Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

Failure at the Cave

Right in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), there’s a surreal scene that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the sci-fi blockbuster’s action-packed storyline. The film’s breakneck pace slows down for just a moment during Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) Jedi training on the swamp planet Dagobah. Due to the vignette’s subject matter, positioning in the plot and stylistic filming, it’s clear that creator George Lucas and director Irvin Kershner intended to set the episode apart from the rest of the film for a specific reason, which invites a close examination of the sequence.

To set the scene, diminutive Jedi Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) has been drilling Luke with a series of physically demanding exercises. During a break in training, Yoda initiates Luke’s next challenge…a psycho/spiritual exercise designed to test the young initiate’s character.

“That place,” Yoda indicates with his withered wooden cane, “is strong with the Dark Side of the Force.”  

The Force is the mystical energy that “surrounds us and penetrates us” (pantheism) and grants magical powers to those skilled in its use. The Dark Side is the embodiment of evil, and the cave that Yoda is prompting Luke to enter is saturated with it.

Concern evident in his voice, Luke asks what he’ll find inside the pit. Yoda’s cryptic response is, “Only what you take with you.” This seemingly innocuous line, delivered by the green-skinned alien as he draws circles in the muck with his walking stick, has huge implications for Luke’s impending test.

As a precaution, Luke picks up his weapons belt and prepares to face the unknown. But Yoda, ever the intuitive instructor, senses Luke’s apprehension and says, “Your weapons, you will not need them.” That statement generates the only moment of levity in this otherwise serious and dark passage in the film. Luke tosses Yoda a skeptical look, as if to say “Yeah, right!,” and continues fastening his utility belt around his waist.

Standing at the mouth of the cavern, Luke reaches a crossroads…you might call it a crisis of faith. Will he enter the cave or not? What will Luke find inside the “domain of evil” and will he be ready to face it?

As Luke descends into the dank, reptile-ridden pit, he comes face-to-face with the manifestation of his greatest fear…the black clad Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader. There are a couple important points to consider in this scene. First, Vader activates his lightsaber only after Luke does; a defensive posture. Secondly, and most importantly, Vader makes no serious effort to either attack Luke or defend himself against Luke’s assault (the contest is comprised of just three lightsaber clashes). Due to Vader’s feeble resistance, Luke decapitates him within a matter of seconds. In the aftermath of this short-lived duel, Luke sees his own face inside Vader’s helmet, which, of course, sets up the haymaker revelation later in the movie.

The brief battle is shot at a pseudo slo-mo speed and has a dreamlike quality to it. This visual aesthetic, which is highly effective in creating an atmosphere of palpable dread, is cunningly symbolic when considering Luke’s earlier statement about boggy Dagobah resembling something out of a dream.

The cave confrontation confirms Yoda’s unheeded advice since Luke could’ve completed the challenge far quicker and without any violence had he entered the grotto sans his weapons. Ironically, even though Luke learns the lesson, he still fails the test. This fact is confirmed later in the movie when Yoda says, “Remember your failure at the cave.” 

Luke’s conscious decision to shun sound counsel recalls many similar situations in the Bible where ostensibly righteous men chose to ignore, reject or modify God’s will in order to suit their own purposes.

Remember the Sunday school story of Jonah and the whale (Jonah 1&2)? God called Jonah to teach in Nineveh, but obstinate Jonah jumped on the first ship headed in the opposite direction. Jonah eventually ended up preaching in Nineveh, but not before he was tossed into a stormy sea, swallowed by a whale and vomited onto a beach. That’s what you call learning the hard way.

Or how about when Moses struck the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it as God had commanded (Numbers 20:11&12)? Moses’ moment of anger prevents him from entering the Promised Land.

And what about mentally tortured Saul, who, after failing to hear God’s voice, consulted with the witch at Endor (who must’ve been short and furry) to conjure up the spirit of departed prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28:7)?

Luke’s disregard for Yoda’s instruction smacks of the same kind of disobedience demonstrated in these Biblical examples. Even though Luke’s hesitation over entering a potentially dangerous situation without any defenses is completely understandable, the way he responds to the situation, by taking matters into his own hands, is still an act of rebellion against his teacher.

