By Paul Koch –
On Tuesday morning, the world learned the tragic news of Carrie Fisher’s death. This news had a strange effect on me, as I had just watched her performance the day before when I took my family to go see the new blockbuster Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Although, it wasn’t a performance by the sixty-year-old actress per se but a CGI recreation of the twenty-one-year-old Princess Leia every young boy my age had fallen in love with at one time or another. There she was, full of youthful vigor and elegance, receiving the plans of the Death Star to relay to the Rebel Alliance—at least, it looked like her… almost.
The death of Fisher puts the use of this amazing technology in movies into sharp contrast. While Fisher makes but a small appearance at the end of the film, Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing, has a much more prominent role. The only problem, of course, is that Peter Cushing has been dead for twenty-two years. Like fisher’s, his CGI recreation is amazing in detail and movement. But they still don’t quite look right. They may look human, but they don’t really look alive. Anyone watching this movie, even if they knew nothing of the previous stories or characters of Star Wars, would easily be able to tell that these creations are not the same as the live actors they interacted with. They are puppets, moved and used by teams of animators to give the audience the story we all want.
Have we learned nothing from A Weekend at Bernie’s?
Those who look at Peter Cushing and say he looks alive are the same people who go to a funeral and speak about how real and peaceful and natural grandpa is lying in the casket. There is nothing natural about this. Death is the parting of one’s soul from the flesh. It doesn’t look right, and it shouldn’t look right. That is, death is to be something other than what God had created; it isn’t natural. It is ugly, sad and horrifying.
I fear that we will grow accustomed to the soulless look of the death puppets in our movies, happy that there are those will continue to pull the strings to make them dance and entertain us all. But perhaps for now the death puppets of Rogue One might be useful to help us see our own puppetry at work.
Great shows like The Walking Dead have given cause for important conversations about what it means to be a tribe, family, or a gang. It lets our modern culture reimagine what our ancestors understood about defending a border, about protecting us from them. The constant question is who the walking dead are, the zombies or the remnant struggling to remain alive. But the one thing you know for sure is that a zombie is a zombie. They are ugly and mutilated and looking to feed upon human flesh. But what if the zombie was a death puppet? What if the walking dead blended in with the smiling faces we see all around us?
I fear that the Church is full of such death puppets. In fact, we might say that the Church is where death puppets naturally thrive. They come in looking just like everyone else. They put on their makeup, flash that smile, and engage in pleasant small talk. We’ve grown so accustomed to their presence that we no longer see their death. We can easily spend our time then pulling on their strings, leading them where to go and what to avoid, how to act and what to say. We applaud their response to our tugs and movements and praise their willingness to volunteer and do the Lord’s work. But this isn’t real life; this is clever puppetry at work.
A few years ago, after a Sunday Morning Bible study, Maria stayed after to talk with me. She kept her distance as I spoke with a few of the members. When the room was almost empty, she nervously approached. She had been coming to our church for some time, was an avid participant in worship and Bible study, and a real joy to have around. She began to nervously talk about deep frustrations (she was raising her grandchildren alone) and depression. Like the opening of flood gates, it all started pouring out. Then, without prompting, she began to justify things she had done and said, she was old and tired and afraid of the future for those she tried so hard to care for. She was a death puppet, kept alive by good intentions and well-meaning exhortations.
So, I began to cut the strings. Her justifications were sinful and her words hurtful, and I told her so. And for a moment, the makeup began to smear and she began to slouch forward like one of the walking dead. She was without life in herself, and no amount of tugging or exhortation or puppetry would make her alive.
And then I did the one thing I am called to do. I suddenly and unexpectedly put one hand on her shoulder and one on her head. Leaning in close, I said, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Now go, for you are free.” Life had to come from outside of her. Life isn’t a puppet show; it is a gift from Christ alone. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she embraced me, and I repeated again and again the gift of life that is hers in the forgiveness of Christ alone.
Let the movies have their death puppets, but let the Church remain a place where strings are cut so that both death and life are given.