our personal lives.  He calls his book Out of Print.

The surprise ending of The Book of Eli I’ll not give away.  But for now, just know that Denzel Washington takes the lead in a science fiction action thriller that essentially views the Bible as a sacred text that is essential to our life on Planet Earth.

That sacred text can certainly be abused by the likes of Carnegie and his ilk.

If you do take time to watch the film, you’ll see that that same sacred text will cause the blind to see, bring hope and comfort to the helpless and give a man who has no more to lose a purpose for staying alive.

A mission, if you will.

Copyright 2010 Kenneth E Kemp

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Luther was born with a hypersensitive spirituality woven into his DNA.  He had a shepherd’s heart and a litigator’s mind.  His father considered ministry a folly.  Luther’s dad, a hardened businessman, pressed his young son hard to go after a prestigious career in law.  The idea that his son might pursue the priesthood filled him with angst.  The two debated vigorously and long; sharpening young Martin’s razor edged mind, deepening his conviction.

In a horrifying thunderstorm, Martin’s raw fear of the flashes of lightening bolts and pelting rain and rolling thunder transformed from terror into an irresistible sense of call.  He believed God had something much greater for him than a predictable, mundane life in an isolated courtroom.  Over his father’s vociferous objections, Martin Luther enrolled in the seminary.

Maybe those verbal battles at home deepened his resolve.  A new world opened up as the 1400s CE turned to 1500s CE.  The printing press made literature and texts available on a whole new scale.  Libraries filled up with ideas and history and the clash of worldviews.  Luther devoured the books.  He became a monk, living much of the day in isolation with his thoughts.  He battled the forces of evil in his own heart.  He felt unworthy.  His mastery of language and appetite for learning earned him a place in graduate school.  He earned a doctorate of divinity.

And along the way, he traveled to Rome on foot.  A pilgrimage.  He believed it would be the pinnacle of his monastic experience.  He followed orders.  He purchased an indulgence.  He climbed the steps on his knees.  He begged for God’s mercy.  But all he saw was sleazy corruption.  All around.  It was the deepest disappointment of his life.

He learned about the Pope’s concubines and illegitimate children and unlimited power.  He heard the pitch of the priests in the streets, eager young clerics peddling salvation.  He recognized it as a race to meet Leo X’s quotas to rush toward the completion of the staggering, outrageous dome crowned St. Peter’s Basilica.  With his own eyes, he saw the harried construction.  He calculated the outrageous cost.  He recognized it more as a conspicuous display of unbridled power and opulent wealth; not a sanctuary for ordinary folks to find grace.  Ordinary folks, on the contrary, were targets of illicit, shameful fundraising practices: promises of heaven and an escape from hell all for a few coins.  If you cared to negotiate, you could shorten the stay in purgatory for yourself and those loved ones who are already pining there eager for an escape.  All of this guaranteed and in writing; a take-home indulgence signed, sealed and delivered.  Young Martin, almost a lawyer, now an ordained priest, was appalled.

So when he went home, he sketched out some bullet points.  He did not set out to be a revolutionary, or even a reformer.  He believed in the office of the papacy, and he wanted to protect its reputation and true purpose; to restore its dignity.  He began writing.  Almost without taking a break, Martin Luther poured out ninety-five salient theological points.

Tradition has it that Luther walked into the town square and over to the heavy arched door of the All Saints Cathedral in Wittenberg where he pounded in a nail to post his 95 Theses.  Our guide felt the need to offer a qualifier.  Historians are not certain that the story (offered by Luther’s friend and confidant, Philip Melanchthon) is accurate, even though it was a common thing for students to post their ideas in public on that same door.  No matter.  No one disputes Luther’s authorship.  The list of grievances, targeting the sale of indulgences, made its way to the local printing press where thousands of copies were distributed all over Germany and beyond.

The Dominican Friar, Johann Tetzel, was a particularly odious offender and salesman.  Luther exposed him.  By this time, people all over Germany were looking for an excuse to free themselves from the oppressive grip of the Roman Church.  Luther’s incisive critique provided just that impetus.  Not even Luther could have anticipated the response.  The resentment of the populous was unleashed.  The Peasant War commenced.  It got ugly.  People died.  Property destroyed.

