Monday, July 11, 2011

"I Was Too Stupid To See"

Thor (2011), copyright Marvel Studios
 "My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,  as a father the son in whom he delights." (Proverbs 3:11)

     I've wanted to write this post for some time now, though it will not be easy. The desire to do so had only intensified after my post on my Dad, fatherhood and manhood, as it has given me much to reflect on over the weeks since then. Indeed, there is much that I could write on the events and thoughts of the last week alone, but I shall reserve that for upcoming posts. As it is, the thoughts of this one will be quite challenging to express.

    My last post was peppered with the phrase "being a father is not easy". As hard as that undertaking may be, being a son is no cakewalk either; a son is called to undertake the difficult road from boy to man, child to adult, from being the son of his father to a father himself. And that road is fraught with difficulties. I was reminded of that stark reality recently by the movie "Thor" [1], directed by Kenneth Branagh [2]. I must profess at this point that I had written it off when it was hinted at towards the end of "Iron Man 2." I had never taken to Thor amongst the many other on or off-screen characters that captured my imagination during childhood, whom I wrote extensively about in my post "Adoration: Childhood Heroes." The very idea of incorporating a hammer-wielding deity from Norse mythology amongst the technologically sophisticated or superpowered personalities that dotted the heroic landscape seemed preposterous, at the very least. A "god of thunder" amongst the ranks! "Could there be anything sillier?", I remember thinking, when I first read about him in a Marvel Annual storybook that belonged to my mother. In addition, it did not help matters that having been immersed in the stories of the Bible from childhood, any superhero "god" was anathema in my little 8-year old universe, and continues to be so.

    Thus, it was with much surprise in May that I read the largely positive review [3] of "Thor" posted by Plugged In, the media review division of Focus On The Family. Although in all fairness the reviewer acknowledged some points of concern, he also had much to appreciate about the movie. And so it happened that with my curiosity aroused, I went on a solitary jaunt to the movie theater one day after work. I wished to see for myself if the story of the hero and his hammer was as interesting as it was made out to be. The answer turned out to be in the affirmative. Once I sat down and the story got underway, I found myself immersed in a most well-written and enacted tale accompanied by very fitting music that deeply resonated with me, and continues to do so. Since then, I have watched it two (!) more times, the third being with my friend Tommy last Saturday.

    Marvel's tale is built upon a very simple, yet fundamental and powerful act - the disciplining of a wayward son by his father. Aside from his walk with God, fewer relationships can inherently imprint a boy for better or worse as his relationship with his father. For, it is a well-attested truth that as much as the father possesses the power to validate his son, he also holds the power to invalidate him. And how the father chooses to exercise this power will say much about both what manner of man he is, as well as the man his son may turn out to be.

    And so, as the story of Thor opens, we see him as a child, as he and his brother Loki are told a story by their father Odin of a battle that he fought long ago. Even at that age, Thor's eyes sparke as his mind formulates a simple equation: war and battle equate to glory and power, and this comes through in his dreams of the future. His father uses this moment to instruct his sons of a sobering truth about the use of power: "A good king never seeks out war. But, he must always be ready for it." Though simply articulated, it is profound and pivotal to the rest of the story, because the seed fell on deaf ears and stony ground; the child did not take the lesson to heart, because he did not want to. His mind and heart had already decided the path he wanted to take. It was with much sorrow that I remembered moments like that from my own childhood, when my own father was trying to teach me something.

    As the story jumps forward to his proclamation by his father as the future king, the young man and warrior again faces reminders of this lesson from childhood. The hammer, Mjolnir, that has been entrusted to him has "no equal" in its power. "It is a weapon to destroy, or a tool to build", says Odin. And as Thor is asked to take an oath as the future king, to put aside all selfish ambition and vain glory, to rule wisely and protect his people, he firmly answers each question with a bold and confident "I swear!". But we are shown that the words come only from his mouth, not his heart; his eyes still shine only for battle and power.

    "How many times," I thought as I saw that scene, "have men taken an oath of office that entrusts them with power, with an absent mind and heart that is interested only in grandiose notions of how it will meet their own ends?"And then the Holy Spirit brought a sobering thought to mind: "And what about your heart? What will you do with power that is entrusted to you? Will you also do the same?"
     Eventually, this lip service leads to Thor's downfall, as outraged over his interrupted ceremony, he picks a fight that brings the threat of war upon his realm and people. Rescued by his father, Thor in his pride refuses to admit wrongdoing. "You've forgotten everything I've taught you!", shouts his father. "You are a vain, greedy, cruel boy!" To which his son reveals the true thoughts and intent of his heart: "And you are an old man and a fool!" In the midst of the anguish and sorrow that those words bring to him, Thor's father is still concerned for his son and loves him. He strips Thor of his power and title, and exiles him to Earth.

    "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him." 
(Proverbs 13:24)

    As the story progressed, I was reminded that though disciplining can be harsh and painful, the son is not abandoned by his father. The father has purpose in inflicting punishment, though it does not appear so to Thor in the experiences that he goes through. He is alone, without his family and friends; he experiences weakness and vulnerability; he has no home or possessions, without a penny to his name; he attempts to wrongly reclaim his hammer, and throws a tantrum when he is denied its possession; he is brought low, mistreated and humiliated.

Thor, unable to lift his hammer (copyright Marvel Studios)
     It finally takes news of the death of his father to bring Thor to his senses. In a most unlikely setting, Thor sorrowfully voiced the words of regret and reminded me of moments when I had remorsefully come to the same conclusion:

    "My father was trying to teach me something, but I was too stupid to see it."       

    The words cut like a knife. I was reminded of the uncountable times I had sinned against both my earthy and heavenly Father, and brought to repentance only after much harsh chastisement. I thought of the most frequently and earnestly uttered words of appeal to a son in the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs: "My son.."; "Hear, my son, your father's instruction..." (Prov. 1:8); "My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you..." (Prov. 2:1); "My son, do not forget my teaching..." (Prov. 3:1); "My son, do not lose sight of these - keep sound wisdom and discretion" (Prov. 3:21); "Hear, O sons, a father's instruction" (Prov. 4:1); "Hear, my son, and accept my words..." (Prov. 4:10); "My son, be attentive to my words..." (Prov. 4:20); "My son, be attentive to my wisdom..." (Prov. 5:1); "And now, O sons, listen to me..." (Prov. 5:7); "My son, keep your father's commandment..." (Prov. 6:20); "My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments with you..." (Prov. 7:20);

    It would be tragic if the story of Thor ended with words of regret. But the impetuous, selfish and spoiled son changes, and in the process, finds true power, and becomes the man that his father hopes his son will be. Plugged In's reviewer expressed it well:

"I could fill this whole review with the titles of movies that generally laud childlike, childish behavior in their heroes—pretty much every Adam Sandler movie ever made comes to mind—but Thor picks another path: It exposes the harsh reality of the consequences for never wanting to grow up...we know all along that Thor is incredibly strong—yet he finds his true power when he's at his weakest. We know him to be a hero, and yet he's at his most heroic when he bows his head in submission. He was born to be a king but proves his worth in exile. He was trained to be a warrior but makes his most impressive stand without weapons, without armor. He scores his greatest victory when he suffers a killing blow."

    "I have much to learn, I understand that now," says Thor to his father at the end of the movie. "I hope, one day, I can make you proud." To which the father turns to his son and says, "You've already made me proud." I hope I can be a good son and father one day. I have a lot of changing to do.

- The Wisdom Seeker
[1] Thor (2011) -
[2] Kenneth Branagh -
[3] Plugged In Review: Thor