Turning away from the Master (Romans 3:23) is something we all have in common with Luke. However, the fact that we can glean insight from a mishandled mission (just like Luke does) is a reassurance that God’s plan can still be fulfilled in spite of our selfish motives. But how much more could we accomplish for the Kingdom if we did things God’s way instead of ours?

So have you ever had a failure at the cave? Have you missed out on God’s best by relying on your own wisdom instead of His (Proverbs 3:5)? Have you tried negotiating (or wrestling, as Jacob did in Genesis 28:10-17) with God only to discover that your efforts were in vain and that things would’ve worked out far better had you just done what He asked from the start? Do you find that the guilt you experience over past failures keeps driving you back to the cave time after time in a habitual cycle of shame?

Whatever challenge the cave represents in your life, know that God will never allow you to face a trial that you can’t overcome with his power (1 Cor. 10:13), nor will He abandon you in your darkest hour (Deuteronomy 31:6). In fact, He has promised to protect you and lead you through life’s many dangers and pitfalls (Psalm 23). So, whenever you’re faced with a cave moment of your own, prepare your heart in advance to learn the lesson God is seeking to impart. Or, to tie the moral of the story back to Luke’s training, always do what the little green guy says.

February, 5, 2016

Heading Out to Eden

The original series Star Trek episode “The Way to Eden” follows the misadventures of a small band of space hippies. Jonesing for harmony and easy living, the far-out free spirits steal an Enterprise shuttlecraft and head out to a paradise planet named Eden.

Living up to its reputation, Eden is a verdant world, abundant in beauty and natural resources. However, when the cosmic misfits finally arrive at their new paradise home, they discover a horrifying truth—everything, from the soil on the ground to the fruit on the trees, is composed of acid. The hippies learn, too late for many in their group, that the planet is no paradise after all and that constant exposure to the poisonous environment will soon claim their lives.

The seekers of paradise in
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) are subjected to a different kind of divine disappointment. Spock’s half-brother, Sybok, hijacks the Enterprise, steers it past the Galactic Barrier and parks it in orbit around a blue-green tie-dye planet known as Sha Ka Ree (the Vulcan word for Eden). Whereas the space hippies yearn for a paradise without God, Sybok seeks a paradise with God.

Unfortunately, Sybok makes the costly mistake of listening to the wrong voice. The entity they encounter on Sha Ka Ree isn’t the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but claims to be “one god [with] many faces,” revealing numerous religious figures from Earth and other planets. The rapid-fire display of visages infers that true religion is a mélange of beliefs a la the precepts of Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology (the philosophical bedrock for George Lucas’ mystical Force in the
Star Wars movies). This thinly veiled brand of heresy preaches an all-inclusive gospel that stands in direct opposition to the Bible, which emphatically states that there is only one God (Eph. 4:6) and one way to heaven…Jesus (John 14:6).

In lieu of the one true God, the landing party has discovered a deceptive, diabolical energy being with formidable powers and an all-consuming desire to escape the ages-old prison it’s been banished to—presumably to commit acts of terror on an epic scale throughout the universe. The evil demigod schemes to take control of the
Enterprise under the guise of conducting intergalactic missionary work, which prompts Kirk’s classic query, “Excuse me…but what does God need with a starship?”

When it becomes evident that Kirk isn’t going to yield control of his ship, the belligerent creature attacks the landing party. Though the entity shakes off the effects of a photon torpedo, it fails to bear up under a point-blank phaser beam barrage courtesy of Spock aboard a commandeered Klingon Bird of Prey. One less false god in the universe!

These two Trek tales pose some salient questions about the nature of God and an eternal paradise, such as: does one really have to travel millions of light-years to find God? Also, why is everyone looking for God in Eden—God resides in heaven, not in that ancient utopia.

The characters in both stories proceed from a false assumption that Eden still exists: Eden was destroyed when Adam and Eve sinned and God evicted them from the garden (Gen. 3:23 & 24). Ironically, those who seek the enticements and infinite pleasures of Eden unwittingly seek their own destruction, for when Eden’s gates were sealed, two other eternal destinations were forged…heaven and hell. Bottom line: no matter how spectacular it appears in the brochure, any paradise without God is just beachfront property around the lake of fire.