The Pope, after an interrogation of the young preacher in Worms, excommunicated Luther and ordered that all the works of the now deemed outlaw be destroyed.  There were book-burnings all over Europe.  Luther was whisked away into hiding at the imposing Castle at Wartburg.  There, while waiting for the violence to subside, he translated the New Testament from Greek into common, conversational German.  Soon, Germans were reading the Bible for themselves.  Rome would never recover.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this Reformation on the Western world.  Luther’s contribution profoundly, radically changed politics, theology, ministry and society in ways that linger into our new millennium.

But the famed reformer had his shortcomings.  I first learned about Luther’s blatant anti-Semitism while touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC some years ago.  The guide there seemed intent on shattering our protestant image of the great reformer by pointing to his tirades against the Germany’s Jewish population that emerged in print in his later years.  I was in denial, until I did some of my own research.  Sadly, the guide in DC was right.  He did not overstate the case.  In fact, hundreds of years later, long after Luther was buried, Adolph Hitler would justify his indefensible Arian policies by quoting Luther’s works, attempting to Christianize his “final solution.”  It is a sad addendum to an otherwise worthy career.

But as a young priest, with his words Luther broke the Roman chains that bound up nations and enslaved the masses to a corrupt version of religion.  He shifted the lines of authority from a depraved church, to the words of Scripture (sola scriptura) and defined salvation in biblical rather than ecclesiastical terms – salvation by faith alone (sola fide).

As I sat for a while in the same room at the Wartburg Castle where Luther wrote, I contemplated the power of the written word: Ninety-Five bullet points that changed the world.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010

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Monday, July 7, 2010

Our guide, Adel, was there that fateful afternoon when the parade passed by the covered stands filled with dignitaries. Adel marched past about twenty minutes earlier, saluting the President of Egypt on October 6, 1981, seated front and center.

By the time the jet squadron flew over at low altitude, he and his comrades headed home. Back at parade central, the roar of the engines would cover the sound of automatic weapons. An admiral, who represented an angry, militant faction in the military, gave the order. Shoot to kill. Take the President out.

As Sadat looked to the heavens watching as those state of the art weapons of war scream past (the same planes that led Egypt to victory in the Israeli war just a few years earlier winning back the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt) a pack of assassins jumped from their flat bed trucks and opened fire in a synchronized attack. They struck their target. The President who shook hands with Manachem Begin on the White House lawn just a short time before, the Egyptian who would be the first Muslim to enter and address the Kinneset in Jerusalem, would die instantly.

Why do the peacemakers seem to die so violently? And in their prime? This was the question I posed to our Egyptian guide (who is also a Muslim) as a hypothetical. But he answered me anyway. “So many of the good ones,” he said straightway, reflectively. Then he mentioned a few. Like Julius Caesar. And Ghandi. And Martin Luther King.  And Jesus Christ, he added.

Alexandria was a repository of books. It was a center of learning. Aristotle. Plato. Socrates. Ptolemy. Augustine. All studied here. The Greek Emperors who controlled the strategic city built a library where all the old books were housed and copied and translated right here on the waterfront. It would be the finest collection in the known world from the time of Jesus until Egypt became a Christian (Coptic) nation.   A fire destroyed the Biblioteca of Alexandria and all of those incredible books.   Lost to the flames.  Historians debate who is to blame.  Some hold Julius Caesar responsible.  Others blame the Christian Theophilus, who ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, especially those housing the history of pagan ritual.  Still others hold the Muslim occupiers responsible when they invaded Alexandria in the sixth century.  Whoever perpetrated the crime (and the theories often match the agenda of the theorist), it was an enormous loss.

We visited the new Library of Alexandria. Ptolemy would be proud. It rivals the Library of Congress.   State of the art.  Radical Islamists have had their say. They killed Saddat. They massacred sixty tourists in 1997 at Deir el-Bahri which we also visited.  But their attempts only backfired.   The Egyptian people disavowed their extremism. The determination to make Alexandria a world class educational center is alive and well.

And on the lower level of the massive library, just off the reception area, there is a small museum dedicated to the memory of President Anwar Saddat. I read a handwritten two-page musing, written with a fountain pen in English, one of several languages he spoke. It was a simple text which reflected his simple human values. He had enormous strength, character, charisma and charm. He won a major military victory. He reached out to make peace, even at the risk of his life.

And his people remember.  Including our guide.  And now, me.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010

Posted in Cairo, Egypt

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