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    three film posters

    The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like a Movie

    Finding the image of God in The Florida Project, Parasite, and If Beale Street Could Talk

    Joe George

    November 5, 2020
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    • Andy

      I cheerfully refute those rather sentimental 'definitions' of the kingdom of God. Clearly Jesus is the one we can trust to understand the kingdom of God, and he said ( to a group of people ) " The kingdom of God is among you " , so the place where God rules is among you, altho for a kingdom to be a kingdom of rule it must by definition and all biblical evidence be among believers. We have no mention in your author's sentimental statements that the passing joy experienced by the individuals was based on a shared faith. Joy is of the spirit yes,and we all share moments, but just to mention that joy between individuals without including God's community of faith is far short of Christ's Kingdom, which is "like yeast that a woman took and mixed with a large amount of flour ". Yeast is an organic living working thing, and I don't think it is sentimental, altho it's work may be like, or actually BE, a labour of love, - probably TOUGH LOVE. Let's not sentimentalize or limit the vision of the true scope of the kingdom by reducing it to ( still valuable ) joyful moments shared between 2 people. That would be Hollywood! Kingdoms are for communities, not pairs.

    What does the kingdom of heaven look like?

    As a kid, I thought I knew. The kingdom of heaven looked like the flannelgraph figures I saw every week in my Sunday School class, images of white people in primary-colored robes kneading lumps of dough or spreading seeds from a leather pouch. The kingdom of heaven, my teachers explained, was the place where I’ll go when I die, a place where I’ll get a crown with a jewel for every time some bully teased me for loving Jesus.

    Of course, I outgrew this simplistic explanation, but as an adult I struggled to find satisfying answers. Not that I didn’t hear people talking about the kingdom of heaven. Politicians and preachers would routinely invoke the kingdom, even as they pursued power for themselves and upheld systems of oppression, insisting that their guns and riches do God’s work.

    In the face of such confusion, I returned to my Bible. Jesus talked about the kingdom throughout the gospels, but more often than not, those teachings looked like this: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). A one-sentence simile, with the barest of narratives. The explanation Jesus gives for using parables doesn’t help much either. According to Mark 4:11, Jesus answers his disciples’ questions about his rationale by saying, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.”

    Where has that secret been given? Has it been given to me?

    It is given, Jesus suggests, through stories – and I have found surprising glimpses of it in the stories of the movie theater: human beings struggling through everyday life and finding moments of grace. That’s where I see glimpses of God’s kingdom, projected in twenty-four frames per second.

    The kingdom of heaven is like a mother who refuses to be shamed because she cannot take her child to the fake plastic kingdom, so she dances with her daughter in the rain.

    Most of Sean Baker’s 2017 film The Florida Project takes place in an Orlando motel called the Magic Castle, named to fool tourists looking for Disney’s famous Magic Kingdom. But it only takes a glance to distinguish between the competing realms. Despite the best efforts of its longsuffering manager, the Magic Castle is run-down, its shabbiness underscored by its gaudy purple paint scheme and vainglorious name.

    Baker, who wrote and directed, uses the contrast between the Magic Kingdom and the Magic Castle to set up a dichotomy between the corporate fantasy of Disney World and the lived experiences of a troubled single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her young daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince).

    The Magic Kingdom itself appears only in the movie’s final scene, in which Child Protective Services agents come to take Moonee into custody, but first let her say goodbye to her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Confused and scared, Moonee struggles to speak, communicating more with her tears than she is with her words. Jancey responds by taking Moonee’s hand and running off to Disney World, where the two gleefully dance down the theme park’s “Main Street, USA.”

    Instead of film, Baker records the final scene on an iPhone, which allows him to shoot in Disney World without the company’s knowledge. But the change in media also serves a thematic purpose. When combined with an orchestral version of Kool & The Gang’s party anthem “Celebration” playing in the background, the scene captures a fantasy shared by Moonee and Jancey. In their dream world, they won’t be taken away from their moms by CPS. They won’t be forced to live in the squalor of a low-budget motel. They’ll get to go to Disney World like “normal” kids.

    The kingdom of heaven is a place where God’s love falls as freely as the rain.

    But the moment is too fake to be believed; it feels less like a celebration and more like a cruel joke. We know full well their poverty and oppression will continue after this moment, probably for their whole lives, perpetuated by American systems of wealth inequality – the very systems that tell parents that happiness can be obtained by purchasing a ticket to the Magic Kingdom. Throughout The Florida Project, we see Halley forced to survive by selling to vacationers whatever they might value – wholesale perfumes, stolen Disney passes, even her body. Moonee and Jancey may imagine buying into the lie that Disney World sells, but it does not redeem them from their lived reality.