Instead of searching for some fabled Shangri-La, the characters in these stories should’ve been seeking first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33). So, when others are heading out to Eden, I’ll be heading out to heaven. Yea, brother!

July 1999

Sometimes the Transporters Don't Work

And sometimes they turn hapless transportees into genetic soup (Star Trek: The Motion Picture). Or split a person into good/bad halves (TOS’s “The Enemy Within”). Or merge two individuals into one (VOY’s “Tuvix”). Point is, we can’t always expect technology to function optimally, solve all our problems or protect us against every potential threat.

Some of the best
Star Trek episodes, both old and new, featured landing parties/away teams left in the lurch by fickle transporters (a la, “Gentleman, I suggest you beam me aboard”). When the transporters break down, survival instincts kick in and Starfleet decorum is quickly tossed out the nearest airlock. In this subset of Trek shows, temperamental technology raises the stakes, ratchets up the tension and delivers exhilarating drama…just the way we like it.

When transporters malfunction, our heroes are faced with untold dangers on hostile worlds and must rely on something other than mechanization—namely the gray matter between their ears—to get them out of sticky situations. With limited resources, the waylaid crew’s chances of surviving significantly increase with reliance upon training (particularly that extension course on “What to do When Stranded by a Transporter”), intuition, ingenuity and even a little luck.

By episode’s end, we’re impressed by the composure and courage exemplified by the marooned officers when they eventually succeed against all odds. And, with the stranded crew members safely aboard, we’re on to the next adventure.

There are many instances of faulty transporters in the Bible. No, really. God took the celestial transporters offline on several occasions for the purpose of producing perseverance, character and hope (Rom. 5:4) in a number of Old and New Testament believers. In many of these Biblical accounts, heavenly aid was withheld until the last possible moment and was frequently delivered in unexpected or miraculous ways.

Take the plight of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Dan. 3: 4-30), for instance. For refusing to bow down and worship the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Hebrew men were thrown into a fiery furnace. When the king peered into the flames, he was startled to see the unconsumed forms of the three men, plus a fourth figure…which appeared as the Son of God (v. 25). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walked out of the inferno unscathed, without a single singed hair or even the smell of smoke on their robes (v. 27).

Due to their unwavering convictions and the miracle in the furnace, the king professed his belief in God and mandated that from that time forward all Babylonians should worship the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as the one true God (v. 28&29). Instead of merely teleporting the trio to safety, the pre-incarnate Christ protected His three servants in the midst of their searing dilemma.

Another individual in desperate need of an emergency beam out was Daniel when he was cast into the den of hungry lions (Dan. 6:16-28). But what if God had answered Daniel’s prayers immediately by extricating him from the lion-laden den? Wouldn’t make for a very exciting Sunday school story would it?

Instead of simply rescuing Daniel from his dire predicament, God allowed Daniel to face his fears and flex his faith muscles. In response to Daniel’s prayers, angels placed a supernatural vise on the mouths of each lion in the pit (v. 22). When Daniel was lifted out of the den the next morning, he didn’t even have a scratch on his body (v. 23). Again, God’s method wasn’t to remove His servant from tribulation but to sustain him through it for the perfecting of his faith.

Examples of those needing to be rescued from dangerous or intolerable situations abound in scriptures. Joseph certainly could’ve used a Get Out of Jail Free card when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of raping her, resulting in his incarceration in an Egyptian dungeon (Gen. 39:1-20).

Samson surely would’ve welcomed an exit strategy when he yanked the pillars from their foundations, killing a host of Philistines, and himself, in the process (Jud. 16:23-31).

Jonah ardently prayed for a way out of the slimy, smelly whale’s stomach, but I don’t think being vomited up on the beach at Nineveh (Jon. 1:17, 2:1-10) was his preferred method of divine deliverance.

Paul, who unwittingly chartered three different ships that fell apart around him (II Cor. 11:25), definitely could’ve used a supernatural intervention on a variety of occasions.

Of course, the ultimate example of an individual faced with a life or death crisis was Jesus. If anyone ever deserved to be spared an excruciating, agonizing demise it was Christ on the cross. And yet, instead of saving Himself, He chose to save us.

