Friday, February 13, 2009

The Punisher (2004) and Me (1986-7) - Extended Edition

I am no fan of the Punisher as a superhero. His cold-hearted vigilanteism is the stuff bad revenge movies are made of: Dirty Harry meets Rambo meets Reservoir Dogs.

But I have to say I did like this uneven, fairly predictable, retro, low budget 2004 re-boot for a few reasons: it covered some classic virtues, was made with some recognizable stars (some late 70s' favorites - John Travolta and Roy Scheider) and some pitch black villainy, notable in their distinctiveness ("Memphis" played by Mark Collie and Quinton, Saint's sadistic but poised right-hand man). This was paralleled along with some very unexpected goodness - Frank's neighbors, who nearly steal the show, their personal wounds worn magnificently on their sleeves and their compassion for Frank - another wounded soul - was so evident, I caught myself crying.

Yeah - it must be this February thing, but when I watch Frank surprised by a beautiful Italian meal from the grateful trio after he's defended them from Joan's ex-boyfriend, I think "Cool. They are showing their appreciation." Its a simple scene.

Then Frank sits down and begins eating like a Marine Corps grunt. He's in soldier mode, not "pals" mode. Food is not for relationships, but just for fuel - for the next battle. His behavior is the total opposite of the idyllic family reunion banquet he had at his 'retirement'.

As I said, I wept. You see, I understand Frank Castle. I enjoy a good meal, but I have often used food for comfort, for consolation. Back when I was attending the University of Southern Mississippi the year following my mom's death, I was walking with my girlfriend and saw a guy under a tree trying to study and chomp down a sandwich at the same time. I can still see it. A huge wave of empathy hit me, and I almost cried on the spot THEN. I had no idea WHY a stranger eating hastily would hurt me emotionally.

Then I saw The Punisher yesterday - saw that scene - and it connected.

Food was being used to salve his wound. Frank is becoming an animal in his pain.

They want to befriend Frank, to get to know him - but they can't. He's too hurt, too raw. Notably, however, he sees what he's doing - how he's treating them - and he stops an straightens up. Later, when Dave, the guy with all the nose and lip piercings, has had his rings ripped out by torture for guarding Castle's whereabouts, Castle asks "Why'd you do that? You don't know me."

"Because you're one of us, man. You're family."

Good stuff. A bright moment in a visciously dark movie.

They are family by wounds. By need. Not by blood, but by heart and spirit.

When my family disintegrated, I found another - they too had lost a lot of faith that there was any good in this world or a decent God who would judge. They loved me and helped me. From my gay roommate who knew I needed a better place to go to school to a Catholic family whose doors were never locked, and who would feed you till you popped.

God uses people to save people. Its that simple.

I wrote an essay on that time, and how C. S. Lewis helped me to keep my intellectual faith in God even as my heart was breaking. If you want a copy, its in a book called Mere Christians: Inspiring Stories of Encounters with C. S. Lewis. It just came out this month.

So here it is - from 1986-7, when I was wounded and wanted nothing to do with God.

Thankfully, He made a pre-emptive strike and loved me anyway.


Chapter 11: He Saved My Dying Faith

She was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it. My life as I had known it was over, and my home was taken. I was twenty years old and the only thing that kept me believing in the existence of God and the deity of Jesus Christ was an Oxford don named C. S. Lewis.

Lewis himself struggled with his faith in God after the death of his own mother, becoming less and less of a believer until he was fully entrenched in the camp grounds of brilliant heathens, warming themselves by the fires of humanists who had gone before. Within a year of my mother's death, I also drew near their camp, enjoying the bitter camaraderie of the wounded, neglected and abused. We were young men full of strength who read poetry and fantasy to salve our wounds, incurred living in a fallen world. Dark angels demand dark minstrels, and fools had better beware.

The times were not in our favor; the Moral Majority was reaching its height and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were in high form, proving the vacuousness of Christian thought, smothered in makeup, TV lights and requests for money. The movie Blade Runner was our Bible, and Anne Rice was our lady, her dark iconoclastic vampire LeStat living life as an immortal sans deity. Bright Christians running around with vapid slogans of God's love impacted us not at all. Their pain was too small, their wounds superficial and easily sneered at.

Bitter at a God who created people for us to love and then letting them and our dreams die, we renounced all that was didactic, holy, reverent. But the most amazing thing happened in the middle of this: I refused to let go of my faith there was a God who knew all and saw everything—a God who brought his children who die into heaven to give them eternal life and joy. For that, I owe a great debt to C. S. Lewis. I had heard Lewis’s mother died when he was young, and like all the terrifically analytical, I did not consider that losing your mother at the age of [nine] to be the same as losing her at the age of twenty--but the wounds are similar, especially considering Lewis lived in a different age. (We modern children have an amazingly long adolescence, thanks in large part to our entertainment and lesser responsibilities.)

Lewis’s main contribution to me was not that he was brilliant and concise writer, but a writer who had suffered great loss, developed a keen mind, and still placed his faith in Christ. His personal wounds enabled him to speak with tact and wisdom about the necessity of a God with a clear moral standard, a God outside space-time and therefore Lord of All. A God who permitted pain in a fallen world to awaken us, to save us from being lulled into hell, self-satisfied and smug as our last breath escapes. From Mere Christianity to The Problem of Pain, my mother, with me at her bedside, was taught by this Oxford don. Lewis had died before I was born, but Lewis made us think about the philosophical impact of Christian thought -what is now called a "worldview".

Why pain? Why suffering? Why Christ? Was Jesus God? What did Christianity offer that was so different from other religions? Lewis, in writing these books, was wrestling with his own theology, his own loss I think. Thank God for that. Because he forearmed me, though I did not know it. Lewis' argument of "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" arrested me. I knew Jesus claimed to be God, and either this was absolutely true or Jesus was absolutely insane. Of course, at that time, I did not know Jesus in any intimate way. I argued with my atheist friends, but slowly and surely I discovered the world was not my friend, that non-believers could practice utter immorality without remorse, and, despite my waywardness, many believers were kind –truly kind.

Lewis was right, but I couldn't admit how wrong I was. What Lewis did was speak to me logically as my heart was breaking. Those times at my mother’s bedside were having an effect. Lewis’s words kept coming back. He didn't lie to me; he didn't hide the facts, and he didn't live or write arrogantly. He was humble in his faith, aware of pain and the need for redemption. Intuitively, I knew this. Any man who will take the time to write books like he did was serious.

Later he said, while facing the end of his life, "Ten years from now no one will care what I have written." On that, Lewis was wrong, dead wrong. His work saved my dying faith. I look forward to the day I'll tell Jack this to his face.

With Jesus.

Justice Carmon is a freelance writer, caregiver, and Bible teacher who lives in Wheaton, Illinois. His work for Christ has included a tour of duty as a housefather in the inner city of Memphis and short-term mission trips and evangelical outreaches to the peoples of Kazakhstan, Russia, and India.
From Mere Christians: Inspiring Stories of Encounters with C. S. Lewis by Mary Anne Phemister & Andrew Lazo, p. 72.

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