    Jesus also told stories of contrasting kingdoms. In Luke 14, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a great dinner a man throws for his friends. But when all invited refuse to come, choosing instead to spend time with their newly acquired land and oxen, the host tells his servant, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” Those enamored with their possessions reject the man’s gift, but those who have nothing gratefully receive it. In the same way, the kingdom of heaven inaugurated by Jesus does not appeal to those satisfied by the promises of earthly kingdoms, but it is good news for those rejected by the world’s power structures.

    An earlier scene in The Florida Project echoes this teaching. During a midday rainstorm, Halley takes Moonee to an open field to play. With trees hiding the concrete towers of the Disney corporation, obscuring the reminders of her low social standing, Halley frolics with her daughter in the rain. Chasing Moonee across the field, she grabs her and spins her in circles, sending the little girl’s giggles across the soaking green grass.

    This scene reveals a different side to Halley. Baker and Vinaite never shy away from making Halley a crass and often self-destructive person, given to outbursts that alienate her friends and people who want to help her. But the movie never forgets her humanity. She’s a flawed person, but a person, nothing less. And as such, she’s worthy of the gifts God has prepared for her, like a green field and afternoon rain. The Magic Kingdom may withhold its pleasures for only those who meet its standards, but the kingdom of heaven welcomes everyone regardless of what they deserve. It’s a place where God’s love falls as freely as the rain.

    three film posters

    The kingdom of heaven is like a boy who writes to his trapped father about a plan to set him free. The boy knows his plan is unlikely to succeed, but he writes anyway and continues to work for liberation.

    Perhaps the most famous and enduring image of God’s kingdom comes in the Parable of the Sower. As recorded in Mark 4, Jesus tells the story of a farmer who tosses seeds on various types of soil. While seeds thrown on shallow or thorny soil quickly die, soil thrown on good ground “brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” Jesus explains that the seeds on the shallow ground represent those who “have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away,” while the seeds on thorny ground represent those who hear his message, but take more interest in “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things.” The kingdom of heaven, the parable imagines, maintains faith and perseveres, even when other worries try to distract.

    With its setting in modern-day urban South Korea, the 2019 film Parasite seems to have little in common with the Parable of the Sower. Directed by Bong Joon Ho, Parasite uses the story of the destitute Kim family and their plans to gain employment in the home of the affluent Parks to harshly critique capitalism. It’s a brutal film, an unsparing look at the desperation caused by wealth inequality. But it’s also a film that understands the dignity of human beings and their love for one another, even when the powers that be reject it.

    Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives in a squalid lower-level apartment with his wife and teen children. After months of short-lived and low-paying employment, the Kims seem to catch a break when the wealthy Park family hires Ki-taek’s son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) as an English tutor for their preteen daughter. Realizing that each of the Parks needs an assistant, Ki-woo launches a plot to remove the current house employees and replace them with members of his family. His sister becomes the art teacher to the Parks’ rambunctious young son, his father becomes chauffeur to the exacting patriarch, and his mother unseats the Parks’ longtime housekeeper.

    While the film sets up a simple class war, with the Parks serving as the “haves” and the Kims as the “have-nots,” it soon reveals multiple layers of inequality. The Kims’ good fortune comes only by harming others, others who turn to violence to reclaim the material comforts they lost, culminating in a bloody crescendo that leaves everyone scarred or dead.

    A life of modern comfort comes at the cost of others; earthly systems of power demand that some people suffer so others can succeed.

    The film ends not in that heightened state, but with a contemplative sequence that pits aspirational fantasy against dire reality. To hide from the police, Ki-taek has taken shelter in a secret bunker in the Park house, unable to ever leave. By this point, the Parks are gone, and a new family owns the home, unaware that Ki-taek haunts it. Every night he flickers the lights in hopes Ki-woo will see and understand – and he does.

    Ki-woo pens a letter that outlines a “fundamental plan” to rescue his father. In a montage set to composer Jung Jae-il’s plaintive piano score, Ki-woo explains that he will devote his life to making “a lot of money” and buying the house where his father is trapped. Then, he declares, “all you’ll have to do is walk up the stairs.” We see a dream shot of Ki-taek walking out from the shadows and into the yard where his family awaits him, but the scene fades out before the reunion takes place. The camera pans back to Ki-woo in the present, sitting in the Kims’ cheap old apartment, writing his letter.