The Bible records that Jesus could’ve called down twelve legions of angels to free Him from that Roman cross (Matt. 26:53). Had He done that—had He taken the easy way out—there would be no salvation or eternal life for anyone. Jesus suffered the worst death imaginable so that we could have the greatest life conceivable.

So, how do you react when you find yourself in the middle of a hopeless situation? Do you look for the quick fix or do you “endure hardship…like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (II Tim. 2:3)?

We must meet each challenge head-on and live our lives worthy of His calling so that on the day of redemption, when the divine transporters are activated, we will be beamed up into His glorious Heaven!

Fall 1998

The Odyssey of Theodicy

Theodicy is a theological construct that broaches the thorny topic of how a loving God can allow people to suffer. Merriam Webster defines theodicy as a “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.” Though technically accurate, that succinct and oversimplified definition of theodicy fails to address the human side of the equation—the emotional impact that tragedy has on individuals, families or communities.

In addition to being a rigorous philosophical exercise, theodicy can be expressed in the form of a question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Though customary to ask after tragedy has befallen innocent people, the unfortunate truth is that no answer can properly satisfy this universal appeal for justice.

Though the reality of that statement is as pleasant as taking a leisurely stroll across a bed of scorching coals, there’s a reason behind every ordeal we encounter in life…even if we can’t see it at the time. Well-meaning friends attempt to provide comfort in dark times and bromides seem to just roll off the tongue: “Into every life some rain must fall,” or “Suffering is good for the soul.”

Scriptures readily come to mind when troubles abound: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” (Rom. 8:28), and “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). These encouraging and ennobling words were penned by Paul—the no compromise first century apostle/evangelist who knew all too well the cost of following Christ. Compared to his sundry afflictions (II Cor. 11:23-28) ours seem somewhat tame, like a child whining about a lost penny when his parents are on the verge of bankruptcy.

And then there’s Job. Job is the very personification of theodicy. No one in the history of the world, with the exception of Jesus, was as well acquainted with sorrow, loss and physical anguish as Job. Call his life Murphy’s Law in overdrive (or hyperdrive/warp drive).

Most theologians agree that Job is the oldest book in the Bible, which means that theodicy’s prickly principles have confounded humans practically since the time of the fall (Gen. 3). As the story begins, we learn that God considered Job the most righteous man on Earth at that time (Job 1:8). However, the Accuser wagered that he could make Job reject God if the Almighty removed His hedge of protection from Job. God agreed to the conditions of the challenge, but prohibited Satan from killing Job.

Satan eradicated nearly everything in Job’s life: his health, his livestock, his possessions and everyone in his family except for his wife—who urged him to curse God and die. Yet through it all, Job’s trust in God never wavered: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). When it seemed like Job’s death was imminent, God restored everything to Job in double measure. Job passed the test by taking his focus off his problems and needs and praying for his unbelieving friends.

Though most of us will never have to tolerate even half of what Job did, the way we handle adversity reveals a great deal about our character. Indeed, how we react to negative circumstances is a litmus test that proves whether our default mode is to rely upon self or have faith in God. In a crisis moment, we have several options: attempt to avoid the problem (which only works for a short time), try to handle it ourselves or with the help of friends and family, completely turn it over to God or mope about the situation.

A prime example of the latter is C-3POs remark in
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), “We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.” Such a martyr complex isn’t healthy or productive, especially since Christ became a martyr in order to provide us with eternal life. Instead of indulging in a pity party like C-3PO did, our impulse should be to celebrate when life throws us a curve ball.

That’s exactly what the apostle Paul did when he was tossed into a Roman prison (Acts 16:16-40). Paul and Silas sang songs of praise to God in spite of their dire predicament. In response to their jubilant worship, God caused an earthquake to rattle the prison, providing a means of escape for Paul and the other inmates.

Though it runs in direct opposition to our conditioning, the best way to deal with a setback is to praise God for His goodness, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances are in the moment. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (Jas. 1:2).

Ultimately, there’s only one reason why God allows His people to experience hardships…to produce personal and spiritual growth. “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:3&4).

Despite the many rigors and horrors of the Great Depression and World War II, Americans of that era are referred to today as The Greatest Generation. Forged on the anvil of tragedy and toil, they became stronger because of what they were made to endure. Similarly, with each successive trial in life we have the opportunity to become greater men and women of God.

Whether you’re in the midst of your own personal Kobayashi Maru test or if you’ve thrown your hands in the air and exclaimed, “Shaka, when the walls fell!,” know that you’re not the only one who’s faced such desperate times and that your plight is actually part of God’s purpose for your life.

So, if you’re feeling the unwelcome agency of theodicy at work in your life, just remember that it’s impossible to obtain pure gold without first purging the dross in a fiery cauldron. In the end, the only way to survive the agony of theodicy is to trust God and trek on!

Spring 1998

Sometimes They Do Get It Right

I’m as guilty as the next person (perhaps even more so) of raising a red flag on Star Trek’s anti-Christian messages. When it comes to Trek and religion, it seems like evolution, the Big Bang theory, atheism, secular humanism and New Age ideologies are all accepted as factual, while Christianity is discredited at every turn…which is particularly true of the newer series.

Since opinions run deep on the subject, and since, at the end of the day,
Trek is just a TV show, I thought it might be an insightful exercise to highlight some of the things Trek has gotten right. That is, right according to a Christian perspective.

The original
Trek featured a number of shows that propagated Christian ideals and themes (most notably “Bread and Circuses”), and even the modern series have occasionally espoused selected aspects of Christianity or religion in general. In fact, Trek promotes Christian principles on a variety of widely-held moral codes and social standards.

For example,
Trek is anti-drug (“Symbiosis”), anti-euthanasia (“Half a Life”) and anti-suicide (“Ethics”); all TNG. As surprising as it seems, Trek fails to uphold mainline Christian values on only two major issues: its pro-science/anti-God position (nowhere more obvious than in TNGs “Who Watches the Watchers”) and its advancement of the homosexual agenda (thinly veiled advocacy in TNGs “The Outcast” gives way to in-your-face lesbianism in DS9s “Rejoined”).

Fortunately, the furtive furthering of a cause can cut both ways, and such is the case with two
TNG episodes that quietly defend the pro-life stance. Both shows use engineer Geordi LaForge’s blindness to spark a debate over the sanctity of life versus natural selection.

“The Enemy” finds Geordi stranded on torrential storm world Galorndon Core, and follows his slip-sliding efforts to climb out of a muddy pit. Finally reaching the surface, Geordi seeks refuge from the deluge inside a dark, dank cave. There, he discovers a Romulan, the sole survivor from a scout ship that recently crash-landed on the gloomy globe. A discussion ensues between the two enemy officers and Geordi learns that he wouldn’t even be alive if he’d been born on Romulus, because all imperfect Romulan babies are aborted.

The Romulan considers Starfleet a weak organization for allowing people like Geordi to serve in it, yet it’s this presumed liability that becomes a lifesaving asset when Geordi’s optical VISOR detects Wesley’s neutrino beacon. The Romulan’s jaded perspective toward disabilities changes when he and Geordi, working together
Enemy Mine (1985) style, reach the beam up site and are rescued.

In “The Masterpiece Society,” the
Enterprise encounters a colony of genetically engineered humanoids on the planet Moab IV. The inhabitants are perfect in every detail: born with the knowledge of their future destiny, they are programmed with the innate skills necessary to excel in their preordained field of expertise. Geordi is something of an anomaly and novelty to the Moabites (sound Biblical?).

Their leading scientific mind, Hannah Bates, tells Geordi that he never would’ve been created with a defect on her world. Geordi defends his handicap, claiming that, for all its detriments, his blindness has been a tremendous benefit on numerous occasions. That conviction is validated when Geordi, with the assistance of his VISOR, is able to foil Hannah’s plans to destroy the planet’s biosphere.

The episodes referenced here represent just a sampling of the many
Trek shows that subscribe, in some way, to Christian beliefs. An itemized list of Christian elements in each Trek series would further bolster this apologia, but, for the sake of brevity, these few examples should sufficiently demonstrate a consistent pattern of Trek’s periodic promulgation of Christian precepts. That is to say, despite how overwhelming the evidence seems to the contrary, sometimes they do get it right!

November 1997