    Ki-woo’s plan will never come to fruition. But fantasy contains a seed of truth. We know Ki-woo will never earn enough money to buy the Park house – everything in the movie already showed us why. But we also know that the plan isn’t the point of the story. The story reminds us that a life of modern comfort comes at the cost of others, that earthly systems of power demand that some people suffer so others can succeed. When I see the sorrow crossing Ki-taek’s face every time one of the Parks makes a crack about his very existence, I’m reminded that the Kims, the other displaced staff, and everyone else deserves the dignity that the Parks take for granted.

    Despite its bleak portrayal of our current economic reality, I see in Parasite Paul’s teaching that God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13–14). As Esau McCaulley writes in Reading While Black, Paul refers here to “the dark spiritual forces that torment the people of God,” powers that “also control earthly rulers. . . . The economic, social, and political oppression of the people of God is nothing more than the manifestation of the spiritual sickness at the heart of the empire.” Within the movie, Ki-woo’s letter may choke in the rocky ground of capitalism, but its message takes root in the rich ground of the viewer’s imagination.

    The kingdom of heaven is like a mother who takes joy in her child’s pregnancy. Her celebration of life defies systems of dehumanization, her joy takes precedence over the whys and hows of the pregnancy. Her welcome exudes grace.

    Barry Jenkins’s 2018 film adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk contains one of the most powerfully Christian moments I’ve ever seen on screen. Nineteen-year-old Tish (Kiki Layne) has just revealed to her mother Sharon (Regina King) that she is pregnant with the child of her boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James), who is in prison based on false testimony. We did not see the revelation or Sharon’s reaction, only Tish saying “Mama . . .” as the camera stays on her worried face.

    But in the next shot, as the family gathers for dinner, Sharon takes down a bottle of wine and tells her other daughter Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) to “get the good glasses.”

    “This is a sacrament,” Sharon declares as she gestures toward Tish. “We are drinking to new life.” Ernestine and their father Joseph (Colman Domingo) take a moment to register the news, but Sharon stifles anything that sounds like judgment. “Don’t you go thinking I think you’re some bad girl or any other foolishness like that,” Joseph explains, acknowledging Fonny’s decency and the injustice that keeps him in jail. But Ernestine states the point more directly when she commands, “Unbow your head, sister.”

    Between the rich colors cinematographer James Laxton captures in the scene and the Birdlegs and Pauline song “Mist of a Dream” floating through the background, the family moment feels like a church service. God has granted the family new life. Even if economic injustice makes raising the child a challenge and criminal injustice keeps the father away, grace abounds, and the family lavishes in it.

    “This is a sacrament. We are drinking to new life.”

    Jenkins underscores the religious elements of the scene by contrasting it with the reaction from Fonny’s family. While his father celebrates the news, his mother, Alice, (Aunjanue Ellis) responds with judgment by reciting scripture: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness” (Col. 3:5 ESV). She can only think of the pregnancy as a useful calamity, on par with the jail time he currently serves, “the Lord’s plan to get my boy to think on his sins and surrender his soul to Jesus.” Alice sees nothing but a child conceived in sin, and she even prays that the Holy Ghost will make the child “shrivel” in Tish’s womb so that her “son will be forgiven.”

    Although she refers to scripture, the kingdom of heaven imagined by Alice reminds me of the kingdoms advanced by politicians and warmongers. It’s a kingdom built on oppression, on retaining power by condemning others.

    In several of his parables, Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is built on forgiveness. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Two Debtors all tell stories of condemnation for those who judge others and joy for those who forgive.

    Alice’s reading of Colossians judges those who do not adhere to social standards, but theologian N. T. Wright contends in The Day the Revolution Began that the description of authorities losing power in Colossians 1 and 2 comes upon the death of Jesus. Rulers of earthly kingdoms “can still rage and shout, but the power of Jesus is stronger . . . the power – to say it again – of forgiveness.” With Christ’s sacrifice, a “revolution has begun, in which power itself is redefined as the power of love.”

    I see that power at work in Sharon’s actions. When she defends the child and loves her daughter, when (later in the film) she travels all the way to Puerto Rico to seek justice for Fonny, Sharon continues that revolution and defies the earthly powers to enact the kingdom of heaven.

    Jesus ends many of his parables with the declaration, “Let anyone with ears listen,” or “Do you have eyes, and fail to see?” As a child, I was certain that I had ears to listen and eyes to see. In truth, my eyes and ears are growing weaker with age, but Jesus suggests the key to using them is something quite simple: that his stories can only be interpreted by those who pay attention to his larger teachings, to the kingdom described in the Sermon on the Mount. A kingdom of beloved souls each bearing the image of God.

    Contributed By

    Joe George writes about pop culture and literature for Tor.com, Bloody Disgusting, and Think Christian. He collects his work at joewriteswords.com and tweets nonsense from @jageorgeii

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